Ebrik Strange: The Hungry Bones

by Robert Currer

Part 2: Chapter 4

2,600 Words: 11 Minute Read

Ebrik scooped up his sword and sprinted up the spiral stairs, leaving the dead to slake their hunger on the steaming meat that had once been Urwin. His boots slapped against the stone, taking the steps two, sometimes three, at a time. His heart beat a torrent in his chest as he whirled upward in the cloying dark. Finally, a dull edge of sunlight bled into the corners of the gloom, growing in intensity until searing sun gushed in through the opening in the desert floor above. He hurled himself onto the sands, gulping mouthfuls of arid heat as the acid in his veins diluted back to salty blood.

“Where’s Urwin?” asked Burshel.  His voice was an octave too high.  He ran past Ebrik to the opening, scanning the worn stone for his brother.  When Urwin didn’t appear, he turned his huge, wet eyes to Ebrik.  “Where’s Urwin?” The pleading in his voice felt like a razor dragged across Ebrik’s heart.

Ebrik held Burshel’s gaze for a long beat, his own features held has hard as the truth they conveyed.  He picked himself up from the sand and, still holding Burshel’s stare, said, “How do we close the opening?”

Burshel’s heart exploded into a million shards as Ebrik watched.  “But Urwin…”  He barely choked the words out, tears and snot flowing.  His thin, bird-like frame folded still clinging uncertainly to the rim of the opening.  Poor kid needed a hug.  But now wasn’t the time.

Ebrik yanked Burshel to his feet.  “Get your shit together!” He shook the boy hard.  “Unless you’re looking to get us all eaten, we need to seal this fucking hole.”  As if to punctuate his point, ravenous moans echoed up from the stairwell.

“I—I don’t know how,” said Burshel, recoiling from Ebrik as if struck.  Fat tears dribbled down his hollow cheeks.  “Th—there’s nothing in the story.  I just don’t know.”

“Don’t look at me,” said Ayders as Ebrik’s gaze swiveled in his direction.  The old scavenger looked like me might be sick at any moment.

Ebrik’s eyes shot from Ayders to Burshel to the black facets of the obsidian altar.  There had to be a way to seal it back up.  He just needed a minute to think.  The ground trembled and the rumble of a shifting wave of sand gouged through the sighing wind.  All around them, small mounds formed as if the earth itself had goosebumps.  Wind swept the bubbling sands and the smooth, ivory curve of a skull pushed free of the mound at his feet.  “Run!” He grabbed Burshel by the shirt and pulled him into a stumbling sprint as all three fled across the boiling sands. 

All around, skeletons clawed their way through the earth itself like men drowning in reverse.  Sand spilled into the cavities their bodies left behind causing the shifting sand to slide this way and that.  Ebrik, Burshel, and Ayders careened passed the standing stones and through the arcade.  As they raced through the ruins, the sand rippled and a broken arch, ten feet high, swayed.  They darted through its shadow just as it listed.  Great sandstone blocks tumbled free, breaking apart at their rotted mortar.  Ebrik darted left and then dodged right, dragging Burshel in his footsteps.  He heard the kid’s breath catch and instinctively yanked the young scholar clear as a massive stone block tumbled to the earth so close that he felt the spray of the sand as it struck.

He risked a glance backward, trying to find Ayders in the chaos.  The old man had fallen farther behind than Ebrik had thought, but the distance had kept him clear of the falling arch.  One look at the grizzled scavenger told Ebrik it was a mixed blessing.  Ayders stood hunched and panting.  His face was paler than a salt pan and his eyes were underlined with a black sheen. 

“Keep moving,” Ebrik said to Burshel and pointed toward the ridge line.  “Make for the spot where we camped last night.”  Then he took off toward Ayders.

All around skeletons had half-clawed their way free from the sand.  He curved around a fallen stone and felt the graze of bony fingers over his trouser legs.  He broke his stride long enough to punt its skull clean from its shoulders before continuing.  The old scavenger was breathing hard, his eyes wide and searching.  Ebrik reached to take him by the shoulder, and Ayders jumped as if he hadn’t realized the mercenary was with him.  As recognition set in, he shrunk closer to Ebrik, curling in on himself. 

“They’re everywhere,” said Ayders, his words coming out a wheeze.  He didn’t look at Ebrik.  His eyes were on the ground, furtively darting to the corners.

“We’ve got to move.”  Ebrik growled the words as he tried to prod Ayders into motion.

The old man shuffled along a few hesitant steps and stopped.  “Too many.”  His voice was a thready wind, so quiet that Ebrik strained to make out the words. 

Ebrik huffed.  Ahead, he could still catch glimpses of Burshel’s mad dash through the decaying ruin.  The kid was moving at a good clip.  At least someone wanted to make it out alive.  Still survival was by no means a certainty for any of them.  All around, a horde of the undead were wriggling their way out of the clenched fist of the desert sands.  Every second wasted could mean the difference between living to strike it rich another day or being ripped apart a handful of flesh at a time, fed into a blender of inhuman hunger.  Just like Urwin.  Ebrik’s gut turned sour.  The vision of the older brother being pulled apart into hunks of dripping meat was still painted on the back of his eyelids.  Even here, in the scrap of the dry wind, he could almost hear the ringing screams and smell the coppery aroma of the bloody mist.

He willed himself back from the brink.  Urwin was dead, but he wasn’t about to let the horror of that reality kill the rest of them too.  Setting his jaw, he turned to Ayders.  The old man felt cold to the touch despite the blistering heat and shivered as if the surrounding dunes had been snow instead of sand.  He was on the verge of locking up, and then there would be nothing Ebrik could do for him, short of carrying the wiry old reptile on his back. 

Taking a steadying breath, Ebrik lifted Ayder’s chin so that they could look each other in the eye.  In tones that felt like a warm washcloth, he said, “I know this frightening, but we have to keep moving.  There’s a campfire waiting for us at the end of the day, hot food and a warm place to sleep.  We just have to put one foot in front of the other until we get there.  Can you do that for me?”

“But—,” Ayders’ huge eyes started to drift away from Ebrik.

Ebrik resisted the urge to slap some sense into this wizened child.  Instead, he gently held the sides of the old man’s face.  “Don’t worry about them.  I’ve got you.  Just come with me, and we’ll make it.  I promise.”

Unblinking, Ayders gave a slow, slight nod.  With a plastic smile, Ebrik took his hand and step by step built their momentum until they were running again.

By now, Burshel was out of sight, but that was probably a good sign.  The absence of grizzly clues suggested he had not yet met a horrific end.  Ebrik and Ayders were making better time than they had been, but the bow-legged elder ran like he was at sea, in clipped teetering strides.  Ebrik reminded himself that it wasn’t fair to blame Ayders for that.  The shifting of the sands had only become more pronounced, and even the tattered bits of ruin rose and fell with their oceanic motion.  Fair or not, it didn’t change the fact that their chances of survival dwindled with every moment they spent in the basin.  All around them skeletons had nearly freed themselves from the pull of the sands.  It wouldn’t be long until Ebrik and Ayders found themselves overrun.  They needed to clear the ruins and get up to the ridge line where the jutting tooth-like boulders would offer shelter.

Ebrik looked over his shoulder and swore.  Ayders wasn’t there.  In his focus to pick up the pace, he had let Ayders fall behind.  Why hadn’t he kept a hand on the wiry reptile?  Stupid!  His eyes raced along the path he had taken and found the old man a dozen yards back.  He had stopped in the shade of a standing triangle of wall.  One hand on the wall for support, Ayders was hunched over, breathing hard.  His face was the burgundy of a deep bruise.  His left arm hung limp at his side.  Ebrik broke into a sprint, scolding himself.  He was pushing Ayders too hard.  The old man better not have been having a heart attack.

Ayders lifted his head to look at Ebrik.  His chin bobbed as if agreeing to some imagined request, and he collected himself to start running again.  The wind gusted through the surrounding tumble of stone, carrying veils of sand between them.

“Stay there!” Ebrik shouted, but his words were lost in the wind.  The earth rolled again.

Ayders squared his shoulders.  He took a step, and his knees gave way.  His eyes bulged as he clutched his chest.  Shit!  He was having a heart attack.  Ebrik was almost there now.  Not that he had any idea what he could do, but at least getting there would be a step in the right direction.  He bounded off rock and block as the sands beneath their feet continued to pitch and roll.  Then the shadow around Ayders shifted.  The old man hadn’t noticed, too preoccupied with trying to keep his heart from failing, but Ebrik saw the masonry lean.  His shout of warning was swept away in the gust.  The wall fell.  Ayders was crushed, a starburst of gore stabbing out from beneath the stone.

Ebrik felt like the wind had been knocked from him.  He skidded to a stop short of the glistening, red sand.  For a moment, his brain stalled, sputtering as it tried to take in what had just happened. 

The bluster slowed to a momentary lull.  In the screaming quiet, he could hear the hiss of sand pouring from the rag-draped bones of the dead as they pulled themselves free.  Ayders was no more, and there was nothing he could do about that.  But Burshel might still be out there.  Ebrik owed it to the kid to find him, to get him out alive, to make amens for failing to save the others.  That much he owed. 

He paused only long enough to rap out three quick knocks on a broken column before racing off in the direction he had sent Burshel.  Sand flew behind him as he made his desperate dash, vaulting over crumbling masonry and weaving around piles of fallen sandstone.  All around the dead clawed their way from the earth.  Skeletons, freed to the knees, lunged for him as he passed, trying to drag him down.  Ebrik spun, weaved, bobbed, and twirled just to stay out of death’s embrace. 

The jumble of ruins was still too thick.  He couldn’t see more than a yard or two ahead, but he bent an ear to the breeze, listening hard for scream or shout.  What came back to him was braying.  It was a wild, panicked noise, and as he rounded a collapsed section of wall, he saw the mules.  They were straining against their tethers, kicking and bucking, driven half mad with fear.  It was easy to see why.  Only a stone’s throw away, the first skeletons had pulled themselves free and were beginning their shuffling advance on the foaming beasts of burden. 

Nearby, the cart of supplies waited beneath the tarp awning as it snapped in the mounting gale.  One wheel had become partly buried, but otherwise all appeared to be in good working order.  Ebrik was tempted.  Even if he made it to Burshel in time, they would be hard pressed to survive the unforgiving landscape of The Wastes without supplies.  But he pushed that thought from his head.  There wasn’t time to harness the mules before the rest of the dead descended upon him, and a barrel of water wouldn’t do him any good if he died trying to get it.  Instead, he darted to the post where the mules were tied and severed the ropes with a quick chop of his sword.  The beasts needed no encouragement from him.  They reared and tore off into the surrounding desert, instinctively heading for the high ground.  “They’ll be alright,” he said to himself, aching for that to be true.

To his left, a newly freed skeleton lurched toward him.  He dispatched it with a single cut and resumed his run.  This time it was a scream that found him.  The ruins parted and there, in the barren rise of sand, was Burshel.  Three skeletons chased after him.  One seized a fist full of his shirt which tore as Burshel struggled to get away.  The delay in his flight was enough for another to snatch his arm.  The young scholar spun trying to yank himself free and lost his balance.  He tumbled to the sand, flat on his back, shrieking as the three dead crowded in around him.

Ebrik charged.  This could not play out.  Not again.  His pounding feet bowled him across the short distance and directly into the first skeleton, scattering its bones like ivory pins.  With a two-handed grip, he swung his sword hard and flat, throwing all his body weight into the momentum.  The blade cut clean through the next skeleton, leaving the legs and hips standing even as the ribcage fell to the sand. 

The last skeleton was on top of Burshel, gripping him by the calf.  The young scholar kicked at the creature, his face contorted into a feral hiss.  Ebrik grabbed the creature using its ribs as a handle and threw it from Burshel.  Fresh blood dripped from its chattering grin.  Ebrik wasted no time in driving his sword through the creature’s skull.

Moans flooded the air as thousands of shambling skeletons called out in hunger.  The chorus sent a chill down his spine.  No good would come from delaying their flight to the safety of the ridge line.  Burshel was climbing to his feet, still gasping lung fulls of scorching air.  There was no time for rest.  Ebrik grabbed him by the collar and propelled him into a run.  Together they scrambled up the barren rise toward the crenelation of outcroppings that ringed the basin.

They didn’t stop once they reached the top.  Ebrik pulled Burshel through the labyrinth of jutting rocks until he was at last satisfied that they had put a reasonable distance between themselves and the wandering dead.  His legs could have melted they burned so badly.  He folded at the waist, guzzling the air as he tried to force his heart from a gallop to a canter.  When he could finally manage to wheeze out a few words, he asked, “Are you okay?”

Burshel gave him a wan smile and said, “Never better.”  He swayed a little, owl eyes rolling into the back of his head, and then collapsed.

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Ebrik Strange: Restless Dead

by Robert Currer

Part 2: Chapter 3

2,900 Words: 12 Minute Read

From the catacombs, the waking groans of the dead echoed off the earthen walls.  Bone clicked and scraped across stone berths as Ayders and the brothers looked to their hired mercenary.  Ebrik shoved the spyglass into his bag.  Ignoring the tingling it left in his fingers, he darted to the chamber door.  The first skeletons were beginning to emerge from their open crypts.  Cobwebs clinging to them like filmy shrouds, they tottered as their legs took the weight of their bodies for the first time in centuries.

Ebrik glanced back at his clients, his mind buzzing.  “Grab what you can and follow me.  We’re going to make a break for the stairs.”

Burshel snapped his leather-bound tome of notes shut and scurried to Ebrik’s side.  Ayders snatched up the golden surgical instruments while Urwin swept a line of urns into a waiting burlap sack.  Ebrik drew his sword and shield as Ayders darted into position behind Burshel.  Urwin’s heavy feet slapped the stone behind him, the burlap sack bouncing on his muscle-bound back. 

“What’re we waiting for!  Let’s beat feet,” said Ayders as he came to a skidding stop behind Burshel. 

Waiting for Urwin to get into position at the back of their column, Ebrik raised his shield and readied to bowl through the long aisle ahead.  It was a straight shot from this end of the catacombs to the stairs.  If they were fast enough, they could clear the distance without getting swarmed.  His charges now assembled, he broke into a jog. 

As they reached the first stone pillar, one skeleton of six had found its footing.  With a haunting moan, it stretched a bony talon toward him.  He slapped at it with his shield, sending it reeling.  It tumbled backwards and its skull smashed into the lip of the funeral slab.  A web of fractures blossomed along its cranium as the malevolent light within its empty sockets was snuffed out.

All around them the dead awoke from their timeless slumber.  The creaking of old bones and moans like great hunger pains rumbled throughout the massive burial chamber as they dragged themselves from their rocky beds, scattering the moldering offerings that surrounded each like cheap trinkets.  Ebrik dodged around a pair of grasping hands, coated in thick webs like the yellowing lace of a grizzly glove.  Burshel shrieked as the fingers of a skeletal grasp grazed his temple.  Urwin swung a lumpy sack of looted urns, smashing the flimsy arm while pushing his relations onward.  Even as he was hurried along by his massive nephew, Ayders paused to scoop up a tarnished ring that fell from the rotting hand.  Burshel needed little goading.  He clung so closely to Ebrik that that he might have crawled inside the mercenaries scuffed leathers given half the chance.

Skeletons were pouring from the alcoves all around them now, flooding the passage between them and the stairs to the surface.  Born by sheer momentum, Ebrik crashed through the creatures, splinting bone with each chop of his sword.  A grinning skull lunged from the darkened alcove at his shoulder.  He spun away just as the rotten teeth snapped shut, catching nothing but air between the click of its jaws.  He reversed his motion bringing his shield to bear and slamming the skull into the rough-cut wall.  A gut rending crunch followed and the pulp that had been bone fell to the floor. 

Something bumped into Ebrik from behind.  He risked a look back and found Ayders crowded into Burshel pushing his bird-limbed nephew into Ebrik’s back.  Urwin swung his bag of treasures in wide, artless arcs with a raw strength that sent bones flying like bowling pins.  Sweat flowed down the strong man’s face as he lifted the bag to swing again, knocking a swath of mindless dead to rest.  The heavy sack was like a wrecking ball, but Ebrik could see the effort it took for Urwin to lift time and again.  Even now, his strokes were slowing.  They weren’t going to make the stairs at this pace.

“Ayders!” shouted Ebrik through the melee.  “Do you still have those blasting charges?”

“Why in the hells does that matter?” said Ayders as he ducked to avoid a bone sent flying by Urwin’s crushing blow.

“Do you have them?”  This was not the time for explanations.

“I got ‘em!”

“Light them!”

“You gone daffy, boy?”  Ayder’s eyes bulged, round and yellowed, making him look like a bearded toad.  “That could bring the whole place down around our ears!”

“Light the godsdamned dynamite!” roared Ebrik, spittle flying from his mouth as he cleaved a skeleton in half, crushing its skull beneath his boot.

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” said Ayders.  His hand plunged into his bag all the way to the shoulder and fished about.  When he pulled out, he had two sticks of the explosive clutched in his gnarled claw.  He held their fuses in the flame of Burshel’s torch.  Flaring, both sputtered and caught.  The sparks fizzed in his eyes as he hollered, “Fire in the hole!” and sent both sticks sailing, one ahead and one behind.

The dynamite tumbled through the air, over Ebrik’s shoulder, and falling among the throng of advancing dead like a drunken star.  Ebrik spun.  He grabbed Burshel by the shoulders and threw him into an empty alcove near the floor.  Rolling in behind the kid, Ebrik shielded him with his own body.  The explosion rattled the world around them as dust and dirt rode the rolling tide of the shockwave, chased by a burst of flame.  Shrapnel of bone, stone, and lacquered wood fell like hail all along the corridor.  He didn’t wait for the world to still.  Coughing through the smoke and dust, he climbed to his feet.

“Everyone okay?” he asked, squinting as he tried to peer through a haze that smelled of char and fresh turned earth.  Before him lay a field of charred bone fragments.  The skeletons that had clotted their path had been blasted to shards.  He listened through the desperate silence, searching for the sound of shuffling boots or gluttonous moans.  None found his ears. 

“Well smack my ass!  It worked,” said Ayders climbing to his feet.  Dust clung to his face, accentuating the topography of creases that marked his features.  “Burshel, you alright?”

The scrawny scholar crawled from the stone berth clinging to his notebook like the last piece of flotsam in a shipwreck.  All the color had drained from him, and his eyes were impossibly wide behind his soiled spectacles.  He shivered and Ebrik guessed it was more from fraying nerves than the temperature.  “Hale if not entirely hearty,” he said, his voice cracking.

There came a grunt from behind Ayders as the other brother hefted his mountainous bulk to standing.  “Still whole back there?” said Ebrik craning his neck to see around the others. 

“Mostly,” said Urwin, his gravel voice rumbling off the stone like a slow landslide.  A shard of shrapnel protruded from his thigh.  The blood that trickled from the wound looked almost black compared to the moonlight white of the bone.  He wrapped a massive fist around the shard and steadied himself.  With a sharp inhale, he yanked it from his thigh.  He cast it aside almost casually and gave Ebrik a grim nod.  Urwin’s features were held taut between the pain and the need to carry on.  His eyes were soldier’s eyes, suffering but stoic, weary but unyeilding.  Salmin would have liked Urwin.  That thought curled a smile into Ebrik’s lips.

A distant thunder of hungry moans pulled Ebrik back to their present predicament.  It wouldn’t be long before the dead from the other aisles, who had not been scattered by the explosions, pressed in on them.  They needed to run while they still could.  “Time to go!” called Ebrik.  He grabbed the still stunned Burshel by the collar and broke into a run, the boy stumbling into a loping gait behind him.

The stairwell huddled at the end of the aisle, just at the edge of the torchlight, a beckoning void in the gray tans of the sandstone walls.  Ebrik was at the threshold in seconds, shoving Burshel into the shelter of the darkened steps before whirling to the side to allow the others to pass.  Ayders was on their heels, but Urwin wasn’t there.  Ebrik looked down the passage to see Urwin gripping his thigh as he limped toward them, not yet half the distance.  Even in the treacherous light, Ebrik could see his jaw clenched against the pain and the dripping blood that trailed his steps.  The wound must have been deeper than they thought.

“Go!  Don’t wait for me,” shouted Urwin, waving them on even as he lurched closer. 

Ebrik looked to the aisles to his left and right.  Already tomb-stained skeletal faces were emerging from the shadows en masse.  The clack of shambling bones grew louder by the second.  Urwin wasn’t going to make it to them in time. 

“We’ll meet you on the surface,” said Ebrik to Burshel and Ayders, drawing his sword and readying to hold the archway.  When the pair hesitated, he barked, “Move!” sending them sprinting up the steps. 

He turned his attention back to Urwin and the impending horde.  The dead would be on him soon, but Urwin would only need a few extra seconds beyond that to make the stairs.  Then even if the dead followed, the narrowness of the passage would make their numbers meaningless.  It would be a fighting retreat, but he could manage it long enough to break the surface.  He only hoped that Burshel and Ayders were coming up with some way to re-seal the stairs once he and Urwin were clear.

Calming his breathing, he stepped away from the wall.  He would need space to move if he was going to fight on two fronts.  The worn leather of the sword hilt and the easy weight of the stout wooden shield brought him a feeling of reassurance.  He focused on those sensations, picturing the speed of the blade when he finally exploded into motion, imagining the thumping of blows deflected by the shield.  He visualized the perfect kill, just as Salmin had taught them.

The throng was closing in.  The front runners careened toward Ebrik on both sides, their bone hands outstretched, jaws of graveyard teeth held wide.  He darted left and swung low with his sword, cutting the first off at the knees even as he pirouetted to smash into another with his shield.  The blow knocked the skeleton back, and he followed through with a high chop that separated skull from shoulders.  The first dragged itself toward him, its ribcage scrapping across the sandy flagstones as it grasped for his ankle.  He kicked out with his back foot and connected, sending bits of bone and teeth flying.  Then he hopped back a pace and dashed toward the other line of approaching undead directly behind.

As he passed through the intersection of the two corridors, he shot a glance to Urwin.  The hulking man doing his best to close the distance, the whole of his muscled frame rising and falling with each ragged breath as he forced himself forward.  Somehow, he had picked up speed.  Ebrik felt the specter of hope fall on him as he bolted down the corridor toward another line of shambling dead.

He neared the first of the skeletons and launched himself forward with a blurring burst of speed.  His sword thrust outward like an extension of his arm.  The force of the blow drove the tip clean through the creature’s sternum and severed its spine.  He shoved the inanimate bones off his blade with his shield and side-stepped to avoid a swipe from a clutching hand.  He danced forward a step and cut a quick chop into the offending skeleton’s side, cracking free a shower of browning ribs.  The dead thing wobbled with the force of the hit, and Ebrik seized the opportunity.  He kicked out with his front foot, striking the skeleton at the side of its knee.  The knee buckled, and it dropped to all fours.  One more quick slash, and Ebrik lopped off its head. 

The rustle of bones and rotten leather tugged at his attention.  He risked a quick glance over his shoulder and swore.  The dead were moving faster than he had hoped.  The bulk of the horde was within a few yards of the intersection.  If Urwin didn’t hurry up, they would be overwhelmed.  Ebrik smote a skeleton that had advanced on him ahead of the wall of shuffling corpses.  He danced backwards two steps before spinning on his heel and charging toward the other advancing line.  At the intersection, he paused, head swiveling back and forth.  Urwin was still hobbling as quickly as his leg would carry him, but it wasn’t going to be fast enough.  If both waves of undead crashed on them, they would be torn to shreds.  Ebrik couldn’t hold them all on his own, not on two fronts, not in this exposed intersection.  And Urwin was too big to carry…

“Fuck it,” he said to himself, slinging his shield across his back.  He darted toward Urwin, the sound of his slapping boots echoing down the corridor.

“What are you doing?  Get out of here,” shouted Urwin, his face a contorted blend agony and surprise. 

Ebrik grabbed the brother’s tree trunk of an arm and hoisted it over his shoulder.  He then wrapped his free arm around Urwin’s waist, taking some of the weight off the injured leg.  “Fucking hells you’re heavy,” he said with a grunt.  The pair hobbled forward picking up speed.

“We aren’t going to make it in time,” said Urwin through gritted teeth.  “Leave me here and get going.”

“Your brother will slit my throat in my sleep, if I do.”

A grin cracked Urwin’s knotted features.  “Slow poison’s more likely.  He’s got a bit of a vindictive streak.”

“It’s always the quite ones,” Ebrik said, managing a chuckle through his panting.

They were nearly to the intersection now.  Yet, Ebrik could hear the chorus of moans just around the corner.  It was going to be a close one.  He pushed harder, half carrying, half dragging Urwin along.  Rivulets of sweat ran down his face as the stench of moldering air and Urwin’s bestial body oder mingled in his nostrils.  A few more yards and they would be out of this hell.  Just a bit further.

As they burst into the intersection, mere steps away from the archway of the stairs, both walls of grasping hands and time-stained, groaning skulls clattered across the threshold together.  Ebrik lashed wildly with his sword, batting back the first to reach them, even as he dragged Urwin closer to the archway.  The mountain swung his bear-paw fist in wild sweeping haymakers, sending fetid teeth flying.  They were almost there.  Ebrik stepped into the archway, ready throw Urwin in front for the slow climb up the spiraling steps.  Behind him, Urwin roared.  Ebrik pulled hard, bracing the elbow of his sword arm against the stone for support.  Urwin didn’t budge. 

Ebrik looked back.  What he saw crushed the air from his lungs.  Skeletons had swarmed Urwin.  Their bony claws covered him from the neck down, clutching anywhere they could grasp.  They pulled him backwards with such force that one leg had already been lifted from the ground and he was struggling to keep the other foot planted.  His face was clammy with beads of perspiration clinging to his brow.  Foam frothed at the corners of his mouth as he howled against the dead tide.  Still, he was being slowly dragged from Ebrik’s grasp.

Ebrik dropped his sword and held on to Urwin with both hands.  He planted a boot against the stones of the archway and heaved with every muscle in his body.  “Don’t let go!” he screamed as Urwin’s arm slid.  He still had the brother by his wrist.  He could feel Urwin’s fingers trying to find purchase.  Urwin’s eyes were huge and nearly all whites.  He wasn’t roaring any longer and a pleading whine bled from his trembling lips. 

“I won’t let go,” said Ebrik.  His joints crackled and popped.  Every muscle felt stretched to the limit as though any moment they might simply snap.  The blood was rushing like rapids through his ears and every limb burned.  “I won’t let you g—”

His grip slipped.

In slow motion, he watched as Urwin was ripped away toward a tempest of gnashing, rancid teeth.  Ebrik willed his arms forward.  They snatched at empty air, trying to catch Urwin’s outstretched hands, but he couldn’t move fast enough.  He was still straining to reach Urwin when the first putrid jaws sunk into the brother’s flesh.  Urwin started to scream, his face stretching wide as mouths all around him opened to slake their terrible hunger.  By the time the next rending round of teeth sunk into Urwin’s flesh, he was well beyond Ebrik’s grasp.  Time sped back up.  From then, it was like watching his friend put through a blender.

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Ebrik Strange: Coyote Spyglass

by Robert Currer

Part 2: Chapter 2

3,000 Words: 12 Minute Read

Perfect dark ruled the world ahead.  The lantern swung in Ebrik’s hand as he worked his way down the winding stair, each step taking him deeper beneath the desert sand.  Ayders followed a few steps behind with Burshel close at heel and the towering Urwin bringing up the rear.  They walked in silence, their long shadows creeping along the sandstone walls.  At the bottom, the narrow passage widened to a room cut from living rock that stretched beyond the reach of the lantern light.  Stone shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling filled the space at intervals as regular as soldiers.

Ebrik held the lantern aloft trying to catch a glimpse of what lay within the darkened recesses of the broad shelves, but each was curtained by a thick rug of cobwebs.  He probed with the blade of his sword, tearing away the dust laden webs.  A face of stained bone stared out at him with a sinister grin held together by golden fillings that glittered in the lantern light.  The skeleton was arranged on its back with arms crossed in a way that Ebrik thought was supposed to approximate sleeping.  It only reminded him of the way he had folded himself to ride water slides as a kid.  It was clothed in decomposing rags that had once been dyed leather.  Icons of splitting wood and sticks of bone jewelry lined the back of the shelf.

“Keepsakes for the next life,” said Burshel in a hushed, reverential tone.  The scrape of his pencils against the paper of his notebook echoed softly through the chamber.

Alcoves like this one were cut into the stone above and below, the shelves stretching as far has Ebrik could see in any direction.  He wondered if each held a skeleton like this one.  If so, there were hundreds of them stacked liked cellared goods waiting for rebirth.  A feeling like icy fingers dribbled down his spine as blood-soaked memories of Hungry Dead blew in like a winter chill.  He held his breath, listening for the slightest brush of wind.  All was still.  So far the dead were behaving, he admitted to himself with a tremble of relief.  But that could change.  His eyes still tracing the line of alcoves, he hoped these dead weren’t hungry.  A prodding from Ayders pulled him back to the present. 

The reptilian neutrality on the old scavenger’s face showed no sign of concern for the moldering bones that would soon surround them.  “Rotten junk,” he said, turning over a ruined idol as one might examine a particularly ugly vase at a yard sale.  He let the idol clatter to the floor, the hollow sound echoing through the dusty gloom.  “Let’s get going.”  Without waiting for a response, he lifted a torch and continued down the aisle of cobweb crusted tombs. 

“Godsdamnit,” muttered Ebrik.  The old man was going to get them all killed blundering around like that.  The ancients had a nasty habit of leaving surprises behind for grave robbers.  Grave robbers.  The word left a nasty taste in his mouth, but he choked it down.  Karask Rev wasn’t the place to stand on principle.  Only thick skin thrived in this desert.  He’d see that firsthand.  Setting his jaw, he stalked off after Ayders, waving the brothers to follow.

They wove their way among the stone pillars, probing alcoves at random.  They were all the same, time-stained bones wrapped in ruined finery for which only Burshel had any appetite.  At the back of the chamber, peeling gold halos caught the dim edge of their light.  When Ebrik turned the lantern on them for a better look, he almost wished he hadn’t.  The halos were part of a mural and encircled the bleached skulls of a pair of skeletal infants.  Each was swaddled and held lovingly in the cloaked arms of Odpok, the ghost of a doting smile peeking through the shadows that shrouded his hooded face.

Urwin let out a low whistle.  “Well, ain’t that something…”

Burshel’s head bobbed as his pencil flew across the page.

“Now we’re talking!”  Ayders licked his lips, creeping closer to the mural as if drawn by unseen strings.  The gnarled fingers of one hand stretched out in front of him as he advanced.  They caressed the painted plaster, and a small moan escaped his lips.  He rubbed his cheek along the wall.  “Yeah… That’s more like it…”

Ebrik wrinkled his nose and looked away.

“Did you find something?” asked Urwin without a hint of embarrassment in his voice.

“Come and feel for yourself.”  His uncle waved him over, still lingering in the the wall’s embrace.  He wrapped a red, swollen knuckle on the mural.  “Right there.”

Urwin reached out with a hand that was nearly the size of his uncles head and pressed it to the wall.  He screwed his eyes shut as if concentrating.  For a moment, he was still and only the rasp of Burshel’s pencils filled the air.  Urwin shook his head.  “I don’t feel nothing.”

“Not with your hand, boy,” said Ayders.  He pulled away from the wall and showed Urwin his palm.  “Hands work for a living.  They grow calluses thicker than toad hide.  It makes them tough, but it robs their senses.”  He stroked the thick gray whiskers that clung to the sharp edge of his jaw.  “But cheeks stay soft.  They can feel what hands never will.”

The hulking boy nodded, his brow thick with focused knots.  He leaned his cheek to the wall where his hand had been.  His eyebrows shot up in surprise.

Ayders chuckled.  “Now you’re getting it.”

“I felt it,” said Urwin, his face glowing with awe.  “There’s a breeze!”

“That’s right.  It’s faint but it’s there.  And why do we care about a little, old puff of breath?”

“There’s something behind this wall?”

“Exactly!”  Ayders clapped his star pupil on the shoulder.  Urwin’s cheeks swelled red with embarrassed pride as he toed the dirt.  “Now, we’ve just got to find how to get to it.”

Burshel’s pencil ceased its dance.  He turned his huge amber eyes to Ayders and Urwin, blinking as if only just processing what was said. 

“There’s got to be a door,” said Ayders.

“We could follow the wall until we find it,” said Urwin.

“We’ve already walked the walls.”

“Maybe there’s another entrance from the surface?”

The younger of the brothers listened as his brother and uncle debated their options and then swung his attention back to the wall.  The light from Ebrik’s lantern spilled over it in an oblong beam that held Odpok in the hot center.  In the dim halo that surrounded the beam, the skeletal infants looked like the larva of enormous moths.  Burshel’s head cocked, and he stared at the mural unmoving for a while.  Not for the first time, Ebrik found himself wondering what it was the young man saw when he looked at the world.  What details found him that eluded everyone else? 

Burshel turned to Ebrik.  Without a word, he repositioned Ebrik’s left hand so that the beam was now focused on the grinning skull of the left infant.  It stared back at them like some monster caught in a car’s headlights.  Burshel took a few hesitant steps as if weighing every angle of what he was about to do.  Then he reached up and touched the upper arc of the skull’s hollow eyes.  Ebrik saw it then.  There was a thin-cut rind of stone separate from the smooth continuity of the rest of the carved face.  It was a switch of some kind.  Burshel’s fingers hooked the edge, preparing to pull.

“Burshel!  What in the hells are you doing?”  Ayder’s voice bowled through the silence, shattering the trance of discovery that had gripped Ebrik and, apparently, Burshel. 

Burshel blinked several times before answering as if shaking away some mental fog.  “There’s a switch here.  Perhaps, it opens a secret door of some kind.”

“Well don’t touch it!”  Ayder’s bowlegged stride carried him to his nephew’s side.  He leaned in close to examine the switch, his whole face squinting with the effort.  Burshel looked like his uncle had just asked him to drink drain cleaner.  “Gods, boy!  For being so smart you sure are a dummy sometimes.  If someone took the time hide a thing, they probably took the time to ward it too.”

His eyes roved along the crests and the troughs of the carved skull before settling.  With a gnarled finger, he traced the lines of the teeth until he came to a gap that was only just wider than the others.  “Urwin, hand me my kit,” he said reaching back towards the bigger of his nephews with the other hand.  Urwin rummaged through his pack and withdrew a roll of leather.  He placed it in Ayders’ outstretched palm. 

The old man unfurled the roll at his feet and withdrew a pair of long thin metal instruments.  As he inserted the instruments into the gap between the teeth, his eyes fluttered closed.  He worked by feel.  The soft scrap of the tools against stone was the only sound beyond the rattle of their breathing.  The hush stretched on for an eternity.

At last, a near silent click boomed through the chamber.  Ayders’ eyes opened and he wiggled the instruments as if trying to tease something out of the gap.  The tip of his tongue poked through the corner of his lizard lips as he worked.  Eventually, a small glass ampule emerged.  He plucked it from the gap with two fingers and held it in the light.  The inside was filled with grains of a greenish-white powder. 

“Take a good look, boys,” he said, turning the ampule over.  “This powder is nasty stuff.  When it meets air, it turns to poison gas.  Inside that there hole was a tiny hammer that was poised to crack the glass on this here ampule and drown us in gas.”  Turning to Burshel, he continued, “If you had pulled that switch without disarming the trap, you would have died choking on your own blood.”

Even in the dim light, Ebrik could see Burshel blush.  Ayders must have seen it too because he patted the boy on his shoulder and then delicately deposited the ampule in a nearby alcove.  When he returned, he dusted off his hands and said, “Now, we’re ready.  Burshel, would you do the honors?”

Hand quaking, Burshel touched his fingers to the thin rim of the switch and pulled down.  The stone slid over the hollows of the infant’s empty eyes like eyelids, giving it a look of quiet repose.  There was a pause as they clicked into place and then a quiet rumble like distant thunder as a mechanism moved somewhere out of sight.  The whole mural shook and begrudgingly rose into the ceiling, streamers of sand falling to the flagstone floor.  A stench like musk and formaldehyde wafted from the opening.

The mural settled into place and the chamber stilled, revealing a cavity of endless dark beyond.  Ebrik squinted trying to pierce the veil.  The stillness raised goosebumps along his arms.  The air stirred and a pair of torches within the chamber sputtered to life, followed by another pair, and then another.  They shed a living, golden light that cavorted among tall iron shelves that lined the sandstone walls.  Hunched urns crowded these shelves, ominous despite their finery like filigreed crows.  A layer of dust and cobwebs did not stop their gold detailing from catching flashes of light. 

The center of the chamber was occupied by a slab of obsidian set at table height.  It was lined by a rim, an inch or two high, that tapered to a channel at the foot which drained into a basin of solid gold.  A standing tray was set at a convenient proximity to the table upon which an array of dust-caked surgical instruments awaited practiced hands.  They were untarnished despite the length of neglect and as Ebrik’s eyes fell on them he shuttered to realize that the whole of the room was laid out like the operating theater of a morgue.

Ayders was the first to cross the threshold, the fingers of his free hand bicycling as if unable to contain their anticipation.  He made an ambling circuit of the room, passing first along the numberless urns.  Puffing up his cheeks, he blew the dust from the busty curve of one, groaning with pleasure when the light caught the luster beneath.  Then he turned his leathered neck toward the obsidian slab, the deep grooves of his wrinkles holding their shadows as the torch light added their honey gold to the sunburned weathering of his face.  He paced the slab looking it up and down, from the rim to where it melded into the flagstone floor.  The facets danced, darkened foils to the torch light.  When he had made three full passes around the slab he turned his attention to the instruments, again blowing hard so that a plume of bone white dust billowed free.  His eyes gleamed dark and hungry as he loomed over the warming splendor.

Ebrik cleared his throat and Ayders blinked as a man returning from a daydream.  “Should be alright,” he said with a twang.  “Urwin, bring me them sacks and the rope from the pack.  Burshel, you be quick with your sketching now.  There’s a lot to load.”  He ran a hungry tongue along his lizard lips.

Returning his sword to its sheath, Ebrik crossed the threshold with a slow, calculated gait.  He followed the route of the shelves along the wall, eyes sweeping each urn and crevice for anything that might give him that cold feeling of warning in his gut.  It wasn’t that he thought Ayders a fool.  The old man wouldn’t have lived this long in this profession if he didn’t know his trade, but Ebrik didn’t trust that the lust for gold wouldn’t overcome Ayders’ better judgment.  And there was much that glittered here. 

The urns themselves were made of fine black porcelain, coated in delicate patterns wrought in gold.  There were hundreds, nearly overflowing the shelves that housed them, and each would turn a tidy profit at the border town markets.  The thought brought Ebrik little comfort.  For such wealth to be hidden by so few safeguards felt far too easy.  If Karask Rev had taught him anything, it was that the deadliest things wore the friendliest masks.

He continued his slow inspection to the music of Burshel’s rasping pencil and the murmur of conversation between Urwin and Ayders as they prepared to begin packing up the surrounding treasures.  At the back corner, he stopped, his brow furrowing.  One shelf, sandwiched among the others, stood empty save for a tarnished brass spyglass.  It was an odd place to find such a thing but that wasn’t what made Ebrik’s breath catch in his throat.  From the greening metal, an etching of a coyote stared back at him.  He blinked, certain his eyes were playing tricks on him but the coyote remained.  He couldn’t be sure but something inside him screamed that it was the same coyote from the divining rod they had pulled from the sands by The Mist the day Zo had run, and Corbin had lost her arm.  The rod had tingled all the way up his arm when he touched it.  Would this do the same?  His hand was reaching for it, trembling fingers outstretched while the world fell away like petals off a dying blossom.  The only sound was his heart galloping in his chest.  The dusty pads of his fingers no more than a whisper away.

“’Bout damn time, Burshel,” said Ayders.  “Urwin, let’s get to packing.  We’re burning daylight, boys!”

The spell broke.  Blinking, Ebrik withdrew his hand.  It must have been his imagination, but he could have sworn the coyote looked almost disappointed.  His eyes lingered on the spyglass.  He knew he should pull away and help Urwin pack up what would be their haul.  But it was just so odd to see that same icon after all these years.

“Burshel,” said Ebrik.  “What do you make of this?”

The young man strolled to Ebrik’s side, polishing his glasses on his shirt.  He replaced them and leaned in to examine the etching.  The frown that spread across his features made him look like an especially consternated owl.  “How remarkable,” he said.  He licked a finger and leafed through his notebook, the sketches flying by like a wondrous carousel.  When they stopped, the page laid open to a page of hieroglyphs arranged around a central pictograph, the coyote. 

Ebrik’s blood chilled but as Burshel opened his mouth to elaborate a gust of frigid wind howled into the chamber.  It sent the notebook pages fluttering and Ebrik had to crush his hat to his head to keep it from taking flight.  Then just as abruptly the gale ceased.  He looked at the others.  Ayders was hunched, beard frazzled and beady eyes darting from side to side.  All the color had drained from Urwin.  The giant had the first urn carefully gripped between bear-paw hands, having only just been lifted from its resting place on the shelf.  He had frozen to the spot when the wind hit, and beads of sweat were forming like condensation on his forehead.

“Wh-wha-what did I do?” stammered Urwin, his whole body clenched. 

No one spoke.  Ebrik floundered for some answer to give.  He looked to Burshel, hoping to find some clue written on the savant’s earnest features.  They were as empty and stunned as his own face must have looked.  He flapped his mouth a couple of times like forcing it open would turn over its motor and the words could flow.  As syllables sputtered on his lips, a sound like bone scrapping across rough stone dragged itself to their ears.  Ayders’ scaly face scrunched with confused concern.  Then a low mournful call echoed off the stones and was answered by another.  The sound of shifting bone filled the air.

The words found him.  “You’ve raised the dead, Urwin.  And I’m not sure they’re happy to see us.”

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Ebrik Strange: Death’s Daughter

by Robert Currer

Part 2: Chapter 1

3,800 Words: 15 Minute Read

The frenzied yipping of coyotes carried on the wind.  Ebrik listened to their overture as he watched the campfire dart and whirl in the gusts.  Across the flames, Ayders shivered.  He was a lizard of a man, all sinew and sun-leathered flesh, with a wild gray beard.  “I ain’t never got used to the noise,” he said, pulling closer to the fire, “Especially, the night before a job.  Sounds like demons tuning up the orchestra.”

“Just the symphony of The Wastes,” said Ebrik.  He tapped his knuckles against the dead log on which he sat, wishing luck to the wily hunters.  His years in the ODF had sparked a fondness for coyotes.  They were lone hunters, who survived by cunning more than their brawn.  He could relate.  Without thinking, he glanced down at the conscription eye tattooed on his forearm.  It had faded to almost white, the toxin within long since spent.

Something in the dark screamed and all but Ebrik startled. 

“You really telling us none of this spooks you?” said Urwin.  The mountainous man stoked the fire, sending orange light dancing over his bulging muscles.

Ebrik stood dusting off his pant legs.  “It’s when the night goes quiet that you have to worry.” 

The big man snorted.  “You’ve got more balls than brains.”  He pushed himself to his feet, and retrieving a blanket from his pack, wrapped it around his uncle’s bony shoulders.  Ayders patted his nephew’s hand in thanks.

“He does have a point,” said Burshel, glancing up from his book.  With his over-sized head and owl eyes, he looked like a baby bird compared to his older brother, Urwin.  “Native species like the coyote have more refined senses than we do.  They would be alert to a significant threat long before we would take notice.”

“If you say so,” said Urwin.  He lifted his brother’s canteen and gave it a shake, frowning at the sound of the sloshing water.  He handed it back and said, “I want you to finish this before you go to sleep.  We’ve got plenty more.  I don’t want you dehydrated.”

Burshel looked put out.  His eyes darted to Ebrik for support.  “Hydrate or die,” said Ebrik, quoting one of Salmin’s favorite aphorisms.  Pouting, Burshel sipped his water.

Ebrik strolled to the edge of the ridge where they had camped among the boulders and stared into the basin below.  It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the thready moonlight of the cloud blanketed night.  A field of tumbled pillars and jutting stone filled the basin’s floor.  At its center, an arcade ringed a circle of standing stones which enclosed a black slab.  An altar, he guessed.  It was hard to say at this distance in this light.  The prospect of it sent a shiver down his spine.  The way the stones were arranged, the way they caught the ghostly light, they might have been specters circling a corpse.  He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking.

He’d been doing this kind of mercenary-guide work in The Wastes for a little over a year now, ever since he finished his tour with the ODF.  Most of it was pretty routine and the money wasn’t bad.  But religious sites still gave him the creeps.  More often than not they still had the true magic in them, not that alchemical hocus-pocus peddlers passed off.  They had the real stuff which meant they were good places to strike it rich and even better places to die.

Returning to the fire ring, he unfastened his bedroll from his bag and laid it in the sand by the warmed stones.  He eased himself down onto his side facing away from the flame.  Looking back over his shoulder at the others, he said, “Get some sleep.  Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”  With that, he closed his eyes and slept dreamlessly through the night.

The morning came with a sky of brush stroke clouds in pastels limed in golden light.  By that time, Ebrik and his clients had packed their things and were leading a team of mules along the narrow foot path that wound down the rocky slope.  The sun had risen over the jagged horizon when they reached the bottom.  Already the sand that stretched between them and the drunken line of tumbled stones that marked the edge of the ruin shimmered in the heat.  As they made their way across, a scalding wind tugged at the loose cloth of their garments and scooped up the sand at their feet.  Eddies formed in the wind’s current creating whorls of sand like half-pint tornadoes.  Ebrik’s hand drifted to his sword, determined to be ready for what might form, but the whirling sand drifted away only to scatter once more. 

Just inside the edge of the ruin, they sheltered the mules in the only standing corner of a fragmented wall.  With poles and a tarp, Ebrik and Ayders created shade for the beasts while the brothers unburdened and watered them.  By midmorning, they hoisted their packs and set out toward the center of the ruin.  Ebrik took lead, his sword drawn, shield still slung on his back.  He picked his way among the litter of stone blocks, each rounded and warped by the centuries of grating wind.  No trees or grasses grew here.  It was a dead place like a colossal skeleton trapped in the shifting sands.  The wind curled through the rubble like a moan as they grew closer to the center.  When they were within sight of the arcade ring, Ebrik signaled halt and listened.  He couldn’t find anything masked by the groaning breeze, but that did nothing to ease the knots in his shoulders.  They crept to the shelter of the arcade, Ebrik insisting they find a spot where they could stand on solid stone instead of sand. 

The arcade pillars were made of mortared sandstone blocks.  Where once carvings had decorated their sides, time had worn nearly all away, giving them a gnawed look like a bone scarred by the jaws of a massive hound.  They paused in the shade.  As Ayders and Urwin wet their parched lips, Burshel already had his notebook and pencils in hand, sketching every detail he could manage.  Ebrik squinted through the blinding sun at the circle of standing stones.  They were thrust up from the earth like shards of black glass, still razor sharp and gleaming even after all this time.  That was a mixed blessing at best.  The Wastes were a cruel mistress, grinding down all that dared enter their embrace.  Here anything that repelled the scarring climate had power, and power cut both ways.

Ebrik rapped his knuckles thrice on the column and then took a long drink from his canteen.  Even warm, the water was fresh melt over the dry creek bed of his throat.  He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and turned to his clients.  “Listen up.”  He spoke in a hushed voice, in case the stones had ears.  “Stick close to me when we get to the standing stones.  There’s something unnatural about them and I don’t want to find that out the hard way.”

“You mean like magic—true magic?” asked Burshel.  His owl eyes sparkled.

“Could be.”

The brothers looked at each other with schoolboy grins.  Ayders took the news with professional stoicism, but he couldn’t hide the gleam in his eyes.  Greed wasn’t an uncommon trait among men in Ayders’ profession which is why Ebrik preferred to work with small family companies where blood ties could balance out one’s lesser nature.

“Focus,” barked Ebrik at the boys, though it was as much meant for their uncle as it was for them.  “This shit could go sideways real quick.  Stay on task and we all get paid, we all make it home.  Understood?”

Urwin and Burshel stood up a little straighter looking like a bear next to a plucked goose.  Their heads bobbed in agreement.  “Yes, sir!”

Good little soldiers.  Ebrik resisted a grin.  If he wasn’t careful, he was going to end up sounding like Salmin. 

Good to their word, they stuck close as Ebrik lead them from the arcade.  He moved first around the circumference of the standing stones, examining each at a distance before slinking on to the next.  At every pause in their path, Burshel sketched frantically as if terrified he would miss even the most insignificant detail.  More than once, Urwin had to guide him by the shoulder around a bit of rubble so that he wouldn’t trip with his nose in his book. 

When they had made the full loop, Ebrik signaled for them to stay crouched in the dwindling shadow of one of the blade-like stones.  He passed his pack off to Urwin and moved to the threshold of the gap between two stones.  Their razor blade edges were split so thin that they were translucent like smoked glass, like they could split the very seams of the world.  He took a deep breath and crossed the threshold.  The air eased shakily from his lungs when nothing happened.

He stalked toward the thick obsidian slab that sat like a table in the center.  The sun flashed off its sharp planes, dazzling Ebrik so that he was forced to adjust the wide brim of his hat to avoid the glare.  As he slipped alongside, eyes scanning, he could feel the crackle of dormant energy that pulsed from the altar like the charge in the air before a summer storm.  Channels had been cut into the slab that intersected at right angles and dropped over the side.  Otherwise, the hunk of rock was unsculpted. 

A lump settled into Ebrik’s throat.  Faith demanded sacrifice in Karask Rev, usually of the physical variety, and there were only a few sacrifices that would flow through channels on an altar.  He was betting it wasn’t wine.  Ebrik’s head swiveled sharply around as his eyes hunted for some sign of snare or missed threat.  The only movement was dust tumbling on the sighing wind. 

His eyes fell to the standing stones, their dagger-like shape stabbing upward as if to pierce the sky itself.  A cloud drifted across the sun and the shifting light caught the edge of something carved into the glassy surface.  He crept closer, brow furrowing to find an entire relief had been sculpted into the face of the stone.  In fact, all of the nine standing stones had a relief carved into their inky faces.  Each was unique but the same three figures reappeared again and again: a shrouded man with a bulging purse, a woman with hair that flowed like water, and a child in a flower crown.  What did they mean?

“Is it safe?” asked Burshel, craning his long neck out of the shadow.

“Yeah…” said Ebrik, still turning the scenes over in his mind.  He blinked and forced himself to refocus.  “Yes, you can come out.  Just take it slow and be careful.”

The three emerged and Ayders let out a long, low whistle.  “Well, howdy do.  This is a mighty fine sign.”  His thin lips split into a grin of yellowed teeth.

Burshel looked overwhelmed.  He staggered through the sand from each stone to the next, his mouth hanging open.  When he finally remembered himself, he darted to the nearest obsidian shard and, before Ebrik could stop him, began taking a rubbing of the relief.  Scampering between them, he took rubbings of all nine, annotating his notes to indicate the location of each relief in the circle. 

As he worked, the others spread out, searching the base and sides of the stones for a hidden cache or door.  When their efforts ultimately proved fruitless, Ebrik wandered back to the altar.  He paced slowly around it, trying to glean some insight into its secrets.  He was ready to give up and suggest they explore the rest of the ruin, when Burshel wandered over, flipping through his notes and sketches.  The sun gleamed off the young man’s spectacles.

“Curious,” said Burshel.  His head cocked in an avian way.

“What is?” asked Ebrik.

“What?”  Burshel’s big eyes blinked as if registering Ebrik’s presence for the first time.

“What’s curious?”

“Oh!  The carvings.  They’re from an old children’s fable.  Odd to find them out here.”

Ayders ambled over on his bow-legged gait.  “What’s this about a yarn?” he asked, holding his straw hat on his head as a gust of wind ruffled the brim.

“Look at the scenes together.  They’re telling Death’s Daughter.”  Burshel pointed to a stone, the smoked glass surface depicting the shrouded man and the water-haired woman holding a baby with a flower crown.

“I see it,” said Urwin, sounding more than a little awed by the revelation.

Ebrik wrestled with himself for a moment.  He had learned a lot in the eight years he had been living in Karask Rev, but there were still some gaps in his knowledge.  Trying to keep the embarrassment from his voice, he asked, “What’s Death’s Daughter?”  When the question generated looks of confusion from his three companions, he added, “I’m not from around here.”

He could see more questions bubbling on Burshel’s lips and was grateful when Ayders headed them off.  Fanning himself with his hat, the old scavenger said, “That’s a yarn I ain’t told in a long time.  Why Urwin must have been knee-high to a dune beetle the last time.  But if we are going to be telling tales, let’s find some shade to sit in.”

Back in the close-cut shadow of a standing stone, Ayders eased himself to the ground with a sigh.  He waved the others to sit around him with such aplomb that Ebrik could imagine him gathering the brothers as boys to his knee for their nightly story.  Indeed, the brothers must have felt it too as they both looked like dew-eyed children eager to hear of the wonders of the wide world beyond their hearth.  He wondered if those same stories were the reason they had followed their uncle into his unforgiving profession.

When the boys had stilled, Ayders began.  “One day when The Wastes were still green and the mountains still growing, Life and Death had a daughter.  They called her Dorsteny, goddess of nature, and they loved her with all their hearts.  She was a sweet girl with hair the color of autumn leaves and a voice like a songbird.  She could run like the deer and swim like the fish, and nothing delighted her more than to do just that.  Her daddy Odpok, god of death, loved to watch her play and went with her everywhere she went.  He taught her a whole mess of things like how the desert grasses die to feed the deer and how the deer die to feed the scorch wolves and how the wolves die to feed the grass.  He taught her that she was both her mother and her father, both life and death dancing in perfect harmony and that rebirth comes to all things in one form or another.  Dorsteny loved her daddy and hung on his every word.”

A tiny grin crested Ebrik’s face as he watched the brothers, sitting cross-legged in front of their uncle, drinking up every word.  The sight was made all the more humorous by the fact that Urwin, even seated, towered over Ayders.

“Her mama Boj, goddess of life, wasn’t near as doting,” continued Ayders.  “She taught her daughter that all life was a struggle, that only trial gave it meaning, only by suffering was it made special.  That was why mamas suffer labor pains, why we bleed when we fall, and why life is taken from those who don’t fight for it.

“As I said, Dorsteny loved her daddy best.  This made Boj jealous and so one day she took her daughter out to the wilds, Dorsteny’s favorite place, and said ‘Today, I give you a gift my baby girl.  Today I make your life special.’  And with that she transformed Dorsteny into a fish and plopped her in the water.  Then she watched, waiting for her daughter to be caught by an animal or a fisher.  But Dorsteny was too cunning for all that.  She soon grew grew into a great salmon and became queen of the rivers.  Frowning, Boj summoned a drought and shrank the mighty rivers to a trickle.  Dorsteny was too big by now to breath in so little water and she began to flounder.  Still, she would not give up.  She opened her mouth to suck in the air and in the doing grew lungs.  Then she pulled herself from the stream and waddled her way to the Sweet Water, which was then still fresh and not yet befouled by Ol’ Skulls.”

Ol’ Skulls.  Everyone loved to blame him, an entity no one had ever seen, for all the misfortune in this life.  It had been Tharp’s constant refrain until the devil had been promoted out of West Watch.  Ebrik glanced to the horizon where, even at this distance, he could just make out the outline of Odpok’s Finger, the spire of windswept rock where Bone Watch Keep was supposed to roost.

“Dorsteny’s success enraged mama Boj.  She transformed her daughter into a deer and set a pack of scorch wolves upon her.  But Dorsteny could run like no other, and she outpaced the wolves.  Boj growled her discontent and threw steep mountains up to block Dorsteny’s path.  But Death’s daughter was wilier still.  She shortened her legs and made herself small like a goat.  Then she bounded up the mountain, from rock to rock, to places where the wolves could not follow.  Outwitted, Boj screamed and stamped her foot.  Her stomp made the whole earth tremble and her shriek sent boulders fleeing down the mountain slopes.  Dorsteny was caught in the landslide and crushed.”

Burshel and Urwin each let out a tiny gasp as Ayders leaned in close and smashed the imaginary Dorsteny in his knobbly fist.

“Odpok scooped up his daughter and brushed the stones from her hair.  He took her to his kingdom deep in the earth and laid her out on a bed to rest.  When she awoke, she was so upset that she had failed that she sobbed tears so mighty that they filled whole caverns.  Odpok wiped away her tears and looked into her golden eyes.  ‘You can try again,’ he said.  ‘Like all things, you get to try life again.’  When she was ready, they walked hand and hand back to the realm of the living where Dorsteny could struggle once more.”

The moaning wind filled the delicate hush that fell between them as Ayders finished the story.  The boys looked spellbound and Ebrik had to fight a smile.  All grown up and still just big kids. 

Now wasn’t the time for such thoughts though.  He pulled himself back from the dreamy land of story with a shake of his head.  “So how does that help us?” he asked.

Urwin looked to Ayders who only shrugged.  Polishing his glasses, Burshel said, “Obviously, it has some kind of significance, some clue as to the ritual conducted here.  If we can figure out the ritual, perhaps we can learn more—and find something of value.”  He added the last bit for his relatives who looked less enthusiastic about braving the ruins for intellectual pursuits alone.

“Okay, so it’s a story about the struggles of life and resurrection.  What does that tell us?” asked Ebrik.

“Well, the iconography on these ruins would indicate that the temple was dedicated to Odpok, deity of death,” said Burshel, “And—”

“We’ve got to kill something!” said Urwin looking elated that he had puzzled out the solution.

Burshel’s eyes narrowed at his brother as he continued.  “And we know that Odpok plays a supportive, paternal role in the story.  Likewise, Dorsteny doesn’t actually die but suffers a symbolic death before being welcomed into Odpok’s loving arms.” He looked around at the others as if the solution was now obvious.

“So… we’ve got to play at dying?” asked Ayders feeling through the words like he was dipping a toe in the bath to check the temperature.

Burshel buried his face in his hands with a groan.  Ayders looked at Urwin who shrugged back.

The memory of the altar came back to Ebrik.  It was rough cut and unshaped save for two perpendicular grooves.  Only a few kinds of liquid were ever sacrificed on an altar.  His throat went dry.  “Blood,” he said.  “He means blood.”

Burshel beamed.  “Glad to know someone was paying attention!  Yes, I would guess that we’ll need to make a sacrifice of blood on the altar to enact the ritual.  Don’t look at me that way.  It shouldn’t take much blood.  It’s a symbolic death, remember?”  The excitement had pulled him to his feet and the others stood to join him looking considerably less enthusiastic.  Burshel bounded toward the altar as they trailed behind.

They had drifted into a circle around it when Burshel asked the question.  “So, who will it be?”  His smile was almost as lurid as the afternoon sun as he looked at his assembled companions. 

Ebrik took a deep breath and said, “I’ll do—”

“I’ll do it,” said Urwin.  He patted Ebrik on the back.  “This is a family job, and it should be a family sacrifice.”  He looked to his uncle and brother for some kind of agreement.  Burshel cocked his head, examining Urwin as if he was some unknown specimen.  Ayders just looked at him like he was crazy.

“Urwin, I can do it,” said Ebrik.

“No.  Really, it’s okay.  It should be one of us.”  Urwin forced a smile.  “Besides, it’s just a little cut.”

With a resigned nod, Ebrik drew a long hunting knife and passed it hilt first to the bigger brother.  Balling his hand into a fist, Urwin held his arm over the altar.  He took a steadying breath and then made a single quick slash across this forearm.  Crimson blood filled the wound like a well and then dribbled down the curve of his muscle, forming a red tributary.  It gathered in a line of droplets that swelled until they could cling to the flesh no longer and fell, splattering against the glassy, black stone with the pitter-patter of rain.

There was a rumble like thunder, and the ground shook beneath their feet.  The altar slid to the side, revealing a darkened staircase that spiraled into the earth.  A gust blew out from the opening that gripped Ebrik’s chest like an icy hand.  On it, he could smell the musky scent of old graves.  They would be descending into Odpok’s kingdom.  He prayed resurrection wouldn’t be their only way out.

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