Issue Nine | December 2005
The Brass-Bound Bones
A Pi’úr Mígur hiZhalúkalel Adventure by Richard A. Becker
In the Clanhouse of the Jade Diadem, in Jakálla, one evening:
...I will not bother to explain here and now the method with which I single-handedly slew ten of the hateful and odious Black Ssú in the Ancients’ Tsuru’úm not very far from dear Uncle Havárri’s estates in the Northwest; I have told my clan-cousins that story too many times now for it to remain fresh on my tongue. It is enough to know that I killed masterfully—truly, would you expect anything less from me?—until at last there were no more quadrupedal fiends at hand, and I leapt into the waiting Ancient carriage and pressed the jewel that caused it to gallop along its strange black rail-path.
A “tubeway?” Ah, of course my dear cousin knows what the Ancients would call their uncomfortable wizardry. After all, someone must step back and read musty scrolls rather than learn exquisite skill with all of one’s weapons—and I do have exquisite skills, haven’t I, ladies? In my seventeen years I have dealt the deathblow to many a foe with my blade, and the stroke of ultimate joy to many a bedmate with my other blade, and—the tubeway? Yes, the tubeway. Very well, let us continue.
I had no certainty of where the Ancients’ carriage betook me, only that it sped me at a rate unimaginable to those walking the many tsán of our sákbe roads. Even the Hláka could scarcely be said to equal its speed, were they to dive recklessly toward the ground, as we’ve all seen them do in their play, mating and hunting. Faster still than the course of an arrow in flight, or perhaps even of lightning in the sky, did the Ancients’ disturbing contraption bear me away from where I had been. It was exhilarating!
Even as I felt the speed build up in the pit of my stomach, I was still clear-headed enough to take stock of my situation. I was alone, without even my hunting Rényu, and with only the scantiest of rations and equipment beyond my trusty sword, armor and javelins. Yet was I not Pi’úr Mígur hiZhalúkalel, puissant warrior, devotee of Karakán, blessed by the Gods, champion of justice? It mattered little where I was borne by the Ancients’ miserable device, I would meet adventure as I always do: With a laugh and a snap of my fingers in death’s eye. Lá!
At once, a strange and aggravating noise hammered at my ears, and I saw a jewel set into the wall begin to pulsate with red light. In the weird curved windows of the carriage the tunnel was visible, and I could see that in the distance there was a strange webwork of gleaming metal-like substance that obstructed my path. It grew quickly in my vision, for the tubeway carriage hurtled at a prodigious speed. My mind raced for a solution—I would need to escape the locked carriage! But how?
I prized at the nigh-seamless doorway through which I had been admitted, but it was no use. A dozen of the strongest Shén, and a platoon of brutish Ahoggyá besides, could not have moved that door so much as a hair’s width. And though I did succeed in prying up loose panels hither and yon, never did they yield up a way out of the carriage. And indeed the web of crisscrossed metallic stuff was very close now.
But that thrice-damned noise the jewel was making was driving me mad! It was impossible to think clearly with that droning bell shattering my eardrums. Possessed by fury, I hammered with my fist at the red pulsing jewel and its fellows, heedless of which I
struck. All that mattered was silencing that piercing noise!
Before I could do anything further, an invisible force flung me against the wall like an amorous Tinalíya kicked by a hmélu for his unsavory advances. I was pressed flat against that curved wall, my teeth digging into my lip and drawing blood, pulse pounding in my ears and eyes so that I could see naught but stars and darkness. For a moment I thought I might be about to die, and I was filled with regret that it was not in battle, that I had not yet tupped the high priestess of Lady Dilinála at Jakálla as I’d silently promised myself years earlier, and that that Gods-damned bell had not yet stopped its infernal clamor.
Yet the Gods are wise, if not always sweet, and their mercy is always shown to their favored son. Which is to say, myself. As suddenly as the invisible force—ah, cousin, you call it inertia? How very interesting (yawn), we shall have to (stretch) discuss it sometime—had taken me in its clutch, it released me and I fell to the carriage floor. When I had collected my wits, I found that the bell had stopped (praise be to mighty Lord Karakán!), the red jewel no longer pulsed with weird light, and that the view outside the windows was quite different than before.
No longer did my tubeway carriage hurtle through nighted tunnels toward webby doom; instead, it shot serenely along an elevated railway—like a gleaming black ribbon many mens’ height above the ground—through a forested valley I had never seen before. A canopy of flowering trees with smoky yellow petals nodded in a gentle breeze, and here and there I saw birds of scarlet plumage swoop and dive among their branches with an admirable recklessness. I occasionally caught glimpses of a shallow, broad, slow-moving river shining in the sunlight below the black rail; here and there were seen arboreal animals familiar and unfamiliar. The tubeway carriage was slowing, and its rail curved down underneath the canopy.
Yes, noble cousin, I suppose it is possible that my deadly blow to the screaming jewel may have caused the carriage to alter its course and prevent the imminent collision, just as you have broken the rhythm of my narrative with your comment. I certainly hope you have a better notion of rhythm in your bedchamber. I accept your apology. Now, as I was saying...
The carriage stopped altogether with a ratcheting sound, and its hatchway opened. I had no inkling of where I had been deposited, but I felt it ignoble to allow such a nattering consideration to slow me in the path of adventure. The fact, also, that I had consumed the last of my carefully rationed provender led me to a more curious disposition about my surroundings.
I stepped out onto a strange platform shaped with beams of an unknown substance, clad in yellowy clay tiles. It was shady, overgrown with tufted vines that drowsed in the zephyric breeze—vines that I was delighted to discover held a floral liquor within them, compounded of rainwater, dew, and plant-nectar. It had no ill effect, and I cut down vines for some few minutes and drank of them like our wastrel Aunt Kuda’ála in the brandy cellar. Oh, don’t make that face, we’re all family here, and we all know how Auntie is.
There was no food handy, but I made note of the plump-looking birds gliding over the brim of the valley and decided that I might soon hunt of their number. Before I could undertake that pleasurable mission, I decided that I must investigate the stelae-bordered passageway that led down from the platform.
Cousin, it was not incumbent upon me to describe every element of the platform upon its first mention. Do you expect me to embellish each tale with the number drí-ants toiling in the dirt at my feet, or to report accurately the number of clouds in the sky? To aver which of my gods-given testes hangs lower on most days? (It is the left one.) Nay, cousin Noyesamék, I fear that rather than my narrative being haphazard, it is you who are being obtuse. It is sufficient to say that there was a curiously carved stone doorway that led down and away from the platform, and that I chose that moment to ensure that I would not face further xenomorphic interference—as I had at the tubeway station where dwelled the Black Ssú.
I had no means of illumination—no torch, no oil lamp had survived my journeys. So I returned to the tubeway and used my trusty sword to slash away some of the weirdly frangible stuff that the Ancients used for cushioning, lashed it to a fallen branch (there were fallen branches and leaves on the platform, dear Cousin, are you satisfied?), and set it ablaze. Cousin Noyesamék... Cousin Noyesamék, your vituperation is entertaining, but pointless. I required the means of illumination, and I could not burn green leaves and attain anything but acrid smoke. The gods put the Ancients’ cushioning in my path so that I might have light in the depths of the ground, and there it is. Now kindly shut thy chumétl-hole and let me proceed with my tale.
I stepped through the dim portal and walked carefully down the dusty corridor. Here and there lay bones, cast-off fur and claws and scales, dried dung, and other remnants of bestial habitation in the passageway. But this hallway had once been a place of human veneration—countless thousands of diminutive figures were carved into the gelid stone of the walls, floor, and ceiling, each and every one of them singing a silent paean to unknown gods of ages past. As I reached the juncture of the corridor with a vaulted staircase spiraling down, I fancied that the tiny manlings (and womanlings) were singing the praises of myself, and truly, who is to say that they did not? Could it be that in some bygone era, sorcerers more skilled than is guessed in our time found the vision of the future that could show them the very crescendo of manhood and heroism... myself... and that they had cut intricate sculptures into the living rock to pay tribute to my passage?
It is certainly to be hoped that they had such excellent taste.
Down and down the stairs circled, built around lotus-topped pillars nested one atop the other. I found that in a few short minutes the warmth of the upper world was lost and a clammy chill filled the air, but I did not turn back. I knew well that the Ssú often chose to dwell in those places no man, or even Pé Chói, would ever deign to make his regular home. It would be only meet for me to seek them on their own ground and destroy them, before making camp for the night on the tubeway platform.
I explored many cubbyholes, false corridors, side passageways, empty chambers, and more, in that morbid darkness. But it was only when I reached the very bottom of the long spiral staircase that I beheld the original masters of that place, who had nothing to do with the Ssú—and likely would have hated them as much as you or I.
It was a cavernous hall with walls of dressed stone alternating with once-smooth stucco. There were frescoes that sparkled indistinctly in the grime-caked flooring, most of them scuffed away by centuries of heels and toes. There were vessels for drinking and eating flung haphazardly here and there, the crumbled remnants of furniture and clothing that fell away at a touch, and throughout it all—bones. Full skeletons of men, all armed, lay amid the junk of millennia. Had they been heroes? Rogues? Bandits or barbarians? The retinue of a petty princeling, ready to slaughter his rivals in most uncivil but glorious war? Who could say?
Yet there was something strange about them that I looked closely to resolve in my mind. I must confess it was not a wholesome sight to behold.
Those mouldering skeletons had each been bound together with gorgeous, filigreed castings of sturdy brass. Here, a skull was bolted fast with a burnished plating of the stuff, there, a delicate toe-bone was inset with more of it. A hipbone lined with richly engraved metal! A spine turned into a brassy serpent by the many plates with which it was enringed! Each bony carcass was more than merely a treasure trove of lustrous ore; each was also a work of sinister artistry.
It grieves me to report that I had little time to admire their osseous splendour before, to my utter astonishment and dismay, movement returned to their limbs.
The sight of those brown bones drawing themselves up to face me, toe-to-toe, caused a most unpleasant horripilation to pass over my flesh. It was most uncanny to gaze into empty eye sockets and know that even without organs of sight; they did nevertheless return my goggling stare. Of course, a man of war is ever-practical, and so I found the most alarming detail was the fine chlén-hide weaponry clenched tightly in each skeletal fist.
They rose with a quickening pace, and I elected to strike before they were entirely ready. It would be unsporting against a noble foe, this is true, yet witness: It is truly said that the noble dead have the good taste to allow their flesh and bones to remain quiescent whilst they sail for the Goodly Isles, save for those adherents of the gracious Worm, of course. Yet even they would not begrudge me the alacritous nature of my attack. I do believe that even the beloved of Lord Sárku appreciate promptness and a sense of brisk urgency in the doing of deeds.
With masterful speed and unerring precision, my sword swung in cleaving arcs, aimed at the neckbones of the walking dead. Against a normal foe, be they Human, Ssú, Hlutrgú, or other, I should have seen gouts of rich blood and an expression of consternation on their faces, mingled with a deep sense of disappointment in the brevity of their skeins. Yet it was not so! No, though my arm is mighty and my battle-wit puissant indeed, I found that the dead men’s metallic chasing was no mere ornament but rather quite functional. The edge of my blade sang upon their brazen bones, and for a moment... a very brief moment... incredulous doubt took root in my spine.
Pray, do not gaze upon me so, my clansmen! I am mortal like any other, though you would not think so from my magnificence. It may seem ignoble for any to doubt the prowess of Pi’úur Mígur hiZhalúkalel—even Pi’úr Mígur hiZhalúkalel himself!—but does not wise Lord Thúmis craftily tell us that in each mind is found a universe in which thought is king and chaos alike? And is it not true that to know all things one must appraise all things, distasteful and unlikely as they may seem? So, then, we see that it is not lacking in nobility to consider the faintest possibility of my defeat. It is, on the other face of the coin, a fleeting and silly notion.
And a notion which I as swiftly dismissed! If my trusty sword could not easily cleave the thicker brass plating and wire, surely the thinner material would be the easier to sunder. The quartet trod toward me with a castanet step, lunging at me with a quick and surprisingly well-coordinated sortie. I gave back a step or three, adjusting my grip on my sword and shield, and chose my ground as the Lord Karakán instructs mortal warriors to do. I breathed deeply and assessed them: Four opponents, armed but shieldless, without benefit of missile or pole weapons, and no sorcery to give them unfair advantage. No significant advantage in reach, rather slower than myself, but without need for breath or rest. And dead or alive, or both as was more likely, they were obviously mustering for a rush.
I laughed and gave myself over to Lord Karakán’s dance!
“I trample the unjust and reap the just who have strayed.” My preceptor’s words flowed through my mind as I whirled amid the enemy’s hooked swords and barbed axes, ignoring tiny, meaningless cuts and lacerations when they struck home. “You look to my hand, and in it you behold the flowering of your mortality. You look to my eyes, and you gaze into the stern light of justice inescapable. You look to my armaments, and you see the masterful tools with which your five-fold jewel is prised from its material setting. Others shall conduct you from this plane of life, but I am he who shall cast you into their arms. Now you shall know death, and death anew.”
The martial drums of the temple thundered in my brain as my heart pounded steadily in my breast. They were more skilled than many living men, were my opponents! They did not lack in courage, if one could allege that in foemen who lacked any vitals to skewer with a handy poniard. They were weird and tireless, and many lesser men might have felt terror to do battle with them. But those are lesser men, no?
And say what anyone may, a dead man is still a man, and the shape and the motions of men can only vary to a certain degree. The body is a miracle; anyone can see that mine is a greater miracle than most! But it is the mind of the fighting man that makes him great or puny, if all else be equal. These dead men had a certain limited talent. But it was not enough to face Pi’úr Mígur!
As my esteemed cousin has complained whilst trying to study musty tomes as I pleasured my wives, I am gifted with prodigious endurance, among many other things. Outmaneuvering the bone-rattling enemy was a matter of superior skill and speed, and maintaining this advantage was a brisk test of endurance. But defeating them? That demanded matchless accuracy and a deft wrist. Who but I could have done it? Though their horrid neckbones were strongly bound in metal, more delicate wiring was necessary to grant their fingers a dexterous range of motion. And even as they pivoted, spun, lunged, crouched, and whirled in an array of kinetic swordsmanship that might have bewildered any common bravo, I scanned their weapon hands at every opportunity. At the slightest hesitation or slowing on their part, I darted in and snipped a wire with a flick of my sword’s tip. One finger, two, three, more! The first bony warrior’s sword clattered to the floor, and they paused in uncertainty. I laughed aloud. The dead feared Pi’úr Mígur!
The long-dead sorcerer-priests who had readied these men for the tomb had neglected to leave them armor or shields, trusting in their metallic sheathing and their fleshless state to make them invincible. This strategy had proven itself to be folly when facing a hero of my stature, blessed with elusive grace and stupendous fighting talent. I allowed the dead man whose fingerless right hand had lost his grip on his sword to pick it up with his off hand. I could think of few better ways to make him present that hand as a target.
That was their downfall, naturally. They could not hide their finger-joints from me and press their attack simultaneously. If they could not out-fence me, it was only a question of time before I would snip all their finger-wires and leave them no choice but to try and club me with fingerless limbs. How long could they last in such a clumsy contest if I were to change tactics and dismember their toes, leaving them unable to balance and stand up?
When one plays the ancient games of strategy against true masters, it is readily obvious that they can perceive the outcome of a lesser player’s gambits far in advance of their conclusion. It is even more exasperating for that lesser player to see the outcome also, and to have no choice but to struggle for the rest of the match in futile anticipation of the endgame. One knows how it must end, but there is no alternative save to fight until inevitably being humbled. Instructive to some, enraging to others, unavoidable to all.
Dead they may have been, but my opponents were still vestiges of men, and as such they betrayed their frustration at the inescapable nature of their fates. My confident smile and steady respiration displayed no sign of fatigue; in fact, I could have continued for many more minutes before needing rest and refreshment. Fingers fell, and first one dead man had no hand capable of holding a weapon, then another, then another. I was becoming just a little weary when none of them could still face me nobly armed. They hesitated again, and I roared a challenge and stamped my foot thunderously on the flagstones.
And they fled!
I laughed then, to see dead men run away into their lightless hidey-holes. Later I would remember them and almost feel pity, for they were trapped in their metal-wrapped calcium frames with only crude stubs of bone where they had had hands. I pictured them struggling vainly to lift some elder artifact that had meant something to them in life, only to see it fall from their nonexistent grasp again and again and again... But Lord Karakán enjoins us to remember that justice is also the shadow of injustice, a reaction to the unrighteous deed. Often it is as if the unjust are suicides, and the just are merely the instruments of their self-destruction. “Mine is the Way that is Just, and it is neither mysterious nor incomprehensible, therefore, know and cleave unto it—or call down My wrath as if it were thy hand rending thine own heart.”
After their timely departure, I took it upon myself to examine my surroundings. In that tomb—no, cousin, it was no tomb of our Clan, nor even of a friendly one, but of some sept long lost to time!—I spied many costly things of great worth, and it seemed only right that a hero’s sparkling, faceted reward should be wrapped in a piece of kilt and taken home to our Clanhouse’s treasure vaults. No, I do not fear the vengeance of the centuries, for if a curse should bring the brass-bound bones to my sleeping mat some night, I shall give them another thrashing for the sheer fun of it!
And what of the rest of my long, long journeys? How I found myself amongst the Urunén, chased a Vringálu in a low-ceilinged cave, wed a blossoming sea-princess of the isles and was widowed not long after, gazed upon blackened fields and glowing green towers, matched wits with a Mihálli sorcerer, spat upon the head of Baron Ald of Yán Kór, nearly suffocated under sand in Saá Allaqiyáni, and more?
Those are tales of another day. For now, I must rest!
...as the slaves cleared the dining hall and their kinfolk shook their heads in wonder, Pi’úr Mígur hiZhalúkalel waved away his cousin Noyesamék’s thousand questions and went to find his hero’s reward for that night in the arms of his wives.