Waking the Dead
“We have a problem.” It was the kid.
“Ossun’s gone missing.”
I lifted my head slightly to look out at the span of orange-twilight sky beyond the tent flap, and squinted at the painful light. I was spending too much time sleeping in the tent. It was the damn savanna heat. “What do you mean? Eaten by a lion? What?”
“If he’d been eaten by a lion, I would have said so.”
“You’re getting as bad as the damn wizards,” I griped, “Cryptic doesn’t suit you. Or me.”
“Sorry,” the kid grimaced and had the thoughtfulness to look apologetic.
I waited. He waited. I raised my eyebrows and frowned.
“–quit apologizing and just tell–”
“–Gods’ balls! I’m getting to it you old fart, if you’d let me talk!”
I raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t notice. The kid wouldn’t swear at me unless he had good reason, so I shut my trap and…”old”? I wasn’t that old…I must be getting old, given how worried I was about getting old…I realized he was talking. I acted like I’d heard everything I hadn’t.
“…been asking a lot of questions about the barrow we passed. Plying Criket with that foetid bushwa he likes. I think the locals we picked up have been brewing it in one of their tents.”
I’d stopped listening again, and the next words were like pushing molten metal through my teeth, because I’d rather have been screaming them, “The wizard’s barrow? The one the wizards freaked out about? The one we told everyone to forget about because it was full of evil demons?”
The kid just nodded, arms folded over his chest protectively, not looking particularly pleased.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
“Shit,” I stated unnecessarily.
“Shit,” he agreed.
I stared quietly at the floor for a few moments, “We’re sure he wasn’t eaten by a lion?”
“Fucking slanty-eyed little bastard.”
He shifted uncomfortably and gave me an eye that said he wasn’t comfortable with my racism. I ignored it — though he didn’t know it, he was on latrine duty this week for his “old” comment, so I wasn’t inclined to care about his feelings right now. He asked, “Cricket or Ossun?”
“Either. Both. Oh fuck the lot of them,” I kicked a clot of earth out of the dusty ground and pulled on my boots.
“Shit,” I swore again, for no other reason than I was really fond of the word today, “Anyone go with him?”
Well, that was either good or bad. I guessed I’d find out soon enough, “Let’s go find Dragonfly. In his tent?”
He nodded, and I hauled my too-tired ass out into camp. When we reached the reeking hide-bound dome that was Dragonfly’s tent, I kicked it, knowing one of these days I would upset some wizardly experiment and blow half the camp into the sky, including myself. It didn’t sound like too bad an idea right now.
Dragonfly came out cursing at me and piling on the threats. I ignored him. “What happens if you bungle a wake?” I demanded. He gave me a raised eyebrow in response and then snapped his open mouth shut.
“Does Ossun even know how to do a wake?” the kid asked from behind me.
“What the hell are we talking about?” the old wizard grumped, but I could see in his narrowed eyes that he was guessing right already.
I noticed one of the new guys clamber out of the tent behind Dragonfly and I eyed him. Consorting with wizards. Great. But I’d have to ask about it later.
“Ossun’s missing — ”
“Eaten by a lion,” Dragonfly snorted haughtily, trying to convince himself I suppose, “I suppose you’ll want me to find what’s left of him?”
“Not by a lion. He’s gone to wake the dead.”
There was a pause, then Dragonfly looked ready to jump out of his skin, or at least ready to break his contract and go back to being dead for another thousand years. Same thing, on reflection.
“Yeah,” I nodded in confirmation of the thoughts buzzing around behind the old wizard’s eyes, “Where is Cricket?”
“I am not that filthy little peasant’s keeper,” Dragonfly snorted, though the usual bluster was missing, “He’s probably sleeping drunk in a mudhole he fell into.”
I turned to the kid, “I thought you said no one else was missing?”
He shrugged and grimaced, “Well…no one else you ordered me to keep an eye on.”
I dragged my fingertips through my hair, killing a rising itch.
“Anybody else missing?” Dragonfly asked, lips pursed.
“Not that we know of,” I answered, throwing an evil eye towards the kid.
“We’re sure Ossun didn’t defect? We’ve always suspected him of trying to stir up the recruits and go it alone.”
It was a good question. I didn’t have an answer. Neither Dragonfly nor I wanted to speak what the next thought was, but the kid saved us the trouble, “Having a wizard on his side would give him the the prestige to make a good go of contracting out his own work.”
“Fucking idiot,” Dragonfly mumbled, though he sounded more terrified than haughty.
“Alright, kid, go count heads. I want to know if he’s gone solo, or taken some recruits along for the ride. Then get a dozen of the long-timers together and meet me at the south edge of camp…or…fuck…nevermind. Scratch that. Dragonfly and me, we’re going back to the barrow. You meet us there with the men soon as you can. And find somebody to track down Cricket.”
The kid bolted and started shouting for one of the captains. Dragonfly stood, arms crossed, glowering at the sky and looking like he’d rather be eaten by a lion. I was inclined to join him on that menu.
Twilight wasn’t even a memory by the time we reached the barrow; the temperature had plummeted to that typical of for the chill nights of the savanna, stars glittered like frost in the deep navy heavens. We missed the hill on the first pass and had to swing back around. Thankfully a large group like ours left one hell of an obvious trail or I don’t know we’d ever have found it again.
“You’re sure that’s it?”
“What, you can’t see in the dark?” Dragonfly’s eyes glittered with a dim, animal light and he smiled at me. I shuddered and turned to look elsewhere, glad his magics were keeping dangerous predators at bay.
“Do you see anyone?”
“Not a damned soul.”
We were crouched in the low grass just off the path the company had stomped into existence earlier. Cold and dust filled my nose, the dry smell of the grass itching my throat. Somewhere distant, a hyena cackled at our situation.
“Hopefully Ossun got as lost as we did and was eaten by a lion.” It was a plea to whatever divine forces were watching.
Leave it to Dragonfly to kill my buzz with reality, “Or we missed him.”
“If he’d woken her, wouldn’t there be earthquakes, fires, plagues of locusts and frogs, that sort of thing?”
Dragonfly grunted, not appreciably improving my mood. I stood up, futilely slapping the gathered dust off my trousers, “Nothing to do but check on her bones. Come on, wizard. And before you even begin to protest, I don’t care how much that dead bitch scares you, you’re coming.”
He snapped his mouth shut and glowered unhappily, but got his unspoken wish anyways — as quickly as I’d risen, I dropped back to the ground, dragging him with me and hissing for silence. Someone was coming, the light visible and moving across the savannah towards us steadily, walking up over the hill, and then the harsh yellow flame of a torch blocking my view of their face.
Dragonfly was experienced enough to turn his face away without prompting, not wanting his eyes to catch the light and draw attention and concern. Maybe a dozen other figures joined the torch-bearer and I swore under my breath, quietly but forcefully, because I could tell they weren’t the men the ‘sniffer would have brought. They were recruits, most of them recently joined, back in Cavah, most of them from Ossun’s squad.
Their voices carried.
“I told you we’d find it.”
One of the men leaned down and lifted up one of the skull-topped poles that had toppled over, waved it around before dropping it again, “You see any other hills around here with these welcome signs?”
Ossun’s voice reached me next as he came over the top of the hill, carrying another torch, “This is it. You, you, guard the perimeter. There and there. You, with me. The rest of you, eyes open. If it moves, kill it.” He and one of his men ducked down and slipped into the dark opening in the hillside, the orange glow making it look like a mouth leading down into hell.
Exactly what it was, if Ossun knew how to wake that dead wizard up, or thought he did.
“You never did tell me what happens if you bungle a wake,” I whispered to Dragonfly.
The animal glimmer had faded from his eyes, and he glanced back at me, unforthcoming, “We have to stop this, now.”
“We’re outnumbered, and this isn’t some Rieinsian romance where the dashing hero–that’s me–can defeat six armed men alone.”
“You’ve forgotten you have a wizard on your side,” Dragonfly answered smugly.
“And you’ve forgotten that boy perched right over the mouth-to-hell is carrying a loaded crossbow,” I pointed, “He’ll put a bolt between your eyes the minute you stand up and start chanting funny words. Unless you can hurl fire from your hands, or wriggle around on the ground to summon forces of darkness and sorcery, we’re not going anywhere.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“We need a distraction,” I looked at Dragonfly hopefully.
He grinned wickedly, “Come, it’s already taken care of.” He drew up into a crouch and slipped hurriedly away through the dry grasses, hunched over, heading away from the barrow and into the night-dark savannah. I followed, quiet and low, casting sparse glances over my shoulder, listening hard in order to follow the wizard in the pitch black.
“Hey, there’s something out there!” The call drifted through the night to us; someone had spotted us.
Now would have been a really good time for the ‘sniffer to show up with the cavalry. But what I got was a pack of hyenas. Dragonfly said later he had entranced them with the bizarre slinking dance that makes my head hurt just recalling it, which he had performed while we were trying to find our way back to the barrow — it had kept them from tearing our throats out, but he’d kept them ensorcelled “just in case” — and now set them to terrorize Ossun’s men by slinking around them in the darkness and laughing that wicked chuckle.
“Spooky,” Dragonfly’s disembodied voice sounded entirely pleased with itself.
It didn’t take long for the traitorous recruits to panic and flee into the night, torches held high. I wasn’t sure they’d ever find their way back to camp. In moments, I knew they wouldn’t, the torches fell, screams echoed–the hyenas had swarmed the first couple, now the rest of the panicked men stayed put.
“This is taking too damn long, Dragonfly! Ossun could be waking her right now,” I whispered, edgy as we stood next to each other in the tall grass and watched the chaos from a distance. A stray bolt from the kid over the barrow’s entry hissed through the grass nearby. I don’t know if he heard the noise of my voice, or saw the shadow of a stalking hyena. Or was just firing into the darkness in blind panic.
I was feeling a little too much like he was right now.
“This needs to go faster,” I snapped.
Dragonfly grunted. But that was apparently the extent of him ‘getting right on that’.
A couple of the hyenas rushed the hill and dragged one of the men into the darkness. His screams didn’t last. But they were shrill enough to bring Ossun and his man scrambling out of the barrow, swinging his sword from its sheath and shouting for explanations and order.
Another of the men was grabbed and his screams for help drained away into the night and the distance. I shuddered.
“I know you’re here, wizard,” Ossun shouted into the night, “Your shadows don’t scare me, captain, not when I’ve two feet of good, cold steel in my hands!”
I rolled my eyes and assumed Dragonfly was doing the same. Ossun was such a dick.
“Bees?” Dragonfly whispered.
He pressed his fingers against the ground and muttered arcane words, the sky flashed electric blue with an errant lightning bolt high above, and my wizard’s arms shook as if palsied. His growling chant was loud enough that the kid with the crossbow noticed and took aim at the noise. A terrible second longer and he would have been split by a wooden shaft, but then…bees.
They rose up, a black, buzzing, angry swarm out of the ground, out of the night, and the kid was too busy swatting them away to take the shot. In another moment, he had dropped the crossbow and ran heedless into the night along with most of the rest of the scattering men. Another moment, Ossun was screaming ineffectually for me to face him and slashing at the air to no good result, then he fled as well with a series of curses trailing from his lips.
Dragonfly dismissed the hyenas back into the night, to the unfortunate feasts they’d gained, and the swarming bees died away back into the night as if they’d never been. The hyenas weren’t spooky, that was spooky.
We approached the barrow, dusting ourselves off. “Two feet of cold steel doesn’t work so well against bees, huh?” I laughed and caught myself as it threatened to come out like a hysterical hyena cackle. Dragonfly maintained his dignity.
A couple of the traitors lay curled into terrified balls on the ground hands tucked tightly over their heads. I disarmed them, kicked them to rouse them and forced them to pile up heavy stones in the barrow’s entry. I didn’t go back in. Then we marched them back to camp at crossbow point, though I think it was the wizard that kept them from running. Always useful to have a wizard on your side. We met the ‘sniffer and a dozen long-timers on the way, who had run into and rounded up a few more of the traitors as they had fled. I wasn’t sure yet what to do with them. We didn’t find Ossun.
The next morning they found themselves penned up under the hot savannah sun and under guard. A couple pled for their lives, claiming Ossun had lied to them about orders. Others sat in disgruntled silence, a few with dark and unforgiving looks on their faces. Those would be trouble. But I didn’t have men to waste, and I’d already lost seven from Ossun’s ill-considered actions. Eight. Cricket was still missing.
I was sweating under the sun and pondering how I was going play this situation out when one of the sentries shouted.
Someone was coming…riding a lion.
It was Cricket.
The sentries gave him and his feline a wide berth.
“Where have you –”
“– I’m not stupid! Ossun’s a lout. Idiot. Transparent.”
“Well, you did a shit job of stopping him, if that’s what you meant in disappearing.”
“Bah!” His lion growled underneath him, and he patted its neck as if he wasn’t afraid it might eat his hand, “I wasn’t going to stop him.”
Flies gathered in my open mouth.
“Ossun. Too stupid to do a proper wake. Anyways. You know contracts. Contingency plan. So I followed him.”
One thing you know when you go raising is that contracts are effective because your wizard goes back to being dead if you kick off, so they’re very protective. He looked mighty pleased with himself as I guessed at his plan, but I decided to wipe the cocky smile off his face with the gaping hole in his contingency, “You were going to wait to kill him after he raised, and was protected by, as I’m given to understand it, something out of the Mournlord’s worst nightmares?”
This bothered him for a flickering moment. Or maybe it didn’t. It was hard to tell. “Eh,” he shrugged, non-chalant, “I’d been drinking. A bit.”
I wanted to strangle him.
“So where in the hells have you been, and what’s with..?” at a loss for words, I gestured at the tawny-maned lion that was sizing me up with its large, uncomfortably disapproving eyes.
“And..?” I waited. He waited. I raised my eyebrows and frowned. Not this shit again. “You find him?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Cricket grinned, cryptic and wizard-like.
“Shit. I am…just…out with it. What happened?”
“Let’s just say he was eaten by a lion,” he grinned evilly at the half-dozen men caged up under guard, and patted the large cat on its side. It growled. They all went pale under their sunburn. I swore that, for a second, when the lion cracked its jaws to snarl, I saw Ossun’s face, pale with horror–very much alive, very much trapped–in the dark recesses beyond its fanged teeth. Some trick Cricket had conjured up to make his point.
I had to admire how neatly that solved my problem with those men, despite on reflection being disturbed at how too neatly prescient of my needs the little display seemed. Wizards. Spooky.
I was able to declare “lesson learned”, demoted the survivors to the crappiest sorts of hauling supply and digging holes, had Cricket put fake “binding curses” on them to keep them in line–stuff about being eaten by razor-fanged ghosts if they deserted or got more than a mile from the edge of camp–and put it all out of my head.
Cricket sent the lion back on out to the savannah, all the while being primly reprimanded by Dragonfly for drunkenness, being a cowardly weasel, turning a lion into a man-eater lamia, and a half-dozen other crimes and offenses to sensibility and decorum. Cricket called him pointedly base names. All was right with the world.
Though Dragonfly never did answer my question about bungled wakes, I comforted myself knowing Ossun was dead and anything he might have wakened, even in accident, would go or be forced back to sleep. Speaking of which…
That damn savannah heat. I got some shut-eye before we continued north in the evening.
Copyright (c)2008-2009 Raven Daegmorgan