Insects buzzed like thick clouds in the air as we rode up to the grassy, yellowed hill. The white sun burned down upon us from the cloudless blue sky above. The heat was oppressive and dry.
A rocky, winding path led between the craggy hills of dry grass and dusty stone. We followed it around the side of another of the nondescript hills, this one courted by a large pile of broken stones resting upon its side…except our passage by revealed this hill wasn’t so nondescript after all.
We pulled up short at its base, a few paces back. The soldiers behind trotted to a stop, and called a halt back to their fellows, some of whom dropped where they stood to catch whatever weary rest they could before we moved out again.
Next to me, the kid leaned on his green walking staff, running his tongue over open lips and staring at the tall, unworked stones piled together. They were slanted like a precarious doorframe around a dark and earthy recess that looked as though it led into the hillside.
Cracked, yellowed skulls mounted on old wooden shafts stared emptily down at us from the hillside. Each was tied with tattered, faded ribbons and clutches of feathers, and most had remained remarkably upright over the years, though some lay fallen in the long grasses near the stone-framed crevice.
Once, they might have been frightening, but they had lost whatever residual power to terrify they once claimed, and now they just looked old and worn, the last of their life finally gone out of them. They had somehow become no more worrisome or curious than the stones and grasses.
“What do you think, junior?”
“Well, it’s definitely a wizard’s barrow,” the kid said after a moment, carelessly slapping some of the dust off his patched leggings, accumulated on our long journey across the plains. It puffed up white into the dry air.
“Real old one, like Era-of-the-Titans old,” he finished, though I had no idea how he could tell. I left that sort of knowledge to the wizard-sniffers. I don’t think I could sleep knowing the kinds of things they did.
“So, think we should try to wake him up?” I dropped the question casually, loudly, and glanced at the two wizards tagging along behind us, dressed in their ragged and dusty robes.
The sun glinted off the sweat on their balding brows, and I watched their pale blue eyes studying the barrow intently, apparently deaf to my question. I coughed and spoke a little more loudly.
“By the gods, maybe I ought to bury you two here and dig up a new wizard, eh? Maybe I’ll get lucky and find one that listens to me this time around.”
It was a good-natured threat. I didn’t really mean it, even though it was my prerogative as an employer — end the contract and bury the two of them. Still, I thought it was good to remind them of it on occasion, especially after the incident they’d caused up north with the gods. It had been months and I hadn’t let them forget.
I considered it more seriously for a moment — buried in the same tomb. It’d serve them right. Let them spend a few centuries decomposing in the same barrow together. Hah. It’d piss them off, and I’d be long dead by the time they were dug back up, safely beyond their reach…well, maybe.
But, wicked self-righteousness aside, it wouldn’t help me much.
Still, I pretended to give the matter some thought, “Nah. But another wizard might come in helpful.”
“Wizardess. It’s a female wizard,” Cricket corrected me, finally finding his voice. I noticed he and Dragonfly throwing one another a look I couldn’t read.
I frowned, “Just what I’d need, you two fighting over a — ”
” — Leave her buried where she is,” Dragonfly interrupted me, to my surprise. He was the polite one.
I wasn’t certain what to make of that. I didn’t think there was a whorehouse in the north Dragonfly hadn’t visited since I’d dug him up — despite his constant protestations about Cricket’s dirty and uncouth ways.
Of course, Cricket was dirty and uncouth.
“Yeah, leave her buried,” Cricket echoed.
The sun stopped in the sky and slapped me around for a moment as I tried to wrap my thinking around what I had just heard, “Let me get this straight, you two are agreeing on something? And without an argument or threats of violence? And neither of you horny old corpses are interested in digging up a little wizardly pleasure?”
They both just stared at me, unsmiling.
“Oh, no, don’t you two try any of that wizardly trickery on me. Eyes down.”
Truth was, I wasn’t afraid of wizardry, but those damn eyes of theirs were just creepy — especially both pairs turned on me at once. Of course, they couldn’t do a damn thing to me. I was their employer, I literally held their lives in my hand by contract. So I was immune to their magic.
They turned their gazes back to the hillside and the black gap between the slanting stones. “Leave her in there,” Dragonfly repeated.
I stared, hard, “You two care to tell me why? Because I could use another wizard.” Like I could use a hernia…though I really could use another wizard. But it was likely the hernia I was getting.
They remained silent.
I glanced at the kid, he licked his dry lips again, reading whatever signs he could read in the hillside barrow, and then shrugged at me when he noticed my questioning glance.
I could see this was going to be like pulling teeth. Wizards don’t like to give up their secrets, even to their employers. It was one of the little reasons I wanted to bury them both. “You two look spooked, so out with it. Who’s buried in there?”
“Evil”, Cricket offered, and Dragonfly nodded in agreement.
The sun stopped again.
I went in anyways.
The interior of the hill was remarkably cool, and thick with the smell of earth and dirt. But somehow the cool air wasn’t a relief; the heat outside felt as though it were squeezing the place, trying to get in, reminding me of its presence and seeming to negate any comfort I’d found with its suggestion of intrusion.
I decided it was just too damn hot. Maybe I could get my wizards to shoot down the sun for a while, though that would probably piss off the gods. Screw them, they weren’t tramping around in this heat.
After a moment, Dragonfly followed me in. I could hear Cricket bitching and moaning at the entrance, but his voice drew no closer. The kid told him to shutup, and they started arguing about some arcane point that only mattered to wizards and ‘sniffers.
I wish I understood what the hell the argument was about. I’d found things that only mattered to wizards often ended up being important when dealing with wizardry, or at least to staying alive when dealing with wizards.
I could see little in the daylight that filtered in from the entry. The barrow itself was low and round, with earthen walls and a low slab of rough stone in the center. I almost had to duck to avoid hitting my head against the ceiling. As I began to step in closer for a better look, a wicked, dark green light flared up behind the rough slab casting weird black shadows that made me uncomfortable just to step over. You couldn’t have paid me to step into them.
Dragonfly waved his hand and the wicked light went out, replaced by a dull, yellow glow that was much more comforting, regardless of its arcane source.
A skeletal form, close to turning to dust, lay upon the low slab of stone before me. Its barren arms were crossed over its chest and it was clad in ruined finery that had turned to wispy gauze upon the bones. The skull seemed as empty of life and danger as those surrounding the barrow outside.
The wizardess’ body was more like an artifact than a malevolent reminder of death.
“Spooky,” I whispered over my shoulder to Dragonfly, remembering when I’d raised and bound him back to the wheel of life. He had been a grim skeleton with dried flesh still wrapped over his bones, his dark robes maintaining some of their living strength.
“Captain,” Dragonfly cautioned, “I beg you not to do this.”
“Fine, then you open up and tell me what’s the problem.” It wasn’t a question. I wasn’t asking.
“Think about it, Captain, have you ever met a female wizard?”
I parted my lips to tell him exactly how stupid that question was, then snapped my mouth shut as the realization dawned on me. I never had. I had heard of them, of witches and enchantresses and such, in fables and tales, but I’d never actually, personally met one.
“There’s a good reason for that,” Dragonfly whispered, then turned and fled the barrow as quickly as his dignity allowed.
Wizards could be jealous. They didn’t like sharing their employers, they liked being special, being kings of their own little worlds. This might just be elaborate trickery to get me to back down. Dragonfly had never been happy I’d raised Cricket, and I didn’t begin to understand how the Mournlord kept a veritable army of them around. Even so, I’d never seen Cricket in such staunch agreement with Dragonfly — he’d even once suggested I string him up when Dragonfly had suggested the opposite, just to spite his counterpart.
I pursed my lips and studied the skeleton on the slab, noted the slant of the ivory cheekbones, the dark, empty, sightless sockets, and something invisible crawled up my spine. The skull suddenly seemed malevolent and evil, and though the sockets were not directed towards me, it felt as though it was looking through my soul.
I fled the barrow on Dragonfly’s heels and set the army back on the march. The troops gave a wide berth to the hill and we didn’t record its location in the company journals.