Ben’s sword cleaved the thick, putrid atmosphere of undeath around him as he was Compelled to attack the enemy Legion. His sword scraped along his opponent’s exposed ribcage before biting into empty air; the sound reminded him of sharpening the threshing blades before a harvest, him and his two sons working until the curved metal gleamed like the sun distilled.
“You know,” the Undead Skeletal warrior fighting alongside him said, “I don’t think the Necromancer controlling us is very good at this.”
His swung up, sword blocking a downward strike from the enemy, and his arm shook like it did when he hit a knot on a tree with his axe. He looked sideways at his ally. “Why do you say that?”
“It’s these ‘Control Undead’ runes,” the skeleton replied, looking down at his own ribcage as his arm lunged out, skewering an Undead goblin. The runes carved into the bone of his ribs looked somewhat like a horseshoe interlocking the outline of a porcupine. “They’re completely unrestricted.”
At that moment, Ben felt something dark and powerful smother his mind. His body, such as it was, went still.
“It’s just not very smart,” his ally continued. “Any Necromancer with an ounce of Will and half a Motive could grab onto these and-”
Ben’s sword arm twitched suddenly to the side, severing the head of the Skeletal who’d been talking to him.
Well that doesn’t bode well, Ben thought in bewilderment.
“YOU MAY BE ABLE TO CONTROL MY ACTIONS, BUT YOU’LL NEVER CONTROL MY LOVE!” screamed a Skeletal from across the body-strewn field.
“MY LOVE IS MY OWN, YOU SHRIVELED MEATSACK!”
That’s him, alright. Craziest villager I’ve ever met. Craziest friend I’ve ever had. “Hammy!” called Ben, somehow able to influence his body enough so that instead of simply cutting down warriors where he stood, he was able to cut his way towards Hammy. The defeated enemies fell and lay still like logs, or fell and twitched like a fish he’d just scooped from the river near his house, or fell and complained loudly like his youngest when he tripped over the small ledge by the entrance. He didn’t go to them and swing them into his arms, though, like he did with his youngest when he fell. He let them lie, and sometimes stabbed strategically to silence their complaints.
“Weren’t you just on our side?” asked a surprised Skeletal before Ben’s blade separated his arm from his torso. “Hey!”
He ignored the Skeletal and yelled for his deranged friend. “Hammy!”
“Ben!? Is that you??” Somehow, his voice was still recognizably Hammy.
Ben dropped into stance next to his formerly living friend, defending against the oncoming hordes of unfortunate Undead. Unfortunate in that they weren’t his old friend, and therefore would be cut down without resistance. “Long time no see, Ham.”
Hammy’s jaw did something that probably would have been a wide grin if he had a face. “What’s an upstanding guy like you doin’ inna place like this, Benny-boy?” The old nickname might have brought tears to his eyes if he’d had tear-ducts. Or eyes.
An arrow zipped past, taking two of Ben’s fingers with it. This was from his left hand, which had already lost a finger to his oldest son’s first attempt at splitting wood for the fireplace. He retrieved his dropped sword with his other hand, then shrugged. “Oh, you know. This and that.” It didn’t feel as nostalgic as he would have expected, meeting up with Hammy after going through the past few months. It was just nice to see a familiar face. Person. Being?
Hammy prepared to deflect the spear of an approaching enemy Skeletal, but instead stepped out of the way at the last moment – and nudged the spear into Ben. This didn’t bother him as much as he would have expected.
The spear skittered through Ben’s rib cage and kept going, giving him the opportunity to take off the head of the guy wielding it.
“Spears are maddeningly ineffective at this sorta thing. Also, seems like we’re enemies now,” Hammy said, stabbing at Ben’s neck.
“Eh,” said Ben, slapping the spear haft aside. “It happens. Just wai-wah!”
He jerked around suddenly, fighting next to Hammy again, facing the same army he’d originally been fighting. A handful of other Skeletals he’d been standing with a moment before had switched sides too, Compelled by the opposing Necromancer.
“This could get confusing,” Hammy remarked. “Oh well.” He raised his shortsword and charged off into the enemy hordes. “YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME UNDEAD!”
An unusually tall Skeletal appeared next to Ben, staring after Hammy. “Was that…Ham?” it whispered to itself.
Is that really… “Gerald?” Ben said, craning his neck to see the Skeletal’s face, not that there was any way he’d recognize a skull.
“Um, yes?” Gerald replied, clearly taken aback. “And you are?”
“It’s me, Ben!”
He gutted an Undead that resembled nothing so much as a pile of wet rags, then ducked to evade a flurry of arrows.
Something hunched and slimy took his already cripple hand, then the rest of the arm, before he could stab it enough times that it stopped moving.
“What are the chances!”
A rotting troll lumbered past, almost trampling him.
“Not very good!”
“And that was Hammy?”
“What’re you guys doing here!?”
He parried an enemy sword, then disarmed the Skeletal and kicked him in the ribs.
“I couldn’t possibly imagine!”
The fallen Skeletal pushed himself to his feet and gave a twitch, then rushed at another enemy Undead.
Gerald waved his sword. “That keeps happening! Don’t these Necromancers know how to keep control of their Undead?”
“You tell me!” Ben grunted, involuntarily tackling his friend into the wet ground. “Sorry,” he said as his sword’s hilt bounced off Gerald’s skull. “Sorry again!” This reminded him of the time the two of them had wrestled out back of the old schoolhouse when they were kids, long before Gerald had gotten married and moved away.
“This is so embarrassing,” Gerald replied, reaching up to grab ahold of Ben’s spine. Okay, this may have been slightly different than that time.
As he was being slowly lifted up by his friend, something knocked him violently into the air. He pinwheeled freely for a second or two before slamming back down and tumbling into a lone tree. “AH! I’m…not actually sure if that hurt.” Upside-down, he watched as the large Skeletal who’d sent him flying started talking to Gerald.
You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s definitely Tom. Nice greeting, you big lug. Can never say hello without putting some part of me in a splint.
By the time he made his way back over, both Gerald and Tom had been Compelled to switch sides.
“My apologies, Ben,” Tom greeted him.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” said Ben, rejoining the battle. “‘Twasn’t a thing.”
Despite the years that had passed since their last meeting, he didn’t feel the need to catch up or ask after Tom’s family. That’s just how it was with childhood friends, he supposed.
“Where’d Hammy get to?” asked Gerald, craning his neck over the crowded field.
A cry of “FOR LOOOOOOOVE!” broke the relative calm, and Hammy came crashing through the ranks towards them. A foot away and still running full speed, his battle cry was cut off with “-Ben? Tom? Gera-”
Then he hit.
They all went down in a tangle of bones, Ben somehow ending up with someone’s arm shoved through his mouth and around the back of his spinal cord.
“Get your foot outta my stomach!” shouted Hammy angrily.
“I can’t,” Tom said, tugging on it. “Your rib’s caught on my heel!”
“A’ uwuh ea’ eh’ e’ah ah ou’ uh ah o’!” said Ben urgently.
“What!?” said Gerald, whose head was stuck in the mud under Tom.
“He said ‘Can someone please get Gerald’s hand out of my throat,’” said Tom, finally tugging his foot free and leveraging himself to his feet.
Gerald lifted his mud-caked head to look at the location of his arm. “Oh. Yeah, sorry ‘bout that, Ben.” He extricated himself and joined Gerald in the upright position.
“Sheesh,” Hammy said, shaking his arms to get rid of some of the mud. “You’d think they’d realize by now that Skeletals are just not equipped to fight each other.”
“Hey, guys,” said Ben, looking around.
“Eh?” Tom turned to look at whatever it was he was seeing. “What’s happening?”
A short ways away a crowd was gathering. A crowd of Skeletals, Slimes, trolls, ogres, orcs, and more. All the Undead that had populated what had been a battlefield only moments before. They were making various aggressive noises, raising and lowering various appendages in the air, and sometimes stomping the ground with whatever constituted their feet.
Gerald clattered his teeth. “Not sure. Shall we shuffle up for a closer look? Doesn’t seem like we or anyone else are under any Compulsion at the moment.”
They all nodded in agreement, smiling frozen smiles of bone and teeth, and hiked around piles of…nonfunctioning…Undead until they reached the edge of the raucous crowd.
Tom stopped short. Gerald, the only other one of them tall enough to see over the heads and eyestalks of the creatures in front them, made a sound that probably would have been Hmm’ had he possessed such things as lips, but as it was sounded more like ‘Hhh.’ “Well,” he added on.
“What is it?” Ben asked, craning his neck, catching glimpses of a small clearing at the center of the crowd.
“That’s something you don’t see every day.”
He tried climbing up Tom’s back, but couldn’t get enough traction against the smooth bone. “What is?”
“Definitely not how a battle of this type is supposed to go.”
“Will one of you just tell us-”
“Oof, that one looked like it hurt.”
“What a neophyte,” said Gerald.
“Ha!” said Tom. “Nice one.”
“Oh for Baltok’s sake.” Ben gripped the underside of his skull and yanked it upwards. With a skitter and a pop, it detached from his neck. He pulled his arm back and chucked the thing up into the air above them.
Dizziness immediately overwhelmed his senses as his head spun and spun, but he caught a few glimpses of what was happening. His skull smacked into the ground beside him and he stumbled, momentarily disoriented, before grabbing it and replacing it on his body. “Amateurs,” he chuckled hollowly, shaking his head to dispel the last of the dizziness.
“Who, us?” asked Hammy, crossing his arms. “I am not taking off my head, no siree, not a chance of that.”
“Not you, them,” said Ben.
“The Necromancers,” Gerald added.
“Oh, so now you’re being helpful?”
“What’s goin’ on, eh?” said Hammy loudly.
“The two Necromancers, deadliest of the dark sorcerers…are having a brawl,” Ben answered, almost laughing.
“Not much of a brawl,” Tom said. “Doesn’t look like either of them have any idea what they’re doing.”
“What do we do now?”
“First, I’m getting this badly drawn portrait of my mother off of me,” said Ben, grabbing an unclaimed sword and scraping off the Compulsion rune from the bone of his ribcage. “Then I’m going to find out if the fall from the top of Bloodwater Gorge is actually half an hour long, or if that’s just a myth.”
The others stared at him.
“What? Might as well do something I could never do when I was alive. Take advantage of our peculiar situation and all. What’re you planning on doing? You’re Skeletals. You can’t go back to the village, if it’s even still there. All our wives and kids are probably deader than the deadest doornail. And if they aren’t, so what? Wouldn’t take us back.”
“He’s right,” said Gerald finally, surveying the bloodless carnage surrounding them. The bone-churned earth, stripped of all things green and living. “We’d be called the work of demons by the living, hunted rather than accepted. Exactly what we would have done to Skeletals before we became ones.” He turned to Ben. “Alright, I’m with you. Bloodwater Gorge it is. Then maybe we can see what really goes on in the Twilight Valley.”
“Chasing superstitions and myths across the world, eh?” said Tom. “I like the sound of that. No family to go back to, anyway, as you said. Count me in.”
They turned to the last member of their bony crew. “Hammy?” prompted Gerald. “What about you?”
Hammy was staring off into the distance, somewhere beyond the purpling horizon that lay like an endless bruise across the landscape. “Me? I must search. I must search for love. For without love, what am I?”
“Undead?” offered Tom.
“A skeleton,” said Ben, “that doesn’t need to eat, sleep, or breathe?”
“Peculiarly obsessed with something I’m not sure you actually understand even a little bit?” guessed Gerald.
“Nothing!” Hammy corrected them. “I am nothing without love! They took my life, my flesh, and my beating heart. But they will never take my love!”
Tom scratched his sun-bleached skull. “So you’re going to wander the world endlessly searching for ‘love’.”
“Yes!” answered Hammy enthusiastically. “Well, not right away.”
Hammy turned back toward the crowd. “First, I have to kill me some Necromancers.”
“I’m not sure that’s the best-” began Ben, but Hammy was already charging into the mass of yelling Undead.
The three of them shared resigned glances.
“Well,” said Gerald. “Shall we?”
“Nothing better to do,” said Tom. “And I’ve always wanted to see the Bloodwaters myself.”
“Being a Skeletal without a master does allow quite a degree of freedom,” Ben said, trying to smile and realizing he already was. They all were, all the time. They couldn’t stop if they wanted to. “In some ways more than others.”
The three of them turned away from the pitiful Necromancer brawl, and the cheering Undead watching it, and headed off into the horizon to meet the quickly approaching night.
“Hey, Ben, I think I found your arm,” Gerald said, handing him what did seem to be an arm, though he couldn’t be sure it was his.
“Much obliged.” Ben had felt like he was missing something, and happily wedged the collection of bones back into its socket. The feeling didn’t go away.
“We don’t really need to stop for rest, do we,” said Tom. “We can just keep walking until we get there. Halfway across the continent. Nothing to worry about.”
“Convenient, that,” said Ben, trying to ignore the strange feeling that there was a hole deep inside him that could never be filled. He laughed, and kept laughing. He walked, and kept walking. He smiled, and kept smiling.
What else could he do?