When Rufus found the old torch bracket on the wall and lit the torch in there they’d all reacted. Angelica had stepped backwards with a hissing intake of breath, and had stepped heavily on Rufus’s instep. He’d shouted, then tried to stifle it as quickly as possible. Darwin had twitched, accidentally loosing the arrow he’d had nocked in his bow for the last twenty minutes, and it disappeared in the gloom and clattered against something solid. And Missy, who’d been using hereditary infra-vision to check for hot-spots in the darkness ahead, groaned softly as the sudden heat-source wiped her vision out completely and blinded her for several seconds. Which was why, when the first animated skeleton loomed from the darkness, its bony feet scratching against the floor like rats running around and a cloud of bone dust puffing out from a jaw bone that flapped as it moved, she had no clue and didn’t move at all.
The skeleton reached for her, an amber glow at its bone-hinges holding it in a roughly human shape and letting it act as it had when it was alive. The ends of its finger-bones glinted suddenly and then steel blades slid out, stopping after three inches, a mere two inches from Missy’s face. Its skull spun abruptly round through a full circle and deep in its eye sockets the amber glow seemed to intensify as though it had found a purpose.
“Do something!” yelled Darwin. He had dropped his bow and was wrestling with the strap on his scabbard, trying to get a dagger free. The quiver on his shoulder was rattling as the arrows in there were bounced around by the panicked ferocity of his actions. “She can’t see!”
“It’s hardly a cause for panic,” said Missy calmly. “It’ll come back in a few minutes, if we can just wait here a little I’ll be fine again. I wish you’d warned me, Rufus.”
She turned her head to face the wall, thinking that Rufus was in that direction, and the skeleton’s blade fingers sliced through the air where her cheek had been a moment earlier. It took a step closer so that she was now completely in range.
Rufus, his fingers shaking, pulled a range of brass amulets out from around his neck where he wore them each on a separate leather thong. There were about thirty, hopeless tied together and tangled with one another, and tried to sort through them.
“Do you think it’s Christian?” he said, turning over a dirty coin with a picture of a benevolent long-haired man holding his hands out on it.
“Lethal, I should think!” yelled Darwin. “Why you don’t ask it?”
Angelica finally moved, lowering her hand from her mouth. She stepped forward, raising her shield arm and pulled Missy away from the skeleton and in towards her. Missy stumbled, having had no warning, and fell against Angelica, but the difference in size – Missy was fragile and elfin, while Angelica was more muscular than a barbarian warrior fresh out of the mountain battle-camps – meant that Angelica barely noticed. The skeleton’s fingers rasped across the surface of a the shield, a beaten thin metal plate bound to a cured animal hide stretched over a wooden frame. Angelica made sure that Missy had her footing back, and then body-checked the skeleton. The shield slammed into it with Angelica’s full weight behind it, and it went over backwards, clattering to the floor. The dull amber glow was the only thing she could see in the gloom, but the fact that it was persisting told her that the skeleton hadn’t been inactivated yet.
“Nice one!” yelled Darwin finally pulling his dagger free. He bit his lip and sliced down his left fore-arm with it, raising a thin line of blood. The blood seemed to run away from his arm, away from gravity, and onto the blade of the dagger which glistened oilily, darker than before. There was something hypnotic about the blade now, and Darwin closed his eyes to make looking away from it easier.
There was a rattling, scrabbling sound like hundreds of rats.
“What’s going on?” Missy sounded uncertain now, and she was feeling around her for a wall or something solid to grab. “What’s that noise? Why did you grab me?”
“Skeleton,” said Rufus, still sorting through his amulets. Somewhere in the pile he was sure he was seeing a flicker of blue-white light. “Angie’s got it though,”
“I’ve knocked it over,” said Angelica. “It’s getting back up.”
“Oh,” said Missy. “Oh, well give me a moment, if I can just get my vision back….”
“I don’t think we have a moment,” said Angelica. She took a half-step back, bracing herself. The skeleton lumbered into the torchlit circle again. It swung at her with its blade fingers, which she easily blocked with her shield, and then she realised that its other hand was now swinging in from the other side and was carrying a morning star, a spiked ball on a chain attached to a wooden handle. She cursed and ducked, forcing her shield down and forward to stop the skeleton from freeing its first arm before she had time to recover.
“OK, I think I’ve got one,” said Rufus. “I think it must have Za’atavin in life.” He tugged at an amulet over which tiny blue-white sparks were crawling and its thong simply tightened the knot. “Damnit!”
There was a sudden movement and the skeleton halted. The morning star, still swinging under momentum, bounced off the back of the shield, doing no damage. Missy looked up, just in time to see the amber glow fade away and the bones blew apart with a soft, quiet bang like a paper-bag being popped. Pieces of bone the size of finger bones rained down on all four of them.
“Got it,” said Darwin appearing just behind where the skeleton had been standing. The dagger in his hand seemed blacker than the darkness behind them. “All held together with magic.”
“Well yes,” said Missy, looking toward his voice but still blind. “It’s not like they get up and wander around without magic, is it?”