“Oh Dark, you wouldn’t believe it. I haven’t seen him swing a shovel like that since we’d first met.” Darkos’s mom tossed his dad an appreciative look. “Used to be a fisher you know.”
“Rak, please.” Dad’s face was tinged red. “My job was to bury any of the scarlfish we accidentally scooped up. Things let out nasty gasses if allowed to spoil, you know.”
Darkos grinned as he accompanied his parents through the halls. Gene’s lips managed to form the polar opposite shapes of Darkos. It was as if the man had somehow managed to arrange even his teeth in an upside-down U. Darkos wouldn’t be surprised if, underneath his skin, Gene’s skeleton wore a permanent frown. Maybe working with bones so much did that to you.
“It was really something,” Mom said as she flung open the doors to the kitchen. “It was—oh my lord.” She came to a dead stop as the four filed into the kitchen, and piled into her stock still body. “What is that?”
At first, Darkos thought ‘that’ was a sculpture towering ten feet tall and decorated with intricate drawings of people, most of whom he recognized. Then he inhaled deeply the scent of chocolate and cream and mint and peach and orange and apricot and vanilla and caramel and lemon and coffee and cinnamon and garlic and realized it was, in fact, nothing less than the most confused wedding cake he’d ever encountered.
He hadn’t ever actually encountered a wedding cake before but this had to be abnormal. And judging by Mom’s reaction—who had most certainly been to a wedding unless she and Dad were lying about that too—it was definitely out of the ordinary.
“Thought Carlosi was supposed to bring this to the banquet hall.” Gene glowered at it. “Tacky thing.”
As beautifully sculpted as it was, it was a bit tacky. But Darkos wasn’t here to judge Jane on her tastes in cake. The cake would just have to go to the end of the line of things Darkos was here to judge Jane about. And before he could tackle any of that, he had to tackle the real mission at hand.
“Okay,” Darkos said, cracking his fingers. “Let’s work on this peanut weapon.” He gingerly pulled the small package of nuts from his pocket. “This is what Geela gave us.”
Twelve peanuts, six walnuts, some sad amount of crushed almonds, a cashew, and fourteen unsalted, unroasted pistachios.
“I’ve never seen such a sad collection,” Mom said, rolling her sleeves up. “Arth, I need you prepping a cilantro salsa. The cold one with peppers. I hope the dratted woman has cilantro in here somewhere. Then get a pot of water boiling.”
Darkos’s stomach growled as Dad jumped to work. “This isn’t actually Geela’s castle,” he said as he watched his parents jump to work. “It’s Terha’s. Who is, actually, a dratted woman now that I think of it. And now that I think of it, I actually have no idea what happened to her.” As he spoke, the air filled with the zesty scent of lime.
“You do know that you’re preparing a weapon, right?” Gene’s voice was an ominous growl. “A weapon that, ostensibly, is going to be more powerful than the dozens of skeletons I just armed our enemy with while rescuing you two.”
Mom waved him off. “Oh pipe down. If you want to be helpful, start grinding some pepper. I’m making a sauce that helps extract the oils out. Old family recipe. I’ve changed it a bit cause my mother, Gods rest her soul, always prioritized the tang and added lemon with the lime, which is wonderful if you like things bitter—and it seems like I might be in the presence of someone who does—but because of how watery it gets, it dilutes the peanut flavor. Now I’m going to tweak it just a hair more because I’ve got some ideas as to how we can really send this home.”
By the end of this half-admonishment, half-recipe-tip, Darkos expected to find Gene’s brow dip to Adronious the Vast levels of fury. To his surprise, however, Gene seemed to unclench a bit.
“I’ll take your word for it. Black pepper, right?”
“If you would. Dark, I need you here. Soak the pistachios but don’t throw out the water. We need to conserve it.” Mom clucked to herself as she pulled out a cutting board of her own and a large cleaver. “Can you imagine, old Noire being allergic to nuts. Good thing you didn’t get that from it. Heavens knows we’d have pulled you out from its clutches only to poison you with my own cooking.”
Darkos couldn’t fight a laugh. “Oh man, Mom, just wait til you hear how Void Fiends actually pass on corruption.”
The next ten minutes passed cheerily as Mom, Dad, and Darkos prepped their oil extraction process, Darkos all the while telling them about his journeys in the Void Realm. Then Morris scrambled in and told Darkos he was supposed to help actually create the weapon. Mom put him to work in a heartbeat, and the following ten minutes passed with Morris and Darkos swapping off stories of their time at sea.
“Before that, of course, we were in the Celestial City,” Darkos said, rolling out a thin sheet of pastry, which Morris adorned with metal shavings. “Turns out it wasn’t Eve Elle after all who told you about Sunnyville. Or it was, but she heard it from her daughter Nefaria, who was one of Noire’s kids.”
“I feel like such a doofus, not telling you,” Dad said as he stirred a cauldron of thickening cilantro-and-arsenic paste. “You could’ve handled it.”
Darkos waved this off. “I’m glad you didn’t. It all worked out perfectly how it went. When I found out, I didn’t even panic. I was able to keep it together and even helped Geela use some legal jargon to trick her old Blood Witch into helping us.”
“She didn’t trick Berta,” Gene said, voice tight. “She negotiated. Berta’s not stupid. That’s why she and Geela worked so well together.”
“Wait wait wait.” Darkos’s mother’s voice silenced even Gene’s adamant correction. “Are you telling me that… no, there’s no way. Could it be?” She was quiet for just long enough for Gene to try to cut in, before speaking again. “The timing does fit. But there’s no way Geela was responsible for the blood cult at the academy. That’s what drove me away from it in the first place! If I learn it was that witch’s fault all along…”
Darkos and Gene exchanged shifty glances, for once in non-verbal agreement that this wasn’t the path to continue. It’s not like anyone was actually going to do any blood magic here anyway.
“No,” Darkos said, feeling immediately guilty at the lie and turning away fast. He shoved a small scrap of pre-metal pastry in his mouth. “Not that. It was, uh, actually—”
Suddenly he gagged on the dough, and for a moment he thought he’d messed up and was currently eating some weird alchemical pastry and was going to die. But then he recognized the flavor as that of rotting flesh.
He spat it out quickly before turning to Gene, eyes watering but otherwise completely composed.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” the bald man asked, but before Darkos could answer, the pendant around Gene’s neck glowed a sickly green. Gene was still for a moment, before cupping it and whispering words into it that made Darkos shudder. After another long minute, during which the entire kitchen fell silent, Gene looked up, face white. “It’s happened. Noire’s wrested full control of the skeletons. Amy’s counted at least sixty-two before losing track. They’ve broken out of the cell and will be making it up within the next few minutes.”
The next few minutes was definitely not going to be enough time to prepare for a skeleton surprise. Honestly, even if they did finish the weapon, they wouldn’t be able to appropriately disperse it. They needed backup.
“We need backup,” Darkos said, frantically returning to his dough rolling. “Numbers. Lots of people. Geela. Something.”
Gene nodded and raced to the door before Darkos could say another word. He had good instinct and quick reflexes. Either that or he was desperate to get out of the kitchen with Darkos and his parents. This thought made Darkos’s vigorous rolling slow a bit. Why did everyone seem to dislike his parents? They were good people, smart, funny, hardworking. They were the whole package.
Darkos was snapped from his malaise by a laugh, and he looked up to see Morris showing Dad how to stir the peanut oil properly into the cauldron. Mom was stifling a laugh at the goofy posture Dad had to hold, and while Morris kept telling her ‘don’t make him laugh! This is serious!’ But the wiry pirate had a grin on his face too.
Maybe it was just certain people in Geela’s circle. Darkos made a mental note to introduce his parents to Sal and Jane if they managed to all survive this.
“Darkos,” Morris said, catching his eye. “You have the crust ready? Your mother’s a real wizard with these nuts. We have so much more oil than we have any right to.”
Mom grinned unashamedly. “I did study alchemy at the academy after all.”
Darkos made a second mental note to never tell Geela this and hurried over with the pastry top.
“Okay,” Morris said, taking it from Darkos carefully. “As soon as Arthius finishes with the stirring, I’m going to rest this on top. We’re going to need someone to beat it every eight seconds while someone else performs a chant and wafts the almond powder over it.” His eyes darted between Darkos, Mom, and Dad. “Maybe we should have the alchemists do that, and you two can guard the entrance.”
Mom nodded. “Works for me. You’ll be good, Arth?”
Dad nodded. “The tea you make for my blood pressure’s really been helping. And getting cardio in ten minutes a day really does work wonders for the heart you know. If you would—”
“Over my dead body.” Mom gripped the big ladle off the table. “I don’t jog.”
A crash sounded down the hallway just as Darkos handed off the pastry to Morris.
“Good guys or bad guys?” Dad asked.
“Uh.” Morris’ forehead beaded with sweat as he tried to both answer the question and put the dough down over the cauldron. “Unless Gene’s backup came equipped with xylophones, I’m gonna say bad guys.”
As Morris spoke, Darkos too heard the clattering and clonking of bone against bone outside. He slammed the door shut hard, but not before seeing an army of purple glowing skeletons banging their rib bones like war drums, turn the corner at the end of the corridor.
“You don’t think Gene would have abandoned us, do you?” Darkos asked foolishly. As soon as he spoke, he cursed at himself. Why did he have to go and voice his doubts now?
“Oh Gods, would he?” Dad paused from looking through the kitchen utensils for the largest rolling pin. “No. We have the weapon. He wouldn’t.”
“I’m not altogether convinced he wasn’t one of those blood cultists,” Mom said. “Darkos, you would tell me, right? Do you know how nasty blood magic is?” Darkos didn’t answer as he began rummaging around for a weapon. “When I was at school, a neighborhood nearby got cursed by a terrible hemoplague.” Dad technically already had bludgeoning covered, but were any of these knives sharp enough for skulls? “Dozens succumbed to it.” How did you even kill a skeleton? “Town had to form a coalition.” Maybe he could duel wield a cleaver and a frying pan. “Took far too long to stop that nonsense.” Ooh, maybe if he heated up the frying pan. Skeletons had to have a weakness, right? “Hospitals and temples were full of the sick looking for healing.”
Skeletons totally had a weakness. And it wasn’t heat.
“Alright,” Darkos said. “I’ve got a plan for how to fight them.” He’d never offensively healed before but if healing and necromancy were diametrically opposed, then it had to do something.
“Darkos, were you even listening?”
He tossed his mom an abashed look. “Sorry, Mom. You’ll have to tell me later. I’ve got some corpses to heal.”
Outside, the rattling intensified. It almost sounded as though the skeletons were playing some ominous tune on their rib cages, banging away with a ferocity and rage Darkos hadn’t heard since the music teacher brought in glockenspiels to teach the children about scales. The skeletons could probably use that lesson right now, as Darkos wasn’t entirely sure it actually was a tune. There definitely was a pattern to it, though.
As he prepared a larger, mass heal—the kind he hadn’t performed since he was sixteen and doing a class project on dysentery—a bony hand punched through the door. Just, through the door, as if the door were made of some flimsy paper and not wood. Definitely not a good sign for the fight to come.
Darkos grabbed the hand as it flailed about and sent a soothing, healing balm through it. Outside the kitchens, he heard an outraged clatter as the bone underneath his fingers blistered and bleached.
“Cool!” He grinned back at Dad, who clutched a massive rolling pin, eyes fixed on the damaged handbone in Darkos’s grasp. “Alright, Dad. Thwack it.”
Dad thwacked reasonably well, given the three foot rolling pin, and the hand split away from the arm with a crack. The jaw of the skeleton owning the hand clacked in rage, and the arm bone disappeared back behind the door.
Darkos went to give Dad a high five, when the hand on the ground suddenly leapt to its fingers and began to scuttle about menacingly. A sinking feeling spread in Darkos’s stomach. It wasn’t that the hand itself was particularly scary as it hopped about, occasionally snapping but finding it hard to actually do anything when it needed at least three fingers to run on. After a few seconds of watching it jig about, Dad popped a bucket over it. Still, the feeling stayed in Darkos’s stomach as his eyes turned back to the door. If every bone split from its base became animated on its own, then surely it would be impossible to kill them without the peanut weapon.
“How’s that coming along?” Darkos asked as another hand popped through the hole in the door.
“It’s coming!” Mom shouted back. “Don’t try and rush us, Darkos. It’s rude and besides, you can’t rush magic.”
It sounded like something Geela would say, so Darkos didn’t ask again. If it had been almost done, Mom would have said ‘almost done!’
“The only thing is,” he said, after gripping the hand and burning it enough that the owner retracted it, “the skeletons can’t be killed by just destroying them. The bones come back alive.” As soon as the hand disappeared, Darkos planted his palm on the door and blasted out a mass heal. A shriek went up at this, and when Darkos peered through the hole, he saw they’d cringed away, throwing themselves to the floor.
“Did you kill them?” Dad asked.
Darkos shook his head. “Something is keeping them alive, and I don’t taste a ton ton of dead stuff, so I’m going to assume void magic, not necromancy is behind it. This is Noire’s work.”
“Taste dead stuff?”
Darkos waved off the question as, outside, the skeletons began to twitch. “When you’re done with the potion, how do we use it?”
“My recommendation?” Mom swung her ladle at a bubble forming in the pastry over the cauldron. “When it’s done, dip your weapons in. The serum won’t last forever, but it’ll be the easiest way to deliver it to the monsters.”
“Good call,” Dad said. “The goons won’t know what hit ‘em!” With this, Dad swung his rolling pin down on a foot that was weakly attempting to sneak in the door. It snapped off, and Dad scrambled after it with another bucket.
“Okay.” Darkos moved back to the door, where the skeletons were roused now and starting up their banging. This time, the banging was even more synchronized. “So when that’s done, we dip our weapons and start swinging. We need to make it up to the hall where all the reinforcements are. I’m willing to bet even if Gene does make it back down here, he won’t be taking the bulk of the group with him. Geela needs most of them to protect her. We’ll need to bring the peanut potion to her as soon as—”
While he’d been speaking, the rattling had morphed to one single beat, and as soon as the beats fully lined up, the skeletons crashed forward in one massive surge and blasted down the door.
“Damnit!” Darkos leapt backwards. He began throwing whatever he could at the skeletons as they attempted to flood through. Fortunately for Darkos and the rest of the living, they tripped over each other and briefly clogged the doorway. Unfortunately, the pile-up would probably only last a few moments, and Darkos didn’t have another heal ready. He’d put way too much into that first one.
“Almost done over there?” Dad asked, clutching his weapon as if ready to chuck it into the pot at a moment’s notice.
“Give us just another moment!” Mom said, jerking her head at Morris, who was moving his hands about all mystically over the pastry crust, sweat pouring down his face. “Just be another minute or two.”
But the skeletons were almost on their feet by now and would clear the kitchen in seconds. It wasn’t the forty-two Amy had promised. It was less than half that, which meant Gene was almost certainly running into opposition. Still, even what remained was more than what Darkos and his dad could handle.
Darkos looked over at Dad, who had, in a stroke of genius, managed to collapse the largest thing in the room on top of the skeletons.
Jane’s wedding cake tumbled with the force of several hundred pounds of sugar, flour, and frosting. The skeletons were flattened by it, coated in strawberry preserves, caramel sauce, and chocolate icing. It was almost tragic to see such a questionable masterpiece become nothing more than a weapon, but it was better than seeing people become more skeletons, so Darkos tempered his sadness. Surely there would be cake later.
“Sure wish we had some marzipan,” Dad said. “Would be real useful here.”
“Marzipan is awful.” Darkos stuck out his tongue to illustrate the point.
“Made of almonds, kiddo. We could’ve taken out the lot of them.”
Marzipan was made of almonds? Huh. Really do learn something every day.
“And we’re done!” Morris’s voice cracked immediately upon shouting the words, but he pumped a fist in the air triumphantly all the same. “Come over, quick, put your weapons in!”
As Dad ran over with his rolling pin and Mom pulled out her shovel, Darkos looked around the kitchen, eyes combing for the closest cleaver.
“On your hip, dear,” Mom said, as she helped Morris peel back the crust.
Darkos looked at his hip, expecting to find a cleaver and instead finding his sword. His sword! He yanked it out of its sheath, grinning ear to ear. Oh how he’d missed having a weapon. An actual, physical weapon.
“Skeletons are getting up!” Morris said, voice creaking again. “I don’t have a weapon. Oh sheep, we’re doomed.”
“We stand a chance,” Darkos said, eyes tracing the skeletons as they cautiously got to their feet, helping each other up so as to not cause any more slip ups. Not good that they were working together so well.
“Maybe you’ll be fine,” Mom said. “I’m dressed to impress. Not dressed for combat.” She wasn’t wrong. The dress she wore was actually quite nice and fit well a woman who thought she was attending her son’s wedding. But unlike Darkos, who was outfitted in a limber set of armor provided by Geela, Mom, Dad, and Morris would be easily overwhelmed, even with enchanted weapons.
Then a roar of voices from the hall overwhelmed the sounds of bones, and Darkos’s hopes soared. A few seconds later, a host of armed pirates swarmed into the room, slipping over cake refuse and crashing over skeletons, sliding all over the place. Razor sharp weapons waved about, inches from each pirates’ head as they frantically tried to avoid killing anyone in the quagmire of limbs and bones and cake.
“Alright,” Darkos said, not wasting any more time. He plunged his sword in the spicy, savory, nutty smelling mix. “Someone grab the pot.”
Morris pulled it off its hinge. “I’m right behind you. You folks,” he said, turning to Darkos’s parents, “stay safe. Oi!”
A couple pirates looked up from the growing pile of bodies.
“Hey it’s Morris!” one said. “Creepy old blood mage necromancer wasn’t lying after all!”
As if summoned by his… well, not his name but this unflattering description, Gene entered the room, sidestepping the disaster. “I told you all a dozen times. I have no reason to lie to you. That thing done?” he asked, addressing Darkos.
“Yeah. Yeah hold up. Morris, ladle them out some.” Darkos grabbed a bucket from the ground. “We gotta bring it up to Geela but we stand a better chance if the pirates engage this group.”
Morris dumped a ladleful into the bucket. Immediately, a high pitched whistling whine emitted from it, and Morris, Gene, and Darkos looked in to find the hand that Dad had trapped earlier withering away inside.
“It works!” Morris said, sounding way too relieved at what Darkos assumed was a certainty. “Oh thank Geela.”
Darkos cringed a bit. That was a little weird. “Okay. Okay! So, it works. We’re leaving you some.” Morris began ladling more into the bucket. “All you have to do is dip your blades in, and it’ll wound them. We need to bring the rest of the potion up to the main forces.”
“Good call,” Gene said. “They’re dead without it. We haven’t seen the fiend itself but the skeletons alone will be a problem unless we arm everyone.”
Darkos nodded and turned to the door. There was still a path around the pile to escape through, but their time was growing short as the pile began transforming from a confused dazed heap to an angry meat grinder.
“Gene,” Darkos said. “Look after my parents, okay? I don’t want them slowing us down so I’m leaving them with you.”
Gene sighed. “Geela said I gotta keep ‘em alive, so may as well dump them with me I suppose.”
“Good.” Darkos turned towards the door, sword dripping with peanut oil. “Let’s do this.”