Book 1, Chapter 12: Skellingtons
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“Will you cut that out!”

Saskia glared at Ruhildi, who was making a pair of rib bones from last night’s meal walk across her legs like tottering chopsticks. She’d almost come to regret encouraging her dwarven friend to practice her magic. This was not a nice way to wake up. She still had nightmares from the first time it had happened.

“A fine morn to you too, grumpy guts.” Ruhildi released her magical hold over the bones, letting them scatter onto the floor.

“What time is it? Hold on, why am I asking you?” Saskia pulled up her spectral clock, then gave another groan. “Ugh, slept in again!” No wonder Ruhildi had given her the bony wakeup call.

“That you did, you big stone slug,” said Ruhildi. “The way you were rattling in your sleep, I feared you’d bring the roof down on our heads.”

“I may yet, if you wake me up like that again,” muttered Saskia.

“Och don’t be like that. A fine day beckons, if you don’t sleep it all away. Now up with you! Time for a nice dwarrow-cooked breakfast.”

Saskia watched in horrified fascination as an assemblage of femurs and fibulae walked a pan of sizzling meat from the cookfire to her bedside. Her stomach gurgled in response to the delicious smell, while at the same time quavering at the sight of the gruesome waiter.

“What the howl is this? Bacon and legs?” Saskia gave a half-choking snort at her own pun, which of course was completely lost on the dwarf.

Back on Earth, there were people who would pay good money to eat a meal served Ruhildi-style; the same kinds of people who went for those Japanese dancing squid bowls. The woman could start her own restaurant where dead animals served up pieces of themselves to diners.

She took the crispy meat gingerly in her claws, tasting it experimentally, before gobbling it down. “This is good!” she mumbled around a mouthful of…not quite bacon, but closer than she’d come with her own attempts at cooking. “Nice and salty. Wait…where’d you get the salt? We’re not by the sea…”

Ruhildi looked at the floor. “Secret recipe.”

Saskia stopped chewing, her imagination going into overdrive. Each image that sprang to mind was more pukeworthy than the last. Never ask how the sausage gets made, she silently told herself.

Still, she appreciated the gesture. Over the past few weeks, Ruhildi had taken on her share of the cooking, and then some.

Even better, the dwarf had turned out to be an uncanny craftswoman, putting Saskia’s feeble attempts at pottery-making and carpentry to shame by constructing a smithy complete with furnace and anvil. With it, she’d crafted a set of iron pots, pans and utensils, along with various other useful tools. Later, she’d forged an impressive weapon for Saskia: a massive hammer that only a troll could wield comfortably. Saskia had promptly named it Mjölnir. She’d helped the dwarf as best she could—mostly just doing the heavy lifting—but it was Ruhildi who could work miracles with iron.

As for how they’d mined the ore, and smelted and shaped it so quickly, Saskia had watched the dwarf turn stone to fine powder at the touch of a finger. It was a marvel to behold.

But today wasn’t a day for crafting. Today was a training day.

Hefting Mjölnir, Saskia followed Ruhildi out of the cave, blinking in the bright sunlight. The dwarf no longer needed her help getting down off the ledge. One of the first things she’d done was carve a set of stairs into the stone wall with her magic.

The thawing that marked the beginning of the season Ruhildi called highspring was already well underway. They followed a muddy path to the site of one of the crumbling stone ruins, beneath which countless old bones lay buried. Ruhildi climbed up onto a stone pillar, from where she surveyed the ruins like a queen atop her throne. Saskia gripped her weapon tightly, and waited for the necromancer to bring out her dead.

Whispers of magic filled Saskia’s ears, and the ground began to quaver. And then she saw them. Pools of expanding light appeared on the ground all around her, telegraphing spots where things were about to get dicey. One was directly beneath her feet. She stepped away from the glowing spot on the ground.

“Bollocks!” muttered Ruhildi.

Saskia chuckled. “Thought you were gonna get me there, huh?”

And then, in a shower of dirt and stones, they burst forth like groaning, mouldering clichés. Some of the emaciated forms were missing limbs or lower jaws. Some were covered in strips of leathery flesh and the tattered remnants of armour. Others were just naked bones held together by invisible magic duct tape, or whatever the stuff was that made them move without muscles and tendons.

They sure looked the part, but unlike many zombies and skeletons in popular culture, these ones didn’t actually dig their own way out of the ground. As Ruhildi had explained it, “The dead are too feeble to escape from all but the shallowest of graves without help. But never you worry about that. With a pinch of essence, I can part the ground betwixt us, clearing a path to the surface.”

The dwarf had been a stoneshaper before she became a necromancer, and she hadn’t lost her old magic. According to Ruhildi, they weren’t actually separate magics, but two aspects of the same power, which dealt with the manipulation of solid, non-living matter. The difference was that a necromancer could also control things that still remembered they were once alive, and harness those lingering echoes to shape her spells.

It didn’t escape Saskia’s notice that this was a very convenient synergy. A necromancer who didn’t also have mastery over soil and stone would have to dig her undead minions out of the ground with a shovel.

Saskia took a moment to examine the gathering dead. Most had the short and wide stature of dwarves, but there were a few taller, leaner ones that might be elves. Ruhildi had spoken of ages long past when dwarves had lived side by side with elves. Maybe these corpses were from that time. More likely though, they’d been on opposite sides of a battle, seeing as some of the skeletons held battered swords and shields.

She wouldn’t have thought such weapons could have survived being buried for so long. Why hadn’t they rusted away? Must have been made of something impervious to rust, or enchanted or something.

While she was contemplating how implausible this situation seemed, one of the unlikely swords was being swung at her legs (which were about all the skeletal dwarf swordsman could reach). Right, thought Saskia. Critique reality later. Fight now.

She took a hurried step back, and brought her hammer smashing awkwardly onto the corpse’s shoulder. Its sword arm and several rib bones fell to the ground, and the skeleton was left with noticeable kink in its spine.

“Should get that looked at, Mr Skellington,” she taunted.

Letting out a clattering groan—a miraculous feat for a heap of bones with no windpipe—the skeleton lunged forward and grabbed her knee with its one good arm. Or as good as mouldy old bones could hope to be.

Saskia prised the tenacious little blighter off and threw it at one of its companions. Both of them fell in a heap, tangled up in each others’ ribs.

“Oh get a room,” she said, watching out of the corner of her eye as the two skeletons flopped around on the grass, their every movement only serving to get them even more entangled.

She turned to face the other deaders, who had gathered in a loose semicircle around her. Ruhildi was clearly holding them back; something she hadn’t been able to do just a few days earlier. Nor had she been able to summon so many of them.

Something hard smacked into her chest, and rolled across the ground. Saskia stared in surprise. It was a skull, thrown by one of the tangled-up pair. This was followed by an arm and a foot, which she dodged, thanks to the trails of light that appeared in the air before her, giving her a moment’s early warning. The most intact of the two skeletons had given up trying to untangle itself, and was pulling apart its companion and hurling body parts at her.

“Hey, that’s cheating!” Saskia glared up at her friend, who was smirking down at her.

A shrivelled zombie came hopping forwards on one leg, swinging its other leg at her like a grotesque club.

Saskia sighed. This was gonna be a long day.

Later that morning, Saskia sat against a crumbling wall, nursing a deep gash in her leg, which was gushing copious amounts of blood with every heartbeat. After hours spent tussling with Ruhildi’s minions, one of them had gotten her with a lucky sword thrust. It must have hit an artery.

With one hand pressed against her leg to try and staunch the bleeding, Saskia fumbled for the bladder of blood-booster she kept with her for just such an occasion. Over the weeks, she’d improved her recipe, and it was now more potent than ever. She shouldn’t have to wait long…

If she were still human, she’d have bled out in a few minutes. As it was, she could already feel the flow slacken, as her hyperactive regenerative powers worked their magic.

Having sent her skeletons back into the earth, Ruhildi rushed to Saskia’s side.

“I think I’ll have to bow out of our training session for today,” muttered Saskia through clenched teeth, fighting the urge to tear at the wound with her claws. It itched like a thousand bee stings; a side effect of the accelerated healing.

Seeing the stricken look on Ruhildi’s face, Saskia reassured her, “Not your fault. I got careless. And no harm done. Well…a little harm, but nothing permanent. I heal fast, you know.”

“Aye, I can see that,” said Ruhildi, eyeing her quickly-congealing blood with horrified fascination. “I shouldn’t have sent three of my minions at you all at once though. That were beyond reckless.”

Saskia shook her head. “If anything, you should be pushing me harder. Real enemies won’t hold back. This practice may save my life someday. And yours. I can take a little short-term pain for long-term not being dead.”

“Unless, forefathers forbid, I slay you by mistake,” said Ruhildi.

Saskia laughed. “Not gonna happen. I’ve survived far worse than this. You shoulda seen what the greenhand and his pets did to me.”

Ruhildi gave a shiver and went still and silent, and Saskia immediately regretted opening her big mouth. Whatever tortures and depravities the slavemaster had inflicted upon the dwarf woman must have been far worse than anything Saskia had endured. If the innumerable scars that criss-crossed Ruhildi’s face and body weren’t evidence enough, there were the disturbing sounds she made in her sleep, and the moments like this, when her face went motionless as a corpse.

They sat wordlessly for a time, then Saskia gave a sigh and limped back to the cave, wincing as she moved her punctured leg.

Unable to do much while she waited for her leg to finish healing, Saskia decided it was time to check up on what her elves were doing.

After that brief, confusing chat with Dallim, the Neil Armstrong-quoting elf, she’d spent many an hour spying on her would-be killer, hoping she might have a repeat of that kind of encounter. Dallim had not only understood her English, but spoken it perfectly. And he said he wasn’t from Earth. She could think of only one other explanation. That young elf was an oracle.

To her great disappointment, the druid hadn’t run into him again. Nor had he met any other oracles—at least, none who could speak to her.

But she had gotten a glimpse through his eyes at the strange pool where she’d first awoken on this world. It was the same as she remembered it, but for two things. First, the strange tree in the centre of the clearing had withered noticeably since she’d seen it last. And second, the thing held in its brittle branches was no longer an old computer screen, but a leather-bound book.

She’d known that thing wasn’t really what it appeared to be the moment she touched it. This had just confirmed her suspicions. Different people saw different things when they looked upon the object. To Saskia, who had grown up looking at screens, the old monitor represented the same thing that a native of this world—or indeed, most people throughout Earth’s history—would find in a musty old book: knowledge, guidance, or perhaps just a break from reality.

The book had been written in a strange mishmash of languages; English words around the outer edges, and unfamiliar hieroglyphic symbols in the middle portion—Elvish, perhaps? It had seemed to Saskia as if the two languages were having a war across the pages, and English was winning. She had a horrible feeling this was all her fault, even though all she’d done was poke it lightly with a claw.

That thing was clearly what Ruhildi had called a worldseed, and it was what had made Saskia an oracle. It certainly didn’t look in a healthy state now. Ruhildi hadn’t said what would happen if a worldseed was damaged or destroyed. Nothing good, surely.

When she’d looked through the elf’s eyes the next day, he’d been wading through the swamp with that big friend of his, whom she’d taken to calling Groose, after the character from one of the Legend of Zelda games she’d played a lot as a teen. So running with the Zelda theme, the druid may as well be Link then. From that day on, something had changed between the two elves. Even though she couldn’t see Link’s face, she sometimes felt an anger simmering within him, directed at his companion. She’d watched them sparring, and there was a violence to their movements that had been missing earlier. Groose appeared to take it in his stride, but Link genuinely seemed out for blood.

Today when she touched the staff, she found Link and several other elves stepping through the woods, the undergrowth parting before them just as it had on the day he and his first companion had attacked her.

This magic wasn’t a constant wherever they went. At other times, she’d watched them bashing through the thick undergrowth; having no better time of it than she had. When she’d asked Ruhildi about the discrepancy, the woman had said something about greenways. The greenways were apparently some kind of localised phenomenon; druids couldn’t just magic the undergrowth away everywhere they went, as she’d initially assumed. The magic of the greenways also repelled non-elf sentients—those who weren’t being dragged by elven slavemasters.

At least that was how it was supposed to work. Luckily for Saskia, someone must have crocked up, because she’d been able to cross the greenway on her own. Or rather, with the help of her oracle powers. She’d never have even realised the thing was turning her away if it weren’t for her minimap.

Speaking of which, she’d discovered a few weeks back that her map also worked while she was watching from Link’s eyes, except it was centred on his location instead of hers. The map’s maximum range had expanded to about thirty or forty kilometres—enough to give her plenty of warning if the elves came too close.

Today, they weren’t exactly too close, and they weren’t heading in quite the right direction, but she was getting a little uncomfortable. She recognised the snow-covered slopes at the edge of the map. Somewhere up there was the pass that led to her valley.

Link had two of those monstrous cats at his side, as he usually did when he ventured out of town. She hadn’t seen him riding these ones; though huge compared to just about every species of feline on Earth, they were much smaller than the ones he and his archer companion had ridden when they fought her.

All of a sudden, the cats halted in their tracks, and their noses went low to the ground, picking up a scent. Hers? Saskia felt a prickle of dread, even though there was no reason to suspect any traces of her scent would remain after all this time. She didn’t stink that much.

The elves exchanged silent words for a moment before stepping through the undergrowth after the cats. Silent from her perspective, that is. Apart from that one time with the elven oracle, her link to…uh, Link remained visual only; she still couldn’t hear them speak.

They stalked through the undergrowth, weapons drawn, until they came upon a pair of massive boulders that leaned against each other.

Sitting in a hollow between the boulders was a troll.

Saskia drew in a sharp breath. She’d never seen another one of her kind before. This troll was male, but far from the muscular physique she’d imagined for the other half of her species, he looked…a little underwhelming. Clad in animal furs, he had a pot belly, a mane of moss green hair even more tangled and matted than hers, and a face that not even his mother could call handsome.

She noticed that the claws at the ends of his fingers and toes were much shorter and stubbier than her own. A few weeks back, Saskia had tried trimming her claws down to that size. It hadn’t gone well for her. Unlike human fingernails, her claws had nerves inside them, so she’d felt every slice. And within a couple of days, they’d grown back.

As the elves drew close, the troll leapt to his feet and bared pointed teeth at them. Stretching up to his full height, he was perhaps half a metre shorter than her, but he still towered over the elves.

Link placed his hands on each of the cats, stilling them. He said something to the other elves, who then simply stood to the side, waiting. The druid drew his vicious-looking polearm, and stepped towards the troll.

The brute let out a silent roar and charged, hefting a massive log one-handed like a club. Saskia felt more than a little intimidated, but Link stood his ground.

At the last moment, as the troll brought his club down in a blow that might have squished the elf to paste, Link dodged aside, slashing the back of the creature’s leg as he moved.

Wisps of smoke puffed into the air as the weapon left a dark cut across the troll’s tough hide. The big guy staggered onto his hands and knees, his face contorted in clear agony. Saskia had watched Link cooking food with the edge of that blade of his, but seeing what it could do to living flesh made her queasy. The troll wouldn’t be regenerating his wound any time soon. She shuddered, imagining it slicing into her own flesh.

The troll wasn’t finished yet though. As Link darted in, thrusting the tip of his blade towards the brute’s throat, a great arm lashed out, backhanding him. Saskia’s view tumbled as the elf fell backwards, rolling aside just in time to avoid another crushing blow with the log that left a great furrow in the muddy, leaf-strewn soil.

It became a slow battle of attrition; the elf slicing and stabbing the troll’s legs and arms and belly, and narrowly avoiding being crushed several more times.

Saskia found it hard to watch. Despite all the elf had done to her and wanted to do to her, she’d grown strangely attached to him after all these weeks watching through his eyes. It was more like the kind of attachment she had to characters on long-running television shows and games than those she had to close friends and family, but still, the thought of him dying made her shiver in fear. Nor did she want to see the troll die. As far as she knew, the elves had hunted him down for the unforgivable crime of breathing while troll.

But Saskia didn’t have any say in the matter. All she could do was watch as the brutal fight came to its inevitable conclusion. Only after troll’s movements grew feeble and sluggish did he try to limp away, and by then it was far too late. A deep slash across the backs of his legs cut to the bone, and sent him tumbling down. Another slice across the back of his neck ended his struggles for good. Link began to saw through the creature’s vertebrae, and Saskia released her grip on the staff, sickened.

Looking out of her own eyes once more, she registered the sight of Ruhildi’s face just centimetres away from her own. Saskia jerked her head back in shock. The dwarf did the same, nearly falling off the rock she was standing on.

“What are you…?”

Ruhildi looked abashed. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I were just fascinated, is all. Your eyes shine like lightglobes when you hold the keeper’s staff.”

“What, really?” Ruhildi had never mentioned it before. Maybe this was why the woman had started coming around to the idea that there really was such a thing as a troll oracle.

When Saskia told her companion what she’d witnessed today, Ruhildi said, “That’s the way of it, Sashki. The leaf-ears make a sport of hunting your kind.” After a long pause, she added, “To be true with you, the dwarrows are little different in that regard. Trows are fair tough, but that just makes you targets for any fool wishing to prove himself.”

“Frock,” breathed Saskia. She’d suspected as much.

If Link ran into another elven oracle who could speak to her, she could talk to them from a safe distance; perhaps find a way to convince the druid she wasn’t really his enemy, as she had with Ruhildi. Sadly, there hadn’t been time for that back then, and Dallim hadn’t been the most stable conversationalist.

The only other option would be to try to talk the elves down in person. There was a chance it might work. Of course, to do that, she needed to be fluent in their language.

Dallim had spoken a mix of English and Elvish. He’d understood her English, and she’d understood his Elvish. But as with Dwarvish, understanding Elvish was not the same as speaking it. She needed to hear enough words to build up a complete vocabulary first.

That evening, Saskia asked Ruhildi to speak in ‘the forest tongue,’ as she called it. Her friend was less than enthused about the idea, muttering, “I’d sooner cut out my own tongue than use it to utter the words of those bastards again.” What was up with this woman and self-mutilation? After Saskia explained that she might have need of it in the coming days, for both of their sakes, Ruhildi grudgingly relented.

To her surprise, the dwarf still sounded Scottish to Saskia, even when she was speaking Elvish. There were a few words in common with Dwarvish, but overall they were very different languages.

To her even greater surprise, it quickly became apparent that she didn’t need much help to speak Elvish. Either her magical translator app was getting better, or her earlier conversation with Dallim had kick-started it.

While they were at it, she also got Ruhildi to teach her how to write in Dwarvish, and show her the few fragments of Elvish writing the dwarf had picked up as a slave. Saskia’s translator had no more trouble with written languages than it did with spoken ones. Dwarvish writing used a large alphabet where some of the characters represented an entire syllable. Elvish words were written in what looked a bit like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. In both cases, she could effortlessly read the symbols Ruhildi scratched into clay, but writing any of them herself took a bit of practice.

Something intriguing happened over the next few days. Dwarvish symbols began to appear throughout her oracle interface, as she’d come to call it. The act of scratching out these symbols in the clay, it seemed, was all that was needed to convince her interface that words might actually come in handy sometimes.

Why not English? she wondered.

She hadn’t actually written anything more than her name in English since she came to this world, but there had been the English words Link had seen on the worldseed. And so many of the other interface elements had been pulled straight from her mind and memories. Maybe it just needed more external hints to coax it in the right direction?

Saskia began to write a diary of sorts, scratched into the stone of the cave wall. This was a novel experience for her. On Earth, she’d never kept a diary; just sketchbooks. As she wrote, she focussed on her desire for the interface to adapt and incorporate the new language. Sure enough, the Dwarvish symbols slowly shifted into English letters. It took a couple of days, but she was pretty happy with the result.

There were now proper distances and labels marked on her map. About dogram time!

Speaking of time, in addition to her clock, she now had access to something resembling a calendar, showing the passage of seasons. There were a lot more seasons than on Earth, because, like the drunken sun, temperatures wobbled all over the place throughout the year, from cold to scorching to medium to hot to freezing to medium to cold again. The extra seasons had names like lowspring, mildwinter and highfall; at least, that’s how they were translated in her interface.

Even better, she could bring up information about objects and creatures she inspected, showing her, for example if a plant was poisonous or an animal diseased. It was all just descriptive information; no statistics or health bars. She suspected her interface would never get too number-crunchy; partly because of her personal dislike of such things, and partly because this wasn’t really a game, and in this world, just as on Earth, something as complex as one’s health—or strength or dexterity or even intelligence—couldn’t be meaningfully distilled down to a single number.

Between language lessons and crafting sessions, Saskia kept up the training bouts with Ruhildi. Her friend’s skill with necromancy—or, as she called it, necrourgy—seemed to be improving day by day. At first she’d had little control over the dead she summoned, but now Saskia often felt like she was facing a disciplined army. And then sometimes they’d come out of left field with some crazy stunt, like the time they started hurling body parts at her.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Ruhildi though. Even as she gained control over her magic, she’d still lapse into near-catatonia at times, and the night terrors and sleepwalking incidents continued unabated. One night, Saskia awoke to the sight of her friend slumped by the fire, clutching at a horrific burn on the bottom of her foot. She’d sleepwalked right onto the hot coals.

“Holy crapoodle, Ruhildi, that looks bad.” Leaping out of bed, Saskia hurriedly filled a large bowl with cool water and set it at her friend’s feet. Murmuring her thanks, Ruhildi lowered her foot into the bowl. She stared off into the gloom, shivering. Letting out a breath, Saskia touched her lightly on the shoulder. “It’ll be okay, Ruhildi. I’ll go prepare another batch of my…”

She stopped mid-sentence, swaying as a wave of dizziness rolled over her. The cave receded from her sight, replaced once again with another scene. It was like seeing through the elf’s eyes, but…different. This time she wasn’t holding the druid’s staff, and she couldn’t feel her own body. She felt cold…so cold, and when her eyes drifted down, she saw that she was naked, and covered in cuts and bruises on top of a patchwork of old scars.

This was Ruhildi’s body, she realised, but not as the dwarf was now.

Cold chains bit into her wrists and ankles, binding her to an iron wheel that hung from the wall of a tiny blood-smeared stone room. She squirmed against it.

“Hold still, burrower,” said a robed elf with a reedy voice. He stood before her with a wand in one hand and a bloody knife in the other. There was a primal gleam in his blood-shot eyes. “It’ll go easier for you if you don’t move.”

He pressed the knife into her sternum, and she went suddenly still, feeling a slight sting as its tip drew a thin trail of blood.

Without warning, he thrust the knife deep, and twisted it. Almost, she blacked out from the shock. It was like Saskia’s own punctured artery times ten. A fountain of blood squirted out with every laboured heartbeat. But before she had time to bleed out, the tip of the elf’s wand gave off a pale glow, and the gushing flow suddenly slowed to a trickle.

The elf picked up a slender crystalline shard from a nearby bench top. It looked like the same material that tipped his wand, and the druid’s staff.

He pushed the crystal shard into the hole in her chest.