The bones slithered along the floor of the cavern, gathering together as they came towards the raised area where we were standing. By the time they reached the base, two arms had formed and began crawling up the rock.
The wind picked up, whistling and moaning eerily. Maurice and Claire were clinging to each other (any excuse) and everyone was cowering. As the only person standing by the edge, I saw what was coming, but I wasn’t really worried.
The bones were coming together to create a skeletal body, but the body was not particularly intimidating. Mainly because of its size.
The skeleton reached the top and climbed over the edge to stand in front of me. It had all the usual parts—head, arms, legs—but it was only as tall as Biadet. Maybe a touch shorter.
“So you’re an elf?” I asked him. I’m not an expert on anatomy, so I couldn’t tell you how an elf skeleton differed from a human’s, but it seemed to have the same basic parts and structure. Although not tall and willowy like Peter Jackson would have you believe. More like the ones who sneak into your house and do some cobbling while you sleep.
“I am Evand, last of the first.” His voice sounded a lot less intimidating rattling around his small, empty skull. “And yes, I am an elf.” He was an elf, so his name probably had fifteen apostrophes I’d missed out.
“Forgive us, mighty Ancestor!” The shaman threw himself on the ground, fully prostrated. Probably the best place for him. He didn’t seem to want anything other than to lie there, so I let him.
“And were all of you this, erm… height?”
“What has that go to do with anything?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m just a history buff. Like to know about the old days.”
“Wait,” said Maurice coming forward. He had a serious look on his face. “Tell me, Evand, last of the first, is it elfs or elves?”
“Elfs,” said Evand, like it was obvious.
“No, it isn’t,” wailed Maurice.
“He’s an elf,” I pointed out. “He should know.”
“He’s an imposter!” Maurice declared. Claire led him away, muttering.
“Where were we? Oh, yes the Queen.”
“Leave her out of this,” said Evand.
He seemed very keen to take the focus off her. Which only made me want to do the opposite. As much as I wanted the spires dealt with, my instincts still told me to force an abdication first.
“You’re the last, but she’s the second last, right? Why did she leave you down here on your own.”
“That’s none of your business.”
I knocked his head off.
“NO!” screamed Nicopez. “Forgive us, Ancestor.”
“Stop pissing about and tell me,” I insisted. Yes, I’m happy to bully anyone smaller than me.
“She only wanted to see what had become of the world while we slept,” said Evand’s head from the floor. His body bent down to reattach it. “It is a temporary excursion. Our role is to stay here and wait for the signal.”
“The signal for what?”
“The return of our people.”
“The Ancestors are returning?” said Nicopez, his voice trembling. “When?”
“Soon,” said Evand. “That is why the power of the spires must be preserved. If they are drained, we will all perish. You must prevent that happening.”
“First we deal with the Queen,” I said, sticking to my guns. At this point, it was just stubbornness. “Her holiday has turned into an extended vacation with a lot of unnecessary castrations, which really spoils the party mood. She needs to be down here to welcome the folks home.” I had no idea if the return of the elfs was a good thing, but I didn’t have time to worry about it right now.
The skeleton put its hands on its hips. Adorable. “The spires are in Fengarad. Why are you wasting time in Requbar? You must hurry to prevent a calamity beyond your comprehension. Worlds will collide.”
“Then show us the way out,” I shouted. Guy liked to argue way too much.
“Stop it,” said Flossie. “He’s only little.”
Jenny pulled Flossie back. She had been with the others all this time, rather than by my side where you might expect her to be. She hadn’t abandoned me (although, one day…), she was running crowd control to keep the plebs in check.
“How do we even stop the spires from being fired again?” I asked Evand.
Evand ignored me and focused on Biadet. Which is hard to do when you have no eyeballs in your sockets.
“This is not right. You have been augmented.” He moved towards her, and rather surprisingly, Biadet backed away, her composure failing for once. “This must be undone. It is a misappropriation of the power. It is not meant for one such as you.”
“Hey.” I didn’t like being ignored. He kept heading towards Biadet, clacking his bony feet. “Hey!” I slapped him on the back of the head, which I shouldn’t have done, but it was how I usually dealt with people like Nyx or Flossie (people who were smaller than me).
Evand’s head fell off his body and rolled along the ground. It got very quiet.
“Ah. Sorry.” I may be a heartless git, but I know when I’ve gone too far. Accidental decapitation is one of the things that can make me genuinely remorseful.
The head rolled back towards the body, which bent down and touched its neck to the base of the skull. Clicked back into place like a lego figure.
“This body is weak and unstable. I can’t hold it together for long. We need to stop the spires and I can give you the tools to do that, but we must hurry.”
He seemed far more concerned about the spires than my faux pas. Which probably meant the spires really were capable of even worse things that we’d seen so far.
“Did your people build the spires?” I asked him, but then something else occurred to me. “Are you responsible for bringing us to this world?”
The skeleton-elf looked guilty. Well, it looked like a bunch of bones with no facial expression of any kind, but still, kind of guilty.
“This is not the time for such discussions, a terrible fate—”
“This is the perfect time,” said Claire. Suddenly, everyone was coming closer, surrounding our little elf of doom.
Of course, now that I had done the hard work of getting the terrifying Ancestor down to a manageable fun-size level, everyone wanted to chip in.
“Can you all back off?” I snapped. “I’m trying to arrange a way out of here. Input from plebs is not required.”
“This affects all of us, mate,” said Sonny.
“Yeah, it does, but I’m the only one who gets anything done around here, so shut your cakehole, or no Vegemite for you.”
Sonny stepped forward, ready to teach me the error of my Pommie ways. He stopped in his tracks as Roland placed a heavy hand on his shoulder and pinched.
“Continue,” said Gabor, indicating the floor was mine. Even without his ability to see all the outcomes, he still knew which way to hedge his bets. Like I said, the man had common sense.
“Evand.” The skeleton looked up at me. “You built the spires?”
“Yes. My people built them to protect this world and keep it hidden.”
“Keep it hidden from what?”
“From those that would do it harm.”
I could tell he was going for enigmatic and mysterious. Throw in a prophecy and a maybe a great evil. Why couldn’t any of these great sages speak in bullet points?
“And did your people work out a way to bring us here from our world?”
“No,” said Evand. “You are here as a side effect. But if you help me, I can send you back.”
There was a hush, followed by flurry of excited muttering.
I took the offer with a pinch of salt. Easy to promise, even easier not to deliver.
“That’s great, but if we help you what do we get in return?”
The elf looked confused. Again, his head was a skull. The confusion was inferred.
“I just told you. I will send you back to your own world.”
“No, that’s what you’ll give us after we help you. Possibly. What will you give us before?” Mama didn’t raise no fools. Actually, Mama did hardly any raising of any kind, but I digress.
“What do you want?” he asked me.
“A sacrifice,” I replied.
“A sacrifice? Who?”
“The Queen. I want her off the throne of Requbar.”
The skeleton stamped its tiny foot in irritation. So cute. “That isn’t important now. We can deal with that later.”
“No. I’m tired of going from one psycho to the next. First we have to secure our position here, and we can’t do that with your girlfriend on the throne. And what is this?”
I held out the gem the Queen had given me. It immediately glowed bright orange.
“No, no, what are you doing with that?” He sounded appalled. “Are you trying to get us all killed?”
“Aren’t you already dead?” I asked him.
“Of course not. Do I look dead?” said the skeleton, waving his arms about like mobility proved life. Which I suppose it did.
I looked at the glowing gem. “This won’t get us into the spire?”
“It’ll get you inside, and that will be the end of us all. Come with me.” He hurried towards the tunnels, like a little kid looking for his parents in a crowd. Everyone got out of his way and then fell in behind me as we returned to the tomb.
The statue (not a life-sized depiction, clearly) was still balancing on top of the altar. The elf stopped to take in the mess, then went to the altar. He pressed the side and a panel opened. Which explained why the top wouldn’t come off.
Inside, there were more gems, of many different colours.
He held up a blue gem. “This one will get you inside. And this one will open the core.” He had a green one now. “Or was it the red one? No, no, definitely this one. And use this to recharge the core. It has to be at full charge, not used on frivolous things like….” He waved a bony hand at Biadet. “...that.” He had a handful of gems now. “Here, take them.”
“Can’t you come with us?” I said. “It would probably be easier if you were the one to use these, however they’re supposed to be used.”
“In this body?” His arm fell off. He picked it up and reattached it. “I can’t leave here, not unless one of you donate your body to me.” He looked around the room. Everyone suddenly had other business and looked away.
“I’ll do it,” said Nyx.
I slapped him around the head. It didn’t fall off, fortunately. “Don’t be so quick to try and save the world. He could be full of shit.” Technically speaking, it was clear he wasn’t full of anything, but my point stood. Although, I did appreciate the offer. Despite suspecting Nyx of only being here out of self-interest, he kept trying to convince me otherwise.
“First we need to deal with the Queen,” I said.
“No,” shouted Evand. “I keep telling you, she isn’t important.”
“And I keep telling you she is. Give me a way to neutralise her and I’ll bring her down here. You two can spend the rest of your lives or your deaths or whatever it is you call this, in sweet togetherness.”
“You will bring her to me?”
“I’ll personally dump her at your feet rolled up in a carpet.”
“Here.” He took a smaller gem from the altar, clear like a diamond. “You must give this to her. She has to eat it.”
I took the gem. It fit quite easily into the palm of my hand but it would be hard to slip it down her throat without noticing.”
“She must swallow it willingly,” he added. “But, in order to take it from this place, it must be carried inside you.”
I looked at it again. “I have to swallow it? Then how will she…” I realised it would have to pass through me before I could give it to her. Quite possibly it had already been through a number of people already. “I’m not eating this.”
The gem was snatched out of my hand. “I will do this for you,” said Nyx. He downed it in one. I could see the bulge go down his furry throat.
The skeleton collapsed into a pile of bones. Nyx collapsed at the same time. A moment later he got back to his feet.
“Not exactly what I had in mind,” said Evand’s voice from Nyx’s mouth. “But I suppose it will do.”