Chapter Thirty-Nine: Dead Can Dance
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
The light gradually increased as Shoel and Hemlock moved on, the far off walls lit by torches that did next to nothing to the enchanted darkness that surrounded them. As they drew closer to the Dead, the light continued to grow, until they could finally see more than where they were putting their own feet-- for the mud had slowly grown shallower until they were walking on rough paving stones. Both of them still dripped with the slime, but at least they didn't have to fight it to walk, and Shoel even managed to clean off the rest of her bells, each in its turn when nothing seemed likely to fly out of the shadows at them. She didn't know if her bandolier would ever recover, though, and her mind kept flitting away from plans and fears and the nearly overwhelming sense of Death, onto how she would repair it or create a new one.
As the view grew to be something more than Hemlock, the ground, the whisps, and shadows, though, her thoughts came sharply into focus. There were squat stone buildings and tents, but what drew her attention with a pang of her Death sense was an ominous-looking dark alter in the center of the constructs. All around moved shadowy figures of various Dead, shuffling about as they did their jobs, either unaware of the intruders in their midst or uncaring. It was, simply put, the most dismal, Death-infested place Shoel had ever encountered.
"What now?" Hemlock asked in a hoarse whisper, glaring as an Dead creature shuffled past not ten feet away. He growled low and wordless, a sound more dragonic than human despite the form he wore, looking about them and running a hand over his mud-caked hair.
"We keep going," she answered grimly, shifting Kibeth in her hand by its bell; she didn't dare hold it by the handle for fear it ring of its own accord or in a simple accident. "We keep going until we're noticed or we find the one we came for. He isn't far; he rather stands out."
In fact, he stood out so much that she had to wonder just how powerful he was. She ran her thumb over Belgaer's chill metal, taking comfort from the trust she had in it.
At the sound of voices a small host of the Dead had gathered, forming a half-circle in front of them. They stood very still, sniffing at the air in an almost doglike fashion. Upon looking at them Shoel could see why they hadn't responded immediately to the strangers' presence: they had no eyes, just empty eye sockets. She'd seen that before, and was not surprised. With the mud on the two they couldn't be scented, and their armor was so caked with the same that it was virtually silent. It was their speech that had given them away.
"Well, we've been noticed," she said softly, looking at them and trying to determine whether to ring on them, or wait until Galarin showed himself. They weren't being dangerous yet, and from the state they were in, she didn't think they could move fast enough to charge them without giving her plenty of time to sound a bell.
It turned out she was wrong. At the sound of Shoel's whisper, and before Hemlock could answer, the small group of the gathered Dead surged forward with unnatural cries. They were surprisingly fast, a lot faster than she had expected, propelled by the magic that supported their limbs. Before she could actually ring the bell, able only to flip both over and catch them with only a faint, useless jingle of sound, the monsters were on them, pulling at legs and arms with intent to pull the intruders to the ground.
Hemlock's sword flashed, separating one's head from its body, but the now headless corpse still kept pulling at him. For an instant she was shocked, for the head was the one thing the Dead she knew could not continue without, but a tug on Kibeth, spilling three dancing notes, spurred her into action. With all her armor, her height, and her bulk, she wrenched free into a twirl, raising Kibeth over her head and ringing it loudly as she went. There was a brief and morbidly amusing scene of the dead actually dancing before they were still, spirits freed and magic drained into nothing.
Shoel had managed to dance herself free, and it was only force of will that stilled her own feet and the laughing tune of Kibeth-- which seemed very amused, indeed, by the steps it had enforced-- but the Dead still clung to Hemlock, rotting fingers tight with sudden rigor mortis. The necromancer made a horrible face and proceeded to wrench them off one by one while Shoel caught her breath and flipped the bells over again to catch their clappers, one by one with the sound of cracking bones and dried flesh. "Too bad your bells don't create fire," the necromancer said dryly. "So next time you can just burn them off."
"That still works, here?" she managed, holding Kibeth to her chest. "With everything else--" She shook her head. "I'll remember that-- if I can call up a Charter flame fast enough."
"So now what?" Hemlock asked, waving a dried and partially rotten arm at Shoel. "Where are we headed?"
Taken by Kibeth's humor, she had to hide a smile behind her hand at the motion and what it was made with. Then, with the hand holding Belgaer, she pointed past the gruesome altar and towards the building behind it: sprawling and shadowy. "He's there. And he's expecting us."
"Yeah, I should have known. It all makes sense now," Hemlock grumbled, taking the lead as they headed towards the building. As they passed by the altar they could see blood caked on it-- a chilling sight, but not unexpected. "No patrols attacked us, only the weakest form of the undead waiting for us outside and inside this hellhole. We're walking into a trap."
"Perhaps," she answered, feeling oddly calm as she slipped Belgaer gently into its bindings, "but I think we still have a chance." She stopped just past the altar, catching his arm; she needed to tell him, before it was too late, so he would know what was happening when it happened. "Hemlock, I think I know how to defeat him. But I'm going to need to go into Death to do it; he's too powerful here."
"What?" the necromancer asked blankly. "What do you mean?"
This wasn't part of her type of necromancy that they had discussed, and she knew he'd never even heard of such a thing before he met her. "I can send my spirit to the River of Death," she said quickly, quietly, needing him to know, "where the spirits of the Dead and other creatures are if they haven't gone past the Ninth Gate. I'm going to need to do that once we find him, and it's going to look very strange to you. I'll go all over in ice, like I'm frozen, and I won't be able to see or hear or do anything in Life. I'll need you to protect me."
Hemlock's expression was unreadable, and he stood stiffly while he thought over what she'd said; she waited, letting him think, until he finally said, "Alright. I just hope that I can protect you." He didn't sound at all happy, and she supposed she couldn't blame him.
"I think you can," she answered. "And I think I have something to help you. Spirits?" She looked around at the cloud of Willowwhisps that still hovered around them. Not as many were clinging to them now, with so much mud in their way, but she didn't think they'd lost any, not even to the sound of Kibeth, though she'd honestly expected a small exodus of them at that point. "I have a favor to ask you."
"They're all here," Hemlock said, seeing the look on her face. "And they're willing to listen to your proposal." He sighed at that, moving a hand to try to rub some of the muck off him while she spoke.
Shoel nodded. "I have a way to protect us, at least somewhat, inside there, but I need your help. I don't think it will endanger you, but it will require that I control you to some extent. I didn't want to do anything without your permission. Are any of you willing to help us?"
"Well, they're not absolutely happy about the idea," Hemlock translated after listening to the whisperings of the glowing spirits. "They want to help us, though, so they will do it." He frowned, listening a little further. "They do ask, though, that you send them on after you're done with them."
"I promise; I was going to, anyway," she told them, and gently removed Mosrael from its bindings. "I need you inside the bells," she explained, holding out both Kibeth and Mosrael. "I know it's a tight fit; any of you which can't make it, just cling to the metal." With quivering movements that made their lights flicker, the whisps did as they were asked. They stuffed themselves inside the bells, filling the clappers with their ethereal light and lining the handles and lips. Hemlock looked curious, tilting his head to one side as he watched the proceedings. Smiling, somehow liking the sight of the glowing bells, Shoel said, "Thank you."
Then, carefully holding both bells in one hand-- it wouldn't have been possible with the bigger bells, but Kibeth and Mosrael were small-- she turned to Hemlock. "One last thing, and we can finally get this done." Reaching up, she made to brush a few flakes of dirt from his forehead and hair from his face, revealing the still faintly visible marks for health and purity, and retrace them with light. "I don't know how much of the spell was used up keeping that bite from infecting... I hope this will be enough to keep you safe."
"Still wouldn't be a great loss," Hemlock muttered, but he stood still. As the marks flared, some of the dried mud flaked off in a cloud of dust. Shoel blinked.
"Well, that was a nice effect, though not expected," she commented. "Ready?"
"As ever, I suppose," Hemlock growled. "Lead on."
Taking a bell in each hand, by the handle as the tightly-packed whisps held the clappers oddly silent, she nodded and started purposefully up the stairs of the the dark building.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.