Officially, there was no reason to stop them. The North East Colony had a very simple treaty with the Wastes – a mutual recognition, the potential for trade – but that did not make it any easier to convince a town full of people worried about the undead in the forest to the west to welcome a bunch of undead from a place two oceans away into their home.
“You can’t expect people to just sit back and let these… abominations walk their streets? Those things are walking nightmares. The people are scared enough as it is.”
Mayor Harlaw sighed and rubbed his eyes. “You know how many patrollers have gone missing out in the forest?”
“Not off the top of my head, no,” replied Harrick.
“Twenty. That’s a third of our defense forces. Most of the best rangers are gone. Do you know Clive Rickard?”
“Maybe. Think I met him once or twice.”
“Well, he’s one of the few rangers to come back. Had some disturbing news. Says the Thanatos Trees are growing. Worse – he went to Giladra’s cabin and found her sliced up, the whole place ransacked.”
“You won’t see me shedding any tears,” said Harrick.
“No, but it’s concerning. The point, Max, is that things are getting pretty dire. I’ve been looking through the histories, and it doesn’t check out. The Icelord’s MO was always scattered raids. No disappearances, just quick attacks, a village massacred here or there, unless they were beaten back, and then nothing for a few years.”
“Like Altonin. I don’t see a change in the pattern. Just took him a really long time to start up the raids again.”
“It’s possible. I won’t deny that, but the rest of it… What about the boats filled with draugar?”
Harrick took a sip of coffee. “What about them?”
“Nothing in the books about anything like that.”
“Maybe the old guy’s finally changing up the tactics. He’s waited for us to lower our defenses, now he wants to take us down once and for all.”
The Mayor shook his head. “And lose his supply of bodies? The Icelord always made sure to leave enough people to repopulate. He had a perfect system, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it thanks to those Thanatos Trees. We just had to dig in and fight them off as best we could.”
“So he’s changing up his game.”
Mayor Harlaw got up to look out the window. Outside, a great, four-legged skeletal construct with two horse skulls walked, escorted by a team of enforcers. The construct appeared to be conversing with them, gesturing with two arms attached below the heads. One could not fault the Bone King for a lack of creativity. Tension ran through the Mayor’s face, as he frowned at the morbid sight. “We need their help. I don’t like it. I know they make you uncomfortable, because they sure as hell make me uncomfortable, but that’s the sad fact. The Icelord has living agents.”
Harrick sighed. “Which, again, is nothing new. These things’ beloved Bone King was one such agent back when he was alive.”
“You think they’re here to help him?”
“I didn’t say that. As I understand it, there’s quite a bit of bad blood between the Icelord and the Bone King. Or at least there would be, if either had any blood. That doesn’t exactly make the Bone King our ally though. For all we know, they just want our corpses for themselves.”
The Mayor closed the window shades. He sat at his desk. He looked even more tired than Harrick felt. Max Harrick had known Ted Harlaw for over forty years. Harlaw’s once-dark beard was now almost entirely white, with only a hair here and there clinging to its pigment. The recent events had hit him hard. Harrick hadn’t realized the Mayor was capable of showing such care in his face. “At least one of our people is a traitor.”
Harrick shook his head. “You don’t know that.”
“No, I don’t, but it’s more likely than not. We’re the biggest town north of Port Sang. If the Icelord’s stooge is anywhere, it’s probably right here in Port O’James.”
“What do you want me to do?” asked Harrick.
“You’re head of Enforcement. Do your job. Find this piece of shit and get everything you can out of him. But by Ashtor, be discreet about it. These skeletons are bad enough, the last thing we need is a witch-hunt.”
Harrick stepped out into the cold. The snow was picking up again. Normally it didn’t come down when it was this cold, but nothing was acting as it was supposed to these days.
In fairness, the skeletons… bone constructs… whatever they were supposed to be called weren’t really crowding the streets. Ranger-Captain Lisenrush, head of Port O’James’ militia, was talking with that Mraxinar one about the patrollers who’d gone missing. Other than Mr. Horse-head, he had only seen two guards posted outside the Black Ship they’d come in. The guards were simple, human-looking skeletons, though either because of the armor or some strange aspect of the Bone King’s methods, they seemed bulky, the bones far thicker and larger than a human skeleton had any right to be.
It was a hell of a gamble that Mayor Harlaw was taking. It was hard to trust people who didn’t have muscles to twitch or eyes to dart.
They must be damned good at bluffing in Marker. If they play Marker, that is.
Harrick’s next shift didn’t start for an hour and a half, so he decided to nip down to the Unnamed Shack – his favorite dockside eatery. He’d have a nice lunch of lobster or crab, maybe with a bit of mashed potato, and a hot mug of coffee. His mouth began to water at the thought, and he picked up his pace.
He was just putting his hand on the door handle when the loud CRACK stopped him. The sound was followed by a thunderous BOOM, and the air itself seemed to shudder at the sound.
Harrick looked wistfully into the restaurant, even as the diners stood up to look out the window toward the dock. Harrick groaned in frustration, reluctantly turning to look down at the docks and confirm his suspicions.
The Black Ship was completely wrecked, blown wide open. An enormous cloud of pitch-black smoke poured out of it, darkening the sky. One of the guards who had been at the dock was crawling away from it using only the thing’s arms, as the explosion had taken out everything below the ribcage.
Harrick looked wistfully once more into the restaurant. Couldn’t have let me have one square meal, could they?
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)