Katabasis story I part II

Twenty minutes prior, Paris had been enjoying the crisp morning air, walking the path with a spring in his step. His copper hair shone in the sunlight, though he knew he could do with a trim, or even just a brush. But a town was right around the corner. He spoke this aloud to Lulu, who nearly dragged herself beside him.

“We could have been in town last night,” she complained, her dark eyes regarding him critically, “if you weren’t such a scaredy-cat.”

“There are more skeles at night!” Paris argued. “Everyone knows that.”

“And a campfire only attracts them. Everyone knows that.” Lulu yawned broadly. Her violet robe was dusty, the pack on her back causing her to slump over. Paris had to admit she looked thoroughly exhausted. One of her sandal straps had broken yesterday, and Paris had attempted to fix it with a bit of vine, but the sandal still flopped and made her limp. “I would rather have walked in the dark and reached a bed than stood awake half the night keeping watch. And you woke me up twice when it was my turn to sleep!”

“I thought I had heard something,” Paris grumbled, kicking at a stone. “I said I was sorry. And think of how good you’ll sleep tonight. And think of lunch.”

“Oh, I am. I’m starving. Finally, something besides your horrible cooking.”

“You only say it’s horrible because–”

“Shh!” Lulu stood stock-still, weight locked onto one leg, her nose in the air.

Paris drew his sword. It was a hard-worked xiphos, strikes and dents in its blade, but reliable. It had served him well for years, even against skeletons. He stood as still as Lulu did, silently praying to whoever might be listening that it hadn’t been skeletons she had heard.

But then he heard a woman scream. Skeles or not, he had to answer that. He took off running in its direction, and though Lulu protested and yelled at him to stop, she followed.

He didn’t have to go far, but he was too late. He heard them before he saw them – wailing cries and maddening howls coming from their empty skulls.

And then he saw them, in the trees just off the path. And they heard him. They turned to look at him with empty black sockets, their bone fingers and yellowed teeth covered in the blood of the corpse they bent over.

He could have run, Lulu and him both. But the howling had come from two dog skeles. They turned to view him as well, their jaws dropping open to growl in a rancorous echo, as if their skulls were caverns, dripping blood and tissue they had torn from the woman Paris had failed to save.

The dogs ran at him, and he shoved Lulu behind him with one hand as he swung the sword with the other, striking one in the skull as it leapt. It flew apart, the jawbone from the head and the head from the spine, and the body tottered on its legs as if confused. The other dog seemed to view this and take note, and ducked out of reach of the sword as the other skeletons advanced.

Paris suppressed a scream.

It was bad enough that the skeles behind the dog constituted a mob, but on top of that, two of that mob had swords. Paris took out as many as he could, keeping his head by letting his training take over. The bones scattered to the ground as he struck skele after skele, until the dog found an opportunity to bite deep into his leg. Pain nearly overtook him, and he slashed at the dog too slowly – it dived out of reach again.

He was flagging, his breaths coming hard and his arms weakening, as if the bite in his leg had sapped his adrenaline.

“Get back,” Lulu shouted to him. “I’ll do something!”

“You can’t do anything!” he cried, swinging wildly. This was it. He always knew he would fall to a skele. Just not a whole horde of them.

“Paris! Behind us!”

He fended off another attack, then glanced over his shoulder. But it was only a crazy wild man, dressed in tatters and sporting a tangled beard and long tangled hair.

“Get out of here, man,” Paris gasped.

“Go!” Lulu shouted. “We’ll hold them off!”

But the wild man stepped around them, so that Paris nearly chopped his head off in his next swing.

“Don’t! Get back!”

The man didn’t listen. He reached out to a skele who was bringing an arm around. Paris couldn’t even do anything. The guy had a death wish.

But the skele stopped, its arm hanging in midair for a moment before it dropped to its side. As Paris fought off the others, the halted skele bowed its head to the man, who rested his hand on its skull. A moment passed that way, and then the bones of the skele fell to the ground in a pile.

Another skele nearly chomped down on Paris’s arm as he stared, confounded, at the man. Lulu had stepped back, her mouth hanging open just as Paris’s was. Neither of them had seen or heard of anything like this. Skeles had to be beaten and crushed to dust. They couldn’t just be subdued.

But the wild man went from skele to skele, placing his hand on each skull, and they each fell and didn’t rise. Even the dog sat in the dirt when the man got to it, its jaw lolling open, an otherworldly panting sounding from it.

The man didn’t look back to Paris and Lulu; he was fully engrossed in whatever he was doing. Paris and Lulu didn’t dare interrupt him, Paris battling around him until all the skeles were down. The man even knelt to the bones of the skeles Paris had knocked to the ground, and when he laid his hand on them, they ceased their rattling.

When he had seen to every one and prone bones lay all about him, he glanced almost suspiciously at Paris and Lulu before beginning to walk away.

“Hey!” Paris shouted, “you can’t just leave after that!”

The man’s shoulders hunched as if Paris had hit him. He turned to look at them, but didn’t stop moving, so that he was backing away. His hands were clasped in front of him, and stooped over like that, he looked like he really did expect a beating.

“You have to tell us how you did that!” Paris asserted, taking a step towards him. But his leg flared pain like fire and he gasped and fell to the ground.

The man stopped at that as Lulu knelt beside Paris. Paris gave him a pained grin. “See, man? I couldn’t hurt you even if I wanted to.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Lulu said. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. We owe you our lives.”

The man’s eyes may have widened, but it was hard to tell under the tangled mess of his hair.

“We’ll wrap up my leg,” Paris said, “and get to that town, and we’ll treat you to lunch, at the very least.”

The man’s eyes definitely widened at the mention of lunch. He certainly didn’t look like he enjoyed many hot meals, if any at all. He approached cautiously, as if Paris would jump up at any moment and attack him.

Lulu ripped fabric from her clothes before Paris could stop her, arguing that she could repair the dress. She wrapped it too tight though, so Paris had to stop her and rewrap it as she pouted. Paris regarded the mass of bones on the ground nervously. He still wasn’t entirely convinced they wouldn’t get back up, as skeles were wont to do.

“What’s your name, man?” he asked.

The man didn’t answer. He didn’t move.

“Don’t you speak?” Paris asked.

The man stayed silent.

“Wait a minute,” Lulu said, getting to her feet. She walked to the man, who shrank back before her even though she was a good two or three heads shorter than him. “Hold still.”

She lifted her nose, sniffing about him. She stopped at his neck, sniffing more intently. The man was frozen in either confusion or fear. “Oh!” she exclaimed, turning to Paris and pointing at the man as if just discovering him. “He has a spell on him!”

To be continued…

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