Saturday, 19 December 2015

The True Story of Christmas

O Chestmas Tree, O Chestmas Tree
How lovely are thy claspses

A few months ago, the excellent folk at Secret Weapon Miniatures ran a competition.

Secret Weapon have a range of battle boards that are probably the top of my plastic crack drool list. (Yes, that's a thing.) Modular terrain in plastic, a little over my price range to date, but you never know. One of these days, Alice, pow, bam, right to the moon.

So when I saw there was a chance to win some of their equally excellent modular 3D resin dungeon tiles, and that all I'd have to do was write a short story, I leapt at the chance!

Now, the result hasn't been announced at the time of writing this (Friday, 1100), but I did manage to get into the final three. I think this means I win something, although I'm not entirely sure what yet. As I wait with bated breath, I thought I'd share the story so far. This is unrelated to the fact that I haven't finished the next batch of models yet, thanks to my battered thumb.

The competition was simple - look at the diorama, read the first section of story and then stick together another 1500 words for the next part. Same for the tie-breaking final round, but I'll get to that once the results are out.


[Here's the original story beginning...]

“Through here,” Goldar grunted, putting a meaty shoulder into the heavy stone door, “he has to be.” Stale air blew hard and cold through the widening gap, dust prickling against the barbarian’s eyes. The darkness beyond the doorway was thick and inky. “Oswald! Torch!”

“Right, right, sir!” the party’s loyal manservant shuffled forward, surprisingly agile despite the titanic collection of bags, tools and equipment piled up on his person. The flickering oil flame in his outstretched lantern batted away the darkness; he and Goldar entered the enormous musty chamber.

“Anything yet, axman?” the dwarven warrior a few paces behind whispered in hush tones, but his armored form walked forward with all the grace of a copper kettle falling down a flight of stairs. Fulumbar Ironhand tapped his warhammer against the carved sunburst on the door, “Or just more dust and cobwebs?”

“Are you forgetting the beetles already?” Astrid thumbed one of the strings on her guitar absentmindedly. “It really is my favorite lines in my new ballad,” she cleared her throat and smiled. “On six and twenty legs they came, and with fear so deep the dwarf lay lame…”

“Watch your tongue, woman,” Fulumbar snapped back at her, “I wasn’t afraid. The creepier crawlies always are poisonous, they are!”

“So much for the legendary constitution of the children of the mountain,” Anirion’s elven accent harmonized the words, but his tone was clearly mocking.

“Button it up, folks!” Goldar growled loudly, shattering any semblance of stealth the team might have had, “I think we’ve got something here.”

The darkness of the large chamber through the door was defeated by the glow of Oswald’s lantern, revealing a long since passed massacre. Laid out haphazardly upon the sculpted floor amidst the carved skull grimaces and spanning twenty foot wide sunburst were more than a half-dozen heaps of bones that were once men or elves. At the far end of the hall sat a rune-covered sarcophagus, the lid askew ominously. Webbing clung to the corners of the walls, rivulets of dried wax fell like frozen tears down wall sconces, and the heady scent of old earthy incense filled everyone’s nostrils as the party filed into the room.

“No luck for these guys, eh?” Fulumbar clicked his tongue at the heaped skeletons, pointing at the nearest unfortunate soul. “Wonder if they have anything shiny on ‘em…”

“Wait!” Astrid chirped, reaching out and grabbed his shoulder. “Nobody touch anything!”

“What’s wrong with you, girl?” Goldar was used to her constant worrying, but this deep in the tomb city it was getting a touch annoying. 

“It could be a trap,” she pointed at the skeletons one by one. “They are all still whole. Still armed, even.”

“She is right, my friends,” the wood elven wizard made a gesture in the air, his wizardly staff flaring into the pale blue light of detection magic, “it is a trap… but not the one that killed them.”

“The trap that is them!” Oswald blurted out, his hand shaking fearfully. “The skeletons! Look!”

The ancient dead lifted to their feet like marionettes all rising on the same puppeteer’s strings, sickly green light filled their empty eye sockets. The clatter of their dry bones clacking together as they came to unlife echoed like twisted wind chimes, but it was the supernatural hissing of air up out of their lungless ribcages that truly chilled the room. Throats devoid of vocal chords screeched with savage intent just as limbs devoid of muscles lifted their weapons with deadly intent. 

“Spread out!” Goldar’s leadership had yet to run the group wrong before, so they heeded him when he bellowed. “They’re just bags of bones, nothing to be worried about at all!”

“Oh, really?” a nasal, droning voice slithered across the chamber as the long, spidery fingers belonging to its creator rose up from within the sarcophagus and grabbed the lid’s edge. With a steady shove the air filled with the grinding of stone on stone, after which a jet-robed warlock sat up and gave a wicked grin toward the heroes. He swung his legs out with preternatural grace to stand at his full height, eyes alight like evil jewels in his pale face. With the snap of the fingers, his right hand was filled with a sinister scythe. “You think you can stop the Forever Legion of the Dark Sun?”

“Legion?” Fulumbar scoffed, “this is hardly a legion, beardy. My mates and I have dealt with foes made of sterner stuff. Even Oswald could smash down one of you Dark Sunners!”

“I could?” the laboring helper questioned nervously, but then huffed with fake confidence, “I could!”

“Your villainy is done now, necromancer,” Goldar leveled his axe at the dark magician, “no matter how large your legion might be, we’re coming for you.”

“Yes, barbarian,” the warlock hissed, producing and unfurling a long scroll from the folds of his robes, “I am sure that you would. So let us test your theory, yes? Just how large were you thinking?”

“By the gods,” Anirion’s staff blossomed brighter as his sharp elven eyes picked out the sigils of the spell written on that scroll, “…no.”

“Akram duennthelol brackas…” the arcane words upon the vellum smoldered and burned away as he spoke them, but such fearsome imagery was nothing compared to what the incantation was doing to the room all around them. Enormous bones, debris and other detritus from the shadows of the room shook, rattled and vibrated across the stone floors, coming together behind him. Slowly the pieces shifted and assembled until they became a towering construct of bone, wood and metal – a titanic skeleton that had to stoop slightly not to bang its skull upon the tomb’s stone ceiling.

“Bloody hell,” Astrid gasped, saying aloud what her comrades were thinking.

The giant skeletal abomination’s eye sockets filled with balefire, its jawbone fell open and the air was split with its otherworldly keening wail.

“Shall we begin?” the warlock laughed, pointing the Legion of the Dark Suns into action.

[And here's my stab at the continuation!]

Goldar leapt over the open sarcophagus, axe already swinging for the warlock’s face. The conjurer merely snapped his fingers and vanished in an acrid cloud of pale dust, leaving the barbarian coughing and clutching his face. The warlock’s hollow laughter resounded through the chamber.

“Poison!” Goldar spluttered. “Oswald! Antidote!”

Even as Oswald tottered forwards, he found his path blocked. The first rank of skeletal warriors was closing in on Goldar, lambent fire smouldering in their eye sockets. A desiccated guard stood before Oswald, rusted mail rattling in its ribs and the splintered remains of a shattered spear in one bare-boned hand.

“Coming through!” Oswald heard at his shoulder, even as he recoiled in horror.

Crunch! Bone fragments span. Pivoting at the end of his blow, Fulumbar stepped past Oswald and swung into a second skeleton, breaking it like a bad egg.

“I’ve got these wee buggers,” the dwarf roared cheerfully.  “You get Goldar his medicine, Oz, I’ll cover the pair of you!”

“What do we do?” Astrid shouted. She had her rapier out, but her precious guitar was still in her other hand.

“Protect me,” Anirion informed her calmly at the same time as Fulumbar shouted “Get stuck in!”

“I wasn’t asking you two!” Astrid shouted back, panicking. “I was asking Goldar!”

The barbarian always led their charges. Astrid wasn’t going to take orders from the idiot dwarf, and the wizard was only thinking of himself as usual. More skeletons stalked towards her and she found herself concentrating on avoiding their notched scimitars.

Behind her, Anirion coolly started an incantation. He couldn’t see the Warlock in the gloomy chamber, but he had to be close. Taking him out would be the fastest way of dealing with his so-called legion. All Anirion needed was a few seconds of concentration to locate him.

Astrid backed into him, guitar jangling. “Look out!” she snapped.

“You look out,” Anirion snapped back angrily. “I had nearly…”

“No, look out!” the woman yelled, shoving him back towards the door they’d come in through. An arrow swished through the air where the two had been standing moments before.

Anirion realised there were more Forever Legionnaires than he’d thought. A second wave was firing from the corners of the vast chamber. Light from his staff picked out ancient quivers, as heavy with dust as they were with arrows.

Even though most of the skeletons were piling in on Fulumbar, a few were coming towards the doorway where Astrid and Anirion now stood. Her rapier wasn’t much good against the fleshless warriors.

“I hope you’ve got a trick to deal with that,” she panted to Anirion, pointing.

The elf followed her finger. Behind the front rank, the massive skeletal construct was shuffling slowly forwards. Its armoured shoulders and brow scraped the dirt of centuries from the roof. One almighty hand clutched the firing arm of a trebuchet as easily as child holds a stick.

Goldar was still incapacitated. Oswald knelt at his side, rummaging frantically in his oversize knapsack, a growing ring of bric-a-brac spreading on the broken flagstones around him. Pots, rope, the light-giving lantern, a string of deliciously spicy sausages, but no antidote. Fulumbar was standing over the pair protectively, wielding his hammer in deadly arcs so that skeletons broke round him like waves on a rock.

They were too close together. A single swipe from the big skeleton’s makeshift mace could finish all three of them, Astrid realised.

“You’ve got to move!” she shouted.

“When I’m good and ready,” Fulumbar retorted. “Gotcha!” and he pulverised another skeleton.
The giant skeleton’s lifeless face tilted to one side as it focussed. Bracing against the roof with one metre-thick arm, it began to bring its mace back for a swing.

“Anirion!” Astrid said. “Do something!”

“One moment,” the elf said, closing his eyes and murmuring to himself. Motes of light began swirling round him.

“There’s no time!” Astrid screamed, then realised the elf wasn’t listening. “Gods,” she cursed, and darted back into the room.

Immediately, the skeletons were all round her, jerkily chopping with their ruined weaponry or hissing eerily. She ducked and weaved through them, nimbly reaching the construct in a few fast moves.
“Hey!” she shouted up at it. “You! Lanky! Down here!”

The massive skeleton remained impassive, almost ready to unleash its killer blow. “Oh, bollocks,” Astrid swore, and smashed her guitar hard over the skeletal titan’s shin.

It broke with a melancholy twang. With a grinding noise, the big skeleton looked down. Astrid stared up into its blazing eye sockets, each big enough for her to crawl into.

“Well that got your attention,” she said. “Shit,” she added, as it swung for her.

The huge skeleton had no concern for its fellows. A pair of skeletal archers was dashed aside by the blow, as well as a score of warriors. Bones rattled off the walls and ceiling in all directions.
As the debris settled, there was no sign of Astrid.

Fulumbar gaped in horror. He’d never admit it to her, but he’d grown fond of the acid-tongued redhead. The monstrous skeleton’s blow had left a huge gap in the ranks of the Forever Legion. Had it left an even larger one in their small group?

Renewed coughing from the floor drew his attention back to their situation.

“Pfffah!” hacked Goldar. “That’s not antidote, you idiot, that’s cologne!”

Oswald squinted at two identical clay flasks in the flickering lantern light. “Cologne?” he said, confused. “I didn’t pack…”

“RrrraaAAAAGH!” Goldar screamed, spitting perfume.

In a flash, he was back on his feet, axe in hand and his face contorted in terrible rage as he sprang towards the skeletal giant. Fulumbar and Oswald stared at each other.

“What he said!” Fulumbar said, and laid into the nearest skeleton with vigour.

Goldar moved like a panther, almost faster than the eye could follow. Oswald watched in amazement as the barbarian effortlessly smashed aside the remaining warrior skeletons between him and the big one. His axe bit into the stone and bone of the giant’s ankle once, twice, then a third time before the monster could recover.

With a noise like a collapsing temple, the damaged leg broke apart. The giant skeleton toppled sideways, hand leaving claw marks in the ceiling as it tried to steady itself. One leg lashed out backwards, knocking the rest of the archers to pieces. The other kicked out reflexively, somehow catching Fulumbar in the side. With a noise like a bell falling out of a steeple, the armoured dwarf was flicked against a wall before falling to the ground, flailing like a beetle on its back.

Goldar stood in front of the creature’s face, huffing with exertion. He put a foot on its jaw and kicked its head up, ready to smash through the neck.

“Bravo, my savage berserker! You’ve brought my champion down to your level at last. You and your comrades will make an excellent addition to our armies.”

The thin laughter of the Warlock echoed round the room as he stepped out of the shadows. Extending one gaunt hand, he cupped his withered fingers into a claw before clenching it shut.
Goldar grunted in alarm as bands of dark force materialised round him. He couldn’t move!
“Defiler!” he raged. “You’ll perish under my axe!”

“Unlikely,” sneered the Warlock. “I think you’ll serve me for an eternity instead.” He effortlessly twirled the fingers of his free hand. All across the floor, the defeated skeletons began to jitter and rustle as his dark powers restored them to a mockery of life.

Suddenly, light flooded the chamber. Star-like radiance lit the room, revealing long-forgotten murals on the flaking walls. In that tide of pure brilliance, the skeletons slumped back to the ground. Vaporous sprites rose from each corpse as Anirion’s cleansing magic released their souls from the Dark Sun’s servitude.

“Power should be used to restore the world,” Anirion gasped from the doorway. The ritual had left him exhausted.

“Meddler!” hissed the Necromancer. With a sideways flick of his wrist, he conjured a smoky shadow from nowhere. Wraithlike, it settled over the elf with a malevolent cry, life-draining talons extended.

“No!” Goldar shouted, helpless.

And then somehow, the Necromancer was ablaze! Guttering orange flames rolled up his back and sides, consuming his robes and hair. With a terrible scream, he collapsed face down on the ground, smoke billowing from his burning body. In an instant, the black sorceries holding Goldar and Anirion vanished.

“Cologne,” snorted Oswald, already lighting a fresh lantern to replace the one he’d thrown. “That was good lamp paraffin. I always bring spare.”

“Good work, Oswald, “Goldar said. “Get Fulumbar up, I’ll find Astrid.”

“No need,” the woman said, stepping out of the Warlock’s sarcophagus. “I ducked in here. And guess what? There’s a stairway going down…”

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