The Reader of the Bones

“I knows me a witch. Maybe she can help us find that lost city.”

“You know a witch? How do you know a witch?”

“My cousin, Ezzie? You know the one with the big—”

“Yes, I know the one, Rolan. What about her?”

“I was gonna say ‘house.’ Anyway, she used to be poor. Dirt poor. She was married to this farmer over in Derbyshire. He used to beat her, real bad like. One time, he—”

“Get on with it, Rolan. Where’s this witch?”

“I’m gettin’ to that, Sergeant. Anyways, so this guy was beatin’ Ezzie something fierce, and one day, she just kinda snaps, and decides she ain’t gonna take it no more. So she runs away, only she don’t get very far.”

“The witch, Rolan.”

“She ran into the woods, and wouldn’t you know it? She ran right into a kucheri scouting party.”

“Kucheri. In Derbyshire. I think I’ve heard enough of this…”

“No! Wait! So she got captured by them kucheri, and they didn’t know what to do with her, so they took her to their medicine woman. Now Ezzie, she might’ve been poor, but she was smart. She saw her chance, and she took it. She made a deal with that medicine woman and got rid of that farmer. Not only that, but that witch gave her some jewels, too, and that’s how Ezzie got rich.”

“So you believe this ‘witch’ just helped your cousin out of the goodness of her heart, and now she’s going to help us, too?”

“Hell no, it wasn’t out of the goodness of her heart! You ain’t listening! Or I ain’t telling it right. Anyhow, that witch sent Ezzie back to the farm, and sent some of them werewolfs with her. They took that farmer back to their village, and that was the witch’s payment. That was twenty years ago, and Ezzie swears she can still hear the man scream.”

“And I suppose your cousin told you how to find this witch?”

“No, sir. She didn’t have to tell me. I seen it with my own two eyes. I followed her to the witch’s hut, and then I followed her back home. I always been a sneaky little shit, sir, and that’s why I’m such a good scout. That’s why I joined up. I always been a sneaky little shit, and I figured the army was the only place where I could make an honest living. I ain’t no thief, sergeant. You know that I ain’t no thief.”

“No, Rolan. You might be a bit simple, but you’re not a thief. Very well. Can you take us to this witch?”

Before Rolan could answer, Kharstov spoke up.

“Sir, you’re not seriously going to the kucheri, are you? They’ll skin us alive! They’ll eat our hearts in front of us! They’re monsters! Demons! Why would they help us?”

“Because we’re doing them a favor, Kharstov. If we can find Bel-Tarnath and recover the Amulet of Kirath, then we will have removed a great evil from their lands. They’re not demons, no matter what your parents told you to get you to behave. They may not like us, but they fight the demons just like we do. If the Amulet is in their lands, it is calling demons to itself. The kucheri will be glad to be rid of it. If we die, that’s no skin off their back, so they’ve got nothing to lose either way.”

Rolan spoke up again. “Sir, there’s somethin’ else I should probably tell you.” “What is it, Rolan?”

“Well, sir, this witch. They call her the Reader of Bones. She might be just as likely to kill us as help us.”

“We’ll worry about that when we get there. Take us to this Reader of Bones, Rolan.”

They traveled for two days before getting to the witch’s hut. The forest was mostly silent, with only the odd birdsong or rustling of leaves breaking the silence. They did not speak, not wanting to attract any unwanted attention. Even the horses made only minimal sounds as they allowed themselves to be led through the dense forest.

As dusk was settling in on the second day, they came upon a small clearing with a tiny hut in the middle of it. Outside of the hut stood two tall, bronzed-skin warriors, with bone weapons hanging by their sides. Their hair was wild and dyed in startling colors. In contrast, they were clean shaven and their leather armor was neat and oiled. They looked dangerous, but they held relaxed, casual poses.

As the company of soldiers walked into the clearing, one warrior stepped forward and held up his hand. “What brings you to the Reader of the Bones, outsiders?”

The Seargent motioned for his men to stay back, then took a single step forward and addressed the warrior who had spoken. “We seek the lost city of Bel-Tarnath,” he said. “We seek her aid in finding it.”

“The ruins of Bel-Tarnath are three days south of here. You do not need to speak with the Reader of the Bones for that. Now, you have what you came for. Begone!”

The Seargent thanked the warrior, and the company began to walk away towards the south. An old woman’s voice called out from inside the hut. “Wait! I will speak with him,” she said.

The company halted, and the warrior shrugged his shoulders. He spoke to the Seargent.

“You will find the Reader of the Bones in there,” said the kucheri. “Only you may enter; her words will be for you alone. The rest of your men must wait outside with us.”

“Wait here, and don’t touch anything,” said the Sergeant. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

It was almost completely dark inside the hut. Despite the heat outside, a fire was burning in a pit against the far wall, and two lit braziers hung from the ceiling. Skulls of different animals were piled around the room and hung on the walls. A large pile of rags near the fire started moving and slowly transformed into an incredibly beautiful woman with raven hair and deep green eyes.

“Times must be desperate, indeed, for the Son of Khalis to visit me,” she said. The Sergeant looked startled. “How do you know that name? Khalis is dead, as is his son. The line of Khalis has ended.”

“And yet, here you stand. Sit, and talk with me.”

The Sergeant looked at the floor, then sat down near the woman. “What can I do to help you?” he asked.

“I do not need your help. I am going to help you, Son of Khalis. I am going to tell you the truth of your father.”

“Keep your voice down!” the Sergeant hissed. “If any of my men knew the truth of my identity, my life would be forfeit! And how could you possibly know about any of that? I know the truth of my father. He is dead, and I’m next if anyone finds out that I’m his son.”

“And that is why you need the Reader of the Bones. The things you think you know to be true are not true. You came here thinking to ask for my help to find Bel-Tarnath, but in reality, you have come seeking your destiny.”

The Reader of the Bones started chanting softly. From the piles of bones around her, she selected a lion’s skull. She smashed it on the floor, then peered intently at the pieces.

The flames turned a deep crimson color and then faded to nearly black. All the light seemed to exit the room. Outside, the horses squealed in terror. They screamed and bucked, trying to escape the magic that was emanating from the hut. Inside the hut, an image formed in the black flames.

A temple, long forgotten, lies in ruins deep in the jungle. Concealed by dirt, foliage, and thick vines, it is crawling with insects, snakes, and spiders. A colony of bats has taken roost within its cavernous outer openings, and by night, they fly out to hunt by the thousands. Deep within the temple, an unholy black light pulses.

Outside the temple, a lion sniffs at the doorway. As it enters the temple, the ground opens, and the lion falls into the abyss.

The scene shifts. Another lion, this one older, is running through the jungle, terrified of something that is chasing it. The lion twists and turns, dashing in different directions, but never escaping whatever predator has turned him into prey.  

The image faded, the flames returned to normal, and the horses outside settled down. The Reader of the Bones looked at the Seargent, and spoke softly.

“The lion is the symbol of your family, is it not? Beware the temple, Son of Khalis, lest you share the lion’s fate.”

“What about my father? Was that other lion him?” he asked.

“Yes. Your father should have died, but he found a way to cheat death. Now, death is chasing him. An unholy bargain keeps him alive until he can avenge his murder.”

“The peri bitch who killed him got away. She’s safe behind their ice walls now. No one can touch her.”

“Something else you are wrong about, Son of Khalis. The woman who attempted to murder your father travels with him now. They are close companions now.”

“Companions! Why would he do that? Where is he now? What unholy bargain did he strike?”

“You will find your answers in the Forgotten Temple of Exterminis, in the lost city of Bel-Tarnath.”