The Bone Maker, Page 2Sarah Beth Durst
Cheek pressed into the dirt and grass, she felt the ground vibrate. Quake? Or people—running up a path, toward the top of the cliff, toward her. She scrambled shakily to her feet. Reaching into her pockets, she felt for another talisman. Strength. Speed. Anything.
Her fingers closed over the carved bear knuckle and claw, and she activated it with a whispered word. She felt cool relief flood through her body, and she had the strength to run.
She fled into the pine forest, fueled by magic. Branches whipped against her, and Kreya felt a sting on her cheek as one bit into her. She reached up and touched wetness—blood. But she didn’t slow. She heard crashing behind her, the villagers chasing her, and she knew she couldn’t lead them straight to her tower, where Jentt waited for her. Her constructs couldn’t defend against a mob. Or, really, anything more dangerous than an errant cobweb—she hadn’t designed them for that. She’d counted on stone walls and isolation to protect her, but that wouldn’t hold against angry and determined mourners.
I’m sorry, she wanted to tell them. But I need her bones more than she did.
She didn’t know if she’d even been able to salvage enough to make a difference, and she couldn’t check now. Her lungs burned, her legs ached, and the spot between her shoulder blades throbbed. Some of her pursuers were quite a bit younger, and they had rage to urge them on. Most of her rage had burned out years ago.
But the bit she had left wasn’t going to fade.
Kreya weighed her options. She knew the mountain as well as or better than these villagers who never ventured beyond their sheep pastures. If she had the right talismans—I should’ve been more prepared. She thought of the waste of all those beautiful bones, rich with power, burned to ash by now.
What’s done is done. Now, focus!
She heard the rattle of the cable car. For an instant, she imagined herself leaping from a cliff onto the top of it and riding it away from her pursuers. Maybe Jentt could have done that, years ago. He’d been capable of manipulating talismans to pull off amazing feats. She knew her limitations, though, and part of that was the lack of any usable talismans. Instead, she used the rattle of the cable car to hide the sound of her switching direction—she veered left, between the trees, crashing through branches without fear of being heard.
Ahead she knew the path turned right, but instead she went straight toward a collection of rocks. Her lungs were screaming, and she was sure she’d pay for this tomorrow. Of course, that depended on whether or not she lived to see tomorrow. She knew what the people of Vos did to bone workers caught stealing human bones.
She had no doubt the villagers had left the fire burning for her.
Kreya saw the outcropping ahead of her. She forced herself to run faster, as the cable car rattled louder overhead. She spurted across a meadow and then ducked between the rocks.
Shaking, she leaned flat against one rock. Her breath raked across her throat, and her vision became speckled with black dots. The world tilted, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
Don’t faint. Not now.
She heard her pursuers shout to one another as they crashed out of the woods. They’d reached the meadow. She didn’t know if any of them were good enough trackers to spot the direction in which she’d run. She knew she couldn’t count on incompetence to save her, though in her experience the incompetence of people was surprisingly reliable.
Move, she told herself.
She peeled herself off the rock where she’d been leaning, and she plunged deeper between the rocks, into the caves she knew were there. She’d discovered them several years ago, after being caught in a thunderstorm. She’d returned a few times to map them. It had kept her occupied one summer while she waited for news of a fresh corpse.
Keeping her hand on one wall, Kreya hurried into the cave. As the evening light disappeared behind her, she slowed, picking her way deeper into the mountain.
Shouts came from behind her, at the cave entrance.
Kreya didn’t slow. The odds that the villagers knew these caves, that they’d risk entering without knowing if there were crevasses that could swallow them or unstable rocks that could fall and crush them, were low. She hadn’t seen anyone holding a lantern or torch. Their smartest bet would be to seal the cave entrance, she thought.
If they caused a rockfall, then they’d either crush her or trap her. A sensible option. She didn’t know, though, if any of the villagers were thinking sensibly after the death of one of their children. But she couldn’t control what other people thought; she could only control what she did, and what she did was not stop.
Pressing against the rock wall, she skirted around a drop she knew was there. She slowed even more as the cave dipped downward, careful to keep her footing on the loose pebbles.
Behind her, she heard a rumble and a crash.
The villagers had collapsed the entrance after all.
Smart, she thought. Just not smart enough.
She followed the caves unerringly through the dark, until she saw a sliver of graying light ahead of her. Moonlight. Climbing over fallen rocks, she emerged into the night, many miles from the village.
Standing, Kreya looked up at the moon, three-quarters full and heavy over the mountains, and the stars, splattered across the sky. She reached into her pocket and drew out the dead girl’s finger. It was only a sliver. Even less bone than she’d hoped.
At best, it would give them a day.
Ash flaked away and was caught by the wind and carried off the side of the mountain. Far below, the deadly valley that ran throughout Vos between the mountains was invisible, shrouded in shadowy mist. It would swallow the ash, eventually. Her hand closed around the tiny bit of charred flesh and bone.
All this—the wasted magic, the painful chase, the villagers’ rage, the ruined cave entrance. All of it for a single day.
I’ll take a day, she thought.
Kreya cleaned the sliver of bone. She laid it in a box that had been made for jewels, closed the lid, and locked it. She then sank into a chair with a half sigh, half moan.
As if concerned about her, the bird skeleton hopped around her feet.
Peeling off her shirt, she twisted to view her back in the cloudy mirror on the table beside her. During the night, while she’d slept fitfully and uncomfortably, a vicious flower of purple had blossomed between her shoulder blades where the rock had hit. “Jentt will have questions about that,” she muttered.
She eased her shirt back on, after checking to be sure the rock hadn’t broken skin. Or my ribs. Or lungs. Lifting her foot, she examined her ankle next. Another developing bruise, plus it had been skinned. Dots of blood had dried along the scrape. On the plus side, she felt whole, if achy. Her muscles would probably throb for days.
If Jentt saw her like this . . .
He’s seen me worse. Of course, that had been during a war, and he hadn’t exactly been sanguine whenever she’d been injured then.
She should wait until the bruises faded and her muscles felt less like quivery goo. But it had been months since she’d spoken with her husband and had him answer, months since she’d been able to look into his eyes, months since she’d seen his smile. She didn’t want to wait any longer.
“And they say the young are impatient,” Kreya said to the bird construct.
Patience, she decided, is for people unaware of their own mortality.
She permitted herself a few more minutes of rest before propelling herself out of the chair. Shuffling across the room, she pulled several books from the shelf and piled them on her makeshift bed.
After a few years of failing to sleep near Jentt’s body, she’d taken to sleeping in the library and had built a bed out of quilts and blankets that looked more like a nest than a proper piece of furniture. It was nestled in the corner of two bookshelves. In another corner was the stove where she prepared the bulk of her meals. Despite the size of the tower, this
one room was where she spent most of her time. It was comforting to be surrounded by so many books, as if the past experience of all the authors could protect her from the unknown future. She loved the smell of the room, with that distinctive old paper and old binding-glue scent, mixed with dust. She’d spent years collecting these volumes. Many of them were one-of-a-kind. A few shouldn’t even have existed.
Kreya reached to the back of the shelf, unlatched the hidden door, and pulled out a black metal box. Running her fingers over the lid, she couldn’t suppress a shudder. When she’d stolen these books, she’d planned to destroy them. Their author had poured everything he knew into his journals—knowledge he’d used to inflict horrors. No one knew she hadn’t burned them, though. Certainly no one knew she’d read them. Studied them. Found a way to use them.
Knowledge itself isn’t evil. It’s how you use it. And she had a very good use for it. Opening the box, she lifted out the top book.
Given the atrocities committed by the author, the book should have been bound in human skin, for the sake of the appropriate level of melodrama. But it was ordinary cloth, as threadbare as the carpet, with scorch marks on the spine. The pages were stained and brittle, and Kreya turned them carefully. She’d pored over them so much that she had most of it memorized, but this was too important to trust to that. A mistake would be unforgivable, and she wasn’t taking any chances when it came to Jentt, especially when she had so small a bit of bone to work with.
She read the words silently, mouthing each syllable. It was more complex than anything she’d learned through the Bone Workers Guild—“A perversion of our purpose,” the master teachers there would have said.
“They’re not wrong,” Kreya told the skeleton bird, who was pecking at the carpet again, pulling stray threads as if prompted by a memory of worms. She let it continue, her focus back on the book. The techniques in it were not approved by any guild.
In fact, the guild didn’t know they existed.
As far as the guild was concerned, there were only three types of bone workers: bone readers, who used animal bones to reveal the future, understand the present, and glimpse the past; bone wizards, who created talismans out of animal bones that imbued their users with strength, speed, stealth, and other attributes; and bone makers, like Kreya, who used animal bones to animate the inanimate. Ships, weaving machines, cable cars . . . all the advances of the past few centuries had been fueled by bone makers. She could have had her pick of commissions after the war. Instead, she’d turned them all down, shut herself away in this tower, and devoted herself to studying these books.
Now she mouthed the words she’d need and then carefully closed the book, placed it back in the metal box, and returned it to its hiding place at the back of the bookshelf. While all knowledge could be dangerous in the wrong hands, Kreya considered it simple practicality to be extra careful with books written by genocidal maniacs. Especially books you’d sworn to destroy. It was just common sense.
“Want to watch?” she asked the bird construct.
It whirred its gears, confused by the question.
It followed her down the stairs and into the bedroom where Jentt lay. Startled, three rag doll constructs climbed the curtains and scrambled onto the beams that crisscrossed the ceiling. They peered down with button eyes.
“Such bravery,” Kreya said. “What would you have done if I were an intruder?”
The three dolls stared down at her, chittering to one another in a language that, near as Kreya could determine, wasn’t a language at all. They were simply imitating sounds they heard, mashed in their cloth mouths.
“Never mind. Stay there, if you like.” She pulled a tray next to the bed and set the jewelry box with the bone on it, beside her favorite knife.
Only then did she let her eyes fall on her husband.
He was clothed in linen sheets from head to toe. Gently, she unpinned them and pushed them back from his arms, his torso, his legs, and his face. It had been three months since she’d last woken him, and it showed. His cheeks were sunken, his skin gray, and his chest had collapsed so every rib was visible. She’d tucked sachets of lavender beneath the mattress to mask the stench, and she’d instructed her rag doll constructs to bathe him daily to keep him free of maggots and other indignities of death, but that only did so much.
“You look terrible,” she told him. “Never wear gray.”
She reached for the knife and realized her hand was trembling. Glaring at it, she held her wrist steady until it stopped. She’d overused her muscles climbing that rock face, even with the talisman helping her.
I really should wait, she thought.
But looking at her husband’s gray-toned face, she knew she wouldn’t.
Closing her hand over the knife’s handle, she lifted it up and, in one swift movement, sliced her palm. She winced at the sting but didn’t take her eyes off her husband’s face. Squeezing her hand, she made blood well into her fist, then she laid down the knife and opened the jewelry box with her uncut hand. She smeared her blood onto the bit of bone.
“Take my day, take my night, take my sunrise, take my life.” She lifted the bit of bone, stained with her blood, and then took the knife again and sliced over her husband’s heart.
It didn’t bleed.
She pressed the bit of bone into his flesh and then covered the wound with her bloody hand. “Take my breath, take my blood. Iri nascre, murro sai enri. Iri prian, murro ken fa. Iri sangra sheeva lai. Ancre murro sai enzal. Iri, iri, nascre ray.”
The bit of bone dissolved with her words, melting into his flesh like sugar in water.
Outside, the wind hit the tower, and the windows shivered. The rag doll constructs crooned to one another in their senseless language. Kreya felt a shudder run through her body. It was hard to breathe, but she made herself hold still, her hand pressed to Jentt’s chest as the bone magic spread through him. Her muscles began to shake.
See, I was right, she thought. I should have waited. One night’s sleep wasn’t enough recovery time for this drain. The drain of a magic that she wasn’t supposed to use, that wasn’t even supposed to be possible . . .
But she locked her knees and didn’t sag.
Beneath her hand, his body began to change. It plumped as the flesh was restored. She felt his heart—a stutter and then a steady beat. Blood began to flow through his veins, and the gray faded from his skin.
She’d never been able to grant life to any of her constructs. That wasn’t how it worked. A bone maker’s magic only animated them. But this . . . this was different. She wasn’t giving him the power of the bone like she did with constructs. Here she was using the bone to give him what was inside her. That was the key, and the secret, of the resurrection spell.
For each day he lived again, she would live one day less.
Worth it, she thought. A thousand times worth it.
His face was his own again, with flesh thick and healthy over his bones. It wasn’t the illusion of life. It was life itself. Restored. She waited, barely breathing, for his eyes to open. At last, they did. He blinked them open, looked at her, and then looked beyond her.
“Fuck, those things are creepy,” Jentt said.
She twisted to look up at the rafters, where now five of her rag doll constructs peered down at them. “Useful, though. Especially when you’re indisposed.”
“Oh? Is that what we’re calling it now? ‘Indisposed’? Like I ate a bad fish?”
“You looked like a bad fish.”
“Nice.” He pushed himself, slowly, gingerly, up to sitting, and looked down at his chest, which was streaked with a thin smear of blood. He wrinkled his nose. “And I assume the smell of rotting fish is me, too. Sorry. Is there time for a bath?”
Kreya’s heart gave a little lurch. She knew what that question really meant: How long will I live this time? She wished she didn’t have to answer. Her mouth felt dry as she tried to formulate the words to tell him as gently as she could.<
She didn’t have to tell him. He read it in her face. He guessed, “An hour?”
“A day. If we’re lucky.”
“A day,” he repeated, then he smiled at her and covered her hand with his. “I’ll take a day.” The look in his eyes made her feel more alive than she’d felt in months. She smiled back, and all the lonely hours and days fell away. He added, “And I’ll take a bath.”
She helped him stand. His balance wasn’t the best after he first woke, but the spell had returned all his muscles—he’d be able to walk on his own in minutes.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Excellent. So we can watch the sunrise together. Unless it’s raining. Or snowing. What time of year is it?”
Again, he wasn’t asking the key question, which was, How long was I dead?
“It’s fall,” she said. “Same year.” He leaned on her as they hobbled across the room, and she hissed as his hand touched the bruise on her back.
He stopped. “You’re hurt.”
“I had some challenges.”
“Do I want to know?”
“You really don’t.” She hoped that would be the end of it. She didn’t want to spend his one day of life arguing about whether she took too many risks for him. “I used up most of the remaining talismans—”
“I told you their power diminishes with use—”
“Are you seriously saying ‘I told you so’? Because I did not wake you in order to listen to a sanctimonious lecture about how you were so much more careful than I am when you’re the one who got himself killed.”
He fake-staggered as if her words had wounded him. She sagged as his weight shifted and then shrugged him off. He was strong enough to stand on his own. Arms crossed, an exaggerated frown on her face, she waited while he righted himself. “You know it’s only that I worry about you,” he said. “Or I would worry, if I weren’t so busy decomposing.”
She was. She couldn’t help it. He was alive again! Following him down the stairs, she watched him pause when he reached the cleaning construct.