Another pile of bones ready for the Devouring fires. Another pile of bones in need of the Purging flames. Too many damn bones to keep track of them all. I wondered why there were still so many bones about.
My mask was resting cockeyed on my face. Looking more a fashion statement than uniform, I found I did not need it in the Boneyard. Most of the original marks that Esse had painted were gone. Unless you knew what it looked like before, it appeared clean bone white.
Once upon a time, I had a cloak that pretended it was wings. Now I have wings that sometimes pretends to be a cloak. Black feathers move unconsciously to help me keep my balance as I bend over here, reach there. My burial shroud is tied around my waist and my neck. Since being marked by the Ravens on the shoulders, I keep that area exposed.
Which makes it a perfect target for a raven that wants to land. It grips my right shoulder with its talons and proceeds to rip off the scab that had formed there. Jumping off my shoulder to a pyre to collect some ash, it returns and tears off another scab in the process. Before I can complain, it rubs the ash into the shallow wound. These marks must scar.
“So is this a social call, a job offer, or are you just having fun?” The raven just cawwed and nodded. “Okay, where to?” The raven flew off to a path between mounds. I started to follow, but before I even left my “territory”, another raven landed on my left shoulder. While its talons pulls the scabs free from there, it reached over and pulled my mask into place. “A formal event?” I felt a severity in the raven’s stare. “Should I get sword and shield as well?” The raven just nodded.
“Okay, then.” I dusted both shoulders with dust, and made sure my hands and forearms were dusted as well. I straightened the mask, and called the feathersword and warshield. As I went along the path between the mounds, more and more ravens were appearing and flying overhead. I noted these were very large ravens, almost of mythic size. I converted my wings into the ravenfeather cloak, but at once several ravens grabbed and pulled on the cloak.
“Wings? I know they’re a rank around here…” I didn’t wait for an answer, but stretched the cloak back into the great expansive wings they were more comfortable as. They stopped pulling at me and continued escorting me through the mounds.
The clatter of bones from beyond the mounds told me I wasn’t the only bipedal creature headed somewhere. The further I went, the more quiet the ravens with me, and the more heavy the air was. This was definitely a formal affair I was going to. If I wasn’t already in the Boneyard, I’d say I was headed for someone’s funeral.
There were more ravens than bones. A few turned to watch me approach, pass, and depart. Most were staring at a fixed place. Just before I made the last turn, the ravens pulled me to a full stop. I understood. It was not time for my entrance just yet. I heard a commotion around the bend. The sound of someone weeping. A scuffle. A sharp cry. Silence.
I felt a sudden presence beside me. I didn’t have to turn my head to know which Raven this was. I turned, bowed before the Ravenlord and lifted my gaze to his eyes. You will know what to do, and when. I nodded in understanding. He flew off into the clearing. The already silent area became absolute silence as even the sound of moving cloth ceased.
Under the mask, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and waited. I heard sudden movement. The sound of cloth ripping. More sharp cries. A clattering of wings. The feel of a new-lit pyre. Angry shouts in human voices. The sobbing of one person.
As this happened, I felt an anger stirring in my bones. At first I dismissed it as nerves, misread instincts, but as the scene continued without me, the anger grew stronger. A righteous anger. A justified rage. As if…
No one would be that foolish.
Once you’ve committed yourself to the Bone Temple, you never leave it. So the person being judged around the corner can’t be one of them. The anger turned to ice in my marrow. But what if…
I took another deep breath and surrendered my will to the Ravens around me. I know my anger. If this is a Bone Temple sympathizer, a bone-thief, my fury may upset the order the Ravens want the event to play out.
The Ravens turned to me. I opened my eyes to see them staring at me. I stepped forward and followed the path around the mound. I step into a large clearing. Bone piles surround me, but you could not see them as they were completely covered with masked Boneburners and ravens and Ravens. I saw Ravenwoman standing in the back of the crowd at the far side of the clearing. She was fully masked, but I swear, I could feel her smiling at what I have become.
I recognized a few Boneburners by the marks of their mask. If they recognized me, their body posture did not give that away. In the middle of the clearing was the Ravenlord, a young male human held in a captive’s posture, two masked Boneburners holding the naked youth, and a small fire in which was burning a mask and a shroud. Only the young male was making noise of any sort.
You begged for mercy. She shall be your judge. Present your case. The Ravenlord’s “voice” was never spoken, but all present heard him in our hearts. The youth sobbed a bit more and slowly raised his head. He saw the tip of my sword before I saw his face. He recognized it and shouted as he looked up. “Weaver! My ancestors have sent you to me again!” His face and torso was covered in cuts, scratches, and random gouges. These wounds were not meant to be life-threatening. They were meant to hurt.
I recognized him. He was the youth that helped me clear the field. He later talked with me of the Bone Temple. My line of sight with him was such that Ravenwoman was directly behind him. I watched her settle into a smug pose. Her body language screamed, “Let’s see you deal with this, bitch.”.
The will of the Ravens hovered over me. But I was free to do as I pleased. “From the beginning. Leave nothing out. Add nothing. What have you done?”
He was sorting bones, as was the beginner’s duty. Learning spirits were ready to be released from the last vestiges of life from which spirits needed help letting go. Even among the bones of the same skeleton, some bones may be ready to be burned to ash, some bones may never be broken. Learning the distinction is necessary.
He was sorting bones, when he came across a fresh skeleton that felt very familiar. Looking it over, he found a particular break in a particular place. Recognizing the wound that would have caused this, he looked for other skeletal markers and found them all. He knew this person. A cousin, but closer than a brother to him. He had received word that he was dead, but the youth did not expect to come across the bones of his relative.
I wanted to pontificate about how Boneburners are always surrounded by death, and that it is inevitable we will come across the bones of our kin and friends. But this was not the time for that. I could teach the youth no more. This was his test.
“You… you understand… right?” The youth cried a few tears, scanning my face in hope.
“What did you do with the bones, boy?” My face remained stoic behind the mask. My voice remained flat.
His face fell. “You… you told me that anyone that gives themselves over to the Bone Temple… doesn’t come out. Their bones… won’t burn… right?” He laughs a little chuckle from nervousness. “My cousin died too early! He was still a virgin! He never knew a woman! He was innocent!”
“What did you do with the bones, boy? Answer me, lest I judge you from what little you have spoken.” I knew. My stomach knotted from the inference. I was hoping he would prove my conclusion to be a false one.
“I… I took them. To the Bone Temple. To the priestess that was waiting in the door. She said my cousin would not suffer.”
The audience of Boneburners were subdued in their reaction. Some sucked in their breath. Many clenched their fists. The collective anger was warming the area as if we were all in the heart of a pyre. I did not show any outward reaction. Internally, I was wondering why I hadn’t removed his head from his shoulders yet.
The youth sagged against his captors. “She… she said the spirits of those brought to her will have an afterlife of their desire. And he will never burn. He will never suffer.” He started crying. “She told me to come back once I was gifted with fire.” His face scrunched up as he tried not to break out in great sobs again. “And that once I did, if I gave that fire to them, my cousin and I would always be together and there would be no one to strike him down or…”
“You have condemned your cousin.” I have no idea how I kept my emotions from my voice.
He looked back up at me, shaking his head. “No… the priestess said…”
“Spirits lie, embodied and disembodied. You have condemned your cousin. Even if we take her words at face value, that what he is experiencing now is an illusionary afterlife of his own making, if he felt he deserved Purgatory, Hell, or some other spiritual punishment, that is what he is enduring. His own personal Hell, that he can not be raised from.” I cocked my head in a very corvid manner. “I know of no human, no matter how humble, or how proud, that does not have some actions they regret. You have condemned your cousin to revisit his pains, without hope of relief, until the Bone Temple itself burns.” I cocked my head the other way. “Which, because of what you have done, will be a little while longer yet, as your cousin’s anguish feeds the priestess and her… ilk.”
He shook his head violently. “No… no…. [Cousin]! You died too early! [COUSIN]!” He starts to wail, but suddenly ceases and stares at me with impassioned eyes. “I can go back! I can enter and leave because I have no fire! I can get the bones back!”
I shook my head. “They have become part of the Bone Temple’s very walls by now. They are sealed and lost to us until that edifice falls.” The youth deadweighted against his captors, wanting only to throw himself on the ground before me. “The matter to consider now, is you. I see you have been stripped of your mask and shroud, which means once you are cast out of the Boneyard, you will never be able to return under your own power.”
I turned to the Ravenlord. “What is requested of me?”
Judge, pronounce judgement, and see that judgement is carried out. On the one hand, I felt used. After hearing the entire story, I felt there was no way to just leave him as he is. I had to make an example out of him. What I wanted to do, was to sever him from ever being able to Travel again. He will have to die one day, the Boneyard will always be waiting for him.
But the more I thought of it, the more I realized there were too many possible events between now and his death and his final entry into the Boneyard. I’ve dealt with enough running spirits to know when his day comes, he is going to do everything he can to avoid his final sentence.
Better then, that he never leaves.
“You have stolen bones and spirit from the Boneyard. You have surrendered these stolen bones and spirit to the inhabitants of the Bone Temple, which you have been already informed about the obscenity of that place. Rather than consult with those more knowledgeable than you, you have presumed to act according to your ignorance, and for that, another will suffer for long after you have died and burned yourself.”
I dismissed the shield, and extended the feathersword into a two-handed long sword. “Or would if you had not been caught. You have been stripped of your status as a Boneburner, but you will never leave the Boneyard.”
I took a few steps forward and impaled the youth on the dual-edged blade. To his surprise, there was no blood. I hauled the blade up through his body, passing it between his emanation in the Boneyard, and his physical self. The shock of the division silenced his scream, leaving him twitching as his mind was now in a dual existence. He was in his bed in the physical realm, and he was here in the Boneyard. Such duality is my normal frame of existence. But for him, it was horror.
“Here is your judgement, Betrayer. You will never leave the Boneyard. Your physical self will continue to go about those things you do in the Waking, but you will always have eyes open here. You will always smell the fires and the ash. But you will not be allowed to wander about.” I changed the longsword presentation of the feathersword into a sturdy kukri and moved to stand before one of his captors, standing beside the boy. “Your body here shall be beheaded, and the flesh surrendered to the ravens. Your fleshed head shall be mounted on a pike, mounted on a high point before the Bone Temple, and turned to face the Bone Temple. You, personally, shall hold vigil over the condemnation of your cousin. Your bones shall not be allowed to burn, but shall be tied to the post along with your head. Because of this, when your physical body dies, no god shall be able to claim you. Your soul shall be bound here until the Bone Temple itself burns, and in those fires shall your bones and head be thrown so you and your cousin may obtain freedom at the same time. For the moment you condemned him, you condemned yourself.”
“Mm….mmm…..” He struggled to bring his awareness fully into the Boneyard. “Merrrrrr…. sssssyyyyyyy…….” His head rolled back, throwing his tears onto the ashen dirt.
“Mercy? I am a Raven of the Boneyard. I am not merciful.”
I lifted the pitch black kukri high into the air with one hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ravenwoman nod ever so slightly. I turned away from her and looked at the Ravenlord.
The boy labored to cry for mercy in between bouts of vicious shuddering. The fire consumed the last of his mask and shroud before consuming itself and ceasing with a hush.
The Ravenlord considered me, considered the boy, considered everyone else, and cocked his head at me in that very distinct corvid way.
He clapped his beak.
I turned my attention to the boy. With my free hand, I pulled the boy’s head forward by his hair. I threw my weight into the descending blow, and with one strike, decapitated him. His body twitched then slumped in his captor’s hands.
I lifted the boy’s still living head up by his hair, turning him to face the Ravenlord. The boy’s mouth worked in a mockery of speech. The Ravenlord gestured with a nod. Slowly, I turned around with my trophy, so that the boy’s eyes swept those gathered as well.
One by one, bird and Boneburner turned away in an obvious gesture of rejection. The boy would not be acknowledged as a sentient anymore. In the wake of the stare, the Boneburners made a gesture that I thought only I made.
Even Ravenwoman turned away in judgement. But when she made the followup gesture, her body posture confused me. I could not dwell on her subtle change, as I was still on display.
I turned back to the Ravenlord. A tall metal pike was brought to me. The two that held him assisted me in shoving the pike through the skull. I turned the skewered head around to see into his eyes. They were clear and moving.
I looked back at the Ravenlord and held the grisly decoration up. He looked off a certain way. A path opened up through the gathered murders of ravens. I followed the path, with the assembled audience following after. The path led to a tall hill of compacted ash, dirt, and bone fragments. It overlooked the Bone Temple. I mounted the metal shaft there, stabbing it into the dirt so that the head was seven feet above the surface.
“Here, you shall wait. While you are still alive, your body will regenerate. You shall be food for the carrion crow until the time of your physical death. You shall feel each and every action performed upon your flesh.” The mouth tried to work again. Unnatural tears streamed down unnaturally bright eyes. “Pray the Bone Temple burns soon.”
I turned away from the mounted head to find the Ravenlord standing in my way. I made the gesture that all the others have made. He reached forward and with his beak carved even deeper marks into my shoulders. A Boneburner came forward with handfuls of ash. He patted them into the wounds with no words. And another. And another.
One by one, all the Boneburners came forward rubbing ash into the intentional gashes on my shoulders. I stood there, mute and obedient, wondering what line have I crossed this time, and if I have always been this way or if this is how the Boneyard expresses itself in me.
Ravenwoman was the last. She came with ashes clutched in her taloned hands. I could see her smirking as she rubbed the ashes into my shoulders with a touch so light, I questioned if she even touched me. “Heh.”, was the only word spoken, and she did so in her usual sardonic tone.
“D’T ‘V M’!” Don’t leave me! He’s figured out how to make sound without lungs already? My turn for grunts.
“You won’t be alone. Corvids like to play with their food.” I heard his teeth suddenly chatter. I bowed as I passed the Ravenlord. He soon passed over me in flight. As I descended the mound, I could see the clearing where the execution took place. The ravens were beginning their feast.
My memory returned to the cave and the cathedral. To the culling of the herds, and the ritually unclean being barred from the cathedral. I suddenly understood why they were necessary.
When I woke up, I considered how, or even if, I should record this for public view. I know I will never forget it, written or not.