Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience voting to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Death Hammer Justice Spear Majesty Mace
There were more than five hundred graves to sort through, and any one of them might have been the resting place of the death hammer of the hideous commander Baross Varnivore. He might not have always been an evil man, there were tales that his violent behavior and strange last name didn’t come along until he picked up the habit of eating varnish in his adolescence. The facts were that, when he died, he left a collapsing empire that had dominated two continents.
Marci was there to claim his weapon. The legends of Varnivore always exaggerated him into a giant-mouthed consumer. He ate disobedient villages. His numerous apothecaries fed him potions of black magic, exacerbating the demons arguing inside his skull. His weapon had the aura of these stories as well. One strike could fell a building, but not before every living thing inside instantly dropped dead.
The only question was which plot to dig up. She walked through them, shovel in hand, holding her breath here and there to make sure no lingering ghosts could tug it out of her. Gray clouds rolled overhead, never letting sun hit the mass grave. Nobody was supposed to claim any part of his empire; the world was supposed to go back to having a will separate from his.
So all his belongings had been scattered, scooped from the ashes of the ashes of his immolated body. His wedding ring, he was married to a man-eating bear, was cast into the sea. His helm, with horns upon its horns, was buried in the barrens by a treacherous werewolf.
His death hammer was clutched by one of his victims, the only piece of vengeance they were allowed. Under one of those monuments it waited for the flesh of a living hand. She crept forward, looking for any sign of anything unusual. Most of the graves came with statues: brave men and women willing to face Varnivore’s maw rendered in marble or granite staring off into the gray sky.
She crossed a stone marked with the name Llewynn. Her aunt. One of the last victims of his appetite. She was part of the final charge that broke through the walls of his fortress and cut down his royal guard. The hammer would not be in her hand, for the Llewynn’s were never allowed to rise into greatness. It would be someone with a real title.
Aunt is a real title, Marci thought. Better than any of the others. She could prove her point, earn a high place for her family, with the power of the death hammer. An idea struck. It would take more than a few strokes of the shovel to earn such a weapon. Surely Varnivore had done more to claim it in the first place.
She moved to the exact middle of the graveyard, at least as far as she could tell. It was an irregular shape, with many people laid to rest where they had initially fallen on this battlefield. Varnivore’s cursed and abandoned fortress was visible just over the nearest hill. Some of the graves were outliers, perhaps asocial warriors only forced to fight by Varnivore’s tendency to lump all his enemies together and refer to them as ‘meat’. Some monuments were hidden over little grassy mounds, their raised swords providing a home for climbing vines.
Spill Blood Summon Ancestor Sound a Bell
Marci dropped to one knee and planted the blade of her shovel in the ground. Surely another wanderer would spot her before she could dig up everyone, so she needed eyes that could go where she couldn’t. She needed a mind with just a little bit of greed to see the hammer, smirk, and whisper its location in their descendant’s ear.
I call upon the Llewynn line, she thought, eventually turning it into a whisper. “I respect the wisdom of each and every one of you, but I need a troublemaker. I need someone who wouldn’t normally be caught by the plea in this spell. I need the fish that would wriggle off the line. Please, ancestors, help me claim power and fortune so that the next spirit that reaches is you is gilded and wreathed.”
She reached inside her coat and put hand over her heart, not to feel its beat, but to activate the rune tattooed there. Three X shapes with a line through them. The Llewynns only found partners and lives in the midst of conflicts where they could be mere pawns. They never seemed to have children or wed if they couldn’t fight, lost in throngs of other more respectable citizens. Each X was a death, which meant the line would continue, and their family rune could cut through the flesh of war like a barbed wire through a sprinting ankle.
She felt it stir. It wasn’t hot or cold or moving or electrified. It was just a puff of time, a breath from someone long dead. Her eyes rolled back in her head as she held her weight on the shovel. Her body was used as a gateway, so she had to hold tight while her heart held the stillness of death for one brief moment.
When she opened her eyes she was face to face with a crouching spirit: ethereal, blue, and grinning just as she had imagined. She was a younger girl of no more than fourteen with a giant scar moving across her scalp, down a shredded and mostly-missing ear, and ending at her collarbone.
“Who are you?” Marci asked, still not strong enough to rise.
“I am Artella,” the girl said, grin widening, as if the very sound of her name filled her with mischievous joy. “I am the quickest to trick and quickest to die on the Llewynn line, as long as we’ve had names. I’ve never been back to the land of the living.” Marci always imagined spirits hovering, but she simply stood and skipped around, looking at the monuments and dancing under the gray clouds as if it was raining.
“You’re the troublemaker I asked for?” Marci grunted and got back to her feet, vision blurring only for a moment. Artella nodded. “We’re partners then. I’m not allowed to use the rune, except in the most dire situations, and I have used it out of greed. Are you still willing to help?” Another nod and a giggle. Artella slapped at a dragonfly that buzzed by, and though her hand passed straight through, it fell to the ground, dead and stiff, eyes black.
“What trick are we pulling today?” the precocious spirit asked. “I’m a very good thief and a very fast runner. And I bite with the best of them.”
“I need a spirit’s eyes,” Marci explained. “In one of these graves is a powerful weapon. A hammer. With it, I can change the course of the Llewynn line. I need you to help me figure out which grave.”
Trespassing Dispute Burrowing Chase Worm Revolt
“That sounds awfully easy,” Artella said, disappointed. “Do I even get to disturb the dirt? Throw a clod or two?”
“You can throw whatever you like,” Marci said with a shrug, “but just keep in mind one of our own is buried here. Nothing but respect for my aunt.” Artella nodded. “If you would please just use that ghostly body of yours, go under the earth, and find which hand holds the death hammer. If we succeed I promise my eventual children will bear your name and know your stories.”
“Good enough,” Artella chimed. In the span of a second she sank into ground and disappeared under the drooping pale grass. Marci walked over to the spot but was careful not to step on it exactly in case her ancestor rose up into her boot and smelled the sweat of her feet.
“Can you hear me?” she asked the ground, leaning over and cupping her ear. There was no answer. She walked back and forth, listening, shushing the wind whenever it picked up. She was alone for two full minutes before she spotted the blue scar of Artella rising. She was a hundred feet away, facing one of the monuments, scratching at her chin as if confused. She hurried over, unwilling to disturb any other ghosts with a shout. “Did you find it?”
“Not yet,” Artella said, “but I think you should get up on this here.” The ghost pulled herself onto one of the stone caskets above ground and patted the place next to her like a seat on a bench. Marci did as she was told.
“So… why are we sitting here?” she asked. Perhaps she has wisdom to share. A story of the bravery I inherited. Bravery that is the actual motive for my grave robbing. Please, tell me our line is less bloody than it looks and I’m not as ferocious as I feel.
“We shouldn’t be on the ground right now,” the girl warned. Marci felt something churn underneath them. She grabbed the side of the coffin and leaned forward. The grass was disappearing, being subsumed by the dark wet earth the purple bodies of large wriggling worms.
“What’s down there!?” she asked, feeling a spark of panic.
“Worms,” Artella answered simply. She stood up on the coffin and held out her arms, as if balancing on the middle board of a sinking canoe. “Tons and tons of worms. They’ve been feeding on the flesh and spirits of some nasty warriors as well as valorous ones. They’re very protective. They didn’t like me peeking around.”
“What!” Marci hoped up as well, but the entire coffin lurched. Everywhere around them the green of the grass was swallowed up. More and more worms came to the surface until the ground seemed to be made of them. Monuments fell over and drifted on a sea of their fleshy writhing bodies. They were set adrift as the worms worked to shuffle the corpses, to keep the hammer out of their hands. “It figures. So much blood was spilled here that even the worms think themselves warriors! What do we do now?”
Aunt Summon Withering Curse Irresponsible Wielding
“I have an idea,” Artella said. Marci noticed a slight knitting of her brow. The ghost actually seemed a little worried.
“Why do you look scared?”
“Worms eat the dead,” she explained. “Surely you know that. Body or spirit, they love to pass us through their gross little stomachs. I think if these got a hold of me I’d be deader than ever! But it doesn’t matter. Do you want to hear my idea or not?”
“Yes!” They were forced to leap to another monument, the statue of a man riding a horse and holding a saber aloft, when the worms overturned the coffin. It sank beneath a bulge of squirming purple lumps. The stone face of the soldier was pressed into Marci’s lap as she held the top of his head for balance. “I think this qualifies as disrespect for the dead.” Artella had a hold of his shoulders and was stood on the horse’s haunches.
“I’m going to go all the way out there,” she said, pointing to the boundaries of the graveyard. “Since they’re all up here, they’re not down there. I come in from under them, grab the hammer, and kill them all! As the rune wielder, I need your permission.”
“Permission granted!” Marci squeaked as the horse bucked in the tide of worms. Artella leapt away, hopping from stone to stone until she reached the edge of their influence. A moment later she was gone, and Marci was left straddling a stone horse. “You can’t even use the hammer!” she shouted at the worms. “You don’t even want it! Only a fool would be associated with Varnivore!”
Her pleas failed to convince them, or even be understood. They knew only that an unboxed spirit was trespassing in their bloody loam. She tried stabbing at them with the shovel, but the mass somehow grabbed the blade and sucked the whole thing down. Its handle disappeared. The worms devoured the horse’s legs, the hanging stone buckle of its saddle, the knees of its rider…
“Artella!” she cried, begging for help. Another bulge appeared in the worms, but this time it burst, spraying the creatures in all directions, raining them into her hair and clothes. Out crawled Artella, wielding the death hammer of Baross Varnivore. Its stone head was the exact shade of many of the monuments. A flatted skull was carved into side, worms pouring out of the mouth, both literally and recreated in stone as part of its morbid decoration.
“I’ve got it!” she shouted, looking down to closely examine it for the first time. She didn’t have long though, for the worms poured back in. With a mighty swing and a very unbecoming grunt for a ghost, she struck a wave of the creatures. They broke away, changing the color of death, and sinking into their kin. Twice more the flood of worms struck and twice more she struck back, killing thousands.
“It works,” Marci whispered, barely noticing that the tide of vermin receded. There was the object of her quest, and wielded by her line no less. Does it matter that it’s not me? She’s a child; she wields it irresponsibly. She’ll give it over. My rune can’t keep her forever and she has no use for it in the realm of the dead. It’s mine. It’s ours.
Stern Disciplining Ghost Suicide Varnivore’s Hunger
She was wrong. The hammer belonged only to Varnivore. So great were his appetites, so deep the well of magic in his stomach, that his imagery was not devoid of his power. The stone skull on the side of the hammer moved, its jaw flexing up and down. Artella, startled, dropped it, only for it to roll away on its own, chasing after the last of the worms as they burrowed in retreat.
“Get it!” Marci shouted, rolling off the horse and chasing it. She grabbed its handle, but was barely able to lift it. It swallowed down a mouthful of worms and soil, growing heavier as it did so. She kept her grip on it, but it pulled her low so it could lap up the fluid from some of the worms it had already blasted to pieces. A stone tongue emerged and dragged across the ground with a horrible sound like a cave lion licking the last flesh off a femur.
“That thing’s more than trouble!” Artella warned, approaching from behind. “We don’t need it! Let it go!”
“Maybe you don’t need it,” Marci growled, “but I do. I’m not just going to wait for that red sunrise, that inevitable battle whose blood I must bathe in just for fate to give me a family. I’ll smash it all before it starts; I’ll be Marci: murderer of war itself!”
“Just wait…” She heaved with all her strength, pulling the hammer, its tongue, and a lash of dirt and roots with it. The weight pulled her in a circle, turned it into a swing. The flat face of the hammer struck Artella. The ghost gasped and fell backward, hitting the ground hard enough to leave an imprint.
Artella looked at her hands. They went from blue to peach. There was nothing visible through her. Her fibrous scar filed with tiny red broken blood vessels. She took a breath. Marci was so stunned that she dropped the death hammer. It crawled along like an inchworm with its stony tongue, but it didn’t get far.
She felt another puff of breath on the rune over her heart. She turned away from Artella to see the stern spirit of her aunt, wielding the death hammer. The ghost punched the skull and forced the tongue back inside, holding it closed with one hand.
“Do not return,” her aunt warned as she sank back into the soil, taking the hammer with her.
“But wait! How will I get a family without them awash in blood! The blood that took you!” Her aunt’s hand pointed as the soil passed her shoulders.
“You already have one,” her voice assured as the wind took it. Marci whirled back around. Artella was on her feet. Flesh and blood. Rune visible under her torn shirt. She was struck by the death hammer, and being already deceased it had reversed her condition completely. The girl was alive once more, with a second chance at corporeal trouble making.
“Let’s go,” Artella said, grabbing Marci’s hand and pulling her away before the worms got their nerves back. “I’ve got a new quest for us. We’re going to pay a visit to the man who did this.” She touched her scar, which, with its red color, was now obvious as the cause of initial death.
“Is he far?” Marci asked.
“No,” she said with a strange expression. Her voice teetered between shock and sadness. Even with the rune, even with ten generations to talk to, there was no explanation for what she was about to say. “He’s a Llewynn.”