Darvin cursed himself for not thinking, for not realizing how Fife would react. He'd raced halfway across the circular chamber, running for the door, when he realized something was amiss. He couldn't feel Fife's familiar presence, that steady pressure by his side. Darvin turned to see Fife frozen near the collapsed passageway. All around them, from the shadows of the laboratory, a legion of amputated hands rushed forward on blade-sheathed fingers, skittering like spiders in a mad dash for the intruders.
"Spider," Fife said breathlessly as Darvin ran back to him, scooped him up, and dropped the halfling over his shoulder.
"Not spiders!" Darvin said, hoping to cut his friend free from his terror.
"Spider!" Fife yelled, and batted at Darvin's back.
"Ah!" Darvin cried, surprised, and a hand dropped away from his backpack. He booted it away quickly, before it could spring back up onto its fingers.
"Runrunrun!" Fife screamed.
Darvin hesitated. The hands converged on them the same way water flows down the slope, their fingers blurs of galloping motion and the opportunity for escape gone in an instant. Two more hands appeared from the hole through which they'd entered the room.
Darvin leapt into action, taking long strides, hurdling amputated hands that leapt and grabbed for them. He spun this way and that, clumsily avoiding attackers as his companion's weight threatened to topple his balance. Fife protected his back, wildly swinging his bag of notebooks at the hands lunging at them from behind. One such assault thwacked Darvin on the backside.
"Ow!" Darvin yelped. "That was a corner!"
"Run!" Fife replied.
The hands closed in, barely heeding or pausing at the blows that sent them careening back. They outnumbered the pair, and Darvin could only react, not make any real progress. He threw Fife on the high workshop table, breaking vials and scattering jars and books, before leaping atop it himself. The hands scrambled up the sides of the table.
We're surrounded, Darvin realized.
Fife swung his bag like a mace, shattering glass and dislodging metal fingers that crested the lip of the table. Behind him, Darvin stomped digits and booted away hands, but the crawling horrors possessed a heedless relentlessness. They landed a few feet away on the stone floor, recovered almost instantly, and scrambled back for the table.
"We're dead!" Darvin screamed. "We are so very much dead!"
Fife wanted to respond, but hearing his brother's panic only tightened its grip around his own throat, stopping him from speaking. The hands had them trapped, a dozen feet away from the other door and under the relentless assault of their diminutive foes. This is all my fault. He had dragged them into this misadventure. "I'm sorry," he managed.
A pair of hands grabbed Fife's waist, and before he realized what was happening, Darvin had hoisted him up, toward the wagon-wheel chandelier above their heads. Fife barely had time to grab it before Darvin let go.
"Save yourself!" Darvin said.
The wheel swung on a rusted chain, creaking and groaning. Particles of dust trickled down from the chain's anchor in the ceiling. Fife managed to slip upward through the spokes and atop the wheel before he looked down. The table looked like an island in a relentless sea of moving hands. The smell of rotten eggs and decaying flesh drifted up from the mess.
"Darvin! Climb!" Fife extended his arm down to pull up his brother. Darvin busied himself kicking the hands away, trying to keep track of the table's four sides. His movements grew frantic and wilder as exhaustion weighed more heavily upon him.
When Darvin didn't respond, Fife stretched down and grabbed for his brother in desperation, catching only a handful of the man's long, sandy hair.
"Ah!" Darvin cried, trying to kick the hands, maintain his balance, and not have a halfling-sized fistful of hair torn out by the roots.
"Jump up!" Fife ordered.
"Damn your hair! Jump!"
One of the amputated hands grabbed Darvin's ankle, and he kicked it away before jumping up. He grabbed the spokes. The wheel creaked, the chain groaned, and the pair swung ponderously to and fro. The hands jumped up on the tabletop and jockeyed for position. A few of them tried springing up to grab Darvin's feet, but he pulled his legs up quickly and threaded them through the spokes.
"Now what?" Darvin asked, whispering and looking at Fife through the gap.
"I have a plan," Fife whispered back.
"Why are we whispering? They don't have ears... do they?" He craned his neck to look back down at the hands.
"Climb up," Fife said, even as something in the ceiling creaked loudly.
"It won't take my weight!" Darvin hissed.
"Exactly," Fife said, grinning. "Now climb!"
Darvin remained dubious as only an older sibling could. Now atop the wheel, he froze and grimaced as more dust poured through the ceiling bolts and the wood complained beneath them.
They would fall. That much he knew, looking down at the table with all the hands jumping up, trying to grab at them.
Fife grinned in response and pushed himself up from his belly before thrusting himself down. The chain screeched in complaint and the wheel wobbled.
"Wait!" Darvin said. "What're you—"
Fife pushed again. "Help me!" he said.
Darvin suddenly understood. "The gods save us from your lunacy!" he said, and braced against the ceiling, pressing down against the wheel with his legs.
"Are they tiny gods?" Fife asked.
The chain didn't snap, but instead broke from the ceiling anchors and dropped them, heavy wheel, unspooled chain, and all. The chandelier struck the tabletop with a crash of falling mortar, breaking glass, and the squish-thud-crack of pulped hands. The impact hammered the air from the brothers' lungs.
"What fell force created and compels the bladed hands?"
Hands crawled away, their fingers snapped, small bones exposed. Some lay dead like curled-up spiders. Others rolled away to safety.
"We killed them," Fife whispered, but Darvin pulled him away.
"C'mon! Let's go!"
They bolted for the door even as the surviving hands sprang or wobbled to their digits. Ignoring whatever shock or injury the intruders had meted out, the hands immediately set after them in hot pursuit.
Darvin pulled at the door and sighed gratefully when he realized it wasn't locked. In fact, the passageway angled upward. The two brothers ducked through and Darvin slammed the door shut behind them, laughed despite himself—a desperate, exhausted bark of triumph and relief.
Then he caught Fife's expression. Following his brother's gaze, Darvin looked down and saw the small square at the bottom of the door, crowned by a hinge. Darvin knew he should understand what it meant, but his adrenaline-addled brain wasn't quite up to the challenge.
"What is—?" he began, but Fife interrupted him.
"It's a dog door!" the halfling cried.
That's silly, Darvin thought. "But I didn't see a—"
The first hand barreled through the swinging door, and Fife stamped desperately on it. The door shuddered as multiple thuds struck it, and several hands wedged at the small access as they all struggled to get through next.
Darvin acted, kicking the hinged flap and scattering the hands back into the room. He turned to find Fife no longer kicking the hand in question, but instead jumping up and down with both feet, knees as high as his chest, vigorously stomping the amputated monstrosity into the ground.
"Die, spider!" Fife screamed. "Die, die, die!"
"It's already dead, dead, dead," Darvin said, and grabbed Fife, pulling him along the passageway. The human did pause, however, and stomp heavily on the hand one last time before the pair bolted.
They ran hard, past shadowed corners and down strange passageways. Fife glanced through doorways, almost distracting himself once when he spied ancient tomes lining long bookshelves in one study. Darvin, however, grabbed Fife and pulled him along; he knew well how the halfling's natural curiosity overcame his survival instincts.
Finally, the corridor dead-ended at a doorway, the wood etched with strange arcane patterns of sweeping, curving meridian designs. Darvin glanced back behind them, but the stampede of hands was nowhere to be seen. He raised a foot to kick open the rune-marked door.
"No!" Fife screamed, and tackled Darvin's thigh.
Darvin grabbed the wall for balance and tried to shake his friend loose. "Do you mind?" Darvin asked, calmly.
"You don't know what those markings mean!" Fife said, arms wrapped tight around Darvin's leg. "It could be trapped!"
Darvin sighed. He just wanted to get away from here, from the village, from this entire ordeal as soon as possible. "Why would anyone trap their home?"
"Why would he lop off hands and animate them?" Fife asked, letting go.
"Maybe he couldn't afford a full staff?" Darvin offered.
"The point is, who knows what he was thinking?" Fife said. "Remember the Tale of the Moaning Virgin's Ghost?"
"You mean the one you wrote?"
"Actually," Darvin said, "I've been meaning to talk to you about that one. I don't think you thought the title through."
"Darvin!" Fife said, eyeing the door. "What I mean is, I research my material for authenticity. The wizard in that story trapped the door to keep something inside. It's based on a real spell!"
Darvin thought for a moment. "Alright," he said. "In that story, how did I open that door?"
"You..." To Darvin's satisfaction, Fife hesitated.
"I kicked it open, didn't I?" Darvin demanded.
"Yes," Fife said. "But that was a story. And you got cursed in it."
"Right," Darvin said, and kicked open the door.
The runes splintered under the breaking wood, glowing brightly for a moment before fading from the frame. Fife groaned in worry, but Darvin shoved his way through.
Fresh air swept across them, driving away the pungent, earthy smell of decay and replacing it with the dewy wetness of night and grassy hills and wind-ruffled trees. Moonlight filtered through the branches and the pair pushed forward, thrashing their way through the bush that hid the doorway and its rocky outcropping. The air felt infinitely better than the stink of death behind them.
Darvin collapsed on the grass, staring up at the night sky and laughed gratefully. Fife did not join him. Instead, the halfling peered back through the shrubs, checking the passageway they'd left.
"We lost them," Darvin said. "Stop worrying."
"They're tireless," Fife said thoughtfully. "Single-minded. Why'd they stop?"
"Maybe they can't leave the ruins."
"They've killed local farmers. They go out."
Darvin sighed and struggled to sit up. "Then why, oh great storyteller?"
Fife shook his head. Darvin could tell he didn't know, but the halfling examined their surroundings. Darvin glanced around as well.
They rested on the side of a great hill, one wave in a sea of green rolling dunes that stretched out in all directions. The clouds had rolled away, the face of the moon showing at full light this evening. Even Darvin could see clearly, though he trusted Fife's eyes more in the darkness. He peered into the countryside, noting the green and rocky landscape, this cluster of stones one of many among the companion hills.
Further south, below them, lay the dotted lights of the village, silent and tranquil in the distance. Then something caught Fife's attention and he waved frantically, pointing down the valley.
Between them and the village, the tall grass rustled and small dark things scrambled over the rocks, some slower than others.
"The hands," Fife said, horrified.
Darvin followed the line of movement, projecting their path until his eyes came to rest on the sleepy collection of buildings in the distance.
"We have to go," Fife said. "They're going after the village!"
Coming Next Week: A chance at handy victories and handsome rewards in the final chapter of Lucien Soulban's "Fingers of Death—No, Doom!"
Lucien Soulban is an accomplished fantasy and science fiction author who's written shared world fiction for White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, Black Library, and more, including the novels Blood In, Blood Out and The Alien Sea. For more information, visit his website at www.luciensoulban.com.