Knucklebones



A flurry of snow whistled into the pub. Boots clomped on creaking oak. A gloved hand pounded shut the door, swollen in its frame.

"Blimey. The heat's relief," said Ewan, stamping scabs of snow and muck from his hobnails. He brushed frost from his bristled chin, licked frozen ooze from a healing split lip.

"Aye," said Row, just behind. She dropped a furred traveling hood, unlaced her cape with crooked, white-scarred hands. "Whiskey'll make it better."

They stomped to the bar: A long, polished oak-bench, hung with sausages and bottles, opposite a brick hearth just as wide. There, in a veritable cave of masonry, grumbled a blistering fire. It hunched in a nest of coals and deep ash, gnawed the glowing ends of pines log pushed into its lair.

At the bar sat a collection of three soldierly types in winter uniform. Thready patches adorned their coats, shaped like roses couched in thorns. They sat amidst littered glasses and spiked helms, speaking low.

Ewan found a stool, undid his gloves and brass coat buttons. Neath the open duster showed a belt hung with no shortage of steel. Steel, and a fat purse, which Ewan removed. He sat, fingering the clasp. Row joined, nearest the soldiers, rested elbows on the bench.

"Bottle o' whiskey, your best," said Ewan to the grey-plaited publican. He thumbed her an iron-bound gold pound from the purse.

"And whatever food ye got," said Row.

The publican nodded. Broad crystal tumblers appeared atop the bar, then a square, purple bottle. Ewan popped the cork, sniffed. "Oh, lovely peated stuff, this. Reminds me of home.," He poured for both of them.

"Aye," said Row. She wrapped crooked fingers round her drink, raised it in mock toast. "To Jengory, home of good whiskey and silly bastards."

Ewan punched her shoulder. Whiskey sloshed. "And to golden ventures aplenty." They drank.

"Oi now."

Row turned, eyebrow raised. One of the soldiers, a broken-toothed man with a scrub-brush mustache, had leaned over. His fellows, a pimply woman and green-eyed man, leered behind.

"Aye?" Said Row, over her shoulder.

"Couple'a cutters, ain't ya?" said the soldier, nodding. He slurred a hint.

"True, that," said Ewan, squinting. "And you're Lothrheimers."

"Come from out o' town, have ye?" said the mustache.

"From the last county over."

"Fresh off a venture, I'll bet." The soldiers nodded exaggeratedly. "With all pretty gold in yer sacks, free to spend."

"What's it to ye?" snapped Row. She turned, rested a scarred fist on the counter. Her clenched knuckles squeaked like rubbing glass.

"Row…" hissed Ewan, straightening. He slipped a hand into his coat, flicked his eyes about. The publican had gone. The other soldiers had tensed, risen from their stools.

The Lothrheimer bared broken pickets of teeth, a rough grin. "See, we're much alike," said he, creeping closer, exhaling fumes of liquor and bad liver. "Get to drink 'n fight, wear all swords and armor." He turned a lip, clownish. Row met his pinprick gaze, seething.

"'Cept we don't got get paid half so well." * His eyes flicked to Row's fist. "Nor have such pretty hands."

He lunged, seized Row's wrist. The other soldiers leapt, too, dove to tackle the cutters. Stools clattered to the floor. Glasses smashed and bounced. Row staggered back, thrust her free palm at the soldiers.

A series of loud, energetic clicks split the air, fast as a fluttering heartbeat. The broken-toothed man abruptly ceased his assault, winced, released his grip. Behind, his fellow Lothrheimers recoiled, began to cry out.

Row snarled, thrust both scar-spidered hands at the shirking soldiers. The clicking intensified, quickened. Red blotches sprouted on the trio's flesh, grew to burbling blisters. They screamed, gasped. One, the pimply woman, bolted. Ewan seized her by the belt, swung her cross the room into the blazing hearth. Ash billowed. At the bar, hanging bottles burst their corks and spewed under the boiling scour of the cutter's crooked hands.

Abruptly, the clicking quit. Row slumped, rested quivering palms on knees. At her feet, the two Lothrheimers squirmed, mewling, shed steam and smoke from smoldering hair and boiled eyes. The soldier Ewan had thrown lay afore the hearth, feebly patted flames from her uniform.

"Shite" said Ewan, looking about. Wine and spirits still trickled from burst bottles behind the bar. "Pubkeep's gone. Bet she were in on it. Bastards." He approached his fellow cutter. "Suppose you're fine?"

Clumsily, Row seized their bottle from the bar, drank eagerly from the neck. "Aye," she coughed. "'M fine. Let's find someplace else."

She turned to the door, clapped Ewan on the back. He flinched under her touch.

"What?" said Row.

Ewan hesitated, looked to the ruined bar, the wrecks of soldiers, then the yellow eyes of his friend the magician. He patted her in turn, gingerly. "Nothin," he said, grimly.

"Let's get out of here."



Rolf snapped his fingers, lit a cigarette in the resulting flame. He puffed, leaned back in his seat, shook the spark from his calloused thumbtip. Beside him, a woman with cropped, red hair frowned. Rolf raised an eyebrow at her.

"Showoff," scoffed the woman, plucked up a flute of wine. Rolf smirked back.

Round the table, the other diners chuckled. One, a long-nosed lad not dissimilar to Rolf, spoke. "Pish posh, Pricille. You're just mad he didn't offer you a light." The others chuckled. 

"Magicians," Pricille scoffed, averted her gaze. About the rose garden where they sat, a dozen more tables like theirs were thronging with similar long-nosed family. Folk, clad in light suits and navy blue, steel-accented Firlish uniform, tittered and drank, sometimes amusedly plucking flirty rose pixies from their padded shoulders.

"Really, though," said the previous lad, waving a glass. "By the family's standard, your fiancĂ©'s hardly showing off. Not in the least." 

Rolf nodded, wiggled his fingers. Thin, white scars, some still dotted by suture marks, marred his long digits. "This is nothing, comparatively. 'Specially to our elders." 
He set his free hand on Pricille's shoulder, leaned to speak conspiratorially.


"See them?" Rolf said. He pointed with his cigarette, indicated a table of officers in Academy sashes. "My aunt Hurli and some friends from the Academy. See their gloves?" Pricille nodded. 

Rolf squinted, waved the smoke. "Wear them for the scars. Each of them has a full hand each, at least. No parlor tricks, either."

"What can they do?"

Rolf exhaled dramatically. "Jolly impressive shite. Deadly, like. Blow out your ears; melt your skin; poison the lot of us ten times over."

Pricille frowned into her wine, then at Rolf. "They don't actually do that, do they?"

"No. Not any more, at least. We hardly know they ever did, in the first place. For the Army, you know."

"Why have them, then?"

Roft chuckled. "Well, why does any magician practice the art." He shrugged. "Because he can."

A thin cousin across the table piped up. "Grandpapa's used his tricks, that's for certain." She nodded to an old man some tables away, his waxy skin pulled thinly over sunken cheeks and knotty, mismatched, tattooed knuckles. "He'll tell you all about the ancient stuff."

"Awful stories, but impressive," said the long-nosed lad. "A real magician. Right enviable."

Rolf and his cousins nodded. The thin woman grinned, spoke low. "We simply can't wait for him to die."

Pricille looked aghast. "That's awful. Rolf, why?" 

Rolf raised his eyebrows at her. "For his knucklebones, of course."



Abscission

You can tell a magician by the hands. By the knotted joints, the digital scars; the remnant lines of surgeries cut to wrest carpal and phalange alike from their fleshy beds. By the knucklebones, plucked, discarded in favor of potent artificial surrogates.

These hands are the marks of magicianry’s most cardinal art: Abscission, the surgical replacement of human hand bones with structures of rare device and latent power.


Abscission, though few practitioners will admit it, is a relic-art of high sorcery; of the terrible heights of body modification so enjoyed by the sorcerer-kings of old. Only by the remembered ways of these kings can magicians reliably commit surgery of such minutia and complexity as the excision and replacement of their own fingerbones. **

The daunting complexity of such surgery, let alone threat of injury, is often sufficient to deter half-committed practitioners of the art. Appropriately, ambition is a trait aspiring magicians rarely lack. They'll gladly screw their hands to the surgical clamp, proceed to slit skin, splay tendon, muscle, ligament; and extract their mother-born bones. 

At this, many enough can succeed, given a bit of book-learning and butchery. Fewer can set a new knucklebone in place, fuse vein, ligament, and fickle nerve to make a digit which again lives, let alone works and conveys desired powers. Fewer yet can even obtain a knucklebone to implant, for such constructs are precious things indeed.

Every knucklebone is a coveted masterpiece of design, a product of not only sourced marrow and bone, but of steel, stone, glass, and queerer materials beside. An intricate organ; desired by many, afforded by few, and understood in design and manufacture by scarcely any at all.


Only the merest of magicians' fingerbones are commonly crafted today. They are rude tricks. Simple mechanisms, built from rote recipes and fit only for magicians of small power and low aspiration. *** Greater bones are coveted things. They languish, secreted neath silk gloves and jealousy, fast in the hands of aristocrat practitioners and dead sorcerers; rarely used, if at all, but no less valued for their desuetude.

Recipes for great knucklebones are rare indeed, but not unknown. They are hidden in deep tombs, scrawled in the page-memories of incunabula. Magicians devote long lives to the discovery of these recipes, only to hide them away in jealousy, often unused. To craft such bones is a terrible task, in any case, often requiring no milder ingredients than priceless stones, condensates of human flesh, or the power of a legendary sorcerer's stone.

Many folk, be they possessed of artful goals or simple greed, find the hands of living magicians to be objects of supreme covetation.  
A brand of criminal exists which will gladly plot to sever the hands of known magicians.  Magicians themselves eagerly inherit the severed digits of elderly relatives. †† The most devious, namely those of Empereaux, oft conspire against their kind, commit murder for new additions to their hands.

It is better, perhaps, to hunt precious bones not in the living, but at their source: The tombs of ancients. An ever-increasing number of knucklebones, artifacts of a quality and age oft unseen outside the heights of rich magicianry, now rest in and circulate over the calloused fingers and gold-greased palms of magician cutters. They are wrested from old complexes and ancient sites at a rate never before experienced, quickly find their way to happy buyers or the inexperienced hands of hedge magicians.

A selection of knucklebones most often found in the hands of cutters are detailed below:
  • Matchstick. A steel thumb-bone, oft marked with a manufacturer's stamp. Plentifully available in magicians' circles. Some days after implantation, queerly broad, calloused pores form at the thumb tip. When scraped, they produce a bead of volatile liquid, which readily ignites upon a second scrape. The flame is like that of a proper lighter, but larger. Every day, the bone produces sufficient fuel to burn for a half minute. It does not, however, inure the host thumb to the heat of any fire which may burn atop it. 
  • Thundercrack. A porcelain bone, made small for the first phalange and inlaid with copper contacts on the joint. When the joint is popped, it creates a sonic boom akin to that of a small lightning strike. An effective, deafening weapon, but a hazardous one. Thundercrack bones require small quantities of phosphate salts in the host bloodstream in order to pop, and stiffen displeasing if not popped in some time.
  • Germ. A little glass bone shaped for the fingertip phalange of the ring finger. Contains a tiny, suspended organ and floating capillaries. The organ in question varies, depending on the bone's make. Most are venom glands, cut from scorpions, weird fish, and young serpents. Others, rare versions dug from the oversized knuckles of Naussians and other such sorcerers, contain globules of plagued or blighted flesh. Whatever a germ bone contains, it will readily produce. When its joint is popped, once per day, it will well a liquid carrier for its devoted substance at the pores of the host fingertip. 
  • Woe. A copper metacarpal, thicker than is natural, with green glass joint-ends. Coiled gold rests neath the glass, and a long, concave focusing-plate lies along the bone's underside. Also known as "stoke bones" or "magician's fire," bones of woe are a magician's most recognizable and awful weapon. When activated, a queer gesture which requires locking the involved joints, the bone begins to burst directed, invisible radiation with every heartbeat, clicking capacitively and loudly. This radiation quickly boils water and heats metal. The effect of a single bone of woe is diffuse and ineffectual at range, but scales with additional, adjacent bones, which serve to focus and intensify the bursts. Placing one's palms together further focuses the effect, with practice. A single bone at touch or close range causes sensations of dreadful burning. Two may boil flesh at two meters, given time. Three or four makes a weapon of rare horror indeed. Cutters rarely earn more than one full hand. Woe bones' operative organ will only function with an appropriate measure of phosphate salts in the bloodstream, and will greedily consume them.
  • Quantity
    Damage
    Eff.Range
    Req.Salt
    Zone of effect
    1 bone
    2/round
    2 meters
    1/round
    A half-meter wide beam, sufficient to affect three body areas. Unchanged by bone quantity.
    2 bones
    4/r
    3m
    2/r
    3 bones
    6/r
    4m
    3/r
    4+ bones
    8/r scaling
    5m+
    4/r scaling
    Two Hands
    Range
    Salt reserves
    Damage and range scale above 4 with the addition of a second hand of bones. Though 8 bones of woe are near-unheard of, distribution in both hands is valued, as they add 2 meters to effective range when cupped to focus the beam.
    Damage falls off at a rate of -1 per meter exceeding effective range.
    An average human may circulate up to 12 pinches of phosphate salts in their bloodstream. Replenishment via hypodermic takes a round.


Author's Note

Happy Halloween.

This one is a total rewrite of an early article, now better-developed after much cogitation. I'll add more bones, in the future, along with a wee table for surgery. 


Additionally, I'm actively constructing systems and stats for broader salt-based finger-magicianry, for inclusion in that system doc I keep developing.

I have included generic stats for bones of woe, as they, more than the rest, are least easy to adapt to one's system of choice.

Footnotes

* This is a popular misconception, part of the romantic lure of venturing. Only a fraction of cutters make money substantial enough to be jealous of.
** Tradition and a typical wont for secrecy dictate that magicians perform abscission upon themselves, one-handed. Rarely, a close accomplice or trusted minion will be employed as assistant. Even then, the magician will perform necessary cutting without assistance, for simple, perverse pride.
*** The Crown Academy of Firlund is the largest known producer of knucklebones. Their manufacture is private, limited only to faculty and magician military officers.

† The Holy Inquisition is especially fond of removing the hands of magician assassination targets.
†† As resizing knucklebones is an impossibility, inherited bones are often worn in different positions in different owners. A ring-finger third phalange made for man may serve as a woman's middle finger-bone of the same row. Often, magicians' hands are knotted and painful for precisely this inherited mismatch.

Benton

Chief Producer of Typos at Incunabuli.com.

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