Ecology of the Bone Guardian

June 2013

Co-written by Andrew Hamilton and Bryan Fazekas. The monster is Andrew's creation and the fiction is Bryan's.

This article was originally published in & Magazine Issue 2 in August 2012.


"And that is how that miserable thing cut my arm off!" The old man waggled the scar-crusted stump of his right arm to emphasize that it had been cut off at mid-forearm. The audience oohed and aahed and clucked noises of sympathy. More importantly, one kind soul purchased Hal another mug of ale. Not that he needed it: at mid-morning he was well lubricated.

David thought to mention that last week Hal had told a totally different and equally implausible tale of how he lost his arm. But today he didn't feel like Hal-baiting. Instead his attention was drawn to a member of the audience, a woman who looked old not as old as Hal but old enough to a twelve year old. The woman wore a wide brimmed floppy hat of a style David had never seen before, and she had to be a hunch back given the shape her cloak covered.

Curious, he followed the stranger out onto the porch of the tavern where David's best friend Jake sat with his grandparents. They had been adventurers in their youth, but had retired long before David was born. Still, Trajan's stories were REAL far better than Hal's and they weren't made of cow flop.

Trajan and his wife both smiled broadly in recognition of the woman, who in turn swept off her hat and performed an intricate bow. As she straightened David saw Jake's eyes widen. Looking at the woman David saw small horns the hat had covered. Jake started to say something but Trajan hushed him.

The three adults made small talk for a few minutes, catching up on old times, things David and Jake didn't much understand. They were twelve and a lot of the world outside of their home environment made little sense.

"That man's story was interesting," nodding her head towards the taproom, "but hardly accurate. I know you," nodding to both, "and Etjar faced a bone guardian. What can you tell me about them?"

"Well, we were searching an old tomb, helping a priest recover a relic "

===

The four acolytes, fanatical followers of the priest like their deceased brethren, led the way. The first eight taught the survivors the wisdom of probing everything floors, walls, ceiling, maybe even the air with long wooden spear shafts. The ancient priest buried in this tomb intended that his eternal sleep remain undisturbed. During the century since his interment other interlopers had triggered many traps.

The traps varied greatly: pits, spears, acid, dead falls. The moldering bones verified the equality of their lethality. The late acolytes demonstrated that the traps were just as deadly as when first built.

That had been in the maze above. For the past hour the invaders cautiously traversed a curving, gently descending corridor the devotees cautiously probing for traps, Trajan and Etjar with magical blades naked for protection and light twenty feet behind them, and Marissa and Hestan bringing up the rear. It was nervous work, the memory of the dead a constant, grim reminder of the penalty for not finding traps. Marissa kept an eye behind them so nothing would surprise them from the rear.

The corridor, smoothly finished and nearly twelve feet high and wide, imposed an oppressive feeling upon the trespassers. The grim mood made the front line tense. Normally good at estimating distances underground, Trajan felt unsure how far they had passed during the hour since exiting the maze above. He hoped that getting out wasn't going to be as lethal as getting in.

Without warning the corridor ended, opening into a room of much greater dimensions. "Halt!" called Hestan in his resonant voice. He never raised his voice but it carried. The probers froze in place like statues.

Trajan didn't know the names of any of Hestan's followers. They were eager puppies, instantly willing to do whatever the priest commanded. He never addressed them by name, and they didn't address each other in Trajan's hearing. Oddly, none showed much reaction when their predecessors died, other than relief that Hestan was safe. They were the oddest group Trajan had met.

The priest started a rhythmic chanting, words that were heard but indistinguishable and instantly forgotten, casting some unknown spell. Trajan and Etjar instinctively stepped to opposite sides of the corridor, vacating the middle in case a tangible spell effect needed to pass. But nothing passed. Bright blinding light sprang into being about 50 feet past the entrance to the room, 20 feet in the air.

Etjar estimated the room at 50 feet wide with a 30 foot ceiling. Pillars the width of a man's chest zigzagged down the room, helping to support the ceiling. The light of the priest's spell lit more than 100 feet down the way and the room extended beyond that. "Someone put a lot of effort into excavating this room," he thought.

Hestan softly commanded his disciples to spread out, checking behind the pillars, gently tapping and probing everything with the wooden spear shafts. The walls were bare stone but the pillars were highly ornamented with bas relief carvings of armored men in battle with animated skeletons.

It was slow going but slow-and-steady was better than triggering a trap with one's body. Trajan noticed that even in the cool of this deep, underground room the cannon fodder were sweating. "Yah, I'd be sweating too!" He and Etjar glanced at each other for a moment, meeting glances in sympathy for the acolytes but not breaking their vigilance. Glancing back he could see Marissa was the third part of their watchful triangle. "She may be a bitch but Marissa always does her part."

"Hold!" Marissa called softly. The two soldiers froze, senses straining for whatever caught the mage's attention, but the trap detectors kept at it. "Hold!" she called again, with no effect.

"Stop," Hestan called and his people froze in place. Turning to her he started to speak but she held a hand up to silence him. His face showed that he didn't like being shushed, he wasn't used to being shushed, but he had enough good sense to accept the silent rebuke. For now.

Trajan heard nothing, but Marissa's ears were better than his. He accepted her judgment that there was something afoot, adjusting his grip on his sword. Etjar did the same. The others remained frozen in place.

Then he heard it stone scraping on stone. Faint but definitely there. Impossible to place. "Where?" he wondered. Marissa's ears didn't seem to help her, either.

After minutes of silence one of the disciples broke the silence. "My Lord," he started to ask a question but was interrupted by a violent rasping of rock on rock, echoing all around the vast room.

The bas relief skeletons on the first eight pillars broke free of the stone that held them, a thin veneer of stone flaking off to reveal bone. Each carried a shield and a heavy, wide-bladed sword. Surrounding the human interlopers, they moved in for the kill in a coordinated fashion, an evil looking green light glowing in each empty eye socket.

Hestan thrust his golden scepter at the nearest two, speaking loudly for the first time, his ringing voice echoing in the vast room. "By the Grace and Might of Hestarunu I command thee to flee!"

The animated skeletons surged forward, chopping at the priest. His shock at the failure of his holy command was almost his death. At the last second he interposed his scepter between his neck and slashing death. Suffering a long slice on his left arm, he ducked behind Marissa to put her between him and death.

"Typical," she grunted as she parried a swinging sword with her staff and side stepped the second one's attack. Which by-the-way left the cowardly priest without a body between him and a skeleton.

Trajan, fighting with a hand-and-a-half bastard sword, parried a sword slash and shattered the skeleton's shield in return. He thrust with the sword, a beautiful stab that skewered the undead sliding between its ribs with no effect. "Damnation! I know better than that!" he screamed as he dodged the next slash.

Twenty feet away Etjar snatched a flail from his belt, side stepped a lunging slash, and crushed the skeleton's head as it stumbled past him. The evil green lights dimmed.

Taking the measure of her attacker, Marissa evaded several slashes, feinted high, and struck low, shattering the thing's right knee joint. Her staff rebounded from that strike to hit the left side of its skull, flinging it to the ground.

Screaming wildly Hestan ran away from his attacker, ducking around a pillar and slamming into Etjar, spilling both to the floor. The older man had no idea what he had hit, lashing out blindly. Fortunately the soldier's armor protected him from the frantic blows. Gone was the prim, proper, and controlled senior priest in his place was a frantic, weeping, out of control child.

Etjar extricated himself just in time to catch a hacking sword on his shield. He rolled away from the monster, trying to get to his feet. On his knees he brought his shield up and didn't see Trajan decapitate it from behind.

The weeping priest cowered against a wall, his noises eclipsed by the howls of his disciples. One was dead, one was soon to be as two skeletons hacked his prone body, and the remaining two double-teamed a skeleton with their spear shafts, the last skeleton scattered across the floor beside them.

A crackle of lightning flashed through the two hacking at the now dead body, illuminating their frames and crumbling them in a scatter of bones. Marissa stood thirty feet away, panting from the exertion of casting. The last skeleton crashed to the floor as the spear shafts cracked its joints.

The acolytes hurried over to Hestan, who had stopped screaming. He waived them off as he collected himself, physically and mentally. He looked down, not looking at anyone. The young men had seen the priest in a very unfavorable light. While it didn't seem to matter to them it would to the priest. "Bet they end up exiled to nowhere," Trajan commented quietly to Etjar, who nodded knowingly.

"CRAP!"

Marissa didn't yell often. Her ire was usually expressed calmly and coldly, as Trajan could attest from being at the receiving end of it so often. When she did raise her voice or swore it was something bad.

Unseen forces moved the bones of the skeletons nearest the acolytes, skritching them across the floor where they jumbled into a pile. It looked like something was sorting the bones, and in a matter of seconds the broken bones knitted together and combined with other bones to create a monstrosity. The combined skeleton had four normal looking arms, a broad torso with double the normal ribs, double thick legs, and an oddly shaped head. The evilly winking green light radiated from the four empty eye sockets. It picked up two shields and two swords, and advanced upon the stunned devotees.

Frozen in terror, they stood woodenly as it advanced upon them.

Somewhere in the depths of his soul Hestan found courage. Or maybe the fear of looking badly in front of his followers outweighed mortal danger. No matter, he rushed in front of his men, thrusting out the scepter that was the symbol of his god and thundered: "By the Grace and Might of Hestarunu I command thee to flee!"

Two heavy swords powered by supernatural force sent parts of his body in multiple directions as his soul took flight from his sundered body.

Being splashed with the priest's blood and fluids woke the men from their trance. Bawling in rage they insanely battered the monstrosity with their spear shafts, forcing it to retreat. In their fury they looked to crush it.

From the side another super-skeleton scythed one man down, and the second fell as he turned to his new attacker.

Marissa realized all of the shattered skeletons were combining in pairs, creating four super skeletons. "RUN!"

Evading a skeleton she ran for the corridor out. No slouches, Trajan and Etjar followed close on her heels, but the skeletons lumbered along as fleet as the humans. Glancing back she realized there was no way they could safely run through the maze with these things on their heels. They had to stop them here. "Guard me!" she yelled again as she stopped.

Trajan nearly ran her over, his 6 foot height towering a foot over her. Agile as ever he didn't crush her, but swerved and turned in one motion. As the nearest super skeleton charged with an overhead swing he kicked it in the pelvis, knocking it back three steps, and knocking himself down in the process. "Damnation, that's heavy!"

Struggling to his feet he heard the wizard cast a spell, longer than most she used in combat. Behind the two nearest super skeletons a wall of barely seen force shimmered into existence. The two other super skeletons, done with killing the acolytes, bounced off the wall. Marissa had reduced the odds for a few minutes, dividing the enemy into manageable chunks.

Trajan side stepped powerful swings and hacked across the belly. If the thing had been even vaguely human, or just alive, the battle would be over. Bone cracked but it didn't stop. A flare of flame and a wash of heat on his side let him know that the wizard was helping Etjar her flaming hands spell was a favorite when she was in close.

Against two blades and two shields the fight was hard. The soldier got in licks that would kill a mortal creature but barely bothered this thing.

Suddenly a point jutted from the skeleton's forehead, a shiny silver glowing point.

Etjar yanked his sword from the back of the super skeleton's skull. The evil green dimmed.

"We only have a few minutes before the magic of the wall ends. We need to be gone!" Marissa urged.

Skittering stopped them in their tracks. The pieces of the two super skeletons wriggled across the floor and rapidly formed an even bigger skeleton, this one with six arms, taller and double the weight of the previous one.

"BACK!"

Trajan and Etjar ran for the corridor as the force wall disappeared with a pop. Two super-skeletons and a super-duper version started forward as a glowing red bean flashed from the wizard's outstretched hand and exploded inside the super-duper skeleton's rib cage. Scorched bones flew in all directions!

But before the survivors could draw in a relieved breath the skittering sound of bones crabbing across the floor with no visible means of doing so filled their ears ...

* * *

"Upon destruction the pairs from the original eight formed four tougher skeletons, then the pieces of the four formed two, and finally one?"

Trajan answered. "Marissa's Fireball destroyed the second and third versions, and when the seconds formed another third but the first third didn't reform we thought we were done. Until the two thirds formed a fourth, which was truly deadly."

He took a sip of wine and added, "That's hard to follow, isn't it?"

Jake's grandmother interjected. "No, it's not hard. A pair of each version, when destroyed, forms one of the next version. There's eight, then four, then two, then one."

Trajan laughed. "I'm glad there weren't 16 to begin with!"

"Why couldn't the priest turn them?"

"Because they are a type of golem, not undead. Constructed from bones with magical force, not with unlife. Makes them deadlier than undead in some respects."


Bone Guardian

Frequency:Very Rare
No. Appearing:1 (typically)
Armor Class:varies (see below)
Move:15"
Hit Dice:1 to 8 (see below)
% in Lair:100%
Treasure Type:varies
No. of Attacks:1 to 4 (see below)
Damage/Attack:varies (see below)
Special Attacks:None
Special Defences:1/2 damage from cutting & piercing weapons, reformation, limited spell immunities
Magic Resistance:Standard
Intelligence:Non
Alignment:Neutral
Size:M
Level/X.P. Value:900 xp + 10 xp/hp ("apex")
Climate:Any
Organization:Mindless Construct
Activity:Mindless Construct
Diet:none
Morale:Never checks morale

Despite appearing to be humanoid skeletons, Bone Guardians are not undead, and as such they are not subject to clerical turning or magical effects that target undead (e.g., mace of disruption). They were developed as a magical construct to cause confusion as a result of their undead appearance.

In its "first generation" (1 HD) form, the Bone Guardian appears to be 8 humanoid skeletons that are visually indistinguishable from normal skeletons. The true nature of the Bone Guardian does not become apparent until two or more of the first-generation skeletons are destroyed or killed. When two skeletons are defeated, their scattered bones will skitter and slide across the ground, merging to create a second-generation Bone Guardian with four arms (a 2-HD creature). A similar merging of two second-generation Bone Guardians occurs to create a third-generation Bone Guardian (4 HD), and two third-generation Bone Guardians merge after destruction to create an "apex" Bone Guardian (with 8 HD). Only the destruction of the apex generation Bone Guardian will result in the final destruction of the individual first-generation Bone Guardians.

As the skeletons merge to create next-generation entities, the bones twist together to make the construct more durable, thicker, heavier and larger, with multiple arms and longer, sharper claw-like fingers. A second-generation Bone Guardian has four arms, and third and apex generations have 6 arms. A human skeleton weighs approximately 35 pounds, so an apex generation Bone Guardian weighs approximately 280 pounds.

As magical automatons, Bone Guardians have immunities to certain spells and attacks. They are immune to Sleep and Charm magic (including suggestions, hypnotism, etc.), fear, disintegration and poisons. Their physical nature provides additional protection, and they suffer one-half damage from cold-based attacks and edged or pointed weapons.

After assembling, the Bone Guardian will undergo a reversion if they experience a 24-hour period without combat. Each such day the Bone Guardian will disassemble one generation and regain 2 hit points. So, a Bone Guardian at the Apex generation will disassemble to a pair of third-generation Bone Guardians and regain 2 hit points (or 1 hit point per third-generation entity). The following day, the third-generation entity will disassemble into a pair of second-generation entities, regaining 2 hit points (or 1 hit point per second-generation entity), and so on.

Variants

There are credible reports of two bone guardian variants. The first variant was based upon the skeletons of gnolls. This guardian (encountered and destroyed by a band of seasoned adventurers) was reported to have sustained significantly more damage than a standard bone guardian. (DM note: This guardian would have 2 HD for each of the 8 skeletons in its first-generation form, doubling from there, and a gnoll skeleton weighs about 60 lbs, so the final apex guardian would weigh 480 pounds.)

The second variant forms a larger, two-armed skeletal amalgam with each successive generation. This bone guardian attacks less frequently (only 1 attack per round) but hits much harder (1d6 damage/generation).


Copyright 2013 Andrew Hamilton & Bryan Fazekas