Bone Eaters by Glen Cook. A Black Company short story, originally appearing in the Operation Arcana anthology, published March 2015 by BAEN. Approx. 25 pages.
As Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part.
Ever since Operation Arcana came out this past March, with the blissful promise of a new Black Company story, I've been biding my time until a used copy hit the Amazon $.01 section. As soon as one did, yours truly grabbed it, and promptly devoured the story in one afternoon. Side note: I already started reading some of the other stories in the anthology; they are pretty damn good, so hopefully I can slap together a larger review of all the tales in this tome (then again, this is like the third anthology I've said this for, and I never seem to get around to do it. But seriously, there are some powerhouses contributing in this book).
As for Bone Eaters....
Regardless of what my concerns may have been with Glen Cook adding new stories into old Annals, all of these recent shorts have been superb. Bone Eaters is no different. This is Cook channeling Croaker's younger self seamlessly (no mean feat; since there is probably much of Cook in Croaker, and as the author aged and evolved philosophically, so did the Annalist), allowing the reader to tap back into the vein of the story line that originally hooked them.
Bone Eaters is slightly different from some the previous shorts in that the timeline takes place during around the Shadows Linger arc, with the Company fleeing their former pact with the Lady (whereas most of the other shorts took place while the Company was stationed at Aloe, still in the Lady's employ). If I remember correctly, Shaggy Dog Bridge would directly precede this.
There are two major points of interest in this short. First involves the Company picking up some would-be brigands/would-be Company members. Of note in this mob is a young girl named Chasing Midnight, who shows portents of being a budding witch. The interactions between Croaker and her are reminiscent of his dealings with sisters Shukrat and Arkana in Soldiers Live. Part parental, and part predatory. There is no other way to put it; Cook is a master at capturing the way that (some) older guys lustfully leer at nubile young girls like the Big Bad Wolf of fable, no matter how much of a nurturing facade they offer as an excuse. Heck, the older I get, the more I see the truth in it. That's why you love to read Cook's works; there is no B.S. allowed; he's got your number and he's holding up his as well. But there is a lot to Midnight; the undercurrents of fear, anger, and manipulation. At one high point Croaker makes an observation about the beginnings of the evil mages in dark towers. It stands as some decent food for thought.
The second point of action is the obligatory conflict that needs to be resolved. In Bone Eaters, Cook introduces the idea of "Hungry Ghosts"; spirits that inhabit an entire town. They emit a perpetual siren call to lure hapless passersby into becoming vessels for them to occupy. The general consensus is that Lady is steering them towards a demise here so that her hunting dog Taken (namely Whisper), can recover a bit from what has been an exhausting pursuit of them.
The ghost town idea is done very well. The high point is not in the monsters themselves, but in how the Company approaches resolving the problem. To be 100% frank, this whole portion of the story is somewhat superfluous; in fact this would have been a winning story just focusing on the inter-Company exchanges in light of the new faces among them. But the "hungry ghosts" are nicely realized; Cook, in typical fashion, makes sure to guarantee that there is a cause and effect, and limit to their powers, in order to give them legitimacy. The scenes where some Company members enter the haunted town is pretty tense, and it shows how the characters act under actual pressure.
As always, it is great to see old friends again. There aren't any real complaints I can list regarding this short. The only thing that caught me a little off guard was the insinuation that the feelings between Silent and Darling may have been somewhat mutual, instead of one-sided (of course, I might either be remembering wrong, plus all the Annalists have been notoriously unreliable narrators). Cook also does a lot with his new characters as well. As already mentioned, Midnight and her gang are done well. Malicious bully Rusty, introduced in Shaggy Dog Bridge, is given some strong moments as well.
All in all, this story alone is worth picking up a reasonably priced copy of this book.
Here's what it is:
On the run from the Lady, Croaker and Company pick up some urchins and get steered towards a literal ghost town. A strong conflict is upstaged by stronger characterizations.