Generally speaking, Shuck was a well-trained dog.
This tended to come as a surprise to people meeting him for the first time. Barghests were not widely known to be obedient house pets. They were, rather, more associated with legends of Black Dogs that roamed lonely moors by the dark of the moon, their blazing red eyes and terrifying howl a presage of violent death. Typically, one did not expect passerby to stop and say, "Who's a good boy, Shuck? Who's a good boy?" and offer a skritch behind the ears, causing a flaming tongue to loll from his mouth in a doggy grin while his tail thumped on the floor.
The Royal House of Magic, though, was not an ordinary place. The magicians and apprentices scurrying by did not all recognize the pet of Mage Consul Lillet Blan's eight-year-old daughter, but even the majority who did not know him weren't inclined to stop and stare. Seeing a sorcerous beast who stood nearly six feet high at the shoulder lying peacefully in a nook, they were much more likely to think, "Huh, someone's familiar" than "Giant monster in the palace!"
Observational context meant a lot that way.
Being a well-behaved dog, Shuck was generally inclined to follow his mistress's orders. Cressidor Blan-Virgine had told him, "Now you stay here while I go find Mama," and Shuck had every indication of doing just that. He'd have much preferred to follow along, as in typical dog fashion he'd rather be with his people whenever he could, but he understood that it was his job to follow directions. And he'd detected the scent of pork jerky from Cress's pocket that morning, suggesting that there could be treats if she was happy with his behavior!
Besides, if he left the Royal House of Magic, people in other parts of the palace tended to be more...excitable than magicians. Like most sociable animals, Shuck got a little depressed when people didn't like him. And screaming was hard on his sensitive ears.
Still, in a place with so many people, filled with so many unusual sounds and smells, it was hard for Shuck to fully relax. Just then, for example, a strange click-clack noise from the stone-flagged corridor caused him to prick his ears up. A moment later, what appeared to be a skeletal hand walked by, its fingers moving on their own like the legs of a crab.
Thoughts of seafood distracted Shuck from the odd sight, and he settled his head back down between his front paws. He was just relaxing into a happy contemplation of last night's dinner, during which Cress had kept slipping him tidbits under the table, when more clicking noises disturbed his pleasant reverie. Shuck looked up again and saw what seemed to be a very large leg bone, perhaps from a cow or horse, flipping end over end down the corridor.
He blinked. This was, to his experience, a rather odd thing for a bone to do. In point of fact, it was fairly unusual in his experience for bones to do anything other than taste good unless they were accompanied by that scary pale light that made him want to hide behind the bed, but when one spends one's life in the kind of household that keeps a barghest as a child's pet, well, a dog learns to expand his expectations of "normal." Even so, ambulatory bones seemed a trifle odd.
Nonetheless, Shuck was a well-behaved dog (pork jerky!) and he settled back down again, only to once again hear the clickety-clack of bone on the corridor flagstones. This time, it was two sets of arm-bones, each set somehow connected at the elbow despite there being no sign of wire or connective tissue holding them together. The arms moved along like a pair of inchworms, bending up and flattening out. Just then, an apprentice and an elf came by from the other way, and paused in their chatting when they saw the arms. They watched the bones move by, then glanced at each other, shrugged, and kept on walking, continuing their discussion. It seemed that, while unusual, such an event was not enough to catch more than a moment's attention.
At least it wasn't giant fleas again. He gave a little shiver at the memory; they'd tasted bad! And Cress had gotten scolded for not giving him his flea bath! And he'd had to go take that bath! Sometimes, it was a truly a dog's life being a dog...
Once again the click-clack of animated bones broke up Shuck's descent into memories, though this time it was a welcome relief.
This bone was a ribcage, the sternum in place but with no sign of a spine. This left one end of each rib unattached to anything and it was on these empty tips that it walked along, like some monstrous arachnid with far too many legs.
Shuck whimpered. This was just getting too strange! One or two such odd events was within the kind of thing he might expect in daily life, but four? He wrestled with his doggy conscience, and after three solid minutes of a bitter internal conflict he rose to his feet. He knew he'd been told to stay, but...those were special circumstances! Surely this was one of those situations where the original command had been given in ignorance of the new events?
The clicking sounds had faded by this time, so as he started down the passageway he sniffed at the floor, following the dusty scent of the bones. He was happy that the scent did not carry with it the touch of that frightening pale light—that might well have convinced him that it was better for him to go back and lay down again. But he kept along, turning a corner and then another, passing a few people on the way.
A sudden crash and a strangled gasp made Shuck raise his head in surprise. Those were not good noises! He scurried ahead past a couple of closed doors and burst through an open one into a fairly large room, outfitted with benches, tables, and metal contraptions, several of which had open doors revealing burning flames. Indeed, the room much resembled the "Don't Go In Here, Shuck" room at home that his people called a laboratory. In the center of the room, one of the metal things had been knocked over, spilling coals out onto the stone floor. A robed human lay on his back next to it, unmoving.
The bones, meanwhile, were very much in evidence. In fact, they looked to have put themselves together with many others, for there was a positively gigantic skeleton on one side of the laboratory. It was at least eight or nine feet tall, basically looking human, but with legs that had an extra joint, feet that had splayed toes and claws like a bird, and a cow's elongated, horned skull but with jaws that sported reptilian fangs. The third arm attached to the top of its breastbone didn't seem any different from the normal two, except that its hand was squeezing the throat of an apprentice wearing ruby skirts.
It was the sort of scene where the plain facts were apparent even to the understanding of the family dog.
When Shuck hit the creature, he'd leapt up at it, forepaws striking the collarbones and using a quarter-ton or so of weight to knock it over, tearing it free from its victim. The skull-head turned on Shuck, pale yellow sparks in the depths of its empty eye sockets glaring balefully. Two sets of jaws snapped as the battle was joined in earnest.
~X X X~
"I know that nearly getting killed ought to be enough of a lesson, Master Freixenet, but in this case sterner measures need to be taken. Yes, there are wards and safeguards shielding the Royal House of Magic from the rest of the palace compound and yes, accidents will happen, particularly in Alchemy, but ignoring basic safety procedures because of 'should'ves' and 'ought tos' isn't acceptable. My daughter's dog isn't going to be around every day."
The head of the Royal Magicians nodded solemnly.
"I agree. Master Malbec will have to be sanctioned for this." He stroked his long, flowing gray beard with a spindly-fingered hand that looked a bit like a long-legged spider itself. "He endangered Miss Moët's life with his foolishness as well, which is even more unacceptable. One has a certain leeway to take risks for one's own ends, but not to involve others."
"So what was the problem, anyway?" Lillet Blan's professional interest rose up almost instantly after the administrative issue was dealt with.
"The bone golem did not properly respond to binding; it appears that the use of pre-existing organic matter to construct it, as opposed to minerals, interfered with the control functions. Master Malbec disassembled it, but the connection between the parts and the animating alchemic force was too strong to be severed by mere separation of the bones. Apparently, the components sought each other out and reassembled themselves, even more out of control."
"I see. Can you send me a copy of the full report? I'm interested in the specifics."
"Certainly. It was a fortunate thing that your daughter's barghest happened along when he did. As a creature of Sorcery, his magic was able to easily disrupt the alchemic power of the golem and render it permanently inert."
Shuck wagged his tail happily. He liked being a hero.
"Even so," the old wizard went on, "I am surprised that the golem inflicted so little damage upon him. The creatures are of relatively equal power; the mere magical advantage should not have made such a complete difference."
"Master Freixenet, you're forgetting something. The interaction between the magic of Sorcery and Alchemy is nothing compared to the long and very one-sided history between dog and bone."