Elminster's Guide to the Realms
The Bone Dance
by Ed Greenwood, illustrated by David Day, (Dragon #295)
In the Border Forest not far north of Dagger Falls stands a haunted hill avoided by local hunters. Its snarling ghosts are said to slay hunters with savage glee.
The Bone Dance is said to be haunted not by human dead, but by monsters who perished in the region. Their skeletons have often been seen dancing around its bare, rocky height at night, shrouded in strange glows that make them visible from afar. If living creatures venture too near, even by day, the skeletons give chase, ripping into those they catch with their bony claws.
As a result, few trap or hunt near the Bone Dance, and small game is plentiful in those trail-laced trees.
The Brave Blade
Although folk of Daggerdale and the Tesh valley shun the Bone Dance, they seem fascinated by it; unlike the local horrors that go unmentioned elsewhere in Faerûn, locals seem proud of the haunting in their midst and readily share descriptions of particularly scary monsters such as ghostly dragons coiling restlessly in the air above the Bone Dance's bare summit.
Any traveler who asks about such apparitions is sure to be told of the grisly fate of the Brave Blade. Around twenty-four autumns ago, this band of proud young adventurers out of Yhaunn (reckless fools in the eyes of most locals) were hired by a now-dead furrier, Lhastal Darramooth of Daggerdale, to end the haunting of the Bone Dance.
Although the tale has grown in the telling and is full of many obvious embellishments, the most chilling part of this local fireside shiver-tale is that its central narrative is utter truth. The Brave Blade was hired, set forth amid much laughter, set upon that same night, hunted down, and torn apart. The haunts left some of the band members' bloody limbs on Darramooth's doorstep for the furrier to find, and they left a bloody trail of death back into the woods that many local folk saw and recall all too vividly. No heads of the dead adventurers were seen that day, but their skulls still turn up from time to time - always perched on rocks beside trails or in other prominent places - as warnings to stay well away from the Bone Dance.
The Bone Dance
The infamous haunted hill is surrounded by thick stands of trees, but the top is largely bare. Those who've dared to venture near one of the many game trails (a dozen or more such trails climb the hill, presumably converging at its top - a strange route for game to habitually take) say that the Bone Dance looks odd - like stones dropped and shaped by a god, as one put it - and not something that should be there at all.
Such impressions are rooted in the shape and composition of the hill. Its flanks are of boulder-studded gravel scree and dirt, to which a few low shrubs and creepers cling. The hill is dome shaped, but its top is of jagged rocks, with a roughly circular hollow at the center.
This hollow is perhaps forty to fifty feet across and twenty feet deep at most. At its center stands a stone table: a huge, roughly rectangular slab set atop two flat-topped boulders. The slab has been darkened by many over-lapping bloodstains.
The few locals bold enough to actually peer into the hollow have all concluded that they were looking at an altar of some sort, and fireside tales all agree on this - although they vary widely in their claims as to what faith the altar belongs to and precisely what - beyond sacrifices - it is used for.
Many cling to the idea that the ghostly monsters rend and then devour living creatures atop the Bone Dance in a ritual that involves dancing or capering around the altar. Some ascribe this to a perverted worship of Malar, others to one of the Beast Cults, and a rare few to various deities of death, the dead, or even a divine Bone Lord venerated by undead monsters; it has been said that for every tankard of ale one purchases in a Daggerdale tavern, one can hear a different tale of what happens atop the Bone Dance.
Beneath the stone table, the truly bold find many skulls, tusks, fangs, jawbones, claws, and the like - all carefully placed well away from the edges to keep them from weather or incautious feet.
The Snarling Hunt
Elminster was able to take us beyond local rumor and shiver-tale embellishments and lay bare the truth about the Bone Dance. The great mage reported that the apparitions of dancing monster skeletons are just that: spell-spun illusions. Even close up, they're menacing and impressive, and they often stare down from the hill into the surrounding forest. They move in silence, and they have no feet, their legs fading from view at the ankles. They dance over, through, and above the jagged hill-top rocks as if such obstructions don't exist.
The most often seen ghosts of the Bone Dance are phantoms of giants (often sporting multiple heads or arms), chimeras, hydras, wyverns, and trolls of gigantic size. Behirs, dragons, retriever tanar'ri, and even illithids are also often seen. From time to time their hides or living bodies seem to appear and briefly cloak their bones, or they ride their skeletons as shadows or mists before fading away again.
The apparitions sometimes make bestial sounds. Often these are strange hootings, ground-shaking roars (called "longthunder" by many folk of Daggerdale, who can hear this particular sound at a great distance), or wolf-howls, rather than the calls or sounds normally made by the creatures the phantoms resemble.
When they detect intruders venturing too close to the hill, the monsters give cry, lower their heads, and rush down the hill to give chase. As they pursue, they all make extremely loud, menacing snarling noises, and they often overrun fleeing creatures.
Interestingly, no beast ghost has ever actually slain anyone. Harm is done by spells that appear to be physical attacks made by the phantoms, and directly by beast-headed humans who pounce from hiding, employing weapons such as bear-claw-studded clubs, claw-like bladed gauntlets, and the like.
These ambushing attackers are worshipers of Malar wearing beast-masks and the pelts of forest creatures. The dancing ghosts are a fraud they maintain to keep the faithless away from the Place of Offering, their sacred site.
Many of the largest and most obvious trails close to the Bone Dance are lures for intruders and prowling predators. They are kept clear of fallen trees by the Malarites, but the growth of shrubbery and undergrowth is encouraged to better conceal pit traps.
The cultists call these traps "fangfalls" for two reasons: Pointed wooden stakes line each pit, and the Malar cultists place aggressive, poisonous snakes in the pits to attack victims.
A typical fangfall is about 20 feet deep, with a cover of interlaced tree boughs covered with vines, a light coating of earth, dead leaves, and growing plants and fungi. Fangfall stakes are usually fastened together into a one-piece frame and lowered into a fangfall by use of a rope, which is left in place (concealed, of course) for hauling the frame out again later for repairs and easy removal of bodies and captured items.
Fangfalls are clustered heavily in two spots of note: in a cleared area at the base of the Bone Dance known as "the Throat" (an obvious assembly area for groups of intruders to gather and plan an assault on the hill) and around a false altar (crude stone table) where the Malarites often leave the bodies of intruders they've slain - to lure would-be rescuers or avengers to their dooms.
The Bone Dance is the central worshiping-place of the tribe of the People of the Black Blood that inhabits the southernmost Border Forest (other Malarites dwell in its northernmost two-thirds). This tribe of Malar worshipers calls itself the Rauthtor, and it consists of folk who live wild in the forest itself, foresters, and subsistence farmers from the Tesh valley.
The name of the tribe comes from a long-dead brute of a man named Rauthtor, a crazed farmer who lost his family to raiding orcs. Rauthtor, gifted with unusual strength, did not rest until he'd hunted down all of those orcs and personally slain them. He lived the life of a prowling hunter in the Border Forest thereafter, seldom emerging save to sell owlbear pelts when he needed new supplies and blades.
Rauthtor hunted monsters, game for food, and those who crossed him with the same cunning and fearlessness, and although he probably never venerated Malar, he inspired some Malar worshipers who fled Zhentil Keep when Manshoon came to power and that city fell ever more firmly into the grip of Bane.
They founded a tribe of the People of the Black Blood in the Tesh valley, retreating north into the Border Forest in response to hostile treatment from Teshen farmers. The band stayed in the trees to avoid foraging bands of orc mercenaries employed by the Zhents.
Members of the Rauthtor make several beast-masks for themselves. They typically conceal these masks in coffers or old helms lightly buried or perched inside hollow trees well away from their dwellings to avoid discovery. These are typically shaped with some skill (senior members of the tribe aid the stumble-thumbed) and always have fur, ears, fangs, and the like attached, so wearers look like they have the heads of wolves, bears, or other forest beasts grafted onto their own.
Such masks must be worn for rituals, when hunting or fighting for the tribe, and during sentinel duty. Duties of the Rauthtor include participation in rituals (including the usual High Hunts celebrated by all Malar cultists), defending the Bone Dance against intrusion (both by active fighting and keeping watch over the Bone Dance as sentinels, a duty typically performed when lying concealed on high tree branches), maintaining its fangfalls and trails, and capturing snakes for use in the pit traps.
The bones kept beneath the altar are holy regalia, to be dipped in the blood of sacrifices and brandished during prayer-dances around the altar such as the Blood Chant.
Every tribe of the People has its own rites. But non-believers need only remember two things: hunts and sacrifices. Malarites like to spill blood in the name of Malar, both on altars and in the chase, and blood-lust is their preferred state Some might approach prey stealthily and with cunning, but the chase is what fires their blood, and most will wound to spill blood as they pursue, trying not to fell a fleeing creature before they must.