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Almost Dead (again)

Rating: 4 votes, 5.00 average.
For inclusion later in the book...

The wound throbbed beneath his arm, and he could feel his blood soaking his shirt and trousers beneath the wound. His only hope was to get to a safe haven. His mouth gaped as he saw that he stood before the StormHaven public cemetery. If the blood loss didn't kill him, drinking the potion he had received from the Church would leave him incapacitated and vulnerable to capture – which would end up killing him. A passing visitor startled and hurried away as he realized that what he had thought was a sardonic smile looked more like the toothy rictus of a corpse. Drunkenly, he staggered inward, eyes that frequently lost focus locked on a large marker which told him that family crypts lay beneath.

“The gods must truly be watching tonight,” he thought as the lock seemed to fall open as he touched his picks to it. Such an expensive and complex lock seemed out of place on what seemed like a common familial vault, but he brushed aside the thought, and he relocked it after he had passed through. How he came to rest on his face at the bottom of the long stoney stairs confused him, even after he looked at his newly wounded hands and knees. Retrieving his picks, the door lock clicked open, and he entered the abandoned vault. Illuminated by the large moon, he could see dust being kicked up from the breeze created by the door. A single set of boot prints in the dust that were obviously made recently marred the otherwise smooth floor. The assassin smiled dimly as nothing immediately rose up to eat him, he entered after fixing the picture of what lay before him in his mind, and locked the door behind.

Four strong strides would have carried him past the first sarcophagus, but his weak steps as he staggered along left him confused as to how far he had traveled. Deciding that he didn't care any longer, he used his bloody hands to feel along the stone lid to judge his location. Clearing the coffin, he turned left and, holding his right hand out as his left tried to contain his broken ribs and bleeding side, he struggled for the wall and the cut-out catacombs he knew were there.

Knowing that his feelings of pain would subside first, he decided to quaff the magical potion. Keeping his left arm pressed firmly against his side to support his shattered ribs, he used his left hand to grasp the silver flask as he tried to open it. Sharp motes of white light swam before his eyes as he grunted to remove the top. Finally, as an act of desperation, he gripped the stopper in his teeth as he twisted the flask with his good hand. Amid the sound of grinding metal on bone, he was relieved to finally hear the hiss of the pressure being released. Nearly choking from relief and pain, he tipped his head back to receive the liquid.

Fires have been built to signal far-away sentries that were not as hot as what splashed down his throat. The sudden thought that he had been duped by that fool cleric struck him, but his need for either healing or a quick death steeled his resolve. Faster than he thought, the flask was empty and he dropped it at his feet. Reaching for the lip of the first recessed area he could find, he began to climb as quickly as he could.

Just three steps up he was nearly overcome by vertigo. His good arm swung wildly to find purchase as he wobbled. In the back of his mind, he could hear the ossuaries being knocked over as he desperately sought a handhold. Their crashes just feet below and the ensuing dust cloud of cremated remains told him to keep climbing. Finally finding the lip with both hands, he continued to haul himself upward. After he counted seven recesses, he stopped reaching higher and made sure the area immediately in front of him was clear so he could climb in. Pushing the skeleton of the most present resident aside, he rolled in on his right side, feeling the remaining bones as dull lumps in his back. With a slurred prayer to the god of the dead to let him sleep unmolested, he clasped his hands on his chest and lost consciousness.

The voices grew louder, disturbing his sleep. He had heard the scratching for some time but had been able to ignore it. The voices, however, were annoying.
“What do you wish to know from your brother” one asked. The mumbled response was both noncommittal and too quiet to hear.
From below him he heard, “... pray this man your Aunt hired is a quack. What would happen to us if he actually REACHES him?” The woman that replied seemed sure of herself, “When we stuffed his body down here we took the head with us, didn't we? With no head, a specter can't SPEAK!!” The girlish laughter seemed to jar him out of his slumber. Opening his eyes, he saw nothing... less than nothing. The blackness was thicker than any blanket than he had ever encountered. The sounds from outside were getting louder, and he heard keys jingling.

Reaching over, he gingerly felt his left side, the memory of the morning star crashing into his ribs still a vivid memory. The spikes that rent his flesh would leave scars deep enough that his children may inherit them. With a sigh, he realized that the roughness he felt was the torn material of his blouse, matted with dried blood. He could feel no obvious wounds and his ribs felt whole, though the entire area was quite tender. He suddenly realized that he was famished.

He also realized that the scratching sound seemed quite close to his left side. Reaching over his chest, he felt the wall of the recess – and recoiled as something moved under his fingers just inches from his shoulder. Slapping at the movement, the thought of spiders made his skin crawl, his blood ran cold. The movement was from boney fingers that were slowly scratching through the stone wall of the back of the recess. It wouldn't be long before this crypt would once again hold the recently deceased!

It was at that moment that the lock clicked and the door swung inward, illuminating the entire crypt.

“It is obvious that the dead rest gently in your crypt, Donnata.” The voice carried an aire of authority.

“We have striven long to ensure that the next life is quiet, Mystic,” came the reply. The woman was older, perhaps beyond her middle years, and seemed... what... resigned? “Come, children, we must complete the square circle before the bells toll the second hour. The light must be exactly right, now COME!” No. not resigned, more like at her wits end as a mother who tends too many colicky babies. She seemed like she was straining to retain her composure.

The two stragglers slipped and stumbled down the last few stairs. “Yes, Auntie,” they replied in unison. He could tell that these were the same two he had heard discussing murder just moments before.

Flickering light reflected from the ceiling just a few feet from him, indicating candles had been lit. “Close the door, you two,” Donnata commanded, “but make sure the window-gate is open. Get those stools over here!” Hearing the door swing to and click and the small door on the window tap open within seconds, it was obvious that they were used to jumping when their Aunt said, “Toad.” A fizzing sound came to his ears, and he could smell incense almost immediately.

Foxwort? His training in herbs told him that when used in a tea that a night of soothing lay ahead. Burned, the smoke caused burning eyes and made the subject susceptible to suggestions and when enough had burned, mild hallucinations were common. Why was the mystic burning foxwort? Keeping his eyes closed to slits to reduce their reflection, he slowly leaned over to peer over the edge. With the light below and nobody suspecting, he felt safe taking a peek. His view gave him the answer.

The man below ran his fingers across a set of bone chimes and rejoined the circle. From this vantage point, the bones looked like pig ribs, and their non-melodic clatter told him that they were well-dried. The man began a monotone chant as the assassin evaluated the rest of the party.

Sitting in the middle of the crypt, the man stood, facing the door, with a stand holding some sort of flat platter above his head. He was dressed in dark robes that had white or silver thread embroidering on the sleeves and hem. Recognizing none of the symbols, the assassin knew the man a fraud. His dupes consisted of a woman who's hair had gone more salt than pepper, drawn up into a severe bun, dressed in what looked to be the clothes of mourning, black and lacy. The young couple were obviously siblings, and very closely related to their Aunt, as the resemblance was startling. Their lavish clothing seemed more ready for a party than the cemetery. All four were holding hands in a circle around a small, brass brazier

The chanting began to get louder as the assassin saw the spot of sunlight from the tiny, open window make it's way across the floor to the sarcophagus. From his vantage point, the assassin saw that it would eventually fall upon the mystic's face. To what end, he wondered. Craning his neck to look at his surroundings, he saw that there were four ossuaries at the edge of the recess near his feet, two already cracked and broken, and one near his head. His clothing was all gray, covered in soot from the ossuaries he had broken in his haste to climb to this sanctuary. Looking back over his shoulder, the assassin appraised the efforts of the undead that was trying to scratch its way into the room. At least the chanting kept the party below from hearing the bones scrabbling at the hard stone.

For what seemed like an eternity, the charlatan chanted nonsensical words at varying speeds and volumes. The assassin started when the fake speaker for the dead began his show. A quick glance over the edge showed that the light from the window was nearing the man, though the raised lid of the sarcophagus hid the advancing light from the view of the other three. This man was good! The sudden realization that the mystic must have been the source of the boot prints on the dusty floor when the assassin had opened the door made his appreciation of the charlatan rise. He had obviously scouted the site and made preparations.

“The spirits are strong in this place.” The mystic's voice was deep and melodic. Perhaps it was the smoke of the foxwort that made it seem so. “The spirits are looking for answers! The spirits have no way of communicating to the living, so I offer myself to you. Take me! Use me! MAKE ME YOUR MOUTHPIECE!” In another place, the assassin would have considered light applause and tossing a florin or two. This was masterful!

An old woman's voice cackled up to him. “Bertram? Are you there?”

“No, mistress, we seek Landar, Landar Moissen! Is he there with you?” The mystic was having a conversation with himself! Peering over the edge, the mystic raised his arms wide and the Aunt reached across the brazier without looking to clasp the hand of her nephew. They had obviously practiced. The beam of sunlight had moved from the lid of the sarcophagus to the far wall behind the man. From the position of the trio and the voluminous sleeves hanging from the man's upstretched arms, the light would be invisible except as a pale halo of light around him. Oh, this man was GOOD!

The hag's voice returned, “My Bertram... my Bertram is never there. Why does he avoid me? The poison I used didn't really hurt him. He can't still be angry with me... can he? After all these years?”

The look of horror from realization of the import of the story the assassin could see on the Aunt's face was reflected in her charges', but that quickly changed as they jumped. “WOMAN! We seek Landar Moissen!! Send us Lord Landar Moissen!!” The mystic's voice was strong and reverberated through the stony chamber.

“My Bertram...” The hag's voice trailed off into the distance as the mystic's face lifted toward the ceiling and voice after voice spilled from his mouth. The assassin could see the beam of sunlight begin to touch the platter, and from the reflection of light, he realized that it was a mirror. A simple mirror that had been positioned to reflect that sunbeam down onto the mystic's face. The assassin mentally applauded the man. Charlatan or not, he was skilled. Suddenly, his eyes snapped open and for a frantic second, the assassin felt the eyes peering directly at him. The mystic's gaze slid from him and down to the trio, who were standing with rapt attention at the glowing visage before them. The reflected light from the mirror giving the dark face an otherworldly appearance.

“I am Landar Moissen,” the voice fairly boomed from the man.

A strangled cry came from the Aunt, “Oh, I had prayed that you weren't dead, Landar. I had prayed for every day these past five years that you had just run off or had been taken hostage or...”

“Donnata? My sweet? Is that you?” The booming voice was now quiet, yet lost nothing of the power behind the words.

“M-my... 'my sweet'??” Confusion was written across the matriarch's face. “You have never called me, “'My sweet'...” Silence for a full second told the assassin that the mystic had made his first misstep of the day.

“Things change on the other side, my little Donna.” Another choked cry and it was clear that the mystic had regained any ground lost.

“Oh, it truly IS you, my darling Lando!” Even her wards were enraptured by what they saw. Did any of the three remember that Donnata was old Iberi for “Little Donna”? “What happened, my love? Why did you leave me?” Sudden stiffening of the younger man and woman betrayed their terror at their pending indictment.

“My little Donna, I have horrible news to announce!” The voice grew louder with each word. “I have been MURDERED!”

It was at that moment that disaster struck.

The stone wall behind the Assassin gave way, and bony arms reached for him, grasping at his flesh and rending his clothes. A bony claw closed around his throat or he would assuredly screamed; the breath caught in his chest. Flailing wildly, the ossuaries near the edge flew into the crypt proper, the whole ones exploding on the far wall, all of them raining their gray contents down upon the party below. With a mighty heave, the assassin tore free from the hands and threw himself out of the recess. His only aim was to not land on a sarcophagus or on any of the party below. He was nearly successful.

His body fell hard on the stone floor, driving the breath from him. His head rang from where he had struck it on something hard on the way down... a sarcophagus? He struggled to regain his feet as he realized that the room had been plunged once again into inky blackness. With his head bent down to help maintain his balance, he stood still, waiting for the room to stop spinning. Then, as if by magic, the dust cleared from the middle of the room. The mystic lay sprawled on the ground as if thrown to the ground at the feet of the trio, while they stood before their tiny stools as if transfixed. All four were staring at him.

The light from the tiny window squarely illuminated his face. He could feel the tears from the foxwort smoke welling in his burning eyes, as well as the pulsing in the wound on his head and his throat where the skeleton had grabbed him. With his head still lowered slightly, he blinked strongly, and the assassin raised his ash-covered arm to point at the group.

“You have summoned me,” his voice was raspy and significantly higher than the mystic's version. “Your love and your hatred have brought me forth from the land of the dead.” The trio huddled together in terror as the mystic tried to crawl behind them, blocked by their legs. The tears he had blinked out suddenly soaked through the ash to make black streaks down his gray face. He opened his eyes to highlight the bloodshot whites that were the result of the foxwort smoke. The group huddled even closer.

“My little Donna,” even through her ash-covered face, he could see her blanch, “You have loved me from the start.” She bit her lip. “Yes, we have had our 'little disagreements' and we have said hurtful things to each other – but my time in the hereafter has made me realize the depth of my feelings toward you. For what you have said and done,” the pause was required because he was still short of breath.” “For what you have said and done, I forgive you, my love.” The tears that sprang to her eyes were of joy, and he thanked the fates that he had guessed right. Shifting his gaze, he continued.

“But I fear that I have other news.” His volume grew with each phrase, “Tidings of intrigue, and of hatred and greed.” He felt the blood from his head break free from the mat of ash-covered hair and spill down his temple. “Tidings of MURDER!” The moans of terror from the two were as music to his ears.

“Tell her. TELL HER WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!” He shifted his pointing hand to indicate the Aunt and then dropped it as they began wailing and holding each other tighter. “SILENCE!!!” The assassin's shout froze them like so much statuary. Then, in a raspy voice, “You have no idea as to the power you have given me. Listen,” he cocked his head to the side, right ear upward, toward the recess he had so recently escaped. “Listen. I call my brothers and sisters from the world of the dead, and together we will make you scream until WE decide to travel to the great beyond. NOW TELL HER!” The pair was so eager to confess that, in their haste, they were talking over each other. However, their stories meshed enough that a clear tale began to emerge.

It was a standard story of greed and sloth – a rich uncle who didn't approve of their laziness and told them they would be cut off. For that, he paid with his life. They both did the deed, and hid his corpse up in the... by the gods! The thought that it was the same recess in which the assassin had sought refuge brought his head up – making him wince as the wounds on his neck opened. A sudden thought struck him.

“Tell her the rest.” The Aunt's head whipped around in surprise.

“But there is no more,” was the stereo reply.

He could feel the blood begin to seep through the deep scratches as he spoke, “And that which you took from me?”

All eyes were on the dark line that ran across the assassin's throat. He raised his chin imperceptibly and felt a dribble run down his neck. “Where have you hidden my head, young ones?” The Aunt's recoil and accusing look were all that was needed. The assassin noticed that even the mystic was leaning against the Aunt's legs in an attempt to avoid the murderous duo.

Their voices were glum. “I gave it to him to throw into the river.”

The young man replied, “I couldn't risk being seen, so I buried it beneath the roots of the elm tree in the back corner of the garden.” Tears were flowing freely from all four by this time.

The assassin raised his arm again to point at the murderers. “Retrieve it. Pay to have it blessed with your own money, and then return it here, to my family's crypts. My friends will be here to receive it when you do, so bring a cleric.” Four sets of horrified eyes gaped at him. “I will not inform the judiciary. There is no need, now.” The young woman actually smiled for a moment. Then the moment was gone. The assassin could feel the blood flowing freely down his neck.

“Then, you will leave. You will depart from StormHaven and never enter this fair city again. You will be forever marked as murderers for my undead brothers and sisters to see – and we will pay you special attention should you ever decide to break your exile. I have lost one head through your treachery.” He reached up with both hands to cradle his jaw, “and I shan't lose another.” The assassin pushed up on his jaw as if he were removing his own skull and all hell broke lose among the group. He could hear the murderers declaring that they would have their Uncle's skull back with him by nightfall as they scrambled up the stairs.

Walking to the open door, he knelt down behind the door, leaning out past it into the doorway, and grabbed his hair with his left hand, hoping that he looked like a disembodied head being held aloft.

“My little Donna!” She froze at the top of the stairs and slowly turned.

“My love. You were always there for me. I will always be there for you. Once I am restored, I will rest peacefully and wait for you to return to my side.” As his knee nudged the door so it swung closed, he spoke a last time. “I will always love you.”

He counted to 100 before he stepped out of the door and began to shake himself as clean as he could. The scrabbling he heard from the recess meant that his visitors were about to make a full appearance and it was his intention to be well on his way to a warm bath and a healer by the time the undead got down to the floor of the crypt. Maybe the pair would try to return the skull without benefit of the cleric. Oh, well. It would serve them right.

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  1. Groqx's Avatar
    Loved It! Truly inspiring writing!
  2. cplmac's Avatar
    That was a truely captivating read.