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The scraping sound of nails on the wood paneling behind her was grating on her ears as she leaned back against the headboard with her back. The urge to cover her ears as the wood made a screeching sound that had kept her up all night long as the sky outside of her window was going from night to dusk. No matter how many times she yelled aloud to disrupt the noise of fingernails scraping against the walls, it wouldn't let up to her aggravation. Not even the stereo could drown out the unceasing noise. When she got up from her bed, the sound of laughter would get her blood boiling. Several times, did she try to find the source of this scraping culprit. Except there was no one to be found, as she searched her entire floor top to bottom of her apartment complex.
The first time she heard it, she had dismissed it. Big mistake. When she woke up the next morning, there were welts of what looked like scratches and claw marks going down her skin. The flesh an angry red from being scraped away by these vicious marks; almost as if she displeased whoever was making the irritating noise. The following day, she found more, and began to tremble in fright. Several times, did she contemplate leaving the spooky apartment she rented out for the summer. Only her pride kept her from leaving. And the thought of giving up, didn't sit right with her.
A few months had passed by in a blink of an eye, and the scraping noise shifted into something altogether. The scraping noise became evident as a shovel lifted dirt up off the ground, and tossed aside. A lonely priest stood atop of a freshly made grave as he held onto his rosemary beads; the cross burning into the palm of his hand as his discontent gaze looked down at the newly made victim of the supernatural was being set down to be buried. A shame, some people whispered. No family came to this mere woman's burial. She had no one to cry for her sake. The priest muttered a few words of prayer for this woman's soul as the detective and officers contemplated on what to make of this death. It wasn't natural.
In the distant sat a young woman with a devilish grin on her face as she filed her nails to perfection. Next to her was a man in his late thirties that wore a black trench coat, and hat to obscure his features from the public eye. All but his golden eyes could be seen. A grimoire sat on the grassy plane with a star resting atop of it.
"Can I eat the priest next?" The man hissed.
"No. The priest is off limits." The young witch cackled gleefully. Her eyes speaking eons of years of causing casualties among the weak minded humans compared to her newly acquainted companion. "Quench your hunger. You mustn't ruin your supper, dearie."
Steel shards flew, and the smith looked critically down the edge of the blade. Steel shards were a bad sign. Showed evidence of wear and pitting.
More shards. The swordsmith sighed, dejected. The samurai who owned this blade was a buffoon, a swaggering braggart who used it to chop down anything and everything in his path--street signs, furniture, commoners, servants. The only thing the smith knew for certain the samurai hadn't tested his sword against was an actual bandit or rōnin. Nothing that might strike back.
But it wasn't the samurai's cowardice or petty cruelty that broke the smith's heart -that was to be expected of any samurai- it was the utter disregard he had for his sword. The samurai made no distinction whatsoever what he was cutting -steel, wood, flesh, or bone- if something offered itself to him, his first reaction was to strike at it. He did not cut; he hacked. The swordsmith knew from the first moment he handed over the sword that he should have given him a butcher's cleaver instead.
The swordsmith set aside his whetstone and ran a hand along the side of the blade. Each nick cried out in pain to him, each jagged edge told a story of casual abuse. This was not how it was supposed to be. Closing his eyes, he let his hand rest there for a long moment, communing with the metal of this beautiful, tortured instrument of art and death. Finally, he picked it up and walked over to where his kiln still burnt hot. He picked up a hammer.
With a screech of twisted metal, the sword lay, bent and broken, on his workfloor. Irreparable. Useless. The smith knew he would be punished severely for this -perhaps even killed- but right now he did not care. He got down on his knees next to the broken body of his sword, as dear to him as one of his own children, and bowed until his forehead touched the ground. In the absence of an honorable life, this was as close as he could provide to the honorable death his sword deserved.
Mr. Tate Thedmar, Gravekeeper
"Mm-hm, 'lmost there, sah. Just a ways 'round the corner — you know the place, sah. Usual place. Yes indeed." Like the echo of his too-big boots on the cobblestone, Thedmar's voice was flat, even, and incessant. He mumbled on and on, easy as breathing, with no care or purpose to what he said. Simply emptying his mind of whatever thoughts were passing through.
When he could think of nothing new to say, he would find a way to repeat himself using different words. "Same place as every other night," he went on. "Same place, yes indeed. Just through the gate at the end 'o this block here, sah."
And so on.
I must confess, it wasn't a pleasant sound. Thedmar was a lifelong smoker and a heavy drinker; his voice seemed to have lost any capacity for inflection. Stones rubbing against stones, that's what it sounded like. The flat, low croaking of an old stone toad. Even so, he was obviously enjoying my company, and I could hear it in the way he nattered on. That made it bearable, if not pleasant, to listen to his unpleasant voice.
Any man in Thedmar's position would be lonely, I imagined then. Cold stone graves offer no conversation, save their epithets — the same silent inscriptions, unchanging over the years. Poor old Thedmar.
Oh, poor old Thedmar!"Right here, Mistah Curate." The gravekeeper jerked his long gray head in the direction of his lamp. We stopped at a massive iron gate, capped with strangely twisted ornaments. With only Thedmar's gas-lamp for light, they were difficult to see in all their detail; but they looked eerily like fingers, grasping up toward the moon. The barred gate itself was a ribcage. Perhaps it was my knowledge of the location — a cemetery — which made me think such things, though I would use this episode to argue to the contrary...
Thedmar set his lamp on the ground as he unlocked the gate. He did not, however, stop talking: "As you prob'ly know, sah, this 'ere's city property. City cemetery. But in days of yore, 'twas all part 'o the church. Whole place was Church property, yes indeed. Everywhere in town you see the old stonework — all of it's old Church property, what's done by the old masons before Lord Christie built 'is mansion. But you know that, I reckon." I answered that I did not, as I was still only a month into my job as curate of the cathedral.
He seemed surprised at this. "Issat so, sah?" he remarked. "I wouldn't 'ave thought it, you're such a natural. Keep things right in order, you do." I must admit that I was flattered by his compliment. Some might scoff at rough-hewn men like Thedmar, but not one of them could deny his long record of church service. If the man who predated the bishop said that I was doing well, I would take it to heart — and so I did.
"Now," he said, "if your curate-ship would follow me, I'll explain the duties of the job as we go about 'em. Yes? Good, good. This way, sah."
The gravekeeper's job, as Thedmar explained it, was as follows:
First of all, it is a distinct and separate job from gravedigger, something which I would not have known otherwise. The gravekeeper was something like the curate for the dead — ensuring that their places of rest were in proper order, maintaining the appearance and structural integrity of each grave. Tate Thedmar was equal parts stonemason, groundskeeper, excavator, and undertaker. He knew every place where the dead were buried, above-ground and underground, down to the last grave. He also knew the paths that connected them all.
We went from the city cemetery, down into the oldest mausoleum, and out through a collapsed wall into a small underground pocket. This chamber intersected with the sewers, through which we made a brief detour into the old catacombs. These extended beneath the old city — the fire-ravaged city that lay beneath our modern streets.
The catacombs extended for miles, it seemed. We were underground for much longer than an hour. We did not dally, either! Thedmar would check the contents of each alcove, tap the lid of each sarcophagus, and walk on without breaking stride. Rarely did we stop for anything at all. My guide also had the curious practice of tapping the walls with his knuckles, and listening to the sound. "Y'see, some dead 'uns are buried in the walls," he said. "The only way to know if they're there, is to knock. But you prob'ly guessed that."
Though this was interesting, and in many ways astonishing, I asked him what purpose the knocking served. If the bodies were interred in the walls, there was no risk of their being robbed. Here for the first time, he paused.
"Well, y'never know, sah," he mumbled after a breath, "y'never know. Don't hurt to check." I thought that I might have offended him, so I avoided such questions for the remainder of our night's journey.
Instead we spoke of our past work, and our lives and our relatives...
Before I knew it, we were beneath the cathedral itself, and seeming fast friends. He said that if I weren't a man of the cloth, he would offer me a drink once we reached his chambers. And I replied that the curate — and, indeed, most clergymen — were permitted to drink, and that a stout rum would be welcome indeed.
So we nattered on, I as much as him.
Then we heard the most terrible sound: the loud and tortured scrape of stone against stone. It was unmistakable. At once Thedmar straightened up, words dead in his mouth. He spun his lantern all about us, up and down and before and behind...
The gravekeeper stood still for at least one minute, ear cocked to one side. I dared not make a sound. Graverobbers were likely prepared to kill, if need be, and I was wholly unprepared to fight anyone at all. Thedmar, meanwhile, had drawn an old musket from his coat pocket, and was inching down the crypt tunnel. He handed me the lamp after a few steps, indicating without words that I should shine it ahead. I did so with equal silence.
With this free hand, Thedmar felt his way along the passageway — searching, it soon became clear to me. Running his fingertips over the stone, he would suddenly dart his hand out to a sarcophagus, and rap his knuckles on the lid. Invariably the echo was muffled and dull. I didn't understand what his purpose was, unless it was to locate the tomb that had been raided.
The tension was palpable, thick and choking as the dust in the air. Time ground to a halt.
Then Thedmar's knock was met with a different sound altogether — a low, cavernous echo that belied the size of the sarcophagus. With hardly a moment's pause, he listed the following information: "The fourth Brother Lazarus, Laetrian abbot, died four-hundred years ago." I heard a soft scuffing noise, further ahead.
Suddenly my guide leapt back, surprisingly nimble for a man of his years, and took aim with his musket. I could see nothing ahead, but I could hear the continued scuffing in the dark. Thedmar held his arm steady; he did not fire.
Another half-minute passed in this way, until the scuffing stopped. Then Thedmar fired without hesitation! The moment he did so, a great brown mass flew out of the darkness — flung itself at Tate Thedmar's face with uncanny speed! His shot hit not a second too soon. The ragged thing collapsed to the ground like a lead weight, and made a dull clatter on the crypt floor. Shards of bone sprayed everywhere; one landed at my feet.
It was yellow and dusty, covered as much with its own residue as with the dirt of the crypt. I carried the lantern to Thedmar's side, and there saw the corpse from which it had come. As one might expect of four-hundred-year-old remains, not much was intact: Its legs were all but disintegrated, ending halfway through the femur. Its arms, too, were little more than sharpened sticks, half-covered by the body's tattered brown garment.
But what wrenched my stomach — what seared my mind, and stays hovering before my eyes! — was the corpse's face. From the middle of the neck upward, it was clothed with flesh. New flesh. Pink, rosy flesh. The man's eyes were fixed ahead, his mouth upturned in hideous snarl. From the wound of Thedmar's shot, dark blood trickled down Brother Lazarus's face — and where it touched, it carved deep ruts in the skin.
I wept. I babbled, I slobbered. I must confess, I lost all control of myself; only Thedmar's hand, pressed firm against my chest, held me steady. Even to remember it now, my hand trembles...
When at last I had recovered, I tried as best I could to ask my companion about the corpse. He predicted my question, and shushed me with a rough finger to my mouth. He whispered to me, and his words drained the power from my body.
"I'm dreadful sorry about that, sah. I am. Now you know why's I knock on the walls. You unnerstand me?" Thedmar's face was twisted in a terrible grimace, ugly in its sorrow. "Why else, sah, do I start on the city property? Why else do I check every grave, know 'em by 'eart? An' why do I carry silver shot in my musket? Now you know, sah. This old church city was built for the dead, and the dead 'uns want it back." He supported me with his arm, and said no more until we were out of the crypt. I do not remember much of this journey.
When we emerged in the cathedral above, he seemed about say some further words of comfort — but behind us, in the underground dark, we heard the same scrape of a sarcophagus lid. "Seems like it's bound to be a busier night than I reckoned," Thedmar said. He checked his lamp for oil, and pulled another face. "Yes indeed. The dead 'uns mighta smelled somethin', and now they're restless. You go home, sah, and you lock your door tight. Not much danger 'o dead 'uns coming up — but you never know.
"Go home straightaway, and lock your door tight, Curate." And so I did.
Since that night, I have heard nothing from Thaddeus Thedmar, church gravekeeper. I have heard nothing of him, nor has anyone in the city. Gossips insist that the "old drunk" must have fallen in his stupor, into some pitfall or gutter; I have done everything in my power to combat these malicious rumors. Thankfully, I have mostly succeeded in clearing his name.
But now I am afraid. I am seeking employment in another city, someplace far away. For without our gravekeeper, who is to know when the dead 'uns walk?