The ruins of the hillside cemetery were open to the night sky, cold winds, and the occasional foray of scavengers and predators returning to see what the elements turned up when game was scarce.
Asleep under a willow tree by the stream that was slowly drying up, I was game these days, but the predators were far different from anything I’d seen before I came here.
The gravestones of the dead were haphazardly angled and eroded like bad teeth; time wore the names off, and neglect claimed whatever there’d been to maintain.
When the last sexton died no one wanted to replace him, so his widow tried to fill the job, but as time went on she said the spirits were edging closer to her all the time, and the keening cries of the dead never stopped, not even during the day.
She got thinner and sicker, and her behavior became more bizarre. Eventually, it was believed she just abandoned the property, and no one bothered to take over.
On an autumn night, under a waxing crescent moon, two spirits discovered me: the first, a woman wearing a dark blue gown, flared out from the waist, but shot through with holes and tears, dirt, and insects. Her form is lissome, and dancing with her would have been a pleasure.
The second stood behind her, dressed all in black, the rotted suit and lace as corrupted as what’s left of his flesh. He has disturbing, deep set eyes of jade green, and black hair past his shoulders, missing in patches, but glorious in its prime.
In the weak moonlight, there’s some semblance of what their faces would have looked like superimposed over their skulls, but the illusion flickers and blinks, unable to stabilize. It’s hard to look at.
I woke up as she knelt and moved the willow branches aside. The faint scent of decay wafted into my shelter, and I sat up with a cry. Seeing her semi-skull in the weak light of a crescent moon, I froze.
“Are you lost, child?” I could see the lips flickering over the skeletal mouth as it opened and closed. Her voice had a timbre to it, as if it came from somewhere else and in front of me at the same time.
“Is he alone?” her companion asked. I hunched myself in further, as if that protected me.
She reached out a desiccated hand to placate me, but spoke to her companion: “Hush, Bertram! You’ll frighten him.”
Bertram gave a deep chuckle, and walked away. “Very well, sister. Coddle him, for now.”
She turned her attention back to me. “It’s alright, child. We won’t harm you. Come out into the open.”
I shook my head, still too scared to speak, though the flesh on her face was beginning to become more opaque, and more of the skull was covered; the stages of decay were reversing themselves the higher the moon rose.
“Are you sure?”
I swallowed, realizing I had to say something so they wouldn’t think I was naive enough to believe them. “You don’t need me for anything. You’re dead, both of you. Why didn’t you just keep going? You can’t help me find–”
I stopped myself, mentally slapping myself for saying anything that gave them an advantage, even though they scared me out of my wits.
“Ah, so you are lost. Alone, too, it seems. You don’t have to be…” She moved closer, and I could retreat no further.
Behind me, there was a splash, and I jumped. She looked past the willow branches in back of me, more flesh covering her face, her expression annoyed.
“Don’t be frightened. Bertram’s gone swimming.” She looked at me again, her eyes beginning to fill in with color and whites. “Tell me your name, child.”
I didn’t want to, but she was too close to me now, and the smell of decay turned to lilac. The only ways out were to jump into the river with dead Bertram, or push past her, which I didn’t think she’d allow.
“Laurence.” I finally said.
“A noble name, for a noble boy, to sleep in this place. I’m Grace.”
It wasn’t nice to meet her, so I only nodded and repeated her name.
She sensed my reluctance to offer any gestures of friendship, and took a look around my makeshift shelter, smiling as the last of her chin filled in, and her periwinkle eyes seemed to smile.
“Willows aren’t very protective, Laurence.” She actually gave a little laugh. “But you’ve probably figured that out by now.”
“What are you going to do with me?”
She looked surprised at the question. “We’re going to look after you, child. Bertram and I used to care for this place, before…”
“Y-y-you were the caretakers of this…?”
“Yes, Laurence, we were. I can still hear them screaming, even now. Can’t you?”
I whimpered. Bertram came back into view, his body stark white against the black branches dappled by the dim light.
“Bertram! Your clothes!” She looked straight ahead, not even at me.
He gave another low chuckle. “Get him out of there, Grace. He can’t stay.”
The bundle of clothes disappeared, and his alabaster legs walked away again.
“I said ‘no’, Grace. It’s no.”
She turned back to me. “Laurence, please… come out into the open.”
“Why is it important to you?”
“If you don’t, I’ll have to kill you here. No one can stay here who isn’t dead. That’s the rule.”
Her eyes rolled in her brother’s direction. “Come, before he gets angry at both of us.”
Like game, I’d been flushed, but not by wolves; these were preternatural hunters, with powers beyond anything a wolf could do. It was clear now that my night was over, and sleep would not be permitted.
I took Grace by the hand, now fully fleshed, but still freezing cold. I pulled back a little, but her gaze said she understood. I took her hand again, and we helped each other up, and stood before the jade-eyed Bertram, imperious in his black suit, brooking no nonsense, making no exceptions, granting no quarter.
“Where do I go, then?” I asked Grace.
Bertram came forward, his hair gleaming, his skin waxen, and fixed me with a jade and phosphorous stare. “You don’t go anywhere, Laurence. You stay with us.”
“But Grace said–”
His hand shot out, also freezing cold, and seized me by the throat as he lifted me.
I struggled, bore down on his wrist with all my feeble might, watched as Grace turned her back to the slaughter, and began to cry. I tried to kick him, but he held me at length.
“Grace said,” he squeezed harder, “that no one can stay here who…isn’t… dead.”
As my vision dimmed, and I began to stop struggling, and my feet slowed their kicking, his hand grew warm.
And I heard the spirits’ screams…