Nechronometer – Part Five

skullclock

Livier backed up, allowing Sisily to back up further. The two undead – zombies? – was that what they were? – dragged their feet like they wore leaden slippers. But Sisily, although she glanced down, failed to register what manner of footwear they’d chosen for their nightime walk.

Zombies. Dead. Undead. Whatever they might be, they were real. And suddenly the mat at the entrance made horrible sense.

UNWELCOME.

They were coming to ungreet the uninvited guests. Coming to say their dead hellos. An unwelcome.

“Get back! Back, I say!” commanded Livier like a nervous priest.

“I am!” Sisily told him. But every time she retreated she bumped up against Livier’s midriff. And the two undead advanced, reaching, clutching, grasping. Like rotten, mouldering grandparents seeking to draw her in for an embrace. Or a foul-stenched, slippery-lipped kiss.

“Not you! Them! Those – things!”

Livier couldn’t say the word.

Zombies.

“Zombies!” Sisily hollered. Forcing the word out in a trembling scream. Making it more real for her. Real for everybody.

“What – what do we do?” Derby Brown whimpered.

A zombie lunged, swiping at Sisily’s face with an emaciated claw. Livier backed up several paces at once, snatching Sisily and pulling her back with him.

“Somebody get up those stairs!” Benevolence Wisheart strode forward, swinging one of her capacious carpet bags.

She let go at the end of a third, hefty swing and sent it flying at the lead zombie. The luggage struck it in its hollowed abdomen. It hissed through a set of teeth like lichen-clad stones in old-meat gums. And staggered under the baggage blow. Knocked its fellow creature into a backward stumble. Both somehow remained upright.

Dead things really ought to be more inclined to lie down.

“Run up those stairs and grab one of those holy symbols!”

Benevolence was right. “I’ll go,” volunteered Sisily.

The zombies steadied themselves and recommenced their advance.

“You’ll never be able to pull that down. It’s on chains,” Wallis Fringe pointed out. “Grievance! You should go.”

Grievance shot looks around the troupe. He stomped away, around the base of the bone tree – then broke off towards the left of the hall.

“What are you doing, man?” protested Wallis.

A zombie lurched forward again, arms outstretched and reaching for that fateful hug with Sisily. The other zombie, just a few paces behind, tripped over the carpet bag. It toppled, arms flailing, and dominoed into its unfriend.

The lead zombie staggered, pitching straight at Sisily. She screamed and darted aside. Its wizened hands latched onto the frilled front of Livier’s blouse. One or two rotten fingernails popped loose, but the remainder dug into the fabric.

Livier backed away and away, swatting at the hanger-on but without wanting to make any actual physical contact. Attached by its claws, the zombie was towed along by Livier’s quiversome stomach.

The second zombie steered itself towards Sisily.

Benevolence thundered in to intercept, now armed with one of the umbrellas, battered and broken by the storm, but still serviceable as a weapon. She beat at the creature with this ragged, flapping object. It appeared unbothered but the assault disrupted its plans to feast on Sisily.

It turned its arms towards its attacker. And gnashed its teeth.

A deafening clatter all but stopped Sisily’s heart. Lightning flared through the hall, but the noise was not the work of the storm. Grievance marched from the left of the hall, leaving a fallen suit of armour in his wake. But carrying the empty knight’s battleaxe.

The blade was dull and rusted. But the sight of it – the sight of Grievance – raised a cheer in Sisily’s heart.

The big man swung the axe high and, covering the distance in a few brisk strides, brought it down on Benevolence’s foe. Then he turned and headed for the one still being tugged around the hall by Livier.

Sidily screamed. Again.

She knew it wasn’t strong or independent or doing her gender proud, but she couldn’t help it. One of the few things more horrible than an undead person was the sight of a dead undead person, freshly hacked with a battleaxe. If relative shrillness of screams was any gauge, then Derby Brown was doing his gender even less proud.

Sisily shouldn’t have felt better for that. But she did. A bit.

She reined in her breathing and did her best to look anywhere but the gorier directions.

Grievance, the axe hanging in his hand, blade dripping, wandered past on a mission to the stairs.

“Grievance? Where are you going?”

As much as she didn’t wish to see the axe, she wanted Greivance close.

“Symbol,” he said. And gestured to the landing. “In case there’s any more.”

***

Damn. Damn. Damn.

Cadaverus Helskur was now doomed to face the intruders alone. Until three of the clock.

And the biggest of the unwanted guests was coming his way.

 

[To Be Concluded…]

Advertisements

Nechronometer – Part Four

skullclock

Cadaverus Helskur simmered in darkness. From his alcove he had a serviceable view over the main hall. And it was not a pleasing one.

These self-invited guests, these trespassers muddied and dampened his cold, inhospitable flagstones. Two of them, even now, wiped their footwear, infested with outside-matter, on his UNWELCOME rug.

The house sent the clear message from every corner. He might as well have daubed plague warnings on the doorposts and these infiltrators would have ignored the signs and traipsed in regardless.

He snarled under the next rumble of thunder. Two half-eaten figures shambled past his alcove on another circuit of the landing.

He tracked their dragging walk all the way to the end, where they locked dead gazes on the hanging holy symbol. Shying from its pious presence, they turned the corner and shuffled on their way to the next bend and the next symbol.

Helskur’s closest estimate was that they had completed fifteen circuits since setting forth. Half-past two of the clock.

Accuracy. Greater precision. That was what Helskur craved. The house was a masterpiece but it would need to measure time in finer increments if it was to be a master timepiece.

Such was the essence and thrust of his latest notes. Refinements and modifications, beyond the house striking the hours.

He had considered some provocation of the undeceased vocal cords. When first released, the uncreatures celebrated their dimly perceived freedom with their mournful, hungering song. But these two had since fallen silent, shuffling on and on, round and round in their clockwise trek.

Perhaps if the undead had moaned louder, they might have scared the unwanted back out into the arms of the storm.

But no. They remained silent as corpses.

And below in the hall the intruders intruded. Shepherded by this one female, they availed themselves of all the absence of facilities the hall provided. Setting their baggage down here and there, offloading their rain-soaked coats, tugging and kicking off their boots and unpacking their bedrolls. Making themselves right at home.

These people. Ignorant. Human. They would probably make themselves at home in a grave with no sense of the impropriety or offence.

Helskur burned.

Half past two of the clock and – he sighted the two patrollers now working their way across the opposite side of the landing – half a circuit.

Too long to wait for three of the clock. Too long to endure invaders tainting the stones and driving the chill into retreat with their warm blood and breath.

Helskur counted the humans.

Six souls.

Living outnumbered the undead by three to one.

But Helskur knew their type.

Somewhere distant, far before the house counted time, before its gears had ground through their first hour, Helskur had experienced pieces of an outside life. Society. Theatre. These humans belonged to that artistic breed. Sensitive, emotional, weak. They pretended to live. For a living. And people who had little lives paid coin to watch these people enact pretend lives. Actors. Yes, that was their breed. Pretend living. Parading the boards with as much claim to real life as the undead who toured the house every hour, on the hour.

Yes, weak. Timid of real life, they would be utterly terrified of real death.

Helskur would not, could not, wait to see them scatter and run from his house.

Bending low, he pressed himself to the wall and crept along it to the row of levers that filled the next alcove.

He pulled on one of the levers. Mechanisms clanked and grated. Time protesting the change.

The holy symbol of Meloch travelled the ceiling rail, clattering like a train, from the corner of the landing to the head of the stairs.

Down in the hall, the troupe of the pretend living looked up, anxious and alarmed by the mechanical noises.

The symbol locked into place with a slight bump and swung like a deadened wind chime. Mute and musicless.

Lightning ignited the landing. Just as the two undead shambled towards the symbol. Confronted with its divine radiance, they turned and trudged down the stairs.

*

Sisily gasped. After calling out for anyone at home, the sight of the two figures descending the stairs was unexpected and strangely disconcerting.

She realised she’d much preferred seeing them up on the landing. The holy symbol’s sudden movement had startled her and her friends. Perhaps it had also startled these two in their sleepwalk.

They stared. Eyes wide open but devoid of life. Blind? Maybe that was why they held their arms outstretched before them as they trudged down the steps. One by one. By one. By one.

Sisily backed up – into Livier.

And in the next flare of lightning she saw the decayed grins of the two somnambulists.

Sisily stared, helpless, at the remnant flesh clinging to the skulls of the shambling figures. They stared back. And their lifeless eyes seemed to see her well enough.

They advanced on the troupe, rotten hands clutching and grasping.

Livier screamed a shrill womanly scream.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Nechronometer – Part Three

skullclock

Lightning scratched every surface with silver fingernails. Sisily’s heart skipped a beat, but it was the shadows that jumped. They dashed to the deepest corners. Although they returned quickly enough. This house belonged to them and they would not be driven away for long.

She hummed to herself. An inoffensive ditty she recalled from some show she couldn’t remember. Nothing loud or emphatic enough to disturb the hosts.

She searched the landing for any signs of the movement she’d thought she’d glimpsed before. But the gallery was too broad a circle, ringing the entire hall. And the lightning scratches were too brief. She had to peer at one specific arc of landing at a time.

Sisily shook her head. Why trouble herself? If there were anyone wandering around up there, then surely they would have seen and heard the arrivals. Once again, she nibbled her lip and fretted about the damage Grievance had done to the door. The man had been drenched and frustrated and his massive frame caged a terrible temper.

Never mind, she told herself. We’ll leave what we can for the damages. And perhaps she should write a small note of apology. Not to mention make sure the troupe were all on their best behaviour while sheltering here overnight.

Behind her, fuss and fluster filled the doorway as a handful of normally exuberant and colourful egos dragged themselves and their baggage in out of the storm. The exuberance and colour was heavily diluted under a layer of damp and sodden clothing and they quarrelled over who should enter first.

Eventually, chivalry won, with Livier Revoir claiming ladies before gentlemen and reminding everyone of his various tour-de-force performances as the leading lady in all their plays. Clustering in his impressive wake came scrawny Derby Brown, pecking at the air like a nervous chicken; Benevolence Wisheart, their grand old dame of stone, living proof that one could grow to resemble a gargoyle and yet retain a kindly disposition; young Wallis Fringe, with his handsomeness that was never dashing, but rather just sat around and posed on his face. He flicked his rebellious hair out of his eyes and curdled his creamy-smooth features in disgust as he was confronted by their prospective lodgings. Finally, Grievance tramped inside, depositing the last of the bags on the UNWELCOME mat.

“Lords and saints preserve us from this filthy night!” implored Livier. Loud enough for the shadows at the very back to hear – and possibly enough to make them flinch. “What manner of stage have you brought us to, Sisily, darling?”

Grievance nudged Livier aside and grabbed the hat stand, which he then proceeded to re-purpose as a bar to brace the broken door closed. It worked – just. Although the storm hissed and spat breezes through the gaps.

“Please, Livier, do try to be nice about the house. This is someone’s home and we are all guests.”

Benevolence’s point was well made but invoked only a puff from Livier.

“Uninvited guests at that,” added Sisily.

“Uninvited, but not unwelcome, I am sure,” argued Livier. He hadn’t looked down at the mat yet. He rubbed his hands vigorously, warming them before dipping into his pockets for one of his hip-flasks. A generous swig and his spirits were restored. “Look at the place. Lit like a church, holy symbols hanging hither and thither. Why, our host must be a religious and highly charitable sort. Hallooooooooooooo!” he called out, as though yodelling from the highest peak. “I shall gladly shake him by the hand, once my own have been sufficiently warmed over a crackling hearth.”

“Good luck finding one of those,” said Wallis. “At best we may find a crumbling one.”

“Nonsense, my boy. Now, let us away to our rooms. I may require some assistance lighting my fire, but I’m sure we will find a hearth in every chamber.”

He strode towards the staircase.

“No, Livier, wait. I – ” Sisily trotted after their leading lady and arrested him with a hand on his arm. “The thing is, I promised our host – assuming he heard me – that we would be no imposition. That we would bed down here in the hall. Think of it. All the charm and adventure of camping without the need to be outdoors. It’ll be fun.”

“Fun?” Livier appeared horrified. “And what, pray, are we to warm ourselves over? My bones are soaked.” In line with his organs, Sisily didn’t wonder.

“Why, with modest tipples and fireside tales. Without the fireside.” She applied gentle pressure, attempting to guide him away from the stairs and any idea of claiming a bedroom.

He gazed forlornly aloft, fixated on the landing like a child mourning a lost kite stuck in a tree.

“Oh,” he said, all of a sudden. Lightning flashed and a smile lit his face. He waved. “Halloooooooooo!”

Sisily glanced.

In the last slice of vanished lightning, she spied her moving shadows. Two figures in slow procession along the landing, their arms oddly outstretched.

Sleepwalkers? she wondered.

And instantly doubted herself. As well as Grievance’s wisdom in barring the front door.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Nechronometer – Part Two

skullclock

The storm blew in with them, coughing wind and wet over the heavy rug. Hood drooped over her face, Sisily cast her gaze down at the pitch-black letters seared into the mat:

UNWELCOME

A message for all and sundry, not only for strangers seeking shelter from an ill-tempered night. She flipped her hood back and scanned the hall for clues to the sort of host who would greet all visitors in such a manner.

The room spoke grave volumes with its voice of stone and shadows and its heart-stopping centrepiece.

A tree of bone in a hall of decay.

Branches, some blanched ivory, others yellowed or sharp-splintered, others still caked in cemetery dirt, rose in a knobble-jointed tangle to the high, hollow vaults of the ceiling. They clutched at the rotting rafters.

Banisters flanked the staircase and lined the landing like broken wooden teeth. Suits of rusted armour stood sentinel in alcoves. Pictures hung on panels, paint surrendering to cankerous moulds, portraits of ancient men and women riddled with smallpox, courtesy of armies of creative woodworm.

Sisily shivered. The damp and blowing wind at her back suddenly seemed quite warm. Her company had chanced upon the wrong port in this storm.

“I think we had best leave,” she said to the man loitering beside her. He was built like a wall and could’ve provided shelter singlehanded if positioned better. His fists had taken care of the mansion’s door and Sisily felt bad about that – until she had seen the interior. “We’ll have a bit of a whip-round and leave some coin for the damages.”

“Place looks deserted, if you ask me.”

“I’m not so sure.”

When every recess and cranny housed the promise of a ghost, a property did not deserve the title of ‘deserted’. Abandoned, perhaps. Sisily hoped they would be abandoning it shortly. Even the drafts seemed to chase and flap around in a panic like trapped birds hunting for the way out. She empathised.

“I’ll tell the others we’re moving on. They won’t like it.”

“Thank you, Grievance.”

They would not like it one bit. The wheel on their company’s carriage had surrendered to a pot hole and they were on foot. With no sight of another house within the next mile.

Grievance moved and for the briefest of moments his bulk blocked out the worst of the storm’s breath.

A fleeting spell of illusory warmth mingled with regret at having to leave the prospect of even this gloomiest of shelters.

Sisily half-turned. And glimpsed a movement up on the landing. Where some of the darkest shadows roosted. But also where lightning flashed and set something shimmering.

“Grievance,” she called. “Wait.”

It didn’t make a tremendous amount of sense, but she wanted to see it again. Grievance planted himself to her left and watched with her, without any idea of what she had seen.

Together they waited out the thunder rumble. Together they waited out the silence. Together they fixed searching gazes in similar directions as the lighting flared again.

There!

Shining gold.

The Holy Symbol of Meloch dangled like a large pendant over one corner of the landing. It twirled in the draft. Unbidden, Sisily’s eyes flicked to the opposite corner. The storm stole away the lightning, ever so miserly with its illumination, but she could swear she saw another symbol. Something – a shape – hung in approximately the equivalent position in that corner in any case. The very next stab of lightning confirmed it as another symbol of Meloch.

“Implies the owner’s a religious sort.”

Sisily nodded. “I know. It’s not great news.” Her company were an uncouth lot, too fond of strong liquor and colourful language. They had been thrown out of temple festivals for staging impious and improper plays. But if a devout follower of Meloch abided here and could be persuaded to let them weather a single night under his or her roof, Sisily was sure her troupe of players could stomach a priestly host for so short a time. If their host preached unduly at them, why, they could simply smile and nod and down another snifter of the good stuff.

“Tell them we’ll stay. Fetch them in.”

“Righto.” Grievance shambled outside.

“Hullo? Hullo there? Cooooooooeeeeeeeee!” Sisily called to the remotest wings of the house. “Listen, we’re in a fix! We only wish to hole up for the night! It’s hellish out there! We have bedrolls! So we can doss down in your hall if that’s okay! We’ll be perfectly comfortable!”

The holy symbols flashed again in the lightning. An answering welcome of sorts.

True, the UNWELCOME mat and the tree of bone – and a good many other qualities besides – argued to the contrary. But perhaps the bones were some memorial to family ancestors. And the mat – well, perhaps a side-effect of a more recent family bereavement. And it was entirely understandable for anyone to shun company under such circumstances.

Whatever the case, the house felt safer and a bit – a tiny bit – more inviting with the serene benevolence of Meloch to watch over them.

A passable sanctuary, Sisily hoped.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Nechronometer – Part One

skullclock

Gears turned. Cogs ground their teeth.

Outside, time stopped for the dead. The house counted onward.

Away along the main landing a door creaked open. Club feet dragged across the boards and a solitary, hollow voice, like a bitter wind through a carved-out worm-riddled tree trunk, moaned a lonely elongated syllable:

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaains!”

One, thought Cadaverus Helskur.

One of the clock.

Perhaps time he retired for the night. He snuffed his spirit-candle between inky finger and thumb and sat at his desk in darkness. Smoke curled aimlessly, particles of lost souls released from imprisonment in the candle wax. A tendril or two snuck into his nostrils and wrought the only revenge they could.

Cadaverus sneezed.

He slapped both hands on the desk, pinning down his precious papers before they could take flight. Another five empty minutes stretched by before he felt inclined to move again.

Then he began collecting the disarrayed pages together and sliding them into a neat stack. Last, he sent his right hand scuttling like a spider to a corner of the desk, where his fingers closed around the skull. Which he lifted and planted atop the piled notes. A paperweight and guardian, stationed to watch with vacant sockets for thieves and burglars.

Helskur petted the cranium. The skull offered no objection to the display of affection. Helskur honestly forgot who it was the skull had once housed. Someone who had meant something to him once.

The house had counted too much time. Its gears had cranked through excessive revolutions.

Weary, he pushed up from his chair, readying his bones for the long walk to bed.

Furious light lashed at the window pane. For the first time tonight, he registered the storm. Raindrops slithered down the glass like transparent snakes.

Storms were beasts of the world. Weather. A force of nature, a concern for the outside. Occasionally, water would sneak its way in through cracks. Mould collected in corners but even such rotten life could not endure long. Not inside the house.

Helskur watched for another flash of lightning. He listened for the answering rumble. Thunder rolled, somewhere over a distant cove. The window rattled only faintly. Helskur’s bones sounded louder on chill mornings.

He drew his robe around his shoulders, his body remembering perhaps a dozen such mornings of late. A dozen such days slaving over his notes.

It had been one tremendous, magnificent undertaking to construct the house. Another to record and itemise and illustrate every mechanism, every detail and dimension.

Even a Necromancer could not hope to live forever. Even a Necromancer had to consider his legacy. And hope that another practitioner might carry on his great work.

Perhaps. In time.

Time…?

Time had a habit of drifting or rushing by him as it chose. Just as his thoughts might flare like the lightning strikes or drag themselves around his mind as he did around his house.

The door along the landing creaked once more. This time the lonely, hungered voice had a twin. They sang quite the duet:

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiins!”

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurrgh!”

Two of the clock.

Helskur shuffled towards his study door. His slippers had an irksome habit of slipping off if he lifted his feet.

A bell rang.

It was a strange, almost lively sound. A cheery ding-a-ling from somewhere deep. Down in the hall. And a sound from long, long ago. Longer than memory – almost. Dim recollection chimed along with it in the back of Helskur’s mind. Stirring ancient thoughts.

Doorbell, was one of the words freshly roused and sent to his forebrain.

Doorbell? What? At this hour?

Two of the clock was not a good time for visitors. And nothing – nothing other than leaks – should find its way inside during a storm.

Leaks were impertinent, loathsome and underhanded things. Trespassers who did not pause to announce their entry with doorbells or –

Knocks.

The doorbell fell silent, abandoned. The visitors had taken to beating on the front door. Hammer-blows pounded on the heavy wood.

Helskur sensed anger in the fistfalls. He had not felt anger in an age. But the emotion returned to him easily enough, like a long-lost son but instantly recognisable, as the visitors continued to punish the door. For its stubbornness, he assumed.

Helskur grasped the handle of his study door. Fearful, despite his anger, of turning it and of venturing out onto his own landing.

He would be in good company out there. But not enough of it.

Two of the clock was a very poor time for visitors.

The knocks turned to bashes. Fists replaced with axes or blades. Heavy wood splintered down in the hall.

Outside things had forced their way inside.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]