Rated PG-13 for waking the dead and disturbing their dreams.
by J.P. Sullivan
“Yes, I can bring your wife back from the dead,” I told the farmer, who had reasonable doubts about my abilities. “Just realize that it might not be what she wants.”
“She wants to see her children again,” he said. He’d told me his name, but I’d forgotten it. Honestly, it’s better that way. He had a smith’s build, muscle on muscle, more beard than chin. I could tell at a glance he’d never had a crooked thought in his life. People like that are awfully hard to negotiate with. Thankfully, I have flat rates.
“She signed the consent form?” The local chapel smelled like soot and incense. They hadn’t cremated her. That triples the fee and gives me a dreadful headache besides.
“I know I’m asking for a miracle,” the farmer said. “You can really do it for ten crowns sovereign?”
It’s not a miracle, I might have said. It’s a clever utilization of certain natural laws, an inversion of a subtle current and a trick played on God. Miracles assume His blessing, this process having none of it. But you start throwing around a word like ‘resurrection,’ and people get all kinds of ideas. “Did you bring the form, or not?”
He produced it. And there it was, in hill-country chicken scratch, her name on the appropriate lines. There’s a correct way of doing everything. Why should reanimation be any different?
I said the words, laid the hooks and lines and rock salt circles. Not all of that’s important, but the ceremony is part of the service. Like a funeral, it’s for the living.
The church was empty of clergy. They couldn’t have run off too long ago; one of the fires was still lit. Every rider on the hill looked like a foreign raid, with the war on. For all I knew, they hid from me.
“I don’t like this,” said the farmer.
“Don’t worry,” I said, hands at the dead woman’s brow. “I don’t like it either.”
Then I was in the elsewhere.
White light rippled across the surface of calm water. Grass rustled in warm and silent wind. Overhead was a sky more blue than the one God painted, lit by suns numbered seventeen. My stiff clearly died with a guiltless conscience.
“All right,” I said. I was smoking a pipe. I’ve never done that in the flesh; smells bloody awful, if you ask me. But this me knew how to do it, knew just how long to hold it in and just how deep to breathe. It smelled like an old man’s fireplace. I noticed I had an old man’s hands. For a moment I looked into the water. My face had lines and furrows and a hard-earned tan. My eyes were green like hers were green. People see in me what they want to see, and the situation here wasn’t hard to read.
So I said, “It’s time to go back, Michelina.”
“I just got here,” she said, relaxed as can be. “The angels haven’t come for me yet.”
“Time moves differently here,” I said. “It’s been nearly three days.” Which was cutting it razor thin. If a keeper showed up — well, best not to fret over it. I only needed a few minutes to work my technique. Getting in is easy. Getting out requires time.
“I have so much to tell you,” she said, eyes welling up. “Can you sing to me like you used to?”
“What do you want to hear?”
She asked for Lulaj, Stari Hulaj. I don’t speak that language.
“You were very ill, Michelina.” I crouched before her with the creak of an old man’s bones. “But you’re getting better.” I took her hand. This, too, was part of the service. “Your husband misses you very much. Someday I’ll sing for both of you.”
“He’s a fool,” she said. “And lazy. I never should have married him and I hope he goes to hell.”
“He’s not that bad,” I said.
Her look said, really?
“But maybe I could have picked a better match. Even a father can make mistakes.”
She stared at me. “You’re not my husband, are you.”
Damn. I’d got it all wrong.
She was a remarried widow.
“Who are you?” Her hurt turned to anger. “Why do you look like him?”
“Look,” I said. “I’m really quite sorry about this.”
I punched her in the stomach. As it turns out, you don’t need a body to be knocked out.
The ocean began to roil. The white suns turned red. Behind me I heard the scuttling of feet, the movement of the thing that watches the places in between worlds.
“Martyn,” came the voice of the keeper. I heard the illusory earth creaking, could hear the stitching of the veil start to come undone. “Martyn.”
“Also sorry,” I said, slinging the woman over my shoulder. She was as light as a passing thought. “Really not interested in a chat, today.”
I raced for the water’s edge. Water was always the way out. The ocean collapsed before me into an endless funnel, whirling downward, ever farther.
And then I was in the church again, in my own flesh. I smelled the incense and the soot.
The farmer asked, “Is she . . . ?”
The woman’s eyes snapped open. The farmer gasped.
Then her arms lurched forward.
She gripped my throat and choked me. We struggled. I fell. My head struck the hard brass legs of a standing candle. My world spun and darkened, until the farmer managed to wrest his wife away from me.
All in all, another satisfied customer.
A hierophant is entitled to free lodgings, but after being strangled, I had trepidations about sleeping under the same roof (or in the same town) as Michelina, so I sent for transport immediately. I knew things were bad when it arrived. Not because of the rickety wheels, or because the cart was pulled by a crook-backed nag, or even the illegal battlefield salvage piled up as cargo – what really drove it home was the fact that the carter was a woman. Which of course meant that most all the men were dead.
She blew straw-colored hair out of a sun-browned face. Her question was straightforward. “Where you headed?”
I told her.
“No way,” she said.
I showed her the money.
“Hop on,” was the new answer.
I rode in back and watched the sky. The moon dawned by day that time of year. Zuzanna had always liked days like that. I don’t like to think about her but sometimes it can’t be helped.
The carter wanted to tell me all about the war. “Press gangs came out and took all the men between fourteen and fifty,” she said. “If that doesn’t tell you something, nothing will. Suppose I’m grateful, in a way. Carting’s good business. Reckon I’ll keep at it, after.”
“Why’s that farmer still here?”
“Club foot. Anybody what can work a trade, though, poof, they’re gone, or hiding up in the hills where no one can find them, and certainly they can’t do any work while they’re up there, and naturally they still expect us to feed them. So what can you do?”
“Good for the fields,” I said, looking out at fallow grass.
“Good for nothing,” she said. “Old Bronislaw’s the only fellow left in the county what knows how to shoe a horse. They got the rest off making helmets, some damned place. I thought all the miracle-men like you got hauled off, besides. Where you from?”
“Close by,” I said, pointing. “Off that way.”
It was, nearly. “No,” I said.
We didn’t see a soul for three days, and it was dark when we hit the border.
The army was under muster. Their campfires lit the night like so many sparks, a few hours off yet but no less inevitable for that. Fires were already burning in the city by the time we arrived. In a week or so it would all be gone. I wondered, academic, if you could classify what the prince was doing as a kind of amputation. I’ve done a few; hierophants are doctors before anything else.
“There’s Jamborek,” said the carter. “Not sure what you’re looking for.”
Perhaps a few people willing to let me save their lives.
“When I die,” she suddenly told me, “I’m going to stay dead. The cost isn’t worth it.”
“That’s a superstition,” I said. “There’s nothing to prove —”
“Nothing to prove otherwise, either.”
I had a few persuasive philosophical arguments on the merits of resurrection (I prefer the utilitarian), but the cart lurched to a stop. Took me a moment to see why.
Three men hung from the strongest branch of a burned out tree, no leaves left to hide its angles. Three more were tied around its trunk. And another six were discarded, no space left for them, even in death.
Not a single one of them had eyes.
My knuckles tightened until they were white. “We should cut them down.”
“No chance,” said the carter. “That’s how they punish deserters.”
“It’s not right.”
“We do it, we’ll be next.”
“I know who did this,” I said.
“Everybody knows about Tomasz. And if he’s here, I’m gone. He puts women into service, too. You know what kind.”
I didn’t argue. It was only another hour or two to the city, anyway. I got out and walked.
Of all the people who survived the war, it had to be him.
Isn’t much that separates the new faith from the old, but it hasn’t stopped the princes from using the split to justify fighting all the wars they’d been wanting to fight for ages. The old faith holds that God is a woman; the new faith holds that God is a man. Seems a petty difference, but then folk like me believe that God is above dualities of form, and we’re of course hated by everybody.
I weathered that disdain as I passed the gates. The stole of a hierophant is rarest azurite weave, a color to catch the eye. No one would fail to notice it. Some of the other remaining practitioners find it easier to do without, but I wear mine openly. That was mostly stubborn habit, but I’ve got pride, too. I’m doing the right thing, regardless of what others might believe.
Smoke lay heavy in the air. The prince had decided to burn down his own city. Idea was, he’d already lost a few towns, and Jamborek was surely next, so he might as well deprive the enemy of spoils. Since he couldn’t afford to pay his own soldiers any more, letting them seize those spoils, pre-emptively, would surely bolster morale. If a few peasants starved, if a few women suffered, well. Wouldn’t be the first time. All that really mattered to him were the historic buildings, and those were made of stone, anyway.
I’d seen them rise up myself. The cathedral was nearly as old as me. Generations had worked at it: architects and their sons, and then their sons too, whole generations devoted to the singular purpose of stacking high the stones in glory of God. Devotion writ in rock. The spires and domes were visible from the town’s farthest corners. I saw them now, through the arched and open windows of the cold grey scholarium in which I met the public.
“They trained hierophants like me in Jamborek once, in this very hall, did you know that?”
“Just fix my arm,” said the cooper.
“Abandoned now. Sign of the times.”
Many had lined up for aid. They were all poor and most were injured. Some had already lost their homes. Others waited their appointed hour of burning. A town so large had to be destroyed in sections. Many would sleep here tonight on the barren slate floor.
I laid out my medicaments. The usual knives and pliers, the bone-saw, the forceps, all newly purified in fire. Add to these the tinctures of root and aqua vitae, plus more exotic instruments with names like lithotome and speculum.
In this case, I applied only a poultice to the infected wound on the man’s arm. I did not know how he got it and I did not care. I wound it tightly. “This will itch. Do not remove it for two days. Once daily thereafter, drink this.”
I gave him a jug of gold-green liquid, taken up from the cellar. I’d mostly found mold and dust and broken shelves, but this was untouched, for the soldiers hadn’t known its value.
“What is it?”
A special fermented brew, derived from a particular grain, laced with a substance too small to behold with eye or lens, one that would purge his body of the writhing primal creatures, equally small, that are the source of all disease. But I said, “Medicine.”
“Aren’t you going to use magic?”
“There’s no such thing,” I said. “Only laws we do not fully comprehend.”
“But you are a wizard,” he said, in the way of a man who feels cheated.
“I’m a hierophant.”
“Just a kind of wizard, isn’t it? I came here for some bloody magic; at the price I paid, I expect some bloody magic.”
Internally, I sighed. I work with light. That’s really all I can do. The soul, as it happens, is a kind of light. But I bend all kinds. So I stared at the jug and played my trick: the light within it stirred, just briefly. I knew the cooper saw it glow. Conspiratorial, I told him: “I don’t have enough potions for everyone. Just keep it quiet, all right?”
That satisfied him. Everyone wants to feel special, after all.
I worked through the line. Most folk cursed me on their way out. I had grown used to that; I derived satisfaction from helping them regardless of their spite. They wouldn’t have come if they didn’t know, deep down, that it was the right thing.
Last of all came the child. I appreciate children. They are not yet old enough to understand why I must be hated. Unfortunately, this one came to me unconscious. His family carried him, five of them, parents and siblings and a pox-scarred uncle. Two wore motley and another lugged a time-worn harp. Performers, camp followers, maybe.
I studied the boy’s colorless face.
“He took a fever,” said the mother.
I touched his brow and found it cold. “Seems to have broken.”
“Did this morning. His breathing’s gotten weaker since. Can you help him?”
The boy’s family didn’t know he’d died. I did. A touch of my fingers to his neck confirmed it. “How old is he?”
My gut tensed to hear the words. The father lost it then. He threw himself to his knees, begged me for the miracle their God did not provide, the life of their son. The uncle, more sober, said that they could not pay me but they hoped that I would help.
“I can help,” I promised them. “I can even resurrect the dead.”
Silence answered that. Silence and smoldering disregard. I saw their necklaces, the heavenly wheels, the mark of true believers.
I tried to distract them. “You’re musicians.” Even taciturn folk enjoy talking about their trade. “I always wanted to be a musician.”
They stared at me, grave and unresponsive.
I kept talking. “They say there’s orchestras that play by the water, in Teresin down south. Never did go see, myself.”
What I was really doing was stalling for time. If I told them the truth, that their boy had already expired, they would never let me save him.
The smart thing to do would be to walk away. A resurrection without a permit was a killing offense.
You care too much, Zuzanna had told me once. I looked at the child and I knew she was still right, even now. I’d already made my decision.
I laid my hands upon his brow and it began.
The boy’s elsewhere was vast and wet and empty. He sat at the center of scarce dry land. Around him was an atoll, and the waters of a dark lagoon. The sky was twilit, an amber color not quite like our sun. I descended to the island on wings of thought and I saw him look up shivering.
“Come,” I told him, my voice like those of the angels in the stories of the churchbuilders. “Do not be afraid.” I wore the armor of heaven and carried the spear of justice.
“Am I going to see God?” He sniffled. Liquid ran from his nose even in this insubstantial space. “I don’t want to. I want to see my mother.”
“It is not your time,” I told him with the gravity of the divine. I held out my hand. “Return with me to Earth. Speak to no one of what you have seen here, for this place is sacred.”
He agreed, and he came. Water was always the way out. We walked beneath the waves and awoke in halls of stone.
His eyes shot open, and his family gasped their joy. To them it was the spellcraft of an instant.
But then he told them: “I saw the angels!”
He did not spare details.
They looked at me. If they did not know, they suspected.
So they went straight away to the army.
If we’re keeping track, and I do, I can tell you that I’ve resurrected sixty-seven persons from the dead. Most of those were in the early days, when we did not fully understand the practice.
Imagine the joy: there was something after death. We’d proved it. Even if we could not know the afterlife in its fullness, we’d stood upon the precipice, and gave back to the dying the rest of their rightful years. Churches flourished with devotion. The hierophants became the most prosperous order of magi. The medicinal sciences made great strides, funded by the price of second life.
The trouble started when the family of a Ternish duelist wanted him brought back to life a second time. You’d think one failed duel would be enough to make a man swear off the practice, but as it turned out, he was a little high off his first return from the great beyond, and he’d decided to make a business out of betting against his own death. Well, he won the bet, but the man on the scene simply couldn’t get him to come back up again.
It wasn’t me that got that case, thank goodness. We figured the local hierophant was incompetent, so we sent Zuzanna, the best in the district. When she failed, and the duelist was still cold past the three-day limit, we had a real issue.
Experiments were run on others previously returned. When they met their death, be it of old age, or subsequent accidents, we were there to check. The results were consistent. If someone had already been brought back to life once, there was no helping them. You couldn’t even perceive their spirit. There was nothing left to them at all, not even a whisper of the soul.
We all realized what this meant, even if none of us wanted to say so aloud.
An enormous bribe kept the duelist’s family happy (they hadn’t approved of his hobby), but from then on it was a losing battle. Some people just can’t stand prosperity — you’d be stunned how many previously irresponsible people eventually returned to the same bad habits that got them dead in the first place. Rumors started to get around. Then the Epicurean Society of Teresin decided that they’d all drink poisoned wine on the first of every month, to try and get closer to God.
When the Church got ahold of the news, our glory days were over. A meeting of the Thousand Temples underneath the Cathedral of Heaven’s Wheel came out with a clear-cut pronouncement: Resurrection by mortal hands extinguished the light of the soul. Those who came back no longer possessed the necessary fuel for transmigration to the afterlife. As such, they were to be considered anathema. Soulless, they were outside morality, outside God’s grace.
They had no idea what they were talking about. There weren’t even any hierophants in the synod. They just declared it so, and we reaped the consequences.
As it turns out, if it comes down to a choice between the certainty of coming back to life, and an uncertain chance at eternity, people generally prefer to bet on God.
When the soldiers caught me on my way out of Jamborek it was almost midnight. The moon hung low and orange, blood-tinged from woodsmoke and the deepening autumn dark. Each armored man carried a Lucerne hammer pike, the kind that were popular in the cities we’d already lost. These, then, were veterans.
“Don’t throw your lives away,” I said, secretly afraid.
They didn’t so much as hesitate. Kite shields moved as one. They sheltered behind them even as they raised their spears. Each shield was polished to a mirrored sheen. Did they think I could use my light as a weapon? I’d use that, I decided.
“Martyn Dunajski,” said their leader. “You are in violation of the edicts on unregulated use of arcana.”
“Then I suppose,” I said, “that a little more can’t hurt.”
All the color in the street lamps bled away. Their fires burned black. The moon’s orange glow grew grey and colorless upon the ground. In my hand, light bloomed brilliant and white. I held it up, like a dangerous thing, and not the glorified candle it was in truth.
Most men would flee. These were unimpressed. They’d seen power in the war, and had grown inured to wonder.
Alternate plan: Run. I pivoted and looked for alleys. I saw none close.
They struck fast. One pike sought my feet. Another sought my chest. Quickly, I moved, but a shaft’s edge still struck my breast. It hit with an audible crack. For an instant, my light vanished, and the color of fire halfway returned to the lamps above. The shadows danced in sepia.
The soldiers stepped inwards and the pikes drew closer. I felt the impact before I felt the pain — one spike had punctured my side.
My sphere of light shattered as I screamed. With my eyes closed, I was protected from the explosive release of color. The soldiers were not so lucky. While they struggled, blind and disoriented, I made my move.
I leaped against a shield and scrambled over an armored head. My feet hit flagstone and I ran.
Not fast enough. My blood left a vivid trail. They knew where to follow.
A spear caught above the knee. The hammers came soon after.
“We should consider a new career,” Zuzanna had told me once, blue-eyed and wry, after it all went wrong.
“I’m a physician,” I told her, with customary stubbornness. We walked a flagstone path amidst manicured gardens. “What am I supposed to do, leave people dead on the ground?”
“I don’t see why not. Gravediggers make a fine and profitable trade. Your problem,” Zuzanna told me, “Is that you care too much.” We walked a flagstone path amidst manicured gardens. She wore the cocksure expression I’d grown used to, tilting up her masculine hat with its too-large feather. Grey hairs streaked amidst blonde at her temples. Even aged, people noticed her.
I knew she was trying to be supportive. She didn’t have to come along. But contracts were growing scarce, and when the prince requested me, there was no denying her.
The royal eagle shrieked in graven stone upon the estate doors. We were not allowed to enter. A bearded servant instead directed us to a family tomb in the gardens just behind. “Madame will need to wait outside,” the man said.
“The hell I will,” said Zuzanna.
The sound of shifting metal alerted us to the presence of soldiers amidst the hedges, their hands now alight upon the hilts of swords.
The servant said: “Madame will need to wait outside.”
“It’ll be fine,” I assured her. We kissed, perfunctory. Back then I took kisses for granted.
I entered the tomb. It was the size of a small chapel, full up with dead royals, plus slots for those yet living. On the floor lay a body. Flies buzzed around its empty eye sockets. Not a royal. I could tell by the silver cord around its neck that the stiff was a New Believer. Probably why they killed him.
I knew immediately that the body had been dead too long. It contained not a whisper of the soul.
I said, “The prince was supposed to be here.”
“The prince is busy,” said Tomasz.
He wore garish red cloth, red and black and green, all rents and feathers and buttons. It did little to relieve the craggy impassivity of his face. It had seen all kinds of trouble, that face. Pox and breaks and cuts and scrapes. Wasn’t anything left that could be done to it that somebody else hadn’t done already. Missing an eye, too, which said things about his hobby of taking them from others.
“Go on, then,” he told me. “Bring him back.”
I asked, “Did he sign the consent form?”
Tomasz had somehow tricked a knife into his hand. I noticed only when a little ribbon of blood bloomed under my eye just how close he held it to my face. “Do you know why the prince chose you?”
I waited for him to answer.
“Because you’re disposable.”
It was all so melodramatic. I tried not to laugh.
Tomasz struck my jaw. I hit the floor. Painful, but professional to professional, I admire a man who does his own dirty work.
I noticed from my new vantage point that the soldiers had come inside.
“See, what this tells me,” I said, while they hoisted me up. “Is that you know what the prince told you to do is impossible. No one who’s tried to resurrect someone past the three-day limit has ever come back alive.”
“Bring in Zuzanna,” Tomasz told his men. “She’s supposed to be the best. If Martyn won’t do it, well. We’ll use him to persuade her to try.”
That was when the pain really started.
She tried, all right. She held out awhile, but in the end she tried, and after she fell into a convulsive trance, I figured she was gone, the same as the others who’d tried before her. But somehow — somehow she succeeded. Bleeding from eyes and ears and nose, she woke, and the poor dead fool opened his eyes, both grown whole and new.
She came to me like a battered angel, smiling, bloody. We left together to the far road, where every step I still felt the ache of absent nails.
I asked: “How’d you do it?”
She waited for me to say something else. I forced the issue with silence. “I made a bargain,” she said.
“What kind of bargain?”
“Didn’t you say you wanted to learn how to play the lute? Well, with the money the prince gave us, we can buy you seven of them, and lessons besides. Time you settled down, opened a practice. Always broke and wandering, blowing into my place of a winter; it’s no way to live.”
“What kind of bargain?”
Her voice turned stern. “Do not speak to them. You will learn things you cannot remember, and go mad in trying.”
I meant to ask her which them she meant. But as she spoke, her shadow lengthened. Across the ground it bled, spreading towards me like spilled ink.
She touched cold fingers to my jaw, tracing the lines of a smile I did not wear, as if suggestion might make it come. “Someone’s got to look out for you,” she said. “Goodness knows you do a terrible job at it. Might as well be me.”
Then I blinked, and saw only the shadow cast by the sun, and Zuzanna’s conciliatory grin.
I was just imagining things, I consoled myself.
“You know,” the prince told me, “I was really hoping we could do this over tea.”
I woke up hanging upside down in what I think was a wine cellar. The giant barrels indicated as much. Probably the cathedral; they were using it as a command post. “You don’t say.”
His Highness the Prince Valostin was getting on near forty, with not a single grey hair. His uniform was pristine white and had quite a lot of medals pinned to it; several of these were his own invention. He told me, “I suppose I could have been more explicit about stipulating unharmed as well as alive, but, you know, the red banner boys have a lot of steam to blow off.”
They’d done me the favor of binding my stab wounds. “Why am I hanging from the ceiling?”
“Promotes blood flow,” said the prince. “For healing. I’ve read your papers.”
“I am a rationalist,” said the prince, as though that explained everything. “Anyhow, would you like to come down?”
Soon enough I was hobbling along after him. The leg wound hadn’t been too deep. “The way I see it,” the prince told me, “This is excellent fortune. There’s so few of you lot kicking around these days. Real hierophants.”
“Mostly we just train physicians now,” I told him, struggling with the stairs.
“I’ve heard about you, in particular. Pity about that woman Zuzanna. I didn’t sign off on that, you know.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“The way I see it,” The prince said, like it were a symposium, “There’s no afterlife at all.”
There’s nothing, Zuzanna had said. “You don’t say.”
“No God, either,” said the prince. We reached the landing and a steward opened a hardwood door. “I read a book of post-return accounts. There’s no consistency to them. The rational man must conclude: the near-death experience is a delusion, a last dream as the soul expires. So you see? No reason to feel guilty. You didn’t deprive her of anything.”
An uncivilized part of me realized I could kill him. A rational part of me realized he had guards. “It’s all very real,” I said. “You’ve never faced a keeper.”
“Externalizations of your anxieties,” the prince told me. “A shadow born from a collective, common archetype. A way of showing death, in dream logic. They’re certainly not angels.”
“Yet you still uphold Church law.”
“You try doing my job as an excommunicate and tell me how it goes. Pre-death contracts are a perfectly reasonable compromise. Anyway, you’re going to bring someone back to life for me.”
“We’re a non-political order.”
“My executioner is famously apolitical, but he still gets the job done.” The prince was very polite, but I noticed two pikemen behind me. “I’m sure you’ll see it my way.”
The room was a guest bedroom, sparsely apportioned. A dead man’s body lay on a table, covered by a sheet.
“Well, go on, have a look. Can you do anything for him?”
When I pulled the sheet back, I noticed my fingers trembling. They did not shake from fear.
It was Tomasz. Tomasz the eye-taker. The man who’d killed my lover.
Ten years sharing her bed off and on, you’d think I’d know more things about Zuzanna. I could tell you all about her hair, about the way it was grey at the temples, about how her mouth always pursed, just so. But I don’t think I actually realized I loved her until after she was gone.
I have trouble with that. Knowing people. I certainly like knowing about people; I’ve checked in on most of the ones I’ve brought back. One of them cured a plague. Another composed a few famous symphonies. There was a third who was part of the first crew to circumnavigate the Divide, and a fourth carried some important land reforms in the sejm assembly. I derive satisfaction from all that. The greater good. But friends and lovers? That’s harder.
I reached Zuzanna’s place on a particular winter, still then broke and wandering. It had gone that way for years. I looked forward to the meeting: I’d tell her about where I’d been, who I’d helped; she’d tell me I was stupid, and speak about her patrons, richer by far than mine. Soldiers with hearts of stone, artists of high distinction. The arts were her passion, and her town-house brimmed with canvas, too many to display and she too fond of patrons’ gifts to sell them for a price.
I attained the foyer. “Zuzanna?” I looked between tapestries and paintings. I heard something move, further in the house. She was home, then. Probably just waking up, even at this hour. “It’s awfully dark in here.”
I heard her voice down the hall. “I have trouble telling, sometimes,” came her voice. “Do come in.”
I didn’t realize what was wrong until I was halfway down the hall. All the candles were lit.
But none of them gave off light.
I came to her solarium. Outside the glass it was noon. But inside it was the dark of night. Everything in the room was cast in shadow. Everything except her, and the dead man on the floor beneath her.
“I’m very close,” she told me, pleased. “I’ve nearly figured it all out.”
I’m not sure what expression I wore, but she interpreted it as she pleased.
“Oh, he’s been dead quite a while. Would you like tea?” She poured regardless. “You’ll have noticed the original Albercik in the foyer, and you’re probably wondering, how did she get the money? Well, it’s good business, as you can imagine, being the only person in the world who can bring someone back to life after the three-day limit. I keep it quiet, of course. Discriminating clients. I’m wondering now about trying someone really far gone. So many poets, you know, die young.”
“Whatever you’re doing,” I told her. “You need to stop.”
“Rather too late for that now. I couldn’t rekindle so very dim a soul as this. I gave him bits of mine.”
“That’s how I do it. It’s no different from taking some oil from one lamp to light another.”
“You’ll run out.”
“There’s a lot of soul in a person,” she told me, fifth finger extended while she drank. “You hardly need most of it. Imagine all the people I’ve helped! I thought you, of all people, would understand that.”
“That’s fine for them, but what about you? Your afterlife?”
“There’s nothing,” she told me, with a little laugh. “There’s nothing beyond death. Only a final dream. Oh, I know that for certain now. And isn’t it far better to be awake?” She inhaled the aroma of tea, eyes closed as she settled back against the glass. The sunlight didn’t quite reach her. “Of course, I do miss being warm. But I’ll figure that out too, eventually.”
I went immediately to the Archimandrite, head of the order, for guidance. He went directly to the governor. The governor had an especially phlegmatic view on the returned, and he went to the prince. The prince went to Tomasz.
We only found out a day later. When we found her, her eyes were missing.
I suppose he never would have killed her, if it wasn’t for me.
The rabble cut Tomasz down outside the city limits, the prince explained. Desertion had got to be an issue, and he had to make an example, but there was more resistance than anybody expected, and Tomasz took an arrow to the stomach. Anyway, a man like that was worth a whole division. Puts fear into the enemy ranks. Could I do it?
On the slab lay Tomasz’s knife, chipped and worn by time. How many eyes had it taken?
“I’ll do it,” I said. I wouldn’t want Tomasz to get off so easy.
“I thought so,” said the prince.
The first thing I felt was heat. The air was like a knife. It was the desert’s heat, no gentler for being dry. The landscape was one of lonely buttes and barren scoria. Strange things moved in the distance, their limbs too long, wavering in the distortions born of warmth. I decided immediately not to look at them.
I didn’t see any water. That was a danger sign, but I’d solve that problem later. Step by step I drew closer to Tomasz, who lay in the dust.
I spoke. “Tomasz.”
He didn’t look up. I made him.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Someone I killed, probably,” he said, his lips dry and peeling.
“How many of those are there, I wonder?”
“A few,” he said, “And they’re all coming here.” He pointed up towards the sky. I decided not to look at that either.
I’d considered words, but in the moment, I didn’t know what to say. “You killed someone dear to me.”
“Her name was Zuzanna.”
He looked up at me, vacant. “Pretty common name.”
I suppose I choked him then. He didn’t spend much effort fighting back, and eventually I realized that you can’t kill what’s already dead.
When he was able to speak again, he laughed. “See, it was very important for you. But for me, it was just work. And that’s why I’m here.”
“Everyone goes here.”
“Everyone goes somewhere.” Tomasz spoke with an odd satisfaction: “I’m going to hell. The things out there told me.”
He pointed at the shapes at the horizon. I looked up, instead.
That was a mistake.
The sky was full of eyes. Some were solitary. Most in pairs. They opened, one after another, dozens, hundreds, a thousand. Man-shaped shadows bloomed behind them, twisting in upon one another, an intricate knot-work of insubstantial bodies, large as the buttes. Pupils dilated in silent accusation. Shapes like hands pressed against some impermeable barrier. I wondered, madly, what might happen if it broke.
“I’m here to take you back,” I told him.
“No,” he said. He struggled to stand, but I did not let him. “No, don’t do that.”
“Your prince needs you. For the war.”
“He’d turn me into ashes. Into a puppet. God help me, man, don’t do that to me.”
I wondered why I was arguing with him. “You only get one trip back. But that doesn’t mean anything about the afterlife.”
“I can’t take the chance,” he said.
Then I heard the skittering feet. The dark shapes were coming.
“Say you’re right,” I said. “Say hell comes next. Isn’t a longer life better than suffering forever?”
He said, quietly: “Better suffering than nothing.”
I thought of him living, certain he was hollow. Feeling a pit in his chest, ever sure of his own emptiness.
I liked it.
“You’re coming with me,” I told him, “Whether you like it or not.”
The bastard turned and ran.
I chased after him. He was faster: the dead don’t get tired.
We approached the shadow of a butte. As we ran, I saw the distant shapes grow clearer. Every one of them was a keeper.
Each keeper is different. They all approach humanity, but none of them quite make it. Legs that articulate at impossible angles, arms too numerous, talons instead of hands. They move sideways, one part at a time, like mechanisms. Some are made of metal and some are made of flesh. Some have both, or neither. They all wear masks.
The closest was almost a kind of centipede, a woman with the limbs of insects. Her neck twisted, birdlike, six eyes blinking.
“Stop,” I warned him.
She punctured Tomasz cleanly through the chest.
“Martyn,” she told me, “this one is ours.”
Do not speak to them, Zuzanna told me once. You will learn things you cannot remember, and go mad in trying.
“That never stopped me before.”
She chirruped. “We could take you, instead, thief of lives. You would see things. Such things.”
“I’m taking him back,” I said.
“One life was promised.” She raised her foremost limb. Blood leaked from the taloned end. “But we could take two.”
I looked at Tomasz. There was a knife in his belt, but that wouldn’t be enough.
Instead I held up a hand and focused. Shadows lengthened, to feed the light that bloomed above my palm.
The creature shrieked. It fled at right angles and scurried up the butte.
Using only one arm, I hoisted Tomasz, weightless, across my shoulders.
“Leave me,” he said, too weak now to struggle.
I set off. The keepers clucked in chorus, ten steps behind, wary of my light. They told me of my life. They weighed my sins and virtues, decreed how I would be measured and where I would be delivered. They did the same to Tomasz, somehow, using exactly the same words, spoken at the same time. These truths slipped through me like a sieve. They belonged to some other place, to some other kind of knowing.
There is nothing beyond death, Zuzanna said. Only a final dream.
It is a kind of dream, they told me, from which there is no waking. Neither was it less real for being dreamed.
The furthest buttes began to crack. The ground peeled beneath my feet, like paint. This elsewhere wouldn’t last much longer. I had Tomasz, but I needed a way out. Why wasn’t there any water? It was a desert, yes — but there ought to be an oasis, somewhere. There was always a way out.
I began to wonder what would happen if I was stuck there with him.
Would I die, or was it something worse?
I came to a precipice. I turned to look back at crumbling ground. I dropped Tomasz, and clutched at my brow. Think!
“I’ve changed my mind,” Tomasz said, at my feet, looking at the keepers.
“Now you’ve changed your mind.”
“If I’m going with them — so are you.” Somehow, he’d tricked his knife into his palm.
I reached down to stop him. The blade cut into my third finger, deep. Some kind of sinew snapped inside. Spurred by pain, I struck my knee into his face. He fell, and the knife fell.
It was time enough for the keeper to come upon me.
“Martyn,” she said, and I thought I heard satisfaction in her empty voice.
Well, I consoled myself, clutching Tomasz’s knife in my uninjured hand. I’d always insisted there was an afterlife. Soon I’d know for certain.
She raised a talon, still red with blood. It came down once, twice, three times. Each impact wetter than the last.
I breathed. It had struck Tomasz. The ground beneath him slickened with a sheen of murky, scarlet fluid.
Blood, I realized, was a kind of water.
Still the keeper came. It came upon me slowly, a nearly sensual quality to the undulations of spine and insect’s limbs. Transfixed, I watched taloned arms extend. Gently, so gently, two points brushed my throat, tracing the line of a smile I did not wear.
“Please,” I whispered, all my courage gone. I stepped back. My boot sank into the blood below. More leaked from my throat, so finely kissed by razors.
“Come and see,” she offered me. “Come see what lies beyond. The life you take from others.”
Quietly, I told her: “Please. No.”
One by one, the keepers removed their masks. The woman’s face was familiar. I do not remember it precisely.
But I remember screaming.
Then, through blood, I fell.
The prince asked me: “Have you started yet?”
The room was very quiet. Perhaps two seconds had passed.
I waited a long time, staring at the body. Then I looked at my hand, fascinated. My third finger was slowly dying, turning grey. The prince watched in open horror as darkness spread across my neck, a livid internal wound. The wounds suffered elsewhere manifested in real flesh.
Something weighed down my hand. Tomasz’s knife. A bloodied copy to the one upon the slab, down to the individual notch.
The prince noticed. “Where did you get that?”
A thin line of flesh split along my neck. Blood ran in scarlet trickle. “Elsewhere.”
The prince eventually asked, nearly whispering: “Where is Tomasz?”
I placed the knife in the prince’s hand. One after another, I closed his fingers around the hilt. An errant droplet of my blood stained his pristine cuffs. “Tomasz didn’t want to come.”
The prince’s fingers tremored, carefully but incompletely concealed. “I need him, Martyn. You see how the war’s going.”
“He felt guilty,” I lied. “Worn down by life.”
“Damn it, if I could just talk to him!”
I looked at the body. “I told him you needed him. He said he’d rather go to hell.”
Behind the prince, I sensed the growing discomfort of his guards.
“We’ve got other dead,” he finally said. “Young men, good men.”
I saw the manipulation for what it was. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard a woman’s echoing voice, and saw a keeper’s familiar face. But like a dream in morning, it refused to be grasped. Something was waiting for those young dead men, something beyond the elsewhere. Even without me, they’d be all right. I felt certain.
It was only the reason that I could not describe.
I unwound the hierophant’s stole from around my shoulders and left it on the slab.
I approached the door. The prince objected. But no one stopped my leaving.
Some years later I stopped in Teresin, where the river becomes the sea. It is a cold place with warm people; there are a hundred kinds of fish, and water is harder to get than vodka. Seagulls wheeled above the docks, where players chased the dream of patronage. Harp and lute and viol competed for attention, each performance a bubble of sound that pressed up against the others.
“You’re terrible,” a man told me, as he dropped a copper in my hat. “You’ll never make it here. Who do you think you are?”
“A musician,” I told him. And his sneer didn’t make me wrong. I earn more coins than some. The missing finger, I think, inspires charity.
It’ll have to do, anyway, until I’m less awful. And even being awful isn’t so bad.
When the sun dipped low I packed my things and walked the sand, out to where the orchestra plays before the waves. There was a performer there, a lutenist, one I’d traveled a long way to see. She’d grown famous after the war, wandering up and down the coast singing songs of husbands lost and children never born.
Her name was Michelina, a woman twice widowed. Our eyes met for a time. First she showed suspicion. Then recognition. And soon a quiet and abiding hate. I wondered what words we might share, when the concert ended.
I sat on the waterfront and listened to the strings; the sound reflected off of dusk-dark waters.
About the Author
J. P. Sullivan is an M.A. student and editor for manga publisher Seven Seas Entertainment. A graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop in 2016 and Grand Prize Winner of Baen’s 2017 Fantasy Adventure contest, J. P.’s fiction has since appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, Mysterion, and elsewhere. Drop a line online at http://www.jp-sullivan.com/ or @JP_Sullivan.