Rated PG-13, with a content warning for rituals for the dead, including children.
by Robert Luke Wilkins
The plains town still smouldered, its once-strong gates blackened and ruined, but the bandits were long gone. The townsfolk were gathering the bodies of the dead into a great heap, and though he had caught the smell on the air hours earlier, Moran still arrived in time to see them working.
It was easier if he arrived when they were finished.
One of the men threw an infant girl’s body onto the heap, and Moran turned away as he fought down old memories—it was neither the time nor the place. Today was about their grief.
He walked up to the gates, and waited to be invited in. The townsfolk who noticed him at first threw him strange looks, which came as no surprise. He was a tall man, with a warrior’s build—if he were carrying a sword, he could easily have been mistaken for a bandit himself.
But the muscle was as much a tool of his trade as any he carried, and the robes he wore were unmistakable. Unchanged in more than a century, their gray-trimmed white contrasted with his sun-darkened skin—but the silver that had crept into his brown hair matched them well enough. And beneath it, always hidden, he wore a necklace—a single length of thick black cord that held twenty-seven forged steel pendants.
His heavy pack held all he needed to practice his art. His shovel and long-handled sledgehammer were tied together across the top beneath a rolled blanket, and the mighty bronze hammer’s head leaned the entire pack a little sideways. A broad brass pestle and two copper pots were tied beneath with rough brown cord, and they clattered as he walked.
It never took people long to realize who he was—and today was no exception. The whispers grew, crept from mouth to ear, and soon enough the Town Elder came out to meet him.
The man was older in years, though younger in dress, and Moran simply nodded in reply. He smiled rarely these days, and his work gave him little cause. Those who weren’t crying wore the same numb expression.
“You’re welcome here,” said the Elder at last.
“My fee is fifty gold.”
The Elder paused for a moment, then nodded and left, while Moran stood at the gate and waited. He didn’t need the money, but the sum was as traditional as the robes, charged both so that people understood the gravity of what they asked, and so that those who came later could charge it without question.
And they would pay—they all did. Even those who couldn’t afford it would try to find the means, or barter goods in exchange—because these days, everyone needed the protection his craft could provide. The war in the north distracted the Lords from their duties, and raiders ran free, robbing and killing with impunity.
Moran hated what the world had become—hated it so much that it knotted his stomach to think of it. Yet, with the world in this forlorn state, there was hope…at least for him. The townsfolk would pay the gold, as tradition demanded—but his true price would be paid without their ever knowing.
Once the Elder had collected the coin, he handed it to Moran in a leather pouch.
“Strip the flesh from the dead,” said Moran. “But not the children.”
“Why? I thought you worked with them all?”
“My ancestors did—I do not. And if you want my services, you will remove the children from their number. Bury them, and bless them unto God’s care. For the others, be quick, but thorough. Pile the cleaned bones in the town center.”
The Elder nodded, promised to do so, and left again to talk with the others as Moran made his way into town.
Burning the bones required expertise, special materials, and careful preparations, and Moran chose a spot near the middle of town to dig. It didn’t take long. The top layer was tough but the earth beneath was soft, and he’d soon dug out a pit five feet wide and a little less than two feet deep.
It would do.
He made his way back out of town then, and ignored the townsfolk as they worked on the bones.
The scraping sound of tools on bone echoed from within the town, mingled with sobs and wails. The sound was so familiar that it barely registered, but old memories still surfaced—grey, distant recollections of a day when he’d done the same, slowly scraping flesh from bone, twice erasing a familiar face forever.
Part of him ached to go back into town and just hug them all, to let them know he understood their pain…but none would thank him for it. He knew what was expected of him—the emotional distance was as much a part of it as the fire and the powders. He forced the old memories from his mind, made a small fire from gathered firewood, and then heated a small pot of water to make tea.
Aside from the large rosewood box and his powder pouches, his pack held enough things to live for a month—dried meats and herbs, small medicine pots, a silver tea ball and a large pouch of tea-leaves. It sometimes seemed to him that he could live without meat, but not tea. It helped him to find his center—and he needed all the help he could get.
As he waited for the water to heat, he collected more firewood from around the town’s low, ruined wall and selected a couple of pieces that were particularly dry. Those he shaved with a sharp knife, creating short, slender curls of wood to use as kindling. The work was tedious, but the monotony helped him to focus and keep his emotions at bay. Once finished, he prepared himself a cup of tea and waited.
Soon he heard the Elder approaching, his hurried footsteps shuffling in the dirt, and Moran gulped down the rest of his tea. It was still hot and scorched his tongue, but tea wasn’t a thing to waste.
“It’s done,” said the Elder. Moran nodded and collected his things.
The sticky bones had been piled in a chaotic heap inside the pit he’d dug. Even with most of the skin and muscle removed, they stood a full foot above its edge.
“This will do,” said Moran, and he could tell the task was well done. Sometimes, the folk of villages would defy him, and include the bones of their children—a cruel thing, he thought, to bind them to such an empty sorrow. But they had never felt what he felt, never touched the bones of a dead child and felt the sorrow creeping from it. Those who begged him to include the bones of their children, and damned him for his refusal, didn’t know—couldn’t know. And he had not the heart to tell them.
He sat down without another word, and waited for the Elder to leave before he began his work.
For hours, he sorted the bones according to the methods the first Ashwright had laid down. Precise patterns were formed from the arm and leg bones, the skulls collected at the heart of the pile, and finger bones at the edge. The new pile was built around and above the firewood he had collected.
The bones ached with sorrow, and it leached into him with every touch, rekindling old grief and wrenching tears from him. When at last the task was done, his eyes pink and sore, he returned to his fire and brewed more tea. He collected a little more dry wood and stoked the flames, but neither the fire nor tea were warm enough to ease the chill that had settled on him. It would be with him for days, and even the baking mid-day sun would not shake it.
He was slow to drink his tea before he returned again to the bone pile, and took the final ritual elements from his pack. First amongst them was a small, tightly-wrapped leather parcel, which he unwound to reveal a large crystal, bound in a slender spiral of gold. His hand trembled slightly as he lifted it free of the wrapping.
At a distance, it was nothing special—just a crystal, like any other, catching the light. But if you turned it, so that it caught the light the right way, you could see the shape of the heart—the asymmetrical yet perfect shape, with the vessels extending—and if you had eyes to see, you could see that not all its light was from the sun. It was forbidden—but none but him would know. And for the sake of their Eloise, breaking his ancestors’ rules was a small price.
He studied it for a moment, and a twinge of painful hope rose up. He swallowed it back down, and placed the crystal heart carefully amongst the skulls.
Next were the pouches of powders. Each was hand-crafted according to traditional methods, passed down from parent to child, though their origins were now long forgotten. The first pouch, of silver-blue powder, he trailed around the edge of the pile. The second, clay red, he emptied over the crystal heart, and three more were scattered over the bones, of white, yellow, and black—some stuck to the remaining flesh and sticky patches. The powders would raise the fire’s heat, driving its intensity far above anything that wood or even coal could manage.
He walked three times around the pile, ensuring everything was perfect before he sat down in front of the pile, with the midday sun overhead. He drew out a tinder-box, lit the shaved kindling in his hands with a strip of char-cloth and then reached into the bone-pile to set it next to the heart.
The first of the powders took with a whispering hiss as it flamed nearly white, the nearby wood quickly igniting. Slowly the flames grew, the heat grew more intense, and the air filled with a sick smell as the remnants of flesh began to burn. But the smell would soon fade.
He sat cross-legged next to the fire, and began a low, rhythmic chanting.
For seven hours Moran sat and tended the flames. Four long rituals were completed, each one comprising a repeated chant interrupted by several shorter verses, each short verse spoken only once. The intonation was as important as the words, and he had been well into his twenties before he had fully mastered the subtleties. Perfect enunciation yielded perfect results.
Three times he added fresh wood, and more than half a dozen times he added more powders. He knew the heat, a familiar if unwelcome friend, and could feel when it fell from where he needed it to be.
But at last, as the blaze dwindled, he let it fade, the fire’s golden embers echoed by the setting sun. The bones had changed, now, their spirits already half free, and Moran could hear their whispers in his head. Angry, resentful, spiteful, hateful.
The first part was done.
“I will sleep now,” he said, and stood and walked from the fire. The Elder stopped him as he headed for the town gate.
“Are you finished?”
“Not yet. I will finish tomorrow, when the bones have cooled. But let nobody approach them in my absence. It is not safe.”
The following morning, before sunrise, Moran sat back down beside the bones, with his pack alongside him on the scorched and toughened earth.
It had been years since he had last seen spirits escape prematurely—fresh from the bone-pile, full of hate and anguish, and strong enough to wreak havoc. They were a danger to everyone, and most of all to their living relatives. But he had mastered the binding chants since then—and those would have to be revoked now before the spirits could be free.
But first came the cleansing.
The bones were still warm, but had cooled enough to touch safely. He took the crystal heart from within, and studied it for a few moments, turning it over in his fingers several times.
Had its glow changed—had his price finally been paid? If so, then…but no, he couldn’t allow himself to think like that. There was still work to do.
He wrapped the crystal carefully and placed it in the very bottom of his pack, then lifted a large stone pestle from within and untied the mortar. Sixteen inches across, he had inherited the mortar from his grandfather, and it had been in use for many generations. He set them to one side together and whispered a brief chant before drawing the long-handled hammer and turning to the pile.
The townsfolk were shaken from sleep by the sound of the great bronze hammer falling time and again upon the burned bones. The fire’s intense heat had cracked and shattered some into fragments, but many were still intact. Breaking them was hard work, but the fire had made them brittle.
With each blow that fell, Moran recited a short prayer for those whose bones lay within. In his strong hands, the long, heavy hammer felt light.
Nobody approached him, and he neither ate nor drank. His movements were unhurried, each strike deliberate and rhythmic—a slow, relentless drum beat that shook the earth.
It was past noon when his hammer at last fell still. It no longer felt light. Moran’s shoulders and back burned from the effort, and the shining bronze head was dark with bone ash.
He drank then, but still ate nothing.
The pile already looked shrunken from the hammer’s blows, a pounded mixture of bone shards and crushed ashes, but he gathered the largest broken pieces into a second, smaller pile. From it, he collected handfuls and placed them into the mortar, then recited more prayers as he ground them down into ash with the stone pestle.
As the sun grew low and red, he returned the last of the ashes to the bone pile. Some teeth, small bones and unbroken fragments remained, but he had done enough. The energy of the dead pulsed in the air, now calm and at peace, but all eager to be free of their bone prisons. He stood and whispered one more silent prayer before beckoning the Elder over to him.
“Bring all those who lost someone,” he said. “Friends, family, and loved ones of any walk. Have them stand in a circle around the ashes.”
Moran still did not eat, but he drank a little water to wash the taste of bone dust from his mouth.
Many people approached, most in pairs and small groups, until nearly a hundred had gathered in a great circle. Moran bade them hold hands, one to another, and form a ring. As they did so, he turned back to face the bones and closed his eyes.
This was the final chant. With the spirits cleansed by prayer, and their bone prisons cracked by sweat and metal, only this last act remained. He held his hands forth and recited the dismissal, breaking the bonds he had forged.
The air filled with a whisper that grew to a murmur. The gathered people muttered and shifted uneasily, and before them, figures slowly rose from the bone pile. Shadowy and thin, the dull color of the burnt bones from which they now emerged, they moved towards the gathered townsfolk and stood, inches away from them.
The figures were indistinct and featureless, yet they knew them at once. Many broke the circle, reaching to touch the spirits. Some cried silent tears and others wailed, but the gray ghosts simply stood, still and silent.
Here, in this moment, the love of the living, futile and painful, met the enduring love of the dead for those left behind. In their convergence lay a uniquely tragic power.
Warlords had tried to force Moran’s ancestors to raise armies of the dead, but they did not understand. The ashen ghosts were bound by love, not duty. Dead soldiers would not rise to serve their commanders again, and no craft Moran knew of could force them to.
But here, the living and dead would be bound together, yet irrevocably apart—at least while their loved ones still lived. Sometimes, those who remained would commit suicide, hoping for a more meaningful reunion—and Moran knew full well that there was a measure of cruelty in his craft. Yet people needed it—and it seemed the lesser of two evils.
Besides, for him, there was no alternative.
He whispered a chant, unheard by the townsfolk, and as the last word escaped his tongue the ghosts melted into the air, until only ashen shadows remained on the ground where they had stood. The townsfolk remained, crying and holding to one another as Moran turned to the Elder.
“You must gather the ashes,” he said. “Till them into the earth around the town’s boundary. The task must be complete before sundown tomorrow.”
The Elder stood still for a moment, struck to silence.
“Thank you,” he said finally. Moran looked at him and nodded.
“I must leave,” he said. “The wardens will watch over you now, but only so long as their loved ones remain. Be sure you all remember.”
Moran collected his things and headed east. He heard voices as he left—some grateful, while others whispered bitterly, wondering why he had denied them that same reunion with their lost children. But none had confronted him, and that suited him well. He was in no mind to answer.
It was a nine-day journey on foot across the plains to his home in the far hills, and though it was faster by horse, Moran disliked riding. He enjoyed the feel of the earth under his feet, and it had been many years since he last rode.
Four days into his journey he saw a trio of riders approaching from a distance, men clearly lacking his pedestrian sentiment. He made camp under a nearby tree and made a meager fire from what little wood he could gather, and heated water for tea while he waited. He drew the hammer from his pack, and laid it alongside him.
The water was still too cool for tea by the time the riders rode up.
“Ho, Ashwright,” called the leader as they rode up. The tall man was dressed all in black scale armour, his head covered by a decorative but faceless helmet. “You have something of ours.”
Moran looked up at the three. They were all dressed similarly, save for the helm, and all rode lightly armored horses.
“All I carry is mine,” said Moran.
“Not true,” said the leader, and he dismounted smoothly. The others dismounted behind him, and Moran stood and gathered up his hammer, but the leader ignored his weapon. Moran was a big man, but they were all bigger, and better armed. “Your works rob us of our livelihood. Your wretched ghosts put a dozen of my men in the ground this year alone—some towns have been beyond our reach for over a decade.”
“Then don’t kill anyone,” suggested Moran. “I can’t create wardens without the dead.”
The leader snorted. “Nonsense—you owe us, Ashwright, and you will pay. Fifty gold is the rate for your services, so I hear? I expect forty as compensation—and I know full well you’ve served six towns in the last year alone. You owe me two hundred and forty gold.”
“I only have seventy.”
“Well, that’s unfortunate,” said the man, though his voice was less than disappointed. “I’m afraid you and I are about to have a problem, Ashwright.”
He drew a long, straight sword from the scabbard at his hip, and his men each drew swords that were more slender and slightly curved. The leader’s expression was still serious, but his men were smiling.
“I warn you now—withdraw,” said Moran. He planted the hammer head-down on the ground, and rested his hands on the handle’s butt. “You do not want this fight.”
“Ah, but you have forced it upon me,” said the leader. “Besides, I’m afraid my men have been quite looking forward to killing you.”
On his chest, Moran felt the forged talismans grow warm, and he shook his head.
“Then the fight is yours,” he said. “And God be with you.”
“You’ll need God’s help more than I. Get him.”
His men stepped forward, but before they had even passed their leader, twenty-seven unarmed ashen figures rose up from the ground and positioned themselves between them and Moran. He saw fear flash across their faces, but the leader bellowed a battlecry, and his long blade swung out towards the gathering ghosts.
It was almost brave, but futile. His blade struck nothing, and the grey ghosts rippled around the blade as they advanced and fell upon the three, enveloping them. Moran heard them screaming, but the screams turned to coughing as they choked on the living ash. The ghosts merged together into an enveloping mass, and the raiders sank to the ground, their struggles growing weaker, their dry, croaking gasps fading to silence.
Minutes later, the ghosts retreated. The men all knelt upon the ground, hands slack at their sides and faces frozen in death—their eyes bulged, but each was hidden beneath a thin layer of grey ash that left them seeming more statues than men.
The amulets cooled, and the ghosts began to dissipate—a familiar family of spectres melting into the gentle plains breeze. His father’s shade stood shoulder to shoulder with his grandfather for a moment, before the breeze took them both—and though most he didn’t know by name, all were bitterly familiar. One after another they became dust, until only a single ghost still lingered.
Featureless and gray, even now he knew her—could vividly remember the week he had spent crafting the pendant over a fire that burned around her bones, all cleaned so carefully, to forge his promise to her in steel. He reached out to touch the ghost of hair that had once brushed his face, and blanketed his chest as they slept.
“I miss you,” he whispered.
In a heartbeat the figure was lost on the air with the others, and the last amulet grew cold.
He felt heart-sick, and wanted to tear it from his neck and break it here and now—but he had promised. One day, their quest complete, he would break the amulet in half and let her rest.
Moran returned to the fire. The water was hot now, but again he felt cold inside, and was in no mood for tea. He let the water cool, emptied it back into his canteen, gathered his things and resumed his long walk, leaving the three ashen figures kneeling on the ground behind.
His home in the hills was unchanged—a cabin nestled in trees, with a well for water and a fireplace that was always laid. During the winter months travellers would sometimes stay while he was away, but they would lay the fire with fresh wood from the pile, and many left a coin or two in gratitude.
And near the great oak tree in the front, two graves were marked. The first was for his wife, Saliana—the other for their daughter, Eloise.
Both graves were empty.
Moran stood before them both for a while before he knelt and lifted the rosewood box from his pack. A silent prayer was fixed in his mind as he unlocked and opened it. Within the velvet-lined interior lay the polished bones of a child—bones he would not yet entrust to the care of the earth.
The wasting disease spared none, and Eloise had just turned two when she passed. He had been away for just two weeks, and she had been well when he left. But by the time he returned she was already gone, and his wife had died days later. Her last, delirious day had been spent pleading with him, over and over, to break the oldest of his ancestors’ laws.
As if he would have done any less.
He lifted her bones from the box and laid them gently on top of her hollow grave, reassembling the figure of the child he had known all too briefly. He could still feel her sadness in the bones, and tears crept down his cheeks.
He had wanted to take the bones to a Priest, to have her blessed to God’s grace, and give her the same gift he had insisted the townsfolk give to their own. But within the bones he felt a longing for life, not for release—and he would not release her, not even to God, so long as he still believed he could deliver her back to the life she craved.
Besides, he had promised.
The skull he laid down last of all, and for a moment he sat, staring at the figure and the hollow eyes, trying to imagine her face over it. He could barely picture her features now, but her smile was still fixed in his memory, and even as his recollection of her grew dimmer that smile remained bright.
He took the crystal heart from his pack, unwrapped it, and held it for just a moment before placing it inside her ribcage, where her own heart had once beaten. Then he sat in silence, his own heart now racing. He knew the ritual, had performed it almost a dozen times.
But it had always failed. And he couldn’t settle his nerves—couldn’t stop himself wondering if this time would be different.
He took a deep, steadying breath and placed his hands several inches above the ribcage, then began the recitation. It was long and intricate, learned from old scrolls that were hidden in a locked box in the family’s stone vault. Never to be opened, never to be used, those were the rules. Yet he surely could not have been the first of his line to seek it out. And why write them down at all, save to one day use them?
He had wondered before if any of his ancestors had ever even attempted it—if any had ever succeeded…
For half a day he sat and chanted, slow and steady, with his eyes closed and his mind fixed on the task. The sun crept through the sky, and the light faded, until at last he chanted under the moonlight. And when the final word at last spilled from his dry tongue, he sat still, eyes closed, not bearing to open them and look.
He opened his eyes.
The bones lay before him, pale in the moonlight, but still cold and lifeless—the crystal heart within was quite unchanged. He sat still for several minutes, then reached and took it.
He held it up in front of his face, studying it, its dim glow barely lighting the tree behind. His mind fancied that it was a little warmer than it had been when he placed it there, but was he imagining it? The change was small—perhaps nothing at all.
But the air felt cold. He touched the ground beneath, in case there had been some heat from below to warm it—but no, the ground was cold too. Perhaps, then, the crystal had warmed itself. Perhaps he was closer?
Or perhaps he was imagining it. He had once fancied that the crystal had whispered afterwards, but nothing more had happened since…
But no—it had to be closer. He had to believe that. And one day, if he kept trying, it would be enough.
He collected her bones together, his tongue still, but his mind wrapped in prayers as he returned them to their box. His eyes were sore from crying, but he felt numb, his grief drained. He returned the box to his pack, and carried it with him into the house, where he lay down on the cold stone floor in front of the dead fire.
He slept for nearly three days.
It was weeks later, as he sat and ate lunch in the shade of the tree they had all loved, that the blue of the distant south-west sky was broken by a rising smoke signal.
Five puffs of smoke, followed by a pause, and then five more. The pattern repeated over and over—the ancient summons to the Ashwrights, calling them to come and serve a stricken town. He gathered his things without waiting.
There would be death waiting for him there, and pain…but through his sadness, he felt the rising pang of hope. Perhaps this time, the crystal heart would acquire what it was missing—perhaps, when he returned, he could finally unmake Saliana’s pendant.
He touched his hand to his chest, feeling her pendant beneath the cloth, and traced his fingertip around it as he looked over at the empty graves.
He recited one last, quiet prayer, and then turned and set off towards the smoke.
About the Author
Robert works as a SpaceX software engineer by day, and writes by night, with his stories having appeared in On Spec, Stupefying Stories, and others. An ex-pat Englishman, he now lives with his wife in California, where their cats Michiko and Mochi Luna do all they can to disrupt the tranquility of their lives. You can chat with him on Twitter at @RobertLWilkins.