Old Man Tompkins was swinging in the breeze. Just a gentle back and forth, creaking and swaying. His neck hadn’t broken. He had fought and fought for those last couple of minutes until, in the blink of an eye, he crossed the boundary between being a man and just a shell.
Still, it helped to think of him as Old Man Tompkins, even if he had been hanged as a thief and a murderer. Francis thought he might go mad otherwise. He had to pass the gallows on Knott Street four, sometimes six times a day depending on where he needed to ferry messages, and Francis was not a man to disrespect the dead. He knew better.
At night, as he tried to sleep in his broken down shack braced against the crumbling, moss-eaten walls of Brackenmount city, he fancied hearing them calling to him from the cemeteries that lined the road leading to the western gate. There had been a village out there, once. Houses, a church, a school. Now there was nothing but wind, dust, and death.
For the fourth time that day, Francis tipped the brim of his hat to the old man’s dangling feet, then trudged on through the rain and mud. The eastern and northern quarters of the city had been paved years ago, but here in the southern quarter they had been largely left to the elements. The western quarter, behind its thick stone walls and redoubtable iron gates, belonged to the dead.
Francis, a lithe man in his forties with lank black hair and a beard salted by time, ducked under shop awnings and porches when he could, but there were few in this part of the city. Mostly they were left for the stores and craftsmen in the wealthier quarters; here they were mostly for grocers or anybody who needed to show wares outside, like carpenters with their coffins.
There were only a handful of other people out on this rain-blasted midwinter’s afternoon. Most other residents were far more sensible, sheltering in whatever hovels they had. Only those with urgent business, or acting for those with urgent business, were braving the elements.
He knew most of the other messengers by sight. It was relatively easy work, for the most part, even if sometimes the messages were so obscured in guild speak or arcane liturgies that forgetting a syllable could change the complexion of the whole thing. Francis knew a man, Arnulf, who had omitted a single word of some arcana while relaying it from one old master to another, and saw his clothes erupt into flame as a result of some hidden curse within the ritual to prevent its misuse. Arnulf still ran messages, but with a heavy limp and a visage obscured by a cloth painted to resemble a human face.
Thankfully, Francis’ message right now was a parcel from one of his regulars, a strained-face woman sometime past her forty-fifth summer with dark red cheeks and eyes filled with melancholy. A baker, she called on his services once every ten days or so, sooner if her resources extended to it. Always from a side door, never the one facing the street. It would open, the warm aromas of bread and cinnamon would drift out, and a tightly wrapped bundle would be thrust into his hands. Her name was Amanda, though he only ever called her “madam” or “my lady”, a polite affectation that seemed to make her smile slightly. Right now, plodding west down Knott Street toward Harvest Square and then on to the seedy Grape Lane, he had his package strapped to the side of his body beneath his heavy wool cloak.
The closer he got to the western quarter, the more dilapidated the houses became. Half of Grape Lane was abandoned, the rest occupied by whorehouses and opium dens. The whole of Annalise Alley had burnt to the ground two summers past and never been rebuilt. Squatters had set themselves up in the ruins, usually the poorest of the poor who had been unable to find work after losing their homes or who had come to the city after their villages were razed because of famine or pestilence. The buildings closer to the gate were pitiful against the colossal size of the wall they all called “the Partition”. A temporary measure, the city council had said, just until the western quarter is cleansed and rebuilt. Maybe they’d meant it, once. Back when the walls were just piles of wood and broken houses. But you don’t use stone to build something temporary.
Stretching a hundred feet on either side of the twelve-foot gate were messages and statuettes to loved ones left on the other side. Another eight feet or so above the gate stood two watchmen, peering down into the western quarter. On the ground, a militiaman in faded colors - red for the copper mines the city had been built over, green for the fields around it, bridged with gold to represent the merchants - paced from one side of the gate to the other.
“Evening Mick,” Francis said quietly.
The guard, a barrel-chested hairy fellow, looked left and right, then raised his hand in greeting and beckoned Francis forward. He extended his hand and Francis extended his in return, a silver crown hidden in his palm. It was a dance they had done many times; years earlier it was done away from prying eyes, but nobody really cared about the Partition any more, or at least not enough to act on the occasional illegal crossing. But something was different this time. Mick held on to Francis’s hand and held his eyes. “You need to come with me,” he said, his broad highland accent breaking through despite years of living in the nasal-voiced city. “Got someone’s been waiting for you.”
“I’m already on a job.”
“Aye, I know, aye, but orders is orders. Mentioned you by name, so they did.”
This is not good, thought Francis. He had met officers of the militia and even the royal guard before, but never had one seek him out. “Lead on,” he said. “Who is it, anyway?”
“Ah, well, that’d be telling. Best not to have a name floating out in the open, ya ken?”
Mick led Francis toward a small alcove to the right of the main gate. Perfect place for an ambush, Francis thought randomly. Mick lit a torch and pulled open a heavy oak door, revealing a staircase leading down. The Partition was more than twenty feet thick, and Francis had always assumed the guardrooms and mess halls were somewhere within the massive structure. It had never occurred to him that they might be beneath.
It was not a very long staircase, all told, but it was certainly steep. Francis put a hand out to steady himself against the wall. It was slick with damp, and left his palm smelling of decay and sorrow.
“Is it far,” he asked, whispering, the breath catching in his tight chest. “I really do need to get this job done.”
“It’s not far,” said Mick, his voice booming and echoing up and down. “Aye, I know, I was nae happy about the tight spaces either the first time, but ya get used to it after a while.”
The staircase opened out into a wide corridor that was lit by lamps filled with stinking whale oil. There was a faint breeze from somewhere to the right that helped Francis get his breathing under control, as long as he didn’t look up at the immutable block ceiling. “Just this way,” said Mick, more reserved now.
An ironwood door stood slightly ajar in the wall, spilling warm yellow light out into the shadowy corridor. From within came the sound of a fire crackling and spitting, as well as the creak of somebody rising from a well-worn chair. “Well, I’ll leave ye to it,” said Mick, handing Francis back his coin. Francis tried to refuse but the bigger man insisted. “You’ll no need to do that no more,” he said, before powering off back toward the stairs.
Francis sighed and scratched at his cheek, then knocked politely. “Come in,” said a somber voice that, with a groan, he recognised. Running a hand over his eyes in exasperation, he pushed the door open, enjoying the sudden wall of heat from the modest fireplace in the far wall. A tall, well built woman with tousled blonde hair down to her jawline stood facing the flames. A leather strap ran over her left shoulder to her right hip but if it held something Francis couldn’t see it. Her cloak was thrown on a chair and she was dressed in the jerkin and breeches of a man of modest means, the exception being a purple sash running from her right shoulder to her left hip. Anybody looking at her would see just the purple of the city fathers, and ignore the rest.
“Hello Rebecca,” he said flatly.
“Hello Francis,” she said, sounding surprised.
“Haven’t seen you in a while.”
She turned toward him, an eyebrow arched at the breach in decorum. One was not normally so blunt with members of the city elite. Francis didn’t care. “I had forgotten how familiar you could be.”
“I think I’ve earned it. We were supposed to be friends. The last time I saw you, you were locking the eastern quarter gate after I’d managed to drag you through that riot. They really wanted you dead, you know, a rich girl with a way out. I still have the scars.” He patted his left side, the one opposite his package, where he had been burnt by a rioter’s torch after a short, sharp sword fight.
“Yes, well. Yes. Indeed. I owe you a debt.”
Francis shrugged and spread his hands. “Get me a pass to the other quarters, like you promised five years ago.”
Rebecca sighed and looked down, shifting her weight uncomfortably. “It was out of my hands,” she said eventually.
Francis rubbed his face then scratched his beard while staring at the ceiling. “I’ve spent years thinking about what I’d say to you if we met again. And yet here we are, and all I can think of is ‘what do you want?’”
Rebecca smiled a thin little smile. “I understand you are well acquainted with the western quarter.”
“I lived there, once. I’ve been back a few dozen times over the years.”
“So you know how to get around without being seen, and how to get back alive.”
“If you call this living. But yes, I suppose I do.”
“I need you to help me find somebody.”
“Some…body? A dead somebody?”
“No. Or at least I hope not. My betrothed,” she added after forcing the words from her mouth.
“Of course it is. What was he doing there?”
“He was a student at the Arcane University–”
“And I thought you were the book lover. How did a student get to marry a burgher’s daughter?”
“--he was a student at the university while waiting on his inheritance. A modest one, I must add. He is a second son, but no less worthy because of it,” she said, as if scolding him for a thought he hadn’t had.
“What business did he have on the other side of the Partition?”
“He was working on a book of spells between here and the next world.”
“...and he, what, thought he could bring them back? He can’t. They’re dead. Doesn’t matter how much they move around, they’re dead, don’t you understand? They’re all dead.” He spat the words more vehemently than intended, the wounds of losing so many to the plague.
“I know. And I know I have no right to really ask this–”
“--but you’re going to do it anyway. Same old Rebecca. Where was he going?”
“Toward the Temple of the Crescent Moon.”
“That’s…” Francis ran over the map he kept in his head. “That’s… at the far gate. We could take Ledgwick Street maybe, skirt along the city wall,” he was speaking mostly to himself, then remembered he was with somebody. “The biggest groups of the dead have always been there. It’s closest to the cemeteries.”
“And Art believed something in the temple was drawing them. Do you–” There came the sound of faint movement in the corridor and Rebecca held up a hand. “I think someone’s listening,” she whispered.
Footsteps marched steadily off into the dark. “If they find out I’m here I’ll be executed like a common criminal. You know it's forbidden for my caste to go there.”
Francis nodded, then curtly gestured for her to follow him. “I’ll help, but you’re bringing me back to the eastern quarter with you.” She nodded tightly, smiled, then followed him. “But we have to make one stop on the way. You’re not the only client I have tonight.”
The alcove door had been left open, and Mick was waiting outside. The rain had stopped, and the air stung with petrichor. Mick gestured to somebody atop the Partition and the portcullis was pulled up. Only when they were close to the other side did it lower again, and once it did the second portcullis was drawn up. “Good luck,” called Mick, and Francis waved over his shoulder.
The western quarter was a wasteland. Most buildings close to the Partition had been pulled down as part of the temporary shield wall, and they remained a mess of rotting wooden beams and shattered masonry. The only sound was the drip, drip, drip of water into puddles.
“Stay close,” said Francis. “If you’re carrying anything that clinks or makes a noise, either secure it or leave it. They move faster than you’d think.” Rebecca was only half listening as her eyes darted around the decaying city streets. Francis recognised that corrosive fear but tugged at her cloak to make sure she was following him. This path was well trod at this stage, along the edge of the Partition and then hard southwest along what was left of Greenfield Street. It was the opposite direction from the temple.
“What is it, this job? Why is it more important than a living, breathing man?”
“A man is nothing without his reputation. Now be quiet. I’ve cleared these buildings but that doesn’t mean you can be careless.”
It stayed a clear run, though he could hear the growls and groans of the dead penned in or lost down a blocked back alley. They were moving quickly, leaping over any puddles to avoid being caught out. “Here,” he said, pointing to a house that had caved in on itself. “We won’t be long.”
He had opened up a path through the debris years before but it wasn’t clear now. The walls of rubble he had built up had been pulled down in at least two places, and the moonlight through a break in the clouds had caused something half buried in mud to glisten and sparkle. Somebody, or something, had been here since his last job. He held a hand up for Rebecca to stop. He crouched. Glass. Somebody had scattered broken glass. Not enough to tear through the soles of his dilapidated boots, but then again they were close to falling apart so the shards might have punched through.
“Be careful,” Francis whispered. “If you step on any of the glass it’ll either cut you or make enough noise to draw them on us.”
“Maybe we should go back.”
“No. We’ve made it this far. Just step where I step, and then we can head for the temple.”
They crept on, tiptoe by tiptoe, to get around the glass and rubble. Up ahead, he heard the familiar sounds of shuffling and snarling.
The house had a cellar, once valuable for Amanda’s bakery business. The door and stairs had been blocked up before the building collapsed, but a large hole had left it exposed to the elements. Down in the dark, a ruined face swam into view, skin nearly flayed off itself, teeth exposed in a hideous eternal grin. It growled at him and reached up feebly. From the shadows emerged three more of the dead. Small ones, two who had been girls and a boy. “Hello folks,” said Francis amiably. “Supper is here.”
From under his cloak he pulled a tightly wrapped bundle of cloth that had begun to stain red. At the center were four large hunks of meat that didn’t look like venison or beef, still bloody, and as soon as the blood hit the air the four dead things in the cellar erupted into a frenzy. He threw the meat down piece by piece. “My client’s family,” he began to say as the knife crashed up through his ribs.
“What… what….” he stammered, blood bubbling from his lips.
“I wasn’t lying,” said Rebecca. “Not entirely. There is a spell book, and it will bring them back, but I’m the one who is going to do it… once I’ve tested it.” From behind her back she pulled a small leather bag, the type monks used to carry preaching books. She swung it up to her free hand and it opened naturally to reveal a small, splotched book written in a frenzied hand.
“There’s only one thing,” she said.
“What,” he asked, feeling the strength fade from his legs even as the dead went wild at the scent of so much fresh human blood.
“It needs a living soul to make the spell work. I’m sorry Francis, but I needed somebody nobody would miss. If it helps, think of this as a noble sacrifice. Goodbye. ”
She kissed him gently on the cheek and pushed him into the cellar. Arms impossibly strong clawed at him even before he crashed to the floor. The last things he heard were the exaltation of the dead, the rhythmic chanting of the spellcaster, and his own screams ringing in his ears.