Crypt Of The Abernathys by Matthew T Acheson
Crypt Of The Abernathys
by Matthew Acheson
Sabryna watched the old traveler recline in an oak rocking chair by the fireplace, taking one final draw from his clay pipe before setting it down beside him. After a dramatic pause, he leaned forward, and with a wry smile, he put the finishing stroke on the latest of his many tales.
“In the Desert Kingdoms, they say to keep your friends close and your purse full. I don’t recall the last time I was blessed with a heavy purse, but for the price of a few silver eagles, I improved my lot from being a foreigner under arrest for trespassing in sacred ruins to an honored guest who rode with a guide and stout bodyguards.” The old man raised his copper mug and laughed. “That, my friends, is the South.”
Sabryna’s ears were filled with the clinking of mugs and the calls of familiar voices as they bought another round and toasted to the health of the mysterious bard. The atmosphere in John Earthy’s Alehouse was usually warm and sleepy, but that night, the air had an edge to it that made her pulse quicken.
Traveling bards and peddlers frequently visited the cramped knot of shops and pubs that had sprung up around Edgemere Keep over the centuries, but Sabryna had never met one so refined and worldly, yet seemingly carefree and full of life. His face was weather-worn but handsome. Silver streaked his hair and well-kept beard, and buried in the depths of his eyes, she saw a spark of youth and vitality that stole her breath away.
In between his tales, the wanderer played a flute while the folk filled their pipes and mugs and busied themselves with dancing, talking, and merrymaking. Amidst all the revelry, the melancholy fog that had hung about Sabryna for so many weeks stirred and parted. She looked across the table at her future husband, Sir William Raleigh, and allowed herself to understand the familiar hollowness in her stomach. The only man who made her feel content, safe, full, whose neck kisses left her breathless and shaking, was on a ship sailing north to Kaldyrnord and certain death.
Feeling empty and alone, the Count of D’Arnise’s daughter wiped the tears from her flushed cheeks and called out to the old storyteller. “Sir, you have fascinated us with your tales of exotic peoples and faraway places, but what can you tell us of love?”
Silence mastered the common room, and all eyes turned to the wanderer by the fireplace. His face became a grim mask, and his eyes, which before shone almost unnaturally with life, were now sullen. He retreated back into the depths of his chair, brooding silently, until the place had all but emptied.
It was evident to Sabryna from the tremors in his hands that he was reliving painful memories, and she swallowed to ease the aching guilt in her throat. When the last of the patrons finally rose to leave, she took a deep breath and found the courage to approach him.
“If I caused you any pain, I’m terribly sorry,” she said.
“That’s very kind of you to say, my dear.” He toyed with a worn silver ring on his left hand. “As it happens, I do have a story to tell, although I must warn you that it’s probably not the sort of love story you were hoping to hear.”
Sabryna started to speak, but after looking into his sad eyes, she had no words left to give him. After a moment of thoughtful silence, the old man began his tale.
“I was born in a village far to the east called Mills Creek. It is beautiful country, riddled with streams and ponds, forests, fields, and rolling hills. My family lived there for generations. My father, like his father before him, was a very prominent man, and his influence extended a hundred miles in every direction.
“I was the younger of two sons, and after coming of age, I shed the mantle of my hereditary responsibilities and moved to Dunthorpe to attend the college of surgery. My father expressed his displeasure by providing the barest assistance, and my years at school were spent in near poverty, but they were the happiest of my life.
“I will never forget the first day I laid eyes upon Nikkara. Her father had a small tobacco pavilion a few blocks down the street from my boarding house. I had gone there with the intention of buying a new clay pipe, but when she approached, I became so nervous that I stumbled out of the shop red-faced and befuddled. Such was the measure of her beauty.
“Her face was as smooth and flawless as polished marble, and her hair fell upon it in golden rays. She had lips like autumn fire and eyes as blue as the Sea of Pearls. It was the kindness of those eyes and the music of her voice that instantly enthralled me.
“I made many more visits to that tobacco shop, and by the end of my second term, we shared frequent walks amidst the pine forests and stone promenades of Dunthorpe. One afternoon, while sitting on the rocks with the sun on our faces and watching the tide go out, she slid her hand into mine. ‘Gillian,’ she said, ‘I should like to meet our children someday.’ From that moment until this one, my heart has remained sealed from all other women in this world.
“The greatest obstacle to our bliss was the decay of her father’s financial situation, and Nikkara’s bridewealth gift was the only thing that could stave off ruin. She received many betrothal pledges, and I feared she might marry a wealthy man to keep her father from becoming a beggar on the street. He was a kindly widower who cared only for his daughter’s happiness, and we agreed upon a bridewealth gift just large enough to right his business affairs. I took my leave for the summer, promising to return in a month with the entire sum.
“My own father was a hard man, but I had every hope he would honor me by financing the betrothal. Yet, ever the haughty aristocrat, he insisted that I marry a woman of my own station and not ‘some common wench begotten of a pauper.’ I got down on my knees and begged him to at least loan me the sum, which I would repay once I received appointment as a physician, but he would not be swayed.
“For days, I lay about my room, unable to eat or sleep, until the Master of House for our estate grew concerned. My father made us call him Donnelly, as it is customary to give Vallisian names to foreign servants, but his true name was Khalide Dhras. He had been a free man in the Desert Kingdoms but was captured during the second fall of Tyre and brought north to be sold on the slave market. After ten years of loyal service, my father granted him his freedom.
“The bond between Khalide and I went far beyond master and servant; he was a mentor, a confidant, and my friend. When I told him of my plight, he offered his entire savings to put towards the betrothal price, but even that would not have been nearly enough.
“While Khalide was my shoulder to cry on, my old childhood friend Aidan MacNeil, a redheaded giant of a man, was the type who could get things done. Working as the foreman of his father’s sawmill, he was a man of moderate means, but most of his earnings over the years had been squandered on wine and women. However, he had recently married a fire-haired barmaid named Effie whom he had impregnated in the spring.
“‘She’s got the body of a Nordish whore and a mind twice as filthy,’ Aidan said over a cup of mead. But subtle hints told me that his feelings for her ran far deeper than he was comfortable letting on. His chief concern was to save up enough to move out of his father’s house and buy his own so that he could start a proper life with her and the child. When he finally came to me with a solution to my problem, I was not surprised to learn that it was one of mutual benefit.
“I thought it strange when he insisted that we discuss the matter at Keller’s, the pub where his wife worked, and even stranger when he motioned for her to join us at the table just when the discussion turned to my present situation. When she approached, he snaked his arm around her waist and drew her down into his lap. ‘Your troubles are over my friend,’ he said, ‘Effie’s got it all figured.’
“Her pretty, freckled features wrinkled up, and she gave Aidan a scolding look. ‘I haven’t even finished bringing your first son yet, so don’t be pulling on my skirts for a second already.’ Effie went on to explain that she had grown up in a secluded town called Coventry, home also to a noble family of ill repute, whose roots spread back through dim centuries.
“The surname of the family was Abernathy, and they were the lords of all the lands and folk in and about the Wurmwood. Their ancestral home was an ancient stone manor, which had not been occupied for generations and was perched atop a forested hill outside of Coventry. Local rumor held that the entrance to the family crypt was at the base of the hill and that it ran like a honeycomb throughout the underbelly of the fallen mansion.
“She related the rest of the story to us in a whisper. ‘My grandfather served the last of the Abernathys to live in that accursed placed before it was abandoned. He told my brothers and me that they buried their dead in a grand fashion. Rumors of their foreign witchcraft and mastery over demons were enough to keep the local boys away. But I figure if anyone ever got up the courage to sack the place, they’d pull a king’s ransom out of that pit.’
“‘It may not be the honest thing to do,’ Aidan added, ‘but then, I’ve never known a rich man who got there by always being honest.’ He meant to sway me from any moral reservations about the venture—dangerous and criminal, as it was. What he did not realize was that this road would pave the way to a life with Nikkara, and nothing in the world could have stopped me from walking it.
“Aidan and I toasted our success with several mugs of Keller’s dark ale and spent the remainder of the evening laying out the details of the plan—transportation, provisions, what tools we would need, and where to sell the heirlooms we acquired. For the latter, Effie provided us the name of a smuggler in Coventry.
“When I returned to my father’s estate, Khalide noticed the change in my mood immediately, and with much coaxing on his part, I let him in on all the details. Being a man of deep religious belief and moral integrity, he of course, tried to dissuade me.
“‘Mr. Gillian, you are a man of character. I beg you to reconsider,’ he said. But his objections were doomed before they began. In the end, he decided that if he could not talk me out of going, then he would come along to provide spiritual guidance.
“The sky was clear, and the air was crisp and cool on the morning of our departure, and we decided to ride with the cover off the wagon and the sun on our faces. I must confess to a degree of excitement at facing the open road with dangerous business ahead and trusted friends by my side. It is a feeling that only the young can truly experience, as age and wisdom tend to dull those impetuous instincts.
“After three days of bumpy roads and splinters in our backsides, we crossed Strout’s Bridge and turned north into a region wholly unfamiliar to me. The transition from sparse forests and rolling green fields to the twisted growths of willows, oaks, and pines of the Wurmwood was stark, and to be truthful, I think we all found the change a little discomforting.
“We reached a fork in the road outside of Coventry just before dusk and followed it west through heavily forested terrain until we came upon a clearing of tall grass. After a brief search of the glade, we located the cobblestone road Effie had mentioned, but a century of rainfall, overgrowth, and neglect had left it little more than a moss covered cow-path. Realizing that we could bring the wagon no further, we decided to set up camp right there in the clearing.
“We pushed the wagon into the woods so it could not be seen from the road and tied the horses up with enough slack to allow them to graze. Khalide busied himself with dinner preparations, while Aidan and I hiked down the path to locate the entrance to the crypt.
“From afar, the Abernathys’ mansion had an unwholesome look to it, but up close, the atmosphere about the place was deeply unsettling. The decaying stone and timber corpse leered at us from atop the steeply-banked hill, looking grim and hungry and terrible in the gathering dusk.
“We discovered the entrance to the crypt behind the mansion, excavated into the face of the hill. The stonework was roughly hewn granite, devoid of any decorations or finery. There was a single inscription above the rusted double doors that read, ‘Abernathy.’ I raised the possibility that Effie’s grandfather had exaggerated his stories and that we might have gone through all this trouble to procure a handful of funerary beads, but Aidan’s faith in her judgment was unwavering.
“By the time we returned to camp, darkness had possessed the forest. It was drizzling. The three of us sat huddled around the fire, eating soft bread and venison fried in garlic butter. After devouring our food, we filled our pipes and passed the time in conversation about the task at hand.
“Khalide made it clear that the thought of entering the tomb was abhorrent to him. ‘In my land,’ he said, ‘we do not bury our dead; we burn them. To bury a body is to invite the spirit to linger, and that is unwise.’
“I attempted to allay his fears by returning the discussion to practical affairs but to no avail. In a hushed tone and with an odd glance over his shoulder into the darkness of the woods, he told us a Selucian fable that made my hair rise and Aidan’s hands shake. ‘Men were not meant to tread in the places of the dead,’ Khalide concluded, ‘lest they be damned themselves.’
“The sharp crackling of thunder roused us from our thoughts, and a hard rain began coming down. ‘Best do this tonight; there’s no telling whose eyes might be on us come morning,’ Aidan said.
“We used embers from the campfire to light our lanterns and made our way up the pathway. I recall vividly how the rows of trees stood on either side of us like grim sentinels, creating walls of darkness that our lamplight could not penetrate. A wrenching fear grated my nerves like a knife’s edge, and throughout the hike, every falling branch and flash of lightning seemed to reveal something sinister and deadly.
“After frequent stumbles and many curses, we arrived back at the crypt of the Abernathys. A few strokes from hammer to chisel and the rusted padlock securing the entrance gave way.
“‘Mr. Gillian, I beg you. Don’t do this,’ Khalide said. ‘There is evil here; can’t you feel it?’
“I did sense something, but in that moment, love spoke louder than caution or wisdom, and down into the earth we went. We left Khalide behind with a lantern to stand watch. His low, hoarse calls of warning echoed off the walls as we descended.
“Upon entering the sepulcher, I was overcome by a fetid smell—the damp and decay of ages. After a set of steps, we reached a stone landing, which transformed into a wide corridor. The darkness ahead felt wrong somehow, its fog-like consistency playing tricks on the imagination. Cold chills ran through me, and for the first time in my life, I knew what it was to be really and truly afraid. The sense that we were trespassing in a den where mere men were not welcome was overwhelming.
“Aidan put his hand on my shoulder. ‘If it is true, as Khalide says, that there are places in this world where men were not meant to tread, then this tomb is surely among them.’
‘The veil has worn thin here,’ I replied, although I cannot tell you why I uttered those strange words.
“For a long time, we stood watching our flickering lights lick at the darkness. Had I been alone at that moment, I would have fled screaming from that place and never looked back; my love for Nikkara be damned. But our friendship provided courage where otherwise there would have been none.
“We moved slowly down the passageway until the staircase was swallowed by the night. Darkness before, darkness behind, and only cold stone beneath. It was maddening. I felt an icy dread that we would lose our sense of direction and become lost in that evil crypt.
“Fear overtook me, and my longsword came ringing out of its scabbard. I pointed the damned thing straight into the heart of darkness, and Aidan tossed one of our makeshift torches down the corridor. It struck the stone floor about thirty feet ahead of us, and I was seized with the notion that such a noise might awaken whatever malevolent forces haunted the place and alert them to our presence. After a few moments, the flame of the torch recovered and lit the hallway before us.
“The main corridor continued on its straight course into the bedrock of the hill and beyond the edge of the torchlight. Dozens of smaller side passages broke off all along it. Closer inspection revealed that a man’s name had been chiseled above each passage.
“In the rightmost chamber of the third set of corridors, we found what we sought; a stone sarcophagus dominated the center of the chamber, and smaller caskets lined the walls. An examination of the inscriptions revealed that the central coffin belonged to the thirty-second Baron of Abernathy, with his wife and children entombed in the smaller ones.
“It took both of us to slide the stone lid off the central coffin, and we were careful to set it gently upon the floor. There was something terrible about the atmosphere in that place that clouded the borderlands between superstition and reality, and we knew that the sound of a coffin lid crashing to the ground would have pierced the thin veil of courage we had formed around ourselves. Inside was a desiccated corpse adorned with articles of wealth: a ruby studded torque, rings, and a silver-bladed shortsword so untarnished that we thought it must be a relic from the Vallisian forges of old. We removed these treasures from the body and stuffed them into a large sack, carefully replacing the lid. Many of the other coffins contained similar riches, which we pilfered as well; Effie’s story had not been exaggerated. That was how it went for a long time as we systematically moved from chamber to chamber.
“After many tombs, the main passageway opened up into a huge chamber. Great stone columns rose up to the vaulted ceiling, which seemed to come alive with the flickering of our lanterns. In the center of the room, ornate steps led up to a platform, atop of which stood a large marble altar flanked on two sides by iron censers that hung down from chains bolted to the ceiling.
“Set into the floor directly before the altar was an iron bulkhead. Wishing to distance ourselves from that unholy shrine, we approached it, and for a reason unknown to me even today, I knelt and pressed my ear against the cold metal to listen. What I was expecting to hear in that abandoned place in the middle of the night, I cannot rightly say.
“It took the both of us to heave the bulkhead open. The hinges shrieked with an unearthly cry that sent shudders up my spine, and we were assaulted by a blast of stale air that fumed up from the pit. It smelled dank and evil. ‘Can you feel it, Gilly?’ Aidan whispered. ‘This place loves us not.’
“Aidan held his lantern forth, revealing a series of stairs roughly hewn into the bedrock. The steps were narrow and uneven, stained with black patches of gangrenous decay. A sense of cold malevolence emanated up from that pit, and it struck the breath from us. All notions of descending into that black nightmare melted away, and we closed the bulkhead doors with an urgency that I do not care to recall.
“There was a scuffling behind us. I spun around and nearly eviscerated Khalide with my blade. He was perturbed, and his words came out in gasps. ‘Mr. Gillian…outside…lights…they are coming.’
“We bickered in whispers as to whether we should try to escape the crypt or hide. The distant echo of booted feet settled the matter, and we hid behind the great stone columns and extinguished our lanterns.
“The glow of lights spilled into the chamber, and dozens of figures draped in black-hooded robes and carrying candles spread in a circular pattern around the central dais. A small boy, dressed like the others, set the braziers ablaze and the room filled with the pungent aroma of incense. Then a pair of cultists approached the bulkhead and threw the screeching doors open.
“In the flickering light, I caught a glimpse of Aidan clenching a dagger between his teeth and hefting a hatchet in one hand. He wore the expression of a desperate man, and if it came to it, I knew he would savagely hack through anything that stood between us and the exit.
“A woman of regal bearing with high cheekbones and long red hair ascended to the top of the dais. An eerie chant rose up, and two cultists shrugged out of their black cloaks and prostrated themselves on the altar before her. She paced around them, holding a long curved dagger in one hand and a rabbit by the scruff of its neck in the other. She opened the poor creature’s throat, spraying its lifeblood onto the pale, naked flesh of the two cultists. They collapsed on the altar, convulsing, as the chanting rose to a new level of devilry.
“I put an arm around Khalide who wept beside me and shuddered as the woman called out to powers of which I knew nothing. Her words were hissed with such malevolence and hatred that my ears rang, and the light in the chamber seemed to dim. I clutched the stone column, lightheaded and unsteady, watching in terror as a black mist danced up out of the pit through the open bulkhead. The cultists thrashing on the altar sprung up suddenly and let out a demonic shrieking that has haunted my sleep all these long years.
“The ritual ended as suddenly as it began, and the cultists poured out into the main corridor. Relief pounded in my chest, until I noticed the small boy break away from the others and approach the column I was hiding behind. The light from his candle revealed an abnormally long face, pallid flesh, and bright eyes that seemed to see all. It occurred to me that he was not a mere child but something vile and unspeakably evil. I swear he was able to sense my fear, indeed that he fed off it, and before turning to rejoin the others, the little fiend grinned!
“After a time, their footfalls faded, and we decided that Aidan and Khalide would remain in the altar room while I crept forward without a light source to verify the way was clear. At the end of the terrible journey, with trembling hands, I pushed the double doors of the crypt open slightly. The storm had passed, and the light of the waning moon shone through the forest in clear white beams. There was no sign of the hideous cult.
“As I made my way back to tell the others, the vault shook with a series of noises that sent the blood racing through my veins. A soul-rending shriek pierced the stale air, followed by what sounded like pottery shattering. Finally, there was a metallic crash, which I immediately understood to be the iron bulkhead slamming shut, and then all was deathly silent.
“Feeling my way along the stonework, I crept down the cold passageway deeper into the bowels of that evil place, all the while expecting to hear some sign of my companions. After spending what seemed like an eternity in silence, my concern for my friends overcame my judgment, and I called out to them. The oddly angled ceiling and many sub-corridors twisted my voice into some horrid mockery of life.
“Every instinct in my body compelled me to flee from that place, and I would be lying if I said I did not seriously consider it.
“After calling out, I spent a great deal of time steeling my nerves for action, but my legs would not move. I wondered if the shattering sound had been our lanterns breaking. Which of my friends had slammed the bulkhead shut so carelessly, and why did they not answer my calls?
“Curiosity worked my muscles back into action, and I continued to feel my way down the hall. After an eternity, the wall gave way to open space, and I realized that I was back in the great altar chamber.
“‘Khalide, Aidan! Where are you?’ There was no reply.
“I tried to picture the layout of the room as I made my way forward with the ever-present fear that, at any moment, some great object would come crashing into me. As it turned out, the danger came from underfoot, and I collapsed to the cold stone floor.
“Nearby, I discovered a body, and from the size of the belly, I could tell that it was Khalide. His face was hot and sticky with blood. I felt around for the location of the wound, and when I came upon it, I knew with certainty that my friend was dead. In the darkness, he must have panicked and run headlong into one of the columns; the front of his skull was mutilated beyond all hope of survival.
“I buried my face in the chest of my dead friend. My sobs came long and hard, and I made no effort to stifle them. Let the evil shadows of this place hear me and be damned. Khalide, my mentor and lifelong friend, was gone.
“At first, I thought the strange noises around me were the sounds of my grief echoing off the walls, but they persisted even when my own cries had ceased. I cupped a hand to my ear and listened. By the Father himself, it was laughter—and whispers!
“I yanked my sword free and moved about the chamber, silently stalking the source of those insidious whispers. My search brought me back to the main hallway and into one of the sub-chambers.
“A rustling sounded as I entered, and before I could react, I was knocked to the ground. My sword clattered to the stone, and a huge form crashed into my chest. Strong hands wrapped around my throat, and I flailed about in a desperate attempt to find something that could be used as a weapon. Stars were bursting in my eyes when my fingers wrapped around a familiar leather grip, and I lashed out and struck my assailant’s head with the pommel of my sword.
“Wheezing for breath, I rolled over onto my attacker and prepared to deliver the killing blow. My hand brushed the braided locks of a bearded face, and I realized that the whispering, laughing specter I had been hunting was Aidan. But why had he not responded to my calls, and what was the reason for his attack?
“I groped around frantically in the dark, and when my fingers finally reached his carotid artery, my own heart leapt with joy. After inspecting the wound I had inflicted on his head, I reasoned he was merely unconscious.
“After several long, nearly breathless moments, Aidan awoke, although he refused to utter a single word. While guiding him to his feet, I discovered a large sack of the valuables we had pilfered. These, we took up along with my sword and went back out into the corridor with the intention of returning to the great gallery to collect Khalide’s body.
“Before we could reenter the vaulted chamber, the air around us reverberated with a metallic boom. We did not linger in that evil tomb long enough to find out who, or perhaps what, had thrown open the bulkhead. Overcome by a preternatural sense of panic, we fled that place with the speed and terror of those pursued. How we managed to navigate the darkness of the corridor without falling over one another or crashing headlong into a wall, I will never know.
“After our flight from the crypt, we rode into Coventry to make contact with the smuggler Effie had mentioned. But Aidan was so afflicted that he could do little more than mutter to himself incoherently. Not knowing the identity of the smuggler myself, I made a fateful decision, borne of desperation, which ended in folly. The man to whom I tried to sell the goods turned out to be an off-duty man-at-arms of House Abernathy.
“Several days after our arrest, we were taken in shackles to a meeting between my father and the Baron of Abernathy. His lordship was not an Abernathy by blood but rather came into the lands and title by marrying the last surviving heiress, Lady Victoria. He was unremarkable, but the baroness’s presence sucked the air out of me and made my skin crawl, for she was none other than the sorceress from our encounter in the crypt! Throughout the proceedings, I remember feeling as though, at any moment, she might leap across the table and slash out our eyes or tear into our throats with her bare hands.
“At my father’s insistence, Lord Abernathy agreed to drop the charges, so long as the matter of the burglary was kept under the strictest silence. Before returning to Mills Creek, I asked the Abernathy’s Master of Justice if I could retrieve Khalide’s body, but he informed me that the corpse had been badly mutilated by scavenging animals and had been laid to rest in a grave not far from the Abernathy crypt.
“With a sense of relief, we returned home only to face another trial—that of Aidan’s failing mental health. Some days, he shivered feverishly in his bed, not saying a word, while others, he paced about and ranted like a madman for hours at a time. Effie reported that every night he awoke in hysterical fits of screaming. Although he refused to speak of it, I know in my bones that his dreams were plagued by whatever it was that he and Khalide had experienced in the crypt during my brief absence.
“I sat by his bedside every day, reading him stories and trying various treatments, including cassia bark tea to reduce his anxiety. When none of the standard treatments worked, I focused on strict diets and an exercise regime that included brisk afternoon walks. Effie assisted me in all of my efforts and cared for her husband with great tenderness, but in the end, our efforts were all for naught.
“I will never forget his final words to me the night before he ended his own life. ‘Parents tell their children that monsters don’t really exist. Why do you suppose they do that?’ He had spoken so calmly and lucidly that I had taken it as a sign that his mental condition was stabilizing. The next morning, Aidan opened his own wrists and bled to death in his bed.
“Mills Creek is a small town, and Khalide’s mysterious disappearance had been the subject of some talk amongst the locals. When the news got out about Aidan’s suicide, the situation turned into a full-blown scandal, which my father decided to mitigate by evicting Khalide’s widow from our estate.
“I was responsible for Khalide’s death and could not in good conscience allow his wife and child to become homeless. I decided to escort them to the city of Dunthorpe, where I would find them work in the household of my professor. When I told my father of my intention to never return, he performed the only truly magnanimous act of his entire life. He gave me the full sum of the betrothal gift for my marriage to Nikkara and begrudgingly wished me happiness in our life together. I kissed my sobbing mother goodbye and set off on a journey that I have yet to finish—a lifetime of wandering.
“On our way to Dunthorpe, we came across a gorgeous village on the coast. I spent a portion of my money towards the procurement of a small house near the top of a cliff overlooking the sea; this I gave as a gift to Khalide’s widow, along with the entire sum my father had given me. Before leaving, I promised her that I would dispose of Khalide’s body according to the ancient customs of the Selucians.
“True to my word, I journeyed back to the ruined Abernathy mansion. In looking upon that corpse of stone and timber for the last time, I realized why I feared it so. It was a place where lives and hopes were shattered, and no sane person was fit to tread. It was, in a word, evil.
“I found Khalide’s grave a few hundred paces from the mad face of the crypt. With great discomfort and frequent glances over my shoulder, I exhumed the body of my old friend then built a pyre of deadwood and burned his mortal remains to dust. These I later scattered into a stream that flowed towards the south. I sent my friend home.”
The old storyteller blew one last puff of smoke and rose. Sabryna thought he seemed reduced, somehow less than he had been only a few hours before, and without so much as a nod or a polite word, he turned towards the staircase and began the short climb up to the guest rooms.
“Gillian, please…tell me what happened with Nikkara.”
The old man stopped his ascent and turned, infinite sadness in his eyes. “I didn’t want her to see what I had become.”
“Then you never saw her again?”
“Many years after the tragedy in the tomb, I passed through Dunthorpe, ostensibly to peddle my exotic wares, but in truth, I needed to find out what became of her. I learned from the locals that she had married the eldest of her suitors. But her husband was a cruel, jealous man, and her life must have been very miserable, because one day she went to one of the parks that we used to frequent and threw herself from the cliff face unto the ocean waves. She died, and what remained of my heart died with her.”
Sabryna thought of her own love, alone and shivering in the belly of a ship bound for Kaldyrnord and death. “Does it ever get easier?” she asked, her voice breaking.
With that, the old man turned, and Sabryna thought she heard weeping over the creaking of the boards.
©Matthew T. Acheson