Mela rolled and moaned beneath the sheets of her bed, an ornate thing of old wood and corroded nails. The posts swayed with every movement of her body, constantly threatening to give way and collapse altogether. Then the moaning stopped, replaced by her heavy breaths.
Cocooned by the pitch-black of the chamber, she felt her hair lightly touching her face, like a ghost seeking warmth. The dream was fading away, pieces at a time, as she tried to hold onto the horror. She didn’t know why she had been so scared and she never would, if she couldn’t train her mind to embrace these nightmarish visions.
Bloodied, severed limbs strewn about. A gate of some sort.
And then . . . nothing.
She pulled away her covers and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. The stone floor was cool on her feet, not freezing as she always suspected it would be--just enough to help calm her nerves. She blinked, still seeing nothing in the dark as it pressed on her eyes. There were little streaks and clouds of color, but she knew it was only her mind inventing things to replace the void before her. Letting her feet feel her way across the room and to her desk, her hand reached out toward the stool and grabbed a hold of the warm wood. As she sat down, she felt for the matches on the desk and soon had one lit. The scratch and hiss finally brought light to her eyes, then to the wick of her candle.
“Why do I know you?” a flat voice asked. Mela felt her nerves stand on end but stayed stuck to her stool. “I know you from somewhere,” the voice continued. “But what somewhere?”
Mela’s eyes slowly turned toward the mounted skull, not quite sure where it had gotten that. I never asked such a thing. A small hint of panic crept into her thoughts.
“Please,” the skull started again, “please tell me.” The voice rustled in her ears like dry air on a hot summer’s day.
“It’s a long story,” Mela finally answered, unable to think of anything else to say.
“Long,” the skull stated as if it were deciphering the meaning. “Tell me the long story.” It droned as flatly as Mela had ever heard. She could see the blue eyes creeping out from the dark sockets once again and then she heard a voice for the first time in a long time. His voice.
“Remind me how I know you, Mela” the skull commanded. At its words, at his words, she could once again feel the chains on her skin. The memory of the cold iron and the sound they made, as they clinked against their surroundings. His chains would always remain in her mind just as they stayed in her room, hidden beneath her bed. His voice grated on her, just as the memory of the chains did.
She paused for a moment, but her initial anxiety was now a thing of the past, as she fully embraced the melancholy she was feeling. “I found you wandering,” she said. “Found you on the outskirts of our camp, lost and hungry.”
Mela stared straight into the bone and traced its shape as she gathered her thoughts. This is real, I can feel it, she thought, while her subconscious organized her story.
The candle burned straight and narrow. There was no wind in the room anymore, no draft from above to tease the flame. Just as the air had gone out of her, so had the room emptied of everything but her and the skull.
“We hadn’t been there long, but we knew that we had to stay and make it our new home,” she said. She rolled her toes on the stone floor but felt the barren soil of days past crumble beneath her feet. “A vast battlefield, its fallen warriors a gift to our cause. The knight-lord was still searching for us, to end us once and for all . . . but we were tired of running.”
Mela looked up to the earthen ceiling above, its contours molded and sculpted in a way that suggested a guiding hand. “There was much debate--Elaine, of course, always clinging to the old ways, but our survival won out. We raised the dead, these combatants of ages past, traded in their broken swords and shattered shields for shovels and pikes . . . and we began to build this. Our fortress.”
She turned back to the skull, a trace of wistfulness in her voice. “The rains had gone on for days and you had lost your bearings while riding out the storm. I could see the genuine confusion in your eyes.” I always saw everything in your eyes--except for her. “You had been herding sheep, but had been unable to keep them in the great storm. All you had were the clothes on your back and a walking stick, no idea of where you were.” Everything was starting to flood her memory now and Mela was trying hard not to let it overwhelm her.
“Close as you were to discovering us, my sisters were ready to dispatch you, but I stopped them. You collapsed before me, but I caught you and brought you gently to the ground.” He had been so weak in that moment. Mela could remember how shallow his breath had been as she held him. I let that cloud my judgment and always thought of you as weak and gentle. “We carried you down below, and into my room.” Even then it wasn’t much different, Mela couldn’t help thinking.
While there was plenty of work to be done, their personal chambers were among the first tasks to be completed. Mela had taken the largest room at the end of the tunnel and Acacia, the room to her right. At first, Elaine had refused to live in such a tomb and Acacia rarely spent time underground anyway, so for all intents and purpose, Mela was left to herself.
“I had only brought in a cot at the time and we placed you on it.” She could still remember the creak and groan of the makeshift bed under his weight. “We placed you near the wall and I chained you to it to satisfy my sisters’ concerns. As I’d said, we hadn’t been here long and were in no mood to be uprooted again, with loose tongues alerting others to our location.” It was so different to have thoughts of comfort in those days, to find a place and want to call it home. “After enduring the knight-lord’s crusade, my sisters had traveled for many years and I felt for them. Their concerns were mine and I rarely found any happiness, except in theirs.”
The illuminated skull sat motionless before her, simply taking it all in. Mela wasn’t sure if it was listening anymore or if it had gone dormant, but she’d started this story and she was going to finish it. “Many discussions were had as to whether or not you were one of Renton’s spies. I was convinced of your story, despite my own untrusting nature, but convincing the other sisters of your innocence was no easy task. It didn’t help that Acacia had sided with me, seeing how many of the sisters didn’t lend her much credence. While I awaited their final decision, I spent my nights feeding you, bringing you back to health.” Long nights of stories, wonderful stories. “You told me of your family and the stories you shared with each other. I couldn’t see how you would be a serious threat, but I could appreciate my sisters’ hesitations to let you simply go back home.” If I had I could have been rid of you. “Eventually a compromise was reached, that if you were to stay alive, you would need to remain here, imprisoned. With me. I volunteered that you would stay where you were, as I had grown fond of you and was comfortable enough sharing the space.”
I wanted you with me.
After the prisoner’s fate had been decided, efforts to create an underground stronghold had begun in earnest. The Gravewalkers and their endless supply of skeletal minions built and built like they hadn’t before. Elaine and a few of the other sisters had been set to staying with living above in tents, but finally submitted to moving below, for fear of alerting others to their presence, especially with their frequent trips to the river for fresh water. Knowing that Renton and his men would search the surrounding areas, they instead had a trench dug that brought the water directly to them.
“Life had turned nearly normal after several months. You remained chained to my wall, but now you shared my bed.” It was always warmer for it and has never been warm since. “You had become my confidant and lover. In a fashion you had become my teacher as well. I would spend days down here, only answering the door for food and water. Both Acacia and Elaine tried hard to get me to leave more often. I didn’t know it yet, but I was losing the respect of my sisters, who rarely saw their leader.”
Meetings were held every night. A roundtable of discussion, a chance to tell the old stories, and voice concerns, even if most of the early nights were spent with only that, concerns. What was Renton going to do next, could he find them here, and what was their leader going to do about it?
Given her propensity for bloodshed, Acacia had thrived on all of it. Old stories that reawakened the spirits of the sisters and rekindled their desires. Stories of the Toten-Geist, a chance to bring a real threat against Renton and his forces. Yes, they currently harbored a legion of soldiers, but eventually they would have to find a new source of corpses, while the Toten-Geist could perhaps bring them complete victory. Acacia told these stories again and again, as they watched the embers burning in her eyes, as they stared at her unnatural blonde locks. The will to fight was rising as the sisters grew restless with each passing night, with every retelling of violent retaliation.
And over time, Mela eventually dwindled from the sisters’ minds and stories that flew furiously around the fires.
“I had grown too comfortable where I was. With you, and with the peace that we had seemed to find in this place.” Warmth. “One day, I was wandering the tunnels, when I nearly collided with a sister by accident. She looked up at me without knowing who I was, ‘Sorry, sister’ being all she said. There was no respect in her voice, no contemplation of who she had just walked into.”
I wasn’t myself anymore. I didn’t know it yet, but I wasn’t who I needed to be.
“’They’ve forgotten you, Mela,’ Acacia told me afterwards. She had seen them each forget, one sliver at a time as I had spent so much time away, down here, with my lover. I remember how she’d said that very word--lover--with such disgust, for a sister never takes on a partner, only a coupling or two to give us a child.” To have a child now. “I wasn’t ready for that, my own childhood being reason enough.” I was strong for the wrong reasons then.
“It was time to be with my sisters again. I had to show them that their leader hadn’t left them, but I wasn’t going to leave you either. I put my hatred aside, joined with them before their fires. I brought them stories, stories of our lore, of our traditions. Of healing and ceremony, passed on down to me by Elaine. Of our roles as caretakers of the dead and caretakers of the living, to those who had lost their loved ones.”
They were not hiding--they were surviving, and Mela had to show them that. Survival meant keeping their stories alive and their practices strong. But each night, the younger sisters would ask for the stories of the rising dead, of power, and of bloodshed. Acacia’s imagination had struck deep into their core and Mela was having a hard persuading them otherwise. When Acacia could be found, the sisters sought her out and asked for her stories. They respected Mela just as they respected Elaine, but they hadn’t found their leader yet. She had been lost and forgotten and they needed to find her again.
“One night, after struggling to keep my sisters’ attention on our tradition, but losing them to boredom, I headed back to my room earlier than usual. I stayed lost in my thoughts and the flicker of the torch lights hanging from the walls of the tunnel.” I guess that’s why I didn’t hear her. “When I opened my door, I found that I had lost more than my sisters. There she was, flaxen hair swinging about in treachery and deceit, as you lay there with her on top of you. That’s where she had been while I was trying to bring my family back together. That’s what she had been doing while I blindly droned on about peace and survival. You and her had been desecrating my bed every night before I laid in it. Before I came back to you!”
How utterly foolish I’d been.
“I grabbed her by that hair of hers and pulled her from you to the ground. I stared at you, your chest heaving in ecstasy, your eyes wide and reflecting me at myself.” Never again. “I reached to my desk as you pulled at your chains. The knife was just there waiting for me. I plunged it into you again and again. You moaned and I plunged harder and faster. Your moaning growing louder in my ears just as they had every night we had spent together, only now it fueled only my rage.” I’ll never feel passion again. “When you stopped and all I could hear was the knife churning your insides, I collapsed.”
“‘Well, at least now that’s over,’ I heard Acacia say. I turned to her naked body on the floor with all the anger that still pounded inside of me. She could see my fury, I knew it because of what she said. ‘You wouldn’t kill a sister, Mela. You can’t kill a sister.’”
“I could feel my muscles relax as I approached her. I told her I knew I couldn’t, as I gently swept her beautiful hair from her face. I told her I wouldn’t, even as I raised my knife to her face. And I felt myself smile as I cut her.” What that unleashed still reverberates to this day. “I let her bleed on my floor and turned to your mangled body. And then I had my true moment of weakness. Tears that built up inside me but never escaped, a scream that never released as my knees slammed into the stone floor. I reached back into my memory, back to when Acacia and I were younger. A day where in our arrogance, we sought to think we could create a Toten-Geist, but found ourselves sorely lacking.”
Mela leaned in closer. “You know what the legends say about our abilities, don’t you? How they work?” The skull remained silent. “Emotions, nothing more. All the spent tears, all the sorrow, it’s the kindle to our fire. But what they don’t know is this . . . that our own emotions have an effect as well, that they can rule our powers beyond control. Not just fear or being angry. It’s what makes you angry. What makes you laugh. What makes you fall in love. What makes you feel pain. I felt true pain, the pain of your heart’s betrayal. I felt all this and more . . . and I breathed a half-life back into your body.”
Mela reminisced to herself, of how a bloody and naked Acacia ran out into the dark that night and screamed out to all the sisters. “She’s done it!” she shrieked. “Mela has brought us our revenge!” The sisters rushed to the entrance of the tunnel to see what Acacia was wailing about and were met with a horrible and wonderful sight.
Mela stood there, blood on her hands, a pair of blue eyes glowing from behind her in the darkness. He walked out into the firelight and confounded them all. His hollowed-out gut dripped onto the soil, as he stumbled toward them, his head cocking this way and that as he took them all in.
“The Toten-Geist shall bring us our revenge!” Acacia screamed to the heavens, nearly choking on her own blood-matted hair.
“But she was wrong. You were not the Toten-Geist she prayed for; you were incomplete. Just as I was, after you took a piece of my soul with you.” That piece that all first loves get. “I couldn’t stand the sight of you, so I had your flesh boiled and watched your eyes explode in the heat. We disposed of all your bones but your skull, I placed it here as a trophy, something Acacia suggested.” I’m thankful she did, I suppose. “One night, while I pored over maps, mumbling to myself, you spoke to me, but with my words. Every night since, I’ve spilled my thoughts to you and had you keep them, to speak back to me whenever I asked for them.” A tool of the most macabre. “But tonight . . . you spoke your own words and, somehow, with your own voice.” Something much worse. “And now I’m not sure what I am anymore, if I can’t figure out who, or what, you truly are.”
Mela rose then from her stool and blew out the candle. As she walked back to bed, a voice reached out to her, that familiar, haunting voice,
“I find you wanting,” it said.
“What did you say!?” Mela demanded as she spun on the spot.
“Found you on the outskirts of our camp, lost and hungry.” The skull continued in its regular, flat voice. “We hadn’t been there long but we knew that we had to stay and make it our new home.” Mela calmed down and realized the skull was now reciting back to her as it always did.
It’s too late and I haven’t been sleeping enough. It’s all playing with my head, she thought, but not able to convince herself completely. She crawled back into bed and listened to the skull recite her tale to the darkness, to her. Perhaps this is what it’s coming to, she mused.
Perhaps it’s all mad.