Chapter 1

           I came.
            I saw.
            Death conquered.

            I traced the Latin on the tomb as I translated and wondered whether the deceased had had a sense of humor. Or maybe the family ordered the inscription. Were they angry their loved one was taken from them? Or were they gloating that the old bastard was beaten? There were so many possibilities.
            I always wonder about graves. Who the person was, why that stone or that symbol. Graves are instant mysteries. Like people. My lips curved as I walked through the mist. In the half light, the fog devoured each stone within steps. And new ones appeared as if by magic.

            Millie Tajinsky
            Beloved Mother

            Did she order that, or did her children? I shook my head. It’s amazing how who changes the meaning. Who were you? I asked silently. She didn’t answer. Then again, I hadn’t really asked her. Shaking my head, I continued on and let the mist swallow her.
            I wasn’t there to talk to her anyway.
            The mist continued to curl around my toes like playful kittens as I walked deeper into the graveyard. Where the stones were older and their residents less playful. I scanned the stones that appeared out of the dark mist only to be swallowed again. Their age made the inscriptions hard to read. If not impossible
            That only made them more of a mystery.
            I reached out and touched one weathered gray stone and let my senses extend through my fingertips. Old. Very old. But not old enough. I removed my hand. As curious as I was, I prefer not to disturb the dead without good reason. I could already hear the slight murmur from my touch, like someone muttering in his sleep as he rolled over.
            I’ve heard other deathwalkers call it the opening gates or the shifting of the curtain between the other world and ours. But the best deathwalker I’d ever met thought of it as a freezer door.
            “There are no other worlds, child. People cannot be removed from ours. They simply go into storage.”
            At the time, the image of dead people shelved neatly in a vast freezer terrified me. I pictured my grandparents there. My mother. My father. And I began to cry. Rough hands had patted my shoulder.
            “Shhh. Hush, Seph. They like it there, or they would be happy to be woken.”
            I hadn’t appreciated the irony as a child. Now, as a vast tomb appeared before me like a hulking guard, I was all too aware of it. If the stone pillars looked unhappy to see me, I can only imagine how their resident would feel. I stared up at the looming stone and sighed. No wonder no one else would take the job. That should’ve warned me, but I was hungry. It’s amazing what you’ll agree to do when you’re hungry.
            Resigned, I shifted my coat and made sure I had what I needed. I probably should’ve cut my losses, but, hey, I was still hungry. And stupid.
            “Come on, Seph,” I muttered, “time to go piss off a dead person.”
            There was no need to touch this grave to check the age. The years rolled off of it in a powerful aura. Whoever was buried here, he was no ordinary dead person. As I opened the gate, I was careful to use the edge of my jacket. No need to wake anyone up before I was ready.
            Instead of creaking and groaning like I expected, the heavy metal swung apart silently and easily. Not a good sign. Either the deceased’s descendants still remembered to oil them, or the deceased took care of it himself. I started to step into the dark chamber, then set my foot back down without crossing the threshold. The chamber was too dark. Staring into it, I took out the paper I’d been given along with the job.
            It said simply, “Tomas,” but it was written in a language even older than the grave. One I knew but not well. I considered the dark interior. Something told me it would not be wise to enter without an invitation.
            “Your pardon, Mr. Tomas,” I said respectfully in the old tongue. “May I speak with you?”
            A wind rushed up from the ancient stones and chilled me as it passed. Then, there was only silence.
            “Enter.”
            The voice echoed arrogantly against the stone with an edge that warned of a man used to being obeyed. I fleetingly considered apologizing for bothering him and running away. As if sensing my thoughts, a heavy sigh echoed.
            “If you dare be rude enough to wake me, you can be polite enough to step inside to speak with me properly.”
            Wincing internally, I crossed the threshold. I had seen firsthand what the dead could do when displeased. I needed to get on his good side – and fast. I strained my brain for details on his time period. That far in the past was not covered in details in school, but I vaguely recalled something about obeisance. Hoping that he would take it as intended, I attempted what I thought was called a bow.
            If silence could sound like a raised eyebrow, that was his response.
            “My apologies for disturbing you,” I spoke from the bent position, suddenly afraid that it would be rude to get up without permission. “Ter Fless politely requests that I might ask Your Worship some questions.”
            Why did the old tongue have to be so blasted florid and intricate? In the heavy silence, I began to fear that I had mangled it. Did I use the wrong form of address? With my face toward the floor, and the muscles of my legs and back beginning to tremble, I wracked my brain. Neith had to have told me more than that. Of course, Neith had also warned me to always do my research before starting a job. She’d kill me if she found out about this.
            Assuming she’d get the chance.
            “Your name.” The deep, frighteningly proud voice was never more reassuring.
            “Tradesman Sephtis, Your Worship,” I replied. Or at least, I thought that was what I’d said. The silence began to build once more. I was shaking partly from nerves and partly from holding that unnatural pose. Soon, I would have to get up or fall over.
            “Rise, tradesman,” the dead man’s voice became slightly less forbidding. “Ask your questions.”

Continue to the next chapter…


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