Rain lashed down in an angry torrent, stinging the man's face as he knelt in what was quickly becoming mud on the verge of dying twilight. The icy water ran in rivulets down his face and into his eyes as he watched two barrel-chested men finish digging his grave. Both of the men had enough bulk to have filled his vision if he had been able to focus on anything other than the gaping hole in the earth before him. He knew that in just a moment they were going to kill him and bury him in a cheap wooden box all over a mistake.
"Hey, you guys really do have the wrong person. I know I've said that before but…" he was interrupted by another voice behind him. It caressed his ears like oily velvet.
"Please, Mr. Warden. Do not insult us by lying. You have been convicted by the Judge and these men are here to carry out your sentence. You must have known this would happen when you committed the crime. It is common knowledge what happens to convicted felons in these matters." The speaker stepped forward and the man kneeling in the sodden earth caught his first proper glimpse of the face behind the voice. His outline was surprisingly tall and slim, his features were angular and cruel with coloring which suggested he didn't see much in the way of sunlight. He wore a long dark overcoat and matching gloves but it was difficult to see much else in the failing light. The whole effect left one in mind of something horrible found in a deep cave.
"But I tried to tell the Judges what happened. I didn't kill anyone. I was just there to find out what happened to my father. Why won't anyone listen to me?" The man was panicky now and tried to lurch to his feet, but slipped in the mud and collapsed back to his knees. The tall figure before him ignored his outcry.
"As I am sure you know I am a Child of the Requiem. I am called Mr. Brahms. I say this simply because you are entitled to know who I am by order of her majesty, Queen Victoria. I certainly do not expect you to have any use for the information, Mr. Warden." He smiled then, a horrible twisted smile. "But of course the niceties must be observed."
He stepped past the gravediggers and moved to stand beside a gnarled tree, the branches of which leaned over the burial place, a skeletal claw meant to hold the occupant in place. "Once Mr. Smith and Mr. Penn have finished with their work," he said, nodding at each in turn as the pair clambered out of the muddy grave, "and it appears they are nearly complete, you will be executed and interred. Your eulogy will then be related to any who wish to hear," Mr. Brahms cast a bemused glance around at the completely empty space around them, "and you will pass on to wherever it is that you belong."
Mr. Brahms turned to face the offender fully and noted his complete lack of any interesting features. He was neither tall nor short, neither thin nor fat and neither pale nor dark. Even his clothing was in neutral tones and an unremarkable cut. The best that could be said of the man was the he was decently plain. In the same manner, the man was observing Mr. Brahms. He was staring deep into the unsettling ice gray eyes, each marred by a single vertical slash extending from eyebrow to cheek bone.
"Excuse me, Mr. Brahms," said the big man known as Smith, breaking the silence as surely as a thunder stroke. "We've finished digging the hole and the box is ready. If you're finished talking we'd like to wrap this up and get on back out of the rain." The man had a deep but squeaking voice, like one might expect to hear from a very large sewer rat.
Mr. Brahms nodded at the burial crew and before the man in the mud could say anything, the digger known as Mr. Penn drew a small handheld crossbow from where it hung on his belt. It looked ludicrously small in his huge hand. Then Mr. Penn shot him in the chest. The man gasped and swayed backward with the impact and then lurched forward onto his face in the mud.
"Quick and clean, that's the way it should be. Well done, Penn. Well done indeed," said Mr. Smith, nodding in approval. "It's hard to get much better than that." Penn merely grunted in response and slung the crossbow back on his belt. If anything he looked bored.
The two ambled slowly over toward the dead man under the watchful gaze of Mr. Brahms. They lifted him easily out of the mud, grumbling all the while and it was the work of a moment to have him in the wooden box that would serve as his casket. Penn reached in to collect his quarrel but his counterpart backhanded him roughly on the shoulder. "We ain't supposed to take the arrow out, remember? They said we were to leave them in as evidence that the job was done right." Smith was rewarded with a sneer and a rolling of the eyes but his associate retracted his hand.
"Excuse me again, Mr. Brahms, but did you want to look at him before we close it up? I know some of you folks like to look at them first." Smith gazed sullenly at the figure by the tree and wrung the rain water out of the small sodden hat he was wearing. It still squelched coldly when he replaced it on his head and he shivered for emphasis.
Mr. Brahms declined with a single minute shake of his head and a brief sigh. The two quickly tacked a thin board onto the box as a lid then lowered him into the muddy pit with a series of ropes. As they did so, Mr. Brahms glided away from the tree to stand at the foot of the grave. He waited silently for Smith and Penn to finish lowering the makeshift coffin and then for them to shovel the freshly dug loam back in place. The rain rushed down throughout the procedure and Mr. Brahms never said a word.
At last the job was done and the two men looked over at Mr. Brahms expectantly. "You have finished your duties as required," he said with the uninterested air of one who has done this a thousand times. "Thank you for your assistance gentlemen. You may leave now." They turned to go and paused only briefly in their retreat when they were passed by a woman all in gossamer white. Her passage was like that of a ghost, quiet and somehow unreal.
Both men took note of her angelic form, but in a distant way that they could not recall later on.
The woman drifted over toward Mr. Brahms, all lithe grace and beauty. She stopped at the head of the grave and stood in patient serenity as a counterpart to Mr. Brahms. "Lady," he bowed to her in acknowledgement, seeming not to notice her tanned flesh and delicate curves which were all too clearly visible through the drenched white robes, nor the lack of mud which should have been adorning the bottom of them. "You need not be here for this. As you must know, the man is a criminal and there is no call for a Gravekeeper here."
She cast a gently defiant glance at him as she spoke. "I am the Lady in White. I keep all graves, not just those the Children would choose for me." Her voice was melodious and matter-of-fact and left one in mind of quiet summer evenings in the country being gently chided by a beloved mother.
Mr. Brahms simply nodded acknowledgement of her statement and then inhaled deeply. There arose from the man a pure and melodious tenor voice singing in a language that neither the Lady, nor either of the retreating grave diggers could understand. The words coalesced in beauty and form just as the rain drops that ran from the tree leaves down onto the freshly dug earth. The grave and the marker above it seemed to take on a vague blue shimmer and the roaring sound of the rain hushed to a mere whisper. The song went on for several eerily entrancing moments before Mr. Brahms reached the crescendo. Nearly a full minute passed as the final note slowly faded away and he at last seemed to breathe again. The Lady stared across at him with her dark pitying eyes. Her arms folded delicately under her breasts and she did not react when Mr. Brahms appeared to sink back inside himself, as though for a brief time he had been somehow larger than the space that he occupied. The apparent glow faded from the tomb and the sounds of the world sluggishly returned to fill the void.
Mr. Brahms collected himself for just an instant and then bowed to the Lady in White again. "Lady," he said in his slick velvet treble. She nodded curtly and pursed her lips, holding her gaze on him as he turned away and began to stride purposefully out of the cemetery. The Lady moved to sit atop a large moss-laden root jutting up from the base of the wretched tree. Despite the bucketing rain and the icy cold she sat in her diaphanous white gown as calm and collected as a queen, gazing at the small marker at the head of the grave that read simply 'A. Warden, criminal'. Below that two dates were inscribed somewhat lighter than the name: 1868 – 1892. She gazed passionlessly at the marker and began the only wake that the unfortunate man would have.
Six feet below her Alexander Warden's eyes snapped open and he looked sightlessly up at the lid of the box and wheezed around the blood that had welled up in his mouth. The crossbow quarrel burned in his chest like fire and he knew with the clarity of the near terminal that he was going to die very slowly. He cast about for a way to escape the confines of the casket but all he had were his bare hands and a crossbow bolt that he was quite certain it would kill him to remove. He'd been in predicaments all his life, but he was struggling to think of a worse one just now. Blind, buried and bleeding. Nothing was coming to mind so he would have to improvise. That or pray for divine intervention, and that had never worked up to now.
He lay in the darkness, hoping for his eyes to adjust and knowing that they wouldn't. There was no light to adjust to. His breath was coming in labored rasps and he wasn't entirely sure if it was due to a lack of air in the thin wooden casket or the crossbow quarrel sticking out of him. There was a heavy taste of copper on his tongue which he knew to be blood.
He stared unseeing at the lid of the coffin and hoped fervently for inspiration. There had to be a way out of here. He couldn't die. Not like this. He had been convicted of a crime that he hadn't committed and worse, it had been done without evidence of any kind. The Judge had simply stood outside his cell in those crimson robes and read the charges against him from memory. Then he had been pronounced guilty. No witnesses, no defense, no trial even. The Judge had sentenced him to death, notified the clerk at the end of the passageway, and then departed without so much as a backward glance at the cell or it's wildly protesting occupant.
I would give anything for a way out of here, he thought in rising panic, pressing fruitlessly against the lid with his knee.
"Anything?" Whispered a voice so sickly sweet that it seemed to cause the very air about him to ripen and rot. "Perhaps there is something that can be done for you, Hex." The absolute darkness in the coffin seemed to almost push back into the corners, and from the lid a shape began to emerge. In the near-gray of the directionless light, a grinning skull began to sink toward the injured man. There was blackened and dried flesh still clinging in places to the skull. The man tried to roll his eyes away in horror and saw a ribcage and two skeletal arms slowly appearing in the box as well, each similarly adorned in bits of clinging sinew. Seconds before, there had been no room in the casket beyond what the man had been occupying, but now it seemed as though that macabre figure was reaching toward him across a chasm of chill gray space.
The man tried for several seconds to speak, but it was difficult at best to form words around the quarrel protruding from his chest and the taste of decay was making bile rise in the back of his throat. At last he managed to gasp out something. The single syllable came out as a feeble croak that might have been 'how' and might just as well have been 'who.' He had certainly thought them both.
"You already know who I am," said the corpse in that voice like the wind of decay, "and the question you should ask is what. What will you give to survive? You wish to bargain upon what might be called your death bed, although admittedly you are somewhat more prepared than most." The skull leered eyelessly at the coffin in which the man was entombed. "What can you offer in trade for your life?" One of the skeletal hands drifted up toward the man's face and he felt certain that it would touch him, but it did not. The fingers simply hovered near his cheek as though they might caress it at any moment.
"I can't—think of much," gasped the man in the coffin. The pauses in his speech were long and full of liquid breaths. "I have no money—or things to offer you—just now. I could offer you another life, but I don't think—I could get it for you. I'm not—a killer." The skull above him simply nodded and grinned as only a skull can. "What do you want—that I could offer you?"
"I am certain you can think of something." The voice dripped intrigue and behind that some sort of veiled desire for something.
The man wheezed, his chest feeling tighter and bloody foam warming his lips. He thought desperately for something that he could give, but a dying man is at two distinct disadvantages during such a moment. They have very little to offer on their death bed as he had already realized and they have nearly equal energy to put into creative thinking. His eyes drifted closed and his breathing slowed even more. After what might have been moments or might have been days, his eyes drifted back open. There was nothing but darkness before him.
Am I dead, or dreaming? It was a strangely clear thought amid the sea of poisoned fog clouding his mind. What can I do to get out of here? There has to be something, anything that I can do. The thoughts were there, but it was so difficult to pull them together. He grasped feebly at the few thoughts clinging together and coughed a bloody response to the thinning air around him.
"If—you're still there, I have—an idea. What if I offered—a favor? You let me live—and I'll do something for you—later. Your choice—what and when."
There followed the sudden overwhelming scent of putrefaction and that darkly sweet voice. "I told you that you would think of something. I believe that a favor will be—adequate."
Alex coughed blood fitfully and could feel the darkness taking a firm grip on his heart and preparing to squeeze. Even as he lay dying, terror crawled up his spine. He nodded weakly. "Do we have—a deal?"
He felt rather than saw the skeletal hand reach out and almost tenderly touch the blood running from the corner of his mouth. "Consider it sealed." The darkness melted back once again, revealing the peculiar not quite gray and the skeletal figure, already almost socket-to-nose with the man. He would have jumped but he was too weak to react at all. A wave of rot crashed over him like a waterfall of foul air. He tried not to breathe, tried to turn away, but there was nowhere to turn, nothing at all he could do to escape the foulness. The vile air stormed into his lungs by force and he found to his shock and horror that he was able to draw breath, however awful.
His lung ceased to burn with agony and he could actually feel the crossbow bolt crumble away into ash and then into nothing. He felt the wound knit in a flash of sensation so intense he couldn't even begin to describe it and when there was no more left of the wound, it faded as though it had never been. He cast about in the darkness and found that the apparition above him was gone. There was only darkness and stale, but breathable air.
The words that Death, he was sure it must have been Death, had spoken to him oiled back into his mind. Will you lie here and wait for help, he thought. Of course I can't just lay here. No one was coming to save him. Waiting for rescue wasn't an option, so he had to figure out something on his own.
Touching the coffin lid above him proved awkward but possible after he managed to get his arm up from his side in the tight confines of the wooden box. He had intended to try pushing on it but found that as soon his fingertips came into contact with the wood that it wasn't the hard wood he had thought it was. There was a damp, spongy quality to it. He wondered if the rain had run down and filled the whole of his resting place and he would simply drown once he got the lid off. The fear of the unknown was overridden by the certainty of death if he were to stay.
He pressed his whole palm against the wood and it practically crumbled in his hand, almost rotted through on its own. It must have been left out in the rain for too long. He started to pry at the wooden lid and within seconds there was a sizeable gap in the lid of the coffin and grave dirt began to fall into the box with him.
This could be a problem, he thought in rising panic. He tried to claw at the dirt and to his amazement found that he was able to dig it aside better than he had expected. He had been concerned that with all the moisture, the earth above him would have been little more than packed mud. This was far easier to dig through than he could ever have anticipated. The grime shoveled away from his hands almost as though it were afraid and anxious to be away from him. Excitement and relief welled in him but he decided not to count his blessings until he was free and standing in the night air above. Besides, he wasn't convinced that this was a blessing rather than a dying nightmare.
The Lady in White rose from her seat atop the mossy root. No speck of dirt adorned her filmy dress, despite the mud and the dwindling rain. She smiled angelically at the grave and spoke in her gently lilting voice, "rest well Alexander Warden. I shall watch over you." She turned to walk away from the fresh grave but was unprepared for the peculiar sounds of shifting earth and the panting reply that came from behind her.
"I really appreciate the offer, Miss, but unless you're coming with me, I don't know that it will be all that much help just now." The Lady in White turned to see Alex clambering grubbily from his own grave. He was completely caked in mud and breathing like a wounded ox, but otherwise apparently unharmed. The crossbow quarrel seemed to be missing from his chest. A slight rip and a crimson stain on his once-clean shirt seemed to be the only trace of the wound that should have killed him. She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it again in an amused smile when she noted his gaze sweeping over her damp and ill-concealed form. His expression slid from fading panic to a distinctly male appreciation that was only partially concealed beneath a layer of uncertainty.
"Mr. Warden, I am sure that is hardly appropriate," she said with a trill of mirth in her delightful soprano voice.
His eyes shot up to hers and he shook his head apologetically. "I'm really sorry, Miss. I'm just not entirely sure that I'm alive right now, and I really didn't expect the first thing I saw after I died to be so… well, beautiful. I guess I'd always figured considering my past sins that I wasn't going to have much going for me in the hereafter." He shrugged and smiled awkwardly. Tearing his gaze away from her eyes was an exercise in willpower. They were like endless pools of perfect twilight, dark and glimmering. Her accompanying laughter was like the sound of wind chimes.
"I appreciate the compliment, such as it is, Mr. Warden."
She paused for a moment when he shook his head at her. "Please, don't call me Mr. Warden. It's been a bad enough day, I don't need to sound like my father too. Just call me Hex."
The Gravekeeper's eyebrow arched as he spoke. "Hex? What an unusual name. But if that is what you wish to be called then so be it."
He half-chuckled and opened his mouth to explain but she held up a hand to forestall his comments.
"There is no need. I'm sure the name is fitting for its own reasons." She paused and held one hand cupped theatrically to her ear. "As I'm sure you must be able to hear by now, there is another funeral party approaching. I think that it would be best for your continued survival if you were to leave." His eyes welled up in fear at her comment. "Do not be afraid, Hex. The Child for this particular internment has not arrived yet, but it would be best if you did not wait around for them. The Children of the Requiem will destroy you if they find out you have survived. They are very particular that once they have composed a funeral hymn, it is final. The Judges will, of course, be just as strict since you are a convict. A second round will likely be composed of a very thorough hanging from the gallows tree, which is somewhat less able to be cheated." She seemed to consider for a moment, "although in your case they may skip straight to a beheading just to be sure."
Again he opened his mouth to speak and she held up her hand to silence him. "Rightly or wrongly, you were convicted and as such they are not likely to give you a second opportunity." The last of the rain exhausted itself and a nearby bird, bolder than the others, vacated the safety of its nest and chirped its night song. Above the sound of the bird Hex could hear voices some distance away. "Well Hex, I must leave now. I hope that things work out for you and that I need not watch over you for many years." She smiled in an ephemeral way and he couldn't help but grin lopsidedly back at her. Terror still gripped his spine, but being near her seemed to make it all somehow less real. Or perhaps it was more real. He hadn't decided what was real just yet, so there was no way to tell what wasn't.
"Thank you, Lady. I wish you the best too." He turned to leave and as he did so she called out to him.
"Hex," he half-turned to look at her and saw that she was already gliding away, a pale perfect ghost in the gloom. "Good luck."
He grinned and strode purposefully toward the cemetery gates without looking back. As he got further away from her the fear and shock started to become more solid again. Either he was dead and this was a very strange afterlife indeed, or he was alive and had actually just made a deal with Death. Or perhaps it was all just a horrid fever dream as he lay dying. Whichever way, he needed to get away from this place so that the Children wouldn't be able to find him. Once he was able to get sufficiently far away from the graveyard, he was also going to need to find someplace for a very stiff drink to quiet his nerves.
Hex swallowed past the dry lump in his throat and marched resolutely into the night and the rain and whatever else the rest of his life had to offer.