The woman rolled an amethyst monocle between her fingers. She plugged the incandescent lens in her eye and studied the pictograms adorning Shanley's forearms.
"You look like a woman of means," he said. "Why not just waltz up to the registrar and put in for a library card like every other hedge wizard with the scratch to scrape together?"
"There's some bad blood between me and the coven," she explained.
Her staring made him self-conscious. He pulled the sleeves of his tunic taut.
"Why me?" he asked. "Any hack from the dirty tricks brigade could get the job done for a hell of a lot cheaper." He jabbed at the stack of bank notes on the table. "It's not like you're lacking for funds."
"You know as well as I do that any organization in this town employing members of your...profession...the reputable ones at least...are under the coven's boot."
Shanley nodded. He sipped the tepid tea he'd spiked with rotgut.
"Anyway, I don't need you to get inside the library," she clarified. "That'd be suicide. Even for someone half your age and twice your talent. It's the bindery I'm interested in."
"The bindery?" Shanley peered out from the dark alcove where he'd squandered the morning waiting for her to arrive. The joint was still empty.
"Paranoid?" she asked.
"Just careful," he replied.
"You see, the athenaeum's high profile," she explained. "The bindery on the other hand––the coven has no need to safeguard a sweatshop that churns out marital manuals and psalm books.
He was vexed. "What's your stake in marital manuals?"
"It's a front," she explained. His prospective employer was on the wrong side of plain: beady, close-set eyes and an unruly nest of hair that cascaded past her beer belly.
"You mean those ledgers conjurors lug around?"
"Aye. Books of great power. The bindery's got an exclusive contract with the coven. All below board, of course."
Shanley nodded. Took another sip of tea.
"The bookbinder's a notorious tightwad. He underpays street urchins to handle all the fastening and binding. The only muscle in his employ is his coachman. They make their deliveries once a fortnight, leaving the place unattended."
"Seems straightforward enough," said Shanley. "Anything else I should know?"
"Not at the moment."
He made for the stack of notes. She clutched his forearm. Her cold talons traced the pictographs adorning them. The ink appeared to recoil at her touch––like some timid animal.
"They're quite...unique," she said. "Where did you acquire them?"
"Work camp. Ba-a-ad mojo," he drawled.
She ignored him as if she already knew the answer.
"A botched job up north bought me seven years' time. Not much else to do except sleep, scrap, and fear when you're locked away that long. The ink still itches when I think too hard on it."
Shanley was anxious to change the subject anyway. "I still don't get it, though––why me?"
"You wear no scabbard, no shiv in your bootstrap––none I detected anyways. A cutpurse without cutlery. I find it...poetic."
A chill ran down Shanley's spine. "You should be careful of that," he warned her. "Like the bard said, there isn't any money in poetry."
He scooped up her bank notes and headed for the door.
Shanley cased the bindery down Tannery Row.
He was getting too old for this. There was no shaking the cold from his bones. He was virtually night-blind. Backache. Toothache. He couldn't back out now, though. He'd squandered his advance.
He pulled his woolen cowl snug over his head. Stomped his feet to get some feeling back into his toes. There was nobody in sight except the rats and the odd john with a painted lady in tow.
He feigned a fall in front of the bindery's wrought iron gates. Tried the latch. Locked.
The towering sweatshops on either side of the street stamped out any moonlight. He hid amongst a cover of shadow across the way, beating a moccasin against the curb periodically to frighten off encroaching vermin.
He drifted in and out of sleep until a commotion from beyond the bindery gates caught his attention. A crescendo of tired hooves. Wagon wheels groaned against cobble. His tattoos started to itch.
Shanley spotted a burly coachman leading an emaciated gelding through the gates. Rumor had it the bookbinder bought his pack animals right off the slaughterhouse floor prior to working them to death and then using their hides for glue and calf binding.
A fellow Shanley took for the tight bastard himself sat perched atop the wagon. He wore a scowl that jutted out from below the wide-brimmed hat that hid the rest of his face. The coachman surveyed the desolate street up-and-down before securing the gate. He took his spot beside the boss. He urged the horse onward with a crack of the whip.
Shanley held his breath and watched as the two men and their payload of psalm books were swallowed by the night. Shanley brushed himself off and headed toward the gates. He dug through the satchel slung across his chest. He unearthed a moleskin sleeve of picks. Dentistry tools.
There were days, beached far off in his memory, when a padlock held as much mystery for him as the secret parts beneath a maiden's pinafore. He felt haunted by the feeling of living in the husk of old passions. The older he got, the more mechanized, drunken, and forced everything became. Like some ill-conceived pantomime.
He jabbed the keyhole with a twist of wire, but his fingers were too shaky and frostbitten to coax that satisfying click from the lock. The demonic yowl of a cat in heat sent Shanley darting for the shadows, leaving the pick––and his nerve––abandoned among the cobbles and rubbish of Tannery Row.
He blew into his balled-up fists to warm them. He checked, and then double-checked, to ensure the coast was clear before sliding the second pick from its sleeve and returning to the task at hand.
He eased the pick into the keyhole, caressing the sliver of tightly coiled steel as if handling an icicle. He shut his eyes tight. He didn't need to see shit; this was about feeling. This was second nature to him. Once upon a time. He could feel the tension of the padlock's internal mechanism through the shaft of the pick. He could feel the accursed thing start to give.
He felt the lock jam as the pick caught in the rusty mechanism. He jiggled the pick gently, but the damn thing wouldn't budge.
He swore up a storm, and yanked. The pick broke off in the lock. He mopped cold sweat from his brow. Cursed. He assaulted the lock with a barrage of kicks. The outburst only managed to rile up a pack of rats. They swept across the road in a wave of chattering teeth and naked tails.
Shanley cased the block once more to ensure he hadn't drawn the attention of any passersby. Once he affirmed that the coast was clear, he hooked his swollen fingers through the intricate welded contours in the gate and hoisted himself upward. Nothing came easy these days.
Arms and shoulders burned as he struggled to clear the blasted thing. There was a time when he could scale a fence with the best of them. It was as if the world spoke a different language since he'd gotten out of the pen. A language made alien by the passage of time, one that left his entire body tongue-tied.
He was almost to the top when his hands lost hold on the freezing iron bars. He plummeted downward.
His forearms felt as if they'd been manacled. He figured his ticker was finally giving out. But then, suddenly, the inscriptions carved across his skin erupted like a nest of snakes. Ink-blue tendrils lashed forth from his wrists, coiling and tightening around the sweat-slickened bars. Bad mojo could sometimes work wonders.
His heart was still beating; he could hear it pounding in his head. Shanley flailed around for a moment before he managed to wedge the toes of his moccasins between the gaps in the wrought iron posts, allowing his leg muscles to pick up the slack for his upper body.
He swung a leg over the gate, trying his damnedest not to impale himself on the pikes protruding from the top. When he was a younger, slimmer man, such endeavors were effortless. Nowadays he settled for the rare morning when he was able to roll out his hammock without his knees locking up.
'All that hard living had to land somewhere eventually,' he reckoned as cold, wrought iron bit into his beer belly.
He hadn't taken this job solely for the money––he made enough to scrape by running scams down the docks. Whatever it was that the woman who'd taken him on wanted those grimoires for, he'd caught a glimpse of himself in her reflection.
It was evident she'd been bumped around enough that things really mattered to her. A failing eye, a forehead etched with worry lines, wiry shocks of silver sprouting from dusky curls––the day-in, day-out of existing had worn her down masterfully. Polished her like a diamond. Or perhaps it was just whimsy on his part.
Until Shanley had served his time in that headshrinkers' pen, the sheer excitement of unrealized potential had had such narcotic allure to him that the brunt of his life had slipped away without him ever actualizing a hell of a lot. Right now, crouched teetering atop that wrought iron gate, he felt like he was on the top of the world.
Maybe, just maybe, this job would change things. That's why he bothered getting up in the morning––wasn't it? He flexed his hands to stretch out his forearms. He'd torn a sleeve on one of the pikes. The brands beneath were as they always were: an irksome cargo carried from days he'd rather forget.
The man who'd put them there was a hedge wizard interned for participating in some brand of below-board chicanery unsanctioned by the powers that be. There was no denying that the bastard had a few screws loose.
After all those hours Shanley spent under the needle, the old coot had never even bothered to learn his name. He'd always just called Shanley courier.
Shanley leapt from the gate. Something caught him midair. A short, sharp jerk sent a wave of pins-and-needles through his arm.
His satchel had snagged on a fencepost. The cartilage in his shoulder thrummed as he worked the bag from under his armpit. He crumbled to the pavement.
It took a minute or two of leapfrogging and flailing around to disentangle the strap from atop the gate, after which Shanley proceeded toward the low-lying building ahead. He crept around back.
He bashed in the brittle shutters of a double hung window with his moccasin. The bindery was pitch black. The air was stale. The dryness stung at his sinuses. He fumbled blind, barreling over an entire pallet of ill placed volumes before having the wherewithal to strike a match. Between the pallets and the wide, cross-barred doors, he figured it was some sort of loading dock where bound books were stored prior to being shipped aboard the wagon.
He rifled through the mess he'd made. Nothing more than marital manuals transcribed on cheap pasteboard stock bound for the hungry literates among the most devout––and deviant––of the city's population.
Beyond the loading dock was an antechamber with barely enough room to fit the rickety desk and stained cot contained within. The floor was strewn with layer upon layer of brittle scrap paper sheaves. The papers created a ruckus underfoot tantamount to trudging through an autumnal forest. Shanley fired the hooded lantern atop the desk. Matches had begun to make him edgy; one stray ember and the joint would become an inferno.
Benches stretched the length of the bindery floor. The wavering light illuminated presses for cutting and laying books, racks of brass tools, gluepots, thread spools, clamps and vices––but still nothing to show in the sorcery department. The faint tang of urine awakened his senses; a stack of roughhewn, tanned leather amidst all the clutter.
Binding. The cheap stuff wouldn't do for some conjurer's cookbook. Grimoires demanded durability; they needed to travel well and last a lifetime––sometimes several lifetimes. The bookbinder left the cheap stuff for dirty books and church choirs. Shanley figured he might be onto something.
He padded the room like a caged beast, upsetting crates as he went, but all he unearthed were psalm books of shoddy pasteboard. He threw open the crossbar on the back door and stormed out.
Think, Shanley, think. For all he knew, tonight's shipment might have been bound for the athenaeum. Or his employer's info might have just been flat out wrong. Either way, the harpy wouldn't be too thrilled to have to sit on this for another fortnight.
The hooded lantern threw honey brown light across the lot, revealing a modest stable built in the footprint of an old storehouse, long reduced to ash.
The smell of the place was stifling. It appeared as though the horse's bedding hadn't been raked or changed, nor had the dung been shoveled, in recent memory. One abandoned stall held troughs of urine in which broad strips of horsehide soaked so as to more easily remove the hair from the skin.
'Poor beast,' lamented Shanley. 'To be housed in such a lonely place...assaulted by the stench, the very flavor, of one's own demise. To think that so many fear death's release when life can offer such cold comforts...'
Commotion from the rafters: a riffling of bats' wings, maybe barn owls. There was no telling; shadow snuffed out the light as it climbed toward the gables.
Curtains––ill cut from thick, cracked hides––divided the rear of the stables from the stalls: a slackened clothesline burdened with blacksmith aprons. Bits and bridles hung from pegs in the tack room beyond. Knives arranged in neat rows atop a blood-lacquered butcher's block––skinning knives, well oiled and whetted. The sole articles untouched by neglect. Tattered leather shackles screwed into the tabletop. And in the corner, a footlocker.
Shanley pried the footlocker open with a broad-bladed skinning knife. It unsettled the critters among the rafters. Wings thrashed and stirred the air high up in the eaves.
The trunk was stuffed with cheesecloth. Bound manuscripts shrouded in cheesecloth. Shanley undressed the first tome. Gilded leather. Two lidded eyelets marred the elaborate cover, providing a glimpse of the alien calligraphy scrawled across the page beneath.
Shanley felt the heat of a gaze upon him. The weight of judgment. He'd sworn off burglary one time too many and his conscience was getting the best of him. He shoved the book into his satchel and proceeded to unwrap the next one.
After this job, he'd go straight for sure––with the queen's ransom the harpy was doling out for these funny books it might stick this time, too. If the pen taught him anything, it was that the worst prisons aren't necessarily the ones that keep you shuttered away under lock and key, but the ones that make you think you're free. He'd known shrewd footpads reduced to indentured servitude over a loan on some collapsing country chateau they were too busy working to ever visit, and dandies–– rogues much more dashing than himself––who burned holes in their pockets buying the latest fineries and colognes just to have a stab at a quick hump. Shanley had yet to encounter a beast so fierce as the brand of "freedom" plied by the civilized classes.
He'd keep it simple and invest in a woodcutting ax and a crossbow and exit stage left. Maybe find a feral dog to keep him company. Disappear. If all else failed, there was always the cloistered life. That left the conundrum of which god or goddess to choose as his patron: so many to choose from, so few differences between each sect. He reckoned he'd select the order with the prettiest nuns.
It was then that he noticed the second grimoire smiling up at him. A macabre crescent carved across the face of the grimoire. The way the lantern light played against the cover made his skin crawl. Fleshy, trembling lips stitched up with fishing wire, longing to sing or scream.
He tossed the book in his satchel. There was one last manuscript at the bottom of the trunk. A dog-eared sheaf of papers bound with boot string.
He reached for it. As he did, the footlocker slammed down on his arm.
Shanley pried and pulled. He managed to flay a good part of his wrist in the process. He felt like a stray lamb caught in a jackal's jaws. The pain was dizzying. He patted down the trunk with his free hand, fingers fumbling for a release––some hidden lever or kill switch––but found nothing.
He grabbed a plane off the butcher's block. He tried to wedge the tool between the lid and the trunk to force the chest open. His attempts seemed only to make things worse.
Numbness prickled through his trapped appendage. But then, just as Shanley's deadened fingers loosed their grasp on the manuscript, the lid went slack.
'Some low-grade ward tied to that half-finished grimoire in there,' he figured.
As he pulled his dead arm free, the etchings across his skin bled down through his knuckles. In one fluid gesture, an inky rigor sprouted from his fingertips: spectral talons that crept across the bottom of the locker and snatched the manuscript just as the lid bit back down with a mercurial ferocity that ground the planer into splinters and crooked metal.
The phantasmagoric claw––both his, and somehow not his––deposited the sheaf into the satchel. Shanley mopped the cold sweat from his brow and set to massaging the feeling back into the wounded arm. The gangling fingers dissolved into the flickering shadow as color hemorrhaged back into the pictographs adorning Shanley's forearm.
He thumbed through the sheaf. It could've cost him an arm. The first page was blank, as was the second, and every damn page that followed. As his fingers brushed against the pages, his forearm pulsed, as if the empty manuscript sought to drink up the ink etched into his skin. He buckled the satchel. It was time to go.
Timpani of beating wings rattled the rafters. Shanley seized the lantern.
As he parted the hides draped across the backmost stalls, he realized what had evaded him during his single-minded hunt for the grimoires––what his mind had hidden from his eyes. A nightmare had been rubbing elbows with the commonplace, hidden in plain sight. Elbows, hands, and feet hung slack like wet stockings.
It wasn't curing calfskin or blacksmiths' aprons that burdened that clothesline. Only two skins. Human skins. Flensed of fat and muscle. Deboned. Faceless.
Shrill, simian chatter erupted from the eaves as a parliament of night creatures swept down from the rafters. Fangs snagged his cowl. Hooked thumbs ensnared his satchel. The mad rhythm of their wings stirred the air like some devil's drum.
Shanley shielded his face in the crook of his arm, swinging the dying lamp against the descending cloud. The light extinguished within, transforming the stable into a blackened hive of incandescent, amethyst eyes––all seething hatred, all fixed upon him.
The lantern exploded in one last blind swing that cut through the murder of winged vermin around him. He spotted phosphorescent fractures where starlight managed to slip through gaps in the stable door. He was almost home free, but the creatures' assault was unrelenting.
Shanley dropped to hands and knees, crawling through manure and piss-sodden hay. The odd spots where Shanley's flesh was exposed wept from where he'd been rushed with teeth and talons. The etchings adorning his forearms swelled in ebon waves, enshrouding him in an ink-black canopy that kept the rabid creatures at bay.
He inched across the brittle-boned carcass of one of the fallen things. Mottled membrane stretched across a broken wingspan. It made Shanley's spit curdle.
He pummeled the double doors. They shuddered open. A torrent of silver starlight bled through the gap, sending the avian bat-things packing for the shadows.
The fresh air stung his nostrils. He set the crossbar across the doors. He heard a horse's whicker.
The man he presumed to be the coachman stunk of onions and possessed the strength of an ogre. Shanley could feel the man's dank breath against the back of his cowl as he attempted to wriggle free of the bastard's bear hug. Shanley threw back a heel to try to land a shot in the coachman's crotch. His resistance only strengthened his captor's resolve.
The bookbinder, on the other hand, was as shrewd with his speech as he reputedly was with his money. He dug the gunk from under his ink-stained nails with an awl, eyeballing the trespasser without a word. His wide-brimmed patchwork hat kept his face veiled in shadow.
"Best let me go," wheezed Shanley. "Let bygones be bygones."
The binder shook his head, 'No.'
Shanley struggled to draw another breath. He thought his ribs might just buckle under the coachman's iron grip.
"Call the constabulary, then," rasped Shanley. "They'll be just as interested with what's in your barn as they will with what's in my bag."
The bookbinder circled him. Shanley squinted to get a clearer look beneath the brim, but it was just too dark. "You confuse me," hissed the binder, "with your courier's bag and fool's tongue."
Shanley spit. It just dribbled down his chin. The bookbinder took the intent of the gesture at face value, though, and gored the top of Shanley's hand with the awl.
The binder pushed up the burglar's tunic sleeve with the awl's bloodied edge. "You've a courier's arms, though––and quite a payload to deliver upon the world." He traced the brands across Shanley's forearms with the bloody awl.
"Look..." began Shanley, but he had nothing to barter with. He reckoned they'd take back what he'd taken from them and more.
Something riled the gelding. A wild-haired woman sauntered out from behind the oxcart. Starlight shone blue off the well-oiled sickle in her hand.
"I figured you might need some help."
He knew that voice: a woman of means––the one who'd hired him to glom the grimoires in the first place.
He'd have to shave a good amount off his fee if she got him out of this fix, but it sure as hell beat whatever these goons had in store for him.
The woman approached, each step punctuated by a choreographed swipe of her blade––more showmanship than swordsmanship––but enough to frighten off the bookbinder.
The coachman loosened his grip on Shanley. With a sly shirk and an elbow to the coachman's gut, Shanley dropped the brute and slithered free. As he wound back his leg to visit a taste of his size nines upon the crumbled coachman, he felt cold steel at his throat. He froze mid-kick.
"Enough," warned the woman.
With her sickle poised at his neck, Shanley noticed something aglow in her free hand: mauve, luminous, coin sized.
"No need to make this messier than it needs to be." She rolled the violet token between her fingers and cast it at the bookbinder.
"We were only going to break him in for you," he apologized. He caught the amethyst eyepiece midair.
"He's our courier," she scolded. "Take a proper look at his arms."
The bookbinder knocked back the brim of his hat and plugged his eye with the monocle.
Shanley's heart sank as the coachman's sinewy arm locked around his neck.
Shanley was slumped on a rickety milk crate. His hands had been shackled to the butcher's block at the rear of the stable. A single candle dripped wax upon the blank manuscript that'd been laid out before him. The arms of his tunic had been cut to the elbows.
An eerie mewling from the rafters competed with the bickering trio who flanked him. The bookbinder hovered above Shanley, studying the blurred pictograms riddling his arms through the monocle.
"You mean to say he's managed to harness their power?" he asked.
"Given a pennywhistle, even a deaf man can eek out a tune every so often," the woman explained.
The coachman jabbed his finger toward the eaves. "Shut those blasted things up!" he barked at the woman.
"They're nocturnal," she snapped. "The light flusters them."
"I'll burn this blasted place down with them in it if you don't rein them in," he threatened.
The bookbinder shot his henchman a disapproving glare. "The courier awakens," he announced.
Both parties ignored him. The woman parted the slack, human canvases draped between the stalls, cast her eyes upward, and cooed. Wings stirred the air. Five pairs of them. Dung-brown and velveteen.
Crippled things with embryonic faces: features pruned halfway between hatred and disapproval, their skin the pallor of an old bruise. No bigger than sparrows. Where the woman's wild hair fell at her shoulders, the creatures nested, hissing at the candlelight as if it was some alien intruder.
Shanley struggled against his shackles, horrified. He'd never set eyes on such things. "What in the goddess's grimace..."
The coachman quieted Shanley with a swift crack to the mouth.
"Orphans," he snarled, unable to mask his disdain for the mewling things. "Keepsakes from one of your employer's...forays into...other spheres."
The coachman spit at the woman's feet. A hive of angry eyes lit up her witching mane.
"Blasted demonologists," he muttered.
"Let's get on with this," ordered the bookbinder.
The woman rifled through her deep-pocketed caftan. She shoved something in Shanley's hand. A tobacco pouch swollen with coins.
"Is this a joke?" croaked the cutpurse.
"The balance owed you," she explained. "All debts are paid."
He brushed the pouch onto the floor. The woman leaned over the butcher's block. Her orphans shrieked as she drew closer to the candlelight.
But one brave orphan bumbled downward. On broken bats' wings, it dragged itself across the tabletop toward the manuscript. It gnawed at the boot string that bound the blank pages, the creature's skin almost translucent this close to the flickering flame.
Its amethyst eyes deadened as it finished eating through the twine, as if some unseen force was beckoning the impossibility back to its impossible sphere––as if it had been conjured for a solitary purpose, and when its work was finished, it shriveled and drifted off like parchment tossed on a campfire.
Captive and captors watched in amazement. The woman was the first to break the silence. She slid the unbound manuscript across the length of the butcher's block, working the pages beneath Shanley's palms.
Paper cuts. The pages of a grimoire cut even deeper. The wards across Shanley's arms sputtered in league with the dying candle. His knuckles blackened as the ink again pooled beneath his skin, traveling downward––and out––through his fingers.
The blank pages drank up ink, eliciting silent screams from their host. Blurred pictograms and time-faded alphabets skittered across the parchment beneath Shanley's palms, fighting for space on the page.
He could feel his consciousness creep outside the narrow frame of reason. His very self fray around the edges. The blank book drank until it was blank no more.
This rite somehow severed the rode to his anchor. Myriad things he'd never fully understood. Things he'd taken for granted. A payload unburdened. It left him light and empty at the same time, like the melancholy that marks the end of a volatile love affair. He felt as if a grater had been taken to his arms and the wounds then steeped in citrus, but his skin bore no signs of anything.
The bookbinder hovered behind him, examining the freshly filled pages through the amethyst lens. The pages flitted and turned on their own. He rested a gnarled hand on Shanley's slack shoulder. "That's quite a tale you had to tell. Quite a story indeed."
"Please," muttered Shanley, too spent to eek out much of anything else. He rolled his head toward the woman, wild eyes staring straight through her. Sight drawn to the curtains slung from stall to stall, those gruesome drapes of human hide.
"Please," he muttered. One last time.
There'd been a detail he'd neglected. The human skins. The dead had windows carved into their husks. Edges the candlelight played upon. Rectangular portholes: each one the size of an open book.
The orphans' simian chatter––the dissonant madness it invoked––coaxed the bookbinder's hand toward the hilt that stuck out from the drape of the woman's caftan. Shanley wagered the sickle weighed twice as much as the blasted bookbinder.
He snatched the woman's weapon. There was a flash of honeyed steel right before he cut down his coachman with one impossible, arcing chop.
"We could've just blinded him as we did the others," suggested the woman, too late.
"Blinding leaves tongues and tales to be told," he dismissed. "Besides, the next one I hire needn't eat so much. Do you know what it cost me to keep the brute fed?"
"Too much, no doubt." She reached for the tobacco pouch Shanley had knocked to the ground.
As she knelt down, a quartet of amethyst-eyed orphans sprang from the ropy snarls of her hair. They fluttered across the room to swarm the coachman.
The first duo settled on the dying man's chest. They lapped at the crimson font of his cloven shoulder. The other two flitted around his head, mewling like hungry kittens as his chest heaved beneath the strain of breathing.
Those two tangled midair, clawing and screeching, until one shied away and the victor burrowed its angry, bald pate between the coachman's blistered lips, just as his lungs loosed their last death rattle. Shanley would've emptied his bowels if he'd plied himself with anything more than rotgut the past two nights.
The woman plucked a silver obol from the tobacco pouch and began to explain. "You see? It's not blood they're after...it's not his breath stinking of onions my orphans are so drawn to...it's a moment they so crave...one fading moment, the poor beasts...when the darkness snuffs out life's light, that's what slakes their thirst. Light flusters them, you know."
She forced the coin into Shanley's mouth. He was too cotton mouthed to spit the damned thing out. "Fare," she explained. "For the ferryman who taxis you over to the other side. It's an old wives' tale, I know. An old superstition..."
The bitter tang of metal assaulted his taste buds. He lolled his tongue but the coin refused to fall. The woman walked over to the coachman and dislodged her sickle from the dead man's shoulder. It took several tries. The jolt sent her orphans scurrying.
"But sometimes old habits are hard to break."
She raised the curved, bloodied blade. Shanley cinched his eyes tight and held his breath.
He came to in a ditch. It wasn't the first time. The last thing Shanley recalled was holding his breath. He'd forgotten to breath, and the rest of him seemed fine with that.
He rolled his tongue. His mouth was bone dry. The coin was gone. His skin felt taut, as if he'd lain naked in the sun far too long. But a root cellar chill gnawed deep at his bones. He opened his eyes to a murky, star-pocked sky.
He sat up. Every inch of him groaned like an old wooden rocking horse. He jostled something that'd been placed across his chest––that madwoman's tobacco pouch brimming with crumbled bank notes. Her debt to him paid in full.
He crooked his neck to look around––nothing but fields and ditches and road. His neck crunched like a celery stalk being split in two. They must have dumped him far outside town. He clawed his way out of the trench for a better perspective. He felt as if he was moving through quicksand; the world in its heaviness strove to wheedle his naked forearms back down into the ground.
Lye dusted the shivering grass. They'd tossed him in a plot of upturned earth among countless others that dotted the old potter's field.
Images danced in the peripherals of his vision, the sorts of things that time slowly bleeds from a land––the battlefield dead, herds ridden into the brink of extinction, glaciers reimagining the lay of the land. He rubbed his eyes to find empty sockets.
He hugged himself tight, first noticing the rust red blossoms that spotted the front of his tunic. He worked the tunic over his head. The skin beneath had been flensed from his ribcage to the hang of his belly. The area had been wrapped in gauze solely to keep his insides from spilling.
The wounds themselves would've killed him twice over if he hadn't been dead already. He'd forgotten to breathe because there was no longer any need for it.
He'd have mourned his own passing if the crows hadn't picked his eyes clean. It was a peculiar feeling, or lack thereof––one he had grown accustomed to in life. Existing between breaths, existence little more than one giant pause in the conversation.
To see the world as it truly was, devoid of the trickeries light plays against the retina, awakened him with the jolt of a glacial bath. He remembered now.
The ferryman had refused his fare. Death dealt in absolutes; there was no crossing over when a chunk of what you'd become littered the pages of some hedge wizard's handbook.
Shanley felt tethered to that grimoire, drawn by a pull as cruel as nostalgia: both lost in, and indifferent to, space and time. He could hear the rhythm of orphans' wings resounding from another plane, driving him forward like a corps of drums, amethyst eyes burning hotly in judgment.
There was work to be done. A wizard needed haunting. A chapter yearned to be closed.
© May 2017 James Edward O'Brien
James Edward O'Brieen's speculative fiction has appeared in Phantaxis and Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to The Misfits, with stories forthcoming in Tales to Terrify and Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show.