Wednesday, January 19, 2005

 

Vigor Mortis

Sorry for my seeming disappearance. Blogger's been down, Harrison's been sick, and thus I've been thwarted from actually publishing anything.

That said... I'm still thwarted, at least until Friday, by which time Harrison will allegedly be better. :)

In the meantime... a short story called "Vigor Mortis" that I wrote a few years ago...

"Vigor Mortis"
by Michael G. Ryan


I was standing another non-stop sixty-six-day guard shift with Zed when it happened: I was free. No trumpets blared, no parades paraded by, no pomp, no circumstance… just freedom. I heard an audible click (my remaining teeth coming together in surprise), and then Master Mendark’s presence was completely gone from my shriveled brain. All that remained with me in the darkness was an indescribable hunger and a sudden vision… of roast chicken.

I looked over at Zed to see if he’d felt it too. (Zed was just what I called him, by the way; he’d never been able to tell me his real name.) No telling what he knew: Zed was missing both eyelids and his lower jaw, so he always looked bug-eyed and taken by surprise. He was standing mostly in the shadows along the tower’s narrow walkway, a blood-encrusted spear clenched in his vile, rotting fists. He was a chilling sight to see—a flesh-eating zombie, a walking corpse, the living dead. I’d have been terrified out of my mind if I hadn’t been one, too.

I began to test a few words on my dried tongue. It had been long years since I’d had cause to speak—we’re not a chatty lot, we zombies—but now I needed to know if Zed had felt what I’d felt. Had Master Mendark suddenly dropped dead? Were we all being set free to go back to our former lives, that is, being dead? Or had I alone someone slipped free of Master Mendark’s control while everybody else…?

Shut up, Cagari, something whispered in my ear before I’d spoken—it could’ve been a worm, I’m not sure. What if you’re the only one? Don’t you want to taste that roast chicken?

Oh, yes. To taste human food again—not food made from humans—was something I used to daydream about often in those first years out of the coffin. In my pre-undead existence, I was an “improvisational” chef; that is, I was one of those culinary artists who could mix goat’s lard and pine cones with molded rat bones and create a delightfully zesty soup. (The secret is in the goat’s diet.) As I was dying in a freak kettle fire, I thought my cooking days were over. Then came my zombification by Master Mendark and my chance to work the kitchens again, but Mendark was only in need of mindless soldiers, watchdogs for his immense and apparently foreboding tower. I stood guard outside the kitchens once, and I was often rooted like a statue at the grand entrance to Master Mendark’s dining hall, but I never got the chance to cook again. In fact, I never got the chance to eat real food again. Zombies are monovores—we consume only one thing and it walks on two legs—and I missed sampling the incredible range of foods I’d known in the before-life. So, if Mendark’s control over me was gone, what was stopping me from a bit of sampling now?

Zed actually provided me an unexpected clue: he suddenly turned and walked brainlessly off of the tower’s rampart, plummeting to his next death. One moment he was there; the next, he was only a lingering stench. Ah, freedom! I never heard him hit because as soon as it was clear to me that we were all free of Mendark’s control, I set out for the kitchens.

Mendark’s tower was a dark labyrinth of walkways, tunnels, pits, dead-ends, bridges, gates, and assorted chambers of one questionable purpose or another. I’d been in most of them, so I knew exactly where I was going, and I shambled off with as much purpose as a corpse could muster. I descended from the top of the tower to the Master’s master-bedroom level. As I emerged from the stairwell into the shadowy hall just outside the bedroom’s gated entrance, a startled voice cried out, “Halt!”

I stopped and turned to face Roomer the Trainer, Master Mendark’s “zombie wrangler.” He was a short, stocky fellow with a hook for one hand and the disposition and brains of a monkey falling out of a tree. Every step he took was a symphony of clacks and rattles, as he was loaded down with a wide variety of chains, collars, locks, and cuffs for restraining untrained undead. He used to use a whip to control us until a particularly dexterous zombie caught the whip’s tip, reeled Roomer in like a fat fish, and ate the wrangler’s whip hand. After that, Roomer was a much louder advocate for bondage than discipline.

“Why aren’t you on guard duty, zombie?” he snarled at me as he approached with a collar. He snapped it around my narrow throat and stared deeply into my eyes. He stood there that way for so long you’d have thought we were lovers—if you were sick that way. After a long while he said, “What’s this? How did you get free?”

I debated answering but settled for dead silence. I was good at it. The sole lesson I’d learned from Roomer the Trainer was this: Never bear arms against someone unless you’re sure you can get away with it.

“Well, you won’t get away with it,” Roomer said. “Back to the Master with you.” He tugged at the chain shackled to my collar and turned us toward Mendark’s bedroom gate up the dark hall. “He’ll bring you back under control.”

I was about to risk defiance for the sake of poultry when I looked down and saw the thin, colorless tripwires criss-crossing the corridor just outside the bedroom gate. To say that the Master was paranoid does not do justice to his condition, and we zombies were trained to recognize his predilection for lethal booby traps. Of course, the ones immediately outside his bedchamber were rarely activated—another sign that something besides me was rotten at the gate of Mendark.

Roomer the Trainer apparently lacked a zombie’s education, which doesn’t say much for him. He stumbled blindly over the tripwires. A black pit suddenly opened beneath our feet. But what he lacked in foresight, he made up for in reaction. He pushed me backward out of harm’s way—a seemingly selfless act until you realize that he then hooked his claw in the links of the chain that was connected to my collar. My name promptly changed from “Cagari” to “Anchor.”

You might think that Roomer’s weight, what with all those chains and collars and assorted nasty metal devices, would have pulled me right over the edge after him, sending us both plummeting to a dark doom. I might’ve thought that, too, if I hadn’t deliberately stepped into the pit after him anyway. I pulled a Zed.

My dead weight no doubt contributed to Roomer’s rapid rate of descent as we tumbled and turned together for a solid six stories. He cursed a blue streak despite the blackness, calling me names that would’ve been horribly insulting if I’d still had the body parts in question, only to be silenced by our jolting arrival at the pit’s bottom. Because of the darkness, I couldn’t see the spears we landed on, though they made unusual popping noises as they poked their way through our bodies. I’m sure that if I’d been alive when I hit, I’d have been dead. As it was, I worked my way off of the spears, envisioning Roomer the Trainer in the dark next to me as I’m sure many zombies had envisioned him before—a shish kebob, ready for seasoning.

Clearly, I couldn’t stop thinking of roast chicken.

He reached weakly for me as I began to rise, his hand closing around my wrist. But when I pulled away, his arm came with me while the rest of him stayed behind. I heard him groan one last time as I wandered off into the darkness, but by then he was a distant Roomer, so I really didn’t care whether he was alive, dead, or unalive. I was much more concerned about finding my way back to the upper levels of the tower… now that I’d fallen into the crypts. My sense of smell was quite weak (a good thing when you’re rotting), but the odor of corpses was unmistakable—it smelled like me, only more so. Bones clattered beneath my bony feet; though the darkness was complete and seemingly impenetrable, I knew there were bodies stacked all around me.

Mendark didn’t bother with coffins or burials. He simply threw zombie and enemy leftovers alike down here until they plugged the tunnels and created walls of bone and slimy flesh. Water came in from somewhere, turning the whole place into a vile soup.

Sigh. Soup.

I climbed over damp cadavers, balancing myself on the bigger skulls by using Roomer’s disarmed arm as a crutch, eager to get back into the drier corridors where I could find the staircase leading up to the kitchens. As I came down one side of a mountain of cold flesh, I bumped into flesh that was definitely still warm.

“Stop or die!” someone snarled from the darkness. I stopped—what other choice did I have? I’d already done the latter.

“Friend or foe?” another voice demanded, drawing closer. I could hear metal on metal: armor and swords. I had a sudden suspicion that I knew the reason for the booby-traps outside Mendark’s bedchamber.

“Slave,” I answered. My voice was gravelly and low, but it sounded like church bells to me; after all, I hadn’t heard it in nearly fifty years. “Old slave. Trying to escape.”

“We’ll get you out of here,” the first voice said again, then, “as soon as we figure out how to get ourselves out of here.”

“We’re not lost, Sir Valance,” the second voice said. I guessed there were about a half-dozen of them altogether. “I know we’re in the West Crypts, not far from the back landing. If we could only see, we’d be out of here in no time.”

Valance! Not a day went by when the Master didn’t curse that knight. Valance was the bane of necromancers everywhere, one of those shiny-eyed, steel-jawed do-gooders who killed dead things in the name of all things just, right, and alive. He served a king who’d gained the throne simply by surviving the multiple assassination attempts by younger siblings, but Valance apparently believed whole-heartedly in what he did… which meant he’d happily re-bereave me of life if he knew what I really was.

“…and that’s how we lost our only torch,” Valance was saying to me. “So, do you think you could lead us to the back landing? Once we find Mendark, I promise you that your freedom is assured.”

“Yes,” I said, thinking furiously. “Freedom.”

“Give me your hand,” Valance said, and I heard him draw closer. “We’ve been forming a chain so as not to become separated.”

I handed him the business end of Roomer’s arm. He commented once about how cold my touch seemed, and then he and his men fell in behind me in the darkness, chatting among themselves about how Mendark’s demise would be swift, merciless, and gruesome. I was pretty sure that if I didn’t come up with a good idea, my next demise would be about the same.

“There, Sir Valance!” one of the knight’s men shouted after a time of wandering about the pitch-black crypts. “Light!”

Sure enough, a small bar of flickering light shone beneath a thick door just ahead of us in the corridor. Beyond would be the back landing, with stairs leading up to Mendark’s secret tower (which obviously wasn’t too secret if Valance knew how to find it). At the very edges of the door I could just make out skeletal hands and torsos, more useless corpses piled like, well, corpses in the Master’s crypts. This was where they’d finish me off. Without a plan, I’d reached death’s door.

“Let’s get you out of here,” Sir Valance said to me, tugging me along by my third hand. “Soon enough this will all be at an end.”

We moved ahead toward the door. Desperation set in, and I was struck again by the sight of those bodies stacked up just outside the door. Then, finally, inspiration kicked in. I’d have been sweating if I still had enough flesh left to do so.

“Help!” I shouted as best I could with my withered vocal cords. I jerked hard on Roomer the Trainer’s loose arm, and when Valance didn’t let go of it, I did. Then I threw myself down on my back, belly up. As soon as I was down, I struck a suitably horrible death pose.

Valance and his men scrambled about, drawing swords, shouting to one another and calling “after me,” until one of his men thought to open the door to the back landing so they could see what they were doing. When the flood of light poured over me, I was just another of the many dead things lining the corridor.

“Old slave!” they shouted. It sounded pathetic, really. And I actually felt a little guilty about deceiving them as they stepped over me again and again, some of them inspecting “my” severed arm with growing dismay. I felt just a little guilty; it was an emotion that had been buried with me once years ago.

After searching about for a few minutes, Valance (who really did have shiny eyes and a steel jaw, by the way) and his men finally passed on—meaning that they left. They disappeared onto the back landing, Valance casting furtive glances back into the crypts as if I might suddenly appear to be saved, sans my right arm. When I failed to materialize, they headed up the staircase to murder Mendark instead of me.

As soon as I was sure they were gone, I followed at a discreet distance as far as the third level: the kitchens. I could hear Valance and his men above me on the stairs as they clanked and banged on up to the fifth or sixth level in search of the elusive Master. I, meanwhile, pushed open the swinging door to the land of roast chicken.

The place was as still as a morgue, and I should know. Pots, pans, bowls, cups, tableware, and various other more-difficult-to-describe utensils were scattered everywhere—clearly, the kitchen had been abandoned in a hurry. Only one torch still flickered along the near wall, the others having gone out from inattention. Wooden cabinets hanging from hooks on gray brick walls stood open and empty. A big barrel of salt had been tipped over and was spread across the floor (I stepped carefully around it, as I wasn’t sure if I would be able to feel it in my various open but dry wounds). The place had been looted—

—by Master Mendark himself.

Mendark was just pivoting open a thick stone secret door on the far wall as I stepped through the kitchen door, letting it swing shut behind me. He looked up suddenly as I approached him. In his throne room with wranglers and bodyguards all around him, he was quite the intimidating figure: dark facepaint, purplish teeth, his signature jewel-encrusted skullcap, the layered robes of dark purple with mystic death images woven into the cloth, and those shoulder-length earrings that resembled undertaker’s scalpels. But standing in the kitchens in his gray bedclothes, head bald and exposed, skin pasty white, a backpack bulging with food stuffs over his shoulder and a chicken leg clenched between his teeth, he more closely resembled a petty thief in the night… a thief making off with my chicken.

He paused in the secret doorway, the thick stone threatening to pivot and snap shut at any moment, and he took the chicken leg from his mouth. He managed a weak smile. “Zombie,” he whispered. “Come to me.”

I went to my chicken.

Mendark’s old face relaxed, and he reached over his shoulder to put the chicken leg into his pack with one hand while the other held the spring-loaded secret door back. My eyes tracked the chicken. It disappeared into his backpack, and he brought out his jewel-encrusted skullcap.
“Put this on, zombie,” he said, handing it to me. His arm holding back the secret door was beginning to quiver with the exertion. “Hurry!”

Slowly I took the skullcap and dropped it atop my head. It was like putting a serving bowl atop an apple; Mendark still had some fat around his skull. He looked pleased nonetheless, and I felt the same way: For the first time in years, I was within reach of my first meal made of something other than people parts. I couldn’t really smell it yet (sense of smell goes first after death; taste goes second), but I could imagine that I could smell it, which was almost as good.

“You’ll make a fine Mendark,” the Master sighed, looking me over. “You march on out there and let that lout Valance find you now, zombie. It should give me more than enough time to escape.” He turned to go through the secret door into the tight, narrow passage beyond, adding almost as an afterthought, “Roomer trained you well.”

I reached with my right hand for his backpack as he turned away from me.

And then the secret door slammed shut with a terrible screeching and tearing that sounded not unlike someone being drawn and quartered. That sound was me losing one-quarter of my limbs as the secret door tore my arm off.

I adjusted the skullcap carefully with my left hand, then turned and shuffled back into the corridor beyond the kitchen. I could hear banging and battling going on above me; when I cocked my head and looked up the winding secret staircase to the floor above me, I could see smoke and body parts hanging over the edge.

“Valance!” I croaked. Then again, “Valance!” Louder this time, more forceful. “Valance!”

It grew deathly silent up above. I saw a few of the knight’s followers peer over the railing down at me, and then at last I saw Valance himself. He was covered in blood and fleshy bits, and his eyes were wild with righteousness, self and otherwise.

“Don’t move!” he cried out when he saw me. His face suddenly disappeared, as did those of his followers. I waited patiently as I listened to them thump, thud, and curse their way back down the stairs to my level.

Valance came first, his sword at the ready, lowered to point at my chest. He noted the skullcap in one bold stare. The others spread out behind him, weapons drawn.

“At last we meet, Mendark the Dark,” he said almost graciously. He bowed his head toward me.
“Not yet,” I said. I slowly took off the skullcap and extended it to him. “Old slave.”

Valance looked confused for a moment. He glanced back at his men, a few of whom shrugged or discreetly looked at their feet. “Old slave? From the crypts?”

I nodded.

Now Valance looked more than confused; he looked embarrassed and annoyed. I’m sure he might just as well have bowed to a plate of rotten bacon in front of his followers. “What’s the meaning of this? Where is Mendark?”

“If I help you,” I said slowly (I still sounded as if I had a mouthful of worms—and I might have), “can I eat his chicken leg?”

***
It took some time, but soon enough, the deal was struck (after I convinced the group that “chicken leg” wasn’t a euphemism for “Mendark’s leg”). Sir Valance and his men stormed the kitchen, where they found Master Mendark right where I’d left him: just behind the spring-loaded secret door. My right arm still clenched his backpack, and my upper arm was neatly wedged between the secret door and the stone wall, effectively holding Mendark trapped. He had tried to strip off the backpack and leave it behind, but the passageway was too narrow for him to maneuver. He had settled for trying to chew through one of the pack’s straps—or maybe he’d been trying to chew through his arm, for all I know. Either way, he was still caught there when the steel-jawed hero and his swarthy companions fell on the villainous necromancer and did what steel-jawed swarthy heroes do to villainous necromancers.

Valance was good for his word; he tossed me the chicken leg sticking from Mendark’s backpack as we had agreed. Mendark actually lived long enough to see the gesture, something that would’ve made me feel warm and fuzzy inside if blood had still pumped through my veins. I was glad I’d been able to lend him a hand.

I took a bite of the chicken leg, chewing slowly, letting the dark meat spark my faded tastebuds back to life. Valance, triumphant over evil, stood nearby, watching.

“Well?” he asked as I swallowed. “How is it?”

I could have cried as I turned to look at him. “It tastes just like human.”




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