This is a short story I wrote for the Grimdark Fictions Readers & Writers group. They hold a Grimdark Story Battle Royale, where members submit a short story (1000 – 4000 words) based on a chosen theme. Once the gruesome tales are submitted, everyone votes on the best of the bunch.
16 stories were submitted, and the theme this round was ‘A Corpse’ Collector’. I am very pleased to say my story fought through the ranks (there were some really good stories in there!) and emerged victorious. From Parts Unknown was chosen by the members as the best grimdark story in the very first Battle Royale!
From Parts Unknown isn’t set within the Legacy of Ash world, but it is dark fantasy of the same flavour. It was first posted on the Grimdark Fiction Readers and Writers FB page, but I thought I’d post it here as well.
Enjoy! (Well, don’t enjoy, really, it’s pretty grim… but at least be entertained by the horror.)
“Someone’s stealin’ the bodies,” Lysom said, pulling a corpse out of the water.
Despite the early hour, the guard’s long hook was already coated with grime. A few feet away, Gate snagged another corpse with her pole and hoisted it up as well. The two guards stood on the shore slightly above the river, morning mists still drifting through the reeds on the far side.
“What do you mean?” Gate grumbled.
The two Soeneshi guards were part of a crew sent to clear the river of bodies. To the north, where the river began, the kingdoms of Markaya and Tersh were at war. A great battle had been fought, and the dead were drifting down the river, forgotten and ignored by their kin. Soldiers, camps followers, horses. The water was thick with the dead. The bodies drifted until they ended up here, a series of stones collecting the corpses and creating a putrid dam.
“Yesterday we dragged nearly fifty poor bastards out of the water,” Lysom said, “and this morning there’re only forty.”
“Maybe Reben moved ’em?” Gate said. The corpse she had hooked on her pole slipped off and fell back down with a wet thud. The body hit the stones, water immediately pooling on one side of the swollen, rotting mass.
“I asked her,” Lysom said. “She don’t know nothin’ about it.”
“So what?” Gate said with a shrug.
She pulled another body from the water, opening a small part of the dam. Sludge flowed through the opening. She tried not to think of the rot, bile, and blood mixing with the water. The river flowed down, dozens of miles south until it reached the heartland of Soenesh.
“We’re only gettin’ paid to take the bodies out of the water. Stop the river from damming up. Try to keep another plague from reaching Soenesh. I don’t give a damn what happens after they’re out of the river.”
Gate had lost her brother to a plague that so recently swept through the kingdom of Soenesh. A wasting sickness, bodies racked with fever and bloody coughs until they died. Redlace Fever. The disease had been named after the patterns formed on the victim’s chest. Gate survived, but many had not. Soenesh was still recovering. Another plague so soon would ruin the Soeneshi for generations.
“Keep your head down?” Lysom asked. “Work hard, get paid. Is it that easy for you?”
“We hoist,” Gate grunted, pulling up another corpse. “That’s our job. Reben and the others sort ’em out for burnin’. Or they will, once the wood arrives.”
Another corpse slipped off her hook. It landed on jagged rock, skull cracking of the stone before it tumbled over the stones and the rotting barricade of flesh to begin its long journey down the river.
“Damn it Gate,” Lysom cursed. “That’s the third one you’ve let over the other side. You want to get paid? Be a little more careful, will ya.”
It was noon when Reben, head of the team sent to clean up the river, approached the two guards.
“I’ve checked it out,” she said, stepping around the pile of sodden corpses to face Lysom. “You’re right, old man. We’ve got missing bodies. Ten last night. Possibly five the night before.”
Lysom set down his pole and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Gate grunted, turning away from Reben and pulling on a corpse snagged on her hook.
“I’ve spoken with the others,” Reben said. “They deny it was them, of course, but I can’t be certain. I want you to set a watch tonight. Find out what’s going on.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lysom grunted. “We’ll catch the bastard.”
“They ain’t missin’,” Gate said. She hoisted the latest corpse up over the rocky shore and lowered it to the ground. “Not all of ’em anyway.”
The three stared at the body for a moment, Reben looking up to Gate and then Lysom.
“What’re you talking about?” Reben said, looking down at the body of the soldier. “It’s just another Tershan soldier. So what?”
“Look here,” Gate said, pointing to the corpse. “Lysom, see here? We pulled this one out yesterday. But he had both his arms then.”
It was a Tershan soldier. In life, he had most likely been handsome. Now, his skin was pale and bloated. Dead nearly a week, but still recognizable. One leg was gone, the wound old with skin rotting. His arm, though, was different. The wound was fresh, the skin and bone cut clean.
“Can’t be,” Reben said. “You’re just confused. Maybe it’s his brother or something?”
“Gate’s right,” Lysom said. “I remember thinkin’ how unlucky this poor bastard was. Lost his leg, and then his life, only to be dumped in the river and forgotten. But now he’s lost an arm as well.”
“So someone is cutting up the corpses,” Reben said, looking at the two guards, “and dumping them back into the river?”
“Looks like it,” Lysom said.
“Alright,” Reben said, pinching the bridge of her nose and closing her eyes. “My orders remain. Tonight, you two set a watch. And you better catch the damn fool collecting our dead.”
To the north, Markaya and Tersh were both highlands. To the south, Soenesh was a land of moor and marsh. Further south, the various rivers running down from the highlands emptied into the Soeneshi Seas. As night fell, the light of the moons fought through the clouded sky. A deep fog rose around the river and the moors beyond.
Gate crouched in the mist behind a conveniently placed cart, her sword sheathed at her side. Lysom was on the other side of the corpses, his crossbow spanned and ready. Between them lay the pile of corpses dragged from the river. The stink was horrible, but Reben was having trouble getting enough supplies to build the pyres. The bodies were waterlogged, and the team had not brought enough wood with them to keep the fires burning. It took, Gate was surprised to learn, a lot a wood to properly burn a body.
“Weren’t hired to protect the dead,” Gate said in a whispered grumble. “Who cares what happens to corpses anyway? First the redlace, and now this…”
She yawned, trying hard to hold sleep at bay. The night grew cold. Gate’s thoughts turned to her cot in her tent, a sheepskin over her shoulders to keep the chill at bay. A tumbler of peat whisky to warm her bones. Another yawn. Her eyes closed as the mist poured across the moors, long fingers of fog wrapping around the camp and the collection of corpses.
Gate dreamt of her brother, healthy and hale before the redlace devoured his body.
She woke with a start, blinking suddenly, realizing she had fallen asleep. The darkness was severe, the mists coating the moor in every direction.
Before her, nestled in the swirling grey fog, a wagon sat beside the pile of corpses. A person was there, lifting a body from the pile and then placing it on the wagon’s bed. Barely visible in the mist, a gaunt horse stood before the wagon, waiting for their master’s call.
Gate blinked again, trying to push off the thick blanket of slumber. She tried, and failed, to move her arms.
Sorcery, she thought, feeling the effects of something cold and dark trying to ensnare her will. Her mouth was numb, her body slow.
The stranger dumped a second corpse onto their wagon. Gate stared, trying to see the corpse collector’s face. He was tall and thin. A scarecrow made flesh and bone. He poked through the pile once more, searching for the least rotted flesh. He pulled a third body from the pile and set it on the ground before retrieving an axe from his wagon. With one brutal swing, he severed the corpse’s leg. The limb he kept, setting on the wagon before carrying the body to the river’s edge and throwing it back in the water below.
Still, Gate struggled to rise, fighting off the sorcerous slumber.
The stranger gathered six more corpses, poking at the dead flesh, as if searching for a specific feature or size. An arm here, a leg there. Twice the stranger pulled off half rotted jaws from the corpses. The freshly butchered bodies were thrown back into the river, the stranger trying to hide his theft. When he was done, the stranger led the horse back into the mist, the wagon creaking behind.
The grey fog receded slightly as the stranger left, and only then could Gate gather the will to finally stand. She stumbled forward, shaking off the last of the sorcery that had put her under. Lysom stumbled out of the mist as well, the same bewildered look on his face.
“Sor’cry,” Gate answered, her lips still numb. “Sorcery… the damn collector… some kind of necromancer.”
The two guards took several moments to gather themselves, relieved that neither had gone mad. Lysom ran off to get Reben, to warn the rest of the camp, but came back alone.
“Can’t wake her up,” Lysom spat. “Everyone’s still asleep. Damned mists…”
“So we go alone?”
“If we want get paid, yeah.”
“Alright,” Gate said, adjusting the straps of her armour and the blade at her side. “Alone it is.”
“The stranger won’t know we’re followin’,” Lysom said. “Or that we’re even awake. We’ll catch him unprepared. When we do, act fast, before he casts a spell.”
Gate nodded, her face grim as she looked down, catching sight of the wagon tracks in the soft ground.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Ready,” Lysom said, crossbow in hand.
They followed the tracks out from the small camp by the swollen, corpse-filled river and into the eastern moor.
Gate felt her senses returning. The numbness retreated from her limbs, her stride growing longer as they pushed through the mists. The moons above fought to shine through the clouded sky, the stars above lost to the haze. Gate lost track of time, the swirling grey mists swallowing the moor, the river, and the camp behind them. The two guards stalked their prey in silence, Gate with her head down, eyes on the muddy tracks, Lysom watching the grey mist, crossbow held ready.
Neither knew how long it took, but eventually they came to a decrepit, wooden fence.
The posts were angled, twisted in the sodden ground, many of the boards torn away and useless. The tracks led through a wide gateway, the hinges worn and rusted, the door itself tied only by a thin piece of twine. Climbing the fence, Lysom and Gate easily entered the grounds of the stranger. The wagon tracks led up to an old farmhouse. The windows were shuttered, the porch sagging and covered with moss. A half-standing barn was off to one side, and it was here that the wagon tracks stopped.
“Inside the house,” Lysom whispered. “The bastard doesn’t know we’re here.”
The mists were thick. Cold. The hairs on Gate’s arm stood up. A shiver crept up her spine. Pulling her sword from its scabbard, the weight comfortable in her hand, she stepped towards the twisted farmhouse. Her boots sank slightly in the mud, a sucking noise accompanying every step.
Through a opening in the shuttered windows, Gate could see a group of people sitting around a table.
At first, she assumed a family sitting around the table preparing for some sort of ritual. Lysom gave her a questioning look, and the two continued forward. Stopping when they reached the house, Gate peered through the shutters. Closer now, she saw the scene was far more macabre than she thought. Seven people were in fact seated around a broad table, but all of them were dead. Rotting corpses in various stages of decomposition, tied to their chairs. Three adults and four children, they sat propped up in a twisted facsimile of life and family.
Turning away from the grisly scene, Gate looked to Lysom and motioned to the sagging porch and the front door.
In response, he shook his head and motioned to a side door. Nodding, Gate led the way to around the side of the farmhouse, the night silent around them. The mists snapped icy fingers at the two guards. The side door was unlocked and unguarded.
Gate gave the eerie landscape one last look before opening the door and stepping inside the stranger’s home.
The side entrance led through a large kitchen. A farmhouse kitchen, meant to prepare large meals for a big family. A table sat in the centre of the room, a severed, human leg left on a cutting board. Gate stared, realizing it had been dissected, the shinbone removed. At once, both guards were assaulted by the stench of death and decay, the putrid stink nearly overwhelming them. The smell was thick, the scent reminding Gate of the plague that had taken her brother. If not for the work of the last few days, Gate and Lysom slowly becoming accustomed to the stench of the dead, both guards would have fled back into the mist-covered night.
Lysom motioned with his crossbow, edging Gate through the kitchen and into the dinning room.
There, Gate got a better look at the grisly dinning table.
Seven people sat, a family about to enjoy a meal. Lifeless, one and all. Again, the stink threatened to force Gate running into the night, but she steeled her gut and stepped into the room. Here, she saw details missed from outside. Two seats were empty, though dried blood and bodily fluids stained the floor beneath the empty chairs. Gate made a mental note, turning again to point out the detail to Lysom.
The seven corpses themselves were not whole.
Limbs had been replaced. An arm. A leg. Stitches in the rotting, dead flesh showed were the bodies had been rebuilt. Muscles, limbs, flesh had been sewn together again and again, as if some ghastly artist was searching for the right combination for their twisted tableau. Parts of a chest. Dead skin stretched over a decaying torso. An ear sewn onto a rotting head. Two of the corpses were eyeless, while it looked as if three others had new eyes pulled out from fresher corpses.
“What is this?” Gate said, staring in horror. “These cuts… they’re surgical?”
“Look here,” Lysom whispered, pointing to a series of oil paintings hanging on the wall. In one painting a man and wife stood before two children. The man was a doctor of some sort. In another painting, the same man stood with two others. Gate suspected from the similar features they were brothers. She realized that one of these brothers, as well as the children, currently sat at the table. Parts of their bodies had been replaced, but the features were still recognizable.
“This was a family once?” Gate said. “This necromancer is using pieces of other corpses. Like he’s looking for the right combination…”
“What do you mean, combination?”
“Look, the cuts, the sewing… again and again. He keeps replacing rotting limbs, torso, organs…he’s looking for corpses that look like these people, the same size, in order to… preserve them?”
She stopped, noticing the red patterns on several of the corpses’ chests.
“Redlace,” she whispered. “These people… they died from the plague.”
Gate heard the sound of someone below. A groan echoing up from below. A saw, metal on bone, grating as it cut.
Both guards froze, eyes wide as they looked around the room.
Basement, Lysom mouthed.
Gate nodded slowly, turning silently to look for a doorway heading down. They found it quickly, though Gate could not help but keep an eye on the corpses at the table. Lysom approached the door that led down into the basement, pushing it completely open with his crossbow. Gate still led the way, blade in hand. Lysom walked behind, crossbow held ready over Gate’s shoulder. The stairs creaked under her weight. Gate winced with every step. One flight of stairs and Gate found herself standing on a dirt floor. The small room was coated in darkness, the yellow light of a lantern spilling through another open door.
Through this door, Gate caught sight of the stranger.
Two tables were arranged on either side of the necromancer. A woman’s corpse lay on each. One had been pulled from the river earlier that day. The other Gate recognized as the woman from the painting above. Gate saw the stranger’s face, lit by the lantern light, and realized he was the man from the painting. He was older now than he was in the painting, his cheeks far more gaunt, his eyes sunken, but it was him.
And the woman was his wife, she realized.
The stranger worked, sawing away at the stolen corpse, moments away from opening her chest cavity to remove an organ from within.
“Got him,” Lysom whispered, his crossbow lowered.
Gate took a breath, and suddenly remembered the painting of three brothers.
One of the three sat at the table upstairs. The second, the stranger was still alive and working. Where was the third? Two chairs empty. The wife was one… but where was the other?
“Wait,” Gate whispered, but it was too late.
A monstrous hand fell on Lysom’s shoulder.
The flesh and muscle of the hand was made up of at least three different sources.
The third brother, rebuilt and reanimated into a damned and twisted approximation of human life, lurched out from the darkness behind the two guards. The strength of the undead monstrosity was too much for Lysom to endure. Flesh burst and bone splintered. The monstrous brother easily crushed Lysom’s collarbone, the guard screaming in sudden agony.
Gate watched in horror as several things happened at once.
The necromancer, already turning to face the two guards, stepped away from his wife’s body. As he did, his undead brother released Lysom. The guard fell, his neck and shoulder a bloody ruin, his crossbow firing as he stumbled towards the open door. The bolt shot through the air, hitting not the stranger but the body of his wife.
The bolt hit the corpse’s temple, shattering her nose, cheeks, and eyes.
The stranger gave a wordless cry, the sound overwhelming Lysom’s dying screams.
He turned, the scalpel in his hand covered in congealed blood. Gate put herself between her friend and the necromancer, her sword striking at his hand and driving him back. Lysom gurgled a warning, blood pumping furiously from his crushed neck and shoulder, but it was too late. The undead brother grabbed Gate from behind, his hands like iron. She kicked as hard as she could, but for all her struggling she remained bound by the undead monstrosity. The stranger turned back to face his wife’s corpse. Her face was now a mangled and ruined mass of flesh and bone.
“You almost killed her,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “Everything else can be replaced, but not the brain…the brain needs to stay the same…”
“She’s already dead,” Gate managed, the iron grip of the undead brother tightening on her arms.
The stranger held his wife’s broken head, staring at the ruined mass.
“Her eyes were still hers. I had hoped she could keep her own eyes,” the stranger muttered. He looked up from the corpse, from Lysom’s body to Gate, still held by the undead brother. “They’re sick, all of them sick… but they’ll get better. My brother did. I made him better. And I’ll find enough parts to do the others too.”
“Soldiers will come,” Gate said. She looked down to see Lysom, unconscious and bleeding out on the floor. “Let me leave. Let me get help for my friend, and we’ll leave you alone.”
“They’re just bodies,” the stranger said, stepping towards Gate. He had regained some composure, his breathing deep, his eyes focused once more. “I didn’t think anyone would care. They’re not even your people.”
“You can’t hide here,” Gate said, feeling one arm loosen in the undead brother’s grip.
“Hide?” the stranger said. “I don’t care about guards or soldiers. I want revenge.”
“Revenge? At who? It was the plague that killed your family, not the Soeneshi.”
“Liar. Your disgusting customs brought the plague. You welcome disease into your lives. You turned away from medicine and science, fearing they belong to the dark arts.”
“Don’t they?” Gate asked, immediately regretting it. “You practice both. You’re a doctor, but you’re also something far worse, aren’t you?”
“Necromancy has always been a part of my family,” the stranger admitted, his sunken eyes narrowing on Gate’s face. He saw something then, a cold smile playing across his lips. “I resisted, for a time. I wanted to help people. We came here, my wife, my children, my brothers, to try and help the kingdom of Soeneshi, to pull you out from darkness. But you didn’t want help. None of you saw what I could have offered.”
Gate felt something give in the undead brother’s hold, and with a shout she pulled her sword arm free.
The stranger did not even flinch as he stepped back from Gate’s wild swing.
In response, the undead brother squeezed Gate’s other arm, shattering the bones in an eruption of blood and bone. Gate screamed and fell to her knees. Her left arm now ended just below her elbow, blood pouring from the ragged wound.
“Shh,” the stranger whispered. Nodding his head, he stepped forward, and scalpel in hand. “Shh. Everything is going to be fine. I don’t need your arms anyway. Your eyes, though, your eyes are the clearest blue. My wife had blue eyes. Yours will do quite nicely. And to think, all this time I’ve been using corpses.”