Ventus – Day 16 of 135

And now he was wealthy. Choltas, too, was from a fallen house, though he was too young to be bitter. Enneas had taken it upon himself to spare the youth the detours that had brought him to this point. Even now Choltas wasn’t sure he wanted to live this way, but Enneas kept at him. Tonight was an important test for the boy.

The wall was full of niches. They were not shallow and broad, as in most catacombs, but were deep holes into which a body could be inserted feet-first. The builders of this place had planned it to be used for many centuries, but their nation had been overrun sometime in the dim past. The city this tomb had served no longer existed, so it was seldom visited. The general’s army had been camped nearby, otherwise he would have been buried elsewhere. Good luck for the robbers, for although the heavy stone that covered the main entrance could not be moved by less than thirty men, there was another way in which Enneas knew about. It had been easy to convince Corres to come here–nearly impossible to convince Choltas.

“I don’t like this,” said Choltas. His round face bobbed palely in the lantern-light. He stared in frank terror at the bricked up niches Corres was passing his hands over.

“Quiet,” said Corres. “Look for new mortar.”

“The sooner we find him the quicker we can be out of here,” Enneas sensibly reminded the boy. He joined Corres at the wall. The floor around this whole area was scuffed. The burial party had come straight to this section of wall. No set of footsteps ventured into any of the other halls, unsurprisingly. The superstitious soldiers who’d put the general in here had wanted to get the job done as quickly as they could, and get out again. Enneas imagined they’d looked around themselves fearfully just as Choltas did now.

And his own pulse was racing. He wanted to leave–but each time he thought that, he remembered poverty and disappointment, and his feet remained planted right here.

“It’s none of these, they’re all old,” Corres complained. “And the letters make up other names, I think.”

“Yes.” The general had not been buried in any of the top or middle niches. Enneas lowered his own lantern and examined the row of low openings at floor level. Several were bricked over, and two of these fell in the center of the scuffed area. “It’s one of these.”

Choltas backed away. “We shouldn’t be doing this,” he said.

They both looked at him. Corres was unslinging the smith’s hammer he carried for this kind of work. “Getting traditional on us?” he asked.

“It’s–it’s wrong,” said Choltas. “There must be a better way to…”

“To live?” Enneas was annoyed. Choltas was shaking; this would not do. “You can be a beggar, Choltas, you can do that. Go on–leave us and take up your position on some rainy street. And every time a copper piece clinks into your cup, remember that for every one of those, a hundred gold sovereigns hang in the purse of a dead man, vaulted away underground where they’ll never buy any child a year of meals, least of all yours. And when they spit on you and call you useless, think how useless those sovereigns are. Now don’t be foolish. We have a job to do.” This was a rehearsed speech, but his delivery had real passion behind it, and it seemed to work. Choltas’ shoulders slumped.

Corres tapped against each niche. “The right one seems newer,” he said. “It’s hard to tell.”

“We’ll open it first, then try the other one,” said Enneas. Corres swung the hammer back, then glanced at Choltas. He stood and handed the hammer to the youth. “Go.”

Breathing raggedly, Choltas leaned over and swung the hammer with both hands. The hollow thuds it made didn’t echo, though all the stone around them should have promoted that effect. Enneas imagined the corpses in their bricked niches absorbing the sound, shifting a bit and settling with every blow. He glanced around uneasily.

One of the bricks dented inward, and on Choltas’ next blow it disappeared, leaving a black window. “Shit,” said Choltas as if he’d wanted the wall to stand firm.

“Good.” Corres knelt and, putting his hands in the aperture, pulled. The bricks around the opening twisted out, then fell with a clatter. Choltas dropped the hammer.

Enneas’ own fear reached its peak. This was always the hardest part for him–facing the body. He knew what to do from long experience, however: use his anger to deride the fear, make fun of it and thus extinguish it completely.

“Allow me,” he said. Corres grunted and stood up, dusting his hands fastidiously. Deliberately, Enneas didn’t shine his lamp into the opened niche. He knelt, and stuck his arm into it.

There was no real odor coming from this niche. It couldn’t be the general’s, then. Oh well, it might still have some valuables in it. Enneas kept a casual smile fixed on his face as he groped around. His heart nearly stopped as his hand fell on a rounded surface covered with lank hair.

Might as well have some fun. “Here he is,” he said. He got a good grip on the hair and pulled. The skull came away with a brittle pop. He stood up and thrust the skull at Choltas, not looking at it himself. “Meet general Armiger,” he said.

The other floor-level niche exploded outward.

Corres was standing right in front of it. For a moment he looked down in bewilderment at the brick dust covering his boots. Then his eyes widened impossibly, and his head ratcheted over a bit, down a bit, until he stared at the black opening that had appeared by his feet.

A black hand snapped out into the lamplight. It grabbed the edge of a brick and shoved it into the corridor.

Choltas began to scream. Enneas stepped back, raising the skull to his chest as a feeble shield. He wasn’t really thinking, and later he couldn’t remember fear. But he remembered Choltas screaming. And he would always remember Corres standing helplessly, watching coal-black, half-dried arms widen the opening they had made, and then clasp its sides to drag a foul-smelling, lolling thing onto the floor at his feet.

One of the black hands touched Corres’ boot, and he finally moved, stepping away quickly. “Hammer,” he said, but Enneas barely heard him over Choltas’ screams.

The general stood up. His dress jacket was open, and showed his split torso; there were no organs inside, only darkness. His eyes had dried half open. He swayed unsteadily, like a puppet held aloft without the use of its legs. His right arm swung out widely, then came back to paw at his throat. The fingers closed around a metal bar there, and pulled.

Corres had found the hammer. He stepped forward, shouting the name of a Wind Enneas had never heard him espouse, and swung. The hammer caved in Armiger’s split chest, banging him against the stone wall. The general’s head rolled around helplessly.

He made no sound as he stepped forward. His hand moved down, drawing a long T-handled spike out of his jaw. Now his mouth gaped open, but still he made no sound.

In the lamplight Enneas saw the black burns that covered his head and arms, and pale white flesh like ivory elsewhere. The image was burned into his memory in the instant Armiger stood with the spike in his hand, then the general moved, almost too quickly to follow.

He stepped up to Corres, and his arm came up and drove the spike into the hollow at the base of Corres’s throat. Corres’ eyes bulged, and his lips writhed back. No sound came, only blood.

Armiger took another step, his arm rigid before him, and the force carried him and Corres outside of the circle of lantern light.

Choltas stopped screaming, and ran. The wrong way. And that was too much for Enneas, who also ran. He banged into the stone jamb of the door to the hall, and swung himself around it to stagger in total darkness toward their entrance shaft. Anything could be waiting ahead, but he knew what was waiting behind. He heard Choltas start screaming again.

He tripped over a loose stone and fell, banging his chin and twisting his arm. Pain lanced up his neck. He stood anyway and lurched into the opening he knew was there. He expected fingers to encircle his ankle as he grabbed for each hand-hold in the rough stone shaft.

Enneas pulled himself out of a pit into starlight on the top of the hill. He ignored his sacks and supplies, and ran until he tripped and rolled over and over down the slope. He came to rest at the bottom, not badly hurt but bruised and shaken. When he stood up, he continued on at a limp, eyes fixed on the horizon where dawn was hours away.

And though the fear didn’t go away, as the hours passed, Enneas began to feel again all the anger of injustice and betrayal he thought he’d overcome years ago. When he wept it was from frustration, at the end of the only chapter of his life that had been in any way successful.

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