< Return to The Sliver Part 3
“What happened here?” Kait gasped.
Keirn walked over to the skeleton and picked up the key. He then turned and walked down the stairs, the others following behind. The key fit easily into the lock on the iron door but it took their combined might to push the rusted hinges open. With a hellish screech the door gave way, revealing the host of skeletal bodies within. They were all clearly human, laying atop metallic odds and ends.
Keirn cautiously entered, taking care to step around the bones as best he could. There were too many though, and the sickening crunch of cartilage filled the room. Kait reluctantly followed, but Calos refused to enter, standing and watching with horror filled eyes.
Kait noticed that numerous coins littered the ground, along with simple pieces of jewellery.
“I think many of these were women,” she said, aghast.
Keirn rummaged around the nightmarish scene for a bit, but abandoned the bodies and instead focussed on the walls. Ledges ran the length of the walls, and after running his hand across them he found they were covered in soot and charcoal. The stone walls were covered in black flakes as if they had been burnt.
“I think this is some sort of oven,” Keirn muttered.
“Then… these people were burned alive?!” Kait cried.
“I don’t think so. The bones aren’t blackened. I think they were just locked in here.”
Keirn didn’t answer. Instead, he cocked his head to the side, then pushed the piles of coal and bones aside. He manoeuvred his way to the corner, quizzically looking at some recess in the wall. He held his hand before the opening, feeling the wind blow gently against it. Puzzled, he crouched, peering up the hole.
“There’s something up here,” he muttered, reaching carelessly inside. His face screwed up in concentration before a look of triumph appeared. With a great heave he yanked his arm free. With a rush of soot a small skeleton tumbled out; the bones cracking against the cold stone.
Kait shrieked, jumping back.
Keirn crouched down again and looked up the hole.
“It seems this one was trying to crawl out,” Keirn muttered. “I think I see an opening. Barred, of course.”
“This is so disgusting,” Kait whispered. “Can we go?”
“Yeah, in just a second. We should collect the coins.”
“Ugh, are you serious?”
“They aren’t going to use them, but I suppose you could ask permission if you’d like.”
“You can get them,” Kait whispered. “I think I’m going to wait outside.”
She turned and quickly left the room, Calos following behind her. The two of them waited quietly for Keirn to finish his scavenging. Kait closed her eyes but, try as she might, she couldn’t forget that scene. Keirn emerged shortly after.
“We should keep looking for something flammable to build a fire,” Keirn muttered.
“I don’t know, what if there are more buildings like this,” Kait whispered.
“I doubt that,” Keirn muttered. “I don’t think the town’s big enough to fill up another.”
It took a few more hours before they turned up anything useful. The three of them searched together and Keirn usually inspected the buildings first to insure there weren’t any more “surprises” lying around. It wasn’t until the sun began to set that they finally found what they had been searching for. Nestled in the back of a large fireplace, Kait discovered that one of the stones was loose and pried it open to reveal a secret stash within. Though they discovered a small collection of silver jewellery, it was the wooden box and satin lining that were of greater interest to the party. Between the box and the hidden cask of wine they found in a stone cellar, they had enough wood to get a decent fire started.
It was in the inn that the three of them agreed to spend the night. Kait felt it was far enough away from ‘that place’ that she would be able to sleep soundly. Furthermore, there was a stone fireplace where they could build the fire. There was also a sense of propriety that Kait felt; it just seemed appropriate that they stay in the inn.
After much fussing with the tinder, Kait was able to get a gentle blaze going. The three of them gathered around the crackling fire. The sun had already begun to set, and with it its departure came the arrival of the cold night air. After a few minutes searching, Kait produced a small pot, some water and enough spices to make a broth for them to eat.
“I’m going to be really glad when we find a real village so we can get a decent meal,” Keirn grumbled.
“Yes, well, we’ve tried the fruits and meats but those don’t travel well, if you remember.”
“It’s good,” Calos said eagerly, digging into the broth.
“You know,” Kait said cheerfully, “that’s the most I’ve heard you ever say.”
“What do you mean, he’s said two words before,” Keirn corrected.
“No, he said ‘It is good.’”
“Technically, he said ‘it’s good.’ It’s is a contraction.”
“Well, yes,” Kait said frowning. “But he was communicating three words.”
“No. He communicated two.”
“He said three.”
“He said two.”
“Look, he meant to say ‘It is good.’ Why do you have to ruin this? It’s a cause for celebration, he’s speaking more.”
Keirn shook his head.
“Are you trying to suggest that contractions are three words? What about possession. If I say ‘Keirn’s spoon’ am I communicating three words or two?”
“Well… two I suppose,” Kait said.
“So why is the contraction different from the possession?”
“Well, the contraction is expression three ideas. It’s expressing that the soup is good.”
“That doesn’t follow at all,” Keirn said.
“Well, the possession expresses three ideas. It communicates: the subject, myself; the item, spoon; and the ownership, mine. I’m not saying the spoon is your’s or Calos’ or anybodies. I’m saying this spoon is mine.”
“Look, the important thing is he’s saying more. I don’t see why you have to ruin this.”
“Because he’s not saying more,” Keirn sighed. “He’s saying as much as he was before. When he says ‘It is good,’ I may feel the need to celebrate.”
“Fine then! Calos, can you please say ‘It is good.’”
Calos only shrugged.
“Boys,” Kait grumbled.
She wiped off her spoon and bowl, having learned before that washing dishes was often a waste of water. She packed her things away, then wrapped herself up with her blanket as she nestled down by the fire again.
“Is it still bothering you?” Kait asked.
Keirn looked up from his hand.
“I hadn’t even noticed I was rubbing it,” he replied. A look of concern crossed his face.
“Look, it’s probably not going to become infected. Just a few more days and I’m sure we’ll find someone who can remove it. I mean, it is just a sliver after all.”
“I know. It’s just that…”
“It’s nothing,” he said, retying the cloth around it. “I suppose we should figure out who’s going to take what watch before we all nod off.”
“What do you mean?”
Keirn nodded his head towards Calos. The young man, having just finished his broth, had curled up on the cold stone and fallen asleep with neither a pillow nor a blanket.
“Oh, dear. We need to get that poor boy a bedroll,” Kait said.
“I think he may like it better that way.”
“I’m serious. There’s something… peaceful about him when he sleeps. I don’t think he minds too much.”
“How can anyone enjoy falling asleep on hard stone or rough ground?”
“You could always ask him,” Keirn grinned.
“Thanks. Want me to take second?”
“No,” Keirn sighed. “I know how much you hate it. Besides, I can fall asleep easier than you can.”
“Alright,” Kait smiled. “Try not to sleep too well.”
It wasn’t that she was worried, there wasn’t anything out there that they really had to keep watch for. Mostly, they would have to insure the fire remained lit. Kait was just reluctant to fall asleep while her mind was still thinking about that room. All through her watch she kept glancing up at the door, half expecting a skeletal host to be standing there with eyes full of anger because the three of them had done nothing to save them.
Through the night she kept her bow and arrows by her side. But there was nothing in that small village. There was no howling of distant wolves, buzzing of insects or neighing of nearby horses. It was strange to spend a night in an inn and have nothing but the soft snores of her companions to listen to. She entertained herself by watching the hypnotic flickering of the fires, though while they danced before her she could feel sleep slowly sweeping over her.
It’s a terrible thing, trying to keep oneself awake when the body attempts every trick to make it rest. She recognized the first warning signs, the steady drop in her breathing and the drooping of the eyes. The cold seemed to penetrate her blanket, though it was really just her body beginning to shut down. She fought as best she could; snapping her head back every dip it took. She tried counting the number of times her chin touched her chest: 1… 2… 3…
It was the light tapping on her shoulder that brought her crashing back to consciousness. Keirn wordlessly pointed towards his discarded bedroll and she complacently complied. It was so much easier letting the night swallow her up once she was lying down, her head resting on a thin layer of crushed feathers.
She didn’t know what brought her out of that conscious less abyss. Her eyes seemed to be open long before she, herself, awoke. The first thing she noticed was that the fire had burned down to a dying smoulder, casting deep red shadows as the last few flames burned beneath vanishing embers. She immediately noticed the pile of firewood laying untouched near the untended flames and a part of her recognized the immediate signs of trouble.
She sat upright, looking around for her brother. She didn’t see anything at first, but she heard something. It was a ragged, almost ravished breathing that pulled her eyes to the dark corners of the common room. There, light by the hellish reflections off the stone walls was a dark form feverishly working with some nightmarish fervour.
“Keirn?” she whispered, but the form didn’t respond. She pulled the sheets slowly back, her mind shaking the shackles of sleep as best they could. Her eyes seemed driven by another consciousness as they pulled themselves from the form in the half-darkness to the puddles on the floor.
Blood gathered in tiny pools leading from the fire side to the corner. She reached for her weapon, her mind conjuring terrible images of carnage and cannibalism. Still heady with the draught of sleep, she shrilly called at the monster in the corner.
“What do you want?!”
Its face looked at her; a face framed in crimson frenzy.
“I have to get it out,” it grunted.
She noticed then, the sharp knife in its hands. Blood ran in small rivulets down its arm, staining the sleeve and dripping onto the floor. Back to its work it turned, hair matted by sweat and dirt hiding it from her.
“Keirn?” she whispered.
Something stirred near her and she took her eyes from the form just long enough to see Calos stirring. He wiped tired eyes with clenched fists before looking at the terror unfolding. Confusion gripped him as he lay motionless witnessing the scene unfold. Kait turned back to the individual, slowly peeling her blanket completely off and getting to her feet.
“Keirn… please stop,” she pleaded. The form continued its crazed cutting, a fresh squirt of blood shooting out and striking the cold wall. Kait felt her stomach flop.
She slowly approached, making sure to step around the small puddles on the floor, fearful of touching the scarlet drops. She didn’t want to startle him, fearful of what he may do and unsure of what she should do.
She reached out, finger tentatively pressing through the air. He continued to ignore her, continued his cutting and slicing. Shaking, she laid her hand on his wet shoulder; damp from perspiration. He stopped, turning to face her again. Her hand recoiled and they both froze, eyes locked between fear and madness.
He bolted, skirting along the walls away from her.
“Stop, please!” she called.
He made for the door, blood splattering against the floor.
Calos was on his feet, barring the exit and he swerved, ending near the fire. No one moved, all eyes watching each other. Minutes passed with the soft popping of the embers.
Seemingly satisfied that no one was moving, he returned to his hand.
Kait cried, running forward as he held the knife aloft, bringing it down with crazed certainty against the offending digit. He howled with pain as the blade cut through flesh and released a new spurt of blood against the floor. Amongst the dark drops clattered something more chitinous. With the foreign object removed, the weapon fell from his shaking hand, the iron clattering against the stone. He slumped against the stone wall with breaths coming in heavy bursts.
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