Awakenings

Awakenings

A flicker? A trembling flame aquiver 'neath the heavy cloak of endless sleep? A light. A distant memory carried on a fading echo. I will make you a light for . . . ? The memory died. ~For what?~ The voice, weak from disuse, chipped away at the darkness. ~For what?~ The question resounded without answer, taunting the speaker with its empty repetitions. But the light grew stronger, or the darkness weaker, and images began to take shape. Shadows at first, pale reflections of truth, flitted first past long-closed eyes before other, more substantial, shapes took their place.

Cold. It was still cold, so very cold . . . a gnawing chill borne of centuries spent beneath the cold, damp earth . . . a chill that now sparked life? Or something else? The debate was too advanced for its subject, too far beyond the immediate concern of escape, and the need to reach the light.

Escape came first . . . a heady feeling of floating, free from long worn bonds. The light came later, and with it came disappointment. It was only a single flame alit in a crooked street torch, providing scant light for those who passed without concern beneath its height. It contained no message, no revelation, no long-hoped for promise; and its very flame threatened to fade as the wind whipped past it, pushing into its base and receiving a rusty groan of protest in response.

The awakened sleeper sighed, or rather, tried to sigh, but neither air nor sound escaped its form. Another surprise, another disappointment. This wasn't right. None of it was right. The sleeper wasn't supposed to be here, and though it wasn't certain where "here" was, the aching sense of dread that draped about it bespoke an unmistakable wrongness to the place.

The street torch above lit a small circle of cobblestone about the sleeper, beyond which lay only night. The darkness held no terror, however; having been the sleeper's only companion for . . . how long was it? The sleeper puzzled the answer as it drifted from the torch's reach, floating briefly in the darkness before passing beneath the amber glow of another torch. It followed this pattern of light and dark for a small eternity, pausing now and again to hover before a random structure or person that happened to be in its path. None saw it; none heard it; none sensed it. Alone and silent, it continued through the shadowy streets, trying to determine where, what, and why it was.

Wraithshade

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.
Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?

Edgar Allan Poe
"The Premature Burial" (1850)


The sleeper knew now what it was, or what it thought it was. Specter, shade, haunt, spirit, phantom, wraith . . . there were countless words, but one subsumed them all, echoing with deafening clarity in the mind of its host--ghost. The sleeper tried to laugh, but again no sound left its vaporous form as it floated aimlessly through the city it now recognized as Stormpoint. Odd that one who had never believed in ghosts should now be among their number, and stranger still to find itself in Stormpoint--a lonesome city some indeterminate distance from the place it had known as home, or thought it had known. There was no certainty. There was only surmise and conjecture--vague shadows of thought that drifted without direction or goal, much as the thinker.

So many buildings, closed and dark, floated past the shade--or was it the other way around? It really couldn't tell anymore. A library, a clinic, a curiosity shop, several taverns and inns, a castle, a peculiar establishment called The Raven, and even a French quarter and a gypsy camp. New. They were all new and strange. Only one building bore any familiarity, and the wanderer couldn't tell whether it was building itself or what it represented that sparked the sensation. Confused, it stood, or rather hovered, by the steps of the Cathedral for few minutes . . . or perhaps hours . . . afraid to enter.

Day came and went, and still the spirit wavered in indecision before the old church. As night fell again, it resigned to leave the steps and began to wander about the hallowed grounds in silent contemplation. It stopped when it came across the cemetery--a mist-filled plot abutting the church and housing the deceased of the city. The wanderer gave a nonexistent sigh as it passed through the gate that enclosed the graveyard, thinking that the modest necropolis should offer some form of comfort to one of its like. It didn't. It was cold and empty, and it filled the wakened sleeper with a dreadful jealousy that sickened it even further. Beneath every stone, every sepulcher, lay one like the sleeper. Perhaps a part of them had left their tombs, finding the paradise promised by their faith. The sleeper thought so, and hoped so. But even if they lay asleep within the cold, dark earth, the sleeper was, for now, bitterly envious of their fortune. If it could, it might have wept great tears of sorrow, confusion, and emptiness; but, contrary to the myths and fables told by the light of a crackling campfire, it couldn't even moan. It could only watch and listen--a silent witness to a time long past.

Alone and doubly insubstantial, it drifted somberly over the headstones, pausing to read them as it passed. They were largely unfamiliar, and the sleeper was shocked anew by the inscriptions they bore. So many years had passed, so many centuries. Small wonder that the city was so changed from when the sleeper had cast real eyes upon its streets. The spirit continued its morbid journey until it stumbled across a stone that bore what it thought to be a familiar name. It couldn't be certain. Time had long ago worn away much of the inscription, and the dates were no longer visible. Still, it gave the sleeper some small sense of company, grim though it be, and it settled over the ancient grave to consider the questions that still remained.

Wraithshade

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.
Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?

Edgar Allan Poe
"The Premature Burial" (1850)


The sleeper awoke to the sound of laughter. It hadn't actually been asleep, or at least it thought it hadn't, but it couldn't find another name to adequately describe the state that had gripped it for the past several hours. Sleep seemed to be as good a name as any, especially as the wraith disliked the thought that it might have been simple self-pity that held it fast throughout the long, bitter night. But it was light now, and rising in its vaporous form from atop the ancient grave, the shade followed the sound, drifting through headstones and other markers before passing through the wall that bounded the timeworn cemetery.

It was midday, the sleeper guessed, and the laughter that had broken through its rest belonged to a group of children scurrying down the steps of a small school house. They were bundled in a variety of capes, coats, and other heavy outerwear, suggesting, along with the bare trees that reached their skeletal fingers towards the grey-skied heavens, that winter had come at last to the city of Stormpoint. The sleeper, however, couldn't feel the cold of the season, eclipsed as it was by another, deeper chill; and it followed the children for a while, in the hope that their laughter might kindle a bit of warmth within its ethereal form. It was only a brief folly; and the wraith soon fell away from them. Somehow it didn't seem right for death to be hovering a scant arm's length from the innocent, and the wraith sank slowly towards the ground as it watched the children scamper away towards their separate homes and families.

It might have sat there for hours, feeling sorry for itself, if the calling hadn't begun. The specter wasn't sure where it was coming from, or even what it was. It wasn't a voice; that much it could tell. It was more of a promise, a need, a distant memory that tugged at the faint essence of the sulking wraith with a want too strong to ignore. Transfixed, the sleeper rose in a near automatic response and began drifting in the direction of the call before it even realized it had moved. The sensation was at once both disturbing and vaguely familiar, and the wraith was determined to discover what it was. It therefore floated on through the city, passing several strange buildings full of people who hardly seemed to notice each other, let alone a solitary shade, and followed the call until it found itself outside a quaint establishment labeled, The Kuriosity Shoppe.

Chimes rang out in delicate song as the sleeper crossed the threshold of the store, and the wraith stopped in its metaphorical tracks. It had passed through the door of the shop, as it had passed through all doors, walls, and other solid objects with which it had come into "contact." The chimes should be no different, or so it seemed to the sleeper; yet they wavered and danced as if caught in gentle breeze, and their soft timbre reminded the sleeper of the childrens' laughter. It was an appealing sound, despite its inexplicable nature which the wraith tried to guess. It finally decided that a draft it couldn't feel had set the chimes in motion, and it turned its attention away from the softly swaying tubes to the rest of the little shop.

The wraith's vision, if it could be called that, blurred in momentary confusion as it scanned the sprawling flooroom. The store had appeared quite modest from the outside, but now that the specter hovered within the building, it seemed much, much larger. Another curiosity, this one less pleasant than the prior, but equally inexplicable. 'A trick of the light,' the sleeper told itself after some consideration. Yes, that was it. A simple trick of the light. The shade's senses were still weak from the long years of sleep, and easily susceptible to such confusions.

Almost satisfied, it floated about the shop, trying to put itself at ease with its rationalization while it searched for the source of the calling. It drifted past a display of tapestries with disinterest. It wasn't there. A case which housed an assortment of jewelry received a similar response, as did several shelves lined with of books of all colors and sizes. Not there, and it seemed to be fading. The sleeper continued to search with greater fervor, passing through shelves, cases, and cabinets as it went. Nothing. Not a sound. It was as if the calling had never been, and the sleeper turned about in place, trying, straining to hear it once again. Only silence rang through the empty shop, and the wraith stewed in frustration. It was about to give up and amble back to the grim comfort of the cemetery when the calling started again, stronger and more specific. It was coming from a large wooden cabinet standing against the far wall of the shop. The specter drifted towards it in trancelike anticipation. The calling grew more urgent as the sleeper approached, and it sped the wraith onward with the blind and reckless desire of a moth to flame. Faster than thought it flew towards the calling, lost in the promise of the sound until the frenzied delirium burst with a solid if not auditory, "thunk" as the wraith collided with the dark cherry door of the cabinet.

The sleeper approximated a huff of consternation and tried again to pass. Another "thunk" resulted as the wraith bounced from the cabinet door a second time. Again and again it tried, but no matter the direction from which it attempted to enter, the way was always barred. The cabinet was more than it appeared, that much was certain, and it presented a more formidable barrier than the many walls and doors the wraith had encountered during its rambles throughout the city. Clearly vexed, the shade began to grow angry, a new emotion, or at least new to its awakening, and one it found strangely unpleasant. Something unseen, something important called to it from the other side of the plain wooden door, and the sleeper wanted desperately to pass, to wrap its vaporous form about the source of the calling, and hopefully find some clue to its past and its presence. It had to enter the cabinet. It had to find the source. It had to know the answer.

Wraithshade

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.
Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?

Edgar Allan Poe
"The Premature Burial" (1850)


Eowyn heard the chimes ring even from the tiny backroom of the shoppe, and looked up from her ledger. The corners of her mouth crinkled downward in mild irritation. Another visitor. She should be pleased, she knew, and set aside the paperwork which lay strewn across an old maple desk to attend to the needs of her customer. She should be, but she wasn't. Instead she thought hard on ignoring the sound of the chimes, increasingly familiar as of the past few weeks, and turning back to the ledger and loose sheets of parchment that bore hastily scratched notes of recent transactions. There were so many of them, and so little time now.

The past month had been a busy one, for reasons she didn't entirely understand. She'd heard mention of a holiday--or a holy day--and had noticed increased attendance at the church. It had piqued her curiosity and she'd thought to investigate, but she hadn't, staying instead behind her counter, or above her shoppe, or within the shadows. She would ask later, perhaps, if there was time--if she ever finished deciphering the receipts before her. Looking down at them again, she gave a brief sigh and pressed her hand to her temple in what had grown to be a repetitive movement as of late, belatedly hoping that her fingers were free of ink. Thankfully, they were. She shouldn't complain. The increased business had left her with the resources to quietly acquire two other shoppes she'd had designs on, and set a few things in motion within them.

She had decided to ignore the chimes and had thus resumed her task of sifting through the receipts in the hopes of finding one that was legible, when she was taken by a sudden chill. The windows were sealed tight, and no breeze had rustled the crinkled parchment sheets, but she'd felt it all the same. Her frustration vanished and was quickly replaced by the familiar, yet irksome, sensation that overcame her from time to time. Stone still, her fingers loosened their grip about the black quill pen, allowing it fall back into the inkwell. A few drops of ink spattered out of the etched silver well and onto the desk as the pen tip plunked into the liquid. They spread slowly, creating a small and random design similar to several other stains that dotted the surface of the desk. Eowyn, however, didn't notice them, for her attention was gone from the backroom where she sat, and was focused now on the main floor of the shoppe. Pushing her chair back from the desk with a small scraping sound, she rose to join it.

A single hand parted the curtain that separated the backroom from the remainder of the store while the other moved to tame the stray bits of hair that had fallen from a wound leather band at the base of her neck. The bird, perhaps unnerved by the visitor, flew to her shoulder, and she clicked distractedly to it as she passed several shelves and cases that lined the floor of the shoppe. A gentle rustle of feathers suggested that the bird was at least partially appeased by its mistress' reassurance, and it sat quietly on Eowyn's shoulder, adding its own eyes to her search.

Eowyn walked the full length of the floor without catching sight of her visitor, stopping when she climbed the two steps that led up to the shoppe's front entrance. A single dark brow rose questioningly above an equally dark eye as she pivoted and surveyed the shoppe again from her new vantage point. She still saw nothing, and she was certain that the chimes had sounded only once. Had it not been for the gnawing sensation that still gripped her, she would have thought that her visitor had simply glanced into the shoppe from the walk, choosing not to enter after a brief scan of the interior. But the feeling was still present, and she therefore surmised that her guest was as well. She wrenched her mouth to one side in an expression that conveyed either intrigue or frustration, or perhaps both. She really didn't have time for this, but the pestering sensation had grown to a point that it could no longer be ignored.

Following a quick sigh and a brief flicker of indecision, Eowyn turned back to the front entrance and flipped the simple wooden sign that sat in the main window, signifying to all who could read that the shoppe was closed. A quick turn of the lock provided the same announcement to all who couldn't. Having thus ensured no further interruptions, Eowyn resumed her search for the present one.

When her second walk through the shoppe failed to reveal her guest, the prior mixture of intrigue and frustration began to tip heavily in favor of the latter. She was about to do something she preferred to avoid when she passed by the cherry cabinet sitting resolutely against the back wall, and noticed the subtle change in temperature. It was colder there--nothing greatly perceptible, but colder nonetheless. Her eyes narrowed and she turned in place, searching now with more than her workaday vision, certain that someone, or perhaps something, was nearby. The bird sensed it too, and a ruffling of feathers was accompanied by an uneasy caw. Almost without thinking, she reached a hand up to soothe it, at the same time reaching out with other senses to search again for her visitor.

As she searched, she asked herself with idle self-mockery why it was that things of this sort always happened in her shoppe, as opposed to the myriad others that dotted the walk. Her mouth twitched in silent amusement as the question sounded in her mind. She knew part of the answer, but it was the other part that always plagued her. Before the ever-asked query could grow to its usual all-consuming proportions, however, she pushed it aside and turned back to the matter of her visitor. She'd had enough of this preternatural game of hide and seek. Squaring her shoulders and looking hard at nothing in particular, she spoke in clear words to her invisible guest. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

Eowyn

Away with him who heeds the morrow!
Death, plucking the ear, cries: "Live; I come!"

Virgil, Copa 1. 37


The wraith started when it saw the shopkeeper step from behind the curtain and into the main area of the shop. She'd heard the chimes, the sleeper guessed, and come to investigate, expecting to find a customer wandering in mute fascination through the endless aisles that lined the shop, sorting through books, jewelry, weapons, music boxes, and other increasingly unlikely items. The wraith didn't follow her, but hovered where it was, watching her as she searched the store. She was fluid, graceful, and utterly silent in her movement. The sleeper imagined her to be kind, for no other reason than that it wished her to be so, and it rolled about in place as it tried to think of a way to communicate with her. Surely, if it could, she would open the cabinet and let it glance within.

It never occurred the sleeper that it might frighten the woman. The calling was too strong to allow for such thinking. It had grown stronger as soon as the woman had entered the main area of the store, and it gave the shade a faint glimmer of hope that the woman might open the cabinet of her own accord. The sleeper was about to approach her, though it was still unsure of what it would do, when she turned about by the front entrance, allowing the sleeper to see her fully for the first time.

The wraith didn't breathe, existing as it did simply as an imperceptible cloud of half-memories and vague senses, but when it saw the woman's face, the shade felt as if its breath had caught suddenly in its throat. Unseen hands seemed to wrap about its neck and threatened to choke out whatever tiny amount of life was left to it as it continued to stare. It knew her instantly, or at least what she was, and if it had eyes, they would have burned in enmity.

Somewhere in a long distant and more than half-forgotten past, the sleeper recalled its youth and stories from its homeland. Some of them told of creatures like the woman, of elves and their kith, of the dark creatures of the wood. The elves were of the fey, the stories told. They were impish at best, and evil at worst. They were never to be trusted. The wraith couldn't remember anything more, and it began to rumble silently as it glared at the woman. It would wait until she left, it decided, and then try again to enter the cabinet. Perhaps at night. Things were different at night, or so they seemed to the sleeper, and it thought might have a better chance of breaking through the barriers the elf had no doubt erected. Bitter, yet decided, the wraith looked about for a place to settle itself until nightfall. It didn't want to leave the shop for fear that the woman would work some new weave that would prevent it from reentering. No, it would wait. Maybe by the rack of tapestries against the east wall, or by the strange little case in the back corner, or . . . .

The shade reeled in pain. The calling had risen precipitously, accompanied now by a searing flash of white that blinded the specter and held it frozen in place. It faded as suddenly as it had appeared, and when the wraith's vision cleared, the creature nearly fled in panic. The woman stood but and handspace away, in the center of the faded light. Her eyes were cold and dark against her fair skin, and the wraith could feel her gaze. She was searching. She was searching for the wraith. It would have gone then, if it could. Where? It didn't know. It didn't care. It needed only to escape the feel of her eyes as they bore into its thinning vapors. But it was held by her stare and by the calling, which had now grown almost deafening.

"Who are you, and what do you want?"

The words cut through the specter's mind like a jagged knife, and it winced in pain. Who was it? The question had burned through the wraith's essence since it first became aware of its new and strange existence, and the woman's voice only intensified the torment. Who was it? Why didn't the woman know? Her kind were supposed to have abilities, weren't they, tied to the darkness as they were. The sleeper screamed silently in response, caught between her gaze and the calling, between the need to flee and the need to stay. It cursed its plight. It cursed the calling. But most of all, it cursed the woman and her stare, reminded now with mind-numbing clarity of the stories regarding her kind.

Alone and distanced from the passing centuries, the sleeper had no way of knowing that most of the myths it recalled had long since been dispelled, and that while the elves were still regarded with suspicion, such sentiment stemmed more from their aloofness than any real belief that they were evil in nature. No, the wraith had only its half-formed memories to guide it, that, and the all too real pain that wracked its ethereal form.

"Who are you, and what do you want?"

Had she asked again, or was the question still echoing in the sleeper's mind? The shade wasn't sure. The calling had grown stronger still, eclipsing the woman's gaze, and the wraith now thought that perhaps it, rather than her, was the source of the pain. What did it want? It wanted to get inside the cabinet. It had to get inside the cabinet. In its pained delirium it was the sleeper's only hope to find the source of the calling and silence it before it drove the specter mad. What do you want? The words echoed again. Please, the speaker cried with a need it had never known.

Near crazed with confusion and need, the wraith flung itself again and again at the accursed cabinet, as if by sheer determination it could pass the invisible force that had barred it before. But nothing had changed. As before, the sleeper couldn't pass. It only bounced off the cabinet door, unable to reach the calling that now overwhelmed it. In its despair, it looked again to the elfin woman, willing now to see even her as an ally if she could help. Desperate beyond its understanding, the wraith floated towards her, hovered above her for a fraction of a thought, then descended.

Wraithshade

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.
Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?

Edgar Allan Poe
"The Premature Burial" (1850)


Eowyn hated communicating with spirits, especially when she didn't initiate the contact. It was bleak, unsettling, and exhausting. It was also cold--a gnawing, bone-chilling cold that lingered even after the contact was broken, sometimes for days; and as she felt the chillsome touch of the wraith settle about her, Eowyn fought against the desire to break free. Perched atop her shoulder, the bird felt the wraith's presence as well, and it screeched in anger as the spectre fell upon them. It took comfort from its mistress' strength, however, and stayed steadfast with her through the wraith's descension.

Time seemed to freeze beneath the veil of the shade, and the improbable shopkeeper might have spent seconds, or minutes, or even hours lost within the darkness of the spectre's cold embrace. She couldn't tell. She could only wait, straining more than simply her ears as she waited for any sound of the wraith, for any message it sought to impart. It never came. There was only silence, crisp and bracing.

The wraith wasn't what she had expected. It was old, even by her standards, and so faint that it was nearly imperceptible--more a distant memory, a hazy reflection of a long forgotten life than a true presence. A quiet pulse, weak yet discernible, beat within it, but there was no way of telling for certain if it would grow stronger or weaker. Within its formless hold, Eowyn guessed that it was barely aware of what, let alone who, it was, and she felt a sudden empathy for it, knowing that it was alone, empty, and pitifully confused.

She could only guess what it wanted, but her guess was an educated one, and a slight tingle at her wrist strengthened her belief that she was correct. Shaking her head at the irony of the situation, she withdrew the key to the cabinet from her sleeve and unlocked the cherry door. It opened silently, despite its apparent age, and a thankfully warm breeze rushed out from its deep interior, stirring a few loose stands of the shopkeeper's hair which had again slipped from their place, and giving the woman a brief respite from the chill touch of the wraith.

The cabinet had been empty when Eowyn sealed it last, but she wasn't surprised to find that it now housed a modest selection of items. It wasn't that the cabinet held any great mystery in and of itself, but it was hers, and like all things that were hers, it had a habit of behaving in a peculiar manner. Over the years, she had formed, tested, and discarded several theories as to why. One rose above the rest, but she didn't find it particularly satisfying or comforting and had no desire to reconsider it at present. Instead, she simply surveyed the contents of cabinet with a silent and idle curiosity that only half appeared on her features, making a mental note of each item. When she was finished, she pocketed the key to the cabinet and folded her arms across her chest before speaking in tone more sympathetic than usual, "Take what you want and leave, I can help you no further now."

Eowyn

Away with him who heeds the morrow!
Death, plucking the ear, cries: "Live; I come!"

Virgil, Copa 1. 37


Open. The cabinet was open! Shocked, elated, breathless, the wraith was nearly paralyzed with the sudden influx of senses it didn't understand. Slowly, very slowly, the sleeper left the woman and drifted towards the cabinet with a tingling, silvery anticipation. The calling was softer now, quieter, as if the urgency had dissipated along with the barrier. It was only a gentle song now, soft and inviting, and a warm glow emanated from the cabinet as the specter approached and floated up and into it.

Inside, a handful of items rested in strangely pristine condition on a set of interior shelves: an ivory broach, intricately carved in the shape of swan; a hinged box, crafted of silver and inlaid with onyx; a sword with a blade of gold and a hilt of scarlet; a cloak of soft grey; a panflute wrapped with strands of flax; two tallow candles; a dark and cruel-edged dagger; and a small leather book. The sleeper knew, no . . . it was more than just knowledge . . . it was a strong and sure pull on its essence that told it that one of these articles was the source of the calling, lying now within its sight and grasp. Entranced and breathless, the wraith reached out to them, hovering over each as a cloud of silent wonder.

It settled over the box first, sifting over it and through the lid. Nothing. It tried the book next, surprised to find that it could seep through the pages without lifting the cover. It was old and dusty and written in a language the sleeper didn't know, and though it held many secrets, it wasn't for the sleeper. The wraith moved next to the cloak. The fabric was well-crafted, unlike anything the sleeper had ever seen, and it was fastened with a leaf-shaped broach that seemed to fluctuate in shade. It was a fine garment, and more than it appeared, but it wasn't the source of the calling. Sighing, the shade moved on to the sword, and froze. The instant it settled on the long, shimmering blade the wraith felt a surge of strength pulsing through its hazy form. It also felt a sense of peace, of right; and though it knew nothing more about itself, it felt more complete, as if a lost part of itself had now been found, and it warmed with the feeling.

It spent endless moments basking in the warmth of familiarity, savoring the tiny comfort the blade provided, blind to all else and sighing with its whole being. It didn't know how, but it knew that it had to take the sword. The elvin woman had given her permission, but even if she hadn't, the wraith would have taken it all the same. It had no choice. The sword belonged to it, and it to the sword, and having found one missing piece of itself and its past, it couldn't let it go. Determined, it wrapped itself tighter about the blade and tried to rise. It expected it to be difficult, that the weight of the sword would prove too much, but it rose easily, too easily, and it looked about in terror-filled confusion as it realized that the sword was no longer there.

It started to scream in silent agony, believing itself to have been torn, rifted from the one shred of identity it had found since its climb from the cold dampness of the grave. When the initial seconds of shock faded, however, it realized that the sword wasn't gone. The sleeper couldn't see it, but it was there, somehow, deep within the wisps of memory and thought that formed the wraith. It was a part of the shade now, Literally as well as figuratively, and the shade unwound its stricken mists in full wash of relief. It left the cabinet, lighter in heart, and prepared to leave the strange shop and its stranger keeper behind. It paused before her, however, still suspicious, but grateful now and willing to reconsider its half-remembered beliefs. Perhaps she was different from others of her kind, or perhaps things had changed in the centuries that had flown by during the spirit's dark slumber. Regardless of the reason, the sleeper felt that it may have misjudged her, and it was sorry for its reaction. It tried to thank her, and vowed that it one day would. But for now, it could only offer a silent thought of gratitude before it wavered off through the shop door and floated, almost cheerfully, back to the graveyard.

Wraithshade

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.
Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?

Edgar Allan Poe
"The Premature Burial" (1850)


Saro padded out the rectory's back entrance, pulling the door shut behind her softly and slowly. She had been suffering from another bout of sleeplessness (Perhaps too much coffee too soon before bed?), and the requisite several hours of tossing and turning had won her nothing more than hopelessly dissarranged sheets. Her mind, too, was in disorder. A few hours of staring into the dark give one far too much time for thinking, and for remembering... Cambridge, her parents, her last, disasterous paper...but above all Jack, smiling or laughing or handing her divorce papers. It was this last, most of all, that she fled; she hadn't thought overmuch on it, recently, but insomnia is a clever, creeping thing. Finally she conceded defeat, and got up to wander for a little while.

She had thought simply to pace her room for a while, to work out her restlessness, then settle down to puzzle over her notes. That should keep her mind occupied until sleep or dawn, whichever came first....but, she never made it past the first few minutes. Pacing only increased her restiveness, with each step winding her thoughts tighter and tighter, spiralling in on themselves 'til she had to leave, to do something- anything. If she went to the Library she'd have to admit she was awake, and get dressed accordingly, and so she decided instead to wrap her slight form with a robe and take a lantern out to the Cathedral's rear exit. The cemetary lay out there, mist and mystery tightly shrouded about the paths and crumbling headstones. It was a good place for brooding, she thought; but it was also a good place for reflection and solitude. Hopefully it was good for distraction as well, for she was desperate to leave her thoughts, tangled in bedclothes, behind her.

Saro took a deep breath, inhaling air redolent with age and silence and rich, dew-covered earth. She smiled slightly- when she was young, she'd heard an old superstition about graveyards, and for months after had held her breath whenever, riding in the backseat of her parents' car, she'd passed by one. She'd grown out of the habit eventually, realizing in a small child's way that her soul clung to her a bit too tenaciously to go flitting off at the sight of a headstone, but she still remembered it wryly. Another breath; the air smelled of life as well as death; of small green growing things and of dirt; and not at all of soul-sucking terrors.

Its appearance was similarly benign: lichen-furred headstones stood in a green lawn, grass blades interspersed with tiny, ground-hugging flowers; ranunculus, bluets, speedwells. The pale halo of light cast by her lantern leeched most of the colour from the scene, but she'd seen it before, and her imagination provided vivid colour to the many shades of grey. The listing stones were scattered in uneven, meandering rows, tottering drunkenly into the darkness with ever-lengthening cloaks of shadow draped over their shoulders.

She knelt beside one, a large, rounded rectangle of blue-grey slate speckled with green curling lichens; and bent in front of it, placing her pantern carefully on the ground, to read the inscription.

"Here lyes the body
of Capt. Jack Tellman,
Aged 49 years.
Lived by the Sea &
Died by the sea.
We commend his soule to God."


Saro sat back on her heels, brushing back the hair that had fallen acrost her face as she leaned to make out the age-shallowed inscription. The Tellmans were a seafaring family; she knew from incidental references in her research. She wasn't familiar with this particular one, Captain Jack, but apparently his fate hadn't deterred his descendants from following in his foosteps. She stood slowly, retrieving her light, and meandered carefully between the stones until she caught a glimpse of what looked like verse at the base of one, a tall, narrow thing, with carven, stylized willows weeping atop the inscription. She knelt again and brought the flickering light closer, reaching out a pale hand to brush grass away from the base. It was indeed verse, and she whispered aloud as she read, stumbling slightly over a few indistinct or creatively-spelled words.

"The lonely grave where pity lays her head,
The mound where sorrow sighs for honoured dead,
The earth where ends a world of earthly strife,
To learn to die is but to learn to live." *


She checked the name: Adryan Kolbe, aged 17 years. Aside from the verse and the carved ornament atop the stone, there was nothing else. "To learn to die is but to learn to live..." Fitting, isn't it? This Adryan, whoever he- or she- was, didn't have too much time to "learn to live"...I hope he made the most of it. She rose slowly, and walked off to continue her investigation of the churchyard. As she moved away, limned by the glow of the light she carried, she cast a long, pensive look through the darkness at Adryan's marker.

Saro Wentworth, PhD.

"All late readers know this sinking feeling of falling into the liquid of sleep
and then rising again to the call of a voice that you are holding in your hands..."

~Billy Collins

"To learn to die is but to learn to live...."
* adapted from an inscription on a Boston, MA headstone.


The wraith heard the visitor before it saw her--heard her footsteps as they treaded through the fog-sodden ground of the cemetery. She carried a swaying beacon of light before her that danced and skittered atop the headstones, heralding her approach. Her steps were largely steady, pausing now and again, and as she came into focus through the parting mists the wraith realized that she was studying the tombstones and the epitaphs they bore. She shouldn't be out alone, not this late, and not in a place such as this. It wasn't a place for the living. It wasn't a place for her. And yet on she pressed, unaware that even as she studied the markers of the dead, one of the dead studied her.

She must have slowed by at least a dozen graves, shining her lantern over the tops of the weather-worn stones and creating a hazy globe of light in the creeping grey miasma as she pondered the graves and their stories. So many stories. The wraith had one too, though it couldn't clearly recall it. It should have a grave too, it thought suddenly, wondering why the thought hadn't occurred to it before. Yes, it should have a grave. The thought sickened the wraith and it shuddered despite itself. It knew full well its plight, but the full implications of it were best forgotten, best pushed aside like so much dust into a lonely and dark corner of a seldom-visited room.

And so it was that the wraith had not yet considered the existence of its own grave, or even its location. It wasn't here though. It wasn't within the rolling ground of the dank necropolis it currently called home. At least, the shade didn't think it was, for it had scanned the headstones again and again, and found no name it recognized as its own.

The visitor was drawing closer, snapping the wraith out of its reverie with her gently plodding steps and wavering light. As she came into clearer view, the wraith made closer inspection. The first thing the shade noticed was her attire. The woman was wearing a robe, of all things. Not that there was any Particular dress which the shade imagined should be worn by one drifting in lost thought through a graveyard in the dead of night, but a robe seemed a particularly peculiar choice. As the shade observed more of her demeanor, however, it decided that perhaps the robe was appropriate in an oddly inexplicable way. Her slate-grey eyes looked tired in a manner that bespoke more than a lack of sleep, and her pale expression looked drawn beneath the tousled waves of dark hair. Mostly though, she looked troubled. It was a feeling the wraith knew well, and the shade felt a sudden sympathy for her.

It might have been for this reason that the shade began to follow her on her curious stroll from one stone to the next, thinking that poor company might, in this instance, be better than none. It thus hovered along with the woman--sometimes trailing behind her, other times drifting ahead, but most often hanging beside her and rereading the inscriptions on those markers by which she chose to pause. Her mood seemed to lighten as she continued, for a reason the wraith couldn't begin to comprehend, and it wondered wryly what affect its presence would have on her spirits had she been aware of her company.

She yawned once, and then again, and began to make a slow loop back to the gate of the yard. She, at least, might now be granted a small token of rest and sleep, and the wraith fought back the twinge of envy that rose within it. It was about to let her depart, to let her return to the soft and quiet beckoning of bed and dream when it realized that she no longer beside walked it. She had stopped some yards back and was holding her lantern aloft over a sunken patch of earth as she peered down through a pair of falling spectacles.

Surprised that it hadn't noticed her stopping, the shade drifted over and hovered again behind her, looking over her shoulder at the sunken earth. It wasn't sure, at first, what she was looking at, for there was nothing to be seen--just a sodden depression in the ground in which a few weeds had taken root. As the woman began to pull forth the twisted strands of green, however, the shade was surprised not to see the dark soil of the yard, but instead a deep splash of grey hiding within the hollow. It was another stone. The wraith marveled that the woman had seen it, thinking how it must have passed over the spot a dozen times itself and had never given a passing thought to the sinking depression. Now, however, its vision was riveted on the spot and the wraith found itself reaching out to help the woman with a cold but insubstantial grasp. It knew that it was of no help, that the weeds only slipped through its "fingers," but it tried all the same, eager to clear the hollow and see the stone which lie beneath.

It took only a few moments, but to the wraith, whose sense of time was still uncertain, the task seemed to stretch endlessly into the night. Finally, however, the vegetation was cleared and the stone was stripped bare. It was old, very old and worn so that the letters carved within were now nearly level with the surface. The wraith brushed a trailing wisp of what might have been a hand across it, hoping thereby to aid its sight. It turned suddenly colder as it did so, and a deep frost stuck the stone, lighting the letters with an icy glimmer. If the wraith had boasted breath, it would have caught in its throat. But it lacked such a tie to the living, and so it simply stared, frozen, at the stone and the name it bore.

Wraithshade

"The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.
Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?"

Edgar Allan Poe
"The Premature Burial" (1850)



Continued in Paths of Yesterday, Roads of Tomorrow



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