A Visit to Purgatory
They returned. They had to.
A night spent shivering under the frozen stars reflecting dimly from waving dunes, where every noise from the croaking of a toad to the subtle padding of a hunting fox, had driven some of them to the edge of sanity. No one had slept; they had hardly dared close their eyes.
When sun peaked over the horizon, they knelt to offer dawn blessings. More than once voice was wet and heavy with grateful tears.
Now, the three Professed and one apprentice each stood overlooking the writhing pit of the undead, each secretly hoping the other would take the lead and decide how best to face the horror. The rest of the group had been dispatched immediately after breakfast back to Shelo, to inform the All-Mother, the Shurial, and to seek the All-Mother's counsel.
In the meantime, they had work to do.
"It seems whoever buried them hacked them to pieces beforehand," Mammon was some paces closer than the others, examining the splintered joints at shoulder and knee, "yet each limb has life independent of the others."
"No. Not life. Life is impossible without brain, heart, and blood. Some magic animates them." Reet pointed to a headless torso possessed of only one flailing arm. "Can you bring me that one?"
"Why?" Rashel whispered, "What good can that do?"
"No good for it," Reet replied, "Good for us. If we must stop them, we must know how they move."
Mammon nodded, considering. He strode forward, bending to meet the corpse's arm, then paused. "Are you sure this isn't some kind of disease? Shouldn't we avoid touching these?"
"Of course," Reet sighed, "I forgot. Noe, bring our quarantine gowns and rope. No one touch them skin-to-skin."
"No hardship there," Nalia shuddered. She, more so than any of them, had had the hardest time during the night. The first to find the mass grave, she had been frightened almost out of her mind by the sight of them rising from the sands. In the morning's cheerful light, she looked haggard and drawn, large eyes sunk deep in a nest of wrinkles. Her whole body trembled as she looked at the pit, but she couldn't tear her gaze away.
"Mistress?" Rashel touched Nalia's elbow, "Should we not begin the novenna? Perhaps we can give these poor wretches some peace."
"Yes," she replied, still distracted, "yes, of course. But..." she touched her pockets, patted them like a forgetful old woman, "The candles, where are the candles? And the incense? I should have—"
"I brought them, Mistress," her apprentice smiled, taking her by the arm and leading her towards the far side of the pit, so their backs faced the desert. "Sit here, away from the sun, and I shall make all the preparations."
Noe turned away from Mistress Nalia, trembling still and huddling with her back to a dune, helpless as a frightened child. She couldn't bear it, couldn't stand how this horrible, inexplicable nightmare had taken the strength and will from them all so easily. Biting her tongue, she broke into a run, fast enough that sweat broke free from the band of her veil and trickled into her eyes. Goddess help her be strong, she would not let this destroy her.
If she had done her duty in the face of blood and screaming death, this silent unlife was an easy challenge in comparison.
It took her minutes only to reach the cart abandoned in the courtyard by last night's panicked flight. A few boxes had been unloaded, and from one of these she gathered their long, waxed robes and heavy masks. Rope was more of a challenge; it was stowed in one of Master Mammon's boxes and she had to open several before finding a coil of sufficient length. Weighed down, it cost Noe a few more minutes and a good deal more sweat before she returned to the pit.
Rashel had sunk a ring of lit candles in a wide circle all about it, their feeble flames lost in the buttery light of morning. Incense was a vague flavor on the breeze, mingled with the burnt, arid scent of the desert and the fruity rot of the bodies. But the bell she rang had a sweet voice; it reminded them all of the temple, prayers, feast days, festivals, and those happy memories served as a shield for them now.
It was a strengthening draft for Mistress Nalia, who, though her face was still pale and unhealthy, stood without assistance, taking the bell from Rashel and handing over the tin tub of burning incense. They paced the perimeter of the candles, voices mingling with the intermittent moans of the dead and the tinkling chime of the bell.
Noe would have liked to watch them—a novenna was a ceremonial prayer for those who had passed without conversion, and she had only seen it performed once—but Reet had swooped down on her like the vulture she shortly resembled. Donning their quarantine robes summoned a host of unwelcome and unpleasant recollections that provided an additional fear to fight, but with her Mistress leading the way, Noe's determination to stand strong was unshaken.
They hooked a loop of rope around the nearest corpse and dragged it from the pit, its own feeble arm digging for purchase as if to help them. Fighting nausea, Noe held it down by arm and shoulder while Reet poked around the edges of ragged skin. As she pinched and peeled it back, there was no rush of blood as from a living body, but a squelch of putrid pus, golden yellow and viscous. Reet held some of the substance before her masked eyes, but soon shook her head.
"A secretion like this I have never seen," she murmured. "We must dissect."
"We will fetch your supplies," Mammon offered, gesturing to his apprentice.
While they headed to the cart, Reet directed Noe to test the reflexes of the attached arm. Pressure points caused it no pain, no matter how hard she pressed. But the body still registered sensory input. When Noe pressed a finger to the center of its palm, its fingers would try to close on her.
After the first two such attempts, it got faster.
Noe screamed, her voice deafening behind the mask. "Get it off!"
Reet pried the fingers loose, panting breaths wheezing as she strained. With a few hollow snaps, the bones gave way and Noe's hand was free.
She scrambled backwards, tripping on the hem of her robe, tears running into her open, whimpering mouth. "I couldn't have gotten free alone," she said, bending her wrist. It felt bruised. "It was too strong."
"Well," Reet said at last, "we know more than we did. You are well?"
Was she? Could she...could anyone be?
"Yes," was all she said.
"Then come. I cannot hold and examine."
The day passed in strange confusion. If Reet had any guiding purpose behind the series of dissections and experiments she ran on one body after the other, she didn't drop a hint. Noe followed her instructions mechanically, one ear for her Mistress, the other for the prayers and chants Nalia and Rashel offered for the dead.
If all her senses were engaged, her mind had no time to spin terrors.
Mammon and his apprentice Ghil were the worst off. With no one living to serve, they had set themselves the task of digging a new, deeper grave for the bodies. Under the blinding heat they groaned like oxen, but neither would rest.
Everyone had to do something. It was the only defense against ever-increasing fear.
"The sun falls," Mammon said at last, heaving himself up from the bottom of the hole he and Ghil had dug. It was deep as his shoulder, but neither of them had stopped. "We should consider returning to our camp. I don't like the idea of being here at night."
"Night, day, there is no difference," Reet replied. "The dead are moving, but they move slow. We might stay in the village."
Noe flinched. What saved her pride is that everyone else did the same.
"I," Rashel paused, not wanting to contradict a Professed, "I would feel safer if we were farther away than that."
"And I," Ghil said, less shy. His bare shoulders shone with sweat; his eyes showed the whites like a lathered horse.
"I think, sister, we would all feel better away from this," Nalia put it. As the hours wore on, her shoulders had drooped progressively lower. Noe had never seen the Mistress defeated, but she looked it now.
"Very well," Reet shrugged, "I only speak truth, but I see fear is stronger. Noe, return the bodies. We can find others tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Ghil cried, "Is there any need to come back tomorrow, beyond burying these...these things?"
"You need not," Reet replied, tart, "but we will. A day has given no answers; perhaps a month will not either. Yet we will search."
Ghil opened his mouth for what seemed to be a scathing retort, but Noe was faster.
"We're all tired," she spoke loud, to be heard behind her mask. "What we need is time, food, and some prayers for ourselves. We have given all our comfort to others and spared none for us."
"You are right, Noe," Nalia smiled. "How easily you instruct us, when I should have said just the same! Rashel, gather our supplies and return them to the cart. I shall stay until Reet and Noe are ready to leave."
"You too, Ghil," Mammon said, stretching. "There's nothing more to be done today. See if you can get some water from the well so we may bathe. That'll put us right more than any prayer."
Nalia shook her head; he grinned.
"Don't rebuke me, sister. Didn't the Goddess speak herself on the comforts of earthly pleasures?"
"She did. When She warned us not to enjoy them to the exclusion of spiritual duties."
"Even so, I will have a mind much more focused on spiritual matters if I may pray without stifling body odors distracting me. And after a night spent together, with the breeze wafting in your direction, I'm sure you'll agree."
She laughed, long and loud. "You're vulgar, Mammon, but I take your point. Go and see to it we're not all poisoned by your stench."
He bowed and left.
Noe heaved the last corpse atop the others, swallowing bile as she did. Her throat burned; only the Goddess' mercy and her own force of will had kept the vomit at bay. With nothing more to protect against, she unstrapped her mask.
At the first breath of fresh air, she dropped to her knees and retched. All that came up was a thin thread of what had been breakfast, but she kept convulsing and gasping and weeping until her stomach ached.
Two pairs of hands soothed her back.
"Breathe, Noe, just breathe. You're all right. We'll get you to the well so you may drink." Nalia broke off from comforts to a prayer for recovery from illness.
Noe flinched. Despite advocating for prayer herself, the words just reminded her of all the other unanswered pleas they'd offered that day, and the day was precisely what she was trying to purge from her guts.
Reet said nothing but did more. Wiry and determined, she hauled Noe up and supported her as they toddled through the streets, not minding that her apprentice sometimes needed to pause and retch again. Their quarantine robes were left in piles of filthy crumpled cloth and their tools were unwashed, but her Mistress said not one word.
The arrived at the well in a sad parade; Nalia leading with prayer, Reet stone-faced and strong, Noe weak and wilting.
"I'm sorry, Mistress," she murmured, shamed, "I asked for strength, but..."
"Be silent," she ordered. Yet the words did not hurt. With her own hands Reet hauled water, took a sponge, and bathed Noe's sweat-shimmered face. "You did well, my child," she said, low enough that the others did not hear the fierce pride that filled her voice, "So well."