Phil thought that hag had been lying to him.
Ms. M was known for having some shady dealings in the fairy dust market and wasn’t afraid of ripping the heart out of any client that she thought was pulling a fast one on her. Despite being in her employ all his life, she made no secret of her impatience with him to deliver up on some debts. When she told him that he was being sent out here to settle some old score, he thought it was a trap to off him as soon as he hit the quarantine zone.
But this place proved to be a genuine gold mine. He gleefully yanked another golden molar from a hapless skull. The jaw crumbled to dust through his fingers as he held up the tooth to the dying light.
What remained of poor Yorick fell from his palm with little aplomb. He cracked his head on the way down.
Phil added the tooth to the collection of others in the brown bag tied to his hip. A good fifty-two in all.
He took another good look around the room. The air was thick with dust and cobwebs. It must’ve been a dining hall in its former life and the last feast was quite the spectacle. Gold and silver platters were laid out on a large square table in the center of the room. It was dressed up in embroidered dining cloth now stained with age. There was a round metal chandelier hanging above with hardened wax sticking to the candle holders. The remains of the meal itself were either dust or picked clean the bugs beyond all recognition–much like the guests of honor.
The former party guests were dressed in their finery slumped on chairs and table. Poor bastards probably didn’t even know what hit them.
Phil fiddled with the cloth over his mouth as he made his way to the window. It was difficult maneuvering over the skeletons of what were most likely servants. There was very little to pick off them except for one naughty former stooge by the door with pearls in his trousers.
Their rich overlords, by contrast, were dripping with riches. Gold necklaces, rings, and molars galore.
“Are you done picking through small change, Sir Philip?”
Phil rolled his eyes as his eyes went back to Belphegor, Ms. M’s little troll. Rags hung loosely from his small green frame. Hunchback and ugly as all hell, he eyed him with a punchable sneer. Ms. M sent him along to act as babysitter.
Belphegor limped into the room. “Don’t forget what you really came here for, sir.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Phil said with a dismissive wave as he leaned out the window. He pointed to the tower across from them. “There right?”
“Indeed,” Belphegor said as he picked at his pointy teeth with a yellowed fingernail. “Missus M has been eyeing this pretty pocket of the Old World for a while now. Says it’s about time that she gets her due from the dead here.”
“And she waited this long to cash in because…”
He smiled maliciously, “What makes you think you’re the first whipping boy she’s sent out here?”
Belphegor motioned down. Phil inched further out the window and stared down at the cobbled courtyard below. Fresher corpses were strewn about it. The flies were having a field day with the spoiling meat at their disposal. Phil pressed his kerchief harder against his nose as a sudden gale sent the smell upwards. He hurriedly reached into his pocket for the vial.
“They all got too much of a whiff of the bad air here,” Belphegor continued as he eyed him with a smile. “Try not to drink all that up before we reach the tower.”
Phil glared at him as he took a few purple drops. The potion sent a shock through his nervous system. He wasn’t feeling drowsy yet but he’d rather not take his chances. He had no desire of becoming bug food.
Belphegor limped to the door. “Come along, Sir Philip. Best not linger.”
Phil rolled his eyes as he followed him.
He couldn’t help but be impressed by the structure. This castle of crumbling stone remained one of the last vestiges of the Old World. It’s been quarantined for the last few hundred years because it was allegedly the original site of infection. It’s been so long that no one knows for sure.
The closest localities avoided it all the same. The “Sleeping Curse,” though not as common as it once was, was still a bitch of an illness that came in waves. Though most are immune to the original strain, aggressive cases still crop up from time to time. It was a rather gentle illness–a person would simply fall asleep and never wake up.
If someone knew the right fairy, they could get away with paying only half their soul for a potion that maybe counteracted its effects. The brew that Ms. M supplied him with seemed to be doing its job but obviously, it came after much trial and error.
When they got into the hallway, they were privy to more grotesque sights. Bodies were strewn about the floor like carpeting. Every other step they took had them snapping bones like twigs in the forest. The sound violently cut through the still air which echoed the death around them.
Despite the castles grim decor, everything reminded Phil of its former prestige. On crumbling stone hung large tapestries weaved intricately of gold leaf and silk. There were grand halls of dead kings with confident brows–their opulent beauty painted in meticulous detail as background. Even the sheer number of bones was proof of former prosperity. Deadness aside, Phil had never in his life seen so many people gathered in one place.
They reached a fake wall. The passageways were so aged and rusted from disuse that the door behind it was wide open. Belphegor took a small vial from his pocket. He shook it vigorously, making the brew inside shine a harsh green light.
He stepped into the dark stairwell. “This way, sir.”
They proceeded slowly. Even here, skeletons were dotted in small hideaways along the path. Phil nearly impaled his face with the ax tip of a dozing guard that by the grace of spider webs was still standing upright.
They then made it to the top stair. Orange sunlight had retreated to the corners of the room. Out of all the places in the castle, this was the least glamorous. It was bare with only a chest, a strange wheel contraption and a bed in the center. The bed was the most extravagant thing in the room, with a canopy and shimmering gauze curtain.
Phil stared at the chest. “Treasure there?”
Belphegor didn’t answer. He marched forward with purpose and ripped open the curtain. His face twisted into a crooked smile before his black eyes traveled back to him. It sent the first genuine chill up Phil’s spine.
Phil approached the bed slowly and… He wasn’t quite sure what he was seeing. A girl was lying in it but unlike the place’s other lively occupants, this person appeared very much alive. She had a rosy color to her lips and cheeks. There was a contentedness to her expression that suggested a state of repose rather than that of death. Pressed to her chest was a single thorny rose whose petals still looked in full bloom.
Phil took a step back. “What is this?”
“You’re not serious.”
“Use the vial. A few drops slipped between her teeth should do the trick.”
“How is she still–?”
“Missus didn’t send you here to ask questions, boy! Just shut your mouth and do as you’re told,” Belphegor then cut his eyes at him as he put a hand in his pocket. “I do have my orders.”’
He probably had a potion stuffed away that would turn him into something. Another one of Ms. M’s favorite pastimes was changing those who disobeyed her into crows.
“Alright, alright,” Phil said as he pulled out the vial.
He walked up to the girl and took a hold of her head. Her black hair was soft and warm to the touch.
He pulled down his kerchief and took a good swig before forcing the liquid between her teeth. Her lips had a thin layer of dust on them.
As he drew back, the girl’s eyes fluttered open. She looked at him with drowsy brown eyes that suddenly widened with alarm.
“What have you done?” She whispered.
There was a cold shift in the air. The wooden wheel contraption spun furiously, filling the room with sharp ticking. There was a boom on the lower floors as a mad shuffling ascended the stairs.
Phil turned as his eyes caught the orange glint of a sharp ax tip.