Unwept

Book One of The Nightbirds

Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman

Tor Books

1

NIGHTMARE

 

A cold, damp darkness greeted Ellis as her consciousness collected within her. She had been resting peacefully on her back. A sweet fluttering against her cheek brought her back from sleep. She raised a hand to touch her face and her wrist clacked against a solid surface inches in front of her.

Panic rose in her as the strangeness of being in a place she didn’t recall brought her sharply awake in the midst of utter darkness.

She shifted and felt her shoulder blades slide along a slick hardness at her back. Her fingers ran along the surface too close overhead. It, too, was very smooth. The experience was an odd feeling—or, rather, non-feeling—for she couldn’t perceive the weave of cloth or wood or of any subtle texture, only the hardness of the walls all about her. She jerked her elbows out in an effort to determine the width of the place she was in. They cracked dully against the sides of the lightless void in which she lay.

Darkness pressed down on her. A tightness in her chest made breathing impossible. Confusion filled her mind. She didn’t know where she was or how she had gotten here. She moved awkwardly trying to fold her arms across her chest, as though to ward off the cold. Her arms clattered against her breastbone. She raised her head, her eyes trying to pry open the inky blackness. Nothing. She could see nothing. Terror gripped her as she shifted her head upward and her skull thumped loudly against the top of her tiny chamber. She lay back trying to quell the panic that made her mind race and her frame nearly immobile.

I can’t be here, she thought. Where am I? How do I get out?

This last question became paramount. She wriggled about and found that she was so tightly enclosed that she could not even turn on her side. She stretched her stiffened legs out and stretched her arms above her measuring both ends of the damp darkness in which she lay. She slid her fingers about looking for a way out.

A latch, a knob, anything. She struggled and shook against the silkiness of her strange cocoon. She tried to cry out, but only a faint whistle of dry, brittle air escaped her stiff jaw. She raised her fists and began pounding on the slick surface above. Her fists made a strange clinking noise against the top of her confine. She jerked them back to her chest, where they clattered noisily. Bone met exposed bone.

Stone-hard fingers skittered up over her dry chest. Her bare ribs encased no beating heart, no lungs to fill with desperately wanted air. Her fingers skimmed upward, where they easily closed around the vertebrae of her brittle neck. She slid her skeletal hands up farther along her gaping jaw, where she could detect no flesh, no lips, only the constant and hideous smile of exposed teeth.

My skeleton.

Fear engulfed her as her boney digits explored the rim of the hole where her nose once was and finally found a resting place deep in her eye sockets. She arched her neck and opened her maw wide in scream after silent scream.

She lay back numbly. My coffin. Dead … Buried …

Bitter sorrow overwhelmed her terror and she tried to weep, but no moisture escaped the charcoal blackness of the empty eye sockets. She lay dazed and horror filled.

Is this death? Trapped forever in a box?

Silence rushed in, around and through Ellis. It was consuming in its totality. No breath rattled her chest; no breeze stirred; no bird sang. She lay in repose waiting to escape.

A sound, faint and almost inaudible, drifted down into her claustrophobic space. She became aware of the muffled cries of an infant in the distance far beyond the cold, damp earth above her.

A sudden, squealing sound of metal startled her. It scraped against the wood of her coffin directly overhead.

Help me! Please! She tried to call out, yet only managed to clatter her jaw awkwardly. She stopped moving and felt more than heard the rather rhythmic sound of scraping, followed by a dull thud, which caused her coffin to quake slightly. Someone or something was working directly above her.

They realize their mistake? They know I’m alive!

She began beating wildly against the lid of the coffin, ignoring the sound of her bones against the wood. She pounded forcefully and began to feel the lid give as she struck it. Air, fresh air, whispered through her restless resting place. Her need to breathe became sudden and immediate. The lid was giving way under her blows. She arched her spine and shoved.

Bones cracked and clattered. The clasp on the lid snapped under the force of her pushing. Air, mingled with the pungent smell of damp, fresh, mossy earth, rushed into her coffin as she slid one skeletal hand out around the edge of the lid.

“No!” A male voice rang out from above.

She sensed the weight of his boot as he stepped on the lid of her coffin and the clanging of a shovel against her bone-clad hand.

Help! Stop! I’m alive. Still no sound escaped between her teeth. She was desperate to cry out and knew it was impossible.

She jerked back her talon-like digits from the lid for fear of pain as they caught against the rim under the lid. She suddenly grasped that her bones were rock hard, indestructible. She felt nothing.

Bright anger mingled with the terror of being trapped again; she shoved mightily. Bones creaked; gaping jaw clenched; shoulder blades bit into the slippery satin lining.

The lid sprang open. Air! Ellis longed to breathe. She wheezed in determinedly between her whistling teeth.

I will breathe this air! she promised herself.

The dust rose up around her. Organs, muscles, sinew, cartilage, all gathered to her bones, forming around her writhing framework. Her beating heart pumped blood painfully through veins and arteries in a red liquid haze. And finally a soft downy covering of pink and cream skin covered all—cheeks, neck, breasts, stomach, back, hips, legs, feet and hands. Her hair caressed her form. She breathed in deeply, her lungs on fire with the rich oxygen around her. Ellis’s body was awash in pain as her reunited parts regained life.

A groan, increasing to a full shriek, escaped her lips and her liquid eyes focused. She feebly pulled the flimsy coffin shroud around her weak and vulnerable form. More clearly now, she heard the soft cry of an infant in the distance.

A tall man stood directly above her exposed grave, a lantern in one hand and a shovel in the other. He held the lantern low by his side. He remained dark and faceless. Ellis was illuminated completely by the lantern and felt almost as though she could somehow slip into the light and away from here.

Questions raced through her head. But only a weak “thank you” escaped her parched lips. She lifted a frail arm, expectant of assistance from her rescuer.

“That body! It’s an obscenity. How can I possibly help you now?” he said, biting off the words. He turned on his heel and threw down the shovel. The lamplight gleamed off the buckle of his tall, shiny boots. Ellis heard the digger speaking to someone in the blackness and heard an indistinct female voice in response. He retreated into the night, carrying the lantern and cruelly leaving Ellis again in the darkness.

“Wait! I’m alive!” she called out pleadingly. The figure did not or would not hear her. Ellis climbed from her coffin and out of the grave of fresh earth, which was moist, rich and oddly comforting, crumbling coolly under her aching hands.

She stood on a vast landscape of ruined buildings, scorched earth and desolation. The battleground stretched to the horizon under a leaden sky.

She stared back into the dark confines of her little coffin. Relief and revulsion swelled in her and she felt light-headed. She pulled the silken shroud about her newly re-formed, delicate body. Tears poured over her cheeks, her eyes rolled back in her head and a moan escaped her lips. The distant crying became more distinct and closer.

The dark figure wrapped cold fingers around her wrist and started leading her away.…

 

Copyright © 2014 by Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman