John gave a small smile at the offer, trading the shovels with the older man before moving to the dead woman’s legs. Placing the shovel atop her corpse as Leonard did, John took a firm grip of her legs, squatting low to lift her as best he could in sync with his gravedigger.
That gave John a moment of pause, looking at the grizzled man across from him as they carried the body slowly up the hill. “We’re going to bury her beneath the old tree right up there; a few good spots are left near that tree.”
That suggested that the hill could be, and probably was, host to many such brutalized corpses such as this one. That chilling thought brought a shiver down John’s sweaty back, despite the sweltering heat of the hot summer night.
“Dig with your back boy, your back!” Leonard griped from above, sitting atop a large flat stone engraved with the names of those long since interred within this hill. “If you keep digging like a woman we’ll be here all night.”
“Well then why don’t you come down here and dig while I keep watch?” John shot back with a tired grin, already forming a loose bond with the older man.
“I would sonny, but you see my back has been bothering me as of late. I think it’s the humidity in the air, or maybe the change in the weather.” Leonard said as he rubbed the small of his back. “Just let me rest it for a bit and then we’ll trade off, say, in an hour?”
Wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve, John glared half-heartedly up at the old gravedigger before letting out a dry chuckle. “Whatever you say boss, whatever you say.”
John pushed his light spade into the soil, tossing the gathered dirt and tossing it behind him into a growing pile. Twice now he’d found that his spade served a dual purpose of hacking apart tree roots he was unfortunate enough to stumble upon beneath the soil, swinging the light iron tool like a hatchet with great relish as he could vent his frustrations over his new job.
Not only was it an all-night job, it forced him to deal with the cursed victims of the horrible plague that was swallowing up the great city of Paris, shambling corpses that didn’t realize that they should remain still at peace, forcing John to take hand in murdering the poor fiends a second time, robbing them of the half-life they still clung to even after they had been claimed by the sickness running rampant through the streets.
The job wasn’t something John felt any better about after his first swing into one of the trees roots, revealing a bright red sap pulsing from the torn wood gushing outward like a split artery. This had nearly given John a heart attack, almost ending his career the very night it began, when Leonard laughed and said it was merely the spirits of the restless dead messing with him, to turn his head or rub his eyes and take a closer look.
Sure, enough, after shaking his head and clearing his mind he saw not blood pumping from the chopped root, merely the moist topsoil John had been laboring in for the past half-hour. Two more times the spirits of the departed had tried such tactics, and two more times John had simply shrugged away their efforts. Bleeding wounds bursting like pustules from the walls around him and his name being whispered on the wind in his mother’s voice had little effect on the young boy now that he knew it wasn’t real.
He couldn’t afford to be scared away from this job.
He couldn’t afford to fail his family.
Striking the earth once more with his spade, John took an involuntary step back when black ooze began bubbling up from the dirt, churning the loose soil into a frothy mud. Closing his eyes and pinching his cheek, John opened his eyes only to be faced with a growing puddle of black slime, a slime that seemed to be stretching and crawling along the bottom of the grave towards Johns muddy boots.
“Leonard! What is this?” John shouted, gathering the older man’s attention quickly from whatever the old codger was doing up top. Peering down into the hole Leonard’s pale face grew slack at the sight of the growing mire.
Dropping an arm into the hole and grasping John by the back of his shirt, he hauled him up and out of the hole with a mighty heave just as the slime revealed a skeletal arm, ebon and twinkling in the light of the lantern with strands of goo trailing off it, that swiped at where John had been. John shouted once more as the black hand caught hold of his ankle, the slime quickly sliding from the bony grasp and onto his bare skin, burning with the icy chill that came with it.
Rising from the mire was a hobbled, hunched over skeleton, dripping with ooze and chunks of soil as an unholy light erupted from its twin empty sockets, casting a baleful yellow glow in the small pit John had been digging. Stretching on arm out, high above its head with fingers splayed, it let loose a gurgling growl that brought a cold sweat to John’s brow.
“Life!” It grunted its voice hoarse and raspy, mud dribbling from between its lipless maw. “Give me life!”
Leonard, having finished hauling John back up onto the grassy hillside, brandished his shovel like a war axe and dropped down into the pit, staring at the col life less dead with a look of utter loathing.
“You had your turn,” Leonard said, swinging his heavy shovel into the creature’s side, slamming it into the crumbling wall of the pit with a meaty thud. Broken chips of bone snapped free from the creature, dropping into the black bubbling mire with a silent hiss.
“Life… give me life!” The creature repeated, rasping in short breaths as it righted itself and moved through the mire as if it were nothing. Leonard responded by striking the creature in the sternum with the sharpened end of his shovel, shattering the ribs inward and sending the warped creature stumbling back, splashing into the thick pool of viscous ebon slime like a hooked fish.
“The hole is deep enough if we found this… trash! Boy, toss down the body and I’ll bury it right and proper.” Leonard called from his position at the edge of the goo. John needed no further encouragement, rolling the body slowly over the edge and down into the black cesspool with a solid splash. “Go get the old man and drag him here as well; I’ll make sure our friend doesn’t get up and try anything.”
“Life!” The creature shouted as it thrashed about, its upper body crumpling in on itself as it tried to rear up.
John didn’t stick around to see what the creature planned to do, or how Leonard planned to deal with it. He merely wanted to do as he was told, survive the night, and get paid.
So, he ran for the headless body of the old man they had left at the bottom of the slope, taking hold of his swollen ankles and grunting as he slowly began to drag him up the hill. Tossing his shovel onto the rotund corpses back, he heaved and grunted as he drug the bloody corpse up the hill, ignoring the whispering of the wind.
“John… turn back… John…” His mother’s voice called to him, extolling upon him the virtues of turning and leaving this cursed graveyard.
“You’re not real,” John grunted as he pulled the corpse over a jutting rock, grimacing as the stone left a long gash on the already battered body. “You’re just in my head!”
“John… run while you still can…” The wind whispered, breathing softly just behind his ear just as his mother did when she hugged him.
“Shut up!” John shouted, stopping his movements long enough to glare about the graveyard. “Just shut the hell up, you stupid cursed plot of land!”
The wind merely whistled a heated breeze in response, a series of low moans and a plaintive cry of a damned soul carrying over the tickling breeze. John didn’t know how to feel about that, but he sure as hell didn’t feel good about it. He merely took hold of the old man’s ankles once more and resumed dragging him up towards the shallow grave.
Patting the ground with the flat end of his spade, John heaved and gasped from the exertion of quickly burying the growing pool of inky darkness as well as the moaning dead within it. The grave had turned into a mass one once the two bodies had been rolled in atop the moaning skeleton, splashing in the muck that seemed to happily suck them in, stretching and pulling over the cold corpses as it slowly consumed the fresh meat. John hadn’t been certain, but as he’d been throwing the dirt back into the hole he thought he saw more than one skeleton rising from the oily substance, a second rasping voice joining the first in its cries for life.
Leonard had been out of the grave when John had come up the hill, obviously having climbed out to evade the grasp of the slime. He’d helped shovel the dirt back into the hole as fast as he could, his much larger shovel proving to be a great advantage when the need for rapid for sealing up the evil you’d accidentally awakened.
John just hoped that the ancient evil would go back to sleep now that it was once again sealed.
Leonard heaved a sigh, leaning back against the tree as he wiped his brow. “Well damn,” He said with a sigh, pulling a small knife from his hip, “Guess this is another area I can’t bury in now.”
“Wait, what?” John gasped, hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath.
Leonard was busily carving a wide X into the trunk of the gnarled tree, though he did turn his head over his shoulder long enough to answer. “Yeah, that can happen. Damned if I know what it all is, but when you find that gunk that means you’ve buried too many bodies there. If you see an X on a tree or tombstone, don’t dig within fifty or sixty feet of it, or you’ll get that.”
“You knew about that kind of stuff? And you still had us dig up here?” John seethed, glaring at Leonard as if he were mad.
Leonard merely shrugged. “Last time I dug here nothing like that happened. Must be a recent development.”
“What the hell was it?”
“The slime? Yeah, awful stuff that.” Leonard said, nodding. Sheathing his knife, he turned back to John, patting his hands together slowly to rid them of the tree’s torn bark. “Don’t rightly know what it is, but it’s not something for you to be messing with. You dig into a batch of that, you make certain you fall back and just fill in the grave, you hear me?”
“I don’t think I can do this…” John mutters, dropping to his knees before the freshly dug earth, staring at it as he knew what was trapped beneath the packed soil. “This is wrong.”
“This is necessary. What, you want the walking dead to just populate the streets of Paris?” Leonard asked, moving up behind John to place a hand on his shoulder. His hands were chilly with sweat, but John didn’t care; he just wanted to go home.
“Is there anything as bad as that in this graveyard?” John asked, looking up to Leonard with a grimace. “Anything I should know about?”
Leonard just smiled.