Cease and Deceased
rating: +34+x

Two in the morning. Blackness rests in the sky. Skyscraper yellows blanket the edge of Lake Ontario. Streetlamps dot the deserted streets, only lighting the occasional car or vagrant. The populace has taken its leave; Toronto sleeps.

None of this matters in the middle of the Mount Hope Cemetery.

Karina Kimura struts past rows of tombstones, back turned to the skyscrapers and the wall of suburban homes that borders half the cemetery's perimeter. There's no streetlamps here — the incandescent ball of demon embers in her left palm is more than enough illumination for her. Visages of skulls swim in the flames while her fingers angle the light into a steady forward beam. Residual glows turn her yellow coat radiant.

By now she'd imagine herself a glaringly obvious intruder to anyone with half an eye. Someone had to have noticed her by now. Yet no one has approached. Either people are more intent on sleeping or the literal hellfire is scaring them off. Regardless, even if she was spotted she'd be prepared. With this, the coat, and the shovel in her right hand's grip, she's set.

It's all she's ever needed for grave robbing.

Karina halts at the tenth tombstone row. She raises the end of the shovel, shuts both eyes, and spins, letting the blade's momentum swing her in rapid, clockwise motions. Four revolutions and her eyes open, feet planting hard to the ground. The blade aims at a lone headstone. Not too weathered, not too new. She takes to her target.

The embers shine on the headstone's engravings.

Here lies Daryl Bérenger Dalton,

March 25th, 1901 — June 7th, 1973

in loving memory so on so on rest in peace blah blah blah

What the rest of it says is unimportant. Feeling sentimental about the dead is hard when the guy's probably having the time of his afterlife in his own personal Valhalla or equivalent spectral speakeasy. Dying sucks but death's nothing worth getting sad over. Nothing.

Pushing introspection to the side, Karina stands steady before the grave. The shovel handle lifts high.

She thrusts it down.

Spade meets dirt and the ground bursts. Sliding the blade back, Karina watches as a column of earth severs from the cemetery and floats into the air. She butts her shoulder against it, nudging it over, letting it thud adjacent to the grave. In a small hole under thin layers of soil lies the coffin, exposed. She leans over—

—and throws herself back as a dagger of fire explodes a foot off. She hits the grass. The embers in her palm fizzle out and the shovel drops.

Silently, the flames subside. Inch by inch steps forward a beast ripped from a Boschian hellscape. Wheels of legs flank the sides of a lion's head, tangles of bone extending from where the neck belongs, mane burning scarlet. Concentric circles of a thousand eyes ring the mouth and blink in sequence. They shine with the red afterglow of the incinerated damned. They stare.

The gaze pierces Karina's soul like a lance. By now the futility of the situation is clear. There is no quick route out, no means of escape. As the beast widens its maw she knows her fate is sealed.

"Greetings! I am Lesser Count Unterbuer of the Toronto Demon Council."

It isn't an unfamiliar fate, though.

This isn't her first lecture from a tartarean charity worker.

"I assume this is… Not your first time desecrating a burial site," Unterbuer continues.

"Robbing. Not desecrating." Karina pushes herself up, dusts off her coat, and grabs the shovel. "Big difference."

Heading back to the grave, she hits a wall — an arcane barrier patterned like muscle tissue, translucent and blocking her off from the hole and coffin. A sidestep and it shifts to resume obstruction.

"Regardless of what difference you see, you're still damaging a grave site."

She circles the hole, watching the barrier move with each new step. "I'm going to put the dirt back."

"But you are planning to take from the coffin, correct?"

"Yes."

"Which is going to be…?" he asks.

"The corpse."

The beasts frowns. His legwheels revolve and wheel him over to face Karina again. "Beyond this cemetery being under Council maintenance and protection, do I really need to explain why it is wrong to steal a dead body from a grave?"

She pivots to stare into the hole. "Nope, because it doesn't matter. Taking this doesn't change whatever afterlife the dead dude's in, and that's gonna be a bigger deal than what happens down here. They won't care… Well, most of them…"

Half of a ring of eyes squints. "Most of them?"

"Well most of them wouldn't, but that's—"

"Most?"

Karina's voice falters. "Nothing. Personal stuff. But Daryl here?" She points her thumb to the gravestone. "Guarantee he won't care."

"But if they are bound to the body?"

"I'd know if he was. He isn't."

Directing eye contact to him, Karina carefully pushes the shovel into the ground, inch by inch creeping the blade under the barrier.

"I see. And what is it that you intend to do with the body?"

"Dunno."

"You don't know?"

A shrug.

"You really don't know why you'd steal a corpse?"

"Sell it. I think."

Unterbuer wheels closer.

"Let me be clear: I know you're lying."

Hot breath rushes across Karina's shoulder. The scent of ash sticks to her coat, deep reds and humanoid shadows swirling in the abyss of the mouth. If he's aiming for intimidation it isn't going cut it — the Council wouldn't let a worker attack, especially with the preexisting trust issues of being a charity staffed by reformed demons.

Karina holds eye contact. "I'm not."

A dozen hoofed toes point. "The Necromantic Oath is scrawled on your spade."

Just above the gold trim on the shovel's blade the lines of the Oath loop around. Next to the opening pledge lies the Oath's chief vow:

I WILL NOT DISTURB THOSE SPIRITS WHO WISH FOR REST.

"And I've adhered to it. I don't draw the spirits back into the bodies, I only give the slight spark needed for a new mind. Less revival and more… Less-dead-ing."

The lion's head swivels on the bone marrow axis running through it and the wheels, a crude approximation of a nod. A slow, judging nod. "And you doing this why?"

"Practicing to… Again, personal stuff." This is starting to probe far too deep. An opening for corpse nabbing has to enter soon.

Repeating the 'nod,' Unterbuer reverses, positioning his body aside the gravestone. From the mouth stretches a skeletal limb, bearing a chain laced in hundreds of miniature, ethereal human faces. A second limb sprouts from the back of the palm and taps one of the faces, flicking a duplicate of it from the chain onto the gravestone. The arms retract.

"I believe it would now be good to speak to the owner of this grave and see what their thoughts are."

FUCK.

Light erupts and ectoplasm flares. A bright hole rips over the grave, kicks the ghost of Daryl Bérenger Dalton into reality, and slams shut. Dalton zips to Karina faster than she can register his entrance.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY CORPSE." His voice buzzes with harsh white noise. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING."

"Stealing," Karina blurts.

"STEALING."

Dalton's pupils are twin laser beams on her body. His hand chokes her throat and hoists her several feet into the air, teeth bared and form rippling with blinding aetheric intensity.

"YOU THINK YOU CAN STEAL FROM ME? YOU THINK YOU CAN STEAL MY CORPSE? I'VE HAUNTED PEOPLE FOR FAR LESS. I CAN TRACK YOU DOWN. I CAN FOLLOW YOUR EVERY WAKING MOVE. I CAN REACH INTO YOUR HEAD AND PINCH YOUR NERVES SO YOU CAN NEVER FEEL COMFORT, SO YOU CAN ALWAYS SEE THE SHADOWS IN YOUR SKULL—"

"DALTON!"

Karina falls. She thuds against the dirt, picking herself up, gasping for any motes of air, taking in as much of the night's chill as possible. Looking in the direction of Unterbuer, she spots Dalton wrapped in a barrier like the one blocking her from the hole. They argue:

"…No, under no circumstances can I let you do that."

"MY BODY HAS HIGHLY IMPORTANT VALUABLES. I DESERVE TO PUNISH THIEVES OF THOSE HOW I WANT."

"Allowing you to injure anyone would go against pact I signed for the Council. This cemetery is my responsibility."

"AND MY BODY WON'T BE IN YOUR CEMETERY FOR MUCH LONGER IF YOU LET HER DO THIS."

"Look—"

"THIS IS WHY YOU DON'T LET A DEMON DO A WRAITH'S JOB…"

He hasn't stopped shouting. Chances are he won't stop shouting any time soon.

Time to move.


"I WAS HAVING THE TIME OF MY AFTERLIFE HUNTING SOULCUTTERS. YOU RIPPED ME OUT AND WON'T LET ME HANDLE MATTERS?"

"I was until you—"

Dirt jets from the gravesite. A streak of yellow launches under the barrier, cracking the casket wide open with a swing of the spade. Unterbuer psychically punches the barrier into the hole but the streak dodges, jutting skywards. When his eyes refocus all that's there is a yellow coat, suspended in the breeze. A sudden gust drags it off. He looks to the hole.

Daryl Bérenger Dalton's body is gone.

A few seconds later the column of earth Karina pushed out gently lifts into the air, positions itself over the hole, and falls back in. Excess dirt spills into the seam lines the digging left, packing neatly into place. Like a grave robber was never there.

Unterbuer and Dalton are motionless. The barrier surrounding Dalton dissolves into translucent wires, flowing along invisible curves and inclines into the demon's eyes. Unterbuer glances between the ghost and the tombstone. Dalton hovers, silent.

"...I'M GOING TO FILE A COMPLAINT."

The bright hole reopens over the grave and Dalton shoots in, flipping a final obscene gesture at Unterbuer before one of many afterlives slams its gates shut.

Darkness returns to the Mount Hope Cemetery. Shaking his head, the once denizen of Old Hell remembers simpler times. Times where the only concern was who'd be summoning you, what occult obscurities you'd be asked to retrieve information on, whether you'd receive the promised sacrificial entrails or whether you'd need to seek them out yourself. It was grueling, yes, but it was routine. It was comforting.

The faint crunch of footsteps behind interrupts reminiscence. Fear strikes but subsides — his human disguise should be active now, he'll seem normal to any passerby.

"Hello?" He turns. "Who's there?"

BLAM.

The invisible bullet blasts through the disguise and blows Unterbuer's cranium into tenths. The legwheels spasm and twist their hooves into makeshift hands to scramble through the viscera, trying to glue the head back together with whatever blood's available. A single lobbed holy water grenade puts a stop to the matter.

The attacker wafts the smoke from their finger gun's barrel. Stashing the killing tool in a trenchcoat pocket, one of their other hands switches on a walkie-talkie.

"Protector's down for the count. …No, they aren't all here. One's been taken. …I only just got here, you really expect me to know what grave robber shithead… Mhm…"

They gaze at the city skyline. Not far off a yellow coat is whisked along by the breeze.

"No, other nine are fine. Think the knife's still… Alright. Understood. Over."

Click.

Snapping their fingers, nine spectral spades blink into existence, each poised above a grave. With a finger flick downwards the spades lance the earth. The topsoil explodes.

Toronto continues to sleep.


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