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'Under the trees lays the ground, under the ground lay the bodies, under the bodies — lays naught but a shallow, hollow grave.'

Ileana strode through the graveyard, softly humming the nursery rhyme to the cold night's air. Her warm breath curled in the listless wind, dancing to-and-fro like a d̦ână eagerly seeking to trick a wayward traveler off the beaten path and into the depths of the woods. The shovel, its head inscribed in the ancient tongue of old Romania, felt heavy between her hands as she traipsed through the church's empty grounds.

Leaves crackled and roots snapped, sending reverberations through the soil - through empty graves.
Ileana knew that not all of the graves were empty, but she had come to honour the deceased all the same, whether they were aware of it or not. After all, someone had to hear their silent, groping pleas and that someone just happened to be Ileana Albescu, daughter of the "late" Vicar Albescu.

She had pleaded and protested with her father, shortly before his untimely disappearance, arguing that her brother would have been far better suited for the role of temporary gravekeeper. Alas, her brother's myriad failings: petulance, ill-experience with the dead, general ineptitude, and the fact that he had not yet reached his majority, served to dissuade her arguments out of hand. Until the neighbouring villages of Lesser Wallachia sent for a replacement, Ileana would be required to keep the dead company.

Pacing back and forth, she gazed out into the woods enclosing the church and its graveyard on all sides. Gnarled branches creaked in the wind and danced awkwardly in the night, beckoning her to join them in their folly and festivities. She ignored the trees, keeping her eyes firmly fixated on the first row of gravestones. The stones were old, the black marble edifices that once bore the names and dates of those who had long since been laid to rest beneath the earth were worn down to faint impressions.

Her fingers danced along those etchings, tracing the fine calligraphy that marked the black marbled surface. Who was buried here that could have possibly afforded such finery?, she asked to nobody in particular. It was well known that the aristocracy of Lesser Wallachia, of what little remained, were content being buried amidst the cavernous catacombs nestled beneath the mountains to the south.

Perhaps, this headstone didn't mark the grave of an aristocrat, but rather an affluent merchant or skilled tradesman. Ileana shook her head. Nobody matched that description in any funerary charters she had read. Whoever was buried here was known to nobody but themselves. Alas, the dead spoke to no-one, taking all their secrets to the grave. Or did they?

She planted the shovel into the cold, wet earth, pushing the heel of her riding boot against the flat edge of the blade, feeling it pull back against her as roots tore and soil churned.

Her father had been the most religious person she'd ever known, which was an achievement even amongst Wallachians. As a child, she had frequently gazed out from between boarded windows, watching him leave the vicarage to deliver sermons and masses at the dead of night. Whilst all other Wallachians were busying themselves with their nightly rituals - boarding their windows, reinforcing their doors, and sequestering themselves within their attics or basements by the gloom of dying candlewicks - her father walked the streets, knocking from door to door and beseeching the inhabitants to join him in prayer.

It'd been that foolhardy act of his which had resulted in his mysterious disappearance, though Ileana knew in her heart that he had departed this world. She lit a candle every night at the windowsill to guide his spirit home, despite knowing full well that both her mother and father would have scorned such foolishness.

Ileana felt a breeze like the ice of the River Olt in Autumn tracing the nape of her neck. For the briefest of moments, she imagined that she heard her father's voice on the wind, whispering, 'Candlelit vigils guide more than just spirits home, dragă.'

Shivering and pushing down on the worn maple handle of the shovel, Ileana brought up yet another clump of sodden turf, briefly observing the worms wriggling and writhing about helplessly before flinging their meagre habitation over her shoulder. The recent rainfall had brought the filthy creatures to the surface, engorged and swollen like leeches after feeding on the diseased arm of some poor vagrant. Unlike the worms of her ancestors' past, these vile things had barbed teeth for sucking and feeding on scraps of flesh as well as common pests like rats and mice.

The next strike of her shovel was met with a soft thudding sound. Ileana raised her lantern, casting long, needle-like shadows into the grave, illuminating the steep incline she found herself standing within.

Ileana had never been the greatest gravedigger and frequently left that task to her uncle and his brother. They had sung songs whilst they worked, like the nursery rhyme she had hummed earlier, only spoken in the darker tongue, filled with rude words her father daren't explain to her. She missed them all dearly.

Ileana brought her lantern close to her chest, gently thumbing open the latch covering the grate cover concealing the candle within. The light radiated out from the bright candle causing the shadows to flinch and flee, illuminating the murk of the grave. What at first she had believed to be a coffin was in fact a hinged trapdoor, now damp and heavy with rot. Holding the shovel firmly in both hands, she thrust the head of it against the trapdoor. The first hit caused it to bulge, the second to buckle, and the third caused it to break, collapsing inward.

Suddenly, she was overwhelmed by a pungent, earthly scent. Decay. Ileana steadied herself, bringing her shovel back over her shoulder as she wrapped her scarf about her mouth. It would do no good for her to explore the tomb of this decadent stranger, only to contract graverot and have her face slough away from the skull.

Raising the lantern aloft, she inspected the hallways of the tomb. Torches, now worn down to nothing more than cinders and nubs, hung lazily from braziers suspended on either side of the walls. Beneath each brazier was a simple sarcophagus hewn from the same mottled black marble as the grave-marker above the surface. Ileana inspected her own candle. The wick burned dangerously low.

Plucking one of the torches from the braziers, she raised the candle to the oil-cloth wrapped tight about the aged wood, hoping that the rot hadn't seeped into the core of the wood. Thankfully, it had not and the torch soon took to the flame, exhaling black smoke which rose to the tomb's ceiling and lingered there. One careful step after another, her boots clattering against cobbled stone and a carpet of red moss, Ileana continued down the hallway, heading towards an imposing, solitary sarcophagus.

She gently brushed the lid with her fingers, parting and pushing through layers of dust. Through the thickness of her brown moleskin gloves, Ileana felt the biting chill of old metal. She traced the faint impression of foreign lettering, written in the dark tongue, and felt the tips of her fingers snag on a hairline fracture between the sarcophagus lid and the tomb. Hesitantly, she placed the shovel's blade between the crack and the lid, slowly applying pressure to the handle. With each agonising creak, Ileana glanced around, her eyes nervously flitting from shadow to light — light to shadow.

The steel plate gently gave way, the grinding echo ringing out all around Ileana. Through the slight glimmer of candlelight, Ileana could see that the sarcophagus was empty aside from a layer of discarded linen wraps creating the faintest impression of the human body that had once rested within.

Ileana could feel the hair on the nape of her neck rising. That pungent earthy scent had returned to the room, flooding in from the other end of the hallway. Cold condensation formed beneath her scarf as she listened to the soft, steady, scraping sound accompanying the foul smell of loam.

A shadow crept along the wall. It was long and emaciated, clawing and dragging its way around the corner. Drawing her breath in, Ileana pushed the lid aside. She clambered into the sarcophagus compartment, pulling the lid shut over her. Her breathing was erratic as she pressed her scarf close to her lips, preventing even the faintest of sounds from escaping. She pressed her eye against the hairline fracture, watching the corridor illuminated by the light cast from her hastily discarded torch.

It emerged into the light of the cavernous tomb, its face half illuminated by the frantic flames of the dying torch. A ghoul. Its jaw shattered, the skin clinging to it marked and bubbled by decay. Its bloodshot eye hung from a lonely socket, for the other seemed to have been hacked away, searching uncontrollably around the hallways. It was gaunt, naked ribs exposed to the stale air, with decaying flesh tanned like leather. Blindly, it groped at the walls, digging its broken fingers into the cracks between the mortar. Ileana realised with sudden horror that it searched for something.

The ghoul stepped forwards, gazing fondly at the lit torch, before bringing its rotten foot down upon the wood. Splinters flew through the air as the darkness swallowed her surroundings. Ileana could no longer see the undead through the crack, but she could smell it - rancid and earthly. She heard it turn and smelled the creature as it began blindly running its fingers over the sarcophagus' lid, feeling for the same slim fracture she had found just moments earlier. This is what it's searching for, she thought. This was its tomb.

With a roar, the ghoul flung the sarcophagus lid awry. Ileana held her breath as she felt its own putrid breath upon her face. Its breath was not cold, as she'd long imagined a ghoul's might be, but was instead a sickly, earthy warmth that swam through her nostrils. She caught her terrified reflection with the eye that hung from its ruined socket. Its eyes were full, yet not a single thought ran behind those vacant eyelids. There would be no sermons, no more prayers, no more cautionary tales of the horrors that walked the streets of night.

Ileana closed her eyes tight as she felt the ghoul's gnarled, skeletal fingers tighten around her throat, pressing down on the centre of her neck with its thumbs. It's warm, Ileana screamed to herself as blood rushed to her head, desperate to keep the breath of life flowing through her body. It shouldn't be warm.

Smoke filled the houses of Albescu. The doors were flung open, boarded windows hung from nails, but the fires still raged on. Saoirse braced her helm beneath her arm, running her fingers carelessly through the fine pale horsehair crest. Sweat still clung to the helmet's under-padding and it ran in rivers through her tangled, clipped hair. Her cloak hung heavy from her shoulders; white-dyed wool as pure as snow, thick as they came. She passionately watched the flames consume wood and mortar, straw and brick. Only smoke congregated in those homes now.

She watched the houses as they burned to cinders, tugging her scarf tight around her nose. She couldn't stand the smell and sounds of the hunt. The crackling sounds as fat burst. The splitting sounds of bone roasting. It reminded her of a live pig roasting upon a spit, helplessly aware of its cruel and unjust fate.

A tap at her shoulder turned Saoirse about. She regarded the breathless scout, his face painted in a mask of ash, soot, and smoke. The boy, scarcely a hair beneath his bottom lip, was eager and strikingly young. Saoirse wagered a knuckle or three that he was younger than ten and six. 'That isn't unusual', she mused. 'They're all young out here in Wallachia; all of this hardens them old beyond their youth.'

"You got a report for me, lad?" Saoirse asked.

"Aye, Huntsman. One of the survivors, a scrawny little git, said she saw Ileana heading towards the graveyard before twilight broke." From her reaction, the scout could tell Saoirse didn't quite grasp what he was talking about. "Ileana? The daughter of the Vicar you met with earlier?"

Saoirse nodded grimly in response, placing one hand on the scabbard at her belt. She stepped out into the dawn, heading towards the church. As she strode away, she could hear her men conversing with one another in hushed tongues.

'Of all places the good Vicar's daughter could have disappeared to, it just happened to be a graveyard.'

'No doubt she'll be worm-food by now, or something worse off. Caius preserve the poor lass.'

It wasn't long before she found the hole. It had been dug from the outside in, not the other way around, and so thank the Lord, it wasn't a ghoul-hole. She threw her mink-lined cloak behind her back, tugging firmly at her leather gloves, feeling her sword rasping against the scabbard as she pulled it free. The silver glinted in the early daylight, cascading reflections like a shattered mirror into the grave. She felt at ease with the sword held between her hands.

She and her men had cleared many crypts like these in recent days — tombs long abandoned, their inhabitants left to rot. Broken sarcophagi lined the walls. An indication that a ghouldigger had visited in recent memory. A single ghouldigger could resurrect a horde of ghouls from a crypt like this, so long as there was a scrap of flesh left on the corpses. Usually, they'd post a single ghoul to guard their finds, often summoned days earlier from the surrounding graves, before returning another night to continue their work.

Saoirse could hear weeping from the end of the hallway. A young woman was slumped against the wall, cradling a broken shovel handle. Hurrying over, Saoirse cradled the young woman's head in her lap, her woolen cloak becoming marked and stained with the Ileana's tears as she wept aloud, 'I'm sorry Uncle, I'm so sorry.'

A ghoul's body laid to one side, brutally decapitated by the frenzied swing of a steel shovel's blade. It's left eye hung limply from a broken socket; unblinking, uncaring, unfeeling.

Tales from Lunakirk

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