Stories

Equality


The corpse would not stop talking. Even though it had been dead for several weeks now, it continued to speak loudly and angrily as if it were alive. Even as the skin and flesh putrefied and was consumed by maggots, the voice continued to come from it. It was not the voice it had when it had been alive, though it spoke of things only the corpse should have known.

Perhaps death did much to change a voice. A second puberty of some sorts, claimed only when passing off this mortal coil. Most corpses would have the dignity to no longer speak once dead, but this one knew no such manners and continued.

Of course, the words it said were not unwelcome. “You can bring me back,” it said, in a voice that cracked deeper with every passing day. “I can be restored to life. We can be together again, don’t you want that? You promised that we would be together forever.”

“Even death will not hold us apart,” he said, remembering well the vows he had taken. At the time, they had seemed a romantic promise clearly unable to be enforced. Even if she had believed it with all her heart (as she clearly had), he had never expected her to hold to the vow so literally.

They were not truly apart now, he supposed. She continued to speak to him almost constantly, even though her body no longer held even a fraction of the beauty it had in life.

He knew some heroes who, upon reaching the chambers of a maiden cursed with a sleep like death, would lament that they must wake the fair damsel and break the spell of the grave. Flesh cold and clammy to the touch, a pallor which seemed to have been granted by the Reaper himself. Those were seen as ideals to those heroes. It seemed sensible that upon waking the woman, they were quick to move on to a new adventure.

Of course, the beauty of a permanent sleep was that they were trapped forever at the edge of death. The great canyon of decay still sat before them, ever uncrossed. As the heroes bent down to plant a waking kiss upon the damsel’s cheek, should a maggot crawl from her mouth, the heroes would likely flee and never return.

Warlocks and witches who cast curses would do well to contact him in the future. Surely adding such a minor illusion would not be beyond their power, and their curses would thus live forever. Though he supposed that if the wizards truly wanted the curses to be timeless, they would not have woven such easily achievable counters into their tapestries.

He would not be kissing his damsel now. Truthfully, the maggots had ceased to bother him quite some time ago. It was the flies they were becoming that gave him seriously more annoyance. They constantly buzzed about and harassed him. He could swat them, but a hundred more would follow. The maggots merely undulated beneath the rotten flesh, occasionally giving the corpse the appearance of writhing in pain.

It would be a poor disguise should anyone attempt to check the corpse for signs of life. Of course, merely coming near it would be enough to tell anyone that the corpse was most definitely no longer among the living. It stank enough to empty the Hells of all demons.

Perhaps that was what the wicked goddess was planning with it. Dump the corpse into the lake of fire so that the stench would cause the devils guarding her daughter to flee. Then she could easily stride in and retrieve her without risking mars to her beauty from the tormentors’ scourges.

Even if the smell couldn’t drive them away, her voice probably could. “Why haven’t we gotten to the temple yet?” the corpse asked him, over and over. Death seemed to sap a sense of time and direction from a person. He supposed that made sense, as a soul exists forever in an infinite plane. If it is a heaven, then it is a forever of pleasure and instant freedom. If it is a hell, it is a forever of pain and imprisonment. What benefit had a soul in such conditions of the ability to tell when and where it was?

“The temple is on the other side of the continent,” he explained to the corpse for the thousandth time. Lesser men may have grown frustrated with constantly giving the explanation, but he was a greater man. Besides, the words usually kept the corpse silent for at least some amount of time. On the subject of the temple, at least.

Their journey was made longer because no animal would willingly carry the corpse. Not even oxen would pull a wagon that carried the corpse. He supposed the smell of death spooked them more than anything, as he doubted they could comprehend the corpse’s words any more than they could understand his. At the very least, the smell did not seem to attract wolves or other large scavengers.

The corpse feast had been left to the flies and the flies alone. Well, the occasional beetle or ant would also try its luck with the pustulent meal. They generally found the savory parts already consumed and moved on to fresher pastures.

So he dragged it behind him, sunrise to sunset and at times even beyond that. The burden should have worn him out, but his own eagerness pushed him on. Perhaps there was some small boon from the gods that kept him going when many others would have fallen and forsaken their quest.

The gods had gifted him numerous times already. The additional miracle of increased stamina would be a fitting jest and one that was barely taxing on their abilities. All the gods were surely in on it, even the dead god who usually swallowed corpses and led souls to their final resting places.

No, he had to be the ringleader. No other lower place would be fitting for him.

But as the days had become weeks and the weeks months, he had grown almost used to the constant chattering of the corpse. It was a comfort, almost, to know that it would be there waiting for him when he woke. It was a lot like she had been to him while she lived; always there waiting for him.

At least until she died, he supposed. Though she was still waiting for him, just not in the manner he had been accustomed to. There were no home spoils to be taken after that quest.

He wondered if he could even bring himself to enter the temple and restore her to the waking world. It would have been far simpler to keep her in this state forever. Eventually the flesh would rot away completely, so that would take care of the stink. The bones could be used in any number of fashions. The leg bones would make interesting arm rests on a new chair. The rib cage a unique rack, perhaps.

The possibilities were numerous. The skull would likely continue its chattering, which could even be pleasant. He doubted he could even fall asleep without the sound now; though when this had all started he was hard pressed to even keep his eyes closed as the corpse asked him yet again why it wasn’t alive yet.

Still, there were the steps. Black onyx was its foundation. All he had to do was climb them and make his way to the altar. The task seemed almost trivial compared to the journey, yet these final steps could prove to be the longest.

He bent his knees, groaning as they creaked and popped. He lifted the corpse, even as maggots spilled out. A few managed to catch themselves on him and began to crawl up his arms and bite him. He ignored it and soon the maggots were dropping off him, shriveled and black.

Another boon from the gods, he considered it. “We’re here, almost,” he told the corpse.

“Not quick enough!” it shouted, its voice resembling nothing more than the rumble of the earth as the great one struggled to free himself from his chains in the depths. “Hurry, hurry.”

Of course, the corpse could wait for all eternity. Its complaints had been spoken uncountable times before this moment. He ignored them, because the demands of a corpse meant less than nothing.

He strode confidently up the stairs until he reached their summit. There stood a single man, hand resting on the butt of a handle, to which was connected a massive maul. The man towered over him, but he wore a regretful smile. “You shall not enter this sacred temple,” the giant man said. His voice held a calm deepness, like the waves breaking on the shore.

“I must,” he said to the man. “I must reach the altar.”

“Death is a symptom of the disease of life,” the giant informed him. “Do you seek the cure?”

“I do,” he said, stooping down and placing the corpse upon the ground.

“The cure is also death,” the giant told him. “Do you see the folly of your journey?”

“I always have,” the man answered. He drew his sword. It sang as it released from the sheath. It had been too long since it had been drawn and it savored the moment the sunlight first hit it. The glimmer and glint it cast was brighter than any that had come before it. When the moment passed, the sword despaired.

Even a blade can weep at death, though its tears are usually the blood of the one that has just been slain. Its tears were massive and black that day.

The maul, cleft in two, lay broken on the temple’s stairs. Perhaps a future traveler would come across them. Would that traveler steal them away or bury them with the fallen guardian? He did not care.

He gave a salute to the one foolish enough to stand in his way. The slain foe saluted him back, even though he was surely dead and could not even say a word.

He picked the corpse up and carried it forward into the temple. One more guardian stood before the altar. “Kill her,” the corpse commanded, though it could not even see who stood before him, for its eyes had been eaten long ago.

“We don’t have to do this,” he told his final opponent.

“I have to do this,” she said. “For love.”

“Love is the force that drives me as well,” he said. “You would reject it after everything?”

“I do not have a choice in the matter,” she said.

He did not need to draw his sword for this foe. He simply walked past her and she made no resistance. As soon as his foot touched the ground beyond her, she was gone. His next step hesitated just a moment.

He was weeping by the time he reached the altar. His tears fell heavily on the corpse in his arms. The maggots swarmed to escape the deluge. Some transformed to flies immediately and flew off, though they were stunted and incomplete. Many more turned black and shriveled before becoming dust.

He placed the corpse gently upon the altar and stared down at it for a long time. “What are you waiting for?” it screamed at him. “Do it! Do it!”

“Be quiet, you hag,” he said through his tears. To his surprise, the corpse finally listened to him, after all this time. The final needle of the gods.

He knelt down over the corpse and performed the ritual. When it was complete, he let out a final sigh.

She sat up and smiled at him. “You did it,” she said. Then she started to weep. “Oh, you giant fool. You did it, didn’t you? You did it.” Her voice was that lovely harp that it had been before she died.

He smiled at her, then fell backward. He would not stain her dress with blood. It spread under him, covering the floor of the temple in a dark pool. The torches flickered in their sconces.

“The gods are laughing at you,” she told him. “Your misery is their greatest joy.”

“Then it’s me who will be laughing at them,” he told her. “I do not feel the least
bit of misery even now. Will you laugh with me?”

She laughed until he closed his eyes. Unlike her, his corpse did not speak a word.


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