Friday, May 22, 2020

Fiction Friday: The Anatomist's Academy

The Thief: The Anatomist's Academy

I waited for noon before I stepped onto the grounds of the old anatomist's academy; part of me wanted to wait even longer. 

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Like never.

Never would have been the ideal. But the secrets of that dead cabal weren't going to do me (my coin purse, that lingering cough I'd been fighting) any good moldering in the dark forest where they'd hidden their school.

I could smell the school before I was even a mile away from the grounds. I'd expected the smell of decay. The woods stunk, rotting flesh, overtones of pickles, the hint of mold underlying everything. I gagged, wrapping something around my nose and mouth to keep out the scent. I hadn't eaten well that morning, and the last thing I needed was to puke and eat the rest of what remained of my supplies.

The smell lessened, but it was still enough that I could, in contrast to all sensible judgment (Why should I start listening to that when ignoring it had already gotten me this far? Please don't answer that.), I followed my nose to the walls of the abandoned school.

The building was a squat two-story creature, faced in cracked plaster and yellowed whitewash. A reminder that the anatomists had played at respectability when they'd started out. And we'd let them get away with it for far longer than really seemed sensible in retrospect. The windows were all small and high-set, so I had to circle around the building until I found the front doors. The pair of heavy oak doors had fallen out of their frame, and I had to walk over them to enter the school. I tried to ignore how the wood separated as I went to put my foot on the door and ended up putting it through the door. The feeling of the soft, rotten wood against my leg made me jump the rest of the way through the entrance. I turned and kicked at the doors to try and clear a path to leave. I did not want to repeat that experience.

The past decade of neglect was everywhere in the school, but more muted than it had been on the once-white outer walls. Those had been stained brown and green, mold and water damage its new coat of paint. The inside of the building was simply finger-traced water stains running down the walls, the rot slowly creeping down from the ceiling. I had to stop and try to get my heart from racing, and the bastard that was my common sense got louder in urging me that anywhere would be a better place to try and make a little coin than here.

It lied; the times I came closest to starving was when I listened to it.

I wanted to shut it up, so I grabbed the nearest door handle and pulled. The metal handle ripped itself free from the wood frame with a damp tearing noise after staying together long enough for the door to start a slow swing open. I nudged it the rest of the way with my boot and peered inside.

It had been a classroom, old desks still in slightly off-kilter rows. The floor was littered with fallen bits of plaster, and I traced the damage to a crack that started at the room's single high window. The crack split, one fork running along the ceiling, the other twisting along the wall until it hid behind a skewed slate panel hung on the wall. There was writing on the slate board, but the corpses' illumination wasn't enough to read by.

Well, pieces of bodies. Remains preserved in glass jars lined the bottom two rows of shelves against the walls. I wasn't an anatomist, so I couldn't identify any of the organs, even if the fluid they'd been in was clear instead of deep green and cloudy. But the organs still held some of the spirit-light that had been used to preserve them. Though the illumination was faint, it banished the room's shadows.

Stepping further into the room, I saw what I'd been hoping to find. The lectern, hidden from me by the door frame, was stacked with books that looked untouched by the years. I smiled as I shoved my way through the rows of desks, grateful for the resistance as I pushed them out of my way. I circled the lectern; three books in a pale leather cover rested there. I curled my hand into a fist before unfurling my pinkie, moving it slowly towards the stack of books.

I know my common sense and I don't always get along, but once I'm this deep into a situation, it usually starts trying to be helpful instead of telling me to run away. Like: "Don't touch the creepy pile of books with a finger you'd mind losing." It was good advice, the books were ice-cold as my pinkie touched them. I tried to pull my hand back, but there was a moment of pain and the sound of something being peeled as I tugged my hand away.

As I wrapped a bit of cloth around my finger, I heard something scraping against dry wood. I looked up at the room again and realized that the third row of shelves hadn't been empty. I had ignored that small slice of darkness. In it, a hundred pin-pricks of spirit-light flickered into being, each pair illuminating the eye sockets of a skull. All of the skulls were facing me.

The scraping became a tapping noise, the skulls starting to vibrate and bounce on their shelf as the light in their eyes grew. They slowly moved towards the front of their shelf, and as the first skull jumped free of its shelf, it dropped halfway to the floor before the lights in its eyes flared, and it bobbed back up to face me.

As the room full of skulls started to glide towards me through empty air, I had a single thought: maybe my common sense had been right for once.

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