Ulster Favian had a soft spot for dark and stormy nights, not because he was a particularly poetic type, but because he knew that they were the only times his cemetery would be left completely undisturbed.
Back when his father had been the watchman, virtually no one ventured into the graveyard at night. Admittedly, his father's career happened to coincide with the reign of Aetherlord Iden, back when fear of what might lurk in the darkness kept people indoors, but it wasn't as if his death had made the cemetery any safer or less intimidating. Even Ulster carried a pistol, just in case.
Just because one damned Aetherling is dead doesn't mean the rest simply crawled into the ground to join him, Ulster thought to himself, plodding through the downpour holding the brand new umbrella his sister had bought him. He liked to spin it as he walked, pretending to be one of those fancy rich fools that now wandered freely down the streets of Tiavalen, secure in their knowledge One-Eyed Iden would not swoop in and murder them on a whim.
As much as he liked to joke about it, Iden's death hadn't actually been the cause of the increase in unwanted visitors. No, the real culprit was the medical school. Ever since they'd added that damned department to the University, he regularly found trespassers meandering about with wheelbarrows and shovels, looking for corpses to pilfer.
Well, they weren't getting any cadavers on his watch. He had respect for the dead, just as any normal, Aether-fearing man should.
As was his custom, he saluted the small mausoleum holding Faos Tisi as he passed, the light of his dim lantern producing strange shadows on its white walls. He had a special spot in his heart for the little witch. All the stories said that before she helped found the University, she'd fended off Iden with nothing more than a knife and sheer pluck. Ulster wished he could have seen it: that tall, terrible Aetherling getting thoroughly clobbered by a girl half his size. Just the thought of it made him chuckle softly to himself.
A loud clunk jolted him out of his reverie. He squinted into the heavy rain, holding up a hand to keep the wind from blowing any more water into his eyes. The flame of his lantern danced fitfully, illuminating little more than his own weathered face and hand. "Who's there?" he asked gruffly. Surely none of the medical students would be out on a night like this.
He received no spoken response, but the sounds of frantic shuffling and the creak of wheels over the heavy pattering of rain told him all he needed to know. "They just keep getting worse and worse," he grumbled angrily to himself. A flash of lightning in the distance lit up the cemetery just enough for him to see the familiar silhouette of a person struggling to push a wheelbarrow through a patch of unmarked graves. Huh. Usually there's at least two of them. "Stop right there!"
The sound of his voice apparently panicked the intruder, who let out a nervous whimper and attempted to double his pace. One of the wheels on his barrow caught on a fragment of stone, causing the cart to pitch over and dump its canvas-covered load onto the ground. As Ulster crept steadily closer, letting his umbrella drop to the ground beside him, the thief's head whipped back and forth, apparently torn between running and attempting to recapture his prize.
Whatever his decision might have been, he took too long to make up his mind. With a sudden burst of speed, Ulster lurched towards him, snatching his arm and waving the lantern in front of his face angrily. "What do you think you're doing, young man?" Thunder rumbled above them as if to underscore his displeasure.
His captive shrieked, desperately trying to wrench his wrist out of the watchman's grip. Though the lantern-light could only penetrate so far beneath the intruder's hood, a few glimpses of smooth, unwrinkled skin confirmed Ulster's suspicions - another damned medical student. At least this one had the nerve to do it himself. Sometimes they hired people off the streets, which made Ulster's job significantly more difficult. He could take on a squirmy little University brat; a professional body-snatcher could prove legitimately dangerous.
The youth finally managed to latch onto a coherent response. "I promise it's not what it looks like! I can explain!" Ulster was surprised at the pitch and timbre of this assertion; it seemed he had caught his first female body-snatcher in over a month. Her neck twisted back towards the canvas sack on the ground as if she were afraid it might wander away without vigilant supervision.
Ulster followed the thief's gaze. "You thought you could get away with it 'cause you were stealing from the poor half of the graveyard, didn't you? All you damned - wait a minute. Are those potatoes?"
He squinted, trying to get a closer look. Sure enough, dozens of misshapen, brown lumps lay scattered about the sack and overturned wheelbarrow. Letting go of the intruder's wrist, Ulster stooped over and picked one up. Further inspection revealed that it was in fact a potato, albeit a wet potato covered in a thin, slimy layer of grime.
"What were you planning to do with this, eh?!"
The thief had been backing away slowly for several seconds at this point, but the question made her stop in her tracks. "Well, obviously they were so I could… um..."
Ulster was not particularly impressed. "Let me guess. That sack is full of potatoes. You're taking a shortcut through the graveyard to sell them at market tomorrow morning."
"Yes! Exactly! If you would just let me… pick all of them up, I promise to be out of your way in a matter of minutes." Clearly, Ulster's sarcasm had been lost on her.
"So if I just reach down and open this here bag, I'll find nothing inside it but tubers." Ulster kicked the sack with his boot, feeling his toes connect with something large and soft that was most definitely not a potato. He'd expected as much - another dead body disguised as something innocent. The students tried to pull those sorts of tricks all the time.
He hadn't been expecting the sack to twitch violently the second after his foot made contact. Ulster cursed loudly and leapt away, nearly dropping his lantern.
The young woman seemed just as startled as he was. "Oh shit," she muttered, her hands flying to his mouth in shock. "This is bad."
"What in the blazes do you have in there?" A thought suddenly occurred to Ulster. "It ain't… fresh, right?"
The intruder had picked up a shovel that had been lying amidst the spilled contents of the wheelbarrow and was now prodding the sack carefully. "What's that supposed to mean?" she asked shrilly.
Ulster pulled the pistol from the holster on his hip. He didn't like to use the thing on people if he didn't have to, but this was obviously a special circumstance. "Don't you move an inch, you filthy bastard. Let's see the poor soul you have cooped up in that sack of yours."
It seemed obvious now: this wasn't a corpse-stealing medical student. It was a bonafide murderer, come to dispose of a victim. Well, Ulster certainly wasn't going to let it happen on his watch. Bending over carefully, so as to keep his weapon trained on the criminal, Ulster set down his lantern and unwrapped the now sodden occupant of the canvas bag.
It was slightly more difficult than he had anticipated. The body had been stuffed inside head-first, and with only one free hand available, Ulster couldn't do much more than reveal a pair of tall, knee-high boots. They were a bit swanky for Ulster's taste; though judging by the way one was missing its sole, their owner must have fallen on hard times.
He gestured at the young woman, who clutched the shovel to her chest defensively. "Well? Care to help?"
At this point, both of them were soaked to the bone. Her cloak clung to her body, revealing a wiry figure beneath. "Er - um - I suppose - I'm not really sure it's safe to -" Ulster picked up the lantern and raised it to his face, illuminating his scowl. He nodded at the gun.
Gulping, the youth grabbed the bottom of the bag and lifted it upward, allowing the rest of the man inside to spill gracelessly onto the muddy ground beneath. "I promise it's not what it looks like," she repeated, more quietly this time. For a second, Ulster wondered if she might be a witch; she certainly didn't look like the type who could murder someone with physical strength alone. If she were a witch, though, surely she could have used a bit of magic to defend herself by now, right?
As the intruder backed away from the body, brandishing her shovel, Ulster stepped closer, lifting the lantern to get a better look.
He needn't have bothered, for at that moment lightning split open the sky directly above them, illuminating the grisly sight in horrific detail.
The corpse had fallen with his long legs bent at odd angles and his arms splayed outward as if inviting someone to embrace him. Had his right eye been open, it would have been gazing at the slightly cupped fingers of his right hand. Had his left eye still been intact, it would have been staring directly at Ulster. Instead, he was met with a stark, empty, flesh-lined socket - an old wound, judging by the lack of blood, but still decidedly unnerving.
Ulster's attention lingered only briefly on the corpse's face before he spotted the set of twisting metal fibers wound around his neck. A gorgette. He had only ever seen one or two before, but the device was instantly recognizable, its thin, twisting filigree clutching a series of milky glass orbs to the wearer's neck - a contraption for imprisoning Aetherlings. And judging by the shattered glass now strewn across the ground, it was badly broken.
Everyone knew that, given time, an Aetherling could heal from almost any wound; Ulster had heard of stories of particularly nasty ones regrowing entire limbs in a matter of hours. Few would willingly wander about in human form without a full set of eyes - with one notable exception.
"One-Eyed Iden…" Ulster breathed.
The Aetherling's remaining eye snapped open, his head twisting so that he could stare directly at Ulster.
Ulster couldn't move, not even to pull the trigger on his pistol. Iden could kill a man in a matter of seconds. Iden showed no mercy. Even if Ulster could muster up the courage to fight, there was no chance that he or anyone could -
The girl slammed her shovel into the Aetherling's face. Iden went limp again, letting out an incongruously pitiful groan as he sunk back into whatever dark slumber Ulster had unintentionally disturbed. "I knew I should have brought an extra gorgette," she muttered to herself.
Ulster tried to steady his shaking hands. The last thing he needed was to convey to the medical student that he had been paralyzed by his own cowardice. Fortunately, he felt the fury of several minutes before returning fast. "Who in their right mind would bury that Aetherling in my cemetery? Do you know how many people here are dead because of him?" He gestured broadly with his arms at the graves, cutting through the sheets of falling rain. "And you thought it was a good idea to dig him up?"
The youth bent down to examine the gorgette, keeping a wary eye on Ulster as she did so. "Well… I'll admit it's not the most prudent thing I've ever done. But I promise there's a perfectly legitimate reason that -"
Ulster snorted. "Legitimate my ass! Someone should have burned his corpse long ago. That's the only way to keep an Aetherling from coming back, right? I have half a mind to do it right now!"
The girl winced at his words. "You know… it is raining…" Her back straightened suddenly, and she looked up at Ulster defiantly. "Besides, it would be a waste to just get rid of him! He's a once-in-a-lifetime specimen, you know. Most Aetherlings don't just walk up to you and -"
"Specimen? Are you crazy?!"
"My professor says he learned more about Aetherlings from studying Iden than he did at any of his University classes!" she shot back, clenching her fists. "He probably wouldn't have even gotten rid of him if the authorities hadn't found out about it! Stashing Iden here was the best option we had!"
The admission caught Ulster off-guard. What kind of conspiracy is this? To think I thought she was working alone! "Wait. Is this some plot to get your damned professor his - his specimen back? You twisted -"
"I swear it's not!" A short silence ensued. "I need him for something… personal," she finally said, the nervous tremor of her voice suddenly banished by a sort of grim resolve. "But look, whether you want to let me take him off your hands or bury him again, he needs to be back on the wheelbarrow." After an awkward pause, she added, "Could you… help me with that, sir?"
Ulster had no intention of letting her walk out of the graveyard with the Aetherling, but she had a point. "I'll right the wheelbarrow for you." He stifled a laugh at the dismayed look on her face. She'd probably hoped to take off with it as soon as Iden was sitting on it, but she certainly couldn't do that with him clutching the handles. Another University student thwarted.
As he bent to flip the barrow over, still awkwardly clutching the pistol in his hand, he contemplated what to do with the girl and her unusual loot. If he offered to let her go free, would she leave without Iden? He rarely let a grave-robber get away, but seeing her hit the Aetherling with her shovel reminded him of little Faos Tisi, the bane of Iden and defender of humanity.
Put simply, part of him admired the girl's nerve. Maybe if more people had that kind of pluck back when Iden had roamed the streets of Tiavalen, there would be a dozen fewer graves in his cemetery. Her motives might be rotten, but at least she has balls.
Such was Ulster's final thought before the cold, wet head of the shovel crashed into the back of his skull. Ignorant to the drama that had unfolded beneath it, the rain swallowed the girl and her prize as she slunk back into the tempestuous night.