by Chiisai Niji (地井際ニジ)
I hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, the first time I stumbled upon Blackmaster Asher doing strange, unnatural things to the corpses in his care. I had simply gone down to the dark chambers of the morgue to inquire as to whether Sir would like a hot cup of tea before he turned in for the night. Just being polite, you know, like anyone would. Blackmaster Asher often works late into the night, you see, preparing new arrivals for their last viewings. He kindly dismisses me to bed as soon as my yawning gets in the way of our work, and that night wasn’t an exception. ‘Yawning in their faces won’t resuscitate them, Hewett, and breathing your hot air all over the place won’t warm them now,’ he likes to say wryly, making me splutter and blush. It seems one of the things Blackmaster Asher truly enjoys, making me squirm in my skin while I turn five shades of pink. Not that it’s not embarrassingly easy to make me do, but, well. It seems he goes out of his way to cause that reaction in me, and if it makes him happy then I suppose I can tolerate it.
But I was telling you about that night. Yes, that night and all the nights after have led up to this one, and I have to get it all out in the open, My Journal, even if only to you. I’m no good with secrets and intrigue, and, well… You’re the only one I can safely tell; anyone else in the parish would most likely think me mad and I’d loathe to get Blackmaster Asher into any sort of trouble, even knowing the frighteningly strange things he’s been doing. You know better than anyone else, after all, how wholly the Blackmaster has my heart.
You see, that night I overheard from just outside the morgue door Blackmaster Asher’s voice, usually deep and melodic, now whispering strange threats and even more frightening words of comfort into Gethin and old Schoolmaster Corwyn’s dead ears. It unnerved me fiercely, but I thought maybe the Blackmaster was just having a bit of fun now that his apprentice was safely tucked in bed. So I decided to stay and wait until he was finished before knocking on the partly open door to hand him his tea. It was still scalding hot anyway. But he didn’t stop. If anything, his threats and platitudes just got louder and more urgent, as though he were cajoling and encouraging the dead to come back to life.
I couldn’t help myself then; who could? I peeked around the doorway as carefully as I could, staying in the shadows so Blackmaster Asher wouldn’t notice me, and what I saw nearly made me drop the tea I was holding. He wasn’t just chanting at dead Gethin and Schoolmaster Corwyn, he’d made odd symbols and runes all over their naked skin in what had to be blood. Until that moment I’d never thought of our Blackmaster as anything other than the title implies–the taker of the dead, master of the death arts. Certainly not a… I’d best not print the word. It could send us both to the stake and the fire. That night I hurried back up the stairs and went straight back to my room again, tea and all, so unnerved I couldn’t sleep the whole night through.
And that wasn’t the last time I witnessed the strange rituals Blackmaster Asher performed after hours. In the daylight and to his face I have never let on what I know, though it is not an easy thing to do. For each night I sneak down and listen at the morgue door as the Blackmaster chants, as he smears his own blood (yes, his own!) all over the corpses. Never have I stayed long enough to see the outcome of his spells, being too afraid to see what abominations he might create of the dead. Two weeks straight I have witnessed the things Blackmaster Asher does in the dark of night, and tonight, My Journal, I have promised myself I’ll stay to witness the entire thing and I dare not imagine what I might do—-
Black ink smeared in a great looping arc across the rest of the page as Hewett snapped to attention, startled by a soft tapping at his door.
“Come in,” he squeaked, then cleared his throat and repeated himself in what he hoped was a calmer and more mature voice, shutting his journal before the fresh ink even had a chance to dry.
Blackmaster Asher opened the old wood door of the apprentice’s loft and silently beckoned Hewett forward, with a twitch of one long, pale finger and the quirk of a dark brow. Hewett’s heart raced as he jumped up and followed his master, nervously tucking a strand of longish blond hair behind one ear, smearing ink into it as he did.
Thoughts raced through the young apprentice’s mind like scared rabbits. Why had the Blackmaster come for him? And so late at night? Had he done something wrong? Was he going to be reprimanded? Or worse–turned out? Hewett had nowhere else to go: he was orphaned and too old to go back to a home even if he had one, and he knew no other trade but the one to which he was apprenticed. This had been his home as far back as he could remember. Surely Blackmaster Asher wouldn’t be so cruel? Not his wise and usually kind master? And if he was honest, worst of all Hewett feared his beloved master’s rejection… oh, he knew exactly how unnatural most would think his devotion to the Blackmaster was, but damned if Hewett could stifle his own heart.
Their steps echoed down the old stone stairs that led into the morgue proper, clattering along with Hewett’s frantic thoughts. If he could only see the beginnings of the slightly wry smile on Asher’s face, he might have been set a bit more at ease.
As it was, Hewett kept trying to swallow his heart (firmly lodged in his throat) as he followed the Blackmaster grimly into the morgue, the door closing firmly behind them.
“What were you doing upstairs in your little loft?” Asher asked in a conspiratorially curious tone of voice, leaning too close to his apprentice, hands on either side of him against the heavy wood door. “When I’d have expected you to be just outside my workroom door about this hour?”
Hewett’s mouth hung open, deep blue eyes shifting as though trying to look anywhere but at his master’s face. But it was just inches from his own and there was nowhere else to look, and he was trapped here, cornered between the door and the very solid presence of Blackmaster Asher. Close enough to smell the lime and old blood on his black robes… “I–I… w-what do you mean, sir?”
Asher raised his expressive eyebrows in a look that clearly stated he expected his apprentice to have more wits about him than this. “Surely you don’t think I didn’t know you’d been spying on me? In two full weeks you should have learned something. Tonight you stop skulking and start participating.”
His tone brooked no argument, and when the Blackmaster pulled away once more and moved toward the body of the late Mrs. Selcouth, Hewett found himself following despite his shaking limbs. Participate in this dark magic! The very idea turned young Hewett’s insides to squirming snakes and made his mouth cotton-dry. “But sir… w-we’ll be burnt! If the town knew–” he burst out before slapping a still ink-smeared hand to his mouth. No. No one would know. Unless he told them. Getting him to participate must have been Blackmaster Asher’s way of making sure Hewett would never do something so foolish. Not that his master had anything to worry about; Hewett’s loyalty was simply unquestionable.
Hewett wasn’t prepared for the short burst of laughter that escaped his master, or the look of honest mirth on his face. This was no laughing matter!
“My dear, dear Hewett,” Asher chuckled, wiping at the corners of his eyes, “Thank you for that. Your fresh take on my work never ceases to amuse me. The town knows, or suspects at any rate. And they can do nothing to stop me, nor would even if they could.”
A genuine smile stayed on the Blackmaster’s fine features, too seldomly seen there. Even if it was horribly confusing and Hewett certainly had his doubts about no one in the town wanting to burn him for this, that smile still had the power to calm him a bit. And the Blackmaster had called him dear… “Sir?” he asked tentatively, hoping Blackmaster Asher would elaborate.
“You ought to have stayed for the grand finale at least once.” Asher shook his head, stroking a hand over pretty Mrs. Selcouth’s smooth, cold forehead. “This one we’ll talk to tenderly. Coax her spirit out gently if it still listens.” He raised his dark eyes to Hewett, warmth still shining in their depths. “You see, sometimes the soul lingers on after death, hiding in or clinging to the body it clothed itself in during life. You are familiar with a wake?” At Hewett’s nod, Asher continued. “A wake is held to allow the spirit time to realize what’s happened and to let go. Or to wake up… I simply speed the process along. I call the sleeping spirit forth to wakefulness, or to whatever great beyond is waiting for it.”
Hewett drew in a breath, troubled eyes deepening to the color of the sea in a storm. “You mean… sometimes the dead aren’t dead?”
“In a way. They are dead, mostly. But it’d be a grave sin, don’t you think, to bury someone who perhaps might not be so dead after all? You know the butcher’s wife, Lacey Markwell? In childbirth she died, for a time. The midwife stopped her bleeding but it was thought to be too late and they gave her to me. I was able to call her back and nursed her myself all that long night until I could tell the family the happy news.” Asher smiled sadly at his young apprentice, a strange shadow darkening his countenance.
Hewett had gone pale, astonishment as well as admiration in his gaze. He knew Mrs. Markwell, and knew her son Elan as well. How many others in the town had Blackmaster Asher saved from death?
“And you, Hewett.” Asher said softly, like a blessing or a confession. “If I were not a true Blackmaster, your own name would be graven into the headstone of your parents.”
The boy shook his head in disbelief, strands of golden hair loosening from behind his ears to fly about his face. Everything else he could accept without question, but this? He’d been on the slab? Dead, alone, in here with Blackmaster Asher. Mother-naked as that deep voice yelled–no, he would have spoken softly to Hewett. Softly, gently whispering in his ear while marking him with his own lifeblood, tracing hot patterns into his cold flesh… Hewett swallowed hard, squeezing his eyes shut against the feelings all those thoughts called up in him. He ignored the pounding of his heart, the rush of heat now pooling low in his belly. Now was not the time! Now he needed answers!
“But, but I didn’t die, sir! I… wouldn’t I remember something like that?” Hewett turned confused and pleading eyes up to Asher’s face.
The Blackmaster only shook his head, darkly curled brown locks falling to obscure his eyes. “What do you recall of your life before I took you in, Hewett?”
‘Well, lots of things!’ Hewett wanted to reply, but the words died on his tongue. Lots of things… He screwed up his face, brows furrowing and mouth twisting into a pained frown as he tried to remember even the simplest things. His mother’s face… all a smiling, laughing shadow. The town he grew up in, just over the river. But what river, where? There was no river near here. Just Meadowvale Parish. The more he tried to remember, the more Hewett realized that the only things he had clear and precise memories of were recent events and places; the morgue and Blackmaster Asher, the little schoolhouse up the hill and the town centre bustling with crowds on a Saturday morning. Only snippets from before.
“There was a river,” Hewett hazarded finally, hesitantly looking to his master once more.
Asher sighed. “A river, yes. And little town called Waterstone just five miles to the west, empty now. Devastated by a plague that carried off nearly every inhabitant. You were the only one I was able to wake, Hewett, and you were not ill.”
“Then how, Blackmaster? If everyone else got sick, if everyone else died, why not me?!” It was more a distressing need to know than anything else that drove Hewett to ask. His own sense of detachment from the whole grisly scene was rather disturbing… but he remembered none of it.
Asher smiled a sad, soft smile at Hewett and came to stand beside him, sliding an arm supportively about his shoulders. “You did die. Your father, before he succumbed, smothered you in your sleep. To save you from the village’s fate, I should think. A misguided deed with the best of intentions. But you woke when I called to you. You woke.” That too, whispered like a blessing.
A memory swam up in Hewett’s mind, Blackmaster Asher’s deep voice instructing him on his first day as apprentice. ‘A good Blackmaster tends not only to the dead, but to the living as well. It is the living who need comfort most, and that is what we strive to give them. Comfort that they cannot yet follow their loved ones into the grave, that there is yet still something to live for…’
Hewett was glad Blackmaster Asher had done whatever strange ritual had called him back. No matter what had come before or what the future held in store for him, Hewett knew for certain that he wanted to go on experiencing it. Life held enough mysteries; he could easily put off death until he’d had his fill here. And it was Blackmaster Asher, his dear and beloved teacher and master, who had saved him. Called him back and gave him a new beginning. And now, Hewett saw, it was time for him to make his own choices. No time like now to make his feelings known. Life only lasted so long, after all.
“Blackmaster Asher, sir,” Hewett began, squaring his shoulders and turning to grip his master’s upper arm, daring to hold on firmly to stare straight into those dark and serious eyes. Everything came out in a rush of words, but Hewett’s voice didn’t shake. “I want to thank you. And I want to learn how to wake the dead as well, and I’ll keep it a secret even if you say the town doesn’t care. And I’ll do my best to learn everything I can from you if you’ll let me go on living here forever with you, because… because I love you, sir. I want to fill my mind with memories of you.”
And then right in front of poor dead Mrs. Selcouth, he got up on his tiptoes and pulled Asher down far enough that he could catch his mouth in a very awkward but very heartfelt kiss. ‘Blast it all to hell and damn the rest!’ Hewett thought giddily; he was going to make life worth living even if he killed himself doing it!
Then, to Hewett’s surprise, Asher began kissing him back, and not only that but deepening the kiss. His strong arms were circling around Hewett’s shoulders and back, pulling him close and lifting him up, making him feel like the only solid thing in this world was his own dear Blackmaster himself. It was some minutes before the kiss broke, and Hewett was left breathless in Asher’s arms, staring dazedly up into his beloved’s face. To think he’d been afraid of and for this man! No one could harm him, not safe in that embrace.
“Sometimes you do still surprise me, Hewett,” Asher admitted, laughing breathily. “I thought it’d be months yet before you confessed to me. Now don’t look so startled; you really are easy to read.”
Hewett opened his mouth to protest, an undignified, “Sir!” squeaking out before Asher’s lips closed on his again.
“No more,” Asher said, in his best instructional tone, pausing to plant small kisses all along Hewett’s jawline. “No ‘Blackmaster’ this and ‘sir’ that. Just Asher, if you’ll have me, Hewett, and you’re sure this is what you want. I have full confidence that you’ve got the conviction to know your own heart and act on it; you have shown it since the day I met you.”
Tears pricked Hewett’s eyes and he hugged Asher close, clumsily kissing his nose and his cheek. It was like coming home. “Blackma–ah. Asher,” he whispered, searching his new lover’s face. “You aren’t… worried? I’m not making you do this, am I? Because if the town finds out–”
“Blast the town, Hewett! And that you could ever think that you’d be forcing me into anything is, well I don’t know what it is. Laughable, surely. Anyone else might think I was the one taking advantage of you.” And Asher silenced any protests Hewett might have made with another deep kiss, this one slower, more languid, each just drinking the other in and relishing this new experience.
And then, My Journal, I convinced my love to let me fully appreciate him right then and there. He protested that we should wait until I was ready, and perhaps I should have been more sensitive to his needs. But how could I wait another moment longer when I’ve been holding my desires in for months with no recourse save to speak to you? And forgive me for saying this, but while you listen well you cannot commiserate nor give relief such as I have been needing. I insisted that we put off attempting to wake dear departed Mrs. Selcouth until after we had consummated our new love; she could rest longer. (And as it turned out, she did not wake anyway, no matter how much both I and Blackmaster Asher coaxed her.)
Forgive me again, My Journal, but I must record every detail of what happened here, simply because I never want to forget it as long as I live (and memory, as I have just learned, may not last always). Keep this secret for me too, the secret of our love and of our burning lust, for if the town knew I am sure they would burn us both alive for such heresy, no matter what my Asher says. (And how long will it be before calling him so doesn’t make my heart swell?)
Hastily I undressed myself and eased myself onto the unoccupied slab, and Asher obligingly removed his own robes as well. Oh, he is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, pale and toned with such a warm and open face and that dark and curled head of hair. His eyes, though… it electrified me to have them on my body, as though they were caressing me and memorizing each part of me. The slab beneath me was cold as ice, but Asher’s warmth above me more than made up for it. I didn’t know what to do next and so just lay there, panting, shivering underneath his weight as his hands traced hot trails across my bare skin. His tongue followed his hands, down my chest, teasing my nipples and oh how I shuddered then! But he kept going, further and further down, and I was left breathless and speechless… his lips closed over just the tip of my erection and I thought the world would explode. The warmth and wetness of his tongue sliding along the length of me was driving me further and further out of my mind with need. I moaned. And when his fingers, already cleverly slicked, pushed slowly into me I keened. It was painful, yes, an odd burning pain and pressure, but Asher kept me well distracted with his mouth still slipping around my now desperately throbbing erection.
I couldn’t help myself. I came, in great gushing bursts and without warning, into Asher’s mouth, onto his cheek, even in his hair. I blush furiously even now recalling it. He laughed, a sound I’ll never forget. Different from any other laugh I’d ever heard him utter, deeper, throatier, carrying all his desire. For me. It makes me want him again, now, just hearing it in my mind.
He laughed and wiped his cheek, his chin, left his hair a mess and tenderly lapped up what he could. He drank the very life of me! And then had the grace to ask if I wanted to be done, without even allowing him inside me save the few fingers he still tantalizingly moved within me. I wanted all of him. I let him know in no uncertain terms that he was to get onto the slab with me and make me his. And so he did. His own erection was even thicker and more rigidly hard than my own and I cannot lie and say I felt no pain as he entered me. But he was gentle and slow, and the sense of being filled by him, while still somewhat painful and certainly strange, also awed me. I wanted more and moved my hips in time with his slow strokes, pushing him deeper in. He was moaning now, just as desperate as I had been for release. I leaned forward as best I could and captured his mouth, kissing him and swallowing his cries as he moved faster within me. On his tongue I could taste a faint bitter tang of what must have been my own seed. I rolled harder into him, trying to devour him with my whole being, and again he laughed. It was more a loud panting than a laugh, but I knew it for what it was. ‘So enthusiastic,’ he breathed to me, still thrusting, and I rose to meet him every time. When he reached his climax it was as though time stood still for us both. He stilled within me all except for his juddering hips, and I held him close, tasting the salt of his skin as he buried his face in my shoulder and called my name.
How can I capture that moment? Just the sound of his voice calling my name like that, with such avid passion, such love and devotion. My life will never be the same. Because for the first time, I am truly living it.
Hewett waited for the ink to dry, looking at the open pages of his journal fondly in the flickering candlelight. Funny how building on his secrets–that Blackmaster Asher was a practicing warlock, that he was raising the dead, that he himself was one of those dead, and most secret and beautiful of all that they were now lovers–somehow freed the young apprentice from all fear. What the parish didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, and none of his intrigues and mysteries would either. The gift of life, a new life… that’s what the Blackmaster had given him. And he would guard each precious secret until the day he died and beyond if that’s what it took.