earth replied to his footsteps with a chorus of snaps, crunches – breaking
sounds. A cloud of dust hovered over the earth and clogged the filters of his
rubber mask. Bone dust. Burnt bone dust.
It can be toxic at high levels.
Remains fertilized this soil. The field he trudged through was composed of stripped skeletons: Cranium, crunch. Tibia, crack. Clavicle, snap. Consumption by fire makes for brittle bones, and he had created a path of scorched shards. His daily pilgrimage through the graveyard had split the pieces smaller and smaller until a road of human-gravel was carved. How fine his boots had made the dust measured his time, his torment. He struggled not to look down. For who wants to mark the days when the curse of eternity will render them irrelevant? “Eternal Mourner of what was lost.”
Red eyes hovered in the mist. The children, cloaked in the soot, wafted among the bones in search of flesh. Their slurping and sucking echoed off the walls of fog. A few yards to his left, one of these pale youths hunched over a carcass and moaned as she feasted on the scraps. Her pale, bald head bobbed as she ran her tongue up and down the bone. She whipped around when the man’s weight shattered a ribcage. The fire in her eyes smoldered and she hissed,
“Do your duty, Mourner.”
He turned to face her, clenched his fists and screamed loud and long until his lungs threatened to burst. The shout came out as a muted wail behind his gas-mask. The creature nodded.
“More,” she said, “until the end that never comes.”
She turned and glided away from him into the thick of the mist, and the man returned to the path and dragged his feet forward, kicking up clouds.
His destination had no unique identity. The rubble of blackened bones was identical to the miles of ruin he had just walked. But a figure was at this site; a woman, cloaked in white, pure and untouched by the air’s filth. Her lips were pale but full, her eyes blue but bright. The man knelt at her feet and kissed her ankle, his mouth passing through the non-corporeal.
“You torture yourself, mourner,” she said.
“Please don’t call me that, Alice.”
“I’m calling you what you are. This only brings you pain, and punishes me when I’ve done nothing wrong. You were giving in live, and now you are selfish in death.”
“But I love you,” his throat dried and words became croaks, “Please don’t leave me.”
“If you love me, let me go, and know I will still love you even away from here.” She said.
A pale boy approached his side and smiled to the apparition.
“Are you ready, mourner?” it asked.
“Please, Matthew. Please,” the ghostly woman stretched out her fingers and he felt nothing but the dust in the air when he reached for them, “let today be the day.”
Tears and salt fogged the glass of his mask and he pulled the strap over his head and tossed the worthless item to the side.
“Are you ready?” hissed the child.
He nodded, streak-marks running down his cheeks. The child grabbed his dusty hair in his fists and wrenched the man’s face to his lips. His mouth filled with the taste of burnt and rotted meat and he gagged on the tongue of the pale-monster. It pulled back and flashed a twisted grin.
“Well done mourner. The first is released.”
A soft, pleasure-filled sigh drifted from the lips of the white woman. Her eyelids fluttered closed and her image slowly faded into nothingness. The hairless child moved to where she had stood and picked up the set of bones that had been at her feet. Slowly but deliberately he angled his neck back and opened his mouth. It widened. Inch by inch the hole grew more than a foot wide, until the boy’s entire face had morphed into a lightless abyss. He raised the bones above his head and dropped them into the hole. The man expected an echo of some sort, a final farewell from the woman, but her remains were soundlessly absorbed by the tiny body.
The boy turned to leave.
“We must mourn again tomorrow, but today you can rest.” He said.
The man’s face contorted and his lips turned pale and twisted.
“Vulture!” He spat, “You enjoy this. You enjoy watching me suffer – taking everything I have away. Why me? Why didn’t I just die along with everyone else?”
“If I answer,” said the child, “would it make a difference? You are here to do this, now do it.”
“But there are so many of them. So many to mourn for.”
“Thus is an apocalypse.”