It was rare for a man to be walking in these mountains alone. For a dead man to be doing so was remarkable.
The moon shifted behind silvered clouds, dousing the dead man in shadow. From high among the emerald mountains he came, using ancient footpaths to guide his way. The clannish roads led him to an isolated valley of lush growth where an enduring population survived among the wilderness. Such mundane details did not interest the dead man. Only his destination.
The dead man forded a mountain river two miles from a village, his trousers pinned above his knees to avoid getting wet. The water was cold and clear and moved at a whispering pace. The dead man could have been a mere shadow, so little did he disturb the olden flow. He regained dry land at the settling stone where the villagers came daily to claim their ration of water.
The path to the village was well marked from here. The moon was now in full flight behind the scattered clouds, the sky black and the stars filling its exposed depths like the remnants of a crushed diamond, their pattern ancient and bright.
The course was steep and would be treacherous in such conditions. Only the tremulous glow of the village was visible, a scattered dust below. Such was the distance that it seemed he could cradle the glowing embers upon the palm of his hand and send them swirling into the night.
The dead man was weak, the disease slowly ravaging his body. Breathing was difficult with his rattling lungs. Reaching into his haversack, the man broke off a piece of bread and moistened it in the river. He chewed upon it slowly. For several minutes he looked into the darkness below, lost in contemplations that bore profoundly upon him. Occasionally his thoughts were broken by fits of deep coughing that left him gasping for breath. At length the moon alit from behind the slumbering clouds, the way made clear once again. With a patient step, he moved on.
The dead man was dying, a seemingly ironic state of affairs. But in truth, the foregone conclusion of his nearing demise was the very reason for his return to this place. Death itself, draped in black and bearing a gleaming scythe, was his inspiration.
Never before had he strayed from the rules of a confidence game. Yet poignantly, in the midst of his most elaborate con of all, he had been forced to procure an amendment. There was no purpose in taking the prize for himself, after all. He would be dead. It would have to be passed on, but in a style of his making. With a twist.
He trusted that those who he eventually sent invitations to would accept, for nothing promoted chaos into an endeavor more assuredly than the simple inclusion of people. People with diminutive concerns, apprehensions of contrived importance in their own minds. Trials and tribulations and other laughable complications. Foolish, contrite distractions.
The dead man hoped they would prove obstructive to one another. He had no intention of letting this be easy. Not with such a rich reward at stake. But there was a long time to wait before any of that occurred, and he turned his attention back to his current endeavor.
An old church rose above the gnarled trees, its bell tower stabbing at the moon like a spear. As he approached, the tower’s jagged finger dug deeper into the night sky’s luminescent heart, the protrusion finally piercing through the moon entirely to merge with the starlit canvas.
The remains of the small church were more or less intact, the single desolate building appearing as lonely and windblown as a treeless island. It was a simple stone edifice, able to house no more than a room for worshipping. It had been years since he had last seen it, but everything looked the same.
The dead man stepped through the front entrance, a vacant archway that had not seen a door in over a century. A small chamber with gaping windows and leaning pews awaited him, cluttered and smelling heavily of mildew. Rubble and debris were scattered across the floor, a lone moonbeam highlighting their mundane existence.
Assorted tools, wooden ladders, and rough-hewn scaffolding clustered at the center of the opposite wall, shadowed evidence of more recent and orderly endeavors. Canvas bundles were carefully situated in wooden crates.
The work had begun.
But it was the moonbeam itself that caught the dead man’s eye, his weakened heart skipping a beat at the spectacle. Hues of cobalt, burgundy, and dark green swirled together into riotous patterns, bringing to mind the promise of sapphires, rubies, and emeralds where the fantastical light spread across the floor. And enclosed within the darker radiance a softer tone drifted down like a collection of glittering snowflakes, gifting all that they kissed with a frosted white light.
His gaze shifted upwards towards the stars, dazzling in their splendor.
Yes, he decided, this new confidence game would do very nicely.