Caw hurls the 143rd corpse onto the platform, his face contorting in disgust. His hands are all slippery, reeking of human stench. He cannot, for the love of his future, understand why he’s picked to intern for a lowly Mortician when, taking Caw’s rank into account, he could have chosen any prestigious job. Instead here he is, hauling corpses after corpses onto the Body Dock, before the waves manage to wash them up on Bone Beach and scare the sunlight out of the tourists.
Where do these dead humans come from anyway?
It isn’t until he takes off his hat and calls it a day (night, whatever) that he notices a barrel bobbing in the middle of the black ocean. The Mortician never told him about floating barrels, and for the three months Caw had been labouring his haughty arse, a barrel is the last thing he expects to see.
He decides to check it out.
Caw remembers studying a principle of evolution, the kind that spawned bats and birds. Convergent, that’s what they’d called it. Where two different species raced each other in the morphology slots, reaching the same conclusion if they were unlucky and crowding the other out if they weren’t.
If evolution is on Caw’s side (and it surely is, evidenced by his surpassing human beings in every way) he should be able to examine that stupid barrel already: speeding along the wings of his genetic superiority, empowered by his semi-corporeal form that keeps him from falling when he flies across the infinite sea. Instead, he sets himself in the Mortician’s bone boat and canoes his way to retrieve his object of interest.
It is heavy.
He considers breaking it with his paddle so he can examine the contents before they sink, or float. Whichever one. But he might break his only paddle and that is a bad idea.
He doesn’t feel like swimming his way back.
Eventually, Caw manages to haul the barrel onto the boat. Once that is done, he canoes himself (and the barrel) back onto the Dock.
“You better be worth it, you unsanitary–”
The barrel moves. It is moving. He is not hallucinating.
Even though he is the farthest thing from a human, his sense of self-preservation cannot be rivalled, therefore he scrambles gracelessly onto the Dock and holds himself flat on the ground.
He hits the barrel with his trusty paddle and gives a manly scream when it rattles.
“Come out, you ratty demon!” Caw says, peeking over the edge.
The boat hovers below him. When his sensibility finally kicks in, he ties the boat onto the dock as he waits for the barrel to retaliate. Caw has always taken pride in his multitasking ability.
“Come out, come out!” Caw taunts it, smashing the lid back into place when it finally moves. He cackles evilly, and does it a few more times until he finally gets bored.
“Alright. I’m done messing with you. Show yourself.”
Caw immediately sobers when the lid dislodges and two glowing eyes peek out of the gap. He holds his breath and waits. The thing inside the barrel seems to be analysing him, on guard in case he decides to smash the lid in again.
Caw doesn’t. He does the stupid thing – he drops the paddle and raises his hands. “I am unarmed.”
With curling toes and hunched shoulders, the creature that emerges has all the body language of a shaved ape. It is a human. And it is alive. It scrambles onto the dock, shivering and shaggy wet hair sticking to its face. Its olive skin is shiny from either respiration or the ocean.
“Are you what they call a human?”
The chimp nods.
“So you do understand what I am saying,” Caw says.
The chimp nods again.
“Oh goddamn it, put some clothes on.”
He wrangles the sodding clothes from a corpse at the top of the pile and throws it at the cursed chimp.
Caw observes it and concludes that it is in fact a human boy. From the way it acknowledges his generous gift, the shivering ease it manages to cover itself, this thing is clearly a sentient being, in other words it does not lack social awareness. The innate, blessed understanding of why it’s not considered proper to touch yourself in public, that sort of thing.
“You will come with me,” Caw says.
“Indeed a human, or a revenant to be specific,” the Mortician says.
“A revenant, you say.”
Caw keeps getting distracted with the way the boy’s fingers balloon out his cheeks as he shoves parsley after parsley into his mouth and swallows without as much as chew. Lips wet, slimy with bovine contentment. Eyes rolled down with placid consideration of the empty plate until finally Caw wants to reach out and snatch the plate away, make the boy look at him instead so he can hunt for a sign of intelligence in those moist, dark-ringed eyes.
The boy’s eyes are mismatched in colour, one bright red, the other glowing yellow.
The Mortician cackles, amused at Caw’s irritation. “I will keep him.”
“The last I checked, animated corpses are illegal,” Caw says.
“No. Unlike a lykhe, a revenant does not possess a phylactery as his soul was not reaped in between the time of death and return. He can pass as a regular mortal,” the Mortician says between laughter. ”But as a rule he may develop odd quirks or a disability that he once did not possess as a human. However, this boy is not unlike yourself, Lugnor, except you are the dead and he is the living.”
“He doesn’t even have a name,” Caw says.
The boy immediately looks up, opens his mouth and then frowns. He tries again.
“I see,” the Mortician says.
“The boy has lost the ability to speak. He is a revenant after all.”
For all Caw knows, this boy might secretly be a trichosurus vulpecula, employed in a masquerade of humanity. Primates and a certain breed of marsupial both have opposable thumbs, though they lack comparative genetics.
The boy writes his name onto the corner of a parchment in neat, perfect script.
Caw stares and seethes at evolution.
“Morgenstein. What sort of name is that?” Caw squawks.
The revenant – Morgenstein – looks away, mouth curving downwards and trembling. It strikes Caw that this creature has feelings.
“Oh, for the love of– save me,” Caw groans.
For the next two weeks, Caw stays away from the Mortician’s home, only stopping by before and after work and never loiters. He does not see Morgenstein and knows that he must be somewhere in there.
“Morgenstein misses you.” The Mortician visits him at the Body Dock on the fortnight.
“Right. Because your pet-human is fond of me,” Caw says.
“He is no pet, Lugnor. You may be interested to hear what he has to say.”
“Oh, for the life of death, the boy is mute!”
The Mortician gives him one of those looks that clearly says he has crossed the line between snark and offence.
Caw swallows. “Fine. I’ll go.”
When he enters the Mortician’s place after work, he braces himself for the worst.
Hello, a hollow voice registers in his mind instead of his ears, and Caw whirls around to find Morgenstein sitting on one of the coffins that the Mortician uses as a makeshift bench.
The wooden table between them is piled with books and scrolls. In front of Morgenstein is a bottle of ink and a black feather quill. From what Caw manages to make out, Morgenstein is wearing nondescript monochrome clothes that are only a tad too big for him. His wild hair has been tamed as well, cropped short but a little sloppy, credit to the Mortician.
I said hello, Morgenstein says without moving his mouth.
“How are you doing that?”
I’ve been practicing what Mortician Gore taught me, the boy says, gesturing to the books on the table.
“Of course,” Caw says, his mind jogging to catch up. “I have only studied Speech in theory.”
It is useful. I just wish people could have done this back where I came from, the boy says.
“Back where you came from, you say?”
Caw invites himself into the seat beside Morgenstein and sighs in relief when the boy does not stink of human stench.
Yes. Some people there aren’t so lucky. I was one of the fortunate ones, the boy says.
“Dolemrok is a world of disease and power struggle. There is nothing fortunate about such a place.”
Morgenstein frowns. I have been reading about that. Mortician Gore wanted me to familiarise myself with how this world views mine.
And Dolemrok is not my world, the boy says.
The Mortician pops out from behind the seashells curtain that separates the kitchen from the front room. He is wiping his hand on a dirty rag that has bloodstains on it. Caw does not want to know.
“I see you’ve been talking,” the Mortician says.
“The idea of another set of the universe is unlikely,” Caw says flatly.
“A Round World, Lugnor. From what Morgue here has described to me, I believe what he speaks of is a seed of a new world. The brutality of Dolemrok and the magic of Neverearth combined. An offspring, in short. Fascinating, really. Though it’s best to keep this between the three of us for now.”
“Tell me about this world of yours,” Caw says immediately.
And Morgenstein describes everything: its lush history and progression, the different ages throughout time; its countries, religions, myths and lore, of war and love and human nature; the magic of art and medicine, the burning passion for the improbable; of a device to infinite knowledge all possible with opposable thumbs; both the good and the bad, the side-effects of science, consequences of mistaking destruction for innovation; there is the Fool’s Disease but also those who are strong enough to fight it. Above all, in this world of foreign whims, there is always always hope.
“What do you call this world of yours?”
Earth, the boy says.
“That’s a silly name for a world,” Caw says. “A downright copy of Neverearth!”
No. Earth is made of water with a core of fire, the boy says defensively. Earth is round, unlike Neverearth.
Caw isn’t sure what to think. Morgenstein is so good at impressing him that, for the next month, Caw finds himself second-guessing everything in a whirlpool of calculations. It’s difficult to ridicule these fantastical claims when so much of Caw’s mind is taken up by this pasty-limbed creature, studying him relentlessly, driven for proof.
Morgenstein swings from stupidity to godlike intelligence like a pendulum in Caw’s brain, passing by idiot savant at the midpoint of each arc.
“I have an appointment in Maugaude in a tick of the clock,” the Mortician says, “Do you mind taking the boy out for breakfast? He hasn’t really gone anywhere.”
Caw has just finished hauling the last body onto the Dock. He considers refusing but he realises that he doesn’t actually mind.
The Mortician hands him a palm-sized package in brown paper wrapping. “Make sure he wears this over his red eye.”
Morgenstein is already waiting on the porch, arms around his knees, staring inquisitively at his rain boots.
Rain boots, what the–
I’m no good at tying shoelaces, the boy says before Caw can even ask.
“I didn’t say anything.”
But you thought it, the boy says.
Caw tries not to frown and hands him the package. Before he can tell him it’s from the Mortician, the boy accepts it and nods. Yeah, thanks, he says.
It is a warg-leather eyepatch, and Caw suspects it must possess some magical properties. Morgenstein puts it over his red eye. The boy looks up at him and, for the first time, actually smiles. It’s stiff but it’s there.
Caw ignores that creepy look as they make their way into Inner Nurbirdth. As the moonlight fades away, the morning sun seeps in through the grey thin clouds that sift apart like sand. Caw has always preferred the Nawkt sky to the rest of Neverearth. Here, disintegrating bones pile up on either side of the streets, refracting the skylight like white stardusts. The days in Nawkt are slow, moments that seem to drip into infinity where it’s always chilly wherever he goes, and perhaps colder in meadows and flat plains. At least, here, it’s never full-on winter.
For the past week, the strange voices have been growing louder, Morgenstein says, When there are people around it’s as if my head is going to explode.
“What are you on about?”
Thoughts and emotions that aren’t mine, I can feel them, he says.
Mortician Gore thinks my soul has a crack through which the voices creep. He reckons my body is no longer an efficient container for the soul.
“Red eyes is a mark of broken soul,” Caw says.
Only one eye. My soul is incomplete, the boy says.
“Hence the eyepatch to bar the crack. I see.”
That explains a lot. Yet it doesn’t explain why the boy manages to remain civil for so long. Caw decides that Morgenstein is secretly so gifted that his behaviour is all an act. The connections are there: the speed in which Morgenstein soaks in information, the ability to process data and turn it from theory to practice, the amazing talent at keeping Caw interested with mind-stimulating conversations.
He may just have to take back every insult he has hurled in humanity’s face.
By afternoon, Caw returns the boy back to what may now be his home. Mortician Gore greets them by the door with some news.
“I’ve talked to a few people at Maugaude Academy of Fear–”
“You want him to go to school?”
“Yes,” the Mortician says slowly, as if daring Caw to oppose his judgment. “So how about it, boy? They’ll take a look at you tomorrow. Might’ve to take an admission test…”
I’m going to school? Morgenstein’s face lights up in a way Caw has never seen before, and Caw thinks the boy is in for a reality check.
They won’t accept him. Caw attends the Terabourn branch himself; he knows the requirements to these establishments.
With great difficulty, Caw keeps his mouth shut.
The following night, Morgenstein sulks around the place while the Mortician sighs every so often, eyes following the boy’s depression cloud.
“They rejected you because you’re not a ghost? Well, that is plain racist,” Caw says.
He may fail the Art of Tact, but he’d done a fantastic job at predicting the outcome with his superior intellect. Caw’s mind is as sharp as it has ever been. Stellar. Grade A-plus.
Yet, he cannot help but feel bad for the boy.
So Caw asks for a day off and uses it wastefully by travelling to the living world. Once there, he takes the train north, stops at Qualey, stalks into the most prestigious school he has ever been to.
He demands to see Headmistress Bones of the Saperaude School of Magic, because this is the best school in the entire of Neverearth. And if the headmistress is as wise as she is rumoured to be, she would accept Morgenstein with open arms, even when an undead reaper like Caw comes knocking on her quarter at one in the morning.
“Please call me Head Bones,” she says. “And bring in the boy as soon as you can.”
“I should probably mention that he is a revenant. And he’s mute,” Caw adds.
“No matter. I believe we teach Speech for a reason, Mr Caw. Learning to communicate directly to the minds will be no problem if the boy is a natural as you say he is.”
“He already knows how to do that,” Caw says.
Head Bones quirks her eyebrows, eyes lighting up with genuine interest. “Well then. Go get him.”
When he turns to leave, Head Bones goes beyond his expectations. She offers him a position as part of the school faculty.
“You will be working alongside Ms Liatris Lundherte as a school supervisor. How does that sound?” Head Bones says.
“A Lundherte? As in one of the Lundhertes, descendants of the Wisetrail Brothers?”
For the first time in his life, Caw does not know how to react.
“I’m not good with children.”
“Shall I take that as a yes?”
Two months find them sitting in the banquet hall of glimmering purple stones. Through the elegant arch windows, the proof of Winter is there on the tips of frostbitten dandelion fluffs. Stumbled and tripped, perhaps, like too many shoppers on the blue ice outside Breath City.
Caw sneaks from the faculty table to sit beside Morgenstein who looks out of place by himself while chattering students are surrounded by their friends.
Good evening, Supervisor, the boy says.
They have been doing well. Caw gets into arguments and snark battles with the know-it-all children, entertains himself by listening to these high intellects come up with world domination plans and then proceeds to tell them off when they start to make too much sense.
Morgenstein is the perfect loner. He is comfortable in the space he finds himself. He tries not to get close to his classmates because thoughts are scary and sometimes unsettling; these people are strangers to him and having one-sided relationships where he knows them more than they know him is just disturbing.
But the boy has found a new life here. He visits the Mortician on holidays, and the macabre man sends him questionable (and sometimes illegal) gifts during the school terms. Human creed, a ridiculous show of parental affection.
“Do you recall your life in the Round World?”
Earth, you mean? Morgenstein says, gnawing on his knuckles. He leaves tiny divots behind when he’s through, stapled imprints where his teeth pressed into his skin.
Caw looks away and grimaces.
Perhaps, just perhaps Morgenstein’s deficiencies to understanding table manners (and more) are compensation for a talented brain.
Except that Caw’s got everything Morgenstein has. In fact, he has it better. He knows how to put his clothes on properly in the morning; he knows how to tie his shoes, textbook loops and the rabbit around the tree. He knows how to wear shoes in the first place. Darn those rain boots.
“Do you miss it? Your old life?” Caw asks.
Morgenstein breaks into the multiverse’s most macabre smile.