"Nachzehrer: The Mistress Returns"
His wife’s body twisted slowly as it hung from the rafters of the great hall, her bare feet dangling off the ground as her eyes, bulging and swollen, stared wildly—accusatorily—at him. The servants had found her first. They now refused to enter the manor, much to his annoyance. Superstitious fools. He let out a snort, looking over his shoulder at the closed great doors before sighing and drawing the dagger he wore at his hip. They had left him to clean up the whole mess on his own.
The woman had been a nuisance from the day he had deigned to marry her. Now, she had left him one last mess to clean up. He grabbed a table and shoved it closer to her dangling corpse, wincing slightly when it rotated to glare at him with glazed-over eyes that still burned green like witchfire. A knock sounded on the door when he began to cut the thick rope that held her aloft.
“One moment,” he called, eyes focused on the rope.
The knock sounded again. The rope frayed.
“Ugh,” he grunted, rolling his eyes as he hopped off the table and stalked over to yank open one of the double doors that shuttered him away from the common folk. A pair of guardsmen met his gaze, staring dully at him from under their strange, swooping helmets.
“We heard there was a death?” One of them asked, hand resting on the sword at his hip.
“Yes,” the widower responded, folding his arms over his chest. “My wife has had… an accident.”
“She was due for trial. We had come to make our arrest.”
“Well,” the widower drawled, regarding the pair of guards with a flat glower, “you’re a little late for that, aren’t you?”
A heavy thud sounded from behind him, and he grimaced. The guards glanced at one another, then moved almost as one to walk through the doors. He did not stop them; instead, he turned to stand aside, arms folded behind his back as he took a moment to glance at the crumpled body of his wife, now in a heap on the floor after the frayed rope had finally snapped.
She had brought it on herself. She was wild and willful, some low-class upstart that her father wanted to marry up. Pretty enough, but worthless in the end. He watched as the guards rolled her over and laid her out on the floor; her arm had been broken in the fall and hung at an awkward angle as they examined her. His gaze slid away, and he picked at the lint on his fine jacket.
She had been beautiful, once. His dear, lovely Adelinde… She had golden hair that shone like the sun, skin the color of moon-kissed lilies, and green eyes that blazed like emeralds. In death, she looked nothing like herself. Those sparkling green eyes bulged from fields of red, and her swollen face stuck out its putrid tongue like the masks the savages wore to frighten their enemies…
“She took her own life, then?” One of the guards asked, and the widower flicked his gaze up for a brief moment before looking away once more.
“I presume so, yes.”
“One of the servants?”
“Doubtful,” he replied at length. “They either avoided her or enjoyed her company. Besides… I doubt they would go through the trouble of… stringing her up like this.”
One of the guards, the younger of the two, fixed the widower with a pointed stare.
“Did she know that she had been accused of witchcraft? Took her own life to keep from going to trial and facing the proper judgment?”
The widower grimaced, and he adjusted his jacket with a sharp jerk from both hands.
“If she did, it was from no word of mine. I would never give warning to a witch.”
The guards stared at him a moment, then looked down at the twisted features of his former wife’s corpse. Finally, the two of them rose, each holding one end of the body between them.
“Well. Either way, she’ll face judgment now. All sinners do, someday.”
The widower nodded mechanically and watched as they hauled his wife off toward the grounds on the outskirts of the town--unhallowed ground reserved for the burial of criminals, suicides, and witches. As he stood in the doorway, feeling a sick sense of satisfaction, he heard the soft murmurings of the servants rising up like the rustle of leaves falling in the woods.
“Nachzehrer,” one old woman who worked the kitchens whispered, clutching tightly to her apron. An older man beside her nodded, head bobbling like a hungry duck’s.
The widower stepped back inside, slamming the door behind him, and glowered down at the hired help that clustered around like a flock of terrified hens after a fox had been discovered in the coop. All eyes were on him, blinking stupidly in the mid-morning sun that filtered in through the high windows.
“Enough with your superstitions,” he growled. “Everyone back to work.”
There was no argument voiced, but he could see the resentment that echoed in the eyes that glanced at him before slowly sliding away. The whispers continued, regardless. Nachzehrer. Nachzehrer. Nachzehrer… the consuming dead.
He wore mourning clothes for only a week, then promptly shed them to begin making his advances toward other eligible women around the town. Some thought him improper, but most took pity upon him; poor handsome Gerhardt, trapped into marriage by a cunning witch’s charms! There was certainly no lack of pretty women to walk with, to dance with, to impress with his hunting talent and natural eloquence…
Many of the ladies with whom he pitched woo had been rivals of his dear Adelinde before her death; they were women she had jousted with her sharp tongue, who had often slinked away in defeat, licking the gaping, bleeding wounds left in their reputations; women she vied with in the dance hall, each flaunting the newest season’s fashions and the quick, easy knowledge of the latest steps from across Europe; women who mocked her low birth, only to promptly have every secret dalliance exposed to the horror and delight of the entire town.
He sighed wistfully as he listened to the vapid rambling of his newest pursuit: beautiful, but frightfully boring, with a long family history of producing strong male heirs. That had been another thorn in his side; his Adelinde had never given him a child, though he had tried tirelessly--to the point where his lovely wife had begun to hate his advances, had glowered at him even in the darkness after the candles had been blown out.
In fits of boredom, he undertook a number of dalliances with tavern women, with peasants, with unfortunate servant girls who got in his way. Through it all, however, their faces became her face. He watched with horror as, at the height of his passion, the face that looked up at him, tears shimmering in dark eyes, swelled and twisted into the horrific mask that had been his wife’s face in death. Green eyes burned like witchfire into his soul, and those bloated lips sneered silent curses at him.
He began to take ill, hiding himself in his rooms save for the occasional venture out into the town to keep up appearances and court the ladies at the balls. Every woman he saw seemed to be his Adelinde, her gaze still falling on his shoulders long after she was gone. The whispers of the servants hounded his every step: Nachzehrer. She will be back. The mistress will return, and God help us all.
The first disappearance came as a shock that rippled throughout the entire community. The boring-yet-beautiful woman he had courted in earnest, now his fiancée, had gone out on an afternoon walk, as per usual, and had never returned. No one that had walked with her remembered seeing her go, and no one in the town or the surrounding countryside had seen anyone of her description. There were suspicions of robbery and kidnapping bubbling up amongst the crowd, and it became the favored subject of conversation at the next ball.
“Poor Brunhilde,” one elderly dowager said, fanning herself quietly as she stared off at the dancers with a frown. “And you, Gerhardt--losing your wife and so soon after to lose your fiancée. How dreadful.”
The widower nodded, face pale as he clutched his drink with white knuckles.
“Yes,” he murmured. “Thank you.”
“I do hope they find her soon, and unharmed. Though the way she carries herself, I have no doubt her father will soon be getting a ransom note. The poor dear. Poor, sweet Brunhilde. She would have made you a lovely wife. Not like that wretch you married, before. No way to speak of the dead, I know, but that woman was a monster. Terrible creature.”
He excused himself from the ball early that night.
Peasant girls vanished with little notice, though their families mourned in their own private way. He had arranged a secret rendezvous with the tavern owner’s girl, but she had never arrived. She did not come to the tavern the next day. Her father leveled the widower with an unpleasant stare the next several times he visited the tavern.
These were only the start. One by one, each and every woman he had made contact with, save for the servant girls trapped in the manor with him, began to vanish off the face of the earth. There was no outcry, no mess left behind--they simply disappeared, as if the earth had opened up and swallowed them altogether. People stared at him, now, with the same heavy stare that his wife’s dangling corpse had leveled upon him when he had gone to cut her down from her final perch.
A hunter returned one day after being out later than expected, following the tracks of a gigantic boar. People continued to disappear: hunters, supply wagons, travelers--all vanished without a trace on the outskirts of town. The citizens met and discussed their options, then decided that this rampant boar, the likeliest cause of all their woe, must be destroyed. Gerhardt received a brief reprieve from the oppression of their stares; no longer was he the primary suspect, and no longer was he silently accused of murder by each and every pair of eyes that met him in the streets.
Sometimes, they accused him of far worse.
They had no need to; he was tormented enough. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw his wife’s eyes bulging from their hideous sockets, lips pulled back in a deathly grimace like a wild, horrible smile. Each time he saw her, it seemed, that smile grew wider and wider...
The hunting party never returned. Vanished.
He went home, resolved to lock himself in the manor. The old woman in the kitchens shook her head at him, and he felt a shiver run up and down his spine as he paused halfway up the stair.
Nachzehrer, she said with her eyes as silence hung between them. The mistress is coming home. God save us all.
The next day, he resolved to lay his paranoid concerns to rest. There was no such thing, he told himself, over and over in dizzying cycles of half-coherent thought; no such thing as the dead that rose again to consume the flesh of the living. He wandered to the outskirts of the town, hood drawn up high over his head as he wrapped his traveling cloak tightly around him.
It was the dead of winter, now, and his breath escaped him in wisps of pale white smoke as he paused at the edge of the cemetery. The dead slept peacefully under their carved headstones. Further off, beyond the high wall, under brambles covered over with frost, the undesirables lay in their fitful slumber, howling for justice, for vengeance, for mercy.
He took his first tentative steps around the wall, creeping closer to the pile of disturbed dirt that marked the recently deceased--but it had been weeks. The dirt should not look so fresh, so--he shook his head, clearing the thoughts away. The dead do not rise to eat the living. The dead do not rise... The dead do not… do not…
There she was. His Adelinde, as beautiful as the day he had met her, but painfully pale, kissed by frost as she lay in the open hole in the earth with not even a casket for her bed. Gerhardt’s breath hitched in his throat, and he reached a shaking hand down to caress her frozen face--only to draw suddenly back when he realized that one of her eyes was open, staring at him, green emerald paled by death and brought to a blind, glassy sheen.
It had been weeks, his mind repeated, like the sudden clanging of alarum bells. Weeks. She looked so beautiful, still, so--but she had not been beautiful when she died. Her face had twisted, bloated, turned beet-red with the blood that drowned her brain and forced her tongue out of her sweet, bow-lipped mouth. Her hands held one another, left thumb tucked into her right hand as she stared up one-eyed, unseeing, at the sky, the trees, the world entire--everything but him. She was so… beautiful.
As he gazed upon her, he found himself trembling with a sudden rage. Someone had disturbed his Adelinde in her final rest. Someone had jealously dug up her corpse, had--it was too horrible to think. He pulled himself away, groaning. Why had he accused his dear Adelinde, told the world stark falsehoods of her wickedness? She was a lamb of God, and nothing more. The most beautiful, the most beloved, innocent… no one could have her. No one could see her. Little by little, he began to push the dirt down into the hole with his bare hands, covering his dear, sweet Adelinde with the soft blanket of the earth as she stared blindly at him with that single pale eye. Before he covered her face, he could have sworn he saw her smile.
He washed the dirt from his hands, but he could not scrub her image from his mind.
The church bells rang in the dead of night, and Gerhardt pulled himself from his bed in quiet confusion. He lit a candle, squinting in the dim light as he saw other tiny flames burst to life in other windows all the way down the line of the main street of the town. The bells rang on--a slow, steady drone like a funerary dirge--and he pressed his face against the warped glass of his windows to try and get some idea of what was going on. Had someone died? Even so, they usually rang the bells in the day—never this late at night. Was there an emergency? He saw no one in the streets…
Then there came a loud, panicked knocking at his bedroom door. Annoyed, confused, exhausted from persistent nightmares that had dogged him for weeks, he moved to answer his midnight caller. The old woman from the kitchens stood before him, wringing her gnarled old hands as her nearly toothless mouth gaped wide.
“Nachzehrer,” she said, flinging her arms out to grab hold of her master’s satin nightshirt. “Nachzehrer. The mistress.”
Furious, eyes burning in the dim candlelight, Gerhardt grabbed the old woman’s hands with fierce strength.
“There is no such thing,” he bellowed. “Damn you and your superstitions! Adelinde is dead! She is dead, and no one will ever see her again! No one will gaze upon the roses of her cheeks, nor see the sun gleaming off the spun gold of her hair! She is dead and gone, and I have killed her, don’t you understand? It was because of me! Because of me, sweet Adelinde, light of my life is gone! And all is gone with her!”
He flung the old woman away from him as she opened her mouth to speak again, and watched, horrified, as she stumbled back only to tumble like a rolling boulder down the stairwell. Her eyes seemed to watch him as she fell, her gaze an unspoken accusation. She fell on the steps with a final, horrible crunch, and he could faintly see from the moonlight flooding in through the great windows of the main hall that there was blood pooling on the fine wooden floors from her mouth and nose.
He shook his head as other servants opened their doors to see what had caused all the fuss, then shut himself inside his own room when one of the servant girls screamed.
“No, no, no, no,” he hissed, raking his hands through thick black hair as he dashed to the window, staring out as the bells rang on, heralding death. “No. I didn’t… mean…”
“The old woman had it coming. Did she not?”
He turned, slowly, and saw witch-green eyes staring at him from the darkest corner of the great bedroom he had once shared with his wife. A shadow stood there, strong and tall, fine of frame. He lifted the candle in trembling hands and saw the dirty red dress that his wife had loved so dearly.
“It is so terribly hard to find good help these days. Weep not, fair Gerhardt. She will be judged, as all poor sinners are.”
She stepped forward, and he saw her in the light: her skin was horribly pale, with the deep bruise that the rope had left behind forever imprinted on her delicate neck. His mouth moved, but no words came.
“Death comes to everyone,” she continued, her form seeming to shimmer and distort in the flickering light of the candle. “And we all deserve it.”
He turned to look outside again. The streets were filled with bloated corpses, and the sky looked as if it burned red with hellfire. The candle fell from his hand, and its flames lazily licked at the heavy curtains, trying to grasp, to climb, to consume.
Adelinde was growing, changing--he heard the sickly crackling of her bones, the wet sound of flesh twisting and tearing, the faint click of hooves as she set her hands down on the floor before her. A giant boar stared him down with witch-green eyes, standing where his wife had stood. A long tongue flicked out, snake-like, tasting the air, and his heart raced as he reeled back. He did not notice the flames creeping up his nightclothes, did not hear the desperate pounding at his door.
“Poor handsome Gerhardt. Your wife is such a boor,” the massive creature with too-long legs said, its emaciated frame drawing closer to him as he felt the first sharp pains of fire touching his flesh. He could not breathe. His chest tightened, seared with anguish, as his arms and legs went numb.
“And the way she eats! My goodness…”
The tusked jaws gaped open—and open, and open. Gerhardt stared into the mouth of hell until his eyes rolled back in his head. He breathed in acrid smoke as the room seemed to grow brighter. The mouth closed on his feet, great teeth crunching through flesh and bone as he fell deeper into that endless maw. Soon, all that remained to greet him was hot, wet darkness.
Finally, Gerhardt screamed.
The noise resounded in the hollow echo-chamber of the creature’s gullet until, with sickening finality, the molars crushed his skull and silenced him forever.
The door burst open, and the servants rushed in--only to find an empty room, half-ablaze, with no trace of their master left behind. The city streets ran red with blood, and babes cried, freshly-orphaned, from their beds. As they clung to one another, creeping out of the manor while the building began to burn with renewed vigor, the newly-widowed old man looked at the younger ones around him and whispered a single word: Nachzehrer.
They all nodded. They all knew.
Everyone that had heard the horrible ringing of the bells was dead—save for them. The Mistress had returned, and the Mistress had spared them all. The Mistress was good.
God save the Mistress.
God save them all.
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