literature

Mr. Mortality and the Heart Collector (Part 5)

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    Sink back into those depths of despair.
    Only, differently, this time.

    As Michael descended the stairs of the haunted house, his fear and sorrow abated and were replaced with soreness in his spine and limbs. He had fallen hard on his back earlier, yet in the fog of guilt and panic, the pain had been overpowered by sheer necessity.
    Now the boy chose to ignore it.
    Stiff upper lip and all.
    In his hand, he still grasped his father's rosary beads. The crucifix had turned black after its brush with the ghost, like wood having passed through a flame.
    Had circumstances been different, Michael would have mourned the heirloom's disfigurement; as it stood, however, it seemed his father had left him something much more important to be concerned with.

    Reaching the foot of the second flight of stairs, Michael set his feet apart and did his best to prepare his mind for what he was about to do—and pray that it was the right thing.
    Then, closing his eyes, he once more allowed the memories of his doubts and terrors to begin to trickle in. Already he felt winter filling his chest.
    But this time, in addition to the pain he knew so well, he added stoutly in his heart (and also under his breath, because you can never be too sure), “I know what it's like. Ye're nae alone here anymore. I've got a broken heart too.”
    Then he waited and listened.
    And his patience was rewarded. In a whisper.
    “I'm sorry.”
    Then a whimper.
    “I'm sorry.”
    At last sob.
    “I'm sorry!”
    Somewhere in the house, a young woman began to weep. Or perhaps, she continued weeping. Eyes may dry, but Michael wasn't sure yet broken hearts ever truly stopped bleeding.
    Ah well, he'd have time to think on that later. For now, eyes still clasped shut, hand stretched ahead, he followed the sound.
    He followed the sound downstairs. Across rooms. Into furniture. All the while the woman's sobs grew more and more audible.
    In the back of his mind he remembered all the reasons he had to be afraid, but rather than allowing it to carry him away, he chose to let himself be carried forward by the bond he shared with this stranger.

    This, of course, lead him face-first into another wall.

    Opening his eyes, Michael found himself in the kitchen on the lowest floor in the house.
    This surprised him, as he thought he'd already given this place a good once-over. Then again, he had been a bit distracted at the time...
    Rubbing his sore-again nose with resolve (and returning the rosary to the safety of his pocket), he set out once more to open every cupboard and sweep every corner. The sobbing continued, albeit more softly to his divided attention.
    At last, he stood in the middle of the room perplexed.
    He was certain this was where he needed to be. But where would he find what he was looking for?
    If only he still had the Reaper here; perhaps he needed only to reach through a wall...

    Wait.

    Hadn't the stories said something about a secret room? Yes, some story details were blurred to him, yet he distinctly recalled something of that sort. Who could forget such an eerie image?
    But where would one hide an entire room?
    Michael checked the icebox again, and then up the fireplace.

    Next, he considered the spot where he had walked into the wall. It hadn't been his imagination that he had felt drawn to the place.
    Not knowing what he was looking for, he returned to the spot.
    There was nothing particularly interesting about the wall—the paper and wood paneling looked no different here than in any other part of the room. Still, he inspected it closely, running his fingers along the gaps in the paneling to see if there was a place he might pry a door open.
    When nothing became apparent, he focused once more on the victim's tears, meditating again on their shared pain until he could hear her with as much clarity as though she were in the room with him.
    Or—under the room.
    Michael stepped back in surprise, eliciting a creek from the floorboards beneath his feet. They had made the same noise earlier, yet he hadn't then put together the possibility...

    He knelt beside the spot and once again ran his fingers over the seams between the wood. Yes; the arrangement of the wood was irregular here, and nowhere else in the room had he heard the floor groan so.
    “I'm comin' for ye,” Michael reassured the captive soul, digging his nails into the crack between the wood and the wall and feeling around until he had some sense of the covering's shape. Then, with a wince, he pried up a bit, wiggled his fingers underneath, and then like a loose tooth pulled the wood entirely free.
    There was a hole under the kitchen.
    There were stairs leading into the dark.

    But as Michael began his trip down the narrow wooden steps, he knew he need not worry about a light source. For there was, emanating from somewhere in the space below, a distinct ethereal glow, seeping through the shadows like blue-ish moonlight.

    Michael's breast began to ache and burn with ice once more, and he swallowed the urge to vomit.
    The jars of gore and books of murder were long gone; all carted away for evidence in the mad man's trial and (hopefully) destroyed or disposed of in a manner respectful to the dead.
    But in the middle of the room was a metal table, clamped to the floor so it could not be removed; and on the table there lay the still form of a young woman, only a few years Michael's senior. In her hands, she bore a familiar shape.
    This was the room in which Dr. Grimm had studied and practiced his dark arts, and this was where he had stowed her away--his daughter and her stolen heart.

    Reverently (and with legs like gelatin), Michael approached the prone figure and finally knelt beside her.
    “H-hello,” he said shakily, “can ye hear me?”
    More weeping was the only reply.
    “There there,” he tried to comfort, “I'm here to help ye...only, I'm nae entirely sure how...”
    “I am beyond helping,” the voice returned, “and it is my own fault...my own fault...my fault...my fault...”

    “I do nae believe in 'beyond help',” Michael returned firmly, “there must be somethin' that can be done. Perhaps Mr. Mortality can help ye.”
    Except, he then remembered, that the Grim Reaper's scythe had done nothing for the victim they'd found in the Bend.
    Michael felt a renewed stab of anxiety. If the angel-ish man could do nothing for this young woman, then who could do anything?
    With that pang of worry, the woman's tears grew all the more audible.
    The sound pierced his heart.
    Well, if he couldn't be her savior, then perhaps at the least he could be her friend?
    “Ah,” Michael tried, placing a tentative hand on her own stiff one “Perhaps ye might feel better if ye tried talkin' about it? Get it off yer chest—er, heart?”

    With a shudder, he felt his hand accidentally graze the glowing organ's cold flesh, but he held back the urge to recoil.
    Instead, he confessed softly, “I feel beyond helpin' sometimes too. I made some bad choices...and one of them...me father died. And I know it's all me fault...” he choked a little and continued, “I can nae undo what I've done and I do nae feel like I could ever be forgiven. But I'm here, with you now...and I dunno, I feel like I've found some purpose.
    “So,” he said, “if ye want to talk about what's botherin' ye...I'm here, and I'll listen.”

    For a moment, there was silence. Even the sobs seemed to have faded.
    Then, suddenly he felt his hand being enveloped in cold.
    “I'll show you,” the voice breathed into his ear.
    Then the glow from the heart seemed to fill the room; it filled his eyes, his senses.

    He didn't notice, but his wound was glowing too.
    It had been for quite some time.

~~~

    It all started, as with a surprising number of things in this world, with laundry.
    Or rather, with blood which should not have been in the laundry.

    Nineteen-year-old Adelaide-Elizabeth Grimm was only mildly surprised at the sight. Her father was a doctor after all; and, despite all his attempts to shelter her delicate female constitution, by now she was more than familiar with all manner of things which ought to remain inside the human body.
    No, the blood was nothing new, especially on Father's clothing.
    What did surprise her a little was that she recognized the tiny red spot on his shirt cuff as fresh, and she specifically recalled the fact that today had been a non-surgery day. Or at least she thought it had been. Yes, as his secretary she was certain his schedule had consisted only of a house call to the Widow Thompson. Perhaps he had had to perform a surprise bloodletting?

    Adeliza nodded, deciding this was the most reasonable conclusion.
    She gave the shirt a good scrubbing, after applying some kerosene to fight the stain.
    Then she prepared to serve supper.
    As she worked she thought about the advertisement she'd have to place the next day, and what a shame it was that Mary had quit so soon. She was sure they could have been good friends...


    Michael felt a knot in his stomach on behalf of the memory's heroine. The implications of what he was seeing were not lost on him, especially as Miss Grimm checked her ad in the morning paper and did not fail to see the gory headline that had shocked America.
    Still, he could not quite grasp what tormented the young lady so.
    “T'wasn't yer fault though,” he observed aloud, “There was no way ye could have known!”
    A cold hand grasped his shoulder and turned him to see the grandfather clock in the living room struck three.

    Adelaide Elizabeth sat stock still on the settee, watching the front door.
    Months had passed since the killings began, and no one dared walk the New York City streets at night.
    No one, it seemed, save her father.
    Or, so she assumed. She had woken up in the dead of night to find his bed empty. No explanation. No note.
    It must have been an emergency call, she reasoned, for his medical bag was gone. Still, that didn't ease her agitation. He father's station might not have fit Jack's pattern of kills, but who could trust a madman to stay consistent?

    A subtle chill ran almost unnoticed down the young woman's spine, as a small part of her mind whispered that she might have more than one reason to be concerned tonight...

    Working in the kitchen again.
    Another maid had quit, another ad to be placed. They certainly seemed to be losing them fast.
    The wood floor creaked underfoot. Strange; they had recently had the kitchen refurbished. Did the floor need to be repaired already?
    Adeliza knelt beside the spot. Well, that didn't look right at all!

    The next thing she knew she was gazing at a hole in the ground and stairs that descended into a darkness too black to be described.
    No.
    No.
    No.
    No.
    She slammed the wood back into place and fled the kitchen without a second glance.
    It was a bad dream. A figment of an overactive imagination. Her mind playing tricks with all her fears and worries. It wasn't real, and she would forget about it now.


    “But it was real,” Michael breathed, “And ye never forgot...”

    “But I did nothing.”

    His chest swelled with her horror and he swallowed.

    “And people died.”

    On the day of the execution, Adelaide-Elizabeth Grimm stood at the hole in the kitchen floor, candle in hand and dressed in mourning black.
    She descended the steps into Hell.
    And someone followed her. Knife in hand, sockets bleeding black from freshly torn eyes...


    “When he escaped the Grim Reaper, he came after ye,” Michael realized.

    “I know not when Father discovered I knew,” she said, “But he knew that day how my cowardly heart was wracked by guilt. He knew how I longed to rip it out of my chest. And, with my permission--he obliged.”

    “Then ye're the first heart,” Michael thought out loud, “Ye're the source of his power.”
    “Yes,” she confessed, “And with each broken heart he's chained since he has only grown stronger. But if it were not for me he would never have chained them, to begin with. I am, as in life, his enabler.”
    Michael considered her words.
    “But ye're still alive!” he said, “Ye still have a chance to fix this!”
    “It's too late for me,” she moaned, “It's all my fault...my fault...my fault...”
    “If we could only break yer chain though...”
    “Only his knife can break my chain. And he will never release me. This is my eternal punishment; my just due. This is what my cowardice has wrought.”

~~~

    Suddenly Michael was in the room again. The heart he knelt beside continued beating, accompanied by the weeping only he could hear.
    A tear made it's way down his cheek, and he didn't bother hiding it.
    “We have a lot in common,” he recognized.

    And now he understood.
    He had been given a second chance so he could give her a second chance. Her and all the other hearts who had been stolen.
    He knew what he had to do.
    “It may be too late for ye to be brave,” Michael whispered, giving Adeliza's cold hand one last squeeze, “but just this once, perhaps...I can be brave for ye!”

    Acting quickly so as not to give himself another chance to think, to flinch, to run; the young man grabbed the throbbing muscle and inspected it.
    Unlike the first heart he'd seen in the slum, this one had a lock attached to it, and hanging from that lock was a black chain thicker than any he'd yet seen.

    Michael gave his father's rosary one last kiss.
    Then he began to count off the links.

~~~

   The Grim Reaper's Assistant emerged from the haunted house with a purpose.

    Granted he also came out rather dusty and sore and with his face puffy from crying, and he'd had some trouble getting the door opened, and he had no idea where either his employer or adversary was, but the purpose remained and that was somewhat reassuring.
    He also seemed to be doing a whole sight better than the Reaper himself, who had plummeted from the sky in bird form and landed at his feet with a squelch like some disgraced angel (which seemed appropriate enough).

    Though half-destroyed as he was the bird appeared almost annoyed by Michael's presence.
    “What are you doing here?” the raven stage-whispered, “It's not safe! If you've found something you ought to have signaled me.”
    “And what exactly was I to do, send up a flare?” the boy wanted to retort but instead chose to ignore the bird's absurd beratement.

    “How does it feel Mr. Mortality?”
    With one hand Michael scooped up his employer's bent body in time to dodge yet another barrage of chains, as with a sing-song voice the killer made his presence known.
    “To know that every move you make is a mistake and everything you touch is destroyed?”
    “Are you sure you mean me and not your mother?” the Reaper returned flatly, before hopping from Michael's grasp and with a burst of wind changing forms.

    Blood stained his clothing and he took a moment to pop part of a broken stick-figure arm back into its socket, but the Tall Man seemed unbothered by the partial destruction of his body.
    With the arm that seemed to be working, he raised his scythe for battle.
    The spirit seemed to ignore the taunt (and it was rather weak, to be honest) and pressed on, “Surely, after more than a century, you're weighed down by the shame of your failures? The guilt of the harm you bring others? The promises you tried to keep, broken so easily...”
    “Silence, Dead One!” the Reaper shot back with a vehemence that took Michael by surprise.
    Dr. Grimm smiled.
    “No dull attempts at wit for that I see,” he hummed, “Perhaps you do have something you'd like removed, under all those bones?”
    “I've no heart if that's what you mean,” Mr. M said before taking the offensive with his scythe.

    Every thrust and slice was met with chains that, without a heart to anchor them, easily shattered; but when as Reaper drew close enough to touch spirit with scythe, his blade met the doctor's scalpel, which despite its size seemed to stop him in his tracks.
    “Really,” the devil purred, “because it seems to me your bleeding heart is the whole reason that boy is here. Charity can become such a selfish thing, can't it?”
    Mortality's eyes widened with an emotion Michael didn't understand.

    Actually, Michael didn't understand most of this, but the realization that the monster knew he was there anyway jolted him out of stealth and quiet and into action.
    Be brave for them.
    Leaping forward he cried, “Excuse me!”
    Both specters looked at him as though he were a mad man.
    “Um,” he said, rushing on before either could stop him, “well, I thought about what ye said to me earlier, and I realized ye were right! I'm full of guilt and I don't like me heart! Please take it away from me so I can become an empty husk and be at peace!”
    There was a brief instant of confusion as the Reaper's face twisted in incredulity, then horror as the spirit shot him a wicked grin.
    Then they were racing toward him.
    “MICHAEL NO!”

    “Yes,” he thought, bracing himself for what was to come.

    What followed was a flash, a break, and a cry.

    Or rather, more than one of each.
    The first flash was the glint of the setting sun and the newly lit streetlights on the Jack of Heart's demon knife.
    The second came with the first break, as said demon knife cut through a thick, black chain it was never intended to encounter, shattering it to dust.
    Then came another break was the string on Mr. MacBranain's already abused rosary beads snapped in Michael's too-tight grasp, scattering wooden bits across the cobbled pavement.
    Three cries followed; a whimper of pain, a wail of endless cosmic horror, and a very human bellow of rage.

    Putting things more plainly: the Jack of Hearts took Michael's bait and went for his chest with his knife. Michael, not even giving fear a chance to set in, whipped out the bit of Adeliza's chain he'd hidden behind his back and held it across his chest just as the spirit's knife fell. As the young lady had promised, the chain was utterly destroyed, and with it, all the chains the monster had forged.
    Like a rain of black glass, they fell away from the spirit's neck and wrists.
    Dr. Nathaniel Grimm shrieked in utter, inhuman terror, as with the chains he lost the last strand of yarn holding him to this world.

    But victory came with a cost.
    The knife may have shattered the chain, but in doing so it passed through it and with the last of the Heart Collector's strength embedded deep in Michael's chest.
    Michael choked out his own scream as a flood of cold eviler than any the boy had yet encountered washed over him. He was drowning in an Arctic ocean, drowning in a dark vacuum of emptiness, drowning in the coldest cold of all; the cold of the dead.
    Yet it was with a joyful knowledge Michael slipped under that final wave of unconsciousness: the knowledge that he had finally, finally, finally done something right.

     The last thing he saw before being swallowed by the darkness was Mr. Mortality bringing down his scythe and, with a roar of fury, sending the Heart Collector to Hell.

~~~

To be concluded...
Read More:
Part 1
Part 2
~ Part 3
~ Part 4
~ Part 5
~ Epilogue
Afterword

Oh noes!! I guess that Michael, the protagonist of this series that hasn't even gotten off the ground yet, is definitely dead now.

So close to finished guys!! I'll be honest tho, I'm not entirely satisfied with how I feel like Mr. Mortality has been coming across as a character (to me anyway)? He's a selfish moron but he's also a mysterious, cultured, clever moron with good taste and a ready wit. Monocle Emoticon Ah well, that's what rewrites and revisions are for. u-u

The year is 1896, and Michael MacBranain is in desperate need of a job.
Fortunately for him (or perhaps not-so-fortunately), the Grim Reaper is also in desperate need of an assistant!
The trouble is, Michael is terribly superstitious and loathes himself for his own cowardice.

But with a dark supernatural force on the loose in New York City, there may be more at stake for Michael and his employer than just job security!

***

A multi-part short story, serving as a prototype for the future web-serial Mortality, the episodic adventures of the Grim Reaper and his assistant. While this story is not as well-researched or polished as I hope for the actual series to be, Sweating a little... it does give something of an idea of what I'm going for character and story-wise. I hope you enjoy this debut~


Elegant Divider 2 - bottom 

Mortality and all related characters (c) me.
© 2019 - 2022 DarlingWrites
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PossessyTheClown's avatar
I've enjoyed reading this series; looking forward to the conclusion.

If there's a hell in this universe, I hope there's a heaven, too. :) (Smile)