Eden’s End: Shadows Over Ivalstatt
by J. H. Zech
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The next morning, Reiner woke up next to Cornelia and shook her. “Come on. We have to go to mass.”
She opened her groggy eyes. “Do we have to? Another person died yesterday. It’s not like Zero is going to save us from the plague. Why do we have to pray to someone who won’t lift a finger for us?”
“The town is split on whether you’re a witch. Not showing up will lend credence to the witch believers. If things get too heated, even the court won’t stop them. We should at least avoid that.”
Outside the window, it was grey. The sun was a mere shadow of itself behind the thick clouds. Ivalstatt was always like this. When God had declared that there be light, he had forgotten to include Ivalstatt in that proclamation.
Later, they entered the chapel and took a seat in the back row. Despite the colorful mosaic windows surrounding them, the whole room felt monochrome. That was to be expected. Someone had just died yesterday. Reiner felt the stares of several townsfolk.
“Maybe she cursed him because he got her punished,” someone whispered.
“How terrible!” another said.
Cornelia looked down. Reiner put his hand on her shoulder.
The pastor in black robes covered with a white shawl stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat.
In a measured but powerful voice, the pastor said, “Today we mourn our fellow citizen Baumeister, but we also pray for the safety of us all. I know the plague afflicting our town can shake our faith, but we must not waver. This is a trial by God. Instead of living as devout Zeroists, the ingrates of the cities have rebelled against holy authority and are calling themselves New Order Zeroists. This is no doubt the devil’s temptation. With this plague, God is testing our faith.”
The pastor glanced at Cornelia. “The devil walks among us, but so long as we never let him into our hearts, light shall prevail.”
Cornelia gripped his hand tight. The way Reiner saw it, the townsfolk had already let the devil into their hearts.
After reading from the sacred texts and some prayers, everyone lined up for the sacred assimilation. One by one they received a small piece of bread from the girl holding the basket and ate it, then drank wine out of a goblet held by the pastor.
Reiner walked up to take the bread. Annie, a blonde girl of twelve with braids and a sweet smile on her face, took a piece of bread from the basket and handed it to him. It was hard to believe she was the daughter of that corrupt buffoon Neinhart.
“Let his body become one with yours,” Annie said as he took the bread.
She still smiled when she gave Cornelia bread. At least someone in town treated Cornelia right, even if it was probably just because she didn’t understand the situation.
After another hour of alternating between listening to the pastor talk about sinners in the hands of an angry god and praying to that same angry god, mass finally ended, and everyone rose to file out of the chapel.
Julia ran up to the front and joined Annie.
“Julia, let’s get going,” Madam Brunnclast said.
“Can I talk to Annie for a bit?”
“Be home before dinner time.” Brunnclast walked out with her husband.
As Reiner and Cornelia left, he overheard something troubling.
“Mother was angry again yesterday,” Julia said.
“Don’t worry. I’ll protect you,” Annie said. Protect her? Reiner recalled the bruises on Julia’s neck. What was happening in the Brunnclast household? Not that there was anything he could do about it, but maybe the mayor’s daughter could.
The chapel doors closed. Reiner and Cornelia walked around to the back.
“I went through the records of the plague while I was preparing for your trial,” Reiner said. “And I noticed something interesting.”
“Every victim of the plague showed symptoms starting on a Saturday.”
Cornelia shook her head. “But the delay between infection and symptoms varies by person for a disease. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“But what are the odds that ten victims would show symptoms on the same day over multiple weeks? Something rotten might be going on,” Reiner said.
“This might be a stretch, but if the plague is caused by a parasite, it’s possible for the time between infection and symptoms to be constant since a parasite would have a defined incubation period. In that case, perhaps they encountered the parasite the same day each week. I’m not sure what the source is yet, but I’ll show you what I found in my autopsy.” Cornelia walked at a brisk pace and gestured for Reiner to follow.
A black feather drifted down in front of him, and he caught it. Reiner looked up, but there was not a bird in sight. Everything went white. He couldn’t feel the ground beneath him. What was going on?
“Reiner, are you alright?” Cornelia asked.
He was back. The feather in his hand had disappeared. Had he been hallucinating? “Er, right. I’m fine. Let’s go.”
Once at the workshop, Cornelia brought out a jar with some dark substance in it.
“This is what’s causing the plague, or at least it’s an internal symptom.”
Reiner examined it closely. The coin-sized black blob’s shape resembled an insect or maybe an octopus. “Where did you find this?”
“These are all over the body. In those purple welts, and in the brain too.” Cornelia opened up the corpse’s belly and pointed to the stomach, where a tiny black blob was wedged into its tissue. “They were also in the stomach, but those had the smallest ones. Whatever this is, I think it originated in the stomach. The least developed ones are there, and they get larger the further away they are from the stomach. The one in the jar was in the heart.”
Reiner wanted to vomit. He had never seen such a horrifying plague before.
Cornelia said, “Don’t lose your stomach yet. You haven’t seen the worst of it. Also make sure you vomit outside. I don’t want to clean it up.”
She removed the cloth over the corpse’s face. The top half of the skull had been removed, exposing the squishy grey brain, and a black blob covering half of it. “The one on the brain is the largest. It really could be a parasite.”
He remembered the wriggling from the night he had transported the corpse. “Is it still alive?”
“I don’t know. I said it could be a parasite, and it would fit with the day of symptoms being the same, but I’m not sure if it is one. Is this the cause or just another symptom? Is this thing some strange growth, or was it alive? I’ve tried prodding it, but it didn’t react in any way.”
“Any ideas where they might have gotten it?”
“Given it originated in the stomach, my guess is that they got it from something they ate, but based on what you said earlier today, it might be something they eat at a regular interval. The question is whether the source is something everyone eats, and only a few became ill, or whether only the victims had eaten the source.”
“What about a cure?” Reiner asked.
Cornelia sighed. “So far, I’ve tried alcohol, some herbs, various chemicals, and different temperatures. This substance does burn in fire, but that’s not very helpful.”
“Let’s head back to town. It’s time for your street clean up,” Reiner said. “Afterwards, we can do some digging to get a better sense of what food is the source.”
They trekked through the dirt trail in the woods back to Ivalstatt. It was the early afternoon, but between the grey sky and the fog on the ground, the world itself was dissipating into nothingness.
At the town, walking along the cobblestone road, they ran into Annie carrying a basket on her back.
“Hello, Annie,” Reiner said.
“Hello, Reiner and Cornelia,” she responded.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m on my way to buy flour to make bread for the sacred assimilation.”
“In that case,” Cornelia said, reaching in her pouch. She pulled out a coin and held it out to Annie. “Can you give the Baumeisters this? I still have to pay them for the bread, and I imagine they wouldn’t be too happy to see me after what happened.”
“Cornelia, you shouldn’t foist a burden like that on a child.”
“No, it’s fine, Reiner. It’ll be better for everyone like this,” Annie said, accepting the coin. She was mature for her age. He couldn’t wait until Neinhart retired and Annie took his place.
“Thank you,” Cornelia said.
They parted ways, Annie heading for the bakery, and the two heading for the courthouse for her first cleanup assignment.
The day ended after a long cleaning of the courtroom and the premises.
“I have to go to work tomorrow, so I can’t help you with your community service for the rest of the week,” Reiner said.
“I’ll be fine on my own. If worst comes to worst, I can always bring some custom cleaning solution,” Cornelia said.
Reiner placed his hand on her shoulder with a concerned face. “Just do what they tell you.”
A scream came from nearby. Reiner and Cornelia glanced at each other then ran towards the source of the noise. It was coming from a house just down the street.
They arrived at a large brick house with a door splintered into pieces. This house... It couldn’t be. Inside, on the living room floor, was Judge Grimm’s body, ripped in half along his torso. A gruesome scene of blood and entrails covered the room. Where was his family?
Reiner rushed and tried all the doors. He found one that was locked and knocked on it. “Is anyone there?”
“Is it gone?” a woman asked.
“I don’t know. I only saw Judge Grimm. There’s no one else here.”
Mrs. Grimm opened the door a crack. “What happened to Mark?”
Reiner looked down. “Mrs. Grimm, I’m afraid your husband has...” He saw her two sons and daughter behind her. “You understand.” It didn’t feel real. Judge Grimm had been grinning with enjoyment over a trial just the other day, and now he was a thing, lifeless just like the chair he sat in. Life was fragile, a temporary respite from the abyss of death.
She ran out to the living room and collapsed to her knees. “No. Mark. Why?” Mrs. Grimm sobbed.
Reiner herded her kids back into the bedroom and closed the door. “Stay inside.”
Cornelia knelt down besides Mrs. Grimm. “Tell me what happened.”
After taking a few deep breaths and wiping her tears, she said, “I don’t know. I heard a loud noise coming from the living room, and Mark yelled to hide with the kids. I stayed in the bedroom until Reiner came.”
“Did you see what did this?” Cornelia asked.
Mrs. Grimm shook her head.
“Whatever it was, I don’t think it’s human,” Cornelia said. “A gun or a sword couldn’t have done this. These uneven tears... It might be some kind of animal.”
“A bear, maybe?” Reiner asked.
“But why would a bear do this to someone in his own home? Judge Grimm wasn’t in bear territory. And if the bear were hungry, it would have eaten him, not left him in this state.”
Mrs. Grimm looked away from her husband.
“I think that’s enough, Cornelia. Let’s let the authorities handle this.”
The constable and several curious townsfolk soon arrived. The constable questioned Reiner, Cornelia, and Mrs. Grimm and told the onlookers to keep their distance.
After their questioning, Reiner and Cornelia left the house, where they were greeted by glares and jeers from the onlookers.
“Did she kill him?”
“She’s a witch!”
Madam Brunnclast said, “Thromburg’s accuser and the judge who sentenced her dead one after another. Suspicious, isn’t it?”
“You have no right to say that, Madam,” Reiner retorted. “You had a row with Mr. Baumeister and told him to throw himself in a well the week before. And it was you who was most dissatisfied with Judge Grimm’s ruling. If anything, you’re the suspicious one.”
Brunnclast grit her teeth and breathed anger out her nose. “How dare you speak to me in such a manner.”
“Let’s go, Cornelia.”
They left for Ivalstatt’s outskirts and returned to Cornelia’s cot.
* * *
When they stepped inside the cot, the corpse was gone. Cornelia scurried around the room. “How is this possible? Did someone steal the corpse?”
“If it was someone from town, they would’ve reported us, at least in ordinary circumstances. Witch or not, someone knows more about the plague than they’re letting on.” His niggling doubts had been confirmed. They were getting close to the truth, and the culprit had taken drastic action. Things would only escalate from here, so they had to act fast.
“Take a look at this.” Cornelia held the jar with the black blob in front of him. The blob’s slender appendage-like structures squirmed. “It was a parasite. But why didn’t it react when I poked it or poured water on it?”
Reiner recalled the wriggling on the corpse’s welt. “You don’t suppose the corpse going missing and Judge Grimm’s murder are related? The timing is too much of a coincidence.” He looked at Cornelia and took a deep breath. “I know this may sound crazy, but I saw the welt on the corpse move on the night we pulled it from the sea. What if the parasite controlled the corpse and did this?”
Cornelia shook her head. “I won’t go so far as to say it’s impossible, but look at the damage it caused. Even if the corpse walked away on its own, how could a human body tear something apart like that?”
“You’re right. I think I’m just paranoid right now.”
“You have every right to be. There’s a monster out there.”
“We have to warn the town. But they might not believe us. We must capture the monster that killed Judge Grimm to convince them. And maybe that’ll get us to the truth of this matter.”
They left the cot, and the sun had already set, the sky having shifted to a vague black. The wind howled, and the trees on the path rattled like a snake warning its foe.
As they ran, Reiner tripped on a root, and Cornelia caught him.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, thanks.” Reiner blushed and stood on his own, embarrassed at being held by Cornelia. He dusted his coat off, and at the root near his feet, an eye peeked at him and looked up. He yelped and jumped back.
“Just now, there was an eye at the root.” Reiner pointed at it, but it was gone.
“I don’t know what you saw, but it’s not there anymore. We must hurry to town,” Cornelia said.
Reiner was thankful Cornelia hadn’t dismissed him despite him saying something so nonsensical. He had to get a grip. They continued running to Ivalstatt.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Zech