John stood in his chamber, getting into his robes carefully. Once they were settled, he tied the sash around himself, then knelt to say a quick prayer. Today was one of the simpler jobs, though it was not pleasant, it had become easier as time had passed. He rose slowly and carefully, he was getting older now, he had to be careful until he could pass his duties on. They had assigned him a young lad to help out, he had been told the details of what was to happen, how everything was done, but he hadn’t seen it yet. Today would be his first day down there. John set his face carefully, letting a blank mask fall over it. He knew he couldn’t show fear or trepidation, not while the young lad was with him.
John left his room and descended the long stairs. He could hear people stirring in the rooms around him, soft, gentle sounds. Soon they would finish their preparations and go down to breakfast and he would join them shortly.
Outside it was chilly, the sun was just starting to rise, casting everything in a warm golden light. The young lad, Peter? Paul? Something with a P, was standing, shivering in the shade. “Come along boy, our first stop is the kitchens.”
The boy scurried over and started walking a step or two behind John. He tried to hide his smile. The boy looked tired, though there was definite excitement and an edge of fear on his face. John remembered his first time down here, how wonderful and horrifying it had been. They entered the kitchens and found what they needed, two buckets, both full to the brim with the food. “You grab one, I’ll grab the other. That seems like a fair division.”
“Yes sir.” The boy grabbed the bucket and heaved it up, if he was surprised at the weight he didn’t show it. John picked up his bucket, feeling slightly overbalanced without the other. Without speaking John started to walk and the boy hurried to keep up. They walked in silence until they stood outside the heavy metal door. It was barred from the outside. John put down his bucket, “give me a hand with this.”
The boy dropped his bucket, almost spilling some of the contents, “Be careful with that! We need every last bit of it.”
“Yes sir, sorry sir.”
He grabbed the other side of the thick metal bar and together they heaved it up and over, before gently setting it against the wall.
“You remember the lessons, don’t you?”
“Good, but I’m going to say it again, don’t touch any of them, don’t make eye contact with any of them and don’t speak to any of them, ok? They may not look it, but they are extremely dangerous. You wouldn’t be the first, or the last, to be ripped to shreds down here. If that happens there is nothing I or any one else could do to stop it. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir.” The boys voice was quiet, nervous. John kept his face neutral. They were dangerous sure, but it had been a long, long time since anyone had been attacked, let alone ripped apart. The boy would be fine, but it wouldn’t do for him to be over excited and spill food from the bucket, or accidently antagonise one of them.
John pulled the door open and picked up his bucket. The scent of dry decay wafted across their faces on warm air. The boy paled and started to shake slightly. “After you. Once you reach the bottom stay there and let me pass.” The boy nodded, swallowed and shaking just a little bit harder, he walked through the door and started down the steps. John stepped through and closed the door after himself. The stairway was lit by torches, as was the rest of the place. They never seemed to burn out. John had been taught, and he had taught the boy, that the torches were a sign of God and his miracles. When he was younger he had been sure it was a lie, that he would have to replace the torches regularly, that they just didn’t want to frighten him. So far, none of them had gone out in his fifty years of service. He started down the stairs, and soon enough he caught up with the boy. “Well, hurry up!” the boy let out a yelp and almost stumbled forward. John let out a little sigh. He hadn’t been this nervous when he was a lad. He had been waiting at the bottom before the door even closed. Maybe they had chosen the wrong boy for the job? There was still time to get another in, teach them. Well, he was stuck with the boy for the day.
At the bottom, John stepped past the boy and together they walked into the catacombs. He felt a faint thrill of fear move up his spine and a faint nausea settled onto his stomach.
Having only the one bucket in his hand made everything much, much easier. John walked slowly through the hallway until they reached the first alcove. He glanced at the corpse that was standing in it, making sure it was still there. It had been a man once, now it was desiccated, a husk, the skin pulled tight, its face in a rictus grin. John reached into the bucket and pulled out a small parcel of food and placed it into the stand in front of the corpse. It reached out slowly, behind him John heard the boys sharp intake of breath. The corpse grasped the food and brought it to its mouth. John didn’t stay around to watch, he moved onto the next one. There were hundreds of them down here and they had plenty to do. They stopped at each corpse and placed one piece of food down before they moved on. At some point John traded his empty bucket for the boys full one. The catacombs were almost completely silent. The only noises now there the sounds of the corpse creaking as they moved and the dull crunching as they ate. Once they had finished, silence would fall again. There were no rats down here, or mice. John had never seen any evidence of them. He wondered if perhaps the corpses ate them. Sometimes when he came down they were in different positions than the day before.
As they reached the end, carrying empty buckets, John heard one of the corpses moving, that scratchy rustling sound. He felt a shiver go up his back. The boy looked around nervously. One of them started to move, stepping out of the alcove, making a strange, gasping whisper, the boy looked at it as it shambled forward, then he dropped the bucket and broke into a run, a high scream of terror following him. John picked up the bucket and smiled to himself, the other corpses started making the same noise. John had refused to go back down here for a month when he was a boy, until his teacher explained that the corpses were just having a little joke at his expense. It was at that point that he realised the whispery noise was laughter. He didn’t blame them, after all, they had little entertainment down here. He picked up the bucket and nodded at the corpse who was already starting to return to the alcove, then he walked after the boy, feeling an itch at his back and trying not to run.
Outside the boy was struggling to move the bar back by himself, he let out a little shriek as john stepped through the door. “C’mon lad, hurry! They’re coming!” John grabbed the other end and together they heaved it back into place. The boy leaned against the wall, breathing heavily. John couldn’t help it, he started to laugh. The boy frowned at him for a moment, then his face angered as he realised the boy opened his mouth to speak. “Calm yourself boy, it was only a joke. They do it to everyone on their first time.” The boy took a deep breath, then released it and frowning he said “I though they were dangerous?”
John nodded, “Don’t let that lull you, they’re every bit as dangerous as I said. They’re not like us. They take offense at different things, and they deal with that offense by death. The rules are in place so we don’t offend them. They like to play that joke. They only get to do it once every fifty years or so. Hope it’s the last time you see one of them move because they next time they’ll be coming for you and they wont be doing it in no slow motion walk either. They’re faster, much faster than you’d think. I’ve seen one snatch his food up and eat it before I’d even realised he started to move. They’re dangerous creatures, don’t get it into your head that it could be otherwise.” John clapped the boy on the back, “C’mon, it’s time for breakfast.”