1. A Man of a Thousand Pieces

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The clock tower in Glasten rang thrice in the darkness outside, heralding the arrival of 3am – the toll of the Devil

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The clock tower in Glasten rang thrice in the darkness outside, heralding the arrival of 3am – the toll of the Devil.

I find it no mere coincidence that I should first hear the poor soul crying at this forgotten hour, though it was yet some time that I lay hopelessly awake before at last I saw her.

Her incessant weeping in the bay adjacent to my own demanded the tolerance of a milder man than I, with only a thin, cream hospital curtain between us to dampen the sorry sound.

It was around 4:30 that I clambered down from my cot, acutely aware of the bruising I'd sustained around my ribs and winced as if struck anew. Though my injuries were not of the usual severity I contended with in my gambling habit, the physician had confined me to this damnable ward for the night, more concerned with my concussion than for the second set of stitches in my lip. For nought but avoiding suspicion I abided by him, but I could not turn myself over to sleep that night, and nor, by the sounds of it, could she.

The skin on my forearms grew taut once my soles hit the icy tiles underfoot. There was nothing in the darkness save the outlined end frame of my cot and the ghostly sway of the curtain as it brushed my arm in the draught. I paused, listening again for the sobbing through the soft snoring of other patients, but it did not come.

It seemed the girl had quieted once the creak of the old cot announced my arousal, or I had altogether imagined it... No. Her silence would not fool me, for it is a curious trait of mine – with an origin that I will, in time, amass the courage to speak of – that I could hear her heartbeat, and even when the lips lie, the heart does not. Hers was lethargic, drumming only half as fast as any human vessel could bear. Aside from myself she was the only other on the ward for whom sleep had not yet found, and it was through my own discontent that I sought the reason.

In utmost silence I peered between the curtain and the bare brick wall, mindful not to betray myself. The young woman lay with her back to me, although I saw enough of her form in the darkness of the ward to gauge she was a brunette, pale of skin and remarkably slight – almost frightfully so. Under different circumstances I might have yet tipped my hat to the girl. Still, though circumstance clearly did not warrant my intrusion, I could not pull myself away from behind the curtain.

Her shoulders were tense – the first signal she sensed me lurking. Despite my reservations and better judgement, I slipped into her bay and loomed over her for what felt like only a passing moment, watching and waiting as would a spectre in the night.

I knew not what I should do about this crying girl. When Nina had comforted Frederic following that particularly disturbing spirit board game, she'd taken him into her arms and her touch had soothed him. Nina was a far more compassionate soul than I, and I had grown to love and admire my sweetheart for her humanity. She would know how to console this girl the way only a woman could, but Nina knew nothing of my gambling, or indeed of my night in that ward. The weeping girl would remain a hinderance if I wished to sleep, at least before the nurses offered me breakfast, and I could no longer ignore it.

But what happened next changed everything.

She twisted to face me, contorted grotesquely about her waist, loosing her muddied bed sheets across the bay. What manner of life before me was no girl. There sat a wraith; an animate corpse born of nightmares I had long buried.

Her hands and feet grew gnarled and black like branches; her limbs twisted upon themselves beyond human facility. Her milky eyes glowed stark in the gloom... Two soulless, haunting orbs I can never erase from memory.

From her shrunken lips came a hideous, gargled shriek so loud that I clamped my palms over my ears to stifle the sheer pitch of it. Almost as soon as it was manifest, the wraith vanished, and when at last I dared reopen my eyes the young woman lay in front of me as if I stood reversed in time.

The girl rolled over again, on this occasion so startled to see me stood over her that she screamed for a nurse to come. I fled behind the curtain, knowing I had made a grave mistake. Lay in that cot was but an ordinary young woman; a fraught, pretty girl with the telltale glisten of tears on her cheeks, and nothing more.

And yet my own frantic heartbeat thrummed in my ears akin to the racket of a marching band while the nurses attended to the frenzied girl.

I climbed back beneath my bed sheets, shivering not from cold, but unable to calm myself until the autumnal sun broke the horizon. Even now I ask myself almost as frequently as I did on that most chilling of nights:

What in the deepest seats of Hell had I seen?

What in the deepest seats of Hell had I seen?

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