The light in my hand died along with him.
I was to blame for the death of the former, having failed to realize the smothering gloom as the wick had burnt lower and lower, the flame drowning softly in melted wax. Others in my profession would have preferred a torch, my more complex lantern too elegant for our evening patrols. But a torch to me has always meant impending destruction, the consumption of life. A lantern was more refined, and it was nearly the 18th century. How could we ever pretend to be anything but civil?
Such a concern was beyond the poor devil at my feet. I had discovered him before the darkness descended, a shambling form stumbling across the plaza to collapse on the steps of the Stephansdom herself. I felt her look down at his body with the acquired distaste of disdainful religion, but even in that cold glance I could sense her unease.
Or perhaps that was wishful thinking, a vain desire to not be alone with the disquiet that twisted my stomach into harsh knots.
I clutched at my pocket, my grasping hand hungry for a moment before it found its quarry. Pulling a tallow candle out, I fumbled blindly in the cold dark, the pale glow from similarly starving streetlamps not enough to assist me in replacing the now-dead candle in my lantern. Shivering, I searched my other pocket for my trusted tinderbox, my matches for the evening having been exhausted an hour before when I indulged in my pipe.
I had nearly relit the candle when the bell sounded overhead, the sonorous boom tolling out the late hour. I heard it peal again and again, counting it along in the beats of my own heart, feeling my face twisting unconsciously when I counted thirteen rings where there should be twelve. The priest would have harsh words with the offender tomorrow, I was sure, but light was a more pressing matter than considering the inconsequential sin.
The flame sparked in hopefulness, the char cloth of my tinderbox carrying the smallest promise of heat. I blew it gently into larger life, holding it to the candle and whispering a soft prayer. I had already been alone in the dark with my unwelcome company for longer than I had intended, the cathedral’s tolling distracting me from my role in the night.
Yet once I had coaxed the lantern into its fullness, I wished I had left the newly dead alone in the black. He was far from an attractive man in life, the thick, coarse hair of his face protruding in every direction; his clothes were in tatters, nowhere near enough to preserve him as summer gave way to fall. I gave his pockets a quick search, my skin crawling inexplicably as I felt the outside of his threadbare coat.
My search turned up nothing, not even a keepsake that spoke of any connection to another man, woman, or child. A poor man - from the countryside perhaps - another refugee fleeing the Ottomans. No one, it seemed, would miss him, his fate that of any other pauper.
But it was not his clothes nor his face, as ugly as it was, that had given me pause. In death his looks had decayed further, his skin taut in some places, falling away to reveal flensed flesh in others. Though it may have been a trick of the light, it seemed as if his veins bubbled underneath the patches of unravaged flesh, the thin red and blue lines shrinking from the revealing light of my lantern. His eyes stared into the shade, though I doubted he would see anything ever again.
My examination was blessedly stopped as I heard the doors to the cathedral creak open. A voice called out to me from behind. “Dietrich?” I stood, turning away from the corpse, eyes peering at the shadow that ghosted up to stand next to me.
In spite of my own roiling stomach, I managed a soft smile. “Max. How’d you know it was me?”
My friend smiled back, his wide shoulders shrugging expressively. “Lantern,” he said, pointing vaguely at my hand. “You’re one of the only watchmen in the city that bother using one of those things. A torch is better, you know. What brings you around these parts?” He looked tired, though that didn’t diminish his light tone, nor the mischievous look in his eyes.
That look died as I pointed at the corpse at our feet. “Mein Gott! What the hell happened to him?” he asked, crossing himself furiously.
“Hell happened.” I said simply. “More than that I can’t say without looking at him further.”
But I don’t think Max heard me, the blood draining from his face until he looked half-dead himself. “Who does this to a man? What kind of demon would… could…”
I pulled the flask from my hip, extending it to him until I had it right in front of his face. “Drink.” Waiting until he had fortified himself with a sip, I stayed silent, trying to make sense of the scene myself. Taking back the flask, I took a small swig myself, letting my body warm slightly as the corpse chilled further. “I really can’t say. These are far from optimal conditions to even consider the body. I don’t have any of my tools, nor do I have the right amount of light to look over all of his extremities.
“Help me get him into the Stephansdom,” I said. “Perhaps we will learn more about him there.”
I walked halfway to the cathedral door, setting down my lantern before returning to the body. Motioning to Max to move towards the feet - he went grudgingly - I took the body by the arms, my face twisting at the prospect of shifting the heavy burden towards the cathedral narthex.
Tugging sharply, I nearly fell as the body practically flew after me. I dropping the body with a thump and a harsh curse. Snarling in exasperation, I was ready to scold Max for not warning me before I noticed him standing off to one side. “Are you ok?” he asked, his head tilting to the side in confusion.
I grunted in reply, peering back at the body. In my time with the night watch, I had been called upon to shift my share of bodies. Admittedly more than a few of these would wake up the next morning with a headache or several new bruises, but I was acquainted with the weight of the dead. Though I was nowhere near Max in terms of muscle, I was far from weak, and yet, I had nearly thrown this body about as if he were made of feathers.
What had happened to him to make him so light?
I brushed myself off, waving away Max’s helping hand, instead covering the rest of the distance to the cathedral with the body in tow.
“What is the meaning of this! This is a house of God, not the drunkard!” I winced as the bishop stomped over to me, his vestments trailing along the ground behind him like some perverse marital train. I should have anticipated the objection from his eminence, but I had been too intent on finding the truth.
“Forgive me, your Excellency, but we have need of Stephansdom’s narthex.” I tried to bow my head in respect, but part of me bristled at the bishop’s tone. Wasn’t God God to rich and poor alike?
He waved away my reply imperiously, peering up at me through clouded spectacles. “I see that, but wouldn’t this man be more comfortable somewhere else?” His lip curled in disgust. “One of the almshouses at the city’s edge perhaps?”
I couldn’t resist my reply. “No, your Excellency, I think a more appropriate place might be below the cathedral in the catacombs. He’s quite dead, after all.”
A smile came unbidden to my face as the revelation apparently stunned the bishop. Crossing himself several times, he asked, “What in God’s name happened to him?”
“That is what I hope to find out, your Excellency.” I knelt beside the body again, though I let my eyes drift back to the short clergyman. “Do you think you might manage to say a prayer for our departed brother here? I am not sure there are any others who might regret his passing besides us.”
The venom drained from the bishop, a more contrite air coming over him as he crossed his hands again, this time in more silent contemplation. Making the sign of the cross, he smiled gravely. “Of course, my son. May I steal away your friend here as well? Young Max and I often pray the Mitans together, and as you might have heard, that hour has now come and gone. Though I would stay and assist you, perhaps it would be better to leave you alone and see if God might give this newest departed soul peace?”
I knew the bishop was uncomfortable, his shifting from foot to foot apparent even under his robes; it would be better for me to examine the body without other distractions anyway. “Of course, your Excellency. Might I ask for a few candles, perhaps even another lantern if you could spare it?” I waited until he nodded before asking further. “Your Excellency, you just said that the midnight hour has come and gone, yet I could not help before hearing thirteen rings of the cathedral bells?”
The bishop peered back at me, his eyes hidden behind their spectacles. “No, my son. I rang them myself. I let them toll exactly twelve times.” He scoffed then, shaking his head in wonderment. “No man of God would ever let bells ring thirteen times! Judas was the thirteenth, and while we could thank him for his part in the Crucifixion, I would never invite such ill luck on this city by ringing his number.” He strode away, surprise still in his voice as his back smiled at me. “Thirteen times! I would sooner let the Muslims or the Jews set up an altar in the cathedral!”
He had lapsed into silence by the time he had returned with my requested candles and another lit lantern, retreating again with Max in tow, the duo leaving to pray in mutual solitude. I had not spent the time idly, turning the body carefully over on his back and arranging my own lantern as best I could to look at the ruination beneath me. I had hoped the additional lantern would have shed more light on the matter, but the more I looked at the body, the more confused I became.
As I had already seen outside, his face was a tattered mess, in some places ostensibly human, in others so completely corrupted by gangrenous tissue that it was a miracle that I did not empty my stomach on the corpse there and then. I removed his clothing carefully, noting strange puncture marks on his chest, my eyes drawn all too easily to the blackened, dead flesh that covered the unfortunate victim in a patchwork blanket of death and misery. In some places the gangrene retreated in the face of severe swelling, most notably his knees, armpits, and groin. In these few, less defiled, locations, his veins stood out in stark contrast, a spider’s web of failing health that made him less man than some demented nightmare.
I had to know more.
Though I was loath to do it, I pressed the back of my hand to the body’s forehead, jerking away as my fingers brushed against frigid flesh. Even allowing for the passing of time since I had discovered him, there was no cause for him to be so glacially chilled, even in the face of the cooler evening. Even had his heart stopped pumping half a day ago, he should still have some warmth to him.
I leaned back on my heels, as much to retreat from the body as to have space to think. My mind rifled through my memory, throwing aside stacks of information piled high in the depths of my mind. The dead man was shattered by decay and desolation, his flesh unnaturally chilled despite having died only a short time ago. Was this some kind of sickness, a fever that burned away the body?
But coupled with the barely concealed spider’s web of veins and the strange puncture marks about his nipple, what kind of illness could it even be? The gangrene I had seen in tobacco smokers, the engorged veins in those of greater weight, but along with chills, the lack of balance I had seen outside? Despite having studied the human body for years, I could not label the disease.
Clearly, there had to be an explanation - we were no longer the same scared species that scurried safe through the depraved Dark Ages - but I still could not identify what that might be. Some manner of infection? A curse from God? I peered again at the body, my hands tentatively probing at the puncture marks on his chest. They looked fresh, raw, but where they should have bled freely, there was nothing, save soft smears where someone must have dabbed with a cloth of some kind. Not a single drop of moisture. I opened his eyes next, staring into the glassy void. Not a drop there either. I felt the unravaged skin, unwilling to touch the blighted, dark flesh, my face twisting as his hide felt more like paper than tissue.
I had been determined to come up with an answer, but the longer I looked at the poor man lying there, the less I felt I understood.
In desperation, my mind flew to the stories I had heard as a child, vainly searching for an answer in the tales of night-mares that had filled me nightly with dread. I remembered the stories my maid had told me, of creatures who consumed the body from the outside even as the darkness devoured the soul within, of alps and marts that tormented those with filthy spirits. She had used those tales to cruelly terrify me into obedience then, unaware that the years passing since would do little to dull the painful memories generated from it.
But perhaps there was truth in her words? Perhaps there was some manner of creature stalking the streets of Vienna now, and I had merely stumbled across its first victim.
My rational mind banished these thoughts as idle fantasy. The time of ghouls and ghasts was over; they had died with witches and druids in the mists of human superstition. No, what I saw here tonight was something terrible, but myth had nothing to do with it.
This was illness, pure and simple. No, not simple, I realized with a rueful smile. I still had no idea what this truly was, though perhaps it might have been some new epidemic that had been blown our way by bad luck. I had heard tales of plagues coming out of the east for almost twenty years now; indeed, Sophie and I had lost our parents to the last one when we were yet children, and to see another now was an unsettling experience.
Nevertheless, if the corruption I saw now was any indication, I prayed that Vienna would endure the horror that had slipped unnoticed across her threshold and into every home.