“Indeed a human boy, or a revenant to be specific,” says Mortician Gore.
“A revenant, you say.”
Caw keeps getting distracted with the way the boy’s fingers balloon out his cheeks as he shoves flapjack after flapjack into his mouth and swallows without as much as chew. His lips are wet, slimy with bovine contentment, eyes rolled down in placid consideration of the empty plate. Caw wants to reach out and snatch the plate away, make the creature look at him so he can hunt for a sign of intelligence in those moist, dark-ringed eyes.
Its eyes are mismatched in colour, one bright red, the other glowing yellow.
Mortician Gore cackles, amused at Caw’s irritation. “I will keep him.”
“The last I checked, animated corpses are illegal,” Caw squawks.
“No. Unlike a lykhe, a revenant does not possess a phylactery. He can pass as a regular human,” the mortician says. “Although he may develop odd quirks or a disability which he once did not possess as a human.” At Caw’s continued grimace, the mortician adds tenderly, “This boy is not unlike yourself, Lugnor, except you are the dead and he is the living.”
“He doesn’t even have a name,” says Caw.
The boy immediately looks up, opens his mouth and then frowns.
He tries again.
“I see,” says Mortician Gore.
“The boy has lost the ability to speak. He is a revenant after all.”
Caw grunts. For all he knows, this boy might secretly be a rogue wraith employed in a masquerade of humanity. Ghost gods and decrepit souls both have opposable thumbs, though they lack comparative compositions.
The boy writes his name onto the corner of a parchment in neat, perfect script.
Caw seethes at evolution. “Morgenstein. What sort of name is that?”
The revenant — Morgenstein — looks away, mouth curving downwards and trembling. It strikes Caw that this creature has feelings.
“Oh, for the love of Wisetrail, save me,” Caw groans.
For the next two weeks, Caw stays away from Mortician Gore’s home, only stopping by before and after work and never loiters. Although he does not see Morgenstein, Caw knows that he must be somewhere in there.
“The boy misses you.” Mortician Gore visits him at the Body Dock on the fortnight.
“Right. Because your pet-human is fond of me,” Caw says.
“He is no pet, Lugnor. You may be interested to hear what he has to say.”
“Oh, for the life of Death, the boy is mute!”
Mortician Gore gives him a look that clearly says he has crossed the line between snark and offence.
Caw swallows. “Excellent. I’ll go.”
When he enters the mortician’s place after work, he braces himself for the worst.
Hello, a scratchy voice penetrates his mind instead of his ears, and Caw whirls around to find Morgenstein sitting on one of the coffins that the mortician uses as a makeshift bench.
The wooden table between them is piled with books and scrolls. In front of Morgenstein is a bottle of ink and a crow feather quill. From what Caw manages to make out, Morgenstein is wearing nondescript monochrome clothes that are too big for him. His wild hair has been tamed as well, cropped short but sloppily.
I said hello, Morgenstein says without moving his mouth.
“How are you doing that?” demands Caw.
I’ve been practicing what Mortician Gore taught me, the boy says, gesturing to the books on the table.
“Of course,” Caw says, his mind jogging to catch up. “I have only studied Speech in theory.”
It is useful. I just wish people could have done this back where I came from, the boy says.
“Back where you came from, you say?”Caw invites himself into the seat beside Morgenstein and sighs in relief when the boy does not stink of human stench.
Yes. Some people there aren’t so lucky. I was one of the fortunate ones, the boy says.
“Badland is a world of disease and war. There is nothing remotely fortunate about such a place.”
Morgenstein frowns. I have been reading about that. Mortician Gore wanted me to familiarise myself with how your world views mine.
And Badland is not my world, the boy says.
The mortician pops out from behind the seashells curtain that separates the kitchen from the front room. He is wiping his hand on a dirty rag that has bloodstains on it. Caw doesn’t want to know.
“I see you’ve been talking,” the mortician says.
“The idea of another set of universe is unlikely,” Caw says flatly.
“A Round World. From what Morgue here has described, I believe what he speaks of is a seed of a new world. The brutality of Badland and the magic of Neverearth combined. An offspring. Fascinating, really. Though it’s best to keep this between the three of us for now.”
“Tell me about this world of yours,” Caw demands.
And Morgenstein describes everything: its lush history and progression, the different ages throughout time; its countries, religions, myths and lore, of war and love and human nature; the magic of art and medicine, the burning passion for the improbable; of a device to infinite knowledge all possible with opposable thumbs; both the good and the bad, the side-effects of science, consequences of mistaking destruction for innovation; there is the Fool’s Disease but also those who are strong enough to fight it. Above all, in this world of foreign whims, there is always always hope.
“What do you call this world of yours?”
Earth, the boy says.
“That’s a silly name for a world,” Caw says. “A downright copy of Neverearth!”
No. Earth is made of water with a core of fire, the boy says, Earth is round, unlike Neverearth.
Caw isn’t sure what to think.
Morgenstein is so good at impressing him that Caw finds himself second-guessing everything in a whirlpool of calculations. It’s difficult to ridicule these fantastical claims when so much of Caw’s mind is taken up by this pasty-limbed creature.
For that entire week, Caw studies him relentlessly. Morgenstein swings from stupidity to godlike intelligence like a pendulum in Caw’s brain, passing by idiot savant at the midpoint of each arc.
“I have an appointment in Maugaude,” the mortician says, “Do you mind taking the boy out for breakfast? He hasn’t really gone anywhere.”
Caw has just finished hauling the last body onto the Dock. He considers refusing but then realises he doesn’t actually mind.
Mortician Gore hands him a palm-sized package in brown paper wrapping. “Make sure he wears this over his red eye.”