FREE STORY: The Fleshless

Posted: September 7, 2011 in Stories

The Department of Forensic Archaeology can be found in an ornate Victorian brownstone building, overlooking the tenements, pubs and traffic of South Edinburgh. The space had been vacated by the pre-medicine courses relocating to the new infirmary to the south of the city, and then taken up enthusiastically by this new combination of forensic science, archaeology and anatomy departments.

Doctor Porter surveyed his class with little enthusiasm. A grey man approaching his sixties, he felt little in common with the handful of students who took his anthropological anatomy classes. Even in their fourth year of study, they still dressed outlandishly, and the handful of prep-dressed Home Counties types still intimidated him, decades after his own studies.

Today, there were four in the class. The remaining two students would probably furnish lacklustre excuses for their absence later in the week. One was a greasy-haired girl with a nose-ring, two were overgrown boys, feet tapping to their own inner rhythms, and the fourth was a quiet Asian girl from the Midlands. He had some hope for the Asian girl, who was quiet and diligent.

The laboratory was deathly-quiet, except for the drip-drip-drip of water somewhere. The tiled walls and concrete floor chilled the room beneath the vaulted ceiling, even more than the autumnal season which seeped in through the high single-glazed windows. The two enamel examination tables were worn smooth from centuries of use, less practical than the movable steel tables at the new medical faculty, but the Forensic Archaeology department did not attract anywhere near the same level of funding.

An assistant wheeled a metal box into the room and lifted it up onto a table. ‘The specimen’s here,’ he mumbled as he left. Porter glared at his retreating back. The specimen was supposed to be delivered before the class started.

Porter slipped on a pair of latex gloves and lifted the lid. He looked at the class. ‘Today, we will assemble a skeleton, from fragmented remains, and we will arrive at some conclusions about the life and death of the specimen.’ He knew he droned and hated himself for it. He lifted the pieces from the box and placed them on the enamel tabletop. ‘You need to assemble the bones on the other slab.’ Slab. He winced as the students grinned. It wasn’t meant to be funny.

Gradually the skeleton took shape. White teeth gleamed from a brown-stained skull above the pieces of the rib-cage and pelvis. Long bones lay beneath and at either side, the spinal column was laid out like a snake and the small fragments of metatarsals and metacarpals clustered around the ends of the arms and legs. After half an hour, all two hundred and six bones had been arranged.

Porter read from a notepad. ‘The specimen was unearthed in the Carpathian mountains, and the approximate era is Iron Age. We haven’t yet carbon-dated any samples but we can estimate the era from the style and technology of the artefacts. The specimen was probably a Dacian, part of the tribe who ranged over eastern Europe and the Balkans.  The skeleton was found in groups of arms, legs, torso and head, all in the remains of six separate pottery vessels, which explains why it is intact.’

The group looked over the brown-stained bones, dark against the enamel table.

‘Do you have any observations?’

The nose-ring girl spoke first. ‘It looks like an adult male, from the pelvis shape, and there is probably a protrusion on the back of the skull.’

‘A good starting point, Nicola,’ said Porter.

The girl glared at him. ‘My name’s Natalie.

‘The striations on the bones indicate periods of malnutrition.’ Porter remembered her name, it was Samira, easy to remember and she was always attentive. ‘There are scrapes and indentations on the bone that don’t look organic though,’ she said.

Porter was halfway pleased. They had sexed the skeleton and picked out the natural and unnatural markings, even if they hadn’t narrowed down categories of diseases from the natural bone markings.

‘Well done,’ he said, glaring for a moment at the two young men who had remained silent. ‘The gouges look like scrape marks, and it appears that the skeleton was ritually flayed or defleshed.’ He smiled thinly for a moment. ‘We can only hope it was done after death. The Dacians called themselves the wolves and fought the Romans tenaciously, with a vicious indigenous weapon called a falx, shaped like a sickle. This may have been used to deflesh this particular corpse.’

Porter flicked through his notes. ‘The curious aspect of this body is that it appears to have been reburied. The pottery fragments which held the bones together are in a far more recent Bulgarian style. Rehydroxylation tests will pinpoint the age more precisely, but that will take time.’

They stood in silence looking over the skeleton. It appeared more solid now, less disjointed, or perhaps they were just thinking of as a whole rather than an arrangement of parts.

Porter pointed at the ribcage. ‘Look at the…’ He didn’t have a chance to finish his sentence. The skeleton’s clawlike hand grasped his wrist, the air shimmering around the articulated bones like a heat-haze. Two bony arms pulled Porter on top of the corpse in a macabre embrace, and long-dead teeth bit deeply into his scrawny throat. Steaming blood flowed forth, flooding the enamel slab and pouring down the rusted drain. Then the twitching corpse was tossed aside as the skeleton sat upright, blood soaking the bones which sucked up the dark red fluid like sponges.

The aborted analysis had been partly correct. The body had been flayed alive and then dismembered, buried in jars according to half-forgotten ritual. But the bones were ancient, older than Dacia, older than Rome, and the ritual had been conducted mere centuries ago by Bulgarian monks after the boyars had hunted down the shape-shifting creature which had plagued their people for so long. Skinned, broken, fragmented, starved of blood and flesh, the bones had slept for hundreds of years, until they were unearthed at a resort construction site in the mountains north of the Danube. And now the bones had been reassembled, and they thirsted for blood and flesh.

The four students stood in frozen horror as the creature clawed its way upright, blood dripping from the bones, livid pink tendrils of flesh circling the skeleton like new-grown shoots. The stench of blood and meat filled the laboratory. Bony legs clattered onto the tiles and the creature launched itself at the two young men, tearing into soft flesh with talons of ivory, blood gouting, steaming glossy meat dragged dripping from torn bellies. It was fast, very fast. Like a wolf.

The two girls ran, but Natalie tripped over her unlaced Doc Marten boots. She scrabbled onto her back, heels kicking on the tiled floor, smearing blood in two desperate furrows. The skeleton loomed over her, but it was no longer just bones. Moist pink flesh had spread, a half-healed wound, covering most of the shape-shifter’s body. Gums glistened wetly in the bony jaw and the beginning of a tongue flickered as the fanged maw descended on Natalie’s soft throat, the pungent stench of slaughter filling her nostrils before her life was torn from her in a crimson deluge.

The door rattled closed behind Samira. She gasped for air like a landed fish, heaving and retching, before she was able to scream. Security guards came running, the first of them vomiting all over the tiled floor as he saw the charnel-house inside. Four bodies lay sprawled across the laboratory, torn, gouged and shredded. But, other than the red skid-marks on the floor, there was very little blood. The corpses looked fishbelly-white as if they had been drained. The body of Doctor Porter had been stripped naked.

The attacker was gone, with Doctor Porter’s clothing and whatever shape it had decided to wear. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. But it would thirst again…and need to drink.

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