Night was falling, turning the sky a deep purple. Pipe smoke hung in the air as the village elders watched the sun go down, telling stories to the younger folk in low voices. Merik sat on a bench next to Martland, an old man with a face that looked crudely carved out of rough wood. Despite his looks, he was famed for being one of the most captivating storytellers, having been a bard before settling in Paladin village when travel became too hard on his old bones. He took a long drag on his pipe before starting in a gruff voice.
“Let’s see. It was about five hundred years ago, in old Paladin. You can go see the ruins just over that there hill.” He pointed to the dark shape with a crooked finger. “But anyway, it was a thriving little place quite charming, but oblivious to the dangers of the outside world, of which at that time were great. There were pirates and corsairs, black magic, stray demons and all kinds of nasty sorts. But to all this, they were quite blind, having been somehow protected, as they thought, by their isolation. In reality it was an old enchantment, from when the world began, that was slowly running out of energy. Back when it was new, it could keep out all the demons in the universe with the devil himself to boot, with ease, but it now it was barely holding off lesser bogeys from the fields. No one knows what it was there for or why it was failing, but eventually it gave out. The people of Paladin didn’t notice and when about their normal, sleepy lives until one day a ragged stranger appeared in town. He was a dirty disgrace, with long, tangled black hair and tattered clothes of a ship’s captain. He had a long scraggly beard and a slight stench that followed him that caused the locals to discreetly cover their noses and the rich ladies to glare at him with obvious distaste. But, with all their ignorance, they did not know that this grubby fellow was none other than Skullgrimm, a long since forgotten pirate who had dabbled in the dark arts and wreaked havoc wherever he went, before he disappeared from all. The villagers tried not to be rude to the guest, but in the end, could not help it, for all his appearance and behavior.
One day, staggering out of a tavern, he was nearly ran over by a peasant driving his cart and team of donkeys into the village.
‘Get out of the way you scoundrel!’ the peasant yelled and spat at him. Skullgrimm growled and staggered down an alley, bumping into a young peasant girl, sending her into a pile of garbage. She got up and threw a shoe at him, knocking his hat off.
‘Mind your manners, tramp!’ she shrieked after him. He scowled and decided that it was time for the people of Paladin to pay him some respect. So, that night, when everyone was asleep, he snuck in his pipe organ, a hideous enchanted thing, made of bone and cursed woods, created by the devil himself. He set about tuning it up and preparing it for his spell in the morning, spending all night in the process. When morning came, the villagers slowly came out, preparing for another normal day, having completely forgotten about Skullgrimm. When a decent sized audience had accumulated, he began to play. It was a frightful song, full of twists and turns, and deadly beauty, a bunch of horrific noise, yet so wonderful. The villagers became interested. Finally some entertainment, maybe this man wasn’t so bad after all. The music was sweet to those who were of higher status, but to the peasants, it was dreadful, like screams and wailing of some long lost banshee.
But soon, to their utmost horror, they were pulled to its source, and forced into a coordinated dance with absolutely no control over themselves. The other villagers were highly amused, thinking that the peasants and the stranger had planned such a lovely dance. The peasants tried desperately to regain control of themselves and when they couldn’t, the tried calling out for help, but their screams and begging were warped into beautiful song woven into the ghastly sounds of the organ. Their feet were pulled left and right, this way and that, up and down, in a beautiful, enchanted, and demented Irish jig. Their arms gracefully carved the air, their faces were cruelly forced into grotesque smiles of pleasure. The villagers smiled and laughed with happiness.
But then the dance kept going on and on, the peasants’ feet rubbed raw and bloody, leaving puddles of blood in the dirt. Sweat poured down their bodies, soaking their clothes see-through. Still they danced. Soon the others realized that something was wrong and tried to interfere, to stop the dancers and drag them home to bandage their feet. But the music held them spellbound, unable to move, forced to keep laughing and smiling and watching. Soon the weaker peasants drooped down in the dirt, their hearts having gave out, their energy spent. Still the others danced, over, around and on the bodies of the fallen. More toppled down, dead, as the others kept dancing and the villagers kept smiling. Soon the ground was covered in dead.
The day passed and still the peasants danced, exhausted, with one dropping dead every so often. Night fell, and very few peasants were still alive, their feet bloody messes. By the strike of midnight, only one peasant was left, a young girl of fourteen. She was quite pretty, of average height and slim build, with ivory skin and bright curly hair as red as her own blood. As the clockwork bell struck midnight, she turned one last pirouette and fell, right into a pool of her blood, dust covering her body as it settled. She never rose again. With the death of the last peasant, Skullgrimm stopped playing and pushed his pipe organ out of the village. As soon as he had left, the enchantment on the other villagers was lifted. They stared with horror at the scattering of bodies in the town square, and at the blood that seeped thickly into their boots and slippers. Several people, too stricken to stay, left the village that day. The stronger ones remained and went to wash off the blood and go to bed, desperate to wipe the gruesome sight from their minds.
When they woke the next day, all the blood and bodies were gone, though nobody had removed them. When they found out that the dead seemed to have walked off on their own, it worried them for a while, then they forgot about it, glad that the air no longer had that sickly smell of coppery, rotting blood. They went about their normal lives once again, if not a bit more tense and cautious. The day went by without much disturbance, and soon it was night. Everyone closed up their shops and went to bed. That was when it all started. A bit of ghostly pipe organ music floated in through their windows. They all grew tense, apprehensive of what they expected would come next. But there was no sudden paralysis and several went to the windows to peek carefully outside. What they saw made their blood turn to ice. Outside, in the town square, were peasants, their ragged, bloody clothing billowing out around them as they danced, exposing burst blisters and feet worn to the bone. One of the rich ladies’ young daughters screamed when the ghost of a handsome boy her age danced his way to her window, his face hidden by his hair until he looked up, eyes black holes and empty mouth open in a soundless scream. The next day, more people left, having been spooked away by the sight. Night after night the hauntings increased, sending even the bravest of souls away. Soon they were dancing in an empty town, completely devoid of any form of animal life, even spiders or ants. The buildings slowly crumbled around the dancing ghosts as the years passed.
If you ever go to Old Paladin at midnight, they will still appear to dance, still held under the enchantment. You see, the song never was completed, so the enchantment never released them. They don’t want to be dead, but they don’t want to be here any longer either. They are waiting for someone to come and finish the song for them so they can finally be at peace.” And with that, Martland took a long drag on his pipe and blew a thin cloud of silvery smoke into the night. Merik’s head spun with fantastic thoughts of magic and ghosts. So busy was his imagination, that he thought he heard a faint bit of ghostly organ music, just on the edge of hearing. Merik was amazed by this at first, but then thought it was probably just imagination. He did not realize that old Martland was gazing towards Old Paladin with a thoughtful look on his face, as if he had heard it too. Merik got up and went to bed, where he dreamed of the legend, dawn arriving with the whirl of a tattered peasant skirt. He went through his whole day in a kind of trance, mind still entranced in the story, Martland’s words echoing in his head, ‘they don’t want to be dead…finish the song’.
That evening, when the sun was just beginning to get close to the horizon, Merik headed to Old Paladin, finally free of work. He struggled through tall grass until he stumbled upon a very faint path that looked like the very old remains of a cobblestone road. Suspecting that it led to the ancient village, he followed it. It was very rough going, with tangled overgrown grass only slightly lesser than the surrounding weeds, and lots of loose, large chunks of rock which had been disturbed from their places, leaving plenty of hidden holes. Merik stumbled more than once. The road to Old Paladin sure was a hard one. Finally, over a small rise, the village appeared. The houses were falling down, but surprisingly, the grass was short and there weren’t the usual ruin pests about. No mice, rats or even a single spider. As he wove his way through rubble to the town square he also noticed that there were no vines or overgrown weeds anywhere. It seemed that only time had pulled the buildings down. Then he came to the town square. Quite oddly, the space was cleared, only compacted dirt, as if for hundreds of years people had been tramping all over it. He also noticed that some patches were suspiciously darker than the usual monotonous color of Paladin dirt, almost as if blood had been spilled there. No, that happened too long ago to still be there, he chided himself. Besides, ghosts don’t bleed. Or do they? another part of him argued. He ignored it, but still warily avoided the trampled dirt. Finally, he found the pipe organ. It indeed was horrible and devoid of dust, but by now Merik was growing used to the strange phenomenon of the village ruins. The organ was as wide as his outstretched arms and as tall as he was. The keys were made of off-white ivory and the pipes were stained a dark red, like blood. The body of the instrument was a black wood, darker than ebony, and carved with terrifying designs of demons and skulls. It was all intact and in pristine condition, sheet music still there. As much as he didn’t want to, he sat down on the bench seat and squinted at the paper. It was in runes he didn’t recognize, but the longer he gazed, the runes seemed to make sense. As soon as he had played the first note, starting from where Skullgrimm stopped, his fingers flew across the keys with their own will. Or maybe someone else’s will.
As it grew rapidly darker, ghosts started to appear in the middle of the now whole houses. There were a surprisingly large amount of people, all blood stained and with gaping holes of nothingness for eyes. They started to dance, whirling and leaping to the music, which was indeed quite beautiful in a beastly way. The night passed slowly and still he played, ghosts still dancing. They were quite a sight, terrifying and wondrous. Merik was no longer looking at the sheet music, but instead watching the ghosts, trusting his relentless fingers to know what they were doing. As the song progressed, one by one the ghosts would disappear, having been freed as their part of the song was played, the same bit that killed them so many years ago was now releasing them. They would leap into the air and fade away with a smile and a sigh of happiness at their release, their essence turning to small stars that flew into the night sky. Soon larger groups turned to stars and went to the heavens like a meteor shower in reverse. Merik watched with amazement and awe at the wondrous spectacle, knowing that they would never have to suffer here again. He also knew that this was a rare miracle and the chances of seeing one were once in a lifetime. The air itself began to whisper and sigh with the giggles and cries of joy from the liberated spirits as they rose to claim their final places in the sky. Finally, all that was left was the red haired peasant girl, the one that had died the last. She stood there and looked at him. She smiled and laughed, turning into a star. As it passed by Merik, he heard a soft voice whisper in his ear, thank you, and she was gone, now in the sky as the brightest star of them all. Having reached the end of the song, his fingers stopped, and the song slowly faded away, like the ghosts it had both killed and freed. The night was now as quiet as before, but peacefully so and with a hint of happiness at the freedom of release. Merik got up, his heart full of joy and wonder, and he left the ruins to go home. When he reached the small rise, he looked back and up, spotting a large bright star that seemed to sparkle brighter when he looked at it. In his mind, he again felt the voice. Thank you. We all thank you and watch over you for all eternity. And he was filled with a feeling, that no matter what happened, everything was going to be all right.