Na paused, sniffing the air. That scent… yes yes, that scent! A wide smile split her face as she crouched down and bounded forward, leaving a stunned Marybeth behind her crying, “Wait for me!” before she too dropped down and followed the same manner.
The two Ghouls tore across the forest floor through the dying rays of the afternoon sun, stray beams of light drifting through the trees, causing their forms into blur and shift as they ran. Na’s head swiveled back and forth as she sniffed, getting a better sense of where the smell was originating. She had been getting quite hungry after the events of last evening and, traveling through the night, for a Ghoul does not need such trivialities as sleeping, had taxed her already damaged body.
Marybeth, on the other hand, was able to keep up to the longer legged Ghoul by using the energy she had gained from Fi. She tapped into it unconsciously as she ran forward, her pace far faster than any living girl could run. In a sense, it made her feel rather, well, “alive.” There was a sense of exhilaration as she clambered over the rocks and logs of the forest, her growing familiarity with her new body allowing her to leap and bound in ways she couldn’t have imagined when she was merely human.
Merely, she thought as she grabbed hold of a branch, swinging on it to propel her over a ditch that Na had easily cleared with a jump. Only two days undead and I’m thinking of my past life as weak. The thought disturbed her, but before she could dwell on it further, Na stopped suddenly, forcing Marybeth to scrabble to avoid colliding into her.
As it was, she was only mildly successful, yet still ended up hitting Na with her shoulder, causing the two of them to fall into a heap of flailing limbs. They struggled with each other for a moment before managing to disentangle themselves, the two sitting on their rears and looking at each other with confused expressions, both of covered in mud and detritus.
“Pffttt.” Marybeth spit out, pointing at Na. “Ha…hahaha…hahahahaha!”
Na blinked, red eyes glowing amidst a mask of brown mud. She slowly wiped the mud from her eyes, though still leaving some elsewhere, before another crept up onto her lips. “Hehe…hehehe!”
The two laughed together for quite some time, enough for the last rays of light to vanish, casting the world back into the darkness that creatures such as they found so comforting. Marybeth wiped at tears in her eyes, not caring that they weren’t exactly “tears” and were a little stickier than what she was used to. She took a few breaths to steady herself.
“S…sorry about that!” She said, grinning. “I didn’t..haha… expect you to stop!”
Na shook her head before standing up and offering a hand to Marybeth, helping her daughter stand. “No no, it is fine. Laughter, yes yes, rich and sweet, it has been too long since I have laughed such, so long.”
Marybeth looked aside, feeling embarrassed, “Glad I could help then, Ma.”
Na rubbed Marybeth’s hair, managing to get mud all over it, causing the girl to blink before trying to rub the mud out, failing, and huffing at her Mother. Na chuckled again, feeling actually rather content at the moment, a certain sense of familiarity washing through her. This felt right to her, so very right, though she did not know why. Whenever she saw Marybeth smile though, it filled her with a sense of joy she hadn’t known before. Is this why Ghoul children don’t exist? Because their danger is in the way they make Ghouls feel? It was dangerous in its own right, very dangerous, but very…nice.
“Maaaaaa! Now my hair is more brown then blond!” Marybeth cried, still pouting. She sighed before giving up on fixing her hair and instead looked around curiosly. “What are you looking for anyway?”
Na blinked. Ah, yes yes, the smell! Such a sweet, delicious smell. She sniffed the air again before whirling about and stalking over to a nearby tree. She lowered her head to the ground before pawing at the dirt for a moment, looking at the way it crumbled in her fingers.
“Fresh, yes yes, fresh dirt, grave dirt, shallow I think, very shallow.” She turned to Marybeth, waving her over before beginning to dig into the earth, claw like fingers tearing it apart with ease. “You will help, yes yes? Easy for us, very easy.”
Marybeth looked at her dirt caked hands before shrugging and kneeling down, the knees of her already stained tunic not getting much dirtier than they already were. Part of her pined for clean clothing, but a larger part just plain didn’t care about the grime, as if it couldn’t be bothered. Together, the two ghouls tore into the earth, exposing what it had hidden in mere moments.
“It’s a corpse.” Marybeth said, staring down into the shallow grave.
“Yes yes, recently dead, much more delicious this way.”
Marybeth cocked her head, a curious smell coming to her. It was somewhat sweet, alluring in a way, like the smell of an apple pie cooling upon the windowsill. How did those taste again? Ah, well, that was neither here nor there, and she closed her eyes, sniffing the air. She realized that she had smelled it earlier, but couldn’t properly recognize it. Now that the corpse was unearthed however, it washed over her in a wave that made her mouth begin to water.
“This is so wrong.” She said, staring hungrily at the corpse. “But all I feel is hungry.”
Na nodded her head, pulling the body out with little effort. In life the corpse had been a young woman, perhaps no older than twenty years old, with a thin body and rather large breasts and hips that were bare to the world. Her black hair was long and hang loose from her head, which lolled lifelessly to the side as Na placed her onto the ground out of the hole. Her body was covered in bruises, lip split open with dried blood coating her chin. No wound was more apparent than the hand shaped bruises around her neck however.
Marybeth considered these curiously before looking up to Na. “Ma, I think someone murdered her.”
Na nodded her head, still looking at the corpse a way a butcher would a slab of meat. “Yes yes, killed and buried, act of violence, much fear. A powerful taste indeed!”
“B…but shouldn’t we tell someone about this? What if there’s still a murder about?”
“Good good, more food for us, yes yes?”
Marybeth’s eyes went wide before she realized the absurdity of her claims. She was now a Monster that drained energy from the dead. Why should she care if someone was murdered? In the end that only served to help keep her “alive,” right?
“Oh…” She said quietly, looking at the woman with some pity. “You’re right.” She was still salivating however, despite the fact. Stupid delicious smelling dead woman.
Na nodded her head and waved a hand for Marybeth to feed. It generally went against Ghoul culture to allow the more recently turned Ghoul to feed first, but she was just a girl. Na could wait… probably.
Marybeth looked at the woman before taking a deep breath and sinking her teeth into the woman’s neck. She stiffened before a sense of utter and complete satisfaction played over her face, and she made a low moaning noise of pleasure. She remained attached to the corpse for a few minutes longer before reluctantly removing her mouth, licking her lips.
Her eyes positively sparkled red as she said, excited, “That was the most delicious thing I’ve ever had! It… it was like… like getting punched in the mouth, but good, with a hint of pepper!” She sighed and looked at the corpse again, eyes still hungry. “Wow.”
Na shook her head before taking her turn to feed upon the woman. As Marybeth had said, it had a very powerful flavor, mixed with something that gave it a certain sense of spice. Ah, yes yes, of course, she knew what this was. Na savored the flavor, draining every last drop of energy before releasing the dead woman and nodding to her daughter, feeling far more satiated than before.
“Murdered yes yes, murdered in passion. Love? No no… lust, yes yes! Killed in the throes of lust, but no love, none, no no.”
Marybeth cocked her head. “What does that mean?”
“She was killed while mating I think, yes yes, that sounds right.”
“Mat..ing?” Marybeth asked, curious. “What does that mean?”
Na was about to answer, her knowledge limited to what she had learned from speaking with other Ghouls, as she surely had forgotten, when she stopped. Something… told her it would be better to let Marybeth know when she “grew up.” That was strange, very strange, as Ghoul children did not grow up, did they? Still, she had been assaulted by this nagging at the back of her mind more frequently as of late, and it seemed correct to listen to it, yes yes.
“Perhaps I will tell you later, yes yes?”
“Ugh, you sound just like a Mother.”
“I am a Mother, yes yes?”
Marybeth blinked a few times before rolling her eyes. “Oh, alright then.” She frowned down at the corpse again. “Where do you think she came from?”
Na pointed off in a direction, although nothing but trees could be seen in the distance. “The human settlement, very large, very dangerous, lies close this way. Come come, we can reach it before the sun returns.”
Marybeth took one last look at the corpse before nodding her head and standing up. Burying her again seemed like it would be a waste for some reason. “Alright, I’ll follow you wherever you say Ma.” The two Ghouls got up and continued on their path, leaving the corpse of the woman laying near her grave, dead eyes staring up into the night sky.
It was the dead of night by the time the two Ghouls reached the city. They hadn’t found any other corpses, that were fresh enough to be consumed anyway, on their trip to the city so it was a rather quick trip. They sat at the edge of the forest, hiding in the shadows as both studied where they would be entering.
The city was much larger than Marybeth’s village, which she’d never left in her short little life. Her father had gone here, to uh… Groldburg was it? On occasion for his duties as a soldier. Well, before he left with the rest of the army anyway… Still, the place was impressive, ringed around by a wall of stone opened only at one large gate to the west and the river to the east. From where they sat, Marybeth could see the tops of wooden houses, painted mostly white with red shingles. It was a nice place she was sure, but of course, it wasn’t somewhere she could live, not like a person anymore.
The gentle waves of the flowing river drifted up to them, the only sound from the sleeping city to reach them. Marybeth looked to Na, who seemed deep in thought, before whispering, “How are we going to get in?”
Na blinked and looked to Marybeth. “How?”
“Yes, how. We can’t just go in through the gate as I don’t think guards would allow us to just walk in.”
Na quirked a smile. “No no, no gate, dangerous, too dangerous. We go through the river.”
Marybeth blinked a few times. “The uh… the river?”
“How… are we supposed to do that?” She fidgeted before admitting, “I can’t swim.”
Na chuckled, “It is fine, I can swim, ford the river, yes yes. You may hang onto my back.”
Marybeth looked nervously at the river, it’s dark waters flowing rather quickly for her to feel comfortable. Of course, she was undead, but she could still feel uneasy! She looked back to Na and took a deep breath before nodding her head slowly. “If you say so.”
The two crawled silently through the trees to the riverbank, a little distance away from the city. None of the small riverboats were active yet, and none were moored this far out of protection of the walls of the city. No guards would patrol this far out either it seemed, and Na seemed to be pretty confident in starting her swim here.
“Up up!” she said, kneeling down for Marybeth to crawl onto her back, which she did with Ghoul-like agility. She nestled onto the strong muscles of Na’s back, holding on tight around her Mother’s neck. The younger ghoul waited for Na to slowly climb into the river, but she let out a gasp as her Mother jumped into the river suddenly, plunging both of them in cold, dark water.
Marybeth fought the urge to struggle and pull free of Na, to scream for her life. As it was, she opened her mouth, and river water flooded into her, choking her, and her eyes went wide at the fear of suffocating.
But the sensation of being unable to breath never came. She blinked, red eyes opening underwater and seeing with almost perfect clarity the fish that swam past. She furrowed her brow as Na began to swim, feeling almost sluggish and slow in the water. Why didn’t she drown? She had been breathing before, she was certain of it, so shouldn’t water…
Wait… was she breathing? She remembered consciously taking breaths, but now that she thought about it, she didn’t actually need to breath, did she? She tried to say something, but a garbled spew of water jet from her mouth instead. Oh, apparently she still needed air to talk though, how odd.
Her fears somewhat abating, she held on tight as Na swam through the river, powerful arms and legs propelling her forward. It was so strange to see underwater this way, see what lay beneath. Schools of river fish swam by without a care while large turtles, pulled deep into their shells against the cold, slept on the river floor. It was a view she’d never have been able to get with her human eyes before, she was certain. Merely human, flashed through her mind again.
Soon enough the bottoms of boats began to appear above them, and Na started swimming closer to the surface. Marybeth squeezed as gravity tried to claim both of them, but Na was able to pull both of them above the water line with a furious burst of effort.
On reflex, Marybeth began to try sucking in air, but instead vomited a mouth full of water, coughing to bring it all up from her lungs. Na carefully put a hand over her mouth, apparently unconcerned at the fact that water was dribbling from her mouth. She really has been doing this for awhile, Marybeth thought. Na looked about, paddling with one hand before nodding her head and using both arms to drag herself over to the bank.
There were some guards stationed over near down the bank, but they didn’t seem to notice much as they were too busy playing cards under a lamp-light. Na clamped onto the side of the river and allowed Marybeth to crawl onto land, her body dripping water all over the stone of the dock. Na followed in a swift motion before grabbing Marybeth’s hand and ushering them both into a dark alley.
Of course, to the Ghouls, the alley wasn’t dark at all, merely dank and dirty, but it afforded them time to regroup. Marybeth sank to her knees and began to vomit up the rest of the water in her lungs. Thank goodness for dulled pain, because this would have kind of hurt otherwise. Na was doing the same, albeit a little more controlled. Marybeth finished clearing her throat enough that she felt she could speak, but the breath she had just freed up caught in her throat as she stared at Na.
The swim in the river had washed clean the accumulation of dirt and grime that clung Na’s body, revealing a sublimely adult form. Marybeth knew that Na was beautiful, well, in a Ghoul way, but seeing her pale skin washed free as her Mother stood tall and confident, soaked hair hanging loosely behind her, Marybeth could only gawk.
Na turned to Marybeth, beautifully gaunt face dripping water. She cocked her head, blinking her red eyes at the gawking girl. “Something wrong?”
Marybeth started and looked down. “No! Just uhm… you’re just really pretty, Ma.”
Na smiled and kneeled down to eye level with Marybeth. She gently put a hand to her daughter’s cheek. “Thank you.”
Marybeth smiled softly before whispering, “Do you think I’ll ever grow up like you?”
Na looked into Marybeth’s eyes, seeming to search for something before a wan smile appeared on her face. “I hope so, yes yes, I do.”
Marybeth nodded her head slowly. Neither of them actually believed that, for they were essentially fugitives to both the living and the dead. Chances were good they’d be found someday and killed by one or the other before she could find out. But there was hope, wasn’t there?
Na looked up and frowned before taking Marybeth’s hand. “Come come, we must hide for now. Men come, carrying metal, such dangerous metal. For now we hide, yes yes?”
Marybeth nodded her head. “Right! Besides, I think there’s water still in my ears…”
The next day came about rather quickly to Marybeth’s senses. The two of them had holed up in what seemed like an empty warehouse packed with some boxes covered by heavy cloth to dry off and speak about the future and what it meant to be a Ghoul. It was oddly comforting in a way, as this was really the first time they’d ever spoken at length. The trip in the woods was rather panicked and furious, and despite a few close moments, they’d been more concerned with getting here than really getting to know each other. Thanks to that snack in the woods, they really didn’t need to feed urgently, and thus they spend the time speaking.
Marybeth sat in Na’s lap, the older Ghoul absently running her long fingers through her daughter’s hair as they spoke. It felt comforting to Marybeth, although she suspected Na did it because she was bored, but regardless of the reason it reminded her a little of her… “other” Mother.
“Do you know if any other Ghouls live in the city?”
“Some did, yes yes, but it is dangerous, very dangerous. The humans, they sometimes go on hunts to drive us out. The Pale Ladies try to keep these low, to protect us, yes yes, always watching over, but they can only do so much.”
Marybeth frowned. “I heard Fi talk about the Pale Ladies… what are they?”
Na’s fingers stopped for a moment before continuing to run through Marybeth’s blond hair. “They… are our rulers, masters of the undead, yes yes.”
“There are other undead?”
“Zombies, Skeletons, yes yes, others. They control those fully, such control, but the Ghouls, no no, they do not control our minds.” She sighs, “They have power, such power, and can impose their wills, yes yes, make us obey or face punishments, painful, so very painful.”
“How many Pale Ladies are here?”
Na shrugged, “I do not know. Some have said before there was only one who looked over this area, yes yes, but few meet the Pale Ladies, precious few.”
“You’ve never met them?”
“No no, I am not so important.”
Marybeth nodded her head. “So we’ll have to be extra careful, or they’ll find us also?”
“Yes yes, smart girl, wise girl. We must take care in raiding for food, must not feed from the living, no no.”
Marybeth grimaced, “That’s fine by me.” She sighed and looked up at Na. “So, is this where we’re going to live from now on?”
“For now, yes yes. We may move, always move, to stay safe, but we are hidden, quite hidden.”
“So, this is like home for us now?”
Na blinked. “Home?”
“You know, a place where you can always come back to, somewhere that your family is….” Marybeth began to trail off as she finished her explanation, her expression becoming pensive. She says quietly, “I’m afraid that I’ll forget what my old home looked like.”
She looks up again at Na, “How did you deal with it? Forgetting things?”
Na looked into Marybeth’s pleading eyes, but she had no good answer for the girl. The way she was now was just the way she was going to be. She considered for a moment before speaking. “It will be difficult, very difficult, not knowing what you have forgotten, yes yes, but you will remember what you learn after you were blessed. If you forget what your old home was, then you can just remember your new home, yes yes?”
Marybeth lowered her head and closed her eyes, taking Na’s hand to squeeze as she softly cried. Na didn’t know how to react except to hold her daughter close, letting her cold body press against the fabric of her tunic. Such emotion from this girl, such emotion Na felt herself. Perhaps this was truly the danger inherent in children, for they made Ghouls act unlike themselves.
Na didn’t mind though. Not at all.
A shout sounded outside and both Ghoul’s snapped their attention to the source. Another shout followed, and then the sound of boots hitting the paving outside penetrated the walls of the warehouse. Na went to full attention, moving Marybeth out the way and crouching low before getting closer to hear better. There were men outside, but not many, and they were speaking to each other. She looked to the younger Ghoul and made a gesture for her to stay down before continuing to listen.
“Have you heard? There’s a Hunter in town!”
“What? Did something happen?”
“I don’t know, but he’s gathering people in the square. Something about Ghouls?”
“Ghouls? By God in Heaven, I thought we’d seen the last of those some years ago.”
“Apparently not. Come on, let’s see what this is all about.”
Footsteps sounded again as the men left. Na stayed at the wall for a few moments longer, listening to see if anyone was going to enter the building, but no one did. She crawled back, thinking furiously. She’d heard of these “Hunters” before, men who hunted down her kind with strange implements, but she’d never actually seen one. Even the Pale Ladies were said to take them seriously!
“Ma, what’s wrong? Marybeth whispered as Na returned to her.
“Danger, yes yes, much danger in this place.”
“A man, dangerous man, with weapons that can destroy us, return us to the dark abyss.”
“B…but how does he know we’re here? We only just got here last night!”
“The men, they did not know Ghouls were here, but this man may, yes yes, dangerous, very dangerous.”
Marybeth furrowed her brow. “So he might not know we’re actually here?”
Na considered, “A possibility, yes yes.”
Marybeth looked around the warehouse before biting her lip. “Do we have to leave? We’ve only been here for the evening but…” She sighs, “I thought it would be nice to have a home again.”
Na stared at the little girl and felt a twinge of pity. Her rational side, whatever was left of it, told her to flee and not look back, while her emotions cried at her to do as the girl said. Dangerous these children are, so very dangerous.
“Very well, the man is gathering humans to speak with them, yes yes, we may watch, listen, very quiet, very hidden.”
Marybeth frowned and her gaze drifted over to the boxes in the warehouse. She studied them for a moment before her eyes gained a mischievous sparkle. “I know just what we can do…”
“Hey, watch where you’re going!” A burly man growled at the perimeter of a large crowd of people. “If I had half a mind I’d…” His words trailed off as he got a good look at who bumped into him.
Two figures stood behind him, draped almost totally in heavy brown cloth. He tried to get a look under the hood of the taller one, but couldn’t. Instead, he merely turned around, grumbled about foreigners, and went back to looking out at the center of the crowd.
The hooded figures backed away, surveying the crowd carefully. The taller one looked down at the smaller and whispered, “Dangerous, yes yes, this is too dangerous. We will be seen, will be caught!”
“Ma, it’s fine, they won’t find us, we’ll just stick near the back of the crowd.”
Na considered before shaking her head. This child would be the end of her as she had suspected. She looked up at the crowd, and was barely able to see over their heads to the city square. It was a rather large area before the town hall, where a few statues of great heroes stood amongst buildings made of stone. Upon the brick-laid ground however was a hastily erected stage where a man in a dark coat and wide-brimmed hat stood, flanked by a stout looking man carrying a large pack and another, stern man in light armor. They all stood quietly, watching the crowd while the people buzzed about in hushed whispers.
Na began to feel quite nervous. “No no, we should not be here, come come, let us leave.”
“What? Why?” Asked Marybeth as Na tried to take her hand, but stopped as a loud, cracking sound thundered from the stage, causing people to shout in alarm.
“Quiet yourselves!” Shouted the man in the dark hat, lowering a strange implement from where he held it in the air, the end of it smoking. He calmly pulled out a pouch and began to clean and fill it with something before speaking again. “Now then, I believe I have your attention?”
The crowd hushed and slowly moved in, their fear now mixed with curiosity. Na tried again to pull away, but she found herself packed in by a group of people who had just walked up, and she had to struggle to grab Marybeth’s hand and pull her close to herself, lest she lose her daughter. She clutched Marybeth to her side before looking back up at the stage, trapped until the crowd dispersed.
The man calmly replaced the implement back into a holster on his belt before looking over the crowd again and speaking in that high, nasally voice. “People of Groldburg, I am Ulrich Hemmingler, Lord Hunter of the Order of the Sacred Rose.”
This drew a murmur from the crowd. They knew what a Hunter was, vaguely anyway, but to see one so publically never meant anything good. Lord Hemmingler paused before continuing.
“I have come to your city on the trail of foul creatures that have infested your lands like rats in a sewer, breeding in the dark and spreading their disease into the heart of this land.” He raised a finger to the sky, “You know them as Ghouls!”
The crowd began to speak louder this time, their fears confirmed. Ghouls? Here? Hadn’t they all been driven out by the town watch? Surely the desecrations that occasionally happened in the graveyard were just the work of grave robbers? But if that was the case, then why would a Hunter be here? There couldn’t seriously be Ghouls among them again?
Na began to feel more nervous than before, her eyes darting back and forth as people spoke in fearful tones about Ghouls. She knew this fear, yes yes, knew it lead to anger with but a spark. When they grew angry, they’d go to destroy her, return her to the dark abyss and…
Trembling slightly, she tightened her grip on Marybeth’s hand. Her daughter squeezed back, giving her a mild reassurance. Na felt some tension leave her, but her eyes and ears were focused on the man, hanging upon his words.
“You have been diligent before driving such creatures out, and for that you have my commendation.” He walked across the stage, nodding his head before flipping about, pointing at the people, “But you have been lax in recent times! You have not paid attention to the signs that they still lurk in your lands!” He waved a hand and the man in the armor, who walked over to a long box which laid on the stage before dragging something out with the help of the stout man with the pack. The crowd gasped in shock and Na’s eyes went wide.
The two men held up the corpse of the woman who was buried beneath the tree. Her dead eyes stared lifelessly out over the crowd, as if accusing them. The men onstage said nothing as the crowd reacted with horror and anger, shouting about Monsters coming to get them, and that they should slay the beasts. Again, Lord Hemmingler stood there, watching the crowd with that stoic expression.
“What’s happening?” Marybeth shouted, trying to be heard over the crowd. “I can’t see anything!”
Na squeezed hard on her daughter’s hand, fear running through her. She couldn’t stay here, no no, she’d be found, be destroyed. Run? Yes yes, run, must run from here, don’t look back, leave!
She gripped Marybeth’s hand tightly and began to push against the crowd, forcing her way out. The people were so gripped in their emotions that they barely reacted to her moving away, and even those she had to shove barely gave her grief before she was past them, although perhaps that was because she obviously had a child in tow.
As soon as they got out of the crowd, Na dragged both of them down a alleyways between buildings and began to hurriedly run. They ran, their improvised disguises flapping in the wind, until they were far enough from the crowd that the roars of humanity became dull whispers. Na tried to keep going, dragging Marybeth behind her, but the younger Ghoul let go of her hand, forcing Na to flip around, red eyes wild under her hood.
“Why do you stop? Come come, we must flee!”
“Flee from what?” Marybeth said, her thin body shaking. “You’re scaring me!”
Na kneeled down to eye level with Marybeth, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I am sorry, yes yes, very sorry, but it is to survive.”
“From this Hunter?”
“That, yes yes, and the Pale Ladies.”
“W…what? But how would they know…” Marybeth’s eyes went wide. “His speech would draw them out!”
“Yes yes, smart girl, wise girl. The Pale Ladies do not like such men here, no no, if they hunt their servants, they will hunt them.”
Marybeth looked down and muttered, “And we’re in the middle of it…”
“Yes yes, you know why we must flee.”
Marybeth was silent for a moment before sighing. “You’re right, Ma. I just… wished we could have made this our home.”
Na paused before slowly touching her forehead to her daughter’s in another gesture she could not explain. “Me too.”
“Oh dear, I found them.”
Na’s head whipped around to face the opposite end of the alley from where they had entered. Standing there was the stout man from the stage, a strange, tube shaped implement in his hand. He fumbled at something in his other hand, panting furiously as Na stood up, her teeth bared.
“Could you wait a moment you abomination? I’m terribly busy.” The man said, striking a small little stick against the cone. “Oh by the Lord in Heaven, these new Fire Sticks are so difficult to use.”
Na crouched low and dashed the man, prepared to remove the obstacle. She didn’t expect them to find her and Marybeth so soon, but if she struck before the man could run away…
She got about ten feet before the stick suddenly burst into flames, accompanied by an exclamation of joy from the man. He touched the fire to a string on the tube before holding it in the air, shying away, and covering an ear. Na was about to pounce when an ear splitting whistle sounded from the tube, followed by a jet of light streaking into the air. When it exploded into a sea of color, Na’s momentum had been broken, and she stared up into the sky. What… what was that? Magic? There was no other explanation for it that she could even think of, meaning this unassuming man must be a magician!
A tense silence filled the air as Na stared at the man, her eyes shimmering red from underneath her hood. The man began to sweat as his air of indifference started melting away. He looked back and forth, as if waiting for something that wasn’t coming. He began to chuckle slowly and took a step backward.
“Aha, well, you see, that was uh… P…please don’t kill me!”
Na’s expression became surprised. Was this magician begging for his life now? Such oddities today, such strange, strange things. She beckoned to Marybeth, who slowly walked toward Na, eyes looking nervously at the man. His eyes grew wide at the sight of the hooded girl, especially when he caught a glimpse of her face.
“By God above, it is true… You truly did create one from the body of a child. Monsters…”
Na snarled. She was going to just pass by the magician, who obviously wasn’t looking for a fight, and leave with Marybeth in tow. However, at those words, a sort of anger welled up in her, driving her to open her hand to strike the man. How dare he insult her daughter!
“That will be enough of that.” A calm, nasally voice said from the other end of the alleyway.
Na turned her head about to see the Hunter stride purposefully down the alley, thin sword in his right hand and odd implement from before in the other, it’s metal tube gleaming. She pulled away from the stout magician, crouching low in a battle stance while Marybeth took shelter behind her. Na backed both of them against one of the walls in the alley before she heard another set of footsteps and looked back to the stout man to see the man in the armor walk up to his sweating companion, spear held in both hands.
No no… they were trapped!
The Hunter stopped about ten feet from her, weapons still drawn. “Well done Pulkin. Besides your obvious cowardice, you did your duty admirably.”
“T…thank you milord.” Pulkin, bowing awkwardly.
“I don’t see the point of parading that poor woman’s corpse before the city.” The man in the armor said, his eyes locked onto the smaller of the two Ghouls. “I’m sure we could have found them easily otherwise.”
The Hunter nodded his head. “True, but I have found that others, even one’s quarry, expect a Hunter to be loud, dramatic, overbearing. Similar to using a dog to flush out game, using well chosen words will flush out the Monsters within and without.” His gaze never left Na as he said, “Speaking of which, after this we shall investigate Lord Johannes. From his distressed expression during the proceedings, I believe he was the one to murder that unfortunate whore.”
“I don’t care about some corrupt Lord.” The man in the armor said. “I just want justice for my poor Marybeth.”
Marybeth blinked and slowly lowered her hood. Her pale skin and red eyes blended into the dark shadow of the alleyway, her expression stunned. The man stiffened, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the spear harder. “M…Marybeth.” He said, choking up. “What did she do to you, my poor baby girl?”
Marybeth’s expression became confused as she asked “Wh…who are you? I… I know your face but… but I don’t…”
The man closed his eyes and uttered a prayer before he took on a look of resolution. He took a step toward Marybeth but stopped as Na ripped back her own hood and snarled at the man. “She is my daughter! You stay back, yes yes, back!”
“You damn Monster!” He shouted, tears in his eyes, “She is MY daughter, and you have defiled her corpse, turning her into… into… this abomination!”
Marybeth clutched at Na’s side, eyes wide in terror. “M…Ma!”
“She’s not your mother!” He bellowed. “She’s a damn Monster!”
Lord Hemmingler sighed and leveled the implement toward Na. With barely a gesture, the loud cracking sound came again, followed by a burst of light, an acrid smell, and a blossom of pain, such incredible, powerful pain.
Na cried out in agony, dropping to her knees as her shoulder wept pale blood from the fresh hole there. She clutched at the flesh, and found the normally cold skin warm and smoking, a feeling like fire spreading from the wound. Such pain… she had never felt such pain before! It dug into her mind, wrenching cries of pure torment from her as her arm writhed.
The Hunter calmly reloaded his weapon as before, speaking in that same, dispassionate voice. “There, the larger one is incapacitated and she be dealt with later. Blessed weaponry will always cause their kind such pain, though the mindless ones require a heavier hand.” He waved his sword at the man, “Do what you came here to do.”
Marybeth’s Father nodded and stepped toward the girl. She’d screamed when Na had fallen, and was wailing for her to stand, but she cut off as he grabbed her arm and pulled her away from her Mother, his spear discarded.
“L…let go of me!”
“Damnit child, all I seek to do is return you back to the peace of the grave! To free you from the shackles this Monster put on you!”
“No! I don’t want to go back! No no, I can’t go back to the cold darkness, you can’t do this!”
“Do not listen to the creature Sergeant.” Lord Hemmingler said, his eyes still locked upon Na, watching her with diligence. “Though this creature may have been made from the body of your daughter, rest assured that her soul is gone. You will do her a favor greater than you can possibly know.”
Her Father nodded and knelt down to be eye level with the girl. She struggled against him, but even as Ghoul, she was no match for a career soldier. She sniffed, odd tears dripping from her red eyes as she ceased her fighting. He hung his head and moved to draw his sword from his belt when Pulkin tapped his shoulder and proffered a small, silvery knife.
He looked at the knife before accepting it and taking a deep breath. “I hope you know I’m doing this for your own good.”
“Killing me again is for my own good, huh?”
He smirked, although there was a deep sadness in his eyes, “You always were a quick-tongued child. I remember how I used to scold you before…” he shuddered, “Before the sickness.”
Marybeth looked down, her expression weary. “I don’t remember…”
“I’m so sorry I have to do this.”
“Me too.” She whispered as he placed the blade to her heart.
He took a few deep breaths, his arm shaking as he prepared to thrust the blessed steel into her heart. She merely looked into his eyes, her red orbs filled with dejection. He began to breath hard, his whole body trembling before he cried out and threw the knife away, the metal ringing as it clattered against the side of the alley. He collapsed, put his hands to his head, and began to cry.
“I can’t do it! I… I can’t… please no…”
Marybeth watched him weep in the alley, the strong soldier reduced to tears before the small form of his daughter. She gently placed a hand on his head, and whispered, “Thank you.”
The Lord Hunter had taken his eyes off Na, who had collapsed to the ground moaning in pain, in order to observe the execution. His expression betrayed no hint of any emotion as he sighed again. “Perhaps it was too much to ask of someone untrained in such things. Killing men on the battlefield is not the same as killing such a creature. I remember the first time I had to put down a Monster, a zombie who’s likeness was not that dissimilar to my own kin. An experience I was grateful to have had early in my career.” He took a deep breath before continuing.
“I do not pity you for your inability to see this through, I am merely… disappointed.” He leveled the projectile weapon in his hand toward Marybeth. “Still, we cannot allow such creatures to roam these lands. Greater powers control them, things that would feast upon the souls of men and make them their playthings. If I must play the role of executioner, then so be it.”
A small sound, that of debris shifting, came from behind the Hunter and he flipped about with alarming speed, weapon aimed at whatever had been behind him. In the shadows of the alley, a pair of red eyes shone from a crouched form, who took on a look of surprise when the man had noticed her.
“Another one?!” He growled, discharging his weapon without hesitation.
The Ghoul dodged the shot and shouted, “No no, they are my prize!” She pounced toward the man, who discarded the spent weapon, and readied his blade, the sound her Rending cry echoing in the alleyway as she made her attack.
Marybeth’s eyes went wide as she watched Fi attack the Hunter, her initial strike being parried by the man, who seemed utterly unaffected by her wail. He pushed her back and then began his own assault, using his blade in fine and exacting motions. To give her credit, Fi was either a better fighter than she had seen before, or she was incredibly foolhardy, because she managed to dodge the sword thrusts, though she was being pushed back. She didn’t seem to understand quite yet how dangerous his weapon was, for she was still attacking with the furious frenzy of a Ghoul.
Marybeth looked at her supposed Father, who was still weeping, and then to Pulkin, the man starting to sweat profusely as soon as the situation got out of hand. She grit her teeth and ran to Na, trying to pick her up. “Ma! Get up! We have to go!”
“Hurts, pain, such pain, no no burns, it burns.” Na moaned, still clutching at her shoulder, not seeming to notice the frantic girl pulling at her.
“They’re distracted, we can run, please, please!”
Na continued to whimper, and Marybeth cried out in frustration before slapping her Mother across the face with the full power of her little frame. Na blinked, her expression stunned before she slowly looked at Marybeth, who’s eyes were filled with tears.
“Ma, please! You said you’d protect me!”
Na’s eyes went wide as her daughter’s word pierced her pain. Yes yes, she did say she would protect her, didn’t she? Her arm, still burning in pain, suddenly seemed less important, and she dragged herself to her feet, looking over at the fight between the Hunter and Fi. Things were not going well for the other Ghoul, who had finally seemed to realize her mistake in attacking the man. She was trying to pull away, but was having difficulty disengaging without being mercilessly cut down.
Na nodded and took Marybeth’s hand when it was proffered, and the two of them ran out of the alley, pushing past the bumbling Pulkin, knocking him to the ground. They ran, leaving behind the sounds of combat and the Hunter’s cries of, “Pulkin, get them you fool!”
They ran toward the docks, and the safety it offered. They’d just leave how they came in, hide in the waters and exit before laying low until Na could heal. It was not ideal, but what other choice did they have? They’d have to run past a fair number of people, but thanks to the gathering in the square and the commotion caused by their skirmish, many people were too scared to pay much attention to the two running women. They made it to the buildings near the river docks before they stopped in another alleyway, looking for the right place to cross into the river when Na narrowed her eyes.
An eerie silence pervaded the docks. Na tried to place what exactly was wrong with this situation. It was daylight, so even with everyone leaving for the commotion, the river should be far more active than this… It hit her as Marybeth said, “Where are all the people?”
Na turned her head to see the form of a woman lumbering toward her from behind, steps slow and shambling. As the woman drew closer, Na realized at her eyes were glazed over, her clothing was ripped and torn, and rents showed in her flesh, exposing decaying meat underneath. Another moan sounded from close by and Na jumped, seeing another ragged woman drag herself out from underneath a canvas lying on the ground, reaching for Na.
“What is happening?” Marybeth cried, clutching close to Na while pulling away from the woman.
“Zombies, yes yes.” Her expression grew very serious as she cautiously walked away from the two coming toward them, heading out toward the dock proper. She was stopped by the appearance a walking human skeleton, hollow eyes burning with green fire, exposed bones bleached white. It carried a wicked looking sword in one hand, stains of blood and rust coating it liberally. It stood before Na, but made no move to do anything other than watch her, those burning eyes fixed upon the Ghoul.
Na grit her teeth as she looked at the thing. “Skeleton, Where there are these, there must be a Pale Lady, yes yes.”
“Correct you are my dear!” Rang a silky smooth voice from the river.
Na looked in the direction of the voice to see a large river boat docked there, a woman standing atop it flanked by two more Skeletons. She was tall, and built like a statue, with gorgeous curves and alabaster skin. Her luscious brown hair hang long behind her head, bound with clips that were the same shade of black as the alluring dress she wore, the garment only accentuating her curves. She batted her long eyelashes as her unnaturally blue eyes looked at the two Ghouls with amusement.
She chuckled and beckoned to the two. “Oh, don’t be so afraid my dears, I’m not going to hurt you, though honestly I should for all the trouble you’ve caused me. Now then, let us be away as I cannot keep these docks cleared forever, and that nasty Hunter may decide to stick his nose where it’s not wanted.” A soft smile touched her lips then.
“Besides, it’s been far too long since we’ve spoken my dear, dear Naomi.”
Na’s eyes went wide in shock. This couldn’t be… but that’s not…
“Kat?” She whispered before the zombies and skelton grabbed her and Marybeth, ushering the two of them toward the boat and it’s Pale mistress.