Gone Ghoul Pt. 4

“Dearest Naomi, it is so good to see you again!” Kat exclaimed, lounging on a rather plush couch.

Na leaned back on an equally comfortable chair, though she felt anything but comfortable. Marybeth, Kat, and she sat in a fairly large room in the hold of the river vessel, surrounded by various forms of opulence. There were masterworks from Eastern rugs to rare wood chairs, even the paintings on the wall seemed like they were designed by some form of great artisan, though Na was obviously no judge of such things.

Na couldn’t fathom why someone would even want to have such things around, let alone Kat, if this was truly she. But her eyes, they had the same look as the one who blessed her, and her face, though much more beautiful, was distinctly Kat’s. Na was having difficulty believing it, but how could she deny what she was seeing?

“Yes yes, it is good, very… good.” Na said, eyeing the Skeletons standing aside her and Marybeth, who was sitting in another chair next to hers. They stood perfectly still, weapons held in both hands before them, their glowing green eyes staring lifelessly off into nothingness. She didn’t have a problem with the undead, being that was she was one of course, but she did have a problem with the weapons they carried, weapons of metal, such dangerous metal.

She touched her shoulder in reflex, wincing. The wound wasn’t healing right, despite her having recovered from wounds far worse than this. It still pained her, but she was able to use the arm and the smoking had disappeared once one of the zombies had held her down and pulled something out under Kat’s instructions. It had been painful, so very, very painful, but she was more shocked to see that what was in her shoulder was a tiny metal ball, which gently sizzled away the rotting flesh of the zombie as it held the little thing.

Kat noticed the gesture and gave Na a wan smile. “Oh Naomi, it must be rather painful. Holy weaponry, even these new “pistols” as they call them, are quite dangerous to our kind. I am glad you weren’t slain however.”

“Why?” Na asked, looking back over to the Pale Lady. Kat shifted in her couch, a rather elegant motion, and sighed.

“Of course, it’s always about business with you. Always have been that way since the day I blessed you.” Kat looked at Na critically before nodding, “Of course, you wouldn’t remember the event, very few Ghouls remember that far back, Naomi.”

“What is Naomi? I am Na, yes yes.”

“It is your true name, of course, just as mine is Kathryn.” she shuddered. “Such a terrible fate, that of a Ghoul, to lose your memories and slowly become some kind of… beast.”

Na frowned and Kat waved a hand toward her, “Oh don’t be petulant. I can only assume before you came to Groldburg you were covered in mud and blood, the same with your little, ah…” She pursed her lips, “Daughter.”

Na’s hands gripped the arm rests tightly and she barred her teeth toward Kathryn. “You will not hurt her, no no!”

The two Skeletons reacted instantly, taking steps toward Na, weapons brought to a ready position. She looked between them, prepared to attack, when Marybeth spoke up, quiet but forceful, “Ma, please. Calm down.”

Na looked to Marybeth, then the Skeletons, before sighing and slowly sitting back down. Kathryn waved a hand and the Skeletons took their positions again, once more going still as Gargoyles. The Pale Lady studied the girl curiously, a smirk upon her lips. “My, what a bright child you are.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Kathryn chuckled, “And polite too!” She rested back, still smiling, “Wherever did Naomi find you, little one?”

“In a graveyard.”

“Ah, of course.” Kathryn turned to Na and shook her head. “I warned you the dangers of such things. Tell me, did you lose control again?”

Na looked down and nodded slowly, her expression looking pained. Marybeth winced at the expression, remembering what Na had told her beforehand. The Pale Lady let out a disappointed sound, “I thought you were over such things. After that lesson, I had hoped you wouldn’t have made such a costly mistake.”

“If it is such a costly mistake, yes yes, why not destroy us?” Na asked, eyes intent on Kathryn.

“To be fair, my duty is to uphold the laws that our kind have made, to deal out punishment for such transgressions, especially once as heinous as this.” She shifted again, a long, pale leg gliding over the other. “However I am intrigued by your situation. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been a Ghoul child in many, many years.” She shrugged. “Besides, is it so wrong of me to wish to speak with the one I had blessed so long ago?”

Na leaned back, eyes still wary. Marybeth coughed to get attention before speaking slowly, “So, you’re like, Ma’s Mother?”

Kathryn blinked, taken aback, before a look of consideration came upon her face. She smiled broadly and let out a rich, melodious laugh before speaking, “Oh my! In a way, I think I am! Does that make me your Grandmother then? Don’t I feel old.”

“You don’t look old.”

“Such flattery! Oh Na, you certainly do have an aptitude for children don’t you? A shame that your own luck surrounding them is…”

“Kat, why are you a Pale Lady?”

The room went silent again as Na asked his, red eyes focused on Kathryn’s cold blue orbs. A tension seemed to fill the room as the gravity of Na’s rather coherent and acidic question began to permeate through everyone. A Skeleton shifted as if stirred by a wind, it’s finger bones tightening around its sword, preparing to strike at a moment’s notice.

Kathryn’s face was an emotionless mask as she returned Na’s gaze, her unnaturally blue eyes shimmering in the dim light of the lanterns hanging upon the wall. Na didn’t make a move, though she couldn’t say whether it was from a gnawing fear or a fierce determination. Perhaps a mixture of both, though it didn’t really matter either way. She should have been destroyed already by any reckoning, so how could agitating a Pale Lady make things worse?

Kathryn spoke slowly and deliberately. “We are known as Wights, though to our more… deprived subjects, we are known as the Pale Ladies. To become a Wight, one may be blessed as such, in a way similar, but fundamentally different, to that of a Ghoul. However, there are instances where those of the undead who have shown… promise, may be ‘elevated.'”

“So… you actually were a Ghoul before?” Marybeth asked, incredulous. “But you… you speak so beautifully and… your memory?”

A flicker of disgust came over the Wight’s face before it faded away back into the mask of neutrality. “Yes, I was once one of you, a creature slowly devolving into madness as I feasted upon the corpses of the dead. Blessedly, after leaving Naomi to fend for herself, I found myself under the thumb of another Wight who rewarded my service by elevating me to Wighthood after the previous ruler of this area was slain in the damnable hunt by those foolish humans.”

She ran a hand through her fine hair, and watched the strands as they fell, though her gaze seemed more to look through the hairs rather than at them. “When I received this gift, it was as if a shock had run through me, a cold, powerful sense of self echoing back through my mind. I remembered everything then, my life as a human, the way I died, my early days as a Ghoul… all of it.” Her face was carefully marshaled, but her tone seemed to imply that she didn’t find that last part rather enjoyable.

She turned her gaze back to Marybeth and asked, “Does that answer your question, child?”

Marybeth nodded her head slowly, ghoulish face lost in a mask of thought. Na looked toward her daughter before returning to Kathryn. The way she had described her time as being a Ghoul, so angry, had hurt Na somehow. She remembered the time they spent together, just the two of them, running through the landscape at night, the joy they shared when they found a fresh corpse to feast upon, or a male to attack. She remembered the harsh, but fair, way Kat would scold her and teach her about being a Ghoul. To see her so disgusted by it caused Na pain, such deep, terrible pain.

“It was not all bad, I suppose.” Kathryn said, and Na raised her head to see the Wight displaying a wan smile. “I will always treasure the day that I blessed you, the one and only Ghoul I created.”

Na felt a flutter in her chest, a feeling she thought she’d never feel again, not since Kat left her to fend for herself. For some reason a soft smile touched her lips and she sank back into her chair, feeling warm. How strange indeed such a small thing could make her feel.

“I do find it so very curious that Naomi of all people would be the one to break this particular taboo though. Truly, fate is fickle and cruel for some, isn’t it?”

Marybeth looked up again, confused, “What do you mean?”

Kathryn waved a hand, “Oh dear, of course she would have forgotten, all Ghouls forget.” She shrugged one shoulder and said casually, “You are not Naomi’s first child.”

Marybeth’s eyes went wide and she looked to Na, who stared hard at the Wight, unable to comprehend what she’d heard. Not her first… but how? She’d never blessed anyone before, let alone a child, so that could only mean that in life she…

“No no…” she whispered, the tugging at the back of her mind increasing, as if shouting something at her, yet she still couldn’t understand it. Loud, so very, very loud, it was though. She put a hand to her head, and tried to calm her thoughts, but couldn’t.

A rumbling from above sounded and a door to the upper deck opened, admitting a Ghoul, curiously washed and well groomed, wearing a dress of midnight blue, though it was nowhere near as fine as what the Wight wore. She looked about the room curiously before Kathryn made a small noise, causing the Ghoul to jump and nod her head, the motion seeming strange for a Ghoul. Maybe it was just the dress, which was fairly silly to put on such an undead.

“Mistress, we have reached the dock, yes yes, the ship is docking and the carriage is awaiting you, yes yes.”

“Excellent.” Kathryn said, standing up gracefully. Two Skeletons fell in line beside her and she turned a palm toward the two stunned Ghouls in the chairs. “Come along then, we have a journey yet ahead of us to the Manor.”

——————————

The carriage came to a stop shortly after nightfall. The ride was silent, as neither Kathryn, nor the two Ghouls, spoke to each other the entire time. Na’s thoughts were lost in the swirling haze of emotions she felt and Marybeth was too concerned for her Mother to dare speak. She had held her hand the entire time however, trying to comfort the older Ghoul, though she knew the gesture wasn’t having the intended effect.

The sound of soft footsteps echoed outside and the door swung open, revealing a man in a dark robe, who bowed to the occupants. “Welcome home, my Lady.”

Kathryn held her hand out to the man who reverently helped her down out of the carriage before doing the same with the two Ghouls, his face betraying no emotion as he did so. As Na stepped down, she looked about her, taking in the landscape.

They carriage had taken them to a dark part of a swamp-land area, trees skeletal and covered in moss, looking nothing so much like the hands of Ghouls rising up out of the earth to tear at the sky. The land was soft and damp, and she could see pools of dark, algae encrusted waters in the distance, one pool rippling as a large creature swam gently under the surface. A soft ambiance of wildlife sounded all around her, and she got the feeling that she was being watched, though she wasn’t sure why.

Before her however, stood a large and imposing two-story manor that was nestled into the trees like beast slumbering within a massive cave. The carriage had rolled inside the perimeter of a large gate, which appeared as if it was erected ages ago, as it was rusted and bent in many places, obviously uncared for. It managed to give the place an extra sense of the disturbing nature that the entire ensemble seemed to encourage.

It was all fairly comforting for one such as her being a creature of the night and all, although she couldn’t feel at ease in the situation. She was still essentially a prisoner, held at a whims of her former friend, now technically her ruler. She gently took Marybeth’s hand in hers and her daughter squeezed tightly, huddling in close to her mother for support.

The doors to the manor opened and a trio of figures emerged, walking toward the newly arrived party. Well, only the two hooded figures walked while the third, in the center of the three, floated gently over the ground before coming to a rest before the Wight. The three bowed at the waist to Kathryn and the central figure spoke in a slow, monotone voice. “Welcome back, my Lady.”

Na studied the floating figure with a curious eye. It was a woman of about average height with ashen skin and blue eyes almost as deep as Kathryn’s, though they were much colder and emotionless than the Wight’s. She was moderately attractive, her body’s curves present and lovely, but not overly much so, and her short, white hair was hidden under a long cloak that hung loosely around her shoulders, exposing fully her chest, which was covered by a thin, black garment that seemed more ceremonial than practical. At her belt hung a large grimoire with an eye that constantly shifted and shook, while multiple vials of various fluids sloshed as she floated up and down.

Kathryn nodded her head, “Tell me Ingrid, how are things back in the town?”

The floating woman nodded and waved her hand. A shimmer appeared in the air before an image of the docks in Groldburg appeared, causing Marybeth to gasp in surprise. The magician looked down at the Ghoul, displaying no emotion as her eyes seemed to dissect Marybeth, before speaking to Kathryn again.

“My servant’s diversion had been found out shortly after you left. They had killed only a few stubborn dock workers and guards, and only three had to commit themselves to sacrifice.” She spoke as if reading from a list, showing the Wight as guards and people began to return, confused more than afraid.

“And the Hunter?” Kathryn asked.

“Though my powers as a Lich are strong, he must carry with him a charm to dissuade my magic.” She seemed almost annoyed as she said this, though her expression didn’t change in the slightest. “I apologize my Lady, I cannot scry him.”

The Wight pursed her lips before nodding. “Very well then. Prepare the reception chamber, I have things to discuss with my guests still.”

The Lich bowed again and waved a hand toward one of the hooded figures. They nodded enthusiastically before dashing inside, presumably to prepare this room. Kathryn watched them go before she shook her head, “Cultists, always so eager to please.”

“The promise of life after death holds great sway with the living.” Ingrid said, not seeming to care that two more of these living humans stood near her. Of course, they made no indication that they cared either, and she waved toward the other one of her entourage. They nodded and moved up to the carriage, mounting up and muttering something. The steeds, which Na had only just noticed, were Skeletons themselves, and they moved with the soft squishing of bone onto wet earth, taking the carriage away.

The Lich turned about and floated back to the Manor without a further word. Kathryn ushered the two nervous Ghouls inside the seat of her power, the two holding hands the entire time.

————-

The inside of the manor was about as Na might have guessed, not that she actually had seen any manors before. It was rather similar to the room on the boat, dark and filled with rich furnishing that Na couldn’t really care less about. The main foyer was laid with rich marble before a large staircase that winded up in two directions, leading to the upper floor, though multiple passageways lined the lower floor as well, heading off to dark corridors where Na could see more hooded figures and Skeletons wandering through upon various tasks here and there. She even noticed the Ghoul in the dress from before, who must have slipped away before they dismounted, skulking about the upper floor, her posture seemingly strained in the confines of the dress she wore. ¬†Honestly, why was she even wearing the thing?

The Lich floated gently in the air before them, speaking to another cultist who had strode up to her, their body language seeming urgent. Ingrid listened with that implacable expression before whispering to the cultist, who dashed off to the Lich’s bidding. She watched the human go before looking back to Kathryn. “My Lady, I am afraid there is business to be about, one of the ‘experiments’ has had some difficulty.”

The Wight narrowed her eyes and looked to Na before shaking her and head. She waved a hand dismissively to the Lich. “Very well Ingrid, you are dismissed. You will keep me appraised of the situation in Groldburg. We do not need another hunt organized by those fools.”

“Very well, my Lady.” Ingrid floated away without further adieu, leaving them alone with Kathryn inside the large room. Somehow Na felt… claustrophobic though.

“I don’t understand.” Marybeth said, looking about the whole place with eyes the size of dinner plates, expression shocked. “Why does a Wight need a place like this, or living people to serve her?”

Kathryn waved a hand, “Technically, they serve the Lich, though she in turn serves me. Though my dominion over the undead is great and powerful, I am unable to adequately provide for my flock without the aid of humans to keep the populace unaware of much of what my subjects do.” She smiled, “Besides, in a pinch they make excellent food as well.”

Marybeth shivered at that and Na tightened her grip on the girl’s hand. “Why… bring us here?” Na said, the first words spoken since the boat. She hadn’t yet gotten over the experience, her head still throbbing in confusion, but she had to ask the burning question.

“The boat was no place discuss such important matters as the future of your child.” The Wight responded as two Skeletons appeared from side corridors, these ones dressed in old, rusting armor that hung loosely from their bones, long halberds held in the hands. They stood on either side of the group, flanking Na and Marybeth, while Kathryn nodded for them to walk. They followed, of course, under the cold gaze of the Skeletons once more. Na was beginning to suspect that Kathryn really liked using such mindless warriors, as they were utterly loyal, but perhaps that was just Na reacting poorly to her situation, yes yes.

They traveled up the stairs to a hallway lined by suits of armor and red carpet before entering another room guarded by more Skeleton Guard. It was a large chamber, with multiple tall, colorful windows that allowed the few rays of moonlight to penetrate the trees to filter in, casting a cascade of colors upon a throne that sat at the back of the room upon a dais. Curiously, there were multiple rows of long benches which lined the room, all facing toward the throne, though they were covered in layers of dust and spider webs, as if no one had dared touch them for some time.

The cultist from before bowed as they entered, then backed away as Kathryn strode purposefully to the throne, turned about, and sat down gracefully. She then crossed her legs and rested an elbow on the arm-rest. Her pale skin shone a multitude of colors as the stained glass played over her. She watched as the two Ghouls walked up to the throne, then looked up at the ruler of the dead. Kathryn smiled, crossed her legs, and said,

“I wish to adopt your daughter.”

Na stood there, stunned at Kathryn’s words. Adopt? Of all the things she could have said, “adopt” was not one that Na would have expected. She couldn’t find any words for the situation as her mind, the tugging included, went utterly quiet.

“I can see you weren’t expecting such a proposition, though why would you? Surely, I should have offered you death the moment you got a Hunter involved in all of this.” Kathryn sighed, “But I am ever a creature of mercy, and when I learned it was you my dear, dear Naomi, I couldn’t bring myself to harm you, or your poor child.”

Her eyes flashed hard then, tone growing cold. “But you have committed a taboo. You have done what is expressly forbidden by the rules of your people and the laws of my court. There are others far less merciful than I, and to let you go with this innocent child in tow would end in tragedy for both of you.”

She pointed to Marybeth and shook her head, “It is no fault of hers that she is this way, and I see a bright, and beautiful mind behind those eyes. To think someday she would lose that were she to remain as a Ghoul… it would be unconscionable.”

Marybeth furrowed her brow, “Remain as a Ghoul? What do you mean?”

“I mean.” Kathryn began, “To offer you Wighthood.”

Na looked sharply at her former friend, studying her eyes. She saw a cold determination there, and Na’s mind became conflicted. Wighthood, the ultimate privilege for the undead, would grant Marybeth a future she couldn’t have as a Ghoul. Such an offer would open a world of possibility for her daughter, freeing her from the Hunger and allowing her to keep her memories. It would be such a wonderful gift, surely something no good Mother would pass up.

But in doing so, Marybeth would no longer be her daughter. She would never get to see her again, never hold her in her arms, never happily feed together, nor rub her head when she was sad. A great ache ran through Na at the thought and she felt a sharp fear at being separated from her daughter. Though they had only known each other for a few days, she felt a bond with the girl that she couldn’t describe in words, no no, not in something as flimsy as mere words.

“No no…” Na whispered as Marybeth clutched at her side, a fierce determination in her eyes. “I… cannot.”

Kathryn frowned and rested her head upon her fist, leaning to the side as she studied the Ghouls. ¬†She was quiet for a long while before she spoke in a low, cold voice. “You don’t remember how you died, or anything beforehand, but I do. I remember vividly as you were first blessed, and you looked into my eyes, sticky tears running down your cheeks. You said to me, ‘I failed to protect her, my poor baby girl.'”

Na stood there, stunned once more as Kathryn continued to speak, heedless of Na’s condition. “Yes, you see, you’d been killed by your husband, in a fit of rage you believed. Of course, this was after he killed your daughter, who was around this girl’s age, wasn’t she?”

Na sunk slowly down to the ground, red eyes going slightly out of focus. She couldn’t remember these things, but she felt… felt like it was true. How could her words hurt so much, bite so deep if they weren’t? Every word drove another stab of pain into her body, priming her for Kathryn’s next words.

“The worst part, dear Naomi, was that you knew he might do something like this, you told me that you’d always feared something would happen. You did nothing to stop it though. You failed to protect yourself, but even worse, you failed to protect her.

Na curled into a ball before the throne, Marybeth trying desperately to soothe her, though her words were lost in the torrent of regret and pain, such piercing pain, that ran through her mind. It hurt worse than even the pains of the Hunger, drove deeper at her core than even the times she lost control. She looked up at Kathryn, and found herself weeping those strange, sticky tears, her red eyes being looked down upon by the Wight’s cold, blue ones.

“Do you want the same thing to happen to her?”

Na shuddered and shook her head slowly, her mind becoming numbly resolved. “No no… never.”

“Ma?” Marybeth said, her expression panicked, “What are you saying?”

Na looked up to her daughter and saw the fear in her eyes. It hurt so very much, seeing her like that, but the thought of her being harmed because of her, allowing history to repeat itself… that would be so much worse. She slowly reached up and cupped Marybeth’s cheek with a trembling hand, her long fingers brushing against her daughter’s beautiful face. “It is for the best, yes yes.”

“No… please Ma, I don’t want to be separated from you.” Marybeth said, grabbing onto Na’s hand with all the strength of her little frame. “Please…”

“Listen to her, child.” Kathryn said, sitting taller on her throne. “She is doing what is best for you. You will have so much more here than you ever could as a Ghoul. Wight children are rare, admittedly, but they are allowed, and loved. They grow, something I do not believe Ghouls ever could do.”

“No!” Marybeth shouted, looking pleadingly into Na’s eyes. Na looked down, then away, before slowly pulling her arm out of Marybeth’s hands. The girl took a step back, her expression filled with disbelief. “Y…you said you’d protect me…”

Na squeezed her eyes shut. “I am, yes yes… I am.”

Kathryn stood and descended from her throne, gently putting a hand on Marybeth’s shoulder. The little Ghoul looked up at the Wight and the older woman smiled down at her. The Ghoul just looked down at the ground, expression defeated. The two Skeleton guards from before walked up to Na, helping her stand, and Na looked into those blue eyes again. Her friend nodded her head toward Na and said, “You’re doing what’s best for her.”

Na closed her eyes and took one last look at Marybeth, the little girl’s red eyes pleading. Na shuddered and turned away, the hardest thing she’d ever done in her unnatural life. The Skeleton guards escorted her out and she felt like Holy daggers were stabbing her in the back as Marybeth began to cry once again.

———————————

Na was lead to the Foyer, though she barely seemed to register much of what was happening around her. She felt numb, as if her normal dullness to pain had spread throughout her entire form. Tired, perhaps was a more accurate word for it, as she was emotionally drained from her experiences today. A low rumble coursed through her frame as she felt the stirrings of the Hunger. Feeding huh? Guess that would be nice, wouldn’t it? Maybe take her mind off what she’d just done…

She looked up as a robed cultist appeared next to the two Skeleton guards. It was the one from the throne room, and bowed slightly to Na, face hidden under his cowl, though she could smell that he was a man. She flashed her teeth toward him and he shivered on reflex. Maybe she should feed from him, hmm? No no, that wouldn’t be good, she’d be cut down by the Skeletons in a moment, and then Marybeth would…

Oh, right. Her expression became crestfallen again as the man spoke. “I shall help escort you off the grounds. Do you have any objections?”

Na shook her head and whispered, “No no.”

The man nodded and waved at the two Skeleton guards, who began walking forward, and then ushered Na to follow behind them. She did without resistance, not really caring, as he walked behind her outside into the darkness of the swamp. The sound of frogs, insects, and other nocturnal wildlife called through the trees and streams, giving a melancholy ambiance to her trudge through the grounds of the manor. It seemed a fitting dirge.

Her foot stepped deep into a puddle of mud, throwing up a splatter of the wet earth, staining the cloth disguise that Marybeth had made for her. She regarded it for a long moment, then slipped it off and cast it aside in a fluid motion, falling back into step with the Skeletons, the cultist looking at her and the discarded garment with curiosity.

It felt good to once again be free of such confining cloth, to feel the mud and cloying air against her cold flesh. It felt like she did before she had met Marybeth, before she dared love anything again. She paused momentarily at that thought, wondering where she had pulled the word from. “Love,” was another word which was rarely used by Ghouls, though she had heard those with husbands say it before. It seemed… appropriate, and painful.

She barely noticed when the Skeleton guards stopped suddenly and turned about in unison, their burning green eyes staring at her with a lifeless intensity. She blinked, confused. “Is this where you leave me, yes yes? This is not the end of the swamp, no no, not the end.”

“Oh, but you foolish Ghoul, it is the end for you.”

Na tried turning her head around, but before she could, something flashed in her periphery and a pain shot up her back, dropping her to her knees. Her eyes bulged in confusion as she felt a weight push down onto her, driving the sharp, stabbing sensation further into her back.

“The Lady thanks you for visiting her, and bringing her such a fine specimen. My master is most pleased to finally have a Ghoul child to experiment upon. Though you may be consigned back to the dark abyss, rest assured knowing that she. Will. Be. Cared for.” He twisted the dagger, Na was certain that’s what it was, with every last word, driving Na to the ground in pain and disbelief.

Experiment? Specimen? Marybeth was supposed to be… be raised as Wight! This wasn’t supposed to happen, she was supposed to have protected Marybeth by doing this!

The man pulled the dagger, a dark thing made of some kind of glassy material, out of her back and growled at the stubbornness of Ghouls before plunging it into her back again, eliciting a fierce cry from Na while the Skeletons merely watched on in cold silence. She could feel her body growing cold, both from the realization that she had been betrayed by Kat and, even worse, that she had betrayed Marybeth. She had failed to protect another daughter after all…

NO NO! Na thought, mind suddenly becoming focused as a primal instinct coursed through her. The urge to protect her child, to save her from her peril tore above all other emotions she was feeling, and to her shock, it wasn’t hindered by her Hunger. Instead it was fueled by it, giving her body a renewed strength.

The man withdraw the dagger again and made to strike, but Na reared up, mouth distending as she let loose a Rending cry which tore through the swamp. She stretched out her arms, claw like fingers popping at the end of her hands as they splayed out, itching to rend and tear. Quicker than she had ever been before, despite the pale blood flowing from her back, she whipped about and backhanded the cultist who was stunned by her cry, sending him flying backward to roll in the mud.

The sound of armor clattering and bone rattling came from behind her and she jumped backward, snarling as the Skeleton guards thrust their pole arms toward her, narrowly missing her due to her sudden movement. Though they had appeared slow before, the Skeletons began to work together in unison, silently thrusting the spear end of the weapons with speed and precision a living human could not possibly hope to imitate. She dodged their blows, becoming more and more furious as she tapped into her Hunger, allowing it to drive her forward in battle.

She could barely feel the wounds in her back anymore as she darted under a slicing motion made by one of the Skeletons, and she leapt in, thrusting her fist into the ribcage of her assailant. She could see ribs fall out from the torso of the thing as they cracked, the force of her blow going through the armor, and it staggered back due to the physical power rather than any feelings of pain.

She turned to see the other Skeleton guard with its weapon raised high the in the air though, ready to bring the axe-edge of the halberd down and slice right through her body. Her eyes went wide as she realized that she had made a mistake, that there was no way she could possibly escape this blow. No no… she had tried so hard…

A thin sword flashed through the night, severing the right radius and ulna of the Skeleton guard. It brought down the halberd, but without the counterbalance of both arms, it tipped to the side, falling over and missing Na as the blade-edge slammed into the ground. It was stunned only momentarily, but before it could continue to fight, two more swift strokes separated the other arm and then the head, causing the green light to go out of its eyes. The rest of the bones began wobble, then fell apart as the magic holding them together faded away.

Na watched as the other Skeleton was dispatched in such a quick fashion, taken utterly by surprise. As the bones crumbled to the wet earth, she could only look on in shock, the battle fury slowly fading from her body as she slumped to her knees. An angry shout sounded behind her and she turned her head to see the cultist behind her once again, dagger held in his bloodied hands. He drove forward and made to plunge it into her again, his eyes wild.

A now familiar cracking sound snapped in the swamp and the man’s head was thrown back as a spray of blood appeared from his forehead. He toppled backward, landing on the wet ground with a squelching sound, dagger dropping from his dead fingers. Na stared at the corpse for a long moment before slowly looking up again as the Hunter finished cleaning and reloading his weapon.

Marybeth’s father walked forward to stand by the Hunter’s side, his eyes cold and hard as they looked down at Na, sword that had dispatched the other Skeleton held ready in his hand. In the distance she could hear the stout man, Pulkin, yelling at something as chains rattled noisily.

Lord Hemmingler placed the end of his weapon to Na’s head, the warm metal of it scalding her skin, though she could barely feel it. She looked up into his eyes with determination as the rattling grew louder and another familiar voice sounded.

“I lead you to the Lady, yes yes, I can do no more, no more, no no!” Fi cried as Pulkin pulled at a chain that was around her neck, her body containing multiple cuts that weren’t healing right. Pulkin, in control for once, kicked her to the ground and she grumbled before looking to Na and frowning. A look of fear and anger flashed through her eyes, as if accusing Na of putting her in her current predicament.

“Where is the girl?” The Hunter asked slowly, weapon never wavering, his eyes filled with his own resolve as he studied Na’s.

Na was silent for a long moment, though she never looked away, keeping the man’s gaze. He believed so strongly in his cause, had such passion. In a way, she felt she could understand him, though that did not mean she wasn’t afraid of him. Quite the opposite in fact, and that fear within her, mixed with the furious instinct to protect Marybeth. Na spoke calmly and deliberately, knowing that she had to do this, no matter the cost.

“Help me save her, yes yes. Help me kill the Pale Lady.”

 

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