And Should the Soil Not Take You

And Other Stories


Arc 1, Elegy

0. An Ending

You are a dead thing, risen in death to spread death. You are cloaked in the stillness of death, a form that won't grow or age or decay, but you are not stillness. You are the hunger of death, the inevitability of the end that will come clamoring for all things. You are an ending, stilled to swallow as many others as possible before finally claiming yourself. You are nothing else. You can be nothing else. There is nothing else. Warmth and light and life for mere moments are as nothing before the endless immensity of the cold eternity. Only the end matters.

But that didn't stop you the first time, did it?

You lift yourself up off the ground, blinking. You think you were dreaming, but it's all bleeding away already. Shame, you were hoping to find out what you dreamed of, but no surprise. Your memory— You blink your bleary eyes into focus, staring at the stone beneath you.


You let yourself breathe a little sigh of relief. Then you take another breath, and steel your voice.

"My name is Ythona, and I am a person."

Then you get up off the floor and crack your back. When you were newly risen, you couldn't do your normal morning rituals anymore, in the dim way you remembered them. But you had needed something to mark the start of a day, and you settled on that. A meager affirmation, but if you ever couldn't say it... Well, that's nothing you have to worry about anymore. Plus, now, you've been able to take a few of the older rituals back too. You look down at your feet and pick up the brush, scavenged from some long-abandoned home, and start to run it through your hair. The master hasn't exactly given you a bedroom, and certainly not a bed, but it's still a space of your own. A dark, dry place to sleep and stash a few things of yours. You don't have much, but it's enough to groom and dress yourself. Not that you have choice in your dress; a couple tunics and pants, all different shades of warm grey. Linen nobody bothered to dye. But it is dress, and not ruined by muck and damp. You just have to keep it that way.

As neat as you're going to be, you step past the hanging curtain and into one of the halls of your master's lair. He calls it a fortress, but frankly, it's more like a warren: tight winding tunnels branching off from the big spaces where the important things are. It's not exactly imposing, but then again you have no idea how he found a giant stone cave in this wetland. And somehow it hasn't flooded. So you'll shelve your complaints, although you might grumble about needing a new curtain just to use the spare as a blanket. Eventually. Best not push your luck too soon.

You still aren't very familiar with the place, but this route at least you can go without getting lost. There are ghouls idling in the tunnels for some reason or other. They reflexively fall in line behind you as you pass, and you have to expend the effort to reach out and make them stop. You hurry up, to get away from their notice before the command fades. You have to do something today. Just a patrol, the only task you ever get. Useless and unnecessary, but it's better than anything else you could be asked to do. You hope you don't have to—

You took a wrong turn. It must have been a ways back, and you just—why must the tunnels be so cramped and unremarkable? You've never been this way before, but it looks the same as anything else. You stop kicking yourself for still finding new wrong ways even now once you look where you are. It's a big room, but instead of a stone floor there's just... a massive mirror.

It's still water. You know it's only standing water. But it has to be clear to reflect like that, not just the wetlands flooding in. Where did it come from? What was it for? Was it really a safe cistern? Well, sickness in the water would hardly matter for the ghouls. Or for you, if it didn't spoil the taste. You take a deep breath, and look down at your own reflection.

It's hard not to recoil. Even though it's been years, you still feel like you look wrong. You're pallid, all the color and vitality have been leached out of you. Leeched, even. Your face is too thin, although thankfully not gaunt. Your hair is a mess, although at least now you've been brushing it. You open your mouth, and your teeth are too sharp and hardly white. But it's the sight of the horn that unnerves you every time. It's growing out of the right side of your head, reaching up to a rough and uneven tip. It's dark grey, gnarled and grooved, like the trunk of some ancient tree. Just the part of it standing above your head is as tall as your head, and its base goes almost halfway down your face. Little bits snake out even further, as if it has roots anchoring it to your face... Is it only your imagination, or are they a little closer to your eye now?

Not for the first time, you wonder about ripping it off, but you know you shouldn't. You don't really understand what it is, but it probably matters. It's rooted in the wound that killed you. It never healed, just... Scabbed over. But the scab didn't give way to new skin and scalp, or even to scar, it sprouted into whatever abomination this is. You have never seen a ghoul with anything like it, nor any of the other wights. You had thought about asking the master, but... You don't want to inspire him to cut you open to see if he can improve his own designs.

You sigh. How did you get here? Squatting in an overgrown cave, serving a 'master' who would probably kill you without a second thought if he felt like it. A madman trying to assemble an army of monsters to one day overrun the world, and you joined it. But it was the only real choice, wasn't it?

You stare at your reflection. You can't fault yourself. You would make the same choice again. But are you kidding yourself? If he finally makes you hurt someone... Will you tell yourself it was your only choice to live? Or will you refuse, stand by your principles and promises, and accept losing everything else? It was easier to commit to that when you only had to worry about losing yourself to the hunger.

Maybe you should just run out into the bog. But that didn't serve you well the first time, did it?

You can't remember when you came back. It's all just a red haze, up until you finally ran into that damn bog. And then... It bubbles back up to the surface, and you lose yourself in it.

You are not a monster. You have to remember that. You are a person. You mumble this through trembling lips as you huddle in a puddle of brown water. It's a divot in the ground, not quite deep enough for you to fit, but it keeps the sunlight off you. Where the light touches your face it warms your skin, just under your skin, too warm. You feel like it's about to start burning, that you'll suddenly catch alight like so much kindling, but you don't. It just makes you squirm and itch and finally you dig your hands into the ground below you to pull up mud. You only get dead moss and some other kind of sludge, but it's enough to slather on your face and mostly spare yourself.

You start crying. A part of you knows it's good you can still cry, but you wish you couldn't right now. So much is wrong, and you're just uselessly bawling. You feel like a small child, helpless and confused and afraid, not able to do anything but sob and wail. Everything hurts. Your body aches and stings and if you move the wrong way pain lances through you. You need to stay focused on just that. You can't think about the life you had torn away from you. You can't think about the devastation of the village, all the monsters milling around and feasting on people you knew, should have known. You can't think about how you can barely remember your neighbors, your friends, your family. You can't, you cannot, you must not think about how you're one of those monsters now.

But you have to. You have to because none of it, your body and mind and soul each being torn apart and put back together wrong, none of it hurts as much as the hunger. Your stomach is closed tight as a fist and sending waves of angry, needy pain coursing through you. It is taking everything you have not to double over and clutch at your abdomen, as if it would help. You're going to lose everything. The hunger is going to take over and you will lose your mind and just be like all the other things that killed you and probably everyone you love and there is nothing you can do about it. You can hold out and be hollowed out and left a monster, or you can give in and kill to eat by choice and make yourself a worse monster for it. Why did you have to come back? Why do you have to lose your life twice?

You can't stand it anymore and pull yourself out of the little pool of water. The damp on your skin doesn't really hold back the sunlight but you don't care. It's nothing compared to the hunger clawing at you. You force yourself to lumber forwards, legs feeling leaden, stumbling on the peat. But you keep going. You haven't lost yourself yet, and you'll get as deep into this damnable bog as you can first. Hopefully you'll never make it back out to threaten people. There's no real hope of that, but what else is there? You aren't going to give up and make others pay the price of your weakness. You are a better person than that.

By the time you stumble on the dead deer, you're too famished to question it. You don't even leave the bones.

You still aren't a monster.

You're staring into the sullen eyes looking out of the water. They don't really seem like they're yours. But they don't look like a monster's, either. Not like...

You spin on your heel to face the mass of ghouls crowding the room with you. Where did they all come from? They aren't here to drink. You grit your teeth and glare daggers and they don't care, of course, they don't even notice. You take a deep breath and shut your eyes. You don't know what in your recollections brought them over, and you don't want to think about it. You reach out, trying not to count how many of the presences you directly touch, and with more than a thought but less than a word you command them to leave.

You want to use the solitude to collect yourself, but you've dawdled enough. You have somewhere to be.

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