And Should the Soil Not Take You

And Other Stories


2. We'll Be With You by the Last Day

It hurts. You don't know how, but your heart is hurting you. Your hand clutches at your chest, and you suck in fast breaths to try and quell whatever is happening to you. You dart to the window, reach your hand out and snatch it around the poker, as if it might have escaped. The feeling of cold metal in your hand helps, but it doesn't save you. How could it?

It's just a lump of metal. Dusty and filthy and specked with rust. What did you expect?

Red clouds your vision. You squeeze your eyes shut to block it out and it doesn't go away. It's clouding your mind, as if you were starving. Worse than starving. It takes your all to hold yourself together. It feels like it's threatening to swallow you up, and leave you no different from the monsters you can barely still keep tethered, like...

Like you felt on your first day. Why did you think this would help?

Because you just couldn't bear to leave here with nothing?


It's more than that. There's something you need to know. You fought, but must have known you'd fall. Why didn't you run? You died for something, and you can't even remember it? You have lost so much of your life, but this one thing is the cruelest. But now you're here, and so much is stirring in you. You will pay whatever price of pain and horror it takes, but you will snatch back this one memory of life.

You squeeze the chunk of iron as tightly as you can and stop trying to hold back the tide.

You're the oldest. You put on a brave face for everyone else, to buoy their spirits, so your mother doesn't have to do it all herself. You're scared too, but you're the other adult, and can act like it. And you know everything will be okay. It's happened before. Everyone always fends them off. You just have to stay put. This is no different. You just need to believe that.

But it's different, and everyone knows it. You most of all. You saw them coming with your own eyes, looking back as you hurried into town with your dad. There were... a lot of them. Was it always this many? It couldn't be. Your dad sent you home, but despite your plea ran off to help the defense. That wasn't his job. And everyone else knew that, but what could you do but tell the truth? He had gone off to save the day. And now you all just have to wait for him.

When the screaming starts, yours is the last mask to crack. Your mother is trying to keep the little kids calm, and you turn to the ones closer to your age. Your oldest little sister is trying to do the same thing, bless her, even though she's crying. The older of your two brothers is trembling, and you put your hand on his shoulder and whisper. "It will be okay. I know you can be strong. Like dad." He nods, and blinks away tears. You're all a mess, but together you can stay a quiet mess.

There's a knock at the door. Everyone snaps towards it, but you don't hear your father's voice. You don't hear any voice. Just another bang, and this time you can tell it's on the wall. Then another, and it's from a different side of the house. And then they each knock again, and keep doing it, and more than one monster is trying to break through your walls. You can't tell how many, now, because none of you can keep quiet anymore.

What can you do? What can you possibly do? Wait it out. Someone can save you. But... If they could, why did they let the ghouls by? If they could, why the screaming? If they could, why isn't dad back? You ball up your fists. You take a deep breath, and then speak with all the authority you can muster, even though your voice cracks. "We need to run. Everyone. Okay?"

There's a confused chorus of responses, and you don't bother. You aren't going to argue this. You aren't going to discuss this. You aren't going to think about how terrible the idea you're having is. You just grab a fireplace poker, go to the window, and take a deep breath. You're shaking, but it doesn't matter. You have to be the one to do this. You're the oldest, and mom has to care for the rest.

Everyone is looking at you in terror, and you know it's not just the monsters. "I'm going to draw their attention to this side, in the window. And then you all run out the other door. I'll catch up. Okay?"

It's clear that's not okay, but they understand, and that's all that matters. You need to do something so you don't all die. You throw open the window hatch and bellow at the top of your lungs. A monster at your door twitches and then lurches towards you. This close you can't help but see it as a person, even if he's so obviously dead. He lunges, and you dart back from the window, hatch clattering. He yanks it up and immediately shoves himself in head-first, biting at the air, and if he actually had a second arm he'd probably be swiping. You take the poker and you thrust at him, and it's not enough, and you almost lose your grip but you plunge it back in again, and then he stops moving.

It. You killed it, not him.

You leave it slumped in the window as an obstacle for the next one. You crane your head to look around it and there's five more crowding over. That has to be all of them, right? "Go! Right now!" It's actually going to work.

You brace for the next one to come through the window when you hear wood splintering and creaking. The door isn't going to hold. You try to bang to draw them back towards the open way in right there, but then the door is torn off its hinges. They try to all rush in at once, and jam each other stuck, but it can't halt them for long. You take a cheap shot, and the thing you hit screeches but doesn't stop, and that was your last real chance for anything.

You had honestly thought it would work. You weren't planning on dying. Maybe it even could have worked, if they hadn't gone for the door instead. Just bad luck.

Your legs feel leaden, and it's just as well, because you know they'd catch you. You don't even land one last strike, as the front monster squeezes through and tackles you to the ground. You try to hold back your scream for your family's sake, and you cave after a second but you don't have the air after the fall and you can't breathe in and finally your mind empties of everything but desperate struggle to keep it away from your head.

And then it's only pain and blood and death.

You pull in a breath deep enough that it makes your chest hurt. You let it out and your heart is normal again. You taste the ghost of blood on your tongue. You're laying on your back, staring up at the ceiling. It looks a little familiar now, aside from the cobwebs. You're clutching the poker tightly in your hand. It's really there.

You start to cry.

A family. You had a family! You knew you must have, but— You can finally remember them. Not names, not faces, but... A mother. A father. Three younger sisters, two younger brothers. No wonder you gave your life to save them.

But... Did you? It's an icy thought that suddenly grips your heart. How much time did you actually buy? Maybe they left before you said, but even if so... Couldn't the ghouls have chased them down? Did eating you slow them down enough? You touch a hand to the base of your horn. They didn't eat very much of you...

You just have to hope. That's all you have. But that's so much more than you had before this, isn't it? Even if you'll never see them again, never really know them, you can wish them the best. You can remember that you did all you could.

You sit up, and then get to your feet. Your stomach growls at you in protest, but you can ignore it. Whatever came over you earlier didn't last. And without the...

You dash out of your old home, through that doorway that had let the monsters in. Nothing but the empty, quiet village in your sight. You lost the ghouls! How would you possibly explain that? That might be enough of a failure the master takes notice, and if he doesn't, Fleshrender certainly will. He acts like the only thing keeping him from trying to rip you apart is that he couldn't get away with it. You don't want to give him an excuse and find out if that's an act. And... You aren't letting monsters free outside of the bog. You won't let that happen.

You try to reach out with your mind, but you can't find them. Their presences are too weak, or your sense isn't honed enough, but it doesn't matter. You loop the poker into your belt, and you look at the ground where you left the ghouls. You are no expert tracker, but you have enough experience to tell which way the pack wandered off in. Further into the village, and down this path. You sprint off after them, counting on them to pick one direction and stick to it. There wouldn't be any scents here to distract them, and they would have lost interest in the houses quickly without that.

You're at the other end of the village when you find them. You skid to a stop, blink tears out of your eyes, and... They're banging on the walls of a house. Outrage overtakes you, and you use it, reaching out and lashing the things to you. They aren't going to reenact that scene, you have relived your pain enough today. You can stop it this time, they are going to come to heel. Their hunger courses into you, the overwhelming need to fall upon their prey, but you are better. They cannot help but run to you and fall in line as you turn to leave. You are going to go home, report how you found nothing, get your rations and make them into something worth eating. And then... And then you'll think about things.

But for now—

You are jarred out of your thoughts by a lance of pain in your left shoulder. You shout and snarl, thinking one of the ghouls struck you, but they're all cowed. You reach back to your shoulder with your other arm and pull out an arrow. That hurts worse than it did going in, but it scabs over and you don't need to worry about it.

Someone is in that house. Of course. Why else would the ghouls have gone for it? You should have known, but—What are they possibly doing here? Did they expect to seriously put a dent in the number of dead in the wastes, or... Is this somehow about your master? Or is this just some scared soul trying to scavenge, and veering too close to the bog? You don't have the time to try and figure it out. You just have to act.

[] Turn and run. You can heal from these arrows, but the ghouls can't. How would you explain that? You'd need to be honest, and then the master would send you back here in force. It's safest for you both if you flee. Whoever they are, they surely won't stay here for more than a day.

[] Scare them off. There will be another patrol tomorrow. It won't be you, and so almost certainly won't turn a blind eye. Whoever this is needs to know this place isn't safe for them. But you can't tip your hand. You need to protect whoever Fleshrender next sends in his stead, too, not leave them with an ambush to deal with. You'll play monster, no matter how much it hurts.

[] Negotiate. Neither of you are beasts; you can talk. You aren't truly enemies; you aren't going to kill this interloper or drag them back for your master to make into a monster. But you are here on a mission, and not all your duties are unacceptable. You'll learn why they're here and what they know, if they pose any real threat to you and yours. You'll tell them that this place is not safe and cannot be worth whatever their business is, but you will let them leave this once. And on your way back home you'll think of what info you will pass on and the lies to couch it in.

Previous Page  Original  Archive  Next Page