And Should the Soil Not Take You

And Other Stories


3. When All Lay Dead and Buried

Despite all the ways it could go wrong, it's an easy choice. Talking is what a person would do. It could lead to the best outcome for everyone, the interloper and your comrades and you. And... Maybe, just maybe.... No, you know aren't going to be accepted. But you can still talk.

First you make all the ghouls fall flat on their bellies and curl up into smaller targets. You aren't sure if it's your emotions running wild or if controlling them was always so easy, if only you just deigned to do it.

You spread your arms out to either side. You breathe in and try to call out. "I forgive—”

Your voice cracks and dies. You cough, and try to swallow. Too much walking without real talking, and nothing at all to drink. At least the archer doesn't shoot you again.

"I forgive you for the arrow! I would like to talk. The ghouls won't menace you again." You leave yourself standing there, an easy target. You can close that distance easily, without straying too far from your thralls, but you don't need to be unduly threatening like that.

The interloper says nothing. You start to worry they have simply fled out a back door, beneath your notice, when you hear the noise and feel the pain of an arrow spearing into your stomach. You cry out in pain and clumsily rip it free, and cut yourself badly doing it. A knot of wood forms on the spot, enough balm to the pain that you don't double over.

Rejecting parley is not too surprising, but how are you being shot through the house?

You grit your teeth. "That one too." You practically snarl the words, but you really do mean them.

Then you sprint forward, bent low enough that the next arrow goes high, or maybe wide. You just hear it miss, and there's not another arrow before you're right in front of the house. You didn't slow in time and thud into the side of it. The wall barely looks like it should have withstood that impact. There are cracks and gaps scattered through its side, and a narrow but tall section missing—oh. They shot through that, then.

You peer inside and of course the interloper is scrambling for the further exit. You hurry to get there first, not barbaric enough to wreck the wall and chase them down from behind. You get there in time for the door to strike you in the face.

If that's supposed to stop you, it fails miserably. You catch the door as it swings back and hold it open. "I just want to talk."

The interloper is staring, wide-eyed, stock-still. A young man. He looks as old as you think you were in life; an adult, but your junior now. You could slip in through the doorway and grab him, or worse, and he has to know it. You try to soften your face as much as the anger and pain will allow. "I'm not going to hurt you."

He pulls out a dagger. The reward for your mercy, of course. But he's hesitating. Tears well in his eyes. He's terrified, and it's all your fault. And that stings, but less than the knife would, so you can't help but be glad for it. But he's not talking. Though, just by the look of him, he has no wider scope information, and poses no threat to your comrades. He's just putting himself in danger. And he thinks you're more danger. You can't hardly fault that misunderstanding, and... You aren't even blameless, when you think about it. Your negligence led monsters to try and eat him. This is not how you wanted this to go.

You try to force any lingering malice or pain from your expression. You want to help him. "What are you doing here?" He doesn't answer, at first. Then he swings the dagger and you reach out to catch his wrist as soon as you see it move, and you almost weren't in time. It wasn't a swipe at you. You can barely think about what just happened. Your heart is pounding in your chest, and you're somehow even angrier, enough that it's taking restraint not to crush his wrist in your grip. It's so fragile.

He starts bawling, and he looks so pathetic, you're offended. You don't understand what's going through your head, but you need to focus on what's actually happening, not self-reflection. Then you feel his grip lax and you snatch away his dagger, and free yourself from having to touch him. Better for you both. You take a step back, and realize your breathing is too fast.

"No!" He finally speaks, voice wavering. "I won't let you! You can't make me a monster!"

Oh. Your throat tightens. Of course that's what he thinks this is. What do you even say? "I'm not going to. I..." You think, just for a second, if you really mean the words that are leaping to your tongue. "I wouldn't wish this on another. Now, look. Look." Is he even listening to you? You ball up your free hand. "Look at me!" He finally does, but...

It's too much. You're too angry. He hurt you. You're too hungry. Your stomach is screaming at you to take his flesh to properly repair the gouges he put in yours. You're stretched too thin. The ghouls are straining to be free of your restraint, to come enact your awful impulses for you. You're too twisted up and confused by remembering your own death. You're distraught because you finally see a normal human being, after so long, and he wants to kill you on principle. Worse, he would rather die than risk becoming like you. On some level you knew these things, but it hadn't... You had hoped...

You remember more of who you used to be, the life you used to have, and immediately this worm has come to kick it away from you? To reject you on principle, stab it into your heart that you that you can never have these things again, through no fault of your own? And now he's blubbering in horror when all you've done is let him hurt you and save his life and—

You drop his dagger and back away.

"I'm sorry." It's all you can say for a minute. You take the almost-silence to try and compose yourself, quash all of these pangs of hunger and pain and misplaced resentment. You aren't looking at him, but it sounds like he's calming himself, too.

When you see him pick his dagger back up in the corner of your eye, it's your cue to talk again, even if you aren't fully ready still. "Whatever you're here for can't be worth the danger. Most things out here are worse than me. I can't keep other ghouls off you once I leave. Don't..." You turn your gaze back to him. "Don't get stuck here."

It's clear he understands that, at least.

You turn and leave, before he can try anything else drastic. Hopefully he won't imagine you have cast a spell on him, or anything of that sort. If he must think of you as a monster, then hopefully it's as an insane, erratic one, who by chance let him slip. You sigh. That had been... worse than pointless.

He wouldn't have answered your questions if you had tried to ask them again. And you can't imagine his answers would have been very enlightening, even if he had. He had probably only come here in the hopes of looting something. Or... Your heart twists. Was he... from here? Here for some sentimental purpose, to search for a body to bury or a keepsake to take back? Did you know him, once? You sigh. There is no use in such empty speculation. Not even speculation. Flights of fancy, pointed towards your heart.

You trudge back to the ghouls, still laying flat on the ground. Cowering. Groveling. You jerk on the chain you lead them by and it raises them up, as surely as if it was really there. But they wanted to get up. Already they're sniffing the air, looking hungrily towards the prey you denied them. You don't think you can crush them any longer, but they still follow you doggedly as you go the other way.

You're miserable, with anger you know isn't fair and guilt that you hope isn't either. Taking you for a monster was understandable. Trying to reach out in good faith was understandable. But some little part of you thinks even that is salt in the wound, that even best efforts earn violent rejection and you can't even think it unreasonable. Is there any chance for you to be a person again?

You touch the poker tucked in your belt. It doesn't serve as the beacon of certainty you crave. But it helps some, and that's all you really need.

You're done with this patrol. But you aren't done out here.

It takes a little time, but you manage to gather some serviceable kindling, before heading back into the wet. It's not impossible to find at your home, but it will save you time. Not that much overall, but better delay before the meal is in front of you.

You would give a lot to skip the leg back through the bog. At least it gives you time to calm down, besides a few bursts of tears and shouts. The sorrow and outrage at what has happened to you are leeched dry and dragged under by the pale hand of hunger.

It's a relief when you see the imposing silhouette of your master's fortress rising up in the distance. The one real landmark in what might otherwise seem neverending mire. An arrogant spire raised high atop that hole in the ground he's offered to you. Is it meant to serve as beacon, or only testament to vanity? Doesn't he say he values discretion? Your thoughts turn to your patrol. You had thought maybe you would find something worth passing on, but there was nothing. You could lie, say that you saw signs of someone having been there without witnessing them directly, but it would serve no purpose. He'll flee before the next patrol, and it's better the others not learn about this at all. It makes you look at the knot in your front, the tear in your shirt, the blood...

You dab over the stains with mud, trying to be precise about it. You don't want to ruin your clothes faster than is inevitable. At least you don't bleed very much. You adjust your shirt to more or less hide the tear in front, but... You touch the knot in your gut with one hand and undo it, your real flesh growing to close it, absorbing whatever it was back into you. A pang of hunger strikes, and it radiates out, and you can feel little tendrils of need worming into you from the ghouls. How do other wights do this?

You're starving. You're always starving, but it's usually something you can keep at the back of your mind. Not now. It isn't even the demanding, clawing hunger of using too much power. You just can't distract yourself from it. You can't lie to yourself about it. You need to sate it. It's the thought of food that keeps you walking, not the thought of home. You don't even muster the strength to be ashamed of that. You just want today to be done.

You lose whatever meager track of time you had at the start. You just measure it by the height of that spire growing and growing and growing until you're close enough to make out the mouth of the cave, where you're actually headed. You are so tantalizingly close when danger flares up before you. Raw might glaring in your mind's eye. Something animal in you wants to run before the predator notices you, and you wonder what animal that is, because it's not human. The human in you already knows Fleshrender has noticed you and that's why he's showing off.

You trudge closer, fighting lead in your legs and the urge to run, and the way his presence alone is almost enough to tear the ghouls from your control. But why do you care? You let him take them. The next step is a little easier.

Fleshrender is hideous. He is hairless and scarred, and his skin is a patchy, pale grey. He is gaunt, and seems so very lanky despite barely being taller than you. He looks more like a ghoul than a wight. He barely even dresses himself. His claws are frighteningly long and sharp, and he's pointing one at you, smiling to show off his fangs. He's also holding the bag of your rations, and you care more about that than you do him.

"Back." You meant to say more, but your voice died in your throat. Oh well. That was enough.

Fleshrender grins wider. "Eh? Is that all you've got to say? Where's your report?"

How bored is he? You know he doesn't care.

You can smell the food. You can see it. Raw meat in a bag. You need it.

You take in a breath and snarl at him. "That's mine."

He smiles wider and then hands it over. You aren't sure if he respects you getting to the point, or has just decided you aren't fun enough to bother. But it doesn't matter, because the food is in your hands. Your stomach rumbles, and hunger courses through you. You almost stagger.

Everything in you is screaming to eat it, devour it immediately, don't let anything tear this away from you, don't let any more potency drip out of it, don't deny yourself, don't suffer a single moment of weakness more than you must. You're staring and salivating, gaping into the bag like an idiot. Fleshrender is laughing that rasp of his, because he thinks he knows you, a weakling still spellbound by such trifles.

If you were anyone else...

You shut your mouth and turn away. He's laughing harder now, but you don't care. He doesn't matter anymore.

You slink away into the cave and to your room. Ghouls follow you, drawn by the meat as well as your mere presence, but you almost couldn't tell. You're trying to slink around unnoticed, and so that's what they mimic. You gather together what you need to cook, and you head towards a room that's usually empty. Today is no exception.

Only now do you bother to force the ghouls away. Touching their minds leaves you an inch closer to giving in. But there's so little left to do, you can stick it out.

You set up a little fire and roast the meat on a spit over it. You could do better, but not right now. There's not as much meat as there should be; Fleshrender cheated you. Was that it, then? He was waiting to see you how reacted? Well, whatever. You know you'll get more out of this than he would have from stealing your entire rations and eating them raw.

And you do. It's just plain venison, but you're so hungry it may as well have been the best meal you ever cooked.

You put out the fire and clean up your mess and shamble back to your room. You put your things away, and after a moment of reflection, leave the poker with them. You lay down on the ground and curl up. You wish you had a blanket, and a cushion, but at least you have a place to rest your head. You close your eyes.

What are you doing here?

You open your eyes and stare at the wall of the cubby you sleep in. You were so tired, tempted to lay down to digest your meal in peace, but... You can't relax. Something is wrong. You sit up. Is that all this place is to you? Somewhere to eat and sleep, and hide yourself away from monsters stronger than you, who you quietly resent? Is that what you came here for? Is that a home?

It's not enough to hide away and hope that it will eventually someday be more. You suffered without comforts for three years, and now you have them back. You think about your memories of the day. You're going to take everything else you've lost back, too.

You get to your feet and head out of your room. You are going to find someone to talk to instead of hiding away or waiting in a corner, unassuming. There are a few wights you vaguely know. You haven't really spoken to them, but you have been around them, whenever Fleshrender summoned all his underlings. Not that he is formally in charge of you; as far as you know, the master hasn't bothered to set up any hierarchy beneath himself. But Fleshrender decided he's in charge of you, and what could any of you do about that?

You aren't the best at navigating the tunnels, and you don't know where everyone can best be found, but you have someone in mind you would most like to find.

[] Sybil. Another 'natural' wight like you, found by your master rather than created. At least you think, from her actually human name and a couple comments of familiarity with the bog outside. You know little about her besides that, and you're not sure she's ever really taken notice off you. Still, maybe she could understand you better than the master's creations?

[] Pepin. One of the few pieces of gossip you have heard is that Pepin is the weakest wight in your master's dominion. From what you can tell with your extra sense, it seems plausible. And he certainly acts terrified of everyone... Even you. He could probably use a friend even more than you do. But will he give you a chance?

[] Bell. You've often noticed her looking at you, although you can't quite read her expression. You don't think it's malice, though, because she doesn't bother hiding the spite and disgust when she glares at Fleshrender. Maybe there's something she wants from you? Or something that she's wondering? Maybe you should ask about it. It might even just be that she's lonely, too.

[] Bonecruncher. Despite the name, and being absolutely massive, Bonecruncher seems nice. Maybe it's not so benign as it seems, but he is almost always smiling softly. He welcomed you on your first arrival, after the master decided he had shown you enough and left you to Fleshrender's attention. But he's always by himself. Maybe there's a good reason for that. Or maybe everyone is needlessly intimidated, and you should try to repay his politeness.

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