And Should the Soil Not Take You

And Other Stories


-1. You'll Find Your Rest Off Far Away

You aren't going to hurt people, and you certainly aren't going to eat them. You promised that at the start, and the resolve still burns inside you now. But resolve alone couldn't sate the hunger. You needed to eat something to sustain yourself. How did you find it in that awful mire?

[] Scavenged. It served you once. It was just barely possible to find enough dead animals in the bog to support you. They weren't in appetizing shape, but you couldn't get sick, and you were always hungry enough to look past it. You just had to keep a look out for the hidden meals as you wandered, trying to avoid wild ghouls; they wouldn't leave anything behind for you. If it was shameful to dig in muck for carrion, at least you didn't have to hurt anything. You didn't eat well.

[X] Hunted. The bogs aren't complete wastes. Things live here, from bugs and frogs and things that seem like giant rats, up to deer and moose, though you rarely ever saw those. You got skilled at hunting, if not exactly in the usual way. Trees were never common, but you could get enough wood to make tools, so you didn't have to kill with bare hands. It helped. Sometimes feral ghouls chased your prey away, and that stung, but at least it always reminded you how you were better than them. You ate comfortably well.

[] Cannibalized. Ghouls seem to find their way to you. At first it disturbed you, and you tried to run, or to hide... But they would always find you. And then they followed you. You could almost feel it, you were leading them, without even trying. You couldn't stand that feeling of your mind touching theirs. And you didn't have to. You killed them. They were just ghouls, and they didn't even defend themselves, so spellbound by your presence. The first time... You couldn't help yourself, you started to eat. It quickly became habit. You thought of it as putting the bodies to rest, the only way you could in this bog. If you buried them, something else would dig them up and eat them instead. You ate very well.

It took longer than it should have for you to realize you weren't a ghoul. You knew there was a world of difference between you and the feral creatures, of course. But you simply thought of yourself as luckier, holding onto your self only by chance. And you suppose chance is all it was. But you really are something more. You eventually dredged up old scary stories of wights, but they were not merely thinking, talking ghouls. Some were wicked and clever monsters, wielding strange powers that varied from tale to tale. Others were said to be lords and masters of ghouls, leading their lesser brethren to despoil whole settlements. (Not, you reflected bitterly, that it took a wight to manage that.) You were hesitant to think of yourself as such a thing, but eventually it became clear. What pushed you over the edge?

[] Nothing. You just couldn't deny it forever. You had already faced that you were an undead abomination, this wasn't any different. You would no sooner lead a horde of ghouls than you would join one. What did a new word matter? You're still just Ythona.
(Besides your mind, you really seemed like only a ghoul with a mysterious head growth. Since meeting your master, you have awakened to some powers as a wight. You're generally skilled, but have nothing that seems particularly unique.)

[] Your eye. You don't exactly understand. Maybe one day the roots in your head dug a little too deep. Maybe you just weren't strong enough. But one night you woke up with the ability to sense the power around you, and even see it, to put it in space. With your right eye, specifically. Your left eye can't do it. That doesn't really matter, in fact it's even useful at times, to focus on a faint presence or block out an overwhelming one, but... Why?
(The sight in both eyes is supernaturally keen, but only your right eye sees the supernatural itself. Any wight can detect nearby magic and other power, with a vague sense of strength and direction, and so can you. But you can visualize magic and other power precisely if you're looking towards it, and can tell the living, dead, and undead apart at a glance. With effort, if you close your left eye, you can see only power, to avoid distractions or pinpoint presences behind obstacles. Closing your right eye and focusing can shut off the extra sense entirely.)

[] Your hand. It wasn't on purpose. It wasn't exactly an accident either, but you couldn't possibly have expected success. Dawn was nearing, and there wasn't any pond or puddle around. You were too tired to keep searching for a good spot to shelter from the sun, but not so tired to accept inevitably waking up not-really-burning. So you tried to dig a hole, pulling up the sedge and moss to claw at the peat. It was not going well. Finally, in frustration and the pain of first light, you started punching the peat. And then it all exploded in a spray of chunks and water. You stared at your hand, and the feeling of strength buzzing just under the skin, like sunlight but not unpleasant, somehow familiar. You tried to will more of it out and then your pathetic hole exploded again and you could almost hide in it. But your stomach was screaming at you, and you had to stumble out in the sun to find something to eat.
(Many wights can work magic, though not all. You're one of them, just barely, and can concentrate and shape power. It's not elegant, and it costs you in hunger, but you can throw it around. Concussive force with a flash of wasted power. With practice or training, maybe you can refine that force, or find something less brutish.)

[X] Your arm. You try not to think back to it, but a ghoul attacked you once. You woke to sharp pain and the most withered and gaunt ghoul you had ever seen had its teeth in your shoulder. Eating your arm like it thought you were already a corpse. You tried to wrench it off and it just kept biting and your right arm wouldn't move. And then suddenly it could and you crushed the monster's neck in a haze of panic and pain and hunger. When you finally came to your sense, you saw your own arm on the ground. Something else had burst out of your side, dark grey and gnarled, bent in the shape of a slender arm, bloody claws in place of fingers. It looked like carved driftwood, riddled with curved grooves, but... It looks like your horn, now sprouting out of your side, as if it was going to replace all of you. Looking at your arm now, you would never know, but you can't forget that sight.
(Where a ghoul's wounds will never heal, any wight's will. Inhumanly fast, but still gradual. Not so for you. Wounds close almost instantly, scabbed over by something disconcertingly like bark. Even lost limbs can be suddenly replaced with something spindly, brittle, and sharp. Flesh and everything else will regrow to replace it... eventually.)

You didn't keep track of the time very diligently. But you think it was three years that you spent in that mire, going by the seasons. There was little to do but survive. You came up with little things to do, games to play and songs to sing, but nothing that stuck for long. You imagined building things, but you didn't really have anything to build with, and couldn't stay in one place for very long. You thought about trying to leave the bog, but you didn't know the way out anymore. And what would there be for you out there? People would mistake you for a dangerous monster. And you couldn't possibly disguise yourself, even without the thing sticking out from your head. And you had all but given up on finding another wight like yourself. They probably weren't so stupid or self-loathing to wander forever in the bog.

So when you saw a person in the distance, it almost had you transfixed. Someone walking purposefully, not shambling aimlessly or sprinting wildly after prey. Someone wearing robes, not nothing or tattered rags caked in dirt. Someone holding a walking stick, topped by a wooden whorl, something made and decorated. You didn't even know what to do but stare and then the person turned towards you. Looked right at you. Started heading towards you.

You were almost panicking. You knew you should have ran. Surely the person was coming to kill you. Why would anyone come into this accursed bog but to cleanse it of things like you? But you couldn't. You couldn't run away from a person, you couldn't accept a fate of pointlessly wandering forever and ever. You had to say something, anything, to greet this person and save yourself and ask for help and all you could do was croak.

Then the person was upon you and he was looking down on you and he was smiling. You could feel his power, an icy touch, bony fingers dancing over your ankles, a pit yawning open beneath your feet to swallow you whole. It was all you had not to fall to your knees before him, and you are so sure he knew.

He spoke of an army he was gathering. Enough ghouls to storm the world. Wights, like you, to lead them. He said you could share in the spoils. You could grow, master the power you had barely tapped. You could take a torch to this world that has spurned you, left you abandoned in a wasteland for an accident of—Well. Not birth, is it? His voice was soft and sweet and dripping with venom.

He asked you, "Would you like to serve me?"

And you said yes.

And he took you away and has never cared about you since.

He promised you meals you didn't want and power you didn't need. And yet you accepted. Why?

[] Fear: He could destroy or enthrall you at a moment's notice. There was no choice but to serve him. There still isn't. You will carve out your own little life in his shadow, and temper his designs where you can. It's the most you can do. You won't die again.

[] Anger: He wasn't really offering you anything. He was barely even talking to you. You accepted, bowed the head, so he wouldn't crush you. You let the tyrant keep you under his thumb and so you fell beneath his notice, no more than a prop soldier. Now you can pay back that outrage, and every other indignity, bit by bit. He is too self-absorbed to ever discover your petty spite and insubordination, but it will still hurt him.

[X] Loneliness: He offered you something else, though he hadn't realized it. He offered you a place. Without him, you would still be alone, without companions or purpose. It was three years of emptiness, of nothing, no voice but your own. You are not stupid; he is evil and cares nothing for you. But he is someone, and he has brought you to others. You cannot bring yourself to hate him. And you will not run from the only home you could ever have.

[] Disgust: He promised you living humans to eat and their corpses to marshal as thralls, once his army had finished growing. Did he really expect you to gleefully condemn innocents to death and worse? Did he really believe you must want to lash out at the world? You are a person, and he is a monster who must be stopped. You don't know how, but if you hope to ever find a chance, you needed to follow him. You can't give up hope now. You'll see this through.

You don't fully remember your first life. Too much of it is lost to you, clouded in a haze or in tatters you can't piece back together. Faces and names elude you. You don't have a lifetime of memories, not even close. But you have far more than nothing, and you hold onto it dearly.

You know your name is Ythona. If you close your eyes and think back, you can hear it spoken by voices you almost know. Voices who cared about you. Family. Friends. You can remember the shape of your life, the gaps where the voices must have gone, but not which ones where. You remember laughter and joy, tears and sorrow, shouting and anger... None of the meaning, but it's enough. You can remember playing games and telling stories, but not the rules or the words.

You weren't special, you don't think. You can remember being cold, and tired, and hungry. Not always; you also remember being warm, rested, and actually full—even just that thought makes your stomach rumble. You can remember toil, little chores, entire days spent working until a late supper. You helped with whatever people needed, but you were good at something. You had a knack. You smile to yourself. You have a knack.

[] What human skill have you hung onto?

[X] Cooking. You are a very good cook. You know a fair number of simple recipes from life, though ones using only readily-found ingredients are few, and your equipment is quite lacking; still, you know enough to make your meat rations into something properly palatable, with a little time and effort. You distantly remember that most dinners were left to you; not alone, of course, but you had taken over the main responsibility from your mother, you think. It was beyond difficult to practice much real cooking out in the wet of the bog, but still, it seems a lifetime's practice isn't lost so easily; even if yours was a short lifetime.

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