And Should the Soil Not Take You

And Other Stories


1. However Long You've Tarried

The last pale sliver of sunlight is swallowed up behind a dark curtain of towering clouds, and you sigh in relief. Hopefully it will stay hidden away for the rest of the day. You understand you have to earn your place, but must you really bother with these pointless patrols in daylight? You could observe the complete lack of anything out of place just as easily at night. Your eyes are certainly good enough. And it's not like you would miss any intruders that way, there would never be any! Who would ever willingly head out into this empty bog? Other than yourself.

It is awful going out on patrol. You thought it would get better after a few times, and it still hasn't. It's so hauntingly familiar, trudging through the mire. You know where you are going, and you have somewhere to come back to after, and you make sure to keep those thoughts in mind. But the sights drudge up memories of three years of aimless wandering, and it hurts your heart. And you have to do it alone.

You glance over at the four slavering ghouls prowling beside you. Worse than alone. You have always hated being around the things. It was bad enough the way they just follow your lead by themselves, but having to actively direct a pack... You don't know why they're so empty. The breath of unlife fanned the flame of your self back to a brilliant pyre, so why are theirs only smouldering embers? Undead took their first life and undeath denied them their second. Purely by chance. It wasn't fair. You wondered who they used to be. A woman and three men... What lives did they lead? You would never know, except a good guess at the ending. They were gone, and only the things remained.

Mindless bodies, barely enough animal instinct to search in vain for prey that wasn't there. That much was clear just from their dull, vacant eyes, but you have much more than that. You can rifle through their almost-thoughts without really even trying; it's just orders you put there (follow me, don't chase prey) and that ever-present, oh-so-familiar hunger. It's nagging at the back of your mind, stoking your own hunger. You haven't eaten yet today... You ignore that pull. It's only four of them.

You grimace. You really wish you could have gone without the ghouls. Who are you kidding? You wish you hadn't had to go at all. At least it will be better on the way back, once you can see your master's fortress in the distance. Home on the horizon... Instead of wandering through that seemingly endless bog for however long; probably little more than an hour, but still. Now the ground under your feet is finally starting to dry out, but the relief that brings is overshadowed by the sight, in the distance, of your destination. An abandoned village, out of the bog but still ghoul-infested wastes all the same. What your master expects anyone to pick around there for, you can't fathom. You suppose it's not your place to question his strategic decisions, but you can't really help from doing it.

It's something of a distraction as you get closer to the village. You manage to keep yourself occupied with silly thoughts, and it takes some of the edge off, just barely. The sun even plays nice, only peeking out from the clouds a few times. That admittedly makes every little bout of unfiltered sunlight a nasty surprise, but better that than suffer it the whole while. It hits the ghouls harder, making them whimper and hiss. It rouses your sympathy, despite everything.

You spare the four ghouls another glance, and notice they're excited. Bent forward and tense, staring intently at the houses ahead, pawing at the air. They see the buildings and think they mean prey. Smarter than you thought, but stupid all the same. The village has certainly been picked clean by now, even the bones.

Did any of the ghouls with you come from this village? Probably not, but you can't help but wonder. Ghouls ravaged it, that much is clear. You can see it now, a feral horde drifted in at night. Nothing like tactics, just hatred of sunlight. Several packs had wound up following the same scents and came together, simple bad luck. They came from the same direction you did, out from the bog. A farmer saw and ran into the village to rouse everyone, but he didn't know just how many there were. People hid inside as they always did, while the able scrambled to ready themselves for defense. But there were too many, with too little notice, and the defenders faltered. Some fell, some ran, some tried to regroup but it was too late. Ghouls spilled into the town, packs starting to circle houses. The lucky were ready to run, but everyone else was surrounded. What a pointless, disgusting tragedy.

You trace a path into the village. There are no tracks left from then, of course, but you feel like you know the way. It feels almost wrong to bring ghouls along it, but there's no harm left to be done. You stop in front of a squat little house, no different from any of the others. Wooden walls and a thatched roof, two doors, a square hole with a wooden hatch to serve as a window. A whole pack surrounded it, you think. Trying to get in to the food. Ghouls couldn't tell doors or the hatches on windows apart from the rest of the walls, but eventually they would batter one down or tear one open by chance. Six ghouls tried to smash their way in, testing for weak spots... You can almost see them. Five came pouring through the door when it broke. The sixth... had been left slumped in the window, no longer moving. Sure enough, the door beside the window had been torn off. You step inside, willing your ghouls not to follow you. Five was enough.

Why five? Why the sixth in the window? Why this house? Why do you know? Your stomach tenses as you look at the smashed, ravaged interior. It was a home once, but it is only a room full of detritus now. You can almost recognize things. You ball your fists. This is your home. What's left of it. You're sifting through hazy memories of what happened, and what you must have imagined was happening as you huddled in your home, waiting for rescue. But rescue didn't come. The monsters broke in, and you died. Then you woke up, and you fled, and almost forgot this place. It's not fair. This is too cruel. You knew you had died to ghouls, of course, but... You find your home again, and there is nothing. There is nothing! Everything is broken, unrecognizable, or pilfered and you can't even remember what ought to be there. It might have been better if you hadn't recognized your old home at all! Then you could at least imagine finding a record of your first life some day. You want to smash something in outrage, and instead dig your nails into your palms hard enough to draw blood.

You are seething, and you can feel the monsters outside being whipped into a frenzy because of it. You shut your eyes, suck in a deep breath and let it out slowly, and let the outrage ebb. You're still angry, and sad, but calm enough to keep a handle on the ghouls. That will have to do. This will have to do, you realize. You wish you had more time to come to terms with your home—your old home. But you have a schedule, and the master might not approve of dawdling in your rounds. And it won't be lost forever; you will remember this time, and can come back to salvage whatever solace you can in what's left. At a better time, and without parking ghouls outside this house. You take a few more deep breaths, and then finally relax your hands. The indents in your palms close up, and you absently lick the beads of blood off your claws. A pang of hunger bolts through you; dumb mistake.

You turn around, and your eye falls on something just beneath the window. A short stick of wrought iron, brought to a point. Something to poke at fires. What a simple use for material so precious. But... Not just that. A memory stirs. You fought with it. Stabbed the ghoul coming through the window. You were trying to lure them all to that end, but then one of them broke the door, and a fire iron wasn't enough, and... Here you are. Again. Your chest tightens, as if your heart is in a vice. You feel like it's about to be crushed, and you'll die here a second time. You can't just stand here staring. You need to do something.

[] Take the poker. You held this before. It didn't save you. But... It meant something. There was another door, you could have fled, but you didn't. You must have stood and fallen for a reason, not just for your life. Maybe it can help you remember that. You need to know. Your old self needs to be known again.

[] Run away. You want to remember your life, but not this. This you forgot for a reason. It's only pain and blood and death, you can't bear to relive that. It can only hurt you, even more than these ruins already have. You need air, you need space, you need to leave.

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