Jorkin Elkrun rubs the shoulder of his tiny wife Taimay, and she curtsies with perfect poise and posture. A frown for the half-elf softens when her husband bends down and kisses her cheek with a soft whisper.
The older daughter Paija stares wide-eyed, while the younger makes faces from behind her sister’s skirts. Ishkur smiles at Whisana, who sticks her tongue out and giggles.
“Thank you for your welcome.” He sets the On The Way sign next to the doorway and says, “I’m excited to see a typical family of humans in action.”
Jorkin motions him inside and then secures the door with latch and bolt. “Never break the rule. Keep the doors closed and take off your shoes.” He moves into the kitchen and locks a second entrance.
Lamps hang from the ceiling and candles along the walls banish shadows as aromatic plants mixed in the wax share the freshness of spring. All the furniture is oak, thick and stained to the color of honey. Ishkur traces his fingers across immaculate surfaces as Taimay sweeps behind him and points to where he can put his shoes.
It is smaller than the widow’s house, but with fewer rooms it has larger family spaces. Ishkur pulls off boots and travel stained stockings, and then stumbles into the back of a couch.
The girl squeaks and says, “Look how itty bitty his toes are!”
The mother picks up his socks with the tips of her fingers. “Apologize to our guest.”
“Now put these in the laundry pot.”
Taimay drops his stockings on the girl’s shoulder. With head tilted away she hops to the fireplace and flicks them into a steaming cauldron.
Jorkin shutters a window and says, “Can you manage around enough to help me?”
“I work for food.”
“Just don’t knock over a candle, or you’ll spend dinner scrapping up wax.”
Ishkur maneuvers around the house, gripping anything sturdy to steady his steps. Whisana stirs the laundry with a stick and a stuck out lip. The older daughter climbs out of the root cellar with a laden basket and hurries to join her mother in the kitchen. He swings the last thick piece of wood shut and secures the latches at the top and bottom with a squeak.
“Nice craftsmanship,” he says as Jorkin rattles it. “I could oil them.”
“Gifts from my uncle after we made the rule, and I like shutters that give a warning.” Jorkin gestures towards the women preparing supper. “No meat tonight. Good timing for a vegetarian.”
Ishkur nods and steps into their dining space. The largest chair has cushions, and he collapses into it with a sigh.
“That’s poppa’s place!” Whisana hurries to the table.
The half-elf makes to get up, but Jorkin motions him to stay as his wife leans in and says, “Be polite girl!”
Paija brings in a tray stacked with leafy greens and pickled roots. Her sister reaches, but gets her hand slapped.
“Help me understand.” Jorkin pours a mug of mead for himself and Ishkur. “You’re a man-elf wanderer with a… strong faith of Green. What else drives you?”
“I’d like to be a poet and a dancer.” Paija sighs and then slips into the kitchen as her father frowns and Ishkur says, “The spirit that claimed me for Gardener as his Ranger of Path knows how to dance very well. I was practicing, but my partner left.”
Taimay enters with a tray of baked breads and her older daughter with butter. The mother sits and leads the table in a prayer of thanks to the gods, all five of them.
Paija glares at her sister who took a seat next to the half-elf and says, “Can you do some poetry?”
Ishkur pauses at filling his plate. “A flower without petals still intends to be beautiful. A bird without feathers still tries to fly. A woman without love still hopes for romance, and an elf without sunlight still wants to die.” He grabs a slice of bread. “I wrote that as part of a letter to my father, which is really just an exercise for myself since he’s an elftree now. Sadly, my ink and paper were lost with most everything else, taken by the brigands that drove me here. I hope I can labor to replace them.”
Jorkin shrugs and says, “At the public house maybe, for proper ink and parchment. Otherwise you’d have to settle for scratching the walls.”
“What about school?”
Taimay clinks a fork against her mug and says, “This is a farm not a guildhall.”
Jorkin shakes his head. His wife’s eyes narrow, but he just opens his mouth for food.
“Did you write anything for your dance partner?” says a blushing Paija.
“I did, but she thought it was too mushy and romantic.” Ishkur taps his forehead with his thumb. “Hildr, you put a marker on my heart. It’s getting harder and harder to breath. Without you is like perpetual autumn for my tree—”
“Okay so Ishkur, I look forward to hearing what your sensitive palate thinks of my pickled sugar beets.” Taimay’s tone contrasts with her husband’s amused grunt. “They came from a cart that was abandoned just a yule up the road.”
The half-elf forks down a mouthful and says, “Delicious. I’ve never had them this way before.”
The mother tries a small bite. “We’ve gotten a little tired of it. There was so much that every family got at least a season’s supply. We took enough for two, so I’ve gotten to pickling what we haven’t finished.”
Jorkin leans past his elder daughter to caress his wife’s hand. “She found it while scavenging for mushrooms. I tried to piece together what happened. The cart had been flipped, and the way the tracks were, it made me think of Artrik when he had that impossible strength. I wondered about Kelsa and the curse upon her. Did she catch the merchant after sunset and make a meal—”
“Don’t talk about such speculation at the table please.”
Jorkin bows to his wife and says, “Whatever she and her daughters are, their effect is pervasive. Our public house locks up at night out of fear and lack of business, while the inns north and south shun all of us day and night.”
Ishkur swallows. “I’m sorry for the beet man, but happy his sweet roots have found my gullet.” He pinches his fingers and says, “A week ago I could’ve matched ‘impossible strength’, but now I’ll have to rely on incredible wit.”
Taimay tops off his cup. “I’m glad my ‘typical family’ is here as a muse for you.”
Ishkur rocks back and forth as he serves himself an extra helping of pickled beets on buttered bread. “This is the best meal I’ve had since Spicesun,” he says between chews. “I’d moan appreciation if Hildr hadn’t taught me discretion.”
The half-elf sighs and slaps his belly. Paija takes his dishes and Taimay takes Whisana. The little sister fusses at the sink and slips away. Giggling she bumps his chair and crawls under the table.
Ishkur trills as she scurries around, evading her father and sister and ignoring the sharp calls of her mother. Leaping out, she grabs his leg like a pouncing cat and holds on long enough for her big sister to get a hold on her.
“Maypie is my friend,” the girl says with steady brown eyes.
She lets go as a red-faced Paija lifts her up. Calm and steady steps replace the frantic state as Whisana’s herded to their bedroom.
Jorkin says in a whisper, “Mayp is or was Kelsa’s youngest. They were inseparable until that day.” He finishes his mug and refills. “A week later I caught her trying to climb in a window. I smacked her, and tears in her eyes she begged to help her friend.” He looks away and wipes his face. “Said she could hear Maypie calling for help. So, I boarded up every window.
“Wild, stubborn, and curious, she’s made of the best or worst of us. No nails on wood or words from wrinkling faces will faze her. A parent can only do so much to protect a child from themselves, but don’t tell my wife that.”
“Those windows.” Ishkur sips his mead. “I was thinking maybe Kelsa or her daughters had done that.”
“To keep the sun out?”
“I understand the worst of the cursed fear sunlight the most.” The half-elf crosses his fingers. “You can see through the boards. She drew me back to her door with a lantern, and this afternoon a ray of sun revived me through a crack.”
Taimay replaces their pitcher and leaves a wet rag. He tops off their cups and wipes up some overflow.
“Our tavern keep made this from fermented honey that Wish found. A huge hive, yules into the forest, I didn’t know she traveled so deep. It woke me up. She’s an adventurer. I can slow her down, but not stop her. Now give me every detail of your stay with Kelsa Sticknot, as best you can, from the knock to the bite.”
After his third mug is done, Ishkur’s words slur. He rests his head and Taimay announces their bed is ready with chain and lock.
The half-elf’s eyes flutter as he is bound down by a tipsy host that says, “If you’re alive tomorrow night I want to hear the whole ogress story.” Jorkin plops down next to the half-elf. “So be ready to edit if my wife can hear.”
“You have a beautiful family.” Ishkur rattles his chains. “These are tight… Hello? Hello?” He yawns and says, “Steady breathing indicates sleep.” He yawns again. “Talented ignorers feign unconsciousness. Eyes can’t stay open. Thoughts are… dripping.”
No dreams wait to unwind when he’s shaken by a squinting Jorkin. Sunlight comes from a morning’s direction and the half-elf smiles.
The father unlocks the chains. “We had visitors tapping at our windows.” Jorkin suppresses a yawn. “I thought about listening to their whispers and tossing you outside, but I don’t think Paija would forgive me.”
Ishkur cracks his neck. “Thank you for being the kind hearted kind of bumpkins.” He hugs a knee to chin, popping his back. “Instead of the pickle snatching, crossbow pointing, or sacrifice the stranger type of country folk.”
Jorkin grunts and goes to the sink for a face splash. Ishkur blinks the blurry out of his eyes and stumbles into the kitchen, accepting water and a plate of greens from the house’s matron. Rocking back and forth, he hums chimes and bells with an inhuman voice.
The older daughter picks up after him and says in a whisper, “That’s so lovely. Is that elvish?”
“It’s not moaning.” Ishkur taps an ear. “Mountains are crowned in white and based in green. Red glows in their bellies and black fills their veins, but a blue sky makes them shrink and blue water makes them mortal.” He sighs. “I miss my Hildr. It was often unrequited love, but when she did care she cared like an erupting volcano. Her kiss would literally burn me when her spirit got excited.”
Jorkin coughs and shoos Paija away. “If you weren’t the only eligible man around I would care more about you stealing a moment with my too fast growing daughter.” He grips Ishkur’s shoulder. “I’m being mild now, but if you take action I’ll sever your limbs.” He lets go and smiles at the half-elf’s perplexed face. “Try after a few years when there’s a full bloom, and I’m a little more worn down by lady’s chatter.”
“I think there’s a misunderstanding. She smells like—”
The kitchen door slams open and Taimay bursts in from outside. “Wish is gone! I’ve got a feeling—”
“It’s day.” Jorkin steps to his wife. “She’s just running with the girls, gossiping about our guest. She’s fine.”
“I was very clear. Hang laundry and come right back in.”
“Oh, are my stockings dry?”
“Pai, find your sister. Check around that house.” The elder daughter hurries out, and the mother says, “It was Mayp scratching and calling, but they were all out there; I could feel them.” Taimay jabs a finger at the half-elf. “You better… She better—”
“I’ll go too.” Ishkur taps his dagger’s hilt. “I’m much better already. Enough sleep for a week and food well into digestion.” He picks up his boots. “About my socks?”
Jorkin hands him a pair of folded stockings and then stops his wife from picking up a meat cleaver. She gives her husband a look that makes Ishkur take a step back, and then Jorkin grunts and walks past.
On the way out the front door Jorkin grabs a short folded scythe hanging from a coat rack. Ishkur pats the sign post he used as crutch and follows.
They jog and then Jorkin sprints ahead as his older daughter comes around from the back of the widow’s house. Ishkur catches up as they embrace.
“The back door is open, but I was too afraid.” She wrings long fingers. “I just… whispered her name and there was a scratching under the floor. Poppa please…”
Jorkin sways and then says, “Keep looking. Start knocking on the neighbors. Don’t start a panic. Just ask for her.” He shrinks an inch and swells two. “Go.”
As Paija hurries off Ishkur says, “I wasn’t the diplomat of my band. I don’t know what to do if she’s a hostage.”
The father growls like a dwarf. “She’s food. We go now. We rip it apart. We pray to every god my Wish—”
“Hey Poppa! Hey Ishturkey!” A half-dozen giggling girls led by Whisana appear out of the overgrown field across the street.
Jorkin lets out a breath and tucks his scythe in a belt loop. “My father died when he was two years younger than I am now.”
As the girls run over with baskets of flowers Ishkur says, “Did he die in battle?”
“Close. He died a father of four.”
“Mr Hero of Green,” Whisana says with a daisy in hand, “we’re going to make you pretty so Maypie doesn’t think you’re mean.”
Ishkur stands and sputters as the young daughters of the hamlet swarm him with spring blossoms. “Allow me to thank you in the language of elf’s little cousins.” He trills and then says, “What brownies lack in intelligence, they make up for with cuteness, just like you.”
Jorkin laughs and snags his daughter. “Favored races of Green can live in the forest, but I need you to keep your mother inform—”
“Ishy you’re pretty,” says Whisana and her girlfriends nod and laugh.
Jorkin jerks his daughter and ignoring a protesting squeak tucks her under an arm. He stares back and forth between the half-elf and the widow’s house. Ishkur nods and the father takes Whisana home.
The half-elf leaves the dispersing gaggle of girls and approaches the dilapidated dwelling he stumbled out of yesterday. East and west are where they’re supposed to be, and his fellow hybrid stomps a hoof.
Fresh hay has been thrown down, and the mule is pacing like a dog. A kind of menace tightens Ishkur’s back and slows his step.
The plow is just where he left it, as is the ill kept harness. A slam interrupts thoughts of pulling walls down.
The back door is shut now. There was a bit of wind, but it doesn’t drift back open.
The soft bit of ground has more prints. Small bare feet and the familiar shoe he was tracking with the drag lines.
He sticks fingers into the tracks. They are fresh, but a little crusted from the sun.
He feeds the flowers that haven’t fallen off to the mule and slinks around onto the front porch. With a wide-eyed smile he clinks the knocker.
“Hello! Ms Kelsa Sticknot? It’s me, Ishkur Inshushinak Ishtaran! Listen, even if you’re a soul sucking vampire, I think we can find some common ground!” A crow caws and a light wind tickles the back of his neck. “I described some deserters! They robbed me, and I tracked them! Hello?”
Stepping to the side, he draws his dagger and begins prying at the boards on a window. “Your lost sons may still motivate my holy spirit! A noble quest to save them can redeem us all!”
He rips the window clear and starts working on the others. “Your daughters too! Think of your children!”
After abusing his blade to undo all of Jorkin’s work he rests with thumb tapping his forehead. “I’ve lost gear, friends, and my spirit.” A breeze passes through the shadowed abode as the sun nears its zenith. “Bless me Hildr.”
With a high-pitched dwarvish battle cry, he rushes to the front door. Peels of paint break off as his palms slam against it. A sharp exhale and swift heel makes the wood shiver, but the latch holds. His shoulder crunches and a curtain of dust falls from the overhang, but it still holds.
He pinches to commune and the veil lifts like a monstrous eyelid. His stunned mind takes a back seat as an avatar of his god manifests. In his dulled state, Ishkur struggles to be shocked and ecstatic as his possessor propels a green-glowing boot through the door.
Control returns with a mental whiplash. Power there and gone in a blink, with the ruckus causing a few faces to poke out of distant homes.
“Icarus, you answered. Is the drought over? Can Lute reform?” He stabs and pinches. “Come back. Leave a message, a hint, anything. My faith is too brittle to survive strikes of false hope.” He growls a dwarvish curse. “Oh holy spirit I’m ecstatic you have stirred. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but I was ready to climb through a window.” He reaches into the boot-sized hole and lifts the latch. “If only a spot of help, save it for a desperate yelp.”
The door swings inward with a light push. He cocks an ear and steps inside. The noon sun denies the direct light the windows invite, but the roof in places isn’t thick. He could knock with a pole and let spots of sun in.
A violet morning glory rests on the dining table. His thin feet cause a few creaks as he walks over and picks up the trumpet shaped blossom.
“Hello? Sorry about the—”
The floor by the back door erupts, propelled by a half-dozen pale arms thin as broomsticks. Three bald girls claw their way out of the basement hatch and hiss at him with rows of needle teeth.
Chiming in nonsensical elvish Ishkur stumbles back and almost drops his dagger when his elbow smashes the doorway. The largest scampers towards him with a mouth hanging inhumanly open. He snags the door, slamming it before her jaw can chomp. They scratch but leave it shut.
He rubs his elbow and his foot goes through a broken step. Tailbone splintering wood, he cries out and manically crabwalks into the street.
Nothing swiped at him from under the porch and the door’s quiet, but he still shakes. This is not how a member of Lute should behave. He takes a calming breath and stands.
After straightening up clothes and adjusting his adventuring belt he jabs his finger down and then pinches the air. The veil shudders and doesn’t part, but that little give shows the portion of power he could take directly.
“Icarus, avatar of my faith and destroyer of the only friendships I’ve had, I yelped and you didn’t come. They would have, allied colors or not, each one would have. We were family and your holy war… your abandonment has broken us. Lords Under The Eye are no more, all because we thought it would bring you back. So are you or not?” The mule snorts but his spirit of Path doesn’t tingle. “Fine, just me and my wit then.”
He nods to his equine brother and starts jogging back to the Elkrun home. Halfway he pauses to gasp and sways. Face to the sun, no clouds diffuse the light.
“Wish you were here.” He taps his forehead. “What would you do?”
Jorkin approaches, hand on the scythe in his waistband. Ishkur straightens and takes steady steps to meet him.
“You okay elf man?”
“Bald, claws, and needle teeth in dislocating jaws, her daughters are undead carrion eaters called ghouls. They don’t like the sun, but are not burned by it. I expect their mother will be.”
Ishkur shudders. Lips pressed against his neck and wrists, and then teeth sharp and hollow puncturing as a voice says, “Sweet boy.”
Jorkin claps him on the shoulder and leads him to a bench on the side wall of his house. The half-elf settles on it and rubs irritated skin.
“I was the meal supped on. Kelsa must be a vampire.”
“So you’ve been educated, despite the lack of a school here. What do you know about them?”
“I apprenticed in a guildhall,” Jorkin says with a frown. “I heard too many stories about the cursed and not enough fact. Does she just drink the blood and have her daughters eat the bodies?”
A crow glides by and Ishkur pinches his fingers. “In the travels directed by my holy spirit, I have glimpsed much and gleaned little. Snatches of knowledge that pierce a mind dulled by the shroud of righteous possession.”
“And you called us bumpkins.”
“Uh… yeah.” The half-elf taps his ear and says, “So ‘souleaters’ is what my bandmate of Black called the cursed. I slept so long because my aura was nibbled on, my soul sampled like a slice of nectarine at a fruit cart. She knew the peach, but found the plum extra sweet. I must have been such a treat.”
“Have you never heard a parable? Heed warnings of locals and distrust lonely women that avoid sunlight and don’t share your meal or have a mirror.”
“Hindsight has a telescope.” Ishkur draws a circle in the dirt with his heel. “Many coats and clothes in their closet, probably as many bones piled in their basement, stripped clean by those things that were daughters. Pressing up against the boards, how hungry did I make them? Kelsa kept my fine flesh from choking their ghoulish gullet.” He stands and says, “But just now they came after me like demons of the Pit. Will it be more than taps on windows tonight?”
Jorkin pulls himself up from the bench. “This may be the first time Kelsa has harassed a local’s home, and I haven’t heard anything about her daughters out since early winter.” He pulls out his still folded scythe. “Tamma Basin was taken when closing up Three States last month. They thought to try staying open into the night again because no locals had gone missing in a while, but that was thanks to following the rule. She was out after dark, and we got a reminder that we have a monster not a protector. I proposed action then, but too many headshakes.”
“So it’s really not just strangers in danger. Everyone is invited to dinner.”
“They are ravenous, and all the missing wagons is starving commerce.”
“I think they’re always hungry, but only become recklessly so if they haven’t eaten in a while.” Ishkur rubs his elbow and says, “There’s that bandit I told you about, which probably satiated her enough to patiently seduce me with sleep. I slipped away, and they might be a mite peckish now.”
“What are you going to do about that?”
“I have heard one thing that messes with their appetite. Do you have garlic?”
Jorkin steps into his doorway. “Paija!”
“Crush a bowl of garlic!”
“Because if my telling isn’t enough, I’ll ask the back of my hand to clarify!”
She responds with something unheard, and Jorkin excuses himself to go after her. He returns a few minutes later with bits of garlic on a slice of bread.
“Eat.” Ishkur takes the slice and Jorkin says, “My daughter’s preparing a season’s worth of herb. You need anything else?”
“Herb? Garlic’s a vegetable.” Ishkur eats the snack and coughs. “I thought you were an educated farmer.”
“Farmer yes, but I studied performance not culinary art.”
“Really? An actor, music, or writing, what was your forte?”
“Nothing. I was the disappointing son that ran away before being kicked out.” He waves at a bow-legged man hurrying towards the tavern. “No regrets though, just hope for better things.”
“A spear and a torch, and I’ll make things better.”
Jorkin shakes his head. “You can’t burn it down. My uncle could accept that, but the neighbors would be out with buckets and crossbows. They’d be brave enough under the sun to face a lone stranger, and then hold me accountable as your host. Monstrous or not, she’s seen as our hamlet’s protector. Suggest it again after dragging a daughter into the light. If they’re as horrible as you say, it should finally sway opinions.”
“Spear?” Jorkin holds out his scythe and Ishkur says, “Not good for defense, and I don’t want to threaten a reaping.” The half-elf walks to a tool closet connected to the corner of the house and claims a long-handed shovel. “‘Common ground’ is the core of diplomacy, according to my bandmate of White. Deserters turned bandits is that for the vampiress and me.”
The tool has a nice edge. Ishkur slowly moves the shovel through forms gleaned from years as a holy vessel.
“I am this tool as Icarus is Endraker.” The half-elf steps to the awestruck Paija and takes the bowl of garlic she’s presenting. “Not balanced for spear work, but passible as a polearm proxy.”
He bows to the maiden with a dancer’s flourish and then salutes her father. She sputters; Jorkin nods, and then shovel over shoulder Ishkur runs to the Sticknot house.
Everything is as it was; even the mule is munching in the same spot. As he walks around the undead den he waves at neighbors. A cluster of the hamlet’s old folk observe from the public well. They don’t return his gesture.
He points at the mule. “If I die today, know I have enjoyed working together.”
After rubbing garlic on hands, wrists, and neck, Ishkur climbs the porch with shovel blade forward. The wood creaks as he pokes the door. It holds.
A crow caws. No wind blows, but there’s still a tickle along the back of his neck.
No movement on the other side of the window or hole his foot made. He reaches in with a shaky hand and lifts the latch. It swings open. The morning glory is back on the table, wilting.
He throws fragrant garlic bits at the floor where the ghoulish girls had burst out, and then uses the bowl to jams open the door. “Come up! I want you to see how nice your fields look!” He tosses a last handful and says, “Also you should be careful of fire.”
Furious scraping from under the floor has him backpedaling and almost tripping off the porch again. He keeps his footing but misses their arrival, a tangle of pale limbs at the doorway, just out of reach of his shovel.
Three cursed girls say in one hissing voice, “Mother says you’re too sweet and are no longer welcome.” They rub noses and cough. “Bad seasoning corrupts good feeding. Go on down the road and be far by dark or be dead by dawn.”
“What about me helping find your brothers, her sons? You got one already. Long nose hairs perhaps?” He rests the shovel’s shaft on the porch. “I’ll lead you to the others, but only if you follow now… with your mother.”
“They said that war must be fed with blood and bread. They took our harvest in wheat and men. They left us dead but starving. Revenge interests more than rescue.” The girls turn back towards the hole in the floor. “Mother is hungry.”
He takes a step down off the porch. “Vengeance isn’t my thing. Hildr’d be burning for it, but she’s a valkyrie. My way is peaceful resolution. I respect justice, but avoid revenge. Not always easy, but my holy spirit’s example guides—”
“Mother said you are special, your skull can crown it finished.” They cover their mouths as one. “Now we will consume our friends in desperate shame.”
He slams the shaft and says, “Go somewhere else, someplace with a big graveyard and a dearth of carrion eaters.”
“Mother must stay here, and we will stay with her.”
“The soldiers that destroyed your family and robbed me are too tough to face alone. Follow and help me, help restore justice. You can snack on any bodies we make or find on the way.” He rubs his neck. “Can your mother sip and let live? I mean on purpose. Can we work together and then let me go?”
“You whimpered of failure to mother,” they say and hiss as one. “Flee again pretty boy and run fast. Garlic upsets our stomach, but we can still rend your flesh for fun.”
“Let me introduce you to Hildr’s version of diplomacy.” He drops the shovel and pulls out flint and steel. “Fire is fair. It follows a predictable path.” He makes some sparks and says, “It rises up walls and fills a confined space with thick smoke. Windows will feed a blaze like lungs on a furnace. A cellar would be safe until the roof collapses and the floor burns through, becoming a fire pit that roasts everything past crispy. Only bitter ash and brittle bone will remain.”
The tangled three jerk back from the sparks. “Burning is bad.” They retreat to their basement entrance and say, “Mother must be consulted. Do not trespass.”
After a short spell of hissing underground they return to say together, “If we follow, what will happen to us?”
“Think of me as the Lord of Path.” He pinches his fingers. “A master tracker that can lead you to the deserters and from them to the army that hurt you. I get a wealth returned. You get a path to your brothers’ keepers.”
“Sunlight will spoil mother’s blood, and then she will burn.”
“Wrap her in blankets and sheets; strip the house. Protected enough, you can carry her.” He points at the mule. “Or, rig something to drag.”
“What will happen to our home?”
“I have no plans for it, if you follow.”
The oldest nods and hisses at her sisters. They scramble to the hole, and she chases them down.
Ishkur puts away his fire starter and wipes a sweaty palm. The mule snorts and stomps, and he climbs into the corral and chimes until it calms.
He squats next to the plow and pulls out his dagger. By the time the daughters come out carrying a bundle he’s managed to work the harness off. Iron left behind, he leads the mule out the gate with leather strips dragging. The bald daughters hiss readiness and come at his call.
All around the community’s eyes are on the remnants of the ravaged family. Torn gowns are caked in mud and bile, but they don’t have a putrid stench to match. They do stink, but like a vagrant not a walking corpse. Staggering under the weight on their shoulders and shielding their eyes from the early afternoon light, they look more pathetic than monstrous.
A crow lands on the Sticknot’s roof, but doesn’t caw. No voices carry across the hamlet. His neck hairs stand on end as the daughters struggle to secure straps. He helps settle their load and shows the ghouls his back. Chirping, Ishkur spins around, but they’ve stayed focused on the roll that’s supposed to protect their mother.
“We better move before the people mob up.”
The way north has faces at windows and a few locals at road’s edge, but no traffic. The needle-toothed daughters hiss. Shutters close and the roadside clears as they pass. Tugging on the mule dragging their bundle, the hamlet is quickly left behind.
Ishkur smiles and leads them off-road opposite the bandit scuffle spot. “Just avoiding hostilities with anyone happening along.” They eye him and the oldest returns his smile with a long tongue curling around thin lips. “We’re going to set up camp where I first saw the deserters.” One hand on his dagger’s hilt and the other gripping his shovel’s shaft, he says, “Did the one you took, wearing the black and gray, did he have anything… interesting?”
The girls hiss and say, “It’s of the catacomb. Mother will protect it.”
“Will she? What is it?” He walks and they keep following. “Silence doesn’t earn favors girls. How about you Ms Sticknot?” The bundle doesn’t stir. “It’s still a while until the sun goes down. You really should answer.”
The three daughters say as one voice, “She’s sleeping.”
Every few steps he makes sure they aren’t falling back or inching closer. His neck is getting sore when his mule stops for a grassy snack.
“Your mother has been very quiet.”
“Really? Fair warning I have great wit and am not so easily tricked. You came out a little too easy with that roll of rolls. Your prickly teeth and long nails won’t be much good against spears. I need the strength that’s already taken one out, but I’m not burning through daylight to go back for her so you can jump me in the dark.”
“Rotten boy, you still question and threaten. You forced us. ‘Fire is fair… only bitter ash… will remain’.” Their voices split and mimic before getting back in-sync. “We protect mother when she’s sleeping.”
“Ah, and I respect your duty.” He grips the shovel he’s brought and draws a small circle in the dirt. “Fruit comes from flowers, a way of Green, a path of life. What you were made into by those of Black is not a way I know; it seems no way at all, no purpose past funneling souls into Merridian’s embrace. Now prove she’s here and wake her up.”
They hiss and say, “Mother must sleep.”
“This is the land of Mythica within the realm of Blue.” He slashes a line through the circle. “My friend Krieg would do this to summon his holy spirit. It’s an abandonment of the cycle of life in favor of something artificial. For mine it’s pointing down and pinching fingers like I’m planting something. His is contrary to the way I know, but I can understand it.” He draws another circle. “If you brought her, we could have made it work.”
The oldest would only come to his shoulder standing, but scampering to him she falls short of his hip. “When she’s sleeping,” she pulls lips back from inhuman teeth as they say, “We protect mother.”
He draws the letter A in the new circle and says, “My friend of Black would do this for his summoning. He said the ‘A’ was for ‘Anarchy’.” Ishkur tucks the shovel under his left arm and pulls his dagger out with the right. “I meant to help, but how can I trust such dangerous deceivers? Now unwrap—”
The oldest lunges and swipes at his leg, but he skips back and bangs her head with the flat of the shovel. She whimpers and blackness drips from her nose, darkening the dye of filth coloring her garment.
He jabs with his improvised polearm and says, “Oh children of cursed whim, it’s your fault she’ll be burned to ash.”
The youngest girl shakes the bundle at her feet and the voice of the widow says, “Kill the betrayer!”
“Me?” He dodges back as the middle child joins her sister. “She is in there. Sorry, I really—”
The oldest leaps at him. He swings but too late, and she knocks the shovel aside before crashing into him. He thunks the top of her head with his dagger’s pommel as she wraps up his legs enough to topple him.
He strains to kick free as the middle sister clamors over her and claws at his face. He blocks, but her carrion breath makes him turn and cough.
The mirror bends and the veil shutters. “I am Lord of Path.” Ishkur taps a thimble of Green and his body flushes with leafy light. Skin resists claws, and he finds the strength to toss them off.
“Icarus isn’t controlling; I don’t need a spirit.” He spins and strikes a dancer’s pose with empty hand presented to the ghouls. “You know what this means?”
The glow fades and the girls accept his invitation. They flank and charge with gowns rippling. Ishkur drops his shovel and pinches fingers together. They crash into him from either side and clamp on.
Ishkur falls and they roll together in an unrehearsed way. He chimes like a broken instrument with harsh elvish curses, and hybrid blood mixes with corrupted innocence. His dagger was a present years ago in thanks for some battlefield healing. As the ghouls pierce his layered linens with teeth and nails, he devastates with severing slices. The fine blade has little trouble with their flimsy cloth and thin skin.
“Stop!” Their strikes weaken. “Stop!” They stop. “I want justice.”
He pushes their bodies off, and his dagger drips blackness. The weapon has a deeper backstory that tickles, but the details have the haze of an Icarus possession and a current lightheadedness in the way.
He wipes it on the shreds of a cotton dress and stands. The girls are mangled and unmoving.
Mayp, last of her sisters, crouches in front of her bundled mother. “Bad man.”
“Rocks inside or something, I thought I was being tricked again.” Ishkur spreads his hands and says, “I can still help you, or at least help adjust—”
“Too sweet, you fouled my mouth with hope.” The widow says with hisses from under shielding cloth, and the mule jerks forward before being controlled by Mayp. “My girls you kill and curse me worse. Too sweet, so rotten and false. ‘I can still help you.’ You serve a sour god. Despair is more honest, without the cruelty of poisoned promises.”
Dripping blood mixes with ichor on Ishkur’s knee. His shoulder tingles and he pulls away a wet and sticky hand.
“Going numb, is that an effect of a ghoul bite? How merciful.” He flips his weapon and says, “Dagger, I tag you ‘Nummer’.”
Mayp whispers into a flicking mule’s ear, and then leads the animal with her mother bundle dragging behind. Wind stirs the grass and the remains of her older sisters start stinking like week old corpses.
Ishkur sheathes his just named blade and wobbles. “I’m not rotten! I’m just… not good at thinking, but I’m working on it. Poetry helps. It clears my head and makes my thoughts pretty.” The mother, daughter, and mule enter tall grass. “Also, despair is boring. Boring!”
A lone cloud shadows the day, which stimulates a mystic instinct for the direction of the nearby sacred circle. A place to meditate even if the souleaters didn’t cooperate, he was going to show off by disappearing and shocking usefulness out of them.
He jogs towards the safespot with a drooping head. The vampire and ghoul are probably going straight home. He steps off path to crush a mushroom and then swipes at a dragonfly. The remaining bandits are probably burning through his loot with drink and women. His instinct fades, but he continues on path with slowed steps.
The log at the top of the hill isn’t as inviting as it was a few days ago. Rapid breaths and dizziness slow his ascent.
It is a serene view. He sits and makes sure no polished metal catches the afternoon light. If the hamlet adventure ends here how harshly will his ex-bandmates grade him, especially his friend Kreig of Blue whose spirit chose “Truth” as his holy word?
The numbness fades, with pain replacing it. Iskur pulls bits of a basic care kit out of a waist pouch and tends to wounds. What can be contracted from the teeth of a carrion eater? He hunches over with puffed cheeks, failing to stop a dry heave.
Pinched fingers shake the veil blinding Icarus, but the trickle of Green hasn’t refilled the puddle at its base. Only a sip of power is available for another taboo tapping, not enough for Ishkur to attempt an unskilled mystic healing. He smiles towards the sun that restores him as much as his elvish half allows.
The cut in the vegetation below marks a beckoning road. To the right he can continue north to more civilized parts of the domain and probably be closer to the bandits and his lost treasures. If he has even a moderate return of power, he can also wear his recovered helm in confidence.
Leftward after picking up his head piece takes him straight to the hamlet. Kelsa’s basement is unguarded. The ghoulish girls never said what it was that they took from the bandit’s body.
The Elkruns would shelter him another night, hopefully even without chains. It’s more comfortable than a safespot, softer, and with good food and company.
Backtracking tugs like a thorn of guilt. It’s a third way and the honest path Kreig’s spirit would argue for. When shame is ignored it festers, and monsters left unchecked will continue being monstrous.
Ishkur draws an A inside a circle and then slashes through it. Grunting, he stomps out the fusion of holy symbols and then turns from the public path.
He runs, and pain sings through his mind like shattering glass. His head is heavy, but he keeps it straight until the presumed bodies of the ghoulish sisters halt him.
They’ve rotted away like they’ve been dead a whole season. Even the stench has faded. This unnaturalness is the reason for the tag “undead”. Knowledge bubbles up from the numbness of possession and keeps his surprise mild.
A lack of scavenger tracks highlights the aberrant scene, and he sticks his fingers into the soil while praying that the cursed corpses be accepted into the earth’s womb. A quick burial would help things along, but the shovel he dropped is missing and the sun isn’t far from dipping.
Sweating with the memory of ambush he follows the mule’s trail through grass that ranges from his waist to the top of his head. A few lone trees offer sparse shade, wide-leaved oaks and needling firs. At the top of a small rise he sees a proper forest ahead, with evergreen giants towering like masts of sinking ships in a green sea.
The distinctive U of the mule’s metal shoe is easy, but the little ghoul’s soft print slows him. The girls were changed physically into predators; a parallel mental change makes sense. As the curse had to overcome their soft bodies, so it had to overcome the sweetness of their personalities. Making them monsters must have wiped their minds. They had trouble speaking alone and can be tricked, but cunning may have replaced intelligence.
The mule stands unharnessed and eating sprouts at the edge of the tree line with no sign of Mayp or her bundle of mother. Is it a trap? Wincing he tightens a leaking bandage and creeps closer.
Hissing stops him. The girl thing is scampering over a rock, focused on heaving Jorkin’s shovel with both hands and dumping dirt on a shaded pile. It’s a bit of hillside bordered with trees and half a boulder.
The growing mound doesn’t yet cover the edges of blankets and sheets. He pulls out Nummer and takes deep breaths to steady the shaking blade.
A crow caws and he charges. She looks up and leaps down with the shovel swinging. Thin arms straining she can’t make the tool behave as a weapon, and he easily knocks it out of her hands. He follows with a foot to her skinny butt, and she tumbles to the ground with a squawk.
Sheathing his dagger Ishkur picks up the shovel and presents it in a proper defensive form before Mayp can find her feet. Her mouth opens dislocatingly wide and screeches. Something behind him hisses back.
Coniferous sheddings sprinkle down through dusty air as he spins. The mother stands with fangs and messy hair. Shovel blade forward he comes at her. Hands over eyes she runs into the deeper shadows of the forest. He chases and the last daughter follows with hisses.
Kelsa’s faster but zigzags. The cursed woman is trying to avoid direct sunlight and the canopy above isn’t cooperating. He goes straight and closes on the vampire.
Suddenly Kelsa screams and begins smoking, and then she’s digging desperately at the ground. Ishkur skips around her and lets Mayp reunite. The little ghoul aids with scoops of the forest floor, but her mother smokes more and thrashes like a hooked fish.
A last shudder and then she’s still, and Ishkur steps closer with readied shovel. The daughter hasn’t given up and still piles on the dirt and needle leaves. He swats her off and slams the shovel blade down again and again. The girl screams and runs away covering her ears.
His cheeks are sticky. “I’m not too sweet now.”Impenetrable darkness answers Ishkur with blindness.
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