of Beasts and Man

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Ghosts

Thunder continued to roll in the depths of Lam Berel. Lightning flashed, painting its walls in rippling color, the stone getting older, more decrepit as Olivier continued to trudge on. Only that rumbling could be heard now, which, though once welcomed, Olivier had come to dread it. Time lost all meaning, those flashes too common, the crashes and roaring monotonous. It was like the storm, itself, decided to plant itself right on top of the city and stay there... It was as if the storm was mocking him, torturing him, personally.

The arrow on his hand couldn’t have been wrong, though. It had grown as he followed it, and now the pearl was almost consumed in that blinking, pulsing golden light. It kept its edges, allowed him to see when it turned, but it was the fact he was so close to his destination, that he was about to exit the underground, that terrified him the most.

What if they planned for this? What if they had people stationed at each and every entrance into the sewers... What if he was walking right into a trap? The arrow was only showing him a way out, but what way? The best way... or the worst?

There was only one way to truly find out, which is why his eyes were filled with yellow. He might have felt righteous fury when he set this plan in motion, but now? He was cold, and covered in grime. He was exhausted, with no way of knowing what may lie ahead in the dark, only seen through flashes, glimpses of time that would also expose him, and he wasn’t sure he could react in time.

Every lurching step was torture on his chilled, soaked feet. The suckers on their soles slurped weakly at the stone, popping with each step. They desired to root him, to keep him in one place if only a moment, but he needed to endure. He could not stop now; he will not stop. Lightning flashed again, revealing more of that ancient architecture. This must have been the oldest part of town, but where would that exactly be?

If it was close to the Itchyoman District, he had a chance. He could dash to the warehouse before anyone noticed and slip down the trapdoor-

With how tired I am? I’ll be lucky to move the covering to it before they’re on me.

He growled, red touching his eyes, but only touching, already gone with the next step he took. He reached another fork, and looked down at the arrow... perplexed. It was pointing back. He turned around, about to return the way he came, but the arrow swung, pointing behind him again.

“What?” He uttered, turning around, growing agitated as the arrow did the same, again and again. “Make up my mind already!”

Lightning flashed again... and, through the gloom, he saw metal gleam. There was a ladder, metal rungs set into the stone. He was fortunate to see them gleam at all, more rust than metal now, but the bottoms were still pristine, leading up to a trapdoor. A bit of pink touched his eyes, realizing what the arrow was trying to tell him and how... limited it was in doing so, but, like the red, it was gone as quick as it came.

He lumbered up to the ladder, tugging on the rung at eye-level. He gave it four sharp jerks... which it held. He wasn’t confident about the rest, but, even if he did fall, it would only hurt his pride at this height. How much more bruised could that get?

Olivier took a deep breath, and put his foot onto the ladder, ascending at last. Each one clanged, ringing off into the distance, carried by the thunder that followed. His cold, damp feet slipped many a time, holding onto the bars for dear life when it happened, panting, shaking and shivering as wind met him from above. It was only fourteen in total, but it was the longest part of the journey. So far.

At last he reached the top, to that trapdoor. Olivier gave it a push, making it clank and groan, but it wouldn’t budge until he added a bit more behind it. His arm quivered, like jelly as he pushed, but had to grasp the ladder again, about to fall, panting hard and fast. He waited for his heart to settle down before trying again, getting another inch compared to last time before having to let it fall again. Third time wasn’t the charm, either, but he could hear something groaning above, items shuffling as he pushed it higher.

He climbed a bit higher on the ladder, practically crunched against the wood and metal, and let go of it altogether with his hands. His arms, his back, all of him was now being pushed, forced through that door. His head ached, shell crushed into his back, trying to stand upright, but he kept pressing, hearing whatever was on top groan ever louder, items fall and huff and wisp off on those blasts of wind.

At last, the trapdoor opened enough for him to climb through, but he didn’t stop until he could at least get his middle into the gap. The last thing he needed was for his arms to be chopped off; his middle? At least it would be a quicker death than bleeding out in the dark. However, it turned out he was alone in that place, a watchtower from the looks of it. There were four cots on the ground floor, lining the wall under the winding staircase of the round building, while a simple table with four chairs was set in the middle, on a grand, burgundy rug. To his right was the entrance, and beside it was a window, showing the dark clouds and its lightning from his angle. He gently turned around, keeping the pressure on the trapdoor... and saw that he had pushed a desk almost on its end.

Olivier wriggled the rest of the way out, and the trapdoor shut once more, allowing the desk to settle, cleared of all its contents. Ink was spilling out onto the wooden floor, its quill soaked, as were the papers it was resting beside... all having a mock caricature of Olivier’s face. Wanted: Dead or Alive it read on top, while underneath it gave the bounty. However, the ink had already claimed that number on each, but given how small the font was, he had no doubt it was a rather hefty price. He simply wondered if he was worth more alive... or otherwise.

He shook his head, but had to stop, feeling dizzy. He made his way over to the chairs, sitting down, and held his head in his hands there, rubbing his temples, throbbing with his aching heart. Wind blew through the building with such abandon, but at least it didn’t bring the rain. He was already soaked to the bone, and all he wanted to do was find a blanket and curl under it for a few hours.

Olivier lifted his head, looking at the spiral staircase, and wondered if he should go check to see if they had any food, any at all... However, he was only delaying the inevitable. He grimaced as he looked back at the door, rattling with the storm outside. At any moment, though, it could be people making its life miserable, making his miserable.

I’m pressing my luck as it is, he thought, and groaned as he stood. He trudged to that door, opening it, and found that he was by the stables, just outside the town. That’s strange. The sewers kept going this way... Just how far did they reach?

Again, he did not have the luxury of time. He was already squandering what luck he had; he needed to make it to the warehouse. Olivier stepped out into the storm, wincing as that first lash of rain hit, and left a trail of muck and such behind as he trudged back into the town. The main roads were not even a question; he took the alleys, trying so hard to remember, to focus his addled brain, on the paths Durnst had taken when they first went through. In truth, he knew he simply had to make it to the Itchyoman District. From there, he could walk the streets; nobody patrolled there, nobody cared.

Every moment that passed, though, it only got darker in the city. The sun must have been setting behind the clouds, no longer warming it to its steely gray, now returning to the darkness that gave birth to it. He started to repeat paths, circling on himself, the world spinning so fast under his feet... until he realized the arrow on the back of his hand was back. He followed it, given hope at last, but each blast of wind and rain tried to rip it away, as it tried to upend his feet.

He could hear voices, everywhere, mumbling and buzzing... and, to him, they were all about him. Catch him, kill him, string him up, tar and feather him, quarter him, hobble him, throw him into the oubliette until he is little more than a pelt; over and over, and only growing stronger as the path he did tread brought him so close to the main roads. Thankfully, they faded just as quick, but not quick enough. He wasn’t making it to the Itchyoman District fast enough.

Curse his weakness. Curse his fatigue! He should have been there by now. He should be back with his friends... but Olivier was still that scared little kid from so long ago, that whelp that hid in the belly of the Kraken and had a handful of spice and rice every other week to avoid starvation, and even that was pushing it. He was no captain, nor would he ever be a captain, no matter what anybody said. He didn’t inspire confidence, didn’t raise morale and drive anybody to be better than what they were... after all, look at himself. He could barely make it, could barely fight against his exhaustion.

His feet started to slip, squeaking and squishing in the fetid mud, mixed with the grime he had carried. He was almost clean of it, a boon the storm gave him, but now his leggings were torn, ruined. He could feel the cuts and scrapes on them blaring into the dark, but, at long last, he stumbled out of the alley he was in and into the stick huts and yurts of the Itchyoman District.

Even if it wasn’t storming, this place always had a darkness about it. Candles shined in windows, as eyes gleamed in back alleys, dogging him as he lumbered down the eroding cobblestone street. Rain always fell here, but it wasn’t as hard as everywhere else in the city, as if it, too, wanted to avoid this place. Olivier didn’t have a choice; there were only two ways down into the cove, and he couldn’t risk heading for the port.

That only left the warehouse... out of a dozen of them... Olivier cursed at himself. How could he not remember which one it was? He looked down at his arm, at his hand, hoping the arrow was still there, but it seemed it had served its purpose. The pearl was back to its green, shimmering self.

He wanted to hate it, but it had already brought him this far. The least he could do was find the way from here... He remembered it was before the cliff’s end, nowhere near it in fact to the west. That ruled out four of them... He also remembered that it wasn’t too close to the bourgeois district, so the six or so close to those polished walls and sparkling street was crossed off, as well. That only left about ten or so in between –which seven were immediately eliminated. He remembered that it was in between two others, not too far up the street nor too far down, so that left three around the middle and at the very end of the main street of the Itchyoman District.

He hobbled down it, wincing as chipped stone dug into his haggard feet adding blood to the trail he left. He kept his hand firm on his sword, feeling eyes on his back, like daggers, digging into the sullied cloth and through him with each, prickling step. The wind, the thunder even seemed to dull here, while a soft, sinister buzz ran through all. The District always had a peculiar, distinct scent, as well, but Olivier couldn’t really smell beyond his foul odor at that moment, making it to the warehouses.

He tried the right first, wincing and panting as he tugged the door open, lurching into the dark building. However, he didn’t have to go in far before he knew it wasn’t right. The building didn’t have any glass, which he distinctly remembered the one to the cove had a glass ceiling. He lumbered back out, shutting it, then headed for the middle, straining to get the door o-

He was slammed into it. Not once, but five times in a row.

Olivier slid down it, face aching, trying to blink away the lights before they turned blinding by a kick to his middle, toppling him back onto his legs. Around him, he could hear laughter, could see dark blots of light against that cascade of color that held from the blows. However, the world shifted as he felt himself pulled up, forced towards those blots.

He blinked away the light at last, and saw that the blots were eyes, belonging to dozens of Itchyoman, closed around him. The one holding him seemed familiar, their sickly green skin and two large sails on their head just ticking at the back of his mind, but he wasn’t sure why. Nor did he have time to really ponder it. The Itchyoman growled, and brought the back of their hand across his face, letting him go, slamming back into the door to another round of bitter laughter.

“Well well. Look who dares to show their face here,” the Itchyoman said, reverberating on the hundreds, if not thousands, of plates that lined its mouth. Another Itchyoman pushed by, kneeing Olivier in the gut, but wouldn’t allow him to fall. They grabbed him by his shell, slamming his chin, his face into his knee even more before slinging him out towards the street. The green Itchyoman had stepped aside, now following along, cackling as every one of them had a go, kicking him, hitting him as he simply tried to stand. Olivier hacked and wheezed, spitting up blood, but it wasn’t enough for them, grabbing his fingers, twisting, breaking them as well –at least on his left hand. None of them dared to touch the right... the Green Itchyoman grabbed Olivier by the shell, raising him to meet their gaze. “You and your friends killed my wife and son, slaughtered people close to all of us!”

“I didn’t-” He began, cut off as the Itchyoman kicked his gut again. What he spewed was more blood than bile, left to soak in it as the Itchyoman let him go. They started to walk away... only to wheel about and come charging back, slamming their foot again and again into his middle, claws tearing through the tunic even more.

“Bol, stop!” Another Itchyoman said.

“Yeah. If you kill ’im, then we don’t get paid,” another chided in.

The Itchyoman known as Bol growled, jaws jutting as those plates grew and stretched out.

“Do any of you think the guards will pay us? Have you forgotten who we are?” They boomed, kicking Olivier again... He had started to crawl, his eyes locked ahead. On the cliff. Bol chortled, strolling beside, and only interfered when he tried to stand, digging his foot into his back, forcing him to crawl on his belly the entire way. “And where do you think you’re going, hmm? Where are you getting off to.”

He reached the sidewalk for the warehouses, clawing his way up onto it. His goal was so close, the cliff just a little bit longer... Even if the water flung him against the rocky cliff face, he had a better chance of survival than staying up h-

“No. I don’t think so,” Bol said, grabbing him by his back. Their nails tore through the fabric, bit into him, squelching as they picked Olivier straight up and tossed them back into the street, sliding back through his blood and bile. Olivier laid there, wheezing, rattling as he barely kept his eyes open, looking at the sky above –but that was even taken. Bol stood over him, his six blue eyes glaring at him... and Olivier could see tears in them. “Jett was a sweetheart, and our son, Hyd, he was but a boy. Yet you cut him down.”

And it finally clicked. He now remembered where he saw that Itchyoman... Rather, the smaller version. The son.

“We didn’t kill him,” Olivier tried to wheeze out, instead little more than a garbled mess of blood and spit. He coughed, turning on his side a touch- tried to, at least. Bol slammed his foot onto his chest, making it pop, forcing him to lay back down. “Please. Listen to me... We did not kill your son.”

“It doesn’t matter. You are still responsible... This will not be quick. We are going to beat you, slowly, and watch as the light slowly fades from your eyes. You will wish for death before it ever comes, and even then we’ll keep you alive to pay for every son, every daughter, wife and husband that you and your friends and your dear Dread Pirate have taken from us.”

Olivier still tried to reach for his sword, his fingers not listening, unable to move. Those twisted and broken digits could only paw at the blade, at its tassels, while the world devolved into light. The swarm was upon him, shrieking and cheering as they tore into him, as they beat every inch of him, even places he didn’t know existed.

However, they were forced to stop.

Olivier slapped back down onto the stone, more carcass than Cepha-Terrahn, but he could see as the Itchyoman flew, tossed aside. He couldn’t hear anymore, but he could see Bol’s throat vibrating, his eyes filled with fear... before lost to a large, red claw. It was covered in purple ichor, running from the barbs that broke through, tearing into the Itchyoman and leaving a arc of blood as they were knocked through the air.

The Itchyoman, the ones that could, scurried off, and Olivier felt the world shift again, laid on top of something softer than the stone... as well as saw two, black stalks before passing out.

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