~ THE CORPSE ~
“Run through there,” I instructed through harsh pants, pointing to the stream ahead. Callie’s advice from Heat rang through my head, her voice and the memory of that day no longer holding the warmth that they used to. Instead, it elicited a pang of hurt in my abdomen that only caused my legs to move faster until I could barely feel the ground beneath them at all.
Oriana and I had overslept. What was only supposed to be at most a single hour of closing our eyes and resting our limbs turned into multiple hours of deep slumber that was interrupted by not-so-distant howling that instantly put us back on our feet, our mouths spitting curses along the way.
I was hopeful that by running through as many bodies of water as possible, we’d somehow arrogate those lost hours back, rip them right out of time’s grasp and make them our own again. But it was wishful thinking. The howls behind us kept getting closer and closer, their Lycan speed aiding them in their hunt, and no amount of water could stop them. Not even an entire ocean.
Water kicked up as I stepped into the stream and soaked my already wet trousers, my shoes flooding with muddy water or the third time that hour. The sound of Oriana’s own feet penetrating the water encouraged me to continue, trying to act strong in spite of the agony that the uneven, rocky bottom inflicted on my injured foot. The only one who seemed to have benefitted from Oriana and I’s tiredness, except for Henrik, was my ankle, who had felt immensely better when I’d awoken but had slowly retreated back into its painful state.
By the time I stepped out, it felt like my socks and shoes had gained a few more pounds and my throbbing ankle protested loudly at the added pressure, allowing me to feel every pump of blood that gushed past the swollen joint.
Although I knew it needed to rest to properly heal from the trauma it’d endured, I couldn’t let that insignificant inconvenience ruin what Oriana and I were trying to accomplish, not when I knew we had made it so far and were so close.
The outskirts of Amaryllus were surrounded by bodies of water, which always attracted an annoying amount of insects in the summertime, and I could tell by growing number of slow streams in the area and the fact that there was a faint glow of daylight in the distance, meaning we’d been running for only a couple hours shy of an entire day, that we were close.
The thought made me restless and the closer we got, the more reckless I became.
I was anxious to get across the border and get as far away from Henrik as possible, knowing if he caught us, his treatment would not be kind. But it was not his treatment that I truly feared but rather the thought of having to look him in the eyes and see the effects of my actions.
And so, heart beating fast, I pumped my legs at full speed with the trust that Oriana was right behind me. She’d been a bit slower while we were running, always lagging a few feet behind me, which didn’t surprise me because of her weakened state. So I wasn’t worried when I didn’t see her in my perennial vision or notice when her footfalls suddenly stopped.
But I should’ve known better than to not at least give her a quick glance after we exited the water—to make sure that she was alright and that our surroundings were safe.
I shouldn’t have been so thoughtless and stupid.
The horror-filled sound had my heart coming to a sudden halt along with my legs and I pivoted around, terrified by the unexpected distance between Oriana’s voice and myself. My eyes searched between the plethora of trees until they landed on Oriana’s stiff form a few dozens of feet away, her wide eyes practically glowing in the darkness. I took a few, tentative steps forward so I could peer around the tree trunk to see what was responsible for our second delay that morning, my heart beating loudly in my ears.
A scream got trapped in my throat and my eyes widened with horror.
I thought my chest would cave in on itself when I took in the sight of Oriana fearfully backing away from an unmoving creature that I could only describe as a living corpse, which was as tall as a grown man and stood like one as well.
Thin, yellow-tinted grey skin peeled off in random chunks all of its bony body, whose ribs were so visible that I could count each individual one from where I was standing. Its head was asymmetrical and could’ve been considered mutated, its nose merely two holes that sat between glowing red eyes, who were so sunken that they almost seemed to levitate in the center of their sockets.
My head spun as I thought back to every book I had read and the stories I was told and none of them ever spoke of a creature of that definition. At least with banshees, I knew that screaming back at them would scare them off as they would mistake them for other banshees, and ogumos hated water. But I was left completely paralyzed by helplessness as I looked at the corpse.
But then it began to move.
“Stay away from her!” I cried on instinct when I saw it lift its long fingers in Oriana’s direction, instantly regretting it when the living corpse’s red, unblinking eyes snapped over to me and stared through my bones and muscle and into every crevice where my nightmares found shelter.
It lifted its head in the air and its nostrils dilated as they deeply breathed in and then out. My eyes burned with fear when it took its first step towards me and then another, a wad of drool falling out of its agape mouth as it continued to scent the air. I took a step backwards and watched as it followed like a fish trapped to a line of a fishing rod, slowly leading it further away from Oriana until I had its back entirely turned towards her.
“Oriana, run,” I said. Terrified that anything I did had the potential to startle it, my voice only rose to the volume where I knew Oriana could hear it, even if only barely. Her having to strain her ears was a much better outcome than anything that would’ve come out of the unpredictable creature’s anger. “I’ll distract it.”
My friend shook her head at me like I was crazy for ever suggesting such a thing, her teary eyes bouncing restlessly between me and the monster. It was like she couldn’t tell what was worse: the sight of the creature or the thought of leaving me behind.
“It’s okay,” I assured her, trying to meet her eyes but mine couldn’t help but sway back to the corpse every time, the source of my anxiety functioning as a sort of magnet for my line of vision. “I’ll be right behind you.” Oriana gave me a disbelieving look and then a defeated sob. “Go,” I told her and finally, with another shake of her head, she listened and bolted towards her home. I stared at her retreating frame as long as I could, knowing that the possibility that it would be the last time I ever saw her was high.
At least, unlike when I thought she was dead, this time I knew she would be safe and had a chance of happiness and seeing living flowers, and not just the ones on my bedside table that she’d taken a few minutes to admire.
The corpse stalked closer to me, its red, soulless gaze taking in my entire form, and I noticed how its back curled forward, like its lack of muscle and excess of bones made it so it could barely handle the weight of its body when it walked on two feet.
I released a sharp gasp when in my haste to back away from the creature, my injured foot banged against a root sticking out of the ground, the action causing me to fall back into a tree and a cry of surprise, terror, and pain to escape my throat. Whatever I’d hurt before in my ankle gave another distinct pop that had a searing, hot pain shooting up my outer calf that only worsened when my heel met with the ground.
The corpse took my mistake and sudden weakness as its opportunity to pounce. Its speed took me by surprise, so fast that it was merely a blur of white and grey until it had eliminated those feet between us and was on me, slamming its hands on either side of my head to keep me caged in. I bit my inner cheek to keep a scream in when it pulled back its lips and gave a hiss, equivalent to what you’d hear coming from a serpent, through yellowed teeth that had rotted and broken off into sharp shards.
It lowered its head to my neck and took in long, greedy sniffs, each puff of its breath on my skin making me shudder and clench my teeth to hold in a wail, wishing it’d just go ahead and kill me.
At least if I was dead, I wouldn’t be afraid anymore.
Its hand shot down to grab my own in a vice grip and I winced at the action’s harshness and just how much like pure bone its hand felt, its skin only giving a little padding. I watched silently as it brought my hand up to its face to assess it. The wound on my finger had long since scabbed over but the dried blood remained since I hadn’t found time to wash it off yet, wrapping around my hand and down my forearm like a properly fitted glove.
The corpse assessed it with a soulless gaze, its stale breath fanning my fingers, and I noticed with a grimace the sparse and thin strands of blonde hair that served no purpose on its scalp. Then, without any warning, its brown-tinted tongue shot out of its mouth and lazily licked my finger from the bottom-up, making my eyes well with tears at the feeling of the strangely slimy and cold muscle on such sensitive skin.
Finally, it pulled away and looked me in my face. I whimpered when its grip on my hand tightened and it pulled me closer to it and its disgusting teeth, its nails digging into the flesh along my wrist. “Ssssisssterr,” it hissed in a voice that sounded like a cross between a man and the wind, forcing its breath to waft up into my nostrils.
My eyes tearing further, I gave a single cough as I tried my best not to gag. It smelled as if something was rotting inside its throat, the stench so thick that I could’ve choked on it if I hadn’t turned my head away in time.
Too overcome with fear, I didn’t register the word it’d spoken, thinking that its meaning was as shriveled and lifeless as the creature who’d uttered it.
It opened its mouth as if to deliver another useless word or hiss of agitation but instead the corpse gave a roaring shriek towards the sky, the sound so shrill that it physically hurt to hear it, when a set of canines latched themselves around its leg and chomped down.
My mouth opened wide with horror down at the Lycan with a warm brown coat, who only shook its head side to side faster and elicited more pained sounds from the corpse, its eyes brightening as it growled in anger up towards it. The creature gave another angry hiss and bared its sharp teeth but the Lycan persisted and only bit down harder, dark blood oozing out of where his teeth pierced its skin.
The corpse released my wrist, the red skin there giving a brief sigh of relief, to grab the Lycan under his armpits and rip him off. The movement was so quick that the Lycan had no issue taking a large chunk of its thigh with it, the sound of it parting from the corpse’s bone equivalent to nails on a chalkboard, and he spat the muscle onto the ground with a defiant snarl while trying to claw at its face.
Another angry roar barreled from the corpse’s lips and he was quick to throw the Lycan with terrifying ease into a tree, making me gasp and fall back with horror at the horrible cracking noise that filled the woods. The Lycan whimpered and went to stand up but the monster was too fast, using that same gods awful speed to run over and grab him by his face to lift him into the air, one hand on his jaw while the other went to its front legs to keep them immobile. Dangling in its hold, the Lycan remained persistent and blindly kicked at it, growling and thrashing his whole body as he tried to save himself.
Through it all, I remained frozen with fear like the coward I accepted I was, believing with my whole being that I would’ve only made things worse if I interfered.
And when the creature turned the Lycan in its arm and sunk its teeth into his neck, I lost it and released a sob that I tried muffling with my palm as blood splattered everywhere and the Lycan gave a cry. The corpse’s throat bobbed with the few gulps of blood that it stole, the action making bile rise into my own. It dropped the unmoving Lycan to the ground after it was finished, as if he was merely garbage whose purpose was no more.
There was a pause of silence. And then another.
The creature turned its head back around to face me as if it finally remembered I existed, its jaw and neck soaked with an immeasurable amount of blood.
A limp accompanied it as it began to walk towards me and a whimper left my throat when my brain again remembered my injured limb and the quickness of the corpse’s speed, knowing full well that running was out of the question.
“No,” I muttered in horror, shaking my head. Tears of pure fear ran down my cheeks and I found it hard to breathe, the shorts gasps that I managed to accomplish making it impossible to supply enough air to my already spinning mind. “Stay back.” It didn’t listen and I held my hands up until my palms were facing it, my eyes catching a glimpse of the dead body behind it. My heart clenched and my stomach churned at the sight. “Stay back!” I repeated louder, angrier and more desperate. My only response came from almost a mile away, a deep, mournful howl that only had my veins vibrating more violently after I was reminded why I was out there in the first place.
You disgust me.
She’s just a pathetic human!
“Stop it!” I sobbed, my throat burning as I stared at the corpse in its scarlet eyes, the same color as the very thing it lusted for.
“Sssi—” It reached out a hand toward me, its long, red-stained fingers with yellowed nails making me recoil in disgust.
“I said stop!”
A shriek that was loud enough to shake the earth tore from its lips when a blade of pure darkness shot out of the ground and pierced its stomach, the smooth surface of it glimmering in the starlight.
I gasped in horror and looked around, expecting to see another monster waiting for me. But my search was futile and I slowly turned and swallowed thickly, pushing down the lump in my throat, as I brought my quivering hands closer to my face and analyzed the way they faintly glowed against the darkness. Despite not knowing how it was possible, it was in that moment that I understood that I, in my emotional state, had managed to conjure some sort of magic.
And the terror that I felt outnumbered any other times I’d ever experienced the emotion—because this time I was the monster. And there was no running away from that.
The corpse shook its head back and forth, squealing in agony and clawing at the strange pyramid-shaped configuration, before it finally pulled itself off by stepping off to the side and ripping even more of its abdomen apart. I nearly released my stomach’s continents onto the forest floor when its small intestines pooled out of the new hole in its stomach and dangled a foot above the ground, reminding me of the way Tylem’s had in my dream. However, this creature’s intestines were brown and shriveled like pruned fingers and released a smell that was as foul as rotting meat.
In spite of its wounds, the living corpse staggered its way over to me, hissing and baring its teeth. With a shaky breath, I stood my ground and lifted my hands. The same thrumming energy that I’d mistaken as adrenaline before pushed through my veins and spread like fire into every part of my body until there was no difference between it and I.
My mind picturing exactly what I wanted to happen and its outcome, my hands mirrored the same motions they had made before, giving a forceful shove to the air with clenched teeth. I watched with a mix of horror and slight satisfaction as a twin of the same blackness as before shot out and pierced the corpse straight through its gaping mouth.
As soon as the sharp tip of the darkness poked through the back of its skull, the corpse’s body went limp with final death and it sagged against the very weapon that ended what was left of its life, its face trapped in an eternal yet silenced shriek of pain.
My breathing rung loudly in my ears, not fully believing what I was seeing, and I limped around the corpse and over to the Lycan that had been laid to rest only a couple feet behind it, barely able to keep my vision straight. I knelt—well, more like collapsed—onto the ground and pressed my ear against his ribs, holding my breath as I searched for the sound of a heartbeat. When I didn’t find one, I scrambled to press three fingers on the side of his neck, being mindful of his wound while not caring about the blood that stained his fur and was already all over my trousers and hands. Although their muscles and bone structure all changed, I’d learned from my many hours of reading that a Lycan’s organ and vascular systems didn’t, meaning an artery would be on each side of his neck like a regular Human.
But, no matter how firm I pressed down, there was no movement to be detected and so I regretfully pulled my hand away, gazing at his closed eyelids with the knowledge they’d never open again.
I stood, for a moment pausing when I thought I saw his chest move. But I knew it was just my imagination toying with my emotions again, having experienced the same cruel joke after my own mother’s passing. Even after her lips turned blue, my eyes that were still imprisoned by denial deceived me with phantom up and down movements of her breasts. It was the main perpetrator for why I needed to be pried off her body by the priests an hour later so they could prepare it for burial.
Having heard horror stories about people being buried alive thanks to Tylem and Taylium and the merchants who encouraged their disturbing imaginations, I had snuck out of Oriana’s house that night to sleep atop the fresh soil of her grave, my ear pressed against it so I could detect if there were any sounds of her banging against her casket. When the sun rose and the only banging I’d heard the whole night was the sound of my own heart, that was when I knew my mother had really left me forever.
“Thank you,” I whispered to the Lycan, even though I knew he couldn’t hear me anymore. But I felt it was necessary to, if not for his sake then for mine. I was the reason he was out there in the first place—I was the reason he was dead—and the least I could do was thank him. He’d been trying to protect me and perhaps if I wouldn’t have frozen like a coward or had learned of my unwanted powers sooner, he would’ve been okay.
My eyes filled with tears at the thought and I looked towards the sky, noticing how the rising, orange daylight was beginning to reflect off some of the round clouds. I sent his still chest one last longing look and a fleeting glimpse at the unmoving corpse, my fingers clenching into tight fists, before I ran in the direction Oriana had.
I ran and I ran without a thought except to run, the Lycans’ howls acting like flames that licked at my heels. My ankle throbbed and caused my stride to be uneven, perhaps what some would consider awkward, but I kept going. I knew if I could survive the pain of Henrik’s hatred, I could surely get through that.
Finally, I stopped and I nearly tumbled over my own two feet when a clearing of trees revealed a small village below me and only what I perceived to be a couple hundred yards away. Made up of small wooden structures that were connected by a dirt path and whose roofs were pointed at each end and adorned with small statues of spirits to keep demons away, it was nothing grand. In the distance, I could just make out the temple, where the village’s graveyard was, and just behind it and a little ways away was my childhood shack and the two farms that raised chickens, sheep, and a few cows.
Despite its bland features, Amaryllus had never looked so wonderful than it did at that moment with the sun rising behind it, who whispered the same words of encouragement that I’d been thinking since I saw it:
I was home.
But even that was a lie.
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Two chapters left—any predictions?