49: Wicked Mockeries

on August 9, 2007 in 02: Love In The Time Of Magic

In Which Two Out Of Three Knives Are Ably Employed

Ghouls… wicked mockeries of living things… were approaching Amaranth in two packs, each numbering more than a dozen. I was frozen… unable to move… but at my side, Steff seemed to be immune to the paralysis I was feeling. She strode down the hill–to say she charged would not be an accurate description of her graceful stride–and headed purposefully towards the knot of undead who approached the cowering nymph from behind.

Her knives were out. She didn’t go for any vital spots, because of course, ghouls didn’t have any… the blood and bile which clogged the byways of their putrid, rotting bodies did not serve any purpose, and neither did the ruined organs which pooled in their distended bellies.

A ghoul’s body did one thing: it hungered.

This fact allowed a ghoul to ignore blows that would have removed a man from the field of battle. Stabbing it in the gut would provoke next to no reaction. An arrow into its eye wouldn’t even diminish the thing’s ability to sense the world around it.

If the magic that sustained them were more sophisticated or more powerful, they’d be unstoppable killing machines… but like most corporeal undead, ghouls were essentially an enchanted object, an inanimate corpse bound up with a bit of necromantic magic. Just like the spells which made a TV set work would dissolve if it suffered enough physical damage, so would the ghouls turn inert if their shells were sufficiently broken.

Steff, with both her formal training in necromancy and her mechanical view of life, knew all this… and she used that knowledge to great advantage, slashing rather than stabbing. She ducked low to hamstring a ghoul as she moved past it, then opened up another’s abdomen from ribcage to navel with one slash. She added another cut crosswise beneath it with her other knife… leaping back as its blackened, shriveled guts spilled outward.

It teetered and then fell atop the mess.

Of course, I’m describing all this after the fact, which gives me some room for a more descriptive analysis of the scene as it unfolded. At the time, what went through my head was less articulate, less focused, and more like the mental, emotional, and spiritual equivalent of peeing your pants.

Steff’s whisper came in my ear, as if she were still standing beside me.

Move.

Her tone was a fair imitation of Amaranth’s command voice, and that was enough to jar me to action. Move I did, charging down the hill. My right hand groped for the knife at my side, and I realized I should have been wearing it on my left hip. I nearly tripped again, trying to focus on getting it out and keeping my eye on the group of ghouls to the right, the ones in front of Amaranth.

As I came nearer, I drew back my hand, over my head, the handle of the knife held with ease and confidence in my fingers.

I positioned my body and my arm to be on a line with one of the hideous monsters who were, as of yet, still more interested in the pretty shrieking cringing thing and the whirling spinning slashing thing than they were in me. I visualized the knife spinning end-over-end through the air, and embedding itself in the soft, rotted skull of the thing.

I brought my hand down and forward, with the supernatural strength my damned bloodline gave me.

Uttering a savage battle cry that didn’t sound anything like the scream of a crackly-voiced pubescent boy, I released the knife…

…then watched first in slightly embarrassed horror as the wildly spinning projectile veered way to the left… then in sheer terror as it became apparent just how close it would come to the darting and dancing figure of Steff.

Time seemed to slow and the world seemed to shrink until it consisted of just two things: my knife and Steff’s head. She seemed to sense its approach somehow, and turned either to see it coming or to avoid its flight. The hilt ended up glancing off her temple, and she staggered backwards, treading on a ghoul’s foot in the process.

“Fucking ow!” she yelled, shaking her head as though to clear away stars as a ghoul lunged in low, its arms open as if to sweep her up in a loving hug. I couldn’t see how she would avoid it, but then she leaped into its eager embrace, only to cross her knives beneath its chin and close them like a pair of scissors, beheading it. The thing tumbled backwards.

“Sorry!” I said.

It sounded lame, but there wasn’t time for a better apology… or for me to retrieve my weapon. Amaranth had reacted to Steff’s arrival by spinning around and backing away from the commotion behind her… towards the group of ghouls I’d attempted to engage. She was about to stumble back right into their midst, and there was nothing I could do to them that would either take them all out of commission or grab all of their attention at once, not when better prey was so close.

I launched myself forward, but not at the ghouls. I barreled into Amaranth, knocking her away with a bone-jarring body block. This put me about where she had been, and in the clutches of one of the ghouls

Ghouls fought by the crudest methods imaginable. Alone or in small numbers, they could be only scavengers… going so far as to dig up long-buried and much-decayed corpses for their food, if they couldn’t find the weak, the wounded, or the freshly dead. Larger groups could press themselves upon the quick and hale, dragging them down through sheer numbers. It wasn’t a pretty death, as ghouls had few natural weapons and very little intelligence… they would pull a person apart slowly, with barely more than human strength, or else grind their still-living flesh with teeth no sharper than they would have been in life.

It wasn’t something I particularly had to fear… unless a ghoul’s teeth also counted as a magical weapon, which I doubted. I knew they ranked very low in the orders of undead. They were somewhat above zombies and other completely mindless creations, but below the truly self-aware and self-willed abominations.

As the ghoul wrapped its arms around me, I strained my own arms up and outwards like a TV hero breaking free of a coil of rope. The ghoul’s arms, which were cold, clammy, disturbingly soft, and wet, did not snap as such cinematic bonds would have, but at least they weren’t able to match my own strength. I forced the restraining arms apart, and when I had some room to move in, I ducked back, and then grabbed it by the wrists.

It tried to press forward, gnashing its teeth and snapping its jaw, but I was ready to bring my other weapon into play. Pushing past my ingrained reluctance, I ignited both my hands. Not a lot, but I figured as a walking corpse, the ghoul would go up like an oil-soaked rag, and then I could push it back into its fellows (or wouldn’t have to, as they were coming forward, and crowding into my opponent as they sought the shortest route to me.)

Unfortunately, the thing remained stubbornly unablaze, though the flesh in direct contact with my flaming hands was giving off a smell most safely described as “interesting.”

“Ghouls aren’t like zombies,” Steff’s voice told me. “They’re preserved in a state of putrefaction, they never really dry out.”

“I noticed,” I said tersely under my breath, unsure of whether she’d hear me. I rocked back on my heels a bit, then forward, giving the grappling ghoul a bit of a shove. My hope in doing this was that it’d bowl over its companions and then I could dispatch them in some quick and cunning fashion as they tried to pick themselves up. Sadly, I didn’t have that great a grip to begin with, and trying to push somebody around by the forearms is not the easiest thing to do… it just kind of stumbled backwards into another ghoul, and then was pushed forward again.

“C’mon, I thought you could take care of yourself,” Steff chided me with another whisper.

I took a deep breath… which I deeply regretted, given my proximity to a bunch of permanently rotting corpses… then, as the ghouls surged forward, I shifted one leg back, pivoted my waist, cocked back my arm, and then laid into the nearest one with a single punch that had everything I had to give.

A quavering sound that was half insuppressible whimper and half suppressed scream escaped my lips when, instead of sending a broken body flying away, my mighty blow resulted in me being up my elbow in ghoul gut gunk.

It felt… well, I now had a very real, very tangible feeling that could only help my attempts to imagine what the dirtiness and nastiness inherent in the female body should feel like. Worse, the wretched thing didn’t appear to notice that it was impaled on me, and continued squelchily forward, while other arms grabbed me from the side. The awful face of the impaled ghoul pressed in against me, and it was the face of my fright mask as it had appeared in my dreams… its sick and strangely hot breath filling my nostrils as it clicked and clacked its teeth, uselessly seeking purchase against my impervious skin.

Other mouths closed on other flesh, and the ghouls in back pushed against the one I’d punched, sending the whole mass of us to the ground.

“Get over it, you pussy,” Steff said, her voice finding me even in the midst of that pile of writhing, biting awfulness. “If you haven’t noticed, you punched through a monster.”

Maybe I could try to salvage one scrap of dignity by pretending that her chiding voice and affirmation of my supernatural strength goaded me to reach deep down inside me to find an inner core of badassness, but the simple truth was that the rising tide of panic and terror at being buried beneath a mass of squishily wet corpses which tore at my clothes and dragged their teeth ineffectually against any bare skin they could find had to overwhelm me sooner or later. My shirt was quickly ripped into pieces. There was nothing personal or prurient about it… clothing meant only two things: it was a handhold, and it was something that could get in the way.

When I felt dead fingers playing tug-of-war with my bra, that was when my body had to act. There was nothing so horrible, so terrifying, so debilitatingly disgusting that it couldn’t be made worse by being naked and exposed. My free hand shot up, and I sat up, thrusting both of my arms apart, parting the mass of bodies like I was opening a curtain.

The one who’d been stuck on my arm was torn nearly in two, and fell still. The rest picked themselves up and began to lurch towards me.

I was now aware of a rattling, gurgling noise from the backs of their throats. I don’t know if they’d been making it all along, but somehow, it seemed like an angry noise. I realized that I could press forward and continue to fight with the surge of emotion I’d had… or I could hesitate, and lose all will to fight the things the first time a wrist or mouth or pair of arms closed around me.

It wasn’t a conscious thought inside my head… that was still occupied with a chorus of “oh shit, oh shit”, which now harmonized with a group of singers going “ew, ew, ew”, and was overlaid with vague but stern voices condemning me for giving in to violence, for letting myself get dirty, and for losing my shirt. It was more like an instinctual insight, a moment of clarity in which I realized that what was happening to me wasn’t just something happening to me… it was a choice set before me, between succumbing or fighting.

At that moment, Amaranth gave another terrified cry behind me. Probably she’d been doing it the whole time, actually, but it was in my moment of clarity that I heard it.

I chose to fight.

I didn’t try many more wild, mule-kick punches… I did aim one punch at the head of one of the things, with better but hardly more pleasant results. That was one down, anyway. For the rest, I adopted tactics midway between their own and Steff’s… I kept moving in and out of the mass of milling monsters, in order to avoid being swamped and dragged down again, but I grabbed arms and necks.

I rended, I tore, I snapped, I broke… the ghouls’ bones were spongy and soft, which helped in some ways and hindered in some. I doubted I could pull a human’s arm clean from its socket as easily as I did a ghoul’s… at least, I hoped it was so, but I knew that a living leg wouldn’t bend as much as a ghoul’s did before breaking. I was spattered with dark, gunky, putrid fluid from the veins of my victims… opponents, I mean. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t let myself think about it. The last ghoul stopped moving when, with my foot on its groin (oh, I so didn’t let myself think about that), I wrenched its leg off and threw it aside.

I spun around to find the next thing to hurt, and saw Steff severing both arms of the last ghoul standing on her side clean off at the shoulders. It staggered forward, and then fell, moving no more.

Amaranth was down on the ground between us, curled up like an egg, her arms over her head. I couldn’t fault her–even if I’d wanted to–for not having jumped at the chance to live her dream of being torn apart by hideous monsters… I’d hardly measured up to my own expectations during my first such encounter. I took a shaky step towards her, but Steff was already at her side, extending a gentle hand. I imagine she whispered something that was for Amaranth’s ears only, because her body’s quaking noticeably lessened and she looked up at her. She let Steff help her to her feet, and accepted her glasses from the half-elf’s hands.

“Amaranth,” I said, my voice doing the opposite of Steff’s trick by sounding very, very far away despite coming from so close to my ears. I took another step towards her.

She turned at the sound of my voice, but the look on her face…

I wanted to believe that the look was because I was half-naked and covered in grave filth. In that moment, I honestly would have been happy to believe she was horrified because she’d witnessed the savage fury with which I’d dispatched the living corpses. I would have been thrilled to believe that this was why she was looking at me as though I was a horrible monster.

She had a way of quickly composing her face after it had inadvertently expressed some negative, un-nymph-like emotion, but this time she only half-managed it. Turning back to Steff, she said, “Let’s go home.”

Steff gave me a look that was… well, I don’t know if it was pity, contempt, or confusion, then offered Amaranth her arm and headed back up the slope in the direction of the campus proper and of Harlowe Hall, or maybe of the Mechan circle, which after all would still be engaged in their bizarre lunar study.

I didn’t watch them go. It took me a long time to find my knife… specifically, long enough that I could be fairly sure that they’d made it at least as far as the hill where the circle had met.

Then, setting off around the base of the hill, I started my own unnecessarily long walk back to the residence hall I called home.


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2 Responses to “49: Wicked Mockeries”

  1. pedestrian says:

    It is the most gut-wrenching feeling of self-loathing, self-hatred, when I utterly failed the one person in the world I cared about the most.

    Current score: 1
  2. P says:

    Imagine if you failed everyone you cared about, and only realized how important it was to them after the fact. Imagine that that knowledge did not help you predict future expectations. This is an extremely well done story, however it is feeding all the negative parts of my psych. I don’t know how much more I can read. This may be too powerful a work for me to process right now. I will attempt completion.

    Current score: 6