The light of the morning sun peered over the distant mountains and massaged Irmieon’s eyes open. He groaned and raised his arm to cover his eyes, but it wasn’t long before ink started to drip onto his face. He growled and sat up.
Vox was gone. Or Vix. Or whatever he called himself. Regardless, he was gone.
Irmieon lay back down and tried to angle himself away from the direct sunlight, but only a few moments later an all too familiar grumbling came from his stomach. It had been days. He stood to his feet with a groan and looked over the edge of the roof. A light fog laced the town below, but beyond that, all was quiet. If he hurried he might just be able to find something to eat without encountering anyone.
He leapt from the roof and landed on the earth below with a thud. He stepped boldly from the shadow of the warehouse, emboldened by the fog and early morning. There were rarely any people around this area of town anyway. As he neared the heart of the village however, he began to see and hear signs of activity. When he saw the first silhouette of a person, he took to hugging the shadows again.
Now, where was his favorite bakery again?
A burst of masculine laughter came from the somewhere deeper in the fog. “And you expect me to believe that?”
Irmieon whipped his head in the direction of the voice and retreated in an alley. In the distance he could make out three figures. Two large, one much smaller.
“I swear,” came a feeble voice in response. “She let me go. If you could just point me to the nearest locksmith I’ll be–“
More laughter. “You hear that Pritz? She was let go. Collar still around her neck.”
One of the figures stepped closer to the smaller one, who flinched, but held her ground. “Enough nonsense.” His voice was grave and dark, a stark contrast to his mirthful friend who was still trying to control his chortles. “Where is your hunter?”
No response. Irmieon took a timid step from the alley to hear better.
In an instant, the large figure’s arm swung through the air and the girl fell to the ground with a cry, a loud smack echoing down the empty streets. “Your hunter. Where is she?”
The laughing man had fallen silent. “Hey Pritz, maybe that was…” He stopped immediately when the larger figure turned in his direction for a second.
The girl curled on the ground, her body shaking with quiet sobs.
“On your feet,” the man grabbed the chain that lay beside her and used it to yank her to her feet.
“Far as I see it, if the hunter let a perfectly good slave girl go, then she’s free game,” said the smaller man.
“Don’t be daft,” the larger man said. “These dogs are trained to smell out ghouls, and the ghouls come to kill ’em to stay hidden. You want to be defending yourself from ghouls on her account?”
The smaller man said nothing.
Irmieon stepped forward. Ghoul. That was what the pale-haired woman called him.
“I’ll ask you one more time. Where’s your hunter?”
The girl stood with her head hung low. “She let me go,” she whispered.
“I know a prize dog when I see one. I’m a local hunter, girl. Ain’t none of us have dogs. The regent brought in one of the best to take down the big one. You belong to her, don’t you?”
She said nothing.
The man raised his arm again, and the girl recoiled.
“She’s dead!” she cried out, staying his blow for a moment. But after a few seconds he grunted and struck her regardless, eliciting another cry.
“You lie! She died and you got out alive? I’m not buying it. You escaped. Where is the huntress?”
“Hey, Pritz. Who’s that over there?”
Both men turned to look in Irmieon’s direction. He froze. Without realizing he had been creeping closer. He still couldn’t make out their features through the fog, but it was clear they were looking at him.
“Hey you,” the large man called out. “You’d best get out of here if you know what’s good for you. This is Hunter’s Guild business.”
Irmieon didn’t move, lost in his thoughts. He could be very close to these people and didn’t have to fight himself. Was it the fog?
“What are you, deaf? I said to leave.” The large man grunted and shoved the young woman to the ground. “Stay there, or else,” he growled at her. He then turned back.
Irmieon grinned. Maybe he could try something. He took another deliberate step forward. Yes. Still no killing urge. Another step. Still gone. Incredible!
The large man drew a rod from beneath his cloak.
One more step and…
Uh oh. The facial features were visible now, and he felt a familiar burning beginning to grow in his chest.
“You’re a fool,” the large man said, igniting his rod with sparks.
“Uh, Pritz. What’s that?” The smaller man pointed at the ground beginning to stain black and white.
The girl on the ground gasped.
The larger man stepped back. “You’re the ghoul,” he whispered.
Irmieon growled and shook his head, clearing his mind.
“You were right, Pritz! It came for her. We have to get out of here.”
The large man looked from Irmieon to the girl on the ground. He grunted and started backing away. “I’m not risking my life for another hunter’s dog. Let’s go.” They continued backing away until the fog hid them both from sight.
Irmieon heard a clink and caught movement out of the corner of his eye. The girl trying to inch away on all fours. She winced at the sound, and froze. Neither of them moved. After a minute she slowly stood to her feet.
Without a word she too backed away, and once she was a small distance away, she broke into a run, heading back in the direction of the warehouse.
She was running. From him.
Instincts hammered into him from childhood began to surface again.
When they are outmatched, they will run.
When they run, they are prey.
The ghost of Master hovered of his mind.
Kill your prey.
Irmieon shut his eyes and violently shook his head, fighting to keep control, but the receding sound of footsteps resounded in his ears.
His coherency faded.
And his legs were moving.
He was after her.
She looked behind her and screamed, picking up her pace.
Irmieon stopped short and hunched over, staring at the ground. Her scream. Asha.
But the footsteps.
He howled and pounded the ground with his fists. The instincts were not leaving.
No. They were growing stronger.
And he was gone again.
He looked up with a snarl, and saw the last of the girl’s fading silhouette in the fog. He pushed himself to his feet and followed.
The chase led him back to the warehouse, and he burst through the swaying door. There she was, frantically searching through the pale-haired lady’s pockets searching for something. She turned at his entrance and stumbled backward with a scream.
Once again, her scream reached into the deep recesses of his mind, and his will broke through his curse. He dropped to his knees and clutched his head.
“No!” He yelled. “No more kill!” He wrapped his arms around himself and brought his forehead to the dusty ground.
A few moments of silence passed, and Irmieon’s breathing became less erratic and heavy. Tears slipped from his eyes, and he looked up at the trembling girl, who hadn’t moved an inch.
“Help.” He said, his shoulders shaking.
She said nothing.
He lowered his head again, feeling a wetness as it touched the ink pooling around his body.
Noise. The girl was making noise. But he didn’t care. He continued to cry until a loud click and clatter echoed through the warehouse. He looked up to see the metal collar on her neck had been unclasped and fallen to the ground, a small key in the hole.
The girl’s neck was raw and scabbed in many places. She looked at him and at the door behind him that he was blocking.
“Help,” he repeated.
“What?” she squeaked.
“I can’t help you,” she said in a voice barely above a breath.
Irmieon lowered his gaze. “Will not kill.”
This gave her pause. “You’re going to kill me if I don’t help you?” she asked after a time.
Irmieon shook his head. “No kill.”
Another moment of silence passed, and the girl took the opportunity to begin to circle him in a wide arc, inching closer to the doorway. “I can’t,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She approached him and was about to squeeze past him to the exit when a faint, familiar voice caught their attention.
“There! They went in there.”
“The hunter!” The girl whispered.
Irmieon shot up. People. He could hear many, many people.
The girl hung her head and began to cry again. “What did I do to deserve this hell?”
Irmieon looked from the girl to the door and back. The man had beat her several times. Maybe he could…help.
Without wasting another moment, Irmieon took the girl by the waist, causing her to scream in response. He ignored it and effortlessly lifted her off her feet and ran underneath the loft. With a single bound, he leapt atop the landing where he had hidden from the huntress just last night. He released the girl who was struggling to break free, and hunkered down in the shadows.
The girl was about to scramble away from him, when four men burst through the door below. She bit her lip and dropped to her stomach, peering through the railing slats.
“You hear that scream? She’s in here.” The large man started forward but stopped short as he stepped into the puddle of fresh ink Irmieon had left behind near the entrance.
“My god. That’s so much,” another man said. “More than one ghoul could produce, surely.”
“Quiet!” Pritz said. He ignited the rod in his hand and it hummed to life. He continued forward and grunted when he noticed the corpse of the light-haired woman. “I’ll be damned. The dog was right.” He reached down and picked up the collar and chain that had been around the girl’s neck. “And now she’s free.”
“Maybe she worked with the ghoul,” one man suggested.
Pritz shook his head. “Ghouls would sooner kill a dog than work with one. They’re not in their right mind.” He turned abruptly toward them. “But enough chatter. That scream says she’s probably still in here. Spread out and find her. If you find the ghoul, well, survive long enough for the rest of us to reach you. Don’t get cocky. This thing took down a prestigious huntress.”
The four men split up and searched the warehouse, grimacing at the ink that coated every crevice of the place. All four had humming rods in their hands, and would use the eerie light emanating from it to check dark corners.
Irmieon flinched as the girl beside him squeaked. The pooling ink beneath his arms was beginning to drip through the uneven boards they crouched on. The first drops to hit the ground beneath them seemed to thunder across the walls.
Pritz stopped, and looked in their direction. He eyed the steady stream of ink beginning to fall from the loft and after a moment, gave a quick, sharp whistle. The other hunters stopped what they were during and started making their way toward their leader.
The girl stopped breathing as all four men gathered beside the ladder to the loft, weapons raised. Irmieon didn’t dare look anymore at either the girl, nor the men. Being in such close proximity to five people would be too much to bare.
All of a sudden, there was a violent shake in the loft, and the far back corner sagged down several feet. Bracing his mind, Irmieon peered through a hole underneath him, and saw Pritz had given a heavy kick to one of the rotting support beams below them. He walked to the next one and grunted, his boot colliding with the already splintering wood. Another violent lurch, and the loft started to sway from side to side. The girl gasped, causing everyone in the room to freeze.
The men increased the hum of their rods. One stepped back and positioned himself between the loft and the exit. The other two didn’t take their eyes off of the dark landing as Pritz went to a third support beam.
Irmieon didn’t wait a second longer. He sprang up and snatched the girl by her wrist from her hiding place, a pained cry coming from her throat. The hunters below readied themselves at his appearance. Pritz eyed them both for a moment before breaking into a run to the third beam, but no sooner had he caved it in than Irmieon leapt up from the rickety landing and grabbed the hole in the ceiling with his free hand.
The loft collapsed below them, and Irmieon lost vision of the hunters below in the ensuing cascade of dust. He pulled himself onto the roof with the girl, who was viciously biting her lip. Her bare shoulder looked strange. Like it had come out of where it should have been. But he didn’t have time to think of that now.
Irmieon released her wrist and once again took her by her clothed waist. Without waiting to see what became of the hunters below, he leapt from the roof and sprinted into the fog.