(TL : DNR Version: Control+F, skip to second '****' cutoff)
The Strung Wolf tavern was lively that night. All of the old, rickety chairs were straining under the weight of one or more patrons - most of them stocky day-labourers and juveniles - and the tables were surrounded by groups of ten or more people. The aging bartender was busying himself, spitting into the pots and pitchers and drying them with an old rag. Drying mud and old faeces had piled around the corners of the small, creaky tavern.
Tomas pushed the splintering door open. The smell of spoiled ale, unwashed socks and putrefying bile stung his nose. He coughed as he stepped inside, holding his hand over his nose. The Strung Wolf was, without a doubt in his mind, the worst tavern he had seen.
“Divines,” Septimus gagged, shielding his watering eyes with the shoulder plate of his bronze manica, “I’ve never seen a more god-forsaken place.”
Azir brought his silk scarf to his black nose. “De smell 'n 'ere ma gag a 'orse-man.”
Tomas coughed again. He weaved between a man sculling his tankard of ale and a plump, pox-ridden serving wench. People around him were shouting louder and louder, trying to hear each other over everyone else. He stepped over a woman who had passed out on the floor and ducked under a fat, cock-eyed man who was waving his arms about, belting out a badly pronounced parody of an Imperial marching anthem in his thick, grating voice.
Tomas looked towards Septimus. Septimus’ knuckles had turned white through his studded cestus and his eyebrows were locked so tight that the skin around his bald head revealed the bludgeoning of a loboan club. It was one thing to insult a retired Centurion face to face, but attacking the very pride of the Imperium was like signing their death-sentence. The man’s hand flailed about as he lost his balance. Septimus subtly caught a tail of the drunk's coat and pulled him off the table with a slight tug. The people gathered around the table laughed as they raised their tankards. Septimus wiped his hand on his dark red tunic, giving Tomas a satisfied nod.
Tomas turned his gaze forward. A stocky old man with a stringy, untamed beard stumbled out in front of him, spilling his ale. “Watch out, ya idjit,” he slurred, pushing Tomas back. Septimus stepped out of the way and caught Tomas with his armoured hand. “I’ma walkin’ ‘ere.”
Septimus pushed past Tomas. He glared at the old man, bringing his bronze-clad arm up just high enough for the drunk to see it. The old man furrowed his white brow but slowly backed away, his near-toothless mouth hung wide open.
Azir scoffed, ducking under a flailing arm. “Me not be tinkin’ no glass-eyes be comin’ ‘ere soon.”
Septimus raised his hand. “Here,” he said, turning towards the bar. “Let’s get a room. The sooner we're done here, the better.”
Tomas nodded to himself as he stumbled over another fallen body. This place was the sort to attract all kinds of bad people. He pushed way one of the comatose women at the bar, thumping against the counter. “Excuse me,” he shouted over the commotion. “Excuse me!”
The haggard bartender looked up from his place at the caskets. He cupped a hand around his ear and cocked his head towards Tomas. Tomas shouted again. The bartender waddled over to the newcomers. He held his hand over his ear again and leaned towards Tomas.
“Excuse me!” Tomas yelled as loud as he could manage.
“No need to shout, son,” the bartender bellowed, still holding his hand over his ear. “What can I do for you?”
“We want a room, four separate beds,” Tomas replied.
“A broom for more desperate deaths?” asked the bartender, bewildered.
“A room,” Tomas yelled.
“No grooms here, son,” replied the bartender, shaking his head.
A young woman with tanned skin, black hair that was styled into an outward curling bob and ochre eyes pushed the old bartender away. An ugly scar streaked across her right cheek. She pulled a few strands of her lush hair out of the way, revealing furred and pointed ears in place of human ones.
“Evening, gentlemen” she said sweetly, slightly lisping her words from behind her canine fangs. Septimus spat on the rotting wooden floor, growling at the woman. Azir swat a flying tankard out of the air, fixing a spiteful glare on the loboan. “What can I do for you?” she asked.
“Hi,” Tomas said, smiling at the loboan woman. “We need a room for the night, four beds, please,” he replied.
The loboan’s long, black tail flicked out from behind her red smock. “We have a room now if you want it. Five aurum each.”
Tomas dug into his coat pocket. He fished out four five-piece coins and dropped them into the loboan’s slender hand. Two of the coins skipped out of her hand and bounced off of the counter towards the grimy floor. Tomas’ left hand shot out and caught the coins between his three remaining fingers. The loboan’s soft lips stretched into an amused yet impressed smile. Tomas let the coins slip into the loboan’s hands.
The loboan reached under the counter and produced a battered, rusty key from underneath the woodwork. She gracefully twisted the key about in her hand before pressing it into Tomas’ hand. “Upstairs, first on the right,” she said, her soft fingers stroking Tomas’ palm.
Tomas nodded. "Thanks," he said as he closed his hand around the key. The loboan retracted her delicate hand as she licked her supple lips.
Tomas cleared his throat, nodding to the staircase. Septimus and Azir glowered at the loboan as they left. Tomas stepped around another crowded table and walked up the stairs. He slid the key into the old lock and pushed the door open. The room was spacious in comparison to the tavern below. Four small beds were lined up against the wall, each covered with a single mucous green quilt and a bleach and sweat stained pillow. A small chest sat at the foot of each bed, with a small vanity tucked away in the corner.
Septimus pushed past Tomas. He unlatched his gladius from his side and tossed it onto the furthest bed from the door. He then began at the buckles on his manica, pulling the leather straps out as he walked.
"I and I’s smellin' be better now," said Azir, pulling out the pin keeping his dreadlocks tied behind his head. He slid his backpack off of his shoulders and laid it on top of a chest.
Tomas stepped inside. He unclipped his haversack and tossed it to the furthest bed. He flopped on top of the nearest mattress, not bothering to kick off his dusty boots. The mattress was squeaky and somewhat stiff, but it was not as bad as others Tomas had slept on. Azir waved his hand. The door closed behind a rush of air. The uproar downstairs could still be heard from behind the door and through the cracks in the buckling floor-boards.
Septimus’ manica fell on top of the wooden chest with a loud clunk. "We leave at first light," he said, drawing his gladius with a quick flourish, "less chance of varcolacs in the early morning."
"I an' I be sayin' sun-up," replied Azir, resting his head on the pillow.
Tomas slid his hands under his head. "Sunrise it is," he said, resigned. "Better turn in early then."
There was a loud knock at the door. Tomas pulled his revolver out from his battered duster and carefully pried the door open just a crack. "Who is it?" he asked, thumbing the hammer back. Septimus slowly tugged a plumbata from his belt. Azir clicked his fingers. A cluster of glass shards fluttered out of his backpack.
A warm, sweet smell of herbs and pastry tickled Tomas' nose. "Just me," said a familiar, lisping voice. "I brought you dinner."
Tomas furrowed his eyebrows. "We didn't order anything," he replied, leveling the pistol against the door. Septimus edged closer to the door, fiercely gripping his sword. Azir directed the sharpest ends of the glass towards the door.
"Compliments of Monty and myself," said the voice. "Freshly baked pie, straight from the oven."
Tomas' stomach growled. He rocked his head back and forth. Something nagged at him not to trust the loboan, to keep his guard up. He banished the thoughts from his mind. He nodded to Azir and Septimus, sliding his revolver back into his coat. He splayed his fingers around towards Azir and Septimus. Azir redirected the shards towards Septimus. Septimus flourished his blade, cutting some of the glass shards out of the air.
"Come in," he said as he pulled the door open.
The loboan walked into the small room, carrying a large wooden platter laden with small eating boards, a neatly sliced meat pie and clean cutlery. She carefully laid the platter down on the chest at the foot of Tomas' bed and fitted the pieces of pie onto the small boards. Tomas swung his legs over the edge of the bed, pushing himself onto his feet.
"Dat be de smell o' sweet honey," Azir dribbled, launching another shard towards Septimus.
The loboan smiled, flashing her canines. "Gracias," she replied. "Though you should really try them first."
Septimus angled the blade away, deflecting the glass bolt onto his quilt. "I can't it smell over the filth below," he grunted.
The loboan ignored him as she brought the platter to the beds. Tomas grabbed a slice of pie from his board. The aroma was rich in flavour, causing his mouth to water. He bit off the neat point of the pie. The gravy had a slight herbal edge to the taste, but was just the right consistency and texture. The meat was tender and juicy, further enriching the flavour. Tomas raised his eyebrows as he chewed. The drunken cesspit he had seen in the tavern downstairs had belied the loboan's ability with food.
"Damn," he said, cocking his eyebrow. Tomas raised his pie to the loboan. "You have a way with food, Miss..."
"Valentia," she purred. "Mi papi taught me when I was young."
Tomas brushed his hand against his coat. “Tomas,” he said cheerfully, extending his hand to Valentia.
Valentia gracefully took Tomas’ hand and kissed his knuckles, her silken lips tickling his skin. “Pleasure.”
Something crashed in the tavern. Valentia’s ears fluttered. “Excuse me. The tavern needs my attention,” she said, disappointed. She turned around, swaying her hips as she walked out of the room. Tomas watched hungrily as he watched Valentia leave and close the door behind her. Was she trying to flirt with us, he thought. He shook his head as he took another bite from his pie.
A loud crunch sounded over the roar of the patrons downstairs. Septimus grunted, raising a thick eyebrow. "Don't normally hold well with foreign food, especially loboan slop," he remarked, gravy dribbling down his chin. "But this pie – it could be worse." Septimus swallowed the last of his pie in one gulp. He reached out for the last slice of the succulent pie.
Azir quickly snatched the pastry off the platter. "Save some pie for I an' I!" he said as he stuffed the pie into his mouth, spraying pastry bits over his quilt. Septimus glowered at Azir. Azir met his gaze as he mockingly took another bite of the pie. For two guys that couldn’t stand the sight of her, Tomas thought idly, they won’t pass up free food. He yawned as he dropped his slice of pie onto the platter.
"Pipe down you three," he said, resigned, as he kicked his boots off. "I want my forty winks."
"Nos mos subsido is laxus, barbarus," Septimus growled, taking Tomas' slice for himself.
Tomas sighed as relaxed into the bed. His thoughts hovered on Valentia - her smile, her soothing voice, her lush hair, everything a loboan or even a normal human shouldn't be. Just thinking about her sent shivers down Tomas' spine. His eyes had started to feel heavy. It had been a long walk from Aile to Touk. Tomas closed his eyes, laying his head on the stained pillow. Valentia's beautiful body appeared in his mind, wearing her red smock. She was a dazzling sight with nothing left around her. She slowly stepped forwards, walking towards Tomas. She reached out with a delicate hand and stroked Tomas' thick sideburns. Tomas' heart skipped a beat.
Suddenly, Valentia's jaw snapped open. She pulled him towards her and sank her elongated canines into his tender neck.
Tomas bolted upright in his bed. He clutched his neck, gasping for air. He slowly massaged the flesh where Valentia had bit him. No holes marked his neck, no blood on his clothes or skin. Just a dream, he thought to himself.
Tomas swung his legs over the edge of the bed, rubbing the grit from his eyes. He looked around the room. It was empty. The beds were neatly made and the equipment scattered over the chests and beds were gone. Septimus and Azir had already left the room.
Tomas’ dream slunk back into his mind. His thoughts hovered over the last few seconds of his dream. Did he receive a vision? No, he thought, I'm not a priest. He remembered eating something before drifting off to sleep. He furrowed his eyebrows. The pie, he thought. He stopped himself. He and the others had been walking from dawn the previous day until late last night. His mind fixed on the thought of exhaustion. Tomas laughed, rubbing his thick, black sideburns on his face. “Yeah…" He paused. The sideburns felt thicker, and the skin underneath felt slightly hotter. He shook his head. "Yeah, could’ve been that.”
Tomas pried his coat open. His revolver sat in its shoulder-holster, still loaded with the bullets he had purchased months ago. He quickly ran his fingers through his short, jet black hair and mutton-chops, flaring them out to add some age to his youthful face. He drew in a sharp breath as he stepped out the door, quashing all remaining thoughts on the dream. It was nothing, he told himself.
Tomas closed the door behind him, locking it with the rusty key. He quickly stepped down the stairs, his haversack thumping against his back. The pub was deserted. Hardly anyone sat around the tables or at the counter; only one or two people around a sparse few tables. Most of the rancid smell and grime had vanished with the people.
Valentia was behind the bar counter, wearing a rose-red frock. She looked up from the counter. She smiled coyly as she gave a petite wave, her canine ears fluttering about. Tomas’ chest tightened. Valentia licked her lips. Tomas’ cheeks reddened. He cleared his throat, forcing himself to look away from Valentia. She was flirting with him. But what's so special about me? he wondered. I thought she'd be going more towards Septimus. Tomas drew a deep breath. He rubbed his eyes as he walked towards the door. It's probably nothing, he told himself.
“Tomas,” said Valentia. Tomas slowly turned around. Valentia was smiling. She flicked her tail. Her ochre eyes were fixated on him like a hungry predator. “Come here.”
Tomas gulped. He edged himself towards her. He could feel his neck burning where she had bit him. His stomach lurched. Deep down, his instincts told him to stay away from her, to just turn around and leave. He forced them down, slipping his shaking hand into his coat pocket. He looked up, licking his parched lips. Valentia was standing before him behind the counter, her tail swaying from side to side.
“I made you something,” she said sweetly. “For the road.” She reached under the counter and pulled a small, folded linen bag from underneath the counter. A sweet smell drifted up from the folds of the linen. Tomas carefully pulled the leather strap from the linen. The linen fell open. Salted and corned meat slices fell against the fabric. The savoury scent tickled Tomas’ nose.
Tomas chuckled, relaxing. “Thank you, Valentia,” he said warmly, folding the linen back over the meat cutlets.
“You’re welcome, Tomas,” she said with a wink. “Just come back through sometime, okay? It gets pretty boring sometimes.”
Tomas smiled. “We’ll try if we can,” he replied, tying the ends of the linen.
Valentia licked her lips. “I hope it’s soon.” Tomas glanced up, raising his eyebrows. “You three were the first visitors in years,” she continued, meeting his eyes. Tomas’ heart thudded in his chest. He felt her soft fingertips brush up against his knuckles. The instincts returned harder, telling him to turn and run, to get as far away from Valentia as possible.
The door swung open, slamming against the wall.
“We’re burning daylight, Republican,” Septimus said sternly, the light of the rising sun reflecting off of his polished manica. Valentia glared at Septimus, narrowing her eyes in annoyance. Septimus folded his arms, returning a menacing scowl.
Tomas cleared his throat. “I-I’d better go,” he said, fitting the bag of cutlets into his haversack. “See you soon, I hope.”
Valentia smiled. “I’ll be waiting, mi amor,” she purred, batting her long eyelashes.
Tomas turned on his heels and stepped past Septimus. Azir was standing at the centre of the crossroads, idly weaving a thread of sparks through his fingers. Septimus let the door slam behind him. Tomas felt Septimus’ armoured hand slap against his chest as they reached the others.
“Did she just call you ‘my love’?” he asked, his voice low but curious.
Tomas shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t speak Santiago.”
Azir’s drew a sharp breath of air through his nose. “I and I be smellin’ 'oney-cookin’,” he said excitedly.
Tomas nodded, patting the side of his haversack. “Valentia cooked us a side of corned beef,” he said.
“First names, too?” Septimus grunted. “Sounds like the dog found a master.”
Tomas glowered at Septimus. “Hey,” he said, folding his arms, “back off. It’s not like that.”
“The Parthenon’s teachings are clear about them, Tomas,” replied Septimus, gripping the handle of his gladius.
Tomas shook his head. “I know.” He huffed. Heretics, abominations, killers, savages – demonic – were the words they had used. “Gods, I don’t know. Probably likes the ‘chops or something, but I don’t think she’d be desperate to throw herself at me.”
Septimus snorted. “Fitting if she were a whore. It suits her misbegotten kind.”
Azir grunted. “I an’ I be saying she be devil-'ore.”
“Hey, enough with the insults, guys,” Tomas snapped. “She’s a person for Divines’-sakes.”
Septimus glowered at Tomas. “Republican fool,” he grumbled, shaking his bald head.
“Imperial zealot,” Tomas muttered.
Septimus hovered for a moment. He then grunted as he turned down the gravel track. Azir fell into step beside him, eyeing Tomas suspiciously. Tomas shrugged as he trailed off behind the others. No one spoke.
The path soon trailed off into the foreboding trees of Blackpine. The thick canopy had blocked off most of the sunlight. A permanent mist had settled around the floor. The gnarled, black trees themselves took an eerie visage. Some of the markings and twists on the trees took the image of screaming human faces. Others took the shape of sinister sigils and markings of the Fallen. The sight sent shivers down Tomas’ spine.
Tomas’ stomach gurgled. He had woken up so late that he missed out on breakfast. He forgot his surroundings as he opened his haversack and retrieved the small bag of corned meat. He pulled the tender cutlet from the unwrapped bag and shoved it into his mouth. The meat was as well seasoned and as tender as the meat in the pie. Tomas pulled another cutlet from the linen and swallowed it whole.
Azir reached for the tender cutlets. Tomas quickly pulled them away. “Piss off,” he snapped, rifling through the meat like a madman. “This is my brekkie.”
“But I an’ I be ‘ungry,” he replied, still reaching for the linen.
“You should have thought of that before you started badmouthing Valentia,” Tomas retorted as he swallowed his mouthful and peeled the last cutlet from the bag. Azir groaned.
Tomas dropped the cutlet into his mouth and chewed noisily. His teeth caught something thin but hard. Bit of gristle, he wondered. No, it’s too hard. Tomas reached into his mouth and plucked the hard thing from his teeth. The scaly thing was as big as his knuckle but thin as a few sheets of paper. He rubbed it a bit, clearing some of the half chewed meat away. Tomas’ stomach heaved. It was a human toenail.
A twig snapped in the bushes. Septimus’ gladius cleared its sheath. Azir's hands were wreathed in a blue flame. Tomas retched as he struggled to his feet. A hulking, black furred figure leapt from the gnarled tree-line. It was nearly the size of two men and was as half as wide. It snarled at Septimus, flourishing its claws.
“Varcolac!” Septimus yelled as he rushed forwards. The Varcolac growled lowly as the gladius scraped its arm. It quickly caught Septimus’ return swipe. It leant down and locked its huge jaws around Septimus’ throat. Septimus gurgled and choked as the Varcolac tossed him away.
Azir mashed his hands together. A jet of blue fire lashed out towards the Varcolac. The Varcolac skipped out of the way, the flames singing the fur on its paw-hands. Azir quickly lifted his hands towards a weak tree trunk. The wood crushed under an invisible force, sending splinters pelting into the ground underneath. The tree heaved and finally collapsed towards the Varcolac. The Varcolac bounced away as the trunk slammed onto the ground. It reared up and pounced on Azir, raking its black claws across his throat. Dark red blood rushed out of Azir's neck and stained his thick dread-locks.
Tomas reached inside of his duster with his weak arms. His numb fingers fumbled with the heavy gun. The Varcolac sauntered over to him on all fours. Tomas fell onto his back, feebly pushing himself away. The Varcolac pressed its mighty forepaw against Tomas’ chest, pinning him to the ground. Tomas struggled but he couldn’t get free.
The Varcolac leant down beside him. It brought a heavy paw against his face and hammered his head into the ground. The world around Tomas spiralled and darkened around him as he slipped from his senses.
The last thing Tomas saw was the Varcolac's savage, bloodied grin.
Tomas gasped. His arms felt as if they were burning, and a headache was pounding inside of his skull. Pain, he thought. That’s good. I’m alive. He blinked away the water in his eyes. He saw a solid, well-built roof overhead. A large vanity was tucked away in a corner of the room with a dimly lit lantern hanging from a hook on the edge, burning against the light of the sun streaming in through two large, spotless windows. Small dressers and hanging posts were placed around the room, hanging neatly cleaned and ironed dresses.
The savoury, metallic smell of various meats trailed into the room, mixed with the scents of various perfumes ranging from lavender to vanilla. The surface beneath him was soft and very cosy; a quality mattress compared to the ones at the tavern. Tomas tilted his head to see his wrists and ankles tied to the bed posts with linen stained in sweet-smelling oils. He looked down at his chest. His duster and shirt were gone. "I have to get out of here," he said to himself. He tugged against the linen. The material was too strong, and his hands were too tightly bound.
“All the wolves hunt and howl,” a woman with a slight lisp sung cheerfully, “the pack draws near.” The welching sound of a cleaver carving through meat pierced Tomas’ ears. "Silence grips the deer. The hunt goes ever on and on."
Someone groaned. The singing stopped. “Morir!” screeched the voice, beating the other person with a heavy bludgeon. The other person screamed in time with the weighty blows. Tomas whimpered as he tugged against the linen. The bed post creaked a little. The screaming stopped. Tomas tugged as hard as he could against the linen. Another heavy thud sounded out from beyond the door. The sound of scraping sound of metal on ceramic came through the wood work. He could hear footsteps coming from the hall towards him. Tomas froze as the footsteps stopped.
A feminine, heart-shaped face with ochre eyes and beautifully tanned skin peered out of the door way. She had short and wavy black hair styled into an outward-curling bob and a pair of ashen canine ears poking out of the side of her head. She smiled, flashing her slightly bloodied canine fangs.
“Mi amor,” Valentia whispered as she daintily stepped into the simple bedroom, carrying a small plate of meats. Her black tail swayed lightly underneath her white shift, its bloodied tassels pronouncing her slender thighs. Tomas gulped, gasping for air. His body froze.
Valentia softly shushed him as she knelt beside the large bed, laying the ceramic plate on top of a flat-lid chest at the foot of the bed. Tomas' heart pounded against his chest, threatening to shatter his ribs. Valentia softly stroked Tomas' sweating forehead, brushing her fingers against the fringe of his short hair. Tomas shut his eyes.
"It's okay," she whispered tenderly, brushing her lips against Tomas' neck. "I am here, mi amor."
"S-Stop calling m-me that," Tomas croaked, opening his eyes a little.
Valentia stroked his chin. "What's wrong?"
"Where am I?" he asked, his voice wavering.
Valentia pecked Tomas on the cheek. "You're home."
"Th-the varcolac, wh - "
Valentia shushed him, laying a slender finger over Tomas' lips. "You're okay," she whispered in his ear. "I would never hurt you."
Tomas' eyes widened and his jaw fell open. "I-I-It was you," he choked. The ambush flooded into his mind. Azir was lying on the ground with his throat torn out and his blood soaking his dreadlocks, and Septimus' neck had broken in two from the bite.
Valentia looked away. "I'm sorry, mi amor," she mumbled. "But they would have kept us apart." She scratched the back of her ear. "I heard what they said last night. I know what they would have done to keep you from me." She returned her gaze to him. A joyful tear rolled off of her cheek. "But you were kind to me. You loved me. You didn't try to fight when I came for you."
"Y-You didn't need to kill them." Tomas retorted.
Valentia shook her head. "They would have stopped me. They tried to kill me."
"They were just scared," he shot back, conviction returning to his voice.
"I wouldn't have hurt them if they'd just let me take you," she replied soothingly, stroking Tomas' bare chest. "I love you, Tomas. I want to be with you." Valentia sat on top of the bed, her soft tail slapping wildly against Tomas' legs. "Your voice, your body, your scent, your..." she paused, her cheeks glowing red. "Kindness. I know my love is for you, Tomas."
"I never loved you," he whispered.
Valentia looked up, hurt. "I know you were looking at me. I knew where you were looking." She stroked Tomas' sideburns. "I didn't mind because I knew you loved me. I want to love you, too."
Tomas clenched his jaw. He tugged against his bindings. It was still too strong for him to break. Valentia laid her head on his chest, her hair tickling his skin.
"If you love me," he mouthed.
Valentia perked her head up and tilted it to the side. "Mm?"
"If you love me," said Tomas, more steadily and sure of himself, "cut me loose."
"I do love you," Valentia replied, kissing Tomas on the chin. "But I want you to be safe here." She took his left hand, tenderly stroking the lump of pink scar-tissue where his little finger had once been. “You’ve already been hurt by the world. I want to know that you'll be safe, mi amor.”
"I did that to myself," he retorted, raising his voice. "I was drunk and I played a game of five-fingers."
Valentia's ears drooped. "A-and the gun?"
"Self-defence," he replied quickly, regaining momentum. "Ruskalova Roulette wasn't something I planned on playing any time soon. Please, just let me go."
Valentia shook her head. "No, I don't want you hurting yourself again. And there's so much outside that'd hurt you."
"Prove that you love me," he said, licking his dry lips. "Cut me loose."
"I do love you," she said, stroking his cheeks. "It's just for a bit. You're still so weak." She reached for the plate on top of the chest. She peeled a strip of tender meat away from the plate. "Eat," she beckoned, holding the meat above his mouth. "You'll be stronger."
Tomas saw a large mass of scar-tissue covering the skin of the meat, streaking through a rough tattoo of a faded, naked Mit'hari woman sitting on a shield boss. The meat had been carved from Septimus' arms. He shook his head. "No," he gurgled, "I'm not eating my friends."
Valentia's jaw quavered. "Just this little bit," she protested, dangling the strip of meat. Her eyes and ears drooped. "Please. I've already eaten."
Tomas' stomach lurched. He looked past the meat from Septimus' arm and looked at Valentia. Most of the scar that had on her face had been replaced with smooth, tanned skin, with the last stretch nothing more than a thin, white line.
"Th-the scar..." he stammered.
Valentia smiled, her ears perking up. "You noticed?" she asked cheerfully. She opened her wide mouth and swallowed the strip of meat whole. Valentia licked the tips of her fingers. The last of the scar had melted into her smooth skin.
"That's how you... By eating others!?" Tomas cried.
Valentia ignored him. She looked at the meat, then back to Tomas. "Ah," she said with a flick of her tail. "Maybe something cooked will change your mind." She raced out of the bedroom, carrying the plate of human meat with her.
Tomas struggled against his bindings, tugging and pulling as hard as he could. He curled his fists as he pulled, his knuckles turning as white as chalk. Something bit into his flesh. He looked up to his hand and unclenched it. Black, scythed claws were protruding from his fingertips. Tomas glanced over to his other hand. Thick claws had replaced his neatly trimmed nails. He tried to look down at his feet when he noticed a light, ashen black fuzz on the top of his nose. Tomas panicked. He whimpered as he tugged against the bindings again, harder than before.
Valentia came back into the room with a slice of pie on a clean ceramic plate. She gasped as she raced over to Tomas, sliding the plate onto a small dresser as she crossed the room. Tomas shut his eyes as Valentia stopped beside him.
"Shh, it's okay, it's okay," Valentia whispered, cradling Tomas' head as if he were a child.
"W-what did you..." he choked.
Valentia shushed him, laying her slender finger on Tomas' mouth. "You're stronger than before," she replied. She leaned forwards, brushing her nose against his ear. "You're much stronger and beautiful now than when we first met."
Tomas shook his head. "No. No, I don't want this."
Valentia shushed him again. "You're just scared, mi amor. Don't be." She stroked Tomas' fuzzy nose with her thumb. The touch was calming, even enjoyable to Tomas. No, I don't want this. I have to get out, he thought, reasserting control.
"Just let me go, Valentia," he said as she leaned back.
She shook her head. "Not until I know that you're strong enough," she said.
Tomas cursed in his mind. He couldn't panic now. It would just keep him trapped for longer. He looked past Valentia's white shift. The pie she had brought in was still on the dresser. A wild idea came into his head.
"Valentia," he said softly.
"Si?" she replied.
"If you untie me," he said as calmly as he could manage, "I'll eat the pie. I'll become stronger for you."
Valentia's lips stretched into a broad grin. "You will?" she asked, her tail beating against the bed.
Tomas nodded quickly. "I promise."
"Oh, gracias, mi amor," she said excitedly, pecking Tomas on the cheek.
Valentia grabbed the linen bindings around Tomas' legs. She effortlessly ripped them both in two. She clambered on top of the bed and tore the last of the linen holding Tomas to the bed. She pulled him to his feet, holding him closely by the waist. Tomas' legs wobbled as he struggled to gain balance on his legs. She grabbed one of his wrists and led him over to the plate. She reached down to the slice of pie.
"Wait," he said, facing Valentia. Valentia tilted her head. I've got a chance, he thought to himself. "Kiss me."
Valentia's ears fluttered. "Eat first," she whispered, stroking the back of Tomas' head.
"I want a kiss first," Tomas whined. "I promise I'll eat after."
Valentia giggled. "Alright then, mi amor."
Tomas stroked Valentia's chin. He leaned forwards, closing his eyes. Valentia's soft lips met his. Tomas could taste the metallic blood of his friends on her tongue. He fought the urge to gag as his stomach rebelled against him. He opened his eyes and broke away from the kiss. Valentia was gasping for air. Her cheeks were as red as cherries and her tail was bashing the side of the mattress.
"Now," he said to himself.
Tomas grunted as he slammed his forehead against Valentia's nose. She squealed as her head snapped back. Tomas quickly grabbed Valentia's shoulders and pushed her onto the bed. He raced out of the bedroom as fast as his weak feet could allow. He slammed the door shut and rushed down the hall and into the kitchen. Arms, legs, torsos and flayed human heads were hung from butcher's hooks pinned against the ceiling. Blood from the limbs dripped into a set of rusting iron buckets on the bench below. A bald, pale Thryndon man was sprawled out across the main table. Meat-filled puffs, pies, and other pastries were neatly stacked on top of shelves and in open cupboards away from the drying meat. Tomas' stomach heaved again.
"Tomas!" shrieked Valentia as the bedroom door slammed against the woodwork. Tomas peered over his shoulder. Valentia was standing at the doorway to her bedroom with a slight hunch. The lime green shreds of the ripped quilts were spread out across the wooden floor. She growled like a rabid animal as she stormed through the hall.
Tomas pushed past the table and out of the kitchen. He came into a spacious living room with a simple leather couch and a fireplace with shelves and bookcases pressed against the thick walls. Glass jars containing teeth, toenails and knuckles were stacked on top of the woodwork. Some of the contents of the jars were still coated in blood and other sticky fluids.
"Come back here!" Valentia snarled as she thumped through the kitchen. Tomas grabbed a bookcase and pulled it across the floor. He dashed out of the room and into a hall. A large door beside two clean windows was at the end of the hall. He sprinted across the long, narrow hall as fast as his legs could carry him. He reached out for the door knob with grasping fingers. He was just hairs away from the cool bronze when a pair of small hands gripped his shoulders and yanked him away.
Valentia threw Tomas against a wall. Tomas groaned as he tried to push himself to his feet. Valentia sauntered over to him, her back hunched and her mouth covered in foam. She raised her hand and slapped Tomas across the face, knocking a tooth from his mouth. She grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and forced him down the narrow hall. She led him back through the lounge area, over the scattered bones and appendage and on top of the fallen bookcase. There was a small alcove in the wall, dimly lit by a dirty lantern. Bloodied stairs lead down through the dark alcove. The smell of rotting corpses and excrement rose from the darkness.
Tomas panicked. He thrashed about and pushed back as hard as his tired body could. Valentia snapped at him and tightened her grip around his neck, drawing blood. She pushed him down the stairs and around a tight corner. Tomas' feet squelched against a thick, red fluid on the floor. Skeletons and rotted bodies were strewn about the room, their faces locked in a permanent state of anguish. In the darkest corner was a stone slab with iron-cuffs bolted into the corners.
Valentia rammed Tomas into the stone slab. Tomas rebounded off of the slab, his head swimming in circles. Valentia spun him around and slapped him again, knocking another tooth out of his mouth. She pushed him against the slab and shackled the cuffs around his wrists.
"I loved you," she spat, blood and spittle dribbling out of her mouth. "I thought you were different from all of them."
"Please, stop!" Tomas begged.
"I did this, all of this, for you," she snapped, raking her nails across Tomas' chest. Tomas grunted, clenching his jaw. "We could have been happy. We could have been together!"
Tomas closed his eyes. "Please, Valentia. Stop."
Valentia growled, her chest heaving. "Was everything for nothing? I killed and ate to make myself beautiful enough for you, to make you stronger, beautiful! And for what!?" She grabbed Tomas' face and pried his eyes open.
"But if you won't love me now..." Bones cracked within Valentia's body. Her nails blackened and reformed themselves into razor sharp talons. A thick and rough pelt of black fur pushed out of her tanned skin. Her body had begun to bulge and expand to the size of a large rhino, ripping the shift at the seams. Valentia's face crunched and stretched out into a canine muzzle. The last little pops and cracks stamped out the last vestiges of humanity from Valentia's frame.
"I'll make you love me!" she snarled in a deep, guttural voice.