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Kavya ducked into the first structural tomb of the necropolis, squeezing up against the sealed stone door, and tried to catch her breath. She was easily a better fighter than any of these thugs, but there were three of them. Also a faster runner, but they seemed quite able to keep up on the long haul. She slowly sheathed her sword with her left hand, but her right followed her thoughts to her ratna pouch as she momentarily considered trying to buy them off.
But no, the pouch held twenty-one ratna, no more than after she had bought lunch — a half-dozen greens, two silvered greens, and a blue. Even if she pried the blues from her sword, thirty-one ratna was less than the fifty she'd paid for the amulet, and if someone was hiring groups of thugs to hunt for it, it was doubtless far more valuable.
While "I don't have it anymore" was true as far as it went, she could probably get it back from Kolli if necessary; that wasn't likely to be a useful solution, however, since the thugs had attacked her as soon as she said it.
With her breath back, she slowly crouched down to slink between graves toward the next structural tomb. She kept one eye on the horizon, where her pursuers would hopefully be silhouetted against the last light of the set sun.
She moved from tomb to tomb that way, passing low over stone crypts and earthen graves in between, headed for the mausoleum at the heart of the necropolis. When she reached the ninth tomb in, she felt a chill about her calves, and stood pressed against the stone for warmth — and froze when she heard a voice.
"Mmm, tough enough, agile, flexible… light chocolate skin and hair… could do with a bit more wealth, but that comes with time. Eminently suitable. You've taken good care of yourself, m'dear." A female voice, soft and positively decadent, but hollow, as if it were carried on the wind from a great distance away.
Invisibility was the least threatening possibility Kavya could think of. Her left hand inched toward her sword, but there was no sign of threatening movements, and whoever it was had clearly noticed her already. After a moment she breathed again, taking in a new scent of cinnamon, mint, and a citrus tang. "Thank you? I'm afraid you have me at a bit of a disadvantage."
A chuckle, unearthly, entrancing… A little too entrancing. "Don't worry, you have me at a disadvantage as well — you're still breathing."
Kavya narrowed her eyes. "And you're looking to change that, is that it?"
"And just how would I do that?" The chill wind swirled around Kavya, then forward across her body… then the air was still and warm again. "I am called Arushi."
"Kavya." By reflex she extended her right hand as if to shake — straight into the pool of cold air, which swirled around her hand for a moment. She slowly withdrew her hand.
"Well, Kavya, of those who hide among the dead, not many are far from joining us. Where does your death await?"
Kavya's eyes flitted to the horizon… where brutish shapes moved among the tombs, circling each one in pairs.
"I see." An audible sniff. "Three of them still breathe; I don't see a fourth, but three is enough to bring you death, no?"
Kavya turned to face the apparent pool of cold air. "Probably. So you're a scavenger?"
"…No." All the decadence was gone, replaced by a hateful edge.
"And yet you're waiting for predators to kill me, after which you'll move in on their kill?"
A little swirl of air was picking up loose dust from a crypt, leaving the more solid dirt behind; yet the edge in her voice was gone, and the decadence back, a sales pitch almost seductive. "My infirmity, m'dear, is that I am dead. Crippled so, I can only scavenge. Having scavenged once, however…" A chill swept up Kavya's face, and the cinnamon/mint/citrus scent was thick in her nostrils. She held her breath. "…your expired body will be mine. I will repair any damage, and your people will know my predation for generations."
Kavya jumped straight up, grabbing the eave of the tomb and twisting around, before pulling herself up and crawling onto its top. "Nnf… Then I have to win this."
"This? And the next, and the next…" Arushi repeated herself as her voice moved off into the distance.
Kavya watched the thugs, who didn't seem to have noticed her moving against the dark eastern sky. Now all but unmoving, her left hand drew her sword, ready to pounce when they approached in the dark.
After winning this one, she could talk to the blue sages about the monster. Not all power flows from the bloody edge of a blade, after all.
The trio moved steadily among the tombs; Edward, the leader, had the scent of their prey. Tom and Ian, mere humans, took turns looping around the back sides so she couldn't run when they found the right one. She was faster, but they were stronger, and they would eventually bring her down.
The approaching night was a breath of fresh air to Tom; in tunic, trousers, and boots, he and Ian were dressed for the weather of their home, not here. Edward wore a thrice-belted loincloth with all his possessions strapped to it, and did not suffer the elements, hot or cold.
"Not far…" Edward muttered for the fourth time, as he approached the ninth tomb and Ian moved to the other side. Edward reached out a hand to touch the tomb as he passed — then he stopped, sniffing the air.
"Did you lose her?" Tom was far enough away that if worse came to worst for that comment, he could shield his face until Edward regained control.
"There is another. She stopped here, and… one of the dead." He turned to read the inscription. If the tomb's occupant had claimed her, recovering the Amulet would be difficult.
It was then that a golden flash of sunlight struck across Ian's throat, carried by her blade, and their prey hit the ground. Pivoting on her right arm, she wheeled away from the tomb, taking off like a shot when her feet hit the ground.
Blood spattered across Tom, enough for him to hesitate.
Edward delayed only long enough to wolf out; for a human he was large, for a wolf he was monstrous. In a four-legged sprint he could almost keep up with her, but he jogged along, nose twitching, letting her tire herself out. "Get up," he panted, "Useless!"
Tom glanced to Ian, crumpled, gasping through his throat, gushing his lifeblood onto the dirt of a grave. Past salvage, as the ship boys would say. Tom's feet moved before he realized, and he was pumping after Edward, mind racing numb… in many ways fleeing the fact that he was leaving Ian to die.
After a moment, a cold wind swept over Ian, drying the blood with disturbing speed. "No sense letting this go to waste, even if I can barely get anything from it." His eyes bugged out, his last thoughts choked by blood loss and shock. When she had drained what vitality she could, Arushi swept off the way all three of the living had gone. "If your wolfboy is handy enough with those teeth, I could've come back for it, but why lick it off the ground when there's a town just pumping with it?"
Wolf. Kavya hadn't counted on a fucking werewolf. On her way to the necropolis, she'd stopped to hide her tracks at each crossroads, fled over brush part of the way — it had all been useless. He'd tracked her by scent, not slowing for any of that crap, and here he was… not exactly chasing her, but following, inevitable. She bent down, dragging her sword across the grass and dirt of a series of graves to get rid of the thug blood as best she could at a run.
She slowed, body and mind, as she crossed a row of structural tombs. A family thing, no doubt. She made a hard left there, hoping he wouldn't see the shortcut and would follow her whole path, and now she was running for the mausoleum. She'd played there as a little girl; hide-and-seek among the harsh splendor of the hall of pillars would be most useful, and she was still small enough to scrunch up in the hole at the top of that one pillar.
Gasping for breath, her speed picked back up when she heard a howl right behind her — but not the howl of a wolf, the howl of some tormented undead. That scavenger spirit earlier was not the only thing haunting this city of the dead.
She stumbled into the mausoleum, lungs burning for air. Barely faster than a walk, she passed through the greeting hall, wriggled through a window from the outer ring to the inner ring, and crossed the rock garden. At the hall of pillars itself, she leaned heavily on one side of the entrance, panting, trying to decide how best to cover her tracks. Distantly, she heard the undead howl again, then a wolf answer — first with a howl of his own, then a barking battle cry. She grinned. That would slow him down, at least.
She crossed to the raised dais at the center, dragging her weary legs in a circle around it a few times.
She crossed to where Sita'd always made them a campfire, and then retraced her steps to the dais.
She crossed to where Muralidhar'd dug through the wall with eight steel spoons; she was probably too big to fit through, but she lowered her rough cloth shorts and bent to urinate before the opening. Hopefully, the wolf'd think she'd gotten scared while wriggling through, and the strongest scent would probably draw him first at least.
After restoring her clothes and retracing her steps to the dais, the sounds of battle were ending; a wolf growling repeatedly in anger. He had probably won. Then a hunting howl, long and low, and she was moving again. This time she crossed to the pillar in the corner, where some smuggler had hidden spices in years past. From the inner side, she jumped to hold herself up by pressing against the wall and pillar. A stretching task when she was a girl, now it was made difficult only because her breath wasn't quite restored. At the top, she swept dust out of the hole, the scent of cloves probably just coming from her memory. She backed in, a tighter fit than she'd expected, but her arms could still move. She left her sword out; if they found her hiding place, she could strike like a snapping turtle, a sharp point on the only side without a hard shell.
She forced herself to breathe calmly, fighting the panic rising as she started to recognize her own scent. It was probably just in her imagination, she can't smell that well.
She had recovered her breath and was starting to get hungry when she heard wolf claws ticking on the stone floor of the hall of pillars. She blinked herself to alertness, slowly moving her sword away from contact with her legs. She hadn't let it touch the stone, of course. The slight movement of air perturbed dust and sweat, filling her nostrils with her own scent, stirring an odd feeling in her guts. But she didn't smell fear.
The ticking sounded again. He wasn't bothering with stealth, one way or another.
She heard him stop, presumably at the dais, then was dismayed when he promptly resumed ticking closer. She carefully stilled her heart; he could smell fear better than she could.
"Your scent is stronger in the southwest corner…" His voice was distorted, inhuman, no doubt the closest approximation a wolf throat could make. "…but nothing in the southwest corner is carrying spices from the west." He sniffed loud as her blood ran cold. "Coriander and cloves… hm, maybe a bit of saffron. Your last meal?"
The bit of saffron, maybe. But her head swam with the unirony. As children, their parents had told them a smuggler would kill them if they played in the necropolis. A decade late, but indirectly, it sort of came true. If only the wolf had known that the other spices were so old!
"They're freemen, you know. That's nearly 200 marks I'm out in one lump sum. I doubt you can pay that, but if I get the Amulet back my employer might — otherwise I will take it from your hide myself!"
As his voice raised in anger, he was no doubt projecting to an audience. He'd probably heard his other minion arrive, and this was telling him to stay out of the fight. Possibly, the werewolf was that devoted to his employer, for if she were weakened by defeating him, his minion could finish the job.
What kind of employer hired someone of such caliber to thug it?
Kavya loosened her legs, extending them from her hidey-hole enough to expose her sheath, and sheathed her sword. She also loosened her ratna pouch, digging through it for the two silvered green ratna. They weren't solid silver, but they'd have to do.
One in each hand, she wriggled out, braced herself carefully for landing, and dropped six feet to the stone floor, her legs folding under her to absorb the energy, her upper body swinging down to give her legs time to do so.
The werewolf struck as soon as she landed, leaping to bite, and she swung her hands up, driving the silvered ratna into his throat, one from each side. She had missed his jaws, and she used the ratna to hold him back as he screamed and howled and thrashed and tried to bite. He knocked her over, and the ratna were sizzling hot as his blood curdled around them, but still she pressed them together. The wolf's head over her became her world, and then her world went dark.
When she regained her senses she had let go, her hands cramped around the ratna no longer held. The wolf was staggering nearby, silently pawing at his throat, thick gouts of black smoke issuing from each side. He managed to get one ratna loose, the gem clattering to the floor, one side silvered and the other half-covered in bubbling black goo.
That brought her into motion. She dove for the ratna, stabbing for his upper spine with the silvered end. The first thrust glanced off bone, but the werewolf's ineffectual thrashing kept the opportunity open and her third struck true, slicing through the tissues between two ribs.
A burning in her belly distracted her and she fell back, in time to see a crossbow bolt streak by and hear it hit stone. She clutched at her wound, finding and pulling out a cheap bronze bolt from just below her ribcage. The wolf was unable to attack, but his minion was not.
Her right hand over the wound in an attempt to slow the bleeding, she dragged herself up with her left and drew her sword.
As if obligingly, the minion entered her view, pale skin ruddy with the day's last light, crouching to pull both ratna from the wolf. She staggered forward, sword out, managing to draw his attention and not much else. He pointed the crossbow at her, but the bolt had been knocked out. As she inexorably crossed those last few feet, he left the wolf to crawl away on two legs and no air, and fumbled with his crossbow.
"That's 10 ratna I'm out." She panted. "In one lump sum. I paid 50 for the amulet. Your negotiations suck." She was gradually regaining the rest of her consciousness, and losing blood less gradually.
He'd managed to fumble three bolts by the time she got into melee, and he used the crossbow as a mace to parry her sword. He didn't have the will for this kind of fight, and on the defense she was cutting up his crossbow. Between the exertion and the blood loss she felt awareness slipping away again, but she got to see him flee into the night before collapsing in a pool of her own blood.
Her vision had gone, but her sense of touch hadn't yet, when she felt a cold wind blow over her, and heard a familiar voice. "In the meantime, waste not, want not…"
Kavya's first go at regaining consciousness involved a throbbing head, burning lungs, and really didn't work.
As the sun struck her eyes, Kavya awakened from a dreamless sleep. She was stiff all over, her chest wound was already worse, she was feverish, and the caked mat of blood attested to how much she wasn't going to be able to operate in the short term.
The stink of wastes was unpleasant, but the predator smell to it was gratifying. The wolf hadn't moved. She shed her boots and shorts, and took a minute or so standing. Her abdomen was on fire, but she did it, and even made some progress towards the door and fresh air.
"Oh, you're up. I wasn't expecting that." That familiar chill breezed about her. "Well, that infection's not going to get better."
Kavya dropped to her knees. Odds were good she could make it out of the room before dying. Odds were poor she could make it out of the mausoleum before dying. Making it out of the necropolis was not in the cards, and the long walk to town would still separate her from medical care. Arushi would inherit her body, one way or another. "Predator, take me now…"
"Oh, there'll be none of that. You breathe. Until that stops, you're not in my domain, so to speak."
"I can hold my breath…"
The breeze stilled. "Hm. And let me in? That shouldn't work. Not that you're already possessed, but if you can breathe…"
"Hurt to try?"
"…I guess it wouldn't. Very well, exhale. Deeply. And when I say, inhale deeply and hold me."
Kavya inhaled, for the next-to-last time, and exhaled, leaning forward as the last of her lungs emptied. A chill on her face, and she smelled spices and citrus again.
She obeyed, filling her lungs with that cold scented air. She kept inhaling after the chill was already inside her, until she could inhale no longer, and then she clamped her mouth shut to help hold that breath.
The stirring within her lungs was alien. The chill vanished, but she could feel the spice spreading throughout her body, filling up her head and arms and legs and fingers and toes with a heady strangeness.
Once she was full, the pain began. Some primal part of her mind tried to scream and writhe, but her limbs merely quivered, and her mouth moved in a different pattern. "Ahaoww, that's new…"
Then she passed out.
She didn't expect to regain consciousness, but she did. Her body was on its back, taking a luxurious bath in the dark, the scents of spices and salts wafting through the air, hands spread over smooth skin where the wound had been.
When her mouth moved, it wasn't under her direction either. "Oh, you're back? I didn't expect that…"
"Me either." She didn't expect to be able to speak, either, but there it was.
"…That was different. When I'm not using my mouth, you can? Here," her left arm reached out into air and then went half-limp, "try to control my arm."
She could object to the possessives, but she had given her body to this undead. She groped around in the dark, finding the edges of the tub. It was warm stone, probably heated from below to provide warmth for the whole process.
"Fascinating. Well, in that case, I have a discovery of my own to share." Arushi used both hands to feel for the face of the body they were inhabiting; a face about which nothing seemed remarkable to Kavya. "Your regenerative abilities are considerable. Normally, when I take over a corpse, it sort of withers, and that doesn't heal. In yours, the withering hurts — I did it slowly, taking about an hour, mixed with more pleasant sensations to counter the pain — but it recovers if I use healing spells."
Kavya struggled inwardly to not fight for her body back. Even if she could kick this undead out, Arushi could probably kick back harder. "So… you're kind of alive now? In a sense you aren't normally?"
She nodded, under Arushi's direction. "If I'd known this was possible, I'd've tried to buy a body centuries ago…" Arushi licked their lips. "Well, there is the matter of the existing occupant. I imagine you're frightened right now, but I must admit a selfish curiosity. In exchange, I can be magnanimous."
They went limp, head lolling to one side.
"Well, go on."
Kavya shuddered, yielding to the struggle, and finding herself home in her own skin. "You mean, letting me use… our body for now?"
"Well yes. I'm used to being without a body, and to be frank I've had my fun. Enjoy the bath?"
"Yes, but where is everything?"
"Ah. I've considerably renovated this crypt; the original inhabitants rose as some kind of lesser undead," Arushi took enough control over their right arm to gesture dismissively, "and I have very different needs with and without a body."
Arushi then took Kavya on a tour of the space, and they each got used to the idea of sharing a body.
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