They tumbled out of the forest, a disjointed mass of dead fur and rotted flesh. Sar saw that he hadn't heard one beast but several. All of them, five in total, slid to a stop like gawky pups. Sar was overpowered by a revulsion so thick it coated the back of his throat like acid. His stomach lurched and he heaved a ropy mixture of saliva and water into the grass.
A slow, heavy pulse thudded in his head as he wiped his mouth. And, suddenly, he was no longer afraid. It was as if he'd vomited his fear up along with whatever else had been in his stomach. It left him with a feeling of…what? He frowned into the grass, puzzled. Insulted. Yes, that was it. It was a word used for lighter fare but it fit the moment as he stared at the scene before him.
Perhaps chinks opened up in the UnderRealms, which enabled little devils to climb up into the light, hand over fist. And maybe all the Old Gentlemen sat Below and played cards and used souls for chips, yes, it was possible, and it frightened him. But this. This was an abomination. It awakened a sense of outrage he hadn't known he possessed. These had been made and that insulted him. Their presence did a stomping shuck and jive all over his sense of propriety.
Molded like grotesque sculpture and fashioned into unnatural objects, something had wanted them this way. He could accept The Twiceborn and all of her snakebit following but not this. This was nothing more than a freakish reconstruction of what had once been harmless.
He watched them, a faint curl on his upper lip, as they stumbled about the clearing. "They used to be dogs," He thought feverishly. "Pets. Someone's pets."
One of them whined and took a tentative step towards him. Sar saw that its nails were enormously long and thin, caked with dirt from running through the woods. "No,not long" He realized, with fresh horror. The skin had peeled back like wood shavings,and it gave the nails the illusion of length. The thing teetered back and forth, and watched him through a spongy tissue that filled its eye sockets, and panted. It's peeling, black tongue bobbed in its mouth. It whined again, a soulless noise that held all the ability to drive him mad.
The others paced back and forth, tails tight against their stomachs. Their organs were visible through transparent flesh. Urine squirted from between their back legs, and burned the grass black. The clearing filled with a sour smell like death left too long in the sun. Sar clamped a hand over his mouth and swallowed thickly.
A large cur stepped forward, doddering on its rotted pads, and strolled towards The Twiceborn. It possessed all the air of an old campaigner and Sar stifled a crazy cackle. Top dog. Even an unholy mess like this needs a leader. He pushed a hand hard against his mouth.
He saw it had been a hound at one time, long legs and lop ears and it stood taller than the rest. Its short fur had flaked away long ago and white tissue filled its eye sockets like tiny clusters of poisonous mushrooms. Yet there was a black flicker in their spongy depths, a glitter of dumb, mad intelligence. Below its chest, like a tumor, was another head. It bowed forward, eyes pasted shut with dirt and mucus, and its long nose was nothing but a red horror. Worn away by the constant drag against the ground.
"My god, my god, my god..." Sar's mind rambled but his lips, thin and tight, remained shut.
The dog-thing swung around and looked at him as if it had read his thoughts and the second head dragged the ground in a long whisper. The animal's strange eyes gleamed as it sized him up. It began to pant in the summer heat. Long ropes of pasty saliva ran from its jaws like melted wax and its tongue lolled out, long and obscenely red. The tongue slithered down, and coiled languidly around the other head.
Alora rose and took two quick steps towards the animal. Sar could tell it was an instinctual movement, filled with all the grace of youth and coupled with a wildness that lent a cat-like prowl to the motion. Her smile widened into a gleeful grin. He sensed she'd forgotten all about him, forgotten about everything but this moment. She laughed. Sar recognized the sound of true happiness and it settled over his bones like a funeral shroud. " She likes this." He realized. "She likes that thing."
He watched her as she reached her hand out and stroked the viscous head. The dog-thing crouched. Urine jetted from its greasy flanks. Sar saw all of this yet his eyes kept being drawn back to the animal's extra head. It folded and sprawled bonelessly against the ground. A fierce tremble started at his feet and worked its way up. It racked him like palsy. He knew he was on the verge of a full scale dash to safety.
"No, no don't run. Stay. Stay." He told himself like...like a man training a dog. He swallowed back a weird little chuckle. The strange animal wagged its tail. Cartilage scraped, like marble rubbed together, and Sar's jaw tightened at the sound. He tried to look away but found he simply could not.
Alora felt a sense of certainty take over. It swept her along and claimed all emotion, all the words of every thought. Even the thoughts hidden behind her well-guarded tears. This was her love.
"My passion for this is my greatest sin. I have no greater love than my legacy." She thought as she caressed the bony skull.
She knelt down and touched her lips to the tip of the dog-thing's nose. Her magic was so powerful at times it frightened even her. The two-headed one before her was known as the Ruler of Twice. He'd been made by the Night Hags and was their most enduring creation. He'd acquired a power of his own from his long existence and had run on bone long after younger formations had collapsed.
His life force was so strong, it reached beyond death and gave him the will to move and to draw air into lungs that had, long ago, dissolved into dust. She gazed, rapt, into his eyes. She was, quite simply, amazed by him. He never failed to answer her call.
"Let's wind this up, old man." She whispered. The tail clicked to and fro. Alora steadied herself and placed her hands on his shoulders. She gazed into his eye sockets. The tail slowed, stilled, and the Ruler of Twice stared back.
His mind was a primary fashion and she had to make her request in a mental language he could grasp. A directive that consisted mostly of the sounds defined in his mind as meat and trade. It took only seconds (his mind wasn't layered for anything more complicated) before she stood, pleased with the exchange, and gave him another quick pat.
Sweat sheened Alora's body and she stretched. She lifted the mass of unruly hair from her neck to feel the breeze. On nights like this she felt gloriously alive. The Ruler of Twice seated himself beside her. The ancient sockets were shrewd and watchful, portals to the clever brain hidden inside.
The rest of the strange dog pack moved over Gareth's body. They ripped and tore with the single-minded fury of animals that were deprived of everything but the overpowering need to destroy. The Ruler of Twice uttered one, raspy bark. The sound scraped over raw tendon and a small cur shied back from Gareth's body and gave a mewling sob.
It turned,crouched, and slunk on its belly through the grass like a misshapen snake towards Alora and The Ruler of Twice. Halfway, it paused and cast a reluctant eye back at the feast. A peevish bark erupted from the Ruler of Twice and the tiny cur moved forward again. Its claws dug in and propelled it along at an amazing speed.
Sar watched all of this, mystified by the unspoken exchange he'd observed. He watched the tiny cur separate itself from the pack. It only had one eye, a glassy, milky orb held in by weak tendons. The eye bulged and stared off cock-eyed. There was a frozen terror in its depth and it came to him to wonder what was left to terrify an animal already dead.
The cur reached Alora and stopped. It stood, slowly, on trembling legs. Its skinny flanks quivered violently. Sar watched as Alora dropped to one knee and reached an impatient hand around to catch her hair. She looped it over one shoulder and out of the way. It was a simple, innate gesture, one performed a thousand times and never given a thought, yet Sar was struck by how much beauty there was in the unknowing repetition. The dog things faded from his mind's eye and he saw the glossy spill of her hair. The slim fingers and the sliding curve of her muscles beneath the leather leggings as she knelt.
Desire rocked him like a dirty punch below the belt. It hit him so hard and fast that Gareth slipped from his mind with an ease that would later appall him.
Alora glanced up and gave him a lazy smile. But, as Sar looked closer, he realized it wasn't lazy at all--it was the smile of a hunter that had run its prey to ground and could now eat at leisure.
"So...." Her silky voice floated across the clearing to him. The "s" dragged out into a hiss.
"Think I'm a god?" She taunted. The Ruler of Twice stood on creaky limbs and growled.
"You do,don't you?" Because you want me. And you want what I can do. Isn't that right?"
Her eyes flashed into his and he saw a strange calmness there. An eye of the storm calm. All Sar could manage to do was shake his head.
"Don't you know you can't lie to me?" She admonished with a quick shake of her finger. The Ruler of Twice took a step towards him. Sar closed his eyes. He sorted through all the bits of prayer he'd learned and tried to tie all the random words into something that would save his sorry ass. And came up empty. He dropped his head and stared at the ground and waited for the Ruler of Twice.
"Sar!" Alora shouted and his head jerked up as though he'd been caught napping.
"The best part, Sar...." She said, her eyes bright. One hand dropped down and touched the little cur's head. The Ruler of Twice sat down and panted. His tongue was coated with dirt and leaves. The head on his chest bobbed up and down, in synch with his rapid breathing. To Sar, it appeared to be laughing.
"The best part, Sar..." She repeated loudly. His attention snapped back to her.
"I don't want you to miss the best part of this all ropes untied goat fuck that's going to tell you about tomorrow." She continued. A sneer marred her pretty features. The hand raked back and forth across the cur's head.
"Ready, Sar?" She teased. The sneer widened into an excited grin. "You ready?"
Sar slowly nodded.
The hand on the cur's head slid down the animal's front leg with a lazy speed. Alora stood, stepped up beside the small beast, and swung her left leg over the cur's back and straddled it. She slid her other hand down its other front leg. The cur's head hung low and foam dripped in long, quaking runners from its jaw. The Ruler of Twice yawned.
Without warning, she stood up and yanked the cur's legs out to the side. A sound like wet linen being torn echoed and Alora peeled the cur as effectively as a scalded pig at butchering time. A dark, wet mass of intestines slithered onto the grass. The stench was flyblown and rancid.
Nausea rolled through Sar in a long wave. He choked and dry heaved onto the grass. He coughed until there was nothing left to sick up but his stomach continued to roll. The putrid odor filled his nose and mouth like ground up chaff. Through tearing eyes he saw the Ruler of Twice stand, stretch, then stroll in a leisurely manner towards the woods.
The rest of the dog things leaped and gamboled around him like mad jesters. A few paused and hooked teeth into what was left of Gareth. They dragged him towards the treeline.
Sar stumbled to his feet. He wasn't going to let them drag Gareth off like a bag of feed. Something to be gnawed on later. He looked around wildly for a weapon, unaware of Alora's amused eyes. He snatched up a formidable branch from the yet to be burned firewood and started after the pack. His heart thundered. It pounded against his ribs with all the power of a galloping horse but he no longer cared. He figured one good blow would easily take out that spindle-shanked two-headed son of a bitch. He felt the others would just piss and scatter if their leader was killed.
"Hey hoss, where ya headed?" Alora asked. She reached out and snagged Sar's arm. Sar winced. Her fingers bit in like a deep freeze and the sudden chill drove deep into his bones. His fingers opened of their own accord. He dropped the branch into the grass. Angry, he tried to pull free but his arm was heavy and unresponsive.
He turned on her in a blind rage and his other hand knotted into a fist. He wanted to swing. One good roundhouse punch that would knock that pretty smile off her face and make the bruises on her arm seem like child's play.
Alora continued to smile. Her black eyes were open and honest as they stared into his. She tightened her grip and Sar felt the chill spread. His fingers and toes slowly began to numb. His heart stumbled and he pictured it being encased in a thick rime of ice.
"Okay. You win." He croaked. He hated the taste of the words in his mouth. "Just let me go."
"There. You've been let go." She gave him a shy smile and he glared at her as she knelt down and scrubbed her hands through the grass. Sar could still hear the dog things scrabbling in the brush.
"No. There is no more Gareth." Alora held up a weary hand as she got to her feet. "There's nothing you can do for Gareth now.
Sar watched as she walked over and seated herself by the offal. She picked up a stick and poked at the mess with a detached air. It reminded Sar of a child who enjoyed pulling the wings off of a bug just to see what happened next. "This is what I put my faith in. Dear god, this freak who likes to kill and watch things die." Gareth's ghost stood heavy beside him.