Rystala did not easily accept her fate. She screamed and cried for help, even as, from beneath her bed, she withdrew a sword. It took me by surprise, though of course I was not concerned. I would not have expected her to possess as word, let alone wield one.
With terror clear upon her face and in her scent, she came at me with that sword, slashing it into my body with every ounce of strength she could muster. I reduced the surface tension and viscosity of the spot where it struck, allowing it to slide easily into my body. Then I hardened and pulled. She released it an instant before her hand, too, would have been subsumed beneath my surface.
I advanced. She had nowhere to go except out the window. She held her hands up before her, clenched into fists, read to fight with those, too, though she must have known any effort she made would be useless. She glanced at her window, considering.
I flowed toward and around her legs. She tried to step backward. She tripped on the bed and fell onto it. Awkwardly, she pulled herself backward, pressing against the wall that held the window. Her fingers scraped at the latch as she sobbed.
Her actions did not matter. I was greater. I covered her body from toes to neck, bringing her into a tight embrace. I left her head free and uncovered so that she could speak and breath easily.
“Let me go,” she demanded. She struggled. I had to give her some leeway, so that she could breath, but still all of the strength she could muster amounted to nothing. Her limbs twitched uselessly inside of me.
“No,” I said. “I need you.”
I brought her out into the main room of her house, which I had filled, from floor to ceiling, with my mass. More of me waited outside, connected through the open door. Eyes I had collected from the villagers watched the night sky and Rystala simultaneously. The only people left alive in the village were Rystala and Cela. I feared nothing from them or from the dead.
“Why?” she sobbed. “What need do you have of me?”
“I can learn from you,” I said. “As I requested of you earlier.”
“You don’t need me,” she said. “You… What even are you?”
“I was once an ooze,” I said. “Now I am more.”
“No ooze can do this,” she said. “Oozes can’t speak or reason or demand. You are a demon. A monster.”
“Perhaps,” I said. “Perhaps I am both of those things, and more. It doesn’t matter. I was once an ooze. I am now something else. I am myself.”
“You said that before.”
“Yes. I am unique. There is nothing in this world like me,” I said. I did not know that for sure at the time, yet all the same, I was convinced of it. “Still. I want to learn.”
“I won’t teach you,” she said.
“You will,” I said. “You have no choice.”
“There is always a choice.”
“You will teach me, or you will die.”
“I have no fear of death.”
This was a lie. I knew, because I could taste the fear radiating from her body. “Everything fears death. Even I fear the concept, though I hold no fear that anything can kill me.”
“Fearlessness is just another word for foolishness,” Rystala said. “There are powers out there greater than you.”
“Nothing I have ever met has equalled me.”
“You are vain. Your pride will be your downfall.”
“Nothing will be my downfall,” I said.
I pulled her head inside my body. I felt her try to scream inside me. I had no intention of letting her suffocate. I simply wanted her to experience just how much power I now had over her. With two thin apertures, I allowed her to breath even though I fully encompassed her.
I opened the door to the unexplored room in her house. I now knew one was for living, and one for sleeping, but what was this third room? Inside it was a flat table. In one corner was another stove, next to which sat metal buckets and a rack full of sheets of fabric. Metal implements hung from one of the walls, man of which, from their shape, were clearly intended for cutting. Another door, which I opened without hesitation, led outside.
I allowed Rystala’s head to surface once more. “What is this room?”
She blinked her wide, rolling eyes, gasping for breath, though I had ensured she was receiving sufficient oxygen.
“What is this room?” I repeated.
“Surgery,” she said at last. It’s where I treated injured people from the village.”
“I see. You won’t have to worry about that anymore.”
“Because you’re going to kill me?” she said. “Someone else will take my place. I’ve been training apprentices. The village will be fine without me.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said, amused at her misinterpretation.
“You… are you threatening the village?” she asked. She hesitated. “We assumed you killed the men who took you away. Actually, we assumed that the Pale Ones took you and them. We didn’t believe one man could kill five others. I see now how we were wrong.”
“I am not threatening the village,” I said. “There is no need.”
Rystala sighed in what I interpreted as relief. “Thank you. They have done nothing to harm you. If you have business with me, keep it with me.”
“No, you misunderstand. I have already killed them.”
“The village is dead. There is nobody left for you to treat.” I paused. “Except for Cela, I suppose. I left her with her life.”
“Why?” Rystala demanded. “Why? Why would you do this?”
Her words and her wits abandoned her as she dissolved into a fit of sobbing. I took her back fully inside my body, not wanting to listen to the sound. She convulsed within my body as she wept. With all of her ragged, uncontrolled gasping, I had to provide her with extra oxygen.
On of my eyes on the outside of the house caught a glimpse of movement. Without my attention fully upon it, the eye’s viewpoint was unfocused, capable of seeing movement and color but unable to fully form it into a picture. I shifted the focus of my consciousness to that section of my body, curious.
I began to flow out of Rystala’s house, with her body in tow, still encapsulated, and still sobbing. The movement intrigued me. I had left only Cela alive, and she had no reason to have awoken. Unless, by some chance, she had heard Rystala speaking and sobbing and crying out, but that seemed unlikely to me. There was quite a distance between their homes.
I wondered if it was an animal which, sensing that the human presence had suddenly disappeared, had wandered into the village. I wondered if I had somehow missed one of the sentries, who had now come back to find his fellow villagers dead at their posts and in their beds. I even wondered if someone had arrived by boat in the night, and had chosen, against all logic, to explore the town of fresh dead.
None of this was correct.
I caught a hint of motion once again, and, as it had that time in the woods that now felt so long ago, the thrill that was fear rippled through me. This was not Rystala’s fear, either, sensed secondhand, but my own. A white shadow passed through a gap in the houses ahead of me.
Rystala’s words echoed back to me. She said I had been “marked for death” by the Pale Ones. She said that the village was in danger, should I remain there, for she was convinced that the Pale Ones would pursue me, now that I had laid eyes on one of their kind.
I reprimanded myself for feeling fear. I occupied a full village of the dead, who had fallen before me with no struggle. They were humans, too, the most dangerous, wily creatures in the world, save myself. If they could not threaten me in great numbers — if the woman I had met in the woods cold not threaten me with her magic — what need did I have to fear one solitary creature, which stood scarcely taller than a single human?
I flowed forth, raising Rystala high within me so that I didn’t accidentally scrape her against the ground or against an obstacle around which I flowed easily. Humans were so fragile and inflexible, as I had learned from long months transporting Telan. I wanted Rystala to remain intact and relatively unharmed.
The white shadow was not where I expected it to be, so I continued on, flowing in the direction I believed I had seen it walk. I rounded the side of a building, stretched out and extended so that I could move at my maximum pace.
Then there it was in front of me, standing still as a stone, facing me as though it had predicted the exact vector of my approach. Dark, black disks stared out from a powder-white visage, perched atop a blocky body with too-long arms. Odd protuberances, like bent, knobby cylinders, extended out from its head and shoulders, complicating its silhouette.
“Rystala,” I said. I brought her head out of my body so that she could witness the creature. “Is this a Pale One?”
Rystala screamed. “Yes. Yes. Run, you fool. Get me away from here. What have I done to deserve this fate?”
I paid her no heed. The Pale One still had not moved. I reached out with tendril of myself, wondering at whether it would react, should I prod it. Whatever compelled me to approach it so tentatively, when I might have just attemted to absorb it instantly and fully, I am thankful. Perhaps it was some inborn instinct, or perhaps it was the odd fear I felt, both on my own, and from Rystala’s reactions.
I am thankful, because when my tendril came within reach, the Pale One’s hand darted forth. It grabbed my tendril and, for the first time in my existence, I felt pain.
I tried to pull away and found that the end of my tendril had become unresponsive. It lost its malleability instantly. I could not flow through the Pale One’s fingers like water, as I attempted. I watched in horror and fascination as the end of my tendril hardened, going first grey and then white like bleached bone.
I released my appendage from further up, where the hard corruption of the Pale One’s touch had not yet spread. I began to flow backward, away from the creature. Even as I did so the part of me that had hardened to white, which the Pale One still held in its hand, began to grow cylindrical spikes. It brought the chunk to its mouth and crunched down on it.
Even as I retreated, I picked up a gardening implement from where it leaned against the side of a house. I knew immediately not to touch the Pale One directly. Instead, I swung at it with the implement, hoping at least to knock it down, if not injure it, so that I could flee in safety.
The Pale One raised an arm to block my blow. The wood splintered, sending the implement’s metal head flying off into the distance. The Pale One began to walk forward, unperturbed by my attempt. It was still eating the piece of me I had given over to it.
“The river,” Rystala called. “Run to the river. They hate running water and will not cross it.”
I was not a fan of water, myself, but I could bear it. With all the shame that comes with the shock of an unexpected defeat, I fled toward the river. With eyes stationed behind me, I watched as the Pale One walked forward in a sluggish pursuit, still eating. It didn’t seem to be invested in catching me. I easily outpaced it.
I drew Rystala into my body, giving her a large pocket of air. I sealed my outermost layer as tightly as I could so that an influx of water didn’t dilute my composition too far, and I plunged into the depths of the river, letting it carry me away from the village into the night.