“…Why did you even tell me that?”
“Don’t whine. It’s not becoming. One or another, however you decide, you should know what he is. Informed decisions are the basis of smart plans,” Flower said, both ruthless and kind. She licked a paw and groomed her left ear.
Larch laid her head on the table. The inn has a tavern downstairs. She’d begged off, saying she was tired. In reality, she very much wanted to give Cayden the middle finger and drink to forget.
But Mallory wouldn’t like that. And she had work to do tomorrow. She promised she’d help. Larch intended to keep her word, and she didn’t even really like drinking.
It wouldn’t solve her problem, anyways.
I am a monster.
Flower’s words, what she had witnessed, come back to her in the quiet as the spirit herself stretches and absently claws the desk.
He’s speaking in infernal to his familiar, arguing about something. Flower understands, of course- true speech is the gift of her kind, now that she has grown in power. The words send Larch’s heart rate skyrocketing.
“You don’t technically need food, you’re part of my entire system!”
“Just because we’re part of the same body doesn’t mean I don’t like food.”
A sigh. “You were literally a spawn of my own psyche and forged from my flesh, my blood and nutrients support you whenever you reattach!”
“I still like to eat. Yes I’m part of your personality, but I’m also that part that likes food. So please remember that WE both enjoy the same things.”
“… Fine. I’m sorry. I will try to reconsider this in the future.”
And yet, a contrast:
In the house, her face squished with an utter lack of dignity into the massive pecs of thier resident half orc, Glaz, who was busy proclaiming how proud he was of her, ect cetera. The Doctor watches, a faint amused smile on his face, a softer expression than he normally sports.
A hand on Mallory’s shoulder. “You got this,” he said, and turned to go. But the blood soaked streets of Isarn were not safe. Flower’s mental inquiry -Should I?- is met with a small sense of approval. It wasn’t safe. The shadow of a black cat shouldn’t intrude, should it?
And then… The Doctor, leaning over a corpse in an alley: his face masked, stone and expressionless once more. His more monstrous form had yet to fade, the talons and draconic features still in play here against his ruby red skin as he worked with efficient, calm, methodical cuts. He opens the corpse as easily as an envelope, hands strong and precise, the ease of long practice apparent. And he wrote in his notebook as he worked, meticulous and thorough.
Fleshcrafting. She shivered. He was a fleshcrafter. She knew that. She knew that. This should not surprise her.
At the same time, he was studying corpses by cutting them open, in an alley far from the team, a neatly spaced little secret written in black ink and in the silver flash of a scalpel under the moon against darkness as he knelt on the filthy cobbles and cooling blood pooled around his boots.
He. Is. One. Of. Them, she reminded herself. Her hands clenched. I can barely look him in the eye. His was the body I saw in the grave in that dream. He has no qualms about cutting open a corpse in broad fucking daylight. I must not forget. I must not forget. I don’t want him to die, but….
I am going to kill that god. If he has just minded his own fucking business I would still be living in blissful ignorance. I wouldn’t be struggling so god damn hard.
“Are you having a heart attack?” Flower asked, curiously.
“It would be easier,” Larch mutters darkly.
“You are feeling dramatic tonight.” Despite her words, Flower comes over to purr and rub her face against Larch’s. “It’s a familiar. You know what those are.”
“It’s not just the familiar! And what he is. You saw him. You can’t be as calm as you pretend. You hated him -them- too. And he was…”
“Well, yes,” Flower allowed. “I don’t precisely like him, sprout, but if nothing else, we owe Amalya- and she has sent us here. We are what we are. He is what he is- and you should know, regardless of what it may mean. I have said it before.” Flower settled next to her in a loaf, still purring. “Your mind is all full of weeds. Ground and center. You haven’t been this twitchy in months. We do not have to trust him, however you feel about the rest. These two feelings can coexist. I don’t know if it is better, but the corpse was already dead. You yourself have used the Metal Men to feed your garden.”
Larch sat up, scowling and offended. “That is NOT the same. That’s simply effective corpse disposal and- and enriching the nutrient content of the soil!”
“And we are here to stop him if he ever…. Strays,” Flower said, picking the last word with care and ignoring Larch’s protests.
The shaman exhaled slowly. She sat up. “I… do you think…. The rest. Do they know? He…”
His hands, strong and assured and surgical with the knife.
She felt her heart speed up nervously. The shadow image of another hand lay over it, memory clouding present day.
“….Is practiced. That’s not… that’s not the first.”
“I lean towards cynicism, destruction, and believing that the quickest way to a humanoid’s heart is just under the rib cage with a sharp edged blade with a minimum length of 2 feet. This, of course, is not conducive to being a functioning member of any society.” The firelight caught his red skin, playing across it as she broached a treacherous subject. The mask gave away nothing, though his tone was mild…
Was that a warning?
“Is that who you are, or what you are?” she had asked.
“Interesting question. I’m not usually that philosophical. Who I am is a bit of a product of what I am, as well as the people I am with, as well as the products of the people that raised me. I have very few illusions of who I am or what I am, but describing them is a lot. And too difficult for me.”
….And then he quoted the words of her own teachers back at her, and Larch nearly lost it. Hysteria wasn’t a good look, and she’d mostly avoided it, but her cracked laughter had been unusual enough to make him blink.
He was utterly inscrutable. He stuck under her skin like a thorn. He was brilliant and terrifying, capable of housing both that warm look at Mallory, a steady hand on her shoulder, and a drive for knowledge that was horribly familiar, those same hands just as steady as he cut open a still warm corpse and released intestinal stink into the alley. She had no idea what to do with any of it, and how she felt was only slightly more clear.
He was good at what he did. And he was strong. She was a Kellid. She respected strength, competence, and especially intelligence. She couldn’t not, especially his.
He was one of them. He would never not be one of them. He was as devoted to his art as she to hers.
“Probably not the first, no,” Flower agreed. “We both knew he was dangerous.”
“Should we… tell them?” Larch said, thinking slowly. “The others.”
“What do you think?”
“I…. Don’t know.”
Her arm hurt. She rubbed it absently, trying to think. Would they even believe her? She was the interloper. He was an established part of the group. He was… questionable… at times- they might listen.
But what good would it do?
She frowned, thinking hard.
He was as obsessive as she was when it came to his work. He may not take kindly to it- and that thought made her stomach squirm. Or, perhaps worse, he may not care at all. The group might though. And that sort of friction could be detrimental to their cohesion.
Did she have the right to keep this secret? Did she have the right to not?
“….Fuck,” Larch muttered. “How dare he.”
This was almost too much feeling, all at once. She didn’t like it. Larch liked to be able to assign names to things, put them in a proper place, categorize them and file them away so they couldn’t affect her.
Glaze’s words popped into her head.
“If you hold that all in, like I did once, it poisons you worst than acid. It rots, and boils.”
“The half orc really is smarter than he plays at being,” Flower observed. “And he hugged you. That was nice, wasn’t it?”
“You’re changing the subject. And….”
The shaman looked away.
“It was…. Not unwelcome. He is… nice. Kind. Smarter than he would have most think. It’s. I- but it’s Glaz. He hugs everyone. Even the Doctor. It’s not special. I just… was taken off guard. I haven’t been… hugged, or- something similar, in… but that doesn’t matter. You’re trying to get me sidetracked and I very much need to figure out what in my ancestors name and all the spirits I have to do now.” She ran a hand through her hair and took off her glasses to rub her eyes. “….Fuck.”
She wondered what Mallory would do. Or Glaz. Or Miri, or any of the rest. Bolke had her secrets, and no one pressured her. Technically he committed no crime. He hadn’t even killed the man, which put him a step above Larch, even if they had been hit men trying to kill her.
Larch clenched her fists and stood. “I’m going to go weed,” she said, though she had done so this morning and it was fully dark outside. “And- and gather soil.”
The blood-soaked soil of the graveyard contained high concentrations of many nutrients plants found beneficial, after all.
“And if you chase your mind in circles and longer, you’ll get dizzy and fall over,” Flower agreed. “I thought it odd you just left a pile of dirt there at the graveyard when you finished helping plant the dogwood for Mallory. Then I realized you wanted some of the soil. Follow along, sprout. Your vision isn’t as good as mine,” she added, and Larch grunted agreement.
Not just with her words about vision, either.
They left the inn. Larch filled five bags with wet dirt, checked the dogwood and patted it fondly. The roots were already spreading. Isarn was a bloody mess -literally and figuratively- but the one silver lining was the soil, in her opinion.
And Mallory was from here.
Her old hand cart served to transport it back to her wagon. In the wee hours of the morning, Larch took careful handfuls of the dark wet dirt and kneaded it into the soft loam, mixing thoroughly. One lone plucky weed was removed, with apologies, and relocated to the vacant window box of her room on the second story.
Elbow deep in the earth, her fingernails black, Larch felt her mind finally settle a little, the band of tightness in her chest loosening enough for her to finally breathe freely.
Her hand brushed something. Larch blinked, half pulling it from the earth, then paused.
A skull, smelling faintly of rot, with the tatters of flesh and hair still on it. She remembered this man. The second time the Metal Men had tried to kill her. He came with knives and scared Rutt and Moosely. A mistake on his part, as it turned out. The moose were companions and coworkers- not tame. What they started, she finished, the thorny javelins she pulled from her hair embedding themselves in belly and throat. And after, she had indeed hacked him up with her shovel with its sharp blade, and buried him with the first under the flowers.
Flower said nothing. Just watched.
Larch put the skull down, burying it a second time, deeper than before.
“….Maybe I- I do not feel comfortable making the decision alone, Flower. They’re… not my tribe, but- close. However,” she said, slowly, thinking out loud, “while I do not think it would be in his logical best interests to make corpses when he can find them, I do not know him. None of us do. So… I will need… Bolke. She is the one who can handle him in a physical context. And Glaz- he can fly.” A plan slowly began to take shape in her head. Larch nodded, slowly.
It wasn’t a perfect idea. But it was better than doing nothing.
And the Doctor was logical. Above all else, he would understand taking gentle measures against something that could be a threat.