Jack and the Ghouls

Finishing this novel for NaNo so posting a few excerpts~

I had anticipated arriving at the grand cathedral for myriad reasons—the reason I had given Till couldn’t exactly be called a lie, but I’d describe it as a bit of a fib. Certainly the building cut an impressive figure, limned against the flawless white field surrounding it. Certainly, once we stepped inside, the immensity of the place humbled me. I can’t quite describe it—the true emptiness of the place. The spirit of pale grandeur that touched every surface inside. The ghouls and, I assume, the continual freezing wind blowing from without kept the place free of dust and cobwebs, aside from in the furthest darkest rafters. Upon entering, I almost heard the whisper of the past, lavishly adorning every corner, every wall, every facet of the cathedral. This church had been magnificent, once, in the truest sense. Voices filling it in song—exultant voices, raised in praise.

Now the cathedral echoed with their memory. It was the sort of building that you knew had a memory and a consciousness. I could feel pain radiating from the walls, where they had been cleft by the fallen pillar of stone. The snow that filtered down intermittently from the fractured roof felt like blood, trickling from a never-healed wound. The building reminded me of All Names—a strange, oblique connection, but one that remained fixed in the back of my mind, persistent and loud. It made me grave as we stood there, Rha having stormed into a side room, following Lily and followed by the woman we’d witnessed embattled against the ghouls.

That left us and the ghouls. Till proved himself fairly useless, preoccupied by the door where Rha and Lily had vanished in company. He hadn’t spoken a word to her when she’d darted into our midst—just stood there, mute and motionless, until she’d been called to heel. I, too, found this development rather disturbing, but unlike my emotionally complex friend, I didn’t allow it to interfere with my assessment of the current situation.

“Sorry to arrive at such a delicate moment,” I said, pleased in the way my voice rung out through the cathedral, as though it yearned to resound again with a strong voice such as my own. I stepped forward, walking between the rows of pews, my hands clasped behind my back. “We stumbled upon your church quite by accident. Funny, how coincidence will bring people together like this.”

I stopped a few feet away from them, in the open space between the pews and the steps leading to the pulpit. One ghoul—the one who’d been fighting the shepherd—stood at the front of their group, his arms crossed. At first, the guise of perfect blank infallibility fooled me—five ghouls, none of them emoting, all of them still and silent even following their battle.

And then I looked deeper. I narrowed my eyes and tilted my head at them, a slow smile curving my lips. The one in front—his chest moved beneath his crossed arms. Not deeply or overly fast, like any average plebeian member of society might exhibit while catching his breath. But his chest did move. And after that I began to pick out minute things amongst them. The slight flicker of a finger, the tiniest shift of a face, of the eyes. A slow blink. The realization proved almost overwhelming to me—they communicated. Constantly. The blank facade was just that—a facade. They held it in front of and around themselves. But I had glimpsed beyond the veil.

But they would not speak to me. I knew this much without having to test the theory. I’d heard the stories. I glanced back to Till and found him sitting down in one of the pews. I shrugged, and took two deliberate steps toward the ghouls, until I stared into the leader’s eyes from uncomfortable proximity. This close, I could see everything—the continuous, subconscious flicker of his iris as it took in every detail of my face. The way the brow of his mask curved downward to conceal everything aside from the eye itself. It shadowed what it could not outright conceal, so that I could not even discern the color of his eyebrows. Abruptly I found that I wanted to know the color of his eyebrows.

He had blood on the points of the horns that curved up from the top of his mask, and absent-mindedly I smoothed a finger over it, leaving the silver plaster shining beneath. Still his grey eyes did not leave me.

“I find myself immensely curious as to the quality of your lives,” I said, my voice soft and musing. I looked down to meet his eyes again—all of them stood a few inches shorter than I. “What must it be like, to live your entire existence behind a mask? They say you sleep in them, removing them only to eat, and then not even entirely.”

I moved my hand to the pointed chin of his mask and hooked a finger into the inside of the mask. At that point the ghoul broke his absolute calm—he flinched hard away from me, his hand moving so fast I never saw it. He smacked his wrist hard into mine, knocking my hand away. Numbness shot into my fingertips and I laughed.

“Sore point? My apologies.”

He studied me carefully, his eyes a little sharper now. Beginning to consider me a threat instead of a mere annoyance. Good. I stepped away from the gaggle of ghouls and walked toward the great rift torn in the side of the building—outside, the sun had begun to set, and I longed to experience the inside of the broken cathedral by night. Besides, it had become abundantly clear that something was amiss in the house of my nemesis, and I would not leave before discovering what this was.

Besides, I thought, frowning as I turned back to Till, still sitting on his pew and staring at his hands, Till would appreciate the chance to speak with Lily and discover what had happened.

“Will it be some great blasphemy if my friend and I were to spend the night, here?” I directed the question to the ghouls, although I spoke it loud enough to resound throughout the cathedral. I turned back to face them, and found that the lead ghoul’s eyes had not ever left me. I smiled at the thought, and dropped him a wink.

He tilted his head to the side, then shook it. I had the impression he exaggerated the gesture to make it more obvious to my myopic non-ghoul perception. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that I’d broken their precious code, that he could give me a tiny ghoul nod and I would perceive and understand. Instead I smiled at him, and conducted an ornate bow over arm and extended leg.

“My thanks to you,” I said.

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