CHAPTER SIX — THE MARIONETTE
Her heart pounded in her chest, gently rocking her where she stood. Each slow breath was a struggle. Every movement had to be a conscious one, deliberately chosen. Footsteps had to be gentle, so as not to disturb the gritty dry sand and dirt that settled between the cobbles; feet must be lifted up and set down without dragging the soles of the boots else the sound would erupt, bouncing off walls so close that she could reach out and touch both at the same time. Isabelle laid her hand against the rough bricks, as if she could feel the creature behind the stone and plaster surface, feel its anger, its hunger, its Madness. She shuddered.
The gentle tugging on her shirt sleeve eased her attention back to the task at hand. "RELAX," Sven signed. He wrote each letter with his fingers slowly to allow her enough time to decipher the gestures in the gloom. Isabelle nodded once. No moonbeams made it into the alley; it streamed through the darkness a few yards away, out in the road. The soft light silhouetted her companion's body; his face was completely hidden to her, obscured by shadows. But she knew he could see her as if it were high noon.
He was watching, waiting for her to calm down. He wouldn't tolerate anything but perfectly executed discipline during a hunt, and she was getting close to stepping outside the boundaries he had drawn for her. Isabelle gave a slow nod and closed her eyes. She placed her fingers to her neck, searching for her pulse. Counting her heartbeats was a trick Sven had suggested as a way to pacify herself. Whether it was a scientific miracle or a mental phenomenon, she didn't know. But it always seemed to work.
Sven tugged on her sleeve again just as she was about to make it into the triple digits. Isabelle opened her eyes. "Wait here," he signed. "I will be right back. I am going to try to get a look at what we are dealing with." He hesitated a moment. "Stay calm." She nodded and, keeping her eyes open this time, resumed counting her heartbeats. With feathery steps, he turned and stalked towards the moonlit street.
Sven waited, back against the wall, before cautiously peeking around the corner. All clear. Careful not to allow his clothing to rub against the rough brickwork and give him away, he slipped around the corner out into the street. Staying low as he passed under the boarded-up window, he crept over to the door. He paused, breath held, and listened. The silence of the empty city streets whispered in his ears. He ignored the pressing quiet, sought what lay beyond, and soon the muffled sounds from within the dilapidated tavern reached him: it was a regular pattern, constant, beginning with a dull rustling noise that lasted several seconds before an even briefer gap of silence broke it off, only for the noise to begin again. With deliberate controlled slowness, he shakily released his pent-up breath, repressing the instinct to fill his lungs with air.
The warped door hung open slightly; the creature hidden inside still hadn't bothered to close it. From his position, Sven could see through the thin space between the door and frame. The grinning moon colored the streets a sickening yellow, casting a skinny slash of moonlight faintly across wood boards of the floor of the tavern. His head disrupted the ribbon of light as he leaned closer over to peer through the gap. He blinked to adjust his eyes to the near black inside of the building.
It was a one-room tavern that once housed rather homely décor, but presently boasted a remarkable state of wreck. Chairs, tables, and barstools were destroyed and scattered throughout the room. The mounted back bar stood empty behind the long counter that stretched parallel to the back wall. In the center of the room, amid the ruins, was a bulging burlap bag. A figure crouched next to it, caressing the sack as if it were petting some dozing cat.
The once-human was half facing the door; Sven understood how fortunate he was that the creature hadn't noticed him. A wide, lustful eye glared down from a shroud of chin-length brown hair. The unkempt beard, broken by a smirk, obscured its face like a bandana. It was stark naked except for a red-spattered white gentleman's blouse hanging loosely around its shoulders.
It looked human enough, but Sven knew better than anyone never to trust mere appearances. This was undoubtedly their target. The being's Madness emanated menacingly outward, corrupting everything around its twisted host. Sven's skull prickled and his hair stood on end. A sudden dull headache—irritating throbs across his mind, synchronized with his heartbeats—made him grimace.
The Evil Human was much more powerful than predicted.
Bony fingers rubbed the surface of the sack tenderly. It was such a beautiful thing; he wanted it now. But he knew better than to sate himself here. The consequences for gorging himself right here and now were vastly outweighed by the reward he would soon receive for his task. A sudden breeze gently slapped the door against the frame and sent a breath of cool air into the room. The Evil Human raised his nose and inhaled deeply. He whirled around to face the entrance, still on his haunches, hand placed protectively on the bag. The door wobbled momentarily from the breeze, and then all was still; moonlight outlined the frame uninterrupted, perfectly silhouetting the warped wood. A tranquil moment passed. His attention returned to the sack, fingers tenderly stroking the coarse weave, convinced all was well.
Thank you for reading this chapter! On the off chance that you read the first few chapters as well, then thanks for that, too! For those of you who have so kindly waited for this chapter, I offer my gratitude and an enormous apology to you. At the risk of being accused of making excuses, I can explain: college. I've gotten into writing poetry again (Thanks, Pat!), which is what I have been writing instead of this. Most of my poems are posted on FictionPress (I have the same pen name). Am I advertising my own works? Yes. Am I shameless? Kinda. (Read my poems.)
Big thanks to A Sword for the Swordless for the incredibly uplifting review and for adding this story to your Favorites and Story Alerts! You're welcome back here anytime.
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