Episode 2

Sheep-Eater (Yall_Ever_Seen_A_Lava_Lamp)
9 months ago
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Synopsis: Silly guy talks to people and beats up a ghoul

By: Yall_Ever_Seen_A_Lava_Lamp


“Amongst the Silver Starlight I find a second chance, in Midsummer Moonlight I am reborn.”

A line from an old lull-a-bye my late-mother used to sing to me. A song my grandmother sung to her, my great-grandmother sung to my grandmother, so on and so forth.

There was nothing literally magical about the melody, nor was it an ancient tradition from some by-gone ritual. To simplify things, it was just a nice, quiet, calm sounding song.

The sound had never rung truer than when I ended up in a run-down village in the middle of the night. Then and there, I found myself a new person and a new purpose.

Oftentimes, I find myself thinking back to my childhood when faced with a warm summer’s night.

BWWWWEEE-BWEEEEE-BWEEEEE-BBRRREWWWEEEEEEeeee….

Cicadas.

Never did mind the sound of cicadas.

Not to say that I particularly like the sound either. Still, it was a welcome background noise to the mindless task I was currently put to.

Cutting grass-stalks was not the most entertaining of jobs, anyone from just about anywhere would tell you that much. Except perhaps those prisses from up north… hm.

I could feel sweat sticking to my face, could feel my grip on my blades’ handle move slightly from the excretion.

The dull sword continued to do its job faithfully, hacking away at the tough, tall grass over-and-over again. There was a certain, almost meditative quality to the work.

Suddenly, the lull was broken. “Zeng An! Are you done yet?” A loud, slightly annoyed sounding voice called out from across the field.

I breathed out a sigh, returning my blade to its sheath. Turning toward the voice, I now faced the dirt road and shabby fence opposite of the field and tree line.

Leaning against, nearly over, the fence was a young, arrogant looking man wearing shabby black robes that had certainly seen better days. He had oily hair that was barely tied together with what looked like a long strip of scrap cloth.

What an interesting person, to shout like a master while dressed like a servant.

“I am. I have been. I am continuing to cut grass so that the field is level.” I responded shortly. In this way, I will not have to cut grass again, as there will be none to cut.

The man seemed to deadpan. “…Just gather what you have and follow me.”

Obliging to the man’s orders, I picked up the basket used to hold the cut stalks and walked over to the fence. Now, face-to-face with the man, it was easy to see the tension that lined his features.

“What has you so worried, Cai Shi?” I asked. Cai Shi narrowed his eyes, as if the idea of being concerned for any reason was insulting to him.

“I am not worried. If I were worried, which I’m not, you would find out why once you see Li Hui. Something you were supposed to do long ago, instead of playing around in the field like a retired horse.” He finished pointedly with a sideways glance.

The dirt path was a familiar one, walking down it toward the village was nothing new. What it was, however, was long. There is only so much mildly uncomfortable silence one can take.

“…You know why I was requested back, yes?”

Cai Shi grunted in lieu of an answer.

“Then, tell me.”

Slightly disgruntled, the man answered.

“Well, you’re straightforward as ever. Unfortunately, I don’t know the exact reason, but I could give you a theory.”

Silence stretched out over the pair.

“You won’t ask me to tell you?” Cai Shi said, offended.

“Do you- do you want me to ask you?”

“Forget it, whatever. You know Ma Yongle? The sheep farmer?”

I nodded. Ma Yongle was an older man with graying hair who looked after the village’s sheep flock. He was surprisingly laid back for a shepherd, occasionally losing an animal or two due to his carelessness.

“Well, his sheep have been going missing. More than the usual amount, anyway. In fact, some of the corpses have been showing up in the river downstream. Scared the shit out of poor Li Bao.”

That was… concerning.

“So, Ma Yongle’s dead sheep have been showing up downstream? And it’s not a wolf?”

Cai Shi shrugged. “Dunno, haven’t seen them myself. No matter what it is, you’d be the one to deal with it.”

“Huh? Surely I wouldn’t be the sole option.”

Cai Shi let out a particularly long soul-suffering sigh.

“As much as it pains me, you’re the only one in this damn back-water village who can draw a beast’s blood without passing out from fear or some kind of… moral obligation,” he stomped along and rolled his eyes as he spoke.

“I do not see you picking up a sword, which of the two do you suffer from?”

“…”

Surely, the man did not speak the rest of the journey due to careful consideration of the question.

Arriving at the village entrance was a welcome familiarity. Same old rotting-wood gate, same old half-built huts. The entire place sat quietly on the outskirts of a dense forest.

It wasn’t a big village, barely a few dozen people living in the community. Still, a small population meant everyone knew everything and tended to rely on each other. The people here were outcasts, beggars, and pickpockets.

People who were poor, people with nowhere else to go. Despite the variety of character, folks were, in general, willing to work together; especially when matters concerned food or money.

Unless you were Sheng Fen. That woman hated everyone.

The road itself eventually dwindled, ending at the steps of the largest building in the area. It was probably the size of a standard family home, with a simple two-step staircase leading up to a porch.

The steps themselves were actually a surprising point of debate amongst the people. Many believe that simply stacking two rocks on top of each other would make a better looking and more stable staircase.

Lost in thought, I didn’t notice the house’s door open until the woman inside called out.

“Zeng An! Where have you been? I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for ages! I asked you to cut the grass to get your energy out - God knows there isn’t enough grass in the world for that - not as a punishment!”

She spoke quickly with her hands on her hips. Of course, I knew that. It wasn’t a punishment for secretly stealing her wine. Definitely.

“Thank you for your guidance.” I said in a placating voice.

“…You’re welcome. Thought you would appreciate the chance to use your sword skills. Lucky you.”

Yes, she definitely found the empty jars.

“I’m very fortunate.”

The woman seemed to age twenty years as she stared at me trying to communicate some unsaid grievance. I could practically see her silky, long, black hair turning stiff and gray. Her young-looking face gained wrinkles by the second.

“I’m glad you know that.” she sighed. “I need to talk to you about something.” the granny said.

“If it’s about the sheep, Cai Shi already told me.” I made to gesture toward him, but, sadly, he had run off at some point during our conversation.

The woman raised an eyebrow. “It’s about the sheep, and I was going to ask if you’d be willing to investigate. Normally, a sheep or two disappearing wouldn’t be an issue, but a total of fifteen sheep have died in the past four days. It would be an easy solution if it was an… aggressive. pack of wolves.” she trailed off, seemingly finding her own explanation stupid.

“But,” she recovered quickly, “Wolves don’t leave intact bodies in a river. So, as our one-and-only-ever- attentive guard, I’m asking you to go see what’s going on.”

She finished speaking in a stern tone of voice that left no room for arguments. Not that there was an argument to be had, if there was a threat in the area, it would be taken care of.

“I’ll see to it.” There was no hesitation.

Li Hui practically melted from the relief, a tension I hadn’t even noticed until it was gone.

“Thank you. Go do what you need to do.”

Dismissed, I turned from her and walked backdown the road toward where the farms were. Best to start where it began, right?

The pastures were objectively the most important part of the village. The sheep and cattle raised were the main source of income, little as the income was. Something specifically targeting the animals would be detrimental. As such, questioning the shepherd and searching the area would be the first order of business.

The familiar fences quicky came into sight, as did the man leaning against one of the posts. How fortunate, finding the shepherd just got much easier. “Ma Yongle!”

The man looked up at the sudden sound. “Ah- Zeng An! I was waiting for you to come by.” He grinned as he spoke and gestured me to come closer.

“I was just wondering when you’d be here, and there you are! You have very good timing, you know?” He said chuckling. The shepherd, for someone whose animals were disappearing rapidly for no reason, certainly seemed very carefree.

“Thank you, I am often criticized for my timing, so I appreciate your words.”

“Haha! Just the truth, just the truth… Now, anything you want to ask me?” He was practically doing my job for me. How nice.

“Yes, what do you know about what has been happening?” The shepherd hummed slightly.

“Not a lot, I’m afraid. Only noticed something was wrong about three days ago when Li Bao and Li Hui came to yell at me about it… not my fault I can’t keep track of all those things at once…” he grumbled.

To be fair, there are a lot of sheep. To be unfair, keeping track of the sheep is your entire job. I valiantly did not say anything to the man and kept my mouth shut.

“Anyways, I told them that it was probably just a wolf,”- what is with these people and wolves? – “We live in a forest, you know? But, after a few days, Li Hui came back saying the same thing. So, I did a count this morning and was missing fifteen sheep. That’s all I know.”

“You waited three days before counting your sheep after finding out some were missing?”

“Well, yes! A few sheep running off is hardly a cause for concern.” He sounded exasperated, like this was something he had said many times before.

…Okay then.

“Do you mind if I take a look at the flock?”

“Not at all, go ahead.” Ma Yongle stepped aside to open the gate he was next to. Not that the gate was particularly necessary, as the fence was mostly for show and didn’t wrap all the way around.

“Tell me if you find anything, I’m going to make sure the pigs are alright…” He walked off with a wave. Is this favoritism? For pigs? Against sheep? No one but Ma Yongle would know.

The sheep seemed to be huddled together on the far side of the pasture, away from the gate. Unlike its owner, a dutiful sheepdog could be seen keeping together any brave souls who dared to go beyond the established area.

Truly, the only reason the farm isn’t falling apart. Making sure to make my presence known, I joined the dog in its job. The dog, creatively named ‘Gou’ by the shepherd, was a good contrast to its owner. In fact, they were such opposites that they might as well switch professions.

Really, it was quite a sweet, hard-working creature. One would wonder how the two got paired together, but it was a story the owner liked to tell often.

Basically, Ma Yongle found a puppy once and trained it as a sheepdog. It was pure luck that the breed actually was, indeed, a sheepdog. I asked him once why he bothered training a dog that may-or-may-not have been a sheepdog, and he said it was so he would have less work later on.

A genius, that one. Learned a few tricks from him.

The flock itself looked, outwardly, completely fine.

None of the sheep looked injured, not even fatigued, only a palpable nervousness to them. Whether that was from a new person being around them or the assumed beast was debatable.

I’m no doctor, but the possibility of illness was probably off the table. Feeling satisfied with my extensive detective skills, I left the dog to its duties.

Running into people seems to be this day’s theme. Cai Shi was sitting in front of my house, nibbling on something or another. Probably a stalk of my hard-earned grass. Glancing up from his labor-intensive task, he said “Hey. What’d leader want?”

“She wanted me to investigate what was happening to the sheep.”

“Told you.”

“You did.”

Cai Shi spit out his non-descript chew toy. He didn’t say anything else.

“…”

“…”

“Do you want to know how the investigation went?”

“I don’t know, do you want me to ask?” How petty.

“Yes, I do.”

“Wha- that’s not how this works.”

“Sorry, do you want me to try again?”

“No-! You know what, I don’t care.” He looked so downtrodden that I almost felt bad. “How’d your investigation go?” I’ve won.

“Well, it probably is a beast. The sheep looked fine. So did the dog.”

“Fantastic deduction.” for some reason, that compliment didn’t sound genuine.

“The only suspicious thing was how good of a mood Ma Yongle was in.”

Cai Shi snorted a laugh.

“That guy is always in a good mood, nothing suspicious there.”

“His only complaint after being yelled at by Li Hui was quiet mumbling.”

Cai Shi’s smile dropped.

“Maybe he’s a bit off after all. Anyway, you only checked the field?”

“It’s too close to sunset to check anywhere else.”

“That’s fair.” He said, effectively closing the conversation topic as he picked himself up off the ground.

“Keep me updated,” the man said, moving to leave.

“See you.” The man waved backhandedly as he walked off.

Apparently, after loitering on my well-kept dirt, Cai Shi felt it appropriate to leave without apologizing.

For the dirt.

And the grass.

And whatever else he’s surely done.

Ah, thinking too much always gives me a headache. Thinking is better left to scholars. Was never a scholarly type. Though, I enjoy a good musing once-in-awhile. Who doesn’t? What I would really enjoy, though, is sleeping.

Morning routines were always the same, hence the routine part.

For me, it was very simple. Wake up, change clothes, walk out the door.

The first two steps were complete, no problem, I was indeed both awake and in different clothes. Mostly different. The pants were the same, but no one would notice a small detail like that.

The third step, in this three-part plan, however, was impeded.

Li Bao was sitting at the front of the house, staring directly upwards with her back towards the door. Why do people feel the need to wait ominously for me to show up?

“Li Bao, what are you doing?”

“AH!” She startled, not expecting a voice. You’re sitting in front of my house. Do you not expect me to talk to you?

“…Don’t sneak up on me.” She sounded a bit teary. It took away from the threatening tone of voice she was going for.

“Begging forgiveness.”

She frowned slightly. “You- uhm- F-forgiven?”

I inclined my head in acknowledgement.

“Why are you here, Li Bao?”

Looking very meek, not unlike a mouse, Li Bao explained what she was doing on my considerably-less nice dirt pathway.

“Well- Mom told me to.” Mother? Ah, yes, Li Hui. It’s easy to forget that they’re mother and daughter because they look nothing alike. While the leader had black hair, dark eyes, and sharp facial features, Li Bao had light brown hair with eyes to match and a rather round-looking face. One must wonder if they are related through familial bond only.

“Uh- Get you-! She told me to get you. So, I could show you, the, uhm… sheep. That I found. So, follow me? Please?” The poor girl stuttered her way through her excuse and eventually looked like she might start crying on the spot if we didn’t leave right that instant.

Taking matters into her own hands, she began walking quickly away in means of escaping the situation.

Thankfully, it wasn’t a long walk to the woods. The two of us ended up at the bank of a shallow, slow flowing river. It would have been more peaceful if not for corpses piled up nearby. In plain sight.

“Has no one else made a fuss about the funeral pyre?”

Li Bao laughed and then subsequently looked betrayed for laughing.

“My mom said that no one knows yet. Told- told everyone to wash farther upstream…”

Despite fifteen confirmed missing, only three were present.

As the bodies were fresh, their noses were spared. A great mercy from someone upstairs, surely. I’ll have to remember to offer incense today.

“Are these the only ones?”

“Yeah- I mean, yes. Cai Shi fished them out of the water.” Huh. So that’s why he knew about the sheep, rather than word getting out.

The three bodies, at first, looked normal. Spooky and waterlogged, sure, but overall, what a dead animal dunked in a river would look like. Sort of gross. But nothing notable in terms of dismemberment or even being eaten. As one would assume they might be.

Upon closer inspection, which may or may not have been warily turning over one of them with a local stick, the only visual injury was a small wound to the side.

Do I have to get close to it? I don’t want to get closer to it.

“How- How does it look?” asked [NAME3], bravely hiding behind a nearby tree. She had already contributed much to the investigation, having may or may not gotten a stick. She was allowed to courageously stay out of my direct line of sight.

“No real harm to the bodies, on a small cut on their sides.”

“What? Really? A little cut did all of this?” she decided to forgo her nervousness in favor of shock, it seems.

I have to get closer to it. Curses.

Looking closer, as miserable as it was, seemed to be beneficial. As the previous thought cut now looked to be several even smaller punction wounds.

Whether they were from claws or teeth was hard to tell, but they were lined up in a messy row. I don’t know anything that leaves marks like this. Would the physician? Surely, she’s seen many claw and bite marks in her lifetime.

Moving away from the sheep was a nice bonus of standing up. “You were right to be doubtful, Li Bao. It’s not from a cut.”

“Oh? What is it, then?”

Would she be scared if I said I didn’t know?

“…I’m not too sure. Maybe some type of bug.”

“Bug?” she scrunched her face in disgust.

“Bug.” I said, attempting to match her feelings.

“I hate bugs. I hope it’s not bugs. Bugs are gross. Did you know, once, I found a bug in my house, and mom made me get rid of it myself!”

“She wouldn’t…”

“She did! And she made me sweep that day, too! Talk about unfair- why, if mom had found the bug, I would’ve let her rest all day!”

“All day?”

“Yeah! All day!”

“Say, do you like butterflies?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Butterflies are bugs too, you know.”

“No. You’re lying to me.”

“I am not. Have you ever seen a butterfly from underneath? They look just as gross-” Li Bao stuck her fingers in her ears.

“I’m not listening to you anymore!” The girl ran ahead, kicking up dust as she went.

I made the journey back to the village on my lonesome… if you ignore the girl who was pointedly refusing to acknowledge my presence.

She didn’t make it that far ahead before running out of breath and having to slow down significantly.

Meeting with Cai Shi was more-or-less exactly what I was expecting. Which was sitting down with wine, courtesy of Li Hui, on the floor of his house. Not mine, for once.

“You and Li Bao? Talking? Did you force the poor girl?”

“No.”

“Oh, really? What did you talk about, then?”

“Bugs.”

“Hah! She hates bugs.”

“We bonded over mutual hatred.”

“I never knew you hated bugs.”

“That is because I do not.”

He shot me a look, conveying the meaning of ‘I didn’t know you were this stupid.’

“Then it’s not mutual?”

“I think they’re gross, but I don’t hate them. They have not slighted me personally.” I paused, not wanting to dismiss the possibility of it happening one day. “Yet.”

“So, you do hate them.” He punctuated his sentence by downing the cup of wine he was holding. “Anyway, you were saying something about Sheng Fen?”

“Oh, yes, I was planning to ask her about the marks I found on the sheep.”

Cai Shi made a sympathetic sound.

“That’ll be fun. Wish you luck.”

“Thank you,” I said. I meant it, too. The thought of meeting with that woman for any reason other than being on death’s door was enough to make me grateful for the drinks.

Cai Shi made a strange gesture with his hands and looked at me directly.

“How about, instead, you just wait to see if you can catch the creature tonight? I’m sure you’d prefer that to the alternative… as would anyone else for the next few days.”

I would. I would prefer that to the alternative.

“I’ll tell Ma Yongle that I’ll be commandeering his fields tonight, then.”

Cai Shi laughed loudly. “Thought so!”

Once his common-sense induced laughing fit subsided, he offered to tell Li Hui.

“It’d be good for her to know where her prized village guard will be.” Whoa now, guard is a lofty title. You kill one beast and suddenly it’s soldier this, warrior that…

The moments passed with banter and wine.

“How did you end up in a shithole like this anyway, Zeng An?”

“I was an archer; I ended up with an eye injury one day. Obviously, I couldn’t shoot while it healed.” Cai Shi whistled.

“Tough guy, hm? Maybe I’ll get you a bow for your birthday.”

“…What about you?” He was here before I was, but it was obvious he wasn’t born here. We had known each other for a while; however, this particular topic had never been brought up.

“Eh, you know how messy inheritance disputes can get,” Oh boy, do I.

“Someone says one thing wrong and suddenly the whole place turns into a fuck-fest.” He said with an obvious false carelessness. sighed with a bitter air to him. Seemed like it was still a sore subject.

“You have my apologies.”

“Doesn’t matter now.” He poured the both of us another cup.

They were finished in silence, fortunately, it was a comfortable one.

Having stalled long enough, I said my farewells and left for the fields. Trusting Cai Shi to go tell the leader was probably fine. It would get done. Hopefully.

At first, the plan was to simply as Ma Yongle for permission to camp out in his yard. However, in the end, hiding in the hills until nightfall seemed like the better plan. …Look, it was easier to go ahead and wait than to take the time to ask permission to ask. That, and I couldn’t find the guy within two minutes of looking.

The night was quiet, not even the wind making a sound. The moon shone brightly, illuminating the area and making it relatively easy to see once your eyes had adjusted. It was late enough that the majority of sheep were already sleeping. Somehow, it felt rude to watch the lazy bunch sleep, so I turned around from the flock to watch the adjacent tree line. I am no sheep stalker.

Though my morals were pure, this turned out to be the wrong move.

Soft, barely audible crunching in the grass could be heard from behind.

Gripping my blade, I quickly turned around. Standing there, a few paces away from the sleeping flock, was something only described as a monster.

It resembled an extremely malnourished human corpse, with visible bones under tightly stretched skin. It seemed to be a pale gray, but with the moonlight it was hard to tell. Its front appendages were long and stiff, while its back legs were shorter and sturdier. It had sunken, unseeing eyes and no ears, but the most disturbing thing about it was the lack of a mouth. It simply seemed to have skin stretched over where a mouth would be. It walked like someone with locked knees, hobbling quietly through the field.

Minutes passed. I didn’t want to engage with a creature I knew nothing about. On the other hand, it would be best to finish things quickly.

Moving to draw my blade, I dared not take even a breath.

The creature, it seemed, waits for no one. Impossibly quiet, it suddenly leapt toward a sheep on the outskirts of the flock. The jump allowed me to finally get a good look at its claws. They resembled many needles stacked on top of each other, like a bundle of syringes was attached to the monster’s feet and hands. It attached itself to the back of the sheep, claws digging into the still-sleeping animal’s side. Rather than begin to cut the sheep, the monster’s stomach began to swell like a tick; happily gorging itself on the sheep’s blood.

There was no longer time for hesitation. Removing my blade from its scabbard, I ran toward the feasting creature. It clearly heard my movement, head rearing up and snapping to my position. It made guttural huffing sounds as it lifted itself off the sheep and braved the attack head-on. It attempted to dodge last-minute, but it was futile.

The sword met it’s target, cleanly cutting through the bone of its front arm. The creature did not make any frantic sounds, only increasingly loud grunts. Sporadically, It jumped toward me, attaching its remaining limb to my right forearm. “GAH!-”

The needle-like claws pierced my skin, my own blood adding to the mess in it’s stomach.

“Damn bloodsucker!”
While momentarily losing grip on the sword’s handle, it luckily wasn’t lost to the ground. Taking advantage of the monster’s close proximity, the metal speared through its chest, moving upwards and swiftly cutting the thing’s head in half. It went limp, dark ooze slowly covering the ground. I found myself on the ground shortly after.

My breathing was harsh, my lungs practically uprooting my ribcage. My surroundings gradually filled themselves back in.

Sheep bleating, stomping, or otherwise panicking in the background.

Tree line.

Fucking- celestials in the sky or something.

…Ghoul on the ground. Lovely.

After gathering my thoughts, I left the sheep to their stomping and sprinted towards Ma Yongle’s house.

Throwing open the door only revealed a now very awake and barking dog. Why is a sheepdog indoors? Wait, no time for that. Stepping into the bedroom, there was nothing. No one was in here. Was that possible? Did he run after hearing the fight?

No. He wouldn’t have left Gou. Did he hide?

Searching the house, a cellar was easily located. Inside it was Ma Yongle. Curled into a corner, seemingly passed out.

“Ma Yongle!”

I climbed into the cellar and shook the shepherd from the shoulders. He showed no signs of waking up, but he was still breathing. Making the executive decision to carry him and myself to the physician, he was slung over my shoulders. The following miserable trek to the doctor’s was increasingly difficult. It was decently far, and being injured did not help morale.

Despite the late hour, Sheng Fen was still awake, and was now inclined to help. Ma Yongle was moved onto a bed, checked over, and then left alone. The woman then turned to me. She was scowling, making her wrinkled face even more unpleasant.

Is there a way to get out of this situation?

Ah, yes, brilliant!

“…I’m going to pass out.”

“Do it somewhere that’s not my floor.”

I promptly passed out onto her floor.

Waking up to a headache and someone staring at you is never pleasant. Even less so when that someone is ugly.

“There you are, damn brat.” She was still frowning.

“Do you think my house is a clinic? Have you no respect for schedules? Your ancestors? How pathetic, passing out from such a measly wound. Drink some water and get out of my sight.” She spun around and proceeded to ignore my presence.

Ladies and gentlemen, Sheng Fen.

My arm felt stiff, but was bandaged, and overall felt about as good as any stab wound feels. A bowl of water was within arm’s reach, what a temptation. Lifting myself up, careful not to use my injured arm, the water bowl was ignored in favor of standing up and walking out the door. My arm was hurt, not my legs. It had clearly been several hours, as the Sun was up and also very bright. Ouch.

“ZENG AN!” OUCH.

“Stop screaming.” my line of sight was graced with Li Hui.

“You’re up! You’re lucky Cai Shi told me to ask Sheng Fen to be on the lookout for you. What happened?”

Thanks for the support, Cai Shi.

“A monster was eating the sheep, I killed it. I found the shepherd passed out in his own cellar.”

She looked contemplative. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“I’ll get Cai Shi to get rid of the… monster body. Presumably. We’ll have to wait for Ma Yongle to wake up to see if there’s any more information.” Take one for the team, Cai Shi.

“I suppose we will.”

“…You’re not getting out of work because your arm is a little hurt.”

Damn it.

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