The pitter-patter of bare feet echoed in the corridor near the guardroom.
“Hey Philly! Cleanup on aisle five!” Hilda shouted by way of greeting.
Medvak looked down curiously at his stout companion. “What the hell is an aisle?”
“You know…” Hilda frowned thoughtfully, “I have no idea.”
Philly burst from around the corner like a dog rushing to meet its owner, her oversized, forked tongue dangling down to her chest and her dark eyes shining with excitement. The ghoul was wrapped in the blanket Hilda gave her earlier, looking like a poisoned priestess left for too long in the sun.
Hilda snorted. “Look, she’s dressed for dinner!”
“Don’t make fun of me,” Philly growled, all excitement gone from her eyes. “I’m only wearing this stupid thing because of you, because my body embarrasses you. This… sheet is really uncomfortable and I hate the way it feels against my skin.”
Medvak stammered, “Um, we’re not-- I mean, do what feels right is-- I mean, it’s, um, your body, your--”
Hilda didn’t let Medvak finish his bumbling serenade. “Isn’t there a single other ghoul in this dungeon you could make merry with? From what I read, no ghoul has ever refused sex.” Try as she might to fight it, Hilda was still a dwarf. Matchmaking was as much a part of her DNA as darkvision, longevity, and living with your parents until you started volunteering for suicide missions just to get an excuse to leave home for a few days.
Philly pointed at herself with her clawed thumb. “This ghoul has. Ghouls are crude, stinking and their tongues and dicks feel like sandpaper. They never want to do anything except eat and fuck. Most of them can’t even read! I can’t stand ghouls!
“Look,” Philly fixed her makeshift toga to keep it from slipping off her smooth shoulders. “I am not just a generic monster. I want to talk about art and books! I want to try exotic drinks! I want to go to new places and soak in the ambiance! I want to play board games!” The purple monster sighed bitterly. “Last time I showed a game to a male ghoul, he tore it to ribbons and ate the pieces. He then beat me for wasting his time…”
“Well…” Hilda said after a while. “You are a monster. So--”
“I used to be visited by a dark bard,” Philly said with a wistful smile. “He was a gentle and caring lover. He wrote the most beautiful poetry about death and decay on me and for me. He said I inspired him to create sublime art that shocked the bourgeois. I enjoyed his words and his mind as much as I enjoyed his touch! I am more than just a combat encounter.”
“Yes,” Hilda muttered under her breath, “You’re a vastly overdetailed encounter...”
“What happened?” Medvak asked.
Philly sighed. “I ate him.”
Medvak’s lips curled into a perfect O.
“Not monstrous at all…” Hilda remarked.
“He killed himself!” The ghoul cried, her eyes flashing crimson. Hilda took a step back and her hand crawled for her newfound sword. “It was an artistic decision! He said that all great artists had to die by the age of 27! He wanted me to eat him. He said that this way we’ll be together always.”
“That’s dumb.” Hilda said. “If it was true we’d all be in the company of pigs and giant worms--”
The ghoul glared at Hilda.
Medvak grimaced. “You eat giant worms?”
Hilda shrugged. “There is a restaurant in--”
“Then,” the ghoul said defiantly, “I had an orc lover. I screamed myself hoarse each time he came into my chamber." She glared at the dwarf as if daring her to challenge the claim.
“Did he taste better?”
“Don’t be nasty. I don’t know what happened to him. We never spoke. He’d sometimes enter the guardroom and just pounce on me. Sometimes he was fresh from the battle and covered in scars and the blood of his enemies. I never knew his name. Whenever I tried speaking to him, he’d put his hand over my mouth or shove my face into a pillow… he was so passionate, so aggressive. He wanted my body like a drowning man wants oxygen. Then, one day, he just stopped coming. I’ve never seen him since.”
"Probably dead.” Hilda said thoughtfully.
Medvak gave her a mean look. The dwarf shrugged. “Well, orcs die all the time. It’s not racist to say this.”
“I am not toxic.” the ghoul went on. “I don’t turn people into monsters. That’s bullshit.”
“What…” Medvak looked away, blushing, “um, what happened to you?”
“I don’t know. I can tell you I didn’t become a ghoul because I ate someone or did something terrible. Before my transformation, I was a dainty maiden who enjoyed nocturnal walks in abandoned cemeteries and read books that survived book burnings. No ghoul has besmeared me. I wasn’t raped or cursed or bitten. I haven’t seen any ghouls until I became one and even then other ghouls were indifferent to me. On rare occasions, they needed someone to read something to them, and rewarded me with baubles they had no use for. The coffer over there,” she pointed in the direction of her room, “is a culmination of my entire life as a ghoul. A pile of garbage that doesn’t even register as loot!”
Hilda yawned. “Good,” she said. “This means it’s far less likely that someone will smite you. It’s been a great talk, but we’re really tired. There's a big stinking ogre down the corridor. Have fun!”
Medvak looked like he was about to attempt another serenade, so Hilda dragged him away by his belt. Men. If you don’t steer them, they gallop right off a cliff.
“Medvak, listen to me,” Hilda whispered earnestly after the duo passed the skeleton with the ring and the saucer. Strange keening came from the north. Hilda hoped it was a killer benshee or a mad air elemental and not Philly weeping. “She is just a generic monster with too much background. It happens sometimes. Some dungeon masters have way much time on their hands. Don’t get attached. You’re too gentle for this.”
“Me?” Medvak pointed at himself with a blood-caked thumb the size of Hilda’s wrist. “I train with barbells bigger than you.”
“Maybe.” Hilda flashed a grin, “but I’m a tough nut to crack. You’re just a whole lot of mashed potato.”
“Praise the great spirit you’re a paladin and not a bard.”
“Exactly" Hilda pointed at Medvak with a metal-clad finger. "Remember not to mess with me or I’ll start singing.”
As soon as Hilda had found herself under the sacred light of the moon, caressed by warm winds and lulled by hidden cicadae, she knew she’d have no rest in the near future. She was so looking forward to sitting by the fire for half an hour and then sleeping for half a year. The dwarf sighed: the woods were lovely, dark, and deep, but she had promises to keep, and a few hundred meters to go before she could sleep.
“Great bear spirit in the sky!” Medvak exclaimed as soon as his massive boots crunched leaves on the ground. “I just gained a level!”
“Yeah I know.” Hilda said glumly. “I gained one too.”.
“What?” Medvak cried, startling the sleepy genie at the counter. “How cynical are you?! You don’t like gaining levels?”
“It’s not that,” Hilda brushed the barbarian’s protest away. “It’s just, um, it means I need to do, um, a thing.”
“What kind of a thing?” Medvak asked suspiciously.
Hilda frowned. “A dwarf thing.”
“Meaning go make us a fire. Don’t follow me. I’ll join you in ten, um, fifteen minutes...” Hilda started for the woods. “Or,” she cried over her shoulder, “you know, never.”