's 2019 Horror Write-off:

Dreadshapen I - The Flesh Princess

Submitted by Luna Wolf

Zinci was close to passing out. These people greatly overestimated the stamina of an Umbrisan. Well, she underestimated them too. Humans really were as relentless as told in stories. The group had been walking for two hours now and they still had the energy to chitchat.

“Are you sure this is right?” the tail of the group shouted to the guy leading the way. “Why would someone from Angelblood meet us all the way out here?”
“Because it’s safer?”
“How is it safer?”
The leader looked back at the three people in chains between them and made an annoyed gesture towards them. “For one, we have no idea who these people are. If one of them is some important chieftain’s daughter or whatever, they might try and get them back. The further south we are, the least likely we’ll get attacked by northerners.”
Zinci was pretty sure neither her kind, nor that of the Ziyn behind her had hierarchies like that.
“Also, the Circle of Nails is generally the place to safely do unethical business, like, you know, selling slaves.”
“I don’t know, Carl…”
“Let’s just get this over with, okay? You want to get these freaks off our hands as soon as possible too, right?”
The guy in the back gave the Ziyn a suspicious glare. She was the only one they couldn’t restrain as there was no way to block out magic. They had to rely on the fact that Ziyn eyes were evolved to see in the incredibly dark deep forests in the north, not the bright desert sun. The poor thing might go blind even through her eyelids. The girl behind the Ziyn appeared human, but the muzzle over her mouth suggested she was something else too. Zinci knew little of the children of the Tumor God, but she must be one of those.

Not much later, Zinci finally collapsed from the strain. Carl pushed her shoulder with a boot.
“I thought you guys were solar-powered. Couldn’t have asked for a sunnier day. Get up.”
Umbrisan indeed drew their energy from the sun, but they were a little too large an organism to sustain themselves that way reliably. Most time of the day they would only sunbathe, sparing their limited energy whenever possible. Zinci was lucky it was only noon. Had she entered the night this exhausted, she wouldn’t have survived it. The warm sand felt nice, even if she could barely feel the body lying on top of it.
“Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with these things?”
“She’ll probably die if you don’t let her rest.” That must be the voice of the Ziyn. Hadn’t spoken the whole walk.
“Fine, let the dirtlicker carry her. We’re almost there.”

Next thing her brain processed was the cold steel of the muzzle against her face and the sun on her back. She had no choice but to fall asleep.

She awoke with only the apparent time passed indicating she had slept at all. As her brain bit by bit took stock of her memories, she noticed that the girl holding her was still walking. She had woken up just in time to witness the rear guard notice the same problem with that.
“Didn’t you say we were almost there?”
“We are, it has to be around here.”
“Are you sure we weren’t tricked?”
“What would the point be?”
“Then, are you sure you can read coordinates?”
“Yes, Boris, I know how to bring us to the correct coordinates. We are here.” He held up the map and touched a specific spot on it. There was no way Boris could tell anything from back there. Carl turned back around and shielded his eyes from the sun. “We’re in the right area, just keep your eyes open.”
No more complaining from Boris. This struck Carl as odd and he turned back around.
“Where is he?” he walked to where his partner should have been. It wasn’t like there was anywhere to hide. There was a thin tree further ahead and some ruins a bit to the north.
“Boris, say something, where are you?”
He kept looking around. Zinci didn’t really care and just kept her eyes on the Ziyn that stood in front of her and the chain that connected their necks. They were rather colorful beings, with glowing patterns on their bodies. Despite living in almost complete darkness under the thick roof of trees in the northern jungles, they relied on their extremely specialized eyesight and as such each of them had their very own pattern and color. This one had streaks of blue running down her arms and legs.
“Right, I hope you know the way home, because I’ll just leave you behind now!” Carl took position as the head of the group again.

It took some time for it to occur to him that there was a specific reason they placed the Ziyn in the middle of their line-up. As she could not see, it would be rather dangerous to launch a magic attack. Placing her between the others ensured she could not do so without risking hitting one of her fellow captives. And even if she could somehow hit the guy in the front, there was still the one in the back to worry about.

Carl turned around to remedy this mistake just in time to catch a fireball with his face. He fell over with only a bit of his neck sticking up from his torso. Some parts of his head remained intact enough to bleed into the sand.

“Did I get him?” she asked.
“You did”, Zinci confirmed. She climbed off the human’s back to make sure Boris did not pop up again out of nowhere. It truly looked like the three of them were alone. As the only one of them whose body was not assaulted with adrenaline at the dramatic turn of events, she went to collect the keys to their shackles from the body. An Umbrisan could not afford to get riled up, they had no spare energy to blow in tense situations in the first place. The piece of metal clamped around her neck was the first to fall into the sand. The Ziyn was next, then the human. Zinci picked up the muzzle, a simple piece of thick metal strapped in front of the mouth to keep away the dangerous things inside. She placed it over the Ziyn’s eyes, which she had been covering with her forearm as best she could.
“Does this help with your eyes?”
“Yes, that’s much better.”
They all sat down on the ground to recover from the shock and stress and exhaustion. Zinci was the only one who could think ahead at the time, the others could not yet grasp a solid thought.
“My name is Zinci Avef. who are you?” a proper way of addressing each other would be helpful going forward.
“Leaner Cirksena.” was the first thing the half-human got to say.
“Nim Aket.” the Ziyn said, though it was probably written more complicated than it sounded. Her kind had the habit of making their language really obtuse to ones coming from the outside.

After taking some deep breaths, Leaner picked up the map before the residual flames could consume it entirely. It only depicted a corner of the ocean surrounding the island and was thusly useless. Zinci took Nim’s arm for lack of a hand and guided her to the smoldering corpse.
“Guess we got lucky.” Leaner said. She showed a sarcastic smile with zigzag teeth, that seemed to perfectly grab into each other without cutting her gums.
“What do we do now?” Nim asked.
“I was on my way to Blackwater when I got got.” Leaner began. “They say it’s a very tolerant place, they even let my kind in, so it should be no trouble for you either. If we follow our footsteps back, we should go the right direction.”
“We should rest first.” Zinci said. She didn’t have another march in her. She pointed to the abandoned house in the north.
“Right, I can keep carrying you tomorrow.”
“Maybe I should carry her.” Nim said. “I don’t need to be able to move around to defend myself.”
“Good point.”
“Go ahead. I can walk that bit on my own.”
The others had no reason to object so they went ahead. Zinci knelt down and took Carl’s hand in hers to kiss its back. Then she got up to spit the taste back onto his corpse.

On their way, they checked for Boris a last time. Since they all walked in a straight line, it was hard to pick out where his footsteps ended, but there were none that suddenly ran off into another direction. It was like he was beamed up into the heavens. Who knew what really happened. Nothing worked as it should anymore in the desert since humans occupied it. The earth must be sick with all the death that had seeped into it.

Umbrisan houses traditionally had no roofs. Their occupants relied on the sunlight from the break of dusk after all. When humans settled in the ruins, they attempted to place makeshift covers on top of the walls. In the house the three spent the night in, this roof had collapsed onto the floor, creating a carpet of cloth and dried leaves.
The Flayed Angel hung red in the sky and white stars danced around it, still too bright for Nim to open her eyes.

“So, how did you two get caught?” Leaner asked. “I mean, what are you doing this far south?”
Nim kept silent.
“I’m a death god.” Zinci answered instead.
“Wow, okay.” Leaner said. Humans had no concept of the traditions of this world, so Zinci wasn’t sure what she imagined a death god to be.
“Wait, what? I thought Zali was our current Manaz’gemoa?” Nim was confused.
“More than one have received Gemoa’s blessing lately. There’s been too much death the past hundred years for only one to manage.”
“What does a death god do?” Leaner asked.
“They collect the souls from the dead and redistribute them to the newly born. One cannot live without a soul. I’m sure you’ve noticed the staggering amount of stillbirths among humans.”
Leaner froze as she processed the information, then lowered her gaze. “I thought it was a curse from the Tumor God.”
“May I ask why you humans thought it was a good idea to summon her into our world?” Nim interjected.
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“You are one of her children, are you not?”
“I’ve never met her. The mages I grew up with kept muttering to themselves in horror at what they were doing but were unable to stop themselves. As soon as they laid eyes on that cursed book, they had to see it through to the end. For what it’s worth, I hold no loyalties to her. I don’t want her to spread over all the world.”
With the lack of sunlight, that was as far as Zinci could follow the conversation before she fell asleep to conserve her energy and make it through the night.

As soon as the first rays of sunshine touched her skin again, she woke up. The others still slept. Nim huddled under her cloak to hide her light, Leaner sitting against the wall with her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, down to the floor.
Zinci decided to be still until one of them woke up naturally and soak up some more light. Laid down in the center of the room and looked up to the sun. A significant portion of the day, an Umbrisan spends sunbathing, so Zinci did not get bored.

Leaner was the second to wake up. She stood to stretch and yawn. Her tongue curling into a spiral before falling limp again and retreating back behind her lips.
“You up too, sunshine?” she shuffled over next to Zinci.
Was just waiting for you.”
Leaner’s head stood sideways, steadied by her left hand, as she studied Zinci. “If I remember right, tattoos are especially meaningful to Umbrisan, right?”
“Not more so than others. We just use them to express ourselves, since we can’t wear too much clothing.”
“What’s the idea behind this one?” Leaner pointed to the one between her collarbones.
“It’s a cross. Humans use these to mark the graves of the deceased, right? As an aspiring death god, humans would be my subjects too. I want them to know I’m a natural part of life and death.”
“If it’s to put humans at ease, you probably shouldn’t have it be inverted then.”
Zinci lifted her torso in surprise. “Huh? I’ve seen it used both ways around, I thought the exact positioning didn’t matter. Damn, is this bad?”
“Don’t worry, it was probably hard for you to research. Looks cooler this way anyway.”
“What does an inverted cross mean then?”
“It’s mostly a symbol of evil, but no one takes it that seriously anymore. Though for an outsider to take that symbol and deliberately put it on their body… people might think you want to paint yourself the bad guy.”
“...One more reason to get home. Let’s wake up Nim and get going.”
“Not necessary, I’m awake.” Nim got up and took down the hood. She let the wall guide her to the door and waited for someone to take her by the arm there. Zinci cocked her head in confusion. She didn’t recall there being a door when they got in. The way Leaner approached it, it struck her as out of place as well. She opened it and stepped outside. Zinci could see more houses, but not Umbrisan architecture.
“What the hell?” Zinci quickly got up and followed outside.
“What is it?” Nim waited by the door.

There was a whole town outside. Rows of houses stretching along a cobblestone street. Zinci could see towers poke out further away.
“What is wrong? Where are you?” Nim worried.
Leaner reached out her tongue to guide Nim over to them, but she only got more scared at the touch of the unfamiliar appendage and tried to swat it away.
“Don’t worry, it’s me.” Leaner explained. “I’m a Child, remember?”
“A child you are, you jerk. Say something next time.” Nim joined them in the streets with a frown.
“You get lazy.” Leaner explained before taking her arm in her hand.
“I thought it’d be slimier.”
“Be hard to hold things that way.”
“I guess.”

Zinci attempted to look into one of the windows of the strange houses. It looked pitch black inside. The house seemed to lack a way to get inside as well. She saw a house with an actual door further away and made her way over.
“This looks like human architecture. I don’t think we’ve managed to build a place of this size yet though. Certainly haven’t finished a cathedral like that one over there.” Leaner pointed to a monstrosity towering over the other houses. Even two story houses were considered oversized for Umbrisan, but that thing was tall enough that anyone jumping off it would certainly die. Someone with lesser eyesight might mistake it for the body of the world eater.

Zinci pried her eyes away to push down the door handle. This house was better lit, to her displeasure. The tiles as white as wide eyes contrasted heavily with the red creature lying on top of the only furniture in the room. There was fear in her mind, but her brain decided she needed more information to make an educated decision. She stepped inside. The tiles were cold. She saw a pile of yellow sludge under the table glistening in the light. The body attempted to avoid movement but its chest rose with breath. It moved its head towards her, the back of its skull scraping against the surface. The eyes were glazed over, as their eye lids failed them. They must have been damaged when the skin was taken off this person.
“Carl?” the lipless mouth asked. “Help me.”
Zinci stepped as close as the sickening smell would allow her. “This is the only help I can offer.”
She kissed the muscle tissue clinging to his jaw. It would be painful. A soul still connected to a living being would fight against her. Boris limbs remained still, but she could hear his breath becoming erratic. He whimpered quietly as his soul lost its grip on him and went to join the others Zinci had collected. Then he was quiet. All that remained of him in this body were his memories. Only few of those managed to cling to a soul tight enough to become part of it. Even less when the soul is removed as violently as this. That might be a good thing in this case.
With her job done, Zinci had to consider that someone had to have done this to him. It would be better to leave here as soon as possible.
On her way out, she had to shove aside Leaner who stood frozen in the doorway. She lost her balance and fell down, taking Nim with her. Zinci tried to pull them back up but Leaner would not cooperate. She just asked: “What the fuck is that?”
“It’s Boris.”
“Wh-” she began before her mind failed to formulate the question in time.
“Get up. Whoever did that could be close.”
Nim already got up on her own and hooked her arms under Leaner’s shoulders to bring her to her feet. Zinci took Nim’s arm as Leaner couldn’t process that task at the moment.

Another being stood in the street. It was covered in skin, but not its own. It was sewn together over its body. It’s face was a blank surface aside from the red thread that held it together. A sheet of skin was fashioned around the waist, giving the impression it was wearing a dress. It had long black hair. Zinci couldn’t tell if it was a wig or attached to the flesh sewn to its head.
“Nim, shoot a fireball straight ahead.” she commanded.
Nim complied but the creature simply jumped out of the way. It moved with the uncanny bursts of an insect. Then it dashed closer towards them. Leaner scooped Zinci onto her back and wrapped her tongue around Nim’s arm before running further down the street. Zinci looked back to see the being having no trouble keeping up with them but also making no attempts at stopping them. It simply kept pace.

There were no obstacles in the road, but Nim kept tripping over cracks in the street and all Leaner could do was pull her back up. Eventually, Nim couldn’t keep on her feet anymore and they were forced to stop. Not like they were outrunning the monster anyway.

“What do you want?” Leaner barked
The being hopped up to them like it had no weight at all. Then just stood there with its arms behind its back. Zinci got off and checked on Nim without keeping the creature out of her sight.
“It’s fine, I studied healing magic.” Nim said. The wounds on her knees closed and she wiped off the blood.
“She isn’t doing anything.” Leaner said regarding the creature staring back with an eyeless face and undivided attention.
“Well, there’s a reason she only picked off Boris.” Nim stood up. The wounds were healed but the memory of them still made her rise with caution. “At the time he vanished no one was paying attention to him. Maybe it’ll only drag you off when there are no witnesses.”
“So we can’t leave our eyes off each other even for a moment.” Zinci concluded.
Leaner snapped at the creature with her fangs. It bounced out of reach with a giggle like touching the floor was merely an option. Like it was a marionette, suspended from the air by strings. There was no killing it and no outrunning it. The way it got Boris suggested the environment itself would bend to its aid, let it slip in and away within a second.
“Alright, hop on Zinci. I’d certainly notice if it tried to snatch you off my back. Nim, I’ll take your hand- uh, arm. We should be able to travel safely that way.”

Indeed, it seemed to work. The entity followed them making no attempts to attack them or even to try and distract them from one another. Like it knew it only had to wait for them to fall asleep and was prepared to stalk them for a day or two.

The street stretched on and on and eventually the buildings grew taller and all decoration and curves faded out, leaving only straight edges and harsh angles. Other streets hovered over them like snakes trying to fit into a tight space, metal grew out of the ground like grotesque replacements for the missing vegetation. Eventually the corpses of mechanical beasts began to litter the streets. Some hollow inside, some filled with solid blocks of glass. Leaner called them cars during a panicked ramble. She recalled browsing through old books in her youth. Relics from her home planet that told of places like this. Though, she was only ever interested in looking at the pictures without reading the words accompanying them. This place they found themselves in was like if someone took all those old pictures of Earth and tried to recreate it based only on those, then put the result in a box and threw it down the stairs, she said. By then, it was clear to them all where they were.

After the Tumor God was brought into this world roughly seven years ago, her presence gradually corrupted the world. The bottom third of the island had been transformed into the Dreadlands, a shapeshifting nonsensical nightmare. It’s only purpose was to feed off the pain and despair of the people. Things hadn’t been going well for humans since they left Earth, so naturally memories of it would show up in this place as a twisted reminder of what they lost. Zinci just hoped she would not have to witness the pain her kind had to face mirrored here. For an entity that fed of suffering, this small world must be a feast.

The four of them hid under a street held up by concrete pillars as something heavy crossed overhead. Electric lamps shone light onto an image of a colorful can with orange water flowing around it and big letters filling the remaining space. “To Here and Nice Skin Read Lips.”
Leaner assured them it was nonsense. Advertisement billboard, she said.
After the creature crossed the bridge, they dared lean out of its shadow. They could see the fleshy back of the creature, its hairy head turned away from them as it followed the road.

“Where are we even going?” Nim said when frustration overwhelmed her. “We are going to die here, aren’t we?”
“I’ve heard of people escaping.” Leaner promised.
“We don’t even know which way is north.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s this way. The Umbrisan house we woke up in had the door facing west, so this must be north.”
“You trust those goons to have read the map correctly?”
“I’ll get us all out of here, I promise.”
“Yeah right, you only keep us around as fresh meat for when you go hungry.”
“I do not! I’ve never in my life eaten a person and never desired to. Not to mention the only reason we are alive is because we are not alone.” Leaner gave her a sharp look, in vain.
“Like the Tumor God is gonna kill one of her own children.”
“I’m not-” Leaner switched to a less confrontational tone. “I’m not sure that is enough. She is the embodiment of evil and I’m pretty sure I’m not. I don’t think familial bonds can bridge that gap. Why would she even care?”
“What do I know? Who cares, just leave me alone already.”
Nim tore her arm free. “I don’t care anymore, just let it kill me already.” She reached out behind them until her wrist found their stalker. The seam across its face appeared like a lopsided grin.
“What the hell stupid shit are you saying?” Leaner grabbed Nim’s shoulder and violently pulled her away from the morbid tailor.
“Get off me already, you baby-eating freak.” Nim slapped her hand away once again. “Just turn around and let this thing take me!”
“What’s gotten into you?” Leaner pushed Zinci off her back and grabbed both of Nim’s shoulders, pinning her against a wall.
Tears managed to squeeze out from the repurposed muzzle. “You can’t decide over my life.” Nim said as the strength left her voice.
Leaner replied with soft words. “Does that make me bad? Then I must take after my mother after all.”
Nim collapsed out of Leaner’s grasp and wept.
“Don’t you think my skin would suit it better than me?” she said between sobs. It carried an acceptance that her death would not be found here. A joke to lift out of the tension. Zinci put her arms around their heads.
“You never said how you got captured.” Zinci asked what was on her mind to break the silence.
“I just couldn’t find my way back into the forest. I was just a careless idiot, nothing more.”
“I promise I will save us all.” Leaner said. “The last thing this world needs is more death.”
“I’m sorry for what I said.” Nim said. “I just wanted to make you hate me so you wouldn’t mind me dying. Those rumors were just really handy at that moment.”
“I figured so.”
“Let’s keep going.” Zinci lifted them with her.
“Yeah, I think I saw a vending machine up ahead.” Leaner said. “Let’s hope it works normally.”

Zinci had no idea what a vending machine was supposed to be. Apparently more human technology, lost since they came here. It was like a shelf with all sorts of items in colorful bags. A plastic window prevented you from just grabbing them though, you first had to press some buttons on the right and the machine would then drop it into a dish below that you could access behind a hatch, as Leaner explained. Super ass-backwards. Pressing the buttons did nothing though. You needed coins. Leaner figured she could just bypass this by just sticking her tongue through the hatch and reach up to the goods.
“What do you want?”
“I can’t eat.” Zinci reminded her.
“Can you drink orange juice?”
“I don’t know, are those Earth fruits?”
“Humans can safely eat fruits from here, so I’m guessing it works the other way around.” Leaner grabbed a reflective pouch for Zinci. “Here. You can stick the straw into this little hole and drink from it.”
Zinci did as instructed and hoped she would not get poisoned. It tasted like hair dipped in sugar. They sat leaning against the machine and ate their breakfast’s worth of packaged snacks while the faceless follower stood and watched, obviously bored. Leaner stretched out her tongue to reach her half of a melting chocolate bar.
“Wanna share?” she mocked her. The creature backed away in disgust. Leaner was amused by this reaction and made her tongue chase it around a bit.
“Stop it, don’t make it angry!” Zinci shook Leaner’s shoulder.
“No, look.” Leaner pulled her tongue back in and licked the chocolate sludge off her lips. “I think it’s scared of getting its precious dress dirty.”
The creature stood a distance away, fingers digging into the stolen flesh of its palms. It was reluctant to get close again.
“Look, maybe if we all pack a warm chocolate it’ll stay away for fear of being smeared.” Leaner picked out three more wrappers. The insides already gave way to the touch.
The creature saw their plan and gave them a dismissive wave before turning around and leaving.
“I can’t believe that’s the solution.” Zinci watched the entity leave.
“See? Told you I’ll get us out of here safely.” Leaner helped both of them up to their feet. “Let’s keep holding hands though, just to be safe.”