The sole functional street lamp was aflutter with moths enjoying the cool summer night. Yellow eyes bobbed at the edge of the light. Phil caught glimpses of long claws and lanky canine forms. He found a loose stone and threw it with a pitiful scream of rage.
A small figure broke away from the others and crept into the light. If it was a werewolf it was a sickly looking one. It had oversized round ears and appeared to be missing any trace of fur or a tail.
Phil squeezed his eyes shut. Perhaps this was just a hallucination, the first sign that his body was failing.
“Can we eat it, mamma?”
The voice was slight and a touch rough, like a child suffering a cold. Phil opened his eyes and saw that two more of the werewolf-things, larger than the first, had made it halfway between the darkness and where he lay. One of the larger ones pushed the small one toward the others with its muzzle.
“Have patience,” the other said. Its voice was low and raspy, but he thought he could detect a hint of femininity in it. “It is not safe yet. It will be dead soon.”
They disappeared among the waiting shadows.
Phil clenched his teeth and fought the impulse to fall asleep. If he only had one more chance to attend a family picnic, he would prefer something a bit more dignified.
Yerv stood on his feet and thrust his muzzle into the mild wind, analyzing the blood-scent. Satisfied he was going in the right direction, he dropped back onto his hands and trotted toward it.
The wounded human had not been able to attract any others to come help him, so an impressive number of ghouls had gathered to wait for an easy meal. They jostled each other, bobbed their heads, and watched for the man’s bleeding side to go still. Yerv bumped into a young female as he cut through. She flashed her fangs with a deep-throated growl.
Yerv refused to dignify a display of such immaturity with a response. He entered the light and approached the man with caution. When the man didn’t respond he put his hand on his shoulder and shook him. “Be strong,” he said. “Help will be here soon.”
The man tilted his head and looked up with glazed eyes.
Yerv smiled at him. “No need to thank me,” he said. “You can repay me with this, yes? It is very soft, and of no further use to you with all these stains.”
Yerv seized the man’s shirt, ripped it off, and tied it around his waist. He turned to the hungry pack. “Return to your hunting grounds!” he said. “There is nothing for you here.”
“You leave!” said the young female who had growled at him. “What gives you the right to tell us off?”
A nearby male flattened his ears and met eyes with her. “He is the city’s hesiem,” he said. “It is not wise to interfere with his business.”
Several older ghouls murmured their agreements. They retreated, leaving those who lived in ignorance of or disrespect for tradition.
Yerv raced from the scene as fast as he could while avoiding the occasional human or other creature walking the streets. Detective Travis Hade divided his time between his den, his territory at the Nonhuman Complaints Department, and the territory he patrolled on the streets with his partner. Yerv located a fresh scent trail within the street territory and followed it.
Detective Charlie Vimont wore his usual sour face when Yerv skidded to a stop, panting, in front of them. “Looks like your stinky pet is back,” he said. He held out his lantern and scowled. “Is that blood?”
Travis’ eyes widened. “Are you all right?” he said.
“I am unharmed,” Yerv said. He held out the part of the shirt bearing the knife’s tear. “A man has been attacked by another human. He was still alive when I left him, but very weak.”
He gave them instructions and they split up, Travis running to assist the victim and Charlie to wake the nearest healer.
Yerv watched them go with a growing sense of pride. He was doing a better job as a hesiem than he would have ever thought possible. He ripped out the bloody bits of cloth, retied the shirt in place, and headed home.
Zai was a master of den site selection and construction. Though they were the same age she had been in Mountark longer, and was a city ghoul by birth. While Yerv was squeezing himself into a pathetic little den he found under a noisy tavern she took her time making her own. The main entrance was behind a wizard’s shop, and it was hidden by a stone that couldn’t do a better job fitting into place as if it had always been there. The wizard was an olive-skinned human from the Homelands, a recent immigrant like Yerv. If he was aware of his neighbors he gave no indication that he minded their presence.
Yerv squeezed through the tunnel into the storage chamber. They didn’t have much aside from some spare food and clothing, but Zai had made it comfortably large, with enough room to stand on all fours and stretch your legs. Yerv untied the tattered shirt and smoothed it out. He could hear his mate rustling around in the sleeping chamber. It was small and cozy. He remembered how much extra time they had spent there last winter and smiled.
Now it was harder to snuggle up in there with Zai. The bedding got in the way. When it reached halfway to the ceiling he had asked if maybe there was enough, but she had just snorted and said she needed more. He figured she must know better than he did, so there he was every night, scouring the city for every scrap of cloth he could find.
There was no light in the sleeping chamber, but he could picture her at work. She piled the bedding from one side of the room to the other, never satisfied with its placement. He stuck his head through the doorway and she pressed her wet nose against his. “I got you a nice one,” he said. “It is not very big, but there are a few blood droplets which give it a lovely aroma.”
“Take it away,” she groaned. “I cannot stand the smell.”
She turned away and continued her rearrangements. He could hear her claws catching in the bedding, shredding it with quick, frenzied motions.
Yerv’s ears drooped. “All right,” he said. “I will go find you something to eat, then.”
“Please do not mention food. I feel rather ill.”
His ears pricked and his heart jumped. “Do you think it will be soon?” he said.
“Yes,” she said, sounding more tired than he had ever heard her.
He pushed his way through the half-blocked entrance and gave her furious kisses all over her face.
“Stop, you silly thing,” she said, but there was a smile in her voice.
She relaxed, letting him try his best to lick all her worries away. They curled around and over each other, slept, and dreamed of the future.
Yerv awoke sometime in the day to a frightening sound. He leapt out of bed, or tried to anyway. He rubbed the bump on his head. “Zai?” he said, voice trembling with worry.
She growled- a deep and unsettling noise he had never heard her make. He could feel her turning around and around, digging at the bedding again. She threw some back across his feet and it was warm and wet.
“Is there any way I can help?” he said.
“Oh, you are good at being helpful,” she grumbled. “You did such a good job with the fun part. Would you mind taking some of this pain into your belly for me? How about you-” she cut herself off with another growl.
He pictured her beautiful face contorted with pain. Ears flattened, lips pealed back from long, sharp fangs. He grabbed a handful of soiled bedding and inched out of the doorway. “I will just, uh, get this out of the way for you,” he said.
Yerv threw it in a corner of the storage chamber and paced. Agonized sounds and blood-scent poured from the sleeping chamber. He was horrified. How did anyone survive this? If he ever saw his mother again, he would thank her for not giving up after the first of his older siblings was born.
After what felt like a day all fell quiet. He strained his ears, trying to decide if he should check in or stay out of the way. A soft whimper arose, weak at first but soon growing strong and hungry. He could barely restrain the urge to rush in and investigate.
Another day-long wait and his patience was rewarded.
Zai crawled through the doorway and took one of his hands in hers. “It is a little male,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek. “Your luck this time. I had a very good name picked out.”
Yerv had never even touched a baby. He was a little surprised she trusted him enough to place one in his clumsy hands. He held his son as if he were a snowflake, so fragile it could melt away just by sharing his presence. “I cannot express how happy you both have made me,” he said.
Summer was Travis’ favorite season. Crime slowed down a little, as if the heat managed to beat some of the nastiness out of people.
He didn’t expect to see Yerv two nights in a row. He was pleasantly surprised that Vimont’s grumpiness hadn’t scared him off. Though it was still just the barest bones of a plan, he imagined what they could accomplish if more of the creatures trusted law enforcement enough to offer tips. The information was reliable and, at the price of a treat, practically free.
The ghoul appeared from an alleyway and bounded up to them wearing a wide smile. “Greetings, Mr. Travis and Mr. Charlie,” he said. “Did you bring help to the injured human in time?”
Vimont wrinkled his nose, but Yerv didn’t respond to the gesture.
“We sure did,” Travis said with a smile. “Thanks to you we think he’ll make it.”
He withdrew a chunk of bread from a coat pocket and tossed it to Yerv.
The ghoul snapped it from the air and gulped it down. He rose on two legs and pressed his hands together. A solemn look crossed his face. “If you would please come with me Mr. Travis, I have something to show you,” he said.
Vimont rolled his eyes. “You gonna let your pet order you around?” he said.
“I’m going to give my friend some of my time,” Travis said. “Go on ahead. I won’t be long.”
Yerv dashed off.
Travis struggled to keep up. He lost sight of him several times and had to stop and stand there, waving his lantern at shadows and hoping he didn’t look as tempting a target as last night’s mugging victim. Yerv appeared in brief glimpses, catching his eye and then slipping away again. By the time the chase ended behind Djinn’s Shop of Wonders he was more than ready to be done with it. He set his lantern down and wiped his hand across his brow.
Yerv slid a stone away from a hole in the ground and poked his muzzle inside. “He is here,” he said.
A smaller, lighter colored ghoul popped her head out. Something black dangled from her mouth.
Travis grinned. “Zai, how have you been?” he said. “Is this where you live?”
She sat beside the hole and handed the black thing to Yerv. It wriggled. “We are well,” she said, offering a tired smile. “We would be honored to show you our humble home, if you happened to fit inside it.”
Travis chuckled. “I’m sure it’s wonderful,” he said. “And oh, what’s this? Is this what I think it is?”
Yerv beamed and held his hands up. “We wanted you to meet Travis,” he said.
Travis stared at his namesake and tried to keep the shock from showing on his face. He took the little creature into his hands and examined him.
Travis the ghoul looked like a large, bald puppy with human hands and feet. He was black all over and very pudgy. He squirmed and began making high-pitched squeaks.
Zai leaned forward, ears tilted back, and licked her nose.
Travis knelt and placed the baby in her arms. She carried him by the neck and disappeared backwards into the den.
“He is a strong one!” Yerv said, grinning. “He has a voice that can make your ears ring, and he drinks like a camel. As you are the one who helped me become a hesiem, I hope you are pleased with this honor we offer you.”
Hesiem translated loosely from ghoul tongue to mean ambassador. More specifically it meant any ghoul who befriended or did business with humans, offering a rare opportunity for trade of goods or information between races. The tradition went back hundreds of years in the desert, but was less popular in the north, where many humans failed to realize ghouls were even capable of intelligent thought.
Knowing how important tradition was to Yerv, Travis did indeed feel honored, as well as a bit nervous. “Are you sure you want to do that?” he said. “Give him a human name, I mean?”
Yerv nodded. “Many hesiem do it,” he said. “It makes it easier for a child if he wants to use what his parents teach him to become hesiem himself. Humans may be friendlier to someone who has a familiar sounding name. If we have any females I will try to convince Zai to name one after your mate.”
The imagery of one of the creatures bearing his wife’s name almost made him laugh. “Ellie would be thrilled,” he said, knowing that she would find the custom fascinating when he told her. “Feel free to bring him around whenever you like. She’ll make sweets and spoil him rotten.”
Yerv cocked his head. “Sweets cause you to decompose?” he said.
“No, that’s just a human expression. Though I guess it might come from what eating too many of them does to your teeth.”
“Oh, like chewing bones.”
“Uh, yeah. Sure.”
“Do not worry, we will teach him to be good to his teeth.” He pressed his hands together and bowed his head. “May a thousand blessings return your generosity to my family. Good day.”
Travis waved his hand. “Good day,” he said, and watched Yerv disappear down the hole, sliding the stone back in place as he went.
Travis always felt like he was transported to a faraway place when he spent time with the ghouls. He returned to his grouchy partner and the monotonous work of patrolling the streets, but his mind was elsewhere, his thoughts wandering from one possibility to the next. If every race had their own hesiem, imagine what we could do.