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Putrefaction

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Zacharie was changeable, malleable. He slipped into each role required of him and fit every nook and cranny of it like he was made of liquid. Perhaps smoke.  

He was a constant that always adapted to the ephemeral environment that you traipsed through on your quest. He was a given at every stop and turn and twist, and you had thought you couldn't get rid of him even if you wanted to. Frustrating as he was, he regularly provided services that both you and the player required. 

But this Zacharie--the one standing before you know--seems to be more parts human than smoke. It's unsettling. It tells you something is wrong. 

"Batter!"

Perhaps you feel most unnerved because his presence is a break in routine. Usually, Zacharie appeared only when you happened to stumble upon him. This time was different. This time, he had clearly sought you out, instead of lying surreptitious in wait for you to come along so he could hock his wares at you and hound you  about deals and prices hikes and interest. 

You aren't in need of him at the moment. Zacharie doesn't fill any purpose for you, so you wonder why he's here. 

"Batter!" He cries out to you again, and his voice is hoarser than what is normal. Not that you keep your ears tuned to the timbre of the merchant's voice. It is irrelevant. 

He looks more hunched than usual, lacking the languid yet solid posture he typically carried. His fists are clenched together, shaking. He doesn't have his pack with him, which is perhaps the strangest thing of all. 

"Have you ever--hng--tasted fear, batter?"

You don't know what he's talking about, but it sounds like his voice is eroding with each passing syllable. You narrow your eyes at him as he continues, trying to discern his motive for being here and spouting such nonsense. 

"Have you ever in the innumerable divestments on your self-ordained quest felt it like a solid pang on the end of your tongue? A bitter plug in your throat?"

What a stupid question. You did not feel fear. Not in the face of your duty. It was irrational. You didn't understand what the merchant was getting at. 

He demands you to taste his fear (and fear, you think for a moment, what does Zacharie have to be afraid of, you have no idea) as he stumbles closer to your. You alternate between a light and a hard grip on your bat, unsure of what may happen. You don't understand what the merchant's point is in all this. He's so close now that you can see the barest hint of red-rimmed, mottled-white eyes through the holes in the mask. A mask that he tugs up a moment later, to reveal pale lips with black bubbles fit to burst at the corners. 

"I'm scared, dear friend. Do you understand? Can you possibly?" 

Yes, you understand a moment later when the man grabs you by the collar and tugs you down to meet at the junction of your lips. You understand when you taste the tremulous heat of his tongue. 

It's not so much a kiss as a breath, and in that breath you understand what Zacharie had meant by fear because there's acrid smoke now filling up your mouth and you nearly choke. 

Zacharie was malleable like the smoke, yes. But he was also just as ephemeral. 

The smoke burns, it burns, and you're caught between trying to pull away to save your tongue from charring and staying and indulging because with Zacharie burning like this there isn't much time. 

You fight through the pain and the smoke settling into your lungs for this last desperate grab at an intimacy long denied to you both. Because maybe he wants to feel you until the last moment, until his entire mind is consumed by fear and reduced to ash. 

He pulls back, still holding the mask up so that the lower half of his face is visible. The bubbles of tar on his mouth begin to burst and spill down his chin. You exhale, the smoggy breath leaving your lungs and burning your eyes. 

You watch as the smoke pours from his mouth in earnest, and something in the back of your head makes you want nothing more than to dive back in and kiss him until the smoke coming from him fills you and everything that you are and instead turns you to carbon, to vapor. 

His last smile is almost manic. Like he's gained some kind of triumph . He holds his arms out, palms skyward and seems to laugh at the air even as he's looking directly at you. 

His teeth are torn from his mouth as the burnt smoke erupts solid from his throat and rips his face apart. It consumes his skin like a moth caught in the flame, pulling it in the flowering torrent until it disintegrates into nothing. 

The tarry smoke fountains upwards, shredding the collar of the man's shirt as the mask is torn to bits and flung to the sides. A white, toad-like grin and holes of blank eyes grow out of the serpentine neck. The burnt thrashes, scouring the ground as it grows tall above you and lets out a hellish wheeze. 

You watch the spouting column with it's burbling face that spits black over your face and clothes. 

Briefly, you remember watching thick torrents of meat shoot upwards and splatter on the surface and wonder if it wouldn't be too much trouble to just throw yourself under and never come up. 

The bright ping of the Add-Ons brings you out of the temporary stupor and your hand tightens definitely on your bat's handle. You stare into the flowing whites of the burnt's eyes, and you can nearly hear Zacharie's voice, flippant even through the fog of white noise. 

Do you feel it now, Batter?

Do you feel my fear?

Is it in you?

You breath and you can still taste it. Stuck in the membranes at the back of your throat, sandwiched in between your teeth. You can taste it in your brain as you smell the toxin pouring from the burnt and it brings up the memories of Zacharie, and that kiss, and that last smile. 

You purify the burnt easily. Your bat rises and falls as simply as usual. You tear through its torso and it lets out a long, choking exhale that ends in the tattered remains of clothing falling to the floor around a spot of tar. 

The shorn mask lays all around you. You don't know what to do with it. 

You take all the time needed to pick up every piece.