“Whoa,” Nolan breathed.
We lowered closer to the gravestones. They were all black and roughly cut, as if no thought had been put into them other than to mark where one grave ended and another started. And the holes themselves… I crept closer still and soon realized that they were not empty. They contained ghosts. I had not been able to spot them from afar, because they were cast in shadow; their forms no longer possessed even the slightest bit of aura. They were as dark as the soil that surrounded them.
So this is what a dead ghost looks like. I was still trying to wrap my mind around the notion when Horatio whispered, “What is that sound?”
Leaving the edge of the grave we had been staring down into, we rose up again, straining to make out where the noise was coming from. It sounded like it was drifting from the other side of the hills. We began flying toward it and the closer we got, the more I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was not howling wind—where would wind come from anyway in this place, genius?
No. It sounded more like… some kind of ghastly singing. And it was getting louder.
Aisha stopped short and pointed to a cluster of gravestones to our far right.
“There,” she whispered.
I held my breath as I spotted something moving. A tall, and oddly wide, figure was gliding in and out between the gravestones. My first assumption was that it was a ghoul, but its shape was all wrong. It looked almost… overweight. Of all the ghouls I’d had the misfortune of coming across, I’d never seen a single one that did not look painfully emaciated.
“It’s a ghoul,” Horatio whispered, to my confusion.
“What?” I breathed, straining my eyes.
As the supposed ghoul drew nearer, I realized Horatio was right. It shared every other trait of a ghoul: skin so thin it revealed the cold blue veins beneath it; jagged, shark-like teeth; tufts of hair on a balding skull; glowing eyes; gnarled hands with sharp black nails. I could go on. This was a ghoul—an obese, female ghoul. And now that I looked closer still, I realized she was wearing something on her head. A tiara made of decayed teeth.
“This must be the queen,” Horatio whispered.
I had wondered about the hierarchy of ghouls, whether they even had one. Now I had my answer.
The queen’s face was paunchy, rolls of fat hanging beneath her chin, as she bumped a heavy hand along the tops of the gravestones. She appeared to be wandering aimlessly, her jaws open as she continued to emit that hideous wailing sound. Even worse than my country singing.
We hovered in the shadows, transfixed, even as she began to move closer to us. Then she halted and stooped to the ground. Craning my neck, I realized she was bending right over one of the graves. When she rose again, she was holding a dead ghost by the neck.
What happened next was even creepier than her singing. Her jaws extended and her folds of belly flab shook as she inhaled deeply. The next thing I knew, she’d sucked the ghost’s head into her mouth, then the body, the legs, until the ghost was gone.
The queen belched, her cheeks bloating. I thought for a moment that she was going to throw up but then, opening her mouth again, she continued to inflict her singing on us.
She’d just eaten a ghost.
I looked to my companions, wondering if they had seen what I’d just seen; from the looks on their faces, they had.
Did this queen live upstairs? Or was The Necropolis her quarters? Did she stay down here all day, snacking on ghosts, while her citizens kept the graves constantly refilled with new dead arrivals?
“Why is she so stout?” Nolan whispered.
Fair point. I would’ve thought that ghosts would make for rather a light diet.
“Oh, ghosts can’t be all she consumes,” Horatio whispered. “I’m guessing she inhales them for their memories. Her actual diet must be just like the others’—real corpses… I think we should move,” he added tensely.
He was right. She was nearing too close for comfort now.
“Why should we move?” Aisha whispered, clutching the hilt of her sword.
I should have seen it coming. Before any of us could stop her, she left our hiding place and shot toward the queen, wielding her blade.
The queen’s whining morphed into a howl as she spotted the jinni. And then she disappeared before Aisha could reach her.
Aisha cursed beneath her breath, returning to us. We gazed around the now deserted graveyard. The silence was far more chilling than the ghoul’s singing. We had no idea where she was.
“Okay,” Nolan breathed. “I think we should leave.”
“Agreed,” I muttered. It was pointless—and now potentially dangerous—to spend more time here. Besides, we’d seen all there was to see: a sprawling underground graveyard… a memory buffet.
We made our way around a cluster of headstones before lifting into the air. We had almost reached the ceiling when Nolan yelped behind me. I whirled around to see the ghoul queen clutching Nolan by the throat. What had possessed him to remain in his physical form even as we traveled was beyond me. Her mustard eyes glowed maliciously as her black claws pressed against Nolan’s skin.
Horatio and Aisha had already leapt forward before I could, but not before the queen had punctured Nolan’s throat—too deep, I feared. Before the jinn could catch her, she let go of Nolan and again vanished. Nolan, apparently unable to keep himself mid-air, went tumbling to the ground. I caught up with him just in time before his body made contact. My stomach tensed at the sight of his puncture wounds and how much blood was flowing from them.