1: The Blight of Brook Moor
Bells toll, and an urgent shout peals through the open window into this frigid rented room.
“The watchers must have spotted something.” There’s no need for me to ready myself. Rodents skittering over the floorboards close to where I lie have kept me alert all night. I toss Dellena’s pack at her.
She groans and rolls over, still clutching her battleaxe like a child’s comforter. “I’m not deaf, Shade. Morons probably saw another suspicious shadow.” She rubs her cheek against Death’s Breath’s handle and snuggles back into the stained hessian mattress.
A hissing cockroach crunches beneath my boot. With a grimace, I wipe cracked shell and goo across the dusty floorboard. “Be that as it may, we came here for a reason and are duty bound—”
I need not finish my sentence. The watchers still shout, but a new voice sends chills through my skin, and Dellena bolts upright. The words of the demon curse echo around us, loud and commanding but spoken in the sweet voice of a young woman.
“Once upon a murky lake…”
Dellena secures the axe onto her back and pushes me through the door.
“I drowned myself in love’s high stakes. The Devil took my willing soul and dragged me through a glass-lined hole…”
My sister speeds through the rundown inn, almost pushing me down the stairs in her haste to reach the girl.
“He whispered to my darkest dreams and left me gasping in my screams.”
I duck behind the door, allowing my sister to pass first, and enter the torch-lit street behind her as the final line of the verse punches out like a stiff breeze.
“For all is fair in love and war, unless you are the Devil’s whore.”
Those words are imprinted in my mind, burned there. The verse is a danger to all young women, except to witches who have come of age. In memory and on parchment, they are harmless, but to speak this curse aloud is to release its power.
It takes a moment for the gathering of barely dressed men hovering in their doorways to take action.
Dellena moves to restrain the girl herself, but Aiden, the innkeeper who has been overcharging us for that flea-infested room, slaps a hand to her chest and says, “This is village business. Doesn’t concern strangers.”
I stay huddled in Dellena’s shadow and tilt my head lower, shrouding my features inside my hood.
Dellena’s hand slinks behind her back, fingering Death’s Breath’s handle, but the innkeeper moves on, and her axe remains holstered.
The villagers approach the girl cautiously, circling her, heads flicking this way and that as though they are eyeing their escape routes, preparing to take flight.
“Once upon a murky—”
The innkeeper lunges at the girl as she starts up the cursed verse again, striking her in the jaw, then pulling her arms taut behind her back. “Grab the knife from my belt, Steven.” Aiden digs inside the girl’s mouth and pulls her tongue down her chin. “Quickly now, lad. It’s sharp. Two good cuts ought to do it.”
The morning sun creeps up over the horizon. Lighting up the unfolding scene will only make it more horrific, and yet I find myself peering around Dellena’s shoulder. I need to know that the verse has her completely, that the girl is devoid of soul. I need to know that there is nothing more that can be done for this wretched creature.
“Give it here, then, and hold her still!” Aiden snatches the knife from Steven’s trembling hand and slices through the girl’s tongue.
It takes more than two good cuts, and the writhing girl squeals in agony. Her eyes though, fixed and glazed, show no understanding of this torture as her tongue is severed from her head. The body feels pain; the body reacts to pain. Whoever this girl was, her soul is no longer tethered to its mortal vessel. I am both relieved this torment is being inflicted on an unthinking being and saddened that yet another lover demon victim is beyond saving.
Blood dribbles onto the clothing scraps draped over her soiled and emaciated body, presumably remains of the attire she went missing in. Without her tongue, the villagers seem less fearful of her. They crowd around her, talking in mumbles at first, then rising in volume with their excitement.
“There, did you see that?” Dellena’s sharp elbow strikes me in the ribs. “That coin-pinching oaf just pocketed the tongue. There’ll be human tongue and root veg stew on the inn’s menu tonight, I wager my last coin on it.”
Thankfully, it seems the villagers have moved out of earshot. “There was nothing in her eyes. A blank space, a void.”
“How many lover demons have we slain now?” Dellena snaps. Without leaving room for a response, she says, “Lots. And how many of their victims were saveable?”
None. I say the word in my head as my hot-headed sister is already voicing it.
“None. Not a single one of them survived. That girl”—Dellena points up the street to the stage where the villagers are tying the young victim to a pyre—“is gone. She’s already gone, just a husk, a shell, a corpse that hasn’t realised it’s dead yet.” Taking hold of my shoulders, she sweeps back my hood and glowers into my eyes, one piercing blue, one hazel.
If I wished, I could take her thoughts through that glare, but the ones my sister shares aloud are often deplorable enough. I dread to think what else lurks in that fiery mind of hers.
“Don’t get sentimental on me now, Shade. They took her tongue. The demon took her words. You’re the only one who can get what we need from her.”
A man walking past makes a show of staring, and I pull my scarf up over my mouth and the hood of my cloak back over my head.
Dellena doesn’t hide her face. Unlike me, she is beauty incarnate. Her hazel eyes are framed by thick, dark lashes, flowing black hair drapes down past her shoulder blades when it’s not in a braid, and she makes leather armour look feminine, with her posture as much as the skirt she wears over the top of it.
“Problem?” Dellena whips her head round to face the man.
I’ve never seen disgust turn to terror so swiftly. Wonder if it’s her death stare or the huge axe on her back that makes the man tremble so.
“No, no problem, miss.” He keeps his eyes locked on Dellena, back-stepping away from us with no care for his positioning in the street or of those around him.
“Coward,” Dellena says with a smile, then turns that devilish grin on me. “Now, where were we? Oh yes, you were going to go crack the demon’s location from that girl’s head.”
I crinkle my nose, imagining a cracked egg for a skull, yolk running from the girl’s eyes, nose, and tongue-less mouth. “I prefer the term ‘tease out’ as opposed to crack.”
“Call it whatever you like.”
I can see the energy vibrating through her. She lusts for the hunt, for the moment she’ll claim the life of the demon, rendering her victor, feeding her sizeable ego.
“We cannot rush. They will guard her well.” I go to say we cannot be caught using magic. In a village like this, cut off from the larger trade routes, simple people breed simple minds. That which is beyond their understanding is an affront to God and would earn us a place next to the girl on the pyre, but Dellena would have a comeback for that.
“Nor can we wait. They’ll burn her tonight.”
She is right, of course, but I must endure her lack of patience until an opportune moment arrives.
Throughout the day, people venture out of their homes to get a look at the latest girl to return to them so vexed. We sisters linger in the shadows, watching the comings and goings.
“How much longer?” Dellena asks again, knowing full well I don’t have the answer, knowing that repeating the question does nothing to hasten time.
I think she’s just saying it now to push my own patience to the brink, to make me endure the way that she is. Ignoring her, I keep a watchful eye on the stage and hand her the rest of my mutton. She does less complaining when her mouth is full.
The stage is built from straight beams nailed together in a box shape. In its centre is a tall wooden pole, and Maryanne is tied to it. Though she’s still without soul, the girl has a name. I have heard people scoff it from a distance, wail it at her feet. Her mother repeats it now like it’s the only word in the world that ever mattered.
“Maryanne, no, my baby. Maryanne.” She paws at her daughter’s dirt-encrusted feet, draping over the stage like a wilted flower.
“She’s not coming back, Mam, and making a scene ain’t helping no one.” Her grown son tries to pry the mother away.
“But she’s my youngest. My baby. It isn’t fair. Maryanne, you gotta pull yourself out of this, you hear?”
“Come on, Mam. Aunt Hilda needs to cleanse her. Ain’t right to send her on her way like this.” The son manages to peel his mother from the stage. He keeps her steady, one hand clutching her waist, the other pulling her arm over his shoulder. Still, many of her steps are dragged, not walked.
A small group approaches. They weep at Maryanne’s feet and pray. A woman, presumably the ominous Aunt Hilda, places bundles of herbs at the base of the pyre. When burnt, some believe the smoke from these plants will cleanse the girl’s soul as it travels into the afterlife.
“Fools,” Dellena mutters.
“Family,” I reply.
The daylight hours are dwindling, and they’ll burn the girl at sunset. I can feel Dellena juddering at my side, her restlessness reaching crescendo.
“Can’t kill it until we know where it is, Shade,” she hisses. “Or would you rather we wait it out until the next girl destined for the pyre wanders into the village.”
“The mourners will leave soon.” Something about these latest prayers makes this ring true, like the finality of goodbye.
“We’ve been here long enough. I’m done sleeping on that bed, done with the bug bites and mouse droppings.”
“And I’m having such a marvellous time sleeping on the dusty floorboards with the rodents?”
Brook Moor Inn had the only available rooms for miles, and most of the victims lived here. Gossip passing drunk lips often offers clues to where demons dwell, but nothing we heard down in the bar has been useful, and our search of the moorland has been fruitless. There’s only one option left to find the demon’s lair, and I dread that more than a month of nights at that inn. I will have to delve into Maryanne’s head and search her memories. Her soul may not be present, but all that she was, all that she lived through, will be mapped inside of her.
“I told you, you could share the bed,” Dellena mutters.
“And I told you, I do not wish to have fleas.”
Dellena furiously scratches her arm and glares, then her face picks up. “They’re leaving. Quick, now’s your chance.” Dellena tries to push me from the shadows before the weeping group have even passed.
“What about the guards?” I nod to the two men talking and occasionally glancing at Maryanne to make sure she’s still there.
“A flawless smile and a little hex ought to keep them distracted, don’t you think?”
Magic has its costs. Drawn out from power flowing in our blood, smaller spells are felt in fatigue, but larger ones need to be grounded in the earth, sucking strength from the life around us, lest it take its full toll from our bodies. My mind-walking is not a spell—it’s a part of me and takes no more energy than speaking. That’s the magic I must draw from now.
I snort as Dellena flicks her hair, somehow transformed from a creature to be feared to one to be drooled over with little more than an expression and posture shift. Keeping to the shadows, I move around the stage and clamber up behind Maryanne. It’s too open to make the connection through joint gaze. I can make it just as strong through touch, but I’ll have less control over what memories and thoughts are shown to me.
Still hidden, I reach out my hand and touch her bare foot. At first, I feel her with my fingers—the sharpness of her ankle protruding, the dryness of her skin, and the brittleness of the dried mud, caked and flaking. Then, the foot isn’t hers alone. I can feel the weeping cuts on the sole, grimace at the stones and grit lodged in those cuts. Our hands are tied tight, no slack to sag, lashed upright against the hard pole. Through touch, we stand tied on the stage, not Maryanne alone, and through this oneness, we leave Brook Moor, slipping into a memory.
Our world has changed in a blink. We no longer stare down Brook Moor’s dusty street. A lake stands before us. There are so many lakes surrounding Brook Moor. I want to look for landmarks to find something that will distinguish this one from all others, but this is a memory. We only see what she saw, hear through her ears, feel as she felt.
Something writhing on the far bank of the lake catches our eye. Though fearful, Maryanne and I ignore it and step forward. Staring into the murky water, we make our wish.
Stupid girl, I think, but that’s unfair. She has no self-control while in the verse’s trance. Still, I beg these moments to reveal something, anything, that will stop me from descending into the demon pit with her.
A beautiful man, his head topped with straw-coloured hair, breaks the surface. His eyes are as green as malachite, and we keep them in gaping stare as he lifts out of the water. He is everything we could have asked for—his face chiselled to perfection, his smile warm and disarming.
We reach out and brush his fingers with ours. They intertwine. His touch feels real, even though this man is an apparition, not the beast himself. We don’t feel the magic behind those silken fingertips, gently caressing, sending shivers of warm pleasure through our skin, knotting our stomach in the most delectable way.
A wail snaps our head back to the squirming shape on the far shore. The man strokes our jaw with his index finger, willing us to face him, intensifying the butterflies and lustful anticipation. We are under his trance.
“You need not fear the dark with me.” He leans in close, trickling these words into our ear, his warm breath stroking our neck. As he steps back, our hands remain linked, and we take a step with him. Slowly, he leads us into the water. “Do you consent to be mine?” he asks.
We do, wholeheartedly. Our head slips below the water. There is no need to breathe. He is our air, our heart, our hopes.
I swallow hard. Her recollection of this moment churns the mutton I choked down not two hours ago. More than anything, I want to skip this part, but if I cannot see her route to the lake, then I must see her route back to the village.
The trip to his lair is painful. Broken glass, barbs, and spikes line the long vertical shaft under the lake. We shoot down it and land in his air-filled cavern, covered in scrapes and gashes. The deeper ones will scar. The sight of our own blood only fuels our love for him. Love is overcoming pain and suffering. This brutal introduction has given us the opportunity to overcome.
Lover demons have their own preferred methods of torture. Some dole out mental anguish, some sexual, some physical. As I watch, I can see that this one is particularly depraved.
Maryanne thinks the lover demon beat us down the chute. In truth, he never left. Though he looks like the apparition that brought us here, this is the face-shifting demon that will torture us.
We spend hours in passionate bliss. Every touch, every kiss, every sweet word strengthens our bond to him. It feels like we could never love more, that this moment will never be surpassed in all our days yet to be.
I have to ground myself, to take in the sights that Maryanne refused to, and sense the things she ignored, for I feel myself craving the demon’s embrace as much as she does. The cavern walls are jagged rocks, damp, dripping, with patches of moss and mushrooms blackened and festering in the shadows. Sconces light up the four poster bed, the only thing of any luxury in this place. We’re thrown to the bed, giggling as he tears off his shirt, those perfectly sculpted incisors of his glistening in the firelight. The bed is not a place of safety. Bloodstains hide on the red-patterned bedspread. I cannot look at the bedspread for long, cannot divert my mind from the weight upon us, for our eyes are locked on his. Nothing can be pulled from the peripheral as he lulls us to sleep.
Our eyes open again, and for a moment, a fleeting flicker, we remember our virtue was a thing to be guarded. We are no longer pure. He’s taken something else from us too. Words. Not all, but enough that we find ourselves scrambling for a means to describe our predicament. Then, we see him, and there is no predicament. This is where we’re meant to be. We limp from the bed, stand before him—naked, bruised, and bloody—and offer him our hand. He’s becoming more beastly, his eyes aglow, his skin lightly grooved where scales will bloom. Maryanne does not want to see his transformation, only craves the kiss before the slumber, before the creature takes her again.
We awake once more and could not describe our love for him now even if we wanted to. Each assault leaves us with fewer words, fewer thoughts beyond how to make this beast smile. The feeling never dims, our need for him to be close. Our sense of self has dimmed to nil. Our memories. We remember nothing beyond this pit, not people, not places. It is as though this is all we have ever known.
I want her to look at him, to see his strengthened life force, to know each moment of her weakening strengthens him more. We reach our hand for him again, the room swimming around us. I need no more evidence of her tormentor’s perversions. My free hand balls into a fist. Just show me where to find him.
This time, when we reach out our hand, he does not take it. He is ablaze with our essence, and we are but a cooling ember. Leaning in close, he whispers the demon curse to us, and the last few words we owned dribble from our mind. We are not what we were—empty of all words but the verse, hollowed out like a blown egg—yet somehow, we still love this creature.
The beast stands five times the height of a man on all fours. His rough scaly shoulders brush against the cavern ceiling. We reach for him, and he swats at us, then gestures to the jagged wall. It slopes up, riddled with adequate foot and handholds. He means for us to climb it, but despite everything, we want to stay. With him is where we belong. That horned face sneers, exposing sharp teeth in its bull-like muzzle. As we reach for him again, he picks us up in his clawed paw and presses us against the wall. We weep and reach up for the next handhold. The beast below smiles, and though it cuts us deeply, we reach for the next and the next, doing one last thing to make our beast love us.
At the top of the wall is a ceiling of sludgy mud. Guided by instinct, we push through. We flail and struggle until we burst through the surface, coughing and spluttering. Mud weights us onto the edge of the lake. On the far shore, we see a young woman waiting at the water’s edge. We try to call out to her, but gargle on the mud caught in our throat.
A man with poppy-red hair emerges from the lake. He looks nothing like our beau, but we can tell that it’s the same man. Our man! We struggle, choking, wading in place, desperate to claw our way out of the mud and tear this harlot from the lake. How dare she take him from us!
I hear Dellena’s exaggerated laugh. She’s signalling for me to leave the pyre, but I’m so close now. I have to see what route Maryanne takes when we leave the mud. The beast’s last deposited demon seed runs down Maryanne’s leg toward my hand, still grasping her muddy foot. I readjust my fingers to avoid it, wanting to retch and scream, not for me, but for her. Still bound in his curse, she cannot do it for herself.
The girl and the apparition that the demon conjured descend into the water. We try harder to lift out of the sludge and leverage ourselves on something hard and brittle. It snaps. One of the victims who came before us is a desiccated corpse. We use the body to drag ourselves out of the mud.
Dellena laughs hysterically. My discovery must be imminent.
There’s only one last act of love we can show our demon now. We must spread his verse.
Watching through her eyes as she runs to the village, I map her route, then release her foot and slide off the platform unseen. I daren’t glance back at Maryanne. Even knowing that the person she was is gone, I can’t help but want to free her. Not by cutting her bindings, but a quick, merciful death would be kinder than the flames awaiting her. You don’t need a fire cleanse to destroy the verse, but these people won’t listen to reason, and I do not wish to join her.
“Do you know, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a magnificent pyre. It must have taken you ages to build,” Dellena says nearby.
I have rounded several houses and approach her from the side.
“Ah, Shenade, there you are.” She cups me in her arms.
The men recoil at the sight of me, and I pull my scarf up higher.
“A horse dragged my dear sister when she was young,” Dellena explains by way of lies. “Scarred her terribly, but what she lacks in looks, she makes up for in loveliness.”
“Shenade? Beautiful name. Wasted on one as wretched as her,” one man says with a snort.
“We call her Shade for short.”
“Seems more fitting.”
I’m used to this type of reaction. I was born a natural beauty, with one piercing blue eye and one muddy hazel. The Night Order texts foretold of my unparalleled good looks. I was the destined beauty, born to save all witchkind. That all changed when I was sixteen and my face and body were scarred beyond recognition. Luckily for witches, no danger has arisen that I need save them from.
Dellena says farewell to the guards and, taking my arm, leads me back to Brook Moor Inn. We paid for six nights upfront and only used four. Now that we have our destination, we will not stay another. Dellena works her wiles on Aiden, the innkeeper, and he gives us a few free rounds in lieu of a refund. She agrees to this arrangement. I would favour the coin but make no qualms and help Dellena carry the drinks to an empty table.
“The guards said she was held for three weeks,” Dellena says, slamming down her tankard and wiping her upper lip.
“It felt like an age. Her memories gave no sense of time.”
“With a little luck, we’ll get there before he takes another victim. Couldn’t bear to linger on this one kill for another three weeks.”
“Maryanne saw him take another girl as she left.” I notice some of the other patrons prick their ears toward our small, drink-ladened table at the mention of Maryanne.
Dellena speaks without regard for our growing audience. “Any idea who she is?”
I swallow a larger swig of froth than intended, wipe the water seepage from my eyes, and shake my head. It’s a pointless question. The demon will torture the girl to the brink, and when he releases her, we must put her to death, lest she spread the rhyme some more.
“Shame.” Dellena sighs. “She could be worth some coin.”
I chortle, shake my head, and push away the foul-tasting ale. “Did you take the village tour, my callous sister? They are greatly lacking in palaces and dignitaries. Besides, rehabilitation is unheard of once the demon has given them his words.” As she has repeatedly reminded me all day, we have never found a victim we could save.
She scowls at me and tips the contents of my tankard into her empty one. “No, but perhaps her kin will pay for the demon’s head once I’ve sliced it off.”
The mumbling from neighbouring tables ceases at the mention of the demon. Stout and burly men quiver at the name of something we mere women have hunted and killed since adolescence. Aiden rings the bell above the bar. Another mere woman takes centre stage. Maryanne is tied to that stage, and young and old rush out to watch it being set alight.
Dellena and I are alone now and could speak openly, but we sit in silence. She picks the dirt from under her nails with a small knife, and I find myself staring at a beam over the stairs. The wood is stained dark. My eyes slide up and down the ridges and circle the nooks. Each shriek sends unyielding guilt through me.
I could have made it quick. I could have saved Maryanne pain, but selfishly, I chose to respect their traditions rather than face the consequence.
The screaming keeps us tied to our idiosyncrasies. Dellena’s nails are clean, but she picks through them again. The screaming stops, and a smell wafts through the inn’s open door. Human flesh is not the nicest-smelling meat, but those sprigs of herbs are burning along with her, elevating the aroma. I’m ashamed to acknowledge my rumbling stomach and salivation.
Dellena blows her nails and sheaths her knife. “I could really eat something right now.” Shame has never been a concern of Dellena’s. “I’m famished.” She jumps over the unattended bar and fills a bag with spoils from the kitchen. There’s no point trying to stop her. She’s a woman of scarce restraint and no fear of consequence. “Ready?” She beams, shouldering a full sack.
“Then lead the way.”
I pull on my cloak and bag.
Dellena thrusts the two empty tankards into my hand and then picks up the nigh full pitcher. “We paid for it. Might as well take it with us.”
Again, I don’t argue.
The villagers mill around the burning pyre at the other end of the street, but they will disperse soon. I catch a glimpse of Maryanne’s blackened remains through the flames. This will be the last of the demon’s girls put to death in such a manner. I will make sure of that.
Fortunately, the lake is in the opposite direction to the crowd. I trudge ahead. Dellena complains about the extra weight of her stolen goods, so I take the pitcher off her hands.
“You know, we can never go back, even if we have cause to hunt here again.”
“Good,” Dellena scoffs. “I’d give preference to a piss-gutter over those flea-infested beds.”
As the smell of the burning girl fades, as her ghostly cries echo through my memory, I cannot help but think one day it will be different. After all, Dellena and I may have never found a survivor, but ten years ago, one victim walked away from the pit with her life and her words. Though some days, she wishes she hadn’t.
2: A Lover’s Pit
Warmth from the spring sun drops as it sets. The murky moors have few colours on their palette—yellows and browns mostly, all subdued by a greyish hue—but they do have great variance in shade in the daylight. After hours of walking, we near the lover demon’s lake with only the moon to light our way. I would say this place overshadows all others with its sickly wilting foliage making mulch under our boots and lack of life, but all lakes surrounding Brook Moor are similarly blighted.
Dellena trips, flaps around like a chased duck, trying to save the ale in her pitcher as much as herself from the mud. “You’re sure this is the one?”
I’m not. It’s the right direction, to be sure. Maryanne’s vision narrowed as she ran, the verse pulsing in her ears. Blinking away sweat led to extended periods where she kept her eyes closed, and when she opened them, they mostly gawked at her feet.
I bend down and pull cloth from the mud. “There’s some fabric here. Part of Maryanne’s tunic, I think.”
Dellena swaggers over and snatches it from me. “Peasant brown. How distinctive and definitive,” she scoffs. “Couldn’t possibly belong to anyone other than the burned girl.”
I move out further onto the bank, feeling recognition for the place more than seeing it in the reeds. The squelching mud comes up past the toes of my boots, but I take another step and reach for something stuck in the sludge.
“What you got there? A schtick?” Dellena slurs.
I hold up the bone. “A radius.”
I shoot her a glare. “Puns, really? How much of that pitcher have you had?”
“Not nearly enough,” she says, staggering back. “Don’t look at me like that, Shade. I lessened the weight.”
“I would argue that, until you have relieved yourself, you merely redistributed the weight.”
“What a schplendid idea. I shall lighten henceforth.”
“Look for rocks, branches, anything substantial enough for a shelter while you are gone.”
“Right, I shall look in that general direction.” Her arm points a different way than her feet, and she stumbles off in a curve that follows the intent of neither.
I shake my head and begin gathering materials, piling them on a hillock. Pitiful in height, but it will give us the best view of the lake. I light torches and dig them into the ground. Someway off, I hear Dellena trying to sing the ditty she pays every bard we meet to play for her. She’s sorely out of tune. I should feel bitter that she’s inebriated while I’m still working, but I don’t. My sister has been broken for a long time. Hunting is the only thing that makes her feel whole, and this hunt is still a long way off from starting. The demon will not take another victim while he already has one to torture, and my sister cannot enter his lair until he does. My job is both simpler and that much harder than hers. I will be the one to kill the victim before she spreads the verse. I who will take a knife to that fragile, battered girl who smiled in Maryanne’s memory, as she struggles to free herself from the mud.
“Altogether now! The deepest part of a dead man’s heart, goes roving on the waves. He’s a careless sort, girl in every port, but his old lady knows his game. While the dead man sleeps, from their bed she creeps, and sharpens…hic. What was it the old lady sharpens, Shade?”
I shake my head, shoulder a huge log, and lurch up the hill. Hauling logs and rocks is better than thinking about what I must do to that girl. Dealing with a drunken Dellena is better than seeing that girl’s face. So young, so small, so doomed.
“The old lady, Shade. What…hic…was it she sharpened?”
“A wanton blade. Now, are you going to help me or not?” I gather the largest rocks I can find, rolling those too heavy to carry up the hill. My shoulders are starting to burn. I can feel blisters forming on my fingers and palms, but still I gather more.
“I am helping.” Dellena drops three fist-sized rocks at my feet, then seats herself on one of my logs and proceeds to drain the pitcher dry. “While the dead man sleeps, from their bed she creeps and sharpens a wanton blade. As cruel as the sea, no remorse you’ll see, as she carves that seadog knave.”
It takes hours to map each stone and piece of wood onto parchment. I inscribe the objects with corresponding runes. Then, I dig my hands into the ground and chant the symbols in positional order. My arms judder, and the magic pouring from me shakes the rocks and logs, lifting them from the ground in a swirl of glowing wind. Stones reform, wood refines. They levitate higher to build the walls, door, and roof as I mapped them. I chose them well, and they fit together nicely. There’s no mortar. The walls are bound through spell alone.
My hands tremble as I pull them from the dirt. The spell leeched life force from me, as well as from the area, and Lord knows this place has precious little life to take from. I drag myself inside and dig a fire pit below the roof hatch. The physical exertion of carrying the rocks is nothing compared to the magical cost of bonding them to the runes on the parchment. I feel a kind of tired no woman of my age should know, feel the whisper of death embittered by my continued life, its cruel hands digging its nails into my heart and lungs.
Shelters aren’t hexed into existence lightly. Their cost is great, and the magical drain shall leave me rest-bound for days, completely vulnerable if not for my sister. The last of my strength leaves me splayed on the hut floor.
“Take your boots off, Shade.”
“Why? Do you wish to vomit in them?” I mumble into the ground.
In this instance, I may be completely vulnerable, even with her. I feel her roll me on my side and cover me with my cloak, face and all, shushing me and saying sorry as she uncovers my head. I have little faith in my life continuing beyond this point as I slip deeper into a well of darkness and silence.
Dellena shakes me awake. “Shade, wake up. There’s a girl down at the lake!”
I groan and try to lift my arm to rub my eyes. It’s heavy, too heavy to lift, and I feel like I am not really here, like I am seeing through someone’s old and distorted memory.
“Shade? The girl at the lake?”
It takes a moment for me to remember where we are. I cannot be sure when we are, but the aching and fatigue is so strong it cannot be that long since I built the hut. “Three weeks, Dellena, three weeks to torture the girls he takes. He will not stray from that plan or take another girl yet.” I’m not ready to wake. Every inch of me aches and burns. “Why don’t you go for a stroll? The night air might clear your head.”
“I’m not drunk!”
I find strength enough to lift my hand, rub my eyes and look at her. She glares back, looking far too mean to be drunk.
“How long have I been sleeping?”
“A day. Now, what are we going to do about the girl?”
“Nothing. She’s in no danger. The demon will not take her. Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to slumber.”
“Fine, but I’m hexing the perimeter to discourage other victims venturing too close.”
I wave her away and bury my head in my cloak. She needs neither my permission nor my help. Not that I could help her now, even if I wanted to. My energy and magic reserves are little more than condensation, the dampness left on walls of a well that was once full.
The sun is a searing blade slicing light through my eyes, thrusting needle-like points into my brain. I still wish to sleep, but great thirst and hunger forces me, groggy and heavy, to sit up. Even before my vision focuses, I sense the circle of protection surrounding the lake. My sister has certainly earned the title—greatest hexer and potion master in all the Night Order—though I wish she were humbler about such achievements. I raise my eyes to her smug grin.
“Not going to have anyone wandering too close for a while. Maybe forever, the spell’s that strong.”
I reply with a glare. Even if I could bring words forth with this dry tongue, they would surely sting my throat.
“Here.” Dellena tosses a waterskin at me. “About time you woke up. I was beginning to think you’d met your match in this hut.”
I take the skin and gulp down sweet water.
“Can you imagine? Prophesised saviour of the witches dies building a hut?”
I shake my head through her laughter, though the irony is not lost on me. Long foretold beauty, scarred so badly she could make a scarecrow recoil, destined to save witches from a threat that never revealed itself, dies doing a basic spell with no enemy in sight. That would be a bitterer weed for the Night Order elders to swallow than the one they already chew when thinking of me.
“How long?” I croak, before taking in another gulp and holding it in my mouth, slowly tilting my head to let it soak my tonsils.
“Almost three days,” Dellena says. She brings out her cauldron and herb bag, preparing a potion to be boiled on the fire.
She’s been busy during my restful hours. In addition to the protection circle, she’s added shelves to our hut. Upon them are roots, herbs, and berries. Dried meat hangs from the ceiling. Fruit sits on a table that was not there when I fell asleep.
Dellena catches me eyeing the fruit and tosses me an apple. “His pull is strong. There have been three women repelled by my hex every night.”
Patience isn’t a strength of hers, not when we are this close to a kill, but only his apparition ventures onto land. Dellena must descend into the cavern to face his physical form. Once a lover demon is nested in its lair, it never leaves. The apparition, the victim’s perfect mate, is drawn from her head to lead her inside.
I, for one, can live with Dellena’s impatience. It’s her absence—the days, perhaps weeks—she will live with that monster, infatuated with him, submissive to him, that will test me. They always do.
My sister is the only known member of the Night Order to have perfected the potion she prepares, and she guards its recipe fiercely. This means that whenever a witch spots a lover demon, a raven delivers its location to us alone. I understand her obsession—I want them exterminated too—but I cannot fathom why she thinks this task must be hers alone.
The cooking potion will temporarily reverse her immunity to demon curses, making her vulnerable to his spell, but it must also wake her from the entrancement before he gives her the verse.
A bright red eye pops out of the frog. Dellena repeats the gentle squeeze on the other side, and the second eye plops into the bubbling mixture. With the frog carcass discarded, Dellena grates a purple root with her knife, releasing a sharp fruity spice that stings my nose. She measures the root dust in the pinch of her fingers and sprinkles it in.
I’ve watched her brew this many, many times. It will simmer for a while, then she’ll ask for the final ingredient.
I stare at Dellena’s braid as she frowns at the potion. We have the same hair—dark, thick, silky—but mine is forever matted under hood and scarf. I cut it all off once. Why keep it when it’s always hidden? By the next morning, it had grown back. I remember Dellena laughing hysterically as I pulled at it, not believing it was real.
“It’s the beauty curse.” Dellena laughed. “Eyes of insight, one brown, one blue, luscious hair, and red lips too.”
“Then why didn’t my skin grow back?” I snapped. This stunned Dellena into a rare silence. She often goes too far but seldom acknowledges it.
Beauty curse, indeed. One of fate’s cruellest jokes. And though my magic reserves are slightly deeper than other witches, I’m a far cry from the weapon foretold in our oldest texts. And yet, that curse enacted by fate, the elders say, before I was even born, has seen me shunned by my kind. I wasn’t just foretold—I am meant to be something else, something credited to a different maker than God. To fate itself.
“Your hair.” Dellena jabs me in the shoulder, breaking my train of thought, and holds out her hand. I yank out several strands. She examines each hair and selects three to complete her potion.
I keep my face uncovered in our hut. My scarred and pocked flesh is no burden to me or my sister. I have lived with it for a decade and no longer mourn the face that came before it.
“Where is the nearest safe water?” My skin feels sticky after days of slumber.
“Half mile southwest,” Dellena says. Her brow furrows as she folds the potion this way, then that.
I leave the hut with a scrubbing rag and soap and make my way across the moor. A freshwater spring spurts out of the earth and forms a narrow stream. With no structures visible in any direction, I remove my clothes and scrub them in the water. Then, I kneel and wash naked in the stream. The air is muggy, and the cool water refreshes me. I take my long, compulsory hair out of its matted bun and dip it in the water. The lathered soap browns the upside-down stream beneath my hair as the grime and dirt washes away.
Ah, the familiar sound of disgust. The rushing water masked the young woman’s approach. I stand up straight, with all my flaws on display, and she wrinkles her face like she’s sniffed or tasted something foul.
“Death lingers here, child,” I say in my hoarsest voice. “Felled by something old and savage.”
She stares blankly at me, her bottom lip trembling.
“Run along, sweet thing, lest ye be food for the monsters.”
She screams and runs.
Worst-case scenario, she’ll tell the village about the repugnant hag she saw, and they will hunt me down. Torches and pitchforks, I muse, are just the type of distraction Dellena revels in.
The young woman didn’t rouse an angry mob, and Dellena and I wait out the next twenty days in uninterrupted tedium. Foraging and setting rabbit snares has become deeply ingrained in my routine. I’ve read the two books in my pack cover to cover twice and, with a sigh, reach for one to start a third reading.
As often happens, an eternity of nothingness explodes into an urgent flurry of activity.
“Move now,” Dellena orders. “The mud stirs! The demon will surface soon after she does.” Dellena stops me rummaging for my dagger and pulls the small knife from her garter, thrusting it into my hand. “Take this and stay hidden.” Following her out, she stops so suddenly that I smack into her. “How’s my hair?” she asks, plumping it and grinning.
I scowl at her and push her through the door.
We both hurry to the lake. Dellena poises on the spot where Maryanne waited. I try to catch her eye, to share one last moment with her. She does not look my way as she takes the potion from her corset and tips it down her throat, tossing the vial in the bushes behind her. I watch her smooth her clothes and finger-comb her hair one last time before his spell washes over her eyes and blanks them. My heart sinks. Even if she did look at me now, she would not know me.
The released victim lies in the reeds on the other side of the lake, struggling in the mud before me. I remember how heavy the mud felt in Maryanne’s memory. It will take time for her to free herself. I fidget with the knife. It’ll be my duty to kill her once Dellena has been taken, but right now, I cannot peel my eyes from my sister.
A man strides out of the lake, and an entranced Dellena takes his hand and slips below the water. Days, I tell myself, weeks at the most. I will see her again. I try not to think about the torment my spellbound sister will endure before she thwarts the demon.
It’s difficult to keep such thoughts at bay as his last tortured soul stills facedown in the sludge. All the fight has left this girl. I see her face again as it was in Maryanne’s memory and consider leaving her to drown, not wanting to kill her. A knife is kinder than the pyre, by far, and by the time she’s been put to the flames, she’ll have likely spread the verse. I could let her drown. Dellena would let her drown.
No, just because there has never been a survivor doesn’t mean there never will be. Though she is slight, it takes time to heave her out. She lies limply over my lap. Unlike Maryanne, she makes no attempt to rush off and spread the demon verse. I lay my hand on her back and feel the rise and fall of her laboured breaths. My arms vibrate from her trembles. I turn her over and wipe some bloody silt from her. Her hair, covered in mud, sticks to her heart-shaped face. I pry open one of her eyelids and stare into her eye. Her foremost memories are of her time in the pit. I close the eye, not wanting to witness the torment she suffered—the torment that’s now Dellena’s to bear. I lean in close and stroke her cheek.
Her green eyes flutter, and she whimpers. “Once upon a murky lake—”
“Do you know any other words? Anything at all?” I say with earnest. I need her to say anything outside of the verse. The knife in my hand trembles, but if she remains silent a moment longer, she will feel the pinch of my blade.
The girl puts her hand on mine and pulls the knife to rest on her throat. “Please,” she begs.
A flood of icy shock pricks my skin, and I pull away the knife. “What is your name?”
She loses consciousness, and her head falls limply against my arm.
Every time we face a lover demon, I hope beyond prayer that I can save the survivors. If they are truly emptied of all but his words, we must kill them. Their sole purpose would be to spread his verse and entice more victims. This girl has a word. She has a chance—an occurrence so rare that she’s the first one whose life I’ve spared.
I’m awash with disbelief. She said please. I heard her say please, yet as I carry her, trembling with excitement and worry, relief and fear, I cannot help but question my memory. Did I imagine it? Am I projecting my deepest wish onto this girl?
She’s small, doll-like. I barely feel the weight leave my arms as I place her down in the hut.
The trip down the barbed hole has left her riddled with cuts. Some have healed in the three weeks since her descent. Others show signs of infection. A large gash on her cheek has ripped back open, probably due to her ascent through the mud. I will gather water from the spring and medicinal herbs to treat her wounds. No, I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to confirm she does indeed have words before treating anything. The little knife feels heavy in my boot. I may have use for it yet. With great apprehension, I peel back an eyelid and stare her square in the eye. She doesn’t see me, but I see plenty about her. Her name is Nora. She’s eighteen years old and a long way from home, sent to the moors by her mother to work. More importantly, she knows home, the face of her mother, the month of her birth. Nora truly is more than the verse, though I can sense it in there, fighting to come out.
“You can never go back,” I blurt as her eyes shoot open and dart around the hut. “Not to the village, not to your family. Your absence will have been noted.” It has been a long time since I conversed with anyone but my sister. And, judging from the horrified look on Nora’s face, I could have handled this better. “You were taken. Do you remember? You were enslaved by a demon.”
She backs up against the wall and hugs her knees. “Who…y-y-you?”
“I am Shade, daughter of the Night Order.”
She frowns at me. I suppose this needs further explanation.
“A magic user, honour bound to kill demons where we find them and protect innocents.”
“Yes, you know me as such.”
She recoils from me and avoids my gaze.
“If you return, marked as you are, you’re the one they’ll put on the pyre. You have the demon verse within you. I cannot say why it hasn’t taken fully, but you cannot be allowed to spread it.”
She’s gazing past me to the door. I can see her calculating how far she will get if she runs.
“Look at me!”
With clear reluctance, she does, and in doing so, I can read her most prominent thoughts.
“I speak to you only truths.”
Nora believes me. She does not want to, but she does. You should have let me die.
“It will get better,” I say.
How would you know? she screams in thought, still struggling to transfer her words to voice.
“I know better than you can grasp.”
She gapes in horror, realising that I’ve intruded on her thoughts.
“I apologise. I will not look in your mind without permission again.”
My words do nothing to comfort her, and we keep silent company for the next two days. Trust is strained further when I bind her and take her with me to fetch water and check the rabbit snares. It would be irresponsible to leave her free to wander; she still has his verse and a compulsion to recite it.
“I…mmm, mmm, may, may-id,” she tells me on the third day.
“A maid? To a wealthy family?”
Dellena was right. There is wealth concealed here, though I doubt Nora’s master would give us coin for the demon’s head. Conversation is slow and stuttered as Nora struggles to convert thoughts into speech. I could take the words for myself, but I’ve agreed not to do so without permission. She will have to relearn every word the hard way.
It is the eighth day since Dellena’s descent. I pace the mud at night, searching for signs of her return, and seethe throughout the day. I know I’m poor company, and Nora deserves a friend in her early recovery. She also deserves distance. Our dwelling overlooks the place of her trauma, and that cannot be easy, but Dellena fights for her life under the lake. Here we must stay.
My sister’s protection circle has weakened in her absence. I watch a young woman stride up to the lake and pause. Sleepwalker. The verse whittles its way into their subconscious. This girl will not remember her travels. She turns and wanders back into the night. The demon doesn’t need a new plaything yet. He has my sister, and it is killing me to know and to wait.
“I’m going to check the rabbit snares again this morning. Would you like to come with me?”
Nora beams and grabs the shawl I gave to her.
“You understand, if you try to run, I’ll have to kill you?”
She nods again, still smiling. I threaten to kill her so often she’s becoming accustomed to it.
We find the first two snares empty, but there are fresh tracks all around them. The furry morsels grow wise to my game. Nora stays at my side as we continue. She grabs my elbow as a squeal assaults our ears, and I drag her toward the noise. The third snare has caught a rabbit, though it hasn’t killed it instantly as designed. I untangle it and give it a quick death.
Nora looks a little green.
“When you commit to kill,” I tell her, “do not cause undue suffering by hesitating. That fear before the end will be carried with it into the afterlife.”
Of the last five traps, two are fruitful. Both rabbits are dead, killed by the snare as intended. Three rabbits is a good haul. Before returning to the hut, I reset the snares at each site and commit to check them tomorrow.
The cull is unfamiliar to Nora, but skinning and gutting the meat is something she’s confident in.
“K-k-kitchen…staff,” she stutters, as she prepares the meal.
“I thought you were a maid?”
I leave her to it and sit in the doorway, looking down at the lake. My concern for Dellena grows with each passing night. I stare at that murky water until my eyes lose focus.
A warmth and scent of rabbit stew draws me back into the hut. Nora’s the one with the rawest of pain, and yet she puts more effort into getting along with me than I do into building her back up.
She hands me a bowl and sits beside me.
“You know your herbs,” I say, swallowing a delicious mouthful. “This stew is well-seasoned.”
She smiles at the praise as I hand her my empty bowl. Most of Dellena’s herbs and roots have been picked clean. Only the inedible and poisonous remain. Nora sees me scanning the empty shelves and looks away.
“We shall forage tomorrow,” I say, taking out the knife and whetstone, “and replenish supplies.”
“Why did you spare me?” Her first complete and un-stuttered sentence, spoken while watching me sharpen Dellena’s small blade. I’m impressed, seeing her make each new word her own after a single hearing. She tries to say more, punches her knee in frustration, and crinkles her face.
“I can read the words straight from your head if you let me.” I’ve kept my promise and not tried to glimpse her thoughts, but now, she begrudgingly gives permission.
Our eyes meet. Images flash of girls beaten and put to burn at the stake. We are a child. Our mother cheers and shakes our clasped hand with excitement as a young girl shrieks and burns.
“You were raised knowing to kill those infected with the rhyme?”
Nora blinks away tears.
“As was I.” My mother was never as jovial as Nora’s, but I witnessed more than one fire cleanse during my childhood.
We still feel the verse within us, begging to be spoken. We’re cursed like that young girl on the fire, and though we fear the lick of the flames, we believe death is necessary.
“A child of the Night Order isn’t immune to demon curses until her seventeenth birthday.” It’s been years since I’ve told my story, but Nora needs to hear it. She needs to understand that there can be life after the pit. “I was sixteen when I walked down to a lake above a lover’s pit.” I remember my bare toes curling in the silt and staring for the last time at a blessed reflection of myself. “It was a different lover demon, different place, different time, but like you, I asked for my true love, and under his trance, I let the demon take me.”
The week-long beating and flaying of skin flashes through my mind. My demon expressed his love through violence alone, leaving my virtue untouched. I didn’t see it at the time, but to draw on those memories now, I see him glowing more brightly with every cut. We’re alike in that way, Nora and I. Our weakening was our demon’s strength.
I probe the missing chunk of my lip with my tongue. The only kiss he gave me was with his knife. I leave out my time in the pit and skip to my re-entry through the mud.
“Dellena pulled me from the mud. She was less gentle than I was with you.”
Nora rolls her eyes and scoffs.
“I mean it. Dellena ripped me from that mud without a single word and crammed my mouth with rags.” I shudder, that buried memory blooming clearer than one I could conjure from this past week. The creamy silt had yet to void my lungs, and I choked perpetually, expecting death. My sister dragged me by my hair down the rough dirt road. I could not tell you what I had done to enrage her so. Perhaps it was just her anger at the situation, but she was raging, and as she dragged me, my cuts tore deeper, leaving a trail of blood behind me. “When we reached our farm, I’d all but bled out from the deep and disfiguring wounds.”
Nora’s eyes widen. I watch them dart and trace the scars on my skin. She squeaks and clasps her hands to her mouth, as though she’s seeing them for the first time. Her fingers smudge tears as she caresses her own facial wounds.
“Hush now, your demon was no cutter. The shaft alone marked you. Your face will not scar as badly as mine.” I feel I have misspoken again, failed to convey my understanding. Her wounds may be less visible than mine, but she is no less scarred by her demon encounter. I try to find a way to say this, that I know her pain is just as great now as mine was then, but she stares into space, and words escape us both for a time. As dead as this place seems, life chirps and caws and clicks through our lengthy silence.
Eventually, Nora says, “What happened? On f-farm.”
I sit up straighter and lean forward. “Dellena dragged me into the horse barn. Mother was there. She helped Dellena tie ropes to my legs and hung me upside-down to help drain the silt. Mother took my mud-drenched gag out and asked me for my name. I recited the verse. My sister placed her battleaxe near my throat.” Sharpened to obsession, Death’s Breath can slice head from neck with a mere caress.
I love my sister dearly, and she loves me, but had my mother not intervened, Dellena would have acted in a heartbeat, and that axe of hers would have tasted my blood. I’m not sure I could do the same. Many a time, I have tried to place myself in her position, but I could never pull a blade on her and mean it, not even in my imagination. I glance at Death’s Breath now, propped behind the door. Dellena only parts with it when she travels into a lover’s pit—the place I fear she will need it most.
Nora nudges me, eagerly awaiting my story to continue.
“‘Speak a word, child,’ my mother commanded. ‘Speak any word outside of that wrathful verse.’ I looked to my father, a burly man, a veteran demon killer. He cowered in the shadows, silent tears glistening on his cheek. ‘Sorry,’ I whispered. The word was weak, meant for my father, though only Dellena and Mother heard it.”
I smile, remembering Nora’s saving word.
“Please. Sorry. We two were offered life through a single word. Still, that word wasn’t enough to keep me from chains. The verse spoke to me, screamed over my thoughts so loud I could scarcely think at all. It wanted me to walk, to take it somewhere with people so I could infect them with it. It silenced on my seventeenth birthday. At that point, my immunity activated, and my compulsion to spread his words ceased.”
Nora reaches out, fiercely taps my arm, and points to herself. “And me?”
“No means exist to grant you immunity. The rhyme will forever be compelled to leave you. You can repress it but never be free of it.” If the thought of killing her in the mud pained me, knowing what I must do to her if she ever leaves my side is emotional agony. Still, I would not falter. I could draw that knife in an instant, find the flesh of her throat a moment later. “For the sake of others, you’ll live out your days as my ward.”
The calls of a lark bring me round. It’s late afternoon, and the stale aroma of sleep fills our small hut. Nora is grinding wheat. Eggs, too small to come from hens, are piled at her side, and two new rabbits hang from the ceiling. She is humming a carefree tune when I grab her wrist.
“You left?” I bellow, looking at all she’s gathered in horror. “You could have killed someone, infected them with your verse. Am I to bind you whenever I sleep?”
Gulping and swallowing air, she cowers in my grasp. She did this for me. Even though she could have run, she checked the snares and raided bird nests. I could be chasing her down instead of being here for Dellena.
I release her. “If you leave again, I’ll have to kill you. This is not a short-term arrangement, Nora. The demon words will always live inside of you.”
“When demon is dead?”
“The verse is bigger than one demon. It will compel the victims to travel to the nearest lover pit. They will walk until their feet chafe and bleed.”
“Then, we kill them all.”
I’ve seen that look before, so fierce and resolute. “We kill them all,” I agree. “Until their extinction, you must always be accompanied.”
“I understand,” she says, turning her attention back to her bread.
I step out of the hut and stretch out my limbs. The mud below twitches, and I raise my hopes, only to have them crash upon me as a sickly toad drags itself through the sludge. With a sigh, I sit upon the parched hill, feeling the cracks in the earth with dirt filling my nails.
“She’s been gone a long time.” Nora stands beside me, her outstretched hand holding a plated offering.
“She has.” Too long, in fact. Dellena’s quickest lover demon kill was just two nights, her longest was eight. Nora and I sit in silence, looking at the water, on this, her fifteenth day. Fifteen days with that deviant monster. I walk down to check the mud four times. Nothing dwells there but the dead. Even the toad now lies lifeless.
I picture my sister’s face, grinning. No doubt remembering it from some prideful misdeed. Seducing a guard, lifting a purse from someone with fortune to spare, stealing a pitcher, like the one inside of our hut.
“Shade.” Nora nudges me and points.
I was so deep in daydream I’d not noticed the churn in the sludge. “Go back inside and remain there.”
Had I given her up for dead? Never have I come so close to believing such a thing. Sprinting and panting, I dive into the mud. She is surfacing further out than Nora did. I wade and trudge toward the convulsing sludge. Apprehension courses through me. Something about this feels wrong. As I think this, the mud stills. With desperation, I reach in deep, blindly grabbing for anything solid. The mud sloshes as high as my shoulders when I finally take hold of something. I pull up a body, drag her deadweight to more solid ground, and wipe mud from her face.
She doesn’t move. I roll her over and slap her back until she coughs up sludge.
“Dellena?” My voice cracks. I pull her head to my breast and rock her. “Speak to me.”
Her eyes flutter open, and she looks right through me. “Once upon a murky lake—”
“No!” I scream.
“I drowned myself in love’s high stakes—”
As she continues, I draw my shaking blade but cannot bring myself to place it on her throat. Tears of hurt and rage burn on my face. Not my sister. No demon can take her from—
Dellena laughs, and all that grief shifts to rage. She lifts from my embrace and pulls on the strap still immersed in the mud, dragging out a plump-with-head satchel.
I plummet my face toward hers and screech. She has pulled this same prank twice before, but she’s never been gone for so long, and I bought it for more than a moment. I growl and storm off, not wanting to speak to her.
She wishes to speak, though. In fact, she doesn’t shut up.
“We need to cultivate our own herbs. I knew the purple root was stale when we bought it but thought it would suffice. I was trapped in that heathen’s spell for much longer than I’d have liked. Thank goodness for the memory fog, or I’d have to remember every act he inflicted.” She sucks in a large breath and continues to pile word on top of word. “And the hubris of that creature! He had no weapons in that lair, not a single one. I had to force him into his true form. With my bare hands, I ripped one of his gigantic claws free and stuck him in the eye. Cut by cut, I bled the beast out. Of course, I then needed to free him from his head.”
Dellena skips to my side. “Guess how long it took me to saw his head off with a claw? Guess, guess, go on, guess. Oh, you’ll never guess. Three hours at least! It was like trying to saw a chair leg off with a hoof file, only the chair leg is a monstrous beast. Shade?” She jabs my shoulder with her knuckles. “Don’t be a child, Shade. Talk to me.”
“You scared me,” I snap. Without waiting for her response, I march on, rounding the hill for a second time.
“I scared you? Oh, come on. I hold the Night Order record for youngest kill, most kills in a week, month, year. I’m on the cusp of beating Regina’s lifetime tally, and I hold the record for most unusual kill.” I can hear the smile in her voice as she speaks that last one. “We hunt the monsters the rest of the Order finds too challenging. You and I, dear sister, teamed together by happenstance of birth, are the most prolific hunters ever.” She stops my march with a hug. “If you were able to hunt lover demons, your kill count would equal mine. I’m certain of it.”
I rip myself from her arms. “My ego is not in need of a stroke, Dellena! This is the longest you’ve ever taken on a kill. We of the Night Order are not expected to live long and fruitful lives. Look at our parents, aunts, grandparents—”
“You flatter our kin. You know that we’re better than them.” She straightens my cloak and strokes down my hair. “Now, let’s go inside and celebrate. Do you have any ale, or am I to walk to the village and wake the innkeeper?”
The noise I make lies somewhere between a growl and a screech. She thinks herself clever and brave and funny. I think her exasperating.
I almost take Nora out with the hut door as I fly through it.
“Please, tell me you hired a maid.” Dellena grabs for her axe, but I kick it from her reach.
“She’s a survivor, like me.”
“Impossible! There are no other true survivors. She’ll always be a slave to that rhyme.”
“But she knows other words and has committed to a life at my side.”
Nora steps forward and offers Dellena a bottle. “Mead, stale by now, but you can have it.”
Dellena snatches it.
“You were right,” Nora says, turning to me. “She is beautiful.”
Dellena’s scowl softens. Nora has soaked up every word I’ve spilled about my sister and appealed to her vanity.
“I will bear the burden. She’s my responsibility.”
Dellena uncorks the bottle and sniffs its contents. “And you think she’s worth the burden, this human?”
“Am I not worth the burdens you endure?”
“That’s different. You’re my sister. She’s not even a daughter of the Order.”
“My burden to bear,” I press, my expression shifting from pleading to resolute.
She turns to Nora. “You know you can’t leave, right? Understand, you’re stuck with us until you die, and a life with us will no doubt be a short one?”
Nora looks at me uncertainly before nodding.
“Well, all right, then.” Dellena returns to her joyful self. She slams the bloodied satchel upon our only table.
“That’s where our food is prepared,” I mumble as blood soaks into the wood. I pull the bag to the ground, and the demon head rolls free. “Huh, he’s not as handsome as my lover demon was.”
“They morph to fit our desires, dear sister. Clearly, you’re lacking in taste.” Dellena strips. She wipes the mud off with rags and oils her body in one of her pre-prepared serums.
Nora gasps as all the cuts on Dellena’s skin evaporate, leaving her once again flawless.
“Can I?” Nora stretches her hand out for Dellena’s half-full bottle.
“Sorry,” she says, snatching it away. “It’s a two-part potion. The first must be applied prior to the injuries. It won’t work on you.”
“If it did, then…” Nora’s voice trails off as she steals a glance at me. We two will be forever marked.
Dellena breaks the long fast of captivity by consuming everything edible in our hut.
“A raven came.” I hold out the small parchment.
Dellena sucks her fingers clean and plucks it from me. “Another lover demon?”
“What could b-b-be worse than lover demons?” Nora splutters.
Dellena unfurls the parchment and frowns. “The demons that made them.”