The Girl who ran with Monsters

Chapters 1 to 6

On summer solstice

The last Shield

Shall emerge

From the depths of Earth

She will rise

To meet her Death

To meet her Death

Marked by Blade

Bound by Darkness


She shall sow terror

Among us all

And blood shall flow

And blood shall flow

Hush now, child

For all the gods

That rule

Are but parts

Of a whole

Shattered in half

Shattered in half

Arthystian Folk Song



It was a midwinter night.

A night veiled in the blinding darkness of new moons and leaden clouds, muffled by sleet hissing across the snow-crusted land. All that disturbed the inky blackness of the ancient forests of Arhyst was a pinprick of a fire in a godforsaken hamlet.

Wind twisted the budding flames. Their yellow light barely touched the surrounding eglé trees, branches clothed in snow and sighing under their heavy load. In the shelter of the eglé, twenty-nine people — nigh on the entire population of Beag — congealed around the small fire, wrapped in boiled wool, leather, and furs. Laughs and the scents of spiced ale scattered in the wind. Someone played a few tunes on a pipe, but no one danced or sang.

No one drank to forget.

The forgetting would come soon.


There was a stubborn merriness about the crowd. The determined humour of people who toiled toward a common goal, a goal that would benefit them all once the hard work was done.

And done it would be.

Elder Linn had given a speech. The cleric had sprinkled holy water. Everyone knew this was right and just.

And yet, you could have tasted the sour feeling of guilt on the winds.

Men, women, the elderly. Children as young as four winters. They eyed each other, their boots, the outer edges of a pyre as tall as a cottage and yet to burn brightly. One or two threw furtive glances at the small flames to make sure the gusts didn’t snuff them. But no eye went there. It was as if the centre, the focal point they all helped create, was barred from view by an invisible force.

The girl on the pyre wore a threadbare nightshirt.

Soot and tears smudged her bruised face and throat. Her bound wrists and ankles were black with blood. She’d stopped sobbing. Now, all she felt was a complex quality of cold.

She’d known the cold of a winter so brutal, the elders could not remember its like. The cold of starvation, of lung sickness and the killing fever spreading from hut to hut. The cold of fear seeping into your heart because you are convinced Death is going to take you next.

But that night she learned the sharp cold of betrayal when her husband dragged her out of bed and into the teeth of the wind in nothing but her nightshirt. The cold of dismissal in his eyes when he pressed her to the stake, an arm across her throat, a fist to her belly. The cold of being gawked at, hissed at, spat at. The cold of knowing deep in her bones she didn’t belong, never had or would. The cold of understanding that not illness but hate would snuff out her soul light by dawn.

And the cold of determination to survive in spite of everything.

She raised her gaze to the top of the ancient trees.

Sleet licked the embers, hissing, “Witch! Witch! Witch!” with every droplet of ice.



Death’s pupils flared as night descended on the land. He scraped his tongue across the roof of his mouth, inhaling to taste the air. Snow, blood, and smoke. The crispness of pine sap, wild pig, deer, and frozen leaves. A river trapped under ice. The unmistakable, biting scent of a fox. And there, lingering amidst it — the stink of yoomen.

His hackles twitched.

Shadows and noises spilled from the forest on the far side of the valley. The slapping of scabbards against thighs, of boots crunching through snow and snapping twigs underfoot. Laughs and boasts as rough as the bearded faces that emerged from among the trees. Armour of boiled leather and rusted chain mail creaked in the cold. A barked command for quiet went mostly unheeded. The excitement was too great, the armour too heavy, the soldiers too sure of themselves.

Death tucked his paws underneath him as a contingent of two dozen pushed across the frozen river. To him, yoomen were a puzzle. Short-lived and easy to destroy. Much like ants. Their existence a mere blip on his horizon.

Yet significant enough that he accepted the name they’d given him. Death is upon me! As if he’d come for only one of them.

Hunching against the icy wind, the soldiers closed in on a small settlement. Mud huts stood crammed together as though proximity would lend protection. Smoke curled from adobe chimneys. Joyful sounds of a reed pipe danced through thick layers of a deerskin door.

Fate was closing in.

Death’s whiskers bristled. Fate. What a silly concept.

The thought of a greater power steering the wheel of time for anyone? Or him…him of all beings? Ridiculous. No, there was no such thing as fate. Death lived for is and isn’t. Which made his skin itch whenever his mind touched on yoomen. They were the only creatures in this world that clearly were but at the same time shouldn’t have been.

The time for bloodshed had come. Soldiers were in position. A couple for each hut, a few spares surrounding the settlement to catch the runaways. Blades drawn, teeth on display. The commander struck a fist to his chest plate, and as one, his soldiers kicked in doors and invaded homes.

Ah, the song of battle! An orchestra of terror and pain, played since the beginnings of time. An eternal cadence, swelling until a sufficient number of bellies are slit, only to ebb into the soft gurgle of punctured lungs and torn airways.

The first to be dragged into the snow were the fathers and grandfathers, the brothers and sons. Blades met guts without fail. Those who dared fight back were hung from the nearest tree on large, hooked iron jaws with two tines for the eye sockets and two for chest or belly.

And there it was: the crescendo of battle when desperation shred vocal cords to ribbons. While you watch the hangings in horror, you might fail to notice the butchering of the elderly females. But when silence falls for a moment so brief and light as the settling of a single snowflake on an eglé tree, and you’ve seen the dance of the emperor’s men again and again and again, your attention reflexively snaps to a handful of young, pretty females caging in the younglings as if their ribs were made of steel and their flesh smooth stone.

Eyes wide, hearts hammering.

And you know with absolute certainty what is going to happen next.

Those were the moments when Death pondered the why of yoomen. There was no creature in this world as vile as them. Not even Death had fallen so low as to enjoy torturing and killing his own kind.

Not that there was another of his kind.

Screams ebbed away and the soldiers wiped gore off their blades and hands. They laughed, buckled their weapon belts, and clapped each other’s backs. A merry band of friends. A job well done.

Death curled back his lips, exposing rows of teeth as white as sea ice. If one of the yoomen glimpsed him now, they’d drop the contents of their bowels.

The commander called for order, and the soldiers tucked away their jests, got back to business. They made the rounds and prodded the bodies littering the snow. Hung all the corpses and soon-to-be corpses from trees. Cut away their clothes and opened their bellies. Guts tumbled blue and limp onto the snow, steam rising.

All this was for show, Death had learned many winters ago. Those bodies would tell a tale and spread terror.

And with terror came obedience.


At least for a while.

Death watched as huts were reduced to smouldering stumps, and smoke and ash lifted like a silent prayer to the dark sky.

When the commander signaled retreat, Death rose and flexed his limbs. It was time to spread his own flavour of dread.

Flexible spine and long, muscled legs catapulted him down the slope, his tail lashing out to balance the raw power. His feline body flowed like water, a river banked up too long and now breaking free with terrifying force.

As soon as the yoomen spotted him, they dropped what they were holding and bolted, the stink of fear and urine in their tailwind.

A lunge and his jaws found a neck. He curled back his tongue to avoid tasting too much of the yoomen’s skin — grimy and sweaty with the sick flavours of excitement from murder and rape. His eyeteeth cut through flesh without effort, piercing an artery, penetrating the gap between two vertebrae. He gave the convulsing carcass a quick shake and dropped it, his gaze already on the next victim. His body never stopped moving. He leaped — once, twice — and ripped into the next yoomen, then killed the next and the next until blood coated his muzzle and chest, rolled in lazy clumps from his whiskers, and soaked the snow.

When silence fell and the world felt right again, Death turned to appraise his work. Bodies were scattered around him, the snow black with blood.

With a flick of his tail, he stepped away from the carnage. He found a spot of unsoiled snow, rolled on his belly and rubbed away bits of meat, congealed blood, clumps of beard and skin. He chewed on the snow to cleanse his mouth, then sat back on his haunches to wash his pelt and watch a wall of black clouds push across a dark sky from the east.

Idly, he wondered if he’d sprung from ógnan cats. They seemed the closest in colouring and size. The silvery fur with its dark, cloud-like markings. The long, thick tail. Alas, his size and the row of three horns sweeping down his neck marked him as other. Female ógnans might fill the emptiness of his belly but not that of his soul.

Death tucked in his paws and shut his eyes.

Slowly, his heart began to settle. He despised this violence. He barely remembered when it had begun. He couldn’t even tell how many emperors have come and gone since. His mind touched on a well-aged memory of grief — the source of all pain. He bristled. Shook himself until flecks of molten snow flew off his pelt.

Black clouds were smothering the black sky. All stars extinguished. Gusts stripped snow off the eglé trees as sleet began to hammer down.

Death stretched on all fours, spine arching and stomach grumbling. He would hunt and eat. And forget those cursed yoomen for the rest of the night.

A familiar cawing fell from the night sky. It sounded much like a laugh, directed at him, mocking. He looked up and snarled at the unwelcome creature. A raven showed off his blood-red beak with a loud click as he dove, aiming directly at Death’s whiskers.

Growling, Death swatted at the bird. And of course, missed him entirely.

With a cackle, the raven disappeared among the trees, heading to where the forest gave way to great moorlands and a stronghold as broad and black as a rotten molar. The hold, once called Castle of Moon, belonged to the kingdom of Arhyst. It still did. And yet didn’t. A complicated tale. Death used to know the why’s and how’s and when’s. A dull pain was stuck to these memories. A mere wisp of a thought, barely there before it vanished.

But that wisp was enough to bring back a recent memory, a yearning. It tugged on his insides, urging him to go north. He exhaled a huff. She’s content, he told himself. She’s safe.

How long had he skirted the perimeter, keeping the emperor’s men away from the small settlement she now called home? Two, three winters? Maybe four? Time meant so little to him. Days melted together. Fortnights. One winter was like the next.

But perhaps he should see if…what? If she’d grown up? Of course, she had. Life had already scrubbed all innocence and naiveté off her young soul when he’d first met her, and it hadn’t treated her any kinder since. She escaped one prison only to be stuffed right back into another — barely of age, the yoomen bound her to an adult male. Gods, how he hated the memory of that small, embroidered piece of cloth an elder had wound around her delicate hand and that of the blacksmith. The small cut that was made in the palms of the couple to seal the vows. The paleness of her face and the brave smile she’d tried to put on.

And like a coward, he’d only watched. Hiding among the trees and telling himself that even if she might not be happy, she would be alright. She would survive.

And that was all that mattered, wasn’t it?

The wind carried a faint cry and scents of burnt hair from the direction the raven had flown. The fur along Death’s spine snapped to attention. With a shudder of dread, his paws pulled him north. Snow and frozen earth flying wide in his wake.



He stood among the old trees, watching as yoomen set fire to the last female scytha in Arhyst. He took in her straight back, her bound hands. A bare shoulder revealed by the torn shirt she wore. Her golden hair twisted in the wind.

His gaze held fast to her hands as he waited for the telltale flick of her fingers. A ripple of star-light blue that would announce a wave of power he hadn’t seen in an eternity.

Flames inched toward Yréin’s feet. She worked her wrists against the ropes in slow, methodical movements. She didn’t even curl her toes against the flames. Didn’t bunch her shoulders. Didn’t so much as breathe, it seemed. She stood nearly as motionless as he. Any moment now, he thought. Any moment she’ll shatter them all.

Darkness licked his lips, wondering why she was stalling.

The crowd wasn’t even looking her way. They talked about the weather, the ale, the coming spring, as if she was a blind spot on their conscience. And a conscience they had, small and twisted as it was. By the gods, he despised those creatures! He wished he could annihilate them all. Bathe the forest in their blood and let them feel his full-fledged fury, matured for nigh on a thousand winters.

But that would be impossible, no matter how much he wished it weren’t so.

Since Darkness’ arrival at the edge of the woods, the girl hadn’t spared the crowd a single word. She hadn’t begged for mercy or asked why they were murdering her. She wouldn’t even weep. Chin up, back straight, shoulders back. She stood on the pyre like a queen. He wondered if she was even looking at them or if her gaze held on to the thick forest before her.

A loud crackling of burning wood, a small explosion of pine sap stopped the breath in his mouth.

A hush fell over the crowd. And with another pop of overheated resin, embers shot up into her hair and on her nightshirt, setting her aflame.

She screamed and fought against the ropes. Shook her head, her shoulders wildly, trying to dislodge the embers as the flames began feasting on her. The sounds that tore up her throat were killing him. And the sight of her! For a brief moment, he thought she didn’t have it in her to kill the yoomen. A heartbeat later, shock and understanding struck him.

“Sard you, Nuádach!” he hissed, yanked his blindfold down, and melted into shadows.



There were no words to describe the pain. She breathed it, lived it. Agony made a home inside of her, buried her under its weight, held her hostage to its whims. Her skin wasn’t her own anymore, her limbs, her hair. The fire took her piece by painful piece. She bit her tongue bloody as she tried to hold her breath to hasten her end, but her body wouldn’t stop demanding air for screaming. She felt her skin blister. Felt blood seep from her torn wrists and her nails rip from their beds as she clawed at the ropes with the monstrous strength of desperation.

The corner of her vision showed glimpses of the crowd. They were the last thing Yréin wanted to see, but there they were. Pointing. Gasping.

Laughing, even.

No one wept.

No one.

It was this lack of tears that made Yréin realise mercy would not be granted that night, wasn’t even worth considering. This was how it ended. Even if she managed to free herself, they were many, and she was but one. All she had was a nightshirt. No weapon, not even a small eating knife.

They believed her a witch. All those people who’d known her for nigh on seven winters wanted nothing more than to burn her to ash. Umfri who’d shared a crust of bread with her when first she arrived and everyone was suspicious of this bony girl who didn’t know what to do with spoon and fork, but who could kill a gnat with a single throw of a knife. Myosent, heavy with her sixth child now, had been happy enough when Yréin took the other five under her wings. Ishbel, the midwife with a twisted knee, who appreciated Yréin’s help when a baby needed turning inside the womb. Ferr, the farmer with the fattest chickens and the bawdiest jokes. Even deaf Ivote whom she considered a little brother despite his old age. And her husband, Ysak, who’d vowed to love her until death do them apart.

Not one of them wept for her.

A small part of her understood. The small part that had managed to hold on to an ounce of compassion. People needed explanations for the catastrophes which befell them. They needed to blame someone or something to be able to decipher the absurdness that was life. And there’d been too many strange goings-on since the day she’d stumbled half-naked and bloody onto the market square. A monster had been spotted only moments before. Since then, the enormous beast had been butchering people in neighbouring hamlets. No one could deny there must have been a connection.

Because there was.

She knew that better than anyone.

But to murder her? Did they really believe their pitiful existence would improve once she was dead? That poverty would magically be lifted from their shoulders, and no child would starve this winter? That the emperor’s forces would waive tax collections? And once her ashes had grown cold and were hidden under a blanket of fresh snow, the beast would go to some other place and bother all those people who hadn’t found a witch to burn on the stake?

Yréin was beyond pain, beyond desperation.

She hungered for revenge.

The people of Beag believed her a witch, and that was something, wasn’t it?

She rolled her tongue around in her mouth, spat ash, and filled her lungs with smoke. “By Nuádhach, I curse you all! Man, woman, and child. Before the sun rises, your lifeblood will feed the earth! By Nuádhach, I curse you all! May she take you to the darkest, filth—” A coughing fit cut her off, but her words were having the desired effect: the mob was as frozen as the winter forest.

A child began to weep. Haltingly. Pressing her face into her mother’s coat tail.

“There! I told you she’s a witch!” Her husband’s cry split the silence like a knife. Pointing at her, he yelled, “To think I invited you to my hearth, to my…my b-b…” He choked on the word bed. The whites of his eyes reddened, his beard bristled. He kicked at the snow and bent to pick up a rock. Hefted it in his hand. Deciding it was the right shape and weight for the job, he lobbed it at his wife.

In a screaming rage, everyone scrambled to find objects to hurl at Yréin. A hammer, an ax. A chunk of firewood. A felted hat — although that one neither flew as far nor hit as hard.

Still bound to the stake, Yréin couldn’t duck to avoid the missiles. They hit her chin, her hip, her ribs. The side of her head.

Smoke in her lungs. Fire on her skin.

Fading. She was fading. At least, she thought, I go with a smile. A grim smile that made her face and her head ache. Her body was painted in the bright colours of agony. She curled her fingers into fists. Sard you, Beag, and every single one of your foul souls!

Her spine sagged. Black bloomed in her vision and blood hollered in her ears. At the edge of her consciousness, she heard…perhaps?…a roar. But she wasn’t sure. It was of no importance anyway.

In the black fog surrounding her, a raven beat his wings. He seemed familiar. That polished red beak…but…no that couldn’t be him. He’d left long ago.

Something solid smashed into her side, knocking the last trace of air from her lungs. The world slowly tipped aside.

Her lids…so heavy.

The ground rose to strike her hard against her temple. Stars flickered through the black of her vision.

Then she was gone.

A roar split her ears, forcing her lids to open a crack. A horned feline with eyes of liquid gold gazed down at her, snarling.

He, too, was familiar.

“So that’s the moment you choose to kill them all?” she wanted to say, but only a rasping noise fell from her lips. He turned away from her and leaped at the crowd. Tore elder Linn’s head clean off. Took an arm off her husband and ripped out the throats of two women before the villagers realised what was happening.

In their panic, parents forgot their children. But the little ones needed no further encouragement to scuttle away.

The beast didn’t bother with the people once they abandoned the clearing. Yréin watched him tug at elder Linn’s fur coat until it slipped off the headless corpse. He dragged the coat through bloody snow and dumped it on her ribcage. She cried out as he nosed her burned cheek.

“Can’t move,” she meant to say, but her mouth wouldn’t obey.

He snarled again. Pressed a paw at the coat until her ribs creaked. Weakly, she swatted at him and snarled back.

Licking his nose he shifted his gaze to the huts around the market square. A last glance at Yréin, as if to make sure she would hold on for a little while longer. Then he prowled past the roaring pyre to the first building, ripped a hole into the wall, and pushed through. Screams, there and gone. Yréin had no pity left for the people who had once offered her a home. But…the children! she thought. What about the childr…

She woke up to the beast chewing on her arm. No, not chewing. Tugging.

He spat out her limb, stared at the teeth marks on her ash-covered skin, and huffed. Ran his tongue over the bloody spots, tugged at the coat, and moved her arm onto a corner of the crudely tanned fur. He mouthed at another corner, flapped it over her limb, and took both — coat and Yréin’s arm — gingerly between his jaws to drag her toward the nearest hut. Although his teeth weren’t drilling into her as before, she groaned with the fresh pain of snow grinding into her burns. She breathed shallow gasps, focusing on the flecks of half snow, half ash drifting down on her face.

The way across the snow was excruciating. Being dragged over the doorstep created a wholly different quality of pain. She endured briefly before blacking out again.

She came to on a dirt floor, the coat bunched underneath her, and the beast tugging a heavy blanket up to her chin. He froze when she lifted a hand to touch his muzzle. The only thanks she was able to give.

Her eyes followed him pace the room as if it, too, were on fire. He bunched his muscled body, groaning, snarling. Went back to pacing, nosing the contents of shelves, pots, jugs, toppling them over and pawing through the spilled contents.

When he noticed that she was shivering, he came to lay down by her side and gaze at her from the depth of his gold eyes. She wondered about the flavour of his soul. The thought reminded her of the tang of blood and ash in her mouth, and how thirsty she was. She licked her dry lips and coughed.

“W… Wat…er?” she managed.

He stood and went to the pantry, found a wooden bucket, and stopped. He snatched a mug with his teeth and dropped it into the bucket. Tried to fish it out with his too-huge paw, and growled at himself when all he could do was wet his pelt and the floorboards.

He licked his paw dry and paused. Dipped the paw back into the water, limped on three legs back to Yréin, and lightly pressed a soggy front toe to her lips. She tasted the liquid dripping off a claw as thick as three fingers and nearly as long as her hand. She didn’t think of what those claws had sliced open only moments earlier. She sucked the water from his pelt and drank.

She found herself standing waist-deep in a river, framed by sheer white rock. The water neither pushed nor pulled at her. It flowed as lazily as oil, but without weight, clear and crisp as air, forming fingers that reached up her homespun and her bare arms. There was no fear in her, only mild surprise.

A fish fought its way up the stream toward her, its dark silhouette distorted by the waves. The closer it came, the stranger it looked. Entirely black with large, undulating fins on either side. It struggled to inch forward as though water wasn’t its element. Clearly, the creature needed help, so Yréin waded toward it and reached into the river with both hands.

With an angry “Caw!” a wet raven hatched from the waves.

“It’s you,” she said, half statement, half question. “So I’m dreaming. Why am I dreaming?” She couldn’t recall falling asleep. But she knew with absolute certainty that she must be sleeping, for her raven friend only ever showed himself in her dreams. “Does this mean I’m dying?”

The river vanished and a meadow grew under her feet. Water still clung thickly to Yréin’s arms and legs, reluctant to let go.

Raven shook himself violently, and in a flash of shadow and plumage, he transformed from bird into male.

He lifted an eyebrow. “Dying? Why would you say that?”

Frowning, she wondered what had put such a strange question on her tongue. “You are here, so…” She shrugged. Something was clearly wrong, but she couldn’t put a finger on it.

“Where you dying all the other times I visited you in your dreams?” A smile tugged at a corner of his mouth. Sunlight bounced off the raven feathers in his long, black hair.

His nonchalance only made her angry. “No. But you left. I didn’t even know if you were…dead.” The main question was, how alive an imaginary friend could ever be.

His eyes darkened with sadness. A tree appeared right next to him — perfect to lean a shoulder against. And that’s what he did.

Her dreams always adapted to his wishes.

“I left because you needed me to leave. And I returned because you need me now.”

Her throat tightened. “I never needed you to leave.” She’d known Raven since she was little, before she could even walk and talk. She had trusted him implicitly until the day he disappeared without a word.

He reached out, palm up. “Will you forgive me, Yréin?”

She stared at his hand. “So that’s it? We see each other every night, talk about everything, and then you disappear without warning for nigh on seven winters. I thought you were dead! And now you ask me to forgive you without offering an explanation.”

“Would it be enough if I said that one day I’ll tell you everything?”

“It feels like an empty promise.”

“Not to me,” he said softly.

“I’ll hold you to it.” She took his offered hand into hers, and as so often, she yearned to know his real name. But she clenched her teeth. She wouldn’t ask. It was impolite. How strange. She never had that feeling with other people. She wondered why.

At his whispered, “Thank you,” she took a step closer and leaned her head against his chest. Her mouth full of why’s and how’s, she only asked, “What made you so sad?” With a glint in her eye, she looked up. “Or should I ask who? Want me to beat the turds out of them?”

He grinned.

To Yréin, this felt like all those many winters ago when they’d shared stories and laughs, when she told him about her little sorrows and pains, and he…told her a whole world of nothing. “Are you still bound to silence?”

Raven dipped his chin.

“When will it end?”

“Whenever Nuádhach wills it.”

She leaned back from him. “That’s awfully vague.”

A smirk. “You know me.”

She wasn’t sure she knew him at all.

He seemed to glimpse the sentiment in her eyes and added, “I am hoping for a thousand winters.”

She jerked back in shock. “A thousand winters? Who would ask that of anyone? Your bones will long be dust by then!”

He laughed. “Are you a seer now, my dear?”

Puzzled, she frowned at him. Touched his cheek as if to make sure he was real. As real as an imaginary friend could be. “You are different.”

He shut his eyes for a heartbeat. “It’s been a while. We both changed. You grew up.”

“Hm.” She gazed at him sideways. “You said you came back because I need you. What do I need from you?”

“Always so direct, little sparrow.” His knuckles brushed her chin. Deep melancholy dimmed his gaze. He opened his mouth to continue, then abruptly turned his head.

Yréin followed his gaze and saw nothing but white fog behind him. When Raven looked back at her, a dark shadow swirled through his storm-grey irises. Before she could ask what was upsetting him, he said, “You are injured, Yréin. Don’t you remember what happened?”

“Injured?” She looked down at herself. Turned her hands, her arms. A memory pecked at the back of her neck. Something about a fire? But her skin was unblemished. “You sure?”

Water began seeping through the grass around her feet, its fingers creeping up her ankles. She looked up. His haunted gaze told her that he didn’t have full control of her dream this time.

“What’s happening?” she whispered.

“I think… I think it’s the smoke in your lungs.” Abruptly he turned again. And again she was blind to whatever he saw in the white fog.

He grabbed her arm, digging his finger into her flesh, his eyes scanning her face. “You breathed in too much smoke, Yréin. Your lungs are filling with water.”

“What? What smoke?”

“I’ll find a way to help, I promise. I’ll be back. In the meantime, keep your wounds clean.” He stepped back. Something in the fog was beckoning him. “I’m sorry. I wish I could stay longer.” With that, he vanished.

She stared into the white expanse. He’d never made promises to her, she remembered that now. So why make promises now?



“A witch, you say?”

“Yes, my liege.” Darkness knelt in the throne room, his eyes and the knuckles of his left fist resting on the stars embossed on a strange metal floor. At times, it amused him to be the only living creature in this world who was aware of the significance of this swirling pattern of celestial bodies.

“I haven’t heard of a witch being put to the stake for…hm. A winter or two, at least.” Emperor Uileb chewed on his midnight supper. His massive, greying moustache bobbed as his jaws worked their way through tender venison. Uileb had a habit of staying up until the first rays of sunlight touched the horizon, only to sleep long past noon. Servants muttered that the emperor was afraid of the dark, especially when his spymaster resided at court.

They weren’t lying.

Below the dais, a dozen advisors sat at a large table strewn with maps, papers, inks, and quills. Chin tucked in, eyes half shut, fingers curled around jugs of mead. Listening. Plotting whatever insidious scheme each one of them was brewing up at the time.

When Uileb had taken his father’s crown, he ordered the hideous floor in the throne room removed. Its dull grey sheen and lack of dents and scratches made the material decidedly other. Its constellations of stars were a blatant lie, an affront to the empire. Heresy.

But no blacksmith in Arhyst had been able to put so much as a dent into the massive metal sheet. After half of Arhyst’s blacksmiths were made one head shorter, and the other half was flogged bloody, the floor was officially decreed ancestral art. The only piece of its kind in the whole empire! Only befitting to have the emperor’s throne standing upon it!

For half a heartbeat, Darkness had toyed with the idea of telling Uileb what it was he wanted dismantled. Not because Darkness felt like telling the truth. He simply wanted to see the reaction of emperor and advisors when they learned they were standing on one of the few still-intact components of their ancestor’s spaceship.

But yoomen would believe in spaceships as much as they believed in the true gods.

Darkness brushed a fingertip over a star the first yoomen had named Mira, traced it along her powdery tail and wondered how far away she was from the world yoomen had once called home. How many universes did they cross with this map of their solar system embossed on the floor of their vessel’s command center? The map hadn’t been put there to help them find their way back. No, it had already been too late for that.

It was a memento, a requiem to the home they’d lost.

Darkness knelt with his left fist bearing down on the yoomen solar system, his right tucked to his chest. Thousands of times he’d gazed at those stars while listening to demands, persuasion, extortion, politics, murder. The constellations of the stars and the hearts of yoomen were imprinted on his soul.

“Are you certain she was a witch?” the Emperor asked, still not allowing Darkness to rise. As the countless emperors before him, Uileb enjoyed seeing Darkness kneel. And Darkness allowed it as long as it served his purpose.

“The villagers shouted it when she burned.”

“So she’s dead?” Caidh, a male who liked watching — and causing — suffering in defenceless creatures. When Caidh was a youngling, servants talked among themselves that the boy was skewering and roasting small and defenceless creatures alive. He had acquired more refined tastes as he grew up.

Still kneeling, his eyes downcast, Darkness tilted his head a fraction. “She certainly looked it.”

A soft clank of cutlery announced the end of the Emperor’s supper. A servant rushed up to the first step of the dais and fell to his knees. He held up a bowl of water, a white napkin neatly folded over his wrist. Upon a “Hum,” from the emperor, the servant took the three steps to the throne on his knees, keeping his eyes down and his posture as submissive as physically possible.

While not spilling a single drop from the bowl.

A truly acrobatic feat. Still kneeling and averting his gaze, he lifted the bowl up onto an enormous oak dining table ten servants had carried in earlier. Emperor Uileb washed his hands and dabbed them dry.

The servant scooted back down the dais.

The direct correlation between the length of survival of a servant and the depth of their stooping hadn’t changed in centuries. The first yoomens called their servants “slaves” — a term more befitting their treatment — until an uprising cost the first emperor his only daughter. Not that daughters mattered much to emperors, but since then, the term “slave” had been modernised. The circumstances hadn’t. Servants were as much property as any other piece of furniture.

“We should send a dozen men to this…what was the name of the place?” Caidh said.

“Beag, my lord,” Darkness replied.

“Beag needs a reminder the Emperor is the law, not the common folk.” A suggestion by the Emperor’s son, and heir to the throne, Uileb II. He sat two steps above the advisors and one step below his father. It had taken the young male nigh on two dozen winters to teach himself how to knife down any opponent with the tone of his voice. Currently, Uileb II pretended to be revolted by any and all things coming from Caidh’s mouth. They would later work it out in Caidh’s bed-chamber. It usually involved prostration of some sort or other, or so the chambermaids whispered.

“You may rise, spymaster,” the Emperor said.

Darkness stood. Slowly. If he moved at his natural speed, it would be interpreted as an attack. The consequences were…unpleasant. They couldn’t kill him, of course. He regularly made good use of that circumstance.

“What else have you seen?” The Emperor picked at his teeth with a tiny knife.

“I went to the North as you commanded.”

“Yes, yes.” A bored flick of fingers. “What about the barbarians? Have you seen them? How far north did you go?”

The barbarians. By now, the slur meant nothing more to Darkness than a string of letters. Not the slightest emotional twitch when his own kind was described as uncultured, uneducated, brutish beasts.

When he was younger, much younger, he’d been…hotheaded. And was made to regret it.

The first yoomen couldn’t stop blathering about their glorious history of conquering new worlds. The second and third generations softened their bloody past by giving it a new name: The discovery of new lands. Gave it an altruistic purpose by calling it education and reform of the barbarian natives.

When the fourth emperor took his crown, yoomen dismantled their heavy guns, and buried their murder bots and the monstrous creature Talos — a sentient being that seemed older than the stars and lived inside the walls of their spaceship — in their ancestor’s crypts. Darkness had watched with more than satisfaction. He vividly recalled the heat of laughter threatening to burst up his throat at the sight of a dozen yoomen blacksmiths peeling apart a perfectly intact cannon — one of the many cruelly effective weapons used to bend his kind to yoomen will and nigh in eradicate them — and dragging the metal to a forge to turn into swords, shields, and chain mail.

Without the slightest inkling of what they were destroying.

With Talos’ disappearance, all records of early yoomen history were lost, and no one had had the foresight to use ink and paper to write down their past before all was scattered with the winds of time.

No one remembered.

No one but Darkness.

He remembered the day the skies tore open and vomited a silvery seed pod as large as Àthad Island into the world. The earth shook so violently, he fell flat on his face and fractured his nose. Trees were pulverised by the sonic force of the impact. A black wall of smoke and dust crawled over Arhyst. A large part of the ancient forests turned to ash. He remembered the wars that followed, the tens of thousands of lives lost. And the fragile peace that was established when both races had grown tired of the butchering. A peace that hung on a single thread of spider silk, spun by Nuádhach.

The other end was firmly tied around his neck.

“I went deep into the permafrost to the Khantha territory, and saw no barbarians, my liege.”

“Not a trace of them?”


The Emperor tossed his eating knife on the table. A servant rushed to clear it away.

“With your permission, my Emperor,” a soft voice began. Of all the slime-sucking maggots at court, Neas was the one that needed watching. Pleasant and weak on the outside. Rotten on the inside. His mind as fast as a hooded snake.

The Emperor lifted his hand a fraction to signal Neas proceed.

“I believe captain Roulf and his men are a mere two-day march out from Beag.” Clever Neas only ever presented the first half of a plan — at the most — so the Emperor could add the rest and pretend the whole thing was his own idea. And slowly, winter by winter, the weight of Neas’ voice grew, because emperors liked to hear themselves talk and take credit for things they hadn’t earned.

Beag was a minuscule pimple on the arse of the world. It would take a yoomen three fortnights and many changes of fast horses to get from court to the hamlet. And it would take Darkness a handful of heartbeats. Neas’ knowledge of the precise location of Beag and all the Empire’s troops didn’t surprise Darkness. The male’s mild-mannered facade clothed a sharp memory and keen attention to detail. And then a whole world of nasty.

Emperor Uileb tapped his fingers on the table. “Spymaster, you will deliver a missive to the commander Roulf. Son!” The last word came out as a bark.

“My Emperor?”

“What is your suggestion I do with the rabble?”

“They took the law in their own hands.” Uileb II shrugged. “Burn down the houses. Torture the instigators, then kill everyone. If it pleases you, Father.”

“It pleases.” The Emperor snapped a finger at his advisors and the machinery of bureaucratic cruelties was set in motion.

Soon, the conversation turned to the North as though Emperor, heir, and advisors had personally been there. Next came tax evasions, rumours of subversion, and how many troops are to be sent to this town or that hamlet to remind people of their duty to serve their Emperor. Uileb ordered another flask of wine and a young maid to be brought as entertainment. At first, she was asked to sit next to him. Soon she sat on his lap, producing one stiff giggle after the other. She fell silent when his hand squeezed her breast. If she didn’t learn the art of deceit before daybreak, well...

Darkness decided this was a good moment to take his leave. He bowed, said, “My liege. My lords,” and slowly walked away.

Halfway through the throne room, Neas spoke a soft, “I have a question for your spy. If I may, my Emperor?”

Darkness came to a halt, his back to the assembly.

“Did you know the witch?” Neas asked softly.

Darkness turned and looked Neas full in the eye — a measure Darkness took only in small doses and with much satisfaction. But where others would have found it difficult to maintain control of their sphincters, Neas didn’t so much as pale.

“My lord, I have never seen her face,” Darkness said. And he had no plan of ever doing so. It was the only way to delay killing her. Delay, not prevent. He wasn’t naive enough to think he wouldn’t be her death one day.

A touch of irritation emanated from the Emperor. “Would that be all?”

Neas bowed his head. “Yes, my Liege.”

With a wave of the Emperor’s hand, Darkness was dismissed.



By Gliochas’ balls, he shouldn’t have killed everyone! At least kept an elderly yoomen female alive. They usually knew what to do in such cases. And a pair of hands would be good to have now.

Yréin was shivering under the blanket, eyes half-open and unseeing, glassy with pain. Her breath like a rattle of coins in a cracked earthen bowl. Death wasn’t sure if she was sleeping or unconscious, but didn’t want to jostle her to find out. Should he run to some other hamlet and grab a healer? He’d probably break them beyond repair on the way back. If he could catch one alive, that is. And what then? How would he ever make them understand they must help, not harm her? Or run away screaming the moment he released them?

He hissed in frustration. Stupid creatures, yoomen!

Softly, he clamped his teeth around a corner of the blanket covering Yréin and lifted it away. She barely stirred as cold air touched her skin. Her burns turned his stomach.

Odd. Wounds had never bothered him, no matter how deep the gashes.

He tugged the blanket back up to her neck and paced the room. The burns had to be cleaned, else they’d start to rot. She’d be lost, then. He didn’t know much about the healing arts — nothing, really — but checked the hut once more for bandages, salves, herbs, or anything that might be useful. But there was nothing but shards and dirt and ashes. His rage had gotten the better of him. With a glance at Yréin laying by the cold hearth, he left to scour the hamlet for supplies.

He didn’t like intruding on her home, so he went there first. Better get it over with. There was a bed on one side of the room. He sniffed at the linens. Slightly sour with the sweat of an ageing couple. He sneezed those scents out of his nostrils as soon as they entered. Cold iron. Bed bugs. A trace of urine. The parents of the blacksmith, then.

He plodded to a pallet in the other corner of the hut. It carried her enticingly sweet scents and those of the male who was currently bleeding out from his arm socket. And what a piss-pour version of a husband that male had been!

Death thoroughly wiped his nose with his paws.

In a small chest by the pallet, he found her clothes. A dress. An apron. Useless things. He’d need to find clothing of a yoomen male her size. He took her wool stockings and coat between his teeth and dropped them on the floor by the hearth. He checked the smithy for weapons, found a few knives, a hunting bow and arrows. All those he collected. In kitchen and earth cellar he discovered root vegetables, salted meat, and cheese — all went on the growing pile of useful items.

He sniffed through cupboards and shelves for anything that might be used to treat her wounds but came up empty. He had no knowledge of how to save lives. He was only good at taking them.

Clumsily, Death bundled the coat around food and weapons, dragged it through the snow, and dropped it next to Yréin. He went out again to search from hut to hut, stepping over bodies and puddles of frozen blood. When he passed the shrinking pyre the dozenth time, a shiver prickled up his tail. The way Yréin had fallen from the pyre… He hadn’t quite seen how it happened — a blur of smoke and flames and Yréin in the middle of it — but something about it hadn’t felt right.

He turned back to the pyre, lifted his nose and tasted the air. Smoke. Spiced ale. Blood. Spilled guts. The sour stink of terror. He opened his maw a crack, sucked air across his tongue and pressed it to the roof of his mouth. There it was. A trace of…something.

Death stepped on a small body that lay face down in the snow. A small yoomen. He had no recollection of killing the youngling. He shook himself and stepped around to the spot where Yréin had fallen.

Putting his nose to the ground, he sniffed. Licked the snow with his tongue. That tiny something was there, too. It didn’t smell like yoomen, or any creature he knew. His hackles rose when he noticed the distance between the stake she’d been bound to and the divot in the half-frozen mud that had caught her fall. She couldn’t have fallen that far.

Not without being thrown.

He ran back to Yréin, pressed his nose to her singed nightdress and inhaled.

She startled awake.

“Bastard of a whore!” she rasped when she found him pressing his muzzle to her breast. She shoved at him. “Are you mad?”

He rewarded her with snarls and hisses. That strange scent is all over you! he wanted to say. Tell me what it is. Who pushed you off the pyre?

A puzzled look. “You are mad. At…at me?” Her voice was a hoarse whisper. Lips blue as the sky at noon.

He huffed. Shook his whole body.

She swallowed. The action seemed to pain her. He wanted to lick her throat to make her feel better.

“I need to clean my wounds,” she said and coughed, a fist pressed to her chest.

Sitting back on his haunches, he swivelled his head from side to side, then shook himself once more.

“You don’t think so?”

“Rrrrrr!” he said, meaning, Of course, you need to clean your wounds. I found water for you but no salves or herbs.

“Well, I do.” She squeezed her eyes shut and rolled onto her good side.

By Gliochas’ bones, he desperately wished he were able to speak to her!

She tucked in her legs and shifted to a kneeling position, groaning in pain. Burned skin on the side of her leg cracked open. Blood seeped to the floor.

He nosed her ribcage to make her lay back down.

“Stop it! You are not helping.” She grabbed his huge paw and pressed through her teeth, “Could you…look around. Please. Clean water. Soap. Clean cloth. Lard. Yellow Handmaiden’s root… Uh, you probably don’t know that one.”

Panting, she lowered her forehead to the floorboards. “Rutting rats, my skin hurts!”

Death rushed outside to fetch a bucket with comparatively clean water. Dropped it by her side, ran back out to get soap and lard. The other things he couldn’t find. Clean cloth seemed to be something no yoomen possessed. All their clothes and linens stank. Come to think of it, the bucket smelled suspicious, too. Its handle had left grease on his tongue. He wasn’t sure if he should allow Yréin to use that water on her wounds, but he couldn’t come up with anything better. He thought of collecting snow for her but had no means of melting it.

He wished he could turn his paws into hands.

A faint memory touched his mind. There and gone. Something about his paws… No, that was ridiculous.

Yréin’s whimper pulled him from his thoughts. She was trying to shed her scorched nightgown but wasn’t able to reach her burned arm over her head. He pawed through the supplies he’d collected and pushed one of the knives across the floor. She picked it up and started cutting at the front of her nightshirt.

An abashed glance from her told him she wanted…what? He tucked himself into a neat ball, tail tip curled over front paws, eyeing Yréin for any clue on what she needed from him.

“Could you turn around?”




He scooted closer and put his face close to hers. Why do you want me to turn around? You can’t run away. Not in the state you’re in. Besides, hoping to outrun me even if you were healthy and well-fed would be stupid. He bopped his nose to hers.

She growled. Growled! That was almost cute. And definitely funny.

“I don’t want you to see me naked,” she said.

Really? Why not? She was such a strange creature sometimes. He eyed her for a moment longer, then decided to stretch out on the floor and shut his eyes.

There was no way he would leave her unprotected, but he could at least make an effort to not look.

For a long time, she said nothing. Breath struggled through airways. The soft ruffle of nightshirt on floorboards. When she groaned, he cracked an eye open. Froze. And felt a rage he hadn’t felt since finding her on a pyre.

Her back was utterly bare. The yoomen had ripped out the delicate owl feathers that used to trail from her hairline down to the base of her spine. His gaze flicked up to the edge of her ears. He’d thought the feathers there had been singed away, but now he saw that the skin of her ears was mostly untouched by fire. These yoomen turds had ripped away what made her her! They’d taken her feathers, the single most important manifestation of her sire’s beast form—

Death froze.

His breath leaden in his chest. His mind an abyss filled to bursting with a single thought: Her sire’s beast form.

Beast form.

His gaze dropped to his forepaws. He lifted one. Turned it, flexed it. Extended his claws.

Beast form.

The memory of hands — his own hands — flattened his ears to his skull and set his heart racing.

His world lost all reason.

He didn’t look back at Yréin.

He bolted.

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