A long one. Action. Teeth.
The heat lingered well after sunset. Sweat collected in her lower back. No matter how many times Solenne plucked away the fabric, it clung to all her uncomfortable places with determination.
Near full, the moon cast enough light that she could see well enough to pick her way through the northern pasture. Luis did not want her to venture out, but Alek nearly consumed all her store of wolfsbane. The seedlings in the greenhouse would not be ready for weeks. She needed to replenish now, which meant a moonlight stroll to gather as much wolfsbane as possible before the sheep munched their way through the pasture.
Gathering the blossoms on the equinox or solstice was best for potency but impractical. A full moon was better, but gathering by moonlight would do. She didn’t know how she knew those things, she just did. Luis would say it was a witchy instinct.
The siblings made peace after their argument, but Solenne would never agree with Luis. His theory was, well, too much out of a storybook. Certain flowers blossomed at night. If certain flowers were more potent when gathered at night, then that was because of lack of insects gathering pollen or exposure to the nexus. Not magic, and not because she was a witch.
Solenne knelt at a cluster of the hooded purple blossoms, her basket at her side. Her silver dagger lopped off the flower heads with practiced efficiency.
Witches. She heard nothing so silly in her life.
The wind shifted, bringing cool relief.
A week had passed since Mrs. Parkell and Doctor Sheldon arrived, claiming that Alek went to draw away a beast to allow them to finish their journey without incident. He would be a day behind, perhaps two. Never fear.
A week. Too much time had passed. The distance between Fallkirk and Boxon did not warrant such a lengthy journey. Each day that passed, the likelihood of Alek laying mangled and dead in a dark wood increased.
Distressed, she asked Godwin to set out to search for Alek. He did not seem surprised. “My dear, perhaps he has moved on. That’s what his kind does, after all.”
No. She knew in her heart that was wrong. Alek would not leave her.
She approached Luis, since he was keen on a quest. “Alek is competent and skilled. He’ll find his way back,” her brother said.
He would not have been so blithe if it was Miles missing.
She couldn’t sleep. How could she? Rather than chew her nails down to the quick, she read Charlotte’s book. It proved to be as lascivious as promised. The author did not shy away from details, and Solenne was grateful that she kept this part of her research quiet.
After rushing through the first time, she reread with more attention to detail and took notes. The book was an autobiography of an original colonist. Two months after arrival, a crew member was bitten and subsequently mutated. Nothing seemed to quell the violence in the afflicted man. Not tranquilizers. Not restraints. The surviving crew believed that the only thing to be done would be a bullet to the head and end the afflicted man’s misery.
Only the woman writing the account felt a connection with the man. She refused to think him a mindless beast. Desperate to avoid the man’s execution, she locked herself in the holding cell with him. Such action was phenomenally brave and more than a little stupid.
Subsequent events were intimate in nature and described in such detail that Solenne felt her ear burn. The details did not matter so much that on the other side, when the executioner unlocked the holding cell, they were bonded. The man was himself again, no longer a raging monster. The woman was his anchor, keeping him sane and human.
Solenne took notes. How could she not? Intimacy seemed to be key, whether emotional or an exchange of fluids, the book never clarified.
She thought back to the kiss and how every part of her sparked with awareness, like she had emerged from a long sleep. Was enough for a bond? Perhaps some scrap or injury in childhood led to contact with blood.
Better try all methods to be certain.
She pressed a hand to the center of her chest, willing herself to feel some tug or a thread between herself and Alek. She was in his blood, he said. They had a bond. She knew it. And Alek was not mortally injured on some empty roadside. She’d know that, too.
Footsteps rustled through the grass.
Despite the moon’s illumination, pockets of deep shadows lurked at the edges of the pasture along the stone fence and the tree line. The stone circle stood silently on top of the hill, dark against the night’s sky.
The wind shifted, bringing the brittle scent of rain, parched grass and something foul. Spoiled.
She gagged at the scent. It was too soon after the solstice.
A growl rolled through the night air.
Clutching her knife, Solenne moved to the direction of the house and resisted the urge to run. Running only encouraged a predator to chase.
Near the fence, she quickened her pace until she saw the figure blocking the path.
Hidden in shadows, it stood tall on two legs but was more beast than man. It lifted its head and sniffed the air, then crouched down. Two huge hands resting on the ground, as if ready to spring into action. Moonlight cast violet highlights on the shaggy coat as it crept forward.
“Alek?” As soon as the question left her lips, she knew that was wrong. This was not Alek. If he could resist shifting during the solstice, why lose control of himself now? That delicate thread connecting them remained silent.
A growl, low and menacing, rumbled right through her. This had to be the beast that crashed into her home and licked her. The shadows hid much and, to be honest, she had not taken the time to look for unique features. The important point was they were not Aleksandar and they very much posed a threat.
Solenne took a step back. “Hello,” she whispered. “You don’t want to eat me. You’re in pain. Confused. I can help.” She moved to throw the entire contents of the basket but realized that she left the basket behind. All she had was her tiny silver knife, worthless for anything more than collecting herbs.
The beast crept forward, snarling.
She turned on her heel and ran towards the stone circle. The stones offered protection. She couldn’t rationalize how he knew that, but imagined that she could hide in the shadows. The stone marked a nexus point, and she hoped the excess energy would confuse the beast. But it wasn’t a solstice or even a full moon. The beast should not have been there.
Her foot caught on an unseen rock and she hit the ground hard. Her palms stung and her chest ached from the impact. Ignoring the pain and her ankle’s protests, she lurched to her feet.
The stone circle loomed above, promising shelter.
The incline grew steeper. Solenne kept her eyes focused on the stones, not bothering to glance back to check on the beast.
Sharp claws swiped at her legs, catching on her trousers. With a cry, she fell to the ground. Kicking frantically, she freed herself long enough to make it another two steps.
The beast tackled her. One massive hand in the center of her back held her in place. Solenne kicked and screamed. Luis would hear. He said he would join her. Where was her brother?
The beast buried its maw into the back of her back, its breath hot and putrid against her skin. For the second time in her life, she was being inspected by a beast, and it was as horrible as the first.
Her fingers dug into the ground, pulling up clumps of grass. Without hesitation, she hurled the wads backwards, showering herself with dirt and leaves.
Claws sunk into her calves, the pain sharp and burning. Wiggling away exacerbated the pain to a blinding misery. Her mind went blank and her body stopped fighting to save itself a little of suffering.
As the beast pulled her back, presumably to some den or secret location, she screamed. Her tunic road up as she bounced along the ground, rocks digging into her stomach and face, but she did not cease her screaming. She’d scream until her voice failed or the beast tore her throat out. Whichever came first.
Footsteps pounded on the ground. Finally, Luis.
The beast eased its grip, and she rolled away, despite the burning pain in her calves. Lifting her head, she saw the base of the giant stone slab and crawled forward.
The beast pounced, slamming her to the ground. It howled a terrible song of victory.
A second howl answered.
Icy dread washed over her. Two monsters, on a night that should have been safe. Nothing she thought she knew about the world made sense, but it did not matter because even if her brother arrived, he couldn’t fight off two beasts.
Grass, dirt and blood from a split lip filled her mouth. She stretched out a bloody hand to the nearest stone, the smooth surface vibrating at the touch, which had to be head trauma. The stones did not vibrate. The stones did not do much of anything, actually. They predated human’s arrival. No one knows who built them, but the why became obvious. Each stone circle marked a nexus point.
Solenne once read an old world fairy story about how a fairy could be summoned in an ancient stone circle to grant wishes. A fanciful child, she left offerings of bread and milk. No fairies arrived to grant wishes.
Her fingers tingled as they brushed the unnaturally cold stone. The unknown makers polished the surface to a machine smoothed finish. Exposure to the elements had not left a scratch.
All she offered was blood and terror. If she could have one wish, it would be for Luis to stay away. She didn’t want to die alone, but she refused to die with her brother. He would live.
If the universe was so kind as to grant two wishes, she wanted to tell Alek that she loved him.
An unnatural silence followed Alek. At least it had until yesterday, when birdsong and the hum on insects and scurrying of small animals returned.
A week he spent on a fool’s quest teasing the Fallkirk beast. It would chase him for half a day, then retreat to its territory. Alek persisted, determined to lure the beast and believed he had success. It felt it watching him, hidden in the forest and silent. The only clue to its presence was the absolute lack of noise from any other living animal. The creature had learned caution since their last encounter, when it had impulsively attacked the coach.
Yesterday it retreated, and he had been unable to pick up the trail. Exhausted down to his bones, missing his mate, he returned home when the last of his provisions ran out.
Recognizing home, the horse picked up the pace. He couldn’t blame it for being eager to return home. He was miserable company at the best of times, and a week of camping rough left him feeling sour and stinking.
“Looking forward to a bed of fresh hay?” He gave the horse a pat on the neck. It was an excellent animal with a calm, even temperament. Most horses, he discovered, were initially skittish around him, no doubt because of his curse.
After he tended to the horse, he planned to dump a bucket of cool water over his head to rinse away the worst of the grime before sinking into a bath.
A scream pierced the night. He knew it at once.
The connection between them pulsed with fear, much as it had the night of the solstice.
He urged the horse to go faster, growling in frustration. The horse flicked its ears back. The shift was upon him, brought on by his mate’s distress.
Unable to navigate the forest quick enough for his liking, he leapt from the saddle and abandoned the horse.
When his feet hit the ground, he was fully shifted.
Snarls and growls filled the air. She tensed, expecting a bite. Hopefully she’d bleed out quickly. Once, long ago, she’d seen the remains of a person torn apart by a cursed monster. There had been little left for identification as the face had been too badly beaten. Their boots had identified the unfortunate victim.
The image haunted her sleep for weeks. The savagery of it, teeth biting and tearing meat until only bloody pulp remained. That was not hunting for sustenance. That was cruelty for the pleasure of cruelty.
She hoped her monster was hungry and not in the mood to toy with his food.
A high-pitched squeal of pain pierced through her panic. She scrambled backwards until her back hit the giant stone slab.
Two beasts wrestled, all tooth and claw. The challenger was massive, towering above her attacker. A distant, detached part of her mind wondered if age factored into the size of the beast. That same cool detachment catalogued the heavy scarring on the challenger. She had seen them before.
The beast lunged for Solenne, getting close enough for her to feel his hot breath. The challenger sank his claws into the beast’s back and tore him away.
Hands distorted by claws swiped. Skin tore. Blood matted the fur. Teeth—so many teeth-sank into flesh. A pained cry ripped through the night, amplified by the stones., and the beast ran away.
The challenger reared back and gave a roar of triumph, the blood of his opponent on his face. He turned towards Solenne, eyes glowing violet. The shift distorted his face, making his brows heavy, and excessive teeth pushing his lips back in a permanent snarl.
She kept returning to those eyes.
Solenne’s entire existence narrowed down to that moment. Nothing human remained in those eyes. They were vacant and a luminous swirl of chaos.
It stalked closer.
“Stay back!” She held out a hand.
It crouched down, lowered his head and gave a plaintive whimper. He shuffled forward. Her breath caught in her throat.
He paused, then moved back. The message was clear. He did not want to scare her, but she feared that it might be impossible. Her heart thudded in her chest and refused to quiet.
He tilted his head to one side, the moonlight catching on his violet eyes, and he made a hissing sound. Too slowly, she realized he was speaking.
“I don’t understand. I’m sorry,” she said.
He repeated the sound. “Sfff.” He tapped his chest, then pointed at her. “Sfff wiff mee.”
“Oh, I’m safe with you,” she whispered. The thread that connected them pulled taunt. She knew this man. He was in her blood.
He shuffled forward, still low and, once again realizing too slow, submissive. She reached out, tangling her fingers in the mass of hair on his head. The hair had grown shaggy and felt course to the touch. At the base of his head, she felt a knotted ribbon that valiantly tried to keep his hair orderly. Every morning her love’s hair started in a tidy plait and worked its way free. It seemed impossible that this huge figure was known to her, but the poor ribbon confirmed it.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
What kind of ending was that? I know, I know. Go ahead and yell at me in the comments.