This story is by Rowan Rook and was a runner up in our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I . . . don’t want to do this. I’ve visited Illias village to claim hundreds of sacrifices on hundreds of new moon nights, but this is the first time that thought breaches the swamp of dread in my stomach. I don’t want to do this.
I stop at the top of the valley. The village is dark. Its people are hiding, the way they always do.
At least the stars stay out for me.
I reach out a hand so that the brightest star shines through my translucent claws. Its beauty seems wrong beside a monster like me, but I can’t help but dream about plucking it from the sky — about holding it tight to my silent chest and making a wish.
I’d wish to be human, I think.
I plod on all fours into the terrified village. I resemble a shadow shared by a person and a lion, but far worse than either. I’m made of the Princess’s magic, so it’s no surprise that I’m ugly, that I’m cruel. I’m her puppet. She created me so that she could hide in her castle while I make her sacrifices. If I don’t, we’ll both die.
So I’d like to think I don’t have a choice . . . but of course I do.
My eyes look back at those stars I love so much.
I’m only human enough to want to live.
I see the auras of every living thing through the walls, but a blazing violet glow in the shape of a man beckons me towards a home. I breathe in air that smells like Illias’s summer blossoms. Yes, he’ll do just fine.
I shatter the door with one swipe of my claws and charge inside.
The man — all paled skin and sweaty hair — leaps from a closet with a knife, as if he wants to believe he can stop me.
He only has time to scream before I plunge my forked tail into his chest.
His violet aura flows out of his body and into mine like siphoned water. It’s cool like water, too. New strength refreshes my shape and my mind, waking me up until I’m fully alive.
The man’s eyes open wide, turning whiter. I don’t know what it’s like for a human when I steal away their life, but it must be the opposite of the delight I wish I didn’t experience. . . . I really am my Princess’s beast. I wonder if she feels it, too, up in the castle, where she doesn’t have to see our victim’s face.
Empty, he falls with a dead thunk.
It’s done. The Princess and I are safe for another month. Her five-hundred year reign will continue.
Pain flares up in my shoulder. A hiss escapes me and I find the arrow jutting from my skin.
A girl stands in the home’s hallway, a bow in her shaking hands. She holds another arrow taught against the string. “I’ll kill you,” she hisses just like I do. “I’ll kill you!”
She lets the arrow go and it flies towards me, but this time I’m ready. I swat it away with an arm that reaches out to push her back. One of my claws catches on her cheek and spills blood in the shape of a crescent. She screams.
I flee. I don’t need to hurt her. I’ve had my fill.
“I’ll get you for this! I’ll get you for Daddy!” The girl’s voice chases after me. “I’ll be a hero! You’ll fear the name Dia! I’ll get your Princess one day!”
A thing as small and delicate as she could never stand a chance against the Princess and me.
Humans really are naive creatures.
I slink through the snowy woods. If I don’t bring home meat for the Princess’s holiday feast, she’ll threaten to erase me again.
A human sob shatters the silence.
I’m not here to hunt for humans, but something stops me from turning away. That sad, rhythmic sound. There’s something beautiful about it, the way it trembles with raw emotion. A part of me still wishes to understand it.
Peering through the trees, I see a woman standing above a bleeding bear with arrows in its back and two cubs whimpering beside it — a woman with a crescent scar on her cheek.
I shudder, stepping back.
. . . Dia? Was that the name an angry girl had once said I’d fear? She’s nearly grown now.
“I’m sorry,” Dia sniffles at the cubs. “If I’d known she had you I wouldn’t have hunted her. I know what it’s like to lose your parent.”
With an inhale of cold air — cold air that reminds me of the violet life I once stole — my body emerges from the rest of the shadows.
Dia gasps and leaps away, her hands already on her bow and her eyes narrowed as if they hadn’t watered just moments ago. “You . . . !” Rage shakes her voice, but no matter how many of those arrows she shoots, she can’t kill a monster like me.
I look away from her and step up to the bear. Its aura is weak and yellow. I pluck out the arrows before I plunge my tail into its flesh.
Dia cries out, as if she expects me to take all the life it has left.
Instead, I let life flow the other way. I’ve never done this before, but I suppose it should be simple. I feel warm — too hot — as my own violet aura stitches shut the bear’s wounds. Its breathing evens out. Its aura turns a healthy blue. It’ll be fine.
I, however, won’t be if the Princess realizes what I’ve done.
My eyes linger on the sleeping bear for a while longer. I’m not entirely sure why I took the risk. I had no reason to do so . . . but perhaps I wanted to, even though saving one fellow beast won’t make up for the hundreds of human lives I’ve taken.
I force myself to look up and see Dia standing closer. Her wide eyes gape at me, but this time the emotion isn’t quite fear. It’s not quite anger, either. Her fingers strangle the string of her bow, but she doesn’t fire.
I disappear into the woods.
“Kill her,” the Princess’s words reverberate in my mind as if they were my own thoughts.
This time, I’m the one who gawks at Dia — at the grown woman with her knight’s armor and sword and bow. She promised to come for the Princess . . . and she has, almost twenty years later. To even get inside the castle, passed the Princess’s lesser puppet beasts, she must have spent so much of her life in training.
“This is for my father!” She lets an arrow fly.
I expect it to come towards me, but instead, it seeks out the Princess.
A barrier of green fire burns it, but the Princess’s face fumes with just as much heat.
“Kill her! Kill her, or I’ll erase you!”
The Princess can’t fight without taking back the magic she used to make me. I’m supposed to protect and kill and steal in her place.
I hunch down to strike.
Dia turns towards me and pulls out her sword. Just like her father, she wants to believe she stands a chance. Moonlight catches her blade and shimmers like the stars.
. . . I wish I could’ve seen those stars one more time.
I lunge towards the Princess on her throne and my fangs pierce her flesh. She screams. Her pain echoes through me, tearing at my innards and edges. This kill makes me weaker instead of stronger . . . yet it feels so much better.
I should have done this years ago.
“You traitor!” the Princess wails. “You beast! You —”
I crunch down hard.
The reality of what I’ve done splashes across the room like her blood.
I drop the Princess’s body. Her sacrifices preserved her outer beauty, but the anger left behind on her dead face is as ugly as she always was within.
I already feel my life ebbing. My vision swims, color draining and sound dimming. I’m . . . going to fall, fall into the black, fall out of this world.
. . . Is this the way my victims felt?
A hand reaches out and holds me, as if it can save me from the fall. Dia. Those tears that fascinated me escape down her cheeks from eyes wide with an emotion altogether different from the ones I’ve seen in them before. . . . Sorrow?
That same feeling might be the one that howls like winter in my mind as the Princess’s magic — as my body — fades away.
I hope I was more than a part of the Princess. I hope I was more than a puppet. I hope I have a soul that can haunt this world — that can see people and places and stars.
“You’re not her,” Dia tells me, as if she read my thoughts. “Not anymore. You can’t be.”
I smile for the first and last time.