Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 23
Stories
The Hanged Poet
by Jeffrey Lyman
Into the West
by Eric James Stone
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Discriminating Monster's Guide to the Perils of Princess Snatching
    by Scott M. Roberts

2nd Place - Best Story - 2011

The Discriminating Monster's Guide to the Perils of Princess Snatching
Artwork by James Owen

I let her see my fangs.

The princess dropped the box-cutter. She had just cut herself -- shallow slashes that cried tiny, scarlet pearls. Her blood smelled as sweet as cotton candy, but it was the scent of her destiny that had led me to her. Spicy and cloying, the princess's destiny made my mouth water, set an itch and tingle in my skin. I inhaled it and let the city, with its bloated trash bags and filthy humans and miles of steaming asphalt, fade, fade, fade into the darkness. The princess's destiny was like Christmas morning: cloves and oranges, nutmeg explosions and cinnamon arias. All bright; all clean. A song in my sinuses, on the back of my throat, as pure as a child's kiss, as sweet cream.

I bumped my nose against the window. The twinge of pain brought me back to reality. The city, the humans, the asphalt, all that. And more, now: the stench of the princess's mother downstairs, sucking on vodka and painkillers, stinking of booze and vomit.

The window wasn't locked; I rubbed my nose with one hand and opened it with the other. "Hello, princess," I said.

She didn't scream. Most princesses don't, not even the little bitty ones. It takes time for the human brain to comprehend me; the four-fingered, clawed hands, the enormous beaky nose, the bulbous eyes, the warts. I'm as tall as God, ugly as Satan, and it takes time to put all that in the context of the waking world. By the time they build up a good scream, I'm halfway to Bald Mountain, and who can hear them from there?

I snatched her close to my chest, put a hand around her mouth, and bent back through the window.

Downstairs, the princess's mama coughed and began mumbling to herself. I slipped into the darkness with her daughter, who she'd never see again, not even in her dreams.

The princess squeaked and struggled. She was older than most of the princesses I take; older, bigger, stronger, with teeth that didn't wiggle when she bit my fingers.

"Ow," I muttered.

"Mmphf!" said she, because my fingers were still in her mouth.

I vaulted to the fire escape's railing and jumped for the building adjacent. There was a ten-foot gap between the buildings; enough for her to realize that she'd been airborne for a good couple seconds, but still an easy jump for me. I stuck my free hand into the shadows of the other building and held them like clinging to the branches of a tree.

The princess stopped struggling. I hung in the shadows for a moment, letting those pretty princess eyes look down at the ground far below us.

"I'm not going to hurt you, princess," I said.

"Mmphf!" she said, even though my fingers were not in her mouth anymore.

I relaxed my grip on the shadows, and we slipped down the wall. She sucked in a big breath as we descended, but still didn't scream. When my feet touched the alley floor, she finally exhaled and the scent of her destiny twisted around me: from her lungs, straight to my brain. Exquisite. I had to lean against the wall.

When I'd picked her out months ago, her destiny had been a thin little strand of scent, no bigger than a fawn's fart. Now I swooned and wobbled. All for the scent of one little girl's pungent days-to-come.

I licked my lips and flexed my fingers.

My empty fingers. The smell of the princess's destiny was beating its way away from me, around the corner, into the guts of the city, losing itself -- herself -- in the stink of humanity and asphalt.

Not homeward, though.

I followed.

Funny little girl, she didn't shout or scream about a wicked old monster taking her from her room. She passed by liquor stores and brightly-lit strip clubs and 24-hour pawn shops and never gave them a second glance. She was heading west, toward Bald Mountain, so I let her have her feet. The closer she got on her own, the less I'd have to carry her.

She finally found a door to open. Some crummy little church fronting the sidewalk between a pizzeria and a pool hall. She hauled herself into it, and threw a glance back at me, as if to say Ha ha on you, monster! Power of Gawd, in your face!

I gave her a couple seconds to settle into a folding chair. Then I walked into the church with my head bowed and my talons in my pockets, and took a seat a couple of chairs away from her. She stared. She gawked. She didn't move.

"I like churches," I said. "Done some of my best work in them. There was this little convent in France, back in the 1600s, very quaint, you would not believe how many princesses I pulled out of there."

She clutched at a hymnal. "What are you?"

The only other person in the chapel was a scrawny guy in a stocking cap. I could smell the heroin in his veins. He was staring at us, starting to rise out of his chair.

The princess lashed out with the hymnal. Ducking her strike, I didn't see the addict coming up, wielding a hypodermic needle like a holy lance; not until the needle was buried in the small of my back, its plastic wrapper still dangling off of it, and he was directing punches at it with all of his might.

Something about monsters: we make men into princes. Mother, sister, aunt, great-grandmother: they might fight, they might pitch a holy fit about taking their precious princess. But let a man get wind of a monster, and ploughboys become knights, farmers become mobs, and tailors take to war.

I spun about, grabbed Prince Hashish's face, and smashed him into the floor. He popped back up; I put him down again. Hard to be an effective prince when the plates of your skull are sliding willy-nilly beneath your scalp.

The princess hadn't run; she'd folded a chair. She swung it and it caught me on the side of the face, whipping me around so hard I tripped. Before she could get on top of me with the chair, I flipped over and caught it with my toes. I jerked it from her hands, and stood up straight and tall.

No more patter, now. No more teasing or coddling or warning. I grabbed her by the front of her shirt and lifted her off her feet so she was looking me in the eye.

"That's enough," I said.

Her arms twisted around my waist. I had the crazy thought that she was trying to hug me. No. Her fingers found the syringe, the needle, and brilliant pain lanced from onetwothree pinpricks on my back. When I pushed her away, she still had the needle; she jabbed it at my eyes. It caught on my forehead instead and I howled, raising my hands to defend myself.

My talons caught her face. She cried out and dropped.

Months of smelling her destiny, tuning my big nose to that sweetness, coaxing it stronger and stronger, and this was the first time I'd ever lost it entirely. I yanked the needle out of my face and stared.

There was a lot of blood spreading out on the floor. The princess wasn't moving.

"Oh, no," I said, and my voice echoed in the chapel. Echoed softer and softer, the way the smell of the princess's destiny was ebbing away, away, away.

Before it could disappear, I snatched her up, and held my hand against the ragged edges of her wound. Not to Bald Mountain, now.

Home, instead. Home, before this little princess died. I found a conveniently long shadow, stretched it wide, and stepped through.

In the blink of time that it took for me to pass from that crummy street-side church, through shadow, to my very own backyard, the princess's blood had soaked me to the skin.

Greta was waiting for me, her golden hair spread out over the lawn where it sloped toward the grove of ash trees. I stepped away from the shadows of the grove, and she sat up, alarmed.

"Vren," she said, lifting the princess out of my arms. "What happened?"

The girl looked like a rag doll in Greta's arms. I'm tall as God, ugly as Satan; Greta is taller. And there is nothing as beautiful as Greta.

She brought the princess inside as I explained. Greta cleaned the princess's wound, nodding and humming and singing spells to keep her unconscious. She had me hold the girl's skin together as she produced a hooked needle and a dark line of thread.

"I told her I wouldn't hurt her," I said.

Greta's lips moved silently, but not a whisper of breath left them. The bright needle darted through the princess's cheek, thread following. After a moment she asked, "Did you make an oath to her?"

"No."

"Well," she said, and sighed. Relieved.

"Will she be all right?"

Greta smiled. The needle plunged, pierced, and drew the stitches tight, but she leaned over, and kissed me. "You've got a nose. Use it," she said, our lips still together.

She made the tips of my fangs tingle. Two hundred years together; it's no wonder I've always stayed monogamous.

I sniffed; the princess's destiny lingered. As Greta made neat little stitches on the princess's face, the scent of her destiny strengthened. It was my turn to sigh with relief.

"She can't go to Bald Mountain like this," Greta said. "The witches will scent the wound. They'll come after her."

"We'll have to keep her here until it scabs over."

Greta looked alarmed. "Here, Vren? The boys . . ."

"They'll be fine. What can she do?"

"She is a princess. She has a destiny." Greta pursed her lips as she made the final stitches and cut the thread. "Summon Golgorath. Let him take her to Bald Mountain himself."

"That's not how it works." I swallowed and rubbed my hands against my legs. Golgorath would love to come here. Put his big eyes on Greta; stretch long fingers toward my boys. He would love to take the princess I'd worked so hard to find back with him to his lair on Bald Mountain. Leaving me nothing to show for months of work.

Greta stowed the needle and thread. She came around behind me and draped her hands over my shoulders. The silver bracelets on her wrists jangled. I hated the sound of those things; the noise of the debt we already owed to Golgorath. I put my talons over her wrists to still them.

"She's dangerous," Greta said. "I can feel it. I don't want her in my home."

"I'll put her in the boys' tree house," I said at last.

I carried the princess outside and climbed the shadows that clung to the great ash tree in the middle of the grove. The tree house I'd built for Zash and Sojet squatted in the upper branches. I opened the trapdoor, and found the lantern the boys had stashed inside. The tree house wasn't large, but it was sturdy; I'd built it withgrandchildren in mind.

The princess was starting to wake up. Every once in a while, she'd jerk or give a little moan. I kicked open a sleeping bag and laid the princess on it. The moonlight from the single window illuminated her. My eyes were drawn to the pucker of skin and thread that furrowed her face, from jaw to temple.

Some instincts, even after centuries of self-denial, are not easily tamed. I turned away from the princess and draped my long arms out of the window, turning them over and over in the moonlight. She moaned, struggling out of Greta's spells.

I thought of those French princesses and that French convent I'd told her about. I'd been younger than some of those little girls I'd taken, relatively speaking. Younger than my boys now. I tried to imagine Zash lurking in gothic shadows for a pink-faced girl to come toddling away from her governess; or Sojet lifting a shutter's latch, feet scrabbling against the wall for purchase. I thought of their teeth and hands covered in some human child's tears, or in the gore of a soldier's entrails.

Greta and I had indebted ourselves to Golgorath to keep them away from that life. Thanks to Golgorath's magic, and our covenant with him, the boys had my talons; they could stick their fingers in shadow and clamber and chase like little monkeys. But they were as beautiful as Greta, and their noses didn't sniff out destinies.

They didn't dream of princesses or the scent of their blood.

Four centuries since my time haunting that convent. I had changed. I was telling Greta that all the time. Changed monster, that's me.

The princess whined suddenly, high and piercing. I turned around and saw her jerk away from the sleeping bag, her fingers crawling across the stitches on her face.

Her eyes locked on me and she sucked in a breath, her eyes widening. "I'm in Hell," she said.

"A tree house, actually."

She thrust herself away, smashed against the wall. "Stay away from me!"

"Calm down or you're going to split the sutures."

She touched the wound on her face and cringed.

"Sorry about your face," I said.

She began hyperventilating. "You . . . you did this."

I kept my talons behind my back. "It was an accident."

Words I heard from Sojet and Zash all the time. I closed my mouth so fast, my teeth clicked.

She gave a little scream. I realized my fangs were poking out still. The princess's hands fluttered around her white throat for a moment; her eyes rolled back and she began sinking to the floor.

I caught her before she could hit her head. Then her eyes snapped open and her knee rammed upward into my crotch.

It was my turn to whimper and crumple. She rushed for the trapdoor, found the latch and threw it open, and gasped.

I knew what she was seeing: twelve stories of shadows swaying in the moonlight. A long, smooth, silver trunk. No ladder; no branches to climb down.

She moved away from the trapdoor but didn't close it. The pain in my groin climbed my guts, raged in my lower back. She stepped forward and kicked me hard in the kidneys.

"Get me down!" she said. She aimed a foot at my neck. I jerked out of the way so it landed on my shoulder, but then she dropped a knee on my ribs. My bones creaked and I scramble-crawled to the corner of the tree house.

"Freak," she spat. "You freak."

"Monster," I corrected, holding my side.

She leaped at me, screaming obscenities. I couldn't straighten; the pain in my crotch seemed to have sewn my sternum to my belly button. I tucked myself into a ball and let her pummel me until her strength ran out and her breath was cut by sobs.

She backed away from me, toward the trapdoor. The pain in my groin had eased a little; I caught her before she could throw herself out. She screamed and clawed as I dragged her away from the long fall.

"Letmego letmego letmego," she whispered.

I maneuvered myself around so that I could close the trapdoor with my foot. There. Snug as a bug. The smell of the princess's destiny in the small space of the tree house crowded my brain. But the power of it, the edge that had made me sway and salivate, was dulled by the ache in my crotch and back.

I let her go; she crawled away from me. We stared at each other. I quickly stepped on the trapdoor.

"You said you weren't going to hurt me." She hugged her legs to her chest, exposing the cuts on her bare arms.

What was an apology worth now? "You need to sleep, princess."

"Stop calling me that. What are you going to do to me?"

Usually when a princess asks me that, it's while squalling and sobbing and wiping snot all over me as I haul her up the face of Bald Mountain. I never answer. Destiny sounds a lot like death to an abducted, frightened child.

But this one, this little wildcat with her sturdy white teeth, her kicking feet . . . And this wasn't Bald Mountain; this was Zash and Sojet's tree house, in the grove of ash trees Greta and I had planted together, near the home where we slept, ate, loved. I breathed in, sucked the scent of her destiny through my mouth, through my nose. It mingled with the smell of the warm night blowing through the window; Christmas and cut grass; cinnamon and nutmeg and wild onions.

I looked her in the eyes. "You have a destiny."

She continued to stare at me. Finally she said, "Well? What is it? Am I going to kill someone? Be the mother of the anti-Christ? Be the anti-Christ?"

I hesitated. "Why would you think that?"

She snorted, and looked out the window. "Just tell me what I'm destined to do, Freak."

"No idea."

"I tried to kill myself tonight." Her eyes skittered briefly away, toward the window, then back to me. I remembered the box-cutter and the tiny red pearls peeking from her scratched arms. I remembered how she'd fought for the open trapdoor. "Destiny." She snorted, winced, and held her palm against her cheek.

"I can smell it on you, radiating off you. It's like . . ." I almost got poetic. "It's like a candle shop."

"I stink."

"It's a nice candle shop." I gave her a moment to say something bitter or sarcastic. She didn't. "I'm going to give you to another . . . monster. He'll remove your destiny."

Her eyes were unfocused. I could smell stale adrenaline oozing from her pores. When she spoke again, her words were slurred. "Does it hurt?"

"No," I said. I should have left it there. "But without your destiny you become someone else."

"Candle shop girl." Her voice was muzzy; she flipped me the bird. "What does that mean, 'you become someone else'?"

"I've seen how you live. Your mother, your school . . ."

She sounded shocked, "You've been following me?"

"For a couple months."

Her legs had been relaxing, sliding flat; she pulled them back up to her chest. Her eyes focused.

I said, "Afterwards . . . your life will be rewritten. You were meant for great things; your effect on the world would have been tremendous. Like . . ." I tried to remember someone famous, someone whose destiny I hadn't taken. "Mother Theresa."

"You said you didn't know what my destiny was."

"Or Hitler. You could be the next state-backed serial killer for all I know."

"Then what?"

"Your destiny isn't just your future; it's everything that leads you to do what you do. The universe reconfigures itself around your absent destiny. You get a new, moderated life. It won't be as grand as what it could have been, but it won't be as painful, either. You won't remember anything."

"It annihilates me," she whispered.

I gestured at her arms. "You were trying to do that anyway."

Her eyes were distant again, and she'd curled up her hand and finger to rest in her lap. "I don't want to do it your way," she said.

"Too bad."

She blinked and seemed to struggle to open her eyes again. Her head tilted to rest against the wall. Blink, again. Her eyelids were pale in the moonlight. This time she didn't open them. Christmas morning smells blossomed in the tree house; I waved my hand in front of my nose to ward them off.

I watched her sleep.

"I have to pee," she said.

I had not built the tree house with girls in mind; Zash and Sojet just whizzed out of the trap door. I weighed my options against the idea of asking Greta to let the princess into the house again.

Dangerous, Greta had said. Here, in the clean light of morning, the princess looked frail, sore, and pitiful. The wound on her face bulged angry and purple.

"There's a bathroom inside," I said.

"Inside? Inside where?"

"My house. Can I trust you not to try to kill yourself while we're climbing down?"

She batted her eyes at me. "I give you my most solemn girl scout oath, Freak: promise-womise, I won't try to kill myself."

"Or me," I prompted.

"If my bladder explodes, it might take both of us with it."

I opened the trapdoor with my toes and scooped her up before she could react. One, two steps, and we plummeted through the open hatch. The pale trunk of the ash tree surged upward violently. The princess wrapped her limbs around my torso and sucked in a long breath.

So much for her death wish. I stuck my fingers into shadow and slowed our momentum little by little. The princess clung to me like a baby opossum, not breathing, not blinking.

"Don't pee on me," I said.

"I sh-should. Freak."

We made it to terra firma safe and dry. The girl's face was ashen; she wobbled when I set her on her feet. I kept my hand on her shoulder as I walked her through the grove to the green hill that rose to my home.

"When we get inside," I said, "do not speak, no matter what you see. If you can, try not to breathe."

"Why not?"

I lied. "The . . . guardian doesn't like humans. But as long as you stay quiet, it won't come hunting for you."

Her muscles tensed under my palm, but she didn't try to run. Her eyes were on the house at the top of the hill. "You live in a barn?"

"It's cozy." Unoccupied, isolated, and it had ceilings tall enough to accommodate Greta's height.

The princess murmured something under her breath. I didn't ask her to speak up.

The back door was open and I could hear one of the boys -- probably Sojet -- shouting upstairs.

"You have kids?" the princess asked.

"Remember, no talking when we get inside," I said. "Not a word." If Greta sensed her in our house, I'd be sleeping on the couch for a month.

I opened the door. The bathroom was just a couple steps up the hallway. Sojet continued shouting, something about an empty cereal box. I guided the princess into the bathroom, turned on the light for her, and closed the door. I kept my hand on the knob so she couldn't lock it. She didn't try. But her silence and her complacency made me edgy. I stood in the hallway wishing Sojet would shut up, or that Zash or Greta would get him whatever he was whining about so that I could listen for the princess better. She could be chewing through her own femoral artery, and how would I know with all the ruckus?

The toilet flushed. I waited a moment to let her get decent, then pushed against the door. My stomach churned; the door didn't budge.

"Hey, Freak," the princes said. Loudly. "What kind of toilet paper is this? It's really soft."

I could hear the smirk in her voice. Upstairs, Sojet stopped shouting. The whole house was suddenly preternaturally still. I bit my lip and pushed hard against the door.

"You out there, Freak? Can you hear me?" she shouted.

Feet on the stairs. I threw my weight against the door in desperation and it popped open. Pennies scattered on the linoleum -- she had wedged coins from the change jar on the sink between the door and the doorjamb.

"Nice trick, princess," I said, grabbing her arm.

"I've got another one," she said. She screamed, "Guardian! Come and eat me! Kill me! Come on!"

Sojet hit the landing at the bottom of the stairs with both feet. Three-and-a-half feet tall, lean as an ash wand, head tangled in white-gold curls that Greta would never let me cut. He sucked nervously on the tuft of his tail, and the fingers of his left hand curled into talons. But he grinned when he saw me, showing pink gums where his top front teeth had fallen out.

"Pop! You're home!" His green eyes roved toward the girl standing next to me. She wasn't screaming now. She was staring at him. "Who's that? Is she a princess, Pop? You brought a princess home?"

"Pop?" echoed the princess.

I turned her toward the back door. "Sojet, can you go to the kitchen and find me a pen and a piece of notebook paper?"

"That's a princess!" he said, his face lighting up. "Are we going to keep her? Are you going to turn her into a giantess? Is she going to baby-sit us?"

I barked, "Sojet! Pen and paper now!"

He scratched a shadow with his talons, and disappeared. I heard him rattling through kitchen drawers a moment later, crooning about princess babysitters. Before I could get the girl out of the back door, babysitter had become baby sister.

No. No. No.

But the princess smiled. "Cute kid," she said. "Was that the 'guardian,' Freak?"

She squealed suddenly, as Zash dropped halfway out of the shadows beneath the overhang. He hung upside down, knees and feet lost in shadow. Where Sojet was bright, Zash was dark: dark eyes and dark hair. Feathers tangled in his loose curls, the only bright bits of color on his head.

"I thought Squirt was kidding," he said to me. "Is she a real princess, Pop?" His eyes were as wide as his younger brother's.

I wrapped my arm around his waist and tugged. He yelped, and came tumbling out of the shadow. I caught him by the ankle before he dropped all the way to the ground. "You heard your brother singing about the princess, but you didn't help him when he was whining about not having any cereal?"

"He's old enough to get his own cereal. He can even pour his own milk. It's amazing."

"Not without spilling, he can't. Go help him, Zash."

"But is she really real, Pop?" Zash stared at the princess.

"One."

Zash grinned; I was surprised to see the princess smile back. An honest smile. Her destiny billowed like a bright cloud of spice and sweetness.

"What's your name, princess?" Zash asked.

I coughed. "Two." I held up a couple fingers threateningly.

"Mercedes," the princess said.

Zash disappeared through the door before I could get to three.

I turned the princess around, gripping her by her shoulders. My guts were full of paternal warnings and dire advice; it withered before getting to my lips. The sight of the wound on her face and the smell of her destiny stole my breath from me. Cynicism, bitterness, and fear ruled her eyes again. I closed my mouth.

She took advantage of my silence. "What's the pencil and paper for?"

"Hm?"

"You asked the little one to get you pencil and paper."

The little one? Both the boys were little. "That was redirection," I said at last.

"You didn't want him to be around me." She snorted. "How come?"

Before I could answer, Greta came around the edge of the house. A clutch of stripling ash trees dangled over her shoulder, the roots reaching in front of her like gnarled, muddy fingers.

"You're awake," she said to the princess. She didn't look happy about it.

The princess -- Mercedes -- looked dazzled. I couldn't fault her. Leaves clung to Greta's hair like a crown, and her face was bright from exertion. She'd wrapped herself in a plaid cloth, toga-like; with the sapling over her arms, she looked like some sort of Celtic warrior-priestess. Primal and beautiful.

Greta dropped the clutch of trees. "I said I didn't want her inside, Vren."

"There's no bathroom in the tree house." I said. "It was just for a moment."

"She saw the boys. She talked to them."

"She told Zash her name. That's all, Greta."

"She's dangerous, Vren." Greta began picking at one of the ash trees, absently tearing off the leaves and branches.

Mercedes piped up, "I won't hurt them."

We both looked at her.

"I won't hurt your boys," Mercedes said again. "I swear."

Greta raised an eyebrow at her. Her long, beautiful fingers worked on the sapling, picking off leaves and bark, so that the pale under-wood showed. "What will you swear by, princess?"

"Uh . . . I swear to God I won't ever hurt those boys." She paused before adding, "Why would I?"

I took a careful step back. This was magic; oaths and promises and covenants. Nothing to do with a monster like me.

Greta seized the moment. "Say it again, princess."

No mention of girl scouts this time. No promise-womise. Mercedes said, "I swear to God, I won't ever hurt your children . . . Greta."

Greta sniffed and nodded. "All right," she said. "Well. Come in then. You're probably hungry."

Mercedes never took her eyes off of my tall, lovely wife. She stuffed heaping forkfuls of French toast casserole into her face, but all the time watched Greta.

"All Zash gave me was Trixie Loops, and the milk was warm, and we didn't have any clean regular spoons, so I had to use one of the big ones. It barely fit in my mouth," Sojet complained. He was sucking his tail again.

Greta took his tail out of his mouth. "There's plenty here for you, too, Squirt."

"I'm not hungry now." Sojet rubbed the tuft of his tail against his nose. "Can I have a cookie?"

"You just said you weren't hungry." I set a glass of orange juice in front of Mercedes. She didn't notice.

"I'm hungry for cookies."

"No cookies," Greta said.

He grumped away, leaving me staring at the princess; the princess, staring at Greta; and Greta staring at the breakfast dishes the boys had left in the sink. The only sound was the clink of Mercedes' fork against the plate. She finished and belched softly into her hand.

"Excuse me," she muttered. Eyes still on Greta. She finally noticed the glass of OJ and took a long, deep drink.

I scooped up her plate and fork. "I'll get the dishes."

"Are you one of his . . . princesses?" Mercedes blurted. "Did he kidnap you too, Greta?"

Greta's voice was soft. "I was never a princess. Just a girl."

Never just a girl. Never. "Where's the dish soap?" I asked.

"So he didn't feed you some line about a magic destiny?"

"My sister," Greta said. She cleared her throat. "My younger sister. He came for her."

Things the princess did not need to know. "Greta," I said, my voice tight. "The dish soap?"

She pointed. I fetched, squeezed too much detergent into the sink, and turned on the faucet. In a couple seconds, I was up to my elbows in hot suds.

"How'd you end up with her, Freak?" Mercedes asked. She smirked. "Or Vren. Whatever."

I dumped the dishes into the water. "I thought Sojet said he only had one bowl of cereal. Why are there . . . seven bowls here? And four spoons?"

Greta sat on the floor next to the table. "My sister and I lived outside of Lyon, France. She was three. I was your age. Maybe younger."

"I think we should start letting the boys do the dishes, Greta," I said. "Zash at least. He's old enough. I think he's old enough. Don't you?"

She did not turn to look at me. "He came for her one night while she was sleeping. We slept in the same room."

I'd been hungry, so hungry . . .

". . . I heard him trying the window latch. When he came through, I hit him with a log from the fireplace."

"It was a broom," I whispered. "You set the bristles on fire."

"He fell all the way to the ground and didn't move. I had never seen anything like him. So lean and tall."

I had been about to eat them both.

Greta's voice was as still as the princess. "I didn't scream. I don't know why. I went down to him to see if he was still alive. His back was broken, but he could move his hands. He . . . took me away."

The front door slammed, and Zash clomped up the stairs. "Not this story again," he said. He set a plastic bucket filled with blackberries on the counter. "Beauty tames the Beast." He made kissy-lips and fluttered his eyelashes.

I dropped the dishrag on his face.

The moment broke the spell of history. Greta looked startled.

Mercedes said, "He kidnapped you and you fell in love? That's disgusting."

Greta shrugged. "It took years. Once I got past the warts, I found Vren deceptively charming."

Zash groaned. "You want to see my room, Mercedes?"

All three looked at me. "You can show her the whole house, Zash," I said.

The princess opened her mouth, hesitated; Zash jumped forward and took her hand. He pulled her to her feet, and then they were off down the hallway.

"She's dangerous," Greta said to me. "She isn't like me, Vren."

Didn't I know it. "It won't be long, Greta. Maybe a week."

"We could summon Golgorath and she'd be gone now."

And so would our hopes of being cleared of our debt to him. Before I could answer, Greta sighed and rubbed her temples. "No," she said. "Never mind. I think our family can live with her for a while. I don't know why she scares me so much."

I wrapped my arms around her so that my palms rested on her abdomen. I kissed her shoulders. Greta's body was warm, and not even the princess's destiny could compare with her scent. I said, "She's the last one."

"You'll have to get a real job," Greta said, reaching her hand back to stroke my face. Her bracelets jangled.

A week.

Greta brushed Mercedes' hair from her cheek, and clipped the sutures. The boys watched, wide-eyed as she pulled the stiff thread out of the princess's skin.

"Does it hurt?" Sojet asked breathlessly.

"Not a bit, Squirt," Mercedes replied, wincing.

They watched her; I watched them. How they clustered around her. How Zash blinked when her face tightened suddenly in pain. How Sojet's tail thrashed when Mercedes' hands clenched. And Greta . . . how her eyes were suddenly full and moist when she drew out the last dark thread.

I sniffed. The princess's destiny was as light as gauze. Hints of Christmas. Seven days ago, it had piled around the house like snow drifts.

"You're a pirate princess now," Sojet said, awe in his voice. His hand twitched toward the puckered skin on Mercedes' face; Greta smacked his fingers.

"She likes ninjas," Zash said. "Not pirates."

"I like dinosaurs," Mercedes said.

"Dinosaurs don't have princesses," Sojet said.

"Now what?" I asked Greta. She stood in the doorway, watching Mercedes sleep on the pull-out couch. "Are we going to keep her?"

Greta didn't move from the door. The light in the hall behind her cast a halo around the crown of her head. "She's a princess. Not a pet."

"Is that a decision, Greta?" I whispered. Mercedes' wound was closed. She could make the trip to Bald Mountain safely now. The witches that danced and drummed at the base of Golgorath's lair wouldn't scent her. Shadows played at my talon-tips; from here, back to the city, from there a short walk to Bald Mountain and to Golgorath.

"No." Greta said. "Yes. Why is this my decision, Vren?"

"You're the one who said she was dangerous."

"She is." Greta chewed on her lip and folded her arms, never taking her eyes off the sleeping girl. "She's a princess. She's human."

"I'll take her right now."

"Then do it."

But neither of us moved. Mercedes flopped over in her sleep, murmured something inaudible. My hands were slick and sweaty. I wiped them on the floor.

"Her destiny is so thin, I can barely smell it," I said.

Greta pulled in a shuddering breath and put her hands over her mouth to stifle the sob. I turned to embrace her.

"She's so much like Marie," she said. "I can't help it, Vren, she's so much like her, I can't help but love her."

So much like Marie. Greta's sister from centuries ago. Little baby Marie who'd grown up without remembering Greta, who'd never heard her name mentioned. Whose parents never remembered, either, after Golgorath took Greta's destiny and made it possible for her to be my wife. I did not see the resemblance between Marie and Mercedes.

"She's not Marie," I said. "Shh. She just isn't, Greta." I felt Greta's bracelets against my back. Chafing her, chafing me. And we were so close to having them off. "She's not part of our family."

"She could be."

I put my fingers against her lips. "Don't," I said.

She pushed my hand away. "You, don't. Don't shush me, Vren."

"I'm taking her to Bald Mountain, Greta, before she loses her destiny completely." And before we lost our chance at freedom.

"Well, then." Greta turned away. "I guess it's decided."

I followed her down the hall. "She's dangerous, you said so yourself. She's a princess. She's a human. What are you so mad about? I've been doing this for centuries, and you've never had a problem with it before. You wanted her gone the night she got here and now . . ."

"Now I know that little girl."

"Now you want your sister back."

"So what if I do?" Greta slapped her leg and her eyes were hot. She repeated, softer, "So what if I do, Vren?"

I stiffened. Not because of Greta's words. Well, partly because of them. But also because the scent of Mercedes' destiny suddenly filled the house, a tide of oranges and cloves and cinnamon. I had to lean against the wall to stay on my feet.

Greta's face went pale. "Zash is gone."

I pelted down the hall toward Zash's room, threw open the door. His bed was empty. The princess's destiny followed me, picking at my sinuses, breezing across my eyes.

And then it was gone. Not melted away, not drifted into nothingness, not faded: immediately, sharply gone.

"She took him!" Greta cried out. The hall was suddenly bright; a sphere of were-fire hovered over Greta's fingers.

I scrambled by her, tearing gashes in the wood floor with my toe claws as I rushed back to where the princess slept. Where she had been sleeping. Where I'd left her . . . Turned my back for a moment, changed my focus for an instant, and . . .

The blankets on the couch had been pushed aside. My big eyes caught the shadows whirling where Zash had stepped through. I blinked, and they were still again.

"She's using Zash," Greta said. The color of the were-fire ball changed, and in its swirling light, I caught glimpses of the princess and Zash. Greta whispered, "Bring him back. Bring him back."

I snatched my coat and my hat from beside the door and stepped out in the night. I inhaled, drew miles of air into my lungs, smelled wilderness and moonlight, scented cold streams, loam, and cut yards, smelled rain-wet asphalt and mist. And the trace of a little princess's destiny, a mile away and moving fast.

I chased after them, nose tuned to the princess's scent. It jumped around weirdly, proof that she was using Zash to help her. She'd cajoled him, threatened him . . .

Seduced him.

Zash's fingers were finer than mine; he could split shadows a hundred ways, could slip through them like a minnow threading through weeds. But he would have to rest sometime. Even though I couldn't daisy-chain through shadow the way my boys could, I didn't tire easily. And I had been hunting for centuries.

Her scent led to a gravel road.

I lingered a moment, snorting the air. There was the princess's destiny, cloying spice; and there was Zash, rank and sweaty boyishness, laundry detergent and shampoo. Plenty of adrenaline, plenty of fright-smells. But no blood. No scent of pain. She hadn't hurt him.

I loped down the side of the road, bare feet grinding on the gravel. Moonlight stretched the shadows of tree branches in front of me. Their scents thinned where Zash had split the shadows to step through; his jaunts were getting shorter, and the smell of his exertion stronger. I picked up my pace.

Their scents pooled outside a brightly lit collection of clapboard and corrugated tin. Someone had painted the words, 'Black George's Hideout' on the roof in stylized red and orange letters. Country music blared behind grimy windows; the parking lot was crowded with mud-covered trucks and motorcycles. I sniffed deeply. Mercedes' destiny mingled with the smells of spilled beer, cigarette smoke, cheap cologne, urinals, and men.

Men. Princes. A whole den of them. I lowered the brim of my hat and stepped through the door.

Mercedes and Zash had seats at the bar. She was punching numbers into a phone, one arm draped over Zash's shoulder. The feathers in his hair had changed colors to vibrant red, gold, and orange.

The room was already going quiet as the men saw me, felt my presence. Their beady eyes gravitated to the talons at the end of my hands, the tip of my nose poking from beneath my hat, my ugly feet.

No sense prolonging the inevitable. I grabbed the closest, scrawniest redneck, lifted him over my head and charged at the bar. I threw him at the base of the phone. His head smashed it into a mess of wires and plastic. The handset Mercedes was holding squealed and went silent. She swiveled to see me.

So did Zash.

Then one of the princes hit me over the head with a glass pitcher. I staggered against the bar, and five or six of them jumped at me, crashing bottles against my skull, jabbing broken pool cues at my eyes. I squirmed out of their attack, reaching my long arms for the shadows on the ceiling.

Zash was waiting there for me.

He caught my talons before they could touch shadow, and he twisted them savagely. I fell back into the melee, watching the satisfaction in his eyes.

My boy. My son. A prince.

My stomach flip-flopped as I tumbled, but a fat cowboy broke my fall with his shoulder. I reached for his shadow, felt it writhe at my touch, opening, blossoming --

Zash was there, too. Any other time, I could have pulled him out. Any other moment, I was his Pop, and he was my little boy. But not now. He grabbed my wrist and yanked, pulling me off the fat cowboy's shoulders and through the portal. Zash opened a shadow across the room, above a whirring ceiling fan. I dropped headfirst into the blades, raising dust and sparks as the fan tore loose from the rafters.

I bounced to my feet and untangled myself from the fan. Across the room, Zash's hand snaked out of shadow to wrap around Mercedes' waist. She looked . . . amazed. Surprised. He pulled her through.

I leaped after them, kicking off cowboys, farmers, rednecks, and truck drivers to get to the shadow before it closed. My talons touched a strand of hair -- or was it a feather? -- and then I was shoving through the night after them.

Not the honky-tonk, now. Zash jumped out of shadow, holding the princess's hand, into the waters of a creek. I could still hear the faint strains of country music off to the right, and the shouting men. Not far enough away. Not for me, not for my boy.

"Vren," said Mercedes, "please don't be angry at him."

The scent of her destiny was so thick that it made me sneeze. I wiped my nose, regarding them both: the princess and my son, the prince. Her prince. He'd never looked less like me, talons extended in front of him, chest heaving, standing protectively in front of Mercedes. He didn't look like Greta in that moment either. He looked like himself.

"Pop," he said. I was startled to see he recognized me. The prince had driven most of the boyishness from his eyes. "I'm going to count to three. And then I'm going to kill you."

"I love you, Zash," I said.

"One." He flexed his fingers. His talons reflected silver-blue moonlight. "Two."

I didn't let him get to three. I stretched my arms toward Mercedes, grabbed the front of her shirt, and pulled her to me. The smell of her destiny coursed through me, blazing, intoxicating. I fought the urge to sink my fangs into her throat, and opened the shadows at my feet with my toes.

Zash leaped after us, swiping at my face. I pushed him away with my knees, and with my free hand reached for the grove on the other side of shadow -- home! To Greta and Sojet, and the magic that would bring Zash back to himself.

But my fingers didn't find the grove. I split the darkness as Zash wrapped his arms around me and pushed me through. Not into quiet, rustling trees. Not into the smells of loam and leaves, wild onions and rain.

We fell on a smooth, bone-pale stretch of rock. The shadow we'd tumbled through sewed shut without either of us lifting a talon. Beyond the closing portal, the bare ground dropped away to mist. Below us, I heard the stomp of feet, and the thunder of witch-drums.

Bald Mountain.

The moon was behind us, bright and huge. Zash stood still, taking in the mountain, the mist. The boy overwhelmed the prince. Zash's mouth hung open and his eyes were as big as the moon. Our shadows stretched out in the mist, huge and weirdly haloed by pale rainbows.

"Pop," he said. His hands trembled.

Our shadows writhed. Greta stepped from the mist, out of my shadow. Sojet stepped out of the shadow that Zash cast. But Mercedes' shadow bulged and grew, twisting like a pinned snake.

Greta fell against me. Her bracelets chimed, and the sound rang over the bare rock of the mountain, coiled down into the valleys below us. The witch-drums threw the sound back and wild voices echoed the chiming of Greta's bracelets.

"I'm sorry," Greta said. "It was all I could do, the only thing I could think of to make sure you'd be safe."

Golgorath lifted himself out of Mercedes' shadow.

I stepped in front of my family, pushing Greta, Sojet, and Zash behind me.

Golgorath had gotten fat since the last time I'd seen him. Fat and even uglier than me. Hideous, grotesque . . . it wasn't just in the way his skin hung off of him in rolls or the way his eyes constantly wept oily tears or the way his back hunched. Golgorath exuded rottenness.

"I can smell, smell, smell her," Golgorath said. He extended spindly fingers toward Mercedes. "Little princess, little girl, such a destiny rising off of you."

I reached for shadow, but my talons touched only mist and darkness. The shadows on Bald Mountain belonged to Golgorath.

"Don't touch her," Zash growled. He darted past Greta's arms to shield Mercedes. The feathers in his hair blazed scarlet and stood up around his head like a mane.

"Oho," wheezed Golgorath.  "Little boy, little Zash, son of Greta and Vren. Zash, Zash, Zash!" His fingers flicked forward, lifted Zash easily by his chin.  Zash kicked in the air, but Golgorath held him, and stroked his face with his free hand.  His eyes narrowed suddenly.  "Prince. Prince!

"No," said Greta.  "Golgorath.  Please."

Golgorath paused, fingers poised above Zash's eyes.  Then he laughed, and lowered him to the ground.  He slapped his rump, sending Zash stumbling back toward us.  "To your mother, little prince, little boy Zash, to safety.  Sweet dark-eyed boy, can you smell the princess, too?  I smell her, Vren; I don't need your nose to know.  It is delicious, she is mine."

My heart beat in my throat, in my skull. "I found her," I said, knowing it wouldn't make a difference. Not now that we were in Bald Mountain, the seat of Golgorath's magic and power.

Zash said, "She's mine."

"Whines, murmurs," Golgorath intoned. "I brought her here, my throne, my mountain, my princess."

He hissed and were-fire bloomed around Mercedes. Though none of it touched her, the rock beneath her feet was scorched and blackened. Golgorath reached for the flames and lifted them, lifted her, off the ground.

"Don't hurt them," Mercedes said. The words came out in little explosions of breath. Her eyes were wide with fear. She looked beyond Golgorath at my family.

"You are mine, they are mine, mine." He sniffed gingerly at the were-fire and giggled. "My own, own, own. Giantess and hunter and beautiful boys, and princess!"

He pushed his hand through the were-fire and laid a finger against Mercedes' mouth. She stiffened, coughed and whimpered; a dollop of gold floated out of her lips and adhered to Golgorath. The smell of her destiny rocked me, drove me to my knees, made my blood thump in my skull.

Golgorath licked his finger. "Oho," he said. "Oho."

The smell of her destiny should have faded. It didn't. It flowered.

"Swear you won't hurt them," Mercedes said.

Golgorath pushed his palm through the were-fire. Mercedes flinched, slapped his arm away. He grunted; rivulets of were-fire streamed down Golgorath's skin and died, leaving bright, blistering tracks.

"No touchy," Mercedes said, panting.

He roared, thrusting his hand at her again. The smell of Golgorath's burning flesh mingled with Mercedes' destiny, foulness and sweetness, sewage and oranges, filth and cinnamon. He put his fingers over her face, but she bit him so hard, black blood squirted and then evaporated to smoke in the raging were-flames. She raked his face with her nails.

When she pulled her hand away, a long braid of light came with it, streaming from between Golgorath's lips. Golgorath whimpered as the light was pulled from inside of him.

The were-fire around Mercedes hissed and died. She held the strand of light in her hands, looking from Zash to Sojet, to Greta, to Golgorath.

I was the one who spoke. "Eat it now, eat the light before he . . ."

Her hands were already at her lips. She stuffed it into her mouth and slurped.

"You're disgusting," she said to Golgorath.

Greta's bracelets chimed. I watched them slink away from her wrists, drop to the ground, and evaporate.

"Vren," Greta said, touching her arms. "Vren."

"Trickster," Golgorath spat. "Not a little girl, not a little baby, pink-gummed, pale-fleshed princess, nonono. Trickster queen is what you are."

Zash bowled forward, a whir of motion and claws, and Sojet with him. They leaped on Golgorath, tearing, biting, growling. Like monsters; like princes.

"Tear out his heart, boys," I murmured. I couldn't even hear my own voice; Mercedes' destiny filled my skull. "Tear out his heart and eat it."

Long, sweet fingers touched my head, caressed my neck and chin. I held Greta's wrists as the boys mauled Golgorath, the witch-drums beat below us, and the princess's destiny wrapped around the world.

"I'm free," Greta whispered. Her breath swept from my ear to my cheek, tickled my big nose. Better than any destiny. "Find me, Vren. Come find me . . ."

I lifted my head to see her face; her cheeks were covered in tears. She was not looking at me, but at something behind me, beyond me.

Golgorath was ablaze. Golden light surrounded him as he writhed on the rock of Bald Mountain. His ribcage split and opened; flames licked out of his chest. The boys held his arms while Mercedes stood over him, breathing in the light that twisted upward.

Not light. Destinies. The destinies Golgorath had stolen.

All of them.

I didn't feel the universe twist. I didn't feel the way it straightened and flexed as the destinies Golgorath had devoured slipped free of his body.

But I felt Greta's fingers twine with mine. I felt the calluses on her palm and at the ends of her fingers. A wisp of her hair touched my face . . .

. . . and then she was gone.

And when I blinked, the boys had disappeared from the light around Golgorath as well, leaving me alone with the princess. Golgorath's twisted, desiccated corpse kicked at her feet a couple of times, then lay still.

The witch-drums ceased.

Bald Mountain was silent.

I flexed my fingers and felt the sweat from Greta's palm drying.

"Give them back to me," I said.

Mercedes rubbed her arms. The welts on her forearms were gone, but the scar I'd given her remained. "You don't deserve them."

Rocks cracked. A sapling sprouted under my toes and I jumped to the side. The whole bare-bones top of Bald Mountain shuddered and split; shoots of pale green and grey rose from the disintegrating rock. In moments, I was standing in a grove of ash trees.

Mercedes sat astride a limb that had grown beneath her. Her hand caressed the bark nervously.

"Give them back to me. Now, princess." I tried to make my voice snap, the way I'd do with the boys to let them know how much trouble they were in. But it broke, instead.

Mercedes didn't answer, just watched me with those princess eyes. I sniffed. The air smelled of dew and newly-turned earth. There was a storm brewing a hundred miles away; I scented lightning gathering in its folds. But there was no Christmas smell; no cinnamon, nutmeg, no oranges. Not even a whiff. Her destiny was done. Whatever she did from here until forever was her own; the universe had no more claim on her.

"Please," I said.

She chewed a lock of her hair. I'd never seen her do that before; it made my heart pulse, made my stomach churn. It was so much like Sojet, sucking on the tuft of his tail.

"You're a predator," she said.

The grove whispered around her, leaves hushing and boughs creaking. Dark shadows and bright moonlight played over Mercedes' face. She reached out to those boughs, to the rustling, whispering leaves. Branches slid into her fingers, and she twisted them into a wreath. She settled the wreath on my head.

"Swear that you are mine," she whispered. She swallowed. "Two hundred years of service. Swear on it, Freak."

The princess is six years old. She trails a destiny of wood-smoke and banana bread behind her.

I watch her house from the shadows across the street, smelling the air, breathing deep the aroma of her days-to-come.

I am not here for the princess. I keep my eyes on the shadows. Waiting for the darkness to shift, waiting for the monster. There -- a sudden flash of teeth; a slick movement. The screen to her open bedroom window splits.

I lope across the street and climb to the window. There's another smell lingering around me -- a boy smell. Shampoo, loam, the tang of sweat and sunlight. Illusions of Zash and Sojet. Sometimes, she lets me hear Greta's voice rustling through the leaves in the wreath.

Mercedes likes to keep me honest. She doesn't need to. I am a changed monster. I tell her so all the time.

I pull myself through the window and face the monster standing over the sleeping princess.

I let it see my fangs.


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