It wasn’t like any beast I’d seen before.
In all my years as a Reaper, I’d only slain four daevas and three of those four had been pure luck. The last had been for spite.
The creature was at least the size of a bull and seemed wolflike in nature though its red fur converted into shimmering scales halfway down its bulky body, like that of a reptile. Slitted, yellow cat eyes glowered down at me, as if my mere presence was an annoyance. I couldn’t help but note the deadly tusks jutting out from inside its mouth or its jagged teeth capable of tearing a man in half. The monstrosity smiled, sensing my unease. Its tail, barbed and deadly, swung side to side, like a mountain cat before it pounced.
Still, the girl was stranger.
She wore a necklace of teeth—fangs, I realized, under closer inspection—and her hair was the color of snow, a stark contrast to her brown skin. Her face was heart-shaped, her cheekbones high, giving her a haughty air. She would have been beautiful, I supposed, if not for the claw marks that marred the left side of her face. A furtive glance at the beast’s razor-sharp claws and it was easy to deduce the creature responsible. The girl narrowed her eyes and her beast snarled at me, baring its fangs. I swallowed hard and tightened my grip on the hilt of my sword, knowing it was foolish but not giving a damn.
I was a Reaper. If I was meant to die today, then so be it. I just hoped the Two-Faced God knew that I would go out doing the two things I loved most: roaring and raging.
And that I was dragging one of these monsters down with me.
“Only fools come to the Forsaken Isles,”said the girl, her voice surprisingly soft despite her rough exterior. “Only fools think they can defeat a full-blooded witch with a mortal weapon.”
I bristled at the word mortal. As if she was not human as well. A gifted human, admittedly. Lethal, no doubt. But still human. I scowled, glowering at her, sliding my blade out of my scabbard slowly, so she could hear the shriek of metal on metal. The beast snorted, unimpressed. She just rolled her eyes.
“I suppose I am a fool,”I said, my voice even. “But a thousand gold crowns for your head...how could I refuse?”
“My blood you mean.” The witch examined her nails, looking far too bored for a girl who’d just learned that someone powerful wanted her dead. It was infuriating. “My blood is much more valuable than my head, believe me. And I am worth far more than a thousand crowns. I’m afraid your master cheated you, Reaper.”
There was fire in my bones as I raised my blade and charged her. The beast lunged for me, but I rolled to the right, narrowly missing it, and it sunk its teeth into nothing but air. It snarled and whipped around angrily. I slashed at its muzzle, allowing myself a secretive smile as blue blood sprayed, freckling my face. It roared, furious, and swiped a giant paw at me, knocking me backwards. I screamed as my back collided with something hard, wincing at the vulgar crack that richoteced through the shadowy forest. I groaned, disoriented, and the beast was upon me. It snarled once in my face and I swore I nearly died from its breath alone. I watched it salivate, unable to do nothing but pant and hope that it would at least be over quickly. I wasn’t entirely prepared for the pain that exploded when it sunk its teeth into my leg. The pain seized me completely, awakening the most primal part of me—the desire to survive. There was no word to describe the agony I felt as it clung on, refusing to let go even as I screamed and raged and clawed at it.
I was more than aware of the fact that its tusks were close enough that, if it tired of my struggling, it could impale me against this tree.
I wanted that. I wanted to die—anything was better than this torture. I clawed even more at it, determined to annoy it enough for it to take me out of my misery. Death would be a mercy at this point.
When it became apparent that it was content to just gnaw on my leg, I tried to reach for my sword but it was so far, too far. I couldn’t reach it. I screwed my eyes shut, sinking my teeth into the flesh of my bottom lip. The metallic taste of blood filled my mouth.
I was going to die.
Perhaps the Two-Faced God had intended for me to die today, at the claws of the demon whose species I hated with every fiber of my being. While a scornful witch watched, clearly vexed even as she continued to examine her nails.
“Anstice,” the girl called, voice cold. The beast growled around my leg, sinking its teeth in even further. I roared in pain, tears streaming freely down my face. Blessed skies, I thought, half delirious. This is my end, is it not?
“Anstice!” She was angry now, silver eyes blazing, fists clenched. “Let the little Reaper go. You’ve had your fun for the day.”
The beast, Anstice, growled again but, surprisingly obeyed, though it took a chunk of me with it. I howled and tried to touch it, to inspect the damage, but pain exploded along my spine for even daring to move from my spot. I could do nothing but watch, panting like a wolfhound, as the witch stalked over to me, ignoring her beast who now laid on its belly, whining pitifully, apparently wanting her attention.
The witch crouched in front of me and swore as she took in my injuries and swore under her breath. She glared at her creature who rolled onto his back, whimpering. As if he were the victim. “Now we have to take him to the cottage.” She tipped my head up, making me flinch. She dipped a nimble finger into my blood and I couldn’t even feel disgusted as she traced something, some sort of symbol, onto my cheek.
Anstice was on its paws in a heartbeat, teeth bared, claws unsheathed. It snarled at her, completely abandoning its innocent act. The girl just rolled her eyes. “Yes, Anstice. We have to take him back to the cottage. If you’d have let me deal with him myself, I could have ripped out his pretty little throat and avoided this. But, oh no, you had to be a big bad daeva and ruin everything. You’re sleeping outside for a month.”
It whimpered. She stood, dusting off her ratty dress as she fixed her beast with a glare. She pointed at me. “Pick him up,” she ordered in a voice that did not belong in this world. I flinched.
Anstice huffed, clearly not pleased, but obeyed. It lumbered over to me, snarling under its breath. It crouched beside me and, with surprising gentleness, managed to get me onto its back whilst the girl began to saunter, hips swaying, the forest bending to her will, as if it were...alive somehow. . I didn’t remember the trek to whatever horrible place she called home. I was too distracted by the pain in my body, the rough fur beneath me, by how difficult it was to keep my eyes open.
Just before I gave into the darkness, I smiled.
A fatigue rune. Clever witch.