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Children of the Bloodlands
Excerpt

The Sigil of the Moth Queen

 

Five days before the dead body in the snow, and fourteen years after Ravenna and Aaron Harken inhaled a lungful of the Assiniboine, I sat in the back of English class, trying really, really hard not to rub my left eye. The best solution I’d come up with after all these years was to claw at the eye patch I wore over it, faking relief. I had a bunch of eye patches actually, and I took pride in decorating them. The plan was to wear my disability like a badge, to show people I didn’t care.

But after adjusting the patch in the mirror every morning before school, I’d inevitably cover it with my messy auburn hair. It took less energy to hide it than own it. My left eye had had this lingering infection thing since I was small. I’d apparently started rubbing it sometime after my parents’ deaths and couldn’t stop. The psychologists branded this a coping mechanism and shrugged it off.

And it got worse. A “chronic weeping infection,” caused by what could’ve been an autoimmune disorder. All I could do was use drops and antibiotics, keep it covered, and hope I’d grow out of it. Stress made it worse. And I was always stressed. Vicious cycle.

I tried to stay positive. I was always trying really, really hard at that. But tapping on the patch wasn’t doing a damn thing, so I dug my pen into the well-worn groove on my desktop, wishing it was my eye, wishing I could just grind it out and trade it for a bionic one that shot lasers and gave me some social cred.

I felt a hand on my arm and looked up. Phae’s placid, deep-brown face was in mine, and she was shaking her head. Smiling, she told me to take a deep breath and sit back. So I shut my good eye and my evil eye, and sighed deeply. It worked for a few seconds. Breathe, a wise dwarf once said. That’s the key.

Thankfully, it was the end of the day. The bell went off and everyone stuffed their bags desperately, afraid that if they didn’t move fast enough they wouldn’t be allowed to leave. I tucked my well-worn copy of Wuthering Heights into my bag.

“. . . and it wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t on edge all the time. Stress is a killer,” Phae was saying. Phae was always trying to help. “Why don’t we try yoga again in my studio? I promise it gets better after the first time.”

I was feeling generous, so I did the math for her. “C’mon, Phae. Me plus contortionist calisthenics minus one eye equals doom.” I shouldered my bag. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve just got the usual stuff on my mind.”

I didn’t elaborate. Usual stuff could mean anything. Usual teenager stuff — grades, periods, boyfriends (or lack of interest in them), body anxieties, family drama, trying to fit in at school — yep, all boxes checked. Then there were the extras. Double dead parents. Freaky new house. Gunky eyeball . . .

Everyone was rushing for the door, including the few peers Mrs. Mills asked me to help with essay composition. I felt like she was punishing me for being a good student, because these particular kids didn’t give a crap about English or the provincial exams coming up next term. Which meant they gave less of a crap about me, if that was possible.

If you haven’t gotten it already, I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly, or up to confrontation, so when I called out to John Hardwick and the rest of his cronies about their practice essays, they threw glances over their shoulders, sneering and slapping each other on the backs. Ugh, whatever. Let ’em fail. They’d still end up CEOs.

Phae came to my side, smiling and shrugging as she steered me towards our lockers.

Tutoring my peers, caring about school, keeping to myself. I’d been making it seem like I had it all together, that I had plans and goals, because I didn’t want tragedy to always define me. Besides, grades, private teenage thoughts, fleeting attempts at friendships — these were the things normal people cared about, right? I felt like each one got me closer to the status quo that everyone around me took for granted, and mercifully farther away from the pang of having little direction in life except forward.

But right now, I wanted to live. I wanted my biggest concerns to be getting into university, having some semblance of privacy, or worrying about what kind of leftovers I could heat up after ten p.m. without my aunt knowing. I wanted it all badly enough to put the eye patch on every day, to tutor lazy idiots on their shitty papers, and steer any cruelty or pity, intended or otherwise, into the immense vortex caused by my convincing and well-practised Brave Face. And so far it was working, except when a few impulses slipped through the cracks.

My eye twitched and I reached for it.

Phae slapped my hand away from my face, full stop.

I winced. “Hey, we trying physical abuse now, guru?”

I felt Phae squirting my palms with hand sanitizer. “I think abuse is my only remaining option. This place is a germ factory, and you’re shoving your fingers into your infected eye?”

Oh, Phaedrapramit Das. Calming manatee and life coach since grade three. She’d marked me as her best friend almost immediately, asking blunt but kind questions about my eye and if I needed someone to talk to, on account of my dead parents and all, since, according to all the books she’d read, orphans were the ones who had it roughest. I think she mostly stuck by me because I was helpless with some things, even though I tried hard (and failed) to look capable.

I flexed my now-sanitized hands, squeezing them into fists. “It feels really bad today. I don’t know.” I lifted the patch. “I know this is gross, but, can you . . . “”

Phae was on the med-school track, and no injury had ever phased her. But I noticed a tremor at the edge of her mouth when she frowned. “That bad, huh?”

She leaned in for a closer look. “It looks worse than usual, that’s for sure.” She ushered me up to my cheap plastic locker mirror. “That lump there is very large and red. Can’t you feel it under your eye?”

The truth was, I couldn’t. And seeing it in the mirror was such a shock that I had to look away before I started prodding it. It looked like something from a hospital horror BuzzFeed article. I slapped the patch down and my hair over it.

“No, it just . . . it feels irritated, that’s all. There’s been swelling like that before, though, so . . .” I didn’t mention the headache creeping on. Seeing that lump really freaked me out.

“Go to the emergency, Roan. Seriously.”

I waved her off. “Look, it’s the end of the day. If it’s worse in the morning, I’ll skip first period and go to a walk-in clinic.”

Phae fussed all the way into the winter air and to the bike racks, and I promised I’d text her a play-by-play of my mutating opto-tumour if it made her feel any better. As I ran my bike up to the road and started pedalling, I was already strategizing how I’d manoeuvre around Deedee and Arnas. Phae was bad enough (in a good way), but my aunt and uncle were tougher to get around. Well, Arnas wasn’t too bad, since he had always been as assertive as a two-by-four, but where he lacked, Deedee made up in spades . . . in a loving, hypochondriac way.

Arnas was my father’s brother, and Deidre, his wife. They weren’t technically married, but they had been together for as long as the “conventional” parents of my classmates. Deidre was doting and always concerned (all the doctors’ and psych visits had been her idea) and always busy. She said that sitting still was something she could do when she was dead. I admired her tenacity, but it had been a long day, and I didn’t need someone else going, Oh hey, what’s wrong? Here are a hundred suggestions — fuss, preen — let me get you something. Good intentions and all, but the last thing I wanted was another helicopter hovering over my life. And a lump now? God, it hadn’t been that bad before. Maybe I could check WebMD when I got home. What I’d find there would probably be worse than Deedee, though.

I pulled up to the house and stared up at it before parking my bike. Being here felt like crash-landing on an alien planet.

This house wasn’t mine, and in the year since we’d moved in, it still didn’t feel like home. And this house wasn’t Deidre’s or Arnas’s, either; it belonged to my grandmother, the one who had given us the stone menagerie. When my parents died, my aunt and uncle moved in with me in the house I grew up in — a white little Wolseley two-storey, ivy growing up the front, greenhouse in the back — to keep my life as uninterrupted as possible, tragedy notwithstanding. I spent a lot of time in that greenhouse after it all happened, trying to tend the plants that my father could will out of the dirt with a promise. They all died, of course. Neither Arnas nor Deidre had any interest or passion for plants. They turned the greenhouse into a shed, but it didn’t stop me from going in there, digging my hands into the earth, and missing my mother.

We stayed there up until last year, when the lawyer’s letter came. I hadn’t seen or heard from my grandmother since we got the statues. After that, she seemed to just melt back into the absence I was accustomed to, travelling all over the world for “work,” the nebulous excuse I was always fed when I asked about her. She was just as compact as my mother, except so unreachable as to exist in some other dimension. She would sometimes send me postcards with pictures of exotic places. She only sent them to me, and that made me feel like I was a part of her strange adventures. That’s what I told myself, anyway.

Then the postcards stopped. And the lawyer’s letter came.

I took my bike around the side of the enormous house and to the backyard, where I locked it to the black wrought-iron fence hemming in the property. On my way to the door, I paused at the stone menagerie. Deidre had it moved here with us. I thought, at first, that it was a gesture to make me feel better, but it was one of the many weird “stipulations” we had to fulfill to stay here.

The stone fox stared at me from between the legs of its companions. An untouched layer of snow frosted each statue except the fox’s, and for a second I swore its eyes flickered at me, almost hot as they met mine. My bad eye tingled harder than it had all day, and my hand shot up to it.

“There you are!”

I whipped around, more than startled. “Gee-zus, Dee, can you quit it with the ninja stealth?” I clutched my heart, trying to laugh off the fact that it was slapping around my rib cage like a trapped bird.

Deidre rolled her eyes under the black fringe of her perfect bob. “Teenagers only get jumpy when they’re up to something.” She held the back door open, smile twitching. The inquisition was coming.

On my way in, I threw one last look behind me at the stone fox. Its stone eyes were settled in its stone head. I was already forgetting what I thought I’d seen.

And Deidre was already on the fuss-track. “I saw you pawing your eye out there, missy.” She poured herself a steaming mug of coffee and, without giving it a second to cool off, she’d downed the contents.

I just wanted to beat a hasty retreat to my room for some peace and quiet. I tried to sidestep her impending investigation. “Uh. Yeah, it’s just a bit itchy, that’s all. The usual. Just going to put my drops in . . .”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to look at it?” Deedee had already ditched her mug and reached for me.

“No, no,” I said, trying to desperately ignore how my eye felt like it was going to burst out of my skull and scuttle across the granite floor. Awkward. “C’mon, Deedee, can’t we talk about you for once? Where’s Arnas?”

Deidre swooped into my path like Bela Lugosi before I could dodge her up the stairs and head to my room. I was losing at exercising tact here, leaving me with the only option of faking a hormonal tantrum just to escape.

But Deedee was suddenly distracted, glancing up the stairs and back at me, instantly forgetting about my eye. “Look, I wanted to talk to you about . . . well, you know. The other resident.”

I peered past the shoulder of Deidre’s grey blazer, eyes searching for the room that hovered above our lives on the third floor. “You mean the host.”

Crash. We both froze, and suddenly Arnas’s head poked into the hall, glomming his wet eyes onto Deidre. “You’d better get up there, that’s about the third time today.”

Deidre was already taking the stairs two at a time. “Thanks for the heads up,” she grumbled, and curious enough to ignore the heartbeat in my eye socket, I followed her.

We flew past the room that Arnas had taken as his study. I caught a glimpse of him in passing; he shrugged uselessly, looked at the carpet, and shut the door — his usual reaction to anything he wanted to avoid (read: reality).

Uncle Arnas . . . not much to say about him. He was a ropey guy, features long and narrow like a scarecrow’s. And he always looked somewhat troubled, guilty. Maybe that’s just the way his face was made, but he’d been more distant lately — if that were possible. He may be my father’s only brother — his fraternal twin, actually — but aside from having shared the same womb, I’d never known two people to be so different. From what fading snippets I remembered of my dad, he was so full of life. Arnas barely spoke but to complain, or to relate a new bit of paranoia, or to cluck about his sciatica. He was a freelance editor, so he retreated into work and left Deidre to handle anything difficult that went on in our house. He was pretty much an extra in the play of his life.

I don’t know how Deidre dealt with him, off in his weird world and totally vacant from this one. And things between them lately had been terribly tense, but no one seemed willing to talk about why. He barely looked at me anymore.

When I got to the hallway on the third floor, Deidre was talking in a low voice to one of the nurses who had been consoling a much younger nurse in tears and holding her hands out, palms up. They were red and blistered, ice packs pressed into them. The source of the crash had been a ceramic basin, now in pieces coming loose of the bedsheet the basin had been wrapped in.

I gave them all a wide berth, but I could hear the cogent nurse telling Deidre what happened: “She just said she was bathing her and the water suddenly got very hot. So hot she burned herself. It’s just that this is the third or fourth incident, you understand. And well, naturally, the lot of us aren’t really sure what’s going on.”

Deidre’s classic forehead knot made a cameo as she tried to push back her disbelief. “I really don’t get it, we had someone come in to service the boiler and check the heating system the last time. He said nothing was wrong, and it’s the middle of winter . . .”

I checked to make sure Deidre was fully engrossed with the nurses. I heard the words strange voices and sorry and this might not work out for us as I slipped inside the master bedroom.

There were wide, beautiful windows overlooking the street and the Assiniboine River on one side of the room, but they were half shuttered to the sunlight as it faded over the west. This room, like so many of the closed-up, unused rooms throughout the house, was filled with beautiful furniture, all mismatched and from varied countries and eras. My grandmother had eclectic taste, and the spoils of her life had accumulated in this massive, lonely house. My hands danced over her vanity, the kind of table and mirror in which a vaudeville starlet would fawn over herself, staring past silver-gilt hair brushes and pearls and a bundle of age-yellowed letters tied with twine.

I wish I’d known more about her. Wish she had taken me with her on her mysterious globe-trekking adventures. All I knew about her was enclosed in a handful of postcards, locked in barely-sentence-long observations about cities I had never heard of and climates filled with spices.

It was even worse, seeing her on the bed in the centre of the room, looking even smaller than she had the last time I’d been in here, like the bed was absorbing her into the sheets.

Cecelia. Her name gave away a kind of glamour — not just the Hollywood type of glamour, but capital-G Morgan le Fay faerie-realm kind. She was at least sixty-five, but her face didn’t really look it, except for the slackened features and pale skin that came with a deep coma. She’d lived a full life and had a few lines to prove it, true. But her flesh cleaved to her bones protectively, and even now, on her literal death-bed, she was beautiful.

And I stared at her now just to hope. Hope that maybe I’d escape my awkward seventeen-year-old phase and grow into such a face as the one on that bed. It also gave me comfort that here lay my last connection to my mother’s family, and that — even though I would be soon — at this moment I wasn’t alone.

There really hadn’t been much warning. I hadn’t heard from her in years. Arnas referenced some vague falling-out that Cecelia had with my parents, that she had her issues and it wasn’t a shock that she’d lost touch. It was a while before Arnas thought to bring that up, though, and that was well after the letter.

Cecelia had collapsed at the airport in Toronto on a return trip from Greenland, brought down by a sudden seizure that had rendered her a rag doll in less than a second. She hadn’t been alone on the trip, thankfully, and after that she was admitted to hospital. Aneurysm, they said. Her travel companion tapped her lawyer for whatever arrangements Cecelia had made for her personal care. And her wishes would baffle a genie:

Return me to Winnipeg despite whatever state I’m in.

Alert my next of kin that they are to take residence in my home for the duration of my hospice care.

Do not remove my life support until I have expired of my own accord.

This last one had been the most confusing of all. She had been in this coma for the past six months, an unfamiliar wax figure with a thousand secrets behind closed eyes.

So here she was, hooked up to a ventilator, fed all the liquid food groups via tubes, the waste products carried away into sterile little bags by yet more tubes. She had the charitable forethought to be mysteriously wealthy in order to pay for the personal health care staff ad infinitum, but why she had to drag us into it was beyond me. Maybe she just wanted to be surrounded by family at the end?

A nice thought. Except that I was her only relative left, and if she’d had no love for my dad, she’d have even less for Arnas. So while I sometimes came into her room to sit next to her, I never ended up saying much, like they do in the movies, thinking it’ll help. Too many futile questions — questions about my mother, about Cecelia herself, and most of all, why she didn’t feel the need to bring me closer to her when I was young and things were hardest. And now, without a clue as to why, she expected us to drop everything and hang around in her dusty house of rare objects until she croaked?

All of this would clatter around inside me until I would get so mad, knowing she was right there but out of my reach, that I’d have to stay away from her cloying room for a while. She had parts of me locked inside her that I needed but I’d never have access to.

But I stood there this time, at her bedside, chewing my nails and trying not to punch my eye or screw my fist into it. I felt like I needed to be here today when the nurses were burning themselves on possessed basins and hearing voices and complaining about the heat of the room. It felt comfortable to me in here, but who knows. There’d been a pretty quick turnaround on the in-home nursing staff lately. Arnas muttered something about foreigners and their deep-seated cultural paranoias.

“Psst.”

I whipped my head to the doorway, chest pounding. Of course it was Deidre, beckoning me out. I looked back down at the shrinking woman in the grand bed, shook my head, and left.

*

It was late. My eye hadn’t improved, and I was getting worried. Worried to the point that I couldn’t sleep, and I found myself padding down to the kitchen.

I cupped my hands under the cool tap water, bringing my eye down to meet it. It offered only a second’s relief. I’d jokingly asked Deidre for an eyewash station in my room for my seventeenth birthday and, man, now I wish I’d been serious.

I dabbed my eye with a wet paper towel. I tried to ignore the lump, even though it felt bigger than before. The burning was something new, same with the swelling, and it was getting to the point where even sleep wouldn’t make these symptoms, or the headache, go away. I caught my reflection in the kitchen window and scowled at it and the darkness beyond speckled by falling snow. Sticking my head in a snowbank might actually be therapeutic, I thought, before I focused out and saw the stone menagerie beyond the window.

I threw on my jacket and stuffed my thick legs into my boots, careful to unlatch the back door to avoid triggering the motion light. I popped my hood up and trudged into the yard, until I was standing in front of the stone animals, my breath a clouded curtain that dissolved to reveal shattered stone at my feet.

There was nothing much left of the fox. I knelt down and scooped up the remains of its pointed head, brushing the snow off its elegant snout, whiskers, and nose. There were pieces scattered everywhere, and they crumbled in my hand when I tried to pick them up and fit them back together. I don’t know why, but tears sprung to my eyes. The rest of the animals were fine, which was odd, since they all had more vulnerable pieces — unfurled wings, swiping claws, outstretched flippers, delicate antlers. But the fox had been the most grounded, not to mention my favourite. It felt like another member of my family had just been smashed to pieces.

I got up, dejected. But something twinkled in the rubble. I bent down and picked up a glistening green stone I’d never seen before. I turned it over. Geology had never been my strong suit. When I switched hands, it suddenly became molten-hot, and I dropped it.

The motion light came on. I swiped away the tears and dropped my eye patch down, so Deidre or Arnas wouldn’t see. But when I turned to look, there wasn’t anyone there. No — there was something. My throat thickened and I froze. It was a huge, melting shadow, suspended in the air like a black tablecloth until I let out the breath I’d been holding and it took shape.

“What the —” Then something glimmered green in my periphery — the stone — and the shadow snapped around it like a fist, darting across the veranda and around the other side of the house.

Without thinking, I lurched around the old house, legs twisting under me in the knee-high snow dunes until I’d made it to the semiplowed sidewalks of Wellington Crescent. I bounced on the balls of my feet, checking one way then the other, and saw the shadow bounding west towards the bend in the Assiniboine River.

“Hey!” I shouted, my panting trailing fog down the street. My heart set the tempo in my bones, pounding along with my feet. It was an unfamiliar rhythm, since I didn’t usually chase after hoodlums in the wee hours, but this was too severely personal to let go. As I ran under the St. James Bridge I asked myself if this was really happening or if the shadow was just a trick of my horrible eyeball.

I lost steam at a loop in the path, the one that suddenly became bush before ending at the intersection of Wellington and Academy. That part of the path wasn’t lit, and I wasn’t about to let myself get stuck in the snowy dark if my quarry pulled a knife or something worse. Hands on my hips, I bent, trying to catch my breath, swearing and mad and wondering why I’d expected to catch the creep, let alone what I’d do with them if I did.

I turned back towards the knot of trees, and peering out from the corner of the path was a fox.

Now, wild forest animals in this city weren’t at all weird. I mean, as you got closer to Charleswood and the Assiniboine Forest, you’d find deer in almost everyone’s front yards, or even as far out as Tuxedo, they might be devouring the expensive annuals one day and bringing their friends the next. And if you happened to have a cabin out in the Whiteshell, foxes were a given.

But this was the first time I’d seen a fox in the suburbs, and it was staring straight at me, curious and calculating. And looking way too familiar for me not to be weirded out.

“Hi,” I breathed, not sure what else to do. Every time I saw a wild animal, I immediately (somewhat stupidly) wanted to get as close to it as possible. I didn’t care if it could hurt me — in that moment, I wanted to have mystical animal-communicating powers, whatever the cost.

I got down to a crouch and edged closer, each half an inch a boon before the fox would inevitably take off into the trees. But I jumped back up when it actually came towards me in a pounce-stance. I grit my teeth. Did foxes attack people? Did they carry significant diseases? My kingdom for Wikipedia. The fox was suddenly at my feet, staring up at me with golden, clear eyes, and without breaking eye contact, it swept its enormous tail to the side, and sat down.

“Uh. Okay,” I said to it.

The fox cocked its head.

“I don’t have food,” I shrugged, hands open. It blinked.

Someone in the neighbourhood had been feeding it, probably. I took a second to scan the street, the path, and the general area. I was totally alone, save for a couple of porch lights. I took a chance and offered my nearly numb, open palm. The fox got to its feet, sniffing. It looked up at me again as if to say, Uh, it’s empty, dude.

I cleared my throat, quickly pocketing the hand and wondering how late it really was. My muscles were draining fast.

“Well,” I said, shrugging and wishing I’d brought my camera phone with me, “I better head home, little guy.” I backed away until the fox was a good few feet off, turned, and started jogging back to my grandmother’s house.

I clenched and unclenched my hands, trying to keep the heat in them. All the anger I’d felt from my little brush with backyard vandalism and a totally failed citizen’s arrest fell away into the snow underfoot. The night air had a surreal texture, and I wondered if the fox had really been there at all. People didn’t normally encounter the flesh-and-blood versions of their busted garden statuary. Imagine being jumped by a gnarly gnome after dropping your ceramic one. Too bizarre, even for fanfiction.

I shook my head. What had I been chasing, anyway? I blinked and saw the glinting green in my mind’s eye, the shadow that took it. The hot stone I’d dropped in the snow. Had there been some precious gem inside that statue all along, and the suburban vandal just got lucky?

Ugh. I clenched my teeth. Being out in the cold had distracted me from the pain in my head, but now it was boomeranging back with full force. I just wanted to get back to my warm bed.

A few houses down from home free, a chill separate from the night skittered up my neck. I stopped and looked over my shoulder. The fox was following a few paces behind me, head lowered, eyes like a guilty younger sibling trailing the elder.

I stared.

“I dunno what you think I’ve got,” I sniffed, walking backwards so I could keep moving while keeping an eye on it. The fox padded after me until it was beside me, keeping pace. It was a real fox, all right, and I couldn’t help but grin.

Then we reached the house. I sighed up at it, the only glow the kitchen light I’d left on. Thankfully, through the crack in the living room curtain, I couldn’t see anyone moving around.

I felt a nudge at my ankle. The fox brushed around me and looked up at the house, tilting its head. It had stopped snowing for once, some of the cloud cover breaking up and letting the knife-gleaming moonlight through. Ice glittered in the fox’s orange fur and white muzzle. It looked up at me, expectant.

“Uh. Okay. Well . . . you’d better head back to . . . whatever it is a fox lives in. A den? A foxhole? No wait, maybe that’s a military thing . . . anyway . . . shoo?”

The fox huffed like I’d insulted it. Then it darted up to the house, hopping through the massive snowdrifts as though they weren’t even there. This time it was me following the fox at a clip, until I stumbled back where I started, the motion light blinking on and throwing the pile of crumbled stone into relief. I sighed and took a quick look around. No fox, stone or otherwise.

I frowned at the remains. Should I clean this up? Deedee would just think I did it. Best to leave it . . . but I bent down and sorted through the rubble and snow. No big shiny. Maybe there hadn’t been one. Maybe I’d been duped. It didn’t matter now; real or not, the stone was gone.

I went in, kick-tapping clots of snow from my boots before throwing them on the rack. I felt a sudden rush of heat at my bare ankles before I closed and locked the door behind me, grateful for the house’s warmth already bringing my flesh back to life.

Back in my room, my digital alarm clock’s bloody letters shone one eighteen a.m., and I groaned. Tomorrow was gonna be rough.

I flicked the light on in my bathroom, the fan humming to life at the same time. I took my eye patch off and left it on the counter, running some more water and splashing it onto my face. I patted it dry and lowered the towel, leaning in, eye-first, towards the mirror. My stomach dropped.

What a sight, yeesh. I looked like I’d been kicked in the face by a horse with a score to settle. The lump just under my bottom eyelid had gone bruise-purple. I felt the panic creeping in and was instantly awake again, starting to think I should wake Deedee to take me to the hospital ASAP.

I pushed my messy hair back, steeled myself, and prodded at the lump. It was pretty much the size, shape, and hardness of a Tootsie Roll.

When my finger connected, I felt the lump shudder. Not my eye, not the swollen parts. The lump itself. I screwed both my eyes shut, because the vibration travelled over my entire face, and I wanted it to stop. When I dared open them again, I leaned closer to the mirror. The lump was shivering in time with my pulse. Undulating. Throbbing. And moving out.

The hyperventilating was sudden and scary. The bathroom light guttered; the fan screeched to a stop. But I didn’t look away from the mirror, not for a second, not even as the lump migrated totally from one end of my eye to the other, and especially not when it started pushing out into the open.

The pain was a knife and I wheeze-screamed. I dug both hands into my eye as I stumbled back, tripping on the bath mat, and landing hard on the tile. Flailing, I threw my hands back up and pressed harder with each new wave of pain, as if the next thing to fall out of my skull would be the eyeball itself.

Then I felt nothing, and I could breathe again.

I tried to calm down, tried to call it a fluke attack, promised myself that I’d go wake Deedee up right the eff now if only it’d be over.

But I felt something wriggling in my hands. Shaking, I lowered them, and saw the bloody lump shuddering and rolling around.

Then it stopped, and unfurled pointed, triangular wings, flexing them as it spread its tiny black feet. It took flight for the flickering bathroom light bulb and fluttered gaily in its aura.

A moth. An extremely real, horrible moth covered in my blood, dancing around the light as if it hadn’t just sprung out of my body. I crawled to the sink and got to my wobbly legs, holding tight to the basin. My muscles felt like they were liquefying, but I forced myself to stay standing and looked up at my reflection.

The swelling had gone down, and there was a Rorschach splatter of blood on my cheek, but I could still feel my heart beating in the socket. And I blinked, for the first time in a long time able to see out of my demon eye without swelling or a filmy caul preventing me.

But in the next moment I wanted my bad eye back, because suddenly the pupil grew enormous, the black bleeding into the white until it was a solid dark marble. My whole body tensed, ready to eject everything under my skin.

I fell backwards through the bathroom door and into my room then, my screams muffled by the stream of moths rushing out of my skull, maybe hundreds of them, maybe every moth in the universe, beating their wings out of my head and around me in a torrential, invertebrate hurricane. I writhed and rolled, my nerves marionette strings as I danced in the waves of wings that carried me up.

When the full litter of grey monsters had left their ocular womb, I finally lost my legs, drowning in wings. The moths lifted me bodily from the ground, pinning me to the ceiling, crawling over each other to get a piece. I struggled weakly, only managing to shake them from my face as the tornado continued whirling in the centre of my room, over my bed. Helpless, I watched the moths below come together in one throbbing shape, one body, and from it emerging their mother, their queen, black eyes devouring me, a hundred spindle hands reaching.

Then suddenly there was rush of orange and a riling snarl. The queen beat her wings and the attacker back. The fox dodged and landed on my bed, with me crashing in a crumpled heap to the floor as my captor-moths swirled to their mother’s defense.

“A grave error to interfere in my dealings, fox,” came a voice like burnt, crinkled paper. “This vessel has been marked, as always. She bears my sigil.”

The fox stood its ground and barked, “A mark that signifies backroom dealings with a demon, Mother Death. I never thought I’d live to call the Moth Queen herself a fool for doing the bidding of a serpent.”

I sat up, hand to my head. The fox had spoken, yes, with authority and anger. A female voice, too. Her hackles were up, lips peeled over yellowed canines, ears pinned back — even in the eye of the moth-storm, she held her ground. And mine.

The Moth Queen, or whatever she was, stood eight feet tall at least, her enormous head brushing the ceiling, cicada body doubling over the fox as though it would crush it in half. She had the arms of a woman, so many arms, and delicate needle fingers. Her wings gaped and flexed, the extent of them lost in the wings of her babies, beating around her like a shivering maelstrom.

It seemed as though the fox and the moth had forgotten about me, until one of those elegant, deadly hands shot out for my throat and pinned me to the wall without a glance.

The Moth Queen surveyed the fox, long face giving nothing away as her leaf-antennae twitched. “Death is no slave. And this is the bidding of the Families, not the Snake. I have been bound to do this thing to maintain the precious Narrative. You were there when the accord was made. You did nothing to stop it then.”

The fox’s snarl deepened. “You will release her.”

“I will take her. As is the due to be paid. It was the mother who interfered with the work, and there will be blood for blood. This is the pact. Take up your grievance with the Owls — this one has had fourteen years to be spared. Feel grateful.” I felt the hand squeeze tighter, felt the moths closing in again. Felt myself disappearing . . .

Then there was extreme heat coming from the bed. A fire, growing bigger. “I wonder,” said the fox amidst the flames, “can Death burn?”

The flames flashed outwards, meteoric, and the fox grew with them, and somehow, in the guttering blaze, I saw what could have been a woman with a fox head, lashing out her nine tails into the torrent of moths, scattering them, attracting them. Killing them.

Had we been devoured by the fire? Had the entire house burned down? I couldn’t tell. But I knew that I was just . . . elsewhere, all of a sudden. I could feel that I still had a body, but that it was less important than it had been a second ago. God, so sleepy, just let me sleep. I wanted to fall backwards into nothing, let my limbs migrate in different directions and scatter the remaining pieces. The less weight I had bearing down on my spirit, the freer I could be.

I was being held possessively by branch-like arms, many hands wrapping me in the loving embrace of a cocoon. These hands would grant all my wishes. And all I wished for was sleep.

“You cannot take her,” said the flaming fox-woman, creature, thing. She was nearby, because I could feel her heat.

“Firefox! Daughter of Deon! You know my purpose. I am Death, and Death is an impartial judge. I take this child so that the others may live. So that the wrath of Zabor will be slaked for the season. This was the deal that was made. You cannot reclaim this sacrifice.” The Moth Queen dug her fingers into my flesh tighter as she wove.

The flames guttered slightly. A laugh. “For the will of a lesser demon, a snake hiding in a riverbed! You do not have to be a slave.”

The Moth Queen seemed to take offense. “I will take the dead from this place until the end times, until the wheels stop turning. I will not stop, even when Sky and Earth come back together, even when this world ends and another begins. You all made this pact with me, while the eyes of Ancient were turned away, in your moment of weakness. It is not with me that the fault lies.”

I felt myself being pushed into shadow, felt the darkness leaking into my bones, but the heat from the fire didn’t fade.

“The River Snake will be driven out. Give the girl to me, and I will set it in motion.”

The blackness submerged me. I was being pushed into the Moth Queen’s body, becoming a part of it. I wanted to be a part of her darkness. By choice or by force.

But I felt the air shift as her wings flickered. Hesitation. “The Five Families did not unite before. Their ignorance will keep this game in play until they are all dead.”

The fox barked flames. “The Families have grown weary of feeding their children to the beast. The girl is key to ending it.”

A pause. A turning of the head. “The River Snake will know she has been denied her quarry. She will unleash her wrath in a deluge greater than the one before. Will you take responsibility for the thousands drowned, my arms full with the burden of their souls?”

I felt the cocoon separating, the threads singeing as the fire brushed against me.

“The Families have protected this world since the beginning. I will not see them punished because Ancient has fallen silent. We will take our salvation for ourselves, as we ought to have done years ago. And Death can be impartial again.”

I was inside the fire, delicately handed over to the arms of it, pressed up to a furred mantle of flames, nine blazing tails spinning behind the fox-woman like a wheel. This place — whatever it was — started undoing itself, and the fear diminished along with it. Their voices followed me home.

“No matter what you do, Zabor will know. And in the spring, she will have a terrible waking. The Families will align only to see this girl die. You and I will see each other very soon, old fox.”

“There is still snow on the ground,” the fires whispered, “and soon I will go gladly into your arms, Mother Death, for I have been waiting a long time.”

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The Brilliant Dark
Excerpt

“What happened?” I asked the silent gathering, turning momentarily away from the Opal. They all seemed to be waiting. “Where’s Deon?”

“You tell us,” said a Fox nearby. I couldn’t tell which; they were all indistinguishable. And it was less an invitation to tell them anything and more a punishing quip.

“Chaos. Harm. Silence,” answered another for him. “You were a stonebearer. You broke your sacred trust with Deon. You broke her trust with all of us.”

Their voices were strange and harsh — it was difficult to keep track of them. “I didn’t do it on purpose!” I shouted over them. “We were trying to wake Ancient, to open the way to the Brilliant Dark — ”

“Naïve pup,” said another. For a second my heart leapt, and I thought it was Sil. Could she actually be down here? But again, I couldn’t tell who had spoken. They all looked the same.

“The Darklings have slipped their prisons,” volleyed another Fox-voice. “They’re loose in the Uplands. Meanwhile, Deon is gone, the Opal is ruined, and the realms are connected now. Connected as they were never meant to be.”

That one was more than a criticism, pure blame. I glanced up over my shoulder, noticed then that there was a wild split through the Calamity Stone, and that it didn’t shine at all.

I turned back. “Look, Deon herself was behind me on this. On stopping the Darklings. We had done it. We’d won.” Now I was bordering on hysterical, begging myself, as much as them, for it to be true when I knew better.

“Don’t you understand?” This was the Fox closest to my feet; this voice was full of despair. “You cut us off. All of us. The Matriarchs are missing. Not even the Moth Queen can ferry the Denizen dead to their promised homelands. You did this.”

“Lost.” The word echoed around the chamber, barked in uneven, angry, miserable tones. “All is lost.”

The Opal above me made the hairs on my neck bristle, as if it was watching me. I didn’t turn around that time. What the hell were they all expecting me to do now?

“You must finish what you started.”

I froze. The Fox was sitting directly in front of me, surveying me with its burnt-hole eyes. I had definitely recognized that voice.

The shade hadn’t moved but for a step, and in that step the small fox body rose, shifted, grew. It was the shadow of a man, the outlines faint. The other Foxes changed all around me, too, all at once, taking the shapes of the people they’d once been. Details in faces were difficult to discern; they were still just spirit shadows. Their hollow pinprick eyes were still the same, boring into me like they were diamond-studded. But in these forms, they were like insubstantial pillars of smoke.

But this close, I could see the features of this fox shift; the outline of a beard, of a mouth twisted in aggravation. It was the voice I recognized first. Jacob Reinhardt, one of the Foxes from the Conclave of Fire, the one who’d challenged me at every turn — who’d nearly killed me, once. It looked like he hadn’t been so lucky in the intervening weeks since I’d seen him last.

I backed up, tripped, and landed hard beneath the Opal. I looked up in time to see something volleyed at me, and I opened my arms to catch it.

A sword hilt. Bladeless, but heavy all the same.

“Finish what you started,” Reinhardt’s shade repeated.

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