Content warning: violence (including against a child), blood, death
The child read a book, huddled in a corner of the house. Her legs ached to be stretched and her feet bounced with an overabundance of childish energy, but she squinted and continued to read the words on the yellowed pages.
A knock came at the door. The child ignored it, too busy picking at the knot of an unfamiliar word, trying to tease its meaning from the rest of the sentence.
The knock came again. Urgent this time – two quick raps followed by three slow bangs.
Though her legs rejoiced at being used, her hands were reluctant to relinquish hold of the book, and so she carried it with her as she peeked through the gap between the door and the uneven frame. A woman stood without, wrapped in a threadbare shawl, tapping her foot impatiently on the compacted dirt. Maman Tee knew this woman, had sold many things to her. Money meant food and, perhaps more importantly, new books.
The child opened the door.
“Finally,” the woman complained in a familiar husky voice. She pushed the child inside and shut the door behind them, “Where’s your mother?”
“Appointment,” the child said, shrugging and returning to her corner.
“When will she be back?”
Another shrug. Then an idea. The child thrust the book out in one hand, pointing with the other: “Do you know this word?”
The woman leaned over to peer down at the text. The child watched her lips twist and her nose wrinkle, clumping the sprinkling of freckles across it into one brown mass.
“I don’t know,” she said.
The child’s eyes flew to the book and back to the woman’s. She pointed again: “This one.”
“I… I can’t read it.” The woman stood straighter, looking down through her dark ringlets at the child with something akin to anger, but closer to fear. There was a shift suddenly – the lifting of a thick dark brow – that softened the look and changed it to something the child might one day recognize as pity.
The door opened and Maman Tee bustled in. There was blood on her hands. The child could smell it.
When she noticed the woman standing inside the door she jumped and put her hand to her chest. “You frightened me! I didn’t expect you…”
“I’m sorry, Hattie,” the woman said, and the child wondered at the strange inflection in her voice, the way it strained as she rasped: “I need your help.”
“Another infection?” Hattie asked, walking to the corner where the child sat before shooing her away. The child crawled a few feet over, leaning against the wall as she watched Maman Tee lift a loose floorboard and shuffle through the bottles and packages concealed beneath.
“No,” the woman answered, the corners of her rouged lips plunging into a deep frown.
Maman Tee looked up then and seemed the read the expression as easily as she had taught the child to read the words on pages.
“A month. No more than two,” the woman said, and the child marvelled at the way her tears reflected what little sunlight slipped through the rags over the window.
Maman Tee sighed. “Maybe… maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen. Just one, even a bastard… otherwise they might start to wonder…”
The woman’s eyes widened, and her hands clutched together before her, “You don’t think they’d suspect you, do you? If it would put you at risk I…”
Maman Tee shook her head, “No. No, no. It’s you that I worry about.”
“Hattie, I couldn’t…”
The woman turned to the child then, as if her eyes held the answer to her conundrum. The child met her gaze with confusion, unable to parse the complicated expression the way Maman Tee could. There was sadness in it, and pity once more.
“No,” she answered firmly, her eyes never leaving the child’s face. “I need your help, Hattie. Please.”
Maman Tee sighed once more but nodded and pulled a small pouch from amongst the bric-a-brac under the floorboards. “Three times a day for a week. You’ll know when it works. If it takes longer, come see me again.”
The woman clutched the pouch tightly to her chest and as the child watched she noticed something against the woman’s skin – a blemish across her bosom, almost the colour of blood. It peeked out just above the flattering collar of her dress, still partially concealed by the lace lining it. No sooner had she noticed this than the woman disappeared through the door again, still thanking Maman Tee as she departed down the road.
Maman Tee closed the door behind her before dropping down onto the floor next to the child. They sat in silence for several minutes before Maman Tee reached a hand to the child’s knee.
“How are your legs today?”
“They want to move,” she answered.
“Do they still hurt?” Maman asked.
“Not so much,” the child answered, looking down at her lean legs, covered loosely in boy’s trousers.
Maman Tee shook her head, but she seemed relieved rather than worried.
“They want to move,” the child repeated, already anticipating the answer.
“I know, my love, but at least wait until summer. When the trees are green and no one will see us if we go for a walk in the woods.”
There were questions, as restless as the child’s legs, but she asked none of them. She knew she would still not understand the answers. Instead, she returned to her book, lifting it to her mother.
“What does this word say?” she asked, “I can’t read it.”
Maman Tee squinted in the dim light, “Metamorphosis. It means to change into something else.”
“You mean like me?”
Maman’s brows drew closer together. Her gaze shifted from the book to the child’s legs bouncing eagerly against the floor. “Yes, baby. Like you.”
Some towns had fountains at their hearts, some had ornate cathedrals or mayor’s manses, while others had sprawling green lawns for festivals and gatherings. Sainte Ygrette’s had an uneven cobbled square with a hangman’s scaffold. In the case of gatherings and civic announcements that were not executions, it doubled as an orator’s platform, or so Genevieve had heard.
It wasn’t the most strategic position she could hope for, but the square at least offered her a clear view of the surrounding area. Besides, its dark expanse made her look vulnerable and alone —
“You’re confident this will work?”
— aside from Darnell of course. He was seated with his long legs dangling from the platform above her and was being annoyingly critical of her plans.
“For the last time, yes,” she told him, straining her ears for any hint of approach. Not that Darnell wouldn’t warn her long before anyone was close enough for her to detect. Old habits, she supposed.
“And what if some of them flee? What if they don’t come for us?”
“Then we find them after we conclude our business here,” she said, carefully checking the ammunition in both the polished pepperbox she’d drawn at the Mayor’s house, and a larger six-barrel revolver. “We have Annette’s list – it might not be perfect but we can check it against anyone found missing tomorrow morning.”
“And if the Governor decides to join us?”
Genevieve reached up and put a hand on his leg which was almost vibrating against the platform.
“He won’t,” she assured him, “What’s the point of leading a pack if you have to do all the dirty work yourself? It’s likely he doesn’t even consider us worthy of his notice. Yet.”
“And if you’re wrong?” Darnell persisted.
“I’m not. I’ve done my research for this job, Darnell, so if you could stop mothering –“
“They’re here,” he interrupted, and Genevieve squinted into the flickering illumination of the gas lamps; she was grateful that the Mayor had rushed to prepare the lines. Apparently darkness didn’t sit well with the people of Sainte Ygrette’s – at least, most of them.
They came all at once. There were seven – eight if you counted the child struggling against the grasp of what had once been a woman, judging by the shreds of silk and the jewels jutting out from the thick fur around her neck. He was already half-transformed, tiny horn-stubs emerging from his sooty black hair and claws growing swiftly from his fingertips so that he might gain purchase against the hairy arm of his captor. Some were still human, though they trembled with pent up energy and their sweat glinted in the lamplight, the effort to hold back the adrenaline near-overwhelming. It was an intimidation tactic Genevieve had seen countless times; resisting the transformation was difficult – impossible for many – and it was an effective way of boasting one’s strength.
They clearly intended to use the boy as a distraction, hoping to win a moment’s hesitation on Genevieve’s part. She smiled at this naiveté and fired off her first shot. The Beast holding the boy fell to the ground, blood trickling through the gaps in the cobbles as her body continued to twitch.
Marie Touille – she gets the Governor what he wants, Annette had told them, or more often who he wants.
For a moment the night was still once more, but the grind and click of the gun’s chamber sliding into place was enough to send the attackers into an instinct-fuelled frenzy. There were no humans left amongst them, and every Beast charged toward her from a different direction.
A second shot and another body thudded to the ground. Pierre Lavigne – he cleans up the messes. And the witnesses.
Darnell swatted away a third with a clawed hand larger than any of their own. Reddish-brown fur stretched up to his elbow and his eyes glistened silver, but he was otherwise unchanged. Another of the Governor’s underlings paused in confusion, looking from Darnell’s arm up to his human face and Genevieve used the opening to reduce their number once more.
An ear-piercing screech tore Genevieve’s attention to where a tiny silver streak was racing towards her.
Etienne Larocque, Annette had hesitated to mention his name, her rasping voice softening as she spoke, he’s only seven. Can’t even control the change. Many knows what he is, but the Governor fancies his mother so they turn a blind eye. Probably why the bastard brought him over in the first place.
Just like the Mayor’s daughter, Genevieve thought, aiming the smaller revolver in her left hand at the boy’s sprinting form. Foam trailed from his mouth, and she could see the hunger in his golden eyes as he approached. He was a difficult target, small as he was and crouched on all fours – she had to make the shot quickly, but it would require a deft hand for it to fly true. If she wasn’t careful…
She squeezed the trigger as another mass collided into her chair, tipping her dangerously to the right. The shot rang out, and she threw her body to the left to regain equilibrium. Darnell’s claws were already embedded in the dripping throat of whatever Beast had attacked her, and she spared only a fraction of a heartbeat to note that twisting horns were growing from his curls and that fur had extended from his arm up to his neck, before lifting her revolver in search of her previous mark.
There was a heap, in the darkness – a crumpled mass on the blood-slicked cobbles. She could make out a glisten of sweat against pink skin, which meant her shot had gone home, but still Genevieve clucked and shook her head. There was too much blood around his head and in his matted hair; it seemed she had struck him in the head, rather than his shoulder as intended.
Well, she thought, if he dies, at least it will be as a human.
The thought brought her little solace, but a snarl from behind her recalled her to more pressing matters. She could see Darnell struggling with one of the largest of the troupe a few feet away and knew he would not reach her in time, so she began to swivel, lifting her head to the platform above her. A towering hulk of roan fur had scrambled onto the wooden planks and was looking down at her, its sharp teeth peeking over its leathery black lips.
Genevieve shot over her shoulder with the revolver in her right hand as she used her left to turn the chair, but the Beast dropped to all fours and pivoted away. It bolted forward towards her.
Another shot, grazing the Beast’s cheek – enough to make it retreat a few feet, but not entirely. The next only chipped the tip of the creature’s horn. She fired again, but the gun only clicked in complaint of its empty chambers. The creature stood to its full height, enough sense left in the den of instinct and desire it called a brain to understand that she was defenceless. Its muscular legs compressed for a heartbeat before uncoiling like a spring to propel it forward off of the platform and into the air above Genevieve, who was reaching for the back support of her chair.
She pulled at a handle there, an ornamental embellishment rising from its wooden back, and lifted with all her strength. A whip released and flew, as she swung forward, to wrap around the scaffolding on the platform. With two hands she heaved with all her might, pitching her chair to the left and narrowly avoiding being torn to shreds by inch long claws. The chair, sturdy as it was, tipped in the process, upending Genevieve onto the hard stone beneath her. Her shoulder collided with a sickening pop that made her scream out in pain.
The Beast was bewildered for a moment, but soon reoriented itself and fell upon her, claws rending the skin of Genevieve’s right arm, tearing through it as easily as the silk and lace that gilded it. Genevieve bit down a second scream and, with a painful protest from her shoulder, lifted the smaller of the two guns into the face of the creature whose reeking breath was nearly suffocating her. It hesitated for a moment, just long enough for Genevieve’s right hand to reach into her skirts and retrieve a four inch dagger. She drove it into the chin of the Beast, twisting back into its throat. The wound wasn’t deep and might not have been lethal, but the poison on the blade which seeped into the creature’s blood most certainly was.
She noted the scraps of carefully embroidered suit still clinging to its fur. Jean Varon – some distant relative of nobility. I could tell you stories, Annette had said, but even Hunters must have nightmares.
As its last whines and twitches ebbed, Genevieve surveyed the square as best she could from her perspective on the ground and behind the upturned bulk of her wheelchair. Several masses lay strewn across the cobbles, but she could not see well enough for a precise count. An eerie silence had fallen and seemed to do so with such suddenness that she wondered if perhaps she had somehow damaged her hearing in the fall. The snarls, whines, and growls had faded into the night, and the absence they left seemed to Genevieve a gaping wound.
And then there was breathing – a heavy, rasping sound that no human could produce – and Genevieve’s tired body struggled to produce enough adrenaline to tear it from the crumbling precipice that was exhaustion. She grabbed a revolver from the ground, unsure and uncaring whether it was loaded, and swung it around in desperation against the invisible foe. Then her chair moved, shifting left and right before tilting upright. The hand that moved it was massive and clawed. She lifted the revolver, but let it clatter to the ground as she recognized Darnell’s features – even in their altered state.
She reached out with her right hand and pulled herself up to his arm, laying her head against the bulk of it. She closed her eyes as he gently lifted her from the blood-soaked ground.