By Tara Cardinal and Alex Bledsoe
This is an excerpt from the novel Sword Sisters by Tara Cardinal and Alex Bledsoe, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Rogue Blades Entertainment, Tara Cardinal and Alex Bledsoe, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by Reel Heroine, LLC.
The origin of the Demons remains a mystery; even they don’t seem to know. But one day, over a millennium ago, they found their way from their world to ours. That began the Thousand Year War.
Unknown to the Demons, they actually created the race that would defeat them: the Reapers. The first of them were hybrids, half demon, half human, born of mortal women raped by Demons. They lived far longer than humans, and could battle the Demons on their own terms. Demon rage fueled by a treacherous human heart is a lethal combination, and these half-breeds were a vicious and terrible race, destroying humans and Demons with equal ferocity.
Tormented and dominated by their Demon fathers, they tortured humans because they did not know right from wrong. They were brutal, unpredictable and chaotic. Their cruelty was legendary and humans learned to hate and fear the Reapers. Humanity fought back, and was all but decimated by the power and rage of these savage and terrifying beasts. Like their Demon fathers they destroyed villages, enslaved the commoners, and raped the women, impregnating them and leaving them to die in childbirth.
But those women gave birth to something entirely different. These hybrid creatures were now only one quarter demon. Human mothers died in childbirth whether their rapists were Demons or Reapers — but these were the first Reapers plagued by guilt over the deaths of their human mothers. All over the world something magical happened.
Humans came to call it “The Awakening.” Reapers — the younger, more human ones — banded together in a great army, unified by their tremendous need to protect humanity from the unrelenting cruelty of demon kind. These new Reapers became the deadliest warriors our world has ever known. It was the human soul that gave these heroes their advantage in battle. And eventually, they won. The half-breed Reapers were destroyed, the Demons were driven back into the darkness, and an era of peace began.
The watered down bloodline yielded surprising changes. These new Reapers were very strong, but weakened with age, a trait not found in their half-blood ancestors. Their lives were shorter. And many of them were barren.
Many years passed, and the Awakened Reapers served their human brothers as a warrior class, working tirelessly to repair the damage done by the chaotic half-breed Reapers. Relations were strained between the new Reapers and the surviving humans. Adonis, the leader of the Reapers, began courting the chief oracle of the humans, Diah — a beautiful and powerful “Teller Witch.” Relations improved, and the villages began to rebuild and vie for power, while Reapers kept the peace. Then the unthinkable happened.
The Demon leader, Ganesh, kidnapped and raped Diah on her wedding night to Adonis. From this horrible union came Aella, another of the dreaded half-breeds, born with flaming red hair and the fury that goes with it.
Although human women died giving birth to Reapers, Diah survived, kept alive by a swallow of Ganesh’s magical blood. Ashamed, she let everyone believe she was dead, especially Adonis, whom she still loved. When Aella was just five in human years, Diah sold her daughter to Ganesh for a bottle of his own blood, which the Teller Witch used to increase her powers and stay alive. Aella was raised among the Demons, but not as one of them: she was tormented as only Demons can torment a child, in ways best left to the imagination, and grew to young womanhood as a victim, nursing fantasies of revenge.
In the great final battle of the Thousand Year War, Aella was rescued; brought back to Ilan, chief country of the humans. She lived among the Reapers, but remained isolated, separate from them even in the castle they shared. As the only true half-breed in the castle, and perhaps the world, her Demon nature terrified them, and her relative youth meant she lacked control and maturity.
The Teller Witch, before her apparent demise, prophesied that a Reaper with flaming red hair would not only be born, but would become the last of the Reapers, with the strength of ten Demons and the heart and soul of a human. She would be the last hope of humankind. Was this Aella? No one knew. Many thought not. But the Reapers tolerated her presence, and tried to teach her to control her Demon nature, and waited for a further sign that this was, indeed, her destiny…
The arrow in my back had found its way through my ribs and into my lungs. So it was understandable when the boy nudged me with his foot and said, “Hey. Little girl? Little girl?”
I should’ve been angry that I’d been discovered, but instead I fixated on his words. Little girl? I thought in outrage. Sure, I wasn’t very tall, and I was sprawled flat on the forest floor between two protruding table-sized rocks, so I guess it was a fair mistake to make. But I was definitely no child. I’m twelve, you ass.
Then he asked, “Are you dead?”
I wanted to say, That’s a stupid question because how can I answer it yes, but the arrow hurt so bad, and I’d lost so much blood, that I only managed to raise my head and wheeze at him. His dog promptly licked me in the face, then sniffed at my bloody clothes. I tried to twist away, so the dog wouldn’t lap up my blood. That could be a disaster beyond reckoning!
“Oh, boy,” he said, and his voice shook. Great, he’s squeamish. I could only see him from the knees down: he wore soft brown boots, the kind with flexible soles so you wouldn’t make noise while hunting. He dropped a bow and arrow beside these boots and said, “Wow, I’m really sorry. I didn’t know anyone was around. Oh, boy, am I in trouble.”
My head was foggy, but I understood that he believed the arrow in my back was his. That was foolish, I thought: no one should mistake a Reaper arrow for anyone else’s. They had distinctive shafts and fletching, not to mention a peculiarly narrow, barbed head. Of course, he couldn’t see the head at the moment, because it was buried in my flesh. But still.
He knelt beside me and put a hand on my back, over the spot where another arrow had penetrated my skin mere hours earlier. That one I could reach and remove, and by now the wound had healed. But the remaining one had struck me dead center, and despite my best efforts, it had finally worn me down. It wouldn’t kill me, of course. But it was damned inconvenient.
“Okay, uhm, look… ” he said. His voice was still nervous, but not panicked. “If you can hear me, I’m going to take you back to my hunting blind. I have some first aid stuff there… herbs and bandages and things. I’m going to have to pick you up, though.”
I couldn’t warn him. I looked small, but my muscles were far denser than humans, which meant that I was heavier than I appeared. Much heavier. If I hadn’t been so hurt, I would’ve laughed out loud at his grunt when he cavalierly tried to lift me. He stepped back, changed his grip and put me over his shoulder. I saw the two rocks, one tall and one squat. Then his dog filled my field of vision, regarding me with canine puzzlement. Usually dogs immediately growled at me, recognizing me as a danger. I suppose at the moment, the dog was right; I was about as dangerous as one of the pheasants he retrieved for his master.
“Won’t take long,” the boy said, his voice tight with effort. “Just hang on, and please don’t die.”
It didn’t take long, but every damned bone-jarring step was agony. Reaper arrowheads were designed to work their way deeper if the injured party moved, and it did its job well, until I could feel its point trying to push its way out just above my navel.
Then we started climbing. His hunting blind was up a tree, reached by a crude ladder hammered into the trunk. Through the tunnel formed by my dangling hair, I saw the dog watching us as we worked our way up.
Inside the little hideaway, the boy gently put me down on my side, and I finally glimpsed his face. He was older than me, or at least older than I appeared to be (Reapers age more slowly than humans); I guessed he was probably around fourteen or fifteen. He had dark hair that grew wild and unruly around a face that, for all its kindness, already hinted at potential strength. Something ached in my chest that had nothing whatsoever to do with the arrow nearly impaling me.
He said, “Good, you’re still alive. I’m going to check your wound now, okay? So let’s just… ”
He turned me gently, almost delicately, on my stomach, and brushed my long red hair aside. Then I felt the presence of steel near my skin. Normally it would have sent me into action, but I was too weak. And when he began to cut away my leather armor (really useful, Andraste, thanks a bunch) and the tunic beneath it, I panicked. He’ll see. He’ll know.
I gathered every last bit of my Reaper strength and will and said, “Stop.” It came out as a whisper, and a pretty pathetic one at that.
“I promise, I won’t look at anything I’m not supposed to,” he said. “Now let’s just… ” His voice trailed off. He sat very still.
He knows! It became a scream in my head. Heknows-heknows-heknows-heknows…
“Well, I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said finally. “You’re a Reaper.”
The hunting blind was silent. I couldn’t say anything from weakness, and he couldn’t from shock. But I knew what he must be thinking. Repulsion. Disgust.
“I heard you had natural armor,” he said finally. “This was a one in a million shot, you know that? Right between the ribs, right in that tiny little place where there’s a gap in the bone. I couldn’t do it again on purpose if I tried.”
I had to tell him. “You… didn’t do it,” I managed.
“I didn’t? Oh, yeah, that’s not one of my arrows. Wow, how did I miss that?”
I was ready for him to roll me off the platform and down onto the ground, where I’d wait in agony for one of the others to find me. Instead, I felt his small, warm fingertips around the place where the shaft pierced my skin. “Can you hear me?” he asked gently. His voice sounded deep, kind, even.
“If I remember the stories right… a Reaper arrow can’t be pulled free. It’s designed to work its way deeper when you mess with it. Is that right?”
I nodded again. I was very close to losing consciousness. I knew I couldn’t actually die — only a few things could kill a Reaper — but I could certainly be incapacitated by injury and blood loss. Even if I lost all of my blood, I would go into a kind of hibernation until the arrow was finally removed. Then my body would restore itself.
“So… I’m going to push it all the way through, so I can grab the tip and pull it free.”
He was right, that was exactly what he should do. It’s exactly what I should have done. Why didn’t I think of that? Maybe my teacher, Eldrid, was right: I was tough and strong, but about as bright as an outhouse on a moonless night.
He rolled me onto my side again, brushed my hair (my damned, unruly, untamable red hair) from my face. He pushed my tunic up from my waist, exposing my stomach. Then he put his lips close to my ear. “I’ll do it quickly. I’ll try not to make it hurt any more than it has to.” Then he kissed my cheek.
He kissed my cheek.
No man had ever done that before. I’d been touched, of course. The Demons who’d… well, ‘raised’ isn’t right, but… whatever, they’d certainly touched me. But the Reapers who’d rescued me had not been inclined to coddle a Demon-haunted, Demon-trained girl who might or might not go into a psychopathic rage and destroy everything around her at any given moment. They’d given me a home and a purpose, but their affection was always at a distance.
This… this was not. This was immediate, and here, and now.
It was such a new sensation that I felt almost none of the pain when the arrowhead broke the skin of my belly, or the sensation of the shaft sliding through my internal organs. Then it was gone, and the maddening, itching tingles that signaled my body’s healing kicked in.
The boy sat back and looked at the arrow. “Wow,” he said. “That’s quite the weapon.” Then he smiled at me. He smiled. After all he’d seen, after all he’d comprehended, he still smiled. “Listen, I have to go now, or my family will go crazy. They hate it when I’m late. But I’ve been told that Reapers can heal themselves really quickly, is that true?”
“Yes,” I said, although I wasn’t sure if the word was audible.
“I’ll be back after dark to check on you, as soon as I can sneak out. There’s food and water here, so help yourself to what you need. And feel free to borrow a fresh hunting tunic.” Then he bent down and did it again. He kissed my cheek again.
I wouldn’t be here when he came back, of course. Long before then, I’d be good as new, and I had to get away before this boy, this human, told anyone about me. Most humans regarded Reapers with a fair amount of distrust, and in my vulnerable state I was no match for an angry mob. I managed to raise my head and look him in the eyes. I was fading fast, sliding into the sleep that would allow my body to knit itself back together, but I couldn’t go yet. I had to know one thing. “Name… ?” I breathed.
He smiled. At me. He said, “Oh, that’s right, we haven’t been introduced. My name’s… ”
And then I passed out.
I snapped out of my favorite memory, of that excruciatingly gorgeous smart, kind, young man, as the wood beside my face exploded and drove razor-sharp splinters into my cheek.
An enormous boot crashed through the log that hid me, narrowly missing my head. My Reaper instincts took over: I curled into a ball and rolled backward, out of my hiding place and into the open. Clearing the log, I flipped back onto my feet and took off. I needed some distance before I could turn and fight.
Or so I intended. No sooner had I taken a step than two meaty fists grabbed my biceps from behind and lifted me high off the ground. Incredibly strong fingers encircled my upper arms and dug into my skin. The forest swirled around me as I fought.
The iron firmness of his grip did it. First I saw the little flashes of light around the edges of my vision, then a reddish tint washed over everything, turning the world crimson. I knew the cause: my body was throwing itself into Demon mode, rushing blood and adrenalin to all my muscles and senses, making them stronger, faster and more lethal. Even the veins in my eyes dilated, which explained the blood-tinted view. In moments the rational parts of my brain would shut down and I would go berserk, to a degree even my captor might not be able to control, or survive. I was no longer a Reaper, but a Demon. And that meant someone had to die.
But there was a tiny spark still unaffected, and in the voice of my mother, the Teller Witch, it said firmly, No! NO! A great surge of ice-cold calm turned the rush of blood back on itself. I froze, locked between my Demon and Reaper natures.
Then the rage faded. No one would ever know how close it had been, or how strong I had to be to resist it. They would consider me weak, in fact, for letting it peek out at all.
For a moment my feet still kicked before I got conscious control of myself. Then I growled, deep and low. After all, at my core I’m nothing but a wild creature, even without the Demon blood in my veins.
I looked back over my shoulder and met my captor’s gaze. He assessed me with his usual cool amusement, completely sure of his superior size and strength. If he only knew how close he’d come.
“Aella,” he rumbled, my name becoming as much a growl as my own animalistic noises. Then a deep guffaw erupted from his chest, and playfully he dropped me to the ground. I spun to face him.
“Aella,” he chided again, still in the throes of a roaring belly laugh. “You bring me endless amusement!”
Andraste, or “Andre,” towered over me; he towered over almost everyone, human or Reaper. He had a massive body, all hard muscle and leathery sinew, and his arms were almost as big around as my waist. In battle he was merciless, and yet there was another side to him, a tenderness that surfaced whenever his mate Freya was in his presence. I, of course, never saw any of that same tenderness directed toward me. He was here to teach me to be a warrior, and tenderness was not useful in battle.
His laugh angered me, and his ridicule angered me more. His interruption of that fleeting, most precious memory of the boy who’d kissed my cheek reignited my rage and, without even thinking about it, my fist was already on its way toward its mark.
Of course, Andraste — older, wiser, stronger, and with faster reflexes — caught my fist just an inch away from his solar plexus. It would have been a painful but inconsequential blow: lethal to a human, but to a Reaper, only really annoying.
The smile vanished from his face, replaced by a look I knew well, far too well. He was disappointed in me. Clutching my fist in a hand the size of my skull, he shook his head.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, and relaxed my arm. He dropped my fist. We faced each other in silence, the only sound coming from the forest around us.
Then, still silent, he efficiently began picking the splinters from my face. He made no effort to be gentle, which would have been out of character, anyway. I gritted my teeth against the pain; why was it these tiny, insignificant injuries often hurt more than sword hacks or ax blows?
He finished, wiped his bloody fingers on his cloak, then turned and walked away. I followed.
He was mad at me, but by tomorrow he’d be over it: little disrupted Andraste’s mischievous and generally jovial nature for long. Still, it bothered me that I was the cause of his current foul mood. Deep down, I craved his approval, just as I did my adopted father’s. I’d never admit it to either of them, of course. And they’d never believe it.
More to the point, I had to know how he’d found me. I’d used all the skills he’d trained into me to find a hiding place inside a hollow log far from any trail, and yet he’d still discovered me. What had I done wrong?
Finally I softly said, “Andre?”
He did not slow down, but an almost imperceptible nod gave the courage to continue.
“Was it my scent, my trail, or my thoughts that you were able to track?”
Without looking back at me, he said, “All of them.”
“All of them?” I yelled.
Andraste stopped and faced me. There was a raw edge to his voice that I’d seldom heard before. “You are in training to guard the king. The king, Aella. The man, the human, who will rise to power upon his majority and rule all the humans in Ilan. You are the last Reaper who has a real task. The rest of us are simply marking time; our wars are over, and we exist now only as symbols of the past.” He didn’t sound bitter, only sad and tired.
He looked down from his great height and gave me a glare that might’ve dissolved a mortal where she stood. “You are supposed to be the youngest, fastest and strongest of all the Reapers, the last of us born and thus the one who will outlive us all. And yet you did nothing to disguise your scent, nothing to throw me off the trail. You ran, and you hid. That’s how a child plays a game, Aella, not how a Reaper perfects her skills.”
I sniffed my underarms. Was my odor that strong? I didn’t smell anything, but then Andre’s sense of smell was Demon-like in its strength and precision. Anyway, who wants to guard some entitled whining man-brat who gets offended by a girl’s normal odors? I certainly didn’t apply for the job. Maybe my smell will chase him away, make him choose someone else to guard him.
Andraste rolled his eyes. “It’s your hair, Aella.” He grabbed a strand and pulled it, hard. “It smells of musk and rain. When you run, the wind catches the scent and leaves a trail so clear a noseless child could sniff you out.”
“My hair?” I pulled a lock of it to my nose. He was right. How embarrassing.
Fortunately, we emerged from the forest into the clearing around the Castle Raggenborg before he could criticize me further. As we strode across the lawn toward the drawbridge, around the old pit traps built during the Thousand Year War, the kitchen bells began to toll.
Oh, crap. Dinner time. I hate dinner. Dinner is the current bane of my existence.
“Nobody hates dinner, Aella,” Andre sighed, as if he’d read my thoughts. “Now go clean up, or at least do what passes for ‘cleaning up’ for you. I’ll expect you reasonably on time.”
I mumbled something that might’ve been, Yes sir, but could’ve also been, shug off. Either way he ignored it and sauntered toward the Great Hall, where all the other Reapers would be gathering. Dinner was the only meal we ate together. Actually dinner was the only meal we ate, and we probably didn’t even need to eat that. But it showed the humans that we were, superficially at least, just like them.
Missing dinner was considered extremely bad form, and for a warrior race, form is everything. Well, form and weaponry. But still, a Reaper’s word is her bond: if that wasn’t true, and true every single time, then the humans would fear and hate us as much as they do the Demons. After all, Reapers, like Demons, are inhuman, practically invulnerable, and skilled in the arts of death. But you could tell a Demon on sight. Reapers, unless you saw us in action, or with our armored spines exposed, looked just like humans. And nothing is more terrifying than a monster hiding in plain sight.
So, as utterly painful as it was, I would go to dinner because it was expected. But I would not like it. Nor would I pretend to like it. Which was fine, because no one there would pretend to like me.
I climbed the stairs toward my quarters, all ninety-nine of them. Why couldn’t it be an even hundred? I wondered for the billionth time. I’m told my Reaper grandfather built this castle a thousand years ago; my grandfather, Gilicus the Grim, his two brothers (all true half-bloods, like me) and my great-great-great-great-grandmother (humans age faster than Reapers, remember?), that era’s Teller Witch. It took them fourteen days. And technically, he wasn’t really my grandfather but my adopted father’s father, but how could I not claim ancestry from a reaper known as ‘the Grim?’
Nothing in all of Ilan was as grand as Castle Raggenborg. It rose majestically into the sky as though the three brothers expected the Creator himself to pay a visit, and didn’t want Him to make too much of a step down. At the north and south ends, regal towers looked out over the whole peninsula during times of war. Now, abandoned in peacetime, they provided ample nesting for thousands of the local birds.
Many of the Reapers had quarters in the barracks, but because of my special situation — my Teller Witch blood, my status as king’s-bodyguard-in-training, and the general suspicion with which everyone regarded me — I had private quarters. They were so private that no one but me even used the stairwell that led to them.
This part of the castle used to be a jail for captured Demons, back when the Thousand Year War still raged. Demon prisoners were ‘read’ by Reapers with telepathic powers, or studied by trackers like Andre, and then set loose to lead the Reapers to ambush sites and Demon hide outs. After the war ended, the cells held human prisoners: basically anyone who opposed the budding monarchy while the new king was in his infancy.
I’d visited the now-abandoned cells on occasion, out of boredom or homework for Eldrid’s history lessons. They were more sad than scary after all this time; the scratches and bloodstains spoke of fear, not battle rage. Whatever the Demons had done, the Reapers had more than matched them in savagery. But it had been necessary, I knew. And it was something the humans could never, ever have done.
For the last twenty years or so, the Reapers had been assisting the humans in becoming a self ruling society. Soon we would be nothing but guards. The most cunning, lethal and courageous guards imaginable, but still — guards. And after that… only memories, and legends.
I glanced out one of the stairwell windows and saw, from the position of the sun, that I was going to be late. I ran the rest of the way, past the door to my quarters and straight to the roof. I lowered myself through the bars of the sky light (one advantage to being smaller), swung my body out and flipped once in mid air. I landed feet-first, with a bounce, on my fuzzy bed.
The pretty blond girl standing over my clothes shrieked as I scared her.
“Aella!” she scolded. “Don’t do that!”
“Sorry,” I said, and stepped down off the bed.
Vikki, the human assigned to make me presentable for social occasions (and, I suspected, serve as an example of how a well-behaved young lady was supposed to act), said, “You’re going to be impossibly late for dinner, you know.”
“I know,” I said, and I unceremoniously stripped off the now dirty (and possibly smelly) leather corset, careful not to let it get caught on my protruding ribs. There are no words to describe the feeling of relief after a snug corset removal: it’s like re-experiencing breath for the first time. My lungs could fully expand, and there was room for all my other organs once again. “Yaaaah!” I cried with satisfaction. My voice echoed off the stone around me.
“You can certainly carry a tune,” Vikki said drily, taking the corset with her thumb and one finger. She tossed it into the basket with my other dirty clothes. “I’ll step out while you… ” And she was gone. Vikki knew the routine. With the exception of that incident in the woods so many years ago, no human has seen me disrobed, not even partially. And none ever will.
As I undressed the rest of the way, I discovered she’d arranged a bowl of clean water, a sponge and a bottle with an atomizer. Then I quickly washed my pits. “And put on a lot of perfume,” she called from behind the door that only she used. “Okay,” I called back, uncomfortable with even a mere conversation with a human in this state of undress.
This was one of the stranger aspects of my future role as king’s bodyguard. In order to both fit in and understand the king’s daily life, I had a servant, just as he would. But I never thought of her that way. If anything I felt like her servant. Always watched. Never alone. Apparently during the war, Reapers had issues with the lower-caste humans, unable to truly comprehend their function. After all, a warrior race bred from rape by their greatest enemies couldn’t help but have a skewed world view. But the Reapers and the humans had been living together in reasonable peace for a long time now (well, most of us anyway), and we understood each other much better. Still, the Reapers in power were worried that old animosities might surface. So they gave me a lady in waiting.
She would have washed me herself, as others of her kind did for their human masters. But I couldn’t bear it. After my years as a Demon plaything, any sort of touch was unbearable. So she stood quietly, outside the door, while I did it myself.
I surveyed the mess that my quarters seemed to always be. There were my clothes, strewn about my room. Some weapons lay on the floor, some hung on the walls. A dead flower drooped in a small crystal vase, left there by Vikki on a previous visit. Little Gray, the mouse that occasionally visited me, had chewed through a parchment Eldrid gave me to memorize. I giggled as I thought of standing before him and reciting, “Nom-nom-nom, burp!”
“And what is so funny?” Vikki demanded through the door as I wiped dirt from my face.
“Nothing,” I said seriously.
“You will one day be the guardian of our king,” she said, peeking through the crack. She knew how long it took me to wash and redress. “You can’t afford to be tardy then. Assassins and rivals will find openings if you’re not there. We have waited so long for our king, a full blooded human king. Should anything happen to him, there would be riots in the streets, looting and mayhem the likes of which Ilan has never seen! The streets would turn red with blood, the sun would go black, Demons would rule again… ” She was still talking, but I was lost in another thought, even with the amused smile on my face.
Our king. Did she mean her and me, or her and the other humans? I didn’t want to ask, because I truly didn’t want to know. I liked Vikki, and her company, and appreciated the care she took of me when so many others around me seemed cautious and afraid. Vikki was probably afraid, too, but she did a good job of hiding it. “You sound like Adonis,” I said finally, interrupting one of her infamous monologues.
“Adonis is a great Reaper,” Vikki replied as she handed me a brush. “He understands what the world must become, as he has guided us all to this juncture. I wish he could be a bigger part of it, but the world is for humans now.”
That made me a little angry. “We exist in it, too, you know.”
“Oh, Aella, you know what I meant. Obviously if… ”
“Yeah,” I agreed quickly, but sullenly. “I know.”
When my hair was, if not tamed, at least cowed, Vikki quickly spritzed me with the perfume, then attempted to straighten out the wrinkles in my gown. I examined myself for any ripped seams or unsightly exposed flesh; the bones of my spine could often snag and tear the fragile formalwear I was expected to don.
In the warm crimson of the evening light that streamed through the window, my skin and hair looked the same color. I was called the Red Reaper, and at this moment, the name fit me perfectly. But it also made me look like a normal, human girl, demure and delicate, capable of things like tending a baby, arranging flowers, or giving a delicate kiss to the man I loved.
“There,” she said. “Beautiful.”
“Presentable,” I corrected.
Vikki didn’t look at me when she asked, “Do you think Andre will be there at dinner?”
“I’m sure he will be.” All the girls, human or Reaper, liked Andre. He was handsome, and an incorrigible flirt. He was quick to compliment a new hairstyle or fetching gown, and you could always find him in the castle by following the giggles. That he was firmly fasted to, and desperately in love with, the beautiful Reaper Freya did not affect him, her, or the human girls around him. They all seemed to delight in the game.
Vikki twirled one strand of hair around her finger. “Can I ask you something?”
“I understand that Reaper men… that their… well, you know… has the same sort of… well, spikes as their spines. Is that true?”
I turned to look at her. I suppose it should’ve been obvious that I was still a virgin, just as I imagined she was, but you could never be sure what humans thought of us. “Why do you think I would even know that?”
“Well, I mean, you… you’re… oh, I just assumed you talked, or learned about it from Eldrid.”
“Eldrid!” I laughed. My teacher was old, prim, and so tightly-wound I couldn’t imagine her ever having a lustful thought in her life. I’d heard stories about her battle prowess during the Thousand Year War, but I had a hard time imagining the woman I knew now once being such a warrior. “We haven’t really covered much anatomy. Just history and philosophy. And mathematics,” I added with a scowl. I was really good at math, but I’d learned that saying so made people avoid me even more.
“Oh, well,” she said, and turned away. She looked disappointed. She turned back to me. “It’s just, well, I wanted to know… ” If I let her continue I’d never make it to dinner.
“Ok, I’ll tell you what I do know!” I sighed. “The spikes on our spine, ribs, and other protruding body parts — those are bone. It comes from our Demon fathers. Because they’ve been alive for so long, their bones have hardened, and begun to protrude. It’s their tough skin that keeps the bones from protruding even more. This same tendency is passed down to Reapers.”
“Along with the Demon skin?”
“Yes, exactly.” We have patches of Demon skin, usually covering the protruding bones. Not all Reapers have the same patches in the same place, nor the same amount of ‘spikes,’ as you call them. It all depends on how old the Reaper is, and how much Demon blood they have.” Wow. I actually did learn something during the world’s most boring lecture. I mentally patted myself on the spikes.
Reaper men were exactly like human men in that particular department, I knew, but it was better for Vikki not to know that. Probably better for Andre that she didn’t know, as well.
Then I left my room the same the way I entered it: out through the sky light. Vikki called after me, “Don’t tangle your hair!”
The great hall, as its name implies, was enormous. At one point, during and right after the Thousand Year War, it teemed with so many Reaper warriors that the servants had to eat crammed in a separate antechamber that had once been a large cupboard. Now, though, our numbers were so few that we pretty much ate wherever we wanted, with whomever we wanted. As long as we got there before the dinner bell rang.
When I reached the door to the dining hall, I found Jensa on guard. She wore formal armor and held a short spear at her side. She made no move to step aside and allow me in.
“Come on, Jensa,” I said.
She said, “You’re late, Red.”
“No, I’m not.”
The evening bell began to toll. Jensa smiled. “Now you are.”
During the waning days of the war, Jensa had defended a hilltop position all alone against a dozen Demon warriors, preventing them from flanking Adonis and the main force. She was known as the Defender because of this, or Lady D more casually. She also hated me, because she felt her rightful place was guarding the new king. Most days I agreed with her; she certainly needed no additional training. But she wore her contempt for me on her sleeve, and that had begun to seriously grate on my nerves. I said, “Jensa, get out of my damn way.”
Jensa smiled. Although she was considerably older than me, she not only looked about the same age, but acted like a human five-year-old most of the time. “Make me.”
“I would, except I don’t want to mess up my dress. Does this make you feel powerful? You know, I have a wooden wedge that I use to block my door open when the weather’s nice. It does the same job as you do, but it’s better company.” With that I turned on my heel and walked away.
“You don’t deserve your life!” she called after me. “You don’t deserve it! You couldn’t even fight your way out of the Demon’s realm. You had to be rescued, remember?”
I stopped and looked at her. It was no secret that I was still a child when the Demons took me. It was no secret what transpired while I was there. Demon torture is common knowledge amongst Reapers, even these, who weren’t raised by Demons like their half-breed parents. Jensa knew what pain, humiliation and degradation I experienced at the hands of the Demons. And she mocked me.
“You’re cute when you’re angry,” she said.
“Keep it up, and I’ll be downright gorgeous.” I finished turning on my heel and marched around a corner in the corridor until I reached a servant’s entrance hidden behind a tapestry. I slipped through and emerged into the dining hall with no one, including Jensa, the wiser.
I took a moment to get the lay of the land. Andre, my recent tormentor, now sat at a table beside Freya. Keefe, another Reaper, was surrounded by a half-dozen human girls, all dressed in proper dinner attire. He was, as usual, in the middle of a joke.
“… so she said, ‘does anyone have any spare wood they’re not using?’ And he said, ‘Sorry, honey. I use my wood for pitching tents.’”
Most of the girls laughed, except one dark-eyed brunette, who said loudly, “I don’t get it.”
Keefe sighed. “Really? Well, it’s like this. When a guy’s laying under a sheet, and his — ”
Before Keefe could finish, one of the other girls whispered something in the brunette’s ear. She instantly turned bright red and giggled.
“Of course, where most men tent, I pavilion,” Keefe said with mock pride, and everyone laughed again.
Keefe saw me across the room and nodded that I should join them. I shook my head. Instead, I drifted over to the serving line.
I felt a soft hand on my arm, and turned to see Freya beside me. “You look lovely tonight, Aella.”
“Thank you,” I said. She certainly did, with fresh flowers in her blond hair and a gown that left her shoulders bare. She had hardly any Demon skin, and was proud of it. She was taller than me, and so lithe it was hard to believe she’d actually killed more Demons than Andre during the war. I guess it’s true what they say: in battle, size really doesn’t matter. Sometimes, when I was feeling generous, I allowed that she considered me a younger sister, one who alternately aggravated her and required her protection. I knew I did the first, but I resented the implication that I needed the latter. It kept us from ever getting really close.
“Andre told me about your training today,” she said. I always liked her husky voice. I wondered if it was always that way, or became that way after a certain number of battle cries. “I wanted to say, I have some oil that might help. It blocks the scent in your hair. Makes the tangles easier to get out, too.”
I clenched my fists. Her know-it-all attitude drove me insane. I didn’t needhelp, especially cosmetic help. “That’s all right, Freya. I’ll work it out.”
“I know you will, but this would be faster.” She smiled that beautiful, kind, patient smile. Which made everything worse. I gritted my teeth.
She started to say something else, thought better of it, and returned to her table. I let out my breath slowly, fighting to stay calm, wondering why the hell this pissed me off so much. Was I just incapable of accepting kindness at face value? Did I really believe there was always an ulterior motive?
I took my place at the end of the line behind Corboy, a Reaper blinded in battle during the war. He wore a black eyeless mask to mark his injury, although we all knew Corboy didn’t need his eyes to see; he was a tracker like Andre, sensitive to things most people, and most Reapers, couldn’t fathom.
I’d never seen beneath the mask, and often speculated about the trailing ends of the scars that peeked out around it. Were his eyes gone? Were they still there, but oozing and milky-white, the way old dogs’ eyes turned? Or were they simply normal-looking but non-functional? In any case, his gnarled hands never missed a tankard or a utensil. Well, not until the tankard had been emptied and refilled several times.
Goran was serving the food tonight. At a rotund five-hundred pounds and a towering six foot five, you’d think he was a Reaper himself. But his size belied his human gentleness, and his supreme love of the culinary experience. He grinned when he saw me, and by the time I got to him he had a plate ready.
“Good evening, Aella,” he said, and touched his spatula to his forehead in salute. “How goes the Red Reaper tonight?”
“Hold still,” he said, and picked something from my hair. “Your hair is a twig magnet, did you know that?”
By the stomping gods of Pailess, I was tired of hearing about my hair. “Someone has to do it, right?”
He gave me his sly scolding look, then handed me my plate.
“Sorry, Goran. It’s been a worse day than most.” The beautifully prepared food looked a little like a tropical flower. “What’s the fare tonight?”
“This is new,” he said excitedly. “I won’t name it unless you like it. See, I hollowed out a goat’s egg, and removed the yolk. Then I added curdled chicken milk and fish, all ground together with orange, cracked pepper and rose hips.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that goats don’t lay eggs and chickens don’t give milk. He probably just got them reversed, a frequent idiosyncrasy since he took a blow to the head several years ago saving two other servants from drowning. It’s cute, and no one ever corrects him. After all, we might starve without him. Well, if Reapers could starve.
I searched for a solitary corner to eat in peace. Most of the Reapers didn’t like me, or trust me. After all, the prophecy of the Red Reaper said I was to be the last of our kind. Well, that is, if I was the Red Reaper the prophecies talked about. That was a point still under review.
I kept my eyes down and headed to a secluded spot. I knew Adonis was here, and I tried to avoid him wherever possible. We don’t just fight: we war. And I usually lose.
I was close, so close, to getting away clean when a soft, commanding voice said, “Aella, sit with us.”
I turned. Even at his mature age, Adonis was an imposing Reaper. His long white hair cascaded around his shoulders. His piercing blue eyes always observed, always found fault. His weathered face was like a map of every day of the Thousand Year War. He wore his title like a cape and, even in rags, no one would mistake him for anything other than a leader.
At his table sat the Reaper elders, each one older than the next, all impossibly grumpy, and every one of them ready to turn on me should I display the slightest hint of giving in to my Demon nature and turning evil. Our contempt and distrust was mutual.
I put down my plate between the oldest and grumpiest of the lot, Hildebrande and Eldrid. They gave me far more elbow room than a little girl like me needed. I shot Hildebrande a flirtatious smile and winked at Eldrid. She jumped, knocked over her tankard, and let out a shriek as the liquid threatened to spill on her formal clothes.
Adonis glared, an expression that probably reached back through time and burned my grandmother in her grave.
I feigned nonchalance. “Good evening, father.”
The sound of water crashing against rocks always soothes me. Tonight was no different. Even without the moon, which always seemed so bright in this particular part of the forest, I could still see every bush, every shrub, and all the way past the branches below me to the leaf-covered ground. I tuned out the wolves howling far in the distance, and concentrated on that elusive memory. It was only six years ago, but it felt like lifetimes. Time moves more slowly for Reapers, or at least Reaper teenagers. Certainly Reaper teenagers in the throes of unrequited love.
I felt his lips on my cheek. The pressure, the softness, the muscles as they moved to plant the first mark of affection I’d ever felt from a human. The memory was so vivid, I swear I also felt the slight exhale as he drew away.
A twig snapped. Even without looking away from the falling water, I knew Keefe approached. In moments he had taken his usual place to my right. The branch sagged a little under our combined weight.
“You tracked me?” I asked him. “Or did you just assume I’d be here?”
“No, I tracked you, but it was much more difficult this time. Andre has been teaching you well.”
“How do you even do that?” I asked him. I honestly didn’t know. I’d only been trained not to BE tracked, I didn’t know a thing about how a Reaper does his tracking.
“It’s simple really. I close my eyes and seek your chi.” Keefe told me, like that explained it. Off of my blank look he continued “Your chi is energy, it has space, and a temperature — like the wind. It has a color too, and a scent. Some Reapers are sensitive to the subtleties of those things.”
“What color is my chi?” I asked him with complete childlike wonder. There were so many nuances to my own culture I didn’t even know.
“Salt,” he told me, with a face so serious I should have known he was joking.
“Salt! Wait, salt? My chi is the color of salt?”
That did it. He’d cracked himself up. This was the best part of Keefe’s jokes. They weren’t actually funny, but they made him laugh, which made everyone else laugh.
“There are no colors in the physical world that match the colors of chi, Aella. But seriously, the color yours is closest to… is red.”
We sat in silence, which was something I could only do with Keefe. Around everyone else he was a joker, even a clown. Only with me could he be otherwise. It helped that we were far outside the castle’s lands, deep in the forest that still hid many secrets. We’d both get in serious trouble if anyone found out, but Keefe had never ratted on me, and I certainly wouldn’t tell on him.
“I’ve been thinking, Aella,” he said at last, tossing his shaggy hair out of his hazel eyes. “This is the region where you met him, isn’t it?”
“Try to tell me his name again.”
I thought for a moment. Why is his name so hard to recall? His beautiful brown eyes, his voice like music, his head, just an inch above mine… but his name escapes me. He’d said it just as I passed out. “Aaron… maybe?”
Keefe eyed me suspiciously. “Last time it was Harris, and last month it was Eron.”
“I don’t know!” I said. My voice was shrill, and Keefe winced a little. “It’s Aaron… I think.”
“Then tell me the story again of how you met Aaron.”
I sighed a little, as I’m sure I always do when I talk about Aaron. Keefe’s been helping me jog my memory of that night for years. “It was about four years ago — ”
“Four human years, or four Reaper years?”
“What? I know that! Four human years, obviously!”
“So you were twelve?”
“Yes, I was twelve.”
“In human years?”
“Yes! In human years!”
“Because last time, you were thirteen.”
“Keefe, I was definitely twelve!” I stared him down, daring him to challenge my twelve-ness.
“Fine!” he laughed. “You were definitely twelve!”
So I told him the story. I told him about the arrows, about the two rocks. I told him about the boy with kind eyes and no name. About halfway through, I worried that perhaps instead of relating the actual events, I was just repeating other tellings, embellished by my imagination and wishful thinking. But no, damn it, it had happened. The kiss had happened. It must have, because I could still feel it.
When I finished, we sat silently in the tree. Then Keefe jumped up. “I have an idea,” he announced. “Instead of looking for the boy, look for the rocks. They won’t have changed. They’ll still be right where they were.”
“Yes, the two rocks that you fell between. You describe them every time you tell the story. Go find them.”
“But — ”
He covered my mouth with his hand. “No! Don’t think, just go. Go where it feels right.”
I just looked at him.
“Now!” he commanded and gave me a shove right out of the tree.
I don’t have a lot going for me, but I do have balance and sure footing. I hit the ground silently and used my momentum to roll, spring to my feet, and run with my eyes still closed. I knew these woods like my fingers knew my hand. My feet knew this ground. They remember. My body remembers. But would it remember that path from so long ago?
And then it happened. The sudden searing pain in my left shoulder. That I recognized at once: a Reaper arrow. The sharp agony spun me around, and I felt it again, this time in my back, a hair from my spine, between my shoulder blades — another arrow, lodged between my back ribs. Eyes still closed, I hit the ground and everything went black.
It was morning by the time I woke up. Apparently Keefe had brought me to my room. I was still wearing last night’s clothes; Keefe and I weren’t on ‘undressing’ terms.
A note was pinned to my tunic.
“Sorry. Thought the arrows might help jog your memory. Not my best idea. Keefe.”
On the floor beside my bed were the three arrows he’d fired into my back, in an attempt to recreate that day. No, Keefe, not your best idea. But your heart’s in the right place.
The position of the sun told me it was still early morning. I stretched until the newly-healed tissue lost its tension, washed up and put on fresh training clothes. Then I trudged back to the great hall.
During the war, when Demons were creating us willy-nilly by raping every human woman they encountered, the hall teemed with wide-eyed little Reapers, all ready for new ideas and old stories; at least that’s how I imagined it. In this current era of barren Reapers and the century-old code that forbids Reaper/human mating, it’s just me.
No one made eye contact with me as I strode through the castle. Even the servants, long used to Reapers, gave me a wide berth when I was alone. At dinner, they felt secure with the other more ‘normal’ Reapers there to protect them. But alone, they dreaded drawing my attention, especially the boys. As if.
I passed the kitchen, the conference hall, and the door to the inner courtyard. As I went deeper into the castle, the corridors became windowless and lit only by lamps. At last I reached the doors to the lecture hall, pushed them open and entered. Today’s teacher looked up from the lectern.
Oh, shit. Eldrid.
The look of disdain on her face somehow made her appear older. Eldrid actually is older than the first bad breath, so the thought of her looking more aged made me laugh.
She looked up at me from the lectern. “Yes,” she said as if reading my thoughts, “your father thought it best if we bury the proverbial hatchet between us, rather than in each other’s backs. I’m not sure I agree, but then, I’m a mere scholar. Sit down.”
I looked at the rows of empty benches. “Do we have to do this here? I mean, it’s just the two of us.”
“This is the classroom. It always has been. As long as there is even one Reaper child to be taught, this is where teaching occurs. And you are that one Reaper child.”
“I’m not a child.”
“You’re far from mature.” Even her voice sounded dusty.
“Yeah, well, whatever, this is ridiculous. Let’s just go to the dining hall and sit across a table. We can have some tea —”
“This is the classroom. Please take your seat.”
“But that’s silly.”
“Sit down! ” she roared. I did as I was told, more quickly than I like to admit. I could imagine that voice ordering attacks on the battlefield.
When I was situated, Eldrid pretended to search through the papers on the lectern, before settling on the one that was already atop the pile. Reapers could be theatrical at the drop of a dagger. “I assure you, Aella, I find this no more pleasant than you do, but it must be done. Your stature and future role require that you at least be exposed to this sort of knowledge, even though I doubt much of it will penetrate that dense skull of yours.”
“Insulting me doesn’t make me respect you,” I said.
“If I craved your respect, then that would upset me,” she shot back.
I crossed my arms and slid down in my seat, sulking. I had to be here; I did not have to like it.
Eldrid sighed dramatically. “I cannot believe that you are to be the last of us. We are a noble race, sacrificing ourselves for the good of the world, for the good of humankind, and here sits our penultimate representative, without even the courtesy to sit up straight.”
“I can learn just as well sitting this way,” I said.
“No doubt that’s abundantly true,” she said. The woman was never at a loss, I’ll give her that.
“Can we just get on with this? I don’t want to be late for sword fighting practice.”
“Very well. Today, we will talk about witchcraft.”
That made me sit up straight. My mother, Diah, was the last Teller Witch, and as far as anyone knew, she’d died giving birth to me, as all human women did birthing Reapers. Certainly Adonis thought so; he forbade anyone to mention her name. As her daughter, I had the natural inclination to magic, but I’d never been trained, and certainly never attempted it myself. The craving for more powerful magic had been the reason my mother turned me over to the Demons; I wanted nothing to do with it.
“Before we begin,” she added, “I must know: are you using magic?”
“Are you certain?”
“Do you think I’d do it accidentally? That I might sneeze out a spell by accident?”
“So you’re not?”
“Well, why not? ” she roared again, making me jump. She was truly fearsome. “You’re not only the last Reaper, you’re the last of the line of Teller Witches. The prophecies end with you, and you seem to have no interest in continuing them.”
I knew Diah still sat in her hut, very much alive in her own way, staring into her crystal ball and scrawling what she saw onto page after page of parchment. I wondered what she was like now, after years of isolation, but I didn’t wonder bad enough to seek her out. I didn’t trust myself to see her, and no one else knew she still lived. “You’re right about that,” I said.
“What do you know of your mother’s lineage?” she said.
My adopted father forbade anyone to mention my mother after I returned from Demon captivity. When I told my father she’d given me to the Demons after her supposed demise, he simply refused to believe me. My ability to describe the woman who was supposed to have died birthing me was chalked up to ‘magic.’ Reapers revere magic. That is, Reapers who don’t have a vendetta against the witch that tossed them away for a measly potion. “Don’t… mention… my mother,” I said through my teeth.
Eldrid smiled. She loved getting me angry. “Then we’ll talk in more general terms. The line of Teller Witches is as old as recorded history. Into every human generation, one girl discovers her ability to commune with nature: she sings to the plants, the trees, the wind. She charms the animals, and her own kind, especially men.” Her voice took on a tone I didn’t quite recognize. Was that respect? I wonder if she knew my mother well? “She can heal both humans and Reapers, although not Demons. But her main gift is her direct line of communication with the Creator of All Things. Through this, she receives the prophecies, the things that guide us into the future. As the scrolls say, ‘She Tells, for She is the Teller.’”
She held up a scroll. “Tell me, Aella, have you seen this before?”
Amidst the text in the old language, there was a large illustration of a woman. It was of an ancient Teller Witch, but in its lines I saw my mother’s achingly beautiful face: the distinctive eyes, the full lips, the high forehead. I saw myself in it, too, which infuriated me: less prominently, since I was only half human, but there nonetheless.
I remembered my mother singing to the plants. The memory, like everything else from my childhood before I was given to the Demons, was fuzzy yet vivid. They would sway — no, dance — to her musical voice. Her little cottage was the most enchanting place I’d ever seen. It was made from a living tree that seemed to grow itself around her, like a thoughtful lover’s embrace, just tight enough to protect her, but giving her all the space she could ever need. Even now, if I concentrated hard enough, I could smell the delicious odors of flowers, cooking, and potions. The memories made my blood boil and my heart grow a little colder at the same time.
And moving through it was my mother, Diah. In my memory she was young, too young to be a mother it seemed, with the bloom and capriciousness of youth battling with her responsibilities. I imagined that she resented my presence in her life, a constant reminder that Ganesh, the leader of the Demons, had raped her on her wedding night while Eldrid and the others were lured away to battle other Demons. But in truth, all I remembered from her was kindness and love. Until the day she gave me to her rapist in exchange for a bottle of his magical blood.
I came back to the moment. “Uhm… yes?”
“You’re not paying any attention.”
“Sure, I am. You were talking about lineages.”
“But you couldn’t begin to tell me what I said about them, could you?”
I said nothing.
She sighed. “I should just kill you now and be done with it. Adonis eventually would thank me.”
It took a second for that to register. “I’m sorry, you… did you just threaten me?”
“A Reaper — a half blood no less — raised by Demons to embrace her savage side, who also has the nascent powers of a Teller Witch? You’re the most dangerous being in the world, Aella. You’re vermin, but vermin with the power of the sun and moon at your disposal. This — ” She waved her hand to indicate the classroom. “ — effort to civilize you, to make you presentable for when the king of the humans emerges from hiding, is pointless. You don’t train a mad dog, you put it down.
I sat up straight now. I knew that whatever else she was, Eldrid had once been a fierce warrior; she could still probably muster the skills if needed, and I certainly didn’t want to have to put my own against her. I’d trained for years, but I’d never been in a real fight. “Uh, Eldrid, I don’t know why you — ”
“Of course you don’t,” she said, with something worse than anger or contempt: pity. “You truly are a child, Aella, which is why Adonis has his misplaced hope for you. He thinks there is still time to turn from your path. But… ” She seemed suddenly every bit of her age. “Do you wonder why Teller Witches never came to be captives? With their power, it seems obvious that kings, Demon rulers, and even Reaper warlords should have taken them prisoner and turned the magic to their own ends. Why do you think that never happened?”
I shook my head.
“With an army of nature and beasts at her disposal, she would never starve, never thirst, never freeze to death or suffer the sun’s excessive heat, and never be surprised by an attack by man, Reaper, or Demon. Every animal, plant and rock would rise up to defend her. That is the power you have inherited, Aella. And that, frankly, is terrifying.”
I didn’t have any power, I knew. I’d certainly never had the urge to make out with trees or woo rocks. But before I could say so, Eldrid continued.
“I’ve known other Reapers like you, you know. They were my cousins, my brothers and sisters, and even my own father. And they were my mortal enemies in the Thousand Year War. Raised by Demons, as much Demon as they were human, and thus unable to control that part of their nature. Those creatures were the most horrific Reapers the world has ever known, and in battle they were legendary. I know firsthand the peril creatures like you cause, and for that reason, I helped ensure they were all put to death at the end of the war.”
I stared at her. “You… you executed other Reapers?”
She met my gaze steadily, defiantly, with the certainty of her own rightness. “I put down mad dogs. Just as, when Adonis sees the truth, I will gladly put down you.”
There it was. Eldrid believed it was her duty to destroy me. I tried to take in all these revelations, to make sense of what this ancient warrior woman was telling me. I’d never heard this bit of history before, and frankly couldn’t believe it. The Reapers I knew, including myself, held all non-Demon life sacred. I should’ve been awed, appalled, curious, outraged, any one of a dozen emotions. But instead I fell back on my trusty friend, anger. I was pissed off. “Well, as long as my father has me under his protection, you can’t do jack to me, old woman. So there.”
She smiled again. “That’s not true, Aella. I can take no action against you, but I can help you destroy yourself.”
“How? By lecturing me until I cut my own head off just to shut you up?”
“By telling you how I interpret the prophecy of the Red Reaper.”
I rolled my eyes. That damned prophecy, written down by my mother in one of her trances before I was born, states that I am to be the last Reaper, the sole guardian of mankind. That part might be right: Reapers are unable to breed with each other, and with the Demons gone, no new ones were being made. But the rest… there’s no way I could be responsible for all that. Just… no way at all. But the other Reapers, including my father, believe it.
But there’s another secret connected to that prophecy that no one else knows. Only me. And it’s simply this: I want it to be true. I want it more than anything. To have a noble purpose, something greater than myself, something that makes all this… suffering… worthwhile. To be the mother protector to all humankind. Like a king, except with even greater responsibility: the protector of kings. But I could never tell anyone, not even Keefe, about this.
“The prophecy says that the Red Reaper will be born into the line of Teller Witches, as you were. She will have the strength of ten Demons, with the heart and soul of a human. She will be the last birthed Reaper, with a sacred duty to the world of men. She will herald peace, and end the terror of the Demons forever. She will be… ” She bent over a scroll to make sure she got the words exactly right. “The keeper of the prophecies, a wielder of magic and steel.”
“But I don’t use magic,” I said.
“That’s because you’re not the Red Reaper.” She let that sink in before continuing. “I’ve studied this prophecy. I know what the others say it means, but I think they’re wrong. You are crucial, but you are not the subject of this prophecy. You will be the mother of the Red Reaper.”
I know I stared. I’m pretty sure my mouth dropped open. I didn’t say anything, though; I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Your purpose is to be nothing more than a vessel,” she continued. “You will, at some future point, be taken by a man — Reaper or human, the prophecies don’t say. But a seed will be planted in you, and will grow to fruition. It will be properly miraculous, since Reapers don’t often breed. That will be the Red Reaper. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was a male child.”
“B-but the prophecy says the Reaper will be female — ”
“Have you ever seen an original prophecy, Aella, the way your mother wrote them down? Her handwriting while in trance was atrocious. Those who copied it wrote it down as ‘female,’ but the original manuscript is far from clear. But no matter; the important bit is that it doesn’t apply to you. You’re a mere brood mare in this process, Aella. Nothing more. Your job is to fall on your back at the appropriate time.”
Her smile was the most vicious thing I’d ever seen.
I know I must’ve stood up, turned and run for the hall. I had to have opened the door, pushed it aside, and made my way past anyone else in the corridors. But none of that registered to me. I kept hearing her words over and over, echoing, mocking and destroying what little hope and belief in myself I still had.
You will be the mother of the Red Reaper. Your job is to fall on your back at the appropriate time.
I huddled in the corner of my room, under a pile of my own dirty laundry. Vikki no doubt intended to return for it while I was out, but I’d locked every door between me and the castle proper. I wanted to be alone.
And I was, mostly. My mouse friend, Little Gray, watched me, but I couldn’t tell if he was concerned. Maybe he just knew my schedule by now, and wondered why I was here instead of off doing whatever I did all day.
I couldn’t get Eldrid’s taunting words out of my head, nor her smug attitude and absolute certainty of my ultimate failure. What if I wasn’t destined to be anything? What if all of this work, all of this training, all of this pain, was for nothing? I was only meant to be someone’s mother? What do I know of motherhood? I had only one example: pop out a kid, pretend to be dead, trade them in for what I really wanted a few years later…
Or worse, what if I did it — train, and track and swear my soul for the humans, just like it says in the prophecies — and no one cared?
I knew humans would hate me. They’d hate me no matter what I did. If I walked away, they’d hate me; if I gave myself to them, they’d hate me. Some would hate me for how I serve them. That’s been true of all the Reapers. We’ve always been feared and despised by the humans, even those of us who’ve never harmed a soul. So why go through all of this if they’re going to hate me no matter what I do? Why dedicate my life to them at all?
Because it’s the right thing to do, said a voice in my head.
I knew that, of course. But I was no martyr. A masochist, maybe, but martyr? Not so much. If I was supposed to live forever, how can I do it alone, serving the ones who hate me?
“So, Little Gray, I need your advice” I said to the rodent. He rose on his little hind legs and looked at me as seriously as if I were made of cheese. “If you were in my place, what would you do?”
He didn’t say anything. Typical. Maybe Eldrid was right. That mouse would have answered my mother in complete sentences.
I could run away, forsake this whole life, disguise myself so no one would know I was a Reaper at all. I could pass for human if I cover up my demon skin. That was one of the first tricks I ever learned. But where would I go? What would I do? Become a tavern wench, and serve drunk old men?
For that, I might as well just stay. I’d still be serving men who hate me, who see me as an object and a tool of their whims, like my Demon father. If I’m to serve, I’d rather do it on my feet than on my back.
If I’d inherited my mother’s magical talent, I could learn the arts and charms, like she did. I could talk to the trees from my painted wagon. But the humans despised her, too, and drove her into exile. And yet she serves them still, living hidden away, alone, transcribing prophecies until her fingers bleed from exertion. And for what? So the humans can know what is to come before it comes? Where’s the fun in that?
Also, learning magic would be like starting over entirely. And I hate magic. Give me a sword and something to cut any day.
“Maybe you and me, Gray, we should just run off together. Find ourselves some real work. You’re smart, and I’m tough, we’d make quite a team, right?”
The mouse dropped to all fours and sniffed along the edge of the wall for bits of discarded food. He had his priorities in order.
Maybe my real destiny was to mother the real Red Reaper. I mean, the prophecy was written down by a witch whose handwriting looked like someone had attached a quill pen to the foot of a panicky squirrel. So what if I was destined to mother the Red Reaper, and it turned out to be a red-haired, fire-souled son? I suppose a male Red Reaper would be better liked, more accepted by the humans who seem to favor men in all things, even though it was a woman who brought them to life. You know, maybe I’m not so sure I’m fond of these humans. They seem silly, violent, and self absorbed. And very, very weak.
Hell, maybe I should stop fighting so hard and just join a brothel. Yes, that would be serving on my back. But I’d be safe. I’d be displayed as the freak that I am. I wouldn’t have to hide it. I’ve heard some men have a taste for the bizarre. That’s me, all right, with my Demon skin, flaming red hair and thick limbs. Mistress of the Bizarre.
Would they despise themselves afterwards, for coming to me? What would it be like, to lay with a man? I’d never done so, not with a human (which of course is strictly forbidden) or a Reaper, who are all way too old for me anyway. Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure how. I suppose that’s the sort of thing a mother discusses with her daughter. But my mother was too busy pretending to be dead and talking to the birds and the bees to make time to chat with me about the birds and the bees.
I had a chilling yet curiously welcome thought. What if I am to die a virgin?
I suppose it should’ve been terrifying. But it was romantic to me. Many warriors choose celibacy as a way of securing and focusing their chi exactly where they want it. They don’t waste precious life force on mundane matters of the flesh.
They’re also incredibly lonely people. And there’s a difference between loneliness and being alone. The second didn’t scare me.
The first, though? It terrified me.
And it terrified me because of that kiss. That kind, gentle, practically chaste kiss from a brown-eyed boy who saw me for what I was, and didn’t run away.
“You know what?” I said to the mouse. “I’ve had it with this place. It’s time for a change of scenery. You can take over my room now, mouse; I won’t need it any more.
I stood, straight and proud. I looked up at the clouds visible through the skylight above me. “By the marriage gods of Hassazag, I swear I will find you, Aaron. I will return your kiss. And then you… if you wish… may return my heart.” Or you may keep it. And give me yours in return. Because if the Reapers didn’t want me, if the world of men needed me merely as a brood mare, they could all damn well go to hell.
“Be nice to Vikki; she could’ve poisoned your cheese months ago, and hasn’t,” I told Gray.
I leaped for the skylight.
I ran through the woods, past the safety zone, easily avoiding all the patrols and guards. It’s not like they were expecting anything, anyway: except for bandits and the occasional disgruntled rabble, there were no incursions or battles to be had. And they certainly weren’t expecting anyone to sneak away from the castle.
Finally I reached the Forever Forest proper. It didn’t get that name because it was small, or easily traversed. No, it was gigantic: in fact, on the maps it ended only at the sea, and even there no one was quite sure of the shore’s outline. Great swaths of territory were simply blank, because no one knew for certain who or what lived there.
Since the end of the war, some humans had gone back into it, cleared spots, and erected settlements. But there was no established trade route among them, and unless they came to the castle for the public festivals on the solstices and equinoxes, we didn’t know they existed. So Aaron could literally be anywhere.
But I knew he was in here somewhere, because he’d been hunting. You didn’t hunt on the open plains, where the deer could see you, or across the cultivated fields, unless you sought only rabbits or other small game. The forest was where the big things roamed, and Aaron’s hunting blind told me he was no rabbit-chaser.
I ran without conscious destination, letting fate and the terrain take me where it would, just as Keefe had suggested. It was exhilarating, and before long I’d lost all track of direction or distance. I flowed with the terrain, avoiding every obstacle like a breeze or water running downhill.
At last, I stopped and leaned against a tree. I’d pushed myself, so I was out of breath, and blood pounded in my head. I’d gone farther than I’d ever gone before, but I wasn’t worried about being lost. Hell’s donkeys, it might even be better for everyone if I was lost. I’d become a myth, the Red Reaper who ran into the woods one day and vanished into the mists of time. Later generations could get their kids to behave by telling them I’d come out of the woods and eat them if they didn’t.
But I could track my own scent back to the castle whenever I wanted. My hair made certain of that. That was irony for you.
Then my surroundings got my attention. The clearing was about thirty feet across, with a covering of leaves and a pair of rocks that —
By the flame-pissing gods of Mount Gehale. I’d found it.
Those two rocks were unmistakable. This was it — the clearing where I’d fallen, where Aaron had found me. My heart thudded so hard, I thought that even my supernaturally armored ribs would fail to keep it inside me. This was it.
Okay, Aella, don’t freak out. It was a long time ago. You can’t be sure.
But I was sure. Trees might change, plants alter with time, but unless someone came along with a crew of a hundred men, those two rocks would be the same. And they were. One taller, one shorter, both the size of dinner tables. Just as I remembered. Which meant —
He might be nearby.
“Oh, boy,” I said aloud, and felt myself grow light-headed. Now my difficulty in breathing had nothing to do with my exertion. He’d be… oh, around twenty now. Taller, but no doubt recognizable. Those eyes wouldn’t change.
Then I had the jolting realization that he might also be married, with children, human children that were soft all over, without the dangerous spikes Reaper babies sported along their spines. He wouldn’t need special gloves to hold his human children, the way he would with ours. And human children wouldn’t accidentally shatter the furniture with their rambunctiousness, or bite chunks out of each other in spite.
I wanted to slap myself. What was I thinking? I had bigger worries, much bigger worries, than the romantic fate of some peasant who’d once been nice to me.
Then why did it feel like the biggest thing in the world?
But before I could start having that argument in my head, a woman’s scream rang through the trees.
I dropped into a crouch, reflexes taking over. Discern direction, my training said: to the west. Determine distance. About a hundred yards, although the thick trees and undergrowth made that a loose estimate. Investigate, and evaluate danger.
The scream was human — it would be, out here, where neither Reapers nor Demons traveled. And really, Reapers didn’t scream. We roared, we bellowed, we grunted and snorted, but we didn’t scream. I had screamed — during my time with my Demon father, under his tender care — but as everyone was quick to point out, I was different. Perhaps that was what made me clench up inside, not with fear but with righteous anger. That scream was not of pain, but of terror. I knew that sound all too well.
I slid through the undergrowth, barely disturbing the plants through which I passed. I thought again about my hair, the scent trail it left behind me, but this time I wasn’t the one being followed and tracked. No, I was the one on the hunt.
The air still vibrated from the cry, and as I got closer to the source, I picked up odors on the wind. I was nowhere near as good as Andre, but I was no slouch. The smells were mostly human: sweat, well-worn clothes, even the faint trace of flowers. But there was another tang on the wind, something I’d never before encountered. No animal left a scent like that, or any human, or any Demon or Reaper. What the hell was that?
I emerged from the forest at the top of a wide, shallow gully. I came down the side of the hill, slithering along like a snake, and crouched behind some bushes. My small size made it unlikely anyone would spot me unless they happened to look right at me, and I got an unobstructed view of the gully before me.
Directly across, in the opposite hillside, was the opening to a cave. It wasn’t much wider than a palace door, but the edges were shored up with mortar and rocks, and a language I didn’t know proclaimed something along the top. Clearly it was man-made, but not recently, if the weathering on these stones was any indication. Older than the Thousand Year War, at least, so probably not a Demon shelter.
Stuck in the ground before it was an X-shaped wooden stand, the two cross pieces at least ten feet tall. This wood was also old, though not as old as the door, and corroded metal bolts held the two pieces together where they joined. More ominously, shackles hung from the tops of the X.
My fists clenched. My Demon father had used shackles on me, to hold me down for ‘training.’ No one would ever shackle me again.
As I watched, two men dragged a teenage girl out of the woods. She was formally dressed in a long gown, and wore both a necklace and wreath of flowers. She was not happy to be dragged, and the fear I’d heard in her earlier scream had now changed to fury.
“You pinheaded dung-licking crotch-rotted bastards!” she cried at the men, fighting like a gorecat. “Let me go!”
“By heaven, Amelia, shut up!” one of the men said. He was older, with gray hair and a beard, and reminded me of my own adopted father. He slapped her hard; I disliked him immediately. “Insulting us won’t help anything!”
While she was still dazed by the blow, they pushed her up against the crossed wood. The other man, who was younger and also dressed in something formal-looking, lifted one of her arms and snapped a shackle around it.
“No!” the girl screamed when she heard the metal click into place. She began to struggle anew. “No! Get this off me!”
It took both of them to get her other arm up and shackled, and they endured plenty of kicks for their efforts. They stepped out of range, both out of breath. She continued lashing out at them.
The younger man said, “Look, Amelia, I’m really sorry about this, but you’ve always known this might happen.”
She stopped and glared at him. Her face was bright red from the effort to escape. “You’re supposed to be my friend, Cal. We grew up together. I was the first girl you kissed.”
“I’m not happy about this, Amelia, believe me. But we have to appease Lurida Lumo.” He shrugged, as if they were arguing about the color of the sky.
“There is no Lurida Lumo, you idiot!” Amelia said. “There might be a bear, or a mountain lion, or even a left-over Demon, but there’s no god who lives in that cave and eats sacrifices!”
“Amelia, you’re embarrassing yourself,” the older man said. “I’ve been on a dozen of these sacrificial treks, and I’ve never seen a single girl act like this. Being frightened is normal, but you’re behaving as if this were the end of your life.”
“It will be, you moron! Something will eat me, but it won’t be a damned god! Come on, Litwin, you have to know better than this, you can read and write! You’ve studied!”
“You will be transubstantiated into spirit, to be one with Lurida Lumo,” the old man Litwin said with the same annoying solemnity as Eldrid teaching one of her homilies. “It is a great honor, and a most solemn calling.”
The younger man, Cal, took out a bag of something, poured it into a hole in the ground just inside the cave entrance, then lit it on fire with a flint. Purple smoke billowed out, and the wind sucked it almost at once into the cave itself. To him, it was probably an offering to their god. It was also a signal to whatever lived there that dinner was now served.
Cal closed his eyes and clasped his hands. When he spoke, it was clear he’d memorized the words, because he gave them no inflection or meaning. “Lurida Lumo, I humbly bring to you this year’s sacrifice, the virgin Amelia. She is beautiful, as you require, and pure, as is proper for your offering. May she prove pleasing to your eye and spirit, and cause you to grant us another year of prosperity.”
“Some stupid animal can’t grant you anything!” Amelia screamed. Anger and terror in her voice as she struggled. “Please, don’t do this to me, Cal. I’ll marry you, if that’s what it takes!”
That got Cal’s attention, but before he could respond, Litwin said, “Lurida Lumo might appear as a mere animal. Because he is a denizen of the spirit world, and only visits our realm when it pleases him, he may choose the form he prefers.”
“Do you ever use that brain in your head for thinking, or is it just there to keep your skull from deflating?” Amelia snapped. That made me smile. She was tough, and smart.
“Blasphemy is not the best way to spend your last moments,” Litwin said. “But because I appreciate your sacrifice, I will tell your parents you met your end with dignity.”
“I’ve got news for you, you jackass, I’m not meeting anything with dignity. I’m going down kicking and screaming!”
He sighed and motioned to his companion. Cal stopped before Amelia, out of range of her kicks, and looked at her sadly. “I’m really sorry, Amelia. If Kelinda hadn’t died, she’d be here, but they had to make a choice quickly, before the time for sacrifices passed.”
“They picked me because I was the first girl they saw,” she said, starting to cry. “How is that fair? How is that right?”
“I’m sorry, Amelia, it’s just… ” He shrugged. “The way of Lurida Lumo.”
The two men walked off the way they’d come, disappearing down a trail into the woods. Amelia screamed after them, her rage quickly turning to pleading and begging, but neither looked back. “I’m not a virgin!” Amelia cried out.
“Yes she is” Cal told Litwin, who looked concerned.
“How do you know that?” Litwin asked.
“She left me for Connall.”
Litwin nodded. “Ah. Of course.”
Whatever that was supposed to mean.
When they were gone, the girl began to struggle with the chains and manacles holding her in place. She rocked the whole wooden cross with her efforts, but it seemed to be in vain. She was no nearer being free, and the cross was in no danger of giving way.
I waited until the two men were out of range of my own hearing and scent. I wasn’t afraid of them, but I didn’t want to kill them unnecessarily. Humans, even stupid ones, were considered precious to Reapers, although I could never be sure if it was something innate in our nature, or just force of habit. None of the other Reapers, even Eldrid, seemed to know, either. And like the old man and his belief in his cave god, none ever want to think it through.
I slipped down the hill, across the little stream that ran down the center of the gully and came up behind the girl. I said quietly, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to help.”
“If you want to help, get me off this stupid thing!” she said, twisting around to look at me. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, hell, you’re just another girl.”
I drew my sword and, with two sharp blows, severed the chains holding her. She fell forward to her knees, then slowly looked up at me.
“I’m not ‘just’ anything,” I said, and did a little flourish with the sword before I put it back in its scabbard. “And the words I think you’re looking for are, ‘thank you.’”
“You cut those chains with that?” she said in disbelief.
I shrugged nonchalantly. I didn’t get to impress people very often. “Yes,” I said casually, as if I did this sort of thing every day.
She looked at the chain fragments hanging from the manacles on her wrists. “But… those were solid iron. What is that sword made out of?”
I didn’t really want to get into Reaper metallurgy, mainly because I always fell asleep when Eldrid started talking about it. So I said, “Double solid iron.”
She nodded as if that explained it. Whew.
I offered her my hand. She weighed practically nothing as I pulled her to her feet. “Wow,” she said. “You’re strong.”
“I work outside a lot,” I said. If she didn’t immediately recognize me as a Reaper, it could mean she didn’t know about us. The Thousand Year War had been over for twenty years, and there was a whole generation of young humans to whom it was only a story. Maybe to them, Reapers were no more real than the boogeyman or this ridiculous Lurida Lumo.
“Thank you,” she said, and smiled. “My name’s Amelia.”
“Yeah, our brilliant village priest, Litwin. He hasn’t had an original thought since he learned to wipe his own butt. He really believes there’s a god that lives in this cave, who will smite our village if they don’t leave him a sacrifice every five years.” She shook her head. “Right now there’s a damn celebration going on back in Cartwangle. I wonder if my parents are dancing and drinking, too?”
“Can you go back?” I asked. “Or do I need to take you somewhere else where you’ll be safe?”
“Like anything could stop me from going back,” she said. “I can’t wait to walk into the village and bust up their stupid party. Wait until they hear that the only thing that lives in that cave is — ”
In mid-sentence her eyes opened wide, and she stared over my shoulder at the cave entrance. Even before I reacted to that, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I felt tingles along my armor-plated spine. I knew danger was behind me.
I drew my sword again as I turned, feet spread in a fighting stance, but what I saw froze me in mid-motion. Not from fear, but surprise.
“ — a spider the size of a hay cart,” Amelia finished, accurately describing what emerged from the dark entrance into the afternoon sun.
Read the complete novel
Sword Sisters: A Red Reaper Novel
Copyright © 2013 by Reel Heroine, LLC
Cover Art by DSBEniX Digital Entertainment
Cover Design by Nine Worlds Media
First Edition: December 2013
Published by Rogue Blades Entertainment
Available at Amazon.com
Tara Cardinal is a highly acclaimed actress with an extensive resume. She is well known for her portrayals of complicated strong, and vulnerable leading women as well as the more challenging character roles.
Tara wrote, produced, and starred in the feature film Legend of the Red Reaper. She is a professional wrestler and does live shows, has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, and is a dedicated humanitarian and staunch advocate for children’s rights.
She writes poetry as well as writes non-fiction for IndependentCritic.com and NerdRemix.com.
Tara co-founded the non-profit peer counseling organization C.L.U.B. (Children Living Under Blindness) at age 12 and has toured middle schools in both America and Canada educating children on their rights and resources since the age of 15.
She lives in Los Angeles, California.
Alex Bledsoe is the author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny and Wake of the Bloody Angel), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing and the forthcoming Long Black Curl).
Visit his website at alexbledsoe.com.