The knock at my door came in the early hours of the day—urgent and leaving me no choice but to obey its calling. I shuffled to the entrance of my hut, knocking the vial of the traveler’s potion onto the floor. Glass shattered, and the nasty smell of sulfur penetrated the air. I figured I had just a few moments to clean it up before this nasty liquid got absorbed by the wooden planks—the stench could cling there for months. A second knock, louder this time, making the old hinges of my door creak and rattle, removed any thoughts of cleaning from my mind, and I twisted the handle and stepped aside.
They came in all at once, sweating and cursing, the dirt of their boots mingling with the slime of the spilled potion. Four of the baron’s men were struggling to keep a beast at bay. It stood on its hind legs, its head almost touching the ceiling. Silver shackles were wrapped around its ankles and wrists, and a copper muzzle covered its ugly snout. Strips of white cloth hung from its furry body like shredded rags, and its paws had talons as long as the silver spoons they used at Bogghar’s tavern. It was making a low growling sound, full of promises of revenge should it find itself free once more.
“Quick, healer!” a man with a skewed cap and yellow teeth shouted at me, ducking to avoid the sharp talons of the creature. “Help us contain the beast!”
I hastened to the back of my hut and rummaged through the contents of my cupboard. It was dark, but my knowing hands traced the shape of a bottle with a long neck and a round bottom. I rushed back to the guards and looked at the beast’s mouth. Long ivory fangs glistened between the corroded rods of the muzzle as the beast tried to chew it off. Attempting to force the beast to gulp down the contents of the vial could cost me my arm—or even worse, I could be stricken with the same curse and share the monster’s fate. The deafening clinking of the chains and the guards’ moans and curses whirled in my head—I wasn’t used to this. I spun around and around, trying to find another way to tame the beast. It was then that I saw it, resting on my table, a long thin knife I had used the night before to destem the night poppies. I grabbed it and dipped it into the contents of the vial.
“Here,” I shouted to the guards, brandishing the wet knife. “Hold it still for me.”
The men pushed and pulled, and I approached with caution. As soon as I had a clear shot of the beast’s thigh, I thrust my knife into its flesh and sprang back. The beast let out a blood-freezing howl and twisted with such ferocity that two of the men were knocked against the wall. It was a life-fearing moment, and I was certain none of us would live long enough to see the light of day. Yet I was mistaken—the powerful concoction I had just inserted in its body was taking effect, and soon the beast collapsed on the floor, dragging its captors with it.
I wiped the sweat off my forehead with the back of my trembling hand. “What’s the meaning of this?”
The men collapsed, exhausted, on the floor, trying hard to catch their breaths. The oldest of them, who I knew to be the baron’s guardian of the treasury, addressed me with whatever strength was left in him.
“We are grateful to you, healer, for taking this burden off our shoulders. The baron sends his regards, along with an urgent plea to deal with this beast. We found it in the castle’s grounds soon after the half-moon had risen, prowling its way from door to door, scratching and clawing.” The man looked at the drugged monster and shivered.
“What is it?” I asked, leaning over to inspect it.
“We were hoping you’d know.” The man rubbed his eyes and scratched his beard.
I took a step closer for a better inspection. Though I knew that my concoction should be strong enough to keep the beast sleeping deep into the late hours of the night, I’d seen nothing like this before, and I was unsure of the longevity of the medicine’s effect on it. The first thing that hit me was the stench. The beast smelled as if it had been dead for a good three days. My stomach churned, and I swallowed yesterday’s dinner that had found its way up my throat.
“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” I said, covering my nose. “Your men can move it outside. I reckon you have some good hours before it comes to its senses. Plenty of time to finish it.”
Whatever color had been left in the man’s face had now drained, leaving his skin ashen, like a man at death’s door. “We can’t do that. The baron said to keep it here until … until you’ve fixed it.”
“Fixed it? What is there to fix in a monster? I can examine its insides later if you wish. Perhaps I’ll find something useful for my mixtures—”
“The baron was adamant that we don’t kill it.” He stole a glance at the creature. “You see … he … he thinks it is the baroness.” As soon as the words had left his mouth, he bit his lip and peered at me.
I fought the urge to burst out laughing. Instead, I scanned the men’s faces for any sign that would betray mockery. They stood there, their chests heaving, but none of them so much as smirked. I bent and studied the shredded pieces of cloth that hung around the beast’s body. The unmistakable softness of royal cotton caressed my calloused hands. It could very well have been the baroness’s nightgown.
Once my observation was complete, I stepped away. “Was there any blood?”
The men looked at each other, unsure and bleary-eyed. Now that the danger was over, the exhaustion from the fight was weighing them down, and their responses had become slower. They shook their heads in unison. “We saw no blood, nor heard any screams.”
“Curious,” I muttered under my breath.
Could this beast really be the baroness? In my forty years as a healer, I had never seen a case like this. People came to me with an array of ailments, moaning and spilling their bowels on my precious wooden floor, and I would mix a potion, or whip up a paste to apply to their festering wounds, and send them on their way with thoughts of prayer and good wishes. The ones who lived would return to my doorstep with offerings of gratitude and words of blessing. Then there were those who I’d never hear of again. Those were the ones who lingered on my mind, for they reminded me of my human nature—for them, I was no god.
The stench of the beast brought me back to my senses and the importance of the situation. I peered at the men and noticed for the first time that they were armed to the teeth. A refusal to abide by the baron’s command—especially since he thought this beast was his wife—could cost me my head.
I nodded. “Take it to the cellar.”
I guided the guards to the back of my hut, where a trapdoor lay in the middle of my garden. I pulled the handle and let the door fall on the other side.
“The ladder is too steep for us to go down with this on our backs,” one man said.
“Then throw it.”
The man came closer to inspect the situation. He seemed torn between protecting the body of the beast and taking the matter off his shoulders as fast as he could. He eyed the distance to the cellar floor and waved a commanding hand. The men unloaded the beast and rolled it to the side. With a final push, they shoved it down the hole and rubbed their hands on their leggings.
There was a sickening thumping sound as the beast landed on the floor.
“You will be generously compensated,” the man said to me.
I stretched out an open hand, but the man shook his head and turned to leave. “The baron wishes to see proof of the healing. Then you shall have your reward. We will be back in a few hours for the awakening.” And with that, he strode off, his men on his heels.
As soon as I saw the back of their heads, I rushed to my hut and dipped a cloth in the fresh water inside my clay pot. I took to scrubbing the traveler’s potion off my floor, cursing my ill luck and misfortune. What did I know of beasts and curses? I was a healer of men and a mixer of potions, not a witch, and now this bloody stench of spilled sulfur and monster aroma would surely cling to my room for ages.
What was I to do? If I didn’t know how to deal with the beast, maybe I could find someone who did. Perhaps old Marscar, who lived up on the mountain, could be of use. It had been more than a decade since I had last laid eyes on him—his beard on fire and crackling after one of our deranged experiments had blasted into our faces during our first years as healers. He had shrugged, put the fire out with a few pats from his thick-skinned hands, and fetched more ingredients to try again.
Yes, Marscar would know what to do with the stinky beast that lay in my cellar. If only I had more time on my hands to find him.
And then I remembered about the book, and the cloth fell through my hands as I abandoned any more attempts to clear the damage the crushed vial and the baron’s men had done. The book Marscar had given me before we had parted. I had leafed through it once, laughing at the curious illustrations of creatures I had never laid eyes on and ailments that befell the animals of the forest. I had told Marscar, as I had clapped the book shut in my hands, that I was better made to tend to men, and that the kingdom of beasts was one I was not willing to serve—only now I had no choice.
A cold shiver shook my soul as I remembered where I had left Marscar’s book. Beneath the old counter. On the floor. The cellar floor. Where the monster was.
I opened the hatch door just enough to peer inside and prepared myself to run to the woods at the slightest motion I registered. Yet the beast did not move a muscle and was sprawled on the cellar floor, looking every bit as ominous in its sleep as it had when it had fought to set itself free. I gulped and tiptoed down the wooden stairs, making them creak and spread dust with every step I took.
I circled the beast, keeping my back tightly pressed against the wall, and stopped only when I felt the jab of a familiar wood against my legs. I fell to my knees and gave out a sigh of relief when my hands met with the rough skin of Marscar’s book of strange creatures. A thick layer of dust covered the book, and when I wiped it, the particles found their way into my mouth, making me plunge forward and cough uncontrollably.
A slow, painful grunt came from the center of the room, and my cough was gone at once, giving its place to breathless horror. I watched as the beast regained consciousness and writhed on the floor, thrusting out its body and smashing my laboratory in its wake. I crouched under the bench, praying with all my might that the beast would get up and leap through the overhead door and disappear into the night. Yet it soon collapsed back onto the floor, its breath coming in short, whistling gasps.
“What did you give me, healer?”
The angry growl of a voice brought me to my senses, and I fumbled in the dark for anything I could use to defend myself. My palm closed around a shard of glass. “Stay still, or it will reach your heart,” I lied.
“I have no heart,” the beast said. Its furry head searched the room until its eyes met with mine. Its gaze traveled down to the book I still clutched in my lap, and then fixed on the sharp piece of glass that I was holding. Its head dropped. “Come, then. Grant me a swift and merciful death.”
The shard had cut deep into my skin, and the first droplets of blood were making their way down my fingers. I rose to my feet and took a tentative step forward, keeping a safe distance between us. “You wish for me to kill you?”
“Better you than them. You know where to strike. So make it quick, and save your words. My pain is getting stronger.”
For the first time since I had found myself in this predicament, I felt my heart relax. The creature posed no threat to me, and it was at my mercy. With the echoing sound of its cough, blood spattered everywhere. Its lungs must have been damaged by the fall. The beast was right; the end was near.
“What of the baroness—?”
“You’ll find her bones in my belly.”
My stomach churned, and I fought back the urge to empty my own belly onto the floor. The beast was as good as dead, yet my head was soon to roll if the baron’s men saw the beast dead in my cellar and no woman in its place.
“Do it now,” the beast begged.
I took an uncertain step toward it. “How do I know you won’t try to take me with you?”
The beast shot me a glance of distaste before turning its back to me and placing its head on the floor. “I’ll stay still now, healer.”
I quickly realized this was my only chance, so I thrust the shard deep into the beast’s neck, feeling it slice its way through the muscles and hitting the sweet spot of death just above the petalbone that held the beast’s head. The jerking ceased at once, and I pulled my hand free. The beast’s blood, mixed with my own, dripped down to my elbow.
I circled the beast and stared at its lifeless body. I reckoned I had less than an hour to gut it and uncover whatever remained of the baroness, or else the men would not believe me.
I turned the beast onto its back and plunged my sharpest saw into its belly. The sickening smell of entrails filled my mouth, but I pushed on until I could pry the belly open with my hands. My fingers fumbled inside the beast’s belly and through its slimy innards until I found what I was looking for.
It was a ring, the unmistakable red royal garnet glistening on its head after I wiped it against my leggings. Tears of joy filled my eyes, and I collapsed against the carcass, lifting my eyes to the sky, which had just about turned the color of bronze.
The men came again when the sun was in its full glory. They held the royal ring in their hands, shook their heads, and kept their noses covered and their mouths shut lest the unbearable stench of the dead beast invade their lungs. Finally the commander gave me an ominous look, as if to say that this was not what had been expected of me and that he would be back with fresh orders. They were quick to abandon my messy cellar and leave me alone to deal with what remained. I did not know how I would move the monster out of there, but then again, that was a matter for a clearer mind. Now I wished only to sleep.
I was making to leave when Marscar’s book caught my eye. As much as my body ached to return to the comfort of my bed, I couldn’t bring myself to leave it there, opened as it was. A book left open was an invitation for the reader to return, and I wished not to lay eyes on it for perhaps the rest of my life.
As I made to close it, my heart jumped in my chest. For there, inside the pages of the strange book, was the unmistakable drawing of the monster whose life I’d ended but a few hours before. I tried to pry my eyes away, but it was as futile as a bee trying to resist the sweet smell of nectar. I gave in, sat on the floor, rested the open book against my thighs, and read.
The monster’s name was Fearagern—once a man, now half beast, with a chest that held no heart and an appetite voracious enough to wipe a whole village off the map. Cursed to live like this—shunned by humanity and hunted by those who feared it—Fearagern roamed the forests, forever looking for revenge against the one who had sealed his fate. Contrary to popular belief, his bite was harmless, his teeth bearing no poison that could shift a human to a monster. Fearagern wished for one thing only: revenge. And he made sure that, if he knew his life’s thread was nearing its end, he made his killer carry the burden of his unfinished task. Mixing his blood with the blood of a human killer, turning him into Fearagern in the place of Fearagern, forcing him to seek revenge until he either found it or he died leaving a new beast in his place.
I didn’t have to look. I knew. The blood of the beast had crusted all over my arm, mixed with my own, turning me into the same beast that I had killed—the beast that had tricked me into taking its life, and with it, my own.