It was late morning when Leti fled into the scragwood with Daka’s tome under her arm. The tome was a burden, not of heft but of grief; she wished for nothing more than to share this cypress shade with Daka in quiet confidence, poring over the book’s darkest tales, leaning so close their grimy shoulders brushed together and all she could smell was the sweetness of Daka’s breath. But it was too late for that, had always been too late, and she’d been a fool for thinking otherwise. So instead, she’d run—from the bite of her mother’s belt, from the weight of her father’s silence. From the gloom of Daka’s attic boarding room.
The sunlight here shone in slants, never touching the ground, anemic through the scragwood’s snarled canopy. Brambles bit into her bare arms, hardly noticed amidst the fresh welts from home. Her feet sank deeper, deeper into the mire until mud soaked her trousers to the waistline and sweat dripped from her brow and—at last—she gripped the ribs of the rowboat that jutted from the algae.
She caught her breath for just a moment, but Daka’s rigid face haunted the sudden silence, and she hastened on. She tore the creeper vines from the rowboat, ignored the blood on her palms. A paddle lay at the bottom, buried in leaves where she’d left it. The familiar heft of the wood was a small comfort. She pushed off into the silt and scum.
Her paddle slurked through the bog. Her eyes burned with unshed tears—not from her mother’s belt, for Leti was no stranger to trouble—but from that other thing. The thing that had brought her here, the thing up the attic stairs that she could not unsee. Daka’s perfect face, cold and chiseled as marble. The cloth over her neck. The words Leti’s father had spoken, with anguish in his eyes.
A tragic accident. We will remember her contribution, her valor, long after this terror has passed.
Leti’s father’s hand on her cheek was—had always been—a comfort. But comfort would not bring Daka back, and Leti’s pleading questions fell on deaf ears. She was an inconvenience, a footnote alongside her elder sister; she’d never been worth the time for answers.
The boat ran aground on the soggy island at the heart of the scragwood bog, blanketed by the sagging arms of the cypress trees and their leprous moss-flesh. The soil seethed with grubs; the air thrummed with sweat bees.
She disembarked too fast, dropped Daka’s book into the mud, uttered a curse that would’ve warranted fresh welts had her mother been in earshot. Daka had gifted the book to her in secret, after discovering their shared interest for stories with bright pictures and dark endings. The true gift, though, was the moment when their fingers had touched as Leti accepted the book; the smile that had lit Daka’s eyes.
A coldness welled inside of her. It was not fear, she knew, nor even sadness. It was something murkier. Something stranger.
She shivered, reached for the book in the mud.
One of the welts on her forearm itched. As she watched, it began to split open. Underneath, something wriggled.
She clasped her hand to her arm. Counted ten sharp breaths. When she would pull her hand away, she told herself, she’d see that it was just a bruise. Nothing more.
Another ten breaths. The rowboat shifted in the mud. A sweat bee landed on the back of her hand.
Ten more breaths. The bee hunched its back, buried its stinger between her knuckles. She cursed, shook the bee loose—and lost her grip on her forearm.
Underneath was just a bruise. From some perceived slight against her mother—a broken vase or a pilfered salve or some other mischief Leti had already forgotten. Nothing more. She forced a laugh.
Then she felt something in her hand, and the laughter caught in her throat.
The wriggling thing had come off in her palm. Still no larger than the welt that had birthed it, it was cold and greasy. It reeked of sulfur.
She flung it loose. It plopped into the muck. It lolled this way, then that, swelling a bit in size as mud gathered about it. Then, with a lurch, it split along a seam to reveal a limpid eyeball.
The eyeball turned to her. Watched her.
She stood rooted, though not terrified as she knew she should be (a little fear would do you good, her mother always said). It was just an eyeball, after all—though how it had birthed from her arm she could not explain. She crouched in the mud, leaned forward until her face was hardly a breath away from the thing, and said: “What are you?”
A hole opened beneath the eyeball. A mouth of sorts, that gurgled and spat and sighed before producing words of a pitch that resembled Leti’s own.
“What are you?” it said.
Leti regarded it suspiciously. “I asked you first.”
“I asked you first,” it echoed.
She caught her jaw hanging open, not unlike the mouth-hole embedded in the mud at her feet. “Oh.”
“Oh,” it said, with a hint of sadness.
The poor thing. It had so few words to use. None, it seemed, save for those Leti had spoken.
It needed more. But Leti was no teacher and had a poor record with the teachers she knew. She had no patience for lessons in etiquette or household economics; preferred to sneak out the schoolhouse window with a stack of the dean’s adventure serials under her arm.
She glanced at Daka’s book, all but forgotten in the mud. The monster-thing followed her gaze. Its eyeball glinted.
Leti sat down in the mud alongside the monster-thing. Her fingers grazed the book’s cover; she remembered the attic. Daka’s cold and callused body. And across town, the terrifying illness that had taken root. Her body trembled once, deeply.
The monster-thing watched with great interest. Leti turned the page and started to read.
The monster-thing did what few had ever done when Leti spoke.
By the time Leti reached the end of the book, the sunlight slanted sharply the opposite direction. The air had cooled. The sweat bees’ thrumming had faded into the conspiratorial murmur of tree frogs.
It was very late.
The monster’s eye did not seem fazed. It watched Leti eagerly, even as she fled the scragwood—twice as fast as she’d entered it, for if she missed the supper bell her mother would make certain she did not miss it again. As she pushed the rowboat off from the island, she glanced over her shoulder—saw sadness in the monster’s eye as it watched her go. Sadness, and something else.
Something like hunger.
She returned the next day, to read to it. Then the next. And the day after that. She had few books of her own—her family was not wealthy, despite her parents being the only apothecaries in town—and too soon she’d exhausted her supply. So she pilfered her sister’s serial romances, along with an armful of documents from the pharmacy downstairs. There were more books in the attic, but Leti was not ready to approach those stairs.
A new boarder had already arrived. She was boyish and fetching, a year or two older than Leti. Leti’s father said the girl would be helping out in the shop but would not remain past midsummer. There was regret in his voice, and something more—a warning. The word remain lingered in Leti’s ears. Though the boarder tried to catch her eye more than once, Leti made a point of not learning her name.
Instead she skulked to the scragwood island to recite pastoral romances and pharmaceutical encounters to an audience that would never fall victim to workplace mishap.
Leti grew accustomed to the smell of sulfur and the sting of sweat bees under the monster’s unwavering attention. Its ignorance brought her comfort. Without knowledge of the world, it could not know how to harm another.
But she knew that would not last. It was deceitful to keep it in the dark, this creature that hungered for knowledge and nothing else.
So she continued to feed it words.
She read tales of dim-witted princes and demure maidens. Of contrived quests and beleaguered demons.
She read accounts of the malaise that had gripped the Cruces’ eldest son on a moonless night, causing him to shred the skin from his face with his fingernails and burn half his family’s estate to the ground before six of the constable’s strongest men could restrain him. She read of the countless tonics the Cruces had employed on their son’s behalf, to no avail. Of the elixir that had at last delivered him to health, by the grace of the local apothecary.
The monster listened, enrapt.
And then, too soon, Leti had nothing more to read. She dropped the last of her sister’s novels into the rowboat and folded her arms. The monster blinked, watched.
“Poor thing,” she said. “Still hungry.”
So she brought it other things, whatever small objects she could pilfer, and dropped them into its mouth one by one.
Her sister’s hairbrush, because Pen was already beautiful enough; she drained the attention from every room, had already caught Viktor Vang’s eye. Pen needed no help from grooming.
A receipt from her parents’ pharmacy for services rendered—to our dear friends, the Cruces—that made Leti dizzy at the price. A thin bone from her father’s armoire that was smooth and cold and somehow reminded her of Daka. A broken pill press. An old watercolor portrait of her mother, smiling in a casual way that Leti had never seen. A carving knife, stashed in a bucket under her father’s workbench, streaked with blood.
Her mother’s belt.
The monster’s appetite did not wane. What would become of it, with a diet of such things? Was she wrong to feed it so?
Leti did not know. More than once, as she dropped stolen goods into its gaping maw, she felt her own stomach growl—as if she were feeding herself rather than the monster. A silly thought, she told herself, and fed it some more.
The monster ate everything. When it needed teeth to chew, it grew them from the ceramic shards of a pilfered urn. When it could not see her through the heavy morning mist, it spawned a second eye. And when she dozed off in the crook of the rowboat’s bow, tired from the day’s feeding, the monster lurched from the muck, now a tentacled mass of roots and mud and detritus, and peered quizzically into her boat.
She scrambled backward, nearly capsized the boat. The raunch of the monster’s breath—rotting eggs, decaying flesh—turned her stomach. “What—?”
Leti followed the monster’s sad, lopsided gaze to the boat’s stern, where Daka’s book lay propped. Muddy and thrice-read as it was, Leti could not bring herself to part with it.
She let out an exasperated sigh. “I don’t have any more stories.”
Then she remembered her trip through dregtown the day prior, the rumors she’d overheard there. She swung her legs over the gunwale and planted her feet in the muck and told a story the monster hadn’t yet heard. A true story, though Leti wished it weren’t.
It was the story of a girl with too much hair on her brow and too little meat on her thighs, sent to gather gnarlroot from the bluffs overlooking sludgecove where the caracaras picked at the bones of beached seals under a deadlock of fog.
Before the girl had reached the edge of the bluffs, where the gnarlroot grew in patchy clumps like her father’s hair, she could already hear the screaming.
The sound was shrill, haunted; muted only by the evening fog. It could’ve been an animal—a poisoned gull, or a dog caught in the rusted wire of a crab trap—if not for the words that scratched through the din.
Get it out.
This was hardly the tenor of a strapping young soldier just returned from a vanity tour on the southern coast—though that was precisely what it proved to be. The girl fled with a scant quarter-basket of gnarlroot—sure to face rebuke from her mother upon returning home—and didn’t slow her pace until she reached the rutted cobbles of dregtown. It was there she overheard the crones, who were delivering yokes of water to the smithy on their humped shoulders.
“Been there since dawn, he has.”
“Healthy young man.”
“Grinding at his skin with fistfuls of sand.”
“All the Krells are.”
“What will they do?”
“What can they do? No cure for the terror.”
A pregnant silence, then the second crone whispered: “I heard otherwise.”
The monster leaned on its haunches—so humanlike, Leti thought, though that was no surprise, for it had subsisted off of all these human things—and said, “I heard otherwise.”
She watched the monster darkly and nodded. “Me too.”
The next morning, Leti heard news of the young Krell’s miraculous recovery.
And the new boarder was gone.
The next time Leti entered the scragwood, it was into an autumn mist that chilled her to the bone. A third of a year had passed since her last visit. Nothing was the same.
She clawed through the moss-draped branches with manicured nails, now. She had to hike her skirts above her knees to keep from snagging them on brambles. Her hair hung coiffed and pinned in an absurd edifice above her shoulders. Even her eyebrows had been plucked, the skin still stinging. Daka would’ve laughed had she seen her like this, all primped and pruned.
It had taken Leti months to engineer an escape from home, forced as she was now to navigate not only the watchful eye of her mother but also the maid, the nanny, the chef. The scragwood was a dream revisited. With everything that had happened at home, it felt like years since she’d last trodden through this mud. She did not know what to expect. Was there still a monster out here? Or had her youthful mind, fueled by the stories in Daka’s book, created the whole thing?
She had to find out.
She slipped off her shoes, hung them from a branch. Then she waded into the mire where the rowboat drifted, unmoored.
It wasn’t where she’d left it.
The leaves were scattered, the paddle gone. No, there the paddle was—propped against the mangroves, its handle scarred by a blade. Tucked inside the rowboat was an empty bottle, monogrammed VV.
It smelled of grain alcohol, and of Pen’s perfume.
Through the trees came the slow clop of a horse. The flex of leather. A heavy breath.
Leti crouched in the thicket. Mud seeped up her skirt hem. She peered through mottled leaves and moss.
There. Fifty yards distant, past the northern edge of the marsh, a rider in a heavy brown cloak made his way down the ill-traveled scragwood road. Beneath his cowl, his waxed scalp glistened. His brow and his jaw were hard-set. He had the look of a man with a score to settle.
With the town in the grips of the terror, the only travelers that frequented the road were brigands and clergymen. Leti wanted nothing to do with either. So she huddled in the thicket and held her breath until the horse’s backside dissolved into the mist. Then she boarded the boat and pushed off for the island.
The air hung still and thick. Leti held her breath, terrified—not of what she’d find but of what she wouldn’t. She gripped the paddle tighter, raked at the water, ignored the fresh trails of mud across her skirts.
Then she was there, run aground. Scrambling, stalking.
The island was deserted. No bulging eye, no toothy maw, no sulfur stench. In the autumn chill, even the sweat bees had fled. Strewn across the mound of mud and roots: an array of familiar objects. The shards of a broken urn. A carving knife. A tattered book. A belt.
“Fool.” She caricatured her mother’s voice. “Fool of a child.”
She kicked an old vial into the water, forced a shrug. What had she expected to find?
Absently, she fished a book—purloined from the heap of Pen’s recent engagement gifts—out of the folds of her skirt. She sat on the boat’s rotting thwart, flipped the book open, began to read aloud. Her voice came feeble in the stifling mist, like the droning of a lost sweat bee. She faltered, fell silent. Tears stung her eyes.
The boat lurched. Not from side to side, as if by a rogue current, but upward.
Leti glanced up from her book into a pair of massive eyeballs at the boat’s rim. She peeked over the side, to the fingertips of the monstrous hand that now cupped the rowboat in its palm. And beneath that, to the two massive root spindles—legs, or some approximation thereof—that rose from the island itself, joined at a trunk of mud and rock some two arm’s lengths wide.
The monster’s knuckles were like scabbed knots of wood, its eyes like giant glistening leeches. All manner of detritus—hairbrushes and pill presses and human bones—jutted from its shoulders, its spine, the crown of its head. It was a repository of discarded things.
It was beautiful.
“Oh.” Leti was giddy with relief. “There you are.”
The monster cranked its jaw wide. The reek of sulfur enveloped her.
“There you are,” it said in her voice.
Tension bled from her. Only then did she realize how much she’d missed it, her shabby confidant. She would’ve embraced it then and there, if only her arms were long enough.
Then it spoke again, in an unfamiliar voice two octaves deeper and as rough as glass on gravel. “Come closer, my dear. I’ll cut the bones from your pretty little throat.”
Those words, spoken in that voice, filled Leti with dread. She panicked, retreated to the bow of the boat.
The monster’s toothy maw loomed closer. “Valor bones, they call ‘em,” it continued. “Rumor has it, apothecary’s buying ‘em for hard coin.”
Leti swung one leg over the opposite gunwale, gauged the distance to the bog below. She readied herself for impact, glanced over her shoulder—hesitated.
Creases worried the monster’s brow. Its eyes glistened not with malice but with sorrow.
Leti shook her head. “I don’t understand...”
The monster brought the boat level to its eye and whispered in a smooth, refined tenor: “I would trade all the liquor in my family’s cellar for a moment alone with you.”
This voice Leti knew. It was the voice of Viktor Vang, Pen’s fiancé.
Where had the monster overhead all of this?
Leti glanced at the empty bottle. Viktor’s monogram, Pen’s scent.
And across the marsh: the scragwood road, plagued with brigands.
The monster had been busy since her last visit. Listening to people come and go, love and languish. Murder.
She scrutinized the monster’s body. Scattered amongst the items she’d fed it, other objects studded its muddy flesh. A matted feather quill, a pair of undergarments, a broken dagger.
Leti wondered what had become of their owners.
It wasn’t those other people she worried for, though. The monster’s eyes shone darker than she remembered, its expression troubled. It had not enjoyed consuming those things.
She knew the feeling. She had never enjoyed that which her mother had fed her, that diet of cruelty and greed.
Yet even now, beneath that new darkness came a familiar glint. The monster watched her expectantly.
“Still hungry,” Leti said.
She bent to retrieve Daka’s book, but it was gone. In her scramble to retreat, it must’ve pitched overboard. A glance over the side proved it: only a corner of the book’s binding jutted from the bog. Ruined.
The monster leaned its massive head closer, breathed foul gas about her.
“Alright.” She straddled the gunwale, reveled briefly in the vertigo from her elevation, and told a story the monster hadn’t heard. A story Leti wished she’d ripped from one of Pen’s serials rather than her own recent memory.
It was the story of a girl whose family luxuriated in sudden wealth thanks to the elixir they’d produced—first for the Cruces, then the Krells, then the Morrans. As the ailment it treated had ravaged the rich and spared the poor. The locals called the ailment only the terror—though the girl had overheard her parents whispering that it was in fact a simple mold from an upmarket cosmetic that gnawed at the brain and the elixir an antifungal derived with the greatest of care from the rarest of ingredients.
Meanwhile, one boarder after the next entered through the side door and exited through no door at all. A tragic accident, the girl’s father professed. Pneumonia. A sudden call home.
The girl had her doubts.
Her father had always been kind. He brought her candies when her mother brought the belt. But he was no more likely to answer her questions than anyone else.
The girl wanted to do something, tell someone. But what could she do? Who could she tell? Without proof, who would believe her—and what if they already knew?
The girl had finally learned fear. Her mother would’ve been proud, if she’d ever noticed.
Instead, the mother found time only for their eldest, who—praise the gods—would be wed to the son of a baron by winter solstice. Not just any baron, but the makers of the finest cosmetics in the valley. Their mother lavished such praise on the young man—his cunning words, his chiseled jaw, his scarlet finery—that the girl began to wonder beneath whose sheets this young man had taken up residence.
Gossip filled the streets of dregtown. What fortune the apothecary family has found! And none more deserving than their eldest, sweet as the sap from a ripe slakebush. And the inevitable coda: Too bad about the other one.
What an easy life it must be as the eldest, so entrenched in propriety with her pleasant demeanor and even more pleasant social proclivities. What an easy life, when the things you want and the things you are given meet eye to eye in the daylight.
Leti wished her sister dead in the ground instead of poor sweet Daka.
The monster watched her darkly, ever listening, and nodded.
Moonlight gashed the scragwood. The air was damp and cold. Leti plunged into the mist, ignored the thorns that snagged her skirts and her skin. Blood ribboned up her arms. Her white lace shoes sank so deep the straps tore loose and the shoes lay mired and empty behind her.
She kept running. To the rowboat—propped against a different thicket than she’d left it—where she scrambled aboard and planted her bare feet against the mangrove roots and pushed off into the bog.
She stabbed at the water until her shoulders ached, hardly noticed the splinters from the paddle’s freshly shattered handle. She grunted and sweated and at last ran aground on the island, where she disembarked and dropped to her knees and only then allowed herself to weep.
“I didn’t mean what I said.” Her words came broken, strangled by sobs. “I didn’t want—”
She couldn’t finish the thought aloud.
The monster loomed above her—its shoulders hunched, its eyes downturned. It eclipsed what little moonlight survived the canopy, painted Leti in shadow. It held out a hand, palm down as if to pat her head, then reconsidered and let it slump into the mud.
Leti forced a slow breath, then another. When she finally spoke, it came out a ragged whisper. The monster crouched, knee to the ground and chin to its chest.
She told the story of a jealous girl, and her elder sister who had in fact been perfect after all. For while the younger spent her days skulking and stealing, the elder left only joy in her wake. On Monday, she would nurse a kitten with a broken paw. On Tuesday, she would pick flowers for the widow that haunted the lighthouse catwalk. On Wednesday, she would brew broth for Old Man Lingus, who suffered from the lung rot and blamed it on everyone that crossed his path—except for her.
Her smile was always broad and rouged. She never once turned her back on her little sister, however spiteful the sister became. What an easy life, the younger had thought. But that was just part of Pen’s magic—making life seem easy.
Even when it wasn’t.
“Viktor found her body by the roadside.” Leti gritted her teeth. “Bloody brigands.”
The monster snorted. Leti hardly smelled the brimstone, though, because a wretched thought had entered her head. A memory, from the last time she’d come to the island.
A darkness in the monster’s eyes.
She raised her gaze slowly. “You didn’t—”
The monster lifted its fists—mud spilling from its knuckles—and slammed them into the soggy earth. Then it spoke.
“Be still, my love. I have news.” It was Pen’s voice in the monster’s mouth, and it wrenched Leti’s gut. “Terrible, troubling news.”
Had the monster overheard Pen’s last words, before she’d fallen victim to highwaymen? Or had the monster—
“What is it?” This last, in Viktor’s smooth tenor. His words carried an edge of doubt—or suspicion—when he added: “Tell me.”
“It’s the elixir.” Pen’s voice came strained and tense. “It’s...”
“Tell me,” Viktor repeated with a softness that turned Leti’s skin frigid.
“There’s a cost. A... human cost.”
“Did you hear me, Viktor?”
“I’m to deliver a vial to the Roddicks on the morrow. My second cousin is sick, as you know.”
“That’s why I’m telling you this.”
“Is it, now?”
“Viktor, my father cut the bones from the throats of those poor girls. Mother ground them into powder for their remedy.”
Leti clasped her hands to her mouth. Valor bones, the brigand’s voice had called them.
And her father. We will remember her contribution, he’d said. Her valor.
Her mother was as cruel as a winter hornet. But her father...
The monster continued, in Viktor’s voice. “Those girls were vagabonds.”
“Don’t say that.” Pen’s voice broke. “We have to tell the constable.”
“And risk the town’s well-being? Absolutely not.”
Leti gritted her teeth. It wasn’t the town at risk but its nobles. And while the terror had ravaged the rich and spared the poor, the remedy had apparently brought about the opposite.
“Viktor! I witnessed my father burying a body just last night, in the copse behind the well—”
“Calm yourself. Our families have an accord.”
“You... you already knew?”
“Don’t be naive. Consider the financial ruin that would befall my family if word got out that our cosmetics—our pride and heritage—could inflict such harm.”
“Don’t pretend you’re not enjoying these fineries the remedy has bought your family. Our arrangement benefits everyone involved.”
“Except for those girls.”
“An unfortunate but necessary price.”
Pen was silent.
“You must keep this to yourself,” Viktor said. “Do you understand?”
“You know I can’t do that.”
Another pause, then: “Very well.”
“Viktor, what are you—”
The monster fell silent. It wasn’t until then that Leti spotted Pen’s lace glove at the far edge of the island, spattered with blood. Leti’s whole body trembled with dread; the air around her resonated. She shook her head no, no, no.
Pen would be buried the next evening—with a scarf around her throat, no doubt, for her parents had proven that they would not let profit go to waste. Viktor would carry on, in luxury, watching Leti for signs of knowing. The terror would persist, so long as it benefitted everyone involved.
Meanwhile, the boarders would keep coming.
Unless what? She was only a meddlesome child. There was nothing she could do.
She turned her back, buried her face in her hands to hide her shame. The shame of a child who had wished her sister dead and could now do nothing to avenge that murder—nor Daka’s, nor any of the others in between. The shame of helplessness, of acquiescence.
From behind her came a faint gurgle, a voice birthed from mud. Her voice, though from a time long past. Younger, more innocent, not yet hardened by these grisly trials.
“What are you?” it said.
Leti let her hands fall to her sides. In the slatted moonlight, hers and the monster’s bodies cast a lone shadow, ragged and bulky and bare. It was not a shape of weakness or inaction. It was the shape of her. As she stood straight, so too did the shadow.
“I am Leti.” She turned. “Because of you.”
The monster shook its head, spattered mud. “Because of you.”
She cradled the monster’s huge thumb in her hands, savored its cool filth. She knew what she had to do, now, despite what it meant for her. She was a meddlesome child. It was time to meddle.
“I’ll go to the constable,” she said.
It was a long-shot plan at best. Sure, they’d find the grave Pen had mentioned, but what did she have to prove Viktor a murderer? A glove? No one had ever spared the time to listen to Leti. What would change that now?
And yet, she had to try.
Leti pulled Pen’s glove from the mud. “I’ll make them listen.”
She stared into the monster’s watery eyes, all but certain it would be for the last time. If she failed, there was no coming back. They’d murdered Pen without a thought, beloved as she was; once they found out that Leti had betrayed them, she was as good as dead.
By the monster’s downturned eyes, it knew the same. It shambled forward as if it might leave the scragwood itself, follow her all the way to the constable’s door.
Leti held up a staying hand. This terror was hers alone to face. She turned to leave, hesitated.
The monster had begun to molt.
This started at the top of its head, a clutch of busted hairbrushes jettisoned into the bog. From its spine bled all manner of belts and portraits and platters. It shuddered, and its broad shoulders sloughed off a hodgepodge of dinnerware. Leti backed away, aghast. Why was it doing this?
She shook her head, no. Stop.
It did not stop. It heaved and it shook, spilt books and pamphlets and goblets and shivs—a history of excess and anguish. It stuttered and stomped and at last produced a collection of objects in its outstretched palm.
A stack of receipts from the pharmacy, signed Cruce and Krell and a dozen others.
A note from Pen—meet me at the boat, Viktor—dated yesterday.
A knife with VV branded to the hilt, defiled with blood.
The constable would have to listen to her now.
She took the items into her trembling hands. “But—”
It was too late. The monster’s hand—and arm, and what remained of its body—were already spent. Bled into the swamp, gone. At last rid of all those hateful things, the monster was meek and muddy and so very small. A single limpid eyeball, blinking in the muck.
They said nothing, the monster and her, for neither of them had learned to say goodbye. Then, quickly so the monster would not see the briny tears in her eyes, she boarded the boat and made for town.