Of plants and flowers the boy had only ever known the stubborn things that survived at the edges of the Sea of Trees. Spindly weeds and crabgrass, bitter fruits with rocky skins and barbed seeds, tubers that tore themselves apart if you forced them out, vegetation that sought to survive as much as it did to hinder the survival of others.
The Countessa’s garden was not these things, much as the Countessa’s home was not of his land. It was a biome of foreign life, color prisms of flowers trimmed and nurtured to precise angles to allow untangled passage between their lanes. There were fruits so soft looking they whispered to be bitten into, a cornucopia of vegetables practically bursting forth from the ground, all this contained in sickeningly sweet white archways and pots.
The boy could identify many of the plants, he couldn’t identify even more of them. They were not things that could grow here, he couldn’t believe they were. He looked for some kind of contraption, some obelisk to explain it. As the glimmer of yellow from the dark and a shift of petals in a massive rosebud, he looked away again, falling back into restrained silence as he navigated the twins curving path.
As the twins rounded yet another corner in what felt to be an endless maze of curated foreign invaders, they emerged into a rounded clearing. A small pond ran a circle around the middle, small bridges leading to a comparatively modest looking gazebo. Distantly, he could see two people in it, one sitting and sipping from a porcelain cup and the other standing taut at attention.
A servant and a master, he thought to himself as the party approached them.
The sitting figure turned to the group, curled waves of gold bouncing tickling alabaster cheeks accentuated by ruby eyes. The maids bowed and the standing man bowed back, black hair neatly coiffed to the side with a silk glove gripping his shoulder as he bowed.
“Your duties have been received and acknowledged.” The butler said, bow unbroken. “The Countessa acknowledges you.”
“And we thank her for her watchful eye.” The maids replied in one voice.
“You may retire for the night if you desire.”
“Retire we shall.” They curtsied. The woman took another sip from her cup. They passed by the prisoners without sound or glance.
“Judge,” the butler called. “Please report.”
The Judge’s steps were measured. To the boy who had heard her march with such fervent rigor, they seem hesitant.
“I have delivered for my Lady two prisoners.” She paused, swallowed, then continued, “The younger of these two serves the place of my original target, who he was involved in the demise of.”
“Explain your failure.” Spoke a woman’s voice. The boy crossed his legs and cast his gaze down once more. He believed he could feel an arctic gaze picking apart his existence.
The Judge collapsed to one knee. “My Lady, I was interrupted in my duties by this child. He distracted me long enough for my target to ambush me from behind with a blade.”
“You were attacked.” The woman repeated. There was no question, merely acknowledgement.
“He…he surprised me, I retaliated with measured force.”
“Boy.” The woman’s voice startled him. He looked up to her, her gaze not meeting his own. “A man has been slaughtered tonight. The accusation lays at your feet.” The woman drank lightly from her cup, then regarded it with raised eyebrow. “I suggest you defend yourself.” She finally offered.
He swallowed. Part of him wished the Lady would spare a glance in his direction, a bare morsel of pity in her gaze. Another part of him hoped he would never have to meet her gaze head on.
“I…I sought out your…Judge, of my own volition. I did not wish to burden her as I have…um, most…..esteemed Lady of House-”
“Stop.” A leisurely sip. “Countessa shall suffice.” The Judge seemed to have an opinion on this, but she bit her lip and gave the boy only a hateful stare. “Tell me how you have burdened my dear Judge.”
He began to speak, unsure of his answer. “I…I distracted her by speaking to her. My selfishness allowed a cutthroat to injure her.”
The Judge brushed a red smear near her chin. “Injure is exaggeration, my Lady, I-”
“You are being judged, as is the boy.” The Judge gasped, hands covering her mouth. “Child, continue. How was my Judge injured?”
“She…her head was severed.” he said, aware of what he was saying. “It flew off her body into the dirt, next to him.” He pointed at the prisoner, who was shaking and trying to avoid eye contact. He continued to do the same.
“How was the assailant killed?”
“He…your Judge…she put her steel to him as he threatened me.”
“Would you say she saved your life?” The Countessa swirled her drink lightly.
“I…I suppose she did.”
“How noble.” she said with no energy. “And my Judge dispatched this rogue with measured force, just as she claims?”
The boy looked around. The Judge’s gaze was downcast, lip dug into with her teeth and arm clutched. The prisoner shivered, the Countessa waited, the butler looked his way with pity.
“I…I wouldn’t be able to say. I know nothing of force of any kind.”
“I ask you if my Judge tore the scoundrel to pieces, boy. A lie shall upset me far more than the truth.”
He sought the words he knew could please her, the words he was sure must have been somewhere inside of his head. They didn’t come to him after an eternity of seconds, pressure rising up in his chest as he stumbled for them.
It was the prisoner who found the words instead.
“Your evil knight slaughtered my brother, Devil!”
The Judge lurched, then halted at the clapping of the Countessa.
“Finally!” The Countessa crooned, pale face breaking into a bone white smile. “The man stops hiding behind a child! Speak little man, how did my knight butcher your comrade?”
“She tore him to pieces!” The prisoner cried. “Ripped him wide open!”
“My Judge would degrade herself with such barbarism?” The Countessa had reclined and taken a more pensive look, but she was actually deigning to look at the prisoner. “Judge, your defense?”
The Judge took to her knee. “This man seeks to deceive you, my Lady. I acted with regrettable aggression, for this I submit myself to your mercy, but this prisoner sought my demise in dark collusion with my assailant!”
“Another shocking revelation.” The Countessa’s voice was flat, but the boy recognized the oddity in her voice now. It was tinted with the same distant edge of glee the maid’s voice had been. “Is this true prisoner?”
Now the prisoner struggled for words. He looked to the boy for what might have been the first time that night. Recognition churned in his eyes. He pointed and screamed, “It was the boy’s deception! He sought to kill your knight!”
“I did not!” Now he found the words, and found them in a frenzy. “I wished only to indenture myself to the Countessa!”
The Countessa looked at him finally, and he saw the queen of the Black Forest. The woman who ruled over all of her subjects. The one men said decided their fate with stony countenance, ruled in vicious silence. He saw her in all her chilling glory, faced lined with a softer pity than he had ever known.
“Truly?” she whispered. “Did you truly, dear boy?”
“Yes.” he said, subdued by her restraint. “I wished…I wished only to live for someone.”
“I am sorry.” she said, voice so low he almost thought it a trick of the ear. Her butler hung his head low in shame. “Were that we had found you sooner.”
“He is a lying murderer!” The prisoner screamed, revitalized by the changing tide. “He seeks to manipulate, to cajole you with lies, he-”
There was a hiss of air past the boy’s head. He snapped to its origin behind him, where only dark plantlife greeted him, then to where he had heard the impact. The prisoner stared at it with horror dislodged from time. It was purplish, slick and thin like a dagger made for sleeves, and fit snugly into the center of the stomach. The Judge drew her sword.
“Ebony.” The Countessa called. The prisoner dropped to his knees and began to scream. “I assume this man is not to your liking?”
“Give the fat one to the bat.” A voice boomed out from the darkness. It came from the foliage where the needle had flown. The prisoner screeched in feral terror as his skin reddened with agonizing heat, mouth emptying rapid sounds but no words.
The boy saw what came from the bush this time. It spread and soared forward like a wave of utter blackness. It nearly blew him away as it flew by and plowed into the prisoner, his eyes rolling into his skull as he convulsed as it dragged him into the sky. The blackness spiraled into the dim night dragging the man with it. As it breached the top of the open air garden level with the rooftops and sky, black wings split open to allow it to hover, and the deranged giggles gusts of wind had covered finally punctured the boy’s ears.
“Ebony, Ebony, Ebony!” the thing cried, its face a nauseating smear of woman and bat. “Ebony, thank you for the gift!” It shook the man in its talons, his screech a sound of revolting pain. “Such a fun little man thing, screams like rodents dying over, over, over!”
“Thank your Master, harlot!” The Judge spoke, loyal vigor and pride resurfacing in an instant at the slight. “You prosper under her benevolence!”
Again, the voice from the dark boomed. “Wrong, little soldier. My kindness is what the bat has seen tonight.” There was a ripple from the garden, where the voice spoke, that coalesced into ink black fur and bone white claw. Ebony followed behind it, drawing herself from hiding and standing in a hunch, towering over the crowd with ease. Her face was a young woman’s, mature but bereft of age’s touch, compounded by whisps of black fur around her collar and neatly arranged razors of teeth. Black wings were folded across her lioness body, her alien tail a pinkish color that ended in a flower-like bulb that jutted out the purplish spikes from the man’s stomach.
“This little toy,” she said, staring down at the boy with a covetous smirk, “Shall be all I require as thanks.”
As the boy shrunk from her, trembling legs allowing nothing more than a meek shuffle before a shrill peal of laughter from above shocked him into falling onto his rear. He turned to the sky where the bat soared a lap of triumph with her thrashing prize, then flew into the blackness above.
He was pulled away from the sight by a sensation like taught rope wrapping itself around his body, wiggling and constricting around his torso. The sight of Ebony’s flower bulb tail coming to rest on his thigh, its sinister purple spines retracted until only their barest tips shown. The tail tightened around him with crushing pressure and he was yanked to his legs before a yelp could form in his lungs.
“You’re looking at the wrong woman, lovely.” A paw found his face, nestling snugly underneath his neck like a blueberry being gently pulled from the bush. It pushed his vision into her confident smile, tail swirling slowly into the same view like a cobra from a pot. “You wouldn’t want to ruin our first meeting by making me punish you, would you?”
A bristle stirred in the tip of her tail, a purple point worming it’s way slowly out of its confines and glistening with a nauseating tint in the courtyard light. He balked, and made no attempt to squirm in the snare of his tail. Though he stood it was through barely any effort of his own, propped up and kept straight by her tail like a marionette.
“Ebony.” The Countess’s voice rang across the courtyard. Ebony frowned, then turned away with a smile and a wink. “I would discuss this boy with you.”
“I would not.” Ebony replied, voice flat. “I would like to depart with no more of my time wasted.”
The Countess rose from her seat, flanked by her butler and announced by the scrape of steel as the Judge knelt deeply again. She descended the down the stairs with grace and marched towards Ebony with her head held high. They stopped a scant few feet from the boy’s restrained body, Ebony staring her down impassively. The Judge fidgeted in the distance, held back seemingly only by the butler’s raised hand.
“This boy is not the man we had selected for you.”
“I’m well aware.” Ebony smiled, serrated teeth poking out as a reminder. “I do so appreciate the unexpected kindness. I did not think you could procure men so young and pretty.” She punctuated her sentence with a light squeeze of her tail, still forceful enough to push air from her captive in a wheeze.
“I would negotiate a trade.” The Countess continued, unphased. “I can procure you a stronger, sturdier specimen for you if you give me but a month.”
Ebony lurched forward till her face was a hair’s width from the Countess. The Judge started to sprint, again forced to stillness by the raise of the butler’s hand.
“Do explain yourself, leech.” Ebony whispered.
“This boy has insulted my Judge, which is to say he has sullied my own dignity by association.” The Countess stared Ebony down without moving. “Doubtless though you will sully his pride with far greater skill and enthusiasm than I myself am capable of, I would still see him released to me so that I may see him punished under my own care.”
The lioness withdrew her face, paw over her chest in a terrifyingly oversized swooning motion.
“Punish him?” she asked, “Why would I punish this sweet child? Haven’t you known I’ve pined for him for so long?”
The boy squirmed as Ebony’s coils tilted his body upside down carelessly. He sought the Countess’s face for understanding, but even suspended downwards he recognized the troubled crease of her brow.
“You know of this child?” The Countess asked. Her voice betrayed irritation, perhaps unused to lacking the upper hand.
“Of course I do, bloodsucker.” Ebony said, ignoring the Judge biting into her own hand in the distance. “I’ve known of this boy for moons and moons, seasons and seasons. Of the days I spent stalking the borders of this disgusting little town, tempering the rage I felt knowing a pampered lump of dead skin barred me from it, the days I would stalk this boy through his hunts calmed me.”
The boy’s hand found the rim of the tail, gripping it for purchase as his head spun in freefall. He thought of dark nights dogged by yellow glowing flickering in and out of his sight, warmth from nowhere on his neck in cold nights, of wolves he had evaded in hunt found slaughtered and devoured the same night. How long? How long had she stalked him? Had he truly lived his entire life in safety only from the invisible mercies of vicious things?
“I had decided,” Ebony continued, unphased by her prey’s weak grip. “That I would put my claws and my venom to whatever diseased sack of a man you delivered unto me. Take a daughter from him while I spent his life filling that hovel with his screams at night.”
Suddenly the boy’s vision twisted again. Her coils spun and raised him as his orientation was shredded, until her grinning face filled his spinning vision.
“But this prize tonight,” Ebony said, her voice low, “Has made me calm, and so very happy.”
Ebony’s face closed in on his own. He closed his eyes and awaited the feeling of teeth sinking into his face. He knew not what to do when warm lips pressed to his own, a warm slickness invading his mouth soon after. Her hand cupped his chin softly, trapping him like prey but embracing him gently. He was unprepared, trembling as she pressed forward in her embrace. The trapped shivers of his body did nothing to deter her, in fact being met with a measured squeeze of his confines.
“Then be off with you.” The Countess’s voice was cold now, shocking his ears like ice water. “Take your damn prize.”
Ebony withdrew from him, long tongue snaking out of his mouth with some hesitation. She winked at him, then turned to the Countess with a sneer.
“Don’t pout, leech. Your regrets will revel in each other’s company forevermore.”
Cold, refined. Lonely. That was what the Countess’s face was to the boy as he was dragged into the sky beneath massive wings, tugged snugly into a dowry coat of black fur.
Cold hit in harsh waves against his backs. Whether Ebony flew with care or reckless abandon he could never know, he was lost in the twisting terror of propelling through air. Though clasped firmly to Ebony’s chest, delirious fear overcoming any twinge of excitement that may have once given him, he did feel firmly tethered at the moment. The looming threat of being swallowed up the chasm of sky below weighed heavy regardless.
He dared a peek to his side, into blackness and swirling splotches of far away starlight. At intervals the stars spun and he realized Ebony was spinning in the air periodically. Distantly he glimpsed an orange flare of light and watched it sink into distant dark, flickering into the night. The village, the boy realized, distant lanterns hung dimly in the night.
The image of his cottage peaked in his head. His mother’s humble library, the porcelain baubles from a homeland he never knew, the decade old blanket riddled with holes. The memories formed in his head, then flushed into the dark alongside the orange light.
The boy pressed his face into Ebony’s chest and closed his eyes. His breath came to him in chokes and gasps, Ebony’s mane filling with slickness as tears formed. He did it all without thought and allowed the crushing weight of his old life’s passage to slip over him into the howling wind behind him.
Their landing was so abrupt the boy though for a moment they had crashed. Pounding waves of wind halted as the sound of creaking wood filled its silence. Ebony grunted and the world rumbled as he clung to her underside, tilting into uneasy balance after a moment. The massive tree groaned for a moment before the noises of night overtook it once more.
Ebony’s laugh sounded out as she pulled him from her chest. In the dark he saw only her glimmering eyes and flashes of her fangs, her black body slithering in the dark like ooze as his eyes adjusted to the lack of light. Her hand, long and furred and pointed in claw points, was tight around his chest like a harness.
“Why so scared, little thing? Did you think I’d drop my prize?” she said. Her free paw trailed across his face, drawing a line through the thinning tears. “Or do these heights scare you?”
He gave no answer first. His eyes had begun to adjust to the darkness, aided by thin moonlight. The absolute depth of the forest he had found himself in stole his breath, as did the narrow branch he realized the two of them were perched on, himself pushed out towards the narrower edge as Ebony leaned against the trunk. The peaks of trees surrounded them, outlined dimly in the darkness.
“I don’t care for these heights myself, boy.” Ebony said. “Too cold, too windy.”
As if by a spell the mention of cold caused the boy’s body to finally notice it. He was horribly cold, and the wind was buffering him harshly. The heated core of fear and adrenaline had begun to melt from him and give way to numbing cold that crept from his reddening limbs to the core of his body. All at once, he noticed the warmth that radiated from Ebony’s proximity, the layers of velvet fur that coated her torso seemed to be radiating with it to him. Without thinking he strained his arms to reach for her, but her grip remained firm.
She laughed. It was delighted, indulgent. The laugh of a victor. “Oh, and poor you. Shrivelling in this horrible cold. How thoughtless of me.” She said. “Allow me.”
Ebony brought her other paw around him, sandwiching him in her grip like a cat wringing the life out of a mouse. He yelped, then he felt her paws start to wander across his skin. The claw tips dragged across his skin, like the cruel maid’s hands did, but this time with a sliver of restraint. Razor tips that could slip under and peel back his skin slipped lightly across his skin and left tingling trails.
He whimpered under the sensation and squirmed. A plea for her to stop rose in his throat, then stopped dead as Ebony brought a paw between his legs.
She laughed. “Well, I thought the cold would have made this embarrassing for you. But I suppose I can’t call you a boy now, can I?”
The boy could not see her face from where she held him. His view was towards the stars, body bent in her grip as she explored him. Yet at her words, and at the possessive grip that she grasped him with, her faze blazed in his mind with condescending gaze and hungry grin. This thing that he was told owned him, this thing who pulled at him like a ragdoll, now she how he lived.
Had he been free in his invisible life? Left to rot in a home full of empty promises and empty beds, but he had survived. Now she would decide his life for him, he knew. He had a master now, and he had not so much as chosen it.
The scream was wretched in his throat as it rose. It rumbled from his diaphragm like a hex being expunged. “I’ll kill you!” he screamed, “You’ve ruined everything for me!” The boy’s face was crimson in exertion, shaking off the cold winter air with boiling blood. Ebony withdrew a paw and held him aloft in one palm. Her smile was gone, the glint of light with it. He saw only the liquid orange of her gaze staring back at him.
“I was almost free.” he said. He was trembling, his fingers digging into the fur of her arm. “I was almost something.” There were tears again. They burned his eyes as the wind pressed harshly against his cheeks.
Ebony raised him closer to her face, righting him in her grasp until he was in the same restrained harness that she had held him in before. He was quiet now, for he felt the shift in her, the dissolution of her playfulness. Her eyes grew closer, inches from his face.
The boy closed his eyes and let his vision dissolve into utter dark as the warmth of her body drew closer. He waited for teeth to clamp down into him, to split him open utterly. Her nose scraped against his softly, her fur ticked at his bare body.At the soft touch of her lips, he gasped. He opened his eyes to darkness, the scant glint of her orange eyes gone in the embrace.
She relented before long and the kiss was left chaste. Moonlight had trickled down onto them, and the boy saw Ebony’s smile now. It was small, but genuine, devoid of the malicious glint of her teeth.
“Why did you do that?” he asked. The rage abated in him as he righted himself in her grip. Ebony’s smile widened slightly.
“To thank you.” she replied. “I almost worried you would be a bore to break.”
At her words, the boy paled. His legs dangled above the forest floor far below, a fact he felt more aware of now then ever. Like the body of an oversized snake, Ebony’s tail slithered into his view. It slithered up past his head and climbed through the air until it stared down at him alongside Ebony. The shaft of the tail was wider than the boy’s wrist across, twisting upward into the flower bulb tip of the tail and its myriad purple thorns.
“I’m going to count to three, little thing.” Ebony said, “And then I’m going to drop you.”
The boy stared at her, then cast his sight down below himself. If the forest even laid below him, he could not see it.
“One.” Ebony started.
The boy thrashed, trying to pull himself from her grip and towards the tree. Her grip was not even close to broken.
“Twoooo…..” she sang.
He pulled at her paw and screamed in exertion. Her tail wiggled in front of his face, drawing his eyes to it.
The harness left him. The blackness of her fur slid away and the weightlessness yanked him downward for all of a moment until it stopped with a jerking halt. The boys hands had clamped onto the length of Ebony’s tail, the width of it feeling so much smaller than it had looked as he held onto with sweat slick hands.
“Do you want to let go?” Ebony asked. It was no genuine question, in her voice he could hear she knew the answer and would relish the answer. The boy bit his lip and tried to raise himself higher, then yelped as a claw tickled his armpit.
“I don’t! I don’t want to let go!” He screamed. The claw retreated.
“Do you know what I am, little thing? Do they put pictures of beasts like me in those books you read? Do the sickening creatures in that town of yours speak of me in hushed tones?” she asked.
Ebony’s tail raised him, bringing him closer to the low blaze of her eyes. He turned away, but turned back soon when confronted with the absolute abyss around him. “I don’t….I don’t know what you are.”
“Tell me.” She said. “Tell me what I am. I want to know what you believe me to be.” Ebony shifted upwards, standing up tall on the branch and raising her tail higher. The boy dangled pitifully from her tail, genitals puny in the cold. Her claws could run and poke at any part of him and he would be defenseless.
The boy swallowed and stared at her eyes, a second of consideration he thought he could risk. “You are …a woman?”
Her tail swayed back and forth and the boy yelped, hanging on for dear life. “I don’t want honey, child.” Ebony said. “I want you to say what you think. Now!”
“A, a beast!” he yelled. The tighter his grip the more he felt it start to slip away from him.
“What kind?” she asked. “A dog, a hound? Perhaps you think me a rat?” If his world had not been violent shaking and loosening palms, the boy might have heard the mirth in Ebony’s tone.
He had not heard, however, and in his panic he spat out an answer that bypassed his fear. “A monster!” He cried. “I think you’re a monster!”
At this she laughed. It was unlike before, this time it was a genuinely joyous noise. “A monster! A monster!” she yelled, “Perhaps I’ll skin you alive and suck out your liver, or tear off your feet and leave you for the wolves!” She laughed once more, so loud it echoed throughout the forest. Figures shuffled and shifted in the dark, and the boy realized for the first time they were not alone. They were far, but they watched. Animals tracking a predator? Or creatures like Ebony, eying potential prey?
“Do you know what this monster is going to do to you, boy?” She asked, her voice hushed now.
The boy didn’t want to say what he thought the answer was. Partly because he feared it would be true, but more than that because he didn’t trust the most obvious answer he could think of.
“You….you aren’t going to eat me.” He answered after a short quiet. He said it in a voice that wasn’t questioning, yet was still unsure.
Another sliver of moonlight across their faces, another glimpse of Ebony’s soft grin. “That’s right,” she whispered. “I’m not going to. So what am I going to do?”
He hung limp in the air, thought coming to him in disarray. The first time of the night he had been allowed a moment to think, and the boy found the answers as muddy and evasive as if his mind were still racing. What she wanted? Beasts ate little men after plucking them from their homes, that was what all the stories said. Yet here he was, shivering in cold and clutching to her for dear life, while she prodded at him. She didn’t want to eat him, she would have done so long ago if she did.
Ebony’s tail drifted in the air, dragging him along with it. He must have made a noise without realizing it, as Ebony snorted and giggled. He was being told to think faster, yet he found this process unhelpful. Voices of the nights echoed through his head, sentences and actions and words and faces all rumbling around in his skull with no coherency. In one day, as far as he could tell, he had committed a crime by mistake, been judged in the true court of this land, then been sentenced to Ebony.
Was she his jailor? He thought if he told her that she might laugh so hard she would drop him. But wasn’t it true? He had been a prisoner since the Judge had taken him, then given to Ebony as her….
“I’m your prize.” he said.
Ebony groaned. “What’s in that little head of yours?” she asked. “Rocks? Naked women? Not only have I said that, it was never what I asked.” Ebony’s tail jerked up and down and bobbed the boy violently with it. “What am I doing with my dumb little prize, boy?”
The naked man flashed in his mind, the bat’s laughter erupting through the night as she held his thrashing form possessively. The Countess took men screaming from the village. All the women at the manor, and not a single man. The hungry voice of the cruel maid.
“We are….to be wed?”
Laughter. The boy thought that a safe thing. So far her laughter had not yet ended in his skin being flayed and his body salted.
“Boy,” Ebony said after a brief recovery. He could swear the orange lights had tears in them.. “You do amuse me. And I suppose you are almost correct.” The boy’s eyes had just begun to make out Ebony in the dark light of the forest, her inky frame steadily becoming distinct with movement amid the night. She was laid against the trunk of the tree, her lion leg extended lazily across the branch. He could not truly see her face, yet he found his mind forcing him to remember her twisted grin no matter how much he willed the image away.
“To be wed,” she continued, “is to be far away from here, little thing. In towns with walls that rise higher than forests, for men who will never know the joys of being at their better’s mercy.” Her claw poked the tip of his nose quickly, stinging slightly. Perhaps it would have been playful had he been able to see it, but the speed and suddenness nearly caused the boy to lose his continually slickening grasp on her tail.
“We are wed now in a way, boy.” Ebony said. “For now until the day you die, I will take from you endlessly. I will take from you a daughter. I will take from you your loyalty, to myself above all others. I will take your life, to be used as I see fit until the day you die.” She paused, the thin outline shifted in front of his frantic vision. Then her voice was in his ear. “All that you ever were, whatever you may have called it, is gone now. Now, you are mine.”
“Why?” he whispered. “Why me?”
“You’re quite cute.”Ebony said.
The wind left his body. That was the reason? Just that?
His voice rose in spite of himself, in spite of the entire night. “I am just to be your slave? By happenstance?” he yelled.
He felt Ebony’s tail stiffen in his grip, saw her form shift to face him once more. “Your life is happenstance, brat.”
Her tail flew upwards, away from the tree and him with it. Ebony was standing upright on the branch, eyes glowering at him. “Do you know why you whimper in front of me today, ingrate? Why you have not found yourself torn apart by wolves or living licking the bootheels of an orc? Because of my protection.” Ebony hissed. The boy could swear he could see her fur bristling and standing on edge. “You live today because of my attention, and you found yourself a home in this wretched town because of the whore vampire’s scheming. You are a little mouse stuck in a trap he’s been too stupid to so much as see his entire life.”
He trembled. It was hard to do without falling, but he did. Suspended in air, naked and cold, before the form of a giant beast, he felt it. The weakness. Seeping into him, as the beast in front of him growled at his timid silence. His future he had planned for, the escape to civilization; never had it been even a dream. Just a story he had told himself, another fairy tale left to rot in the attic of a home he would never see again.
Ebony’s breathing grew calmer. She spoke, “I think you mean no harm, little idiot. Still, you have annoyed me. I thought to break you gently tonight, but you’ve earned a punishment.”
The bulb of Ebony’s tailed flashed in front of him, quills aimed at him. Then, slowly, it split open down the middle and unfurled like a true flower. His eyes had finally adjusted, at the most horrible time. It was like the mouth of a snake opening in 4 directions, revealing a tunnel of meat and dripping fluids.
“This is my tail. For today, you will mate with it.” Ebony explained, as the boys hands grew so cold he lost the feel of her tail. “Well, it will mate with you. You will see my womanhood when you give me my daughter, but tonight is for being broken in.”
The tail’s mouth closed, then presented it’s side to the boy, it’s purple quill gleaming at him with what felt like malice. “You see my quills?” Ebony asked, “In this forest, in this world, there are beasts like me, but not quite like me.” The boy could hear even in his fear the pang of pride in her voice.
“These other beasts are smaller than me,” Ebony continued, “Weaker than me, of course, and their quills do something different then mine. They plug their men with white little quills and watch them grow lustful and delirious, then they rut with them until their men are bruised from tailbone to groin and devoid of fluid.”
The boy felt a warmth spread through his deathly feeling body, felt a twitch in between his legs. Ebony clicked her tongue as he moved to cross his legs, and he let his shame hang open in the air.
“I have not, I have not touched a woman.” The boy whispered, “I cannot be a very good mate.” He thought maybe this was an excuse, a way to escape. Yet it came to him earnestly, said as if he were apologizing for it.
“You will be in time.” Ebony said. She tilted her head away, perhaps in a frown. She seemed to have also spoken without thinking. Her words were warm and calming, affectionate. The menacing air diluted as she growled to herself.
“Quiet.” Ebony said long after he had stopped talking. “I am different than the pale little creatures you’ll find in story books. I am Ebony, a manticore,” She waited for the word to spark some recognition in the boy, then continued on without her proud look breaking when he remained blank faced. “A true manticore. A creature of the night who hunts her prey with fang and claw, and whose poison is for greater things than sparking a scared little man’s loins.”
“You’re…manticore?” The boy repeated the word, like he thought she said it. She nodded, smugness of expression dulling as he seemed to not know the word. “And…..you’re different from other ones?”
“…..Yes.” Ebony mumbled.
“Like a frog and toad are different?” He asked.
A quill sprouted from the tail and he went silent. Ebony was….pouting? It coalesced into a snarl, but she wore specks of a bruised ego on her expression.
“My poison,” she hissed, then smiled darkly. “Well, you’ve seen it. Remember the fat man? The horrible little ball of terror I turned him into? That is my poison. It eats away at the thin little bits of the brain until all my prey sees is nightmares.”
The boy saw the man again in his mind, saw the convulsing sphere being carried away by the bat thing. He remembered the fat man’s eyes, as they rolled into his head and the foam seethed at his mouth. What did he see? Was it the thing Ebony would show him?
The boy looked down, and for the first time the thought crossed his mind; why not just let go? He imagined if she wanted to Ebony would catch him before he fell, and that whatever would happen to him would be far worse than the fall or compliance. Yet he also thought that to let go might be the only decision he could make. To say that he had control over his life, he could let go and allow the end to take him.
The tip of Ebony’s paw found his chin before he could think further, the tip digging in ever so pointedly to the soft side of his chin.
“I will catch you,” She confirmed. “And I will not be gentle.”
“What will happen to me?” He asked. The pitch of his voice trembled without meaning to. It was a sob, he realized, then the weight of sorrow wrapped around him and weighed his body down.
“Do as I say, and a mercy.” Ebony said. She pulled her free paw to her tail, the yanked the quill out from the stem, holding the point outwards. “A drop,” She continued, “A tiny drop of my poison on your tongue. It will be horrible, but your mind will hold. And then I will do it again the next day, and the next, until you find your mind numb to the visions. This is your trial, and at the end you will have learned to accept me.”
The quill drew closer to him, poised at the tip of his lip. He was still, aching arms locked onto her tail. He stared at her, saw the orange waiting for his reaction.
“You may say no. Then I will inject you in full and take you like a dying animal.” Ebony’s voice had turned raspy, harsh. The threat was real, yet the thought of it agitated her. “You will not survive, if not your body then your mind certainly. But perhaps that will be your plummet, your suicide. That is what you want, no? To own your life?”
The quill pulled away, replaced by Ebony’s overwhelming gaze. “I am Ebony, little thing,” she whispered. “The beast that has given you your life. Now I give you your choice. Be mine, or allow me to ruin you.”
His choice? But it wasn’t. It was hers, delivered to him. And he had no other option. Even now, as he was offered the choice of how he wanted this beast to be the end of him, the boy knew that he wanted horribly to survive. To have lived for this long, to have survived under any circumstances, even now he could not simply give up.
And yet, to live without a choice, to be the toy of a beast, did he truly have no say in it? A life had been laid out for him without him ever knowing, and now he was with only one true option.
Then as the quill emerged into his vision, pointed to him by her steady hand, as her the fire of her eyes awaited his sentencing, he spoke.
“I will be yours.” He said.
“Wise.” Ebony said. Her voice was what victors sounded like, he knew, those who have toppled above all others and enjoyed the conquest.
“Under one condition.” he said, stunned he was able to still say it.
The quill snapped from his vision. The tail slithered to his face and the multitude of quills began to grow from it. They pointed towards his face like the knives of a den of thieves.
“What?” she hissed. “What did you dare say to me?”
“I will only be yours if,” The boy started.
“A condition? You have no conditions!” Ebony screamed. Her tail nearly split at the seems as if to mimic her roar. “You are choosing disobedience, you are choosing to be devoured by me, miserable mouse!”
“I!” He yelled. He yelled so loudly Ebony brought her tail back and stared. “I am Eizen! I am Eizen Stronz! That is my name, and that is how you will address me!” He huffed, short of air, then continued, “I will be yours, only if you call me by my name!”
Emotion had left him. The words were the sound of feeling tumbling from his mouth like the last puff of smoke of a fire. Fear had faded from him, left behind an emptiness that felt familiar. To be held aloft by a beast, to know the thing in front of him used him for a purpose, that he could be discarded for another boy if she willed it, he knew these feelings. They were the feelings of the boy who lived in isolation among men, in the prisoners’ village at the edge of humanity.
The invisible boy, Eizen. That was who he was.
His eyes had been closed. Eizen didn’t know when he had done so, but they had been for some time now. For when he opened them and gazed downwards he saw the wide branch below, so close his toes could scrape against it. He set his feet down, then pulled hard on Ebony’s tail when his legs failed to hold him. Ebony’s paw gripped his wrist, righting him and finally allowing him to loosen his grip from her tail.
“Stand, Eizen.” Ebony said, rolling the word from her mouth in experimentation. She pulled him suddenly to herself and he flopped into her belly. He was in the position he was in flight, but now strewn across the belly of her reclined figure, fidgeting to turn and face her above.
“Eizen and Ebony. It rhymes like a horrible little fairytale.” Ebony said. Her smile was warm, yet twisted. That was Ebony, Eizen realized, a being as much of cruelty as of affection. She laughed as she looked down at him. “Why so surprised? Even monsters have fairytales.”
“Are you going to kill me?” He asked.
“Every time you do something that impresses me, you do something suicidal the next.” Ebony said. In spite of her words, her smile stayed playful. “I told you before I would not kill you, now you make me repeat myself. Shameful.”
“I disobeyed you.” Eizen said. He was tired, and he was confused. She kept changing how she acted and it had begun to frustrate more than scare him.
“Mmm, very true. I quite liked it. You keep worrying me that you’ll turn into some obedient little doe, then you say something that boils my blood.” Two of her digits pressed against the sides of his face, squishing his cheeks together. “It’s getting so hard not to just tear into you. Restraint is such an awful thing to put me through.”
“Poison?” Eizen said, the only word he could get out through his squished lips.
“Two drops.” Ebony said, releasing him. “More than my mercy, less than my punishment. You may thank me.” She played with a quill in her paw, shifting it slowly between the sides of her curved claws.
Eizen thought to ask why. To beg for some understanding of her whimsy, yet instead he just said, “Thank you, Ebony.”
She chuckled. “I say your name and you’re a sweet little thing for me, aren’t you? Perhaps I’ll stop, and save it for when you actually deserve it.” She shifted, and brought the quill lower to him, point extended outwards. A thin, watery liquid dripped from it in sluggish rhythm.
“Two drops on your finger,” she said. “Then drag it across your tongue, and hold to me.”
“What will happen?” He asked.
“A nightmare.” She said. The tint of enthusiasm she had spoken with for much of their talk had dulled. “I will be the only thing you see in it to cling to. This is how you will learn to love me.” The last part she said as a whisper.
Eizen thought of the man, and found the thought far away. It didn’t seem to matter. He would take the poison, to think of what it meant would be pointless. Lying on top of her, talking to her, Eizen started to piece together a drawing of something. What life would be for him. The picture was dark, bent at the edge and crooked, yet he was sure he could see it forming in front of him.
He held out his finger, under the stream of slow drips of poison. One, then two, pooled lightly onto his finger. It was clear, see through. Like water, not even sticky.
“Do you have a name, Ebony? Is it really Ebony?” He didn’t know why he asked.
The sound she made was new. Surprise, shock. “No, my name is not Ebony.” she said. “You wish to know?”
“I think you’re the only person alive who knows my name.” He responded. He thought about what he wanted. “I want to thank you by knowing yours.”
“Little bug.” she said with exhaustion. She said no more, and his gaze turned down to the venom drying on his finger. He opened his mouth, brought the finger in slowly.
He moved like he was enacting a pretend ceremony, drawing his finger to his bottom lip, then steadily inserting the tip into his mouth. The venom burned when it hit his tongue, and was of a flavor so horribly bitter he may have gagged had he food to do so. The taste sizzled across his tongue, and he felt something beginning to spread across his body. A numbing wrongness that passed through like a wave and left a tingling sickness in its wake.
The wind blew. Eizen heard it as the last wail of some beast in the dark. The moonlight faded, yet Eizen saw colors burning and twisting into figures that stared at him. He was cold, yet heat rose so hot in his body that he would melt if he didn’t tear away his skin.
Hands restrained him. He knew not if they were real, but pressure pulled down onto him into a furry lap.
“My name is Phila, Eizen.” Someone said. Their voice was tinny and reverberated through his skull like a tremor. “And you will live this.”
Color came. Orange, but not like fall leaves. Orange like an ember that crackled in the second before the flame smothered. The color washed over him in a miasmic wave, flooding his vision in its tint. The world was burning, the flicker before it went out. The night was gone, to return soon in infinite. Now even the trees were visible, rocketing upwards into a sky of sepia with branches that wiggled like fresh bait in a bag.
He exhaled. The air that left felt to him like the last he had, as if he had just burned the last of his life in a breath. Black life seeped out of his mouth, trailing above into it was eaten away by the burning world. Eizen tried to close his mouth, pain flaring as it locked. It was like hooks had dug into gums and were pulling in every direction. The pain only ceased when he relented to keep his mouth open, and watch what he felt sure was soul disintegrate in the air.
Ebony was behind him.
Phila was behind him.
He reached behind him, finding nothing but a numb surface, like running his hands over smooth stone.
Phila, he tried to say. Air warbled in front of him like bubbles underwater. His skin itched, so much he wished he could rip it from his body if only he could bid his hands move. Noise buzzed in his ear, like cicadas chirping in droves both near and far. If she responded, if she was there at all, he couldn’t know.
Nearly, very nearly, Eizen was almost able to grasp what he saw. To know that the world was not what he saw, that the poison had warped his mind and his vision and that all he could possibly do was wait for it to stop. His mind closed in around the thought, nearly grasping it.
Then the heat began to rise in him, and his thoughts threatened to cease altogether.
He thought he screamed. He couldn’t know. He couldn’t hear, he couldn’t think. His genitals rose in the air, wracking pain coursing through them like they were tugged on a puppet’s strings. Everything that he was wanted to come out, to rip through his skin and into the cool night air, not trapped in the hell of rashy skin.
The air pulsed. Wrapped tighter around him. Crushed him. Pressure otherworldly threatening to burrow into him, while the core of his being wanted to tear out.
Going insane. He wanted to cry from it. From the fear he could not vocalize.
Then hands. Warm and soft, cupping his cheeks. He squealed, tears forming with pitiful effort. Her hands, Phila’s hands, the clawed tips cupped tenderly beneath his chin. They pushed his head upwards, past the miasmic air and towards…..
Towards her face. He knew somewhere in his mind it was night and yet he saw her face. The smattering of dimples across the rosy ridge of face, the slight roundnish of her jaw, her melancholic smile and the eyes that mirrored it.
He wanted to say her name. He wanted so badly to say it, to thank her for still being there. He heard no sound escape him, forcing the words to no end. He blinked to clear the tears, then felt her lips on his. Her hands roamed from his face to his waist, gripping him in a hug as she kissed him at the angle, awkwardness ignored.
Then she parted from him, her smile more sure now. Her hands on his back, she pushed him forward to face….the flower.
It coiled around him loosely, like a sentient root. The bulb dangled over his manhood, then began to split. The pink insides blossomed outwards, vivid and bright in the paling orange of his vision.
“Are you ready?” The words sang to him.
He said “Please.” He knew he said it.
The flower latched to him, leashing him to her. Orange melted away, cool black returning. Sounds of night whispered, then normalized. Yet the warmth of her, the safety of her embrace, he found them as intoxicating as always.
“Don’t let go.” He heard himself, voice hoarse and choking as if he’d cried for hours. “Please don’t let go of me.”
The flower gripped him, and he moaned in sweet agony. Her lips found his neck and warmed it dotted kisses.
“Never, my Eizen.” Phila said. “Never.”
Fall had come, and with it the stab of chill in the air that whispered of Winter. The river ran cold against the man’s ankles as he speared for the salmon. The fish ran themselves into the edge for a chance to mate past legs and up the rapids. Perhaps that was poetic.
The straw basket sat on the shore was nearly full of them. The fatter ones he knew would be ripe with eggs that his wife would delight in for a treat. He also reminded himself to stock up on mint leaves on his trek back to their home, the only defense he had against her breath afterwards. Her hygiene had improved over the years, but not yet enough for his liking.
In the brush across the river, near the unguarded basket, he registered the shuffle of something in hiding. It’s gaze was on him, possibly on the basket as well though he doubted it. He chose not to move, waiting for the sound of it.
He heard it shortly after the snap of a branch from the same brush. The sound of the quill whizzing through the air. There was scurry of noise shortly after he heard the quill land in the riverbank soil, the would be predator abandoning its stealth in retreat.
She had chosen not to strike the other woman. Surprising for her, she typically was quite aggressive in establishing her territory. Though as the man felt the stir beneath the bundle of cloth around his chest, he swiftly guessed her reasoning. He peeked beneath the cloth, and the cub was still asleep next to his chest, only her dull claws kicking in deep sleep tantrum.
They had enough food for now, he decided, resting his spear against his shoulder and running a finger lazily across his daughter’s cowlick. She had screamed and screamed to come hunting with him, then dozed off before they could even hear the river. She would be livid when she woke at home, but she at least was manageable now. There would be time for wood gathering while she slept still, hopefully. The cabin bordered on hypothetical, but he was confident he could finish it before Winter. His wife mocked him, but he would have a semblance of a house again one day. Only so many winters in a cave could he stomach.
His daughter sneezed, and he felt it. The sharp prick of needles pricking his skin. He grimaced. They had grown large enough to poke through the cloth? She had only just learnt to talk uninterrupted by baby gags and giggles. To grow up so fast, it hurt him more than the pricks.
Warmth waxed throughout his leg, and he felt the corners of his mind tighten. Smells hit his nostrils refined and harsh, his vision narrowed like a beast’s, and his ears picked the sound of his wife’s cackle from the rushing water. He sighed, as he would not be allowed to forage for lumber now. She would want him first, and for far too long. The poison that once eroded his mind, from that faithful night for months after, now only stimulated him.
He bundled the cub back up and collected the basket, hung it off the neck of his spear. As he moved towards the narrow bit of path carved out by his repeated trek from their home to the river, he paused.
The trees were clumped together in the canopy above, slivers of orange sunset pushing through the gaps. He could see past them at their cave, nestled as it was atop a hill overlooking the sea of trees. Yet even then they continued on for miles and miles, past his vision and into the curve of the horizon. He had not seen a human like him since he was taken, rarely spoken to any other monsters either. Somewhere, he imagined, the Countess still harvested the men from that prison town, and delivered them to the women of the sea.
Somewhere too was a grave, made for a mother by her surviving son. The man wondered if it lay undisturbed, if the prisoners would respect it if even they saw to ransack his now abandoned home in that village.
The cub gurgled in the cloth, and the man turned back towards the path. His wife shifted in the branches above, stalking him faithfully.
His mother would not have wished this for him, he mused. Yet as he thought of the nights spent in the warmth of his wife, as his cub nestled her head into his chest and dozed softly, the man liked to think that perhaps somewhere she saw him and was happy.
He thought of the boy in his hut, miles and miles and years away. The one who dreamt of life in the attic of a rich family’s estate, serving them day and night. A boy that would have a home, who would make another happy, who would find a place where he would be seen.
The cub stirred. She hissed and thrashed in the bundle, claws poking through and tearing fabric filling the air. He uncovered her head and she stared at him with puffy cheeks that grew redder by the second.
“Hunt! Go hunting!” She bellowed. She noticed the fish hanging from the spear and clawed for them. The man was unphased, shifting the spear away from her grip even as he was met with a shrill scream.
“Hungry! I want fishy!” She screamed.
“Cub!” He yelled. His voice boomed across the forest. The cub’s ears flattened as she went silent, then sunk her chin onto his chest. Her eyes were suspicious, her tiny body tense and coiled for another potential tantrum. Her mother’s daughter, indeed.
“Tomorrow, you will catch dinner.” He told her. The cub’s ears perked, her back slackening. “Rabbits, if you can manage.”
“Rabbiiit.” She drooled. “Tasty….”
“I will hunt for my own food tomorrow, while you hunt for yours.” He was lying, and horribly at that. His daughter stared at him intensely nonetheless. “If you go hungry, it will be because you are a poor hunter.”
She growled. “Better hunter. Better than monkey Father.”
He smiled. “You’ll have to prove it.”
She quieted, snuggled into his chest and staring up at him with focus. She stayed that way as he began again on the trail, claws ticking at his chest as she clung to him. She was nearly a babe still, but he knew she would be able to hunt. His wife had told him, and he knew for herself it was true. Even were she to fail, he would make sure a stray rabbit found its way to her claws.
He scratched behind her ears, and a moment of tenseness passed to see her relax into his arms at last. The tantrums were powerful, but not long lasting. Soon she began again to doze, hanging limply from his arms. His wife stalked the branches still above, he heard again her smug laugh.
Family. That’s what they were, weren’t they? He had known this for a while, but the word finally came to him.
The man thought one last time of the boy, who his mother’s last sight of had been a weak, frail thing. A thing she must have worried horribly would be alone in this world, without direction.
And he knew then that she was smiling somewhere for certain. For the man had found his family.
The man had found his purpose.