She felt them dying. It was, of course, what they were made for, and Galatea was not one for comrades, but still she felt them dying. Evisceration, decapitation, bisection, long words for short deaths, and she chose desertion as a response. Alicia and Beth would remind her if her resolve faltered, but it rarely did. The yoki emanating from the Awakened Beings rampaging across the continent was enough to cover her sparse trail, not that any of the remaining warriors possessed the wherewithal to find her.
Galatea had been loyal, or loyal enough, and she had not particularly cared for any of those dying in the north. But she was no fool. Butchery in one corner of the continent, a new kind of warrior in the other, and no room between for her to stand. She would not be a sacrifice again.
They were all dead now: father and mother and grandmother, baby sister torn in two because Galatea wouldn't let go, wouldn't let the monsters find them. But there had been monsters all around and nowhere to hide, and none of them went away when she closed her eyes, and closing her eyes could not stop her from seeing the monsters devouring her family.
The town had not driven her out, but there was only so long she could stay in the wreckage of her family's shop. The town had not driven her out, but they had not offered food nor water nor shelter either.
The next town over had—moldy bread and cloudy water and a bed of earth—and Galatea was grateful and cried in relief to have enough water to wash the blood from her hair. My pretty girl, her mother would say, stroking it, my pretty sweet lovely girl, endearments whispered to the rhythm of the brush. And wouldn't her mother scold her for letting her pretty hair turn to a rat's nest of tangles, wouldn't she be sad to see her pretty girl in the dirt? But the orphanage had no money, and the yoma were attacking nearby villages, and too many dirty ugly children with dark blood in their hair came through the town gates.
So when the men in black stopped by, they sold her and two more bony girls and told her that her sacrifice would keep the others safe and warm and fed, and they turned away when she spat her goodbye. Ugly manners, her mother would say, pretty is as pretty does, but she never told her pretty girl that monsters ate pretty and ugly girls alike.
Despite the decimation of the Organization's warriors, Galatea masked her eyes and her senses with the pills. From town to town, the boys whistled and the men leered, abuses she distantly remembered from her time as a pretty girl. They only saw the pretty hair and the smooth face, and they did not know the bruises and cuts pale skin had healed over, nor the gold eyes and fangs beneath. She would have shown them how death's grin twisted her lips, how a sword fit in her hand, if only secrecy were not paramount.
In one town, a dirty girl in patched clothes told her her hair was beautiful.
"Mine is not," the girl said, and Galatea was intrigued enough to follow her to an orphanage. She was cautious; she had been a warrior too long to not know of Teresa's fate. But the girl was one dirty girl among many, and one girl could not make that much of a difference for a runaway warrior.
She washed the girl's face—none too kindly, for the water was cold and the cloth rough—and brushed her hair, and when she learned the girl had a twin sister, she left a gold coin with the orphanage, the twins trailing behind her.
"Pretty girls," she called them. "But pretty will not keep you alive," she warned.
The first days were the worst.
At least, that was what the men in black said, and Galatea knew from the start not to trust them.
"It will get better," some girls said, voices high and sweet with hope, eyes clouded with despair. But the warriors who had survived were few, and those who stooped to talk to the new recruits were fewer still. No sense in forming bonds, particularly when most of them would die anyway, said the kindest of the women-turned-beasts, her abruptness and honesty a refuge from the knife smiles of the Organization and the twittering fright of the girls. "It will get better," she told Galatea, "but not before it gets worse, and it will never be good."
She was right, only "worse" didn't prepare her for the agony of transformation, yoma blood and yoma flesh an attack on her body. But nothing was as bad as the yoki coursing through her, nothing save the knowledge of what it was making her. How thin the line between girl and monster was, how easy it was to cross with only a few nights' pain.
Afterward, she washed the sweat and tears and blood off, harsh soap stinging where she had torn away skin in the effort to rip the yoma out of herself. Afterward, there was no rose water to dab behind her ears and on her wrists, no mother to annoint her anyway, and a mass of twisted, scarred flesh in place of her white, soft stomach.
Afterward, there were fewer girls, and those who remained no longer hoped nor despaired, and merely survived.
Anna and Isobel were the first but not the last. Galatea tracked down every orphanage within reach and often left with twin girls. She should have killed them, or at least one in each pair: the Organization would be far crueler than her sword. But she stayed her hand and continued to collect them. When she found herself brushing out their hair and gently braiding it, her calluses snagging loose strands, she gathered them all together and hacked off their braids with her claymore.
Most of them cried themselves to sleep that night, disturbing her own rest, and a good few sulked through the morning as well.
"We aren't pretty anymore," one complained, and Galatea looked at them, looked at their bony legs or their pudgy hands, at their pimply skin and their crooked teeth.
"No, you aren't," she agreed with them, "and some of you never were." One of them whimpered. "But I will make you beautiful instead."
Although few of the remaining girls had laid eyes on Teresa of the Faint Smile, all of them knew of her. Galatea listened when the numbered warriors gossiped about Teresa—and there was always gossip about Teresa—and she taught herself to find warriors through their yoki by the time her claymore stopped chafing her palms bloody. By the time her dark hair faded to gold and her dark eyes bleached silver, she could find any of them, even trainees like herself, within the city, and her detection of yoki proved the salvation of her group the day they rose from trainees to warriors.
The day after, the Organization chose her symbol, alongside those of five others, and word was that Teresa had killed, thrown all away only to protect a useless human girl from useless human men. The warriors protected all the useless humans, always, their services repaid with fear and disgust.
When Teresa fell and Priscilla Awakened, Galatea had taught herself enough to limit her release of yoki. She too could bestow faint smiles, although she would not make Teresa's mistake and let those smiles mean anything. She was ugly inside, through and through, but she would keep her pretty face all the same.
Some of the girls fought better than the others, but after a year, all of them could fight. Galatea trained them in hand-to-hand combat and swordplay, in stealth and brute force. She told them stories about yoma and the Organization, and if the Organization ever found them, she told them stories of last stands and suicides. She taught them to think fast and to think wide, to run and to make a stand, to scar and to heal and to live to fight another day. And when they had learned, she taught them they were beautiful.
A few girls left, but most stayed, and gradually, because the girls wanted to, Galatea lead them to yoma. The first fights took all the girls and Galatea to finish it, left several with broken bones and deep wounds but all still living. They would never be able to fight an Awakened One, but they could defend a town from solitary yoma, and they were wise enough to know their limits.
She did not quite believe it when Clare burst through the stone floor of the cave with Jean in tow; reading the yoki left her resigned to Jean's Awakening and eventual death at Clare's hands. But Clare, Number 47, had managed what she never had, and perhaps the line between human and monster was thinner than she thought.
My pretty girl, her mother would say, stroking her hair, stroking her cheek, stroking her hand. Why don't you hug me, why don't you talk to me? And she would not, could not understand why Galatea stayed away, how the fingers of guilt and possession and affection could strangle as well as embrace. Pretty is as pretty does, her mother would say, and this is all for you, all for you, saving her from the pains and freedom of ugliness, constraining her to a pretty, simple world. And when the yoma finally shed her mother's form, all gleaming eyes and glittering smile but the same voracious appetite, Galatea could not have said when the yoma had replaced her mother.
The pills had run out long ago; the Awakened One's arrival woke Galatea, even though she was far from Rabona. She had found many girls by then, and she had faith enough to leave all her twins behind and resolve enough to tear out her eyes. The blackness was worse than she had imagined: she could find every warrior on the continent, but not the path in front of her. Anna and Isobel caught her off guard when they found her, her four senses no match for the lack of two.
"Your pretty eyes," Anna cried, presumably upon seeing her face.
"Yes, my pretty eyes," Galatea replied bitterly. "They will never turn gold again. Go away. You're no use to me. You'll die faster than I can swing my sword."
"You'll need to know how to move and fight without yoki too," Isobel said. "We can teach you," Anna added. "You taught us to fight," they said, "so let us teach you."
"And what could you teach me?" she scoffed.
She whirled around when she felt small hands in her hair, snorting in exasperation when her attempts to bat them away failed.
"We're here," one said, and four hands lead her back to her claymore, jammed in the ground.
"And what could you teach me?" she asked, softer now. "I will master the darkness as I've mastered everything else."
"What you taught us," they said. "To be beautiful."
The line between human and monster was thin indeed, but Galatea had never thought it could be crossed both ways.