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Teratopathy

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             “Valentin?” Canis held the hooded lantern high, peering into the dark forest. He stayed close to the path, never straying more than a step or two into the trees; it was easy enough to get turned around in the woods in daylight. While calling over and over for his missing housemate had the unfortunate side effect of announcing his presence to everything that prowled the woods at this advanced hour, it was marginally safer than the disadvantage of hunting in silence, running the risk of walking right past Valentin’s hiding spot—assuming he had the good sense to hide.

             Of course, good sense, Canis though ruefully, would’ve been staying out of the forest altogether, after another flayed animal corpse had cropped up in the city center, drained of blood, ribs exploded outward, skin falling in shreds off splintered bones, only swipes of dried blood on the cobblestones and huge, savage claw-marks traced back to the edge of the forest to give any indication of the culprit, but since Valentin’s usually-impeccable judgement had failed him in that, Canis couldn’t just leave him.

             He followed the bank of the river, stoking the lantern’s flame every so often with a wave of his hand and a sprinkle of golden sparks, calling. When he reached the cluster of thick, purplish-leaved bushes disguising the river’s sharp bend, he paused, listening through the ambient sounds of nocturnal life and the distant roar of the waterfall far downstream. When nothing stood out, he moved in to search the bushes.

             His next step made a sickly, wet squishing sound, the ground beneath his gold-brocade boot giving way much more than it should have, even for the loose soil of the river bank. Canis looked down—and gagged.

             The grass was soaked with blood, wine-red under the lantern light. He would’ve chalked it up to fallen berries—they weren’t called bloodberries for nothing—but for the scraps of fur, chunks of viscera, splashes of clear vital fluid mixed in with the mess, and the repulsive, metallic, raw-meat stench. Following the vile, streaky drag marks with his light, Canis came around the copse of bushes, bile rising in his throat.

             Splayed out on the river bank had once been an animal, presumably—from the still-intact tail and one spotted ear hanging off a shattered skull by a thread, Canis guessed a large dog, thought it had lost a good deal of its largeness to whatever had ripped it open under the bushes. Its new resting place and much of its flesh were bloodless, the internal cavity mostly empty, with a few ribbons of flesh dangling in the water, the river’s currents having swept away most of the entrails. The skull was smashed beyond recognition, and the eyes were missing.

             Recoiling from the grisly sight, Canis turned to flee back to the treeline when he heard a sigh, too soft to be the wind, too isolated to be an animal, in the woods just in front of him. He froze, easing down the black tin hood over his light, willing the flame to snuff itself, plunging himself into the shadows at the edge of the brush. Amid the banded white trunks, hardly more than ten feet in front of him, a twig snapped, followed by wet, slurping sounds that made his stomach turn. Slowly, his eyes began to adjust, and he could make out a shape in the dense forest, crouched in the underbrush, glimpses of pale skin he’d mistaken for moonlight dribbling through the leaves. As he watched, the sounds of something licking raising the hairs on the back of his neck, there was a flash of gold, brilliant and artificial. He took a measured, silent breath, backing away from the trees, and tasted smoke, like incense, heady and sweet. It did not combine pleasantly with the smell of death, and before he could stop himself, he retched.

             Red. Not the bleached, tired approximation under the moonlight, but pure, vivid crimson, burning into his eyes from the depths of the forest. They were eyes, Canis was sure of it, but unlike any he’d ever seen, in a face unlike any he’d ever seen, ghostly pale with inky-black markings like some kind of strange mask and, as he watched, a white, too-wide, far-too-pointed grin.

             He hurled the lantern, bolting back to the path without waiting to see it hit. He hadn’t taken three steps before an arm like an iron bar wrapped around his chest, pulling him flesh to a strange body, a voice like mercury and broken glass murmuring in his ear.

             “Not so fast, my tasty little unfortunate.”

             Canis let out a yelp, struggling, but the grip was unyielding; the arm locked over his chest looked like armor, panels of sleek gold with an eerie white glow between the slats, while the hand clasping his shoulder was black as soot, the color fading to an unearthly pale partway up the forearm, taut muscle holding him easily in place. Both hands were tipped with wicked claws, the golden set glinting in the moonlight. The smoky-sweet smell was all around him, now, oddly warm in the crisp night air. The black hand clamps down, claws just pricking through his constellation-patterned cloak and pink voile underneath, and Canis cried out, flinching away.

             “Shh, shh-shh-shh…” The black hand gripped his jaw controllingly. Lips moved against his ear, feverishly hot, breath washing his cheek with the scent of fresh blood. “I wasn’t expecting you, but I never say no to dessert.”

             Canis felt the mouth open wide against his cheek, and his magic responded instinctively, exploding into golden flames around him. With a guttural snarl, the clawed hands released him, and he should’ve run, but he turned to see it, instead.

             It was almost like a man, dressed only in a cloth draped like a ruby-red palla, falling off one shoulder and a decidedly humanoid chest, but for the clawed hands, the golden arm sprouting apparently seamlessly from a soot-black shoulder; for the mask of black markings, a pointed teardrop in the middle of the forehead like an inverted third eye and pupil, two thick black stripes curving around like brushstrokes to the temples, sharp black switchbacks under the evil red eyes mirroring the shape of the dark brows above; for the gleaming, bared, carnivorous-looking teeth and long, sharp, spiral-shaped black horns arching back over platinum hair, fading to pure white where they rooted in the skull. As he stared, the creature licked a splash of congealing blood off the corner of its mouth, grimacing.

             “A magician, huh?” One dark, stenciled brow cocked, pale lips curling smugly. “You really will be a treat.”

             Canis summoned flames to his hands again, raising one defensively. “Stay back.”

             “Ooh, spunky.” It stalked toward him, ‘til he could see the drops of liquid silver in the luminous red eyes. “And so pretty…oh, I could just eat—you—up.”

             A growl crept into its voice, and Canis shuddered, but he didn’t back down. “What are you?”

             “A Capricorn.” The black claws unfolded, reaching for his face. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to get me anything.”

             Canis made a swipe with his burning hand, and it flinched away, snapping, “Oh, come on!”

             In spite of himself, he giggled. “What’s the matter? Scared of a little fire?” He feinted toward it with the flames, and it jumped back, snarling. Canis looked the creature over again, eyeing the bloody streaks splattered down its chin and chest, crumbling as they dried. “So you’re what’s been killing the livestock.”

             With an offended gasp, the golden hand flew to its chest. “I am not.”

             “Then how do you explain that?” Canis gestured to the patch of bloody ground and the dead, inside-out dog, trying not to look at either one.

             “If I had a whole cow today, I wouldn’t have needed that,” it sneered, rolling its eyes.

             Canis cocked an eyebrow. “I never said it was a cow.”

             It grinned, showing its teeth—at least two sets of long canines, and the rest were no less sharp. “I know more than you think, little magician.” It took a few paces toward him, wiping the blood off its chin with the black hand and licking its fingers clean. “What’s your name?”

             He frowned. “What’s yours?”

             “Lucio.” He turned his golden claws in the moonlight, admiring them. “It means ‘light’.”

             Canis snorted derisively. “Canis. I’d tell you what it means, but I think you’d get too excited.”

             “Oh, I’m already excited—” The creature—Lucio—lunged for him, but Canis wreathed himself in flames again. They licked over his clothes harmlessly, leaping less-harmlessly forward to nip at Lucio’s fingers. He recoiled with a low growl, feral and deep in his chest. Keeping his protective bubble of magical flames, Canis crossed his arms. “Here’s how this is going to go. You bring me the lantern I threw at you, and I turn around and go home. And you don’t follow me,” he added sharply, holding out his hand expectantly.

             “I don’t fetch,” Lucio hissed, bristling. The shadows seemed to curl and elongate around him, dark black markings deepening to bottomless chasms, eyes flashing so searingly bright the full moon seemed to blink away to nothingness.

             “That’s a cute trick,” Canis retorted, opening and closing his hand with a sweet smile. “Lantern, please.”

             Lucio glared at him a moment more, still enveloped in shadow, and for a moment, Canis worried he’d pushed too far—then the tin handle of the lantern plopped into his hand.

             He blinked. Lucio had retreated to the treeline again, pouting into his rich red cloth.

             With a satisfied “hmph”, Canis turned on his heel, following the river back to the path and lighting his lantern with a flick of his hand. Behind him, he heard the creature mutter, “Tease.”