You hear cries—whimpers, really—fill the air. It was obvious—in the small, sparsely but lovingly decorated room—that the sounds originated from its centerpiece: a lone crib. Moonlight filters in through a cozy and clean window, casting its shadow on a carpet whose cream color darkens, the stain spreading. Yet another thing ruined.
You try to ignore the smell as you enter further into the room. You step carefully, breaths measured and there and human. Your senses are too keen, so you try to ignore your reaction to the scent instead.
You stop beside the crib. A fluttering heartbeat filters into your ears as you look down at the child within. It’s young, no older than an infant, face scrunched up and flushed and alive. Does it know? you wonder. It’s a child, not old enough for reason, for thought. It is ruled by its immature senses and instincts.
Your shadow looms beside the child.
Does it know?
You remember the first time you saw a monster.
“Still looking after ducklings, Minerva?”
Most of your fellow trainees turned towards the voice; your mentor did as well, but you stood behind her and watched her hands, clasped as they were at her back. Her knuckles whitened.
“Oh, sorry,” the stranger simpered, “you call them cubs, isn’t that right?”
Miss Minerva was trembling. The realization just seemed wrong, and you tore your eyes away, alighting finally on the strangers in your midst.
Black on ivory, was your first thought. Her skin was pale and her hair was dark and wild.
“Bella, remember the plan,” the second stranger reminded. She was a lighter, softer version of the first. Twins?
A frown flickered over the dark-haired one—Bella?—’s face. “Right.” Her voice was remarkably normal for a moment. And then she was smiling once more. “Oh Minnie, do be a dear and stay out of our way.” The veneer of normalcy lasted but a moment. She was mercurial. Unpredictable.
“Is that a threat, Bellatrix?”
Bellatrix cackled, free and reckless. The rest of you were frozen. “Or don’t,” her teeth flashed in the light, “I’d never turn down a slaughter.” Her eyes panned over you and your peers. You couldn’t tell her iris from her pupil; it was so dark, but you could feel the contempt in her gaze. It was cold and cruel. You never felt so worthless. Or afraid.
“Leave them alone!” You don’t remember deciding to step forward, to near your mentor; but when she snapped, her voice cracking like thunder, you startled to find yourself almost beside her. Miss Minerva looked...unsettled. It unsettled you, and you turned your gaze elsewhere.
Bellatrix was pouting and then she opened her mouth. Her sister—she had to be—laid a hand on her shoulder and Bellatrix’s mouth shut with nary a sound.
“We aren’t here for them, Minerva.” Her eyes, brown instead of black, panned over the other trainees before settling. “Or you.”
“Andromeda, what are you doing?” She knew them, you realized. She had to with how differently she treated them. There was a familiarity there, a closeness none of you trainees were afforded. Who are they? you wondered.
“What should have been done decades ago,” Andromeda answered obliquely.
Miss Minerva’s eyes widened. “You can’t possibly—” Your gaze bounced between the two.
Her voice struck, stopping your mentor cold, “Leave now, Minerva.”
“I—” You had never seen her so raw and conflicted.
“Take your cubs and go.” Andromeda was as unyielding as iron.
“You’re mad,” Miss Minerva said, aghast.
“And that’s why we won’t fail.”
The sheer determination in her tone made even your mentor falter, but she was not appeased. “What will happen after?”
Andromeda paused, and Bellatrix jumped back in.
“Tick tock, Minnie.” Miss Minerva just glared. Dark eyes rolled. “You’re a clever girl; I’m sure you’ll come up with something.” Bellatrix switched from condescending to saccharine. “Now, I’m getting bored.” There was an unsettling duality to that last word, a dark undertone slipping in and rumbling, lower than a woman of her size should have been able to produce.
There was only one word to describe it.
But not all monsters were so obvious.
You remember too, passing through a town that one of your peers had helped. She had killed the demon—the human-hunters you have dedicated your lives to hunting—but left the orphan.
The townspeople didn’t.
You watch your shadow as its hand raises. Wind parts, whistling briefly, softly.
And then it’s silent.
You remember the first monster you saw whose monstrosity was evident on her face.
Her irises glowed like embers.
Those eyes from hell were the last clear thing you remembered from that time, the rest of your memories blurred as your mentor quickly shepherded you and your peers away. It was confused and hurried. The halls smelt of blood.
You hate that smell.
You were half-monster, had given up your claim to humanity for power and the ability to help—you thought you knew what monsters were. But those two...Bellatrix and Andromeda, they were beautiful and terrible, and so far beyond what you had thought monsters could be. They had to be monsters, to snuff out so many lives, to contain so much power and cruelty, to leave behind the reek of a reaper.
You were half-monster, and you hate how that smell makes you feel.
“Why,” a voice lilts, shattering the silence of your journey back to base, “is that a lone duckling I see?”
You don’t miss the emphasis she put on ‘lone.’ Of course she knew why that was significant. In her time, warriors tended to travel alone, joined only briefly by their handler unless a mission required a team of warriors. In your time, after what she and her sister did, there were no handlers. Miss Minerva had warriors travel in pairs at the least, to check each other, to watch each other’s back and the blood on their hands. In her time, warriors were shackled by tenets that if broken meant death. In your time, necessity dictated those tenets die.
You could kill humans. And by being alone, they trusted you to be right and safe, always.
You remember asking your mentor what the sisters were because you knew they could not possibly be human, or even half-human like you.
“They’re called the Abysmal Ones,” your mentor said into the hush that followed your question. “They were Single Digits.” Even you trainees knew how absurdly powerful the Single Digits were. The Organization assigned ranks based on the power of the warrior. “They fell.” ‘Fell’, such a quaint euphemism for losing the war every warrior fights within themselves. Balancing their human heart and demonic power, they must not go too far, draw too deeply lest they become that which they had sworn to fight.
These ‘fallen’, these demons who were once warriors, you had heard how powerful they were, how warriors were sent in teams to fight them. For a Single Digit to fall? There was no fighting them, only surviving.
You remember that as you don’t tense and reach for your weapon. “Hello, Bellatrix.” It was an even, polite greeting. You turned your gaze vaguely in her direction.
Bellatrix “the Tempest” former Ranked Number One who fell with her sister, the former Ranked Number Two stood alone.
“Aw, muddie,” simpers the woman-shaped monster. You hate that nickname, an allusion to your unusually dark hair. Most warriors are blonde, the procedure that made them half-human bleaching their hair, skin, and eyes. Your hair could still be called brown, somewhat. You remember the whispers trailing you of ‘defect.’ And the realization that you probably would not have become a trainee had the Organization not been so desperate. So hunted.
“It’s been so long, and that’s the greeting I get?” In a blink she is a few feet away. You hear droplets hit the ground; she had run through one of the puddles nearby. Dramatic. Her clothes are pristine.
How have you survived this long?
“I almost feel hurt.” Only your weapon prevents her hand from gouging out your eye, and even then, your arms shake under the strain, burning with demonic energy but still struggling against this monster—“A bit slow today, aren’t we, muddie?” she asks, tutting.
Her hand drops.
You don’t lower your weapon far, keeping yourself ready—as ready as anyone can be for whatever she does next.
Eventually, “It was not my intention,” you demure.
She blinks at your attempt, moonlight too dim for her irises to be anything but black. And then she laughs. She laughs and outrage warms your veins where fear had frozen them. You try to swallow your reaction, your pride. She notices.
“Oh?” Her eyebrow arches, and you stop yourself from meeting her gaze directly. “Is muddie in a bad mood?”
You tense as some instinct of yours blares.
“Mudbaby didn’t like killing a baby?”
Cold. Your mind blanks, buried under a blanket of white, frigid snow. How does she kno—You cut the thought off. There’s no use.
“You get all pissy at me,” once in your first proper meeting, “for torturing a few people,” several towns’ worth, “to insanity,” most ended up dying because they couldn’t care for themselves anymore, “but you can go murder—”
Steam. “That’s not how it is and you know it,” falls out in a rush. You try and steady your breathing. Anger, raging anger, could get you killed.
They trusted you to be safe.
“‘That’s not how it is’,” Bellatrix mocks, her voice a facsimile of a child. “Don’t be delusional, muddie,” she snarls a barely-polite distance away from your face. A blink and only the whistle of the wind marks her departure. “It’s not a flattering look on you,” comes her voice from behind you.
They trusted you to be right.
You further loosen the chains on your demonic energy, feeling it burn in your eyes and limbs as you turn. She moves, just slowly enough that your eyes—enhanced but still not enough, never enough—caught sight of her blurring away.
You don’t twitch as she speaks again from somewhere to your left, “What happened to your fervent belief that innocents shouldn’t be harmed?” You bite your tongue hard, clamping down on your demonic core as it flares, but otherwise remaining completely, unnaturally—inhumanly—still.
Were you breathing?
You focus on the air entering your lungs. You refuse to let her run you around.
“Oh, I know!” The happiness in her tone makes you tense. “Did muddie not trust that the humans would be benevolent and forgiving,” why does she remember that, those words you had spouted so long ago, before you knew of monsters who—
“What do you want, Bellatrix?” you freeze after the words had been snapped out. You weren’t supposed to say that.
They trusted you to stay safe, and provoking the Tempest is not staying safe, you idiot.
“Oh?” Your weapon clangs as if striking steel. Bellatrix stands before you once more, her pale and deceptively soft hand resting on your weapon as if your strike wouldn’t have cleaved easily through five men. “Can’t I want to just check in with one of the Minnie’s cubs?”
Your teeth clenches at the casual disrespect of your mentor. You knew Miss Minerva deserved respect, not least of which from her. You never worked up the courage to ask who Bellatrix was to Miss Minerva, before she fell, but they had to have known each other; your mentor’s emerald eyes were always too pained whenever she heard or spoke of her. As far as you know, they haven’t met since the first time you saw Bellatrix.
Bellatrix doesn’t appreciate your silence. “Do you think Minnie would be proud of you, muddie? Her protege, the defective baby-kille—”
“Shut up.” Your voice emerges as if from a gravelly cavern. You feel your flesh shift in response to the demonic energy you briefly let loose. Control it, you remind yourself. Don’t fall.
You were already operating near the threshold of your limit. Bellatrix had ahold of your weapon. You weren’t strong enough to break out. You were trapped.
The realization settles your roiling energy a bit. You meet her eyes.
“You’re learning; aren’t you, muddie?” she asks before her voice drops in pitch and volume. “Demons aren’t the only monsters in this world.” Her irises are unfathomable. “Humans are too; their monsters lurk beneath their skins and behind closed doors or pretty lies—they convince themselves that they’re not wrong or monstrous,” her voice lilts as if in song, prancing along ‘wrong’ and ‘monstrous’ as if they were flowers in a field. Her next words, harsh and grating, were made all the more jarring, “or they just don’t care—” her words claw out from her chest, rattling your bones, “so why do you protect them?”
She was so angry; it lurked beneath her skin, and she wasn’t alone. “They are not,” you protest harshly, ignoring that you had learned because you still cannot accept —”Not all of them.” Why did you protect them? Why did you, a poor little orphan girl, sign away your humanity and then follow your mentor in an unending war? “They’re not all monsters,” you believed that, as deeply and as strongly as you felt the acrid burning within you. “I protect them because it’s the right thing to do.” You had to believe that.
Bellatrix speaks again and she sounds human. “And the murderer in Evansville you ‘protected’ from a demon?” You thought you had smelled something from his basement, but—“He killed three more before he was caught, muddie,” she leaned in, “was protecting him ‘the right thing’?”
Three more? Your heart pangs, still bodies trying to crowd your mind; but you focus. “Yes.” Bellatrix’s lips pull back, her teeth shining in the moonlight. “Yes, it was still the right thing to do: I did not force him to continue his crimes; I just gave him the chance—”
“A chance he wouldn’t have had—”
“Everyone deserves a chance!” you barely keep from shouting.
She stills. Did you surprise her? Her eyes hood once more. “You really are her protege, aren’t you, muddie.” You hate how familiar and knowing she sounds. She doesn’t know you or your mentor; she’s just a monster—
“What do I want?” she asks the air.
A chill races down your spine, body burning, primed with demonic energy.
“I want to see how you’ll disappoint her.” She smiles, her teeth white and lips blood red. She leans in and whispers softly, gently, “And the monster you’ll become.”
Bellatrix disappears. You wait, slowly drawing energy back into your core, priming it to explode back out if this is a ploy.
You wait with senses heightened and the moon shining down until it becomes clear that she is well and truly gone.
You resume your journey back to base, passing by a puddle in the road, perhaps even the one Bellatrix had disturbed.
You look into it, your reflection staring back.
You can’t remember when you didn’t see a monster.
What do Bellatrix, and Miss Minerva, and all of your friends see?