Like most afternoons (which serves as daybreak in the Grand Mother's House -- something the old cock learned to respect, when its body was spelled to house-size, and then relieved of its feet, feathers, and heart, to be repurposed in a way that didn't sound a reveille at dawn) it begins with tears.
By now, Lukis knows the touchstones.
Wet face, raw throat. Spent body, mind flooded with dreams. Dreams that make dark soil of his heart. Strange things grow there now. His thoughts are tangled and twined around one another like an orgy of serpents, each one bearing yet another poison-barbed offshoot of an offshoot of an offshoot. The scratch in his throat is full of terrible things: thorns, broken glass slippers. More terrible still is the knowing that something wants to climb free, and that something is inside of him.
“Hmmm,” is the first thing he hears, as he pulls himself out of the aftermath of another of the Grand's spells and awakes with a gasp.
The only sounds are birdsong and the click-click-click of precious stone claws drumming on the stone walkway where he'd been dragged and dumped out of the way well into the night before. The Grand must be peddling her wares to the latest assassin guild charged by the merchants of the City with swatting down the newest royal pest. A duchess with ideas of broadening her literal horizons, if he recalls. The rest of those belonging to the Grand who can pass as human with a cloak and some convenient shadows will have accompanied her as guards and selling points both. Croak is undoubtedly still in her moat, and Pinkie underground.
Lukis and Evvy have a rare day alone.
Evvy frowns as he sits up. Leans in to sniff his upper torso, before shoving him to his back again with a clawed hand. She swipes her tongue at the enflamed-looking scar on his chest.
“Different,” she rumbles against his chest, letting the second syllable edge into a growl. She licks him again, slower and dragging along more surface area as if checking viscosity or minerality levels.
Lukis twitches inside his trousers and squirms before shoving her head away in panic. "Cut it out!"
She lifts her gaze up to his, her overcast eyes full of orange flashes of lightning ready to strike a man down. "Grand left a list."
"Of course She did."
The Red Cloak is nothing more than finely-crafted, richly-dyed red cloth, but the Grand stitched it together with devil-thread, imbuing each square inch with the sick glow of rubies rather than the healthy flair of cardinal's feathers. It has swaddled Lukis as a loathed and cherished newborn, and grown and re-shaped itself as he has grown and re-shaped himself. It is always a perfect fit. The protective weight of abomination settles around his shoulders no matter how wide they get as if it was made for him, because it was.
The Cloak is a signal to everything that breathes in the Woods who Lukis belongs to. He is not to be stolen or harmed. Nothing can touch Lukis when he is in the Woods as long as he wears the mark of the Grand Mother's magic.
Well, there is one.
“Can we not, just this once,” Lukis says, as Evvy herds him once more off the path, the third time in as many minutes. She ignores his protests, jabs him with quick stings of teeth and claws to his neck and back that the Cloak acknowledges with a sound like an angry hornet, but otherwise ignores. Evvy has been suffused with the magic of the Grand since she was a wailing infant fished out of a plague pit. She can touch him as much as she wants.
She leads him towards a fairy ring of black mushrooms that seem to eat up all the light and emit it back as a purple glow that crackles against the skin before it even touches. Moments ago she had pointed out some particularly lovely but perfectly ordinary roses that smelled of un-rose-like things: chocolate and wet grass and thunderstorms and fresh lemon-scented laundry.
Evvy's tendency to stalk him all through the Woods on the way to and from his mother's house is even more exasperating when he feels still half-drunk from a spell. Even moreso, when she doesn't bother to hide the smugness out of her hematite-toothed smile when he adds each new specimen to the basket.
“You know the rules, Boy-Turned-Red.”
But the Grand likes him to keep moving and not waste any of Her time. Any possible rules to whatever impossible game Evvy could be referring to clearly exist only inside the treacherous landscape of her own head. Not a journey Lukis intends to make.
But here he is, letting her lead him further and further away from the path each time. Though she always leads him back when he gets lost, it is far later than can be justified by what the Grand would consider such a simple trip.
"And stop calling me that," he snaps.
The title refers to more than just the Cloak on his back. It is The Grand’s cruel reference to the ruby-red, glowing fissure of scar tissue on his chest and belly that is a result of how he came out of his mother, Jeska. The Grand delivered him and took him on as an indentured servant as part of their agreement. Part of the bloodspell-binding contract is that Jeska use her knowledge of the things that grow in the Woods to gather and provide the supplies that the Grand needs for her spells while She’s attending to other business. And whatever is left to gather after Jeska reaches the point where she refuses to venture any further into the Woods, she teaches Lukis how to look for it before sending him on his way.
No one and nothing accosts Lukis on his way to the Grand’s (except for Evvy) because no creature, human or otherwise would dare incur the wrath of the Grand Mother. His mother, as opposed to his Mother, had been horrified to learn that she’d been pregnant. The Grand, in contrast, had been gloriously, repulsively, delighted, as Jeska likes to remind him. Lately his scar has begun to pulsate and emit feverish currents of warmth where the cracks would be if each branching thread of it were to split at the seams, which accounts for the Grand's delight. By all it accounts, it seems that Lukis is an investment that will pay off soon.
Evvy reaches into the basket and pulls out a crude boy-shape that wriggles to life in her grasp as soon as she touches it. She snaps the head off against a fang and spits it out. “Damn cursed GINGER!”
The cookie squeals away into the woods, patting its hands where its head used to be.
“That was for the Grand!”
Evvy flashes her unrepentant grin at Lukis, bright silver-black teeth cookie-speckled. If there was anything in the world less repentant than a splice-wolf after a meal, he has yet to see it. “She won’t miss it. Even She can’t stand the taste.”
“You know she will. And that wasn’t just some sweet treat. It’s going to spill its molasses guts like a born tattler.” Lukis hangs his head as if a smith’s forging iron had been laid upon his shoulders and then his wares had been beaten onto it. “Which I’m sure it was.”
Even The Grand hates ginger, and she’s the one who reclaimed the House for Her home. “GODDAMNED GINGERBREAD!!” she can be heard shrieking on any given day. The house was originally occupied by a different witch, or several. It’s unclear. But one of them definitely had a fixation on candy. And gingerbread. Endless shingles of gingerbread. One gets kicked off in a tantrum, another grows in its place.
“FUCKING GINGERBREAD!” is the welcome Evvy and Lukis are greeted with upon return to the House. There’s a loud plop and a squelching noise like a bucket’s worth of frosting falling from the roof and someone landing in it.
They very carefully don’t look at each other for fear of letting any laughter slip out. The Grand Mother spares no mercy for those who laugh at her expense.
The House is a newly chicken-footed, forever ginger-breaded monstrosity. Its rooster, an abandoned holdover from the House’s previous owner, used to frequently wake all of its night-inclined, morning-averse denizens with random, ill-timed reveilles, seemingly to shake them all out of its gingerbread walls and into the sunshine.
Such behavior came to abrupt and violent end when the Grand, roused from her beauty sleep, grabbed it barehanded and took an axe to its neck, feet, and wings. She uttered some words and the dismembered parts grew and grew until She waved her hand dismissively in the direction of the House until it grew taller with the addition of feet, and shaggier with the addition of giant feathers for thatching. No one knows when the heart was placed in the stove, where it subsequently fused itself. Or no one's admitting to it. One can still here the cock crow at the Grand Mother’s House, but never before three o’clock in the afternoon.
The Grand can’t change the frame of the House to something – anything – other than gingerbread no matter what spells she tries. She can only add on to it. It’s the House’s small act of defiance, the only one it can muster under such a powerful splice-witch. Much as She loathes the gingerbread, she refuses to move out, partly out of pride and not wanting to admit she can't completely dominate its will. And partly because It is in the perfect location. Accidental chicken-inspired architectural features aside, the splice-witch has never been a good builder.
But there are other pre-existing features that the Grand finds more agreeable. It boasts a turret that’s more like a tower jutting incongruously off to one side. Ornate rusty gates are placed at the beginning of the entrance that talk rustily to each other and harass anyone who approaches. A giant gilded bird cage still hangs in the corner from the ceiling in the kitchen with the door hanging off its hinge, and the oven still smells of burnt children. Cakes, if the House is in a better mood.
From the previous owner, of course. The Grand does not burn things. Or bake them. It is not Her style.
She cuts and stitches. And fuses contrasting elements back together, as if they were always meant to be.
She is a splice witch, and inarguably a bad one. But only bad as in bursting with ill intent; She is certainly good at doing the things She does.
Over the years, the Grand has added her own feminine touches. Girls transformed into animal hybrids of whatever beast the Grand wants the powers of. (What better way to store power when one can’t hold every aspect within oneself?--at least not yet.). They are her familiars. Some are part plants, some, objects. They’re all horribly beautiful, immeasurably strange.
There is Evvy, the favorite, once just another wailing piece of humanity thrown out during the Plague, grew from infancy to be a girl of wolf and metal. Her eyes are a boiling storm. One does not notice this out of poetry, but accuracy. A dark, inconstant, churning cloud grey that glows with threads of ember orange. Outlined by thick black lines that are part of her anatomy rather than a result of a smearing of kohl. Her eyes are in-humanly large and slanted at a too-sharp angle that slope at the ends with tear-drop shaped corners. They are wide-set to the point that it is hard for the uninitiated to focus on both eyes at the same time. The result is one intimidating eye bearing its full weight upon the viewer ‘til it feels like the storm cloud-lightning of it is the sky that you now reside under. The bridge of her nose is wide with a black tip. She has glossy black lips that look painted, but are not. Her skin as a pearl grey cast to it like that of a sunless but bright day. Dainty gentlelady’s fingers that end in dagger-sharp claws. Teeth that are mostly human except for sharp upper and lower canines in front that somehow fit comfortably inside her mouth except when she breaks into unexpected laughter like ripples on a lake or yawns, resting against a purple, splotched tongue. She has hematite teeth and obsidian claws.
There are the unlucky girls that are her failed experiments, or only partially successful. The ones who survive long enough, get names. There is the Goose Girl with one wing and one arm; the golden, singing harp girl, whose torso can be plucked to make the loveliest, saddest melody; the girl whose mouth and eyes are keyholes, and her fingers keys, the only way she can speak or see, is if she uses an unbearably complex sequence of opening and twisting, her skin a flexible brass. The crow-girl – whose head is more crow than girl. Pinkie, the basilisk, whose body is like a giant pink salamander’s with doll-like girl’s limbs shooting out of it and, most terrible of all, a beautiful girl’s head – blonde, china doll like, all the more terrible for its misplaced beauty.
They all worship Evvy because despite her own unbearable strangeness, all of her pieces fit well together, even with all the teeth in her overcrowded mouth that splits wider than any human’s. She is still beautiful. She is the Grand’s shining accomplishment, her greatest success, a constant reminder of Her own skill, which pleases Her. Evvy is the only familiar who was grown into her state. Rather than a mutated kidnapped peasant girl, “donated” ill-legitimate heir or princess too difficult to control. That’s why she’s a more successful creation. Evvy has no other memories than of being a familiar.
And, in a way, since She delivered him unharmed into this world out of Jeska's womb, and so Lukis in his way, is one of her successful creations.
Jeska was brutally raped when she was around Lukis's age. The Woodcutter's doing.
The Grand, sensing opportunity, had found her and put her back together using her devil-thread, the spell affecting the baby's blood. It changed him into something not entirely human. But the deer-faced Green Man--who had existed in the Woods long before the Grand made it her home--came crashing through the trees and placed his hand over Jeska's womb at the last second, adding his own magic to the mess.
A lesser bad witch would writhe in fury at her thwarted plans, the Grand just threw back her head and laughed. "Too late," she crowed. "You're too late. He's still of use to me! He's mine, you overgrown stag!"
Which is why Lukis bears the ugly scar of two opposing forces fighting for control.
He knows all these details because the Grand would recite them to him as She would a bedtime story in Her seductive voice. As he grew older and comprehension sharpened, She would reveal more intimate details over time.
Her message was clear. He had Her to thank for his very existence.
Beauty has power--especially when combined with strangeness.
And She would know. The Grand’s appearance is ever-evolving -- the general shape of Her remains the same, but Her features sharpen, Her colors morph. Most of the changes are temporary, except for the ones that have become ingrained like her hair. The Grand makes quite the impression, with specter-pale skin, and crow's glossy rainbow-black hair that turned violet-green in the light. An echo of Her oil-slick-colored potions, perhaps, or the many crows and starlings She'd swallowed whole in sacrifice to the temple of Her body. She is no crone. Her face is not the blush of youth, but ageless, a ruthless nightmare of loveliness. She leaves in her wake the scent of smoke and salt and freshly forged metal. But most of all, magic of the vicious sort.
Lukis has overheard villagers say in their hushed talk whenever She comes up in conversation in the local tavern at night that even Her blood was a potion now – not even human-red, and that a drop of it would fetch a purse of gold. That it would grant a man immeasurable power of distilled nightmares.
As if any would dare to hunt the Witch of the Woods, the great Grand Mother of chimeras, to harvest her parts. No, no one was going to try to relieve the Grand of a single iridescent blue butterfly scale from her eyelid, or a single crystalline pane of her dragonfly wing eyelashes. There would be no attempt to steal the fingernails that were almost like talons, with the mirrored, glittering gold-black of fool’s gold.
If her chimera-familiars displease Her, She says, “You have displeased me”, and devours them along with the other beasts of the forest and gains their magic qualities, spits out the excess power She can't hold onto. Her eyes can see colors only birds can see. And that is a hard power to give up.
There is a frog pond with a giant miserable Girl-Toad that serves as the monster in the moat. Croak was in her pond when Lukis and Evvy returned, algae-green breasts resting on her elongated haunches as she sat in deep- thought position, snapping at the occasional jewel-green fly that buzzed her way out of the air. She scratched at the jewel-encrusted gold circlet embedded in her forehead distractedly, instead of greeting them.
Everyone who lives with the Grand has a special loathing for gingerbread. Sometimes it’s all they eat. The Grand’s spells are expensive and the magic of the edible things in the Woods doesn’t always agree to coexist in that close contact with the magic of the Grand and her familiars. The splice-girls tend to be muscular, but whip-thin as a greyhound.
The ginger is enchanted with a sickly magic that clings to the soul in unpleasant ways and is just as sickly on the stomach. It infects one’s dreams and hazes one’s thoughts. The icing on the roof oozes down in a decaying, diseased manner. Especially when Mother is working herself into a fervor over a spell. Evvy claims that the only thing that can overwhelm the reek of it is freshly spilled blood, but Lukis thinks that’s just an excuse to murder. Not that she ever needs an excuse. Bodies of enterprising young men in armor or unkind merchants tend to pile up at the door, until someone shoves them into the pond, making Croak grumble and gurgle half-submerged for days after until Evvy does something nice for Pinkie, like find new ribbons for her hair.
It’s the biggest joke of all.
She isn’t really grandmother to any of them– but at times She insists Lukis call Her that, always accompanied by a malevolent smirk, as if at a joke only She understands. She, and perhaps his half-broken, half-determinedly wrathful mother.
It amuses The Grand Mother that the peasants from the village that spills alongside the edge of The Woods Where No One Walks At Night (or any time really, if you’re wise) have confused her name with Grandmother. The few unfortunate souls who were bold or foolish enough to end up on her doorstep all have the same comical gawking expressions on their faces. It is mostly men. The more stupid ones, anyway, which is most, quickly recover and descend into the same leer. Those end up in the Pot, more often than not, when they realize just how un-grandmotherly – or motherly, for that matter – she can be. This always puts her in a good mood.
Today is not one of those days.
There is a new task a week later, one that Lukis reacts to with a face that fills the Grand with glee when She tells him what is expected while She seizes upon a rare opportunity to meet with minor royalty and steal pieces from them that they didn’t know they were missing until too late. She lets forth the raucous sound of a flock of starlings, which is her equivalent of laughter, lately, due to all the bird-swallowing.
“Don’t you fret, my Little Scar. I would never take away your pretty,” Evvy reassures Lukis later, sliding the metal ring through a claw-pierced nipple, eliciting a delicate agony through his body. She is under orders from the Grand to see how this particular alloy reacts with the magic that runs through his blood.
It is the simplest, most direct way. Pain mixed with lust, or lust mixed with pain—hard to say which is the more accurate—is always the simplest way.
He can tell it is so, with the humming of bees that rushes through his ears and the scent of rainwater that fills the air.
“Still yourself,” she says, as she moves on to the other. Her voice terrifying, undeniable as an avalanche, but steady as a river, and with the familiar mercurial lack of unkindness. He feels himself not calmed, but steadied, by her cloudy, lightning-struck gaze. He nods, and the dark gray storm of her irises settles, the threads of orange cease flickering.
“Be brave, and you will find a present at the end of your quest.”
Quest, by which she means not the kind that has anything to do with shining knights and saving damsels. No one is getting rescued, here. “Questing,” involves the removal of clothes, the strategic application of claws and teeth.
She feeds him one of the light-eating mushrooms the Grand doesn’t know about and then a chocolate-scented rose. They are strangely sweet and forgiving on the tongue and easy to swallow. This is forbidden. Evvy is messing with the Grand’s experiments, the worst rule to break.
She licks his stinging nipples and grazes ever-so-lightly with a fang point. It is agony. Fire-roses blooming in his mind, bursting open. All the more-so because he can’t get enough. He tries not to speak, but that’s not how this game is played. He knows better. She keeps at it with an excruciating, exquisite pace until he chants, “Please, please.”
“Magic word?” she says, with pointy ear swiveling atop her head, as if asking the ether for clarification.
It turns out it is literally magic: As soon as he says it, a flower grows from his tears that fall to the dirt floor. A snowdrift of pink rose petals settle on them like a blessing. A small pile of them stick to the wetness in his trousers, as if to gently mock him. Thorny vines have surrounded them like a protection circle.
Evvy plucks the crystalline flower, twirling it to send prisms everywhere, pockets it to give to the Grand. She quickly sweeps up the petals to show her, too, but slices through the vines with a razor-sharp claw and shoves the pieces in a box to be dumped in the pond later, when the Grand is distracted.
They don’t say a word about the fact that this is the most Evvy’s touched him. And the most results that have occurred.
Lukis has a red stone in each earlobe that the Grand tagged him with. They are solidified pieces of Her magic and burn whenever She is impatient from a great distance for Lukis to do Her will. Sometimes they simply itch to the point of madness when the Grand is wrist-deep in the makings of a spell that have nothing to do with him.
Evvy says, “Shh,” later that night as she creeps through the window and into his bed at his mother's house. You're not supposed to be here, he thinks dumbly, as she pulls his hand away from his ear. He doesn't notice until too late that she jabs a ring with a bit of hematite into his navel. Blood wells up, but immediately his ears stop itching, though he still feels a hum from the Grand's far-away spellworking.
“Always do what She says,” she says with an almost playful warning bite to his navel that makes him gasp. “Unless I say otherwise,” she growls the rest, lapping up the slowing blood.
“I find myself unable to entirely hate you, Red-Cloak, Boy-Thing. You must have cursed me when I wasn’t looking.”
But Lukis knows he is the cursed one. The Big Bad Wolf-Girl has been his tormenter for years in more ways than one. She torments his heart as well his body.
“I’ll tell you a secret, Lukis,” she says, whisper-growling in his ear as much as her soft growl will allow. “You’re not Hers. You’re mine.”
And with the last emphatic word, the stones in his ears and in his navel tugged, thrummed, opposing forces pulling at each other, trying to issue separate commands. It gives him a headache that slices as viciously as the King’s guillotine, and makes his scar feel like an earthquake cracking open the ground of his skin.
His dreams that night are full of stems as thick as ropes and roots that crack like thunder as they grow to carry him on an ocean of old growth woods.
After each piercing or whatever magical test the Grand forces him to endure, Evvy is there to lick the tears from his face with an inhuman tongue poking out of very large teeth.
"My, what large eyes you have," Lukis whispers each time they are alone.
"The better to see you with, my dear," she replies, staring into his own brilliant green ones -- green as sunlight filtered through leaves. Her eyes flash at him and she stares at his chest as if she can see the Green Man's blessing working to unravel the Grand Mother's curse.