Copyright 2022 by Cassie Swindon
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be produced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This work is fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, cities, or events are entirely fictional.
Read short stories in this order:
The other hunter yells my name from outside the van. “Just go, Ryker!”
When did he even learn my real name?
My van swerves around another tree and a streetlight flickers in the distance. I push down on the gas harder. What am I doing? How could I kidnap someone? The entire vehicle bumps and jerks over the uneven forest floor. My ass thumps against the seat and my head hits the ceiling. The Slynik tied up in the back won’t stop screaming through the tape around her mouth. I’ve heard worse.
I clutch the steering wheel tighter and fly onto the two-lane country road. Screeching tires skid as I regain control, but that doesn’t stop the demon in the back from tumbling into the side. She grunts and her muffled sounds make my arm hairs stand on end. In the mirror, her onyx eyes scream promises of torturous nightmares for my entire future. Some days I wonder how long I’ll last in this cursed world.
Faint stars peer through the sunroof, always watching, forever following. I have no service, so the map on my phone is worthless. Instead, I follow the brightest constellation to Kinsley. The other hunters I left behind in the woods probably won’t survive against the second Slynik, so I’m glad I swiped a key to the warehouse. Reaching up, I grip the cool metal chain hanging against my chest that holds the key. When I pull my hand away, blood is smeared on my finger. Then the pain registers. Fuck. When did she claw at me? It doesn’t matter. I’ve felt worse. Much worse.
The abandoned road curves into a wall of heavy fog, so I slow and lean forward, squinting. At this border of Astoria and Kinsley, the winding cliffside roads steal hundreds of lives when drivers fall off the edge into the sea. Even the ocean below seems to hold its breath. But I can still feel the claws of the waves reaching out to drag me under.
A large shadow moves across the hood of the van.
I gasp. “What was that?”
The Slynik stops thrashing immediately. Her labored breaths fill the silent ride. In the mirror, her eyes like black pits smirk without her lips moving. What does she know? I gulp down my fears. The gorgeous creature is the epitome of horror wrapped in spider webs and death. Suddenly, I wish my loyal side-kick was with me, but I left my mini-jaguar at home.
A thud smacks on the roof. My heartrate doubles and I slam on the breaks. Something black flies forward into the fog. I wait. Breath in. One. Breathe out. Two. Breath in. Three. A loud shriek pierces my ears from outside then something pokes through the windshield.
“What the fuck?!”
I fling the van in reverse and stomp on the pedal. We zoom backwards. Sweat drips down my neck. The Slynik in the back is much too calm. Each time I veer the van a different direction, she rolls back and forth. I cringe at the bruises I’m causing her. No. There’s no room for empathy. She’s a soul-sucking beast.
Haunting memories flash images of the love of my life being drained by a Slynik at only seventeen years old. Varya never had a chance. If only I wasn’t late for our date. If U had listened to my instincts that she was in danger. Instead, I’ll always have to live with the memory of ink streaming out of Varya’s temples and the Slynik drinking her pure cruxel. Varya weighs heavy on my heart and mind every day. All Slyniks deserve a cruel and painful death for this pain. They took my love. My future. My everything.
Another loud crack stabs at the windshield. Adrenaline floods my system. Glass shatters. Sharp shards rain on my knuckles. I wince and slam on the breaks again. The Slynik groans. If her companion is following, maybe I can catch her too. Two Slynik bodies will surely be enough to win back my place among my people.
Heart pounding, I kick my door open and crunch over the broken glass on the pavement. Not one car has driven by. No witnesses. I leave my gun and knife in the car, knowing it’ll make little difference.
I turn, gaze darting between towering trees in the darkness. Could there be a dozen monsters hiding behind those trunks? My chest tightens. I clench a rope in my fists, raising it to my chin.
The only thing I’m sure of is that I left one of those wicked witches back there, and my prisoner had called her by name. Maybe Crystal? Cravelle? Christina? The beasts shouldn’t even have names. I wish I had gotten a look at her face. My best chance I have is to cuff her hands. If she can’t touch my forehead, I should be fine. Later, I’ll use one to influence the weaker one and finally get the one answer I’ve searched five years for: how can I kill a Slynik?
Ahead, a broken grandfather clock leans crooked against a tree, the wood blending into the trunk. Strange. I step forward, raising my finger to tap the minutes hand to turn back time. Suddenly, a giant bird dives from a branch and swoops at my head.
Its beak jabs my neck. I try to swat it away. Rough pecks strike at my skin. I crouch and flail my arms.
“Tura? Come back, girl!” A high-pitched, female voice yells in concern.
She sounds so worried, so human, so caring—nothing like the other Slyniks I’ve encountered. What if she’s not the leftover Slynik, but a mortal woman in danger?
The bird rises and hovers a few feet over my head. It’s beady eyes glare and those giant wings flap. I cock my head to the side. What kind of bird is it? A falcon?
“Tura, baby! Come back!”
If there’s a woman out there, the Slynik won’t think twice before draining her cruxel. The woman needs to be warned. I check to make sure my van is still securely hidden behind the tree, then start jogging. I glance over each shoulder and peer through the fog. It’s probably a trap. All Slyniks have a unique method of seduction. Is this one enticing me with her voice? The prisoner in the back of my van probably uses her beauty as a way to ensnare her victims. I once met one who used baking skills to entice her prey before she killed them.
Ahead, a silhouette prowls between tree trunks, just like my Milo would do. So, this isn’t a damsel in distress after all, but an experienced predator. The Slynik. One against one is doable. My shoulders hunch into a fighting stance. The breeze brushes my face teasingly as if it holds a thousand secrets. There’s only one answer I need, but I doubt the wind will tell me anytime soon.
Soft footsteps sweep the leaves to my left. I pivot. Brown, unruly hair, as wild as the forest itself, floats behind another tree. So, this one likes to play games. Fine, I’m willing to play hide and seek. A dash of curiosity spikes my senses awake. I roll up my sleeves and sniff the night air. She radiates a scent of cinnamon. That can’t be right. Slyniks are supposed to smell of decay and tombs.
A pale hand stretches out from behind another tree and the falcon lands on her forearm. It scowls at me with eyes ablaze, but for some reason, all I care about is that the Slynik’s nails are painted a bright red, similar to Varya’s favorite color. I freeze. My heart stops. Slynik’s aren’t like us. They aren’t artistic or whimsical. This creature probably stole the nail polish from a child, after robbing the innocent of it’s future. Or maybe this varmint used her meal’s blood as polish.
“Crimson!” A new female yells.
I snap back to attention and move away from them. I can defeat one alone, but not two. Jitters crawl up my spine. This can’t be my last night alive. After five grueling years, I finally caught one of the wretched mongrels. I can’t waste this opportunity.
“Ruby!” Her voice staggers and I almost feel like I’m dreaming because Slyniks don’t have feelings. “Thank goddess, you’re here! I’m over here!” The Slynik with the falcon moves out from behind the tree, facing away from me, and says, “They took Scarlett! She’s gone.”
I see the shape of her hourglass frame through the fog. A foot shorter than me, her fierce, frizzy hair blows in the breeze. Her tanned legs capture the moonlight, and when I notice her bare feet, a strange zap fires within me. Complete intrigue washes over me. No … hatred. Fascination. No … I despise them all. Is she putting me under some spell without even seeing me?
I stagger back and slip away. Thoughts bombard me from all directions. Seconds fade away and I find myself at the van, not able to recall how I ended up here.
Jumping inside, I check the back. The Slynik stares at me and tears run down her cheeks. How? Slyniks don’t cry. I clear my throat and slap my cheeks. Maybe I’ve been awake for too many hours. I restart the van and sneak through the fog down the road for at least a mile, hoping the others don’t hear. Carefully, we climb the cliffsides.
Soon, the night will paint the sky with a new morning. Varya used to love sunrises. She swore to me that it was different every day, so we’d sit at the highest peak in Kinsley and invent names for each ray of sunlight. With her creative mind, she’d devise new names: Brielle, Fay, Dionne, Everlee. I always had the same answer—Varya—because she had always been my light. But she’s gone. And the Slynik restrained in the back is to blame. They’re all to blame.
My stomach grumbles for breakfast. I grab a protein bar from the passenger seat and rip open the wrapping with my teeth. As I bite into the granola mix, chocolate melts over my tongue. After five years devoted to hunting Slyniks I haven’t learned much, but at least I know that they need nourishment just like us. She’s probably watching me eat. I hope her stomach is rumbling. Starving my prisoner is an option to get her to talk. Or maybe I’ll start with sleep deprivation.
The van rolls up to a tall black gate, rusted at the hinges. I roll down my window and flatten my phone onto the security pad. Hopefully my service has returned. It flares green and the gates squeak open. The fog lumbers through the gate first, but it isn’t thick enough to cover my all-time favorite shape. At two feet tall, my mini-jaguar’s form appears through the mist. Milo paws at my door, but I won’t risk letting him near the Slynik.
“Go inside, Milo.” I wave him towards the cracked wall on the side of the warehouse.
He jumps on the hood and my heart stumbles out of my chest when he almost steps on a piece of broken glass.
He jumps straight up in the air while hissing and lands on the ground.
“I’m sorry, Milo.” I nod to the building cast in shadows again. “Go on, go inside.”
With his spotted tail pointed straight up, he leads the way and the van trails in his wake. I park in a ramshackled shed to make sure the van is out of view from the road. The engine shuts down and I suck in a deep breath. Three lamps swing from the ceiling with the bulb snaking in a spiral, full of poisonous light.
I meet the gaze of my prisoner again. Her dark eyes glisten like obsidian rocks in the sea. Shit. Fuck. What have I done? She’s a living, breathing …. no … she’s a Slynik, a sister of darkness. All the other legendary names for her kind rush to the forefront of my mind: a Queen of Whispers, a Wretched Wordsmith, a Writer of Ruin. But if she’s so evil, why is she crying like a mortal?
Suddenly, everything is too restricting. The humidity is suffocating. I loosen the collar of my shirt but I still can’t breathe right. Trapped. I feel so trapped. I whip off my shirt and let the muggy night air bristle against my chest. For just a moment, I sag in my seat and cave in on myself. Squeezing my eyes shut doesn’t make my situation vanish. I press my forehead against the steering wheel and exhale deeply.
I have a choice—set her free or force her to tell me how to kill one of her kind. I can make her a promise that she won’t be the Slynik I terminate. The last promise I made ended in the death of the one I loved most. I’ll never make another promise again. Plus, these monsters probably aren’t loyal to one another anyway. Maybe my plan will be easier than I thought, but I’m running out of time.
I glance at my phone, August 27th. Only four more months until the new year. Once January comes, I’ll have lost my chance that the Lanuri clan leader offered me. In four months, without a dead Slynik in my hands, I’ll forfeit any chance of seeing my people and my home again. At least I found Milo in this torturous journey as an Unwritten.
The Slynik grunts in the back and the smell of urine fills the van.
“Oh! Come on!” I open our doors and try to tug her out.
The bitch goes dead-weight in her own puddle of piss. I pull, yank, and fight her to the edge of the van.
She shakes her head and growls. Apparently some Slyniks growl. That’s new.
“Stand! Let’s go!”
She wiggles back to the center of the van like a worm. If it were anyone else the scene might be comical, but the deadliest creature is in right in front of me so the last thing on my mind is laughter. Darkness stains her dress from urine so, I retract my statement. The truly last thing I want to do is carry her into the warehouse in my arms.
“I’ll drag you by your hair if you don’t get up!”
Muffled sounds try to escape the duct tape around her mouth.
I glance behind me at the abandoned road and check the perimeter. “Fine, if I take that off, will you stand?”
I reach forward slowly, cringing at the disgusting thought of touching her again. When my finger is an inch from her face, Milo jumps in the car playfully. I pull back, ready to shoo him away. His printed nose rubs against the Slynik’s cheek. All logic drops from existence. He likes the Slynik? And he trusts her? Impossible.
“Milo, no!” I grab his scruff and gently place him on the shed floor. “Stay away from her.”
A wave of fatigue crashes over me and I just want this over with so I quickly rip the tape off her skin. She doesn’t make a sound but flashes sharp teeth.
“Stand.” I gesture in front of me, leaving enough space.
Miraculously, she listens, but is a bit off balance since her hands are still tied behind her back. Deviousness dances in her eyes and for a split second I wonder if her companion from the forest looks the same.
This Slynik is only inches from mine, so I step back.
“Afraid of me?” She snickers with a voice so different than the one with the falcon.
“No. I’ll let you go right now, if you answer a question for me.”
She moves forward, fearlessly. “How will you know I’m telling the truth?”
I glance to Milo, unwilling to tell the enemy my secrets. “I just will.”
“What do you want to know?” The Slynik licks her bright red lips and it gives me the vision of maggots crawling out of her mouth.
“How can I kill a Slynik … permanently?”
She laughs and casually leans against the shed’s wall. Part of the wood gives way and bends under where her hips touch. “I’m not going to tell you that. How about you ask my name for starters?”
“I don’t care.”
Milo flicks his tail to the right, his sign.
Her jaw drops a tad and her nose scrunches up. “Fine, it’s Scarlett.”
Milo taps his paw once on the ground to confirm the truth of her answer.
“I don’t care what your name is.”
“Then you could ask how old I am. I bet you’re curious. I’m about twenty-five.”
“And how long have you been twenty-five?”
“See, I knew you were curious.”
“Nevermind.” I cross my arms, confused. When do they stop aging? She must continue to age in somewhat if the can de-age when they drain a cruxel.
“We get to choose what age to remain at. ’ve been twenty-five for four years. I was born first, but that doesn’t mean I’ll always be the eldest of my sisters. Take Ruby for instance. She might eventually let herself age for a bit and decide to stay at age forty forever—”
“I don’t care. This is your last chance to tell me how to kill one of you. I don’t think you’ll enjoy me as company.”
Milo traitorously rubs his head against her ankles and circles her feet, purring.
She tilts her head. “Your cat likes me.”
“He’s a jaguar.” I snarl and pick Milo up, holding him to my chest.
Scarlett laughs again. “Fine, your tiny jaguar likes me.”
“No, he definitely doesn’t.”
She rolls her eyes as if she hadn’t been crying desperately in the back of my van minutes ago. “I’ll never answer your question, so you might as well let me go now before my sisters find you.”
“What? Sisters? No.” I point a finger at her. “No, no, you don’t have sisters. Everyone knows Slyniks don’t have families.”
“Oh, okay, I must be mistaken then.” Scarlett’s eyebrows raise and she glances to the door. “So … if you uncuff me now, I pledge not to kill you. But I can’t speak for my sisters. Ruby might scoop your eyes out first, I’m not sure why, but she collects her favorite mortals’ eyes in jars and I have to admit, your bright blue ones do stand out.”
Ruby … Ruby … that name doesn’t sound like what I heard in the forest. What about the one with the falcon?
“Tell me how to kill one of you.”
She spits in my face. Actual spit, like a barbarian.
“You’re gonna regret that.” I yank under her shoulder. “Let’s go.”
Scarlett kicks my shin and tries to ram her knee into my groin but misses. I twist out of the way, then pull her across the lawn.
Rain begins to drop. Splat. Drip. Plink. Within seconds the drizzle turns to a downpour. Water drums against the warehouse rooftop. At least the monsoon will cover up any tire tracks leading here.
“Do you creeps have insane smelling powers to track?”
“Yeah, and I can see thru your clothes with x-ray vision, congrats on your … giant appendage down under … but that must be so inconveniently heavy to lug around.” Her delicious smile is as intoxicating as a drug, something that’d drown me if I let down my guard.
“What? How? I … you … never mind, shut up.”
I twist the key from around my neck into the lock and heave the door in.
An automatic draft from the warehouse makes me shiver. Inside, I flip on a light switch. Milo sprints around a lopsided table with drawings etched into the top. I’d know since I’m the one who carved the images. Chiseled memories from my past show the Lanuri’s city, the spider-shaped architecture we’re famous for and some of the tattoo symbols that define our culture. Of course, next to those are the rough outlines of Varya’s face next to her younger siblings. Maybe her relatives aren’t even alive anymore either. It was my job to care for them.
Milo’s printed paws dart across the cracked floor and water sprinkles off his fur coat. At least I have Milo.
“Do you have anything dry for me to change into?” Scarlett gestures to her dress, drenched in more ways than one and I realize I’ve been breathing through my mouth for the last few minutes to avoid the stench.
“Uh …” My eyes deceive me and sweep down her shape, where not a single part of her perky form droops. Parts of her dress are now transparent, and her hard nipples snatch my sanity.
“Why are your nostrils flaring?” Scarlett uses her chin to slide the strap of her dress off one shoulder. “And your eyes are bugging out like—”
Scarlett’s lips stay parted but she doesn’t speak a word as her chin coaxes the other strap over her shoulder too. The wet fabric clinging to her skin jiggles lower, folding onto itself, captivating me in the worst way.
“Oh, this is fun. Now your face is all red. How long has it been since you’ve …” Her hideous eyes drop below my waist.
I turn around fast, my body fully tense. “I’m not interested.”
“I wasn’t offering,” she said, “men are gross.”
The sound of her clothes rumpling down hijacked my mind. We know that all Slyniks are female but do their bodies look the same as women mortals? Can they …
“You need to untie me or cut this dress off. It’s stuck at my wrists.”
I run a hand over my face. “Do you have … uh … under … garments on?”
“Does it matter? You plan to torture me for answers anyways, right?” Her sharp voice reminds me of nails on a chalkboard, or the sensation of seaweed wrapped around ankles or the thought of swallowing a giant ball of hair from a shower drain.
“I’ll uncuff you, give you a dry set of my clothes and drive you wherever you want to go if you just tell me how to kill one of you. If you do, I promise I’ll never bother you again.” I need to try, even if she plans to try and kill me once I set her free. This plan is disastrous.
Her footsteps grows louder and the sound of her dress dragging warns me to move away. But she’s closer than I thought. Her full breasts push against my back.
“Goddess! Don’t touch me!”
Scarlett laughs in a minor key, like she’s made for an opera set in the catacombs. In fact, her laugh does echo around the empty warehouse, bouncing off the worn graffiti. I don’t dare turn around to argue with her. No matter how curious I am in learning more Slynik weaknesses, it’s not a risk I’m willing to take.
“Tell me what your tattoos mean.” I can feel her gaze on my back.
“Well, this is boring.” She taps her foot behind me. “I need dry clothes.”
If I hadn’t shaved my head last week, I’d be pulling out my hair at this point. “Fine, stop talking. I’ll get you clothes. Stay here.”
“Yes, your highness.”
I stomp towards the back room that I sleep in and slam the door behind me for a moment of peace. Heat flushes through my body as Scarlett starts singing on the other side of the door. A raging pounding escalates in my ears and I just want her gone or dead. Either one would be an upgrade from this madness.
I crack my neck from side to side, then pull out some of my clothes that might be too small after I’ve bulked up recently. Milo jumps on the mattress we share and curls up on the pillow that blends into his black spots. Ithought it’d be funny to spend the little money we have on a jaguar-camouflaged pillow last year. So, each month since, we’ve accumulated jaguar-printed memorabilia in Milo’s honor. A jaguar snowglobe sits on the windowsill next to a jaguar-patterned baseball hat.
“Why aren’t you bothered by her, boy?”
He yawns and shuts his eyes.
“Fine, I’ll do this by myself.” I drop the extra socks on his head since the Slynik has been barefoot the whole time, just like her companion in the forest. Why had their energies felt so different?
The wind whips against the sole window in my room, tapping its secrets on the pane. Soft reds bloom on the horizon over Jarrigan sea and the first of the morning’s sunrays sparkle on the water. Good morning, Varya. I want to smile, but too much has been taken away. If she were still here, Varya wouldn’t even recognize the man I’ve become. Sunrises are pointless without her, so I turn back to the task at hand.
As I approach the closed door, my hand hovers over the doorknob. Why is it so quiet on the other side? When did Scarlett stop singing?
I burst through the door and it smacks against the wall. Scarlett stands directly on the other side of the threshold, with wild eyes, and both hands untied. One of my old hoodies cover her upper half and my knife sticks out from the bottom of the extra-long sleeves.
“Surprise!” She wiggles her eyebrows then lunges at me, one hand stretched to my forehead, the other holding the blade.
I jump back. Light reflects off the sharp tip as Scarlett slashes the knife through the air.
“You egotistical!” Scarlett swipes at the air. “Arrogant!”
“Terrible! Atrocious! Mortal!”
No matter how many times I dodge her, the Slynik is faster. She corners me in my own bedroom and pushes the knife’s edge to my throat. I flinch but stare at her. My chest rises and falls fast.
“Do it.” I dare her to end me.
It took me five years to capture one and within five minutes of her being here, I lost. If I don’t learn their secret in the next four months, then I have nothing to live for anyways.
“DO IT, SCARLETT!” I roar and press my neck against the blade.
Something flickers in her big eyes. “What’d you just call me?”
“SCARLETT, YOUR FUCKING NAME. Now kill me or get the fuck out of here!”
She’s within reach. All it’ll take is for her to stretch out one arm and touch my forehead, then my cruxel will belong to her.
She drops the blade and tilts her head to the side.
I reach out and take the knife from her cold hand. “Get out.”
Scarlett backs away slowly.
I can restrain her again. There are leopard-printed shoelaces sitting on the floor just a few feet away. All it would take is a quick lurch forward and she’ll be my prisoner again. Instead, I watch her back away, faster with each step. Scarlett never takes her onyx eyes off me. Sunlight creeps through the window, shining a path towards the exit.
“Don’t follow me. I never want to see you again. And leave my sisters alone.” Her voice trembles for the first time. “Promise me!”
“I no longer make promises I can’t keep. Now, run.”
She gasps, turns her back to me, and sprints from the warehouse.
And I stand there, solid as a statue, cursing myself for making the second biggest mistake of my life. Now they know where I live. I just voluntarily reunited three sisters who will track me—a Slynik hunter.
Be sure to read the other short stories, in this order:
- Scarlett’s Pledge
- Ryker’s Promise
- Ruby’s Vow