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.
A short story
The night breeze holds my secrets, even when it brushes against my sister’s ears. She can’t know where we’re headed, so today marks the first time I have purposefully lied to her. At least I only need to convince one of my sisters that we need to find the map.
The blue moon killed the sun hours ago. We stalk forward on bare feet, while tree branches creak in subtle warning. Mysterious shadows slither between the trees, encouraging our hunt. Nocturnal creatures creep around us. Because darkness latches onto me. I’m a twisted soul. Wretched. That’s what I am–a soul-sucking Slynik. Every breathing person, from the corner of Kinsley to the cliff edge of Astoria, wishes I were dead. I shouldn’t care.
But for some reason, I care. I’m not sure when everything shifted. But we can’t keep killing the mortals. Once I find the map, everything will change. I’ll finally be free to live without the label of a murderess. Maybe if the map actually works, I’ll even have a chance to love.
My face slams into something hard, sending pain up my nose as I stumble back.
“Ouch! Watch it, Crimson!” Scarlett hisses, but she still pulls me to my feet like when we were kids.
“Sorry,” I whisper and sneak behind an eerie trunk that has a ghostly-shaped face hidden inside the bark’s lines. “I’m not used to this area.”
“Then why did you bring me here?” Scarlett’s blonde brows knit together under the moonlight. “This prey better be worth it.”
A twig cracks a few feet in the distance and we both freeze. Maybe a deer? I glance around to spot a broken rocking chair swaying back and forth. A little stuffed animal sits atop with its innards marshmallowing out the sides. The chair teeters from an invisible weight. Back and forth.
My gut immediately coils tight. Hundreds of forest animals could’ve caused that sound, but after we both breathe in a wiff of the muggy air and share one look, Scarlett smiles knowingly. Fuck! No! Why is there someone in the woods at midnight? She’s going to drain his priceless cruxel by emptying his soul. Mortals deserve the chance to live their short life full of love and heartbreak, something I might never experience. I shake my head at my sister, wishing for once she could ignore the possibility of added youth.
Scarlett licks her bright red lips, then starts to creep around the side of her trunk. I yank her arm. She twists sharply and shoots me a death glare. For a moment, all the lives she has stolen form a hundred-piece puzzle on her face. Hatred lines the rim of her features with selfishness rotting them from the inside. But I shake my head and choose to only see beauty—the sister who shared her toys with me as a child, tucked me into bed at night, and to this day, still paints my nails each Saturday. What do my sisters see in me when they study my face? Can they count all the souls I’ve stolen?
“Let him go, Scarlett, we don’t need to feed.” The wind doesn’t hide my voice this time.
“Hello?” A man’s voice croaks. He sounds thirsty, but not as thirsty as my sister.
Scarlett raises one finger to her pillowy lips and smirks again.
“Hello? Ryker, is that you?” He repeats over the sound of leaves crunching. “Is anyone there?” A loud grunt, then a groan. “Please, I stepped in a trap. My leg … it’s …”
I try to tug Scarlett again but she’s too fast and steps out from behind the tree. I peek around, unable to ignore the last few seconds of this poor man’s life. What if he has a husband or wife waiting at home? This is not why I dragged Scarlett here. Mortals are rarely ever on the border of Astoria. Maybe if I can entice her with a promise of something more delicious, she’ll let him live. Before I can form a plan, her angelic voice rings out.
“Oh, thank the goddess above!” Scarlett fake-limps over to the man, clutching her stomach. “Finally! Oh, thank you, thank you for finding me!” She coughs weakly and I roll my eyes.
The man straightens upon seeing her perfect face, a mirror of the ancient statues that have stood the test of time. Scarlett’s obsidian eyes, which match mine, have the intensity to sink boats, and her complexion holds the power to sway the fate of Astoria’s people. But my sister’s true power is the words buried deep within her, knowledge from the many lives she’s taken.
“Please, sir, I can’t stand much longer.” Scarlett sways.
When the man winces and lumbers forward to steady her, I stifle a gasp. The metal contraption severed everything below his knee. Maybe Scarlett’s choice is merciful and will end his misery. No! I can’t think like that anymore.
His hand reaches for Scarlett. Closer. Closer. All he has to do is touch her and it’ll all be over. My heartbeat pounds on overdrive. I have to save at least one life from our despicable clutches.
“Wait!” I jump out.
The man staggers back and slams into a tree, then slides down the trunk. Little sweat beads line his pale skin and his lips are as chapped as a desert ground. He glances between us, then his eyes grow wide. Quickly, he rams his hand in his pocket and fumbles likely for the spices he thinks will save him. Only a myth. No amount of cloves, cayenne, or ginger will keep us away.
“Stay back, you filthy Slynik!” He screams and waves his hands frantically, spewing herbs around his feet. The cruxel of his soul bleeds commands—a man of influence.
Scarlett continues her little theatrical show and forces a strained laugh. “Really, you think we’re as beautiful as Slyniks? That’s completely ridiculous. I mean, even though I was Prom Queen once upon a time doesn’t mean I can be compared to an immortal. Crimson, did you hear that? He’s so sweet. Maybe after he saves us, you two might hit it off.”
Of course, my sister offers me as a date, since I’m the only one of us who’s attracted to men.
She looks over again, allowing her cheeks to flush. “What’s your name, sir?”
His jaw drops in hesitation, but his eyes narrow. It’s like I’m watching his body and mind battle against each other. The man’s instincts know how deadly we are, yet Scarlett’s slimy charm slides across the forest floor and oozes into his heart.
“Here, help him up, Crims, we can both lean on either side of you,” she says.
“No.” I stand between my sister and her prey.
Her smile fades. “What?”
I swallow and it feels like rocks lodge tight in my throat. “Leave him alone.”
Scarlett stops her damsel-act and a muscle in her jaw ticks. “Move.”
Move. It’s interesting how a one-syllable word can hold so much strength. Sometimes when I spend hours tucked away in Astoria’s small bookshop, I collect handfuls of novels. Even now, as I close my eyes. Scarlett nudges past my side towards the man, I visualize the dusty shelves and stacks of vintage leatherbounds that stack to the ceiling. I usually flip each book to page twenty-two, the same as my age.
The man’s terrified shrieks fill the forest, but I focus on my treasured bookshop, escaping back in time. I typically skim all the single syllable words until I reach a good one. When I land on it, I let the word linger on the tip of my tongue to test its force.
Another desperate scream pierces the air, stealing me from my haven. Dread drips like a leaky faucet to the rhythm of my heartbeat. Plink. Thump. Plink. Thump. My eyes fly open to the familiar sight of Scarlett’s hands on the mortal’s forehead. It’s so disturbing, yet my body longs for the pleasure my sister is experiencing.
Agony floods the man’s bulging eyes. His face turns red. Black ink streams from his temples into the air. It turns into cursive letters, forming the shape of words that hover between them. The words flow into phrases that will ultimately be his demise. The man’s first words, last words, and most important words float between them in limbo.
All Scarlett has to do is give them back and he could live. My hands clutch my heart. Why do I care now? I’m not supposed to care. As I hold my breath, Scarlett seizes the man’s entire cruxel and drinks his whole soul. He crumples to the ground in a heap.
I shudder. There must be another way.
My breath finally releases. Scarlett skips to my side, looking five years younger than a few minutes ago.
“You’re right, Crims, that was fun.” She scoots past me with new-found energy. “Let’s go meet Ruby, she’s probably super jealous that we left her out. I can’t even remember the last time we did a forest hunt. Maybe last September?”
“Scarlett!” My fists ball up as I stare at his shell of a body. “Listen to me, damn it!”
“Woah, is your thong on backward, or something?!” She whirls around and follows my gaze. “Oh, I get it. Don’t be mad that I didn’t share him. That guy’s most meaningful words weren’t even that strong. They only gave me a couple years. I mean, seriously, who’s essence revolves around ‘if you want the rainbow you gotta live through the rain’… that was his life motto, Crims, what a total douche.”
My teeth grind together at her lack of empathy. This man had a family and life somewhere. “Scarlett, I need to show you something.”
“Fine, but hurry, Ruby will be home from her girlfriend’s soon.” She checks her phone, which probably doesn’t have any service here. When I look up, it’s not the light of her phone blinking, but a little red tracker flickers on the dead man’s wrist. The speed of the blinks quicken with each passing second. My chest tightens.
“Scarlett, we gotta get out of here!”
An owl hoots above, calling me into action. The birds always understand survival. My shoulder itches for the comforting talons of my falcon, but of course I left her at home tonight of all nights. I sprint into the abyss, where the moon can’t reach through the thick canopy. Scarlett matches my speed step for step, new youth radiating from her muscles.
“Do you think the rest will catch us?” She asks while glancing over her shoulder.
“No, that guy has been out here alone for a while.” When has lying to my sisters become easy?
“Where are we going?”
“The remains of Old Astoria are supposed to be a mile this way.” My lungs burn like razors as we accelerate, but Scarlett isn’t even winded, thanks to the new energy swirling inside her veins.
“Oh!” Glee writes lyrics across her smile. “Goddess above, Crims, you know I love archeology, but if we’re late to meet Ruby then—”
“You know as well as I do that she’ll still be taking her hour-long shower by the time we get back.”
Trees soar past us and the sensation of flying almost makes me forget the last few minutes. But the scent of his death lingers on my skin like oil. I hate that my sisters only prey on youth. Stealing younger souls gives them energy faster and easier, and the cruxel lasts longer, but their choice is lazy, egotistical and greedy. None of us ever asked to be born a Slynik or to be cursed with this soul-sucking appetite, but that didn’t mean we had to resort to becoming monsters. That’s why I only feed off the elderly and chronically ill.
“Why … do we need … to go to … Old Astoria?” Scarlett finally started panting.
“There’s a map.”
Suddenly, her laughter erupts behind me. I halt and spin around.
“Why did you stop?”
“A mysterious map? Come on, Crims. We’re not teenagers anymore.” Tears trickle down her face as Scarlett tries to catch her breath between deep bursts of belly-laughs.
“Fine, go home to Ruby. I’ll do this. Alone.”
Alone. The one word that snaps her back to reality. The three of us, only three years apart in total, have always been as close as triplets. Alone has never been a part of our vocabulary, even after all the metaphors, similes and analogies we’ve stolen from the victim’s minds to stay young—and together. That’s the important part. I wouldn’t care if I aged like a mortal, as long as I could stay with my sisters. Alone isn’t possible because none of us want to survive without the other two. Ruby, Scarlett and I twist together more than the roots of an oak.
Her dark eyes bore into me like she can read my mind. “What’s really going on, Crims?”
“Remember the pledge you made us?”
She glances at the treetops.
“Scarlett, look at me!” I pull both her shoulders to make her face me. “You pledged! You swore to me that we’d try to find another option other than taking mortal lives.”
“Crims, that was years ago. You know we’ve read every book possible. There’s no other option. We either take their cruxel or we die, honey.” She tries to storm around me but I block her and snap back, “Don’t talk to me like I’m some kid!”
“I’m not, Crims … I just happen to know more about …”
“Aaaah! Scarlett, no! No, you don’t know more. You always parade around, acting like a genius because you happen to have lived in this world a couple more years than me and have a larger amount of stolen cruxel!” I throw my hands in the air and tromp around her. “That doesn’t mean you have all the answers! For once, please, just listen to me!”
She sighs and nods. “Okay, okay, I’m here, it’s okay. You won’t do it alone.”
Immediately, thousands of pounds slide off my shoulders. I roll in my lips and fight back a tear threatening to fall.
“Oh, Crims, come here.” She pulls me into a tight hug. “It’ll be okay.”
Scarlett’s motherly warmth wraps around me like a blanket. She is my home. No matter how annoying her perfectionist organization, never-ending rules, and encyclopedia-brain are to me, Scarlett is my everything.
“So, where is this stack of haunted ruins?”
“I never said haunted.” I pull back a bunch of vegetation and oint to a pile of rubble, cracked bricks and broken stones under a cracked fountain. Bird crap covers the marble and I long for Tura’s company again. Maybe my falcon will sense my unease and meet us here soon.
I crouch and run a hand over some rocks. Astoria’s bookshop keeper swore that the map would be etched onto the side of the fountain.
“What are we looking for?” She asks.
“Carvings in the stone, maybe odd shapes or lines. We’ll probably have to find the different broken slabs and push them together.”
She huffs and lowers to her hands and knees, groping the jagged rocks. “And what will this map lead to?”
She’ll laugh at me again if I admit to believing the legends of the ancient treasure buried by our Slynik ancestors. By revealing my hopes, it’ll add one more way for my sisters to treat me like a child, a baby.
But I’ve never kept something from them before. Plus, what if there’s only enough of the fabled elixir for one of us to drink? There’s no chance I’d use it without sharing with my sisters. For now, the best option is to let the wind hold my secrets for a bit longer.
A beetle crawls over my hand and disappears between the crevices of the rocks. I swipe along the sharp edges. My fingers trace the grooves, searching for any feeling of a dent in the stone. Something must be here! Further. Further. Finally, I feel a split in the grainy texture but can’t see the shape.
“Crim-saaah!” Scarlett’s voice cuts through the night.
I peer ahead, squinting. “Scarlett? Where are you? Did you find something?”
Tiny red dots dance between shrubs in the distance. I bolt to my feet.
“Scarlett?” Whirling in a circle, I scan the perimeter of the ruins. “Scarlett!”
A muffled sound tears my heart in two. A male’s deep groan follows.
“Wait!” I yell. “Stop!”
Dust flies as I scurry around in the dark, stumbling over broken rocks. Heart crashing behind my ribs. Blood flowing. Options of how to save her from the hunters scroll in my mind. But how many hunters are out there? What if they learned our one weakness and are carrying Noire Spider venom? But they’d still have to be close enough to strike it directly into my heart or have perfect aim.
Footsteps thunder to my right. A hand clamps around my mouth. It smells of vodka and dirt. I bite down on his finger but he pulls my back tight against his chest. I kick. Writhe. Elbow his thigh. He grunts and folds in half but wraps his arms around my waist harder.
“Let me go!”
His hands might crunch my ribs. “Shut up!”
I snap my head back and slam my skull into his nose.
“Aah, bitch!” He bends and pulls something from his boot. Something shiny glimmers in the moonlight.
Sharp pain slices into my side. I press my hand against the hole and cry out. I suck in a painful breath and stare at a blood-soaked dagger in his hand. Healing words rush to the forefront of my consciousness. Diagnostic terminology from a doctor’s cruxel I once drained flash in illegible scripts in my mind. Fancy words of incorrectly spelled prescriptions roll and tumble down my veins and straight to my gushing wound. I gather as much stolen cruxel as possible and repeat healing words again and again.
“Curative, therapy, survival,” I whisper as my strength slowly returns, “survival, wholesome, mend.” Quickly, my pain dissolves to a mild throb and I straighten.
“What are you mumbling, witch?”
Rage floods my system and I march forward, hands out. I’ll end him now. All the worthless adjectives, superboles, prepositions, and words of inspiration he’s used or heard in his lifetime will drain into me. This bastard is my next fuckin’ meal.
A gunshot fires from somewhere close.
“At least we killed one of you.” He grins and points his dagger at me again. “You’re next.”
“Scarlett?” The shrill voice doesn’t sound like my own. I leave the foolish mortal and run, searching all around. “Scarlett!”
The only way she’s dead is if that bullet was dipped in a Noire’s venom. But no one knows about our weakness. They can’t. It’s impossible.
My attacker chases. I bump into a trunk, trip over a log, but keep going. Sweat slinks down my back. My heart races. There’s physical pain in my chest. Things are moving too quickly. Nothing makes sense. Scarlett has to be okay. A bullet can’t kill her. And no one knows about the spider poison. No one.
“Ryker! Watch your back!” My assailant hollers from behind. “There’s a second one!”
A flurry of long blonde hair whips like a scarf against the darkness.
“Crimson! Run! Leave me!”
I sprint faster. Harder. Out of breath. Muscles on fire. Heart exploding.
A van sits in the middle of the woods door. He opens the door and her flailing body is pushed inside by another man. I can only see his back: broad shoulders, shaved head, and an intricate tattoo peeking out from his black jacket, traveling up the back of his neck. But his cruxel is nothing like I’ve ever felt. Empty. There are no verbs spilling from his aura, or glossary or index of his personality. The man doesn’t even have a defining motto he lives by enveloping him. He’s just vacant.
“Come on, Frank!” The ghost-of-a-man yells over his shoulder.
“Just go. I’ll take care of this one!” he booms.
The younger man bangs the door shut and jumps into the driver’s seat.
“Stop!” I push harder, driving my heels into the ground.
Only twenty more feet and I can save Scarlett.
The tires spin. Leaves burst upward in a whirlwind.
Ten more feet and I’ll have her by my side again.
Dirt flings into my face. I stop fast and cover my eyes. When I open them again, the van is weaving between trees, speeding away with my sister inside. Gas fumes choke my lungs but I forget how to breathe for a different reason. She’s gone. They took her. Where? Why? What will they do with her? This has never happened. I need Ruby’s help. I need air.
Hyperventilation. I clench my fists shut, digging my nails into my palm. Little whimpers escape my lips until vomit burns my throat and splashes onto the ground by my bare feet. Splatters of it land on my shins. My eyes fill with tears, but I refuse to accept what just happened.
Then the man’s ragged breathing pulls me back into the moment.
I spin and ram my fist into his stomach. My other hand touches his forehead. He shudders and backs into a tree. His mouth opens but no words come out.
Conversations from his past slip from his temples in black ink. Dialogue with his loved ones hang between us.
“Where did he take my sister!” I scream so loudly my throat scratches.
His gaze flutters to the trees behind me. “I … I … I don’t—”
I shove against his forehead harder. Haikus, sonnets, and rhymes from his memories all spurt from the side of his head and with each passing moment, his skin turns paler.
“P-please …” He slumps against the branch. “P-please, I’ll take … take you to them.” But all his lies from childhood slosh out of his temples like a bucket of spilled paint.
Its black color mixes in my puddle of puke by his boots.
I lift my chin and plant my legs wide. “I’ll never go anywhere with you. And for lying, for taking her, you’ll suffer.” I spike my nail into his skin and dig.
“Aaaah!” His eyes squeeze shut.
I revel in his utter incapacitation, him under my control and frozen. More words dump from his soul. Synonyms, antonyms, analogies, and speeches all fall from his brain. I laugh at the sight because it’s all a waste this time. I won’t drink a single drop of his cruxel, even if it increases my lifespan. I don’t want any of this man to be a part of me.
“P-please!” His voice withers to a whisper, “He took her to Kinsley.”
“Kinsley is huge, asshole. Where exactly did he take her?”
As he shrieks in pain, information he previously read tumbles from his spirit in clumps. The man doesn’t have much time left. And I don’t care. I must never have truly cared. My sisters have always been right. Mortals deserve this fate.
Blood drips down from his ears and out of his nose. Symbols in a language I don’t recognize plunge from the man’s temples. Then, what I’ve been waiting for escapes from his aura—the man’s most meaningful words. Failureis fatal.’ His heartbeat slows. Both arms go slack and limp. His jaw drops open. Finally, his neck cranes back, letting his head rest against the tree trunk.
I sigh and drop my hand from his clammy forehead. Gagging on the smell of rotten bile by my feet, I move to where the van had been parked. The tires formed divets in the ground and the few nearby boulders are doused in blood. Whose? Scarlett’s? I can’t breathe. Her body can heal itself, but how much torture will they put my sister through? What do they want from her? I should’ve been taken instead. It was my idea to search the ruins. I dragged her out to the woods at midnight.
A loud screech calls above.
I hear my falcon’s wings flap before I see her. My hand shakes as I lift my arm for her so Tura lands carefully on my shoulder and quickly nudges her soft feathers against my cheek. She’s probably wet with my tears now. Her giant brown eyes scan the scene and she calls out again.
“We need to follow the tires, Tura.” I walk forward on trembling legs.
Before I get far, Tura jumps off my shoulder and hops to the ground uncharacteristically.
“Tura? Are you hurt?” I squat and reach to her leg with a heavy heart.
After noticing what he’s clawing at, I gasp. A square marble stone, about the size of that dead man’s head, lays under my falcon. An obvious building structure is etched into the corner with a path of arrows leading to the edge of the stone. I gulp. The first piece of the puzzle. Why is it here instead of by the ruins? Did that guy have it in his van? How would a mortal know about Slynik’s hidden treasure? What would that hunter be searching for in our treasure?
The stone is too heavy to carry with us so I pull out my phone, which still doesn’t have any service to call Ruby for help, and snap pictures of the stone from a dozen different angles. Quickly, I dig a hole and bury the stone as deep as possible. No mortal can learn Slynik’s secrets.
Exhausted, I follow the tire tracks through the forest. What was that man’s name? How does he know where we’d be? When I recall the back of his head, and remember the deep voice that roared from his lips, a small part of me wishes that man would have turned around so I had a chance to see his face. I want him to look me straight in the eyes when I kill him, just for the pleasure of watching his cruxel fall to the dirt. He stole my sister and I pledge to Scarlett that I’ll bring her back home.
Be sure to read the other short stories, in this order: