A cacophony of women yelling and chickens squawking breaks Randa out of her nightmare. It’s the usual dream—a collection of visions and sensations so real that it must come from memory. The blinks away that grotesque face, those brutish hands, that blood-stained blade, and the terrible sensation of being torn apart at the seams like an old rag doll.
Still wiping her eyes, she runs onto the front porch of her family farm—as much as she can run given her current condition. She almost drops her coffee. A cold wind hisses up her patched nightgown—one of her dead Pa’s old oversized tunics.
Dread swirls in her swollen belly.
It started with the birds. Days ago, they came from the east—strange species with exotic songs and brilliant colors. Randa had never seen birds like this before except in books. They belonged in the Eastern Kingdom. Her four sisters smiled and laughed, rejoicing in the appearance of these foreign visitors. Not Randa. No, she saw the birds as a terrible omen. She knew it in her gut, her damned pregnant gut. These flapping creatures were but a preface for the terror that was coming.
And now, she suspects, it is here.
A shadow has fallen over the land. Morning frost glistens in the yard. Winter is coming. No, it is here. It has come far too soon, not unlike the bastard baby growing in her womb. From the east, a storm this way comes. Thick purplish clouds eclipse most of the coming dawn. She’s never seen anything like it.
The birds left days ago. Not just the foreign ones, but all of them. Ma said that maybe it was a sign of the coming Ascension, but Randa doesn’t believe in that nonsense Minister Ramsizer spews in his Hopish church. Ever since Randa’s father died last summer and her brother Haniel joined the Service, Ma has spent more and more time at the church. Randa doesn’t much see the point in all that nonsense. What good are prayers when she and her sisters are on the verge of starving?
Except now, standing here, she wishes she believed.
The unborn baby in her belly kicks. She rests a palm over her navel, that distended thing that now bears a big dark X. The mark formed early in the pregnancy, when she first started to show. She has kept it hidden, though she knows not why. Surely it would’ve been wonderful to let her sisters Laven, Pean, Carmel, and Starly rub ointment on her bare belly after a hard day’s work in the field, but she always refused. She kept her mark a secret. Some instinct told her that it was trouble. That was the story of her life, always in trouble. Always somehow different from her sisters and brother.
Sharp voices and chicken squawking and horse neighing break her out of her thoughts. This damn pregnancy has dulled her mind. She finds herself trailing off at the worst times.
The clamoring comes from the barn. For support, she clutches one of the chains that stretch from the porch ceiling to the two benches. She waddles toward the porch steps, and her shoes bite into her swollen feet. Head to damn toe, is there no part of her that this pregnancy won’t distort or deform? It’s as though becoming a mother has turned her into a monster.
She eases her bulk down the rickety steps, almost losing her balance on the bottom step that her brother Haniel “fixed” last spring. Her gown’s scratchy fabric irritates her sore nipples, but her hands are full—coffee mug and handrail—so she can’t pull the clothing away. Once in the yard, she can see what’s happening at the barn. She nearly stumbles.
Her mug tumbles out of her hand, splashing hot coffee over her bare ankles.
“Fumping fump,” she says. “Clumsy ass pit.”
Carmel and Laven fuss around the chicken coop, where the chickens flail and flap and thrash against the mesh—a cloud of bloody feathers. The hog has smashed through the fence, and Pean tries futilely to wrestle it back inside. She screams, and the beast runs away. Starly stands at the barn’s massive double doors. No, no she’s pressed against the doors, trying to shove a pole between the two handles. The doors burst open, knocking Starly to the ground. Their last horse, Calco, leaps outside, nearly trampling Starly, and gallops after the hog.
“What the hell is happening?” Randa yells.
While Pean shuts the barn and tends to Starly, Randa waddles across the frosty grass toward the coop. Halfway there, she realizes that Ma isn’t here. She probably got up early to volunteer at the church, “helping” Minister Ramsizer.
Randa stops and turns to the east—toward the dirt road that leads to the village of Woodhaul. Two figures sprint down the lane. In the early light of day, she can see that the first is Ma, followed by Minister Ramsizer. She can tell on account of Mom’s favorite tan skirt and Ramsizer’s white robe.
He’s chasing her.
Splatters of something dark stain both of their outfits. It’s blood. It must be.
Randa calls to her sisters, “Come on, dammit. Ma needs our help!”
Her four sisters look at her, then past her. They grab shovels and rakes and run toward their mother. Randa hurries after them, clutching her belly with one hand. First the animals go batshit, and now Minister Ramsizer. What the fump is this?
Almost to the road, a sharp pain bites inside her belly. She gasps and nearly falls onto the frozen soil. She hobbles to the wooden fence and leans onto it for support. Oh shit. She prays it isn’t a contraction, but somehow knows it’s not.
Again, the pain bursts inside her.
The baby is warning her.
She looks down the road at the two sprinting adults. Moments ago, she’d been certain that Ramsizer was chasing after her mother. Now, she sees what’s really happening. Ma isn’t running from the minister. No, the minister and her mom are both sprinting toward Randa and her sisters.
Another pain jolts inside her belly, and she leans hard on the fence.
“Okay, you . . . little shit. I . . . hear you,” she gasps. After catching her breath, she yells after her sisters, “Stop!”
Too late. It all happens at once.
Pean reaches Ma first. Randa sees the glowing red of Ma’s eyes—rich and dark as blood—as Ma hisses and tackles Pean to the ground. Pean screams, but that noise soon collapses into a raspy hiss. Starly tries to help, but Ramsizer slams into her. Carmel slashes a rake into Ramsizer’s head, knocking him to the ground. A second later, Starly hisses and attacks Carmel. Laven smacks Ma with a shovel, but Pean bites into her sister’s thigh.
That’s all Randa sees before she turns on her heel and sprints for the barn. The house is better fortified, but further away. She won’t reach it in time. A chorus of snarls and hisses pursues her, gaining quickly. Two bloody chickens dart across the yard, disappearing into the field. Something slams again and again against the inside of the barn’s doors. Randa’s heart throttles her chest. Her feet ache. Her belly throbs.
She reaches the worn dirt in front of the double doors. Just a few more steps.
Her shoe slips on the frozen ground. She topples hard right in front of the closed barn doors. The impact smacks the wind out of her belly. She gasps and looks back at her pursuers—her four sisters. Laven is in the lead by several paces—her face distorted into a snarling mask. Like Ma, her eyes now burn a bloody red.
Laven’s shadow slides over Randa, who gets into a defensive position, clenches her fists, and rears back a leg to kick.
Just as her deranged sister hisses and leaps at Randa, the barn doors swing open and smacks Laven in mid-air. Laven’s hiss ends in an abrupt gurgle. She hits the ground and without missing a beat rolls onto hands and knees, blood now streaming from a fresh cut in her cheek. Randa scoots away from her sister, who lurches after her.
Something thunders behind Randa.
A second later, Shelby, their last remaining goat, lurches outside of the barn, tramples over Laven, and hurries away—teats wagging back and forth. The sight of the goat’s milk-bloated udder nearly makes Randa gag. In a short time, her own aching nipples will be leaking milk.
She pushes that thought away and crawls into the barn, shutting the doors behind her. Her body screams at her to rest, but her sisters’ hisses are coming closer. She climbs to her feet and fastens the latch on the double doors.
Randa barely has time to take a breath before someone outside slams into the doors, knocking her backward. More sharp pains in her belly.
“Fumping ass-pit licking donkey pokers,” she says.
The familiar scents of manure and hay provide little comfort. Again and again, savage bodies throw themselves against the doors. The heavy wood rattles on its hinges. A thin slash of dull daylight cuts through the darkness every time her sisters strike the wood, knocking the doors temporarily apart. The latch holds, but she can’t imagine it will sustain much more damage.
Gasping, she climbs to her throbbing feet and reaches for a rake, a shovel, any large, potentially lethal tool but her sisters already took all the best options. She settles on a damn garden trowel.
“Think, dammit. Think,” she tells herself, smacking the trowel against her palm.
Fire. Yes, fire.
Her sisters are acting like wild animals. Maybe, like animals, they will fear fire.
She squints into the shadow-drenched rafters, where in the early autumn she hid a flask of particularly strong potato vodka and a pouch of puddleweed that she’d gotten from an old boyfriend in Woodhaul. At the time, she’d sipped on the vodka and smoked the puddleweed to ease her mind over her pregnancy. Soon, though, her morning nausea turned her off the drinking and smoking.
The frantic pounding at the door continues. She staggers to the goat’s pen and clutches at the beams. The wood groans beneath her as she climbs. It was certainly easier to get to her secret stash moons ago.
Then again, everything used to be easier . . . before Pa dropped dead in the field. His death last summer rocked her, stirred up faded memories that insisted to be drowned in drink. As Pa would’ve said, she “went on a tear.” She showed up drunk to his funeral and almost fell into the grave. Several blurry days later, she snuck into town. She’d heard that a band of soldiers were holed up at the local tavern, The Goat’s Teat, which aside from Ramsizer’s church, was one of the few places to go in town. She’d been flirting with a soldier name Monk when her brother Haniel walked in, no doubt sent by Ma to look after her.
Haniel knocked Monk down and got in a tussle with a blond-headed soldier, before being carted off to the only other place to go in town—the jail. In the commotion that ensued, she and Monk snuck off behind the pub. The soldier put his head up her skirt but had barely flicked his tongue across her before passing out.
That’s when she first saw him. The Prince.
Of course, she’d seen his image carved into guilders or painted upon murals, but never before had she seen him in person. Or any royalty for that matter. His sculpted cheeks. His full, almost pouty lips. His tanned, perfect skin. For a moment, she wondered if the soldiers had slipped a potion in her drink, but no, this was happening.
Prince Mikael—the only son of Queen Theabella and heir to the Western Kingdom throne—was staggering in circles with a bottle in his hand, muttering about snow, which was odd because it was a sweltering summer night. His presence explained the platoon of soldiers in town. They must’ve been the Prince’s escort.
Still secluded in shadow, she untangled herself from the drunken soldier and edged closer.
The Prince took a deep drink and said, “Oh to gaze again upon such beautiful Snow, between my legs a swelling does grow. No, no, too much, too much. Oh, to gaze upon such gracious Snow, lit above by the moon’s pale glow. No, no. That’s fumping drivel. Oh, to gaze upon such beautiful Snow, oh to place a kiss between those—”
“Hello,” Randa said.
She expected him to be startled, but he merely nodded at her as if he’d been expecting her. He casually offered her his bottle. She took a sip, and found her tongue blessed by a delicious heat that somehow nourished her belly but didn’t burn her throat. A finer drink she’d never had.
“My name’s Randa,” she said.
“Randa,” he said. “That’s a pretty name.”
They drank more and soon groped each other in the darkness. He never told her his name, though she wasn’t sure if that was because he assumed everyone already knew his name or because he didn’t care for her to know. He took her from behind under the stars, hands tangled in her hair.
“My Snow. My Snow,” was all he said.
The next day, she woke nearly blind with muddy blood to learn that her ass-pit brother Haniel had joined the platoon and had left as part of the Prince’s entourage. The jerk had taken his pet dog, Yanky, which enraged Randa even if the animal did belong to him. He’d told her sisters that joining the Service was the only way to earn enough money to save the family farm. Ma was beside herself with grief.
The next moon, Randa learned that she was pregnant. A royal bastard blossomed in her belly, and she found herself grateful that Pa had died. At least he wouldn’t have to see his daughter in such a shameful condition.
In the days that followed, Haniel wrote a few letters in his big loping scrawl, brief chronicles of his platoon’s movements east through the Ascendio Kingdom and into the Eastern Kingdom. The lucky idiot visited the capital city of Platessa before his platoon ventured deep into the mountainous region known as the East-East. There, his messages ended.
Now, her unnaturally large belly aches. The sky appears poisoned. The animals have all fled. Her sisters have gone mad. And somehow, she knows in her swollen gut that her pregnancy is connected to this madness.
At last, she reaches the spot in the rafters where she hid the leather pouch. No sooner does she yank it free than the barn doors crack open. The sisters’ repeated blows have knocked one door nearly off its frame. Laven spills inside, wedged upon the fallen wood while the other three scrabble over her.
Randa jumps to the floor. The impact sends a bolt of pain into her ankles and up her spine. She barely has time to recover before Pean lunges toward her, hissing. With a grunt, Randa swings the trowel at her sister. The dull metal slices into Pean’s throat. A wave of frantic sorrow nearly cripples Randa. She has killed her own sister. Pean gurgles and drops to the ground, and the trowel twists out of Randa’s grasp. She bends over to retrieve it, but one of the others slams into her.
They fall upon her, and part of her is grateful for it. How the hell was she going to raise a child on her own? The family farm was already failing. How was she going to live her life bound to some wailing bastard infant? No, maybe this is for the best.
She screams and curses as her three remaining sisters claw and bite at her. She swears she hears Haniel’s voice in the distance—clearly a hallucination. Laven lunges at her face, but Randa raises an arm. Her sister’s hot mouth settles on her forearm, teeth clamping onto the flesh. Hot bursts of pain riddle her body. Below, one of them bites into her thigh. Her nightdress tears, exposing her belly.
“You fumpers!” she shouts, knowing that at any moment whatever disease has infected them would soon be ravaging her.
Sure enough, the darkness comes. Dark heat infuses her blood, a boiling blackness with crimson mist. Her spine arches. Her limbs go rigid. The baby inside her writhes and kicks. A dark red curtain falls over her vision, smothering the sounds of her sisters’ hissing and her own screaming. Throbbing flames lick up her spine, twisting her head backward. Her mouth opens to hiss, except a coolness emanates from within her belly.
The crippling heat fades. The hiss that she almost uttered dissipates into a whispered, “Oh.”
She’s vaguely aware of her sisters thudding beside her, lifeless. Surely, she must now be dreaming or dead because she again hears her brother Haniel’s voice.
“I’m sorry, Laven,” he whispers.
Randa opens her eyes. Her sisters lie in the hay around her, their skulls and necks bearing fresh wounds. A strange woman—older but remarkably beautiful and somehow familiar—has fallen beside her in the hay. She’s wearing what appears to be a bridesmaid dress, though it’s torn and stained by blood and other disgusting secretions. Randa’s breath catches. Haniel stands over her holding a bloody mace. He’s wearing leather armor also splattered with blood. He looks impossibly older. Patches of stubble cover his cheeks. Wings made of sliver—the insignia of a captain—are pinned to his chest.
Snowflakes flitter inside the barn through the open doors, carrying with them the stink of sour apples. She remembers the Prince’s bad poetry. Oh, to gaze again upon such beautiful Snow . . .
“What the fump is going on?” Randa says.
Her brother looks at her. His eyes go wide. “Randa?”
She sits up, her body crowded with aches and pains. The filthy bridesmaid beside her gasps. She stares at Randa as if she were covered in honey and feathers. The woman’s gaze settles upon the X on Randa’s belly. She clutches her torn nightgown to cover her stomach.
The strange woman rises, her shadow sliding over Randa.
Haniel hands her his mace. “Would you?”
The woman nods and says, “Of course. Tend to your sister.” By the woman’s accent, Randa guesses she must be from the mountainous Eastern Kingdom.
Haniel kneels over her. He stinks of rum and death. His filthy hair has grown longer. He’s lost weight, though he radiates new strength. A bandage covers one hand. He hugs her tight, and for one blissful moment Randa knows real peace.
Until her sisters’ corpses on the floor twitch and spasm, and their flesh splits open to reveal black slimy bones.
Hays’ mace sits heavy in Adara’s hands. She prefers the gracefulness of the sword, but this blunt weapon will surely be more practical for what’s coming. The four dead sisters of the farmboy-turned-soldier twitch upon the floor. The surviving sister, Randa, gasps and clutches her brother.
Adara stares her in the eye and says, “I’m truly sorry about what happens next.”
The corpses’ flesh splits open, birthing a writhing thicket of malicious black bones. Now, Adara knows, is the time to destroy the Creepers—before they can fully hatch from their cocoons of deceased flesh and assemble into something worse than a simple skeleton.
Hefting Hays’ mace over her shoulder, she slams it down into the nearest dead girl’s chest. The heavy metal crunches into the body, a thick splat that sprays droplets of blood over the entire barn. The impact jolts her shoulders. Her cursed palms scream against the weapon’s wooden handle. Her hands perhaps can sense the fading body heat of Hays’ touch. They burn with a nearly irresistible hunger.
She raises the mace, revealing a steaming cavity drenched in blood and filled with cracked black bones that twitch like jumping beans. In the hay, Hays’ sister makes a strangled noise and then retches.
Again, Adara strikes downward into the same mutilated body—this time crushing the pelvic bones within. Blue sparks fly as the bones crunch. Her palms gnash at the wood, and she fears that her hands may well betray her—refusing to clasp the mace. But no, her grip holds true as again and again she slams the mace into the dead bodies. The frozen blood and drool from the Horrorhound that attacked her ship—the Captains Mate—falls in gruesome flecks from her bridesmaid dress. With each blow, stitches of pain bite into her belly where only moments ago she’d skewered herself and the Horrorhound.
The scent of Randa’s vomit—coffee and bile—turns Adara’s stomach. Dark patches swarm around the edge of her vision. Her veins feel hollow, carrying not blood but simply the desire to dream. She hasn’t known sleep since this whole damned affair began—since that idiot Prince Mikael woke her niece Snow with an ill-fated kiss—and she doesn’t know how much longer she can go on.
She keeps hammering away at the bodies, until they’re reduced to so much black and red pulp. In the corner of her raw vision, Hays holds his sister tight. He murmurs words that Adara can’t hear over all the splats and crunches. By the time she reaches the final corpse, slimy black bones protrude from the chest and shins. She’s able to obliterate the upper half of the skeleton, but the leg bones wiggle free, form into something that vaguely resembles a scorpion, and scurry into the shadows.
“Well fump me,” Adara says. “Hays, we have a problem.”
“Who the hell is Hays?” Randa says.
“I am,” Hays says. “That’s what I go by now.”
“What is your real name?” Adara says.
He rises, helping his sister to her feet. The pregnant girl wipes her mouth on her oversized tunic. She’s holding a leather pouch. The three of them edge to the center of the barn, several paces away from the open doors. Adara trades weapons with Hays.
Randa gasps. Adara’s heart rattles in her chest. In the shadows above, something scurries.
“Backs to each other, everyone,” Hays says. “Keep your eyes open. Be ready to strike.”
They move into a triangular formation and step slowly toward the doors. Adara’s shoulders brush against Hays’ and Randa’s. The young man stands on her right. Inside her fractured mind, Adara still carries the memories that she slurped out of Hays’ dead lover, Viena. She remembers the feel of his hard muscles pressed against her skin, the full sensation of him sliding inside her, and the look on his face as their lovemaking invoked his climax. Those memories are not her own, and yet they haunt her.
“What the fump was that thing?” Randa says. “It . . . it came out of Pean.”
“We call ‘em Creepers,” Hays says. “That’s what happens inside dead bodies now. See, there’s a curse. We’re all infected. If we get bit, we become Horrors, like our . . . like them there.” He points at the messes on the floor. “If you die as a Horror but your brain ain’t destroyed, you come back as a Drudge, a walking corpse. And even after your body fails, you hatch these damn skeleton monsters—these Creepers.”
“How is that possible?” Randa says.
“Because magic is a naughty beast,” Adara says. “A naughty, naughty beast indeed.”
“Haniel, who is this bitch and what the fump is she babbling about?”
Bitch? Bitch? Moons ago Adara would have likely had this farm girl imprisoned and tortured for addressing her in such a manner. Of course, back then the girl would have surely recognized her visage as that of Queen Adara, ruler of the Eastern Kingdom.
“This here’s Queen Adara,” Hays tells his sister.
“You’ve gotta be shittin’ me.”
Adara’s left shoulder nudges against Randa. They exchange a quick glance and Adara’s gaze falls down to the young woman’s bared limbs. Sure enough, several fresh bites mar the girl’s flesh. If she was bitten by the Horrors, then she should be one of them now. And yet she’s not. More pressing still, the girl’s navel bears a dark X—just like the bride from the Monster’s story. This girl has some explaining to do, no doubt.
A cracked axe handle falls out of the rafters. Randa gasps and nudges against Adara’s left hand, which hangs downward near the girl’s waist.
Her palm screams. Its sudden hunger nearly topples Adara. For one instant, it’s as though she can see inside the girl’s belly. She sees not with eyes, but more like how the bats back in the forests of the Eastern Kingdom could “see” with their delicate ears. It’s as though she can feel inside the girl’s womb, where a delicious white light throbs and beckons. The unborn child is pure and strong and magical. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, and Adara hasn’t dreamed in a long, long time. The curse that brews inside her craves—and possibly fears—whatever’s growing inside Randa.
Adara sways between the siblings, burning with desire for one and yearning to consume the other. She swallows hard. Her bones have gone hollow. She needs filled.
She’s almost grateful when the demented Creeper finally leaps out of the darkness with a flash of blue sparks. It now resembles a spider. The little creature flings itself at Randa, the sole one among them not carrying a weapon. Adara grits her teeth and cleaves it in two in mid-air with her sword. When the halves hit the floor, Hays bashes them to pieces.
He turns on his sister. “Okay, now what the hell do you have to say about . . .” He motions at her pregnant belly. “About this?”
She grabs her brother by the ear. “My sisters just turned into monsters and tried to kill me and then you killed them and they hatched even more monsters that tried to kill me and you’re asking me about the baby in my fumpin’ stomach?”
“The family drama can wait,” Adara says. “We need to go.”
“But where are we going?” the girl says.
“We have a ship,” Hays says. “We’re going to Carpaldal to end this curse. But first, where’s Ma?”
Randa shakes her head, lips trembling. “What curse? What the fump is going on?”
“No time to explain,” Adara says. “Let’s go.”
They step out into the coming day. Snowflakes whirl through the air. To the side of the barn’s entrance, something utters a strangled clucking noise from inside a sheltered chicken coop. Bloody feathers swirl in the air, mixing with the ominous snowflakes. Adara staggers to the little enclosure while Hays calls after her.
She kneels. Three chickens inside have crippled themselves trying to get out. She’s seen this before. Animals can sense the impending danger from Snow’s curse. Usually, they flee well ahead of the storm, but these poor creatures couldn’t. If they had been able to leave, they no doubt would have retreated to one of the forested sanctuaries protected by charmed barriers so that no human would find them. These little hideaways were conjured long ago by the same unseen hand that manipulated Adara into creating the curse. She knows now that that hand belongs to the Monster, her own husband’s bastard creation—conjured out of arrogance and cast aside in revulsion, and now dedicated to vengeance against humanity.
Barely able to control her hunger, Adara unlatches the pen and reaches inside with trembling hands. Normally, when she does her thing, she feeds steadily on the life force of living creatures—sipping and slurping away until her victim slowly falls to so many goopy pieces. Not so now. No, now she places her hands on a twitching chicken and the poor creature nearly bursts apart. And another. And the third. With each touch, she gulps their life essences in one quick instant, reducing them to so much guck and feather and bone. Each nefarious swallow fulfills her, soothing her wounds and tamping back the fiery darkness that constantly threatens to smother her skull.
Before rising, she wipes her hands on the frozen ground, smearing chunky chicken gunk in two long streaks.
She can scarcely look her companions in the eye. Randa shakes her head. Hays frowns. Before anyone can say anything, movement catches Adara’s eye from down the road. She squints that direction and says, “What is that?”
“Oh shit,” Randa says.
“What, Sis?” Hays says.
“You said that that’s what happens to dead people now? They sprout those black skeletons?”
Hays stares at his sister. “Yes.”
She points down the road. “That’s Ma and Minister Ramsizer—dead in the road.”
Hays flinches. A pang of sympathy bites into Adara’s gut. He places his hand on his sister’s shoulder, either to comfort her or to keep himself from falling.
In the road, two black skeletons tear themselves free of steaming flesh and rise into a bizarre tangle of appendages and spines. Blue sparks sizzle. For one moment, everything seems to freeze in place. Surely even Adara’s frazzled heart stops for a beat. Her breath hitches.
The monstrosity lurches toward them.