I tapped my foot impatiently. "It's not my fault –"
"I didn't even go –"
"Besides they're hardly dangero –"
I clamped my mouth shut. That name was hardly used in good context. Instead of looking up I glared bayfully at the floor and tightened my grip on my arms.
A moment later there was a sigh through a nose. "Go outside. Now. And don't get into trouble. I have to clean up your mess." I don't think I was supposed t hear that last part.
Scowling I moved off the wall and pushed outside with my shoulder. People looked up at me and I shot them a look.
"Bloody hell," I mumbled, kicking a rock. A rue smile touched my lips at the irony. Hel. A name to show I was a devil's spawn. I preferred it to my real name, Nel. Short for Nellie.
The road I followed cut from my Da's farm, through another, before curving next to the trees towards town. This wasn't the danger, left at the crossroads was, it headed to the Death Woods.
They were forbidden.
Not that I cared.
I reached the crossroads sooner than I thought. I paused and let my arms drop. I looked down the crossroads towards the Woods road. Don't get into trouble, I thought bitterly, mocking my Da's words.
A smile twisted on my lips. "Alright then, I won't." I spun away from the right road to town and struck off to the Death Woods.
The trees grew thicker and closer and older. Black leaves blotted out most of the sunlight, chilling the air and covering the ground with an unnatural mist. I stopped not far from the border, letting the silence and starkness settle on me. The scent of rot filled my nose. Icy air tickled me.
After a moment's hesitation I struck off in a direction, following my gut. I crawled over roots and rocks, feet balancing on the uneven ground with practiced care. Cold stone fragment attacked my feet where I stepped, mist dulling everything wetly. I couldn't see.
My foot slipped on a tree root, and my wings automatically snapped out. Moisture glinted off the oily sheen. I hopped down the last few steps between trees to land on the other side of the mist.
The black leaves were gone, replaced by dark green ones on woody boughs. Muted sunlight showed the sharp-edged grasses and ferns, blanketing the ground along with stones and gravel. The air was still, smelling of sweet rot and acrid smoke. My skin itched and burned in a way that wasn't wholly unpleasant as I adjusted.
I closed my wings and walked on, ducking under branches and pushing leafy vines aside. Past gnarled trees, and I began to hear the low rumble of gravelly voices in words I never understood.
Brushing away a dark frond, I saw them. Sitting, standing, even relaxing on rocks and boulders and trampled spaces of muddy grass. Monsters. That was what everyone called them, but I wasn't so sure that was their real name. To me, they didn't seem like monsters.
There was a large, empty boulder, that was only about a head shorter than the largest monster there, who I knew went by Torbram. I still thought he looked like a mountain ballooned out at the middle. His craggy face certainly matched the grey skin and guttering language.
I grabbed a sturdy limb above me and pulled myself up, flipping easily across the empty space to land on the top of the round boulder. Of course, my wings had fanned out fully to make it across, and of course all the monsters immediately stopped talking in their language.
"Miss me?" I asked casually, sitting down. I allowed my wings to relax, because this was the only place I could.
"Didn't you get hauled off by the other humans?" Torbram asked, black eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"I did," I said. "You know how they can be. I was told not to get in trouble, so as long as nothing happens . . . no one will know about this little visit."
A smaller monster that looked like a boulder the colour of entrails laughed, the sound grating in my ears and activating nerves. "Hel, any time you visit, we always end up doing something. It's fun messing with you humans."
I scowled and drew myself up importantly. "In that case, knock it off. Else your little world might have a lot more human visitors."
Not the right thing to say. The rank air became so thick with tension I could have cut it with a knife. Every one of them shifted to face me, anger glinting in their eyes. It became very clear to me how we started calling them monsters.
My heart rate quickened, but I put on an easy smile. "Oh, come on, I'm just joking. I'm not going to bring some stupid humans in here."
"You're human," Torbram point out, growling in his throat.
"Hardly," I snapped. "Half of them want to kill me, but won't for fear I'll morph into something terrifying and kill them with my mind."
"They think you demonic," said something small with a jutting jaw, razor filed teeth, and talons for nails. "But you're human . . ." There was a hungry light in its yellow eyes. "A sweet . . . succulent . . . human!"
With a yelp I leapt from my seat, in time to let the creature crash against stone where I'd just sat. I whirled around. "Hate to tell you, but I'm not on the menu." It snarled.
I had run back into the oppressive trees before it even pounced at me.
I ran, wings moving automatically to gain me seconds over the inconsistent terrain. It was smaller and lighter than me. I was good at figuring out where it moved. Not my idea of fun.
My heart was pounding fit to burst, and the smelly, tingly air was not helping my breathing. I could hear the dark woods being ripped apart feverishly, it howling and growling and slavering.
Then it fell silent.
I dropped down to lever ground and leaned heavily against a rough tree trunk. I never realized how hard it was to breathe here. There was silence for a few more seconds.
With the most feral I'd ever heard, something ripped from the undergrowth. I stared; long, sinuous body, colouring of black and dark purple, canine-like head, icy white teeth, the same glowing yellow eyes. "Well, that explains a lot," I muttered.
I ran at a full out sprint, the demon snapped not far behind me, and within a few seconds I was in the barrier. I kept going, even though I couldn't see or hear anything. Only the faintest feeling, the hairs rising on the back of my neck, spurred me continually onward away from the demon.
There was a lurch around me. I stumbled as colour and light flood back in with startling intensity.
People were in a crowd, several metres away, bows and arrows and bottles of demon-killing acid with them. They all looked at my sudden appearance reproachfully.
Don't get into trouble. Definitely didn't happen. First I blow up a granary, not Im the focus of an angry demon.
Speaking of which.
I spun around and moved back, just as the demon launched it from the trees with the loudest racket. Probably what attracted all the people.
I stared at the demon head on and snapped my wings straight menacingly. "Alright, bad boy," I said. "You want to dance? Let's dance." The demon snarled at me. I seemed to have a real talent for taunting just about everything with a brain.
The demon charged at me. I jumped aside and it barrelled past, which surprised me. Capable of disguising itself yet stupid. First time for everything.
The demon clearly ignored the other people and skidded around to zero in on me. I gave a snap of my wings, which deterred it long enough to get out of range of its swipes.
I couldn't keep this up for much longer. Though no one seemed very eager to take the clear shots and shoot it.
I took another step back. My foot slipped and suddenly I was flat on my back. I yelped as the demon jumped and threw my arms over my face. Miraculously the demon over jumped.
I wasted no time in moving forward, coming to my feet – and then continuing on so I tripped. I managed to catch myself on someone by grabbing hold of them. There was a TWANG! and a sick sound.
For a moment it was all calm and quiet, save for my pulse and my breathing.
The person I was holding on to pushed me away, disgusted. I drew myself up and brushed myself off before turning around and walked over to the limp shape of the demon. I kicked it with my boot. It gurgled but didn't move.
I pulled the arrow out of its side, looked at its corroded head and shaft, and tossed it to the ground. I crouched down next to its head. "Not. On. The menu," I stressed. The glow was gone from its eyes.
I stood up, kicked it again, and faced the people from town and the outlying farms. So who's kill is it?" I asked casually. Everyone had a claim to the carcasses of the demons they killed; whether for burning or burying or charring in a fire pit for eating if really desperate.
Nobody owned up, instead giving me a silent glare. "Well, it's not mine," I continued, "so someone better claim it."
A bull of a man pushed forward to the front. "This is your fault," he said, jabbing an accusatory finger at me. "You lead that thing here."
"Lead it here? I was running for my life!" I looked at him furiously, folding my wings tightly against my back.
"Running for your life, or playing some sort of game with it?" he demanded.
It never ceased to amaze me how dense people could be too things they didn't understand. They didn't even want to understand, unlike me.
"You know," I said stepping forward. "Sometimes I think, Rathor, that you would have been better off being born with a chicken's comb instead of bull's horns."
His face darkened. I wondered if the Taboos prevented him from running me through with those horns.
"Watch yourself, Hensbane," he growled. "I was grown when you were in swaddling clothes."
"Yes, and you've been a coward for longer than I've been facing fear," I snapped. "So shut up, because a dead demon that threatened my life is really none of your business." I smiled smugly. He looked ready to explode. "Right. So whoever shot that thing, take care of it will you? As to the rest of you – what are you all staring at?"
Even though everyone hated and feared me, they did listen when I made sensible suggestions.
I was the focus of no one's attention for a count of three, which felt like a record short time.
My Da stalked over to me, bushy red fox tail lashing back and forth. "Hel."
"This was not my fault," I said immediately.
"Like earlier?" he yelled. "Like how that wasn't your fault?"
My Da got angry all the time, but short and slight with sun-bleached hair hardly made him intimidating. I was even taller than him.
"Do you like getting into trouble? Is that it?"
"No, I'm just usually around when evil decides to appear."
"I should have left you in the woods the night after your mother disappeared. Then you'd be with your own kind."
"Here's an even better thought. You should never have become a parent." I gave him a disgusted look. "I can't believe we're related." I turned my back on him, arms folded tightly, and walked away. I noticed the crowd's sounds weren't quite loud enough to have drowned out our yelling.
Bloody hell, I thought.