This story by Cory Skerry continues F&SF’s long and honored tradition of making us think hard about who the monsters are and what makes them monsters.
Fresh snowfall had softened the world that afternoon, and as dusk fell, the sky cleared enough to release a bright moon. Kamalija leaned against the wall’s stones, rough and pitted with centuries of weather, and watched the shadows of the woods. She wanted to kill something, wanted to feel the hum of her knives in the chill air. They were carved from her grandfather’s bones, etched with sigils of silver and set with garnets. He’d been a gate guardian, like her, and she imagined she could feel his ghost’s approval when she set the blades to their task.
A leather wineskin slapped into the powdery snow at her feet, emanating heat and the reek of fresh death. It contained a well-fitted wooden stopper carved in the shape of a wolf’s head.
Now that he’d given his presence away, Lafiik sauntered out of the blackness between the firs. “I noticed your heirs forgot to feed you tonight,” he said.
Kamalija didn’t move. “Life should never be stolen.”
“You’d take mine, wouldn’t you?”
“If you come so close, you offer it to me.”
Lafiik chuckled. “It was a deer, O Exalted Guardian. Drink with a clear conscience, but drink now, before it cools.”
“We wouldn’t feed a gift from you to even the most ill-behaved of our dogs, joskri,” she said.
His smile faded, but he walked closer. Closer. Her fingers tensed on the handles of her knives.
“Do you think we’re so different, that what you name joskri is a beast, like a wolf or lion?”
“I’d sooner sup with a wolf or sleep beside a lion.”
“Neither you nor I sleep,” Lafiik said, amused. He stopped just outside her circle—he must have been watching her for days or weeks before he’d shown himself, because he knew exactly how far she could reach. Kamalija’s witch star burned its righteous warmth in her chest, a gift for the bloodless warrior against the bloodless anathema. He’d been stalking her.
“They told me everything they told you,” he said. “They’re lying.”
Lafiik gripped the hem of his tunic and peeled up his shirt.
And then he stepped into her circle, as vulnerable as she ever could have wanted. Kamalija knew it must be a trick; she darted forward, knives out, but fell to a crouch three steps short. Snow piled in furrows in front of her boots.
Lafiik waited, his silver-brown skin so like hers, his nipples and navel dark against that expanse of cold flesh. Purple scars, like hers, ragged down the center of his chest. Was that supposed to prove something? All the bloodless she’d killed had those scars—the demons could propagate in an honorless parody of the sacred ritual.
“I mean it,” he said. “Feel my star.”
“You don’t have a star.”
“A landslide destroyed my city’s wall, and my blood circle along with it. When your circle is broken, you are freed—not dead. Feel my star,” he repeated.
He was so still he might as well have been truly dead. They would be there all night, she supposed, waiting to fight. She couldn’t understand what ruse this was, and after so many years of nothing, she found peculiarity, and the curiosity that came with it, intoxicating.
Before she could talk sense to herself, she tucked one blade into the sheath in her sleeve, and still holding the other, she placed a palm against his chest.
The heat struck her hand a half of a second before she even touched his skin. The contact didn’t burn—it was pleasant, just like her star, the only heat in an otherwise dry and cold existence—but the act burned something else, some part of her she didn’t have a name for.
The voice came from behind her, from the gate.