I opened and shut my mouth like a fish, trying to absorb any moisture I could, wishing for a hint of a breeze. Nemet was the hottest place I’d ever been to. I wasn’t prepared for the arid climate, the dust, the absolute apathy of the sun. My hunting partner, Shahara, rolled her eyes at me as we headed toward a ruined prayer tower for the Nemmen gods. Sweat plastered my short black coils to the sides of my face as I poked my head around the corner of an adobe house.
I jerked back and stopped short as the thing we came for, the thing we were tasked to destroy, sent chills up my arms even in this desert. I signaled to stop too late and Shahara nearly knocked me into the dirt. She stood half a foot taller than me, wider by a palm’s breadth, and wore her hair in the traditional style of all Swords — two braids in cornrows along the sides of her head, edges pasted down, immaculate with gleaming wax. Young, agile, fierce. She was beautiful with a strong jaw. She wore loose trousers and a thick leather chest cover, her halberd in her left hand. I’m sure I looked silly next to her in a long tunic with only a staff to defend myself. I was her Lorist, the person with the knowledge of the place and people. It helped to have an extra pair of hands to carry the parts back.
Shahara glared at me. Her hand struck out as if she were about to use my shoulder to right herself but thought better of it. She lowered her forearm in front of my face. The text of our language appeared in blocky red letters that stood out against her skin, which was several shades lighter than my own deep brown. It was as if her lifeblood wrote her messages, “Shit, Kem, what now?”
We didn’t have tongues, not like our ancestors, but we adapted. Sign language, gestures, facial expressions. Non-verbal cues became much more nuanced in the wake of the great purge of spoken language. We’ve long since lost the stories about what happened or why. All I remembered from what Mamaw told me was the fear — the chaos of the aftermath.
I twisted my upper body around so she could see the response that filigreed across my tiny breasts in the pink shade of recent scars. “Sorry — look.” I jerked my head toward the corner of the house. “Have you ever seen one like that?”
Shahara stepped around me to peer past the wall, spinning me like a leaf on the wind. I don’t know what she thought in that moment, but I knew by her slackened jaw and her silence that we were done for.
The creature was long and inky black, large enough to see from our position. The exoskeleton shone as if recently polished, the scales glinting in the afternoon sun. It slithered along, the curve of its body shaped like my curls. According to my notes, no one knew where it went after it finished hunting. It probably sensed a shift in the fundamentals of the universe and swam up from the depths of the sea like all the other horrors we’ve encountered. The thing slithered and looked like it was floating. Lux sent us here to die, I thought, but then quickly dismissed that possibility. There were much more efficient and lucrative ways had he wanted to dispose of us.
I tapped Shahara’s arm and nodded in the direction we’d just come from, back to high ground. We needed a new plan. Our usual wouldn’t do: Shahara leading the charge and me flailing behind her to collect scraps from the wreckage.
All Lux gave us about the creature were generals from a Nemmen messenger boy: it was huge, black like a night with no stars, and had something that slithered from its mouth like a snake inside another snake. Lux ran the business back home in Mankura, a temperate forest east of Nemet, in the hills of a greater land called the Tar. His rules were simple. Kill it. Bring him any fluids, skin, an eye, a tentacle, anything we could carry, but especially the blood. What Lux did with these things, he kept to himself. Probably sold it to practitioners. Regardless, this bounty kept us clothed and fed and that’s all us hunters knew, Lorists and Swords alike. Intrigued by the idea of an animal inside another, I volunteered for this; it would be my last. I could get by on my own. Maybe I’d go live with my sister in the mountains of Kitan.
It had been three nights and two days and Shahara and I lay down atop the highest building we could find. We were told it couldn’t fly. I struggled to fall asleep, still sweating beneath the stars. Even at night, a sticky warmth clung to me. After the first encounter, we tracked the monster for days, trying to decipher a pattern to its killings. It hunted by sight and didn’t seem to have visible ears. It came and went, feasting on anyone unfortunate enough or stupid enough to stay behind. It usually hunted in the middle of the day. One would think a beast like this would prefer the dark.
As we lay there, I thought about my childhood, how comfortable I became with loneliness. I was comfortable with the temporary relationships I formed with Swords in the tavern, the relationship of equal trade with Lux, and the one I had with myself. As a child whose language appeared on her chest, I got comfortable with nakedness, with skin. I rolled over to lie on my side, facing Shahara and found her awake too. My chest showed the words I wanted to say to her all day. “We should leave.”
Shahara propped herself up on an elbow, her other arm extended along the curve of her waist that read, “Abandon Nemet? These people.” Her letters glistened in the moonlight, which made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like talking to her at night.
“Most people are gone. She hasn’t attacked anyone.”
“Yet. And she? Did you name it?” Shahara’s gaze sent a jolt through me as our eyes met. I don’t know when I imposed gender on this creature, but I recognized a certain kinship. “You sentimental piece of shit.” She smiled.
“I’ll name them all. One by one — create a catalog of monsters we can give to future generations,” I teased.
Her annoyance on the day we got to Nemet, and this teasing, yet worried, demeanor clashed with my memory of the first time we met. Nearly a full moon ago, I’d gone into Jax, the tavern on the edge of town where Lux operated. I was ready to quit. I wanted to quit. Even though I had no idea what came next. I sat for a moment, trying to recall my perfect speech I’d rehearsed on the way over. Rushlan the barkeep recognized this look and nudged a pint toward me. I drained it in a few hasty gulps and he raised his eyebrows. I grinned, enjoying the head rush. I stood up too fast, stumbled back into what I thought was a wall, thinking there should not be a wall directly behind the bar stools. Two hands gripped my shoulders and steadied me.
I knew her face by inked posters in Lux’s office, but the heady thrill of her presence was something I never imagined. I knew her only as a heroine crowned with the glory of success, wealth, and a fawning populace traipsing behind her.
“Watch it,” her arm read, paired with a stiff smile. She righted my tilting frame and moved through the crowd toward Lux’s door in one fluid motion. I followed her with quick steps. She didn’t knock.
“Perfect, perfect, you two have already met. Kem, Nemmen lore. Here are the notes. Take everything. Shahara, don’t let this one out of your sight — I need her back in a few days. Think you can manage?” Lux, thin and wiry, with the slicked back waves and the oiled skin of well-off gentlemen, held out a few pieces of parchment as I struggled to speed read our language skipping across his forehead.
“Don’t insult me, L,” Shahara said with a wink. I followed her out and have been ever since.
Her fingertips touched my wrist and I snapped back into the present. My mind never settled on one thing, even during moments like this. Someday it might get me killed.
“Don’t get eaten by the damned thing,” she said.
She closed her eyes and tucked her arms in, her fingers playing over the hilt of her halberd laying by her side. Shahara was serious about the future, always.
I was serious too, about us making it there in one piece. My suspicions rose as I fell into a dream where this creature and I could speak with our mouths; we understood each other. I slept on and off. Shahara slapped my sides when I woke her with my tossing and turning. The night before a kill was always worse than the thing itself.
We rose early, before the sun could reach its full power. Shahara left before me, positioned herself on the bottom floor in the prayer tower at the village center, close to the door so she could make a quick attack.
Rather than slipping through what shadow I could find, I walked down the middle of the empty streets, my eyes darting around trying to spot my she-beast before she spotted me. When had she become mine? The tower wasn’t fifty feet away when she slithered out in front of me, tongue flickering around her mouth like a cat’s whiskers.
My grip tightened on the staff, slick with sweat, and my eyes locked on her. She gave a little jerk of her head and raced toward me, faster than I’d thought possible. Or maybe the possibility of being eaten alive by a creature of unknown origin just seemed slower when it happened to other people. I lifted my staff and my hand and realized at once that she thought I meant her harm. My chest showed the word, “Wait.”
I couldn’t look away, couldn’t move. Shahara hurtled toward us, moving closer with every swish of the creature’s tail.
I flung my staff between us, but it was useless against her girth and surprising weight. I landed hard on my tailbone, my feet in the air pressed against her belly. I held her at bay with just enough space for her tongue to drip a blue-black mucous on my face. It smelled like berries muddled in deep brown spiced ale. Her feet crawled on my chest, burning my skin in little shocks.
I lay supine. My mind hummed with questions. Was she the only tongued darkness slithering this side of the sky? My arms were numb from the strain and my torso on fire with the stinging. I watched helplessly as the tongue swirled above my face, as if she searched for something. Could this creature understand the notes on my chest if she could see them? If I got her to look at me, really look at me?
I wondered why we lost our tongues, why they never evolved into future generations that became our communities. I wondered if this would be the only one I’d ever see, the last thing I’d ever see. I couldn’t kill her even if I were able.
Shahara interrupted my meditations and hopes for a quick death with a war cry as she ripped the thing off me with her halberd, taking a bit of skin off my stomach along with it. I arched my back toward the sun as a scream clawed its way up my throat. I’d never been that loud. I didn’t know I could make a sound like that.
The she-beast scuttled a few feet away and then fell, presumably dead, leaking dark blood from its side. She keened. My tears fell for us both. My body felt hot all over.
Shahara leaned over me, assessed my injuries, and immediately took some bandages out of her pack. She usually collected the parts right away, leaving nothing to chance or to spoil in the climate. No one had looked at me with that much detail since Mamaw.
Shahara didn’t look away when I screamed, the flayed skin announcing a source of greater and more urgent pain that had nothing to do with the tongued creature that hadn’t moved since. Her cries grew softer as Shahara bent over me, my chest blank.
When Shahara finished, I stood on shaky legs. The bandages covered my chest, but I put my hand on her arm and she nodded. I walked over to the creature’s body, gone silent, but her chest still heaved. I stared into what I thought must be her eyes. There were seven orange orbs in her head, like tiny suns, and they reflected the tired sorrow on my face as her tongue flicked out for the last time — a hand waiting to be held.