Anna learned monsters were real one night as she crouched in bed, her ear pressed against the wall that separated their bedroom from the living room. This was before Papa had left with the marching men, back when Mama came home from selling in the market while the sun was still high. Annabelle had never seen her mother look like that day when Mama came home. She kissed Papa as they welcomed her home and Annabelle heard her whisper to him, ‘We need to talk.’ As soon as supper ended, the two sisters were ordered to bed.
Sofia never found it difficult to sleep but Anna laid and laid and laid in bed, staring at the moonlight that drifted through the window of their bedroom. Perhaps she could have slept had she truly tried, but her ears were focused on picking up the hushed conversation between Mama and Papa.
Mama often returned home with fantastical stories from traders and sailors. As they ate, she would relay tales of faraway places where men lived within mountains, worshiping fire, ruled over by a king whose palace floated. But tonight Mama whispered of a terrible monster who lived in the shadows. It came from the northern Wildlands and was journeying to the east.
With each passing night, Mama returned with more stories she only told to Papa. But through the door Annabelle learned much about it. It looked pitiful; a starved and ruined creature that could hardly walk. Yet it was filled with a ferocious and violent spirit that attacked on sight. Livestock, men, women, children–the monster attacked them all without prejudice. It didn’t just strike for the heart; it mutilated the bodies, tore them to pieces like a pack of starved wolves and yet left everything untouched. It never ate. It only killed.
The stories only grew with time and soon they began to discuss it openly. The monster earned names: the Northern Devil, Dakhar, even just simply Death. But, to Anna, it was merely another horror like she always suspected of lurking in the darkness.
Papa’s rules began as the stories came closer. They stopped being merely rumors from a ‘friend who knew someone that met with the creature and didn’t live to tell the tale himself’ to names of people her parents knew. People Annabelle had met.
Papa’s first rule was they must never–ever–go out at night. Those were the hours the monster hunted. Next, all windows must be boarded up, all doors must be closed. The monster was like a moth, attracted to any bright flame it saw. They were to stay in bed when the moon rose and stay there until the sun returned.
Annabelle had done such a good job at following those rules. But all it takes is one moment of disobedience.
After their pitiable supper, which featured little more than chunks of white capped mushrooms floating in a watery broth, Anna sent Sofia to bed and waited alone in the dark room of their house. Once they had gathered as a family to take their meals here or listen as Mama and Papa weaved together stories where she and Sofia were heroines. Now all she had was the silent darkness of the house. Yet she didn’t fear any monsters for she had been vigilant in following everything Papa said.
She shouldn’t have been up. But Mama had always returned before the sun disappeared before. It was selfish of her, perhaps, but she wanted to be the first to see Mama. The nights were growing colder and Anna shivered as she cupped her hands around the small candle flame.
Outside, she heard the whispers of leaves as a breeze rolled across the trees. She listened to the steady chirping of the grasshoppers and tried to imagine the stories they must tell. Crickets must be a very brave bug, she mused, since she only noticed them at night. When she noticed their songs had suddenly ceased, she strained to listen at the door. She could hear the soft crunch of dead leaves breaking under foot as someone walked.
Her heart leapt and she scrambled to her feet. Anna opened the door cautiously, cracking it open just wide enough to fit her small head through.
“Mama?” she called out.
It was the middle of the night but the sky was clear of clouds and the light of the moon offered her just enough to see the dark shadows of the trees beyond their little chicken hutch. Still, she held the candle out further, hoping to spread the light in the dark.
She shuddered as it stepped out of the blackness of the forest, entering the moonlight. It looked even more hideous than it had in her dreams. The silvery illuminations highlighted the deep, pale scars that striped its gaunt face and body and shined upon its jagged teeth as it sneered at her. It walked crookedly on two legs, its knees always close to knocking against one another as it stumbled toward her.
Anna jerked backward in fright. The hot wax that had pooled around the candle wick spilled over and dripped onto her wrist. She had only a moment to acknowledge the burning pain, taking her eyes off the creature. The monster screamed and took her distraction as an opportunity. It ran on all fours, charging toward her.
The girl pulled the door shut and backed away but it was only a moment before the monster slammed into the door and howled again. She fled to the room she shared with her sister, guided only by the little light offered by the candle struggling to remain lit during the girl’s flight.
Sofia was sat up in bed. “Anna? What’s that?”
Anna pushed their bedroom door shut. Her mind raced as quickly as her heart pounding inside her chest. The candle flame shrunk to a tiny spark on the wick, the thick darkness leaping around her. But the little flame grew again, battling it away.
The girl of nine-and-three-quarters listened to the heavy THUD, THUD, THUD as the monster beat against the door. She imagined the wood splintering to a thousand shredded pieces as it clawed its way into their home. The boarded windows were supposed to save them, keep them protected from the bad. Papa had said so. Mama had agreed. Anna had helped carry slabs of hearthwood chopped thin to hammer across the windows. Her hands had been full of splinters by the time they finished.
She had bitterly complained as Papa carefully pulled as many of the tiny pieces of wood from her palms as he could grasp but her whines were only met with Papa’s reassurances. This will keep my girls safe. The Northern Devil follows the light in the dark but he won’t see anything now.
She had goofed.
Papa hadn’t accounted for that. He hadn’t thought his eldest daughter would break his rules. She showed the devil the light. She invited it to the house. And when it clawed through the door, it would come to find her and rip her heart from her breast and leave her no better than Starry.
She wished Papa was here. Papa would know what to do. Papa would know how to protect her.
But Papa wasn’t here.
Neither was Mama.
It was just her. She was alone.
“What’s going on?” Sofia sounded close to tears but her voice brought Anna back. She turned to look her sister in the eyes but the shadows of the room cloaked her face and the weakly persisting candle revealed only a thin outline. Papa said to protect Sofia.
Anna blew out the candle and let it fall to the floor as she leapt on the bed, landing on her feet in a crouched position. “Don’t move,” she whispered as she pushed Sofia back down to the mattress. “And stay very, very quiet.” Then the little girl of nine-and-three-quarters did the only thing she knew to do against a monster: she pulled the thin patchwork quilt right over their heads.
Anna squeezed her eyes tightly shut. Outside, the monster still pounded upon the door, still bashing its body against the creaking wood in desperation. The small house seemed to shudder with each blow and, with it, her own body quaked.