This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2017 by Finn Blackwood
Cover art by Craig Emett
Chapter art by Jana Waddoups
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1772, Kazan Governate, Russian Empire
Ivan Kirilov threw open the warped shutters and scanned the swirling snow. Flurries of powder pelted his face. Beyond the grayish white of endless winter outside, he couldn’t see a thing.
He quickly shut the window. A loud growl erupted from his belly. He hated cooking; his father, Pavel, often reminded him only half-jokingly of his lack of skill and preferred to make their meals himself. But on days like this, when Pavel would fight the storm on the long walk home from his work at the iron foundry, Ivan knew better than to delay supper.
He prodded the smoldering logs in the fireplace with the ornate poker Pavel had made. Ivan’s mouth sagged. Turnip stew again. The glowing embers turned his thoughts from the bland food to the coming spring and the freedom it would give him to wander outside the village borders, to hunt and fish and gorge himself on wild berries. He lugged the large iron cooking pot off the rough tabletop and dropped it with a sigh on the warm hearth.
Ivan hastily collected a bucket of icy water from the spring behind their home. When he removed the lid from the pot to dump in the water, he was surprised to find a sealed envelope inside. The wax seal had begun to melt, sending a red trail across the fibrous paper like a river of blood. He quickly snatched the envelope up. His name splayed across the front in neat script. Pavel had taught Ivan his letters, but he had never addressed him in writing before.
Ivan carefully tore the envelope open and pulled out two sheets of parchment. One was neatly folded; the other was crumpled and torn, a hastily stuffed in afterthought. He sat down at the table and read the torn sheet first.
Son, forgive me. I fear I will not be coming back.
He read the words again. Confusion clouded his face like the storm outside. His father had gone to work that morning as usual, and surely he would return like he always did. Was this some kind of joke?
The enclosed letter will explain everything. Before you read it, gather our hunting gear and any food you can carry and flee to your cousin’s home in Izhevsk. Do not delay! Go NOW.
Ivan’s heart chilled as he pondered his father’s mysterious instructions. Despite the urgency of Pavel’s words, Ivan unfolded the other letter.
Suddenly the door of the hut burst open. The freezing wind spat through the room, extinguishing the oil lamp and scattering ashes from the fire. Ivan rocked back in his chair. He crashed to the ground and knocked his head on the earthen floor.
A towering barrel of a man stepped inside. He was clad in sheepskin boots, wool pants and a thick coat, with a long scarf wrapped around his head. He slammed the door. Icy strands of a flaming red beard clung to the scarf as the man uncovered his head.
Ivan leaped up. “Father!”
Pavel turned. A spasm ripped through him, hunching his body inward as though clutching a dark secret. He staggered forward, gripped Ivan’s shoulders with his large, calloused hands and jerked him close.
“Foolish boy, you should have left!” he croaked. “She comes.”
A devastating clap of thunder exploded through the frigid air. The ground shuddered, sending webbed cracks up the walls. Dust rained down from the thatched roof. Pavel grasped Ivan in an awkward embrace, and suddenly the howling wind ceased. The world became still.
“Who comes, Father?”
“Death,” Pavel whispered. Then a violent force ripped the front door off its hinges and sucked him from the room.
Ivan rushed to the open doorway. His father hung upside-down in the air near the trees, a mere stone’s throw away. Beside him lurked a dark figure, masked in a swirling haze of shadow. Ivan sensed a pair of eyes on him and felt exposed, as if his entire life lay open on the arctic ground before him. A chilling sound of scraping metal ripped in his ears. Ivan clamped his hands to the sides of his head and shut his eyes. He could still hear the unearthly noise, and it petrified him.
As quickly as it had started, the sound stopped. Ivan risked a peek. The creature and his father were gone.
ON YOUR MARK
Not So Long Ago, United States
Happy deathday to you,
happy deathday to you,
happy deathday dear Kyle,
happy deathday to you.
The song rang through Kyle’s head, mocking him. It’s not like he celebrated death. He wasn’t a weirdo or a necromaniac or anything. But when birth and death share the same date on the calendar, one tends to smother the other.
Every year Kyle tried to forget just how much his birthday sucked. The day he turned fourteen was no different, except instead of one death hanging over his head, he almost had two.
It all started with the Mark.
It was a sweltering day, more like July than late October. Final period. English class. Mrs. W handed out tests and perched in her chair at the front of the classroom, a brooding gargoyle just waiting to bite off the head of a rule-breaking student. She claimed the W stood for Weingarten, but if you were to ask any of her pupils the answer would be Witch. She was partly blind, mostly deaf, and a few gigs short of a full terabyte, so they usually got away with a lot in her class. But on Test Tuesday she became a bloodhound with a relentless nose for cheating.
Kyle was staring into space and trying not to think deathly thoughts when his left forearm began to itch. It was mildly irritating at first but soon progressed into a stabbing sting. He rubbed it, scratched it with his chewed off nails, even grated it against the corner of his desk, but nothing helped. He finally pulled up the sleeve of his hoodie to see what was wrong. His arm looked normal, though red from all the scratching. But it felt like ants were crawling through his veins.
Stephen Tolbert poked him from behind. “You got fleas or something, Kyle?”
“Shut up, Tully!”
Mrs. W’s face snapped toward them. Her long nose fixated on Kyle like a divining rod. He tried to ignore his arm and faked interest in his test. Blah, he thought. What’s so super about superlatives, anyway?
“Kiraly.” His last name slithered like a dirty word through his teacher’s puckered lips. He hunched into the desk, practically kissing his test and scratching gibberish in the margin with his pencil. Next thing he knew Mrs. W was lurking beside him. He’d never noticed before how young her hands looked. Smooth, pink skin. No wrinkles or age spots. Nothing like the ancient head sprouting from the shawl permanently wrapped around her shoulders. She stood there, silent as a stump, watching him. Her breathing fluttered his hair. Kyle scratched with his pencil so hard it tore through the paper.
“Well?” she asked, her slight accent magnifying the warning in her voice. The ants in his veins turned into twitching barbed wire. It hurt—bad. He shook his head and bit his lip to keep from whimpering.
“Hmm.” Mrs. W wrinkled her nose at him before leaving. The chopsticks holding her gray bun of hair together swayed back and forth as she shuffled to her desk. Before she sat down Kyle got a ghostly vibe, as if an invisible army of frost spiders galloped across his back. A harsh metal-on-metal sound—the kind you hear when car brakes go bad—rang in his ears, and he felt suddenly smothered, like someone had thrown a thick blanket over him. Then a volcano erupted in the center of his forearm.
His classmates gawked. Kyle clasped his arm to his chest. The intense burning peaked and quickly dulled. He looked at his forearm. Teeth marks flared on his skin like a fresh tattoo. It wasn’t the bite of an insect or an animal; it looked human.
The bell rang, signaling the end of school. Kyle met Mrs. W’s gaze. A look of triumph played across her face, rooting him in his seat. Everyone stampeded out of the classroom, everyone but Kyle and Witchy Weingarten.
His heart hammered. He was scared to look away but terrified by her creepy countenance. He glanced at the lines of poetry displayed on the digital whiteboard behind her. One line in particular stood out:
She wounds with a look; with a frown, she can kill!
Mrs. W’s head tilted back. Her twisted lips separated until her mouth gaped open, and Kyle scooted down in his chair, sure she was about to end him for good. She began to moan. “Hrg . . . grhhhhh . . . huuuuu . . .”
“Kyle!” A scrawny scrap of a kid jumped through the open doorway. Kyle nearly jumped out of his skin. The boy laughed. “What are you doing? Vámanos!”
“Watch out, Tony!” Kyle jabbed a finger at his teacher. Tony crept to her desk and whispered, “Ding dong, is the witch finally dead?”
She snorted. Both boys flinched. Mrs. W’s throaty groans morphed into a snuffling snore. Kyle exhaled loudly.
“Qué diablos . . .” Tony snapped a pretend picture with his hands. Kyle quickly gathered his stuff and headed out the door with his best friend.
“Sorry to crash your date,” Tony said in the deserted hallway. “But you need to work on your technique. You put her to sleep.”
Kyle shuddered. “She’s not into me. But I bet she was dreaming of you!” He shoved Tony against a nearby locker and took off running.
“Oh, it’s on!” Tony easily caught up and pounced on Kyle’s back. Antonio Reyes was the smallest boy in the eighth grade, but what he lacked in brawn he made up with speed, spirit and spit. He wrestled Kyle into a fierce headlock. Kyle wriggled free but Tony twisted his arm, forcing Kyle to bend in half.
“What’s this?” Tony squeezed the skin where the teeth marks had appeared. It made Kyle’s arm tingle but didn’t hurt. “You trying to give yourself a hickey?” Tony asked.
“No.” Kyle stomped on Tony’s foot and broke free, then thrust his forearm in Tony’s face.
“Mrs. W gave me this!”
Tony’s face contorted. “Weingarten gave you a hickey?”