Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Kokab Zohoori-Dossa
My father used to tell me that you have to take care of the legends. The elders. The originals. Once they leave this earth, they count on you to keep their names going. You let the idea of them die out, and the foundation of your people is gone.
Without your people, you’re nothing.
When I’m doing my job, all the Prime Boar responsibilities, I lose some of that belief. The elders, yeah, I want to keep them going. The people? It’s hard to justify them. The legends, they’d probably do what they needed to do to save the sick and the weak. Saving people is one of the main reasons they died out. The people? They argue against saving my sister. They spit on people like my Kitten, my Jewel. Lewish gets to hear what the people think whenever she lets her guard down for a second.
The people make you defend yourself until you’re nothing but stone. Hard rocks. Jagged edges. I don’t believe in people.
Maybe it’s a two-way street. The legends, the elders, they let my mother cry herself to sleep at night. Let a man like my father warp into a weak abuser and let us down.
They let the Nameless die out.
I sat in the Nameless field and skinned a rabbit with my bare hands. It shrieked mercilessly, clawing at my arms and chest, but I sat and pulled the skin up until it passed out. The blood pulsed over my wrist.
For the fourth night in a row, she didn’t show up. I grabbed another rabbit and bit into its side, sucking the blood out, and waited. The one time The Rabbit showed up, staring at me and then running back through the trees, I’d skinned ten of them. I was only on five, but I didn’t want to sit there all night. I stood, irritated, and watched the woods for a while.
“Come on, Tivah,” I yelled. “I don’t want to kill your little friend!” The anger in my voice echoed across the field and died in the woods.
I don’t believe in people. I believe even less in people pretending to be legends.
When my mother was having nightmares, she put things in my car. First aid kits, surgical masks, hammers in case I needed to break out. If I wasn’t driving, she snuck good luck charms in my shoes. I woke up to my beard smelling like sage and groaned into my pillow, wondering when I’d get the nerve to buy a lock.
I walked by my mother’s room, trying to figure out what she was dreaming about, and the sound of her sobbing in her sleep kept me walking. She had the debate later, and I didn’t want to bother her. Junnie leaned up a little to greet me from the couch, wide awake, and watching TV in the living room.
“You’re leaving this early? Didn’t you just come back,” she asked, curling up in her blanket. Her horns jutted over the edge of the couch and disappeared into the kitchen, probably propped up on a chair. I smiled.
“Got people to kill.”
“How could I forget,” she grumbled. “Maybe they’ll let you sleep a little before you play the grim reaper? It’s not healthy to be awake so much, Old Bro. Get some rest soon.” I patted her rotted horn, grabbing my coat. It felt heavy.
“Mom put the stag in your pocket. I think she had a dream or something. She saged the house again, too, so it must’ve been bad.” I pulled the red gold ball out, grimacing. It was solid, made to match the metal ball my father used to carry. Little stag horns poked out of one side.
I turned to look at Junnie again, wanting to say something, but I couldn’t figure it out. The soft sounds of her snoring followed me out the door.
The people want to get rid of someone like her. Someone so caring that the last words they say before they drift off to sleep drips with worry for you, with concern for your life. Can you imagine?
One thing I learned from my parents? Don’t tell people how you actually feel. Don’t tell people the things you do to protect your loved ones, and never explain what you need to do to feel safe.
My father would put black tourmaline crystals in my bookbag before school. Nobody knows about that. Nobody knows that my mother used to get her palms read by the Nameless elders. They don’t know that my parents used to sit on me and Junnie’s beds in the morning and interpret our dreams for us. A house of science and blood, all wrapped in spirituality.
I miss those days, but I get it. You let these vultures know that you believe in something, that you love something, and they’ll pull it from you like nerve-endings. They’ll strip it from you like pieces of flesh. My mother believes in concepts science doesn’t usually tolerate, so she calls them silly when anyone’s listening, including me.
Can’t erase my upbringing from me, though. I might not believe in the elders as much as I used to, but I believe in Lyria Gorton. She wouldn’t practice things that don’t have value or meaning.
When I was young, back when Junnie was too small to matter to me much, one of the Nameless made me the stag head. My mother took me on a long trip out to see him, all the way to their land, and I couldn’t breathe half the time. The air was different there. I was also excited, damn near jumping out of my clothes. They’d told me so much about the Nameless, I thought I was meeting the real royalty. Forget all the Tivah bullshit.
When I saw him, it was better than that. He was filthy. Calm. Soft. Like the earth, like the fucking ground. He had big wooden horns that looped around his ears, almost like a ram. There he was, waiting, just sitting on the side of the road, unsure of himself but steady.
“Hey,” he said, giving me a big smile. “I’m Bosque. You?”
“Hasan.” We talked for a long time, and when our visit was over, he gave me the stag head.
“My mother is in this,” he said, smiling. He patted one of my horns like I was a puppy.
“Not all of her. Just some of her horns ground up.” He thought for a moment, staring out into the forest. “She was protected by a stag. My entire family is. The stag will protect you, too, if you have this.”
“Does it protect you?”
“No. I’m not supposed to be protected.”
“I’m not supposed to be protected, either,” I said forcefully, and he laughed again.
“Your mother doesn’t agree. And I think she knows better. We have some trouble, Hasan, so you need to take this seriously. She asked me to make this for you.”
“I don’t need it. She thinks I’m weak,” I whined.
“People protect things they love, not things they find weak. You can’t rid yourself of love, Hasan. Embrace it.” I nodded, eager to please him. For a long moment, Bosque just stared at the ball.
“These things are a gift and a curse, you could say. Be careful. The stag’s confused easily. You have to tell it how to protect you, or it might make a mistake. Only you know what’s good for you. If you let it save you all the time, it might save you the wrong way. Stags don’t know any better. Does that make sense?” I nodded, but I didn’t get it. He just laughed and closed my hand around the ball, putting my fingers between the golden antlers.
“Don’t worry. You’ll understand when you need to.”
When Bosque disappeared, when the last Nameless was gone, I couldn’t handle it. My parents never explained what happened, but there was a cloud—a dark cloud over our family. And I knew that we somehow destroyed something natural. I knew we were the reason something beautiful was gone.
People destroy everything, even love.
It was too early in the morning, and I was sitting in the Nameless field, skinning another rabbit. I ate this one, letting it fight me while I pulled its body apart. Seven bloody rabbit bodies sat in front of me.
“Maybe I’ll skin the girl next, Tivah,” I yelled, but I tried to keep my voice even. “Might have some fun with her if I need to. Never know what a Prime Boar might do to a tiny little Wood Horn-“
“For fuck’s sake, shut up! What do you want,” a voice groaned in annoyance from somewhere in the woods. My heart stopped. I spit out a tiny ear, jerking my head up. The sun crept over the forest, blood orange waves in the sky, but I couldn’t see anything beyond the trees. She wasn’t old like people thought, and I knew that, but it still surprised me. I could hear the youth in her voice, hear the quiver of anger.
“Come out. Talk to me. I want to help you redeem yourself, Tivah.”
She laughed, and I slowly stood, searching. “You’re too soft to hurt that kid. Try that tough guy shit with someone who didn’t design your mother’s diaper bag.”
I scanned the trees faster, looking for her, but came up empty. “My mother needs your help. We’re going to fight your fami-“
“Tell your mother to fix her own fucking problems. Keep eating my rabbits, and I’ll tell her myself.” There was a final edge to her words, and then she didn’t speak again. I tried to swallow the rage but couldn’t, so I just let the rabbit blood bubble over my lips.
Like I’d let a Tivah hurt my family any more than they already had.
There’s a lot of peace in the past. In legends. In giving yourself over to nature, sunlight, tranquility, death, destruction.
I popped my head into the concrete structure that sat in the Nameless field, looking around. The Wood Horns that lived there kept it beautiful for centuries, but they’d all pretty much vanished. There were still some in the city, but no one counted them as Nameless. The sacred ones, the ones my mother taught me to love and trust, they were gone. Bosque was gone. Of all the concrete structures on their land, I only cared about the one his family called home. It aged badly without him, devoured by vines, animals, dirt, and the sun.
You’d be surprised how quickly nature will reclaim something once it senses death. Whether it’s Horns or grass or insects, there is always more life to infest this earth.
I came every morning to remove vines, clear away dirt. It felt like an offering. I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t followed my mother one day, wondering where she disappeared to when she needed space. She used to sit on the dirty concrete and cry to herself after my father died. I won’t let my mother cry in filth, and I won’t let Bosque’s home be eaten alive. So I clean it up as much as I can.
The smell of sage swirled around the floor as I swept. My mother had been there recently, or she’d saged the place so much it stuck in the air.
Way up in the concrete structure, way at the top, there’s a room I keep locked for myself. My mother never touches it, afraid of the crumbling stairs—perfect place to hide someone.
I turned the knob, holding another rabbit in my mouth. It scratched frantically at my face, but by the time I pushed the door open, it was dead. I hate eating dead things, but the blood still poured into my mouth, so I bit down harder.
The teenage girl chained up in the room was hard to read; most of her body hid under a mess of wavy black hair that she kept wrapping around her arms. She glanced up from her notebook, scared, but didn’t shy away from me. Whenever she opened her mouth, I could see gnarled, sharp teeth. Her four horns were solid, sharp, and healthy-looking. One dangerous-looking one that arched over her head stood out to me.
Solid wood. The grooves ran deep, but it was definitely infected with Wood Horn.
There was a big window. The room had a lot of air—a lot of sunlight in the daytime and moonlight at night. I put as much entertainment in the place as I could, but that just meant a little radio, a bunch of notebooks and pencils, and some playing cards. The girl didn’t seem to mind.
“You never make any noise,” I whined, pulling my food out of my mouth. “The Rabbit won’t save you if you sit up here quiet like this. I’m not feeding you until she shows up. You’re gonna starve to death.”
“People die,” she whispered, and her voice only shook with hunger. Not fear, not anger, nothing but hunger. I offered her some of the bleeding animal, but she winced. “Bring me fruits, please.”
“No. Eat this or die like those people you keep talking about.” She smiled a little.
I grabbed a tiny remote from in front of her and turned up the radio in the corner, sitting down cross-legged. The chains dug into the floor and wrapped around her wrists, but there was enough slack in them to let her walk around the entire room. A big bruise spread under her eye, crossing over the bridge of her nose, accentuating her white freckles. The girl was too small and kept slipping away, just like one of the damned rabbits. Had to put her in a headlock and slam her into a wall just to stop the moving. It filled me with disgust to look at it.
“Am I curing the sick people today, mister?” I smiled.
“You keep saying that. I’m hoping the Rabbit will be the one to do it.”
“Oh, yeah, of course! She wouldn’t do that, not for you, but I get what you’re saying.”
“She’ll do it if she wants you to live.” The girl nodded like she was talking to an idiot, then clapped her hands together happily.
“Hey! Tell me about your day. The Rabbit always tells me stories. It’s boring in here.” I gave her a look, biting into the dead animal.
“Day hasn’t happened yet. It’s still early.”
“Bleh, that’s boring. You had to get here, right? What was it like? What animals did you see? Let’s draw some of them!” I laughed, checking to make sure her wrist binds weren’t too tight. It didn’t matter. She hadn’t tried to escape once since I’d tied her up weeks ago.
“It was okay—same old animals. I ate a few. Look, the radio is for entertainment, not me. My life is boring.”
“The radio is depressing! You all are always arguing,” she said, scrunching up her face childishly. We listened to the radio for a moment longer. “And screaming.”
“Those are soap operas. It’s just a radio show. Change the station.”
“You don’t know what fiction is?” She shrugged, still staring at the radio in wonder. Her eyes wandered back to the curtains, tracing the small blue cloud designs.
“There was one woman, and she found out her husband was a killer that was dating her because she was one of his marks! So depressing! I hate it! And-“
“It’s not real,” I laughed despite myself.
“Really? Why bother talking about it, then?” She stopped staring at the curtains and played with her hair. It wrapped around her neck and trailed down to the floor, then wrapped around a wooden bracelet. On the other end of the bracelet was a thick, long braid that curled up on the ground.
“You have to be pretty smart to make that type of stuff up. Do you know how to do it? Make up a story for me. Make sure there are animals in it.” She looked around aimlessly, taking in the room for what must’ve been the millionth time. Sitting still wasn’t in her blood.
“I don’t have time. Anyway, you’re creative. You come up with cool stuff all the time. Like your hair,” I motioned toward her with the dead animal. “Why do you wear the cut braid like that?”
“Just a family thing,” she said, pulling the braid up so I could see it. The loop was solid wood with deep grooves, just big enough to fit her hand.
“Is that real hair?”
“Yeah, of course. Can people make hair?” She looked confused for a second. “Anyway, this hair is good luck. So I keep it around when I need protection.”
“Didn’t seem to help you this time.”
“What do you mean?” I almost patted her head, laughing, but remembered the rabbit blood. The last time I touched her with any type of animal blood, she stopped breathing and didn’t start until I wiped it off.
“There’s another special debate later today. My mom’s in it. It’s like the one from last week if you want to listen to it.” She brightened, and for the millionth time, I wondered what was wrong with her.
“Oh yeah, cool! Leave it on the station; they might replay the last one.” I pushed the button until I reached the station, and we listened to advertisements drone on.
“I’m Hasan. Hasan Gorton. Are you ever gonna tell me your name?” She shrugged.
“Are you a Tivah? Can you tell me that, at least?” Again, like a small animal, she wrinkled up her nose.
“You’re gonna let me starve to death, right? It doesn’t matter. Names don’t mean anything when you’re just gonna die.” She went back to playing with her hair, avoiding the braid, and stared at the curtains until I left.
Part of me hoped the girl was just a normal Wood Horn. I hated the Tivahs enough to kill her if I needed to, but I couldn’t kill a regular sick Horn. And I wouldn’t kill a Nameless. I didn’t have it in me.
I left the Nameless forest for a while, eager for a break. Anxious to see Jewel.
There’s nothing Jewel hates more than seeing me walking up, and I live for that. Her annoyed faces are adorable. So I tried to sneak up on her when I could. She didn’t go many places. Hard to get around with horns wrapped around your stomach, bursting out of your legs, tilting your head all over the place. It was always her house, the college, quarantine, or one of her mangled friend’s houses.
I went and checked the quarantine first. The nature of my job meant that I was pretty familiar with most of the Tivah appointed staff around the country. Cecilia was the night nurse, and she was usually the one I went to for spying. The day nurse at the quarantine was a better person, definitely better to the Rots, but she was too into me.
When I came in, a woman I didn’t recognize was working at the front desk. I could barely get a word out before she started leaning forward, swatting my shoulder, and laughing.
“I’m the Prime Boar or whatever. I can sign people out. Jewel here,” I asked at the front desk, wishing I had something to eat. The woman cleared her throat, pushing her breasts forward and leaning in the chair. I grabbed at the sign-in list, but she pulled it away.
“You’re so sweet, signing out a Rot! I’m sure they’re grateful. Jewel… Jewel… hmmm…” she glanced over her notes, looking up to survey my chest and arms. I tried to keep my face neutral. She moved forward, sending her skirt rolling up her legs, and didn’t move to pull it down.
“Jewel Leroy? What a name! We haven’t picked her up yet. It’s about time for her father to send for us, though, you know how he is. Check back tonight.” She walked around the front desk, doing her best to keep eye contact with me. There was a large lump on the side of her neck with a tiny black spot at the tip. I tried not to stare.
“My number’s taped to the board. Call me when she comes in.”
“Anything for you, Old Bro!” I stopped for a moment, looking her up and down, ignoring her dreamy look, and snatched the list out of her hand.
The Rabbit thought she was funny. It was the way she charmed herself into everyone’s life. People did anything for her, literally anything, and all she had to do was give them hope. Blind them with humor.
For the last few weeks, ever since I kidnapped her little friend, the names on the list got more and more ridiculous.
Chained Wood Horn
Old Piss Bro
NasaH YoB KcuF
The Rots acted like they didn’t know what I was talking about when I questioned them, so I stopped. They didn’t know about Bosque. They didn’t understand what Bunni was really like, that she destroyed an actual legend. All they cared about was getting better, and she made them think she was capable of delivering it. I had no issue with the actual Rots, and I wouldn’t pull them into my drama.
I nodded to the girl, trying to ignore her eyes on me from the desk to the door.
I checked all of Jewel’s friend’s houses next. There was a weird energy in the air, and it hung over my head with every Rot I talked to.
Grimlynn was struggling to get down her front steps, cursing with each jerky movement. She rolled her eyes when she saw me.
“Stalker… Is Jewel… coming tonight,” she asked when I hopped her fence.
“Coming where? Who’s going? Better be a bunch of women.” I waited for her to catch her breath to laugh. Grimlynn had horns growing from places that didn’t even exist. She hobbled to her steps, waited for me to help her down, and then got the mail.
“Nowhere… special. Just a Rot… thing. Mind your… fucking… business… Boar.” I grabbed a chipmunk running through her yard and bit into its head. She grimaced.
“Fucking… Boars… ugh…”
“Prime Boar, beautiful.” I winked, and she blushed, rolling her eyes and heading back onto her porch. I helped her back up to her door before I left.
Where the hell is this girl?
Jewel’s father was awake, so I sat outside her window for a while, waiting. It was late for her to be home still, but the soft sounds of her breathing floated from her room. She’d missed school, missed hanging out with her friends.
Maybe she’s depressed? Gotta bring her something nice, cheer her up. I’m spending too much time on this Rabbit shit.
It didn’t sit right in my stomach. Jewel did her best to keep going. Even when she was so sore she couldn’t move, you could count on her to try. The stag head felt heavy in my pocket, and I said a little prayer for her, holding on to it. It was stupid, sure, but no one would ever know.
You had to be specific with the stag, or it would make a mistake. I needed Jewel to get the right help.
I saw my father hit my mother twice. Once with his metal ball, once with my stag head. Both times happened after he had his horns removed. Seeing her blood pooling up under her skin, seeing some of it drip off the little gold antlers, it took a lot away from me. I didn’t defend her. Didn’t think I’d survive it. I still hate myself over that.
The stag head and the ball were both Nameless gifts. Can you imagine beating your wife with something sacred? Something given to you to protect your family, to secure your place in the universe? I still can’t believe it. His being crazy, him losing his horns, people ridiculing him, none of it was a good enough excuse to me.
Bosque’s grandmother gave my father the metal ball for trying to save one of their family members from execution. He didn’t succeed, but they were still happy anyone cared enough to try. Their gifts contained the horns of their loved ones, literal pieces of the people they held dear. My father took those gifts and hurt his own loved one with it.
I don’t care what anyone says – my father cursed himself. He cursed Junnie.
It’s not a thing I’ll ever admit out loud, but I saw a stag that day. Saw it in the mirror while my mother cowered in the corner, crying. It stood behind my father, but it watched me in the mirror, waiting. Nobody else saw it. Junnie came into the room screaming, but I grabbed her and held her back. She struggled against me, trying her best to get to my mother. My father snapped out of it, yelling for her to calm down, and she elbowed me in the face by accident. When I looked up, the stag was gone.
Everyone thinks my little sister got Horn Rot from falling in my father’s grave at his funeral, but I think she had it already. I think the stag gave my sister Horn Rot right along with my father, confused in all the fighting. Right there in the living room, right there when he hit my mother.
I didn’t tell it what to do, and it made its own decision.
Back on Nameless land, I picked skin out of my teeth and howled until the blood vibrated in my throat.
It took three more rabbits, all eaten down to the bone, to get what I wanted. I looked up, and there she was, sauntering out of the woods. She dug her nails into her hips, trying and failing to hide anger.
I pretended I didn’t see her, leaning down to pick grass, still howling. Only looking up when she got closer.
The Rabbit walked out from the cover of the trees, standing with her hair trailing down to the ground. Every hair on my body stood. She had her ears covered with a big red hat, but you could always see the flat horns running down the sides of her face—bunny ears for Bunni.
Flat horns for a Tivah.
I grabbed another rabbit in the field, squeezing until it shrieked. Bunni flinched, slowing her body down until she stood so still she could’ve sprouted from the ground.
“Wait, I’m sorry! You told me to stop killing these, didn’t you?” I put the rabbit in my mouth and held it there, digging my teeth in.
“You can sit out here taunting me all you want, Hasan,” she spat. “I’m not your enemy. I’ve never been your enemy. You act like you’re the only one who misses Bosque. Stop blaming me for something that kills me, too.”
“Oh yeah? Why don’t you help my mother then? Why let me sit here and waste time while you pretend to be some sort of magical savior?”
“Maybe I am a magical savior,” she mumbled. “Maybe I’m already helping your dumb ass.”
I laughed a little, straightening up. “I don’t need your help. My mother does.”
“You need help. We all do. And you’ll never understand how much you… behaving like this hurts me. I consider you a loved one, Hasan.” I let her words sit in the air a moment, let them mix with Bosque’s.
You can’t rid yourself of love, Hasan. Embrace it.
“Fuck you. What happened to Bosque?” Before she could respond, I took off after her, running as fast as I could. She jerked backward, surprised, and then turned and sped away.
Fast. I dodged trees and slid down a hill after her, ignoring the bleeding animal in my mouth. Bunni dipped in and out of view, zig-zagging like a deer. I couldn’t keep up. I stopped, trying to figure out where I was, but almost fell when I peered into the distance. I gripped the animal tighter.
Staring at me with unblinking, emotionless eyes was a massive stag deeper in the woods. Its head towered over me, antlers glowing in the shadow of the trees.
The stag stepped forward, warning me. I ignored him. He moved closer, leaning his face down as if preparing to charge. I turned my back to him and searched the woods, still looking for her.
Leaves crunched as the stag moved closer. I finally gave up and backed away, slow and steady, refusing to look at the giant thing.
Should’ve known I wasn’t the only one the beast followed.
I checked on the Wood Horn again, noted her curled up and sleeping on the ground. I was listening to the debates, trying my best not to worry about my mother. Her voice wasn’t beautiful. She didn’t sound confident, powerful, or sure of herself. She sounded like the woman my father hit with my stag head, not like the one who survived his slow decline to death.
We’re spending too much time on this Rabbit shit. She’s losing it.
I picked up the wooden loop in the girl’s hair, examining the grooves in the wood. Silky black and brown strands wrapped around one end of the loop in a tight knot. The braid was on the other end, a big gap in the middle, the strands silky and black. Two worlds combined.
My phone rang. I looked at the number and answered, hurrying out the room and down the stairs.
“Yes, your ‘kitten‘ is here,” the nurse purred over the phone. “She put a weird name on the list, though. It’s some Rot thing that’s going on. I’ve been seeing it all month. It’s so bizarre.”
“Keep her there until I make it over. What name was it?”
“Nameless Bunni, whatever the hell that means.” I stopped and let my anger fill me, let it go from my head to my toes.
“Don’t let her leave.”
You can tell when something’s going on in this city. It’s a buzz in the air—some sort of electric feeling that digs into your bones. Every Rot I saw was on the verge of excitement, just on the very edge of it. You don’t see happy Rots often. It’s not something they get to experience on a day-to-day basis.
I walked from the Nameless forest to the quarantine building, and on the way, I felt an odd ache. The stag head felt heavy in my pocket, pressing hard against the fabric. Bosque’s mother, Mayan, tried to warn me of things sometimes. It was all in the weight, in the way the ball hit my legs.
My foot scraped against a flyer on the ground. When I went to pick it up, an outline of a rabbit stared back at me—some garbage about a cure. I squinted at it, bad vibes crawling over my fingers. Lewish, my sister’s best friend, had me print them for her weeks ago. They were all around town now.
I rolled it up as neat as possible and slid it in my pocket.
At the quarantine, I stuck my head in and greeted Cecilia as she was relieving the other nurse.
“You new or something,” she asked, grimacing at the nurse.
“Sure! I’m Tia.”
Cecilia stared at her for a moment, then turned to greet me. “Hey! What are you doing here? Your little Rot isn’t in, is she?” She threw her coat on a chair. The day nurse beamed, somehow responsible for my happiness.
“Oh, yeah, she’s in room five. The mangled one, right, Old Bro?” I stared at her for a long time before I nodded, grabbing the list again.
I paused, rubbing the back of my neck in irritation. It was all written in the same neat handwriting. Jewel scratched out words like a dying chicken.
“You’re saying Jewel wrote all of these?”
Cecilia glanced at the list, confused. “What the fuck does that mean? She’s not the joking type, is she? Little brat is usually crying when she gets here.” Tia just shrugged, smiling at me too hard, and Cecilia shrugged, too.
“Keep an eye on her, will you? Let me know if she’s acting stranger than usual,” I motioned to Cecilia, and she nodded.
I didn’t want to get her out yet, not just then. There was something in the air, and a sensitive kitten like mine didn’t need to be in it. And whatever Bunni was preparing the Rots to do, I didn’t want Jewel to get involved.
My day continued normally, or as normal as it could go. Later that night, I walked back to the Nameless forest, still sick to my stomach from visiting my father’s tree. I never like to see my mother upset or my sister uncomfortable. Even in death, his illness and failures warped their lives week after week.
The electricity in the air reached a fever, digging into my teeth. It slowed me on the dark, empty road to the field. Loud screeches stopped me in my tracks.
Rabbits. Dozens of them rushing across the road ahead of me, shrieking in fear and anguish. I started walking again as they thinned out, but another one burst through the forest, its entire body ablaze. It screeched louder and louder, running in circles, and then fell forward and stayed still.
I watched it burn for a while, my legs refusing to move.
When my phone rang, I crouched down. Quarantine. The stag head felt even more cumbersome. The smell of the burned rabbit filled my nose, driving hunger through me, but I ignored it.
“Yeah,” I muttered into the receiver, talking around a strangled breath. Cecilia cleared her throat. Whatever the news was, my appetite wouldn’t survive it. I could feel that.
“Hey… this is gonna sound weird as hell, but I don’t know who that woman was earlier. Yessie showed up to her shift late, and the bitch disappeared. Seriously disappeared. And I looked in the room. Dude, that’s not Jewel in there; it’s some other mangled freak.” I kept staring ahead, waiting for more rabbits. Darkness edged forward, pushed by the light of the moon. On each side, the forest vibrated against the paved road I traveled on.
“It’s probably this girl who keeps messing with my head. Don’t worry about it. So Jewel hasn’t been there all day?”
“No, Old Bro. I figured you’d want to know. I called her house, and her father said she snuck out again. The Rots are acting funny, man, some shit is about to go down. Just… be careful, everything feels off tonight.” I thanked her and hung up. A loud click shot out behind me, massive and echoing against the trees.
I turned to look at the stag.
“What’s happening? Where do I need to be?” It clicked forward, watching me. I took in the ridiculous size of it, the way it leaned its head down nearly to the pavement when it approached me. Each step it took seemed to shake the earth.
“Hey! Don’t… don’t leave me guessing. Please just be clear with me for once. Which way do I go? How do I find my Kitten?” It stood upright for a second, then raised its head high into the air, screeching until I backed away. Those massive antlers rose too high for me to comprehend. It charged after me, blowing air out of its nose, sending smoke bursting into the sky. I turned and ran, dipping into the woods.
I ran straight into Bunni, panting, smashing blood from both of our noses. The stag kept going.
“Fuck!” She fell back. A kid screamed next to her, but she stopped when she realized who I was. I took in the tiny, scared Rot.
“What is it,” I managed, too panicked to say anything else. They were both covered in soot, parts of their clothes smoldering. I looked up to see an orange glow in the distance, smoke puffing into the sky. Bunni sucked in a deep breath, touching her nose.
“They’re burning them, kiddo,” she managed, shaking with something I couldn’t read. “Don’t sit around here talking to me. Go make your hero proud. I… I couldn’t save most of them. But the Nameless will get them. It’s okay.”
I hesitated. The Rabbit would disappear again. The Nameless forest was only her most recent hiding place. I’d followed her from across the country, tracked her for miles and miles. If I let her go, what next? What was the point?
“I need you to help my mother, Bunni. We need help.” She glanced behind her at the orange glow, nodding.
“I can’t stay here, Hasan. I protected Bosque with my life. I lost everything for him, even my name. I have shit left. I’m dead here.” We both stopped, listening to the pained groans coming from the burning field.
“Jodice finally lost it. There’s no turning back from this,” she said more to herself than to me. The little girl next to her reached out to me, but Bunni pulled her back protectively.
Bevvie? Grimlynn’s sister. I thought about that for a moment, thought about the orange flames, and tried not to slink back to the road.
“Where’s Jewel, Bev?” The little girl opened her mouth, but Bunni blocked it with her hand.
“Your girl is fine. Do you think you’re the only one watching out for the people you love? I’ll take care of you, Hasan! Fucking let me!” She sucked in a sob, backing up, then composed herself. The emotion was so quick; I almost didn’t see it.
She kept talking, eyes closed. “I know who you care about. I wouldn’t let those psychos h- hurt them. Shit, I follow the dying one almost as much as you do. I promised Bosque. I’ll help you, I promised.”
My words failed me, but I finally found them somewhere in my throat. “So Jewel is here? Was she burned?”
Bunni ignored me, still backing away with the girl. “I’m proud of you, annoying as you are. And you can hate me forever if you want, but it’s not going to change anything. Leave me to it.” She started to say more, opening her mouth, but a thick scream filled the air. Bunni grabbed my arm, suddenly angry.
“Get my fucking baby out of there, Boar.” Another scream ripped through the air, and she pulled away.
The stag was calling me.
I turned and started toward it without thinking. When I looked back, Bunni and the child were running further into the woods.
By the time I got to the field, there was no one there to kill but Quarantine Patrol. I watched the burning bodies, watched the charred limbs break off and float into the wind. All on Nameless land. All in this place that my mother considered sacred. All in this place that my hero lived and explored.
I looked up at the concrete structure, defeat flooding me. The fire hadn’t reached the building, but bodies were strewn all over it, hanging out of windows, dangling from the roof.
Her baby? The rose garden sat still and empty, but I knew something was there. I could feel it. I looked back up, all the way up, and it hit me.
The Wood Horn!
My heart struggled to beat, choking me while I ran up the stairs. Dead Rots slumped over in the halls, bleeding and contaminating everything. I wished I had gloves or a mask, wished I had any type of protective gear. But I ran up the stairs to the little room, slamming my shoulder into the door until it burst open.
Gone. The teenager was gone. The radio was gone, the cards were gone. She’d even taken the curtains from the window. On the floor where she’d been sitting was the round wood that held the braid to her hair.
I picked it up, twirling it in my hand. The wood was solid, heavy for a wrist so small. Blood dripped off of it, maybe too much blood to be a light wound. A trail of crimson led to the open window.
A noise thundered behind me.
The stag stood at the bottom of the stairs, peering at me from around the corner. I reached for the door slowly, but it let out a hot huff of air, and I backed down. The eyes stared at me, blank. An apology stuffed my mouth like cotton, but it was swamped by the need to put the bracelet down.
Stop touching the damn bracelet, and maybe it’ll go away, Hasan.
Even after I put it down, the stag was still there. I heard a massive step against the concrete, and more of it appeared. It was closer than it’d ever been, angrier than anything I’d ever seen in my life. The massive horns scraped against the wall, sending crumbs of concrete spiraling down.
“I didn’t hurt her,” I muttered. It waited a moment, taking me in, taking in the bloody bracelet, calming. It stared at me until all the anger drained out of it, and then it disappeared back down the stairs. I rushed down after it, but when I turned the corner, there was nothing but charred handprints and contaminated blood.
“I didn’t do this, I swear. Please don’t take anyone else from me!”
Did it think I caused the massacre? Did it think I hurt those Rots or the Wood Horn? A killing in my name. Hasan Gorton. What would my sister inherit now? By the time we were all done cursing her with our mistakes, what would she have left?
I looked down at the blood on my hand and shook my head. No, it understood. If it ever understood anything, it understood that.
I stayed in the concrete structure. I cleaned every spot of char I could find, burying myself in the chemical smells. The Quarantine Patrol removed the bodies, every single one, but I brought a bucket and cleaner and scrubbed everything down. In all the rooms, I opened windows and fixed knocked over furniture. When I was too tired to clean anything else, I collapsed down on Bosque’s old bed, staring at the ceiling.
A rabbit scrambled away from me, hiding under a pile of blankets I’d made in the corner, and this time I didn’t go after it. For the first time in my entire existence, I wasn’t hungry. I moved down to the ground, watching the rabbit, and nodded to it when it wrinkled its nose.
“Tell the kid I’m sorry if you see her. Tell all of them that I’m sorry. And… tell Bunni thanks.” It scurried off, and I went down to the garden and cleaned up all the soot off of the flowers, removing all signs of the dead. The warping body of an old woman sat in one of the wheel barrels, twisted and decaying, but I didn’t question it.
Whatever happened, I’d find out. I’d find everyone involved.
I left the bracelet around a rose, cleaned and disinfected, and hoped the girl was alive enough to come back to get it. Hoped that maybe Bunni would bring it to her.
My ancestors, my legends, they wanted me to know they were there no matter what I did to push them away. They made my pockets heavy, chased me down streets. Bosque followed me everywhere. Bunni saved my loved ones, held my hand even when I cursed her. I wondered where the old Nameless existed now, wondered if they floated around my pocket or rooted in the walls of every building I entered.
“You cannot rid yourself of love, Hasan.”
You’re supposed to take care of your legends. Your elders. The originals. And, if they’re worth anything, they take care of you. I went back to the quarantine building to rescue my Kitten, listening to the sounds of the city and listening to the buzzing in the air, to the people laughing and screaming and living.
Without my people, I’m nothing.