Siv woke at the sound of something smashing to pieces in the next room. He laid still and saw only what the moonlight fell upon. His grip on Toby tightened into a squeeze. The soft toy horse didn’t seem to mind. Siv pretended he was a Mantissa and used his magic to see through the walls into the next room, but he didn’t like what he saw.
There was a monster in the shop.
A wiser part of himself said that was ridiculous. It was probably just the wind. But the crash came from the workshop, and Daddy always closed the workshop door and windows. And since when was the wind ever that loud?
Did someone throw something through the window?
Did a monster throw something through the window?
His parents sat up on their cot. Beside him on the floor, on feather-filled bags like his, Samantha and Cameron rustled their blankets as they awoke. “What was that?” Mama said.
Daddy got out of bed. “I’ll check it out,” he said. As he stepped towards the door, he smiled at Siv and his siblings, his black hair a rustled mop of bed head. “It’s all right. A raccoon probably just wandered in looking for food. Go back to your sweet dreams.”
No way was it a raccoon. Monster raccoon? Maybe.
Mama held her blanket pulled up to her neck. She didn’t seem nearly as calm about the situation as Daddy did.
Their cabin had four rooms, all more-or-less the same size. Wide covered porches stretched across the front and back of the house, and a breezeway cut through the middle. The family bedroom was one of the back rooms. So was Daddy’s shop, just across the breezeway from the bedroom door.
Siv’s hands relaxed their grip on Toby, then tensed, then relaxed, then tensed. Other than these nervous ticks and the darting about of his eyes, Siv had not moved a muscle since the initial sound woke him, not even to blink. But as soon as Daddy opened the door a small crack, he twitched his nose.
Daddy opened the bedroom door all the way, and Siv blinked against an unexpected bright light. The workshop door was open though he knew Daddy had latched it a couple of hours earlier. Crackling flames filled half the shop. Thanks to the hot, dry summer, the walls might as well have been kindling. Flames covered one of them from floor to ceiling. It looked like the fire had started in the corner, where the stone forging furnace should have been, but something had shattered it. The sound of it happening was definitely what woke him. Bricks, charcoal dust, and glowing red embers blanketed the floor. What could have demolished the forging furnace? Had a meteorite fallen through Verde’s atmosphere and crashed into their house?
Something stepped out of the thick gray smoke. Siv saw it illuminated in the fire’s flickering orange light.
There was a monster in the shop!
At first, Siv thought it was a horse – the biggest he’d ever seen – because it walked on four legs. Then he noticed its long thick tail. The almost-human chest and arms. The snouted face.
Every muscle in Siv’s body froze. The monster stood upright on its two hind legs, like a person – a giant, four-armed person. It had to hunch over to fit underneath the room’s eight-foot-tall ceiling. With its blazing red eyes set on Daddy, it roared. Its mouth was full of jagged, sharp teeth.
For the first time since waking, Siv moved. He sat upright in bed, dropped his toy horse, and screamed. So did Samantha and Cameron.
“Get the children out!” Daddy yelled without looking back. He took three long steps out of the bedroom and across the breezeway. “Y’all get out of here!”
Daddy picked up a long, thick plank of metal from the floor. He brought the makeshift weapon in front of him and adjusted his stance to put himself between the monster and the door out of the workshop.
Mama rolled out of bed and grabbed Siv’s wrist with her left hand. “Come, now!” she said, and she swept him, Sammy, and Cameron out of the room.
From the breezeway, Siv saw Daddy grunt and swing the metal plank. The monster dodged away from the weapon, using all four of its hands to throw things at its attacker. Daddy ducked out of the way of a hammer and deflected a horseshoe with his makeshift club.
Two steps into the breezeway, Mama placed her hand on Siv’s back and pushed him towards the back of the house and their carriage. His bare feet thumped across the wood floor as fast as they could. Since the monster first roared, he hadn’t stopped wailing. Tears of terror streamed down his face. “Samantha, get Autumn out of the stable,” Mama said. “Bring her out front. Cameron, help me with the carriage.”
Siv stopped. The mention of their horse made him realize he had left Toby back in his bed. His siblings, just as terrified as he was and with jobs to do to help the family escape, swerved around him as if he weren’t there. Even at six years old, he knew he should run for their carriage. But in the two minutes since he’d woken up, he’d faced terror beyond anything he ever could have imagined. His brain wasn’t working on logic and sense.
He turned back to retrieve his toy.
“Duncan!” Mama said. She had turned her attention to Daddy’s fight for his life in the workshop and didn’t see Siv brush past her, back into the bedroom.
“I’ll hold it off,” Daddy yelled. “Go! Go!”
Siv grabbed Toby off his mattress and pressed him against his chest. He spun on his heels to leave–
The breezeway roof collapsed. A pile of wooden debris with a wall of flames above it blocked him from the door.
Mama had just been standing there! For a terrible moment, he feared she’d been buried under the rubble. But when he strained his ears, which were partially deafened by the cacophony of the collapsing ceiling, he heard her screaming his name.
“Where’s Sivrin?” she said. “Sivrin?”
“Mama!” he yelled, his screams now an octave higher and peppered with sobs. He wanted nothing more than to run. “Mama! Daddy!”
“Sivrin!” she again screamed, and this time, Siv heard a dreadful realization in her voice.
Half of the bedroom’s ceiling caved in, and more flaming wood crashed to the floor between him and the window. Splinters and embers flew through the air like dust blown off an old, forgotten bookshelf. The force of the beam hitting the floor stoked the fire within it and six-foot flames reached back for the ceiling from which they’d come.
From somewhere beyond the fire, Mama yelled, “Duncan, Sivrin’s still inside!”
All he could see was fire, and all he could smell was smoke, so Siv sobbed and listened. He heard Daddy yell and grunt with exertion. He heard the monster roar again, but this time, it sounded different. Was it in pain?
Smoke smothered his nostrils. He coughed, and coughed again. The smoke grew thicker. Flames burst out of the walls. In the distance, Mama was calling his name, over and over. He really wanted to be able to answer her.
It was Daddy’s voice, and it was close.
Through the nearest barricade of fire, he saw an outline of the tall man who still bounced him on his leg and who patiently explained to him the use of every tool in the workshop. He heard a grunt and a splintering of wood, and the fire in front of him parted just enough to see Daddy distinctly. The fallen ceiling beam was now split in two and Daddy stood between the pieces. He transferred the metal plank to his left hand and held it down at his side as he reached out his right hand.
“Come along, Siv,” Daddy said. He had the faintest hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. Siv never forgot that.
Then, through the haze, Siv saw the head of the monster raise itself up from the flames.
“Daddy!” he yelled. As he issued the warning, the monster made its move. It seized Daddy with all four of its hands. Each of its fingers ended with claws like hunting knives. With a snarl, it spread its arms in opposite directions. Daddy’s left arm was first wrenched out of its socket and then torn completely from his torso. Siv gaped in terror and shock, unable to take his eyes off the sight of Daddy screaming in such pain.
The monster dropped the severed limb and pushed Daddy down into the flames. His screams stopped. With its attacker out of the way, it dropped all the way to the floor, taking on a new, third shape. Stretched out with its club-like tail trailing behind it and walking on all six limbs, it looked like a freakishly long alligator.
Its face and teeth were just an inch from Siv. The monster’s skin had looked red and orange, but up close Siv saw those colors were just Daddy’s blood and reflections of the fire. It was actually white. Its breath reeked of rotten meat. Walls of flame rose on either side of it, blocking any escape. As if it would have permitted one. Siv’s back was getting warmer, and he knew the wall behind him was on fire. Everywhere he looked he saw fire and monster and simmering red eyes and razor teeth. He didn’t have to worry about burning to death any longer. With Daddy no longer there to protect him, the monster was going to kill him. He trembled but was otherwise unable to move or scream.
And then it spoke.
From deep within its throat, Siv heard a single, growl of a word. It sounded like sandpaper on coarse wood.
Siv’s eyelids slammed down, but there were so many flames in the room, his vision turned not black but a glowing red, just like the monster’s eyes. He waited for the pain. He hoped he’d see Daddy in Heaven. He prayed for Mama and Cameron and Sammy to get away alive.
Death never came. Instead, the monster shrieked. Siv opened one eye and saw it flop onto its belly. Behind its twitching mass stood Daddy, smoke rising from his clothes. He wrenched his metal plank out of where he had just lodged it deep in the side of the monster’s torso. Flesh, bone, and thick black blood came with it. The monster weakly turned to face Daddy. It stood like a horse and with a straining effort tried to stand on its hind legs.
It never got that far. With a bellow of rage that made Siv flinch, Daddy swung the plank in a high arc over his head and then down onto the monster, splitting its skull. The blow forced the creature all the way back down to its belly, where it never moved again.
Daddy abandoned the weapon and knelt down, reaching out to him with his one remaining arm. “Sivrin.” While they ran from the bedroom, down the porch steps, and out of the fire’s reach, he sobbed into Daddy’s shoulder.
Siv’s overwhelmed mind didn’t remember many details about the rest of the night, and what few he did were mostly just images. He remembered their neighbors tried to stop the fire from spreading, but they couldn’t. It claimed the Hansen home next door and the assay shop next to it, then the entire western side of Breckenridge’s main street. The inn, the sheriff’s office… gone. He remembered they let some residents who had no other transportation out of the charred remains of the town hitch a ride with them. And he remembered crying himself to sleep on Mama’s lap while clutching Toby.
The one memory that remained vivid was waking up several hours later to find their carriage parked on one of the hills north of Breckenridge along with the carriages of the other homeless survivors. There was soft crying and wailing all around him. The last of the flames would have to burn themselves out before they could safely return and pick over the wreckage.
His parents were so engrossed in the scene they didn’t notice he had awakened. It was an hour or two before dawn. Daddy had his arm around Mama’s shoulders, and she rested her head on his chest. They sat in silence for some time and Siv was almost asleep again when he heard Mama whisper, “What was it, Duncan?”
It was a long time before Daddy responded. “Don’t know. I reckon it was a monster that wandered here from Terrascorcha. Never seen one before, but it sure fit the bill. And that had to be what it was. Because if it wasn’t…”
He took a deep breath and shuddered. “Only other thing it could have been was a demon crawled straight out of hell.”
Siv flinched and closed his eyes, but instead of blackness, he saw the monster’s face directly in front of his and fire everywhere else.
The nightmares began that night.