by Susan EE
Tyler hated the stench of the dungeons. His grandfather would roll in his grave if he knew what the great Huntsman line had to do in order to keep their positions at Midnight Castle. They were hunters serving the royal family, not jailers. But these days, everyone who served the crown seemed to be a jailer.
He tried to ignore the stench and walked down the dingy corridor. The morning sun had finally come up and was streaming weakly through the slats in the ceiling.
He never came here in the dark. His superstitious resistance to come at night was probably a sign of his ancestors’ low birth, but he didn’t care. There was more to the world than what he could see and hear, and he was not foolish enough to ignore his instincts.
The night was getting longer, though, and each day got shorter. Soon, the sun would disappear altogether, according to the kitchen maids.
He walked down the corridor that split the rows of cells and looked into the carnage in each one. It wasn’t that he wasn’t used to seeing wild animals kill and feed; it was what they were feeding on that turned his stomach.
He tried to ignore the blood and bones, the gristle and head, the hair and fingers that were strewn about in the cells. He tried not to think about the angelic girl he’d caught a glimpse of before she was thrown into one of those cells. With large eyes and flame-colored hair, she had been the picture of vulnerability and fright.
Tyler had hardened himself to this job two years ago, when his father couldn’t do the task anymore. He had to take over the job if he didn’t want to anger the Dark King. Just being noticed by the king could be fatal—not just to the person catching the king’s attention, but to his entire family.
As Tyler walked down the corridor, he occasionally stopped and pointed into a cell when he saw a specimen that he thought was ready. It took months for these beasts to fully transform, in theory. So far, they’d all failed, ending up with a yard full of what Tyler and his men called the howlers.
When Tyler pointed, his men went into the cell to carefully drag out the beast. It was a dangerous thing, this luring of monsters out of their den. It took six men for each one. A man with a net to throw over the beast. Two with long sticks with a noose at the end to tighten around its arms and neck. And two with barbed spears to coax it out of the dungeon.
They used to put the beasts directly into a cage, but then Tyler’s men had to carry them up the stairs. That proved almost impossible to do with the monster thrashing about, tearing at the men. They’d only take the strongest of the litter, which made the whole ordeal even worse.
Tyler had been grateful he only had to do this horrible task two or three times a year. Lately, though, the Dark King had been going through his pets as though they were disposable game.
“Let’s get this over with, lads. Then I’ll buy you all a drink at the tavern tonight.”
He’d seen the offer of a drink brighten up the boys in the past, but this was not a task that anybody would do if they had the choice—drink or not. Nor were they excited to have a drink with Tyler.
Although he still tried to maintain camaraderie with his men, he knew that he was no longer one of them. That was what happened when you went from the group’s errand boy to their master.
Tyler picked out three beasts out of the dungeons. There were two more cells at the end of the row, but he only needed three. Any more and they’d be too hard to handle.
He was inclined to leave the last two cells without even looking at them. He was in no rush to add to the horror he’d already seen this morning. But his men were busy taking the last monster up the stairs, and Tyler couldn’t get past them anyway.
So if he was stuck in the dungeons for a little while longer, he might as well inspect the last two creatures and see how they were faring. In the past, that would have been a pleasure for any of the animals he had been responsible for. He’d always had a deep connection with the animals under his care.
But the days of keeping stag and hare for the hunts were long gone. All he had left was this.
Tyler steeled himself for the carnage in the last two cells. He’d about reached his limit. The one to his right was like all the others. He tried to ignore the bloody mess and studied the beast coiled in the corner.
Did Tyler recognize the monster?
He turned away quickly in case it was someone he’d seen before. It was hard to tell with all the excess hair. Even their bone structure changed as the beast in them got stronger.
Nevertheless, he occasionally recognized someone. There was that baker six months ago, who used to sell him potato cakes. And the milkmaid who had actually been sweet on him for a week or two.
Tyler shook his head to get rid of the memories. This was a dark enough day as it was. He didn’t need to invite more stains on his soul.
There was once a time when he was known as a friendly sort. But those days were long gone. These days, he didn’t even want to look at a person’s face unless they were part of his staff. He’d made them all a promise that if they turned into a beast, he’d end it for them quickly and not let it get this far. There would be no dungeons and chains for his men.
Only the last cell remained for him to look at. Unless this monster looked stronger and more aggressive than even the ones he’d already selected, Tyler would be done for the day.
What he saw there stopped his breath.
At first, he thought he’d lost his senses. He blinked, unable to take in what he was seeing. It took a moment, but eventually, he began to breathe again. His heart kept racing, though.
A slip of a girl sat in the cell.
The most noticeable thing about her was her deeply red hair. He couldn’t tell if that was her natural color or if it was all the blood.
Unlike the other beasts, she’d squeezed herself into the corner as far away from her kill as she could. Her face, hands and ankles had no fur growing out of them, and that confused him. All the newborn howlers had fur growing on them by this point in their development.
She looked at him with dread in her eyes. She knew that he had power over her in the same way that a trapped rabbit knew.
Tyler frowned, arguing with his instincts. She couldn’t be human. That wasn’t possible.
The castle guards fed the transforming monsters small prey, like her. The king’s sorcerers were obsessed with the idea that the beasts would complete a successful transformation if they ate a human sacrifice early in their development. It didn’t matter that they hadn’t had a single success yet. All they had were a yard full of howlers—neither men nor wolfkin.
Tyler took little comfort in the fact that the command had come directly from the Dark King. The king had instructed all of them personally in every detail of how the monsters should be raised and trained.
It killed Tyler a little each time when it was time to collect the new beasts from the dungeon for the king’s menagerie. It had happened enough now that he was dead inside many times over. There had been some relief in that. A dead man had no heart to stir, no tears to pool, no loss of sleep over the death of so many of the kingdom’s helpless citizens.
But now, the heart that Tyler was so sure he no longer had was calling for attention. It skipped beats, then raced at what he was seeing.
This was no beast looking back at him from the other side of the bars.
On the far side of the cell, the creature that should have torn her to pieces and eaten her was lying unmoving in the rushes.
It hadn’t been an easy death for him. His head lay at an unnatural angle, as did his elbow and knee. One of his eyes was gouged out and hanging on his cheek.
Tyler looked back at the traumatized girl cringing in the corner of the cell. On closer inspection, she wasn’t a child, although she gave the impression of one. She wasn’t quite a full-grown woman yet, either. But she was thin and looked as weak as a piece of cloth.
“Did you kill him?”
His question was genuine. There had been no one else in the cell, but it was hard to fathom that this girl had fought off a monster.
Of course, this hadn’t been a true monster like the wolfkin. They were mere imitations conjured up by the king’s sorcerers, and only a few days old at that. Most of them wouldn’t even survive the upcoming weeks, and so far, all of them had gotten stuck as a twisted howler that was not quite man, yet not quite wolfkin either.
Nevertheless, a howler was still a killer. They weren’t as strong as wolfkin, but some might argue that they were just as savage. They were all instinct with no control—confused and dangerously insane for months to come.
He expected the girl to simper and cower, to not have enough courage to answer him. She seemed all eyes and vulnerability as she trembled there like a piece of fluff in the corner.
But she did answer him, and with a voice that didn’t have the slightest tremor.
“Yes. I killed him.”