Chapter 1:



When the cripple's stone strikes the witch, the village cheers him for the first time.

"You got her in the face!" a woman crows.

A boy snatches a rock from the ground, sending up clumps of dirt in his haste. "I'll hit her eye next!"

Far from the hissing, spitting spirit they found on the mountain that morning, the witch now stays still and quiet in the ring of salt, her dark hair pooled about her. She is beautiful despite the chalkiness of her skin and the yellow blood that oozes where the rocks strike her. The cripple winces with each hit, and his clumsy fingers brush over bruises of his own that hadn't yet healed.

But there's nothing to worry about now. People shake his shoulders—in a friendly way. They clap him on the back and praise his courage for casting the first stone, when no one knew if a spirit of Thanatos still held power when trapped. He is one of them now: the villager who drew the circle that caught the witch, a companion who fights their enemies.

A man hands him a large stone that they must have specially fetched from the river. The cripple strains under its weight, but he throws it at her too.

By sunset, the witch's form is lost under the heavy justice of the people. The villagers cheer and hold each other, celebrating their triumph against evil. With full hearts, they head back down the mountain, for a spirit of Thanatos can only be killed under the light of dawn, and they have done more than enough good for the day. Unable to keep the pace of the other townsfolk, the cripple stays behind. It doesn't matter how late he arrives, as long as no one sees the shameful walk that delays him.


He looks around.


The cripple turns around to the salt circle. The pile of stones wriggles, and a long limb pokes out like grass on a cliff face. Soon another arm follows, then a foot. The witch's body folds out of the rocks like a spider, and she perches delicately on the top, her black on black eyes studying the cripple through impossibly long lashes.

"I was waiting for you," she says in a low voice that calls to him.

The cripple takes a deep breath. "I won't listen to the lies of a spirit of Thanatos."

"Why would I lie about that?"

"I don't know. But you want me to free you." He gestured to the salt. "If someone else had stayed behind, you'd be telling them the same thing."

"No." She says this firmly, with a gravity that surprises him. "I have been called to you, and I came here only to be with you."

"See? Lies. You were caught by our traps, that's all."

The witch laughs. "Caught? By these crude salt barriers? Cunning is a knife that humans have let rust. Yes, I cannot cross a circle of salt once in it, which is why all spirits watch for them. Your village has added no ash to conceal its traps, nor has it lured spirits into them with any bait. I am here because I chose to be here. You rarely leave your home, you see, and the river that so often floods your home is a more powerful barrier than your sprinkles of salt."

That the witch knows his home unnerves him. "...Why me?"

The witch slips forward to the edge of the circle and gazes at his face. Strands of her hair cross over the rim, leaving a singed smell and smoke threading in the air. The blackness where her eyes should be is all-consuming. "Oh, my poor thing. You don't even know. Your village jeered and posed around this circle all day, each trying to play the part of the hero. But this was your circle, and only you had the courage to throw the first stone."

The cripple burns with shame. "It's not courage when you're already trapped—"

"Then why didn't they do it instead? Why did they spend hours daring each other to get closer to the salt? My poor human. Surrounded by small creatures, you've shrunk yourself to fit. It takes no courage to travel in a pack. It takes no skill to walk better than someone without both feet. They teach you to covet these useless things when you alone are worthy. Come, I will cherish you as you deserve."

For a moment, the pain in the cripple's monstrous foot dulls. For an instant, a wisp of pride. But shame is the more familiar feeling, and he hugs himself. "Spirits of Thanatos lure people with their heart's desire," he quotes, dully. "I'm leaving, and when I return, you'll already be ash in the light of dawn."

He's just turned his back when the witch shrieks, a piercing howl that trembles the earth.

"How dare you!" she screams. "How dare you! You fool! How dare you choose them? Come back!"

He limps a few steps.

Stones clatter behind him as she scrabbles down the pile. Her voice pitches louder. "They laugh at you. They toy with you. They've given you nothing, yet you go back to them? You will regret this, you fool, you fool!"

His eyes squeeze shut, but that only makes the pain sharper. His bruises throb.

"Come back, come back. Don't leave. Don't leave!"

At this final cry, he stops. It makes him the idiot of every tale regarding Thanatos, but he can't help himself. The witch's sweetness and anger, he could ignore, but the desperation shakes him like an earthquake. So long had he tried to carve a place for himself among his peers, yet here is one yearning for him, his to reject as he wished.

"... ... Okay."

He turns to see the witch's gaze on him. It's black on endless black, but it doesn't feel empty in the slightest. When the cripple limps back to the edge of the circle, her intensity isn't cut by the derision or pity that always follows his gait. He feels powerful, and he continues speaking with an unfamiliar confidence.

"If what you say is true, then it's sufficient for me to cross into the circle, even if I don't release you. You can kill me then if you like, because I won't release you either way."

She considers him. "Are you still hoping to protect the villagers?"

"It's not about them," he admits. "I'm the only one who can free you. If you kill me, I'll know you don't plan to escape. That means you might have been telling the truth." With effort, he brings himself over the salt. He clears the circle but stumbles on the rocks. The witch stops him from falling, cradling him in her spindly limbs. She's cold, like the mountain rivers in summer.

She speaks after a long pause. "Do you know what we spirits call humans like you?"

"What is that?"

"The plagues of Eros. Once you take hold of us, our death is assured, no matter how far we run, or how clever we try to be."

Her raspy voice runs over him in a way that's oddly soothing. Rather than try to get up, he closes his eyes. "So you won't try to escape?"

He feels her hair tickle his face, and the touch of her fingers is tender. "My dear, dear human. This is escape."