The Prowler of Irinopolis

by Nicholas van Leeuwen “Freak!” one of the ragged kids yelled and threw a rock at him. Down in the dirt, Lews covered his head and ducked but still the rock struck his shoulder. Coughing, he rose and gave the kids an evil glare. He did not bother pulling up the scarves that he had used to cover his deformities. Let them see! They already knew anyway. The kids retreated a few yards and did not throw any more stones, but they kept on yelling insults at Lews. Freak! Monster! Lews did not mind the words. Harsh words were easier to dodge than a well-thrown stone. “I got nothing against you boy,” said the innkeeper who had just thrown Lews out into the street. “Just keep out of my tavern.” His plump wife nodded in agreement and shook the ladle she was holding as a weapon. Her little son was peeking from behind her skirts. “I’m not hurting anyone! I’m not!” protested Lews. The innkeeper threw him back the coins that Lews had paid for a bowl of soup. He had managed to eat only a few spoonfuls before they had seen what he was hiding under his scarves, and dragged him outside. “That’s what they said about Vesna’s little boy,” the innkeeper said. “And now she’s lost both of her sons.” The innkeeper’s wife hugged her boy and told him: “Go inside. Wash your hands.” Vesna was Still Pond’s well-loved rugmaker. When her younger son, Hob, had come down with the affliction, she had refused to take him out of town and, ignoring everyone’s advice, she had kept him home and had tried to take care of him. A week later, her older son, Jan, who was almost Lews’s age, had begun to show signs of the affliction. The god-fearing townspeople of Still Pond had driven them out of town the next day. “Freak! Freak!” chanted the kids. Other people had called him an abomination. “The curse is contagious,” Lews had heard them say. He thought that they should make their minds up. It was either a curse or a disease, not both at the same time. But superstitious people did not attempt to get to the core of things. Master Randall was a simple and superstitious person. Lews was thankful, that his teacher had at least not called him “freak” when he had told him to leave. It did not matter hat Lews was his most promising apprentice. Thus, Lews’s training in the craft of leatherworking had ended six months prematurely. Still, the boy had thanked his master before running off to cry on his own. He wished he had not left in such a hurry and that he had taken his lute with him. Playing it was the only other skill he had, apart from working with leather. But he had been scared at the time, scared of what people might do to him when they found out. “Freak!” Lews felt a sudden urge to roar and scream at the kids, to make them run with thumping hearts. He fought against it. A strange procession was coming up the hill. At the front of it, a boy around Lews’s age, with a body shaped like a pear, was pulling a two-wheel cart full of wooden boxes and little chests. Like Lews, the boy had made a futile attempt to conceal his face. A hat with a floppy brim was supposed to cover the pear-shaped boy’s weirdly protruding forehead and his oversized ears, which were covered with coarse gray fur. A red bandana covered his nose and mouth, but Lews could still see that the animal fur was spreading around the neck and down the body. The boy wore a long overcoat and leather gloves in the summer heat and sweat was beading on his skin. The gloves were masterfully crafted, Lews noted. Behind the pear-shaped boy walked at least a dozen people who did not speak. They did not need to. They were there to see him go. The ragged kids turned towards their new victim. One flung a stone at him and hit the pearshaped boy on the side of the head, sending him to his knees. The silent procession stopped. Lews stood up and walked over to the cart. When the crowd caught a glimpse of the ginger fur that was growing around his face and his pointy ears, they started whispering. It made Lews uneasy and he knew that he would be joining pear-shaped boy on his walk out of Still Pond. He kept his mouth shut to conceal his pointy teeth.

“Are you alright?” Lews knelt down and the boy shied away from him like a badly beaten animal. Streaks of tears ran down his dusty face. He kept looking down as if he was ashamed of himself. “Hey, look at me!” Lews said and the boy looked up. My eyes are turning yellow, Lews thought as the boy was examining his face. “I’m like you,” he whispered. “Freak!” yelled the kids. The pear-shaped boy just nodded and grabbed one of the cart’s shafts. Lews took the other one and they pulled together. Monsters! Freaks! Hellspawn! The townspeople of Still Pond were not kind to them. Some whispered. Others shouted. Lews recognized some of the voices but did not look at them. Neither he, nor the fat boy said anything. They just kept pulling until the wooden gate of Still Pond closed behind them. Lews’s companion stopped, looked back and started sobbing, tears welling in his eyes. “Come on,” Lews urged him. The sooner they were out of sight, the better. Without taking another look at what had been his home for seventeen years, Lews pulled the cart up the Purple Hill, through the sea of tulips and trachelium bushes that grew to the east of Still Pond. Beyond the Purple Hill was a ravine, in the middle of which stood a big old pear tree. Lews remembered swinging on a rope under that tree as a little boy. The branch that the rope had once been tied to, was now gone. Beyond the old pear tree, a barely visible road wound through the green fields and disappeared over the horizon where, Lews knew, it passed through the scattered towns and villages of the plains, before finally reaching Irinopolis. Lews had been to the great city several times, accompanying Master Randall, when he travelled to the city to sell boiled leather jerkins, bridles and saddles. The prices they could get on the market in Irinopolis were many times higher than in Still Pond, and justified the long journey. During his apprenticeship, Lews had always looked forward to the day when he would no longer be an apprentice, and he would be able to travel to Irinopolis. There he would work hard, open his own shop, become a respectable craftsman. Irinopolis meant opportunity, wealth, a new beginning. Irinopolis also meant Ethelle. It had been a year since she had left Still Pond, but still she lingered in Lew’s mind. He had written her several letters. Only the first two letters had got a response. The others must have gone astray. Once the two boys reached the old tree, they stopped for a rest. The pear-shaped boy turned out to be Pate Yollen, the son of the wealthy merchant Andersh Yollen, a notoriously religious and yet arrogant man who somehow managed to annoy even master Randall. The father’s riches and influence had not helped the son, once he had been marked by the affliction. In fact, it had been Andersh who had driven Pate away from home, believing that his son’s newly acquired deformities were the result of possession by demons. “It’s not demons,” Pate told Lews with a shrill voice. “It was the rain! And the rain came after the Great Thunder... and that was the Magister’s doing!” They had heard a deafening crack from beyond the planes, like a thousand lightning bolts tearing up the sky. There had been a blinding flash and a wind that had scattered the clouds. Soon after, word had come that the Magister of Irinopolis had destroyed the invading armies of Hin’ya with a single spell, thus preventing the whole war. The people of Still Pond had been rather indifferent to this news. These parts of the country had not seen a war in so long that even the oldest remembered no such times. Wars were something that happened somewhere else, to someone else. Three days after the Thunder had come the clouds, darker than the boiled leather that Lews worked with, and the raindrops which stung when they touched the skin. He had been in the fields that day and by the time he had got home, he had been soaked. The stinging feeling had gone away but... “It was a side effect of the Magister’s spell? A residue might be a more accurate word?” said Pate, so excited that everything he said sounded like a question. “And if we go to him, and we tell him what he has done to us... if we complain, he might transform us back to how we were!” A lot of the words Pate used made no sense to Lews and he found that irritating. Lews had always been a poor orphan. To him, Pate was one of those rich boys, who did not need to bother mastering a craft. They could afford to spend their days reading and thinking, and looking down on hardworking people like him. Pate knew so much about spells, side effects, residues and

transformations, because he had read a lot of books on the subject. In fact, he had a whole portable library with him. “Don’t tell me this is all books,” said Lews, disappointed that it was not food instead. A person could last a lifetime without a book, but only a few weeks without food. The contents of the cart included several dozens of heavy tomes, a map of the West, several drawings, six loaves of bread, some dried meat and a lute. When Lews saw the lute, he could not help but warm up to Pate Yollen. Pate complained that his fingers had grown thicker and he could no longer play. That was when they saw the two figures stumbling down the hill towards them. For a moment, Lews thought that the townspeople had changed their minds and had sent someone to put the wretched demonspawn out of their misery. It was the other two outcasts, Vesna’s boys. They were not wearing anything to conceal their afflicted faces and bodies. Jan’s hair was merging into oddly shaped horn-like protrusions and there was a bulge on his left shoulder making him look like a smith with years of experience. When Lews took a closer look, he saw feathers sticking out under his collar. Hob, the younger one, had suffered more. His whole head seemed to be changing, his face turning into a snout. His ears were hairy and pointy, and twitched occasionally. Worst of all, there was an ugly hunch on his back, which made him look like an old man. Hob was no older than twelve. Jan and Hob had been wandering around Still Pond, lost, not knowing what to do or where to go. They were scared and the first thing they asked Lews and Pate was whether they had any food to share with them. Lews was terrible at consoling people, but the dried meat seemed to do the job. He watched them as they ate. They were hideous and so was he. Were they being punished for something they had done? What sin had young Hob committed to deserve this? Lews did not want to be their leader, but there was no one else and they could not stay here. He had to give them something to hold on to, a goal, a direction. So, he told them about the Magister. The Magister was powerful and wise, a prodigy of magic and a merciful ruler. If there was anyone who could help them, that was him. Jan and Hob seemed to believe that. The first thing to do before setting out for Irinopolis was to get rid of Pate’s cart. It took the good part of an hour to convince poor pear-shaped Pate that his books would not do him any good on the long way to the city. In the end, they left them under the tree and the overturned cart, which would provide ample cover from the elements, or so Lews convinced Pate. The food went into a backpack. Lews hesitated when it came to the lute but he ended up taking it with him. All Jan and Hob had was two blankets, a skin full of water and... a flute, which was Jan’s and he could apparently play it well. Great, thought Lews, we’re turning into travelling bards. They set off through the green fields. They did not speak much, and even when they did, Hob never participated. Lews tried to talk to him once but Jan just shook his head. “It hurts him to open his mouth. It just keeps getting longer and... and after it’s done, I don’t know if he’ll be able to speak at all.” Lews looked at Hob’s eyes, which remained so very human and sad. He wished he could keep his eyes as they were before. My eyes are turning yellow. Would Ethelle recognize him looking like this? The first person they met on the road was a travelling merchant with a wagon pulled by two shaggy underfed horses. Lews half expected the man to attack them or flee, but the merchant turned out to be neither religious, nor superstitious. “I’ve seen the likes of you in Irinopolis,” he told them. “The mist brought it, they say, a grey mist that stung the skin.” When Lews told him about their plan, the man laughed. “Appeal to the Magister? That’s a joke I’d never heard. Good one! No one has seen the man since the battle. Some say he killed himself with his own spell. Poof! Left nothing but ashes. Or if you were to ask that stable boy from the keep, Henry, he’d tell you the mist turned him into a giant rat and he kept circling the tower of the Magister. Four guards tried to stop him but the creature just tore one poor fellow’s arm right off the shoulder, and slid into the sewers. So, I hope you and your menagerie fancy a trip into the shit canals of Irinopolis...”

That night Lews heard Hob crying, which occasionally sounded closer to howling. Jan played his flute then and Lews joined in with his lute, and they sang a song about a young maiden. “What are we going to do?” asked Jan after Hob had gone to sleep. “They are just stories,” said Lews and Pate nodded. “We’ll hear more of these before we get there.” And more stories did follow. “He’s locked himself in that tower of his,” a ragged traveller told them. “He doesn’t care about me, nor you, nor any of us. What are we to him? He swiped an army of ten thousand alone, in the blink of an eye. They say he thinks himself a god... I knew an innkeeper who came down with the affliction after the mist passed through Irinopolis. He had coarse hair all over himself, just like you lot, his hands grew claws and his legs bent like bows. He waited two weeks for his appointment with the Magister.” “Was he received?” asked Lews. “He was about to be. But by that time, there was nothing human left in him. He ran off into the city slums and we haven’t seen him since.” The temperature dropped down that evening. The nights had been growing colder since the Great Thunder, the sky somewhat darker. Jan asked Lews to try and pluck some of his feathers off, but every time Lews pulled, the feathers revealed raw bloody flesh. A bird’s flesh. Lews’s feet kept hurting him and eventually he had to lose his shoes and walked on a pair of paw-like limbs. There were no mirrors around, nor still bodies of water, and he dared not ask his companions about the colour of his eyes. Their provisions lasted them a week, but that would be enough to get them to the first few towns. But once then reached them, then what? Lews looked at them, young and inexperienced, and wondered how they would survive. Not even he could get a job. No one would hire a boy with the affliction. At the same time, Lews felt like he would be so much better at his craft now. His body was more agile, his eyesight precise. His fingers were nimbler and they grew soft cushions at the tips. When he played the lute, it all came effortlessly. Even Ethelle would be impressed, he thought. He could charm her with music and she could still be his. Lews voiced his idea that night. “No,” said Pate. “We’d be like a travelling freak show!” “It certainly beats starving,” said Jan and no one could argue with that. Hob howled with agreement and so it was decided. There was no hostility against them in the first village they came across. They spoke to the owner of a tavern called the Pretty Maid and that night the villagers had an unusual attraction. Four bards, who were not quite human and not quite beasts, played songs from the East, everything they had heard in Still Pond. They were not the best, but their appearance made them a spectacle. Lews played the lute, Jan the flute, Pate, who could not play anything with his fingers, sang in a highpitched voice that fat boys tend to have. The tavern owner had even found a wooden tambourine for Hob. “This is going to be hilarious,” the owner had said. More like hideous, thought Lews. He felt terrible for exposing his deformities to make money, but his hunger overcame the sense of humiliation. He closed his eyes and imagined he was playing for Ethelle. He could smell her fragrant golden curls, he could feel her breath on his face, he could see her green eyes staring into his... Many came to see the weird bards and many laughed and cheered. There was no money for them, but there was food and warm beds, and that was all they needed. In the next few towns they heard more rumours. A travelling priest tried to convince them that the Magister was the Messiah, his great deeds proof of his divinity. Lews doubted that. The Magister had risen to his position by declaring that that he would tolerate all religions, and he had said they needed not be afraid because he believed in none of them. The priest left them with a holy book and hollow promises of healing through prayer. Lews took one look at the book and thought someone had done a poor job binding it with leather.

They all knew their best chance was the sorcerer, but that night Lews heard Pate praying in a hushed voice. He prayed for his fingers to go back to normal, so he could play the lute again and leaf through books faster. A tavern wench told Lews that the Magister was about to establish a great empire, as the other enemies of Irinopolis yielded one by one before his grand display of might. A peasant bringing salt pork from the coast said that there were other sorcerers who were trying to perform magic and a few of them had managed to burn themselves and parts of the city. According to the pork merchant, the Magister had taken their heads, not because he cared about the city, but because he wanted all the power for himself. An old woman selling spices confirmed that and went as far as to suggest that he was planning to rule single-handedly and that he had been poisoning the other members of the High Council with a rare herb called Nebelshade. Small quantities of the same herb helped with insomnia, she told them later, and offered to sell them some. A fellow in a ragged coat claimed that one touch from the Magister had not only cured him from leprosy, but he had also become the luckiest dice player for three nights in a row, making a small fortune. He played that night and lost. On the morning of the fourteenth day Lews and his companions reached the gates of Irinopolis. A great wall surrounded the city and along the wall stood thirty-three towers, a number that some strange old superstitious king had once requested to be built. Irinopolis spread over seven hills, a keep perched atop each of them, and in the distance reached the sea, where lay the largest harbour in the East and a forest of ship masts pointing at the sky. The buildings they could see were all shapes and sizes, and the taller ones were connected by bridges and aqueducts that criss-crossed above the streets At the main gate, a long line of carts waited to enter the city. Lews saw a little boy begging by the road. He had the ears of a bat and a long black tail which whipped around him. The boy did not say anything and looked like he was in pain. Why had the poor thing not gone to the Magister for help? Lews asked him, but the boy just hissed back and stared at him with eyes which were deep red. As they passed through the gate, all Lews could think of was Ethelle and how he longed to see her again. Once this was all over, he would be able to find a job, open his own shop, become a respectable man, and then he could ask her hand in marriage. But she must not see him like this. Walking along the main road, Jan, Hob and Pate could not help but stare at the hundreds of people who were hurrying around them, pushing carts, carrying baskets, riding horse. Merchants urged them to buy their wares, criers cried out and the city guard patrolled silent and stern. Thirteen streets and a thousand moments of awe later, they came to a line of guards who had blocked the road. People were gathering as if to see some spectacle, and the crowd got denser and denser, pressing on Lews and his companions from all sides. “Make way!” a voice rose above everyone. “Make way for the Seven of the High Council and the Magister of Irinopolis!” It was him. Lews’s heart quickened. The guards came first. Twenty knights in dark armour formed five perfect lines. Then the seven Councillors, men clad in fine red garments, wearing gold chains around their necks. Their faces were stern and they had their beards fashioned in ways Lews had never thought possible. Each of them sat in a litter carried by four strong men. After them came a black carriage pulled by four white horses. Inside it sat the Magister. The most powerful man ever to live, thought Lews. Only... ...the man inside was anything but awe inspiring. He was short and thin, with slumped shoulders, and wore a plain black robe with no ornaments whatsoever. His face was a net of wrinkles and his hands were strangely crooked. His wide eyes made it look like something was hurting him... haunting him. Whatever power had once resided in those eyes, now looked exhausted by pain and grief. Lews wondered what had gone through the Magister’s head as he had wiped those ten thousand men off the face of the earth. The Magister did not wave at the crowd, nor did he look out of his window. He just stared at his knees and his lips moved soundlessly, as if he was praying. What horror makes a godless man pray? There were many who wanted to reach him but the guards pushed them away. Some had to draw their swords to pacify the crowd. There were many afflicted – a man whose skin was turning to scales and had already covered one of his eyes, a young maid whose jaw had grown insectoid

mandibles, a woman holding a puppy that she claimed had been her infant son. They spoke of the mist that had passed through the city, bringing the affliction. “You cursed us!” someone shouted. “Burn in hell!” yelled another. The Magister did not raise his head, nor did he move at all, as the carriage passed them on the way to Tomodril’s Keep, the largest of the seven. Hob howled after him. Whether the howl was a plea or a threat, Lews could not tell. The found an inn later that day. Lews left the others and went over to Tomodril’s Keep. He was not surprised to see the massive crowd that had congregated under the towers of the keep. They were all ragged, poor and diseased, many of them afflicted by the mist, or the rain, or the flood, or the plague of grasshoppers. The sun was setting when Lews finally reached the man who was taking down names and giving appointments. “What’s your appeal?” he asked without even looking at Lews. Had he looked up, he would have known. “I want to see the Magister. Three of my friends and I have been afflicted by his spell and want to ask him to change us back.” The man sighed and gave him a well-rehearsed response that he must have repeated more than a hundred times that day. “The powers of the Magister are needed for the defence of our borders and this is our priority at the moment. I would recommend you visit the Temple of the Red Moon or the Houses or Healing where the sisters can try to help you for a small fee...” “But...” “Yes, however, if you insist,” said the man, “and everyone seems to insist, I can take your name down for an audience with the Magister. Keep in mind that the earliest time available is in two weeks.” Two weeks. By that time, there was nothing human left, Lews remembered someone saying. “It’s urgent!” he said. “Then you’d better take this one now, because the next one is in three weeks’ time,” explained the man. “Do you want it or not?” Lews left with a little paper with a time written on it. On his way back to the inn, he asked an old woman for directions to the Craftsmen Quarter. Ethelle lived there, above a small tailor’s shop, where she worked during the days. In her letters she had written about that house and the two linden trees that grew in front of it. Ethelle was good with words and Lews could almost picture the place, but even after wandering around for an hour, he could not find it. Disheartened, he went back to the inn and joined his even more disheartened companions. The four of them played their music that night and earned themselves a leaky roof over their heads and a suspicious meal. Hob howled for a while, after gulping down his two sausages. Jan looked at his brother with teary eyes. “He does not always look at me when I talk to him,” he said, after Hob had gone to sleep, curled like a dog. “I think he understands less and less of what I’m saying.” Lews wondered if that would happen to them too. Sometimes he had dreams of prowling in the night, sinking his sharp claws into bark, moss and wood, climbing, sneaking, looking for prey, lunging, biting, killing, tearing flesh and feeding. In one dream he caught and killed a bird, which then transformed into Jan’s semi-avian body, broken and bloody in Lews’s mouth. Another night, it was a giant rat, which turned out to be the Magister. Lews’s teeth snapped around his neck. The dreams continued as they waited. Every night they played for the patrons in the inn, and the innkeeper paid them with food and shelter. When their act grew old, they moved to a different inn and spent a couple of days there. During the day, Pate stayed inside and read the only book he had kept from his library. He looked uncomfortable when he stood on his legs. Jan and Hob walked around, Jan trying to find a way to communicate with his brother. It was difficult, he had told Lews, and speaking had begun to cause him physical pain too. Three horn ridges were now fully formed on his head and Jan sometimes wrapped a scarf around them to conceal them not from the other people, but from himself. Feathers had started growing on his chest and back.

Lews talked to the people in the inns. There was talk of war with the Western kingdoms, great armies invading, this time hundreds of thousands. Someone told him the envoys of Irinopolis had been skinned alive and impaled on stakes. The Western lords despised magic and had sworn to dethrone the Magister. Lews wandered among the narrow streets of the Craftsmen Quarter, until one afternoon he finally stumbled upon the house with the two linden trees in front. What now, Lews? He could not let her see him like that, not with his eyes turning yellow. Lews had not been particularly handsome before, but that would not matter if he had his craft, if he was skilled and respected. The affliction had taken that from him. All he had now was Pate’s damn lute, which could barely pay for his living. Lews sneaked closer to one of the ground-level windows and looked down into the shop where several people were working. A middle-aged man was comparing two pieces of cloth. An old woman was spindling thread into a distaff. Two plain-faced girls were sewing at a table and beside them sat Ethelle. Her hair was longer than Lews remembered, golden curls spilling over her shoulders and down her back. Fairer than ever, her face looked somewhat different to him now, and he wondered why that was. She had left Still Pond a year before him and now she looked like she knew something that he did not. The gown she was working on was made of silver silk and was probably meant for some noble lady with... Suddenly, Ethelle looked up. Lews sprung back from the window with a hiss. He turned around, sprinted as fast as he could, then vaulted over a fence and into someone’s garden. What am I running from? Bestial instincts clashed with human thought. He felt like sneaking away and hiding. He jumped over another fence and landed into a small street. As he was walking back to the inn, he tried to calm himself. It was all fine, he thought. Three more days and he would be able to go and see her, and speak to her. He would be able to practice his craft. He would be the man he had always wanted to be. When they were woken by fanfare trumpets the next morning, Lews knew something was wrong. Pate shared a room with him and they both looked out of the window. There were banners waving in the wind, knights marching, horse hooves clicking. “What’s going on?” Lews shouted at the people under his window. “They march to war,” an old man answered. “With the Westerners. If it weren’t for the Magister, I’d say they were riding to their doom.” “The Magister is going with them?” “He’s already left. Rorge’s boy saw him riding out on a white horse. He is the Messiah, I’m telling you!” Lews was about to start cursing when Jan stormed into the room. “Have you seen him? Have you seen my brother?” he asked, panicking. Neither of them had. Hob had sneaked out during the night. Lews asked the innkeeper and the other patrons, but no one knew where the boy had gone. Jan started sobbing, but his eyes produced no tears. Pate had trouble coming downstairs and Lews had to help him. The fat boy’s legs were oddly bent, his muscles contracting on their own accord. Pate’s face looked different today, noted Lews, like someone had made a minor change to each of its features. Pate suggested he should stay behind in case Hob came back. Lews and Jan left him in the inn and went to look for the lost boy. They roamed the Merchants’ district for what seemed a disastrously long time, but in the end, a ragged beggar told them he had seen “a wolfboy” heading east, towards the Gods’ district. Lews had never explored the city further than the Craftsmen Quarter, and the immense distances of Irinopolis surprised them. They made slow progress, looking for any clues, stopping to talk to anyone who would talk to them. There was hope. Several people had heard howling in the night. The other animals that roamed the streets at night were rats and foxes, and they did not howl. Lews and Jan walked past gates that led towards other parts of the city, but those gates were closed at night. Only the gates of the Gods’ District were always open. By the time they got there, the sun was already near the horizon, rimming a hundred temples with golden light. Groups of monks walked the stone-paved streets. Some of them wore humble black robes, others had lavish attires with many religious symbols and chains of gold and silver. They even saw two priests who were wearing massive crowns made of many-coloured feathers. Lews thought

they looked ridiculous. He saw sisters of the Red Moon behind every corner. They carried stretchers and pulled carts, onto which lepers and other diseased men moaned in pain. Night fell and Jan insisted that they split up. Bad idea, thought Lews but he did not want to argue. Speaking caused Jan pain. They agreed to meet in front of the temple of the Red Moon at dawn. Lews dived into the streets of the Gods’ District among candles, bonfires and cold indifferent statues. There were tall gods, lean gods, old gods, child gods, gods holding swords, gods holding books, sea gods, wind gods, fire gods, even animal gods. They had the faces of eagles, horses, bisons, foxes and bats. Lews wondered if they knew anything about the affliction. When he came upon the temple of the lion-headed god, he stepped inside. Lew’s footsteps echoed in the nave as he walked along the pillars, which bore various catlike faces. Beyond them, the walls were covered with gold-rimmed red tapestries, which depicted some story of the world’s creation, which Lews had not heard of. There were a dozen empty black benches made of solid wood, and above them hung three chandeliers. There must be more than a hundred candles. A priest in purple robes emerged from a cloister that Lews had not noticed before. He was leaning on a long staff. “Out!” the priest shouted and raised a wooden lion’s head the size of his palm. He stepped towards Lews. “The power of the Lord compels you! I shall not suffer abominations in this holy place! Lews stepped back. “I’m just looking for my friend,” he said. “He has the affliction like me. He has grey hair all over him and his face...” “The wolf demon brings another in his wake!” the purple priest frowned. “Lord, give me strength to expel him from your home! “He was here?” There was hope. The priest did not pay his words any attention and approached slowly. “Give me strength, Lord, to send him away! Demon, go back where you came from!” “Where did he go?” Lews asked. “Where did you send him to?” The priest raised his staff and strode towards Lews. “Hell!” the priest yelled, fire burning in his eyes. Lews ran out of the gates and back into the streets. “Hob! Hob!” he called. The night and the stone temples responded with silence. The priest had seen Hob. I must press on. Lews kept walking and calling Hob until the sky began to lighten, but no answer came. He was tired and hungry when he heard the first birds chirping, heralding the dawn. Next thing he knew, he was climbing up a wooden fence, then onto an old temple’s roof. Several unsuspecting birds nested there and they did not hear a thing until the silent stalker in the twilight sank his teeth into one of them. He ate the bird raw, ripping its feathers off, chewing its body and spitting out bones. There was not much meat on it but he found eggs in the nest. He broke them and gorged in half-formed foetuses. As if in a trance, he vaulted onto another roof. He heard a bird call. He prowled in the shadows, hunted, killed. The first rays of the sun brought Lews back to his senses. Where am I? He found himself on top of a tall tree. There was a foul taste in his mouth and blood on his hands. He wiped them on the bark of the tree and climbed down. The small plaza in front of the temple of the Red Moon had been turned into a marketplace. Pious merchants sold books providing guidance for lost souls, amulets providing protection from demons, crudely carved icons, idols, charms, holy water and holy wine. There were goats with no imperfections, suitable for sacrifice. There were also birds, big and plump, and Lews felt his mouth watering. There was no trace of Jan as the sun slowly climbed towards the top of the sky. He would have to go soon, Lews thought, and continue calling... two names this time. Then, a group of sisters of the Red Moon caught his attention. They were carrying a stretcher and where they walked, people stepped aside. The sisters reached him and he saw that blood soaked

the cloth of the stretcher. A body lay onto it, a body which had once had feathers growing from it, but now most of them had been ripped off, leaving only bloody bird’s skin underneath. We should have stayed together, Lews thought, feeling weak. Jan had been plucked and disembowelled. They carried him away. Lews would have cried, but his new eyes did not seem to know how to cry. They had taken his friend’s feathers. Lews remembered the ridiculous priests who wore feather crowns. Had they murdered him to make themselves a new one? Whoever had done it, Lews doubted that anyone would bring justice to them. What was another dead afflicted boy in the big city? His search was pointless. Jan was gone and so was Hob. Lews wondered if Pate was alright, as he made his way back towards the inn. “We tied him in the stables,” the innkeeper explained when Lews asked him about his friend. “He was making too much noise and tried to take a shit on my floor. I do think he likes it in the stables though.” “What have you done?!” Lews was furious. “You’d better go see for yourself.” What awaited him in the stables was not a pretty sight. Pate’s body had expanded, tearing his clothes. Only a few tattered pieces still clung to him. Pate stood on four hooves that his limbs had fully transformed into. Shaggy coarse hair covered his whole body and his back had twisted into two ugly humps. When Pate turned his head around and looked at Lews, there was no sign of recognition in his eyes. He made feeble moaning sound, snorted and started chewing some hay straws. How had that happened so fast? Could it be that the Magister’s departure had sped up the process? Or had he cast another great spell that was about cause them more suffering? Lews’ s hands went up to his face and found a nose, which was somewhat different and wet. His fur had spread further. When he went upstairs to their room, he found that most of their possessions , even Pate’s book, had been taken. Only the lute remained there, hidden under one of the beds, and Lews took it. Back in the stables, he untied Pate. “Come on, Pate, time to go.” But Pate seemed more interested in eating his hay, and no matter how hard Lews pulled, Pate resisted with newly-acquired strength. “Come on Pate. You can’t stay here!” Lews said and grabbed the hair on his friend’s back. Pate twitched in alarm, raised his hind legs and kicked Lews hard in belly, sending him to the ground. “Stay here then!” Lews snapped, grasping for air. “I hope they treat you like the animal you are!” He left his friend in the stables and walked into the streets of Irinopolis with the lute in his hand. He went in no particular direction. He just kept going, paying no attention to the people around him. When he got tired, he sat by the road and played his lute. His new fingers were fast, his playing smooth. Some people threw him coins, but he left those lying on the ground. When he was hungry, he hunted. Sometimes he did not remember doing so, but his belly was full and he did not complain. Lews roamed through the harbour, went back to the Gods’ District, and spent some time in the slums. The rats there were fat and meaty. The memories of his old town and of his companions began to fade, but no matter how much he wandered, he remembered the house with the two linden trees and he remembered Ethelle. A thought lingered. I just need to wait for the Magister to come back from the war. Then I’ll be able to see her again. But what if the Magister did not come back? Lews sneaked over rooftops and eavesdropped on conversations. There were many rumours of the war. Some people said that a great battle had been fought and that the Magister had been wounded, possibly dead. Others claimed that they had heard and seen another Great Thunder, and they were expecting news of their Messiah’s victory. One night Lews found himself back in the Craftsmen Quarter, under Ethelle’s window. Her curtains were drawn, but he could see her in his mind, and he dreamt of holding her. He took his lute and played a song, his fingers producing tunes that no human could. And then she pulled the curtains and leaned out of her window. Lews saw Ethelle looking for the source of the music that came in the

night and he knew she could see nothing but shadows. Still, she stayed and listened. He played until his heart was too full of longing and grief, and then he ran away and hid. I just need to wait for the Magister to come back. Days went by, and Lews’s fur grew thicker and thicker. Soon he felt hot and uncomfortable in his clothes, so he threw them away. His body had become slender, more flexible and agile. Hunting birds and other small animals was easy and he was never hungry. A sense of distrust for humans had nested itself in his mind, so he kept away from them. He slept in trees and under hedges, hidden from everyone. Finally, a messenger came back with news. The words of the humans were difficult to understand, but Lews managed to piece it together. The armies of Irinopolis had won, but now the Magister had travelled further north and was facing another battle. When he heard that, Lews broke the lute in his anger. Another battle, another war. Many men were recruited and three companies left the city. Lews thought of going with them but he did not want to reveal himself in front of humans. So, he stayed behind. He went back to the house with the linden trees, but this time he had no lute to play for Ethelle. In fact, he could not remember being able to play and he had lost all desire to do so. He took pride in his hunting now. No animal was a match for him. Soon, he started attacking wandering dogs and foxes, and fed on them. He was a great hunter, a predator in the night. How had he not considered this before? This was his talent. First, he had thought of impressing Ethelle with his mastery of leatherwork, then with his music, but now he was a master of something else. Lews was tired of waiting for the Magister. He did not need his former self to prove worthy of Ethelle. That night he went to the harbour and prowled onto one of the ships. On the deck was a barrel of rainwater, and leaning over it, he looked at his moonlit reflection. His eyes shone bright yellow. Then he saw it. A great white seagull perched on the forecastle of the ship. He sneaked behind the bird, silent as death, sprung and sank his teeth into its long slender neck. The taste of blood was intoxicating, as he felt the spasms go through the body of his dying prey. It was a good kill, suitable for his future mate. The monstrous cat carried the seagull through the city and stopped in front of the house with the two linden trees. He left the great bird at the doorstep, sat down and gracefully waved his tail, waiting for the dawn and for his beloved.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful