From the author: A modern day myth retelling of revenge and power. Heavy horror elements.
The world can be hard, can make you harder, if the wrong things happen. Sometimes people set out to teach you, to bring their own flavour of pain into your life, and those are the dangerous ones. Those are the people I protect other girls from.
My ‘lesson’ was cruel. It was the back of the library, shoved up against the staircase while his grubby hands reached for my skirt, for my tights, for me. He was Milos, my accelerated learning tutor, barely thirty and one of the cool guys. He’d always tell me how well I was doing, was there for questions after class.
His breath was old coffee and something sweet, whatever he’d been chewing on. I was fifteen, and terrified, and my hair was coming loose from the braid I kept it in. Coils slipped out, snaking around my neck as his body pressed on mine, his fingers pawed and pried.
“Don’t tell me you’ve not been wanting it, I’ve seen you walking around in those tight little skirts. You just need a guy to show you how it’s done.”
I knew. I hadn’t done it, but we’d had sex-ed and I’d read books. I knew plenty, I didn’t need this asshole who told me how smart I was to show me. I didn’t want him, or anyone, to. I had no interest in it. He didn’t care.
He recorded it on his phone.
“Something for us to enjoy later,” he said, pecking my cheek as I held my clothing tight to my skin.
I cried afterwards, when he left and I’d retreated to the top of the stacks. They keep the old art up there, out of the way and almost forgotten.
I was surrounded by dead eyed faces, paintings and busts and things long consigned to obscurity. There was a statue of a woman, stern but not scowling, with an owl on her wrist and a helmet over her hair. It was nice hair, thick with waves like mine, and I curled up in front of her to redo my braid. I didn’t want it to be messy. She would understand – a helmet didn’t stay in place without some clever intervention.
“What do you do after that?” I asked my silent companions, fingers weaving close to my scalp like my sisters taught me. It wasn’t like you got warned about. I was in the library for fucks sake. Who raped someone in a library? “There’s a temptation to run screaming down the street, but it won’t do anything. Neither will the police, probably. Look what they said about Hai when she reported the gym teacher. They didn’t even let her keep the baby.”
“I used to be resplendent,” came a voice behind me, a soft brush of cinnamon and musk dropping over the room. “They would line up to bring me offerings, seek counsel, show me the cunning things they had made. I led warriors to bloody victory and directed the brightest minds to discoveries which made them weep.” I couldn’t move, the same crushing fear as when my spine was pressed into the steps churning through my blood. “I won’t hurt you, child. Do you know who I am?” I shook my head, my voice buried down below the scream I wanted to let loose.
“No,” I said, forcing it out in a hiss.
I pushed up from my knees, pulling my gaze from the tiled floor to whoever was listening to me crack my heart open. Maybe it was my head that cracked? That could happen with trauma, you could hallucinate or go into a state, not realise what was around you.
The statue was thrumming, staring down at me with eyes that could pierce you right through.
“I am a goddess of many things: knowledge, skills, war. My favourite priestess was violated, once, by a god. He was a jealous thing and took what he wanted when she would not give it. I gave her power to ensure no man could harm her again. They put her face on shields, over the doors where women sought refuge. I could offer you the same: a means to ensure your pain is not repeated. To save others. It is a pointed gift: it will hurt you. But your pain will stop the suffering of many others.”
“Will it hurt him?” I asked, the words out before I could stop them. I clamped my mouth shut, bitterness seeping round my teeth.
“If you wish it to.”
“Where’s the catch?”
“The pain is the price. Your gift will not leave you, it will scare others. They will shun you. My beautiful priestess, they killed her. Sent a righteous young man and he gave me her head as a gift. Such is the cost of genius.” The promise echoed through my skull, the scent stronger now I was facing her, coating me in the warmth she offered. The gaze of those stone eyes poured down into me. My heart thudded, an instinctual itch of adrenaline making its way over my skin and prickling my nerves.
“Who are you?”
“Athena was one of my first names. Your heritage knows that, Zilya who covets knowledge: the boats may have left your family here, but your heritage still sings.”
“Most people think I’m just tan.”
“Blood knows blood. Will you accept my offer?”
“Why are you offering? People get hurt every day.”
“Less would be hurt with this gift.” The words hit me like a slap, blood on my tongue from biting against the pain that welled up.
“Yes. I’ll accept.”
“You will be feared,” she said, and I could feel it against me, feel her breath on my face and the heat of her skin on my shaking shoulders. “But they should, for you will be magnificent.”
The kiss against my temple felt like lightning on my bones, arcing white pain shooting through my eyes. I doubled over, clutching at them as I felt the energy spiral and surge, pitching forward to curl into myself on the floor. Looking up I could see the outline of the statue looming, brushing a hand over my head, soothing my thrashing. I didn’t know at what point I passed out, but I was grateful when the blackness came up to replace the pain.
When I woke it was dark, the library closed. My head ached, throbbing and swimming like I had been hit with a shovel. I laughed at the idea, a bubbling up of fear and panic at the thought – why not? Everything else had happened today.
Sitting up I put my hands to my face, rubbing at my cheeks and forehead to try and dispel the pain, and felt my loose hair about my shoulders. That wasn’t right. I ran my fingers through it, gathering up handfuls to braid when I felt the first movements, the tug and sway in my palm.
Sorry, whispered a voice close to my ear, feather light and brushing the shell. We take a little time to get established. We’re here for you now.
I dropped my hair, shoulders up high as I curled into my knees again. I panted against the fear, screwing my eyes shut against the heavy, coiling feeling of something moving against my back.
Don’t be afraid, we’re here for you, came the voice, just as soft as the first time, delicately close to me.
“What’s going on?” I groaned, pushing the heels of my hands into my eyes to stop the tears burning there.
We’re you’re gift, Zilya. Open your eyes.
The weight lifted from my back and shoulders, some creeping comfort pushing through the panic in my blood. I pulled my palms away, blinking in the gloom, and saw a sea of eyes staring back at me, tiny faces splitting occasionally as a tongue came out to taste the air.
Snakes. Right. I was ok with snakes. Why was I seeing snakes?
We can show you so much – how to hunt, how to track, how to kill. We can show you how to make those that have hurt you into nothing, into less than that.
“How are you talking to me?”
We’re part of you now, we understand your thought and breath.
“Right.” I brought a hand up, stroking along the warm girth of one body. It leaned its weight into me, pushing against my palm as it slipped between its companions. “So, I’m going to walk down the street with a nest of snake on my head and people will run screaming?”
Not unless you want them to see us. We will look beautiful, wonderous, to anyone who sees you. You will be envied for us, for your beauty. But should you wish our true form we will appear, and you will always have us. The eyes were all watching me, swaying in the collective mass, coiling and slipping between each other. It was reassuring, like fingers on your scalp.
“And you’ll bite who I want, or what?”
You don’t need us to harm those you wish to – the weight of your judgement will allow that. We can guide your hand, lead your anger. Feel us and feel the righteousness of your pain.
I bit my tongue again, the sting of the last wound focusing my mind. I had pain, that was true, and I had a smouldering anger at the man who had caused it.
“What do I do?”
Go to his house, we will help you do the rest.
I stood on his doorstep, warm despite the night’s chill. I could still feel the weight of the snakes on me, the ebb and flow of them moving. The duality wasn’t uncomfortable, but it made my head feel crowded and I yearned to sleep.
Go inside. He will want to savour you.
I rang the doorbell, watched the lights turn on as he came. My stomach churned, but it was more hunger than fear.
“Zilya, I was worried about you! Come in,” Milos said once he saw me, ushering me into the hallway. “I didn’t see you at closing and Collette said you hadn’t signed out.”
“I was reading in the back, I got distracted,” I lied, eyes flitting around the kitchen he led me into. I suppose I could stab him.
No need, not yet, whispered the voice at my ear and I smiled, relaxing into the weight on my shoulders.
“Of course you did, always looking for the next thing to do. Is that why you’re here?” He said it with a smirk that made me want to slap him.
“I thought it could be good to see you again,” I said, eyes moving over him and flicking to the pocket his phone usually sat in. “See if we could pick up where we left off. Watch that video you took.”
“How wicked of you.” He grinned, pulling the phone out and passing it to me. “I was thinking about uploading it, to a secret place. Very select, just a few others who enjoy this sort of thing. They would just eat you up.”
He’s already done it. He just wants you to think it’s your idea.
“I’m sure they would” I said, scrolling through to find the file. The screenshot was me, my body at least, headless in the image frame. Of course I was, why would he bother to see that I’d been crying? That might spoil the aesthetic. “Are they your friends?”
“Sort of. It’s all hush hush, untraceable. No one would know it was you. Just our secret.” He had moved forward, creeping one hand onto my hip and ghosting the other up my arm. “You know how to keep a secret, right?”
“I know all sorts about secrets,” I said, eyes burning as I stared at him. The snakes loomed up, raising high and arcing over my head, and he yelped a startled cry, turning to run. One darted forward to circle his throat. It lifted him up off the ground and, legs twitching, took him further away so he couldn’t reach me.
If you go to his computer you can see what else he has. Who else he has done this to. You can save others by finding his friends.
“How many of your friends are there?” I asked Milos, watching the fear twist his face into an old tragedy mask.
“None, no one knows, it’s not uploaded yet.”
“Liar.” The snake coiled tighter and his face darkened, the wheeze of a plea dying in his throat. I willed him closer and the snake came, bringing his face inches away from mine. “How many?”
“Thank you.” I walked out of the kitchen, the snake trailing Milos after me, tight around his neck still.
It’s in his bedroom. You’ll see what he’s done.
I walked up the steps, slamming his head against the bannister as we went. The bedroom was sparse: double bed, black sheets, wine red walls, an expensive looking computer in a corner surrounded by gadgets. It was running, video playing behind a chat screen I saw he’d left open.
“Are these your friends?” I asked, dragging him up beside me.
“They’re not really friends-” I slammed him into the wall, reeling him quickly back.
“Well done, you learn so quickly, Milos.” I sat down in his chair, tightening my snake around his throat and holding him high so he could watch me. I clicked back into the chatroom and caught up with the discussion he missed – how to get more images of me. What a peach. I hopped out, going instead to the folder the video was playing from. There were galleries of images, screenshots of videos, body after body like mine, frozen in their suffering.
“What an ugly little man you are.” I sighed, plugging my phone into the PC tower and beginning the transfer. “I hope your friends are just as ugly as you.”
I tapped back into the chat, firing off a few noncommittal agreements before logging Milos off for the night. I turned to him, the snake holding him blinking at me in the low light.
“Now, listen to me very carefully: you will give me details of where your friends are, you will write out a confession of what you did to me and you will leave it on this computer desk. Then you will take that belt and hang yourself from the bannister. Do you understand?” I felt the words leave me and the snakes at once, the thrumming power of Athena focusing in my glare at him.
The snake dropped him and he stood, eyes vacant. He picked up a notebook from under the bed and began to write, hand moving over the page like a wild thing, tearing them off as he went. A snake slipped out, bringing the papers to me with a kiss of its tongue.
You have done so well. He will be long dead when they find him, cold as stone. We can leave all of them like this. We will guide your way.
I nodded, reading over the list as they spoke in my head. Twenty nine men, not fifteen. Some local, some further around the county, all sharing my pain. And the other girls I had seen on his screen. All watching us.
I heard more paper tear and looked up to see Milos undoing his belt. A jolt of nausea curled through me but my snakes curled back, warm bodies ghosting over my skin.
Do not fear: he will do as you told him. Your judgement will always come to pass with them. You will always leave them cold.
I watched as he looped the belt and walked out of the bedroom.
“Should I watch?”
Do you want to?
“No, I just want him to be gone.”
The was a solid creak and a hissing sound, then the wet suck of struggling air. It stopped after a while.
It is done.
“I figured.” My voice was thick and I didn’t know why, where the lump there has surfaced from. I swallowed it down.
You are allowed to hurt. You are allowed your pain. You are allowed your vengeance, and it is glorious.
“Can I kill them all?”
All you find and judge, yes.
I left the chair, walking out to see the silhouette of his body against the bannister railings. It was a mess: his tongue out, his face dark, his eyes the same. The legs dangled over the edge into the space of the stairs. I looked inside myself for something like pity and just felt the churning of my snakes. It was easy enough to walk past him and out the door.
It was simpler than I expected to track the others. For all their secrecy they always came out at the offer of fresh victims, new pain. My video was a useful ice breaker, and I promised live action once we met. It was action, at least, though never alive for long.
Once I was good at it I could look further afield, seek out the creators too. It was slow, and I had to be careful, but I cut them down one by one. That was what started to get the attention of those Good Men who insisted these swine needed a chance at redemption. Leave too many stones marking your trail and someone else is bound to follow.
I noticed the arrest warranted being discussed on the dark web, those secret little sites Milos had been talking about. I’d left behind the name it was under, the family I had, but it was there on the screen. Some young buck of a prosecutor wanted me taken in and questioned and that just wouldn’t work.
I don’t know if they’ll try to take me alive. I don’t know if they’ll get close enough to be to see my gaze, to feel the kiss on my girls on their skin before the weight of what they have done crushes them. I know one of them will try too hard, will want a scalp for sacrifice. Maybe that’s fine.
Because before they take it, they will see me, and they will fear.