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The Wet Mouths of Beasts

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In the instant that she delivers the killing blow, Red sees time collapse.

The moment has been building ever since she touched the bones outside, smelled the death around her -- everywhere, thick, cloying, rich, stinking and as familiar as the way her hood smells in the morning after she wakes up using it as a pillow. There's a meat-eater nearby. And not simply a wolf, oh no. This creature sups on little bones, on soft tissues, and that defines the shape of its teeth.

It's a child eater. Baby killer (though Red would never want to touch a swaddling babe, let alone defend one; it's safer for them both that way.) Monster. Beast.

Beasts are different from animals. Any mammal can build a society of fuzzy bliss, complete with well-stocked dens, and a range of predators and prey. Humans are as bad as their four-footed relatives. Red can't even say that those who eat younglings are entirely unnatural. She's seen snakes go after bird eggs, foxes prance by with their mouths full of baby rabbit. And humans have their love of the stewpot, just as any other; humans eat the bawling calf and pat their chins dry of beef grease after.

But there's a line that animals cross when they speak with sweet mouths and lure their prey close. It's the same transformation that puts humans into fur and paws and back again. Trust is a rare coin: it will kill the one who gives it, and this Red knows.

In the end, you cannot trust a beast. You cannot think them harmless. They are monsters underneath their fur and feathers and floral nightcaps. Beings disguised who blend in with their neighborhoods, granny-safe clothes and cat-smooth tongues.

Red has committed murder. Technically. Sometimes. She has killed and killed well, and she has been killed (and been killed well.) She has eaten meat and grown strong from it. She has hunted down that which has tried to crawl away, mewling; she has shown no mercy, and hunted not to feed, but to slaughter.

Still, she is not a monster.

This is what keeps Red sane, during the nights and days and weeks spent mending her cloak from the tears of her latest struggle: she is not a beast. She remains on the safe side of the line. She stays human.

But when the woman's -- beast's, beast's -- stomach yawns open and Red sees tiny hands stretching out in welcome, all her mind can think is how familiar it all is. A creature in the guise of an elderly woman, devouring the children who trusted her. Tonight, the past come back to life: Red's grandmother smiles merrily back at her, but the fur's showing underneath the nightgown.

And there, there inside the creature's stomach is what Red could have been. What she is now. What she still might be -- Red is one of the consumed. There are her siblings. They are her twins, her cousins, her species; they are the Eaten, welcoming her home.

Get out, her own mind screams to herself. Get out. Get out, little girl, get out of the cottage, get out of the woods. Get out of the nightmare, away from the axe-wielding thing you have become, wake up snug and safe in your bed, get out.

Fear touches her deftly, sliding in past the armor of single-minded bloodthirst that has wrapped around her like a second skin. Its fingers know all her weak places. The revelation weakens her as she has never been hurt before, not by a thousand thousand assailants -- minus one.

Hello, it whispers. Back in you go.

Then November's hands are on her, warm soft dove-belly welcome and human. They latch onto her, restoring her to the world of the living, bringing Red back into the shape of herself.

No, she has time enough to think, but November's fingers are tight on her shoulder. November's voice is yelping something about the cold, and she's trying hard to pull Red back from the wriggling pit of the crone's stomach. Splinters are driving themselves in numb chunks beneath Red's nails, and dimly, she realizes she'll have blood blisters for days.

If they survive.

Stupid girl, Red wants to say (but doesn't mean it), stupid girl let me go, (she doesn't mean it), while faced by those black pudgy-armed intestines. Their flesh is rubbery, beslimed with digestive fluids; Red recognizes the smell. They are as cold as bodies buried five feet deep in forest soil, and that is familiar too. One hand would be easy to shake off -- but there are dozens spawned out of the beast's belly, all fighting to bring Red back to join them.

Let me go, she tries to whisper once more, through teeth locked tightly shut, clenched hard enough that it feels as if they are trapping her breath inside her lungs to grow musty and stagnent. At this rate, they will both be dragged inside. Inside that stomach, becoming a part of the monster as they are entombed within that dark smothering liquid forever.

Red's cloak is tearing underneath November's hand; the girl is being dragged along with Red, stubbornly refusing to release her. Rip rip rip goes that dark-clot fabric, inch by inch, fighting one way just as Red's body is fighting the other. Her arm is plunged up nearly to the shoulder. Baby fingers stroke her eyelashes in a clumsy caress. She can almost hear them whispering her name in tiny giggles, reminding her of where she belongs.

Cold on one side. Human on the other. Red's fist is wrapped in something squirming, like sausages of ice -- but it's not hurting her, it knows her as its own. She manages to untangle her knuckles enough to grab onto a bulge and squeeze, but wet meat only shifts under the pressure, content to move aside and then swallow her wrist deeper.

Her voice comes back in a rusty croak. "Get out," she rasps, not to the girl-she-was, but to November now. The first word does not make it out of Red's throat intact; the second is no louder than a whisper. The third is stronger. The fourth fifth sixth are more.

"Get out!"

There are things that beasts do not understand, and this ultimately is how Red knows she is not one: she remembers how to protect someone else.

She pushes November back.

She goes in alone.