we found a monster in the graveyard hours.
hundreds of birds had gathered around, as if in mourning. perhaps in fear. their beaks and feet and feathers were silent; the forest was just barely asleep.
beside me, her flashlight crept over crushed blades of grass, insects like diamond dust swirling in its heat. the light marked out dark hooves and crooked knees, a hungry ribcage, a long neck and longer horns.
i tugged my gloves tight and stepped closer. the creature was curled slightly, limbs stiff and ungraceful. its eyes were open, solid as hellglass. the air smelled like cinders.
the young helper stood by with her flashlight while i knelt at the dead thing’s feet. her beam of light wavered. i waved aside brittle grass, a little sorry she had to be here in the cold. but there was no need to be. she volunteered.
we started from the bottom. the stark tendons of its ankles meant it had been some time since it had been a human; perhaps it never was. a muscle in my wrist weakly rose as i grasped its leg to check for a pulse. not a beat.
next, the dark blood matted at its knees. the empty stomach. the arch of its back. i brushed my fingers over its fur, crumbling mud from the bristles. its frame was massive, but the push of bones suggested it hadn’t eaten in weeks.
what i realized next raised the hair on my arms.
its tail was tucked between its legs.
the girl noticed, as she noticed everything.
what do you think it was afraid of? she asked.
my laugh frosted and faded in the air. i’d rather not think about it.
her flashlight shifted to the creature’s face. the horns gleamed as if broken from obsidian, not quite caprine, not quite cervine. they branched over its graceful ears like antlers, but each end tapered to a dagger point. the ears were flattened back, and my own ears twitched at the wind rattling through the forest.
there were streaks of gold on its horns, and dried around its mouth.
i leaned closer. its second eyelid was nearly translucent, frozen sideways at the corners of its polished eyes. i blinked a speck of dust out of mine, then looked up at the girl.
what’s the decision? i asked her. a test.
her knuckles were pale, gripping the flashlight. you didn’t check the heart yet.
i nodded. good.
the chest was hidden under its gaunt front legs. i shifted my weight, the ground cracking under my feet. a line of scorched earth circled the corpse. we had been within it for too long.
i braced both hands against the creature’s ribs, took a deep breath, and turned it over to face the sky.
we saw it at the same time: the three letters branded into its skin.
do not reincarnate.
the birds rustled their wings. i stood up and gazed at the creature’s dead starless eyes, the gentle markings on its face, its body painted with the blood of other demons and gods.
maybe it deserves one more chance, i murmured, but she seized my wrist before i could draw my knife.
it knew what it was, she said. we don’t.
About the Author
Roshan Khan is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, pursuing a quadruple-major in Government, Economics, Plan II Honors, and International Relations and Global Studies. She has been stitching stories out of daydreams and nightmares for as long as she can remember, and her poems have been published previously by the America Library of Poetry and in The Nocturnal Literary Review. She is an avid reader and an aspiring novelist, and dedicates her spare time to growing the solarpunk revolution.