How to Raze a Family
An Uncanny collects debts in a most unsettling way — and a family finds itself in a certain kind of ruin.
Myra Graves’s tale of the heroic Belisaria Horne ends to roaring cheers from the audience. She bows and disappears from the rostrum as Rothus ‘ja Darden takes his place.
“And now,” Rothus says, “I present to you Artella Swarn, representing the great House Roarer!”
The cheers turn to boos from every section. Scraps of food fall onto the tribune floor.
“Respect!” Rothus shouts. “You shall respect the House!”
But the boos only grow more vociferous. It feels as though a riot might break out at any moment.
Until Artella Swarn arrives. She wears a weathered tunic, broken-in leather boots, and an eye patch of pure silver. Her swagger portrays a woman who can fight as ferociously as she can love — gender and species regardless.
The silence falls like a heavy blanket.
She breaks that silence by spitting onto the tribune floor.
“It should come as no surprise that you animals are so demanding,” Artella sneers. “You’ve got your favorites. You’ve got your plans. Should I forgo my tale, then? Make the competition less stiff?”
“No,” roars the crowd, almost in unison. Artella smiles and picks up a turnip from the stage floor. She takes a large bite and savors it before she speaks.
“I thought not. Then I shall do what I have to do. Strap in, feckless followers. What you are about to hear is not for the weak of heart… nor those with a heavy conscience.”
Worris Callow knew what he must do.
The rabbit had made its way into his crops. If he let it live, the rabbit would return, looking to feast on his hard work. He gripped his hoe tightly, raised it into the air, and brought it down with swift fury. The nuisance was no more.
As Worris exited his modest barn, the corpse in hand, he looked out among his humble fields. The turnips were coming in nicely. There should be a good haul come harvest.
When his mother-in-law passed away, he and his wife, Lylah, had used their inheritance to purchase the farm. Lylah resisted it at first. She was proud and wanted to make their way on their own. But Worris insisted. He knew if they wanted a full life, they would have to do whatever was necessary.
Before that, they were both working odd jobs, barely scraping by. Worris did not want that for them. He wanted a big family. Something he could be proud of. That would be easier to get if they just had a little help. So, when the opportunity came along, he seized it.
Worris ventured beyond his crop to the compost heap and tossed the rabbit into it. Best that Lylah did not see. She abhorred violence in any form. Worris thought that was cute. Immature and unrealistic, but cute nonetheless.
Wiping sweat from his narrow brow, Worris returned to his one-story home. Lylah waited for him in their new nursery. At eight months pregnant, she was more beautiful than ever.
“You didn’t, did you?” Lylah timidly asked.
Worris smiled big. “The beast is safe,” he said.
“You’re lying!” She quickly and playfully shot back.
Worris moved closer and took her in his arms. “I scooped it up gently and took it to the edge of the field. On the way, I appealed to its good nature, and by the time we reached the border of our land, it could not scamper away fast enough. Safe as can be!”
Lylah knew it was a lie, but she liked it anyway. She smiled at him, which was quickly replaced by a grimace. The arrival of their first child could not come soon enough.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
“We could ask a mage to swap our bodies. You could experience it for yourself.”
She smiled. He laughed. Then playfully shook his head no.
Worris kissed her stomach gently. Then he held her, looked out the window at his crops, and smiled.
Later that evening, after Lylah had retired, Worris ventured for Amalcross. There was a tavern downtown known as the Emerald Appendage, which farmers frequented. They would drink and laugh. But there was also a stiff air of competition.
People didn't go there looking for encouragement or assistance; they went there seeking jealousy. They sought to brag about their crops and their families.
It was Worris’s favorite place to visit.
That night, he was the talk of the tavern. He did not have to pay for a single goblet of ale. Melcan Trech, owner of the largest field of corn in the land, paid his respects that night. A huge social boon if there ever was one.
Even those dreadful Walker twins bought him a drink. Usually, Worris would not have accepted such a gift. The brothers supplied farmers with manure and smelled as such. It was disgusting work they seemed to revel in. But it was their identical identities that gave Worris pause.
Worris hated twins. They creeped him out. He didn’t know why; they just did. He could feel it in his bones the way one might have a distaste for a specific kind of food. So, Worris just kept his distance when it came to twins.
Not tonight, though. Tonight, Worris was getting everything he wanted. And he knew he had earned it.
Citizens of Amalcross would do their best to avoid Uncanny Ones. They slither from the depths of Meridian and infect unsuspecting humans with their darkness. We are not meant to meet Uncannies. But if one has its sights set on you, it can be difficult to avoid. That is certainly the case with Belva.
Belva is one of the most dangerous kinds of Uncanny, as she resembles a human. A stunning human — more beautiful than most — but a human nonetheless. Standing at six-foot-four with thick, curly, bright red hair, her allure is part of her power.
She possesses the gift of Telis: the ability to read a human being, their thoughts, hopes, and desires. Nothing is unseeable under Belva’s gaze.
In the centuries since she arrived on this plane, she has sought to plumb the depths of the human experience. So, as the years have gone on, there is little she has not seen or felt or heard.
Over time, it all has become boring.
Now, she collects things she finds valuable. Some may seem like trinkets, others like trophies. Her long coat, made from the skin of an unruly Salavaster, draws more attention than the abandoned train car key she keeps in her pocket, but they serve the same purpose. They both tell a story.
On a cold evening in Amalcross, one such story presented itself to her. Attempting to relieve her boredom, Belva had taken up collecting debts for the Horst Concern. Getting the money was never her highest priority. She preferred something special, more personal. If she got that, she was just as happy to pay the debt herself. After all, she already had enough money to last several lifetimes.
That night, Belva found herself on the trail of a young man named Sellar Nost. Sellar sat alone on a city bench. His head hung lower with each sip of brandy he took. He had first gone to the Horst Concern when he wanted to open a shoe shop. He took out a considerable loan.
The shop closed far too quickly for him to make enough money to pay off that loan. Not even close.
Belva watched him from across the way. Her Telis gaze reached past his eyes and into his very soul. His heart ached “as the hearts of humans often do,” she thought. In this instance, heartache would ensure that Sellar did not live until morning. Belva knew this, and it excited her greatly.
Sellar took one last sip — the last sip he would take of anything — dropped the bottle, and got up from the bench. Belva followed him, not even trying to blend in with the crowded streets of Amalcross. Sellar did not know she was there, only that someone like her would be coming.
She watched as he came upon a temple dedicated to the great Polmos. A tower shot up from the center. Those who ventured to the top could look out over the Boern River. But Sellar had a different purpose.
Belva was impressed by how quickly Sellar made his way up the tower. She loved to be surprised, as that occurred infrequently at best. She followed him and made it just in time to see him disappear over the edge. He left behind a pair of boots and a piece of paper.
The screams from below were deafening even at this height. The tower was thirty stories high, so Sellar’s corpse made quite the impact. She would discover later that he struck another citizen on the way down, bringing them into the afterlife with him.
None of that mattered right now.
Belva cared only for the piece of paper that Sellar left behind.
I am sorry to leave you this way. Please know that I did not make this decision lightly and that there was nothing you could have done to stop me. The Horst Concern may come after you to get to me and I did not want that to happen. Live your life. Love again. Be happy.
Belva sniffed the piece of paper, the way one would a fresh glass of wine. She tucked it in her pocket and made her way down the tower and into the temple. She would pay off Sellar’s debt in the morning because the Horst Concern would come after this Truva regardless of Sellar’s passing.
This way, Truva would never know why Sellar took his life. It was better that way. Plus, she owed it to Sellar. He had given her such a lovely gift.
Lylah did not miss her mother. Seretha was a cruel, bitter woman who tried to control her sole daughter’s life. But as Lylah stood there, looking at her daughter, she did wish Seretha could meet her. At ten months old, Norah was the most beautiful thing Lylah’s eyes had ever seen. Her stomach ached with how much she loved her.
“Everyone should get to meet her,” she thought.
Seretha had been dead for five years. At eighty-seven years old, it was not time that killed Lylah’s mother, but a steep, spiral terracotta staircase. Lylah hated that staircase. It was the only thing her mother made her clean.
“The green must shine like a Rilk’gar spine,” Seretha would yell.
It wasn’t the cleaning that bothered Lylah. In her youth, she would often, albeit secretly, assist the chambermaids and servants in her home. She was disgusted by the decadence her family’s wealth did bring.
The staircase, climbing up all six stories of their palatial mansion, was an architectural marvel. The cost to build it could feed all the poor in Amalcross for years. Instead, it gave her mother something to boast about at gatherings.
When Seretha turned eighty, Lylah pleaded with her to stop using the stairs and remain on the first floor of her home. She refused.
Seven years later, slipping down those stairs would end her miserable life.
When Worris told Lylah what had happened, she had to try not to smile. Understanding that made her start to cry. It was not her mother’s death that brought her to tears but the realization she was more like her mother than she cared to admit.
Seretha’s funeral was a depressing affair. Not because anyone was sad she was dead. Quite the opposite: At a private plot, miles away from Amalcross, Seretha was buried alone. Aside from the elderly Priest of Polmos, Worris and Lylah were the only ones in attendance.
She would raise Norah differently. Lylah wanted her daughter to appreciate a hard day’s work. Everything doesn’t just get handed to you, nor should it. Lylah would also love her daughter more than her mother ever did or could. In fact, she was happy Seretha didn’t get to meet Norah. She didn’t deserve it!
Still, it made Lylah sad. No one deserved to be forgotten, but that would surely happen to her mother. She started to cry entirely out of pity. Worris held her, unmoved, staying strong for her. She appreciated that about him.
If only her mother hadn’t been so cruel. If only she hadn’t insisted on staying alone. Now, she would be that way forever. She earned that right. Loneliness is what she deserved.
Norah let out a deep sigh and felt a calm rush over her. Along with another love-induced stomach ache. She smiled at her daughter. Her daughter smiled back.
Her sweet Worris wanted another child. They were each the only children their parents had, and they did not want that for Norah. However, they were barely scraping by as it was. While Lylah relented and accepted the money her mother had left her, she only kept enough for her and Worris to buy their farm.
The rest she gave to the same servants and chambermaids she used to help in secret. Worris was angry at first, and she understood that, but it was the right thing to do. He came around to her way of thinking, as she knew he would.
They would earn their way through their farm and take what that allowed. If that meant a smaller family, then Lylah would accept that.
Worris burst through the front door just as these thoughts ran through Lylah’s brain. She had never seen him so excited before. He dropped to his knees in front of her. A smile stretched across his face, and tears filled his eyes.
“Out in the field! Lylah, out in the field!” He yelled so loud she thought he would scare their daughter.
“What, Worris? What’s out in the field?” She didn’t know whether to be excited or frightened. When Worris reached into his pockets and pulled out a handful of dirt-covered suns, she knew the answer.
Maybe they would be having another child after all.
It had been two years since Worris took out a loan from the Horst Concern. It had to be done. Worris wanted an abundant family. All the happiest people at the Emerald Appendage had sizable families.
He knew Lylah wanted more children. They had talked about it at least once. She said it was because they were both only children, and she didn’t want that for Norah. But Worris saw through that. He knew, like himself, she wanted the status. The bragging rights.
But he also knew she would never want to borrow money. It was hard enough to get her to accept her inheritance when her horrible mother died. Eventually, she came around to the idea. Even if she did give most of it away. That drove him mad. If she had just kept it all they wouldn’t be in this position.
So, he secured the loan without telling her. Then, he buried it on their farm. He made a big show out of it. She could read him like a book, so it had to be good. He waited three whole days before he “found” the money. By then, even he started to believe it was a blessing. A miracle. Like their two new sons, Mellis and Bragah.
Worris shuddered at the memory of his children’s birth. He didn’t want to! The love he felt for his children was immeasurable. When Mellis arrived, he looked at him in a way he’d never looked at anything before. There was a complete surrender of his being. Then Lylah kept struggling.
Bragah emerged, looking exactly the same as his brother. Worris knew babies looked more like squished fish than humans — but still, these two were the same. Twins. Worris Callow was now the father of twins. He still hadn’t shaken this unfortunate development.
When he went to look at Mellis, to feel the way he had felt before, the emotion escaped him. It wasn’t fair, and he blamed them both. But he still loved them! He swore to himself that this was true.
At a year old they were more handsome than Worris ever could have imagined. Primarily because he had only imagined one more child. He had also only budgeted for one more child. As the family’s expenses doubled, Worris became more concerned that he could not repay his debt.
There were only so many corners he could cut. He’d resisted hiring help, even though he needed it greatly. Worris had even asked those awful Walker twins if they would offer a discount on manure. Surely they’d help a family with two of their own kind?
But his pleas roused nothing but silence. Further proof that social standing at the Emerald Appendage was vital as can be.
Then came the rabbits. Their number had increased over the years, from an occasional problem to a frequent nuisance. Nothing he did could deter them from literally eating into his profits. Perhaps killing so many over the years sent the wrong message.
Worris was practically pulling his increasingly gray hair out of his head. He knew the Horst Concern was notorious for how brutally they collected on debts. Farmers, bankers, and members of the Amalguard were all the same in the eyes of the Horst Concern.
The tales Worris had heard sent a chill down his spine. Men and women had their families taken from them, their farms razed, and their social status reduced to that of a lowly peasant, all because they could not please the Horst Concern. He feared the same would happen to him.
Lylah was worried, but not as worried as she should be. She knew they were losing money, but she didn’t know they also owed money. “As long as we have our family, all will be well,” she’d said. She always said that. Cute. Endearing. Naive. She didn’t know what was at risk. She didn’t know the Horst Concern would come after Norah, Mellis, and Bragah just as a warning.
Not being able to tell her annoyed Worris. “If she didn’t have such a turned-up nose at taking money, we wouldn’t be in this situation, to begin with,” he thought. They would have kept the rest of Serethas's money and bought a farm that could grow more than just turnips. He’d have been the most popular farmer the Emerald Appendage had ever seen!
Worris felt a tug on his pants. He looked down to see Norah holding up a radish — like a gift.
“For dad!” She smiled at him brightly.
“Thank you, sweetheart.” He took the radish and put it in his pocket. “Why don’t you head inside? It’s getting late.”
It was getting late. He needed to get to the Emerald Appendage soon. At least he had that to take his mind off of things.
He may not have been the most popular farmer there: He was no Rella Croth, with her five kids and two dairy farms. But the twins had certainly given his status a nice boost. So there was that. Before he left, he visited them in their cribs.
They were starting to become different, and thank all of Amalcross for that. They still looked the same, yes, but their personalities were changing. As he walked in, Mellis slept soundly, his thumb firmly placed in his mouth. Bragah, on the other hand, was throwing himself around the crib, looking for a fight. They filled him with such joy.
If only they didn’t look the same.
But he loved the boys! That’s why he bragged about them so much. No one else at the Emerald Appendage had twins. Why wouldn’t he bring them up?
Belva did not care for the Emerald Appendage. It reeked of stale ale and cow manure. The patrons were your basic, unwashed, uneducated humans, and they disgusted her. But, the Horst Concern had sent her after a man named Worris Callow, and he frequented the tavern.
She sat at a table alone, sipping on farmboy swill, watching him as he fought for attention among the filth. He was a weak man. She knew that before she even used her Telis on him. For a moment, she wondered if she should just kill him right there.
She’d paid off enough debts. She had enough money. What was one more? If it meant she’d be done with him, wouldn’t that be worth it? His family would certainly be better off without him. She did not murder him that night, though she did come close.
Instead, she waved him down.
She laughed at how bashful he was when approaching her. It was pathetic.
“Can I… can I help you, ma’am?”
“You owe the Horst Concern a lot of money, Worris Callow.”
He almost dropped his ale. After a moment, he sat at the table with her. Worris looked around, smiling, trying to see if anyone was watching. He playfully threw his hands up in the air in a “you got me” fashion. When she didn’t smile back, his own smile went away.
“Are you serious?”
“Consider tonight a courtesy. You have a week—”
Worris interrupted her. Belva hated being interrupted. He tried every excuse in the book, pleading for more time, as all humans do at one point or another. She let him ramble until he ran out of breath. Then she continued.
“You have a week to come up with the money. If you do not, I will take something else. Something valuable. You have children, don’t you?”
Worris nodded slowly.
“I’ve lived for quite some time and never had an offspring of my own. That may be interesting. Do not try to run or hide. Not even escaping to the Meridian itself will keep me from you. I will ruin your ‘perfect’ little life, Worris. Tell me you understand.”
Worris stared at her, his heart racing. He finished the remainder of his ale with a single gulp. He looked at the other patrons, then back to Belva. Worris forced a smile. He set his mug down, stood up, and wiped his hands off on his pants.
“I understand,” he said. “I’ll do what has to be done. I promise. In one week, you’ll get your money.”
Worris made his way out of the Emerald Appendage for the last time.
Belva was frustrated. She expected tonight to be easy. All she had to do was scare a sniveling, spineless human. Then she would wait a week and collect the Horst Concern’s money or something better.
But Worris had lied to her. Her Telis picked up on that immediately. He was going to take his family and run, so she would have to move her plans up a week. At least it got her out of this disgusting tavern.
Lylah had never seen Worris like this before. He was scared. He was moving quickly around their home, like a Rilk with its head cut off. He grabbed clothes, food, and toys, throwing everything into bags.
“We have to go now! There’s no time!”
“Worris, please calm down. You will wake the—”
Suddenly a noise belted from his breast that she had never heard before. It was deep and wet and came from not just from the depths of his diaphragm, but the bowels of his soul. Her loving husband was gone. In his place was a frightened animal. She tried to hold him, but he pulled away.
Lylah was pacing back and forth now, almost matching his energy. Her cool and calm demeanor was slipping away. Her hands were shaking, and she was starting to sweat. She didn’t like this feeling, because she knew what it meant.
He stopped for a moment and looked at her. Before she could get out another word, they were joined by another.
Young Norah had come out of her room, rubbing her sleepy eyes. Lylah stood up and rushed over to her daughter, wrapping her in her arms.
“You should be in bed, sweetheart.”
“Someone is in our room.”
Lylah looked up to Worris who had already darted towards the children’s room. What did he know?
Lylah followed after him and was shaken by what she came to find. A tall, red-headed woman in a long, dark coat stood between Bragah and Mellis’s cribs. Worris remained frozen at the door. Lylah tried to push past him, but he stopped her.
“What are you doing?” Lylah screamed. Why was this stranger in her home, and why was she certain it had something to do with the blessing of riches Worris “found”?
“Your husband knows why I’m here,” the woman snarled.
Lylah looked to Worris. He averted his gaze and pleaded with this stranger.
“I’m sorry! We won’t run. I just need more time!”
Lylah was about to speak up. The woman beat her to it.
“There is another way, a compromise.” The woman stared deeply at Worris as if she was reading him. She then looked at Lylah and smiled. “If you want to keep your children, and cannot pay me, then give me something else. Something special. A secret.”
Worris lowered his head for a moment. “Please. Anything else.”
“Sniveling coward.” The woman bent down towards the sweet, sleeping Mellis, ready to scoop him up in her arms.
“Wait!” The woman stopped what she was doing. Worris was crying now. Lylah couldn’t remember the last time she saw him cry. He looked at Lylah, then looked at the woman.
“A secret. Okay. Let’s go outside and—”
“You can tell her right here,” Lylah said. Whatever situation her husband had put them in, they were going to get through it together.
Worris trembled for a moment. For a moment, she thought he might not say it at all.
“Two years ago, I took out a loan with the Horst Concern. Ten thousand suns. Enough to help us grow our family. I didn’t tell you because I thought you wouldn’t let me. I always planned to pay it back! But the twins were born, the rabbits came along, everything got harder!”
Lylah turned away from Worris. She picked Norah up and held her. The poor child was as confused as she was. A minute passed. Then two. Lylah was uncertain, but she did what she felt she had to do.
“I forgive you.”
Worris nearly jumped out of his skin with excitement. He pointed at the woman and started screaming like he’d caught her in some trick. It was what she said next that drained that enthusiasm from him.
“That is not the secret I meant. You have more to say, Worris Callow. There is still something you keep hidden.”
“No,” Worris shook his head frantically. “Please, I gave you what you wanted!”
The woman started for Bragah again. Norah started crying. Lylah felt as though she was in a nightmare.
“Seretha did not fall down the stairs,” Worris said.
The woman stopped. Worris looked away from Lylah, who was trying to catch her breath. Deep down, she knew what was coming next. She was still not prepared for it.
“I pushed her, Lylah. We needed the money. We needed a new life. I thought—”
Lylah looked at her husband. He seemed smaller now. Weaker. He was not the man she thought she loved. How could he be? Everything they had, everything she thought was a blessing on their love, was all a lie.
She tried to speak, but nothing would come out. She just held her daughter closer as Worris slowly sat on the floor, his head in his hands.
The woman walked past them both, smiling as she went.
“Consider your debt paid.”
Just as quickly as the woman had arrived, she was gone.
Lylah walked over to Bragah and Mellis’s cribs, still holding Norah tightly. She looked over a shoulder at her soon-to-be ex-husband and said only one word.
Worris tried to protest. “We’re going to be okay! We can just be a family now!”
“Not with you,” Lylah said.
Worris got up and slowly made his way towards the door, like a punished child.
“I’ll do what has to be done. But you’ll come around! You’ll see. We’re a family.”
He left, and Lylah, Norah, Bragah, and Mellis never saw him again.
Months later, on a warm and pleasant eve, the Emerald Appendage was lively. The drink was flowing, and the back-patting and congratulations had commenced. The Walker twins, with fresh matching haircuts, were offering patrons a chance to guess the difference between them, as a game.
Worris Callow witnessed this all from the street.
He was not allowed in the tavern any longer. Peasants never were. It was a land-owning establishment and Worris owned none. So he watched, hungry and thirsty.
The figure exited the Emerald Appendage and kept moving. Worris didn’t care. He didn’t even look at them. Just at what they dropped.
It was still good! A little moldy, but food was food at this point.
“Sorry, friend, but this one’s mine,” he said to the many-legged critter he stripped from the discolored, moldy radish. Sure, the radish was barely edible, but Worris was a survivor. He’d do what needed to be done. He always did.
Was it cruel to toss that pitiful man a disgusting reminder of his past? Belva did not care. She knew he was so hungry he would not even notice the symbolism. Another stupid human who couldn’t see the universe laughing at them, even though it was right in their face.
She had ruined his life, just to see it unfold. With those secrets shared, she witnessed this family at their most private moment. The feeling was so delicious she wished she could bottle it and wear it as a scent. He was lucky she even paid off his debt, though she did not do it for him.
Human experiences, such as what she witnessed, are hard to come across. She would continue walking the streets of Amalcross, collecting for, or better yet paying the Horst Concern. There was a chance she’d collect another treasure.
But what if she grows tired of that game as well? She thought about this as she approached the city limits, off on a little detour. Surely, she’d think of something else. Maybe a higher target than these lowly humans?
She had heard that Gods and Goddesses were known to walk these mortal planes. What wonderful secrets they must have.
Running a farm on your own, while raising three infant children, was hard. But not for Lylah. She took to it effortlessly. Her love and compassion and determination were a guiding light to everyone around her.
Nora, Mellis, Bragah, her precious children. They made things easier for her, barely fussing or fighting. Even Bragah’s feisty nature cooled in the weeks following, well, the loss of their father. Lylah hated to admit it, as it made her feel vicious, but they were better off without Worris.
Whatever money owed to the Horst Concern had been repaid. She didn’t know how. All she knew is that when she approached the bank, hopeful to set up some sort of payment plan, she was told that her farm’s debts were cleared.
She had her guesses. Mostly because of her occasional visitor. Every so often, without warning, Lylah would look out over her farm and see that woman. That Uncanny. She would be standing at the edge of the farm. Watching. Smiling.
Lylah would wave at the woman and receive one in kind. And then the woman would leave. Almost as if she’d never done that before. Like she’d never had a friend. Lylah didn’t mind being that for her. Yes, she had disrupted Lylah’s life, but it was better because of her.
If Lylah could help her in return, what was the harm? She liked helping people.
The audience sits in an awed hush as Artella Swarn finishes her last bite of turnip.
“Let that be a lesson to every last one of you!”
Artella spits onto the tribune floor.
“Old lies do not weaken, but grow stronger every day. By the time you face them, you stand no chance. If you wish to survive, you need to be willing to do what must be done! But only if you are able to pay the price.
“And, my friends, there is always a price.”