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Written by Jay Lake
Illustrated by Maurine Starkey


Under cover of darkness, Mattie crawled among the grape arbors lining the path across from his parents' cabin. The sharp, sour smell of fallen fruit mixed with rich loam and the salt of his sweat. The grid of Motherlights glowed dimly overhead to define the night. His little sister Juna followed close behind, as she always did.

Somewhere beyond the edge of the village, Leopard stalked the darkness.

They edged their way through the vines to seek a glimpse of the villain at his work. Mattie used his knife to cut where needful. Looking for Leopard was forbidden, as were most things in Mother's worlds, but the two of them were driven by curiosity mixed with loyalty and terror.

By day, Mattie and Juna loved their brother Benno. At night when Benno put on his mask and dropped to all fours, they shared in the fear of their neighbors. Brother and sister had wondered together if Leopard's love was more dangerous than Leopard's hate.

"Inspector will be here in a few weeks," Juna stage-whispered to Mattie. A beautiful child of seven, with brown eyes and browner hair, she was just learning the power of rumor and hidden fact. She annoyed his twelve-year-old sense of importance.

"Shhh. .." Mattie eased a large cluster of grape leaves aside with the flat of his knife. "Look. .." His voiceless whisper dropped to almost nothing. "I think he's after one of the sheep." The animals huddled in their small night paddock on the far side of the grapes, kept in place by ovine pheromone markers and low-voltage wires.

Leopard bound out of a stand of thick bamboo off to their right and leapt the electric fence to bring down one of the sheep with a swift economy that terrified Mattie. The startled squeal of the prey raised a panicked bleating among the other sheep. Mattie set his shoulders, strengthening against the shiver of fear that his sister might notice.

Juna was too distracted, however. "That's Agnes!" she shrieked as Leopard turned to savage a favorite lamb. She began to cry, not the quiet sniffling of a well-raised child, but a shrieking, bawling wail which put Mattie in mind of swift beatings and angry visitations from Priest.

"Shut up!" He slapped at Juna with his free hand. "Leopard will kill us both." Behind them, Leopard's growl rose above the bleating.

"Will not," screeched Juna, louder, fear dropping away in favor of defiance. She jumped to her feet. "Benno would never hurt me!"

"When's he's Leopard, he's not Benno!" Mattie yelled back, forgetting himself as he stood to pull Juna down again. He barely had time to turn into the rush of the clawed, hot weight of the big cat before it took him.

"Benno!" Juna screamed. At least she forgot her lamb, thought Mattie, drowning in the salty copper taste and the thunder in his ears.

* * *

"Leopard," intoned Priest. "Hear me, Leopard."

Mattie's ears felt thick, waxy. He could feel the heat of a fire nearby. The air stank of smoke, meat and machine oil.

He was in the Lodge with Priest.

Why? The question barely framed itself.

"Leopard. You have slain your brother."

Brother? Mattie was confused. Leopard had killed him. ..

He thought.

Mattie tried to flex his arms. Unfamiliar muscles rippled beneath a heavy skin.

"Leopard." Priest's voice rumbled on. "Take up your work. You have made it your own."

Mattie tried to talk but succeeded only producing in a frustrated cough. New smells spoke to his nose; olfactory languages unlearned bringing understanding unearned. Priest was old, his Lodge much older.

"You have asserted your responsibilities. Take them up."

Was Priest trying to throw him out? What had happened to him? Mattie pulled himself to his feet.

All four of them. Clawed, furred feet.

He was Leopard.

Mattie opened aching eyes. Priest leaned on a staff hung with skulls, feathers and electronics. His Lodge spread around them both, cluttered metal walls glowing and rippling in the light of the fire burning in the central pit. The heads of dead beasts leered over ancient volumes bound with their hides. Equipment racks winked red, green and amber through their draped rags and beads.

Priest was wrapped in ragged, loosely stitched pelts and fabrics, embodying the chaos and complexity of his Lodge. He stared down at Mattie with a mixture of sorrow and frustration crinkling the tattoos of his face. Priest's metal eyes appeared to weep, but Leopard smelled only machine oil, not salty tears.

"Inspector will be here soon," Priest said. "We must have our Leopard. You have won the mask both by kin right and trial of combat."

Mattie tried to talk, but again coughed instead. His voice trailed off into a growl.

"Remove the mask if you wish to speak to me." Kindness tinged Priest's voice.

Mattie began to protest that he had no fingers, that the mask was all around him, when it fell apart at his thought. He stood naked and warm in the firelight, clutching a worn leopard pelt in his hands. Its head hung from one end. A strap dangled from the jaw where the pelt could be pulled around Mattie's face to hold it on. His own jaw ached, the memory of fangs disturbing his now-human teeth. The symphony of odors was gone, replaced only by a generalized reek of rot and age.

"Benno?" Mattie's voice rasped.

"Dead." Priest's face drifted into an echo of a smile. The tattoos had a language of their own, if only Mattie had the wit to read it. "By your hand."


"Spared by both of you. Frightened beyond the borders of her wits but recovering."

Mattie shook his head, gathering the leopard mask to his chest like an infant.

"Mattie. .." Priest looked to shed another oiled tear. "You must do this thing. But you cannot become the mask. You are still Mattie, brother of Juna. Sister-son of mine."

Mattie shook his head again. The mask—the skin—felt warm in his hands. "My brother killed me. I remember Leopard's claws at my chest." His nails began to slide out from their beds, sharpening and narrowing. "Mattie is dead. Leopard lives."

Leopard bounded into the night, briefly pursued by the square of firelight from Priest's door.

* * *

Mother did not allow much standing water in Her worlds, preferring her people to use driplines for drinking and farming. No one ever washed in water. Still, there were usually a few bamboo-lined pools which sheltered fish and fat, fearless frogs. Waterhunting was forbidden to men and animals alike. Those few who rediscovered it in every generation felt the sting of Mother's punishment most severely.

Mattie sat undisturbed in shade of the bamboo canebrake at the edge of one such pool, regarding his reflection in the calm water.

One fang had broken on the door of his family's cabin. When he heard Juna screaming within, Leopard had fled the scene of his childhood. Her fear shrieked in his nostrils far louder than in his ears. Back in his own form Mattie hadn't the heart since to look himself in his child's face. Leopard came and sat within his head more and more often.

You are not me, said Leopard from the water below.

You should be Benno, Mattie answered himself. I never wanted to kill. Him or anyone.

I stalk the edges, haunt the night, give the people the gift of Fear. Fear, like Death, is one of Mother's greatest servants. Disturbed by faint ripples, the reflection appeared to sigh. She does not grant such servants bodies of their own lest they contest Her power.

So stalk. Wind stirred. Mattie's ears, now furred and tufted, brought him the sound of fan ducts high above beyond the daylit grid of Motherlights. Strange, he thought, that such magnificent ears should play servant to Leopard's nose.

Fear serves best when transient, said Leopard. It should be unfamiliar. Have no face.

Fear had the face of Benno. Until I killed him.

Leopard was silent for a while, staring up from the water into the trees. Finally he shifted from within the pool, coughed, said, You killed only Benno. Fear still lives, granting boundaries to Mother's people. Every day you do not return home those boundaries loosen further. Then Leopard was gone. Mattie's reflection was broken by a fat frog, which peeped at him before diving to swim into the shadows at the edge of the pool.

* * *

Mattie walked on two feet into his parents' cabin. Mumma and Papa were out, tilling he supposed. Juna sat wrapped in a blanket and staring at her teacher in the wall. Mattie felt naked without his Leopard nose to wrap him in the maps of scent, but he kept the warm mask firmly under one arm.

"Juna." His voice was hoarse from disuse.

She turned, blanket dropping from one dirty shoulder. "Mattie!" Juna jumped up from the floor and ran to hug him. He swept her in his arms, realizing as he did that he was taller and stronger than he had been the night Benno died.

Had it only been a few weeks?

"Mattie. .." she said, smiling. "Are you back? Are you come to live among us?"

"Yes," Mattie smiled. "It is over. I shall kill Leopard as he killed Benno and be your brother once again."

"Agnes." Juna's brown eyes welled over a pout. "He killed Agnes, too."

"Leopard will die for your sheep as well," laughed Mattie. Inside his mind, Leopard growled.

* * *

The only thing Mother hated more than waterhunting was fire. Heat could be used as a tool or for cooking, but men were sometimes slain outright for keeping open flames. There were too many dangers. Only Priest had leave to have a fire, and it stayed inside his Lodge. So Mattie went to the Lodge.

Priest was out, doubtless doddering on some errand. The animal hide blocking his Lodge door was a stronger barrier to most than the stoutest latch, but Mattie had lost all fear since the night Leopard killed him. He pushed through into the Lodge. His fingernails left furrows in the hide.

It was as before, crowded, close, warm. The fire pit seemed cold at first. Squatting next to it, Mattie could see the coals cooking in the ashes below. He set the mask down next to him. Leopard's skin twitched as it left his fingers. He searched for something to blow on the fire. Every child knew airflow brought oxygen that fed flame. A large bellows lay close to hand. Mattie grabbed it, began working the coals.

"Yes, Inspector, he is taking to it. At his own pace."

Priest's voice came through the door. Mattie pushed the bellows back where he had found them and scuttled into the hanging junk along the wall behind. The door skin lifted and Priest limped through, followed by a tall, unnaturally pale man in tight-fitting clothes.

"Neuron paths seem to be asserting?" asked Inspector. The seams in his garments were almost invisible.

"He had little problem with the initial transformation. It is in his bloodline. The stress of events served as an admirable trigger."

Mattie realized that Leopard's skin still lay next to the fire pit. It was virtually at the feet of Priest and Inspector.

"We are concerned about his youth." Inspector made notes on a small handslate.

Priest shrugged. "Only time will answer for that. The boy is large enough. Spirit matters far more. All of my sister's children are well supplied with that."

Inspector glanced down. He nudged Leopard's skin with his booted foot, clearing his throat with a significant glance around the Lodge. Priest looked down, then back at Inspector.

"Time, Inspector. .. we all grow into what we are."

Mattie bounded out from the debris where he had been sheltering. He dove between Inspector and Priest and grabbed the skin. "Get back, both of you," he yelled. They both stepped back, Priest's limp forgotten in the moment.

"It ends here," growled Mattie. He threw the skin into the fire pit. The mask flipped as it fell, twisting like a cat to settle over the coals. Flames burst upward, carrying a smell of burning hair so strong Mattie gagged. He turned in triumph to Priest and Inspector to meet the horror in their eyes.

It wasn't there. Only pity.

"It's much easier to give it away again if you haven't had to grow it yourself," said Priest with sorrow.

"Mother's people will have the gift of Fear," added Inspector.

Mattie snarled and bolted through the hide curtain, dropping to all fours when he reached the path outside.

* * *

Leopard waited inside his reflection at the pool. The frogs slept as Mattie stared through the hair growing across his face into Leopard's eyes. Leopard seemed filled with pity, too.

The hunter must know the hunted, Leopard told him. The killer grieves for his prey.

Mattie thought of all the blood he had drunk since fleeing Priest's hut—the sheep, the stray child whose name he remembered only as he leapt. Why me? Why one of us?

Mother doesn't have sufficiency to raise Leopards like people raise sheep. We would take more than She can afford to give. So we live only within you, coming out to kill as needed. Mother's servants haunted Mattie. . But Fear. .. Death. .. they are not so needful. ..

Mother's worlds are many and small, with close-set limits. Boundaries keep you whole and safe.

Memories of the fire. But me? Now I cannot take off the mask.

Leopard smiled, a carnivore grin that threatened more than it comforted. As Mother meant it to be, when you grow old and tired of the hunt, you would give your mask to a youngling full of hot blood and quick fire. Now Priest will have to flay it from your body.

Mattie considered that as the newly wakening frogs began to peep. He smelled sheep moving nearby, but hunger did not command him for now. So now, I must hunt, and sow Fear, until I die. Never to live again as my other self.

Leopard coughed, apologetic in the water.

Mattie continued. Mother does not have enough for even one Leopard's lifetime, does She? People would starve if Leopard fed endlessly on their sheep.

Leopard had no answer. Only Mattie, face hairy and jaw bulging as teeth shifted permanently forward and sharp, looked back from the pool.

He bounded off through the grass, ignoring the prey that bleated around him. Thinking of masks and bloodlines, Leopard went to find his sister.

* * *


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