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"The Ninth Life of Hel" by M. Rose Seaboldt

Hel is perched in the large bay window of Hemlock Tattoo Removal. Her serpentine tail curls around her, flicking in time with the sound of distant thunder. She cleans her front paw with a sandpaper tongue, lulled by the storm outside. Her owners move about the shop, readying for the day’s appointments. All three beings are unaware of Hel’s impending death.

Mimicking her Norse namesake, the fur on Hel’s face is split between creamy orange and obsidian black. Her eyes are similarly mismatched, golden-yellow on one side and piercing blue on the other. Her owners often joke that she’s two cats in one body, either bounding with lively mischief or lounging in subdued repose. Currently, she’s chosen to engage in the latter.

Hel stops cleaning her paw and flops onto her side, her back to the window. She stretches in feline satisfaction, readying herself for her morning nap. She’s soothed by the sound of rain pattering the glass. Her eyes drift closed.

A BANG reverberates against the window. Hel leaps from the ledge, scurrying behind the reception desk. Her owners jump, their preparations briefly halted.

The woman walks to the front of the shop, cautiously peering out the rain-streaked glass. She gasps softly.

“It’s a bird...”

“Seriously?” Her husband moves to join her at the window.

“Yea, look.” She points to the sidewalk. A large black crow lays on its back, wings splayed.

“Is it alive?”

“I don’t-” The bird twitches, then flutters to its feet.

“Huh, must be disoriented from the storm.” The crow looks around, then flaps its wings and flies out of sight. The woman shakes her head.

“Weird.” After a moment, they both return to their morning activities. Hel peers out from behind the reception desk, eyeing the window suspiciously.

Her ears perk up when she senses movement along the far wall. A needle-like tail flits out from beneath the radiator as a creature darts amongst the shadows. Forgetting her fright, Hel crouches low and slinks slowly around the corner of the desk.

A small black mouse with fiery red eyes pokes its head into the light, whiskers twitching. Hel stops just beyond the desk, plotting her approach. Before she can move, the mouse darts beneath the radiator again, disappearing into a hole in the floor.

It’s a dissatisfying start to the day, but Hel is undeterred. She leaps to the top of the desk and finds a comfortable position in a basket of papers, where she finally naps.

The rest of the morning passes in a blur of soggy people and buzzing machines, all relatively typical for Hel. She’s sleeping on the lobby sofa when one of her humans returns with a paper bag clutched to his chest. He deposits the bag on the reception desk before walking towards the treatment rooms in the back.

“Anna!” he calls. “Lunch time!” There’s a sound of a reply, but Hel doesn’t hear it. She’s already trotting silently towards the desk, following the scent of fried chicken. Once at the bag, Hel spots the tip of a golden-brown wing. Without hesitation, she lunges, sinking her teeth into the warm, crispy flesh.

She draws back, pulling the wing with her, but it’s bigger than she anticipated. The wing catches, causing the bag and its contents to topple toward her.

“Hel, no!” her human calls from the doorway. He starts towards her and Hel leaps from the desk. There’s a loud SQUEAK as his wet shoes slip and he falls backward. Hel’s other human steps out from an adjacent room.

“What-” She trips over her prone husband, causing the stack of files she’s carrying to fly forward. Hel drops her prize and scampers away, narrowly avoiding being crushed as the stack crashes down onto the stolen chicken wing.

Hel freezes, watching her groaning heap of humans. Her eyes flash to the pile of folders and papers that now harbor her fried loot. As she contemplates her second robbery attempt, the small black mouse with red eyes skitters across the floor in front of her.

Hel doesn’t hesitate. The mouse screeches and zigzags between the toppled folders. Hel’s paws slip on the spilled pages, but her eyes remain fixed on the demonic rodent.

Hel’s humans are still trying to right themselves when the mouse scurries through a gap in their legs. Hel bounds over the pile of limbs and tears after her prey.

“Hel!” the woman calls, but Hel is already gone, chasing the mouse down the corridor. The mouse turns abruptly into a side room and Hel follows without missing a step.

Backed into a corner, the mouse tries clambering up the wall. Hel slows, stalking forward on liquid limbs. The mouse turns, eyes and head darting. Hel pauses for an instant then pounces.

Instead of running away from her, the mouse leaps with one final screech and latches onto Hel’s leg. There’s a burning sensation and Hel yowls in pain. She crumples into the corner and instinctively bites at the mouse, ripping it from her flesh.

She tastes blood. It should be sweet and metallic, but Hel only tastes foul sulfur. She drops her prey, retching in vain as the blood slides down her throat.

Hel’s throat is closing. Her little heart races as her lungs starve for air. She collapses, wheezing and twitching until her small body can fight no longer. This is how Hel dies.

“Hel?” a woman’s voice calls from the corridor. Hel is dead so she doesn’t hear.

“Hel?” a man’s voice this time. Silence echoes in response. “Where’d you get to?”

Hel’s eyes flash open, revealing fiery red irises. She shudders and blinks slowly. There is no rise and fall of her small chest, but there’s a hunger deep in her belly.

“Hel? Come on out sweetie.” This time Hel hears, and her hunger roars.

M. Rose Seaboldt (she/her) obtained her engineering degrees so she could study structures and fire science. She writes so she can explore characters and the trials they endure. Find her on Twitter @boldtsea.

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