Some say the Arbitrators existed long before the universe was born. Others believe their dark powers spun the fabric of time itself. They are mystery. But here is truth: After ages of formless existence, the Arbitrators craved physicality once more. Their hunger sparked a great fire — a blaze that found its shape in the form of a dagger capable of transmitting their essence into a living vessel. In their search for a worthy body to inhabit, they destroyed the world of the gentle numah and the combative olokun.
But not all was lost.
General Vega and his vile olokun warriors enslaved the remaining numah and relocated them to a thriving moon where they were forced to toil in endless strife.
Cycles later, two numah brothers, Eon and Yoto, witnessed the slaughter of their parents at Vega’s whim. Eon vowed vengeance, while Yoto sought a timid life in hopes of drawing no attention from their cruel overlords. But when an alien witch dispatches a minion to bury a mystical dagger in Eon’s heart, thereby granting him the Arbitrators’ power and the ability to defeat Vega, it is Yoto who is stabbed. Now, Yoto’s days of cowardice are over. He is transformed into a monstrous creature of tremendous strength and intellect.
But will Yoto become the heroic liberator of his people — or the cause of their total annihilation?
Excerpt Published in Issue 107, November 2022
By Joshua Viola, Mario Acevedo & Nicholas Karpuk
Art by Aaron Lovett & Branden Bendert
Yoto was puzzled by the world that rose out of the murk of his unconsciousness. This was not the dreamworld.
Running his hand along the edge of the cot only confused him further. This was not his bed. This was not his home.
Was he in the dreamworld after all?
Muffled screams caught his attention. A voice cried out in anguish. The deep, rattling tones of olokun roars reverberated through the building’s walls, whatever this building was.
Had the olokun taken him prisoner? Was this one of their cells?
Yoto blinked himself fully awake and looked around. From what he could make out in the darkness, the room reminded him of the healing ward alcove where he regularly met with Celeste to acquire craylik to line his own pockets. The memory felt distant, from another life, a story told to him about himself.
The shouting became louder, matched by louder roars and curses.
If this was not a prison, then there was nothing to keep him here. If this was a prison, he had to escape.
Yoto rose with more force than intended and his head smashed into the ceiling, though he felt no pain. Stone shards showered down and pelted his toes. His feet felt numb, like he’d fallen asleep sitting on his legs.
Only the barest slivers of light entered around the edges of the doorway, granting just enough illumination to orient himself. He stretched out his arms to balance himself and caught a glimpse of something strange. Shocked, he stopped and looked down at an object radiating from his chest. The glow brightened and he saw his hands. They were enormous, attached to immense arms that pulsed with power.
What is this? What’s happening?
He moved to open the door. After fumbling at the latch with thick fingers, he lost patience and tore off the entire mechanism. He stared at it for a moment, confused.
Yoto pushed the door open with more force than intended and a burst of light stung his eyes. Momentarily blinded, he leaned against the doorframe, and it groaned under his weight. When his eyes adapted, he recognized the healing ward hallway. Seeing more clearly now, he looked down at himself again and nearly collapsed with astonishment.
The sight of a dagger’s handle jutting from his chest was a much more profound shock than the enormous body he now inhabited. The dagger was imbedded so deeply within him that no part of the blade was visible.
The shouts and distant crashes became background noise as he gazed at the dagger’s hilt. He gave the haft a single, experimental touch. Heat, like a lightning crack of pain, knocked him into the wall, its support bowing against his weight. Agony exploded through his body, and with it, he felt his anatomy pulse and swell.
Yoto forced shallow breaths. A surge of energy slammed into his senses, but the strain of his changing physique kept him from moving. He watched his toes widen their splay across the floor. His muscles expanded, causing indigo patches of bare, rippling flesh to appear in his fur.
The surge receded like a passing storm and in the calm, he could think again.
Questions flooded his mind. How did this happen — and how could he survive such a thing? How had he grown so huge? How—
The screams from earlier returned, punctuated by choking sobs, a cry for help.
He knew that voice.
His thoughts coalesced into one motive.
When he put one foot in front of the other, the floor beneath him buckled. He moved one awkward step at a time, taking greater control of his unfamiliar form as he continued. By the time he reached the end of the corridor, the act of walking in his new physique no longer seemed alien.
He emerged into one of the rooms to find a panorama of carnage. Cots lay scattered and broken. The bloody corpses of numah patients were strewn about in piles of lacerated and smashed limbs and torsos. Yoto lumbered forward, stomping through puddles of blood, leaving a trail of gigantic crimson footprints as he chased the screams to their source.
He followed the slaughter to a storage area. Across the room, an olokun guard held Celeste by her throat as four other guards tore cabinets apart and broke open boxes and crates.
“Where is the rebel hiding, slave?”
For an instant, Yoto convinced himself it was a hallucination, that all of this really was the dreamworld and he was yet again the monster of his nightmares. But he couldn’t ignore the pungent smell of blood and gore, the energy sizzling through his nerves, the rage that burned in his heart like a bonfire. It was too real to deny.
Yoto’s silhouette was so large that when he approached his quarries from behind, his shadow fell upon them like an enormous shroud. Yoto stood a full head taller than his enemies. His breathing rattled like machinery in the mines. Each breath expanded his chest, now corded with thick sinew and hundreds of undulating veins swollen with blood.
Yoto let loose a roar so fierce it surprised even himself. The olokun holding Celeste whipped about, only to meet Yoto’s fist as it collided with his mouth. The force shattered his jaw and sprayed teeth on his fellow guards. Celeste fell to the floor, splattered with olokun blood.
Wasting no time, Yoto slammed his hand down onto the guard’s head, his spine breaking in a series of wet pops. Yoto kicked him in the chest, throwing the olokun like a ragdoll into a pile of the splintered cabinetry.
The remaining four guards let loose frenzied war cries and leapt into battle. The closest one lunged for Yoto, claws outstretched and clutching, latching onto the only thing available: the dagger.
At the instant the olokun seized the haft, an intense energy rolled through Yoto. His body swelled and expanded again. Heat rippled through his chest in waves. His back pressed against the ceiling, and he could no longer stand up straight. Still, he grew, causing the ceiling to break apart and send chunks clattering to the floor.
A kaleidoscope of images and sensations whirled in his mind, stirring his thoughts, making them boil with fury. He saw the corpses of his parents, his life of running and hiding and making deals, and accommodating the olokun for small advantages. A pathetic existence toadying for monsters just to get by. A wasted, sad life.
He saw it all now for what it was, for what it had always been — the pathetic life of the Yoto he no longer was.
The stench of seared flesh brought his mind back to the present. The hapless guard screeched as he finally managed to peel his hand away from the dagger’s haft. Scorched skin fell away to reveal charred muscle and exposed bone.
Yoto glowered at the guards. He was now nearly five heads taller than them all. Celeste scrambled away and huddled by the farthest wall, behind Yoto.
He charged at the olokun with the burned hand, slamming into him fast and hard. He lifted the guard off the floor to smash into the ceiling and fall back down. Then he brought his foot down on the olokun’s skull, which cracked open under his immense weight like an egg, spraying brains across the ground.
Another guard launched himself only to have Yoto slap him with a bone-breaking backhand.
The remaining two adversaries attempted to flee, but Yoto grabbed them both, the first screaming as Yoto’s hand grasped his waist and squeezed, crushing him within his own carapace. The olokun’s brief shriek was lost beneath Yoto’s furious roar.
The last guard managed to squirm free of Yoto’s grasp and dash away, jumping over upended crates and debris.
The cowardly attempt to escape stoked Yoto’s anger and he broke into a sprint of pursuit. With each stride, his massive body struck the ceiling, beams and supports cracking apart.
The panicked guard scrambled across the exit’s threshold. Yoto sank his feet into the floor and launched himself. The olokun had time for a single garbled yelp before the weight of the gargantuan numah avalanched upon him.
Yoto sat on the olokun’s belly and rained punches upon the guard until a bloody mist clouded the air. When he finally stopped, gasping, out of breath, the entirety of the olokun’s head and upper torso was a pulpy mass of gore.
Yoto could not remember ever throwing a punch before. He had spent a lifetime running, avoiding violence, and talking his way out of any confrontation. When all else failed, Eon had always defended him from serious peril.
Everything changed the moment he betrayed his brother. Earlier than that, from the moment he refused to lend his help to Eon’s rebellion. Earlier still, from the moment Yoto first made a deal with the olokun, trading freedom for favor. Earlier even than that, he realized, back to his childhood.
From the moment I cowered as Vega killed my parents, he thought.
Yoto stood up, aware that the building was collapsing around him. He ran back through the chaos he created to find Celeste. With every step, pillars of stone tore loose and crashed through the floor. A portion of the ceiling tumbled upon his head, knocking him down. He rose from the rubble unharmed and sloughed away dust and debris.
Where was Celeste? Panic replaced rage. He searched frantically through the ruins, sweeping aside piles of wreckage, anxiety hardening a knot in his throat.
A cry from the other side of the room made him hold still and listen.
He heard her voice, smothered beneath the debris. He scrambled toward the sound, twitching his ear to pinpoint it beneath a pile of sturdy cabinets covered in rubble.
The main supports above him cracked and groaned. Yoto cautiously levered the cabinets off Celeste and cradled her against his enormous chest. Holding her carefully away from the glowing haft, he leapt out of the collapsing building and ran into the night.
The Bane of Yoto is available December 2022 by Hex Publishers. Learn more.
Joshua Viola is a 2021 Splatterpunk Award nominee, Colorado Book Award winner, and editor of the StokerCon™ 2021 Souvenir Anthology. He is the co-author of the Denver Moon series with Warren Hammond. Their graphic novel, Denver Moon: Metamorphosis, was included on the 2018 Bram Stoker Award™ Preliminary Ballot. Viola edited the Denver Post #1 bestselling horror anthology Nightmares Unhinged, and co-edited Cyber World — named one of the best science fiction anthologies of 2016 by Barnes & Noble. His first novel, The Bane of Yoto, won the USA Best Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, International Book Awards, and Independent Publishers Book Awards. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies, including DOA III: Extreme Horror Anthology, Doorbells at Dusk and Classic Monsters Unleashed. In 2022, he became the creative director of comics and novelizations for Random Games’ videogame franchise, Unioverse, a new series from the creators of Grand Theft Auto and Donkey Kong Country, and the writers of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Halo 4. When he isn’t writing and editing, Viola dabbles in art. In 2020, he collaborated with his husband, Aaron Lovett, on AfterShock Comics’ Miskatonic #1 Cover Alpha Comics variant. As a video game artist, he worked on Pirates of the Caribbean: Call of the Kraken, Smurfs’ Grabber and TARGET: Terror. Viola is the owner and chief editor of Hex Publishers in Denver, Colorado.
Check out Joshua’s other published work in Birdy, most recently an excerpt of Denver Moon: The Thirteen of Mars, or head to our Explore section to see more interviews and work by this talented creative.