- This article needs work.
The sound of rain filled the village.
The steep cliffs that surrounded the area magnified sound, causing even the slightest drizzle to rattle like a thunderstorm.
Thin wisps of smoke streamed from huts as the villagers huddled in their homes and waited out the storm.
A single child, however, had braved the downpour, and was now wandering slowly toward the wooden, hawk-shaped weather vane at the center of the town.
The wandered reached the vane, which had existed for as long as any could remember, and stared. The child's face was simultaneously delicate and fierce- like a teacup that had survived a shipwreck. Those traits combined with pale white skin to give the face an almost sexless quality.
If the beak turns east, I go home. If it stays west, then I...I...
The child blinked. Rain slowly dripped down the young one's short hair and began its long descent to the ground.
Come on. Come on!
The child felt a slight breeze and watched as the vane slowly creaked to life. Spinning this way and that for a moment, before it finally settled with the beak pointing firmly toward the east.
Before the vane could move again, a jagged rock came spinning and tumbling through the air, finally striking home against the child's head. The force of the blow dropped the child to the ground as a hail of stones began to fall all around.
Oh no. They found me...
A heartbreaking smile crept across the child's face as the stones continued their assault. Through the rain, the sound of multiple footsteps grew louder before a voice rang out.
The voice belong to Dimo, worst of all the bullies in The Aerie.
As Kainé struggled to stand, a final stone came skittering through the mud and bounced against her foot. Blood oozed from a cut above her eye and blurred her vision, but she could make out the shapes of Dimo and his usual gang of idiots. The boy seemed taken aback for a moment by Kainé's seeming indifference to the blood dripping from her face, but quickly regained his bravado.
"What's up, freak? You like the rain? You like gettin' all wet? Or did you finally decide to run away from home?"
Though she knew it was futile, Kainé turned to leave. Before she could get more than a few steps, the other children scrambled to surround her, cruelty burning in their eyes.
Kainé knew those were not the only eyes on her; the tormentors' parents watched from the safety of their homes. She was attuned to this sensation- it was one she had experienced many times before.
While some villagers simply turned a blind eye to the actions of their children, many encouraged it openly.
In a society ruled by superstition and fear, Kainé was something to be hated, and if possible, destroyed.
"I didn't say you could leave, freak."
Dimo's words chewed at her like a worm through an apple.
He can't hurt me, she lied to herself, Be strong. Be brave. He can't hurt me. He can't hurt me. He can't hurt-
"Oh look! The little freak's gonna cry! What's wrong? Are you sad that everyone hates you and wants you dead?"
Kainé prayed for the rain to flood down and carry her away from a world that seemed to have no place for her.
But if there were gods, they chose to ignore her. As Dimo crept ever closer, the clouds began to thin and the rain slowed.
Even the weather hates me. I'm useless. A failure.
...I wish Dimo's rock had taken my head off.
Kainé couldn't meet Dimo's leering gaze; she lowered her eyes are stared at the muddy ground below. The bully moved forward until he was inches away. She could smell the scent of old meat on his breath.
The boy grabbed Kainé's face with thick fingers and yanked it upward. She tried to turn away, but he forced her gaze back and jammed his thumb against her eyelid to pry it open.
"You're a freak."
"N-no. I'm not."
"Did you just say no?" Dimo grinned evilly. "You don't say no to me. No one says no to me." Not even taking his attention from Kainé, he called to his cohorts, "Come on, guys! Let's give the freak what she deserves!"
As soon as Dimo finished, kicks and blows began to rain down upon Kainé.
Dimo paused, still grinning, as Kainé curled into a ball and tried to make the pain stop.
"I don't get you, freak. Whatcha acting like a girl for, huh? Everyone knows what you really are!"
Kainé ignored the question, choosing instead to stare at the weather vane. It continued to point east, as if supremely confident about the future it had chosen for her.
Go home? Yeah, that's a funny joke for someone with dead parents and no home to go to.
"Freak!" chanted the children. "Freak, freak, freak!"
Kainé closed her eyes and listened to the rain, waiting for the pain to start again. As the clutching hands of the village children closed around her, she bent her mind to the sound of the rain, letting it become her world entire.
The rain fell...
But the pain never came.
Only when the laughter of her tormentors turned to terrified cries did she dare open a single blood-caked eye.
Kainé was shocked to see Dimo sprawled on the ground, holding his head and screaming in pain. She could see blood welling from spaces between his fat, twisted fingers.
Oh my god. He's crying. He's actually crying!
Deprived of their leader, the other children glanced back and forth between themselves, as if waiting for someone to step forward and take charge. When no savior emerged, they began an uneasy shuffle away from Kainé.
But the young girl was the least of their concerns. Instead, their attention was rapt on the ancient woman standing a few feet away. After struggling for breath for a moment, she finally spoke in a voice thick with rage.
"Hurts like a bitch, don't it!? Now I suggest you scatter before I throw another one. And if any of you little bastards ever touch my Kainé again, I'll do far worse than throw a rock! You can count on it."
The old woman crouched down and gently touched the hand Dimo was using to cover the wound. Before he could think to protest, she ground her palm into the wound and twisted back and forth.
"Ow!" he screamed, leaping to his feet. "Stop it! What are you doing?"
"Quit whinin'! Ain't no one ever died from a scratch."
"You hit me with a rock, you stupid bitch! A big one! That thing coulda killed me!"
The old woman shrugged.
"Death is the best cure for stupid."
Dimo's face twisted with rage at her words. Locking his eyes on Kainé, he took a step backward and spat on the ground.
"Get out! Leave this village! No one wants you here, either of you!"
Seeing the old woman grab another stone, Dimo and his companions turned tail and ran. As they fled, the old woman grabbed her side and barked out a single laugh.
"Hah! Look at that fat boy go! Guess he's healthy enough to run from a fight."
The woman's smile faded as she turned to Kainé. Kneeling down, she removed her shawl and placed it around the young girl's shoulders, then produced a cloth from the folds of her dress and began blotting at the blood on her forehead.
"Oh, Kainé," she said. "Why didn't you fight back? You're stronger than that lot."
The words of her grandmother stung Kainé, and she turned away.
"Don't be nice to me," she said. "I don't deserve it. Nothing...nothing matters anymore."
Her tears, held in check for so long, finally began to fall on the muddy ground below.
"Everyone h-hates me. They think I cause bad things to happen. They think I'm a freak. I wish I was dead."
As Kainé's tears turned to sobs, she felt her grandmother's hands on her shoulders. Despite her advanced age and diminutive size, she was a woman of surprising strength, and Kainé found herself unable to turn away.
"Don't talk like that, Kainé! It's a river wide and deep that flows between the realms of this world and the next, and it grants no mercy to any that attempt the crossin'. You got a duty to fight until your last breath. Understand?"
The old woman tightened her grip and tried to still the tremor in her voice.
"You know the pain of losin' someone close to you, Kainé. You know because you survived it."
As the words hit home, Kainé was struck by the force of her love for the old woman. As a young child, she didn't even know of her grandmother, but when her parents died, the woman quickly accepted her as her own. Grandma, as Kainé called her, was cunning, vulgar, and quick to violence- and their first few years together had not been easy. But with each year that passed, Kainé and her grandmother had grown closer.
However, it was only now, sitting in the mud with tears and blood caking her face, that Kainé truly understood the depths of her affection. Here was a woman who had seen hard times; who had seen death; who had fought through all these things and somehow emerged on the other side. If anyone could understand Kainé's pain and loneliness, it was her.
"Do...do I make you sick, Grandma?"
"Course not! Don't be an ass!"
Kainé drew her grandmother's moth-eaten shawl around her body and shuddered.
"But...my body. It's...it's not normal. If I was normal, then Mom and Dad wouldn't-"
"Hush," interrupted Grandma. "I'll not hear another word of this nonsense. You're my granddaughter, and I love you, and if folks have a problem with that, they can just go to hell."
With that, the old woman reached out and placed a wreath of dried flowers in Kainé's hair. The skill it took to bend the flowers without breaking the stems or losing a single petal was remarkable, and the beauty of it made Kainé want to cry all over again.
"Oh my gosh! These are Lunar Tears! Grandma, you made this for me?"
Lunar Tears were legendary flowers; most people could live their entire lives without ever seeing one. And yet her grandmother had somehow collected a dozen or more.
Kainé reached up and touched the wreath as if she couldn't believe it was real.
"Wh-where did you find these?"
"Oh, you know... Just stumbled on 'em one day while I was out doing the shoppin'." The old woman turned away as she was explaining, leading Kainé to suspect that the search had been much more difficult than she was letting on.
The pains she took to construct the ornament- let alone track down the flowers used in its construction- made Kainé's heart hurt.
She reached up and gently adjusted the wreath, admiring the way it felt between her fingers.
"Didn't quite turn out right," said her grandmother as she squinted at it. "These old hands have trouble with delicate work. But it sure looks good on a pretty girl like you."
Kainé blushed and turned away.
"You...you think I'm pretty?"
"Course you are! What a fool thing to say."
"Th-thank you, Grandma."
Her grandmother smiled.
"We're gonna be fine, you and me," she said. "Long as we got each other, we'll be just fine."
Kainé took her grandmother's hand in hers, and the two of them struggled to their feet. As they began the long walk home, Kainé gripped the hand with all her might, as if trying to stop smoke from drifting away on the wind.
The rain had stopped. Kainé stood beneath the weather vane, watching it spin in lazy circles, no longer caring about the direction it faced when it stopped.
I don't need to escape. I have a home now. Grandma loves me, and that's enough. Even if it's us against the world.
Kainé let her gaze drift up past the vane and into the cloudy sky.
The last faint hints of a rainbow were slowly fading.
As she turned and headed for home, the light scattered into a million particles and vanished, seemingly taken away on the breeze.
In the distance, Kainé heard the steady sounds of an axe striking wood. The noise had a purposeful quality to it, as if she was hearing a master woodsman go about his work. The firewood being produced, however, was as far from a work of art as could be; pieces of every shape and size were being flung about a barren yard with wild abandon. Anyone trying to stack such wood would probably die of frustration before the job was through.
“…stupid piece of shit axe!”
Kainé’s grandmother flailed away with the axe, filling the air with both splinters of wood and words that would make the most hardened sailor blush.
“Grandma!” called Kainé.
“What?!” yelled the old woman, taking her eyes off the wood for a moment. “Oh, it’s you, Kainé? Don’t get too close, or I might take your goddamn foot off by mistake.”
She brought the axe down on a piece of wood, sending chips flying in every direction. One spun past Kainé close enough for her to hear the whistle, at which point she decided to step back.
Once she’d scuttled off to a safe distance, she cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted.
“Grandma! Do you need help? I can get water or lunch or…uh…a new axe or something!”
The axe, poised to strike another wobbly blow, paused in midair. The woman considered her granddaughters offer for a moment, then smiled.
“Hmmm…Tell you what. Since I’m doing such a piss-poor job of choppin’, why don’t you come here and take over so I can go get the water. Shades had been restless lately, you know, and I don’t want you runnin’ into one of them bastards.”
Relinquishing the axe, her grandmother picked up a long pole with wooden buckets on either end. Gathering water was by far the more difficult of the two jobs, but Kainé knew better than to complain, Once Grandma’s mind was set, there was no changing it.
Kainé did her best to help with the chores, but Grandma took every task that required travel to the village. Though she had a long list of plausible excuses, Kainé knew the real reason: she didn’t want her granddaughter to be taunted and harassed by the villagers.
Once Kainé moved in, Grandma decided to take up residence a good distance from The Aerie. Out of sight, out of mind seemed to be the best policy when it came to the villagers and her granddaughter, and rare were the days when any but the two of them could be found on the rocky acre of land they called home.
Kainé enjoyed the solitude, but harboured a secret resentment that her grandmother was forced to spend her golden years in such a place.
After watching her grandmother leave, Kainé turned her attention to the task at hand. She had never chopped wood before in her life, and soon discovered why the old woman hated the chore. Swing after swing of the axe produced only a tiny crack in the wood, and when she finally managed to connect a solid stroke, the tool embedded itself in the log and refused to budge. Frustrated, Kainé swung the axe around her head and threw it, long and all, across the yard.
“Dammit! Dammit! Uh…crap!”
She suddenly understood the joy her grandmother felt in a good curse. Happier now, she picked up the axe, forced it from the wood, and resumed chopping. She had a natural skill with a blade, but the task was challenging, and blisters soon began to form on her small, pink hands.
‘This is tough. And all my logs are weird sizes.’
Spitting on her palms and ignoring the pain, Kainé redoubled her efforts.
Just as she was developing a rhythm, Grandma returned from the village. Setting down her buckets with a small sigh, she took one look at the logs and coughed out a wheezy laugh.
“Pretty clumsy, girl! You better practice if…if you…”
Her grandmother suddenly collapsed to her knees, causing one of the buckets to wobble precariously. Eyes wide, Kainé dropped the axe and ran to her grandmother’s side.
The old woman shook her head and pointed a trembling finger at the bucket.
“Get…get the bucket…C-can’t let it spill…”
Kainé steadied the bucket with a foot as she knelt by her grandmother. A small bit of water sploshed over the side and made a new home in the hem of her dress, but Kainé didn’t notice.
“Grandma! Grandma, what’s happening!?”
Crazed with panic, she grabbed her grandmother by the shoulders and shook. After a moment, the woman lifted her arms and batted Kainé away.
“S-stop that! Just stop now!” she cried, breathing heavily. “It ain’t like I'm dying! Just tired from the trip is all.”
Kainé desperately wanted to believe her, but one look at the old woman’s shaking hands and worn face told her more than words ever could. Her grandmother had lived a long, hard life, and it seemed the bill was coming due.
The time when her grandmother watched over Kainé was ending. Sooner than either of them had feared, the positions would be reversed.
The next morning, Kainé came to the side of her grandmother’s bed and took her wrinkled hand.
“Grandma, you’re sick, and you need medicine. I’m going to the village.”
The old woman shook her head and tried to rise, but Kainé gently pushed her down.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
Her grandmother fixed her with a gaze that could melt steel. After what seemed an eternity. She finally lowered her eyes, and sighed.
“Well, I don’t like it, goddammit. But I guess I should quit bein’ so stubborn and let you grow up.”
The old woman watched as Kainé strapped on her boots and made her way down the road to the village. Hours later, as an unseen sun made its way across a dark and rainy sky, she was still watching.
Kainé moved at a brisk pace, checking her pockets every few minutes to make sure the money her grandmother gave her was still there. Every noise caused her to spin on her heels, making sure she wasn’t being stalked by a Shade – or worse, Dimo and his gang.
But she encountered neither tormentors nor Shades, and Kainé finally found herself at the entrance to the village. The few adults she could see glanced sideways at her, then muttered to each other behind raised hands before slinking away into the shadows.
Her heart racing, Kainé took a series of rapid, shallow breathes and tried to calm herself.
‘I have to prove myself. I have to help Grandma.’
‘I…I have to be strong.’
She chanted those words to herself over and over as she slowly made her way. Finally, her eyes settled on a rotund older woman who was angrily waving her arms in the air and telling anyone who would listen exactly what she thought of Kainé’s presence.
“Hey, lady,” said Kainé with a bravado she did not feel. “Where’s the apothecary?”
The woman’s flabby cheeks shook in bewildered anger. ‘How dare this…this thing speak it me!’ they seemed to say. But Kainé saw that her eyes held a different emotion: fear.
‘Yeah, we’re both scared, lady. Trust me on this one.’
“Which way?” Kainé repeated.The woman pointed at a small building to her right before hitching up her dress and stumbling off in the other direction. Kainé cringed, expecting a stone to come flying from the assembled crowd, but none came. Her mind was filled with a strange sense of pride as she made her way to the apothecary. But the new emotion had little time to take root, for as soon as she opened the door, she noticed a familiar customer at the counter.
It was Dimo. He’d clearly been sent here on some kind of family errand, because his gang of followers was nowhere to be found.
“Oh my go…” he sputtered. “I mean, uh…what are you doing here, freak!?”
The insult was delivered without force, and Kainé happily ignored it. Stretching on tiptoes to see over the counter, she asked the shopkeeper for the medication.
“Ha!” barked Dimo. “That old bitch finally keel over!?”
“Go to hell, Dimo!”
The boy’s eyes grew so wide they seemed ready to fall out of his head. But before he could let fly a comeback – or worse, a punch – the apothecary told them to knock it off before he kicked them out of the store. Dimo slunk out of the shop, cursing Kainé under his breath. Once he was gone, she allowed herself to breath once more, taking a brief tour of the shop while the owner prepared her medication.
Countless tiny bottles filled the cramped store, each with a label written in some indecipherable language. An ocean of aromas assaulted her nose, creating a scent that was exotic, but not altogether unpleasant. Seeing such a variety of supplies gave Kainé a sense of peace. Surely, in a world so vast, there would be a place that she could call home.
On the far wall, behind the counter, rested a portrait of a stunning young girl. The picture had once contained bright, vibrant colours, but time had worked its magic, and they were beginning to fade. The beauty of the work, however, remained undiminished.
“You like that picture?”
Kainé turned to find the apothecary with a small vial of medicine in his hand. His eyes were gentle but sad, and they seemed to stare through her and into nothing as he spoke.
“That’s my daughter. I sketched it when she was just a little girl. …she’s been dead a long time now.”
Kainé didn’t know how to respond: she just stared at the portrait and tried to come up with the right words.
“Pictures are wonderful things,” continued the shopkeeper. “They let the ones closest to you live on forever.”
He shook his head slightly, then looked down at Kainé and smiled. Handing her the medicine, he reached into his sizeable green apron and produced a handful of old wax crayons.
“You should have these. There’s no one left that I wish to draw.”
Kainé took an instinctive step back, causing the shopkeeper’s face to darken.
“Yes, I’ve heard the rumours about you,” he said. “It’s a small village, and word travels quickly. Between you and me, I’m not sure which of them to believe…but I also don’t think they matter much. I knew your grandmother Kali, and I think the way she was driven out of this town is just deplorable.”
‘Grandma’s name is Kali?’ thought Kainé suddenly. She was still mulling this new fact over in her mind as she reached out and gently took the crayons from the apothecary’s hands.
“Your grandmother is an old friend of mine,” he said as Kainé scooted away yet again, “and I owe her much. I’m willing to wager that she would like it if you drew a picture of her. Yes, I think she would like that very much.”
Kainé murmured a quiet agreement, but inside her heart was bursting. Never before had a villager treated her with anything but complete contempt. It was a tiny, almost imperceptible step, but it was a step nonetheless – and with enough tiny steps, she might one day discover the rest of the world.
When Kainé returned home, she found her grandmother asleep in her bed. Her feet were blackened and raw - even bleeding a bit in places – leading Kainé to think that she had been pacing around the room until exhaustion caught up with her.
She placed the medicine by her grandmother’s pillow and turned to leave, but found the old woman’s hand clasped around her arm.
“Back already, are you?” asked her grandmother with a yawn. “Come here, let me have a look at you.”
Grandma sat up and examined Kainé from head to toe. Finally satisfied that nothing terrible had befallen her grandchild, she leaned back and allowed herself to relax.
“Well, how was it? Did those bastards give you any trouble?”
“It was kinda fun,” said Kainé with a small smile. “No, seriously, it was.”
“It was fun, was it?” asked her grandmother in a voice which implied she believed anything but.
“Uh-huh. So anytime you need me to run an errand, just let me know!”
As she spoke, Kainé removed the crayons from her pocket. After a brief explanation of their source, she informed her grandmother that she was going to sketch her portrait.
“A portrait of me? Ridiculous. No one wants to stare at a wrinkled old crone.”
“But Grandma! It’ll make you live forever!”
“Horse manure!” said her grandmother, throwing back the sheet from her bed. “Livin’ forever would just piss me off. Now put those crayons away and help with dinner!”
But Kainé would not relent, and in the end, Grandma found herself leaning against the wall of their house as if posing for a master artist.
Kainé took up the crayons and eyed her subject carefully…
Just as her grandmother was about to nod off, Kainé finished the work. After staring at it for a bit, she released it from her grip and let it slowly drift to the floor.
“It’s…terrible! It doesn’t look like you at all. I’m sorry, Grandma. I thought these crayons would…you know? Making drawing easier or something.”
The old woman’s eyes narrowed at her granddaughter’s disappointment.
“Let me be the judge of that,” she said, ignoring the pain in her back and reaching for the paper. The sketch could have been a person’s face. It also could have been a boulder, a lump of clay, or an incredibly misshapen loaf of bread – all rendered in a chaotic array of colours.
The old woman stared at the picture for a long time, then slowly wheezed out a laugh.
“Oh, Kainé!,” she said between laughter. “You truly are my blood! You’re as clumsy as me, and I love it!”
“Hush. I won’t hear any more bull about how ugly you think it is. It came from the heart, and I’ll treasure it always.”
True to her word, the old woman gave the picture a place of honour above the kitchen table. In the days that followed, Kainé would often catch her staring at the portrait with a strange smile on her face – an action she interpreted as silent, mocking laughter. A week later, Kainé could stand it no more, and asked her grandmother to take the artwork down.
“Posh!” said the old woman. “I’ll take this down when they roll me in my shroud!”
She pondered this for a bit, then turned to Kainé and dropped to one knee.
“Listen to me, girl. Seein’ this picture makes me happy in a way I’ve never felt before. And it makes me want to go on, so that someday you can feel the same happiness.”
It was a moment that burned itself in Kainé’s memory: a perfect blend of pride and love and joy that came together to form a lifelong remembrance. She swore to never forget this moment: to never forget the old woman who had made her place in the world possible.
Time moves on. People and memories come in and out of a life like ghosts passing through a hall.
‘But this moment will be different,’ Kainé swore, ‘ because I will remember it forever.’
Kainé listened to the sound of crackling firewood and stared at the black object on her plate. She’d been pushing it around the wooden disc for a good ten minutes, ignoring the bemused stare of her grandmother. Finally, she summoned her courage and gave the object a brief sniff. A sharp, bitter scent flew up her nostrils and made its home there, causing her face to twist with disgust.
“Grandma, I can’t believe you want me to eat a bug.”
The old woman threw some more wood under the cooking pot and snorted.
“It’s no bug, you fool girl! It’s a berry. Why in the hell would I be feedin’ you bugs?”
“Yeah, well, it sure looks like a bug!” said Kainé. “And I think it’s burnt or something, because it smells terrible.”
With that, Kainé held her nose and threw the berry in her mouth, chewing as little as possible.
“Oh, yeah. That’s terrible, all right.”
“Why, you little brat!” laughed the old woman. “Look at the sass on you! You’ve been spendin’ too much time with me, and that’s a fact.”
Five years had passed since the moment when Kainé's grandmother had saved her from the bullies. As is often the way with two stubborn people, their relationship had grown in fits and starts, but moved forward all the same. Meals that used to be somber affairs were now filled with laughter and hurled abuse in equal measure. Kainé could not remember a time when she had been happier.
As the years went by, Kainé started to shoulder more and more of the daily responsibilities. Her grandmothers legs grew weaker by the day, and she could no longer do many of the chores she used to take for granted. And so this morning found Kainé lacing up her work boots with a breakfast of burned berry rolling through her belly.
“Where are you going today?” asked Grandma suddenly. Kainé looked up, surprised. The old woman rarely asked her for specifics anymore.
“Well, I was gonna check out the kelma trees and see if they were ripe. I thought we could make jam or something. Oh, and I’m going to pick up some flagstones, so I need to take the wheelbarrow.”
“…Flagstones? What in the hell for?”
Kainé stared at her grandmother, then held out an arm and swept it around their home. Constructed mostly of cloth, rope and rubble, the old place sagged like a boxer in the final round.
“Grandma, a dying cat could chew through this house. I’m going to build a stone wall so we have some protection.”
The old woman laughed, exposing her toothless grin to the world.
“Goddamn girl, if a buncha thieves want to ransack this old place, let ‘em come! We got nothin’ worth stealin’ anyway.”
“I’m not worried about thieves! I’m worried about Shades. People saw one west of the village yesterday.”
The old woman tilted her head and stared at her granddaughter.
“Well, shoot. I don’t know why you have to do it today. We can worry about it some other –“
“Grandma, no. If I don’t go to the kelma trees, we won’t eat tonight. You know that!”
A confused expression passed across the old woman’s face, and for a moment she was a small child lost at a carnival.
“Y-yes,” she said after a bit. “Yes, of course you’re right. I’m sorry, Kainé. Lately it seems my mind is…”
She didn’t finish the thought, instead walking over to her nightstand and gently taking the wreath of Lunar Tears from the drawer. The flowers’ petals had aged to a brilliant whiteness, and Kainé thought it was more beautiful now than the day she first received it.
“You’re going to be a true woman soon,” Grandma said as she placed the flowers in the girl’s hair. “So that means less chatter about Shades and buildin’ defensive walls and more talk about how beautiful you’ve become!”
Annoyed, Kainé reached up to remove the garland, but the look on her grandmother’s face stopped her hand.
“You’re a beautiful thing,” said the old woman, “and there ain’t another like you in all the world. I’m very proud of you.”
“Okay, Grandma, that’s enough goddamn compliments for one day.”
“Such a mouth on you! Where did that come from?”
“Gee, I wonder.”
“I’ll teach you to sass me, girl!” yelled Grandma. Suddenly, she lurched forward and grabbed Kainé by the ears, pulling her around the room with a crazed grin on her face.
“Grandma!” yelled Kainé in a quaking voice. “Grandma, stop it! What the hell!?”
The old woman stared at her and blinked, then slowly held her wrinkled hands out as if it was the first time she had ever seen them.
“Oh! Oh, I…I don’t know what happened there. I’m sorry, girl. Sometimes my mind just…”
Kainé though the look on her grandmother’s face was the most heartbreaking thing she had ever seen.
“Listen,” she began, “maybe I should stay home after all.”
“No! I won’t have you stay here to keep an eye on an old codger like me. You go get your fruit and your wall and whatnot. I’ll be fine. And when you get back, I’ll have a nice grasshopper dinner waitin’ for you.”
Kainé rolled her eyes, then kissed her grandmother on the forehead and made ready to depart, trying desperately to ignore the worry that was gnawing at the walls of her heart. Kainé could feel the old woman’s eyes watching her as she moved down the path.
‘Don’t turn around,’ she told herself, but in the end the temptation was too great. She spun on her heel for one final look and saw a small, bent woman standing in front of a ramshackle hut with a sad expression on her face.
‘God, she looks so old now. It’s like the wind could reach down and just carry her away.’
Kainé worried about her grandmother all day, causing her work to suffer. What little fruit she could collect was tossed carelessly into the wheelbarrow, and she only found a couple of stones before losing interest in the project. Finally, as dusk approached, she decided to call it a day. Cursing herself for the lack of focus, Kainé pushed the nearly-empty wheelbarrow back down the path.
As she crested the final hill, she suddenly froze in place. The wheelbarrow fell from her fingers and collapsed on its side, sending a few pieces of wrinkled brown fruit rolling back down the hill.
Her gaze was transfixed by a thick black cloud that hovered just ahead. Tracing it’s path with her finger, Kainé suddenly felt her stomach knot in on itself.
‘No. Oh, gods, no!’
Her grandmothers house was ablaze; the flames licking up as if trying to touch the sky itself.
Kainé ran then, faster than she had ever moved in her life. Once she tripped on a stone and went sprawling into the rocky ground, but she leapt to her feet and continued running, unmindful of the blood that spilled from her wounded hands and knees. As she got closer and closer, Kainé’s mind began to race in time with her footfalls.
‘It’s too dark. It’s too dark. Not just fire. Can’t be fire. Too much smoke. Gotta save her. Gotta save her.’
She burst into the front yard and came to a sudden halt, her worst suspicions confirmed. The smoke from the fire was mingling with the thick inky blackness of an enormous Shade.
The massive creature supported itself on three twisted feet, and achieved balance through a means of a large armoured tail. Scales, horns, and claws sprouted from its body in a random, chaotic pattern, giving it the appearance of a lizard designed by some insane god. Seeing Kainé, it let out a roar and flicked its tail. Sending small whirlwinds spinning around the yard.
For a moment the creature retreated into a shimmering inky blackness, as if her mind was unable to comprehend that such a thing could actually exist. But then the smell hit her – a blend of rotted meat and excrement – and the horror became real once more.
The creature bellowed again, and this time Kainé responded with a scream of her own.
‘All right, you bastard,’ she thought as her scream echoed off the high cliffs around them. ‘It’s you or me. Let’s go.’
The Shade eyed Kainé with bemused interest. Then it began looking from her to the house and back again, as if urging her to look at the destruction it had so gleefully wrought. With dread building in her heart, Kainé glanced toward the house. Through the smoke and flames, she spotted a small figure struggling to escape the ruins.
At the sound of her voice, the old woman began waving frantically.
‘She’s alive!’ thought Kainé. ‘She’s alive!’
Kainé’s legs sprang to life as she raced across the yard toward the flaming wreckage of the house.
Before she could advance more than a few steps, the Shade opened its mouth and let out a roar powerful enough to uproot trees and send them flying.
The blast sent Kainé tumbling through the air before smashing her against the rocky earth. Stars danced in front of her eyes as she tried to remember how her legs worked.
‘Get up. Get up! Get up get up get up get up get up NOW!’
As Kainé struggled to her feet, the Shade stomped toward the house and pinned her grandmother to the ground with the tip of a claw. The old woman struggled to move the claw from her stomach, but she might well have been pushing a mountain. She coughed briefly, sending a small spray of blood into the air, then collapsed to the ground, her energy spent.
Kainé lurched to her feet only to fall back to earth with a gasp. Her ankles were on fire; one or both of them were surely broken.
Ignoring the pain that screamed through her body, she began dragging herself across the ground, leaving a drunken trail of dust and blood in her wake.
‘G-Grandma…hold on…just a…little longer…’
Her grandmother’s face was turning blue, her eyes rolling back until only the whited were exposed. Kainé pulled herself across the ground with maddening slowness, the distance seeming to increase with every second that passed. The Shade glanced between the two women and flicked out its tongue, its giant mouth turning up at the corners. Short, panting breaths belched from somewhere deep inside its core.
‘Bastard…laughing at us…’
She had no idea how such a mindless creature could experience emotion, but there could be no doubt that the Shade was taking joy in their suffering.
‘Yeah…I see your plan…’
The Shade moved its claw slightly, allowing Grandma to breathe again. It was clearly keeping her alive only to snuff out her life when Kainé was close enough to touch her.
‘I’m gonna kill this bastard…’
Summoning all her strength, Kainé rose to her feet. There was a sickening snap from her right ankle as the foot twisted backward, but she forced it from her mind and began to hobble toward the monster. Pulling a small knife from the pouch at her waist, she leapt on the foot that pinned her grandmother and plunged the weapon deep.
“Give her back!” she screamed. “Give her back to me!”
It was like stabbing a rock. After a few swipes, the knife broke at the hilt with a dull snap.
The Shade panted laughter again, then raised its tail and sent it rushing through the air toward the young girl that was latched to its foot.
Kainé never had a chance; the tail stuck her square in the chest and sent her crashing into the burning wreckage of the home. As she lay on the ground with blood pouring from multiple wounds, a small, weak voice spoke up.
Kainé’s vision blurred, but she forced herself to focus on the sound. Finally, her eyes cleared enough for her to make out her grandmother’s hands reaching out to her through the smoke.
“K-Kainé…you’ve gotta…run…you can’t…defeat him…”
Kainé grabbed the hands and held on with all her strength.
“Grandma…come on…we have to go…”
The old woman coughed loudly. One of her hands, slick with blood, slipped from Kainé’s grasp and thumped to the ground below.
“I said run, goddammit. You have to…have to live…you have to get through - …”
The thought would stay forever unfinished. Before she could say another word, the Shade’s clawed foot descended, smashing through the remains of the roof and down upon the shattered figure of the old woman.
Blood oozed thickly from gaps in the creature’s toes as the terrible, putrid smell assaulted Kainé’s nose once again.
She stared at the foot, dumbfounded, convinced that what she was seeing could not possibly be real. When the creature finally lifted its appendage, all that remained underneath was a twisted unrecognizable mass of rubble and red.
…her grandmother was gone.
Kainé blinked, trying to feel the hands which had been in hers just a moment before. For a fleeting instant, she could remember the warmth of that embrace, the trembling of the fingers, but then the sensation drifted away on the breeze and was gone.
Memories flashed through Kainé’s mind, one after the other, faster and faster, until they became a meaningless jangle of noise.
Kainé screamed then, a thunderous sound that echoed off the cliffs and seemed to roll away forever.
The Shade eased forward, black ichor pouring from its mouth and dissolving into smoke on the ground below. The earth shook with every step as it crept toward its prey.
Kainé’s body slowly rose as if controlled by a mad puppetmaster. Her arms and legs were bent at impossible angles; her head lolled dangerously to the side. Yet somehow, she managed to stand.
Staring at the Shade, her eyes began to glow with a deep red fire. The creature, so confident just moments before, took a slow, hesitant step backward, trying to discern if this broken human could possibly pose a threat.
Kainé seized the moment. Laughing like a madwoman, she leapt into the air and plunged the shattered hilt of her knife deep into the leg of the Shade.
The Shade shook Kainé off like a fly, sending her crashing to the earth once again. Her chest rose and fell slowly, as if a great weight were resting on it. Moist sounds of pain echoed through her mind. Something warm and thick oozed from her ears.
‘Is that blood?’
‘…think it is. Think I’m bleeding to death.’
‘…no. Can’t…can’t die. Grandma told me to live…’
Deep inside Kainé’s mind, something finally broke.
The sound, the pain, the smoke and flames…all of it faded away until all that remained was a single incantation repeated over and over again.
‘Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it now!’
As the spark that was Kainé slowly began to flicker and die, she felt her desire to kill and her desire to live blend into one. The distance between heartbeats grew longer.
The Shade, sure that it’s tormentor was dead, turned and stomped off toward the horizon, stopping along the way to bellow one final roar.
‘S-so sorry, Grandma…couldn’t…couldn’t avenge you…’
Shamed beyond imagining, Kainé turned her head to the side, but only succeeded in coughing up a huge gout of blood. It was getting difficult to see, and only after a moment of fierce concentration did she realize that her left eye was gone. Laughing to herself, she turned her remaining eye to the ruins of her home and noticed a ragged stump of an arm resting a few feet away.
‘Yeah, that’s mine,’ she thought with a mad giggle. ‘This is gonna make clapping a real bitch.’
“Ha!” cried a sudden voice from the depths of her mind. “Finally gonna die, are ya? Well, you had it coming!”
‘Go to hell, Dimo,’ she thought at the unseen assailant. ‘Go to hell before I pluck out your eyes and feed them to a dog.’
The voice of her childhood terror evaporated into smoke, only to be replaced by another, more recent voice.
“Hold still,” said the apothecary, materializing from the ruins like a ghost. “I want to draw you. That way you can live forever.”
‘No. Stop. Don’t want to live forever. Want to die right here.’
“I see,” he said quietly, “Well, if that’s how you want it…”
The spectral shopkeeper fluttered in and out of existence for a moment, then produced a piece of paper and sketched quickly. After a few seconds, he turned the page to Kainé and smiled.
“Since you rejected my offer, I decided to draw someone else.”
It was a picture of her grandmother, real as life. Kainé opened her mouth to thank the man, but stopped as the picture began to blacken in the middle. Before she could say anything, thousands of multi-legged insects began to swarm across the image, tearing at it with sharpened pincers.
‘No! Stop!’ Don’t hurt that picture!’
Kainé reached out with her remaining hand and waved futilely at the air. To her surprise, the insects fell off the picture and to the ground below, where they vanished into tiny black tendrils of smoke.
Relieved, Kainé turned her good eye back to the picture, only to open her mouth in a silent scream. The sketch now showed her grandmother as she truly was: a smashed, unrecognizable lump of nothing.
The apothecary smiled, then broke into a jolly dance.
“See that!?” he cried as he danced his jig. “It’s perfect now! She looks just like you! Ha cha cha cha!”
‘I look like that? Oh god. Oh god. I’m gonna die.’
‘I’m gonna die.’
Drowning in despair, Kainé laid her head back in the mud and smoke of her ruined house and waited for the end to come. But just before she let everything go, an unfamiliar voice began whispering in her ear.
“Ain’t you got a wish, Sunshine?”
The voice was vulgar and fierce at the same time, as if insanity had somehow found a way to take form. Kainé wanted to scream as the voice crawled under her skin, but her lungs refused to work. "Ya know, a wish? Like a prayer or something? Why don't ya get on your knees and start prayin' to heaven? 'Please, invisible man in the sky! Save me! Saaave me!' Kah hah hah hah!"
Kainé finally resorted to shouting at the voice with her mind. I don't make wishes! They don't come true for me! I'm a curse. A freak. I should be left to die. The other voice boomed in her ears. "Bwaaah hah hah hah! Oh god, you are the best!" Kainé glanced down and saw a black, shiny substance oozing from her legs. She tried to brush it away, but her remaining arm would no longer respond. The substance slowly crept around her feet, and then began moving toward the rest of her body.
Is this death? Is this what it's like? Or is my mind just losing itself? She could feel the slime oozing upward, feel the hot searing pain left in its wake. Whatever else might be happening, she was still alive, and this was real. "Come on," said the voice. "Let it go." Kainé tried to ignore the voice and concentrated on the pain, but the newcomer would have none of it. "Don't ignore me, Sunshine! You're ready to give up, ready to die. So why not left me have it?" H-have what? "Your body! Come on, give it to me. Give it to me! I wanna stand on the ground, feel the rain, taste the wind..." The voice paused, as if licking its lips. When it resumed, it was filled with mad, unabated joy. "And I wanna take your hands and use 'em to choke the goddamn life outta people! I wanna tear out their throats and bathe in the blood, just like before!"
In response, Kainé shifted her head and vomited. The warmth of it crept down her front and mingled with the pain of the encroaching black ooze. Are you... are you a Shade? "Kah hah hah! Yeah, maybe. What of it?" The slime reached her face, crept up past her nose, and slowly oozed into the socket of her missing eye. The moment it touched her brain, Kainé was struck by the most powerful sensation she'd ever felt in her life. It was ecstasy. She wanted to scream with delight, but all she could manage was a small, whispered moan. "Feels good, don't it?" asked the voice with a chuckle. "Yeah, what can I say? I know how to please the ladies. Now gimme that body. Come on, gimme the body and I'll give you more of this feeling. It's a fair trade." A black lump began to protrude from Kainé's side. As she watched, it grew longer and thicker, eventually taking the form of her missing arm. I can see better, she thought. My eye must be growing back, too.
The slime reached up to envelop the rest of her face, but she managed to brush it away. "S-stop..." she whispered, marveling at how she had regained her voice. "Stop..." The black ooze hesitated, as if considering this request, then quickly shimmered down her body before disappearing in a cloud of smoke. "Ah, what the hell, Sunshine!?" screamed the voice. "We had a deal! I thought you wanted to die!" "G-Grandma said... I can't die yet." A brief image of her grandmother, bloodied and broken, flashed before her eyes. She saw the Shade that had killed her and heard its mocking laughter, then closed her eyes and forced the image from her mind. Her whole body was quaking with rage. When she opened her eyes again, they burned bright red. "That thing took my grandmother. I have to kill it before I die." Kainé glanced down and saw a mysterious pattern - the pattern of the Shades - burn itself into her left arm. "Well, I'll be damned," said the voice cheerfully. "Look at that, Sunshine! I think you and me are gonna be good friends now."
Kainé stared intently at her arm. The more emotional she felt, the more the letters seemed ready to puncture her skin and begin infecting the rest of her body. The arm clearly had a will of its own now. "S-stop. Gotta stop..." Holding her left arm in her right, Kainé took a deep breath and tried to calm herself.
"Come on, don't fight it!" pleaded the voice. "Hate's my favorite dish, and I'm hungry! Let it go! Feel the anger! Burn with the fire of revenge! Thirst for blood, then go out there and--" "Shut up! Shut up and get the hell out of my body!" "Bwah hah hah hah! Your body? Oh, that's rich, Sunshine. Reeeeeal rich. Look, why don't you just up and die so I can have this body all to myself? What do you say? I bet those buddies of yours in The Aerie would love to see ya dead!" Kainé grabbed a nearby shard of glass and tried to saw off the Shade-infected portion of her side. Before she could, her darkened left arm grabbed her right wrist, crushing it. Kainé screamed and dropped the shard as the sound of bone crunching on bone filled the air. "Kah hah hah! Stupid idiot girl! You're possessed now, Sunshine! And there ain't no going back!" The voice laughed again, a loud, long wail that seemed to go on without end.
"P-possessed...?" whispered Kainé. "Yeah. Possessed. You and me? We got what you might call a timeshare arrangement. Remember how folks used to think you were a freak? Well, wait till they get a load of you now!" Kainé looked up, tears in her eyes. The sky seemed smaller somehow. Darker. Is this because of that... Shade? Is this how they see the world? "So, uh, listen," purred the voice. "I know this whole possession thing seems a bit sudden, but it ain't all bad. There's plenty in it for you, too. I'm a very powerful creature, Sunshine. And now that power belongs to you. You got enemies? People you wanna kill? I can make it happen! That little fat kid who kept picking on you? That big ol' Shade that squashed your granny? We'll wrap 'em up in their own assholes! No more abuse for you, Sunshine! No more pain!" "W-wait," said Kainé. "You're a Shade. Why would you help me kill another Shade?" "What, ya think I'm some kind of racist? Some killing snob? I don't give a good goddamn who ya murder, honeypants. I just wanna drink from the well."
Kainé considered this as she struggled to her feet, the power of the Shade coursing through her. The smoke from her house was drifting away with the wind, and she enjoyed the way the cool evening breeze felt on her new left arm. After a long pause, the voice spoke again. "So, uh, how 'bout it? You and me? We could have some good times together. Look, I'll even take care of the bloody part if you don't want--" "Fuck off, asshole," muttered Kainé. "I'll handle the killing." "Bwaaah hah hah!" screamed the voice. "Look at you go! Oh, Sunshine, we're gonna have so much fun!"
"So listen, my name's Tyrann. And if you ever need me, I'll just be hanging out in this piece of meat you call a heart. Now get to it! The more you kill, the more your heart turns rotten and sour... and I like rotten and sour!" Kainé found herself nodding at the voice. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I think this can work. I'm gonna find that Shade, and I'm gonna strangle it with its own guts. And when I'm done, I'm gonna do the same to you, Tyrann. Count on it." "Hah!" laughed Tyrann. "I've shit bigger than you, so good luck with that. Oh, and hey. One more thing. Right now, you and me are sharing this body, but if you ever run out of hate, if you ever... you know? Go soft? Then I'm gonna take over everything. So keep on killin', Sunshine! And watch your back!" The voice grew fainter and gradually faded away. Fading to somewhere deep inside Kainé herself.
Kainé waited until she was sure the voice was gone, then waved her new left arm around a few times. It feels perfectly normal, she though. It feels... like mine. Desperately, she began poking and prodding at the new limb, determined to find something wrong with it. She didn't want it to feel normal. That would mean the creature inside her had already won.
I am not a Shade. I am Kainé. Repeating this mantra in her mind, she slowly began digging through the rubble of her house, being careful to ignore a certain red-stained spot in the corner. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of heartbreaking work, she found what she was looking for. It was the wreath of Lunar Tears. Though it had been through hell and back, the garland's petals were a bright as ever. Kainé started to place it in her hair, then slowly lowered the wreath and stared at it.
I'm sorry, Grandma. I'm so sorry. But I don't deserve to wear this anymore. I'm possessed. Corrupted. A freak. And this time, I don't think there's any going back. Holding the flowers to her heart, Kainé fell to the ground and sobbed. As night gradually lightened to dawn and the people of The Aerie arose to their daily lives, she remained in that position, as if tears could somehow wash away the horror that now infected her world.