The storm had been raging for a day and a half. Kale’s eyes burned as small tears fought tirelessly against gravity to keep his eyes from drying out. He was entranced by the bright flashes of light that illuminated the forest. The distant pale shocks gave the trees an ethereal appearance until a second hand of lightning would occasionally dig its fingers into the ground just steps away from Kale and his sister.
In these fleeting moments, he could feel everything: the friction of his clothing as the fibers brushed against rising goose bumps, the slow, mechanical compression of a single heartbeat, the blood sliding against the walls of his veins as the muscles in his forearm tightened with his grip around his sister’s small hand. He could even feel the small pull on the corners of her mouth as she smiled sympathetically. He let her calm and comfort wash over him, each bolt of lightning letting him feel her steady pulse guiding his own until their two hearts beat as one and he couldn’t tell where his fingers ended and hers began.
Kale! The sound of his name cleaved the energy charged air. Kale! Ro! The voice was so distant, like the mountains themselves were throwing his name back and forth through their valleys. He felt Ro stir at his side, tugging slightly at his hand. Another crack of lightning shook the ground.
“Kale! Wake up! Look at me, son! Look!” The voices were clearer this time, his name clearing the fog over his eyes to reveal his father kneeling in front of him. He recognized the pressure he felt on his shoulders now as his father shook him, trying to wake him from his trance.
“Kale, honey, we need to go inside now,” his mother soothed into his ear as she held his sister’s other hand. Kale blinked quickly, ignoring the sting of his tired eyes to look at his surroundings. They were in the field in front of their home and the wind was howling in his ears. A bright bolt of lightning struck the cliff on which their house was built. Kale continued the shaking that his father had started, his shoulders bouncing in fear and his eyes wild with confusion.
His eyes fell on his sister’s and she smiled at him. Stop smiling, we’re in danger.
The fine hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He could feel the approach of another lightning bolt; his body was screaming for the storm to strike him, despite his mind frantically telling his feet to carry him anywhere else. His sister recognized the struggle painted on his face and acted quickly, ripping her hands free from their mother’s and his grasp and pushing him away with all her strength. His power was coming to fruition, amplified by the storm and growing by the second. He stumbled back a few steps, the lightning striking where he had been standing only a moment earlier. When his eyes readjusted, he saw only Ro standing before him, his parents having been knocked back by the force of his power calling to the storm.
“You have to fight it,” she cried, taking a step forward. Kale’s eyes were wide with panic; they screamed at his sister, begging her to get away from him, to take their parents and run.
A shock of pain shot through his body and forced him to his knees. He trembled as the storm continued to rage around him, the lightning strikes near the children becoming more frequent and dangerous. Each strike stopped time for Kale, allowing him to feel the depth of his pain with an agony he couldn’t bear. His senses were assaulted by the wind whistling in his ears, by the heat of the lightning’s shock wave as the capillaries beneath his skin burst and gave way to fractal scarring up his arm.
He could feel himself dying. He howled with the wind in his pain as a power within him surged, undoing the fibers that held his body together. He could faintly hear Ro’s voice calling to him. He tried to lift his head to look at her, fire searing along his spine.
She was surrounded by light, almost angelic in her youth. Her face was determined and she stood tall, as though the storm was nothing to her. Only then did Kale have the clarity to see that she was protecting him – a wall of lightning licked her back as she kept it at bay. Sadness crept into her eyes as she watched her brother struggle. Another wave of pain washed over Kale and brought him crashing to the ground.
“No, Kale! You can’t, you have to get up and fight it!” The urgency in Ro’s voice forced his eyes open. He clawed at the dirt, trying to ground himself. Panic crawled through his body when he saw his hand digging into the ground. The skin had turned a deep red and his fingers had elongated, pointing into sharp talons. He screamed, terrified of what was happening to him. Ro’s words were pushed to the back of his mind as a wave of fire washed over his skin. He could feel his spirit breaking, a fracture forming in his soul as his own power tore it in two.
His voice deepened, a dark, throaty growl escaping his mouth. Nothing existed in his field of view except for his fractured soul, reverberating with power. It had torn itself in two and began to splinter, its shattered pieces orbiting around a bright sun within him, brimming with lightning. A beastly howl rose from within him as he threw his head back in pain.
A thousand leagues away, he could hear his mother shrieking.
Amid the pain and light, a new feeling arose inside of him. It pushed all of his thoughts aside and forced him to his knees, his newfound strength fighting the gravity of his soul. He looked up, raising his head slightly. The pain was still running rampant throughout his body, but it had been joined by a voracious hunger he had never felt before. Ro had vanished, the wall of light long since dissipated.
A small hand gently touched his shoulder. The contact seared his flesh and set fire to nerve endings across his body. He growled, trying to see what was hurting him. Ro stood behind him, slowly wrapping her other arm around his shoulder. The contact was excruciating. He screamed in pain-filled rage as her small body pushed against his bony back. His spine had started to protrude and the pressure against it was unwelcome.
“Kale, you can’t…” she whispered into his ear, a tear rolling down her cheek and falling on his neck. The tear was like lava running down his skin and he roared in protest. “Remember what we promised!” Ro yelled, her voice taking a commanding tone. Their two bodies pulsed with a blinding white light and a boom of thunder shook the earth below them. A bolt of lightning snaked up from the ground beneath Ro’s feet and traveled through their bodies, disappearing into the churning clouds above.
For a single moment, all of Kale’s pain ceased. His eyes lost their animalistic fury, returning to their piercing jade before clouding over with blinding light once more, bringing the pain back with it. His body struggled, not knowing what to make of what was happening to him. On one hand, he longed for that moment of serenity again, but on the other, he wanted to turn around and tear Ro to pieces.
“Kale!” Ro called out to him, tightening her burning grip on his shoulders. It felt like his soul was being compressed, forced into the sun that held its shards in orbit. Ro’s fingers felt like small tendrils of energy, as if she were reaching inside of him to put him back together. Her reach was agony. He thrashed under her grasp, trying desperately to get away, to flee into the forest, to feed on the two humans before him.
Humans? Who are they? Food… I’m so hungry. Ro, why am I so hungry? Stop hurting me… I want to eat. Ro felt his confusion and struggled to keep a hold on his humanity. She was losing him and she knew it. Kale felt her take a deep breath behind him before being engulfed in light once again. It was different this time. The pain wasn’t gone, just dulled and localized into a single piece of his soul, almost like it was trying to save his body. He could feel Ro reaching into him and taking hold of his small sun. She screamed behind him but kept a firm grasp on his power, slowly separating it from the fragments of his soul. Her energy worked like daggers, severing the electric sinews of his power that corrupted his soul.
Clarity began returning to Kale, slowly at first with a cool, soothing sensation like someone was applying an ointment to his charred flesh. He could feel a tidal wave of relief washing over his body as Ro worked to mend his broken soul, removing his corrupted energy and placing the pieces back together. His body gradually relaxed in her arms and he was able to see clearly. The ground around them had been scorched and his parents were watching their children from a distance, their father with an arm around their mother as if to stop her from running to them. Lightning still struck near them, but Ro must have been guiding them away from both him and their parents.
He could hear her labored breath in his ear and feel the deep heaving of her chest. Her body was like fire on his back – not the painful searing of his flesh from before, but a heat that was coming from within her. He felt the last pieces of his soul fall into place, fusing together to make him whole again. His body ached from the pain and his throat was raw from his screams, but he was whole and he was human. You did it.
His relief turned to fear in an instant. The small hands on his shoulders tightened their grip, digging sharp nails into his flesh with a low, rumbling growl.
“Kale!” His father called out to him, a hand outstretched for him to take hold. Kale slowly turned his head and was met with an unrecognizable face. Ro was slowly succumbing to the monster she had absorbed from Kale. He recognized his own energy inside her; it skittered across her skin like a lighting bolt’s shock wave, weaving around her own energy in a waltz of power.
“Run… Kale…” she muttered through clenched teeth in a deep voice not her own.
“Ro, what’s happening?” Kale asked, afraid. His question was met with a low, rumbling, almost feline growl. He took a deep breath and wrenched his shoulders from her grasp. Blood began pooling on his shoulders, spotting his torn shirt. He half stood weakly, his strength sapped from his ordeal. Using his hands to help propel him forward, he made a dash for his father’s outstretched hand. He looked at his parents, unbidden tears stinging his eyes, “she saved me. This shouldn’t be happening to her. She saved me.” His mother held him, stroking his hair as they watched their youngest family member become a monster.
Ro had lost any resemblance she had to being human. Kale’s first thought was that she had turned into a panther. Her golden skin had turned black, thick fur covering her body from head to toe and laced with a deep red fractal pattern like her body would shatter at any moment. She stood on all fours, hunched with her head low to the ground, snarling. Her feet had become large hoof-encased paws, each toe covered by a bone-like shield. Her hands had succumbed to a similar treatment – large paws and maneuverable fingers with which she could grab and tear her victims apart. A black exoskeleton of bone armored her body on the front of her legs, along her spine, and over her ribs. Five spiny tails weaved behind her, crackling with small webs of lightning as they swayed. Her hair had hardened, stretching back from her face into a sinister crown of black horns woven together, framing her fearsome visage.
His mother clamped a hand over her mouth in shock. Were the situation different, Kale might have thought the creature before him beautiful, but his overwhelming fear pushed such thoughts aside.
Ro’s head turned up slowly with a snarl. Her eyes glowed a deep crimson, pulsing brighter when they fell upon her family. A deep rumble started in her throat and she took a slow step forward. Kale’s father placed an arm out sideways as if to shield his wife and son. The family slowly got to their feet, Kale using his mother to support his weight. The rumbling in Ro’s throat got louder as she quickened her pace.
Her father tried to call out to what was left of her inside. “Ro, honey, you don’t want to do this. You have to fight whatever’s happening to you,” he begged, steadily walking backwards. She hesitated mid-step. She took a step back, sinking low to the ground and ceasing her throaty rumbling.
They continued to back away slowly until something snapped inside Ro. She gave a loud roar and leapt forward. She landed on her father, pinning him to the ground. She towered over him, a hulking beast larger than anything Kale had ever seen. His father cried out. “Vana! Take Kale and go, now!” Kale’s mother had already started dragging him away. He didn’t want to leave his father with the beast into which he had turned his little sister.
They ran toward the house to hide knowing that they couldn’t outrun such an agile beast. Steps away from the front door, Kale chanced a glance over his shoulder. His stomach churned at the sight. His father lay lifeless in a pool of gore. Ro had torn him to pieces trying to feast on his bones but had stopped short. She was gone, though where, Kale hadn’t seen.
“Mom, she’s not back there…” he said urgently. She peered behind them, pain filling her face at the sight of her husband. She looked around cautiously, wishing the storm would lend her some light. As if listening to her thoughts, a sheet of lightning filled the sky and a thick bolt crashed against the ground. Ro was nowhere to be found. Kale’s mother took his hand and turned, stopping dead in her tracks.
“Kale, run-!” Her cry was cut short as Ro pounced from the shadow of the house, overtaking the small woman easily. The force of her fall ripped her hand from Kale’s and he fell to the ground. Kale shook in fear, not bothering to run. He knew he couldn’t outrun Ro, even if he had his strength. Ro didn’t linger atop her mother’s body for long. She didn’t feed, only made sure that her prey was dead so that she could feed once she’d overtaken Kale.
Kale took to his shaky feet, mustering all the strength he had to stand. The red fractals across Ro’s body glowed deep crimson, a stark contrast to her jet black fur. She approached him, her throaty rumble the only thing Kale could hear. She stopped short of him, inching her face in front of his. He raised an unsteady hand and placed it lightly on the side of her face. She recoiled slightly with a snarl, but Kale didn’t move his hand. “You kept your promise,” he whispered, “you saved me.”
The raging storm above howled a haunting lament.