Kaipo watched as the witch leaned back in her chair after the monster left. All of the vitality propping her up seemed to drain from her at once, and she let her head drop into her hands. She stayed like that for a long while, with Kaipo was too afraid to speak up lest she call her monster back.
The “monster,” he called it. Like he wasn’t one himself, now.
He still couldn’t believe that he had died. He felt like himself, but the moment when he was devoured by the emptiness in that orb stayed with him. At that moment, the tether connecting him to life was snapped, and he knew he’d never see this world again.
Except he was still here. Some force, terrifying and inexorable, pulled him from that spaceless void and returned him—if not to life—at least to existence.
Every moment passing in this silent cottage reminded him that he’d never hear the pulse of blood in his ears again. He’d never feel the warmth of his mother’s embrace or the hand of his father tousling his hair. He’d never again skip stones with the other boys. He’d never go on his rite of passage, that first journey outside of the Cradle. Sommai was going to take him next spring.
And he’d never be able to cry and release all these horrible emotions building up inside him. Even as he realized it, those same emotions began to dissolve like a sand castle succumbing to the ceaseless, rolling waves of the ocean.
“I’ve always despised you Children of the Mountain,” said the witch.
The remark took Kaipo by surprise, and he shrunk back, hoping he hadn’t done anything to annoy her.
“See? For that very reason. You’re cowards. Even in death, you are afraid. Of what? Dying again?” She laughed, but it was laced with bitterness.
“Squirreled away in this tiny hole, in this tiny country, all but a few of your people too scared to travel beyond the walls that you believe provide shelter.”
What was she talking about? They were tiny? The Cradle was one of the biggest settlements in all of Yarang. A few others were larger, and certainly the Enclave was bigger, but that was the biggest city in the world.
“You worship these giant old kings with their snowy crowns, imagining that by the significance of the mountains enveloping you that you’re made significant. You are not.”
Her words were so vehement that Kaipo sucked in a breath, holding it so that he wouldn’t make noise and draw more attention to himself. In his fear—the one emotion that didn’t leave him so easily—he forgot that he didn’t need to breathe.
“The confusion in your face tells me that you doubt me.”
He shook his head, but she continued, uncaring.
“In the West, we’d consider the entire population of Yarang a rounding error. But no one knows you exist. Your country isn’t a smudge on the map. You hide, and because of this, you cannot be significant. Your wells are so shallow that your strongest warriors are all below level one hundred… yet you survive. The greatest monsters in the world are but a mere stone’s throw away, and you survive. That great mystery is the only reason I waited two years. Two years to discover why you aren’t all destroyed at the first whim of one of the Cataclysms. Two years of research.”
She’d been watching Kaipo throughout her spiel, but her gaze seemed to bore through him, as if he wasn’t the one she was evaluating. The witch wasn’t a dead walker like him or the other monsters—she was worse than all of them. The kindness she’d exhibited when he knocked on her door had been but a clay mask, and now the demon underneath was cracking open its onyx eyes.
“Studying your language, your customs, and your people. When I finally discovered your grand secret, I laughed. That was all I could do. In this time, I might have done so much more. I might have—!”
Rising to her feet, she lifted a jug and threw it against the far wall, where it shattered into fragments. The strength in her frail-looking arms surprised him. However, this exertion took all of her strength and she once again collapsed into her chair and began to mutter to herself, continuing to speak Kaipo’s language, though he didn’t think the words were meant for him anymore.
“…I fail in my revenge, I desecrate your corpse and command its soulless husk to do my bidding… I am cruel, betrothed. I must be. You, you must understand me, even if no one else… remains.”
Her voice cracked on the last word. For the next minute, the whispers continued, gradually growing more and more incoherent until she finally stopped. Her eyes fell upon the open case where she’d drawn the sword from earlier, the one she gave to the frightening monster.
“Summoning,” she said. “Summoning. I need to call my ghouls here before the hunters return…”
Convincing herself thus, she stood and crossed the room, opening a basket and pulling out various things from within: chalk, a tinderbox, some strange, transparent container that held within it dust, along with various other implements. She turned, and upon finding her previous ritual circle still taking up her floor, gestured at Kaipo.
“Boy. Come here. Take these rags and some water. Clean this up.”
Kaipo rose and did as he was told, feeling strangely eager to make himself useful. They spent the next two hours busily, the witch ordering him to perform various seemingly pointless tasks while she occupied herself mainly with drawing an intricate pattern on the floor. His main task was fetching instruments which he then arranged around the room in designated locations. At one point he stood in a particular portion of the floor for half an hour so that the witch could use him as a “template,” whatever that meant.
She would speak to herself during this time, and Kaipo was able to understand her. He thought that perhaps she grew accustomed to the language of the Children of the Mountain over her native tongue. He absorbed everything she said. He’d always had a good memory.
The most interesting fact that was uncovered was that she had weakened herself recently, else she would be able to perform certain “things” (what these were, he wasn’t sure) without the aid of ritual circles. The nature of her weakness was strange, too. From what he could piece together of the fragments, she thought this weakness a necessity, something like a passing sickness, and once it was over she would be changed—into something that wasn’t entirely human.
That came as a surprise to Kaipo. She wanted to become a monster? As far as he was concerned, she was already the farthest thing from human.
It was when they were beginning to finish up that a noise outside the house made the witch rise and go to her window. When she peered through the shutters, her eyes widened, and she strode to the door, which toppled over after a slight pull at the handle, forcing her to dodge out of the way. It had been broken off its hinges earlier, but she’d apparently forgotten. Recovering quickly, she stepped on the door and surveyed the area outside her house.
Kaipo crept up to the shutters to peer through the cracks. He shrunk back upon seeing a crowd of twenty to thirty ghouls in front of the hut. “Ghouls” being the name the witch had given them. In the tongue of the Children of the Mountain, the word referred to a restless ghost.
The witch took another step such that the assembled ghouls could see her, at which point a chorus of growls echoed out from the monsters. Lifting a hand, she revealed a small silver amulet, and a force—invisible yet tangible—spread out in a wave, and they fell silent. Kaipo felt something alien brush against his own mind, sticky but fragile, a bit like a cobweb. He quickly shook it off.
At this point, Kaipo realized that these were all people from his village of Yayu. Looking at their dead faces and blank stares, a muted sensation rose up within him, and he wished that he was at least able to feel sick. He caught sight of his aunt, who had her head slumped to the side while an open wound in her stomach sent her intestines spilling to the ground. The only emotion that came to him upon witnessing that sight was sadness. Not horror, dread, or even misery, but a feeling that someone might experience after hearing that one of his friend’s family members had died. A distant unhappiness. He felt sorrier for the human Kaipo who still lived in his mind than he did for his aunt in reality.
A voice broke him out of his reverie.
“He couldn’t have—but where is he? Is it possible that he ordered them to come here and that they obeyed?”
The witch was once again talking to herself, too quietly for the assembled ghouls to hear, but Kaipo was close enough. He somehow got the sense that she wouldn’t be speaking if he weren’t around. Perhaps she liked having someone who could listen. She’d been alone for many years, after all, out here in the barren fields. Kaipo wished he could at least bring himself to hate her. Perhaps, if he could, he wouldn’t feel like he was betraying the memories of everyone he knew.
“Vanalath—did he—no, that’s impossible. Ghouls cannot retain a soul. But he’s remarkably intelligent. Perhaps that is to be expected of his… mortal aspect.”
An indescribable emotion on her face, the witch reentered the cabin.
“There is no need for this ritual right now. We shall wait a while longer and see,” she said.
Fully confident that the ghouls outside wouldn’t become a problem, she waited. After another six hours passed, the next group arrived.
The witch, having gone to the door a second time upon hearing the approach, asked, “Iokina, is that you?”
Kaipo, hearing the familiar name, once again went to the shutters to get a look. Iokina was the headman’s wife of Gyida, the northern village and the smallest settlement of the valley. Occasionally, Kaipo would be conscripted to run messages between the villages because he was fairly fast and he could remember simple instructions. Because of this, he knew all the elders and the three headmen pretty well, along with their families, as they were the ones who usually received the messages he delivered.
The ghoul she spoke to had long brown hair and moved with grace, though perhaps it only seemed that way after contrasting her movements with the ungainly monsters all around her. She’d brought another twenty undead with her.
The witch smiled and approached her. “Why, so it is! It’s been long since I last saw you, Iokina. Are you doing well?”
Kaipo indeed recognized her as the headman’s wife. Though she was now a monster like the rest, she appeared much the same as she did in life—though her yellow eyes and bloodless skin attested to her death. When Iokina saw the witch nearing her, she took an apprehensive step back. But the witch suddenly blurred, and when she reappeared, she was right in front of the female ghoul.
“None of that, if you please. As expected of an evolved ghoul, you resist the geas admirably.”
When she’d teleported, her hand was already placed on Iokina’s forehead. The look on the ghoul’s face showed that she was struggling, as if there was some invisible force that restrained her.
“Just a little more… there. A direct link.”
“This should hold you until the fourth tier, if you’re lucky enough to reach it. Now then, where was it? Ah, here we are.”
The witch, rummaging around, pulled out something from the folds of her robe that looked like a… spoon? But it was too large and completely flat, and the ladle area was transparent. Kaipo had never seen anything like it. It was like a smooth disc of flawless crystal had been set into the metal frame. She held it up and peered through it at Iokina. She turned the ghoul’s head left and right, lifted her jaw, opened her mouth an examined her teeth, pinched open her eyelid, and appeared for all the world to be inspecting her like a doctor might. As she continued with her invasive examination, the smile on her face kept widening.
“A proto-screamer,” she said. “Marvelous.”
Taking her subject by the arm, she began to lead her inside. As she did, a group of five male ghouls who had been standing by Iokina began to follow after them. The witch whirled around with ice in her eyes.
“You will stay,” she said.
As if receiving a physical blow, the ghouls staggered back, and one even crumpled to his knees.
In an instant, the witch had switched her affectation from cheerfulness to an immovable frigidity. The sudden shift in personality threw even Kaipo, and he tried to make himself as small as possible when she entered the house with Iokina. When her back was turned, he ducked behind a sack filled with tubers, hoping that she would forget he existed.
The witch sat Iokina down on the only chair in the cottage and began pulling out various devices and tools that Kaipo didn’t recognize. Her mood seemed to improve again as she got into a certain rhythm, and she even began humming to herself.
“Dear Iokina. I should congratulate you,” she said in a singsong voice. “It’s a rare thing to be one of the fortunates who can cultivate an ability like yours. Though I suppose you’ve been pushing your intentions onto others all your life, so perhaps even in death it comes naturally to you, hm?”
Kaipo had noticed it before, but she seemed awfully familiar with Iokina. He recalled that the witch lived in Gyida for a time when she first arrived in the valley, meaning that the two women shared a village. The hidden barbs in the witch’s words made Kaipo think that the two of them didn’t get along. Perhaps Iokina had been involved with her exile? She certainly had a lot of influence in Gyida.
Though the witch was soon exiled to the barren fields, they must have had their share of interactions before that. Kaipo, on his occasional visits there, remembered hearing a few murmurs of discontent concerning the foreigner among the women. Though her magics were helpful and she bore one of the most trustworthy Brands, there was talk of her doing “things” with the men of the village. Whenever Kaipo asked what it was she did with them, none of the adults would answer, annoyingly. He used to wish that the adults would tell him about more interesting things like that. They only ever gave him messages for boring topics like crop harvests, storm predictions, and the movement of fauna through the lower passes. Who cared about antelopes eating all the young rockweed growths to the north? Not him, but the elders all went crazy for that sort of stuff.
While Kaipo was reminiscing about the past, he was able to forget, for a moment, his own situation. He was brought back into the present by the sight of the witch beginning the procedure she’d been readying herself for. It wasn’t a ritual, like Kaipo had thought. Apparently, she was giving Iokina a… a haircut?
She was shearing it all off. Iokina’s brown curls fell to the floor in clumps, forming a ring around the chair. The hair which had once been full of life, despite being on the head of a corpse, now looked truly dead. Iokina sat compliantly. Though it seemed impossible for an undead like her to feel emotion (Kaipo being the exception), he imagined he saw her lower lip trembling.
The witch continued to hum a tune in her beautiful voice, filling the entire hut with song. It sounded like a nursery rhyme, but not one Kaipo had ever heard before. It was a cheery and hopeful song, but the way the witch performed it tinged the melody with a slight dissonance that set his teeth on edge.
Then, taking a razor, she carefully shaved off the stubble until Iokina’s head was smooth. She then moved on to her eyebrows, not even leaving the woman with that small concession.
The witch interrupted her song to speak to Iokina. “Remember not to move while the surgeon is operating. Understood? Good girl.”
Putting down the razor, she picked up a tray filled with tools that were similar in shape to the razor, though they assuredly served different functions. The claws of apprehension gripped Kaipo once more when he saw the wicked scalpel.
“It might get messy, but do be good and remember the rules, yes? Here we go~”
The witch resumed her melody.
For some minutes, she only made small adjustments to the patient. Probes were inserted into her mouth and nose, tissue samples were collected, notes were jotted down intermittently. Soon, she gathered all the data she could from such things, and the witch began more serious operations.
The first incision was made along Iokina’s forehead. The second followed shortly. And then came the third, her quick, deft hands showing how practiced she was with such procedures. Forehead, temples, ears, jaw, mouth.
When the witch began to peel off Iokina’s face, Kaipo had to avert his gaze.
The sight of the operation, horrifying though it was, wasn’t what finally turned his stomach. The most disturbing thing was the witch, who sang throughout, even as black blood painted her hands and dripped to the floor. The look on her face was so inexpressibly horrible that Kaipo couldn’t bear it a moment longer.
Unstable. This woman was unstable. She was dangerous.
He turned away, tucking his head between his legs and covering his ears so he wouldn’t have to listen to the dreadful song and the ripping of flesh.
This woman was insane.