Moonlight and shadow latticed her face as she spoke, formed of the moon's brilliance that snuck through the roof's cracks, just as eager as us to hear the tales our ancestors.
I settled Sophia onto my lap, and her twin leaned into me, her tiny head almost nonexistent under the overwhelming folds of my sleeve. Dirt was curdled on the ground, wedged between the floorboards, hidden in the needlework of our clothes. But as our cousin spoke, the ordinary all but disappeared.
"Our mountain wasn't just a mountain," Taya chose to begin. "Those almost-spires of rock and metal, that are so desperate to pierce the sky but can't, weren't just a landscape of ruin."
She pointed from our spot on the craggy hillside, her finger guiding our eyes past the rocks and trees and mountains that dared to cross our path and to the gloriously ruined ruins, tall but not tall enough. The more one looked, the more foreign and untouchable the terrible beauty seemed to get. The light shifted from silver to golden as it fell upon it, revealing the worn but expertly chiseled shape of the fallen gate, the breaths of swirling dust and the solid curve of each decaying stone.
"It was a palace so vast it was like a world unto itself, sitting grandly upon its mountain home. Avmasia Chasei was the centre of all magic, the centre of all politics, for it housed representatives from each race. A rider, from the most treacherous of the mountains and valleys, along with their dragon, bright eyes a reflection of the other’s. A forest elf, a sea elf, a mountain elf. A dwarf. A wizard. Two fae, one of the sea and one of the sky. Even a goblin, a leader of the twisted inhabitants who tore through the depths no others dared to go."
I found my eyes straying to the window, a sheet of glass coated in dirt. As her words spilled over, coating everything in the room, it wasn't hard to imagine that glass being wrought by dwarves, elves, or even the fae.
"And even before there was a palace at all, there was corruption. Ever-present and deep rooted, tearing out the foundation of what each race believed in."
It was almost certain that the corruption that existed then, existed now.
"War. Deception. All-powerful rulers," she paused. "Monsters."
"The wars were fought, and soon, the palace was built, the societies harmonious, the monsters all but extinct. At least, they thought they were. It isn't known exactly how the windmanes were reformed. Only one thing is certain: they are here again."
My gaze darted back to the window on instinct of fear, and a hiss, like the rustling of a breeze mixed with a scream, infiltrated my ears. Every limb went rigid, my fear evolving from some sort of joke to the real, cold feeling of petrifaction. We weren't ready for them. We were still recovering from the last attack...
Taya continued, but the workings of my brain were scattered, unfocused. My eyes were locked to the outside, waiting for any sign of a windmane. I saw the black silhouette of a tree, I saw grass, I sa-
That's what I didn't see. A shadow. The tree didn't have a shadow.
They were here.
"Taya," I whispered, gently lifting my sister from my lap.
And as she turned toward the sound of her name, the window exploded.
I threw myself to the ground, my back curved out over my sisters like shield, as the glass ricocheted off every surface, including me. Hot blood that I desperately hoped was mine added a thin layer between the fabric of my sweater and my skin.
"Get them to the cellar!" I yelled to Taya, who was already darting towards us with her dagger in hand.
She nodded quickly, gathering them up into her arms, as I ran to the wall to grab my own weapon, my eyes searching the room for the nearly invisible monster.
I could still hear the glass breaking in my ears, vibrating, hindering my ability to detect the windmane's whereabouts through hearing. Silver light, menacing now, not enchanting, came in the room as one solid shaft, no longer obscured by any mud-smeared window. The tree outside my window had its shadow back. There were no sounds beyond, no other monsters haunting the village except for the one that was probably a mere foot away, lying undetected.
Silence invaded the room, and there was no break in shadow, no darting movement to find where it was... so I did the only thing I could; I ran, sword in hand, leaping out the window and landing in the grass, jarring my already wounded ankle. I heard a sharp whoosh behind me, and knew it had followed, just like I wanted, just like it wanted.
So I ran and ran and ran, leading as far away from my village as possible, feeling my eyes water with pain, my ankle throbbing miserably as it pushed me along. Past rocks, trees. The night only got darker.
And the windmane ran with me.
Minutes later, almost an hour, I could feel the throbbing reaching the point of unbearable. Unconsciousness lurked closer than the windmane behind me, and I knew if I wanted to remain human, if I didn't want to be defeated, I would have to fight. Now.
"Slowpoke!" I called out, but it didn't speed up. It didn't catch up. Slowing down would show weakness. I needed it to come to me."Come get me!"
I couldn't run I couldn't run I couldn't I couldn't my ankle the pain the black in my vision the-
I was knocked to the ground, breath whipped from my lungs. My sword arm flew into a tree, sending a shock of pain through my entire body. I pushed off the trunk with my good foot, instinct as my guide, sword unsheathed and reflecting spots of white against the black landscape.
I swept it in an arch, but I heard no stinging cry of the windmane. I spun, limping, searching for it.
There it was, a few trees back, hovering. Calling. It looked kind of like a cloud, but less puff and more lines. Wisps. The windmane had a human-like shape, fingers of mist, a head of foggy hair, emptiness serving for the eyes and mouth. Larger than any human, faster, too, better camouflaged. It baffled me, how we ever defeated them, how I defended my village against a horde only a week ago.
It screamed. It tore through my head and I staggered back, throwing my hands over my ears while still trying to balance the weapon, but it was a futile effort. The scream pierced through my skull, coming from all directions, more like I could hear its deafening thoughts inside my own mind. I could feel my brain clouding, my vision blurring as if I had tears in my eyes.
And then there were more. Windmanes and windmanes and windmanes. No trees, just the misty forms too much like ghosts, shrouding the area, joining in on the scree, the battle cry.
I joined too, screaming, falling back, wishing wishing wishing my body would betray me, pull me under because it was just telling me anything and everything I didn't want to hear.
Except it wasn't words but feelings, rushes of heat and pain and longing and regret. My muscles strained against the want to fall back and cry. And then I felt it, the one thing I couldn't stand.
I could feel the heat in my stomach, rising to the surface, urging me to fight, to kill them all where they stood.
My scream transformed from one of fear to one of fury and I hurled my body forward, into the masses, slashing my blade and letting my ears be filled with the writhing protests of the windmanes as I cut them open, feeling the metallic, acidic wind of their destroyed forms whip me in the face, sting me like no poison ever could.
My sisters weren't dead. They couldn't be. They were alive. My cousin, Taya, had to be alive. They had to be. They had to be.
The windmanes stole my breath, their air coiling around me in a strangling hug. My arm lagged. I coughed, resisting the sogginess of my muscles and brain, pushing on. The windmanes kept coming. Soon I felt their hands around my neck, binding my legs, fighting to find my hands, stealing my breath. Lungs gasped for air, but it was gone.
And I fell.
And I could see it.
And I could feel it.
And I was gone.
There was no air, but I still breathed, my lungs contracting and expanding, accepting nothing but the cloying breath of the monsters as they took me. Dirt and sticks dug into my back, cold and moist and so alive against me. Alive like I wasn't.
Struggling, I moved my hands to my face, trying to see and hear through the perpetual noise and pressing presence of the windmanes, the wall of mist and cloud and nothingness that was so hard to see past.
And my hand, my hands...
Bones. Just bones. Frosted white wind swirled around the skeleton, fingers no longer made of skin, no longer made of me.
With a last cough, silver appeared in the corners of my vision, not the black of unconsciousness, but the white of...them. I could feel everything eating away at me, my bones finally fading.
They were right.
I had turned.
And so would we all.