I had just returned unsuccessful from a hunt, my face numb against the biting chill of winter. Flurries of snowfall poured from an ashen-gray sky, pulling the landscape beneath a frantic sweep of snow and ice. The snow piled near my ankles. Flakes batted at my face.
But escape was just within reach, the hazy stretch of neighboring huts taking form on the horizon.
The wind broke; bitter gusts of air slipped into the slivers of jacket exposing skin. Shivering, I wrapped my arms around myself and trudged on.
It wasn’t long before the hazy shapes of people came into view. As I drew closer, I recognized faces: Mother, Ram, my eldest cousin, and my uncle. They stood in a circle, their petrified eyes cast downward.
I followed the look, and the air left me at once.
Amid that circle, my brother lay limp. An arrow stuck from his ribs, blood spreading across his chest, soaking through his woolen jacket and pooling beneath him A strangled scream clawed its way from my throat as I ran toward him. But Mother grabbed my hand.
“No, Feba, don’t go around him.” Her voice came out thick and strange. Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen.“It isn’t safe.”
I froze. What was going on here, what did she mean? Surely, Sang couldn’t have been ill. . . He was fine when I left him at the riverbank a few hours earlier. He’d waved me off with a smile while his hair tangled in a breeze. The last thing he’d said to me: May our hunt be great, and our bellies be full.
I reiterated the scene in my head. Again and again, I recaptured the way my brother appeared those last few moments before our departure, trying to gauge anything about him that seemed off, but nothing came to me. Light brown skin and dark coils and everything else in between. My brother was the healthy boy I’d always known him as.
One last time, I echoed the memory, remembering how his eyes glinted silver beneath the wash of moonlight.
“To darkness with Etisha!” My Uncle's voice snapped me from my thoughts. My eyes swished toward him. He marched toward Sang, pride in every step, and pulled the arrow effortlessly from Sang’s ribs. Flecks of blood flicked free from the sharp tip as he raised it high and roared, “to another generation free of her curse!”
The ice melted from my thoughts. My attention drifted back to my brother. I forced my gaze to steady on his face. His skin was so pale. And his eyes—---
A dead chill slithered down my spine as I comprehended. Unbidden, the image of Sang’s eyes under moonlight flashed across my memory.
“The fire’s ready,” said Ram. His voice came muffled and far away, as if he’d spoken from underwater. Yet succumbing to the haze of my numbing thoughts, it was I who couldn’t breathe. I limped forward, reaching.
Mother grabbed me by the shoulders then, forced me around so that her intense gaze held mine. “No he’s gone,” she said, “there was nothing we could do.”
Despite the cold, despite her tears, my blood simmered. I snatched myself out of Mother’s bruising grip, glowering at her, my own eyes stinging.
I shifted to face Ram and my uncle as they hoisted Sang into a sling. “He didn’t do anything,” I said, my words trembling. But I could do nothing except watch while they carried Sang’s body toward the distant blaze of fire burning deep in the mountains.
There, they would burn him.
Etisha was an ordinary woman, with brown skin and a thick mane of curls, pitch dark. Her lips, crimson, matched perfectly with her red and black sari. There were only two things not ordinary about her: She had deep blue eyes that flashed pale, and she spoke to beasts.
For twenty-four years, she’d been the focus of superstitious gossip, so she'd kept to herself mostly. Animals were her only friends; no human dared to come near her.
Then on Etisha’s twenty-fifth birthday, she’d disappeared.
Weeks dwindled into months, months into years. But no one ever heard from her again, not even the slightest whisper.
The tribe concluded that it was a mercy from the gods that Etisha left their lives. And thus, they carried on as usual. Hunting. Cooking. Sewing.
Until one day, things changed. Permanently.
Swarms of shadow-beasts infested our territory, slaughtering everyone in sight, reducing huts to rubble.
At the eye of those storming beasts—Etisha, her eyes silver and bright. “Feba.” She used my name like a command, a dozen other distinct voices coming out of her and thundering in my ears.
She spoke again, more urgently this time. “Feba.”
The dream vanished and I woke up to Mother tapping on my shoulder. My eyes clenched against the radiant streams of sunlight pouring into my room. I slung an arm over my face, groaning. I didn’t want to get up—didn't want to see the empty bed beside me. If I had the choice, I would’ve slept for an eternity; I'd been dealing with more than enough of Mother’s feigned smiles and affections ever since Sang’s cremation. She breezed through life as if she’d never played part in her own son’s demise. Unless, of course, she treated the situation similarly to Etisha’s, and simply pushed the memory of Sang aside, believing it was but the mercy and doing of the gods that made exposing and taking Sang out of everyone’s life so easy. The thought made my stomach twist.
“It’s time to get up,” said Mother. “Eat before your breakfast gets cold.” I bit back a grimace. Yet another addition to the list of things I didn’t want to do. Eat. Just the thought of food served only to twist my guts into further knots.
Thankfully, Mother didn’t pester me long. She finished off with, “Now dress up, It’s going to be a chilly one today,” and disappeared around the corner.
I exhaled, my gaze fixed to my ecru ceiling. I couldn’t decide which was worse; this, or sharing a house with the person who would’ve discarded me just as easily had it been my eyes that were silver.
It wasn’t fair—Did Sang have time to understand what was happening, or did death come quickly?
Tears threatened my vision. But I couldn’t let Mother see me mourn for the boy she’d been so willing to cut from her life. I choked them back.
Pushing blankets, I stood to dress myself. I decided on a faded black sari with white lily print—draped over with a khasto—before setting my into a loose bun. Then, picking the tiny mirror off my nightstand, I glanced my reflection; my eyes were bleak and heavy from the insufficient sleep I’d gotten in a week’s span. Deep blue, they were only a shade lighter than what my brother’s had been. But in the coming months leading to his death, his irises had faded into something much grayer, even paler. He didn’t seem to notice that I’d noticed, and he’d kept it to himself. But he came back after more than a dozen hunts empty handed. I had to say something.
“Keep this between us,” he’d told me. He didn’t want anyone else to know that he was growing blind. If the tribe knew, they'd forbid him from hunting, he’d never be allowed to enter the forest again. While part of me understood it was only the tribe’s way of protecting their people, I understood also just how much Sang cherished hunting, how awful he’d feel if it were to be taken from him.
So I didn’t say anything. If I had, would’ve he lived to see another day? My eyes stung again. I tore my gaze from the mirror.
Slowly, I drew in a long, fortifying breath, and waited until the risk of tears was no longer before I made my way toward the kitchen.
Everything felt wrong about the empty chair across from me. It didn’t matter whether weeks or months or decades went by—for as long as I lived, I’d never be convinced Sang deserved what had happened to him.
I made sure not to linger on those thoughts, or rather, my brother’s chair for very much longer. But it was hard—hard for my eyes to not wander, for now It was only Mother and I, and what should’ve still been Sang’s spot only marked as a cruel reminder of his fate.
“Are you not going to finish breakfast?” Mother said next to me. It wasn’t until then I realized I’d been spacing. Chin in palm, I stared down at my stew, idly stirring floating chunks of deer meat. Am I going to finish eating? A simple question, yet I couldn’t even bring myself to look at her. I said nothing.
“Don’t tell me you’re still troubled about your brother’s funeral.”
Instantly, my teeth clenched, the muscles in my fingers drawing taut. It was hard, but still I said nothing.
But Mother only added to the ever growing fire. “I understand, but the time for mourning has passed. You must let go.”
I shut my eyes and inhaled deeply through my nose, trying to smother the venomous thoughts that ran through my head before they could become words— before I said something I’d regret. Still, it was impossible for me to hold my peace completely. I said, “he was my brother. . . . . ”
Truly, Mother acted as though Sang had been only a mere pet that died after only a few days with it. Those were times where you grieved a little and moved on, because there wasn’t really anything to miss.
But you mourn for your son. Regardless of how many hours or days you spent— you mourn for him.
I gritted my teeth further, my jaw aching. My hands shook.
Mother sighed, settling a palm atop one of mine. The touch sent an icy-chill down my body, and it was enough to make me still, my hands no longer shaking. “I know how hard it is, I do. It’s how I felt when I lost your father for the same reason. But eventually, you learn to let go.” She gave my hand a small squeeze, adding, “It helps when you’ve realized what you’ve been set free from.”
Repulsed, I shot from my chair and tore from Mother’s touch. Though my heart thundered, I kept my expression solid as ice, determined not to let my true feelings slip. “I’m going to go hunting,” I muttered.
“Now? It’s still early. You haven’t even finished your—”
I stood in the archway. Bright shades of pink and gold stretched across a cloudless sky, the sun climbing lazily over the Shadow-mountain bluffs. Looking at them, I remembered my dream.
“Please come back safely,” said Mother, her voice coming from far away. At that, my throat tightened.
I swallowed hard. “I will.”
Sang and I had always hunted in turns. He’d take the forest some days, and then the river others. Today, I was supposed to go fishing. But I was sick of reminders of my brother’s death.
I chose the forest instead.
Hardened snow crunched beneath me. My breaths came in frozen, billowing streams of frost that died in the chill.
I was halfway to the hunt when the wails of Shadow-beasts echoed in far away cliffs. Glancing beyond the mountain ridges was almost a matter of instinct; although attacks had been scarce in the last few decades, safety wasn’t promised. There was always a risk.
The tribe might’ve been precise at neutralizing potential threats, but Shadow-beasts weren’t tied just to silver-eyes. They attacked and slaughtered and destroyed who they wanted when they wanted.
Souls damned to roam a world they’d died hating, the mountain was their hell. I used to not believe in such tales, but it wasn’t long before I did, for as the slaughter of men and women with silver eyes grew, the howls did as well.
And with every death, I’d recognized the distinct voice of a different beast each time, as if the Shadows had been formed from the souls of those who had once been part of our own people.
Another howl, a desolate sound. Like a wolf separated from its pack.
I shivered, goosebumps spreading down my arms. “Safety isn’t promised,” I whispered to myself, reaching for my arrow. But I grabbed at air.
I reached again, both arms this time, but my back was empty as I patted it. I’d forgotten my arrow, I realized. I turned and looked back at my hut’s distant shape; wind caught in my hair. I’d been so eager to escape from that place I’d all but forgotten my things. Although I despised the idea of walking back, the distance was short enough that I could get from point A to point B in a matter of minutes.
Exhaling, I made my way back toward home. If memory served, I’d set my tools somewhere near the entrance.
Silently, I stepped inside and glanced. I found my things in seconds. I reached, then froze as Mother’s sobs filled my head.
My head snapped toward the kitchen. Mother’s trembling form lay crumpled over the table, a piece of my brother’s jacket squeezed in her tight, shaking fist. She cried fiercely, every sob tearing into me.
My chest tightened; I swallowed painfully. Somehow, seeing Mother grieve only made me angrier. She was part of the reason Sang was dead. It was far too late for her to regret her decision now.
My eyes stung as I hastened to grab my things. One more time, I glanced at Mother, who cried on.
I glowered, a tear of my own slipping down my cheek.
“It’s your fault.” I accidentally said my thoughts.
Mother startled, her head lifting. But before she could see me, I ran. As quickly as I could, I sprinted through the cold brisk air, and didn’t stop until I saw the distant shape of forest ahead.
I chose a large rock near the brook as my hideout. The ice had mostly melted, and the burbling streams of water came loud enough that no potential prey should’ve detected me. One set back was the sunlight clashing with the eternal stretch of snow ahead of me. It was so bright that I felt like I could’ve gone blind if I’d let my gaze stray there for too long. Probably it was because I wasn’t used to hunting at midday— Sang was usually given those shifts while I hunted at night.
A sigh escaped me. It sickened me knowing that Sang was but one victim among many. Even my father was one of them, but he’d died months before I was born.
It wasn’t fair. If only the cycle could be broken. For those with silver eyes to be treated for what they really were. Human—not etinities to carry out Etisha’s wickedness and thus must be killed, but human.
A sweep of black leaped out from behind a tree a few feet away.
Slowly, cautiously, I stood, drawing out my bow and arrow. One eye shut, I pulled back against the string, focusing, waiting.
Nose twitching, the hare bent its head to graze on a small patch of grass. What felt like minutes passed before it finally turned its back to me.
I grinned and pulled even further on my bowstring, ready to send the tip of my arrow through the skull of my future dinner, when sunlight streaked against metal caught my eye. Forcing their way in, memories flashed before me.
A spear through Sang’s chest. A glimpse of mirror-like eyes. Sang’s cloth crushed in my Mother’s grip as she wailed. My dream—-Etisha standing smugly amongst a storm of shadow beasts.
Then all at once, the memories sizzled. My thoughts choked on the smoke they’d left behind. Back to the present, I found myself kneeling over the river, my hands empty. I’d shot my arrow without realizing and probably lost it. But I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to search, to check whether it was wedged between the eyes of a rabbit.
I didn’t want to think about arrows anymore.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to wherever my brother was now. A week of pent up grief crumbled over top of me.
But I was alone now, and just like Mother, I could finally let it go.
“Sang,” I said in a trembling voice. “It’s not right, you shouldn’t have been taken like this. Wretched curse!” Then I buried my face in my hands and cried. Cried for Sang, cried at the unfairness of this world, cried for a father I’d never gotten the chance to meet. Curse you Etisha for cursing us, and curse you tribe for your hands stained in the blood of innocents.
Again and again, I screamed for my brother, as if my voice alone could reach out and pull him from the depths. My sobs continued until a sharp pain met both my eyes. I hissed, rubbing at them. I waited for the pain to subside, yet still they burned as I looked toward the water.
Specks of light danced before me. Then slowly taking shape, the reflection of a girl stared back at me, her silver eyes meeting mine.
I gasped, tearing from the image and falling hard on my rear. My heart thundered as I stared back toward the stream innocently weaving between rocks and winding behind distant trees.
I swallowed, my mouth now dry. I was only seeing things, I told myself, just like how most of the tribes people often saw things.
Before I could convince myself to believe this, a shadow fell across my path. “Feba…” came a voice, low and deep.
I froze as all the blood drained from my face. Ever slowly, I turned and lifted my head.
A beast with long, thick black fur loomed over me. His hollow yellow eyes stared into mine.
Terror washed over me. I screamed.
I went to reach for my spear, then remembered I’d lost it. Without a weapon to my advantage, running was my only option. I scrambled to my feet, but my legs trembled and failed me.
My breath came in choked gasps as I tried to inch backwards toward the brook. Once I made it to the bank, I’d run.
But the beast staggered and reached massive claws toward me.
I’m going to die, the realization came quickly. It’s impossible to escape now.
A thousand different emotions struck me at once as I curled in on myself and braced for my fate, the tears quick to spill down my cheeks. This whole time, it was I whose life should have ended, not Sang’s. For it was my eyes that gleamed silver in the wake of beasts, and not his. Never his. Not once his.
I couldn’t help the venom that coated my heart. Curse this forsaken world. Curse it. Curse it.
“Feba.” The beast drew out the word. A hand settled on my head, massive enough to snap my head in a heartbeat. My mind drew blank. I remained utterly still, waiting.
But death didn’t come. What felt like an eternity passed before the beast spoke again, saying, “There you are.”
Recognition spiked through me then. Wait, I knew that voice. I don’t know how, for it sounded far more different than it once had been. Still, I knew it. It wasn’t long before I found myself staring into those hollow golden spaces for eyes. Sang’s eyes.
An unbidden sob escaped me then. “Sang?” I choked, elated at first, then horror, as Sang’s fate quickly dawned on me.
He’d died despising this world.
“Oh Sang.” I barely got my words out. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Throwing myself against him and receiving a face full of fur, I cried, my sobs slicing through the thick serenity of forest, the soft burble of the water. “I wish I could’ve stopped this. I wish I could’ve saved you! ”Then I cried for what felt like hours. It wasn’t until my lungs ached and my eyes stung that I withdrew from Sang’s arms and had enough strength to look him in the eyes again.
“It isn’t your fault.” Sang lifted an arm, brushed a giant finger across my cheek. “Pitiful, I died angry with everyone, thinkin they all hated my existence. Then you called me. I’m. . . I’m so glad you called me.” He gave me what I perceived was a friendly smile, which looked very misplaced with a mouth of daggers for teeth.
Eyes damp again, my throat felt tight as responses ran through my head. But I knew if I spoke—-dared to attempt words—-I’d only crumble further.
So instead I smiled, as cheerfully as I could. I sniffed. “It’s okay, you don’t have to feel like so anymore. We can roam lands together, where no one will ever hate us.” I lifted my chin, and for a moment, I caught in his eyes my reflection, my irises as pale as ice.
Smiling still, I reached for him. “Then we’ll never have to be part of any curse.” My breath caught as something struck my back. Sang’s eyes widened on something below.
My mind was already muddling by the time I followed the look and saw the bloody end of a spear, my spear, protruding from my chest.
“Away with Etisha! Her curse possesses you.” Cousin Ram’s voice boomed behind me.
Hand shaking, my fingers reached numbly for the point as my thoughts muddled. My breath came in shallow breaths. I opened my mouth but words failed me. I wavered and fell, my body landing hard on the rocks as the world spun to darkness.
My eyes struggled, my consciousness shifting from wake to sleep, sleep to wake. In the distance, the clamber of hooves—-a stampede of antelope running from a tiger perhaps. Ever louder, the sound quickly grew until It muffled so loud in my ears I realized I was about to have hundreds of hooves flattening me. I shot up, fully alert.
The ground thundered. I whipped my head around a little too late as hordes of not Antelopes, but Shadow beasts charged for me.
I shrieked, and curled up armadillo-style into a tight ball, waiting for the crushing impact of hundreds of claws coming down and skinning me to the bone. Within seconds, they stormed all around me, but I surprisingly felt no pain as the beasts, rather than trampling or shredding me . . . phased right through me instead.
I uncurled from my spot as the last few beasts ran past me, disappearing over the hill. Disbelief furrowed my brow. Before I could ponder, I heard a woman’s voice—“Stop, please, stop.”
I jerked toward the sound. Etisha stood not far from me, her perilous gaze fixed to the black, writhing crowds beyond. A man wielding a spear snuck up behind her. Etisha didn’t seem to notice. She stared ahead.
“I didn’t ask for this— I only wanted to help them.” If she were ready to say more, she was cut off by a spear through her chest.
She gasped, droplets of blood splashing from her mouth.
Just as sudden, the man yanked out the spear, leaving Etisha to collapse onto the ground at his feet. She heaved for breath. “It isn’t finished,” she rasped. “Not until”----shakily, she lifted her head toward the beasts, her eyes soft even as they reduced men to ribbons, huts to rubble—”Not until I…I—” She couldn’t get the last word out. She collapsed and lay still.
I watched the scene unfold and then vanish as it came to a close. Yet I hadn’t the slightest clue on what I’d just witnessed.
Then, a voice—Etisha’s voice— spoke behind me.“Not until I save at least one.” I hastened to look behind me and was right. There she loomed, her dark hair flowing in a vacant breeze. Her bright lips twisted into something sort of like a smile. “What bothers you, did you see a ghost? Ah, right, right.”
My hackles raised. The words bursted out of me before I had much time to think. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!”
Etisha’s expression softened. In some way, she looked almost disheartened. She shrugged. “I am. You will be, too, soon.”
My blood icened. Any words of protest died as I remembered hollow-yellow eyes and the point of a spear through my chest, covered in my own blood. Suddenly weak, my legs trembled beneath me.
“No, you’re lying.” My voice came thin. I glanced back at a beast stomping on what was left of a smashed hut, before returning the look back to Etisha. “You should be one of them!” I pointed.
“Should I?” She tipped her head to one side, the tips of her mouth tugging upward. “I died determined, yes, but not angry. Never angry.”
I frowned; I didn’t understand. My expression must’ve given that away— Etisha laughed before continuing, “Emotion is what ties our bodies to this world. To die indifferent means to return as a wildebeest or as a simple squirrel, even.” Just then, she gestured toward a squirrel as it scurried up a tree. “To die wanting more from life is to be reborn into another form in a different time, to have another chance at life. To die at peace, is to move on beyond the material plane and ascend to greater heights. And then to die angry, hateful even. . . “ Etisha’s words trailed, her expression turning mournful, perhaps regretful. She sighed. “I never meant for this to happen. I only ever wanted to help them. But it looks like even after death, my destiny is merely to wreak havoc.”
My lips thinned into a tight line. It was a lot to take in, but if I understood. . . did this mean there was a way to save Sang from his beastly shell after all? I hoped so.
“Is that why you’re still here, then?” I said,“because you want to save one?” Etisha nodded. “Yes, but all my other counterparts were as good as dead whenever they realized they had powers. Each and every one of them died quickly and angrily.” She held my gaze. “You’re the only one I’ve had the honor of speaking with.” She took a deep breath before adding, “Feba, please, if you can, don’t die hating this world.” She settled her hands on my shoulders. “You’re the only hope there is of breaking the cycle. If you manage to save him—”
“The curse will be broken,” I finished for her.
Eyes shimmering, Etisha smiled and gave a laugh. “Exactly.”
I returned the smile, but it vanished just as fast. “But how do I save him?” Etisha nudged my chin up, her eyes meeting again meeting mine. “Let your voice reach him, and with each dying breath, let him know that it’s okay to let go of that anger he’s been holding onto.”
Before I could reply, light flooded my vision.
My eyes opened slowly, my vision blurry. As it focused, I saw not far from me, Sang pinning Cousin Ram to the ground.
“I’ll kill you,” roared Sang, rearing up on his hind legs, claws glinting.
“Sang,” I choked. I shifted and pulled myself onto my stomach in effort to crawl, to get closer to them. Ever slowly, I inched across the frozen earth, shivering as I did from both the cold and blood loss. No doubt, I was leaving a trail of it.
I gritted my teeth, choking back the urge to cough. “Sang,” I squeaked.
Sang’s arm dove toward Ram.
I inhaled. With every bit of strength I had left, I cried out, “Sang…!”
Sang paused, his claws inches from Ram’s neck.
Sang turned toward me, his expression severely soft, as if he hadn’t just tried to behead a man.
My breath shaking, I reached weakly out my freezing hand, seeking touch. “Let it go, it’s okay.” I smiled, but my strength was draining. I couldn’t keep my arm up for much longer, it fell limp in front of me.
With a frightened whine, Sang ran up next to me, his enormously wide, scrutinizing eyes skimming my body, my wounds, probably wondering what it was he could do, if anything, to help me, to save me.
If I could, I’d laugh at the irony of that.
Gently, cautiously, he turned me onto my side. He didn’t touch the spear; some deep part of him, some human part of him, must’ve been aware of how much quicker death would come if he were to do so.
“The world is unfair, I know.” Etisha’s voice echoed alongside my own. “But we don’t have to be part of—” I choked, blood bubbled from my throat, slipped down my chin—”the cycle anymore.” My lungs convulsed. It became harder to breathe and I squeezed every word out. “So let go, we can be our own people now.” I inhaled, my whole body shaking. “So, Sang, what do you. . . what do you want to be?”
Exhaustion pulled on my lids and I struggled to hold on.
I was without an answer for much too long. At last, I heard Sang saying, in a gentler voice, “There was so much I still wanted to do.”
I smiled. “Y-yeah? Like what?”
“I wanted to explore the vastness of the river. To catch so many fish.”