The butterfly knew exactly where it was going—Heim, a small fishing village on Enra’s rugged coastline. Heim was renowned for throwing elaborate feasts. Candied salmon was never in short supply, frequently employed to motivate petulant children. Fish was the main staple, its preparation varying in accordance with the method of preservation, be it pickled, salted, smoked, dried, or fermented in barrels of brine. Year round, freshwater trout were baked in clay ovens with sprigs of dill and lemon root herbal infusions, served with wild strawberry and rhubarb pie.
Long, slender piers extended from the shore outwards, stretching into the sea. Fishermen lined the planks, standing with practised balance in waterproof boots. Chopped shrimp was scooped from buckets of chum and flung into the waves, summoning hungry fish to the shallows.
There was no shortage of job opportunities around Heim, from hunting game in the forest to harvesting wild grains, even polishing driftwood for city art dealers to buy at exorbitant prices, but it was always the same people who showed up at the piers, drawn by the sea and the thrill of the catch.
Rich Henning was already out at the end of the sixth pier where he and Thom always fished. Rich and Thom had been best friends since they were old enough to hold a fishing rod. Each day they competed to see who caught the most fish. With Thom being late for work, Rich already had the advantage. “About time you showed up.”
“Those words must run in the family, because your ma keeps tellin’ me the same thing.”
Thom dodged the heel of Rich’s boot and went to work, scanning the water for signs of life. He tossed a bulging fistful of shrimp into the sea. Nearby aespis were irresistibly drawn to the scent and flocked to it in swarms. The fish were several feet across, flat with a slight curve at the edges, bronze in colouration.
Tightly woven strands of sinew, coated with pine sap, tethered Thom’s spear to the pier. The rope coiled around a metal crank, allowing the catch to be reeled in—a helpful tool, given the average weight of an aespis coming in at just under eighty pounds. When an aespis broke the surface of the water and thrashed wildly in the air, their scales glinted like burnished armour in the sun.
The butterfly sailed past Rich’s shoulder on richly pigment wings, flashing symmetrical splotches of red and black. It circled the men unseen and landed on the back of Thom’s neck, a benign ornament, too unthreatening to merit attention. Even when the butterfly bit him, Thom failed to notice. Spear in hand, he scanned the water for a potential target, but his focus quickly deteriorated. Instead of scanning smoothly, his eyes darted erratically over the surface of the water. Among the familiar outlines of numerous aespis, Thom noticed a dark shadow moving through the water, roughly the size of a small child. In front of the shadow, a bluish green light swayed hypnotically, making him drowsy. Prickles of warmth erupted all over his body. For several seconds the sensation continued, then stopped abruptly. There was nothing unusual in the water, no soporific light.
Had he fallen asleep? If Thom drifted off on the job, he’d never hear the end of it. He could practically hear Rich berating him, “Fish start biting at dawn, for gods’ sake. How many times have I told you not to let Lynda keep you up all night?”
“You see that?” asked Thom dazedly, but Rich wasn’t listening.
Shifting his weight from one foot to another, Rich placed his balance entirely on one leg. He stretched an arm outwards, as if to envelop an invisible lover, and for a moment it looked like Thom’s friend was going to start dancing. Instead, Rich collapsed on the pier, twitching violently, arching and flopping like a suffocating fish. Thom watched intently, mesmerised, until Rich smashed into the pier face-first, blood fountaining from his nose, and went still. Only then did panic begin to set in.
“No, no, no. Rich!” Thom pressed a hand to his friend’s neck and searched for a pulse. He found one—strong, regular. Rich lifted his head slowly. His eyes were unnaturally large, dark orbs of volcanic glass. Thom could see himself reflected in those eyes, but his reflection was distorted—elongated and hazy. Fragments of the deformed image broke off, collapsing into nothing, leaving only vast empty space. He could see all the way back to the throne of the soul. Rich was gone, evicted from his own body, and in his place sat a monstrous fish.
Teazio. An aquatic demon who lured people into the water with her light—the ghost lamp. Anyone unfortunate enough to herald the call of the light was eaten alive. Thom couldn’t figure out how Teazio had done it. Somehow, Rich’s spirit had been violently yanked out of his body. He could see where the strand of pale, shimmery cord used for anchoring the soul had broken, fraying the tightly braided cords. Adrift without the ability to properly navigate, Rich’s soul was lost, and Teazio was in control. All that remained of Thom’s friend was a shell with an unauthorised occupant. Rage welled up inside him, directing a rush of heat to his head. His heartbeat echoed loudly in his ears, like the pounding of war drums.
The tip of Thom’s harpoon slid easily into Rich’s neck. He twisted it and rotated the barbs in a clockwise motion. Luminous ooze, filled with radiant light, poured from the wound, splattering the pier. Thom gave the harpoon a final jerk and extracted it, triumphant. The body once occupied by his best friend gurgled sea foam and convulsed. Thom ran his fingers through the glowing puddles, caressing the warm, silky fluid. He painted his cheeks, marking himself as a champion. Thom Fowler, slayer of demons.
Startled, Thom looked up. Ina, one of the village’s most prolific fishermen, stood behind him, arms folded tensely across her chest, a look of profound concern on her ashen face.
“Teazio killed Rich,” Thom affirmed, holding up his hands to show the luminescent substance coating his fingers, evidence of the unthinkable act which had taken place.
“Teazio?” Ina looked confused, eyebrows furrowing.
“Teazio. She took over Rich’s body. I had to do it.”
“Why would Teazio… Thom, you’re not making any sense.”
Thom studied Ina suspiciously, fighting to ascertain the reason for her denial. He’d seen it for himself. The proof was all over his fingers, drying on his cheeks in victorious streaks. The luminous blood of a demon.
When he spotted the fur growing along the shell of Ina’s ear, he realised his mistake. She was one of them—dispossessed, a creature with no rightful soul. Thick, dark hair sprouted all over her body and a prominent hump rose between the blades of her shoulders. Claws protruded from the tips of her fishing gloves, gnarled and cracked. Globs of snot gathered in the corners of Ina’s eyes. Her wolf jaws snapped, sending flecks of drool airborne, and he caught the odour of something dead—the inevitability of decay, an eternity of filth.
“Away with you, wolf!” cried Thom, brandishing his spear.
Ina’s ears twitched, and much to Thom’s surprise, she plodded away, pausing briefly to look back at him, tail wedged securely between her legs.
Other villagers gathered around the piers, watching him. He knew each of them by name, but barely recognised them now, their heavy paws tearing up the beach as they paced, frantic. Their howls filled his ears with incandescent noise. The sound crushed his insides, creating a sensation of constant, unbearable pressure. Thom’s digestive system twisted into impossible knots, erupting through his abdomen. There was no pain, only persistent surges of blood. His blood. Thom could see the elaborate kinks crafted into his guts, contorted in resemblance of paper cranes—sections of intestinal wall pulled taut and elaborately folded. The cranes shook themselves loose from exposed intestines and spilled into the ocean, floating increasingly lower in the water, slowly drowning.
Catching the scent of blood in the air, the wolves closed the gap between them, encroaching on the pier, prowling along the narrow strip of wood. Thom plunged off the edge of the pier, following the cranes to the bottom of the sea, where he could no longer hear the howling. His lungs soon screamed for oxygen and his chest convulsed, but he remained beneath the water, where it was safe.
The crowd of concerned citizens grew. In their midst the butterfly was inconspicuous, unfit to create disorder.
“What did he say, Ina?”
“Why would Thom kill Rich?”
“Where’d he go?”
“Someone should go check on Lynda.”
The butterfly followed the town blacksmith home, watching as she hugged her husband and daughter. The blacksmith never felt the tiny proboscis pierce her shoulder.
It would take several hours before Heim began to burn.
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Bio: Kale is a resident of northern Alberta, which serves as the inspiration for a world trapped in perpetual winter. She’s an avid reader with an English degree from the University of Calgary. In her spare time, Kale loves playing video games, making chainmaille, watching anime, and cultivating a steadily expanding bonsai collection. A BROKEN WINTER is Kale’s first novel, based on the webcomic of the same name.