"Listen to me," I tell the little girl who found me here, beside the pit. "I need you to hear me. There isn't much time."
She leans forward, without a hint of fear in her eyes. "Tell me what to do."
I like her. A slight smile breaks across my face, for the first time in what seems like… forever. "Not this," I say, gesturing to the arrow gripped in her hand. She holds it like a spear.
I was only a child when the Void took me from my family, so I didn't know any better either. But the rest of them, they were so careless. Sacrifices, offerings, tributes—whatever you want to call them, they were never going to work. It isn't some god, appeased by gifts and prayers. It just wants to devour everything.
"You want to kill it? You want to destroy it?" I ask her.
"Then starve it."
The sensation of needles on my flesh grows stronger, as if in response to these words. The threatening presence is closing in around us, and my second skin constricts, pulling taut as a bow. I take one last deep breath before they come.
The sand begins to shift, puckering and falling away, like in an hourglass. Eerie pulses of light filter into the sky, as the construct-creatures heave themselves up into the Shuriman night, screeching and drooling. I steady myself, charging the energy inside my shoulder pods.
I grit my teeth, and release it.
Bright blooms of heat and pain find their targets quickly, raining down, stopping the creatures in their tracks, flinging them aside. The air is filled with an acid reek, and the hiss of melting chitin.
Soon there is nothing left of them. I wait for the needles' itch to stop, but it doesn't.
The girl is crouched beside me, ready. She probably cannot understand what she is seeing.
"Does it hurt?" she whispers, her hand reaching out for the glowing scales on my arm.
I pull back reflexively. She doesn't even flinch.
"Sometimes," I confess.
Not too far away, her village sleeps on unaware, for the most part. Curiosity had no doubt gotten the better of this little girl. So many stories, fables both frightening and fantastical. The voidling beasts hunting in the dead of night, calling to one another.
She just wanted to see for herself. See what lurks beyond the rocks, see the thing her people both fear and adore at the same time.
My skin tightens again. The needles, the constant itch…
I blink. "I'm sorry, you didn't tell me your name."
She stands up proudly, still brandishing the arrow. "I'm Illi. I came to protect my family from the monster." She is no more than ten years of age.
"Well, Illi—sometimes running is the best thing to do."
"But you don't run," she says, narrowing her eyes, "do you?"
A clever one, this girl. I shake my head. "Not anymore."
"Then I won't either!" Illi proclaims. Brave as well.
She has no idea what they're dealing with. None of them do. All these things her people have done to rid themselves of the creatures, they were just ringing the dinner bell.
"You need to tell them, Illi. You need to make them understand. No more dancing beneath the new moon. And no more animals tied to stakes. The Void has no mercy to offer—it feeds or it dies."
The day I came to understand this, was when I knew I had a chance. Maybe that's why I survive, while so many others perish.
But survival always has its price. Ever since I found my way back, I've been paying it.
"Look…" the girl whispers. "They are coming to find us."
I don't have to look. I knew they would come. By instinct, the carapace draws over my face. Illi stares up at me.
"Don't be frightened," I say to her in a voice now so twisted and monstrous, it could have the opposite meaning.
"Of what?" she asks. I find myself wearing a smile she cannot see.
There are only a handful of people who've ever seen me in the flesh, or whatever it is that now covers my body. All but two of them are dead.
Illi's people appear to be capable hunters. Only the capable live out here. I can see where she got her bravery. Their torches twinkle in the night.
"Papa!" she calls out to the searching villagers, without warning me. "I found her! The girl who came back!"
They're heading toward us now, weapons at the ready, fire in their eyes. "Illi!" her father yells, nocking an arrow to his bow. "Get away from that... thing!"
She looks up at me again, confused. For every little girl like Illi, there are ten others who would run the other way. Or worse. I know what most people say about me. I've seen their fear scrawled across mud walls, scratched into the canyon rocks.
Beware the girl who came back a monster.
They don't know a thing about me. To them, I'm just something they do not want to face—a living, walking, fighting embodiment of what they fear most. I guess that's why they added the mark to my name.
Ten years ago, I was only Kaisa—very much like Illi, hopeful about a future as limitless as the stars in the night sky. That future died the day the Void dragged me down.
The needles are back. Illi releases my hand just as my luminous weapons materialize over my arms. "Go to him," I tell her. "Go to your father."
"Illi, run!" her father pleads. He draws back his bowstring with trembling hands.
"No!" she yells, turning to me. "I don't run anymore."
I usher her forwards, keeping my eyes trained on the villagers. "No, Illi, you were born a fighter. They will need you."
After a few steps, she turns back. "What do I tell them?"
"Tell them... Tell them to be ready."
The Void has taken so much from me, but I refuse to let it take everything. These moments, where kindness and humanity shine through, where innocence and trust extinguish fear—they fill me with hope that we can defeat the rivers of timeless poison that flow beneath the world.
The first time I escaped the abyss, I did it for myself.
Maybe one day, it will be for them.