Night fell over a city of ashes. The air was pungent with the stench of smoke, and amongst the rubble, stray flashes of red signified the remains of glowing coals buried deep within the ruin. There was no sound except for the whisper of the wind, mourning the city of the dead. The only movement was that of flakes of white ash being blown into the air and spiralling through the purple smoke.
Yet out of the darkness, tangibly thick, a whimper could be heard. It came from a lone figure, curled in a ball, its arms held tight over its head, now covered with white and grey powder. It was clothed in a garment that might once have been white, but was now black, the thin material torn and ripped leaving only bare skin in its wake.
In the freezing cold, the creature shivered, and let out a small cry, an incoherent, desolate plea for help, but the hiss of the merciless wind was its only reply. The being attempted to sit up, but fell backwards with a short scream of agony. On its shoulder a fresh wound opened and blood poured forth, black in the darkness. It was quickly absorbed by the ashes, just as the sound of the creature's sobs was swallowed by the smoke and the wind.
The moon rose, and pale, empty light streamed over the ground, illuminating a scene of destruction. What had once been buildings, tall and proud, were now just rubble. Smashed glass lay scattered, gleaming in the moonlight, and there were also fragments of wood and metal, table legs and bits of china. Twisted strips of metal and plastic, melted and distorted by the flames that had stopped coursing throughout the dark city that afternoon, lay on the ground in grotesque shapes.
The figure lay on the dark ground, shaking with the force of its sobs. Its skeletal hand closed tightly on something small and ragged. Though it had been singed, and ripped, it was still distinguishable as a bear that may once have been golden brown. The figure held it tightly, until from sheer exhaustion, sleep took hold of it, and the ashes continued falling upon the child's body.
But though the child slept, something else did not. A tall being scampered nimbly over the mountains of ash and rubble, one hand over its mouth and nose to prevent the toxic fumes from entering its lungs. It stopped, and appeared to sniff the air, before turning with a start to where the small body of the child lay. The being put its head on one side, and moved closer with silent steps, its whole body tensed to either fight or run.
As it drew closer to the child, its eyes narrowed with an expression that almost seemed sympathetic, though there was still an element of caution in its eyes. Appearing to make a decision, it ran lightly towards the child, and picked it up with strong arms. The child shifted uneasily, a small whimper of pain echoing throughout the wasteland, and the being winced in sympathy, before starting to run again, over the white hills and towards the menacing shadows of the desolate buildings.
As the moon began to sink lower behind the silhouettes of the buildings, the sun rose, a crystal orb of blood in a grey sky. The smoke had begun to clear, but behind it lay clouds of purple, grey and blue, bruised over the cerulean skin of the sky. The brighter light revealed a great scene of desolation and destruction.
Buildings had been covered in mounds of timber, the remains of which smoked gently amid mountains of ash. The fire had melted the glass of the windows, and burned the buildings from within. Fragments of furniture were scattered over the ground, evidence of a hasty exit from the previous occupants of the city. What had once been beautiful trees and plants, were little more than sticks of charcoal, their dusty exterior split to reveal the sparkling core, black as ebony. Strips of blackened fabric that may once have been fine clothes were now torn and frayed, buried in the hills of rubble.
Under the remains of a metal roof, glowing ruby red with the remnants of scorching heat that had licked over it not less than a day before, sheltered two children. One was young, a girl about eight years old lying asleep on the ground, her dirty blonde hair fanned out around her pale face. Though her face was streaked with dust and dirt, and she had many burns, it was easy to see her potential for beauty, had she not been half-starved. Her fingers were little more than sticks of bone, and her ribs stuck out through the rags she was wearing.
A wound on her shoulder which had just stopped bleeding was now congealing. It was deep, and there was a shard of glass embedded in the hole it had left behind. The wound spread from the top of the girl's shoulder to her wrist, ending at the base of her hand. She moaned in her sleep, and rolled over, before awaking with a shriek of pain.
The tall, slender boy next to her awoke from where he had been dozing, and went over to her side. His green eyes gleamed as he put a cool hand onto the girls forehead. She moaned, and attempted to sit up. The boy helped her up gently, and made soothing noises as she made more sounds of pain. The girl gazed up at him with troubled grey eyes.
"Mama….where is Mama?" She asked, tears beginning to fill her eyes. The boy's eyes filled with pain and rejection for a moment, before he replied.
"I do not know. I think they left us." He replied. The girl shook her head vigorously, glaring at the boy.
"You're a liar! Mama would never leave me!" The girl cried, and the boy's face turned stony.
"Well she obviously has!" He shouted, his eyes appearing to turn darker for a fraction of a second, before he sighed, and turned away, biting down on his lip to stop the treacherous salt tears that threatened to course down his cheeks.
Eventually he turned back, his eyes lifeless.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have shouted."
The girl rewarded him with a small smile, and a nod. There was silence for a time, while the girl shifted uneasily.
"But why?" She cried in anguish. "Why would Mama, and Papa, and all my friends leave me like that?"
"Because we're different." Replied the boy stonily. The girl's brow furrowed in confusion.
"Different?" She felt her face, her grey eyes, her nose and cherubic mouth. "How?"
The boy touched two strange growths at the side of his head. They were black, and gleamed like onyx. They curved like scimitars over the top of his head, and were each tipped with a wicked point.
"Do you know of anyone else who has these?" He asked. The girl shook her head, gazing at them in wonder.
"Or these?" The boy waved his hand towards two growths on the girl's shoulder blades. They were thin and frail-looking, covered with feathers that had they been clean would have been white. At the present, they were folded tight against her back, almost invisible, but covered in blood that had dried in brown streaks, sticking the feathers together. The wings moved, fanning out slightly, grey in the light of dawn.
"What is your name?" She asked suddenly, averting her eyes from the horns on the side of the boy's head.
"Damian. Damian Cole." He replied. "Yours?"
"Keira Sullivan. I'm eight years old." She announced proudly.
"Well, I'm twelve."
"Hmm…..you're much older than me." Keira answered solemnly. "What are we going to do now?"
"How should I know?" Asked Damian grumpily.
"You are the leader." Said Keira pointedly, and Damian gave her a confused look.
"Now." Replied Keira with a bright smile. Damian sighed, realizing he wasn't going to win this particular argument.
"Fine. What I suggest is that we search around, see if anyone else survived. We can't have been the only ones to be locked in this city." Said Damian bitterly.
"Okay." Replied Keira. "Where shall we start?"
Damian shrugged. "How about, that-away?" He pointed towards where the sun was now gaining height.
Keira turned her face towards the light, letting it stream across her young face. She closed her eyes as the rays played across her skin, turning it golden. After a time, she nodded, before frowning slightly.
"I-I'm not sure I can get up.." She said hesitantly. Damian gave her a confused look.
"Why not? Are your legs hurt?"
"I'm don't know. I can't move one of them." Keira replied, becoming more and more distressed. Damian moved towards her and then crouched upon the dusty ground. He extended a hand towards her leg, and felt it gently. Keira gave a small whimper of pain as he did so, and Damian groaned.
"I'm no doctor, but I can tell something's wrong." He probed carefully around Keira's kneecap, and her whimper grew into a cry, as tears began gathering at the corners of her eyes.
"I think it might be sprained." Damian said eventually, standing up. "You won't be able to walk for a while. If we can find some material, we could wrap it up..." He looked around, scanning the ash-covered terrain for signs of any debris that could be useful. Seeing nothing, he gave a soft grunt of frustration, and sat down again.
"Well, I'll need to look around anyway, to see if there's anything that we could use." He said, and Keira nodded miserably.
"But it's so...empty out there, how will you know the way back?" She asked, and Damian frowned.
"That's a good point. There's loads of wood around, lots of the trees weren't completely burnt, you see, and it should be easy to find some coals that are still hot..we could start a fire, then when it gets dark, I'll be able to see where you are."
Damian jumped, startled, at Keira's cry of horror and alarm.
"No! No fires!" She shouted, her grey eyes changing from miserable to furious in a nanosecond. Damian glared at her.
"Well, do you have a better plan?" Keira held Damian's gaze fiercely, her body tensed.
"I don't care. I don't care what else happens, I'm not going near a fire ever, ever again!"
Damian lifted his eyes to the heavens.
"Listen, Keira, it's the middle of winter, how else do you expect to stay warm?"
Keira leaned forward, her eyes flaming.
"Do you think I care? I would rather freeze to death then go near another fire. Do you not understand that?"
Damian held Keira's stare, his eyes narrowed.
"Do you think you were the only one betrayed by your friends? Do you think you were the only one left to die? How selfish, how blind can you be? I went through everything that you did, and more, because it was my own sister that locked me into our shed, and what's more....when the match hit the wood, when I felt the first flames around my feet, smelt the first tendrils of smoke in the air....it was my mother who I heard laughing. Now, I don't know if we're the only ones out here, and I don't even know how we're going to survive, but I will not stay with you, if you are going to be so...so....self-absorbed!" He shouted, panting heavily, his eyes alight with a strange, almost mad-looking fury.
Keira, surprisingly, seemed unfazed by this. She put her head close to Damian's, staring him down.
"Let me tell you what happened to me, and you will understand why I will not let you light a fire."
Slowly, coldly, in torturous detail, Keira told her story, and the fire within Damian cooled to an icy loathing of the people who would torture an eight year old child, to cause her to be scarred for life. With hate-filled eyes of grey, flashing like storm clouds split by forked streaks of lightning, Keira described everything of that day, until Damian could almost feel he was there.
Alone in an average sized house, two storeys high, Keira sat. She was reading a Harry Potter book, and seemed utterly absorbed in the story. In a comfortable leather armchair, she absent-mindedly put her feet up on a pink foot-rest and turned the page. The room around her was spacious, with a large television dominating one wall, while on the other side of the room behind Keira hung a painting.
The painting was of a boy, very young, who looked only two or three years old. He looked out of the painting with eyes of bright blue, sparkling, vibrant and full of innocence. His blonde hair was almost out of control and wispy strands were curled around his ears and in front of his angelic face. He was sitting in Keira's lap, though Keira was obviously a few years younger, her dirty blonde hair shorter, her cheeks chubbier. Both children looked into the painter's eyes, both wore beaming smiles, and both had wings protruding from their backs, though the boy's were little more than a cluster of white feathers, still downy like a chick's.
Keira stretched like a cat, and turned another page, before jumping at the bang of a door. She looked up as a woman stalked into the room, and grinned.
"Hiya, Mama! What was the big meeting about?"
The woman didn't answer, her wavy brown hair covering her eyes as she turned away. Keira ran towards her, her arms open for a hug, but the woman pushed her away. Keira stopped short, hurt and bewildered, her eyes beginning to water slightly.
"Mama? Is something wrong?"
The woman shook her head, as she walked quickly from room to room, dragging bags out, and filling them with clothes, toiletry, jewellery and bric a brac. Keira frowned.
"Are we going somewhere?"
At this, the woman stopped, and for the first time since coming in, looked Keira in the eyes, a fake smile suddenly plastered on her face.
"Yes, a surprise holiday. After all, it is your birthday tomorrow. Eight years old at last! But I just need to drop these bags off at the airport, so I want you to stay right here and look after Oscar, okay?"
Keira jumped up and down with excitement.
"A holiday? Really? Wow! Thank you so much, Mama!" The woman had an expression on her face that was obviously meant to be a smile, but looked more like a grimace. Keira, smiled brightly at her, then ran into an adjoining room, to where a small boy slept, his thumb in his mouth, long lashes brushing his plump cheeks.
"Oscar! Oscar! Wake up!" cried Keira. The boy stirred, his eyes opening, and gazing up at Keira. At the sight of his big sister he smiled, and sat up.
"Hello." He said happily, and got out of the bed to hug Keira. Keira laughed, and picked him up, his head resting on her shoulder.
"Guess what, Osky? Mama arranged a surprise holiday for us!"
Oscar grinned as widely as Keira had when she had found out the news.
"Really? Yay! Where are we going?"
"I don't know, Osky, but I bet it's somewhere really super-cool!"
Keira put Oscar down, and walked back into the living room. She tried to continue reading to pass the time, but her brain was so full of excitement that Harry Potter held no interest for her. As the woman took the last bags out of the house, and seemed ready to go, Keira ran to her and hugged her as hard as she could. The woman put her arms gently around her, and hugged her back.
"Goodbye, Mama. I love you!" Cried Keira as the woman left the house. The woman looked back before the door closed, and waved. Her eyes seemed brighter than normal, almost as if she was crying.
"I love you too, my darling, I love you too." She said quietly, before leaving hurriedly.
As Keira waited for the woman to return, she became aware of a strange smell in the air. Opening a window, she stuck her head out with a frown. In the street below, people were gathering, carrying torches and cans of petrol. There was smoke behind them, and Keira gasped to see flames licking at some of the houses. One man looked up, and saw her. He glared at her, and Keira's eyes widened with fear as he shouted something to the crowd. Keira shut the window, and ran inside, pretending nothing had happened.
She was playing a make-believe game with Oscar, when the fire struck. Black smoke was climbing like a storm cloud up the stairs, and behind it came the dull red glow flames. Keira screamed, and looked around wildly for an escape, but the fire blocked the door, and they were two storeys up, too far a distance for either of the young children to jump. Behind her, Oscar began to cry, desperate sobs, as Keira screamed again and again.
"Mama!" She shrieked. "Mama, where are you?"From outside there the ugly sounds of shouting voices, and the rattle of stones being thrown against glass windows. Sobbbing, Keira tried to slide the window open, but found that it was locked. With a cry of frustration, Keira grabbed her book, and smashed it against the window repeatedly, until it broke, leaving a star shaped hole of jagged glass.
Keira stuck her head out, and attempted to climb through. She was nearly out in the open air, when a sharp, agonising pain struck her all the way down her arm. She shrieked with agony, and twisted her head around to see a deep wound from the back of her shoulder, curling around and making its way down her arm, and ending at her wrist. Glittering in the middle of the flood of crimson blood streaming down her arm, there was a shard of glass, shining like a diamond in the suffocating grip of red earth.
Tears flowed down Keira's face, as she withdrew from the window. Oscar gasped at the sight of the blood, and ran towards her, but she waved him off.
"Osky, come on, maybe we can get out from the roof." Keira said quickly, but Oscar shook his head.
"I'm scared of heights…you know I am. I won't go up!" He cried. Keira gave a shout of frustration, and tried to pull Oscar up the stairs to the roof, but he struggled, and Keira's arm was still agonisingly painful, so she relented.
"Okay, stay here, I'm going up, but I won't leave you!"
Keira ran up the stairs, and clambered onto the roof. Standing up, she began to look around, before stopping, dumbstruck at the scene of desecration that lay before her. The entire city was burning, black smoke rising in tall, thick columns like from the mouth of a volcano. Below her there was a great crowd, laughing and jeering at the sight of the lone figure on a roof. Keira glanced down, scanning the crowd through the smoke, and quickly picked out the face of her mother, laughing along with the children she had thought of as friends, the neighbours who she had laughed and talked with, the teachers she had been taught by. In one moment, she felt her life flash past her, every moment blended into one dark crimson feeling of solitude, rage, desperation and grief.
"MAMA!"She shrieked, and her mother looked up. For a fleeting second, she looked guilty, before her eyes narrowed, and she shouted something to the rest of the crowd. They instantly started to cackle, an ugly, vicious sound, and stooped to pick up rocks from the ground which they flung at Keira. Keira dodged as well as she could, but one struck her a glancing blow on the head which nearly made her stagger off the roof.
The crowd roared with glee, a heaving mass of beasts, animals. Alone on the roof, Keira screamed her defiance, stood in the face of evil. The crowd's attention, however, was diverted when a figure sprinted out of a building nearly destroyed, little more than a mass of burning timber. The crowd fell upon the figure, and there was a long, drawn out scream, before the crowd once again dispersed, and Keira didn't see the figure get up again.
"Animals! Savages!" She shrieked at the crowd, but they jeered at her.
"Freak! Mutant!" They called back. Handsome faces were distorted and ugly with the force of their shouts; ugly faces now looked wild and animalistic.
Keira, seeing no escape from the roof, turned to go back down the stairs to where her brother was waiting patiently for her, but to her horror, the way down was clogged with foul smelling smoke, and she found she was unable to get down. She tried though, tried her hardest, but was met head on with searing flames that burned her wings, setting the white feathers alight. She cried out, and rolled on the ground to put them out, despite the pain in her arm when she did so. From within the house, came the lone voice of her brother, calling out for the sister who he had trusted not to abandon him.
"Oscar! OSCAR!" Keira shrieked, her mind white, no thought within it but to save her brother. Through the smoke, she saw a small figure struggling to get out. Strangled sobs, and choking sounds were coming from within the house, and Keira sobbed too, sobbed in desperation until she could barely breathe. She had never felt such raw emotion before, and slowly, her brain was closing in on itself, until she could not remember anything except for the past half an hour which had collapsed her world in on itself, turned it into a stranger, uglier place.
The silhouette in the smoke, still struggling ,was getting weaker, and the sobs were getting fainter, to be replaced with horrific, hacking, choking coughs that made Keira flinch away. Just when she felt her brain could not withstand anymore pain, the figure faltered, and collapsed, where it lay for the raging flames to rush over it, hiding it from view.
Keira collapsed, her body trembling, onto the tiles of the roof. She no longer cared what happened to her. Her head was pounding to the rhythm of her heart, and even when she closed her eyes, the golden flames poured into her brain, as if they were searing her very soul.
The foundations of the house creaked, dust rose from where it had lay for centuries, and slowly, the house began to fall. The crowd below Keira dispersed, not wanting to be crushed, and left the city that had been inhabited for hundreds of years, left it not more than a burning wasteland.
As the house collapsed, in a puddle of blood, sweat, dirt and tears, Keira's mind abandoned her, and fled to a happier place, where her mother and brother held out their hands to meet her.
Keira stopped talking, tears flowing down her face. Damian regarded her solemnly, and for a long time there was silence, broken only by the hiss of wind, and creaking of houses that had not yet been destroyed.
"Keira…." Began Damian, his words quiet, his hazel eyes gentle.
"I understand." Said Keira in a monotone, her face stony. "Just light the fire."
Damian nodded silently.
"I'm going to look for some wood. Will you be okay?"
"Oh yes. I suppose any monsters will be killed by fire by now. You don't have to worry about the baby that you're stuck with." Retorted Keira bitterly. Damian gave a huff of frustration, before storming off.
Once Damian was out of earshot, Keira let the tears she had been restraining pour down her cheeks, glistening diamonds that fell to Earth and were quickly absorbed by the hungry ashes.
"Oh, Osky…Osky, why didn't you come to the roof?" She moaned wretchedly, her voice anguished . Alone in a desolate world of black and white, Keira rocked backwards and forwards, keening her grief.
That was how Damian found her, returning with his arms full of dry twigs and sticks. He set them down in a pile, and approached Keira. Gently, he pt his hand on hers, offering his silent support and sympathy.
After a while, Keira stopped and just sat motionless, a statue of grief. Damian got up and walked over to the pile of twigs. He hunted around his ragged lcothes for a whie, before pulling out a lighter. Keira looked up in surprise, and Damian smiled humourlessly.
"I used to carry around with me all the time." He explained expressionlessly. "You never know when it might come in useful."
Keira nodded, and looked down, tracing patterns in the ashes with one finger. Damian sighed and flicked the lighter. A flame leapt up, blue and bright, flickering in the soft breeze. Damian touched it to the twigs, and smoke began to rise. It was black and wraithlike, and the strands coiled like serpents in the air before melting away into the silent mist. There was a crack, and Keira flinched as the bits of wood caught light, making a pyramid of leaping sparks and tongues of flame.
Damian's face was cast into shadow as he crouched by the glowing fire, sheltering it with his hands, and blowing on it softly to keep it going.
"I'm going to see if I can find anyone else." He murmured. Keira shrugged with the shoulder she could move, her eyes fixed on the ashes in front of her.
Damian rose and strode of purposefully. When his back was to her, Keira looked up and watched him. She noticed his walk was elegant; fluid and almost catlike. He was cautious, and his head was constantly moving as he scanned the empty landscape for signs of life. With a sigh, Keira returned her gaze to the ashes.
The sun was setting, and grey clouds were changing to crimson and gold when Damian returned. Reluctantly, Keira had kept the fire going, and it was still burning now, a wild animal that danced, a splash of colour in the bleak twilight.
Keira gave a Damian a slight smile, but the smile vanished when she was that he was not alone. With him was a girl, about Damian's height, with skin like burnished copper, and mahogany hair that fell down her back. It was covered in ash, dirt and sweat, but it was obviously lovely, as was she. She was slender, but not frail looking, with long, graceful legs and an elegant, almost balletic gait.
As she drew close, Keira could see that the girl's eyes were like dark slabs of green marble, with flecks of gold spinning around the pupil. Keira felt a spark of jealousy embed itself within her heart as she watched the beautiful girl, knowing she could not compete.
Like Damian, the girl had horns, and though they were black, they had a greenish tint, like the long hairless tail that curled and writhed behind the girl.
Damian sat down by the fire, as did the girl, who appraised Keira with a critical eye.
"Keira, this is Melissa." Damian said. The two girl's stared at each other, each trying to intimidate the other, like two lionesses of separate prides, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Finally, Melissa spoke.
"Charmed, I'm sure." She said, and her delicate voice gave Keira a deep feeling of inferiority, and she felt herself begin to get self-conscious.
"Likewise. Keira Sullivan." She replied shortly.
"Melissa Grevel. I think I've heard your name before."
"Yes, I won a competition in the city a few years ago." Keira said with a touch of pride. She was known for her musical talents, and played the flute, violin and piano. She sang too, but didn't care to exhibit her voice, as she believed it was tuneless. Many people had tried to persuade her otherwise, but she remained firm in her opinion.
"Oh, the spelling competition?" Asked Melissa snidely, "Good for you."
Keira glared at Melissa, incensed by her patronizing stare. She was about to retort, when Damian stepped in to stop the argument before it escalated too far.
"So, Melissa, did you see any other survivors?" He asked quickly, and Melissa looked towards him, her glare giving way to a sultry smile.
"No, I'm afraid not…" She murmured softly. "You're the first one I've seen, Damian, and I was just beginning to wonder whether I was going to be alone for the rest of my life."
Keira snorted with derision at Melissa's antics, but was shocked when Damian glared at her fiercely.
"Leave her alone, Keira. Can't you see she's upset?"
It was true, tears were gathering at the corners of Melissa's eyes, though they were hidden by the curtain of hair that had fallen across her face. One fell down, leaving a snail trail of glistening water streaked across Melissa's golden skin.
Keira glared back at Damian defiantly, refusing to apologize, Damian's eyes narrowed.
"Come on, Melissa. Let's leave this little girl to sulk."
Melissa smiled somewhat wickedly.
"It's okay, Damian. Little children are often jealous of other people." She said, smirking at Keira. Keira gasped with fury, and Melissa shrugged, getting up gracefully. Damian got up to, and after shooting one last angry glance at Keira, he left with her.
Keira watched them go, her mind slowly turning as red as the flames that she feared so much. With a cry of rage, she reached for a log, and threw it on the blazing fire. Sparks flurried away from the flames as a result of the impact, and whirled away with the wind, dancing like tiny stars journeying to their pre-ordained place in the sky.
The sky was still darkening, and now it was a beautiful soft blue. Looking at it, Keira was reminded of a dress she had once owned, velvet with silver embroidery on the long sleeves. She had worn it to her seventh birthday party, and had danced in it. She recalled with a smile how the skirt had whirled around her, like the petals of a long tubular flower opening to face the sun.
Keira watched the stars wistfully, lying on her back, and remembering what her mother had once told her, when she had camped in a large field before Oscar had been born. She had been very small, but the night had stayed in her memory ever since, as one of the most magical nights of her life.
"Mama.." Asked Keira, her head on her mother's stomach as they both lay on blankets in a large field surrounded by dark trees. It was the height of a summer, and a warm breeze blew through the field, making the long stalks of grass sway.
"Why are there stars in the sky?"
Keira's mother smiled slightly, and stroked Keira's hair.
"Well darling, every time somebody says that they love someone else, the angels make a star in the sky, because they are so happy about it."
Keira giggled, and fanned out her wings a bit, letting them catch the evening breeze that rustled through the green leaves of the trees.
"I love you, Mama." She said with a grin, and her mother laughed.
"I love you too."
Keira scanned the skies eagerly, waiting for the new stars to appear.
"Mama, where are our stars?"She asked, a frown beginning to crease her young forehead.
"Be patient, darling. They'll come."
A cloud passed over the pale moon, blocking its silvery glow for a few seconds. As it moved away, Keira's mother pointed up at the sky.
"See? There are our stars."
Glittering in the velvet sky were two stars, tiny and dull-looking beside the majesty of the constellations, and the great Pole star, but there nevertheless.
Keira watched them, two sparks in a smoke-filled world, two flakes of snow in the midst of fog.
"They're my favourite stars." She decided, and Keira's mother kissed the top of her head.
"You're my favourite star, darling."
Keira sighed, and her thoughts turned to her brother, Oscar. When he had been born, she had marvelled at the tiny, fluffy feathers on his back, fluttering in the slightest breeze like the stalks on the heads of dandelions. His hair had been so blonde it had been almost white, and his eyes blue, as all babies were, but as he had grown, they had grown darker, until they were like the depths of the sea, mysterious and beautiful.
His first word had been bird, she recalled. He had said it while watching the white doves flying in spring, landing in nests and feeding their crying young. Keira had watched them too, and her own wings had quivered. She had longed to join the birds in the sky, but every time she had stood somewhere high up, and got ready to jump; her mother had always pulled her back, and scolded her sharply for it.
Even so, barely a day went past when she didn't flap her wings as hard as she could, and make little leaps into the air, hoping the wind would bear her aloft as easily as it did the doves, sparrows and pigeons that flew easily about the city. People had fed them scraps of bread, or seeds once. But then something had changed. Where everyone had once been friendly to Keira and Oscar, calling them 'little birds' or 'tiny angels', they had become hostile.
A striking example had been Keira's neighbour, Mrs Natalie Ellis. She had been kind to her once, giving her biscuits or sweets, and little presents on their birthdays. Keira had used to go to her house after school, and chat to her about her day over a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of cake, or a doughnut, which Keira adored.
Then one day, Keira had ran to Natalie's house as usual, and knocked on the door, their special knock, three fast raps followed by two slower ones, and nobody has answered. Unperturbed, Keira had knocked again, until somebody answered the door. Natalie had looked startled for a moment, before making a weak excuse that she was busy. Keira had nodded, puzzled at this strange rejection, before making her way home early.
The next day the same thing had happened, and when Keira met Natalie in the corridors and attempted to make conversation, Natalie had told her she was in a hurry, and become steadily more hostile, until the final day when Natalie had ignored Keira completely, despite the tears that flowed down Keira's shocked face. Keira had become invisible to her neighbour, and their friendship was over.
The same thing seemed to happen at school. Teachers who she had liked became more unwilling to answer her questions, or even acknowledge them, and teachers she had disliked become hateful and vindictive to the point of cruelty. Anything she did, no matter how tiny, was an excuse to shout, anything she did well was no big deal, undeserving of praise.
Her friends excluded her from their games, and eventually the only people she could talk to were those like herself, or those with horns or tails, few of which attended her school. The breaking point was when Lilian Jarvis, who had been Keira's best friend, approached her with a friendly smile, and pretended to include her in a game.
Keira had agreed, relieved that the alienation and exclusion seemed to be over, and Lilian asked her rather slyly if she would join in whatever game Lilian wanted to play. Keira had nodded eagerly, and Lilian had grinned, calling over a group of her friends.
"The game's called 'Circus'." Lilian said with a smirk. Her friends laughed, and Keira laughed with them, although she didn't know why she was laughing.
"I'll be the ringmaster," Announced Lilian, "Megan, you can be the acrobat." She pointed to a willowy girl who smiled, and cartwheeled over to Lilian's side. Lilian rolled her eyes in a long-suffering manner.
"Oh, do stop showing off, Megan. Gabriella, do you want to be the clown?" Gabriella laughed and nodded. The comedian of the class, Gabriella always had a new joke to tell.
"Emma, you can be the human cannonball." Emma was a martial-arts fanatic, and no sane person in the school would dream of picking on her.
"Imogen, you can be the magician." Imogen shrugged.
"Sure, whatever." Imogen loved playing cards, and though she was only seven, could already beat some of the older years at poker.
So now there were only two of them left, Keira and Rosaline. Rosaline was beautiful, with thick and straight hair that was neither blonde or brown, but a cross between, with hazel eyes and a slender figure, strikingly gorgeous, even compared to the flirtatious Lilian.
Two people, one part left. Keira had played these games before, and she could only remember one other part, the glamorous assistant, and it was obvious who was going to get that part.
"And Rosaline, you can be the glamorous assistant." Said Lilian graciously.
"W-what am I?" Asked Keira shyly.
"You?" Sneered Lilian in a derisive tone of voice. "Why, the freak show of course!"
"The….the freak show?" Whispered Keira, shocked beyond belief at this insult. She turned, trembling, to walk away, before Lilian caught her arm in a cruel grip, her fingernails digging into Keira's flesh.
"Now, now, freak show. You said that you'd play whatever we wanted. Don't go back on your word." She said in a patronizing tone.
"Leave me alone, Lilian!" Cried Keira angrily, shoving the girl away from her. Lilian stood speechless for a moment, then approached Keira, her eyes blazing. Slowly and purposefully, she raised her hand high. Keira was paralyzed with fear at the sight of this girl. She felt like a sparrow watching a tomcat approach it, every muscle under control and murder in its eyes.
The hand fell. There was a sharp crack. For a moment, Keira felt nothing, just a cold, numb feeling, like she was made of ice. Then heat came back, and her cheek erupted with pain. She cried out, and she felt her wings stretch, as if the wind could take her away, soothing her pain and bearing her aloft to a place where she was loved.
Lilian smiled malevolently, then slapped Keira again, on the other cheek. Her gang closed in. They advanced like a tide, unstoppable, inevitable. Keira backed away, looking in vain for some escape from the inevitable beating. Suddenly, her back hit something cold, hard and damp. The wall was wet with recent rain, and moss stuck to her forest green jumper.
"Now, then." Hissed Lilian softly. "The acts come on one by one in a circus, and first is the ringleader. So…" She walked forward, while Keira trembled, still as a rabbit cornered by a fox, and then punched her, hard in the stomach. Keira doubled over with a gasp, tears dripping slowly down her cheeks. Lilian laughed, and waved Imogen forwards.
"Stand up." Said Imogen harshly. Keira shook her head, the last dregs of defiance rearing within her. Imogen glared at her, and pulled at her hair sharply, making Keira scream.
"I said, stand up." Keira slowly straightened up, although her body was racked with sobs. Imogen brought her hand sweeping into the sound of Keira's head, before stepping back.
Megan, Gabriella, Emma and Rosaline all came forward in turn, each time punching, kicking pinching, until Keira lay on the ground, too exhausted even to cry out. Lilian stood over her, a smug grin on her face. She raised her foot to kick Keira's face, then gave a shout of shock as she was thrown aside by a girl who looked about fourteen.
The strange girl crouched beside Keira, and gazed at her concernedly.
"Are you okay?" Keira's face was a mass of purple and black, with a trickle of blood dripping from her split lips. She nodded, but flinched at the pain that exploded within her head at the motion.
The girl rose, and fixed a stony glare upon Lilian, who stood defiantly.
"I don't know who you think you are." The girl hissed, "But I don't want to see your face anywhere near this girl. Comprende?"
For the first time, Keira noticed that the girl had tawny wings that fluttered in the breeze like her jet black hair.
Lilian gazed back into the girl's eyes, pale blue against deep black, then gave a sly smile.
"And who are you?" She asked impertinently.
"Althea. Althea Yulin. I know who you are. Lilian Rosseau, the little princess of the school." Spat Althea, her eyes burning in her dark face.
Lilian, though she was trembling slightly, stuck out her tongue at Althea.
"So what if I am? I'm not afraid of you, you're just a freak like her!"
Althea drew in a deep breath, attempting to calm herself.
"I wouldn't be so rude if I were you. I may be different from you, but you know what? That's definitely a good thing. I can do things, things that would make your life at school hell."
Lilian laughed horribly.
"Oh really? Yeah, well I bet you can't do anything against me. Don't you know that my daddy is the headmaster's best friend? Mr Wilson would never do anything bad to me, not unless he wanted my daddy to be angry with him."
"I couldn't care less if your daddy was the King of England! Anyone who can bring up a child as horrible as you deserves to be avoided as far as I'm concerned."
Lilian's eyes narrowed, rage dawning on her face. With a cry of anger, she flew at Althea, punching, biting and scratching like a wild animal. Althea was taken aback by this sudden display of violence, but knew not to hurt Lilian for fear of getting expelled. A crying child always attracts more attention than a bruised teenager.
As gently as possible, Althea lifted Lilian off her, being careful to keep clear of her flailing arms and legs, and put her on the ground. To Althea's surprise, Lilian smiled, and then began to sob, heart wrenching sobs full of misery and confusion.
A teacher rushed over as Lilian's gang crowded around her, their faces full of false sympathy. Keira tried to get up to tell the teacher the story before Lilian could twist it to her own whims, but she was too late.
"Lilian, sweetheart, what's wrong?" Asked Miss Lovett. Alicia Lovett, although she was young, held a lot of power over the more senior teachers, and Lilian was her favourite.
"T-that girl hit me,"Sobbed Lilian, "And then she threw me on the ground, and told me that my daddy was horrible!" She collapsed into hysterics, while Keira and Althea looked on in outrage.
Miss Lovett turned to Althea angrily.
"How dare you? How dare you attack a girl smaller than you for no reason, let alone insult her family?"
For the first time, Miss Lovett noticed Keira, and gave a soft gasp.
"Oh, my dear, you look simply dreadful!" She glared at Althea. "Did you hurt her as well? Just as I thought! The headmaster shall hear of this, make no mistake!"
Keira opened her mouth to protest, but Miss Lovett had already stormed off purposefully, heading towards the doors that led into the school. She turned to Althea, tears fresh in her eyes again.
"Althea…I-I'm so sorry..I never meant for that to happen…" Althea shook her head sadly.
"It's alright. It's not your fault anyway, it's yours." Here she turned and glowered at Lilian, her eyes blazing.
"You're going to be expelled! You're going to be expelled!" Sang Lilian and her gang, dancing a wild victory dance around Althea, unchecked by her furious looks.
Althea was expelled two days later, and Lilian continued to torment Keira, until, one day, Keira hit her back, and was expelled too. From then on, she was tutored by her mother, but never forgot the little girl with blonde ringlets and cruel blue eyes.
Keira sighed, and traced patterns in the ashes around her. Despite the endless sky above, and the horizon beyond, she felt trapped within this world of smoke, dust and flame. Tentatively, she unfurled her wings and beat them gently a few times, hoping, as she had hoped so many times before, that the wind would bear her upon its gentle breath and take her to a happier place. When it didn't, she sighed, and lay down, her cheek resting upon a soft pile of dust.
The moon hovered above her, and as she closed her eyes, she imagined tumbling into it, into the silver pool of dreams, hopes and fantasies that make up this unhappy world. She fell into a deep sleep, and in her dreams she wondered if she would ever be happy again.