The full moon hung high in the night sky, casting its ghostly glow onto the barren, dark world below. The caws of devilish winged serpents filled the air and enveloped the area. The barren ruin of a decayed castle stood dead next to the shadowy water of the loch. Cath trudged next to the eerie stillness of the water, with a potato sack and filled water pail in each claw-like hand. The wet grass screeched after each footstep crushed it into the soil below. Cath wheezed heavily and sweat formed on his bulging cranium as he stopped at a chipped, broken sign that stood out of the ground. He paused and strained at the sign with his remaining eye in hopes of reading the text. Crude, faded words read, "Welcome to Cináed, home of the country's biggest haggis festival." He slumped over, making the grotesque bulge on his back appear even more rounded. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and wheezed louder.

 

Suddenly, a rogue gust of wind pummeled Cath's head, knocking his protective hood into the dark abyss. The being slogged to the water's edge and gazed at his hood blowing away across the loch. Cath grunted and felt his leathery, disproportionate, exposed face. Hideous, he thought to himself. Forcing each leg forward, with a wobble because of their unevenness, Cath turned and continued through the dark toward the shrill shriek of bagpipes.

 

On the edge of the road he spotted an emaciated squirrel lying on his side, gasping for breath. Crimson blood flowed out of a gaping gash that tore open the animal's side. Frowning, Cath knelt next to the dying rodent and poured some of his water into a folded leaf. He placed it in front of the squirrel's head, and the vermin slid his leathery tongue out and lapped up the nourishment. Grabbing his cloak, Cath ripped off a portion of the weathered cloth and wrapped it around the trembling creature. He rose and continued on his way.

 

The cottages were the first to come into view. Worried mothers grabbed their gawking children and pulled themselves inside their stone and straw-roofed homes. Fathers grabbed pitchforks and stood tall in front of their dwellings. They sternly glared at Cath, who stared at the ground in front of him as he trudged past their homes. Grandmothers looked out their windows in terror and fainted out of view. He continued his journey as he approached the town square. The low wheeze of his breathing began to intensify as he continued closer and closer to the town square. The hiss of the bagpipes became louder and louder. Cackling laughter filled the air.

 

It was the opening night of the Haggis festival. All of Cináed gathered in the town square to celebrate the start of the festivities. Many ales would be consumed and frivolous dancing between lovers would break out. The festival brought joy to all of the inhabitants of Cináed, that is, except one. He trudged through the cobbled streets and stopped in front of an ale stand for a quick rest. A lamp attached to the top of the merchant's cart swung left and right, illuminating Cath's face for a second until the darkness overtook his face once again. Startled, the merchant pressed his hand against the lamp, stopping its swinging.

 

"You're not welcome here, hackit," jeered the shopkeeper as he pulled the ales off the cart and set them aside, away from Cath. The merchant eyed Cath wearily as he spit in his direction and turned back to his drinks for an unnecessary polish. Cath wobbled forward and winced slightly. He had been carrying the sack of potatoes and pail of water for miles, and he still had a few more to go after he left the village. If he could shut out the pain, maybe he could pick up his pace. Cath limped faster as he approached the dancing crowd. There was no going around or it would slow him down too much.

 

As he navigated through the drunken crowd, Cath was careful to avoid attention and not get in anyone's way. With his one good eye, it was a perilous plan. Within a couple of seconds he bumped into a young, busty woman wearing a long green dress with white trim and a dipping neckline.

 

"Why, 'ello love! Are you merrit?" The woman stumbled forward and grabbed Cath's claw-like hand and stared at what resembled his ring finger. "Well, ain't your hands big n' strong! Dance with ma!" The woman grabbed Cath's hands and put them around her waist. His sack of potatoes and pail of water dropped to the ground, spilling across the chilled cobblestone. She pressed herself against him and spun him around and around. The two awkwardly and mechanically twirled around other dancers. The woman laughed drunkenly and mumbled incoherently while he wheezed and coughed, desperate to catch his breath. With careful force, Cath pushed the woman off of him. She staggered backward and caught herself on a low, stone wall. "What was the meanin' of that, you crabbit?"

 

The woman lurched forward and grabbed Cath's hand and pulled him underneath the light. At the sight of him, she stumbled back and fell over the wall. Then a blood curdling scream permeated the village. The bagpipes stopped. The drinking stopped. The dancing stopped. Everyone turned and looked at Cath, now exposed and visible in the light.

 

"Disgusting!" yelled one voice from the crowd.

 

"Bassa!" insulted another.

 

A slew of insults rained down on Cath as he slowly backed away, not thinking about his breath or his potatoes and water anymore. His disproportionate body shook as the crowd inched closer to him, sneering and snarling like rabid beasts. His body sunk against the wall behind him as the wave of people closed in. A sea of hands grabbed at his body and hoisted him into the air. Invasive tears welled up into his eyes as he sobbed.

 

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Cath stood tied up, blindfolded, and gagged against a rotting wooden stake in the middle of the town square. His eye swelled from an onslaught of salty tears and his heart pounded violently in his chest, as if it were desperate to escape from its bony prison. For the past few hours, he had been waiting here for his punishment to finally end. He could feel his breathing become more shallow by the second. He would die here. Every morsel of life would give way in his final breath, and his body would slump forward, only being held back by the thick rope binding him to his tomb.

 

Of course, Cath should have seen this coming. Ever since he was a child, no one wanted him. When he was born his mom immediately packed her bags and fled the family's cottage at the first sight of her son. Worried about his son's safety due to the cruel, unforgiving nature of the world around them, Cath's father moved the two out of Cináed and a few miles into the countryside. Their new home was close enough to the village to get supplies, but far enough so his disfigured son could avoid attention and scrutiny. Devastated but determined, his father worked nonstop everyday to keep him alive. From the humid days to death's freezing nights, Cath's father would not let his son go hungry. However, the long hours soon took their toll on him, and he found himself bed ridden with pneumonia. The young son tried his best to keep his father alive, but to no avail. Seven days later, his father departed the Earth. Cath buried him in the cemetery across from the cottage. His body was then lost in the sea of endless, dusty tombstones.

 

For the past decade Cath was completely on his own. It was his job now to look after himself. Heeding his late father's warnings, he would place an old, dirt encrusted sack over his head. He would then make the journey into town weekly and buy the nourishment that he needed to survive. While many scathing eyes watched him due to his mysteriousness, it was better their curiosity stayed that way. However, earlier that night, the wind took that layer of protection away from him.

 

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The sound and vibrations of metal clinking along the cobbled ground's grooves permeated Cath's shaken senses. He felt a blade slash through the rope and his body slumped forward onto the ground. He wheezed softer, finally able to catch his breath. A strong grip pulled the blindfold from his eyes. Stern, beady eyes stared down at him. The man snarled with a toothy frown as he removed his gag, "Leave now beast, 'fore I change my mind." Slowly, Cath rose to his feet and set off for his home. As he passed, he saw the sun rising in the horizon. He wobbled forward  and felt the sting of tears drip from his eye.

 

"Forgot t’is!" Yelled a gruff, maniacal voice behind him. Cath felt something solid and dense hit him in the back of the head. Cath's world spun around but he fought to remain on his feet. Looking over his shoulder, he saw one of his potatoes lying on the cobbled street. The glint of fresh blood, his blood, covered a spot of the potato. In the distance, a skeletal man wearing a checkered kilt chuckled like a woodland beast and pointed at him. Cath turned around and continued the journey, haunted by the man's chorus of mockery.

 

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After a tedious, lengthy journey due to his slow pace, Cath finally arrived at his cottage. It was midday now, and the sun loomed high overhead. He stood and stared at it. While it was nothing special to begin with, the many years of living here had not been kind to the hut. The straw appeared dry, rotten, and broken. The stone was cracked and looked like it could fall apart at the occurrence of the next rainfall. The sign that once read the family name now lay in pieces, infested with generations of destructive termites. He staggered up to the wooden door and swung it open, almost knocking it aside and tearing it in two. Carefully, he reset the door and softly shut it. The sunlight shone into the cottage, casting long shadows on the few pieces of decaying furniture inside. The shadows darkened the room, dividing the light from patches of black.

 

Cath shuffled over to a wooden, putrid chair and slumped into it. Looking outside the window, he listened to the wind howl as dark, encompassing clouds swirled overhead. The detonation of thunder sounded in the distance after streaks of lightning filled the sky. It’s evident that a really ghastly storm is rolling in, thought Cath. Staring up at his ceiling, the holes were all too evident. Wobbling, he stood up and trudged toward the back corner of his home. Grabbing a few blocks of wood and nails, Cath went to work making a quick, makeshift repair to the ceiling. He stood on his chair, careful to not fall over. Holding the plank against the ceiling, he wedged the nail into the wood with his hand. Then he motioned a block of wood in front of the nail and rammed the piece of metal into the ceiling. He repeated this step for all of the holes in the ceiling.

 

Satisfied with his work, Cath smirked, exposing his brown, cavity infested teeth. Cath put his hand behind his head and winced. The potato that hit him in the head from earlier that day left an immense, scabby welt. Frowning now, he walked over to a half-empty bucket of water. Cath paused and studied his reflection. A mass of flesh hung forward and dipped down from gravity; this hunk made up his forehead. Two cautious, beady eyes gazed forward, partially obscured by his massive forehead. His lips twisted with a slant and his thin lips were unable to hide the unintentional menace in his mouth. Leathery wrinkles covered his face, hiding the youthful glow that he never had. Hideous, he thought. With ferocity, he sent the bucket sailing across the room, spilling the fresh water onto the greasy floors below. Climbing onto his grimy, papery thin mattress, he lied on his back and stared at the ceiling. He thought about the events of today and the past. That he was the cause of his family's hardships. That no one loved him. That he was totally alone. He stared at the ceiling, slightly dripping from the rage of the storm outside. And, then there was darkness and silence.

 

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Cath sat up in his bed abruptly, awakened from an abrupt crash, and looked outside. The wind shrieked like a slew of damned men about to step foot in the gallows. Lightning lit up the countryside outside and the trees ominously swayed. Then there was dark again. Must have been the thunder, he thought. Before he closed his eye, a shadow next to the window moved. It moved sharply to the right. Startled, he pulled his blanket close to his face. His heart pumped viciously as he scanned the darkness of the room. It was no use. The room was too dark. He slowly moved his hand to the side table and fumbled around for his torch. Grabbing it, he moved the metal container on his lap. Reaching back over to the table, Cath felt around for matches to light the torch. His hand rested on the pile but as he began to withdraw one, another loud crash filled the room. Startled, the pile of matches flung off the table. A shadow at the other end of the room definitely moved this time.

 

Cath leapt off of his mattress and got on his knees. He frantically flung his hands across the wood to find one of the matches. Finding one, he gripped it tightly and could feel the little piece of wood bend in his hand. Swiping it across a rock on the table, he lit the match. With his other hand, he moved the torch in front of his face and stuck the match inside. Instantly the room lit up. Across the room was one of his chairs, knocked on the floor. However, no one or nothing was in the room.

Panting gentler, Cath turned around. Suddenly, he dropped the torch and fell backwards. His hoarse voice joined the shrill tirade of the storm outside. Right in front of him stood what appeared to be a woman. Her figure was a purplish tinge but also transparent. He could look right through her and see his bed and the wall behind her. The edges of her body dissipated and then reappeared again as if she was gaseous. She appeared young but also carried a seasoned persona. Two black abysses of nothing existed where her eyes should have been. Her long hair flowed and floated in the air. She wore a long dress that conservatively covered her body. The spirit levitated off the ground, and slowly bobbed up and down in the air. Cath shook violently but could not help but feel intrigued and infatuated with his uninvited guest.

 

"'Ello," the spirit said. "Cath, is it?" He nodded his head slowly. "Ah, well. I reckon you are wondering why I am 'ere?" He nodded again. "I have been watching you, Cath." The spirit floated forward, phased through the side table next to the bed, and stopped inches from Cath's trembling face. "Can you speak?"

 

"Don't ... ‘ave many ... p-people to talk to," Cath garbled. His eye watched as the spirit's hand moved below his chin. He could not feel anything but the vast emptiness in his heart and stomach.

 

"Relax, child. You are safe. Inform me ... You wish to be accepted and loved, yes?" Cath nodded again and bit his tongue. Pausing, the spirit declared, "I offer the help you seek."

 

"What? Why? How?" Cath stammered and blinked slowly. "How is that possible?" The apparition grinned back at him.

 

"I possess the power to make you ordinary, child. See, I was once like you." As the words left her ghostly lips her appearance rapidly began to change. Gaping holes that resembled scars appeared over her face. The left side of her lips twisted and slanted and the right half of her lips disappeared completely, revealing the skeletal shape of her teeth. The whole right side of her face turned rigid, rough and peeled, as if the skin had been burned off. Her body twisted and curved into an "s" shape as well as bent forward with a hunch. Cath watched in awe; it was as if he were looking at his reflection.

 

"See? I resemble you, Cath," the apparition reiterated. "Merely changed my ‘ppearance to not 'ppear so ghastly." Smirking, the spirit drew even closer to Cath's face. "Would you like to become beautiful...? Normal?"

 

"What ... is ... in it for you, Spirit? Why ‘elp me?" Cath responded more calmly.

 

"I simply d’sire for you to be released from your worldly torment," replied the specter.

 

"Yes. I d’sire it. What must I do?"

 

"Excellent." The phantom chuckled ominously and returned to her prior appearance instantly.

 

"Listen closely; there is a castle at the north end of the loch. ‘Bout 7,500 paces from this location. Are you aware of its presence?" Cath nodded. "When the moon is highest in the sky and facing south, be at the castle. I will r’veal my secrets there."

 

Cath took a step back and squinted at the apparition. "You ... can't fix ... Cath 'ere ...?" He asked as his voice trailed off.

 

The specter floated forward and narrowed the gap between him and her. "The source of my power lies in ‘hat castle. Be 'ere at that time if you want to be freed." With those words, the spirit vanished, leaving him alone, sitting on the ground.

 

Cath slowly rose to his feet, trudged over to his bed, and fell on top of it. He stared at the ceiling, thinking about the apparition's proposal. Outside, the storm finally sounded like it was beginning to let up. Feeling a newfound sense of hope, he closed his eye and returned to slumber.

 

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Cath arrived at the steps of the oldest castle in the province. At a distance, in the moonlight, the structure seemed pleasing to the eye. However, once he was in front of it, it was apparent that the castle was stagnant, falling apart and abandoned for hundreds of years. The inattention to the structure had taken its toll. He looked up in the sky and saw that the moon was at its highest point. Once again, Cath saw the imposing presence of thunderheads approaching, like the previous night. Better get inside, he thought. Grabbing the metal knocker, he pounded on the door three times. The door shook, creaked, and seemed like it was going to collapse inward. Slowly, the door inched open. No one was on the other side.

 

He stepped inside and blinked at the dim room. A few candles lined the room and flickered erratically. A chipped vase stood alone in the corner of the barren room. A once grand staircase, that long ago carried royalty but now assisted vermin, spiraled in front of him. Old paintings of the royal family who had lived here lined the walls. The hairs on Cath's arms stood up because he felt as if the subjects of the paintings were studying him. Carefully, he inched toward the closest painting to the door and stared at it. It was a painting of the laird with his lady and daughter. The trio looked so stern but elegant. Cath inspected the laird's daughter. She was a beautiful young woman.

 

Cath turned his gaze to the opposite wall he was standing at. A tarnished bronze chandelier dangled from the ceiling, separating into eight arms that curved back toward the ceiling. Fire lit the candles and Cath watched the flames ripple back and forth, urging him to move toward the heat. The flames gave him hope that perhaps someone was here. He moved toward the décor and noticed cobwebs clinging to the metal’s surface. A black spider, coiled deeply into the labyrinth of his web, stared back at him with eight unwavering eyes. Cath shuddered and looked past the arachnid at a mirror hanging above an empty fireplace. He continued in front of the mirror, adorned with dirty gold, that held the dust and glass in place, and looked at himself once more. His eyes shook back at him. What will his new body look like?

 

Cath felt the whoosh of something unordinary flow from the staircase behind him. A loud slam echoed throughout the room as Cath saw that the door had crashed shut seemingly all on its own in the mirror’s reflection. But he wasn't alone. He could feel the presence of the spirit that visited him last night. Cath stumbled to the middle of the room and faced the staircase and he watched the being descend down the desolate steps. She floated to the ground floor and halted. Staring at Cath, she boomed, "You 'ave come at last. Welcome to the place I am bound to."

 

"Spirit, you said ... I could b’come like the common folk. Keep that promise?" Cath answered. The phantom smiled and pointed to a door set ajar, barely hanging onto its crusty hinges.

 

"O’course." The apparition floated ever closer to Cath. Closer and closer until he could feel her lifeless chill. “We can prepare the transformation in the dining hall.” The spirit turned and phased through the nearly broken door. Cath noticed a faint light emitting through the vase in the living room as he pushed his way into the dining hall.

 

All Cath could see in the dim room was darkness and the glow of his host. Suddenly, the flames of multiple candles sparked alive, lighting the room. A long dining table sat in the center of the room. Plates lined the table in front of each individual seat. However, the plate at the head of the table sat adorned with fruit, and fresh roast beef, moist and red. The meal’s fresh appearance stood out from the drab décor of the decaying room. Cath wheezed and looked up at his host.

 

“Is … that—?”

 

“Yes, a feast fit for a laird,” the spirit interrupted. Cath approached the seat and felt his stomach roar with anticipation. He never did get to make potato stew after he was assaulted in the village. Cath reached for the utensils on the table and watched the blood ooze out of the meat as he cut it. He could feel the gaze of his host watching him, but felt sets of eyes coming from in front of him as well. Cath glanced up and saw another picture of the laird and his family. The trio’s eyes were set on Cath, with concerned looks on their faces. The daughter held tightly onto the vase from the front room in her hands. There was something very peculiar about that urn. Cath grimaced and dropped his fork. The phantom drew closer and the hair on the right side of his body stood erect.

“Spirit, w-what happened to the family that lived ‘ere?” Cath croaked.

 

“Cath, you must eat if you d’sire my help. You need str’ngth to survive the process.” Cath looked at his claw-like hand. No one had been so willing to help him before, besides his late father. Why was the specter so adamant on helping him? He heard voices in the back of his mind urge him to taste the meat and end his suffering. He pushed the plate forward and looked back at the spirit. Her lips quivered and her lifeless orifice snarled back at him. “So, you refuse?” the spirit spat, dropping the illusion.

 

Cath looked back at his plate and fought to keep the bile in his stomach. The bones of the roast beef sat on his plate, a carcass of the delicacy that appeared before him. Cockroaches hissed and moved along the plate, devouring the soured grapes that lay shriveled. Cath swiftly looked up at the sets of eyes staring at him on the painting. The vase in her hands now emitted a blinding glow. Swiftly, the laird’s daughter’s expression changed. Her eyes widened with terror and her closed mouth wrenched open in a deathly shriek. Cath leapt out of his chair, shocked but still staring at the painting before him. He observed as the skin melted off of her, revealing masses of flesh and blood. This continued until her skeleton was all that was left. Glancing at the whole painting, he noticed that her father and mother were reduced to skeletons as well. Cath’s gaze shot back at the phantom.

 

"We could ‘ave done this so much less painfully, Cath." Cath's lips quivered. "You see ... I do want to r’lease you from your worldly torment, but not in the way you t’ink." The phantom laughed feverishly and pointed at Cath. "You are 'ere to feed my life force!"

 

In terror, Cath limped out of the dining room back into the main hall. He turned toward the front door, but an unseen force flung a stone table in front of the exit. The spirit appeared in front of Cath and pointed a thin finger at him.

 

"Accept your fate. I will take your soul, just like I have taken the souls of the residents of t’is castle and all of t’ose 'fore you," the spirit cackled. "You may only be half of a man, but your will is strong. I must admit that I admire your drive, futile as it is considering how p’thetic and pointless your life is. Anyone weaker would have r’leased themselves from this nightmare you call life."

 

"You ... are not who you say you are. A-Are you, spirit?" Cath asked and studied the figure of his doom.

 

The being's voice deepened and echoed throughout the castle. "I am the demon Abaddon and I roam these desolate lands for any soul that is desperate enough to believe what t’ey want to ‘ear. You will forever burn in my master's abyss." The demon beamed a toothy smile.

 

Cath noticed in the corner of the room that the urn from earlier was emitting an even more intense glow than before, similar to in the painting. As the spirit became more and more vile, the more intense the vase's glow burned. He returned Abaddon's sneer and began to laugh himself. "If you are trying to scare me, forget it. I am Cath and ‘tis who I am. What do I have to live for anyways?" He stepped toward the being and gazed into the banshee’s orbs. Shocked, the demon stared at the disfigured man standing up for himself.

 

Abaddon floated forward and disappeared into his body. Cath began to violently shake and he could feel his life rapidly draining away. Ushering every fiber of his being, he fought the urge to die. He fell to the rough ground but dragged himself forward. Cath once again looked at the jug that emitted a hellish power. This thought was quickly covered up by numerous voices telling him to ignore the object. "Just die," the voices seductively told him.

 

Cath yelled confidently for the first time in his life, "I may die, but you're going down wit’ me, demon!"

‚Äč

He dragged his body to the corner of the room and placed his hands on the vase, growing weaker every second. Picking it up, he lifted it over his head. He could hear screams in his head telling him to stop. Flinging it across the room, it shattered into many shards and scattered across the room. He could see hundreds of spirits fly out of the broken pieces, flying toward the sky and phasing through the ceiling. He saw the ghostly figure of the laird’s daughter appear. Cath could see tears around where her eyes should be and she mouthed a “thank you” before joining the other spirits flying to the heavens. Slumping over, Cath felt his head violently slam into the ground. "You will not torment anyone again wit’out your urn, Abaddon. I can now leave t’is world in peace." He smiled and took his last breath.

The Banshee's Gift

Stephen Sandefur

Stephen currently attends Northern Arizona University until he earns his English Degree with certificates in Creative Writing and Literature in May. While fiction is Stephen’s home, he also enjoys writing creative nonfiction and academic nonfiction. In addition, he aspires to be accepted into an MFA fiction program in the near future. This is Stephen’s first publication.
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