UTOPiAcon and Little Bird Publishing House are thrilled to announce the eight winners in the short story contest. Chosen by public vote, these winners and their revolution-themed stories, will be included in an anthology that will be released in the Spring of 2016.
Congratulations to the 8 winners, who are listed here. Below the list, you can read the first 1,000 words of their stories. Enjoy!
1. Caroline Gill
“Quickly now!” Joshua urged, running from the stark terrors of nightfall. Gleaming, the last remaining Temple of Time towered ahead.
As they sprinted those last few steps, hell broke loose. The undead rose, real magic denied. In the church yards, skeletal hands broke free of their graves. No priest stood by with holy water, praying to stop the hordes rising. The whole land churned as the dead refused their sleep, hungry for their old lives, greedy for flesh. Murders of crows flocked overhead, their black beaks sharp as daggers.
Evil won. On this day, at this hour, it all ended. This world could only rot and die in the grip of victorious, howling demons.
Only when she reached the ancient clearing in front of the spires did Allie stop. Turning towards him, brown hair floating behind her in a halo, she faced the darkness rising all around.
“Joshua,” her voice full of longing, “I will find a way to return. There is a way, there must be. I will not forget. Hope does not die today.”
To see her there, shivering, watching the fear in her eyes and the courage, too, Joshua felt the beacon of hope flicker in his heart. He knew the signs. This was the ending foretold. Nothing would help him now. Hope was a weakness he rejected.
“Come on, Allie,” he whispered, holding her one last time within the protection of his arms. “You know the way. Only you can do this. It’s time.”
Her body trembled like a captured sparrow, shaking wildly against him. His fingers touched her soft brown hair that lay across his chest. Tears fell.
“For all of us,” he leaned down, kissing her cheeks, her chin, her lips. More than life, he didn’t want her to go. Sorrow mirrored back from her beautiful brown eyes. She didn’t want to either.
In the distance, behind the last mountains, an ungodly shriek split the heavy fog. It was the final call of chaos. Demon armies revived, nightmares made real.
Cracking into shards, the last corner of the world fell.
Shaking his head, Joshua stood firm. Loving her, this was the last thing he could do. He held the keys: Timekeeper, Minute Accounting. For untold centuries, his order had fought to hold back the hatred of the bodiless, the lies of the Deceiver. This morning, right before the sunrise, all that ended. There was nothing left.
No magic to hold off the inevitable end.
He couldn’t speak.
Last night, they said all the words he ever needed to hear, the important ones, spells that bound them together throughout time and space. Clear as a frozen lake, Joshua watched as the final Daydreamer recited the words of Oath and Binding back to him, “You are the last Good. There is nothing I won’t do to protect you, now and forever.”
Within days, this creation would all be over. The defiled earth covered in darkness, faster than a pack of hell hounds. Shadow fell across the north, cloaking earth and sky. Storm clouds blocked the sun. Horror began its reign.
That time demanded by his vow, those minutes ticked on, drawing closer.
Across his back, his dented shield still protected them. Stray arrows fell, darts and stones skittered across the broken marble steps. Unlocking it, he braced its cover over his left arm, securing his defense. In his right hand, the only Timekeeper left clenched his grip around an ancient hammer.
Joshua set his stance, ready. It was his calling, what he was born to do: to defend the Daydreamers with his life, with his blood, to the very end of Time.
His forces, the knights of the First Argent, all of them dead and dying, lost in the billowing, dense fog. All of his old friends and the rest of humanity — they were gone, consumed by the demons, remade into distortions. Betrayed, broken, dust to dust, they existed only as memories now.
Joshua was lost, too. He just hadn’t died yet.
There was still a vow that held him straight and tall. The last thing he was called to do. Come hell or high-waters, Joshua would see it finished.
Nodding to Allie, though they both knew the truth, he swung the hammer of Time.
To the left, ancient trees broke in half, giant trunks splitting. Each fell to the ground, shaking the foundations of reason. Thunder echoed across the forest as fallen hordes and their hounds surrounded the valley.
Heart in hand, her fingertips hovered over his eyelids, cheekbones, and jaw.
Closing her eyes, Allie gathered her courage, a phoenix emerging from her stone egg, wings on fire.
Joshua guarded the stones of the temple, giving her time, his last gift. All around her, he could see the gathering flame. With the lightest touch, the girl stepped to the altar.
Her steady gaze on Joshua, Allie grasped the base of the ornate candelabra.
The second she touched the metal, her hand burst into flames. Floating on a lake of brimstone, Allie glowed as gravity lost its claim. A feather in the wind, the Daydreamer drifted above him, the waning sun pulling her home. Shining, she rose, her feet lifted into the air. Weightless, pulled ever higher, she soared over the tree-line.
Looking down, Allie smiled through her tears as the magic took her, lifting the Daydreamer to freedom.
Joshua’s heart pounded ever louder, watching her ascend.
Where would the light take her? Would it be better? Would she live? Joshua shielded his eyes from the heat that dripped from her body. Sparks crackled and fell all around him. He did not move. Joshua waited, protecting the last sands of time. Tilted, the hourglass inside the last intact temple emptied.
Above him, Allie flew into the darkening sky along the ladder of angels. The Daydreamer, hope of all nations, burned brighter than the North Star. She traveled home. Safe.
Snarling, Joshua swung his hammer as the demons attacked.
2. Raye Wagner
There are five lies they tell. Five lies that perpetuate their power. But they are lies nonetheless. And one day soon, hopefully soon, these lies will be exposed, and the people will rise up.
If you pay them, they’ll protect you.
“This is not what we agreed,” Sef hissed. Fear clenched his stomach, and he wished they’d never come back to Mexico.
The smell of Teloloapan wafted through the open doorway. The stench of garbage and overripe fruit hung in the warm humid air, but the sour odor of unwashed humanity in front of him made him cringe.
This was the second time this month the terms of their arrangement had changed. Not that the underling in front of him would know. And not that he’d care, either.
Just last week Duarte had told Sef that the price had gone up. He just didn’t want to believe.
As if in acknowledgement, the man shrugged. His once white tank was stained with dark flecks splattered along the hem.
“It’s your life. If you want our protection for you and your family, this is what it costs.” He tapped a crusted fingernail on the doorframe. “Right now.”
Sef pursed his lips. If he paid he’d effectually be agreeing to the new terms. But if he didn’t pay… Was he willing to take that risk? No, he wasn’t. “Just a moment.” He swallowed back the frustration at his own impotence. Where were the police? Even he knew the answer.
“You have five minutes,” the Narcos replied. He turned and nodded out to the street.
Five young men, still too young to be considered adults, leaned against a shiny black sedan. Their filthy clothing was stained and ill-fitting. The nod signaled something, and two of the boys ducked into the car.
Sef closed the door and rushed down the tiled hall to the small bedroom. He’d almost taken his meager earnings from the tienda to the bank this morning. Now, he was glad he hadn’t. He dropped to his knees and reached under the bed.
“Sef?” Mariela came around the corner, cradling her swollen belly. Her petite body looked ready to burst with their first child. “Hey, baby, I was going to clean the…”
Sef stood, a large coffee can in one hand, a fist-full of bills in the other.
Mariela frowned. “What are you doing?” Her confusion spread between them, a testament to her naivety. “What’s going on?”
“No time to explain, Mari.” He brushed by, the urgency of the situation more pressing than his wife’s consternation. He could tell her later, when he had time to find words that wouldn’t scare her. Let her continue to believe she was safe.
This horror. . . She wouldn’t understand. Even though she was born in Mexico, she’d been raised in the Estados Unidos, a nation sheltered from the rampant evil of the drug trade. Narcos were a rumor there, a story told by politicians to scare their constituents. Nothing like the reality; a poison that permeated the populace of the southern country; a threat that oozed fear and trepidation into the very air they breathed.
“No, Sef.” Her grip stopped his rapid retreat. “What are you doing with our money?”
He pulled her hand from his sleeve, cursed her stubbornness, and sent a plea heavenward. “Protection. It is for our protection.” How else could he explain? Without waiting for a further response, Sef hurried to the front of the house. He flung the door open and shuddered to a stop.
The swarthy man now stood just off the left side of the porch, far away from the front door. He faced the street and the young men, his dark, oiled hair reflecting the sunlight. There was no shift in his posture as he continued counting,
“…three, two, one.” He finished, and without even looking back, he waved his hand. At the signal, three young men raised automatic rifles to their shoulders and pointed at the entrance to Sef’s home.
Sef lurched forward, extending his hands, begging them to take the money.
Peppered shots punctured the air. Sharp heat ripped through Sef’s abdomen, pushing him back on the porch. Blinding pain pulsed through his chest, then his legs, and he collapsed on the rough wood. Darkness saturated his torn shirt, dripping his very life in front of him.
All the while, his gaze fixated across the patch of concrete at the boys ending his life. He opened his mouth to beg, but the words wouldn’t come. His hand stretched, reached, holding out his offering.
The smell of copper drowned out every other scent. His vision tunneled, and he could hear someone screaming.
His last thoughts were not of his beautiful young wife or their unborn son. He didn’t question the injustice of the violence that was ending his very existence. And contrary to popular belief, his life did not flash before his eyes.
His last thoughts were simply…
But here is your money.
3. Nooce Miller
I stand peering out across the snow covered plateau. The forest isn’t nearly as dense as I remember from when I was a little girl. Unlike that long ago December day when the evergreens grew thick and tall and the bright sun picked out sparkling diamonds from the blanket of white at my feet, here in the year 2043 there is no sign of blue sky. There’s only the perpetual covering of low gray clouds.
The relentless wind makes me squint, and I pull my thick polar bear fur closer around my shoulders. As I watch, an impossibly tall mounded shape emerges from the edge of the forest, followed by several others.
The hunt is on.
I jog the last few steps to the appointed spot beside a cluster of shrubs. I kneel down and slip my compound bow free from the harness on my back, nocking a steel tipped arrow. Elbow up in perfect Olympic form, I draw the string back against my cheek and hold, waiting.
The beasts move slowly, cautiously. There are seven, no—eight of them.
Beck is right, the herd is heading to the stunted willows down by the frozen creek. My eyes widen. The bull in the lead is a shaggy monster with corkscrew tusks that stretch out 10 feet or more in front of him. Getting past his guard to bring down a smaller cow won’t be easy. It’ll be even harder to reach the two babies walking in the protective midst of their elders.
“Hey Greer.” A male voice puffs steam and my name into my ear, making me jump. “Beck sent me over just in case that big guy decides to cause trouble.” He takes a knee right next to me, out beside the shrubs. The long spear with the wicked steel tip held in his right hand wobbles back and forth as he tries to plant himself in the snow.
I turn my head ever so slightly while keeping my eyes and aim on the animals. “Shhh. Hold still.”
But it’s too late. The big woolly mammoth has already swung his head in our direction. He picks up his pace, trotting straight toward us.
“Shit,” the man says, no longer whispering. “We gotta move.”
Seeking a likely target with my eyes, I don’t answer.
“Come on!” he says, more urgently now.
“Wait.” I concentrate and hold my breath, almost ready to let fly.
“They’re faster than you think.” He tugs at my arm, disrupting my aim.
The bull is gaining speed, so I let Nash pull me up and we begin running toward the creek bottom. The bull is galloping now. The man grabs my arm again and forces me to jump down the bank to the frozen creek. With the trumpet of the mammoth ringing in our ears, we squeeze through a crack in the tall rocks. I can hear the beast snorting and crashing through the willow stumps. The man is pressed up against me.
I scowl at him. “Dammit, I had a shot. Now we won’t eat.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Beck will get one—now that we’ve moved the bull out of the way.”
“You mean you ran on purpose?”
He grins and shrugs. “That bull is smart. He won’t follow just one person. It takes two to lure him away.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that was the plan?”
“Because most people who wander through here don’t like the idea of being bait. But the bull can only run 10 miles an hour in the snow. I knew you’d be faster than that.”
I snort. “Bait, huh? What did you say your name was?”
“Nash. Nash McIntyre.”
“Well, Nash McIntyre, I think the danger is over. You can take your hand off my ass.”
His face reddens, and he squeezes past me to climb out.
“He’s gone. You can come out now,” Nash says, holding out a hand to me.
I ignore him and climb out on my own. I return the precious arrow to my quiver and sling my compound bow onto my back. “You people are idiots. Why put me out there if you didn’t want me to shoot?”
His chin drops down and he makes a big show of adjusting his mittens. “Sorry. Let’s get back to the camp. The meat will be incredible, I promise.”
Two days ago I ate my last packet of stale crackers, so I swallow my anger and follow.
# # #
“So you see, we could really use your help.” The man named Beck bites into the chunk of roasted meat on his knife point, grease dripping down into his beard.
I stretch my legs out next to the fire. With a loud pop, sparks fly up from the burning wood fire. I follow their flight with my eyes all the way through the open hole in the lodge roof. I use my knife to cut another bite from the tin plate of meat in front of me, though I’m already full. Freshly roasted meat is infrequent enough that it’s best to gorge myself when I get the chance. My body needs the protein. Plus it’s as delicious as Nash promised.
“I’m going to Glass Tower City, but I’m not doing any negotiating for you,” I say.
These people had no idea who I am—or why my expensive bow has the stars and stripes on it. Nor did they know that they didn’t have to put themselves in harm’s way by going in close to spear the young female mammoth when I could have easily brought one down from a safe distance.
Beck, the leader of the men, continues to try to persuade me. “All we want is to combine forces with them. They grow the crops, and we’ll provide the meat. But they only let women in. King won’t even talk to us, so he doesn’t know what we can do for him and his people.”
“Not my problem,” I say, licking juice off my fingers.
4. Tricia Zoeller
I moved the damp cloth from Grandmother’s forehead. The Owl Spirit had called outside our cabin all afternoon. I heard it. Hal heard it. The Medicine Woman, Auntie, had told us to prepare.
“Two went up the mountain. Only one returned.” Grandmother’s eyes opened, reminding me of the great owl with their flashes of amber. “Did you hear me, Little Bird?”
She’d used my tribal name. We weren’t encouraged to use those anymore.
“Yes, Grandmother. Hal goes up the mountain tonight. But don’t worry, he’s strong.” I swallowed and steadied my trembling hands.
My brother was fourteen. Tonight, he would become a man. The ritual required he go up Thunder Mountain, be blindfolded, and remain there all night by himself. If he returned, he had passed the great test and would be honored to work in the mines with the other men. None of the women knew what happened on Thunder Mountain, other than it had taken very good men.
Her hand gripped my arm like a talon.
“Follow him,” she commanded.
“You must follow Walks with Lightning. Take my quiver.”
Her quiver hadn’t been used for so many moons, as Grandmother would say. Her people had been belomancers. They’d shot arrows in pursuit of answers not animals.
She wants me to perform the old ways to seek direction from the spirits?
Only the Mayor still conjured spirits for guidance through the use of divining crystals. Grandmother thought he’d brought the eternal thunder into our world by following only the traditions that suited him.
“I saw the snake,” she said, her breath rattling. Seeing the snake was a death omen, indicating the interference of witchcraft.
Her grip softened, and her body stilled. The screech owl trilled one last time.
“Grandmother?” No breath came from her lips.
“Awenasa, Awenasa, Awenasa.” I wailed her true name as my vision blurred. The rest of our people called her Winnie, but she was My Home, and I would call her as I saw fit.
“Anna?” Hal called me from the hallway. The door creaked open. When he stepped into the room and saw Grandmother, his chin quivered.
By the time he reached my side, he’d cloaked his emotions behind a hard mask. With steady hands, he shut My Home’s eyes. He patted my shoulder, then left.
Time slipped by. I was vaguely aware of the village priest removing her body and Hal leaving for his initiation ceremony.
The only thing that anchored me was Grandmother’s traditions. And so, I broke furniture and shredded linens and fed them to the fire. I lit Father’s old pipe and blew smoke in every corner. Finally, I put a buzzard feather over the door to ward off witches. I wondered what it felt like to see a snake on your deathbed and know someone had wronged you.
After purifying the cabin, I walked to the river and submerged myself. The freezing water took my breath away, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be numb. My clothes rose to the surface, and I allowed the river to carry them away. Without shame, I exited the water, cleansed. Gail, or Auntie as some called her, wrapped me in a blanket.
“I’ll take care of her,” she whispered in my ear. “You take care of yourself.”
I retreated past gaping bystanders to our cabin, which churned black smoke into the wintry sky. Just inside the cabin’s entry, a fierce bear’s head startled me; it was just my reflection in the mirror. Gail had draped me in a bear fur—usually only given to males.
When I lifted the lid of Grandmother’s trunk, I stared at the cane basket quiver, well over 100 years old. I didn’t find any arrows, so I added six from my own set and placed it by the door with my bow.
Next, I retrieved her ceremonial paint. Drumbeats sounded in my head as I drew black and red stripes across my face and one red stripe from my forehead, down my nose, to my chest.
I heard a commotion outside. Hal opened the door. He wore a pair of sweatpants, no shoes. His eyes bounced over me, noticing the paint, the bear, and my still-wet hair.
“I wanted to check on you before I go.” A horn blared in the driveway. “I’m coming,” he called over his shoulder.
I couldn’t believe he had defied the Mayor. He’d left in the middle of a ceremony? I took a red warrior’s feather I’d found in the chest and tucked it under his damp, jet-black hair.
“Gail told me you walked out of the river naked as a jaybird,” he said.
“You’re scaring me more than the mountain does.” His voice broke, as it often did these days, not knowing whether to be light as a child’s or heavy like a man’s.
Shouts came from the truck.
“I have to go.”
“You’re strong,” I managed.
After he left, I crossed to the window and watched the red tail lights zoom away. The Mayor and the Manager would take him up Thunder Mountain.
Wolves howled in the woods; sleet scratched at the windows.
Raw panic animated me. I changed into all black clothing, slung the quiver’s buckskin loop over my shoulder, and strapped the bow to the quiver at my hip.
Slipping out the cabin, I headed east toward the mountain. Dark had descended, but I could make out the faint light of their flashlights blinking up the pass. By the time I reached the mountain’s base, I’d lost any trace of them.
A force dominated the ground and sky all around the mountain. Lightning slashed through the fog, illuminating my surroundings in short, concussive blasts. As quickly as it came, the light died, and I was once again blind, feeling over the mountain’s terrain as if it were braille.
Thunder rumbled over and through me, leaving me breathless from its intensity. The cold sleet felt gentle in comparison.
5. Christina Benjamin
Paul shivered as the cool mist settled over him. He considered himself a brave man, but there was something terrifying about being alone in the woods this far outside town. There were tales of witches and magic in these parts. He’d never really given them much thought, but on a night like tonight, he could see how easy it would be to let such thoughts invade his mind. Even with his lantern blazing, he could scarcely see past his horse’s ears.
“Whoa, girl,” he crooned trying to sooth the spooked mare. “There’s nothing to fear. We’ve done this ride a hundred times.” He patted her encouragingly her to press on.
It was true, Paul had taken this ride many times. As a courier for the Boston Committee, he was one of the few reliable riders bestowed with delivering important messages to the militia. But tonight was different. Tonight he rode for the Sons of Liberty. More like Sons of Revolution, Paul thought as he pushed through the thick fog. The encrypted message in his pocket drove him on. ‘This could change everything,’ John said when he handed him the letter that evening.
Hidden branches reached from the shadows without mercy. Paul wasn’t making much headway and began to think he’d be safer on foot when he heard a loud caw, followed by a swoosh of wings. He looked up, but it wasn’t soon enough. A large crow swooped down, screeching and clawing at his face. Paul’s mare took off. It was all he could do to stay on and cover his head, trying to deflect the sharp talons. The horse weaved through the darkness and Paul fought to regain control. He miraculously reined her in and dismounted. He held his lantern high with his shaking arm. When he was sure the crow wasn’t near, he set it down.
Catching his breath, Paul blotted the blood from his cheek. The bird got him just below his right eye and he winced as he felt the gaping flesh. He tried to get his bearings. Surely he’d surpassed the meeting spot by now, but he could see no hint of his friends. There was a rustling in the trees behind him and his hair stood on end. “Will? Sam?” he whispered, praying his friends had arrived. He was answered with more rustling.
With his heart pounding he drew his weapon. A twig snapped and Paul’s horse reared up. He lost his grasp on the reins and fell to the ground, where he watched her bolt into the darkness. “Great,” he muttered as he climbed to his feet, swiping the earth and leaves from his now muddied pants.
Paul picked up his lantern. He tried in vain to see through the eerie mist, but it was useless. He hung the lantern in a nearby tree and decided the best thing he could do was to stay put, hoping Will and Sam would see the light and find him.
“He’s been marked, Cerra.”
“Liza, look at him,” Cerra pleaded. “He’s not here to hunt us.”
“You know the rules. He’s been marked by the coven. He must be extinguished.”
“I’m not so sure we can trust the coven’s judgment. I’ve seen them take bribes from the red coats. How do you know we’re on the right side?”
“We’re on the side of the coven,” Liza spat. “How can you have any compassion for these mortals? I’ll gladly kill as many as I’m ordered to. They don’t seem to have any problem killing our kind, or have you forgotten Salem.”
“I wish I could forget,” Cerra whispered, as visions of her ancestors being burnt at the stake singed her clairvoyant mind.
Cerra stared down from her perch in the tree at the confused man. His horse had run off, leaving him stranded in the forest – not a safe place for a mortal. He held a gun in his trembling hand. Brave, she thought. Handsome, too. Even with the gash, it was hard to ignore his beauty. His dark brown hair had come loose from its tie. It hung in curtains, blocking his sharp blue eyes from time to time. She watched intently as he removed his jacket and grabbed his ivory shirtsleeve at the shoulder, tearing it clean off in one motion. The arm underneath was strong, muscular. She imagined whatever work he did was of a physical nature to result in such definition. Cerra bit her lip as she let her mind wonder what the rest of him looked like underneath all that fabric. He was breathtaking. How could she extinguish such a beautiful creature?
She watched as he worked to tear long strips of fabric from his sleeve. He gritted his teeth in pain as he fastened one around the gashes that covered his hand. He used another to press into the deep cut under his eye. She curiously watched him stuff the rest of the fabric into his pocket, save one piece. He stood, turning toward the tree. He reached up with the lone strip of fabric fluttering in his hand. He was about to loop it around a branch when his eyes met hers.
Paul began to fear for his friends. They should’ve met him already. Perhaps they’d been ambushed. There were many against their cause. Thoughts and conversations whirled through his head. Had he trusted someone he shouldn’t? Had they been sold out? The freedom of the nation was at stake. His nerves itched. He couldn’t sit idly by and wait. He needed to get back to town and find out what’d gone wrong. Paul did his best to tie up his wounds with his shirtsleeves. He’d torn extra strips of fabric, planning to leave them as he went in case he got lost. He climbed to his feet and reached up to tie a strip into the tree that held his lantern when his heart started! Two pairs of beady black eyes staring back at him. Crows.
6. Jessie Campbell
A snore escaped my little brother Dex. His rust-colored hair was tangled on his pillow. His pale eyelashes reflected the fluorescent light that seeped through the window. Mother’s arms encircled his concave chest. I must do this thing, I thought. For them.
We lived on the brink of starvation. Mother and I took every job available, but the pittance we earned barely bought moldy bread at the night market. I couldn’t bear to see them suffer anymore. There was only one thing I could do to make sure they didn’t waste away—if they could make it six months without me. I hadn’t told them my plan; they would never have agreed.
Careful to avoid the squeaky boards of the half-rotten floor, I tiptoed away. Only once did I look back. They were a dark lump in the corner of the bedroom, indiscernible as people.
* * *
I carried nothing. No food or clothing, for I would not need it where I was going. No identification, for I didn’t want my family to be implicated if I got caught after curfew by the Sneaksters. Not even my inhaler, for Dex needed it more than I.
I locked the door from the inside and stepped out into the harsh light of the curfew lamps. They hung like metal skeletons from nooses along the scaffolding of the tin ceiling far above the rooftops. Long ago, no tin ceiling obscured the stars, but these days it was even more polluted Outside than under the dome. The Council had enclosed us three years ago, when I was thirteen.
Pressed against the side of the building, I crept toward the city center. Soon I was in an alley that connected two main streets. It was darker here and I breathed easier, though my lack of inhaler made it difficult to gulp down the toxic air. I was just about to run across a brightly-lit street when I heard them. Sneaksters.
I crouched in the gloom, ready to leap away like a cat. The Sneaksters guffawed; they had no reason to keep their voices down. But then a hush descended. “Well,” said an oily voice, “what’s this?”
A small female voice stammered, “I… I was just—”
“It’s after curfew. Where d’ye think yer goin’?”
The girl squeaked. “My mama needs a physician.” Even without seeing her, I could hear the lie.
“Yer not goin’ anywhere but the Cages, little mouse,” said the Sneakster.
“Please, sir, I promise—”
There was a sickening sound of flesh slamming against flesh. Something thudded to the ground. I clamped my hands over my mouth to capture my scream.
“Pick ’er up,” said the oily voice.
I didn’t breathe again until they were well out of earshot.
Nearly an hour later I reached my destination. It was the tallest building, with sheer obsidian walls and a peaked roof. Two hulking men with machine guns stood guard. I walked up to the wrought iron gate. “I wish to speak with the Lord of the Dead,” I said.
One of the men chuckled. “And what use could he have for a skinny girl like you?”
“Plenty,” I said, heat rushing to my cheeks. “And you know it.”
They considered me. My heart pounded. If the Sneaksters found me here…
The guard who hadn’t spoken lowered his gun and unlocked the gate. “Inside.”
I obeyed. They shut the gate behind me. It clanged with finality. I would not leave this place alive.
* * *
The Lord of the Dead was coal black. Smoke shivered off his form like a pall. The hood of his heavy robe fell about his shoulders. His eyes glowed red-orange like embers. He looked more like the Lord of Fire, had there been such a thing. He smelled of burning flesh.
His whisper hissed and popped like a simmering blaze when he spoke. “You are not the first to answer my summons,” he said. “You will join the ranks of my army as an infant. As a plum left to shrivel and pucker in the sun.”
I did not know what a plum was, and my memory of the sun had long faded away. I stood straight but could not quite meet those eyes.
The Lord of the Dead stood. “Six months,” he said. “Six months you will lie in a coffin, and then you shall rise in death and do my bidding for all eternity.”
He touched my forehead with one hot finger, and I died.
* * *
Something was wrong. I stood over my corpse next to the Lord of the Dead and he did not sense my presence. My hands were as insubstantial as the dust from a moth’s wing. The Lord of the Dead turned his back on both of me, my living spirit and my dead body. Two men entered the room, their slippered feet a quiet susurrus on the gleaming floor. They lifted my body and carried me away. I felt a tug in my navel and followed. I found I could walk through the door behind them.
The men gossiped in low murmurs, glancing back frequently to ensure their master did not hear. “They get younger and younger,” said the one with the bottlebrush mustache.
“He pays,” replied his companion, a short, fat man.
Mustache sighed. “She’ll go straight to the—”
A door opened. A man with a hooked nose beckoned them across the threshold. We entered a room filled with rows and rows of coffins.
“I heard we got a young ’un,” said Beaky.
“Where d’ye want ’er?” asked Shorty.
Beaky pointed to an open coffin. The side was painted with the number four thousand, two hundred thirteen. Shorty and Mustache dumped me into the coffin. Mustache arranged my limbs and pushed an auburn lock from my deathly pale cheek. They shut the lid. As the hammers came down on the nails I felt my connection to my body sever. I was free. Dead and free.
7. Kelly Risser
Our ancestors concerned themselves with the melting of the polar caps. ‘Global Warming’ they called it, and spent their days measuring the rising water levels and reduction of icebergs. If they only knew how little that really mattered. That it only took one natural disaster and there were thousands waiting to happen. Humans thought themselves so fierce, but they were no match for Mother Nature.
When the volcano exploded, spewing ash across most of what was formerly known at the United States of America, a small group of scientists and their families took to secured underground bunkers. They’d monitored the underground mountain for years, noting its increased activity. They had tried to warn the public, but no one would listen. This handful of brilliant men and women watched as billions of people choked, drowning in thick, gray ash.
Worldwide media covered the event, and other countries watched in horror the demise of our own. Few viewers realized their deaths were imminent too. While their scientists had a little more time to prepare, how does one save a country full of people in the limited confines of an underground bunker? The answer was, one didn’t. And, in an effort to control the mass hysteria, they probably saved even less than they had intended.
The ash filled the earth’s atmosphere, creating an effective block between us and the sun, acting as an insulator and baking the land in the immense heat of the volcano. Animals suffocated, plants died. The land grew barren. When the volcano grew dormant, the heat dissipated and the cold crept in, slowly at first, but soon the soft grayness was tipped in frost. And shortly after that, a thick layer of snow and ice glittered like diamonds as far as the eye could see. The earth had become a barren iceland.
I didn’t experience any of that. The story was passed through my great-great grandparents. Once I was told that this was the way of our original ancestors, storytelling. All I knew was that I could picture the volcanic eruption with precise clarity, and I only had to look at one of our many satellite images to see the truth of those words and the destruction that remained a century later.
Our numbers were small. There were less than two hundred of us in the settlement. Though the original scientists who built it thought of everything. We generated our own power, which allowed us to provide artificial sunlight, both for our health and to grow fresh food. Animals that could sustain us had been selected carefully, and while we kept their numbers under control, we were grateful for what they provided—fresh milk when they were young and meat when they grew old and weary.
Couples married and had children, but they were only allowed to have two. The basic rule was that you could replace yourself with an offspring, but not add any more than that. To do so was to burden to the community, as overpopulation would surely kill us as much as sickness. Numbers had to be controlled.
“Constance Margaret, would you please tell us the answer?”
Cringing in my seat, my eyes darted to the handful of teenagers around me. I hated school, a requirement until the age of eighteen in our community. My gaze met with sneers and snickers. It wasn’t the first time I was caught daydreaming, and my classmates would be no help.
“Could you repeat the question?”
With an irritated sigh, the teacher called on Jacqueline Marie, who knew everything or at least pretended to.
“World War II ended September 2, 1945 when Japan formally surrendered,” Jackie recited, twisting her lips into that conceited grin I hated. “So, we won, of course.”
“If by winning you mean that we stepped in after millions of innocent people had already been tortured and killed,” I interjected. “Miss Moran, why do we study history when the world that created it no longer exists?”
Oops. Wrong question. Sometimes I should just learn to keep my mouth shut. Nancy Moran was a petite woman with faded brown hair and large spectacles that constantly slid down her sharp, thin nose. While no means threatening in stature, she could pierce a student with a gaze that was felt in their very soul. My heart ached while receiving one of those death glares. “Your obstinacy has got to be dealt with, young lady. Why do we learn? Why not wallow in our own ignorance while we’re fifty feet below ground? Really, Constance. Only through knowing the follies of human history can we create a brighter tomorrow for our children.”
Brighter. In artificial sunlight and stale, recirculated air, I thought as I crossed my arms and slouched in my desk. Taking my silence as consent, she returned to her lecture and I contemplated my future. Three more years of this and then what. Living underground didn’t feel like living at all. We studied how plants grew, but no one was alive who remembered what the sun felt like when it caressed your skin or the wind felt like when it lifted strands of your hair. Everything here was sterile, predictable. I wanted mess and adventure. What I really wanted was to go to the surface. It was something I dreamt about for years, but my desires were safely tucked away. Those thoughts would be considered blasphemous. I couldn’t risk my family’s status. Father was a respected member of the governing board, and Mother a lead scientist in agriculture. Reputation was everything, and a rebellious daughter was a sure-fire way to lose it.
“Constance, are you going to lunch or are you going to stare into space all day?” This time, Miss Moran’s words were missing their usual bite. She sounded tired. “Honestly, child. You spend your life with your head in the clouds.”
I wish. I’d never even seen a cloud and probably never would. I read about them, but reading and experiencing were two different things entirely.
8. Desira Fuqua
A leaf fluttered down from the trees. Thera watched impassively, squinted up at the deepening blue sky, and turned back into the tent. The seasons were turning, and their advantage would come with winter rains.
Clustered around the roughhewn table inside, the others were still squabbling over the details of their campaign. As she glanced around the table, Thera’s expression hovered on the line between exasperation and bemusement. She knew the plan was sound. So did the others, but they were still driven to settle every moment, even knowing such level of planning would likely not matter when the realities of the day came. Argus, himself a veteran, knew this too, and yet, he had been sucked in to the fight.
“It’s best to fall back to the rise, so the archers have some advantage when they come forward.”
“—Except they will have archers of their own and we’ll be exposed, we should plan on the trees to the side here”
“And trust they won’t have Fire? No, only a little further back to the rocks – “
Thera leaned forward resting her palm upon the table. “All good ideas, and something to keep in mind for the day of the battle don’t you think Didymus?” Her eyes swept round the table, as her mouth twisted to one side, a wry smile. Yes, they had almost forgotten he was there.
A stirring of robes, the subtle tapping of his fingers until they fell upon his cane, and the figure, bent upon the stool by the side of the tent, stood.
“Thera, you know my heart. We’re wasting energy here, but maybe settling a few nerves too.”
Unlike the rest of them, he had been grown, fighting age, at the time of the regime change thirty years ago. They had been small children. A few had not been born. They had heard about the era before. Of peace. Democracy. They could envision it, and they wanted it. But, Didymus knew. Didymus missed it. But he was not a soldier, he was a learned man, a scholar, perhaps a seer. A path in life chosen for him when he was blinded at a young age. Now he stepped towards the table, and the others made way.
“What matters,” he crooned with a twinkle in his milky white eyes, “Lies not with where we go, exactly, but with where they go. We will lure them here” he said, as he pointed uncannily at the region marked in red upon the map.
They had three days left to prepare and Thera was covered in mud. Her back ached and she cursed the late rains that had put them at such odds. The attack could not be delayed, she knew. It had to come on King’s Day. For this fight, pride must be injured as well as defenses. She was flinging yet another load of dirt and rocks into the gulch when Corin found her.
“Do you have a moment Thera?”
“No, but if you carry this, you may walk with me” She said, handing Corin the muddy woven basket as she started back up the hill.
“It’s about Argus” Corin stammered.
Thera took a half step in surprise but kept walking. A half look at Corin told her what she already knew and, suppressing real anger she came to a stop. She turned to Corin and took the basket from her as gently as she could manage. Staring into her eyes she said firmly “This is war, Corin. Not a love song. Very likely either you or Argus will be dead in a few days, and if I am wrong about that, we can worry about it then.” She gestured towards her own filthy clothes, the basket, and Corin’s blistered hands. “It does not look to me like either of us have the energy to spare for this sort of thing. If you do, work harder.” She saw with relief that Corin was more shocked than hurt. A good fighter. She would find the strength to do what was necessary.
“You’re right” she said quietly turning away.
The day had come. The air was brisk, but not freezing. As the silver clouds scudded across the sky, Thera watched lights begin to twinkle on within the city walls. And hour past full dark, to allow the parade to get underway inside, then they would attack. She watched the others, and they waited, scattered in a rough line through the trees and rocks. 3 stolid siege towers and 2 catapults lay within the tree line. Time passed quickly. She surveyed her lines a final time, and signaled the forward march.
The towers slid forward quickly. Each pushed by a team of 12. The catapults came on more slowly, but the soldiers with both were well protected. A cry from the walls. They had been spotted quickly, more quickly than she had expected. Far to her right, Argus fired a test shot. They had 100 paces to close the distance for the catapult.
Suddenly a flaming bolt ripped the sky. It tore into the left most siege tower, and set it aflame. Ballista! With a better range than their catapult. As the fighters retreated from the burning tower, one of the catapults became mired in the mud. They had tried using boards to keep the wheels moving, but it had failed. The abandoned tower began to list, narrowly missing the other catapult as it crashed down, blocking its path. A second missile was fired, this one into the center tower. It was grazed, and, to Thera’s dismay, fell upon several fighters as it bounced away. The remaining tower slowed, uncertain.
From the wall, the King watched. This was his day, and these men were fools, untried, and reckless. He grinned as the tower fell. Ballista! As he watched the soldiers begin to abandon the final tower, and commence a retreat, he thought, things did not seem to be going as planned for the rebels.
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