*This is the final edition of the Mind Games Writer’s Wednesday series. Find the rest in the archives.
“Wasn’t she caught up with the police a month ago?”
“I heard she was dating James Blackthorn and they ran off together.”
“Is she even good?”
I smirked at the astonished band kids as I strolled past them, loose ash brown hair swirling around my shoulders, silver bangle gleaming on my left wrist–the exact silver shade as my eyes. The edge of the stage was mere inches to my left as I skirted the rows of chairs full of my peers, practically walking right on the line between safety and the imminent danger of the fall. That was how I liked to live. Walking the line. It made things more interesting.
As I passed the conductor’s podium, he gave me a broad smile and gestured to the lone chair in the corner of the stage, illuminated by a beaming spotlight like the heavens opening up in a cloud-shrouded sky.
Kids whispered loudly as I walked past. I could hear snippets of conversations, some clarinet girls gossiping as I waltzed by them with an ease unbecoming of a middle school girl. Before the torture one month before, I would have shriveled under the glares, quietly seething but lacking the guts to act on it. Now? Criticism didn’t bother me. I had always been the normal. The average. The mediocre. The girl with an impossible crush. The girl with big dreams but not quite enough talent to achieve anything beyond the ordinary. But no longer.
I took my seat, smoothed my elegant dress and adjusted my music stand, lowering it significantly. How tall do they think I am? I thought, smiling to myself as the band director turned to face the audience. “The next portion of our program is something one band student has been working extremely hard on for the past two weeks. She’s truly been a rising star within our band program. This is french horn student Vivian Rose, playing her own original composition, ‘Rollercoaster.’ I have no doubt that you’ll enjoy. Vivian? Whenever you’re ready.” He stepped down from the podium, and leisurely took a seat. I nodded at him, whole body tingling with the nervous-excited feeling that sparkled across my skin.
Fighting the urge to rush into the song, play too fast, and never stop to breathe, I fidgeted with my music when all of the sudden every musician’s worst nightmare happened. A cool draft billowed across the stage… and my music soared from my stand like a brilliant parrot taking flight! A collective gasp rolled through the audience, people scurrying to catch it. My composition. But I quickly waved them off, urging them to stop with a cool composure that could only come from a grand metamorphosis and great pain.
Moving the empty music stand aside, I closed my eyes and felt the flood of emotions that I had experienced in the last month, a surge of colors and feelings, unimaginable highs and lows, twists, pains and joys… precisely the rollercoaster that had inspired my composition. I didn’t need the music. It was inside me. Raising the mouthpiece to my lips, I played. I played soaring melodies, fast arpeggios and quick slurring scales, low, warm tones and sweet harmonies. Each time I returned to the chorus I felt a new set of emotions, relived the past, saw a new image that willed my fingers on.
Watery hazel eyes. Panic. Flushed cheeks. Butterflies. Warm, deep brown eyes. My band director staring at me in awe as a flourish of notes poured from my French horn. Silver eyes in the mirror. Incredulous stares. A new dawn glowing in my window.
Finally my fingers hurtled down a ridge of arpeggios and my first conscious thought formulated. This is the end. I made it. Slowing to a suspenseful pace, each note was a burst of strong sound then immediately soft. With building tension, I drew in a grand breath and played a grand, high note that resounded in the air. Just as the audience drew their hands up to begin clapping, I smiled, reset my embouchure and let loose a torrent of scales descending then jumping back and descending again. Over and over and over and with my final breath in drew it to a close with a suspended note and one quick bop like the cherry on top.
Opening my eyes, the spotlight was blinding and my eyes rang with the roar of applause. It was a cacophony of sound unlike anything I’d ever heard before, hoots and hollers and clapping. All for me. Not because I was an accessory to James, not out of pity or because I was something to gawk at with silver eyes and a confident air. Simply because I had talent.
As I returned to my seat, I caught the eye of James, standing in the back of the auditorium with a huge grin on his face. I knew you could do it, Viv. You were miraculous. His honey-sweet voice said in my mind.
I sat and exchanged high-fives with my friends, smirking at the incredulous clarinet girls who were still gossiping busily like broken machines cranking out words with no end in sight. I was inspired by our journey. By you. I responded, sending the thought out into the space between us and watching his lips curl as he received it.
So I’m your muse now? He questioned smugly. I laughed to myself, ignoring the odd looks my friends gave me. In response, I pinched my fingers together and raised it for him to see. A little bit… I said, looking down, cheeks ablaze.
“Vivian!” Snapped back to reality by my friend tapping on my arm, I hastily got out my music from my folder. We were going into our final song.
Sorry, I have to go. You’ll be listening? No response. I looked up to the back of the auditorium where he’d stood a moment before. Probing the thought-buzzing air, there was no sign of James’ blazing aura in the packed auditorium. Somewhere far off I heard a door slam and the tinkling sound of shattered glass hitting tile. Eyes wide with panic, I fidgeted with my silver bangle, running a nervous finger up and down the engravings. James was in danger. I could sense it. And there was nothing I could do about it.
The instant my horn was packed away and I had called my parents with an excuse, I sprinted into the back hallway. My heart thumped brokenly. No. The finger-print clogged windows that opened onto the side parking lot were shattered on the floor, glinting in alluring silver and rainbow hues: equally as treacherous as it was sparkling. Blood spatters ominously dappled the yellowing tile.
Bursting through the heavy doors, my blood ran cold as I met face-to-face with the man who haunted my nightmares. Watery, disgustingly pale hazel eyes and an impeccable suit, horrific face and pinkish skin stretched tight over a bony skull. My torturer. A demon. A manipulative psychopath. And he had my best friend in a choke-hold, butcher knife grasped in his bony fingers.
“Ah, Ms. Rose. How nice of you to join us! I heard your little performance. How lovely…” He hissed, jabbing the knife into James’ collarbone and twisting it till he shrieked in pain. I screamed, rushing forward. His father dug the blade deeper into the soft skin, the tip grating against bone.
“Release him. Now.” I directed all my force into the words, conjuring a whipping maelstrom of power that grew with each second, feeling the icy-hot power teeming in my blood like liquid starlight coursing through my veins. The lanky man strained against the command, feet jittering across the cement as though each second disobeying was a second of strenuous willpower.
“I’m afraid that’s not–” he sliced an arc along James’ shoulder, leaving a trail of glistening blood. He howled, sheer agony in his eyes. Vivian, run. He won’t hesitate to kill me, you and everyone in his way. Please just–His father raised the blade high and thrust it down into his son’s shoulder blade, eyes lighting up as James’s body convulsed.
“Stop! Whatever you want, please, just stop. What is it that you need so desperately that you would dare cross my path?” Fury burned in my voice. Immense satisfaction swelled within me as he flinched, hands quaking with what I could only imagine to be fear. I was beyond livid. Each and every cell in my body urged to tear the heart from the slimy, rat-faced man.
“What I want is quite simple. I want you to restore my powers or, well…” he smiled sickly. “I’ll kill my son.” He plunged the knife into the bone, making an awful grinding sound like broken brakes on a careening car. Run, Viv! Please, you have so much ahead of you. James pleaded in my head, pupils dilating as though he was speaking to me through his eyes. I have a plan. Thrash. Now. I commanded.
“PLEASE, I CAN’T! I love your son more than anything else in the world!” I conjured tears to my eyes as best as I could, letting the waterworks flow heavy as a crumbling dam. James looked at me with bewilderment. You… love me? He mouthed. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Just put up a fight already! I retorted, sobbing openly.
“Ms. Rose, if that is true, then do as I say. Restore my power core,” he said through gritted teeth, straining to restrain his wildly thrashing son: a blur of black hair and pale skin. “You can imbue me with your power–”
“I CAN’T! I don’t have the strength to save my best friend, my sun and moon and stars, the light of my life. I can’t! Please have mercy on me!” I cried, dropped to the ground like a stone and wailed like a banshee. Curled in a ball, my back arched and spasmed in uncontrollable motions. I heard the rustle of clothes and James howling like a caged beast. I discreetly reached into my dress’s hidden pocket for my phone and dialed 911, muting the operator and tucking it back into the pocket, all the while wildly kicking my legs and spasming my back. The ruse was proceeding flawlessly, for there was one thing I knew: you can always trust a man’s inherent ability to underestimate a girl. “Do it or he’s dead. You know I will slit his throat without a second thought, Ms. Rose. In return I’ll use my power to plant affections in his heart–in your favor, of course. You of all people would know: I have a way with emotions,” he snarled, driving the blade in a wide slash across James’ back. His dapper dress shirt was soaked through with crimson blood now, the crisp winter air suffocated with the choking stench. I had to work fast. He didn’t have enough time for the operator to trace the call.
“So you’re just going to kill us? In the tucked-away parking lot behind our own middle school? Mr. Blackthorn, I’ll try my best, I swear. Just please don’t kill him. Please.” My voice quaked and shuddered. James’ father sneered at me, knife quivering in his palm and inching away bit by bit. My commands were making a dent in his resolve. Putting on a show, I staggered forward and fell to the ground at his feet, from which perfect vantage point I could see the reflection of the red and blue lights on the snow. In a matter of moments the police had the parking lot surrounded. I watched with pride as they carted Mr. Blackthorn away, deftly stripping him of the bloody knife.
My parents listened in awe as I gave my statement to the police, how this mentally unstable man had threatened, kidnapped and tortured us before attempting to kill his own son. He was never going to see the outside of his cell.
I rode with James in the ambulance to the hospital, grasping his warm hand. Even after all this time, I couldn’t deny the butterflies that barraged my stomach as our eyes locked: his deep brown and mine a brilliant silver. We joked and laughed even then, and I couldn’t help but think that I liked the boy he truly was–funny, sarcastic, and wickedly smart–a lot better than the pensive facade he used to hide behind. James and I had come so far from the awkward tension in the hall a month ago, just an average girl and a mysterious boy.
“Hey, once this is all over, do you want to get some ice cream? Just us two?” He asked abruptly. I stared at him for a long second, searching his face for laughter, a joking grin, something to tell me he wasn’t serious. I found nothing. With a broad smile, I responded,
“What kind of ice cream?” He looked at me incredulously, as though he couldn’t believe I had asked.
“Cookie dough. Obviously.” He retorted with challenging eyes. My heart leapt into my throat, hands quaking with pure exhilaration. “So, are you in?”
“You know what?” I exhaled slowly, but there was no thought necessary. “Absolutely.”
*This is the second edition in the Apocalypse series. Find the rest in the archives!
Something like remorse fluttered on the wind that day, the whole Earth exhaling a gentle sigh of lost hope. Petrichor meandered on the faint breeze, a mere glimmer of the rains that used to bless the land. Ash and Jax knew better than to hope for rain. There hadn’t been rain since the Burn and there wouldn’t be for as long as they lived.
“Would it be pathetic if I asked you a question when I already know the answer will be no?” Ash blurted into the stillness. Her words came in jolting gasps of air, stopping every so often to catch her breath. All he could manage was the slightest of movements to move his chin side to side. Each breath was a croaking rasp that tore their throats; each glimmer of sunlight filtering into the shady grotto seemed to suck the life out of them just like it had done to the scorched earth.
“Before the Burn…” her head lolled to face him, swirls of her inky hair falling over her cheeks. She was too exhausted to pluck them from her sweat-streaked skin anymore. Every ounce of her waning energy was focused on surviving the sweltering heat and forming a complete sentence. “Did you ever even think twice about me?” She asked, gunmetal eyes distant and hopeless, reflecting the white sun that clawed through the leaves. Staring out across the shaded turquoise waters of the grotto, he let his mind wander to a time that seemed a world away.
Sitting in school, lounging at his desk and yammering with his buddies while the teacher preached to the front row know-it-alls: nerds scratching away excitedly at their papers, suck-ups smiling and nodding, smart kids asking philosophical questions. Jax wouldn’t have the slightest clue what the teacher had been teaching that day. Needless to say, he couldn’t have cared less. Jax sat in the back with his other jock friends, the cream of the crop.
Anyone with half a brain could see it. His U.S. History class was divided perfectly into three rows with three different categories of people, with no outlier whatsoever: as clear cut as a wealthy man’s suit. The know-it-alls in the front row, who would stop at nothing to get closer to the learning (Jax’s eyes practically rolled into the back of his head every time they raised their hands); the cool jocks in the third row, including him: these were the varsity athletes, the beautiful girls, the party-kids that stayed up till dawn hosting rager after rager. And finally… Jax shuddered at his past self, recalling the exact placement he had put the second row in.
The second row was the row for nobodies: the mediocre crowd that would never make anything of themselves. Ash sat in that row, and the truth was… he had never looked twice at her except when she was arguing with the teacher over some stupid assignment or debating why she was required to work in a group. A loner. A pretty loner, but a loner nonetheless.
Jax let his eyes fall on her, the girl he had never thought about but now couldn’t get out of his head. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her there, blazing eyes and cautious smile, midnight hair and a sarcastic air about her that drove him wild. His pitying stare must have said it all. She turned away, wiping the beading sweat from her brow.
“I’m sorry. I was an idiot, messing around with my friends and caught up in football, rugby, lacrosse, partying… anything to shut out reality.” Ash looked at him, eyes dark as obsidian rock. She was panting still, the unimaginable heat bearing down on them both. Harsh, ultra-violet rays sliced through the gaps in the canopy. Even the waters of the shady grotto were as sweltering as a pool with a broken heater. Jax remembered his youngest sister, Caroline, how she used to ramble on and on about astronomy and the predictions of our sun’s future.
“Caroline, shut up already! I’m trying to finish this essay for once.” She dashed across the room like a thunderbolt and slammed his computer shut, just as he yanked his hands from the keys. Whirrrrrr. He slammed his fist on the desk. That was a sound he hated even more than the worst cramp at practice. It was the sound of a computer shutting down: meaning he would have to reboot it all over again and pray to god that his essay saved as he watched the loading circle go round and round and round again.
“Since when do you do essays? Is it your new girllllfrienndd??? Wants you to study and get good grades? Oooh-”
“Caroline! I swear to god, no. Could you just leave? I have enough already–” Caroline flopped down onto his bed, blonde pigtails bouncing precariously high on her head. Scratching at her nose carelessly, she gave him a lazy smile.
“You’re fine! As I was saying, it’s fascinating. Scientists predict that in a few years, the sun will go into its red giant stage, straying off the main sequence. LIke most stars, it’ll balloon up and be so hot it scorches the Earth super hot. Then it’ll be a white dwarf, but that’ll take a few thousand years, I suppose. Unless the process was somehow sped up by human influence, in which case it would balloon for a week and then settle into its final white dwarf stage.”
Jax rolled his eyes at the stream of gibberish flowing from his sister’s mouth. He would kill to slap her right now, but the odds she would go crying to their mom was no short of 100%. 12 was a tattle-tale age, and Caroline was the ultimate rule-following-nerd-sister.
“Caroline, this is nonsense. There won’t be any kind of sun-apocalypse, at least not within our lifetime. Why don’t you go to bed?” His phone buzzed in his pocket insistently, lighting up the fabric with the blue electronic glow. Now he really wanted her gone.
She glanced at his pocket, lighting up and crying out for attention. It was probably his new cheerleader girlfriend, the one he had taken to the prom last week, Caroline thought, but each new girlfriend never seemed to last too long anyway.
“Fine. I’ll go, whatever. But that is a real thing! The sun is a star, you know!” Jax shrugged and spun his chair back to face his computer. Whirrrrr. This was going to be a long night.
Now a tear tugged at his eye as he thought of his youngest sister. He had seen her burn. He had run away to the flooded mines by the old creek as his childhood home erupted in flames. The sun raged bright red in the sky, not so far from the rapidly-drying Earth. Caroline had been right about the future, and now… now he would never see her again, blonde ponytail bobbing behind her, face alight with new ideas as she babbled about science. They were all gone. Everything but him, Ash, and the crumbling ashes of society.
“Jax! Did you feel that?”
Ash scrambled to her feet, moving painfully slow. Sweat drenched every inch of her body as she gazed down at Jax. It came again, a deep, rumbling growl from the Earth.
Earthquake. Her eyes flitted to the weak boy below her, the one that used to tower over everyone. The prom king, the varsity athlete, the prettiest girl on his arm. Soot-darkened blond locks, all sharp angles and a rapidly peeling arrogant facade.
“Ash–I can’t move. Please help me up. Please.” His mouth was dry, words cracking out in bursts of air. The girl looked down at her hands, shaking inexplicably. All she had to do was reach out, help him up. There was no doubt that if they didn’t run soon, the stone spires of the grotto would crumble and smash them to bits. So why did some small part of her want to leave him here?
“Jax, I can’t do this with you. I’m sorry.”
“Do what? Ash, we don’t need to fall in love, carry on the human race, anything like that. Please, we just need to survive. Together–” The ground bucked under her feet, throwing them into the air. Smack! Blood rushed down her neck, stones grinding against her back. Dizziness flooded her senses. The metallic stench of blood suffocated the air; the world started to spin and all the while sprays of rock clattered to the earth as the dirt heaved under her feet.
Stumbling forward, she desperately threw out a hand at the vague image of him: a flash of golden hair and wild eyes, sprawled on the dirt. Immediately she felt a warm hand grasped in hers. Leaning back with all her weight, Ash heaved him from the ground, reeling with the effort. “Watch out!” Jax screamed. Ash staggered to the left, world a haze of falling rock and swirling dust. BAM! A boulder the size of a car smashed into rubble where she’d been standing moments before. Montana didn’t sound too bad right now, she thought absently: serene and woodsy countryside without any treacherous caves or grottos to be seen. Her inky hair was now dripping with viscous blood, thick as molasses that drips slowly from a jar like it’s hanging on for dear life. With each second she could feel the heat flowing down her neck, intensifying the unimaginable dizziness.
Gold hair streaked gray. Skin. Warmth in her hand. Insistent tug. Rock pummeling the earth over and over like a schoolyard bully pounding a kid for lunch money. Shallow breath. Vibrating earth. Guilt that she might have left him there to die. She almost willingly took a life just for her own gain, just so that she wouldn’t be slowed down, wouldn’t have another mouth to share food with. It was a hot, streaming guilt that she could barely comprehend amid the haze of action.
Jax was practically dragging her now, staggering weakly in the noxious, muddy barrens. He pitched forward as the Earth bellowed and hitched, plummeting them both face first into sticky silt. Caked in the fetid ooze, he lifted his head through a curtain of mucky hair.
Up ahead he saw a squat building, barely a smudge on the desolate horizon. It would knock them off course on their voyage West, but it seemed to be the only secure place for miles around. Better than stumbling through a dried up riverbed, he supposed. Reaching out his hand, he groped blindly for her hand to lead her. But there was nothing there. The Earth bucked and groaned once more, flinging him back down into the mud.
“Ash?!” He screamed, fighting against the thick pull of dirt. “Ash? I’m sorry! Let me help you! Ash?!? Ash?” Nothing in response but the quaver of the ground under his worn-out Nike sneakers. The quake threw him to the ground, loose rocks striking his limp form; the former varsity athlete could barely claw out of the silt to keep himself from suffocating. God, this would be so much easier if she had some obnoxiously bright pink hair! All he could imagine was Ash stalking away through the dense barrens, defiantly stumbling West… dark hair perfectly camouflaged with the rocks and soil.
“Ash? Ash, where are–” he slammed to the ground, vision a blur of monotone browns and sooty grays. When he finally pried himself from the grasp of the mud, he saw her just yards away. But she wasn’t the strong woman he knew, rebellious and sarcastic. She wasn’t trudging away from him, inky black hair swishing and face drawn up with determination. What he saw was her limp form: caked in mud and soot, lying face-down in a pool of blood. What he saw was the only other person in the world right now, and she was on death’s door. In a matter of minutes, without the proper medical care (which he couldn’t give), she would die. And there was nothing he could do about it.
*This is a continuation of a series. Find the rest in the archives under the Elemental series.
Crisp daylight fell in choked slivers through the cracks in the crypt door. Dust danced in the bright white light, falling and settling restlessly down onto the hard concrete slab of the tomb. The cloying stench of death and decay stifled the air as he hastily sucked in a breath, prying the door open with a resounding creak. The thick layer of dust stirred on the concrete coffin as a cold wind howled into the damp chamber for the first time in years.
His calloused fingers hesitated on the lid of the tomb. A deep chill permeated the air as though a faint whisper of the tortured soul imprisoned within the crypt still lingered, seething at the injustice of her death long ago.
The huntsman had slaughtered innocents in the name of his mistress Artemis, tracked prey around the world, stared into the wide eyes of a poor man and slit his throat because of a simple accident when he had stumbled upon Artemis in the bath.
All of it in her name; just to see satisfaction light the goddess’s cold yellow-hazel eyes that he loved so much, just so he could hear the barely perceptible hint of admiration in her voice, sinning endlessly to earn a love he knew she would never give.
But at least those innocents had been sacrificed at the request of his lady, for some greater heavenly purpose. This task was his least sinful on paper, but as he stood still in the light-flooded secret crypt, he felt chilled to his bones. Every fiber of his being tingled and shivered with a cold as deep as the ninth circle of hell. Please forgive me.
Orion lifted the cover of the stone tomb and immediately recoiled. Pungent aromas of blood and decay exploded into the crypt. A body lay crumpled in the confined stone case, barely recognizable with the rotting skin and glassy eyes: Inara Nightlock. Dried brown blood stained her forehead in a nasty wound, her fingernails caked with grime from fighting back against her kidnappers, ebony hair matted and tangled.
Orion thought of the Earth girl, of the brief moments he’d seen her jetting across the waves with his captives, hope still tangled in her heartstrings that her long-lost sister was out there somewhere when all the while she’d been here. An innocent murdered and dumped in a dusty crypt, her name engraved into the cement lid by the sick, twisted killer that had left her here. A man Artemis killed years ago! She has already been avenged, and my lady Artemis using her to weaken the rebel goddesses is nothing more than a way to honor Inara. I have already failed my lady, and now she has sent me here to do a simple job. I can’t fail her again.
Even as he thought it, he knew what he was about to do was vile in his culture. In any culture. The very marrow in his bones shuddered with cold now, the harsh daylight doing nothing to warm his shivering frame. With Artemis’s cruel, ethereal face hovering in his mind, he resealed the lid. Dragging the chisel out of his pocket with a quaking hand, he brought down a mighty slash straight across her name. In a spray of grit the meticulously etched letters were scarred beyond recognition.
Orion was still for a second, his uneven breath rasping in the death-like silence. It felt as though his heart suffocated in his stomach as the realization of what he’d done set in: he’d just desecrated the tomb of an innocent, even if that tomb had been sealed by a murderer.
Out of the blue everything went dark along with the screech of the crypt door being shut. He heard a muffled heartbeat faster and faster, reminiscent of the Tell Tale Heart. Artemis’s tinkling laugh bounced off the walls, becoming more and more demonic each second and all the while the tick of the heart raged on. A young woman’s scream sounded from the dark, echoing around the huntsman from every side.
“Please! Let me out!” Orion groped blindly for the door. Sobs tore his throat, darkness swallowing the room whole like he was in the damp maw of a beast. He found no knob, no handle. Each limb of his fine-tuned body shook uncontrollably from a bone-rattling fear that sent him spiraling into hysteria.
“Your sins have caught up to you, huntsman. Did you think I would not judge you because you have some convoluted love for a maiden goddess? You will perish as you have made others perish: slowly and without a shred of dignity.”
A sharp sting pricked his throat, fire spreading through his muscled neck. His eyes bulged as the memory came back to him in flashes as though it was trickling slowly through a leaky faucet. Beady black eyes of the scorpion. Artemis, an avenging angel above him. The crunch of the scorpion under her boot. Sic itur ad astra. But before that, something that the world was sure Orion had long forgotten under a haze of ambrosia and ebbing pain.
“I love you too.” Artemis. His one true love. On some level, he knew that memory was Death’s last gift to him before the pain of all his sins caught up to him all at once. Yet he still extended one final reach for life.
“Artemis! Please, have mercy!” The deep cold dragged him into the darkness with the force of the undertow pulling a sailor into the depths. With his back plastered to the cold crypt wall, Orion screamed, his head splitting, and prayed for the sliver of light to reappear. It was time. After years and years, he knew it was time. But he couldn’t let go. Could she?
Inara ducked down another side street, her shadow flitting out of view. The pound of her boots pummeled her legs with each thumping step. Time was an amorphous deity, dragging on at seconds where each bounding stride was a shot of pain and then racing ahead like a bullet train; one moment she was on the street, Inara just a spot on the skyline, and in the blink of an eye Zara found herself in an alley with her long-lost sister directly ahead of her.
It’s not her… her brain hissed. Instinct was riding high– her whole body itched with the wrongness of the figure she chased. It’s not her… They always said you can’t trust your eyes. You have to trust your gut. And her gut? It felt like a hurricane was ripping through it, flurries of fears and false hope funneling into a roiling vat of searing frustration. Frustration… frustration that Inara was just beyond her reach around every turn, that her whole village, destitute and droughted, wanted to burn her at the stake for bringing prosperity to the land, at the reality that she had been traveling with a mysterious stranger for the past day and would probably never see her family again.
The girl paused for a fraction of a second in the middle of the intersection, looking back. Zara’s breath hitched at her sister’s pale jade eyes staring back at her. Inara. Ebony skin dashed with off-white flour, long hair loose and flowing as though it had been hastily tied back and then had fallen out again.
“Zara? Is that… is that you?” Her musical voice carried on the rustling breeze. Zara’s knees were weak, legs shaking like the jello her family never could afford from the “big-city” markets of Kommetjie. The words that left her lips next were a blubbering string of emotion-choked sounds.
“Yes–I–can’t believe you’re alive! Where have you–do you own a bakery now, like you dreamed? Why haven’t you contacted us? Inara, it’s been…”
“Years?” She offered with a strained laugh. A funny look crossed her face, an unbecoming blankness, emotionless as shards of ice: lips set in a hard line, glazed eyes, perfectly smooth brow. It melted away as quickly as it arrived. Zara took a careful step closer, just feet from her sister. The traffic light above them flickered uselessly… the street was eerily quiet for a few long seconds.
“Are you okay, Inara? The police searched years for you! You ran away, I could have sworn you were dead–”
“Where are your friends?” Inara blurted.
“What? How could you–” Her sister’s shoulders tensed, the delicate gold flecks in her jade eyes brightening wildly. They had always been a light tone but with each passing second, it seemed to Zara that the gold was taking over Inara’s soft eyes.
“Answer the question,” Inara hissed, ripping away her flour-dusted jacket to reveal a tank-top. Crimson bloodstains darkened the white fabric. Scars marred her arms in poorly-healed-over pink gashes. A cloud passed over the sun abruptly, throwing shadows over the intersection.
“Talia is with the others, helping Daria. She’d been shot with an arrow… please, Inara. Stop. You need to see a doctor right away. This,” she gestured vaguely to the sky, the air, the world itself, “can’t be real. I’m mixed up in something bad, Inara. And it looks like you are too.”
Inara’s eyes were solid gold marbles in their sockets, not a trace of the pale jade. The perfect skin of her forehead was peeling away in grotesque layers to reveal a bloody gash, the smooth ebony facade on her wrists falling away to reveal rope burns. She didn’t look like Inara, the aspiring baker that loved the city. She was a blunt-force trauma and kidnapping victim reanimated. She was a demon.
“Little sister, you’re wrong about one thing. This is real. Even if I’m not.”
Zara stepped back, tripping in a pothole and plummeting, black hair flying. Panic mounted in her heart. Nausea barraged her stomach in hot waves like her gut saying a huge “I told you so!”, bile searing her throat.
“Who are you?” She gasped. “Where is my sister? Why are you doing this?” The bleeding girl cocked her head, an uncanny portrait of Inara painted with blazing gold eyes.
“Lots of questions, little goddess girl, all with easy answers. My name is Artemis, huntress and eternal maiden. Your sister is dead.” Before Zara had time to gasp, Artemis laughed, flakes of the facade falling and taking to the breeze. “And why am I doing this? Well, two reasons. One: I wanted to crush your heart. Like mine has been for thousands of years. You’ll find eventually that you prefer it that way… it hurts more at first but you will never feel another pain. For who can break what is already shattered?”
Those last words hung on her lips as though they were meant to be a rhetorical question, but she had discovered an answer. Eyes flitting to the sky, Artemis tensed, suddenly on high-alert. It reminded Zara exactly of the feral look on a wolf’s face when they catch a whiff of a rival pack. Artemis had undoubtedly heard some kind of signal, one that answered her own question. Whatever it was, it was from something or someone that could break her heart for good. With a decisive motion, she slammed her shoe down onto Zara’s shin. A sickening crack sounded.
“Second reason? To lead you away from your friends. The plan is simple, really. Break all of you pathetic goddesses down one-by-one, luring each one away until all that is left is my target. Selene, my best friend.” A cat-like grin spread over her face, one that didn’t linger.
“There’s nothing you can do to find them. I led you miles away, and you followed as willingly as a gullible puppy dog. Goodbye, Zara. It’s a shame I won’t get to see you die.”
Artemis disappeared, taking with her the only trace of Zara’s long-lost sister. Crumpled on the ground, her shin wasn’t the only thing shattered. For her sister was dead… and Zara would never visit her grave. Just as she summoned the strength to cry out, a bus hurtled through the intersection. The wheels screeched like a banshee, in perfect harmony with her screams. The world. Went. Dark.
*This is a new story I wrote about a post-apocalyptic world. There will most likely be more later installments, so stay tuned!
You never really know how much you will miss the simplest things until they catch fire. Even now, breathing shallow breaths through her nose, she found herself yearning for the earthy scent of grass (or even the stench of car exhaust would do). Now Ash wasn’t sure those smells existed amid the all-powerful film of smoke and dust that loomed over the Earth like a blanket of fog. After all… how could you smell the aroma of fresh-cut grass where there was only sun-scorched dirt for miles around?
Soot-stifled air clogged her lungs as she surveyed the hellish gray landscape. Toppled white pillars littered the debris, white-hot sun beaming down its scorching gaze on the bare branches, shattered glass glittering with a glare so intense it burned her eyes… Ash could never imagine this would be what the nation’s capital would look like the first time she saw it.
“Wow,” she turned to him, lacing her fingers in his. Both hands calloused, yet interlocked with a decidedly firm grip that said “we aren’t disheartened yet.” Her eyes roved hungrily over the crumbly gray expanse of land in a futile search for any semblance of the grand metropolis that used to be.
“Anticlimactic?” he offered. She laughed, a beautiful sound that pierced the overwhelming silence before being swallowed whole.
“I always thought these monuments would look…” Ash gestured vaguely to the wreckage. In spite of herself, a watery film of tears abruptly glazed her eyes. Nothing is the same. I’ll never be able to see the capital as it was, never truly see the world. Things will never be as good as they were before. Another thought yanked painfully at the edge of her mind, one she could barely suppress to a whisper: It will never look like it used to. And your family will never see it with you.
The pair stood in mournful silence for a long while, a silence that was filled with pain unexpressed, but still just as strong. A boy and a girl on the brink of a gray, smoldering world with no idea if they were the last alive… chances were, there was no way to ever truly know. Finally, the words fell out of her mouth.
“Like monuments. But it’s all just ash, ash, ash, just like my idiotic, ironic name. Everything is gone and there’s nothing we can do,” she ripped her hand out of his as tears sprang down her cheeks, shaking them off like his touch was poison.
“Nothing but trek through the rubble like hyenas scavenging for scraps. What can we do, Jax? What?” For several long seconds, the space between them buzzed with silence. It was a rhetorical question, Jax knew, yet under his soot-darkened blond hair the gears churned in his head. Ash trudged a few steps down the hill towards the burned ruins of the city. Flickering flames still fluttered on the horizon– the last remnants of the heavenly fire that had rained down three months before, obliterating the world as they knew it. Harsh white sunlight (no longer the buttery-gold hue of the past) illuminated the wreckage in all its glory: a grim picture of a death-brushed world, painted in swirling gray soot, sparkling with shattered glass.
“Wait! Ash, wait.” She turned, cat-like gunmetal gray eyes cold as steel and hot as hellfire at the same time. The handsome boy, with his messy golden hair and sweeping lashes, streaked in dirt, stood silhouetted in the white light like a vision of Apollo on Earth.
“We could leave altogether. We could give up the search for others, give up whatever semblance of civilization we still have. Accept that we’re all alone. Our families are…” he hesitated for a second. Ash raised an eyebrow expectantly.
“Dead,” he gasped, heart thumping brokenly, “but we don’t need to keep up this search. It’s futile. We both lived to remember when the sun expanded and the sky was crimson as blood. What if no one else did? What if we are searching for something that doesn’t exist?” Jax put a tentative hand on her shoulder; he could feel the sharp edges of her shoulder blades, sharp as knives in her malnourished frame. Ash didn’t move away, yet every nerve in her body tensed like a cornered animal ready to spring away at any moment.
“So you think we should give up? Settle down like pioneers on the prairie, give up on our families? This trip has been interesting, Jax, but… do you really not have any hope? What about your father?” A light wind rustled the chalky ash, flurries of the dry gray soot spattering their faces unceremoniously. Tendrils of her ink-splash hair billowed behind her in the breeze; the boy that had been so untouchable once upon a time now found himself dry-mouthed and unsure, yearning to run his hands through her unruly waves. The words fell awkwardly off his lips in sputtering spurts.
“My– my house was on fire when I ran. I saw my mother, my sisters, brothers, all of them burn in a white-hot blaze. As I ran for the lake, I heard my father’s gut-wrenching screams from inside the house. They were screams of death, Ash. Death,” he pursed his lips, eyes glazing over with a sheen of tears that burned his eyes but refused to be shed.
“They’re dead. Not just our families. Everyone. Lord knows how we made it… I don’t have a clue myself. But we need to get away from this pain. Everywhere that we go, every building we see, every human thing we touch will remind us of death. Start over with me, Ash. We can forget together, migrate to Montana or some unsettled territory. Please just stay.” Her eyes darkened, scrunching up at the corners. Pain was painted in bold brushstrokes all across her face: the wrinkles on her brow, the pursed lips, the flushed cheeks. Searing fury boiled up in her gut, striking hard as lightning and twice as fast. She took off at a sprint down the slope, charging through the rubble. Pillars. Soot. Broken glass. Deflated tires.
“Wait! Just tell me why, please!” Desperation choked his words. Ash swung around furiously, eyes roving ravenously over his gleaming golden hair and prominent jaw.
“Why? Why?” her voice rose, more and more venomous. She gritted her teeth, staring him directly in the eye. “I. Can’t. Forget. I. Can’t. My family is dead and–ha! You.. you want to play out some demented Adam and Eve fairytale ending. Former popular boy and rebellious loner girl fall in love after the world falls away?”
His gaze fell, cheeks blazing crimson. Deep within he wondered whether his feelings over the last month had all truly been some delusional attempt at a romance-movie ending, or if they were rooted in something real. Did the fact that he had never given Ash a second thought before the apocalypse mean anything? Was the rapidly festering desire in his heart purely circumstantial, as random and meaningless as two animals reproducing to keep the species alive?
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. But… let me come with you. Anywhere. We don’t need to run away…” he faltered for a second, grappling with the miserable thought of eternity all by himself.
“But we do need each other.” Ash raised a brow, gunmetal eyes alight with a cold mischief that screamed “wrong answer.” Sunlight flooded the wreckage she stood in as the black clouds rolled over. She turned and took a single step away from him, a crinkled plastic bottle crunching under her tattered sneakers.
“I need you, Ash.”
His husky voice echoed in the utter silence, ricocheting off the crumbled stone and reverberating against the teetering flag pole. With a single flick of her wrist, the beautiful girl beckoned him to follow her, glancing back with a slight (still anxious) smile that said “I forgive you?” And yes, I did mean to add that question mark. For after the apocalypse, nothing is certain. You can’t trust anyone–or anything–once everything has been set to fire. They trudged on together through the rancid waste of society, heading west in search of something that they no longer were sure existed anymore: humans.
Recently, I entered into a contest with the topic of “Why Words Matter” hosted by my city’s Cultural Awareness Society. I won in my age group with this short essay I wrote with the topic in mind. Enjoy!
Could you imagine even a day of utter, all-encompassing silence? As a child, the silent game was always a frustrating activity — straining to express opinions, basic needs, ideas; but the frantic hand gestures and facial expressions always seem to fall short in comparison to words.
Words. Inexplicably powerful, yet impalpable to humans except by ear and on paper. Communication changes lives all over the world, alters the course of history, drives human development into new ideas and technologies that would be unfathomable to someone from an earlier century.
Exactly one hundred years ago, the motion to give women the right to vote passed on June 4th, 1919. It is a thread we can follow all throughout American history and world history as a whole: Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights protests, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, the Emancipation Proclamation, The United States Constitution, and The Declaration of Independence even before that. Hard to imagine that in the 1800s women could not vote or voice an opinion when you are basking in the present day, isn’t it? Two hundred years ago it would be an utter shock to any American woman that I could express an opinion so boldly — not to mention on a computer (which would be unimaginably complex at the time) where I can communicate with an audience all over the world at the press of a button.
You can see the never ending cycle: our progress is driven by communication, and communication is sped up exponentially by human progress. Tracing back every single event involving people (whether they be good or bad), it all comes back to language in one way or another. Our shared ability to communicate and express ourselves is what links generation to generation and weaves a tapestry of diversity and development.
That is what makes the power of words so truly incalculable. One single author can paint the fiery crimson-golds of a sunset sky across the minds of millions, one eloquent speech can plant a seed in the hearts of humans all across the world… one single word can change a life forever, and perhaps even history itself. Almost every single event in the course of human history stems from our ability to communicate through speech or written words. After all, we have come a long way from our caveman ancestors!
So why not keep the trend going? Write a new chapter in the history books, make your move to change the world. Great ideas have brought us everything we have ever known, all the new technologies and ideals that would never have seemed possible in the past. But ideas are nothing if you can’t — or won’t — act on them. The way to do that is through words. A book. A letter. A protest. A speech. Even a simply-written, passionate pamphlet like “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine inspired countless patriots in the Revolutionary Era to fight for a cause that was widely considered absurd at the time (a cause which we now perceive as a basic birthright: freedom).
I’m not going to say changing the world is an easy task, because if it was, everyone would do it. But we all have the tools to evoke change in the world, and they come in the form of words and language. If you believe in a cause, there is no excuse to remain stagnant and helpless when you can speak out and share your view with like-minded people or (perhaps even more powerful yet) sway others to change their perspective!
No matter what others may say or what limitations you may place upon yourself, you have the power to influence the world. There’s no need to think outside the box if you’re searching for a way to inspire the masses… every single person has that power hidden right inside a box. Your voice box. So let’s write a new chapter in the history books together, one word at a time.
Beady black eyes stared into his soul with a fiery calm that could only come from murder. It stared at me, unblinking, and within seconds he felt the lethal pinch of its pincers piercing the paper-thin skin of his cheek. Fire itched along his nerves determinedly as a rapid-spreading virus. This is the end.
Pain ricocheted through his nerves, pounding his body with heat flashes that shook him to his core: one moment a burning flush that slicked his body with sweat and the next a bone-chilling cold wracking his body with shivers.
Another pinch on his neck, biting and quick as a hastily delivered injection. No…. He groaned, hacking at the viscous blood that welled in the back of his throat. No… Artemis… Prayers brushed past his lips like poison-laced feathers, begging some higher god or goddess (as though his whole life hadn’t revolved around loving one). Sand swirled in flurries, falling into his slightly parted lips, making his throat gritty with dried, sandy blood. Beady black eyes reappeared in his peripherals. The scorpion is back. Its eyes were glinting murderously in the setting sun as it raised its stinger high. Orion simply tensed his throat, waiting for the inevitable, lethal pinch that would put an end to his pathetic human life forever.
But it never came. As if in some faraway dream, Orion heard the slosh of desert sand. Like an angel wreathed in the heavenly sunlight, she appeared in his vision, towering over his body. Coughing and spluttering up blood, his lips mouthed her name but all that came out was a gurgling croak. Shadows flickered across his face as the flowing white silk of her toga billowed in the breeze. She raised her boot-clad foot ominously, yellow-hazel eyes glinting with an emotion he couldn’t quite place. He tensed, squeezing his eyes shut and waiting for the final blow, the imminent pain…
Crunch. It was a sickeningly slow sound. Orion’s eyes snapped open to see Artemis’s boot splattered with an oozy black goop, the crumbled shell of the scorpion scattered across the sand in broken pieces like a smashed bottle; Artemis’s lips quirked into a tiny grin, tossing her shining auburn curls over her shoulder. He could have sworn that she had a glowing silver aura pulsating around her, painting her moonbeam pale skin in glittering light. An avenging angel. After all I had done, she saved me.
Kicking away the scorpion remains, the goddess crouched beside him in the sand, placing a silver cup to his lips. The liquid was cool and sweet like vanilla soda, the deep golden hue of the liquid seeming to hide glimmering secrets. Ambrosia. The drink of the gods.
Night was rapidly creeping over the rolling dunes, the crimson-gold painted sky receding into black. A brilliant crescent moon hung lonely in the starless oblivion above. Orion’s eyelids drooped, a drowsy smile playing across his lips as he stared out into the dusk, Artemis warm beside him; she smelled faintly of jasmine and pine, tinged with the beachy scent of sand.
“I love you,” he whispered into the dark. They were words he wouldn’t remember saying for the remainder of his immortal life. Orion thought he could hear a sad sigh over the perpetual noise of wind whistling in the sand.
“I love you too,” Artemis paused, seeming lost in thought. Pursing her lips, she looked tenderly down at the pale huntsman, the red sting marks dotting his right cheek like… a constellation. Eyes drooping lower, he saw her hold a hand to the sky, bright pinpricks of stars appearing where she dragged her fingers. He would awake tomorrow morning with hardly a memory of the scorpion that almost killed him, forever sealed into the fate of being Artemis’s mercenary.
The beautiful maiden goddess let her hand fall, surveying her creation, written across the sky in stars. A new constellation, one that would be marveled at for millenia to come. Orion: The Hunter. Running a reverent hand over his forehead, she closed his eyes. As he was drifting off into a warm, vanilla-sugar sleep, he heard her whisper,
“Sic itur ad astra.”
Thus you shall go to the stars.
Drawing his bow, he let an arrow fly skyward, watching it disappear into the clouds. Sic itur ad astra. The thought leapt across his mind randomly, as it always seemed to when he thought of her. Throwing a hand up to his cheek, he felt the raised skin of the faded white scar as though on some level he could feel her touch there if he concentrated hard enough.
“Why did you do that? We have to find them now or she’ll- she’ll…” The young mercenary trailed away, voice quavering. Orion narrowed his eyes at his pathetic quaking, bounding ahead once again. The young man came up beside him, panting.
“We’re going the wrong way! They went that way!”
“Yes, they did.” The words were icy and emotionless on his tongue with an edge of superiority that came from millenia of murder and doing what he did best: hunting. I have no need to explain myself. I answer only to Artemis. My one and only love. The last thought was quiet, nervous, as though even in his own mind Orion was afraid she would hear it.
“The Mistress will- she’ll-” The Huntsman shouldered the scrawny man hard, breaking stride to slam him against the alley wall. He recoiled back. Red hair mussed. Fresh blood dripping in satisfying streaks from the new scrapes. Emerald eyes frenzied and fearful; Orion looked like a golden god of war reflected in his panicked stare.
“Kill us? Toss you away like street scum? Yes. She will.” Frustration bubbled in his throat, searing hot and threatening to boil over in a torrent of white-hot words. “Stop your incessant sputtering. Artemis,” he saw the mercenary’s eyes widen at her name (no man was ever to speak her heavenly name, not even her own assassins), “has no mercy. No love to give your pathetic, yearning heart.” Orion cringed, eyes squinting with the pain of that venomous word. Driving a boot into the young man’s gut, he laughed at the groan echoing off the bricks.
“Artemis will kill you without hesitation if you fail. There was ever only one exception, a long time ago…” his thoughts drifted to a lethal sting, stars painted across the sky, the waves of her auburn hair gleaming under the lonely moon. No. No. No. Snapping back to the crumpled mercenary, his throat raw with emotion,
“That was a lifetime ago. It will never happen again. The arrow to the sky was a message of distress, directly to Artemis. Alerting her to watch over us, track our progress and dole out punishments for those whose services are lacking. As for going the wrong way? We aren’t.” He pointed to the opening of the alley just in time for the staggering gaggle of girls to slink past. Eyes burning with passion, Orion yanked the young mercenary to his feet and took off without missing a beat.
Watching someone die is a lot different than what I had imagined. And trust me, I’d imagined it a million different times, a million different ways ever since Inara had taken off that night.
You always think it will be dramatic. Gasping breaths, whispered last words, reverent hands reaching for the sky only to fall down halfway. In reality, death is a more of a creeping phantom than a grand grim reaper.
I winced as the viscous blood gushed between my fingers, repeating to myself over and over, It’s not her. It’s not her. It’s not her. The glassy blue eyes staring up into space were not the sparkling emerald of my sister’s. Yet the setting was the same, the bumpy roads of Kommetjie that haunted my dreams, the roads where I envisioned her dying every night. It had been years since she had taken off into the night, headed for the bustling little town she had fallen in love with, heart soaring and head filled with dreams of a bakery of her own and a townhouse on Main Street. I never heard from her again.
“Zara!” Kenna hissed, yanking my arm. I fumbled with Daria’s limp body as we took a hard right into the alley. At the end of the musty little corridor, silhouetted against the bricks was a figure that made my heart skip a beat. Cascading black hair, ebony skin, lean, muscled arms. Inara. It’s her. Every ounce of logic disproved this: the police had launched a full-scale search combing every inch of the area. But hope bloomed with the deadly strength of a poisonous flower… sweet and with dangerous potential. Hastily handing off Daria’s body to Kenna, I sprinted down the alley, watching as the figure slunk around the corner.
This was painfully easy. Changing forms usually wasn’t my forte, per se, but today the facade was utterly flawless. The Earth girl’s voice yelled her sister’s name after me as I ducked around the corner, loping down the street and drawing her further and further away from the pack.
“Inara! Come back! It’s me!” My lips quirked up. Poor girl. She has no idea… her sister has been dead for a long time. I almost felt bad… no, I didn’t. The chase was on. Zara Nightlock had no idea that the trophy she was chasing was not solid gold, no. Just a convincing plastic fake laced with deadly intentions.