Here, at long last, is my entry for Eric Swett’s March Writer’s Challenge, in the short fiction division:
In the garden beside the ancient tree. Twisted limbs stretching out towards the stars. All is silent and still, shrouded in white. The stars beckon overhead, calling Sa’renna in the Dreamers’ language, older than the world, as old as time itself.
Ba’thor speaks, his voice low and sharp like the blades he wears on his hips. “In the beginning was the Gift. The Blessed honored the Gift. They did not reject it.”
The Sisters wheel across the night sky, waxing and waning and waxing again. Younger Sister eclipses Elder Sister and then they dance apart. The stars careen through the heavens and the moons move faster.
Nausea crashes through Sa’renna’s body and she reaches for the tree to steady herself.
“They kept the Old Ways and the world went on.”
The rough bark of the tree is sticky and wet. Sa’renna pulls her hand away and finds it stained dark in the moonlight. She begins to tremble as the smell of blood reaches her nose. It drips from her hands onto the snow, black against white.
“But then the Betrayers came. They rejected the Gift and the world fell into Darkness. The Old Ways must be kept Sa’renna. The Gift must not be rejected.”
Ba’thor falls silent and Sa’renna turns to him. He grins at her in the moonlight, his teeth bright against dark lips. The faint smell of decay drifts off his body. His eyes are like dark pits, holes in the night sky.
“There must be blood and battle-sacrifice.”
Sa’renna stumbles back but he lunges for her. He curls one hand into a fist and smashes into her chest. He holds with the other hand, his skin burning hot against her flesh. His fingers twist and writhe inside her until they close on her heart.
Sa’renna opens her mouth to scream, but no sound comes out.
A thunderous ripping rolls across the night. Moonlight fails and darkness falls on the garden.
Sa’renna tore herself from sleep, a low moan escaping her lips.
The dream. Always the dream. Bits of truth mixed with dream-born images.
She was no longer sure which was which.
Sa’renna reached for the fire and prodded it until the flames danced. She looked into its center and willed the dream images to be burned from her mind. The dream did not go entirely but her heartbeat slowed and her breathing eased.
Beyond the fire, moonlight spilled into the cave. Sa’renna wrapped herself in her cloak and crept to the edge of the outcropping before the mouth of the cave, her bare feet rasping along the cold stone floor.
The valley below lay in moonlight and shadows, bound on either side by the mountains said to mark the end of the world, for no traveler had crossed them and returned to speak of it. The still, stream-fed pool where she bathed and filled her water skins shone as though it were filled with the Sisters’ light instead of water.
A night-bird glided above the valley, then wheeled and dove for its prey.
A sharp wind blew across the face of the cliff, tugging at Sa’renna’s cloak. She spread her arms, letting the fabric unfold like wings. If she leaned forward, stepped over the edge, would she soar like bird or plummet like a stone?
She shivered and drew back, huddling deep into the cloak. She glanced over her shoulder at the fire and bed roll, then back into the night. There would be no more sleep tonight. The dream was there, lurking just below the surface of her thoughts. If she gave in to sleep, the dream would come again to stay, and she would be lost in its madness for all time.
She tilted her face to the sky, letting the moonlight bathe her in silver. The Sisters were full and huge above the mountain peaks, Younger Sister slipping behind the nearer Elder Sister.
Moon-blessed, her mother had said. The Sisters would watch over ones born beneath their full light. Sa’renna felt their gaze upon her now.
The books lay spread on the table before. The smell of ancient leather, parchment and ink heavy in the air. She leans forward, knocking her chair over. There! That symbol! Is it echoed in the Proto-Vernethian? She slides the Proto-Vernethian manuscript next to the far more ancient manuscript said to be written in the Dreamers’ tongue, though all translations have been lost.
She stretches one ink-stained finger forth to underline the Dreamer text. Yes! The Proto-Vernethian word for Darkness, clearly derived from the Dreamer symbol. And another symbol in Proto-Vernethian so achingly close to one in the Dreamer text. Destruction.
With exquisite care, Sa’renna turns the page on the Dreamer text and catches her breath. An image she has never seen before. The symbols for Darkness. Great Darkness. Destruction. Two figures, straddling the heavens, gazing at one another, oblivious to the destruction below. The world ripped apart. Death. Madness. A stone altar shattered. But the figures look on one another with serenity.
Another symbol at the bottom of the image. Further from the Proto-Vernethian but still readable. Gift. The symbol for Gift.
Sa’renna sat in the mouth of the cave as the dawn leached the darkness from the sky, the Sisters fading slowly into the blue and rose.
The water closed over her head, closing out the sounds of the world above. Rustling leaves. Twittering birds. The hum of insects. All replaced by the cool, silky silence and small fish darting between shafts of sunlight.
Sa’renna kicked her legs and propelled herself upward. She broke the surface and the sounds of the valley poured into her ears. She pushed her sodden hair out of her face and opened her eyes. She froze, slipping back beneath the water. Sa’renna fought her way to the surface once more, coughing and choking, her heart pounding.
“Sa’renna. Are you finished running and hiding now?” Ba’thor asked, crouched on the edge of the pool, his lips peeled back from his teeth in a grotesque parody of a smile.
Sa’renna glanced past him but could see no other nearby.
He reached for her clothing, laying in a heap near the pool, and extended them toward her. “We are alone, dear sister. Have no fear.” His smile widened until it seemed his skin would split from stretching.
Sa’renna licked her lips and tried to find her voice, but it had flown.
Ba’thor rocked back on his heels, the smile melting from his face. His eyes glittered beneath his brows. “I am tired of this chase, Sa’renna. Are you not tired?”
Sa’renna drew a long, trembling breath and clambered to the edge of the pool, reaching for her clothing. Ba’thor rose smoothly and stepped back, holding her garments to his chest. Sa’renna eased around him, trying to cover her nakedness with her hair and hands.
She drew another breath as a wave of dizziness washed over her. She glanced at the line of the forest to her right, trying to gauge the distance. She glanced up at the cliff face where the entrance to her cave was well hidden, seeing her bed roll and provisions beside the ash blanketed fire. She looked back to the clothes in Ba’thor’s hands, then into his eyes.
He bared his teeth and leapt towards her. She stumbled and he caught her wrist, pulling her sharply forward and pushing his face close to hers. Heat rolled off his body, making sweat stand out on her skin.
It is not him. It is the thing inside him that makes him act so.
“Enough Sa’renna. The Old Ways must be kept. The Gift must not be rejected.”
A sharp bark of laughter escaped Sa’renna. “You do not believe such things Ba’thor. The Gift is myth. The Dreamers-”
Ba’thor hissed and a faint odor of corruption drifted off him. He dug his fingers into her arm. “It is you who do not believe. You cannot see that it does not matter if you believe or no. The Old Ways must be kept. Blood and battle-sacrifice.”
He brushed his fingers gently against her cheek. “I will make it easy for you, Sa’renna.”
She flinched away, her cheeks growing hot, tears springing into her eyes. She pulled against Ba’thor’s grip and he shoved her backwards. She fell to the ground in a sprawl, bright pain racing up her spine. Ba’thor flung her garments to the ground beside her.
Sa’renna eased herself to her feet and hurried into her tunic and breeches, the fall of her hair hiding the scalding tears running down her face. She reached for her cloak, snatching her hand away as one of Ba’thor’s blades whistled through the air and pinned the cloak to the earth.
“Take up the blade, Sa’renna.”
She shook her head. “I will not fight you.”
A vein began to pulse at Ba’thor’s temple. He curled his lip and spat. “You are a coward, Sa’renna! After all of this you would dishonor all those who died to hide you? You would let them die for nothing?”
Sa’renna’s breath turned to mud in her throat. A trickle of cold slipped down her spine. “I do not—do not understand, Ba’thor. What do you mean?”
“I do not understand, Ba’thor,” he repeated slowly. “What do you mean? Sa’renna, do you think they could go unpunished for their crimes?” His eyes bored into hers, pinning her as his blade had pinned her cloak.
“Yes. Please. They all called out that word as they died. Please.”
Sa’renna squeezed her eyes closed and pressed her hands over her ears but she could not close out his voice.
“The dream seekers in their mountain temple? They did not even know what it was they hid. They begged. For all their wisdom, they pleaded for their lives. Same as any other men. They died, Sa’renna. Every last one. For you.”
Sa’renna stiffened, her hands falling to her side, limp.
The alarm sounds, shattering the night. A dream seeker, whose name she does not even know, thrusts a large bundle into her arms and hurries her to a narrow opening in the mountain. She runs, her heart hammering in her breast, not looking back. She hopes the seekers will be safe when Ba’thor’s men fail to find her there
Only now she can see it through Ba’thor.
His men pouring into the temple through the shattered gate. The brown robed seekers running. The screaming and pleading. The sound of sharp blades cutting through the air, biting into flesh. The smell of blood and death.
Ba’thor’s voice drifted closer. “The villagers who did know what it was they hid. They forgot the Old Ways. Paid with their blood. They pleaded too.”
She had spent only three nights in the little village and they had treated her well. They had fed her and sheltered her. They had outfitted her with supplies and sent her to the mountain temple to hide among the dream seekers. She had believed them spared as she had believed the dream seekers spared.
Shouts of alarm. The women racing to hide their children, shielding them with their own bodies as Ba’thor’s men descended. The men fighting with scythes and pitch forks and rough wooden clubs. Ba’thor swinging his twin blades, blood spattering his face.
“Stop.” Sa’renna’s voice a faint whisper. Her legs gave way and she slipped to her knees.
“Stop. Yes.” Ba’thor’s voice at her ear now, his breath hot on her cheek. “She begged me to stop.”
Sa’renna’s heart froze inside her and her bowels twisted. Her eyes snapped open but still the vision came.
A woman standing in a doorway, pale hair spilling down her slender back, her body blocking any exit. Ba’thor before her, his face twisted. “Stop,” she tells him. “She is your sister. The old ways are meaningless. Stop.”
Ba’thor’s cheek pressed against hers. “Mother.”
Sa’renna looked down at her hands, could almost see the blood stains there. She closed her eyes, swayed and grew still.
So much blood.
The weight of it pressed down on her. The stench choked her. She gasped. The tears spilled down her face in torrents. “I did not know. How could I know? I am a coward. Do what you must, Ba’thor. I will not fight you.”
Ba’thor screamed and rocked back on his heels. He pressed the point of his blade under her chin. “Take up the blade, Sa’renna,” he barked. “I command you!”
Sa’renna looked into his face. His skin was flushed a deep red, almost purple, and stretched like parchment over his skull. His eyes were sunk deep in their sockets, burning like diseased stars.
Beyond the awful new twist of his features, she could see him as he once was.
Ba’thor as a child, his cheeks still round and smooth, sticky with honey. Then a little older, his face still soft and round but already taller than Sa’renna. He waves a wooden sword and crows about lessons with the swordmaster. And yet a little older, the lines of his face leaner but not yet bearded, proud to march into war with their father. Ba’thor in the garden, telling her of the Old Ways and the Gift, and she did not believe him.
But he believed. And it was killing him. This thing that had gotten inside him. Ba’thor called it the Gift but it was a monster. Sa’renna could see it looking out of her brother’s eyes, glutting itself on his very being.
She reached out and touched his cheek with her fingertips. His skin was like a living flame. “Ba’thor, my twin, my other self. It is killing you. How is this thing a Gift?”
Ba’thor flinched at her touch. “The Old Ways must be kept.”
Sa’renna sighed. “I give it to you then, my brother.”
Ba’thor’s jaw clenched and he reached for the blade between them. He freed it from the earth and pressed the hilt into her hand. “Take. It. Sa’renna.”
Sa’renna’s fingers closed around the hilt and she looked up at Ba’thor.
He licked his cracked lips and nodded. “Yes. Take it.” He stepped back.
Sa’renna looked at the blade. It shone still beneath the layer of dirt. She wiped the flat of the blade on the sleeve of her tunic.
“Yes,” Ba’thor said again, readying his own blade and dropping into a fighting stance.
She held the blade out before her and looked into his eyes. Lavender like her own, like their mother. Hair color, the lines of his face and his height from their father, but the eyes he shared with Sa’renna. She turned the tip of the blade towards her and touched it to her breast. She smiled softly at her brother.
Ba’thor’s eyes widened and the blade slipped from his hand.
Sa’renna closed both hands around the hilt and pushed. The blade slid into her easily. There was a moment of cold and a brush of fear before a bright, hot pain.
Ba’thor ran to her, dropping to his knees beside her. He grasped the blade and pulled it free, pressing his hands over the wound, trying to staunch the flow of blood. “What have you done-”
The darkness is not still. It shifts and rolls. It is alive with whispers and the brush of things against her. She shifts and rolls in the darkness. She is the darkness. She shifts and rolls and reaches for the boundaries of this darkness.
A sharp tug. She is pulled up like a bubble rising to the surface. Searing light. The darkness shatters, shards spinning away into nothing.
Her eyes are open, the bright blue sky arched above her.
There is only the rustling of leaves and the sounds of insects and birds in answer.
Why does he not answer me?
Sa’renna rises to her feet and falls to her knees. Ba’thor is on the ground beside her, unmoving. She touches his face, finds his skin cold and stiff. His eyes are open, fixed on the sky above.
“Ba’thor? How can this be?” Her fingers fly to her breast, searching for the wound that should be there. Her gown is stiff with blood and torn but the skin beneath is unmarred. “No. How can this be?”
A tremor passes through her body. Sharp, acrid taste in her throat. Fire beneath her skin. She struggles against it but it rises still. Her body grows fever hot, her blood beginning to boil in her veins. And then it rushes away from her, shattering her body into fragments as countless as the stars in the heavens.
She is whole again. Around her is a circle of ravaged earth, black and smoking. Ba’thor’s body is ash. The valley is silent, holding its breath. But Sa’renna is whole, her garments unharmed, the tear mended and the blood gone.
As if it never was.
It is hers.
Inside her a sound drifts up, resolving itself into a laugh. Ba’thor’s laugh inside her. It grows until she can hear nothing else as the sun sinks behind the mountains at the end of the world.
There it is. Hope you enjoyed it! Please check out the other entries (will update as the stories are posted):
God’s Wrath by Eric Swett
Wizard’s World War-Intro by ralfast
Bedeviled by Marantha Jenelle
Then head on over to Eric Swett’s blog to vote for your favorite story!