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The World Remains – Chpt. 1

WorldReamins

Chapter 1: Forbidden Fruit of Knowledge

Dear G–

‘The Ring of Perfection: It is a story I’ve heard a thousand times; one I’ve told hundreds. Something like clay planted beneath our city, it shifts with the shifting views of those who keep it. It evolves from year to year, from retelling to retelling, but never strays far from its root.

Do I belong?

I used to think so.

Until I found out what I really was.

That first day was a lonely day indeed . . .’

On an afternoon stained with rainwater, I walked to class.

Half-heartedly, begrudgingly, I walked to the concrete schoolhouse at the center of a field. On days more vibrant, the walk was enjoyable, but amidst the slop of messy, clinging blades, even the scent of rain provided little enjoyment.

The previous night had been a celebration, and I was still tired from that. I’d come out of slumber undercooked, and I was paying the price.

If the walk were any indication, the day would surely drag.

Damn.

There it was. A rigid building whose sign simply read: Schoolhouse.

‘It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d even come to realize how generic it was to call something ‘Schoolhouse,’ ‘Clinic,’ or ‘Market.’ Within our fairytale, we were children playing house. There was a lack of authenticity to anything and everything we were.

But all of that would change.

It was already beginning to change . . .’

There was no activity around Schoolhouse’s door. My classmates were already inside. It was my own fault. Because I’d woken up too early to go where I wasn’t supposed to, and stayed later than I should have.

But it was worth it!

So I sucked up whatever crankiness I had and pulled the door’s handle. I heard it immediately. That holy tale. That cherished story.

Cherished? Blegh.

Teacher Dole had been at it for a while, it seemed. His voice had already transitioned from dry to croaky.

“Consider this, students,” he was saying. “Never has there been an economic or scientific need for assimilation. Assimilation is simply a phenomenon that happened on its own. If you think about in that respect, it is something quite astonishi–”

Reeeek! The classroom door’s noisy spring betrayed me.

Shoot! I’d been hoping to duck in unnoticed.

“AHEM. Nice of you to join us, Student Ashlin,” said Dole.

Those gritted teeth were for me? How sweet. I gave the young teacher a tip of the head; then shuffled to the backside of the classroom and settled into my chair, chin down and eyes betraying. Dole shook his head because he knew where I’d been. He didn’t reprimand me, though. He just carried on,

“Earlier generations pushed away from the inevitable; but with scientific advancement, came an opening of minds. At last, people came to an understanding: Everyone was equal.”

I searched through my pack for a notebook. It was pointless, though. I already knew this lecture.

Everyone was equal.

I was equal to the three other students in my class.

I was equal to all ninety people remaining in the world.

“Integration,” said Teacher Dole. “It is a holy path. Can anyone tell me why?”

Cat-faced Lale raised her hand. No surprise there. When it came to the classroom, the little snob was always first to speak and last to leave. The good teacher loved that most about her.

“Yes, Student Lale?” he said, and smiled – in my humble opinion – much wider than he should have.

Lale returned the smile. “Integration is holy because with integration, perfection was attained,” she recited. “From one race we came and to one race we became. The circle completes with us.” She drew a circle with her finger to prove her point. “In that way, history made the Ring of Perfection.”

I yawned and peered through the window that was still dripping with remnants of storm. I’d just gotten there, and I was already bored. That was because I’d heard this tale daily. Humans had once been different. Distinguishable. A multi-ethnic painting of flesh across the face of the earth. But that had been way back when, in a time that no longer mattered.

Now things were . . .

“Very good, Student Lale,” said Teacher Dole, pulling at his collar. Her know-it-all butt-ins always made him hot. “Every generation evolves closer and closer into one true race. The perfect race. That means that, as one of the youngest remaining generations, you are the holiest of humanity.”

Lale nodded hungrily. I rolled my eyes. Holiest, shmoliest. It was no fun being the holiest of the remaining humans if it meant there were only a handful of us left.

The ‘Ring of Perfection’ was a bunch of crap.

The truth was the world was dying, we were the only ones left, and that holiness spiel was just a lie to make us feel better.

But Teacher Dole didn’t think so. “It is true,” he continued, “that convergence into one perfect race is the natural flow of evolution. Any that argue are foolish.”

Lale smiled to herself. I heaved a sigh and scribbled into my notebook. To an outsider, I looked obedient, like a student keeping good record of her studies. But an outsider would be fooled in the worst way. I wasn’t taking notes at all. I was writing a letter. To a secret person that was waiting for me on the outskirts of the commune. I’d meet him after class. Just as I always did. Just as I’d done before. I tried not to let my thoughts roam too freely, though, because knowing that he was waiting for me made the moist classroom even more unbearable.

“As you know, students, the last of you has passed their twelfth year. With Student Kinamo’s turning, the youngest of your class has reached adulthood. You are all aware of this, correct?” said Teacher Dole.

Aware? Of course we were aware! Not only had Kinamo been flaunting it for days, we’d been forced to attend a gaudy celebration complete with fireworks and sugared water the night before. My turning hadn’t been anything like that. It had been simple. But then, Kinamo was anything but simple. He was obnoxious. As flashy as the fireworks he’d demanded.

The boy in question was beaming because he was the center of attention again. Lale tried to catch my eye. She, too, was aware of Kinamo’s garish nature, and she wanted to exchange in some sort of camaraderie, I guess. But I was still angry with her for her actions the previous night – the actions that had exiled my secret person from the festivities – so I let her eyes linger and fall, uncaught. She hurried to find the eyes of the only other girl in our class: Bess. Bess would oblige. Bess was a girl hell-bent on people pleasing.

“Now then,” said the teacher. “With the turning of the last of you, the time has come for me to introduce you to . . .” He cleared his throat. “Something new.”

I looked up. That was different. Teacher Dole was ahead of schedule. Usually, the holiness pitch would’ve gone another ten minutes or more. Whatever. ‘New’ probably just meant an introduction to trigonometrics or something. I continued to scribble the secret note.

But there were others in the class that found the sermon at least a little interesting.

Lale had released Bess’ gaze, and was staring intently at Teacher Dole.

The wind outside sent a splatter of old raindrops against the window. Dole frowned at the interruption before picking up where he’d left off.

“Now, you’ve all been told time and again that the races, which were born as one, split during an era of separation before converging into one mixed race. You’ve also learned that we are of that remaining race. That we are the ‘Remnants’ of humanity.” Teacher Dole paused. “What I must tell you now is that you’ve been misled.”

“Misled?” mouthed Lale. The little snob was quickly losing the flush in her cheeks. Again she searched the room for a gaze of camaraderie. She wouldn’t find it in me, though. I was staring at Teacher Dole.

The way he was chewing his lip . . .

What the heck!?

“We will now watch a video,” he said. “And it will be,” – The stiff man stopped to think carefully about how he would deliver the next line – “hard to stomach, but I assure you, it is a video all of our people must watch at one point or another.”

Kinamo grabbed the front of his desk and used it to pull himself forward. “Truly?” he yelped. “Hard to stomach? What is it? Things that are dead?! Things that have rotted?!”

“Don’t look so excited, Student Kinamo.” Teacher Dole’s expression was foul, as it usually was when addressing the brassy boy.

Kinamo’s nose flared.

Dole walked to the wall and input something into the numbered pad there. “Upon watching this footage,” he said, “you shall become full adults.” He took another moment to fiddle with the command pad and then, “Students Lale, Bess, Kinamo, and Ashlin, it is with a lamenting heart that I now feed you the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Eat it and awaken!”

‘The forbidden fruit. A fruit forcibly eaten. A fruit that, once tasted, could never be forgotten.’

I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I’d expected a brief retelling of the Ring of Perfection, followed by an hour of arithmetic, followed by tea. But today was special. Or better, it was cursed.

With wide eyes, I watched the projected image that appeared on the wall. The room let out a collective gasp.

The video! It was–!

I’d never seen anything like it, so it took a moment for me to react, and even when I did, I said nothing. I just shook and squinted and made a strange burping noise at the back of my throat.

“W-who?” stuttered Lale.

“Hell!” yelled Kinamo.

Bess, too, was muttering something. Hers, though, was more of a sob.

The others were the same. They couldn’t understand it either. For there, upon the wall, was the image of thousands and thousands of people. People that looked nothing like us. People that were different.

What was wrong with them?!

I was fair-skinned. Blonde. Blue-eyed. So, too, were the others in the class. The last ninety humans were that way. But the people on the video? That massive, massive group of people? They were . . . abnormal. Their hair was dark; their skin bronzed.

“Who?” Lale said again, now white as a ghoul. “Who are they?”

“What you see before you,” said Dole, gesturing to the wall, “is the TRUE integrated race of humanity.”

Not knowing what else to do, I stared at the screen and rubbed my temple. If these golden people were ‘true,’ then what were we? False?

Hah!

But never once had our teacher jested. Never once had he played. “This is true integrated race,” he said once more.

Kinamo was first to show his disquiet.

“True race?!” He jumped to his feet. “Impossible! There are so many! And WE are the only ones left! WE are the end of the circle! And . . . how did they get that way?! Look at their skin! And their hair!”

Dole held up his hands. “Breathe, students. Breathe.”

It was too much. So I did as he said. I took in a breath. And then another. And it felt good. Gradually, my racing heartbeat slowed to an acceptable pace. Gradually, Kinamo returned to his seat.

“What is this?” I held my chest and inhaled the air that felt thicker than normal.

“It is not your imagination,” said Dole. “The room has been infused with tranquilizer to help you cope. These reveals have been known to be . . . shocking.”

Shocking.

“Breathe, remain calm, and listen,” said Dole.

That sort of thing was getting easier the more breaths I took.

There was silence until, “I get it,” squeaked Bess. “This video is from the time of separation! This is from the twentieth century or something!”

Oh. That made sense. Good one, Bess! Of course it was ancient documentation of the time before true integration.

My thirteen-year-old worldview was restored!

But only until–

“This footage was taken last year.”

–Teacher Dole forcibly pushed more fruit into our mouths.

“W-what!?” cried Lale. Her head was wobbly upon her thin, lanky neck. She brought it into her hands before it could fall on its own.

Meanwhile, Kinamo landed a lazy fist on the table. He probably would have stood, had it not been for the infused air of the classroom.

“We are not the circle of assimilation’s end,” said Teacher Dole. “They are. They are evolution’s endpoint. Not us.”

He meant to tell us that the people in the video were the ultimate mixed race? But that made no sense! What about US?

It didn’t matter ‘about us,’ apparently.

“A very long time ago,” he said, “when the races first started to cross, some believed that the nations would grow to be more and more different, genetically; that only a small portion of the population would blend, and that humanity as a whole would evolve apart. However, that wasn’t the case.” He motioned to the video of strangers. “As technology advanced, and travel and integration became easier and easier, the opposite was true. Over centuries, the races converged. And it was an awesome thing. The pinnacle of equality. An erasing of hatred. The road to unity and understanding.”

I squeezed the edges of my desk. We knew all of this. We KNEW that humanity had converged and died until all that remained was us. We knew it. WE were the Remnants, so why was Teacher Dole still rambling? And why did I feel like falling over?

“The powers that be were fearful,” he went on. “Fearful of losing the roots of humanity. So from all corners of the world, small portions of the population were removed and put into small communities, segregated into family lines that would breed only with one another. Gray-eyed people here, deep-skinned people there, all manner of nationalities were plucked and sequestered away to their own communes.”

“Hold up!” Kinamo’s eyes bulged. “You do not mean–!”

Teacher Dole nodded. “All to preserve the ancient races. And what is more . . .” He paused and locked eyes with each of us before continuing: “You and I belong to one of those sects.”

The forbidden fruit made its way down my gullet and into my belly.

Kinamo tried to reject it: “But Teach–”

Dole cut him off. “For countless generations our ancestors have been secluded from the rest of the world as an act of preservation. In that sense we are NOT Remnants. To the rest of the world, we are Purités.”

Purités?!” yelped Kinamo.

Whatever that meant.

Dole nodded again. “I understand that this is painful and unfathomable, but it is time for you to grow up. Consider this the last step to your coming of age.”

“But there are so many of them! How can that many people exist?!” Kinamo was gaping at the tan-skinned mass. The tranquilizer was wearing from him, judging by his gusto.

“Ah, yes,” said Dole. “Another thing. As you can see, the population today is not ninety, and it is even more than the crowd in this video. It is, in fact, ten billion or so.”

“TEN BILL–” started Kinamo.

“SILENCE, STUDENT KINAMO!” Teacher Dole had had enough. He threw an open palm at the wall of projected bodies. “You must move past a childhood of fairytales and become aware of the real world! You’ve had your turn to be sheltered! Many of you will be married soon, so it is imperative that you understand! It is up to YOU to keep our race alive!”

“Why?” blubbed Lale. “If we aren’t holy, if we aren’t the circle’s end, then why?! What’s our purpose?!”

“Why?” repeated Dole. He tapped his chin. “Because we are a living archive of what once was. We are rare. We are special.”

But as I watched the masses of same-skinned, same-haired people mingling on the screen before me, I realized:

More than anything, we were caged.

‘I wasn’t a Remnant. I was a Purité. I was alone. But at the same time, not alone. I belonged, but I also didn’t belong. I was apart from humanity. But I was a part of something intimate. I was a paradox.

At that time, I didn’t know anything. And to be honest, I still don’t know much of anything. I didn’t know what to do, so I did then what I do now. I went to him. To the one person I could count on.’

“Olté!”

The fields at the back of the schoolhouse were wet. The air still misted, though the largest of the drops no longer fell. The shorts I wore went down only to my knees, so the lower parts of my legs were instantly wet from the blades of grass that sopped and clung.

Olté’s place was away from the rest of the village. That was fine. I had to get away. The walls of my worldview were crumbling, so I had to get far, far away. As far as I could. Miles of wilderness surrounded us. I could’ve kept running forever, it seemed. But I had to stop. I had to grab Olté on the way. I had to whisk him along.

There was his home. Brick. Stout. With a lovely bed of lilacs beneath the front window. Olté was one for green things. He always had been. But because he wasn’t allowed in the main market, his planting tendencies were fueled by seeds I’d smuggled for him or ones he’d gathered in the forest.

“Olté!”

I didn’t knock. I barged right through. Olté didn’t offer any sort of welcome.

“Criminy, Ashlin! I’m indecent!”

“Ack! You are!?” I prepared to turn away, but let my eyes linger because I was curious. Olté was clad in jeans and a garden-stained t-shirt. He wasn’t indecent at all!

“You are not,” I said. “And besides, it doesn’t matter. I have something incredible to tell you!”

“Calm down, spazoid!” He pointed to his closed right eye. “I AM indecent! So just hold on a sec and let me get my patch!”

“Oh.” That was what he’d meant. I fanned at him. “Go on. But hurry, would you?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said.

I continued to watch, hoping for a glimpse of the iris behind his right lid, but he turned his back to me, so I studied that instead. His hair matched mine. So did his skin. Maybe after seeing the shocking true state of the world, staring at his similarity would bring me comfort. But it didn’t. Yes, I was comforted, but it wasn’t the similarity of our features that did it. It was his presence. It was him. My secret person. My charming outcast.

“There.” He finished knotting the patch’s belt at the back of his head and turned to me, right eye now decently covered. “What’s the big deal, Ash?” He rubbed his forehead and scowled. “I COULD have been naked, you know.”

“Psh. Naked schmaked. That doesn’t matter at all,” I said.

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?! Of course it matt–”

“Nope! Me seeing you naked would be a small shock in comparison to what Teacher Dole told us today!” I threw out my hands. “Just wait ‘til you hear!”

“Hold on, hold on. Have a seat.” He gestured to the only chair in the cottage. “Let me get my notebook.”

I blinked at him. Notebook? Oh, right! He thought I was going to show him arithmetic or something. Well, I couldn’t really blame him for that. It was our daily routine after all; me sneaking over to pass along what I’d learned at school. For years I’d been stealing knowledge from the classroom, and for years I’d been secretly giving it to the one person that wasn’t allowed in. To the boy that didn’t count.

“Olté.”

I said his name quietly because I needed to feel it on my lips – to reaffirm that he existed.

He heard it anyway. “Hm?” He was shuffling through the stand at the side of his bed.

Nothing. “It’s nothing.”

But it was something.

I was thinking about IT again – the tally.

There was a giant stone abacus beneath the steel clock in the courtyard behind city hall. Reachable only by the town’s tallest ladder, the mechanical thing was a tally to show how many of us remained. A symbol to show just how small and ‘sanctified’ we were. Cracked and wind-worn, the abacus counted ninety, just as it had said since the death of Grandpa Archer and the birth of Baby Archilade. We had an uncanny way of compensating for death with new life. Thus, the number never long fluctuated from ninety. Ninety remnants – or rather, ninety Purités – were all that remained within our commune.

At least, according to that stupid tally.

But even before the forbidden fruit, I’d known for some time now that the tally was a lie. The count, held so precious to us ‘sanctified’ Purités, was a deceit. Nothing more. Nothing less. There weren’t ninety of us remaining, at all.

There were ninety-ONE.

But number ninety-one didn’t exist. Not really. Olté was only three years my senior, so he should’ve been included in my generation. He should’ve been among us that were holy. But he wasn’t. He was taboo.

“What? Why aren’t you sitting?” asked the uncounted one, notebook prepped and ready in his hand.

“Oh.” I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “I was thinking about you.”

“Eh?” He raised a suggestive brow.

“Never mind.”

“You’re being weird today,” he said. “Then again, I guess you’re a little weird every day.”

I shook my head to shake it away. There were more important things right now: Namely, the reason I’d come sprinting over here in the first place! “Oh right!” I spurted. “Listen to this! So today in class we watched a video, and you’ll never BELIEVE what was . . .” But I stopped because he’d cracked a smile. “Uh, Olté?”

“So that’s what this is about?” he said quietly. “A video?” He laughed.

I stared at him dumbly and said, “Yeah, a video, but why are you grinning at me like that?”

“Finally.” He threw his head backward and let out another laugh, this one more animated than the first.

I gaped at him. “Finally?”

“Yup,” said Olté. “Finally.”

The way he was just standing there, all grinning like an idiot . . .

It set me off.

“WHAT THE HECK DO YOU MEAN FINALLY!?” I narrowed my eyes and waited for an answer, positive that none he could give would be sufficient enough to calm my coming wrath.

Olté didn’t fear the wrath at all. He tossed the notebook to the bed, came to me, and set a hand atop my head. “Ash,” he said, grinning. “I’ve been waiting for you to grow up for a long time. You know that?”

I pushed him away. “What? You don’t mean to tell me . . .”

He nodded.

“You KNEW? About the video? About all of those golden people?”

He nodded again.

“Unbelievable!” After everything I’d shared with him! After all of the rules I’d broken for him! After–

“Cool it, Ashy,” he said. He placed the hand I’d refused onto my shoulder and squeezed. “Didn’t you guys go over the ‘Melojim’ dealie?”

“Meloheeem?” That sounded vaguely familiar. Yes, Teacher Dole had said something about that at one point today, but I couldn’t exactly remember . . .

“Let me guess,” said Olté. “You were off in your own little world after seeing that video.” He tipped his head in consideration. “No, on second thought, you were probably panicking, right?”

True story.

Not that I’d admit it.

“Let me see your notes from today,” he said with an amused sigh.

“What? No!”

He folded his arms. “Why not?”

Because I was pretty sure there was at least one doodle of him in there.

He cracked another smile. “Fine. If you won’t show me, at least flip through there yourself. Even when you space out in class, your notes are always spot on, right? So check there. Look for something called the Melojim.”

I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously.

“Just look.”

“Grrr. Fine. But I’m still mad at you,” I said.

“I know. I know.”

I was mad. I was very, very mad.

Until I wasn’t. It didn’t take long for me to locate the term he was talking about. He was right. I frequently zoned out, yet my notes were always perfect. Guess my brain was good at autopilot.

I read aloud the first bullet under the word ‘Melojim’:

“If any from the non-turned generations learn the true nature of the Purités, bla bla bla, they shall be put to death at public execution for acts of treason against the . . . WHAT?!”

Olté nodded.

“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” I scanned the paper again, just to be sure.

Olté shrugged. “Not when you consider how important it is for them to maintain the structure of things. The state of your people is so fragile. The whole thing could so easily break . . .” He stared absently, like he very much would have liked to be the catalyst for something like that.

“OUR people, Olté. They’re yours too, you know.”

He glowered.

“Anyways, if it’s such a secret, how do you even know about it?” I asked.

“They told me. When I turned twelve. Don’t know why they didn’t do it sooner. I mean, they could’ve killed me for treason if they had.”

I hated when he talked that way. “Shut up.”

He grinned.

Stupid Olté. He wasn’t making things better. “Gah!” I said. “Even with that Melo-schmello thingy, you still could have told me! It’s not like they’d ever find out, right?”

“NO. WAY. You’d have let it slip for sure. AND gotten yourself killed. Like I’d risk that.” He shook his head. “I’m just glad you came here right away today. It would be so like you to do something irrational.”

“Irrational?”

“You know, like run to the children and blurt out everything. Then it would be ‘goodbye’ to the holiest of holy babes.” He drew his thumb along his throat. “Croak.”

I let out a crabby grumble. He wasn’t giving me much credit. After all, I’d kept our meetings secret for how long? Well . . . ‘secret’ was sort of an exaggeration. The two other people in the commune that knew just pretended not to notice because it made them uncomfortable.

I chewed my lip. He was studying me.

“So . . . you aren’t really mad at me, are you?” he said.

“Hmph!” I turned up my nose. I felt like being bratty. Mainly because I’d feel stupid and self-conscious otherwise.

“Come on, Ash,” coaxed Olté. “You know you’re in the wrong here.”

It was true. He’d done the right thing. But I wouldn’t let him know that.

“Fine,” I said, sulking. “Even though you’re awful, I’ll forgive you . . . IF you let me see it.”

“It?”

“You know.” I pointed.

“Forget it!” He brought both hands to his eyepatch.

But those were my terms. His right eye – I wanted to see it more than anything. That was the reason for everything – his exile; why he wasn’t counted as one of us; the reason we had to sneak our friendship.

“Then I’m leaving and you won’t be seeing me again for at least a week!” I said.

“Okay,” he said, saluting. “See ya!”

I snarled and marched to the door. He said nothing until I put a hand on the knob. At that point, he let out a grumble. “Wait.”

I smiled to myself and turned slowly back to him. “Yes?”

He frowned.

“YES?” I said again.

“Fine.”

I blinked. It had worked? Really? My face lit up. Awesome! I’d only gotten to see his forbidden eye once before, and that had been an accident. Another of my intrusive bargings.

“Wonderful,” I said, more than pleased with myself.

Olté groaned. “Why, Ash? Why that? It’s gross.”

“It’s NOT gross. It’s . . .”

But, sighing, he didn’t wait for me to find a word for the patched thing. He walked to the edge of his bed, took a seat, and patted the space next to him. I vehemently plopped down.

“Easy, spazoid!”

“I can’t help it.”

“You get worked up about the strangest things.”

He was stalling. I urged him along.

“WELL?”

“Fine. Fine,” he said. And, slower than I’d have liked, he brought his hands to the back of his head and began to undo the tie. A moment later, the patch fell onto his lap, but his right eye remained closed.

“Open it,” I ordered.

He rolled his left eye, but he was only half-convincing. He was . . . nervous? That was stupid. He was stupid.

“Tch. It’s not like I’ll think less of you or anything,” I said.

“I know. But anyone else would. You’re broken.”

It hurt a little, though I tried not to let it show. “Or maybe the rest of them are broken,” I said. “Maybe we’re the only two that aren’t.”

“Heh.” He liked that. And, cautiously, he allowed his lid to rise.

I gasped.

It wasn’t a bad gasp, but Olté flinched anyway, so I brought my hand to his cheek and pulled his face closer so that I could take in all the secrets of his right eye. I bored mine deeply into his and reached for the forbidden tones hidden there. His left eye was blue. Like mine. Like everyone’s. But his right eye? His right eye was–

“Olté! It’s–!”

“An abomination,” he mumbled. He dropped it to the safety of the floor.

“No!” I seized his other cheek so that he’d look at me. The taboo iris was green. Bright green and flecked with pieces of amber. “No,” I said again. I shook my head. “It isn’t anything like that, Olté. It’s . . . so beautiful.”

The word hit him like energy and made both eyes widen. At that time, I didn’t understand why. I just continued to study the intricacy of his right eye more deeply than ever. But he was staring at me for a different reason.

“Ash?” He gulped.

“Hm?”

“Hurry and grow up a little bit more, would you?” he whispered.

Get the rest of the story herehttps://www.amazon.com/

Also available on Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, iTunes, etc.

Heart of Farellah – Chpt. 1

This is the tragic, beautiful tale of a girl without a soul.

I am that girl and this is my story.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Chapter 1: The Rite

When a songstress is born, she isn’t alone. A tiny, glistening thing resides very near to her soul. It is her song, and it accompanies her all her life.

Before I lost my soul, my song was buried deep, deep within me.

Until the day of the Rite.

On that day I lay in the grass. On that day everything changed.

~

I was just staring off across a noon-lit meadow that smelled familiarly of cherry blossoms, when a loud scurrying alerted me to the arrival of a girl that was far too small for her tail.

Or maybe her tail was simply too big.

Either way, the girl, who happened to be part-squirrel, came scampering into the meadow, disrupting the rest I’d long sought after.

“Aura!” she cried, slashing about the blades. “What’re you doing out here? Miss Danice sent me to retrieve you!”

She was too loud for a day so calm. I wasn’t in the mood. Not today. Not with the Rite nearly upon us.

But as the Squirrelean girl tipped her head forward, hands to her hips reprimandingly, I couldn’t help but grin. One of her ears was erect, while the other flopped forward. She looked ridiculous like that.

“You found me, Kantú.” I put my hands up in surrender. “And I thought I was being so sneaky, too.”

Kantú returned the grin. “You, Aura Rosh, are not sneaky.”

She was right. But neither was she.

“Anyway, what are you doing out here all by yourself?” she said, settling down beside me. The grass came up to her shoulders. She batted at it.

Truthfully, I’d just woken from a dream. But it hadn’t been a good one. Something about a cavern full of mirrors and a bright red light . . .

Not worth mentioning.

“Nothing much,” I said. “Just trying to mentally prepare, I guess.”

Though it was hard preparing for something I knew so little about.

Kantú was on the same page. She twisted the end of her bushy tail between her fingers and stared intently at the center of my forehead. “Wonder what even happens during the Rite,” she said. “Do you just wander around in the dark? Or what?”

I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to think about it. My nerves acted up whenever I did.

But Kantú wouldn’t let it rest.

“Well, your Rite can’t be much worse than Laria Lynn’s, at least,” she said. “Remember that? Something flew up her skirt, she tore it off, and when she came running out, the whole village saw her – exposed.” She let out a high-pitched chittering laugh. “I mean, how embarrassing!”

Again, I didn’t want to think about it.

Weren’t you saying something about Miss Danice?” I diverted through my teeth.

“Oh right! Miss Danice wants to go over some last minute songstress-ish stuff with you. She’s waiting at her cottage.”

I groaned. ‘Songstress-ish stuff’ was the last thing I wanted to do.

But Kantú was persistent. “She promised me a whole satchel of spring nuts if I sent you back.” An evil smile crept across her face. “So whether I have to carry you, drag you, or a combination of the two, you’re going!”

I rolled my eyes at her. “Addict.”

I wouldn’t put it past her to follow through with her threats, though. Besides, it was probably for the best that I meet with Miss Danice one last time before the Rite. Maybe she could even provide a little insight into what it entailed.

“Fine.” I stood, but not before letting out a sigh. “You probably won’t see me again until tonight, though, so wish me luck.”

Kantú bounced to her feet and wrapped her arms around me. “Good luck, Aura! You’re gonna do great, I just know it!”

I started towards town, but turned back to take one last look at my beloved meadow before fully committing. For some reason I felt sad. I’d only be gone until tomorrow, and yet . . .

Don’t forget me.

A large waft of cherry blossom-infused air surrounded me, seeming to answer my plea. Satisfied, I cut through the long grass to the dirt path that led to town.

Farellah.

My home was a simple village of log cottages, street merchants and dusty roads, with a culture ruled by song and legend. The mayor welcomed in a traveling trader only once every year or so, and by most accounts, Kantú was the most exotic thing the town had ever encountered.

In Squirrelean culture, one’s maturity level was not based on age, but rather by the size of one’s tail. As Kantú had an unusually large tail for her age, she’d been sent out into the world while still a child. She’d stumbled upon Farellah, by chance, and Marbeck Berfield, the town librarian, had taken her in as an assistant in exchange for rent.

We’d been friends ever since.

Anyways, Farellah.

The town had given me a headache all week, just at the nape of my neck. The sort of headache that pangs worst when you acknowledge it. People had been bringing up my Rite all week, causing the headache to swell.

My Rite. My coming of age. The ritual. The cave. The releasing of my song.

There was no escaping it.

It is said that oftentimes the nosiest of people live in the smallest of towns, and unfortunately, Farellah was smaller than the smallest of towns.

Ugh.

In the distance, I saw Miss Danice’s peach-colored cottage. She was the only person in town with a colorful one, having concocted a paste-like stain out of mud and morningberry juice. While hers stood out amidst the uniform wood-tones of the other cottages, the peach-color looked sort of sickly. I suspected she’d been shooting for pink.

It was something she’d never admit.

Miss Danice was the songstress under whom I was apprenticed. She was a vibrant woman, with a lavish vocabulary and a passion for the dramatic.

She flung open her door before I even knocked.

“Why, Aura, you kept me waiting for ages!” Her voice rang with over-exaggeration as she let me in. “Look at your hair, peach, it’s all wind-tossed! We can’t have you looking like that for the Rite. But we’ll get to that later. First, we must do one final review!” She exuberantly pointed to a worn wicker chair as if welcoming some foreign royalty to their throne. “Seat yourself, peach!”

I obeyed. I didn’t have much of a choice.

“Now then,” she continued, “are you nervous? Excited? Ready to discover your song? No matter, it’s not like there’s any changing the inevitable! Aha! I just can’t believe you’re already coming of age. My pupil’s all grown up! How about we start with a warm-up scale?” She held up a finger. “Recite the six regions of the Westerlands as you go!”

I hadn’t even gotten in a single word yet! And already she wanted me to sing?

But such was the way when it came to Miss Danice.

If I did any differently, she was sure to scold me with a tongue-click.

I took a deep, reluctant breath and began to sing a scale: “Carouth, Rendalt, Elenque, Abardo, Farrowel, Nor . . . Carouth, Rendalt . . .”

These were the regions of the Westerlands. Or so we’d heard. Farellah’s record tomes had only bits of legend about each of them, and the hand-drawn maps we’d received from travelers over the years were too inconsistent to be of much use.

One of them even told of an ‘Easterlands’ across the great ocean.

I wondered.

Flawless!” sang Miss Danice. “Next, let’s hear the Song of Juniper’s Cry. You do remember it, don’t you?”

I didn’t. I rarely remembered the songs that had been drilled into my head. I chuckled nervously as I tried to recall the words. Miss Danice clicked her tongue.

Several more clicks would follow, for the drilling would go on well into the late afternoon. My throat felt rough and dry by the time we were finished.

But Miss Danice was still full of energy, not at all affected by the vigorous hours of training, per usual, and intent on getting me ready for the evening.

“When I’m done with you, Aura Rosh, you’ll look positively radiant!

~

An hour later, I stood in Miss Danice’s bedroom, examining my reflection in her floor-length obsidian mirror. She was proud to be one of the few people in Farellah that owned such a rare artifact.

“You look lush, peach.” Miss Danice’s voice cooed behind me. “The color is fabulous! Your hair looks just like stardust!”

The purification gown I’d decided on was lavender. Miss Danice thought wearing it would make my silver hair look simply striking. But drawing attention to my hair – which the village women had always coined ‘peculiarly lustrous’ – would mean drawing more attention to ME.

My stomach protested with a gurgle.

“Thank you, Miss Danice.” I faked a gracious smile.

The songstress herself usually wore some sort of live bird in her hair as an accessory, switching them out each day to match her outfits. She had mastered a song that allowed her to control them using mist, putting them into a dazed stupor for hours on end so that they would behave.

I considered it imprisonment, more so than creative expression.

“No bird today?” I asked, searching her hair.

She patted her head. “Not yet, dear. I’m saving it for the ceremony.”

“R-right.”

“Well then, off you go. Don’t fret – you look enchanting, and that, my dear, is fifty percent of what counts. I’ll see you at the beach at dusk. Don’t be nervous, peach. You’ll do wonderfully!”

I started to leave but paused beside the door.

It was true I wasn’t much of a songstress, but I was far better off than I would have been on my own. Miss Danice was one of the strongest magic-wielders I knew. She’d offered so much of her knowledge, while asking nothing in return.

Some people were all good, it seemed.

“Miss Danice, thank you for . . .” – I didn’t know where to start – “well, for everything, I guess.”

I looked up at her, and she was staring at the top of my head. It took a moment for her to answer, and when she did, her voice was strange. “I should be the one thanking you,” she said, tone subdued. “You don’t know how special you are, Aura.”

Special? Only if she meant lower-than-average.

“You’ll understand someday . . .” A vacancy crossed her stare.

But if I wanted to press her, I wouldn’t get the chance. “Enough of that, peach! Your parents are waiting for you!” She reverted to her old, vibrant self, and flung her hand towards the door, dismissing the topic for good.

I shrugged it off and gave her one final hug as an apprentice before leaving her to decide which bird she would wear to the ceremony.

~

Breathe, Aura. This will all be over soon.

Dusk had come too quickly. I’d always found the beach a calming place. It wasn’t only the vibrant shells that were beautiful there, but also the grotesque snarls of driftwood, each different, each ugly but lovely.

Tonight, though, the beach was anything but calm. It was where the cave was waiting to swallow me.

As was custom, my parents accompanied me. They served only as escorts for the night, but I was treating them more like guards, struggling to hide behind them as we moved along the sand.

My mother was a thin, willowy woman with full lips and silky black hair that flowed loosely around her frail face as she walked. A raven goddess. At least it was her beauty the townspeople would be drawn to first.

At least I could hope.

“Aura, you aren’t nervous, are you?” Her voice was melodic, as always.

I didn’t need to answer. My sweatiness was an answer all on its own.

“But why, Aura? You look so beautiful! And no one in our family was born without a song. You’ve got one, I’m certain of it. Father and I can’t wait to hear its release.”

My father nodded silently in agreement. He was a quiet fisherman, more at peace with the fish he caught than in the presence of people. Ceremonial things like this didn’t interest the shy man, and I didn’t blame him. Fishing sounded more appealing to me at the moment too.

Tonight, the moonlight made his gray hair shine to a silver that almost matched mine, though it was only a trick of the light.

“Release the best song, Aura.” Mother squeezed my arm. “For you and for Illuma too.”

Illuma.

My older sister.

My dead sister.

The girl stolen by the sea.

The girl that loved attention and ceremony.

She’d been uniquely beautiful even as a child, with deep violet hair, and light gray eyes that weren’t milky or dull but that shined like the moon.

Illuma.

Illuma.

Illuma.

Mother read my face. “Aurie Pie, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Don’t look so sad. Illuma is watching you from beyond the Mistlands. Always.”

Always.

We arrived at the beachside hut with only moments remaining until the gong would sound. My parents set off to join the rest of the villagers, who were slowly trickling into their respective places on the beach.

Miss Danice had decided on a blue twitfoot to draw out the slate in her blouse. It looked content enough perched within her bun, but . . .

I smiled weakly, ultimately feeling sorry for the bird.

I scanned the crowd for Kantú but couldn’t find her through the mesh of faces. There was Mayor Berfield with his mother, Marbeck Berfield; Laria Lynn, looking uneasy in a tan bonnet; Parnold Rekrap, the blacksmith . . . but still no Kantú.

She was probably sleeping in my stead out in the meadow. That was fine. Better that only one of us had to endure this.

Bong! Bong! Bong!

The crowd hushed as the gong sounded.

Stomach dropping, I made my way out of the hut and into the salty night air. The purification gown billowed around my bare ankles. I was shaking, though the air held no chill.

With the voices of the other songstresses surrounding me, I moved through the cool sand to the water’s edge.

I had attended only two other Rites in the past, but I knew their words by heart.

I wasn’t a great songstress. I could rarely remember the Songs of Old. The songs of the Rite were different, however, for though I had learned hundreds of songs – songs for festivals, for births, for mealtime – there were none I loved more than those of the Rite. Memorizing them had always come easily for even a lower-than-average songstress-in-training like me.

Over my shoulder, the village priestesses looked tribal, performing the steps their ancestors had performed for hundreds of years. Each of them had a wand adorned with bells – a chimbree – which they waved through the air with precision and poise. According to legend, tonight they were not only priestesses; they were something celestial. Angels of the night illuminated by the firelight.

The warm breeze off the coast was seductive as it swept past my cheeks and tangled my hair. I waited at the edge of the beach, feet immersed, swaying to the music.

Until, all at once, it stopped.

The opening act had ended. It was almost time.

That familiar pang at the nape of my neck acted up. So many people were there to see, and so many people would see should I happen to fail.

Mayor Berfield stepped forward. He was a tall, balding man with an oversized mustache that curled over the side of his mouth and dangled well past his chin. “Who speaks for this girl?” he said, voice echoing even in the openness of the beach.

“We do,” said my parents in unison.

“And who can attest to her knowledge of the Songs of Old?”

“I can!” came Miss Danice’s eager reply.

“Are you ready, Aura Telmacha Rosh?”

Was I?

This was all happening so much faster than I’d anticipated, but there was nothing I could do to stop it.

“Yes, Sir,” I replied, determined that my voice at least remain calm.

“Then let us begin.”

At his command, the other songstresses lined up behind me and started to sing – a myriad of confident larks belting in unison. Was I really qualified to join their numbers?

Maybe I was, after all.

When I opened my mouth, some internal force came through:

The time is passing, moon is waking,

Heart is formed to song be taking.

Sisters of Farellah, a new song is opened,

The moon is waking!

That was it. That was all I had to do. As the crowd fell silent, I stared out across the water, holding my breath. There was one dreadful millisecond when nothing happened . . .

. . .

. . .

. . .

But then a bright blue light shot out of the water and hovered above me a moment before skipping down the coast and zooming into the Cave of Discovery.

It had worked?

I squinted to be sure.

It had actually worked!

The light was a good sign; it meant that I wasn’t a dud or anything and that my song had the intention of being released that night. The heavy anxiety I’d carried all week melted away and was replaced by pure, sweet relief. I wasn’t a failure. My song was alive inside of me, and I would become a real songstress soon. It had all been worth it.

“It’s time.” Mayor Berfield’s voice rang through the silence. “Make your way to the sacred place, songstress-to-be!”

Nodding, I took a deep breath and started down the beach.

With each step, the waves licked my feet, trying to tug me into the ocean with every retreat. I’d never been allowed this close to the cave before, and the nearer I got, the more ominous it looked. I shivered and diverted my eyes, instead glancing over my shoulder at the water – a usually tranquil sight that was now black and treacherous.

No comfort there!

After a few more steps, I paused at the entrance, unsure of what was to come. Was my sense of unease part of the Rite, or was there validity to my unrest?

Either way, I had no choice but to enter the mouth.

I continued into the damp, musty cave, stumbling over wet, moss-covered rocks as I went. Eventually the sounds of the village died out, giving way to utter silence. Still, I proceeded further and further into the darkness.

Droplets of cave water trickled down my forehead.

Gross.

No matter how long I stayed in the darkness, my eyes never seemed to adjust. It got to the point where I couldn’t tell for sure if my eyes were open or closed.

After several minutes, an earthy scent filled the air.

This would be worth it, I told myself.

Soon the song that had been with me since my birth would be released out into the world. An ancient magic of my own to command.

I wandered on aimlessly awhile longer, growing more and more uneasy with each step deeper, until the sound of falling rubble caught my attention, stopping me in my tracks.

A cave creature?

The rubble tumbled a bit more and then was quiet. I strained my darkness-shrouded eyes to find the source of the disturbance, but before I could detect anything, creature or otherwise, a hand covered my mouth.

It was unmistakably a hand.

But there wasn’t supposed to be anyone here!

Panic began to well. If someone from the village had crept in here, this whole thing would be for nothing! The Rite would be voided, and I’d have to go through all of that again!

Who would want to sabotage me?!

“Mboumf?!”

I meant to protest, but my voice was muffled, caught up in the hand pressed to my lips.

And then something strange happened.

The captor’s grip suddenly felt . . . different.

Warm, but not just warm.

Familiar.

This captor was someone I knew.

And the warmth coming from them was . . .

I closed my eyes and let it into my skin, and my heartbeat quickened in response. But not just my heartbeat; my blood liked it, too. It became alive, slithering down my veins and twisting through my body in warm enjoyment.

Without really thinking, I stopped resisting.

“Scream not, or I shall kill you where you stand.” Despite the familiarity of the warmth, I stiffened when a woman’s cold voice cut through the darkness in front of me. She had a strange accent, unlike any I’d heard before.

Foreigners in Farellah?!

“You are too harsh, Cousin,” said a second voice. It was my captor. Male. His tone was mild. “Do not fear, Rosh child,” he said, turning his attention to me. “We need to take you from here. The safety of your village depends on it.” He held me closer. “This is the best place to do it. No one will tread into the cave, for fear of disturbing the ritual. We will have a day’s advantage.”

They were taking me?

But why!?

And also . . .

My body felt warm. Captivated. Intoxicated . . .

Whoever these people were, their touch contained some sort of subduing power.

“Enough of this!” spat the first voice impatiently. A burst of red light shot from its direction and headed straight for me.

I heard the male whisper, “Sorry,” before everything grew hazy and my body fell limp.

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