She died as she lived. Fearless.
Her pyre sits in a clearing near the Yiral Sea at her kingdom’s center. Long, auburn hair rests atop the armor in which she perished. Some argued she should be changed, to reflect her status as Lavolia’s ruler, but I knew she’d never forgive me for that. In her armor, she shall rest.
Next to the pyre sits a glass birdhouse, large enough to fit a man, but here, the phoenix waits. All of Queen Allannia Roffiron’s life, the phoenix served her, but as tradition goes, as one ruler falls, so shall its phoenix. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
“Conall!” A large hand slams down on my shoulder as Helion takes a seat beside me. He’s adorned in full armor, as if he expects a fight. His white hair descends to his chest while his pointed ears peek out on each side of his head. “My condolences, friend. I know you two were close.”
My lips form a tight line. We are not friends. But today is not the day for bickering. Today is the day for mourning our queen. “Helion, thank you for the kind words. She will be sorely missed.”
“Do they know what happened?” he asks. “With such mystery surrounding her death, her subjects whisper in the streets.”
“An investigation is underway. Do not worry yourself with such bureaucracy, Helion.”
My tone brooks no rebuttal, and Helion takes the hint and walks away to another seat. I take in the scene around me as everyone settles in for the private service. Those who attend reveal the tapestry of life in Allannia’s kingdom. Fae mingle with vampire who mingle with orc. Lavolia isn’t perfect, no, but Allannia brought peace to a land where there used to be none, and worry etches across each face at what her death could mean for that peace.
Our Abbot steps to the front of the crowd, and everyone quiets as he opens our holy book, ready to begin her remembrance, when Helion abruptly stands from his seat. I grip the blade at my hip, but a warmth running through me stills my hand.
Her voice, forever guiding me. I lean back, relaxing, as Helion ushers the Abbot away.
“Comrades,” Helion starts. “Today is indeed a sad day for Lavolia. Queen Allannia, brutally slayed in the dead of night. May she forever rest in peace.”
Low murmurs weave through the crowd, and my keen ears pick up every word. No one knows what Helion has up his sleeve.
“While I am sure you came here hoping to say your farewells and mourn the loss of our great Allannia,” Helion continues, “tradition commands that anyone having information regarding the fall of a Lavolian sovereign must speak their truth before the pyre’s first spark.”
My breath hitches, and this time, I don’t hesitate when my hand grips my broadsword. True, when I spoke earlier of an investigation being underway, it was no lie, but we have no idea what happened to my great love, my kind, powerful Allannia. I awoke seven nights ago to an empty bed and a note left on her pillow.
Meeting in the SilverWood. Be back soon.
The SilverWood marks a small, neutral territory bordered by Lavolia and a rival land, Ixtora, whom Allannia worked to broker peace for over one hundred years. When word arrived the next morning of the discovery of her body, we assumed the obvious and kept the meeting quiet in fear that news of her slaying by the Ixtoran could spark a war Allannia would never have wanted. But now, with Helion’s every word, I’m not so sure we know the whole story.
“It’s no secret I disagreed with Allannia’s pursuit of total peace,” Helion says. “I believe enemies are worth having in this world. So as Allannia’s mission came closer to fruition, I knew I could not stand idly by.”
A sheen of sweat breaks out over my body as I force myself to stay seated, to hear his truth as tradition demands.
“One month ago, I murdered an Ixtoran prince. The firstborn, Orym. Within a week, word reached their king through an anonymous source that Queen Allannia ordered the execution.”
I hold my breath, knowing what’s to come, knowing how Helion will twist our lore to fit his wicked schemes. I won’t allow it. I stand, unleashing my broadsword as Helion narrows his gaze on me to speak his final truth.
“Allannia is dead, murdered by Ixtoran assassins, but by my hand, my deceit. So as we harp on tradition today, let me remind you all of what that means. Allannia’s reign is over, and I shall rule in her stead.”
At the revelation, a deafening shriek releases from the phoenix, and our gazes pivot as it bursts into flames, smoke and ash consuming the birdhouse. Simultaneously, Allannia’s pyre ignites from an unseen spark. Grief and rage consume me as I ready myself to charge Helion, but gasps soon abound behind me, and I tremble at the sight unfolding before us.
The smoke clears, and from the ashes of the phoenix, Allannia stands, naked as the day she was born. My heart pounds, but I make no move toward her or Helion. He is struck dumb, his skin turned a ghostly white. He falls to his knees as Allannia exits the birdhouse. Stepping to her pyre, she reaches her hand into the flames and retrieves her greatsword. Helion blubbers apologies, but she pays him no heed as she raises the sword and swings it down, slicing cleanly through Helion’s neck. His head rolls to lie at my feet as his body tumbles to the ground. The crowd stays deathly silent as Allannia, our Queen, takes us in, her bright blue eyes finally settling on mine.
“My love. My Lavolians,” she says as she wipes Helion’s blood from the blade, that all-knowing smirk dancing upon her lips. “My reign has just begun.”
**Ashes to Ashes was written for NYC Midnight’s 1000-word Flash Fiction contest in July 2021 and placed 6th in round one. The required prompts were: Fantasy (genre), Funeral (location), and birdhouse (object).
The meadow we lie in smells of lilac and the sweet coming of rain. Dew in the grass beneath me seeps through my dress, sending a soothing chill down my spine as the sun shines down on us.
“What do you think will happen next?” she asks me.
I don’t have an answer. My mind’s been racing since news of the Crown’s victory reached us this morning. None of us ever thought it would happen. How could a regime hell bent on the demise of half its country’s people, my people, actually win? It didn’t seem possible until it was.
I try to think of something to tell her, anything to ease her worries, but the words remain lost to me. The only thing I do know to be true is that everything won’t be okay, and I can’t find it within me to lie to her and tell her otherwise.
I feel her hand on my arm then. She turns my hand with the utmost care and traces a circle in my palm. She says it calms her. Whatever works.
My head falls to the side, and I open my eyes to find her watching me.
“It’s okay, Wil. You don’t have to say anything.”
The beginnings of a smile start to form on her face, and I go to tell the lie anyway, anything to make her feel safer, when a gunshot rings out, much too loud to be from the city center.
We shoot up from the grass, my eyes darting toward home, but everything is silent once again.
“What’s happening, Wil?”
“Shhh, let me think, little one.” I start to count, thinking of the many reasons someone would have a gun this far away from the city, but none of them fit. I’m almost to ten when the second shot comes, and shouts fill the air. I suck in a deep breath, grab her hand, and pull her to her feet.
“What’s happening? Please say something.”
She trembles next to me, hugging my legs. I squat back down to her level.
“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen next, okay? But I will protect you. Do you trust me?”
She nods fiercely, the undying devotion of a little sister.
“Okay, then. We’re going to go home now, and then we’re going to run.”
The blood drains from her face as her eyes fill with tears. I place my hands on either cheek and lean in, kissing her on the forehead.
“I know it’s scary, but you have to trust me. It’s no longer safe here.”
She wipes her eyes, a determined look coming over her face. Grabbing my hand, she starts toward home, pulling me along behind her. I can’t help but smile at the newfound determination.
I just hope I don’t fail her.
“You’re being quiet. Worried about the lieutenant?”
I nod, letting him think that as my eyes stay rooted to the road ahead of us, the car bouncing along the uneven gravel path heading back to our base.
“You shouldn’t be,” Rider continues. “The intel is good, and she actually sounded excited for once, for the first time actually. I think we’re due for some good news, don’t you?”
At this, I smile, truly smile, for the first time in days.
“Honestly, at this point, I’d be happy if she just told me I was going to be able to sleep for more than four hours in a row.”
Rider laughs, and the sound of it lifts me. He has a way of doing that. He grabs my hand and lays it on his chest, holding it there against his heart.
“Yeah, I haven’t been very helpful on that front. Sorry.”
His grin turns sheepish, and I find myself laughing along with him, forgetting the worries that follow me from the mission. They’ll be there later, churning through my head when I need to sleep.
“Will you tell me what’s really bothering you now?”
Shit. Nothing gets by him nowadays.
“Was it there?” Rider asks, pushing. “Again?”
I roll my eyes.
“What? You don’t know what it is, Willa. What the hell else am I supposed to call it?”
“Rider, I don’t want to do this right now.”
“You never do. That’s why I worry. Just tell me what happened.” His eyes plead with me in that way I know he means business.
I sigh, defeated. “It was there. It’s the reason I chose right over left in the tunnels.”
“How did you know?”
“I didn’t. It’s a pull, an instinct, but not just in my head. I feel it, within and around me. A warmth. I trust it.”
I meet his gaze, and he stares me down, his eyes flitting back and forth between myself and the road before turning back forward and letting out a deep breath of air.
“I trust you to the end, Willa. You know that. But it doesn’t mean I don’t worry.”
I let the conversation die with that. He means well, but he doesn’t know my full story. Nobody does, and I mean for it to stay that way until I figure out what the hell is going on with me.
The air between us fades into a comfortable silence as Rider makes the final turn toward our base. Just a few minutes later, we’re heading to our debriefing with the lieutenant. I’m nervous to hear what’s next. In her latest call, she sounded anxious, yet excited. The new intel she received must be huge. We’ve been waiting to take our fight directly to the Crown. Perhaps today is the day.
Rider and I stroll into the command room. Lieutenant Ash jumps up from her seat at the sight of us.
“Good, you’re here. Shut the door behind you.”
We do as we’re told and take our seats.
“So, what’s the big news, Lieutenant?” Rider asks.
I look around. Only the lieutenant’s right-hand man joins us.
“Where’s the rest of command?” I ask. “Shouldn’t we wait?”
“They’re already on the move,” Lieutenant Ash says.
“Where?” Rider and I exchange looks. Something big is on the horizon. I guess sleep will just have to wait. Rider winks at me, and somehow, I know he’s thinking the same thing. A flush begins its run up my neck as I turn my attention back to Lieutenant Ash.
“We have a location for the Crown,” she says. “Specifically, Lord Randall.”
I suck in a breath at the fire that courses through me at just the mention of him. Rider reaches out, but I brush him off. I can’t believe my ears. We’ve finally found him?
“Are you okay?” Lieutenant Ash asks.
I ignore the question, intent on getting more information. “How on earth did you get that kind of intel?” I ask. “We’ve never been able to track Randall before.”
Lieutenant Ash studies me but eventually settles back in her seat. “Insider,” she answers with a shrug. “I knew we would need one eventually if we ever hoped of getting close, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon. Apparently, there’s a lot of discord within the ranks of the Crown at the moment, and we need to take advantage before it’s too late.
“How do you know it’s not a trap?” Rider asks, putting my fears into words.
“I don’t,” the lieutenant says. “But I trust this informant. Don’t ask me why. Call it a gut feeling.” A sly smile crosses her face, and I can’t help but do the same. I’ve waited months for this moment.
Rider and I meet each other’s gaze, the unspoken passing between us. We’re in.
I turn back to Lieutenant Ash. “What do you need from us?” I ask.
“You’re my best. You’ll lead the strike team.”
She says this with a wave of her hand as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. I, on the other hand, have to tell myself to keep breathing. Leading the strike team means I’ll be the one who takes Randall down. It’s more than I could ever ask for.
“Big or small squad?” Rider asks.
Something within me stirs. “Small. You, me, four additional troops. That’s all we need.”
Rider and the lieutenant stare me down.
“Don’t you want to know the specifics first?” Rider asks.
“Don’t need to,” I answer, locking my gaze on him. “Call it a gut feeling.”
He studies me, and I refuse to break his gaze as he does. I can’t let anything or anyone keep me from being in that room with Randall. After an eternity, Rider reaches out his hand to me and pulls me to my feet before turning back to the lieutenant. “When do we move?” he asks.
She glances back and forth between us. For a brief moment, I see worry in her eyes, but she shakes it off and dismisses us with a wave.
“Tomorrow. 1600 hours. Get some sleep, you two.”
“Wil, I’m hungry.”
My instinct is to lash out. It’s not the first time she’s told me this, and it won’t be the last. Every time she mentions it, it just reminds me of how hungry I am as well. She takes my hand, sensing the tension within me, and traces a circle on my palm.
“Does it work on you too?” she asks.
I clasp her hand in mine and smile down at her.
“Yes, little one. It does.”
We continue our walk down the alley as the sun begins its slow descent behind us. She isn’t wrong. We need food. Neither of us has eaten in two days. Luckily, water has been easier to come by, but I fear that won’t last. It only took a couple weeks for the Crown to begin its purge. They came for our village that day in the meadow. By the time we got back, the adults had all been rounded up. We could only watch on from an alley as the Crown’s Guard lined them up and raised their guns. We didn’t stick around for the rest, instead walking back to the house with my hands over her ears so she wouldn’t hear the screams.
I knew then they would come for us next.
We packed what little we had and left within the hour. We’ve been on the run ever since. I didn’t expect to stay in the city as long as we have, but I have no idea where else to go. The closest settlement outside the Crown’s reach is a hundred miles away. We’d never make it.
So we stayed, hiding during the day and out at night to hunt for food and drink. It’s scary, it’s dangerous, but we’re alive. That’s about the only silver lining I can come up with.
We come upon a night market and skirt its edges, keeping to the shadows against the walls. The smell of freshly baked bread reaches the both of us, and I have to hold her close to keep her from running up to the stall. She tugs on my hand.
I don’t know how to say no to her, but there’s no way to tell which one of these vendors is an ally. Not everyone in the city ascribes to the Crown’s practices, but everyone has to put on a front if they want to keep their heads.
“Not yet. Maybe later. It’s too busy.”
Her face drops, and my heart sinks into my stomach. This isn’t what I wanted for us, but I also don’t have anyone else to turn to. Our parents were all we had.
We continue our walk down the street, heads down. She clings to me like glue.
She’s too thin, I think to myself. It’s only been ten days on the streets. How much longer can we survive like this?
Lost in my thoughts, I don’t hear the woman’s approach until she grabs her arm and jerks her away from me.
“You! You’re the one. GUARD!”
I whisk around, yanking her back to me, as the woman glares at me with sunken, yellow eyes.
“Don’t touch her!” I yell. “What do you want?”
“She’s a little thief. GUARD!”
By now, people are turning, pointing, and I know we don’t have much time.
She pulls at my shift. “I didn’t take anything, Wil, I swear!”
“You liar!” the woman sneers. She reaches for her again, and I react, lashing out and slapping her across the face. The woman recoils, and I cringe, knowing I’ve made a huge mistake. I’ll pay for that. We both will.
I go to pick her up and run as the woman screams once more for the Guard, but it’s too late. Hands encircle me, and she’s ripped from my arms. I hear her scream as a dark hood comes down over my head. It’s the last thing I hear when the blow comes, and I fade into black, hoping against hope that I didn’t just kill us both.
The following day is a flurry of activity. Rider and Lieutenant Ash lay out the mission plan. I try to listen, but my mind is elsewhere. I have to find a way to get me in the room alone with Randall. Capture, not kill, is the lieutenant’s order.
But I have other plans.
“You seem far away.”
His hip bumps mine as we look over the blueprints of Randall’s hideaway provided to us by the lieutenant’s source. I lean into him, soaking in his scent. Grass and lilac. A memory tugs at me, but I push it down. I need to focus on the present.
“I’m just worried things are laid out too perfectly. We aren’t planning for any setbacks, any contingencies.” I turn away from the table, thinking about my words. They need to be just right. “Nothing ever goes the way we plan, Rider. I fear we’re setting ourselves up to fail.”
“We leave in one hour, Willa. What exactly do you want to change?”
I turn back to the plans, pointing to our final rendezvous, where we hope to capture Randall.
“Here. We’re supposed to all meet at this point to take in Randall, but I think that’s a mistake. We need to stay split up. We can take Randall ourselves so long as our fighters are deployed elsewhere to handle his guards.” I look to Rider, gauging his response. His eyebrows furrow, but I sense he’s just weighing my plan, rather than dismissing it. “And if we go down,” I continue, “we need others to be able to back us up, to finish the job.”
By the time I’m finished, Rider nods along with me.
“I agree,” he says. It takes everything in me not to cry out in relief.
“Will you tell Ash? You’ve been here longer. She’ll trust you.”
He nods, but I can tell there is something keeping him close. We have to leave soon. Changing the mission takes time, time we don’t have.
“What is it, Rider?” I ask.
I cross my arms, still unsure of how much to tell him, but when I look in his eyes, I see nothing but concern, and the weight, the lie, bears down even harder. My arms fall, and he reaches for me. Curling into his embrace, I let his warmth consume me.
“When did it come back?” he asks.
“Honestly, I think she’s always with me.”
“She? It’s a she now?”
A different warmth floods through me. The hairs rise on my arms, but I push forward, trusting his love for me.
“I think it’s my sister.”
His grip tightens, and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt safer. “You don’t talk about her much,” he says.
“There’s not much to say.” I squeeze back, pulling myself as tight as I can into him. I haven’t even mentioned her name since that day. Everyone here knows her end, but nothing more than that, not even Rider.
“With the way you’re shaking, I don’t believe that’s necessarily true,” he says.
“You believe me?” I ask.
“I trust you to know what’s going on with you. Spirits are rare, but there are stories, especially with someone as close as a sibling. After everything you told me, it makes sense. Every decision you’ve made based on this presence has kept you safe.”
Rider presses his lips to the top of my head, and I close my eyes and try to stop my knees from shaking. That day threatens to close in on me. I keep it locked up for a reason. Now, I threaten to break open. He threatens to break me open.
“What can I do, Willa?” he asks me, and I realize now I may not need to find a way to escape him on our mission. He may be just the strength I need to get the job done.
“Do you trust me?” I pull away, just enough to look him in the eye.
“To the end. You know this.”
“There’s something I have to do today, and I’m going to need you to trust me. Your first instinct will be to stop me, but I need you to hold back. I need you to trust that it’s something I must do.”
“Willa, you’re scaring me.” His eyes convey nothing but sheer worry. “I won’t lose you today.”
“It won’t come to that,” I say. “You trust me though? Promise?”
He hesitates for the slightest moment, but his hold never wanes.
It’s been hours. Days, maybe. Feels like forever. They keep us separated, play us against each other. For some reason, they believe that we, one starving child and one barely held together adult, are members of some resistance rising up against the Crown. I’ve heard of them, a shadow force, whispered of only in the dark. But a member? A fighter? Please. I can’t even keep my sister safe.
“Where’s their base?” he asks me for the thousandth time. “All you have to do is tell us, and you and your sister can go free.”
I grit my teeth, anger coursing through me. “And for the last time, I won’t tell you shit until I see her.”
It may not be wise to string them along. I don’t know anything, but I haven’t seen my sister in so long. The only thing that gives me hope she’s even still alive is that I am as well.
He grunts and leaves the room. It happens like this over and over. I almost wish it would end. I wish they’d just get rid of us like they did our parents. It could end so easily, but then I think of her, so small, and all I wish is for us to make it another day.
A while later, the door opens behind me again, and I groan. By my calculations, it’s almost dinner time. They usually don’t question me again until morning.
A new scent reaches me, apples and cloves. I turn my head sharp to the left, pulling a muscle in my neck.
There are four of them, dressed all in black, their eyes holding nothing but surprise at the sight of me.
“Who are you?” I ask, my voice barely above a whisper.
They don’t answer. Instead, one motions for the others to leave as he moves toward me, and I realize this could be it, the end.
“My sister,” I plead. “Please spare her. She’s too young. It was me. All me.”
His eyes widen. “Sister?” I nod, tears streaming down my face. His shoulders slump, and I’m about to ask why, but the words don’t make it past my tongue. The first explosion shakes the room, and he moves to untie me. I scream her name, not knowing what in the hell is happening but somehow already understanding that it’s too late.
They say twins have a connection, that they can feel things between each other, even when they’re miles apart.
I think the same could be said for us. When the second explosion rocks the building, I feel a cut within me. I don’t fight when he lifts me from the chair. There is nothing but screams and chaos around us as he carries me from the building. I’m thrown into a van with others dressed just like him and no one else. Glancing around, I hopelessly think she may have made it, but know better all the same.
I already feel the loss of her, like a part of me has been carved away.
They close the back doors and the van moves out. No one stops me as I move to the window. I go to whisper her name, but the third and final explosion cuts off my words.
I can only watch as she goes up in smoke.
Lord Randall’s home is not what I expected. His house is extravagant, more rooms than one could ever need, and the bastard lives alone. I think of the squalor we lived in, how even then, the Crown reduced what little we had to ash, and this is how they live?
I spit on the sidewalk as we approach the house from the front. After shutting down the power on his security wall, we infiltrated the property line and now move as one. Rider leads the way with me right behind, the rest of our troops taking up the rear. On his signal, we split, Rider and I continuing forward as two teams of two break off to circle Randall’s home and draw away the guards.
I worry we’re overconfident, but they have no idea we’re coming. They’re outnumbered and outgunned. From the heat signatures, there are only three guards on the premises, plus Randall. I guess this is what happens when you get complacent. You make mistakes, and unfortunately for Randall, underestimating us will be the last thing he does.
Rider moves up the front stoop without a sound, his steps as light as air. Placing his hand on the knob, he looks back at me. I give the all clear, and he closes his eyes as his hand begins to turn. I hold my breath, but he meets no resistance, just a soft click. The beginnings of a smile grow on Rider’s face until we hear the low pop of a silenced shot reach us from the right side of the house. A chill runs through me. He jumps, but I shiver, and a warmth engulfs me so fast, goosebumps don’t even have time to rise on my arms.
Rider motions for me to move, pushing the door inward and stepping inside. I say a small prayer for our friends and hope they were on the right side of that bullet.
We move fast. Reinforcements could have already been called which means we may only have minutes to get the job handled.
Even with just hours to prepare, the home is familiar. I take the lead, moving through the home as if I’ve been here a dozen times already. The warmth within me grows hot as we close in. As we approach what is supposed to be the master, heat engulfs me, and I gasp, sliding up against the wall. Rider is on me in an instant as my knees buckle. He grabs my hand, his eyes conveying all he needs to say.
Is it her?
I nod as a new wave of heat passes through me. When I look toward Randall’s door, my vision goes black, my stomach churns, and I fear I might pass out.
“Please, little one,” I whisper. “It’s him. I have to.”
In an instant, the cool air replaces the fire running through my veins, though I still feel her within me.
“Willa, talk to me,” Rider whispers. He glances around, but there is no movement or sound except for the two of us. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know.” I wipe my hand across my forehead where beads of sweat pop up on my skin. “For once, I can’t tell what she wants me to do.” I find his eyes, and the concern within them sends me reeling. The words are out before I can stop myself. “Rider, I came here to kill Randall.”
He grows still, his mouth settling into a thin line.
“What are you talking about? You know the mission.”
“He killed my sister.”
His mouth drops, but he shakes his head. “Wil, you don’t know who killed your sister.”
“Don’t call me that.” My teeth grind as I spit the words out. His eyes harden, but he reaches for me all the same.
“Willa,” he says instead, his voice a touch softer. “I don’t know what you’ve been through, but you can’t blame Randall for this. We set off the explosions. For all you know, we killed your sister.
I shake my head and reach in my jacket pocket to pull out the piece of Crown propaganda I ran across months before and hand it to him.
“He ordered the raid on my village. He ordered everyone to be killed, that none should be spared, not even the children. We were all inferior to him. His words.” I point to the print and the picture that takes up half the page, showing a beaming Randall proudly taking credit for the decimation of my home.
“He may not have squeezed the life out of her himself, but he set us on the path to it. I won’t rest until he’s dead, Rider.”
He grips my shoulders, and opens his mouth to speak, but I cut him off.
“I told you your first instinct would be to stop me. You told me you trusted me. You promised.”
His chin drops to his chest, and I grip both sides of his face, laying my lips down on the crown of his head before continuing.
“She was everything to me. She was all I had before you, Rider. I have to do this, with or without you.”
He stands so abruptly, I fear he may bolt from the house completely. Instead, he reaches out his hands and pulls me back to my feet.
“Let’s go,” he says, cupping my cheek with his hand. “Before I change my mind.” He leans in and kisses me long and deep before turning back to the closed door of the master. The warmth returns, vigorous in its pursuit to stop me, but I push it down.
Why don’t you want this? I think to myself.
I don’t have time to wonder as Rider bursts into the room. At the noise, Randall jerks up in bed, eyes wide with fright.
“Who the hell are you?” he yells. Ignoring him, we both move to the foot of the bed, Rider watching our six. Rage consumes me at the sight of him, this detestable man, surrounded by the utmost wealth and power, and yet still he only looks upon me with utter disdain.
“You’ll never get away with this,” he says, his hands rising high in surrender.
I move to the side of the bed until the barrel of my gun is just a foot away from his face. Surprising myself, I don’t hesitate, and Randall sees it. He doubted me. His eyes widen as my finger pulls the trigger, but I’m still too late.
Before I can finish him, another wave of heat engulfs me, and I drop to my knees. One second, she’s there; the next, she’s gone. I pant, hugging the floor. I can just barely hear Rider screaming at Randall to stay where he is, when his words cut off. I don’t have the energy to see what’s happening until I feel the touch of a finger to my palm and the trace of a circle. I look up and don’t believe my eyes.
She wears her favorite white dress, the one Momma always yelled at her for running around outside in. It was never clean, until now. She kneels before me, her hand rising to my face, and tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. The heat of her is almost unbearable, but I don’t move away.
“Why do you burn?” I ask, my voice trembling.
“I died in fire, Wil. Now I live in it.”
A sob escapes me, and I reach for her, but she jumps away.
“No,” she says. “It doesn’t work like that. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Tears well in my eyes, clouding my vision. All I want is to hold her, to cling to her as she used to cling to me.
“I miss you,” I manage to say between gulps of air. “I love you.”
Rider’s hand presses on my shoulder, jerking me back to the rest of the room. I glance at Randall, and rage replaces my grief.
I turn back to her. “I have to, little one. He has to pay. He took everything from us.”
She smiles at me then, that beautiful smile that could brighten an entire room.
“I know, Wil, but it shouldn’t be you.”
She passes through me, and I gasp at the intensity of her. The room fills with a heat so fierce, my skin threatens to melt. She is everywhere and nowhere at once. Randall screams, and I find her, her energy wrapping around him, burning, suffocating. Rider grabs my hand, pulling me back.
“Willa, we have to go,” he says, his voice pleading.
“Not yet,” I say. “I have to see.”
After what feels like an eternity, the heat fades, and I feel the release of her. I turn to Rider, pale as a ghost.
He wraps his arm around me, pulling me into his side as we escape the room and the monster within. I turn back at the last moment, hoping to catch a glimpse, but there’s nothing to see but a pile of ash.
At first, I blamed them. They set the explosions. They left her to die. But the lieutenant told me the compound was supposed to be empty of civilians. Bad intel. They apologize, over and over, but I don’t hear them. I don’t blame them anymore, but I don’t have to hear them.
Instead, I cling to the small piece of paper I found on the ground on my way to her memorial, his smiling face now burned into my retinas.
It’s the only name I need to know, the only target I set my sights on. He’s the one who did this, who set me on the path to losing her. I stare at his photo, hatred threatening to consume me, and the beat of my heart pounds in my ears, drowning out all else.
I jump, crumbling the paper into my fist and stuffing it in my pocket before turning to face whoever thought it was a good idea to sneak up on the dead girl’s sister.
“I’m Rider,” he says, before I have the chance to speak. He reaches out his hand, and I freeze. Every ounce of my being screams for me to tell him to leave me the hell alone, but when I lift my gaze and meet his eyes, I can’t help but stare. Everyone in the resistance has been cordial, stepping over themselves to help me and settle me in to their camp, but their words and actions don’t match their eyes. They’re terrified and too tired to even attempt to hide it.
But his eyes tell a different story, a story I need to know. They are golden and warm, curious and kind. His scent reaches me then, and the smell of the meadow almost brings me to my knees. I manage to stay upright and take a step forward, surprising myself. He watches me, his lips turning up in a small, crooked grin.
I shouldn’t want connections. I shouldn’t want new friends, new family. I should want only her, my little one, my Sarah.
But at the thought of her, a warmth flows through me and the trace of a touch on my palm brings a smile to my face. His own widens, and I find myself reaching out and clasping his hand in mine.
“Call me Willa.”
**Little One was published in 2018 as part of the Sirens Benefit Anthology – Rebels & Revenants.
You wake with the rest of them. You bathe, dress, and eat breakfast. After, it’s off to the fields. You’re on sowing duty this week, which you don’t mind. Digging in the dirt has always been one of the few calming practices here for you. You like getting your hands dirty.
The guards don’t pay much attention to you. At thirteen, you’re one of the oldest here, and you never cause trouble. They barely offer you a look as they pace up and down the fields, and they don’t notice when your hands stop digging, and you allow yourself to stare off to the end of the field where the ground drops off. Beyond that, the constant fog hovers, not permitting even the smallest of glances to what lies on the other side.
You’ve heard the rumors, of course. Other kids love to scare new, little ones when they first come to the Centre. You don’t partake though. You’re one of the few who’ve seen firsthand. You’re one of the few who knows they’re not merely rumors.
At the end of the day, the guards shuttle you back into the cafeteria, where you eat stale bread and a soupy substance you’re not quite sure what to call. It’s the same meal you’ve eaten for supper for the past ten years.
At last, they return you to the long, cavernous room you’re supposed to call home. Beds line the walls on either side, each of them made to perfection, not a piece of fabric out of place. One by one, the guards begin to unshackle the heavy coat you’re required to wear. Once free, grateful groans abound throughout the room, and the guards finally leave you.
You head straight for the bathroom. No one follows. As the eldest, you are allowed privacy for the first five minutes after the unshackling. Once inside, you shut the door behind you and immediately stretch your wings out as far as they’ll go, the release so soothing that you almost fall to your knees in relief. You let them beat once, then twice, the dust on the floor billowing up beneath them. After a minute, you fold them back into a respectable position, not the one the coat forces them into day in and day out. They ache for more release, but you know you’re running out of time. The others need access to the bathroom too, and they won’t wait around forever for you to finish.
You brace your hands on the floor when you start to gag until the tiny piece of metal finally makes its way up your throat and onto the floor. You pick it up gently, scared it’ll crumble to dust at even your softest touch. You stare down at the piece, and you think it might be the one you’ve been looking for. You’ve searched the dirt for months, looking for this perfect tool, the one that could possibly give you the only thing you’ve longed for the past ten years.
You pocket the piece and stand from the ground, stretching your wings out one last time before opening the door and heading toward your bed. A few others race into the bathroom. Most are already in bed. No one spares you a second glance. This is the time of day for reflection, when the younger ones wonder how they got here and when they’ll get to leave.
You know better though. There is no getting out of the Centre. Not through official means, at least.
You crawl on top of the bed, not even bothering to burrow beneath the covers. You lie on your stomach, letting your wings stretch just enough to shake off the bite from being cooped up all day.
But that will all change tomorrow. Tomorrow, you won’t be coming back to this bed, one way or the other, and with a smile on your face, you drift off to sleep, your hand resting next to your pocket.
The next day, you go through the motions. You have to force yourself not to have a bounce in your step as you make your way out to the fields. Everything must appear normal. You must appear normal. It’s the only way this will work.
You wait until the afternoon, during the guard shift. Your wings itch to be free as if they know just how close you are. When the time comes, you pull the piece out of your pocket and turn in a way that the closest guard won’t be able to see what you’re doing. You almost gasp in delight when the first lock comes free, then the second. After the third, you shift to the other side, and it’s only a few more moments until it’s done. You drop the piece in the dirt. Perhaps someone else will use it one day.
When the shift begins, you stand and start to walk toward the cliff you’ve stared at for the past ten years, wondering what lies beyond. At first, no one says anything. You’ve never caused trouble. They assume you’re merely restocking your seeds or grabbing some water.
When you are fifty yards out, you pick up the pace, and that is when the first guard yells out. You don’t stop. Instead, you run. The first shot fires within seconds and a sharp burn erupts in your side, but still, you don’t stop. You can’t. More shots soon follow, but they all go wide. You keep your focus on the fog and try to ignore the stories of what awaits you inside. Whatever it is, it’s better than this.
When you’re ten yards from the cliff, from escape, you shed your coat. Free, your wings begin to unfurl, lengthening out to their full potential, and when you reach the edge, you don’t hesitate. You jump, and you soar.
**Soar was featured as a finalist in Fiction War Magazine: Issue 3.
People talk about ‘before the war’ as if peace was something we ever actually had. They like to believe that two sides can come together, talk out their differences, and live in harmony for the rest of their days, as if peace is a real, attainable thing.
Complete and utter bullshit, if you ask me.
Before, during, after, it doesn’t matter. It’s all the same. Two sides fight, one gives a little, one takes a little, but it never ends. There is never peace.
Before the war, we were the ones who gave. Now we take.
Every day now is just another battle to keep it that way. We lived far too long in the shadows, banished to the dark as the monsters walked above us. Not anymore.
Today, I patrol the perimeter, my eye on the horizon. It’s been weeks since their last attack. Some are hopeful that they’ve finally given up, pulled up stakes, and relocated to a more remote district. I’m less optimistic.
She’ll come for me. I can feel it in my bones.
When our paths first crossed a few months ago, it was a disaster for her right from the start. She and her team attacked in the dead of night. Their goal? I’m still not sure, but not only was her intel bad, but we happened to be hosting another squadron of fighters for the night.
She was the only one left standing by the end, her partner and fighters strewn bloody at her feet. It was meant to send a message back to her camp to leave us be. Needless to say, that message didn’t take, and here we still stand.
Three attacks later, more dead than I can count, and yet she persists.
Love will do that to you. What a foolish thing in these times.
“Are you thinking about her?”
I turn to find my lieutenant approaching, a smug smile crossing his face. I narrow my gaze at him, and the smile falters. Watching him approach, I consider tearing him to shreds, leaving him a withering husk of his former self. Instead, I return the gesture.
“More than I’d like to admit.” He sidles up next to me as we both look out at the border and beyond.
“You could have killed her in the last attack,” he says, his gaze cutting over to me, wary of his words yet unable to hold them back. I’ve heard the rumors circulating. Not many understand why the hunter still lives.
I let the silence linger a touch too long. He rubs his hands together, the gaps in our conversation grating on his nerves. I roll my eyes. Whoever sent him to find out more will be sorely disappointed.
“I could have killed her in the first.”
Without another word, I turn and walk the length of the border wall, my back to him long after I hear his clunky boots descend down the ladder.
To be quite honest, I’m not sure why I let her remain among the living. She intrigues me, this shell left alone to rot with nothing but hate and revenge fueling her onward. We’ve all been there. Mine is barely a memory. They were so young, so innocent, taken from me by a hunter just like her.
Perhaps I’m filled with a little hate and revenge as well.
I close my eyes as the wind shifts in the right direction for the first time in days, carrying away the stench of rot and decay that permeates the city. You get used to it, until it’s no longer there. I try to imagine the sun and what it would feel like against my bare arms, but those memories are so old, it’s hard to know if they’re even mine. Thoughts like those are dangerous. They make you recall the ‘before,’ when the world was perhaps objectively better, depending on who you ask.
My eyes snap open. “No,” I whisper to the city surrounding me. Objectively better for whom? My children dead and buried? The thousands more that never had a chance to step aboveground? Who never got to see what all we could accomplish?
Give and take, you see, and we were fed up with giving long ago.
That’s why when the sun vanished behind the polluted haze of our world’s sky just one year ago, we didn’t hesitate to rise up against our imprisonment. The humans tried to fight back, but it was pointless. For centuries, we’d only ruled the night, but now?
Now we rule it all.
The wind shifts once more. The rot and decay return, and I glance over the edge, where bodies litter the ground. A deterrent for some, but not all it seems. I sniff, sensing a new scent floating in on the breeze.
The hairs rise on my arms, and my gums ache to let my weapons free. I hold back for now. Let her see my human side for as long as possible.
She lands behind me with just the slightest noise, and I turn to greet her, the one who has hunted me for months.
“You,” she growls at me, beckoning me to attack.
“You are never one to make the first move, Anya.” I smile at her, and she grimaces. I think back to my lieutenant’s words, and the rumors circulating amongst the camp, but still I know I won’t kill her. Not today. I just can’t help but relish in these games we play. Because when she dies, who knows what will happen next? Who will come after her?
As I said before…
One gives a little. One takes a little.
But it never ends.
Written for YeahWrite’s Janaury 20/20 Hindsight assignment.