FIRST PLACE WINNER 11TH-12TH
by Paula Hung
“Dim, damp, musty, metallic, retching,” I whisper to myself. One word for sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. A ritual almost, to ground myself into a reality of sickness and suffering rather than a fantasy of life and opportunity. I lie sprawled over my sheets, about to doze off when a piercing scream jolts me awake. Before I can register what has happened, I find myself in the market, peering through a mass of bodies towards the central Nutri-Vent that has been out of order longer than anyone today has been alive. However, the installation is not the recipient of a hundred curious eyes, rather a young boy that writhed on its rim, bone protruding from his left arm. Through scattered glimpses I make out one of the orphans from before the wave of illness and death we’ve come to call the Scourge. I struggle to recall his name, but land on Ka’mey. I fight my way through the crowd in an attempt to help, but by the time I arrive, the bone has retreated and only a minimal gash along his lower arm remains. It could not have been more than a few seconds since I saw him, I think. I advance towards him and begin to introduce myself when I notice that the previously ruckus crowd has gone silent.
“Vivificantem,” whispers a stranger.
An ancient word from a forgotten language, the story of one that could resuscitate a corpse and heal impossibly fast was not unknown to the village, especially in a time of unrelenting death. I quickly turn back to the boy, whose heavy breaths and frantic eyes only highlight his now completely healed forearm. Murmurs of unsheathed phase blasters and stifled tears fill the atmosphere. It really is a wonder how quickly the human conscience can turn in times of desperation. My own mind floods with competing streams of self-preservation, ethics problems I’ve debated thousands of times, and a thought I only need a second to suppress. Yet, only one idea prevails through the adrenaline-induced fog. This boy has done nothing deserving of atonement, an orphan too young to properly register the hero’s sacrifice the village has forced upon him. I make my choice and whisper in a confident and assuring facade, “Follow me.”
Abandoned mech, metal, water, ash, wheezing. I scavenge through the cockpit of a broken-down crawler, hand against my heaving chest and mind racing, perhaps faster than my feet were seconds ago. I focus on the boy sitting across from me and notice his quivering chin and eyes on the brink of tears. I even my breaths and shuffle close to his side, careful as to not overly disturb the delicate balance of the decaying machine.
“They want me dead, why?” he simply asks.
“Ka’mey, right?” I verify, receiving a nod in confirmation, “I have no idea.”
Immediately, I guilt fills my chest and flushes by face, though the bitter wind that has reddened my face hides it. I resent my lie, but knowing that your death could save countless others is a burden few could bear, especially at his age. “Regardless, I know of a port-town that will keep you safe. We’d be looking at several days on foot, maybe less if we pass through a town and get transportation there. What do you think?”
“That’d be nice,” he mumbles.
As I lead a wanted orphan towards a foreign port-town through unexplored woodlands, the much needed opportunity arises to process my sudden situation. Ka’mey is being hunted for his ability to resurrect the dead, which he seems to be unaware of, and I have undertaken the responsibility of protecting his life from the very settlement that was supposed to raise him. Clearly, I have acquired no more than simple task. As dusk approaches, I notice the faint glow of a settlement through the glimmering leaves. We quickly advance and find refuge in an elderly widow’s spare room. Already homesick, we make ourselves comfortable on a stiff cottage and we both succumb to the temptation of sleep before we can review the day’s events.
Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. No words or idiotic ritual can serve me now, not when I have just been told of my own mother’s sickness. I lie on the unshaven wooden floor, breaking my confident facade. I look back to the drowsy boy in the doorway with new eyes and struggle to repress the thought I had subdued with ease no more than a day ago. An orphan, with no one to mourn him, for the lives of a thousand.
“No, no, no…” I mutter, horrified at the limits of my freniezed mind. Ka’mey is as innocent as they come, and should by no means be the sole recipient of the compounded suffering of a sickly settlement. Satisfied with my strained conclusion, I turn to embrace him, and with his reluctant response, realize a harsh truth.
“Is this the first time anyone has hugged you?” I hesitantly inquire. The steady flow of reflective beads dragging down his rosy cheeks elucidates any doubt. As rash as my judgement may be, no life is worth more than another, and if by chance they are, it is certainly no decision of mine.
I enter the forest once more, with rejuvenated purpose and a sack heavy with supplies graciously granted by the settlement’s temple. The sun is at its peak when our surroundings are suddenly devoid of light and a gust of wind pushes us to the ground. A warm grip around my ankle assures me of Ka’mey’s presence. I only crawl a few feet forward when I notice not the absence of the sun, but the presence of a gargantuan Sarlamek above the treetops. Much to Ka’mey’s dismay, the discovery was mutual. An intelligent species, known for its territorial behavior and impressive feather wings, the Sarlamek nosedives towards the surface, flattening the surrounding timber for a considerable radius, yet leaving us both intact.
“What brings you to my domain? Have you sought honor in combat? Or perhaps my pelt?” he demands in an imposing and booming voice.
“No!” I respond, failing to reach a comparable level of command, “We simply seek passage to the land of the port-town of Bardek.” A mocking laugh enveloped my surroundings.
“I’d gladly accept death before yielding to one of your kind. Alas, I will humor your request. Answer this riddle to prove your excellence and perhaps you will gain passage.” the beast of strength taunted.
With my solid affirmation, he began, “I have been the loyal friend of countless heroes and the action of a bird who flew over mountaintops. Shall I continue?”
“No need,” I quickly respond, to the surprise of the towering beast, “A sword” I tauntingly reply. My answer is immediately verified through his feeble attempts to hide an amalgamation of fury and frustration shattering his grandiose figure. A primal roar exits the Sarlamek’s chest and without a moment’s hesitation, the beast is nowhere to be found. Ka’mey emerges from behind me just slightly more confident than his previous outings. Perhaps, my show of confidence against a Sarlamek has made him more trusting of his guardian. Soon enough and more hopeful than ever, we reach the port-town of Bardek. As I slowly escort Ka’mey to the local temple for further instruction, I notice a shifting figure behind the treeline. Within seconds, I’ve placed myself between a terrified child and a vengeful assailant, the tip of a blade lodged squarely in my abdomen.
Ka’mey, metal, iron, blood, worry. I lie in the mud supported by Ka’mey’s weak thighs. I run my fingers down the cold and intricate blade of a dagger meant for an innocent soul wedged in my stomach. By the end of the day, we had reached Bardek and all seemed well. It was unknown to me at the time that a brash man from our own home settlement was awaiting our arrival, set out for vengeance. Despite all of our hardships and emotional trails of our voyage, here I lie, defeated by a man’s anger. Ka’mey however, could not accept this end.
“You can’t go,” he wailed between sobs, “Not you too. Not for me.” As I drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to make my final remarks, in a whisper, he added, “Please let this work,” and pressed his hands to my mortal wound.
Health, warmth, sweet, cinnamon, laughter. I lie sprawled over my sheets, about to doze off as I run my fingers down a scar marking where an ill-intentioned dagger pierced my abdomen. Realizing Phillip’s abilities and being knowledgeable of our situation back home, Bardek provided us with transportation home. With his newfound ability to rapidly heal others with no damage to himself, the Scourge, the terrible disease that had been the source of endless suffering, was eliminated without a second thought. I rise and get ready for the day. As I walk downtown I see the village is slowly returning to its former state, one of happiness, support, and adventure. I watch and think of Ka’mey, an orphan who was threatened by the despair of society, now symbolic of those very ideals.
“Perhaps, one day the Vivificantem will find his true place in the world,” I say jokingly, hiding documents behind my back, “but in the meantime, Ka’mey, how would you like to live with my mother and I?” Without a second’s hesitation, an enthusiastic embrace gives me the response I awaited.