Gentle rays of crimson sunrise were interrupted by a blinding flash and an earsplitting bang from high above. Matt snapped his head away from the farm to stare at the flame-engulfed object falling from the heavens.
In stunned silence he jumped as his father’s powerful hands seized him from behind and held him close, carrying him away across the green field.
“Dad, what’s happening?” Matt asked. His eyes were fixated on the plummeting sphere of flame moments away from impact.
Cautiously rising from behind the foliage, I drew back on my father’s bow and took aim. I allowed myself the smallest of grins as I thought about bringing Bambi back to my sister—at least it looked like the animal from my mother’s stories from the tan fur to the strange, forking horns. Up until now that’s all I thought it had been—a story. But fairytale or not, the beast would prove to be a much needed source of food.
The sunrise beat down on my back, warming me, and giving me a perfect view of my target.
Crimson. It was a sign, a warning. Whether it was the coming of the djinn and the plague or the death of my parents, crimson had always appeared to signal the coming horror. I had always ignored it.
Taking several long, deep breaths I held the last one, giving myself a steadier aim before drawing back on the bow’s string a couple more inches. Silence fell over the forest as the animal stood there grazing, totally unaware. It was as though the entire forest was holding its breath in anticipation of the kill.
My fingers loosened on the string. The beast’s ears perked up, seeming to sense the danger, but it was too little, too late. The kill was practically guaranteed. I don’t miss.
A piercing shriek broke through the air.
My arms jerked involuntarily. My fingers lost hold of the string, letting the arrow fly somewhere into the forest, nowhere near the fleeing creature. Dozens of birds squawked and flew from their perches in the trees.
My swearing had nothing to do with missing such a nice kill nor with the fact that I’d just lost an arrow. It had everything to do with who had screamed.
“Erin,” I gasped.
Haphazardly slinging the bow across my back, I took off running like a rampaging kangur. I had a one-track mind and hardly noticed when branches snagged on my threadbare clothing and scraped along my skin.
My heart pounded, more from fear and anxiety than the physical exertion. Erin knew how to take care of herself. In the three years we’d lived in the forest since our parents had died she’d learned to survive. Though I was admittedly overprotective, it had been more than a year since I’d really worried about her safety.
That’s what terrified me: not knowing what could possibly scare her. It had to be something truly horrible.
And that scream. I shuddered.
Fortunately I knew exactly where she would be. We always planned our activities in advance. The difference between survival and death sometimes hinged on knowing where the other person was.
I pumped my legs harder. The muscles burned and screamed at me to stop. But I couldn’t. Erin was the only thing I had left in my life worth fighting for.
Running was made even more difficult by the thick tree roots snaking up through the forest floor. The trees in this part of forest were great, tall, thick structures that rose like giants into the sky.
I’d only been running for ten minutes, but the air in my lungs felt like ice—hard labor had made me better fit for endurance, not short sprints. I finally broke through the last foliage and into the crimsonberry patch where Erin would be foraging.
It was a large patch, the bushes chest high and thick. My heart pounded as I pushed thorny bush after thorny bush aside, the thin lines of blood the thorns drew blending in with the red leaves and berries. I found Erin sprawled on the ground, face down, in the middle of the patch. Juicy, ripe crimsonberries were scattered all around from the basket she’d carried.
There were no signs of violence or blood.
I knelt and shook her by the shoulders. “Erin! Erin!”
Rolling her onto her back I placed my hand right above her mouth and nose to feel for any breathing.
Raising her head onto my lap I pulled my canteen of water from around my waist and uncapped it. “Blood, Erin. Don’t die. You can’t,” I whispered, pouring the canteen’s contents onto her face hoping the cool liquid might shock her system.
One second passed.
“Damnit, Erin.” First my father, then my mother, and now Erin. My tears fell thick and heavy. Fate had a vendetta against me and I was done fighting it. What was the point? Every struggle, success, and moment of contentment all ended in death and heartbreak. There was no escaping it.
A faint twitch. A weak movement. Coughing and sputtering. Gasping for air. And she was back, along with my will. “Thank the Maker,” I breathed—if indeed there really was a Maker.
I raised her head higher as she gasped for air. Her eyes opened slightly, squinting, as though the light hurt her eyes. “What . . .” she began saying weakly. Then, in a sudden burst of panic, she struggled and flailed to get away from me.
Holding her tightly I said, “Erin, it’s me.”
Focusing her gaze on me, opening her eyes a little wider, she immediately stopped struggling. I still felt the tension in her muscles, though. “Matt,” she breathed in relief. “I thought you were . . .”
“You thought I was who?” I gently pressed.
“Never mind. It’s not important.” She looked away from me, and I knew she was hiding something. It was her ‘tell.’ Everybody had a sign that told when they were lying and hers was that she could never meet my eyes.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she muttered. “It was so stupid.”
She shook her head and rolled her eyes as though annoyed at her own stupidity. It was all an act. Erin was trying too hard to act casual. She wasn’t nearly as good at hiding her feelings as I was.
“I was pulling back the branches of a bush to get to some of the ripe berries when this bird flew out. I guess I was so surprised and tired that I screamed and fainted.” She looked back to me and gave me a half-smile. “Stupid, right?”
If I hadn’t been so worried about her I might have laughed at how pathetic her lie was. A bird made her scream and faint? This coming from a girl who wasn’t afraid of wolves prowling around our camp at night.
Her inability to lie made me love her even more. If possible, it also made me hate myself more.
But, even though I knew she was lying, I wouldn’t press her for answers. I wanted to, but the most important thing for survival was trust. I trusted her completely. She would tell me when she was ready.
I smiled. It was a faked smile of course; I hadn’t given a genuine smile in a long time. “Yeah, that’s pretty stupid, but you’re still the smartest person in my life.”
Erin let out a small, real chuckle. “I’m the only person in your life.”
“See,” I said, slipping into a cheery tone as I helped her to her feet. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.” I watched her closely as she steadied herself. She was weak but did a good job hiding it. There was a smile on her face, her posture was perfect, and her breathing calm. If it weren’t for the faint tremor in her legs I might not have noticed anything.
“You should go back and rest,” I said, though I already knew what her answer would be.
Giving one shake of her head she said, “You know we need the food. I’ll be fine.” It was true, we needed the food. We had a little dried meat left but all of our fruit and vegetables were gone. It had been a long, hard winter and plants were just beginning to ripen.
It wasn’t like we were so desperate she couldn’t take the day off, though. It was her being stubborn and not wanting to disappoint me. Little did she know that while she was trying to impress me, I was always trying to prove myself to her.
I watched closely as she bent to pick up the scattered berries and basket. She didn’t manage to get so far as crouching. All it took was for her to begin to bend over before gravity overwhelmed her.
I’d figured something like this might happen, and I was there in a flash, catching and holding her in my arms. “Wow. That must have been quite the scary bird.” I’d always found that sarcasm helped in trying situations. It was my way of coping.
“Oh, shut up,” she said. Her face looked over my shoulder, but I could only guess that she had a smirk. “I’m guessing you want me to go back to camp for a little while?”
I helped her stand up again, letting her lean on me for support. “The whole day. No arguments.”
“You’re coming too?”
“Of course,” I said. “Someone has to protect you from the birds.” She smiled and playfully swatted at the back of my head. Ducking away, I reflected on how her unfailingly upbeat attitude was one of the few things that had made living in the forest bearable.
With my free hand I picked up the fallen basket and we proceeded to make our way back to camp. It was somewhat slow going but I enjoyed it. Typically, with all the daily tasks we each had to help us survive, we didn’t have much time to casually talk. Normally the only time we had to talk was at night but by then we are both exhausted.
But, it wasn’t as if we needed to talk. We knew each other as perfectly as two people could. Speaking was more of a formality used to break the silence.
“Did you kill anything?” she asked.
I shook my head. “But I found some fresh tracks as I was hunting. I’ll pick up the trail tomorrow as long as you’re feeling better.” It was a little surprising when she didn’t shoot back and tell me how she’d be fine, but I figured it was because she was so tired. “You’ll never guess what animal I saw today.”
I shook my head. Kangurs were shy and massive animals with thick brown or black fur and large paws that could walk on four feet or two.
“What was it then?”
“Do you remember Mom telling us about Bambi?”
“You saw Bambi?” There was wonder in her eyes and the rest of our walk was filled with questions about the deer and speculation as to what else our mother told us that could be true. Were penguins real? Did guns really exist?
Our walk back to camp was slow; Erin didn’t show any signs of getting better. It was hard to tell, but if anything I thought she might have gotten weaker as we went. What should have taken a half hour took us over an hour. But we finally reached . . . well, not home—I doubted I’d ever call anything ‘home’ again—but perhaps one could call it a refuge.
Our camp was nothing special. A pit was dug in the center of the clearing for fires, and we each had our own tree we slept in to avoid the animals that prowled around at night. A large woven basket filled with food hung overhead to keep it away from animals, its vine slung over a branch and tied around a tree. Whenever we got hungry we would lower the basket to the ground and take what we needed. Beyond the basics, there were a few odds and ends: furs, makeshift tools, and a small pile of wood. It may not have been much, but it was a lot more than what we’d started with three years ago.
Walking over to her tree, I helped her climb up into its thick grey branches where she laid down in a strong junction with well worn, smoothed bark. “Wake me up in a few hours? I could look for more berries in the closer patches.”
“Okay,” I said. She nodded and I left to let her sleep.
I had no intention to wake her up. She needed to rest.
For the first year after our parents had died and the town had exiled us—because they thought I was demon-cursed—I’d been so overprotective of her that I hadn’t let her go anywhere further than five minutes from camp. Having to do everything myself, though, had nearly killed me, and I’d finally consented to letting her help me more. Erin was more than capable, especially for being only nine-years old when our parents had died. Now, at twelve, she could do as much as me.
I knew it wasn’t a bird that had done this to her. There’d been no sign of an animal attack. Something serious was going on, but what? What wasn’t she telling me? More important, why wasn’t she telling me? I felt deep down in my bones that something bad was coming.
But there was nothing I could do until Erin told me what had actually happened.
And so I went about life as usual for the rest of the day. It was mostly just odds and ends: making a new arrow to replace the one I’d lost, chopping wood, and fetching water from a nearby stream. I even tried foraging the nearby foliage but unfortunately we had picked over everything close to camp the week before.
Coming back towards the end of the day I found Erin asleep. Still. It worried me even further.
Lighting a fire to keep away predators during the night—though by now they knew better than to come lurking around our campsite with all the traps we had along the perimeter—I lowered the food basket to the ground and took out some dried meat. Putting the meat on a roughly carved plate I then filled a wooden cup with water. I balanced both plate and cup on a mesh of branches within reaching distance of Erin in case she woke up hungry.
And finally, not hungry myself, I climbed up the tree adjacent to hers and rested in my nook. The spot gave me a clear view of Aerven’s two moons now high in the sky, stars gleaming like a trader’s gems of all sizes and colors. It was a scene that never failed to give me some peace as my mind wandered back to better days.
I could still remember my mom’s gray eyes—the same eyes both Erin and I had. I could remember my father’s deep, rich laugh as though I were hearing it for the first time. I remembered working hard on the farm, learning sciences and philosophy from my mother and playing with Erin. But, most of all, I remembered being happy.
Unfortunately, the happiness ended as my thoughts inevitably returned to that morning when I was thirteen. The memory had been seared into my brain.
That one ball of fire from the sky had been followed by dozens more, if not hundreds, like destroying fire from Heaven. But they were far more sinister and dangerous than anyone could have ever imagined. They were djinn.
Djinn, or genies as is the more common name, weren’t the tricky beings from the stories that would pop in and out of lamps granting wishes. Not even close. The truth is that they are pure evil.
Why they first appeared at our farm I may never know. But their arrival forever changed Aerven. Forever changed me.
Arcaine was the most powerful of the djinn. His name quickly became a hushed, cursed word throughout all of Aerven. For me, I breathed his name like a mantra so that I’d never forget my vow of vengeance.
It was Arcaine that brought the plague. That first day on the farm he’d conjured a green, mist-like substance and cast it at me. As soon as it touched me it felt like I was being wrapped with both fire and ice.
I’d become patient zero for the plague. My condition had rapidly degraded as my eyes and veins were consumed by the green mist. What was cold felt searing hot and what was warm, froze. And the cough, the only sound I was able to make besides the delusional nightmarish screams. There wasn’t a sound that could describe the piercing cough that stole any chance of peace from my family.
The doctor from town was the next victim, and from him it spread to the rest of Aerven as traders and travelers carried it from town to city. Within weeks, reports flooded in that the plague was seen everywhere.
While everyone who developed symptoms died, the plague wasn’t really deadly as far as numbers went. Aerven has had plagues in its history with far more deaths. Instead, what made this plague truly singular was that it seemed to have a mind of its own, as if it targeted its victims. A child here. A priest there. A father. Each was a crucial member of their community or family. And, just when a family or community thought the plague was done, it would come back with a vengeance. That’s what had happened with my family.
The plague wasn’t only deadly, it was devastating.
And all the while reports came in telling of djinn in some corner of the world wreaking more havoc. Yet, they never conquered anywhere. People thought that all they cared about was chaos. I knew differently. They—or Arcaine at least—were looking for someone. I just didn’t know who.
As far as I was concerned, a little more than a week into my sickness, I began to recover. ‘A miracle’ I was called as I regained my strength. The town rejoiced thinking that their own loved ones might recover as well. When they didn’t, their cries turned to ones of jealously and hate, calling me ‘demon-cursed.’ After all, how else could I have survived except with help from the Destroyer?
Then my parents died within days of each other and nothing was left to keep the town’s anger and fear back. Before I even had time to bury my parents the townsfolk came as a mob to our house, threatening to burn me as a sacrifice. Erin and I had slipped out the back and found refuge in the forest.
I was the only person I know to have survived the plague, though rumors did exist that a cure had been found. Why did I survive? The question haunted me. A part of me wondered if they were right. Was there something wrong with me? Was I cursed?
I’d fallen asleep at some point during my thoughts. My dreams were always the same nightmare of the past. No matter how hard I worked during the day, the dreams were always there.
But not tonight.
The night was broken by the sound of coughing.
I sat bolt upright, and jerked my head toward where Erin lay. The coughing continued. My heart froze. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible.
A terror gripped me as my worst fears came bubbling to the surface.
Climbing across the thick branches that connected our trees, I crawled to Erin and knelt over her. She was still asleep despite the coughing. I touched her skin to find it cold. Her face was beaded with sweat.
I hoped with all my might that it was a common fever but deep down knew that it wouldn’t be. Fate had never been kind to me. And I recalled the crimson sunrise. The same sunrise that had signaled the djinn’s coming and my parents’ death. The sign.
Bending closer I put my bared wrist next to hers for comparison. As soon as I did, my world came crashing down around me. I wasn’t able to think. I couldn’t believe that after all this time things had come to this.
Even in the faint light I could see the tell-tale green. She had it. The plague