Chapter 1: A Death in the Family
My grandmother is dead.
I know this before I can even walk through our front door. This is because, normally, she calls to me when I’m about to enter. Today, there is nothing but silence.
It’s all I can do to fight back my tears.
As I stand rooted to the spot, torn between running to meet the town guard or to enter to face the inevitable, I reach up to press my hand to my face and end up dropping the basket of produce I’ve procured from the market.
The sound, as it hits the front porch, is like thunderbolts cast from the angry heavens.
What’s worse is that it causes something inside to move.
It is not the rocking of my grandmother’s chair, nor is it the sound of her slow gait as she makes her way across the hardwood floor.
It is the sound of something dead.
I want to cry for help. To scream. To declare that one of the dead have risen. Yet somehow, I can’t. I don’t know if it’s the grief or the thought of what could happen if she gets away, but regardless, it compels me inside.
Stepping forward, I close the door behind me and say, “Grandma?”
My voice is weak, my actions even weaker. As I step into the kitchen and palm for the row of knives within the rack, I find myself trembling.
You’re so stupid, I want to say. You can’t be afraid. Not now. You promised—
“To never let you harm another,” I whisper.
My voice compels her forward. Like pebbles falling, my grandmother’s footsteps are soft, for at the end of her life, she was weak and frail, but what she lacks in strength she makes up for in intent. Her moan as it cuts through the silence is everlasting, and causes every hair on my neck to rise.
I draw the knife from its rack and hold it steadily before me just in time for her to step through the threshold.
She has been dead long enough for her skin to pale, and for the spores which compels the dead to rise to pockmark her skin. Her eyes—which are glossy and now bear a greenish tint to them—lock onto and study me with a vicious intent I know comes only from the Fallen. It would have appeared that she was simply confused, but her feral intentions are soon revealed, as she opens her mouth, gnashes her teeth, growls, then steps forward.
Trembling, I extend the knife and attempt to remain composed.
I knew this day would come. I knew it would. But I wish it hadn’t. She’d seemed so young at times, so full of life.
As she draws near, edging ever-so-close to the wall upon which are shelves upon shelves of her crafts and family heirlooms, she appears nothing but dead—and brought back by the horrible spores that have bloomed in our world.
Her advance is determined, her gaze absolute.
I inhale a deep breath of the deathly air and begin to circle my dead grandmother.
Her movements, laborious from old age, match mine.
Her eyes, constantly-alert, center upon me.
Her teeth, still gnashing, snap.
She is tame compared to the few I’ve seen before. Realistically, it should not be hard to kill her. But she is family, and the pain from her loss is too prevalent for me to simply slam the blade into her brain to eradicate the central source the spores infest.
In but a moment she has drawn near.
Like a friend she has not seen in ages, she reaches out to touch me.
That is when someone calls, “Bryce! Are you there?”
My grandmother snaps her head toward the door.
Her body cracks and pops from the effects of old age as she slams into the shelves that hold her earthly possessions, but she does not go down. Rather, the noise inspires further, and deadlier, reaction. She screeches, lunges, snaps what little of her teeth remain at me.
A pounding comes at the door. “Bryce!” the voice calls. “Bryce!”
“Get the guard!” I scream.
My grandmother’s hands latch around my neck.
I ram my knee into her stomach and drive her back into the wall again just in time for the door to burst open.
Peter Rothbard, the son of the guard captain and my next-door-neighbor, comes barreling in, spiked club in hand. He screams as he swings his weapon at my grandmother, but his blow comes short, and instead shatters a piece of pottery upon a high shelf.
“GRAB HER!” I scream. “GRAB HER PETER!”
But he doesn’t. Instead, he swipes again, and this time strikes her temple hard enough to split the skin.
My grandmother stumbles back.
I slam into her full-force and tackle her to the ground.
Peter latches his arms around me in an attempt to drag me away from her snapping teeth. When I refuse to budge, however—not because I don’t want to, but because she has her hands snared along my shirt—he falls to his knees beside me and shoves the width of his spiked club between my grandmother’s teeth.
“You know what to do,” he says.
I nod, and with tears in my eyes, line the blade up with her eye-socket.
Destroying the brain, or severing its stem, is the only way to ultimately put down one of the Fallen.
“I’m sorry,” are the only words I can say.
Then I’m sliding the blade into the milky matter of her eye.
She twitches once, then twice as the blade connects with the back of her skull.
Then she is still.
Grief shocks me back to the present, adrenaline drags me from its heights. Tired, now, more than ever, and unable to believe what has just happened, I stumble back until I am sitting on the floor and let out a long, low wail.
Peter is at my side instantly. “Bryce,” he says, taking hold of my arms. “Bryce!”
“What?” I sob.
“Were you bitten?”
At first, I am unsure how to answer the question. Shortly thereafter, I realize what he’s asking, and shake my head and say, “No. I… I wasn’t.”
Peter sighs. “Good,” he says.
A chorus of footfalls sound outside.
Soon, a troop of guardsmen make their way through the door—carrying not only the ropes and snares they would have used to subdue my grandmother, but swords and shields meant to slay the Fallen and protect themselves. At the head of the troop is Peter’s father, Jonathan Rothbard, who looks at me and asks, “Are you all right?”
“I’m alive,” I manage, and find that is all I can say.
Sir Rothbard can only stare at the scene before him, a sadness in his eyes and a frown upon his lips. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he says, “But you know what we must do.”
“I know,” I say. Sniffling, I rise, turn to face the man, and say, “We do what we must.”
He offers only a sad nod before saying, “Yes. We do.”
I wait outside the home I have shared with my grandmother for the past three years while the guard attend to the body. Arms crossed over my chest, heart worn on my sleeves, I try to ignore the lingering stares from the neighbors that are peeking out from behind their blinds, but find myself unable to do so.
Peter, standing beside me, looks on without much emotion upon his face. “Bryce,” he says.
“What?” I ask, unable to lift my eyes to face his.
“It’s gonna be okay. I promise.”
How, I can’t be sure. There doesn’t seem to be any way this can be okay. Regardless, I can’t find the urge to care.
First it was my parents. Now, my grandmother.
Tears bead at the corners of and then drip down from my eyes. A trembling sigh escapes me, then a sob.
I catch Peter shift out my peripheral, as if he is about to set a hand on my back, and then witness him stiffen. He turns his head away shortly thereafter, as if ashamed that there is nothing he can do to console me.
A set of footsteps sound from the porch—and I, with vacancy in my heart and soul, lift my eyes.
My grandmother’s cloth-covered body is carried out upon a wooden stretcher, Sir Jonathan Rothbard at the lead.
“Bryce,” he says, stepping forward. “As is tradition, and by the rites granted to us by the Seven, she is to be communed first to the sky in spirit, then earth in body.”
“I understand,” I say.
“Her sending will begin at dusk. I would offer you a place in my home until then?”
“That’s… not necessary, sir.”
“I’ll stay at the temple,” I say, then straighten as best as I can and say, “Sir.”
The sadness has not left the man’s eyes. Rather, in its place is a steadfast determination to do the right thing, or at least attempt to. “I… think I understand,” he says, then turns to his son and says, “Peter?”
“Will you escort Bryce to the temple?”
“Yes sir,” he says, before turning to me and asking, “Are you ready?”
I can’t speak, for I feel my voice has been stolen from me, so I nod as I start to make my way up the road.
Peter, who joins me a short moment later, sweeps his eyes along the streets. It is then that he says, “I’m sorry.”
He doesn’t have to apologize. It isn’t his fault that there are people staring out their windows—watching, waiting, anticipating the sight of yet another of the Fallen being carried to the Solemn Grounds. A death is always a public spectacle, especially when the dead always come back to life.
I inhale a deep breath of the cool air in an effort to stave off the emotions assaulting me, but find that it benefits me little.
The tears, threatening to come, still rise.
My emotions, bubbling to the surface, overflow.
My body, still coming down from the high of battle, crashes.
I feel it all at once—the unfathomable pain of loneliness, the aches and pains from the fight, the weight of immeasurable sorrow. It has festered this whole time, only to assault me all at once. And worst of all: I’m not sure I can bear it.
But I have, and can, and will, somehow, someway. This is not the first time I’ve experienced death.
“I thought,” I start, then trail off, unsure why or even to whom I am speaking.
“You thought… what?” Peter asks.
I turn my head to look at him and swallow before saying, “That I had more time.”
“I don’t think we ever have enough time,” Peter offers.
No, I realize. We don’t. That alone is sobering.
I blink in an effort to clear my eyes, but find that the tears I’ve been holding back come spilling out, and with them, a single sob.
As any guardsman-in-training would, Peter remains silent, preferring to concentrate on the task at hand rather than offer any additional words of comfort. Slowly, carefully, and with diligence I know comes from training, he keeps his pace beside me, preferring only to look at the road ahead. While I am disheartened by his lack of emotion, I know part of it is because we are being followed by his father, and with him the senior guardsmen. Peter wants to be viewed as strong—to be seen as a man capable of strength in the face of adversity. While a part of me is envious, the other is disturbed.
For a moment, I question if he cares.
Then it hits me.
Peter does care. I know he does, because he’s here, with me, when he could be back there, with them. That alone speaks volumes about his character, about his worth as a man, as a friend.
Regardless, neither his strength, nor his friendship, will help me face what’s next.
The village square, which I normally find inspires happiness within me but today only fills me with dread, rises before us like a challenge meant to be conquered. It bustles with activity, for it primarily serves as the marketplace for our small village. Here, wares are sold, services are exchanged, people talk and children play. This happiness should be contagious. But this plague—born of spores which infect the living only to later raise the dead—is a blight upon our world; and like a dark cloud passing overhead, it always inspires storms.
Unfortunately for me, rainclouds have followed in my footsteps.
As I come to a pause in the middle of the road, I lift my eyes only to find a haunting sight.
All activity has ceased within the square.
Everyone is staring.
And worst of all: they’re looking right at me.
There is no way to combat their looks, their eyes, or their bodies, but like a man parting the sea, they move to allow us passage. Most bow their heads. Some offer condolences as I pass. A choice few even pray, which, to me, seems ridiculous in this setting. What kind God would have ever allowed us to endure this?
I choose to ignore this question, and instead make my way through the square with the utmost haste.
When I reach the other side, I gasp and tilt my head skyward.
In the distance lies the very temple our world functions around. Tall, breathtaking, and constructed primarily of stone, its bell tower rises from graceful stone wings like an icon meant only to cause harm, and brings pain I could’ve never imagined.
Atop the tower stands a statue of our goddess, Kira, whom I feel has only punished us since the bloom first begun.
“Only you would hurt me like this,” I whisper as I stare upon Her countenance.
“Bryce?” Peter asks, stepping forward. “Did you say something?”
I shake my head. “No,” I lie. “I didn’t.”
“Okay.” The young man exhales and turns to look at his father and the guardsmen following us. “We’re going to take your grandmother to the Western Wing so she can be properly prepared for burial. Did you… want to come with us, or…”
“No,” I say, before he can offer anything more. “I don’t need to come with you.”
“You’re sure?” Peter asks.
I nod. “I’m not even sure I want to see her buried,” I say.
“I understand.” Peter extends a hand toward me. “I’m sorry for your loss, Bryce. Your grandmother was a good woman.”
I don’t bother to take his hand. Rather, I step forward; and in the moments following my departure, try not to look back at the people whom I know are looking at me.
The moments that follow are a blur. Though I am still a great distance away, someone spots me from their place in a high window. A call is made, the temple doors open. A High Sage steps out, and though unwilling to leave the temple’s foundation, she waits for me kindly, and only nods when I draw near.
“Bryce,” the woman says upon my approach. “Bless your soul, and your heart, in this hour of loss.”
“Thank you,” I manage.
“Do you remember me, dear?”
It takes a moment to put the pieces together, for in my state, it’s almost impossible to think. When the thoughts finally connect I lift my eyes and say, “Yes. I remember you.”
High Sage Hera, who counseled me three years ago after my parents were killed during the Scourge, nods and says, “I am sorry we could not have met on better terms.”
All I can offer is a nod in response.
The High Sage turns her head to look at everything I’d rather not see, then wraps an arm around my shoulder before ushering me toward the temple. “Let us go.”
The inside of the temple is dreary in the gray light that filters in from the windows above, and offers little comfort when in reality it should be filling me with a sense of peace. Told, since I was a child, that it was the one place where one could truly speak to Kira should they wish, I feel nothing but empty, and utterly blasphemous for even stepping foot in here. As a result, I don’t feel like I belong. Rather than speak, though, I merely remain silent.
High Sage Hera, who seems to understand that I am not in the talking mood, remains silent as she leads me through these halls as if she is a shepherd and I am her reluctant sheep, guiding me around corners and through corridors within which are many rooms. Most are storage. This I understand, because in times of peril, the Kiran Temple is the one place where people go for food. Some, however, are designated for mourners to pray and heal during times of loss. I am not unfamiliar with this process, so when we come to a doorway and she cracks it open, High Sage Hera turns to me and says, “This is where you will wait.”
“Do you know how long it will take?” I ask.
“Her body must be blessed before it is delivered to Eula. It should be no later than sundown.”
With a nod, I push the door open, then retreat inside. All I can offer is a simple nod and a short thank you before I close the door.
Inside, I turn to look at the small room—which is decorated plainly, and bears only a brown rug and a bed, upon which there is only a single crocheted blanket. The high windows that offer light are too far up for me to see out, but at this moment, I can’t find it in my heart to care. Nothing outside would comfort me, not now, not at this moment.
With a sigh, I step toward the bed, part the crocheted blanket that I know has been meticulously crafted for the comfort of the mourner, and press my head upon the goose-feather pillow.
It is here, and only here, that I allow my sorrow to spill forth.
A tremendous sob escapes me.
My family is gone.
And there is no one here to help me.
I fall asleep in the hours of the afternoon, and dream of a rose that blooms red in the far south. Beautiful, gigantic, nearly the size of a house—it grows from a single long vine that has stirred from the earth and releases into the air that was once considered a blessing, but is now viewed as a curse. This I know to be the source of the Bloom, even though I have never seen it; and as its petals open and close, a fine gold dust parts from their surface, then is carried into the wind. I watch, casually, from my place in dream, as this fine dust dissipates into the air, then as it is breathed through the lungs of those unknowing. Then I see my grandmother before my vision, and watch as behind her glazed eyes an intelligence I could have never imagined looks back at me.
She lashes forward, attempting to bite me and end my miserable life to continue this endless plague.
Then a knock comes at the door.
I open my eyes to find the harsh light of sunset streaming through the window—and know, deep down, that it is time for my grandmother to be delivered to Eula.
“Bryce?” I hear High Sage Hera ask. “Are you awake?”
“I am,” I say, though am not sure how high my voice is, or if the sage can even hear me. I crawl from the bed and straighten my tunic out over my torso before stepping toward the door. “Is it time?” I ask, without opening it.
“It is time,” she replies.
After taking a deep breath—and waiting, hoping, praying that it will offer me some salvation—I open the door to face High Sage Hera.
I am immediately taken aback.
No longer is she in her brown-and-green robes. Now dressed starkly in black, she appears like a specter come to take my soul, which seems ironic considering that I feel it has already been robbed from me.
Somehow, I am able to keep from gasping, and instead nod before asking, “Is she… ready?”
“She is ready to be delivered to Eula,” Hera says.
It should be comforting, to know that my grandmother’s body will help compel Earthwalker Eula to carry us further, but the fact of the matter is: it isn’t. If anything, the grisly art of burying our dead only to have them absorbed by the creature that carries us through our world is unsettling, and causes me more grief than I can possibly imagine.
With a nod, and with trepidation I wished I would never feel again, I step forward and say, “I’m ready.”