The Sun Went Dark
Unfold the web of sorrow and deceit
Buried deep in shadowed regions
the false memories.
I’m running, running so fast I think I’ll either take flight in the cool morning air or faceplant in the hard, frozen ground.
The latter occurs.
It’s not as if running will do any good. They’ll catch me eventually. They always do. And I’ll get a worse punishment for even thinking I can outsmart them. Why bother? Because maybe, just maybe, they’ll take out some of their frustration on him. After all, it’s his fault I’m such an insolent beast, isn’t it?
I wince, touching my cheek, where dark violet blood is beginning to pool. Curse the ice. I’ve always hated it. What I wouldn’t give to be in Sviros right now. But then, I suppose, if I fell, I’d get a mouthful of sand rather than a fractured jaw.
The world’s divided. Quite literally. One side, Sviros, is covered in desert, and the other side, Jagas, my side, is covered in ice. Our people have all sorts of theories as to why this might be. Some myths say the people of Dele angered an all-powerful god, who decided to punish them by turning their homes into the harshest, most barren of climates, ice and desert. If you live in Sviros, you might have heard that only the people of Jagas angered said god, which is why their land was struck by snow and unforgiving icestorms. You might have heard that Jagas is an evil version of Sviros, located on the underside of the world. I don’t believe any of it. Not even the part about gods, which would probably get me killed in some brutal way if I said it out loud. Spirits? Yes. Spirits with powers? Maybe. But gods? No, not unless they’re lumped into the same category as powerful spirits.
The truth is, no one knows where we come from. No one knows our history. There are no written or painted records, no spoken tales that carry an sliver of truth. No one knows the truth, because back before I or my parents were born, our ancestors were awful storytellers. I can’t say I blame them. They were probably occupied surviving.
Now, though, storytelling is glorified, whatever form it may take, whether it’s scrawling myths or painting with charcoal. I suppose the people are scared they’ll forget. In fact, my entire tribe is built on fear. Fear of forgetting. Of what lies out there. And we all know we’re scared. But if you show one sign of weakness, shed one tear, they’ll notice. They’ll single you out and try to get rid of you as soon as possible. You’re nothing but a liability to the hunt.
The same goes if you try to rise above your social status. Where you were born is where you stay. If you’re low in the hierarchy, you stay low. If you’re higher up, closer related to the chief, you’re treated with more respect. You can, of course, sink lower, if you commit treason or show signs of instigating a rebellion. But you can never rise.
That’s what my tribe does, anyway. We don’t know a lot about the culture of Sviros. A vast sea separates us, too wide and deadly for anyone who enjoys living to want to cross. I like to think of it as a barrier that keeps us from slitting each other’s throats.
I can hear voices behind me, and I scramble to my feet. I know I’m in for it this time, but just the same, I started this chase. I feel like I should finish it. As soon as my feet touch the ground and I’ve regained my balance, I’m sprinting again.
But my head start has been sabotaged. It’s too late, and soon they’ve caught me, yanking my arms so hard I’m scared they’ll be pulled from their sockets. They escort me back to the camp, although it feels more like dragging if I’m honest. Then they roughly push me to my knees, and I’m looking up at a tall woman dressed in thick furs, layers of leather rope around her throat, pale hair beaded and pulled back in elaborate braids. Her face might be described as regal, with high cheekbones and angular features, except it’s twisted with rage.
“You thought you could run?” She scoffs, shaking her head. “Fool. Where would you even run to? There is not a place in Jagas where we wouldn’t find you.”
“He got far, Susaka Alfa.” One of my captors grips my shoulder, so hard it becomes painful. A sign of dominance, perhaps? “Not far enough, though.”
“I suppose you’re wishing you had been a little more thoughtful about what you called your father, aren’t you?” Susaka Alfa leans a little closer, locking eyes with me, lips tugged back to reveal her teeth.
I know she’s threatening me, and I know what they can do to me. If I’m respectful, I should divert my eyes. But I’m not respectful. And I also don’t care.
“I haven’t made any really bad decisions lately,” I say, almost thoughtful. “I was getting bored. But I don’t regret what I said. Every word was the—”
I’m cut off as Susaka Alfa clouts me over the face with her heavy, sharpened pole. I fall to the ground, tasting the sharp, metallic tang of blood. The blow throbs and the skin around my eyelid quickly swells until I can barely see out of that eye. I grin at her, knowing this is a sign of true insolence, knowing the blood has stained my teeth, knowing these things will infuriate her even more.
I’m right. Her dark blue eyes flash dangerously, and she stoops down, pressing her face close to mine.
“You want me to hurt you, don’t you?”
I give no response, no sign that I’ve comprehended her words or even heard her.
“You won’t be disappointed. Take him to the cliff! Let the people know we are holding an Ofre!”
I jerk my head up. An Ofre? But, surely—she wouldn’t—
No. She would do it. She will. I have never doubted my tribe’s cruelty. I will not start doubting it now.
Perhaps the rest of them will think it’s the right thing to do. This is the price I must pay, for insulting a relative. A parent. Family ties have always been among the most significant values in Jagas. Up there with fidelity to whatever gods and spirits we’ve decided exist and the unspoken rule of never questioning the chief’s word. What she says is the rule. Disobey, and you might end up with some tortuous punishment that’ll make you wish you never plagued the world with your existence. For example, being presented as an Ofre.
I hear the sea long before I see it. The thunderous clapping of water on water, waves taller than mountains colliding and collapsing in on themselves. The salty mist smashes into my face, stinging my eyes, choking my throat. Soon we are there, standing on the towering ramparts of stone, glinting jade-blue. In this light, I catch glimpses of bits of quartz, winking in the weak sunlight.
I glance out into the sea, at the black mountains of water, peaking and crashing. Fear takes hold of my limbs, and I stiffen, averting my gaze. I look down and my hands and realize they’re trembling.
I’ve heard some in my tribe say the sea seems peaceful, a reminder of the balance in the world. I can’t help but scoff at that. The sea is too impressive, its vastness too intimidating to radiate anything but power. And anyone who thinks the world is in balance should take a look at the state of our tribe. Balanced in agony and brutality? Perhaps. But you’ll not find even the smallest droplet of mercy here.
We aren’t stopping at the cliff. I’m forcefully pushed down a narrow ledge, winding to a small alcove hidden within the cliffside. I’m beyond suppressing fear at this point; I lean against the side of the ledge and try to go as slowly as possible to avoid losing my footing, shuddering at the violent spray from the nearby waves.
At this level, I can see the high, staggering columns that protrude from the water, visible when the waves sink low. Once, I taunted a child I used to play with to try jumping from column to column. I knew he wouldn’t refuse; he was one of those reckless children, confident, never backing down from a challenge.
He broke on the sharp rocks below before he even reached the first pillar.
I’m lurched out of my thoughts at Susaka Alfa’s voice, calling to the tribe. “Come, view the Ofre at the cliff! Watch the apostate pay for his crimes!”
I’m thrown to the stones and am quickly yanked to my knees. My hands and feet are tied, and a leather cord with a single red stone is tied around my neck. The final sign of a traitor.
Smoke mingles with salt as a tall torch is set beside me, leaning against the rock wall. Several hands hold me down as Susaka Alfa approaches. My long outer vest, lined with fur, is torn off, and I can feel the fabric around the back of my neck being pulled away. I know what they’re going to do. I’ve seen two Ofres in my life; one was my own mother’s. But I am still not prepared for the blinding pain that shoots up the back of my head as Susaka Alfa sinks her long stone knife into my neck.
I scream, nails sinking deep into my palms as I struggle to break free. The knife keeps cutting, trailing a long dark circle in its wake. When it reaches the starting point at last, having carved a circle with a line through the center, Susaka Alfa pulls it out, dripping. Some of my blood splatters my shirt, leaving dark stains.
I’m gasping for air, barely able to hold my head up under the crushing agony. But the torture doesn’t stop there. I knew it wouldn’t. I’m dragged to the edge of the cliff, pulled to my feet. My arms are tightly bound above my head, to the jagged rocks, my feet tied below.
“By nightfall, this alcove will be flooded with the sea! We move at dawn. The Vandrender are migrating, and we must follow. May this Ofre please the spirits and bring us good fortune on our journey.” Susaka Alfa’s calls can barely be heard over the waves, but they are heard. Her voice grows softer as she moves closer to me, though no less full of malice. “May the spirits be pleased that we have purged our camp of evil.” With these words, she raises her knife once more and slices a long cut across the back of my head. It’s not a deep wound, but the blood pours down my back anyway.
A loud chorus of shouting and laughter erupts from the cliff above me. I crane my neck back for a glimpse, despite the red-hot bolts of agony that flare, their poison lacing into my veins. I can see just barely see his face.
My own eyes are looking back at me. Blank, cold, emotionless, a penetrating shade of icy blue.
I hear Susaka Alfa and the others move back up the cliff, and soon the crowd fades away. But he remains, staring down at me.
“Father…” I gasp, voice rasping. “Please…”
His expression remains impassive as he kicks a little pebble of ice off the cliff. It strikes my forehead, right above my left eye, opening a stinging gash that spills over my face, blinding me temporarily.
When I look back up, he is gone.
It doesn’t feel like long before the water comes flooding in. First the thickening darkness comes to lap at my feet, then slowly makes its way into the alcove. I can almost hear my own heartbeat as it creeps up to my waist. The waves almost seem to pause, consider me a moment, waiting for the first sign of weakness.
A tear escapes my eye, streaking down my face, glassy and cold. I watch it fall and merge into the water below.
Then the water crashes inside, filling entirely and shattering all in its wake.