TIAN!” Maria shouted, sticking her head out from the chief’s house. She leveled the axe against her back before stepping down the stairs. “Where are you boy?”
Tian emerged out of the forest line sheepishly with three other younger kids in tow. He pushed his blonde hair from his face quickly. Even at his small height, the village kids always liked watching him show off his strength. At 18 years old, he reached 5 foot 6, but he had the strength to rip whole logs apart. He could run faster than anyone else in the village, even the swift Daniel from four doors down. Not only was he insanely fast, he had an endurance of the mule deer they often hunted. He was the only blonde in the village, and that blonde had white tufts tucked in it. Unfortunately, he didn’t always know when the strength would show up or when he’d be completely human. It was unpredictable, strengthening with each day, but still dangerously spacious.
“Tian, get your ass over here before I whoop it!” Maria shouted and Tian decided not to dilly dally any longer.
Their village had once been large and sprawling with life. A beautiful refuge amongst the trees and the vast mountain side. They’d once been a part of the mining towns, and an avid member of the coalition. But eventually, the mine’s ran out of what the government on the East coast needed and they shut down. Tian’s people were miners, but they had to learn to till the land to survive. With no money coming in, no work, they faced starvation. Their genetic mutations for the mines hindered them as they worked. They leveled trees in the foothills and tilled the mollisol soil for crops. And they hunkered down for survival. The winters came hard and fast, and stayed for almost seven months before letting up once more. The monstrous river that ran through the village would freeze over, cutting off the lower village to the higher. Maria’s house sat on the highest peak, over looking the forest and the rest of the village. Every year, she made sandbags to stop the flooding that came with the spring rains.
Their allies started to disappear, slowly. The hunger drove them inland. Looking for food and work, they left. Their mining coalition went from 8 villages down to 4 in the matter of three hard winter months. And now, there were only two. They were hardened for difficult times, being the oldest villages on the west coast. Existing even before the end times as a small town that survived the ozone rip. But a Tian looked out across the flat land as it sloped down towards the village, he felt a sense of nausea in the pit of his stomach. How long could they hold out? How long before the harsh winters drove them out of their homes?
He waved goodbye to his friends and started his way up the path to the middle of the village. Some of the adults waved at him as they worked away at storing what was left of the crops. The last time the Capital had come, they’d taken over 3/4ths of what the village had from harvest. Maria tried bartering with them, giving them some of the foods from the foothills, but they just shook their head and took what was left of their potatoes and corn. It was the first time that Tian had been tempted to wipe the skin paint from his face and sink his teeth into the Capital’s warriors. They only claimed that they were running low again this year, that the other villages they took from were starting to disappear. They hadn’t said from what. Sickness, or starvation. Maria didn’t dare send any riders out to meet with the only other village out as far as they were.
There’d been a huge fight before the new leader had come to power, and as the only village so far out on the west coast, Maria had subdued it single handedly. Since then, the two outermost villages had kept to themselves in times of peace and bartered in times of struggle.. Droughts, plagues, They’d never joined the mining coalition, even when Maria’s mother offered, but remained loyal whenever Maria had needed help. Even they had to head inland past the Fields of Fire to find work.
The way their country was set up, the Capital was clear on the east coast. Somewhere further north, and it was big. It was bustling and full of thousands and thousands of people. They earned their money by trading crops on the ships that sailed across the large seas to other countries and got goods or riches that fueled the Capital. The thousands of people who lived in comfort stole from the villages along the lines. The other village that was 20 miles out from the foot of the Rockies made their livings mining special stones and survived off of what Tian’s village supplied them. Their crops recently had been dying of some dark sickness that even the village elders couldn’t figure out. Until an allying mining village went silent. With no more special stone being traded for crops, trading with the Capital had come to a stop for Maria’s own. To exist, the Capital sent monthly raids for supplies, and they took what they wanted. With special stone, the villages could barter for some of their crops back or special spices or treats for the kids. It’d been a year and a half since the mining village went quiet. A year and a half since Maria could buy what they needed.
Past the mountains, there was nothing but coastline. Hundreds of miles of land had dropped off into the ocean many, many years before Tian had been born. Looking at old texts, and old English, he could roughly make out what their country had once looked like. When the caldera blew it covered the states in the west in ash and almost three feet of lava that was still shifting and moving beneath the ground. South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and parts of Colorado were completely wiped out. No one dared living on that cursed land ever again and deemed it the unpassable Fields of Fire. Those that attempted on foot burned up and suffocated before they even started. The Great Tsunami was tall enough to completely cover everything up to the large foothills on the west sides of the mountains. Once California started to collapse and break up, buildings littered the water. If the water would recede to what it once was, the remnants of what used to be an entire state would still be there. If someone could swim far enough down, they’d see the remnants of an old city filled with buildings that once touched the sky and the livelihoods of people who’d tried to escape. The earthquakes before the The Great Tsunami had obliterated their roads.
So his village was, in fact, one of the farthest villages from the East Coast. There was the last mining village closest to the rocky mountains who had yet to give up. Everyday, they descended down into the mountains in hopes of finding something worthwhile to trade, but never did. Beyond that village, nestled deep into the side of the mountains, was dead, uninhabitable land. What they heard, though, was that the East Coast didn’t suffer as much tragedy as the west coast had. They had natural electricity over there and moving transportation. Cars. But their cars couldn’t make the long trips to the outlying villages. They had a king, too, but there were no pictures nor had they ever seen him. Most of what they heard about the East Coast were just rumors spread from the villages further in towards the middle of the country. All forced to work and feed the East Coast as it expanded. All starting to starve as more food was taken from the people. The King was uncaring to his subjects past the great rivers. And Tian’s people gave their livelihoods to a government they knew nothing about. When they revolted, the Warriors, who were the Capital’s lapdogs, desecrated every living thing inside the villages. Humans to the dogs that the humans loved dearly. Nothing survived the wrath of the Capital, so they’d learnt to obey and give.
As Tian passed the butcher shop, he stopped to stare into the window. Don was busy putting away their recent kills. Two large mule deer and a flurry of rabbit they’d caught off the mountains in the snares. He’d helped the older man many times, helping him carry the meat into the underground cellars below the butcher shop. Ice chunks were laid in the walls every winter to keep the meat as cold as possible throughout the year. During the winters when the flax berries weren’t growing and producing anymore and the Cattails had all been picked, they survived on meat and roots they dug for. At least where they lived, mule deer and sheep were a plenty.
Then the herds stopped showing. The hunting grounds grew further and further with each passing year. What was once a village of plenty had become bare and lifeless. Spring came later every year and the yellowing grass drove away what was left of the prey. The elders believed in a great curse, driving them inwards. Yet Maria remained unmoving.
He shook the uncertain thoughts from his head and came to a stop in front of the house he’d come to call home. It wasn’t the most beautiful, the roof had holes in it and the porch leaned precariously to the side. It served its purpose, though. It was still messy as ever, filled with village supplies that kept the people happy in their homes. When Tian was 15, they had had a huge population. Almost breaking 200, but as food became scarcer, families with children started to move further inland towards the Capital. Better education opportunities, and a life without hunger seemed too tempting to stay. Maria, the elders, and Tian were the only ones who could read and write. Tian had tried teaching the other kids, but no one cared to stop and listen long enough. He missed everyone that left, they’d all helped him when he was dying from starvation, and he considered them all family. He wished them well, though, when they left because he couldn’t bear the thought that they had never made it to a better life. But crossing the molten lands of the Midwest was one of the hardest journeys to be made. It was dubbed unanimously as the Fields of Fire. Only one group had ever crossed it successfully, and they were the Capital warriors in their big metal cars.
The front door opened and he saw Maria standing there with her arms crossed over her chest. Her brows were wrinkled in anger and her mouth was furrowed. Her long brown hair was pulled up into a messy ponytails, streaks of grey peeked through shyly. “Where have you been?”
“Some of the younger kids wanted to go out and play in the woods.”
She surged forwards, grabbing Tian by the ear and drug him inside. Tian tried grabbing her arm to stop the pain. She came to a stop inside the house and turned towards him. “I had chores for you this morning! A bag of flour to mom, some blankets to Jocelyne and her kids, and I needed you to run this to Old Man Cam. I get home from the Mouw village almost a 100 miles north east from here and none of it's done. I’ve been gone for three days and you didn’t do any of it! I don’t ask for much from you, but you still don’t do it.”
Tian hung his head. “I’m sorry Maria. I really am. I can go do it now. I forgot about it, honest!”
“I’m not mad… I just… look, Tian, I love you to death and I understand that you like to be in the woods among the animals more than here with us. You’re human, but you’re also Kukouk and they existed as free spirits. And I understand. I just… I’ll be turning 54 this year, and mom will be turning 86. But my grandmother only got 45 years and my father died at 55, I don’t have much more time on Earth, any day, my number could be up Tian. You are my only child, and when I die, the matriarch will become a Patriarch and follow you. You will be the next chief and I need to know you’re ready when I die. Asking simple favors is my way of getting you ready for what awaits you.”
Maria sighed, watching the blonde hair fall into the boy’s blue eyes. They were halfway gold already, a fleeting, passing thought almost. She pushed the long hair out of the boy’s face until it covered the lines on his neck.
“You act like you’re going to die soon,” Tian mumbled, looking up at her.
“Kid… you’re still young and you’re not going to understand what the future is going to bring. But I’ve had my years here, and there is never a guarantee that I’ll live as long as my mother.”
“Can’t one of Jocelyne’s kids take over? Not all villages follow bloodlines. Jocelyne’s got a bunch of kids who’d fit. Ryan is pretty levelheaded. He breaks up all of Axel’s fights! I’m not even a human being! I could bring destruction to the clan if the Capital finds out that there’s still something like me alive. It’s only been 50 years since the last Kukouk passed away.”
“Tian, you’re more human than anyone I’ve ever met. You’ve just turned 18 and I think it’s time you start to learn your place among the people. As a person and one of us, and not as a half-breed. If the Capital comes for you, then the people of the foothills will protect you. Just as we have all these years as you were growing up. The people that are left will rally behind you. We always will. Kukouk or not, you’re one of our own. And your destiny is more important than anyone who’s come before you. You’re special Tian. More than you’ve ever known. Come with me boy.”
Maria stepped away towards the back of the house. She paused in front of the one forbidden room he was never allowed in. No one in the clan other than the elders was allowed in. She opened the door slowly before looking back at Tian.
“Tian it's time you know the truth.”
“As the next clan leader, it is your duty and right to know why the clans are disappearing all around us.”
Inside the forbidden room was a long table that stretched almost half the room filled with paper and files that Tian didn’t even know existed. On the farthest side of the room were dusty shelves holding thick rimmed books. A huge map of the United States was stretched out across the farthest wall. Tacks were pushed into the minut locations of settlements that Tian once knew. Green and red, but there was more red on the board. A far cupboard with a rickety open door held bunches of guns and ammo. Emergency use only. Tian redirected his attention back to the paper and felt shock course through his body. He read the handwriting easily enough, but his eyes widened at the biggest word. Slaves.
“Slaves?” Tian said, reaching out to grab some of the papers nearest to him.
Maria sat down in one of the many chairs around the room. “Slavery is an evil thing. But yes, people are captured and forced to do work most people wouldn’t do, even if they were paid. Sometimes the slaves are paid in food or water. Most often they’re not. They’re taken from their homes and dragged clear across the country. To places they don’t know. They don’t understand the worlds they’re thrown into, and often enough, it costs them their lives. Slavery is a very terrible plague.”
“The Capital wants them?”
Maria nodded solemnly. “There’s another line of mountains in the East. They were once called the Appalachians. They’re older than our mountains, more round and less steep. But… they discovered gold there and other precious metals. Something called Phosphoric Iron. A new, powerful metal that burns cleaner than anything before. They want to start creating electricity in different ways, using it. And they’re searching for something, an energy source that’s been hidden for hundreds of years in there. Something our mountains have run out of… and they need people to mine it. To build and create their massive cities and do their work.”
“But our food… if they take our people and our food then…”
“The Mouw people have been hit, Tian. They’re less than 100 miles away from us… and the Capital slaughtered most of their people, and took only the young and the healthy. The elders are the only one’s left and I tried convincing them to come here, but they decided to stay in their homes to die. Their homes were aflame, their food was taken and all their animals were killed. The village that shared the mountains with us, Mountain Foot, has already fallen. They starved to death in a last ditch attempt to scale the Rocky Mountains on the old roads. They all froze to death at the pass. They never made it over. It won’t be long before they come for us as well. We’re poor enough of a village that they can handle losing our crops.”
“How long do we have before they come for our home?”
“They could be already on their way for us as we speak. That’s why the elders and I have been speaking and we’re thinking of sending you back underground with our youth. Once our village is gone, it’ll be your duty to cross the mountains and live and survive at the coasts. Our people will continue on if you succeed.”
“I don’t want to go back down there,” Tian pleaded. “There’s got to be another way!”
Maria rubbed her brow with a sigh. “If you stay here, you will die.”
“They’ll kill you, to! You’re the village leader,” Tian answered quietly. Because Maria had never hidden that fact from him. Just as the captain went down with the ship, so did the chief in the attack. As long as a chief lived, the people had reason to fight and revel. She’d schooled him a hundred times on how to escape. That it was more important he survived and escaped despite any circumstances. Not just because he was half-Kukouk, but because he was Maria’s son. In the event of her death, he had to be the next chief and keep his people safe. He knew all this, word for word verbatim, yet, accepting it was much harder. He knew that surviving was his duty, but he couldn’t stomach the thought of leaving his only home.
“Below ground… they’ll age faster than me! It’s too cold down there for normal people. I don’t want to have to bury every single person I bring down there and I don’t know… I don’t know if mom has even decomposed and I can’t… I’m not ready to face mom yet.”
“Then what do you suggest we do? Wait for them to come and kill us all and take all the kids into slavery? We can’t allow that to happen Tian. We, to, are a free people.”
“We follow the old roads up the mountains. We all go together and make a new life on the other side of the mountains. There’s got to be a way! They used to take their big cars along the old roads.”
“We’ll die up there like the others who tried to run Tian. Listen to me this time, as the next Chief, you have to assure the survival of our youth.”
There was a knock on the front door, startling them both mid argument. She gave Tian a pointed look. “We’ll talk about this later.”
She breezed past him, towards the door. Tian blew out the candles inside the room before he made to close the door. His eyes settled on the colorful map for a little too long. He’d grown up feeling a pull towards the east coast, the same pull he felt whenever he was in danger. Right before the stag spirit would show up and bring him, inevitably, to safety. He’d asked Maria about it a hundred times, and she simply called it a guardian spirit. Refusing to go no further into detail.
But his heart pounded as he stared at the map. The yearning feeling only grew stronger with each second.
“Tian!” Maria shouted, catching the boy’s attention. He pulled the door shut behind him before turning towards her.
A frantic woman paced at the front door, her hair a mess and her eyes bloodshot. Maria had her arm around the woman’s shoulders in an attempt to soothe her. The woman was muddy, with clumps of soil caked into her long, chocolate colored hair. She must've been clearing the last of her late crops north of the village. Her pale cheeks were reddened and sweaty, like she’d run the whole way over.
“What happened?” Tian asked, ignoring the glare Maria sent.
“Marcus took the kids up the mountain to hunt… and an hour ago, my eldest returned. He was beaten up and cold. Garrick said it was shock. But it was an avalanche, out of season, and no one else has returned. I know they’re hurt up there.”
“We’ll send a search party up,” Maria reassured.
“It may already be too late when we get it arranged. We can’t risk anyone else up there,” Tian stated, looking over a ther. “I’ll go. I’m the strongest and most durable to go. Where were they heading?”
“Death’s pass. They were hunting near Death’s pass.”
“Why the hell did they get close to there? The land is unstable! They should’ve known not to get too close!’
“Give me a few days, and I’ll find a way through the mountains. I’ll find them,” Tian argued, The woman looked back and forth between the two, shoulders slumping in relief.
“Tian, you will die up there if I let you go,” Maria snapped. “End of discussion already. You will not go up there in those mountains. We’ll send a search party up.”
“Wait!” Tian grabbed Maria’s arm to stop her from walking out the front door. “I came from those mountains. I survived almost 2 years on my own in the cold. I can survive Death’s pass long enough to find Marcus and her kids. I can go before the snow hits, I can make it Maria. I can. I am the only one able to go up into the mountains this late in the season. I can regulate my body temperature better than anyone else you know. I am the best, and only option. If you send up a search party, they’ll die.”
“No, Tian. Fucking stop it already. You can’t time the weather like that, it’s always changing. If you go up there and it snows, even with your Kukouk strengths, you won’t make it. You’re not going up into the mountains until spring, and even then, you won’t go up.”
“Let me try. I’ll take one of the horses up, and if things get bad I’ll turn around. Please… you tell me all the time that we have to take care of our people. This is my job, as your son, and a future leader. Isn’t it? That’s our job.”
Maria slammed her fist against the wall hard enough to break her own skin. “Why is it that you’re the only one who’s ever had the nerve to talk back to me so much?”
“I’m your son. It’s my sworn duty. You know I love these people just as much as you do, and I’d do anything to keep them safe.”
Maria ruffled his hair. “Even with your strength, you only get a week. You better be back in your bed by sun down on the seventh day. Take Moth with you, he’s the only horse I trust with your safety. You will be wearing a coat as well. You’ll encounter bears or mountain lions so bring weapons.”
“Thank you Maria, you won’t be disappointed!” Tian shouted excitedly, hugging the older woman tightly. “Love you! I’ll leave by morning!”
“Tian,” Maria paused as the boy was getting ready to bound towards his room. “If we don’t meet again, know that… I love you. More than anything on this planet. I love you for all your quirks and all your energy. There will never be a time where I don’t love you. And… the Capital… if you see the Capital… remember that its… it’s not as beautiful as it seems.”
“Maria, you're acting weird again,” Tian huffed, flashing her a grin before he was out the door.
He could barely sleep that night, tossing and turning in the safety of his own bed. That night, the stag came once more in his dreams. It’s beautiful white hide and huge grey horns stood on the opposite side of his room. His stormy grey eyes peered down at him, as if it was judging him. Tian sat up in his bed, pulling his covers close to his bare chest. The stage tilted his head, a flash of light appearing in the corner of the animal’s eyes. For the longest time, the Stag that came to him in his dreams and in times when his life hung in the balance. It had always been a constant in his life, a guardian angel. A remnant of his people, as Tian believed. He’d gotten used to the Stag’s appearance right before he did something stupid, like it was warning him. But Tian never listened.
“I have to,” Tian found himself saying.
“Dangerous,” it whispered. For the very first time, the Stag had spoken. It’s voice was gravely deep, but almost familiar. “Do not go. I may not be able to protect you this time.”
Tian put his feet on the floor before looking over. “What do you mean? Are you… are you dying?”
The stag shook his head. The light in the Stag’s eyes flickered once more. “Do not go up.”
“It’s my job. I have to bring them home.”
The light flickered once more in the stag’s eye, then it was gone. Tian stared in shock where the beast had once stood, but it didn’t return. He got up out of his bed quickly.
“W-wait… please don’t leave me,” Tian shouted, panic surging through his chest. His hands shook and his stomach turned. “Please…”
“I have never left you,” the stag’s voice whispered through the wood, only to disappear once more.