“I will never understand why you saved her. She’s not your real daughter,” my grandfather said from behind the tent wall. “It’s only a matter of time before she snaps and hurts your son.”
I tread through the hot sand, careful not to kick it or make any noise. I placed my hands on the animal-skin wall and leaned closer to hear them talking about me. My family’s shadows were visible through the tarp as vague and blurry silhouettes.
My father gave a gruff sigh. “I’m sick of having this conversation, Dad.”
“Aberym, Sacet is a part of our family now,” my mother chimed in. “Can’t you see she’s not one of them anymore? She probably doesn’t even remember.”
Would I get in trouble if they knew I was listening in? No, they were talking about me, so I had a right to know.
“I’m not asking you to kill her, Enni,” my grandfather continued as his outline moved closer to the wall I was hiding behind. I held my breath. “That was before I found out about her powers. Azua, talk some sense into her. The girl could help Nomad tribes all over this world, uniting us against the Dominions ...”
“She’s ten cycles old!” my mother blurted, before adjusting back to a whisper. “She won’t be a part of this war, your war.”
That’s right, you tell him! I fought the urge to agree out loud.
“She’s already been a part,” my grandfather retorted, getting louder. “And on the wrong side of it.”
“I’m not putting a gun in my only daughter’s hands,” my father said.
“You won’t have to,” my grandfather replied. “Today she was able to make a portal from our village to the lake. It was by her memories alone; she couldn’t physically see the destination. We trained on the beach all day to celebrate her achievement.”
Dad sighed. “That’s great, but ...”
“I need to test how far these portals can go,” my grandfather interrupted. He paced around the tent. “Maybe there is no limit? Let me take her to the other settlements. We could make a link between our people ... for trade at first. And on the way I’ll train her to defend herself.”
Mother pointed at him. “You will not take her away from us!”
My grandfather scoffed. “Come now, you’ve babied one of our enemies long enough. It’s time to recognise her for what she really is: a weapon.” He turned to Dad. “Son? Do I at least have your support?”
I put my hand over my mouth to stifle a cry. Is that what he really thought of me? I’m just a thing to him? There was an extended silence. I froze in place. I could hear my own heart beating.
“Dad, you’re getting too old for this,” my father finally replied. “You can’t fight like you used to. So ... we’ll go with you. All of us together, as a family.”
Footsteps thudded on the rocky pathway leading up to our tent. I ducked down even lower by the side wall. Another shadow, smaller than others, ran inside.
“Arleigh?” my father said. “What’s the matter?”
I could hear my friend panting from here. Was she unable to speak?
“Where’s Eno?” my mother asked. “I thought you were taking care of him?”
“I ... I can’t find him,” she managed between gasps. “We were playing ... and ...”
“The river,” my father said, cutting Arleigh short. “Did you check there?”
The silhouettes rushed out together.
“Where did you last see him?” I heard mother say as they ran to the village’s centre.
I clambered up from my hiding spot by the tent’s side and watched them run down the path. Dad, Arleigh, and my grandfather made for the river, while Mum ducked into the other tents to alert the villagers.
Where had my little brother gotten to? If it were me on toddler-duty, he’d be bugging me to climb the cliffs with him again. He wanted to see the wastelands for himself. Maybe that’s where he went?
I sprinted down the path and headed to the east side of the village. As I passed the tents, I received several disparaging stares from the villagers. They must have thought I was up to something, as usual.
Finally clear of the village and its distrustful residents, I began scaling the winding cliff path as fast as I was able. After scrambling over numerous dirt chunks and boulders, I paused along a cliff ledge to catch my breath.
I turned and peered back down into the canyon. There was an almost sheer drop below. The settlement, nestled between the canyon’s wall and the winding river, was now abuzz with villagers fanning out and searching for Eno. Many headed along the riverbank in both directions.
Would they have shown this much concern for me? No, they thought of me as a monster. My parents were the only reason I hadn’t already been cast out. I clenched my fists.
Looking down at the winding path, I noticed a fresh set of tracks in the sand alongside mine, belonging to someone much smaller. Eno. The tracks led to an offshoot of the canyon, the dry chasm. Of course, the one place my parents told me to never go.
I should probably tell someone. I opened my mouth, about to call out to the people below. Wait, I should be the one to bring him back. If I found him first, maybe everyone would finally treat me better? Maybe my grandfather would stop hating me?
I turned my back to the settlement and followed the footprints. The ledge grew narrower, and forked into numerous, crumbly paths. The footprints were now lost along the rocky ground. He couldn’t have climbed out of the canyon yet, surely?
I chose the higher path, keeping as close to the cliff as I could. It wasn’t long before I heard the faintest of whimpers coming from below.
“Eno?” I called out. I got down on my knees and slid closer to the edge to peer over the side, down into the deep chasm. “Where are you?”
“Sassy!” I heard him call up.
There he was, sitting with his back to the rocks on a lower layer that jutted out from the cliff. There was nowhere for him to go, other than down. Tears had swelled around his blue eyes. His clothes and even his normally blond hair were covered in dirt, no doubt from falling and attempting to climb back up.
“Sassa, I want mummy,” he pleaded. “I want mummy!”
“Don’t move!” I shouted, my voice echoing throughout the chasm. I was determined to be the one to rescue him. I’d prove how grown up I was, how trustworthy. “I’m coming to get you, okay?”
I stood up, backed away from the ledge, closed my eyes and began to twirl my fingers. Picturing both Eno’s ledge and my own position in my mind, I strained until all of my muscles went stiff.
My grandfather and I had been training all day making portals, but something was off. I had made three today, the most I’d ever made. I felt really drained. I kept straining, but nothing seemed to come from my effort. It was no use.
“Hold on!” I got back down on my knees and positioned myself on the ledge directly over him as he began to bawl. “Mummy’s on her way, okay? She’s coming.”
Eno wasn’t that far down, I could reach him. I reached out my hand. “Eno, grab me. Big sis can pull you up.”
He refused to budge, instead continuing to moan, which echoed off the canyon walls.
“Come on, reach Sassy’s hand,” I said, but it didn’t motivate him.
A harsh, screeching noise sounded from farther down the chasm. Eno stopped bawling and we both went silent. We knew what it was, a Necrolisk.
“Eno ... take my hand,” I said, much quieter than before. “Stand up and reach.”
A new kind of fear had taken my brother, one I had never seen before. He stood up, eyes wide and tear-filled, and mouth agape but silent.
Scuttling insectoid legs hammered below. The intense echoing made it impossible to know how many of them there were. But then I saw one. The behemoth rose from the depths of the chasm, scaling the wall with ease as if it were flat ground.
“Eno?” I called out, my eyes fixed upon the creature. I felt a brush against my fingertips and looked down to see Eno reaching out. I latched onto his sweaty, dirt-encrusted hand and yanked him up. I grabbed him with both arms and ran towards the village.
The Necrolisk reached the ledge to our side and launched itself onto the path, blocking our only way back. Its carapace was covered in spikes and glistening crimson scales. Its sharp head, more teeth than anything else, sickeningly snapped about, before locating us. The six legs danced up and down as the creature turned to face us. It raised its gigantic claws high into the air.
I felt as if my heart had stopped. I had never seen a live Necrolisk up close before, and its menacing size, far larger than any man from our village, caused me to freeze.
It opened its jaws and roared again, almost deafening me. My legs refused to move. More scuttling could be heard by the chasm to our side. The creature lowered its head and slowly closed in, as if relishing the kill.
My shaking legs gave way, and I fell with Eno back into the sand. Eno squealed and plunged his face into my robes. I kicked at the sand to push us back, but the monster was already looming over us. One of its pincers opened and hovered around my head, preparing to snap shut. The inside was filled with razor-sharp barbs.
There was an explosion and a shower of green blood engulfed us. I fell onto my back and Eno flew out of my grasp to the side. After clearing the blood from my eyes, I shot back up again. The Necrolisk’s body was headless, unmoving, slumped against the cliff wall.
On the other side of the chasm, on the highest ledge of the cliffs, our parents stood with their rifles aimed at the fallen monster.
“Sacet, take Eno and get back to the village!” Mum shouted before the canyon repeated her commands over and over.
The scuttling grew louder, and Eno and I saw at least ten more Necrolisks ascending the other side of the chasm, right towards mum and dad. They noticed them, too, and backed away from the ledge.
“Go!” Dad called out, gesturing back to safety.
They both climbed up and out of the canyon, then ran into the desert wastes and out of sight. Their pursuers reached the canyon’s precipice and followed.
Eno was sitting to my side, shaking and not taking his eye off the monster’s corpse in front of us. He flicked his hands towards the creature, as if he were trying to push it away.
“No! Get away,” he screamed, sobbing as he did so. “Stop it! Get away!”
As if listening to him, the carcass slowly dangled over the ledge, then slid off, before tumbling back down into the chasm’s depths.
I still couldn’t move. I looked down at my robes, mottled in the monster’s green blood.
A horde of other villagers, many holding weapons, clambered up the rocks towards us. I recognised the white beard of our grandfather leading them. A shrill scream in the distance broke my stupor.
“Mumma?” Eno cried out, rising out my grasp and scanning the other side of the canyon. “Mummy! Mum!”
The villagers stopped in their tracks and looked to the other side of the chasm. The gunfire had stopped. Aside from Eno’s cries, the canyon went silent.
“Azua!” our grandfather called out, his words echoing along the rocks. “Azua, are you okay?” He waited for a moment, before directing the others. “Go!”
The villagers hurriedly changed direction, heading down the canyon path to find a way up the other side.
Our grandfather turned back to us and continued the climb. When he reached us he leant down and picked up a now bawling Eno. With Eno tucked in his arms, he looked down at me for a moment, before turning back to the path and leaving me to sit alone.
Later that night
Eno was lying on his pelt-covered bed, not moving, and not as excitable as his usual self. I crashed onto my own bed and bashed my pillow.
“Thank-you for your father’s offer, but we’re not going with you,” my grandfather said from the tent’s entrance. “Tell him we wish the rest of you luck, but we have our own plan.”
Arleigh stood at the parted doorway, confused. “Well, can I at least say goodbye to Eno ... to Sacet?”
My grandfather shook his head. “We’ll say our goodbyes when we part ways in the morning.”
Arleigh hesitated, but nodded, and gave a half wave to Eno and I. My grandfather closed the cloth door, looked down at the ground, and turned back to us. He took a seat on Eno’s trunk and tried to force a smile.
I was sitting on the end of my own bed, staring at my grandfather pleadingly. “Why do we have to leave?”
He looked down again. “The village is packing up. We can’t stay this close to Necrolisks. We didn’t know they were hunting nearby.”
“But why can’t we stay with the others?” I shot back. “It’s safer to stick together.”
“I want mummy and daddy to come, too,” Eno cried out, shooting up from his bed and punching his sheets.
Our grandfather closed his eyes and then tried his best to compose himself before looking back at Eno. “Your mum and dad have gone far away.”
“Don’t lie to him,” I said. “You lie too much.”
He stood up from the trunk. “Sacet, you can’t talk to me that way. I’m your grandfather.”
“No you’re not!” I yelled back, before throwing myself face-first into my pillow behind me. Tears formed in my eyes and dampened the fabric upon my cheek.
He went quiet. “So you do remember. You know where you came from? What you are?”
“I’ve always known,” I muffled through my pillow.
I could hear Eno get out of his bed and amble over to me. He prodded me in the side. “Hey, Sassy? Where’s mummy?”
I sat up, tears now flowing freely, and brought Eno onto my bed to hug him. “They’re dead, Eno. They’re dead and they’re never coming back.” I bawled and held Eno tight.
The toddler wore a far more baffled look than before. “Ne – ver?”
I frowned then looked back at our grandfather. “I heard what you said today. How could you ... I would never hurt Eno! I love him.”
“You heard us?” He raised an eyebrow and smirked. “That was just ... I was just trying to scare them.”
“No more lies!” I shouted back.
“Yeah,” Eno agreed, although not sure to what. “Bring mummy back!”
Our grandfather leant over and picked up Eno, then sat back down on the trunk with my brother on his knee. He gave a warm smile, as if defeated. “You’re right, Sacet. You’ve heard what I said, so you know what I want us to do. No more lies.”
He locked his gaze with mine. “All except for one: you are Eno’s big sister. He is your brother. We are family. And never forget it.”