“I will never understand why you want to keep her here. She’s not your real daughter,” my grandfather said from behind the tent wall. “What if one day she snaps and hurts your son?”
I tread through the hot sand, careful not to kick it or make any noise; then placed my hands on the animal-skin wall and leaned closer so I could overhear them talking about me.
Inside the tent, my father, Azua, gave a gruff sigh. “I’m sick of having this conversation, dad.”
“Sacet is staying with us, and it’s not your decision to make,” my mother, Enni, said in a hushed tone.Would I get into trouble if they knew I was listening in on them? No, they were talking about me, so I had a right to know.
“I’m not asking you to kill her,” my grandfather continued, regaining my attention. “That was before I found out what her powers could do. She could be of use to us Nomads, she could help us fight the Male and Female Dominions ...”
“She’s 10 cycles old!” my mother blurted out, before adjusting back to a whisper. “She’s too young to be a part of this war, your war.”
There was an extended silence; did they know I was here? I was careful not to move a muscle, even holding my breath.
“She’s already been a part of this war, on the wrong side of it,” my grandfather said.
“What could she possibly do, against all of them?” my father asked. “How could she help our people?”
“Her power is great,” my grandfather replied. “Today she was able to make a portal to the river’s estuary. It was by her memories alone, she couldn’t physically see the destination. We spent the day training on the beach to celebrate.
“Maybe ... maybe there is no limit to the distance of these portals. Let me take her to the other settlements and teach her to make a link between all of our people. On the way I can train her how to fight.”
“She isn’t a child soldier anymore,” my mother said. “No matter what she was like before, she stays with her family. She’s our daughter now.”
That’s right, Mum, you tell him. My past didn’t matter to me, this was my home now. I loved my parents and they loved me.
There were footsteps thudding on the rocky pathway leading up to our tent. I ducked down behind the side of the tent wall as the villager rounded the corner, pulled aside the cloth doorway and joined my family inside.
“Arleigh?” my father said. “What’s the matter?”
I could hear the girl panting from here, 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 to say between gasps. “I was playing with him ... and ...”
“Dad, get everyone out of their tents,” my father said, cutting Arleigh short. “He could have wandered too close to the water, I’m going to the river.”
“Well where did you leave him?” my mother demanded. “How could you take your eyes off him?”
While perched upon the cliff’s edge, an almost sheer drop below me, I cast my gaze over the settlement, which was now abuzz with villagers exiting their tents and searching for Eno, led by my parents and grandfather.
I knew my toddler brother better than most. He always bugged me to climb the cliffs with him so he could see what was on the other side. After the dangerous climb itself, there was nothing to be seen but an unending, desolate, sand-covered wasteland. Not old enough to truly understand death, it didn’t matter how we explained this to Eno, he just wanted to explore everywhere.
A long, winding path led to the cliff where I stood, and there were two sets of fresh tracks in the sand along it, including my own. The other footprints belonged to someone much smaller.
I should probably tell someone. No, I was sick of how the village treated me. If I found him first, maybe they would finally trust me instead of thinking me a monster? While the rest of the village searched along the waterside, I would search from above.
I turned away from the settlement, instead eyeing the dry canyon that connected to our ravine. Eno couldn’t have climbed out of the canyon yet, he would have followed one of the forking paths, which created another drop in the middle.
As I descended down the left path, I heard the faintest of whimpers coming from below.
“Eno?” I called out, getting down onto my knees and sliding closer to the edge to peer over the side, down into the deep chasm. “Where are you?”
“Sassy!” I heard him call out from below.
There he was, sitting with his back to the rocks on a lower tier that jutted out from the cliff face. 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!”
No, I was going to be the one who rescued him. I’ll prove to everyone how grown up I am, and how trustworthy. I could make a portal to him. “Alright, just don’t move, okay? I’m coming to get you.”
I stood up, backed away from the ledge, closed my eyes and began to twirl my fingers. Picturing 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. I had already made three, the most I’ve ever made in one day, and I felt really drained. I kept straining, but nothing seemed to come from my effort. It was no use.
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, maybe I could reach him? I stretched my hand down. “Eno, can you grab my hand? 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.
There was a loud roar coming from farther down the chasm – it echoed and rung in my ears. Eno stopped bawling, we both went silent. 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. Maybe he did understand death? As good a time as any, for death was fast approaching us. He stood up, eyes wide and tear-filled, and mouth agape but silent.
The scuttling of insectoid legs came up from below, the echoing so intense it was impossible to know how many of the creatures there really were down there. 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. As soon as we were both up, I grabbed him with both arms and ran towards the village.
The Necrolisk reached the cliff’s edge to our side and launched itself up onto the path, blocking our way back. Its gigantic claws were raised high into the air. Its carapace was covered in spikes and glistening scales. Its sharp head, more teeth than anything else, was pointed towards us. I felt as if my heart had stopped. I had never seen a 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. I still couldn’t move.
There was an explosion and a shower of green blood engulfed me. 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 attacker.
“Sacet, take Eno and get back to the village!” my mother screamed.
The scuttling I heard earlier was on the other side of the chasm … at least 10 more Necrolisks were ascending the chasm wall towards mum and dad. My parents noticed them, too, and backed away from the ledge.
“Go!” Dad said, edging farther and farther back with mum until they were both out of sight.
The Necrolisks reached the precipice and followed my parents out into the desert above.
Eno was 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. “No, stop it! Get away!”
I still couldn’t move. I looked down at my robes, drenched in the monster’s dark-green blood.
At the canyon’s entrance where we first entered, a horde of other villagers clambered down the rocks towards us. Our grandfather was leading them; I recognised his white beard first. They all stopped in their tracks and looked to the other side of the chasm when they heard my mother scream in the distance, followed by the roars of the Necrolisks.
I could only stare at the dead creature in horror, frozen in place.
Later that night
“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.”
Arleigh stood at the parted doorway, confused. “Well, can I at least say goodbye to the kids?”
“Now’s not a good time,” my grandfather replied. “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 toy trunk and tried to force a smile.
Eno was lying on his pelt-covered bed, not moving, and not as excitable as his usual self.
I was sitting on the end of my own bed, staring at my grandfather pleadingly. “Why do we have to leave?”
He looked down at the ground between us. “The village is packing up. We can’t stay this close to Necrolisks. We didn’t know they were hunting nearby, or maybe they were here all along.”
“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 shook his head, 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.
“Where’s this coming from?”
“I heard what you said to them,” I muffled through my pillow.
He went silent.
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, before looking back at our grandfather. “No more lies.”
“Fine,” he said, sitting back on the trunk. “I want to take you around the world to as many Nomadic settlements as we can find. Eno is my grandson. He isn’t staying with these people, he’ll stay with us.”
“And then what? What do we do after we find these settlements?”
He stroked his beard. “I’m going to train you to become a warrior, and when you’re ready, you’ll let yourself be captured by the Dominion. Once inside their cities, you’ll open portals to all of the settlements so our soldiers can come through and we’ll tear the enemy down from the inside.”