The summer of the final year was one of foliage and blooms, fiery fronds reaching up to the golden sun in playful arcs. It was almost as if the vibrant collage was preemptively celebrating those final weeks, a prelude to our own grand holiday. A prelude to the awakening.
It was on one of those blissful late July days when the magnanimity of the moment hit me. I was walking down old First Street with Artess, the shadows of the old spires and scaffolding painting grids of gray atop the overgrown green path and golden hydrangea. It was a short scavenging mission, nothing requiring armaments or mounts. Just a contemplative stroll into the ruins, heaving the wheeled cart over roots and spongy earth.
“Four girders and a liner,” she said, coming up behind me. “Plastic, white.”
Artess was a year younger than me, but strangers often mistook her for the elder. Her frame had bloomed, molding the thin tunics she often wore in gentle curves.
“It’ll be a chore to find anything clean. We could bleach it?”
She shrugged, pulling past me with a gentle tug of my sleeve. “What about the boxroom, the one under those willows?”
“Hasn’t it collapsed? And besides, Rigger said to avoid the river.”
“Nonsense. Mykal, you weren’t always so cowardly.”
I smiled and bumped her leg with the corner of the barrow. “I’d only rather see the awakening than serve as dinner for a family of wolves.”
She gave me a look. “Watch where you drive that thing. I’ll take back the craven remark if you accede to the title of clumsy.”
“Fine, the boxroom it is. The one with the strange glyphs? A fruit?”
We languidly followed the path, trudging up small rounded hills sprouted with shrubs and yearling birches. First Street had long ago lost any hint of being straight and flat. It had become one with the lay of the land, riding up arcs of clumped earth, winding around jagged metal ruins. It survived in name alone.
At a large crest I took pause, nearly stumbling over a chunk of crumbling gray rock, still imbedded with a steel skeleton. Concrete, the elders called it. It seemed utterly strange that once the entire surrounds had been coated with the stuff, a brutish gritty armor for the earth, choking out flowers and trees.
“It’s this way,” Artess chirped, bouncing off the upthrust obstacle and skipping giddily down the path.
“If you’ve so much energy, perhaps you should push the barrow!” I called after her. She ignored me.
She truly was a sprite at play, a free spirit. When I think back on that summer, her joyous glee was probably the most fitting metaphor. We were all exited and happy, anxious but prepared. The festivities whispered for generations were coming to fruition, a golden day for everyone.
My father was leading the bakers on a wild journey of one-upmanship and creativity. Entering his shop in the morning was enough to flood my mouth with salivation, the aroma of rolls and buns and pastries riding warm currents from the oven. There were cakes in marvelous shapes: golden suns, iconic ruins overlooking humble town dwellings, even the tubular Sarcophagi.
And my mother, rising above her humble seamstress roots, had become the town clothier. There would be flowing robes for the elders, lined gold and silver, adorned with the glyphs of the Sun and the Sleepers. For the mayor, a majestic formal tunic of finest flaxen cloth, interwoven with assorted coinage of the ruins. How it would sparkle in the noonday sun! The younglings, Artess and I included, would be clad in green longshirts and golden flax hats, identified by the glyphs of our service. The Sleepers would immediately know our duties and be proud.
Artess’s route wound down and away from the First Street path, through a canyon of tall grasses and gnarled trunks. The sun fractured and then disappeared behind a massive crumbling facade, a sad gray giant leaning out and over the river. Here, the earth became sandy and worn, dwindling to tiny beaches and alcoves along the bank. The water moved slowly past, gurgling through the stretches of willow roots and water fronds.
A narrow path ran parallel to the current, and it was here that I found her, solidly planted on a gnarled root brown-green and blanketed in moss.
“You left me back there,” I smirked, feigning mild exhaustion. “I could have been devoured by a voracious beast. Or fallen down some maintenance shaft of old city!”
I followed her gaze to the water, whirling opaque about a scattering of lush plantlife. And then, no more than a shaft of lumpy driftwood, I caught the object of her attention. A dead squirrel, floating bloated belly up.
I tasted a clever quip, judged it inappropriate, and swallowed the very thought. She was obviously no longer in the mood. She looked up at me and I saw her eyes were a bit puffy and red.
“You okay?” I asked, reaching out my hand. She cocked her head, blinking, suddenly self-conscious. Wiping her eyes with her sleeve, she stood up quickly and turned away.
I took it as note to drop the subject for the time being. “Right,” I muttered. “So about that liner. The boxroom is right up here, is it not?”
She half turned and nodded, her mouth pursed. We walked in silence along the river path, single file, leaving behind two sets of prints and long wheel grooves in the sand. Then, ducking under and through the vast canopy of an old willow, we saw it.
The boxroom was merely the first floor of a once majestic tower of metal and glass and polished stone. Rising out of the sandy path were rectangular polished stones, some still gleaming with patterns and glyphs. Old reinforced concrete slabs stretched out over the water, supported by a ramshackle mass of driftwood and rubble. Numerous creatures, some venomous, fashioned their dwellings between the jagged rocks, so we trod lightly. Pillars and crumbling black walls soon obstructed any hope of advancement, and the cart was left behind.
Artess took the lead, climbing a dangerous broken steel strut, then launching over a foul pool of brackish rainwater and organic garbage. She landed gracefully, catlike, not even pausing her stride.
I thudded behind her, warily avoiding the swampy water. “You certainly can pick the convenient spots,” I remarked, sarcastically cheerful.
She returned a cold glare. “The easy ones are picked dry. And besides, a white plastic liner? Where else are you going to find that, caryard? Foundryside?”
I sighed and followed. The boxroom was nestled in the back of the decaying tower, guarded by fallen pillars of cracked marble and crooked steel. The dividing walls of the structure had decayed to dust, replaced by sheets of brown-black mold and a few brave shrubs lucky enough to catch shards of sunlight. The stench of the oldcity was palpable here, strong, almost burdensome. It was always the same – a hint of decay, reminiscent of the forest floor. But there was something more. Something foul, beyond the natural scents of life and death.
It was the decay of man’s creation, the materials of the old tower, in all probability once majestic beyond measure. But now falling to ruin, never to rise again. Out of the rotting logs on the forest floor sprout the saplings of a new generation. Out of the rusting girders of oldcity, moldering amongst the encroaching forest, nothing would rise. It would sit, untouched for years, decades even, skeletons of a lost time.
But no. We would use those materials, those girders and pipes and gaskets and liners. We would use those scraps of metal and plastic, much as the sapling burrows deep into the soft rotting carcass of its father. There was some small comfort in that, some symmetry.
It was dark in the boxroom. Sunlight would penetrate the mazelike rafters and beams for only a window of the afternoon. A single dim diamond of light painted the room, revealing the caked dust and mold in dull monotones. Heaped along the floor were our prizes – cubes hunched in deep shadow.
Artess bent and tugged at one, touching the outer coating. It was a slimy mold-infested covering, shredding and choking spores at the slightest touch. She tore it off in long strips, flinging it into the shadows. I could see the white beneath, gleaming even now.
It was a strange object, one I had seen once before. An old hermit had lugged it into the square one day to barter for food and drink. It had been surprisingly light for its bulk, compared to a stone or log. A hollow shell, like an egg, but filled with hard bits and jagged ends, unlike any living creature. The hermit had cracked it open with a wooden hammer, the white shell splitting along fine grooves, revealing the innards. Red cords and green sheets of ornate metalwork. The elders were pleased, and the old man had left town heavy laden with ale casks.
“We can split it with a rock, remove the liner.”
Artess folded her arms, letting me get my hands dirty. Down in the muck I found a sharp corner of brick. With a few heavy blows I managed to remove a thin strip of the white plastic. Artess took it from me and slid it under her tunic.
“The girders,” she said. “Easy enough to find, there should be plenty at the joints and corners.”
“Did you bring the wedgespinner? I’d rather not use my fingernails.”
From the same pocket she produced the tool, a thin metal spike, spattered with rust and corrosion. Peering about in the gloom, she gestured to a nest of bent rafters above us. Sure enough, most were secured by squarish brackets along with our quarry – the girders.
I eyed the corner, feeling out a few handholds in the dark. We’d need to work fast – the splinter of sunlight was growing thin, soon to disappear completely. I wrapped an arm around one of the thick steel beams and managed to pull myself up. The angle, unfortunately, was awkward. Reaching the bracket bolts would be difficult.
Artess saw my struggle and tugged on my leggings. “Lift me up,” she said. “I’ll do it.”
There was no use arguing with her. When I was back down, I planted my feet hard into the rubble and cradled my palms to hoist her. With her feet on my shoulders and her own arm embracing the hard steel, she could begin to loosen the brackets.
The wedgespinner groaned in the socket, grinding away a shower of rust and grime. The first bracket fell to the ground, bouncing off a marble shard with a resounding clang. I hugged her feet warily.
“First girder coming down,” she chirped, pushing away from the corner. I staggered back to maintain her balance, then watched the large metal beam creak and fall, disturbing a cloud of mold spores. Artess sneezed, shuddering and crouching to hold on.
“Three more,” I whispered. “Be careful.”
Two more beams had fallen to the ground when the light all but vanished. We were left with only the ambient dimness feeding in from the other rooms. But Artess was confident, feeling her hands up amongst the rafters, locating the loose bolts. She pried the brackets off, tossing them nonchalantly to the ground. But unlike the others, the heavy rafter did not begin to creak and shift. It was firmly stuck, wedged against the walls. It was difficult to identify the guilty obstacle in the bad light.
“What is it?” I grunted, craning my neck upward, clasping white-knuckles on her ankles.
“It’s just wedged up there, Myk,” she murmured, running her hands along the rusty surface. She began to yank and pull, her feet precariously balanced atop my shoulders. “Just hold on to me,” she intoned.
I was not about to let her go. I wanted to finish the job as much as her. I still would have to lug the heavy metal beams back to the barrow and crunch back to town, enviously watching Artess flit about. I frowned as she continued to heave, pulling on it with all her weight.
The beam finally shuddered, scraping a long wound against the granite foundation. Then it came down, bringing half the ceiling with it.
At that rumbling moment I knew we were in danger and instinctively jumped back, boosted by a white surge of hot adrenaline. But gravity was faster still, pulling a small beam down and over, sweeping Artess out of my grip and off my shoulders. I was knocked flat on my back, blinding by the rising dust.
Echoes of rumbling continued, a deep groan traveling through the entire tower. We’d unseated a vital bone in the skeleton. Still without sight, I sucked in fetid air and called out, “Artess! Are you hurt?”
In a moment I heard her reply, a faint whimper. “I’m here, Mykal. I’m here.”
I crawled over, rubbing my eyes clean. She was lying on her side and thankfully whole, covered in dust.
“You aren’t hurt? Can you get up?”
She scrunched up her face in frustration and daintily coughed. “I’m sorry Myk. I think I’m stuck.”
I followed her prone form till it disappeared under the rubble. Her right ankle was firmly locked beneath a jumble of metal and stone.
“I’ll get you out Art. I promise.”
I could see her starting to shiver in the darkness, curling her face into her tiny hands. Small sobs began to pierce the quiet.
“Artess,” I whispered. “It’s going to be alright. I told you, we’re going to get out of here.”
“Mykal, it’s going to end. All of it.”
“What is Art? What’s going to end?”
She didn’t say anything for a moment, but then her voice rose desperately. “All of this – the scavenging, the duties, the town ranks, our lives.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s the last days, Mykal, don’t you know? The last days of the sleepers. Soon they’ll wake up.”
I tugged at a large beam that was weighing on her leg. With a groan and squeal of grinding metal, it slid away. “But don’t you remember the stories, Artess? The sleepers will awaken and bring forth a new age. It will be like a fresh sunrise, a new dawn. They’ll fill everything with light…”
“…A light of the world to come…” she finished lethargically, without passion.
I frowned and crouched down to stare at her. It was getting terribly dark, and the only discernable features were the curve of her mouth, the deep shadows before her eyes, the distant twinkling inside. The wind had picked up outside the crumbling tower, a wailing beast shredding the willows. Soon, the night would be upon us.
I reached my hand out to touch her hair, brush it away from her eyes. Her forehead was hot and damp. “Why did you cry when you saw that squirrel? In the water?”
She hesitated a moment, trying to find my own face in the gray dark. “I thought about the squirrel, and its life. It’s tiny, charming existence, gathering nuts and twigs, building and repairing a nest, burying food for the winter. Scavenging. And I saw myself, scurrying around the wide world for nick-knacks and discarded things. Just a little squirrel.”
I didn’t say anything, just nodded for a long moment, biting my lip. Vaguely, like a dream, I could see myself face down in the river, dead and bloated, my chores and errands forgotten. But I brushed that aside and grabbed Artess under the arms.
“Come on, we need to get out of here. It’s getting late.”
Planting my feet, I pulled up and out. Her light form yielded easily, rising out of the muck and dust, but her foot was still tightly secured.
“Ouch. I’m stuck, silly.”
“Can you twist your foot? Try to slip it through?”
She grimaced and bit her lower lip, straining. We formed an odd silhouette there in the dark, both absurdly angled, awkwardly embraced, yearning for escape. But our feet were devoured by metal manacles, tethering us to something dark and painful and frightening.
It was then the wolves began to howl.
I saw the white of her eyes then, rolled back in fear. She shuddered and clung to me tighter than before.
“It’s ok, Art,” I whispered. “Don’t be afraid.”
The wind and the cries of the fell beasts sang out again, as if in mockery of my soothing words. It would not long before the scent of our fear carried over the breeze and brought the pack to the boxroom. The dead squirrel was beginning to appear prophetic.
The irons and girders piled on Artess’s foot needed to be removed. Inhaling deeply, I reached back to feel out the primary blockade – a sharp rafter biting into the heel of her boot. Withdrawing momentarily, my finger caught on a small loop of leather cord. It gave easily when I pulled my hand away.
Of course, the ties of her boot! Quickened by adrenaline, I felt out the knot and yanked it apart.
“Come on Art, try now. Pull your foot out.”
“But my shoe, it’s coming off…”
“I’ll get you a new shoe, I promise.” Bending down, she put her arms around my neck. I rose, her blessed foot finally free of the fallen metal, now bare of a boot. Her grasp tightened fearfully at a nearby howl. We’d have to leave the barrow behind in our haste.
We escaped out from under the crushing maw of the boxroom, into a savage evening. The moon broke free above the collapsing behemoth, casting the wind whipped river in silver halftones. Like a dream, I staggered onto the path paralleling the water, the ravenous calls of carnivores driving me on.
The summer wind transformed the willows into sagging elders, tickling the currents with long gray-green feathers. The liquid surface itself splintered to myriad diamonds, cold and fleeting beneath the gaze of a great white moon. Dazed, I stumbled over a hulking lump of moss and root, glancing to the water. The squirrel was gone, propelled downstream or sucked under.
The shivering torches of town never looked so comforting.
With the dawn came a respite from nightmares.
Rigger had given us stern glances when we returned, peering down from the watchtower in the gloomy torchlight. He was suspicious, dark eyebrows creating wells of shadow in his eye sockets. Artess had quickly scurried into her dormery, downcast eyes still puffy with fear-stoked tears. But Rigger had watched me. He had known.
And so came the dark of the night, the howling of the wind interspersed with the cries of the wilderness beasts, an amalgam of horrific sound rushing through the limbs of the shadowed trees. Even piled under a heap of itchy wool blankets I shivered through the night, painstakingly waiting as time dripped till dawn.
The rising light and warmth signaled the necessity of the day. There was much work to be done. The awakening was close.
The grounds about the sarcophagus chamber were to be swept and trimmed, fresh paint on the girding walls and beams. The shrubs and flowers lining the mainway required weeding, watering and grooming. The colored banners of the feast hall shivered in a pile, perhaps yearning for a bold vantage above the festivities. And the cocoons themselves, the oblong containers of the two sleepers, humming away – it was time for the final maintenance.
I crossed the yard with a quick step, careful of Rigger’s watchful glances. It was early still, hours yet before the churning of the chambers. I’d be able to realign the bolster case before…
I slowly turned, pulling a forced smile over my teeth. It was Jem.
“The girders – you got them?”
“I did, yes.”
“Well?” He was a short, stocky man, built like a smith, with rippling brown forearms and a shiny bald dome.
“We had to leave them behind.”
“We?” he barked, barely even inquiring.
“Artess and I. It was getting late and she twisted he foot. I had to help her along.”
“Aye,” Jem said, blowing air through flared nostrils. It gave him the look of a wild bull preparing to charge. “Mykal, the gentleman, helping his lady along. Very touching. Now go fetch those girders!”
“Yes, Jem.” I nodded, catching his fiery eyes for a moment, then turning away. It would be a brisk morning walk back to the ruins. I pulled on an outercoat and turned for the gate.
Rigger caught me there.
He was a tall man, not overly stocky, but reputedly incredibly strong. His clothing was nondescript – functional for a woodsman. His face was chiseled from stone, the strong lines of his jaw jutting out into a small black beard. But his eyes were scathing, black as pitch and unwavering. His gaze was enough to induce fits of frailty.
“Young Mykal,” he said, arms folded at the gate. “I saw you return last night without your barrow. Were you at the river ruins?”
I breathed slow, licking my lips. “Yes.” I turned away from his eyes.
If Rigger noticed he made no sign. “The river ruins are a dangerous place, young Mykal. Beasts of the wilderness frequently prey there. And do not forget the curse that befell those before us, that drove their mighty castles and towers to such ruins.”
I nodded, eyes still averted.
“Tell me young Mykal, what do you think of the curse?”
“The curse of the ruins?” I meekly asked.
The man said nothing but urged me on with a flick of dark pupils.
I swallowed. “I thought it was silly, a foolish superstition. But we had a close call last night, Artess and I. Nearly crushed by roof beams, and almost bait for the wolves. I thought it was just bad luck. A curse… maybe?”
Rigger grimaced, probably the closest expression his grim countenance could approach a smile.
“I am not merely speaking of ill luck, young Mykal. The curse is more than that. An evil substance manifest in the material of the old world. There was a great doom that befell those people, a magic in the air – the dust of sorcerers and witches. It coated everything, seeped into their very bodies, twisted and mutated them to shambling monsters and twitching corpses. It was their tragic fall, and they were erased from the land of the living. But remember,” Rigger said, unfolding his arms and stepping aside, “the curse still lingers. It is now a part of all things.”
I returned to the camp pushing the barrow before me, the loose metal girders clanging as dull bells with every upturned stone and tree root. The day would be hot.
Even this early, the sun had sucked dry the morning clouds, leaving behind distant husks and a desert of clear blue. The living hum of the wilderness had risen to a devilish pitch, screaming of cicadas and songbirds – but was soon drowned out by the hustle of town activity.
Everyone was working, gleeful and brimming with good cheer, tanned faces marked with smiles and upturned chins. All were dressed in uniforms of station, bright bold emblems, chiseled glyph pins, the finest fabrics. I saw my father backing out his shop door, embroidered apron sprinkled with flour, arms loaded with a steaming pan of sweet cakes and fluffy bread. The clanging of hammers rang out from the smithy. Cries of exultation went up from the feast hall – the banners had been lifted. It was the final day. This evening, an hour before sundown, the sleepers would awaken.
Jem would be anxious for the girders. I could picture him as I trudged across the square – his face roasting red with irritation, wide nostrils flared. He greeted me with a brutal slap on the back as I entered, forcing me to stumble and drop the barrow.
“Glad ta see ya back, lad. Haul those over,” he growled, pointing at a worktable near the forge. Rivulets of sweat ran down the back of his bald head, excavating rivers in the caked soot. “Makin a runnin track for the sleeper’s cover, lad. See?”
Jem was fashioning a grand addition to the sleeper’s tomb – a track for the sarcophagus lids to slide smoothly off. Iron pins heated in the flames of the forge would fasten the makeshift contraption together, and salvaged wheels would run along the girder grooves. No one had opened the tombs in hundreds of years, and none knew how heavy the covers would be. In Jem’s estimation, the addition of some rudimentary ironworks was better than requiring a dozen men to awkwardly pry loose the centerpiece of the evening.
“I need some measurements,” he growled, not looking up from his work at the anvil. He spoke between forceful bashes of his hammer.
“Width of the lid grooves.” Bang. “Height of the tomb corner.” Bang. “Angle of the slope.” Bang. Bang.
I nodded and scurried off, feeling soggy with drenched sweat. A smooth breeze wafting over town walls was a welcome relief, sucking away the forge heat.
And so to the tomb of the sleepers. It was the only remnant of oldcity left in town, a half dome of odd metal, etched with glyphs of those who were doomed before us. The original structure was not large, barely peeking over the top of the staked town walls, but it gleamed like a beacon under the gaze of the sun. The grooved metal had once held contraptions and machines far more advanced then any I had seen, but long since decayed into dust. Now, the tomb had been gutted and salvaged save the twin sarcophagi.
As I approached, I paused for a moment in the shade of an oak limb. All about me the town worked itself to froth, heated and relentlessly hurrying. But here – the nexus – it was quiet. The cool breeze almost seemed to emanate from those cold coffins, their crisp shells hazed over with frost. But then movement. Someone was inside the tomb.
I ducked under the archway, my eyes adjusting to the shade, escaping the sun’s brilliance. There was a figure hunched at the foot of the smooth coffin, fidgeting with the mechanical light box. Slim, delicate shoulders, fine auburn hair twisted into a makeshift bun, secured with a frond of river grass.
It was Artess.
I shuffled up behind her, consciously timid. She peered behind her slowly, hands frozen in the act.
“Mykal,” she whispered.
I made an imperceptible nod and hunched before her, gracing her elbow. “How are things?”
“Fine,” she returned, almost coldly.
“We didn’t talk last night. After we got back.”
“Yes,” she looked distant. “I know.”
I frowned, glimpsing at the lightbox pulsing off wedges and points of light, archaic glyphs relating the status of the sleeper’s inside. “Rigger talked to me.”
She looked up, licking her lips, fidgeting.
“He talked about a curse,” I continued. “He said the river ruins were dangerous and they were cursed. Some spell that was the doom of the old ones. Dust in the oldcity. He said its now part of everything.”
“Us?” Artess blurted, raising an eyebrow. “You? Me? I may be sad, but I don’t feel cursed.”
“Me either,” I added. “But if the curse has been a part of everything, maybe that’s why we don’t need to worry. It’s a part of our bodies, we were born with it, will live with it…”
“Then what’s the danger of river ruins! It’s all the same curse, isn’t it?”
I grew silent for a second. “I don’t know.”
She looked at me, probably knowing what I was thinking. She had an uncanny ability to do that. “Remember the squirrel,” I said.
“The squirrel…” she repeated, as if in trance. “Cursed. I could see that. There was something certainly wrong with it. Something unnatural. Did you see Mykal?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. But Jem is waiting for me. I have to get these measurements.”
I started to stand, but her thin arm shot out, grasping my shoulder and holding me there.
“This is the last day,” she said. “Everything will change. No more rituals, Mykal. What will we do?”
“I suppose we’ll make the sleepers our new King and Queen. They are man and woman?”
She shrugged, then broke off into a girlish smirk. “What do you think they’ll look like?”
“Like us. Probably.”
“What if they’re ugly! Or what if they look like that wanderer from the south, the one who rode that beast?”
I stood, holding her outstretched palm in my own. “We’ll soon find out. Some things may change. But I have a feeling things will stay mostly the same.”
“Thanks Mykal.” She was smiling again, the giddy charm that made her so intoxicating. “What about us?”
“Us? Friends right? No matter how many strange people pop out of these things.” I gave the sarcophagus a kick.
She giggled while I made my measurements, chiding me as Jem’s lapdog, promising to construct an identification collar and presenting it to the smith as a gift. I pronounced her lazy and walked back into the sun, smiling on the walk across the yard to the forge.
When the heat of the day began to fade, and the feast sat steaming under the orange tents, a lull settled over the town. The duties of the day were complete. The tables were set, roasted pheasants stuffed with herbs and onions, glazed with a tangy pepper sauce; sweet loaves piled high, baked to a golden brown; platters of vegetables and potatoes, honey harvested from the bee trees, filleted fish from the river. Flowers were tucked into every corner of the feast hall, reds and pinks and purples fresh and alive atop a lush bed of frond and ferns.
But the people had gathered at the tomb of the sleepers, fanning out from the twin sarcophagi. Waiting. They were lined in neat organized rows, arranged by ranks and duties. The bakers and butchers, sewers and smiths, all adorned in gilded fineries. I could see Artess with the rest of the youth scavengers, he hair pulled tightly behind, chin high, chest out. Her face was uncharacteristically stoic.
My mother and father, and Jem, even Rigger, strong and centered, dark eyes ahead, watching the descending glyphs. Counting down.
These were the people I had known my life through, with flaws and features, quirks and traits. Intimately familiar all. It was though we were on the edge of a great cliff, staring off together into an unfathomable abyss. Our lives had revolved about the survival of the ancient strangers, slumbering somewhere between life and death, asleep in coffins of cold metal. They were from another time, another world. They would not be us. They would be strangers, outsiders.
They lighted glyphs diminished, losing lines and swirls, shrinking to a single blinking stalk. Then nothing. The mechanical light box faded to lifeless gray.
Then an audible crank, unseen mechanicals grinding long and low beneath the coffins. There was a pop, and then a hiss, and a fine gray mist began to emanate from within the sarcophagi. Hairline cracks shimmered on the surface of the metal eggs, belching ever more of the vapor. Gasps rose and moved through the assembled crowd like ripples on a still pond. And the fog grew deep and dark, billowing out among us, swallowing into an opaque sightless world. Children cried out, and even the heartiest among us were touched with fear. I breathed deeply of the stuff, the vapor trapped within those coffins from another time. Breathing in our history.
As quick as it had come, the cloud dissipated. But it had accomplished much with its brief visitation. The crowd was shaken, timid, anxious. This was it. The end of our vigil, the finale to these generations of servitude. What would it bring?
“Look!” came a cry, a small boy pointing with outstretched arm to the coffins. The hairline cracks had become canyons, and the lid was rising. There was a whirring of gears, groaning of old seals finally breaking. The heavy lid finally free, it caught on Jem’s track, sliding down and away along the girders, scraping to a stop between the metal.
A cough. The crowd tensed, peering forward, momentarily recalling curiosity. Then the strange curvature of a pink worm emerging. A finger! The hand rose, crooked and grasping. It was a wrinkled thing, twisted and arthritic, ugly tendons creaking beneath sagging mottled flesh.
Rigger strode forward on long legs, reaching into the misty chasm. His strong arms took hold and pulled for the sleeper, cradling him like as a naked child. The people gasped.
“Help me,” Rigger commanded, glancing to the other sleeper. Hesitant at first, the crowd wavered. Then half dozen men rushed forward – Jem one. I followed behind him.
The other sleeper was a woman, too old and frail to even lift herself upright. Her hands clawed feebly at the air. Jem pulled her from the sarcophagus, cradling her head in the crook of his arm, wispy strands of white hair streaming out in the subtlest breeze.
I stared at the old man, every muscle in his thin neck straining to support the weight of his skull. His eyes caught mine, deep blue, pupils wide from the light. He couldn’t focus on me. He was unseeing. Blind.
In the crowd, someone began to cry. I could feel my own eyes beginning to seep with moisture, an ache in my jaw. The atmosphere was laced with despair.
“Bring food. Water,” Rigger commanded, carrying the old man to the feast hall. Jem followed with the woman, the people stretching behind in a curious mass.
We set them down across the table, clearing away the place settings at the two seats of honor. The exquisite flower garlands were pushed into the dust, the chalice knocked to the floor.
Rigger held a cup to the mouth of the old man, slowly pouring through pristine white teeth and a lolling tongue. The man sputtered, swallowing with a strained choking gulp. The woman as well. Someone had the idea of decency, and wrapped their naked bodies in brown woolen blankets.
It was then the old woman began to rock uncontrollably, moaning and repeating a strange word, rhythmic and pained. “Nah nah nah nah nah…” Rigger appeared concerned.
The old man came alive at the sound of his awakened companion, and his pupils focused on our faces, even as the white of his eyes rolled rapidly. That was a face I could recognize, one I had seen far too often in these recent days. The face of fear. The acknowledgement of it. Visceral, rabid fear.
“Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah,” the woman moaned, an eerie percussion to the spectacle. And the man spoke, vocal chords grating from misuse. “Duuuuust… Still…have…duuuuuust…”
“Dust?” I muttered, remembering Rigger’s tale of the curse.
The crowd was now humming with commotion, a rift of chaos riding the tendrils of nervous muttering. The old man had grown silent, but his eyes began to seep pained tears. The droplets ran thick and low through the troughs of wrinkled skin, and his face glistened in the evening light.
“Come,” Rigger bellowed, holding up his hand. The uttering of the crowd fell to a hush.
“They are suffering. This world was not for them.”
The people were tense. Many stood on the tips of their toes to see the awakened sleepers.
“We shall have a vote,” Rigger called out, his voice clear and strong. “They are frail and old, unable to speak with us. They are in pain,” The tall man paused for a moment, the people hanging on his very words. A silence settled over the tent, leaving only the old woman’s moaning.
“Do we treat them with honor, grant them the dignity of release? Or force them to endure another limbo of lifelessness?”
Rigger peered into our faces, the pierce of his eyes standing as challenge to confront our fears and misgivings. It was growing dark, the shadows lengthening in the feast hall, the color of the banners seeping from gold to brown.
“A vote!” he cried. “Who will release them? Hold your hand high. Who will relieve them of their suffering?”
No one moved. The crowd was sullen, still and confused. From time to time, the sleepers thrashed on the table, nearly shaking off the blankets. Their conditions did not appear to be improving.
I looked at Artess. She had been crying, but had hastily dried her tears, leaving behind puffy red-streaked eyes. She caught my glance, my mouth set grim. I remembered the squirrel – a poor created doomed by the curse. And I remembered that horrible fear, stuck in the boxroom, the howls of death encroaching in the shadows.
I raised my hand.
Rigger saw me, starring me in the eyes, acknowledging my vote. I did not waver, did not look away.
The hands began to sprout like weeds after a summer rain, and soon the feast hall was filled with grimfaced voters, standing stagger footed, palms to the sky. Artess saw me; saw my hand in the air. And she too voted for peace.
Rigger, seeing the majority, placed his hand over the mouth and nose of the old man. The frail creature did not protest, simply staring ahead with weeping eyes. The woman went quickly as well, continuing to utter the mad monosyllable into her throat, even as her lips were silenced. The sun set.
When it was over, Rigger allowed the people to file past and pay respects to those they had watched their lifetimes through. Torches were lit, glaring fires flickering across the square. We set a pyre and burned the bodies. Before the piled brush was ignited, Rigger lifted his hands to the air, intoning not only the assembled mass, but all those that had gone before and those yet to come. “With this,” he said. “The curse is lifted.” And his frond of tiny flame licked at the wood and quickly became a cleansing conflagration. We watched the ashes ascend to the heavens to disappear among the stars.
Then we ate the feast, mostly in silence. We were filled with respect, and we remembered. It was a respite, a culminating touch on the traditions was had held central for generations. And as the fires burned low and the night seeped into the warm din of late summer, there was an overwhelming peace. We were done.
Artess skipped along the river path, kicking loose sticks and stones into the lazy waters, giggling at every splash. I followed behind, infected by her joy and the warm sun and the green of the life around me.
Up ahead, she paused, stepping atop a large moss-covered root. She turned, leaning against the hoary willow, her delicate hands tracing lines in the bark.
“Mykal,” she said when I stood before her. “Ready to explore the boxroom again?”
I smiled. “Remember what happened last time?”
“But Rigger said the curse is lifted, didn’t you hear?”
I chuckled. “That doesn’t mean you couldn’t get smooshed by the ceiling, or eaten up by wolves.”
“You’re no fun Myk!” she protested, pushing me away. She hopped off the root and sat down on it.
I hunched to stare her in the eyes.
“Why this spot, Art? Does it mean something to you?”
She raised an eyebrow, glancing to the waters, the swirling eddies under the roots of the trees, sweeping along the willow leaves.
“Just looking out for the wildlife,” she said. “In case I have to put anything out of its misery.”
I frowned. “Artess, what happened was the right thing to do. We voted to do it. Those people were not meant for our life.”
“I know,” she replied. “But you were wrong about one thing Mykal.”
“Things have changed,” she said.
She leaned forward and kissed me, pressing her tongue into my mouth. I pushed back, embracing her, feeling the soft press of waterweeds on my thighs, the rough touch of bark on my forearms. I felt the loving warmth of the sun on the back of my neck, the sounds of the wild in my ears, melding with our curious liplocked mouths.
And I felt very much alive.