This story is by Leah Johnson and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“One minute for skin
Two draws blood
Three is to bone and done. One minute for..” Talia repeated the rhyme as she scampered down the street of her underground city. It was rare to be free from her instructors and she intended to enjoy this unusual freedom. People carved a path around her knowing all too well who she was.
“That’s the Sage.” She heard them whisper urgently to each other as they passed and she ignored them. The pointing, whispers, and avoidances were quite normal to Talia now.
Talia engulfed the splendor of their vast glowing cavern, the ceiling dotted with glowworms that glittered like stars. At least, that was what she had been told, Talia had never been above ground to see the stars. She wasn’t allowed, not until her first century was past. But Talia was only a mere eight years old and another ninety-two of them were simply far too long to wait.
The stone city was all hustle and mayhem for the grand festival tonight. The people’s faces were lit with excitement as they readied their goods and carts to take to the surface. It was the reason she was able to slip from her masters. This annual festival was a uniting of races as not only Talia’s people but surface-folk, mages, and all sorts of other creatures from far flung places came to meet and celebrate spring.
Talia stopped by the river which flowed through the city and waded in to her knees. It was freezing but she enjoyed the fresh sensation that jolted her blood and tingled her skin. She hummed and tried to ignore the emptied city for the festival had already begun. Talia was busy toying with a ghost fish as white as her own skin when she heard steps behind her.
“Have you come to take me home, Ciro?” The little girl spoke without turning around. A pale man came and knelt beside her.
“No, I’ve come to enjoy this time with you.”
Talia sniffed. The only enjoyable place tonight was above ground, under the boundless night sky. “Why aren’t you at the festival?” She asked.
“Why aren’t you at the festival?”
“You know I’m not allowed.” Talia sulked and poked the fish once more. It thrashed angrily and swam away.
“Yes, but I’ve never known rules to stop you.” This made Talia smile. Ciro leaned over and whispered, “It can’t hurt to take a peek can it?” He pointed to the far side of the cavern, away from the main entrance to the surface, “There’s a tiny tunnel hidden over there. If I were you, I’d take a look while my masters were busy.” Talia’s eyes widened as Ciro stood up to leave. He gave her a wink, “Don’t lose track of time. You know what happens at sunrise.”
He left and Talia said her rhyme three more times to be sure he was gone before running off.
Stars! Stars high above dazzling, blinking, and dancing! The pale little girl spun about gleefully with her head tilted back until she fell into a giggling heap on herself. Perhaps she should come above ground every night! Around her the festival glowed with colored lanterns and rumbled with merry music. A sea of tents spread before her, the paths between them endless and winding. There was so much to explore and so little time, the sun would rise in just a few hours.
Talia wandered the busy streets alone. She saw men who breathed fire, women who could fly, and stall keepers who shouted that they had the lowest prices in all the market. Most interesting, Talia saw people who did not look like her. There were dark-skinned, fur-skinned, pointy eared folk and all sorts of strange, fantastic people. She was so entranced with her surroundings that she accidentally bumped into an elderly man in fine purple robes.
“You’re a mage!” Talia exclaimed when he turned and looked at her with ancient eyes that contained the very stars above them. They crinkled with amusement. “Can you do anything with magic?”
“Course not!” The mage corrected her, “I am a slave to the laws of the cosmos and universe as everyone else!” Then he added as an afterthought, “And I can’t walk backwards on Wednesdays.”
Talia laughed and moved on. She knew she could not see everything before sunrise, but she was quite determined to try. Twice she almost ran into her masters and had to double back. Now dawn was approaching and her people were preparing to leave. Talia stopped to rest before returning to her secret tunnel.
“There she is.” She heard them say and dropped her candy in surprise. Had her masters finally found her? But when Talia looked up, she didn’t see her masters; in fact, it wasn’t anyone she knew. They were the dark-skinned Syrulians of the surface world. One of them pointed a long finger at her, “Catch the sage.” Talia ran.
She tried to make it back to her tunnel but they blocked the path and steered her deeper into the labyrinth. “Help!” She squealed but the festival was too loud and her people were already streaming back underground. Talia hit a dead end and began to panic. What if she couldn’t make it back before dawn? What would those men do to her?
A white arm thrust out of a tent and pulled her inside. Talia cried as she peered up at Ciro’s familiar face. “Come with me!” Talia let him lead her by the arm out the other side of the tent and away from the Syrulian men. But they were headed away from the entrance to the underground, not towards it.
“Ciro, where are we going?” Talia pleaded now afraid of the sun that would be ascending. She did not want to be stuck in a tent until nightfall with those men lurking about. But Ciro did not reply and continued his quick pace away from their city and into the markets. They rounded the corner of a blue tent and collided with those angry men. Talia clutched Ciro’s shirt. He would protect her.
“Thank you, Ciro.” One smiled and said. Talia stopped, Ciro knew them. “We were afraid you were one of her masters.” Her heart skipped a beat as she peered up at her trusted Ciro. He couldn’t be working for these men, could he? The grip on her tightened painfully as Talia tried to squirm away.
“You idiots have already caused too much of a scene.” Ciro snarled, “We must get away from here.” Ciro finally looked at Talia, “Stop moving!” He snapped bringing tears to her eyes. She had known Ciro all her short life, how could he do this to her? Talia’s tiny arm slipped from his grasp and she felt a horrible fury boil within her. “You can’t get away, Sage.” Ciro said, “Your masters are underground now. You are alone.”
Talia’s eyes flashed with a blue glow and her voice intertwined with the many voices of her past lives, “I am more than one.” They said and the Syrulian men backed away. Talia felt the power of the Sages rise within her. She felt the pulse of a thousand souls throb in her veins.
Ciro put his hands up, “Talia, calm down. We meant no harm.” But it was not Talia who stood before him now; it was the physical manifestation of their goddess and she was furious.
Talia cocked her head which threw Ciro to the ground. He lay there struggling against a force he could not match. The other men fled. “Ta-Talia.” Ciro struggled to lift his head off the ground, “Do-don’t do this. It’s me. Your Ciro. I cared for you as a babe.” The man was desperate but the Sage felt no pity. She would protect herself.
The sun surged over the horizon. A creeping light inched beyond the tops of the tents. Ciro saw this, “TALIA PLEASE!” He panicked, “Both of us will burn!” The sage did not so much as flinch and when the sun fell on her she did not burn. Ciro did.
His anguished howls could be heard throughout the festival. Music came to a whining halt as people came running, but they were too late. The sun had eaten through his skin, dissolved his muscle, and even blackened his bones. Within three minutes, the sun cycle was complete.
The light went from her eyes and Talia collapsed to the ground unconscious. A hooded figure broke through the circle of people to hold the tiny girl who had fallen. “Talia!” Her teacher cried, wrapping her in a thick cloak like her own.
“What has happened? Who is that?” Another teacher asked as they glanced at the smoking bones.
“I don’t know. But I think Talia did this.” She stroked the comatose girl’s dark hair that spilled from the cloak with gloved hands. “The Sage within her has woken up.”