This story is by A.R. Harlow and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The liquid burned the inside of her mouth. Every sense of hers became distorted, the world blurred, her nose couldn’t seem to draw in enough air. Suddenly, clarity snapped into place and the world seemed vivid.
“The first time is always the worst, darlin'” a lanky, disheveled man stated flicking a cigarette ash to the ground.
She snorted. “Could have warned me.”
“Ah. But, the surprise is half the fun.” His grin was like that of the Cheshire cat. “I would say it gets better with time, but it doesn’t. You just get used to it.”
Her fierce brown eyes locked onto his face. “Thanks for the heads up.” She shook her orange hair, she could swear she felt every hair when it floated out in the wind now. It was unnerving how she perceived things she never had before. Like the tiny mouse chewing on the undergrowth of the forest, the smell of a hunter cooking venison deep within the wood, salt on the small breath of wind, and the faint tendrils of fog coming on the late evening air.
“Enough playing.” He threw the cigarette down to the ground and stamped it with the toe of his boot impatiently, grinding it out in the damp soil. “Time for the work. We start at the count of five.”
“Five?” Her brows furrowed
At first, she didn’t move a muscle. He came to stand directly toe to toe with her and his mouth opened wide. “Five!” She was off like a bolt, tripping over the undergrowth while he followed her. For an older man, he was spritely and she was struggling to keep the lead. He had given her four seconds, but it wasn’t nearly enough. She stumbled through thick vines and ended up on her face in the mud.
“Now that was pitiful. You could give it a little effort.”
She groaned and struggled to her feet. She didn’t know how she would ever learn to like Trem.
The liquid didn’t taste better, no matter how many times she drank the honey-colored potion. Trem had warned her that the time would run together, even though the distortions lasted shorter durations and the clarity came on faster, it did not seem like enough. It was unnerving to Sima how it altered every sense.
The countdown for the Siege was underway and people like Sima were being pushed to their extremes to ensure they were at their zenith when they went to fight against the Sway; the biggest crime rebellion in the world. Swayers would be mentally and physically enhanced from their time locked in dungeons, and, secret tunnels delved deep below the cities, planning their attacks against the leaders of the world.
The leaders did not take the first threats seriously. Until two of their own were slain in cold-blooded acts of war. Volunteers were chosen from numerous profiles submitted for the experimental potions that enhanced natural abilities. Potions like those that had been used by the Defense of Old, but health problems and deformities occurred, and the usage had ceased. These new potions were safer, and the volunteers would be monitored and trained by the DOO, who would know what to watch for.
Sima exhaled roughly through her nose. She could smell the coppery scent of blood filling up in the back of her dried up nasal passage. Cold bit through her leathery fingers and her eyes were bloodshot from the effort. She wondered if Trem would come back, she doubted it, and she wasn’t sure why it bothered her now when before she had been willing to do anything to get away from him. She could only guess that it was because five months could change a lot of things, including feelings. “Sima, you fool.” She reprimanded herself.
Sima inhaled again. Setting off once more down a different pathway that wound along the frozen river in the mountain valley. Her best chance was finding shelter in a cave out of the brutal wind. Within three hours of searching in the daylight, she found a half-hidden cave entrance and made a fire with old sticks and moss. Before the darkness settled she went hunting and came back with two large birds that she turned into her meal.
It was her third day in the blistering cold when she noticed footprints in the snow, which were too large to be hers, leading to her shelter. With a large branch in hand, she crept forward into the cave. She saw the shadow of someone and raised the branch.
“Please, Sima, don’t hit me with that.”
The branch clattered to the ground. “Jesus!” She ran to him, wrapping her arms around him tightly. “Trem! I am delighted to see you.”
“As am I, to see you.” His rough hands stroked her cheeks.
“But… is something wrong?” Her eyes widened with worry, what if the Siege had been moved up?
He bit back a smile. “I wanted to see you.”
He said no more of the matter and she didn’t press. She was glad to see him too.
Painted antlers stuck high off her head like a crown, golden wire woven around them in an intricate pattern. She had a warm deer fur coat hanging around her. She had stayed four days in the wild, the deer her keepsake of the survival trial. There was only one month until the Siege was going to take place, though the DOO were leery of the announcement of a date, figuring that it was meant as a distraction to catch everyone off guard. Either way, the final count was on.
Sima stared out over the edge of the cliff, down at the trees below and the rocky statues that decorated the ground beneath the cliff. Her hand stretched out and without hesitation, she put her hand on Trem’s bicep. He reached over with his right hand and gave hers a squeeze, his eyes meeting hers. His mentorship had evolved into something like friendship but more. Sima smiled. “It will all be over soon.” She stated softly, both her hands wrapped around his arm and Sima leaned her head against his shoulder. Her long orange hair flying up in his face until he tucked it down with his hand and leaned his head against hers.
“As long as it is to a good end.” He breathed out shakily. “For you.”
“For us, you mean.”
He grinned ear-to-ear. Until she suddenly pulled her hands off of him and stepped away abruptly, his face fell in a mixture of shock and hurt.
“Three!” She yelled and she took off running back down the hill they had come up to see the land below. He was off like a bolt behind her, his senses guiding him behind her, then ahead of her, where he caught her mid-air and put her to the ground. He leaned over her triumphantly.
“Three.” He breathed as he caught her lips in a kiss.
They attacked fiercely. Blood was spattered everywhere and the ground shook with the continuous explosions. Potions that deteriorated on impact were being hurled from every direction, people were limping to cover, and the cities, one-by-one looked as though they were going to all fall away and fail. Trem could not locate Sima since the onslaught started two days earlier and desperation started to fill him because he did not know if she was alive or dead. He had done his part in readying her but it didn’t feel like enough. How can you prepare someone for a war like this?
Then, somehow the tides turned. First, the leaders of Sway were disbanded and made example of in public spheres and their captains and generals were added to that. Soon the rest were captured. All the recruits had proven themselves, as their senses and training won out in setting up clever traps, tricking them, and in the end, beating them at their own dirty game.
Trem called out over the distant, smoldering town where Sima had last been seen. It had been two weeks and no word had come. The Swayers were captured or killed. Still nothing.
“Sima!” He called, his blue eyes burning with the smoke and tears that were running down his cheeks.
“Three!” His voice broke in desperation.
“Two..” came a choked answer from under a piece of rubble. He pulled aside the rubble, pulling Sima out carefully and embracing her.
One year had passed from the time of the Siege. Sima had made nearly a full recovery, as had Trem. Sima no longer took the potions, the effects had become permanent.
The ring on her finger shone in the light brightly, and Trem twirled her in his arms like a ballerina of a music box.
“One.” He breathed as he caught her lips in a tender kiss.
“One.” She repeated with a smile, placing his hand over her rounding stomach.