"Encouraging to witness the creative passion of these young people"
‘Water is Thicker than Blood’ by Sophie Harrison as been awarded first place in the Bishop Grosseteste University English Department 'The Future Unwritten' short story competition.
Designed to bring together GCSE and A-level students with a passion for creative writing, and inspired by one of our undergraduate modules, the competition tasked entrants with crafting a short story that speculated about the future.
Submissions included imagining of new realities and new identities, adaptions and transformations of our current world and covered a wide range of genres including dystopian fiction, science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Speaking as they choose the winners, the judging panel, made up of lecturers from BGU's Department of English, recognized by The Sunday Times and The Guardian as among the top thirty in the UK, praised the high quality and diverse variety of entrants:
"Thank you to the many who were able to enter their short stories. We were delighted to receive such an engaging range of submissions for the inaugural short story competition and it is very encouraging to witness the creative passion of these young people. We look forward to building on this success to promote the talent of young writers, starting with a new competition in 2022."
'Striking' and 'Immersive'
Announcing the success 'Water is Thicker than Blood', the judges highlighted its strong and unusual visual imagery:
"The winning entry envisaged a future beset by worldwide water shortage and we found its use of images associated with light particularly striking.
What really stood out was how well the opening positioned the reader in media res, how closely it controlled the focalisation of the narrative perspective to capture the mindset and sense perceptions of the character. The reader was immediately immersed in the dystopian world."
You can read 'Water is Thicker than Blood' in full below.
"Cherish the natural world, because you are part of it and you depend on it." - David Attenborough
The first rays of artificial light began to radiate around the pod. The violet beams touched Amir’s eyelids like fingertips and the blackness of his vision brightened, but no sense of warmth accompanied the light. That’s how he could always tell it was fake.
The pod was air conditioned. Amir felt the cold waves pass over him and tried to savour them for what little time he had left.
He imagined the rest of the citizens in their pods, awakening one by one. Or rather, stirring one by one, for sleep was a liberty enjoyed by none here.
Amir had been avoiding the thought, pushing it to the furthest recesses of his mind. But it was always there, ringing in his head like an alarm bell. Don’t swallow.
He needed to get up. To find a distraction. In vain, he attempted to force his singed eyelashes open. His eyes felt impossibly heavy.
At last, they opened.
He glanced around the pod, eyes adjusting to the lilac glow pulsing through it. Soon, his gaze alighted on a shape in the corner. His sister Samira. He watched her still form anxiously, chest constricting. It was only when he saw her move slightly that he felt his shoulders relax. She must still be resting. Not sleeping though, of course.
It was just the two of them now. Their parents had died long ago.
Amir rose stiffly, bones creaking like so many old floorboards.
The more he thought about it, the harder it became. He pressed his hands, then his forehead against the cold grey wall of the pod, but, at last, he had no choice. He swallowed.
A wave of fire washed up his throat. It made his head pound until he felt disorientated.
Amir pushed his hands more firmly against the wall.
The back of his throat felt as sharp as if there were shards pressing against it. He scrunched up his strained eyes and tried to ignore it, tried to think of anything else.
It was time to go outside. He focused his attention on that, trying to shut out the aching in his hollow throat, the fiery pain that tingled out to his fingertips.
He willed himself to move towards the door of the vacuum chamber. His legs shuddered as he crossed the pod, running his hand along the wall all the time, wishing he could contain its cold chill in his palm.
Amir reached the glass threshold of the chamber. He took a shuddery breath, slid the door across and stepped inside.
The glass slid shut behind him. Almost immediately, the white steam was surging around him and, just as quickly, it disappeared, replaced with a cool spray. The light cream settled slowly on his skin. SPF 120+.
Amir took a visor mask from the shelf and snapped the band in place around his head. He shook his limbs, trying to bring them to life, willing them to be strong enough for one more day. One more trial.
Taking as much oxygen as he possibly could into his lungs, Amir twisted the lever latch handle of the outer door and stepped outside.
It was a cloudless, windless, hopeless day. The sky was burnished gold, but there was nothing precious about it. Looks can be deceiving. These were Amir’s first thoughts as the door swung shut behind him. Then a wave of heat swept over him and knocked the breath right out of his lungs.
He doubled over, head swimming. He tried to recall the cool feel of the wall and the air conditioning, but the memory was slipping away, replaced by a scorching heat that seemed to set fire to his very bone marrow.
He forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand. The barren hill rose beyond him. He just had to check. Just had to see. Then he could retreat to the temporary shelter of the pod. And who knew? Maybe today would be different. Maybe today he could bring good news back to Samira. He knew he was just fooling himself, but sometimes the lie was easier to live than the truth.
Amir surveyed the structure of the pod behind him. The walls were already beginning to decay. The pod had been well constructed in better times, but nothing could withstand the radiation forever. Amir recalled the time he had once seen the remains of a collapsed pod, jutting out of the ground in blackened heaps like a rotten carcass. He wondered absent-mindedly how long it would be before his home met the same fate. His last line of defence gone forever.
Amir turned and steeled himself for his journey. It was a short distance up the hill. From there, he would be able to survey the whole cityscape. So close and yet so impossibly far.
He willed his feet forward, almost tripping over something. He glanced down. It was a brown, wilted tendril, spreading across the bleached-bone ground like fingers grasping onto life.
Amir kept shuffling. The sun beat down mercilessly overhead, an angry god. He felt a bead of moisture slide down his back. Eyes squinting against the orange glare, he wearily surveyed the land to his left and right. The hill wasn’t tall, but it was wide. Across its length, dim shapes flickered, each trudging slowly to the crest. Amir couldn’t make out any of their faces, but he knew who they were. His fellow citizens. All of them here for a shared purpose. A mutual, half-hearted hope.
Lungs straining against the toxic air, Amir inched forward further over the uneven ground. His movement was staggered, his back crippled as though he were years older than he really was. Nobody ever lived to old age here and yet there was no such thing as youth. All skin was shrivelled. All lungs were under-developed.
Amir kept moving but the hilltop never seemed to get closer. It was like he was treading air, lost in nothingness. Nevertheless, he pressed on, eyes squinting even through the protective lens of his visor.
At last, Amir clambered to the top of the hill. The citizens all around him were similarly reaching the crest. Slowly, all the citizens, Amir included, turned to face the cityscape, gazing out desperately at the horizon in unison, dry eyes pleading under heavy brows, shoulders slumping, expressions darkening.
Their prayers would not be answered today.
It was exactly what Amir had expected, but the disappointment was still heavy as it landed on his shoulders.
He was just one of hundreds of citizens, struggling to hold onto life, moving over the land and staring up every day at a mockingly clear sky.
Amir felt his eyelids begin to blister like his throat.
From where he stood, he could see the landscape was suffering too. The ground was cracked like a shattered powder. The small streams, few and far between, looked like veins in marble, streaked with bronze tints. Beautiful and yet cruel. The very thing that made these dregs look so deceptively precious was what rendered them useless. Those streaks were just poison, toxin, contamination. Destruction. All that glitters is not gold, thought Amir.
There was no solace for him, no solace for any of them, in that desert landscape. No cool shade in the shadows of a magnificent oak. No colossal trunks and branches. Not even a spindly, measly excuse for a tree. In fact, it was very difficult to find anything green at all.
Green, blue and, most of all, grey. These were the colours that Amir mourned the most. The kind of colours he’d heard stories about, but rarely ever seen. The bright blue of a clear stream. The jade green of leaves and vines and grass. The sombre, gunmetal bruise of a raincloud against a brooding sky.
There had once been a time, long ago, when the sight of such a cloud would have been accompanied by a sense of dread. A time when the damp chill of rainwater seeping through clothes and chilling the bones beneath would have been an inconvenience. But, for Amir, one single, depressing, steel-grey cloud would be a blessing from a merciful god.
There was a time when people took Water for granted, when some had it in rich supply. A fountain of life gushing in showers of silver, like so many glittering coins. Never again.
For a while now, the Water rations had barely been enough to survive on. The only hope left for Amir was the raincloud that never came.
Once, he had resorted to drinking the heavily polluted water from the streams, but the chemicals had made him sick. That was a sure way to lose even more Water from his body and so he never drank it again.
Amir may have longed for green, blue and grey, but there were some colours he never wished to see again. The rust-red of dry blood. The crimson of fresh blood. The trademark anger of Ares.
They say blood is thicker than water, but you only had to look to the conflict that had been ravaging the planet for as long as those still alive could remember to prove that old saying wrong. Amir could never turn against Samira, but there were those who had. Brother versus sister in a twisted survival of the fittest. It was a product of desperation. And what could anyone be more desperate for than Water?
Water had the hallowed and greatest power of all: to give life and to take it away. Amir knew first-hand just how many lives it could claim. The death toll of the Water War never ceased to increase. Billions and counting.
When Amir looked at all the blood and sweat and tears shed in this endless conflict, it made him realise something. Water must be thicker than blood after all.
Exposed on the hilltop, the sun beating down bitterly, Amir began to feel his throat constrict.
He had to find his parents. Something told him they didn’t have long.
Blackness swarmed at the edge of his vision, eating away at his sight.
The rotten remains of a collapsed pod rose into sight. He stopped and stared.
His lungs seemed to swell, but somehow no air entered them.
They had no Water. It was getting hotter every day. The rations were getting smaller.
The ground was lurching beneath his feet. He had to get back to the pod.
He could try drinking from the polluted stream. It was beautiful-
Where was the pod? He couldn’t see where he was going, his sight was failing him.
His heart beat wildly.
He gasped for breath.
Amir felt himself falling, but he was dead before he landed.
All along the hilltop, Amir’s fellow citizens saw his shape crumple to the floor. They had seen this happen enough times to know he was already dead. It must have been the physical exhaustion and the heat and the lack of Water that did it. Or maybe it was the radiation.
At first, they’d cried for those who died. Now their bodies had no Water to spare.
These citizens will surely join Amir soon. Maybe they’ll be relieved, to no longer feel that maddening, ever-intensifying thirst. To never face the disappointment of tomorrow’s diminished Water ration and another cloudless sky.
For now, though, their struggle is not over.
The sun glares down overhead. The land offers no forgiveness. Their movement is staggered, almost as though they had a cross to bear - which, I suppose, they do. It is the retribution for a crime that was never theirs.
And while they’re trailing those dusty paths, exhausted, throats burning like the sandpaper ground beneath them, do you know what they’re thinking?
They're wishing that their ancestors had been more careful. That they’d stopped polluting and started conserving before it was too late.
If only they’d known. If only they’d acted differently. If only.
Rich environments and visual storytelling
Alongside Sophie's success the judges also awarded second place to ‘On the edge’ by Brooke Kelly Slater and third place to ‘Dormant’ by Carole Anto. Both were commended for rich environments and visual storytelling.
They will be published with the winner in 'The Leonid' the English Department’s creative writing anthology.
Both can be read in full below.
Under her eyelids, it was black and peaceful. Then a flash, bleaching her conscious in neon letters; FACEMORPH, ‘change yourself, change your life’.
She awoke with the artificial light streaming from her curtains in shiny strips. Her mouth was dry, lips chapped in crimson webs. She rubbed her finger against her mouth, noticing the fingertips were blue. A pretty blue, like how the sky is painted on the illustrations in books. Oxygen deprivation, she would have to change the tank in the flat.
Walking to the mirror, the heat took hold of her, sweat dripping at the nape of her neck. The colour on the mirror had begun to swim together. The App opened up spitting a pool of light onto her face. She flicked her hand. Changed the nose, the eyes, what about the hair? Maybe blue or red. she picked the holographic colour in the end. That colour in the plastic radiance of the flats bulbs seemed to stream like waves. Her mind went to the ocean, the salty tides that wrapped its shiny bulk to her knees. But that was a long time ago, before the nations went against each other, selling portions of the moon to mine. Before the ocean went still and dried up.
She unscrewed the pill bottle, little faded pink tablets, swallowed in her dry throat. The pill dissolved in her mouth, pink flowing to her cheeks, her stomach filling up and hardening like easy mix cement. The faux feeling of hydration electrifying her veins. Oxygen pouch fastened to her belt, the tubes feeling foreign in her nose, numbing the tip. But she could breathe a little better, like before.
She walked to the door, it was only a few steps but she felt dizzy like she had fallen from a height. The flat was tiny in itself; a bed, a mirror, a toilet. It was identical to a thousand others that were built upon each other like steel Lego blocks. The door whipped open at a touch, elevator poised and ready to strike. An undulating metal cobra that rippled in the infrastructure. She dived in, the tight space wrapping its presence about her, suffocating. It dropped, the air folding like origami, the little dip and quiver in her rock hard stomach. The AI serenaded her, “Get ready for identification. 3,2,1”, she was momentarily blinded with the camera flash. “Sarah, No 3162, state your purpose”. “Work” a mumble escaped her lips.
The elevator doors parted. Despite the network of LEDs strung up on the interconnecting scaffolding, it was always this middy twilight. A dark hanging over the precipice of the morning. The smog blanketing everything in a toxic slinky velvet, that breeched freshness with sickening heat.
The tarmac seemed to bubble up, it coated every bit of the floor. Black as coal. Rough as a crocodile's back She wondered the last time something green had grown here. Feet propelled forward, she ducked beneath some overhead pipes into a cave of cement. This bit of the city had been so overpopulated there were no gaps between the buildings. Grey Met Grey, in infinite expanses. So the government built up, then down. This was the underground quarter, the working-class area. This was once where the sewers were, before chemi-peel- ‘the cleanest way to solve our mess’.
To get to her work she had to travel through the maze of apartments and markets and make it to the substation, to reach the surface. ‘Poker spin, try your luck’. Lost in a vivid stream of thought she had stepped through the holographic figure, it for a moment turned her FACEMORPH all static and her sight was blurred. There were lots of them here, it made the streets feel less clinical. She couldn’t help but think it was creepy, dozens of sets of eyes were always watching, scouting out the perfect market. Some were actors, others were characters from the virtual games. Some were people long dead, there smiles all blurred at the edges.
The buildings branched out into a sizeable space. The smell made her gag, it was all bleach and chemicals. Someone zoomed by on a motorbike, an old one made of scrap parts from some time in the ’20s. Down here hovercars were a rarity. A patchwork of rusted sores poked out from the wall. Neon sides that were lopsided hung about them surreptitiously. They were hung up and put down every few days, before the patrols. Illegal meat and water bottles, that sort of thing, the stuff that’s been running out for years, backhanded trade on the black market.
“notification; your train is about to leave in 10 minutes”, the buzzer on her wrist vibrated, the text spun out all distorted in the districts vapour, just a few inches from her eyes, before dissipating. She heard her shoes on the floor, as she kept forward, marching. Head bowed to her oxygen tubes.
Some people were begging off the corner of Oxy-co, one of them had a camo bag. After a considerably fewer people returned from the war against the biggies (over rights over the ocean floor) no one took notice. Half of them had nano prosthetics, but they looked all grotesque, they were basic versions, the ones that didn’t match the real skin. More AI than a person. She avoided their gaze. All she had were the state-issued vouchers, and the pink pills to suppress appetite and ‘stimulate hydration’. The markets were next, crowded steel stalls, cages and plastic wear. She passed the insect vendor, with the writhing maggots and crickets that jumped violently on the surface of the plastic. Desperately trying to get out and breathe. Insects were the go-to after cattle died out, and produced half the worlds methane with it. She hated the taste, not that she could afford it later anyway. Cutbacks. She felt a sudden pang of pity for the crickets then, they were like her, trapped.
A chanty town was clipped to the edges of the market, and onto the sides of the dusty apartments- with that wire that never snaps. Cables stuck out of them like computerised vines. A jungle of screens all static, and micro ball walls (that mould to the touch) made them up.
The doors for the substation opened slowly, steam coming out of its insides. She stepped in, bracing for decontamination. The chemicals stung as always. Her skin was left with this yellow tinge. Her FACEMORPH reconfigured, she had to look presentable today, she had used up half her online credits for it.
Anyone in the substation is either unlucky, as they work down in the mines, just below the underground quarter, prone to collapsing in. Or marginally lucky, If they work on the surface. Sarah did, she worked at the central office, home of the ministry of tech. In her office, in the minuscule stall, she got to see a slither of the outside. Everything up there was white and clean, the broad sweep blanket, covered the toxic wall that was firmly fixed in the ozone layer. The glamour made it look like a powder blue sky with celestial-worthy clouds. It reminded her of a long time ago, of something she saw in a picture book.
She entered the tube, it was clean and white and shaped round like an egg. The entire station was white on this end. Tiled configurations, with vending machines, piled in on either side; mostly filled with Popto-pills and disposable oxygen bags. The other end of the station was singed with black, with a lingering smell of smoke that no amount of chemi-peel could rid. The lights always flickered there, and everyone wore overalls with the identification numbers on. Some people, especially down in the district, didn’t go by names, but by the number. You're given it when your born and it determines, by accessing your parental information and compiling it together; where you are going to live and what job you are going to do, if your educated till your 14 or not that sort of thing.
Sarah decided she had enough time to get into her work clothes before she had to strap into the chair. Boiler suit and pumps. Just the moment without her tube made her gasp, her muscles seemed to spasm. It wasn’t as warm in the tube as outside, it was air-conditioned, the only place that the earth's rising temperature wasn’t entirely notable. She strapped into the chair, the plastic belts tightening automatically around her sides. It shot up like a bullet cutting through the earth.
She scanned through the news while she waited, it suspended in front of her again, flashing momentarily in her lenses. War in the US, after the peace treaty, was breached for the fourth time between the two sides of the country. The last living whale dies in captivity, cloning is being preceded over. A new form of cancer has mutated from the latest noxious gas explosion in London, it is not yet proven whether Haemaglow will find a cure.
“You have reached your destination, No 3162. 2 credits have been removed from your balance. Thank you for travelling with capsule net” The AI stated blankly. The buzzing of the surface intercepted the sound. She jumped from the tube station into the pristine street.
No one ever looked you in the eye here. You could see their eyes though, but the expressions were blank. Nearly everyone on the surface was synced into Virtual life 24/7. You could travel anywhere. Do anything. Meet anyone on it. It was better than life.
Superficially everyone was beautiful. Not like girl-next-door pretty either, every feature had been modified on the latest update of FACEMORPH. Some people experimented. Sarah walked passed one boy with pearly horns and vivid cerulean skin. He had stuck his tongue out to capture his momentary status. Then she was lost in the sky for a moment, disappointed in her revelry, she had concentrated too hard on it and noticed the glitch. It spoilt the atmosphere.
Up the white escalator past heaving masses of people. Most of them international fly-ins from the 20 min round trip flights they have now. A white bridge high up, coated in hexagonal strips of AstroTurf. The office had come up before her. Like a green smudge. The security scanned her retinas. The doors opened. It was decontamination. Then it was up the lift pod to the 3rd floor.
The third floor had been blackened, and the walls soundproofed so as not to disturb the systems. They whirred collectively; an orchestra of drumming fans. Her stall was number 3, it was simple stuff today, another nuclear explosion clean-up. She synched into the suit, arms and legs feeling all tense, helmet, goggles, the screen did a double-take. She looked through the robot on the other side. Like always she couldn’t determine where she was, the explosion had scourged all traces of human inhabitation.
Soot clogging the sky, the grey of it sunburnt and peeling. The floor was covered in ash, skeletons of buildings carved from the marrow out, shadow people peeking from the concrete. Her task was programmed into the text at the side, search and record. She was walking around these ghosts streets. Now and then she would catch a glimpse of the shimmering mechanical bodies, that like her wandered the empty vastness.
A sound obliterated her eardrum, the screen cracked and rippled into webs of small fissures. Her ears rang, she pulled the helmet off, feeling glass beneath the suit. The broad sweep blanket had fallen from the sky, she could see it through the crack in the wall. The air was orange, she couldn’t move.
One day the sun set, never to rise again.
And in the dawn of that preternatural darkness, those who sleep, awaken. The sky was splashed with golds and oranges and pinks for the last time. Somewhere, two figures stood at the seashore, their youthful ebullience causing them to glow in the hazy light of the golden hour, for the last time. For the first time in a long time, somewhere else, lumbering branches stretched lethargically, no longer latent, testing the limits of their newfound freedom. They had been waiting a very long time.
That was just the beginning.
She walks along the dimly lit path, eyes glinting like jewels in the night. The darkness is thick and stifling, pierced ever so slightly by the haze of the moonlight. It wraps around brick and branch, clinging like a petulant child clings to its mother, like man clings to his lover. It is possessive in its desperation, greedily embracing and encompassing. The darkness seems to brush past her, sending out its velvety tendrils in search of prey and finding something else altogether. The cold, grey light of the moon accentuates her features, bathing them in its ghostly glow, outlining the harshness of her features. It drips from her like candle wax, uninhibited by the inky darkness.
She feels the soft whisper of the breeze – an embrace from an old friend, cool against her dark skin. She feels the echoes of greedy fingers, supple and sturdy, snatching at her clothes, her face, her hair; carefully concealed in the darkness. She feels the danger in their repressed desire, the malevolence in their unparalleled greed. She smiles and her teeth glow in the darkness. She is greedy too.
The wind has no stakes in this hallow of death, and dances on, unconcerned. It whispers melodies of loss and sorrow, weaving and whistling and watching. She is not bound by an earthly body: composer of the symphony of twilight, choreographer of the dance of branches. Leaves rustle in unanimous response. They do not like to be controlled.
Her long legs stride forwards with purpose, the steady padding of her feet in time with the steady beating of her heart. Although the night is old and dark, although she is far from home, she is not afraid. Small patches glow in the distance, and where the darkness touches it, it pulls back suddenly, burned by bioluminescence, anomalies in the stale night. If the darkness had a mouth, it would hiss. But it doesn’t, so it doesn’t.
In the depths of her memory, something stirs. A faint lullaby, carried on the wings of the wind, a melody that had once belonged to someone else. Someone who was loved, who loved in turn and did not need to make afraid, someone who wasn’t the very thing that goes bump in the night. Spindly foliage dances in front of her eyes, sharp tendrils surround her. There is something else - she can taste it. A metallic, cloying taste that upends her senses. It smells like blood and danger.
No, not that. Something worse, something bitter, something she cannot name.
Its murky, maroon shadow dances around her, trapping her in its might. She ignores it - she is used to this - it comes from inside of her, lives inside of her suffocating and silent. She looks to the sky in silent petition and the sky stares back, unadorned by glittering stars or streetlights, crowned only by the simple majesty of the moon.
The sound of footsteps is loud in her ears, disruptive in the silent landscape, as painful as the sting of a nettle, or the thorns of a bush. She winces, once. The sounds are foreign in the quiet landscape.
The woman turns in the direction of the resonance, and a man seems to materialise out of the madness of noise.
“Hello” he says, and smiles, the harsh brightness of his teeth reflective and cold.
He takes one step towards her, but it is uncertain. She smiles back, dazzling with pearly white teeth that reflect the luminescence of the moon. The branches seem to curl around him, framing him in harsh oaks and sorrels. He looks like a king, she thinks. His face looks especially dangerous in the gloaming – the rich brown of his skin emboldened and daring. It is coldness and apathy she sees, as she sees herself reflected in his eyes.
He stares at her, his eyes watering in almost imperceptible anguish. He thinks of the last time he had seen her, her dark skin shimmering in the sunset. White sundress, golden earrings, lace gloves. How he had missed her. The woman in front of him now was all sharp angles and calculated glances and a deep, never ending emptiness.
She takes a slow step towards him, her scrutinising gaze never leaving his eyes. They used to be warm, dancing eyes. Good Lord, he thinks, another wave of misery washing over him. He had missed those eyes like he’d miss his heart if it was cut from his chest, coffee-coloured waterfalls you could get lost in - sepia in the sunlight. The image of her onyx braids carelessly tossed over her shoulder stabs him in the heart. The wind ruffles his jacket, and it reminds him of the way she laughed, the melody of it like a birdsong, or silver bells twinkling.
She senses his regret like she would feel an electric shock, and it stuns her. The momentary panic disarms her, and unwittingly she focuses on how the wind pulls and tugs his deep brown hair. It reminds her of how the messy curls would dance in the sunlight, lustrous and glossy. She finds herself battling the urge to reach out and touch them.
The weight of the unspoken lies heavy between them. The weight of an ancient, ageless might lies heavy all around them: the air is charged with something old and powerful. She looks down and feels that familiar nothingness, an old friend, timeless company.
“May your life be full of shade” he says, startling her out of her reverie. “Children of darkness as we are.” his voice echoes into the still air, humorous and booming.
He turns around slowly and spreads his arms wide on either side of him, a show of trust in his eyes, a show of stupidity in hers, and tries again.
“Blessed as we are, to be the vassals of the eternal night” He hopes to impact her with easy familiarity, but it falls flat. His intensity and worry fail to dilute themselves. She stares at him, unmoving and unyielding. Even if she wanted to speak, she would not know what to say. She wishes the ache in her heart would abate; she hadn’t expected it after all this time.
“People are getting restless” He starts “The Guild want to quell it before it gets out of hand, C-”
“May you always walk in darkness” She cuts him off as he is about to say her name.
He shouldn’t say that name, it reminds her of times long gone. The vestiges of memory still cling to her in the moonlight, and the interminable feeling of being alone. She banishes them. The ubiquitous darkness coalesces around her, as if sensing her distress, hungry and waiting.
“You left out the blessing” She speaks slowly, savouring the feeling, if only for a short while, of having someone to listen to her “You’d be a terrible zealot. You’re hopelessly forgetful, so an even worse spy. You’re much more of a soldier.” She attempts a smile that doesn’t look dangerous, or crazed.
They are the first words she has said in a long time and she loves the way the words taste on her tongue. She loves the way his face looks in the moonlight. She hates the way his face pales in the moonlight. So much for brevity and wit.
“Hey! I prayed to Nyx occasionally,” he offers, shrugging in casual response. “It didn’t work out.”
She steps closer to him, his frame sagging slightly in despair or tiredness, she cannot tell. Against her better judgment, gently, she reaches up and touches a lock of his hair. It is soft and silky, just like it was all those years ago. “Lunatics, all of them. It’s not like the Guild is any better, their God is control”
Faintly, she hears that lullaby again and another wave of that thing she cannot name washes over her. She stares out into the unyielding blackness, waiting for some sort of affirmation or sign. The night is still and dark.
“It is the nature of man” he whispers. Her silence is neither affirmation nor disagreement. “To come together in times of hardship. Society as we knew it is long gone, all we have is this”.
She steps back, lets him go. The admission hurts more than she had expected it to.
“Exactly” She snarls at him, her base nature peeking out. It is always close to the surface when she is on edge. “I have been out here, alone, for so long. Their particular brand of punishment. They don’t get to have me.”
“We protested it-”
“To little too late” She snaps, this time with a conviction born of delirium and nightmares.
“Yes, it’s in the past now” His eyes speak of that nameless emotion, something else born of dreams and insanity “I’m not here to ask you to come back-”
“The night is getting colder” she starts again, shutting of the conversation and the flow of words she does not want to hear. “My place isn’t far from here” her voice is swallowed by the night.
“All right” he says and smiles, more of a wince than anything else. “Lead on”.
They walk quietly, and she learns to love the silence. Has learned not to hate the silence, and so she does not mind when he turns the corner and speaks once more.
They happen upon a beast.
Once glorious skyscrapers, now lost to the wreckage of time, now nothing but decomposing carcasses of brick and glass. There is very little life here left to watch the destruction of the perished, and yet a sort of reverenced stagnancy has overtaken the place. There is nothing to be heard except for the crunch of leaves and twigs underneath her feet, the occasional squelch of mud and dirt underfoot.
In front of them lies a grove of vines and vegetation, cruelly twisted and entwined in a macabre kiss. Spindly fingers caressing cold limbs, tangled and knotted in a seemingly endless loop. Then, as if moved by something beyond itself, it begins to glow.
They shiver in revulsion, retracting their wooden claws with a grim, timeless elegance, curling and winding around a small, shining ball, framing it in its immortal, luminescent shine. It pulsates, matching the study thump of her pulse, throbbing and thumping as if it were alive. It incandesces like a beacon; the darkness peels away from it.
“It’s beautiful” she whispers, the feeling that is not fear slowly seducing her limbs and her mind. She feels the tremors of power in her bones. She laughs, and it sounds like twinkling bells.
“It’s beating, like a heart?” he replies, and grasps her hand in his, holding on tightly. She looks at him, and recognises the emotion she sees in his eyes, the unnameable one that feels like drowning.
“Yes,” She hesitates, “I, is it real?” she squeezes his hand, tightly clasped to hers, and somehow, she feels less empty.
“Let’s find out” He says boldly, his smile lighting up the night. She lights up in response.
Slowly, footsteps stalk through naked trunks and they walk on, letting the shadow of shared emotion fuel their steps. The darkness coils and shudders in the breeze. The wind picks up, weaving in between lumbering logs and leaves.
The forest is an eerie palace of lost, overgrown trees.