Inspired by this image.
A prompt was set up by my pal and fellow Niner Myseri who writes the brilliant Underground Princes (aka Highlander with hobos!) and this photo was to inspire a work of 50 words or more. We call those Creative Challenges, and it’s the second one I’ve done in 24 hours. I think that at last, I busted out of the writer’s block and found myself with something a little longer than 1k words. Anyway, here goes!
A flock of brightly-colored birds wheeled in the air outside the mouth of the cave, silhouetted against the spot of visible sky. Arrik smiled, his breath catching in his chest.
“Is this the right thing? I mean, I know it’s the right thing according to the Fauda, but is it the right thing f-for us?” Jacann was watching the winged creatures disappear over the tops of the trees. When the last had gone, she slid her eyes to Arrik’s and saw them bright with tears.
“Jacann…” His voice cracked and he stopped speaking, swallowed hard.
Jacann blinked away stinging tears and nodded hastily, resting a hand on Arrik’s shoulder. “The Fauda doesn’t tell us-”
“It’s the only way, Jacann. It’s the Fauda or the regime. You can choose only one. Live under the regime or-”
“Or die under the Fauda. I know. Just, we’re out here and nobody knows where we are. We could be free, Arrik! We could just leave.”
Arrik shook his head, his face wrinkling in an expression of shocked horror. “Do you wish to take no responsibility, Jacann? Where is your moral compass if not in the regime or the Fauda?” His lips curled downward slightly, as if he had tasted something disgusting. Was Jacann saying that she didn’t want to take responsibility for her actions? That she thought she was somehow too good to accept the only two choices their people had had since, well, their history began? He wondered if she was out here to break the vow every Meiren took upon reaching the age of accountability: to live for the regime that ruled them, or to go into the jungle and lay down their lives at the altar of the Fauda. There was no life, or death, save for those.
He rested a heavy hand on the back of Jacann’s neck and squeezed gently; it was more than a massage but less than a show of force. “We need to get into the cave before dark. The Fauda instructs us, Jacann.”
“I don’t think I can just go into a cave and die, Arrik! There’s no proof that the Fauda is real, but look! Here we are, far from home, far from the regime. We could just keep on living. We could make our own lives and direct our own futures.” She thought about the life she had left behind: a life melded to a machine, like her parents and their parents and their parents before them: all unable to die, all unable to live in the way they chose. She wasn’t even sure they would have been able to choose another life. All Meiren at the age of accountability had but two responsibilities: create two offspring to entrust to the regime, and then to either become a living weapon or to follow the path of the Fauda. Jacann wanted neither, and she’d thought Arrik, too, wanted a life beyond that which the regime offered.
Again, Arrik sneered in disgust. He turned and began walking into the cave. He had already lingered too long with Jacann, admiring the world between the completely enclosed Meiren compound and the cave of the Fauda. Other Meiren, he was sure, had made haste on their way to the cave to sacrifice themselves as demanded. He was sure an indefinite lifespan as a tool of war was not what he wanted, but he knew what his only other option was. Jacann was weak: she could face neither life nor death, it seemed. He would take the life from her now but not outside of the cave- the Fauda and the regime both prohibited the taking of a Meiren life. Death must be natural, accidental, or voluntary. He didn’t know what would happen if he killed her, but he knew that if she didn’t join him she would be in perilous violation of their rules and traditions.
“What will happen if I don’t go?”
“I don’t know, Jacann. You shouldn’t ask such things. Where do you get these thoughts?” He couldn’t understand how or why Jacann was spending her thoughts on ideas that were never part of their education. It was if her mind had flown away with those birds. “Come on now. It’s going to be dark soon and we have to make the sacrifice before night falls.” It was true: no Meiren lived after nightfall on the day they chose the Fauda. He grabbed for her hand, suddenly afraid it would feel alien. She wasn’t the Jacann he had left the compound with. He wondered if she had ever been the Jacann he thought he knew.
She jerked her hand away, shaking her head. “No.”
“What? Jacann, don’t be foolish. The Fauda requires-”
“What has the Fauda ever done for us? It’s a way out of the regime, yes, but I don’t believe it’s the only way. It’s just a punishment for not wanting to be soldiers. I’m supposed to die today anyway. I’m dead to the Meiren and dead to the regime. If I die today it will be because something happens while I’m walking through the trees, but I’m not going to just lay down and give up.”
Arrik’s anger flared. How dare she reject both prescribed paths for the Meiren! Who did she think she was? She wasn’t better than him or the others. Before he realized it, his palm was burning and a loud noise was echoing through the walls of the cave. Jacann had a hand at her face, and a thin line of blood was leaking from beneath it. “I’m sorry! I- I didn’t mean to hit you. I wouldn’t have done it if you’d just listened to me.” A flutter of fear manifested itself in his belly. It was going to be night soon.
Jacann lowered her hand from her face, held it out. It was bright with blood, and Arrik could see her split lip swelling. He stared as his friend, companion, and lover smeared her blood onto his own hand. “Take that with you, Arrik. When you get to the temple of the Fauda, tell it that is my last sacrifice to it or to the regime.” She pivoted and began walking away from the cave into the dense underbrush of the jungle. With each step she felt her identity as a Meiren falling away. Her children, her parents, her lover, her choices: all were lost to her.
Arrik watched her leave. A knife twisted in his chest as he realized that he had to die alone. For a moment he considered running after her, running away with her. He shook his head as if to clear it of the vile thoughts Jacann had infected him with, then continued his trek into the cave and to the destiny he chose.