The Land Above Clouds

Short story and image by Isabelle Sorrells


     In a land flowing with clear waters and clouds for land, beyond and hidden from the average searching eye, dwells many exotic creatures; creatures that defy reality. Hulking brutes that fight beneath rainbows, trees that breathe fire, things that can fly but shouldn’t – creatures from fairytales.

     Parents pass down generations of tales telling of the Land Above. It’s a magical thing to see the imagination and wonder working behind a child’s eyes, but all these villagers’ children, as the villagers themselves have done before, must come to the realization that these tales of magic and adventure are just fairytales after all. It is an occasion to mark all others, as well as a private one, when they come to this realization, as each of these children reach a stage of maturity in the knowledge of what is reality, and what isn’t.

    The Alatus family is known throughout Portus as the chief storytellers, with the largest library in town where everyone gathers to escape and hear the stories from their ancestors. Athena Alatus is Iyan’s favorite storyteller in the family, and she is his mother.

   When he was young, she used to tell him stories of the Land Beyond every night. He used to fall asleep to the warm sound of her voice as she wove webs of brave heroes fighting beneath watery rainbows and rescuing the trees from villains like Zero Kelvins. He loved the stories of the heroes who would ride the wind like eagles, rescuing wandering strangers, beloved (and not so beloved) family, and lost little children from the clutches of evil. They would invade his dreams and take him away to that magical place, and they wouldn’t leave him even in the waking hours of the day.

    Now, seventeen years old, Iyan had yet to experience that private moment, and he fought against the pressures of his friends to experience it every day. It was a running joke they had, that since he practically lived in the fabled world, he was fabled himself. They would laugh and move on, but Iyan continued to be the relentless protector of the Land Beyond, right there to defend it when anyone would question its credibility.

     The villagers called him naïve, more called him crazy, and some wondered if they should continue to tell the stories at all with the effect it had on him, for fear it would have the same effect on their children. They didn’t want their kids to have their heads in the clouds like him. They wanted them grounded – living in the real world. Iyan wanted desperately to show them the Land Beyond was as much real as he was.

    One bright summer day Iyan sat in the shade of a tall tree in the town’s park, the cool wind counteracting the heat of the sun. A huge table covered in picnic foods stood in the middle of the park, surrounded by the townspeople. It was the annual Portus picnic, and the whole town was there. Kids ran in chaotic zigzags, adults laughed over red solo cups while playing yard games, and teens lounged in their circles in the grass enjoying the beautiful day.

    A little girl ran behind the tree Iyan was leaning against, breathing hard and giggling between breaths.

  “Who’s it now Aggie?” Iyan asked, craning his head around the trunk.

  “Jaden is. He’s right over there!” Aggie giggled and pointed over to a little boy currently chasing a pack of kids.

  “Hiding so you don’t have to run as much. Smart strategy,” Iyan commended her.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Reading.”

  “Oh!” Aggie exclaimed and came out of her hiding spot to sit in front of him. “Can you read to us?”

  “Sure,” Iyan smiled.

  “Guys! Iyan is gonna read us a story!” Aggie called. Like a swarm, a pack of kids ran up and Iyan was surrounded.

  “So, what story do you all want to hear?” Iyan asked. A chorus of responses rang through the crowd.

  “Bronte of the Sea-Sky!”

  “Ustinya the Queen of the Mist!”

  “Nilsa the Strong!”

  “Batur the Fearless!”

  “How about Batur the Fearless? That’s my favorite,” Iyan asked. The kids all nodded eagerly in agreement, so Iyan quickly flipped through his collection of stories and found the one he was looking for.

   “Long ago, three great sorcerers captured King Rex of Lacetmel and took his place as rulers of the kingdom. These sorcerers were named Metus, Interium, and the worst of the three, Malum. They ruled with fear and oppression. There was no end to their ruthlessness, and no one dared challenge them.

     “One man in a small farming town had had enough of the torment and harsh taxes. His family had given all they had, and they had nothing left to give. He took up a rusted sword and a dented shield the soldiers had not bothered to take from them and went to the city. His friends and family insisted he would surely die on this foolish escapade and not to go. Some tried to make him stay for fear his actions would bring the three sorcerers’ rath down on his town as consequence, but he knew the sorcerers’ abusive rule couldn’t stand, and he would go alone if he had to.

   “And so, he did. He infiltrated the castle and tried to free the King, but his bonds were magic, and the only way to set him free was to defeat the sorcerers. He tried to find someone to help, but no one would.

   “With no one to support him, the needs of the people the only thing on his mind, he flew into the throne room. After a long, difficult battle, despite what everyone said, Batur defeated Metus, Interium, and Malum, freeing the King and bringing peace and joy to the kingdom once again, earning him the title Batur the Fearless,” Iyan finished.

    “Are sorcerers real?” a boy in the front asked.

    “I’ve never seen one,” Iyan shrugged.

   “Did that all really happen?” a girl named Lois asked.

   “I think so,” Iyan replied. “Do you?”

     Lois nodded.

    “Lois! Come here please,” Lois’ father called as he walked up to the group, a few other parents close behind him.

      “Yes, papa!” Lois stood up and went to her father’s side. More parents called their kids to their sides as well, one after the other and then all at once, leaving Iyan sitting alone under the tree.

       “Iyan read us the story of Batur the Fearless!” Lois told her father excitedly, starting a murmur as all the kids began recounting the exciting story.

       A mother hushed her child from saying any more. “None of that’s real dear, why don’t you go play some more tag?”

      “Yes, it is!” Lois responded.

      “No, it isn’t. Hon, it’s just a fairytale,” Lois’ father said.

       “But it is! Iyan said so!” At that, Lois’ father and about a dozen other parents looked at Iyan scornfully.

       “Don’t go filling our kids’ heads with that nonsense Iyan,” a man Iyan knew well scolded with a sneer on his face.

      “Really, you should know better. A Land Above Clouds where magical creatures and daring heroes reside? Ridiculous!” a woman exclaimed.

       “We don’t want them believing in what’s not real. It’s not good for them,” another added with a softer tone.

        “But they are real!” Iyan insisted as he stood to his feet. He couldn’t help it. All the adults looked down at him with pity. He hated that look.

        “Why don’t I take that book, son? I don’t think it’s very good for you either.” Lois’ father walked toward him and reached for the book. Iyan snatched the book out of reach in horror.

         “No! You’re wrong. You’re all wrong!” Iyan shouted. “I’ll show you! I’ll prove it to you. The Land Above Clouds exists.” With that, Iyan clutched his book close and ran out of the park.

***

         At home, Iyan packed a bag angrily, unshed tears burning in his eyes. “It’s real. They’re all real! I just know it…” Iyan muttered under his breath. A knock at his door made him stop.

        “Iyan? Are you all right?” Athena Alatus asked softly. Iyan wiped his eyes and continued to pack. He didn’t trust himself to respond.

         “Iyan…” Athena sat on the bed beside his backpack and laid a hand on her son’s, making him stop again.

         “They don’t believe me,” Iyan looked at his mother with determination. “They think I’m crazy. I’m going to prove them wrong. I need to prove them wrong.”

          “I know,” she said, surprising Iyan with her acceptance.

         “Wh-what do you mean?”

         “I’m not going to stop you. I know this is something you need to do.” There was so much warmth and understanding in her eyes the tears in Iyan’s own almost broke loose. Iyan’s dad walked into the room and put a hand on his shoulder.

         “Neither of us will.” Richard Alatus put a set of keys into his son’s hand, who looked from it to him quizzically. “They’re to your grandpa’s truck in the barn, he said you could use it,” Richard explained. “Bring her back in one piece.”

        “I will, Dad,” Iyan promised.

        Athena got off the bed and placed the book of stories in his hand. “You’ll want this, too.”

       Iyan took the book and dropped it and the keys onto his bed, wrapping his arms around his mom, his dad wrapping his arms around him. They stood like that for a while, never wanting to let go.

     When they finally did, Athena cupped her hand over her son’s cheek and said, “only you can find what you are looking for.”

     “I don’t have any idea where to start.” Iyan gave his parents a worried smile.

     “Well,” Richard said with a knowing smile, “where around here is there land above clouds?”

       Iyan’s parents didn’t wait for his answer, leaving his room and leaving him to begin his journey to prove to the world what doesn’t exist is real, knowing he would do it alone if he had to.

***

       Iyan stopped at every hill, every mountain he came across, climbing to the top of each one in search for The Above. He traveled great distances for the mountain he was searching for, but he knew he finally had found the right one as he drove toward it.

      It was incredibly far off, but he could still see the body, stark against the blue sky, alone in its height. As he drove closer, he had no doubt it led to The Land Above as the rocky palisade loomed high overhead, its peak hidden in a dense sea of clouds, making it impossible to see how tall it truly was. On the road leading up to it, a single sign told Iyan the mountain’s name was Intrades. What that meant, he did not know.

     At the bottom of Intrades, all roads come to an end. The only way up was to climb.

     The climb was steep and rough, but Iyan persisted. Falling, resting, climbing, acclimatizing, he did it all. There were times he thought he would never reach the top, but his book of stories, and the promise of reminding the world of something they had forgotten – and proving he wasn’t crazy – kept him going.

   Iyan knew he was getting close when he could touch the clouds. They obstructed his view and enveloped him in a fluffy embrace as he ascended into them. Iyan reached the top, breaking through the thick layer of clouds. Everything he had been through, the distance he’d crossed, the pitying gazes and scorn he’d endured, it was all worth it. Nothing he had imagined could’ve compared to what he saw.

    The Land Above the Clouds was an entirely different world, and Iyan couldn’t breathe in it. He collapsed onto the oddly colored grass and struggled to breathe. His lungs were closing, and he needed something, anything to open them up. Iyan spotted a shimmering river a few yards away through his collapsing vision. He could barely think, but the river reminded him of the story of Ustinya, the Queen of the Above, who had put oxygen into the elements earth and water since the atmosphere was not fit to hold it.

   He dropped his bag and submerged himself in the water, oxygen returning to his lungs. Duplicating the ways of Ustinya’s people, Iyan rubbed mud from the bottom of the river on his neck and under his nose and stepped out of the water, using the mud to give him oxygen while on land. Now, able to breathe, he took in the magical world.

   The grass was wispy and white, as if it were made of the clouds that hid this world from the rest of humanity. The river was a shimmering cobalt blue and the mud at the bottom was clear as glass. Beyond, the grass faded and gave way to a forest of trees set ablaze in an eternal, bright red flame, and he could almost swear he could see the trees growing taller, inch by inch, slowly but surely.

    The only way to anywhere was through the inferno. The river snaked through the trees, smooth and unaffected by the heat.

     Iyan took a picture of the view before him with a disposable camera he had acquired from one of the previous towns and stood at the edge of the flames, wary of the heat, wondering if this backwards world’s fire would affect him the same as the world below. He stepped forward and jumped back with a hiss. It does.

    “Welcome to Terra Supra Nubes. You came through the Introitum Ad Aubes Ex Monte. We have not seen anyone come through there in centuries,” all of the trees said at once.

    “I don’t know what any of that means,” was all Iyan could think to say.

      The trees seemed to laugh with the rustling and cackling of leaves on fire. “Who are you?” they asked.

     “My name is Iyan, and I have come to see the Land Above Clouds. I want to know that it exists,” Iyan replied.

      “Here we are.”

      “Where’s the rest?” Iyan asked incredulously.

    “Are we not enough?” the trees demanded. “We are the Spiritus Ignis! We burn eternal, water runs through our territory unharmed. We are fantastic in our existence, harboring creatures of impossible design, and our voice speaks unlike any other forest. Is that not enough?”

      “But where are the cities? Where are the people? I want to see more.”

      “We warn you, the more you discover, the heavier it will bear. That is, if you discover it at all.”

      “I need to see more, please,” Iyan insisted.

      “Very well. The only way to what you seek is through our forest of flames.”

     “There has to be another way. I won’t survive if I go through the forest.”

      “Perhaps it is best if you go back down the mountain then. There is no other way through.”

      “No. I’m not going back. Not until I have proof.” Determined, Iyan stepped into the inferno and was engulfed by the heat. Fighting the flame, he took another step, and another. He ignored the pain as best he could, but it was too much. With a cry, Iyan ran out onto the white grass and rolled to put out the fire burning his clothes and hair. When he was sure it was out, he stood again, and before he could have enough time to give up – or the trees could discourage him again – he ran head-on into the fire.

        He swerved around the trees and dodged the collections of flame and heat. Sweat pulled his shirt against his skin and fell into his eyes, blurring his vision. He ran and ran, but there was no end to the forest. Iyan came to a stop, his head light and his breath leaving him as the heat dried the mud around his throat and it flaked off. He was going to die here, and he would never see his family again. With that thought, Iyan stood up and turned back in the direction he came from, but even the glaring white of the grass in the clearing couldn’t be seen through the trees.

      As his legs were about to give out the flames ahead sputtered and died, paving a path of blackened but soft grass and ash-white trees.

     “Go,” a voice whispered through the flames around him, and he took off, finally crashing back into the clearing, but the mud on his neck was gone, and the river was too far away. He collapsed, gasping for breath.

    “Eat the grass,” the trees commanded and Iyan obeyed, pulling up clumps and shoving it into his mouth greedily. As he ate, his lungs opened and he could breathe again. He looked back to the forest to find the path once again awash with flame, the trees a few feet shorter than the rest where the path had once been.

    “Thank you,” Iyan said to the forest.

    “That was foolish, boy. You cannot outrun our flames,” the trees replied.

    “But why did you save me?”

    “Our fire was meant to bring and protect life, not destroy it. There are other ways to avoid the flames.”

      A hot wind rushed from the forest and swept passed Iyan, flowing helpfully to the river and back through the trees.

      “Go, and Godspeed on your journey, young Iyan.”

      After wrapping his camera and book in as many layers of plastic bags as he could, Iyan stepped into the river and swam to the forest’s edge. With a deep breath he swam under the cover of the trees and was relieved to find he was untouched by the heat. From there he swam, stopping for breaks on the river’s bank. When night hit, the glow of the fire and the river lit his way.

     When the sun rose the current of the water picked up, and Iyan found himself carried through the waters and out of the forest to another clearing looking out over fields of white and mountains tinted pink in the sun. Patches of forest were scattered all over, each a bundle of vibrant pigments and saturations. A roaring filled Iyan’s ears, and before he could register what it was, he plunged down a thundering waterfall, gravity preventing him from gaining control of his limbs.

    He plunged into a vast lake of sparkling water that was black as night. The blue from the waterfall flowing but not mixing with the pure black, both waters dancing against each other in swirls. Sections of the sky were the color of the blackened water, and it was almost impossible to tell if he was in the sky or the lake. When he saw the sky falling in streams into the tarn, he realized he was in both.

    It took barely any effort to swim to the beach as the black, star-filled liquid seemed to hold him afloat. When he reached the glittering pink sands he collapsed, body-aching, into an exhausted sleep.

    ***

    When Iyan opened his eyes, he had no idea where he was, but he knew there were no people here. As he sat up a dull throb pounded in the small of his back from where he hit the water and he groaned. Iyan stretched for a minute before he snapped a few pictures of his surroundings and unwrapped his book, flipping through it for any clue as to where he was. The tale of Bronte of the Sea-Sky could give him a clue, or Apate the Trickster? As he thumbed through the pages a parchment yellowed with age fell out onto his lap. Of all the time he spent reading this book, he had never seen this.

   Iyan unfolded it to reveal a blank sheet of paper, old and worn. As he went to flip it over a gust of wind caught the paper and sent it tumbling into the water, where it immediately sunk into the black shallows. Iyan swore and lunged forward, shoving his hands into the water. He pulled out the paper, now heavy and waterlogged. He let out a disappointed sigh when he discovered both sides were blank, but as he watched, the paper soaked up the black water, forming words and images with it like ink. To Iyan’s surprise, what was once a blank sheet of paper now was a map of the Land Above.

    Upon close examination Iyan was able to find the forest of Spiritus Ignis and what he could only assume was the lake he now sat by; the Volu Stellas. The map showed that if Iyan kept going, he would come across the Deserto Flores, a place called Barathrum Lucis, and then would eventually find the Elevatum Urbem, the only name Iyan recognized as the Elevated City. Iyan would be excited about this information had he not been utterly confused how to get to the ‘Deserto Flores.’ The map was rudimentary in that it only showed the places’ names and a few drawings in their respective order, and he didn’t remember seeing anything when he fell that looked like the flowers that were drawn around the Deserto Flores.

   Stumped, Iyan’s gaze drifted to the waterfall he fell from. He could still see the light of the forest fire glowing from over the edge, playing tricks with the lights as it reflected off the mist of the waterfall, broadcasting little rainbows into the air. Looking at it now, Iyan recalled the stories of the Gigantes Albus, battle-hungry giants that lived beneath rainbows. He wondered if there was one under there right now. Struck with an idea, Iyan packed away his things and walked along the beach toward the waterfall.

      The beach gave way to grass and eventually gave way to rock until Iyan was met with a wall of silver boulders that stretched high above, water pouring down further into the lake. Iyan walked on the side of the cliff over boulders and clumps of grass, sometimes having to climb directly on the cliff for lack of better foot holds. As Iyan climbed toward the waterfall the thundering of falling water drowned out all other sounds, dying down only a little once he was behind the wall of rushing water.

     Behind the waterfall was a pocket of cobalt blue water that hadn’t mixed with the black waters outside and a platform of rock cut into the cliff in the shape of a ‘U’. Iyan was so focused on not slipping on the rocks that he didn’t see the giant on the other side of the platform until he spoke.

    “Young bellator, welcome. My name is Calian, the Ruthless Gigas. Prepare for battle,” the giant roared. His skin and hair were pure white, and the brightness of him made Iyan’s eyes hurt. He wore a roman-style toga that revealed his bare chest and all the scars that covered him, each one a different color. Reds, greens, pinks, oranges, grays, yellows, there were so many colors, so many shades. Some Iyan had never even seen before.

     “Wait, I’m not here to fight. I was wondering if you could help me,” Iyan replied.

      “Ha! You are a fool! You come into my waterfall and don’t want to fight? What kind of warrior are you?”

      “I’m not. I’m just trying to find the people of The Above.”

      “I should’ve known. A human! It has been a long time since I’ve fought one of your kind. See these?” The giant pointed to various scars on his body. A storm-cloud gray, a red the shade of Iyan’s grandpa’s truck, a grassy green, and a yellow that reminded Iyan of the autumn leaves in Portus. “These are all colors of the few of your kind I have known to be worthy warriors. People and creatures come far and wide to witness the shade of their souls. You mean to say you do not care to know?”

     “I just want to find the city,” Iyan insisted.

     “That is not possible, I am afraid. When one ventures beneath the waterfall, there is a price to pay. I wonder, what color will you give me, if you can?” At that, the giant ran swiftly toward him, large feet pounding against the ground and sending echoes throughout the cave.

      Iyan could think of nothing to do but put his arms in front of his face as Calian the giant barreled into him, sending Iyan flying into the cliff side. Iyan crumpled against the ground and groaned in pain.

     “I have not fought a good battle in decades, young bellator, and I am hungry. I am hungry for color. Get up and fight,” Calian encouraged. He stood a few feet away, back against the waterfall, waiting patiently for Iyan to stand up. “You will not leave until you do. I will wait.”

     Iyan waited on the ground for the pain to subside, biding his time as he desperately searched his memory of the stories that told of those who have fought a Gigantes Albus. The Gigantes Albus fights for color and honor, Iyan recalled. The only story Iyan could remember was the story of when the villain Apate used her deceptive abilities to make the Gigantes Albus think she had scarred him without doing anything, and he let her go.

   The only problem with that; Iyan didn’t have any ‘deceptive’ abilities. Iyan had no idea how he could fight this guy, let alone scar him. The giant towered over him and was covered in muscles and experience.

    Iyan had never really fought anyone, not like the way this giant wants to, and he had no weapon with which to defend himself. Iyan slowly stood. The only way to get through this was to fight. So, he would fight as best as he could, pushing down his fear, although, unlike Batur the Fearless, his hands continued to shake from a feeling not quite gone. He searched his surroundings for any weapon he could use. Behind him the cliff face was covered in a wall of vines and sticks. He pulled one off the wall and brandished it before him like a sword.

     “Let’s do this,” Iyan said, thankfully keeping his voice from cracking.

     “Ah! The Bellator has found his courage! Let us see who will bleed first!”

     Iyan and Calian charged at one another, Calian with his fists of steel, Iyan with his stick.

     They fought, and it was not a quick battle. Iyan was only able to keep going because he was smaller and faster than the giant, nimble as he was, but Iyan was tired and losing strength. His nose was gushing blood, his head throbbed from where he hit the wall and he had a horrible gash running down his arm, blood dripping from his fingers, and he had yet to touch the giant. Iyan came to the sickening conclusion he wouldn’t make it out of this fight. He needed a plan. He needed something better than a stick as a weapon.

     Iyan’s gaze fell on a section of jagged rocks on the edge of the platform, sharp from erosion. The only way to satisfy the giant’s need for color was to give him a scar. So, that is what Iyan would do. Iyan ran at Calian and screamed. The giant was taken aback by Iyan’s fierceness, so his reaction was slow when Iyan slid through his legs, Calian only managing to cuff him slightly about the head before he slipped into the pool with a splash.

   Calian looked over the edge of the platform to find Iyan lost beneath the waters, bubbles surfacing from where he plunged into the pool. After a few moments Iyan’s limp body floated to the top where the bubbles had been. Calian reached down and pulled the unconscious boy out from the water by his wrist, holding him at arm’s length, and inspected him to see if he had died.

   “Mea, humans have weakened since my day,” Calian noted when the boy didn’t stir.

     Iyan suddenly burst to life, lashing out with his free hand and scraping the rock across the giant’s chest, leaving a large gash across his torso, color seeping out of old scars. The giant bellowed and dropped Iyan, stumbling back and putting a hand across his wound. Iyan stood in a fighting stance, ready for the giant to come at him, but to his astonishment, Calian’s pained yell trailed off into a fit of laughter, echoing against the stones of the cliff.

   “Mighty Bellator! How clever you are!” Calian laughed.

    “Ex-excuse me?” Iyan asked, unsure of what was happening.

    “Come, let us see what color you have given me!” Calian walked over to the edge of the waterfall where it poured onto the end of the platform. He stood under the water, letting it wash away his blood, the wound healing rapidly, color mixing with his blood as it flowed. When Calian stepped out of the water the wound had healed, leaving a glowing blue line across the canvas of his white chest. The new scar had overlapped a few others, and where they met the blue had mixed in, turning them different shades and giving the giant multiple brand-new colors to adorn his chest.

    “Ah, what a beautiful shade! This is a wonderful gift, thank you, Young Bellator,” Calian said heartily.

    “So… we’re done?” Iyan asked hopefully.

     “We are done!”

      “Oh, thank God!” Iyan dropped the bloodied rock and fell to his knees in relief. Calian looked to him and smiled.

     “Come here and heal your injuries Bellator, you will not do good to have open wounds like that.”

       Confused, Iyan shakily stood and walked to Calian. “How?”

     “Like this,” Calian gripped Iyan by the shoulders and placed him directly under the waterfall. Iyan gasped when the water flowed down his head and through his wounds, the pressure a painful shock, but it soon faded to nothing.

     Iyan emerged from the natural shower feeling fresh and rejuvenated. Any of the pain he felt before had washed away with the water. He looked down at his arm where his wound had been to find it had been replaced with a thin scar down the length of it, stark white against his sun-tanned skin.

    “Whoa,” Iyan gasped as he sat on the ground, taking it all in.

     “Whoa indeed,” Calian agreed, sitting down next to him with a loud thump, taking in a deep breath. “It feels good to see color again.”

    “How long has it been since the last time?”

    “About three-hundred years, I think.”

     “But why? In the stories the white giants were always fighting.”

    “I do not know. The bellatores have vanished. Many came from your kind, and I haven’t seen or heard of your people in centuries. Or my kind, for that matter.” Calian stared wistfully out through the cracks in the wall of water at the world beyond. Iyan could see him recounting the old days of epic battles and scars won behind his eyes. “You said you were looking for something. A city?” Calian asked.

    “Yes!” Iyan replied excitedly. He ran to where he had dropped his backpack and sat in front of Calian, pulling out the map for him to see. “I need to find the Elevatum Urbem. It shows where it is on the map here, and I need to go through these places to get there, but I don’t know which way to go, let alone what I’m looking for. I doubt these places will have signs in front telling me their names. Could you perhaps point me in the right direction?”

    “This is the desert of flowers, in your language. This is where you will want to go next,” Calian said, pointing at the map. “You did good to come to me.” Calian stood and walked to the cliff wall. He stood for a minute, searching the stones. When he found what he was looking for he pulled out a small rock from the wall and the entire thing came crashing down.

    Or at least, a section of it. A gaping hole stood in the middle of the cliff, fallen rocks scattered around it. On the other side Iyan could see a place incredibly different from their own.

   “Where is that?” Iyan asked.

    “That is still the Land Above. This is just a door to another part of it. A shortcut,” Calian explained.

     Iyan wrapped up his map and book and hiked on his bag before going to stand by Calian’s side in front of the door.

     “Why is it so imperative that you find these people?” Calian asked.

      “The people back in my hometown don’t believe you exist. I need to prove to them that you do.”

      “What if they are not there? It has been centuries since I have seen anyone of The Clouds. They may have died off.”

       “No,” Iyan said forcefully. “They are still here. I just need to find them.”

       “Your whole mission could be for naught,” Calian said gently. “Are you prepared for that?”

       “I don’t need to be. I will find them.”

       Calian nodded his head in acceptance and said nothing else. Iyan pulled out his camera and unwrapped it. “Actually, can we take a picture?”

      “Picture?”

      “Yeah, you just-,” Iyan saw the look of confusion on Calian’s face and sighed. “Just hold still.” Iyan took a quick picture of the giant alone and one of them together before putting the camera away and facing the field beyond. “Thank you for the, uh, help.”

      “And thank you for the caerulus gift, Young Bellator. Allow me to offer you some advice; when you venture into the Deserto Flores, beware of the Herba Balena. It is a thirsty creature and will drink you dry,” Calian warned.

      “Good to know.”

      “And Iyan,” Calian placed a large white hand on Iyan’s shoulder. “You have conviction, which is a good thing. Don’t ever lose it.”

       Iyan smiled and said goodbye to the Gigantes Albus before stepping through the door and into the Deserto Flores.

***

    After Iyan was through he watched as the stones surrounding the opening in the cliff floated back to their places as Calian the giant replaced the lost rock. When Iyan turned he understood immediately why the Deserto Flores was named the way it was.

   All around him were rolling hills of beautiful flowers, vibrantly swaying in the breeze with piles of boulders placed at random intervals throughout. There was no sign of civilization other than a pair of mountains standing arrant against the sky, awash with the fading pigments of dusk.

   Iyan could only assume his next destination was somewhere near those mountains, seeing as it was the only place to go. Iyan ate a clump of irises around his feet when his lungs began to tighten and watched as the sun slowly sank below the horizon. When the only light he could see were the stars above he lay down and gazed at the milky way until his eyes shut and he drifted off to a peaceful sleep.

   Iyan awoke the next morning to the ground shaking beneath his feet. He tried to stand but the ground shook so horribly it was impossible to find balance. In the distance, the very hills shifted rapidly toward him. As they shifted, the flowers lost their vibrancy, immediately dying and wilting to decayed brown mush. Iyan watched in astonishment as the ground split and a strange, earthy creature broke through, letting loose an appalling screech before burrowing back into the ground, its wide tail thumping against the earth and shaking the world again.

   Iyan struggled to get out of the way as the rocks behind him tumbled down. The creature was getting closer now. Iyan grabbed his bag and prepared to take off when the creature broke through again not three feet away from him, snaping its wide mouth at him, attempting to snatch him up. With nowhere else to go Iyan scrambled up the pile of rocks, slipping and sliding as they shifted. When he got to the top, he looked down to see the flowers rippling and dying in a circle around him.

   The creature let out a screech from beneath the ground before it jumped through, spraying dirt and flowers everywhere. Iyan ducked and watched in amazement as the creature dove over him, large mouth snapping at him, but missing. It was a whale covered in dirt and moss and fresh flowers, vines and roots wrapping around its body and trailing behind it, its eyes a toxic green. Dirt fell in Iyan’s eyes as it soared overhead and disappeared beneath the dirt, nearly knocking him over as it passed.

   Iyan watched the ground ripple and shift as it circled him underground before finally giving up and rumbling through the fields of dead flowers and away from sight.

   Now, Iyan was surrounded by fields of mush and decay, the world strangely silent with the whale’s absence. Once Iyan knew the whale was not coming back he opened his backpack, sitting on the pile of rocks and found one of the stories about the Herba Balena, gathering as much information about the creature as he could.

   From the tale of Juvia of the Rain, Iyan discovered the grass whale was one who had fallen from the sky during the great whale migration and was lost to the soil. Unable to return to the waters, it roams the land, doomed to never swim through the depths of the oceans but to steal the water from everything that has it in the earth, dead or alive.

   Traveling through the whale’s fields was dangerous, even suicide, and many who had tried were sucked dry to satiate the whale’s thirst. To protect her caravan, who had no choice but to go through, Juvia commanded the clouds to pour all their waters far off in the distance, allowing her caravan to pass through safely while the whale drank from the rain, far away from them. Some stories said the clouds continued to rain in that spot, creating an eternal downpour for the Herba Balena, but clearly, they were wrong.

    After a few hours passed, Iyan climbed back down from the rock pile and stepped on the ground again. When the ground stayed still, Iyan took another step and then another, carefully walking toward the next pile of rocks, trying as hard as he could not to draw the attention of the grass whale.

   As he walked his back ached from his fight with the giant, why the pain hadn’t washed away with the waterfall, Iyan didn’t know. When he had covered about half the distance between the two rock piles the ground began to shudder and Iyan broke into a run. When he saw the whale’s ripples coming toward him, he refused to turn around, only picking up speed, trying desperately to reach the rocks before the whale reached him.

    Too late, the whale breached in front of him, landing with a thud on its belly, mouth gaped open, waiting for him to just walk in. Iyan swerved around the beast and kept running, leaping onto the whale’s tale as it flopped and using it to launch himself onto the rocks. After he landed, he scrambled up the rest of the way and stood, breathing hard, facing the whale.

   He and the Herba Balena stared at each other, the whale visibly irritated it had missed its drink, for a few moments before the whale finally gave up and burrowed into the ground, but this time, it didn’t go away. It just circled and circled, determined not to let him go.

   Iyan sat there for four days and nights, the whale circling patiently, both parties too stubborn to give in. During the night, the whale slept, grass and mud jetting out of its blowhole the only indication as to where it lay, hidden beneath the ground. One night, Iyan took a risk and climbed down for some dead flowers to eat, and he almost didn’t make it back.

   The whale had gotten hold of his leg, snapping its large mouth around it, and sucked. He managed to pull free before the whale could do much of anything, but when got to the top of his rock pile, he found the skin on his leg had dried and was tighter around his bones than before.

   The next night he tried this, the whale was slower to react, and he managed to get to safety before it stirred. The night after that, after some careful experimentation, the whale didn’t stir at all. Iyan realized that as the grass whale sat here, waiting for its prey to come down again or to give up, it was dehydrating, slowly killing itself as it refused to go anywhere else for its water.

   By the fifth night, Iyan was ready. He pulled together his things, carefully crept down the pile of rock and silently ran into the night. He figured the whale only knew where he was because it sensed the water inside him, as far as he could tell, it couldn’t really hear, but he didn’t want to take any chances. The whale didn’t stir, so when he reached the next rock pile, he kept going, passing the next one and the next.

    The mountains were getting closer, so, so close, there were only a handful of rock piles left between him and the mountains and the forest of trees scattered around it. Iyan let out a quiet whoop of excitement as he passed the next rock pile, he counted only ten more to go if he kept going in the same direction. He could make it.

   His joy was short-lived when the ground shook with a mighty tremble, making him fall to his knees. Iyan looked back into the night, the dead blanket of flowers turned a dull gray in the moonlight, but wherever the whale was, it was too far back to see.

    Iyan stood, and despite the unsteady ground, ran with all he had. He continued to fall every few strides, the trembling only growing stronger, each time sneaking a glance behind him. He had gotten past two more of the piles, leaving him eight more, when he caught the smallest line of rolling land beyond. Iyan stood and kept running. The piles were at varying distances, so it was hard to tell how far exactly he had left to run, but his bag was dragging him down, and his lungs were closing again. The trembling was growing stronger and Iyan fell to the ground.

    Iyan shoved some flowers in his mouth and ran as he chewed, not daring to turn back. He had just passed the two other piles when the ground folded and Iyan was launched into the air as though the ground had been pulled right from beneath his feet.

   Iyan fell to the side, far away from the path he was following and the rock piles nearby. The whale had gained on him, and was about to overtake him, so as the whale breached the surface, making an arc in the night sky, Iyan ran beneath the whale mid-flight, skidded on his side the rest of the way as the whale landed and grabbed on to the vines wrapped around its tail.

  The whale stopped; mouth wide as it bobbed its head around, blindly searching for the prey it knew to be right there but confused as to why it wasn’t falling into its mouth.

   Iyan climbed up the vines and grabbed onto the whale’s tale, which jerked at his touch and flung him onto the whale’s mossy back. After that, the whale made no further indication that it knew he was there.

   The whale began gliding backwards, slamming its mouth into the ground, sensing Iyan’s presence but not realizing that Iyan was on top of it, instead of crushed beneath or behind him.

   Iyan crawled to the head of the whale and quickly swiped his hand in front of the whale’s eye. When the whale did nothing, Iyan did it again, but slower, and Iyan understood that the whale could sense the water in Iyan’s body but couldn’t see him. With this new information, Iyan crawled to the top of the whale’s head and sat down, draping his legs of the top of its mouth. The whale sensed this, and began to glide forwards, aimlessly snapping its large mouth, searching for the water source that should be right in front of it.

   Iyan moved his legs to steer the whale back on course to the mountains and rode on the whale’s head toward his destination. The whale would occasionally burrow back into the ground, during which Iyan would jump off and run above the whale until it breached again, landing on its back and crawling back to its head to steer it again.

    They reached the edge of the forest around the mountains where the field of dead flowers was separated from the forest by a line of the biggest diamonds Iyan had ever seen. Before the whale could touch the diamond it came to a sudden stop, launching Iyan into the grass on the other side. Iyan stood and met the whale’s blind gaze, green eyes finally looking at the place the whale knew its source of water to be, but unsure of how he could have made it so far. It refused to cross the jewel barrier, and Iyan knew he was safe. The whale gave one last angry snap of its jaws before leaping back into the ground and rolling away, jets of grass and dirt shooting out if its blow hole as it went.

***

   Iyan walked through the forest, the ground slowly getting steeper and rising in elevation, his back aching as he went. The two mountains stood on either side of him, seeming to close in on him as he walked.

   Iyan hiked up a large embankment of rocks, pebbles rolling down as he climbed. When he reached the top, he gasped in astonishment.

   Unfolded out before him was a canyon that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was entirely black except for the little pinpricks of light scattered throughout, as if someone had taken a chunk of the night sky and locked it away in that scar of the earth. It was an endless pool of nothing, beautiful but daunting, and it sent shivers down Iyan’s spine.

  Smoke drifted in Iyan’s peripheral, and he turned to see black smoke drifting lazily from a section of rock at the very edge of the canyon. At a closer examination Iyan found, ‘Barathrum Lucis’ written in stone with liquid night.

   So, it did have a sign in front of it. Iyan scoffed and touched the strange substance, yanking his hand away when the words changed beneath his fingers to say, ‘ravine of light.’  In front of the sign was a set of stairs going down. Iyan counted about thirteen, before it was too dark to see the rest.

    If Iyan had any doubt before, he had none now. This is where he needed to go next. Iyan ate some grass and stored a few handfuls in his bag before standing at the edge of the ravine of light, gathering up the courage to descend.

    At the break of dawn, as the sun crept over the horizon and set the tops of the mountains on fire, Iyan descended into the darkness. It was cold and dark, but the random balls of light were everywhere and somehow, it got lighter the farther he went. Iyan could hear the drip of water echoing and he sped up, sure he was getting closer to the bottom of the endless stairs. In his rush, he slipped on a step and tumbled down the rest. He was unable to stop himself, hitting his head against the steps, and he blacked out.

   When Iyan came to, he was at the bottom of the ravine.

   Looking up, he saw nothing but a white-dotted black sky. The light from the day above was completely gone, and Iyan didn’t know if it was because he had been knocked out that long or the canyon’s depths were so far below and so dark not even the sun’s rays from above could reach the bottom.

    Iyan shivered from the cold, shrugging on a sweater before beginning his course into the abyss; his path lit a few feet at a time by the star-like lights suspended in his obsidian surroundings. It was easy to lose track of time in the Barathrum Lucis. After a while, Iyan could only keep track of what he thought were days by being awake, his nights counted when he was asleep.

   Four of what he considered days had passed and he found no other source of light, no staircase leading up or opening leading out. The ravine was endless, and it felt as though he were going deep underground, through the mountain and down into the earth, further and further away from his destination.

   In the darkness, with nothing to occupy himself but the monotony of walking, Iyan had nothing but time to think. And as he thought, alone in the oblivion, doubt crept in. What if he never found the people of the Above? What if they had all died centuries ago, like Calian had said, and he was getting lost in this canyon for nothing? Iyan tried to distract himself from these thoughts, but they were persistent, and the voices of the townspeople back home echoed inside his head.

They whispered of his naivety, his innocence.

He was immature and a bad influence on the children.

He would never amount to anything if he always kept his head in dreamland.

How did he expect to live in the real world and support a family if he believed in such ridiculous things?

They would stop telling the stories of The Land Above Clouds because of him.

Athena and Richard Alatus have failed their son.

He is a shame to the Alatus family and the town of Portus.

There is no such thing as the Land Above.

With each voice whispered in his head, each step he took, the pain in his back worsened.

   After a while, Iyan was brought out of his thoughts when he noticed the lights had dimmed and the air had gotten even chiller than before. He was going the wrong way. He turned to the left, where it looked like the rock beneath his feet inclined, and continued walking, but then that way too, seemed wrong. After a few more turns and collisions with walls Iyan realized he was lost, but knowing of nothing else he could do, Iyan forged ahead.

    Three more days later, Iyan sat down on the cold terrain, lungs closing, and shoved a few blades of grass into his mouth. Iyan dug through his bag for more only to bring out an empty fist. In a panic, Iyan upended his bag, shaking out its contents and searching through the assortment of things. He produced only a few more clumps of white dirt, which he stored safely in a side pocket and packed up the rest of his things.

   Iyan forced himself to move, despite the tears threatening to spill. He wouldn’t stop, not yet. He continued to walk, but the lights continued to grow dimmer no matter which way he went, and he could barely see his own feet. The terrain grew more rugged and Iyan tripped over a rock and fell over. His back flared up in pain and Iyan screamed into the shadows with despair until his throat was raw.

   When he finally collapsed, the lights had dimmed to nothing, leaving him lost and alone, crying in the darkness.

   “What are am I doing here?” Iyan sobbed.

   “That’s a question I should be asking you.”

    Iyan jerked his head up in surprise in search for the source of the gravelly voice, but it was so dark he couldn’t see anything.

    “Who said that?” Iyan asked. When no answer came, he called out, “who’s there?”

    “Why are you crying?” the voice asked uncomfortably.

    “I’m lost, and I can’t find my way back.”

    “Back to where?”

      The question caught Iyan off guard. It was a genuinely curious inquiry, but he was unsure of the answer.

      When he didn’t respond, the voice said, “this isn’t a riddle. Where do you want to go?”

     “I’m tired, in pain, lost and blind. I miss my family and… and I’m afraid. I thought I could be like Batur the Fearless and face all my challenges without fear, but I’m afraid. I’m a fool to have thought so,” Iyan ranted, stalling the question.

      The voice hummed patiently, waiting for him to continue, just like the way his mother would for him, and he was reminded of home. Of his father’s calm reassurance, his grandpa’s warm smile, the joy and fun he would have playing games with all his aunts and uncles. Of all the times him and his cousins and siblings would sit on the floor of the library or out on the lawn while their parents’ read stories from their collection, the townspeople joining in on many occasions. He thought of his mother and her loving embrace when they would read together at night, filling his mind with wonder.

    But that was all when he was kid, and he knew his life wouldn’t be like that when he returned. The memory of it all, however, renewed his spirit, reminding him that no matter what happened, he would always have the love and support of his family, and he knew his mother and father would want him to keep going until he had found what he was looking for.

  “I want to go to the Elevatum Urbem,” Iyan said confidently as he wiped away his last tears.

   “Ahhh,” the voice said, “I have not been there in an awfully long time. Does it still exist?”

   “Yes,” Iyan asserted.

   “Well then, we’ll just have to get you there.”

    “You know the way?” Iyan asked hopefully.

    “Yes, I do.”

      Iyan leapt to his feet in excitement, but the action caused too much strain on his lungs, and he fell again, digging into his bag and eating the last few crumbs of dirt he had left. The reprieve was blessed but short as the dirt was not enough. His lungs closed and he had nothing to help him breathe again.

     “Why are you still eating dirt?” the voice asked like a disappointed parent. “What is this, the stone age? Here.” The shadows parted in front of Iyan revealing a man cloaked in black. The man reached above him and pulled one of the lights out of the dark and held it out before him, a glowing jewel in his palm. The man twined something around it before placing it over Iyan’s head, Iyan gasping for breath all the while. As the stone settled against Iyan’s chest the cold touch of it forced his lungs open and he could breathe once more.

      “Better?” the man asked, his face now illuminated with a soft glow by the light of the stone draped around Iyan’s neck.

      Iyan sucked in as much air as he could before he was forced to exhale, then gave the stranger his thanks.

    “Of course. My name is Betsalel.” Betsalel held out a hand for Iyan, which he took and was hoisted back to his feet.

     “Iyan. And do you mean Betsalel the Shadowed?”

     “I have not heard that name in a while,” Betsalel smiled, impressed, “but yes.”

     “You trapped your former mentor, Lyssa of Discord in eternal darkness when she was going to sink all of the Land Above Clouds into chaos, right? I read your story all the time. You’re a hero!”

     “I was a villain before I was a hero,” Betsalel said morosely. “Come, I will take you to the city,” Betsalel turned and walked away, Iyan by his side.

     “So, how come you haven’t seen the city, if you know how to get there?” Iyan switched subjects.

      “I haven’t had reason to go there. I live here in the Barathrum Lucis, and no one has passed through here in a few centuries. I assumed they all died.”

      “You’ve never gone to see if they had?”

      Betsalel stopped and looked at his hands with confusion. “Well… I suppose I forgot I could. I’ve… been down here for so long I…” Betsalel trailed off, his brows furrowing together as he looked at his palms, as if the answer to his seclusion was written there, lost somewhere in the lines.

     “How long has it been since you’ve seen sunlight?”

     Betsalel looked up from his hands to Iyan, his eyes filled with the pain of one lost in the dark for far too long.

    “I do not know.”

    “Why don’t you come out with me then? I will find the city and you will find the sun.”

    “I think I would like that.”

    With that they continued walking through the bottom of the ravine in silence, the lights growing brighter, but the pain in Iyan’s back growing stronger.

     “Can we take a break?” Iyan grunted and sat down before Betsalel could answer.

      “We are still a ways away,” Betsalel noted as he sat down across from him. “If I remember correctly. You should get some sleep before we continue. Are you all right?”

      “Ugh, I’ll be okay,” Iyan said as he lay down, “I just need to rest for a bit.” Iyan tried to get comfortable but lying on his back only made the pain worse, so he turned, face onto the cold hard ground and passed out.

      When Iyan awoke most of the pain had gone, leaving a heavy weight on his upper back that he couldn’t figure out how to get rid of, let alone where it came from, but he did feel better. Standing again, it felt as though he was being dragged against the ground, which was what Iyan assumed as the result of sore muscles. After Iyan stretched, they were off.

     They talked during their trek of many and often simple things. Betsalel was not used to having company and would have to stop talking for brief intervals to give his throat a break, but once he got going, Iyan could tell he had missed conversation as his dark eyes lit up with joy. When he couldn’t talk, Iyan would fill the gaps, answering questions, telling him of life outside and what he had seen, recounting everything he had been through to get there.

      Betsalel eventually told Iyan of the time he spent with his old mentor as well as all the horrible things he had done while in her service. He began his story dejectedly, but as he continued, his shoulders lifted, a burden being raised after carrying so much guilt around for centuries. He tormented the people of the Above with her and did it gladly, but she never stopped, only causing more pain, growing drunk with power. He knew it had to end, so during the final battle between his mentor and those that were left still standing, Betsalel betrayed Lyssa and cast her into the darkness forever.

     “We are close now,” Betsalel informed Iyan after a stretch of silence. “The air has changed.”

     Iyan knew he was right when a moment later he felt a warm breeze blow through, ruffling his hair and sending goosebumps up his arms. Gradually it got warmer and warmer until they came across a narrow hallway with stairs at the very end.

   “You saved everyone Betsalel. Even villains can be heroes,” Iyan told him as they walked side by side down the narrow passageway. Betsalel looked at him in surprise, crinkles forming around the corner of his eyes as he smiled warmly, a rare expression on his usually somber and lost countenance.

    When they reached the bottom step, the pair looked up into the black expanse above them. The glowing starlike stones illuminated various parts of the staircase becoming smaller and smaller the farther away it was. The light of day remained unseen.

   “I fought with Batur in the war against Lyssa. He was a brave man. One of the bravest I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, but he was also afraid in his bravery. We all were.”

    Iyan gave Betsalel a grateful look before placing his foot on the first step. “Come on. Let’s go see the sun again.”

   Gradually, the darkness lightened to gray, shapes becoming more distinct around them, until suddenly they emerged from the ravine and were hit by a bright light so strong it was blinding. Iyan squinted his eyes shut, waiting for them to adjust. When they finally did, Iyan opened his eyes to white grass and blue sky. Ahead the ground sloped down to a large field of wheat and other crops, a pond in the middle. Behind him, the ravine stretched beyond, the end too far away to see. Betsalel stood at the edge, eyes closed and face turned to the sky peacefully, his chest slowly rising and falling as he savored the fresh air.

   At the bottom of the hill Iyan spotted a simple wooden sign and he jogged down to read it. In fine white letters were the words ‘Elevatum Urbem.’ The city was nowhere in sight.

   “Where is it?” Iyan ran to the top of the hill and looked out before him, but all he saw were fields and more forest. “Where’s the city? We have to be in the wrong place.”

     “No, this is it. I recognize this place. This is where the Elevatum Urbem used to be,” Betsalel confirmed, eyes now open and squinting in the light.

    Without a word Iyan took off into the field of crops in search for the city. He pushed his aching legs further and further, the ground growing wet and soft as he neared the pond. Iyan pushed through a crop of wheat and stumbled into the lagoon, feet sinking into the mud at the bottom and sending ripples across the glass surface.

    “Where is it?” Iyan cried out, pulling his feet out of the mud and walking into the water. His foot stuck fast in the mud, and he stumbled again, hands sinking into the muck as well. He stood upright again, arms and legs caked in mud, breathing hard. He watched as the water stilled and his face became clear in the natural mirror. Something behind him loomed over him in the reflection and Iyan turned, expecting to find Betsalel, but he was nowhere to be found. The only thing Iyan heard was the sound of crickets and frogs. He was alone.

    Iyan investigated the water again to see the strange shape still there. Iyan walked to a spot where his reflection was stronger and peered in. Whatever the shape was, it was on him. Iyan looked over his shoulder and gasped in astonishment to find a pair of silvery wings protruding from his back and draped into the water.

    “Whoa – “Iyan examined them through the projected likeness, not believing his eyes. “This isn’t possible.”

    “After everything you’ve been through, you really think that isn’t possible?” Betsalel asked as he emerged from the wheat.

    “You knew about this?” Iyan asked him.

     “I couldn’t see them in the dark. I only saw them when we got out of the ravine.”

     Realization dawned on Iyan as he thought. “This must be why my back was hurting!”

    “Its only going to keep hurting if you don’t hold them up.”

    “Hold them up?” Iyan asked.

    “Flex your back,” Betsalel instructed.

     Iyan tried but failed miserably. “I can’t. They’re too heavy.”

    “Like this.” Out from behind Betsalel emerged a single wing, charcoal and magnificent against the blue sky. The wing stretched to its full length then folded in on itself against Betsalel’s back. He then trudged over to Iyan. “Your turn.”

     Iyan tried, sweat beading his brow at the effort it took. After a moment, with the careful instruction of Betsalel, he managed to extend a wing and fold it against his back in an up-right position, then the other, and a comfortable awareness replaced his old burden.

    Iyan watched the shadow of his wings flex and bend in the water, glints of silver catching the sun. His eyes trailed to the clouds above and Iyan gasped when he saw it, spinning around to look in the sky.

  “I found it…” Iyan gasped.

  “What?” Betsalel asked.

  “Dear God, I found it!” Iyan exclaimed. Betsalel followed his gaze into the sky. There above them was a great city made from the very clouds themselves. Winged people flying in and out of colossal gates held by two titanic white pillars stretching high into the atmosphere. Iyan stumbled back a few steps, water splashing and rippling as he took in the incredible sight. Iyan took a picture before turning to Betsalel. “How do we get up there?”

    Betsalel gestured to Iyan’s back. “You fly.”

   “Oh. I forgot I could do that. Can you teach me how?”

   Betsalel curled a wing around his side and pinched a feather between his fingers. “I can teach you how to hold yourself, but fly? I haven’t done that since before I had been cast down into the Barathrum. I’m afraid I don’t remember how.”

  “We can figure it out together then.”

   Iyan and Betsalel trudged through the swamp and crops, finally stopping once they reached the hill again. There they stood and gazed at the city.

  “So, what do you remember about flying?” Iyan asked.

   Betsalel turned his face up to the sky and closed his eyes, recalling a memory. “I remember the warmth of the sun and the gentle breezes and the peace and freedom of the air… But that’s all. I recall the feeling, not the mechanics…”

     “It’ll come to you,” Iyan encouraged, “but for now, I have an idea.” Iyan walked to the edge of the ravine and turned to face Betsalel. With some difficulty Iyan managed to unfurl both of his wings to their full length and he held them aloft. “You might want to look out,” he warned. Iyan ran as fast he could toward the hill and leapt. For a moment he levitated, but only for a moment before he fell and tumbled down the decline into the crops.

    “Well, that didn’t work,” Iyan called as he emerged from the wheat and climbed to the top of the hill.

    “Maybe you need to catch a breeze,” Betsalel suggested. So Iyan waited until a strong gust of wind came through and did it again, this time remaining in the air for a few more seconds before he fell again.

     “Flap your wings this time. I’m almost certain that is the right way,” Betsalel advised.

      Iyan flapped his wings a few times experimentally on the ground before returning to the edge of the ravine. When he felt another wind coming through Iyan took off again, flapping his wings all the while. When he leapt, he felt the wind catch beneath his wings and he was lifted into the sky. Iyan whooped in triumph as he glided in a circle around the top of the hill, Betsalel laughing and shouting along with him.

     He then flew up, wings beating heavily as he ascended, dodging clouds as he went. Betsalel’s figure became smaller and smaller until Iyan couldn’t see him at all. Suspended in a sea of blue, nothing could have compared. Not the ocean or anything else on land. He was in heaven.

    Iyan laughed as joy overflowed. When he flew high enough, clouds above and below, he tucked in his wings and free fell back toward the earth. He fell through the clouds, both soft and untouchable, puffs of white scattering as he broke through.

    When he broke through the last cloud and could feel the ground coming up Iyan spread his wings and the air slammed into him, stopping his fall. Iyan slowly descended, a smile on his face and a glint in his eye, adrenaline making him shake.

    Betsalel watched Iyan touch down beside him, his mouth upturned in another smile.

   “Your turn,” Iyan said excitedly. Betsalel walked to where Iyan had started before and unfurled his beautiful black wings with ease, almost blending in with the ravine behind him and giving the illusion that the darkness of the Barathrum Lucis was leaking into the sky above. Betsalel sprinted to the edge and leapt in the air. He remained aloft for a moment, but panic washed over his face as he faltered and then fell to the ground, rolling half-way down the hill before coming to a stop. Iyan rushed over to help him up.

    “I’m not sure these old wings are fit for the sky anymore,” Betsalel assented, crestfallen.

    “Hey,” Iyan said as they walked back up the hill. “Let’s do it together this time.”

      And so, the two of them stood side-by-side, far enough apart for their wings to have room, mentally and physically preparing themselves for their flight.

     “Go!” Iyan shouted and they ran off the hill and into the air. Betsalel’s wings remained steady for only a moment before they tottered and failed, and he ceased to fly.

    “No!” Iyan grabbed Betsalel’s hand before he could fall out of reach and, with all his strength, threw Betsalel into the sky.

    Another wind swept through, catching both Betsalel and Iyan mid-air, lifting them up higher and higher, giving Betsalel enough time to gather control of his wings. Soon enough, Betsalel was flying on his own again. He laughed as he shot into the air with an impossible speed Iyan couldn’t match. He twisted and turned and flipped with a swiftness that could only be acquired through experience and he flew with the joy of a caged bird finally set free.

    “Come! It is time to see this city you have been searching for!” Betsalel called as he shot past.

    “Ha ha!” Iyan laughed with the wind which howled with their excitement and took off after Betsalel.

     They flew through the golden gates – the words Elevare written in gold above them – and between the smooth white pillars, touching down in the city.

      Iyan stood in awe. The city itself was made of clouds. The streets, the houses, the buildings; all clouds made solid, somehow strong enough to hold all the people and alive enough to produce and support the plant life that adorned the streets and buildings. Iyan slowly walked through the street, taking it all in.

      The city looked as if it had come straight out of Rome, with cobbled streets and ivy-hugged columns to support buildings with beautifully chiseled facades depicting what Iyan recognized as the stories of the Land Above as well as things he did not. Flowers bloomed everywhere and trees grew out of the walls. Water flowed through the air and in the road, creating intricately designed statues or flowing around already existing ones made of clouds. The streets were alive with people and activity, and they all had wings.

      A few people strolled down the street enjoying the beautiful day, but most people soared overhead, a multi-colored sea of wings moving in every direction. Winged soldiers stood guard at the gate and patrolled the street and sky in creamy togas with gilded lances, their wings painted with flecks of gold. This early in the day shops were being opened, the clanging of the forging of metal and the murmur of crowds rang through the boulevards.

     A pack of children ran across the cobblestones, their wings the color of parrots and blue jays and cardinals. One boy with bright green wings tagged a girl with bright yellow ones and the rest of the kids scattered into the sky as the girl turned to chase them.

    The roads and buildings pulled inward and upward in a mountainous range of rooftops, all leading to the highest point in the city, a stark white acropolis that overlooked everything.

Iyan was speechless with amazement and wonder.

All the stories were true, the people exist, and the Land Above Clouds is real.

***

      Betsalel left him not long after they arrived, in search of the loved ones he prayed were still alive. Iyan wished him luck and they parted ways.

      From there, Iyan did everything. He wandered the streets, memorized the city. He met people, made friends, ate their food, danced to their music, and read their literature. He flew through flight training in their Cursus Caelum, and watched flight competitions in the Aer Arena, some simple races, others fantastic battles ranging from one-on-one combat to mock-wars. The Elevatum Populus made training for future war a sport, although they were a peaceful people who encouraged excellence and enlightenment in all areas of life.

     Iyan wanted to stay in this city – this world, all the days of his life, and he never would have left. But Iyan also knew that he had to go home – his real home. He missed his family, and his mission was not yet done. There was still something he had to do.

     So, Iyan packed up his few belongings and closed the door to his borrowed room, the mass of clouds closing with a silent rush of air. This soon was followed by another from behind and Iyan turned to find a familiar face smiling back at him.

    “Salve Iyan! Where are you off too?” Betsalel asked as he folded his dark wings behind his back, but not before Iyan noticed the gold flecks of color now adorning his feathers.

    “Salve,” Iyan greeted. “I’m going back home. I want to see my family again.”

     Betsalel nodded in understanding. “It’s good I caught you when I did then. The king wishes to see you.”

    “The king?” Iyan asked in surprise.

     “Yes, and we must go now.”

     “What does he want with me?”

     “He will explain everything. Come.”

      Betsalel and Iyan took off into the sky, Betsalel leading the way. They soared through the air, the Populus flying ambient. Iyan watched as they flew closer to the acropolis, the collection of buildings by far his favorite in the city, with the sun and clouds dancing in harmony with the architecture and swarms of beautiful wings fluttering around it as the people flew to their various destinations.

     “I see you’ve gotten a new paint job,” Iyan noted, gesturing to Betsalel’s wings.

      Betsalel looked back at him with a smile. This man was so different than the one Iyan said goodbye to all that time ago. He was happier, and his hope radiated, although the effects of the Barathrum Lucis remained, faded and in the background, but forever present. “A lot has changed since last you and I met.”

     With that, Betsalel and Iyan dove down and landed in front of the vast cloud pillars that were the entrance to the Palatium de Ventis, the palace of winds. The building was a soft white and clean, the inside completely exposed to the elements. As they walked up to it a wind both warm and cool rushed out of it, all at once gentle, strong, and steady.

   They walked inside to a large room of colorful frescos and murals on the floors and pillars. Thin beige curtains serving as partitions between rooms flowed in the breeze. Iyan could see the vague shape of figures moving about in the rooms they didn’t go into. With the breeze and the curtains and the clouds, it was as if he was in a dream.

  They walked through the curtains and rooms until Betsalel led him to a room with a large hole in the ceiling.

   They both flew through the hole into a room that mixed with the sky. There were no walls here, nor curtains nor ceilings. Pillars of cloud were scattered out on the beautifully tiled floor, clouds and endless bright blue sky stretched forever. The tiled floor dropped off at the edge of the room where the roof of the palace and a bird’s eye view of the city could be seen. Sentries stood guard between the pillars, spears in hand and swords at their side.

  At the far end of the room, directly in front of Iyan, stood marbled thrones and upon them sat a man clothed in daylight and a woman wearing night itself. Both wearing thin crowns adorned with golden clouds, the king’s flecked with blue and the queen’s flecked with black, their wings folded behind their backs. Around them in other chairs sat the various royal advisers, none Iyan recognized.

   Iyan and Betsalel stopped a few feet from the thrones and bowed.

  “Welcome,” the king of Elevare said, his voice strong and comforting.

   “It is an honor your Highness,” Iyan replied as he stood upright again.

   “Thank you Betsalel,” the king dismissed him, and he went to stand next to a woman Iyan didn’t know, laying a hand on her shoulder which she reached to hold in a loving gesture.

   “What is your name?” the king asked.

   “I am Iyan Alatus, your highness.”

  “Betsalel told us you were the one to find him,” Queen Ustinya began, her voice smooth and powerful.

   “He found me, really.”

    “And you rescued him from the Barathrum Lucis, bringing him back to us?” King Allerick added.

    “We helped each other. Neither of us would have gotten out without the other.”

    “You have our thanks. But you must not be from Elevare, the Populus is forbidden from going into that place, and for good reason,” the King continued.

    “No, your highness,” Iyan confirmed.

    “Where do you hail from then?”

    “I come from a town called Portus, below the Land Above Clouds.” With his words a collective gasp of astonishment flooded the room and the advisers turned to each other, whispering frantically. Iyan looked to Betsalel for some indicator as to what was wrong, but he returned his gaze with a just as confused expression.

    “Enough,” the king said, and the room quieted. “Do you understand our concern?” he asked, addressing Iyan.

    “No, your highness. Not at all.”

    “A long time ago the humans stopped visiting our lands,” the queen explained. “A long time ago. We know not why or where they went. You understand, you are the first human to step foot on our land in centuries.”

   “I may have an idea as to why,” Iyan offered. “Humans don’t think you exist anymore. They believe you are just fairytales and children’s stories. They don’t think the Land Above Clouds is real, and if they did, they wouldn’t know where to look.”

  “Without them, our world has gone into seclusion. Our borders are cut off and we can no longer trade or learn of new cultures. When our people interacted with yours, we had a gilded age that we thought would never end. Great heroes emerged, unfamiliar places and beings were discovered every day and new inventions and foods were constantly being made. When they disappeared, all that came to an end. We have not been able to find them since.”

   “I might have a way to help with that.”

   “Go on,” the king urged.

   “When I get back home, I will tell everyone about the Land Above Clouds and I’ll show people where to go!” Iyan said excitedly. “I’ll spread the word, and people will come far and wide to see your lands. It will be the start of a new gilded age!”  

    The king and queen discussed with the advisors in the chairs around them. It did not take long to come to a decision.

   “Then it is decided,” the king announced as he and the queen stood, their wings unfolding to reveal the biggest and most beautiful sets of wings Iyan had ever seen. The king’s were pure white and gilded with natural gold in solid rows. The queen’s were black with natural gold as well, dripping downward as if melting into the feathers. “You have our sincerest gratitude, and our blessing.”

   “Godspeed Iyan Alatus,” the queen said, and Iyan was dismissed.

    Iyan flew into the room below and waited for Betsalel to join him. When he finally flew down, he was accompanied by the woman, her wings a vibrant crimson with flecks of gold.

   “Iyan, meet my wife, Habren of the Thorn,” Betsalel introduced.

    “But you may call me Habren,” Habren corrected. “Thank you for bringing my husband back to me. I thought he was lost long ago.”

    “I’m glad you found each other,” Iyan said. “If not for your husband, I would’ve been lost for a very long time.”

    “We will fly you out,” Betsalel offered, and they flew out of the acropolis together and out of the city, finally coming to a stop at the city gates, the same children running and flying about, as if their game had never ended. Here, they said their goodbyes.

     When they touched down Habren wrapped her arms around Iyan in a hug. “Thank you,” she said, then released him. “When will you be back?” Habren asked.

     “Hopefully, soon,” Iyan replied.

      “I look forward to that day,” Betsalel said.

      “As do I. What will you do when I’m gone?”

       Betsalel looked at Habren happily, wrapping his arm around her waist as she smiled up at him. “I will learn to live again.”

      “Godspeed then,” Iyan said.

      “Godspeed,” Betsalel returned.

       With a flutter of feathers and cloud dust Iyan was in the air and soaring away from the Elevatum Urbem. He glanced back as he passed the pillars of cloud at the waving figures of Betsalel and Habren, arms around the other, never to let go again. He took one last look of the great city he had come to consider his own, then never looked back.

     ***

         Iyan flew over the Barathrum Lucis, the dark a looming abyss below him, but he was not afraid. He soared over the Deserto Flores where he watched the meadows and hills roll like waves in the wake of the grass whale. It followed beneath him, sensing the water within him, but he soared beyond its reach, too fast and high for it to get to him. He had a bird’s eye view of all his past obstacles, and he barely touched ground. He was going home, and he would fly forever.

      Iyan didn’t see Callian again as the entrance to the short-cut was nowhere to be found within the abundance of rock piles, but he eventually found the forest fire of the Spiritus Ignis and the edge of the end of the Land Above Clouds. The crackling of the Spiritus Ignis below and behind him faded away as he descended over the edge, a presence that emanated a welcome and farewell.

      ***

       When Iyan touched down outside his house it was a warm autumn’s eve. The trees were awash with fiery colors and the winds cushioned him as he descended. It was silent apart from the laughing voices drifting through the house.

      Iyan tucked his wings behind his back as best he could and raised a fist to his mother’s blue door and knocked. He heard a familiar pair of confident steps come toward him and the door opened. His mother stared up at him in shock, the sound of laughter and clinking dinnerware faded in the background as they looked at each other.

   “- Iyan?” Athena Alatus asked, tears welling in her eyes.

   “Honey? Who is it?” Richard Alatus walked around the corner and stopped when he caught sight of Iyan.

   “Son?” Iyan’s dad said, unbelieving.

   “Yeah, Dad. It’s me,” Iyan responded, tears threatening to spill.

   “You’re here! You’re really here!” Iyan’s mom threw her arms around her son, and they broke down together. Richard ran the rest of the distance between them and threw his arms around them both, knocking them backward in a ball of tears and joy where they sank to their knees on the porch in the autumn eve.

   “I found it Mom,” Iyan said between sobs. “Dad, I found it.”

   “Oh, Iyan!” Athena exclaimed and let go when she caught sight of the wings behind his back.

   “Mom I – “Iyan started to explain.

   “You got your wings!” she cried.

   “Wait, how’d you -?” Iyan asked in confusion.

   “Come with me.” Athena grabbed Iyan and his dad’s wrists, pulling them off the porch and into the grass. Athena gestured for Iyan to back up and he did so. Iyan watched as from behind his mother and father emerged two sets of beautiful wings. His mother’s a fiery auburn and his father’s a pink found only in sunsets.

    “How did you – “Iyan was speechless.

    “We’ll teach you one day,” Athena promised.

    “Are you guys coming back to dinner?” Iyan’s aunt appeared in the doorway and let out a squeal when she saw Iyan.

    “What is it?” Iyan’s cousin appeared behind his aunt, and she yelled excitedly, “Oh my gosh Iyan’s back!” Both women ran into Iyan and wrapped their arms around him. The rest of his family ran out of the house and soon followed his aunt and his cousin, knocking him to the ground and enveloping him in hugs.

    “Did you find it? Did you find the Land Above Clouds?” one of Iyan’s younger cousins asked.

     “I did. And it is even better than the stories,” Iyan replied, sending up a cheer among his family.

    “Where’s my truck?” Iyan’s grandfather asked.

    “I couldn’t really fit,” Iyan said as he lifted a wing to prove his point. “But its safe. I’ll bring one of you back to drive it.”

      Iyan’s aunt looked from his wings to Richard and Athena, their wings outstretched, and smiled even wider. “Oh, we’re bringing those out now, huh?”

   “Wait, you mean you knew too?” Iyan asked.

   “I didn’t just know,” Iyan’s aunt replied before stepping back and unfurling her bright sunflower-yellow wings. His other aunts and uncles followed suit, stepping away from the gaggle of children and revealing magnificent sets of wings, one by one, evoking astonished ‘ohhs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the kids.

   “After the war, humanity’s belief of the Land Above Clouds died. We were trapped here, the location of the entrance to the Above hidden from us. We had no way of knowing whether our friends and family lived or died. So, we stayed, trying to keep our story alive with the generations,” Richard explained as he helped Iyan to his feet.

    “It’s been a while since we’ve brought these out,” Athena said. “But I think I could still beat those young wings of yours any day.”

   Athena shot into the sky with Richard not far behind. Iyan stood for a moment and watched as his parents’ silhouettes blotted out the sun, their feathers filtering the light in rays and casting shadows on the ground no other bird could.

   “Are you coming?” Richard called down. Iyan laughed and unfurled his wings. With a great flap that stirred the grass and leaves at his feet Iyan took off into the sky. With his family, they soared across the skies and in the fading colors of dusk, the wind carrying them away, happily living the impossible together.

    ***

      After that day, Iyan developed his film and gathered the townspeople together to tell them of his adventures. With the wings and the photos, there was no room for doubt. They were captivated by the Land Above, both the same and so different from the stories they’ve known.

      Over the years, Iyan made maps and sent others on their own journeys to find the Above. He spread the word, and as he promised, people came from far and wide to visit and make a home in the Land Above.

     He visited many times and witnessed the exponential growth and abundance of the Land Above Clouds. Towns of people occupied the once empty land, Callian and other Gigantes Albus saw new color, stairs were constructed on the Intrades for easier access, cultures mixed, and boundaries shifted. It was a gilded age where heroes were tested, shaped, and discovered.

       Iyan the Dreamer had believed even though he had not seen, and against all odds, he found what he was looking for. Now, the world knows the Land Above Clouds is real, and it is waiting with open arms for all who search for it.

The Eleventh Plague

Short Story and Image by Isabelle Sorrells


2993 AD – The Beginning

 We were ungrateful. Ungrateful and bored. But we always found things to fill our time. We found things to complain about. We did not know how blessed we were. We had food, family, love, freedom. But we soon learned. We learned what it was like to suffer. We learned what it was like to be hungry.

    At the end of 2993, the entire world was starving.

     It came all at once. We had no prophet to warn us to turn from our sins. No Moses or Jeremiah to say “repent”. This curse was pure evil, and there was nothing humanity could have done to prepare for it.

     I was fifteen years old when my immune system, along with every other human being on the planet, was turned into an enemy against the substances we needed for life. The plague changed the chemistry of our bodies so that food and drink were poison. Water was the only thing we could consume, but we could only last so long. We were surrounded by all the food in the world, and if we ate it, we would die. If we did not eat it, we would die.

     And we did die. Millions of us were dead before fourteen days could pass. Many were brave and continued to eat the food, to try and find what ones were safe for us to eat, in hope that there was something our bodies would accept. So far, nothing had been found. Others ate because they could not stand the hunger.

     Twenty-one days after the curse struck, humanity was given a saving grace. A desperate man fed his dying children a handmade loaf of bread. Somehow, they survived. We rejoiced. Why this was not discovered sooner, I do not know. Everyone rushed to make bread and we carried on with life, as weak as it was.

     We were surviving.

.

.

3003 AD – The Evolution

     Ten years later, I was still alive. I do not know why my sister and I survived. We were young when it hit, not many of the young ones made it. My father, sister, and me were the only ones left from our family. There had not always been enough bread to go around, so people still died from The Eleventh Plague, as we had come to call it. It had become a normal occurrence, and many had accepted it as the way of our lives. But still, others persisted, and finally, had come up with a solution.

     I had been working in the bread factory with my sister and father when the announcement came. We had been hearing talk of it for months, a scientific solution for our starvation by a woman by the name of Gaskell. She was an elderly woman. I knew because they had been putting pictures up of her everywhere. She had been working on a way to create a new way for us to get food.

      I remember our manager standing on the stage in front of us, his lean frame, as all of ours were, and his thinning hair. He was far too young for that, but then again, age had different meanings for us back then, back when people had hair. He always addressed us with a forced cheer, trying his best not to add to the depression we all carried as a physical trait.

     I think his name was Alberto. He might have been Italian, but it was hard to tell. We all looked the same with our starved bodies. Alberto always talked about the good things we accomplished, always found something to commend us for. He never talked about the waning amount of ingredients we had, or the death tolls. When we did not meet our bread quotas, he only ever mentioned it as a side note, even though we all knew how bad it was – the deaths it would cause. Alberto was funny. Everyone liked him. Well, everyone except my sister.

     Of the three of us, she took our mother and brother’s death the worst. The day they passed was the day she stopped smiling, and the day she stopped caring about the good things. About anything at all. The only thing she felt was anger, but that anger seemed to be the only thing to keep her going, so Dad and I made sure to keep that fire stoked whenever it seemed like it was starting to die.

     My Dad was different. He remained hopeful, faithful, and strong for the three of us. He took it on as his mission to take care of us when Mom died, in every way he could, reading us scripture whenever we had time. We were too tired to do anything else. He always looked to the bright side of things, and I admired him for it.

     Me, I tried to be like my dad, faithful and strong, helping us survive as best as I could, searching for the good anywhere I could find it.

     I was surprised when Alberto shouted over the room with real optimism, the kind I had not seen in him before – the kind that put a sparkle in his eye, that the cure for The Eleventh Plague was here. The room’s reaction was not a strong one. There had been attempts for a cure for years, some making it as far as testing on human subjects, but all have failed.

     “Does it work?” a female baker from the crowd asked. The rest of us waited eagerly for the answer. We were all wondering the same thing. At Alberto’s answering smile the room went quiet with a sudden and rare surge of hope. He stepped aside as a young girl walked onto the stage. The room gasped when they saw her. She was beautiful, healthy, and green.

      “My name is Genesis, and I am living proof this cure is effective,” she declared over the crowd.

       All the starved bakers fed this healthy girl with a vigorous bombardment of questions, all of which she answered.

      “Why are you green?” a female baker up front asked.

      “A simple side effect from the chlorophyll,” Genesis responded.

      “How does it work?” another from the back shouted.

      “Each person takes a shot per week for a month, slowly adjusting their body to the transformation.”

      “Transformation?”

     “The shots fuse plant DNA into your human DNA, allowing us to gain food and energy the same way plants do, through the rays of the sun and water. Our food will no longer poison us, and we will live much longer lives. Starvation won’t exist anymore as long as we have the sun and water.”

      “Why haven’t we heard about this in the news?” my father asked with a serious expression, something that was so at odds with the general attitude of the room.

       “Dr. Gaskell can only make a limited number of doses at a time and the last thing she wants to start is a riot,” Genesis responded calmly.

        “Ah,” my father said, although I could see he was not satisfied.

        “When can we take the cure?” my sister asked eagerly. I looked at her, astonished with her sudden display of emotion. Emotion that was not anger. I saw the hope in her eyes, something I could not remember her ever having. I looked to my father to see if he noticed too. He had. And he did not approve. I could not understand why, our sister had hope again! I did too.

         I was a fool.

        Genesis explained the first shipment would be there the following week, and that we would have to sign up now if we wanted the cure, but my father pulled us out before we could hear much more. I was confused. My sister was angry. But it was not her usual anger, this time, there was a fury behind it.

       “Why did we leave?” she asked when we had made it on to the streets.

        “Something about that cure doesn’t sit right with me,” my father replied as calmly as he could, forever maintaining the strong front.

         “But it works!” Lila protested.

         “Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But the way she was explaining it does not sound natural. We were not made to be plants. I do not want either of you to take that cure. Not now. Not until we know more,” Dad explained, looking to both of us. I understood and I agreed. Lila, however, did not.

      “Why? Because it might finally save us, and you are too afraid of change? We finally have an answer for all this! I’m not going to sit around and starve to death,” Lila shouted.

       “You will not take that monstrosity of a drug, and that’s final!” Dad shouted in return. Lila and I stared at him. He never yelled. She stopped arguing and we walked home in silence. Dad and I thought for sure that had changed her mind. He apologized for yelling later that day.

          When the first dose came in, we steered clear. Bakers around us that had taken the cure did not experience much of a difference and people were starting to wonder, but at Genesis’ reassurance the anxiety lessened.

          The second dose did not cause much change either. Those of us who had not taken the cure were constantly watching those who had for anything different about them, good or bad. Both groups tried to hide our fear.

          On the third week Lila began acting weird. She was quieter and the fire inside her seemed smaller than usual. Dad and I tried to provoke her, but she would not retaliate. We were perturbed. Once, I found her standing outside with her head tilted to the sky, eyes closed, almost like she was enjoying the fresh air. Lila had never cared about anything so trivial as that. I told Dad about her strange behavior, and he sat her down for a discussion.

        “Are you all right?” Dad asked, laying a hand on hers.

        “Perfect,” she said almost blissfully, taking her hand away and not making eye contact. The tips of her fingers had a strange tinge to them, but I forced it out my mind. I did not want the thought that ran through my head to be true.

        “If you are still angry with me for not letting you take the cure– “ 

        “I’m not angry,” she interrupted, making eye contact for the first time, “I understand why you did.”

         Dad let out a sigh of relief. “Good, but I’m still worried about you. Your brother is too. You have been acting so strange lately…”

       “Don’t worry father, I am just finally starting to see the joy in life, that’s all.”

       Spring was coming. The rest of that week Lila’s behavior only changed more drastically. Her trademark anger was gone. She was eating less and less. She was gone for hours at a time. I caught her leaving the factory one day and followed her outside to see her basking in the sun again. Her skin was turning green.

      “You are taking the cure, aren’t you?” I asked.

      “Yes,” she did not bother denying it.

      “Are you okay?” I asked.

      “I’m better than ever!” she exclaimed as she turned around to look at me. It had been so long since she looked at me directly. Her eyes had changed too, the veins had turned green.  “I am happier, the hunger is not so strong anymore. Look, I’m stronger now too!” Lila picked me up for a few seconds before putting me down again in a puff of breath.

        “You are,” I replied.

        “And you still don’t want to do it?” Lila looked at me, annoyed.

        “No. I don’t.”

        “Why? Because ‘daddy’ says its wrong?”

        “Yes. And no. God made me the way I am. If I am to die by starvation, I will die. I will trust God to take care of me in whatever way He sees fit.”

        “I see.”

        “You won’t be able to hide this from Dad much longer.”

       “Why not?”

        “Your skin is green.”

        “Oh.”

       At home that day, Lila told Dad what she had been doing. He did not take it well. He forbid her from taking the final dose, and only then did she reveal to us that if she did not take the rest of it, her body would reject the transformation and she would die.

She laughed at our stunned silence.

     With that, my father stopped talking to her. He did not say anything when she went out to get the final dose. He prayed all day that day.

        Throughout the final week the final transition was made. Half of the bakers were fully green. They did not eat anymore. By the end of that week, they left the factory. If they did not have to eat, why did they have to make bread? That is what they said, when they talked with us at all. We called them Greens, for lack of a better word, or lack of mental capacity to come up with another.

         Alberto left with them, leaving his shocked, unprepared, non-green brother to take his place. Family members left family members. Those of us that were normal cried, the Greens showed no sign of emotion. They were not the people we knew they used to be. They took nothing with them.

         Lila’s final words to us were, “If you really love me, be Reborn.” Then she left.  

         That day I saw my father cry for the third time in my life.

.

.

3043 AD – The Extinction of a Species

         I am an old man now. My father rests in the cemetery outside the town. I am still a bread maker, although the factories do not exist anymore. The cites have been taken over by the Greens. They have evolved even more, with petals for hair and roots for fingers and toes. They are beautiful and unnatural. They have torn down the buildings that block their light and have created greenhouses and gardens in their places. They have made the world a beautiful place ruled by Mother Nature and all her children.

        I am one of the few of the Starved left, as the Greens have named us. I stay behind and help feed those who have not given in to the drug called Rebirth. There are not very many.

       I am one of the last of the Old Humanity, and soon we will all be extinct. If not starvation, the hatred of the Greens will kill us. They ask me every day why I remain as I am. Broken, starving, bread-reliant, old. I could be young again, alive, they say, really feel the warmth of the sun. But they do not understand.

       I have the bread of life to sustain me. The Greens are afraid of death, afraid of time and the wrinkles that come with age, but like my father, I am not afraid, and I will greet death with open arms knowing it is not the end, and I will see my father again. There is a better country than this waiting for me.

      I think of the people who have left often. I wonder what has become of my dear, angry Lila and the funny Alberto. I wonder what kind of flower has sprouted from their heads. I imagine Lila and her hair a fiery, red rose with all the thorns to go with her beauty, and I imagine Alberto a happy, yellow sunflower, both basking in the sun, too beautiful and proud in their uniqueness to look the other flower in the eye. 

The Dare

A short story by Isabelle Sorrells


The rotten wooden floorboards creaked as I stepped over the threshold into the blackness. I didn’t bother flipping the light switch, I knew the power had been gone for a very long time. I looked back toward the road where my friends stood, urging me on. 

    I sighed and rolled my eyes before slamming the door shut, the sound echoing in the empty house. I walked through the first floor, mapping my surroundings. Everything was coated in thick layers of dust. The air heavy with the stench of dead things. The kitchen sat unused and reeked of old food gone bad. Dirty dishes piled unwashed in the sink, how long they had gone like that, it was hard to tell. 

    The pantry was just as disgusting. Rats skittered out of empty cereal boxes, nibbling on moldy bread covered in cobwebs. A cockroach could be seen here and there. I couldn’t look much longer, or else I might have contributed to the collection of filthy things with something just as equally disgusting, so I quickly turned away.

    There was another door in the kitchen that I could only guess closed the entrance to the basement. Hesitantly, I made my way over to it. It was a solid, flat slab of dark brown wood with no carvings to be seen. It was boring and ugly with an equally boring and ugly brass knob worn from time and use. I steeled myself and shakily gripped the knob, with a breath, I turned and pulled. With a sigh of relief, I came to discover it was locked. 

    I quickly walked out of the kitchen, in no hurry to stay in that disgusting room, my steps echoing and creaking all the way.

   There were only two other rooms on this floor: the living room and a bathroom. I didn’t dare try to go upstairs. Maybe if I hadn’t been alone I would have, but my curiosity only went so far without company to encourage it. 

    I went back to the living room to set up camp, the room where the front door was. Using my flashlight to look around I noticed the room was very large, taking up the majority of the first floor, with a cobweb-covered fireplace, a couch, and some chairs, all covered in plastic sheets. The walls were lined with shelves covered in books and I couldn’t help but smile.

    Honestly, this was probably one of the only reasons I agreed to this. I had heard the previous owners of this house were book-freaks. Boy, am I glad the rumors were true. When morning comes, I’ll be leaving with a little more than what I came in with.

    I laid out my sleeping bag on the plastic-covered couch, favoring it over the moldy and creature-infested floor. Deciding all this would be over much sooner if I slept, I curled up in my sleeping bag, the plastic crinkling under me as I got comfortable, and went to sleep. 

   Or, at least, I tried to.

   The sounds of creaking doors and the squeaks of mice and rats as they ran back and forth between the walls and across the floor would wake me every time I would start to drift off, if I was able to calm my nerves enough to do even that. I told myself all the noise was just the house settling, but I didn’t dare say it aloud, for fear that if it wasn’t the house settling, and whatever it was would hear me.

   I couldn’t bring myself to move, or else the plastic would crinkle and despite all the sounds, so late at night now, it felt as if everything here would hear it, and know that I was here, and that I didn’t belong. 

   So, I lay there, muscles aching, as still as I could be, staring at the patterns etched into the ceiling, trying not to look at the hole in the ceiling in the far corner of the room where the second floor was exposed for me to see. Or for it to see me. 

    I don’t remember falling asleep. I just knew I had when I was awoken by a bang. It wasn’t particularly loud, but it was so different from the natural sounds of the house that I had become used to. 

    Fear seeped into me as I scanned the darkness for something that had changed in the shadows. I couldn’t see anything. I held my breath, trying to still the pounding of my heart and push down the fear, and listened. 

    I slowly let out the breath. I was just imagining things. Right? I started to relax when it came again. A bang. But it was louder this time. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from as it ended too quickly. All I knew was that it was coming from somewhere in this house.

    I sat up and scrambled out of the sleeping bag as quickly and quietly as I could. I was fast, but not as quiet as I would have liked. It felt as though the whole house was listening to me. 

    The sound of rattling metal resounded through the air, and I lunged for my flashlight next to my legs. I fumbled for the button in the dark. Once light flooded the room, the sound stopped.

     I don’t know if the light made me feel better or worse as my imagination ran wild with all the things I might see with it. I ran the light over the room, but everything looked the same. The rattling started again, and I jumped with fear, adrenaline coursing through me.

     I should have run right then, but I was alone, and I didn’t have anyone to stop my curiosity. I creeped into the kitchen, the sound getting louder all the while. I couldn’t prevent the whimper from escaping my throat when I realized it was coming from the basement door. I shone the light on it and gasped. The old brass knob was jiggling wildly. I stared, praying for it to stop when I noticed the door had changed. 

     Hundreds of thick, black chains crisscrossed the wood, locks holding them in place, rusted with age. I don’t know why, but I stepped closer to the door. I was a few steps away when the rattling stopped, only to be replaced by ear-splitting scratching, as if someone was dragging their nails down the other side of the door. The scratching picked up a faster pace, ever increasing, as if whatever it was knew I was there, then a chorus of more scratching joined it, like a plea to be set free.

     Some inner voice inside of me was screaming at me to run, but it was so far back in my mind, I barely registered it. I was so afraid, but somehow, it only fed the thirst to get closer. 

     Before I could realize the stupidity of my actions, I found myself unlocking all the chains with a ring of keys I couldn’t remember having, the last line of heavy metal falling at my feet with a final thunk, followed by silence. The old wooden door was boring once again.

     I placed my hand on the doorknob, the brass cool to the touch, but I didn’t open it. My subconscious’ final attempt to make me realize how dumb this really was. The door shook as whatever was on the other side started pounding, as if they could feel how close to freedom they really were. That pulled me back, away from any logic I might have had. 

     I yanked the door open and felt the shriek in my throat that never came to fruition. 

     Numerous ghostly pale faces stared back at me in the darkness. I recognized one or two of them. A few kids who had gone missing in my lifetime and before. There were more that I didn’t know. Each face had sickly white skin and dark purple circles beneath their eyes, hair so black it blended in with the dark around them. 

      But that wasn’t what scared me the most.

      It was the hundreds of pale, skinny arms with claws for nails that reached toward me. One grabbed me by the shirt, and I stared at the hand, afraid and confused, not fully registering it. Then another grabbed my arm, its claws digging into my skin. The pain seemed to clear my mind and only then did I try to run. 

      Another grabbed my leg before I could get free, dragging me down, then another, and another, until I was covered in them, being dragged in that pit of black. I screamed and screamed. But the house was silent. No one would be coming for me. I struggled, using the flashlight I had forgotten I had to hit the hands away. I only stopped when I felt a heavy, cold presence loom over me, sending a shiver up my spine.

     I looked up and felt all the energy seep out of me as I saw two hands as large as my entire body emerge from the doorway. I let out a scream to shatter glass as the hands wrapped themselves around me, enveloping me in their wicked embrace. 

    They pulled me in, and I heard the door slam shut. I was swallowed up; the sound of chains rattling and locks clicking into place filled my ears.

     When my eyes opened again all I could see was darkness. Panic welled and spilled over. I thrashed around, plastic crinkling beneath me. I couldn’t see. The large, clawed hands came back to my mind and I screamed. I had to get out.

      I got up and ran, tripping over whatever was around me. I found a wall and ran my hands against it until I felt something sticking out that fit perfectly into my palm. A door. I turned the knob and pushed, stumbling into the fresh air. But I didn’t let that stop me. I kept running, not daring to stop until I was far, far away.

Revenge Of Coriana The Blind

An award-winning short story by Isabelle Sorrells


Rosa never was a fan of school. It was all just a waste of time and energy. While she was in class listening to some boring lecture, she could have been exploring the world with her friends. That was her dream after all. They would all go to Hawaii and Italy and France and Spain. By the time they were done they would know the entire planet by heart. It was a certain December morning in her science class that she was day-dreaming about exactly that.

      While she was staring off into space she was completely oblivious to the world around her. She was unaware when a new student was introduced to her class. However, as the days went on, she never saw or heard of the new girl. It was as if she hadn’t come to the school at all. She had no presence. Whenever she was standing right next to someone or in front of them, even, they wouldn’t notice. Rosa only learned about the girl when she was eavesdropping on a conversation between two boys during her lunch.

      “Dude, that girl is so creepy!” one boy said to another across the lunch table.

      “What do you mean? What girl?” the other boy asked.

      “The new girl. Callie, I think her name is. She looks identical to Coriana! It always seems as if she’s never around. And when she is you don’t notice. She just disappears!” the first boy waved his hands in the air frantically to emphasize his point.

      “Who’s Coriana?”

      “You seriously don’t know who Coriana is? You haven’t heard the story?”

       The second boy shook his head and leaned in, curious to what this story was about.

       “Well, around the year 1988 there was a girl named Coriana in this very school. She was constantly being bullied all because she was blind. She couldn’t take much more of it. Finally, she snapped. Do you know the girl’s bathroom a few halls down from the science corridor?”

      The second boy nodded. “Yeah, but I’ve never seen anyone go in there.”

    “That was the place she chose to carry out her terrible deed.”

      “What ‘terrible deed’?”

      “She hid away in one of the stalls and when she was alone, she killed herself. When they finally found the body they also found a small folded up slip of paper in her hand. It said, ‘I will be able to see once again. I will get my revenge.’ Everyone’s heard the story. Well, everyone but you of course. No one goes into that bathroom anymore. They are all too scared. Even the adults don’t because the event was so disturbing.” The boy leaned back and smiled, satisfied with his results. He wasn’t the best storyteller out there but he could see by the look on the other boy’s face that he was surprised, if not frightened. 

      A few students had gathered for the story, all nodding their heads vigorously. 

     “It’s true,” said a girl with long braided hair. “None of us go in there. If all of the other bathrooms were out of order and only that one worked, I guarantee you that anyone would choose a bush outside rather than have to go in there.”

      More boys and girls began adding to the conversation but Rosa turned away. She had heard the story thousands of times. She found it frightening to the bone but she didn’t actually believe it. It’s just another story that was created by some nut-job looking to get some scares and was lucky enough to have their story passed down through generations of students. Speaking of the bathroom… Rosa thought with a smirk. I need to get all of this paint off my hands. She stood abruptly from her seat and pushed her way through the growing crowd. 

      She walked onto the cold dark tile of the girl’s bathroom. The entire room was pitch black. She ran her fingers blindly across the wall until they came in contact with the light switch. She flipped it on but the room remained dark. She continued to flip it back and forth to no avail. The hallway lights seeped into the bathroom from the open door, making the shapes and objects barely visible. Rosa sighed and found her way through the darkness to the sinks. 

      She watched her silhouetted figure through the mirror as she stood in front of the sink and warm water ran down her soap covered fingers. Behind her, another silhouetted reflection appeared. She looked up and focused all of her attention on the figure. She could see the girl almost as clear as day now. She had long brown hair and thick bangs that went down to her nose. Her skin was as pale as a ghost and she wore a short blue dress and brown sandals. 

      The temperature in the room suddenly dropped and Rosa felt goosebumps prickle her arms and legs. Her breath puffed out into a foggy cloud in front of her. Condensation popped and crackled as it slowly began to cover the mirror. But Rosa noticed none of this. All of her undivided attention was focused on the girl. The air around her thickened. 

      Rosa spun around to face the girl. To her surprise, no one was there. Rosa inched toward the spot where she saw the girl until she was only a foot away. She leaned forward and swept her arm through the air where the girl should have been. Nothing. She could have sworn there was someone there! Rosa turned around again to turn off the water. She shook the water off her hands above the sink before reaching for a paper towel.

      As she was shaking her hands above the sink her eyes traveled up toward the mirror again. Her reflection was blurred through the fog. Rosa reached up and wiped off a strip of fog off the glass. She froze in place once her reflection became clear. The girl was there again, standing right behind her. Rosa spun on her heel to face the interior of the bathroom. Once again, no one was there.

      Rosa looked back into the mirror to find all of the condensation that was on it before melted away. The temperature of the room rose back to normal and the goosebumps on her arms faded away. Her face was the only thing that reflected in the mirror. Rosa finished drying her hands and hurried back to the light of the hallway.

     I must be hallucinating. Rosa thought. I’ve been thinking about that story way too much.

      A week later she had forgotten all about her hallucinations. She sat at her desk, staring at the floor, running through daydreams of Italy in her head. Her thoughts were crudely interrupted when the calling of her name rang out through the classroom.

      “…Sa! Rosa!” The teacher snapped.

      Rosa’s head jerked up from the square tiled floor to her teacher who was sitting at her desk in the front of her classroom, glaring at her pupil sternly. 

     “Yes, Mrs. Jones?” Rosa asked quickly.

      “Would you come up here please?” Mrs. Jones beckoned Rosa forward with her index finger.

      Rosa sighed as she slammed her hands on her desk and stood up with a loud clatter. A number of students jumped at the sudden noise and their heads shot up from their work to see what the commotion was. Their curiosity soon ended when Mrs. Jones shot them a warning glare and they all went back to work.

      Mrs. Jones was probably going to scold her for not doing her work again. Rosa scuffed her feet as she walked up to the teacher’s desk, shoulders slumped. Her gaze was trained on the floor.

     “Would you please escort Callie to the bathroom?” Mrs. Jones gestured next to her. Rosa’s head shot up from the floor and she noticed that Callie had been standing next to her the whole time. Rosa turned her attention back to Mrs. Jones, groaning and rolling her eyes all the way to the moon.

      “Seriously? Bathroom escort?” Rosa complained. “Why can’t she go find it herself?”

      “Watch your tone young lady, she is our new student. She does not know where the bathroom is and has requested someone to show her. Now, move along.” Mrs. Jones waved them off toward the door.

      “Yes, Ma’am.” Rosa stood up straight with her hands at her sides and gave a sharp salute before turning and marching stiffly out of the classroom with Callie at her heels. Chuckles could be heard from the students behind them but soon ceased when they were given a deathly glare from their teacher.

      As the two girls walked to the nearest bathroom Rosa watched Callie out of the corner of her eye, getting her first good look at her. She had long brown hair and a short blue dress with brown sandals. She wore blue rimmed shades that obscured her eyes from view. Rosa found the girl vaguely familiar but couldn’t place where she knew her from.

       “Why are you wearing shades indoors? Do you have sensitive eyes or something?” Rosa asked.

      “Something like that,” Callie replied with a faint whisper. Rosa became speechless. She never expected Callie to actually answer her. From everything Rosa’s heard about her, Callie was mute. They walked the rest of the way in silence as Rosa ran through all of the rumors and ridiculous stories about the mysterious girl.

      When they finally reached the nearest bathroom they found a sign on the door with the words ‘Out of Order’ scrawled across it in large black letters. They walked on toward the next closest bathroom only to find the same sign taped to that one as well. As they walked from one bathroom to another they found that each was either out of order or locked.

      “That’s odd,” Rosa commented as they walked down the silent hallway. “Must be some sort of water break.”

      “That one’s not out of order.” Callie pointed at another bathroom door at the end of the hallway in front of them.

      “It could be locked though.” Rosa jogged down the rest of the hall and turned the handle. The door slid open with little effort. “I guess it’s not!” Rosa turned around to face Callie, assuming she was still making her way down to her. She was puzzled to find she was the only person in the hall. “What the…?” Rosa started but was cut off by a voice behind her.

     “Are you just going to stand there?”

      Rosa spun around toward the voice. Callie was standing in the doorway, holding the door open patiently. Rosa thought it was strange that Callie never made eye-contact and always seemed to be staring at the floor.

      “No. Let’s go.” Rosa pushed past Callie as she shut the door behind her.

       Rosa stood in front of the mirror and stared at her reflection as she waited for Callie to come out. Before two minutes could pass she heard the creak of a stall door open slowly. She looked into the corner of the mirror at Callie’s reflection. She froze where she stood.

      She stood against the opposite wall of the bathroom. Callie’s head was down and her bangs covered her face down to her nose. Rosa suddenly remembered where she recognized her from. One week ago when she thought she was hallucinating. Was she hallucinating now?

      “Don’t turn around.” Callie’s voice ricocheted off the walls of the bathroom, sending shivers up Rosa’s spine.

      The lights began to flicker as Callie walked slowly over to Rosa, pausing after each step before taking another. Rosa’s entire being filled with panic and fear. She tried to move, run away if she could, but her feet remained planted to the ground as if chains were holding her in place. Her eyes danced around, frantically searching for an escape route or something to defend herself with. She was helpless.

      The lights stopped flickering and Rosa looked up into the mirror. Callie was right behind her now. Her hair still covered her face and her eyes remained fixed on the ground. She reached up and tore the glasses off her face, throwing them to the ground in one swift motion. Callie’s right-hand clamped over Rosa’s mouth. Rosa tried to pry her hand off her mouth but her arms hung limp at her sides. She tried to speak but her muscles were unresponsive. Slowly, Callie’s free hand began to creep forward. Finally, Callie picked up her head and looked into the mirror. 

         Rosa nearly puked at what she saw. Callie’s eyes were completely gone. Her eye sockets were pitch black holes in her skull. Bloody scratches and cuts littered the skin around her eye sockets. Pools of blood oozed out of the holes and poured down her face like waterfalls. She was smiling. Her smile reached from ear to ear, revealing sharp pointed teeth.

      “I will see again,” Callie chuckled maniacally.

      The last thing Rosa saw was Callie’s blood-soaked face before Callie placed her left-hand over Rosa’s eyes, taking away her sight forever.

      No one ever saw Rosa again after that day. They never would. After all, they were all too afraid to go into that bathroom anyway.