Circe felt a shiver run through her bones. A deep-set cold vibration traveling from her toes to her skull. A cold shaking her rib cage and freezing her gasping breath.
What did she even mean? Running from death? Probably something cryptic, but somehow, she couldn’t doubt it. And then they wanted her to put a lighthouse above her head? ‘Look here! I want to die!’ No way. She was scared enough without proclaiming her presence to the world.
The blonde looked impatient; her freckles were beginning to blend in with her reddening cheeks. The black girl probably was too, but she had an impenetrable poker face. Circe was feeling frightened, cold, and underdressed and they wanted her to join the freaking army.
“So, why should I want this mark? Why should I let… Death… or whatever it is know where I am? How could I hide?”
The blonde groaned.
“For one, there’s nowhere to hide anyway. And, for your information, you can’t travel with us unless you join us and we are the only regiment in the Narrow that won’t kill an unmarked stray on sight. So, say thank you to Shey, for not gutting you, and accept the mark!”
Circe felt cold all over again. The idea of dying was immensely uncomfortable. Was the blonde being scary on purpose? She looked at the black girl, her face still blank.
“Sheol.” The black girl said.
“Do you have to repeat all the questions or can I just say yes?”
“Okay then. Yes.”
The black girl, Sheol, the captain apparently, smiled faintly. More relieved than happy and licked her thumb.
“I, Sheol of the First People, captain of the xi regiment, accept Circe on the basis of this oath as a sworn member.” She pressed her thumb to Circe’s forehead. “My life for yours.” Where the skin touched skin, a faint buzz made a friction like heat for a brief second. Circe leaned back trying to see the mark she felt was there, but it leaned back with her and she could just see a faint glow.
“It’s there. Trust me.” The blonde grinned, the frustration gone as fast as it had come. What a peculiarly fickle girl.
Sheol smiled and put her hand on Circe’s shoulder.
“Don’t stop running.”
“Oh. Um, you too.”
“You go with Medea. You’ll just be a basic private until you find a specialty, she’ll introduce you to someone. Don’t ask Medea to many questions or she’ll bite your head off. Save it for your assigned pal.” Sheol turned to the blonde. “Medea, get the girls going. I want to leave as soon as physically possible. Changing formation will be a bother so I want to be speedy. You got that?”
“Sure can do, pal.” Medea turned to Circe. “Keep up, kid.”
Medea walked back confidently; long strides unaffected by the wind. Circe skipped and stumbled and tried not to fall behind with her awkward gait, but it wasn’t easy. Her head was still spinning and fear gripped her gut; she could barely keep herself from turning around.
She took the opportunity to study her guide. Medea was thin, wrapped in a blanket-like sweater belted in the middle. The belt was covered in pouches and pockets, and between them, sacks and vials and jars had been haphazardly knotted on. She carried no weapon. Her hair was long and thick, strawberry blonde, and her freckles had a cute and childish feel that clashed with her flickering emotions, dominated by frustration and annoyance. Hydra had spoken to Sheol casually, but with an air of deference. When Medea spoke, it was as an equal. She would listen and obey, but only as long as she agreed. Around Circe, she was superior. As aloof as the highest pinecone in an ancient conifer. Same size as the rest, but higher and better.
“You have questions. Ask them.” Medea flipped her ponytail and sped up. Circe’s stomach lurched as she tried to match the new pace.
“Don’t you… urp… feel sick?” she clutched her stomach.
“Dizzy, yes. Sick, no. I’ve been here a long time, doll, and I’ve got a good head for it.”
“Um, Hydra said she was head scout because she had a good head, are you a scout too? What are the other things you can be in this army thing?”
“Heavens no!” Medea scoffed, “I wouldn’t be a scout under that squirt. I’m the head alchemist. Potions and whatnot for all occasions. We’ve got the basic fighters: archers, swords, and spearmen. Admittedly our fighters are mostly dead weight that wouldn’t know danger if it offered to paint their toenails. And we got scouts and a couple alchemists. And of course, every group has its officers. Any other questions?”
“Where are we?” A gust of wind briefly thwarted all attempts at modesty with Circe’s skirts. She blushed and shoved it down, not letting go of it this time. She glanced around but no one seemed to have witnessed the weather embarrassing her.
“This is the Narrow. It used to be more, but this is what we’ve got now. One path. No one’s ever found a way down the cliffs. The beginning was years ago and there is no end. At least, not that anyone’s made it to.”
They were back at the camp. Circe, still shivering as close to the middle of the path, watched in horror as laughing girls packed up and playfully shoved each other within inches of the fatal drop.
“The morons.” Medea groaned under her breath. “This is what I have to deal with. None of them have the faintest idea of what’s going on, and it’s not like we didn’t tell the pansies.” She looked back at Circe. “Think fast, kid. Last question. I have to cope with this lot and that’ll need my full attention.”
“Oh, okay!” Circe sputtered. Too many questions and she’d wasted time with useless ones! “Um, who do we fight? And, oh, where are we going?”
“Good thing this isn’t a math class coz you just flunked.” An eyebrow waved goodbye to its fellow and rose to higher heights on Medea’s forehead. “But what the heck. We fight what we have to. There’s more than one way to die on the Narrow. And we’re not going anywhere, idiot. We’re going away. Not to, from. Getting as far away as we can before we stop running. Echo!!!”
Circe jerked at Medea’s sudden yell, and then an answer came.
A rambunctious girl with brown curls and a smile like chicken pox galloped out of the midst of her peers. Her grin spread wider to reveal two long sets of mostly white teeth as she looked Circe up and down.
“Hello! I happen to be Echo, and you are a newly marked kid! Loving the pj’s! Do you like chocolate or fruit desserts better?”
“Uh…” Circe stared open mouthed.
“Too many ‘um’s and ‘uh’s make you a bit redundant, sweetheart.” Medea rolled her eyes.
The brunette bounced her head up and down in a show of approval.
“Hear that, Rhea?!” she yelled without turning her head back, and Circe couldn’t tell who she was talking to. “The new girl’s got her head screwed on right!”
“She’s wearing a Minnie Mouse nightgown, Echo! No one trusts her taste!” a slight redhead with translucent skin screamed a response. Echo harrumphed but still didn’t look.
“Echo’s got a bad stomach. If she turns, she pukes. A lot.” Medea shrugged her shoulders as she explained. “Echo, this is Circe. Circe, Echo. She’s about as bright as a cup of tea, and as jiggly as a plate of blackberry jello but she can’t keep her mouth shut, so she’ll be fine company for someone who wants answers.” Circe laughed nervously and glanced at Echo.
“That’s a little bit mean…”
“Girl, if I wanted to be thin, I’d consider dealing with it.” Echo patted her stomach. It wasn’t like she was fat, just… a bit rounded… everywhere. “But as the case may be, I like the amount of me that there is and I don’t know why anyone else wouldn’t. Maybe if Medea stopped panicking about her modelesque figure, she’d actually be occasionally fun to be around! I’m always fun to be around! And, I play a wicked game of I Spy! Also…”
“Okay, okay. Shut up. I want you to talk to Circe, but for heaven’s sake don’t talk to me. Only when you’re thanking me for saving your neck and that’s it. Now take her and leave me alone.” Medea threw her hands in the air and yelled at the rest of the troop. “Hey kids! Let’s move it! You can get your act together while we march!” She whipped around and slung her pack around her shoulder. Taking a brisk pace, she headed down to Sheol. The other girls, mumbling and chatting, tripping over their own feet, followed in a chaotic trot, laden with packs and weapons. Echo just stood and grinned at Circe until everyone passed them.
“So.” Echo began to walk, taking the caboose position. “Any questions before I just start general unceasing small talk?”
Circe opened her mouth and bit back an ‘um.’
“… is it only girls here?”
“On the Narrow? Or in the regiment? This regiment is all girlies but the Narrow has all the peoples, girls and boys alike. Not all troops are segregated, but when you divvy up by speed, agility, athleticism, and all that jazz, it often splits off in genders.”
“Oh.” Circe felt much better now she was looking in the right direction, but she still felt disoriented. “Why are we running? What are the First People? What the hell is going on?”
“Too many in a row! I can hardly handle the level of interrogation!” Echo giggled. She didn’t seem overwhelmed. “We running coz we’re being chased. Want to hear the whole story? I mean, what rumors say. I wasn’t here back then.”
“Yes please!” Circe shivered in a brief moment of stillness as the wind paused.
“Well. The way I heard it is like this…
The Narrow used to be a land of heroes and adventures. There were villains, but there was always good rising up against it, and the good was stronger. It was a wide world and all the people, the First People, had special gifts and bonds. A perfect world. Where everyone stood up for what was right no matter what the cost.
One day, in the earliest days of winter, a few people, two girls and a boy, came crying for help. No one knows who they were or where they came from. They approached the Alpha’s, also a boy and two girls, and begged for their assistance. The Alpha’s were the most powerful of the First People, one had the strength of a thousand beasts, one could make any potion and cure any ailment, and the last held her cards close to her chest. I don’t know what her power was but she was as sly as anything. The beseechers said that Something had taken control of a fortress, and not a single warrior had come out alive.
I’ve asked everyone, but only three people know what happened in the fortress that day. All we know is that in the end… the heroes…”
Circe held her breath, even though she knew the ending. Even though Echo was being melodramatic, something about the story gripped her deep inside.
“…were defeated.” Echo closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “But the unthinkable happened. They lived. In those days, there was no greater shame to return from battle having lost. You won, or you died. I heard the Alpha’s ran. The Something was so horrifying that they, the most courageous and bold heroes alive, couldn’t even fight it. The land groaned at the loss and cliffs fell and rose. Something began to hunt, and people began to die. Every survivor of the ensuing massacre fled to the Narrow, the never-ending cliff line that runs towards the ever distant mountains. The marks appeared above their heads and if a stray appears and is left unmarked, they’re the first to go. No one but those three have seen It and lived, it’s not something we can fight. All we’re doing is running from the fear to nowhere. But the Something’s not really behind us, necessarily. It can kill whole regiments ahead or behind us, or pick us off one by one in our sleep.”
“In your sleep?”
“Yeah.” Echo’s expression did not reflect the solemnity of her story. To her it was a fairy tale, something that happened to other people, they hadn’t had a casualty since she had arrived. It was a rant about something she had never encountered.
“But if it gets you while you’re sleeping, why don’t you set a watch?” Circe furrowed her brows and sniffed. Echo snorted.
“Why don’t we set a watch?” she laughed, “Hey Rhea! The new girl wants to know why we don’t set a watch!”
All the girls in front of them burst out laughing, disturbing the peaceful night air. Circe reddened, flustered.
“Yeah, thanks! We didn’t think of that!” a girl sneered.
“But why can’t you?” Circe insisted. The laughter died down, leaving a few chuckles in its wake, and Echo put a hand on Circes shoulder.
“It doesn’t work like that. The world doesn’t let you stay awake. We all fall asleep before sunrise no matter what we do. And we never wake up during the day.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Circe folded her arms.
“That’s the way it goes.”
“Fine, then. Medea is an alchemist, right? And Hydra’s a scout… what are you?” Circe shivered and hugged herself tighter. She hated the cold.
“I’m a warrior.” Echo beamed. A few girls snorted.
“Spearman.” One of them coughed.
“They say that like it’s a bad thing…” Circe wavered.
“Oh, it isn’t necessarily but it definitely is in my case.” Echo licked her chapped lips and kept going, “I suck at everything and the captain made me a spearman because a spear is the hardest thing to accidentally kill myself with. She figured if I were a scout, I’d fall off a cliff, if I were an archer, I’d shoot my foot and prolly someone else too, if I were an alchemist, I’d blow us off the face of the Narrow, and if I were a swordsman, I would stab myself. So. I use a spear!” she grinned as happy as a pooch in a pond and kicked a rock into another girls calf.
“Ow!” the girl swung back and Circe saw her eyes widen and face go green and she faced forward quickly. “Watch what you’re doing.” The girl burbled. Circe pursed her lips sympathetically.
“Any more questions?” Echo kicked up dust and whistled.
“Um, let me just give a summary and tell me if I got anything wrong.” Circe looked up and considered counting the stars, but discarded the idea quickly. She’d save that for when she was really bored. “I just appeared, already walking with no memories which happens all the time…”
“Sometimes,” Echo corrected.
“Sometimes…” Circe swallowed. “And I appeared near the regiment the world wants me to be in just like the world wants me to face forwards and now I’m marked and sworn in and we’re running away from something that might not be behind us to nowhere and we can’t keep people from dying.”
“Yeah, that’s about it.”
“Least satisfactory explanation I’ve ever heard.” Circe paused. “I suppose though I don’t remember ever receiving a different one.”
“Yup. An explanation entirely made up of things no one wants to hear. Do you wanna keep talking?”
“Not really.” Circe felt cold. Empty. And very alone. She didn’t understand any of this, and she could already tell it would be a long night.
“Okay!” Echo flipped her hair. “Then I’ll talk. I think you should probably learn about everybody in our regiment and who you’re supposed to not like and all the gossip and who are losers so I’ll tell you that Rhea is a fusser and an archer with great aim but isn’t strong enough to pull the string all the way back so she always needs to have a partner and Artemis is constantly annoyed that there aren’t any boys in our regiment because she really wants to have the satisfaction of not noticing them in such a way that everyone notices and Hydra’s bite is exactly as bad as her bark and Kalypso is…”
As the group trudged on and Echo’s mouth continued to open and close, Circe looked up to the deep night sky.
One, two, three, four…
Hydra only kept pace with Sheol by matching three quick steps to her every one. She could tell the captain felt the storm coming; her lips were pursed and her jaw tensed. The wind had an extra bite to it and the ground vibrated faintly beneath their feet. It would be a big one.
False modesty was not something Hydra ever practiced. She was good, she knew it, and she took credit for it. Naturally, she looked down on all the scummy girls of the regiment, she felt more on Medea’s level, even if she didn’t have the skills of the First People. She even felt faintly superior over Sheol. Admittedly, Sheol was in theory more powerful, but Hydra had never seen head nor tail of whatever her Alpha level talent was. And the main thing was that Sheol felt responsible. She didn’t seem to feel pity or sympathy or any weak emotions like that, but for some reason she acted obligated to protect every little munchkin that came her way. The world was exploiting her.
“What do you think of the new one? Circe.” Sheol glanced down at her miniature companion before returning her gaze to the path.
“Definitely a wet blanket.” Hydra puffed at her purple bangs and jammed her hands in her pockets.
“I’m being honest!” she insisted, “She seems like the sort of muffin to deflate dramatically under pressure. Probably with some hyperventilation.”
“Well, she’s going to have to find a spine soon. All of the girls will.”
Hydra peered over curiously; the words seemed potentially ominous.
“I hope I haven’t been too soft on all of them.” Sheol sighed. “I can already feel the thunder.”
“Are we talking about the storm, here?”
Sheol paused, staring forward.
“We’ve walked far enough. Get the girls in formation.”
“Scouts with me!” a voice bellowed.
“Alchemists to the back!” Circe glanced over as Medea stalked past, nearer to the edge than Circe herself would’ve been comfortable with. A number of girls followed her, slower and a little greener in the face. Others left the group to go forward to join the scouts.
“Single file, people!” Medea yelled from behind. “Archers, swords, spears, then alchemists! Chop chop, ladies!”
Everyone shuffled into their positions and soon the nervous scouts spread the perimeter.
“Okay, steady pace now! Silence in the ranks!”
“Why quiet now?” Circe whispered. She definitely didn’t mind, but she still wanted to know.
“They don’t think we can walk and talk at the same time when we’re going through T.T.” Echo rolled her eyes and tripped on a rock.
“Are we wrong?” Medea asked, greeted by laughter. Circe helped Echo back to her feet, her big cheeks beet red.
They walked for a while, the only sound being a cacophony of footsteps and the whistling wind. The ground got rougher and the path narrower. Circe quickened and shortened her strides, her eyes glued to the ground, avoiding holes and crumbling stone. Echo’s breath grew heavy and her skin was pale.
A shriek came from the front of the lines as a few large rocks came loose under a scout’s feet and tumbled down the cliff. A friend grabbed her hand and pulled her back just in time. The girl landed hard on her stomach and began to cry. Impatient, her friend pulled her to her feet and the group continued. Circe counted to twenty-one before she heard the faint crash as the boulders hit the ground.
After that, the girls were as silent as the tombs. A few more tripped, but nothing too dramatic. The moon was bright and the path was well lit. The marks glowed eerily above bent heads.
The moon crawled across the sky, watching the stumbling girls unblinkingly. Mirroring the light faintly, the path slowly widened and smoothed.
“Archers to the front!” The yell burst through the quiet and Circe jolted. It seemed almost sacrilegious to destroy the silence so thoughtlessly. A group of girls weaved their way to the front.
Sheol waited as her archers broke out of formation and turned and led them further down the path.
“Rooks,” she said, “About a dozen down the cliff. Keep wind in mind, tie your arrows tight.”
Vague noises of incompetence blurred together as girls checked their knots and strung their bows, but Sheol barely heard any of it. She knelt on the edge of the path and stared. Several stone ledges jutted out from the cliff face, filthy straw and stick nests overflowing from each. The nests were held together by a thin saliva based film. Sheol closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose. Despite the distance and the wind, she could still smell it. Foul and intrusive. The birds were home, but silent.
Slowly pulling the string back until the feathers of the arrow brushed her cheek, Sheol looked for the deepest shadows. She smirked. The feathers had come from her first rook, a lifetime ago. It would fit right in.
She dropped her bow and grabbed the rope that had been tied to her arrow as a scream shattered the night. Birds erupted from their hiding places, shadowy shapes shooting into the sky, each adding it’s own fear to the noise of the first one’s pain.
“Shoot the small ones!” Sheol yelled, wrestling with the rope. The rook wasn’t dead yet. Scooting back, she found her feet and began to heave the fighting bird up the cliff. Her arrow had been barbed and was plenty deep. Groaning, she took a step back and pulled. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She had failed to follow her own advice.
“Ha,” she grunted.
Arrows were whizzing through the air and more inhuman screeches broke out. But less than there should have been. Sheol only hoped that the archers who missed recovered their arrows.
Her catch had stopped fighting. With a last tug, its feathered back came into view.
Sheol walked up the rope and gripped the flesh around the arrow, pulling the rook fully onto the path.
“Big.” After a second of surveying the size of the feathery bulk, she flipped it over and leapt back as a dark kinked neck lashed out. A sharp black beak clamped down on nothing with an echoing snap. Grunting, Sheol pinned the body down, trying to avoid the writhing bloody neck, and grabbed for her knife. Luckily, the scaly legs and talons were trapped under the bird’s weight and were out of the picture. Keeping a firm grasp on the flesh beneath the thick navy plumage, Sheol jabbed her knife at the throat.
A last screech nearly burst her eardrums. The body went limp beneath her.
Sheol stood and wiped her sweaty forehead with the back of her hand. Tension drained from her muscles. The rook was by far the biggest she had ever killed. She sniffed her shoulder. Blech. The cost of the kill was high. The stench wouldn’t fade for days.
“Heeeelp!” Her head snapped up. Most of the girls had pulled in their arrows. Five had got small birds, all under a hundred pounds. But two girls were struggling with a rope. Four heels were digging into the white dust, sending it up in clouds to stick to blood and sweat alike.
A monster of a bird, barely smaller than Sheol’s, had its gnarled and shaggy wings spread wide, beating the air ferociously like it was trying to make scrambled eggs from the wind. Its snake like legs bent back and a claw wrapped around the rope. But, instead of cutting it, the rook wrapped its talons around it and pulled. Slowly, and very much on purpose, the two archers were being dragged to the edge of the cliff.
“Let go of the rope!” Sheol shouted, leaping over her own prey and shoving through the terrified onlookers.
“Help me!” The smaller of the girls screamed again, tears leaving tracks in the dust on her face. Then Sheol saw. It was Rhea. She had dropped several arrows and now she always tied them around her waist.
Why did she let Rhea do that? She should have known something like this would happen.
Picking up speed, Sheol nearly rammed into the girls, shoving the second one out of the way.
They were nearly to the edge already. A few pebbles clattered and ominously led the way. Stepping in front of Rhea, Sheol placed both hands on the rope. It was old, but thick and scratchy against her skin. She planted her feet and heaved.
The bird tilted its thick neck back and screamed. Its flight faltered but it stayed airborne.
“You felt that didn’t you…” Sheol smiled grimly. She had made most of these arrowheads herself. They weren’t made for comfort.
She pulled again, but the rook did as well. Rope chaffed her fingers and Rhea slammed into her back. Gripping tighter, Sheol took a step back, the strength of the tug burning her shoulder joints.
“Shoot it!” she yelled, “Shoot it now!”
She didn’t look up, but she could hear the bustle as her girls were jerked back into reality.
Red appeared on the edge of her vision. It was unfair, tug of war with a winged beast twice her weight. But Sheol wasn’t willing to cut the rope. She wouldn’t quit. Wouldn’t run from a fight. Never again.
She heard arrows whistle through the air and the bird screech. It fell from the air and now her only opponent was gravity. Ignoring Rhea’s writhing panic, she began to pull it up the cliff. It was still a battle, sweat slick against her forehead.
Two hands grabbed the rope in front of Sheol’s and the weight lightened. It was the new girl. Blondie. Circe?
Sheol gave her a nod. Circe gave a terrified nod back. Together they heaved the bleeding corpse onto the path, covered in barbs like a porcupine. Both girls dropped the rope and sat on the chalky ground. Circe was staring wide eyed at the pooling blood. Sheol patted her shoulder.
“Kid,” she said, “you’re alright.”
About the Creator
”Some days I feel like playing it smooth and some days I feel like playing it like a waffle iron.” -Raymond Chandler
Bits of fantasy and poetry and whatnot here, comedic comics on Instagram @mostlymecomics