Powerless

Received a special mention in "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" competition.

*

It is the year 2065. The moon is gone. Civilization has fallen. And the world's most vicious nightmares have struck with a vengeance.

Arielle Skyward is a coward, but a coward who has survived nearly fifteen years worth of close encounters and deadly enemies. Both the Skins and the Wers haunt her steps, at war with one another but united on the front of wiping mankind from the face of the earth. Skipping around from clan to clan has kept Arie safe thus far, but with each passing day - and each gruesome death of the people surrounding Arie - her creeping suspicion as to why she has been spared grows. A yearning to know the truth soon drives her far from her origins - and straight into the power-struggle of the two most powerful creatures on earth.

Sometimes even the truth cannot set you free.

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1. The Rotting Fields

There are monsters in this world. They slink in the shadows, in the darkest corners of your memories. They are a shiver down your spine, a creature that your corrupt soul recognizes as the Enemy. Your conscience trembles in warning; the world burns. They feast on your fear, and yet only your fear will save you.

            God has abandoned us. We are alone.

*

Penny is missing an ear, a telltale sign that she’s entering the final stages of the Rot.

            She is barely a silhouette against the warm, rising glow of dawn, the light a pale pink-yellow as the sun slowly begins to rise. I stand a mildly safe twenty yards from her, the slight curve to my kukri blade gleaming dully as I lift it. A breeze, constant and unrelenting, ruffles my hair, sending the stink of Penny directly my way. Somewhere behind me, I know a dozen soldiers will have their assault rifles at the ready, their hands steady, their brows gathering a light sheen of sweat. Their eyes, along with mine, are trained on Penny as she sways dazedly on the spot, torn between instinct and the complete and total shutdown of her organs.

            A low, confused hiss fills the air as Penny suddenly jerks forward, stumbling quickly toward me in a burst of energy. Sixteen steps away. Twelve. Eight. My blade hovers in the air, a questioning hesitation I should not have.

            To hesitate is to die.

            I stare death in the face, and Penny stares right back, her rotten fangs bared. And then, as swiftly as a diving crow, the Rot takes her.

            With a quick jerk to the right, Penny’s legs give out. She lands with a sickening thud on the ruined grass of the Rotting Field, still spitting with gusto. Heart thundering, I break from my horrific trance and take several heavy steps backward, eyes wide with fear and disbelief. Penny, a victim of the Plague and the consequent Rot, begins to fall apart.

            The ruined skin, a dry, brittle black, peels from her bones, flaking from her fingertips and sliding from her bare shoulders. The muscles beneath are reduced to a slick jelly that plops sickeningly to the ground. Bones crumble to ash, the back of her skull caving in as it crumbles. Her white, blank eyes begin to melt, sliding from her face as a vile, bubbling liquid. Her mouth reveals no human teeth; instead, four rotten, black incisors pop from her quickly-deteriorating gums and land in the gunk of the muscles of her cheek. The fang’s leftover poison leaks out slowly, causing the mush to steam and sizzle.

            It is over in sixty-eight seconds. The only evidence of her existence would be a pile of red gunk, a smattering of gray ash, and two black fangs.

            Penny is not the first Black Skin to Rot.

            And she will not be the last.

 

            “She could have killed you. In fact, it would have been easy. Have you ever snapped a pencil, Arielle?” Laney pauses. “Well. Let me put it mildly: You would have been the pencil.”

            I shrug in response to her tirade, gazing at my kukri blade with a critical eye before running my sharpening stone down its length. Laney continues to pace before me, running a path through the short, dead grass with her heavy footsteps. I sit on the Rotting Fields in front of the Dorm, the main building of the Blood Clan’s territory. Once, it was known as the Marine Crops Base of Quantico, Virginia. But with the fall of humanity—a direct result of the release of the Plague in 2049, the virus that created the deadly but terminal Black Skins sixteen years ago—education was suddenly slashed from the list of priorities.

            No one has the time or desire to say Marine Corps Base of Quantico. The Blood Clan, on the other hand, is simple. Short enough to scream as a war cry.

            Wind batters every inch of my face, and I resist the urge to lick my lips in an effort to relieve their sting. As Laney makes another loop around the place I sit, wearing a path in the weary ground, I fantasize about tripping her.

            Instead, I return my attention to my blade. “Are you mad at me, or mad that you’re being debunked to guard duty while everyone else makes the sweep?” I murmur, reaching up to brush my bland brown hair from my eyes, a futile effort against the gale. My frown deepens as I finger the ends, realizing they’ve grown well past my ears. I’ll need a trim soon.

            Laney pauses in her pacing to send me an icy look. I know I have hit a nerve; sweeps, though regular, are meant only for the well-trained, those with sharp ears and eyes and the capability to slay a stray Skin, should one be lurking around the perimeter. Penny was one of the many examples of sweeps gone wrong, of Skins breaching the line and wandering to the Rotting Fields.

            I know Laney must be furious at being left behind, when her promotion to foot soldier is within her grasp. Her mouth opens and then, with a click, snaps shut. She observes me pushing my bangs out of my eyes and shakes her head, changing the subject to avoid wounding her pride. “Your hair’s short enough.”

            I send her a casual flip of my middle finger. “It’s convenient.”

            “It’s boyish. You could pass for one, you know. You’re short. Scrawny. No womanly curves to speak of…and that hair. That hair.”

            “Wow. Is this the part where you tell me I’m beautiful on the inside?”

            Laney sighs. “Unfortunately, you scrape the bottom of the barrel in the personality department.”

            I roll my eyes and glance up at her, watching as she resumes her quick, tight circle. I observe her quietly, from her flaming orange hair—which is significantly longer than mine, spiraling in tight curls to her elbows—to her steely gray eyes. Freckles coat her round, childish face, and despite her hours in the sun, she is pale enough to act as a beacon in the morning light. At five feet exactly, I am the size of most young children. Laney, on the other hand, is seven inches taller, lean and hardy, sharing no resemblance to my points and angles.

            She is everything I am not. Wide-hipped. Large-chested. Vibrant. Hard. Even her softer features transform under the iron of her gaze, a quality I envy.

            I used to hate you, I think, returning my eyes to the ground. You’re my friend now. But I don’t think a lot has changed.

            “When did I stop hating you?” I muse aloud, stuffing my sharpening stone in the front pocket of my jeans.

            Laney doesn’t miss a beat as she breezes by on her thirteenth circuit. “When you realized you needed me.”

            “Touching.”

            The silence following my statement in punctuated by a loud shriek, one that carries on the wind. Laney freezes, her eyes vacant as they stare over my head, toward the open expanse of the Rotting Field at my back. Human shouts from the woods just beyond the field quickly follow the supernatural scream, and within seconds I see fellow humans stream out of the Dorm, waken from sleep or else drawn from their chores by the sound of battle.

            “Skins.” Laney’s voice echoes oddly off the walls as she approaches me; I stand uneasily, taking up my place at her right, the handle of my kukri blade slick with nervous sweat. “Blacks?”

            I shrug, mostly because I cannot fathom any other alternative. The world we live in, while filled with terror and gruesome fate, is a predictable one. The War of End ensured this by spewing every nightmare imaginable from the depths of the darkness, an affair that began in 2047 and ended barely two years later. Skins, monsters my ancestors knew as vampires, and Wers, their wolf-like counterparts, crawled from their hellish holes to storm the world in a war between their races, one that rapidly declined after the Plague Revolution began. It was an effort that turned the attention from the supernatural to the virus that the Skins had released upon humanity, a virus that brought millions of humans to their knees. Those that were spared from immediate death were modeled into half-modeled monsters, weaker and slower than their Yellow and Gray Skin sires, but deadly in their own way.

            The effort of the Revolution was useless. Blackout reigned in the year 2054, reducing the technology of mankind’s creation into useless junk. The Time of Shadow that followed was nothing more than a bloodbath, a seven year struggle that destroyed most of what the Plague had left untouched.

            In 2062, the Era of Night began. Three years later, and what’s left of humanity struggles on in the form of clans, small pockets of survivors that have only the slimmest chance of making their way in the new, harsh world.

            A scream, this one distinctly human, makes both Laney and I flinch. I look at her with alarm, but her lips are pursed. As if feeling my gaze and the question in it, she shakes her head.

            “Let’s go, Arie.”

            “Laney.”

            She looks my way, and I widen my eyes, hoping their baby blue depths coerce sympathy from her. But she merely raises one eyebrow and reaches for a bowie knife, the other six at her waist. A smile turns up the corners of her mouth. “Duty calls. Pray for your soul, Skyward. We’re moving out.”

            I close my eyes and sigh. At the sound of her retreating footsteps, I brace myself with a deep breath and a twirl of my blade before scampering to follow her across the fields and into the looming woods, knowing very well that I’ve just agreed to the terms of how I will die. Her words, pray for your soul, echo back at me, full of taunting meaning.

            Pray to whom?

            Another unnatural screech raises the hair at my neck, followed by the shouts of the humans unfortunate enough to run into a Skin. Hands shaking, I look to the sky, but I do not pray. Instead, I think: God has abandoned us.

            We are alone.

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