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In Elysium, every child’s thirteenth birthday is marked with a raid of The Cold City. The child’s performance is evaluated and his potential noted. He is in no real danger, flanked by vigilant, well-trained men, but the pressure he feels is nearly palpable; he is acutely aware of the village’s eyes on him and the fact that the initial raid is what makes or breaks a child as a Raider.
My name is Skylar, a seventeen-year-old Raider with a passion for life, danger, and consequently semi-dangerous living. At twelve, I was held at arm’s length by the other girls my age. While they were as dainty and docile as the village and circumstances allowed, I was the defiant, strong-willed stand-alone. The other girls obediently delivered water to the hard-working men, washed clothes, and picked baskets of berries while I splashed raucously in the creek that stretched along the south side of Elysium, a branch of the Abysmal River, with the boys. I was perfectly cognisant of the scornful stares that were tossed my way, but I did not care. I reveled in being set apart from the others.
While the other girls cowered in fear of their fast-approaching thirteenth birthdays, I awaited mine with agitated impatience. I created arduous workouts to increase my strength, speed, and agility. Whenever Mother asked me to run an errand, I took her words as a challenge to literally run. I made every simple task into a complex routine designed to push myself.
At twelve, I knew a few things about raids. I knew a true raid consisted of about twenty men to decrease the number of trips they made in and out of The City. They spread out underground, no more than four men at any entrance. I knew that daytime was the designated time for raids. It seemed backward, but the Patrol buckled down at night. The Patrol was infamous for brutally enforcing the curfew, and the odds that twenty men could sneak around under the Patrol’s radar were not promising.
I also knew why raids were necessary. Trade was no longer an option. The Cold City was full of distrust reserved for villages that operated independently. During the Plague, the city nearly succumbed to disease. Elysium chose to continue fighting its own battle, refusing to aid The Cold City while throwing everything it had into its own fight, which infuriated the Patrol. The City made a remarkable recovery, reinforcing its protection with both outstanding metal architectural feats and renewed distrust. It was soon evident that The City had shut Elysium out, severing all trade and denying villages access beyond the barricade. Named for its dull lackluster metal buildings, and sky-high unglamorous spires, The City flourished beneath the firm hand of the Patrol.
The objective of my birthday raid was to collect weapons from one of the warehouses. The weapons were studied by a few individuals in the village, but attempts to recreate them were limited, especially since Raiders could just as easily snatch the weapons as they could grab the materials.
While Elysium was mostly cut off from interactions with the world outside of the area, The Cold City had regular deliveries of factory-processed goods. The Cold City was dependent on imports, and Elysium’s villagers were concerned about its stability. If The City ceased to import supplies, there wouldn’t be much for the Raiders to scavenge. A hitch in trade could easily lead to the demise of both The Cold City and Elysium.
I was introduced to Connor and Darryk, the two men who would accompany me into The City, and we set off on horses, entering a network of tunnels that was cleverly hidden beneath the entire city. Since the Plague, The Cold City had left nothing to chance, constructing huge impenetrable walls with only one entrance that was heavily guarded night and day. The Patrol was unaware that the network of tunnels was still used by Elysium’s people, an advantage that quite literally kept the villagers alive.
The warehouse was a large, low-roofed metal building with massive garage doors lining one side, a remnant from a pre-Plague time when trucks delivered wares right into the building. The easy part was finding the weapons. The hard part was getting past the three guards without getting killed or causing a disruption of the relative peace.
Connor strategized in an alley near the warehouse. I knew that collecting weapons was a rare mission of the Raiders; the guards protected the weapon warehouse more than any other building in The Cold City, making it hard to raid. Connor ran through different plans we could use to distract the guards, but most of them were dangerous. Two people would be needed to divert the attention of the three guards, but the aberration could be hazardous. With only three of us, I knew the most logical plan was one where Darryk and Connor did the distracting and I did the raiding.
“Connor?” I said, my voice steady. The confidence I portrayed wasn’t quite present in my mind, but if I wanted a life as a Raider, the danger was something I’d have to get used to. “I can do it. I can grab the weapons. Just tell me what you need.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Connor said absentmindedly, his brow furrowed in concentration.
“Connor. I’m going to go get the weapons, with or without your diversion.”
That caught his attention. “Skylar!” he said with apparent alarm.
“You have to the count of fifty to get yourself a plan, or I’ll have to make do with no diversion,” I said stubbornly, tilting my chin defiantly.
“Fine, fine!” Connor quickly designed a plan, rattling off instructions. “We need arrows. Grab as many quivers as you can. Knives, too. Daggers, machetes, guns, anything small enough to fit in your pack. I can’t guarantee you much time, but you should have at least two minutes. Get in, get out, and head back the way we came from. Darryk and I will join you as soon as possible.”
“Skylar?” Darryk said.
I looked at him, waiting.
“Be careful. Keep your bow close.”
I nodded again.
Darryk and Connor headed off to distract the guards. I waited in the safety of the alley until I heard surprised shouts that were quickly muffled. I darted to the warehouse, keeping an eye out for stray guards. Once inside the warehouse, I glanced around for the items I needed. The walls were lined with precise arrays of various weapons. Axes, swords, shakras, machetes, axes, spears, tridents, and bows were arranged neatly by type and size. I pulled off my bag, hurriedly pulling weapons down from pegs and shelves.
I heard a muffled cry. “Antony! Check the warehouse!”
I forced myself to remain calm, continuing to stock my bag with various weapons. When my bag was full, I forced it shut, slung it over my shoulder, and darted out the back door of the warehouse…
…and immediately regretted my decision to slip out the back. A guard was approaching at a fast clip. His eyes widened when he saw me, opening his mouth to shout, probably for reinforcement. He raised a bow and plucked an arrow from his quiver, but I was faster. By the time he drew his arm back to fire, I had already let my own arrow loose.
The arrow hit its mark between the dark-haired man’s eyes with a dull, wet thump. His mouth formed one unintelligible word before he slumped forward.
In the moment just before the arrow made contact with his flesh, his life flashed before my eyes in an unnerving arrangement of images, smells, sounds, and emotions. I watched helplessly as the young man grew up before my eyes, turning from a gangly teenager into a full grown man, married the girl he loved, and had a son. Even as I knew it was a mirage of my own making, I felt invisible walls falling down around me, threatening to suffocate me.
I backed away, sickened. I glanced around wildly, searching for witnesses. Seeing none, I darted past the dead man and back the way we’d come, not stopping until I was several blocks away. I doubled over, my stomach heaving from the sight of the man I’d killed.
I killed someone, I thought. I recalled the way his mouth had formed a word before he fell forward, the way his blue eyes had opened wide with shock as the arrow embedded itself in his skull, a single trickle of blood painting a path down the center of his face even as he began to fall. Self-defense, I reasoned. He would have killed me. He was preparing to shoot me just the way I shot him. Only one of us could live.
And in that moment before I released the arrow that killed him, I’d known with certainty that I wanted to be the survivor.