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The world in which I live is both a great and terrible place. There are monsters which patrol the cities outskirts in horrible tandem. Drool slicks their muzzles and at night I can hear them through my window, howling at the nighttime sky. During the day, the guards stationed around the perimeters of the town protect us with their double-headed pikes. I've never actually seen them defend us myself, but there is undeniable proof within the dead carcasses that are burned just outside the gates every morning.
We are a dying race, here. If the monsters, both seemingly harmless and viciously aggressive do not destroy us first, our lack good resources will. Not only that, but the fact that the male population here outweighs the female simply shows that in the long-run, we will not last. There is word of leaving this planet in search of better worlds, but I refuse to get my hopes up. Word of building a shield to defend us from flying abominations has flitted around for years, yet nothing has been done thus far. It would be silly to become eager for something that most likely will never occur.
But it is not all bad here on this planet. My people are benevolent and peaceful, easily going about their lives even under the terrible curse we have been exposed to. Our bodies have been warped, some worse than others, into the shapes of animals. If you are lucky, you possess only a tail and a set of ears. Others are covered in a fine layer of silky smooth fur, sometimes as bright as the sky or the sun itself. Some have hooves for hands and feet. My mother has the tiny beady eyes of the ox, and my father has the floppy, droopy ears of a hare. I myself have the fluffy powdered hair of a sheep, along with a drooping pair of ears. The women pinch them and declare me absolutely adorable, but I will never forget how disturbed I was when I suddenly woke up and found them there. A close friend of mine was transfigured in the most terrible way. Her body is hunched and her fingertips are clawed with the longest of talons. The council says she is a tiger, a true beast. But she is still the same child I have known all my life. In the end, there are no limits to the curse, which has been named after our race, 'The Zodiac.' The name derives from the celestial beings described in the future reading horoscopes we used to read in the older days. It still gives me shudders when I glance in the mirror and meet the coldest of silver eyes, though. All in all, the curse is livable, but quite annoying.
But enough of these trivial facts. It is morning when I decide to leave my small home, mother and father are busy with work, so they don't so much as glance at me as I open and close the front door. As I walk into the dusty streets of my humble city, I shiver and pull my embroidered scarf tighter around my throat. There is a chill in the wind that curls my toes and raises the hairs on the nape of my neck. It is the sign of a terrible omen and it makes me wish I was smaller, still clueless to the dangers just walking outside brings.
There are not many people out at this hour. The sun is still low in the sky as I tromp down the dusty sidewalks. Most of the houselights are still out and the guards from the night before have yet to change shifts. I can't see them, but I know because the air is fresh, devoid of the musty tang the ash from the burning monsters produces. When they do burn though, the ash falls serenely from the sky like snow. I remember an occasion where I saw a mother and her two children ambling about the merchants market. It was winter time, and as the ash fell, one of her young children mistook it for snow and stuck out their tiny kitten tongue in an attempt to catch the falling flakes. They succeeded. To this day I can still hear that poor babies shrill shriek as her mouth was engulfed in flame. According to the scientists, the monsters' flesh is poisonous to my people when ingested. But it's not like anyone here has any desire to eat such foul game.
I turned a corner and was met by several guards, probably on their way to relieve the others. They bowed and I returned the gesture politely, quickly stumbling out of their way to avoid being trampled. As they pass, I turn to watch them go, listening to the heavy clinking of their armor as it grates against itself. Surely the suits were hot, and should the sentry battle against a foe, the temperature could do nothing but rise. When they disappeared into the distance, I hastened my pace as I realized the cremation would begin soon, and there is nothing worse than being covered in flakes of flesh. The merchants in the square had already set up their brightly colored tents, their products strewn about in disarray as they prepared for a busy day. I ducked under a particularly large awning, nestled close to a large gray building, nodding in greeting to the woman there as I huddled close to the wall and continued on my way. Before I'd taken more than a dozen steps, the Northern gong was sounding, causing my heart to run cold. Turning to look, I could already see the rising plumes of smoke curling into the cloudy sky. The merchant whose stand I was under shook his head morosely. He was an older fellow, wispy gray hairs matted to his forehead in the morning precipitation. He grumbled a bit and looked out at the sky, which was already snowing its monster crop.
"What will become of us?"
It wasn't directed to anyone in particular, but I let out a deep sigh and shook my head as well. Just standing here, I would probably be in the way, so I quickly scurried out and continued on my way. As per usual, I walked aimlessly without a goal or location in mind. There were no errands to run, Mom had restocked the kitchen just the other day, Dad hadn't mentioned anything either so shopping was pointless. I could visit Edith, but she was rather moody in the mornings, preferring to spend the better half of her day sprawled out in bed amongst a mountain of straw and feathers. It was too cold to scale the Four Towers, which were made of wrought-iron. One is positioned in every farthest point of the city. North, South, East, and West. To the West is the Ocean, which is just a hazy blue blur on the horizon. Sometimes in the summer, however, the wind brings with it hints of tangy sea-salt that dries the tongue and leaves you with a mouth-full of foul-tasting saliva. Opposite to the ocean range is a massive forest. My home is closest to the Eastern Tower, and the scent of pine rolls in around wintertime, deep, spicy, and sense awakening. Edith lives not so far from there, her quaint little cottage barraged by heavy desert sand from the South on windy days. To the North is the frigid arctic. Not many people live near that particular part of the city. The temperature is near unbearable even in the summer. Each individual area is no where near the city itself, though. They're only visible if you climb all the way to the top of the Towers, grasp the heavy iron railing and lean out with a hand above the eyebrows to shield your eyes from the light of the sun. Even then it's only on the best days you can actually make anything out. Plus, you had to factor in the giant carnivorous bird-like creatures that patrolled the skies. If you were swept away by one of them, there was no saving you.
In the end, I was left with one option: Visiting Kite. He's one of the sentry guards near the South, and there isn't a day that passes where he doesn't remind me of how much he hates his job. I chuckled to myself despite the gruesome snow that pattered around me. The trick to avoiding toxins is keeping your face downcast. As long as it doesn't get in your mouth, it shouldn't affect you. I've seen people with tiny singe marks on their skin where they'd been touched, though. So it really just depends on who you are, and how sensitive your skin happens to be. Jogging to avoid the worst of it, I approached the center of town and turned myself in the right direction. There was smoke rising from there as well, but it's not like it really mattered. The wind made it impossible to completely avoid it. Everyone who was outside right now would be covered in a fine layer of the stuff.
The guards paid me little attention as I approached them, more concerned with their duty and attaining their pay at the end of the week. The shift had changed and most of the older guards whom I was not familiar with had already switched out their pikes for hats and scarves and left. Now the younger people were left with the job of putting out the fires and discarding the ashy remnants that remained. I spotted Kite's exuberant head of aquatic blue hair and crept up behind him as stealthily as possible. He was mid-scoop with a shovel when I leaped atop his back, biting one of his floppy monkey ears.
"OW! Get off me you stupid sheep!"
Everyone stopped what they were doing, staring somewhat anxiously at the two of us as Kite flailed around. I laughed, holding tight around his neck as if he were a rampaging horse, waiting till he settled to nuzzle the top of his head with my cheek.
The mans shoulders drooped and his entire body slumped forward in an effort to throw me off. I snarled playfully and clenched my legs around his lithe body like a vise.
"Larsa, c'mon. It's not playtime. It's work time."
"You always say that."
"Only because you always show up when it really is work time!" Kite managed to turn his head and glare at me, softening only after I pouted and let my eyes glass up with false tears. He sighed and shook his head, looking to his co-workers for advice. All he got was a couple chuckles, a few exasperated head shakes, and some shrugs.
"Listen, we'll play later. Right now I have to help get this stuff out of here. You understand, right?"
"Somehow I knew you'd say that. Just think of it this way: The faster you get off my back, the sooner I get done and the sooner we can go do something."
"Does something include treating me to lunch?"
Kite narrowed his eyes dangerously, pointing to his non-existent pockets.
"Oh. Right. Armor doesn't really include pockets for wallets, huh? Never mind then, get to it."
In less than two seconds flat I was on the ground again and bouncing around on the balls of my feet. I pranced around the exasperated bluenette, noting that he looked rather flustered and smiled up at him.
"Hurry up and finish, get to it!" I shoved him towards the ashy pile, scrunching my nose up as I did. Close up, that stuff really was quite gross.
"Yeah, yeah." He gave me a stern look and shoved the spaded end of the shovel into the ashes.
"I'm just trying to cheer you on!" I retorted.
"No," Ash was precariously balanced and then gently set into a nearby wheelbarrow. "You're just being annoying."
"No," I mocked in a horrible attempt at his deep voice, smirking up at him as he raised an eyebrow at me. "I'm just trying to motivate you on so you'll hurry up."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Sheesh, you can be such a kid sometimes. Go sit over there somewhere and stay out of the others' way. We don't want a repeat of last Wednesday."
I pouted, ears drooping as I stomped over to an overturned trash barrel and plopped down on it. Kite smiled apologetically then resumed his shoveling, which looked like extremely tedious work. All the guards seemed to be overly patient and gentle, much more so than they usually were. Some of them had tied their scarves tight around their faces just in case. Should one of them breath in a rogue cloud, after all... With that in mind, I pulled my own homemade scarf (Thanks Mom!) around my mouth and nose, securing the fringed ends delicately above my pointed ears. Kilt still had his face unprotected though, and one could never be too careful.
"Hey, Kiiite!" I waved my arms around frantically, earning his attention and a very stern frown.
"Yes, Larsa? What do you need now?"
"Your scarf," I motioned to the fabric around the other guards' faces and also my own. "Cover your mouth before you accidentally breath some in."
He looked down at the ragged scarf around his neck then nodded thoughtfully.
"Good idea, there." Untying it, he doubled it over and re-tied it clumsily around the lower half of his face. He flashed me the thumbs up and I returned it with a eye-smiling grin.
Seeing as how Kite and the other guards would probably be done working no time soon, I flopped onto my back and rolled off the barrel to gaze at the sky. The sun was no where to be seen, and the clouds were ominous. When rain is on the way, the sky turns an ugly shade of purple, a swirling, violent tempest. For now though, the sky was a dark blue. Except for a large area to the north, which looked to be flashing with lightning. And as I watched, it seemed to turn into a fiery inferno. My jaw dropped.
Out of the sky came a meteor.
Well, not really a meteor. It was a large, glowing, screaming red spaceship. But it looked like a meteor; maybe a comet. The air around it was scorched as it descended, shrill screeches piercing the air and tearing at my eardrums. I clapped both hands over my ears and looked to the others who were quickly dropping their shovels to follow my example.
"What is that thing?!" Someone shouted over the noise.
Everyone turned to the guard who had screamed, skeptical looks on their faces. I tried to show the amusement I didn't quite feel on my face so he wouldn't feel so foolish, but no one had truly proved there was such a thing as aliens. These... Whatever they are, were probably just st a different race, curious to see what occupied our planet. Either that or an army of terrorists bent on destroying us. I don't quite want to think about it.
"Oh, no! It's going to crash right into the mountains!"
It was nearing the Northern peaks when something upon it exploded. Dark smoke filled the sky, and moments after the first explosion a wave of heat flashed past. I held my arms up over my face to protect it from any random debris within the wind. When it passed, I peeked out to find the ship had toppled into the highest peak and begun to canter down the side of the mountain. We watched in awe as it slowed to a messy crawl and came to rest just a few miles from the Northern Gates. I waited for any bizarre repercussions, wondering just what we would do about the foreign thing. If there was an army of enemies on that spaceship, that crash had probably killed the majority of them.
"We have to go out there and see if there are any survivors!" Spoke a young sentry, worry very apparent in his eyes as he pleaded into the somber hazel optics of the eldest guard, Lark, who shook his head slowly.
"If we were to go out now, the monsters would surely devour us before we came even close to thing."
"But what if we did?! It'd be worth it, think of the future! Those people, those things, those aliens, they could have vital information, vital resources!"
"And what if the ship is filled to the brim with blood-lusting villains out to slit our throats and overtake our city? You've forgotten your place, young one." He smacked the younger man on top of the head half-halfheartedly, taking the time to smooth out his hair afterward. I felt my lip quirk at his care, still gazing nervously at the metal carcass.
"We could make it if we wanted to." The young guard mumbled, pouting as he crossed his arms defiantly, deciding to keep his mouth shut and his opinions to himself in the end. Lark sighed, suddenly turning to point at another guard, the one standing closest to the Tower ladder.
"You, what's your name?"
"Um, it's Anzu, Sir."
"Right. Anzu, you are to rush back to headquarters and alert the other guards to this new arrival. Inform the elders and tell them we are heading out in two hours."
The sentry from before gasped, eyes wide with admiration. Lark winked at him.
"Tell them that if we don't return by sundown, not to come looking. There's no need to put any more innocent lives at stake. Have you taken what I've said to heart, Anzu?"
"Yes, Sir!" Anzu stood alert, back stock-straight as he pulled a taut arm up and saluted.
"Right then, off with you. Run as if death is at your heels." Anzu bowed and twirled to grasp the iron bars of the ladder. Half a second later he was gone.
Lark sighed and looked down at the youngest sentry.
"If I die, I'm going to haunt you."
Smiling, the boy nodded. "Likewise, Sir."
I'd stood and watched in silence for the last few minutes, waiting for the call to leave, when I noticed Kite was watching me with a very solemn expression.
"What's wrong?" I asked, cocking my head and raising a concerned eyebrow, but the man just shook his head dismissively.
"C'mooon. You can tell me."
"Larsa, you know what I always tell you before I leave the village, right?" Kilt said suddenly, his voice hoarse and dry.
That stopped me short. Of course I knew. Everyone who had friends and family on the Guard knew that even half a step outside the city perimeter was suicide. I just didn't like to think about it. Never wanted to have to go through that situation.
"I know. But I also know you won't just roll over and die that easily. Your one stubborn guy."
He chuckled, his tail giving a feeble wag as he patted my flaxen hair reverently.
"Your a good kid, Larsa. Take care of yourself, won't you?"
"Don't you dare talk like that, your coming back whether you want to or not!" I glared up at Kite, my childhood friend, my best friend, who was just smiling softly down at me as if this was our final parting. And it very well could be. Lark gave a shrill whistle, calling out to gain everyone's attention.
"Time to go, kiddos. Grab a pike and take one last, good long look at your home."
"Be safe, Kite. If you don't come back, I'll kill you."
The man laughed and nodded. "Sure thing, Larsa. Tell my sister I'll be back soon, alright?"
"I will." I grinned and patted him consolingly on the shoulder.
"Goodbye, Larsa." Kite said forlornly, stroking the thin skin behind my ear.
"I prefer, later, Kite. See you later." We shared one last look, everyone turning to slide down the Tower ladder. A few minutes later, they were at the Gates of the village. I grasped the railing and leaned out into the wind to watch them go. Side by side, shoulder to shoulder, they disappeared into the raging arctic winds. A chill ran through me then. Somehow I knew, just knew, that something bad was going to happen.
(**Please Note That This Is Only Chapter One**)