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My world was already dying when I was born. As I grew and journeyed with the seasons and my tribe, we would return to the conquest of fallow red soil, and water that refused to return. Eventually, our land could no longer give life to our crops or feed our animals. The sacred waters of the river of Etra, the water goddess, have gone dry as ash. Our people grow hideous boils on their skin, and would die in slow agony, more and more suffering each year. Rain is incredibly scarce, coming down as light showers once every few months. The air is dry and cruel, causing tremendous dust storms on the plains that block sunlight for days, and make heavy breathing fatal.
It seemed as if the gods were punishing us for some vile crime. Rho of the plants, Etra of the water, Za of fertility, Vis of the air, all of them seemed to want retribution. We knew we had to redeem ourselves to save our people and find healthy land so we decided to journey to the fabled gardens of Vhotros, the king of gods, nestled on the peak of the monstrous mountain, Vhosnak. The mountain was so massive that our elders say its peak rises above the clouds for it transcended all mortal life. Once we reach the peak, we shall bask in his gardens and thrive once more, for all who complete the journey are deemed worthy souls in the eyes of the gods. We’ve traveled for weeks across endless, red, parched plains, drying canyons, and lifeless riverbeds and now we lie at the feet of the mighty Vhosnak.
“Rakta!” I turn and find Noc, a dear friend, headed towards me. “It’s clear and sunny. The dust has finally settled!” he beams enthusiastically.
“I am relieved too,” I reply, just as relieved. “I don’t think I would have lasted two more days if it had continued.”
“You? Dying? You’re the closest thing I know to a flyer.” The comment sends us both into a mild laughter; a nice change of atmosphere after weeks of suffering.
“If only we could fly, I would never again touch the ground.” The elders always told us stories of our mighty ancestors when we were children. They spoke of how they would spend their days in the air, landing only to claim game or sleep when there were no trees nearby. They built immense fortresses on towering canopy roofs and mighty mountain peaks. It was a golden age for our people and our wings, which for generations have stood limp at our sides. The debris-filled wind of frequent dust storms make quick breathing dangerous, cause paralyzing fatigue, and can take the eyesight of the unfit, so flying is left to the strongest and quickest of us, who work as scouts and hunters.
Most of the flyers are from the tribes of the western jungles, colored with red feathers and orange skin, and slender wings for cruising between the trees. Noc’s wings are black-feathered like the folk of his southern tribe, and are massive compared to the wings of any tribe from elsewhere. My wings are the dark blue of the plains tribes, made more to glide across the endless expanse of what was once endless grassland to chase prey, and less for long flight.
“There you are,” says Asi, a flyer from the west, and a friend. She is a brave soul like the other flyers, risking their lives to keep the weak ones alive.
“How does it look?” I ask.
“The road ahead reeks of death. Game is nowhere to be found, and it seems other, smaller groups tried and failed the climb.”
“My limbs feel weary all of a sudden. Such grave news is poison to my soul. But it is not the death I fear, but the painful journey there,” I reply.
“Leave that fear behind for now Rakta. The day is clear and inviting. Clouds gather beyond the horizon, so rain may come soon. Days like this are hard to come by.” Her words soothed my spirit, and her eyes, her fierce yellow eyes chased all the fatigue from my travel-worn bones.
A screech splits the air and I turn to see our chieftain, Troshka, begin to speak.
“Brothers and sisters! Fate has brought our tribes together to fight these dire times. No matter what gods we serve, we shall all flourish at the peak of this mighty mountain, for any god is wise enough to see the strength of any living soul that succeeds the climb! Let us help one another and may our spirits never drain, for success will lead us into a new, immortal future! Let us march!” An enormous roar of approval ripples through the crowd, and then we begin our climb. Around the bottom of the mountain stood withering plants and trees, surrounded by a countless number of their fallen brethren. They beckoned us to accept the challenge of the gods, and like the others, I walk into the jaws of death, determined to survive.
It has been numerous, torturous days since we began our journey. Many gave in to the weakness of their bones on the third night, and yesterday half of our flyers had perished. Trees thrived here, and a few bushes lay scattered across the rocky floor. Poisonous plants were everywhere, showing no mercy towards our people and our pack animals. Every day, many of our people would die from hideous festering wounds, from poisoned, spiny plants, or fall prey to venomous berries and animals, while food is left behind with our fallen beasts of burden, the hadras. However dire our losses are, we keep pushing forward and one day, when we rest, I realized I’ve never looked back since we began our climb.
We had traveled to incredible heights! I could see the clouds thickening and nearing overhead, and out beyond the light orange skies and horizon the plains stretched endlessly into the great beyond, dotted with a few surviving patches of grass and trees. A mighty lake wove between the intricate pattern formed by the dance of red and green, and disappeared into a canyon that seemed miniscule compared to the mighty Vhosnak.
“I should have looked back sooner. Maybe then I wouldn’t be so tired,” says Noc, who had moved beside me.
“Aye brother. It’s been to long since I’ve seen such vibrant life. Our old home does not seem so dead from here.”
“The plains seem so much more glorious than the dead trees that covered my home. There were so many, the color green was a rare sight,” says a worn Asi, who had just returned from flight. “It looks even more beautiful from the sky, like a colored and living map.”
“If only we could fly,” replied Noc wishfully. The company of Noc and Asi were the only things keeping me on my feet. It was their friendship and their drive to complete the journey that gave me my own determination to succeed. Together we would live fantastic lives at the peak, never short of food, water, and happiness.
“Have you heard?” says Asi suddenly, in a sorrowful tone.
“Yeah, I heard some warriors talking about it on the way here,” replies Noc, equally as melancholy.
“Heard what?” I declared, feeling a pang of dread in anticipation of what I knew would be awful news. Asi composed herself well enough to speak.
“The chieftains have called for emergency food supplies, since our hadra beasts are dying by the dozens every day. They say that we must conserve what we have left and eat the bodies of our fallen people.” I suddenly feel sick, and a strange anger grips my heart.
“What! That is, that is sickening!” I shout, utterly disgusted. “Why would they even allow that? We should...”
“Let them be Rakta,” replies Noc, resting a hand on my shoulder. “I refuse to eat the bodies of my people.”
“And so do I,” replied Asi.
“I shall abstain from this monstrosity as well then. We will show the gods we are stronger than what they make us to be.”
“Aye,” reply Asi and Noc in unison, “we stand together on this.” I stay a little bit longer as Asi and Noc return to the tribe. No matter how deep in thought I was, I couldn’t help but notice how grand Asi’s feathers looked as they fluttered in the wind, like streaks of fire. Like her eyes, they filled me with strength.
The next few days of travel were brutal, as water began to run low and many chose to end their own lives rather than suffer more pain. Many complied with the order to eat the bodies of the fallen, and I watched helplessly as brother ate brother with tear-flooded eyes, and parents gave their own limbs, then their bodies so their children could eat. Many chose to abstain rather than eat their people, and one by one I saw then fall prey to hunger. We were able to survive because of Asi’s superior hunting skills and mine and Noc’s tracking prowess. We would often hide away from the tribes, and have our own feast of slain animals and plants. We would be in our own world, away from the death and suffering, and have brief moments of laughter and warmth. The tribe, thanks to desperate acts, managed to slow the number of deaths, until we reached the mountain clans.
There they lay, across the horizon and walled up behind thick, wooden battlements. I had never seen anything like it before or even think something like that could be made. Its walls looked impenetrable to our spears, but the chieftains would not yield. They tried to negotiate for passage, but the mountain chief would not allow outsiders into their territory. It was the sacred fortress of their warrior god, and to them, our climb was nothing but heresy and stupidity.
We had spent the last few days gathering wood and crafting spears, shields, and clubs, and now we stood poised to attack, to fight for the salvation of our people. The day was dark as clouds thickened overhead, strangely fitting for impending bloodshed. Noc stands beside me with a fearless gaze, while Asi circled overhead with the remaining flyers to hurl spears at the mountain brutes. A thunderous roar echoes from the fortress walls as the mountain chief stands in front of his soldiers, bellowing encouragement to his people. He is a massive creature, more muscular and taller than anyone I had ever seen before with strange feathers, brown streaks upon blankets of white. Then the chief turns to us and yells out a challenge.
“Come and try outsiders! Your bones are weak as tree branches and your warriors as fearful as timid children! We are blessed by our warrior god on the peak, and he will make sure our weapons will send you to a fiery a torturous afterlife! Our walls will not break to your pathetic warriors! So once again, come and try fools!”
Chieftain Troshka, despite his old age and exhausted bones, stands armed in front of our ranks, and turns to address us.
“My dear tribesfolk. We have suffered too much to back down now. Let us show the gods that their people are worthy of their gifts. Let us show them that the garden is fit a home for us! Let us show them that nothing, not even these infidels, will stand between us and our divine retribution. So all who stand with me, charge!”
A sudden madness grips me and I find myself sprinting to the walls of the enemy fortress. Spears rain down on us and tribesfolk fall screaming in agony as arrows penetrate their bodies. I block an arrow with my shield, then turn to help bring siege ladders up against the walls. Overhead, our flyers rain death on the mountain men on the ramparts, stopping them from tipping over our ladders. The climb is difficult as scores of dead and wounded soldiers on both sides fall from the walls, pushing me back to the ground. I try once more and succeed as I charge up the ladder, covered by my wooden shield. I climb over the top wall, and together with my people, I swing my club back and forth, bashing and flailing at mountain warriors. Chief Troshka, despite his age, fights toe to toe with the mountain men, proving more agile than most, stabbing and swiping left and right with his spear. The air is filled with the cries of battle and agony, and soon I find myself joining the chorus. Volley after volley of flaming spears rains down from our flyers, setting the wooden walls and warriors ablaze. Soon I find myself catch fire, and I ram into the bodies of others to spread the hungry blaze. I spot the mountain chief charge towards me with an ear splitting cry. We trade blows and soon both of us catch fire, but when we are set far enough apart I thrust a spear into his chest and send his massive body over the wall. When the rampart is clear I jump down into the heart of the fortress, but my stomach churns with disgust and my heart burns with guilt as I witness children trying to fight and fall to spears, clubs, and fire. Around me a wildfire devours the houses of the mountain people, destroying all they hold dear, while the battle rages on at every corner of the once mighty city. The ground is soaked with the blood of the fallen and I decide that I’ve had enough. I drop my spear as I lose my will to fight in this travesty. As soon as I unarm I am struck in the side of the head. My vision blurs and my head throbs violently as I scramble to get up. I am kicked and beaten numerous times by the warrior and watch helplessly as she brings her spear to my chest. A spear finds her chest before hers can find mine as Noc slays my executioner. I want to thank him and reach out for his hand to stand back up and run, just run from the battle, but instead my body falls limp I find myself thrust into darkness.
Light floods my eyes as I gather the strength to wake from my slumber, and I am filled with joy as I see Noc and Asi sitting in front of me. The chirping of insects swims through the brisk air, and I notice we are in a forest of thinly scattered trees and rocky ground. It is freezing, wherever we are, and a wind stabs my bones with a sharp chill.
“What happed?” I asked
“We feared for your life. You would not wake up for three days, so we carried you as we traveled,” replied Asi.
“I’m sorry Rakta. The rest of the tribe were slain or lie dying with the mountain men. Asi and I dragged you and Troshka out of the fight, and we thought it best not to return and continue onward.”
“the whole tribe…” I mutter to myself. “You’re lying. How far are we from the tribe?”
“Very far away Rakta, I’m really sorry,” replies Noc in a sullen voice.
“That’s impossible! It can’t be! We showed the gods our might! They can’t....”
“But they did boy!” exclaims a weathered, battered, croaky voice. I turn to find chieftain Troshka covered in healing herbs and limp, nowhere near as strong as during the battle. Death was hunting him.
“They did boy,” he repeats, breaking down into tears. “They killed them all! I failed, failed my duty to my people!” Troshka weeps as we sit in silence for what seems like an eternity. Suddenly Troshka laughter breaks the solemnity. “It isn’t over yet,” Troshka says, seemingly delighted.
“What are you talking about,” asked Asi in a tone that reflected all of our discomfort. For a moment, we thought the wounds had injured Troshka far deeper than his pride.
“Don’t you see, you’re all still alive! Maybe I misinterpreted, but it’s possible that only a few can be worthy! Why would a god squander his harvest on an entire tribe, when he would rather share it with champions! Go and finish the journey, young ones. Leave me here. A chieftain who fails his tribe is not worthy.”
“We won’t leave you,” I say as Noc and I pick him up off the ground.
“There’s a cave down this path, we can rest there,” says Asi. We ignore Troshka’s protests as we venture to the cave. Eventually he falls silent, and we find our sanctuary as the sun begins to set.
The cave would have been dark if not for the fire flickering inside; someone was here. I approach cautiously and quietly, but soon I am rammed into a wall by a mysterious figure. I feel wind leave my gut as the figure embeds his fist into my stomach, but before he can continue, he retreats from Noc and Asi. His eyes glare at us, brimming with contempt.
“Leave now outsiders,” he grunts. “You’re all murders. I don’t care if you kill me; I’ll take as many of you down as I can.”
“Wait!” exclaims Troshka. “Your feathers are white; I see you are of the mountain clan. We mean no harm. We just seek a place where we can rest for our journey ahead.”
“Be gone murderers! You slaughter our people and expect…”
“Wait Ga’andan,” says a voice in the shadows. The figure reveals her feathers as she walks out of the darkness; white and brown, just like the brute Ga’andan. “You say you are on a journey. Where are you going?
“To the peak of this mountain, to bask in the gardens of our god and thrive once more,” replies Throshka in a passionate tone.
“And they killed our people to get there!” shouted Ga’andan.
“We tried to talk to them, but your chieftain would not stop his goading. It had to happen!” replies Throska, equally as furious.
“My father was never a man to negotiate,” says the mysterious female, breaking the argument. “I told him to take mercy on the travelers,” she continues with tears creeping down her face. “I am Zo, daughter of Chieftain Hana and princess of the mountain clan Rosh. This is Ga’andan, my guardian.”
I suddenly remember the children turning to fight, the houses burning, and the screams of the mountain people as they fought valiantly in defense of their beloved land.
“Princess, I am so sorry. We are all so sorry,” I squeak, as guilt overwhelms my spirit.
“Speak no more of it,” snaps Zo. “We have nowhere else to go. Your spoken apologies will not bring back my dead people. The only apology I will accept is reaching the peak. Our gods have failed us, maybe yours will show even a grain of mercy.” The poison in her tone cuts through all of us, and we all feel too shamed to look Ga’andan and Zo in the eyes. “Come and eat. We must be strong for the steeper slopes ahead.”
Zo and Ga’andan unroll packs of meat and salvaged plants, and we eat under a roof of remorse, turning every single bite bitter.
The trees grow thinner and the soil more red as we continue our ascent. Like Zo said, the slopes became steeper and dryer. Greenery is even rarer than it had been on the plains, and predators stalk the land. Zo and Ga’andan avoid speaking to us and choose to keep to themselves, but Ga’andan does prove to be menacing to the beasts that stalk us, while Zo tends to our wounds and sometimes takes to the skies with Asi to scout ahead. Food has run out and water is scarce; I am amazed any of us still have the strength to go on. Our only food now is the knowledge that we could not let the death of our people to be in vain. It did not matter where we came from or what tribe we belonged to, we were all dying with our world.
We reach an immense chasm so tall and monstrous, that clouds obscured what lay below. The cliff on the other side challenge us to cross, to show the gods that even the top of the world did not scare us. The only way to the other side is a battered, hanging wooden bridge, seemingly built many years before by the mountain men’s ancestors. Troshka looks gravely ill and is covered in hideous boils and the strength of his legs finally disappears. I take him onto my shoulder and we cross the chasm, hanging on for dear life as the winds rock the bridge back and forth. We finally reach the other side when Troshka pushes himself from me and crawls on the floor.
“I can take no more, leave me here to be in peace,” croaks Troshka with bloodshot eyes and wrinkled, shriveled skin and shedding feathers. “I have traveled and lived long enough young ones. The garden was not meant for me, but for all of you.” Zo rushes to his side, but the look in her eyes says that nothing can be done to keep Troshka in this world.
“His bones have been worn beyond repair and his fatigue has already devoured his spirit. It is as he says. He can travel no longer.”
Noc, Asi, and I move in to help him up in protest, but are stopped by a flick of Troshka’s wrist, beckoning us away.
“Look from where we are. It’s beautiful isn’t it,” says Troshka with a radiant smile on his face. “Look how far we made it. I know it now, you five are the champions the gods have been seeking.” I look beyond the mountain, beyond the chasm, and I see the beauty of our accomplishment. It was as if we were already at the palace of Vhotros, looking down upon the world we once called home. It glimmers in the sunlight and reveals its true majesty, colored with every shade of nature and life. With teary eyes, I run to Troshka’s side to help soothe his passing.
“Chieftain,” I begin, unable to contain my sobbing. “Even if the gods do not deem you worthy, you will always be a champion in our eyes.”
“Thank you, Rakta,” he answers. He places a cold item into my palm, and falls lifeless as the last breath escapes his body. I roll the round object in my hand and admire the intricate design of flyers and our plains on the cold, hard ball. It is the tribe crest! Troshka had just handed us the symbol of my tribe leadership, an heirloom passed down for hundreds of years.
“We shall present it to the gods after our exodus,” says Noc.
“Yes we will,” joins Asi. “But not as our old tribe, but our new one. All of us speak for not only our tribes anymore, but for everyone else left alive. Me, Rakta, Noc, Zo, Ga’andan; we are a family now.” I find myself in shock and joy as for the first time, a smile creeps onto Zo and Ga’andan’s faces as we embrace before the final ascent. Just then, the ground begins to shake and a massive fire appears in the clouds.
The world erupts into smoke as an immense flaming rock rains from the sky and crashes close to our camp. The ground shakes violently and we are forced on to our knees. A massive dust storm rages around us, stinging my eyes and blocking sunlight.
“Quickly, get to high ground!” yells Zo, as we dash blindly into the jaws of the storm. The dust is so thick I can barely breathe, but if I stop now I will be buried or eaten by wild beasts. Just then, numerous growls join together into a song of death, and a massive pack of wild beasts emerge from the raging debris, baring their fangs. We do our best to lose them, but our limbs grow only weaker and weaker until our escape seems hopeless.
“Zo, Asi, Noc, Rakta!” shouts Ga’andan. “It looks as if the gods want to test our strength. Go on without me, I’ll hold them for as long as I am alive!” I turn in disbelief, squinting to find and help him, but when I do he pushes me back. I am shocked to see Zo standing by his side.
“Princess, leave with them. You must make it to the garden…” begins Ga’andan.
“No Ga’andan. If either of us is a champion it’s you not me. You have fought for me since my birth, now let me fight beside you,” shouts Zo, brandishing a worn out club.
“It has been an honor princess.”
“You have been a dear protector, and more of a father to me than my own father. Let me show you what you have devoted your life to protecting can fight too!”
“Hey!,” they both shout to us.
“Thank you for letting us travel with you all, and saving us from despair. Go now champions, the gods await!” bellows Zo. I run forward to meet Asi and Noc, as Zo and Ga’andan disappear into the dust to join a melody of roars and battle cries.
Asi’s scream echoes through the air and I find her pinned to the ground, being hacked to pieces by ferocious predators. I wield my own club and swing back and forth, bashing the heads of two beasts. A third grapples onto my wings and shreds my back, but I force it off me and end its life with a swing to its jaws. No matter how many I slay, more and more arrive, seemingly out of nowhere, and driven mad by the scent of blood. I give up trying to fight, and instead run to Asi’s side, but I am too late. Her left wing has been torn off, the ferocity in her eyes replaced by weariness, and blood seeping from numerous wounds.
“Asi no!” I scream, cradling her into my arms. “Don’t die. Not now. We’re so close! We’re almost there, we almost above the clouds!” No matter how much I plead, I know I cannot keep her from death.
“Thank you, for your friendship. Thank you for your love, Rakta. But you must go. The gods have shown that I am not worthy, but you, you remain standing. Go now Rakta, I am with you.” I continue my embrace until her soft, warm body falls limp in my arms, and I stare at the red feathers that so many times during the journey, had filled me with more than just joy, but strength, and security as well. In my arms, gone from this world was someone who was more than a friend to me, something far more special than a friend.
I let go of her and decide to continue onward, but I spot Noc limping from battle. I run to help him, but he refuses my shoulder and instead looks me in the eyes.
“Go brother. Thank you for everything.” Says Noc, panting heavily. “I see why you have the crest now. You are the true champion! Show the gods what we have done, and don’t ever forget us in your immortal life. Show them our determination, and maybe one day, our world will thrive again.”
“I will never forget you Noc. You were a brother to me. I shall sing songs of you and everyone else who has endured.” We lock our bodies in one final embrace.
“There is only one way out Rakta. You must fly. That is the last challenge.”
“But I can’t…”
“Fly! Rakta. Fly to salvation!” I beat my wings furiously, and soon I am coursing through the air, slowly at first but getting faster and faster. I hear Noc’s screams as he falls prey to the wild beasts, and he disappears into the abyss below. The wind is so strong I am buffeted backwards a few times, and the dust is so thick that I scrape rocks on the side of the mountain. My wings, however, allow me to glide back and soon I am soaring through puffy white and grey clouds. They feel so good on my skin, as droplets of water run down my feathers and refresh my body. I finally reach the top, and fall to the rim of the garden. But to my horror, there is no garden. I stare into a large pit of fire where the fables say the garden should be, and suddenly I am overcome with despair. It was all useless. There is no garden here, only a massive pit of smoke and lava. All our suffering, all that death was for nothing. I yearned to be by someone’s side, but I was alone here.
I look down from the peak of Vhosnak, and to my amazement I saw flashes of lightning. A massive rainstorm was descending upon the world! I watched as gleaming drops of water plummeted down to feed the grass of my home once again, to fill the rivers, to once again sow the seeds of life. Maybe one day, my world would thrive once again. Maybe one day, its rivers would flood valleys, trees would gather in dense jungles, and a new generation would build mighty cities. I lie down content at the top of the world, and bask in the thought of rejuvenation, and dream of a world where my home would once again thrive.
“Doctor Aailyah Summers, the site is ready for your inspection,” says the colonel over the radio.
“I’m already here colonel. You know I’m never late for new discoveries,” I reply.
“You are a miracle to the Mars colonies, do you know that?”
“You flatter me colonel. Now if you don’t mind. I have some remains to study.” Olympus Mons was an incredible challenge to scale, even though we had a shuttle drop us off around halfway up. The mountain was so enormous, it rose past Mar’s atmosphere. Over the past few weeks, colony scientists had made several discoveries of micro bacteria and minerals that pointed to signs of past life. What the team had at the peak of Olympus Mons was apparently going to prove it.
I arrived and was welcomed by scores of reporters and an incredibly excited research team.
“Hello Colonel,” I say, shaking his hand for the cameras.
“This will blow your mind doctor.”
“I’m sure it will,” I say. And sure enough it does, for lying in the excavation site was what looked to be the fossil of a seven-foot, bipedal, avian alien. Then it was true. A smile crept across my face as I realized that our theories were correct, that life did once exist on Mars, that the valleys were carved by rivers, and that through the colonists efforts at terraforming, would be a thriving world once again.