I could hear the roar of the crowds even before my float had reached the parade street. They were ecstatic. They were cheering for their savior. Their protector, their keeper of safety. They’re cheering for me.
I’m sitting in a fancy, but not comfortable chair, atop a moving parade float. Ever since my “victory”, Otcha had become the new capitol of Outopis, but anyone who couldn’t make it to this city would be watching it - the Victory Parade was a nationally broadcasted event. It’s funny, isn’t it? How with just a few words of command from them, the rat-infested village of Otcha became thriving and technologically advanced as Miracle City. With just a few words, they could do anything. After all, they made Outopis, and as far as everyone knows, Outopis is everything.
I can clearly hear my mother’s voice now, chastising me for doubting the Sisters, me, especially, since I owed everything to them. I should be ashamed of myself. To escape from a scolding, I would distract my mother by asking her to retell my birth story. Her eyes would light up, and she would get this beautifully reverent smile. Then, she would start.
“You know as well as I do, my dear, that Otcha isn't the nicest place in Outopis. Well, when you were a baby, it was even worse. Not only was there dirt floors, but there was holes in our home’s walls - yes, this exact hut - and we didn't even have enough money to buy wood so you could have a crib. We’d just lay a hide on the floor and let you roll around it. Of course, I’d almost always be watching you. The only time I wouldn't be was when I’d turn around for 3 minutes at the most to make sure dinner was still on the right course. That night - the special night - I had bought a whole hare, pre-skinned, from Mr. Hagret. During the day, we had been visited by some richer folk, passing through Otcha to another town. They took pity on this young widow with child, and had blessed us with 4 silvers. Enough for rabbit stew.
“So, there I was, throwing vegetables and meat into the pot, and when I turned back around to check on you, you were gone! Not a full 15 seconds later, I heard you cry out in pain. I ran to the source of the scream, and you were right there up against the wall, next to one of the many holes that it possessed. And do you know what was rearing its head out of that hole? A yellow-spotted lizard! It had its fangs bared, too, and right near your elbow, on your left forearm were two minuscule red dots. You won't believe the amount of grief that had stricken me in that moment, Jules. I felt like I had committed the ultimate crime. Keep in mind, the yellow-spotted lizard does have a curable venom, but you see, Jules, dear, there never has been any medicine practitioner in Otcha. You were as good as done, and it was all my fault. All I could do was cry. I cried, and I cried, and I cried, and you cried, too, because you were in pain, but there was nothing I could do about it.
“I prayed and hoped and wished for a miracle. And for once in my life, Juliska, a miracle came. Through the doorway, a woman’s figure appeared. With her, she carried a brown leather bag. I had never met this woman before, but she had a calming aura about her. Just by being near, she relieved me of my grief. Even though she hadn't said a single word, I knew who she was, and why she was here. Utona herself had come to save you. Why, I didn't know. She must have seen the confusion on my face. And she offered what she told me was a “deal”. Really, there wasn't any downside to it. She could save you, but only if I gave my consent for you to become her champion. Of course, I agreed. You’re going to be a hero, Jules - crowds will cheer your name louder than Heracles.”
“Hero” couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, I had become the champion everyone hoped I would, but being the champion wasn’t anywhere near heroic. I was a villain who’d managed to fool the whole world. I was young, and I thought that being Utona’s champion meant being on the side of good, in the war against all things evil. I should have known that the world isn’t that clear cut.
I was fifteen, and ever since I was child, I had been preparing for a battle I had been warned about since childhood. I would soon have to face the other Sister’s champion - whoever Dystopa had chosen. I’d be leaving Otcha soon to enter the Ring. Whoever supported Dystopa must be killed - everyone knows that she represents everything evil. The Sisters were two sides of the same coin - both necessary, but one obviously better and more enjoyable than the other. Everyone was rooting for me to win - no one wanted a millennia under the rule of Dystopa. So, a week earlier than the day of the fight, I left to head to the Ring, even though it only actually took 3 days to get there. I wanted time to scope out the enemy I was destined to defeat. I left my hometown hopefully.
The Ring was a crater in the center of Outopis, and was rumored as the spot where the Sisters landed on a land of darkness and oppression, defeated the enemies, and founded Outopis. Who the enemies were, it had never been decided. Some say it was horribly gigantic monsters that were as tall as the buildings in Miracle City. Others say they were part of different world; they were shadows that whispered in the people's ears, slowly driving them insane. There was no one who remembered a time before the Sisters, or before the Ring. Annually, around that time of year, every citizen of Outopis would visit the Ring to honor the Sisters and the battles they fought. No one was there that year, however. That day marked the millennial anniversary of the day the Sisters freed us. The anniversary of the Beginning.
This was a sacred event, no one would be allowed near the Ring except the two champions for the entire day. Then, at midnight, a prophet chosen by both of the Sisters would enter the Ring and report which champion had won. Whichever Sister chose the winning champion would continue to rule for the following millennia. These rules were known all across Outopis, and had always been in place.
It had taken me a very long while to reach the Ring - a few hours more than it usually took with my family. I let my horse free - whether I won the battle or not, I wouldn’t need its assistance any longer. I would either leave the Ring in a parade, or I’d never leave at all. I had felt a sudden surge of nervousness - and then I felt confusion because of it. I thought I knew how this battle would turn out. I would meet Dystopa’s champion - they would a negative, gloomy, evil individual - I would defeat and kill them, and then I would welcome the parade that would follow.
I rounded a corner, and the forest from before cleared into an open view of the Ring. In the center of the Ring was a shockingly pale and frail-looking creature. I thought I was seeing things wrong, so I headed down. Indeed, in the center of the crater was a thin and pale girl with long, thin, blond hair. It was strange how vividly I remembered these details, even though it had seemed like I met her a lifetime ago. When she turned around after noticing me, I saw that her hair wasn’t the only thing that was thin and pale - everything was.
Something peculiar happened next. She smiled at me with the friendliness of a neighbor I’d known my entire life. “Hello,” she’d said. “My name is Ava. My hometown is Blumenheim. What’s yours?” I felt it necessary to respond with the same. She smiled at me again. “Juliska is a beautiful name,” she commented. I thanked her. She gave one last quick, vanishing smile before her face suddenly saddened. “Well, Juliska, I suppose it’s time for me to die.” I sputtered nonsense at her. There was no way she could be the champion, even if she was, I couldn’t just kill her, we had to duel properly.
“No one wants to see a rule under Dystopa,” she scoffed. Then she softened. “It’s alright, really. In all honestly, I’m actually deathly sick. I wouldn’t last much longer either way.” The next part, I don’t actually remember very well. We talked for a few more minutes. Ava became insistent. I remember yelling at her, and her yelling back. Then, it was midnight, and the prophet chosen by both of the Sisters was congratulating me on ensuring another millennia under Utona’s rule.
Everyone thinks I’m a hero. But I’m not. I never asked to bitten by that snake, to become a champion, or to be chosen by Utona. All of Outopis has been fooled. Ava, you’re the real hero. I’m sorry that no one else can see that, but I know. I’ll always know. I have to, because no one else will.