In the early days of Litalle’s life, the sun climbed the sky to provide warmth, sometimes more than was required. That same sun buried itself beneath the horizon each evening, giving life a chance to cool off beneath twin moons. Sleep and rejuvenation were words worth knowing, as were family and friends and community.
But with each year that passed, the haze outside her village engulfed an increasing amount of blue, leaving behind a sky of ash and ice. This annual eclipse shifted to seasons and then to months as Litalle’s words gave way to terms like hunger and thirst and loneliness.
Words carried power, or they had before people stopped using them altogether. Solar flares rendered the world useless until her sun waned. Breezes that had once carried cherry blossoms and marigolds, stilled, leaving stagnation in their wake. Speaking became dangerous, even with face masks.
Somewhere in Litalle’s memories remained words like Mother and best friend, but both figures had died back when the summer rivers froze. She’d been sixteen when their deaths added two coats to her young shoulders. More to carry and a burden at first, but now…
Litalle tugged the coats tighter about her shoulders as she shivered. With each death in her village, she’d inherited what remained: a few scraps of food, a canteen of water, clothing riddled with holes, and sometimes their last words.
“Peace be with you, friend.”
Somewhere during the village’s drawn-out death, days bled together as the gray and white permeated everything. Maybe she’d left its remains a few days before her eighteenth birth year, a rather solemn event celebrated not at all, with strangers at her side. Now nineteen—at least she thought that might’ve be her age—she walked across the land with no direction, no company, and no purpose beyond staying alive.
Four hundred days since her last encounter with a living person. Four days since her last encounter with a living animal. Four hours ago, she’d uncovered a dragonfly nymph settled beneath the frozen pond while filling her canteen, a tidbit to be tucked it into her backpack for later.
She glanced at the gray sun in the distance. One hand, maybe two above the horizon, gave her an hour until the sun slept. Maybe tonight would be the night it finally died. Litalle shrugged as she climbed up the hill.
A chilly wind sent the forest’s dried up limbs clattering like an old set of bamboo wind chimes. Their hollow, mournful cries forced her steps faster. The tree remnants shivered with her, and when they stilled, darkness hovered beneath their empty canopy. A cave or an overhang? She hoped for the former.
Her fingers curled tighter around her crossbow as she tiptoed towards the shadows. Rather than a slight overhang of branches, the trees gave way to a large cave—large enough that the rear of it was lost to more shadows. Taller than her by two, its mouth promised shelter, but she swallowed back the urge to rush inside. If she sought shelter from the night, so did others, assuming anyone or anything else was alive to do so. If bullets remained for her gun, perhaps her limbs would tremble less, but the last time she’d stumbled upon spare bullets, the stench of death surrounding them had driven her away.
Something glinted within the blackness, and she slowed her steps. She remained silent and still, and when nothing happened, she opened her mouth. At first, nothing sounded other than a slight croak. So long had it been since she’d spoken, and she swallowed hard.
This time a light alto rang out and bounced around the cave, too loud for ears used to silence, and she clapped a dirty hand over her chapped lips.
Whatever inhabited the cave flickered but remained present. She unclipped her flashlight from her belt and cranked its handle a few times to give it juice. Light hit the side of the cave, and as she walked, several somethings flickered ahead of her, their golden hue like autumn leaves back when the seasons shifted and green still grew. Beneath her feet, a deep rumble shook her, and she stopped, shining her light straight ahead. Her mouth fell open.
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