By Rebecca Ann Jordan
“It will not come to that.”
“But what if it does?”
If it did, Ariadne would be out of the ruling family. She didn’t dare speak up. But she watched her father rub his neglected chin and silently listened to the voices in her head.
“We will attack at dawn.” Nightfall, then. Lies for the cameras hovering nearby, relics from before the End, rediscovered a decade ago. Polished up, now they relayed what the enemy saw and heard on the other side of the field. “And if it fails, we will propose a duel. Captain Halmon will fight.”
The red-haired captain pulled his attention from the video feed of the enemy’s camp. He stood abruptly with a deep bow. “Sire.”
“Don’t let me down.” The king squeezed Halmon’s decorated shoulder. “I know you won’t.”
If they did not die tonight, and Halmon did not lose, then the good captain would be king. It was an honor many would eagerly kill for.
Fight, the voices whispered. They echoed themselves, toppling each other.
Ariadne stepped among the group of men, saw herself move on the screens. The light shifted on her greasy yellow hair. The hovering camera shifted in the air to take her into view. “Father. I will be your champion.”
The men looked at her, and then the old king laughed darkly. “Ariadne, this is no time for jokes.”
“I’m not joking. You have trained me to fight, and I will fight. I will be your champion, and when I win we will keep the kingdom in your bloodname.”
Reflexively, and at risk of betraying his honored reputation, the king glanced at the cameras. The technology had come about in her father’s lifetime, and he was still uneasy with it. Ariadne was born into constant cameras, and she was adept at pretending they weren’t there, which was, after all, the honorable thing to do. “This is the fight of men,” he informed her. Those feral eyebrows made the king look like a rabid muskrat. “Not girls. Would it be nice to keep my bloodname? Yes. But these are thousands of lives we’re talking about, and I won’t let your childish pride jeopardize them.”
Fight, the voices whispered.
“It isn’t pride.” She stood straighter as she faced him. “I can win, and I will win.”
“Nonsense,” the king snapped. “You’ve never been in a real fight. Your teachers let you win because you’re the kingsblood.” He glared and took a step toward her, though Ariadne was taller than the old man. Her mother must have been tall.
“I will win,” she told him, and glanced at Captain Halmon. “No offense, sir, but though you’re strong you are also wild with your sword arm. It serves you well by luck alone, but while you swing your enemy will cut you in half.”
“You upstart child.” The lean captain put his hand on the hilt of his sword, the honorable weapon. In this new world, guns ruled the battlefield, but after the treaty, they had agreed to use them as little as possible. It was like that with the cameras, too, though nobody seemed to have been able to help themselves. “I would like to hear you speak after you’ve survived a war. You’re here only because your father wants to ensure you don’t whore yourself out and get a brood of bastards while he’s away.”
The guards caught her midair as the two rushed at each other. She struggled, enraged, but they dragged her outside at the king’s shout. “My lady, forgive me,” said the guard who steered her back to her tent.
“Get off of me.” She shoved him back outside with enough indignance to wind him when he fell. Ariadne didn’t care. She paced her tent with the clamoring of battle in her body and nothing to take it out on. It was lucky that the enemy’s hovering cameras had not deemed her interesting enough to follow; otherwise, she would have destroyed them underfoot. No doubt they now followed Captain Halmon, learning his strengths and his weaknesses so they could ensure their champion’s strengths outweighed his.
Night was falling. Camp was alive with noise as soldiers prepared for the battle. They would have to move quickly, before the enemy caught on that they had used code in front of the cameras. The voices whispered amongst each other. Had they changed their minds? Was she to let Halmon steal her bloodname? The dimming light flicked across the inside of her tent as Ariadne’s whetstone slik-slecked on her ancient curved blade.
And then in the distance she heard men dying. Bullets punched through shields of tempered steel and whizzed through flesh. Swords clanged off each other before their honor killed their masters. The temperature dropped and brought with it the scent of sharp blood. Dry thunder threatened a hundred miles away. The battle would be over soon.
We lost too many men. Halmon will be killed in tomorrow’s duel.
Patience, said the voices. Trust.
Trust was a hard thing to give to mere whispers. She had learned at a young age that only she could hear them.
Trust, they whispered again, and she was content. A single voice piped up, Your hair would be pretty, red. Not an ideal time to make a fashion statement, but her hands found henna powder in one of her packs, a new color every week.
As Ariadne predicted, the battle was over quickly. The lamplight flickered behind the returning soldiers, which cast puppet shadows against the wall of her tent.
She was on her feet in an instant, pulling a green woolen hat over her head and a coat over her blue clothes, blue that only the wealthy could afford. Her clothes marked her, and she hid them as she stepped into the seething camp.
There were dead and wounded men everywhere, but she paid little attention to them. It was the man they were bringing in now on a stretcher who had her interest. She followed them to Halmon’s tent with a vague stirring of understanding, watched from just outside as the soldiers set him down and fumbled with thin bandages, knives, surgical scissors. Halmon screamed. Despite her resolve, Ariadne flinched.
“Hold still, damn you.”
“Oh Ancients, get it out!”
The captain’s skin writhed and broke in places, spewing blood and gore. “Here, see these lumps? Press the skin toward the wound.”
Another scream. The camera orb whirred in demented delight.
“I’ve never seen this before. Should we cut him open?”
“I’m gonna be sick.”
“Bugshot.” The man in charge standing over the grisly affair had little hope on his face. “Haven’t seen this since the Treaty.”
The man kneeling next to the captain pulled out a long, fanged worm from his bloody body. Halmon was weeping. “Do you think the King knew they were planning this?”
“Why would he? They must have hid it from our cameras. Halmon was supposed to be his champion.”
“Don’t—” Halmon’s face was drained of color. “Don’t talk about me like I’m already dead.”
“Sorry, Halmon.” The man folded his arms over his chest. “They’ve got into your liver by now. We’ve got to burn your body or we’ll have a plague on our hands.”
The dying captain screamed. Ariadne winced. Much as she hated the man, it was an unfairly cruel fate. Someone poured vinegar on his open wounds to try to kill the bugs and he screamed again. Thunder cracked closer. She pulled the long coat around herself as the soldiers filed out. After she was sure all cameras were gone, she slipped inside. “I’ll take care of him,” she said to the doctor, angling her voice low. “Go get some rest.”
“There’s nothing left to take care of.” The doctor was too bleary to get a good look at her face. “I’ve sent for one of our hovercams so he can say goodbye.” The captain wailed. “Should be here any minute. As soon as that’s done, take him to the pyres.” He trudged out. The wild-eyed captain looked on her, lips parted and moaning. Something wriggled at the corner of his mouth. His chest was torn open through the honorary blue shirt and centipedes ate hungrily at the edges of his flesh. Ariadne imagined for a moment that those bugs had long been laying eggs on his corrupted heart and they were just hatching now.
“Lady Ariadne,” he gasped. “Go, you should not see this.”
She knelt beside him, swallowing the bile that rose at the sight of his body, mangled by illegal biological warfare. The voices, for once, were silent. Her hand closed around the knife strapped to her calf. “It’s better this way,” she assured him, and then she slit his throat. At least he wouldn’t suffer, and in death she had to harbor toward him no more ill will.
But the camera would be in any minute. She smeared herself in his blood, any blood that was not stained with insectile slime. Covered his body in her robe. Twisted her hair up above her head and sliced it off with the tainted knife. A lucky thing she had dyed her hair as red as his. No, not luck. Fate.
She stole his belt and precious sword, a family heirloom, the weapon of the courageous. She would not be using the gun, but kept it anyway, and wrapped her face with a muddy veil. The hovercam came in. Just in time she managed a slouch, arm wrapped around herself, doing her best to look pained. “Go away,” she snarled, mimicking the captain’s voice. She was no good at deception, but she had to try. The war rested on it. She grabbed the camera and shoved it out of the tent. “I’ll fight your … your champion. And I’ll damn well win.” She coughed and glared at the camera. “I said get out.”
The camera hesitated, twitched and locked something into place, then turned and zoomed serenely away.
She found a bottle of oil on the table and tossed it onto the body, then pulled out her lighter and dropped it. He burned.
But it wasn’t the enemy she cared to fool. It was her own people. They must believe Captain Halmon had gone down to the battlefield, and so she stood and limped, groaning like the cowardly captain had done. Someone grasped her arm. She shoved him off. A cold gust of wind tickled the area of her neck that had previously been protected by her long hair. A camera found her, and then two, and then a small army of them were following her, enemy and ally cameras alike. The blood obscured enough of her face, the veil protected from close-ups, and her lean body strode in the bloody blue clothes with more confidence than she felt. She only looked ahead, her hand on the Halmon family sword. Men fell into step behind her, going to watch the duel that would likely end her life.
It began to rain.
The champion stood on the opposite bank of the valley, half-concealed by the rain and illuminated intermittently by lightning. The mass of muscle on top of muscle had never lost in a duel, and he held his big two-handed sword with such ease he seemed to be laughing at her. This man was the reason why the enemy had come so far into Ephemeron territory.
“Halmon is dead!” someone screamed. She heard the wild roar of the King’s voice, and a flurry of a thousand other panicked voices and wet, heavy footsteps as they ran down the hill to stop her. She did not turn around. Her voices were content, quiet, listening and watching, and so she was content.
The enemy blew a horn, and the cameras focused in as the duel began. There was no time to think. He ran toward her, and she ran. They would collide with each other, but he swung and she ducked, sliding through the mud under his blade. As she leapt up she kicked at his calf, nearly making him stumble. No, he was too sturdy for that. He righted himself too quickly, and he was going to kill her in the next instant, except…
Dodge right. Block right. Step back. Block. Swipe. Duck.
They had never spoken with such clarity in her life. Her body was not her own, far beyond the capacity of her training. She was a demon, moving like water around her enemy’s sword.
Block. Step back. Swing up.
And then a momentary silence, falling away like notes in an empty church. That was enough. The enemy’s sword found her body and snipped into the skin of her hip. The steel came up and swung toward her neck, and she imagined her own head rolling disgracefully into a pool of blood and sopping mud where the bugshot could find her eye sockets.
She ducked, nearly forgetting to move without the voices’ prompting. The blade did not find her neck. It found her right eye. Warm liquid boiled onto her face. She scrambled up, dodged another blow, nearly lost her footing in the mud as he advanced on her.
Don’t leave me now. Please.
Now she was blocking wildly, leaning on her training with every ounce of energy. His blows rattled her lithe frame. She barely had time to reposition her sword before the next blow came, again and again in an endless downpour of beatings.
He did not laugh, the enemy’s champion, though he had every right to. His smile was sure, self-confident, but not hubristic. He was going to win, and he knew it.
Blinded by her own blood, she stumbled to the ground, and his sword rose to strike the final blow.
She closed her eyes and let out a shout. Her death would not be noble. Her death would be short and bloody, and her father would be glad.
Thunder in the distance, and then closer. Lightning broke like a snapping camera. The long tentacle of electricity grabbed the closest outstretched thing: the champion’s sword. It zipped down his arm and cut off a scream, decimating it to silence as his body jerked, once, twice, arrested in space.
All she saw was an opportunity. Live, her body, not the voices, urged. Live! Her hand found the hilt of Halmon’s gun before she had time to think – an instinctual reaction of survival. The human spirit chooses shame and life over honor and death. The gun went off, thunder cracked, and the bullet pierced the champion’s heart. Long ago, the man had decided how he would die: with honor, body succumbing to cancer, to glorious fanfare, surrounded by loved ones.
She did not give that to him.
He staggered back, pain in every muscle, and toppled ungainly into the mud.
Rain and blood roared in her ears, screaming triumph at her shameful victory. A hand touched the cut on her hip, trembling as it tried to hold the blood in place, and she closed her eyes to ease the strain of the broken membrane. For a blessed moment, there was silence, and all was right in the world.
And then, chaos.
They raced down the slope, representatives of both sides, followed by zipping hovercams. Mud splashed around their heels, some kicking up dead maggots from last night’s bugshot. Soldiers screamed and swarmed on her, lifted her into the air. “You did it, Halmon! Ancients, this morning you weren’t well enough to walk. You won!”
“Foul play!” the enemies screamed. “Dishonor! Cheat!”
Her people protected her from them, though they shouldn’t have. She swayed against someone’s shoulder, blinded by her own blood mingling with the rain.
And then she heard them.
They did not speak, but they mingled, cooing soft approval. A happy counterpoint to the din around her, the smattering of outraged gunshots that went off, the cameras whirring by her head, the abuse flung across enemy lines. The sides began to fight again, starts and stops in passionate uncertainty, but the duel was the Ancients’ period that ended the book. Ariadne slipped into unconsciousness as the voices lullabied her toward that fitting death.
The final gun was fired only that morning, and the document wasn’t yet finalized, but signatures in blood had been written and were nearly dried. The king was never happy, but he was positively sour now. He scowled at the victory banners that hung limply in the thick fog, and though the people of Ephemeron were given to gossip, they were quiet now.
“I am bound by honor.” The fog was so thick between him and Ephemeron’s people that it looked as though he was speaking to no one at all. The thousand cameras whirred outside the ring of the balcony’s light, but their digital eyes were not for him. They watched the curtain that partitioned the balcony behind him. “Ephemeron has been victorious. We are a strong people. But we are only as strong as our king.”
He glared at the digital eyes. He did not care that it was rude to acknowledge they were there. He never had grown used to them. “I present the victor of Birmingham and your new king, Ariadne.”
The people crowded together, huddled against the cold and straining to see the stately royal woman come to the balcony. Out she came, slowly, dragging the endless train of wool behind her and balancing the crown of broken glass that stretched halfway to the sky in sharp jagged edges. There was silence in her mind.
These were never meant to be her people. It was difficult to ignore the simmering glare of the old king as she spoke. “With the strength of our ancestors and the fortitude of your courage, we will take Akron and be a greater nation than any that has come before us.”
It was not enough to send the people spiraling into a frenzy of applause. Ariadne had won for them, but the whispers of dishonor grew like a great mangled monster, and the barred doors were beginning to split as it heaved at the gates.
We are here. We will guide you.
But you abandoned me. They had taken her halfway, miraculously, through the fight and then left her to die. Ariadne still ached from the wound. She was lucky splattered bugshot from the field had not infected her belly. I trusted you. For the first time in her life she doubted them. And now any fool could contest her rule because she’d been forced to use a gun. The crack of disgrace had shattered more than the Akron champion’s ribs.
Trust. A high favor to ask. Trust. Trust.
The voices faded as Ariadne received a smattering of uncertain applause. They were replaced by one voice. A male, young and clear. The one who had liked redheads. Trust, Ariadne.
She was curious enough to obey.
“And we are guided now by those seated beyond.” She raised her hand to the sky, giving praise to the clouds. “Call them what you will. Gods or Ancients or ancestors. They guide my hand and my eyes.” Trust, Ariadne. “Trust in me, people of Ephemeron. With the voices of the Ancients I will guide our nation to greatness.”
There were murmurs of confusion. Was she mad? No man had spoken of gods with any seriousness since the End. Hundreds of years had passed and hope in deus ex had long since died out.
But there was more applause than before. Perhaps her madness had brought dishonor to Ephemeron, but perhaps it would save them all. Ariadne turned back through the balcony without giving them the chance to question her.
Her throne stretched, too tall for any man, to sweep across the ceiling and half of the room. Sometime in the End lightning had struck the sand and melded this endless throne. Above it swung the First Man’s sword from a hemp rope, tip hanging toward the King’s head. Ariadne sat beneath it and took the mixed power and threat to her like a blanket.
The red-faced father, now a sad fat man whose orders no one followed, approached her. He is poison. “What do you think you’re doing? Foolish girl. Are you trying to start a riot out there?”
“Leave my house.”
He grew redder. “Excuse me? This is my house.”
“Not any longer.”
“You were my champion against my will. You have brought shame on my head and on my house.” He took a menacing step forward. “Don’t tell me what I can’t—”
Her eyes glimmered as they shifted to her guard. Captain Renoulf and several others grasped the old man’s arms, wrestling them behind his back.
“What? You can’t be serious! I am your King!” He struggled. They fought him down and dragged him out.
Captain Renoulf returned. “Was that necessary?”
The light glimmered on her crown of broken glass, spraying dancing squares across her shoulders.
“Out with the old and in with the new.”
That night she dreamed the voices came to her. They were unformed creatures that clung like shadows to the walls. “Ariadne.” It was the young man with the clear voice. He lay down beside her, wrapped his arm around her and kissed her neck, taking shape. She turned to look at him but could not see him. He was warm and soft, and she shivered.
“Who are you?” It was a question she had asked as a child, before she learned that others could not hear them.
He kissed her on the mouth. It was the first time she had kissed anyone. “Come to us where the sky meets the sea.” She saw an image flash behind her eyes, an island off the west coast called Catalina. A great beast stood against the sunset horizon on the precipice of the island, and a broken bridge sprawled like a twisted spine beneath the surface of the water. “Come to us where the beasts from before the End still roam.”
“How will I get there?”
“Trust.” He kissed her brow, and she sat straight up in bed.
The pair of hovercams that had stayed the night clicked awake. She ignored them, as was right. Yes, the technology was used despite the dishonor, only so the other side would not have a steeper advantage in battle. But Ariadne thought perhaps, in the beginning, there had been someone like her to receive the Ancients’ commands; some said the Ancients had directed them to turn from the old technologies that had destroyed their world. It was why it was ignoble to look directly into a camera, which could steal a man’s face and replicate it hundreds of miles away. It was why it was dishonorable to kill a man with a gun instead of a sword.
The King slipped out of her bed, bare feet on the floor, and went to the wardrobe to find pants and a woolen shirt. The voices were silent but she knew now how to follow them.
“Captain Renoulf.” She kicked him awake in his sleeping quarters. “Get up. Pack the caravans. Food and water and supplies.”
“Your King commands you.” She strode to the great hall and mounted her throne.
“Where are we going?” Renoulf followed, pulling up loose pants.
“West.” She stretched tall, severed the rope that tied the First Man’s sword to the ceiling, and leapt down. “To where the sky meets the sea.”
They said she was mad. The King knew their whispers. All but the very old, the very young, and the very sick had packed up their belongings, like one of those ancient caravans, and began an endless trek from sea to sea. Catalina, so the stories said, was the birthplace of life. After the End someone whose name had long been lost rode across the twisted bridge on the back of a bull.
That did not matter now to those who had been uprooted by the King’s command. Halfway across the continent, the King watched her screens with one good eye and one mangled one, tugging at her dyed-black hair with a frown on her face. The hovercams’ incessant eyes whirred quietly in the corner and around the camp clustered at the base of a great oak that had been cracked in half with lightning.
“Why do we go?” A pale, round woman stirred a pot as steam condensed on her face. “She has given no reason. Nothing to flee and no treasure to seek. Will she lead us to glory on the battlefield? We have met no opposing armies or evidence of their existence.”
Captain Renoulf’s rough fingertips twitched against each other. “I don’t know. She hasn’t said.”
“Not even to you? To anybody?”
He shook his head. He must not have seen the camera crouching under an arching root, for he said, “I don’t understand. When Theol was King, she was always quiet. Stubborn, but not … mad. Not like this. Not mad like running into a battle woefully underprepared.”
“Or dragging her people across the country on a death march?”
The voices tingled at the back of the King’s mind, not saying anything with words, but she knew what they meant. Fool. She stood, a train of cameras following her like a long, floating dress, and grasped the hilt of her gun, the weapon of the dishonorable. “Renoulf.”
The captain scrambled to his feet with a bow. “Majesty.”
“Do you doubt my reign?”
He paled, realizing what had happened. The man should have known better than to voice his thoughts where cameras watched. “No, Majesty. I was merely voicing a concern.”
“Do you doubt the Ancients?”
Renoulf did not answer.
Ariadne shot him.
The round woman screamed. Others popped their heads out of their tents, and the camera orbs kicked into overdrive. Let my enemies see that. Let them know I am stronger than their honor. “Hear me now,” she said, raising her voice so that all her people, sprawled across the golden valley, could hear. She climbed the split oak and straddled its charred insides. “I have heard the voices of our gods, our Ancient Ones. They guide my every action and will bring prosperity to my people. They say I must go west, to where the sea meets the sky, to Catalina, and there they promise us a land of eternal honor.”
Someone – she did not see who – shouted, “You killed Renoulf!”
It had probably been a rash decision. “He spoke against our gods,” she said, raising her hands to the clear evening sky. “And so he endangered all of our lives. I know because they told me this.”
It was quiet after that. Ariadne leapt down from the tree, heart hammering as she looked down at Renoulf’s shocked face. She knelt to touch his brow. Forgive me, my friend.
Trust, the voices said. We will guide you home.
There was only one other incident before they reached Catalina. Some of Akron’s bugshot must have got into someone’s clothing. One night a child screamed and ran through camp with bloody tears as maggots ate at her eyeballs. Burn, the voices had said. Only Ariadne had enough sense to do the necessary thing and throw the infested body into the fire. The few who had continued to cheer her name stopped after that.
The island was as the voices said, rising from the sea like the nose of a gator. The sun was coming up. The silhouette of a bison stood on a peak and then trotted slowly away. “How will we get across?” her people asked, glad that this land not only truly existed, but that perhaps their King was not mad after all.
Trust, the voices answered, and Ariadne with purple-dyed hair stepped out onto the water. She walked across the twisted bridge of rock and coral that only she saw, just below the water’s surface, and reached the other side. They did not doubt the Ancients after that.
That night, camped at the foothills of the great island-mountain, Ariadne watched her screens, searching for clarity.
You have been quiet, Ariadne thought to her voices. She held the First Man’s sword across her lap, pricking the most superficial dead skin cells off her hand with its point. I am here. What now?
They were silent. She smoothed the edge of the blade. It had not tasted blood in a thousand years. Did it thirst for more? Was she hungry to use it – to prove that she was not a coward, that she had not won her final battle by tricks alone?
On the monitors, the enemies of Akron crept up to the abandoned castle of Ephemeron. They swarmed over it like killer ants and cut down her father’s tapestries and desecrated that hallowed ground where, after the End, her ancestors had carved out an empire. They knew she was watching. They pissed on her throne. Her hand closed on the First Man’s sword. A king should not have left her throne.
“Trust.” It was a voice she had heard a thousand times before, but this time the whisper came with a cool breath on her shoulder. She whipped around, pressing the point of her blade into a fleshy shoulder. A young man with white hair smiled and bled a drop onto her sword.
“You.” The man from her dreams and the man from every voice in her head.
He nodded. “You’ve made it.”
She put the pieces together. “You’ve lived on this island all along?”
“Something like that.” He sat down beside her and touched her knee. She did not move. “But we have one more task for you, my Ariadne.”
Her name crawled on her skin. In that moment, she thought she loved him. “Let me know your name.”
“Then let me know where you come from.” For it was clear now they were not entirely omnipresent. Perhaps not even immortal.
He kissed her and ran his hand through her unnatural hair. For once, she let someone else cradle her head. “We are from before the End,” he whispered, tying those secrets into her hair. “We escaped from this land, in its dying days, to the stars. We have watched you in everything, and guided you.” A camera clicked quietly in the corner. Had this man given Ariadne’s people this technology for just that purpose? Were they being watched even now? “And this land is ours. We want to return.”
“So you are not gods?” He shook his head slowly, brushing her temple. She fought through the warm breath to concentrate. “You want to return to this land. And you need me to do it.”
He met her gaze. “That is your last task. On the other side of this mountain there are people, filled with a plague that prevents us from returning home. You must destabilize them however you are able.” There was silence between them. She saw him look away. “Ariadne, I…”
“I will do it.” Ariadne nodded decisively. “I am the King, and I have fought for my people, and I will fight for you. My Ancients.”
He kissed her. It was a long, deep kiss. Maybe that night she lost her virginity. There was no way of knowing, since she didn’t remember when he left, and with the dawning of the sun, his memory looked an awful lot like a dream.
The tribe came over the mountain. Its leader was a woman with bone rammed through her earlobes. They were few, but so were the King’s people, who had lost many of their own on their trek across the continent. With her train of hovercams Ariadne crossed the rainy camp to face them.
“This is our island.” The woman folded taut arms over her chest. “You must leave.” Were these the people who carried plague with them?
“I have a sword that says it is mine.” Ariadne buried the First Man’s steel into the rich earth of their promised land and thunder shook the island. “I claim this in the name of Ephemeron and of the Ancient Gods that guide me.”
A murmur trickled through the tribe, and the woman’s jaw grew very taut. “Get off of our land. This is sacred ground.”
The King smiled and tossed her hair, newly dyed white-blonde, over her shoulder. “No.” A cold sea mist crept up the side of the mountain, and she thought for a moment she saw a bison snorting on the hill.
“Then you will die.” The woman raised her arms and the tribe slipped out of their skins like warm summer sausages. Nerves and veins and muscle and bone broke into a hundred thousand squirming pieces as the nature of their plague became apparent. Evolution had perhaps not been kind to them, but it had given them a heavy advantage against the squeamish people of Ephemeron. Before she had even drawn her sword the human bugshot was flung in every direction and a worm buried in Ariadne’s heart.
Millions of tiny teeth rent the fabric of their flesh. Captain Halmon’s corpse swam, bloody and wriggling, behind her eyes. But she raised her sword as the bug-woman, flies buzzing around her eyes and maggots crawling at her fingertips, produced a gleaming sword and lunged forward.
Fight, clamored the voices. The cameras whirred in overtime, every frame and twitch of her body caught in the squirming light. Fight. Fight. Fight for us. Fight for our future. The Ancients had staked every possible chance of survival on this battle.
Somewhere a gun went off. It only made their enemy lunge for the offender’s throat and crawl into his windpipe so he screamed flesh-eating flies. There would be no cowards in this battle.
Their steel rang. The woman was not particularly strong but she darted to the side and thrust relentlessly, swing after swing. It was all Ariadne could do to block the blows, stumbling backward, forcing her body to remember training more necessary to a soldier, a King’s daughter, than a King herself. The tents were at her back. She ducked a wild swing, dripping with bugshot, and knocked over a flatscreen with her elbow. One of the eager hovercams fritzed and rolled like a severed eye into the mud. The worm dug further into her chest and she shouted in pain as her enemy, barely human, bared her fangs above her doomed body.
And then the voices spoke.
Roll to the right. She obeyed. Duck and swing at the left leg. She did. The commands came rapid-fire, and Ariadne’s body lurched into action, fighting madly with the strength of ten Ancient Ones. The bug-woman had to uproot her wormy toes to spin backwards with a furious hiss.
Lunge. Forward, forward, forward. Fight. Duck. Swing. The woman’s arm came off and she screamed as a hundred tiny maggots dropped from the socket.
Block to the right. Step back. The worm crawled closer and began to eat Ariadne’s heart.
Feint. Swing up. The First Man’s sword cut a vertical line up the woman’s throat. Her lips parted, eyes wide as she stumbled. The bugshot in the muddy ground twitched, writhing in an attempt at protection. The voices fell silent, though one cried out above the rest – Ariadne!
Ariadne raised her sword to deliver the killing blow. The maggots and worms and flies and centipedes and mantises began to die, buried deep in her soldiers’ flesh as the bug-woman lay half-conscious, bleeding underneath the sea of mist. Ariadne shouted in triumph. Yes. Yes. Soon.
She went still. A shard of lightning rent the sky and licked down her sword, kissing her arm and spine. The King of Ephemeron’s eyes turned up. A dark cloud of metal appeared, more substantial than mere gray mist. Through a transparent lens she thought she saw the glimmer of a face.
They landed over the dead body of Ephemeron’s King. The doors opened and the Ancients jumped out, instantly targeting and shooting down anyone with a gun. A white-haired youth crawled under the ship and cradled their defender, two words on his lips: “My Ariadne.” He held her body as his companions secured the area.
The captain of their ship wiped her hands on blue jeans, smiling as she looked on Catalina and its dying breed of maggots.
With a B.A. in B.S. (translation: English Major), Rebecca Ann Jordan, quibbler and editor extraordinaire, is a poet and speculative fiction author in San Diego. She has published poetry and flash pieces in Yemassee Magazine, Bravura Literary Journal, and Images Magazine; guest columns at DIYMFA.com; and acts as Junior Assistant Editor at Bartleby Snopes. Her fetishes include controversial grammar, mythological happenings and yarn-swapping. Or maybe she made all of that up. Quibble with her @beccaquibbles.