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Short Story Entry - The Plunder of Crows


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                What do they want?


                I ran. I ran from the men and the beasts in their shining armor, ran back to the home that was the only warmth left in what should have been summer. Nothing was making sense anymore, and my parents were just as confused as I. It was supposed to be my year. I would be an adult; I would feast at the upper tables in the village square and dance with the young men and women in the couples’ dances. In time I would make a family of my own.


                How did it all go so wrong?


                The spring never came, not truly. Cybele was fickle, it was true, so people weren’t really worried, only steeling themselves for a bad year. Winter drudged on, like the lowest women in the temples, the ones whose joints were swollen with the work they never truly stopped, whose eyes were dead or filled with fervor for gods that seemed to me to be very far away. I feared them, feared becoming them. Everyone was becoming them, like life itself was leached out of us as the year went on. The moon had split in two and it felt like everything screamed and then I’d looked up and saw Him, the Watcher, hidden in the shadow of the moon while everyone else cowered in the ruin of our festival. I felt like he’d looked right at me before the shadow of his form withdrew and time both started again and began to slow, rolling toward its end.


                Shortly after, the invaders came. They wore the bodies of the fallen, or horrible creations of cobbled together corpses. Men and women would die in battle or in the field and rise in a flash of blue, their cold, bored, or pitying eyes would tell us that they were Crows, and they were there to plunder what was left of us before the Hunger got it. Those were the ones that bothered to talk. Many simply raised weapon, tool, or spell and slaughtered those around them. People began to fear the dead in ways never before seen on this world, and those that were about to pass were given drugs to dull pain and set on fire long before Yaga could come collect their last breath. Sometimes they still rose, but there wasn’t much a Crow could do with corpse falling to ashes.


                I skidded to a halt, staring. It was gone. My home wasn’t where I’d left it, and my mind refused to make sense of what was in its place. There were logs, just like the ones that had made the walls. Pieces of burning thatch danced on the cold wind. A man that was half bull walked out of the mess, dragging Sillia by her hair. My sister still kicked and fought, but she’d been getting weaker, as we all had, and hadn’t much fight left in her. She was older than I; she’d once had many suitors, before they all ran off to fight these invaders, these Crows. Her future had been bright, and she’d always been the star of my world, a brilliant jewel I could only hope one day to match.


                The Crow wrenched her head around and she fell limp. I turned and was sick into the underbrush, but the roar of the flames and screams from the distant town covered the sound.


                A sound of disgust in my sister’s voice made me freeze, and I looked up, hoping against hope. She stood, rolling her shoulders and seeming to…fix her head before stretching, looking down at her fingers and making a little sound of disapproval. “I’ll have to get bow calluses all over again. Honestly, you couldn’t have found someone who knew a little archery?” she asked, her voice irritated in a way I had never heard before.


                The bull man rolled his eyes. “Last time you complained your body was too ugly, now I find you a pretty one and she’s not an archer. Why don’t you just get there first and build yourself one next time?”


                Not-Sillia wrinkled her pert nose. “Ew. No thank you. I really detest that part of all this.”


                “Only that part?” he asked, handing her a bag. To my shock, she stripped down right there in front of him, though he barely seemed to register it. She put on armor that seemed to meld to her, as if it were made for a different body, but willing to compromise.


                Shaking out my sister’s long amber braids, she laughed. It wasn’t Sillia’s laugh, but some bitter thing with no humor. “I’ve long lost my enjoyment of this. I’d like to arrive on a warm world for once.”


                Anger rose in me, an almost alien feeling in these days of confusion and despair. I must have made a sound, for they both turned to look at me in surprise, and I stood, shaking. “A survivor?” Not-Sillia said, sounding bored.


                A warm world? The words echoed in my mind like a taunt. There was no warmth left here, save the incandescence behind them.


                “Poor thing, this must have been your family,” the Crow said, her voice not kind or sympathetic, but a mockery of it, as if she couldn’t really feel that anymore. Drawing back her bow, she aimed at me, “I’ll send you on to them.”


                “Get out of Sillia!” I screamed as the bow twanged, the arrow flying toward me. It hurtled off-course, something that could have been a bear or simply another ghost flitting across my vision, barreling into them. They couldn’t react, their eyes round with surprise as they fell back into the conflagration that had once been my home. They didn’t scream like normal people, some part of me thought they couldn’t feel at all. I didn’t stay to see if they burned like normal people. I ran, and I’ve been running ever since. I ran passed the once great halls of the lords, now so much rubble. I watched as the Crows killed us, took us over, raided everything around them like it were a piece of carrion. At some point, I started killing them.


                The day was unusual. Cybele, it seemed, had finally deigned to arrive. There were flowers blooming in the valley I stumbled into, peeking up through the snow like false hope. She was there, the woman with long dark hair and a basket over her arm. I had long learned to recognize Crows. My people, the few I had found, were like me. We barely cling to life, eaten from within by a hunger that could not be sated as it pulled our very life from us. If I were to somehow ask the me from last year which of us was the walking corpse, this woman would not be the one at the end of an accusing finger.


                “I know you’re there,” she called, her delicate fingers plucking blossoms and putting them into her basket. “Come out before the mist reaches you.”


                Eyeing the strange fog that had already covered the lower valleys below the mountains, rolling in like a tide, I strode into the meadow. She looked up and smiled, and I flinched. Warmth. There was warmth in her eyes. How, when it had been leeched from my life, my world, had I found it now in the eyes of one of the invaders?


                “It’s a bit late, but I did find you. My lady sent me to gather the last of the flowers of this world. She’d said she’d almost forgotten she’d planted some of her favorites here.”


                “Your…Lady?” I croaked. The Crows had gods? It seemed…wrong, somehow, like they should be devils of one sort or another.


                “Cybele, of course,” she replied, as if she had actually met the Goddess of Spring. “She did mean to take you earlier, but she had other matters to attend to.” Pausing long enough to smooth back her hair, she shook her head. “I will forever miss serving Gaea, but there is worth to be found in the Virgin Goddess’s ranks.”


                Mist pooled near my feet, and I darted forward, the cold of it kindling a fear inside me unlike anything I’d felt yet, as if this entire last year had been compressed into the momentary caress. The Crow caught my arm, steadying me, and drew me back, into the flowers that wilted around us. The spring meadow was dying in a single brush of fog. I couldn’t comprehend it.


                “We call it the Hunger,” she told me, wrapping her arms around her basket and settling herself in the center of the rapidly shrinking eye of color in my world. The tops of the mountains were all that remained, even the sky was grey. “It took my world, and now it shall take yours. You, these flowers, and the plunder of Crows are all that shall live on from this place, and then only for a while.” She was weeping. I stared. How could a Crow weep? What could be so horrible it would elicit tears from the dead? Catching my gaze, she smiled, somehow knowing my thoughts. “Come with me. I’ll help you.”


                Cold seeped into my veins. My breath joined the fog through my chattering teeth. My tears froze on my face. “I’m scared.” It was the last thing I said before the fog, the Hunger, rolled over us. It was more painful than I can describe, a falling, tearing cold and sense of suffocation, but suddenly it was gone, and I was flying, dancing, gliding through another meadow, through more flowers. A voice laughed gaily in my mind, and I suddenly knew it was Cybele, but there was another presence, a darker one, and when I looked up I could see Him again, watching me. Watching us. The gods that had ignored me and mine all my life were suddenly taking a momentary interest, it seemed.


                A bird flew beside me, a creature of blue mist and fire. It dove, and I followed, feeling as if I fell through time itself.


                I opened my eyes. The meadow was gone, a forest in its place. It was unfamiliar to me. I was unfamiliar to me. There was another woman beside me, and I knew from her warm eyes that it was the Crow. “Come,” she said, taking my hand. “I’ll teach you what you need to know.” Following into the falsely named Eternal Kingdom, I turned and saw the dancing, laughing figure of my Goddess, waving before moving on to other, newly interesting things.


                When the Hunger next claimed a world, I was there to see it, to plunder it, to explore it. I fought its battles and imprinted its beauty on my mind. I learned, and I ran. There may be nothing left to run towards, but I’ll keep running anyway, flying from one dying land to another. I must not let my spirit fade, as other Crows have done. I belong to the Virgin Goddess, who embodies renewal. There is some warmth left. I will search the worlds for it, as long as there are worlds to search.


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