Last month I posted a survey of Genres I would like to experiment with, and I let my readers choose which ones they wanted me to tackle.
So, this month I took on my first challenge: Post Apocalyptic.
My intent was to write a piece of maybe 1500 words or so, but when I checked my word count, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. Now, it looks like I might have an ongoing serial on my hands. Be sure to let me know what you think, and you can always feel free to send me a guess when you think you’ve figured out what’s going on.
Jonny and the Appaseeder
I was barely a wantling when the last of the whirling stars disappeared from the evening sky. I was too small to remember, but my grandfather told me about that night. It used to be that the whole village would lay in the dark and watch for those stars, while the Olders told of how the giants that had once lived in the ancient Stone Forests had cast those stars into the heavens to watch over us, but eventually, like the Olders themselves, their stories, and the stars, faded away.
By the time I was old enough to look up into the sky I knew we were all alone.
Except for the Appaseeders.
“Jonny,” Landa said, shaking my shoulder to stir me. “Today you learn about the Seeder. You need to get up and go to Older Jannah’s tent. She’s looking for you and she hates to wait.”
“I’m tired. Leave me alone,” I said, turning over and pulling my hideskin over my head. “I was up all night trying to see a whirling star.”
“You’re so stupid,” she said, shaking my shoulder again, a lot less gently this time. “The whirling stars have all died.”
“They’re not dead,” I said, feeling anger burn through me. “They’re just hiding.”
“They’ve been gone since before I was born,” she said. “I don’t think they were ever really there.”
“They were,” I said, sitting up and glaring at her. “Grampa Older told me about them.”
“He also told you about the Stone Forests,” she challenged, standing and ducking out through the doorflap. “And you’ll never see one of those either.”
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t real,” I hollered after her. I could hear her giggling as she ran off toward the creek for her morning swim. Silly girl, I thought. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
I stood up, pulling my pelt breeches on. I should know better than to waste my time arguing with her, I was going to be learning ciphering and chemichry, and I knew that there were things out there in front of the Seeder that would prove there was Giants who lived in them Stone Forests.
* * *
“Jonny, I’m an old lady,” Older Jannah said, frowning as I walked into her tent. “Get your worthless buttside in here.” It wasn’t the first time that I’d been in her tent, with all its ancient artifactuals, but somehow today things felt different.
“I’m sorry Gramma Jannah,” I said, bowing deeply and kneeling down on the feather pillow in front of her feet. I pressed my forehead to the Earth and waited for her to accept my apology. She let me stay down there until I felt the dirt digging tiny pits into my skin.
“You was out with the girl again last night wasn’t you?” she asked, still not releasing me from my apology.
“No, Gramma Jannah, I was looking for Whirling Stars and thinking about where they were hiding,” I said, struggling to keep my face on the ground. A sharp rock was digging into my knee and making my whole leg twitchy. I wonder if she put the pillow on the rocks to make me suffer?
“You’re a boy, Jonny,” she said. “Why should I believe you? You all think with your root and not with your head. You think that all of us womenkind are dumb don’t you?”
“No!” I said, rolling my head a little to the side to try to see where she’d moved. I could hear her walking around the small tent, but I couldn’t tell where she was. “I’m sweet on Landa, but she’s still twenty moons too young for me to ask for her.”
“There are other girls who want to be with you,” she said. “They all want your seed. You are Cho’shan. It would honor them to bear a child for you.”
“But I don’t want them,” I said. “I want her.”
“You’re like all the rest of them, you think you’re coming back,” Gramma Jannah said. “If she’s still got twenty moons, she’s never going to have your seed. You need to take others.”
“I will come back, Gramma,” I said, lifting my head barely off the floor. Her leatherfoot smashed my face back onto the ground and my breath blew out a small dent in the dirt under my nose.
“You may come back,” she said. “Though no one has ever returned. Your father never came back, but your line continues because he took many girls before he went off to face the Seeder.”
“I want to have Landa,” I said, grunting as she pulled me up to my feet by the hair on my head. “I will come back, for her.”
“You silly child, we’ll see about that,” she snorted, disappearing through the doorflap.
I followed, wiping the dirt from my face.
I guess she accepted my apology.
* * *
Picture Rocks lined the edge of the Canyon of Words. It was a narrow passage that the Seeders couldn’t find, or maybe was just too small to be worth their effort to tear up. The pathway to the crack was difficult for me to climb, but Gramma Jannah flung herself over the boulders like a young hunter chasing prey. I struggled to keep up, but she chose her path well, having been here many times through the cycles.
This was a strange canyon, different than the world outside. I’d never seen such a place where edges lined square and stones fit together tighter than a lover’s embrace. “Where are we?” I asked, falling further behind and hearing my heartbeat in my ears.
Gramma Jannah just glanced back at me and shook her head, pushing forward even faster. I wanted to call out to her to slow down, but my embarrassment kept me silent as I scrambled along, several times losing sight of her. I tracked her footfalls in the dust of the canyon floor and even though she was far ahead, I knew I could still find her.
Dropping over a sharp edge of a boulder, I was surprised to feel a hand reach out of a small cave and grab my shoulder. “Jonny, you must do better than this. You let a tired old womenkind trap you. If I’d’ve been bended on harm, you would have been ghostey.”
“I’m sorry, Gramma,” I said, looking down in shame. “I hadn’t expected to be rock hiking when I came today for ciphering.”
“I see that,” she said, smiling dryly. “When you go chasing an Appaseeder, your life changes. You can never count on what you expect to be true. You need to learn a lot, boy.”
“I don’t understand, but I listen,” I said, wondering if I should drop to my knees to apologize again, but hoping I didn’t need to because this ground was hard and sharp, not like the dirt back out in the open field where her tent had been pitched.
“You’re so young, like your father was,” she said, roughing my hair. “Follow me.”
She disappeared into the small cave. Inside it was dark, like a night without moon or stars. I held my hand in front of me to protect my face from things that might stick down from the roof. I’d never been here before, but I’d been in a cave when we wintered by Oakriven once. It wasn’t a place I wanted to go back to. Dark, wet, and full of things that slithered and growled. In fact, it wasn’t a place I would have gone into at all, except that Danser had dared me. And only then because he’d done it in front of Landa.
I heard the scuffing sounds of Gramma’s leatherfoot scraping along the floor of the cave. I looked back toward the entrance and stumbled down a short drop. I made a startled sound and it echoed around like the taunts of Danser when I’d run out of that cave before. This time, it was my own voice teasing me for my foolishness.
“I can’t see anything,” I whispered.
“Give me your flint,” Gramma said, her voice close.
I felt in my pouch and found it, holding my hand out in the direction of her voice. She took it from me almost as if she could see. I heard the click as she struck spark against steel and then there was light.
She held a torchstick in her hand. In the flickering flame I could see that we were in a huge cavern, much larger than the outside would have made it look. The floor was worn smooth and flat and descended into the darkness in a small series of terraces.
“Are you afraid of the dark, child?” she asked, starting down without waiting for an answer. I promised myself that I would not let her get ahead of me this time, so I trotted beside her as we worked our way deeper under the world.
We wound around several turns and dropped down onto the banks of an underground river. The water barely moved, and smelled like rotten meat. “Where are we?”
“We’re under the Chi-Gogoa Stone Forest,” she said. “I’m taking you to the Hall of Ciphers.”
We trudged through the strange river for what felt like a half-day, sometimes in water up to my shoulders. My pelt breeches soaked up the smelly water and kept falling down as we walked. I should have worn a sealeskin, but I only had one and Landa liked the way it looked on me, so I only wore it when she was around.
“Here we are,” she said, pulling herself up on a ledge and shaking like a howler pup after a bath. This ledge looked like all the others we’d passed, and I didn’t know how she could tell one from the rest, except that this one had more dust on the stone floor.
I hauled myself up out of the river and stood, my pants sagging low around my knees. “Mercy boy, it’s a good thing I am an old and tired woman, or I’d be chasing your seed myself,” she said, staring at me.
“I’m saving myself for Landa,” I said, pulling them up and feeling the redness in my face like a glow.
“We’ll see.” She snorted and turned toward a flat slab of shiny rock. She heaved herself against it and it swung open. There was a loud groaning sound like a wounded grizzler. I threw myself forward, ready to protect her from the beast that hid in the cave. She held the torch so I couldn’t see what was inside, but I drew my blade and stepped into the darkness.
Behind me she laughed, moving the thin rock back and forth to cause it to repeat its call. Obviously, the sound had come from the slab of stone. Perhaps it was a warning to scare off anyone who wanted to enter.
“Step lightly, this is sacred ground,” she said, lowering her voice as she passed close beside me. She touched a finger to my lips to warn me not to disrespect her words. “This is where the Giants that built the Stone Forests hid their wisdom from the Appaseeders. All that they knew is hidden here.”
I followed closely behind her as we climbed another set of terraces and walked out under a vault almost as big as the sky itself. The light from her torchstick was swallowed by the sheer size of the empty. Dark shadows danced and twisted around the edges of the cavern, hiding Earth knew what manner of beast.
“Is it safe to be in here?” I whispered, my voice echoing back at me from the far corners like a rattlersnake.
“This is the Arch Hive,” she said, making an odd gesture with her hand in front of her body. “Only the Olders know how to find it. For as long as I can remember only the Cho’shan and those too old to bear children were ever brought here. No one else has been in the Arch Hive since the Giants went away.”
“No one?” I asked, impressed by the thought that so few people knew about this place.
She shook her head. “The Appaseeder comes soon. So for the next few moons this will be your home. You will stay here all but Firstday, learning to do the ciphers,” Gramma said.
“Alone?” I asked looking around at the walls and the looming shadows. “How will I know when it’s Firstday without the sun?”
“I will come for you every Lastday evening so that you may come home and bed the womenkind who wish to carry your seed,” she said. “Giving us a new Cho’shan is as important as challenging the Appaseeder.”
I looked at the floor, frowning. “I only want Landa,” I said.
“Enough of this selfishness. The ways of our people depends on you having a son,” she said firmly. “You will do what you must.”
I glared at her. I had always enjoyed the privilege of being Cho’shan but now I saw the cost. I could no longer be Jonny the simple boy, I had to become Jonny Cho’shan. The crushing realization settled over me like a heavy wet cloak.
“The spirits of the Giants are here,” she said, ignoring my anger and walking up to a large block of stone that sat in the middle of the cave floor. “They will teach you more than I can. I barely learned enough ciphering to be able to understand the Picher Scrolls. For you to meet the Seeder you’ll need to know much more than I do.”
“I’m supposed to pray to the Giants for knowing?” I asked, doubting it would do much good. All the prayers I’d ever sent to the Giants had come back as empty as an echo.
“I told you this was a sacred place,” she said, her expression in the dim light of the torchstick made her leathery skin look like twisted treewood.
Over the stone block, she made the magical gesture again with her hand and I heard a sound, like a thousand bees swarming in the distance. I looked around but couldn’t see any descending cloud of stingers. She laughed and shook her head again. “That’s the sound of Heaven opening,” she explained. “Don’t worry, you’re about to see the face of the Giant who lives in Arch Hive.”
Over the top of the block a face appeared, pale white like the morning fog. It drifted, not quite real. Gramma Jannah fell to her knees and looked at the floor. I stood there for a second with my mouth open before she hit the back of my leg and I dropped painfully beside her.
“Arch Hive, Adam Minster,” the Giant said. It’s voice strangely formed the words. “How may I help you?”
“Oh, Great Adam Minster,” Gramma said never looking up into the face of the Giant. “I humbly bring before you the Cho’shan for you to learn. He needs to know the ciphers so he can meet against the Appaseeder.”
There were several seconds of silence and I wondered if the Giant’s spirit had left the cave. I glanced up and saw that it was looking at me. A chill ran up my back and I didn’t know what to do. Finally, it said,” Ciphering. Interpreting hidden words. Is there an example of the cipher?”
Gramma unrolled a small scrap, it was as brown and weathered as an oak leaf in fall. She slid it onto the stone without looking up. A bright light like the sun shown down on it.
“This is not a code,” Adam Minster said. “This is Angelis. Does Cho’shan seek to learn reading?”
“Reeding?” I asked. “I already know how to weave reeds into floormats. I learned that when I was under fifty moons. This is not great wisdom.”
“Shut up foolish child, you’ll anger the Giants,” Gramma hissed at me. “I beg your forgiveness, Great Adam Minster. The word you used, reading, is lost to me. Yes, the Cho’shan wishes to learn that forgotten art.”
“Reading assistance materials are located on the fifth floor.” A glow came from one of the dark caverns above us. “Arch Hive Learning Suites are online.”
“Thank you, Great Adam Minster,” Gramma said as the face faded away, leaving us alone in the dark. She stood up slowly, showing her age for the first time in her movements.
“Sweets?” I asked. I’d only had candy once and it never taught me anything. It made my teeth hurt.
“Up there,” she said, pointing at the glowing archway, “You will meet another Giant Spirit. I will show you how to call her, and then I will leave you. She will teach you ciphering.”
* * *
Each day Gramma Jannah brought me food, at least I think it was Gramma, because she never came in the Arch Hive to see me. All I know is that food appeared on the flat rock ledge by the smelly river. I focused on learning my ciphers with the help of the Giant Spirit of the Reading Room. She was friendlier than the Great Adam Minster, and as I learned, she also started talking to me in the same way I talked. Not like the strange words that the Head Spirit used.
At the end of the first week, I had learned much of the sounds of the ciphers and I also knew that the little bent lines were called letters. When Gramma showed up to bring me back to camp, I wanted to tell her all about what I’d learned. But she warned me to keep silent. The knowledge of the Giants wasn’t something I could ever share with anyone. Not even the Olders.
“Why?” I asked, confused and more than a little frustrated. I’d discovered so much already, and I wanted to be able to tell Landa.
She stopped and looked at me strangely. “The Giants were smarter than we are now. They knew a great many things, things that were very dangerous. When they’d gotten so smart that they could cast stars into the heavens and control the wind and the sun, they caught the eye of the Evil Ones that sent the Appaseeders to make war against them.”
“I remember Grampa and the Olders telling that story when I was still a wantling,” I said. “But why can’t I tell you about what I’ve learned?”
“It was the knowing that the Giants had, that got them in trouble,” she said sadly. “Even as smart and powerful as they were, they couldn’t keep the Seeders from making them ghostey.”
“I’m not that smart yet,” I said.
“Surely, you aren’t,” she said, starting back down the trail. “But if you share knowing things with other people, it’ll make them want to know things, too. Then we’ll soon enough be throwing our own stars into the sky, and who knows what other kinds of evil may hide behind the Appaseeders. Sometimes, it’s better not to know too much.”