Written by Addie Barnett
“Eons ago, this land was ravaged by war and famine. What you see today did not exist back then, but some relics of those olden days still exist in our time,” Qillac placed a cigar between his sagging lips and lit it with a trembling hand.
Salali watched the reflections of the fire’s flame dance off her teacher’s ebony skin, and glanced at her own dark hands, blistered from the hammer. They had been traveling north for weeks, in hopes of finding someone in need of an old carpenter and his apprentice. She gazed at the towering statues looming in the dark shadows of the night and pushed her hands closer to the fire; no matter how she tried, she couldn’t drive away the chill settling in her bones. If Qillac felt the same, he made no comment, too engrossed in tales of days gone by to pay heed to the biting wind.
“It is said these statues were built by The Elder himself; they were meant as proof of his existence and as protection against the dark fiends lurking in the blinding lights of the caravans. Have you ever seen the caravans?”
Salali nodded. Everyone knew their tale–strange wooden contraptions able to carry dozens of women and men. But it was not the caravans themselves the people of Herya feared. With the caravans came the white-faced settlers, their mouths covered in pale-blue masks, their words lined with honey, their daggers as sharp as swords. Rumors spread like wildfire about the newcomers–the Chere-kan, as the Heryans called them, were thought to be as ruthless as wild animals. Children who once played fearlessly in the streets were now shoved inside their homes as the night rolled in so the Chere-kans would not kidnap them. Mothers would draw their offspring closer when one of them passed. Salali herself did not dare look one in the eye for fear he might feel provoked and kidnap her when she least expected. She wondered where they had come from. People thought they came from the southern tundras where the air was so cold it froze the blood in your veins, while others mused that they must have landed from the moon-they were just as pale as it was.
“The Elder proclaimed that no pale face will pass between the stones and should they dare to corrupt the land of Herya, the statues themselves will wake up and wreak havoc on the culprits. That is why we call them The Elders.”
“I saw one of them steal an apple the other day; why didn’t The Elders wake up?” The tales she had heard were more frightening than that, but she dared not utter them. As long as they were hidden inside her mind, they could not escape.
“The Elders can’t be bothered with every apple, Lali. But when the day comes, they will wake up,” Qillac spoke with such conviction, Salali couldn’t help but believe him.
Surely, they would wake up.
She watched the pale face hang, remembering the words of her teacher. It seemed like only yesterday, but many years had gone by since Qillac had been there to guide her steps and sow forgiveness wherever he went.
He would be disappointed if he knew the pale faces had corrupted Herya, and The Elders hadn’t moved an inch. It was the third execution that week, but that did not seem to discourage the Chere-kan one bit. Day after day, Salali would lock her door and climb into bed with cold sweat caking her forehead, waiting for them to come. Wondering if they would show her mercy.
She turned away from the corpse, trying in vain to ignore the roars of the crowd. She could never understand how people could take such pleasure in the death of another, no matter how vile they had been. Every soul returned to this land, and if spurred enough, the pale face’s soul would reincarnate in something more gruesome each time it was spit upon. She uttered a prayer so that he may find his peace and continued to drift aimlessly down the empty streets. Everyone had gathered to watch the hanging, and they would soon be back to celebrate. Alone with her thoughts, Salali closed her eyes so that she could feel the city around her and shivered when all she felt was a chilly embrace. There was no more joy in this city, or anywhere else for that matter.
When she opened her eyes, she found herself staring at a young girl, no older than ten, her blue eyes red with tears. Despite the grime on her face, her skin was undoubtedly white. Salali fought the urge to turn away and run – if anyone saw her talking to this small girl, they would not hesitate to mark her as Chere-kan.
The little girl glanced at her and took down her pale blue mask, throwing it on the ground. Her lips were broken in more than one place and her face was so thin, Salali could see the cheekbones jutting out.
“What do you want?” she asked when she saw Salali staring at her, dumb-founded. “Murderer.”
Salali gulped, taken aback by the hostility in the child’s eyes.
“My father was a good man,” the girl continued, tears streaming down her face. “He did nothing wrong.”
“Your father killed someone,” was all Salali managed to croak.
The girl lifted her shirt and pointed at a black bruise covering her entire rib cage. “My father protected me from this. This was made by one of your kind.”
“Where’s your family?” Bile rose in Salali’s throat.
The little girl pointed in the direction the execution had taken place. “He was my family.”
Salali was struck by the realization that this was no normal encounter. Chere-kan rarely walked out in the open, preferring to roam the streets at night when they wouldn’t be scorned. She glanced at the sky, remembering Qillac’s last words.
And if The Elders should arise, they will not punish only the Chere-kan. Whoever thinks themselves above the gods is a fool.
She would never be able to explain what came over her that moment. Maybe it was the rage which had bubbled inside for years, maybe her grief had finally caught up. Salali sauntered to the little girl and grabbed her face.
“What’s your name?”
“Let go of me,” the child struggled.
Salali shook her. “Name.”
“Zulima,” the girl groaned.
“Alright, Zulima, you’re coming home with me.”
Zulima smirked. “Like hell I am.” She tried to bite her way out of Salali’s grasp, but she was only ten and Salali was a grown woman. “Why are you helping me?”
“Because one day The Elders are going to wake up…and my kind killed my only family too.”
“When the Elders will wake up, make sure you are at peace, Lali. Regret is a chain so strong, nothing can break it once it’s fastened at your throat. When the statues come, and justice will prevail, only one thing will save you. Love with all your heart Salali, because under that blue mask, there’s a life no different from our own. The Elders will try to pin you down, but love will set you free.”
Qillac hoped Lali would remember his words and not his lifeless corpse hanging from the taut rope. She had to. It was the only way they would see each other again.