Author Topic: River's Ember - a short story  (Read 1299 times)

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Offline Jewels

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River's Ember - a short story
« on: 26 January 2017, 10:38:13 PM »
Blame it on Sy. She's got me reading and writing again.


Ember made her rounds tucking the youngest tribe members into their tree hollows before blowing out their night fires. “Peaceful sleep,” she intoned to each with sincerity, as much a prayer as an instruction.

Walking the perimeter, she acknowledged every night guard and accepted their wishes of “Peaceful sleep,” to her as promises that they would do all they could to ensure it would be so. The best of the best, they were this tribe’s first defense. Ember trusted they would give their best for her and the rest of the tribe. Just as they trusted her to do the same.

Their numbers were not great. No tribe could sustain more than sixty and Ember’s flock was only half that, but the weight of leadership was something Ember wore with the fiercest of intent. She felt responsible for the well-being of each one, physically, emotionally, spiritually… and they knew her heart for them. It was how they had thrived for so long, despite the expectations of other tribes.

Every one of them had been tossed aside by a previous clan for one reason or another. Ember had fallen into the cookfire when she was only eight summers old. Her right arm and hand were burned severely. Her then current tribe had not expected her to live long since infection was usually quick to set in and even if she did survive, with a crippled right arm, what use would she be? The leaders had deemed her a burden to the tribe and exiled her, left to die of starvation or infection or animal attack in a barren plain.

What they had not counted on, though, was her tenacity and will to live. The animal attacks she had survived with agility and a sharp rock. Starvation she survived by starting a fire to cook her kill.

The infection, though, was trickier. That she could not survive on her own. She had walked for miles and miles in search of a whispered legend. Many bedtime stories spoke of a tribe that had a doctor who knew how to heal infection. Her parents had always said he lived where the metal mountain touched the sky, so she walked and walked always with the shiny heights in her sights.

In the end, she had failed. The edge of the great mountains loomed but her body would not go on. As she lay in the grass staring up at the strange vertical cliffs with panes of ice that did not melt covering its caves, she wondered at the beauty of it all.

She did not remember what happened next, but somehow, the doctor found her. He healed her infection then took her to her new tribe. A tribe that welcomed and accepted those who had been hurt and rejected by other tribes. They had named her Ember because of the spark of life she refused to give up.

Each of the rest of her tribe had a similar story. In some way deemed unworthy by another tribe and left for dead, but the instinct to live is a strong one and each and every tribe member had survived long enough to find their way here.

Ember climbed up into her tree hollow and blew out her light praying for a peaceful sleep for her tribe.

Offline Jewels

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Re: River's Ember - a short story
« Reply #1 on: 02 February 2017, 04:54:20 PM »
Ember awoke abruptly amid screams of pain and a splitting headache. A warning siren flashed in her brain as the chip ignored her prayers. Instructions and rules of combat flooded her mind too quickly to comprehend all at once, just as the chip was distributing the same information to every other member of her tribe and the tribe they were to fight. 

Ember writhed with the pain of the chip in her head struggling to understand it. Distracted, she rolled right out of her hollow, landing roughly on the ground below. This was more than twice over as intense as the last chip report. She only remembered feeling like this one other time… her first Kill Event. 
The thought helped bring things into focus. This WAS another Kill Event. 
With shaking limbs and fear for her tribe, Ember stood to her feet shouting. “Arm yourselves! This isn’t a Sparring Event. It’s fight to the death or mercy! Flee if you can!” But even as she said it, the rule solidified in her mind. There would be no running from this fight. The chip would not allow it. 

“Young ones! To me!” She hollered intending to protect them as well as herself, but as the rules continued to become clear, the chip in her head rang loud and clear. 

One on one combat. 
Assistance not allowed. 
Retreat not allowed. 
Battle to the death or surrender. 
Their fate is yours until sunrise. 
Ember’s Flock Vs. Cassie’s Clan. 

Ember let out a cry of despair. No helping… no running… and up against Cassie’s Clan… there would be no mercy from them. Already the sounds of battle had started around her. Cassie had been ready for a fight… They must have been waiting outside the camp as they poured in from all sides. 

Millie looked up at her with tear stained cheeks. “What do I do?” She was only six. Too young to have to see such violence, too young to suffer such fear. 

Ember grabbed the dagger from her belt and thrust it into the child’s hand. “Fight for your life, Millie, fight for your life!” 

Millie held the dagger with trembling hands turning to face the boy who approached her with his spear. He seemed very casual, emotionless, as he announced. “We will fight to the death.” 

As brave as she could, Millie replied. “But I don’t want to kill you.” 

“Then you will surrender!” he challenged brandishing his spear. 

“No, Millie, don’t!” Ember tried but it was too late. Millie had dropped her knife. 

“Okay,” she sniffed. “I surrender.” The boy sneered with a smile as he raised his spear. 

“No!” Ember cried diving for the knife. She grabbed it and brought it up to block the spear but the chip in her head cried foul and sent her sprawling, screaming in agony. 

The boy stopped long enough to stand over her and repeat what she already knew. “She has surrendered. Her fate is mine until sunrise.” 

“Mercy!” Ember gasped as the pain began to subside. “You don’t’ have to harm her! Please show her mercy! Let her go.” 

“Mercy is for the weak,” he intoned, surely repeating a line that had been drilled into him since he was old enough to speak. “She is weak.” He pointed his spear at Millie who now sat on the ground clutching her knees as her big round eyes shown with the fear and confusion. She didn’t understand what she had done. The boy walked back to her, emotion leaving his face. His eyes were on Ember as he intoned one more line. “Weakness is death.” 

Then he thrust his spear into Millie’s chest. She cried out, but only once as she no longer had the ability to breathe. Pain and fear rippled across her face as her tiny body convulsed and then went limp. Tears ran down Ember’s cheeks as the child exhaled her last. “Peaceful sleep…” she whispered knowing that Millie would at least never wake to the horrors of battle again. 

The boy retracted his spear and turned to leave their camp. The battle was one on one and he could not help anyone. His part in this fight was over. 

All around her similar battles took place. All around her the people she had cared for… the people who had trusted her to lead them, fought and died. Tarn, Star, Grant, Feather, Honey, Martan, Sweet… Their screams rang in her ears. She had failed to prepare them for this. Ember picked herself up and wiped the tears from her eyes. There was nothing more she could do for Millie, or anyone else in her tribe. She picked up her knife and tried to focus on the only part she could play in this gruesome nightmare. To fight for her own life with the other clan’s leader. Carrie. 

At least that was who she had expected to fight, but the chip read false. She was not slotted up against Carrie tonight. He stepped out of the darkness as her opponent’s identity registered. It was Carrie’s little brother, River. Well he wasn’t exactly little any more. He had grown since the last time Ember had seen him. The whiskers on his chin spoke of the man he was becoming… Would become if he survived the night. 
“Ember,” he greeted her flatly. 

“River,” she nodded back. “You’ve grown. How many summers are you now?” 

“Seventeen,” he answered with suppressed pride. 

Ember nodded. “Enough to be named clan leader,” she noted. 

“Co-leader,” a silky voice rang out behind her. “I am still very much in charge in case you were getting your hopes up. River’s gaze fell to the ground as he frowned, he was obviously not pleased that his sister had come to observe him. 

Carrie walked around Ember with a sneer making a show of cleaning the blood off her sword with a scrap of cloth. “My battle’s all done, Droplet.” River cringed at his sister’s pet name for him. “It was easy pickings killing my victim, Bunny I think someone said his name was.”

Ember’s fist tightened at the thought of poor Bunny facing such a monster. He was never a match for her. “He screamed like a little girl as I cut off his fingers one by one,” she taunted reveling in Ember’s pain. “He was begging me for death before I granted it to him.” Carrie paused looking expectantly at her but Ember refused to answer her. 

To protect herself from the pain of the chip’s wrath if she gave in to the desire to lash out, Ember turned her attention to River. He did not share his sister’s joy in the events of the night. Ember would credit him that, but he was still loyal to his sister. When Carrie handed him her sword he took it. “Prove yourself to me, Droplet. Make an end of her and what’s left of her band of weaklings.” 

River’s eyes met Ember’s, briefly conveying a sorrow as deep as her own and then he advanced. Ember had no more time to think of what was happening around her. She was too busy trying to defend herself from a long sword with a dagger. Each blow she parried shook her to the core and she wondered if it would be worth surviving. There would be no one left to lead after tonight. Carrie’s Clan had been too strong and the rules had been too strict. 

As despair set it, Ember stumbled backwards over someone’s leg. She could hear the gleeful shout of triumph from Carrie as she watched. Ember held her breath waiting for the killing blow, but the sword missed, hitting the ground just an inch from her nose. Instinct kicked in as she rolled away. She was not ready to die. Even without a clan and without her loved ones with her, still she wanted to live. Carrie’s growl of disappointment was reason enough to fight on. Reason enough to win. 

Finding her footing again, Ember barely deflected the incoming strike but as she ducked to the right she noticed something in River’s swing and gait. He was favoring his left side as if he’d pulled a muscle in his abdomen. She continued to block his strikes as she backed into the forest watching him wince every time he swung up or to the right. She would be able to dodge his advances better now. 

With practiced agility, she swung around trees and over rocks staying just a step out of reach. River followed where she led even as Carrie’s voice echoed. “Finish her!” River was getting tired but so was Ember. She caught her foot on a tree root, falling again. She rolled to her back and River was right there looming. “Finish her!” Carrie screamed again, and he lifted his sword high grimacing in pain. 

He caught her eye just as he had before the fight, hesitating just a moment, but it was a moment long enough for Ember to swing her foot up and kick him in the side he had been favoring. River let out a scream that shook the darkness. He backed up dropping his sword and curled up into a ball groaning. Ember wasted no time in bringing her dagger to his throat. “Surrender!” she yelled at him. 

“Don’t you dare!” She heard Carrie roar, but River was in no position to continue. 

“I surrender,” he whimpered, “I surrender.” 

“No!” Carrie growled and advanced only to be brought to her knees by her chip. 

Two others of her clan helped her up and pulled her back. “She has bested him,” one said solemnly. 
“He has surrendered,” the other reiterated. “His fate is hers until sun rise.” 

Carrie ripped her arms out of their grasp, her embarrassment evident. “I know that, you fools!” To shift everyone’s attention she turned to her brother with disdain. “You have failed me and you have failed this clan! Kill one girl, that’s all you had to do. Your leadership is revoked!” 

It was difficult to tell from River’s already grimacing face if the barbs pained him more than his current distress. The others of Carrie’s Clan looked to Ember expectantly, waiting to see what she would do, but Ember was also waiting… 

The sounds of battle had died down. The end of the Kill Event drew near. Final tally was coming up and the results would decide her next steps. The chip in her head gave a verbal report of the summary of the fight. 

Carrie’s Clan vs. Ember’s Flock. 
36 fighters on each side 
Defeats 35 to 1, 
Surrenders 7 of 35 and 1 of 1, 
Fates decided 7 death’s, 0 mercies, 
Fates undecided 1. 

Ember closed her eyes and took in a ragged breath. It had been a slaughter. No one else in her tribe had survived. Once again, Ember was alone. When she opened them, the satisfaction on Carrie’s face was evident. She had won with one exception. Her brother had hesitated and lost his battle but Carrie had won the war. 

Still everyone waited for Ember. She had a decision to make, though really the decision had already been made, she just needed to come up with the courage to see it through. 

Offline Jewels

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Re: River's Ember - a short story
« Reply #2 on: 09 February 2017, 10:03:01 PM »
Ignoring the stares of her adversaries, Ember walked calmly to her tree hollow. There would be time for mourning later. Right now there was work to be done. Grabbing her travel bag, she stuffed it with the little she owned then went to her tribe’s communal property taking a shovel, a bucket, and as many of their smaller knives and tools as the bucket would hold. They were not ideal, but they would be adequate for her needs. 
“What do you think she will do to him?” 
“After losing her whole tribe? Who knows?” She heard the whispers as she packed. 
“Ember has always granted mercy before. Always.” 
“She’s never had the courage to do otherwise.” 
“Watching your family slaughtered… It changes a person.” 
Mercy…? What was mercy in this age? When the weak were abandoned and slaughtered, and the strong grew up calloused to the value of life. Yes, she had always chosen mercy in the past, but not because she had not the courage to kill. Rather she possessed the courage to teach her tribe that there was another way. But that was the past. There was no one left in her tribe to teach, and what she had taught them failed to save them in the end. 
Carrie stood impatient. “Stop dragging this out. If you don’t’ finish him now, I’ll do it for you.” She stepped forward to retrieve River’s fallen sword, but Ember’s next words drove them all back.
“No one touches him but me. His fate is mine until sunrise.” Automatically, their chips made them retreat. Ember picked up the sword herself. “I claim River’s possessions as my own.” She said boldly. 
“That sword is mine!” Carrie roared, but Ember gave her a cool stare. 
“The weapon you use is the weapon you own.” She recited from the long-standing rules Carrie was well versed with. “It became River’s when you let him fight me with it. And now it is mine.” She then faced River who still rocked and cringed holding his side. “Can you walk?” she asked. 
“I think so,” he managed to reply. 
“Then follow me.” Turning to the rest, she addressed them. “Anything left I declare spoils for your tribe. We will be at the whipping tree. None may come close till morning.” 
A few people gasped, a few others chuckled. Carrie looked momentarily worried before hardening her gaze. “Never took you for the type to torture. Why not just make it quick and save yourself the trek?” 
“No one within a hundred yards.” Ember declared louder, ignoring Carrie’s taunts. The chip would see to it that they didn’t interfere. 
River followed her silently for the most part. At times he would stumble and groan in pain but she had given him the shovel which he could use as a walking stick when he needed. The whipping tree was a loan oak in the middle of a plain of thick brush and tall grasses. The highest branches could be seen for a mile around but the thick brush hid the clearing around its trunk from sight. The sounds of the whipping tree carried well on the wind but only those invited could observe, and none could interfere. Not while one held another’s fate. 
There was one well-worn path up to the tree which Ember tried to follow closely, holding her torch high in front of her, careful that the flames not catch on a passing branch. Once they arrived, she laid her torch into the fire pit grabbing some small branches to start the fire with. Moving to a corner of the clearing, she drew a rectangle in the dirt with her foot one pace wide, three paces long. 
She pointed at it looking at River. “Dig,” she instructed without further comment. His eyebrows rose in surprise, but he did not complain, just nodded and started his work. No matter it was obvious he was digging his own grave. He had expected death at the moment of his surrender and accepted it. 
Ember busied herself stoking the fire for a long night’s burn. When she thought she had enough to burn, she organized her tools then grabbed select ones and her metal pail. “Stay here, I’ll be right back.” Not that she expected him to run. The chip wouldn’t allow that, but she wanted him to keep at his work. They didn’t have a lot of time before the sun would come up. A few hours would pass quickly on this night. 

Ember headed back down the path to get water from the river. She was not surprised to meet Carrie at the end. “Done already?” she sneered. 

“Haven’t started,” Ember said calmly – dismissively – as she walked past her without stopping. She could feel Carrie's icy stare boring into her back and couldn't help but smile. It wasn't often that Carrie was powerless in a situation and while Ember did not revel in the woman's frustration, she certainly was not sorry for it. 

When her bucket was full enough, Ember turned back to the path only to find Carrie blocking it. If looks alone could kill one's enemies, Ember would have dropped dead in her spot and for a moment she wondered if Carrie was brave enough to try to defy the chip for a chance to kill Ember anyway. If she was quick enough, she might deal a fatal wound before the chip incapacitated her. “Why are you dragging this out?" She snarled, "Why not just end it?” 

Keeping a wary distance, Ember again took a dismissive tone with her knowing that any battle with Carrie, whether physical or mental, would not be won with heated words. “Are you that anxious to see your brother dead?” 

A flicker of humanity crossed Carrie's face with her worry, though the woman did not betray any of that concern with her voice. “Better now then after a night of torture,” she spat. 

As a few of Carrie's clan members arrived to also give vigil, Ember gave her a tiny smile. “Watch yourself, Carrie, if you’re not careful people might start to think you have a heart.” 

Her eyes darted from each of her clan members back to Ember. Any attempt at confrontation now would be witnessed and while there were ways to get around the ordinances of the chip, the aftermath would only mean further embarrassment. Carrie finally stepped out of the way. She growled quietly, “Fine do what you think you must, but know this, clan-less Ember. My brother will be avenged ten-fold. Every pain he suffers tonight will be your own!“ 

Avenged...? Carrie would stoop to threat of blood vengeance... after the slaughter at her tribe's hand tonight? After years of merciless attacks...? A part of Ember wanted to ignore the grief that welled up in her. She didn't want to give Carrie the satisfaction of seeing her emotion or pain. But the raw and vivid memories of the battle proved too much as her voice wavered. “Too late for that, Carrie. There is no pain you can inflict that would compare to what you have already done tonight.” Angry at herself for the wicked smile she now faced, Ember slit her eyes and whispered the only knife she had to throw. “Just trying to live up to deserving it.” She stormed past her at a quick pace, not daring to look back as her tears freely flowed. 

“The chip chooses the battles, Ember," she heard her call after her. "The weak deplete limited resources. The strong must defeat the weak to survive.” True, perhaps... At least out here in the wilderness, that might be true, but it did not make it any easier to accept. 

Ember hurried back to the whipping tree while Carrie surely paced at the edge of the path. She would not be able to come closer until sunrise, but she would be waiting anxiously for first light. Ember returned to find River leaning on the shovel, his hole a foot deep all the way around. Not deep enough for a proper grave, but she didn't have time to wait for him. She'd have to dig the rest on her own. 

Ember set the pail of water in the fire to boil and after considering the weariness on his face, she patted a large rock indicating River should sit. She had a few minutes before the water would be ready and there was no need make this more difficult on him. Despite Carrie's taunts, what needed to be done here had not changed. Obediently River came to sit next to her, still the grimace of pain on his face but there was no fear behind his eyes. Only sadness.

Ember dug in her bag for some herbs for the tea she was going to make and River broke the silence with a question. “Do you remember the last time you were here?” Ember nodded. It was hard to forget a night at the whipping tree. “Almost three summers ago wasn’t it?”

“A little bit more than three summers, yes. How do you know that?”

“Because I was there,” he confided. “Just a few feet behind the brush there. My sister made me watch.” Ember looked up at him then, and saw something she had not recognized before in his gaze. An understanding. “Carrie always made me watch. She said she wanted me to learn something.”
“And did you?” Ember asked, maybe a bit too calously, as she softened her tone. “Learn something, I mean?”

“From my sister?” He gave half a laugh. “How to belittle. How to demean...” Thoughtfully he considered before looking at the ground. “And how to be cruel.” 

Ember focused back on the ingredients for her tincture. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “that you didn’t learn anything better.”

“Not from my sister, no,” he agreed before looking up at her again. “But I learned a lot more from you.”

“Oh?” Ember asked retrieving a cupful of water to put her herbs into.

“From you, Ember, I learned perseverance. How to be confident despite failure.” He waited until she looked at him before he continued. “How to forgive.”
Ember felt heat rising to her cheeks with the smile that would not be denied. It was what she had tried to teach all of the people in her tribe. They were gone now, but right here in front of her was proof that she’d had an impact beyond that. She sat next to him again, staring at the tea as she let it steep. “I am glad that there was good that came out of my suffering.”
With as much animation as his condition would allow, River continued to surprise her with accolades from days past. “What came out of your suffering was only part of it, though. How you lived afterwards is what really amazed me. Three years ago when you first bested my sister, I thought you would jump at the chance to get revenge for the years she had beaten you... and tortured you. But you showed her mercy, before one blow was struck. I will never forget that day when you told Carrie to go home and get some rest. She was so angry both with herself for not winning against you and with you for not punishing her for her loss.” Ember chuckled inwardly adding that knowledge to her victory of the day. River grew quiet again, as he continued to confide in her. “But its why I’m not afraid to be here with you. You’ve always had great compassion. It is the best thing I learned from you.” 
Compassion... How she wished compassion had been enough. For Carrie, for the chip, ...for her tribe. Her belief in compassion had not been enough for any of them. Indeed, it had instead only led to more pain. Ember handed him the cup. “Here drink this.”

River took it and did so without hesitation. “What’s this,” he asked after he had finished it.
“For the pain,” is all she would say which seemed to be enough for him. Absently, Ember looked up to observe the moon. “We don’t have much time,” she sighed. “Take off your shirt.”
At every other instruction there had been no hesitancy in his compliance, but for this, Ember could tell that he battled with himself. He turned away before slowly doing as she asked careful not to pull his side. She understood once it was off. Multiple scars crossed his back and more marred his chest when he turned around. Whether from trainings or punishments, Ember didn’t know but it was obvious that they pained him. Not physically, not any more, but the meaning behind them darkened his eyes when he finally looked up at her again.
Ember self-consciously tucked the hair behind her right ear, letting her own burn scar on her hand reflect in the fire light. She understood the shame of the marks, at least in part. “I am sorry your growing up has been so violent. I wish that we could all just live our lives peacefully.” Silently his eyes conveyed that he wished the same. In a different time, perhaps, there had been peace. But not now. “Come to the tree.”
He followed her over and willingly put out his hands expectantly when she picked up the tying rope. His face was close to hers as she looped it securely around his wrists. “Why are you doing this?” he whispered next to her ear. Ember concentrated on the knots rather than answering him. So River went on to try to draw it out of her. “It is not for anger or vengeance. I see no trace of either in you. Why bring me to die here? Why tie me to the tree? Why didn’t you just kill me at your camp and be done with it if you didn’t intend to set me free? And after everything…” His voice wavered in confusion, “After everything... you will bury me? That which only honored clan members receive from their own, you will do for me? I don’t understand, Ember. Please, if these will be my last moments I would like to know what motivates you.”
Done with her knot, Ember looked up to him with emotion filled eyes. “I never wanted to kill you River. I still don’t want to kill you. Arms up.” She instructed and he did with a groan. Quickly she threw the rope over a good branch and pulled causing another groan. She pulled as tight as she dared before tying the rope off with the winch and crank. She gave him a few minutes to get used to the strain on his side before continuing. “Your sister cares about you, in whatever misguided way she tries to show it. I know she cares. I did not want to do what needed to be done in front of her. She would not have understood and the sight of it is not something I would impose on her.”
“And what must be done?” River asked in a drowsy voice. The tea she had given him was starting to take effect.
“Your side,” Ember asked as she started to sharpen her best dagger. “How long has it been hurting you?”
River squinted as his head dipped. “A week,” he came up with. “Maybe two.”
“Pain’s been getting progressively worse?” she asked had he nodded. “The pain now… it feels like your whole belly is on fire?”
River found the strength to look her in the eyes. “Yes. How do you know?”
“I’ve seen it before,” she confessed. “I had hoped, when I kicked you, that it would not be so, but when you crumpled… I knew. There is an infection inside your body and the juices from your stomach are spilling out of where they were intended to stay. For lack of a better description, your body is digesting itself. The pain will only get worse, after a week you will be unable to move. Another week and… if you’re lucky you will die before then.”
Ember walked up to him with her sharpened dagger as his head lolled and eyes blinked. Voice raw with unspent grief, she only managed a whisper. “There is only one way I know how to be merciful in this.” His eyes locked on hers with a shared sadness. “And I’m really, very sorry.” 
She was running out of time. She couldn’t wait anymore. River’s final screams of pain rippled out into the night over the brush to his waiting sister’s ears no doubt. Ember wiped the tears from her eyes. There was still so much work to be done.

Offline Jewels

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Re: River's Ember - a short story
« Reply #3 on: 16 February 2017, 10:26:04 PM »
Carrie dug her nails into her palms until they bled when she heard her brother’s screams. Up to that point she had still nursed a little hope that Ember was bluffing. That she would do what she had always done before and just let him go. That she was really just keeping him and dragging this out to annoy her. But that last scream followed by silence told Carrie otherwise. Ember had finally been pushed far enough to take a life. 
There was a slight satisfaction in knowing that she had finally broken. Ember finally realized the error in her thinking. Mercy was weakness. There was no place in this world for mercy. Only the strong survived. In the end, her brother had not been strong enough. 
Of course, that wouldn’t stop Carrie from avenging his death. It did not matter that he was the sole loss in their battle or that Ember had a whole tribe full of reasons to end River’s life. What did matter was that the rules of the chip allowed for vengeance of a blood relative. As soon as Ember walked down that path, Carrie would be waiting to reclaim her sword and use it to do what her brother could not. 
Finally make an end of Ember and her backward ideals. 
The night passed too slowly for Carrie’s taste as it soon became evident that Ember was not going to leave the whipping tree until she had to. Carrie couldn’t go near it until sunrise so she sat down to meditate until then. The moment the sun touched the tips of the whipping tree’s leaves, though, Carrie was sprinting down the path, three of her strongest following quickly behind. 
Whatever gruesome scene Carrie had prepared herself for, the reality before her eyes was deceptively tame. Ember had fled through the brush leaving behind only a little blood under the tree’s boughs and a freshly dug grave. 
She had buried him…? Ember had buried her brother? It was the highest form of respect one could show the dead. Normally reserved for your most valued clan members. Carrie was dumbfounded by this kindness though her bewilderment soon gave way to rage. Ember had not only robbed her of her brother and her sword but also the privilege of honoring her brother this way herself. 
“Did she think so low of me that I wouldn’t honor my own kin in this way?!” she growled. It did not matter that she hadn’t thought about burying him before now. Or that if she had thought of it, she would have dismissed him as unworthy. It was enough to bruise her ego that Ember thought to do her job for her. 
With animalistic fury Carrie started digging in the fresh dirt. “This will not be his final resting place!” Carrie dug and dug as her clansmen stood awkwardly behind her, unsure what to do. If burying someone was the greatest honor, unburying them was as equal a disgrace. In truth Carrie just had to see him one last time, to see his face locked in death and know that he was forever gone. Halfway down her nails scraped against something hard. With a frenzy she clawed away the surrounding dirt only to growl in disgust. It was a tree branch. More digging only revealed more tree branches until her knuckles scraped the bottom of hard un-dug dirt. 
Her brother was not here! He was gone! But where?! Ember was keeping him captive? Even after the sun had come up? She was breaking the rules. “Ember!” Carrie screamed into the morning air. “I will find you!” 
Ember was breathing hard by the time she made it to the edge of the metal mountains dragging River on the makeshift sled she had fastened together with branches, twine, and a blanket. The sword, she had wrapped and tied to the sled to help pull it. Her pack was now very empty as she had left most everything else behind in favor of speed. The sun was close to peeking over the horizon and River would be waking soon if she had succeeded in her ministrations. 
She had cut and removed what looked infected, cauterizing with a hot knife when she needed to and sewed the wounds closed when she didn’t. She did what she could to wash his insides of the acid his stomach had leaked but she knew even with her boiled water, there was still a high chance of the infection recurring. 
The metal mountains, though… if she could just get him inside the mountain city. It was protected from such things and this wasn’t the first time she had come hoping to use this protection to heal. The problem was the protection covered more than the illnesses of the body. The protection was from all things hostile. Ember knew how to pass the barrier unharmed, but if the city deemed River hostile… He would not survive passing its borders.
Ember turned around and knelt by River’s side. He looked so young, still a child even though his seventeen years made him qualified to lead in their broken world. She didn’t know if he could hear her but she wanted to try to give him his best chance. “I’ve found a place where you can be save,” she said softly. “No one hurts anyone else here, River. There are no clan battles, only peace. But to go there, you have to want peace too. You have to truly want to end the fighting and end the hurting. If that’s what you want, you can live there. A long healthy life with no more fighting. Doesn’t that sound good? You have to want it River. You have to want it with all of your heart.” 
Ember started to get up when he caught her wrist and opened pained and groggy eyes. “Will you be there?” 
“Yes, I’m going to take you there.” 
“Then I want to go too.” She smiled and he released her, unable to do more.
Ember resumed her place in front of him lifting the front of her stretcher and resting the sword on her shoulders. With a cleansing breath and a silent prayer, she walked from the outer field to the inner city feeling the familiar work of the barrier as she passed through. Then after a second to prepare herself for the worst, she pulled River through also. 
Setting River down, she felt at his neck for a pulse but her hand was shaking too much to tell. Impatient with herself she leaned down and put an ear to his chest. The groan it elicited put a smile on her face. The city had accepted him. The hardest part was over. Now he just needed a place to rest until he could finally heal and he might just survive this whole thing.
“How do you feel?” The words were quiet but close and River struggled to find his own to describe the sensation that had just washed over him. “Like my insides have just been scoured with a pumice stone.” 
Ember laughed and River opened his eyes so he could look at her. She smiled at him with shining eyes. He’d never seen her smile like that before. A genuine happiness rested on her instead of the weight of the responsibilities she normally carried. River liked to see her smile. “I’m not dead,” he quipped glad to see her smile broaden.
“No you’re not dead,” she agreed with a laugh and began untying ropes that held him to the contraption she’d made for transporting him. 
River looked down at the bloody scraps of his shirt wrapped around his middle. “What did you do to me?" He wondered aloud, "I thought you were going to end my suffering.” 
Ember kept working as she answered. “I removed the part of your body that was infected.” 
“How did you know how to do that?” 
Ember shrugged giving him only half an answer. “I told you I’ve seen this before. I tried to wash your insides of the gunk that had spilled when I kicked you. The barrier took care of the rest.” 
“The barrier?” he asked. 
“To the metal mountain city,” she whispered looking up around them. River’s eyes widened in shock as he looked at their surroundings for the first time. Gleaming vertical cliffs towered over them both, much too close for his comfort.
The mountain city? What was she thinking?! That was suicide! “Ember, no one can go into the mountain city and live!” 
Her expression did not hold near enough concern as it should and her smile was soft. “You just did, River. You’ve already gone through the barrier that would have killed you. It was what “scoured” your insides with a pumice stone. Cleaning and cleansing you of any remaining infection or parasites or sickness. You will heal very fast. It has nourished your body, too. The city wants you to be healthy.” 
River felt himself shaking with the knowledge. Pass the barrier?? It wasn't possible... was it? Yet here he was, nearer the feared faces than he'd ever been before. He had no reason to believe she was being dishonest with him, and considering how much better he now felt compared to before the scouring, much reason to believe it true. Still his fear for her safety had him chiding her decision.  “But Ember, why would you do something so foolish? Why risk your own life?” 
She smiled a far off smile as she gazed towards the tops of the mountains, her mind as far away as their peaks. “I’ve been here many times since I first got my scar," she confessed. "It’s how I knew it could help you, how I knew it was possible." She turned back to him once again present and too generous on his behalf. "I did my best to clean your wound, but without the barrier the infection would have just come back. It was the only way to save you.” 
River took a few calming breaths as he considered what she was telling him. Everything he’d believed about the city was wrong. Everything Carrie had told him was a lie. The city would kill you. It’s what he’d always believed. What he’d always witnessed. But here he was… here they both were, inside the city, alive. It was possible. He was living it. Her words were as sweet as her voice and just as welcome. “No one will be able to hurt you here, River. The barrier will keep them out. You’ll never have to fight again.” 
He looked up at her with a tightening of his chest. Never have to fight again? That had been his desire since he was little… since his sister first forced him to watch her beat Ember at the whipping tree. He’d known then that he never wanted to hurt anyone. He’d learned from Ember how he could do it. He’d watched her example of always showing mercy and followed it as best he could under the critical eye of his sister. To think that he’d never have to fight again was such a release. He could live here, free of his sister’s orders and… “ of the chip?”
He hadn’t realized he’d said it out loud when Ember answered him. “I don’t know. I’ve never been called to a battle while inside the city, but since the city only lets the peaceful inside I would guess that the chip doesn’t make you fight.” After a pause and a glance at the rising sun, she asked him a question. “Do you think you can walk? We still have a few miles to go and dragging you across the cobblestone would not be pleasant for either of us.” 
“Where are we going?” 
“To my home.” 
“You have a home? In the city? Why don’t you live there?” 
“My tribe mates would not come with, some for fear, some for pride. And I still had a responsibility to look after them...” …but now her tribe mates were all gone. River finished the unsaid thought silently and continued with his own. Now she had no reason to ever leave… and neither did he. With a nod and little difficulty, River managed to stand. 
Ember wasted no time in dismantling his bed, tying the blanked he’d been lying on into a cloak to keep him warm and breaking down a long branch for a cane to help him walk. The way she cared for him… no one in his tribe did that for one another. Is this how it had been in Ember’s tribe all along? Helping each other instead of jostling for dominance. River wished he would have left his tribe years ago. Ember showed him a better way to live. She slowed down as she untied and unwrapped the sword, looking at it thoughtfully. Finally she stood with it, lifting it high, and tossed it back through the barrier. "It will serve someone better out there than in here," was her explanation. He shared a smile with her at the thought.
It was slow going as River slowly hobbled after Ember. She stopped frequently so he could rest. Eventually Ember stopped in front of one of the smaller buildings they had been passing. ...building? Where had he gotten that word from? And yet he knew it was the right one for the structure he now looked at. Not a mountain or a hill... a building. The yard in front was well maintained just like every other yard... yes they were called yards.
“This is my house,” Ember started and River stared at it. Though he has never heard the word house before, still he knew what it was. Like a tree hollow... only a lot bigger.
River glanced around at all of the other houses on the street... the wide, hard path they had been walking on.  “Are there other people? In the other houses?” he asked partly from fear, partly in awe. 
“Some,” she answered, a little subdued. “Many are abandoned, though, maintained only by the magical machinery within their own walls. The city has killed so many that few still try to get in. Come on," she waved him forward after shaking off her sadness. "I want to introduce you to my family.” 
River froze, his heart knocking inside his chest. Ember... had a family? She’d never mentioned a family before. For some reason the thought of Ember having a family he didn’t know about made him very ill at easy.

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Re: River's Ember - a short story
« Reply #4 on: 22 February 2017, 09:03:21 PM »
“Come on,” she urged again, taking his arm to help him up the steps. “You can rest inside.” Ember opened the door and made a guttural sound. Somewhere beyond the doorway another guttural sound echoed back. Several in fact, followed by a series of barks and howls. 
River jumped back by instinct as four wolves appeared at the door. Ember held his arm tightly, though, as she answered with her own barks and howls. The four wolves responded to her with excitement and playfulness rather than the hostility he was used to seeing out in the wild. Ember released him momentarily to spend some time ruffling their fur and scratching their sides. 
The wolves licked her face and nuzzled against her shoulders. The wolves were her family... River was relieved. As she brought him further into the house, though, it was clear the wolves did not like him being there. After a few sniffs one growled and the others pulled back their ears. Ember scolded them but they didn’t seem to care. After one snapped at his hand, she barked at them loudly and took a protective stance in front of him. 
“I’m sorry River, I’m not sure what’s wrong. I’ve never brought anyone from outside the city here before but I didn’t think they’d reject you.” 
“Should we leave?” he asked warily, trying to keep the hope out of his voice. 
“No, no…" She waved him off, "We just have to show them that you are one of the pack.” 
“How do we do that?” 
“Well… I raised them since they were pups so I’m kinda their alpha," she shrugged. "Maybe if they see me submit to you they will follow suit.” 
River was doubtful. He hadn't spent much time observing wolves since he was usually too busy running from them if he ever saw them, but it didn't seem like it would be that easy. Still, Ember seemed comfortable around this group and determined he be too, so he'd have to give it a try. “Then my question remains, how do we do that?” 
“First you need to challenge me. Bare your teeth and growl at me.” 
“What? That’s silly.” 
“Just do it!” 
He gave her a half-hearted try at first but after Ember’s frowning disapproval he let out a genuine challenging growl. The wolves responded immediately putting their hackles up and baring their teeth but Ember snapped at them pushing them back and faced him herself. She was telling them this was her battle. 
“Now what?” he whispered. 
“Rush me.” 
“I don’t understand.” 
“Come at me," she insisted with a hiss. "Pin me to the wall.” 
River shrugged, “If you say so.” 
“But be aggressive about it. This is a fight for dominance here.” 
River did as she said pushing her into the wall with enough force to make her grunt at the impact. Rough but not rough enough to really hurt her. He growled for good measure glad for the nod of approval she gave him even as the wolves barked from their places. Ember shoved him back as she continued the ‘struggle’. 
“Bark at me.” She instructed. “Take me to the floor.” 
His first attempt was tentative and she didn’t let him get away with it side stepping him and sending him stumbling until he regained his balance. “Come on, they’re not going to believe that. You have to make it look real.” Again, he lunged but he was still playing it safe. He didn’t want to hurt her. “You’re never going to be a part of this pack if you don’t do better than that. Don’t you want to be here? Be a part of this family?” she taunted as she dodged and put the couch between them. 
“I do,” he growled realizing a family with Ember was something he’d coveted for years. 
“Then show me! Show me how much you want it!” With a snarling growl that was partly from the pain of stretching his wound, River leapt over the couch to get to her knocking her to the floor as they crashed through a glass topped table. They both landed with a thud that knocked the wind out of them. 
“You okay?” he asked when he regained his breath. 
“Yeah you?” River nodded. 
“Sorry about your table.”
“Don’t worry about it, the house will order a new one.” It was odd. Not her statement, but the very fact that her statement didn't seem odd. The house itself would order a new table and that was a perfectly logical statement... so odd indeed.
The room had grown eerily quiet as four faces poked around the couch to observe what was happening. “Quick,” Ember whispered. “Stare at me as if you dare me to defy you.”
River’s brows fell as he tried to mime the way Carrie had always looked at him and just as he would always do in the face of his sister’s gaze, Ember turned her head away. There was a part of him that rebelled against Ember cowing to him even if it was just an act for the sake of the wolves.
“Bite me on the ear,” she whispered.
“Bite me on the ear," she repeated, half annoyed, half encouraging. "It’s a sign of dominance.”
His chest already churning with new emotion, River leaned forward and took her ear between his teeth. 
“Harder,” she urged and he pressed down firmly but it wasn’t enough for her. “Harder!” she insisted actually poking him in the side near his incision. Responding to the pain of it, River bit down with more force than he had intended. “Ow!” she yelped as he tasted blood. 
“I’m sorry…” he started but she interrupted him.
“No, that’s what we needed. Now look at the wolves one at a time. Stare them down until they look away. If they do, they’ve accepted you as the new alpha. River looked from face to face. The first two looked away almost immediately, the third did after only a few seconds, but the last stared at him for what seemed like ages before finally turning away. 
“They did it,” he told her. “They all looked away.” 
“Good,” Ember laughed. “I’m glad that worked, because I wouldn’t want to have to find you another abandoned home to live in.” 
“Me either.” River breathed as she turned back to look at him. “I want to live here… with you.” The following silence between them sounded way too loud in River’s ears. He didn’t know what he expected her to say, if he had expected anything, but the silence left something to be desired, some hunger was left unfed. 
“We should get up so the house can clean up our mess.” She finally said and heat rushed to River’s face as he realized he’d been lying on top of her this whole time. In the moment, following her instructions, he had hardly noticed their closeness, but now that they were getting up, the widening gap between them was keenly felt. He coveted her warmth next to him. 
Trying to stand, he stretched the wrong muscle and gasped at the stabbing pain in his side. It brought Ember close again with concern in her eyes. “Are you all right?” she asked and the wolves inched closer whining in sympathy. She helped him stand only long enough to have him turn and lie down on the couch. “Your bandages have bled through,” she complained. “They need to be changed. Stay here.”
He did as she asked occupying himself with petting the wolves who came close enough to sniff him. He’d never seen one this close before. At least not one that was alive. The animals were fascinating. 
Ember returned quickly with new bandages and other medical supplies. She handed him two small round pebbles that did not really look like rocks. “Swallow these,” she instructed. 
“What are they?” he asked suspicious.
“It is medicine. It will help with the pain.” 
River glanced at her sideways. “The last time you said that you put me to sleep.” 
Ember smiled mischievously. “It worked didn’t it? These won’t put you to sleep though. They just dull the pain.” 
“How do you know?” 
“You will find that you know a lot more than you thought you did now that you are a city dweller.”
River popped them in his mouth and swallowed with the glass of water she provided. Then she proceeded to remove his bandages. Her touch was delicate but sure, almost tickling as they roamed. The bandages off revealed a new crescent shaped line curving around his left abdomen muscle. It was not as clean a cut as one would like for a scar, but then again, this was the only scar he'd have that he might smile about. 
Ember frowned at it. “You’ve ripped your stitches. I’ll have to sew you back up again.” Ember set to work with delicate precision while River did his best not to flinch when it hurt. Removing old torn stitches and replacing them with new ones. She was so sure of herself, so confident with her tasks. 
River wished he could be a fraction of the person she was. “You know so much…” he circled back to his previous questions. “How do you know so much?” 
She looked at him thoughtfully without pausing her next knot. “I ask the right questions to what I know has the answers.” River didn’t understand and it must have been evident as Ember went on. “That chip in your head, it’s been there since before you can remember, yeah?” River nodded. “It makes rules that you have to follow, punishes you if you don’t follow them, and gives you information, right?” Again River nodded and Ember gave him an almost mischievous smile before asking her next question. “How did you know it was a chip?” She paused while River thought about it. He’d never really questioned it, he’d just always known. “What is a chip?”, Ember continued. “What does it look like? How big?” 
“It’s tiny,” he answered, glad to be able to give one. “Square… kind of flat.” 
“And how do you know? Have you ever seen one?” River paused, trying to remember an instance where he had actually seen a chip, but he couldn’t come up with one. And yet, what a chip looked like was firmly etched in his mind. He could see it as clearly as if he were holding one now. Ember guessed in his silence and their shared experience what he was seeing. “That image in your mind right now. The picture of a chip… Where did it come from?” 
River shook his head. “I don’t know,” he finally answered, and Ember smiled in satisfaction. 
“The image you see and everything you know about the chip came from the chip itself. It gave you the knowledge it wanted you to have. And if you ask the chip the right questions it will teach you.” 
Ask the chip? He’d never thought to try. “How?” 
“Just think your question. That’s all it takes. Sometimes you get an answer immediately, sometimes in a dream while you sleep, and sometimes no answer comes at all. If the chip wants you to know the answer it will tell you. 
River fell silent as he thought about what Ember had said. He let his eyes roam around the room. So many strange things he’d never seen before. In his mind he would ask, “What is that?”. A lamp. “What does it do?” Shine light. “How does it work?” Flip the switch. It was almost as if he’d already known the answers but he’d just forgotten about them. “What is that?” A food station. “What does it do?” Provides nourishment. “How does it work?” Put your hand to the scanning pad and speak a flavor request if you have one. River was enthralled by how quickly he was learning. 
His eyes fell on Ember as she concentrated over the last few stitches and his chest tightened. He wanted to know about Ember… about her hopes and dreams and fears. “Who is Ember?” he asked the chip and waited for what it would give him. The pause afterwards left River wondering if he would get any answer. Finally the chip asked him a question back. “What do you want?” River frowned inwardly. “I want to know who Ember is. Who is Ember?” But again the chip’s reply was the same. “What do you want?” 
River sighed as he gave up. The chip must not want him to know… Or maybe he could just ask her himself. What he really wanted was a reason to spend more time with her, listen to her voice, see her smile… He didn’t need the chip for that. The chip couldn’t give him that. Suddenly the chip’s answer made sense. River just needed to reevaluate what he really wanted to understand he was asking the wrong question and looking for answers in the wrong place. 
As Ember finished adding the new bandages to cover his new stitches, River reached out to cover her hand with his. When she looked up at him, he tried to convey his gratitude for her. “Thank you,” he said, “for everything.” 
Ember smiled, a little color rising to her cheeks. “You’re welcome.”
“I am glad that you brought me here… to live with you.” 
She stood pulling away. “It’s my duty as a leader of a tribe to care for those who have been rejected by other tribes… and it’s about time I got back to my duty.” 
“What do you mean? Back to your duty?”
“I have to go back to the wilderness. Make another camp. Start another tribe.” 
“But… I thought… You’re not staying here with me?” 
“I can’t River. I have a duty to my tribe.” 
“... Your tribe is dead!” it came out harsher than he had intended. River didn’t want to be mean, but he had so looked forward to being with her… Did she not feel the same way? But now the pain in her eyes… River couldn’t stand it. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just had thought… had wanted you to stay.” 
“I can’t stay River. Not yet. Not while there are tribe leaders like your sister out there who abandon those who seem weak. Someone has to be there for them, River. Someone has to give them a fighting chance to survive.” 
River could see the sense in it. He understood why she felt she must go back out there and he admired her for it. But it made him incredibly sad. “You don’t have to worry about being lonely,” she continued misunderstanding his motive for wanting her close. “You’ll have the wolves and there are neighbors I’m sure you’ll meet. I’ve asked a few to check in on the pups a couple times a week. And I usually come by every month or so for one thing or another. You’ll be able to live a very peaceful life here, River. No more battles to fight. That’s what you wanted, right?” 
River nodded half-heartedly. He didn’t know what he wanted past the fact that he wanted to figure it out with her. “You’ll at least stay the day, won’t you?” he tried. “Surely no one else has lost a tribe so soon.” 
“There is much work to do before I’ll be ready to care for anyone else. New tree hollows, new fire pit, new food supply… There is so much work to do.” 
“I could go with you,” he offered. “Help you set things up.” 
“And have you rip your stitches again? I don’t think so. Besides, I saw how happy you were at the prospect of not having to fight again. You belong here where its safe.” 
River didn’t know what to do. “How do I change her mind?” he asked his chip. “What do you want?” the chip replied. So what did he really want? He wanted her to stay, of course, but more than that… he wanted her to WANT to stay. He could not change her mind. She needed to change her own mind. So that settled it. River would stay and Ember would go and life would go on. He’d figure it out somehow. 
The wolves raised their heads in unison at a knock at the door. “That must be one of the neighbors now. I bet they saw us walking by. Come on. I’ll introduce you.” Obediently, River gingerly pulled himself up off the couch and followed her to the door. 
“Everyone here is so nice," she continued with a smile, "You’ll make lots of friends in no time.” Ember opened the door wide turning towards the visitor and barely had time to deflect the sword that was coming at her neck. The blade ran a deep gash into her left forearm instead.

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Re: River's Ember - a short story
« Reply #5 on: 04 March 2017, 07:26:55 PM »
Ember stumbled back holding her arm as Carrie entered the room, a crazed look in her eye. “I’ve come to avenge my brother,” she roared even as River ran forward to block her advance. 
“Carrie, I’m not dead!” 
She snapped her head up in his direction, not the slightest bit surprised at his presence. “Oh, but you are, brother. Dead to ME!" She took a step towards him with a look he'd only seen a few times before and never aimed at himself. It was a hated look she reserved for those who failed to try to take her place as leader. "How could you abandon your tribe?!" She screamed at him.  "How could you betray me?! I heard you talking from the window. Going to live here now are you? Where you’re safe?!” Carrie spit the words out before lunging at him with the sword. He only dodged it because she had still been too far away. 
“Carrie, what are you doing? Why are you trying to kill me?” River sputtered. He wasn't sure why he tried. It was obvious there was no reasoning with her. Not this time.
“My brother is already dead! Whoever you are, you are not my brother and I would see you dead for wearing his face. You killed him! Both of you!” As Carrie backed them into the living room the wolves advanced baring their teeth and growling at her. 
Carrie took pause from the new danger allowing Ember to grab a cloth to wrap her arm in. “How did you even get into the city?” she asked in confusion. 
There was a glint in Carrie's eye that Ember knew all too well. One that reveled in knowing that she'd bested her enemy. “The same way I took care of your little clan full of pests,” Carrie sneered as she pulled out a thin metal tablet holding it up like a trophy. “This is the key to everything, including the city! With this I will finally be rid of you, Ember!” 
Carrie lunged at Ember again, but this time she was ready, with her hand already around the standing lamp. She swung it up to catch the blade, and knocked it to the side. Carrie was quick to recover, though, and brought down a two handed blow that broke the lamp in two. 
Ember fell back against the couch. When Carrie lifted her sword again, River tackled her from the side, bringing her to the ground, but she retaliated a vicious elbow to his nose. Blinking back the pain, River was too stunned to block her next blow. The pummel of her sword smashes into his throat and River can do no more than gasp for breath. 
He heard Ember scream and growl as if she herself were a wolf. She jumpped on Carrie and bit into her arm, but without a proper weapon, she had to retreat as soon as Carrie got to her feet again. 
"I am disappointed in you." Carrie said to neither, or both. "I had expected a challenge, but instead I get mere child's play."  She swung her sword at Ember who had run out of room for retreat. 
One of the wolves jumped in the way, though, taking the wound on its shoulder. It howled out its pain as the rest of the wolves advanced on Carrie, attacking her as one. One wolf grabbed ahold and dug into her leg knocking her down. She swung at that one slashing it's hind quarters before another wolf attacked her sword hand. Carrie cried out in pain and anger as a third wolf jumped at her chest knocking her head into the floor. Without hesitancy it bit into her neck, a fatal wound. River reeled at the sight of his sister and managed to find enough voice to growl in dismay at the wolves. They respond to his distress and back away from her but it is obvious she won’t live long.
With trembling hands Carrie held up the tablet and pressed a button with her thumb. “Avenge me!” she gurgled, falling limp and dropping the tablet. 
River stared at his sister in shock for a few seconds. Part of him expected her to still somehow survive, but after a few tense breaths she did not stir and the reality of her death started to set in. She was actually gone... and he wasn't sure how he felt about that. Ember, too, looked very uncertain as she came closer. If he could read the mix of emotions in her eyes he would guess there was worry, satisfaction, relief, and sympathy at least. She seemed on the verge of tears though he was unsure which emotion was the root of them.
The tablet caught his eye and he picked it up asking, “What is this?” His mind was immediately flooded with what the device was and what it could do. The horror of it was too much to contain as his new knowledge started spilling from his lips. “This... this controls the battles!" The facts the chip fed him were unbearable. Tears began to flow down his own face as he looked up at Ember in shame. "Carrie set up the last battle," he confessed squeezing his eyes shut against the onslaught of information. "She set the rules, she set the opponents… She not only meant to slaughter you all... she ensured she would." 
A gentle hand rested on his arm but it did not bring the comfort it intended, because the cruelty of his Carrie's betrayal did not end with Ember's tribe. He couldn't help but laugh at his own naivety. "This is why she made me co-leader. Not to honor me, but to make sure she didn’t lose to you in the battle... I was expendable to her." Any pride or love he had once held for his sister was now replaced with a cold emptiness. He finally opened his eyes again but couldn't bring himself to look up. "It’s all here. Every detail of her plan. My sister did this. Ember, I’m so sorry.” 
Ever gracious, she squeezed his arm in reassurance, not requiring anything else of him. She held out her other hand. “May I see it?” she asked. He handed the accursed device to her barely moving his gaze from his now empty hands. The seconds ticked past as she held the device and pressed on it's screen. After a full minute River risked a glance, finding her deep in thought with furrowed brows as her fingers moved across the screen as if she'd always known how.
She startled him with her distressed intake of breath and concerned voice. “There’s more. There’s a pending battle. The button she pressed before she died… It started the countdown. It’s your tribe vs. my tribe again… only everyone is supposed to fight me.” 
Her frightened eyes looked up to meet his and his pulse quickened. “Can you change it?”
He response was flustered and rushed as she stuttered out her frustration. “I don’t know how! There’s only a few seconds left before…” 
Her voice was interrupted by the familiar information download of the chip. A kill event. Rules: 
Battle to the death. 
No mercy. 
Target Ember. 
Combat mandatory. 
Ember’s current location registered in River’s mind. How far away she was and in what direction. If it was like this for him… “My whole tribe has coordinates to your exact location. They’re coming, Ember.” 
Her eyes were desperate. “But... the city barrier will kill them all! Carrie’s just condemned your whole tribe!” The information download completed and Ember and River stared at each other for a few moments. 
“That last rule…" River wondered, "Combat mandatory… What did that mean?” It was no sooner out of his mouth as the chip answered by sending a painful shock through both of their systems. Penalty: 10 mA. Next penalty: 20 mA. Combat mandatory. 
When Ember had caught her breath, a determination crossed her face as the familiar leader's mantle settled onto her shoulders. She muttered, unhappily but with confident authority. “I guess it means we have to fight. Arm yourself.” 
“What?! No. I don’t want to hurt you! I refuse!” Another wave of pain ripped through his body. As he cried out, the chip gave the report. Penalty: 20 mA. Next Penalty: 40 mA. The penalty for not fighting was doubling at each instance. 
“River! Quit being stubborn and just fight me!” she yelled as she slapped him across the face. She lifted her hand to strike him again and he blocked it on instinct. “Good, again. Just like a sparring match. Let your body fight but listen to me. We can talk this through.” 
River followed Ember’s lead throwing punches and blocking hers. “Okay talk to me," she started. "What are our options?“ 
There was only one option River could see that he could live with. “You kill me. It’s the only option.” 
Ember threw a jab he wasn’t expecting that connected with his right side. “Wrong!” she chided him. “Think what happens if I win against you? Huh, what happens next?” River couldn’t see past their current fight, not with Ember landing as many blows as he blocked while he tried to think. It was kind of annoying actually and after a painful jab right above his stitches, River lashed out connecting his fist with her nose. Ember stumbled back while River stopped. 
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry…” he reached out to help her but the chip called foul again. The pain sending him to his knees. 
Ember was next to him bloody nose and all with concern in her eyes. “Are you okay?” she asked and just as quickly screamed and winced as her chip dealt her another penalty. “They’re getting stronger,” she managed and River nodded his head. 
“The penalties keep on doubling.” 
“And how many doublings do you think we could survive? Come on. Up on your feet. Fight me like you mean it.” River got up and faced Ember in her fighting stance with blood dripping down her nose and arm. He mirrored her stance and resumed the sparring match getting into a steady rhythm while he continued their talk. 
“So what happens next?” River repeated her last question. 
“Your tribe continues to come after me and either I go out to meet them and fight them all or they die at the barrier trying to get to me.” Let them die. It was his first thought, but he didn't say it. They were still his family, his friends. He didn’t want them to die any more than he wanted Ember to die, but she wasn’t done with her thought. “And do you think the chip will let me sit idle while they die? I would be compelled to fight them just as they are compelled to fight me. If I kill you, I’d have to kill your whole tribe or die trying.” 
The odds of her surviving against everyone were minuscule at best, if not out-right impossible. River was shaking his head in denial. “But what’s left?” he asked. 
“You must win,” Ember said it so calmly and confidently, but River wouldn’t hear of it. 
“No! I can’t kill you Ember! I won’t!” For a moment he forgot himself and stopped attacking. The chip called foul yet again and the intensity of the pain ripping through his body blinded him of all else. Agonizing seconds ticked past before he found he could sense another stabbing pain on his chest where Ember beat her fists against him, tear stains down her cheeks. “Penalty: 80 mA. Next Penalty: Forfeit… Death.” River said the verdict out loud as he received it and Ember hit him all the harder. 
“Fight me, fight me! And listen!” River shoved Ember aside so he could regain his footing before she came at him again. “You don’t have to kill me, you just have to WIN.” 
“How do I win without killing you? Don’t the rules mean I have to kill you?” 
“Trick the chip!" She yelled with excitement. The concept was utter nonsense to him, but Ember insisted it was possible. "The chip bases victory off of your belief," she explained. "If you believe you have truly won the battle, then the chip decides the results from that. How do you think I was able to defeat your sister when she already had me tied to the whipping tree?" She paused long enough for him to think back to the day and his confusion when his sister had buckled mid-attack. "I had never surrendered, I just refused to fight. Carrie thought I had surrendered but the war was still going on in my mind. I won when she tried to use the rules of fate's surrender instead of the battle rules and the chip didn’t allow it. When the chip punished her for going too far I believed I had won the battle! That was all I needed! My belief that I’d won! So if you believe you’ve won the battle is over.”
River took a few seconds to let that sink in. He'd never questioned the chip before or how it worked, but he didn't doubt that what Ember was telling him was true. Still, he struggled to understand. “How do I believe I’ve won when I know I haven’t killed you?” 
Ember smiled, even as he shoved her against a wall with a grunt. “You have to change the end goal of the fight in your mind. What do you really want River?" She stomped down on his foot and elbowed him in the rib to get away. "If you achieve what you really want to do, you can trick the chip into believing you’ve won. You have to win, River! You have to win!” 
River tripped Ember and she went sprawling on the floor. He dived after her pinning her on her back. Almost of their own volition his hands wrapped around her neck. He could win legitimately, here and now,  by choking her, or he could stop fighting all together letting the chip kill him.

...Or he could figure out what Ember had said and change what it meant to win. 

Offline Jewels

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Re: River's Ember - a short story
« Reply #6 on: 11 March 2017, 03:41:28 PM »
"How do I win?” he asked himself. “What do you want?” came the logical reply of the chip. Well, he definitely did not want to kill Ember. That would be worse than losing this fight. He wanted Ember to live. And he wanted to live. And what he really wanted was for Ember to want to stay here with him.  But more than that, he wanted her to know WHY he wanted her to stay. If he could find the courage to do that... that would be a huge victory. 
His mind made up, River eased the pressure off of Ember’s throat knowing that his next move may very well leave him dying in agony, but he had to try. Ember gasped, clawing at his hands to keep up her own struggle. River grabbed one wrist with each of his hands pinning them to the sides. He leaned in close, ready to break every tradition his childhood had taught him, to give what was never freely given, to say words that were never openly said, to risk everything... with no guarantee... “Ember…” his voice trembled with his own internal struggle, “I love you.” River pressed his lips to hers. If it was the last thing he ever did, he would be glad of it. 
Ember momentarily froze beneath him, perhaps surprised, shocked, or appalled. How she would react is what he’d really been afraid of. River lifted his head and waited, one heartbeat… two… it seemed like an eternity. Ember whispered two words, “I surrender,” before lifting her own head to bring the contact back. 
Emotions surged through his body and a thought rocketed through his mind. “Victory!” The chip rang true. He was victorious. River had won! He lifted his head smiling ear to ear and she smiled back at him with rosy cheeks. 
“You did it River! You beat the chip!” 
He shook his head at her. “No, Ember, we did it together. I couldn’t have done it without you.” Carefully, River lifted himself and helped Ember up. Both were incredibly sore, and River was sure he’d ripped his stitches again. 
“What now?" He asked, suddenly back to being very unsure of himself. 
Ember must have noticed, as she shook off the pretense of surrender and slid easily into the role of leadership. She took his hand. “Come here. I want to show you something.” She pulled him into another room, small compared to the others. Movement out of the corner of his eye startled him as he jumped back into a battle stance against a man who did the same. But Ember only laughed and pulled his hands down. “A mirror,” she explained. “It’s a reflection… of you.” 
River relaxed, as did the other man as he stared. “That’s me?” Ember nodded. He’d only seen his reflection before on the river which was distorted and at an awkward angle. As he gazed at the man in front of him, his hand went to his face. He was suddenly a little self-conscious about how dirty and disheveled he looked. Ember reached past him to one of the shiny metal knobs sticking out of the wall and turned. Out of the metal flower above flowed crystal clear water. 
“This is my favorite room in the house,” she confessed, “because this is one luxury I cannot find out in the wilderness.” 
“A shower,” he mused as the name of the thing came to him. 
Ember nodded and went next to another set of knobs above an empty white bowl big enough to fit a man. “And this is a bath,” she added while also turning on the flow of water into it. “First things first, scrub off the grime in the shower and then get into the bath. Don’t let the water overflow. Understand?” 
He nodded. “But where are you going?” 
“To stitch up my arm and get us some clean clothes. The replicator should have something on file for you.” River watched her go leaving the door open a crack. Self-conscious again, he peeked out into the hallway before disrobing and stepping towards the shower where a cool stream rained down. The chip filled him in on how to adjust the temperature and what the strange clear bottles were that hung in a rack next to him. Soap and shampoo, to aid in the cleaning. They smelled a lot better than the lard he was used to scrubbing with and felt a lot better than the pumice stone, too. 
He turned off the shower when he considered himself clean enough and hurried to the bath, turning the water off. At his first attempt to get in, the water was so hot he jumped right back out again, but he had watched Ember test the temperature before letting it fill… Surely she would not boil him alive.
Gingerly, one foot at a time, he let his body get used to the heat before attempting to sit down. The wave of warmth that enveloped him as he did sent shivers up his back. The temperature was definitely intended as he felt his body relax as it soaked up the heat. He closed his eyes as he enjoyed it. 
He must have drifted off because the next thing he remembered was the sound of the shower running again. There was movement behind the thin curtain and a new set of clothes were sitting on the stool next to him with a towel on top. With the white noise of the shower in the background, and exhaustion still permeating his body, River allowed himself to doze off again. The next time he opened his eyes, Ember was dressed and drying off her hair with a noisy object in her hand. With her back to him, he grabbed his towel and stood up in the tub, wrapping it around himself. Ember noticed but respectfully kept her back turned while he got out. 
“Are you decent?” she asked. “I want to take a look at your stitches before you put those clothes on.”
“Yeah,” he replied after double checking his towel was secure. She turned and paused momentarily before, coming forward to look over her work. Her touch was still as gentle as before, if not more so. For all the bruises he now had, her prodding illcited no pain.
“Still intact,” she said with satisfaction. “That’s good." She stood facing him, perhaps closer than she had expected to be by the look on her face. In the moment of silence that followed as her gaze scanned his face, he thought she might kiss him again... wanted her to kiss him again, but too soon she looked away with an awkward smile and stepped backwards towards the door. "I’ll wait in the hall while you get dressed.” 
After watching her go, River finished drying off before coming out and meeting her in the hall. He smiled at her but her own return smile was fleeting as she glanced down. “I should be going soon.” 
River’s smile faded. This was the reason for her hesitancy... she was still leaving. He hadn’t convinced her to stay. “If that is what you want,” he intoned flatly. 
When she looked back at him, he could tell that it was. “Please, understand. You’ve done nothing wrong. I just… I know I’m needed.” 
“I need you,” he whispered watching her face fall. He could not change her mind... and he would not guilt her into staying, “…but I understand,” he added, glad to see her smile return. 
She gave him a gentle hug. “Thank you,” she whispered. “…for everything. What with winning the battle and all.” 
The statement brought a smile back to his face but something nagged at him, though. Something he’d missed in his previous relief of winning the battle without having to kill Ember. “Shouldn’t we have gotten a battle report from the chip, though?” 
She shrugged. “I don’t know. If you’ve won and I’ve lost, there’s no one left to fight. I would have expected a report, yes.” 
“What does the tablet say?” he wondered and Ember turned for the living room with River following. She stopped short in the doorway and turned back to him with her hands up. He had too much momentum going to stop before he’d run into her, her hands on his chest. River didn’t mind but Ember looked chagrined. “What’s wrong?” 
“Your sister…” she started. “River I’m sorry.” 
“Don’t be,” he reassured her. “What happened to my sister… it was her own doing. Don’t blame yourself.” 
She smiled weakly and turned her head towards his hand when he lifted it to brush her cheek. “All the same… you shouldn’t have to see her like this. The wolves… they have not been kind. The house will um… restore everything eventually, but right now…” 
“I’ll stay here,” he offered, “If you think it’s best.” She nodded, relief in her eyes and quickly returned with the tablet. She wiped blood off the front of it and held it so they could both look at it. 
When River touched the device, knowledge for how to use it flooded his mind again. Ember had said to ask the right questions. “What are the battle stats.” A holographic depiction of the stats appeared in the air above the tablet. It showed everyone’s locations. 52 little red dots moved progressively north towards the city where two green dots stood inside a house. 
“They’re all still coming,” Ember worried aloud. “River they’re almost here! Why haven’t they stopped?” 
“Look at you and me. We’re both green. Everyone else is red.” 
“What does that mean?” The tabled responded to her question by listing all of the tribe member names in order of oldest to youngest. River’s name was highlighted at the top. Under Battle result next to his name it read “Victory.” For everyone else, the stats read “Pending.” 
“They haven’t won their battles yet.” 
“But there was only one battle. Everyone against me. You won. Shouldn’t that negate everyone else’s battles? I’ve already lost.” River reached a hand up to the hologram and swiped right revealing Ember’s tribe and stats. It showed only one name, highlighted just as River’s had been. The stat next to it read "Victory". 
River found the courage to say it out loud. “You didn’t lose.” 
“We both won?” she breathed in confusion. “We both won the same battle?”
“I tricked the chip by believing I’d won. But you didn’t die. I didn’t best you at anything.” 
“But I surrendered. I said I surrendered.” 
It was odd, to see her panicking like this, while he remained calm. But then, he was pretty sure he understood why the battle wasn't over. River talked it through with her.  “But do you believe it? Maybe that’s not good enough. Maybe you have to believe you’ve lost. You have to trick the chip, too."
Ember sat down at the kitchen table lost in thought. She’d likely spent years training herself to believe she had won the battle before she’d even fought it. He doubted she’d ever tried to convince the chip she’d lost. River sat down next to her laying the tablet down. “What are you going to do? Judging by their speed and the remaining distance, the fastest of them could be here in fifteen minutes.” 
“I have to face them,” she whispered. 
“No!” River balked. 
“I’ll have to! What other choice do I have?” 
“Trick the chip, Ember you have to try! Don’t give up!” 
“But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That I give up? I have to believe in my heart that I’ve given up. Give up all hope.” 
“Then give up on something else! Don’t give up your life. Surely there’s something else you can give up on.” Ember was shaking her head but River knew there had to be. “What do you want, Ember? What do you really want?” He shook her by the shoulders trying to get through to her. She looked at him with tear filled eyes. 
“Let go, River,” she begged. “It will be best for everyone. I don’t want to hurt you. Please just let me die.” 
River was confused. He didn’t know what she was talking about or why she had a death wish, but he wasn’t going to let her sacrifice herself. River held her tight. “You’re not going anywhere. If you are unable to trick the chip, then the rest of my tribe will just have to die at the barrier. One way or another you are surviving this night.” 
“That’s 52 people!” 
“I don’t care!” 
“Your friends, River! They are your family!” 
And there had been a time when he had believed it, but somehow sitting here with her ready to throw her life away for them... he was having a hard time remembering why. “They never loved me! None of them. A family cares for each other, helps each other. There was never anything like family in my tribe, not even with my own sister. I was always a disappointment to her.” 
“Please, River, don’t make me do this.” 
“I will not lose the one person who has ever really cared about me! You saved my life, Ember. You cared enough to save me. I’m not letting you go!” Ember was crying now as he held her firmly in place. The countdown for his tribe mates reaching the city had just minutes left to go. “It will be over soon, Ember. Just hang on for a few more minutes.” 
“Okay,” she whispered in a ragged breath. She found his eyes fierce and determined while she looked completely defeated. “You win, River. I’ll stay.” 
“What?!” River could hardly believe it. Had she said she would… 
“I’ll stay here with you.” River’s heart soared. She was staying! She would be by his side all the time. It was the happiest moment of his life. At her words, the countdown stopped and Ember’s status went from victory to defeat. River didn’t understand at first. 
“What just happened?” 
“I surrendered.” She said softly. “I gave up.” 
“But… what did you give up?” 
Ember would only shake her head at him. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.” 
“I don’t understand.” Hadn’t she only said she’d stay with him? “Ember what did you give up? Answer me!” 
Her eyes were pain filled when she looked at him. “You asked me what I really wanted, River. And that is what I gave up.” 
Things started falling into place for River. If staying with him meant she was giving up what she really wanted then… she must have really wanted to leave. Now he understood what she had meant. She didn’t want him to know that she didn’t want to be with him. Battle stats started rolling in for everyone though River ignored them. 
He watched thoughtfully as Ember picked up the tablet and started swiping through various information and features. None of which he understood when he wasn’t touching the device. “You should keep it,” he offered. “Use it… to prevent future battles if you can.” 
“Do you think that’s possible?”
“I think anything is possible, Ember, for you.” 
“Life in the city… it will take some getting used to.” 
“Yes, but I’m sure I’ll manage.” 
“We’ll both manage somehow.” 
 “You’re not going to live here Ember. It’s not what you want.” 
“What I want does not matter. Your tribe is safe. That matters.” 
“You’re not staying here Ember,” he repeated. “I forbid it.” 
She looked at him then, confusion etched across her face. “I surrendered. I have to stay.” 
“The battle is over, and the danger with it. Besides, No Mercy remember? Your fate is mine until morning and I say your fate is not to stay here. I say you have to leave, out of the city to wherever it is your heart really wants to be.” 
“You… you don’t’ want me to stay?” 
“I DO want you to stay, but I want you to be happy more.” 
Ember had tears in her eyes again but this time she smiled at him. “Thank you… for understanding.” 
She reached her arm around him in a hug, her nose snuggled against his chest and he bent down to kiss the top of her head. “You will still visit, though, right?” 
“Every month or so,” she nodded. “…but before I go. I want to show you my second favorite room in the house.” 
River let her lead him down a hall and through a door where the softest tree hollow awaited. He was sleeping when she left, dreaming of the next time he’d see her and looking forward to it.