Nora’s blonde hair tickled her nose after a gust knocked a few locks loose from behind her ear. She wedged them back and continued up the stairs to the village courtyard. The breeze accompanied a quake of thunder in announcing the arrival of storm clouds. The gray mass had already stretched its wisps over the village of Kosmos and was now creeping towards the morning sun.
Nora kept her leather satchel pressed against her flank while she watched the storm clouds challenge the sun. The sunlight eventually faded into cold purple as the storm’s gray shroud advanced on the rays.
At the top of the stairs, she was greeted with the sight of the familiar nightmare. The leafless tree peered at her from the center of the courtyard. It was a monstrous tree from hell, hideous and glorified. Being the tallest structure in the highest location in Kosmos, it beckoned all wandering eyes to heed it. Its rotund trunk twisted skyward, dispersing its limbs and branches with the ambition of a monument. It was black, for it fed on the villagers’ filth as if it were compost.
Their filth stained Kosmos black–the streets, buildings, furniture, their clothing. Every morning the black liquid would ooze out of them like sweat, leaving drops and streaks on everything they touched. Once it dried into dust, they would sweep it into piles, gather it into leather satchels and bring it to the tree in preparation for the Black Harvest, when the Breathers, the monsters that lurked beyond the village walls, would come to feed on the tree’s ripened fruit.
As Nora crossed the courtyard, a string of lightning weaseled overhead, followed by a few pops and cracks of thunder. It gave her an excuse to look at something other than the spindly giant. Her chest tightened with each step. Still a ways from the behemoth, she prepared her satchel, unlatching it, so she could dump her filth and leave without lingering. She eyed the black heaps at the trunk’s base, left from the other villagers, and fixed her attention on where she planned to deposit her contribution.
She stopped at the piles, held her satchel out from her chest and turned it over. The dried filth rustled against the leather and streamed onto the sacred space. As her dust joined the rest, a plume erupted into her face, causing her to drop the satchel. She covered her mouth and swatted the dust cloud from her face, but she stopped when she felt a stream of liquid run down her swatting arm.
She pulled her tattered sleeve back; it was the black liquid, seeping out of the pores on her arm. With a quivering hand, she brushed it off with repetitive strokes, but it kept bubbling out.
“You’ve always been one to put on a show,” a young man said behind her, “but climbing up here just to squeeze out a few drops is a bit much.”
“Shut up, Lukis, it just happened.”
He reached down and picked up one of the tree’s fruit, which had fallen prematurely, and studied it. “Only one week until Harvest.”
“Come on…” Nora said to herself, ignoring him; her quivering redoubled. “Why won’t it stop?”
He squeezed the fruit, letting the black juice drain from his clenched fist. “Look, Nora, you’re more of a dreamer than a rebel,” he threw the fruit down and turned to her, “but because you’re my sister, I need to tell you.”
“What is it now?” she asked, still focused on her arm.
He looked to the walls, which were high enough to only allow a view of the sky. “We will soon see what’s beyond.”
“Lukis, not here.” She took a long breath, sighed, and gently massaged her arm one more time, then waited. The black streams gradually subsided. She paused to be sure her arm was done dripping before grabbing her satchel and walking away.
“Ha!” He ran up to her. “Why? You think the tree can hear you?”
She ignored him again.
He trotted in front of her, with his head leaning forward for her to see. “Pretty soon everyone will see the truth,” he said. “Ivan says the Breathers–”
“I don’t want to talk about him. He’s reckless.” Her eyes were locked on her arm, now red from rubbing. Another rumble of thunder tickled her feet as she neared the stairs.
“The filth, the tree, the Breathers–it’s all a conspiracy.”
“Not so loud, Lukis.”
They descended the stairs without speaking, passing a few other villagers with their satchels of filth.
“I don’t care who hears me,” Lukis whispered as they neared another villager. “We’ll be free from this dump soon. But as I was saying, Ivan has this idea–”
“I told you already; enough of him.”
“He said the tree is the real reason we sweat black,” Lukis said.
They came to the bottom of the stairs and turned left, towards their home. A man wearing a crimson colored cloak and carrying a spear in his right hand–a Kosmos official–was patrolling nearby. He was heading towards them, with his eyes scanning the street.
“The tree is the problem,” he said, glancing at the official, then raised his voice, “cut it down and we’re all free.”
Nora groaned through clenched her teeth to warn him. She resisted the impulse to smack him, not wanting to rouse a ruckus.
“The Breathers will lose their hold on us without it,” Lukis said.
The official looked at him with his long, skinny eyebrows furrowed. He held out his free hand in a signal to halt. “You, there. What did you say?”
Lukis stepped up to him, but Nora grabbed his arm.
“The Breathers…” Lukis said in a lighter tone.
“What about them?” Being taller than Lukis, the official peered down at him with a frown.
Lukis mirrored his expression, a clear challenge.
“Hm?” The official stepped closer, bringing his left hand to rest on the hilt of his sword, which was previously concealed underneath his cloak.
A flicker of lightning stretched over the sky, and the thunder cracked only a moment after.
The official looked to the sky with a slow lift of his chin. “Storm’s coming,” he said.
“Yes, sir.” Lukis said in a deep tone.
The official looked back at him and gripped harder on the sword’s hilt.
Nora tugged at Lukis’ arm. “Let’s go.”
Lukis kept staring at the official for a moment, but then he lowered his eyes with a sigh.
“I advise you to keep quiet about our lords beyond the walls,” the official said, with his hand still fixed on the sword hilt. “It would be in your best interest.”
“Come on,” Nora tugged at Lukis again; this time he followed. When they were out of the official’s earshot, she leaned over. “Fool!”
“He’s the fool, working for them.”
“You’re welcoming death, with antics like that.”
“They deserve it. They deserve what’s coming…the storm.”
Nora looked up at the clouds. “What about it?”
“No, the storm. The one that will free us.”
“Enough.” Nora shook her head and quickened her pace towards home.
The morning sun was now buried under the gray sky. The breeze had also quickened, throwing light debris and clouds of dried villager filth along the street. Rain drops began pattering on the ground.
They were only a few houses away from their home when a man ran out from behind a building and stumbled into the street. They both recognized him, but Nora was the one who cringed.
“Ivan!” Lukis said with a smile, which fell to a frown when he saw Ivan’s wide eyes. “What’s wrong?”
Ivan trotted up to them. “They’re coming,” Ivan said; his voice was hoarse from exertion.
“Who?” Lukis asked.
“But it’s not time!” Lukis said with a puzzled frown.
“No, Lukis, they found out.” he grabbed both of his shoulders, “they found out about our plan.”
Nora sprinted for their house, squinting through the rain.
“Nora!” Lukis yelled, running after her.
“You’re the death of us!” She yelled back. “Both of you!”
“You need to stay with us!” Lukis yelled, closing in on her.
“Stay away from me!” She kept running without looking back.
Lukis reached out and grabbed Nora, then threw her to the ground. “Trust us!”
“Pah!” She smacked his leg, but he didn’t flinch or budge.
“Nora, you must come with us,” Lukis said.
“You’re a fool, Lukis,” she said through her teeth.
Ivan ran up and helped Lukis pull Nora to her feet. She squirmed and kicked, but they gripped harder.
“Calm down and they won’t suspect us,” Ivan said in her ear.
She glared at Lukis. “What about Mom and Dad? Have you forgotten about them?”
“They should be safe,” he said.
“Should?” She leapt at him, but Ivan restrained her. After a few more empty swats at her brother, Ivan and Lukis forced Nora down the street and into an alley. Lukis stopped at a root cellar, which was nestled against the foundation of the building on the left. He unlatched the metal lock and opened the double wooden doors.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“No!” Nora dug her feet into the moist dirt.
“Silence,” Ivan said, “you can’t let them know where we are.”
“You’re with us now, Nora,” Lukis said.
“Guards!” She yelled, “Gua–”
Ivan clasped her mouth shut. “You’ll get us killed!”
“Nora, inside,” Lukis pointed into the cavernous cellar.
She dropped to her knees. “Leave me here,” she said.
“No,” Ivan said, “you’ll understand soon, just trust us.”
He tried lifting her up, but she writhed free of his grip and laid herself on the wet ground. Lukis helped him drag her to the cellar entrance before hopping down into it before pulling her in with him, where she collapsed on the cold floor in a defeated heap, muddied and wet.
“You’re safe here, Nora.” Lukis said, then turned around and used his hand to feel his way along the cool, moist wall of dirt. “Ivan, where’s the lantern?” he asked without looking back. “And did you fill it with oil?”
The shelter went dark as the wooden doors slammed shut behind them.
“Ivan?” Lukis asked. “You in here?”
The metal lock rustled into place on the other side, sealing them inside.
“Sorry, brother,” Ivan said, his voice came from the other side of the doors.
“Ivan!” Lukis yelled, leaping at the doors, pounding it. “What are you doing!”
Ivan’s only response was his wet footfalls in the mud, fading from earshot.
“Nice friend, that Ivan,” Nora said, still laying on the ground.
Lukis pounded again, harder and louder. He went to hit it again, but stopped and exhaled. “I don’t understand.”
A thunder clap rumbled the wooden doors, and a wave of raindrops quickened their and intensity on the outside.
“Ivan!” Lukis resumed pounding.
“Lukis, no!” Nora said. “You’ll attract attention.”
“Oh, so now you’re concerned about that?” He pounded harder.
He lifted his fist to pound again but stopped when he heard numerous footsteps outside the door. Lukis stepped back, grabbing Nora’s arm, who then grabbed his. The metal lock rustled, and the door swung open.
Three Breathers stood in the alley, towering above them in black cloaks. Their pale, wrinkled faces peered out from their hoods with the semblance of eels.
The one in the middle, presumably the leader, flicked its right hand, long and gnarled, as a signal to the other two. Without hesitation, they leapt into the cellar, grabbed Nora and Lukis and heaved them onto their shoulders. They kicked and pounded, but the fiends held them tight.
The captors stepped out of the cellar and strode into the downpour outside. They followed the leader into the street and towards the stairway that climbed to the black tree.
A moan rose over the sound of the rain and wind, then slowly drowned them with its demanding pitches. The ground quaked. As if the storm had a breaking heart, the reverberating moans fluctuated with sobs of passion–or anger.
“What is it?” The Breather carrying Nora asked in a hoarse hiss.
“The tree,” the leader said, turning to its comrade. “It demands their sacrifice.” It looked at Nora, then smiled. “Their lives.”
(Continued in part 2)