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Blue light ripples and crackles as the shield walls fracture. The remnants of a doomed civilization stand vigil outside, intent on plunder and slaves, desirous of untainted blood to strengthen their broken lives. With the poisons, came deformities and powers, enhanced senses and the ability to manipulate waves of energy—lightbenders and fire-wielders.
For those who thrived for generations within the walls, the broken world looms, strange and deadly, slowly dying. While the righteous pray for salvation, Rimma prepares for battle, fueled by rage and blinded by vengeance. Her twin, Angel, bound to her by unbreakable magic, seeks light in the darkness, hope in the future, and love in a broken world.
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The Bone Wall
My sister stands by the window in moonlight, the only light in the ancient relic of a lost age. Carved of alabaster, she is a statue whittled by a master’s artful hand, naked skin pale, shadowed, wraithlike in its translucence. Her hair gathers moonbeams, cornsilk draped over shoulder-bones, free of the blood staining her face and hands. Gray eyes honed with steel study a landscape of gnarled trees, skeletal limbs clawing with broken fingers from a dead land. All around her the world dies. She is blind to the fragile greenness of new leaves.
Her clothes lie in a heap on the floor, the reek of battle, sweat, and blood thick in the folds, threads of terror woven into the very fabric. She will dream in blood, wear those clothes without respite, glory in the gore of shredded flesh. My sister is demon-born, exquisite in her purity, and death’s devil has his grips on her.
I am her twin, one and the same, and thus unfolds her story.
My tale begins in Heaven…
God’s House of Law towers above the other dwellings in Heaven. Not towers, perhaps, but the highest, with fat round pillars in front and a flat roof ideal for dawdling when a woman’s chores beckon. To reach my perch I scale a rusted, rickety ladder that will one day tear from the mortar creasing the granite walls and fall in a perfect arc, slamming me flat to the garden. The ladder will pin my squashed body to the soil amongst the squashes for all to shake their heads and tsk. I shall make a fine lesson for the impressionable, a vivid illustration of the consequence of sloth.
My father forbids my escape up to the roof, but I am a shirker, a “flagrant shirker” more recently, flawed in the eyes of the pious. At sixteen, I’m three years beyond the monumental marker of womanhood, sticky blood unexpectedly smearing my thighs. That official event earned me the privilege of wearing a plain brown bonnet over my pale hair and a permanently affixed apron, my sleeves hiding my elbows, and ragwear skirt concealing my ankles. I’ve donned this fashionable wardrobe but apparently disregarded the constraints accompanying it. I hold the hem of my skirt in my teeth to climb the ladder, my knees shamelessly exposed to the ivy-bound walls.
From this height, I see far beyond our cluster of stacked habitats to lush fields of jade and honey. Beans, vegetables, and wheat, mature fruit and timber trees stretch in tidy rows all the way to the edge of Heaven and the invisible border of my existence. Within the shield, we live in perpetual abundance, God’s grace bestowed on his descendants, the Saved, we chosen to survive the breaking of the world.
Beyond the shield, the barren landscape idles through time, a dust-brown wasteland of dry wind and scurrying tumbleweed. “God will plant a faultless Garden,” optimists among us preach, and none can truly argue the assertion. We all witness spreading tufts of grayish grass, stalky yellow flowers, and pale withered leaves on reedy trees. On occasion, I spy a lone, mangy beast hunting rodents, and on dark nights monstrous swarms of black insects glitter like crackling blue stars as they incinerate themselves on the shield. It’s ghastly bleak in the world outside when compared to Heaven, and despite my exasperation with order, I’d rather be stuck on this side of the wall.
A hand grips the roof’s edge and Max’s head appears above the creepers, tawny curls framing a tanned face, eyes the polished brown of chestnuts. Hatless, naturally, another rule-breaker who will undoubtedly drag me straight into the Devil’s Hell. A year older than I, he’s a grown man with a man’s height, breadth, and lust, full bent on courting me. That means stolen kisses and a stray touch now and again that sets my body burning with sin.
“We’re not permitted to consort unattended,” I tease him, pleased at his presence nonetheless. My legs stretch before me, ankles peeking shamelessly from beneath my hem. I’m sitting near the belfry on a thick pipe that pokes up through the roof and bends sideways, forming a perfectly level bench.
“Then climb down,” he mutters sourly, dismissing me as he drops to the pipe at my side, his gaze scarcely straying from the far horizon.
Well, whatever has him so cranky isn’t any fault of mine and only compels me to argue the point. “We could be cast out, Max. We might find ourselves banished, out there.”
“We wouldn’t find ourselves banished, I would,” he snipes, “and only if you’re with child, Rimma, which results from fornication, which we haven’t applied for, let alone discussed.”
“We can’t very well apply until we marry, and even then fornication is strictly for procreation. You are obsessed with carnality, Max.” The haughtiness in my voice irritates even me and I twist up my face. “Gah! The deacon’s sermons spitting from my lips. I sound like a stiff old woman. Apologies.”
“Accepted.” He finally looks at me, a weak smile tugging up one side of his mouth.
“If you need to relieve yourself, see to your bedmates,” I suggest, my feeble attempt at helpfulness. “That’s how God wills us to ease our desire.”
At that, Max grabs my thigh hard, his fingers digging into my flesh as he leers. “That’s not what I desire.” His hand spiders up my thigh, sending a shiver through my body as I squeak in protest. “So they banish me,” he says with a resigned smile.
My hand clutches his, halting the upward creep, and I kiss him, my lips daringly parted. “I love you, Max.” The words tumble out of me, grown up words I’ve overheard my parents say with a longing I never fully understood. “But we mustn’t risk it, ever. Heaven has laws for a reason. God created our Garden to save two thousand descendants, not a soul more.”
God’s Law is indisputably clear. The elders grant permission for fornication and procreation only after a death or banishment. Survival of Heaven and every man, woman and child depends on each descendant’s faith in God and rejection of reckless lust. That’s why the modest dress, separate quarters for men and women even when wed, gratification encouraged among bedmates, banishments.
“Shits,” he swears, the profanity unlike him, his hand relinquishing my thigh. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll be out there soon enough…or our children will be.”
“Don’t say that.” I slap his arm, refusing to indulge those fears. “Those are hurtful rumors. Heaven isn’t failing. We’re God’s descendants, chosen by Him to survive above all others.”
“Open your eyes, Rimma,” he barks, sweeping his arm across my view of the Garden. “You’re not blind. You’re not a child.”
“No, I’m not.” My arms crossed, I look away, refusing him a glimpse of my tears. “Why are you so surly? You’re simply trying to frighten me.”
“You should be frightened,” he says more softly. A finger to my chin, he draws my face around to gaze at him. His eyes are hard-edged, but something deeper bleeds through his dark irises. He’s scared, terrified, and wants my companionship in his fear. I won’t accompany him there. I refuse. Swept with fury, I want to scramble down the ladder and retreat to the kitchens, to the comforting routine of cooking and mending, the womanly duties of generations of descendants, tasks of my ancestors that will plod on forever inside God’s Garden, encapsulated inside the shield wall.
“Paradise has fallen,” he whispers, blinking at me. He presses his lips between his teeth as we stare at each other. My anger shrivels in the heat of his stare, my throat as parched as the land beyond the wall, my body a lifeless stone as his words filter through my head. “They’re outside the shield wall to the east,” he explains. ”Out there. They want to come in.”
“We can’t let them in,” I murmur.
“Then they’re all going to starve…if the Biters don’t kill them first.”
My hands trembling, I leave Max brooding on the roof and scurry down the ladder. When my toes touch grass, I blow out a shuddering breath and hurry around the hub, fingers scraping over its rough curved wall until I reach the gaping doorway where they brush only cool air.
Heaven forms a perfect circle, God’s hub squatting at its heart, a thick-slabbed, windowless structure with a domed roof, ringed by a spacious courtyard of granite paving stones. Two wide doors once sealed the threshold to the round building, metal panels rusted shut until the deacon’s determined that God wished them open. Perhaps centuries ago, the deacons possessed a key, but no longer. They ordered the doors pounded into ruins with sledges until the frame warped and hinges bent. What they discovered inside was God’s creation, a cavernous weave of pipes and thick wires, black glass walls and steel containers, blinking and streaming lights in brilliant colors, the drone of God’s voice speaking in ancient words of creation none of us understood. I’d seen it, prayed within the mysterious array of swirling energy, God’s voice humming through me.
My eyes peer into darkness, enthralled by the dance of lights, a fresh prayer forming on my lips. But the holy words clog in my throat despite how I yearn to speak them, the urge intense, cataclysmic. I crave God’s presence then and there, a small part of me terrified that He’ll reject my call, forsake me for my willful, sinful ways, for my foolish disregard, my ridicule.
At the other side of the hub, I dart through a grid of whitewashed buildings carpeted in ivy: the mills and cannery, our small library and huge dinner-hall. All chores forgotten, small groups gather in the stone courtyard and hurry between buildings. My mother leans on the jamb at the kitchen door, blue eyes worriedly scanning the road, her long pearl-white plait unpinned and escaping her bonnet in a silken rope. She fails to spot me in the commotion as I veer behind the mill and skirt around back to avoid her. The East Spoke stretches before me as my feet fly into a run, my mind fixed on my duty. I shall pray for the descendants of Paradise, fall to my knees at the wall and beg God for their salvation.
Each of the four spokes extends from the heart of Heaven to a steel portal in the shield. Descendants crowd the pathway, most marching the mile at a harried pace. Max’s words resonate in my head, not taunts to torment me but the truth, increasing my terror the closer I come to the wall. Midway there my pace slows, my side stitched by a cramp.
To my right our wheat fields flourish, straight and tall, their golden tips flopping heavy with seed. On my left vegetables burst in green bouquets, the first row in the midst of harvest, half-filled baskets abandoned by the roadside. When I gaze up, I behold the faint daylight sheen of God’s shield, the one protecting Heaven from the broken world, beyond it the stark blaze of a white sun. Would God leave us? Could Heaven fall?
Abruptly the fields erupt in showers of misting, arcing, swirling water, the sight beautiful, a beacon of His steadfast love. Rainbows bend in prisms of light and water, the display dazzling my eyes. For that moment of glory, I stop to admire God’s work, grateful for His blessings. I accept it as a sign, a sure indication that God hasn’t forgotten me.
A hard grip on my shoulder spins me. “What are you doing here?” A worried frown carves my father’s face, his steely eyes grinding into me, honed with frightening intensity. Ordinarily a kind and gentle man of devout faith, he holds my shoulder in a vise. I start wilting, bending beneath the pressure.
“Paradise…” I reply with a small gasp, a wince twisting my face. “I wish to pray for them.”
My father’s hand slides down my arm as he releases me. He drops his head back, inhaling with eyes closed, and when his gaze returns, his face has softened, gray eyes welling with sorrow. “Come with me back to the Garden’s heart, Rimma; you needn’t see this. Your prayers are as welcome in God’s ears there as here.”
“But they may find comfort in witnessing our prayers for them.”
“They will curse both God and Heaven,” he murmurs. “They will believe our prayers a mockery and plead for our fall.”
“Papa, no.” His words border on blasphemous, curdling my stomach. “They will see the truth of our hearts, won’t they? God will save them.” I’m struggling to breathe, drowning with uncertainty, my father’s cynicism crumbing the footings of my faith, a blind childish faith, Max’s words tolling in my head.
“I’ll not ask you again.” The edge in my father’s voice stiffens my back, his tone recalling scores of scoldings I’d received as a child, a child now grown.
“I’m a woman now,” I remind him, my eyes matching his severity, fingernails digging into my fists to steady me.
“Until you are wed, I am your father and you’ll obey me.” Had I been any younger he might have slapped me for my defiance, but I am right in this and he knows it. His jaw moves, but nothing he says can convince me. Then he whispers a word that breaks my heart, “Please.”
Almost, I almost turn around and trudge with him back to the kitchens, to my chores, to my child’s life, but I resist his call to comfort. Max called me a blind child, a taunt that stung my pride. I’m sixteen, old enough to court and marry and fornicate, and I won’t sidestep my duty as a descendant. “You can’t protect me forever, Papa. I will pray for Paradise at the wall.” I hug him soundly. “Only for an hour, and then I’ll come home.”
What truly can he say in reply? He nods and turns toward Heaven’s heart, hands in his pockets, head down in thought. I watch him go, simmering in my stew of emotions, a cauldron of worry, regret, pride, compassion, and terrible fear. A part of me wishes to skip after him and clutch his hand, smile up at him and cheer him, but I’ve made my supper, so to speak, and can’t walk away. I head for the wall.
Ahead of me, our timberland stabs at the sky, a forest of two hundred straight pines of orderly heights and thicknesses lined up like picture-book soldiers off to ancient wars. The only plants we don’t eat, the pines grow immensely tall, giants even to God’s House of Law. Since a little girl, I imagined the older part of the forest possessed an altered power, not as grand as God’s, surely, but a natural wisdom bordering on sentience, traveling back to a time before the breaking of the world. The forest of Heaven was my playground once, different than the rest of the Garden, a place to hide and climb branches and wonder over the world beyond the earthen hill that rings the outside of the shield wall.
Today I’ve no time to linger among the trees. I follow the path with Heaven’s other descendants, treading lightly over copper needles, silent in the cathedral of pines. Our final quiet procession through the trees feels fitting; for when branches thin and the last row of pines falls away, the wall rises in a sheer, shimmering skin of pearly light. This close, the shield emits a soft hum, a pulsing heartbeat, the terrifying power of God at my fingertips. A metal fence separates us from the wall, not so high that we can’t climb over it, but not one of us would dare such a feat of foolishness. To touch God’s shield is death, a taste of immeasurable might, of crackling blue light that burns birds and insects to flecks of ash.
Outside the shield, the earth rises twenty feet into a second wall that girds the entire Garden of Heaven and blocks our view of what lies beyond. As a child, I clambered up the pines to catch a glimpse of the broken world, but for those less agile and more civilized than I, there’s a metal viewing platform at the end of each spoke, a tower of sorts with zigzagging stairs. There our deacons crowd the narrow stand and stairs between the rails with the eldest of our elders, all jostling one another to avoid accidentally plummeting to the ground below.
The viewing platform isn’t necessary today. I see the descendants of Paradise from the very earth where my feet grow taproots affixing me to the ground. I’m certain they want to be seen, all of them, by all of us. They stand at the top of the earthen wall, twenty feet up in a line a quarter mile long, two thousands of them, weak, filthy, and hungry after the long trek from Paradise. Dust blows across their bodies and wind-tangled hair; gritty hands rubbing gritty eyes, horrified eyes streaked with grimy tears. Men, woman, and children cling together, infants and toddlers beside the old and feeble. In voices so near, unhindered by the wall’s presence, they beg. They plead for their children’s lives, mothers imploring us, at the very least, to save their babies. Sobs rise and fall, a keening wail, desperate lives terror-wracked, legs giving way to weakness and despair. As strident as the curses, prayers soar in God’s holy name. Some bow on their knees, praying for themselves, none praying for us. The loudest voices screech from faces contorted by hate, calling us devils in disguise, cursing us to the pits of Hell and laughing with bitter malice at the certainty that Heaven too will fall. Just as my father said they would.