Chloe woke to waves slapping against her legs. Although a gentle breeze swept over her, the air was cold and stirred the nerves swelling in her stomach. Ignoring the goose bumps that prickled her arms, Chloe pushed herself to her feet and shook the clumps of sand from her many-layered skirts. The night sky was pitch black, save for two stars twinkling directly overhead and the moon, which cast an eerie glow over the white sand. Behind her, the beach yielded to soil. Beyond that emerged these massive things (trees, this memory called them). Huddling close together, the moonlight penetrated a few feet before being consumed by the darkness.
Something in the darkness compelled her forward, guiding her into the forest (another strange word that floated at the forefront of her mind). Soft moonlight tumbled through the overhead canopy, lighting a way her legs already knew. Suddenly, her eye caught a piece of light, shining from off the main path.
Without hesitation, she trudged through the mesh of green and reached a large sheet of metal covered in vines. Pulling them away, she revealed a sort of emblem. Her fingers grazed the peeling red paint, which twisted her stomach into knots. Her hand flew to her neck where a hot pain flared.
A loud snap interrupted her thoughts. Her eyes darted all around her but found nothing. Chloe felt herself shake, the unease building in her throat. She blamed it on the tricks of an excited mind and returned her attention to the emblem. A spaceship dominated most of the panel with a banner str…
There it was again! This time her mind could not have fabricated the rustle of crunching leaves. Abandoning the panel, she took off as fast as her legs would carry her, deep into the woods. Her strides slowed until she stopped beside one of the larger trees, exhaustion taking its deathly hold. Chloe’s hand clutched her chest where her heart pounded relentlessly against her feeble ribs. This body couldn’t endure much more. Suddenly her mind flashed to them. No one stood a chance against the aliens’ creativity. Even the pathetic pawn chasing her down had her running in circles like an insect caught dangling hopelessly in a spider’s web.
Cold fingers closed over Chloe’s mouth while another arm tightened around her waist, silencing her screams as she was pulled into the hallow covered by a mesh of the tree’s roots. Chloe tried to struggle but found her arms painfully pinned to her sides and her legs trapped under the figure’s weight. Tears spilled from her cheeks as her screams caught in the knot tightening in her throat.
Hush now, Alara. It’s me. I’ve got you. The man’s harsh voice appeared in her mind while his grip remained strong and unrelenting. Chloe felt her body relax and the worries in her mind slowly melted away. His grip loosened enough for her to turn around where she met the roundest hazel eyes she’d ever seen. Dark markings framed his eyes and swept up the sides of his face until they disappeared into his messy dark brown hair.
His smile was short lived but comforting to Chloe’s nerves. His head tilted slightly to the left before wrapping the two of them in his black cloak. They both laid there for several moments until finally the assassin’s boots cast a shadow over her rescuer’s face. Soft growls and loud sniffing filled the air. The knot in her throat moved to her stomach and tripled in size. Her breathing grew shallow as a cold sweat broke over her face. Even when the man squeezed her gently, Chloe’s nerves took a dive when she felt him reach for a dagger at his side.
Static broke the silence and a muffled voice called to the creature in some foreign tongue. The creature spoke back in the same twisted language and snarled at his defeat, turning and darting out of sight.
“Thank you Telloc,” Chloe whispered. “I…”
“Not now, Alara. I’ll yell at you when we get back to the base.” He shifted so he could get a better view out. “We’ll wait another hour and then take our chances.”
The wind picked up again, carrying echoes of horrified screams. Chloe’s muscles tensed as she shrunk against Telloc’s body.
“Better make that two.”
Chloe screamed and launched herself off her cot, landing on the straw mat with a hard thud. Her shoulder groaned in protest while the throbbing between her eyes flared. She swore under her breath, pushing herself up and limping to the washbowl. As she washed away the cold sweat from her face and neck, tired emerald eyes stared back at her that were framed by the beginnings of wrinkles.
Patting her face dry, she grabbed the notebook and pen that had fallen to the floor and turned to a blank page, sketching what she could remember of that metal panel. She swore she’d seen that emblem before, but where? And what did that banner say?
“Chloe! Wake up, we’re already late for the evening ritual. Mom is going to flip.”
She tossed her notebook on the bed, grabbing her cloak nestled in a heap on the floor. As Chloe pulled the door shut behind her, she smiled sheepishly at Oliver, who was pacing back and forth at the end of the hallway. Shaggy black hair fell into his eyes at every turn, which he pushed back into its neat part. He held his cloak close to his chest while his fingers opened and closed the clasps. Chloe laughed as Oliver jumped when she clapped a hand on his shoulder.
Oliver scoffed and crossed his arms. “One day you’re going to oversleep and I won’t be there to wake your sorry ass up. Hurry up, won’t you? With any luck, we’ll get there before roll call.”
Chloe shrugged on her cloak, fastening it around her neck and pulling her long hair into a high ponytail. “You worry too much, you know that?”
Oliver scowled, pulling on his matching black cloak. His face paled under the flickering torch lights. “And you don’t worry enough.”
As they half ran through the tunnels, Oliver’s gaze scanned for any possible signs of the foreman and his lackeys. But as Chloe knew, everywhere was deserted.
“Hey, will you let up? Oliver, we’re fine.” As they neared the dining hall, they slowed to catch their breath. The tunnel opened up into a giant cavern filled with long, stone tables in neat rows from one end to the other. At every table, whole families gathered and leaned their heads forward in prayer.
“Told you that you worry too much. Last one there is a rotten potato.” Chloe threw her arms around Oliver and tousled his hair. She smiled as he scowled and smoothed it back into place. Chloe sat at one of the smaller tables where her parents bowed their heads in prayer. Oliver slid in next to her and immediately lowered his head. Once prayers finished, the mayor and his family led a short service. It was his usual proclamations of “be good or face torture forever,” so naturally, Chloe hardly paid attention. Her mind wandered back to that strange place, that “forest,” if she remembered correctly, and that metal panel with the emblem on it. It had to have been important to somebody for them to kill over. After supper the mayor stood once more and silence fell over three hundred onlookers.
“My people,” the mayor began with a booming voice that echoed off the cavern walls. “It is time again for the lottery.”
Cheers erupted from the crowd, drowning out the rest of the mayor’s speech. He stopped and with a small, patient look, he nodded towards one of his guards. Without changing his blank expression, the guard grabbed the mallet that hung from his belt and swung it at the metal gong three times until the crowd settled.
“Our experts inform me that the outside is still unsafe, but I am happy to inform you that the construction of a grand ship to carry us to another world is proceeding ahead of schedule. It won’t be long before we cast off the shackles of these dingy caves and realize our true destiny. Without further ado, let us draw another name. This individual will have the privilege of being amongst the few to realize a new home, a better home.”
The mayor was an ape of a man except for his freakishly small head and beady black eyes. Darting out his tongue to wet his lips, he made a grand gesture to his two wives standing behind him. Beside them was a spherical metal cage with hundreds of small white balls. The second wife, Tamara, smiled wide as she turned the cage three times. A white ball emerged and rolled into a collection bin. Wife number one cradled it in her hands.
“E-0-8-1-6-5-0. You have won the lottery.” There was something about those wives’ voices that made Chloe’s skin crawl.
At the other end of the cavern, a small boy squealed and started jumping up and down. A woman, presumably the boy’s mother, looked relieved as she picked him up and together they received a red envelope from one of the wives.
Chloe was one of a few who did not cheer. Unlike the others who did so out of jealousy, Chloe could not name the reason, but felt something was completely wrong. Her stomach twisted itself into a knot. “A child’s never won before.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Oliver raised an eyebrow towards his sister.
Noticing Oliver’s brow furrow, Chloe nodded and smiled weakly. “Yes, yes of course. I’m happy he won.”