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Branded

 

Kasey Roper

© 2016 Kasey Roper

Dedicated to

All those I’ve spoken to online, who have become my makeshift writing community. To the fan fiction writers, and fan art creators, who have been both a motivation as well as an inspiration, for me to continue trying to be as good as they are.

As well, to those who consume both fan fiction and fan art, for making me strive to be someone you all will hopefully one day enjoy hearing from. The imaginations you all have, that allows you to think outside the box, has always been something I admire. I hope I can live up to those standards.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE 6

CHAPTER TWO 10

CHAPTER THREE 14

CHAPTER ONE

Beading down her neck, into her shirt, and pooling at her waistline, Ayana’s sweat seems to be a nonstop river as she drags her feet beneath her. Kicking up dirt every step of the way, her refusal to let the heat win, is as present as ever. It’s at least one hundred and two today, which is honestly four degrees less than average, but nonetheless, there’s never any getting used to such sweltering temperatures.

Pausing to take a chug of her water, Ayana glares at the three homes in the distance, all thirty yards apart. This is the same trek she makes every Wednesday afternoon falling into the evening, yet it never gets any easier.

Three apple pies for Mr. Cradle, nine potato pounds for Mrs. Hyder, and twelve bouquets of half-dead roses for Jeb Nash. For what? Ayana doesn’t know, but she’s pretty sure he uses them to make the putrid tea that he started selling last year, down at the center workshops every Friday.

Screwing the cap back on her jug, she lets the near empty container thwack against her leg as she continues on her way. Moving through the throngs of other people that are also out for the day, Ayana stands tall as she walks. She isn’t short by many means, but she’s still a great deal smaller than some of the people who do her line of work. If she doesn’t glide through the playing kids, bargaining shopkeepers, and other wagon draggers, scavengers would have her bulk in their hands before she could blink. And it costs more than she makes in two weeks, to replace even a half bulk of merchandise, so despite having been at it for almost half her life, Ayana knows how to play her part.

She wears boots heavy enough to break a kneecap, keeps her hair tied back and tight, has her dark goggles firmly in place over her eyes, and wears a scarf wrapped around her face remain concealed, as well as safe from sandstorms. She also has blades hidden in both the left leg of her pants, and up her right sleeve. After her first few drags, she learned very quickly that weapons deter most attackers. No matter what’s on her wagon, it’s an unspoken fact that not many people outside the Gates are keen on dying.

Glancing at the walls surrounding the outskirts of town, Ayana wonders what would happen if she were to keep walking. Every day she considers it, but never follows through, despite neither she nor anyone else being trapped inside.

In fact, directly ahead, beyond another stretch of houses, is nothing but open space. Or well, dry heat, pine trees, and wildlife, but still, open for the walking. Everyone is free to leave if they so choose, but no one wants to take the chance. Few have, of course, but they never returned, which was to be expected. Although some do, it’s said to be hell trying to make a living by yourself out in the Vastlands. Not when all the money – all the real money – is inside the Gates.

As draggers, Ayana and her mother make a decent joint living wage. They buy and sell unclaimed orders from merchants and workshops every now and again, but their highest revenue comes from delivering things to those who either aren’t capable or aren’t willing, to pick it up themselves. She takes the south, heading toward the Vastlands, while her mother goes north.

Toward the Gates.

The Gates are large ostentatious stone doors, set as a bookend to their land. Ayana has never seen what’s beyond them, as they’ve only ever opened once, as far as she knows. In the upcoming month or so, it will have been one hundred years exactly, when they opened to release the wave of people who built the very shops and houses that she and everyone else currently reside in. Now, people come and go through a smaller set of doors carved into them, but not nearly large enough for anyone to get a good look inside, before they’re slamming closed again.

So like everyone else, all Ayana knows of the Gates, is that the people who live on the other side, are different. Rumor has it that they aren’t human. Some may be, but it’s been said that even those humans are over sixty years old, and living longer than six decades is unheard of. Especially in their heat and on their meals, so Ayana’s not sure how they make it, but she’s sure that whatever it is they take, it’s not natural.

It’s not of their world, and it gives them abilities to live longer than they should, and the power to control things they shouldn’t. She’s not seen it first hand, but once, a man claimed he was stood near the doors and witnessed someone on the other side rip the life out of someone without so much as a single touch. Whether his story was true or not, Ayana knew she didn’t want to find out. So as long as she is alive, she knows she’ll never have to.

Finally arriving at her third to last stop, Ayana drops the straps to her wagon. She moves around to the side and unlocks the cage, keeping her key tucked on a chain around her neck. The pies are a bit smashed and broken, as they often are after transport, but Mr. Cradle accepts them anyway. He’s got a thing for apples, he told her once. Said they reminded him of his late wife.

Making sure her harness hasn’t fully rusted through yet, with a quick pull, Ayana locks her cage door back, and walks up the four crumbling steps to his withering wooden one in front of her.

She knocks twice, as usual. Then, within three seconds, as usual, the door swings open.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Cradle!” she greets, never allowing the weather to sour her business.

“How’ya, Aynie,” the old man replies. He’s been alive for almost his full sixty, and has trouble speaking clearly, but Ayana always knows what he’s saying. “Three slice, for nine dolls.”

“That’s right, same as.”

Handing her his jar of coins, Ayana eyes it for all of five seconds, before recognizing the correct amount of change, and presents him with his pies. It’s been the same since she first came to his house, and after twelve years of back and forth, she knows the exact weight and rattle of his total.

“Thanks, have a good night!” she salutes, before turning back to her wagon.

“Same as,” Mr. Cradle mumbles, closing his door behind her.

One down, three to go, she thinks, shouldering her straps again.

Making it barely a foot away, a searing pain shoots up Ayana’s left hand.

Choking on a scream, she buckles to the ground, almost tipping her wagon as she went. The pain cuts through her body as if someone’s taken a red hot knife to her muscles, before it blossoms and trickles through her every nerve.

Scrambling for her jug, Ayana slides her blade out of her sleeve and stabs a hole into the side of it. Quickly, she pours the remaining lukewarm water over the height of the burn, trying to soothe the pain.

To her delight, it works, but only for a breath of a moment.

Bubbling up, Ayana’s skin turns an ugly red, as a symbol starts to form.

“No!” she screams, with the agonizing realization of what was happening to her. “I’m not dead! No, please!”

Hearing her hollers of desperation, passer-byers began to gather. Most watching her, while the less moral, eye her wagon.

“Leave me alone!” she shoos at them, trying to stand. “I’m not dead!”

Another scream rips from Ayana’s throat then, sending her back to the ground.

This time, the feeling of flames travel upward. Burning a brand into her skin, all the way up to her collarbone.

Face first in the dirt, goggles and scarf askew, she breathes in wisps of sand and grime as she clutches at her arm.

“This isn’t fair,” Ayana cries. “I’m not dead.”

It’s never been clear what the final form of one’s symbols will be until the branding is over, but right away, she knows hers is something different. The pain isn’t supposed to last for so long, nor are the brands meant to raise so high up on the body.

The most telling of all, though, was that no one has ever been branded before death.

For as long as the Chosen have been selected, each person only gets a brand if they’ve died. By ways of murder, to be exact, yet even then, the people beyond the Gates tended to only choose those with connections to their side. Ayana has no family besides her mother, and she knows that neither of them have the requirements of whatever is needed to become a Chosen.

As well, the last one was picked only two weeks ago. He was younger than normal, but had been killed mid hunt. His friends said it by ways of a wild bull, but everyone knew it had to have been one of them, although none were found guilty. By nightfall, Guards from the Gates had come and taken him away after he reawakened, and that was meant to be the end of it for the next two decades. His brand number said as much.

Hearing the whispers grow louder around her, Ayana pulls away from her thoughts, knowing that it’s time for her to leave. She sucks in as deep of a breath as she could possibly muster, and makes another attempt to stand. It takes a moments, but once she has her balance back, she turns toward the crowd of onlookers.

“What!?” she barks, spitting out the grit that was lodged under her tongue. “It’s not like you’ve never seen’um before!”

Yanking at her wagon, she wheels her bulk around, and heads for home. It doesn’t matter that she has two stops left, nor that said flowers and potatoes were slinging around into a pile of a mess behind her, that she’ll have to clean up later. All she wants is to be away from an audience.

Stumbling back as she moves, other merchants and buyers part a path, as if touching her would force a brand on their own hands. Ayana knows it’s a childish fear, as brandings aren’t contagious, but she hardly blames them for being afraid.

It’d be hypocritical of her, in fact.

Never had there been two brandings in the same month, let alone year. The closest, according to her mother, were five years apart, and only because the first Chosen was too hotheaded for their own good.

This now, however, is something different.

Something wrong.

CHAPTER TWO

Dragging her wagon up the back of their house, Ayana slips the strap from her right shoulder, and detaches her harness. The walk home took longer than it should have, but with only half of her strength beneath her, she’s happy to have made it at all. The frigid air having done nothing but make it harder to breathe.

Every night in Corads, the temperature drops. No one knows why, but it only ever happens once the night sky falls black, and by that time, no one dares to be caught outside. Only a handful of people ever attempted to withstand the wrath of cold, and only two of them survived. It’s said that the longer they tempted fate, the colder it became, resulting in the survivors having to forfeit some of their extremities.

Either way, Ayana made sure to put one foot in front of the other, nonstop, as to not become a myth herself.

Glowing through the kitchen window, their dining light shines, and Ayana can see her mother sitting at their table. Begrudgingly, she’s eating what looks to be yet another plate of cornbread and manwich. It’s Corads’ staple meal, for some odd reason, as most people who pass through from the Vastlands, requests it. Personally, Ayana felt she could do with a change.

Pushing into the house, Tiffani looks up from her food.

“It’s about time you –”, she pauses, taking in the state of her daughter. Shoving away from the table, she ushers Ayana into a chair. “What happened? Were you attacked?”

“No,” Ayana denies, as her mom takes a kitchen knife to her sleeve, slicing at the shoulder’s hem.

With a significant hole made, Tiffani rips the shirt the rest of the way, opening it up to look at the mark. Ayana can hardly see the higher ends of the brand herself, but she can follow it down from her bicep.

It’s an ugly scar. Swollen, raised, and red all over, weaving its way from the top of her collarbone, around the entire width of her arm. It stops at the back of her hand, in the style of an X, and the tails of the letter fall just inside the creases of her fingers.

“Is this what I think it is?” Tiffani asks. “Were you… did you die?”

“No ma’am,” Ayana denies quickly, squashing the budding sorrow in her mother’s voice. “It just appeared. I don’t know what happened, but I know I didn’t die. I swear.”

Squatting down beside her, her mom continues to gently twist and turn her arm, trying to gauge what the brand could be.

“How is this possible?” she whispers to herself, then addresses Ayana again. “Did you take something?” she asks. “Could it be something you ate? Or touched?”

“I don’t think so?” Ayana shrugs, then winces at the small bite of pain that shoots through her shoulder.

Thinking back to her day, she only recalled eating the fruit mix her mom makes every morning, along with her gallon of water. It was how they remain hydrated throughout the day, and that particular part of their routine never changed.

“I did the same thing we do every day,” she tells Tiffani, certain of her answer.

“Are you sure? Maybe someone touched you with something?”

“If they did, I mustn’t have felt it,” Ayana says, although she is sure she would have noticed if someone did something to her. She takes care to stay as alert as possible while on the job, and as far as she could remember, no one came close enough to poison her.

Nodding, Tiffani stands up. Her hands move to her hips and the crease between her brows deepen, as she begins to pace, thinking hard on a reason behind the branding. Knowing her mother’s brain is working in overdrive, Ayana takes a moment to herself to think as well, while she prepares a plate.

With only one functional hand, she piles on one… two… three spoonful’s of manwich, and cuts two slices of dry cornbread from the loaf. Eating the kernels that fall from the bread in the process, with a cup of cherry cider from the cooler to wash it all down.

Slumping back into her chair, she wonders if her branding means the new Chosen is dead. If so, why would they pick her? She has no connection to the people beyond the Gates, and her brand is nothing like what they’ve been described as throughout history.

A sole digit, if the Chosen is meant to serve an amount of decades, while for centuries, the digit is encased in a circle. When half the sentence is fulfilled, the circle disappears. Her brand is not one of those two.

What could a spiral mean? Why does it travel the length of her arm, and why was there an X?

“Maybe you’ve been branded for a different reason?” Tiffani finally says, sitting back down in her chair. “Maybe you aren’t a Chosen?”

“But what else is there, mom?” Ayana asks. “You’ve been alive for almost fifty. Have you ever heard of a Chosen not being a Chosen?”

Shaking her head, Tiffani declines. “I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a possibility.”

Opening her mouth to express her doubt, Ayana is cut off by a loud bang coming from their front door.

Leaping to her feet, Tiffani swings around just in time to see it being kicked open.

“Are you Tiffani and Ayana Lorie?” a man asks. Stepping inside, he could easily be compared to that of a bear, standing nearly as tall as their doorway, but dressed in nothing but a loose shirt and denim. If it weren’t for his size, Ayana was sure he’d succumb to the cold weather, same as everyone else.

“Who are you,” her mom asks, ignoring his question. “Why are you here?”

Glancing at Ayana’s arm, the man holds out a piece of paper. It’s clean and white, unlike the clay colored sheets they use, and folded into a crisp half.

“I’m here on orders from the Gates.”

Accepting the paper, Tiffani flips it open.

Aloud, she reads,

“On behalf of the Four, we sincerely apologize for the death that has happened within your family. However, it has come to our knowledge that the deceased has been branded, and therefore must accompany our attendant inside the Gates, in order to receive further instruction.

If anyone attempts to prevent this action, you will be banished from Corads, effective immediately. Please do not interfere, as we would hate to lose you as a citizen.

-I.”

Snatching the paper from her mom, Ayana reads it again. The tone in which this person writes, is clear. They don’t care about what actually happened. If they did, they would know Ayana hasn’t reawakened. They would know her brand is different, and that she doesn’t belong with them.

“What if I decline?” she asks the man. “Will they banish me for interfering with my own summons?”

Without so much as a blink, the man barely steps forward has he takes Ayana into his arms.

“No!” she screams. “Put me down!”

Acting on instinct, Tiffani grabs the knife she had earlier, and plunges it into the lower back of the man’s waist.

“Let her go!” she demands. The man stumbles, but only for a second, before carrying on.

Outside, he has a transportation device Ayana has never seen before. It’s on wheels much bigger than those of her wagon, and has multiple doors.

Popping one of them open, he tosses her inside, then slams it behind her. There isn’t much space for her to move, and there are black panes of glass in front and back of her, with only slightly tinted ones on the sides.

She can see her mother through the tinted one in front of her, crying and slapping at the man as he grabs her up as well.

Pushing and pulling at the handles and buttons on the inside of the door, Ayana tries to let herself out, but they don’t work.

“Stop! Let her go!” she yells, but isn’t sure if they can hear her. Crawling to the other side of the space, she smacks at the glass that is facing the houses across from theirs.

“Help me! Somebody! Please help me!” Her shoulder is protesting at the repetitive thudding, but she doesn’t care. She knows she needs to find a way out, to stop whatever that man was doing to her mother.

Hearing a door on the device open and close, Ayana feels a shift, as if someone else is now inside with her. She can’t see who, but she assumes it’s the man who put her there.

“Can you please let me go?” she asks. “I swear I’ll leave town. You can tell whoever you work for that I was already gone when you got here. Please?”

Giving no response, the man – or whoever – starts the motor. As they move, Ayana is unexpectedly flung back into the seat, flinching at the pain in her tailbone from landing on something hard.

Resting her feet on the cushion, she hangs her head between her knees, and lets out a scream. Not one of fear, but anger.

Anger at the pain she’s in. Anger at the unknown state of which her mom was left, and anger at having been selected.

The letter specifically detailed that they were sorry for her loss, yet she isn’t dead. Therefore she does not and should not apply.

Out the window, Ayana watches as the only home she’s ever known pass her by. The Gates are an hour away from their house by foot, but she isn’t sure how long it’ll take now. The contraption they’re in is moving quickly, turning the scenery into a bit of a blur, and she wonders what it’s called. And whether or not that have more of them beyond the Gates.

Probably, she thinks to herself, because along with the new knowledge of I or the Four; whoever they were, not caring about the circumstances, she wouldn’t put it passed them to have more strange devices. Sure, no one from her side knew what to expect, but never did she imagine something like this.

CHAPTER THREE

Because the man chose to speed through town, the trip to the Gates took only half the time. It was more or less a straight shot from her house, but Ayana was still sure the travelling distance would be similar. However, when they arrive, she finds herself no longer caring about those facts.

Turning to brace against the opposite door, Ayana pulls her legs close to chest, ready to give her abductor two feet to the face as soon as he opens the door. She heard him kill the engine and climb out, but to her dismay, five seconds turn into ten. Which turn into a minute. Then slowly become thirty.

She’s not sure why she’s being made to sit and wait, but instead of remaining in her crouched position, Ayana decides to stretch out along the seat. It’s made of some type of leather, she’s sure, and each cushion is accompanied by a thin strap.

Fumbling with one of them, she reels it out until it locks, not moving any further.

Letting it go, the strap winds back up in an uneventful fashion, only for her to pull it out again to watch it do the same.

“What are you?” she wonders aloud. It’s not a rope, because it can’t be climbed. But it’s not a pulley either, because there’s no basket hook. Although, there is a small metal piece that slides up and down the length of it.

Inspecting the piece, Ayana suddenly remembers the slot of plastic in between the seats that she sat on earlier. The metal is the same width as the hole, so she reels the strap all the way out again, and slowly eases the two pieces together.

When a click resonates throughout the space, she jumps back, bumping into the glass behind her.

Looking around, she searches to see if anyone outside may have heard the noise, but there isn’t anyone near.

With a hesitant hand, Ayana reaches out to push the red button on the side of the plastic, and the strap dislodges. It reels itself back in, and that’s that.

Shaking her head, Ayana leaves the objects alone, choosing to focus back on the world around her.

It’s still dark out, but upon touching the windows, she notices that they aren’t frosted nor cold.

At home, she and her mom – along with everyone else in town – wore sweaters to bed. They had to bundle up in socks and leggings to remain warm through the night, yet now? Now there is nothing.

Not just with the weather either, but with everything surrounding the box.

Outside, the only things she could see are giant walls, but they aren’t covered in sheets of sand, dirt, and moss like normal. Instead, they’re a plain cement gray, bare of drawings as well, unlike on her side. When they’re young, most kids were allowed to paint whatever they wanted on the walls, mainly adding to the mural at the back of the town center. They got to do it for at least three summers in a row, before the privilege is passed on to the next generation, upon them becoming teenagers.

Ayana’s additions are long passed covered now, with it being fifteen years since her time, but she remembers how fun it was. How carefree she felt back then, making the bare walls that surround her now, feel more and more like a prison.

The End… For now.

 

 


Branded

At twenty-seven, Ayana Lorie has done nothing but drag wagons for the majority of her life. It’s a job she enjoys, is good at, and knows she will die doing. Until one day, against all her better wishes, she becomes a Chosen. Forever branded as someone who is relegated to living a life of servitude, beyond the large stone Gates in her backyard. A place she only ever heard about in tales. When on the inside, Ayana is forced to learn the requirements of her duties, all the while being treated like an outsider and a suspect, due to her branding coming only two weeks after that of Doil Connery's. A man who, unknown to the humans he left behind, has been missing since his induction day, leaving Ayana to be frowned upon and judged for a crime she did not commit. Growing quickly tired of the treatment, she flees, using the little knowledge she has of her new found abilities, to hunt down Doil's true killer. The journey takes her through the Vastlands of what were once known as America, where she meets three people who she deems well-equipped enough to help her on her mission. First is Gera Sutton, a nomadic soldier who works as a for-hire body guard, then Jaime Nethers and Wendell Beckham. A seamstress and a butcher, who follow Ayana beyond the borders of their own homeland. Together, the four fight off scavengers and bounty hunters, and push their way into the lives of those who may know more about the past, her powers, and Doil's murder, than they let on. (A short preview, of a longer novel to come!)

  • Author: Kasey Roper
  • Published: 2016-07-15 22:20:08
  • Words: 4209
Branded Branded