Saffron

Here’s Chuck Wendig’s latest ball-buster challenge (X meets Y). I had to shave a lot of darlings to get the word count down. Hope you enjoy.

*********************************


Saff stared far into the sky, seeing the dark shape of the Grandfather pace about inside his floating sphere. Years of my home-sector’s pain and suffering done by just one man, she thought.
 
She looked away, regarding the other Fate-warriors around her, all of them suspended within the dark void of the time-arena. Saff felt vertigo creep back as she fought for balance inside her timepod. She pushed the dizziness away just as Verek glided toward her.

“Are you ready, young one?” he asked. Saff nodded, a little disturbed by her Fate-partner’s exuberance. Verek had reveled in being chosen for the Fate wars, howling the name of his home-sector Nagryaal with pride when he was picked. Saff, however, felt dread when her name was called by the Speakerlock. Nagryaal was the only sector that never had a champion survive the Fate wars, never earning the prize of the gifted timeline where the Grandfather would alter the future of the winning home-sector to flourish each year, extending life and economy under his rule.

“Here, take this,” Verek said, slipping the air blade into Saff’s hand. She welcomed the familiar feel of it but said, “Fate-warriors are not allowed weapons.”

Verek grunted. “You’ve never seen an actual time battle before, have you?”

Saff shook her head, tucking the blade into the sleeve of her Fate-warrior suit.
 
Verek frowned and then forced a grin. He knows I won’t last, Saff thought.
 
“We’ll be fine,” Verek said. “Just remember after the first clash to stay back. Reset if you must, and stab anyone who comes close — except for me, young one. And remember, if you can materialize into any of them, do it fast before they’re aware, or else you’ll be ripped apart by their counter-attack.”

He means the Dispersal, Saff thought and then felt for the soft buttons of the keypad on her timepod. One button to reset backward in time. One button to go forward. And one button to obliterate your opponents by tracking their wormholes and then taking over their point in space.

The Speakerlock floated down from the Grandfather’s sphere like a spectre. Saff flinched, finding the Speakerlock’s face hideous. It’s not a face at all, she thought. It’s a head made of smoke.

“Fate-warriors,” said the Speakerlock in a guttural voice, “the Grandfather gives you all his blessings. We are ready to begin.”
 
“What about the Bralen?” asked a booming voice. Saff looked past Verek to see a tall figure glide toward the Speakerlock. It was an intimidating Fate-warrior wearing the red colors of a northern sector.
 
“Ah, First Xeeren of Plen,” said the Speakerlock. “Brave of you to interrupt.”
 
“They should not be allowed to fight,” Xeeren said, pointing to a pair of Fate-warriors donned in gold colors.
 
“That idiot,” Verek grumbled. “The Bralen are my first target. By drawing attention to them, he makes them more wary.”
 
“The Bralen have earned their right to immortality, Fate-warrior,” said the Speakerlock, the mist of his face swirling into a black, scowling hole. “This should goad all of you to know how a sector can be rewarded. But fear not. The Grandfather’s gift of time is greater than any gods he creates. Nothing is immune to the Dispersal
 
“ENOUGH!”
 
Saff winced at the sound of the Grandfather’s thundering voice coming through the sphere.
 
The Speakerlock’s face fell out of shape. “As you command, Lord. Let us begin. Good fate for our sectors!”
 
Several cried in answer: GOOD FATE FOR OUR SECTOR!
 
“Remember, young one,” Verek said. “Wait until after the first clash.”
 
Saff rested back against her timepod, breathing out slow to calm herself. She hated the way the timepod felt against her body, a restrictive cocoon-like bed of metal that pushed against her arms and legs.
 
She looked out into the void of the time-arena. The Grandfather had blackened the walls, keeping the Fate-warriors bounded within the arena, blind and deaf to the cheering spectators outside in the Grandfather’s temple. Is my father out there watching? The thought of her father made Saff think of her little brother Yaren, how he hugged her so tight before all of this.
 
“How far back can we go?” Saff asked, hovering closer to her Fate-partner.
 
“We can only reset to the start of the battle,” Verek said. “And you can only go as far forward as the wormholes available to you. You know the teachings of the infinite stream?”
 
Saff nodded, thinking back to Ladywise Fal’s teachings. One stream can become many, but all are of the same stream.
 
“That teaching will not work here,” said Verek. “You cannot duplicate yourself in time. And don’t hesitate when making a jump. The wormholes are countless and if you wait too long, you’ll miss your chance to move to the most favorable timeline. Remember young one, if you die before a jump, a reset won’t help you. You’ll no longer exist.”

“SEAL THE FATE OF YOUR SECTORS!” the Speakerlock cried and then flew up toward the Grandfather’s sphere. The arena vibrated as the sphere floated out through the wall of the time-arena, disappearing like waning moonlight.
 
At first there was silence, all of the Fate-warriors frozen in place. Before Saff could even react, the arena exploded with light as Fate-warriors collided into battle. The first clash, Saff thought, listening to the war cries and the clanging of metal.
 
Smoke filled the arena. Saff coughed, feeling a burning in her eyes, the space in front of her blazing with fire.
 
“A fire-cluster!” Verek screamed. “RESET! RESET!”

Heat. So much heat! Saff twisted in her timepod, pushing frantically at the buttons on her keypad, but she could not make out the wormholes that appeared through the smoke.
 
I’ve lost, Saff thought with despair. I’m sorry, Father. Yaren. I tried. 
 
She pushed frantically at the buttons on her keypad. The heat intensified no matter how far back she glided away from the flames.
 
I will die with honor. Saff shifted forward, going into the flames and hoping she would not suffer for long. Only, instead of burning, she was falling.
 
Saff had never traveled through time before. Nagryaal was against the Grandfather’s magic since he first arrived with his machines. Saff’s teacher, Ladywise Fal, had told Saff that time should be one song, never to be resung. “Such was the way before the Grandfather came,” Fal had said. “A time of Healers that gave us endless life. Now the world is split into many, granting all power to the Grandfather whether we wish it or not. The Healers have been erased.”
 
“But the Grandfather gives a gifted timeline to champions,” Saff had argued. Fal scoffed at that. “Young one, there is only one gifted timeline: one without the Grandfather. Strange that such a timeline has never been asked nor gifted.”
 
There was no heat inside the wormhole. No more fire. Saff opened her eyes to see a dark tunnel, a single bead of light far ahead.
 
Back, she remembered. I’ve reset. The small bead of light suddenly engulfed her and she found herself back in the arena. She saw the Fate-warrior woman in eastern yellow colors glide toward Verek, holding the fire-cluster bomb. No! I didn’t go back far enough.
 
“Verek!” Saff yelled. “Behind you! A fire-cluster!” Verek had been the one that warned me, Saff thought with wonder. She thrust her timepod toward the woman, but Verek dove forward from his timepod, leaping out into the woman.
 
“NO VEREK!”
 
The fire-cluster exploded within Verek’s warrior suit, tearing both him and the woman into burning bits of cooked meat. And then they vanished from the arena, the smell of their burning gone.
 
BACK! BACK! Saff reset, taking the closest wormhole she could find.
 
She jumped through and then gasped with surprise, but not because she couldn’t find any trace of Verek.
 
So many gone, Saff thought, looking around the near-empty arena. She remembered Verek’s words: If you die before a jump, a reset won’t help you.
 
But your wrong, Verek. You do still exist because I’ll never forget you.
 
A timepod glided toward Saff. A Bralen. Something silver gleamed in his hand. Saff tensed, rubbing at her sleeve for the air blade Verek had given her. No! They cannot be killed. She reached for her keypad. Forward. Try forward. But she hesitated, unable to comprehend what she was seeing.

The Bralen’s timepod began to ripple, stretching out of true. The Bralen screamed, his immortal body separating into bloodless pieces. The Dispersal, Saff thought. She hovered back as she watched Xeeren of Plen materialize into the space that once held the Bralen.
 
“Could it just be us now, Nagry-child?” Xeeren asked. He hovered in front of her, his eyes curiously gentle.
 
Saff glanced around, keeping the Plen close to her sight. Xeeren was right. There was no one else in the arena. How? How could she have made it this far without even engaging an opponent?
 
“What is your name, little one?” Xeeren asked.
 
Saff did not answer. How do I fight this man? If she could get close and use the air blade across his neck. Then he counters with the Dispersal.

Then I’ll be dead.
 
“Third Saffron of Nagryaal,” Saff said.
 
Xeeren nodded with a slight smile. “Well Saffron, we’ve played the Grandfather’s game long enough. With respect to Nagryaal, I will make your death swift.” He raised a hand and yelled, “For Plen!”

Xeeren disappeared. Saff twisted, spinning around in her timepod. Her opponent was nowhere to be found. He’s moved forward, she thought. She pushed her forward button, eyeing several wormholes sprouting in front of her. It was difficult to see which wormhole showed Xeeren. Then she felt a tingling in her stomach.

He’s using the Dispersal!
 
Saff jumped into a wormhole. Forward. Back into the empty arena. Still the strange tingling inside her. He’s tracking me. Forward. Again. Backward. She grimaced, feeling pain bloom within her midsection. Backward. To the beginning. The room still empty. The burning growing stronger.
 
Keep jumping! Backward. Forward. The wormholes looked like mirrors all showing the same empty room.
 
Then another jump and something grasped hard around her throat, making her eyes bulge.
 
“Enough running, little one,” Xeeren said in a gentle voice. He stood over her, standing on the base of her timepod, his own timepod hovering somewhere in the distance.
 
Without thinking, Saff pulled out the air blade from her sleeve flicker-fast and slashed underneath Xeeren’s forearm. The Plen pulled back in a hiss, releasing his choking hold of her. Saff lashed out again, missing Xeeren’s neck but leaving a red line across his chest. Instead of sending him back, Xeeren charged forward, catching Saff’s blade arm and cramming her fist into her belly.
 
Saff gasped in pain as she felt her air blade sink deep inside her.

“You fight like a true Fate-warrior,” Xeeren whispered. “Plen will remember Third Saffron of Nagryaal.”
 
He released Saff’s right hand. She dropped it back down on her keypad, her air blade still stuck in her midsection. With a trembling hand, she pushed the forward button.

“You are done,” Xeeren said, but before he could stop her, they both moved forward.
 
An infinite sea of wormholes bloomed in front of Saff. She jumped through them randomly, never stopping once to see the blackness they ended in. They all lead to death, Saff thought.

Forward. As far forward as she could go. There. The Speakerlock appeared, reaching out to stop her, but she jumped forward past his reach. Forward. Into darkness. So much darkness.
 
Xeeren clutched tight to Saff’s timepod. He was screaming at her, but she could barely hear him.

Forward. Forward. Until she saw it. A new bead of light. She passed through and paused at the end of the jump. Her vision blurred, but she still marveled at the sunlight around her. Through the mixture of colors on the open field, she could make out the crumbled ruins of the Grandfather’s temple.

Is this it? she wondered. Is this the timeline without the Grandfather?
 
“Fate’s door!” Xeeren cried. He released his bloody arm from the timepod, enchanted by the openness around him.
 
Saff breathed in deep, feeling the deep ache of the blade burn inside her. She focused and then pushed hard two-handed against Xeeren’s chest. He fell out of the timepod and into the soft grass.
 
“Forward,” Saff said, her voice sounding distant. Why? Where am I going?
 
“Wait!” cried Xeeren and then Saff was back inside another wormhole.
 
Forward. Forward.

She stopped, slumping inside her timepod. Her knees folded; she spilled out of the timepod. There was no ground to meet her. Only arms catching her. Holding her.
 
“Is it her?” a child’s voice yelled. More voices. Children’s voices in full laughter. And then an old voice.
 
“It is, child,” said the old man. “Third Saffron of Nagryaal. Bring the Healers.”

The old man touched Saff’s cheek. Those same gentle eyes. “Don’t worry, Grandmother. The Healers will take care of you. I’ve waited a long time for this.”
 
“Xeeren?” Saff said in a weak voice.
 
“Yes,” Xeeren said. “I am so sorry. If I had known. If we all had known…”
 
“Gentlewise Xeeren,” a young boy said, “The Healers are here.”
 
“Good, young one,” Xeeren said and then placed a withered hand over Saff’s hand. “You found it,” he said. “You found the true timeline, the one meant for this world. No one had ever dared go so far, so perilously far.”
 
Xeeren raise up slowly, letting the Healers fall in. Saff noticed he wore a Gentlewise robe, those worn by ancient scholars from long ago. He looks nothing like the man I fought in the time-arena.

Hands encased Saff’s forehead and she felt instant relief. She couldn’t even feel pain when one of the hands pulled the air blade out from her gut. More hands pushed on the wound on her belly, healing her from within. It was as if fresh life was poured back into her. Healers of Old. The ones the Grandfather took away long ago.
 
Saff sat up, bemused. I’m alive.
 
“Now, Grandmother Saffron,” Xeeren said, “you must go back. Claim your prize from the Grandfather. And then use it to find us. To build for us.”
 
Saff was led back to her timepod by a crowd of children dancing around her. She smiled instinctively at them and then looked up at Xeeren, who stood back to watch her leave.
 
He waved at her.
 
She stepped back into her timepod, hovering a few feet to call out to Xeeren. “How will I know what to do?” she asked.

Xeeren smiled. “How did you know to come here, Grandmother? You will know. For you know how to control your own fate. We will meet again soon, Grandmother.”
 
A tear fell down from the old man’s face. Saff watched him turn and walk away. He was once my enemy, she thought and then looked around. Here there were no enemies. Here there was only life and praise for existence, for being alive and enjoying the world that was given.

 She leaned back in her timepod, adjusting the head strap. She looked down at the children once more, laughing and waving at her, calling her Grandmother.

All this from a push of the button, Saff thought.

She pushed the button.

 Backward.


THE END

 

© Jack Lee Taylor 2015

 

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