The last story of my year in stories journey. It’s the third in the far future ancient robot stories. It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve written this year, so I hope you dig it too.
I was born in a world without life
He was darkness. Roaming the forest that was her whole world, he settled nowhere and never joined in their celebrations and prayers to the god of the forest. Carrying a blade that sparked like fire but glowed blue and cut through tree and flesh as if they were air, the sight of him stilled her lungs and caused her heart to sprint.
Do not deal with that man, said the mother, for he is a daemon. He is blackness and we must always pray for the light. Do you not remember the songs the Elder taught you? That man is a daemon from the far away past. He uses the forbidden items from the dead world of our ancestors. It was monsters like him who poisoned the world and left us this darkened sky. All beyond the forest is waste and it is from there that he came. It is there that he disappears to feed on the blood of our children. On your sisters.
But mother, he is the only man I know.
Mother shook her head, You do not know him. There is no knowing such blackness.
Over the following months he appeared more and more often. Stories circulated that all the dying male children were killed by him, that he turned into a great monstrous beast with enormous fangs and claws used to rip the human body to shreds. The howling of the night and the moon were attributed to his daemonic hands. The rustling of leaves turned ominous, the wind in league with the monster stalking them. The dark clouds shielding the moonlight were his doing, the sickness that spread through the tribe and killed all the men started when he pissed into the rivers of the world. He captured children, mutilated them, and ate their souls. He grew to fifteen feet tall with red eyes and blazing black hair, his skin made of lightning, his voice of thunder, and he transformed at will, riding the wind to sow destruction and fear amongst the last people of the world.
She watched her brother die drowning in his own lungs, his legs no thicker than her wrist, his fingers like tiny sticks, and his skin as brittle as winter leaves. She prayed over his body, Deathly. She prayed to the god of the forest, but she did not ask for salvation, only that his passing be quick, and that he rejoin her soon, as a tree to watch over her life, and the life of her children and their children.
When the time came, the boy, the last boy in the tribe, swallowed the seed that would sprout to a tree and grow from his heart to become another guardian of the world. The Elder’s cracked lips spoke the words and the boy closed his eyes. The Elder hobbled away and only she and her mother stared at the mound that had been their son and brother, their final hope for a future.
Autumnal wind blew through the encampment and they crowded round the fire. The insects screamed, the fire cracked, and birds sang sorrowful notes encasing the tribe in walls of sound, trapping them in fear of every snapping twig, every scattered skittering leaf.
When the tribe slept, she rose from her place beside the mothers and sisters and crept away to the river. The noise washed over her, its current filling her chest, her limbs. The moon shown, slivered against the withering constellations of an uncaring sky. She pulled the braid loose and let her hair fall. Shaking it out, the smell of her own body bathed in moonlight brought a smile and lightened her heart. She sat with her feet in the cold water, eyes closed, humming a song without tune, one she had never heard.
The songs of the forest came to her. Every howled note reformed the song she hummed until she sang aloud with the chirping insects, the scurrying mammals, and the weary birds. The howling so far away created a rhythm to the disparate noises and brought a melody to her notes. A lilting song of sorrow and hope, of lost love and desperate joy.
A roar broke through, rattling her spine, silencing her song. Motionless, she opened her eyes and saw him watching her, the blade in his hand, blue light lapping at the darkness. Her chest full of bees, she stood but with one hand he motioned her to stay. Scanning the trees, his body taut, the muscles of his neck and shoulders catching moonlight, he pointed to a tree and gestured for her to climb.
Watching him from the tree, new sensations ran through her, from deep in her bowels to every corner of her body. Dizzy at the sight of him, his darkness, the blackness of his skin like permanent midnight, her heart no longer buzzed but flitted on butterfly wings. Only slightly taller than her but broader, his face and chest covered in hair, he turned in all directions, searching for the source of the roaring. He entered the trees and circled round, checking the earth for tracks, his energy blade always in his hands. Crossing the river, he stood beneath her but did not look up.
A new roar and from the trees came a great beast covered in fur. On all four legs it was the height of the man and its skull so massive it could carry her inside. Standing on its hind legs, its head level with hers, she screamed and the beast stared at her and roared once more, shaking the skin loose from her bones, splintering against the sound raging through the night.
The energy blade crackling in his hand, he rushed the beast and leapt at its stomach, slashing from left shoulder to right knee, and then diving away to the left, into the river.
Innards spilt from the beast in a wet slapping noise as it groaned Deathly, pawing at its organs, and collapsing into a pile of fur and meat.
The man emerged from the river. She caught his eyes and he stared back, then set to cutting up the beast.
She helped him carry what meat they could to a clearing where a fire danced weakly. Adding more wood, he skewered the meat on sticks and roasted it over the flame. She watched all he did and took the meat he gave her. Rough and hot but delicious, she ate it all, grease covering her hands. He offered her more and she ate.
Before the sun peered through the trees, she returned to the tribe and slept.
Appearing more frequently, they considered the man a bane to their existence, a harbinger of blight, and they cursed him for every body lost or found mauled. The man stalked their tribe as the seasons rolled into one another and over into years.
She matured, her breasts budding and hair growing where it never grew before. At night she visited him and when she returned to the tribe she dreamt of his body, the fiery blackness of him. In the dreams he held her and the darkness spread over them until she was enveloped in a sea of night, tacky against her skin but filling her with light.
The Elder died and they were then only mothers and sisters. The mothers all said the words together and they planted the seed within her. They talked long of what was to be done, of how they could escape the plague of Death, the darkness haunting them. When the sun rose and no decision was found, they formed a circle and prayed to the god of the forest to save them, to protect them from the horrors of their final days. Many of the voices choked by tears, their prayers came as one long wail from dawn till noon. The mothers would never be mothers again and the sisters were coming of age. The new fear was not simply Death and extinction, but implantation. The daemon haunting them, they prayed for the purity of their children, of their sisters, that they not be ravaged and filled with a darkness uncanny.
She returned to him that night and he shared the meat of another monster with her. Staring at the fire, he did not look at her but her eyes never left his. When night swallowed the moon, she stood to return but he raised his hand. Standing, her body riotous, her skin crawling with thousands of insect legs called fear and hope, she waited, holding her breath. The man rose and stood before her, half a head shorter than her. Staring into her eyes then dropping his gaze to her breasts and hips, he took her hand.
Smiling the entire way back to the tribe, tears formed in her eyes and laughter rose in her. Laughter, for the first time since the dying began, since the men all fell away, Deathly. She did not sleep that night but rose with the others and wearily went about her work, the blood dried on her inner thighs till she swam in the river, screaming joy and hope underwater.
As the leaves greened and then browned, she expanded. The mothers wept and cursed the god of the forest for what happened to their daughter. They said the words and cursed the daemon stalking them, fearful that they would find all their daughters and sisters filled with tiny monsters.
At night he held her and put his ear against her growing womb. When dawn sneaked over the horizon, the man pulled her back to bed, and there she stayed until her son was born.
She did not return to the tribe but she and the man followed it. The energy blade protected them from the monsters of the forest as the tribe prayed to the god who would not answer or appear, but who kept all the other sisters and daughters safe from the ravages of the daemon still following them.
The mother came to her when her son had lived for a year. The boy walked on unsteady feet and smiled wide, dark like his father but with her lighter eyes.
Why do you stay with our pursuer? Why have you forsaken your tribe for daemons and Death?
Mother, she took her mother’s hands, I have embraced life. He is not a monster or a daemon. He is but a man. A powerful man. A strange man. He does not speak but he teaches me every day. I learn more of what this forest is and how we live with each passing day. And look at my son, your grandson. He has given us life. He has given light back to this forest.
Child, there is no light in darkness.
She shook her head, Mother, there is only light because of darkness.
Seasons wandered on and they followed the tribe who spent every waking moment searching for the god of the forest. They prayed three times every day and their pilgrimage lasted from sunup to sundown. The years tumbled forward but their god never appeared.
She no longer communicated with the tribe but remained in their shadow with the man. She studied how he dealt with his son. Playing, filling the trees with laughter, the man smiled wide and the boy screamed wildly, his tiny lungs full of only love.
Why does father never talk?
She held him beside the fire, Your father cannot speak but he talks. He talks to us daily. It’s how we know he loves us. Does he not teach you? Do you not learn so much from him?
Her son hugged her, I want to hear his voice.
She smiled, I do not think he has one, child. He is too good for words.
Why do we follow those other people?
Your father is their guardian, she sighed. He protects them but they do not understand. He was sent to them by the god of the forest, I think, but they believe him to be the cause of their destruction. If only they would listen to him, they would find what they seek.
What do they seek?
They seek their god, she said and lay him down to sleep, pointing out the stars that shined and the ones that did not.
As the leaves fell Deathly from trees, her womb filled once more. The man and her son danced when she told them and pressed their hands and ears to her skin, waiting to hear the call of the new life growing within her.
The wintry rains came and she struggled for warmth. And then the roaring came, a new noise from a new monster’s lungs. The energy blade flickering in his hands, biting at the darkness of night, she grabbed his wrist and begged for him to stay. Smiling, he kissed her forehead, nodded, and raced into the falling blackness.
In the cave they sheltered themselves in, the boy slept but she rubbed her womb, singing a song for the man, her boy, and the new son growing within her. The song was old, taught to her by the forest when first she shared time and space with the man and his glittering blackness. The fire kept the air of the cave close and she wrapped the fur of dead monsters round her shoulder, stepping into the rain. Far away she heard the tribe praying, screaming against the storming sky for their god to appear, to save them.
In the morning the rain continued but the man did not return. She waited and the boy asked after his father but she quieted his fears and told him that nothing could harm the man, that he was not a daemon but the son of a god. The boy smiled and flexed his wiry muscles.
As day drew to a close, her heart racing and the cave air stifling her, she stepped into the rain. Resonating through the raindrops came the cheers and screaming prayers of the tribe. Dizzy, her skull rattling with bees and decayed leaves, she found the meaning to the words amongst the noise.
Stay here, sweet boy. I must go see about your father.
The boy nodded but when she left, he followed her, quietly as his father taught him.
She burst into the encampment, her hair matted with rain, the pelts of monsters heavy. Where is he, she screamed, silencing the songs, turning every head to her.
He is dead, her mother howled, many smiles visible against the lightning.
The many mothers and sisters held aloft a body, ripped to shreds by the beasts he fought so long. Her womb bulging, she stormed through the tribe, beating away the other women until she held the man in her arms, the tears choked away by the rage. The mothers and sisters approached, calling him daemon, monsters, demanding his flesh, that no words be said for him. The hilt of the energy blade still in his hand, she took it and the blade crackled to life, the blue light piercing through the storm.
This man was no daemon but the sole light of your endless night, she yelled through the storm. Protector though you hated him, lover though you feared him, he gave life to the forest long after we all deserved to die. The world is rising against us, to shatter us into extinction, and he was our only armor, our only shelter. And you celebrate his Death.
When their hands approached to take his body, she slashed at them with the blade, leaving fingers and arms in the mud.
Her son watched as she dragged the man’s limp body from the tribe. He watched as she beat away the women, cursed them, spit in their direction, and cut away any offending body part that reached too close. Following her, her watched where she gave up, collapsing in despair and weakness, crying over the man who gave him life and light.
A hand on her shuddering shoulder, she turned sharply and held the blade to the throat of her son. He did not flinch but pushed her hand away. Dropping the blade that fizzled against the mud and grass, she held onto her boy and wailed till her voice shipwrecked, hoarse and painful.
She said the words over his body and planted a new life inside him to grow, to watch over them as he had done for her.
Her voice a whisper, I promise to live. Only for you and the light you gave me.
Through winter, they lived in the cave and survived on the stores they had made in autumn. When she felt strong, she hunted with the help of her son. He helped her make the traps, tie the knots, but she skinned the animals and prepared them for the fire. Together, they prayed for the man and the tree he would grow into, and they prayed for each animal they took from the forest, promising to return their bones to the earth.
The boy held his mother at night and asked about the life growing within her. She told him stories instead. Stories of the ancient world, of flying machines, of oceans, of tribes so large they filled every inch of the forest.
He asked often of his father that winter but her answers were soaked in tears and loss. By spring, he no longer asked but continued to pray for him before sleeping. He prayed to the god of the forest and begged it to show him how to be like his father, how to protect what was left of the world.
In spring a sister arrived at their cave.
You intend to birth a new son to that monster, yes? said the sister.
She blue light of the blade licked at the sister’s skin and no other words passed between them. The sister stared at the boy and at her womb. Scowling, she made a ward with her hands and left.
With the growth of new life, she and her son left the cave but avoided the tribe. For weeks they walked alone through the forest eating what they found. No longer hunting, she made the blade into a necklace and wore it always but never held it to bring its blade to life.
Where are we going, mother?
Gasping, her joints swollen, her chest full of sick, and her head light, We go to find the god of the forest. It will know what to do.
Where does it live?
She shook her head, This way.
The pregnancy wore on her. Every morning, sickness took her and the boy brought her water and nuts and fruit. The boy assisted her in everything she did and as spring departed and summer greened, she doubled in size. Every day full of pain, they walked on, following rivers, tracking signs he did not see or understand.
Where do we go, mother?
We go to find the god of the forest that is the world.
Is this the right way?
She nodded, Can you not hear them singing?
At night, the boy prayed for his mother. At every step she took, his heart fell through the earth, and at every gasping snore she made in sleep, he chewed on his fingertips until they bled. Many nights, he sat beside her, checking her breathing by putting his hand beneath her nose. He woke her often and when she asked him why, he only chewed his fingers more.
He made her a cane. Sweat covered her all the time and he fanned her as they moved. She grew so constantly weary that he let her rest and watched over her.
Crossing a river, she collapsed upon reaching the otherside. He prayed for her, watching over her, begging for a god or his father to come save them.
The noises began then. He did not tell his mother, but something stalked them from morning to morning. So caught in the war inside her body, she was blind and deaf to the world round her. She did not notice when he took the blade from round her neck or how he carried it always in his hands, the way he had seen his father. When night fell, he stood staring at the blue light flickering against the night. Every sound weighed on him, and the night turned blacker, the sky lightless, moonless, starless. The canopy so thick that there was only the forest and its many noises rebounding over and over, turning the songs of birds into terrifying echoes. The insects swarmed and he built a shelter for his mother, to protect her from the darkness, from the unknown.
The trees surged round him and he caught glimpses of a great beast watching them. A beast made of the forest itself, covered in green, a tree sprouting from it.
Their journey became slower and slower as his mother grew weaker and weaker. She did not notice the great lumbering green monsters always at the periphery of their life, and he did not tell her. He spent his days and nights in vigilance, chewing away his fingers, clutching the energy blade, and staring into the darkness.
As they followed a river, they came to a great clearing where a lake formed. In the middle of the lake was an island. The boy brought his mother into the water and the light of her returned. Weightless, the aches and pains of her long journey and painful pregnancy washed away. She swam for a long time, laughing, splashing water at him. They played and he laughed for the first time since his father became a sapling. She held him and asked where they were and how they got there.
I don’t know, mother. I thought you were leading me.
She held him close that night as they slept on the island, beneath the starry sky, the halved moon coating them. The boy did not sleep but listened close to the sounds of the world around him. A howling, birds singing, insects raging, and the constant rustling of underbrush, of wind blowing.
In the morning his mother stared at him, You look so weak and tired, dear son. What is wrong?
His lip quivered and his eyes collapsed, holding back tears until she took him in her arms and promised him it would be okay.
You’re only a child yet, you needn’t carry the world on your shoulders. Only five summers and you’ve become a man, but we shall be okay. You must learn to be a child again.
The words choked in his mouth and when he opened it to speak only sobs racked him to silence.
Looking over his shoulder to the treeline, she noticed a tree on the island that was not there the night before. Her brow furrowed, scrutinising the tree. It grew from a piled heap of foliage and leaves, rocks covered in moss and growth. Apples not yet ripe bloomed from the tree and she let go of her son and rose to take it.
Her hand on the apple, she found herself staring into a face covered in green.
You have come, a voice cracked, distorted, as if from the bottom of a well.
Falling backwards, hands caught her, cold and metallic, and laid her on the grass. Screaming, the boy jumped over his mother, the blade blazing in his hand, but the great green creature caught the boy by his wrist and torso.
You will not need that, the twisted broken voice said and pried the blade from the boy, then set him down beside his mother.
They stared up at it. Shaped like a human but covered in growth, the leaves of its skin shook when it moved, the metal of its bones kept it steady, and its movements were awkward, disjointed, rusted. It sat with legs crossed and faced them. Its voice came again, I have waited for you for a long time. You are the hope of your species. You and your son. You must live, and I will guide you.
Her voice weak, her body quaking, she said, What are you?
I am who you have looked for your whole life.
The boy’s whisper, The god of the forest.
A metallic brittle laugh rose from it, I am not a god but I am ancient as one and built by your kind a thousand years ago. I am nothing and nowhere but you are life and light. Where is the man?
He died, her voice still weak, her head swimming.
It nodded then pointed at the boy, Then you must be the new man. Though you are young, you must protect the life that grows inside your mother. The two of you will recreate humanity.
Gasping, the boy stood, If you are not a god, then what are you?
The leaves shook in the wind, I am like this blade. Ancient and designed for a purpose. This blade was made to kill but you have used it to protect. I was made to build but I have chosen to grow. I am a steward, waiting for this day. Now, we must get this baby out of your mother or she may die. Fetch some water.
The boy did all that the god of the forest said and met his new brother as his mother’s life pirouetted on the precipice of life and Death.