We leave our parents before break of day. There are tears, there are hugs, there are goodbyes. We will never see them again. We climb the Face of God all morning, the stair switching back again and again. The clefts and pockmarks in the red rock wall howl, as we imagine the Underbeasts will when they come. Winter is cruel and cold, here. The winter of the Green Comet is especially cruel.
When we take our noon meal of antelope jerky, hardtack and water, we peer down at the tents of our village. They are white buttons strewn across a vast red cloak. Some of us cry. Others stare up at the Face of God, to see how much higher we have to climb by nightfall. We can’t see the top. Some of us stare silently across the blowing dust of the plain at the horizon, wishing ourselves beyond it, safe. And some watch the comet, blazing green even in the blue skies.
Night falls before we reach the Crown of God. We travel by moonlight. The mass of white cuts the sickly green. The switchback stairs have given way to a ladder carved into the rock, chiseled by our terrified ancestors during the first Culling. We cling to the Face and climb on.
Why couldn’t everyone make the climb? Many of us think this. Surely, the cliffs would provide protection for our parents as well as us. Surely, the Underbeasts will sate themselves on the herds of the plain. The oldest of us shake our heads and finger the hilts of our broadswords.
Our muscles ache by the time we come to the Crown of God and cast our packs upon the plateau. We camp atop the icy Crown, yellow rocks all around the edges giving little shelter from the wind. There is no fuel, thus no fires. We huddle twenty to a tent for warmth. The night is dark and filled with nightmares of the coming dawn.
Tomorrow brings shaggy black hair and mandibles like scimitars. Tomorrow brings legs that can crush the spines of buffalo and tongues that can squeeze antelope to death. The Underbeasts gorge themselves once every generation, spilling blood across the valley. The Green Comet warns of the Culling. Only the Crown of God offers refuge. Only the young shall escape. So says The Book.
Morning dawns dreary and damp, freezing drizzle skittering on the layer of crusty snow. There is naught here but falcons and a few tufts of dead grass poking through the white.
Soon after our meager breakfast, a great crash booms across the valley. We hurry to the edge of the cliff. Below, a great, black crack has opened, the shape of a lightning bolt. The Underbeasts pour forth. They look tiny from here, no larger than swallows, but they dwarf the ant-sized tents. We watch them cavort and choke back our sobs, or we wail, helpless and afraid. Above, the Green Comet blazes nearly as bright as the sun.
The morning passes. The sorrow comes in waves. The oldest of us stand on the rocks that make the Crown, swords in hand. We have been warned that the Underbeasts may not be sated. We pray to God they are. We pray that our families have somehow escaped.
At noon, they come for us. They are the small ones, children coming for children. They are the size of our dogs, but they are vicious, slavering, their six legs churning up the snow, their mandibles clicking hungrily. Long, thick black tongues dart and twirl from their maws, spraying slobber everywhere.
The oldest of us – the elders – wait with our swords, letting the Underbeasts come to us. We slay them one after another. Our parents prepared us well. The Beasts lay wheezing and dying, bleeding bright green blood on crusty white snow.
Another crash rings out. We limp and crawl to the side of the precipice. The hole in the earth shuts. The Underbeasts fall to the ground, dead. They rot instantly. Where we spilled their green blood, variegated flowers bloom through the snow. God sends the sun to nourish the new life. The Green Comet has passed.
We descend the Face over three days. We are tired, but we are safe. The Beasts will not return for many years.
On the valley floor, our village is gone. In its place is a lush, green garden, laden with plump fruits. All around the plain, winter has turned to summer, a summer that our parents told us would last all year.
We enter the garden and thank God for His gifts. But privately, we ask him how he could allow such suffering. All of us dance and sing and feast until we collapse, exhausted. Soon, we will stop mourning and rebuild. We will tell tales of our parents to be passed to the next generations. And we will steel ourselves for the day when our children must make the climb.
Scott A. Michel is a writer with a day job. These days he primarily writes fantasy, but his literary fiction has been published previously in issue #1 of Rivets, an online magazine. He grew up in Wisconsin but now resides in Santa Barbara, California, because he loves the West Coast and is lucky as hell.