Writing Catalog

Maya Houghton

Grade: 9

Hathaway Brown School

Instructor: Kaua Adams

As a City Falls

Science Fiction & Fantasy

As a City Falls

Everyone always told her Andonton lacked beauty, but Alosi never truly agreed. Maybe the constant phantoms warped her perception, but every phantom she saw in Andonton was a good one.

Even looking out the window, she could see them. A flock of silver birds followed a man taking his children somewhere, telling her that the man may be compassionate. A golden hawk perched upon the shoulder of a lightly armored Royal Guard, implying her loyalty to the people. A blue current flowed up to the palace, suggesting the openness of the High Council.

Everyone else only saw the chipped paint on the palace, the supposedly too-small houses in the richer sectors, and how the wall surrounding neighboring cities stood taller than their wall.

She knew not to trust the phantoms. She knew they lied to her and twisted her brain and her perceptions. She knew nobody else saw them. But whenever she visited neighboring cities, however rare it might be, she never saw as many kind, benevolent phantoms as she did in Andonton. In some cities, blood coated the streets and rust covered the palaces. So despite the pain life brought her, she still left the house. She loved the smells of the market and the unfiltered joy people shared in the nearby streets as they danced, sang, and played games. There, the phantoms of puppies played. She could see some of those streets from her bedroom, and the puppies played even at night.

When she closed her eyes and thought about her future, she saw a hazy fog. She couldn't be any of the things she wanted to be. The market filled her with joy, but she couldn't spend every day in the noise, especially with all the phantoms making her head hurt. Music brought her peace, but the thought of having to travel to other, richer cities to perform and leave her Andonton made her nauseous, and every time she had tried to play in those other cities, even the happiest songs had a mournful edge. She could never be involved in the legal system. She'd never be able to defend someone she thought was guilty and even stories of theft, thankfully rare in Andonton, would sometimes keep her up at night. Even though she excelled at learning and always felt the need for more knowledge, becoming a teacher involved schools, with just as much crushing noise as the market.

Besides, she wanted a better life than having to stumble to her room at the end of each day and lie curled on her bed as her head spun. She wanted the strength to eat dinner every day and wanted to be able to do things on the weekends besides recover and prepare.

Regardless, though, most of the time, she didn't think she deserved that joy of staying in Andonton, not when her entire self betrayed her.

The world seemed darker than usual today, but everyone still had shadows. It wasn't just clouds covering the sky. When she looked up, she saw why: a dark, shadowy net floated above Andonton. Immediately, she knew it was a phantom, and her instincts told her the phantom meant that something evil was coming to her beloved city. And yet…

Alosi sighed and dipped her quill in ink, and drew out the phantoms she had seen. Silver birds, a golden hawk, a blue current, and a shadowy net. Her parents told her to draw out the phantoms, to get them out of her head and remind herself how impossible they were. That they existed in her head, not reality. They were always the ones who told her not to trust the phantoms, but how could she know if they were wrong about the phantoms? Why would she be right, just because she could see them?

As she finished drawing, she glanced up. People had left the market, likely moving to the sector podium, where ordinary people could express their beliefs and concerns. She knew the podium was an inanimate object, but she still spoke to it.

"Podium, what is your goal?" Alosi asked. With almost everyone at the meeting, she could speak her mind. "Why do you exist? You encourage people to say what they think, to ignore how we all perceive a false reality, and to have confidence in their own visions. Our minds are not to be trusted, our own visions are flawed. And yet you allow us to speak to others and give them our visions from a stand, from a position of relative authority. Do you seek to sow corruption? To separate us from ourselves, from our origins and our truth? You give all of them such confidence in their own voices and eyes that they will never listen to another, that they will assert their right to speak over another's right to live. As vital as speech may be, you twist it into something that is not a conversation but a declaration, full of arrogance. You will bring my city to the ground through political division and personal hubris."

She couldn't see the podium, but a bronze bell phantom floated above it. The phantom told her the podium was not a horrible, corrupting influence, but rather the first iteration of something beautiful. She did not understand how. Yet another reason not to trust the visions. The podium, this system of meetings and speeches, could not lead to something better, because when making decisions for the better, people could not be centered on themselves. And yet that is exactly what the system orchestrated.

She found it ironic. She was the one in this city who should trust herself the least, but she was the only one capable of seeing what the sector podium system would cause.

As she continued staring out the window at the empty streets, she noticed the world seemed to grow two shades darker. In the sky, the sun shone brightly, not blocked by clouds or birds. The shadow over Andonton had grown stronger.

But she didn't know what the shadow meant, not really. She couldn't tell anyone what threat it represented. And besides all that, she couldn't even trust its existence. She kept its existence to herself, just like she never talked about any of the phantoms she saw.

The next time Alosi looked out the window, the darkness appeared the same, and for the next week, fear pulled her gaze to the nearest window at every turn. Each time, against her will, her heart clenched. Each time, she could only exhale when she saw the sky hadn't darkened since her last look. When she demanded answers from her brain for its insistence on the danger, it only gave her the same fear that stole her attention and kept her up at night.

The fear disrupted her life even more than the phantoms normally did. Just another reason she couldn't trust them, she knew.

She ignored the phantoms, not noticing that the net hanging over Andonton had gotten darker. It had just gotten darker so slowly that she never noticed a difference from one glance to the next.

One day, Alosi opened her eyes, shouting filling her ears as she sat up, confused by the lack of light. Her heart pounded and she jumped out of bed, almost tripping over her chair as she sprinted to the window.

She flung open the curtains and checked the sky.

It should be noon, and there wasn't a cloud in sight. But it looked like midnight. The shadowy tendrils had almost entirely blocked out the sun, and other tendrils wrapped around houses and streets, suffocating them.

"The army of the city of Ekhart has joined us!" one of the council's heralds shouted, the cheerful tone of his voice creating a sharp dissonance with the way Alosi's head spun with fear. "They offer an alliance and better security from our enemies! Welcome their honorable soldiers into our streets and take joy in their arrival! The High Council encourages you to go into the streets and welcome our allies!" He shouted the message repeatedly, pausing in between repetitions to blow the signature herald horn to get people's attention.

She looked down and saw the soldiers following the herald. They didn't dress like Andonton's army. They must be the Ekhart soldiers.

The name Ekhart didn't bring anything to mind, but the phantoms that hung around the soldiers more than made up for it. Blood dripped from their armor and rust covered the shields on their backs. According to these phantoms, this army could not be trusted. They were violent, bloody, corrupt, and power-hungry. And yet the High Council had decided to allow them entrance to Andonton.

She blinked. She thought that maybe if she wished the phantoms away, they would be replaced with the ones she saw in Andonton every day. Birds and currents and even bells; any phantom would be better than these ones.

The world spun around her. The city she saw was apocalyptic, so different from the home she knew. The walls closed her in and the evil she saw so overwhelming her brain couldn't rationalize it, couldn't convince herself that she made it all up, and couldn't do anything but yell at her to get in the streets, get to the High Council, and say something.

She pushed herself away from the window and grabbed a jacket and shoes from her closet. A small part of her brain protested, telling her she couldn't be sure, but for the first time in over a decade, some other urge was stronger.

When she made it to the streets, she ran, faster than she ever had before. Most people followed the herald, moving in the general direction of the square. But the fastest path to the High Council was the other way, and so she pushed her way through the crowd.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said as she bumped into person after person in a never-ending tide of bodies.

The noise and chaos brought her headache back, more intense than it had been in weeks, but she could barely even focus on that.

Finally, she burst free of the crowd, and the streets felt suddenly abandoned.

Her brain felt just as abandoned, and she glanced over her shoulder at all the people going the other way. Something pulled her to them. Wasn't she better off trusting the majority? Wasn't their perspective less flawed as a whole than hers could be on its own?

Before she had time to think through, the terror pulled her back on her desperate mission.

As she ran, fear tied her mind in knots, forcing her into a single-minded panic.

A person appeared in front of her. She jumped backward. Another person joined the first, and as her breathing slowed and the initial wave of panic cleared, she realized she was only seeing more phantoms. A different kind, this time, showing her things that had happened earlier. These had only happened when she was younger. She hadn't realized she could still see them.

With mounting horror, she saw one of the Ekhart soldiers grab one of the Royal Guards by the throat and throw him to the ground. She could still see the phantoms that surrounded these phantoms from the past. Then, the Ekhart soldier plunged a sword through the Guard's stomach and dragged his body into an alley. The flower phantoms on the Guard's ghostly body disappeared as the Guard died, and the Ekhart soldier walked off as if nothing had happened.

Maybe, maybe, maybe it wasn't true. It could just be another thing she couldn't trust, another illusion. She glanced down and saw a few, recently-dried drops of blood on the ground.

Her hands sweat and she couldn't control her breathing as she looked into the alley.

At the very end lay a body. She nearly screamed. The phantoms were true. They always had been. She ran even faster.

People like those soldiers, covered in blood and rust, and their leaders would kill and coerce and bribe their way into power and her city would be nothing but ashes.

She had been too indecisive and should have warned the High Council that something bad was coming. Now, these soldiers of blood and rust and shadow marched on her city, through her streets, into her home.

Her brain only had room for one thought: I have to tell them now.

Spurred on by a single-minded purpose, she sprinted directly to the council's building. She paused, panting and trying to catch her breath. How would she appear to the High Council? They would never believe her. She hadn't brushed her hair or even changed out of her nightclothes, and she was red-faced and sweaty.

"Do you wish to meet with the High Council?" a Royal Guard asked. She looked up. She hadn't seen the Guard standing outside the council's building.

"I- yes," Alosi said.

"Then follow me." The Guard turned and walked off.

With trembling legs, Alosi climbed the last few steps and followed the Guard into the council building.

"You're lucky. Everyone else is greeting the soldiers," the Guard commented.

Alosi could only nod.

The Guard opened the door to the council's hall and motioned for her to enter.

"Welcome," Head Councilor Aziza said, "What is your name?"

"You can't trust Ekhart!" Alosi shouted.

Councilor Aziza sighed. "We know, child."

"But what else was there to do?" Eletta, Councilor of War, added. "They simply arrived. We did not have an army ready to fight. We had no time to prepare. If we had resisted, they would have destroyed us. Now, at least, there is a chance for the people to live on."

"It was as if they teleported," Terrick, Councilor of Alchemy, said.

"We do not want to let them run amuck in our city," Councilor Aziza said, "we are not fools. We know the legacy of Ekhart and its conquerors. We know what their soldiers believe and how they fight. There was no other option but this."

A pit grew in her stomach. They needed advanced warning. She had advanced warning. She had known something was coming. But she had said nothing, and now, here they stood. But then… "Why did the herald say to welcome them?" she asked.

Councilor Garen of Education sighed. "We don't know who knows the legacy of Ekhart. Most people don't. They threaten anyone who passes it on. But that wouldn't stop people from trying. We can't teach it in schools, but I'm sure people pass rumors when they think it's safe. We knew people would resist them, so we tried to encourage them to welcome the soldiers. Anyone who knew the legacy and disagreed with our choice would come here, like you, to convince us to fight them. Then, we could explain. Tell the others you know who know their legacy, whoever you heard it from and whoever else heard, to wait for rebellion, and to pass the message on to their allies."

She didn't want to explain the phantoms to the High Council. She couldn't stare these people, these people who loved Andonton even more than she did, in the eye and tell them that it was her fault they had to let these soldiers in their gates.

So she nodded, her throat tight.

"Thank you for your concern, child," Councilor Aziza said, softly. "Stay safe. We will find a way out of this…Andonton is nothing if not resilient and resourceful."

Alosi didn't remember the journey back to her home. She didn't feel anything except that horrible ball of guilt in her stomach. She had caused this. She had brought this destruction to Andonton's doorstep. And now, it was too late to save her city.

She tried to trust what Councilor Aziza had said, that they would find a way out of this, but she found herself doubting it. She knew Councilor Aziza meant it, but the phantom net held her city tight. The only part not completely smothered was the council building, but she knew it was only temporary. Councilor Aziza said that they would find a solution, but Alosi's instincts told her that the soldiers wouldn't leave any time soon. For once, she trusted them. If only she had trusted them sooner.

Alosi didn't know what to think. Her parents had always told her not to turn Andonton into Durne, and she had tried her best. But in the end, she doomed Andonton, just like Escera doomed Durne.

According to the myths, Escera was born cursed. Half of what she heard was a lie. But she was not careful of doubting what she heard, and couldn't decipher the truth from the lies. Escera let the words of a scheming prophet trick her, and she unleashed a plague onto Durne in hopes of saving it from a drought. Alosi had always thought she knew what the story meant. It told her to never trust herself and what she assumed was her curse. She never had. But she still doomed Andonton.

The next morning, Alosi looked out the window. The net had engulfed all of her city, even the council hall. A tear trickled down her face, but she had been expecting to see the white flag flying high above the council hall. She had been expecting the surrender. The net wouldn't descend upon her city for a week, landing on its houses and streets, only to leave the next morning.

A herald blew their horn. "Do not panic! Andonton has surrendered to King Lucat of Ekhart in exchange for protection. We are not at war! We are not conquered! The High Council asks that you respect this change in power and treat Ekhart's soldiers like you would treat the Royal Guard. Again, do not panic!"

Despair and guilt pushed Alosi's spirit down.

Councilor Aziza had said they would find a way out of this, and they would have. If Alosi hadn't hesitated to warn the High Council of the coming threat.