By: Daniel Ortega-Venni
View all Daniel Ortega-Venni's works
Chapter One. Our World Crumbles
The sun streamed through the window of our living room, creating a natural spotlight for me in my position on the couch. I was sitting with my legs hanging over one of the arms while my back was propped up against the other one. In my hands was a book full of ancient myths, tales of gods and mortals. It was by far my most favorite book in our spacious library.
I had read it so many times that the pages were creased with dog-ears and various little fingerprints from when I had been too busy to wash my hands before grabbing it. My mother continually told me to take care of the book, but I always felt such an urge to just go into the world where gods were real and everything had a magical quality around it. It was such a break from the humdrum of ordinary life.
Like right now, I could tell what Sybil was doing without needing to take the effort of looking over the page of my book. She was probably following our maid, Marie, around like a lost kitten. Marie would be trying to dust the shelves for our parent’s dinner party later and Sybil would nuzzle up against her and knock the feather duster from her hand. Marie would tut impatiently, but not say anything. She would then take the duster again and let the cycle continue.
As if on cue I heard a tut from Marie and a slight giggle from Sybil. Our family’s friends often say Sybil looks like such an innocent, sweet little girl with her brown curls and blue eyes, but I would beg to differ. She is always getting underfoot and tripping me or our parents up. If not that, she’s taking things from us and not giving them back until we do something for her. Many times, she’s taken my mythological book and held it hostage until I gave her my slice of cake for her dessert. That’s where the chocolate stains on page 39 came from.
I returned to my book. On it was a picture of Atryadee, the goddess of war and wisdom. Her golden-brown hair tumbled around her face and she wore a white cloak that was draped around her body. She was holding a shield above her mightily and was sitting astride her winged horse, Spartaklys. I sighed, wondering what it would be like to have a goddess on your side.
“Sterling.” Marie’s exasperated voice cried. “Sterling!”
I looked up from my book, gathering from the tone of her voice that she had been calling my name for some time, but I had been too engrossed in my book to hear her.
“Sorry, what?” I asked her.
“Would you mind terribly getting this young thing away from the house for an hour? I can’t get any work done with her always hanging about.” She gestured to Sybil as she said this.
I groaned, but had no choice. “Oh, all right,” I said, swinging my legs around and getting up from the couch. I stretched, already wanting to go back into my comfortable position, before stretching a hand to Sybil. “Come on, let’s go for a walk, shall we?”
Sybil made a face at me, but then her eyes lit up as a thought entered her head. “Ooh, can we going to the market square?”
“Well, I had thought of walking around the garden,” I mused, but Sybil shook her head, her brown curly hair flipping around her face. “All right, fine, but no candied fish.”
“All right,” Sybil replied, batting her blue eyes at me, but I knew better than to be fooled by that look. I made a mental note to withhold her from the booth once we approached it.
Grabbing a black coat from the hallway, I looked in the mirror to make sure I put it on properly. My jet-black hair fell over one of my eyebrows and framed my round face. My pale skin stood out in sharp contrast to my dark clothes and hair.
“All right,” I breathed. “Come on, Sybil.”
The fishing village of Krini isn’t known for having an abundance of wealth, which means that the wealthy families (like my own) live only a few paces away from the poorer part of town. The result is that, if you were to walk in a straight line from the docks, you would first stumble across the market square, then be walking between rows of dilapidated brick houses before finally arriving upon a gate that leads to the “richer” part of Krini, a place that stands in clear contrast to everything else.
For one thing, all seven houses – each housing a different family – are higher elevated than the rest of the village, mainly due to the hill they rest upon. Furthermore, they are taller and grander, sporting sweeping staircases and vibrant front gardens. They stand perpendicular to the gate and are roughly the same height – except for ours, as my family loves to point out. Even the Mayor’s house, which is at the far left, is slightly shorter in comparison.
The reason for our house being so large is that, according to the tales our grandfather used to tell us, our great-uncle was a sailor and quickly accumulated many different things from his travels that the house needed to be expanded to accommodate all of them. Even now the attic remains filled with clutter, such as maps that he himself had drawn after he decided to construct a map of the world. If I wasn’t in the library reading books, I would find myself looking at them and wondering who or what lived on the islands that dotted them.
Grandfather always told us he’d died at sea and, as tragic that sounded, I wished that I could one day be as adventurous to spend all that time on the ocean.
Anyway, unless you’re invited into this part of the island you’re not allowed past the gates, so the tale is usually just spread around amongst the crowd that my parents spend time with. There are guards that patrol the passage in order to ensure that no one trespasses and one of them nodded his head at both Sybil and me as we walked past him.
I’m already dreading having to hike back up the hill and briefly wish we had asked our chauffer to take us in the horse-drawn carriage. As it is, we are already halfway to the market and I turn to the houses around us.
There’s so little space that separates them that even tiny Sybil wouldn’t be able to crawl between them. There are people on higher floors that are leaning out their windows to hang their washing and I find it hard not to laugh at the sight of a particularly round woman trying her hardest to push some of the clothes down to make some space for new additions to the line. Her face is red from the exertion.
“Why is she hanging things from the windows? Doesn’t she have a maid to do it for her?” Sybil asks and I simply shush her and push her along.
The market is finally within our sight and I can practically feel the frenzy already. I love the marketplace, though we hardly get a chance to go to it. There’s just so much character in it: street vendors yelling out prices at the top of their lungs; women bustling around, trying to get as much for as little as possible; men towing their purchases behind them on carts. It’s hard not to marvel at all the frenzy that occurs.
“Oh, Sybil!” a teasing voice cried out and I instinctively reached out to withhold my little sister from running to its source.
The voice belonged to Mr. Turnip, a plump, bald, straw-hat wearing man, who sold candied fish that, for reasons beyond my understanding, Sybil was obsessed with. The first time we had gone to the market and she had had one, she was in bed with a toothache for a week and yet she still loved them.
“Oh, come on!” Sybil cried, writhing underneath my grasp. “Just let me have one!”
“Sorry, we can’t,” I replied, both in answer to her and Mr. Turnip. I then ushered her along, only for Sybil to trip suddenly.
Sybil staggered for a second and then looked down at her shoes before angrily turning to me. “You made me step on my shoelaces and now they’re untied!”
“Well, don’t just stand there, tie them!” I ordered, but, like with any time Sybil receives instructions, she crossed her arms and gave a firm Hmph! in my direction.
I rolled my eyes, but consented and knelt to fix her shoes. Luckily, she wasn’t wearing one of her fancy outfits, otherwise I would have had a mouthful of fabric at this moment.
As I finished, my eyes landed on an old, haggard woman that was across from us. Wrinkles covered her face and she was wearing a brown shawl. She held a shaft in one hand, but it wobbled under her grip, as if she was fighting the urge to keep it still. A white cloth, with blood marks where her eyes would’ve been, was wrapped around the area above her nose.
“Water…water…” she croaked out in a voice just loud enough that I could hear it over the surrounding noise. Something about her made me feel a pang of sorrow, even though there are many beggars that crowd the streets here that I probably would have passed without another glimpse.
Luckily, I had a water canteen in my vest that I always kept filled and, taking care to avoid bumping into the crowd, I weaved my way towards her. I kneeled in front of her and took out the canteen, holding her hand while I dribbled it into her eager mouth.
“Thank…you,” she said and I nodded, before realizing she couldn’t see.
“You’re-“ I began, but suddenly she reached out and grabbed my coat with such force that I hadn’t anticipated coming from such a seemingly feeble old woman.
“This town…our world…” she breathed. “It will crumble…save yourself…take to the seas.”
I shuddered, suddenly feeling cold as time seemed to slow and the words hung in the air between us.
I was in such a daze that when she let go of me, I tumbled backward onto the pavement.
“Sterling! Look out!” Sybil cried and I looked up to see a cart barreling towards me. I violently rocked to the side to get out of the way and emerged unscathed.
I slowly rose and looked bewilderingly at Sybil, whose mouth was agape.
“What just happened?” she asked. “What did she say to you?”
“I-I don’t know…” I responded and I looked back to the space where the woman had been, only to realize that she had disappeared.
Sybil saw it too and she started jumping up and down excitedly. “Where did she go?”
Too much had happened in the past few seconds, more than I was accustomed to, so I closed my eyes and put my hands on either side of my face in an attempt to ground myself.
What did she mean? I asked myself. Our world is going to crumble? How is that possible?
“Hello there, Sterl!” a voice cried out, interrupting my thoughts.
“Tobias! Viviana!” Sybil said and I opened my eyes to see who she was talking to.
Lo and behold, a little further down the square were our cousins, Tobias and Viviana, working at a stall. A sign in front of it proudly proclaimed that they were making and selling fish sandwiches.
Blond Tobias was hard at work folding the sandwiches and putting them in brown bags, whereas his red-haired, older sister was dealing with the customers. Her hair was messily put in a bun, but a few strands had escaped and were dancing in front of her eyes.
Tobias had been the one to call us and he waved us over eagerly.
Shaking my head to clear my mind of what had just happened, the two of us walked up to the stall and entered through the side.
I could see Tobias had been hard at work gutting a few fish, for his apron was filled with bits of fish and blood.
“What are you two doing in this neck of the woods?” Tobias asked, wiping his hands on his apron to give me a firm handshake.
“Foraging for food, what else?” I smirked. Whenever the two of us conversed, it often became a battle of wits as we attempted to out-snark the other.
“Tobias, get back to work! We have three more orders of tuna sandwiches,” Viviana ordered, whirling around on the three of us. She eyed me and Sybil with a weary look.
“Look who it is!” Tobias smiled at her, but she simply gave a curt nod to the two of us before pointing at the cutting board.
“Three orders, didn’t you hear me? Unless the two intruders would like to help out as well.”
“No thank you, this is a new dress,” Sybil replied, sticking her tongue out.
Viviana sneered and quickly turned back to the crowd.
“You’ll have to excuse Miss Smiley, she got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” Tobias said as he turned back to the board.
“Why are you two here? Doesn’t your father usually man the booth?” I asked.
“He fell out of his boat on a fishing trip and hurt his leg. We’re taking over until it gets better,” Tobias explained.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I apologized.
“It’s fine, just as long as we get the money flowing. By the way, you still didn’t answer my question.”
“Nothing major, we were just trying to walk off some of Sybil’s manic energy,” I replied.
“And we saw an old woman!” Sybil said, tugging at Tobias’ sleeve.
I tried to silence her with a look, but she was oblivious. “She grabbed him and told him something before letting him go and making him almost have a run-in with a cart!”
Tobias laughed loudly. “What sort of old woman had the strength to grab you that hard?”
“You’re one to talk, Mr. I-Got-Pinned-by-Viviana-in-three-seconds,” I said.
Tobias, flustered by my comeback, quickly moved on. “Well, what did she tell you?”
“Yes, what did she tell you?” Sybil cried, happy to finally have an ally on her side.
I huffed, knowing there wasn’t a way out of this. “It’s nothing major, just something about how our world was going to crumble and that we needed to take to the sea.”
I heard Viviana scoff next to Tobias. She turned around and glared at the two of us again. “How quaint. Now, if you’ll excuse us-“ here, she grabbed the newest bag that Tobias had filled, “we have a full day’s work to put in.”
Tobias gave us an apologetic look. “Catch you two later, then?”
I nodded. Tossing a wave to the two of them, I grabbed Sybil’s hand and led her out of the booth. Judging by the way the sun was starting to descend from its highest position in the sky, I’d say we’d been away from home long enough to satisfy Marie.
Sybil, however, was still on the “prophecy” I received from the old woman. “Do you think there’s any truth in it?” she asked incredulously.
I shuddered as the possibility entered my head. “No and I would appreciate if you dropped it, all right?”
Sybil emitted an exaggerated groan but finally consented to skip by my side as we retraced our path back through the market.
I had just managed to get the old woman’s words out of my head when a loud rumbling sounded out in the square, followed by a scream.
Instinctively, I turned my head around to see where it had come from. To my left was Mr. Turnip, rooted to the spot with fear. One hand was covering his mouth and the other was pointing to what lay behind him.
My gaze went upwards and I gasped at what I saw. The building that was just behind him was leaning forward on its foundation and about to collapse on top of him.
“Run!” I cried, but he heeded the call too late and the bricks that comprised the building hit him and the stall. His body crumpled onto the floor and the wooden poles that held the stall up broke and fell too. More bricks fell around him, hitting the stone path with a large thud.
Luckily, the building hadn’t been very tall and no one had been by the stall, so no one else was hurt. All that I and the passers-by could do was watch in horror at what had just unfolded in front of us.
Sybil quickly buried her face in my coat and I stroked her, wanting to look away but too struck to do so.
My blood ran cold as I heard another rumble. Another building, opposite the first one, was falling. The owners of the two different stalls in front of it, along with their customers, screamed and ran, but already the bricks had hit some people square in the head and their lifeless body slammed onto the ground.
Louder and louder came more rumbles and abruptly buildings began falling in succession, spreading out in opposite directions – either towards the dock or towards the houses. I snapped out of my trance. We had to get out of here. We had to save Viviana and Tobias before they suffered the same fate as the people around us.
“Sybil.” I said. “Get on my back, now!” She nodded, fear filling her eyes.
I got down and hoisted her onto my back before taking off. I barreled down the path, keeping to the middle to limit my chances of getting hit with any bricks. I tried to pretend I had blinders around my face so as to not look at the terrors around me. I had to keep the one goal in mind: getting to my cousins.
At last, we reached their stall. By my count, we were ahead of the crumbling by three buildings, which meant we had no time to waste.
At first, I couldn’t see them anywhere. The stall looked abandoned and my heart dropped down as I considered that they had run into the wreckage. I let Sybil down and scanned the stall. “Tobias? Viviana?”
“Here!” A voice cried and Tobias emerged from under the box that served as a counter for the stall. He was shaking, his hand grabbing mine. “We heard the rumble. We thought it was muskets!”
“No,” I said in a rush of words. “The buildings are crumbling on their foundations, killing everyone. We don’t have time, we need to run away.”
Viviana popped her head up from the stall, looking me square in the eyes. “Where to?”
Take to the seas.
Without any provocation the thought entered my mind, but I wavered for a second, wanting desperately to turn back and get to my parents.
Another sickening crack reverberated, but this time it sounded farther off. All our gazes turned to see where it had come from and I was met with an image that not even the passage of time would ever erase.
For there, on the hill, I saw the houses – mine and Sybil’s among them – start to give way. Their rooves fell in on themselves and they all shuddered as they collapsed.
I gasped and Sybil gave a loud wail. Flashes of memories took over my vision: me sitting on the couch with a book; my mother and father dressed in fancy clothing and mingling with their friends; Sybil ducking under Marie’s legs; the maps in the attic. My heart pounded in my chest and I wanted to run through the wreckage in a last-ditch attempt to save them.
Take to the seas.
The voice resonated in my head again, louder this time. Already the buildings right next to us were teetering and about to fall and I forced myself to think clearly, like those heroes in myths. Cry later, I told myself and I directed my focus back to the task at hand.
“We need to go to the docks,” I said, tears starting to streak my face.
“You’re mad,” Viviana retorted. “Maybe your house is expendable, but ours isn’t.”
“Viviana!” I said. “Can’t you see it’s a suicide mission? We’d either choke on the dust or get hit by the bricks – we have no choice.”
Viviana shook her head. “I’m going back.” She shot a look at Tobias, but he was too rooted at the spot to say anything. Rolling her eyes, she hoisted herself over the counter and started to run back through the square to the houses. I tried to grab hold of her, but she was too fast and was out of my reach in moments.
“Viviana!” Tobias cried. “Watch out!”
A brick from one of the buildings was careening towards her and, in the blink of an eye, she was on the floor, her leg pinned by it.
“Run to the docks,” I told Tobias and Sybil. “I’ll go help her.”
“No,” Tobias said, firmly. “We’re not leaving without you two.”
I didn’t give myself time to respond and instead dashed to where Viviana was. Taking care to avoid the bricks dropping around us, I eased the one that held her leg off her. “Can you stand up?” I asked.
Viviana’s face was white, but she nodded, shakily. I gave her my arm and she put her weight on it and we both slowly got up onto our feet.
We were in the middle of the path now and, taking one step at a time, we walked down it. I stayed alert, ensuring that we weren’t going to get hit by any more bricks.
When we reached Tobias and Sybil, who were also holding hands, we formed a little procession. I was at the front, followed by Viviana, Sybil and Tobias.
To anyone outside of the scene, perhaps reading about us in a book, we would have been an odd sight. A 16-year-old leading an 18-year-old, a 12-year-old and another 16-year-old slowly down a path while chaos exploded around them.
Just as we had moved ahead of the stall completely, the bricks started to rain down and I heard the sound of wood breaking. Their stall was destroyed.
I donned my imaginary blinders again, this time only opening them a little to see where the bricks were coming from. Slowly and surely, however, we made it to the other side.
The docks weren’t faring much better than the square. Everyone was running around blindly, either trying to go back through the square to (presumably) save loved ones or struggling to untie boats from their moorings so they could row away. Entire crowds of people were surrounding the edges.
“How are we going to get off Krini?” Viviana asked.
“There! There’s a boat.” Tobias cried and we all looked to where he was pointing. To the right of us was a wooden rowboat, bobbing in the water with two oars inside of it. It wasn’t tied to anything, so it was starting to float away. “Quick!”
As if having this final stroke of luck wasn’t enough, the ground beneath us dropped violently.
The dock was made from wood to help elevate it a little above the water and my father had often remarked that if too many people were on the platform at once, there was a possibility that it would give way from all the weight. It had happened once before, he had said, in his youth.
All the weight from us and the people who had had similar ideas, then, was proving too much for the platform. The front of the platform slanted downwards and we were all careening down it. I desperately tried to grab onto something, but all I managed to reach was Sybil’s leg.
“Aim for the boat!” I screamed, trying to point my feet towards it. I slid down with Sybil in my grasp and, once the edge of the dock disappeared from underneath me, I felt the solid wood paneling of the boat.
I righted myself to a sitting position, helping Sybil do the same before quickly scanning the area around me for our cousins.
“Help!” Tobias cried. He and Viviana were a little off to the side, thrashing in the water. I grabbed an oar and rowed to them before reaching out a hand. The boat rocked a little as the new weight was exerted on it, but soon we had gotten both sitting safely in it – Tobias and me on one side, Viviana and Sybil on the other.
Other people were screaming as the deep water engulfed them, none of them as lucky as us to have the sanctuary of a boat, but I kept my gaze singularly on the oars. Tossing one to Tobias, the two of us rowed away as fast as we could, away from the chaos and away from the only world we ever knew.
To Be Continued…