10 years earlier
Two boys stood at the edge of the forest where the dark blended with the light. A permanent mist protruded from the trees, making it almost impossible to see what was beyond the invisible barrier. The silence was so strong it was almost unnerving. They knew what the forest held, everyone did. They’d all grown up on the story.
It had started with a belief. A belief that society needed strict laws and the people needed a way to be controlled. There was an order, a right way of doing things. That was how the King rose to power.
The details of the story had always been skipped over when the school repeated it to the students each year. Repeating it as a reminder that they should feel grateful for having the privilege to live like they did, to have been born onto the victorious side, to be raised on morals and values. Their main message was clear.
“The world was stuck in a dark time,” they always said,” Fear was rampant and ‘criminals’ were unrestrained. A balance that civilization had once had all but disappeared. There was theft, there was murder, there was hunger.” And then there was King Callan. He stood up, appearing from nowhere like a god that was called upon to save them, and declared a new way of things. The upper and lower classes were further separated as a solution to reduce crime. The rich, building and moving into an extravagant city and the poor, shunned to the outer areas, left to their own devices.
There was no leniency for criminals. A thief was a thief and deserved to be treated as such. The King had ridden in on his white horse with answers and most people didn’t give it a second thought. Most people. Not everyone agreed with the change. A group began to form in the lower classes.
The next part is the section of the tale that the teachers rush through. Vaguely, they explain the purpose of their rebellion as a useless act of violence, as an aggressive ploy for freedom that they hadn’t earned. They stood for the opposite of everything King Callan stood for. “It was a good thing we prevailed,” the teachers declared.
“They breed chaos,” King Callan had said, “They are savages.” And that was how they were pictured from then on. As Savages.
The war began with the savages calling it a fight for freedom. The new monarchy called it an anarchist attempt to overthrow order.
It was brutal and quick. The Savages were outnumbered, outmanned, and outgunned. Two thirds of them were slaughtered by the King’s men before they had time to retreat into the forest. The Savages had barely been able to slay a quarter of their opponent’s soldiers. Those who had lived through it insisted that there was so much blood the river next to the battlefields ran red for three days.
Now, though, the Savages were a thing of the past, a ghost story, a cautionary tale to show only tragedy comes from immense freedom. Some (mostly the children who had been too young to remember the war) doubted they were even real. Others assumed they had just died out in the woods. There was just enough fear of them to prevent them from wandering into the forest.
The older of the two boys standing, a chubby, pug nosed kid of about 12, picked up a rock and chucked it into the trees. A flock of startled birds launched themselves into the sky and away from the threat, breaking the bubble of quiet. He turned to the other, a curly haired scrawny boy.
“You know why they call it the Afterlife, right?” He asked him. The scrawny boy shook his head. “It’s because once you go in there you don’t come back out.”
The boy tilted his head and pursed his lips as if trying to decide whether he was being jerked around or not.
“Come on, Langley, would I lie to royalty?” The older asked smirking. The boy, Langley, blushed and shoved him.
“Shut up, I’m not royalty.”
“You’re the king’s boy. Your family has three generations of kings. I’d say that qualifies as royalty.”
“At least I don’t come from a family of servants, right Sam?” Langley asked sticking his jaw out and glaring at the other boy, attempting to look intimidating. Sam’s eyes flashed dangerously. He rolled the sleeves up of his worn jacket and turned his attention back to the woods.
“I bet there’s no one even in there,” he said, “Your dads just collecting taxpayer’s money building up an army to fight an imaginary retaliation that is never going to happen. That’s what my dad says.” Langley bristled.
“Well, then your dads an idiot,” Langley said. Sam sucked in a breath.
“Take it back,” he warned.
Sam grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him up so they were almost face to face.
“Take. It. Back.”
“If you’re so convinced your Dad’s right why don’t you go in there? If no one’s living there nothing to worry about. That is why you dragged me here isn’t it?”
Sam let go of his shirt. Surprised by the sudden release, Langley stumbled backward ungracefully.
“I just took you here to show it to you. No one’s stupid enough to go in there; there’s other stuff in there besides people. It’s the ******* woods. I just thought it would be appropriate since it’s the 10-year anniversary of the end of that stupid war. It’s, you know, uh, whatever you call it, metaphorical.”
“Symbolic,” Langley corrected.
The boys stood in silence for a minute before Langley took a cautious step forward. Sam raised a skeptical eyebrow but remained quiet. Langley squinted his eyes trying to see through the fog and perceive any visible dangers. It was pointless, even with the mist settling the dark was creeping forward to take its place, swallowing everything up in its path.
Langley knew the other boys only put up with him because of his father. He was skinny, unathletic, but he knew if he stepped even one foot in the Afterlife, he’d be seen as just more than the king’s disappointment of a son. Stupid, maybe, but also fearless. He took another step forward.
“You’re not going to do it,” Sam said sounding unsure. Pride drowned out fear and Langley willed his body to continue moving. It’s funny the lengths young boys will go to to impress one another.
His foot barely grazed the first path of grass of the woods before he saw a spear whistle through the wind and embed itself in the Earth, directly in front of him, just missing his big toe. He barely registered Sam grabbing his arm, dragging him back and shouting something he chose to ignore; his body was frozen in place.
“Come on!” Sam yelled and gave Langley’s arm a hard yank. Langley fell back onto the ground and scrambled to get his feet back under him. Finally gaining his balance, he took off after Sam, running as fast as his legs would carry him. Sam panted in front of him, sweat dripping off his forehead and his pace gradually becoming slower. He settled into a brisk walk as soon as they approached civilization again.
Langley’s body shook and it took him a minute to realize it was out of excitement and not fear. There were people there. There were people in the Afterlife.