A cold, soaking rain fell upon the young girl’s shoulders, streams of water cascading down through the fine strands of her strawberry blond hair in a torrent that brought a shiver to her petite athletic frame. She could see the steam rising from the tears in the dress she had so proudly donned in honor of the Builders’ Award ceremony just a few hours before. How things had changed in the course of one evening!
As she adeptly made her way through the trees along the ancient forest path that few (if any) had traversed in many a year, she stopped to wonder if she was shivering from the rain or from the certain fate that would await her and her family if she were caught by the hounds not so far behind her – and gaining – in pursuit.
“How could this be happening to you?” her shoulder companion asked her. Since the last Earth Change, Nena, like so many other humans, had become accustomed to the little gremlin-like character that clung to her shoulder, whispering advice non-stop into her ear. Since the cataclysm, almost everyone had a gremlin show up in the flesh to keep them protected from risking too much and to prevent them from feeling too self-confident.
Gremlins bore a strong facial resemblance to their humans, but possessed diminutive and often grossly distorted bodies. Sure they kept their folks in line, but at what cost? Nena often wondered.
“Were you not descended from the noblest of stock? Were your ancestors not the ones responsible for the very founding and growth of what so many had called the greatest civilization ever to grace the planet’s countenance?” her companion now demanded to know.
As the two now ran for their lives, the words of her great-grandmother Ohma haunted her. As they had dressed to attend what should have been the happiest of events, Ohma had confided, “Times have changed, my dear Nena. I have seen visions that our leaders have and will further betray the work that your great-great-grandfather Termaine began so many years ago. The same work that my son, Silvester and I devoted our lives to, the work that I thought would live on forever, well beyond our days.”
Nena had wondered what Ohma had meant by those words, but the words added a bit more to the inner rage that fueled her gremlin’s mistrust of others.
Before she could ask Ohma to explain further, they were interrupted and whisked away to attend the ceremony.
Ohma was truly a legend. She was known to her people simply as “the Auger,” both for her gift of prophesy and for the wisdom and love she embodied and had shared so readily over just shy of the past three centuries with the people who loved and respected her. People marveled at how Ohma was one of the very few who did not need to listen to the constant chatter of a companion of her own, unlike the majority of the inhabitants of the World Above. Ohma’s grandfather had founded their civilization and now not only was his legacy in danger, but the very lives of all his living descendants as well!
As she brushed by a thorny briar, it scratched Nena’s arm, causing blood to pool up and mix with the sweat and rain that now ran freely down the nape of her neck. “You, clumsy fool!” her gremlin barked into Nena’s ear. “Watch where you’re going!”
Yes, she knew that she was fleeing for her life. But even more important to her was her need to warn the others of her discovery and the impending peril it represented to their entire world. She took this obligation very personally. After all, her companion reminded her all too frequently, “You must see that the traitors are punished! We must bring these conspirators to justice! Don’t forget: men can’t be trusted!”
“I know, I know! Enough already,” Nena murmured under her strained breathing.
From the time she could first understand the spoken word, she had learned of her family’s courageous commitment to leadership. Now in her 16th year, she knew full well that great challenges called for great leadership. As she ran, she could not help but hear her companion wonder aloud to her if this would be her opportunity to carry on the family tradition and see that justice be done, or if instead it would be her darkest hour.
“You’re probably not up to the crisis at hand,” her companion reminded her yet again.
The last of more than 2000 attendees filed into the Great Hall located on the first level of the Septropolis. The long-awaited gala event was by invitation only and anyone living either within the Septropolis or the World Above who was someone of importance was on the guest list. Ohma was actually surprised to receive an invitation to attend. She knew that her strong opposition to the changes that were being proposed by the Council members now in control of the governing body had made her persona non grata as far as they were concerned. Ohma knew that they concealed many secrets from her and figured that those in charge wanted to keep an eye on her and that was likely the only reason inviting her.
Some 40 minutes before, just as they were about to enter the Great Hall, Nena had excused herself, saying only that she would be back in a few minutes and would meet her great-grandmother inside the function room. Knowing Nena’s inherent curiosity and strong-willed nature, Ohma had agreed.
But now, as more and more time elapsed, Ohma’s concern increased with each passing minute.
As she now waited for the event to get started, Ohma looked around the festively appointed ballroom. On the walls hung pictures of the many leaders who had recently risen to power. To Ohma’s left hung a portrait of Zuavas, the newly appointed leader of the Council, with the inscription “Integrity” written beneath it. A bit further along the same wall hung the portrait of Chacum, now second in command. The inscription “Vision” accompanied it. As Ohma looked around the room, she could see several other Council members with such labels as “Courage,” “Leadership,” and “Commitment” framing their likenesses. “The irony is enough to make one ill,” she muttered under her breath. Conspicuously absent was her own portrait, along with those of the courageous and dedicated Council leaders such as Cyrit, Jonas, and Nanse with whom Ohma had worked tirelessly for years to promote the common good.
The lights dimmed and one of the newer Council appointees began his introduction of the evening’s first speaker. “In the very brief time that I have known this individual, the man I am about to introduce to you has already become a legend within the Septropolis. He is a visionary leader who is not afraid to shake things up because of his commitment to you all. He is not afraid to make the tough decisions that will protect us from any threats that may be posed by the undesirable elements of our world. His wisdom and foresight will guide the people of our great city now and long into the future. Please join me in welcoming our great leader, Zuavas!”
The band played a jubilant march as the attendees rose to their feet in wild applause. After a few minutes, Zuavas quieted the crowd and spoke, “Thank you, thank you! It is a great honor to be here before you this evening as we celebrate the grand accomplishment of the Septropolis!”
The crowd rose again to their feet and their enthusiastic applause resumed. Motioning the crowd to quiet down, Zuavas continued, “As you know, the construction of our great subterranean city has been decades in the making.
Hewn from solid rock, our city can withstand the direct impact of our enemies’ fiercest weapons. This city will make us invincible against all who oppose us! In combination with the awesome new technology that our scientists are developing right now, even as I speak, we will possess the ferocious power to dominate the world and annihilate all who oppose our domination!”
The power-hungry crowd went wild. They chanted “Zuavas, Zuavas, Zuavas!”
Zuavas said, “We have already begun to take steps to silence our adversaries, to rid our world of undesirable beings, and destroy any who would interfere with our God-appointed authority to rule with an iron fist!”
Ohma could see that the crowd had quickly determined that it was in their best interests to support this authoritarian ruler rather than risk his wrath by opposing him. She knew that he was baiting her and knew full well what would happen to her if she opposed him but she decided that she could stay silent no longer.
“But what of the rights of all people? Are we not a people of laws? Have we not a tradition of honoring others and respecting diversity?” she shouted in reply.
“This is the very sort of insolence that makes a people weak!” Zuavas shot back. “Arrest this traitor now!” Chacum, Zuavas’ second in command ordered.
Within seconds, several guards pounced upon the wise leader that so many had once loved and respected and dragged her out of the hall.
As Nena ascended the wooded path of the foothills leading to the Great Mountain, she could see the hooded figures, cloaked in black on horseback in the distance, still relentless in their pursuit. She guessed that they trailed her by about a mile. Surely, if the going through the brush were not so difficult, they would have caught her long ago. Unfortunately the hounds were not experiencing quite as much difficulty. “They’ll be upon us soon,” she heard her companion’s voice mutter under her breath. “If you hadn’t been so clumsy and dropped your water gourd, they would have never discovered us in the corridor of the Forbidden Wing!”
“Shut up!” Nena answered back, now tiring of the grremlin’s voice.
Do I sense the resignation other mortals would have likely succumbed to long ago?” her shoulder companion added, obviously needing to get in the last word.
Nena’s path soon flattened out and she made the most of the opportunity to pick up speed. The hounds were gaining on her and there wasn’t much she could do about it. As she glanced back to gauge the progress of the hounds, a low-hanging limb struck her across the neck. As she fell to the ground, she realized that they would be upon her in seconds. As her body flipped from the jolt of the tree limb, her head hit a log and she was unconscious in an instant, even before her companion had a chance to scold her for her foolish mistake.
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See: Center For Reinvention
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