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  • Dor Atkinson

Short Story: Lio

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

Note: This is a short story I whipped up recently to get to know some of my characters better when they were younger, in my YA fantasy Guardians of Earth and Sky. It's still rough, but I wanted to share. Feel free to drop a comment, and let me know what you think. - DA


“Nervouss. You sseem nervouss, Lio.”

The writhing snakes hiss as they coil gently around my arm, flicking their scarlet tongues near my palm, searching for crickets. An enthusiastic green one tickles my arm hairs, forcing a wild laugh out of me as I release the last few crickets into the darkened enclosure. They slip off, gliding after the leaping bugs, their bright eyes reflecting back the dimly flickering lantern light.

“Me? I’m not nervous.” My faltering voice echoes back to me off the glistening stone walls. I’m lying, of course, which is hard to do with snakes slithering up and down your torso. Guardian Snakes can sense everything, like how my temperature changes when I’m angry or sad or jealous – or when I don’t quite tell the truth. My own snake, Mesina, wraps her powerful white body around my shoulders, tightening in a kind of hug.

“Okay – maybe I’m sad.” I don’t mind saying this because it’s true. I’ve been enjoying checking the eggs in the hatchery for any sign of weakness, allowing the young snakes to slither all over me. “This is my last day taking care of you guys.”

“But won’t you misss uss?” A slender blue-black snake watches me closely, a brown cricket wriggling in his jaws. The amber glow of the lantern lights on the low ceiling above us glint off his glassy black eyes. “We will misss you.”

“Yes.” I stroke the snake’s smooth head. “But you’ll still see me – all the time.” We all live here on the same island after all. “Don’t worry! It’s not like I’m going far, far away.”

Not far at all. Down one echoing tunnel, through another shadowy passage, into the vast, echoing cavern where the sacred waters flow. Our teacher, Natia, says Snake Guardian training begins there tomorrow – if us initiates can complete one final task: a purely selfless good deed.

The snakes hiss softly, curling through the scrub and sand in their warm enclosures. I wonder if they are filled with anxiety just like I am. Soon, they will be paired with their own young Guardians, to develop their magic abilities together, to protect all those who need it in Karakora. My mouth quirks in a smile as I bow to the snakes. They nod their small heads back.


“Thank you for letting me feed you and take care of you. I’ll see you soon!”


I wave good-bye as I race back through the echoing corridor, hoping to find my companions, the other initiates. But when I arrive, the training grounds are empty. Dark sea-green crystals hang like glittering moss from the roof of the cavern, casting an eerie glow over the rushing falls. I kick a jagged stone into the Sacred Pool. It falls in with a resounding plunk, rippling. A cool shiver races down my spine. I edge away from the deep blue pool.


“They’ve all gotten a head-start,” I grumble to Mesina.


“Don’t worry about that,” Mesina says softly, curling around my upper arm. Her albino scales gleam in the half-light. “You’ll catch up and passs them. You’re fasster than them.”


Faster at running, maybe.


As I turn toward the dark tunnel that leads up to the surface, I glance up at the stone cliff where the Sacred Falls crash into the pool below. Here is the place where Mesina and I were joined years ago, and this is the slick, sheer wall I will climb tomorrow. The icy mist coats my skin, and I shudder as I step to the wall, running my fingers along the gleaming, wet surface.


A warm voice stops me. “Not time to climb walls yet, Lio.”


I yank my hand away as though scalded by hot coals. Face burning, I stick my hand behind my back and whirl around to greet Natia. My teacher’s gold-flecked green eyes crinkle at the corners as she smiles down at me. I try to smile back at the strong woman with the long, braided hair – shiny black, like my own cropped mess of hair. I swallow hard, hoping she can’t hear my thoughts swishing around like angry snakes. As our teacher and leader of the Snake Guardians, Natia has amazing powers, but I’m fairly sure mind-reading isn’t one of them.

“I wasn’t going to climb it.” I scrape my booted toe into the wet stone. “Just – imagining what it will be like.”


The flickering lantern lights above us reflect in Natia’s eyes as she smiles. Her small, ruby-red snake peeks out from her sleeve, spying on me. “You’re going to do great, Lio. Just wait. You’ll make it to the top – even if it takes longer than you think. We’ll help you get there.”


Help. A stab of anger twists through my stomach, but I try not to let it show.


“I don’t want help, Teacher Natia. I want to do it by myself.”


Natia’s smile droops and her forehead creases. I think suddenly of all the footholds I’ll need to find in the rocks. How we won’t be using a rope. How difficult it’s really going to be.

How the pool below the cliff is deep and dark. Maybe bottomless.


“Of course you do.” She’s nodding as I grind my teeth. “I understand. We will simply be there to offer suggestions. The real work you’ll be doing completely on your own.”


I nod, but my heart is heavy. I wonder if any other Snake Guardians have attempted what I’m about to do. Natia’s own daughter, Saiya, isn’t going to need help – her skill is far beyond mine. No doubt she’ll pass all the trials and tests without breaking a sweat.


Natia settles on a wet stone, wincing as she stretches her back. A streak of grey winds through her braided hair. She drums her fingers on her knees and purses her lips. I glance away. I bet she’s going to tell me the story of the one-legged Snake Guardian. Other adults have used that one on me before.


“You know, years ago there was a Snake Guardian – “


I knew it.


“Talo was his name, and he was born with only one leg. My grandmother used to tell me he defeated an entire army that was trying to raid a village on Lu’Keta Island. He did it single-handedly – uh, no pun intended.” She flicks a look at my single arm, and her gold-brown cheeks flush. “Apologies, Lio.”


“It’s okay.” Natia is one of my favorite people. So, of course I’ll forgive her.


“He was a great hero in his time and remembered for his great kindness as well as his strength. Those days are in the past for us – I hope. Days of slaying entire armies, I mean. A peaceful approach is what we need now in Karakora. But Talo’s skill in combat was remarkable. Grandma might have been exaggerating – she had a knack for that. But I believed her story.”


She smiles at me. A beautiful, generous smile. I like to imagine my own mother’s smile was like that.


“Believe me, Lio. You have no idea how much you will accomplish in the days to come.”


“I guess so.” I edge away from her, anxious to do this one last task. If I don’t, this conversation won’t matter. There will be no obstacles for me to face if I’m no longer an initiate. If I don’t find one more good deed before sunset tonight, my Guardian studies are over.


Teacher Natia seems to sense my anxiety. She waves me away.


“I can see you’re itching to go up to the surface. Go ahead and find your last good deed. I know Mesina will tell me all about it.” She winks and nods to my snake with a kind smile. “Good luck, Lio. I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow!”


I sure hope so. I feel her gaze against my back as I turn away, stroking Mesina. I sprint all the way along the sunless, winding passage. Brilliant fuchsia-hued stones and small, gleaming pools light my path. I leap over stalagmites, clambering over boulders until I find the long staircase that spirals all the way to the surface gate. Like most Snake Guardian kids, I take the stone steps two at a time. I’ve worked hard to make my legs strong, to make my one arm even stronger. So, I’m faster than most of the others. When I reach the top, my heart is in my throat, beating a drum-beat. I slam open the iron door, pull myself up into the blinding sunshine.


I wander through town, peering through open windows. Somebody must have a floor they need swept, a fishhook that needs polishing. Or maybe someone has caught the stomach pains from the all the three-tailed fish the fisher folk keep dredging up. If so, I could drop in at the apothecary, pick up whatever roots and leaves they need to make a healing tea.


But everybody seems busy. An elderly Guardian warrior in the old style of dress brushes past me, barely glancing down. Her thick black snake is coiled around her shoulder, flicking its tongue at me suspiciously as she hurries away. She heads down toward the docks. I peer after her, wondering if I shouldn’t go that way, too. The sun is directly overhead, and most of the townspeople are fishing. All of them hoping for a better haul than last week, and the week before. That’s what all the adults complain about. No fish, or nothing but oddly mutated ones. The fault of the Immortals, no doubt – pious but wasteful folk who dump everything into the sea.


The vast, brilliant blue of the Karakora Ocean surrounds me. White caps crest the waves as far as I can see as I run down along the winding cliff-path, trying to beat my own time.


“Sstay away from the edge!” Mesina hisses in my ear as I pound along the planks. She’s like my inner voice, or the mother I can’t remember. Some days she echoes my own fears.


“I’m not gonna fall,” I scoff, panting. “You know I’ve done this a thousand times.”


“Well, I’m not the besst sswimmer.” Mesina coils tightly around my bicep.


“You think I am?”


The thought rattles me, reminds me of my nightmares when I was little. Falling into the ocean, struggling to swim, attacked by angry sea kelp. Sinking like a boulder to the bottom, chewed on by sea monsters. Nobody trying to save me. I quickly push the horrible image away.


As I step out onto the docks, heavy carts of ripe kativa fruits squeak past me. Smooth-walking Snake Guardians and mysterious Silvereyes with their glittering irises shove their way past. Merchants are selling their wares at half-price, bellowing to the captains to ready their ships to sail. Fish or no, the air stinks of it – plus seaweed and hot lentils full of peppers and spice. The odors tease my nose, floating on the salt breeze.


Everyone in the Hundred Isles is welcome here on the Sacred Isle. That makes this one of the busiest, craziest markets in all of Karakora. I wander through the crowd, searching eyes and listening to conversations. Searching for one more good deed. I walk toward a Silvereye with a heavy cart full of fine silver, but their glittering eyes slide past me. I wave at a white-haired Guardian carting a giant wine cask on his shoulder. I start to speak, but he raises his eyebrows, glances at my single arm. My skin turns hot as the man turns away, shaking his head.


I trudge on, starting to feel sour. Mesina’s tongue flicks gently against my ear.


“You’re upsset, Lio.”


“Nobody needs my help,” I complain, grinding my teeth. “Of course they don’t.”


“Not yet,” Mesina hisses. Be patient and brave – like the ssnake coming out of the egg.”


I roll my eyes, then stop. A grating voice, a boy’s loud voice, grabs my attention.


“C’mon, please? Just turn the barrel silver. I’m super poor, I need the money.”


A snort, a girl’s laugh. “Ignore him, Teja. He’s a prince. He has everything he wants and more.”


Curious, I follow the voices down the creaking pier to two twin stacks of barrels. I slip behind a musty-smelling barrel and peer over. On one side sits a girl my age, with deep black skin and gleaming silver eyes. She’s a Silvereye, in merchants’ clothing, with an armload of silver bracelets. She’s crouched on a barrel, hugging her knees, her eyes fixed on her friend. Seated on a cask on the opposite side is a girl with warm copper-brown skin, her raven hair twined into long, tiny braids. A slender green snake is curled around her arm, and her full lips are curved in a stubborn frown.


That’s Saiya, I realize, recognizing her green-gold eyes, her tiny green snake. A wave of burning jealousy floods through me. First of all, Saiya is Teacher Natia’s daughter. She’s my age, but she’s been climbing walls and practicing with a wooden sword ever since she was toddling around the caverns. The adult Guardians all say she’ll be even more powerful than her mother someday. Plus, I bet she’s already completed her own good deed, ahead of the rest of us.


A skinny boy stares down from another stack of barrels, casually drumming his polished leather boots against the wood. His pale skin is tinged sky-blue, stretched across his cheekbones, marking him as a follower of Irra – the so-called Immortals who conquer island after island to drink the Sacred Waters and try to live forever. His eyes glint gold, matching his hair, and his thin mouth is twisted in an amused smirk.


“Oh, c’mon. I know you Silvereyes like to show off. Just do it. Then I’ll stop bugging you.” He’s leaning forward with anticipation, staring at the Silvereye who refuses to look at him.


Saiya’s golden-brown cheeks are blushing red, her hazel eyes flashing with annoyance.


“Leave her alone! We’re busy. Just – go somewhere else!”


The pale-blue boy’s leer falters. He frowns. “Well – why? There’re no other kids out here today. I just thought you girls might want to have some fun.”


“This isn’t fun, Immortal.” The Silvereye shifts her frosty eyes to his. “If you want to hang out, maybe you should ask us what we want to do, instead of ordering us around.”


The blue kid’s mouth gapes open like a stunned fish. I feel a laugh creeping into my throat but choke it down.


“Sorry – I guess.” He rubs his neck awkwardly. “What do you want to do?”


Saiya waves a hand at one of the barrels. I look to where she’s pointing, noticing the intricate patterns sketched across the dark wood, all inlaid with silver. It looks like an underwater scene, with waving sea-kelp and detailed, sparkly fishes.


“We were making up a story. Teja was making some art – a silver picture. Does that sound like something you want to do?” Saiya’s narrow black brows shoot up in skeptical arches.


The golden-haired boy shrugs. “Not really. My father says art is a waste of time.”


Both girls frown. The Silvereye, Teja, sighs deeply.


“Your dad’s an Immortal, right? Maybe you should tell your dad that making art is one way to live forever.”


Saiya glances at Teja, her eyes bright with admiration.


The Immortal boy laughs, an unpleasant sound. He jumps off the barrel and slides toward the two girls. Even from below them, smirking up at the girls, he still seems to take up too much space. “That’s heresy. Following Irra is the only true way to live forever.” He taps the small looped circle tattoo over his eyebrow. “Committing yourself to Irra, honoring him.”


“Stealing sacred waters from islands that aren’t yours, you mean,” Saiya shoots back, then slaps a hand over her mouth. Her eyes go wide like moons, as if she just let slip a secret.


It’s no secret though. Everyone knows the Immortals want our Island, our waters. They’ve been negotiating with Teacher Natia for months, and all the talks have fallen flat.


The boy steps closer, wraps his pale-blue fingers around Saiya’s ankle. He squeezes.


“That’s a lie, snake girl. My father doesn’t steal anything that isn’t rightfully his.”


Saiya tilts her head, gazes down at him. “Don’t you know how stupid that sounds?”


Teja, the Silvereye, stares down at the Immortal without blinking. A pungent burnt smell fills the air as a curl of smoke drifts from his head. He gasps, releasing Saiya, stepping back. He grabs his hair, fingering it with shock. One lock of his golden hair has turned cold, solid silver.


The Immortal boy’s fists clench. He shifts his angry gaze to Teja. She slips off the barrel and stands ready to fight. Saiya bites her lip. Her worried eyes flicker between the Immortal and the Silvereye. Her fingers drift to her snake, and the overly-large sword strapped to her back.


I stick out my hand and push over the barrel without thinking. It slams against the boardwalk, bang. Rolls away. I swallow hard as heads turn in my direction.


Oh boy. Why did I do that?


I scratch my head, trying to ignore my racing heart. “Oh, hi. Whatcha all doin’?”


The girls are gawking at me. The Immortal boy’s golden eyes are shooting daggers.

“I’m Lio. Short for Aurelio.” I hold my arm behind my back, willing myself to look calm. “You’re Saiya, right?” I push down my jealousy, smile at her. She frowns quizzically – probably because she’s never noticed me before. Why should she? “I know you. And Teja.”


I nod to the Silvereye girl, who raises her eyebrows. I’m lying, of course – just to throw off the Immortal kid. Like a Guardian snake, Teja senses it. She cocks her head, eyeing me.


I turn to the scowling boy. “And who are you?” I try to say it lightly.


The pale blue kid puffs out his chest, swaggers toward me. “You don’t know? I’m Matias, the Prince. The Immortal King’s my dad. This island’s a dump – but he says we have to stay here until he finishes his deal with the Snake Guardians. Which better be any day now.” He throws a long, bitter look at the two girls. “Even lightning practice is more fun than this.”


He turns back to me and sizes me up. He notices my missing arm and his eyes widen.


I’m pretty sure what he’s going to say next, so I interrupt him.


One good deed, coming up…!


“Nice to meet you – really. But that doesn’t really matter here, does it? Saiya’s mom’s in charge on this island. So why don’t you just go away? Go hang out with your Immortal friends, or something?” I ground my feet, preparing myself for the punch that’s likely to come.


Maybe then he’ll leave these two alone. Problem solved – selfless act accomplished.


Matias grinds his teeth, steps up to my face. Then he bursts into laughter.


He snorts, wiping his face. “You know, that speech would be a lot more impressive if you had two arms. What happened to you, anyway? You lose a fight with a shark?”


Heat rises to my face like fire. I’ve spent enough years explaining to people about the way I was born. I’m about to scream at him when Saiya jumps down, landing behind him.


“Lay off of him,” she growls, brandishing her sword. She swishes it for effect. “He’s a Snake Guardian, so you better watch it. You bother him, you’ll have to answer to me!”


I gawk, stunned to hear her defending me – Saiya, the natural-born Guardian, who never spoke to me before. Her snake hisses, baring needle-sharp fangs. Her gold-green eyes smolder.


She’s defending me so well, it’s almost like she doesn’t need me to defend her. That’s not fair. My jaw tightens in irritation. What about my good deed?


Then there’s the sword. We aren’t even supposed to use those anymore. Her mother has declared them off-limits. She says she wants a weaponless approach to fighting for freedom.


Somehow, the Immortal Prince seems to know this. He swings around, grinning ferally.

“Whatcha gonna do with that sword? Nothing! Y’all are peaceful Guardians now, right?”


He prowls toward her, a cat cornering a mouse. Saiya moves back with a scowl, but her sword trembles slightly as she holds it between them. He touches the tip lightly with his finger and pushes it away. Saiya’s brows knit as he backs her up to the very edge of the dock. She wobbles, nearly toppling backwards into the dark, churning waves.


My heart nearly stops. I recognize that look on her face.


She’s afraid of drowning – just like me.


Teja is on her feet in an instant, her hands flexing – probably trying to decide whether to use her own powers and turn this creep into a block of solid silver. But he’s a Prince – and she’s just a silver merchant. She’d be punished severely.


My heart hammers in my ears. No. No. No. I look at the dark waters rippling behind Saiya and swallow hard. My joints feel solid, like I’ve been turned to silver myself. The Immortal gives Saiya a shove. Her mouth flies open as she flies backward into the water – and sinks, sword and all.


“SAIYA!” Teja screams and leaps to the edge, shoving Matias aside. She leans over, gasping, trying to see her friend.


Matias stumbles backward, frowning. He hesitates, opening his mouth. He shakes his head and takes off – pounding away down the pier, losing himself in the market crowd.


I swivel around. I realize nobody at the market can see us. Nobody is coming to help.


I turn back and see Teja’s boots disappearing into the waves. I rush to the edge and peer in. The water is black, murky, turbulent – just like my nightmares. They’ve both disappeared.


“They don’t need me.” I tell myself. “They’ll be fine.”


But the water is unchanging. No one comes back up.


Mesina hisses in my ear. “This is it – your deed, Lio.”


“No. I can’t – “


“I know you’re afraid. I’m afraid, too. But I’ll be with you.”


I look into Mesina’s shiny black eyes, my heart twisting. I see fear in her eyes, but courage, too. A shiver races down my spine.


Maybe this is what it feels like, to be a Guardian. Afraid, but taking the risk anyway…


I touch Mesina once, suck in my breath, and leap in.


Pitch-black, icy-cold. My heart is a stone, choking my throat. I flail around, shoved in circles by the merciless current, feeling slick kelp slither across my face, my neck. Mesina’s soft voice echoes in my mind.


Warmth. To the right. Reach out.


I thrash, reaching. Something rough slides through my fingers. Long, thin braids.


I grip them in my fist, hold tight. I kick powerfully with my legs, grateful for their strength. My lungs about to burst, I bump against something solid – another body.


Teja!


The Silvereye’s strong arm wraps around my waist. Mesina constricts around my arm as if to remind me of her presence. I continue kicking as the murkiness brightens above me. I push my head out of the waves, suck in delicious air, brilliant sunlight. I gasp as I struggle with Saiya, and Teja struggles to swim along with me. My legs flail rhythmically, churning the waters. I choke as saltwater spills down my throat. Somehow, we make it back to the dock, together.


The rough, wet wood bites into my fingers. I strain my shoulder muscles as I drag my body out, shivering. Teja pushes Saiya up toward me, sputtering as waves crash into her face. I hook my hand under Saiya’s arm as her head lolls. Teja pushes, I pull.


Then Saiya is collapsed next to me, drenched and unmoving, her braids splayed out on the dock. Her small green snake blinks his eyes, curls around her shoulder. I cough up salty water and retch. Teja crouches by Saiya, pumping her chest, pressing her lips to Saiya’s mouth. Her silver eyes are wide, glittering with tears.


“C’mon, Saiya! Wake up!” She strokes Saiya’s forehead, holding her ear to her chest.


When Saiya begins to cough, Teja’s body releases. She flops onto her back, panting. She smiles faintly at me.


“Thank you.” Her voice is full of relief. “I couldn’t find her – but you did.”


My cheeks feel hot. “Well – thank you.”


We lay there as the sun slid across the sky, listening to the sighing waves, the distant clamor of the merchants and ships thumping against the docks. Saiya sleeps soundly, her chest rising and falling, her sword still clenched in her fist. Teja doesn’t wake her, but she smoothes her hair back, clutching her opposite hand. Mesina curls up on my chest and closes her eyes.


Teja and I stare out at the horizon as the sky changes from pale blue to a bruised purple-pink. I think about training tomorrow, and the towering climbing wall, wet and ominous. My arm muscles twitch in anticipation. Despite my wet clothes and the chill as night comes on, a feeling of warmth settles over me. Mesina hisses gently. As the sky shifts to black, I decide I’m ready.


Ready as I’ll ever be.


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