First Place – The War Inside Me

FIRST PLACE
The War Inside Me

(an excerpt)
by
Helen Habingreither

I hate this part of the mission. I hate the cold metal gun in my hands. I hate the tiny bullets that take lives so easily. I hate the sound of crying when the family finds out. I hate the gravel that digs into my knees while I sit on the rooftop of an abandoned building. But this is for the safety of the people. Innocent people.  

The night is quiet and humid, and the gunshot will certainly wake people in nearby buildings. The children will fear the noise, but the adults will fear the aftermath. 

I can count six Royal guards surrounding a young, frightened boy in an ally. He can’t be older than fourteen. The guards think they have the upper hand, but they don’t realize there is another player in this game. The largest of them takes a step towards the boy. “What are you doing out here past curfew?”

The boy swallows hard and starts shaking. “I didn’t mean to, sir. I was trying to get some medicine for my grandma, and I just lost track of time.”

The guards all laugh. A second guard steps forward. He is tall and lean with black hair falling over his eyes. “Breaking curfew is against the law,” he says coldly as he pulls out a small pistol. “On the penalty of death.”

The boy’s eyes widen, and he starts stuttering. “Please no sir! I-I didn’t mean to sir! I-it won’t happen a-again!”

The guard towering over him smirks and points the gun at the boy’s chest. “No. It won’t.” 

He is seconds away from killing the boy. One finger twitch and the boy’s life will be taken. A slight move from my index finger and instead of a bloody bullet hole in the boy’s chest, there is now one in this guard’s back. 

The guards all let out a cry when their companion falls. The two closest to him try to stop the bleeding and check his pulse in hopes that they can revive their friend. One guard, who is all brawn and no brains, somehow thinks that the boy is responsible for the death of their friend. He pulls out his gun to punish the boy but isn’t fast enough. This time I hit the head. At this gunshot, two guards bolt. They value their lives over punishing a boy for a petty crime. 

The only ones left are the two largest of the guards and the boy. The guards both have cold blue eyes that search the darkness for the killer of their comrades. Thankfully, they find nothing. They shoot a look at the boy and walk off quickly, probably to get reinforcements. Now I just need to wait for the boy to leave. Unfortunately, he has other plans. He searches the darkness for his savior. 

We are there for almost ten minutes before I sigh and give up. The guards will be back soon.  I put my gun on safe and stuff it in my bag. Then I jump off the building, landing a few feet in front of the boy. He is startled and scrambles back. “H-hello?”

I feel sorry for him. He must be terrified, but he has to go. “You need to leave. The guards will come back soon.” My voice is cold and unfriendly. Hopefully it will scare him off.

I take out my flashlight and stick it in between my teeth. I’ll need both hands to find their IDs. I glance up, and the boy is still standing there. Now he is just being annoying. Whatever. I have to find these IDs. I feel his eyes take in my odd looks. My blue and pink hair falling out of my hood, my tan skin, the black dots on my nose and the three on each cheek, the blue on my forehead. The blue is so vibrant it’s impossible to miss, even in the dim light of the flashlight.

He watches me for a bit before he gets the guts to ask what I am doing. I respond coldly so that he knows to leave. “Searching for their IDs. I have a friend in the black market that buys them.” His eyes get wide, but he nods anyway. We sit in silence for about three minutes before I finally find two pristine IDs in their right pockets. This should get me enough money for the week. Both go into my bag along with my flashlight. In the darkness, I stand and start to leave, then stop. The boy. I can’t just leave him. He can’t possibly survive much longer. I need to give him something. I search my bag, then I toss a small sack of coins to the boy. He catches it and looks at me curiously. “For your grandma. Take care of her. I would suggest that you get out of town. The guards won’t be too kind if they find you again.” 

“They won’t be too kind if they find you either.” 

I smirk at the suggestion. “Then I guess I can’t get caught.” With that I crawl up the rusty fire escape and jump along the roofs of the other buildings to get to my house. Twelve minutes later, I open the window to my abandoned house, and I automatically know something’s off. It feels like someone else is here. Only one way to find out. 

I press my fingers to my head and two fluffy dog ears sprout out of it. My human ears melt into the side of my head. I feel the pain of my wings coming out of my back and my eyes turning orange. By now my wings are fully grown, and all I feel is a dull pain in my back. The wings open old wounds, but I don’t mind the blood anymore.

I open my eyes and look around. Someone is definitely here. I can smell them and hear them breathing. I hear my voice echo across the house. “Come out! Why are you here?”

The breathing stops, and for a few seconds everything is silent. Then Robert steps out from the shadows. The idiot never tells me when he will come over.

“Why do you always go full demon mode when I show up?” 

The room is dark, but I can still make out his figure. He has chocolate brown hair and matching eyes. He is relatively tall and muscular and catches the eyes of the girls all over town. He wears long sleeves no matter how cold or hot it is outside. He also happens to be my only friend. 

I sigh and let my eyes return to normal. “I’m on the run, in case you didn’t know. It would be nice to get a warning you are coming beforehand.” I feel the wings retract into my back, but I leave the ears. This house feels too easy to sneak into.

I toss my bag to Robert. “The IDs are in there. Two of ‘em. The bodies are in ally five.” He digs through the bag for a bit before pulling out the IDs. Then he pulls out a bag of coins from his own satchel and puts it on the table next to him. “That should be enough.”

“Thanks Rob.”

Robert makes a face at the nickname. “Don’t call me that.”

I shrug and climb up onto a beam across the room. I lay down on my back and take a breather. Robert climbs up on the one next to me, sits down cross-legged, and stares at me thoughtfully

“What do you want to ask me Robert?”

He laughs but quickly turns serious. Oh no, not this again. “Rose, I really think you should join the Rebels. You have the same goals as us.”

I sigh and give him the same response I always do. “They would never accept me because of my past.”

“Maybe if you would tell me your past, I could tell you if they would accept you.” I sigh and shake my head. “Rose you-“

A loud crash cuts him off. The door had a stack of cans next to it so I would know if someone was coming in. Robert jumps down from his beam and grabs two guns. He tosses one to me, and I catch it easily. There is only one doorway into this room, and both guns are pointed at it.

“Hello?” The voice is from a young boy. It sounds like he is alone, but you can never be sure. “Is anyone there?” The voice sounds familiar. “If anyone’s there, please help me. I need to find someone. Someone who saved my life.”

Then I know who it is. It’s the kid I rescued earlier. I sigh and motion for Robert to not shoot. He raises his eyebrows but nods and lowers his gun. 

The boy is standing in the doorway and looks very different. He has two shotguns in an X shape on his back and a small satchel filled to the brim with canned food. He doesn’t see me, but he tenses at the sight of the gun in Robert’s hand.

“What do you need, kid?”

The boy looks around but finds nothing. “I’m looking for someone who could help me reach the Rebels.”

I almost fall off my beam when he says this. He said his grandma needed to be taken care of. What is he doing here? I jump down from my beam and land a few feet away from him. “I thought you had to take care of your grandma. Why are you here?” 

His face falls, and I can guess what happened before he says it. “My grandma. She didn’t get the medicine in time. But she did leave me a note.” He pulls out a dirty sheet of paper. “She says that she wants me to find the Rebels and join the fight. So, I took my father’s hunting guns and came to find you.”

I feel a pang of sympathy, but I push it away. I can’t let my feelings get the best of me. “Talk to him then.” I make a hand motion to Robert and slump into a torn chair. 

The two talk quietly for an hour before Robert comes over to me. “Rose. I want you to come with me. I’m taking Matthew to the main Rebel base. It would be easier to take both of you at once.”

Maybe I should consider his offer. I don’t know how much longer he will be able to get to me if I keep moving. It would be nice to stay in one place for a while. Instead of saying these things to him, I just sigh and stay silent. “Rose, just create a new person. Do the other form thing.”

I don’t like my other form very much. It is quite pleasing to the eye, but I feel like a shell of myself. Everything feels different in that form. I can’t fight as well, and my wings and ears won’t emerge. Plus, I always have a face of non-removable make-up. I don’t do make-up anymore. Still, it will buy me some time there. “Alright. Let me pack.”

Robert seems stunned for a second, then nods.

I grab a periwinkle backpack and put all my medical supplies in it. I put all the coins I have in a secret compartment along with some small pistols. Finally, I put in some precious objects I have found in guards’ pockets – a pocket watch, a locket with a little girl’s face in it, and a small amethyst. At the very least, I can sell them. I toss the bag on my bed, then sit on the floor. I close my eyes and concentrate as the transformation begins. 

To anyone watching, it happens very quickly, but time slows for me. For me, this takes hours. My hair grows and swirls into a complicated ponytail. Then it turns a silvery white color. My skin turns very pale, and I become taller. My eyes turn crystal blue, and my lips are as red as blood. The clothes that I wore the last time in this form are on me – cargo shorts and a leopard patterned crop top. My shoes are tiny black heels, but I can’t seem to find any other shoes that fit me in this form.

Finally, the transformation is complete. Then I stand and sling my bag over my shoulder. Here we go. When I walk out of the room, I know that Matthew is staring at me. Whatever. I can always take him out if he tells anyone. 

Robert barely spares me a glance. This isn’t his first time seeing me like this. Once Robert is ready, we all go to sleep. If someone finds us, we need to be ready to go, but we also need our rest. As soon as the sun is up, we are on the move. Time to show the world what I am made of.

Two hours later the three of us are walking in the hot sun to the black market. Robert has “a trusted associate” there.  Please. Robert is too quick to trust someone. He trusted me after I stopped him from getting shot. He should have waited to see if I was on his side. 

As we walk, I see more guards than usual. They must be on the lookout for the person who took the life of their comrades. I wish them luck on that. The street is really crowded today, plus they don’t know what I look like. 

Before long, we reach the entrance to the market. The market is filled with many shady characters. There are few stalls, mostly just people sitting at tables with wrapped packages. If you want to buy from them, you show them your money and they let you look in the package. The place smells strongly of tobacco and alcohol. It makes sense given the number of drugs that are smuggled in here. This is the one place where you don’t have to worry about getting arrested. Royalty keeps this place open so they can buy illegal supplies without too many people knowing.  In return for not telling anyone anything they do, they don’t arrest anyone who is in the black market. 

When we step into the marketplace, I stop short. There are three men sitting at a table close to us. They each are very tall and muscular and have evil looking cat tattoos on their left arm. Killer Rebels. 

I grab Robert and Matthew and pull them into an ally. “Killer Rebels.” Robert’s face turns stony, and Matthew looks very confused. 

“Who are the Killer Rebels?”

I sigh and try to explain as quickly as I can while also looking for an exit. “When Morganite was discovered by ten Royal families from a far-off land called Faymont, it was decided that each family would control their own state. They convinced the natives of Morganite that life would be better under Royal control.  Fifteen years later, it was discovered that there were islands surrounding Morganite that had many mines of precious gemstones. The only problem was, there were only four of these islands. A king from a rich and powerful state decided to hold a census to determine who had the most people and resources. The mines were given to the four states who had the most resources and people. The remaining states were split into three common states and three poor states. The common states were able to make alliances with the rich states, but none of the rich states wanted to be seen with the poor states. The poor states got the fewest resources and never had enough money to do anything, like building adequate housing and buying food. They also were required to work in the mines for a long time with little pay. Eventually, they rebelled. About four years later, the poor states became known as the Rebel states. Well, not everyone agreed with the Rebels, but they also didn’t agree with Royalty. So one of the Rebel states became a Killer Rebel state. Killer Rebels are ruthless. And they will kill everyone in their path.” It was a rushed but reasonable explanation.

“Let’s go this way.” I look over to see Robert pointing to a very crowded area. I nod and Robert leads the way while Matthew and I follow a little further behind.

Matthew is still trying to make sense of the story. “How can you tell the difference between a regular person and a Killer Rebel?” He’s taking this better than I expected. 

“A Killer Rebel is usually someone very tall and muscular. They also have a cat tattoo on their left arm.” Matthew nods then looks at Robert. Then his face drops, and he stops walking.

“What are you doing? We’re going to lose Robert.” 

“Robert. He’s tall. And muscular. Does he have a tattoo?”

I’m about to tell him that’s ridiculous when I stop short. He does disappear for long periods of time. And he never rolls up his sleeves. What if…?

“Ok. Here’s the plan. I’ll run up to Robert and roll up his sleeve, and if there is a tattoo, you and I will run. Ok?” Matthew looks terrified at the idea but nods anyway. 

Please let there be no tattoo. Please let there be no tattoo. Please let there be no tattoo. 

Slowly, we creep up on Robert. As we do, memories of the things Robert and I have been through flash through my head. Please let there be no tattoo. The time we almost got arrested for taking a guard’s lunch. Please let there be no tattoo. The time we snuck into a picture show just for the free popcorn day. Please let there be no tattoo. 

Finally, Matthew and I reach Robert. The moment of truth. I jump onto Robert and roll up the sleeve on his left arm. And then I feel my entire world come crashing down. He was my anchor, but what happens when your anchor breaks away? For the first time, I see it – an evil cat tattoo.

I jump back and start slowly backing away from Robert, who has fallen on the floor from the force of my push. “Rose, let me explain…” His voice is like the one you would use to calm a frightened horse. Most girls would forgive him instantly if he used this voice on them, but it won’t work on me. 

I grab Matthew by the arm and run into the crowd. Robert runs after us, but I’m too fast for him. We run so fast that the market is just a blur of black and grey. How could he not tell me? Why? I am so wrapped up in my thoughts that I run right into someone. 

I mutter an apology and try to run further, but the person grabs my arm. I turn to fight off my attacker, and I am faced with a tall woman with blonde hair and cold blue eyes. She has on maroon armor, and a sword is strapped across her back. She isn’t dressed like a Royal guard, so that leaves two options.

“Why are you running from my top soldier?” I quickly glance at her left arm and stop short. She has no tattoo on her arm. 

I glance back to see that Robert is standing behind me. I turn to get a better look at Robert, and I realize that he is begging me with his eyes. She doesn’t know. He really was taking me to the Rebels. Either he used to be with the Killer Rebels, or he is a double agent for one or the other. I decide not to reveal his identity. 

“I’m sorry, I thought he was someone else.”

Matthew looks very confused, but I put a hand on his shoulder. The woman looks like she is about to say something but lets me go anyway. I am not worth her time. Then she goes back to looking at some bows and arrows wrapped in brown butcher paper.

I look at Robert and make a decision. I won’t tell anyone that he is a Killer Rebel. After all, I am a Royal princess. Ex-princess.