She hears her mother calling her, but at her age, this falling star is much more interesting than anyone calling her for any reason. So she stands there, and a minute passes, and then two. And just as she thinks that there's nothing left to see, she hears a dull, building roar, and she suddenly remembers something that a sickly elder once told her, lying on a bed that he would never get up from:
"If you ever see them fall from the sky, run. Run from the cloud, Deesa. Run away and keep running."
But it catches her anyway.
When that little girl comes of age and becomes a young woman, she is stronger, taller, healthier than all of the other women — and most of the other men. And she's forgotten, mostly, that one day on the beach, when she was caught by the cloud.
She remembers running, and falling, and the worry on her mother's face when she awoke in her arms. She remembers babbling about a cloud of green, about falling before she reached the grass.
She doesn't remember the whispers of blood sickness that circulated for weeks in the village, whispers of the long winter and the long death. The whispers gradually died as she grew up, not sickly at all.
But as the years went on, different whispers start. Whispers of blood magick, of rituals and rites that her mother must have done to save the child, of life leeched from others and tragedies caused by borrowing life. Dante's mother Iyala is the first to accuse her mother, after her son withers away, coughing up more and more blood every day for a month. But the community defends her; after all, only half of all children make it to their Age Day, and everyone has someone they lost.
It is the grief speaking, the elders say to Deesa and her mother, and tell them that it will all be fine. No one really believes that there is blood magic involved.
No one does, that is, until the tide starts coming in.
Not the regular tide, greyish green, that all children are taught never to touch. Instead, it is a green, shifting mass, one that advances just past the water itself, spreading itself across the beach, shifting, turning... waiting. Every night, it comes in as the sun sets, and every morning, it disappears, receding beneath back beneath the waves.
At first, there is no cause for alarm. There was already a firm admonition not to go to the water, and so the elders simply reinforce it. There are other things to worry about — family issues, community issues, the stocks of food for the upcoming winter, and so much more. The elders treat it practically, and turn their attention to other matters.
But then the tide starts growing, inching its way up the beach, until all of the sand is covered. At night, if you were standing in the grasslands, you could look to the beach and see this green, roiling mass, one that almost breathes.
The real alarm happens when the tide spills over to the grasslands, within sight of the village.
The real panic happens when the village discovers that the tide is killing much of the grass and shrubbery that it touches — and some of the smaller animals, too.
A meeting is called.
A young woman leans on the edge of a wooden tower, looking out past hastily constructed village walls, and watches as the tide comes in. The green carpet. The poisoned sea. The plague cloud. The names for it amongst the villagers are many, but everyone knows what they're talking about. And everyone knows that it's been advancing, and that tonight, there is a meeting to discuss it.
And Deesa knows a bit more than that. She's been reminded, more than once in the past fortnight, of an event that happened years and years ago, and she suspects that the village elders will have no choice but to do what the village wants. It's not just Dante's mother, this time, but many others, who know two things: that there is a green tide that is killing the land, and that it had likely once touched Deesa herself.
And to be honest, she can't blame them, because she knows those two things too, and in the absence of any other information, who is to say that the whispers aren't right — that the tide is seeking her, and will kill anything it touches to get her back?
"Deesa." A voice from the darkness, a voice that she knows well.
"Macce," she responds, a half smile coming to her face as she turns to face him. "Are you the bearer of bad news?"
He steps forward until he's next to her, smiles, and takes her hand in his before speaking.
"The green cloud has been tracking you," he says, and watches her eyes widen. "That's something that no one knew until today. Where you've been hunting - the paths that you've taken - the cloud has covered that ground faster. It — it prefers that area. It may cover the hunting grounds in a few days."
She turns back to look over the wall, and he waits, knowing her just almost as well as she knows herself.
"—do what’s right," he finishes, and they share a smile, though he takes a moment to cover his face, coughing. "Anyway, the village asked if I would tell you. I think they expected that you would know, but wanted a friendly face to do it, anyway."
"And you are the friendliest face I know,” she says softly, and then snorts. “It's hard not to know, when the entire village is at something that you are not invited to."
He chuckles, and they both fall silent for a bit.
"Deesa—" he starts, but she just shakes her head.
“Don’t make it harder, please. I’ll set out in the morning – can you let them know?”
He eyes her for just a second, and then nods, and leaves, after a brief hug.
She wakes later that night, and lies in bed for a few minutes before dressing herself. There’s a brief moment of hesitation at her mothers’ bedroom door, but, after the tears threaten to come, she knows that if she goes through that door, she won’t be able to leave. A few minutes later, she slips through the gates, gently letting them click shut behind her, and turns to look at the cloud, lighting up the darkness, as green as the poisoned frogs in the remaining forests. It’s closer to the village than it was earlier that night, and she feels a twinge of fear.
Maybe, she thinks, it’d just be better if she simply walked towards it, and let it swallow her up. But what if it stays around? What if it decides that I’m not enough?
She remembers what Macce says about it following her, and takes a few tentative steps out towards the roiling mass. It doesn’t seem to respond, and she takes a few more, and a few more, until she’s barely ten steps away. From here, it almost seems to make a sound. A slow, steady buzz, one that comes and goes. She looks at it, one more time, and then turns to her right, and starts walking. If it’s going to follow her, she’s going to give it something to follow, away from the village.
The night passes steadily as she walks, always careful to keep it to her left, but after some time, she realizes that the beach is no longer to her left, and that she’s surrounded by the grassland. The cloud is still to her left... but she realizes that she’s been going in an arc, curving back towards the village as she goes. In fact, they’re almost to the hunting grounds now, and she realizes with growing terror that the cloud has taken over all of it. It’s gotten there ahead of her.
Every inch of land where the village hunts and forages is covered by the knee high cloud of poison, and the death it brings cannot be far behind. She strains her eyes, looking for some of the wildlife, the shaggy beasts, and sees a group of them, in the distance, sleeping through it all – and most horrifyingly, she sees them inhaling and exhaling the gas, one breath at a time. As Deesa watches, the grass in front of her starts wilting.
“No- no! Our food! The village!” she cries out, starting to rush towards the beasts, ignorant of her own safety. She hears a noise behind her and turns as she runs, catches a rock, and the cloud catches her once more as she falls.
Deesa wakes for the second time that night, but this time, only sees the stars above her. The stars, the constellations, and a green haze. A green haze that she inhales... and exhales.
“Deesa?” she hears a voice from the darkness, and she tries to figure out where and when she is.
“Macce?” she asks, and she hears a groan. She slowly pulls herself to a sitting position, and looks around, mind still unclear. “The wildbeests – they were breathing it – I fell into the...”
And then she looks down, at the pale face of her friend, who is starting to shiver uncontrollably.
“What’s wrong? What happened? Oh, Macce, why did you follow me-?”
He forces a smile on his face, even as he can’t keep himself from shivering, twitching. “Had to- look out for you. Make sure you knew you weren’t alone.” His teeth chatter, and he pauses for a second, squeezing his eyes shut.
“What’s-“ she starts to ask, and then stops. The cloud surrounds them now, and she would swear that it’s even more active near them than anywhere else on the grass. She looks back at him, the tears starting, furious with him, and herself, and the cloud, and everything. “You should’ve stayed! I could’ve done this myself! Why is it you and not me? I thought I was the one that it wanted!”
His breath starts to come in fits and gasps, but he swallows, hard, and shakes his head, stopping her.
“No, y-see, I have... the blood sickness,” he says, coughing, and she realizes that it’s blood that he’s coughing up. “Didn’t want to tell anyone. Found out a month ago. Still okay, but-“
She tears off a part of his shirt and dabs at the blood. Tears flowing down her cheek.
“Deesa,” he says, taking her hands in his own and squeezing them tight. “You—you’re fine. You’re breathing and you’re fine. It might only—”
He coughs up more blood, and Deesa looks down at him, and then up at the beasts in the distance, realizing what he’s trying to say. “It kills— but not everything. Maybe only the sick. The blood sick. The ones that have drunk the water, or that have eaten the things that make them...”
“Slowly... die,” he finishes for her, as he’s done since they were both children. “I don’t... feel pain. I don’t know what it’s doing but it doesn’t— it doesn’t hurt. I know what happened to my grandpa, and I choose this any day.”
He coughs, again, a continuous, wracking cough as she holds him.
“Bring me back to my family,” he says.
“I will,” she says, and then they say no more.
She takes his body back to the village as day breaks. Some of the earlier wakers see her, and before she reaches the town hall, everyone is there, but no one says a word.
She set his body down, and backs up as his family surrounds him.
“Macce was my best and oldest friend, and he went out with me last night, after you... after I decided to leave. I wanted to lead it away from you, and went north, but the cloud had circled around to the hunting grounds. We saw it take over – we saw that everything there breathed it in, and many things died.”
“Macce – Macce died. But before he did, he told me that he had the blood sickness, too, that he was going to die, and that maybe – maybe the cloud only made it so that those who can’t be saved are given... release. He said – he said it didn’t hurt.”
“I don’t know what the green cloud does. I only know what it has done. I know that I’m standing here today, despite having breathed it in, and I feel healthy. I know that there has been something that has been slowly causing us to all get sick, something that our grandfathers and their grandfathers died from. Maybe – maybe this tide is one that washes away the sickness. I know that I saw the beasts this morning, and while some of them were dead, many of the young ones were not. I saw some of the grass near the beach, and it’s growing back faster than it’s ever done.”
“I think you know what I’m about to say now, what my suggestion is. But I don’t know what to do. I’m just one person, and maybe I just got lucky, and Macce got unlucky. This isn’t my decision to make. It’s yours. Macce wanted me to bring him back. And I think he wanted me to tell this story. The rest... is up to all of us. If you want me to leave again, I will.”
“And if we think that you should be killed?” A voice from the crowd.
“If you think I need to die and that will make it go away, that is a choice as well.”
The villages look at her for a long time.
They look at Macce's body.
And then they vote.
A/N: It's been a long time! The first part of a 30 in 30 challenge that I'm doing with some friends (so, uh, if you don't like fiction, you might want to defriend me, because you'll see a lot of it this month). With thanks to kickthehobbit for the prompt. A touch of nanotechnology, a dash of a post-apocalyptic world, and a nod to 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'.