Winner of the March 2018 Writing Contest!
The winner of the March 2018 writing contest is: Jose De Jesus!
Jose wrote a dark, engaging story about hard decisions that had us reading through with grim interest. Read below to find out why.
The winning entry:
They say that there are two sides to every conflict. Sometimes it is true, sometimes it isn't. For the past eight years, the former has been the reality for Mikaelos, and he knew nothing else: for eight years he has struggled with the underground resistance group against the tyranny of the current dictators ruling the Empire. For eight years they have fought under the banner of freedom, and while their collective will has been bent many times over, it has never truly broken. Part of that is due to the fire which continues to burn from within the resistance's leader: Valaria, a powerful woman who would not bow to the Empire, and has kept morale steady even in the face of seemingly-impossible odds.
For Mikaelos, the other, more significant reason is his family -- or rather, its loss. Mikaelos' father had been the first to fall, during the first stand against the Empire. Many of his relatives also disappeared from his life, until all that was left were him, his mother, and his last cousin. But Empire seemed determined to take everything away from him: his mother disappeared during a rescue mission two years ago, and his cousin tried to track and possibly rescue her a few days later, only to fall off the radar as well. Mikaelos himself would've followed, had he not been stopped personally by Valaria. They could not afford to lose another soldier, harsh as it may have been to deny him a chance to restore what was left of his family. And so, Mikaelos channeled his frustrations and rage towards the Empire and became one of the fiercest and most effective rebels in the group, in honor of his family's sacrifice.
That is how he ended up in his current position, as one of Valaria's most trusted: both an elite guard and adviser, who helps oversee their group's operations while constantly maintaining vigilance to protect the burning symbol of the resistance. Right now, Valaria was rallying the citizens of one of many towns under the Empire's heavy hand. Such a public appearance would no doubt attract a multitude of threats, and overlooking the rally from within several ruined buildings which still somehow stood were her guardians., with Mikaelos being positioned in the tallest one. His hawk's-eyes constantly swept over the surrounding buildings' windows, rooftops and balconies, looking for an odd glint that seemed out of place, or the smallest tip of a gun barrel that stuck out.
This hyper-vigilance of his is why he is the leader of Valaria's elite guard. It is also why he could not fail to notice the soft footsteps approaching his "room". He had no comrades positioned with him in his building, and he personally scoured the building to check for anyone who might have made this ruin home. There was only one other possibility, and he prepared for it by carefully pulling out his pistol from its holster, while continuing to look out the window. There could be more than one, after all.
The footsteps drew closer, and Mikaelos raised his gun at the doorway. If he heard the faintest signs of a drawn weapon on the approaching threat then he would not hesitate to pull the trigger. However, the first thing he heard was a sigh.
"What a relief. No screw-ups. Mikaelos, you can put that gun down now."
Mikaelos' eyes widened upon hearing a voice which he has not heard in almost two years. The surprise was sufficient that his gun arm weakened, and it seemed to lower of its own accord back to the side of his body, and he turned his head around to see if his ears deceived him.
"I'm back, cousin." As Mikaelos got a better look at his long-lost cousin, he saw that the past few years didn't seem kind to him. Once a hard-working soldier like him, with the physique to prove it, Raikos now looked like he dragged himself back from hell: his body was definitely thinner, and there was a very obvious scar on his left upper arm. His posture indicated a slight limp, apparently due to an injury on his left leg. And his golden crown of hair held a fraction of its former luster as well as its former shape, as most of his hair on the right side had been shaved and was just starting to grow back. There was also a scar that ran over his right eye, which fortunately didn't seem to do lasting damage. He also carried a long case that he recalled contained his personal sniper rifle. It seemed like he managed to keep that weapon safe, at least.
Mikaelos wanted to embrace him, but duty still required that he keep a constant eye on the events below. Assured of his unexpected guest's presence, he turned back to the other buildings and the rally.
"It's been...two years, was it? I thought we--I lost you." Mikaelos loved his cousin like the brother he once had, and had it not been for his mad dash to rescue Mikaelos' mother, Raikos could have stood alongside his cousin amongst the elite of the elite guard. "How did you..."
"I had to apply every lesson I've learned. And then some." Raikos sat down next to Mikaelos and stared through the hole in the wall. "Valaria is still fighting, huh?"
"To the end, Raikos, along with the rest of the resistance. There was nothing left for us -- and there will be nothing left for everyone until the Empire is brought down. And so we have to fight back with everything we have. You know that, too."
"How could I forget?" Raikos sighed. "All the risks we've taken..."
"Speaking of risks, why did you do it?"
"Why I tried to infiltrate the dungeon all by myself? You know the answer as well as I do. We're a family. I'll do anything for family. I'm sure you would have as well."
"So how did it go?"
Raikos sighed again. "Let's just say that I had to make some tough decisions."
Mikaelos closed his eyes and balled his fists. "It was all for naught?"
"I'm sorry, cousin." Raikos softly rested a hand on Mikaelos' shoulder. For the briefest of times, the famed protector let his guard down, and there was no way that he could have seen what came next: with the same hand, Raikos quickly tore away his earpiece and wrapped the arm around his neck, while the other hand drove the hilt of a knife onto his neck. Mikaelos' vision grew blurry as Raikos softly put him down, and pinned his left leg down with the knife. The pain was excruciating, but the blow on his nape was too much for even pain to keep him up, and his vision slowly faded.
He regained consciousness briefly after, but the effects from the blow still lingered, and he could not react with so much as a shout to his cousin as he set down the case on the ground and extracted the weapon, which was definitely not his cousin's. Through the haze of his recovering consciousness, he recognized it as the favored sniper rifle of the Empire's counter-insurgency squadrons.
"Rai...kos..." he tried to shout, but it came out as a hoarse whisper. He tried to drag himself towards his cousin, but the overwhelming weakness he felt alongside his disabled leg made him unable to move close. "What...have you..."
His faint pleas would not be addressed. Raikos positioned his rifle in front of the hole in the wall, careful that the barrel didn't stick out. Light levels in the room coupled with the matte finish of the rifle's suppressor would ensure that no one outside would be able to see it. And then, he waited for the right moment.
"Raikos...why...?" Mikaelos again asked of his cousin. Again, there was no response as Raikos adjusted his sights. There was his mark, out in the open, one hand balled into a fist and raised high. It was a shame, too. Raikos tried to court her once, and while his efforts bore some success, it was not enough for a relationship to blossom, especially not in such troubled times. Her main focus was on the resistance.
The shot rang out -- the rifle was suppressed, so the shot could not be heard beyond a certain distance, but within the confines of the room it was loud and recognizable enough. Seconds later, the faint, panicked cries of the crowd below followed, and then a flood of radio chatter from the earpiece in the other end of the room.
Finished with his grim purpose, Raikos stood up and replaced the rifle into its case. He looked at his cousin again, who has seemed to have recovered enough from the blow to express his emotions, mainly outrage.
"What have you done, Raikos?!"
"I told you, cousin. I had to make tough decisions."
"And so you became an assassin for the Empire! Has everything we've ever risked been for naught?" Mikaelos tried to stand through the physical pain his body still felt. "And don't you dare call me 'cousin' ever again. Mother would be livid if she knew--"
"If Auntie were to hate me forever for this, then so be it. But you'll know why I did this. Soon." Raikos' words stopped Mikaelos in his tracks. "I'm sorry for what I did to you. Farewell, cousin." Before Mikaelos had a chance to shout again, Raikos had already left.
The shock of the betrayal he witnessed in front of him was enough to make him collapse to the floor again. "Why...?" he asked the empty room. "What did you mean by that, Raikos...?"
It took half an hour for Mikaelos' comrades to arrive. By then, it had been determined that the sniper had already vanished into thin air, which was an impressive feat even when compared to overwhelming one of the best soldiers the resistance group ever produced. Even more impressive, Mikaelos could not give an identity to the assassin, which further convinced them that there was a dangerous new enemy at the command of the Empire.
The hidden truth was that Mikaelos couldn't bear to point his finger at his cousin. Not after what he told him. He wants to know. What did his cousin mean by those words? And how soon did he mean?
It was only a month since the death of Valeria, but the resistance had already run out of steam. There were many in the resistance who were weary of the eight years of their struggle, a struggle which had gone nowhere despite Valeria's best efforts to keep the flame of revolution ignited.
Ultimately, it was Valeria who kept the resistance going for as long as it did, and once she was taken down, there was no one else in the resistance who had her fire. Many suggested Mikaelos, but even he seemed weary as well. A bitter decision was made to break up their group. Some have retreated to obscurity, while others have left the Empire in the hopes of starting a new life, though both groups would be doggedly pursued by the Empire's counter-insurgents. A few turned themselves in voluntarily.
Mikaelos was one of the latter. Tired in spirit and broken in body, he was the first to surrender to the Empire. After all, he had nothing left. His mother was still gone. His cousin has disappeared after his brief reappearance on that fateful day. He figured that he wouldn't see his face again, and with the actions he'd committed against the Empire, he was certain that execution awaited him. If nothing else, he would be able to reunite with his mother.
The guards told him that the prison cell he was in was the same cell which formerly held his mother. Surprisingly, they never meant any malice in their words. No taunts or vile remarks, just matter-of-fact responses and declarations. He was an enemy of the Empire, and he deserved every bit of hate from its soldiers for it, and yet here he was, sitting in a fairly-furnished cell, with running water, a television, and a bed with a mattress, even though it was thin.
"You have a guest," one of the guards told him. Before he could ask who it was, both guards assigned to him left. A minute later entered a face he swore he wouldn't see again.
"Cousin. I presume that you are treated well here?" Mikaelos could say no other words in response. "I'm glad to see that your leg wound has been treated...I'm sorry for that, but I didn't want you to interfere."
"I had to make some tough decisions, remember?" Raikos put a finger to his earpiece for a few seconds, and nodded afterwards. "You won't be here for long."
"So...you've come here to say goodbye--"
"Not really. As a matter of fact, it's more of a 'see you soon.'" Through the bars of the cell, Raikos reached in and embraced Mikaelos. "I would do anything for family. Even if it meant betraying everything we've ever believed in." Raikos then withdrew. "I had to pull every string I could to grant you this much, and more. Now, you'll have another guest soon." Raikos left as quickly as he came, and for a few minutes the dumbfounded Mikaelos tried to process the information his cousin provided.
Another look of surprise appeared on Mikaelos' face. He'd long given up hope that he'd ever hear that voice again...and yet...
"M-Mother..." Mikaelos fell to his knees as his mother, looking older and gentler than she last looked like, slowly approached him and embraced him softly through the cell bars.
"Your cousin endured so much to grant us this. He was captured by counter-insurgents the second he stepped into the dungeon."
"He made some tough decisions..." Mikaelos echoed his cousin's words. She simply nodded, as Mikaelos finally brought out all his pent-up emotions from the past month through his eyes. His mother held him as closely as the cell would allow.
When the tears have passed, Mikaelos stood up. "Then...what happens to us?"
"Your cousin has done his part, and would be allowed to leave the Imperial army soon. At the same time, you will be set free. When that time comes, we'll go off and keep living. We're no threat to the Empire anymore."
Simple as that. No talk of continuing to fight the Empire, or even to serve it. They would just go off and continue to live. The former was suicide, as they were certain that there would be Imperial spies on their trail, watching their every move to see if they would try to form another revolutionary group. The latter...he was sick of fighting. His mother seemed to be as well, and so was his cousin. The Empire might call to them someday, but until that day comes, they wouldn't force themselves to fight a war that is now not theirs.
They say that there are two sides to every conflict. Those people tend to forget that there are those who pick neither, and Mikaelos would start learning about that oft-ignored side. This time, his family would be together through it.
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