Carlotta stood amongst a dark field of rhubarb, staring out at the Lightbearer’s gifts dotting the leafy sea, their islands of buttery light keeping the beasts of the Endless Dark from encroaching. So close to the edge, her hip lantern flickered, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. Let the Dark take her early, she thought. Let her death be yet another sign the Lightbearers were losing power, instead of a price paid for a crime she hadn’t even committed.
The Light protecting the village had been dimming for years. The Lightbearers blamed the laziness of the Fieldworkers, and told them to make twice as much in half the time. The Fieldworkers blamed the laziness of the Lightbearers, who had never worked the fields but nonetheless ate their fruits. Then, when the Lightbearers had threatened them, the Fieldworkers had skipped the counter-threats and gone straight to a strike, just as the fields were ripening, and the Lightbearers had made them pay dearly.
Carlotta’s father had led the strike, and he’d been sentenced to hang for a crime everyone knew he hadn’t committed, but no one dared speak out. No one but Carlotta, who had gotten nothing but a rope of her own for doing so.
Behind her, she could hear her ‘guards’ gossiping several meters away, betting on whether she would walk into the dark to avoid the rope. She stared instead into the Endless, trying to pick out the vague shapes and swirls signaling the beasts that would pick at her corpse. Or, if she were lucky, perhaps it would be a rare kinetopede, guided by a mad captain come to whisk her away from the village to cities unknown. She’d always heard there were others in the Endless Black, but no one had visited for years, leaving them trapped in their little hell of Light and rhubarb leaves.
“Carlottaaa,” a low, sing-song voice breathed.
Carlotta groaned, freezing while she weighed whether turning around was worth it.
“Carlotta!” Hands grabbed her shoulder roughly, already out of patience. “What’re you doing all the way out here?”
Carlotta wasn’t sure there was a worse person in the whole village to find her. With a mane of golden, glossy hair, soft hands unfamiliar with labor, and a deep tan from bathing in a light Carlotta would never see, Gloria was perfect. Carlotta hated how beautiful she was. She hated every morsel of free time and material wealth Gloria showed off just by being here, but couldn’t help being taken in by the beauty anyway.
So she seethed silently, angry with Gloria for having it, then with herself for admiring it, then at the whole damn world for allowing Gloria to be lazy and beautiful and free, while Carlotta worked her fingers to the bone just for the chance to do it again tomorrow. She hated Gloria. She felt that hate burn the inside of her ribs every time she saw Gloria’s face and then, one horrible moment later, felt a pang of longing run its fingers over the hollows left in her hate’s wake. Admitting she liked Gloria felt like lining up everything she and her family had ever been or done, and betraying it all, one after the other.
“Are you looking for trading kinetopedes? Or would you settle for worshiping cobblestones and turnips with those weird cultists in militia tanks by now?” Gloria said, grinning as she dug a finger into the wound on Carlotta’s soul.
“I was never even at the strike, you know. My dad wasn’t either, and yet we’ve got a date with ten feet of hemp,” Carlotta poked back, praying that would be the most horrific thing Gloria heard all month.
It seemed to work, as Gloria jerked back, and Carlotta could not help but take a small amount of joy from it. “What? Are you saying I did it, somehow?”
“I was only stating a fact; I didn’t say a thing about you doing it.”
“I didn't do it, hand to the Light! Why — I wasn’t even in on the whole business, same as you — yet, here I am!”
“If you’re the same as me, why aren’t you going to the gallows, too?”
Gloria stammered at that, then stomped her foot, letting out a huff. “Listen, do you want to be a petty bitch or do you want to listen to me for ten minutes?”
“Why should I listen to you? Why, when all you do is laugh at me and then run away to your nice, well-lit House?”
“Because I came all the way out here in my house flip-flops and hot pants to tell you I have a plan to save your life! Everyone’s lives, even!”
Carlotta lost all her rigidity and hate in one fell swoop, eyes widening and jaw falling open in shock, a tiny flare of hope lighting in her chest. She never let herself hope; hope was just a cover for the pit of disappointment that was underneath it, in her experience. But now, she hoped… blindly and endlessly.
“How?” she asked softly. It made Carlotta afraid, standing here, all her defenses down, heart fully exposed for Gloria to punch.
“It’s… it’s risky, I’ll admit that. But I think it’s worth it,” Gloria mumbled, the sudden lack of confidence unfamiliar on her features. “It’ll take a lot of work on your part, though, so… I really, really need you to commit to this before I even tell you.”
Carlotta wanted to say no — could say no, she now realized. For the first time in her life, she stood at the fork in a path with the full ability to decide between her options. She could say ‘no’ and savor Gloria’s defeat, her realization that, for the first time in her life, she couldn’t bully someone into submission. She could watch Gloria futilely claw at her defenses until it was too late and Gloria had to find someone else to dupe. It was petty, and it ended with her dead, but it would give her selfish satisfaction she wouldn’t get any other way in this damned village.
Or… she could say yes to whatever manic future this girl thought she could cobble together from the scraps of the village. She could live, herself, and maybe spend that future with….
“What are you thinking? What can I do to save us?” she asked, every word falling like a stone between them.
“Oh, Light. So you’re in?” Gloria lit up, as bright as the town square lantern.
“If your idea can actually save us, yes.”
“Oh, Light, this is great! Thank you, thank you, thank you! You’re not gonna regret this!” She swept Carlotta up in a hug, her body radiating heat like those mythical things called suns, lamps supposedly as big as the village and hanging from the Endless ceiling. Carlotta hated how her entire body flushed, how badly she wanted to return the embrace, absorbing the heat and smell of Gloria forever.
“Well, we Lightbearers have a secret —”
“A lot more than one, I wager,” Carlotta interjected.
“Shush! Anyway, we have a lot of secrets.” She paused, pushing away and gnawing on her lower lip. “We… have a specific method of creating light. And it’s not what we do, exactly. It’s… what we sacrifice. To Lucstafel.”
“To what?” Carlotta interjected again, closer to screeching than speaking. “Is… is this a joke? Or a trap?! That’s it, huh? This is a trap, so they have something else to hang me, isn’t it?” She jerked away from Gloria, eyes racing from her hip lantern to the lamps above, sure that, at any moment, they would blink out, leaving her in the dark while Gloria ran for the safety of the House.
“No! No, I swear on my life! I swear I’m not!” Gloria darted forward, grasping Carlotta’s hands in her own. “I won’t leave you, I promise. Not until you want me to.”
Carlotta’s heart wouldn’t stop hammering in her chest as she glared at Gloria, the Light of the field lamps framing her face remaining as dim as ever.
“How can I be sure?”
“You… you really can’t. Sorry. But, can you trust me? I — I really do want to see you live, Carlotta. And the whole village. I… I want to see it change for the better. I want people to come here again, like when our great-grandparents used to have a trading post and a fuel stop that even the cultists used.”
“Weren’t you making fun of ‘cobblestones and turnip worshiping’ cultists a few minutes ago?”
Gloria winced, her warm grip on Carlotta’s arm momentarily tightening. “Eh, yeah, but…. Oh, just forget it.”
“You’re a cultist, too. If what you said about ‘Lucstafel’ is true.” Carlotta couldn’t help but lean closer, afraid of the moment Gloria would let go.
“Well, our cult’s real, so it’s different,” Gloria said hastily. “Our god actually makes all this Light that we sit in… we’re simply getting worse at paying the price.”
“The sacrifices we make for the greater good, just like all of you in the fields,” Gloria said.
“We’re not trying to sacrifice, we’re just trying to provide for our families,” Carlotta countered.
“It’s still a sacrifice, isn’t it? You give up time and your bodies to keep this place alive. Just like us, don’t you see?”
“We don’t get a choice,” she hissed, leaning close enough her spittle spattered Gloria’s cheek. “Not when your people are the ones controlling the Light and the gallows.”
Gloria huffed, “C’mon, Carlotta, just play along for a moment. There are some awful things we must do to keep this place alive, even worse than anything happening in the fields.” She stepped back, her hand still wrapped around Carlotta’s wrist.
“Like what?” Carlotta’s patience was wearing thin.
“We sacrifice bits of our own minds and bodies constantly — not just through labor, but through the actual severing of the piece. After tossing it to Lucstafel, we pray it burns longer than the last human log we fed to the metaphorical fire,” Gloria explained casually. “And we do labor, too. We take care of everyone who’s already too used up to do anything but watch the parts of themselves burn, and hope the fire outlives them.”
“What the fuck?” Carlotta muttered gravely, feeling the blood drain from her face.
“It’s just as thankless as all your weed pulling and leaf harvesting. But at least you people don’t have to worry about one day being the leaf and getting harvested yourself,” Gloria rattled off.
“You people live in luxury before you’re the leaf.”
“Fine, yes, we do! Are you happy now?” Gloria squeezed Carlotta tighter. “And maybe, just maybe, if you… if you join, and burn a thousand times brighter than anyone else, we’ll have enough that everyone will live in warm, sturdy houses, with fully lit corners. I really think you have the potential, Carlotta. More potential than any of us Lightbearers. We’re used up before we even start to burn, these days, and really, you’ve got this personal fire I think could really accomplish it. I promise, if I have to, I’ll take care of you — I’ve done it before, it’ll be easy. They’ll harvest bits of you so slowly that, by the time I’m dead, you’ll only be short a limb and —”
“Excuse me, what?!” Carlotta tried to wrench herself out of Gloria’s iron grip, terrified of what the other girl wanted to do.
“Carlotta… please, I need this! We need this! Everyone in the whole village needs you to at least try. What — what if we start running out of Light, and it turns out you were the key the whole time but said no? What about then? What if — what if all your cousins and friends are stuck in the fields, and it’s getting darker and darker, but they’re still working to bring in a decent harvest, when the Lightbearers can’t provide anymore?” Gloria sputtered out, her eyes glossy with unshed tears, her grip getting tighter.
“Do you really think it could work?” Carlotta asked, images of her family in darkening fields flashing through her mind. Then, she thought of herself, old and hiding a missing arm with a shawl. “Do you promise to take care of me?”
“I do,” Gloria said.
“Then…” Carlotta felt like her heart was punching its way out of her chest. Her eyes crawled up Gloria inch by inch, picturing dozens of variations on a lifetime of those hands helping her to and fro, waiting on her missing hand and foot. “I will. I’ll try. And you’ll take care of me.”
“Giving up parts of yourself is surprisingly easy; it’s quick and so, so painful, but then it’s over. Living with the aftermath is the hard part. That’s where the sacrifice really comes in. It’s every day, when you wish you still had it, every time you try living like you used to, and then grieving a little more for what you lost. That’s where all the Light’s fuel really comes from — all that time we wish we still had what we lost. So… what would you give up to save your own life? And your family’s lives? And maybe, just maybe, all of this village’s?”
“What would I give up?” She thought about her own body now, crawling up it in inches, over her feet, legs, torso, arms, all the bits of her own head…
And that was when she realized it. Why the Light was dimming, and what she could give up. If every Lightbearer knew they would be cared for, why would they suffer? If they didn’t suffer, what fuel was there for the Light? Gloria was the one thing Carlotta couldn’t live without. Gloria was the one thing worth tossing on the proverbial altar, Carlotta’s own longing and regret over a lost future fueling her village’s fires for years.
“I —” her voice trembled, “— I need a knife.”
“Here,” Gloria fumbled, pulling an impressive looking hunting blade from her belt, a sign she’d been sure Carlotta would agree with her eventually. She held it out, handle-first, one hand still clasping Carlotta’s. It vaguely reminded Carlotta of when her parents held each other and danced after dinner.
Stabbing Gloria in the neck was exactly like she had described it: easy, and over in seconds. Gloria stared at Carlotta in horror and crumbled, clinging to her to avoid sinking under the massive rhubarb leaves.
Carlotta could hear her guards screaming a dozen different commands as they raced to stop what was already over. The sheer force of Carlotta’s agony as she stared down at Gloria made every lantern and lamp in the village flare like a mythical sun going supernova, and even her pithy hip lantern shone bright enough that she could have walked across the Endless Dark.
As the guards reached her, she noticed for the first time in her life the tiny lights of a kinetopede in the distance, racing towards the village.
Deckard-Lee Schaefer is a ghost who shamelessly steals all the caffeinated beverages when you aren’t looking. One day, their works will be collected, and a true crime enthusiast will find all the clues about where their body is.