In The Shadows of the Cavern of Death (Shadows of Death Book 1)

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In The Shadows of the Cavern of Death

(Shadows of Death, #1)

by

Angelique Jones

 

This book is a work of fiction.

 

 

Chapter 1

The darkness surrounded me. The cold seeped into my bones, hidden deep within the ground, where not even a hint of the sun’s rays could penetrate. This is where we were forced to make our homes after the cleansing. To many, death is a friend, a way to escape the destruction of the world above. At least we assume that it still remains so above us; so many years have passed that none really know what lies above any longer. The great cleansing destroyed all. War had been inevitable; the population had become a parasite, taking from those who worked until there was nothing left to give. It was not a war between races or of the rich against the poor, but a war of the Contributors against the takers. The government sided with the takers, itself no different than the takers themselves, who far outnumbered the Contributors. Thinking that we would be easily crushed, they were not prepared for what had begun. Brother fought against brother. A civil war raged for years on end. Streets ran red with blood. Bombs fell from the sky like black rain, triggering the natural disasters that finished the world above, destroying all life.

In a last chance to save those who remained, we retreated deep into the ground and built cities into the hardened rocks. In a bid to save what was left of the population, treaties were made and the government resumed control and we became slaves to its whims once more. Supplies were scarce and sacrifices had to be made. Again we were the ones to make them. In a bid to control the population, a lottery was formed: each year during their twenty-first year of life, all must make a journey. Out of the thousands who make this journey, only one hundred will live to see the next day. It is a form of population control to ensure that overcrowding does not occur, but it is more than that, as with age comes wisdom. A wisdom to see the truth of our society that they wish for none to ever see again. All females are required to breed from their seventeenth to twentieth year to ensure workers for the system. Their children are left to the younger members of their families to raise, who are children themselves. If for some reason there are no younger members, the children are turned over to the state and trained as lap dogs of the government. Military soldiers kept separate from the rest of us. Hidden behind masks and armor as cold and unfeeling as the stone that surrounds us.  

High above the city, I looked down; it stretched for miles upon miles, too far for the eye to see. The light from the fires that litter the street gave a sinister glow to the run-down houses that we called home. Electricity is a privilege to those like us. A thing we have not earned this month. Everything must be earned, from the very breath that you take, to the bites of food you hoard to fill your crying child’s empty stomach. To live in this world you must fight. Nothing is for free, which is not the problem. The problem is no matter how hard you work, it won’t matter. For people like me, you are born, you work, you die, and there is nothing more. Our government is run by our current benevolent President Vellion, who the few Elders we have among us that have reached the ripe age of their forties say is the worst they have ever seen. He rules us with an iron fist. When women had stopped breeding, not wanting to leave their children behind as they were left, he had hundreds of women ripped from their homes and taken away. Within a month they were returned. Thrown from trucks by laughing soldiers, beaten, bloody, pregnant, and fearful of a man’s touch as a warning to all others. When weeping caregivers carried their starving children through the street begging for mercy, they were taken away never to be heard from again.

Not all places are like this. There are other cities where the rich, the soldiers, and the Loyalists live. Those who do no fight for scraps. Those who are not subject to the lottery. Those who do not have to look again and again into the eyes of those who they have raised and see the bleak, unending acceptance of their own deaths. They live there in their warm homes, their bellies full, laughing and happy, while we work unending hours to see to their comfort and needs. Pushing my anger down deep, I made my way down the well-worn path, careful to be unseen. If I’m found outside the city limits, I’ll be killed and there will be no one after today to care for my two younger sisters.   

Staying to the shadows, I quietly made my way past the markings that tell you only death awaits if you dare to cross and to the nearest house. Climbing over the debris, I slid between the houses and into the streets. Careful to avoid the outstretched hands and ignore the darkly whispered words, I quickly made my way home. Coming to my block, I could see the familiar faces of my neighbors gathered around the fires as they offered their good-byes to their friends and family. Making arrangements for their young in preparation for tonight’s lottery. A lottery my cousin Rose is in. The last of my family besides my sisters. Rose has been my sister more than anything else, banding with me to ensure that we all had food. Her last older brother’s lottery was a year past and now her turn had come. Unlike others, she will leave no young behind. Even the president’s warning would not allow her conscience to give that fate to a child.

Holding back my tears, I stood at the threshold of our shabby home as the reality hits that after today I will never see her again. It will just be me trying to keep the young alive. Alive long enough to work, reach their own lottery, then die. Slamming my hand against the frame of the door, I raised my face to gaze upon the inky darkness above, wondering yet again if it would not just be best to smother them in their sleep and then take my own life. Is there any point to this, was there any point to anything?

“Misty, what are you doing?” Rose asked from behind me.

Wiping a hand over my face and pasting a smile on, I said, “I forgot my key, Rose.”

Turing around, I see Josie and Tina are with her. Stepping back, I motion for her to open the door, sliding the key I palmed in my hand back into my pocket.

Waiting for them all to enter, I stepped in behind them and locked the door. Even in your own home you had to be careful. Making my way to the living room, I eased myself down onto the couch, allowing my eyes to latch on to the clock. Two hours. In two hours, another member of my family would be dead. In two hours, we would stand in front of the gates to the Cavern of Death. A place where none had ever entered and returned. The rituals of death were no longer observed; the only reason I even knew of them were from an Elder named Crowley. Long ago, the Elders that had won the first lottery had decided to be a living memory of our culture from the time before the darkness, when we walked upon the land and not under it. It was the only gift they could give to our people that the government could not take from us, the truth of our past. A secret hidden so well that only few outside the Elders knew the truth, for fear that the government would burn them as they had all books of the past to keep the truth hidden.

“Josie, Tina, go to your rooms. I need to talk to Misty for a moment,” Rose said, breaking into my thoughts.

Taking a seat next to me on the couch, Rose pleaded, “Misty look at me.” She forced me to take my gaze from the clock to hers. I couldn’t deny her this, even though it was killing me. “I should have listened to you,” she whispered, forcing me to fight back my tears. 

I didn’t need to ask what she meant, because I had been saying it for years. Years before her brothers went to their deaths, when our cousins stilled lived. Yes, she should have listened, they all should have listened. We should have left. Before her first brother went to the Cavern of Death, I begged them to leave, to head into the unexplored fissures and try to find a way to the surface. They told me it was foolish and that nothing remained above. The surface of our world was destroyed, a barren wasteland where nothing could survive. I had yelled back that though we may find death above, death here was certain. That here there was no escape from it.

Careful to keep my face blank, I turned to face her, allowing none of my hope to show. “Will you listen to me now, Rose?” I asked.

“No, Misty, it’s too late for me,” she said, grabbing my arm before I could turn away. “But it’s not too late for you and the girls.”

Wrenching my arm from her grip, I buried my face into my hands, trying to reign in my anger. “Are you so much a coward that you would rather die than take a chance at life?” I hissed, unable to hold my words back.

“Not a coward, no, but a realist. They already know about me and will search if I do not go to the cavern!” she yelled, causing me to jump. Rose didn’t yell. Rose never lost her temper. “Now listen to me. I have spent these last two years gathering information,” she said. Seeing my confusion, she lowered her voice, knowing she had my attention. “It’s the reason I took the job in the factory Secretary division,” she finished in a whisper, closing her eyes as a shudder raked her body. Seeming to shake the memories from her mind, she rose from her seat and went to her room.

Oh god, she had worked there for us. I had been so ashamed of her when she told me she had taken that job. It was a place of traitors. Those who accepted food and money, among other things, in exchange for informing on their own people and attending “events” in the other communities that stole pieces of your soul. The only thing that saved her from being a total outcast among our community was the memory of her brothers. For the memory of them alone, people did not snub her completely, but kept a wary distance. 

The turmoil of my thoughts rolled through my head as she reentered the room carrying a portable vid display and a metal box. Placing them on the table in front of me, she moved around the room, pulling the curtains, making sure none could see inside. With timid hands, I reached forward and opened the box, shocked at what I saw––paper. What was Rose doing with paper? I had never seen paper outside of a picture during our schooling until age thirteen before we were sent to the factories to work. Running my fingers across it, I was amazed at the feel. I was so absorbed, I jumped a little when she came next to me and snatched the paper from the box and began unfolding it.

“I was unable to take this before today, but with everyone that will not be returning, even if it is missed they won’t know who took it,” Rose said nervously, as she spread it open. Taking a look at it, I couldn’t help the shocked gasp that left my lips.

“Where”––I cleared my throat––“where, how did you find this?” I asked, still unable to believe what I was seeing, a map of the caverns.

“I found it in a long forgotten and sealed section of the main building. I don’t think any have entered it in years judging by how thick the dust was.” Turning to me, she gave me the first real smile I had seen from her in years. “This is how you’re going to find your way out. This map is an original map of the caverns. It shows every entrance to the caves that the original survivors used.”

Standing up, I pulled her into my arms, hugging her as tightly as I could. We were both laughing and giggling so loudly that the girls came to see what we were doing. Stepping in front of the table to block their view, I waited until Rose shooed them back to their rooms before turning back to study the map. Kneeling down, I looked closely, shocked at what I was seeing. The cavern system was massive, more so than any could have imagined. How could we not have known this?

“You see it, too, don’t you?” Rose asked, kneeling down across from me.

Shaking my head, I asked, “How is this possible that no one has ever suspected? There must be a hundred caverns.” Raising my eyes to look into hers, I let the anger I felt course through me. “The whole purpose behind the lottery is population control, due to lack of space. The reason for it was that there are only four caverns and each class has their own cavern.” Not that the other classes were forced into the lottery––no, they were allowed to control their breeding, while we were forced to breed for a young, strong workforce!

I saw matching anger in her eyes. “There’s more, so much more than you can imagine. These caverns are not empty,” she said, her hand sweeping the map, “but filled with our people.” Seeing the confusion in my eyes, she pulled out the vid display. “The truth is here. Not all of it, but enough that if it is was discovered that we had it, every man, woman, and child in this cavern would be killed to keep this secret.”

Before I could ask her what was in there, it sounded. The sound of her death rang through the cavern. It was a long, seemingly unending sound. The silence after such a sound was deafening. The time had come. The weeping of small children could be heard through the walls as they begged their family members not to leave them. Looking into Rose’s eyes, all I saw was acceptance and it angered me, just as the acceptance that I had seen in everyone’s eyes on this day had angered me. Why accept death? Why not fight for life? Rose had discovered something that no one had before and instead of wanting to know the truth for herself, she gives it to me and walks meekly to her death. Before I could give voice to my anger, Josie and Tina walk in the room silencing it in my throat. Quickly, I gathered the box and vid display into my arms, taking them to my room, while Rose held the weeping girls as they tearfully say their good-byes.

By the time I rejoined them, Rose had managed to silence their cries. Nodding to me over their heads, I knew it was time. Walking to the door, I waited for the subdued group to join me before venturing out of our home into the large crowd that was making its way through the soldier-lined street. It is required that every person attend the lottery, with no exceptions. As we approached, I could hear the metal grating sound echo as the doors were opened to admit their next victims. I sighted the doors as we crested the hill and my heart beat accelerated as the impenetrable blackness of the cavern stared back at me. In a daze, I followed the crowd, letting it lead me where it will. A hand latched on to me, causing me to jerk as my eyes wildly searched for its owner and finally settled on Tristian. He pulled me closer to him, while his father, the Elder Crowley, moved to my other side, grounding me in the moment.

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