The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2022 Winners Anthology, Tales from the Deep Beyond here.
“Dawn” by Zoe Harr, Pleasant Hill Elementary
Third Place, Elementary Level, 2022
By Zoe Harr
Pleasant Hill Elementary
It was the dawning of a new day. Resting her chin in her palm, Cora stared out the window. The Sakura trees were in full bloom, loose cherry blossoms floated on the wind. Paper lanterns hung from their winding branches. Red, orange, gold, and blue. Cora dreamed of the festivals bursting with those colors. A voice startled her, and she flinched.
“Cora? Are you awake?” It was Cora’s mother calling her.
“Uh, yeah! I’m awake! What is it?” Cora yelled in response.
“Did you forget about the special event that happens today?”
Cora shot up from her bed. “Oh! The Sakura Agency!” she gasped. “I completely forgot! I still need to get ready!” Cora started frantically digging through her dresser for the uniform the head of the Sakura Agency gave to her. Her mother chuckled from outside the door. “Don’t rush yourself too hard. You can still eat breakfast.”
Cora fiercely wolfed down her food. Her mother lectured her and begged her to use her table manners, but Cora paid no mind. She had already gotten on her uniform, so she just needed to brush her teeth and hair. Cora had one hour to pull this off. If she didn’t, the head of the Sakura Agency would surely disgrace her for being late!
The Sakura Agency was an organization of people around her age with special abilities. Four people with these special abilities would be placed in a group. They were called the Protectors. These people guarded and protected the land. Cora, whose special ability was waterbending, was offered a place in a group with three other people. So of course she accepted. Because all her life, Cora wondered what her powers could do, and she yearned to explore the world with her powers. But, she also knew of the people who disgraced the ones with special powers. They were called the “Rhoal.” They kidnapped those with special abilities and tried to mimic their powers with crazy science. But Cora would have none of it.
In the courtyard, Cora was greeted by the fresh, sweet-smelling wind. Her short, blonde hair waved in front of her face. She met the head of the Sakura Agency, and he stated some very important things. “Okay, before we put you in a group, I have some things to say first.”
Cora nodded in acknowledgment.
“You can control and speak with water, and you have mastered your ability. Is this correct?”
“Yes. I have mastered the ability to control and speak with water.”
The head of the Sakura Agency bowed slightly. “Then show me.”
Cora’s heart thumped with anxiety, but also an equal amount of excitement.
Water bubbles floated in the air. Cora was sweating from all the concentrating. She clenched her fist and swung them downwards. The water bubbles splashed back into the pond. “Okay. I think that’s enough.” The head of the Sakura Agency bowed again. “You have proven yourself worthy.”
A wide grin, (probably too wide for her face) shone on Cora’s face. She passed, and she would join the other three Protectors to, well, protect the world.
There they were, sitting cross legged on a broad, flat, mossy rock. They were chatting quite a bit.
“I will set your hair on fire,” one said.
“Not gonna lie, you’re the stupidest young lad I have ever met,” mocked another. They all looked to be around her age, seventeen. One appeared to be an Asian boy with dark hair and brown eyes. Sitting next to him was a short white girl with long brown hair and brown eyes. Probably the tallest out of them all was a white girl with short, fluffy, brown hair and grayish brown eyes. She was the first one to notice Cora. The tall girl smiled and uttered a few words to her friends. They all perked up and their eyes brightened when they saw Cora.
“Hey! You over there,” the dark-haired boy called. “Come here! We can introduce ourselves.” Butterflies fluttered around in Cora’s stomach. This was it. She would risk her life to protect Sakura City with her power. Cora shakily stepped toward the other kids.
“H-hey. My name is Cora. It’s nice to meet you.” Cora felt her face flush bright red as a tomato. The girl with long brown hair spoke. “Hey, Cora! I’m so excited to meet you! My name is Ellen, and I like to control the earth.”
Ellen. Cora tried the name in her head. That’s a nice name. She hardly noticed the boy was speaking now.
“I’m Don. I like to run in the wind. Literally. The winds are my best friend.” He smirked at Cora. And she shot him an awkward smile.
Finally, the tall girl introduced herself. “Hey, my name is Zula. It’s nice to meet you. Fire is my passion.”
“You never said what your ability is. What is it?” Ellen asked.
“Um, water. My power is water,” Cora explained nervously.
Don grinned mischievously. “Oooh! Zula, you better watch out!” he mocked.
“You shut up,” Zula responded and elbowed him in the rib.
Cora watched all of this quietly, not knowing what to say. She mustered up enough courage to say something, at least. “Hey, um, what do you guys do as Protectors?”
Zula and Don quarreled, not hearing Cora’s words.
Ellen face-palmed, but spoke to Cora. “I’m sorry. They do this a lot. But, to answer your question, we just protect Sakura City from the five giants, and the leader of the Rhoal. You know who he is, right?”
Cora nodded. “They capture people like us, right?”
“Yup. So we have to protect everyone from that fiend,” Ellen confirmed, then raised her voice. “Hey guys! If you both shut up for a second, we could train for a bit!” Don and Zula froze. They did shut up, luckily.
“What are we doing?” Don asked.
Cora cleared her throat. “Training?”
Zula smiled. “I like you, Cora. Glad to have you as a Protector.”
A few months had passed, and Cora already felt like a part of the group. Zula, Don, and Ellen were her best friends, and she would risk her life to save them. Without a doubt. Now, it was time for her and her friends’ first mission. The five giants, led by Akumai. Akumai was the leader of the Rhoal. His goal was to harness the Protectors’ power.
“But why does he need it?” Cora had asked.
“He wants it because he yearns to destroy the universe. He said the world was cruel and unforgiving, and that it needed to be destroyed. That includes himself! Crazy freak.”
Zula had spat scornfully.
Now, the five giants had been sent to the Shrine of Water to steal the Water Relic. It was up to Cora and her friends to stop it. There they stood, all together, on the rock walls of the courtyard. Night was disappearing, the sky was a mixture of soft pink, pale blue, and light lavender. Dawn.
“Let’s do this,” Zula encouraged. “Let’s rock these giants so hard they’ll never come back.” Ellen, Cora, and Don nodded in determination. So they got ready and traveled to the beach by the stormy seas of Sakura City.
Lightning streaked across the dark sky like whips of electricity, and thunder rumbled like a furious lion. A booming groan shook the earth, and Cora swayed. This is gonna get difficult, Cora realized. She waved her hands in unison, and a towering wave formed, knocking over two of the five giants. The two giants moaned in rage. Cora clenched one of her fists and a water bubble encased another’s head, and agonized gurgling sounds escaped its mouth!
Don created cyclones of air and threw them at a giant with brown, crooked teeth. Zula scooped up a small rock. Her eyes lit up with a mixture of excitement and rage. Zula gripped it tightly. Grunting determinedly, she launched the rock into the air, a loud whistling sound trailing after it. The flaming rock broke the grimy skin of the largest giant like a bullet. The wound caught fire, and the giant howled in pain. It stared at the wound for a few moments, and then at the forests of Laketown, a village near the raging ocean. A crooked, diabolical grin spread across his face. Horror pounded in Cora’s head as she realized the giant’s intentions. The giant lowered its hand to the trees surrounding Laketown. The flames hungrily licked at the leaves. Embers dropped onto the leaves. Crackling fire filled the smoky air.
Laketown caught fire.
“What were you thinking? The giants are wickedly intelligent creatures. Almost every corner of Laketown is burned to a crisp,” their master lectured harshly. Mainly at Zula.
Guilt wormed inside of Cora, but she didn’t know why. It wasn’t her fault Zula caused the deaths of many Sakurians. Yet she still felt horrible for Zula. It was an accident, it was unexpected for the giant to set flame to the forests of Laketown.
“I apologize. I realize my mistake. I really do. Maybe—” But she was cut off.
“Sorry doesn’t bring innocent people back to life!” the master yelled, his face red. “You should have thought about the consequences of your actions. You must be punished.”
Cora held her breath. She had been told stories of Protectors who made terrible mistakes, and received terrible punishment in return. Zula seemed nervous, too. Many heartbeats passed, and finally, he spoke.
“Zula, you have made a greivous error that put many lives at risk, and many lives were lost. So, as punishment, I banish you from the Sakura City, and you are no longer a part of the Sakura Agency.”
Zula’s eyes widened in shock. Ellen and Don stared in silence. Cora’s heart shattered.
“B-but . . . where will I go?” Zula protested.
The leader’s voice hardened. “I don’t know. But I order you to stay out of Sakura City, or the consequences will be fatal.”
Zula raised her voice, “You can’t do this! This is the only place where I feel like I have an actual family.” She turned to Cora, Ellen, and Don. “Please. I won’t be able to survive. Not without you. Please. Let me stay.”
Cora felt a lump grow in her throat. “I-I . . . I’m sorry. You heard him. You have to leave.” Those were the saddest words Cora ever heard escape her mouth.
“Yeah. This is for the best,” Ellen and Don agreed. Zula’s face grew pale with fear, and the betrayal in her eyes made Cora’s heart shrivel.
But then, Zula did something no one would’ve expected. She screamed. “Fine! I hate you all! Some friends you are!”
“Zula, I—” Cora tried to console her, but Zula swatted it away.
“No. Shut up. I don’t want to hear your words or see your face ever again.” And with that, Zula ran out of the camp, and out of Sakura City.
Almost three years had passed since Zula left. It felt so empty. But, as things changed, Ellen and Don started talking more often. Cora couldn’t, however. It just felt so rotten. She couldn’t stop thinking about Zula. She was sitting at the dinner table, playing with her food. She lived with Ellen, Don, and their leader in the central cabin. Don gobbled his food, while Ellen kept an eye on her own manners. Cora couldn’t eat. She wasn’t hungry. So she excused herself from the dinner table and took a small walk around the courtyard, as she did with Zula many times before.
The moonlight washed over the courtyard, and gave it a ghastly yet beautiful glow. She closed her eyes and relished the peaceful moment, resting her badly bandaged heart.
A loud boom startled Cora! She hurried to the edge of the courtyard and looked over it. She was joined soon by Ellen, Don, and their master. An assault. Cora let out a whimper of horror when she saw who was in the lead of it all. Akumai, the head of the Rhoal. But, walking menacingly beside him, pure malice in her eyes, was Zula.
“Zula . . . Oh,” Ellen gasped quietly.
“Ugh! I should’ve known that Akumai would try to manipulate her!” The leader of the Sakura Agency slammed his fist on the smooth granite wall. Zula had turned evil. And was working with an insane maniac trying to destroy them all. Out of the blue, a boiling heat force launched the four people backward.
Cora landed on her spine! She grunted with pain. She pushed herself to her feet weakly. A hand grabbed her shoulder and sent her flying across the courtyard once again. This time, her shoulder rammed against a stone wall! She cried out, tears stung her eyes. She leaned on her elbow. Looking down on her was Zula. But not the one she used to know. This Zula wore torn, sweaty clothing and her hair was unkempt and greasy. Zula’s eyes burned with an endless flame of fury. “Zula, why are you doing this?” Cora coughed.
“Because he promised me that I could prove that I was worthy.” Zula ignited two flames in her palms, and aimed them at Cora.
Cora stuttered, “Wait! Wait. Just, please think about this for a second. Would you really kill me? Us?”
Zula was silent for a moment. But not for long. “I’d gladly see you burn if it means I won’t be discarded ever again. You left me to die!”
A familiar voice sounded from the courtyard stairs. “Hey! Snap out of it, Zula! This is not who you are!” It was Ellen and Don. “Just think,” Don suggested. “Who are you really?”
Cora chimed in. “Remember when you said we would always be friends? Remember?” Cora willed Zula to listen for a moment. Zula looked torn by two sides, to seek revenge, or to stop the world from being destroyed. Suddenly, Don created a strong gust of wind that launched Zula to the far side of the courtyard. Ellen pounded the ground, and as Zula fell, a sharp, jagged rock protruded from the ground. A cry from Zula turned into agonized gurgling. Dark blood flowed out of a gaping wound in her stomach. Zula coughed painfully, and more blood dripped out of her mouth. Zula slumped on the ground.
Cora could see Zula’s faint, shallow breathing. Ellen laid a hand on Cora’s shoulder. “She would’ve killed you.”
“She’s right, Cora. It was for the best.”
“I know,” Cora whispered, then her face hardened with determination. “I know.” The three of them ran at a quick, purposeful pace to help their master defeat Akumai once and for all.
The fires have been put out, the small houses that had been burned are being repaired. Akumai has been stopped. Night is disappearing. The sky melts into soft pink, pale blue, and light lavender of dawn. Cora, Ellen, Don, and their master celebrate with tons of music, food, and triumph.
The village of Laketown has finally settled down, and doesn’t live in fear of being attacked anymore. In the courtyard, in the soft sunlight of dawn, lies Zula. Her breathing is shallow and raspy. She hears them celebrating, and her heart is warm with joy. She knows that her life is over, and that she is finally free. Zula knows that her friends will live fulfilling lives. She sees Don teaching his grand kids how to float on the wind. She sees Ellen, who spends her days gardening with her little sister, Emmie. Then finally, she sees Cora, who spends a lot of time with her friends, Ellen and Don. Zula smiles slightly, and as she lets out her final breath, she whispers, “Thank you.”