fbpx

Fiction Fantastic 2024 Winning Story: “The Strength of the Weak” by Sidney Johnson

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 2024 Winners Anthology, Realm of Forgotten Dreams.

“The Strength of the Weak” by Sidney Johnson, Pleasant Hill Elementary School

First Place, Elementary Level, 2024


The Strength of the Weak

by Sidney Johnson

Pleasant Hill Elementary School

Chapter 1: The Hunt, or How to Suddenly Lose Everything 

“Come on, you can’t just laze off. The chickens have eggs, and the cows are giving me a look.”

Kiya groaned and opened his eyes. Mia stared right back at him. Kiya smiled and sat up.

“If you could talk, you would be pretty awesome,” he informed his dog as he stretched and stood up.

“Kiya, get down here!” his mom hollered.

“Oops. I’m running late,” he said as Mia panted and snuggled onto his bed.

Kiya lived in the Era of Emperor Kee. Kee was a terrible emperor that treated his people like trash and was in constant debt to shifty governors. Everyone starved while he ate roasted pheasants and pomegranates.

The citizens hated him, but any who spoke ill of the emperor disappeared and were never heard from again. Most went to Kuscu, the emperor’s dirty island prison, and stayed there until they died or were driven mad.

Now it was the Day of the Tested, to see who was who.

Each sixteen-year-old was sorted into the Strong or the Weak. The Strong became successful men in the military. They became farmers, school teachers, or even guards for the emperor if they were lucky. As for the Weak, they became slaves who did the dirty work like trash collectors, sewer cleaners, maids, and cooks.

Sadly, Kiya was destined to be a Weak as he had no athletic qualities whatsoever. The testing was never based on intelligence as the intelligent might become weary of the emperor and question his ideas.

When Kiya told his mother that he was a Weak, she paled and put her hands to her mouth.

“No, it—it can’t be! Oh, dear. Get your father.”

Kiya ran to collect his father worriedly.

Kiya’s father came in and gently held his wife while she told him the news. He gripped her tight as the news set in. Their eyes connected and held love and worry.

“But—”

“Shh. You know what.”

“Danger . . .”

“I am prepared to do it.”

“The stakes. . .”

“Are worth it,” his mother finished.

Kiya’s father nodded and turned around.

“Son.”

Kiya looked up.

“Tomorrow evening you’ll go into the woods with enough food and water for many days. We’ll hide Mia at Cavern’s Pass, but you should climb the Hillside Cliff tree. Answer to no one. Not even me or your mother. Do not move if you hear shouting or threats. Do. Not. Answer. Come down after three days and head toward your aunt’s house in Swampy Hovels. And above all, stay safe. Understood?” his father asked.

Kiya nodded.

“But—but what about you and Mom? What if something happens to you?”

“We will be fine.”

Kiya knew better. He saw real fear in his father’s eyes. The collectors were a vicious pack of men with pistols and a hunger for despair.

***

The next evening there was a loud banging on the door.

“It’s the collectors! Run! Out the back door!” Kiya’s mother shoved him a heavy sack.

“Mia’s already in the caves. Go!”

Kiya paused at the backdoor.

“I —I love you,”, Kiya blurted out.

“I love you, too,” his mother said.

“I love you three. Now go!” his father said as the banging returned more aggressively.

Kiya ran out the back as his father opened the front door. Kiya took a step toward the forest, then thought better of it and crept around the house to peek in a window. Five men in black trench coats and muddy army boots stood inside the house interrogating Kiya’s parents. They were quiet until they found out Kiya was gone.

“Gone?” sneered one of the men.

“Left early in the morning. Took the dog and everything,” answered his father.

“That’s likely,” the leader said. Then he said something to his parents and Kiya’s mother paled considerably. Kiya’s father took a step forward.

The leader quickly snatched Kiya’s mother.

“Oh, she’s pretty,” he said as he put his greasy fingers on her.

Kiya’s dad began to walk forward when BANG! He collapsed at the feet of the leader. Kiya’s mother began to cry while Kiya shook. That man had just killed his father. Kiya’s mother finally noticed him and mouthed one word.

“Run.”

He ran.

Chapter 2: The Tree of True Seeing, or Allies Are Nice

Kiya ran through the forest, branches ripping against his arms and legs, tears blurring his vision. How could this have happened? He ran until he could not, until he collapsed at a tree. He looked up at the tree as a pink petal brushed his face. The Tree of True Seeing! The legend said that only the true at heart could find it at their most desperate moment. That gave him an idea. If he could climb it, he would never be found. He scrambled up its bark until he hid in the fullest leafed area. He almost relaxed until . . .

“Kiya?”

Kiya froze.

“Keeya? Kooya? This is so confusing.” It was a young collector, but one he had not seen at the house.

“What a pretty tree. Nice and solid. I wish I was a tree. No screaming father. No crazy expectations,” the kid sighed. “I know I’m lucky and everything, but I—I really hate it.”

He sounded so heartbroken that Kiya sighed.

“Wha— Who’s there? I’m armed!” The boy pulled out a dagger. Kiya barely breathed as the boy walked around the tree, looking into the forest.

“Who am I kidding, I can’t even fight with one of these things.” He dropped the dagger.

“I’m an utter failure. A disgrace to the Kee family.”

Kiya froze. This was Emperor Kee’s son!

“I don’t want to be a killer!” The prince plopped down on a nearby stump.

“Maybe I could run away! But all the other lands are hostile.”

And then Kiya did something so dangerous that, when he would look back on that day, he would shake his head. He spoke.

“I could help,” he said

The prince was on his feet in an instant, and then he slapped his head and sat back down.

“Hallucinations, Kyle? Get it together,” he mumbled.

“No, I’m really here. I have a question for you,” said hidden Kiya.

“Wait . . . The tree is talking! What is it, O magical tree?” The prince gazed in awe at the tree. Kiya stifled a snicker.

“Would you cut me down if your father wanted it? If he wanted me dead?” Kiya asked, intrigued.

“N—no. Not really. I’d find a way to fake it,” Kyle answered.

“Oh, well, fine.” And slowly Kiya descended until he was sitting on the bottom branch. The prince stared in awe at Kiya.

“”You—you’re a—a wood nymph!” he blurted out.

Kiya laughed and waved away the suggestion.

“No, Kyle. I am not a nymph. I believe you were searching for me?”

Kyle’s eyes widened.

“You’re my destiny?!” he gasped.

“No dude, I’m Kiya.” Kiya rolled his eyes.

“Kiya? Kiya . . . wait, what!? You’re Kiya? I could turn you in!” he said as his eyes lit up.

“And forever be unhappy with your life?” Kiya retorted.

“How much did you hear?” Kyle asked suspiciously.

“Enough. It seems like you have two choices. You can run away with me to rescue my mother, or turn me in to be killed and continue your unhappy life.”

Kyle struggled with the decision for just a moment.

“What the heck, I haven’t got much to lose. I went from a raging father back home to a raging sergeant here in the collectors . . . so yes. Please take me.” Kyle stood up as Kiya slid down the tree and smiled.

“Let’s go.”

Chapter 3: The Mowthrout, or Why You Should Sometimes Let Dogs Eat Random Plants

“Aroof!” Mia woofed as Kyle patted her head. Kiya chuckled as she pranced around after a butterfly.

“You know, Kyle, you really have a way with animals,” Kiya said as Mia jumped into a flower bush in hot pursuit of the butterfly.

Kiya paused to look at Kyle. He was a strong kid with a stocky shape and big muscles. His black hair was in an army cut and he had a charming smile that was slightly mischievous. Kyle seemed like a softy at heart as he ran after Mia, and the two of them slipped into a mud pile.

“Need a hand?” Kiya said as he pulled Kyle up. Mia panted and flopped back into the mud.

Kyle brushed the dirt and grass off his clothes. They had been traveling for days toward the shores of the Black Sea. There they would find a boat to travel across the sea, save Kiya’s mom, and then . . . who knew? They were mainly focusing on the rescue.

It was slow going. Branches cut and bruised them, thorn bushes forced them back, and ravines dotted the landscape. Finally, as they made camp during the evening, they heard a noise.

“Shh. I’ll put out the fire while you get our stuff,” whispered Kiya.

They grabbed Mia and hid under a rotted-out tree root. They all barely fit as they squeezed in.

“Come out, boys, there’s no use hiding, I only want a kiss.” A slippery voice drifted into their ears. Kiya widened his eyes and mouthed the word “Mowthrout.”

In the legend, Mowthrout’s were terrible demons that stalked travelers through the forest and mesmerized their prey. They would eat anyone and were vicious and disgusting. Kiya quickly covered his ears. Kyle almost put his hands up to block the sound, and then his eyes lifted as if in a dreamy haze.

“Please come out, you wouldn’t want to hurt my . . . feelings.” The monster’s greasy voice felt like a slimy eel. Kyle slowly rose from their hiding spot.

“No, I wouldn’t want that,” Kyle said as he stared into the Mowthrout’s gaze.

“Boy,” she said in her cracked falsetto. “Come to me, my darling.” She smiled. She was a vulture with gray cracked skin stretched tight with two leathery wings and one arm that had two sharp claws. Her mouth was stained red.

“Come to mama.”

Kiya burst from his hiding place.

“Kyle, no!”

The vulture smiled.

“You’ve just assured your death, too!” She spread her massive wings and roared, “Darlings, come!”

Thousands of bats flocked down and hit Kiya with their claws, dropping dead insects and gooey stuff. From the corner of his eye, Kiya saw Mia chomping on something.

“I wish she could tell me what she’s doing,” he thought.

What he didn’t see was a shooting star right above his head at the exact time he wished. Then Mia barked, except it came out more like “Bar—kk—away from my friends!”

Kiya fell over in shock. The Mowthrout was so surprised that she wavered and her spell broke, something that had not happened since she was a little Mowthroutling. Kyle froze and started shuddering, a common effect of surviving the spell.

“That’s right! Go!”

Even Mia was surprised by her words, as usually they had little effect. But right then, they had a big effect!

The Mowthrout shrieked and flew off to find other food that didn’t include talking animals. Kiya started laughing hysterically, and Kyle regained control of his body and stood up weakly.

“What the . . . WOOF . . . is happening?” Kiya cracked up.

Kyle walked over and said, “Kiya? Are you OK? And . . . Mia?”

“So they’re true! Wishing plants are true!” Kiya said as he sniffed.

“Wishing plants?” Kyle asked, confused.

“It’s said that anyone who eats a Wishing plant gets one wish. They are almost extinct, since traders pick them to sell. This plant is probably the only one left in the whole forest. And Mia ate it.” Kiya shook his head and stood up, right as Mia burped a large purple bubble.

“Side effect,” Kiya whispered.

“Uh, Kiya? I don’t think I can walk much further after . . . that,” Kyle said weakly.

“That’s OK. We’re here!” Kiya pulled back a vine to reveal a pitch-black circle of water with a tiny island on the horizon. Anchored by the shore was a boat!

Chapter 4: The Rescue, or How to Save Your Mother in THE Most Unexpected Way Possible

The sail out to Kuscu prison had been largely uneventful.

“Weird. There’s no fence or anything,” Kiya muttered.

“It’s because they have nothing to fear,” Kyle answered. “No one in their right mind would come out here.”

“That makes sense. We’re here because I always use my left mind instead,” Kiya replied. Kyle snickered.

“Guys, someone is coming! Hide!” Mia whispered too late.

“Stop! Intruders. Wait . . . Prince Kyle? What are you doing here?” A bright flashlight beam went straight in their eyes. Suddenly Kyle straightened and spoke.

“What do you think? I’m escorting a prisoner with my guard dog,” he said as he clamped a hand on Kiya’s neck.

“But—but you’ve been missing! This is wonderful news! I must tell your fath—”

“Don’t you think he knows I’m here? Let me into the prison. I shall have this child and his mother presented to my father to be hanged.”

Kiya shivered at the word.

“But you’ll need a guard. I can offer you my best!” The guard nodded vigorously.

“Thank you, but no. This prison is so well guarded I don’t need protection. Or is it not as spectacular as I’ve been led to believe?”

The guard faltered for a moment.

“As you wish, my prince.” He stepped away.

The boys entered through several large iron doors. A wooden sign above read “Kuscu, Prison of Despair. Welcome!”

They heard moans and cries coming from the cells as they walked deeper into the prison.

“I know where I’m going. I had a royal tour last fall.” Kyle said as he turned left, then right, up a tight spiral staircase and then down a narrow corridor.

“Hey, guys?” Mia wagged her tail. “I’m getting a bad vibe down this hallway.”

They could hear heavy breathing and nails scratching as something big moved toward them.

“Other way, other way!” Kyle pushed Kiya down another hall and Mia ran ahead as they heard a howl. “A Sucker. They feed on despair and sadness. No one quite knows when they came, but they just appeared in the prison and started working here.”

Kyle ran down more twists and turns until he stopped.

“Prisoner 1367. Your mother.”

Kiya peered in and stopped. Her beautiful long shimmery black hair was ragged and cut short.

When she saw them, she rasped, “Kiya! Oh, my dear. Why are you here? You were safe! Safe from the demons.”

She started shivering uncontrollably.

“But I see you now. The angels, they’re here to save me! Where’s your father? Go find him, you silly boy!”

She had reached madness. “I know Papa won’t like our arrangements, but he can’t stop me! Don’t you agree Mary? Mary!?”

Kiya stepped back.

“I’m Kiya. Not Mary,” he said.

“Who’s Kiya?” she said, cocking her head.

Kiya turned to Kyle.

“She—she doesn’t recognize me. Mary is her sister.” Kiya said, shivering.

“We have to get her out of here! I’ll call for a guard to haul her and you—”

Kiya was overcome with despair and ran down the hall.

“I’ve lost Papa, and now I’ve lost Mama,” he thought as he ran past the cells. Except slowly there weren’t any cells, and he ran into something hard.

He looked up, expecting to find a guard or a Sucker, but it was a shrine. The shrine held two golden dragons with emerald eyes, except both were slightly askew. The words on the shrine said, “They who solve the riddle get one wish.”

Kiya slowly pushed the dragons into alignment. Suddenly water erupted from the dragon’s mouths and into a fountain.

“I am Eriya, Goddess of the Water. What brings you to my shrine?” A voice majestically floated from the fountain.

“Um, well, I—” Kiya began as a spirit phased out of the fountain and sat on top.

“Ah, it is you, little hero. Do you want money? All humans want money.” The spirit rubbed her hands together.

“Not really, because well, my mother is mad and I don’t know how we’re going to survive—”

“I know! A wish and a present because I like your cause.”

She snapped her fingers and poofed out of existence. Kiya bowed and ran back through the maze to Kyle.

“Kiya? Where are we?” Kiya’s mother rubbed her head.

“Everything’s all right, Mom. Just breathe.”

***

One year later.

“Kiya come on! You have a meeting with the Emperor!” Mia yelled.

Kiya groaned and sat up.

“Well, hello to you too, Mia.”

She grinned and wagged her tail. Kia threw on some clothes and ran out of his room.

“Morning, Mom!” he said as he grabbed a piece of bread and walked to the castle. After they had gotten back from the island, they had learned that Emperor Kee had died of a snake bite and Kyle was now the Emperor. Kyle had declared Kiya and his mother innocent and built them a new house next to the palace.

“How things change!” he thought as he walked. “One day I’m running from the emperor, and now I’m his bestie!” He sat down in a chair as Emperor Kyle walked in.

“Good morning, Kiya! And you too, Mia.”

“Hi, Emperor Kyle!” Kiya said jokingly.

“We’ve talked about this, just call me Kyle.”

“Righto mundo, Sir Highly Esteemed Kyle of the Land,” he teased.

“Come, Kiya. Look at our beautiful city!” Kyle said.

After Kyle was appointed emperor, he dropped the sorting system and arrested many of the collectors for their crimes. People were now free to choose their own path in life.

“You know, Kiya, we may face danger and suffering. But I’ll do my best to stop it.” Kiya smiled and held his hand.

“You mean, we’ll do it together.”

And the two boys looked out over their land, a royal and an outcast, united.