Contest #69 winner 🏆

140 comments

Nov 27, 2020

Fantasy Drama

It was always Amrak’s job to deal with the birds afterwards, and he had always hated it. Every Temple day after the service he would have to wait for the worshippers to leave, then hang around while Father and the other priests finished up. As soon as they were gone the work began – mopping up the spilt blood, gathering the dirty robes into a basket to take outside to the waiting washerwomen, piling up the silver bowls to carry to the kitchen to be cleaned. Amrak had asked his father many times if he could rather wash the bowls, sweep the step outside, clean out the censers – anything but gather the broken bodies of the doves, but his request was always refused. “Do what I tell you, son,” Father always said. “No questions.”

But Amrak had questions; he always had. Even though his curiosity had been soundly discouraged and he had mostly stopped asking, he had not lost it. He wanted to know why the poor birds had to die, their throats slit over the silver bowls before the blood was poured over the heads of the people during cleansings, weddings and dedications. He had experienced it himself during his cleansing ceremony when he had turned thirteen, like every other boy in Kalathan. Blood to sully, blood to purge. Blood to defile, blood to cleanse. He remembered it as if it was yesterday, even though it was already four years ago. He had been shocked that day by how warm the blood had been, and glad that as it had flowed over his face it had hidden his tears. 

“You’re too sensitive, Amrak,” said his friend Mishik, walking past him with his polishing cloth as he crouched down over the pile of little bodies on the floor. “They’re just birds.”

“Just birds,” Amrak repeated softly, picking one up by a wing. They were always cold by the time the service ended and he had to begin his work. He placed it gently into the sack he had brought, then picked up the next one. There had been five coming-of-age cleansings today, and two devilclaw purgings and a wedding the day before. Two doves for each, which meant sixteen little creatures lying dead on the tiled floor, sixteen still hearts in the sack, ready for the rubbish pile and then the fire. When he was done he placed the sack out of the way, fetched the broom to sweep up the feathers, then picked up the mop which stood against the wooden bucket. It only took ten minutes, to restore the floor to its previous shine, for the water in the bucket to turn from clear to gritty, muddy brown with the blood and droppings. 

“Almost done,” said Mishik, as he put down the bronze censer he had just polished and picked up the last one. “All ready to carry next week’s prayers up to heaven!”

“If the blood cleanses us,” Amrak said, half to Mishik, half to himself as he straightened his back, “then where do the sins go?”

“What?” Mishik shook his head. “They don't go anywhere. The blood … dissolves them.”

“Then the sins are still in the blood,” said Amrak. “They flow into the drains, then into the river. The river, and the sea, must be teeming with sins by now.”

“No, no,” Mishik said. “Lands, you have strange thoughts, Amrak! You’ve got it all wrong. It’s a spiritual thing.”

“If it’s spiritual, why do we need the blood then? Can't we just ask God to cleanse us, without breeding birds that we only kill?”

Mishik replaced the last censer, balling up the dirty cloth. “Wait for next year when we begin our training,” he said. “You can ask the fatirs about that. I don't know enough to answer you.”

Amrak picked up the bucket and broom, Mishik the mop. The two boys made their way towards the kitchen behind the building. “Are you excited about it?” Amrak asked. 

“About what?” 

“The training. All of it. Becoming a priest.”

Mishik looked confused. “Not really. It’s going to be hard work. But it’s a good living and I don't know what else I would do.”

“I don't mind hard work,” said Amrak. 

“But?” Mishik peered at him as they set down their burdens and faced each other. 

“I don't want to shave my head. And I'm not sure I want to be a priest at all.” It felt almost dangerous to say it. 

Mishik gave a low whistle. “I want to be there when you tell that to your father,” he said. “Really, Amrak. How many generations of your family have been priests? I doubt you could even count!”

Amrak didn't answer. It was laughable, he had to agree, to think that he could choose another path for his life. His father was so proud of their family, proud of his position, proud to be a Kalathene, most of all proud to be a priest of the Temple. He walked around the town in his long red robe, his shaved head held high, proud of his dutiful wife, his obedient sons, his devout, co-operative daughters. He didn't know that Amrak shuddered every time a bird was killed, every time he smelled the incense, every time he heard the chanting. He didn't know that his son’s favourite day of the week was the day after Temple day, because it meant there were six whole days until the next one. He didn't know that when his son closed his eyes to chant the prayers, he felt nothing, that when he looked up at the great curly spire of the Temple looming above the City he found himself daydreaming about what life would be like if it was not there at all. 

He and Mishik removed their aprons and washed their hands, then exited the back door of the Temple into the alley, Amrak carrying the sack. It had snowed earlier, and now the wind blew flurries of it up and down the alley. 

“Well, see you tomorrow I suppose,” Mishik said, pulling on his gloves and shoving his hat as far down on his head as he could. “Can you believe it’s our last week of school?”

“Training will be worse than school,” Amrak said, as he turned up the collar of his thick fur-edged coat against the cold wind and wrapped his scarf around his head. 

“Yes, but we will be studying with the men, not the boys!” Mishik said. “Will you shave your head soon? My father says it’s better to do it now rather than just before we begin.”

“Probably,” Amrak said. Father had said, that morning, that he thought they should do it tonight.

The boys parted, Mishik heading back to his home for dinner, Amrak heading in the opposite direction to take the sack, as he always did, to one of the wagon beds that was always parked in the same place near the Temple. He would fling the sack onto the pile of whatever waste was already there, and in the morning someone would arrive to haul the load off to the furnaces outside the City. The little birds would fly away then, he supposed, as the ash rose into the sky. 

When he was finally free of the sack he turned around, thinking about the meal that waited for him at home, keeping warm by the stove. Another Temple day done. 

He heard a noise then, a clattering as if something had fallen off the wagon. He turned around, startled. He had thought that he was alone in the alley. He crouched down to see if he could see if anything lay on the ground, and saw a flash of movement. 

“Hey!” he called. “Who’s there?”

No answer. He stepped closer. “Who’s there?”

“No one!” called a voice. A boy’s voice, clear and confident. 

Amrak stood still, unsure whether to laugh or be insulted. “What are you doing?” he asked. “That’s just rubbish in there!”

He stared for a moment at the wagon. Nothing moved. Then suddenly there was another crashing sound, and the boy stepped out from behind the wagon, holding up Amrak’s sack. He was small, at least a head shorter than Amrak, a good few years younger.

“Hey!” he said again. “That’s my sack!”

“You threw it away,” said the boy, shrugging. He looked cold, Amrak thought, his coat thin and unlined, only a too-big woolen hat on his head. His boots looked ancient, the tops peeling away from the soles. “So you clearly don't want it!”

Amrak stood still, wondering how to answer.

“Rubbish to you, dinner to me!” said the boy. 

“But you can’t eat those!” Amrak was appalled.

“Oh, I can!” said the boy. “It’s quite easy. I pull out the feathers, cut out the insides and roast them. They’re not more than a few bites each but I’m not complaining.” Was he laughing? He had a wide grin, scruffy dark hair, and a rather blue face. 

“But … those are Temple birds,” Amrak said. 

The boy shrugged again. “Either they get roasted in the furnace and turned to black for nothing, my friend, or they serve a greater purpose by feeding me and my friends.”

Amrak took a few steps closer, wondering if the boy would run away. “Do you do this … often?”

“Most Temple days. I watch for you whenever you come out of that door. I’ve grown fond of your face lately, to be honest. You represent meat, glorious meat!” The boy held out his arms, the sack swinging wildly from one hand, and grinned widely. 

Amrak could not help it. He smiled back. 

An hour later, Amrak was sitting on an upturned wooden crate in another alley, warming his hands over the little fire the boy had made in a half-broken old brazier. He knew his parents would be wondering where he was, but he pushed that thought aside and hoped they would just think he had gone to Mishik’s house as he had once or twice before. He did not quite understand why he had not just turned around and left, why he had found himself asking the boy’s name and then following him here. It had been an impulse, he thought, as he watched him pluck out feathers and hack at the doves’ chests with a blunt-looking knife, something rebellious, and in the moment he had wanted nothing more than to do something different, to follow this odd boy off into the cold to watch him turn the bodies of the sacrificial doves into his lunch. His name was Kashrik, it turned out, and he was thirteen.  

“Don’t you have a home?” Amrak asked. 

Kashrik shrugged. “Not really,” he said. 

“Why not?”

Kashrik looked up from his hacking. “You work at the Temple, don't you?”

“My father is a priest,” Amrak said. 

“So you will be too?”

Amrak looked down. “That’s the plan.”

“Then I can’t tell you why.”

“What’s being a priest got to do with why you don't have a home?”

“If I tell you, you might haul me off to your father. Instead of dove meat in my stomach, I’ll have dove blood on my head.”

“Oh,” Amrak said, starting to understand. “You’re …” He could not say it. 

The boy put down his knife and pulled up his left sleeve. “There you go,” he said, showing Amrak the inked mark on the inside of his wrist. “I’m a devilclaw. I had a home but my father kicked me out last year. Sometimes I go to the back door and my mother gives me some bread, but most of the time I fend for myself.”

“Where do you sleep?”

Kashrik looked at him sideways. “Somewhere warm. There are people in the City who do not share the Temple’s opinion of people like me. Kind people. I haven’t frozen yet.”

Amrak took a breath, then blew it out again, watching as it condensed into mist in front of him. The boy picked up the knife again, with his left hand of course. Amrak wondered how he had not noticed it before. The Devil’s Claw. This pleasant-faced friendly boy was cursed, according to the Temple, an anomaly, a catalyst of bad luck. His left hand now, cutting away at the bird, looked so wrong, so strange, as if Amrak was watching himself in a mirror.

“Sorry,” he said. It was all he could think of to say. “That’s terrible.”

Kashrik laughed. “Don’t be sorry!” he said. “Sympathising with me will bring you bad luck, remember. Eating with me …” He grimaced, then smiled. “Probably worse. Perhaps you will wake up tomorrow covered in leprosy.”

He reached down to the ground to pick up a blackened sharp stick which he thrust through the bloody little body of the dove, then handed it to Amrak. “You hold it over the fire,” he said, “while I do the others.”

He looked up, the smile on his face so artless and genuine that Amrak did not know what to say. The flames leapt up, singeing the meat, the smell that rose up into the air surprisingly pleasant. 

“I don't want to be a priest,” he said, partly to Kashrik, partly to himself. “I hate the Temple.”

Kashrik looked up in surprise.

“I hate the blood and the chanting, all of it. I love my father but I can't think of any other priest that I trust. I want to be a soldier or a farmer or a blacksmith – anything but a priest.”

He had never said anything like that before. He had barely even let himself think it. 

“Well, I don't blame you,” Kashrik said. “I’d rather be a devilclaw than spend my life serving a God who doesn't care about anyone but himself, if he’s even there at all.”

Amrak, feeling quite breathless after his confession, did not answer. So there were people in Kalathan who did not live in the shadow of the Temple. There were people who cared enough about devilclaws to give them a place to sleep, people who were not afraid of the curse. The thought gave him courage, as the knowledge of what he had to do began to settle. He lifted his hand to his neck to touch the thick brown hair that reached to his collar. He would not be sitting down by the fire tonight while Father sharpened the razor. He would find his own path, and what Kashrik had just told him gave him hope that he would not be alone. 

While Kashrik plucked and cut, the little pile of smelly entrails on the street beside him growing steadily, Amrak held the sticks, turning them gently, making sure the meat cooked evenly. And when Kashrik announced that the first bird had cooked long enough, took out a little twist of paper from his pocket and sprinkled the blackened shape with salt, Amrak lifted what had once been a fluttering bird up to his face and breathed in the aroma. 

“Enjoy!” Kashrik said, holding up his own bird, its legs splayed grotesquely off to each side. “To the lowly dove, cleanser of sins and filler of stomachs!” He took a great, ravenous bite, tearing off the meat, smiling widely through his chewing. 

Amrak smiled back, took a breath, and ate. 

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140 comments

Kate Le roux
17:06 Dec 04, 2020

Thank you so much for the encouraging comments! What did you think about his feeling sorry for the doves and then ending up eating them??? And I see now I used "wide grin" 3 times (*face palm*) I have a novel set in this world which I have made free on Kindle tomorrow in honour of this win :) It's called "The Curse of Kalathan" and it's about a devilclaw girl who gets pulled out of prison and finds herself at the palace... Download and enjoy if this is your kind of thing :)

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Carla Ward
00:28 Dec 05, 2020

He does not like killing the birds because he does not truly believe their deaths accomplish the purpose they are used for. He doesn't think their sacrifice washes away sin. This makes their deaths ultimately meaningless, a waste. But when he finds that there are those who are kept alive by eating the birds then the birds have purpose. They are nourishment and serve a real greater good rather than the imaginary one he'd been raised to believe in but could not.

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Kate Le roux
05:58 Dec 05, 2020

Brilliant answer :)

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11:40 Dec 05, 2020

Well said, Carla Ward!

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Rayhan Hidayat
17:22 Dec 04, 2020

Such a solid fantasy tale, even despite the lack of magic. The way Kashrik talks for his age makes me think he's either wise beyond his years or not human at all... Haha, I'm probably just looking into it too much ;) COngrats!

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Kate Le roux
18:51 Dec 04, 2020

Thanks! I find readers are often surprised when they see a fantasy story has no magic!

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Rayhan Hidayat
19:03 Dec 04, 2020

I hear you! Magic can definitely be considered a defining aspect of the genre, but if it has made-up locales and cultures then I don’t see why it shouldn’t be considered fantasy. I actually wrote a fantasy a while back that also has zero magic.

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22:23 Dec 08, 2020

but its truth, well told.

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Yuk Yuk
11:32 Dec 11, 2020

Can you please read my work, 'Ma's golden boy'. Well because I liked writing it the most, but I guess there's something wrong with it. If you get what I mean.

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Splinter Magus
15:15 Dec 05, 2020

This story was so good! The way you show us the world without doing an information dump, superb! You give us all the information we need about the culture and the rituals of this world through Amrak's frustrations. And it all sets the fantasy tone really well. The realisation journey the character goes through is really well done too. Great premise and great execution. Congratulations on winning! I already grabbed a copy of your book, can't wait to get to it.

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Kate Le roux
11:01 Dec 07, 2020

Thank you Splinter! There is always a way around the information dump! Hope you enjoy the book :)

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22:27 Dec 08, 2020

Nice review!!

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F. A.
15:07 Dec 05, 2020

Awesome! Congratulations on winning!

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Zeppelin Hoppa
02:06 Dec 05, 2020

Well written, warm and seems to flow with an easy and inviting gate. My name is Zeppelin and I am planning to turn in a story of my own so I will admit I read your submission as more research than anything, however I did enjoy it. If u don't mind, how long have you been submitting entries, and how long have u been writing. Do you write any other styles. Poetry, stream of consciousness, or what have you?

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Kate Le roux
06:05 Dec 05, 2020

Hi Zeppelin. I've only done 9 stories on here, been writing all my life. I am sure we all read winners as research ... but so far I find Reedsy judges appreciate and reward many different styles of writing! I mostly write novels but also like short stories and poetry which I like to incorporate into stories.

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11:41 Dec 05, 2020

Me, too. poetry and fantasy mixes are my personal favorite, though.

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Scout Tahoe
15:19 Dec 04, 2020

This was so clear and interesting. It had me from the very beginning. Congrats, deserved win! I really enjoyed reading.

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Kate Le roux
16:46 Dec 04, 2020

Thank you!

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19:58 Mar 02, 2021

Okay, okay. I don't want to bring drama, but... This was the first story I read on Reedsy. And now it's the last. I'm leaving for a personal reason. My very first comment. And my very last. To everyone: I'll miss you, I will never forget you, and I will always--ALWAYS--remember my dream of becoming a published writer, no matter where the current of life takes me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQbF9ECjORM Just some quiet piano music for everyone to listen to. it's really calming. Don't worry, guys. Everything will be okay. ~𝚠𝚑𝚎𝚗 𝘰𝚗𝚎...

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20:11 Mar 02, 2021

🐉 I wish you luck on your writing journey even if it's off reedsy!! love you emmie!<3

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Sahana Karthik
16:33 Jan 09, 2021

Hi, nice story. Please could you give me some feedback on mine? https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/74/submissions/47395/

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Nora K
15:15 Dec 08, 2020

This story is so beautifully written, Kate!! It kept a constant and engaging flow. Your characters are absolutely superb, as well as your fantastic descriptions! This story moved me to speechlessness, marvelous job! Congratulations, a well-deserved win!! :)

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Kate Le roux
11:33 Dec 09, 2020

Thank you Nora :)

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Safa Jalil
07:41 Dec 06, 2020

I absolutely loved it. The starting line was actually really catchy as it made me ask questions. Good work.

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Kate Le roux
12:22 Dec 07, 2020

Thanks! Yes, starting lines should always be a little mysterious. I don't always get that right!

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Safa Jalil
16:43 Dec 07, 2020

Me too. It is really hard and challenging to come up with a good one. 🙄

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Night Fall
04:59 Dec 06, 2020

Just one question, are devil claws just left handed people? I really enjoyed your take on religion. I am a Christian, and I thought the story was very interesting.

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Kate Le roux
10:23 Dec 06, 2020

Thank you - yes the devilclaws are just left handed people. Many cultures including ancient Greece and Rome had an idea that the left hand was connected to evil somehow! That's why the right hand is called the "right" hand in English. I am also a Christian, and although not all my stories are Christian, my novels are. In Kalathan (the non-magic fantasy land where this story is set) this made-up religion is a contrast to the true faith which does not depend on ritual and sacrifice, and where Jesus' death on the cross saves us once and for all...

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Night Fall
15:58 Dec 06, 2020

Amazingly put, do you have any other “sequels” to the story that continues on the story of these characters?

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Kate Le roux
18:38 Dec 06, 2020

Not yet! maybe some day. I have another Reedsy story which is also about a devilclaw, called "The Exile"

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Yuk Yuk
11:34 Dec 11, 2020

Beautiful story, couldn't find a single fault... I think this is the first time I read a story without ANY typo...or maybe I was too engrossed in the story to notice... And I was thinking the same thing while I was reading.

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Sylvia Nwanze
15:51 Dec 05, 2020

I truly enjoyed reading this. Now I’ll have to let my imagination finish up the rest of the story. Might not be as interesting as yours but it’ll have to do. 😉 You deserved the win. 👍🏼

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Zilla Babbitt
22:13 Dec 04, 2020

Vivid and warm, in a sort of scary way. Like blood, I guess. The title fits beautifully, the dialogue sincere and enjoyable. Deserved win, Kate!

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Kate Le roux
05:55 Dec 05, 2020

Thank you Zilla. Yes, blood is vivid and warm in a scary way! Love that observation.

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Violet James
19:28 Dec 04, 2020

I loved your story, Kate. I was riveted from the first line. Congratulations on your win. Well deserved 🌷🌷🌷 Violet

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Kate Le roux
05:56 Dec 05, 2020

Thank you Violet!

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Martin Ward
16:21 Dec 04, 2020

Nice! I love your voice, descriptions, worldbuilding and characters. Great story.

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Kate Le roux
16:47 Dec 04, 2020

Thanks!

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Kaleb St
16:55 Apr 14, 2021

Dear Kate, I am starting a youtube channel called Lorekeeper's Tales and would like to read your short story in my first video. I was hoping you would grant me you permission to read your story in my video. If not, I fully understand. Thanks, Kaleb.

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Kate Le roux
17:17 Apr 14, 2021

I emailed you :)

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Cole Lane
17:41 Mar 12, 2021

So much rich world building and backstory just in the dialogue! The inner conflict in Amrak and the realization that he wants a different life path (that fills the requirement of the Prompt), but wait, he has this new resolve and a new friend, and these are both outside what is acceptable in his world; what is he going to do with all of this?? There has to be more! :)

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Kate Le roux
18:48 Mar 12, 2021

Maybe one day I'll give him a novella ... I wrote this in the world of my novel. It was a challenge to world build "sparsely" when there is so much more of this world in my head and the book! Thanks for the awesome comment - it still makes me so happy to think someone was actually THINKING about a story I wrote :)

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Kate Le roux
18:48 Mar 12, 2021

Maybe one day I'll give him a novella ... I wrote this in the world of my novel. It was a challenge to world build "sparsely" when there is so much more of this world in my head and the book! Thanks for the awesome comment - it still makes me so happy to think someone was actually THINKING about a story I wrote :)

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Kate Le roux
18:48 Mar 12, 2021

Maybe one day I'll give him a novella ... I wrote this in the world of my novel. It was a challenge to world build "sparsely" when there is so much more of this world in my head and the book! Thanks for the awesome comment - it still makes me so happy to think someone was actually THINKING about a story I wrote :)

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R. B. leyland
19:24 Mar 10, 2021

Very late to the party here. I joined a few days ago and have just been reading bits here and there, working up to maybe doing something myself. This is amazing! I love worlds where the priesthood dominates, with a bit of resistance in there. Intrigued about the devilclaws! Will definitely look it up on Kindle when I've finished my current book I'm reading.

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Kate Le roux
14:54 Mar 12, 2021

Cool :) Thanks for the comment!

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Kate Le roux
14:55 Mar 12, 2021

Cool :) Thanks for the comment!

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Katy Eldred
11:56 Mar 10, 2021

Good story! You did well in building characterization in such a small amount of time while pursuing the story. The devilclaw took me a second to understand -- I had to reread (which is fine) -- and it's left-handed people! That made me laugh. A whole world built around something so unimportant; I love that. I really liked how none of the characters were particularly special, also. So many stories have the 'chosen one' that it's nice to read about people who are normal. I also enjoyed reading about someone who questioned the necessity of kill...

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Kate Le roux
14:56 Mar 12, 2021

Thanks Katy. Look me up on Kindle for more devilclaws :)

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Mustang Patty
09:53 Mar 04, 2021

Hi, Thank you for sharing your story. It’s easy to see why you won – Congratulations! I am putting together an Anthology of Short Stories to be published in late Spring 2021. Would you be interested? The details can be found on my website: www.mustangpatty1029.com on page '2021 Indie Authors' Short Story Anthology,' and you can see our latest completed project on Amazon. '2020 Indie Authors' Short Story Anthology.' (It is available as a Kindle Unlimited selection.) Feel free to reach out to me: patty@mustangpatty1029.com Thank you for shar...

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Kate Le roux
08:39 Mar 05, 2021

Thanks for the offer but don't think it suits me Patty, also I am from South Africa and the exchange rate is nuts. $40 is a LOT for us! Will check out one of your stories sometime :)

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