Below and Above

Submitted into Contest #221 in response to: Write a story where ghosts and the living coexist.... view prompt


Fantasy Fiction Teens & Young Adult

Brecti smiled warmly at her father when he came to collect her, his ever-present scowl deeper and darker than usual. She, on the other hand, had perfected the art of warm smiles--scowls were for men, smiles were for women.

"You ready then?" he barked.

"And so it begins," whispered Hitieli in Brecti's ear.

Brecti ignored her. Ignoring the ghosts was a skill one developed over time, especially when they chose to remain invisible.

"Yes, father," Brecti said, and Hitieli screeched with laughter at Brecti's docile tone and calm expression. The laugh was full of hilarity, but the sound had a distinct edge, that of a ghost who was beginning to stray into madness.

Brecti rose and followed her father from the tiny cave in which she slept.

"Whatever happens, girl, you will never enter this hovel again," Hitieli cackled.

Brecti envied the ghosts. She had, for most of her life, longed to be one, if only because they were able to hide their words and actions from each other. The living, on the other hand, were constantly watched by the dead, their every move noted and, if they strayed from the Way, reported. If they stole a diamond from the mines, for example, or if they scowled when they were supposed to smile. The ghosts were, after all, just the ancestors of the Wayfarers who had gone before, obedient and submissive.

Brecti had tried to join the ghosts twice. The first time she had been a child. Her mother had stopped her and her father had screamed that she was never to do such a thing ever again. Brecti had simply looked up at them, the blood pooling around her feet and her hastily bandaged arms not detracting for even a moment from the fixed, docile smile upon her face.

She hadn't understood. The ghosts were to be respected and honored. What could be wrong about joining them?

But she had obeyed. She hadn't known how to do anything else. Besides, it was the ghosts who had called out to mother, a thundering echo of twenty or thirty ancestors screaming Brecti's name in unison.

They must have not wanted her either.

The second time had been a year ago. By then Brecti understood that ghosts went mad, with time, that they were trapped in the Belows just like she was, that becoming one meant dying and never again evolving, changing, growing. For a while, that had been enough, but on the day of her fifteenth birthday, she had realized that the living couldn't evolve, change, or grow either.

So, what did it matter?

After her shift had ended, she had climbed the side of an abandoned mineshaft, the steepness and the darkness posing no threat at all to one who had been born in the Belows, who had spent her life crawling on cavern walls. She'd expected a flood of ghostly watchers to fill the space at any moment, screaming, yelling, calling for assistance, but no one would come, not in time to stop her.

But the ghosts hadn't appeared.

When she had climbed high enough, she had closed her eyes, taken a breath, and prepared to let go.

That was when Hitieli spoke to her for the first time.

"There is another way," Hitieli had whispered. "I'll tell you, if you will listen."

"Where are the others?" Brecti had wanted to know. Ghosts were never alone.

"They're holding back, girl. I told them to. You are my kin, and I have rights."

Which was when Brecti recognized her. Ghosts weren't worth noticing, not usually. There were too many of them, crammed into every inch of the Belows. But any good Wayfarer knew the names and faces of their own ancestors.

"Yes, girl, you're my daughter's daughter's daughter's daughter, and we have much to discuss."

Hitieli was already showing signs of ghost madness, but she had not turned into a howling specter, not yet, so Brecti had listened. And when Hitieli was finished, Brecti had climbed down and returned home, smile firmly in place. She had not spoken again after asking where the other ghosts were. Hitieli had warned her not to.

Brecti had spent an entire year listening.

Hitieli was an older ghost. The oldest were nothing more than whimpering wisps, curled in on themselves, unable to dampen their voices or fade from view. They congregated near The Pit in the distant depths of the Belows, their madness having defeated them. Hitieli would inevitably join them, but as yet, she was still awake, still in control, still able to hide herself from the other specters.

When The Pit had opened many generations previously and people had started becoming ghosts after death, the Wayfarers had rejoiced. Brecti knew they had. Their rejoicing was etched indelibly into the Undying Tablets that lined the walls of the Main Shaft. Why not rejoice in being able to spend more time with those you loved? But as time passed, and older ghosts got angrier, louder, sadder, wispier. . .

There was nothing that could be said. Rejoicing had been recorded in the Undying Tablets, and to say that the ghosts were somehow bad now was to go against the ancestors, something the Way would never allow.

Brecti had considered jumping into The Pit, its black expanse going deeper than anyone had been able to measure. No one knew what lay at the bottom, if there even was a bottom.

What they did know was that those who jumped did not become ghosts.

But Brecti didn't want to end. She wanted to be free.

So, she followed her father, obediently. As they wound through the tunnels of the Belows, scrambling through tiny holes and ascending the steps of mighty mine shafts, others joined them, other smiling girls who were sixteen that month accompanied by other scowling fathers.

"Higher, higher, higher!" cackled Hitieli, but her voice was difficult to hear over the susurration from the hundreds of ghosts following the procession, whispering and chattering and shrieking from every side.

Brecti's family was poor. Their mine was among the deepest, but ever since The Pit had appeared, people were afraid to dig deeper. Instead, they dug outward, and expansion, rather than depth, had been recorded in the Undying Tablets as the most Way-filled direction.

Brecti wondered if the Above-grounders had any idea at all just how far the mines had spread. There were lots of things the Above-grounders didn't know. For example, they didn't know about The Pit.

"Look at it!" Hitieli crowed. For a brief moment, Brecti's feet stumbled, but she corrected her gait before her father could shout.

They had reached the Main Hall, a place of worship and where decorum had to be observed.

Brecti had never been to the Main Hall. Once, it had been the deepest part of the Belows, but those day were long gone. It had taken most of a day to climb this far, and Brecti hoped that her stomach would not betray her hunger and bring her father's wrath down upon her.

The shock of stepping out into such a large, open space was difficult to bear. Brecti focused on placing one foot in front of the other, on smiling, on trying not to gawk at the huge pillars hewn directly from the rock or at the cavern ceiling high above that sparkled with the ancient diamonds that had been embedded there.

Enough to feed her family for a lifetime. Six lifetimes.

And still they climbed. The staircases were wide and ornate now. No more narrow tunnels and stairless shafts. She began to feel light-headed, perhaps from the length of the journey, perhaps from hunger, perhaps from the thinning air.

"Keep your feet, girl," Hitieli whispered, directly into her ear. "Not long now."

It was a lie. Hours passed, the day bells were rung, and still they climbed, ceaselessly, not pausing to rest or slowing their speed, for that was not Way-like.

Ahead of them, a girl collapsed. Her father kicked her, but stopped when Hitieli revealed herself to him and screamed in his face.

The girl did not rise. Brecti passed her without looking.

"Listen to my voice. Listen only to me," Hitieli said, returning to Brecti's side and fading so that Brecti, and Brecti alone could hear and see her. "Above, there are trees. Above there is water, so much water, enough for everyone. Above there are friends and homes and light and love. Above the dead stay dead. Above is terrifying, but Above is better than Below."

Brecti didn't answer, but she let her smile dip and widen so that Hitieli knew she had heard.

"Good," said Hitieli. "It will all be over soon."

Their progress slowed. They had reached the famous bottleneck, the single corridor that led to the Choosing Chamber. Guards lined the walls, glaring angrily at the girls who passed. Brecti's father grabbed her arm hard, using his larger size to plow through the masses. Brecti hoped that no more girls fell. They would be trampled if they did.

In the Choosing Chamber the husbands waited, surrounded by hollering ghosts who whistled at and commented on the latest batch of brides. The men, who were of all ages, jockeyed for a chance to grab one of the 'pretty' ones.

Brecti had no idea if she fell into that category, but it was only a few minutes before a hairy arm grabbed her and her father let go, melting away into the crowd.

His part was done, his duty executed, and he would probably never think of his daughter again.

Brecti didn't look at her husband as he pulled her toward the next corridor. He didn't matter.

More guards lined the walls, not there for the husbands or the wives, but because in the next cavern an Above-grounder stood. He would be marrying couples from the Belows in a bored, tired voice.

Above-grounders were a threat to the entire Way.

Only Above-grounders could perform marriages. It was one of their rules, along with keeping the ghosts out of the Marriage Chamber and not sending anyone who was armed out of the mines.

If the rules were broken, the Above-grounders would invade.

"Are you a nice girl or a naughty girl?" her husband asked, his scratchy face close to her ear. Brecti suppressed a shudder, relieved that he couldn't do anything until the ceremony was complete.

The queue slowed to a crawl as each couple was married, quickly and perfunctorily, before hurrying to one of the marriage bed caverns to rest and recoup and. . . Brecti did shudder this time, but her husband didn't notice.

Or didn't care.

Finally, they reached the front of the queue. A tired Above-grounder waited, bedecked in purple robes that awed Brecti more for their cleanness than their bright color.

"Almost time," Hitielli said.

This cavern was large and comfortable, designed for the Above-grounders who hated the Belows and who only tolerated them for their diamonds. It was brightly lit by roaring furnaces around the end but also by a new, unusual light that shone faintly behind the priest.

Brecti's eyes widened slightly as she realized what it was.


The priest muttered some words. Brecti's husband barked a quick response, and then the priest reached for one of the iron 'necklaces' that were stacked next to him, the collar that would be placed around Brecti's neck marking her as married, as taken, as possessed.

"Almost. . ." muttered Hitieli. Brecti tried to keep her body from tensing. "Almost. . ."

Then, her husband let go of Brecti's arm to take the necklace in both his hands, as was customary. Brecti took a tiny step away from him, and then Hitieli screamed, "NOW!"

Hitieli made herself visible to Brecti's husband, to the priest, to everyone in the chamber. "We defy you!" she shrieked. "Think you can fight us? We dare you to try!"

Brecti ran, past the priest, past the Above-ground guards who were too focused on the threat in front of them, past the acolytes and hangers-on. Behind her she could hear the Below guards rushing to join the fray.

"There will only be a dozen or so," Hitieli had said. "So just run! They won't care about you."

So, run Brecti did, ignoring her stabbing headache, her weak legs, her empty stomach. The Marriage Chamber was close, so close to the surface. The Above-grounders wouldn't have it any other way.

"Faster!" Hitieli shrieked, and Brecti turned to see the ghost at her side, a triumphant look on her face.

Brecti quickened her pace.

"This is the other Way!" Hitieli screamed, and Brecti's heart soared, because she knew exactly what Hitieli meant.

Ghosts could stay and go mad and sink to The Pit and float forever in misery.

Or they could leave the Belows and . . . end.

Hitieli had chosen her Way, and she had offered Brecti, her kin, the chance to choose too.

"Close your eyes," Hitieli said, and Brecti obeyed. She was a child of darkness, she knew how to move through the world with no light to guide her.

Suddenly, the sound of her footfalls changed, softened. The echoes that Brecti was so used to hearing vanished, leaving the air feeling barren and empty.

Warmth, almost unbearable in its intensity, beat down on Brecti from above. She threw her arms to her face with a cry and fell to her knees, hitting the stony ground hard. Even with her eyes closed, even with the sun already setting, it was so bright.

It was also so, so quiet.

No ghosts wailing. No Hitieli whispering instructions. Nothing at all.

Then: "One of them got out!"

"Quick! Get a medic."

And gentle hands lifting Hitieli from the ground before she fainted and distant voice that might have been a remnant of Hitieli or may have bee Brecti's own thoughts whispering, "Freedom."

October 21, 2023 18:39

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AnneMarie Miles
14:33 Oct 29, 2023

Such an intricate world you've created! Very vivid images and distinct rules/roles. It was very intriguing to follow! Glad brecti finally made it above ground to her freedom!


Tamarin Butcher
16:23 Oct 29, 2023

Thanks! I felt that the story was maybe a little too big for the word count, so I might expand on it somewhere else in the future.


AnneMarie Miles
16:31 Oct 29, 2023

Absolutely! It could be an entire novel to fully grasp the Above and Under, as well as The Way. I was able to grasp enough to follow, but certainly a lot of questions could be answered in a larger piece


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Shirley Medhurst
10:24 Oct 29, 2023

I enjoyed reading your story, Tamarin. A beautiful and uplifting story - Well told!


Tamarin Butcher
16:23 Oct 29, 2023

Thank you!


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Mary Bendickson
22:27 Oct 24, 2023

A beckoning world above. Hope springs eternal


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