Contest #160 shortlist ⭐️



This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

I am a mercenary of words. I do not hunt people but pages.

Jyiro repeated his mantra, psyching himself up for what was to come, beckoning the thrill to approach him, as if asking for a challenge. He wasn’t killing people. He would never kill people.

The salty air pricked his nose as he sauntered through the sandstone alley, only a block away from the library. In one pocket, he held the matches, and in the other, the words he would use.

There were bright green bushes all around him, and he could hear the echoes of the pelicans up above. The city was situated near the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. The mountains were full of green. Green trees, green grass, even the dirt looked green. The midnight breeze blew in his hair, and he took a breath.

Turning on the end of the pathway, he saw what he was looking for. It was a tall silo that went into the ground, like a tower that morphed into a cave, with guards crawling all over it, like spiders on a stick. Only the government officials were allowed inside, mostly because of people like him. His parents would be disappointed. Jyiro bit his nails. He hated to think of that. His parents were one of him, except they didn’t use his family’s power like he did. But he would never kill anyone. He was a mercenary of words, after all.

It was 100 feet tall, made of off white limestone bricks glass dome to top it off. There were five sections to it, with tombstone shaped windows all around it, full of guards to watch the single spiral staircase that led to the pit below. Fifty-two guards stood above with their crossbows ready to fire on anything that got too close. Ten more guards paroled around it, ready to give the signal. And the funny thing was, they didn’t even stand a chance.

It starts with a word: invisible. Jyiro picked one out of his pocket. Then comes the fire. He lit the match and burned it. The paper had a string of words, but only the first one activated. The smoke floated up to the sky, and the slip of crinkled paper burned to his fingertips. Then he walked past the guards, through the door as one of them went in, and quietly made his way inside the library.

The shelves in section “D” held what he needed, a book on a wealthy man named Destrios. He would burn the page about sickness, and that would cure his declining health. Usually, his job related to money. He always had people willing to pay for less than they would get, and Jyiro didn’t care. He didn’t do this for the money. It was for the excitement. The thrill. The rush of excitement and the way his heart pounded every time a guard walked by. A guard!

Jyiro tossed the book back and instinctively hid his face. Nobody could see him, but a floating book would be strange, even in this library. 

A small girl walked by with a sideways grin and big brown eyes. Her hands bounced up and down like waves in the ocean as she passed him. How many others were still in this place? The second she was gone, he picked up the book, not checking closely to see if it was the one with symbols that matched the tattoo on his arm.

Each tattoo represented a win. Mercenaries always had a way of remembering their kills. That, and the fact that Jyiro couldn’t read.

He lit the match, slowly bringing it to the page, and watched it burn. The book was about halfway encased in flame when realization hit him. The symbols on the cover…they didn’t completely match. The first part was right…but not the last few…

The book hit the floor, and the floor came next. Heat and smoke arose. Head that you could feel without touch and smoke that can suffocate without a place to escape. Jyoto fled, up the staircase and burling through the door. Somebody had already noticed it, had called for help. The guards clattered around and sprayed billows of water, the ocean a breath away.

It was no use. The fire rose up like the sun rises above the horizon every morning, consuming the darkness that flees to the shadows where it can only try to escape. Nothing helped. Once you start the fire, it never stops.

* * *

Sand fell through the cracks in the floorboards above every time someone took a step. There was a bard in the corner plucking a sad song on the three strings of his lute, the tune filling the busy tavern. Jyiro sat in the corner, hands crossed, head down, only his eyes looking up. His frizzy beard had tinges of gray. His frame was tighter, eroded into sharp cheeks and sunken eyes on his dry skin. This was all covered by the mottled layers of thin fabric that covered his face, arms, and torso, only revealing his dark eyes. Everyone tried to cover their mouth, to keep out the sand.

“My sources say you know the location of Kselia…” Jyiro murmered.

“If it is real, I know where it would be,” the man on the other side of the table replied, taking another sip of beer. “Someone came in last month. Said he went to the desert, trying to find the cure for a disease of his. We had all seen it. Eating half his face. The poor lad… Wandering in the Yaksha desert, he found the second library, and it told him everything he needed to hear. Came back, and he was all better. Seen it with my own eyes.” Jyiro scowled.

“The Yaksha desert is a thousand miles wide. I’ve been there the last 15 years trying to find what rumors tell.” He glanced at his sack of gold pieces hidden under his robe.

“Hold on, lad. I’m not done. He gave more. He said it was in an oasis on the–” The ceiling burst open, wooden boards breaking in two, guards landing in their midst. He and the man who used to be on the other side of the table jumped up away from each other. Jyiro threw him a satchel before hurrying to a hallway in the back. No use having two people chasing after you.

Darting away from officers, he punched through the back wall, sand immediately whipping into his face. A ten foot bolder a foot in front of him would escape his gaze, the way the sand restricted his vision. It went in his eyes, his mouth, and his nose, and scratched at his skin, and tore at his clothes. Every step away from the tavern let his feet sink further into the sand. The sand that ruined crops. The sand that dried up water. The sand that quickly whittled away at monuments and the towers that caved in on each other.

Jyiro positioned himself in an alleyway between two broken down houses. Sand flowed through the houses, through the mesh falls and rickety boards, and in his face even here, but at least it was something. He followed his path to the desert; the same one he had been using all these years. Even with his vision blurred, he bolted through. He remembered most of the steps, but time changed the path he followed. 

Jyiro tripped, his forehead smacking into a log buried under the ground. Springing up, he listened. Wind howled and boards creaked, but there were no voices. No barking back and forth between officers. He pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled something down. That sweet relief. In fifteen years, Jyiro hadn’t seemed to change. He still felt like the same idiot who only thought of himself. But now he was an idiot who could write. Who could read too, and was going to read and write down that book he burned, and burn it again, and save everyone from this miserable land.

The word was: Clear. He had never used the word he used that night again. Sand didn’t care if you were invincible. It still slammed right into you all the same. The officers were onto him. They’d been chasing him all these years. He’d have given himself in if it weren’t for the fact that he was the only one who knew what happened that night. It pained him to say it, but he was the only one who could fix it, either. He brought out the match. He hated the match. The look of fire. The feeling of heat. It reminded him of that night. Of the faces he’d seen, that couldn’t be unseen. The faces that didn’t exist anymore. 

But once you start the fire, you can’t stop. He learned that a long time ago. So he started the match, and burned the phrase. He felt clearer. The sand began to pass through him, but his feet sinked even further down. Then he got up and ran.

Less than an hour in and he was through the mountains opposite what used to be the sea. At first, the mountains were filled with people trying to escape this forsaken land, but the entourage stopped at the face of the Yaksha desert. A dessert as dry as the moon. A dessert without a landmark in sight, 100 miles of emptiness. Now, that pass was desolate, except for him and a few others on a busy day. Only burners like him could survive out there. 

The thought of other burners stopped him. His parents. Their faces flooded his mind as he took his first step out of the mountain. The images hadn’t changed in the past 15 years. What did they look like now? Jyiro shook his head and he kept going.

After another hour, he wished he had chosen Hydrate as his word. The storm was letting up, and he could see further ahead, but he could also tell that his canteen was running low. He needed water. An oasis. He wished he could just burn another word. Jyiro smirked. Now that would be a useful tool. But until Clear stopped, no other word would matter.

After another hour, the storm slowed and the sand began to let up, his vision increasing. Jyiro could see further than before, but that didn’t feel better. It was 100 miles of nothing. The horizon was the only detail you could see in millions and millions of grains of sand which all blended together into one flat yellow. It was fun the first time. Exciting, even. One informant had told him of a second library and he believed him. How naive. Now, 23 desert expeditions, 12 informants, and stacks of burned paper, he was no better than before.

Was he even getting closer? Now they had a name of the library. He didn’t know where it had started, but Kselia was what he was dreaming of, had envisioned in his mind all these years. And now he knew it was at an oasis, or at least suspected such.

He had a map; paper seemed to be his only decent tool. There were five oases he discovered. If a man was dying of a skin disease, he probably couldn’t go far, especially without being able to burn. Jyiro marked a spot on the map. That oasis would be four hours away, 12 if he wasn’t Clear, judging his compass and the stars. He would rather not be Clear, now that the storm was gone, even if that did take longer. How much longer could he last without water? 

His head was beginning to spin. It would be an hour or so before sunrise, then he would stop. And so, in an hour, Jyoto found a broken log and fell asleep in it.

* * *

Two hundred and thirty two people. That’s how many died in the fire. It was the first thing that came to mind when he awoke. Out of that 232, 127 died immediately, and the remaining 105 died in the hospital from third and fourth-degree burns. Another 302 were left with serious scars that would never be healed. And Jyiro was left without a scratch. He didn’t stay that way. He had seared off all the tattoos, branding himself with the words he had used in stupid burnings he called a game. His arms were covered in long blotches soon after he learned to read.

The second thing he realized was that he was no longer clear: yet another gift he shouldn’t have been given. But this wasn’t for him. It was for all the people who could get their life back to normal after he fixed this broken land. He wrote another word: Hydrated. Then he burned it. Then he walked.

It was boring. It was monotonous. It was hard. But that’s what he deserved. Each step was warm from the sun that had just escaped from the sky. He had 12 hours, the entire night, to try and get to this oasis. And if not this oasis, then the next one. His stomach grumbled. Would he die this time? Like, actually die?

He always asked that question. Always muttered to himself about how he wished he would. But it never happened. Nature was too good to him. How come he could ruin everyone else’s life and come out of it unfazed? He should have died in that fire, but then who would find Kselia?

So he walked. And he walked. And then he found it. He couldn’t believe it at first. It was only nine hours. His ankles ached. His stomach beckoned for food, like it was some foreign beast controlled by a different man. It must be a mirage. He blinked his eyes. But every step closer, the thing seemed to get nearer, like he could reach out and touch it.

In a sea of yellow dust, about a mile ahead, there were palm trees sticking up out of the ground. A pool of water sat inside it. He dashed towards it, across the hot sand that bit his ankles. Soon it was only ten feet away, then seven, then four. And then he reached it, falling on his face in the lush green plants. They smelled…they smelled like grass. He hadn’t smelled grass in five years!

But there was no library. It was only ten feet wide. The only structure was a tent in the corner. A tent in the corner? Jyiro ran to it. If there was someone in it, maybe he would know where the library was. He stopped. His head began to spin, and his face dropped to the ground, and he sunk further into his consciousness.

* * *

Two hundred and thirty two people. That’s how many people had died in the fire. Jyiro bolted up. He was inside the tent, his hands tied and feet bound. “Greetings stranger, of whom I hope will not kill me and eat my insides,” A feminine voice said from behind. He tried to position himself so he could see the voice, a damp rag falling off his forehead.

“Your hands are tied in the handcuff knot. Instructions: Form two identical loops with the rope and overlap them like a Clove Hitch. Next, thread one loop through the other loop and repeat. Insert the victim’s limbs and tighte–”

“I’m not here to hurt you.” Jyiro said. His stomach, oddly enough, felt full.

“Okay. That’s very nice of you,” The woman said. Just like that, she came over and undid his hands. He sat up, face to face with her, and she looked away. She was wearing a large cluster of rags tied on top of eachother, from zigzag brown to chevron orange. They covered her hair, but not her face. It was burned. Her hands, and neck, which he could barely see under the faded rags, were the same. That should be me Jyiro thought to himself.

“I need to know where the library is,” He asked.

“Huh? We have no library. It burned down 5639 days ago,” she said.

“There is supposed to be another library out here.” She bounced her hands up and down. “A library is defined as a building where pieces of information are held not for the purpose of selling.” Then it hit him.

“I saw you that night!” He said. “Before I…You were there. I recognize you based on your…” He looked at her hands. “What is your name?”

“My name? Oh that's Kselia!” She rambled on about the origin of it, and the meaning, and got all the way to Yara fur traders and their caravans before he stopped her.

“You have a good memory.”

“That is correct. Actually, I use to work at the library. They tried to get me to memorize all the books in case of an emergency…I got really far, too.” There really was a library in the desert.

“Can you read something for me, Kselia?” He asked.

“Sure! Which book?” She gave him a crooked smile.

“A book on deserts? Right next to a record of a man named Destrios?”

“Desert Environments by Zandir Gaio? That one has amazing diagrams!” Kselia flapped her hands.

And so it began. She really did remember every word, Jyiro carefully transcribing it. He knew it wouldn’t fix his mistakes. Two hundred and thirty two people died. He couldn’t change that. Humanity had spent the last 15 years starving, dying, and hunting each other to stay alive. That was true, and it was all Jyiro’s fault. There was nothing he could ever do to change that. But as he carefully bound the paper together and watched the fire blacken and burn it to pieces, the heat prickling his skin, he wondered to himself. Once you start the fire, is there any way to put down the match?

August 26, 2022 05:26

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


S. E. Mary
18:38 Aug 29, 2022

Best opening line I have ever read and so relatable for writers. I found this piece captivating and I was pulled into the story by the end of the first paragraph. The last sentence was also a killer line! Nice work!


02:10 Sep 03, 2022

Thank you so much, this means so much to me!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Daniel Allen
18:48 Sep 02, 2022

Really cool idea, nicely done! Congrats on making the shortlist!


02:11 Sep 03, 2022

Thank you!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Michał Przywara
16:55 Dec 11, 2022

The premise of burning words for temporary magical effects is cool, and having that completely screw everything up when a library is accidentally ignited - awesome! An original idea. But beyond that, there really is a sense of the main character having royally f'd up, and becoming a broken, driven man obsessed with undoing his mistake. A fun fantasy read with a cool premise - I can see why it shortlisted.


Show 0 replies
Nate Meyer
11:59 Sep 07, 2022

Awesome job! What a unique concept. You efficiently set the scene so I felt like I was there and felt what Jyiro felt. We want more stories from you!


Show 0 replies
Philip Ebuluofor
15:57 Sep 05, 2022

Fine work. Interesting to read and easy to follow too. Congrats.


Show 0 replies
Sophia Gardenia
17:38 Sep 03, 2022

The first and last lines are really awesome! I love the idea of burning words to make them come 'alive'. It's almost as if the whole story is a tribute to the writing process. We writers are always hunting for words(like Jyiro is) and we start a fire by writing a book because it gets people thinking. Then once we start writing, we can't stop. I'm not sure if this is what you were going for, but great story all the same!


Show 0 replies