School is one of my least favorite places to be.
I loved writing, but
once they put me in a classroom
told me to write less than two pages
less than 500 words
or in less than 24 hours
I had to find a way to save myself.
I made one decision.
They couldn't cage me.
I did just enough "work"
to get a good grade.
But the finished product was more than that.
It was like
I broke some imaginary rule
like somehow they were expecting it to be
But that wasn't specified.
So they couldn't tell me no.
My new motivation was this
breaking away from the normal.
Choosing something I actually cared about
not necessarily something easy.
But loving it
made it easy.
Vlakas of Volos
The Greeks knew many heroes. Strong men who could lift mountains, challenge Gods, and overcome all-but-impossible challenges. But no story is quite like that of the young Vlakas. He is often recognized as an intelligent fool, solving difficult problems, but creating more in the process because he did not think things through. It is impossible to tell whether he created or solved more problems in his lifetime.
Vlakas’ mother, Queen Ananasa of Volos, never told him who his father was— only that if he had the strength to find him out he would know someday. Ananasa had a younger son, Sofos, but he had been born to a different father, the current king of Volos. Vlakas loved his younger brother more than almost any other person and took him many places, though he often had to protect him. Vlakas grew up trying to uncover who his father was. He searched out monsters, thieves, and other dangers to try to build and prove his strength. By the time he was twenty, more than half of Greece had probably heard rumors about him.
One night, Thymos the King of Serres lost his only son and heir, Polytimos, to a vicious tribe of mermaids. Angered, the King thought and thought about how he could avenge his son. It was then that he thought of the now-famous Vlakas. He prayed to the gods for the youth’s assistance. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, came to answer him. His mission pleased her, and she told Thymos that she knew of a sure way to convince Vlakas to help.
Using her knack for convincing and persuasive words, Nemesis told Vlakas’ father to reveal himself to his son. He agreed, deciding that after all that Vlakas had done, he was finally worthy to know his parentage.
Vlakas happened to be traveling toward the general direction of Serres when he stopped by the side of the path to rest. In a dream, Morpheus, the God of dreams, came to him and told him that Vlakas was his son. Morpheus also said that he needed to go directly to Serres and find the king. Then he was to do whatever task Thymos needed him for. Vlakas, shocked by the revelation and wanting more than anything else to honor his father, quickly accepted and traveled the rest of the way to Serres.
When he got there, King Thymos was waiting for him, and impatiently let a day pass for Vlakas to rest and replenish before he sent him away again on his quest. In the morning Thymos told Vlakas what to do.
He explained how Polytimos had been hunting in the forests by a small village near the pool of Dakrya when he was murdered by a small tribe of mermaids living there. A villager had sent a messenger to Thymos to inform him of his son’s death, and said that the one who specifically committed the deed was the Queen, Oneira. Thymos wanted revenge.
“Vlakas,” he said, “You are known throughout all of Greece for your feats. I am but a man, and Oneira is immortal. If you can find a way to just capture her and bring her back to me, you will receive any reward that you wish for at my hand.”
At this point, Vlakas was not just driven by a desire to please his father. His heart was now set upon the riches that he could get by completing the quest. He accepted and told Thymos that he would decide on the payment after his mission was complete.
Taking nothing with him except his cherished younger brother, Vlakas left on foot to find the pool of Dakrya. He wished that the mermaid Queen wasn’t immortal, because it was usually easy to kill something. But capturing it? And then bringing it back? That was much more difficult. He had never traveled the road before, and many dangers awaited him. Eventually it was not so much a road as a path. And after a while it was not really even that anymore.
The first night as he laid down to rest, he was woken by someone breathing very loudly in his ear. He quickly grabbed his knife and spun around, only to see his frightened brother. But as he looked up he saw why. They were encircled by black, snarling wolves. Without thought, Vlakas faced the first one he saw and started killing it with his bare hands. He only realized he had made a mistake when he heard Sofos cry for help. Throwing the wolf he was wrestling down, he ran to help his brother. When he had him free they ran to safety. The wolves never caught up to Vlakas, as strong and fast as he was, so he continued his journey.
For a few nights he slept peacefully and was not bothered by anything in the forest. He soon let his guard down. But one day as he was walking he came upon a group of creatures with the torsos of men and the bodies of horses. Centaurs. Realizing he was almost out of food, Vlakas figured he could take some from the centaurs. He devised a path to get around them so that they wouldn’t see him but failed to realize that centaurs do not rely wholly upon their sense of sight. Just as Vlakas reached out to grab a piece of food, a voice behind him said, “You know, you could just ask.”
Startled, Vlakas drew his sword and turned to face whoever had spoken. Of course it was a centaur. The centaur repeated his sentence and Vlakas stared at him blankly. Sofos was nowhere in sight. Vlakas finally asked for food and directions to the pool of Dakrya, wondering briefly where his brother had run off to.
After providing food, the centaur guided Vlakas back to the path and told him he had to follow the guide to a network of tunnels.
“If you find the way out of the tunnels,” he said, “the pool of Dakrya is just a mile east, near the village.”
“Who is the guide?” Vlakas asked.
The centaur just chuckled and left him standing in the middle of the path. Vlakas turned to ask another question but the centaur was gone. He had no idea how to find this “guide”, but he followed the path for a while.
It was just getting dark when Vlakas was suddenly grabbed from behind and dragged a few feet. He lashed out just in time to see a flash of sharp white teeth and pale skin. Then another one dashed for his arm. They were vampires. Any normal human could have been subdued by just one, but even two were not quite a match for Vlakas. Not having time to draw his sword, he used his surroundings to evade the attackers. Climbing trees and ducking behind rocks, he was able to buy enough time so that he could finally use his swordsmanship skills to fend off the vampires for long enough.
As he saw the first slice of light appear, Vlakas dropped his sword and ran, hoping that if nothing else, he would find the guide who was supposed to help him before the vampires found Vlakas. As the daylight grew brighter, he slowed down, and eventually dared to look back. No one. But now that it was light, Vlakas was ready to sleep.
Just starting to close his eyes, he suddenly didn’t feel tired anymore. All of his fatigue was gone, replaced with a burning adrenaline. He didn’t know why, but he had an overwhelming desire to find the mermaid and capture her to avenge the son of Thymos. He jumped up with his newfound energy, but found himself face to face with a woman he had never seen before.
He had no idea whether to run, fight, or just see why she was here. He wouldn’t have to make that decision, however, because she spoke first.
“Come with me,” she said, an odd laugh in her voice.
Vlakas looked around and tried to figure out if there were any better options. Unfortunately, he was mostly lost, and there was nothing to do but follow the strange woman.
“Good,” she said immediately after he had made the decision. “There is no way to the path alone.”
Puzzled, Vlakas was about to ask her what she meant, when she quickly turned around and stopped, her lip curling into a smile that looked more like a sneer.
“We’re here,” she announced, and they dropped into darkness.
Vlakas had expected a long fall, but within a second his feet were touching the ground again. It felt damp and smelled of fresh soil and rotted vegetation, and when his guide spoke again, her words echoed around his head.
“Welcome to the tunnels.”
A light flickered from a torch that she now held in her hand.
“I am Nemesis. And by the end of the week I can promise that Polytimos’ blood will be paid for. And you, young Vlakas, shall have your just rewards.”
With that, she gave him the torch, laughed again, and disappeared.
Only seconds later Vlakas was knocked out by a meaty hand.
He heard his father’s voice saying something he couldn’t quite make out, and in swirls of darkness a blurry head and cloaked body formed. Random images swam around the man’s form.
“...hard times ahead of you. You will need these gifts. The silver rope has the ability to subdue magic, and with the black mirror you will have the power to manipulate your image to appear as if it is in a different location. The net must be used for the mermaid, with precise timing. We shall meet when you are finished.”
When his eyes next opened, fires swam around him and the sounds of clinking metal and steam crashed around his ears. His body was stiff but he was unbound and sat in a surprisingly hidden corner. He looked down to see the gifts he had heard about in his dream shimmer and appear beside him. He quickly hid them within his clothing.
Just as he was about to get up and turn a corner, a giant eye found him. With a bellowing groan, the hideous monster raised a glowing white rod and came for Vlakas.
Vlakas dodged the cyclops and grabbed a chunk of sharp steel to defend himself from the rest. Injuring a few and causing one to drop to the ground with a severed neck, he found the exit and plunged into the dark tunnels once more. Roars and clanks followed him, and he used the faint light of his pursuers to find his way through another opening, where he saw blue sky.
Clambering out of the small hole, he rolled a large rock over the opening so he would get a head start if they tried to chase him. East, the centaur had said. By now Vlakas was very much wondering where Sofos had gone, but he knew that there was no turning back now.
There would have been no way to know which way to go during the daytime if he hadn’t seen the smoke of the village Thymos and the centaur had mentioned. He headed towards it and got there without any trouble. But he still didn’t see the pool of Dakrya. He didn’t necessarily know who to go to for directions this time, so he wandered into the streets and greeted the first person he saw.
It was a man. And, Vlakas realized, it was his brother, Sofos. Apparently during the encounter with the centaurs, he had gone off somewhere else to find food, and remembered hitting his head. When he woke up he found himself at the village. He said that a sorceress and daughter of Hecate had brought him there. Vlakas thought it was odd, but right now his mind kept drifting back to the rewards King Thymos had promised.
“Sofos, you seem safe at least here. Wait while I complete my quest. When I have the mermaid I will return to you.”
Sofos nodded and said he knew where to find the mermaids. He led him outside the village and pointed to a grove of trees.
“I will go no further, brother,” Sofos said, and turned back.
Without another word, Vlakas set off towards the pool of Dakrya. He didn’t really think about how he was going to capture the mermaid, but he knew that all you had to do to get a mermaid’s attention was sing to her. It was dangerous though, because if she could lure anyone close enough with her beauty, they could be dragged down and drowned.
About halfway to the pool Vlakas was stopped by a magic wall.
“Go no further,” commanded a girl’s voice behind him. He turned to face her, but she was not there. The voice continued.
“I am Froura, daughter of Hecate, Guardian of Oneira and her tribe in the pool of Dakrya. And if you dare to venture beyond this wall I will make sure you have no power to influence any of the mermaids.”
Vlakas realized that this must have been the sorceress who brought his brother to the village. But now she was barring his way. Impatiently, Vlakas huffed and strode forward, glad to find that there was no longer a wall blocking his way. But as soon as he crossed the threshold of where it had been before, he was attacked by Froura. She descended upon him and pinned him down for just long enough to touch his throat with her finger.
Just as quickly as she had come she was gone. Vlakas did not know what had happened. He grunted. Well, tried to grunt, but no sound came out. He soon realized that Froura had taken his voice with her magic. He had no idea what to do, and nightfall was descending quickly.
That night his father came to him again in a dream and reminded him of the gifts he had, and in the morning Nemesis was waiting for him. She gave him an enchanted dagger and told him that the only way to get his voice back was to tie up Froura and steal it back by slitting her throat with it.
“You will find her easily,” Nemesis instructed him. “I will take you back when vengeance has been made on Oneira.”
Vlakas saw the sorceress lying at ease in a hammock, sure that no one had the power to harm the mermaids now. Quickly, he threw the silver rope that his father had given him over her and wrapped it until she was tightly bound. She tried to use her magic but it had been taken away by the rope.
Without a thought of her life, he slit her throat and felt his voice return back. There was now no way she could try to follow him back or try to recapture Oneira when he got her. He cried out triumphantly over her now dead body and ran back to the pool of Dakrya and knelt by the edge.
Starting softly, he sang the most emotional love song he could think of in hopes of drawing Oneira from the pool. In just a few minutes he saw her, and he knew it was her. She was beautiful beyond any woman he had ever seen, and he instantly fell in love with her. Luckily for him, Oneira had had the same feelings when he first started to sing to her.
But Vlakas knew he must bring the mermaid back to King Thymos, and as beautiful as she was, his lust for gold took over. He said goodbye to her and told her he would be back soon. Oneira submerged and Vlakas waited until he was sure she wouldn’t see him. He positioned the net so that he could drop it on her at any time, then he hid behind a tree with the black mirror.
Again he started singing, and swift as lightning Oneira was above the water. Before she could see that Vlakas was gone, though, he dropped the net on her and pulled her out of the water. The magic net would keep her alive and protect Vlakas from her power, but the mermaid queen was hurt and angered by his betrayal. She glared at her captor with loathing and swore that he would pay. But by now Vlakas had only eyes for what awaited him at the completion of his task.
He forgot about meeting his brother back at the village, and went directly to where Nemesis was waiting for him. She took him up in a black chariot and in seconds they were in Serres.
Proud of his accomplishment, he carried the angry queen through the king’s halls and finally to Thymos himself, who ordered her to be sent to prison chambers immediately. King Thymos rewarded Vlakas with all of the riches he wanted, but tortured the immortal Oneira every day.
Nemesis had finished paying for Polytimos. But now she had a different victim. With every whipping, burn, or bruise she was given, Oneira swore a curse on Vlakas.
Vlakas was already in deep grief by now. The very same messenger who had brought the news of Polytimos’ death told of how Sofos had tried to follow Vlakas back and in the process was brutally killed by cyclopes.
But even with that plaguing him, Vlakas was still cursed for his cruel betrayal of Oneira’s love. He would fall in love with every woman he saw, but every woman alive would despise him more and more for every token of love he gave her.
Soon, the famous, rich hero of Greece could not stand it. He freed Oneira but took his life the very same night. His soul could have gone to Elysium for that very last deed, but he refused it and chose to mourn forever over his fate in the fields of Asphodel.
Laine pressed her fingers against the misted glass of her bedroom window, taking in the rosy sunrise. It seemed so impossibly vivid, so bright and glorious. So much contrast with what was inside. Her swirling, tempestuous thoughts let her have the brief reprieve. Pleasure was a luxury rarely earned, but brought consistently with the rise of that flaming luminescence over the hills each day. Laine found it comforting, as such a constant event. Through all the change and cruelty of the world, at least there was this.
It had taken a long time, too long, to find this. All the comforting, caring words spoken by friends, family, or counselors never cut it. Yet for some reason, dawn was her savior.
Night time was fear. Darkness pervaded so much more easily. Emotions heightened— all of them. Not only did happiness bubble higher, enjoyment become more boisterous, lust crave more deeply. With the shadows in the corners came the rest of it. Pain burned more acutely. Anger drew from every possible irritation, swelling and building so much faster than it would have in the light. And depression clung. Drooping from each inky patch and hollow in an unlit room, it was always there, waiting for the sun to retire. Waiting for Laine.
Still preserved carefully in her memory was the day Allen had stayed up with her through the morning, arms around her in the slight chill of the summer night. Sleep was evasive, it refused to take her. Allen had understood. He let her wait, shivering on the rooftop with him, until the black bled to blue. The blue evolved rapidly from there, becoming a burst of… the unexplainable. Everyone tries to describe a sunrise, but language fails every time. Allen knew. He understood that you had to be there. In your darkest moment you had to experience the soul-piercing peace and wonder. Laine hadn’t even needed an explanation. Since then, she rose every morning, no matter how tired, to renew herself. No one could have understood the change, the utter metamorphosis that had taken place. The world did shine, if you knew where to look.
Laine withdrew from the windowsill as the clouds shifted to new shapes and colors. The light faded, and she sighed, contented. It wouldn’t last the whole day, but it was enough. An immeasurably better alternative to what she’d had before.
The light flicked on with a mindless motion of her hand and she threw on a long, open jacket over her shirt, checking herself briefly in the mirror. Though Allen was gone now, with his genuine smiles and assuring words, she felt confident in who she had become. Her crooked nose didn’t bother her anymore. She didn’t stress about her blonde hair being too thin or her face too pale. Most importantly, she was capable of walking out the door without feeling an inexplicable impending dread of everything. She grabbed some breakfast and glanced out the window, grinning. There he was.
Roran’s gray-clad form was barely visible through the filmy curtains. He leaned casually against the stop sign, surveying the sodden autumn leaves strewn along the roadsides. A stuttering groan from the door hinge alerted him to Laine’s exit, and he raised a hand in greeting, turning slightly to wait for her.
She adjusted her backpack straps as she caught up to him, smiling. They started west, toward the school. The sun caressed their backs, reflecting off of the sidewalk’s many puddles. Laine smirked at Roran, who wore a hoodie that clashed somewhat with his light charcoal-hued sweats.
“Gray again. Branching out, are we?”
Roran rolled his eyes. “Technically it’s still a shade of black,” he muttered.
“Still. Don’t get too crazy with your colors or I might have to start checking to make sure you’re not an imposter.”
He just raised his eyebrow and stepped over another puddle.
Roran’s arrival in her neighborhood two years ago had replaced much of what had been lost when Allen left. It wasn’t completely the same, obviously. Laine had never been romantically interested in Roran, and she doubted he felt any differently. It just didn’t work that way. They talked with the same inside understanding though, and acted like each other’s counselors when needed. Roran was simply an alternate version of Allen.
Reaching the school, they parted ways with small nods, absorbed in their own thoughts. Laine shifted her gaze back to Roran for a moment. Being talkative had never been a strong point for him, but today, she thought she could almost sense part of his usual self missing.
A constant aura of knowing and confidence had surrounded him since he had grown accustomed to this place. Roran bore himself like a man of authority somehow. It was fascinating, especially considering many of the things he had told her about his life before.
There were also the rumors. Other kids whispered of strange things he said or did in class, hinting at his background, of how he had previously attended schools for “special kids”, or rehab centers, or when he slipped odd comments about a therapist. There were suspicions that he was mentally unsound. Laine could immediately call that one out. Far too many in-depth conversations over text had told her otherwise. Some were scared of him, thinking he might be dangerous. It had all mostly worn off by now, but a faded remnant of it lingered like a shadow. Laine tried to stop it, but all she could really do was trust Roran. She knew he wasn’t dangerous. An unexpected but potent amount of natural and unbiased caring for other people saturated Roran. Even rudeness from one classmate to another bothered him. He hated yelling. He was always reluctant to witness violence. He just cared. It was so simple, so pure. Roran never wanted to be a burden on anyone. “Sorry” came out of his mouth more often than “hello”. Always too hard on himself… If anyone knew what Laine knew, they would never consider for a second that the lying assumptions of students could have any basis in reality. No, the only danger Roran posed was to himself, if anything.
Laine didn’t think much more of it throughout the rest of the day. Calculus was a drag, but psychology perked her up a little. Band was the class she most looked forward to. Music had played a major role in connecting her and Roran. Passion for his saxophone playing had drawn Laine to him, eventually cementing into an unbreakable friendship. Third period came quickly, and Laine adjusted her flute as she sat down, keeping her eyes fixed on the doorway for signs of Roran. She would have to share a few interesting tidbits from psychology with him. Too soon, the bell rang, but Roran hadn’t come. Perhaps he had an appointment.
Eyebrows knitted in thought, Laine raised the flute to her lips, testing a few notes in the cacophony of other students warming up. She had barely begun when a small ding sounded from the corner of the room and her band director raised a hand in a silencing gesture.
“...Dell to the office please, Laine Dell. Thank You.”
Laine was taken aback for a moment. She slowly packed her flute back up and made her way to the office building, concern and curiosity mounting, both fighting for a place in her stomach.
“Ah, hello Laine,” the receptionist hesitated, pointing her to a chair as she arrived. “We were wondering if you knew anything about your friend Roran’s whereabouts.”
The knot in Laine’s gut tightened suddenly. She tried to keep the panic out of her voice as she talked. “Oh… you’ve already called his mother, then?”
“Yes, and his doctors. They have not reported seeing him in the past hour that he has been missing. He was not found in any of our classrooms or restrooms. We wanted to see if you could offer any suggestions before we notified the police.”
Laine’s eyes widened. Missing… an hour… the police… what did it mean? Roran wasn’t the type of person to skip school for any trivial reason.
“No,” Laine admitted reluctantly, “I can’t think of anything… may I call home for a minute? I would like to be excused.”
The woman looked at her with concern, but nodded.
Soon, Laine was practically dashing home through the idly drizzling rain, searching streets and alleys for gray clothing or black hair. She swung open her car door and snatched the keys, fumbling as she stabbed them into the ignition. The car rumbled to life just as she spotted something. Just a hundred or so yards away, in the park. A dark figure in gray huddled under the dead maple tree. Shivering against the rain. Laine turned off the car and quietly got out, watching closely, heart beating more loudly than the increasing rain.
Gingerly walking through the chain-link fence and past the swaying swings, Laine called out softly to him. He stopped shaking but didn’t turn.
“Roran…? Roran...” she whispered, voice halting and choking off as she came closer.
A thin line of blood stained the cuff of his jacket. Laine gasped softly, heart rising in her throat as she tried to process what she saw. The blade swirling with tinted rain, cast to the right of the tree. Her friend, her partner in thought and laughter, the boy she had considered nearly a brother. His face was angled away from her, but she could still see the tears mixing with rainwater on his cheeks.
Slowly, she picked up the discarded utility knife and regarded it in her shaking hands. Memories returned, blurred moments of a life buried deeply underneath her skin. How could this be happening? A strange anger took over, and she pivoted away from Roran and hurled the knife away into the deep, murky pond nearby, breathing heavily. She turned back to confront the bowed person hiding bloodied hands in his pockets. Roran was empty of his usual character. His confidence was gone, replaced by a sagging weight that Laine had come to associate with exhausted mornings and reassuring hugs.
So he had come back to it. He’d been clean since they met, but it was gone now. Water crowded in the corners of his eyes as he looked up at her.
“I’m… I’m— so sorry. It… I can’t. I can’t do this anymore.”
Laine just followed her instincts, barely knowing what to do. Rushing forward, she embraced Roran, anguished tears sliding down her cheeks and splattering against the cotton hoodie.
“Roran, please,” she choked, “Please, stay alive. One more day. I need to show you. You have to know. I care about you, I need you. You can’t do this, you have to stay with me. I need you, Roran. I’ll show you. Stay alive. You need to see. You need to know it’s worth it.”
He remained silent as the words poured through her lips, uneven and broken by the pain she felt. She couldn’t lose him. He had to know.
Laine wrapped her arm around his torso, supporting some of his weight as they started stumbling toward her house.
“I’ll tell them you’re safe. I’ll get help. We’ll get you through this, I promise.”
She struggled to open her door, and led him, still sopping wet, to her room, resting him on a sofa. Wiping away insistent tears, she grabbed her phone and dialed his mother’s number.
“I found him, Tambia, he’s… he’s safe. I’m taking care of him tonight. Tell the school he’s safe. Tell them he’s excused today. ...I’ll tell you later, I’m sorry. Thank you for understanding, Tambia. Yes, I’m fine. Goodbye.”
She hung up, keeping her concerned gaze on Roran.
“I’m not going to leave you, okay? I’m staying here.” She bit her lip. “You’re staying here too. For the night. I have to talk to you.”
Her mother would understand. Allen would have too, if he were here.
You have to find beauty in life, he had always said. Find it, or life will try to convince you there is none. Stay alive, promise me. It’s a truce, okay? We won’t leave each other. As long as there is beauty, there is hope. The night may be fear, but the morning? The morning is life. The sun will rise, and we will try again. Promise me, Laine. Promise me you’ll always try again.
Roran needed to know.