The Echo

2024 Writing Award Sub-Category
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
When the right to live is determined by one’s worth to society, a disillusioned judge risks his own standing when he decides an expendable castoff should live.
First 10 Pages


The dream started, as they often do, in the middle without context or meaning, infecting the dreamer with rebellious courage to slay the beasts prowling his waking hours, and so it was until the mirror appeared.

Its ornate frame looked familiar. Echo leaned in closer, but his reflection remained unmoving. The mirror’s surface rippled, and Echo drew back, watching as his image changed. First the nose and jaw stretched outward, twisting into something resembling a half-fox, half-man. Then a pair of pointed ears rose out from the black hair. The yellow eyes gleamed with a hunger Echo had felt but never allowed to be displayed on his own face.

“Who are you?” Echo asked.

A wicked grin spread across his reflection’s face, displaying sharp canine teeth. “Blood and bones, wood and sap.” The fox-man cocked his head. “You have forgotten too much, Echo.”

Echo refused to retreat even though his heart beat faster. “Answer me. Who are you?”

“Mirrors do more than reflect.” The reflection lunged, jaw open wide as it broke through the glass and reached for him.

Echo jerked his eyes opened. Through the darkness, he recognized his room—a place too still after such a violent awakening. Running a hand across his face, he rose from the bed, adrenaline continuing to pump through him. He took in a slow breath, forcing his heart to calm.

That couldn’t have been a dream. He had been taught that echoes were incapable of dreaming, but it hadn’t acted like a nightmare either, being all too familiar with how Nightmares plied their trade. The touch of whimsy and terror reminded him of Twilight.

At least, what he had heard about on how Twilight had operated before she had taken away the ability for the people of Mirris to dream.

Echo strode to the window and shoved it open. The fresh air wiped the lingering cobwebs of sleep from his mind. He ignored the contracting of his skin, letting the cold seep into him.

Long forgotten passions thrummed a faint beat through him: hope, anticipation, excitement. It made his heart ache. Of course, it might not be heartache that was burning a thin trail of fire across his torso. Some days it was hard to tell if his emotions were returning or just the leash stirring—both options a painful annoyance.

Echo rubbed his chest, easing the sensation. It was pitch black outside without even a hint of starlight twinkling in the sky. The evening was still young, yet no movement stirred on the campus grounds.

Echo grimaced, sensing Twilight’s grip on him that the winter air could not eradicate. Why had she honored him with a dream? Twilight breaking her ban on dreams meant one thing. She wanted something from him, and only the desperate turned to an echo for help.

Acting on impulse, Echo dressed and left his room.

The quiet darkness blanketed him. Winter was slow to release its control over the land, but the cloudless night felt warmer than it should. None of the moons yet graced the sky to set aglow the patches of snow dotting the area. Echo did not mind the lack of illumination. In fact, he preferred it—not needing light to guide his way. It was better for him if there weren’t any insomniac witnesses catching him take the path toward the untamed forest on the edge of the groomed grounds.

He adjusted his blazer, more from habit than to keep out the chill. The frosted ground crunched beneath his feet as he entered the shadowy embrace offered by the evergreen sentinels guarding the way. The fragrant pine relaxed the tension in his muscles that had crept in from the dream.

Echo tried to recapture how the dream had started. There had been a giant tree with the glory of autumn coloring its leaves. Its boughs shaded a pit with a man squatted beside it, looking down into its depth and quoting something. An old nursery rhyme? Had they spoken before the mirror had appeared? Echo shook his head, unable to recall. Here he was, getting honored by having a dream—an event that would probably never happen again in his lifetime—and he couldn’t even remember it.

He missed the entrance, so caught up in his thoughts. Echo sighed, tracing his steps back to the abandoned building half-hidden by the overrun foliage. With the sure steps of one familiar with the place, he weaved through the foyer, avoiding the more rotted parts of the flooring, and made his way into the inner courtyard.

There it was. Even devoid of its leaves, there laid the tree that had dominated his dream. Echo approached it, rounding its thick truck until he was standing where the man from his dream had been. A shiver wracked his frame that had nothing to do with the sudden gust of wind tugging at his hair and jacket. In the place of a man of flesh and blood stood an unmoving stone statue. Echo was not appreciating the message Twilight had sent him this night.

A dry cough had Echo tense. For a moment, he thought his dream was stepping out into reality, but the hunched over person shuffling toward him had long ago passed his prime.

“It’s been a while since you’ve visited,” Nook said. A shudder shook his frail frame. His knobby fingers clutched tight at the blanket wrapped around him. “Figured you would seek solace on the darkest night—even if it’s as cold as Winter’s heart. They say anything can happen when the Dark Moon hovers above, concealing the deeds of the bold and the foolish.”

“Umbriel?” Echo searched the night sky for the moon known to be darkness itself, absorbing the ambient light instead of reflecting it back to the earth. “I didn’t realize you believed in such superstitions.”

“Just because you cannot see Umbriel does not mean it’s a superstition.” A puff of white air exited from Nook as he laughed. “Fools trust only what their eyes can see, and we,” a twinkle flickered in Nook’s eye, “we aren’t fools, now are we?”

Echo recognized the verbal trap Nook had set. He gave the elderly man a half bow in recognition of scoring a point against him.

Nook only shook his head as he eased himself onto the worn bench placed beneath the tree’s massive boughs. “But it is strange for it to appear this late in the season.” A thin smile crept across his wrinkled face. “Let us hope no one else is noticing this ill-omened occasion.”

“Ill-omened.” Echo focused back on the stone statue before him. The figure had its head bowed with a firm grip on its staff. It always seemed odd to Echo how the artist had used real ebony wood for the staff when the rest of the piece was of flawless marble, yet there were no gaps between the two different materials. Almost as if the wood had sprouted from the ground, destined to grow until it filled the empty space created by the hand.

“Not all Weapons—” Nook began.

“Twilight entered my sleep tonight,” Echo interrupted. Whether Nook was going to refer to the statue or the past, he didn’t want to hear it. Not tonight. “She showed me this tree.”

“An echo, dreaming? Now I’ve heard it all.”

A dry laugh escaped from Echo. He wasn’t sure which surprised him the most: the unexpectedness of Nook’s words or him laughing in response. “Why me? Why now?”

“Does it matter?” Nook pulled the blanket in tighter around himself. “The icy grip of Winter is covering our lands longer. The balance of peace with our neighbors has never been stable. Even I’m hearing rumors of war returning. So why not the impossibility of dreams returning as well?”

“Or reflections taking on a life of their own,” Echo whispered, remembering how the dream had ended.

Nook groaned as he rose to his feet. He placed a bony hand on Echo’s shoulder. “Oh, my boy, we both know that isn’t all she was showing you, was it?” Nook gave a feeble squeeze before shuffling toward the faint light left flickering inside his home. “You’ve been too long without a partner, Echo. It’s time to let the past go. Step forward and grasp the future before it passes you by. Take heed from a man who is not long for this world.”

Many had tried to get Nook to move into a decent residence—Echo included—but the old man insisted on staying despite its state of disrepair, so his family and friends contented themselves to checking up on him. To be wanted and loved because of who you were instead of what you could do was rare in these parts. A surge of jealousy pulled on Echo before it dulled to numbness. The hollow pieces of Echo yearned to have someone to confide in, to share the burden of what he was trying to do under the Chairman’s nose at the Center, but the risk was too great. Nook’s family had already paid dearly during such a moment of weakness. Echo refused to put their patriarch in harm’s way.

So he held his tongue, watching Nook move toward the light and warmth that waited for his return.

Nook braced himself on the frame of the open doorway when he paused, titling his head as if hearing something. “Mirrors do more than reflect.”

Echo grew still. That was what his reflection had said in the dream. “What was that?”

Nook’s milky gaze unfocused. “Be careful. I can feel it in my bones. Something is stirring. Keep your wits about you, Echo. Change is coming. Be quick to seize it.” Nook’s head shifted the other way. “Oh, Twilight, you clever Keeper of Dreams. What plots are you trying to hide that you move even the moons to conceal your handiwork?” Nook sneezed. “Oh, this dratted cold.”

Echo knew better than to ask Nook about what his words meant. Nook never remembered what he said when these spells hit him, but he didn’t miss how Nook rubbed at his chest in a reminiscent gesture Echo knew intimately well.

Nook stepped across the threshold. “The shadow of Umbriel is dark enough without you borrowing from the terrors of the past. Come inside. Warm yourself. It has been too long since you last visited.” His brittle voice rose as he swept an arm out, half-turning back to Echo. “But if you want the company of stone statues and sleeping trees, then I will leave you to their silent companionship instead.”

Sleeping trees. In his dream, it hadn’t been winter but fall. Echo looked back at the statue of the Weapon. Fall.

Movement from the corner of his eye had Echo turn away from the stone and his thoughts. He had been wondering when Shadow would appear.

The lanky man approached. “Nook makes an astute observation. It is dark enough to be under the watchful gaze of Umbriel.” He then extended a gloved hand out, holding an extra pair of white gloves in them. “Still, it begs the question, which will you be tonight? Bold or foolish?”

Echo’s heart twisted. How could he have forgotten them? The bare skin on his hands mocked him as he accepted the gloves. Echo slipped them on while Shadow pulled out an inscriptor from his waistcoat’s pocket.

“A message arrived for you,” Shadow said, extending it out to Echo. It appeared the latest model was shaped after the old-fashioned pens no one used anymore. “It looked urgent, and since you were already up…”

Echo flicked it, activating the holoscreen. Muted light ran along the length of the device as words materialized in the air. The glow made Shadow’s orb-like eyes shine with a golden hue.

“It’s Rend,” Echo said, reading the message. “He requests my presence in Fallow—though it sounds more like an order than a request.” Echo looked up. “Where is Fallow?”

“Out in the countryside on the edge of our province. If you leave now, you’ll arrive a few hours before dawn.” Shadow tilted his head. “Odd time for a mission.”

“Odd place for a mission. Look into its history while I’m gone.”

Shadow placed a hand over his heart and gave a curt bow.

Echo acknowledged receipt of the mission and waited for the report to download before flicking his wrist. The inscriptor turned off, and he dropped it into his blazer’s pocket. He would have an abundance of time to read all the details on his way to Fallow.

Echo scanned the too dark of a night sky as he walked back to campus with Shadow trailing one step behind. Under his breath, Echo muttered, “Twilight, Umbriel, and now Rend: too many deviations to ignore.” A sly grin tugged on his lips, and his eyes grew brighter. “Whomever is overplaying their hand will regret dealing me into their game.”


Riel stirred awake at the thud of the door demagnetizing. His head swirled in a fog of murky numbness, but his heart pounded as the lights grew brighter around him. He squeezed his eyes closed from the blinding white.

Danger. Run.

Riel tried to rise, but his arms were caught on something. He couldn’t move them. Why were they bound behind him?

The muffled tread of feet approaching had Riel stir. A whimper escaped from him as he used his feet to push himself backwards. The ground was spongy and difficult to move against. He blinked his eyes, trying to focus them on the blurry forms advancing his way.

“Secure the patient.”

The dry voice caused Riel’s heels to dig harder into the surface, heaving himself away until he hit a wall. He could do nothing to evade the hands reaching for him. They lifted his body up, letting his feet drag along the cushioned ground as they took him out of the room and into the darkened corridor. His dangling toes hit the cold, slick floor, sending a new burst of adrenaline through him. He struggled to find purchase to leverage himself away from their destination.

Danger. Run.

Riel writhed, but their grip only tightened, relentlessly moving him toward the patch of light spilling out of the open doorway ahead. “No. No.” His vision lost its haze, and his mind cleared more. Inside the room a chair was bathed in brillant light. Riel struggled harder. “No!”

“Get the hypospray.”

Riel’s foot hit one of the men holding him. Pain radiated from his toe, but Riel hit at him again. The man dropped him, spitting out heated words. Riel swung his body, trying to run, but his feet slipped against the floor unable to get traction. A blast of sour air sprayed against his face.

Riel’s body went limp as he coughed, unable to gain breath. He felt the others lift and ram him into the chair. Straps pinned him in place so tight his bound hands dug into his back. He struggled to stop the coughing fit. Heat rushed to his face. He needed to breath.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” the dry voice asked. A wrinkled face with a flat gaze hovered over him.

Danger. Run.

Then a hand shoved grit and sand into his mouth. Riel turned his head hacking up the substance before more hands centered his head. Another strap cinched taunt across his forehead.

“Remember how it felt, smelled, tasted. Remember,” the voice continued.

No. Not this. Not this again. But he couldn’t breath, couldn’t move. Riel coughed, trying to suck in air. Another blast of wet wind hit him, calming the spasms in his lungs.

“You remember, don’t you?”

Tears trickled down Riel’s face as the blurry haze returned. The panic receded as his thoughts grew clouded again.

“It hurt, didn’t it? The first breath of Mirris air?”

“Yes,” Riel answered.

“Repeat it.”

Everything was numb and disconnected.

The voice became more firm. “Repeat it.”

“It hurt—that first breath,” Riel said.

“Turn on the recorder. He’s ready. Frack those nosey Center freaks, but at least we can get one more session with him before they arrive.”

Riel tuned out the other voices as he sank deeper into the numbness. Here he could escape from the pain and terror. A hard hit across his face, had Riel blink his eyes open. The forms around him bobbed and weaved.

“Remember and repeat. Tell me about that first breath.”

“Noooo,” Riel slurred out. He closed his eyes, ignoring the shadows. Fingers forced his eyelid open. The sharp tip of a needle drew closer. Fear cleared the fog in his head. He tried to move, but he couldn’t. Darkness covered his vision as fire radiated out from his eye to his brain.

“Remember and repeat. Tell me about that first breath.”

His resistance stripped away. Riel remembered, and what he remembered, he repeated.


It hurt—that first breath. Riel coughed before taking in another throat searing gasp. Freedom was so close. He ignored the pain as grainy rocks and dirt dug under his broken nails. Inch by inch he crawled out of the soil. Muscles quivered in exhausted protest as he leveraged his arm on the hard ground. He heaved the rest of his body out of the pit and dragged himself away from its edge before he collapsed.

Riel squinted, adjusting to the sunlight. The ruined dome of a ceiling looked like skeleton ribs curving above him. Eroded sections of the walls left gaps to its structure. Wherever he was, it wasn’t the Devourer—that torturous living prison. The gritty taste of dirt lingered in his mouth. Freedom should taste sweeter.

“Status,” Riel said.

<<Air quality…toxicity high, but within acceptable breathing parameters. Mental and physical capabilities…unexpected err. Reboot required. Shall I initiate now?>>

Embedded into Riel’s mind since birth, the internal program monitored and regulated his entire system. If Thirteen wasn’t a sophisticated piece of wiring, he would have thought his program was afraid, but that was impossible. Thirteen couldn’t develop emotions…could it?