Memory's Wake - Chapter One
I’m falling, she thought.
Rushing air tore at her like claws and her stomach churned. She knew only darkness and the horrible, hateful wind.
She jolted into consciousness as if waking from a nightmare, one so real, so intense, it left her soul shaken. All she remembered from her dream was the noise; a furious rumble like the call of a hungry dragon from a dark fairytale. It turned her insides as much as the sensation of falling. Now awake, she couldn’t understand why she still heard it, why she still felt like she plummeted into hell. Some other sound teased her, unidentifiable, lost in the wind.
“What’s happening? Is someone calling me? Where am I?” Pain rampaged through her and the questions fell away. She thought she might throw up.
A voice reached her. Persistent, hysterical, all static and unclear sounds.
She called out, tearing her throat raw with effort, trying to reach through the gusting void to whatever had spoken. “Can’t hear. Please help, it hurts!”
The talking stopped. The wailing wind and painful rumbling continued. Her insides rattled as if her ribcage had been hollowed out and filled with marbles.
The feeling of hands grabbing her forced out a harsh scream. Then, like slamming a door on a windy day, the tearing air stopped and the world became solid. Her skin still tingled right to her fingertips but the pain had gone, replaced by burning in her chest. Panic crawled up her back, tugging at her with icy fingers.
Stop. Look. Feel, she ordered herself, attempting slow breaths.
Her eyes stung as they opened. Dark hair hung around her face, curtaining her vision. She lay on the ground, face down. Had she fallen? Her body hurt all over, so maybe she had. Old blackened leaves spread in front of her eyes and the smell of dirt and rot added to her lingering nausea. Sharp twigs poked through her jeans. She spat soil from her mouth.
That other voice spoke again. “By the fae, what has happened? Can you hear me now?” It was a girl’s voice, young, like her own. A strange accent made it curiously elegant and musical. The tremor of fear in it only made it more so.
Fighting the weakness in her body, she nodded to the voice and managed to roll over. She propped herself up on her elbows and looked out into a twilit forest of wild briars and giant trees. Beside her, another girl crouched on the ground; plump but strikingly pretty, with skin and hair so pale it was almost white against the shadowed woods. The long hair tumbled all around the stranger, making her look like a beautiful, scared ghost.
Their breathing matched each other’s; fast, labored, scared out of their minds. An intense frown of thought and calculation marred Ghost-girl’s face, the look of a mind weighing options, assessing risks, looking for answers. In her own head she could feel nothing but the fractures of stress upon her sanity.
She stared at Ghost-girl, hoping for some recognition. No name came to her, but she felt a strange connection to the pale girl, almost a physical attraction. She wondered what it could mean and coughed out a giggle, hysteria rising. This didn’t seem like the time to be questioning her sexuality. Her thoughts scattered in all directions, racing frantically, searching for answers to the growing crowd of questions.
“Alward?” Ghost-girl called out into the trees. “Alward? Oh no, he didn’t make it through. I’m not where I ought to be. Did you do this, did you bring me here? Was it magic of yours? How did you come to be caught within my Veil door?”
She could only gape at Ghost-girl. Magic? Is that why my skin’s tingling like this? But magic’s not real. She wasn’t sure she could say just now what was or wasn’t real, but the accusations confused and stung. She was sure she hadn’t done any bringing. There must have been some kind of accident, she thought, feeling like the victim of something. She worked hard to find words again. “What...” She paused. So many questions, where to start? “What happened?”
Ghost-girl looked at her with a wary frown. “You don’t know? Please, it is important you tell me the truth. If you are a caster of unauthorized magic, know I’m not an enemy.” She made a complex hand gesture. When no response came, the girl’s frown turned from wary to scared. She gasped and spoke as though to herself. “Unless... no, you couldn’t be one of Thayl’s wizard hunters?”
“Whose what hunters?” Her words slurred. “Was there an accident? Shouldn’t we call help?” She sat up and brushed hair from her face, wincing when she touched a tender area under her eye.
“You are hurt, but I don’t know how, I don’t...” Ghost-girl’s voice worked up into the high pitch of panic, and she visibly swallowed it down. “I need to find out where I am.” She turned away, reached down and dug her fingers into the earth, then spoke too quietly to hear. The ground trembled into a shiver, growing outwards, expanding quickly, up tree trunks, along branches, tickling the leaves at the treetops. A thousand voices whispered.
Brilliant. I’m hallucinating. She put a hand to her forehead, dizzied by the disembodied voices. How hurt am I? Concussion? Brain damage?
The blonde was talking nonsense again, words flying. “...too close to home. The Veil door didn’t take me far enough away. They’ve found me, already? The hunters, they’re coming this way. We have to go! Please, I don’t know how you came to be here, but listen. There are people chasing me. If they find you here, they’ll think that you’re one of us. We have to run.” She stood in a cascade of crumpled dress, face turned up toward the canopy screening the dimming sky. “They’re almost here, and their beast… their dragon...”
Everything was on fast forward. It was too much, too many words, too much chaos, to still feel so empty inside. Each question seemed to tear a new hole, leaving her more hollow. She needed to pause, rewind, start finding answers, before there was nothing left to tear.
“Do I know you?” Speaking the words out loud jolted her physically. She whimpered, squeezed her eyes shut and tried to hold her head together so tightly her hair ripped. She felt the touch of Ghost-girl’s hand, plump and gentle on her own. Not a ghost after all.
“I do not know you, but I can’t have you caught here when they are hunting for me. Come with me. My name is Eloryn.” The blonde smiled but the urgency in her features soured the expression.
“I’m... My name is...” Nothing. Nothing at all.
Her emptiness. It came into perfect, terrifying clarity. She knew nothing of who she was.
Only a void where her life should have been.
The canopy above them shuddered as violently as her heart. An impossible creature filled her vision. It crushed through the trees, talons reaching for Eloryn. The hungry dragon from her dream. Of course, I’m still dreaming. Ghosts, wizards, dragons, none of those are real. But the claws were so sharp, so vivid. Squeezing Eloryn’s hand tighter, she reacted, pulling Eloryn out of the way before the razor tips could strike. “Go!” she screamed, to herself, to Eloryn, or the dragon above them she didn’t know, but they all began to move.
The dragon writhed, reaching for them from between the massive oaks above. Branches groaned and splintered against the beast’s strength, creating a hail of sharp twigs and leaves. Strong trunks held back the black mass and it hissed in frustration, talons swiping just above the girls’ heads.
“This way!” Eloryn pulled her by the hand, still holding tight. The girls crashed and stumbled through briars and over fallen logs slick with moss.
Through the trees, men in leather military jackets ran toward them. Orders were yelled, metal flashed, boots crushed ferns, thumping the ground with heavy feet. Wings beat in the sky above, blowing about dirt and dry leaves. Talons raked at the tree line. The girls ran faster, hand in hand. The dragon roared.
Eloryn dragged her on through the woods, petticoats catching and pulling, slowing them down. In tight jeans, the dark-haired girl had more freedom to move but her legs felt weak. She barely kept up with Eloryn. The hunters were so close.
To her left, a bear-sized man came within reach. She cringed away, expecting the feel of rough hands locking around her arm, pulling her down. Nothing came. She turned to see why. The man was gone. She tried to look for her pursuer and still watch the treacherous ground under her feet. Trees flashed past. Shadows flashed between them, toward her. Something struck another man, just to her right. A dark form dropped from the branches above, bringing him to the ground.
A cry of pain and one more hunter was gone.
The trees above cracked as the dragon plunged again. Lichen shook from the bark and fell like green snow. She ran on, begging herself to wake up. Breathing burned her chest and rattled in her throat, but a deep inner dread kept her running hard. These men, chasing her, hungry for the hunt, boiled her emotions down to pure, distilled panic.
Still dragging her onwards by a hand, she heard Eloryn struggling to breathe as well, and something else, a mumbling between each crying breath. The running became easier. Fewer branches blocked their path. Fewer brambles and thorns tore at them. The ancient trees moved, bending away from her and Eloryn, then closing back in to hinder their pursuers. She blinked but the impossible images remained.
Reaching a sudden steep incline, Eloryn let go of her hand and ran toward a rocky outcrop. “In here!” she called out and disappeared into a dark crack in the mountain side.
Moving to follow Eloryn, the girl slowed, faint from exhaustion. Her vision dimmed and starred. Staring at that thin sliver of black, ringed by unwelcoming rocks, she shivered. Silly, she thought, to be scared of the dark, knowing what danger chased them there. She drew haggard breaths, and made her way over loose stones.
Just a step away, a creature landed in front of her, blocking the cave entrance. The shock stole her balance. Scrambling backwards she fell hard onto the forest floor. No, not a creature, she saw, looking up from the ground. The figure looked back down with concerned human eyes. A young man; dirty and tattered and animal in nature, but a man. Soil darkened his skin and earth brown hair hung down bare shoulders in knotted locks. His knuckles were reddened with blood. She lay there like a deer in headlights, unable to move.
And then there were more men, pushing through the trees, growing more furious as they battled against the forest itself. Eloryn had left her, long gone into the slim crack in the mountainside. There was nowhere to go. Surrounded with the hunters behind and the beast-man blocking the way forward, she lay dumbfounded.
She wished her brain would work. Wished she’d just wake up. The beast-man reached down for her. She cowered but could see only worry in his features. Grabbing her arm, he lifted and threw her into the cave. She tumbled, barely missing Eloryn who crouched inside with her head against the stone, talking to herself.
The lost girl looked out through the cave entrance, shaking with adrenaline. The beast man stared back in. His eyes shone piercing blue even in the fading light. His shoulders shifted as though he was about to follow, but with the deep growl of a hunting cat he turned around.
The remaining men ran at the cave and the ground shook. Stones scraped against each other, tumbling and falling in a dangerous tide and the cave entrance sealed.
For the second time in the brief, harsh moments of her memory, all she knew was darkness.