Sometimes when the sky was cloudless and the birds sang loudly enough, Margaret forgot that strolling wasn’t allowed. A light breeze and a warm day were almost enough to make the forest seem harmless, and so she followed behind the two kids in her care without any sense of urgency. In fact, she found herself smiling when she realized they were holding hands. Eleven seemed a little young to her, but the kids had been best friends for years. She’d known this was coming.
All was peaceful until a shrieking scream echoed from ahead and froze all three of them to the trail. Margaret quickly hissed, “Back to town. Now!”
This was her worst nightmare, made even worse as her son took off toward the danger. His best friend, Ebby, darted after him, and Margaret was the only one left rooted to the ground in shock. This couldn’t be happening. If there was an Escali ahead, it would rip them apart. “Ratuan, no, come back!” she cried, forcing her limbs to pursue, suddenly sprinting as only a panicked mother could.
A blonde teenaged girl sobbed and coughed in a patch of wildflowers ahead, writhing on the ground as she struggled to say something. The kids reached her first, and Ebby was on her knees in an instant, trying to figure out what was wrong when there was no blood.
Margaret skidded to a stop behind them, hauling each of the kids back to their feet. “Out of here. Now!”
“But I think she’s a mage,” Ebby protested. “We have to help her.”
Margaret used all the strength in her arms to yank both kids back in the direction of safety. “Run now, and we’ll send her help from town.”
Margaret’s forceful push suddenly became a restraint to pull them back to her as an Escali dropped down from a tree limb — a Human-like monster with wickedly black hair and spikes of bone jutting from his elbows, now crouched with his teeth bared at them.
The kids pressed themselves against Margaret from either side. It would only take the Escali seconds to kill all three of them.
Somebody had ripped my mind open and poured black ink inside. It was an all-consuming darkness, and when I woke I brought nothing with me except a sense of confused terror.
My legs were already working frantically beneath me, crashing through forest undergrowth for reasons unknown. I lurched involuntarily to one side and grabbed an ancient tree to steady myself, clinging to the damp moss with all the strength in my fingers as my knees threatened to collapse. My eyes stung and my head ached, so I smashed my face into the soft green life, and with the cool scent of rotting wood filling my nose and calming me down, I tried to think.
Something was wrong.
Everything was wrong.
I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know if I was alone.
Two birds began to chatter to each other overhead, and I snapped my eyes open as blood’s earthy scent hit me, a smell like steel and broken stones. My blurry vision sharpened as I pushed myself back from the thunderstruck tree, and I realized my hands had left crimson stains on the moss. Panicked, I whipped around to see an aging forest I had never laid eyes on before. A tangle of clovers and wild strawberry vines snagged my ankles as I spun, and I wrung my hands fiercely together in the nearest leafy bush to scrub the blood off.
Each breath became a shorter gasp as reality hit me and my weary lungs tried to match the accelerating pace of my heart.
I didn’t know where I was from.
I didn’t even know my own name.
Air scraped through my throat, and I clutched a shaky hand to my neck as I spun around again, trying to find signs of danger among the ferns and wildflowers.
Although I couldn’t spot anything frightening in the dappled sunlight, I heard the shriek of a little girl in the distance and footsteps running toward me. My stomach twisted sharply and an overwhelming wave of frustration made me want to cry. I didn’t know if friends or foes approached. I might be running from my saviors or waiting for my murderers if I chose wrong.
But even if they were coming to help, I couldn’t explain why I had blood drying in the creases of my hands. I wasn’t sure I had even seen these hands before, and I couldn’t answer any questions. So in sheer panic, I bolted.
I didn’t know what had happened, and I had no idea where I was going, but I tore through a blur of the deep green forest, trampling wildflowers and soft soil as my feet reveled in the discovery of running. My muscles seemed designed for this, propelling me forward with incredible speed, hurdling every mossy obstacle in my way.
The terror that drove me also reconnected something in my thoughts, and the last few minutes of my memory flooded back in a confusing jumble.
I remembered writhing in a patch of white ground flowers, unable to project more than one shriek in agony. Two kids running straight to me to help – a boy with acorn colored hair, not yet dyed crimson in his blood, and a smaller girl with a cascade of blonde. A woman – their mother? – sprinted close behind, hissing for them to leave me. Something was coming.
I remembered intense pain ripping through my entire body, preventing me from so much as getting to my knees. Even now, I could still feel my stomach churning, protesting the abuse as a makeshift marketplace came into view. My feet must have had a memory separate from my mind to carry me here, and my panic brought me to an immobilized stop right on the edge of what seemed to be a small village. A stranger brushed past me, and one almost bumped into me, but I couldn’t recognize one face in the crowd of browsing locals.
Kids chased each other around carts filled with jewelry, clothes, instruments, and toys, but fear built in my chest the longer I stood still. I needed answers. I needed to feel safe, to figure out who I was and what was going on.
“Allie, you came back!” a man in a small hat exclaimed, sharing an aged smile that reached all the way to his large ears. He stood beneath a tent where a band of friends made a show of cooking breads and meats – juggling wads of dough and tossing pans to each other as they prepared food for a ring of onlookers.
I forced myself to rasp, “How do you know me?” wondering if I had just swallowed an entire briar patch. How else could speaking hurt so much?
His smile waned as he saw my anxious confusion, and I noticed a few cooks setting down their work to glance over as well. The short, wrinkled man in the hat said, “You were just here buying a roasted squirrel from us. I never forget a name. You said it was Allie.”
Another of the cooks, a suntanned girl with tightly curled hair, abandoned her position to ask, “Are you alright? Do you need help?”
I replied, “I’m not… I just… Yes.” I flung an arm over my mouth to muffle a hacking cough, a horrible bitter taste coming up with it.
Shouting drew the crowd’s attention as a man with a bow arrived at the village’s edge. “There’s been an attack in the woods,” he told the marketplace. “Margaret is dead, and her son badly hurt. We spotted a girl running from the scene, straight toward town. Tall with long blonde hair—”
That was me, and my face betrayed my terror as I scanned for the best route of escape. The curly haired girl grabbed my arm, boring her large eyes into mine. “Do you need somewhere to hide?” she asked.
As soon as I nodded, she pulled me beneath their baking tent with surprising strength to hide me under a cloth covered table. Completely concealed, I immediately pressed my face into the dusty grass and peered out to make sure nobody was pointing in my direction. I wasn’t about to put total faith in the group of strangers. Not when I still had two legs and the ability to breathe.
The girl jumped into the air to catch a flying pan of food, and she emptied its contents onto a plate, laughing easily as though nothing was amiss. Maybe she could be trusted after all.
My entire body took advantage of the temporary safety and settled into the dirt. I was about to breathe a sigh of relief when my entire situation crashed down like old-growth timber in a storm. Branches of terror drove straight through me while a thousand suffocating leaves bore pressure on my ability to think.
How could I not know where I was? How could I not know who I was?
My heart hammered faster with the fear of uncertainty, and I tried to calm it. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. I squeezed my eyes shut so no tears could escape.
But how had I even gotten here?
I wracked my brain, looking for any tiny bit of information in the emptiness, but there was nothing to find that hadn’t happened in the past hour. I curled my knees up to my chest and focused on my breathing.
I only knew two things. My name was Allie, and something horrible had just taken place. I grabbed the blonde tangle that reached to my waist and pulled it out of the dust so I could tug my fingers anxiously through the knots. Toying with it helped me feel real and kept me calm as I tried to at least piece the vicious attack back together.
The memory was dreamlike. Small details trickled through, but never the entire picture. The mother yanking the kids to their feet, telling them to leave me, to run back into town. Me trying to agree with her as I choked and squirmed. Run. Leave me. The panic in their faces as something terrifying stepped into sight.
I snapped my eyes open and focused on the stuffy warm air around me, pushing the image of the predator as far from my thoughts as I could. I twirled my fingers through the hair I had managed to detangle and used my other hand to poke at the rest of myself. Hard lean muscles all over. A few calluses on my palms. I wore soft leathers, probably to allow for ease of movement. Tight sandals wrapped the bottoms of my feet with leather soles, and the laces crisscrossed up my calves, built for running.
Had I been running all my life? Probably. And I would have to keep running if that thing in the woods ever appeared again. That Human-like creature with cloudy eyes and bared teeth, grinning wickedly at the sight of a woman, two children, and me. I shivered as I remembered the spikes of bone jutting from his elbows, jagged spines that could easily impale and kill someone standing behind him.
He had snapped his attention between the three standing over me with movements that were eerily jerky, like an insect. I shook my head, trying not to relive the moment when he slammed the little boy into the dirt. I tried to block the memory of a second monster ripping the woman’s throat out – with his teeth. And that little girl… Screaming as they had taken her…
The cloth of the table rustled, startling me. Sunshine beamed inside, and I bolted upright as a small boy ducked into my fortress from the other side.
“Can I hide with you?” he asked, his eyes bright from the thrill of whatever game he was playing. His gleeful smile didn’t sit well with me as I tried to overcome my crisis.
“No,” I replied, wondering vaguely what he had done to cake so much mud into his hair and onto his face. The little boy looked like the lone survivor of a great battle, and like he had rolled in the aftermath.
I expected him to leave after my unwelcoming reply, but he settled onto his heels instead, frowning now. “Are you even playing?” he asked. I sank my palms into my eyes in disbelief.
“Well, what’s wrong?” he asked, folding his legs across each other to make himself comfortable. “I don’t recognize you. Are you one of the travelers coming through today?”
I let out a short laugh at the absurdity of his interest, but he wasn’t about to leave. “I wish I knew,” I told him. “But… something’s wrong with me.”
“Well?” he pushed. “What’s wrong?”
I don’t know what possessed me to tell this kid anything. Perhaps because of his large, inquisitive eyes, or my desperate need to simply talk to someone, I found myself explaining, “I just, sort of woke up out in the woods, without any idea who I am. And I don’t know where I’m from. I don’t know what happened, and I don’t know what to do.” Getting those words off my chest gave me room to finally take a deep breath, but I felt strangely uneasy. It wasn’t this kid’s age that bothered me, it was the fact that I had just opened up to him. I was putting my trust in someone I didn’t know, and everything about that felt wrong. Like I was breaking a sacred value.
The boy nodded, giving me more attention than I thought possible for his age. “Well, why are you hiding?”
“Because… Something bad happened in the forest, and I think I might be blamed for it.”
His eyes grew wider, and he exclaimed, “You’re the girl the mages came looking for!”
Oh wonderful. Now I had to figure out how to keep him from revealing me. “Tell me about these mages,” I said, hoping to keep him talking while I figured out what to do, apart from tackling him.
The boy was entirely too happy to know something I didn’t, and said, “Those are two of the mages who keep Tabriel Vale safe from monsters. I don’t know their names, but one of them has the power to use fire, and the other is an ice mage.”
I knew mages could only have one power. So if these two wielded fire and ice, they wouldn’t have any magical ability to track me down. I knew that like I knew a rock would fall if I dropped it. It was the way things were.
“Are there other mages around… what did you call this place?”
The boy scrunched his eyebrows, confused. “There are mages everywhere with the Eclipsival tomorrow. And this is Tabriel Vale. Don’t you…” He gasped as understanding finally reached his eyes. “You’ve really forgotten everything!”
“Just about,” I said, not loving to admit it. “But I think there’s a difference between knowledge and memory. I’ve only forgotten names and events. Faces and places, you know?”
But I suspected I hadn’t entirely forgotten them. In the midst of confusion and terror, my feet had brought me to Tabriel Vale, my best bet of finding safety and answers. My survival instincts had simply kicked in to save me, and that thought was intriguing. I wondered if that was all I needed to jog my memory, a little life threatening danger.
The noise from the market began to trickle in to me, and I heard the old man beneath the tent call, “One Baking Show Special, sweet sauce and sliced roast!” and the whole crew answered back, “All grilled to perfection, then served on wheat toast!”
Every order had a prearranged call and a specific response, but I focused on the conversations outside to see if I was likely to escape the town unnoticed. Most discussed money or longed for the items on display, but I also heard several kids talking. A little girl said, “We haven’t found Leaf yet,” and a boy answered, “Good. Let’s just leave him.”
I glanced at the mud monster beside me and said, “I’m told my name is Allie. What’s yours?”
“Leaf,” he replied, smiling as though the name itself made him happy. I felt an immediate irritation with the kids outside for leaving him out of their fun. “What else do you know about yourself?” Leaf asked.
“Did you find anything when you searched your pockets?”
Pockets! Why hadn’t they crossed my mind yet?
I plunged my hands into the small pockets on each pant leg. One came up empty. The other closed around a folded scrap of paper, worth more to me than gold. I jerked each fold apart in haste, ready to find incredible knowledge between the creases. As I undid the last doubling in the paper, the dim light only illuminated a few sloppy and disappointing lines.
Leaf got anxiously to his knees and exclaimed, “I’m too little to read! What does it say?”
“It says: Allie, I’m volunteering for the Eclipsival setup today with West, and I probly wont be back to the Dragona till its dark. Your sister, Liz.” I set the paper down and said, “Well, at least I know I have a sister. One who has clearly never held a pen before.”
“And you’re from the Dragona!” Leaf exclaimed. “That’s where they train kids to become mages. They just recruited me too! And if you live at the Dragona, you must have a power – or you will someday. Do you know what yours is?”
“I barely know my name,” I replied. “So, no.” I fixed my gaze on the note in my hand, trying to connect the names with faces, or images of any kind. Liz? West? The Dragona? Nothing. Empty thoughts about my home and my sister just didn’t jog my memories like overwhelming fear had.
“Leaf, when are you going to the Dragona? And how are you getting—”
I froze as a large pair of boots stopped next to the table. A hand lifted the cloth covering, and sunshine from outside momentarily blinded me.