Something about the ‘drawing in and smothering of life’ tugs at me. Something Mom had said, but it was during……it was during The Void……
His chest propels air in short, quick bursts of hot steam. Like breath upon cold air, his scorches the warm wind. Thick, foamy sweat covers his black coat, giving it a burnt sun glow. Red mane, red tail, waving behind him like a flag, as if he needs an announcement. Each breathy growl escaping his mouth and nostrils echoes within my ears, threatening to shatter them.
The Soldier drops me, and the ropes around my chest fall to the grass. I control my gasp for air, and do not turn my gaze or let myself fall despite the exploding pain warring with the increasing weakness in my entire body. The Soldiers try to retreat back a step, but their unicorns manage to fight them and take a unified step in advance, attention fixed on the new unicorn, their god, ready to do whatever he bids.
“Why is he loose?” A Soldier asks shrilly, fear apparent in his broken tone.
“Where did he come from!”
I can’t move. The absence of the wind’s rage confuses me. This unicorn terrifies me as he had terrified my mother. A chain is thrown over his neck but he doesn’t flinch. His eyes pierce through me. [Are you coming or not?]
I back away, unsure if it’s the unicorn’s eyes and prismatic, golden horn directed at me, his presence invading my head, or the thought of being nearer to him that fills me with terror more.
“What?” I stammer. I think I stammered. Did I say it out loud?
[You prefer to remain here?]
“I’m not going with you!”
He’s huge. My head barely reaches his shoulder. His horn shines like a sword as it juts upward into the sky, his teeth try to hide beneath parted lips. Eyes red as his mane. The ferocity that pulses out of him is worse than all of the others combined. And Mom’s voice in my head, Run away, Lira. Run away from him!
He took the soul of my unborn sister. Is that right? Did Mom tell me she’d had children before me? Children that are scattered throughout The Forest here? I was so lost when she was talking, I couldn’t hold onto the words as she spoke them.
My fate is safer made with the men.
“Ernon, he wants her!” a Soldier yells.
“Well he won’t get her! Get him secured now!”
I bring my knee up sharply and catch the Soldier’s groin as he charges me, quickly following that with a blow to his head with my clenched, bound fists. With a grunt he falls sideways. I turn and run, heaving myself up the hill I’d previously stumbled down, somehow managing to neither trip nor slide back down.
At first, I am flanked by a hoard of noise and bodies, but a few strides more, barely halfway up the hill, and I am completely alone.
“They’re free! They’re free!” The odd pitch in the yelled warning makes me stop and look down into the basin of hills. The wind has picked up only slightly, seeming delighted. The Soldiers are scrambling. The muzzles and chains that had once bound their beasts now lay lost in the swaying grass. Their neck braces are gone. The demons are somehow- The Nightmare meets my eyes dully, admitting nothing- completely free, and without any hesitation are picking off the men one by one-
The Nightmare slides into my view, cutting between me and the sights down below.
I can’t speak. The screams-
[I will later discuss the insult of the terms ‘demon’ and ‘beast’. Do you plan to just stand there? Get on my back!]
Abruptly, everything stops. My back is tingling, feeling as though a warm summer sun has broken through the clouds and found it. I turn to look over my shoulder, entirely oblivious to the massacre below me, and stare over the hills at the direction I had been running toward when they’d first begun chasing me. East. I had instinctively run east. It’s ingrained so deeply into my bones, I can find my way through the hills and trees, through the scattered villages and rumbling lowlands, up the cliff walls to Kholsari, or preferably further to the mountain tops where my mother’s family lives: the dragons. My grandparents, uncles and aunts.
Ama, the dragoness, saved my mother when Anin nearly succeeded in killing her, and raised her as her own. Now, after praying and waiting my whole life, now I stand in the same world as they. I feel the same air and am beneath the same suns and moon and sky. Family and safety. All that I’ve ever wanted.
But on this hill, with his kiss burning my skin, with all the dreams of my childhood a short journey away, my daughter, my lost baby girl, shines brightly within my consciousness, overshadowing all those dreams that no longer matter. I will never see her again, and she is all I want. All I need. What punishment does He get? What guilt does he carry around with him? What pain? Who gets to punish Him?
I close my eyes, letting the tears sting. If not for that one fact— He sent me to The Valley to die— I might do it on my own. Curl inward and welcome my fate. I’m Here. Even if I come to know where they’re keeping her, I’m never going to see my daughter again.
The screams echoing off the hills reach my ears and I shiver, gag.
That spot I first woke in. Can I find it?
[You aren’t listening! They’ve begun now and they may not be able to stop. Get on my back!]
I have to get back to that spot. There has to be a way for me to leave, return to the Other Place. I can’t be here without my daughter, without my mother. This isn’t right. None of this is right and the screams, the screams-
I have to get back. There has to be a way. I touched our spot on the beach and it sent me here. If I can touch the right spot here, I’ll go back.
[Lira! Stop ignoring me!]
Ignoring the monotony of the region, I struggle to remember which direction I’d run here from. Which hill did I start on? My body moans ‘Not again’ while nerves twitch, muscles tense, eager. I hike up the dress but it tangles on the arrow, jarring it horrendously, and won’t reach the belt. I drop the hem, sickened, and spit out whatever has risen to my throat. The screams- Don’t look backward. Don’t look down the hill. Tune out those sounds.
I lunge, and sprint away.
[No! What are you-]
Get back to that spot, find the Door that brought me here. Go back. Go back and find my daughter.
The wind is silent as he works against me. The grass whips at my legs and rips away skin as I tear through. They are hands, hands reaching up to keep me here. I keep running. Find the Door, the Window, the Bridge that’ll get me out of here. It’s too late. It’s too late. I can’t be here now.
My back is on fire. Ghostly things are touching me. Behind me, behind me is east, mountains, dragons, trees. Calling me loudly, shouting that I’m going the wrong way. But this is the wrong place, the wrong time. I can’t be here now. I want my daughter. I want Talyn. I just fought Soldiers. I can find my baby girl. Nothing will save those who have her.
The arrow in my leg dances back and forward, bobs up and down with every current and every stride and every single blasted blade of grass. The dress is tangled around my legs, pulling at the shaft of the arrow, shooting bolts of pain up my leg and into my lower back, up my spine, making my body throb with the pain. I yell out and stumble and roll a few times. Each strike upon the earth drives the arrowhead further into my leg, making it jab into my bone over and over.
When I stop rolling I lay still, panting, too stunned to cry. Pull it out, keep running. Except that my hands are still bound. I can’t grasp my leg. I can’t sit up.
Behind me is east, the place I’ve always wanted to go. Mountains and trees and Ama and Marr. Behind me is East-
The black demon oozes coolly onto the hill beside me. [Are you aware that you are going the wrong way?]
I curl onto my side and claw my fingers into the grass, ordering my body to rise, to keep going. “Get away from me!” Get up, keep going, don’t stop till I find that spot and I’m back in that damn place.
[We need to leave this area, Lira. Let me help you.]
My legs refuse to obey! I can’t get to my feet! “Why would you want to help me? Why would I want you to help me!”
[Because you Called for me to do so.]
“I did no such thing!” I try again to rise but the motion twitches the arrow in the wrong way and orders me back to the earth, trapping my last inhale midway to my lungs. With the pain, I can’t draw it in, can’t force it out. I can no longer tell where I am, which direction I need to run toward to make this place a bad dream. To make Home a bad dream- Dragons! How can I feel this way? “I don’t want to be here. I can’t be here!”
[But you are.]
“Make them stop screaming!”
“No they haven’t!” I fall forward and throw my bound wrists over my head, using my forearms to plug my ears.
They won’t stop once they’ve begun. I was Touched. Please, please take His scent away.
[I’m not really able to do that, though trust me, I wish I could. You reek of him and his stench is revolting.]
“Where are they?”
[They’re gone. The Soldiers are dead and the unicorns are free.]
“The men are still screaming!”
[No, Lira. They’re not. They’re dead. The unicorns are gone. But we can’t stay here. Please, come with me. There could always be more Soldiers. And once they discover the dead ones, or see the unicorns that are now free, they will search these hills in droves for an explanation.]
Blood. Blood everywhere, spilling across the hills towards me. Green to red. My red. My red made evil.
The hills fill with my agonized screams as I attempt to pull the arrow from my thigh. It’s imbedded into my bone and won’t budge. Dizzy, seeing spots with my head feeling numb and tingly, I fall onto my back and take deep breaths, let the tears fall from my eyes, down my cheeks, into the grass. When I’ve stored enough energy, I rise sharply up and break the splintered shaft almost near the arrowhead. My thigh explodes in livid, heated pain. I bite down hard enough to break my teeth but leap to my feet instead. I have to get back.
Blood, blood pools around my feet but the arrow’s still there. There’s a rock, a bullet, in my shoulder. What’s an arrow in my leg? I need to run. Need to find that Door. Get back, wake up. Find Talyn.
The Nightmare’s mouth clamps over my shoulder and he tosses me into the air. I scream instinctively as I sail through wind and land with a thud on his back. Before I can react, the demon-beast bolts forward. Instinctively, my legs press around his girth and my bound hands fumble through his mane to grab a fistful of red. “What are you doing!”
[You can’t go back that way, Lira. And you can’t stay here.] He sprints away from where I was heading, going forward in a great horrible lurch.
With short, jerky strides, he crests the hill south of where we had stood and then begins a quick, frightful descent down another hill, making my insides fly up into my throat. My fingers tangle themselves deeper into mane and I stare numbly through pointed black ears, shocked and silenced.
I’m trapped. I’m trapped in the dream that died years ago. Far, far ahead, just off to the right, hangs the moon with the suns at her sides, stretching across the horizon. Suspended in one long stride, I forget everything, my eyes captivated by that wonderful, welcome sight Mom had once danced beneath.
I’m in Home.
The hill and the beast beneath me—
—drop sharply, forcing my insides once again to go where they shouldn’t be. I grope frantically for his mane. Every stride he takes reverberates in my head. Every rise and fall of the hills below us amplifies in my stomach, threatening to turn it and the rest of me inside out. And the screams……still bouncing off the hills……
Up and down, on and on and on, never ending, like rocking violently back-forth. Back, slam, forth. Down, crunch, up. And the nightmares. The nightmares.
END OF CHAPTER ONE