The story so far:
A woman woke up in another world with many of her memories missing. In her rush to run away from her abductors, she took a tumble from a window and fell to her death. Lucky for her, the death thing didn’t stick.
A kind, old woman led her out of the caves and into a dying village of refugees. A less kind, young woman stabbed and kicked her off the edge of the mountain. Now she is not feeling her best at the mountain’s peak, because magic > gravity.
I’m fine, I huffed as each hard-won breath escaped. My shirt clung to my chest and my fingers felt sticky. The taste of copper filled my mouth. My body was already stitching itself back together, and it felt like red hot needles dancing through my skin. Immortality felt like a prison as I writhed on the ground.
Nearby, a bird trilled joyously. I endured its pretty lies until I heard the two women chatting in that unfathomable language of theirs. My head rolled to the side, my hair tangling in the sparse weeds, so that I could bear witness to whatever what fresh hell they were serving up next.
I saw the old lady first, and felt betrayed. She glanced at me only once, and didn’t seem concerned that there was a hole in my chest. Instead, she was busy etching a line of symbols into the dirt around the evil child.
The girl nodded solemnly to the old lady, then rose one hand to clutch at the air in front of her. She hummed a few low, somber notes, then twisted her wrist. The sound spread out like a fan opening, the tones duplicating and shifting until a diminished minor chord hung in the air.
A point of light appeared over her thumb. It etched a crisp, curling line into the air around her hand. “Rey tor nay,” she intoned again, and it closed into a complete circle. A tremor rippled through the ground, making the pebbles by my head dance.
The old lady’s symbols shuddered with life. They drifted through the dirt, their limbs breaking off and merging back together as they rearranged into a different pattern. They pulsed briefly with light, as though a photo flash had gone off, then began to shift into the next sequence.
Movement above caught my eye. In her hand, an orb of otherworldly darkness filled that circle of light. It grew quickly, pushing out against the radiant wall of its prison until it burst free with an audible pop of pressure. The rolling, hungry void swallowed the two women whole, then billowed outward like an angry storm.
There was no way I could escape before it was on top of me. I closed my eyes as it thundered and accepted that whatever was happening was probably going to be horrible. Why change things up this late in the game? My shock and horror receptors felt burned out.
The sudden absence of the bird’s song was deafening. My ears filled the void with a thin, shrill noise. But, I noticed with rising spirits, it didn’t hurt. Even the fire in my chest seemed to be cooling off. I slid a finger through the hole in my shirt and ran it over smooth skin.
Neat, I thought, but sarcasm leeched any emotion from it. With the strength of apathy, I opened my eyes to a thinning storm. Through its haze I could tell that I was no longer on the mountain peak. It looked like… a dim room. A library, I corrected as a wall of books took shape. Everywhere I looked there were shelves full of thick, leather-bound tomes. Symbols graced the bindings in a flowing script that meant nothing to me.
In the distance a muffled conversation was growing more heated. The old woman’s voice was a calm undertone to the girl’s abrupt interjections, and a new, confused tenor was playing referee between them.
It’s him. The leader from the cavern. He’s the reason all of this is happening.
I rolled onto my hands and knees and prowled toward them like a cat on the hunt. Discarded baubles littered the floor and I took care to avoid them as I passed. If I can listen in before they see me, maybe I’ll finally learn something useful. Finally, I came to a break in the bookcases; a wide circle in the middle of the room where three strangers were arguing.
A long table with a cloth skirt stretched between us. I left the safety of the bookcases to huddle beside it. Their voices reached my new hideout easily, so I decided that trying to get any closer would just be pressing my luck. My powers of pseudo-translation kicked into overdrive as it became clear that I wasn’t going to learn anything of use this way.
“I sound nice, but I like to kidnap random women,” I imagined the leader was saying. “What about you guys?”
The child snickered. “I can make my voice sound like a whole choir, but mostly I just like to stab people.”
“Oh?” the old lady interjected; a prompt for more information.
“Yes. Because I’m a psychopath.”
“Ahhh. How wonderful. I jump from mountain cliffs for fun.”
I sighed, packing all of my frustration into a fraction of the volume. This game of pretend was getting me nowhere. I needed to see their faces. The curl of lips. The knitting of eyebrows. Were they fidgeting or standing their ground?
I peered carefully over the edge of the table. The leader was covering his face with his hand, looking desperate. The other two seemed to be staring each other down. I wondered why, then my attention was snatched away by something more important: a hint of vinegar and salt in the air.
When was the last time I’d eaten anything? With a low rumble, my stomach put in its order. I tried to muffle the sound and froze, sure that all eyes were about to land on me. When they launched into another round of debate I let my gaze fall lovingly on a mirrored tray. It bore a sandwich and a cup like they were a king and queen.
You steal me, I steal your sammich.
My fingers inched toward the bread. It didn’t matter if it was the nastiest snack in the world: it was going into my face. My prize secured, I ferreted it back to my shadowy hiding place. My stomach threatened to rebel again so I didn’t bother looking at the ingredients before I sank my teeth into a slightly stale corner.
The bread was plain and flavorless, and the pickle still had a strong vinegar kick to it. I didn’t care. A vampiric hunger took root in me that demanded to be satisfied. I licked the crumbs from empty fingers too soon.
More. I needed more. My hand periscoped up, then snatched the cup from the tray. It wasn’t food, but it would have to do. I drained it of a thin, amber liquid that tasted like bitter fruit. It was thick and heavy on my stomach, quieting my ravenous need for the moment. It filled me with warmth and a light, pleasant buzz.
Feeling a little more human, I settled my back against the table and pondered my next move. Should I leave? I still don’t know where I am, or why I’m here. I’ll be moving blind.
I heard a rustle of papers beyond the table as someone thumbed through a book. There was a male hmmm, then he said: “Her silence is a problem.” My breath caught in my throat at the familiar words.
The child laughed bitterly. “Oh, she talks constantly. None of it makes a bit of sense, though.”
“I still think we should check on her,” muttered the old woman.
The child laughed, and it sounded dismissive. “She’s fine.”
“Well, you stabbed her.”
“Again with this? You told me to get her in front of Kel. I followed your orders exactly.”
I gaped at that. The old lady wasn’t a pawn after all. She was in charge.
“You stabbed her with an apathy-tainted blade.”
I peered over the edge of the table and watched the child shrug off her words. “It’s what I had on me. Look, we all know she wasn’t in any danger. Let’s stop pretending she’s mortal.”
“It says ‘an innate magic took effect after the banquet, and the hero’s tongue unraveled.’”
They paused their quarrel to consider the man. What had the child called him? Kel? She rolled her eyes and asked in a curt, biting tone: “So, what is that supposed to mean? We throw her a party?”
“I don’t know! I don’t think the historians really did, either. They make it sound like she just has to want, or accept something from our world.” He slammed the book closed and tossed it to the table. I flinched as it skidded to a stop in front of me.
Our world? I knew I was somewhere else. Enough of my old world lingered in my memories, and there was magic everywhere. I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. But to hear him say it so casually still felt jarring.
“Well, that’s wrong. She’s been here for days, and I’ve been sending Mir with food.” The child arched an eyebrow, and the older woman saw something there that I missed. “Which she didn’t eat, I gather.”
“She didn’t have a face until I saw her with you in the market. Where was I supposed to shove it? Up her arse?”
“Elwyth,” he interrupted, stalling the old lady’s angry retort.
Elwyth, I repeated, committing it to memory. Elwyth, Mir, Kel. My abductors.
“Well, when she can understand you, have you thought about what you’re going to say?” He took a step back, and the child leaned forward to confront him. “She threw herself out of the City to get away from us. You’d better have a plan.”
My smile was as thin as a razor’s edge. Yes, what is your plan?
“She’s a hero,” he answered simply, as if that was all that needed to be said.
Mir cocked her head. “Really? Because I just watched her crawl away from the market bridge, crying like a baby.” My fists balled around the table’s skirt and I sneered at her.
“She is a baby,” he protested. “This whole world must be so different than wherever she’s from. The entire first act of The Fall of Apathy was just a string of the First Hero’s mistakes and failures. It wasn’t until the retreat to Cloud City that he accepted the mantle of his fate.”
Elwyth took his hand gently, interrupting him. “Our retreat to the City was years ago. We’re dying, Kel. You’re dying.” She drew a shuddering breath. “We can’t afford to wait for her to decide.”
The child nodded. “We can’t keep babying her.”
Babying me? You stabbed me and kicked me off a mountain ledge.
He threw his hands into the air. “Well, I’m not going to force her! That won’t create the hero we need. She needs to do that, or it means nothing!”
“The meaning is irrelevant if there’s no one left to appreciate it. Don’t you think so?” The girl lounged against the table, then rapped her knuckles on its surface loudly. “Wakey, wakey.” She leaned backward to peer over the edge of the table. “Rise and shine, hero.”
I recoiled from the disgusted look she wore and sent the empty cup spinning noisily across the floor. Elwyth gasped loudly, then clapped her hands together in joy. I didn’t trust her anymore, but I couldn’t find anything fake in the relief that rolled off of her. She had been worried.
But the man, the one I thought would be my biggest enemy, looked at me like I was the only person in the world that mattered to him. He put his hands up in front of his chest like a surrender, then grabbed Elwyth’s arm to stop her as she rushed to my side. “We don’t want to scare her,” he reminded them.
“How long was she hiding down there?” she asked Mir.
The girl shrugged indifferently. “I just noticed the empty tray.”
Kel paled. “That’s going to test her immortality.”
The old lady made a disgusted face. “Is that the one—”
“But it’s been –”
A blush of embarrassment flooded his cheeks, and he nodded again. “I’ve been busy!” he argued in his own defense. “Fate of the world and et cetera!”
Mir shook her head in disappointment. “That’s gross, man.”
“Oh, my big, dumb hero,” Elwyth gushed, and I wasn’t sure if they were still concerned about me at all. They seemed to be enjoying the spreading blush on Kel’s face.
My eyebrows shot up with surprise as I recognized that tone in the woman’s voice. “Wait… is that what you’ve been calling me this whole time?” They gaped at me as I sputtered indignantly.
Elwyth’s hands crossed over her heart. “That was just an endearment in lieu of your name. Which is…?”
I reflexively opened my mouth to reply, but the word wasn’t there. Feeling caught off guard yet again, I pursed my lips and pointed an accusing finger at her. “I don’t think so. Not until you tell me why I’m here, and what you think I’m going to do for you. Then I’ll decide if you’re worth my time.”
Like a dangerous, wild animal, the child growled. Carefully, Kel put his hand on her shoulder without looking away from me. “That sounds abundantly fair,” he agreed, drawing the frustration of his comrades.
“Don’t screw it up,” the girl snapped at him, then marched off to lean against a bookcase. She pulled her knife out again and peered at me through the reflection. It was a naked threat: Behave and I won’t use this again.
“Mir,” he pleaded after her, but she seemed content to glare silently from a distance.
Elwyth retrieved the cup and set it on the table, then pulled a chair out for me. I ignored it and her, and stood my ground. I didn’t want to rack up any more debts, no matter how small, until I knew the cost. With a casual “shouldn’t go to waste” she settled into it herself and waved at Kel to do his thing.