~ Chapter One ~
Voices faded in and out. Thunder shook the world. The face of a woman smiled, then disappeared into smoke.
And there was fire. So much fire. It surrounded everything and consumed anything.
Wake up …
Wake up …
Wake up …
Light burst forth through the nightmares and seared into her brain, a sharp headache pounding in sync with her heartbeat.
She slowly opened her eyes.
She was lying on a stone table in a valley of daisies, underneath a golden gazebo, with her hands gripping something that lay over her chest. Where was she? Who was she?
She sat up straight, thinking she’d only imagined the voice.
Claire … you’re finally awake ….
This voice … she’d heard it before. She touched a finger to her temple. Her name was Claire, according to the voice. It was a foreign name to her, and yet … it felt right.
Her name was Claire.
How did she not remember her own name? But now that she thought about it, Claire could remember nothing before waking up. She’d lost her memory.
A clattering sound drew her out of her daze, and she peered over the edge of the table. A rather old-looking sword had fallen to the ground when she sat up, so she supposed that was what she was gripping.
Her eyes roved around the field surrounding her golden pavilion. Nothing but endless plain sprinkled with dove-white daisies underneath a blood-red sky. The field stretched beyond the horizon and met the sky, as far as the eye could see. Where was she?
Claire slowly pushed herself off the altar-like table, brushing stone bits and dust off her white, rope-belted dress. The smooth stone floor of the pavilion felt warm beneath her bare feet. She bent over and picked the rusty sword up off the ground. Turning it over in her hands, some of the rust crumbled off and drifted down to the floor.
The sound of footsteps trudging through grass made her drop the sword and whip around, and she spied a man — about twenty years old — making his way towards her, struggling through the tall grass and flowers. When he saw that she’d noticed him, he stopped for a second, then picked up his pace, tearing through the grassy field like an arrow with a wide smile on his face.
“Claire! Claire!” he shouted. When he reached her, he took her hands, rubbing his thumbs over her skin as though he couldn’t believe he was touching her. “Oh, Claire — you’re awake!”
A wave of wariness washed over Claire, and she drew her hands back, only to be suddenly pulled into an awkward hug. She pushed the young man away from her, staring him in the eye with a look that hopefully told him to back off.
“Claire ….” His smile fell. “It’s me, Leander.”
“I don’t know you,” Claire stated, surprised at the sound of her own voice. It was soft, smooth, with a hint of a proper accent. She’d never heard herself speak before.
The man — Leander — looked confused as he stared at her, his head cocked. “What do you mean you don’t know me? I’m your bodyguard, Leander Konan. I served by your side before and during the war —” He cut himself off, his eyes widening with realization. “You lost your memory … didn’t you?”
Claire lifted her chin a bit, indignant. So she had lost her memory — what did that have to do with this Leander person? Unless — she nearly choked — she knew him before her memory was lost.
Leander nodded, finding the answer on his own. “I see. I will have to bring you to the Elder, then,” he said grimly. He took her hand again, trying to lead her away.
Claire tugged her hand away and grabbed the old sword in one fluid motion. “Don’t you touch me again,” she warned, holding the sword out in front of her, the blade acting as a barrier between the two of them.
Leander raised his hands, looking both alarmed and hurt. “Okay,” he said calmly, slowly lowering his arms. “I won’t touch you again. Just follow me.” He turned and made his way down the little steps that led up to the stone table.
Wordlessly, Claire followed him — still carrying the sword — her legs a little shaky as she stepped down the stairs. How long had she been out?
As they walked through the tall meadow grass, Leander glanced at her over his shoulder and chuckled. “Even after fifty years, you look perfect. Your hair hasn’t lost its gold lustre.”
Claire glared at him and touched her fingertips at the hair in front of her ears. Feeling up around her hairline, she realized that her gold-blonde hair had been woven into a braid that separated her hair and her forehead. The rest hung in long, golden ringlets down her back, away from her face.
“Fifty years?” she asked softly.
Leander nodded. “We Narilians don’t age, so a thousand years could pass, and we could still look around the age of twenty.”
“No,” Claire said. “What happened fifty years ago?”
Leander looked hesitant. “I should let the Elder explain things to you. He has a sense of wisdom that surpasses even the most learned scholar.”
Claire nodded slowly. “Is there an end to this plain?”
Leander nodded. “Yes, it’s somewhere around here.”
Claire nodded again. She stared out at the horizon as she followed Leander. How did she get here? Who was that voice, telling her to wake up and was glad that she was awake? Had she died in another world, and was she in heaven now?
Her gaze travelled to Leander. Obviously, they both knew each other at one time, but she didn’t remember. Based on what she knew about him so far, Leander was a considerate, bright young man … who’d just had his soul crushed because she couldn’t remember him. But that was only on the surface. What was he like inside?
Leander abruptly stopped, and Claire smashed into his back, lost in her thoughts.
“Whoa — are you all right?” he asked as he whipped around and steadied her.
“I’m fine,” Claire insisted.
After a pause, he nodded and turned back to what he was looking at before she bumped into him. Claire peered around him and found herself staring at a circular stone slab sunken into the grass. Leander reached into a pocket in his trousers and withdrew a small flask. Unscrewing the diamond-shaped lid, he tapped the vial with his index finger, a droplet of lavender splashing onto the stone.
The ground trembled violently, and Claire had to spread her feet wider to keep her balance. The circular stone slab parted in two like a mouth opening its jaws.
Leander turned back to face her. “This may scare you at first, so trust me.” He held out his hand to her, asking permission. Permission for what?
And as much as she wanted to bat his hand away, Claire found herself nodding and placing her hand in his. Their hands were a sharp contrast against one another. Claire’s was small, dainty, and pale, while Leander’s was tanned, callused, and easily twice her hand’s size.
Leander smiled as he led her towards the opening in the ground, walking backwards. Then he pulled her up against him in an embrace, then fell backwards through the hole.
Claire screamed as they fell into the blackness, the sound echoing behind them as if it were trying to match their falling speed. Air whooshed up and plugged Claire’s ears as they plummeted. She was going to pass out, and she was going to pass out soon.
Leander held her close to his body. “You okay?” he asked over the deafening rush of air.
“No!” Claire admitted. The bare outline of Leander’s face in the darkness suddenly became two, then meshed together in a fuzzy haze as her vision began to fail. “I’m going to pass out.”
“Stay with me!” was the last, echoey thing she heard before she lost consciousness.