I stared at the ceiling. The clock on the table between mine and Nina’s bed showed the time to be somewhere around midnight.
I hiccuped and tried not to cry too loud. Ever since the meeting with those doctors, I had no control over myself. I snapped at Isabelle for interrupting the chess game with Zach, I couldn’t focus long enough to read, and I cried when we had rubins on the menu for lunch. I didn’t know why. The nurses simply kept me in my room after the first explosion and brought me more medicine, which calmed me a little, only for something else to take its place.
I was helpless against the flood. I couldn’t close the closet door anymore.
“I just want to go home,” I whispered to the ceiling. “I don’t want to feel anything anymore. I can’t. Please,” I begged the Light. “Please, let me go home. I hate it here.” I squeezed my eyes shut.
What could I do about feeling? There were days I wanted to run and never stop. There were others I wanted to stop everything and never move again. All I could do was follow the regimen set by the kindly nurses and swallow my emotions.
I whimpered, “I want to go home.”
A squeaking interrupted my thoughts on Nina’s side of the room. I glanced over at my roommate, curled and breathing deep. The squeaking came again, a chittering sound.
I tried to sit upright, but my body disobeyed. A copper tang hit my taste buds as I realized I couldn’t move.
The squeaking stopped. When it resumed, it sounded wrong, distorted somehow. A little shadow scampered across the shelf where Nina kept her totems. Another shadow, a little larger than the first, followed behind in equal speed. A third ballooned and shuddered before lumbering across the bed and next to me. A final expanded, taking up the room and stepped over my roommate to join the other three shadows now gathered around my bed.
On my chest sat a shadow of a cat and next to it was a mouse. Those larger two at my bedside stood a hulking bear and an enormous elephant. The three shadows opened tiny, beady eyes of white lights. The eyes vibrated, as if they were charged by electric volts. The cat’s head began to shake without actually moving, flashing back and forth. The Mouse next to it couldn’t keep its body still as it twitched and convulsed. I swore, I saw other body parts sticking from its frame and disappearing inside it as soon as they appeared.
The copper taste made my mouth dry and my heart drummed relentlessly. My breath was reduced to shallow gasps as the animals all stared at me. The elephant had tiny eyes all down the length of its trunk, all of them buzzing in place. The bear’s eyes circled around one another and a third opened in the middle.
The mouse opened one eye and the distorted squeaking started again. This time, I heard a voice, “You are chosen to be a Rider. You must choose.”
“Choose,” a distorted purr mused.
A cross between a growl and a scream shuddered my bones, “The darkness waits with open arms!”
The elephant raised its trunk, its many eyes swarming like bees. “You will be the most powerful! The most loved! You will find your happiness!”
I gulped for air and whimpered, unable to move anything except my own eyes. The figures loomed, growing larger and larger by the minute as I fought to breathe.
Please, Am. Help, I managed to think.
The shadows blinked and their frames strained, screams filling my head, before they burst into black motes, which disappeared.
I gasped for breath and coughed, sitting upright, tears from strangling blurring my vision.
When I wiped them, I found myself on smooth rock. Not limestone, but white marble, warm to the touch. I looked around and found nothing but sky blue expanse meeting the white horizon.
“Lyric,” whispered a voice. I looked to see a white figure in the shape of a man. He looked shrouded in a robe, maybe a coat. It was hard to tell with the brightness keeping details from me. But the light didn’t hurt my eyes. “Follow me.”
I stood, but my knees fell from under me. He said again, “Follow me.”
I grimaced, dusting my knees off as I stood. The marble hurt. When I stood again, I fell flat on my face. Bursts of pain shot through my chin, nose, and elbows, not to mention my knees again. I had a good sniff of chalk from the marble surface.
I swore the man’s voice chuckled before he said patiently, “Follow me.”
“I’m trying,” I groaned. “I can’t seem to walk. I need help.” I looked to the man. I felt drawn to him. “Can you help me?”
The man answered in a kind voice, “Always.”
I stood again and found my footing. I trekked after the glowing man and wondered about the creatures I had seen. Were they part of the darkness? I had never experienced something like that before.
Then I noticed something beyond the man: Two crowds lined up on either side of a red carpet that led to something that looked like a podium. One side was full of the black figures, some animals and others were humans. Some had multiple arms, some had none. The other side had white figures, each hard to look directly at. For a second, I thought I was supposed to give a speech and wondered what I should talk about. Then I banished the thought.
“What is this?” I asked the man as we stepped up to the carpet. The man motioned me to stay as he approached the podium. I noticed the other man next to him.
This man was void black, darker than the rest. His back looked crooked, as if his spine had been broken. His head was crowned in what looked like antlers, but he was covered in darkness. I couldn’t tell where he and the floor met, so he looked like he was a skewed tree. Instead of eyes, he had cracks across his face, as if he were made of glass and someone cracked him. He kept to the side of the podium, waiting.
When the Man of Light stepped up to the podium, the Man of Darkness shuffled to the side, his spine crunching from the movement. I shuddered from the sick noise.
“Lyric Williamson, daughter of Drake Williamson and Patience Williamson, step forward,” ordered the Man of Light.
I did as told, tiptoeing at a brisk pace rather than stepping. I made sure I didn’t make eye contact with the black creatures on my right. I almost ran into the podium and I blurted out, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” reassured the man in white. Then he addressed the two crowds, “This day, Lyric Williamson is going to become a Rider.” There was polite applause from both crowds. I smiled to the Man of Light. “She will choose, now, which side she wishes to honor with her life.”
A pregnant silence fell on everyone. I blinked and glanced between the two men. The Void-Man’s spine creaked as he breathed ragged, wet, and sticky breaths. I tried not to stare as I peeled my gaze from him to the Man in Light. He simply waited, his presence welcoming and calm.
“Mister?” I said to the one who spoke. “Isn’t it obvious? I choose you.”
There was an inhuman shriek behind me and I leaped to the Man in Light with a startled scream. I squeezed my eyes shut and the screaming died down, followed by cheering applause, like an orchestra finally reaching crescendo.
I blinked and backed away from the man before apologizing again. Again, he reassured me, “It’s quite alright, Lyric.”
I tried not to look at the Man in Black, in case he might attack me.
The Man in Light reached under the podium and pulled out a bejeweled ram’s horn. No, not bejeweled, but gemstone. It was made of every gem in the world, so that no two colors touched the other. It shimmered in the light, as if it was made of stars, too.
“You have chosen to become a Rider of Light,” he announced. “You shall honor the Light, dedicate your life to following Am, and bringing peace wherever you shall go.”
It was not a question, but a statement. A declaration of my mission.
I nodded, accepting my quest.
He reached up to me, cradling the jeweled horn in his arm, and raised up my chin. He took the horn and tilted the curled tip to my forehead. Something warm and silky bathed my head and soaked my hair. Some of it trickled down over my eye. I wiped it away with a sleeve.
When I opened my eye, the podium, the carpet, and the crowds were gone. Only the Man in Light remained. I blinked and felt the stuff he poured on me. “Oil?” I asked.
“Its ceremony,” he replied, somewhat indifferent, but even that was hard to tell. It was a pure statement of fact.
I felt complete. Whole. Happy. Like tiny flowers blooming inside that had waited all my life to open their petals.
I wrinkled my brow. “Where are my parents? I need to find them.”
“Don’t worry about them, Lyric,” he reassured me.
A roar echoed around us, coming from somewhere distant. I glanced about, searching for where it came from.
“I have released your dragon,” the man explained. “He will search for you. You cannot delay.”
“Wake up,” he ordered.
When I opened my eyes, I was caught off guard by the scent of cleaner – diluted bleach with some kind of lavender soap. I heard the squeak of wheels outside my room and the shuffle of quiet footsteps.
I sat up and rubbed my face with both hands. I sniffed the hospital gown they gave us to sleep in and frowned. I smelled like sweat and body odor. A glance at the clock told me it was only five in the morning.
I doubted the nurses cared if we showered at a different time. I stood and tiptoed to the bathroom.
The illumination talisman buzzed on automatically and I squinted to let my eyes adjust. I closed the door with a soft click. The bathroom smelled of plain soap and toilet cleanser. I undressed and grabbed a towel left the day before for me.
The pressure looming over me yesterday was gone. I felt refreshed and it was more than the shower doing it. At least the Light helped me with my emotional burdens. I washed and hummed to myself in a quiet voice an old song I heard somewhere.
I paused as I dried myself, trying to recall last night. I had cried myself to sleep and … then? I must have dozed off. I turned to the mirror that spanned the wall above the sink as I dried my hair while hanging my head down.
I flipped my hair back, raising upright as I did. I stepped back and covered my mouth to hold my scream in.
A black mark scarred the left side of my face in a perfect semicircle around my left eye. It started at the end of my eyebrow and snaked to my temple and down to my cheekbone, only to end in a curl in the center of my cheek. I stepped closer to examine it. It was a dragon, black as car oil. I touched it and grimaced – it felt tender, but the mark was slick. Why hadn’t I felt it while in the shower?
I bit my bottom lip and remembered the dream – the Proclamation Ceremony. I was a Dragon Master. But why now, of all times? I chewed the skin on my lip and squeezed my eyes shut. Walking out of the dorm room meant certain doom.
Would they erase my memory entirely? Would it even be ethical?
Send me to prison? I could plead discrimination, but then would they even listen with this mark on my face?
Of all places for it to appear – it had to be on my face. My Dad … Mom … Others like Cassandra … had theirs … I tried not to think of them, but the headache came regardless.
Okay, there were only two things I could do: Pray and face what would come next. I sat down next to the bleach-smelling toilet and prayed. Afterwards, I dressed in my hospital nightgown and climbed in bed to catch the last thirty minutes of sleep before the day began.
The nurse came to wake us and hesitated when she woke me. I never dozed off, I simply laid there for half an hour, going over details in my head. Should I escape now? When would my dragon arrive?
What about that Thustra man? Would he want to take me in and study me or something? What about the elf? So many questions and scenarios raced through my head.
A few things were certain: I still had gaps in my memory, I was stuck here, and I could not perform magic.
I certainly felt a calling to do magic, like a wind zipping around me and beckoning me to take hold of it. When I reached out to take a hold of this ghost-wind, I felt it tugging my arm. Like taking reins of an excited horse who wanted me to ride, or grabbing clothes on the line as they are whipped in the spring breeze. However, I didn’t know what to do with it. I tried pulling it to me, but it escaped.
The ghost-wind, or magic, was even denser around Nina’s bed. It felt more like cotton than wind there, as it had a static, scratchy feel to it. I stayed on my side of the bedroom and watched the clock for the nurse to arrive.
When the nurse turned on the light, she was surprised to find me, curled up against the wall with the blankets over my knees. Then her surprise turned to concern as she approached. Then she closed her mouth and her face became a mixture of anger, grief, and alarm once she saw the mark more clearly.
“Oh no,” she whispered and came closer. “Miss Williamson, are you alright?”
I nodded. “Its okay,” I reassured her and slid over to the edge of the bed. She examined the mark and withdrew when I grimaced at her touch. She frowned and informed me, “I’m going to let the Warlock know of what happened. I’m certain they’ll have something to help.”
I nodded and kept the thought of memory erasure off my tongue.
She woke Nina before heading out. Nina gaped at my mark and asked, “What is that?”
“The Bond Mark of a Rider,” I replied as she approached me to look at it.
“It looks kinda cool,” she said as she touched her own face.
“Thanks.” I slid off the bed. “We should get dressed.”
“Oh, right. I wonder what Isabelle will do when she sees it.”
With that, we dressed quickly. Afterwards, Nina sat on her bed as I brushed my hair. She stated, “I found out why my dad didn’t come to see me.”
“Yeah? How come?”
“My grandma … she was really sick.” She turned her gaze to her hands laying limply in her lap. I thought I saw tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Nina,” I comforted.
“I feel so selfish,” she whispered.
“No, no, don’t feel that way. Its alright; you didn’t know.”
She kept her eyes on her hands in her lap.
A knock at the door and I called for them to enter with a quick look at the clock. It was time for breakfast. The elf strode in, his red eyes taking me in. He squinted them as he approached and put an icy hand on my cheek. He used a thumb to feel the mark, which burned at his touch. I flinched away and he nodded to himself. Mr. Z turned to the door and left.
Nina and I sat in silence, stunned. She finally said, “I guess the mark’s a lot of trouble, huh? What do you think they’ll do to you?”
“I don’t know.” I really couldn’t think of anything, which scared me more. I thought Mr. Z would have taken me away immediately to someplace secluded or to the police.
We started to go to breakfast, but the nurse approached Nina and asked to see her about something. Mr. Z simply escorted me to the cafeteria.
It was the size of the recreational room and had plastic benches with metal frames for us to eat at. There was a line of chairs along the side of the room where the guards watched us, including Mr. Z.
Adjacent to the guard line stood the table where the cooks lined trays for us to take. The food here, I have to admit, wasn’t bad. At the start of the table was a little menu card announcing the day’s meal. Past that, a patient takes a tray and finds where to sit.
When I sat down next to Isabelle with the egg, sausage, and biscuit breakfast, she was preoccupied with opening the tiny packet of honey. I popped the carton of milk open and started on my eggs with the plastic spork provided when Zach lunged to our table. We both jumped at the slam of the new arrival and Isabelle dropped the honey packet on the floor.
“Zach!” she yelled, angry. “Look at what you made me do! Now I can’t have honey with my biscuit!”
The boy blanched and held an apologetic look. “I’m sorry,” he croaked, his voice hoarse. “I’ll get you a new one. Gimme a minute.” He turned to me, his big grin returning. “Where did you get that tattoo?”
“What?” I asked, picking egg off my sweats.
Zach pointed at his left eye and I covered the side of my face with my hand. “Its not a tattoo,” I answered. My insides twisted. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Can I touch it?” he asked.
I scrunched my face up and shook my head. “No!”
A scream interrupted us. The whole cafeteria stopped and looked at the doors to the hallway. Nina’s voice echoed as she shrieked, “I need it! No!” The guards carried the thrashing girl past the door. She clenched something with both hands as she twisted and kicked. A few of the security men left their post at the wall to help the other two. Nina screams continued to echo as they escorted her down the hall.
Isabelle hissed to me as the screams became more distant, “She found out about her grandma yesterday while you were gone with the visitors. Her dad called the offices. She cried a lot.”
I hadn’t noticed yesterday. She seemed fine.
“I saw her take a spork before you came over,” added the girl as she curled her knees to her chest and nibbled on a biscuit. “You think she wanted to cut herself some more?”
“I … don’t …” I should have done something. I should have noticed. Were her eyes red when I walked in? Her face puffy? I was too focused on my problems.
“I think she will,” finalized Isabelle.
Zach stared at his hands and added, “That’s really dark, Izzy. She won’t cut herself. She’s better now. Like me. She was getting better.” He paused to look at my spork in my hand.
“Besides, they give us sporks so we can’t cut ourselves with them.”
I pushed my tray away and laid my head on the table. Zach raised his eyebrows and asked, “You okay, Lyric?”
“I didn’t notice she was hurting,” I admitted.
He shifted his weight in thought. “Don’t blame yourself, Lyric. Its okay.” He reached over and petted one of my elbows.
A voice next to the table said, “Lyric Williamson?” We all turned to see the institute’s resident Magi. He was tall, lanky, and borderline gaunt. He had the signature, flowing, white tattoos and the tunic with white robes wrapped around his scarecrow body. His honeydew green eyes were calm and his voice was a narrow whisper. “I’m Dr. Wulf. You may have heard of me?”
“Y-yes,” I answered as I straightened up. “What can I help you with?” I served up a smile, almost automatically. As if I could help him with anything. He held a small smirk, however, and motioned me to follow him with a wave of the hand.
I stood and gave my friends, if they were, a sideways glance. They stared with open mouths.
If Dr. Wulf came for you, you were either going to leave or you were in dire straits. Either way, you weren’t going to be seen again. The latter meant a transfer to another institute, better equipped to handle the issue.
I’d take transfer at this point. I gripped my hands together and followed directly behind him. We walked into the hall leading past the garden window and the visitation lobby. There was a lone gardener in the courtyard, tending to a bush of hibiscus.
“Miss Williamson,” Dr. Wulf began as we passed through the recreational room, “I am sorry it has come to this. But you made your decision. I hope you understand?”
We turned down the way to the elevator, passing the dorms. Then to the elevator. I stepped on behind him and squeezed myself into a corner as the elevator made its creaky, short ascent.
Mr. Z was gone, I realized. He hadn’t followed us. I looked at the back of Mr. Wulf’s head. He had long, shaggy hair and the robes hid any unseemly hair. I curled my arms against me.
I hazarded a guess, “Am I going home?”
Dr. Wulf didn’t answer. The bell dinged and we stepped into the hall. A panicked part of my head pointed out I could still run for it. The other side of the building had the stairs that staff had access to. I could make a mad dash for it and outrun this matchstick man.
The logical part of me countered that the matchstick likely knew plenty of magic that could paralyze me in place. And that I didn’t know any magic.
It didn’t keep me from feeling the urge to run. I started twitching at every buzz of the talismans overhead as they lit our way. I heard crashes from one of the offices and hesitated. I then heard voices and Nina’s screams.
I glanced at Dr. Wulf before tiptoeing to the door. I peeked in, as the door wasn’t closed. My eyes widened at the sight.
Two Magi had her levitating over a table, flat on her back. Another Magi held Nina’s head as the white glyphs on her arms glowed with power. The other two were sweating with effort. Above Nina’s trembling head was a white glyph, glowing and spinning as it slowly descended. I realized it was shrinking as it did.
When it planted on her forehead, the glyph gave one final flash before dimming. The magi lowered my roommate to the table and the three relaxed. Nina lay still for a long moment, her body shivering before becoming still. I then noticed the fresh bandages on her forearm. The room was largely empty of furniture, except for a desk behind them with a tray for a water pitcher and glasses, a computer, and a stack of books.
The two magi walked behind the one at the head of the table to drink the water. One brought her a glass as she whispered to Nina. I couldn’t hear her.
Finally, Nina sat upright. I flinched at the sight and forced myself to look. She was pale, her gaze absolutely neutral, and the white glyph directly on her forehead. It was simple, unlike the other glyphs I’d seen. It consisted of a white dot in the center of a circle.
I didn’t know what they did, but the person who stood up from the table was not Nina. She stood with robotic motions and took a glass to sip because it was something that she was supposed to do. A normal human thing to do.
“Williamson?” called Dr. Wulf at the end of the hall. I straightened up and strode to him at a brisk pace.
“What did they do?” I asked as we turned the corner. I could backtrack, run to the elevator. But my fear increased.
“They neutralized your roommate’s emotions,” he said simply, as if commenting on the time the sun was to rise.
“They what?” I asked, balking.
“Your roommate became too unstable. We needed to restrain her and allow her a non-destructive way to compartmentalize her emotions and work through them. So we made her Serene.”
“Serene.” I echoed, trying to understand. “You made her Serene. Can she still feel?”
“Emotions? Yes, but not in the same way you do. Its like … an aquifer. We buried her emotions under a magic bedrock. Emotions run down into the aquifer through the magic barrier, where they collect. When her body and mind adjust, we will drill down through the bedrock and allow her to parse through everything, one piece at a time.”
“But, that’s just … wrong.” Why was I arguing with a magi who was leading me to my certain doom?
“Its not permanent,” he stated. “And her father signed a waiver saying we can take any means necessary for her health and safety when she arrived, including magical means.”
I closed my mouth. I wasn’t about to debate about something I didn’t know anything about. And this hallway was unfamiliar. I had only been down the previous hall with the elevator and never allowed any further.
We came to a wide, large room, as big as the recreational room and the visitation room combined. In the center was an enormous glyph that formed a circle. The circle had another circle within it, and between those were a myriad of symbols and shapes. I glanced up at the Magi and spotted Mr. Z waiting next to the door. And the walls – they were raised with patterns in, was that foam? Had they sound-proofed the room?
“What is this?” I asked, stepping back from the Magi. “What is this place?”
“It is where we will study you,” Dr. Wulf replied. “Your dragon is coming for you. We intend to capture it and send you both to Dr. Thustra’s associates.” He frowned and turned to open the door behind me. A trio of magi stepped in, boxing me into the room.
Panic began to rise in me like a frantic wire being plucked and vibrating inside my core. It reverberated throughout my limbs and into my head, screaming to escape. I lunged at the three that entered and they simply held firm. One of them grabbed my forehead and whispered something I couldn’t hear over my screaming.
Felicity Swan 2016 ©