She opened her eyes to a dull, sandy stone floor. The faint sound of wind greeted her ears as she propped herself to her knees. She slowly stood to her feet, carefully looking at her surroundings. After looking around, she could see that she was in an ancient, stone chamber of some sort, surrounded by four walls of sandy, yellow brick. At each corner, a torch flickered, illuminating the occasional wisp of dust that drifted down from the ceiling. Each torch was different: the upper-right one was set in gold, elaborate flame-shaped filigree and burned with a red flame, and the upper-left one was set in winding silver embellishments and burned with a yellow flame. Looking behind her, she saw two more torches in the corners of her chamber: the one in the lower-left corner was set in a black, somewhat thorny-looking metal and burning with a bright violet flame, and a sleek, jagged-looking, white-clad torch in the lower-right that burned with a pale blue flame. Each torch cast its own shades across the room, sending playful colors across the otherwise unremarkable room. As she continued to look around, she could see no sign of windows, doors, or even a staircase. It was as if the entire room was built to contain her somehow, and the notion of being trapped crossed her mind.
“You are safe. I welcome you, newcomer.”
That voice again! It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, and the girl looked about for its source. Finding none, the girl’s suspicions rose.
“At ease. No harm will come to you in this room.”
Again, the disembodied, feminine voice sounded once more, its words echoing off the chamber’s walls. In spite of its comforting language, the voice’s tone was disconnected, far-off, reminding the girl of a tired but ever-loyal mentor. She had no idea why she thought this. For all she knew, this woman was the one who put her here. But she felt relaxed, secure, certain that no harm would come to her, just like the voice told her. A distant part of her mind tried to piece together a reason for this, but she could find no explanation. In fact, the girl could not remember a thing. Not her past, not her reason for coming here, not even her own name came to her mind. That realization pierced her content mood like a needle to a balloon, and she was alarmed.
“Do not fear,” the voice reassured, its weary tone contrasting its words, “Let the light guide your path. Choose, and your path will open...”
Light? Choose? Was it talking about those torches? Somehow, when the voice mentioned choosing a path, whatever that meant, the notion of forgetting her name seemed to stop mattering for now. A small, confused part of the girl’s mind wondered at this compulsion to heed the voice, but there was no reason to doubt it, nor any options to choose from.
Well, none save which torch to pick. Each was perched on a matching sconce in the wall, at the perfect height to grab, should she feel like it. In fact, now she felt a strong urge to grab one. But which one to pick? She looked more closely at the four torches, observing each in turn. Apart from their decorations and their flame color, there was no noticeable difference among them. Seeing no point in debating further, she grabbed the closest torch to her position, the dark one with the violet flame. As soon as it was lifted from the sconce, the other three torches suddenly extinguished themselves, startling her and darkening her room momentarily. Oddly enough, the purple flame glowed even brighter as the others dimmed, illuminating her surroundings in a strangely comforting amethyst light.
“You have chosen the Psionic Path,” the aloof voice answered, “Learn your craft quickly, newcomer, for your Path is all you have to protect yourself from here out.”
“Path? Protection?” she wondered aloud. Why would she need to protect herself? The voice said it was safe here... But why did she feel the urge to follow its word anyway? Who was this voice? Why was she here? More importantly, who was she herself, anyways? The girl had no answers for herself, only a blank, empty mind.
“Your trials begin now, newcomer,” the voice continued further, “I cannot protect you anymore. Find me and I shall guide you...” As its last words echoed in the empty chamber, the entire room began to shake, startling the girl. As she adjusted her stance to remain standing, the wall where the black sconce stood begun to shift. Its bricks rotated in place, shedding flakes of mortar as they spun in place. The bricks closest to the wall slid along the walls, moving away and dragging themselves into the center of the chamber as the center wall-bricks moved to take their place. As they changed, a passage was revealed that the girl was sure she hadn’t seen before. The shifting bricks in the center of the room rearranged themselves and formed a simple, stone chair, which the girl looked at curiously before returning her attention to the corridor.
“If you tire during your journey, return here and rest. I shall protect you, but not if you linger needlessly. Go. Find me...” As the last words faded away, the girl felt the voice’s presence fade with it.
“Wait! Don’t go! I have to ask... you...” The presence was gone. Suddenly, the girl felt alone, vulnerable, as if she were suddenly naked and exposed to whatever unknowns this corridor held. But, as before, the girl felt the strong urge to go forth into the darkness and find that voice. But how would she do that? She didn’t even know who, or perhaps what, was speaking. The sense of loneliness that struck her when the voice left was heightening, and she clutched the torch close. Even the slight breeze in this chamber now felt like a gentle push at her back, urging her down the path like a guiding hand. There was nothing to gain from standing here in the dust and the gloom worrying, she decided. Besides, the Voice, that was what she decided to call that mysterious speaker for now, was waiting for her. Once again, the nameless girl felt the drive to obey the Voice, and once again, she decided there was no choice but to go.
But to where? There was nothing but a long corridor as far as her eyes could see. But she didn’t want to lose her way. This chamber was the closest thing to familiarity the girl had right now, and she found herself reluctant to leave it. Looking over her back one last time, she decided to simply walk straight ahead, then return to the chamber. The girl took a deep breath and walked forward, straight ahead as she planned. The corridor seemed no different from the chamber, and it was lined with more black torches which brightened as she approached, and dimmed as she left them. She kept looking behind her, searching for the Voice’s comforting words again, but finding only the faint sounds of the wind to answer her. Slowly, uncertainly, the girl made her way down the hall until the chamber vanished from view. A sudden panic overwhelmed her, and the girl turned and ran back down the hallway.
Before she could reach the comforts of the chamber, a sense of overwhelming terror froze her in her tracks. The girl looked about, not certain why she was so afraid for no reason. She had to get to the chamber, back to the Voice, back to safety.
But this doesn’t make sense.
As quickly as the notion crossed her mind, it was forgotten in an instant. Something was in the doorway, blocking her path. Well, sort of blocking her path anyway. It was roughly human-shaped, but seemed completely unnatural. Its indistinct, black form clung to the floor like the misplaced shadow of an invisible person. Was this the Voice? She took a tentative step towards the disembodied form, then away much more quickly as a pair of bat-like, shadowy wings unfurled from the thing’s back. Terror struck her like a fist to the face as she stumbled several steps backwards in alarm. Something about the sight of this thing made the girl scared in a way she could not even describe. This was not the Voice! The Voice was a welcoming presence, if a little aloof, and this thing was the epitome of fear! The creature smiled, revealing a sinister sneer. Its grin was a fanged maw of yellow energy that sparked and sizzled. The rest of its body was still indistinguishable from a shadow, lending the winged menace a malicious aura.
“A new soul, just for me?” it hissed slowly, peeling itself from the floor and revealing a form like a living fog, “It must be my lucky day! The newcomers always have such delicious souls...”
“Stay away from me!” The girl demanded, backing further away as her knees started to shake, “You’re creepy!” She quickly weighed her options, retreat back into the chamber and hope the Voice would help her, or flee into the corridor. The former was looking best to her; she wanted to find the Voice now more than ever.
“Aw, look at the fresh prey, so scared...” it flared its wings, completely blocking the girl’s chances of retreating into the chamber, “I love the taste of human fear! It’s so irresistible! I’ll eat you!” At the last word, it screamed and lunged at the girl, long, talon-like hands arched for a grab. The girl let out a scream of her own and spun on her heel down the corridor, but not before the creature’s talons raked at her left leg. She cried out in surprised pain at the clawing, but forced herself to keep running in spite of the injury.
“Oh, yes!” the shadow-creature cackled, its voice rattling dust loose from the ceiling, “Scream! Scream some MORE for me, human!”
She kept moving, torches flickering in and out of brilliance as she raced away. What was that thing?! It was like something out of a nightmare! She racked her brain for answers, but found nothing once again. The Voice said her Path would be her protection, but what was that supposed to mean? That thing would surely catch up to her if she couldn’t get away. The idea that a shadow-thing could eat was odd, but she did not want to find out if it was really going to eat her. What it was was scary, and violent, and that was more than enough to send the girl into a panic. She knew she couldn’t just keep running...
Especially not where there was a dead end in her way. She skidded to a halt, just before meeting the opposite wall. She had run all the way down the hall in her panic, and she was now pinned between the wall and the winged shadow-man.
“What’s the matter, human? Scared to die?” the creature laughed like it just told a joke, a nasty, vile thing that made the girl’s hair stand on end. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to eat you quickly.” It grinned, raising a hand to its mouth in a contemplative gesture, “Or maybe I should just seal you up for a snack later. I can’t waste such a delicious young soul in one meal, now can I?”
“Don’t come near me!” the girl barked, pressing her back against the wall and baring her torch before her defensively. Her mind was whirling with a frenzied fear, and she knew there was no escaping the shadow.
“Hehe, delicious, so very delicious... What delightful fear!” it snarled, eagerly licking its lips with a white, sparking tongue as it rubbed its hands excitedly, “Ooh, I can’t resist anymore! I’ll swallow you whole!”
Defending herself the only way she could, the girl swung her torch at the shadow. To her dismay, the makeshift weapon passed right through its body with no effect. In desperation, she tried punching at it, but the creature was insubstantial. Her fists and her torch swings both passed through as if the thing did not exist. The creature’s only response was another wicked sneer, as if it were enjoying the futility of her struggle. The girl screamed again as it closed in and covered her face with her arms, scrunching her eyes shut. She wished she could do something, anything, but she was trapped and unarmed. Now she was going to die, she was sure of it. A warm sensation shot down her arms as the creature tore into her forearms, followed by a warbling cry. Tears poured down the girl’s face and she prepared for death. To her confused surprise, the end did not quite come. She shook in terror, slowly opening her eyes when she noticed her arms were still attached and the creature was not trying to get her.
What she saw confused her and shocked her to the core. The creature had launched two wide, red ribbons, edged in shining silver which were now entangled around both of her arms and its body. Wait a moment, she had that backwards. Somehow, she was the one who had attacked with the ribbons! She could still move her arms completely normally, but the shadow-creature was bound up like a mummy. She was so puzzled by this that she almost didn’t notice the shadow squirming and wheeling, trying to shake its unlikely bonds.
“Gyaaah! Let me go! That’s not fair!” it shrieked, “You can’t eat me!”
Eat this thing? The mere thought repulsed the girl. But now she had some chance of surviving this, even if it was thanks to a deus ex machina in the form of a weird ribbon. But running was still not a choice. The shadow was blocking the only way out, and now she was tied to this thing! That was when she noticed something bizarre was happening to the creature. Where the silver parts of the ribbons were touching its body, she could see smoke of some sort boiling off of its form. Or, maybe that was the creature’s body itself evaporating away? At any rate, the shadow seemed to be shrinking in size at the ribbons’ embrace, wailing and screaming the entire time as it flailed like a leaping fish.
“Stop! Don’t erase me!” it pleaded desperately, “I won’t eat you if you let me go! No! NOOO!” It spun desperately in crazy patterns, trying to break free, but the ribbons held it firmly. The girl expected to have to struggle to hold it down, but the creature’s efforts were like a kite in a windstorm: erratic, but futile. The shadow continued to sizzle from within its silken prison, shrinking further and further in size until it was nothing but a wisp of fading, black smoke.
The ribbons retracted after the job was done, crawling back up the girl’s arms and making her look at where they were going. To the girl’s surprise, she found that she was wrapped completely in these ribbons except for her hands and her head, as if she were some kind of absurd present! As if to emphasize the allusion, the moving ribbons that saved her from the shadow tied themselves into a neat bow across her chest, folding themselves over the countless other ribbons. The remaining ribbons slinked away beneath her clothes, the single ribbon tied about her chest the only reminder of what just happened. Well, that and the injury to her leg, but at least she was alive. The girl wasn’t entirely sure how or why, but these ribbons protected her from becoming a shadow’s “meal”.
She had somehow survived, and illogical or no, it was thanks to the ribbons. She decided that maybe she should return to the chamber and rest. Her leg was throbbing painfully and protested at every step. As the thought that this could be a major problem crossed her mind, she felt the ribbons under her clothing tighten around her injured leg slightly, as if they were acting like bandages. Luckily, the same ribbons that seemed to serve as weapons also served to staunch any bleeding.
Yet another aspect of this place that made no sense. Still, standing around and puzzling it over was not an option. There could be more of those shadow-creatures. Or, maybe it was the only one of its kind. She didn’t want to stay here and find out.
As she walked down the corridor, more slowly and cautiously this time, she made careful note of several forks she was too panicked to notice before. Once she felt a little better, it would be a good idea to investigate one of these passages, she noted.
As she returned to the chamber, she paused at the entrance. Last time, she got ambushed by that... thing here. Holding her torch warily before her, she slowly leaned into the room. The amethyst light revealed no sign of anything she didn’t know about earlier. She sighed in relief, more than happy to relax for a moment. The chair in the middle of the room looked tempting, and she sat down heavily in it.
She decided to take a moment to examine her leg. Pulling the leg of her jeans up, she stared again at the tangle of silver-edged red ribbons around her calf. She tugged gingerly at the ribbons, but they once again moved of their own accord. As if sensing what she wanted, they gently unwound themselves from her leg and retracted further up her leg. Ignoring the reaction, she turned her attention to her injury instead. Three angry claw-marks ran down the back of her left calf. They were shallower than she feared, and the girl sighed in relief. If she could use the ribbons to bandage this, she should be just fine.
“Are you alright?”
The Voice?! The girl looked up, but quickly realized this was not the case. For one thing, that was a masculine voice just now. For another, she could tell it came from nearby.
“Who’s there?” She asked, hoisting her torch as she scanned the chamber for the speaker.
“Easy now. I’m here to help you,” he continued, “I’m coming in from your right. Don’t be afraid.”
That’s for me to decide, she thought as she strained to see beyond the sphere of her light. She saw a faint, blue aura coming from the tunnel, and she stood to meet its arrival. As the light approached, she could see someone holding a torch at its center. He was a man in his late teens or early adulthood, dressed in brown trousers and a dark blue shirt with a black vest. He was holding a torch similar to one of the ones she saw earlier, specifically the blue colored one. His chestnut-colored hair and hazel eyes took on a somewhat bluish hue in the light. The boy was slim, almost lanky, and seemed to have a lithe build. Something about him reminded the girl of a cat.
“Hey there, newcomer,” the boy smiled as he drew closer, “Glad I found you before the Shadows did. Looks like you don’t quite know how to use your bias yet.” He beamed and thumped himself on the chest. “Good thing you found me! The name’s Jacob. Jacob Hunter. Call me Jake if you want.” His cheerful smile broadened as he looked her up and down. “How lucky am I? You’re easy on the eyes, if I do say so.”
“What?” The girl was flustered and she started to fidget. Jake’s forward nature caught her off guard, and after earlier she was a little uneasy.
“Relax, kiddo. I’m here to help new kids like you. Here, let me prove it...” Jake was now within a few feet of the girl. Jake grinned further and he unfurled a set of dark... wings?
Wings! The girl’s eyes widened and she backed up several steps. Last time she saw a figure with wings, it tried to kill her! Something about Jake seemed much friendlier than the creature from before though. Jake had to have noticed her alarmed look, because he folded his wings, which the girl could now see were like a huge version of a black bird’s.
Jake’s jovial smile fell slightly. “Aw, scared of Reapers, kid? Don’t be. It’s our job to help you newcomers.”
“What’s going on?” the girl blurted, her mind abuzz. The thought that maybe Jake could answer some of the questions the Voice left unanswered made her questions come like a storm. “Where am I? How did I get here? What was that dark thing earlier? And why can’t I remember anything?!”
“Already with all the questions, huh kid?” Jake shrugged nonchalantly. “I’ll fill you in a little. Now, that first one’s a snap: you’re in the Eternal Labyrinth. It’s where all you newcomers end up.”
“Labyrinth?” She parroted as she tried to piece together her haphazard thoughts.
“You got it, kid. Everyone has to start from here. That should answer your second question.” Jake’s grin faded as he continued, “Can’t say I like your next question. A dark thing, you said?”
The girl nodded. “Yes. It kind of looked like a shadow that came to life.”
“Aw crap.” Jake’s demeanor fell serious. “A Shadow. I bet that’s what got your leg, right? Of course it’s a Shadow. They’re the only things who live in this maze. What’s your name, kid?” He shook his head. “What am I saying? Here I am asking you questions when you’ve got so many of your own... I bet you haven’t even used a Mirror of Memory yet, have you?”
He cut the girl off with an answer to his own question. “No, of course you haven’t. You’d remember more if you did. Sorry. It’s easy to forget that everyone starts out just like you: a blank slate with no memories, no skills, no bias, no clue. I kinda wish I could be naive like that again...”
“You don’t look any older than I am... at least, that I think I am?” The girl took a look at herself as she spoke. She could guess she was in the same age range as Jake, but that was still just a guess.
“Eh, right. I look like a kiddo to you, don’t I? I’m about six-hundred years old, going up on six-hundred seventy-three, actually.” He beamed again. “Surprise, eh kid?”
Six... hundred?! She was way off her guess. But six-hundred seventy-three years old was impossibly old. That made no sense. Then again, nothing about this place made sense to the girl. The urge to find the Voice was creeping up on her mind again, and she spoke up, “I have to find the Voice.”
“Voice?” Jake asked, then his face lit up in recognition, “Oh, that voice. She never changes, does she? Ah, well. That’s our Guardian for you.”
Jake’s chattiness was tiring for some reason. The girl’s head was starting to hurt, and the urge to find the Voice, or the Guardian as Jake called her, was mounting. “I have to find her. Where is she?”
“Straight to the point, eh kiddo? The Watcher can wait for a moment. We need to take care of your memories first.” Jake dug a small hand mirror out of his pocket and held it out to the girl. “Here, have a look at yourself, kid. See what you remember.”
The girl looked at her reflection, more curious than anything. The girl returning her stare was a green-eyed, black-haired young woman with a child-like face. As she met her doppelganger’s eyes, sudden thoughts crossed her mind. A name came unbidden: Natalie Foster. Was this her name? Yes, it was. Natalie was the her own name. She was sure of it.
Flashes of memories came flooding in one after the other. Bathrooms with multiple stalls, and she was cleaning them. Then, she was crossing a street in the nighttime rain, holding someone’s hand. That someone was a teenager wearing pale makeup and black lipstick came across her mind’s eye. Natalie felt a strong pang of sadness and longing when she remembered this girl... who was she? Emma. Emma Foster. That girl was her niece. The expression on Emma’s face was one of fear. Natalie turned to look and saw a pair of lights coming towards them at a startling pace! Natalie instantly knew they were going to get hit by the car. She lunged and shoved Emma aside as the lights raced ever closer. Emma went sprawling across the street, and screamed out Natalie’s name. The lights were upon Natalie in an instant, slamming into her and sending a wave of crushing pain through her body. Then, darkness descended and silence reigned.
Natalie remembered now.
She remembered that she was dead.