First, she felt the soft patter of rain on her face, then the pounding of her head. The darkness receded but Iona couldn’t see much, just a blurred mess of colours, mostly green but some grey also. Slowly, the blurriness subsided and she found herself staring at the canopy, a dark green net with specks of grey poking through. More feelings began to return. First came the cold, then the wet, then the aches and pains. She felt like she’d been hit by a bus. All she could do was lie there in the mud, drifting in and out of consciousness as she tried to recall how she wound up there. Everything was fuzzy. She remembered running in darkness, then falling. And the screams, such horrible screams. And the light; there was definitely a light. Maybe it was just Valarayan high up in the sky. Then she saw Sahel’s face. He was in pain, and bleeding. The blood, the blood was everywhere.
She left him; she just ran away and left him. How could she do that? The screams, so wild and monstrous. They were from the Mahleeka. They were chasing her, Iona remembered. That’s why she was running. They were going to kill her. Then she heard his voice. Go now! I’ll be fine! She felt his hand on her chest as he shoved her away. She just left him by the fire to die, with the Mahleeka all around him. What if they got him? What if he was dead?
No. He’s strong and he’s powerful. He’ll be fine. But she won’t be, not if she stayed here. Not if she didn’t get up and find her mentor before the Mahleeka found her.
Iona tried sitting up but she didn’t have the strength for that. Then she tried rolling onto her side, then her stomach. Even that was difficult. With the strength she had left, she pulled in her arms and pushed herself onto her hands and knees. Even from that height, the ground beckoned her. It took a little while before she worked up the strength to stand. The forest spun like a top. Iona almost found herself back in the mud where she started.
It took a few moments to find her balance and get her bearings. She felt like she’d been hit on the head with a hammer, the pain reaching its apex when she touched the spot where it originated. There was a sticky feeling across her forehead and down her cheek. She didn’t need a mirror to know the source; the red stains at her fingertips were enough. Her mad dash through the forest had left her practically half-naked. Her body was a mess of mud, cuts, scratches, and grazes. Iona was grateful not to have a mirror.
It was almost light. The sky was a dreary grey. She must have been lying there for a while. She needed to find Sahel, to find out if he was still alive. Iona looked around for her rucksack but it was nowhere to be seen. Confusion turned to horror as the memories flooded back. She’d taken it off before sitting down by the fire, and left it behind in her panic. In hindsight, that was the correct thing to do but she needed that rucksack. It had everything in it: her change of clothes, her food and drink, her holo-pad, and her copy of The Collected Arcane Legends from the Ancient Lands of Karasen, the book her parents gave to her when she was small, the only thing she had left of them. Such a stupid and trivial thing, but she couldn’t leave it behind.
Iona was about to start climbing the hill she’d tumbled down the night before when a strange feeling prevented her from taking another step. It was like something was calling to her. Not from inside, but behind. Iona turned slowly, and then she saw it. She knew there’d been a light. She could see it properly now, a bright silvery ball hanging motionless among the trees. It did, in fact, look like a miniature version of Valarayan in the night’s sky. There was a strangeness in the way it floated. It almost seemed to be watching her. Iona was compelled to go to it. She heard a whisper inside. It told her, if she could reach it then everything would be alright.
Iona edged forward. She saw what looked like horse hair swirling around inside it. She couldn’t take her eyes away. The more she stared the more at peace she felt, fear and pain melting away as she neared.
She was close enough to touch it now. She wanted to. She had to. But then caution took hold. What would happen when she did? Her hand began to rise, as if beyond her control. Her fingers were about to reach it, but then the gap between her and it seemed to widen. Iona reached further but still couldn’t touch it. Every time she extended her reach, the light moved further away, like it didn’t want to be touched. She kept trying until her arm was outstretched, but it was no use.
It kept going, retreating further without making a sound. Something told Iona she was meant to follow. It was impossible to do anything else. She pushed her way through the bushes. The light maintained a steady pace in front. It seemed to move intelligently, like it was leading her somewhere. Iona knew she should be nervous but, whenever fear or worry entered her mind, the whisper returned and told her everything was going to be OK. She couldn’t explain it. It was like it knew what she was feeling, and made her feel something else whenever fear crept in.
The rain let up and it had gotten a bit lighter but the forest was no less frigid. The pain of her head had subsided but the cold was almost like salt rubbed into her many cuts and scrapes. Time had become a blur. Iona had no idea how long she’d been following the light. It was becoming tedious. She was fast losing interest in finding out what she was being led towards. Sahel was still out there. She needed to find him, to find out if he was still alive. She’d had enough. She had better things to do. As her frustration reached its peak, Iona turned and started back the way she’d come.
You must follow.
Iona stopped. What was that? She thought she heard a voice, but not with her ears. It seemed to come from inside. She turned to find the light hovering a few feet away, like the metal ball the times she managed to get it to rise. “Did you say that”?
You must follow.
She heard it again, not with her ears, but with her mind. It was so weird, but now Iona was confident of its origin.
“How did you do that”?
You must follow.
To find what you seek.
That only confused her further. “What does that mean”? She got no answer. The light started moving again, leaving her to stand there in her confusion. What did that mean? She wanted to follow, her interest rekindled. But she couldn’t just abandon Sahel. “I can’t. I have to find my friend”.
It stopped again. Your friend is safe. Now you must follow.
“How do you know that? What even are you”?
That is not important. You must follow. With every answer, Iona’s frustration grew.
“It is important! I have to find him”! Iona started back again. She wasn’t going to let this thing waste any more of her time.
You must follow, Iona Aventius
Iona stopped in her tracks, turned. “How do you know my name”? She didn’t know whether to be astonished or terrified, or both.
You will find all your answers soon enough. It started on its way again, but Iona wasn’t ready to follow.
“Why can’t you tell me now”?
You must see first.
“See what? Where are we going”?
You will find out soon.
“But what about the Mahleeka”?
They will not trouble us. She heard no emotion or feeling in the voice. Nothing to indicate its nature or intent. She couldn’t even tell if it sounded male or female.
Iona felt like she was being torn apart, one half trying to drag her one way, the other trying to drag her somewhere else. She needed to find Sahel, and there was still the people taken by the Mahleeka to think about. She needed to find a way to convince him to help her save them. With him on her side, rescuing them would be child’s play. But she couldn’t walk away. It knew her name. How? What else did it know? It promised her answers. Iona didn’t trust it, she couldn’t. But she couldn’t resist its pull either. She could feel it inside her head. Something told her it wasn’t just chance that led to this encounter. She needed answers, and the only way she would get them was to follow.