Chapter One

I awoke to the sound of people screaming. Smoke stung my eyes and I could feel the grit of dirt in my mouth. The last thing that I remembered was walking home from work. I had been working at Papyrus for almost a month and the store was only a twenty minute walk or less from home. I had walked around that neighborhood since I was a child and knew it like the back of my hand. I could literally count the number of blocks it took to get home. If you were to ask me for directions I could tell you down to the smallest detail what to look for, when to turn, but no street names; I could never remember a street name other than the one that I lived on. It was a ritual for me to stop in front of this one three story Victorian that had the most beautiful garden I had ever seen. All across the front gate there was a huge, overgrown honeysuckle bush that I would stand against and just enjoy the entrancing scent. When I was little I believed that the old woman that lived there was a leprechaun. Her garden seemed so magical I refused to believe that there weren't fairies flying in her flowers collecting pollen instead of bees and butterflies. One moment I'm standing in the warm early afternoon sun, reminiscing on my childhood, the next thing I know I'm lying on the ground and listening to the sound of a woman's voice screaming in terror. My head was throbbing and the smell of smoke permeated everything. I did not recognize the odor; it was a mix of wood and something else that reminded me of barbeque, but nothing that I could ever remember cooking. I could feel streams of tears making rivulets in the dirt smudged across my cheeks and I had difficulty seeing.

I rubbed my eyes to clear them and looked around. A quick glance around told me that I was not where I remembered myself being, not even close. The tall Victorian with the honeysuckle was in the suburban area of a rather large and populated city, a city surrounded by other large and very populated cities. What I was seeing now was very, very different. I was lying on the hard dirt ground in a small village that seemed to have only thatch houses. In every direction that I looked I saw one story homes built of stone with grass-like roofs. The houses were simple with a door and windows that had shutters instead of window panes made of sanded wood. All of the homes were round and approximately the same size; one house being bigger than those around it by adding other round rooms to what appeared to be a main room in order to form a complex of some kind. Every place I saw was on fire, smoke pouring out of the once intricately carved doors and window shutters.

That one quick look around was all I needed to know that I did not want to be seen. Dead bodies were littered randomly on the ground, some of them had yet to find any release and were still moaning in their death throws. The dead were mostly men of just about any age, even a child or two, with only a few women lying over the men. Blood was everywhere and I could not tell where one pool ended and another began. Most of the bodies were slightly charred and it was easy to believe that these people were probably still inside their homes when they had been set aflame. I did not want to imagine the sight of all these people being slain as they tried to escape the torch that was once their lives. The clothing that the people were wearing, though torn, bloody and slightly charred, was still easily identifiable as being incredibly different from my own. I knew that if I didn't get out of wherever I was fast, my being alive wasn't going to be the only thing giving me away.

It took me many moments before I was able to force my body to listen to my panic stricken mind. I felt like I had turned into a block of ice, shaking so hard my teeth rattled inside my head. Taking heart to the fact that there was no one alive to see me I forced my legs to haul myself to my feet and scuttled backwards to a house directly behind me. I stayed crouched low and close to the wall, my hands against the rough stone I could feel heat radiating against my back. The notion that the smoke would obscure my visibility fluttered through my mind and I offered up a quick prayer to whatever deity may hear me. Crouched low as I was, I surveyed the area past where I was hiding and saw that there was nearly a direct path out of the town and across a short clearing to a dense forest. Once I reached the forest I would be able to escape without fear of being seen. The open ground between the last house and the thick shadows of the trees made me very nervous and I could feel butterflies having their way with my stomach. All I had seen were dead bodies, I had yet to see those that had killed all these people; I did not want to. Never before had I seen such slaughter as what lay before me, except for maybe in movies, and the sight of the massacre was making me feel a bit light headed. But it was not just the sight, I could smell the roasted flesh from charred bodies. Smoke was clouding my vision and made it difficult to breath. I could hear homes being devoured by flames, could feel their heat. Worst of all, if I was silent enough, past the beating of my own rambunctious heart, I could still hear sounds of women and children begging their murderers for their lives. Panic came in a wave over my mind and I fell hard on my ass. The effort to move had nearly been too much and I had to lean back on the house behind me for support, taking several shallow breaths to calm myself. I fought the panic building inside of me with everything I had, my fingers clawed at the earth below me to give me something physical to cling to. I knew that I wasn't going to die here, I refused to believe that I wasn't going to get the hell out of this freak place I had awoken to. I repeated in my mind like a mantra "my belief is my reality, my belief is my reality"; if I believed I could survive this strong enough, then I would.

Although it felt like an eternity, I finally got up and as quickly as I could made my way to the last cluster of houses before the clearing. I stopped there for a moment to survey my surroundings and ensure that I was not going to be seen. As I was resting out of the last burning home in front of me there suddenly emerged a screaming fireball heading in my direction. I crouched lower to the ground as to remain out of the things path and hugged the side of the house I was leaning against. My heart beat erratically and my eyes were open wide in terror. The creature went screaming past me, it's voice filled with pain. I watched it pass, a look of horror and astonishment evident on my face. I had suspected it before, but the realization of what exactly that barbeque smell was left me unsteady and sickened. I took several shallow breaths in and out of my mouth, trying to quell the unsteady feeling in my stomach. My knees were trembling and I feared that I would be unable to lift my own weight. My mantra was no longer helping me and I found I was having difficulty breathing. I closed my eyes and worked on clearing my mind of all thoughts, ignoring everything that was going on around me just long enough so that I could get away. I sent my awareness, or energy, down through me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes and down into the earth. A calming warmth moved down my spine and into the ground beneath me. As the heat permeated down into my toes, I felt a hum build from the direction of the forest and small vibrations tickled my toes. I had never felt anything like it before and decided that I must be feeling the vibration of hoof beats coming in my direction. My eyes shot open at the notion of people passing this way and I suddenly found it easy to get up from my crouch and look around me again.

I swallowed hard as once again I saw the poor thing that had once been a human being run into another home already on fire. As it ran I saw behind it two of the ugliest creatures I had ever seen in my life come around the bend of a home not twenty feet away. They were short and bent over, their skin dark and mottled. They were wearing crude clothing, presumably of leather, and dark, rusted metal armor. Their faces were scrunched in on themselves, their noses large and hooked with a wart or two, their eyes were close together with a low brow pushing them down and giving them a beady look. They didn't have much in the way of lips, and their chins were slightly pointy. They looked most unfriendly as they stooped along, threatening weapons in their hands; hands attached to impressively muscled arms. The longer I watched them I began t realize that there dark skin was actually blue and it was completely covered by muddy dirt that had a strange red tint to it.

As I continued to crouch there staring at the two creatures, they began to slowly make their way in my direction. Keeping as low to the ground as I could, I began to scoot backwards around the curve of the house I was leaning against, my only thought to keep away from the things coming towards me. I was nearly out of the line of site of the things when I was grabbed roughly from behind. My stomach immediately launched itself into the back of my throat and my heart began to beat a staccato rhythm as I was yanked to my feet by a third creature. This one was uglier than the other two, but it may have been that I was seeing it up close. It's face looked like it was scrunched in on itself, as if someone had punched him so hard his features had been pushed in. He sneered at me with crooked and moldy teeth that looked like they would fall out at the first provocation. His teeth were sharp and pointy; drool glistened as it slide down his chin and I fallowed with my eyes a single shiny drop as it fell to the earth. In his other hand, the one that did not have a death grip on my upper arm, was one of the largest and most impressive swords I had ever seen. It was long and kinked at the end and was just as rusted as the rest of the armor that the thing was wearing. Scared practically witless I lashed out in fear, punching the thing as hard as my limited skills of self defense could manage. To my great surprise I could still throw a pretty good punch and the thing looked temporarily shocked enough that I was able to wrench my arm from it's grasp. Sharp nails tore through my shirt with the sound of ripping cloth and I sucked air in through my teeth as I felt a biting sting where his nails had pierced the skin. The noise of the scuffle had caught the attention of the other two creatures and they yelled at me to stop as I went sprinting off in the direction of the trees. Actually, I assumed that they were telling me to stop as their yells sounded more like the squealing and grunting of pigs.

I broke out into a full out run for the protection of the forest and the sanctuary that the trees could offer. The last couple of houses I cleared easily and was running full tilt through the clearing before the trees. As I ran I felt again the vibrating energy that I had before and I thought for a moment that I could hear a silent whispering coming from the trees that sounded only slightly like the whispering of leaves in a breeze. I felt as if I were being sucked towards the forest, so fast was I running and I decided that I would just accept whatever was being offered. I burst through the foliage and I felt an electric force shoot through and around me. Ahead of me I saw a green, glowing light and a on soft voice whispered in my mind to follow it, so I did. The light whizzed on in front of me and I tried my hardest to catch up to it. I did not want to loose it, but the closer that I got to it the farther away it seemed to get. As I got deeper into the forest the light began to glow a deeper and deeper green and I became transfixed by it. My breathing was coming in gasps as I ran, but I dared not stop as my feet flew silently along the forest floor.

I could hear behind me the crashing of the creatures as they followed me, grunting loudly. The sound of the creatures lessened the longer I ran and I began to feel more at ease as I realized I was leaving the things behind me. No sooner had this thought entered my mind when I realized I could no longer see the glowing light that I had been following. I stopped and rested for a moment before continuing on, resting my hands on my knees while gasping for breath. Shaking myself mentally, I looked for a good direction to run off in, I turned to my right and continued on only to be immediately tripped by a large root that lay directly in my path. My mind spun as the air was pushed out of my lungs in a great rush. Shaking my head I looked up and there in front of me was the glowing light nestled inside of a large bush. "What the heck…." I thought, the question drifting off unanswered as I crawled my way into the bushes in front of me. After fighting my way through the first part of the thick hedge, there was an opening with plenty of free space and the ground beneath me was soft with moss. Opposite to where I had crawled in was a tree that I could lean on and I discovered that I could sit up comfortably without hitting my head on anything. There was also enough space for me to lie out straight, which is an awful lot of space for a bush as I'm about 5'7" and a little more. I turned around and looked through the underbrush that I had just come past . I had just run through a clearing of mostly flat ground, no, completely flat ground; nowhere could I locate the root that had tripped me.

A noise in the direction I had just come from caught my attention and in crashed four of the creatures that had been following me. I gulped in air and held my breath, afraid that they might be able to hear my ragged breathing. The things looked around the clearing for a moment before they began arguing in their strange guttural language about which direction to go. They gestured wildly, grunting and pointing to which direction they should run. An argument arose between two of the largest and they both pointed obstinately in opposite directions. One shoved the other hard and it fell to the ground, squealing in protest. The now leader, as it was still standing, pointed at it and grunted a few words, then pointed off in the direction the creature on the ground had been arguing to go. Grabbing one other it went off in its own direction without looking back. The one on the ground pulled itself and slugged the other, pushing it to the direction in wanted to go. Authority now established, they went running out of the clearing to the left of where they had entered.

I sighed heavily in relief as the sound of the four things faded into the distance and I decided to take inventory of myself. My whole body was shaking and I felt like I was liable to fall apart at any moment. Inspecting myself I found that I was covered in dirt and some soot from crawling around the burning village. My cloths, hair and skin were scuffed and dirty. Where I had heard my shirt sleeve rip were four gashes in both the sleeve and my arm. There were raised welts from the creatures nails and in the direct center were thin red lines where I had bled. I retied my shoelaces and let out a silent thank you that I had deciding earlier not to wear my flip flops to work today. My blond hair was a tangled mess from catching on branches while running and when I crawled into the bush that now harbored me. I sat cross-legged on the soft moss beneath me and picked the random leaves and twigs that ad settled themselves in my hair. There were also a few scratches on my face and neck but other than that, I was perfectly fine. Oh sure my knees were still shaking and I felt like passing out because of how light headed I was, but other than some superficial scratches there was nothing; I wasn't even bruised, just covered in dirt. I moved to the back of the open space and leaned heavily against the tree, asking for more than just a place to rest. The shaking slowly dissipated and the numb shock I had been feeling melted from my mind and body. As I felt myself relax I began to drift off to sleep, listening to the luring peacefulness of a soft voice telling me that I was safe and the faint smell of honey suckle drifted through my tired mind.

The common noises of the forest is what finally woke me. Birds chirped in the trees and scurried for food on the forest floor; squirrels argued noisily over their winter storages . When I opened my eyes and finally awoke, the sun shone low on the horizon and gave all of my surroundings a golden glow. I felt groggy and sore and desperately wanted a shower. I shifted and felt every part of me creak and groan at once. Every joint felt battered by sleeping on the cold, hard ground and my legs ached from running for my life from those strange creatures. My lungs burned from breathing in smoke from the burning village and the back of my throat felt unforgivably dry. I stretched myself out and settled myself into a more comfortable position. After I had managed to quiet most everything that held some complaint against me, I decided to try and think about all that had happened to me in the past few hours. I had been walking home from work when…..everything had gone dark. The next thing that I remembered was that I was lying in the dirt in some strange village and there had been dead people around me. I had gone from walking the rural back streets of my home city to lying in the middle of a burning village under attack by weird, stunted creature things that were uglier than anything that I had ever seen in any movie. Even as I thought of these things I knew that I was still in shock, my mind refused to process the emotions of what had happened and everything that I had seen. My memories of everything between this very moment and walking home, before everything went dark, were foggy and seemed unreal. The only part of the whole situation that seemed vaguely real was running from those creatures as they chased me through the forest; that, the light I had followed and the voice that had led me to safety.

A voice had lead me to safety. I felt my sanity teeter on the edge of reality and decided I had to know if it hadn't been the result of stress, mind-numbing terror and shock. It was perfectly possible that I had been hallucinating and that everything leading to me finding this comfortable haven was nothing more than blind luck. That was not to be the case; the moment I thought about the voice and light I had followed, I could feel the energy again. Sensation shivered down my body in a wave from the roots of my hair down into my toes, and finally into the ground. The energy felt warm and tingly, almost like when my foot feel asleep and I got pins and needle's, except that this was pleasant instead. Feeling such things was not entirely unusual for me and was not dissimilar to when I centered my energy. I would sit on the ground, perhaps under a tree, and try to feel the earth around me. I've never talked about it with anyone, because even I think it an absurd thing to be able to do; yet I continue to do it. I continue because I find the answering warmth of the earth comforting, and it helps me stay sane when comfort is what I need most. This time it was different though, I still felt the answering warmth coming from around me, but this time it was stronger, had more character. I sat up ramrod straight as I was suddenly connected to everything around me. I could feel the consciousness of the world around me, as well as my own, and the sensation left me dizzy and disoriented. I could hear the leaves on the trees around me rustling in the wind, but the sound was amplified beyond anything a human can hear. A warmth like fire was poring through my mind and veins, leaving my whole body extra sensitive and caused me to begin hyperventilating. In my surprised and hyper-sensitized state I lost my balance and fell against the tree behind me. Immediately I could feel its roots taking up water from the ground as if I was the tree; a squirrel climbing through the higher branches above my head tickled my skin before it yanked off a nut.

"Oww!" I yelped loudly at the sharp and unfamiliar pain. The laughter of a dozen different voices entered my mind, surrounding me with it; the trees were laughing at me! The bush protecting me was laughing at me! At first I was so surprised that I could not muster a reaction, but sitting there listening to everything around me laugh at me, I began to feel slighted.

"Hey!" I said indignantly. "It's not funny! That hurt! I've never had a nut picked off of me before." I muttered to myself. And then I couldn't help it, I chuckled. This whole situation was just so ridiculous. Only a hours ago I had been running for my life and though I felt sure that something had just happened to me that I should not have survived, I felt wonderful. My life had changed completely in an instant and I knew that nothing would ever be the same, ever; but I was alive and that was all that mattered.

"We will care for you." came the whispered voices around me. As there was no one else around me I could only deduce that the voice came from the trees. The voice was soft and made me think of warm summer afternoons; filled with the scent of flowers and honey. It was a young woman's voice and it was so beautiful that it was almost painful.

"Why?" I asked incredulous, anger raising as I came more and more to my senses. "Why will you help me? What's going on? Where am I?" As I sat there hearing the trees, I began to feel slightly panicky. Asking these questions opened up a secret part in my soul that was really and truly frightened. I swallowed hard, prepared to demand more answers to impossible questions; like how I had gotten here.

"Shhh small one. Be silent. All will be explained in time." The voice said, calming me like a cool balm on a hot burn. "You are precious to us, you are different from all the others that are here. We protect our own. The gifts that you have been granted with at birth make you part of our circle and we shall be sure that you come to no harm if we can help it." At hearing this, my jaw simply hung open in awe and confusion. What could she mean by one of them and gifts granted at birth. I was so confused. Not only by what I was being told, but that I was being told all of this by a tree! A tree was talking to me and I could not dispute this fact in any way; where else could the voice be coming from? There was nothing around me but trees, bushes and small forest animals. With the realization that I was not actually going insane, more questions began to sift through my mind, clamoring to be answered first.

"You should go back to sleep small one. The night is coming and it will not be safe for you. You have a long journey ahead of you. Now, sleep," and before I could raise a single complaint, I felt myself sinking as a powerful presence pushed itself upon me and into unconsciousness. It was the third time in one day I was passing out into a dark oblivion, I was going to have to really work on that.