Chapter 1 — Matt(light mode version)
When I woke up, I was seven years younger.
Disoriented didn’t even begin to describe my mind at that moment. My lungs rasped for air. I swallowed a long, deep breath, finally opening my eyes to the dark ceiling above. I sat up, leaning against the wall. Soft bed sheets wrapped snug around me, a stack of pillows propping me up. Everything felt wrong.
None of this should be here. I wasn’t supposed to be here. I felt groggy and confused. My brain was still pulling itself together, trying to shape what was in front of my eyes into a coherent picture.
It was almost pitch black in the room—my room, I reminded myself. This is my room.. The only light source was a street lamp near the house, streaming through a curtained window. Long dark shadows stretched the length of the floor, casting the room into segments of color and accentuating the voids filling the nooks and crannies. Everything looked familiar, exactly where I’d left it, as if I’d just stumbled out of a dream.
Had it all been a dream?
A strange feeling filled the air, something I hadn’t felt in a very long time. The faint hum and crackle of electricity. My computer. An actual electronic PC. I’d left it on that night. When we’d left, I’d been chatting with someone… Her face brushed against my mind, but it was a vague shape, an outline I couldn’t form into a complete picture. It had been a lifetime since we’d last spoken. Or maybe no time at all, as it suddenly occurred to me.
I got out of bed and hurried to the computer. The chair rolled as I sat down. I’d forgotten it had wheels. I jabbed at the spacebar on the keyboard, tapping impatiently. It was a cheap machine, something I’d gotten secondhand from Carl, and it always took a while to wake up. I hadn’t even turned it off, but I still had to wait while the disks inside rumbled to life and the fans spun back up to speed. The monitor gave a sharp crack, then finally sprung to life, colors washed out as the backlight slowly warmed up.
Right in the corner of the screen, exactly what I wanted. It was 1:32 AM, on the sixth of October, 2010. It was a Wednesday.
Now I was even more confused. Years had gone by, right? I brought a hand to my face, very carefully. Something was missing. Everything felt smooth and foreign. It wasn’t my face anymore, not as I remembered it. Suddenly, my arms and legs felt so much weaker.
Had it all been a dream? A sickening, terrifying near-decade of my life, wholly imagined by the random quirks of my brain in a single night? All those life-and-death encounters, adventures, betrayals, romances? Years-spanning campaigns and battles? Was that even possible?
I pulled up the browser window. I was still struggling to recall exactly what we’d been doing that night. I had to trust that the old me hadn’t cleaned up behind himself, left clues that a skilled tracker could follow. Electronic clues this time, but it was the same basic idea. It was the closest thing I could think of to having a record of what had happened so many years ago…
No. It was just the night before. It had only been a few hours ago. I needed to remember that now.
The map to Cyraveil Park was still open. I remember that much. I’d driven us out there in the truck Dad left me the day he disappeared. We’d parked right on the edge of the woods, after I picked up our friends. I hadn’t wanted to go, but Blake’s enthusiasm was infectious. He’d seen something out there, and we had to see it too. Jen, listening in from downstairs, persuaded me to go.
Then, Blake spotted a shadow flitting through the trees, and we followed.
Blake sprinted through the trees, and we followed as close as we could. He kept having to circle back around, shouting at us to follow him down a path only he could see. It was just like when we played ball together, and Blake was always the one sprinting ahead of the play. He was always five steps ahead of where he was supposed to be.
When we crossed over, he was exactly the same… except he turned it into an asset. He was always five steps ahead of the enemy, doing things nobody else would dare. I’d used his insanity to win more than a few battles.
How much of that actually happened? How much of it was true?
More memories flooded my mind, along with the creeping poison of dread. The weight of what I’d done began to press harder on my mind, threatening to crush me entirely. I’d become something horrible. I’d been forced to make decisions with the lives of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands hanging in the balance. I’d sacrificed allies, lost friends. I’d come right to the edge of losing everything. Everyone. We’d only barely made it out the other side. I hated what I’d done, who I’d been.
Was there a way out?
The answer came. It was so simple and easy that I laughed aloud. I was home now. I was safe here. No one was hunting me anymore. Barely anyone even knew me. Nobody here would know what I’d done. If I’d even done it, for that matter.
There was a beautiful, golden path stretching out before me, one I could walk without delay. Without regret. I could finally return my life to the normal, simple place it belonged. No more fighting. Just normal life. I could hang out with friends, play basketball, let other people take control for a change. All I needed to do was forget.
Even as I thought the words, I felt weight lift off my shoulders. I closed the map to Cyraveil on the screen, symbolically wiping it clean. The browser returned to the conversation I’d been having with a girl on the next tab. She had a reserved face, a guarded expression, like she was always hiding something behind her smile—but her eyes had that friendly intelligence, the kind that begged you to hang onto every word she said, even when they might be few and far between. Her voice was warm and passionate, the sort that could inspire armies to go to war.
We’d been talking on a chatroom she’d invited me to a few days earlier. Scrolling back through the conversation, I’d been so casual and relaxed. I’d forgotten how to talk like that. These days, everything was either prepared and stuffy for the court, or rousing improvised speeches in the midst of a heated battle. I had no idea how to talk to someone just one-on-one anymore.
I shrugged it off. I’d figure it out. We’d only spoken a few times in person, and that was usually with her friends around. I could play things off as a joke, or let her do the talking. I could work around it.
I’d work around all of it. Everything would fall back into place. Nothing happened last night, after all. My life was perfectly normal. I was just some guy, a senior in high school. Nothing more.
I put the computer back to sleep. I figured I’d follow it; after all, I had school in the morning. After everything else, it sounded downright easy. I was almost looking forward to the mundanity of plain old classes. I was just about to hop back into bed when I heard rustling downstairs. Someone moving around. My mother, I assumed, home late from work yet again. Her being late wasn’t exactly unusual, but I had a sudden desire to hug her. I’d missed her a lot.
I had forgotten how cold it got in in our house, especially this late at night in October. I dug through my closet for my jacket. My favorite jacket. I savored how soft and warm it was. Another thing I’d missed for years.
Hours, I reminded myself. It’s only been a couple hours.
I opened my door, flinching as it clicked loudly in protest. The handle had always done that if it was turned all the way. I usually remembered to stop before turning it too far. Just another item on the list of things I needed to remember. I’d have to start writing them down if this kept up. I closed the door behind me and headed downstairs, where the light in the kitchen had just clicked on.
Walking down the stairs felt like an eternity. I spent every step thinking through what I would say. If I’d even say anything. If I’d just pretend to come down for a drink, if I needed an excuse for being up so late on a school night. My mother wasn’t exactly the kind to get mad over us staying up late. She did her best to provide for us, but this was exactly the sort of evening where I’d be making dinner for all three of us, leaving hers in the fridge for whatever late hour she got home. I used to hate having to put away leftovers for her, and that she couldn’t be around to cook for us.
Tonight, I appreciated so much more what she’d done for us over the years. She might not have been there for dinner five nights a week, but what did that matter when she was working two full jobs every week to keep my sister and I healthy and in school? I don’t think I could have done as much. I’d learned a lot about cooking on the other side. Come the weekend, I’d treat her to a real feast—and tonight, I was going to remind her how great she really was.
I turned the corner to find not my mother, but the long brown hair of my little sister Jennifer, poking over the door of the pantry she was digging through. She looked up, surprised, as I walked in. Bits of snack cake fell out of her hand and sprinkled the floor. I’d actually managed to sneak up on her, somehow.
“Uhh… Hey, Jen,” I started awkwardly.
“‘Hey, Jen’?” she repeated slowly. “Hey, Jen?’ That’s it?”
“...Did you expect a speech or something?”
Jen frowned. “No, but… after all of that…”
“All of what?”
Jen’s mouth fell open, and I spotted a bit of the same snack cake dusting her teeth. I winced. Her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates. “You… you don’t remember?”
Her words were a sledgehammer. Even as the wall I’d hastily thrown up started to crumble away, I still wanted to deny it all. If only for a few more moments, I wanted to stay in that bliss. “Remember what?”
“God, Matt. To dou evv erreth kapavas, vis duralav.”
“Dou nara kapavas, Jen.” The snatch of Etoline sprung unbidden from my mouth. Jen’s insult demanded some kind of answer. I couldn’t let it go. But as her face twisted in satisfaction, I felt the structure of comfortable ignorance I’d built so hastily crash down around me like a crumbling fort.
If Jen remember… if she could speak Etoline… then it was real.
Cyraveil was real.
“That’s what I thought,” Jen said smugly. “Your pronunciation still sucks, by the way.” She picked up her snack off the floor and hopped onto the kitchen counter, inspecting it carefully. After a few moments, she bit into it. Her face lit up. “This tastes amazing. Matt, we need to buy like two hundred more of these. Right now.”
I leaned against the refrigerator, pressing my hands into my forehead. A headache was pounding into being, like a drummer building up to a crescendo in my temples.
“Headache?” she asked.
“How long have you been awake?”
“Only a few minutes. You?”
“Half an hour, maybe? Don’t worry, it’ll pass. Yup, here it comes,” she added, as a massive wave of pain cascaded through my brain.
My skull felt like someone was trying to chop it in half repeatedly with a dull axe. I gripped the handle of the refrigerator door tight, feeling like I might collapse. My vision faded away, the kitchen light vanishing into a void of black terror. A faint voice followed me down, further and further as I descended into oblivion. It called to me, and I desperately wanted to answer, but all I could do was fall. I felt an impact that might have been a small earthquake, miles away, sending shivers up through my core.
I snapped back into being. The lights had returned. I was on the floor staring directly into the pale, buzzing bulb. I smelled chocolate. Jen’s snack. Her face was inches away, peering closely. As soon as I opened my eyes, she moved away to give me space.
“You okay, Matt?”
I coughed, trying to clear my throat which was suddenly dry and raw. “Think so. Need a drink.”
“Any preference? There’s no sylvandine, but I could probably get you something harder if you want. I think Mom keeps some stuff on the top shelf in the garage.”
I sat up, grateful for the warm, hard exterior of the refrigerator. The pain had subsided a bit, and logic and reason were beginning to return. “Jen, we’re underage.”
“You’re twenty-five, Matt.”
“No, I’m eighteen. You’re sixteen. Didn’t you notice?”
Jen sighed. “Yeah… Like we never left.”
Neither of us spoke for a minute. I stood up, rummaging through the cabinets. I found the little bottle of ibuprofen and pulled out a pair of tablets. A quick glass of water later and I was already feeling a little better. I sat down at the kitchen table and rested my head against the wall, waiting for the effects to kick in.
“Wish I’d thought of that,” Jen muttered.
“Painkillers.” She held out her hand, and I passed her the bottle. “I kinda forgot they existed.”
“The wonders of modern medicine,” I murmured. I closed my eyes. The pain was still all too real. My brain felt like it was trying to push its way out of my skull with every huge pulse. I heard a car start up outside, and the engine noise felt like it was rattling through my eardrums from inches away.
My eyes flew back open as the realization set in.
“Jen, you can’t—”
“Nope. I tried as soon as the migraine hit me. No dice.”
She sighed and sat down across from me, bringing another pair of water glasses. She slid one across the table, and I gulped it down gratefully. My throat still felt dry and parched, and the water was only doing so much to help.
“I guess that didn’t make it across.” Finding out Jen could no longer heal was a bit of a shock. It had been so useful. If Jen couldn’t cure us and keep Blake from getting himself killed in his crazier stunts… I’d have to plan around that limitation.
Wait. No, I wouldn’t. That part of my life was over. If I could help it, I’d never get into a situation again where I might need her abilities. I was going to live a peaceful, normal life—no matter what it took.
“I think it’s starting to die down now,” she spoke up, gulping down more water. “Are you as ridiculously thirsty as I am?”
Despite downing the entire glass, my mouth and throat still felt like the surface of a desert. I nodded.
“Sounds good.” I backed my chair into the corner, where I could lean against the wall more comfortably, and improvised a pillow by bunching up my jacket and propping it against my shoulder—just like I’d done a thousand times on the campaign. “You still seem better off than me.”
Jen shrugged, returning with another refill of water. “Maybe just ‘cause I’ve been up longer. I got something to eat, too.”
“Snacks.” I frowned. “You should be eating something more substantial.”
“Do you know how long it’s been since I had something chocolatey?”
Jen sighed. “Stop being so down, Matt. We’re home. We’ve got electricity again. Running water!” As if on cue, a heavy truck drove past outside. The loose windows in our house rattled slightly. “Cars, Matt. Automobiles!” She stretched out the word, excitement laced in every syllable. “Planes, trains, hair dryers. Shampoo. Oh god, showers. Matt, we have showers again.”
“I get it, I get it.” I forced a smile onto my face. “It’s good to be home.”
“There you go.” Jen smiled. She gulped down the rest of her water, and let out a satisfied breath. “Even the water tastes better.”
“It’s not like they had water filters.”
“Well, the Sylves did. We had this whole thing where they—”
I cut her off. “They filtered it with magic, yeah. You told me.” I didn’t want to hear any more than I absolutely had to. The sooner we returned to normal, the better. I’d indulge her for now, but it couldn’t last.
“Yeah. Cool shit,” Jen added, returning to the pantry to find another snack. My headache was steadily declining, freeing up more of my conscious brain for processing.
We could do this. Integrate back into the world. It would be tricky for a while, remembering exactly who we were seven years prior. There was no visible trace of our journey, but there were so many little things we had to watch out for. So far as I could tell, my body was exactly the same as the night we left—underwhelmingly so. I felt so much weaker and smaller, the finely toned muscle I’d built up vanishing overnight. Still, I remembered everything I’d been trained on, every single battle I’d bled through. If I had to get into a fight, I could hold my own.
I wasn’t getting into any fights though. I’d never been in one before we left, and I definitely didn’t plan on starting a fight club now.
“Pass me some cookies, will you?” I asked. Jen tossed me the box, and I dug into them. She was right. I’d missed chocolate just as much. The cheap box of cookies tasted like heaven. I ate my way through a third of them, realizing how hungry I was with each fresh bite.
Jen filled up two glasses of milk and brought them over without even being asked. Compared to her reputation as a self-centered chatterbox, the Jen I knew was almost the inverse. She was incredibly perceptive, she just didn’t always act on it. We ate in silence, savoring the snacks. Jen kept glancing around the room as if she’d never seen it before, taking in every detail.
“So,” she started, finishing off the last cookie.
I nodded. “You’re right, we should get more of those.”
“More urgent things to talk about, Matt.”
I sighed, resigning myself to fate. Better to have it out now than later, I supposed—but Jen had other things on her mind than the events of the last week.
“Is this real?”
“How can you be sure?” she asked, eyes squinting at him. “What about the time we had those visions, back in Helsevar?”
“Do you remember the pact I made?”
“Then you know as well as I do, this is for real.”
Jen nodded. “Okay, yeah. Guess the old bitch wasn’t lying.”
“I’m sure you meant to say witch.”
“You didn’t know her like I did,” Jen replied, grinning. “So… we’re home.” A melancholy look filled her face. “...Forever.”
I didn’t dare contradict her. Luckily, I was saved from having to answer, as Jen leapt out of her chair and darted to the other side of the kitchen. I twisted around, confused, and saw the home phone lit up and about to ring. Jen picked it up just as the ringer was about to intrude on the peace and quiet.
This was another unwelcome development. I steeled myself for confrontation. “Can you put it on speaker?”
“Yeah, one sec.” Jen fiddled with the phone. “Crap. I don’t remember how.”
“It’s been a while, okay?” She held it up to her ear. “Hey. Yeah, Carl, it’s me. Hang on. Shut up a second. How do I put this on speaker? ...Button on the… okay, yeah.” She fumbled with a few buttons, and the faint white noise of the phone speaker filled up the kitchen. Jen set the phone down on the table. “Matt’s here, too.”
Carl’s voice crackled out of the speaker, very low. He was avoiding making too much noise, lest he wake up his temperamental father. “We’re alive.”
“No shit, Carl,” said Jen. “Trying to be profound?”
“Shut up.” I could practically hear his face turning red through the phone. “Matt, you there?”
“I’m here.” Dread filled my entire mind, cascading as if a dam had suddenly burst wide open. I knew exactly what was coming next.
“Have either of you heard from Blake?”
Jen looked at me, her expression grim. She was waiting for me to answer.
I shook my head very slowly. “Carl…” I started.
“Hang on. Hear me out. We came back unchanged, right? So maybe—”
A sliver of hope. I didn’t dare entertain it. I was afraid, of what it might grow to become, and how quickly it would be snuffed out. I had to take control, fast.
“Did you try calling him?”
“He doesn’t have a cell. I tried his house once, but no one answered. I didn’t want to try again. I don’t want to wake anybody up.” Carl was right. Blake’s parents were the nicest couple in the world, and every time I hung out there I felt jealous of his home—but his dad absolutely would not be okay with getting woken up at two in the morning.
“Then that’s all we can do for now.”
“But—” Carl’s voice rose slightly, getting louder.
“Carl,” I interrupted sharply. “Remember where you are. You’re eighteen. It’s a school night, and your dad’s asleep down the hall.” I tried to inject as much calm into my voice as I could muster. As it had so many times before, it worked. When Carl spoke next, it was low and subdued.
“So what do we do?”
“We go to school. Meet up at lunch tomorrow, like we always do. Jen, you’ll come sit with us.”
Jen nodded. “Okay. Sara can live without me for one lunch.”
“Cyraveil doesn’t exist.”
There was a pause. I waited, hoping Carl would understand and follow without question. There was only one way we’d all get through this without being locked up in an asylum. We had to fit back in as if we’d never left. Tell absolutely no one. I could do it. Jen could probably do it too, with some help—but Carl had changed so much more than I had, and in the opposite direction. I was ready for a challenge like this. The new Carl? If he still had his sword… I couldn’t be sure.
He finally answered. “Got it.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in. Jen noticed it, looking at me curiously. She didn’t say anything, leaving Carl in the dark.
“Okay. Then we’ll see you tomorrow, Carl.”
“Tomorrow,” Carl acknowledged. “Hey, Jen. You still there?”
“Dov?” Jen leaned forward over the phone.
“Vei savi ilu dou, desve ta nal erreth. Syldae se valenda, selnou?”
“...Sure, Carl.” Jen looked slightly embarrassed, but it faded quickly. “Will do.”
“Okay. Night, guys.” The phone clicked off. I watched Jen carefully as she put the phone away, looking for her reaction.
“What was that about?” I asked. I only had a vague idea of what Carl had said. I’d never learned the language like he had, just a few useful phrases (and a few insults), and of course neither of us came even close to Jen.
“What? A guy can’t be nice and be concerned about me?” Jen replied.
“Oookay, forget I asked.” There was something there, but Jen made it clear I didn’t need to know it. As long as it didn’t affect us, it was her business.
“So… we just go back to school, then?” Jen changed the subject for me, to which I leapt gratefully.
“Yeah. Just be normal. Not that you ever were.”
Jen punched my shoulder in response. “You can do better than that.”
I laughed. “Give me a few days. I’ll bring back all the bad jokes.”
Jen grinned. It already felt like we were returning to normal. A few more little pushes and maybe we could slide completely into perfect mundanity. “So, what do you want for dinner tomorrow?”
“I dunno. What are you in the mood for?”
I shrugged. “Why don’t we just go to the grocery store after school and play it by ear? We can get anything you want.”
“Ooh. I might abuse that.” Jen’s face turned mischievous, but I’d meant what I said.
“Abuse all you want. It’s a special occasion.”
“The day the bad jokes returned?”
I laughed again. It felt warm and comforting, like the sun rising out of the darkness. I hadn’t had much to laugh about for a long while. “Sure, let’s go with that.”
“What on earth are you two doing up?” A groggy voice echoed from the hallway, followed by the front door clicking shut. Our mother had wandered in finally, her face looking like it was melting away from exhaustion. Her eyes were sunken and drowsy, and she was leaning against the wall. She dropped her bag on the floor.
“Mom!” Jen leapt out of her seat and rushed over, wrapping her in a bear hug. I stayed put, watching them both—but in truth, I felt the same joyous reaction as Jen in that moment. I’d never really been much for hugging her before… but everything was different now.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing, Mom,” Jen replied, and as her face pulled back, I saw tears forming in her eyes. “I’m just glad to see you.”
“Did something happen?” Mom’s eyes widened, becoming alert and adept. Even as tired as she was, the mere possibility something might be wrong with her daughter brought her alive. It was a trait I’d come to recognize in all three of us now, the adrenaline rush and the hyper-aware state we all had mastered. Mom, like the two of us now, could be ready for anything, even on the brink of collapse.
“Nothing happened, Mom,” I answered. “We were just waiting for you to come home. I couldn’t sleep.”
She frowned, but with reassurances from both of us, her fatigue was beginning to win over from the adrenaline. Her eyes drooped again. “All right, Matthew. If you say so.”
“We’re fine. Time for bed for everyone, I think.”
“Come on, Mom,” Jen added. “I’ll help you upstairs.”
“Thanks, Jenny.” I’d forgotten, Jen was still going by Jenny seven years ago. She’d long since decided she hated it. As Jen half-carried our mother back down the hall, she twisted and shot me a pained look. I grinned.
“Good night, Jenny,” I called. She rolled her eyes, before turning back to the stairs as they began to climb.
I cleaned up after our snack, putting away the milk and tossing the empty box of cookies.
I was actually looking forward to school tomorrow, as crazy as that might have sounded before we left. There were friends I hadn’t spoken to in nearly a decade, after all. Classes would be a bit harder to get back into. I was having a hard time remembering things like what rooms they were in, or where my locker was. I’d have to trust in physical memory to lead me to the right spots.
I could do it. I had to do it. The only way I could get my life back on track was if no one ever figured out what happened. Cyraveil was in the past, and if I could help it, it would stay there. Forever.
As I turned out the lights and headed back to my room, I saw Jen’s light click off as well. I closed my door, remembering to avoid the click this time, and crawled back into bed. Exhaustion had returned with a vengeance. I began to drift off almost immediately, but one nagging memory pushed its way back to the surface, keeping me awake just along to remember the ramifications.
The witch had told me a secret, after we’d made our pact. Something I’d kept hidden deep inside my soul, that I dared not reveal to anyone. She’d told me how we could return to Cyraveil.
On my life, if I could help it, I’d never let any of us see that wretched land again.