Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Lex groaned, stirring in his chair. Pain spread through his body, greeting him as he blinked his eyes open. Even his eyelids hurt.
“Look who’s awake,” a voice spat.
Lex blinked again, struggling to focus his blurry vision. Sour breath filled his nostrils as the man towering over him leaned down, inches from Lex’s face.
“Not so fierce now, are you?” the man sneered.
Lex began to push the man out of his face, only to realize his arms were bound behind him. No wonder his shoulders hurt, his arms and legs were both tied tight to the chair. How long have I been sitting like this? he wondered. “Where am I?” he asked, surprised by how rough his own voice sounded.
The man circled Lex’s chair, taking him in. “You don’t look so tough. You don’t look much more than a boy.” He shoved Lex’s head, and the chair tipped precariously before righting itself back onto the packed-dirt floor with a thud. Lex felt the back of the chair give under the impact. “How old are you, eighteen? Stupid kid.”
Seventeen, Lex felt his mind respond. Now that he was waking up more, anxiety crept in. He had no memory of how he got here, of this man, of any of it. Even trying to think of his own life, he was coming up blank, a realization he shoved down so as not to panic. He knew his age, at least; he hadn’t lost all his memories. But his frustration grew as he strained to remember more with no success. His memories, whatever they were, felt trapped behind a barrier.
Lex eyed the man. He was large and muscled, and the tanned skin on his face and neck looked tough as leather. He wore dark brown trousers, boots, and a dingy tunic – work clothes. His face was faintly lined with the early creases of age, laugh lines edging his eyes. Lex couldn’t imagine this man laughing. He was scowling, fuming, his raw, jagged energy chafing the air.
Seeing Lex study him, the man crossed his arms over his chest, revealing forearms covered in thick, reddish hair that matched the curly tuft atop his head. The man looked like he could rip a tree up from the roots and barely break a sweat.
Lex glanced down at his own body. The dirty tunic and plain brown trousers he wore hung upon lines of taut muscle. He was strong, too, but in the lean way of a wolf – nothing that could match the bear-strength of the man before him. Lex’s muscles instinctively tensed beneath his restraints, but trying to fight this man was a bad idea. Besides, being tied to a chair would hardly make it a fair struggle. Lex considered asking the man how he had gotten there, but since the man seemed likely to murder him at the slightest provocation, Lex swallowed his questions and remained silent – for now.
He chanced a look around at the space as the man circled again, passing behind him. They were in a small room with a dirt floor, wood-panel walls that leaked thin strips of light, no windows, and one door. Metal tools like those used for farming hung from large, wooden pegs on one wall. A storage shed, Lex thought. A lantern swayed from a hook on the ceiling above them, its dim light shifting the shadows from wall to wall as it swung. A wheelbarrow filled with something dark sat in one corner, but the rest of the space looked empty, except for the man and Lex’s chair.
Lex strained his mind, trying again to place the sequence of events that brought him there. His thoughts felt disjointed, flashes of color and emotion. He couldn’t focus them into anything that made sense. I must have been hit on the head, he thought, but the concern that elicited was swallowed by a more immediate threat. There were footsteps and voices outside the door.
The man moved back in front of Lex. “Now the real fun starts,” he said, and his smile sent a chill down Lex’s spine.
The door slammed open and sunlight poured into the room, along with a half-dozen men. Farmers, Lex realized. They wore work trousers and boots caked with mud, and even in the dim room, Lex could see they were all tanned and muscled from labor in the sun. They were the type of people Lex might think of as decent, working folk, if they weren't studying him like a pack of hyenas who spotted prey. They hung back, making a loose semi-circle in front of the open door. Other than the man who had shoved Lex earlier, none of them seemed to want to get close to him. Maybe they didn’t see him as prey, Lex thought; maybe he was a caged predator.
Fear surged through Lex again as he realized he truly didn’t know why he was here, or even whether he was the victim or a perpetrator. Had he done something to anger these people? He couldn’t remember anything before waking up in this room. His memories were only glimpses, flashing and fading so quickly he couldn’t make them out. He tried to focus the memories, to seize one of them, but they slipped away as though he were trying to grasp oil. Panic swelled within him. He could remember nothing about his past, other than an awareness of his name and the general sense he felt about himself. He didn’t think he would have hurt anyone or done anything to justify being trapped here, but how could he say for sure if he didn’t even know who he was? That thought scared him more than the crowd of men staring him down, but he swallowed his fear and forced himself to meet their eyes.
Most of the men looked to be between their thirties and fifties in age, and their faces displayed varying degrees of uncertainty, fear, and anger. The man who shoved Lex stood in the front of the group, surlier than the rest. In the back stood a teenage boy, dirty and tanned like the rest but without their accumulation of muscle. The boy avoided looking at Lex, hiding behind the cluster of men. One other man stood off to the side, different than the rest. He was clean, well-shaven, and meticulously dressed in fine trousers and a spotless, white tunic. A startling shock of thick, black hair topped his narrow head, combed neatly to one side. His boots looked barely walked in, and his face betrayed no emotion beyond a slight air of skepticism.
Lex decided the man in the clean tunic must be in charge. The eyes of all the others kept sneaking glances in his direction, as though waiting for him to make the first move; he controlled the group with the nonchalant presence of someone who felt confident enough in his authority to have no need of asserting it.
Lex cleared his throat, and some of the men shifted nervously. He focused his eyes on the man with the black hair. “Why am I here?” Lex asked, taking care this time to control his voice so it wouldn’t sound weak or frightened.
Surprise sparked in the man’s eyes at Lex’s decision to address him over any of the others, but he said nothing. He looked back at Lex silently, studying him.
The man who had shoved Lex earlier stepped forward. “You know why you’re here, you filth.”
Whatever Lex had done, it was clearly very bad. Unless he was innocent. It was unsettling not knowing for sure. Lex was beginning to worry, but something inside of him stirred, a steel-smooth whisper like a sword blade unsheathing. You’ve gotten out of worse than this, it purred. You have this under control. Lex let its calm confidence spread through him, warming the chill of his fear. He focused his eyes on the man before him. “No, I don’t,” he said. “Why don’t you explain it to me?”
The crack of the man’s hand against Lex’s mouth rang through the air. Lex shook his head, his vision blurring. Warm liquid filled his mouth and he turned his head, spitting on the dirt beneath him. Blood.
The man raised a hand to strike again.
“Enough,” a voice cut through the room.
Lex spat once more and lifted his face toward the sound.
The rest of the group shuffled aside as the man with the black hair strode forward.
He knelt, narrowing his eyes as he studied Lex’s face.
Lex returned his stare.
“You really don’t remember, do you?” the man whispered, low enough that Lex wasn’t sure anyone else heard him.
The man stood and turned back to the rest of the group. “This is a waste of time,” he said, with the finality of a verdict.
The other men fidgeted, scuffed their feet, ran hands through their hair, scratched their faces. No one met the black-haired man’s eyes. The man who had struck Lex sank back into the crowd as though trying to melt away.
Lex glanced between the group and the black-haired man. As he tried to puzzle out exactly what this all meant, the teenage boy slipped out from behind the group and stared at him, his face a mask of awe. Lex met the boy’s eyes, trying to decipher his expression.
A large, calloused hand shot out from the group and grabbed the boy by the neck, yanking him behind the other men. The farmer who had grabbed the boy turned backward. “Stay out of this,” he grunted, shaking the boy before releasing him.
“But he looks just like him,” the boy whispered, his voice rising to near-panic. “Don’t you see it?”
The other men in the group shuffled, still under scrutiny of the black-haired man’s stare.
“Hush, boy,” growled the farmer, shoving the boy behind him.
The black-haired man’s gaze swept over the group again and they stiffened.
“Go,” the black-haired man said, and the men and boy rushed out through the open door as though the building had caught fire.
When the sound of their fleeing footsteps died down, the black-haired man turned back to Lex. “Now,” he drawled, “what do we do about you?” He stepped back and worried his lip with his teeth, studying Lex as though he were an interesting problem.
Lex opened his mouth to ask what in the world was going on, but a boom from outside interrupted him, rattling the walls of the shed.
The black-haired man snapped his head up, his nose pointing toward the ceiling like a dog sniffing the air. He spun and walked out the door.
Lex waited a few breaths, expecting the man to return. When he didn’t, Lex realized this was his chance. Lex had felt the back of his chair splinter when the farmer shoved him, so now he threw his weight from side to side, rocking the chair until it tipped. Lex slammed sideways into the floor. Pain shot through his ribs but he ignored it, jerking his shoulders forward against the weakened chair. The wood cracked free of the base and Lex slipped out, stumbling to his feet as the ropes fell from his arms and torso. His fingers fumbled on the knots that held his feet to the chair’s legs but they weren’t well-tied – apparently these farmers were not experts in the business of kidnapping and restraint – and he was free in a matter of moments. He rushed to the wall of the shed, flattening himself against it, and peered out through the open doorway.
The door opened onto a small village, an assortment of wood-frame shops and houses connected by foot-worn pathways. Beyond the small cluster of buildings lay farmland, a patchwork of crop rows and grassy meadows. The village was set in a valley, the farmland sloping up and outward around it. Steep rises of forest rimmed the area in the distance, boxing in the valley on all four sides. Nothing was visible beyond the trees.
The village’s dusty streets were in chaos. Sheep scurried between the buildings, people skirting around them as they rushed down the pathways, many carrying large bundles in their arms. Half of the families seemed to be rushing from building to building, and the other half were dashing out into the farmland. A man darted past, carrying a baby in one arm and a chicken in the other. A woman ran behind him, gripping a bundle against her chest. She seemed to be struggling under its weight, shifting it against her as she ran. The family cut between two buildings, startling a stray bunch of chickens. The birds exploded into a flurry of flapping and clucking. The couple kept running, trampling rows of seedling crops as they fled into the nearest field.
Lex glanced around, but the men who held him captive were nowhere in sight. He stepped outward to get a better look. The shed was on the edge of the assortment of buildings, with nothing but farmland behind it. The crops were still young and wouldn’t provide much cover; if he tried to escape across the field, he would be exposed. But no one was paying much attention to him at the moment – they were too busy with their own chaos.
Lex made a run for it.
He was a few rows into the field – and feeling a bit guilty, even in his flight, for trampling the village’s crops – when he saw a flash of movement to his left. He glanced over. A teenage girl fled parallel to him, no more than ten feet away. They were both moving too quickly for him to see details, and the girl didn’t seem to notice him. But she was definitely close enough to raise the alarm if she recognized him as the escaped captive. He veered away from her, but before he had put much distance between them, a scream sliced the air. He turned his head back, then stumbled to a stop.
A large, winged creature thumped to the ground before the girl, arching toward her. It was dull grey, as large as a horse but with a narrow-muscled, lizardlike body with four long, claw-fingered limbs. It held its veined, bat-like wings outspread as it stood upright on its hind legs, casting a shadow over the girl in the sunlit field.
The girl scrambled backward, tripped and fell onto her bottom, then scurried crablike on her hands and feet, trying to escape. The creature stepped forward, shifting its shadow over the girl once more. It almost seemed to bring the darkness with it, as though the shadow were emanating from within rather than simply being cast by it. Lex felt a chill creep down his spine as the creature leaned over the girl, opening its gaping jaws to reveal sharp, yellowed fangs.
Lex felt himself reaching for a weapon at his side, though there was nothing there. Did he usually carry a weapon? He couldn’t remember.
Angry shouts burst out from the village and Lex turned, tearing his eyes from the girl. The farmers were rushing in his direction – at him or at the creature, he couldn’t be certain. He tensed, torn between fleeing and helping the girl. The farmers could be coming to the girl’s rescue, or they could be coming for him. But they would certainly help the girl, once they saw she was in danger, and Lex couldn’t risk being re-captured. He spun toward the rise of trees; with the men still a way off, he would have a good head start. Even if they had recognized him, once he hit the woods he might be able to escape.
The girl screamed again. Lex turned back. The creature had her pinned to the ground, its clawed forelegs on her chest as it hovered over her. But the men were approaching. If he helped the girl, he would put himself directly in their path; he would be caught for sure. He considered leaving the girl – surely the farmers would help her – but the creature leaned close to her face, so close that the girl squeezed her eyes shut and cried out in terror. It would have her gutted before the farmers could even reach her.
Wishing again that he had a weapon – any weapon – Lex rushed forward, hurling himself at the creature. He had only an instant to catch the surprise in the creature’s eyes before he slammed into it. Lex knocked the creature off balance, its sinewy muscles and scaled flesh writhing against him as they both tumbled to the ground.
They rolled to a stop a few feet from the girl. Lex had landed on his back, and as he braced himself for the creature’s backlash, he felt something cold and hard on the ground beside him. He grasped it – a farming spade – and scrambled to his feet. As the creature leapt for him, Lex thrust the spade upward with all his strength, driving its bladed end into the creature’s belly. The creature let out an ear-splitting screech, then stumbled backward on its hind legs and collapsed to the ground, twitching.
Lex watched only long enough to be sure it wasn’t getting back up before spinning to the girl. “Are you alright?” he asked. A leaden chill settled over him as he realized he had just thrown himself at a horse-sized, freakish lizard-bat.
The girl staggered to her feet, then doubled over with one hand pressed to her chest. She was dressed more like a farmer than a lady, in trousers and boots now muddy from her struggle with the creature. The creature's claws had shredded the front of her dark tunic, revealing a simple white shirt beneath, but she seemed to be unharmed. Her slim body trembled as she took ragged breaths, and her hazelnut hair tumbled down around her face, concealing it.
Lex pulled back, knowing she must be terrified, and gave her a moment to gain her bearings.
The stampede of footsteps and angry yells grew closer, shocking Lex back into focus. He turned to flee, hoping the girl would be alright, but as he spun her hand grabbed his arm. Her touch was like a shock against his skin. She turned her face up to him. She was startlingly beautiful, with large, ice-blue eyes rimmed with dark lashes.
The world tilted. Lex was standing in a field, ice-blue eyes staring down at him from the horizon. The girl’s lips parted as though to speak–
Lex shook his head, the world righting itself as the vision vanished. He was still there, in the middle of the rows of barely-grown, now-trampled crops. The girl stared at him wordlessly, breathing heavily and trembling. A look of concern entered her eyes as she noticed his distress. Lex gaped at her, his pulse racing for more than one reason. He struggled to fit the pieces together. Was that a memory? Do I know this girl?
The angry shouts and footsteps suddenly seemed much closer. The farmers. They were almost upon him, close enough to see him clearly.
“You!” one of them shouted. “Stop!”
Lex had wasted too much time, any hope of a head start now gone. His mind raced through his options. Be caught and beg for mercy? Stay and hope they were grateful he helped the girl? Try to run? The men were strong, but Lex might be faster. The last option won. Lex's boots dug into the dirt as he turned toward the distant trees. As he moved, his eyes caught on the body of the creature – it was gone. In its place was a man, blood blossoming across the front of his stark-white tunic. A shock of neatly-combed black hair topped his ashen face.
Lex’s throat went dry. He spun, pulling his arm from the girl’s grasp.
“Wait!” the girl called out behind him.
Lex focused on the line of trees and ran.