“Wait! Wait for me!” Sal cried, a grin stretching from ear to ear as she bounded towards me. Paulson and I already clutched rods in our hands, ready to be on our way. He sighed, the sound rippling with fond exasperation as she tripped in a whirlwind of black hair and brown skirts. Squeaking, she caught herself an instant before she faceplanted into the dirt and skidded to a halt next to our little group.
I shook my head. “No. No way. Why do you want to go? You don’t even- Where did you get a rod?” I caught myself before I could finish, seeing the slender wooden fishing rod caught in the ten-year-old’s fist.
The girl only grinned, kicking me in the shin. “I am too coming. Darren said I could take his.” She held the fishing rod out proudly.
I scowled at her, shoving her back. That kick hurt. “What? Why would he give it to you? Isn’t he-” I stopped, seeing her shake her head.
“Nope,” she said. “That old priest asked him to stay today. Extra lessons.” She made a face, her opinion of the haughty man all too clear.
Paulson shrugged. “Whatever. Can we go already, Jas?” He glanced to me for an instant before wheeling towards the path, not so much as waiting for a reply.
“But-” I started. Extra lessons? Darren? That didn’t make any sense to me. Darren was…Well, he was head and shoulders ahead of the rest of us in just about everything, as much as it hurt to admit. Why would the priest want him to spend more time in the village’s tiny, ramshackle chapel? He hardly needed the extra studying.
Those were the thoughts circling in my head, but there was nothing more to say. We’d promised to walk to the river a week ago. A whole week. And now he couldn’t make it? I stared back at Goldenvale, the lonely rows of cabins pressed together amidst the fields. Somewhere in there, our friend was spending his day in lessons instead of with us. That was wrong. But try as I might, I couldn’t think of a way to get him out of it.
“Jas!” Paulson yelled, halfway down the path already. “Come on!” Sal bounced ahead of him, giggling.
“Slow down! I’m coming,” I yelled, pulling my eyes away from the village as I tore after them.
“Just a little longer,” I said, my voice wheedling.
Sal pouted. “What? It’s getting dark. I’m cold. And bored.” The girl spun in place before throwing herself onto the ground, just a little farther up the bank. She’d given up fishing some time ago. I wasn’t surprised.
“You wanted to come,” I muttered.
“I didn’t think you’d want to fish until night,” she said, glaring at me. The three of us sat on the sharply angled riverbank, perched on rocks over the fast-running water. Drenwell was a quiet, warm country, splashed with forests and farmland. The mountains looming in the distance were a different matter entirely, though, and the rivers flowing down off their slopes were cold and clear. Perfect for fishing, even if it wound up being a bit of a hike to get out to anywhere worth our time.
I glared right back. “Well, we did. If you have a problem with that, walk home alone.” I pointed to the trail.
She drew back. “But…It’s dark.”
“Yes, it is,” I said, smirking at her.
“It is getting pretty dark out,” Paulson said. “Maybe we should-”
“Come on…” I said, turning to him.
He grinned, shrugging. “Well, it is.”
I huffed a little while longer, staring down at the line of fish strung out on the rock-studded embankment. We’d had a good afternoon, it was true, and the sun hung low in the sky. Already, the trail through the woods was near-black with the heavy shadows draped over it. But I didn’t want to go back just because she wanted to go back. The only things waiting for us back in Goldenvale would be chores and lectures about staying out too late.
“Jas,” Paulson said. I glanced up. He was gathering up the day’s catch, pulling his own line in from the water. Sal bounced nearby, all smiles again. He shrugged. “It’s late. Let’s go.”
There was no sense in sulking over it, I told myself. It had been a good day. And so I stood to join Paulson, slowly winding my own line back onto the ramshackle spool.
“Hurry up!” Sal said. She just couldn’t sit still, impatiently bouncing from rock to rock on the riverbank.
I kept reeling in my line with careful deliberation. “I am hurrying.”
“No, you’re not,” she said. “You’re being slow because you’re grumpy.” Arms flying, she leapt to another boulder.
“Sal, be careful,” Paulson said, straightening as he watched her.
“You don’t look like my mother. Why do you sound like her?” she said, laughing as she landed in a clatter on the stone.
“Jas, grab Darren’s rod, would you?” he said, turning away from the girl with an exasperated sigh.
Glaring at Paulson, I trudged over to where the discarded rod lay on the shore. “Fine. Don’t know why I have to-”
I spun at the sound of her panicked yelp, my muttered complaint dying on my lips. Sal teetered, off-balance and windmilling desperately as the rock beneath her shifted in the muddy soil of the riverbank. We didn’t even have time to yell. We could only watch as she staggered, tumbling, to land awkwardly on a boulder farther out.
The crack of her ankle breaking carried perfectly across the still evening air. The sound of crashing water followed immediately after, as she fell head-first into the river.
“Sal!” Paulson yelled, his face gone pale as he stood frozen. The string of fish hung limp from his hands.
I was closer. Tossing my rod aside, I hurled myself into the water. The icy chill of it knocked my breath from me in a single rush.
Sal broke the surface ahead of me, spluttering desperately. She didn’t waste her breath on crying. Her teeth were gritted, clenched against the pain, but her eyes were wide and terrified. In another instant, she slipped back under the surface.
I gasped a lungful of air in as I surged towards her. The river here looked passable enough at a glance, but it was deeper than it seemed and carved out by a fast-running current at its heart. The frigid bite of it made dipping into the waters a whole different beast. It was a pleasure to swim there in the height of summer, to come up shivering in the hot air. But with a broken ankle, off-balance and unprepared with the night setting in?
I kept my eyes fixed on the churning waters where she’d slipped back under. Paulson was bellowing something from the shore, but he didn’t follow me in.
Where was she? My mind raced, a thousand thoughts all fighting for control, but through it all was the single, burning realization that I needed to find her, now. I thrashed onwards, my arms spread desperately.
Something connected with my hand. I latched on for all I was worth, feeling a painful pop in my shoulder as it overextended. Sal’s head broke the surface as she gasped for air again.
“I’ve got you. I’ve got you. Hold on,” I said, the words falling out of me in a rush as I tried to convey a confidence I didn’t feel. I had her by the wrist, somehow. The river was still pulling at me, surging with a power that was quickly sending a tingling, painful numbness through my legs, but I could stand. That was more than she could do on one leg.
“Jas! Here! Hurry!” A voice yelled from the shoreline. Paulson. He’d finally broken free of his trance, it seemed. His hand was extended towards us, ready and waiting for me to grab.
My hand ached, caught between the hot burn of my muscles’ complaint and the cold of the river. There was no way I was going to let go, though. Slowly, all too slowly, I pulled her in closer to the riverbank.
Close enough. My palm slapped down against Paulson’s. He was towing us in a heartbeat later, inch by inch.
A few minutes and a lifetime of fear later, we collapsed in a heap on the rocky shore. Sal whimpered softly, curling as she coughed up water. One hand stretched towards her ankle. I could see it swelling, even with the little bit of light we had left.
“I-I’m going to- I’ll go find someone,” Paulson said, his voice trembling as he stumbled backwards. I was too busy trying to catch my breath to tell him to stop. In a moment he was gone, the sound of his flight vanishing into the forest.
He was right – we needed an adult. That was a good plan. But I was already shivering, my clothes soaked through and rapidly chilling. I was sure Sal was faring no better. We couldn’t just wait here for however long it took our friend to track help down.
“Hey. C’mere,” I said, forcing myself to take one deep breath after another as I inched closer to Sal. She shook her head. She was crying, ever so softly. The sound made me feel even worse than I already did. “Here. We need to get back to the village. Just…can you grab on?” I swiveled, my back pointed towards her as I crouched down.
She sniffled. “C-can’t.”
I scowled. “Can too. Come on, Sal. Just climb on, and we’ll get you some help.” I glared back over my shoulder, making my face hard and cold enough that she finally stopped fighting. Her hands trembled as she wrapped them across my shoulders, arms pressed tight against my neck.
“It’s dark,” she said, half-whining.
I sighed. And then I focused all of my will into a tiny point, squeezing my eyes shut with the effort of it. I just had to find it, the well that I knew was waiting somewhere under my skin. For a second, with the night pressing in on me and my whole body shivering, it slipped away. But – there. At her indrawn gasp, my eyes slid back open.
A tiny ball of pale green light floated in front of me, hovering in midair ahead of us. “There,” I said, trying to keep the self-satisfaction out of my words. “Now it’s not so dark. Just hold on.” It was true – the ball of light shimmered, looking for all the world like a tiny orb of green fire, but it lit the trail back home well enough to walk by. Sal buried her face in my shoulder.
That was going to have to be good enough. Gritting my teeth and feeling all too clearly the exertion of carrying her and casting a ball of mage-light, I stood up and started walking onward.
As the river slid away into the night behind us, the rush of water fading out into the songs of crickets and owls, I began to regret that little ball of light. I’d walked this trail dozens – hundreds – of times, but that was in the day. At night, with only that pale, wan light, every shadow loomed like a monster waiting to jump out from behind a tree. Despite all my best intentions, my nerves were beginning to fray. Even the moon was half-hidden behind a thick layer of clouds, vanishing entirely once we were well and truly into the forest.
Sal, for her part, hadn’t moved since I’d stood up. Her face was still hidden against my back, her sniffles carrying through the night air. It wasn’t easy to hold her without grabbing her broken ankle, but I wasn’t about to complain, either.
One step at a time, that was the trick. If I worried too much about what was around us, the wolves creeping out of the dark and the monsters waiting just behind the nearest tree, then it was all I could do to keep from running screaming and crying back to my mother’s arms, leaving Sal behind in the night. I just had to not, to focus on keeping my feet on the trail and moving forward. I was just trembling from the cold and exertion, I told myself. I wasn’t scared.
The distant lights of Goldenvale were a relief as we worked our way out of the forest and onto the smoother, well-packed road weaving between the village’s fields.
Sal sighed, her voice filled with fear, pain, and longing in even measure. “I’m going to be in so much trouble,” she said, her voice a thin, pale reflection of its normally bright tones.
I shook my head. “No way. We’ll be fine.” Contrary to my words, I was pretty sure that we were in for a good lecture. But she was already sniffling, pushed nearly to the breaking point. Telling her she was going to get yelled at on top of that wasn’t going to help anything. I tried to smile instead, but the sight of something bounding through the fields towards us put an end to that before it had so much as begun.
Instantly, all of those fears surged back as I stopped fast enough to set Sal to crying anew. My mind was completely frozen, carrying my limbs along with it as I stared wide-eyed towards where something charged noisily through the dense rows of crops.
“What’s that?” Sal whispered, wiping her eyes dry as she looked up.
I shook my head, taking a step backwards. “I…I don’t know.” It was just too dark, the stalks too thick. There was no way for me to get a clear look at whatever it was that was approaching us.
Another sob rose in her chest. “Jas, I’m scared. Let’s go. Now.”
I couldn’t agree more. Half-stumbling, my feet began retracing their steps back towards the woods even as I peered through the night, still fixated on that distant rustling.
My heart skipped a beat as the incessant waving of the stalks gave way to a dark figure leaping free onto the path. No. Two figures, lean and leggy as they loped along. Spirits, coming to steal us away, or monsters hungry for our blood. I was sure of it. My legs trembled, nearly giving way underneath me, but I managed to keep my footing. We had to run. Goldenvale was right there. We could-
“Jas!” a voice bellowed, from somewhere ahead of us. Adrenaline coursed through my veins all over again as I flinched at the sudden noise. Before my eyes, the two looming creatures gave way to the lanky forms of our friends. Paulson grinned, his face visibly red even through the pale glow my mage-light afforded. Darren ran out front, half a head taller than Paulson and covering the distance with ease. He smiled, seeing I’d heard his call, but it was strained, worried.
I stopped right where I was, feeling for the first time the pure exhaustion in my limbs, the way my legs trembled from the effort of carrying Sal this far. Within moments, Paulson and Darren were upon us, lifting the girl off my back.
“Sun and spirit,” I swore, shaking my head at the two of them. “Give me a little warning next time before you scare the life straight out of me.” They flashed apologetic waves my way, but were too intent on our friend to pay me much mind.
Sal whimpered at the movement as she slid from my back, but offered them a wan smile. “You’re late,” she complained, her face pale. Her leg was horribly swollen by then, clearly sensitive to the slightest touch.
“Sorry. Finally got away. Old idiot just would not stop talking,” Darren said, grinning back. “Did you have fun fishing?”
“I forgot your rod,” Sal whispered, her face crumpling.
I tumbled to a seat on the grass, trying to catch my breath. In a single instant, I’d been relegated to the role of bystander. It hadn’t been either of them that had fished her out or carried her all the way here.
“That’s ok,” Darren said, his too-blue eyes bright as he patted her head reassuringly. “It’ll be there.” He was talking to Sal, but I could tell that all of his attentions were on her leg. Slowly, gingerly, he pulled the leg on her breeches up so that he could see it.
I winced, despite myself. It was worse than it had looked before, horribly twisted and a deep shade of purple from all the blood rushing there. Sal twisted, trying to get a look at it, but Paulson grabbed her shoulders.
“There, see, it’s nothing at all,” Darren said slowly, looking it up and down. I frowned. Nothing at all? She’d be off the leg for weeks – if she were lucky. Months, if we wasted any more time getting her to a proper healer.
Even as I stared down at her ankle, trying to hide the sweat pouring down the back of my neck, Darren reached out his hand and laid it on her swollen skin.
“Everbright, grant me your warmth and your light,” he murmured, his voice little more than a whisper. “Stay my hand, guide it and bestow upon it your divine grace, that I might mend that which has broken.”
Paulson and I both fell into stunned silence, unable to do more than watch. Before our eyes, the dim glow of my green mage-light was dwarfed, outshone by the golden light pouring from Darren’s palm. It flickered here and there with blue fire, spreading across Sal’s leg. I flinched, reaching for her. She would burn, she would-
Darren cracked one eye, fixing me with a glare, and I froze.
On and on he murmured, intoning one nonsensical-sounding prayer after another. I’d learned the usual lessons from the Order’s priests stationed in Goldenvale, but within moments I was hopelessly out of my depth. Paulson seemed to fare no better, staring at him wide-eyed and silent.
But Darren at least seemed to have complete confidence in whatever he was doing. He didn’t falter, didn’t stumble over words or lose his breath. And little by little, the swelling was going down. Sal’s tears slowed, finally stopping altogether as her leg straightened before her eyes.
When at last it was whole, just as perfect and unblemished as when we’d left that afternoon, the gold-and-blue lights faded away. It was easier, under the cover of darkness that remained. I didn’t have to pretend I wasn’t gaping, didn’t have to hide the fact that my face was as white as a sheet.
Cautiously, Sal rose, her hands clasped in Darren’s as he eased her to her feet. Slowly, carefully, she tested her weight, leaning delicately onto her leg.
When it held, without so much as a quiver, she beamed. Her grin spread from ear to ear. Laughing uproariously, she launched herself at Darren.
“How did you do that?” she crowed as he chuckled. “That’s crazy. What was that, Darren?”
Paulson wasn’t far behind her, although he was better at holding himself back. Darren flashed me a smile and a nod, his little acknowledgement of my efforts. Both of our friends were ecstatic, shocked and surprised at the unexpected talents of our friend, keeping him from saying much more on the matter.
Well. Those talents might have been unexpected for them. I wasn’t surprised in the least, and even though I grinned right alongside Paulson and Sal, I knew better than to throw myself on Darren like he was just another kid. Even then, I knew it. Paulson and Sal, and the rest of the kids running wild in our backwater village? We were little more than peasants, when it came down to it. I was just the son of a woodsman and an herbalist, and I knew that whatever I wound up being, it wouldn’t stray far from that.
Darren, though? Our friend, who could heal with a touch, effortlessly working magic that even Goldenvale’s priest would shed sweat and tears to learn? The world was wide open before him.
Even then, I knew it.
Darren was different from the rest of us.
Years have a way of passing before you’re even aware that time is slipping away. We treated those fields and forests as though we owned them, learning every creek and every cave as we tore new trails across the wilderness. We thought we had an eternity in front of us, one endless summer to while away. An eternal, blissful reverie, filled with certain things we held constant, anchors against the world.
No one ever left the village. Very few ever came. Now and again a trader would slip through, bearing with him relics of far-away lands filled with mountains and ocean shores, treasures too expensive to more than look at from afar. Even their comings and goings were a constant in their own way, bringing with them a rhythm to life in the village.
Surrounded by that illusion of constancy, our childhood slipped away before we knew it, unchanging. I knew the truth of Goldenvale all too well, the reality of my little world that proved itself time and time again. It was useless to fight it, I knew, leaving me exhausted from all of the effort I’d wasted. And yet I simply couldn’t bring myself to stop. No matter how hard I tried, though, there was a singular truth that stared me straight back in the face.
We each had our talents, but above all else, we were just painfully normal children. Darren, though? Darren was different from the rest of us. Special, in a way we weren’t. He stood apart from us – gifted. Chosen.
Everyone knew it, from the very first day that our little group of adolescents picked up stick ‘swords’ under our elderly teacher’s careful eyes. Darren had swung circles around the rest of us stripling boys and girls without even a thought. No matter how much we tried, no matter how hard we practiced, we were always the ones who wound up on our asses in the dirt. The town guards watched him. Always watching. They knew something was wrong, could see the strangeness in him. But we were just kids – we didn’t know anything was different. Darren was just…Darren. He was strong. He was our friend.
I was no different from the rest, of course. That much had never changed, no matter how many years passed. I admired him, clinging to the little gang of our fellows we ran around the countryside with. His right-hand boy, his best friend. But hidden where he couldn’t see me, I practiced just a little bit harder than the rest. Some part of me was always chasing after him, desperately trying to catch up. It didn’t make a difference. I still couldn’t beat him.
The same story played out time and time again. Magic lessons from the local hedgewoman? I could make a flower bloom, coaxing its petals open with a shimmer of green fire. Darren could send a hillside into full blossom. Church school with the village priest? I could bless a cup of water, clearing the murk and leaving it clear and pure. Darren?
Darren ascended. Beams of light, divine voices from above, the complete package. The priest fainted on the spot. Our friends tittered and gaped, falling over themselves in their awe. His mother cried.
I watched as the Order scooped him up and carted him away to Drenwell City for ceremony after ceremony. That was all I could do – watch. That was all I could ever do. He came back, exhausted and beaming, but the divide between us had never been more clear.
The great calamity was coming, the rumors said, and we all knew it was true. The whole village could tell something was wrong. The mountain looming on the horizon was rumbling, shaking the ground even from such a distance. The birds were fewer each spring, finding other places to call home for the summer. The animals fled our little village, year after year, until our hunters could barely find enough to feed everyone. The world itself seemed to be holding its breath. Waiting.
Something was coming, and Darren was our key to stopping it. That was what they said – the Order, the clerics that seemed to visit our village in greater numbers every year. Who were we to argue with what the god’s priests said? Every time it was brought up to him, he just smirked with that proud little grin. His chest would puff out, and his head would swell just a little bit bigger.
Darren was my friend, but I’ll admit it. I was jealous. I was tired of being second best, tired of always living in his shadow as the friend of the god’s chosen. So I practiced. When the adults weren’t looking, I’d practice swordplay. I’d sneak off in the woods to hunt, learning how to track, how to shoot a bow. I’d try to remember just the way he moved when he blocked a strike, or the pattern his hands traced in the air as he cast a spell. Slowly but surely, I was improving.
But it wasn’t fast enough. It never was.
That spring, the spring of our 19th year, a platoon of soldiers rode into town. Everyone just stood around and stared, mouths hanging open. I was no different, standing gaping and dumbfounded outside the ramshackle little home where I lived – alone, ever since a fever had taken my parents a few years past. No one had ever seen a procession like that come to our little village, which was in truth little more than a few haggard cabins carved from the hillsides and forest. The soldiers stood and waited while a man wearing brilliantly polished armor over pristine white-and-gold robes carefully dismounted.
Darren didn’t look happy. Not at all, in fact. He was rapidly going white as a sheet, and even as I watched, his eyes flicked to mine. I froze. There was fear there, hidden under the easy, casual nonchalance he always wore. Even though he’d always been different, and enjoyed that, he’d always seemed reluctant, somehow. Not in front of everyone else, of course – he’d never admit it if you asked him – but I knew Darren too well not to see it. I’d thought it was just nerves. It would have been understandable.
But there was fear in his eyes, looking back at me.
The garishly-dressed man went to Darren. I don’t know how he knew my friend even existed, or how he knew which one he was. But he put a hand on his shoulder, like an old friend, and they went into the temple together.
The door slid shut behind them, leaving me standing clueless with the rest.
I heard what details we got through the grapevine. Rumor spreads fast in a town that small, just as fast as tiny legs can carry the message, and before an hour had passed it seemed everyone knew. Darren was leaving, they said. Gone, for who knew how long. He’d be away in the morning, off to the grand, bustling capital. His time had come at last, they said. The archbishop had come for him, and he was to go to the mountain. He would defeat the evil inside it, and we would be safe. So they all said.
The rumors all sounded so confident, so sure of things. It sounded like another load of nonsense to me. One man and a few soldiers? Against a mountain? That just didn’t make sense. Fighting what?
For the first time, the jealousy waned. He could have that glory. I wanted no part of a suicide mission like that.
I went to bed, sad at the thought of losing my friend the next morning, but secretly…happy. Happy to be sleeping in my own bed, without that pressure on me.
The door creaked, too loud in the quiet house. My eyes shot open, pulling me out of my half-slumber instantly. Someone was here. In my home, where no one should be but me. Everyone in the whole damn town was supposed to be asleep. So why was someone here?
Slowly, carefully, I reached over the side of my bed, to where my knife lay, carelessly tossed there the night before. I could hear footsteps coming down the hallway all the while, the floorboard gently complaining. My searching fingers found the handle at last. I seized it, clutching it to my chest protectively, and threw the covers back.
Darren crouched at the foot of my bed, a finger pressed desperately to his lips. I stopped mid-toss, staring at him.
“What are you doing?” I hissed. “You’re supposed to be asleep. Gods, if anyone notices you’re gone…If the village thinks I’m keeping the damned Chosen awake the night before his big adventure, they’d-“
“Probably excommunicate you. And throw you from the village,” he whispered back, a grin teasing around the corners of his lips. Despite myself, I chuckled too. His grin twisted. “Scary stuff. I just…I just wanted to talk, y’know?” He sighed, and just for a moment, I saw through it.
Beneath the facade of the Chosen, beneath the veneer of the pomp and ceremony of it all, I could once again see the fear in my friend’s eyes. The sight of it brought with it the first hints of honest shame, for being happy at how this had all played out. He was a bit of an ass sometimes, sure. More often than not. But he was still my friend.
“It’s not so bad,” I heard myself saying. “It won’t be so awful.”
“They want me to fight a mountain, Jas.” His voice was quiet, but I could hear the strain in it. “A godsdamned mountain. Or whatever’s in it, anyway. How am I supposed to do that? What does that even mean?”
I opened my mouth to respond, and stopped. I’d asked myself the same questions only a few hours ago. “Damned if I know. But if anyone can do it, you can,” I said finally.
His eyes flicked away, like he didn’t want to meet my gaze.
I frowned. “You can. You’re strong, Darren. Stronger than any of us.”
“I never wanted to be.” His voice was quiet and low, his eyes downcast.
I grabbed his shoulder, catching myself a moment before I got too loud. “Rellan’s shiny ass, Darren, I would have wanted to take a few less spills in the dirt while you were learning how to fight, but we don’t all get what we want, right? You got power. There are worse things to wind up with. Being strong isn’t such a bad thing.”
“You’re strong too, you know.” For the first time, his voice was contemplative.
My frown deepened as I pulled away. “Well, some of us had to work to keep up, you know. I’m glad you noticed.” A note of bitterness crept into my voice despite my best efforts.
He grinned wryly. “Oh, I always noticed. You thought you were so sneaky. Always slipping away to practice on your own. You thought no one saw, didn’t you?”
I rubbed my nose awkwardly. I could already feel my ears going red. I was not comfortable in the spotlight. It wasn’t meant for me. I was happy being the second fiddle in this play. “I just..I did what I had to, you know?”
“…I think I do.” His hand landed on my shoulder, comfortably resting there. But something was wrong. His voice wasn’t comfortable. There was a tension running deep within it. My eyes flipped up, to his face.
And then I saw the flickers of magic, rising deep within the blue of his eyes. Gold-touched blue flames danced out, to spin in the air between us. I tried to pull away, but it was like I was wrapped in iron. His hand held me fast.
“I’m just…I’m just doing what I have to do too, you know?” Darren said, his voice rising plaintively. His eyes stared back at me, wide and with that horrible fear somewhere deep down in their core. I glared at him, horrified, stricken to silence by whatever he was doing. He smiled sadly. “I don’t want to die. I can’t die. Not here, not now. I’m the Chosen One, after all.”
The magic rose in a crescendo around us, wrapping the two of us in an gold-and-azure cocoon. I could still hear his voice, even as the world went to white around me. Something was happening. Even as he spoke, even as I sat frozen, I could feel myself…changing. As though something were pulling at my skin, my bones.
“All these fools think they can force the hand of fate. But It’s not time. I can’t die on this mission. I can’t go. But they won’t take no for an answer.”
I was beginning to see where this was going, and I did not like it.
“You, though. You’re good, you know. You’re better than anyone else here. At magic, and swordplay, and hunting. You watched me for so long, didn’t you? You wanted to be the hero. For so many years, you must have kept it in. I’m sorry.” His tone was wistful. He almost sounded as though he had regrets about everything happening. That didn’t change what he was doing.
The magic fell from the air, leaving it acrid and stale. I stared, still held fast, at my own face looking back at me.
“I’m so sorry.”
It was my voice, but it was coming from his mouth, crouching there by my bedside. He wore my eyes, the green eyes that were the spitting image of my mother’s, and his frame was stocky and ungraceful, just like my father’s had been.
I didn’t even have to move or look in a mirror to know what he’d done. To know that my own eyes were now blue, and my frame long like a dancer’s. I glared at him, the only thing I could do while he held me.
He smiled sadly. “You were always my best friend, you know. It’s for the world. I can’t die here.” His hand fell away from my shoulder, but I was still stuck in place like a statue. He raised an eyebrow at me.
“What are you doing? You’re in my bed, Darren. And it’s late. You should get going. You have a big day tomorrow.”
I could feel my feet rising under me, pushing me out of bed. The world looked different, and I realized that this was what it felt like to be taller. Darren had a good four inches on me. He climbed into my bed, still smiling at me.
“You asshole,” I managed, finding that I could speak again.
He sighed. “Please don’t be like that. I do appreciate your sacrifice – it’s for the good of everyone. Now go be a hero, just like you’ve always wanted.” His teeth, my teeth, were pearly white as he grinned, all of his earlier sadness hidden behind the self-satisfied of one who had won the game. “Chosen.”
I could hear his comfortable groan as he settled into my bed. And then my feet were moving, carrying me out the door towards ‘my’ house- towards Darren’s house. I struggled against it, and found that I could control myself, so long as I was cooperating with the intent of whatever binding he had set on me.
I cursed it silently, but it didn’t seem to make a difference.
The guards at my door smiled at me as I approached. “Have a good walk, Master Darren?”
I opened my mouth. I tried to tell him that he was wrong, that I wasn’t Darren at all. I tried to say that my name was Jas. I tried to ask for help. The binding snapped up all of the words, leaving me only able to nod curtly.
The Chosen One walked wordlessly past his guards. The door slammed shut behind him.