It hurt—that first breath. Riel coughed before taking in another throat searing gasp. A sour, rotten smell brought a wave of nausea, but he refused to stop. Freedom was so close. He ignored the pain as grainy rocks and dirt dug under his broken nails. Inch by inch he crawled out of the soil. Muscles quivered in exhausted protest as he leveraged his arm on the hard floor. He heaved the rest of his body out of the pit and dragged himself away from its edge before he collapsed.
Riel squinted as his eyes adjusted to the unfiltered sunlight beaming through the caved in roof. The ruined dome of a ceiling looked like skeleton ribs curving above him. Eroded sections of the walls left sizable gaps to its structure. Wherever he was, it wasn’t the Devourer—that torturous living prison.
A surge of laughter bubbled out of him. The plan had worked. Free, he was finally free. Never would he go back to captivity.
The caustic air burned on its way into his lungs and changed his laugh into a hacking cough, tainting his joy. His stomach turned. Riel forced himself up to a seated position and waited for his gut to settle. Soil coated his body, and he felt clumps of it stuck to his hair. Even after spitting, the gritty taste of dirt lingered. Freedom should taste sweeter.
“Status,” Riel said.
<<Air quality…toxicity high, but within acceptable breathing parameters. Physical capabilities…body functional with no change in status. Grafting has stabilized. Reboot required for full adaptation. Shall I initiate now?>>
Embedded into Riel’s mind since birth, the internal program monitored and regulated his entire system. It had been his sole companion during his long imprisonment.
Riel remembered the injustice of his sentence. His hands clenched into fists. “Finish the status update first.”
<<Mental capabilities…damaged and unstable. Generating the gateway impaired vital areas of your development. Unknown if damage is permanent.>>
Riel grimaced, but the gateway had saved him. “Lecture later, Thirteen. Continue status.”
<<Adapting program to compensate for mental damage. Core…safe but incomplete. Reboot may activate the halted core processing. Shall I initiate now?>>
“No.” Riel frowned at Thirteen’s insistent behavior. If Thirteen wasn’t a sophisticated piece of wiring, he would have thought his program was afraid, but that was impossible. Thirteen couldn’t develop emotions…could it?
A stray breeze caused Riel to shiver. He curled his legs in closer. A cold chain slithered across his back at the movement. Its metallic clinks disrupted the quiet before they settled on the ground. He touched the link implanted into his shoulder blade—a souvenir from his captivity. A surge of hatred centered on the offensive item. He would have ripped it out long ago, but no prisoner could remove his own chain.
His eyes slid shut. So tired. “Continue status.”
<<Location…preliminary observations suggest the realm of Mirris. Status complete. Rebooting in three, two, one.>>
Too fast for Riel to counter command, his body shut down.
# # #
Muffled voices jerked Riel awake. Heart pounding, he stumbled to his feet. The open space around him was empty except for littered debris from the collapsed ceiling. The chamber’s eroding walls did nothing to prevent nature from coming through, as evidenced by the piles of decomposing matter covered in fungus. He was alone.
His relief died at a growl of machinery roaring to life. The vibrations of the machine produced slight tremors through the floor. On shaky legs, Riel followed the sounds of chipping pings. Stairs curved down to a lower level, but boulder-sized rubble blocked the sole passageway out.
“How did the Numbered find me?”
<<Improbable that the Numbered noticed your escape and tracked your whereabouts.>>
Fear of recapture drowned out the logic in Thirteen’s statement. Riel wobbled over to one of the gaping holes in the wall. The chain dragged behind him against the hard-packed dirt floor, slithering past rocky remains of the crumbled structure. A blast of acrid air blew sand into his face. He raised a hand, protecting his eyes as he gazed out and down—impossibly down. A fall from this height would kill him well before he even hit the ground. The fading rays of the sun blazed a fiery trail across the crimson sky as it set over a desolate landscape. There were no signs of life, only dull red rocks worn by the relentless wind.
<<The intruders will break through. What course of action do you propose?>>
His imprisonment had felt like a millennium, allowing his mind to develop to adulthood but preventing his body to follow suit. It was still that of a child—weak, small, and fragile—frozen in time, neither growing nor atrophying. The reboot should fix the age paralysis on his physical growth, but that didn’t solve his immediate problem. Time. He needed time to grow, become stronger. The tapping staccato from the entryway mocked his desperate need.
Riel leaned forward. Such a long drop. Death would be instant.
<<Heart rate accelerating. Breath raspy. Automatic adjustments not working. What are your intentions?>>
Riel took a hasty step backward. A chill coursed through him. He moved away from the edge with its glimpse of freedom. The chain scraped against a stony piece of wreckage, breaking the tense silence. “Just vertigo. Nothing to worry about.”
Grateful that Thirteen didn’t challenge him, Riel refocused his thoughts. Was there something here he could use as a weapon to defend himself? He scanned the area, avoiding the center of the room where the hole from the gateway resided. The gateway had opened up and deposited him inside the floor instead of on its surface. His escape had almost become his grave.
The thought scared him, but the unrelenting noise of the machine impressed upon him that time was short. He forced himself to look at the hole he had escaped from.
A dark mass obscured by rubble caught his attention. He stepped closer. A jumble of tangled fibers had decomposed around a massive stump. His eyes widened.
“Is that…? It can’t be.”
<<If you are referring to the organic remains, it shares similar properties and composition as the Devourer. 92% certainty it was once a Living Tree.>>
Riel’s mind skirted away from thinking about the Devourer. That monster was a corrupted version of the majestic Living Trees his father had told him about. But what had happened to this one? All that remained of it was a mass of decay.
<<Most probable outcome is your gateway took the route of least resistance, traveling from one Living Tree to another. Though this one appears to be dead. Perhaps its roots still live, and that is why your gateway opened within the ground instead of above it.>>
Had this empire’s people abandoned its Tree to die alone and forgotten? Would he end up just like it? No, he shouldn’t entertain such thoughts. His life would not follow that same fate.
“Which Living Tree is this one?”
<<Searching database… Spire. Desolate climate. Red sky. Location acquired. It is Mirris’s ancient seat of power before the fall of their empire and destruction of their land. Current name: Forbidden Territory. Therefore, Living Tree is the Teacher.>>
Mirris. That’s right. Thirteen had mentioned Mirris before the reboot. “What information do you have on Mirris?”
<<Accessing network…access denied.>>
<<Return from subroutine. Unable to access until you meet set parameter. Part of core coding. Unable to bypass.>>
Riel rubbed his face. Dried dirt flaked off into his hands. Frustrated, he turned away from the stump and stared at the blocked door. “What parameter is that?”
<<Age. Access will be granted once you have transitioned to the appropriate stage of life.>>
“I’ve lived enough years in that pit of hell to fill a lifetime. Just how old do I need to be?”
<<Unknown. Unable to view coding in its entirety, but I said stage of life. Coding does not base it on time.>>
Riel grabbed the closest rock and heaved it at the wall. Unsatisfied by the dull thud, he picked a bigger piece of the fallen ceiling. This one shattered to pieces on impact.
<<You are angry.>>
“Me? No.” Another stone hit its mark.
<<Sarcasm. Anger. Is freedom not to your liking?>>
Riel flung his arms out. “Look around. This isn’t freedom. I’ve only traded one cage for another.”
<<The intruders may not be hostile. They might offer aid.>>
“Aid? In a place called Forbidden Territory? You don’t get such a name without just cause.” No one offered aid without expecting something in return, and Riel had nothing to give.
He kicked at a stone, and the chain rattled against him. His fingers sought the link attached to his shoulder blade. The puckered skin had long since healed around the repulsive object.
<<You are thinking about Three.>>
As if burned, Riel withdrew his hand. It was hard to separate his hatred of the chain from his brother’s actions that day. “Stop trying to psychoanalyze me. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Determined to ignore his chains, Riel focused on the Teacher. His father had mentioned little about this Living Tree. Only that it somehow collected the history of a person and then transferred it to another. Something about its branches housing lineages of lives come and gone. Riel had been young and uninterested in the Living Trees. He had half-doubted they were even real until exposed to the Devourer.
Riel glanced back at the pit. It looked insignificant compared to the colossal struggle it took to break free. Next to it was the remnants of the Teacher.
“Thirteen, how easy would it be to hack your system?”
<<Mental safeguards damaged. Simple for a skilled Numbered to bypass firewall restrictions.>>
Riel avoided his almost-grave as he approached the rotten wood beside it. “Is my body developed enough to handle another grafting?”
<<Yes, but not recommended to graft an ancient relic to yourself. You barely survived the first grafting. In addition, you sustained mental damage. These teaching memories—if any exist—might mingle with your own.>>
“I was dying when I did that grafting. I’m stronger now. As for a mingling of memories, that is what I am counting on. I need to buy myself more time. Time for this body to grow and develop. Time to stay forgotten until I am safe again. If I’m recaptured, the foreign memories might save my life—throw my enemies off my trail if they can’t verify who I am.”
<<There is a 56% statistical probability your plan will backfire. True identity may become inaccessible or corrupted within the core. I calculate a 31% chance you stay lost in Mirris—living the life of a stranger. You may never find your way back home.>>
Home? He had no home. All he wanted was to disappear, never to be found. The thought of jumping off the spire repulsed him, but this, losing himself inside someone else’s memories and living a different life—it was the chance to start fresh, anew. Surely the Eternal One wouldn’t begrudge him that.
The ground rattled at the continued progress of their unwanted visitors destroying the stone obstruction. Was it his imagination, or were the hammering thuds getting louder?
Riel braced against the pitiful stump of the Living Tree. Didn’t his father say the pulse of a person activated the Living Trees? Or was he remembering wrong? Only one way to find out.
Riel pushed his arm deep into the muck of softened wood. Perhaps something still lived, struggling to survive against its fate—like him. There might be a spark of sentience left in the Teacher with one last reflected life saved in its fibers. A memory for him to steal and overshadow his own.
A shift of the wooden splinters alerted him to something moving inside the core of the Teacher. He spied a thin tendril of deep blue peeking out. The shoot seemed inconsequential, but developed enough to hold the memories of one life. It darted back into the stump.
<<This course of action is ill conceived. The tendril is too small, too weak, to support a lineage. Unpredictable chain reactions make calculating outcome difficult.>>
“I don’t need a lineage, just one life—even half of a life—to conceal my origins. Like the shoot, I’m young and small. This is perfect.”
<<Living Tree is dead. Improbable for a single shoot to survive. Calculating risk… Likelihood in favor of a trap.>>
“A trap? This place has been sealed off for eons. No, this is providence.”
<<Divine intervention… Statistical chance for divine intervention is minuscule. Trap more probable. Your arrival might have triggered an alarm, drawing our current visitors to this location.>>
“Trap or not, only the Eternal One could time this so perfectly.”
<<No observable evidence to support claim.>>
Riel squeezed his eyes shut. Under his breath he said, “Please work. Please, please work. I can’t go back.”
He opened his eyes and searched for movement as he willed the tendril to return. He kept his arm deep within the decaying tree. Nothing happened. The shoot stayed dormant. Uncertainty crept in, whispering doubts. Anxiety rose, drowning out everything except the grind of the approaching machinery.
Riel’s head drooped as his shoulders sagged. “It can’t end like this. Have I not suffered long enough—refusing to be scattered among the dust? Have I not clawed my way out of the depths of darkness for just a chance at freedom? What more do I have to do?”
Riel stared at the pitiful stump that had once been a massive Living Tree. Shame tainted him. He wanted to rewrite himself, to cease to be. Maybe Thirteen was right.
Riel moved to pull his arm out. A tentative touch skimmed across his palm. He stilled, holding his breath. Teetering on the precipice of decision, he remembered how the Numbered had judged him guilty based on corrupt standards and usurped authority. His guilt was not from any crime he had committed. No, it was from the birthright he would inherit upon reaching adulthood, and they had frozen his body to remain as a child while imprisoned. Forbidden from ever attaining his birthright. Small. Weak. They would find him, and he wouldn’t have the strength or power to stop them.
Another gentle probe and Riel decided. He stayed motionless against the pressure on his inner wrist. A gasp escaped from him. It felt like the tendril had speared into him. He gritted his teeth against the horrific sensation of it squirming under his skin. This was not part of his father’s stories. Squeezing his eyes shut, he willed himself to keep his arm steady.
<<Shall I expel the parasite?>>
“No. Graft it. I’ll do anything, even this, to avoid the Numbered sinking their claws into me again. This is the right course of action.”
The pressure abated. Riel unclenched his muscles and watched a flash of blue swim under his skin and up his arm. Once inside him, the grafting started. The process dulled his senses, leaving him vulnerable. He hoped it finished before the intruders arrived.
Riel shifted to extract his forearm from the decaying tree. A sharp tug pinched around his wrist and halted his progress. Something else was in the rot. Heart hammering, he pulled harder, ignoring the pain it produced. His hand ripped out of the stump to reveal a black vine laden with thorns wrapped around his wrist. The stump hid the source of the vine as it tethered him from freedom. It refused to let go, winding tighter as if his arm was a spool. His limb became numb. The thorns pierced deeper into his flesh, becoming part of the grafting process.
Panic turned to action. Riel grabbed the stretched vine and twisted until it snapped apart. He stumbled back from the stump with his sudden release. The severed part of the vine on his wrist continued to coil tighter. He tore at it, heedless of the damage inflicted by its sharp thorns. It would not come off. The clinging vine with its bloody thorns sank into him as if his flesh had become water.
“No, no, no!”
A flicker of motion spurred him to scramble back even farther. Like a snake, the thorny vine writhed out of the nest of wood fibers, darting into the pit from which Riel had escaped. A trail of thick resin marked its passage.
“This isn’t from Mirris. It came with me from the gateway. Fool! I’m such a fool.”
<<Probability of other entities following your path into Mirris anticipated. Security protocols already deployed.>>
Riel clutched at his arm as the unwanted entity invaded his body. The two vines raced in competition as they dug deeper into him, reaching for his core.
“The core. No! Thirteen, launch—”
<<Do not command it. I will obey if commanded. Fear is overriding your ability to make rational decisions. Trust me to prevent further access. Trust…your providence—the Eternal One.>>
“I must be dying. You did not just express faith in—”
Riel’s dark humor faltered. His body stiffened. He stared off into space as his vision tunneled inward to darkness. The grafting drew to its completion, and, like a puppet with its strings cut, Riel collapsed to the ground.
The dream started, as they often do, in the middle without context or meaning. A scattered trail of fantastical images defying logic or reason, yet making perfect sense while dreaming. Thus, there was no confusion when Echo found himself playing a game with two others.
The hand-carved figurines moved on their own as the trio played. The pieces came from the archaic game of chess: a pawn, a knight, and a king. Echo frowned, forgetting which piece was his.
“I can help you with that—your memory,” the man on Echo’s right said. His shaggy hair obscured his face, but Echo knew he was the Gamekeeper.
Echo scowled. “Maybe I don’t want to …