The Fragments – Chapter 1, Lost

From February 2022 I plan to publish sample draft chapters from upcoming books on my website. If you are interested in more information head over to the new section on Writing . And now … The Fragments – Chapter 1, Lost.

lost |lɒst|
adjective

1 – unable to find one’s way or not knowing one’s whereabouts
2 – unable to be found 
3 – something (or someone) that has been taken away and cannot be recovered

Standard Anglaise Reference – edition founding year 4203, House Publishing Library

The forest clung to its fragment. It covered every surface, climbed every peak, and dived into every crevasse from the inner median to the outer rim of the tear. Its roots cut deep into the Arnok rock, the thick arms forking into finer and finer tentacles until the furthest strands spread a web of golden veins through night-black stone. 

Above, the forest’s slender trunks reached high into the sky where they opened into a roof of autumn colours. Light flickered through the leaves and cut golden shafts through the dusty shadows of the timeless hall beneath. No undergrowth or brushwood, not even a single fern challenged their path. Where the light reached the forest floor, it cast golden patches over a mosaic of fallen leaves in colours from dark green to deep red. 

A breeze ruffled through the leaves as if daring them to dance. A chorus of red petals accepted the challenge, rose, and twirled up high. The improvised dance filled the air with dry whispers and eddying laughter. With a last whirling bow, the breeze rose from the ground and spiralled up towards the canopy. Left to their own devices, the leaves drifted back to the ground.

The last leaf had just settled when a spindly limb reached out from the shadows beneath a tree. A second limb followed the first, and a third until eight of them carried a peculiar creature into the light. As if waking from a long stillness, the creature stretched this way and that. Its red and silver scales glittered in a perfect mimic of the forest ground. Seemingly satisfied that its arcane mechanics worked with the required precision, the creature circled the new arrangement on the forest floor inspecting it from every possible angle. Its light and precise movements didn’t disturb a single leaf. Now and again, the creature halted, tilted its head, and made a clicking sound. Finally, one of its tiny claws reached out to pick up a single leaf. The long oval shape had dried to a deep red surface with a silver-white underside. The creature spun the leaf between its claws a few times before lowering it carefully with the silver side now facing up. Then it stood back and waited. 

The lights resumed their flickering through the canopy, the deepening orange tinge heralding the end of the day. As the last lonely light found the sprinkling of white between the autumn reds, it reflected in a tiny silver spark. The creature tilted its head, gave a satisfied click, and withdrew back into the shadows.

She half ran, half stumbled along the dimly lit corridor, paying no attention to the endless rows of doors—she had been told not to. Finally her legs threatened to give way, and she leaned against the wall, letting her head rest back against the wooden wall panels. Her fingers reached for the envelope in her pocket. The gesture had become almost compulsive—a moment of doubt, followed by relief, followed by new fears. 

She cast a glance back down the way she had come, then bit her lip hard. She could not afford to stop or to look back. She needed to find a way out before she got lost completely. She limped on, supporting herself with one hand on the wall. She almost lost her balance when her hand missed a door jamb, and her fingers dropped into empty air. She staggered sideways but her fingers found the door and caught her fall. When she pushed against the wood to straighten herself, her eyes focused on the panel under her hand, and her heart skipped a beat. 

Just above her index finger, somebody had scratched a drawing into the wood—a grid of two horizontal and two vertical lines with naughts and crosses in the boxes in-between. The lines were scratched and faded, but she would recognise that symbol anywhere. 

Her gaze travelled to the glass opening in the door’s upper panel. The room behind it lay in darkness, but she knew what was behind that door. She had been stuck in that room for her three years at the Institute. 

But this door had no right to be here. She was not at the Institute, and she would never go back. But her hand reached for the doorknob before she could stop it. 

The door opened and darkness flooded the corridor. 

This was wrong. This was not what was supposed to happen. She stumbled back, but her hands grasped only at empty air. A darkness more than the absence of light closed in on her exhausted body. It clung to her tired limbs, seeped through her skin, and travelled along her nerves until it filled every corner of her body and mind. 

Another step back, and her feet missed the ground. Between one heartbeat and the next, she fell through a blur of night laced with gold and silver threads. Time stretched and folded around her. Her skin shed the darkness like a dry hull that no longer fitted. All around her, shadows ripped to black shreds and dissolved into ash. For a moment, she was caught in an impossible web of frozen time. Then, the pattern released her—but not without taking its toll.

Tayl Bergin tugged the last paper fold in place and held his latest creation at arm’s length. He turned it this way and that to allow the light to reveal any imperfections. The feathered scales of the paper miniature fluttered in a light breeze. Its wings whispered as if the wind had shaken it alive, and it was ready to lift off to explore the skies. Satisfied with his work, Tayl let the creature perch on a root and picked up his pack.

He stood and took his echoscope out of his back pocket. The round case was no thicker than a pencil and fitted perfectly in his palm. He pressed the indentation in the centre. The protective cover folded away to reveal a set of concentric rings. He pressed down a second time, and a holo map unfolded in a circle around the scope. The third nudge triggered a series of silent pulses. The instrument logged the returning data with his own position in the centre and displayed the results as glowing lines on the holo disc. He was close to the tear. 

He scanned the trees around him. To his right, the forest floor dropped into a narrow gorge. At its bottom, water rushed between rocks, tumbled into deep pools, and spread over shallow beds. On the far side, the forest opened and allowed him a glimpse through the trees towards the rim. Crossing the river would not be easy, but he could reach the Crenok circle before nightfall. He could sleep in his bed tonight if that was what he wanted—and if he wanted to follow Graphyn’s summons. 

He closed the echoscope, slipped it back into his pocket, and drew out the message capsule he had found at his last stop at Crossroads. He opened it and unrolled the message film.

Tayl, can you return to Bay’s House before the end of the quarter? 

We need to talk. 

Tayl’s gaze caught on the signet marking the sender’s identity. Graphyn could have signed in Anglaise matching the rest of the message; instead, he had chosen to sign with his House signet. Was this to remind Tayl what Graphyn had left behind to get Tayl to safety?

Tayl shook his head. The last six months had been his longest absence from Bay’s End. He might not have avoided Graphyn directly, but he had found reasons to postpone his return again and again. He had justified his absence with his studies at Lakeside, or a visit to a fragment to verify one of Amik’s maps, or his research at the Arc libraries at Arnwen. The list went on and on until it led him to where he stood today—the Arc Forest. 

Graphyn had raised him since he was four years old; maybe not as a father might have, but Tayl had no comparison to tell the difference, and he had missed nothing. At least not until things had changed. 

Around two years ago, Graphyn and Tayl had embarked on a trip covering several fragments Tayl had not visited before. Their final stop had been the Arc Forest, and on their last night they had set up camp close to where he stood now. The following day, Tayl would prove his ability to travel across the Fragments on his own. Graphyn had let him, if somewhat reluctantly, cross alone to fragments they had often visited together. But that final test would confirm Tayl’s capability to cross between any fragments, known and unknown to him. He had passed the test, and with that passing, the relationship between him and Graphyn had started to change.

Graphyn had buried himself in his research at Bay’s House, leaving Tayl to his own devices. At first, Tayl had enjoyed his newfound freedom and travelled far and wide. But on each return, Graphyn seemed to have withdrawn further, and Tayl started to feel set aside like a resented responsibility, a debt from the past that had been paid and now no longer connected to Graphyn’s life. On Tayl’s last stay at Bay’s End, they had hardly spoken to each other. 

A shadow passed over the message in his hand and Tayl looked up. A lone black bird circled above the canopy then vanished between the branches. His gaze returned to the message. Graphyn wanted him to return before the end of the quarter. That left him with one more day. He rolled the film back into its capsule. He would return to Bay’s End, but not tonight. He would spend one last night alone under the forest’s roof. 

He dropped the capsule back into his pocket, slung his pack over his shoulder, and continued along the top of the gorge in search of a campsite.

The girl woke to a warm breeze touching her cheeks and sunlight dancing across her eyelids. She opened her eyes. Above her, light flickered through hazy shapes. She lay on soft, dry ground. Her limbs felt too warm and too heavy to move, but something brittle dug into her cheek, and she lifted her head a fraction. Was that a dried leaf?

She heaved herself onto her elbows. The ground around her was covered in dead leaves. She pushed herself up on her knees and brushed off her hands. A leaf stuck to her palm. The small, needle-shaped form had dried into a dark red. Red the colour of— 

Blood. Blood covering her hands, her sleeves, her knees, the cobblestones. A sea of blood. Too much to—

She stared at her hands. For a moment, she had thought—she shook her head and picked the leaf off her palm. It was long and narrow, dark red on one side, silver-grey on the other. More leaves stuck to her clothes. She was dressed for the outdoors. A parka, trousers, laced boots. The parka was a faded orange. It wasn’t hers. She had taken it, the parka and—and something else.

Her hands dived into the parka’s outer pockets. Empty. Panicked, she padded down her front. Her fingers felt a hard object hidden in an inner pocket. She drew it out. A silver coin, large and heavy. Both sides were stamped, but the markings were faded either by constant handling or old age. She recognised neither the writing nor the symbols. But the coin was not it. Not what she had lost.

She struggled to her feet and searched the rest of her clothes. Nothing. She scanned the ground around her. A few crumbled leaves marked the area where she had lain, but only a few feet further, not a single leaf seemed out of place. The ground showed no tracks, no imprints, nothing to indicate how she came to be here.

A gust of wind caught in her clothes. It whistled past her and shuffled through the leaves before escaping between grey trunks. She turned to take in the scenery around her. Trees and nothing but trees. 

Where was she? 

A shadow passed overhead. She staggered backwards until she felt a tree behind her. She pressed her back to the bark and held her breath while she scanned the treetops. A bird circled above the canopy, its shape flickering between the leaves. She let out a long breath and shook her head. 

What had she expected? A flying monster? 

The sky was tinged orange. The light was fading fast—she’d better get going. But which way?

Another gust tugged on her parka. She looked at the garment. Felted fabric, zipped at the front, a hood attached to a wide collar. It seemed too big for her. Was that why she had thought it wasn’t hers? 

Never mind that now.

She still held the coin and the leaf in her hand. She slipped both into an outer pocket, then searched the ground around her one more time to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. Still no clues why she was here, nor a sign from which direction she had come. She straightened and scanned the trees. To her left the tall trunks stood further apart, letting in more light through the canopy. She needed to choose a direction, and this one seemed as good as any. She walked into the darkening shadows, her fingers tightening around the coin in her pocket.

The first stars were visible when Tayl finally chose a small clearing as a campsite for the night. The open space sat a few hundred paces back from the top of the gorge. The rushing of the river was still discernible but less intrusive. He lowered his pack and crouched next to it. He took out a glowglobe and, still crouching, balanced the sphere on his palm. A breeze rustled through the leaves on the ground. He looked up, but the forest around him seemed deserted. He shrugged and turned back to the globe in his hand. He flicked the crystal with a fingernail, and it answered with a vibrating ring. Inside the glass, a light woke, at first flickering sleepily, then flaring into a brilliant miniature star.

The surprised curse from behind didn’t give him enough time to turn before he was struck in the back, and the sphere was knocked out of his hands. He lost his balance and fell forward, taking whoever had attacked him down with him. He rolled to the side, succeeded in untangling himself from someone else’s flailing limbs, and sprang to his feet. The sphere had caught itself and hovered a few feet away. The flare had faded into a steady glow, and the light reflected off a pale face surrounded by a tangle of dark hair. 

The blinding light had come out of nowhere. The girl had been walking for what felt like hours and had been half asleep on her feet when the sudden flare blinded her, causing her to stumble and fall.

‘Are you okay?’

A hand touched her shoulder. She shook it off and rolled onto her hands and knees. A tall figure loomed above her, a bright light at its back. She scrambled backwards—still on her hands and knees—until a tree blocked her path.

‘Hey, wait! It’s okay!’

To her, nothing seemed the slightest bit okay—nor had it been since she woke up in this place. She narrowed her eyes, and the tall figure shifted into a young man not much taller than her. Behind him, a light hovered above a pack lying open on the ground, its contents strewn across the leaves. He seemed to be alone. Her gaze flicked back to his face. He looked about her age, his stance was relaxed, and he wore strange but clearly casual clothes. 

Alone. No uniform. No immediate threat. The staccato assessments echoed in her mind, but she seemed unable to form a single coherent thought. She shook her head. She needed time to piece together what had happened—what was happening—to her. 

‘Where … .’ Her voice came out as a croak. She swallowed and tried again. ‘Where are we?’ 

‘The Arc Forest. Close to the tear.’ The young man straightened, stepped closer, and offered her a hand. ‘Why haven’t we met before?’ 

His intonation sounded heavily accented; the emphases and stresses all in the wrong place. 

Ignoring his hand and his question, she asked, ‘Can you tell me a way out of the trees?’

He dropped his hand. If he was offended, it didn’t show. ‘The trees? Do you mean the Arc Forest?’

She nodded and leaned on her arms to push herself upright, but a sharp pain shot through her palm and up her left arm, causing her to fall back with a wince. 

‘Are you hurt?’

She felt her forearm up to her elbow and experimentally moved her hand. Her palm was scratched, but not enough to explain the pain she had felt. 

‘It’s just a few scratches.’ She pulled down her sleeve and pushed herself upright, leaning on the tree at her back.

They stood facing each other for a long moment. His eyes were an unusually light grey. Eventually, he said, ‘I am Tayl Bergin.’ 

‘I am … .’ She paused and instead asked, ‘Your name is Tayl?’ 

He nodded and waited, then added, ‘I am on my way to Bay’s End.’

There was another pause. She knew that she was supposed to fill it with her name and a purpose. And I am … . I am … . I … . The phrase looped in her head, a painful emptiness cutting into the spaces where words should have been. The pause stretched for too long.

She straightened. ‘I need to go.’ 

She was about to walk past him, but the young man—Tayl—held her back. ‘Wait. Your nose. You are bleeding.’

She felt her nose. She tasted an iron tang on her upper lip, and her fingers came away red. Something inside her froze, and her mind turned completely blank.

‘Here—you can use this.’ Tayl took a small square of cloth out of his pocket and held it out.

Her hand moved on its own accord. It took the handkerchief and pressed it under her nose. 

‘Where do you need to go?’ Tayl asked. 

‘West 12.’ The words just dropped out of her mouth. She lowered the handkerchief. A few drops of blood had drawn perfect red circles on the white cloth. She looked up. ‘I need to go.’ It was as if somebody else—another part of her?—was speaking. And that part really, really needed to go. 

‘West 12? Which fragment is that?’ Tayl asked.

She only shook her head. If they spoke the same language at all, they didn’t share the same vocabulary. 

The bleed seemed to have stopped. She folded the cloth carefully, hiding the red marks between the white folds. She held it out to Tayl but did not meet his gaze. ‘Do you know a way out of the—the forest?’ 

Tayl took the handkerchief. ‘There is a Crenok circle in that direction.’ He pointed. 

His words still made no sense, but she could follow the direction he indicated. ‘Thank you.’ She walked past him, giving him no time to stop her—or to ask any more questions she had no answers for.

Tayl stared in disbelief at the girl’s retreating back. 

‘Hey, you can’t—’ he stopped. There was no point; she was not going to listen. 

He looked back to his campsite. His pack lay on its side, his belongings strewn over the leaves. He muttered a curse. The temperature had dropped with nightfall, and mist was gathering around the trees. The girl had all but vanished into the hazy shadows, and she was heading straight towards the ravine. He couldn’t just let her stumble through the night; neither could he let her go without finding out where she had come from. He gathered his belongings and checked that he had left nothing behind before extinguishing the light and dropping it into his pack. 

He followed her footsteps and soon spotted her dark silhouette between the trees. The sound of rushing water grew louder. He had almost closed the gap between them when she suddenly stopped and turned. 

‘Why are you following me?’ 

Tayl stood and raised his hands palms out. ‘Look—I don’t think you know where you are going.’ 

‘And you do?’ She took a step backwards.

‘Yes, I do.’ He pointed behind her. ‘There is a—’ 

She shook her head. ‘You don’t understand. I need—I need to go.’

She took another step back. Under her feet, a small avalanche of leaves slipped down the steep slope to the river. 

‘Wait—’ Tayl launched forward and grasped her elbow. 

But it was too late. The girl struggled free of his grip, stumbled backwards, and disappeared down the bank.

She slid down a steep incline in a landslide of dried leaves. She dug her feet into the slope to slow her fall, but the loose leaves offered no purchase. Then, the ground dropped away, and she fell through empty air. A heartbeat later, her boots splashed into icy water. She threw herself backwards, her arms flailing. Her fingers found a handhold on the wet stone behind her, and she managed to stay upright. 

The rushing water only reached halfway up her shins, but the current was strong enough to tug at her feet. She pressed her back into the stone wall, closed her eyes, and drew in a deep breath. 

Skies, what else could go wrong? 

She looked over her shoulder and up the bank. The rock face was about twice her height. The washed-out stone was too smooth and too steep to climb. And even if she could scramble up the stone, leaves still rained down around her, and she would never be able to crawl up the slippery bank above. She turned to the water in front of her. 

She stood in a shallow bend in a stream running through a narrow gorge. She thought she could make out the glint of a sandy beach on the far shore, but the night had turned the water into black ink, making it impossible to guess how deep it might be. She cast another glance up the bank. Tayl was nowhere to be seen, and the rushing water would swallow any sounds long before they reached him. 

She would need to take her chances crossing the water. She bit her lip and pushed herself away from the rock. 

The riverbed proved treacherous. Her feet slipped on wet stones and lurched into hidden hollows. After less than a dozen paces, the water rose above her boots. A few more steps, and she lost her footing and only regained her balance a split second before she would have tumbled into the water. She froze, not daring to take another step forward. The water reached above her knees and rushed around her legs, trying to sweep them from under her. Careful to move as little as possible, she cast a glance back over her shoulder. She had made it about halfway—

The slight shift in her weight had been enough for the current to reach under her front foot and yank it away. She fell backwards, and the icy stream knocked the air out of her lungs. She struggled to get up, but her feet skidded uselessly over the wet stones, and the current dragged her into deeper and deeper waters. A heartbeat later the river rushed around her, gripping her with freezing fingers and trying to pull her under. She kicked wildly to keep her head above the water, but the current swallowed her, spat her back out, swallowed her once more. The river opened into a deep pool. She gulped for air but only sucked in more water. Eventually, her wild kicks slowed to feeble strokes, and she sank into the cold. The water took her in. Even welcomed her. She floated weightlessly in absolute darkness, and the scream that had haunted her mind broke finally through the silence.

Run, Eass. Run!