The Fallen Kingdom – Elizabeth May

I AM THE beginning of a girl: her throat filled with ash, desperately clawing her way from the earth with weak, trembling limbs and an urgent message on her lips. I surface. I open my eyes to see the wide gray sky. A howling scream pierces the air—I realize it’s mine. My fingernails sink into the damp soil as I heave the rest of my body out of the ground. I collapse onto my stomach, my cheek pressed to the dirt. I gasp out words that catch in my throat, a litany on my tongue with no thought, no memory, no reason attached. The message grows ragged with my breathing, more and more incoherent as I come back to myself. As thoughts begin to form. As they cloud my mind, too many at once. Where am I? How did I get here? I don’t remember. I stagger to my feet, grasping a nearby branch to steady myself. I blink against the light, my vision clearing as I take in the sight before me. I’m in a forest that has burned black, every tree uprooted and fallen. Twisting branches cage me in, reaching for the sky like gnarled fingertips.

I cough at the overwhelming stench of smoke from a recently extinguished fire. The air is so saturated with it that I have to press the back of my hand to my nose. It’s hardly any better. My bare arms are covered with soot and grime. The black dress I’m wearing is caked with dirt. I swipe a hand down the silky fabric. How did I come to wear this? It’s not even familiar. Nothing is familiar. I have no memory of my life before now. My breath hitches in alarm.

“Think.” My voice is rough, jarring. I press a hand to my chest as if it could slow my heartbeat. “There has to be something.” I try reaching for some scrap of memory, desperate to quiet the panicked thoughts that come again. Who am I? Where am I? How did I get here? But nothing comes. My mind is empty. An endless void where I know—I know—there ought to be a lifetime of memories. Something rustles behind me. A few feet away, a crow lands on a blackened branch and beats its wings.

Its small, inky eyes fix on me, unblinking. The sound it makes is a cross between a growl and a squawk. I step back, my skin breaking out in gooseflesh. Eyes black as pitch. Withered skin stretched over bones. I’ll find you. Wherever you go, I’ll find you. I flinch at the quick, fleeting image in my mind—a cacophony of ebony wings and cawing laughter that fills me with dread. Disturbing flashes of long, sharp beaks dripping with something. Blood? Then a voice that rises up from the shadowed parts of my mind, one that is old and trembling, yet filled with malice.

After this, you’re on borrowed time. Who did that voice belong to? I don’t remember, and something tells me that I need to, that the message she gave me—the one I recited when I fought my way out of the ground—is important. And whatever it was, it scared the hell out of me. The voice comes again, fainter this time. Fading, dying. I came to make you an of er. She dissolved into ash in my arms. I pull out of the memory with a startled jerk that scares the crow away. It takes off in a flurry of plumage, coming in too close as it swoops past. I step back so quickly that one of the pointed tree branches slices through my palm.

A hiss of pain escapes my lips as I stare at the welling blood beginning to snake down my fingertips. Before I can stop myself—before I realize what I’m doing—power surges through my veins. It rushes down my wrist to where the blood pools along the palm of my hand. The energy is insistent, demanding. It hovers in the air as if asking for a command, anything I desire. I can make it real. I don’t want anything. Just something familiar. A memory. I watch in shock as the branch that cut me is warped into metal as sharp as the pointed edge of a dagger.

It’s unsettling. I recall the shape of it, deep down in the blank space of my memories. As I’m trying to draw up the image, metal spreads along the tree, its limbs turning into a thousand twisting blades. A nightmarish sight, drawn from thoughts of a place I don’t ever, ever want to recall. Where monsters with serrated teeth hid in the shadows of a dark forest. Turn it back to what it was. Burn it down again. Please. Black, scorched branches replace metal—but my power doesn’t stop there. It bursts out in startling, vivid blue flames that lick the air and consume the contorted, dead trees around me.

Gasping, I shut my eyes as fear knots my stomach. I have to get out of here. I have to get out before I make it worse. I have to— An ear-splitting crack fills the silence. I open my eyes just as the trees all collapse to the ground, sending cinders into the sky that extinguish one by one like a thousand dying stars. Now what’s left is a perfectly cut path through the remains of the twisting branches. Pull it in. Pull it in now. My power settles back in my chest, a painful, solid weight that leaves me doubled over with a gasp. As if it’s stretching out the bones of my body, twisting itself into a space that doesn’t fit—that wasn’t made for it.

As if it never belonged to me to begin with. I hear that voice again, the one that sounds like a crone in her last, precious moments before death; filled with a tired, sad awareness of mortality. You are my only blood. Remember, I tell myself. I desperately search my mind, but the few memories there are too tenuous, delicate. “I can’t.” I can barely say the words. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. Try harder. I begin to walk the burned tree path, tearing through string after string of fleeting memories.

They disappear as if they were grains of sand falling through my fingertips. Focus. I try to redirect my thoughts to something simple. How I came to be here. Where I am. My name. My name. I don’t know my name. A hot rush of panic hits me hard. That’s not possible.

Who forgets her own bloody name? It feels like it should come easily. It’s right there, within my reach: the letters, the sound of it, the way my lips form the syllables. But when I push for the memory, it won’t come. Fear makes me walk faster. My bare feet pad across the ash-covered ground at a speed that makes my legs burn with the effort, but I’m too upset to care. Up ahead, at the far end of the forest, a sliver of sunlight peeks through the clouds and reflects across the surface of a loch. I pause as an image of that loch flutters across my mind, swift as bird wings. I was flying—no, I rode a horse over the landscape so quickly, it felt as if I were flying. I was racing after a dark-haired man and a woman who were also on horseback. We were headed into a battle, defending people I cared about.

But where are they? Who were they? Maybe my reflection will help me remember. I break into a run, tearing through the line of dead trees, ignoring the sharp pain when my feet are cut by twigs. I burst through the forest and sprint down the rocky beach, heading for the remains of a dock. The wood looks just sturdy enough to walk on. My name is on my lips; I’m trying to form the sounds. It’s something several syllables long—but there’s another one, shorter. A single rough note that’s concise, direct. It comes with the memory of the man who rode into battle with me. God, my chest aches at the thought of him. He whispered that shortened name like he loved the sound of it.

Like he was telling me a secret. As if it meant I love you and I want you. As if it were a promise on his lips, a declaration. A vow. My feet hit the dock. The whole structure groans beneath my weight. I take those last steps tentatively, so the wood doesn’t collapse. Then I lie down on my stomach, peer over the edge, and look into the still water. Those aren’t my eyes. It’s the first thing I notice.

They should be different—hazel, I think. A mixture of brown and deep, deep green. Now they’re the light amber of raw honey. The color is rich and vibrant and unsettling. Those aren’t my eyes. They can’t be. I study my features for anything else that stands out. My face stares back at me, and it looks familiar. Beneath the fine layer of dirt and soot, ginger freckles are scattered across the bridge of my nose, along my cheekbones and the tops of my shoulders where the dress has left them bare. My curly, copper-colored hair dips closer to the water, a single ringlet barely touching the surface.

I know my face, just as I’d know my name if I heard it. The rest of me is ordinary, normal. Human features in a human face. My attention returns to my eyes. Not mine. Not human. A chill goes through me when I see a glimmer beneath the irises, like a shadow crossing water. Compelled, I reach out to touch my reflection. The moment I make contact with the water, it tugs at the power inside me. God, it hurts.

The pain eases only when I free it again from its prison in my chest. Ice forms around my fingertips—but it doesn’t stop there. It spreads quickly across the surface of the water, fanning out in tendrils of frost. The sleek, smooth surface is as clear as a mirror. It’s so beautiful that I can’t help but admire it. Until I realize the ice isn’t stopping. I try to draw it back, but it’s too late. I can’t. My powers won’t be caged now, they won’t be contained or slowed. The frost keeps spreading across the loch, reaching the rocks along the far shore.

Slow down. Slow down— Thunder claps in the distance and I start. Overhead, the shaft of sunlight that lit up the silver waters of the loch disappears behind dark storm clouds that weren’t there a moment ago. A sudden icy wind slices through the delicate fabric of my dress. “Stop it,” I tell my power in a choked whisper, struggling to pull it back into that too-small space in my chest. “Stop stop stop.” My power snaps back so fast and painfully that I cry out. I scramble to my feet, pulse quickening. The loch and the beach are covered in a thick layer of ice. What did I just do? The power is like my eyes—it doesn’t feel right.

It’s not mine. How can it be? I can’t control it. Accept. You must accept now. A skeletal hand wrapping around mine in a hard, bruising grip. A withered body embracing me, and a sudden agonizing, searing pain. I remember how I threw back my head and screamed and screamed and screamed. Staggering at the memory, I hurry away from that damned dock before I can do something worse than freezing the water and bringing a storm. Just what the bloody hell was that? What am I? My thoughts whisper a word. A horrifying suggestion that makes me go still with dismay.

Fae. No, I’m not fae. I stare down at my feet, swollen and cut up from walking through the forest. Fae don’t bleed this easily. The realization is a small comfort. A memory comes fast: me curling my fingernails into my palms to recall what pain felt like. Pain that said I’m still human. I’m still me. Bleeding is what mortals do. I’m still mortal.

The sharp beat of horse hooves draws me out of my thoughts. The rhythm is a faint, steady staccato against the earth. It isn’t just the sound—I can feel it. In the rocks, the same way my power connected to the water. It’s coming from the living forest at the far end of the loch. Three horses. Each with a rider and . Power. It has a weight to it, the way air does on humid days. A heaviness accompanied by a wild, earthy scent that’s vaguely floral.

It calls to something inside me that knows—with certainty—that those riders are my enemies. Their power grows closer, gliding across the land in tendrils as dark as shadows cast by trees. They’re searching for someone. I flick a glance down at my hands, still cold from the water. They must be looking for the source of power. For whoever burned the forest to the ground. For whoever froze the surface of the loch. Me. They’re looking for me.

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