Mikhail stared down at his right hand, which glowed with an eerie, bright blue light. He felt the heat from the light spread up his arm and through the rest of his body. He looked down at his waist and made sure the black rope was tightly knotted; satisfied that it was securely fastened, he gave a slight nod and set his gaze on the rune at his feet.
He knelt and pressed his glowing hand firmly against the intricate symbol etched into the floor, and a sudden, powerful gust of wind whipped through the chamber. It tousled his silver hair, billowing his robes and sending all small, unsecured items hurtling through the air. There were several other runes on the stone floor; they formed a perfect circle around him and ignited in the same haunting blue light. The air inside the chamber pulsated with ancient energy.
Undeterred by the storm blowing around him, Mikhail chanted words long forgotten by the world, and with each uttered syllable, the strength of the wind intensified and roared around him like a beast eager to break free of its chains. It pushed and pulled against Mikhail and threatened to lift him off his feet, sending him tumbling to the far reaches of the chamber. Yet, he held firm, bracing himself against the ferocious gale, never lifting his arm from the glowing rune.
As the runes continued to glow brighter, the silhouettes of other men emerged against the room’s dark stone walls. Each held onto the other end of the heavy, black robe tethered to Mikhail’s waist. With practiced agility, they quickly sidestepped all the airborne debris, their faces hidden beneath their hoods.
A blinding light burst into existence right in front of Mikhail. It cast stark, elongated shadows that danced menacingly along the walls. The light grew in intensity with the passing seconds and morphed into a swirling vortex of brilliant, ever-shifting colors. Its size threatened to consume everything in its path, turning the room into chaos and brilliance.
The power of the vortex lifted Mikhail's body off from the ground. His fingers strained to maintain their grip on an iron handlebar firmly embedded in the stone floor, a last anchor in the storm. The light from the rune enveloped his entire form as his right hand remained pressed upon its surface despite the spell's force.
As hard as he struggled to continue with the spell, the power unleashed by the vortex finally ripped Mikhail off the rune and pulled him toward its spiraling center. The rope around his waist pulled taut as the men on the other end held firmly to Mikhail. Even as he risked being consumed by the spiraling light, Mikhail continued with the chant. A voice shouted from behind him, one of the men holding the rope, but he paid it no heed.
I am so close. I cannot stop now.
A sudden pang in his chest caused Mikhail’s breath to catch in his throat. And in that pause, one by one, the runes’ glow extinguished, their energy spent. The multi-colored vortex shrank until it was no more, leaving the chamber in utter darkness.
Mikhail’s exhausted body fell to the ground with a soft, almost pitiful thud. The chamber was plunged into an oppressive silence, broken only by the ragged breaths of the hooded men who rushed to his side. Mikhail, his heart heavy with the weight of his failure, closed his eyes, accepting the shroud of darkness that enveloped him.
“It didn’t work,” he muttered softly, his voice barely more than a whisper.
Samara’s eyelids fluttered open, her first conscious sensation being a shiver coursing through her body as she registered the wet stickiness on her face. Her surroundings blurred as she struggled to push herself upright, but her legs betrayed her, sending her crashing back to the unforgiving ground.
“Where am I?” she muttered, her voice trembling with confusion. Her gaze darted around the unfamiliar surroundings, seeking anything that might hint at recognition.
Gradually, images began to crystallize. She found herself nestled within the heart of a sun-kissed meadow, its perimeter guarded by towering trees, their branches extending like protective arms. The soft, golden light bathed everything in the warm hues of dusk, casting long, inviting shadows around her.
“How on earth did I end up outside?” she pondered aloud, her hand instinctively reaching for her throbbing temple. The moment her palm made contact, that unsettling wetness returned, and she withdrew it, finding her white coat sleeve marred by a bright bloodstain. Panic surged through her as she summoned all her strength and attempted to stand once more, new aches and pains registering—a persistent throbbing in her back causing her to wince.
“Keep it together, Samara,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut to recall her recent past, but she could not recall the moments before waking up. Frustration mounted as she struggled to remember anything that could shed light on her current predicament.
“Maybe I’m concussed,” she mused aloud, finally rising. As she took in her surroundings, she became acutely aware of the towering plants that dwarfed her five-foot-five frame. Immediately surrounding her was wild grass that reached up to her calves, and several bushes dotted the clearing, some even taller than her. But the colossal trees truly dominated the scene, their branches growing upwards as if reaching for the heavens.
As her gaze followed them upward, a thought struck her. “I can use the maps app on my phone to figure out my location.” With newfound determination, she shoved her hands into her coat pockets, her fingers fumbling desperately. She retrieved a pen and some crumpled sheets of paper, which, though baffling, offered no aid in her current predicament. Next, she searched through her pants pockets, her heart sinking with each empty discovery.
“Where’s my phone?” Samara muttered, a rising sense of dread threatening to consume her. “No, this can’t be happening.” Her frantic gaze swept around her, searching for any sign of her lost lifeline. Perhaps it had fallen out of her pocket while she was lying down. As acceptance slowly crept in, she realized she was without her phone and utterly clueless about her current location.
“This is fine,” she told herself, though her trembling voice betrayed her panic. “I am a strong, capable woman. I will figure this out.” She started sifting through her memory, hoping to find some small detail that might help her navigate her way out of the unfamiliar forest.
“Follow the North Star,” a phrase suddenly popped into her head, a glimmer of hope amidst the confusion. “That’s it,” she thought, her gaze briefly lifting to the fading blue sky obscured by towering trees. But then it hit her like a falling branch, her face paled, and she sighed. “Oh, right,” she muttered, realizing her mistake.
“The sun sets in the West,” she recalled, a tiny ember of relief flickering within her. “If I head in that direction, I’m bound to find my way out and find help.” Determination surged within her, and she walked toward the setting sun, noting how rapidly it was descending on the horizon.
As Samara ventured deeper into the dense forest, the once-warm sun’s light gradually waned as the thick canopy blocked it. She felt a slight apprehension at the ominous prospect of being trapped under the menacing trees once night descended; the thought alone propelled her forward, hastening her steps despite the growing aches in her body.
Just as Samara was on the brink of resignation, thinking she might never make it out of the woods, she heard the faint murmur of rushing water nearby. The melody of the unseen river beckoned her, and she forged ahead through the gloomy woods. As she neared, her heart raced with anticipation; every step she took, the serenade grew louder and more distinct.
Emerging from the suffocating embrace of the tree line, Samara’s eyes widened in wonder as she gazed upon the glistening waters of a meandering river. Its surface sparkled like a ribbon of liquid silver under the soft, golden hues of the late afternoon sun. On the opposite shore, large rocks rose, leading toward a hill concealed by a dense thicket of trees. A sense of relief washed over her as she approached the water’s edge, her thirst almost unbearable.
Careful not to fall in, Samara knelt by the river’s edge. She dipped her hands into the cold water and brought them to her parched lips, savoring the refreshing taste. The refreshing liquid soothed her dry mouth. She repeated the process several times until she had satisfactorily quenched her thirst. The fear and confusion of her recent ordeal were momentarily forgotten.
Bending slightly over the river, she took a moment to observe her reflection. Her hair lay matted and messy on the right side of her head. It was a tangled mess with leaves and strands of grass sticking to her black strands. The right side of her face bore splotches of dried bloodstains and minor, shallow cuts. The whites of her eyes were bloodshot, and her gaze a mixture of exhaustion and anxiety.
“Oh gods, what happened to you?” Samara muttered to her reflection. She leaned closer to the water, dipped her hands in again, and splashed the cold water onto her face and hands. After a few minutes, she had rinsed away the bloodstains and dirt on her face, but her tangled mess of hair had proven more stubborn. She reached up with her right hand and gingerly probed her scalp, searching for the source of all the blood. She winced when her fingers grazed a small but painful wound about two inches above her right temple. Rummaging through her pockets, she hoped to find something that could serve as a makeshift bandage when her senses suddenly tingled with awareness.
Her eyes flicked up, and she spotted two children on the opposite side of the river, kneeling by the water’s edge as they filled two wooden buckets. The girl, who appeared to be around twelve, had light brown hair cascading over her left shoulder in a neat braid. The boy, younger at perhaps ten, sported short hair of the same shade. What struck Samara the most, however, was their peculiar attire. The girl wore a rough brown dress, while the boy was dressed in strangely proportioned pants that only reached his ankles, along with a beige top and vest. Their clothing seemed like something from a bygone era.
The children’s curious gazes roamed over every inch of her as if trying to decipher a puzzle they’d never seen before. Samara finally broke the trance that held them all and offered a friendly wave. The children cautiously raised their hands and waved back.
“I think I’m lost,” she yelled across the river, “Do you guys know how to get to town?”
The children did not answer. Instead, they tilted their heads slightly, confusion etched across their faces.
“Can you tell me where we are?” Samara tried again, but they looked at her in the same bewildered manner.
The boy and girl turned to each other and exchanged words that Samara could not hear. They then grabbed the buckets they had filled with river water and turned to walk away, leaving Samara perplexed and with more questions than answers.
“Wait!” Samara shouted desperately, her cry causing the children to turn back toward her with fear in their eyes. Determined to catch up to them and get some answers, Samara quickly assessed the river, gauging whether it was shallow and safe enough to wade through to the other side. Panic swelled in her chest as she watched the children walking away, and she decided to take the risk and forge across.
As she stepped into the frigid river, an icy shock surged through her body, sending shivers racing down her spine. The water gradually rose, reaching Samara’s chest, forcing her to swim a bit to keep afloat. She was thankful the current wasn’t strong enough to carry her downstream. Gasping for breath, she finally made it across, but the children had vanished by the time she reached the opposite bank.
Completely drenched, Samara climbed the steep, earth-paved embankment that led to the hill. At first, she thought she was reaching the edge of another forest, but as she got to the top, she discovered the treeline was not as dense as she imagined. She walked through the trees and quickly found herself on the other side overlooking a vast plain.
In the distance, she spotted the tops of rustic homes and other small wooden buildings clustered together in a quaint town. Several fields of different crops stretched out to the left of the houses, with small shadows of people moving up and down and across the landscape. Halfway between her and the distant town were the small silhouettes of the two children. Determined to find some answers and accommodations for the night, Samara carefully descended the hill.