Chapter 1: Lost Souls
The man opened his eyes. The sky was a clear, merciless blue above him, and the sun was at its peak. He stared up at the sky through painful, crusty eyes, and when he licked his lips he tasted salt. The heat was a tangible weight, pressing him down into the sand, and although he lay on firm ground he felt the world spin around him.
He would likely have lain there until he died, dazed and sun-stricken, had he not heard the sound of water splashing somewhere close by. As if awakened by that sound, he became aware of the painful rasp of his dry throat and a burning desire for water. His mind also seemed to awaken, shaking off his deadly lethargy, and slowly he turned his head.
The small pond was not far, and driven by desperation and thirst he dragged his weak body hand after hand to it, finally collapsing by the water. He scooped up a handful and raised it to his mouth, but most of it was spilled by the shaking of his hand. He scooped up another handful, more of which reached his mouth.
The water was warm and grimy, but the dehydrated man did not notice. Instead he drank more and more, until some of the pain in his head dissipated and he could think clearly enough to look at his surroundings.
There were some palm trees, he noticed, which appeared to provide some shade. He thought this might be necessary, because beyond those few palm trees stretched a vast expanse of pristine sand, with neither shade nor shelter nor inhabitants. In horror, his eyes tracked the horizon, searching desperately for some sign of life.
"Excuse me," a clear female voice called from behind him, "I don't mean to intrude, but I don't think you should be out in the sun on a day like this."
Shocked badly, the man pushed himself away from the ground and staggered to his feet, almost falling as he turned to face the voice. A pretty, brown-haired young woman was sitting in the shade of a tree across the pool, propped up against its trunk. A large, red-headed young man was lying, apparently unconscious, by her side.
"What," the man rasped, staring at them, "who-"
The woman shrugged. "I'm sure I don't know," she said in a voice that it seemed was meant to be flippant. It only reached a bone-deep weariness, and looking more closely at her the man thought that the reason she was leaning against the tree might be because otherwise she would fall over.
Deciding that misery loves company, the man staggered over to the pair before sliding down and sprawling onto the ground. The shade was blessed relief, but still the heat was oppressive, sapping the energy needed for anything more complicated than survival. The woman looked down at him, and the man saw that her eyes were grim with exhaustion.
"I think I might be hallucinating," the man said conversationally. The woman only stared down at him bleakly. "You see," he continued, "I don't know who I am and I don't know where we are, but I'm fairly sure it's not somewhere I've ever been."
The woman didn't seem to be listening. Instead she lifted her hand and gently traced a line on his forehead. The man looked at her strangely.
"What?" he asked.
"You have a scar, in the shape of a lightening bolt," she said distantly, letting her hand fall.
"Oh," the man said. It meant nothing to him, but there was a strange look in the woman's eyes.
"I think," she said abstractedly, "I think I once knew you. It would make sense, actually," her tone became more brisk. "After all, what are the odds of three random strangers spontaneously losing their memory in the middle of nowhere at exactly the same moment? It's just not logical."
The man frowned. "Wait – three?"
They both turned to look at the red-haired man, who didn't stir. "He woke before," the woman said. "I gave him water, but he is badly injured. I don't know if he will survive."
Gently, the woman moved a slash in the man's robes aside to reveal a deep gash across his abdomen. When the first man didn't say anything, she covered the wound up again. She left her hand resting on his chest.
After a moment she said, and there was the faintest tremor in her voice, "I don't know who I am. I don't know why I'm here. I don't know anything." Her hand clenched into a fist.
The man stared up at the leaves of the palm tree overhead and through it to the empty sky. "I know," he said flatly but with terrible feeling. "Believe me, I know."
Their silent tableau was not disturbed as the sun crept through the sky. By silent accord they neither spoke nor moved, waiting for nightfall as if the absence of the sun would provide the punchline, would somehow explain what had gone so catastrophically wrong.
Finally the sun sank below the horizon and darkness began to fall. With it came some relief from the heat, and the man sat up. He glanced over, and saw that the woman had dozed off, so he took the opportunity to take stock without anyone watching.
He was wearing heavy black robes, and underneath a vest made of a tough, unfamiliar material. It appeared to be hide of some sort. He patted himself down, searching for pockets, and soon knocked something hard. Pulling it out, he saw that it was a polished wooden stick with an intricately carved handle. Tentatively, he gave it a wave and gasped when it left a trail of shimmering red and gold sparks behind.
He dropped the stick hastily, and looked around to make sure no one had seen. After watching the stick warily for a moment, he very carefully picked it up again and, hoping something different would happen this time, waved it again. A swirl of fluttering blue butterflies appeared, though they were quickly swept away and dissipated into the air.
It was almost true dark by now, so the man raised the stick and, putting his will behind it, whispered, "Light."
At the end of what he now thought must be a magic wand a tremulous, faint light appeared, slowly growing stronger as the man gained confidence. There was a sudden sharp intake of breath from beside him, and he looked over quickly. The woman was awake, and in the pale witchlight of the wand her face looked gaunt and haunted.
"Magic," she whispered. There was something about the endless silent of the desert night that encouraged whispering.
"I suppose," the man replied, still uncertain as to how that had happened. He was certain that magic was not natural, was not the normal way of things, yet it felt somehow familiar.
"I think," the woman started to say, then hesitated.
"You think," he encouraged.
"I think I should be able to do that too."
They both considered the light for a moment, then the man asked, "Do you have one of these stick things?"
"Wands," the woman corrected absently, then blinked. "Well, it sounds better than sticks, anyway." The man chuckled, and the woman gave him a sideways half-smile. She then began to dig about in her robes, soon producing a wand much like his. "I wonder what you can do with these…" she muttered speculatively.
"Go on, try something," the man pushed her, beginning to feel a stirring of excitement.
The woman made a thoughtful noise, then looked down at the still-unconscious man by her side. She uncovered his wound, and touched her wand to its edge.
"Heal," she whispered. The deep gash seemed to shimmer as if covered by a heat haze, but it quickly cleared. At first the man thought nothing had happened, but when he leaned in closer he noticed that the wound seemed smaller and less red. He touched his own wand to the wound, and repeated the woman's incantation. It shimmered again and seemed to close more.
"I don't think these are the right words," the woman said, but she again repeated her actions. They took it in turn to repeat their attempted healing until the wound was nothing more than an ugly red scar stretching half-way across the unconscious man's abdomen. The whole situation felt surreal, as if they were dreaming.
Then they stopped. The woman's breath was coming in ragged bursts, and the man felt dizzy and light-headed himself.
Through his tiredness and confusion, he said on impulse to the woman, "I know you. Or I knew you, anyway. What was your name?"
The woman looked troubled. "I don't know. I said I didn't know." She made a small, frustrated gesture.
The man lay back stiffly on the sand, exhaustion catching up to him. His entire body ached. "It doesn't matter," he murmured. "We're all going to die anyway." This whole situation seemed surreal. He found himself thinking that if he died, he'd no doubt wake up to find it all a dream.
Something hit his side, and his eyes flew open abruptly. "Hey!"
The woman was scowling down at him. "I don't intend to die. And you can call me," she hesitated, searching for a suitable name, "Hermione."
It did seem appropriate, for some reason, but the man had little time to ponder it. His eyes were heavy and fast closing. "As you wish, Hermione." He let the name roll around on his tongue, tasting it and finding it pleasant.
He felt a cool touch on his forehead. "Sleep now," the woman said quietly. "I will wake you before night is over."
The man tried to smile, couldn't, and abandoned himself to blessed sleep.
It seemed only a brief time before the man was being shaken awake. He came fully alert at the first touch of his shoulders, tensing, eyes flying open. It was still dark, and he thought he couldn't have slept long. Nevertheless, he felt greatly refreshed and much more clear-headed.
"I'm sorry to wake you," Hermione said in a hushed voice. "I just thought that we ought to plan while we are still cool enough to think."
"Yes," the man said, and looked at the unconscious red-head. "Has he woken yet?"
Hermione bit her lip. "No. I don't know… I mean, we're not exactly the most skilled of healers. Heal, or else," she pretended to threaten the scar where the gash had been. The man snorted, and the woman continued, "Harry, do you-"
"Hang on, hang on," the man interrupted. "Harry?"
The woman blushed. "Oh, sorry," she said in embarrassment. "I just named you that for convenience while you were asleep."
"Oh, I don't mind," the man hastened to reassure her. "Harry seems as good a name as any."
Hermione looked relieved, and Harry said, "Anyway, I think we ought to get out of the desert."
Hermione threw back her head and laughed. "And the award for stating the obvious goes to…"
"All right, all right." Harry scowled at her. "At least I'm trying."
Hermione quickly sobered and gave him a faintly guilty look. "Sorry, sorry. It's just that we have no idea where we are. Well, unless you do?"
Harry only shook his head, and Hermione shrugged.
"We have magic, so we almost certainly won't die-"
"Hang on, I don't follow that," Harry interrupted again. "How will magic keep us alive?"
"There's no need to be rude-"
"-we can conjure up food and water and shade and I don't see why we couldn't just magic ourselves somewhere safe."
Harry shook his head slightly as he tried to imagine teleporting instantly from one place to another. It was one thing to magic up light, but to trust your life to something that was so utterly against the natural order of things?
Nevertheless, he found himself drawn to the idea. Better yet, perhaps they could fly to safety. Harry had a sudden vision of himself swooping through the air of what looked like a witch's broomstick and smiled in delight at the idea.
Beside him, Hermione was forging on. "…and I tried a heating charm and it worked fine, so I don't see why a cooling charm wouldn't work. Maybe we could catch a camel…"
Since she didn't seem to require any help from him Harry returned to his thoughts. The problem was, of course, that even if they did have a way to travel – and if the worst came to worst, they could always walk – they still didn't know which way to go.
It was then that a sudden impulse came upon him. Since his instincts about the light spell had been right, he trusted them this time and took out his wand. He hesitated, then held it so it was flat across his upturned palm.
"Point me to safety," he said loudly and clearly. Beside him, Hermione stopped talking abruptly, but Harry ignored her in favour of the wand as it began to spin on his palm.
The spinning ended as suddenly as it had begun, with the wand now pointing in a different direction. Harry stared at it, then slowly followed that line out across the landscape with his eyes. There was nothing to be seen, and he felt a sinking disappointment.
"Excuse me?" Hermione asked angrily. "Did you just hear a word I said? In case you hadn't noticed, we are in a very precarious situation and if we're going to survive then we need to work together."
Harry shot her a pained look, which she misinterpreted as an apology.
"Anyway, I suppose it wasn't a bad idea," she said, looking mollified. "At least now we know which way to go."
Harry was already having second thoughts about the usefulness of his improvised spell – 'safety'? What sort of safety, and how reliable was this magic anyway? – but he didn't contradict Hermione. After all, they had no better directions, and Harry wasn't the sort of man to sit back and meekly wait for rescue or death.
He returned his attention to Hermione, who was talking again. For a brief instant he wondered whether she had always talked that much, but then he forced the thought of answers away and threw himself into the planning.
Day came far too soon for Harry's liking, and together, he and Hermione put up the cooling charm through the deeply intricate method of pointing their wands and incanting "Be cool." Harry was rather embarrassed, actually, and very glad there was no one else to see their lack of style. The charm wasn't very effective, either. It kept most of the burn of the sun off, but the air around them was still luke-warm.
They had worked out what seemed to be a fair enough plan, considering their situation. Harry still had little confidence that they would survive it, but Hermione was much more optimistic and he was willing to have a go. The other man – Hermione had peremptorily dubbed him Ron, to Harry's amusement - had not woken, or even stirred. Harry and Hermione had not discussed whether they would take him with them. The alternative was unthinkable.
The day passed. Hermione fetched water for all of them, and Harry was glad to see she was only exhausted, not injured. His contribution to their welfare had been attempting to turn sand into bread. The loaf that resulted had looked and smelt delicious, and Harry had abruptly realised just how hungry he was as his stomach rumbled and his mouth began to water. It had been an unpleasant surprise when he had ripped off a piece only to see a double handful of sand come pouring out. The crust was sound, but inside was nothing but sand.
They had wolfed down the crust, and Harry thought nothing would ever taste better. Nevertheless, he had then turned his attention to more mundane ways of gathering food, and spent a few hours poking around the edges of the pond searching for edible roots and leaves while Hermione practiced her transfigurations, to a result that was only marginally better than Harry's.
Finally the sun sank below the horizon, and Harry exchanged a look with Hermione. They silently rose from their position under the tree and hauled Ron to his feet. He slumped against Hermione, who grunted and staggered. Harry tried to take some of his weight, but Ron slipped off Hermione's shoulder and fell heavily to the ground.
Harry scowled down at him. Ron was both taller and broader than him, and bloody heavy too. He racked his brain, trying to think of a way to carry him.
"No," Hermione said decisively, "this will work." She drew her wand and pointed it at Ron. Harry stepped back hastily at the look in her eyes.
"Lift," she said fiercely. Nothing happened, and she continued, her voice rising in frustration. "Lift! Rise! Get up off the ground, you useless goddamned corpse or I'll-" she broke off suddenly as the body jerked up into the air, hung there, then gracefully slid and thumped back onto the ground, face down this time.
Hermione looked up at Harry, wide eyed. He stared back at her blankly, and then slowly began to laugh. It was as much suppressed panic as anything, for there was little humorous about their situation, but soon both of them were sitting on the ground shaking with helpless laughter.
It was, of course, at this point that the man they had christened Ron pushed himself up on his elbows and gave them an utterly horrified look. In Harry and Hermione's somewhat hysterical state this also seemed hilarious, and so it was some time before all the necessary explanations were completed.
It was full night by the time they set out. Ron staggered along, leaning heavily on Harry, while Hermione led. Having already woken, he had taken less time to adjust than Harry had, and now had a grim, set expression on his face. Harry had to admire his courage.
They had not been walking for long when the moon came out. Harry glanced back over his shoulder, but the tiny oasis was already out of sight. All that was left was their footsteps, a lonely track across the empty sands.
This is a slow chapter to start off with. Next chapter, our heroes meet the locals, work out where they are and wonder what the hell the world is playing at. All feedback greatly appreciated.