Yesterday the world had been sunny and beautiful, she had enjoyed spending the day with her friends down by the lake, catching fish. They had laughed and told each other jokes. But then evening came and it brought the shrill whining of Wraith darts. All she remembered now was the panic, people running away, screaming, chaos; she had never been so frightened in all her life, then, there was a blinding white light and – nothingness.
When reality came back it crashed down on her senses with brutal force. "This one too." She was grabbed with unnecessary harshness and was hurled into a huddle of people, all of them as wide-eyed as herself. Her consciousness still numb she looked around and found that she was in a cell of some kind with walls which seemed to be made from living tissue, the lighting was gloomy. She focused on the other people, trying to discern one face from another, thinking dizzily to herself Do I know you? Where are my parents? My friends?
She didn't recognise any of them. Most of them just stared at the floor, not taking in anything. Some of them cried silently and tried to open the cell door by clinging to it. As if in response to their feeble attempts the door split open, its spidery bars disappearing to the sides and sending the prisoners staggering backwards in surprise. Then a tall, elegant creature strode in, accompanied by two others of its kind. The leader wore a long, black coat and his white hair hung in dreadlocks around his face. The other two were burly and wore armour and strange appalling masks, they didn't have the slender grace of their superior.
She had never seen a Wraith before and – heck, she could easily have done without seeing one for the rest of her life. Then it dawned on her that now the actual rest of her life was at stake and she tried to hide inconspicuously behind a tall man. For a moment the Wraith did nothing, they just stood in the entrance, motionless. The male had clasped his hands behind his back and looked at the assembled humans with an air of mild contempt. Then he barked at the humans "Form a line!" When no one moved he nodded at the warriors who came forward and nudged and shoved the humans into formation.
Not wanting to be touched by one of the brutes she stepped forward voluntarily and came to stand between a savage-looking woman and the tall man she had tried to hide behind. When the hubbub had settled down the male Wraith announced in a bored voice "You have been selected for your pleasing appearance or your apparent strength and resilience. You are offered the chance not only to keep your insignificant lives but also to lead those lives longer than natural for your species – if you please your masters. You will be tested if you meet the requested standard for intelligence and wit. If you disappoint you will return here, to the supply chambers." Having said that the male started walking along the line of humans, looking each one in the eyes.
On unspoken commands the warriors started to pick several people out of the formation the male had just passed by. Silent sobbing and crying started, nervous glances were shot left and right. She supposed that it was unwise to start to cry and bit her lip, forcing her own tears back with all willpower. The Wraith stopped in front of her, his eerie yellow eyes boring a hole into her mind. She felt a strange presence inside her head. Old, indifferent to her fear. She was being tested, her thoughts and emotions were being torn apart and scrutinised by the relentless yellow gaze. The presence examined the memories of her home, her family, her upbringing, her happiest and saddest moments. She felt naked and exposed and nearly broke down when she felt the presence drag up yet another memory, a memory she had almost forgotten. She was a child and was sitting at the shore of the lake, her father by her side. They were watching a swan and its fledglings... No, she thought. This is my memory and you're not allowed further in. Defiance took over her mind, ignoring common sense and she felt the presence withdraw itself. The Wraith continued to walk along the line and left her in uncertainty. He stopped before the savage-looking woman next to her and asked that woman aloud "Are you willing to serve us in whatever way we think appropriate?" The woman glowered at the Wraith and spat "Never. I'd rather die."
The Wraith nodded once. "Consider yourself lucky, your wish will be granted."
Faster than lightning he drew his right arm back and brought his hand down with bone-breaking force on the woman's chest.
She watched transfixed with horror as the proud, strong woman screamed and withered before her eyes, became a crumpled husk and dropped to the floor. She realised that the Wraith had his eyes on her again and looked up to meet his gaze. She heard his words inside her mind as if he had spoken them aloud "This is what happens to you if you become too defiant, apprentice worshipper."
A clumsy grip closed on her arm and she was thrown forward by one of the warriors. Utter chaos was raging inside her. She was going to live to see another day. But at what cost? Was she lucky or did she just choose a fate worse than death? Through a haze of adrenaline she felt two more would-be worshippers being thrown at her side. Without another word the male Wraith left the cell and the two warriors herded her out along with the rest of the selected humans. She didn't look back, she closed her mind to the sobbing, begging and cursing of those who were left behind. Instead she focused on the precious memory the Wraith had tried to pry away from her. She conjured up the mental image of the lake, the one constant in the life of her people.
Its surface is serenely calm on this afternoon, the sun descends and gives it the colour of molten gold. Her father sits beside her, they both have stuck their bare feet into the cool water. A swan paddles by, followed by its three fledglings. Their plumage has already begun to turn white. The adult swan accelerates and flaps its wings to become airborne. Two younglings follow effortlessly while the third struggles, beating its wings ineffectively.
"Poor thing," she says to her father. "It will die if it doesn't learn to fly."
"Don't worry about it, it's strong and has the will to survive. It will fly when its time has come," her father tells her calmly. And sure enough, the young swan accelerates once more and this time it leaves gravity behind to explore its hitherto unknown realm, the skies. Her father points at the disappearing dots in the sky.
"See? One day your time will come and then you will be ready to fly."
That day part of her soul had taken flight with the young swan, eager to explore the unknown. It seemed she would get much more of the unknown than she had bargained for.