((Wow, okay, this prompt was so hard to answer just because it’s too vague. I have four different versions that I scrapped before I finally went back to finish an old story. It isn’t a particularly strong piece, in my views, and doesn’t have any strong meaning or purpose – it was an exploration of a concept I had, just to see where it would go if I let it free. I don’t claim this to be my best work, but it’s at least an interesting idea.))
You wake to bright lights and the rustle of pages. Faraway murmurs drown in the sound of blood in your ears. Someone is humming an unfamiliar tune. This must be a citadel – yes, you had heard rumors of one before you left on this wretched quest. The magus and his apostles, recluses beneath the mountain. This light around you is too white, too constant to be flame, and you’ve slept too long to see in the brightness. A strange cricket chirps to the rhythm of your heart. You can’t remember how you got here.
Someone gives a muffled shout from your left. Even that’s too loud and hurts. Everything hurts. When you close your eyes, you can see the colored cracks of your fractured mind. Slabs of darkness seem to stab into your skull and you try to gasp in pain. Something is in the way, firmly affixed onto your face. You reach to yank it off. A bramble still fixed deep in your arm stops you as you groan in pain. He’d gotten you. That explained the headache.
The Bramble. The Nightmare. If you’ve snagged your skin on one his thorns, he must have sent you into night terrors. And then you remember: If he beat you, all is lost. Your friends are gone.
You jerk up like a drowning child out of water, floundering. A woman startles beside you. She shouts something over the ruckus, inciting a sea of sounds that brings a wave of nausea. You pray for silence. The woman speaks again, louder, and this time you make out the words. “Someone get Dr. Simone!”
Hearing words, you discover your own. “Please don’t yell,” you rasp, and your voice comes out so hoarse you can’t recognize it. Proof you’ve been screaming. Proof that you must have lost. You try to clench your fist, but pain lances up your arm, and you hiss. You grope blindly for the vine to yank the thorn from the muscle but firm hands press down on yours.
“No, no, you’re dehydrated. We can’t remove the ivy yet,” the woman says. You can see her now, a woman clad in green. Everything is still too bright around her, but it is unfamiliar. The room you’re in is unlike any you’ve ever seen. Your confusion shows, it seems, because the woman asks you, “Do you know where you are?”
It takes too long to find your words, like trying to scrape the last smears of gruel with a spoon too large for the mug. “Maybe,” you hear yourself say. “A citadel?” Wrong thing to say. You need to tell her what happened, what’s at stake, that you have to go.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
Before you correct your response, someone claps a hand on the woman’s shoulder. It’s another woman, dark-skinned, clad in a white robe. A superior. Probably the magus. Confused as you are, you can tell that by her eyes. The woman in the white robe waves the green one away and settles into the chair instead. “Good morning,” she chirps, pleasant but curt. You wonder if she was once a military mage. “How are you feeling?”
This time, you get it right. “I have to go,” you manage, but hindered by the contraption on your face you try to fumble it off. The woman in the white robe slips it over your head.
“There’s no rush,” she tells you. “I just want to ask you a few questions.”
She doesn’t understand, and you try to tell her so. “No, I – please, I have to—”
“I’m going to ask you a few questions, okay?” You can tell by how she speaks that you don’t have a choice. You know better than to anger a magus in your weakened state. You bite back your retort and nod. She takes up a strange plumeless quill and parchment. “Now, do you know where you are?”
“A…” You’re beginning to feel like you don’t. Your answer withers on your tongue. “No.”
“Mmhm, alright. That’s perfectly fine,” the magus says, scribbling something down. “There was an incident a little while ago, and you’ve been asleep for a while now. You’re in the hospital. Do you remember what happened?”
You don’t, but you can assume what happened. “The…” the words are dry, cling to the inside of your mouth. You cough and try again. “The Nightmare…”
“Have you been dreaming? That’s unusual. Then again, this is an unusual situation.” The magus marked down something else. “And this might be just as unusual a question, but tell me, do you know who you are?”
Maybe you’re reading too much into it, but there’s something about the way she says it. It’s unsettling. “Yes,” you manage, but your voice cracks and you wince. “Is there any water?”
The first woman in green hurries out of the room. “Jackie will get you some,” the magus assures you. “You just focus on answering me, okay? It’s important. This may seem a silly question, but it’s protocol, so please – what’s your name, and what’s the last thing you remember?”
You try to wet your lips with a dry tongue and then wonder why it doesn’t work. Still, you have to get the words out somehow. You need to get them help. “My name is Meridan,” you croak out, and the name comes so strangled it almost sounds foreign to your ears. “The last thing I remember is the Nightmare – please, you… magus, please, save my friends. The Bramble’s entrapped them, they’re suffering. Please…”
Mention of the Bramble drains the magus’ face, as it does with everyone. It’s testament to her strength, however, that she keeps a straight expression. She turns to a man now, also in a green. “Page Dr. Robinson from psychiatry. Also get someone from dream-code here now. See-ee-oh, developer, I don’t care, just someone who knows the game.”
A great deal of what she says just sounds like gibberish to you. You wonder if it’s mage tongue. It sounds like she’s calling for aid, for which you’re grateful. “It may seem a game to you, Madam Magus, but to us common folk, it’s a matter of our lives,” you tell her, and her expression grows grave.
“I’m sorry, dear,” she says in a tone suddenly so matronly that it’s condescending. “I think you’re confused. Why don’t you take a moment and think again?”
She might as well have slapped you. The aches and pains from that final confrontation disappear, washed away by the affront, how appalled you are. “Madam Magus, please watch your tone,” you bite out, ignoring the dry crack of your throat. “I am no child. I know who I am, and it’s Meridan of Greengale, and I have to stop—”
“I’m sorry,” says the magus in the strange white robe. “That’s not who you are.” And then she calls you something else, a strange jumble of sounds that are foreign to you.
You reach out to grab her, anger overwhelming sense, willing you to shake some thought into a magus of all people, but you pause, suddenly noticing the hue of your skin.
This isn’t your hand, but when you turn it, it turns as if it’s your own. Questions form and fade into the cracks in your mind, and you shake your head. Your hair brushes against your shoulders and you notice it for the first time. Too long. The wrong color, the wrong texture. You can feel your expression change for the first time in weeks without pain. The scar on your face doesn’t hurt anymore. Perhaps you’ve grown used to it. Perhaps a healer fixed it. Perhaps it just isn’t there anymore.
“No,” you croak out, recoiling. “My name is Meridan, I come from far.” It’s the same as always, you’ve said it a hundred times before. Never have you been so uncertain. “I hail from Greengale beyond the mountains, and I’ve come to stop the King of Thorns. I’ve come to stop—”
The tears spring to your eyes unbidden. “No,” you whisper, and you feel a pulse jump in your throat. Dry air, too cold, slams into your lungs. The distant beeping grows erratic, into a ringing in your ears. It turns everyone’s heads in alarm, but you are too entrapped in your thoughts. “I need to help him. I need to find him!”
Your attempt to rise is floundered, the woman in the white coat forcing you back down. They don’t understand, and weakened though you may be, they cannot hold you. You struggle forward, eyes burning, and you don’t know what you’re saying, don’t know the words for what you feel – all you know is that there is a husk where your heart should be, and the emptiness just might kill you. You don’t know where to find it. You don’t know how to fill it.
“Please, you don’t understand!” you scream, finding the voice that failed you before as you lash against restraining hands. “I need to – if I don’t, then no one will!” you cry out, and gasping, you taste the salt on your lip. You can’t bring yourself to care. You don’t know what you need to say to get them to let you go. “Please, the Bramble is my friend. If I talk to him, if you just let me talk to him, I can end this!” Lies. Those are lies spat out of desperation, only half steeped in truth, but it doesn’t matter because no one is listening to what you say. The mages think you’re a raving lunatic. Maybe you are.
Your years of training reward you when, in familiar maneuver, you hoist your knee and twist out of restraining grasps. Though you know better than to harm a mage, an elbow to someone’s ribs grants you freedom. Sharp pain lances up your arm after three lurching steps, along with the clatter of metal. It doesn’t matter. You grab the strange tube leading from your flesh and rip it out, choking on the pain. The mages grab your wrists and pull you down again.
“Please, just calm down—” one of them says, soothing and imploring to no avail. Their words do nothing to purge the panic from your blood, even as it trickles in a rivulet down your arm. Distantly, you hear someone breathe, ‘Oh, thank god,’ and that’s wrong too because they didn’t say which god they mean.
And then suddenly, there’s a new hand. It brushes your shoulder instead of pinning you down, and you whirl and see steady grey eyes, and you immediately know that this figure understands. There’s the light of wisdom in his eyes, and he peers at you as a wizard would a particularly intricate spell.
“The Bramble has receded for now,” he says, voice low and cutting through the noise around you. “Your friend has fallen asleep, Meridan of Greengale, and you should do the same.”
With a distant familiarity thrumming through his words, bewildered, your body betrays you, and you fall into a dreamless sleep. Perhaps you do not dream because you are already within one.
They tell you that you are not Meridan of Greengale, and that every fact you know is a lie. Magic does not exist. You are not a prophesied savior. All of this was the plot of something they call a video game, although they fail to elaborate what that possibly means.
“Like a conjured simulation?” you try to provide, but the apprentice – a nurse, they call her – disagrees.
“Normally it’s just an image on a screen that you control using a remote device,” she explains, “but you were chosen to be a beta tester—”
“It was an incomplete version of the game,” she amends. “You were one of several people who got to play the first virtual reality game in the world. It’s something that’s not real, but it looks real and feels real.”
“Then it’s a dream,” you say. “The Bramble controls dreams.”
“It’s not a dream. It’s… like a story. Someone is telling a story and asking you what you want to do, and when you make a choice, the story changes.”
“Then the Bramble is the storyteller.” The nurse tells you that you’re wrong. She tells you that the Bramble does not exist, and the words pierce you like a spear through the throat. “You’re wrong,” you proclaim, not caring if you anger an apprentice mage. You’ve risen to your feet. “This is all just him trying to distract me. I’m lying in a ditch somewhere, in a cradle of thorns.”
She calls you by that name you hate, the one they claim is yours. She tells you to sit down, but she has no power over you. If she is not the magus, you don’t care about her – you don’t care about any of this. You’ve never fallen under the Bramble’s spell before, but you’ve seen it, whole towns overrun with barbed vines, people grey and withering in fitful slumber. You’re short on time.
You stalk to the door, and the nurse is angry now, still calling that wrong name. “My name is Meridan!” you shout, and slam open the door only to find two others seated just outside. They stare at you with wide, stricken eyes, and your heart lurches. You’ve been introduced to them just before. In this strange dream they call ‘reality’, they call these two your parents.
It occurs to you that you had never known your parents, but they look just how you always imagined them. More proof of the Bramble’s handiwork. You can’t bear to look at them, and your gaze finds your feet. “Excuse me,” you whisper, and try to skim past them. Your dream mother calls the fake name, and you freeze. Your dream father says something, says that they understand how hard this is for you, but asks that you go through the therapy for them, and it bristles you the wrong way. Therapy. In your memories, therapy was only for those broken by the Bramble, driven mad with dreams – well, you’re on your way there. You suppose this could only be a head start.
Sagging, you stop, and your dream mother wraps herself around you in gratitude. You say nothing, to spare her feelings, but as you stand stiff in her embrace, your mind drifts to the one who taught you to use the sword, hard and stern but as warm and protective as the armor that she wore. It is your surrogate mother, dying in the brambles, whom you cry for.
You blink away the tears at the sound of footsteps, and when you look up, that man is there again – the one, who in your world, could have been a wizard. “May I have a moment?” he asks, and your supposed parents both go still.
“How dare you come here,” your dream father says, angling himself between you and the wizard. “After this mess that you and your company caused – tested and safe, you said, ha! That whole company of yours should be shut down!”
The man seems unaffected, expression dismissive as the casual shrug of his shoulders. “I’m unaffiliated with DreamCode. I was hired there as head of story, and now I’m here as head of story.”
“How do you plan to take responsibility for our child?!”
You are no child. You haven’t been for a long time. To be called one gives you a strange blend of joy and shame. You gently slide out of your dream mother’s embrace.
“As far as I know, they plan to settle out of court with a hefty sum,” the wizard says, and it’s not the answer anyone wants to hear, but he keeps talking. “But as I was saying, as head of story, I’m the one most qualified to figure out what is going in this narrative. Meridan, a moment of your time?”
He called you by the proper name. Your dream parents don’t like that, but you’re already walking towards him. Perhaps he is indulging you, but it is easier to stand tall and sure when called by a familiar name. He leads you back to the room with the nurse, who looks up at him with distaste.
“Your session isn’t for another hour,” she tells him. “A psychiatrist must be present, and Dr. Simone isn’t in yet.”
“Meridan was in the hallway, so I assumed your session was over. I just want a simple conversation – we’re allowed to just chat, aren’t we? No psychological mumbo jumbo?”
The nurse wants to fight this, you see it in her eyes, the tilt of her posture, so you speak first. “Then let us talk. Who are you?”
For the first time since you’ve seen him, his expression changes. He’s surprised by your interjection, but then turns to give you his wholehearted attention. His eyes are sparked with interest, and suddenly you’re as uncomfortable as you used to be when people looked in awe upon the chosen one.
“My name is Kyle Morrison. Call me Kyle. Morrison is fine, too,” he says, leaning his elbows on his knees. There was a swordsman you once knew who sat much the same way. “I’ve been eager to meet the chosen one for some time.”
These are familiar words, and they set you on edge. The tentative line you’ve drawn in your mind gets muddled in an instant. “You talk as if you know the world I come from,” you say. “No one else does.”
“I’m familiar with your world.”
Your confusion must show because the nurse chimes in, flat and forbidding, “He wrote the story for the game you played. Everything that happened and will happen there, he knows.”
Morrison finds the nurse’s presence irritating. It shows in the tense lines of his face, and the subtle shift in the fold of his hands. The acolyte who traveled with you shared a similar demeanor, you realize. “That means nothing right now,” he says slowly, as if speaking to a child. “The person in front of us right now is Meridan of Greengale. Talk of games and writers will only send us in circles.”
“This isn’t a character from one of your stories, Mr. Morrison, this is a young adult with a life to return to, and I will not have—”
“You know what’s going to happen?” you ask, drawing together what little you understood of the nurse’s spiel. “What happens next in my narrative?”
He looks at you now, distraught. You realize now what gives you the impression that he better belongs in your world – his eyes, their color and quality, would be better suited to firelight. The constant white lights humming from above doesn’t suit him. He grimaces, and shakes his head. “Don’t think of me as a god,” he says. “Forget everything she’s told you. What I want to do is hear your story, what you’ve gone through, in your own words.”
It’s strange how you don’t realize until you start telling the tale that you had never done so before. There was never time, on the run. You start from the day the consul found you, telling you that you were the world’s only hope. You tell him of the swordswoman you found, so brash and bold, whom you had thought hated you until the day she took a scar for you. You tell him of the first encounters with the Bramble’s wake of destruction, which had only ever been distant tales about distant lands. You tell him about everything but the King of Thorns, himself.
Morrison took all this in with a look of rapt fascination, like a child at an elders’ gathering. “You’ve had it hard,” he says, though he doesn’t sound empathetic in the least. You think you might even hear a note of delight in his tone and are about to call him out on it when he asks, “And what about Briar?”
You stand up so fast your chair topples over. Your blood thunders through your heart. “What do you know of Briar?” you whisper, and his eyes light up. You could kill him for that. The nurse stands up in the corner of your vision, but you don’t care. “What do you know about Briar?!”
“He’s important to you,” he says, and it isn’t an answer to your question, merely a statement of fact, and yes, yes, it’s true, but he shouldn’t know that, no one should know that, and this is a nightmare, has to be, it’s a punishment of the Bramble’s own design.
“Shut up. You might think you know me, that you know anything, but you don’t.”
The nurse tries to get between you and Morrison, but you don’t let her. You step forward, livid. He sits in front of you with a giddy grin, and you could kill him. And then he speaks. “I know that Briar is, fittingly, the King of Thorns.”
“You know nothing, shut up!” You seize him by the collar and now there’s a flicker of fear, but it’s just a ghost of a shadow, overwhelmed by his childish excitement.
“Mr. Morrison, stop baiting—”
“I know you’re why the King of Thorns exists.”
You go still. You go cold. Morrison pulls away from your grip and you let him. The nurse is shouting at him now, urging him out of the room, but Morrison just looks at you with some wretched kind of satisfaction, but you don’t care, because in your mind, all you see is a little boy—
“The King of Thorns doesn’t exist! It’s just a character in a game!”
—whom you let down, who they keep telling you isn’t real, and wouldn’t that be easy because if he wasn’t real, the gaping wound in your soul isn’t real either. It’s too easy, and that’s how you know this is a dream. A world of the Bramble’s design, testing you. Your head spins. You turn to stagger out, or you’ll retch on the floor.
The door slams open, and there’s the same woman from before – the military mage. “Mr. Morrison, I’ll be asking you to leave now.” She says it like an order, and she is furious. You don’t care. You try to shove past her, but she doesn’t let you, telling you to quietly calm yourself and take a seat. She sends the nurse out for tea, and that day she doesn’t speak to you at all. When the tea comes, you both drink in silence until the hour is done.