I woke up, convinced that I was back in the chalet, wrapped up tight in a heavy blanket. I drew their folds even tighter around me, intent on dozing off again. Someone would wake me up when there was something we had to do. Unfortunately, I had been awake just long enough for the wrong sounds to jar in my ears. Dull clinking; the sound of boots moving unhurriedly across a wooden floor; a deep hum and hiss that repeated over and over. At last, the sound of a handle being turned, unwillingly, and a door creaking open.
I huddled deeper under the sheets, pathetically pretending to still be asleep. Weight pressed into the edge of the mattress. A hand shook my shoulder.
“You have to get up,” a deep, but kind voice, “we’ve got to leave, please – I can tell you’re not asleep, you know.”
Cautiously I folded the blanket back. This certainly wasn’t the chalet. This was a far rougher construction. Wooden, but unfinished, with dark char marks up the walls and the ceiling deeply blackened. The man sitting on the edge of the bed was a stranger to me, and his face was more tired than anyone I’d ever seen. He looked like his face had been slept in and never properly made up. It crinkled around deep brown eyes, a rich liquid dark that held such compassion and pain I flinched away from him.
“It’s alright – you’re safe. I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, “I’m sorry. There’s no time for rest. We have to leave.”
The last thing I remembered was stumbling out of the allforest…
“You came back for the shettling?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s complicated. There isn’t time for this now. Come on,” he indicated a pile of clothes on the end of the bed, “please get dressed.”
I couldn’t see any reason to argue. The man went to the doorway, anxiously looking in either direction, and then back to me. The hint of fear in his face galvanised me into action. While his back was turned I threw off the blanket and began to pull the clothes on. I stopped as I caught sight of my arms for the first time. They were darkly patterned with scarlet lines, unfurling down from my shoulders, that overlaid thick white streaks of skin. Horrified I ran my fingers down my arms, feeling them smooth but the lines were raised like veins, harder than the rest of my skin. The weals ran all down my wrists and over my hands. The fire. I’d been burned, but had healed – the shettling always took years away along with the memories. While I knew the alltrees were used medically to encourage healing, that resulted in an invisible, perfect growth of skin and bone. This, this was hideous. Tentatively I raised my hands to my face, jerked them away as I found the same livid scars rising up my neck and the sides of my head, traced their path down my cheeks and around my eyes. My hair was gone, replaced by a web of stippled flesh, tiny hard stubs where follicles had been.
Vaguely I realised the man in the doorway was watching me, fidgeting anxiously. His eyes darted over me, and returned my gaze with terrible sympathy. I pulled the clothes on, shorts and shirt, followed by trousers and jacket. A pair of boots waited under the bed, socks stuffed in them. They were a little too small, but they would stretch. The rest of the clothes fit me perfectly. The soft fabric felt odd on my changed skin, or perhaps my skin felt everything else differently now. I didn’t want to think about it. The jacket had a hood, and I immediately pulled it up. The fleecy lining running over the remains of my scalp felt like rain. I shivered, and thrust my hands into my pockets.
“All right, come on then. Let’s get you out of here,” he slipped a hand under my arm and steered me towards the doorway.
Down the corridor I saw a pair of women hauling a trunk out of another room, and hastening away from us, its weight hanging awkwardly between them. We were all heading for the open door. Outside showed its pale daylight. Running boots came from behind us, and my companion pulled me into a jog, down the hallway and out into the light. Four automotives waited for us. The trunk was being loaded into one; another man slammed the boot of an auto shut, and climbed into the driver’s seat. I was steered towards the leftmost auto, and gently but firmly pushed into the backseat. I was pressed up next to another stranger who handed to me one of the packs piled on his lap. The door was slammed behind me, and the man who woke me climbed into the front. I looked out of the window at the other auto and saw a person in pull up the hoods of their jackets. Strange, but I was given little time to think about it, as the autos started together, and we peeled out in convoy.
It had all happened so suddenly that I only dimly noted that the auto was filled with boxes and bags, piled up in the boot and in the wells behind each seat. I was sitting on top of fat folders filled with paper, and the pack I’d been handed was heavy and awkward lumps protruded from the canvas, jabbing me in the ribs as I clutched it. We bounced down the rough road, each bump slamming my neighbour and I against the walls and, once, the roof. I had no idea where we were. The cabin behind us swiftly receded into a forest I didn’t recognise, of trees whose shapes were unfamiliar. We pounded through scrublands, the road barely a pale track ahead of us.
“I don’t mean to be rude – “ I began, but was interrupted.
“Yes, I’m sure you have many questions,” replied the man in the passenger seat, “right now, we need to get you a long way from here. You might not realise it, but your presence endangers us all.”
“I don’t understand. Look – who are you? Where are we?”
“You talk to them,” said the driver, giving me a long look in the rear-view mirror, “I can do the driving without you correcting me on each step.”
The other man grunted and leaned forward in his seat to peer upwards through the windscreen.
“We’re clear for now. You’re Jenn, right?”
“Yes,” replied, “how do you know who I am?”
“Records,” he spread his hands wide, as if to indicate the availability of such information, “we knew you were shettling, so we came for you.”
“My circle,” I began, “do you know what happened to them?”
“You need to forget your circle,” he said, “they can’t help you now.”
I knew they were all gone, and though I feared hearing it confirmed, I needed to know for sure.
“When we went into the allforest, for shettling – something happened, to Calia – and the forest set on fire.”
“Ha,” he exclaimed, “that’s the least of it. Look – your friends, your forest – it’s all gone.”
“Easy, Grellan. The kid’s been asleep, who knows what the trees did to him when he went under.”
“Well fine,” said the man I now knew as Grellan, “he’s been buried. It’s the rest of us that have had to live with the consequences, so forgive me if I’m telling him what he needs to know.”
“You haven’t told me anything,” I protested, “all I know is that the alltree returned me to the world, and then you lot grabbed me, and now I’m in this car racing from somewhere I don’t know, to who knows where. The last thing I saw was all my friends on fire.”
“Alright, alright,” this came from the person sitting on my right, equally buried under heaps of the awkward bags and boxes. “Give the kid a break,” he shuffled his bags round until he could see me properly, and reached out a hand, which he pressed on my arm. “I’m sorry about your friends, it’s a tragedy, but Grellan’s also right. A lot has happened since you went under the earth.”
The auto continued to jostle us up and down. Grellan apparently abandoned our conversation, now that there was a more willing participant. Instead he wound down the window and leaned out, apparently checking on the two cars behind us. I fixed on the man to my right. Like our driver, and Grellan, he looked worn and weathered in a way I was unfamiliar with. The cycle of shettling took us back to our youth, but these men seemed as if their last shettling had been a long time ago. Well, if the allforest truly was gone, or most of it, then maybe they couldn’t. But, I remembered that not everyone shettled anyway. It was a lot to try and deal with, being knocked around in a racing auto.
“Wait,” I said, something about the man next to me was more familiar than I’d realised, “I know you, don’t I? You remembered me. You’re the clerk from the archives, aren’t you?”
“You’ve got a good memory for someone who’s been through a shettling,” he said, “but you’re right. I’m Hevalan. I saw you and your circle before you went off into the allforest. You’ve met Grellan – don’t mind him, it’s been… hard, since everything happened. In the front, that’s Feryon,” Feryon gave me a friendly wink and a faint salute, before returning his full attention to the road, “he and I both worked at the archive.”
“That’s how you knew I’d be there, then?”
“Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. We knew you’d gone into the forest, do you remember that night? Beyond what happened to your friends?”
“I remember Calia exploding, or something. It looked like Talens smashed into her, but then there was this awful bright fire on everything – the trees, my circle… me.” I ran my hands over each other, feeling the scars of the burning.
“Yeah, he shouldn’t remember any of that,” said Feryon, “all of that should have been wiped clean from his mind. There’s even more wrong with the trees than we thought.”
“I thought you said they were all gone.”
“Grellan may have exaggerated a little,” admitted Hevalan. He took a deep breath, “Calia was destroyed, and the area you were in was badly burned. Most of the trees were burned down to the ground – just black, burned soil, and ash for a mile around. But the allforest is stronger than that. The trees are all linked together, so we believed the roots were still alive, that the heart of the network would still be active. But without Calia, the moonlight is so weak; the trees can’t absorb as much energy as they used to at night. And it’s not just the trees – all the plantlife has suffered. They get something from the sunlight, but Talens alone is unfocused, and they’ve all been struggling. We don’t think the alltrees could support shettling as they normally would. That’s why it’s taken so long–“
“What do you mean? The shettling moon comes twice a year,” I said.
“It should, but without Calia eclipsing Talens, it hasn’t been possible. Calia’s smashed to pieces, mostly still in orbit, but she’s like a ring of smashed glass around the planet. Talens passes behind that wreck all the time. The allforest takes what it can, but there’s no calendar to work by.”
“So how did you find me?”
“Because we kept coming back,” said Grellan, flatly, “Hevalan was convinced the alltrees had been able to save some of the shettles, so we’ve been camped out in the depths of the forest, waiting for something like this.”
“For me? But why?”
“Because it’s right,” said Feryon, ”because if it were me, coming back out of the ground, with no clue what’s going on, I’d want someone to be there.”
“It didn’t work, did it? The shettling,” I asked, pressing my scarred hands to my face, “the alltrees couldn’t heal me, couldn’t purify me and return me fresh to the world. And, I think there’s something else. I think… I can remember more than my last life. I had these dreams, while I was in the ground. In my last life, I loved this girl, Maina, but she, she didn’t really love me back, not the way I wanted to. In my dreams though, I was with Eleran, and before that, I think, with Tesh. There’s a lot that doesn’t feel the way I thought it did – overlapping feelings and people, things I didn’t used to remember.”
Grellan and Feryon exchanged frowns in the front seats.
“Is – is there something wrong with me?” I asked.
“I think there’s something wrong with all of us,” replied Hevalan, pulling a thick folder out from the chairwell at his feet. On its battered cover I could see it was marked with the icon of the archive, a simple drawing of two trees, one upside down beneath the other, their roots so entangled that they were a single tree. On the folder was my name, and the identity number I’d been reminded of whenever I’d returned from shettling. I had a flash of being shown that number dozens of times, by different people, and memorising it, over and over.
Hevalan opened the folder, and was about to say something more, when the auto we were following suddenly burst into flame and flipped over, bouncing and tumbling, fire pouring from its windows as it rolled off the road.