It began on a bus.
It always began on a bus. One that sailed a lonely, winding road through a forest of tall, barren trees covered in ceaseless snow.
She was starting to come-to now, as her clouded, blue eyes slowly flickered open. She stared out through the window, her head resting against the glass. Her warm, gentle breath visible in the frigid air. A tousled mess of cider-spiced hair, streaked in hints of gold, clung loosely round her cheek and neck, the only barrier she had between her ivory skin and the icy window.
The bus slowed to a stop, as more passengers came on board, but she was oblivious to them. Even to the tall Stranger who quietly took the empty seat beside her. He wore a heavy, black cloak, which matched his long, thick hair, covered in a dusting of snowflakes. His face was pale and stoic, though there was a trace of softness in his silver, slate eyes. Slung across his back was a great, black javelin, whose piercing, dire end had been finely sharpened. He turned his gaze to the girl, as her mind slipped in and out of consciousness.
The two sat in silence behind the driver, the only sound to be heard was the rumbling of the bus engine. Other passengers were scattered among the seats, staring drearily out their windows or ahead at the seat in front of them. Occasionally, the dark Stranger would peer inquisitively over across the girl and out towards the tiny window, before returning his stare to the floor beneath him. But more often than not, he looked the girl over, as a jeweler inspects a fine stone. The bus jostled over stones and holes in the old road, and the Stranger reached round his back for his javelin and brought up front with him, standing it between his boots while he grasped it in his leather-gloved hands. His body was perfectly still as he sat, and not one muscle moved, except for his stone-gray eyes; eyes that scanned and searched the girl. Then, with a fluid grace, he stood up, leaned over the driver's seat, and softly whispered to the driver - a small, elderly man who could not speak. The Stranger, whose towering height was so great that he could not fully stand, silently seated himself again.
The bus continued on its course, sometimes slowing to a stop, and allowing a passenger off, and at other times taking in one more. They were all the same. Not one said a word, and each held a lost look in their eyes. The young girl continued to rest her head against the window, sometimes appearing asleep, and at other times awake, her watery-blue eyes still and lifeless. Finally, the bus had emptied, and only the girl and the Stranger remained. The bus picked up speed now, taking a path it did not normally take, and the scenery outside began to gradually change. The cold, white forest of snow transitioned to warm woodlands bursting with green and golden light.
After a time, the bus slowed to a stop, the doors swinging open. Slowly and groggily, the girl raised her head, grasping the seat in front of her as she pulled herself to her feet. The Stranger, whose face was now swallowed in the hood of his heavy cloak, his javelin slung across his back, was already outside, waiting. With automatic-like movement, she carefully trodded down each step, then stood before him, though her eyes continued to look off and away. There, the Stranger circled her, evaluating her gracile form with a critical eye. Days prior, he had spent a great deal of time and energy watching innumerable others before he finally settled. She would have to do. He had little time to choose another.
Then with the stroke of his finger, she began to move forward. Her dazed state of consciousness gave him the ease at which he was able to slip in and manipulate it, if only slightly. It was innocent mind-control, though his kind was more than capable of dealing far worse. Visions and images of the most terrible atrocities ever conceived, planted deep in the subconscious of the unfortunate souls made to endure them. For the Stranger could see their innermost passions, and their darkest fears. Their deepest memories, and their most bitter sorrows. All of these he had seen, strewn, torn apart, and melded together into horrific depictions and hallucinations, all in the minds of countless, hapless Others.
But he would not do so again.
Their surroundings were filled with the greenest trees, spruces, and shrubs. The golden sun filtered down through the leaves, and the only sound to be heard was the faint chirping of birds and insects. The rooftops of numerous cottages and homes could be seen in the distance, hidden in the growth. As the two entered a clearing, the girl halted. The Stranger eyed her then, his arms folded loosely across his chest as he considered for a moment his next move. He began to approach her, though she did not react to his advance in her dazed state. He towered over her in height, and she was enveloped in his shadow. With one large hand, he gently held her face, and with his other he cupped her forehead, nearly covering her eyes.
And that was when she woke up.
It was only a dream.
Through the deepest spans of sleep, therein lies a world known as Ender - the Dreamscape. To put it simply, it's where our dreams are. It is a mysterious place filled with wonder and beauty, though there is also terror and danger, as there are many who never wake from sleep because of such perils.
For many nights now, the dreams of 17-year old Ashe Brandser have all been in one place – a small, quiet hamlet overgrown with huge maples and spruces, known as Treeful Village. They were mostly only fleeting glimpses. A world awash with green and gold and warm sunlight on the skin. She could never remember much else.
But this one was different.
This dream differed from all the others because this time, she met someone who lived there.
It happened as she lay half-conscious in the grass and the leaves, staring up at the flittering golden light among the trees. Unaware of the curious soul who slowly and softly approached her.
His sudden loud and spirited voice brought Ashe up with a jolt. She looked over her shoulder to find a sandy-haired boy, one about her age, peering down at her with a wily grin and gleaming, honey eyes.
"You've been down there for nearly half an hour," he said with a laugh. "Are you okay?"
Ashe was quite out of it, sitting there in the dappled light, trying to make sense of her surroundings - and this boy. For this was all still her dream, and as anyone might relate, very rarely can you comprehend much within a dream - talk or otherwise. She tried to digest his every word.
"I ... think so," she replied woozily.
"I was watching you the whole time - you hadn't budged an inch. I did see you blinking, though. Wasn't sure if you really wanted to be bothered. You sure you're okay?"
She nodded after a moment's pause.
"You need any help?"
There was an awkward silence. Ashe glanced up at him, a playful smirk still wrapped across his face, his ruffled hair a glistening gold in the light of the morning sun. She could barely hang on to his words before they evaporated from her mind entirely.
"Here—" He reached down for Ashe’s hand and pulled her to her feet before she could react. But her legs were weak and ungainly, and they nearly buckled under her. The boy caught her as she stumbled, and gingerly helped her regain her balance.
"There, stand up for a bit, get the blood flowin' and you'll feel better. You new around here? I don't think we've ever met."
"Here? Where is here?"
"Treeful … Village?" he said with a puzzled look.
Ashe was equally puzzled. "Where is that?"
"It's right here, sleeping beauty!" he said with a laugh. "Wow, you must be really out of it. Here, come with me, stretch your legs some, that'll get you up."
He started to head off, but stopped abruptly and turned around to find her still standing where she was, looking back at him dumbfoundedly.
"Come on, I'm not gonna bite."
She took one slow step forward, her mind continually telling her she would fall if she continued. She planted her foot firmly on the ground, the boy snickering as he watched, and she shot him a nervous glance.
"I'm afraid I'm going to fall."
There was a considerable gap between them, one of just soft grass and leaves, but one that Ashe could not bring herself to cross. She was light-headed, and her legs felt like brittle twigs.
"Well…" The boy was about to comment on her odd state of mind, but held it back. Instead, he leaned over and reached out his hand, flexing his fingers in invitation. She leaned over in turn and grabbed hold, and he gently pulled her across.
"There, you see? Now that wasn’t so hard. So, tell me Miss, ahh…"
He looked over to her expectantly.
"Ashe," she replied. Her dizziness was starting to fade.
His eyes brightened. "Ashe! Ashe ..." He spoke the name to himself thoughtfully, trying to make sense of it. The name was foreign to him. "Where are you from?"
"Where am I from?"
He burst into laughter. "Never mind, we'll deal with that later. I'm Lance by the way."
He continued on towards a cluster of houses scantly visible through the trees, while Ashe followed him with a curious energy. The bright morning sun streamed through the trees, blinding their eyes and warming their faces.
"Tess and Gage are gonna love this," he beamed. "There's a slight chance you might be able to help us with something."
"Old friends of mine! They've been stuck on this little project forever now, but they can't seem to get it up and running. You're from out of town, I take it, so you might know something we don't. If you wouldn't mind just having a look at it—"
"What is it?" Ashe's mind was starting to clear, though she still felt shrouded in a fog.
Lance stopped for a moment and drew close. "You can't speak a word of this to anyone, alright?" he spoke in a hushed tone. "… It's a Vehicle."
"A vehicle? You mean a car?" Ashe was getting worried. "I'm sorry, I don't know anything about cars."
"You don't? Well, I guess that's not a surprise. Most people don't these days. I'd be doing cartwheels if you did." He laughed under his breath. "But then again, maybe all it needs is the eyes of an outsider. Just take a look at it, and maybe something will come to mind. You never know. I say it's worth a shot."
Ashe followed him as they walked lightly through the quiet streets of the hamlet, the gentle rustling of the tall trees and their voices the only sound to be heard. But then a strange sensation came over Ashe, one of dizzyness and darkening vision, and she was compelled to stop. Lance had walked on ahead, but when he realized he was by himself, he stopped to turn around – only to find Ashe had completely vanished.
It wasn't until her next night of dreaming that Ashe once again found herself in the hamlet, just as before. Lying flat on her back and gazing up at the golden light filtering through the emerald maple leaves, the sight itself almost hypnotic. There was an overwhelming feeling of calm and security in this place, wherever it truly was. Ashe felt it, even though at this stage she could not discern dream from reality. In her mind, this was no different than her true, day-to-day life. Only in the rarest of moments do people come to the full realization that they are dreaming. But for now, Ashe found herself enraptured by her surroundings. No longer plagued by feelings of dizziness, she got up on legs that felt surer, and suddenly driven by a growing sense of curiosity and wonder. There was no sociable Lance to greet her there this time, or anyone else for that matter, and she was completely alone. But this was not a problem, and she headed down the same path she had taken the time before, having remembered it.
The growth of Treeful was full and rich, like a well-established garden that had long stood the test of time. Its age showed in its towering maples, oaks, and hemlocks, and through its thick spruces, grasses and shrubs. The air was heavy with the scent of evergreen, sage, and damp earth, and only the chatter of an occassional bird carried on the wind. The golden sun soon faded to a white, overcast sky, and the air grew cool and crisp. Ashe wandered the narrow path until it led to a wider, paved road, wet and dark with the moisture of an early rain. The road curved and gently sloped through dense forest, and towards its end was a peculiar house that caught her eye. In its windows were a cluster of small, figure-like objects. Ashe trotted down towards the house and drew nearer, finding the objects to be a collection of delicate, porcelain dolls, all situated as a crowd and neatly displayed within the home's windows. Their empty, glass eyes stared out longingly, and Ashe could not help but be pulled into their gaze. There were both girls and boys, some with pale, bleached, ordinary faces, and others with glowing, bronze skin, their eyes the color of golden Citrine. These were unlike any person Ashe had ever seen before. But one doll, hidden in the back, was different from all the others, and it drew her attention. It was fitted in a hooded, black cloak, the hood so deep it obscured its face. Attached to its back was a long, elegant spear. Ashe bent down to examine it closer, for there was something about this doll she could not quite place.
Suddenly, something grabbed her. Not a violent grab by any means – but one that was gentle and playful. Still, Ashe was completely caught unawares, and she spun around wildly in a flurry of fright, only to find Lance behind her, laughing hysterically.
"I-I'm sorry, I couldn't resist," he said as he tried to regain his composure, a wide grin plastered onto his face. "The perfect moment was there, and I just had to take it – you should've seen yourself!"
Ashe couldn't help but smile at him, despite a lingering feeling of shock.
"Yeah, I'm kinda known around here for that. For pranks, trickery, general shenanigans, that sort of thing." He smirked proudly at the thought of himself, and Ashe let out a soft laugh. This surprised Lance, whose eyes were alight with interest.
"That's the first time I've heard you laugh. I suppose you're feeling better?"
"Yeah, I … I guess so," she replied hesitantly, brushing her gold-flecked hair back from her face. Her every reply to him felt nearly automatic, as if she herself could not fully understand anything she told him. There was a vague understanding, but not total comprehension. Almost as if her clouded mind were in auto-pilot. But then Lance turned to Ashe, his joking demeanor gone, a now serious look in his eyes.
"Where in the world did you go yesterday? You just up-and-disappeared."
"Yeah, I turned around and you were just gone. I ran back looking for you. Ran back to where I found you the first time, called your name. I couldn't find you. The neighbors probably think I'm crazy now, but hey, what else is new?"
"I'm sorry," she said plaintively. "I don't think I meant to."
"Which brings us now to my next major question – where are you from?"
Ashe thought for a moment, but could not for the life of her pull out an answer. It was as if her mind were entirely blank, and as far as she could tell, there was nothing strange or different about this place, this Treeful Village. But Lance, who was normally quite comical and carefree, was being serious, for he now suspected something of his new-found friend. In fact, he had his suspicions all along, from the very moment he found her lying in the grass under the shade of the maples.
"I'm not sure," Ashe finally replied. "I don't know."
"You don't know?" Lance sounded almost frustrated, but this was not the case. In fact, he was growing quite excited, for his suspicions were slowly proving true.
"No, I don't. I didn't know I had to be from anywhere."
Lance made a crooked look at her reply. There was something different about Ashe. She was unlike anyone he had ever met before, and every word she had spoken thus far was either hollow and light, or it simply didn't make sense.
"You have to be from somewhere. Because it certainly isn't from here."
Ashe could only look at him with lost confusion. "It's alright," he said as he gently took her hands into his. "Maybe I can help you remember, if you'll let me."
Suddenly, everything hit her like a ton of bricks. That extraordinary instant when you gain the slight awareness that you're dreaming - Ashe had finally come to that mystical realization. With more certainty than she'd ever had before in her time this world, as if awake, she said it aloud.
"This is a dream."