Painful starbursts exploded behind my eyes.
I clawed awake, tumbling forward, bouncing against a rough surface. Heat scorched my arms and legs. I tucked my head and shoulders. Sharp stones gouged my back and sand coated my sweaty body.
Slammed to a stop, I was flat on my face. Ears ringing. My next breath wheezed out, mouth dry as the hot dust singeing my body.
What was happening?
No answer. Brain scrambled.
“Get up, girl, if you value your life,” someone demanded in a deep male voice that sounded old.
Don’t push me right now if you value yours. I opened my gritty eyes to blinding light and a cockeyed view of an endless desert. Not a person in sight.
If he yelled one more time, he wouldn’t be happy when I did make it to my feet. I bit back the snarl curling to my lips. Who was he anyway? My head still spun and my stomach wasn’t much happier. Gravel bit the palms of my hands as I pushed up on shaky knees.
Every muscle screamed misery, my body battered as a kickball. I twisted around one way then the other, searching in a full circle. Still no one. Now I was dizzy.
Had I imagined that voice?
Where am I?
Blinking against the harsh sun, I struggled to my feet, weaving where I stood. Confused thoughts banged my aching skull. I rubbed my eyes, then focused and looked down at myself. Feet tucked inside short boots made of tanned skins. Familiar, but not. Buckskin material covered me from shoulders to skinned knees and I had a leather thong tied around my waist.
I swallowed, waiting for some memory to rise up from the empty gap in my mind and offer help. The longer I waited, the more nauseous I got.
Nerves had me brushing hair off my face and breathing fast, then I paused, clutching a handful of hair. I pulled the strands into view. Black. Long, thick and black.
Why didn’t I know that? My heart thumped hard and picked up speed. I took a quick glance at the barren landscape.
Was this home?
I didn’t know. Why can’t I remember?
Trembling started in my knees and traveled up through my chest. I forced a deep breath through my lungs, anything to stop the rising panic. Panic kills.
Someone had told me that once. Who?
Still no answers. Squinting, I looked for something familiar.
Mountains. Red mountains. Wait. I knew those. Think. I begged my mind to give me something. To remember.
Nothing. Closing my eyes, I tried harder.
Bright colors flashed behind my eyes and a sharp ache stabbed my skull. Grabbing my head did little to ease the throbbing, but the pain did clear some of my brain fog.
The name of those mountains. Sandia. Relief flooded through me so quickly my skin tingled. I’m just disoriented.
“You waste time, Rayen.”
I froze as I opened my eyes. I better see him when I turn around this time. And who was Rayen? I made a quarter turn to find the owner of that gravelly voice.
An old man. No, the shimmering image of an old man, an elder. This whole thing just shot up a level on the weird scale. With white stringy hair, light gray eyes and gnarled limbs, he flickered before me, the red and tan cliff rocks visible through his translucent body. Beyond that, an unbroken sky stretched overhead, wide and empty and so intensely blue it hurt my eyes.
The ghost man floated above the desert floor, legs crossed.
I was feeling a whole lot better until I saw that. “Who are–”
The ground beneath me vibrated and shifted, cutting off my words. I stumbled sideways.
“Listen,” he ordered, his voice tense and urgent. “Three things you must know.” The ghost spoke louder with each word, competing with a heavy, shuddering sound not that far away.
I chugged in a deep breath, as if that would keep my rising fear at bay, and smelled a rotted stench. Cloying decay and smoke. A warning smell I couldn’t place, but something I sensed deep in my bones. Danger. I moved my head to look around, but the old man shouted, “You listening?”
Like I have a choice?
The spooky elder was determined to get his message said.
Nodding at him, I swallowed, not a spit of saliva in my mouth. The pounding of the ground seemed to come from a distance, reverberating through me. Adrenaline stirred my blood, urging me to be ready. But for what?
“First thing,” he enunciated as if I was slow. “You die if you eat peanuts and you are seventeen.”
Peanuts? Who cares about nuts, and isn’t that technically two things? I sniffed at the air. The burning stink thickened. I reached for a knife that wasn’t at my hip, but something told me it should be.
“Second. Your name Rayen.”
Rayen? I’m Rayen?
If I could believe a crazy hallucination. Fear snaked through me with icy fingers, paralyzing me. I don’t know my name...or what I’m doing here...or where here is, other than recognizing those mountains.
The ground shook harder, dust and pebbles scattering everywhere. I widened my stance to keep my balance.
That’s when I caught the distinct sound of hooves pounding. Hard. Behind me ... gaining speed.
I looked over my shoulder. A beast. My muscles clenched at the sheer size of the thing. A hairy, rhino-hide gray creature blotting out the desert landscape behind it. Barreling forward, rocking back and forth on three legs, wide head low to the ground. Scary fast, churning geysers of sand and dirt, eating up distance quicker than anything its size should.
Air backed up in my lungs. “What the – ”
“Third thing, Rayen,” the elder shouted, his voice nearly drowned by the rumble. “Run!”