Renata wasn’t happy and so things burned. Lots of things. Lots of things that weren’t normally able to burn. Like rocks. And ghosts. And the ocean.
She paused for breath as the red glow around her steadily grew to an orange hue. Her mother had warned her that she went overboard too often but given that she had fallen into some weird kind of psycho Wonderland, it seemed like maybe she wasn’t going overboard enough.
“Zia, care to turn down the heat a bit?” an old woman asked in American English.
It was a reflex action that sent two of Renata’s hovering meteors at the speaker. Renata reached to bring them back, trying to remember if that was even possible. The old woman reacted just as quickly though, effortlessly batting the meteors aside and allowing them to detonate far to her left and well out of range of doing any damage.
“Who are you?” Renata asked. English wasn’t her best language – it had too many stupid exceptions – but she could get by in it when she needed to.
The old woman frowned at the question. The two younger women behind her did the same.
“You don’t remember us?” the taller woman asked.
“We don’t look quite like we used to, but if you look a bit deeper it might come back you,” the small one said.
Renata narrowed her eyes and drew her head back. The first three humans she’d seen in hours and they were talking like they knew her already? Oh, sure, she would just walk into whatever trap they had set for her.
“What do you want?” she asked. “Do you know how to get out of here?”
Of course they would say they did. Just come along to this dark alley, or creepy basement, or gingerbread house.
“We’re not getting out of here,” the old one said. “We’re heading deeper in.”
“Deeper in?” So they were insane. That was good to know.
“We’re going to the same place you were,” the old one said. “The only difference is we know what’s waiting there.”
“We do?” the tall one asked.
“Ok, the only difference is I know what’s there, and these two remember who I am,” the old one said.
“That’s nice, but I have never seen any of you people in my life,” Renata said. The tall and the short ones had clearly American accents, but the old one seemed like English was a second or third language for her too. A well practiced one, but there was the slightest rumble of an accent under her words and Renata couldn’t quite place where it was from.
“Not in this one you haven’t,” the old one said. “How much do you remember about what came before?”
“Before what?” Renata asked.
“She doesn’t remember anything?” the tall one asked.
“She remembers how to throw fireballs,” the old one said.
“Why don’t you just tell me who you are?” Renata asked, frustrated by how they seemed to know so much and be willing to say so little.
“We’re friends,” the old one said. “Do you remember the name Zia?”
Renata searched her memory. She’d had an imaginary twin she called Zia when she was a little girl but she hadn’t thought of that daydream in years.
“No, should I?” Renata said.
“It would be a lot easier if you did,” the old one said. “We’ve got to work with what we’ve got though I guess.”
“I’m Ally,” the tall one said. “But if you were going to recognize me I think it would be as Aloka?”
“I’m Gwen,” the younger one said. “Or Gwena. I got lucky I guess.”
“I’m Mava, and you won’t recognize me by how I look at all,” she said.
“We should show her how to look into the depths of Counter-Time,” Gwen said.
“No time for that now,” Mava said.
“She’d be able to recognize us though,” Gwen said.
“She’ll manage that in her own time,” Mava said. “For now we have to keep moving towards the Training Hall.”
“I’m not going anywhere but back home,” Renata said.
“You think that, but look at what you’re doing,” Mava said and pointed down at Renata’s feet.
They were walking. Somehow their static discussion had changed into marching one and Renata couldn’t place when that had happened. She stopped in place and the others stopped with her.
“I don’t know what kind of trick this but I swear I will burn whoever is responsible,” she said.
“Yeah, you’re still Zia,” Mava said. “Maybe a whack on the head in training will shake that loose.”
“Anybody tries to whack me anywhere and I’m going to incinerate them,” Renata said, the fire behind her flaring with each word she spoke.
“Stars above it’s good to have you back,” Mava said. “Don’t worry though, no one’s going to attack you until the training starts and even then it won’t be any of us you have to worry about. Like I said, we’re your friends.”
“If that’s true then tell me how to get home,” Renata said.
“Where’s your home at?” Gwen asked.
Renata felt like an idiot. She’d walked right into that question. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to ask under the circumstances. Giving the answer though? Her first thought was whether that would endanger her family. Her husband. Her daughter.
“Spain,” she said. Any more information would be useless and dangerous. They were Americans, at least the tall one and the short one. They wouldn’t know where Almeria was if she gave them a map and a Google search bar.
“You are a long way from home,” Ally said.
“We all are,” Mava said. “Bear in mind that Zia walked here, the same as us.”
“Who is this Zia?” Renata asked.
“You, in another life,” Mava said. “Like she was Aloka and she was Gwena.”
“And you? Did you have another name in this other life?” Renata asked.
“Nope, I’m still on my first life, so I’m still on my first name,” Mava said. “With how things are going though, maybe that will change.”
“You are all insane,” Renata said, and discovered she was walking with them again.
“You’re not wrong,” Mava said. “But under the circumstances you may want to just go with what we tell you for now.”
“Why should I?” Renata asked.
“You’re walking through Counter-Time,” Mava said. “Things here look impossible from the Earthly experience you’re used to. We can help keep you safe. Also, you probably need some explanation for the burning ring at your back and the fireballs right?”
Renata let out a slow breath. The old woman was right. And naggingly familiar. Renata felt a headache coming on and fought to keep her thoughts in order.
“Tell me what’s going on then,” she said. “Tell me now or I’m not going any farther.”
She sat down to emphasize that, determined that she would keep her feet in place no matter what it took.
“This isn’t a good idea,” Mava said.
“If she really can’t remember though?” Gwens said. “That has to be killing her.”
“Figuratively killing her, yes,” Mava said. “Stopping in strange places in Counter-Time is great for getting yourself literally killed though.”
“I’m not moving,” Renata said.
Mava huffed out an irritated sigh.
“Fine, never could get you to change your damn mind when you got like this anyways I guess,” she said and sat down opposite Renata’s position. Ally and Gwen completed the circle, sitting on either side of Renata.
“You carry within you the soul and sunlight of a woman who lived long ago,” Mava said.
“Like when? Was I the Queen of Egypt? Or Helen of Troy?” Renata asked, the ridiculousness of the old woman’s claim irritating her beyond measure for some reason.
“No, you, and we, were from well before their time,” Mava said. “As near as I can tell something like one hundred thousand years have passed since we served together. We were the Elites of the House of Days.”
“What was that?”
“One of two powers that ruled the world then,” Mava said.
“For reference, the earliest human artifacts don’t date back anywhere near that far,” Gwen said.
“So what were we, dinosaurs or something?” Renata asked.
“No, they were even farther back than that,” Gwen said.
“We were humans then too,” Mava said. “But our history has been lost. I think partially because of the magic we used.”
“What kind of magic would do that?” Renata asked.
“The same kind that lets you throw fireballs at people,” Mava said. “The kind that breaks the rules.”
“So if you all remember this, and you remember me, why don’t I remember you?” Renata asked.
“We don’t remember everything,” Ally said.
“Just bits and pieces really,” Gwen said. “Our current lives make it hard to remember our past ones.”
“But you remember me?” Renata asked.
“I remember your lava balls, and that burning ring on your back,” Ally said.
“I remember watching you paint,” Gwen said. “It was beautiful, you did landscapes and brought them to life with little creatures.”
Renata’s flames dimmed and a cool wave swept over her.
“How do you know that?” she asked.
“You still do it, don’t you?” Mava asked. “Probably since you were a young girl.”
“Yes, I am painter,” Renata said. “Is that it? Is that how you know me? Have you seen my paintings?”
“No but we’d like to!” Gwen said.
“Is that why you’re here? To find me?” Renata asked.
“No,” Mava said. “We didn’t even know you were awake and in the world again. We’re traveling now to train, and I’m betting that’s what pulled you in here and is trying to drag you with us.”
“Why would I need to train?” Renata asked.
“Probably so that people like us wouldn’t be able to find and kill you so easily,” a man in a stone gray suit of armor said.