"Life is like a game of chess, in which there are an infinite number of complex moves possible. The choice is open, but the move contains within itself all future moves. One is free to choose, but what follows is the result of one's choice. From the consequences of one's action there is never any escape."
Shelley Smith, The Ballad of the Running Man
Chapter 1 Nowhere
'It was a bad dream. I'll open my eyes and I'll be in my room,' Aurelia said, trying to comfort herself. She could feel somebody's hands supporting her head. 'That's probably my mum. She probably heard me shouting in my nightmare and she's here to help me wake up.'
Aurelia's mouth was dry and she was thirsty. Her whole body felt broken. She tried to move her legs but sharp pains shot through them. She attempted to open her eyes, but without success.
'What's the point of being immortal if I suffer so much? Why can't I feel that I am self-healing like I usually do? Somebody, please, help stop the pain!' And then she felt relief as she lost consciousness again.
She dreamed that something soft settled on her lips, pushing them apart, and then a sour liquid run down her throat. Aurelia started to cough and gained consciousness. This was not a dream. With her eyes still closed, she tried to sit up but bumped her head against somebody else's. She tried again and this time opened her eyes and saw a young man, a stranger kneeling down next to her, leaning towards her, smiling.
'Welcome back to the land of the living,' he chuckled as if the injuries Aurelia had suffered deeply amused him.
Aurelia rubbed her eyes and once she confirmed he was real, she slapped him.
'Why did you do that? I see you are feeling much better, probably back to your usual self.' The stranger said a little angrily as he rubbed his flushing cheek.
'Who are you, what have you done to me, where am I and how dare you kiss me!' Aurelia looked around, trying to identify something she could hit him with if he decided to kiss her again. She was lying in the open in what looked like a dark sandy desert there were stones around her but none she could reach quick enough if she had to.
In one easy leopard like jump, the stranger leapt to his feet, looking down at her without making any attempt to help her sit up. 'My father is right, people can be very unappreciative, even when you save their lives.' Aurelia could see that the slap had upset him. 'I gave you the kiss of life to administer the potion that would save you, but I'm already regretting it,' the stranger said in a low voice.
Aurelia examined him. He looked about fifteen or sixteen. She stared at him with unhidden interest. He looked so different from the normal people she knew of the Empire of Light. He had pale porcelain skin, a narrow face, and his eyes were the darkest blue she had ever seen - framed with long black lashes. As Aurelia looked deeper into his eyes, she saw piercing intelligence and wisdom beyond any that someone his age should have. There were dark circles underneath his eyes as if he had not had enough sleep, and his hair, which was short and black, looked as if somebody had chopped it off in a hurry.
'Have you had enough time to study me?' The stranger said in amusement. Aurelia looked away from his eyes only to notice that he was half naked, Aurelia turned the colour of a ripe tomato. It was not as if she had not seen the bare chest of a man before, she had seen her brothers when they went swimming, but never a handsome stranger of almost the same age as her, standing so close.
His body was lean and muscular. He was wearing black leather trousers that ended at his calves and had bare feet despite the ground's rough surface. He had a remarkable tattoo that extended up his right arm and half his torso. It was a phoenix, the firebird rising from the ashes. Aurelia couldn't take her eyes off it, she had never seen something so beautiful etched on someone's body. Her gaze followed the tattoo and it's colours down to his waist where it disappeared under his trousers.
'Who are you?' she asked again, still staring at his stomach where the tattoo disappeared.
'I hoped the first words I would hear from you would be thank you,' the stranger snapped.
'Then, please, tell me, what is your name so that I may thank you properly?' Aurelia decided to be more polite. After all, whatever he had done had eased the pain significantly.