The sun woke him up.
Squinting, he moved his arm to block the beam of light that was aimed straight at his eye.
He rolled around in bed for a while before getting up. No need to rush things. He stared up at the ceiling of his room. The familiar knots in the wood above him. He listened to the sounds of the birds chirping outside his open window. He imagined he could smell the scent of the flowers he had helped his father plant in the garden right outside.
With a sigh, he forced himself out of bed and began to get ready for school.
His room was small but well kept and he had laid out his clothes for the day the night before. After dressing he walked downstairs and into the kitchen.
His parents sat on the stools near the table as they finished their breakfast and readied themselves for the day. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted through the air. The kitchen was small but clean. A small freeze box, which was his mother's pride, stood in the corner. Not too many people in town owned one of their own. His parents seemed to be talking in lowered voices to each other as Alan passed through the hallway near the kitchen.
He gave his parents a passing glance as he headed for the door. His dad was sitting arms crossed in concentration, a book lay half read to the side as he focused on whatever his mom was saying. His mom was leaning in talking in a low voice intent on something. The scene suddenly flicked.
Dried blood stained the floor. His parents remained the same but the table around which his parents sat was knocked over. A glimpse of broken dishes and glass. His dad and mom did not move, their faces were indistinct and blurry. The blurred faces shifted violently somehow growing larger and turning his way. Flicker.
The scene was gone as quickly as it had come and his parents were once more sitting in their tidy kitchen as a soft light filtered through the nearby window. All was back to normal. Alan froze, breathing heavily.
Confused and feeling a bit hazy, Alan shook his head to clear his mind. Taking a deep breath he put on his shoes and walked out without saying a word. He was running late already and could grab breakfast at the bakery near the schoolhouse if he got too hungry.
"Not even a goodbye?" His mother called after him as he walked away from the house.
"Bye!" He shouted back sullenly as he set off towards school.
Alan liked to have his mornings to himself. His family meant well but managed to annoy him no matter what they did. He preferred quieter mornings. Something nagged at him today however. A sense of something perhaps. He somehow felt like going back and spending time with his family. But before he knew it he was walking towards the schoolhouse and well on his way. His feelings of misgivings soon forgotten as he picked up his pace.
At thirteen years of age, Alan had been taking lessons for almost two years now. The schoolhouse was a fairly large building not too far off of the town center. It was a single room with various desks and devices scattered throughout. Children from twelve to sixteen filled those desks, and their teacher took turns lecturing each age group throughout the day. Not all of the town's children were able to attend, only the richest or those who had earned themselves a scholarship through testing.
That day his age group had a history quiz. The town of Stonewall where he lived was situated in the Kingdom of Strength and much of the history taught in school was focused on their own kingdom. That day their quiz focused on population control policies adopted by Strength as compared to those of the other Territories. It was always a good idea to compare Strength favorably to the others in order to get better grades.
It was rumored the schoolmaster had a Skill that enabled him to detect cheaters, and students caught cheating were suspended without question. True or not, it certainly made the kids study more earnestly. And Alan had seen several kids suspended and one repeat offender expelled in his time there, so he wasn't about to risk it. As Alan arrived in the school building and sat at his desk he noticed groups of students gathered together trying to cram as much as possible last minute before the test. Unsurprisingly, no one gathered around his own desk.
He had not always had such a hard time making friends. He didn't know when it started but before he knew it he had found himself mostly alone. He knew he thought too much. Perhaps his responses did not seem genuine because they were too calculated. Perhaps he was too quiet. Whatever it was, he had been with the same group of students for two years now and had yet to make a close friend.
He wasn't bullied or disliked, but he kept to himself. When he did voice something he tried to do it in a way that mimicked the way the other students spoke and behaved. But overall it was simply safer to be silent.
The day passed no different than any other day in this sense. He kept to himself, took the test, and started packing up to go home once the mid-day bell's toll sounded throughout the town. It was a hot day and the sunlight was shining brightly through the window as he stood up from his desk. Avoiding the groups of students beginning to cluster once more, he walked to the parchment shelf on the wall of the building to pack the rest of his things. Just as he reached the shelf a deep but friendly voice spoke up behind him.
Turning around he saw Eric smiling and waving in his direction. With a stocky frame and short blond hair, Eric was the stable master's son and well liked by pretty much everyone. They had been close friends when they were younger, though in the last few years they had drifted apart. If Alan was being honest he was jealous of his old friend. Eric was outgoing and well-liked. It didn't come as easy to Alan and he had become a bit of a loner among the other school kids. Even so, there were no bad feelings between him and Eric, and Alan watched curiously as the other boy ran up to him.
"Yo Eric" Alan responded as Eric approached. "What's up?"
This what out of the ordinary. Wait... he had already had this thought before recently? The situation seemed familiar. The students around him in the classroom blurred as Eric stood in front of him. Eric's face looked strange somehow. Was his face always like that? It was hard to focus on the details around him.
Suddenly the scene snapped back into clarity.
"Actually I was wondering if you could help me out today." Eric paused, smiling sheepishly ignoring curious glances from the other students. "My dad was asking why he hadn't seen you around and we need some help with the horses later today. I was hoping you could come over and help out? It would be cool to hang out and it will earn you some decent silver and I know you've been saving up..."
Alan paused as Eric trailed off. It was an innocent enough request, but Eric hadn't asked him over in a long time. Eric had his own group of friends who he spent most of his time with these days, and while he didn't shun or ignore Alan they were simply not close anymore. Most likely his father had put him up to it. He could use the silver though. He wanted to leave town and go to a major university after he graduated in two years. Even with a scholarship, it would not be cheap.
Alan noticed Eric start to shuffle, and realized he may have been staring too long at the other boy. He opened his mouth to respond and stopped. A tingling sensation ran through his entire body and seemed to ripple out into the world around him. Where was he? His surroundings blurred again and he tried to turn around. Instead, almost against his will, he found himself responding to Eric.
"Uh yeah, I think I could help out. Could always use the extra silver." Alan responded with a shrug and a smile. "Let me just tell my mother and I can head your way right after."
Eric brightened up. "Awesome man! Thanks a lot, it'll be a huge help. We just got a new horse from the capital and its been taking up a lot of my dad's time. I'll let him know and we'll see you soon! Oh, and my mother always makes plenty of food so no need to worry about supper, you can eat with us." Eric threw his own pack over his shoulder and giving Alan a pat on the back, made his way towards the exit. "See ya later!" Eric called as he left.
Alan waved watching the other boy leave, and something nagged at him. He turned his attention to the door through which the other boy had just gone. He focused on it. It was a dark brown, but that's all it was. He couldn't make out any detail of the wood. He turned to ask another student, but the room was empty. The bustling activity completely gone. He tried to focus his thoughts, but he couldn't seem to grasp his surroundings any longer. The world seemed to fade in and out, pulsating almost. Details slowly began bleeding from the objects and reality around him.
He needed to sit down. His head spun and he was feeling nauseous. Preparing to sit, he suddenly noticed a change in his surroundings. He was outside walking home. When had that happened? The familiar path that extended alongside the road was busy with people as they went about their day. When had he left the school room?
His feet carried him along the path taking him home almost of their own violation. It was a bright day and the wind felt refreshing as it blew gently in through the town. Late summer was his favorite time of year. Just warm enough to be pleasant with a hint of coolness that he found refreshing. He enjoyed the weather and prepared to let his mother know what he would be up to later. He was sure it would make her happy to hear he was spending time with another kid his own age.
He had not been wrong.
His mother had fallen over herself assuring him that it was fine and that his household chores could wait, and that he could come home whenever he wanted, and not to worry about supper. He smiled doing his best to ignore her. Her obvious enthusiasm somehow threatened to undermine his own self-esteem. In some ways he was dreading the rest of the night, but also if he was being honest with himself, he was a bit excited. Perhaps he and Eric would rekindle their friendship.
The village stables were a quick walk away from the center of town, and Alan hurriedly set out after speaking to his mother. It was not a very large town but it had a decent number of horses to help with farm work or to help those needing transportation. The villagers with horses rented out space and paid Eric's father to care for and feed the animals. The town was also a stop on the Strength Road and the government paid Eric's father to have good riding horses at the ready if a courier were ever to pass through and need a change of mount.
He made good time and soon found himself walking up to the house with the sun continuing to beat down on him. It was the middle of summer which meant that the days were long and hot. He couldn't entirely blame the heat for the sweat he could feel running down his neck as he approached the house. He was nervous. He could not help recalling the many times he had made this same walk growing up to see his friend. Reaching the door he took a breath and knocked. He eventually heard locks turning and the door opened to reveal a tall healthy man in his late 30's with the same short blond hair as his son.
"Alan?" Eric's father, a taller, stockier version of Eric himself, exclaimed as he opened the door. The man seemed surprised. "How can I help you? Did your mother send you over for something?"
Alan paused not sure what to make of this. He was sure that Eric's father had been the one to put his son up to inviting him over in the first place. Even if that was not the case, he would have assumed Eric had let his father know about Alan coming over. Thankfully before he had a chance to respond he heard a voice coming from further inside.
The older man turned his head as his son came in to view behind him.
"I invited Alan over to help out with the horses. I know you've been busy and we could use the help, Alan offered and I wasn't about to turn him down when we need it so badly." Eric smiled at Alan as he approached the door.
The father and son stared at each other for a moment looking so much like different versions of the other with slightly different heights and builds. The moment lasted too long as Alan continued to stand there unsure of what to do. "Eric you know.." the older man looked angry somehow but seemed to reign himself in by taking a deep breath while looking at his son. Something was going on here.
"Eric" he continued in a calmer voice, "you should really let me know when you're having friends come over even if it is to help out." Turning back to Alan he put on a forced smile. "But we really could use the help and we have plenty of food if you want to stay for dinner, so I can't be too upset can I?" He let out a chuckle seeming to relax more, he was a good-natured man Alan recalled, much like his son.
"Mucking the stables isn't going to be pleasant, but all the more reason to give the job to someone else." He smiled as he opened the door wider to let Alan inside. "Come on in, I was just about to head over to the stables myself so we can get started as soon as I get together some extra gloves and tools for you kids."
As his father went to gather supplies, Eric shrugged at Alan. "Thanks for coming," he said, "sorry about that I thought I had let my dad know earlier, but I must have forgotten." The boy paused awkwardly before continuing, "Hopefully it won't take too long and then we can eat and relax."
Alan had assumed Eric's father was the main reason he was here, so he wasn't sure what Eric was up to at this point. He was starting to regret coming, but he couldn't turn back at this point. The easiest thing was to keep it casual.
"Of course nothing builds an appetite like mucking horse shit," Alan replied dryly. That was a strange thing to say. Or was it clever? No, it was strange. "But yeah no worries" Alan continued taking a different tone as if he hadn't just said anything, "and seriously if it's a bad time I can always come back another night to help. I don't want to impose or anything."
"No we do need the help and I really don't want to do this on my own." Eric shivered at the thought. "The faster we get it done the faster we eat and you get paid. Follow me and we'll get you ready for work."
The boys got fitted with gloves and large boots and went out back towards the stables where Eric's father was waiting. From there, things proceeded pretty normally. If anything it was even hotter than Alan had remembered, which didn't help with the smell, but at least the horses were too lazy from the heat to be fussy, which made the work easy.
Suddenly it was evening. Alan paused and looked around. Eric's father was no longer around and he and Eric were alone in the stables. He felt a sudden vertigo and stopped what he was doing fearing he might throw up and embarrass himself. He remembered vaguely mucking the stables, brushing down and caring for the horses. But that had been before the attack. Alan gripped his head. Attack?
Alan sank to the ground and closed his eyes. Something was not right. He tried to remember the last few hours of working but couldn't focus.
"So I wanted to apologize again for not telling my dad. I think you can probably tell something is up." Eric said out of nowhere catching Alan by surprise. The other boy was staring at Alan intently as Alan clutched his head curled up on the ground. For some reason, Eric seemed to ignore or be unaware of the bizarre situation.
"I actually just wanted an excuse to have you come over." The stocky boy paused here as if unsure how to continue.
Alan knew Eric was going to ask him to sleep in the stables that night. How did he know? What else did he know? He closed his eyes again as the other boy's words washed over him.
"Listen you don't need to respond or anything but I just need to say a few things." Eric paused again here. "I know we haven't hung out in a long time. I mean it's just I was focused on other things and you were always studying or working... Anyway, that's not really the point..." Eric trailed off before letting out a loud huff.
Alan glanced up and saw Eric staring at him unblinking, face expressionless as he continued talking. "What I'm saying is that I owe you a huge debt and I haven't forgotten about it. My family was going through a tough time growing up and you were always there for me. I didn't even realize all the things you were doing at the time. Hell, we were like ten years old and I remember you somehow making me think studying mathematics was a fun way to spend time. You got me into reading and studying Skill paths. You even got me interested in history."
Alan had never thought of it way. He had always wanted to go to school, and he knew there were only a handful of scholarships for those who couldn't pay the full tuition. Selfishly he had wanted his friend to go to school as well so that he wouldn't be alone. With that in mind, he had done his best to get Eric interested in learning and education. Eric had been stubborn at first, but a turning point had come when his friend had shown an interest in history and battles of the past.
"You got me into school." Eric continued. "I made a lot of new friends and my family was able to meet some of the wealthier town members through these friendships. It's what got us our courier contract with Strength last year. We were having a hard time before that." Alan stood very still as Eric went on, he had not known this. No, he HAD known this. But he had not the first time he had heard it. When had he heard it before?
"I got hung up on making new friends and you always stood apart from the class. Before I knew it I didn't know what to say to you, you're a hard person to approach these days."
It hit him suddenly. His town was gone. This could not be real. Eric was still talking. Eric was probably dead. Alan noted his own position laying on the floor of the stables. Why wasn't the other boy acknowledging that he was curled up on the ground? Why were chunks of time missing in his day?
Was this real? Was his town already destroyed? He had to repeat these questions over and over to himself otherwise he would forget. This was the day before it happened. This is a dream. He was still curled on the ground and spared a glance at stables. One horse blurred into the next. Too many stalls. Was Eric still talking? The details were either missing or wrong. Was he going insane? He focused. Focused his whole being on remembering. Eric would ask him to sleep in the rafters. He would keep repeating this. If it happened, then he was right. If Eric asked him to do that, then he was not going insane.
"Anyway, I'm starting to ramble a bit." Eric was saying, "what I'm getting at is I owe you, and more than that my family owes you. Our contracts with the capital, our success, I don't think it would've happened if it hadn't been for you helping me study and practically dragging me to take that scholarship test. I just wanted you to know all of this before I ask you to do something."
A long silence. Alan found himself responding but couldn't even focus on what he was saying. His responses to everything seemed to happen on their own. The town is destroyed. His family was almost certainly dead. Everyone he had known likely gone. Do not forget this. He focused on that simple fact as Eric continued talking in the background.
..our old fort in the rafters up above?" Eric tilted his head towards the ceiling in the direction of their childhood hangout as he spoke. "Well I know it's gonna sound really strange, but I was wondering if you could spend the night there tonight. I can't really get into why, but it would just really mean a lot to me if you could."
There it was. He was not insane. His town was gone and this had already happened. This was either a nightmare or someone was using a strange Skill on him. It was so hard to focus. The town is destroyed. He opened his mouth to respond, but Eric wasn't done.
"Look please Alan? This means a lot to me, and I know it's weird, but this is really really important. You can make fun of me all you want tomorrow, but you know me, I’m not the most serious guy," he paused, his voice clearly frustrated, "but I am serious now."
Alan knew how this played out. Alan closed his eyes and tried to shut out the world. He tried to get up and leave but instead he heard himself respond almost against his will. He found himself agreeing to the strange request. He was suddenly standing up and finishing his work in the stables. The rest of the day passed in a blur. He had eaten dinner with Eric's family, he recalled vaguely, after working and left late into the night.
Throughout the evening when he was feeling more lucid he had tried to change the course of what he could remember of events. At dinner, he tried to simply leave and found his body wouldn't listen. Things continued to play out as if Alan had no choice in his own actions. Alan made sure to focus and try to remember as much as possible. The scarier moments came when he found himself falling in with the course of events and forgetting that everything had already happened. He didn't understand what was happening but that didn't mean he had to play along.
He found when it came to smaller details he could act of his own accord. He would respond differently to questions. Or knock over things on the table, which went completely ignored by everyone else at the table as if it hadn't happened. It felt as if he had two minds. One going along with the course of events. The other focusing on not forgetting the unreality of his situation and actively fighting against it.
He could either let this play out or end it. Was he sure a Skill was being used on him? Perhaps he was just going insane? Either way he knew he couldn't force himself to act too differently, and the lapses in time were disturbing, but he had plans to try some small things. Before going to sleep that night he went up to his room like he remembered and tied himself to the bed. He would do everything he could to not sleep in the stables that night.
He tried to warn his parents about an upcoming attack but somehow kept forgetting to do so. Alan tried to focus, but his mind couldn't seem to think properly. Time passed and soon it was late at night. He had waited in his room till the sounds of movement and activity throughout the house quieted. Once he was sure his mother and father were asleep he packed up some blankets in a backpack and snuck out into the night towards the stables. Hadn't he been tied up?
He entered the stables and moved down the hallway as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the horses and raise an alarm. He made his way up to the loft and then onto the rafters of the building, finally stopping at a place where several of the beams met against the stable wall.
It was a place that had created a cozy spot for two children to hide from their parents and plan adventures to pass the time. While it was not completely hidden, it had taken their parents some time to find the hideout. The space seemed much smaller than it had in years past, but he had tried to make himself as comfortable as possible. He scanned around for spiders and other crawling creatures, brushing the place down with his hand before laying down the blankets and settling in.
THIS WAS NOT REAL! Alan's mind screamed at him as he went about his tasks. It felt like a small but urgent voice in the back of his mind that his body wouldn't listen to. But he could change small things. Hardening his will and focusing his mind he put all of his effort into making one small change.
As he moved the blankets around, Alan waited in the back of his mind impatiently until the moment was right. He was worried that he would soon lose his focus or that another time leap might occur. But when Alan moved to the edge to prop up a pillow for himself, he made sure he stepped just a bit too far and began to lose balance. Suddenly things moved quickly.
Overstepping just slightly up in the rafters, he began to fall. He put out his hands to catch himself but found nothing but air. His body flipped over itself and suddenly he was plunging towards the ground. Flailing he closed his eyes as he braced for impact. The fall seemed to last too long of a time, and Alan opened his eyes in panic just as the ground came up to meet him.
Alan woke up with a scream.
He jolted up in the guardhouse room and proceeded to throw up over the side of the bed. His head pounded as he continued to dry heave over the floor. The only thing he could think through the pounding ache in his head was that he had been right to be paranoid.
Someone had just used a Skill on him inside the gaurdhouse.