They came for Sid, and took him away to Storyboard when Ilena was only ten.
"They're at the door right now! I think they're asking for me!" he whispered to her, hissing eager words of barely constrained excitement. "What do you reckon, 'Leny? I bet I'm going to be a Hero, or maybe a really cool Mentor!"
Ilena grasped the handle of the closet door and pulled; the rays of golden light pouring in from the living room dwindled down to a sliver, shrouding the both of them in darkness. "Hero or Mentor, it doesn't matter." She said softly. "What matters is that you're going to go away, and I'm not going to have anyone to talk to."
"You have Rosalind." Sid replied as he wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. "You see her more often than you see me, seeing as you live with her, and all."
Ilena blanched. "I know, Sid, but it's not the same. Sisters are different than friends. Besides, she's not like you."
The murmur of voices from downstairs grew louder—strange, deep voices, mingled with the familiar alto of Sid's mother. The repeated thud of footsteps on stairs only caused Ilena to huddle closer to her friend as she muttered secret hopes under her breath, let them forget, let them go away, don't let them take Sid—
Light spilled into the closet. Ilena recoiled, squinting from the sudden illumination, the silhouette of Sid's mother just a smear of darkness in front of her. Warm hands wrapped gently around her wrists and drew her out of the closet. The rustle of blankets next to her told her Sid wasn't far behind. She scrubbed hair from her face as she blinked, trying desperately to adjust to the light.
"Sidney, sweetheart, come here." His full name. In all her years of knowing him, Ilena had never heard Sid's mother use his full name.
Sid's mother knelt before her son, smoothing errant strands of ebony hair out of his eyes. She spoke quietly, succinctly. "These men are going to take you to a very important place. Listen to them, all right? You're going to be just fine."
Sid frowned. "When am I going to see you again?"
His mother smiled, but her voice was tinged with a sadness that pulled at something deep in Ilena's chest. "I don't know, dear. But don't forget that I love you, and that I'll always keep you in my heart."
Ilena watched as Sid pulled his mother in for a wordless embrace, all the intention in the world contained in the way his arms wrapped tightly around her shoulders. Hopeful, desperate thoughts pulled at the corners of her mind—it's going to be okay he'll only be a little while Sid will be home before you know it—but she somehow couldn't shake the feeling of ominous fear that clung to the back of her throat and made her mouth as dry as sawdust.
She turned and gazed into Sid's large, blue eyes, which were as dark as the ocean.
"Take care of yourself, and Rosalind too. Keep my mom company if I don't come back soon ... she gets lonely sometimes." He said as he gently clasped the thin slope of her shoulder.
Ilena willed the tears back and managed a tremulous smile. "I will. Don't be too long, idiot."
Sid was already walking out the door with his escorts in tow, but he turned briefly and lifted the edge of his mouth in a silent farewell.
A head of wild red tresses poked over the side of her bed. "Lee-Loo, come to dinner already! The fish is going to get cold." Rosalind's voice, singsong and sweet, rattled around in Ilena's head. She scowled and rolled over, drawing the covers up around her head. "Go away, Rozzie. I've told you, I'm not hungry."
She felt a finger prod the small of her back. "Dad already thinks you're too skinny. You have to eat."
"Tell Dad I'll eat later."
Rosalind reached out and tugged at a loose strand of Ilena's brown hair. "Is it because of Sid? You really need to stop worrying about him. I bet he's having a lot of fun, saving people and fighting dragons and stuff in Storyboard. You know he's going to be a Hero."
"Do I?" Ilena sat up suddenly, and Rosalind, startled, took a few steps back. "What if he becomes a Villain? Or worse, a Sacrifice? What if some stupid Author just kills him and I never get to see him again?" She was shouting now, the harshness of her voice grating on the muscles of her throat.
"What if, what if, what if!" Rosalind yelled right back, little fists balled in fury. "You can't live your life like this! You're going to worry yourself to death!"
It was like all the wind had rushed out of her sails. Ilena slumped over, tears dripping onto her white-knuckled hands as they clutched at the blankets around her. "You're right," she mumbled. "I should have more faith in them. I should have more faith in Sid."
The bed creaked as Rosalind climbed up beside her and buried her face into Ilena's disheveled brown hair. "Don't cry, Lee-Loo. Everything is going to be fine."
Soft, little hands curled themselves around Ilena's waist as Rosalind nestled into her side. The worry was already starting to bleed out of her little sister's face; Rosalind was just like that, Ilena thought wryly. Rosalind, ever an optimist, determined to believe that everything would be all right.
"Come on, Rozzie, let's go and eat." Ilena murmured as she gently took one of Rosalind's small hands in her own. "Although, for a seven year old, you're still pretty chubby, so maybe you'd consider giving me your dessert—"
"Be quiet!" Rosalind snapped, but laughter sparkled in her eyes. "I need to grow too!"
Any lingering thoughts of Sid were pushed to the back of her mind as Ilena giggled at Rosalind's antics, and went to join their father at the dinner table downstairs. She wouldn't think of Sid again for a long, long time. Soon, his memory would become nothing but a blur.
Twelve Years Later
He gnawed on the tip of his pen. The idea was bubbling at the forefront of his mind, aching to flourish in artful prose across his computer screen—but not yet, not yet, he still needed to plan, to organize. A world came to mind. A setting. He snatched his notebook from his desk and flipped it quickly to a fresh, blank page. His pen scrawled words and circles across the paper. Characters, personalities, the bare skeleton of a plot. There would be magic and whimsy and fantasy.
The days were growing warmer now, winter bleeding into the first tendrils of spring. The spicy scent of damp leaves and grass permeated the air, providing a refreshing respite for the students who were only just beginning to exit their study halls and classes. A breeze sent crisp, cool air rustling through the maple trees that lined the campus walkway. Snippets of idle conversation wafted to and fro as students and professors milled from building to building.
Ilena dipped and wove between the throng of people, gritting her teeth through the stitch in her side. Her satchel strap was starting to grind into her shoulder. She was almost positive her right hip would bear a healthy bruise from the way the books in her bag were knocking against her as she trotted through the crowd. Despite herself, Ilena pressed onward, moving stubbornly toward the two wrought-iron gates at the end of the lane. She was eager to get home, and relieve herself of the day's burdens.
The tram was already idling at its stop as she rounded the block. Ilena fumbled with her wallet as she dashed to the open doors, managing to catch the tail end of the line that was piling into the vehicle. She flashed her ID at the driver and sank into the nearest seat with a sigh of exhaustion. Wednesdays were always particularly trying, what with the flurry of classes and research she had brought upon herself. But none of that mattered now. Ilena felt her mouth curve into a faint smile. In a few short minutes, she would be home, surrounded by the tantalizing scent of Rosalind's cooking and her father's words of welcome.
She felt her mind start to drift as the tram wove its way through the twists and turns of its routine stops. Buildings flashed by her window; the commerce center, with its towering, blue-and-white dome; the smattering of trees in the distance that heralded the park; the curved sculpture of a stretching woman, bespeckled green and blue. Hexameron had taken a turn for the metropolitan, Ilena thought idly. She dimly recalled much more wildness and greenery during her childhood years. The concrete jungle of the city center was starting to creep into the more rural areas of the community.
The tram pulled up to her stop. Ilena nimbly stepped out onto the sidewalk, wincing a little as her hair got caught under the shoulder strap of her satchel. She yanked it free and irritably brushed it out of her eyes as she pushed open the gate to her house. The front door was open behind the screen, sending a delectable scent her way—Ilena inhaled gratefully, feeling hunger rear its head at the anticipation of Rosalind's cooking.
"I'm home!" Ilena called as she deposited her shoes next to the door.
There was a bustling sound in the kitchen. "Ilena! Welcome back!" The deep bass of her father's voice echoed in response. "Come into the kitchen, sweetheart."
A frown marred the corner of her mouth. There was an edge to his voice, something that was just slightly off. He must have news—but of what?
Ilena quickly set down her bag and went to her father. Colm Wennerstrom was standing at the counter, fiddling with a small, white envelope. Ilena met his solemn stare with a questioning one of her own.
"What is it, Dad?" She asked.
Colm didn't immediately respond. Ilena watched a world of conflict flash across his green, deepset eyes as he tugged at strands of his beard, a nervous habit she knew was only reserved for dire situations.
"You've received an envelope from Deus Ex Machina." He said gravely.
Her mouth went as dry as sawdust. "The ... government?" Ilena said in a quavery voice. "What do they want from me?"
Colm's voice was quiet, somber. "I expect they require you at Storyboard. Rosalind received a similar envelope earlier today. She's out camping with her friends at the moment, but I reckon she'll be back sometime early tomorrow morning. You're both supposed to report to Storyboard tomorrow afternoon."
Ilena collapsed into the nearest chair, her mind reeling. No one really knew what Storyboard was like. Everyone knew its main purpose—to provide the Authors a selection of people with specific personalities to serve as characters in their narratives—but no one knew who exactly the Authors were, or how the government knew which people to choose. Those who had returned from Storyboard
(of course there were a few who hadn't)
adamantly refused to talk about their experiences. Word through the grapevine was that no one ever came back quite the same again.
"Ilena?" Her father's voice cut through the haze in her mind.
"I'm sorry, Dad." She whispered timidly. "I'm just scared."
A pair of arms wrapped themselves around her shoulders. She felt the bristles of her father's beard against her scalp as he rested his chin on the top of her head—a small gesture, perhaps, but it brought a rush of sudden relief to her that she knew only her father could provide.
"If I could go in your place, love, I would do it a thousand times over." The rumble of Colm's voice vibrated through her.
"I'm okay now, Dad." She said with a valiant attempt at bravery. "I have to be ... for myself, and for Rosalind."
Ilena turned to face her father, chin held high. "I'll come back. I will. Don't spend too much time worrying about me while I'm away, all right?"
Colm placed his hands on her shoulders and squeezed hard, like as if he was trying to burn the memory of her touch into his large palms. "Just come home safely, love. For my sake, as well as yours."
Ilena held his gaze for a long moment. Her vision blurred, tears threatening to fall, but she willed them back, sinking teeth into her lip to keep herself from trembling. She was no longer a little girl. She would go to Storyboard, do her duty, and emerge whole and sound. She would come home.
"I love you, Dad." She said softly, and before Colm could respond, she turned and disappeared up the stairs.
9:00AM. Intersection of 7th and Adamson. Go past the fence, and make a sharp right.
It didn't look like anything other than an ordinary building.
Ilena glanced down at her map for the umpteenth time, grimacing as she took in the crinkled edges and worn paper. The map had been in pristine condition when she had first slid it from its envelope. A morning's worth of wandering around and cursing her horrible sense of direction had taken its toll on the poor thing; she had worried it down to a mess of frayed edges and wrinkles in a matter of minutes. Despite herself, though, Ilena was sure this was the place. Storyboard—this had to be it. She had followed the instructions very carefully. Still ... for such an intimidating and legendary place, the building in front of her was no larger than a storage container.
"I reckon you'll have to go inside, at some point. Gawking at it for ages won't do anything, really."
Ilena yelped and whirled around, startled. A boy was standing right behind her, a self-assured grin on his face that held an undercurrent of mocking disdain. He looked to be a couple years older than she was and several inches taller, with high-swept cheekbones and blond hair that flopped over his curious, green eyes. A narrow, concentric silver band was threaded through his right ear. Ilena couldn't help but watch it sway against the side of his face as he walked toward her.
"You're here for Storyboard, right?" He asked. "I am, too. Got the envelope last night. My brother was taken last year, so I figure they'd come for me next." The corner of his mouth quirked a little at Ilena's bewildered expression. "I'm Rhys, by the way."
"Ilena." She grasped his proffered hand, which was slightly callused around the fingertips. "It's nice to meet you."
"A pleasure." Rhys replied. "Not that I'm innocent of the same crime, but ... you're here early."
Ilena nervously tore another fray into the edge of her damaged map, focusing hard on the weave of Rhys's dark blue shirt, and most certainly not on his piercing green gaze. "Well ... I wanted to have enough time to find the place if I happened to have gotten lost."
Ilena tensed. "Did I what?"
"Get lost." Rhys's voice definitely held an amused note. Ilena felt her hands ball into fists as she felt the beginnings of a violent blush spread across her cheeks. She raised her head, eyes flashing angrily, and snapped at him.
"Nobody asked for your input—"
"Hey, hey, whoa." Rhys held up his hands in surrender. "Relax. I'm just trying to shake the nerves off of you, that's all. It's all right."
Her blush intensified, out of embarrassment for her overzealous retort. "I'm sorry." She mumbled.
Rhys merely chuckled. "Come on, let's go inside. We're burning daylight out here."
He walked to the door of the office building and pulled it open, gesturing for Ilena to walk past. She stepped across the landing, expecting to see officials or some sign to guide her, but was met with nothing but an empty room, with a single, flickering lamp in the corner for illumination.
"Huh. That's odd." Rhys said as he came up behind her. "I expected this place to be a little more—"
A sudden whirring sound at the far end of the room caught their attention. Panels were folding away from the walls, revealing two strips of incandescent lights that ran the length of the tunnel slowly forming in front of them. Words flickered across the entrance: Storyboard, straight ahead. Rhys caught her gaze and lifted a quizzical eyebrow.
"Ladies first." He said with a short bow.
Her promise to her father echoed in her ears.
Just come home safely, love. For my sake, as well as yours.
Ilena swallowed back her trepidation and started walking down the endless tunnel.