The nightmares arrived that night, worse than ever before, ones that were permanently tattooed onto the back of my mind that I would never forget about.
I was standing in a room, a basement, with a concrete floor and walls that looked as if they were cobblestone. It reminded me vaguely of the cellars in the houses in the poor town of Gerado, where I originally came from. That town fell to ruins as soon as the government decided that everyone should be under the protection of a city: Velsann, Korehtz or Roscoff, even though that was not a city.
Three people were lined up against the wall opposite me. I instantly recognized them, their faces illuminated by the oil lamp hanging above my head.
The person on the left was a man. He stood tall and proud but his skin was black with bruises and his limps hung in a way which made him look as if he was a broken doll, strewn carelessly onto the floor. The color of his eyes were identical to mine, wide gray eyes: eyes that held secrets, eyes that had seen things, eyes that were apologetic. Eyes that would forgive you if you killed him.
A woman stood in the center. Her black hair was parted in the middle and pushed back behind her ears, the same way I wore my hair as a child, revealing cuts and bloody scars all over her neck and jaw. The rest of her body was clear, a simple calf-length skirt and long sleeved black sweater covering her. She reminded me of an angel with her kind, welcoming smile.
I couldn't attach a face to the person on the right, although the way they held their body seemed familiar to me. They were slightly taller than me but draped in a black cloak.
“Hasn't she grown so much, Lewis?” The woman clasped her hands to her heart, her eyes swollen with adoration as she looked at me.
The man nodded in agreement. “She's not our baby girl any more, Elise. She's a young woman.”
Lewis... Elise... Lewis and Elise... Lewis and Elise Grigori... Mom and Dad...
They spotted the realization in my eyes instantly and I ran forward to envelope myself into warm, loving arms. Tears slid down my cheeks and theirs and my hair was stroked sympathetically, a gesture which caused instant comfort and more tears.
“There now, baby girl. We've got you now. We won't let you go again...”
I stood back, attempting to dry my face with the hem of my orange t-shirt. “No. As soon as I wake up, you'll be gone again. You were gone before I was taken away from you.”
My mother tried to cup my face in her hand but I hit it away, my eyes fixed on the torn skin of her neck, on the bruised and twisted limbs of my father. Any normal child would wonder why their parents looked like awakened corpses.
Oh, only if they knew.
“You're just a dream!” I insisted. “When I wake up, I'll be on someone's death list and you'll already be dead! All because the voices made me kill you...”
I couldn't resist the arms being wrapped around me again as sobs wrenched my body in two. Memories of that day, almost four years ago, flooded my brain and conquered my vision.
My mother, laying in a pool of her own blood on the floor, lifeless eyes staring directly at me. Stab wounds in her throat. A rope wound tightly around her neck. My father, pale hair stained with red, all limbs broken before his neck snapped by the once-innocent hands of a ten year old girl.
That girl was me.
I killed my own parents and they forgave me for it.
Both parents stepped back, my father with his arm around my mother while she fumbled for the hand of the cloaked figure, presumably a child of a similar age to me. Time felt as if it was frozen as I watched them, looking all happy and caring in their bubble of trust and forgiveness. As much as I wanted to burst into that bubble, I stepped back and folded my arms, hugging my elbows into my ribs.
My mother looked me in the eye, her blue eyes piercing my gray ones, exactly like my father's. “Laurali, I need you to listen to me and remember everything I say. I want you to keep yourself safe and out of sight. Don't tell anyone who you are or where you're from or what you're going to do. Be someone else but be who you are. Trust your instinct when it comes to the voices. Trust that sweet boy, Lukas. Trust yourself.”
I nodded urgently. “What else, Mom? I want you to help me in all of this!”
She sighed. “Above all... kill the ones who made you this way.”
I felt a rage of anger flowing through my veins. I was a grenade, about to explode.
“I don't know who made me like this! I don't know why I hear voices! I don't know why they wanted me to kill you! I don't know why these demons want me! I don't know anything and I'm so confused and no one's helping me to understand!”
Turning away from them, I noticed my father rest his hand on the cloaked figure, inching back the hood. I tried to ignore them and return to reality (something which was still a twisted nightmare) but my eyes kept diverting themselves to the figures.
“Mom, dad, I'm sorry that I can't help who I am but that doesn't mean you can't tell me why I am how I am. I have waited all my life for somebody to save me. Now, it was time for me to save myself.”
My mother smiled one last sorry smile and my father tugged back the hood, revealing the figure's face. I already knew what to expect.
Deathly white skin. Reptilian eyes. Venomous red lips.
In the dream, I tried to scream and scream and scream but I stood still, my eyes burning holes into all three figures, and awaited reality.
“I guess so.”
We sat in an awkward silence, using our rucksacks as seats while we picked at dried fruit and sipped at our warm water rations. From the way Lukas sat, I could almost sense that he was uncomfortable, that there was something on his chest that he was dying (or too nervous) to ask.
“Can you tell me something? Something about two days ago.”
I told him everything, starting from when I woke to see her (Lukas told me how he started referring to them as the Stolen children since their souls had been kidnapped) standing at his feet to where I fell asleep after murdering her and describing the sunrise to him. He looked edgy at first but murmured about how I had saved his life. He smiled about me describing the sunrise. He rested his hand on my shoulder comfortingly when I mentioned how I thought I had lost him.
When I finished telling the story, I allowed him to sit in silence while I packed a water bottle into my rucksack and studied the maps while contemplating whether or not I should tell him about my nightmare. I swiftly decided with 'no'.
I said, the night before, that my world had shattered around me. It had shattered, but a few pieces at a time. It was that evening when I crumbled.
Although we were supposedly walking along an abandoned railway all the way to Korehtz, we had been walking along a perfectly flat and solid path left from where people had ripped up the remaining tracks. Now, as Death Lake faded into the distance, we had arrived at a strip of track which had been neglected in the process of removal.
The first hour of walking was painful, our usual silence stiff and uncomfortable, almost claustrophobic. I was waiting to break the silence but considered that it may be better to leave Lukas to his own thoughts and me to mine. Mine strayed towards my nightmare and what my mother had said to me, although I was starting to believe that it was only a meaningless dream. So I thought...
The second hour was nicer. The mountains forming a border between Korehtz and North Acire were looming into sight, pointed gray ghosts in the distant mist. We had originally been walking on separate sides of the track until Lukas leaned into the middle and grabbed my arm, playfully pushing each other side to side until we saw another shape on the horizon.
Horses. And people.
I could see horses. I could see people.
Lukas could see the horses. Lukas could see the people.
I was not seeing things, but they were the first real things that I had seen in days.
The horse riders were riding beside the railway, coming towards us quickly. I didn't know whether to run from them or shout with joy. I wasn't sure that they would help us, but Lukas seemed to be convinced.
“Laure, they're people. Of course they have to help us!”
I still had my doubts, especially when they spotted us and the leader ordered the men to raise their weapons, just in case we were Stolen children.
We stood side by side next to the tracks, holding our arms out to show that we were harmless and defenseless. The horse riders, all men besides a teenage girl in handmade clothes, scrutinized us from the height of their animals before the one that I presumed to be the leader stepped down.
“State your names and business, girl,” he said, pointing at me. The words of my mother crept into my mind, even though I wanted to ignore them.
“Laurali, I need you to listen to me and remember everything I say. I want you to keep yourself safe and out of sight. Don't tell anyone who you are or where you're from or what you're going to do. Be someone else but be who you are. Trust your instinct when it comes to the voices. Trust that sweet boy, Lukas. Trust yourself.”
“I'm Ali,” I said slowly, pinching the last of my own name before gesturing to Lukas, hoping that he got the hint and played along. “This is Lu. We're traveling to the city of Korehtz, over the mountain.”
The man had a questioning look but he didn't press too hard. “What takes you to Korehtz, girl? Haven't you heard about what happened to Velsann and Roscoff?”
“We're going to visit sick relatives,” Lukas said before I had the chance to answer. “We are meeting the rest of our family there.”
The man raised an eyebrow before going to consult with the rest of his traveling group. Lukas held my hand in his, a sign of comfort. I was going to try to talk to him but another man climbed down from his horse and approached us.
“Since we have heard about the... troubles faced by the cities and worry that Korehtz may be next, we are part of the camps surviving independently by the coastline. We don't want to be burdened with too many abandoned people but we are taking in anyone sick and injured.”
Lukas glanced at me before answering politely. “We're neither sick nor injured, but we thank you for your inquiry.”
Both men looked at us, observing every tiny detail.
“You,” the leader said, pointing at Lukas. “You won't be able to walk another mile with the condition of your feet.” He grabbed Lukas' foot and inspected it. I finally saw the condition that the soles of his feet had gotten into. “They're cut, burnt and infected, possibly seriously. And you have a twisted ankle. You'll be coming with us.”
He turned to me, looking me up and down slowly. “You can't.”
I yelled hoarsely, my voice trembling embarrassingly, as they began to drag Lukas away, hoisting him onto the back of someone else's sleek brown horse. “Why? Why can't he stay with me? Why can't I go with you? Why are you leaving me alone?”
I looked at the horse riders. A majority of them just sat impatiently, waiting to get moving again. The man who spoke was placing a hat onto his greasy hair. The girl pulling her horse beside Lukas', admiring the face that refused to cry with a flirtatious smile, causing a bubble of anger to rise within me.
“Thought you had relatives in Korehtz,” the leader smirked. “Say goodbye now, Ali.”
All the riders shook their reins and the horses started moving, slowly before gaining speed. Lukas shouted my name (Ali, not Laure or Laurali) and I ran towards him. He fumbled in his rucksack and threw something down to me. I caught the mysterious object in both hands.
A book. The book I had seen him write in every single night.
By the time I looked up again, the horse riders and Lukas were just trails of dust in the distant forest.