The walls were crumbling in the catacombs. They crawled through, in between gaps in the rubble, squeezing themselves in to tiny pockets of air. Suzanne tried to move the stones away a bit, create more air for them, but it tired her, to the extent that Laelia was practically dragging her through to the main room. The shadows and the light bled together the way the sun meets the moon at dusk, and they came together to create Jesse, sitting cross legged in the centre of the room. His grey cloak seemed to be dyed with reds and oranges, but his face was coated in ash and dust.
"Jesse?" Laelia said, kneeling down beside him. "Jesse, wake up!"
His eyes flew open, gleaming as they caught the faint light that leapt down through the cracks in the stone and swept across his face. For a moment, it seemed it was the only thing that kept him there, as he swayed from side to side on the cold hard ground.
"Oh, God," Rune sighed, heart pounding like a thousand iron fists inside of her chest. "Is he alright?"
"Of course he's all right!" Laelia snapped at her. "It's just the catacombs, right, Jesse? It's their time?"
Jesse nodded, lips parting and closing in a silent dance, as he swayed in time to his imaginary music. "It's their time, yes. Why are you back here so soon?"
His voice sounded like nails scratching on a chalkboard, his eyes half hidden in the shadows that threatened to collapse, crushing them. With a growing sense of uneasiness, Rune saw in her mind the simple and willing way that they would give way beneath the stones if they fell, falling at their first command like simple servants to the stones. She imagined the stories spread over the news channels, the last remaining remnants and records of their lives battling each other for dominance, to be the account that people knew, believed, breathed.
She felt a tugging at her arm, and was pulled out of her trance. "Back me up," Avery hissed in her ear. "About the old lady?"
"Och, aye," Rune said, forcing a smile plastered onto her face. "Well, we went in, and a immediately wanted tae leave, 'cause a thought she wis harmless, benefit ae the doubt, but Avery wanted to keep going in get on wi the plan, and then we had a bit ae an argument, 'till she kind ae changed in tae, well, a dinnae actual ken whit it wis, but it wis pretty freaky, and then we ran away and... Aye."
Jesse's gaze bored into her, urging to go on though she found she didn't have the words. There was nothing else for her to say, yet something pleaded with her, water seeping through the cracks in her mind as she tried to catch it. "And is that all?" Jesse asked in a cold voice, sending shivers down Rune's spine.
"Yes," she nodded, retreating into Avery's shadow and nudging his arm. "That's all."
He narrowed his hooded eyes, nodding with a syrupy sweet kind of half smile, half smirk. "Okay. Look, Laelia, you stay behind for a little bit, I need to discuss this further with you, but the rest of you get some sleep. I'll let you know if I need you."
"But, Jeese, Ave and a were the yins hae were there, dae yi no - "
"Laelia will stay behind. This doesn't really involve you, Rune, and you're only new, okay? I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you and Avery are both clearly exhausted by now. Go to bed, okay?"
She didn't have the energy left to argue, as Avery and Suzanne led her away to their rooms.
As soon as they had gotten changed, Suzanne flopped down onto her bed, a smile lying lazy on her lips. "What's up with you?" Rune laughed. "You're in a very good mood for it being so late."
"It's Laelia," she giggled. "God, I know it's silly to be so - I don't know, peppy? - when we've been together for so long already, but I just... You know?"
In all honesty, Rune wasn't sure that she did. "Aye."
"Yeah. Ugh, I just, I love her so much, and she means the world to me, and she's so beautiful and strong and fun and smart and... I just, I love her so much, Rune."
"She's amazing, Rune."
Rune could tell that, even as a silence began to grow, Suzanne was smiling about thoughts of Laelia, could tell that her heart was pounding quietly inside of her chest. She wasn't quite so lucky as to have pleasant dreams.
She'd almost lost count of her nightmares by now. They just all seemed to bleed together like spilled watercolours on wrinkling, crinkling paper. She had to claw through her memories of them now, dig herself a hole through which she could tumble into a darkness which held the irrational hope that maybe it wouldn't be quite so dark after all.
Often, she was disappointed, left to tumble down into the darkness with not even so much as a sweet harmony to pull her back into the light. The places she fell into were often damp and cold, or if they weren't then they'd be full of fire and fury and an acrid smell of smoke hanging in the air, asphyxiating her even though she should be able to breathe, she should, she should, she should.
The smoke filled the landscape she was kneeling in, pouring into carefully carves rivers and streams, fire leaping from tree to tree until the world was fit to burst, overflowing with smoke and fire.
Ash lay across the ground like snow, and for a moment Rune thought that was what it was, tried to touch it, feel the coolness spreading across her palms. But all she got was the remnants of a fire that had once more come so close to killing her, yet failed.
The best part was that the fire never stopped burning here, never stopped raging around her like an amber hurricane. Old and dying plants cowered in the shadows of trees, desperately trying to evade the storm that threatened to burn them to a crisp with no thought spared for mercy. The clearing smoke led the way for sunlight to bleed through the dark sky, embracing the land, pulling it into its burning empire.
If she had been anyone else, Rune knew, she would have welcomed the sunlight as a break from the scorching and burning and the smoke clawing at her throat with blackened nails. But she wasn't anyone else.
She leapt out of the sun's glare just as the ground began to crack in two, and she scampered towards a tree. Basking in the shade, she soon felt the black smoke began to curl around her like a cobra, and she threw her hands in front of her throat, twisting away from it. No, no, no. She was in charge of the fire. She could stop it.
Rune pulled herself up onto a tree branch, legs dangling over the edge. The sun's glare roamed over the land, searching for her as the fire in turn began to crawl across the ground like a snake, coming straight for her. It picked the bottom of the tree she was sitting in, and her heart began to pound, her head beginning to spin as her stomach lurched. On and on the fire picked up its rage again, and she cried out, tears pricking the corners of her eyes.
"Stop!" she screamed, as if the fire would actually listen. "Stop!"
The fire only raged more, crackling and pounding like the drums, crashing against the ground and the trees, as smoke danced between the trees and auburn autumn leaves. "Oh, God," Rune muttered. "Oh God, oh God, oh God."
Of course, it was entirely possible that the fire would not harm her, would simply lick her skin like an affectionate cat before it was thrown out like a stray, that maybe it was just a sort of comfort to remind of who she was, and what she was, and why she could never escape what had happened to Rhia, and what she hadn't had happen to her.
No. No, she mustn't think of Rhia. It was a dream, that's all this was. Just a dream. Just a dream.
But the fire was still raging below her, climbing ever higher, ever closer. She tried to steady her breathing, tried to concentrate on forcing the fire down, away from her, force it to die out. She could do it; she was supposed to do it. "Stop," she commanded, clenching her fists. "Stop, for God's sake!"
The fire kept burning.
The world fell silent. The fire drew back from her, sank into the ground and suffocated. The sun withdrew behind a cloud, and the smoke began to clear, though it still scraped against the back of Rune's throat. She let out a sigh of relief, and clambered down from the tree, legs shaky as she landed on the ground.
Rune could see the land more clearly now that the smoke was mostly gone, and frowned. It was dull, really; just some trees and a large patch of grass and a couple of dried up streams. But - no, there was something else there. A shadow, hanging by the line of trees, as though it was trying to slink back into the darkness.
"Hello?" Rune called, hugging her arms crossed across her chest. It was growing cold, now that the fire had died down. "Are yo alright?"
She began to make her way towards the figure, but it turned it's wicked, piercing gaze on her, and her heart plummeted.
Rhia Caveny had always been something of an enigma, the strange young girl that most people only put up with because they were too intimidated by her to tell her to get away from them. No one had her phone number, no one said hi when they saw her in the corridor, and she never bothered with greetings like that. She was just kind of there, in the shadows enough so that she wasn't concerned by people, but not so much that she was invisible. Like most people, she was just there, yet something about her shadowy presence had always intrigued people.
So when she'd turned up to school one day with her hair straightened and wearing a full face of make up and a skirt that was shorter even than Rune's, people took notice. Her mother, everyone knew, had always been a bit of a stunning woman before she'd died, and it turned out that once she'd put the effort in, no one could push her into the shadows much longer. She was adopted in a sense, by a group of perhaps the strangest and wildest teenagers in the school, and soon had become the subject of many wild rumours, set up high above the rest of the school like the silken angel on top of a Christmas tree.
She was always quiet, though, always the delightful young woman that teachers raved about and parents doted and fussed over, destined perhaps to be head girl, to leave school and be an ambassador of sorts, the good little angel who was loved by everyone and hated by none.
Only her closest friends ever got to see the side of her that wasn't so perfect, the side that was wild and crazy and so out of control it was a wonder she could ever be reigned back in to have a mask drawn over her face again, to be the perfect little angel that everyone adored.
And there she was, in Rune's dream - or was it a nightmare, she couldn't be sure? - and whispering her name over and over again like an ancient curse.
"Rune. Rune. Rune. Rune."
She began to shake as she drew nearer to Rhia, every inch of her screaming at her to run, but she couldn't do anything except move closer to Rhia. A lump rose in her throat. Oh, God. Rhia.
"Rune?" Her voice was soft now, much to Rune's surprise. "I missed you."
She began swaying on the spot, as though in a trance. Rune had to reach out to her, grab her by the shoulders to stop her from falling again. "Rhia? What the hell?" It wasn't a dream to her any more; how could it be, when Rhia was here, and she looked so real, and alive, yet... Not.
"It's your fault, Rune. It was always your fault." Her eyes seemed to burn with a kind of manic passion. "I hate you."
The fire consumed her once again.