She was treading water, an endless ocean of black. Gasping for air, her lungs alight. She fought against the current, its pull directionless, merely pulling, apart, away. So she fought, pulling herself above, below, out. A hand brushed against something, something solid enough to drag herself up, to lay on, gasping for air, staring into the stars that filled the space above. Ash, a beach of ash, it clung to her, coating her clothes, her skin, as it fell to dust with each movement she made. It was always ash, this deep within the Dream. Few concrete memories could find anchor here, within the shared realities of hundreds. A shudder ran through her spine, how many people, how many lives, had this Blood passed through, absorbing, taking from each. To form this island of ash, steadily eroded by waves of nothing.
She stood, brushing ash from herself, turning back to the ocean that had delivered her. Nothing. Less than nothing. An absence of nothing. Merely darkness that stretched on the point a horizon should have been. Above, stars, uncountable, burning with indifference. Though they watched, she could feel them. Below, that ocean of black, her reflection-
Not her reflection. Another face stared up from the darkness. A face equally as weary, and yet, a smile. A smile of reassurance the giver does not themselves believe, a smile of shared pain. But this was a face she did not recognise, not its white hair that shone out from the dark, not the way the smile favored one side of the face, not the smell of lavender, caught in the warm morning air.
The beast in her spinal cord screamed. This was her reflection. Look. Look at those eyes, the way they slumped under their own exhaustion. The way the darkness of her hair lost itself within the sea. The way her mouth pressed itself into a line, little more than an occasional twitch. Look closer yet, the way she stumbles through her days, wearing a mask that did little to conceal the ichor of fear that leaked through the cracks. Nothing but the smell of blood mixing with ash. This is how it has always been.
Said a voice that must have been her own, yet it seemed to come from all around. There had been no reflection in the waves that danced along the shore. Only darkness.
Darkness that pressed down, surrounding this islet of ash. One final look out at the sea of blood. The way the absence of light danced across its crests and waves. For not the first time she wondered what created those ripples. She looked within the shifting hues of dark, to the place she'd risen. Her Flesh was distant, almost unreachable. The chances of her returning to it unchanged-
A shiver down the spine.
Emerging from the Dream would bring its own trials, but, for now, she needed to find The Soldier.
She turned to face inward, and walked, toward a horizon that crested downward, out of view. The crunch of ash, a steady drip, a beating heart. Loud, getting louder. She walked, one foot in front of the other, the horizon seemingly never growing closer. What was it that drove her? Curiosity? Momentum? Fear?
The shade was still there, she could feel it as she pushed toward the precipice. It no longer huddled in her shadow, but moved beside her, still, even here, defying sight. And yet, it felt more real, she swore, when the heart beat quieter, that she could hear a second pair of boots crunching the ash, or the sharp intake of laboured breath. In those moments, however fleeting, before the heart drowned them out, she felt less alone.
The precipice approached, a cliff that crested, and then vanished, downward, downward, into the great maw at the centre of the islet. A great pit of darkness, sobbing echoing from it, an ember rising from its centre. It called to her. She felt the shade shift. The beast within her spine took a sharp intake of breath. Who knows when it would get another.
Her legs carried her down into the darkness, she felt it shift and part around her. It was heavy, not so smothering as the waves that eroded this island, but it hung heavy in the air, walking through a cloud, droplets of Blood pooling in beads on the skin.
Whispers swam past her, carried by the embers that rose into the void, steadily growing in number. She could see a light now, filtering through the shadows. It waved, beckoned. The smell of burning flesh.
She was falling now, tumbling through waves of ash, twisting, upended. Lungs instinctively gasping for another breath. Lungs that far away burned for air as they found themselves choked.
She met the ground with a thud, bone on stone. A fall that would have shattered her body. So she stood, doused in the blood of all dead things, and looked around.
It was a hearth, brickwork surrounded the shallow pit. Brickwork that drowned in the rising waves of ash. The sobbing had stopped, only the steady crackling of fire burning through what allowed it to cling to life. Something burnt, now charred, choked the air. Meat, flesh that would now only be blackened flakes.
She walked to the center of the hearth, the smoke cleared.
There, at the pit's lowest point, the glow of a lone ember. Something hung below it.
No. Said the Shade
No. Said the Creature.
A tree that twists inward inward inward to a single terminus point, at which all things end, have ended, where the last star will suffocate. Branches of sorrow, leaves of white fire. A body, slumped within pulsating roots, writhing, burrowing. A body. A vessel. Head upturned, face toward a sky devoid of stars, of light. Eyes that-
"No" Spoke The Voice That Must Have Been Her Own.
A chest that gapes, ribs twisted apart. Grown in defiance of flesh's tyranny, yearning for freedom, writhing, twisting outward outward outward. Blood pours still from the ageless cavity, seeping through the roots, filling divots, pouring to the ash below.
In that blackened maw, a flicker, a dying flame. What Was Once A Body. Now, Always, Spent kindling. A palid glow that seeps across the ground and drips from the roots. Embers rise from the cavity. floating, fading as the heat dies. Shadows retreating, shrinking from her presence, stretching to grotesque approximations of personhood. She feels her flesh rendered from the bone, lain bare before the light that burns, consumes, remakes.
The fire spoke.
"When a city dreams what does it see? Salt air, of whispers beneath waves, of seabirds, hard boots upon its cobbles? Do you think it understands? Why it was we took the sea? Does it forgive us? Does it even comprehend?"
There was no shade behind her. It could not stand within the light. The Creature Within Her Spine had shrunken away, melding with the dark recesses of her skull. Silent. Terrified.
She could feel the Light as it poured over her, suffusing her skin, flowing within until it encompassed her, pale flames licking at the edges of her consciousness. Banishing darkness from where it had burrowed, forgotten corners.
For a moment she saw a face, white curls wrapped around warm eyes. A smile that made her heart glow. A voice that-
The light retreated, and the face began to face, features became wrong, a mouth that twisted into a quivering scowl. Tears drowned the eyes. It retreated further, further, pouring back across the ash, back to darkness, the cavity nestled within white spires.
The Voice In Her Spine returned, anger, it chased the retreating light
'You can't remember her face, you can't remember the face of the only one who could ever love you'
'How could you forget her face'
'What colour are her eyes? What colour did you become when she turned to you, all firelight and joy?'
Lucy shivered. There was no face to forget. Only The Body's, turned to an empty sky. The fire within him had died now, only cold ash remaining, some caught by a breeze that came from within him, floating upward until they vanished in the dark.
Her body approached The Soldier, only empty pits of red where his eyes should have been, pits that judged her every step, an eternal watch. He didn't look hunted anymore.
She slung the body over her shoulder. He was light, hollow, barely even a shell. Spent kindling. The walk from the hearth was slow. The crunch of ash underfoot, heavier, solitary. The shade did not return, The Voice did not speak. She could feel an ember, left by the light, lodged behind her heart, barely a spark. But it flickered, flickered and grew. Light that she could feel now pouring out from within, some dark furious place, flickering through the cracks. It did not speak, but she could feel it searching, pouring through the contents of her being, bringing her corners into its hateful glow.
She came to that ocean of pitch again, were the waters higher, drowning the island, as it had so many others? She stepped within the liquid, The Soldier in her arms. Each step bringing her deeper into its embrace, soft, warm, nothing. A sharp intake of breath as her mouth sank beneath the sea, a ringing in her ears, the absence of a beating heart barely registering as she was enveloped.
Flesh sloughing from bone, muscles, tendons, dissolving into miasma.
Laughter, firelight, eyes of crystal that turn away from its glow.
A scream, an entire life of experiences, love, despair, hope, compressed into a single word. Then stretched to an endless speech that still would not do it justice.
Warm water, the smell of coffee, a hand on the cheek.
A hand on the cheek.
Lucy retched, bile filling her mouth, a hand instinctively moving to her mouth as her lips failed to contain it, a tide of deep crimson, flecks of black. Her vision spun, somewhere above, a great hateful star that burrowed through her skull. She felt wildy for a handhold, something to stop the room moving, something to anchor herself within the swaying void. They met velvet, cold metal, her hands wrapping themselves around it, a drowning rat clinging to flotsam.