This post contains the twelfth chapter of my as-of-yet untitled sci-fi novel. I present this first draft now, in a raw, unedited format (be kind, hopefully-soon-to-be-constant reader). Feedback is encouraged! You can find the rest of the published chapters here.

“This place is a prison.” Nyx explains in a toneless monotone, like she’s describing the most mundane thing in the word. “and, as far as we can tell, the black door is the only way out. We’ve been trying to get to it for years.”

“Slow down.” Snow interjects, leaning forward over the table towards our statuesque hostess. “First things first – Who the hell are you people? And where the fuck are we right now?”

Nyx’s eyes ice over as she regards my pale friend, like she’s crunching an unwieldy set of numbers in her head, calculating the cost benefit analysis of killing Snow where he sits or answering his question. I get the feeling that Nyx isn’t used to be interrupted…by anyone. “If you and your tin soldiers had ever left The Falls you might know.” She says with cool indifference. “Whatever did you do in there all day, anyway?”

“We Survived.” Snow replies with barely restrained fury. “We didn’t have…all this.” He waves his hand in a sweeping gesture towards the ornate room around us. “I guess some people are just lucky.”

For a long moment, Nyx and Snow scorch the empty space between them as their eyes meet in a silent dual of wills. I slam my palms down on the table in an explosion of frustration and the sharp slap of my skin against the polished black surface echoes around the bone white dome above us. “Enough!” I try and pour every ounce of confidence I have left (which arguably, isn’t’ much) into the word but end up sounding like a petulant child throwing a tantrum, even to my own ears. “What do you know about that…thing?” I point to the carved obsidian door glowering down from directly above Nyx’s head. “What makes you think it’s the way out?”

“We don’t know anything for sure. But we have reason to believe the black door is the key to everything, to getting out of this prison.” Nyx says as she leans back in her chair and steeples her armor-clad fingers. “We’ve spent the last two years, and more of our sister’s lives than I care to count, getting that far.”

“Two years,” Snow whispers in disbelief. “That’s impossible.”

“Nyx speaks the truth,” Says a soft, accented female voice from behind me. Snow and I both twist in our chairs to see a tall redhaired girl stride into the room. Her hair is the color of the bricks from the plaza and she’s wearing a crisp set of black overalls and boots identical to my own. She glides past us and lowers herself gracefully into the empty chair next to Nyx. Her eyes are a pale blue, very much like Snow’s, but unlike my stoic companion, hers seem to radiate warmth from some deep, hidden place. Her face is soft and disarming, and when she smiles at me, I realize that I’ve been since she entered the room. “All of us woke up here a little over two years ago. Like you, we remember nothing of the time before, and like you, we’re looking for a way out. A way home.”

“This is Fira.” Nyx explains. “She can see more of the dream than most. She’s how we knew you were coming.”

“Dreams?” I ask, looking to Snow to see if he has any idea what is going on. From the look of confusion on his face, I gather this is as new to him as it is to me.

“Fira sees…things…when she sleeps. People, places, things that clearly aren’t part of this place. We believe that the dreams are fragments of our past.” Nyx says. “We think they hold the key to breaking out.”

“To breaking out of what?” Snow says. “Will someone please start making sense? Did you fucking kidnap us just to tell us about the weird dreams you’ve been having?”

“We didn’t mean to kidnap you at all!” Nyx fires back at Snow, her eyes boring into him like sniper scopes from across the table. “We only wanted him.” She points an armored finger at me with a scowl. “You and the rest of your boys are free to leave whenever you please. It makes no difference to us.”

“But you are also welcome to stay.” Fira says, placing a calming hand on Nyx’s armored forearm. Her thin fingers look fragile and frail next to Nyx’s pale carapace. “Helios has more than enough room.” Nyx shrugs off the delicate hand and crosses her arms, glowering across the table at Snow. The redheaded girl’s smile is undimmed. “For now, the least we can do is try and explain.”

“About goddamn time.” Snow huffs.

“Thank you.” I say as I meet Fira’s warm eyes. “Now…who are you, and why the hell do you need me?”

“We call ourselves The Sisters of Winter,” Nyx replies “and this place is called Helios. We don’t know who built it, we don’t know how we got here, and just like you, we can’t remember anything from our lives before.”

“Have you really been here for two years?” I say.

“As far as we can tell.” Fira says. “But, to answer your original question, I need to ask you something first.”

“OK.” I reply, shifting anxiously in my seat as I wonder what this strange delicate creature could possibly want to know about me. “Shoot.”

“Have you had any strange dreams since your arrival in this place?” Fira says. “Has Ghoul been able to get through?” My stomach drops out of me and my guts turn to ice water. How could she possibly know about my dreams? About Ghoul? Who is this girl?

“That’s impossible.” I stammer. “How could you possibly…?”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Fira laughs. “Tell me about them. Tell me about the dreams.” I realize that Snow is staring at me, his jaw hanging open in shock. I flash him an apologetic look and then look away quickly, unable to hold his gaze under the guilty weight of my omission. Nyx absorbs the interaction between us with interest, appearing to file the information away in her head, but remains silent as the group waits expectantly for me to answer the question.

I tell her about the dreams. All of them. I tell her about Ghoul, about his frantic attempts to communicate and the insane and confusion events in each encounter. When I tell her about the latest dream and about the strange series of symbols and colors Ghoul had screamed at me over the shrieking void, her eyes twitch wider for the slightest moment, like the nonsensical sequence of from my dream is somehow familiar to this strange girl.   

“Now you answer my question,” I say when my piece of the story is done. “How could you possibly know about Ghoul?”

“I’ve met him too, in my own dreams.” Fira replies softly. “But I can never hear what he’s trying to say. Somehow, I just…know that his name is Ghoul, though. It’s the strangest feeling. It’s like he just planted his name into my head, but hasn’t been able to get anything else through since.”

“How the hell is that possible.” Snow says, eyeing me with a newfound suspicion that makes me instantly wary of our tenuous friendship. “What does it mean?”

“It means he’s real.” A single tear slides down Fira’s face towards the soft pink rise of her trembling lips. “I wasn’t sure until this moment. But now I know…He’s real. He’s real and I think he’s trying to show us the way out.”

“I’m so completely lost.” I run an exasperated hand through my hair and grimace at how tangled and oily it feels between my fingers. We must look like filthy savages to our hosts. I wipe my hand on my pant leg, hoping Fira and Nyx are too preoccupied to notice. When Nyx raises a single dark eyebrow at me, I realize I’ve failed, and I feel my cheeks begin to flush again under that cool judgmental gaze. I ignore the embarrassment and push on. “What does any of this mean, and why do you keep calling this place a prison?”

“We think it’s more experiment than prison,” Fira replies as she absently wipes another tear from her face. “and all of us are rats a giant maze.”

“An experiment run by…who?” Snow interjects. “Who could possibly have the power to build something like this?”

“We don’t know.” Fira says. “But we do know that something has changed. Something is different this time around.” Her pale eyes lock onto mine with a grave expression. “It has to have something to do with you.”

“What do you mean, something has changed?” Snow demands, before I’m able to sputter more questions at the stern figures watching me from across the polished black table.

“We’ve been watching The Falls for a long time. Years.” Nyx says with a satisfied smile. “A new crop of boys arrives every 6 months or so, and the pattern is always the same. You find the waterfall, build your little town, and then you cower behind your walls and fight over the scraps the machine drops on your doorstep every month. At first, we thought each group was a new crop of…prisoners, or whatever you are…but when looked closer we realized the truth.”

“What truth? What the hell are you talking about?” Snow snaps back, his face a contorted knot of rage and confusion. “Are you saying there were others at the falls before us?”

“No,” Nyx replies softly. “I’m saying you and your friends have always been at The Falls. Apparently, whoever put us here took that memory as well.”

“Bullshit.” Snow says, shaking his head emphatically like the motion might toss the frightening idea back out of his mind. “Bullshit. I don’t buy that for a second.”

“I don’t care what you believe.” Nyx scoffs. “Truth doesn’t need your permission or your participation.”

“What’s different this time?” I say as Snow continues to mumble angrily from this place next to me. “How did the cycle change?”

“You are.” Fira replies grimly. “We know each and every face from The Falls. We know the cycle backwards and forwards, and you are the only break in the pattern. It has to be important. You have to be important.”

“I’m…I’m not.” I say as my mouth goes dry and cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. “I don’t understand what you want from me.”

“We want your help.” Nyx says, her green eyes flashing with excitement and anticipation like she’s rehearsed this part of the conversation a hundred times before this charged, singular moment. “Your arrival is one of the only breaks in the pattern we’ve ever seen, and if the dreams can be believed, there is a world beyond this place…beyond the black door. Help us open the door, Asher, and I believe we can escape this place. All of us.”

I stare at Nyx in disbelief as a tornado of fear and self-doubt cuts a ragged path through the inside of my head, leaving what little confidence I had in windblown, threadbare tatters. I’ve seen the black door and the horrors that populate this place, and I’m goddamn sure that I can’t do anything about any of it. The size of it all is overwhelming, its shadows are deep and dark and immovable. My light is far too dim to even make a dent in all that darkness, no matter what these dream-obsessed Valkyries might think.

“I can’t.” I reply. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do to help you. I’m just not…whatever it is you think I am.” Before anyone can say another word, I stand up quickly, knocking over the heavy wooden chair as I do. I turn and run out of the room, down the long hallway, and out into the red brick plaza outside. I ignore the curious and concerned eyes of the women that fill the plaza and run as fast as I can across the open expanse. I run past the fountain, up the long stairway, and into the long tunnel towards the surface. I don’t stop running until I reach the open mouth of the cave and see the snow-covered ground of the dense forest beyond. I take a single look back down the sloping tunnel and then race out of the cave and into the woods like the devil himself was at my heels.

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