This post contains the thirteenth 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 “and, as far as we can tell, the black door is the way out. We’ve been trying to get to it for years.”

“Slow down.” Snow interjects, leaning 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 potential cost 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. “What did you do in there all day, anyway?”

“We Survived.” Snow spits back 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 battle of wills. I slam my palms down on the table in an explosion of frustration. The sharp slap of my palms 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. “Why are you so damn sure that 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, learning that much.”

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

“Nyx speaks the truth,” Says a soft, slightly accented female voice from behind me. Snow and I 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 dressed in a crisp black jumpsuit and boots identical to my own. She glides past us gracefully and lowers herself into the empty chair next to Nyx. Her eyes are a pale blue, very much like Snow’s. Unlike my stoic companion, hers seem to radiate warmth from some deep, hidden place. Her face is soft and disarming, and when she smiles, I realize that I have been staring since she entered the room. “All of us… awoke…here a little over two years ago. Like you, we remember nothing of the before, and like you, we’re looking for a way out. For a way home, even if we can’t remember where that home may be.”

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

“The dream?” I ask, glancing at Snow to see if he has any idea what Nyx’s delicate companion is talking about. From the look of confusion on his face, I gather he’s as lost as I am.

“Fira is a Slicer, like you. She sees…strange things…when she sleeps. People, places, things that clearly are not part of this place. We believe that the dreams are fragments of our past.” Nyx says. “We think they hold the key to our escape.”

“Escape from what?” Snow says. “Will someone please start making sense? Did you 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 interjects quickly, placing a thin pale hand on Nyx’s armored forearm. Her thin fingers look so fragile next to Nyx’s pale carapace. “Helios has more than enough room.” Nyx shrugs the delicate hand away and crosses her arms, glowering across the table at Snow in silence. 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 gaze. “Now…who are you people and why the hell did you kidnap 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 the before.”

“And you’ve been trapped in this place for two years?” I ask.

“As far as we can tell.” Fira replies. “But, to answer your original question, I must ask you a question.”

“Ok.” I reply, shifting anxiously in my chair as I wonder what this strange delicate creature could possibly think I know that’s of any use to her. “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 your 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 our interaction with silent interest, appearing to file the information away in her head for later use as the group waits expectantly for me to answer Fira’s question.

I tell her about the dreams – all of them. I tell her about Ghoul, about her frantic attempts to communicate and the insane and confusion of events in each encounter. As I tell her about the latest dream and about the strange series of symbols and colors Ghoul 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. I tell her about my brawl with the Fighters at The Falls before the whole world burned to the ground and about the impossible sensation of being controlled from somewhere else. I even tell her about the strange burst of images and words that crashed into my mind when the drone first appeared over The Falls.

She listens to every word, nodding her head and casting inscrutable glances at her raven-haired commander as I speak for what seems like an eternity.

“Thank you, Crash.” She says warmly once I fall silent, my tale complete. “You can’t know how much this means to me…to all of us.”

“Now, maybe you can answer a few of my questions,” I reply.

“Of course,” Fira says with a magnanimous nod.

“How could you possibly know about the things in my dreams…about Ghoul?” I ask desperately. The pit in my stomach feels a thousand miles deep as I wait for her to reply.

“I’ve met her too, in my own dreams.” Fira says softly. “But, it’s different for me. I have never been able to hear her voice. But, somehow, I just…know that her name is Ghoul. It’s the strangest feeling. It’s like the name was planted in my mind, but her name is all I’ve ever been able to extract from the dreams of your friend.”

“How the hell is any of this possible?” Snow interjects before the ghostly girl can reply. He regards me cautiously, a newfound suspicion etched across his pale, blood-smeared face that makes me instantly concerned for our tenuous friendship. “What does it mean?”

“It means she’s real.” Fira whispers. Her voice shakes and a single tear slides down her face towards the soft pink rise of her trembling lips. “I wasn’t sure until this moment. But now I know…she is real. She is real and I think she’s been trying to help us both. I think she’s trying to show us the way out.”

“I am so completely lost.” I run an exasperated hand through my hair and grimace at how oily the strands feel between my fingers. We must look like filthy savages to our pristine 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 under that cool judgmental gaze.

“I don’t know how any of this is possible,” Fira replies. “Or why it’s happening to you, but I am sure – surer now than ever before – that the dreams are real, and that you are critically important to deciphering the secrets of this place.”

“This…prison?” I reply incredulously.

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 trapped in a giant maze.”

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

“We don’t know.” Fira says. “We’re all trapped here, that much we know is true. And we know that something has changed. Something is different in this cycle.” Her pale eyes lock onto mine with a grave expression. “It has to have something to do with you.”

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

“We’ve been watching The Falls for a long time. Nearly two 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 30 days. 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 that we aren’t the first group to capture The Falls?”

“No,” Nyx replies softly. “I’m saying you and your friends have always been at The Falls. Apparently, whoever brought you here took that memory as well. The cycle repeats, you just can’t remember.”

“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 in this cycle?” I say as Snow continues to mumble angrily from this place next to me.

You are.” Fira replies grimly. “We’ve grown familiar with each face at The Falls. We’ve watched you struggle and fight and die in that place, over and over for the past 2 years. We know the cycle well. You are the break in the pattern. That must be important. You are 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 has rehearsed this part of the conversation a hundred times before this charged, singular moment. “Your arrival is the only break 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, Crash, and I believe we can escape this place. All of us.”

I stare at Nyx in disbelief as a tornado of terror and self-doubt cuts a ragged path through the inside of my head, leaving what little confidence I have left 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 so 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 hoarsely. “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 jump to my feet, 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 stares of the women filling the plaza as I race across the open expanse of rust-red bricks. I dash 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 is at my heels.

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