this is just a weird bit of unfinished weirdness. i have no idea what it is, but it is what it is.

Deathdream

The moonlight on the lake gave the wavelets and ripples a glowing, milky appearance as she swam through them. Briefly pondering the question of how she had got here, or why, she thought she recalled a boat, but could not be sure. She gave a mental shrug, deciding the how and the why did not matter and, for now, continued to swim. The water was neither cool nor hot. Rather, it was just about the same temperature as her body. She didn’t think this was odd, nor the feeling that her body was suspended in nothing as she swam.

Making little headway, but not yet tired, she glanced to her left, towards the shore. It was a brooding, black mass in the moonlight. She thought she saw the shapes of foliage along the line of the water, bulking up and receding, as if over a low hill or dune. But whatever it was, there was nothing at all in it that reflected the light of the nearly full moon, which filled the sky with its blazing light. The mass seemed, instead, intent on sucking the light out of the air, absorbing it like a sponge.

Turning her head away, she swam on. Progress was slow, yes, but it was not a struggle.

Presently, she saw something sticking up out of the water – a forest of oddly-shaped stumps. Swimming closer, she was able to determine that these were, in fact, statues. Strange steel representations, they seemed bolted to the lake bed, with their shoulders just below the waterline. Every now and again, a conjunction of wavelets would conspire to show her a brief glimpse of the curve of a shoulder, nothing more. Of that visible above the water, they had short, pole-like necks, and oddly shaped heads. Each was a flat dome, with a stylised face cast on to one side. And perched on about half were peaked military caps of one style or another. Real ones. Every face was turned towards the dark, light-sucking shore. Though each gave the appearance of scowling, the whole scene was one of wistful melancholy, which almost made her feel sorry for these steel constructions. However, she could not avoid the strange knowledge, or conclusion, that it was important that she, too should have a hat. Treading water for a moment, she chose a dark green one with an especially high peak, plucked it from the head of the unresponsive and uncaring statue, and settled it over the wet straggles of her hair, which she could feel sticking to her cheeks like damp seaweed.

Swimming on, she began, not to tire, but to falter. Her horizon across the water became closer and closer and, when she eventually floundered and got a mouthful of water, she stopped. Realising that there was little left in her, she turned on to her back, and made her slow way towards the shore. When her hands touched the smooth rock of the lake bed as it rose sharply behind her, she put them flat to it. Feeling the undulations of the rock as she did so, she crawled out a little, backwards, then stood, her nightdress clinging to her body and tangling her legs as she turned to look a the shore.

There, across an expanse of smoothly waved rock, she saw several wooden cabins. Above the waterline, they nevertheless stood on waist-high stilts. Wondering who might live there, she took the nearest crooked walkway ramp up to one of them, and followed it to a small decking area outside of some French windows, which were open to the night. Just inside these windows, end-on, was a bed. On the end of the bed sat two young girls in pyjamas, dressing gowns, and slippers. Each had a pair of trousers in her hands, which she was holding up to the moonlight streaming through the open windows. The swimmer had the curious impression that they were washing the trousers in the moonlight.

She asked the girls, “Are you ok?”

The older one turned to regard the swimmer with a stern look, and said, “Well, I would be – if they paid me. Aren’t they supposed to pay me, at my age?”

“How old are you?” asked the swimmer.

“Ten,” was the firm reply.

The swimmer was at a loss to answer the girl’s question. Instead, she turned to look over her left shoulder at the lake, and was mildly surprised to see a young man of twenty or so. He was standing on the ground with his back to the railings, the balustrade level with his head. He turned to look up at her as she asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m Biffy,” was his curt reply. “Who the hell are you?”

“…I …I don’t know,” she replied.

The young man grunted. “You’ll need to find out,” he stated, with firmness and just a hint of… What? Warning?

Confused and growing slightly alarmed at her inability to remember her own name – feeling sure she had one – the swimmer turned back towards the two girls washing themselves and their clothes in the moonlight. But they had both lowered their arms to stare out of the French windows, over the swimmer’s shoulders, and out towards the dark brightness of the sky.

The youngest momentarily flicked her gaze to the swimmer and said, “Now see what you did!” Moving her eyes back to the sky, a frown creased her features. The swimmer turned back around until she was facing out towards the lake.

The wind was picking up, tugging at her wet nightdress and trying to tease the military cap from her straggling tresses. Holding the cap down with one hand, she lifted her chin and gazed towards the moon. Its face was being slowly covered by sliding clouds – as black and lightless as the masses on the shore of the lake. Glancing down at Biffy she noticed that he, too, was regarding the moon’s slow disappearance, but with an equitable expression on his face, as though he had seen this many times before, and did not share the youngest girl’s annoyance with the situation.

Spits of rain began to land on her bare arms and the swimmer, despite being already wet, instinctively edged backwards to the shelter of the room behind her. The rain became heavier as they watched the last corner of the moon’s face disappear behind the slithering clouds, and she could hear it over the sound of the wind: a soft-sharp pattering on the wood of the walkway and cabin roof. As it became heavier, she looked towards Biffy – standing as he had been before, but with his face now turned towards the crowded darkness of the sky. Realising that she should not, now, be able to see him, she wondered at her ability to do just that. Staring at the back of his head, she watched as the rain, coming down in earnest, now, plastered his curls to his head. Then it came to her. Slowly lifting her eyes to the lake, the swimmer took in what was before her.

It was not the moon’s light that had given the lake its milky glow – it was the water itself. As more and more clouds piled into the sky above them, the water increased its translucent radiance, the ripples and wavelets creating scintillating patterns that dazzled and mesmerised.

Except…

“What are they?” she asked of her three companions, raising a shaking finger to point.

Shadows moved beneath the surface of the water.

Turning to glance up at the swimmer, Biffy casually remarked, “You’re lucky you got here when you did – a halfer like you – ten minutes more and they’d have had a field day.” Thus unburdened, he returned his gaze to the opposite direction – this time it was focussed, like those of the females, on the shadows sliding through the water.

The swimmer edged back further into the room, until the backs of her legs met the bed, on which she half-sat, half-slumped, her eyes still fixed on the teeming luminescence of the lake.

“Really,” said the older girl, conversationally, “You ought to find out what your name is – it’s bad that you don’t know. Really bad”

Unsure if she really wanted to know, the swimmer asked, in a faint voice, “…why…?”

“’Coz they’ll get you and eat you up and crunch your bones and spit out the gristle!” shrieked the younger, gleefully.

“Amanita!” snapped Biffy’s voice from outside. “That’s enough!”

“But they will!” insisted Amanita, with a small pout.

“’Nita – shush!” said the older girl. “You know you have to do as Biffy says.”

“Don’t see why…” grumbled Amanita, resentfully.

“Because he’s our brother and he came here to look after us.”

This struck the swimmer hard, as she suddenly realised that she not only had no idea of who she was, but of where she was, either. Or, for that matter, why. Continuing to stare out at the menacing shadows sliding below the surface of the glowing water, she racked her brains, trying to discover the answers to any of these questions. True enough, she remembered the swimming very well. But, before that…? Nothing… except for the vague, half-grasped wisp of a memory of that boat.

Falling…? Or being pushed? To where?

Her eyes unfocussed as her thoughts turned ever inward. Probing, searching the inside of her mind for something – anything – that could give her some glimmer of sense. But all there was to be found was darkness – clinging shreds of misty darkness, in which the one dimly shining beacon was the dawning awareness of swimming in the lake.

The lake.

Refocusing her eyes to the rainy, glowing blackness outside of the cabin, she was just in time to see one of the shadows, out in the centre, begin grow bigger and move towards the shore.

This was wrong. It shouldn’t be able to do that. That…whatever it was…should…not…be able to grow like that. And the speed! When she had first seen it, the shadow had been out near the middle of the lake. Now, however, it was heading for the shore at a speed no aquatic creature ought to be able to manage – the water humping up as it pushed a wave before it. But it was. She waited, breath held, for it to erupt through the water, spraying fountains of sparking droplets from its huge body – and it was huge by now – roaring or screaming as the rain sheeted down its squamous flanks.

But it did not.

“Biffy,” called Amanita.

“In a moment, ‘Nita,”

“Biffy, come on!” said the older one, a note of urgency in her voice.

“Just a minute, Purlieu,” he replied, calmly. “I want to get a decent view….”

It came for the shore, faster and faster, the swimmer was sure that soon it must erupt through the surface, or dash itself to pieces on the undulating rock of the shore. But it did neither. Instead, it disappeared just as it got to the rock.

And a hump appeared on the shore. The rock turning fluid and humping up, just as the water had, as the creature had sped through it. But now it was speeding, albeit much more slowly, through solid rock.

“Biffy!” shrieked the girls in unison.

Biffy evidently had decided that now was the moment, as he put his hands on the balustrade and lightly vaulted onto the walkway, to lean against the wall just inside the windows, and watch the creature’s approach.

The swimmer’s eyes were locked on the moving hump, as it came closer and closer to the cabin, too scared to scream at the visceral horror of watching some unknown and patently dangerous creature doing such a weird and impossible thing. She opened her mouth, and tried with all her might to scream out the fear that was clamouring in her tightened chest, but all that would or could escape was a thin and reedy whisper. As the terror clawed at her chest, and the cords stood out on her neck with the dreadful effort, she felt a small, warm hand on hers.

“Don’t worry – the stilts will stop it,” said Purlieu, squeezing.

This was no comfort. The swimmer was rooted solidly to the bed – paralysed – unable to do anything as her eyes, locked on the moving hump, widened further to take in the approaching doom of the monster. As it disappeared under the hut with a rumble, she drew breath and tried to scream again as the rumbling grew louder, now under her feet, and the creature moved about beneath the cabin. Still nothing but the reedy whisper left her chest.

“It’ll go in a minute,” said Biffy, watching the swimmer with an air of calm.

She barely heard him.

After an eternity, his words proved right, as the rumbling calmed a little, and the hump reappeared and headed back towards the lake. As it reached the shore, the gigantic shadow was in the water once more, and it sped rapidly back towards the centre. Gradually, it receded, diminished, and was, once again, just one of many shadows under the surface of the glowing water.

The swimmer began gasping for breath.

Biffy watched her collapse forward on to her hands and knees, her body heaving, as she fought to recoup the breath she had spent whilst trying to scream.

“Told you so,” he observed, with mild amusement.

Still gasping, the swimmer turned wide, frightened eyes on the young man. What… what the hell…was that…thing?” she managed, between heaving breaths.

Biffy raised his shoulder in a casual half-shrug. “Soul eater.”

Her breath stilled. “A what?”

“Soul eater.” was the laconic reply. “It was looking for you. They love halfers. I think they taste better or something…” he trailed off, looking a little thoughtful. Then he shrugged again, properly, this time. “Dunno what they are, exactly, but that’s what they’re called. Never seen one – not properly. They stay under the surface.”

The swimmer hunkered back on to her haunches, almost curling into a ball, and began to shiver. “It was…horrible,” she whimpered. “Nothing should be able to do that.”

“Yeah, well – you’re not in Kansas now, Toto.”

Amanita giggled. Purlieu admonished Biffy with, “That wasn’t nice! How would you like it? You’re rotten and horrible!”

Crouching down next to the shivering swimmer and, with a maturity beyond her years, Purlieu put her arm around the swimmer’s shoulders, saying gently, “It’s all right – it’s gone now. It was just a scout, and it knows it can’t get to you in here.”

The swimmer was sitting, knees drawn up to her chin, in the middle of the bed. Feeling vulnerable.

The rain had stopped, the moon had come back out from behind the clouds, and Biffy had wandered outside to continue his vigil over the lake, sitting astride the balustrade, about halfway along the sloping walkway. Purly and ‘Nita had fetched her a towel so she could dry herself off. Now she was naked in a strange place with no memory of who she was. The girls were, once again, sitting on the end of the bed, their backs to her. Clutching the towel tight around her, she tentatively asked, “Uh… Purly? When you said it was bad that I didn’t know my name, you never said why…”

Without turning round, ‘Nita parroted, in a singsong voice, “To name the thing is to control the thing. To defeat the monster, you must first speak its name. When summoned by the true name, each creature must respond.” And then she was silent, almost as if she’d never spoken.

The swimmer was nonplussed. She tried again. “Purly? Can you explain that to me?”

Purly turned around with the exasperation of the child for the idiot adult. “She means that you need your name to control yourself, and to stop them controlling you. When neither of you know your name, they can control you a bit. If they find out before you do, they can control all of you. But first control goes to you if you know your name. See?”

“…I…I think so….” said the slightly confused swimmer. “…but…who are…they?”

Purly rolled her eyes in exasperation. She made a wide gesture towards the French windows. “Them!”

“The things in the lake?”

“No! Yes! Both. All of them!” Purly turned her back on the swimmer, the set of her shoulders showing her annoyance at the swimmer’s density.

And the swimmer saw, as plainly as if it had been written in white on a black wall in front of her, that there were, out there in the dark, more things to fear than these ‘soul eaters’. She shivered a little, and drew her knees tighter under her chin. Trying to make a solid, impenetrable barrier against all of the fearsome things that may yet be lurking out of, or in, plain sight.

She began to wonder, in earnest, what her name could be.

She tried a few out. Alexandra? No. Natalie? Alicia? Helga? No. Julie? Mary? No. She ground her teeth in frustration.

She looked at Purly’s back. “Purly? What if I named myself? Would that give me any protection?”

Purly turned around. “Dunno.” She said, thoughtfully. Then turned and shouted out of the windows: “Biffy!”

He turned around. “What?”

“Can she name herself? Would that help?”

Biffy swung his leg over the balustrade and walked up to the windows, gazing at the swimmer. She felt uncomfortable, and pulled the towels yet tighter around herself.

“Dunno,” he said. “It might, I suppose. At least you’d have a name, even if it isn’t your true one. And then we wouldn’t have to call you ‘Hey You’. What are you going to name yourself, then?”

The swimmer didn’t even need to think.

“Marina.”

“Why?”

“Because I came from the water.”

Biffy shrugged. “It’s as good a name as any, I suppose. Come on, then.”

The girls began to fold their trousers neatly, and then each rolled them up and tucked them under their arms.

“Wait – what? You’re going somewhere?”

“Yes, we are,” said Biffy, emphasising the ‘we’ to include Marina.

“But…but…” She looked around furtively. The last time she had seen it, her nightdress and cap had been lying where she had left them, sopping in a puddle on the floor, with a trickle running from the puddle out of the French windows. Now, though, there was no sign of them. Biffy, ‘Nita and Purly didn’t seem to notice anything amiss, though, so she hurriedly followed them out of the windows, on to the walkway, and into the glowing dark, tugging the towel more tightly around her as she went. Being barefoot, too, she felt very exposed.

On reaching the end of the walkway, Marina stopped. Biffy and the girls were already stepping out smartly across the rock to her left, but she hesitated to put her foot on the rock when memories of the rock-swimming soul eater were still so fresh. In this strange and dreadful place, it seemed that even solid rock was not necessarily a good place to stand and walk. Especially if she really was a halfer – whatever that may turn out to mean. She stood there, undecided what to do, and watched three backs receding towards the black, light-sucking mass that curved around the little group of cabins, meeting the lakeshore on both sides of the rocky semicircle. They had apparently forgotten her existence, since none of them turned around to check she was still there, nor to make a gesture or a shout to hurry her on her way. She could feel panic beginning to rise at being left alone and, quickly making a decision that she would rather brave the creatures’ attentions than be left alone, she glanced at the lake to make sure there were no sinister shadows growing on its surface, and then she ran for it. Now was the time to see if the name she had given herself really would offer her at least a small measure of protection. Her bare feet slapping on the rock, struggling with the towel that seemed to constantly want to be left behind whilst it barely covered her, she raced after the figures that were growing yet smaller. They were getting hard to distinguish, too, against the backdrop of that black mass. The lake’s illumination and moonlight seemed unable to compete with it.

The faster she ran, the further away they seemed to be. Fear began to claw at her throat again, as she raced to catch up with them. She was now running so fast, it appeared that her feet were no longer touching the ground and, indeed, the rapid slapping had morphed into a whirring, rushing sound. Forgetting for a moment why she was running so fast, she gave in to the exhilaration of the speed, feeling that if she only stretched her arms and took a deep breath, something wonderful might happen. But that moment was gone in the instant she realised that she needed both of her arms to keep the towel, which seemed to be shrinking, covering her embarrassment.

On the edge of the light-sucking mass, Biffy turned around. “Oh – you’re here. Well – come on, then…” and disappeared into the mass.

Marina closed her eyes and stepped in after him.

There was a lurch, and a pain behind her eyes. Her foot went down further than she expected it to, and she flailed her arms as she began to tumble forward, unable to open her eyes from the pain of light lancing through her eyelids.

She felt arms around her as Biffy caught her at a peculiar and ungainly angle, and she struggled to stand upright, her head spinning, feeling grass beneath her bare feet.

Still unsteady, she held on to Biffy’s upper arm with her left hand, and he supported her by that elbow, as she shaded her eyes with her right, and squinted them open a tiny slit. A blur of greens and fawns swam across her watery vision, and she screwed her eyes up tight again, placing her hand across them.

“No no no… Just shade them,” said Biffy, tilting her hand back up, and making her wince. “That way, you’ll get used to the light quicker.”

“But it hurts!”

She felt his shoulder move in a shrug.

Then, she realised that the towel had finally fallen off as she fell and then struggled upright. Instantly, she dropped into a crouched ball, curled as tightly around herself as she could possibly manage. Groping her hands around for the towel – which surely could not be far away – she whimpered in mortification. Soon, she was clawing at the grass around her as the towel, like the nightdress before it, simply was not there any more.

Finally, in despair, she yanked a big handful of grass and, to her surprise, pulled a sheet of turf up with it, which she wrapped around her shoulders like a cloak. As she stood up in relief, she opened her eyes a little again. Squinting, her eyes still swimming with tears, the pain, at least, was gone, and she was now covered by a long, feathered cloak.

Soothing this black and white confection back over her shoulders, she looked down at the long black and white shift that mercifully now covered her. She sighed in relief. Looking further down, and wiggling her toes, she realised that she was still barefoot, but this did not bother her at all. The grass, after all, tickled her feet pleasantly, and the air was warm. Looking around, she found herself standing on a manicured lawn, which was bisected by a path lined with shrubs of all sorts of curious shapes and sizes. The lawn was surrounded by trees with dark, deep shadows hovering beneath them. Seeing these shadows made the back of her neck prickle as her hackles rose. The only open aspect she could see was in the direction the path led. Over the tops of the higher of the oddly-shaped shrubs, she could make out a roof.

But she was alone. Of Biffy, Amanita, and Purlieu, there was no sign.

A soft, warm summer breeze tugged at her shift, making her cloak ripple and shimmer in the bright sunlight as she slowly made her way across the grass to the edge of the path. Leaning over one of the lower points in the shrub border, she saw that the path was made of gravel. She knew she must follow the path, but to spare her bare feet, she would walk parallel to it, on the soft grass of the lawn.

As she walked, she trailed her fingers along the tightly-clipped bushes on her right. The feel of the tips of the leaves tickling the places where her fingers joined her palm was pleasant, and she half-closed her eyes – almost floating along the grass, doing nothing but savouring the sensations of foliage and soft, warm air against her skin.

Abruptly, she was brought back to herself as she came hard up against a dense hedge at the edge of the lawn that she had not noticed before. Dark, forest green in colour, it formed an impenetrable barrier to any further forward movement. And it worried her. keeping her eyes fixed on the barrier, lest it move and engulf her, her breath coming a little quicker as her hackles began to rise once again, Marina edged to her right, groping blindly for one of those lower points in the path’s shrubbery edges, so she could step over on to the path.

Backing away, her eyes still fixed on the unexpected hedge, she failed to find any lower places, but the dense foliage seemed to have opened out in this part of the path so, keeping her eyes on the hedge for as long as she could, she edged her way in between the small, prickly branches. As she pushed through, she felt the branches tear at her hair, her cloak, her shift, her skin. Terrified that they would rip her and her clothing to shreds, she contorted her body into all sorts of odd positions, twisting and writhing her sinuous way through, as her feet were prickled unkindly by dead leaves, dry earth, and roots.

The squirming seemed to go on forever until, at last, she felt her right hand once again break through into fresh air, quickly followed by her arm, and then the rest of her body.

Wincing as she stepped on to the wide, sandy coloured gravel path, she looked down to check her monochrome garments had not been too badly damaged by her traverse through the clinging, snatching branchlets. Fortunately, they had not. The hem of her shift still fluttered around her ankles, and her feathered cloak only seemed to have lost one or two feathers to the tugging and grasping of the shrubs. She peered into the depths of the dense woodland now beside her, and saw a couple of feathers glinting in the gloom. This made her feel somehow uneasy, but she decided to leave them there, since she had no wish to go back into that gloom. Even as she watched, branches and twigs in there seemed to be growing longer, sharper, more dense. Ivy was twining itself up from the ground, around the wizened and twisted trunks and branches, until that way was as impenetrable as the hedge that had first caused her to move on to the path.

Glancing across the wide pathway, she saw that the other side was similarly blocked; the vegetation was now, also, much, much higher, blocking out the sunlight, and beginning to cast the wide pathway into shadow. Glancing behind her, she saw the path narrowing to nothing not far behind her; ivy tendrils crawling and snaking across the path as she watched, trees springing through the gravel and barring her way. Looking ahead, she could still see blue sky and small cumulus clouds, framing the roof of a sandstone building at the end of the path. Hackles rising for a third time at the slithering and rustling in the growing green gloom behind her, she hurried forwards.

Hobbling and wincing as the gravel abused the soles of her feet, Marina came to the end of the path, which opened out into a wide gravelled apron before the building. She stopped, gazing up at the edifice before her.

Massive and circular, the yellow-grey building loomed over her. Three storeys tall, there were high windows all around the sides and, around the top of the first and third storeys, intricate stone friezes decorated the walls. Looking in despair at the wide expanse of gravel between her and the building, she gritted her teeth and began a mincing traverse. Halfway across, she decided that the mincing was just prolonging the pain in her feet, so she changed her stride to a wider, more confident one and tried to ignore the pummelling on the soles of her feet. Her approach was rapid, after that, and she was soon at the bottom of a set of three steps that led up to a flag stoned pavement that seemed to circle the building. With relief, she stepped on to the smooth stones; her only discomfort now was the gritty dust between her toes, and the odd sharp piece of gravel that had stuck to the bottom of her feet. These, however, were easy to ignore out of existence. She wandered around the building a little way, looking at the frieze. It was intricate, yes, but details were hard to make out. The sandstone it was carved from was badly weathered, leaving whatever it had been to resemble strange creatures doing strange things. Indecipherable, but fascinating, the frieze held her attention for quite some time. She wandered all the way around the building, the representations making less and less sense, until she came back to where she’d started from, and stood for a moment.

It still made no sense to her conscious mind, but something about it was tugging at her subconscious, and she couldn’t work out what it was. Like the question of how she got into the lake, though, she knew that she probably would not be able to work out the puzzle any time soon, so she let it go. For now.

Much more interesting at the moment was what was behind the door she stood in front of. It was a white painted wooden affair, about ten feet tall, and proportionately wider than a normal door. There were about a dozen panes of glass set into it, but the interior of the building appeared darker than she would expect, considering the number of windows around the outside of it. This, coupled with the reflections of sky on the glass, was enough to render her unable to see what lay beyond the door. Looking around for a handle, she found a round one at knee level, and bent down to try to open the door.

Her hands, no matter how tightly she grasped the orb, slipped and slid around its polished brass surface, and she struggled and cursed, trying to get the handle to work. Eventually, using both hands, she got it to turn, and pushed the door slowly inwards, stepping into the interior of the building.

A shaft of light from the open door followed her in, but that disappeared as she walked a little further, and the door shut firmly behind her. Spinning around, she was confronted by a smooth, blank wall, which she followed with her eyes, until it was lost in the shadows further along. Turning back to face the centre of the building, she examined her surroundings. The ceiling was supported by pillars at various points, and extended a good thirty feet, before ending abruptly at two concentric circles of pillars about ten feet apart, surrounding the central part of the floor. Warily, she moved forwards, weaving around pillars, until she came to the central area, which was flooded with sunlight. At each point of the compass, a stairway curved away from the flagged floor. These linked two galleries, one on each floor, which circled the space completely. In the domed ceiling high above, there was a wide, multifaceted skylight, allowing the sunlight to pour thickly into this atrium, weighing heavily on her head.

The central space was large, and completely empty, save for her. It looked somewhat dusty and abandoned, but the sunlight had warmed the flagstones so they felt soft on her feet, almost like hard pillows. Marina turned full circle, looking for some way out of this seemingly abandoned space. Finding none obvious, her attention shifted to the nearest stairway, which was covered in a once grand but now threadbare red carpet. She decided that she may find some clue to how to get out on one of the other floors, if they weren’t both empty as well. Seizing the banister with her left hand, she began to climb, anticlockwise, up to the first gallery of this strange building.

On reaching the top, Marina stopped, one hand still resting on the banister, staring down the long corridor in front of her. The walls were raw plaster, grey and rotting, punctuated with doors on either side. The end of the corridor was lost in darkness. She took a hesitant step forward, and then stopped. She could feel something pulling on her. Treacly strings of… something… were seemingly attached to her bones and organs, exerting a gentle tug. Not enough to drag her backwards, but enough to drag on her soul when she tried to move forwards. Fearfully she glanced over her shoulder. Nothing but the continuation of the corridor stretching away into shadow behind her. No stairway, no atrium, no light source that she could see. No sound but the soft hissing of her breath, and the venous hum of her blood, rushing through her flesh.

Her left hand was resting on another round brass doorknob. The door itself was a greyish white panelled affair – heavy and solid. The surface of the paint leprous with bubbling and peeling patches, a sticky amber substance oozing through the odd crack and join. It was not an inviting door. But she grasped the handle with both hands and turned it, nonetheless. This one turned more easily than the outer door, but was still stiff. It availed her nothing, however, since the door, when she tentatively pushed, did not budge a millimetre. It was very firmly jammed.

She thought at first that it may be locked, but she could not see a keyhole. Then, looking closer, she saw that it did not have a crack between the frame and the door itself, either. She could not, when she tried, even get a fingernail between the two. The door was part of the frame. Not a real door at all, but an elaborate piece of panelling.

A joke. A three dimensional trompe l’oeil.

This gave her pause. She tried another door, then another, moving from door to door with increasing desperation as she tried, again and again, to find the one true portal in this corridor of falsehoods. Mindlessly, now, she banged on doors, rattled handles, and shrieked for someone to let her out, let her in, let her free, let her breathe, as she noticed that the corridor walls were beginning, almost imperceptibly, to move closer and closer together. Her panic increased to the borders of hysteria as she imagined the walls closing in on her completely, crushing her organs, grinding her bones against each other, until she could no longer move or breathe.

Then she saw, through the haze of her madness, light seeping under one of the nearby doors. Flinging herself at it, she wrestled with the handle until it grudgingly turned, and threw herself into the room beyond.

In the centre of the room sat Purly on a straight-backed wooden chair. Glancing up from her embroidery, calm and unsurprised, she said, “Oh, hello Marina.”

“P… Purly?”

The girl sat very still, relaxed, and continued her calm scrutiny.

Marina was baffled. A million questions once again squirmed through her mind. But all she could say was, “You’re here?”

“Yes. I have to be.”

Marina looked around the room, taking in the fact that it was practically empty. Nothing sat on the bare, dusty floorboards save Purly’s chair, and the only thing that adorned the walls was a stone mantelpiece. No hearth, no fireplace, just the mantelpiece. No window and, as she turned to look behind her, no door. Just another blank wall.

She turned back to look at the girl who’s head was, once again, bent to her embroidery, her fingers flickering with blinding speed and agonising slowness as she worked each stitch into the circle of stretched linen she held.

“They’re coming for you, you know,” said Purly, in a conversational tone, without moving her head or, as far as Marina could see, her lips. “That’s why you can’t go back. Your mind’s closing stuff off as you go. You can only go forward. If you go back, they’ll have you. You shouldn’t really look back, even. You’re going to have to use it. Soon, too.”

“They? Who are they? And use what?”

“Your courage. Your confidence. Your body. Your ability,” said Purly, ignoring the first part of the question. “Anything you’ve got, really. Including your name.” She paused. “If you remember it, that is.”

“But I can’t! I don’t know what it is!” said Marina, almost in a wail.

“You’ll have to work something out, then. Can’t let them get you. If you’re chased, you can’t get caught, or it really is all over.”

Marina shivered at the cold certainty radiating from this ten year old girl. Suddenly, her knees gave out, and she slumped to the floor, her monochrome clothes billowing around her in ripples and waves. Sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor, her hands in her lap, Marina stared at the patterns in the grain of the scuffed boards. They began to undulate before her eyes, but she paid this no heed.

She was thinking.

A person may have many names, throughout their life. Some given, some taken, some self-bestowed. Of these, any one of them may be their true name, but it was most likely to be a name one gives to oneself. Then she stopped this thought with another.

The veracity of a person’s name depended on the knowledge and instinct of the person that had given it, surely? If a person gave themself a name, but had little self-knowledge, that could not possibly be their true name, since it did not reflect them truly. Likewise, if a stranger bestowed a name on a person, even if that stranger had no knowledge of the person they were naming, but still felt it instinctively, surely that could be a name as true as any other?

She searched around inside herself, and found little to examine. However she had got here, wherever here was, it seemed to have wiped her memory and knowledge of herself clean. But since there was little of her self or her memory to know in this place, surely any name she gave herself would, by default, be true? As far as it went, at least?

She decided that, at the moment, until she found out something more, this could only be the case, and she would just have to believe it as hard as she could.

“I am Marina.” She whispered. Then, more loudly, “I am Marina. I came from the water, and I can sing them from the trees.”

At this, Purly looked up, piercing Marina and pinning her to the wall with the sharpness of the look shot from her eye. “How did you know that?” she demanded.

“Because I do. Because I can,” said Marina, sitting up a little straighter, and returning the sharp look with one of her own. “Right here, right now, I am Marina, and I sing them from the trees.” Then she deflated a little, almost imperceptibly. “But I have no trees to sing them from.”

“Better find some, then, before they find you,” was the succinct reply.

Marina privately agreed with this, though she had absolutely no idea of how to go about finding trees in this small, square, shabby, windowless room.

There must be a way out. There had to be. She found it utterly impossible to believe that the cosmos had decreed she should spend eternity trapped in this small place.

Getting to her feet, Marina began to examine the walls, he floor, the ceiling. The walls were all apparently solid, constructed of plaster over bricks, or perhaps stone. The floor did not sound hollow when she banged it with her fists and heels. No echo or hollowness sounding there, at all. The ceiling, she could not reach, not even when she had borrowed Purly’s chair and stood on it.

She did not, however, examine the wall that had so recently held the door she had entered by. She had taken Purly’s warning to heart, and was not going to look back for anything. She could only look forward, and hope she chose the right path. And besides that, when she walked close to that wall, taking great pains not to touch it, look at it, or otherwise acknowledge its presence, she heard things. Growlings and slitherings. Grisly cracklings, and wet hissings and tearings. And, very far away, very hard to hear – but there to be heard, nonetheless – there were shrieking and wailings and moanings, as of the trapped and the despairing. She had no wish to become a member of that muted chorus. So she ignored that one wall, continuing her examination of the rest of the room with minute attention to detail, and systematic thoroughness.

Then, there came a small, slightly exasperated sigh. “Marina, you’re looking in the wrong place.”

Then Marina realised. Her eyes turned to the mantelpiece. Snatching a knife from her belt, she dove at the blank wall framed by the mantelpiece, and drove the knife in to it with all of her might. The wall transmuted to a black void, and she was sucked through.

She hit the ground – rolling, tumbling, sliding. Bouncing to a stop, she thought the experience really ought to hurt more than it actually did. Sitting up, her head spinning, she once more took stock of her surroundings. This time she found herself in a cobbled alley. It was twilight, and everything around her was grey and fuzzy, including the sky. Leaning back against the lumpy stone wall behind her, she regarded those on either side, stretching away into the gloom, trying to catch her breath.

Using the wall behind her to lever herself to a standing position, she dusted herself down, and shook her head to clear it. The walls extended to just above head height, with various bits of other walls and roofs visible above this.

Then it hit her. She had sat up facing in the same direction that she had been travelling, yet she had sat back to rest against a wall behind her. Purly’s words returned:

“…Your mind’s closing stuff off as you go. You can only go forward. If you go back, they’ll have you…”

Cautiously, she leaned towards the wall that closed off the end of the alley, and placed her ear to it. Her eyes widened as she heard those same unsettling sounds she’d heard behind the wall in the room with Purly. They were quieter, sounded further away than they had, but they were still, unmistakeably, there. Straightening up, she began to think.

So. Space seemed to mean little here. She had no idea how far or how long she had travelled through that void to reach this alley. However, she had vague memories of floating there for some time. It had been utterly black, and she’d had no sense of movement, though she had certainly arrived in the alley at some speed. But perhaps there was no air in there to create wind to batter her face and tug at her clothes? She shied away from this thought, however, since that would mean that she had been travelling through a vacuum. Yet she had not suffered the effects of depressurisation. The saliva in her mouth had not boiled, and she had not blacked out. At least, she believed she had not. The blackness in that place, though, was so profound, that she wondered if she would even have been able to tell. But she seemed to recall a coherent chain of thought, even if she could no longer say what any of the links in that chain had been. Perhaps she had only been unconscious and dreaming? But she dismissed that idea, because….

The ground trembled. Just a little, but she felt it. Quickly pressing her ear back to the wall, adrenaline began to flood her system. Her heart rate and breathing increased as her fight or flight instinct kicked in. The sounds were clearer. Closer. Fighting was not an option, certainly not yet. She had no idea what “they” were, but she most certainly did not want to meet “them”.

She chose flight.

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