Chapter 1: The Dark
“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” - Edgar Allen Poe
I wanted to scream.
But no matter how much I strained my lungs, only a strangled keen escaped my throat. No matter how fast I tried to run, it was like I was stuck in some thick miasma that slowed my movements—like I was stuck in a dream. Or... more like I was trapped in a nightmare.
Because monsters were hunting me.
I couldn’t see them, for either I had gone blind or the world had been plunged into heavy, pulsating darkness, but I could hear them hissing and shuffling behind me on long, spindly, and numerous legs. I could feel them when they reached out with their hands, clutching at my clothes and hair as I blindly ran.
“H-help me!” I wailed, grasping at more of that darkness ahead of me. My voice didn’t carry far. The echoes of my pleas seemed to linger in the heavy atmosphere like flies in a web, barely a breath away from my face.
My foot caught on something I could not see. With a pitiful gasp, I fell into what felt like sand.
Hissing surrounded me. Clawed feet of unseen creatures kicked up the sand around me.
I expected my breath to quicken as the din that ricocheted in my spinning head increased. I expected my heart to race. I expected my blood to turn to ice.
But neither of those things happened.
I felt nothing.
Just a sick emptiness within me.
Something else’s breath beat down on my face. I swore I could hear the slow, wet sound of toothy jaws parting.
And then there came a light.
A red beam cut through the dark, illuminating everything in my immediate vicinity.
I wished it hadn’t. I clapped my hands over my mouth. I wanted to feel sick at what I saw. I wanted to spill my guts onto the ground.
The vaguely humanoid face before me drew back its black lips in a squeal of pain. Its solid white eyes snapped shut against the light that scorched its flesh. Spewing spittle and dripping in cascading black mist, the monster recoiled from me and raced back into the darkness with its many, many pairs of spider-like limbs. The other creatures followed behind.
An outstretched hand entered my vision. I looked up to see a masked figure, shrouded in a billowing, ratty cloak. The wind kicked up flecks of black sand, making them fly like swarming gnats in the dim red light of the flashlight the figure pointed at me.
“Are you going to keep lying there until the shadows come back, girl, or are you going to come with me?” the figure spoke, her accent some kind of British lilt. “This torch won’t keep them away forever.”
Her voice came out loud and clear despite the mask that covered her face. The only discernible features of it were the red lenses that glared down at me.
“I... Huh. Wha—?” was all I could manage to croak.
The girl made what I could only assume was a rolling-of-the-eyes gesture beneath her mask. She snatched my hand in hers and hauled me to my feet. She took off running as if we weren’t engulfed by pitch blackness. It was all I could do to match her pace.
“Keep up!” she called over her shoulder while the wind shrieked around us. “My bike isn’t too far away!”
I squinted against the flying sand that pelted my face. Strangely, no pain stung my eyes or skin. I couldn’t see any trace of a bike ahead of us in the red light.
My shrouded savior continued to yank on my arm as she ran. Behind us, I heard more hissing. I swallowed. “Whatever you do—” she began.
I twisted my head around to peer behind us.
“—don’t look back!” the girl finished.
Those “shadows” pursued us. It was hard to tell how many there were, for they all blended into the dark—into each other.
All I knew is that they were almost on top of us.
One of them leaped through the air.
I let out another strangled scream as a weight crashed into my back, forcing me into the black sand. I lost my grip on the other girl’s hand. Her light disappeared.
Talons cut into my arm. A claw severed my flesh like a hot knife through butter. And still, I felt no pain, only a pins-and-needles tingling in my bicep and the sensation of coldness leaking out from beneath my skin. The weight continued to press into me, forcing me deeper into the sand. Its breath wafted against my ear as it sighed.
With a snarl, I elbowed the creature in its face, throwing it and all of its flailing limbs off of me. Freed from its weight, I heaved in lungfuls of air. But no matter how much I panted, the air filling my lungs brought no relief. Tossing my jet-black hair out of my face and ignoring the tingling sensation in my arm, I forced myself to sit up in the dark.
I didn’t have time to do much else. The monster landed on me again, crushing my chest and tearing into my flesh with its claws. I could not see or feel my wounds, I just felt... life seep out of me like a viscous fluid.
This was a nightmare.
It had to be.
I needed to wake up.
I clawed back. I bit. But it was useless trying to pry this thing off of me. My fingers dug into the sand while the monster sank its teeth into my neck. I shut my eyes, not that it made a difference.
I needed to wake up.
I continued clawing into the sand, feeling for a place to hide, or some escape, or just something.
I needed to—
A blinding white light seared through my eyelids. While the shadow screamed like an animal in a slaughterhouse and turned tail, I forced my eyes open. Beneath my fingertips in the sand was a small void of pure, white light. Bathed in its resplendent glow, I craned my head forward. That hollow feeling in my chest subsided more and more the closer my face got to the void. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. I couldn’t ignore its beckoning call.
My lifeless heart kick-started in my chest.
I reached my arm into the light.
“No!” that familiar voice screamed. Hands grabbed my shoulders and tossed me aside.
I landed in a splatter of sand and watched as that masked girl kicked grit and dust over the void, smothering its light. Then all that remained was that faint, red glow of her flashlight.
My heart stopped again. I rose to confront her. “Why did you do that?” I yelled. Like an addict, I reached for the spot the void disappeared. The girl held me back, surprisingly strong.
“You’ll thank me later,” she droned, unaffected by my challenge. I was just now realizing how much taller she was than me. “For now, just get on the damn bike.”
She pointed a gloved hand behind me. I turned, spying a parked metal behemoth of a motorcycle through the swarming grains of sand in the air. Fixed to the bike was what appeared to be a rather old trailer laden with metal debris and strange, glowing red stones that lit up the dark. Another masked figure waved from the trailer.
The girl shoved me forward. When more hissing arose from nearby, I clambered up into the trailer amongst the cargo of rusted detritus and red crystals. The girl mounted the bike, and off we sped. Clutching my hand to my seeping throat, I swiveled around to watch more shadows get absorbed by the dark far behind us. The person beside me aimed a flashlight at any lingering monsters. The last pursuing shadow finally gave up its chase, baring its teeth at us in frustration before lumbering away. I turned to stare ahead at where we headed, but saw nothing. I could only trust that the girl knew where we were all going.
I sat, shivering while coldness continued to leave my body. I couldn’t see the state of myself in the dim light, so my imagination painted a picture for me. Was I dying? Was this what death felt like?
It didn’t hurt.
“Hey,” the masked figure beside me said. “You’ll be fine. It’ll just take you a bit to heal up. I’m Webb, by the way.” In the glow, the only noticeable feature about him that I could see was that he was pretty lanky with his long legs sprawled so casually across the trailer bed. “Nice to stumble into you.”
My hand left my neck. Strangely, that cold sensation gradually dissipated. My shivering eased.
“I’m Sk—” My voice caught. I swallowed and tried again. “Skye.”
Webb nodded. “Don’t worry about your voice. You’ll get used to how things work in the Dark eventually.” He gestured at our driver with a thumb. “And that’s Vale.”
“Thank you, Webb, and, uh... Vale,” I uttered, pawing at my own body in the dark. I was certain I had been sliced nearly to ribbons a few moments ago, yet I didn’t feel any blood. “Thank you both. What were those creatures? What’s happening to me? And where are we?”
Webb’s red lenses watched me as he shrugged. “Shadows. They live in the Dark. Make mine and Vale’s job way harder than it has to be. It’s not like it isn’t tough enough going scavenging out here by lux-light. Saw you clock one of them in the face, though. That was awesome.” He laughed beneath his mask.
I furrowed my brows. Scavenging? Lux?
A light dawned on the horizon. The sun? Now able to pinpoint where the black land met the black sky, I could actually tell how freaking fast we were going. There was surely no way any of those shadows could catch up to us. The horizon grew brighter, and I could tell that no, that wasn’t the sun we raced toward. The silhouettes of towering edifices, aglow with crimson, came into view. I narrowed my eyes at it, struggling to process the enormous walled city that nearly encompassed the entire horizon.
Webb, meanwhile, removed his mask from his face. A boy in his older teens or younger twenties grinned at me, his wavy light-blond hair whipping in his face. He turned to gaze at the fast-approaching city. “As for where we are...”
I gasped as Vale abruptly stopped before a wall constructed of sheet metal and other scraps. Even with the light of the red crystals embedded into the wall’s corrugated surface, it was hard to fathom just how tall it was. Huge, sprawling text smeared across the wall greeted the three of us.
“After,” I read aloud.
A gate lifted open in front of us like the maw of an old, abandoned mechanical creature, ready to swallow us whole. The gems and scrap metal I sat amongst vibrated as the gate rose.
I wondered if I was going to wake up soon.
Warm, red light engulfed us all from within the city and threw our stark shadows backward into the sand. I chanced a glance at myself, afraid of what I might see. I uttered a little squeak when my suspicions were confirmed.
No lacerations marred my tan skin.
“I’m healed?” I whispered to myself, staring at my unmarked flesh. I rubbed my bicep, searching for any sign of injury. “But that shadow thing...! I thought I was going to die! How am I healed?”
Footsteps crunched in the sand beside the trailer. I looked up into Vale’s red lenses.
Slowly, Vale pulled her mask from her face. She looked about my age—eighteen. Her dark skin looked so flawless in the artificial red light. She brushed her long waist-length braids back over her shoulder. Unlike Webb, Vale didn’t smile. “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news, new blood,” she said, her face grim. “The good news is that no shadows will get you again in the city of After.”
Webb fidgeted, staring past me out into the blackness we escaped from as if avoiding eye contact.
Vale, however, met my eyes with eyes devoid of any emotion. “The bad news is that you’ve already died,” she told me.