William shifted in the bed, enjoying the touch of the cool sheets. A smile found its way to his lips as he felt a warm hand sliding over his chest, a body pressing against his. He pried his eyes open, turning to look at her. His heartbeat raced as he stared at the light brown hair falling over her naked back, her slim pale hand pulling him closer to her. And her eyes, her chocolate eyes, watched him with such intensity that he had to remind himself how to breathe.
She looked so beautiful, so happy, so content.
“Hi.” She whispered, planting a kiss on his chest before looking back up at him. Her smile widened. “I am tired of waiting...” William looked around - the room was so bright and so quiet that he could hear every breath he took, every beat of his heart. “What is it?” She asked, her forehead wrinkling in concern. William raised his hand and caressed her cheek.
“Nothing.” He mumbled, leaning over her and pressing his lips against hers. They were soft and sweet, and she wrapped her hands around his neck as he positioned himself on top of her, elbows propped on her sides.
She smiled, sliding her hands over his chest. She kissed him, so demanding that he forgot what they were talking about. The warm, pleasant sensation that came with her closeness was abruptly cut off by a chilly wind that made him shudder. He opened his eyes, sitting up only to realize he was alone.
He was still in the bed they had shared but it was all wrong. The room was dark and covered with dust and spiderwebs as if nobody had visited it in decades, sinister shadows moving in the corners and crawling on the ceiling like predators stalking prey. There was no light to cause the shadows, he noticed.
He got to his feet, looking around for Annabel. The wooden floor creaked as he paced around, keeping to the center of the room. He could not get rid of the feeling that he was being watched but as much as he strained he could not see or hear anything.
He raised his hand up, summoning a ball of light to the base of his palm. The shadows pulled back almost in panic as he watched them slide towards the door and disappear in the crevices.
He rushed towards the door, eager to get away from this place and the prying eyes but when he reached out for the knob he hesitated, a warning bell ringing in his ears.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
The voice came from behind him and he jumped, turning. The bed was gone and so was the roof. There was barely anything left of the room to save the walls but they were coated with holes and pure darkness.
William’s eyes stopped on the figure that had appeared a few steps behind him - still, cold and threatening. With every passing second, he felt more and more like a fly caught in a spiderweb.
“Leave.” The figure said, her voice a distant rustling of leaves in the coldest day. He knew that voice, he realized, or he used to.
“Annabel.” He whispered before he could stop himself and the figure took a step forward. She was wearing a hood - or maybe it was just shadows covering her from head to toe. William took an involuntary step back, surprised by his own cowardice. “I’m going to save you, no matter the cost. I promise you.”
The figure removed the distance between them in a blink of an eye. The darkness surrounding her faded just enough to reveal her features, twisted and sharp, eyes black as night. He could hardly recognize her under the sinister expression on her face and the hollow eyes that watched him with pure loathing.
“You will not.” She hissed in his face, her whole body shimmering under the impossible light. “You made your choice and the price was paid in blood. There must be balance or there will be chaos.” She raised her hand towards his face but her fingers froze inches away from it as if she was afraid to touch him. He felt pressure around his neck, the intake of air suddenly cut off by an invisible force. Her eyes watched him mercilessly as he struggled. “Leave and never come back. You can’t save her.”
“I’m not giving up.” William managed to say, his head already spinning.
The girl in front of him, or whatever it was, smiled. A vicious, threatening smile. Staring at her he almost missed the shift - like a broken tv screen her features flickered giving place to another familiar face.
“I’ll enjoy destroying you, William Larson.” Ariana hissed just as darkness was slowly falling in front of his eyes. A moment later he was staring back at Annabel, face twisted in rage. A force that her frail frame could have not possessed sent him flying backward and he crashed into the dark wooden door, flying right through it.
A moment later William landed on the floor, his hands rising to his throat as he finally took a big gulp of air. He choked on it at first, staggering to his knees until he was able to breathe. The lights came to life on his command, blinding him at first but providing him with the clarity to see he was utterly alone.
He could distantly feel a set of fingers on his neck even after rubbing it to make sure there were none. He checked his reflection in the mirror but apart from the dark circles under his eyes and the sweat glistening all over, he didn’t notice anything out of ordinary. Not a trace that any of it was real.
He closed his eyes, taking a long, calming breath.
He glanced at the bed one final time and headed towards the door. The hotel they still used as Headquarters was very quiet, barely any sound coming from the rooms he passed or the foyer downstairs.
He climbed up the stairway without hesitation, taking two steps at the time until he was on the last floor facing the old rusty metal door leading to the roof. He pushed it open, cringing at the screeching sound it made that echoed through the whole building.
The moment he stepped outside the cool night air embraced him, making him shiver. He welcomed the cold, sighing in relief as it quickly numbed his senses and helped him calm down. He stayed like this, eyes closed and head raised towards the dark sky until he heard a sound.
He was just turning around, his magic eager to follow his command when his eyes landed on the figure standing cross-legged on the railing. Her long hair was falling all the way to the middle of her back, waves that looked like a river of gold under the crescent moon. She was watching him, hands in the air as if surrendering.
William sighed in frustration, cursing his own jumpiness. He let his hand fall down to his body, closing his eyes to calm down his racing heart. He hadn’t expected anyone to be up here so late and he was trying really hard to keep the others from finding out he was having the same dreams again.
“Another nightmare?” Ariana asked quietly. She looked exactly like he remembered her, just as beautiful, just as captivating - just as perceptive. Her slender figure was cuddled in a ball as her hands hugged her knees. He used to find her in this position staring through the window at night when she couldn’t sleep - it felt like a lifetime ago. “I have those too. Every night.” She looked up at the sky again, smiling faintly. “Coming up here helps. Looking at the moon, the stars - it reminds me I am no longer there.”
There was no clear emotion on her face as he drew nearer; she stared at the moon with such longing that he felt like an intruder of an intimate moment. She looked back at him.
“You look awful.” She smiled. William laughed - a bitter, tired sound. They haven’t talked much in the past few months after his unsuccessful attempt to get some information out of her that could help him save Annabel. She was the only one who could tell him what it was like there, what was happening if there was any chance to get her back, any back door he could explore. But she refused to say a word. This was the first time she had mentioned anything from her time back there.
Hope rose in William’s chest but he decided to tread carefully.
“The crown of responsibility is always heavy,” William said, rubbing his forehead. When he looked back at her she had raised her eyebrows in bemused expression.
“Alright, Oh Wise One.” She laughed. “I know you’re strong enough to handle this responsibility, William. You always were, unlike my brother who thinks brute force can solve any problem.” William nodded absently, looking down. Even though she was right, even though he knew what he had done was necessary, he hated that it had come to it. Damian used to be his best friend, his closest confidant, his most vicious supporter.
“William.” He looked up, startled. He didn’t feel her move but she was now standing in front of him, her smile replaced by a serious expression. He had forgotten she was tall, almost tall enough to look him in the eyes unlike Annabel; but now her closeness made him uncomfortable rather than excited.
“I know you and I know your heart.” She said softly, holding his gaze. “You’re strong and brave to a fault. But you’re also impulsive and unable to admit defeat. So hear me because I know you better than anyone else.” She raised her hand, placing it on his chest where his heart was now racing.
“You spent nearly a decade trying to bring me back. And while I am more than grateful, you’re meant for greater things. You’re meant to lead the Ascendants out of the darkness and into the light of a new day, a new beginning.” Her voice was quiet, yet firm and even though William knew where she was going he couldn’t stop her. “You can’t spend another decade trying to save Annabel. For good or for worse, she is gone. If love is what you want, I’ll give you all the love you’ll ever need. But we cannot, we must not open that gate again. It is too dangerous.”
“Dangerous,” William repeated, nodding his head. He was losing grip on his caution, calm mind and his anger were surfacing as it so often happened lately. “What is so dangerous? Because if you’re talking about the sacrifice I am more than…”
“I am not talking about the death of one person.” Ariana interrupted, stepping back and turning away from him. She took a few steps away, her back stiff with tension. “I’m talking about what is on the other side, locked for centuries, and eager to get out.”
“So what is it, Ariana?” He snapped, barely controlling himself. “What is this big bad thing that you’re so scared of? This monster that is locked on The Other Side. Where Annabel is now. Because of us, because of me.”
Ariana slowly turned to look at him again, a dark shadow had fallen over her face. There was no trace of her smile or the dreamy eyes. He could barely recognize the cold, terrified look in her eyes.
“You won’t understand, you can’t.” She whispered. “You don’t know what it was like there. The darkness and them - all of them hunting you, all the time. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t die. But you’re not alive either. She’s gone, William. There is nothing you can do.”
The words struck him, bringing back the nightmare from earlier. So familiar, so commanding - he couldn’t help but lose reign over his boiling anger.
“You survived for years and here you are! Alive, the same as before!” He snapped and Ariana took a step back. “She is strong, she will survive. And I will find a way to get her back.”
“Listen to yourself!” Ariana shook her head. “Is the life of one person more important than those of the Ascendants? Or the whole world for that matter?”
“Yes.” He said almost desperately. There was no more fear in Ariana’s eyes, just anger, and what he thought - pity. She stepped towards him, taking a careful breath before speaking.
“It’s high time you realize that the world is not here to please you and bend to your will, William. You’re not in control of what happens and when. And you better realize that your actions have consequences - consequences which affect all of us.” She stared at him for a second as if waiting for the words to force a reaction out of him but there was none. “If you don’t stop this foredoomed endeavor you’ll lose everything you devoted your life to. Everything. You’ll lose the Ascendants, you’ll lose your friends, your family. Me. Are you prepared to make that sacrifice?”
William didn’t reply, his throat tightening as she moved past him.
“There must be balance or there will be chaos, William, that’s the rule.” She said as she was walking away. “Choose your battles wisely. You can’t win them all.”