Chapter 13: Aether (Draft)

photo of shattered mirror near ladder

The story so far:

Dinner was a disaster.  Ethan broke the bad news about his job, and Riley saw shadows stalking the kitchen … maybe.  Everyone has gone home, and that “later” she’s been hoping for has finally arrived.

From the edge of sleep, I heard someone shout my name. My eyes popped open and I sat up, but it took a minute more for my brain to catch up.  Grandpa’s snores provided ample camouflage for any noises that I might have found. I tried to rewind.  Did someone really call me?  It wouldn’t be the first time I’d heard calling me as I was drifting off.  Suddenly, I wondered if that was normal.  I’d always assumed that it happened to everyone.  What if I was wrong?

The curtains swayed in a breeze I couldn’t feel.  Not a lot – just enough to catch the attention of my paranoid mind.  Moonlight filtered through the trees outside, casting shadows onto the fabric that looked like howling faces.  I shivered under my blanket, and stood up with it wrapped around my shoulders.

A shadow passed over the curtains then.  Long arms.  Longer legs.  They grew shorter as whatever it was came closer to the window.  Panic welled up inside of me, filling my whole body with a numbing cold.

Someone — I hoped not a something — was out there.

My heart thundered inside my chest, and I stole another glance toward Grandpa.  Between us, his cane stood upright on four short legs.  I grabbed the handle and held it like a weapon.

Suddenly, I felt a pressure inside of my skull.  I was running for my life through an empty void, my breath coming in ragged gasps.  They were behind me.  The shadows.  Just as suddenly, I was back in the living room.  My legs gave out and I collapsed on the couch, almost missing the cushions.

What the fresh hell was that? I thought, wide eyed and panting for breath.  The shadow at the window was gone.  My shoulders felt wet, and I absently wiped at the sweat that was streaming down my neck.  It felt sticky between my fingers, and I smelled something metallic and too sweet.  I squinted at them in the dim light, and they were dark with blood.

I was back on my feet before the thought had fully formed.  The blanket was dripping onto the hardwood floor.  Each drop hit the puddle with a distinct plink sound that cut through the room like a sonar ping. Faster than it should have, the puddle grew wider, until it was as long as the couch.  Then it spread toward me.

I didn’t want to touch it.  I had a feeling that if I did then I really would go crazy.  It seemed to be whispering just underneath my hearing.  I backed away, and it arced to both sides, corralling me into a smaller and smaller island of floor.  

Behind me, I heard a thud of something banging into the window.  By reflex, I whipped my head around to look.  It felt like I was seeing two things at the same time:  one was our peaceful yard, bathed in silver moonlight.  The other was a man with the top of his head pressed to the glass, his hands pressing into the pane on either side.  Painfully slowly, he lifted his head.

His eyes were bloodshot, and rimmed in dark circles.  When they latched onto me, a terrifying smile spread across his face.

I found you, his lips shaped soundlessly, but I could hear his voice croaking in my ears.  

I staggered backward, forgetting about the blood.  The man was the bigger threat.  My feet splashed beneath me, sending a spray up onto my legs.  In my panic I slipped, but somehow managed to stay on my feet.  

“Riley,” Grandpa barked at me.  I gaped at him, at the dark circles around his eyes.  The paleness of his skin.  “You can’t run anymore,” he told me, and I saw the flash of his white teeth stretched into a smile that was too wide for his face.

No, I cried.  Not him.  He’s all I have left!  Leave him alone leave him alone …

“Leave him alone!” I screamed, throwing every ounce of me into that prayer.

And then… silence.  But only for a moment.  There was a pop like glass cracking, and I watched as a thin, black line zig-zagged across the room.  It wasn’t on the wall, or the floor … it was hanging there, like the air itself had cracked in half.  Around it, the world looked skewed, like I was looking through a broken window.  

Then I heard it again, and again.  Spiderweb cracks snaked out from that first fracture, making the room look like it was painted onto a shattered glass pane.  Pieces began to fall away around me, exposing a darkness beyond that felt like it had no end.  In the distance, I saw the shadows moving, swarming like a cloud of nightmares just beyond my sight’s reach.

Pieces fell, crashing into each other and sending shards of glass raining down around me.  I knelt, feeling my knees get wet, as I hid my head beneath my arms.  The blood hissed words that felt heavy in my mind.  I felt hot stripes of pain erupt on my skin where the glass that had been my reality grazed me on its way down.

But when the shower seemed to have passed, and the sounds grew still, I opened my eyes at last.  I expected to be in a sea of shards, but there was nothing.  I wasn’t standing on anything, though it felt like I was.  Standing up, I looked around.  There was nothing ahead of me.  Behind me, a hazy dome rose out of the ground.

Through its walls I could see my living room, and heard an echo of Grandpa’s snores.

This was it, then.  This is where the shadows came from.  The thought of going back through that hazy, shattered wall was tempting… but for some reason, this was my fight.  If I ran away, it put everyone in danger.  I gathered what little courage I had left, and when it felt like that came up short I grabbed my stubbornness.

I could do this, because I had to.

Beside me, I heard a gurgling sound, like bubbles in milk.  A shadow rose from the ground and turned its grotesque smile my way.

Alright, Riley.  Here we go.

My fingers felt stiff.  I shook them as I bounced from foot to foot, trying to jazz up my courage.  When I went to make a fist, my fingers were in the way.  They were long again, and stained an inky black.

Even better.  Now I know I can hurt them.

It crept closer, then cocked its head to the side.  I heard the gurgling again, and another shadow rose beside the first.  I hesitated for a moment, then resumed bouncing.

No problem.  One wasn’t that much trouble, right?  I just need to pay attention.  Be careful.

It felt like they were laughing at me.  I found out why when I caught movement to my other side, and saw another one slithering closer.  

Nope, I decided instantly, and jogged ahead so that they couldn’t cut off my escape.  There was a hiss of laughter as more begin to pull up from the ground.  I took off.  Bravado was going to get me killed  Along my path I saw faces grinning up from the ground as more joined the hunt.

Nope, nope, nope! I shouted as I ran for my life.  I collided with the hazy reflection of my home, feeling like I’d just run into a brick wall.  Feeling bruised, I scurried back to my feet and clawed at the barrier.

It wasn’t moving.

I turned, pressing my back against it, and looked out over the void. There were shadows everywhere. Something dropped on my head, and slithered over my shoulders. I screamed, dancing aside and batting it away from me.

It was a rope. Thick and braided, like I would have expected to see in an old cartoon. “Grab it!” a voice above me shouted, and I didn’t need to be told twice. My claws didn’t let me make a fist, so I looped it around my arms, and kicked at it until I was thoroughly tangled.

I sailed upward as the shadows broke rank and dashed for the place I had been standing.

What do you think?