Before I begin, dear reader, you must understand something. Before I tell you this story, you must understand something about pain. Pain is a part of life. Pain is how we come into this world, and it is how we leave this world. Pain is a fluid force of nature that happens to every single one of us. To understand life and the way things are, you must be willing to go through pain. We get sick, we suffer, we grow, we fail. Each one of us human beings experiences pain, and it is through pain that our stories find meaning.
She eyed the beast cautiously. He hadn’t made a move in a few hours, save a slight snarl, probably from having a playful dream. He was pretty high up in the food chain so he tended to find his own food, everything from rabbits to fish, berries, and grass. He was so high up in the food chain that she wasn’t sure whether she was the predator or prey to him. In any case, he hadn’t attacked her…yet.
She knew he wouldn’t wake for a while, since he tended to sleep at least four hours each night. Some days he slept straight until the following evening. On days like that, he would stir for a few minutes, open his eyes, assume from the amount of light that he hadn’t been sleeping long, and turn over to go back to sleep. She wondered how it came to be that such a frightening creature could occasionally look so comically foolish.
She decided that it might be time for her to sleep too, seeing as how she would have to be up as early as possible, even if they weren’t going far. They were on the outskirts of a small village, and she figured it would be best to make an entrance tomorrow bright and early. So many of these small villages were so suspicious of newcomers, especially those they had known less than a day, that strangers had to work to convince villagers that they weren’t a threat. People in this region didn’t trust others anymore.
She stretched out across the root-filled ground, trying her best to find a position with the least possible amount of roots poking her back. This area was heavily wooded, with trees that rose several miles, and whose roots criss-crossed each other in every possible spot, fighting micro wars with each other underground. If it weren’t for the overly cautious nature of the surrounding villages, she would have gladly traded in the painful roots for a nice warm bed. Alas, she knew it would be difficult to convince an inn to give her a bed for the night amid all the hate and distrust. So she resigned to deal with the pain as quickly as possible in her mind, pretend the hard roots were soft feathers of a mattress, and do her best to get some sleep.
As she closed her eyes, she tried her best to pretend the root in her side was a lump in a mattress, one whose comfort was impeccable but for a small fault that had come as a result of years of use. She could imagine the mattress in her mind, with its large and fluffy blankets, its sunken center that sunk just enough to be comfy, and the familiar room she saw in her dreams. She envisioned the room, the old but strong wooden walls, the log cabin smell, and the sound of rain as it pattered against the window, trying to make its way through but for the solid glass that stood between it and the inside, like tiny little failures admitting defeat as they hit the glass and sank to the ground below. She could feel home around her, and rested knowing that she slept in the safest place possible.
“This is not your home,” said the voice from the darkness.
She lifted her head from the pillow she was sleeping on and looked across the room to see a shadow standing by the window, gazing up at the rain.
“This is not your home, and you are not where you think you are,” said the voice, more indignant than before.
It took her a minute to process what the shadow had said, and then she remembered the root filled ground, the beast sleeping several feet away, and the nearby village that wanted nothing to do with her. This was a dream. She sighed sadly.
“You could have at least let me enjoy this for awhile before ruining it,” she said, giving her best effort to sound annoyed.
“You’ve been asleep for several hours already, if you were enjoying your dream you had plenty of time to do so.”
She sat all the way up and brought her knees to her chest, hugging them to her and resting her chin on her knees.
“A dream is what we imagine we want for ourselves. Whether we know it or not, our dreams show us the things that live in the deepest depths of our minds. Your dream is of home, of a world that does not live in the shadow of an infinite Collapse.”
“What do you care what I dream about?”
The shadow turned its head, or it might have been its torso, towards her. She swore it was as if it was deathly allergic to questions.
“You’re planning to go to that village tomorrow, the one down the hill from where you are.”
“So?” She asked, it was always so cryptic when it spoke to her.
“There is a secret in the well.”
She sighed again. It always made these vague warnings, and she knew she would spend the whole morning trying to decipher them. She let her chin slide away from her knees, resting her forehead there instead. She noticed a white streak of hair out of her left eye, a black one on her right.
“Why do you keep telling me these things?”
“You must go to the well, it is there you will find the secret which lurks beneath,” he said, ignoring her question once again.
“And what ‘lurks beneath’?” She asked, annoyed with all the mystery.
She sighed again, much louder this time, hoping the shadow would notice. It had been coming to her for a while now, always with these cryptic messages, never explaining what they meant. It would be up to her to remember the message, figure out what it meant, and do so before whatever terrible thing it warned her about took place. She knew what would happen if she didn’t heed its message.
She got out of the bed and walked over to him, looking straight into what she hoped were its eyes.
“I want a straight answer out of you, what is in the well?”
She saw what she thought was a grin coming from what she thought was the mouth of the shadow. It was a nasty, vile grin, full of malevolence, but she had long since stopped being afraid of it.
“It is where death awaits you,” the shadow whispered.
It put its hand gently on her shoulder, as if to calm her, but she knew it would do no good. She knew what was coming next, and her stomach started to churn. The shadow faded into the walls behind it and the nightmare part of the dream began. As brave as she was before, she knew from experience that no matter what bravery she attempted to show would be no use anymore. The nightmare was in her head, and she knew there was no hiding from it. So she planted her feet and looked through the window, terrified of what she saw.
The rain had turned red, and the sky had started to spin. The glass on the window shattered and the blood-rain started pouring into the room. Like little insects each drop of blood hit the ground, but instead of dissipating into the floor they kept their shape and began to bounce around the floor unnaturally. The drops of blood soon bounced up her legs, each one forming into the same grin the shadow had. The room began to spin, and soon the bed became a blur, the window gone, and all around her she could see nothing but bloody, fiendish grins. She closed her eyes to keep from falling over and felt the bloody grins begin to pound against her head. Within minutes, she felt the blood rise up around her ankles, quickly submerging her. Between the increased spinning and the feeling of drowning, she felt like she was going to die, even though she knew it was a dream. She closed her eyes even tighter, hoping to wake, but she could still hear the sound of the blood hitting the floor, the room beginning to crumble, and the shadow laughing.
She sat up suddenly; her head still spinning and her heart racing. She thrust her hand over her heart in a feeble attempt to slow it down. She gave herself several minutes to catch her breath and level herself out before opening one eye. The brightness of the sun made her wince, and she realized it was morning. After she was able to open her eyes fully, she looked at her body and found she was covered with beads of sweat, and her face felt hot. She looked around and saw the beast looking at her, panting in its dog-like way. His massive jaws dripped, which meant he must have been panting a while. She saw he was grinning as he panted and she figured he must have been licking her face in an effort to wake her up.
After sighing once again, thankful for having real air to sigh with once more, she got to her feet and brushed herself off. Several bugs had crawled on her during the night and she brushed herself off with her hands until she was sure she had gotten each one. She saw that the beast was already picking up her blanket with his massive jaws and placing it near her satchel. She smiled slightly at his adorable impatience and went to find a nearby stream to wash up in.
After about an hour, she and the beast were ready to head down to the village. Before her was the next step in the long journey away from home. The village in front of her looked peaceful and innocent amid the terror that was beginning to encompass the world in a dark shroud. The Collapse was coming. She shuddered to think what she might find in the well, and knew that it would be several days until she felt like sleeping again.