Out of the Way and Hard to Reach


Scene Title Out of the Way and Hard to Reach
Synopsis Dreamers find themselves in familiar enough nightmares — until they aren't.
Date November 20, 2020


One hundred gray desks sit in ten rows of ten, each with a gray swivel chair and a gray computer. The typing fingers of one hundred people in unison create a dull, monotone percussion symphony that becomes just so much white noise it may as well be silence.

The walls are gray. The carpet is gray.

When Seren looks down at themself, they find they, like all of their coworkers, are suited in gray. No two suits are quite identical — the fabrics differ slightly in texture or weave. Some grays lean a little more toward blue. Other grays lean a touch more toward taupe.

If it were a painting, it would have taken so many colors, and yet it all comes out as one.

A look at their computer screen reveals a spreadsheet — no color tabs, and even the contrast that should be black and white is dimmed down to a monochrome gray and darker gray.

They're not sure how long they've been typing, just that their fingers still. Their grey eyes blink once, strained and tired. Seren lifts one hand away to reach across their body, over their shoulder. Like to massage away a knot of tension from sitting here so long, maybe, but they reach even further than that.

Their fingers paw at nothing but the back of their grey blazer. When their hand falls back to their lap, it's in the pool of the skirt they wear.

They feel a tension pulling at the back of their head, long-grown hair wound tightly into a bun. When they look up again at the screen before them, they're abruptly glad they can't see themself in the monochrome of the glass.

Maybe they need a break. A drink. The nearly-emptied mug on their desk is as good an excuse as any, the dregs of it long-cold. Seren keeps their eyes down as they slide back from the desk, mug cupped delicately between their hands as they rise and begin to navigate out their row.

See? its visible presence says. There's a perfectly good excuse for why she's left the desk.

But still, even a trip to the break room for a cup of coffee feels like an act of rebellion.

Seren only lifts her head after she's left the row, eyes on their her destination.

A few pairs of eyes look up when Seren gets up, but it seems only for the momentary break in their own work — there’s no true curiosity or even a mild flair of jealousy or annoyance that she’s risen while they continue to work. It’s simply a chance for them to look up at something other than the drudgery of their work for the few seconds it takes her to walk by.

The window she passes on the way to the hall that leads to the breakroom might give a similar reprieve, but the sky outside is as gray as the drab decor indoors. Grayer, if possible, but without threat of something as interesting as a thunderstorm on the horizon. The city buildings seem to blend into the gray sky; the concrete and asphalt of the sidewalks and streets below more variations on the theme. At least the coffee will be brown.

“Some weather we’re having. Think the sun’ll come out tomorrow?” A gray-suited man exiting the break room asks with a benign smile.

She almost bumps into him as he exits, still thinking about the distant sky, whether or not she saw anything in the haze of the clouds. But there were no distinguishable shapes, really, were there? Just a formless wave of mist, the most interesting thing about it having been that it undulated in places. She holds the cup a little more tightly to her midsection, as though there's really anything she'd have to worry about spilling in the first place.

Seren bites back the urge to apologize, despite there being no need at all.

Instead, she flickers a return smile. "I think we've hit the time of year the sun's landed down in the equator and won't come back 'round 'til spring, now. But it'd be nice, wouldn't it?" She turns around in the entryway to the break room, tapping the bottom of the ceramic of the mug nervously idly on her short, rounded nails.

The man’s already halfway down the hall, clearly not truly interested in Seren’s answer, but he still laughs at her reply. “My weather app says tomorrow is sunny, so I’m not sure that’s how it works,” he says over his shoulder. So much for a break from the monotony.

The break room itself is more of the same though there’s a large window to the outside world here. Another man — is he identical to the first? It’s hard to say, really — stands by it as he sips his coffee from a gray mug.

“I told them not to get the Dunkin Donuts brand coffee, but do they listen? No, they don’t. It isn’t the coffee they sell in the donut shops. It’s made by Smuckers, and it’s exactly the same as Folgers. They use pesticides and fungicides and it’s preground before it sits on a grocery shelf for God knows how long before Karen buys it, but only when it’s on sale. I know because I get the receipts to reimburse her,” he rattles on, aware that someone has entered the room.

Without waiting for input from his audience, the gray-suited man continues. “It uses robusta beans because they’re cheaper than arabica and they light roast them which means they lack flavor. Why would they sell something that lacks flavor?” Once again, he continues his monologue. “It’s more profitable. Light roast makes for a heavier bean and coffee is sold by pound, so weight is money.”

Seren tries not to let the first man's brush-off affect her, but that smile becomes a little strained. And before it can disappear entirely, she turns around and there's another one of them, just as talkative as the first. She feels obligated, in some way, to feign attention— to participate. That's polite, right? That's what you should do.

But it takes so much energy.

"That's really interesting," she inputs somewhere in the monologue, the dark pot of the coffee pulled off of the heating element. She tries not to think about how less appetizing it suddenly sounds given the input of Adam Ruins Everything by the window. Besides, it's not so much the flavor of the coffee she enjoys — but the additives. The sweetener, the creamer. The other things that brighten up something otherwise dark and dreary.

"It… sounds like they've got it all figured out." Seren sounds so tired, still forcing that small smile while she pours her new cup over the remnants of the last.

“So long as it has caffeine, amiright?” the man asks, but again, doesn’t seek a response. Instead he uses it as a springboard for another monologue, this time on caffeine’s effects on the human body.

As he speaks, the room seems to grow somehow dimmer, if it were possible. The white fluorescent bulbs dim and the few exceptions to the monochrome life she finds herself in inch ever closer to the shades of gray, white, or black. The coffee is darker than usual, almost black, and when she pours creamer in it, instead of a golden hue, it seems more of a taupe. Unappetizing, bland, insipid as the man’s monologue as he drones on.

“…can lead to an increased risk for osteoporosis,” he says, still staring at the sky beyond him. “But on the flip side…”

Seren feels a hand touch her shoulder, grip firm but in a way that’s meant to be reassuring. The fingers are cool, even through the gray wool of her blazer. “Oh, no, he’s boring. We can do so much better than this,” murmurs a feminine voice. The hands turn Seren away from the man and toward the door leading to the hallway — only it no longer does.

Instead, it’s a forest path — it isn’t Seren’s forest, but it’s green and she they can hear the sound of birdsong in the trees. When they look down, their clothing changes color before their eyes, the skirt lengthening, dividing into pants. And they can feel the flutter of wings against their back.

In the distance, a small cottage sits on a hill, glowing lights inviting and warm.

“Let’s find the others and hope they’re not boring, too,” the voice says.

They didn't realize how wrong the world was until it's less so. The hand on their shoulder cuts through the medium place from hell quality of their world and restores color to it with that single touch.

Tears enter Seren's eyes as they watch the transformation come over them, restoring them to themself. The comfort of jeans give way to a shirt that's black, but absolutely decorated with rainbow outlines of shapes, detailing a world wrought with excitement and whimsy. They run a hand back through their hair as they begin to walk and long locks fall to the ground, sheared away by the pass of their fingers, returning their hair to its more comfortable shortness.

Eyes on the forest ahead now, those remain grey— but lively, shining with silver at their edges.

"Are you a fairy godmother?" they whisper to the voice, not turning to find it. No, their attention is forward— feet leading them to the freedom of green ahead, the gossamer wings at their back flitting in their excitement.


To some, it might be hell — the constant sound of electronic music, gunfire, and cartoon sound effects of the video game parlor, along with the scent of nachos, pizza, popcorn and cherry licorice that seems to permeate every corner of the arcade.

But for Cooper, this is heaven. He has an endless stack of quarters — it’s only eight, when he takes them out of his pocket and looks at the handful, two dollars’ worth of games to play. But it’s somehow always eight. He already played two rounds of Pac-Man and a Mortal Kombat, and somehow he still has eight quarters in his hand when he pulls them out again.

What could be better?

That’s when he notices a game he hasn’t seen before. It looks spooky, the machine itself painted in pale green with misty gravestones around it. Cemetery is printed across the top panel in creepy lettering. Not usually his sort of game, but he has an endless stack of quarters, so what’s he got to lose?

They often say that you’re only as old as you feel. If that is true, then judging by the baggy grunge clothes and the mob of unruly brown hair, Cooper hasn’t aged past his teenage years.

The new game is surprising, it’s been the same games as far back as he can remember. “Dude! A new game, wicked!” he says excitedly around the straw of his suicide soda… a monsterous mash of soda flavors. He looks around himself, of course he’s alone as always, despite the clack of skee balls and pings and bloops of games. Al hadn’t mentioned a new game… but he won't mind if Cooper just checked out the rad new game. Right?

Sometimes he may see a shadow of a person passing out the corner of his eye, ghost memories of all the hours spent at Big Al’s Arcade, but no one ever bothers him.

Setting the never empty soda on the console, Cooper wiggles one of the sticks watching the colorful 8bit graphics, while digging for the quarters. This one looked pretty gnarly, maybe a thriller. He had to check it out, popping in a pair of quarters, he grins lopsidedly at the screen. “Hit me with your best shot.”

The game starts with cartoony music playing Chopin’s funeral march.

Words appear on the screen, in that same ghostly green color reminiscent of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion: Escape the ghosts! is all the directions he seems likely to get.

A tiny 8-bit avatar meant to represent him appears in the foreground of the screen. Behind him, a row of tombstones. Moving the controls, Cooper finds he can only go right.

At first, each tombstone says simple things like RIP or punny names like “Ded Astaire.” Now and then, he has to jump over a spider or duck a bat. It’s cute and simple, if a little bit cheesy. Up his alley, really.

He reaps up a few thousand points when the music seems to grow a little more ominous. The next tombstone has a name he knows. As does the next. And the next. As he passes the names, small 8-bit ghosts appear to the left and trail his avatar — if he slows down or misses a jump or a duck, they will reach him.

They look like tiny 8-bit versions of the people who he failed to protect.

When names he recognize start appearing, Thomas’ amused grin starts to falter and fades a little at the edges. How the hell did the game developers know? He doesn’t start losing ground however until his avatar passes the tombstone for Maggie Cooper.

His ex-wife.

“The hell…?”

Cooper barely remembers to bounce over a spider and almost runs smack into a bat when a little ghost avatar named Maggie starts to rise from the ground. She had died during the war and he’d not been there to save the woman who birthed his daughter. He always blamed himself, for all of them really.

When the little digital version of her makes a sound and starts chasing him, he abandons the game, backing away from it. Even so he can see the pack of ghosts overwhelm the little 8bit dude. There goes his chance at a perfect score, yet he’s too shaken. He doesn’t even go back for his bottomless drink and a part of him mourns the loss of it. Do you know how hard it is to get the perfect mix of every soda known to man? Not very. But here it’s always perfect.

Taking a moment to turn away from the game as it plays the digital ‘you lose’ music, he drags his hands through his hair. “That was totally lame,” he comments gruffly, his eyes prickling. “Not cool, at all.” Cooper is surprised to see his hands trembling when he lowers them again.

As he looks down at his hands, the ground beneath him shifts. No longer the garish geometric-print carpet in primary colors, he finds himself staring down at mist-shrouded grass. The air around him becomes cool and damp, and there’s a distinct scent of freshly-dug earth in the air.

The arcade fades completely. When the console in front of him disappears from view, in its place are the tombstones — no longer 8bit illustrations but dusty stone. A spider crawls across Maggie’s name.

He doesn’t have to look behind himself to know she’s there — the air turns painfully cold and a plume of vapor rises from his mouth in a terrifying trope come to life. He knows he shouldn’t look behind. He should run. He isn’t sure what will happen if she touches him. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to find out.

“Thomas.” The voice is and isn’t hers. “Why didn’t you save me? Look at me!” It jangles his nerves like an out-of-tune violin, and yet there’s something about that querulous tone that insists he looks at her. He finds it hard to fight it, while every instinct tells him to run.

This… this was not good.

Cooper’s eyes are focused solely on the grass, though his pale green eyes couldn’t get any wider from the chill that clawed at him. He fights it. That urge to look back at her, too scared to even notice the weirdness of her voice. In his mind it was all her.

He had heard and been too late. Ellen cried so much. NO. Don’t think about it.

When she urges him to look, his head slowly turns, but his hands fly to his face to stop him. “Don’t look. Don’t look don’t look don’t look don’tlookdon’tlook.” The simple phrase is whispered under his breath.

Thomas might have succeeded if his mind wasn’t playing tricks on him when he’s so wound tight with fear; a phantom twing at his back makes him jump and turn with a yelp of fear. “I’m sor—”

Hands from behind suddenly clap over his eyes — inhuman, hard, and cool to the touch, though not so cold as that ghostly chill that overtook him a moment ago.

“Shh. This won’t do at all. Let’s try again,” a voice says softly in his ear. It’s not Maggie’s.

The hands lower to his shoulders and point him forward. In front of him is a path that leads away from the cemetery. In the distance, a cottage with warm and glowing windows sits atop a hill.

She presses something into his hands — his soda from the arcade.

“There are others. Let’s hurry.”

Doesn’t matter that the hands covering his eyes are now chilly corpse hands… Cooper still lets out a shrieked yelp of fear. “DON’T KILL ME!” But then the hand lowers and he sees the path and the cottage.

“We’re not in Big Al’s anymore, Toto.”

The familiar weight of his cup and the scrap of ice, seems to relax him some. “Others?” Cooper would really like to get away from his dead wife, even if he doesn’t look old enough to have one. “Okay… but if colorful little people pop up and start singing, I’ll take my chances on the ghosts.” He starts down the path and adds… “And I get dibs on the ruby red slippers.”


He can’t breathe.

When Devon tries to take a breath, he inhales dust. His lungs don’t seem to expand as much as they should — probably because it feels like the weight of the entire world is on his shoulders. He drags his hands from his sides to press against the ground. Rubble and glass stings the flesh of his palms, but he manages to push himself upward. A couple of pieces of debris the size of a cinder block roll off his back, sending up a cloud of dust that makes him cough again.

The dust tastes like death.

Everywhere he looks, there’s destruction. He picks his way, bit by bit, out of the rubble pile he found himself in. He wasn’t alone, but he is now, he realizes as he moves a block of concrete and finds the unblinking, unseeing eye, clouded over. It isn’t anyone he knows.

That only helps a little.

Whoever it was, they too aren’t alone. He finds a cold hand, a booted foot — not bothering to uncover them because he can tell they are too far gone to save.

Eventually he can see something besides death and destruction. He realizes he knows this place. In the distance, he sees a swing set, slide, and teeter-totter. If he can get there, he feels, he might be safe.

What happened?

The words float on a tiny craft of anxiety, lost in a cold void that encapsulates safety by its disconnect from the solidity of the ruins. Devon's eyes travel from one dismembered part to another, lacking attachment to any of the beings except in the most basic sense. Like him, they had families and people who cared for them. The soldier in him reminds him that they're already gone, that mourning and memorial comes later and only if he makes it home. Turning his head to physically dismiss the site of death, he combs over the broken and twisted remains of some structure until he finds the playground once again.

He drags a foot to plant it beneath him, eyes squinting against the acrid dust he's sure to kick up again. An arm wraps over his nose and mouth to mask the foul grit as he pushes himself upright.

Rubble crunches beneath a foot, glass tinkles like crystal chimes. Unsteady at first, Devon picks his way forward for a half dozen steps. His arm eventually drops away from his face and he pauses to take a look behind. What happened? The question echoes distantly, a cry unable to secure anchorage and lost within the emptiness. A beat passes.

Devon twists away from what's behind to what's ahead. His eyes fall on the swings in the distance, the slides rising up out of the sand like ancient monoliths. Arches of monkey bars browse like strange beasts just beyond, and he lurches toward the playground. Shuffling, uncertain steps hasten into a run for the familiar oasis.

As he begins to run, each step sends a white-hot pain down Devon’s body and through his leg. Only then does he notice his blood-soaked pant leg and the trail he leaves in his wake. He’s suffered through worse, he tells himself, and it isn’t a lie.

It’s then that the ground shakes. Once. Twice. Three times. Four.

He knows without looking back to see what causes the noise — the mechanical rattle, the reverberation of metal on concrete gives it away — a robot, one of the mechanical beasts of war designed to take out people like him. When Devon does turn, his eyes find the same model that he had once fought at Sunstone Manor, only four times as large. Four times as powerful. But perhaps four times slower?

That hope dies when the thing begins to run toward him. Every step, an earthquake, the robot an epicenter. And yet, impossibly fast. It doesn’t take those robotic legs long to eat up the distance between it and Devon.

His injury throwing him off balance, Devon crashes to the splintered asphalt. The robot looms above him, and when Devon reaches for his power, there is only emptiness instead. He has no weapon. He has no ability.

But it passes him by.

Fear strikes like lightning in sand at the sight of the monstrous robot. But it's a failing flame compared to the panic that lances through him when he finds his power gone. Devon’s fingers curl and scrape against the asphalt to find purchase as instinct screams at him to run. Experience argues that it’s futile, but human nature means to survive.

His weight shifts, shoulders drag against the ground as he crabs a step toward the safety of the playground. His eyes stay locked on the Hunter above.

The space between the robot reaching him and moving on stretches longer than an eternity. The first shaking steps after it's moved past him rattle free a breath he'd been holding. The next set reminds him to move.

With all limbs shaking and his insides shuddering like a winter storm, Devon finds his feet again. His steps, unsteady from pain and the last vestiges of terror, are purposeful. Slow to start, he travels a half dozen steps then steadily increases his speed, fueled by his fear.

The metallic thing lopes forward with unnatural grace and agility given its behemoth size. Its path will lead it to that little playground not far in the distance now — that oasis of innocence and childhood.

Nothing is safe anymore. Everything can be destroyed.

Devon’s horrified thought is interrupted by the sudden sound of children’s laughter. When Devon looks past the robot, through the gaps between its pistoning arms and legs, he sees that the playground is no longer empty. There are children there now — two boys, two girls.

They look familiar — smaller, younger versions of people he knows — Brynn, Lance, Joe.


The robot continues its path, and the “kids” continue to play — Emily and Brynn on the swings, Joe and Lance on a teeter totter. They don’t seem to feel the earth shudder and shake with each step the automaton makes. The girls swing higher and higher, and seem to look past their impending doom — how can they not see it? Why don’t they run?

Horror twists his stomach, fire and ice meet and turn sour. “Run!” The warning tears it's way free, Devon's voice sounds raw, strained with the force of the expulsion.

The ground crunches beneath his feet as he follows his cry with action. “Move! Now!” Fear makes his muscles feel rigid and uncoordinated, pain stabs anew with every other step. But all of that is ignored. What matters is getting to his friends, alerting them to the oncoming danger.

“Joe, Lance! Emily!” Devon’s voice cracks with the effort to yell, terror gives each name life like some nefarious being will refuse the tags to reach their beings. He flags an arm to draw notice — there wouldn't be another way to catch Brynn’s attention unless someone else pointed him out. Then, terrified that he'll be too late to save anyone, ignoring the lancing pain, he forces himself to run harder and faster.

“Oof, this is not a good dream,” says a voice from behind him as a hand lands on his shoulder — cool to the touch, firm but not unkind.

The ground beneath him is no longer hard, cracked blacktop but soft, mossy forest floor. The swings and jungle gym all disappear — along with it, his friends and the mechanical giant he was trying to rescue them from. In their place rests the peaceful knowledge that they’re somewhere safe — that he didn’t leave them to die, crushed by that thing’s limbs.

The wooded path he now runs on leads toward a cottage sitting on a hill beneath a star full of more skies than one could ever see in New York City, even with its reduced post-war population and pollution.

“This is better, I think,” that voice says. “Let’s join the others, shall we?”

“Wait.” Confusion and vague concern has replaced the absolute terror that had filled Devon a moment ago. There's comfort that comes with the forest, an easy and unexplainable acceptance for the sudden change in surroundings. This isn't his place, but it feels right and his friends are safe. That's what matters at the moment.

His feet pad lightly along the softer ground, thudding with the muffled damp of dirt and long ago fallen leaves. He slows long enough to take in the stars, of the like he's seen only a few times in his life, creating a glittery backdrop for a cottage that's at once completely unfamiliar and also stirring of memories from a decade ago. “We?” he echoes, but without looking to the source of the voice.

Devon allows himself to be guided forward. He doesn't jog or run now that the danger has passed, but he walks quickly. “What others,” he wonders aloud as he draws closer to the cottage, eyes finding their way from the starlit sky to the door coming into arm’s reach.


This isn’t supposed to happen.

Elliot is lost.

Each turn brings with it more than the mere 90-degree change of direction: an entirely different setting. At first, he feels a dull sense of wrongness that quickens into a feeling of panic, just as his feet accelerate from a slow wandering walk to a jog down the hallway of what should be a familiar hotel he’s traveled many times before. Instead it’s a school corridor — a university perhaps.

Every door is marked with 0.

When he turns the corner again, he finds himself in an airplane hangar. Huge white jets fill the vast space,each marked with a number: 00001. Now sprinting, he rushes out the huge door. There is no sunshine or bright blue skies on the other side but a small log cabin.

It’s tempting to stay here, but this too is out of place. He strides to the back door and finds himself in another corridor — this one he knows. This one is familiar but also wrong. It shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t want to be here.

Every door is marked with 0. He chooses one at random, heart pounding. Let it be anywhere but here.

He steps into a dark forest. He can hear screams in the distance, and he rushes forward — only to slam into a wall of green light. When he turns around, he finds himself caged by it. He feels utterly alone.

Beyond the light, he hears his name cried out in anguish. Out of reach.

“I’m here!” he shouts, pounding against the barrier, light thicker than concrete. He breathes raggedly, steps back and leans forward, hands flat against the wall. He traces his fingers across the surface, looking for a handhold to go up. He looks for a place where the wall merely appears to be solid, where it overlaps itself, hiding a narrow opening behind perspective.

He looks up to where the boundary cuts a 0 across the night sky and attempts to fly out. He pushes against the world, feels the gooseflesh prickle in his skin, the weight against the palms of his hands and soles of his feet. He only floats backward into the wall, feels the rubber of his sneakers skid against the glass with the stutter of a foot against the bottom of a bathtub. He’s barely inches from the ground when it gives out and he falls back into the moss and the crack of twigs.

He sits into the cold dampness of the earth, calls out again, hyperventilates. He tries to make the map he makes by putting one foot in front of the other, by putting one foot in front of the other, by putting one foot at a ninety degree angle to the last. He tries to remember which room connects to the forest; there is no forest in the Palace. He tries to remember which room has a window which shows a forest; there are no windows in the Palace but in the 0bservation Room.

With each step, with each turn, the green walls seem to close in on him. There’s no door, yet each shrinkage of the cage’s dimensions is accompanied by the sound of a metal door sliding into place — the iconic rattle of a jail cell being slammed. Soon, there’s only a foot or so overhead and a few feet in either direction. He can’t do much more than pace like a caged tiger.

The wall becomes a cage in appearance: glowing green bars that aren’t even large enough to put his arm through encase him. Beyond, the world, the forest, glows red with fire. With blood. He can hear his name called again. And again.

By Wright.

By Ames.

By Marthe.

By Melody, Rue, and Devon.

By Deb, Francis, and Huruma.

By Tala and Yancy.

By Bastian.

He can’t reach any of them.

His knuckles are white from clutching the bars, his palms feel the cut of his fingernails. “I’m in here!” he screams, like when he was so naive. Like when he’d scream and scream before he understood that no one could hear him in his cell. That no one who could hear him cared.

“Wright, I missed my pickup,” he says. He tries to pull her attention; Francis’s, Devon’s, Melody’s. Tala’s, Yancy’s, Bastian’s. Oh God, he thinks as he finds nothing. He can’t even hear the phone ring. “Nobody’s here but the fire and that’s out.”

An explosion overhead draws Elliot’s eyes upward, the red and gold light bathing him for a moment as if he himself is engulfed in flames. But he feels nothing, not even heat or cold.

When his gaze returns, he suddenly finds he isn’t alone.

Bloodied and burnt people — some he recognizes from Cheesequake Park, some from the Ark, some from even deeper in his past — have huddled around the cage as if they’re staring at some creature in a zoo. No, it’s worse than that. It isn’t curiosity in their eyes but hatred.

“Liar,” one murmurs quietly. A child.

“Liar,” a few more voices repeat.

Liar!” The entire crowd yells, fingers pointing and some begin to rattle the green bars of the cage — it shouldn’t rattle, but it does, like a prison door.

Elliot sits down hard on the cold concrete floor of the forest. He presses the heels of his hands into his ears as if that will do anything to stop the accusations. He flinches against the impacts of the stones thrown against the bars of his cage. He cries silently, breathing through gritted teeth before it hits him.

They know, he realizes. This is it. I don’t have to keep lying anymore. A fatalistic calm sets over him, like how he imagines someone would feel right before the noose. The dead and wounded are still screaming at him, and they’re right to do so. But the realisation saps away most of the sting of the shame of having been called out for what he is.

A liar.

He suddenly feels a hand on his shoulder from behind. The fingers are gentle but cool through his shirt — too cold to be quiet human.

“Well, that isn’t very nice,” a voice says — not one he knows, at least not one he recognizes. “Let’s find a nicer place than this. I don’t think this shade of green suits you very well.”

The green bars of the cage suddenly dissipate, and once they’re gone, so too is the jeering and taunting crowd. Elliot finds himself in a forest clearing, golden with light from the rising sun. The smell of smoke and burnt flesh is nothing but a memory now, growing fainter with each passing second, just as the sounds of that word — liar — echoes in his mind alone.

“This way,” the voice behind him says, turning him toward a path that leads toward a cottage on a hill. “The others are waiting.”


She feels like a lab rat.

That irony isn’t lost on her as she makes her way through the maze of distorted mirrors. Calliope music plays — something that should be in a major key but set to something minor. Odessa Ourania can’t quite place it, though she knows she knows it. It itches at her, each slightly-off note rubbing her wrong, setting every nerve on edge.

The dissonance of the transposed piece makes Ourania want to press her hands over her ears, and yet there’s still something about the discordant melody that spurs her curiosity. What is it? It’s on the edge of her mind, the tip of her tongue. Why this piece? Why this composition?

Above head and in the far distance — where she knows the exit is, if she can only get there — hangs a large hourglass full of golden sand, whittling away the time grain by grain. She has more time than not, but she knows how quickly that can change.

It’s a nightmarish task, made more nightmarish each time she looks into a mirror. None of the mirrors reflect the face she’s chosen. All of them reflect the faces she’s left behind.

The quizzical is drowned by the disconcertment of the shifting reflections in the mirrors she tries to ignore in her quest to find her way up and out. The images glimpsed in the looking glass… They’re all her, but none of them are her. Or… she isn’t any of them anymore? But every part of them, every one of them, all of them are her.

A white-haired, scarred version of herself opens her mouth to scream. It’s only then she realizes she too is screaming. The reflection is an echo of the past, but still a reflection of her present.

Turning away from the spectre of her past, there’s a girl about half her age with short-cropped blonde hair and eyes as blue and as fathomless as the sea crying saltwater tears that she can feel on her own face. Maybe she started crying when she started screaming?

“Hello?!” Someone has to be out there, right? She can’t be stuck in this maze alone.

A figure races past on her right. Ourania turns swiftly to glimpse them, but sees only a shock of dark hair disappearing at the edges of another broken mirror. “Wait!” she calls out. “Come back!” Racing off in that direction, she goes in pursuit of the brown rabbit. They may not have much time.

Turning the corner, the mirrors in this section grow even more distorted, more cracked, more warped, making it harder to pick out any identifying features from the iterations of herself she sees in them. A blue eye here. A wisp of blond hair there. The music seems louder yet, and just as she’s about to put a name to the song, it changes again, to something else that’s familiar and yet alien at once.

Much like the faces in the mirror.

She runs, guessing which way the other person ran — but there’s no sign of her for the next few turns. Then, a subtle movement that is not her own is reflected in a mirror in front of her, catching her eye and then her breath. There’s someone behind her, visible in every mirror she glances at. Not the brown rabbit, but someone — a man — in dark clothing, his face obscured in shadow.

A gun in his hand.

Through the twists and turns, she has to skid to a stop here, catches her hand on the frame of a broken mirror there. It’s getting harder and harder to distinguish what’s in front of her and what’s a reflection of her past or somewhere sideways from her.

Ourania stops in the middle of… is it a corridor? A chamber? A clearing in the forest of mirrors? The figure behind her arrests everything. Her senses all narrow down and sharpen at once. What she can see, what she can hear… She’s keenly aware of her heart pounding in her chest, the roar of the blood in her ears. Her breath is held.

The urge to remain frozen is fought against and ultimately overcome. Ourania splays her fingers first, then starts to reach her arms out to her sides. Unarmed. She starts to turn with a deliberate slowness. Not a threat. She remembers to breathe.


The shadowy figure doesn’t become more clear in this still moment, somehow. She still can’t see his face. Does it matter? It’s easy to imagine it’s any of the people who have tried to kill her in the past — or any that she’s wronged, seeking their revenge.

His hand lifts.

“No,” she whispers desperately.

The hammer is pulled back.


When he pulls the trigger, it seems a sure thing — how could he miss?

For a moment, she wonders if she’s somehow frozen time like once she was able to, as the time between the bullet firing and its impact stretches out, a long ribbon that seems to have no end.

The blonde’s eyes scrunch shut tight, bracing for a pain and an agony that never comes. Cautiously, she opens one eye, then the other, to watch the bullet suspended in time.

No. Not like she was capable of before. Her head tilts to one side, her curiosity of the moment briefly able to overtake her terror. It hasn’t been stopped, just decelerated.

It strikes — a mirror, sending a spray of shattered shards like a breaking wave, and then ricochets, impossibly, upward to hit that hourglass. It splinters into a spiderweb, crackling like ice breaking on a frozen pond.

The impact brings her back to the here and now, eyes wide and frightened once more. The impossible redirection of the bullet has her head snapping back so she can look up and follow its trajectory. It’s with horror that she watches it strike the side of the hourglass. It could just as well have struck her in the center of her chest. Soon, it will bleed sand and she will bleed life. In her bones she knows this.

When time expires, so will she.

Somehow, the crack holds. But once more of the golden slips through the narrow neck and into the bottom portion, it will give. Maybe if she makes it to the exit before that happens, it won’t matter.

The man doesn’t fire again. He stands still — as still as a corpse — waiting for her to move. Is it a game? Did he miss on purpose?

“Run, you fool,” one of the other versions of herself says from inside a golden framed mirror. A trick of the light makes the reflection of a dozen other frames with gilt edges look like the bars of a cage — like a birdcage with a captive nightingale.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees that shock of brown hair again, darting around — no, through a gap in the mirrors. Is there a shortcut?

It takes hearing her own voice to snap herself out of the moment of paralysis. Ourania bolts off in the direction of the retreating form of the darker-haired other. She’ll find the door to this cage, and if it hasn’t already been left open, she will find a way to make it so.

There’s no caution as she barrels headlong toward the gap. It must be what it is. And maybe it only will be so if she has trust in it. Maybe it’s the fear and the unwillingness to trust that makes every way out a dead end of broken glass.

There’s no sign of the dark-haired runner, but suddenly Ourania feels a hand on her shoulder — not visible in the mirrors around her, but somehow she feels it’s not a threat.

Not yet, anyway.

The hand, cool and firm, turns her to one of the mirrors — only it’s no longer a mirror, but a doorway. On the other side, a forest path, lit by twinkling fireflies.

Behind her, she can hear the crystalline crack of splintering glass. The hourglass is about to split wide open. Her time will be out if she doesn’t run.

The path leads to a cottage, warm light pouring from the windows.

“There’s no mirrors there. No time either,” murmurs a voice behind her. “Let’s get cracking.” There’s a pause. “Poor choice of words. Sorry.”

Odessa wants to turn around. Wants to ask questions. Instead, she reaches up to lay her hand briefly over the hand on her shoulder in gratitude before racing headlong toward the portal that will lead her to the world beyond the looking glass.

Each of them step through the front door alone. Each of them find themselves in a room full of other people. No one was there before nor after the other. And yet there is only one door in — and, presumably, only one door out.

Rustic, dusty, the cottage seems to have seen better days. A dusty piano with yellow keys sits in one corner with faded photographs in dusty frames atop it. The faces faded so, their faces are barely more than white ovals against gray backgrounds.

Somewhere, a child’s voice can be heard in a sing-song tone:

In the spring of the year, in the spring of the year,

I walked the brook beside my dear.

The trees were black where the bark was wet.

I see them yet, in the spring of the year.

He broke me a bough of the aureolin peach

That was out of the way and hard to reach.

A kettle keens on the stove. Six teacups in saucers sit on a counter nearby. One for each of them, and their host…

…who is nowhere to be seen.

There are faces both familiar and not to Ourania. Hers is also a face both familiar and not. Rather than try to address anyone, provide a greeting or introduce herself, to ask questions, the tall blonde makes her way toward — where else? — the piano.

Her head is bowed and she hopes the veil of her hair will allow her to go unrecognized. Her fingers stroke over the top of the upright instrument with a reverence. Hello, she seems to whisper with the touch. Ourania lowers her hand to the keys, plunking out a scale, B-flat harmonic minor transitioning to a C diminished chord. She lets the notes hang in the air, as if the vibration of them will tell her something about where they are or why they’re here.

Gossamer wings laid flat against Seren's back shift in a sheen of green and blue as they lean away from the door, heading to the kettle. They've not forgotten the question that went unanswered, there's just something that needs taken care of first. It's carefully that they make their way to the stove, and carefully that the kettle is lifted from the flame before the stove is switched firmly into an off position.

It's only then, quieting kettle in hand, that Seren turns back to the others to look at them one by one. They count the numbers present, wondering at each of them and their various stages of familiarity to them. "Well," they murmur brightly, then look to the table. One extra cup.

"Would anyone like tea?" they ask, as if all of this were perfectly normal.

Elliot’s eerie calm slips slightly at this latest change in surroundings. This is definitely not the Palace, he thinks. He recognises most of the people in the room with him, but he isn’t sure whether it’s a cause for relief or for further alarm. Whether this is even real.

Devon’s here, which is good if he’s real. Seren looks decidedly more intact than when he last saw them, which is comforting either way. The last batch of people from the Clusterfuckstival, who he just saw in the forest, were the disassembled, screaming kind. The kind he’d been working so hard to push into a wing of the Palace and tie it off, decommission it. To forget it, intrusive screams and all.

But he’s certainly not going to be able to answer any of his own questions, so he poses, “I don’t suppose anyone could tell me what the fuck?” Feeling a bit rude he does nod to Seren that, yes, tea sounds lovely.

“Naw…. tea’s gross. But man… what a dump, kinda like those places in horror movies,” a mop headed teenage boy with pale eyes and baggy clothing observes as he turns taking in the dusty place. He couldn’t be more then maybe thirteen or fourteen years old. Taking a sip from a 7-11 Big Gulp, he turns his attention to the group. “I dunno why we couldn’t have hung out at Big Al’s. The pizza is wicked cool. I mean… the sudden cemetery with the dead ex was pretty bogus.”

The teen studies the others, noting something familiar in some of them and he gasps, a hand going to his head. “Dude! Are we dead? I mean… I expected the afterlife to be totally different. Or maybe this some weird twisted version of Last Starfighter, since I was playing this new video game, but with undead instead?”

There is another sip of his soda… before the teen decides, “Nope. Pretty sure we’re all dead.”

Oh wait… maybe he should… The teenager lifts the one hand not burdened by his soda. “Hey, name’s Tom Cooper. Friends call me Cooper or… Coop.” Yup… that ladies and gentlemen is Thomas Cooper. “I’m pre-tty sure got blown up by a bomb.” He jerks his chin at the rest. “How’d you all bite it?” Cause, clearly he’s dead. Only explanation.

Devon turns a full circle where he stands, giving the room and everyone in it an immediate look over. These must be the others and he's glad for a couple of familiar faces — and one who's familiar by name at least. The last, the woman at the piano, is lingered on a beat longer than everyone else, but only because he can't see her face to place her in memory.

“I don't know,” he says to Elliot. Seren’s question gets a distracted nod while Cooper’s ramblings aren't even acknowledged. He levels a look at the other Hound, unsure of what to make of things.

In the next breath he breaks from the circle. His feet take him past the stove and piano, where one of the framed pictures is plucked up in passing. Ourania is given only enough of a glance to keep from interrupting her playing. With his fingers, Devon wipes the dust from the glass in the frame, and when his path brings him to the far side of the room he looks at the image on it. Just an old and faded photograph and the reflection of his own, somewhat younger face. Weird.

“Where was everyone else before they got here, in this room?”

“Don’t be rude,” their host’s voice murmurs, apparently to Cooper saying the place is a dump. When her guests turn to look, the voice comes from not a person, but the statue of an angel, a beautiful woman sculpted of white with sad eyes and long flowing hair. She looks like she belongs in a cemetery, weeping over someone’s grave.


The child’s voice — not the angel’s — continues the poem like it’s a nursery rhyme.

In the fall of the year, in the fall of the year,

I walked the lane beside my dear.

Eight rooks went up with a raucous trill.

I hear them still, in the fall of the year.

He laughed at all I dared to praise,

And broke my heart, in little ways.

The statue doesn’t react to the disembodied recitation, but makes her way to the little kitchen where Seren holds the teacup. “Yes, tea. No to your question. Perhaps you’re mine,” she tells them, before looking out the window.

It looks out onto a lake, black like a mirror, reflecting the gray ghostly clouds in the sky above. They move fast, pushed by a strong wind that rattles the cabin’s walls, and shift into shapes that the mind wants to make sense of. A heart. A face. A serpent.

The angel seems to shiver and turns away from the window to look at her guests. “Do play something more cheerful,” she tells Ourania. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, maybe?” she suggests.

It’s then that Ourania realizes that was one of the transposed calliope songs from her dream.

“I don’t think you are dead,” Angel says then, her stony brow furrowing as she considers this possibility. “But maybe we all are.” Her head bows, a tear running down her cheek before she looks up, those blank eyes widening as she looks to each of them. “How do we know? If we are dead?”

“I don’t think anyone knows, except those that died,” is the teenage Cooper’s opinion on that, as he turns to see who is speaking and his jaw might have dropped seeing her. While he doesn’t apologize for calling the place a dump, he might feel bad… not just that he looks uncomfortable at the tear.

Then comes the need to try and fix it.

“Hey… hey hey…” his voice suddenly gentle. Cooper sets down his cup and moves to where he can try and touch the back of her stone hand, unafraid of whatever kooties she might have. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you think… I just… I mean…” he looks around the room, motioning to it. “You gotta admit, this is pretty Bogus Journey feeling.”

Cooper offers a bit of a half smile, “Guess we’ll know if a creepy pink bunny comes through the door…” He looks at the door and narrows his eyes, “Or a guy with knife fingers.” He’s probably not helping.

As for the others… Devon’s question, “I was at an arcade. Big Al’s. Used to go there all the time when I was a kid.” Which sounds odd coming from the teenaged Cooper.

“Cheesequake,” Elliot tells Devon. He seems ready to say more when the funerary angel enters the cabin and he’s stunned. He watches her movements across the room but doesn’t really parse any of the things she’s saying at first. He looks to the room’s human occupants to gauge their reactions to her presence; to see if this is a hallucination for him alone.

When she begins theorizing as to their status with them, he’s certain he has nothing to add to the conversation. He decides to take a seat at the table in silence instead while he waits for something to make sense. He looks down at his arm, flexes his hand and rotates his wrist. He’s not wearing a cast, wherever they all are. That should make any posthumous punching easier at least.

Seren continues to stand there with the kettle when Cooper suggests they're all dead. The glimmering silver in their grey eyes loses some of its sheen, their smile fading by grades.

If they were dead, does that mean they were just in Hell?

"I— wasn't me. It was my worst nightmare. I wasn't allowed to be me." Their realization comes slow, and then they begin to set the kettle down without pouring anything at all. Where was Baird, anyway?

The appearance of the statue somehow makes sense to them, though, and it brings them back from some of their worry. Their brow lifts. Seren was her fairy godmother, the statue thinks? That's a new role for them, but they'll embrace it, they suppose. And hopefully they weren't dead.

Seren moves to the table after all to begin pouring out cups of tea for each— even the statue. They realize their hip doesn't bother them, that they're able to hear everyone clearly, something they didn't remember should be an issue until mention of Cheesequake. With a shake of their head they eventually set aside the teapot and slowly take a seat at the table.

Running a hand back through the short shear of their hair, they consider things. "H-how many of us were at Xpress?" they wonder. Devon, yes; Elliot apparently was, too, even though he had warned them away… They look for a moment to the woman at the piano, trying again to place her.

Then they turn back to the statue, offering her a small smile. "You can call me Seren, by the way. What do you call yourself?" After that, they supply gently, "I don't think we're dead." With a look to Elliot in particular before pointing out, "I remember going home."

And all the pain that went with that.

The answers are absorbed in silent contemplation as Devon meets his own gaze in the reflection cast by the picture frame glass. His brows furrow, pinching in the space just above his nose. He wasn't anywhere so specific, just a mashup of familiar outdoor spaces haunted and hunted, as he often is, by the horrors of reality and futures that will never happen. His mouth moves to voice his thoughts, but the words are interrupted by the unfamiliar voice before they can be fully formed.

His eyes lift to find the angel now in their midst. One brow ticks upward before a look slants to the others. At least those he recognizes most clearly.

“You said it wasn't a good dream,” he says to the statue. The faded picture is returned to its place on the piano as he crosses back in the direction he'd come from. Arms fold over his chest and he slouches against the framework between the small kitchen and what seems to be the sitting room. Devon tilts his head and looks to their host, weighing and measuring the being. “And then you brought me here, saying we should meet with the others.”

“We aren’t dead,” Ourania says from her place at the piano with a very firm certainty. “Whatever this is, it isn’t death. A prison, perhaps, but I am quite certain we are very much alive.” Her fingers lift off the keys in response to the complaint that her choice of chords is too dour. Turning to the table, one sculpted brow arches at the suggestion of something more suitable to play. Her stomach turns over once, recalling the place she’s just escaped from, but she shoves it down, like everything else.

“A little bombastic, don’t you think?” The blonde woman smirks faintly and settles down on the bench now so she can play properly. It’s not Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, but Black Hole Sun sounds cheerful enough on its own. It isn’t as though she’s going to sing the lyrics along with it. This is much easier to blend into the background and continue to speak over, in her personal opinion.

Her fingers move deftly over the keys, even as she holds the conversation. “I was in a maze of mirrors. Running against the clock. There were… Many of them were broken. Someone… someone tried to kill me.” Whether directly, or indirectly, she knows in her bones the result would have been the same, had the sand run from the hourglass.

“Death isn’t like this.” Again, she speaks with authority. “She doesn’t allow you to commingle.” Ourania isn’t sure when she decided that Death is a she, but somehow it feels like a truth she understands in some innate way. “None of you are the apparitions I would summon.” She’s been down that road already.

She smiles faintly and looks over her shoulder as she continues to play. “Call me O,” she bids the others, shifting her gaze to the stone angel. “Comment vous appelons-nous, Ange?

Cooper’s gentling touch seems to surprise the angel, as she glances down at her hand and then back up at him. She looks to the door, as if expecting the pink bunny to come through, but nothing does. “I’ll take your word for it,” she tells him, then turns to each to listen to them speak. Without irises or pupils in those blind-seeming eyes, the only way to know where she is looking is the cant of her head or the movement of the stony lids.

“A dream,” she echoes after Devon reminds her of what she had told him just moments ago. “That makes some sense, I suppose. It’s hard to keep things straight in here.”

She reaches for a cup of tea, stone fingers clinking against the mug. “You can be yourself here,” she tells Seren, and adds to Ourania, “None of you are apparitions I would summon either, but here we are. For some reason.”

She gestures to the door. “I’m not keeping you here. You can all go if you like, but you may find yourselves back wherever you were.”

There was a question in there. “Angel will do. Or Ange. I can’t remember a better one.”

She strides to the piano to peer at the pictures, the blank faces. “I think I had a face once, of flesh and not stone. Or did I only dream it?” The question isn’t posed to them, but asked in a wistful voice as she turns to the window — it’s on the opposite side of the little cottage as the one in the kitchen, but somehow it overlooks the same lake full of dark water reflecting dark clouds in its mirror-like surface.

A child’s voice continues to sing:

Year be springing or year be falling,

Yet bark will drip and the birds be calling.

There's much that's fine to see and hear

In the spring of a year, in the fall of a year.

'Tis not love's going hurt my days.

But that it went in little ways.

There might have been a stifled laugh when ‘O’ offers her name, but it comes out more of a choke of noise. Leaving the stone woman to her musings, Cooper snags his Big Gulp and hops up to sit on the kitchen counter, feet swinging and the heels of his Converses thumping against the wood lightly. He takes a long draw from his soda before he says, “Well, I— for one— am happy to stay here as long as my Zombie Ex can’t get in. Not great, but better then waking… Everything hurts when I try to wake-”

Cooper’s head tilts a bit as something catches his attention suddenly… “Hey, O-reo… Stop for a second. You guys hearing that?” He points upward, but with his head tilted, he might mean the singing child. He watches the others in their rag-tag party. “Is there someone else in here? Or… Is it outside?”

Elliot’s eyes are sorrowful, perhaps guilty, when they meet Seren’s. For not being able to lend any meaningful help at the festival; even the tourniquet he applied to Cooper’s leg was removed by the temporal physics of the barrier. But also that he holds knowledge that they might not. News that might be hard to hear.

He lifts a finger when they ask who was at the festival. “I’m sorry I couldn’t…” he trails off with a subtle shake of his head. “I wish I could have done more at the festival. How is your recovery going?” He looks about them for Baird, though he doesn’t press for his whereabouts. If he can be cut off from Wright in this place, perhaps their Chimera is also inaccessible.

This causes him to come to a realisation that he isn’t panicking. If this is a dream, Wright is probably sleeping too, unable to respond to his pulls on her attention. And if she isn’t dreaming, they can’t share a dreamscape, even accidentally.

His attention is pulled away momentarily by the piano and Cooper’s question. Distracted by the kick of his legs against the cupboard where in the real world… Best not to think of it. The phantom song is continuing, though it doesn’t have the same malicious quality of the sounds he heard before he was brought to this cottage. He can’t think of a response and settles on introducing himself for the benefit of the group. “Elliot,” he says.

Scrutiny of another form briefly slants to Ourania when she confirms what he'd already suspected. Something of familiarity itches in Devon’s memory, but nothing concrete locks her face in his mind. What remains is the assertion that they're not dead, both from his own recollection of their host’s words and the woman’s otherworldly knowledge.

“Yes.” He shifts gears, answering Cooper’s question with words and shrugging shoulders. The recitation had been in the back of his mind, accepted as just a thing amongst all the other oddities. In some way it makes sense, as do all other weird things tend to do in dreams.

A flick of his eyes moves his focus from Ourania to Seren and then Elliot, before finally settling on Angel again. “So we’re prisoners here.” It's hard to say if by here, Devon means the cottage or in whatever dreaming realm they've collectively found themselves in. Whichever it is, it's clearly not his first time waking up in captivity of some kind. “Why?”

At the encouragement to be themself, the gossamer wings against Seren's back twitch in a small fit of pride before lying flat again. Their smile returns, a touch more sincere, and they've just stopped to listen to the sound Cooper has pointed out when they catch that Elliot's looking their way. Their brow lifts in response to his words, not understanding the depth behind his question at first. They don't remember seeing him there… but maybe they had crossed paths when Seren was senseless and barely clinging to consciousness before being lifelighted away.

"You warned me there would be trouble," they admit, their smile now just a quirk of their lips to one side. "I should've taken the warning more seriously. I'm… I'm doing all right, though. Better than some. I landed on my feet."

So to speak.

Devon's comment draws them back, though, and Seren looks between him and the statue. "Us, prisoners? Maybe not. But…" They trail off, unsure how to put it delicately. The angel can't even remember the realm of the waking.

"How did you come find us?" Seren wonders curiously. "How did you know to rescue us?"

Ourania’s fingers still on the keys of the piano, squinting faintly at Cooper’s little nickname for her, but easing up, her head tilting in an unconscious mirror of his own. “Oh, thank goodness. I thought maybe I was the only one who could hear that.” Wouldn’t be the first time.

She snorts quietly at Devon’s assertion that they’re prisoners. “Any one of us appear to be free to go back and brave our personal hells at any time,” Ourania responds without the derision that her huff might have suggested. “A lack of better options does not a prison make.” This is another wisdom she shares, given the same certainty with which she insisted none of them was dead.

Turning in her seat, Ourania reaches for her cane before she means to push to her feet, only to find it isn’t leaning against the far end of the bench, where she always leaves it. Her hand grasps only at air, and she’s stunned at first. The air leaves her lungs in a small whoosh of astonished breath. It isn’t there, because she didn’t bring it with her. And she didn’t bring it with her because she hadn’t needed it. A smile spreads across her face, but begins decaying not very long after. If the ephemeral nature of this place hadn’t been enough for her, the lack of pain solidifies that none of this is real.

The angel’s stony eyes seem to turn upward, noticeable more from the slight cant of her head as she listens to what Cooper points out. “Well, that’s creepy,” she decides, and at the word outside, she turns to the window again, wrapping her arms around herself as if to warm up from the very idea of that chilly lake.

“‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,’” she says to Devon. “That is a lie. There are bad things even if you think they are good things. Bad people disguising as good people. People who leave you. People who abandon you when you are good to them.”

A tear slides down her stone cheek and she turns to Seren, suddenly smiling. “I did do that! I am good at this. But I don’t think I meant to. It just turned out that way. Or perhaps it was fated. Perhaps we are kindred spirits. Or perhaps it’s my new calling, to find wayward souls lost in ugly dreams and…”

Her eyes seem to fall on Ourania and her head tilts. “What happened to your face?” she asks, in a tone of childlike wonder.

Outside, the wind howls; the clouds shift in both sky and watery reflection. When Angel looks out the window again, she gasps, and steps back, bumping into Cooper. To her visitors’ eyes, though, there’s no real change to the landscape, nothing to elicit her fear.

“Sometimes good people are snakes,” she whispers.

"Like in the song just now?" Seren wonders gently. They begin to frown in concern for the angel's state. "Not everyone who does bad things means to hurt you. Sometimes they do— but sometimes they just don't think about the way…" They start to taper off, but force a flicker of a smile to finish their thought. "How what they do will hurt others."

Sometimes good people are snakes.

It's hard for Seren to shake that line from their head, but they look away to Ourania briefly in an attempt to move on from it… and Devon after as they fail to. They ask quietly across the table, "Did you have any luck finding the other Rue?"

Elliot shifts his posture to look back and forth between Seren and Devon. “The other Rue?” he asks for clarification with raised eyebrows.

Seren blinks, glancing to Elliot before shooting a look back to Devon indicating an apologetic maybe now's not the time after all. There were other topics at hand, certainly.

Hands gently steady the angel when Cooper is bumped into. “Hey now, careful… even stone can chip,” he says with a lop-sided smile, before looking at the window. “What’s got you all spooked, Angel?” His head angles a look at the stone woman, before looking towards the window eyes squinting.

As the others talk about something completely different, Cooper gives them a look before setting the cup down loudly. “Seriously, guys? Does this seem like the time for random chit chat?” Which might sound odd from him. “I mean…” he spreads his hands to encompass the room. “…come on…. We’re in a dream. You act like stuff like this is normal for you.”

Hoping down off the counter, Cooper turns his attention back to the statue. A hand rests on her shoulder to offer comfort. In that moment, it’s not hard to see a glimpse of the older man behind the youthful features. “Why do I think you’re hiding from someone who turned out to be a snake? Or something that you thought was good.” He can’t help but glance at the window again.

“You know… I’ve known a few of those… That ghost you saved me from was one,” Cooper looks a little sad, before giving her his full attention. “My first wife. l loved her and she gave me my daughter, but when it came down to it… she was quick to turn her back on us when things got tough.”

The idea that they're not prisoners is met with strong doubt. Sure, they could all leave, but the unknown element of where they'd end up — back into the dreams they'd left or somewhere else — isn't exactly promising of freedom. Devon draws a sidelong look to Angel when she addresses him directly, brows drawing downward as suspicion deepens.

He starts across the room again, pausing briefly when Seren addresses him. He glances at Elliot when the other Hound raises the question, but this time it's Cooper’s comments he chooses to acknowledge.

“Out of everything I've experienced, this is probably one of more normal.” It should be humorous, and many from Devon’s inner circle would probably agree with his assessment. His delivery is deadpan, and nothing of his expression shares in amusement. He crosses the room, ending where he'd wandered before, at the far end of the living room.

Ourania is feeling personally attacked by Angel’s relatable experience. She is in this narrative and she does not like it. She gasps sharply when she’s asked about her countenance, one hand coming up to press against her cheek, turning away to study her reflection in the glass of one of the picture frames. “Nothing’s wrong with my face,” she responds quietly, defensively.

Except that it looks like her own and doesn’t. An amalgam of who she once was and who she is now. Ourania lets her hand fall to her lap and stares down at it. Her shoulders sag, heavy with her regret. She’s been a bad person disguised as a good one. She’s left people who were good to her. No new face is going to erase all that. Even though she’s shed her skin…

Odessa is still a snake.

“What song?” Angel murmurs, giving Seren a quizzical look, inasmuch her stony features will allow for expressiveness.

The question about Rue draws her attention from Seren to Devon to Elliot. “We may call it an herb o’grace on Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference.” Angel sing-songs the Shakespearian line by rote. The sing-song is much to the same rhythm as the poem the child’s voice had recited — the one she claimed not to hear.

Cooper makes her turn her head that way, each motion a little slower than what would be normal for a human, though just as fluid. “Snakes slip through when we aren’t looking. There’s one out there that shouldn’t be.”

As she speaks, the cottage grows dim, dark blue tones taking over the golden ambience that had promised them safety. Wavering lines of silvery light flicker on ceiling and doors, making it feel like the group is suddenly far underwater, where light and sound play tricks on the mind, eyes, and ears.

The ceiling itself seems far, far overhead and no longer a ceiling but the surface of a body of water. Dark shapeless blobs — ice floes? — float, silhouetted by moonlight. The warmth of the cottage fades, the chill numbing. The tears on the stone angel’s face turn to ice.

“I’m not hiding,” she says, looking off to the window, where the lake can still be seen. “The snakes hide.”

Something brushes their ankles, each in turn, but when they look, it’s like a shadow in the corner of their eye, darting out of sight.

Cooper is staring at Devon with a rather incredulous look at calling this normal until the angel requires his attention again, brows furrowing a little. There is a question poised on the edge of his lips, but the world starts to change and what he had planned to ask, seems like a bad idea suddenly.

There were questions and concerns at the edge of the Agents mind, but just talking about the snake was changing the environment around them.

Cooper was feeling a bit helpless and out of his elements… so as always when nervous..

“Can we expect singing crabs?” The teenage Thomas asks out of nowhere, turning to humor to mask his uncertainty. “Or or… a big fat seeeee ahhh!” He doesn’t get to finish that thought as whatever it is brushes his ankle making him dance back a step or two and lift his foot to look at it. Almost expecting to see something attached to it. Instead, he catches it out of the corner of his eyes and steps to put himself between it and the stone angel. A sword made completely out of… Are you kidding me?.. colorful animal balloons is held out towards the last place he caught sight of the shadowed thing, like it was something that could do actual damage.

“Snakes… why does it always have to be snakes,” Cooper murmurs under his breath, watching the room cautiously.

Elliot stands out of his chair, tipping it over, as soon as he feels something at his feet. Once he can see that he isn’t being touched he spins in place, trying to keep his eye on whatever is moving. He begins to rub his arms against the cold, then picks up his mug of tea to clasp it between his hands.

Were they all really dreaming? Had the angel brought them into her own dream, and was it becoming a nightmare? If the nightmare he’d been pulled from was malicious, was that bad actor now affecting this place? He can’t tell if he’s shaking from the cold or from the sense of powerlessness. He can’t bring himself to ask these questions out loud.

“Are we in the lake now?” is the only question he lets out.

The mindbending shift of the reality of the cottage is something Seren takes in stride. Their breath comes in warm, and comes out fogged only moments later. That the statue couldn't hear the other faded melody is a surprise, one they try to rectify by saying, "There was another song… it's was talking about a love from spring."

It's easier to address that than explain anything about Rue.

Cautiously, Seren looks up and then the strange juxtaposition of out, asking carefully, "What— what does the snake look like, do you remember?" Cooper's jumping and drawing of a sword made of balloons brings a small grin to them that pulls more at one side of their mouth than the other, and then they refocus on the statue.

The thing about dreams is that they don’t seem strange while you’re in them. Ourania lifts her head and peers around the space as it starts to change. The shudder that runs through her has nothing to do with the cold and everything to do with her concern about the angel’s words to her and about her.

But then something seems to wrap around her ankle and Ourania lets out a squeak of surprise, pulling both her feet up onto the piano bench now, hugging her knees to her tightly, resting her forehead against the peak of them. “Wake me up,” she whispers. Not to anyone in the cottage, but to the one who should be lying next to her, as though he might hear her. Maybe she’s murmuring in her sleep? Maybe he’ll hear her.

Ourania lifts her head again and looks out the window. “Was it the snake that attacked me?” What could that mean if there’s someone presumably invading their thoughts? Their dreams? Does they only come to them in their nightmares, or are they the cause of them? Never has she wanted to consult Hokuto Ichihara more than right now.

Devon's shoulders shift as if adjusting an uncomfortable strap as the air chills and the ambient glow takes on an oppressive weight.

His focus wanes, tilting from the outward and obvious effort to understand the Angel and what's happened to free fall inward where the depths of his own dark memories wait with teeth and claws. He raises his hands to his face. The heels of his palms press against his eyes, bracing against the rising dread. The conversation grows distant and fades as he tries to look past the drifting floes and currents.

The idea that it's just a dream taps against his thoughts. He draws in an uneven breath as hands slide upward and his fingers rake through his hair, then claps behind his neck.

Only a dream. Devon's lips move, a small act made to form the words as a reminder to himself. He closes his eyes against the deepening gloom and cold, though they snap open again at the sensation of something against his ankles. His breathing shallows and sweat prickles across his brow despite the chill in the air as whatever unspoken fear that's gripped him spikes toward panic.

The Angel whirls around, her empty eyes widening at the balloon sword Cooper wields. She shakes her head, hands reaching up and tearing at her hair, stone grating against stone.

“The snakes change skin or the skin changes them. Which is it? Wrong skin. Wrong snake. Wrong, wrong, wrong!” she cries out, and with every word, a crack splits the walls of the little cottage, water pouring in when before it was only the idea of being underwater.

As it seeps in around them, first around their ankles, and then their knees, the black water seems to cut with its extreme cold. The angel doesn’t try to escape but instead sinks down, pulling her knees toward her chest and wrapping her arms around them. She bows her head and begins to weep, her shoulders shaking with sorrow and the chill.

A second before, the ceiling seemed to be the top of the lake, viewed from below — but now, that seems high, high overhead, with nothing but water between their feet and the promise of fresh air in their lungs if they can only breach that surface.

“Oh, god.” Ourania gasps and climbs to her feet on the piano bench now, looking around to see if there’s some way out of this. This is the angel’s dream, then? If… If this is a dream at all. She hopes against hope that it is. “Somebody— Somebody calm her down!” Maybe if they can help Angel see that all is not lost, they won’t be swept up in the tide of her sorrow.

And it’s a sorrow Ourania feels so keenly when she looks to the woman of stone and focuses in on her. Pain. Loss. Sorrow. Betrayal. Her blonde head tips to one side, birdlike in its curiosity. Are those the angel’s emotions? Or are they her emotions? Her chest positively aches, like her heart could burst. Or maybe wither and die.

Now she feels colder. Alone. Ourania wraps her arms around herself slowly and shivers with the effort it takes not to sob out loud. “Someone help us,” she whispers softly. Her hands press over her ears, eyes shutting tightly as her panic begins to spiral. Like the rushing of the water, it just gets louder and louder. Then she looks around again, confused, trying to find something.

Something finally breaks through the surface of her emotional state. She feels a warmth and she starts to calm by degrees. Looking up at the ceiling, or where it was and now seems so impossibly far away, Ourania tips her head back and shouts for help. “Aman! Aman, wake me up!

The water is shockingly cold, but Seren isn't unused to figments feeling real. While it causes panic in some, they believe— no, know that drowning isn't an option. It isn't a reality for them all unless they surrender themselves to it. It'll just… maybe it'll just be another shift. Not unlike the one that brought him here. The waters might wash them away to a different shore yet again, but it won't hurt them.


"Ange," they call out to the statue, wading through the rapidly rising water. Seren fights against the distempered run of it as it leaks in from multiple angles, falling down partly as they reach the angel to touch her shoulder. "It's okay! It's okay. Look at me, okay— you're not alone now. We'll figure out which it is." They begin to shake, too, though as the dark chill climbs up them. It wets their wings, and they begin to feel heavy— without use any longer. Their brow furrows up, part from the teeth-clattering chill, and part from their concern for the angel trapped in a nightmare of her own now.

They hope they can be a fairy godparent to them after all, in this instance. At the very least, maybe they can banish some of the shadows. An aura of pale light surrounds their face, their arms and hands, casting a soft glow. Seren smiles, a shaky yet sure thing. "Trust me."

In his mounting panic Elliot looks around for an entrance to the Palace. A cupboard, a root cellar, a broken hole obscured by furniture. As the others begin to grow more alarmed it hits him, Is this empathy overflow?

This isn’t all his own emotion. He’s intimately familiar with his own emotions mirroring those of someone linked to him. And while this realizatinn doesn’t remove his own fear, it does help him act through it.

He crosses the room, the lake, feet sloshing through the icy water. He fights the instinct to not sit in the freezing water and sits before the angel, gasping at the shock. He holds out his hands, touching her fingertips with his as if to allow her to reach out to him. “Hey,” he says kindly, quietly. Loudly enough to compete with the other people’s panic. He looks up to Seren and nods, then turns his attention back to the statue. “We need you out here. Can you look up? We’re all up here and we need your help.” His teeth are chattering as he finishes, the shiver jostling his fingertips.

“Ange… it’s okay,” Cooper says when the water starts rushing in. Looking down at the rising water, at first he tries to lift his feet, but quickly gives that up. “I won’t let any—” Whatever he planned to say, is lost in seeing others crowding in to try and help. The balloon sword is quickly abandoned to float away on the rising surface as he hurries towards the angel. “Whoa whoa whoa!”

Not that Cooper isn’t panicked, he’s freaking scared… but… He has a focus. That angel sinking below the surface needed a chance to calm down.

Without much thought, the teenager grabs one of Elliot’s arms to pull him away from the stone angel. “Hey! Stop!” Thomas shouts - since yeah, he’s scared - as he yanks the man away. “Crowding her will only make it worse, let the pixie person do their thing.” One person hovering over the poor soul was enough, even he’s fighting the urge to try and comfort the poor stone statue. He hates seeing women cry.

Cold seeps bone deep, soul deep, inescapable no matter the effort put forth. Devon remembers this experience more clearly than a conversation moments before.

His head bows chin to chest. Teeth and eyes clench in their respective places, fighting to deny what every other fiber within him demands is real. Ourania's cries for help and Seren's efforts to calm Angel brush against his awareness like a stray hair. Hands tighten and muscles in his neck and shoulders tense

until the slosh of water draws a guarded look. Devon's eyes find Elliot crossing the waterlogged living space to join Seren in comforting the angel and not the monster he'd anticipated. Terror loosens enough for him to register Cooper joining the others, become more keenly aware of the rising water. Getting out of it becomes a priority, although it doesn't free him from the panic that's wrapped around his thoughts like icy tendrils. What if they can't escape?

Focus on the room comes to him in snapshot. The table, a chair, windows. "We… need to find a way out." Dev's voice is strained, stressed with cold and fear. Limbs sluggish from the chill, he hoists himself onto the table. He stares at the windows, then upward to a ceiling that's far above where it should be. "We'll drown if she doesn't stop and we stay here."

Those blank eyes close and the stone fingers dig harder against the statue’s scalp — if she were flesh and bone, she might bleed. Seren’s words draw her eyes to them, and then Angel looks from one face to the next as they try to reach her, stop her from the destruction.

“Words, so many words. Words are snakes. Words change skins,” she laments.

Somewhere high above, the dreamers can hear that sing-song not-quite-a melody being hummed, the sound warped by the water between them and its source. Looking up, they can see a pale-haired child swimming toward the dark, shadowed surface. She looks down at them, her face illuminated from a light source closer to the surface but still too far away to reach them. It looks like it might be the same person as the angel, though made of flesh and blood as they are.

The dreamers float upward - any attempts to hold on to the angel or the furniture or walls finds no purchase, and they can only look down as their statuary host seems to sink lower and lower into this watery abyss. As they each break the surface to take a breath, they find it’s not the chilly, frozen air of the lakeside they breathe in, but the warm, familiar air of their bedrooms as they awaken.

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