A grey hand reached for her through the darkness and caressed her cheek. It ran softly through her hair, untangling it and smoothing it down. It was terribly soft and cold, like a cat's fur after a night outside. She sighed, and the hand moved out of her hair, down her cheek and along her neck. The fingers wound around her thin child's neck and began to tighten. She shifted in her sleep, and the fingers tightened more, just enough to make it hard to breathe. Her eyes fluttered open, and-

Trish lay awake, breathing slowly, feeling the dark press against her eyelids. She could still feel the hand around her throat, and shuddered. Her sheets were all tangled around her legs, and she couldn't feel George clasped in her arm.

Slowly, with the night fears that only a child really knows, she slid her arm through the sheets, searching for him. She heard a noise in the attic above her, and froze immediately. She held her breath and waited to hear the creak again, but it didn't repeat and she moved her arm again. She could smell her own sweat and the soft smell of her pillows against the warm night. Finally, near her knee, her finger's reached something different. It was cold and smooth, and she stilled once more, remembering the dream. As the recollection of fear passed, she curled her fingers around it. It was soft, and connected to something furry. She jerked her hand up to her chest and clung to George with all her might. Her Mama had always told her that her Aunt had made George to protect her, since before she was born, and Trish had no doubt in her mind.

Her heart's beats slowed as she held George tight, and she no longer moved slowly. She stretched out and curled back up around George, and began to drift back asleep.

The hand ran through her hair again, smoothed the bangs from her face. In ran down the side of her face again, but now turned and followed the line of her chin instead of reaching for her neck.

As the forefinger came around full circle and ran down the bridge of her nose, the arm of the hand seemed to solidify, and then a shoulder. Soon a grey form, recognizable as female only by the faint hint of curves, stood at the girl's bedside. The face was blank and featureless, but was pointed at the girl's face. It swung to the stuffed animal clutched in her hands, and reached out to stroke the glossamer wings sewn into the back. Then it pulled back and dissolved into the dark of the room.

Trish awoke again, this time blinking sleepily into the darkness instead of searching for a threat. This time, however, she noticed something wrong. She couldn't see the light under her door anymore, or her nightlight. Her nightlight might have gone out, she knew, but her Mama never forgot to leave the hall light on for her, ever. This woke her up all the way. She squeezed George, who was still grasped in her arms. Something was wrong, something had gone bad. "What's happening?" she thought at George, too afraid to speak. "What's going on? We should find out."

Slowly, so slowly, she slid from under the covers and onto the floor. Her carpet was gone and the ground was damp and warm under her feet. She gasped, and reached back for her bed and safety, but it was gone. She was blind in the darkness, and all she could feel was George and the ground. The air smelled like the black dirt that the earthworms all hid in, that all the children dug for on the playground. The air was humid and warm, and her pajamas pants were beginning to stick to her legs. "Now what?" she whispered to George, and began to shuffle forward. She didn't want to stumble over anything, but she needed to go somewhere, to find her Mama.

She shuffled on a ways, feeling the dirt plough over her toes and onto the tops of her feet, like when she scuffed her shoes under the picnic tables at lunch. It was getting warmer, she thought. She was barely breathing, her ears pricked up to hear anything she might, and her breath seemed unbearably loud.

Then she began to hear a noise beside herself. It was a neat, regular plick, like the leaky faucet in her kitchen. Trish turned to the noise and shuffled faster, hoping that it would lead her to her kitchen and the lights and safety. Her heart thumped with hope, and then she stubbed her toe.

She let loose a tiny squeak of pain, and then held her breath once more, listening for any predatory monster that she might have run into. The plick was louder now, and seemed to be right by her. Once she had ascertained that no beast was breathing down her neck, she waved a cautious hand in front of her. She had found a wall. It was stone, rough and wet but Trish had never been as relieved and happy in her life. Listening carefully for the noise, she began to follow it once more, now running her hands along the wall.

She walked. She perambulated. She stumbled. She stubbed her toes on more and more rocks in the complete darkness, and once fell, almost losing her grip on George. The ground began to slope gently upwards. She began to wonder if this was really the way back to her kitchen. Now that she thought about it, the plick didn't sound nearly as much like her faucet as she had thought, and now she was sure that it wasn't at all. The slope became steeper and steeper, and finally she saw a light.

Forgetting her exhaustion, she began to run towards it. IT was faint but warm, reflecting orange and red across the wet back stone beside her. It absolutely dazzles Trish, who had been wandering through the dark so long.

Finally she reached it, panting and holding her side. She collapsed into a sweaty, filthy heap of tired little girl and stuffed frog, and looked around as she caught her breath.

It was a circular cave, with slimy black walls and a small fire to the side. In the center were three rocks and a heap of chains. A single stalactite hung from the shallow roof, and a serpent was wound around it. It was dead, its jaws hanging open with fangs exposed. A sickly yellow venom dripped from the tip of one tooth, and fell to the floor with a plick into a shallow, overflowing bowl beneath it. She could hear the faint sound of rushing water.

She had been walking the wrong way all this time, and she was tired and hungry and didn't know where to go next. The snake was glistening in the light, and the chains glinted evilly. She started to sniffle onto George.

It should be morning by now, she knew! Her Mama would be waking her up and getting her dressed to go to Play date with Lydia, and fixing her some ChocoCrunchy WheatGerm. Instead she was here, like a bad dream. She started crying outright as she thought that she might be stuck in a dream, unable to go home. What would her Mama do? Would she get a new little girl, one that didn't fight at bath time and scream at spiders? What about Trish, would she be stuck in the darkness and the cave forever?

"George! George you're supposed to protect me! Where are we?! Where's Mama? Where's my Aunt, if she wants to protect me so bad! George, help me!" She sobbed, rocking back and forth against the black rock behind her. She was hiccoughing and could barely breathe, and couldn't stop crying. Finally her sobs crescendoed into a single wail, high and pained and hurt, before she slowed down, gasping for breath.

"Do you feel better now? If you're going to carry on like that, now's the best time. This place has been deserted for some time, and probably always will be." Trish looked up into a pair of muddy green eyes that blinked solemnly back at her. They belonged to a woman, taller than her Mama, and slender. She was dressed in grey. Her shirt, gloves, pants and hat were all grey. Only her shoes were black. Her hair was brown. Trish wiped her nose on a pajama sleeve and stared.

"Who're you?" she whispered, terrified and uncertain. Her Mama had always taught her not to talk to strangers, but Trish felt that she was justified, this time. She didn't think that her Mama had ever planned on her daughter getting stuck in a dream. She gave George a squeeze. He squelched.

"I'm your Aunt Alex. The one who made George for you, in fact. He's been telling me that you were lost for some time now, but I was... Detained." Aunt Alex glanced down at her gloves, and coughed. "Do you know where you are?"

Trish was surprised by the question, and snorted. "Would I still be here if I was?" Now that she knew the woman's name, she vaguely recognized her. She didn't look much like the picture that Mama had shown her. She was older for one, and dressed funny. But it wasn't like anyone else would know about her Aunt Alex. Her Mama barely spoke of her, except to reprimand Trish about not carrying George with her. Once she knew that she was safe, her fears all disappeared, replaced by impatience. "Can you take me home now?" she demanded. Her Aunt blinked again.

"Well, that's good, I guess. Some day you will know, but it's not surprising that you don't. Few remember anymore," she said, crouching down beside Trish and giving her a soft grey handkerchief. "It looks like you need that. Anyways, I'm afraid that I can't take you directly home. Somehow you got yourself quite far away from any easy and fast way home that I know. I know some easy long ways, and some difficult short ways. But it looks as if you won't be home for quite a while." Trish stared at her.

"But then how'd you get here? And won't Mama worry?"

"I can take the fast and difficult ways, but I couldn't take you with me. And don't worry, I left your Mama a message," she explained, cocking her head. "Ready to get up now?" she asked, reaching out a hand. Trish grabbed it uncertainly, and her Aunt stood up, bringing Trish with her. "It's this way," she said, still holding Trish's hand and beginning to walk towards the rushing sound.

A/N: This is the final version of a story that I began to write at my best friend's house several years ago. The basic idea (A lost little girl) hasn't changed, but the little girl, her rescuer and the curcumstances have. I hope to make this a set of stories about the two of them finding their way back to Trish's mother. Very different from my original intent, and I may decide to write that version one day, too.