The plaintive whine came from Ebony, a pale-skinned, jet-black haired, gray-eyed girl from near the back of the trip.
Bianca glared at Ebony. "Shut up, amica. Some of us are trying to study."
"Some of us are trying to sleep," added Adrianna, from somewhere near them.
Ebony glowered. "Fat lot of help you guys were. Friends are supposed to sympathetic!"
"Dramma regina," muttered Bianca under her breath.
Adelaide's eyes opened sleepily. "W-what? Wha's goin' on?"
"Lover's spat," added Adrianna in a conspiring stage whisper.
Instantly, Ebony's and Bianca's arguments stopped.
"Eww!" cried out both girls.
Adelaide had nodded off to sleep by then, convinced that nothing out of the ordinary had been blooming during her nap.
"Isn't the guide a hunk?" murmured Adrianna to Ebony and Bianca, abruptly changing the subject. "I mean, his shoulders are so totally—"
"Please, God, no!" said Ebony.
"There's no way it'll every work out either, Adrianna. He's, like, in Harvard, and where are you? Some loser's high school," added Bianca helpfully.
"Still bored," muttered Ebony.
Bianca rolled her eyes and Adrianna let out an explosive sigh. "Geez, Ebony, aren't you ever interested?" asked Adrianna.
"Sure—art! And reading, and—"
Bianca shook Ebony's shoulders. "We all know you're a nerd, Ebony! But aren't you ever interested during P.E. or… or lunch or anything, mio amica?"
"Whatever. This isn't going anywhere. I think I'm going to follow Adelaide's example and sleep," muttered Ebony. "Wake me up when Adrianna's not ranting on about the hotness of the guide, okay, Bianca?"
"I might wake you up when she's in full-blown rant, you know, so that I won't have to suffer alone," replied the friend in question. "Still, I think it'd be nice to dress up while he's blabbing away, in case there are a couple of hot guys around. Adrianna, give me your portable mirror 'n' makeup set."
Adrianna turned back, looking extremely miffed to have been interrupted from her admiration of the guide's shoulders. "What? What makes you think I even brought my mirror 'n' makeup set, Bianca? You don't think I'm that desperate, do you—"
"Yes, yes I do," replied Bianca, sounding extremely annoyed, "and since I'm always right, give me that makeup set!"
Adrianna pouted, a comedic thing to watch. "Fine, fine, sure. It's somewhere in my purse." Here, she took out a glitteringly pink monstrosity, which she zipped open. Dumping a large pile of cosmetics haphazardly on Bianca's lap, Adrianna proceeded lean forward with rapt attention as the tour bus continued on its bumpy way downward, the guide's monotone voice droning on and on.
Bianca poked Ebony, who had succeeded in immersing herself in a half-asleep state. "Wha—"
"Glittery lovely lavender lip gloss or shiny cherry pink lip gloss?" demanded Bianca, reading off the labels on the lip gloss containers. "Apparently, both are guaranteed to make your lips look 'utterly kissable.' Hey, are these from the same company?"
"Mmhm—" Ebony broke off sleepily, letting out a huge yawn.
The Italian girl was abruptly cut off by Adrianna, who hissed, "Be quiet, Bianca! Some of us are trying to listen—ooh, wow, I never knew I had that color!" Adrianna, apparently completely distracted from her rapt attention to the guide, snatched the "Lovely Lavender" lip gloss from Bianca's hand and smacked a light layer on her lips.
Bianca rolled her eyes. "Why do I even put up with you, Adrianna? Guess that leaves cherry pink for me. Hmph; I never really liked the color pink anyways…"
And so, with that conversation still ringing in her ears, Ebony dozed off from the land of the living.
She was running, running ever so fast—why was she running? She couldn't figure out, couldn't think; there wasn't enough time, for she had to run away, away—away from what?
Not enough time!
Sharp pains were running up her stomach; her ribs ached, and her lungs burned—stop! Stop! She must stop; she couldn't run anymore—too tired, too tired, far too tired… She had to stop, or she would collapse when she needed her strength most…
She was sure this was a dream; very sure, for she heard muted voices talking, murmuring frantically in her ear in some other universe—but how could a mere dream inspire such a pure, tangible fear that only true life had the right of initiating?
No, this couldn't be a dream—of course not!—this was real, she was real. And the monster, the beast, the unadulterated evil, that was real, so very, frighteningly real—
But the evil wasn't evil, was it, for nothing could be purely evil—right? And there was something so terrifyingly, so awfully, so strangely inviting about letting that darkness envelope you and calm you and stifle you, for if you let it, there was nothing to worry about, nothing at all—
Now, a scream! Who was screaming, why were they screaming? A feeling of trepidation, apprehension, fright shot through her heart; now she must run, she must go, fly far away, as far as she could! She felt herself trip, falling forever—the ground came rushing up to meet her, and she caught the glimpses of a gaudy, crimson dress as deep as blood and a rich, lavishly decorated stone room like a castle, like a golden cage, before blackness came to meet her instead of the stone floor—
"Ebony!" Adrianna's slightly annoyed call interrupted Ebony's trip to the land of the dreaming, and, shaking herself awake, she glanced up with slightly bloodshot eyes at her friend.
"It's time to go! We've reached—what's it called? Hoover Castle or Harrington Castle or something."
"Are you alright?" added Bianca. "You were murmuring something about running away; you looked like you were having a nightmare."
Ebony shrugged. "Well, I really don't remember the dream. Something about running away or whatever; I remember I had a really pretty red dress on, though."
Her friends giggled, saying, "Of course. Of course you'll be wearing a pretty red dress in whatever dream you're in!"
And the vestiges of the dream, already floating on the edge of Ebony's memory, disappeared.
The castle was a pile of rocks.
That was the first, although admittedly ineloquent, though Ebony had to describe the mass of stones that had once been a magnificent castle (although Ebony had trouble believing that). To be fair, of course, it still retained much of its original structure, and it was exaggerating a bit to claim that the bastion was merely a pile of rocks. However, Ebony, who had never felt any appreciation for history, felt saying that the castle was "a pile of rocks" was sufficient enough a description.
It seemed, however, that Adelaide had another idea in her head. She, the little historian of the group, had been excitedly spouting random facts about Hoover Castle at nearly the speed of light for the last half hour, and Ebony decided that her ears were starting to ache dully from having to listen to Adelaide ramble on.
Adrianna, however, seemed oblivious to the world as she continued admiring the guide, while Bianca yawned, sounding rather chagrined when she realized the Adrianna would rather drool over the guide than talk to her.
"—Please keep in mind that entrance into the castle is prohibited at all times. Large portions of the castle's roof and floors are unstable and consequently unsafe and are prone to collapsing without warning at any given time, so these safety precautions are obviously necessary," droned the guide. He looked, noticed Ebony, as though he would rather be anywhere else doing anything else than chaperoning a group of bothersome high school students as they looked at some rundown castle.
Ebony jabbed Adrianna, tired of her countless sighs as she looked on and moaned that the guide was not paying her the slightest bit of attention. "See how boring he is? How could any girl like him?"
Adrianna sighed again, sounding and looking truly pathetic. "But he's so absolutely fine, Ebony… I'm withering away for his love…"
Bianca rolled her eyes. "Come on, Adrianna. By this time tomorrow, you'll have forgotten all about him!"
"No, I won't!" mourned Adrianna. "There's something different about him! Something I haven't felt before about anyone or anything else—"
"You always say that, Adrianna," added Adelaide. "Hey, how about we help you get over him?"
Ebony looked skeptically at Adelaide. "Why would we do that?"
"So we won't have to listen to Adrianna whine about the stupid guide!" replied Adelaide, as though it was obvious. "I've read in a book that, in order to get over guys, we need to do something the guy doesn't want us to do. I know it doesn't make sense, but hey, it's worth a try."
"Well, he did say not to go in the castle…" started Bianca slowly.
"And since he told us not to do it, we should…" finished Ebony.
Adrianna frowned. "Well, it sounds fun, I guess. But no guarantees that I'll get over the totally hot guide, okay?"
"You always say that," muttered Adelaide. "I mean, aren't you ever going to get tired?"
"Never, ever, never," sighed Adrianna in what she most likely assumed a lovesick manner.
"Never say never!" retorted Bianca in a high-pitched, sing-song voice, her tone about an octave higher than her regular one.
Ebony's death was planned today.
Of course, as she foolhardily sneaked into the derelict, antediluvian, ancient castle, Ebony couldn't know that. The only thing she was aware of was the thrill of another caper well done and the vaguely forbidding feeling she received from the fortress, which she immediately put out of her mind.
And perhaps it was unfair to say that her death was planned; for how could one truly die if they still existed? But for all practical reasoning, Ebony was to die an inexplicable, unfathomable, and bizarre death.
At the moment, however, all Ebony thought of was Adrianna's continuingly excited blabber, Bianca's impulsive daring, Adelaide's cautious silence, and her own uneasy fear. There was something unusually familiar about the castle, as though she had been in that place in some life long past, and there was something not quite right about the scattered furniture and dusty, cobwebby corners.
To be sure, it was certainly gloomy and dusty and ancient enough to not be from anywhere else but some antiquated, abandoned, neglected mainstay and something about the very presence of the place seemed to permeate to Ebony a sense of profound age, of impossible ancientness.
There had been nothing of interest so far, noted Ebony, except for a few curiosities here and there which were immediately solved by Adelaide's historical genius. They had passed by several stained glass windows, somehow enduring past rain and wind and snow and heat—and the hands of ruthless thieves. Ebony was not surprised, however; the very fort gave off a cold, uninviting air. She was rather surprised that none of her friends had commented on it.
Finally, Ebony broke the thick silence like a sharp knife through butter, saying, "This isn't going anywhere. What're we going to do?"
Bianca was the first to answer. "Well, I really don't know. I think we passed this staircase. How about we go poke around a little bit and come back before anyone misses us?"
The rest murmured assent and turned their course around, Ebony leading. She couldn't help but notice, however, the uneasy looks which adorned the faces of the other girls, and she was sure she wore a look very similar to theirs. Their was nothing she wanted to do more than return to the guide's group, but seeing the brave impudence Bianca wore, she could not bring herself to declare her fear. Anyways, she was curious as to what secrets the castle held; a little poking around here and there never hurt anybody, did it?
Finally they reached the magnificent stone staircase. Most of the handle had collapsed and the jewels which had obviously once adorned this spiraling wonder were gone. Tentatively trying out the stairs, they slowly made their way upwards, until finally they were looking at the second floor.
It was little more than a cavernous hall that twisted and turned, and only the various cracks in the stone gave any hint of light. Dust swirled almost excitedly in the air, having been disturbed for the first time in who knew how many years.
There was a square-shaped opening set deeply to one side in the walls, and Ebony inferred that a door must once have been fitted in to the niche. After a small, ginger peek in with her friends, they saw that the room was bathed in bright, golden sunlight, the cause of the remains of some large window.
They carefully stepped in the room, and Ebony's breath caught as she saw a mirror off to one side. It was no ordinary mirror; on the contrary, it was full-length with a gilded frame, richly decorated and embedded with semiprecious stones, the glass unscratched. The mirror was eerily untouched by the countless years which should have weathered away at it, and so struck by this peculiarity was Ebony that she paid no attention to the dirtied paintings or the broken chairs or the grimy floors. Instead, as though drawn towards it, she trudged towards the mirror in almost a dream-like state.
Adelaide was cooing over the paintings and Adrianna enjoying the view; Bianca was taking a closer look at the furniture, so none noticed Ebony making her way towards the mirror, seemingly fascinated.
Ebony looked at herself and saw a pale-skinned, too-thin girl with rod-straight coal hair staring back at her—herself. Yet there was something different about her reflection she could not catch; was it that long, crooked grin that seemed to stretch on forever, or those empty eyes, the same shade as her hazel ones yet so much darker? For Ebony could never remember having smirked like that—a simple touch told her that her that she was frowning anyways, and she had always thought her eyes never looked like that.
Then she noticed the background.
It was a castle, of course, but lavishly decorated with vividly colored portraits and tapestries hung on the walls and warm mahogany furniture. There was a strand of pearls just visible on the bureau, but when Ebony looked back, the chest of drawers was only a decrepit pile of wood; it seemed as though the mirror showed a version of the castle in its prime.
Seemingly entranced, half-swimming in a daze, Ebony reached out and touched the mirror, drawing back sharply when a sharp pain shot up her right index finger. She saw a cut and a drop of blood welling up, and in a half-dreaming state, the flung her arm back and saw the scarlet drop flying onto the mirror's surface.
The next thing that happened should have been firmly dismissed as a figment of an overactive imagination, for the blood slowly soaked into the mirror's glass surface, as though the looking glass was drinking it, but of course no such thing happened, reasoned Ebony's befuddled mind.
Then she saw a color she had never seen before and a flash of bright light, and all was dark.
And all is dark,
And all is light,
It knoweth not
It knoweth not,
And it is Dreaming,
And it is Pain and Life,
It is butterfly wings
In soft moonlight;
It is twinkling stars
Upon moon's breast…
A young girl's voice was singing, high and pure and melodious. What was she singing, Ebony wondered vaguely, and what was Dreaming? Was she in Dreaming now?
Her eyes opened blearily, somehow taking great effort, as though they weighed a ton at best. She was filled with a delightfully drowsy feeling, making it seem as though all was right with the world—
She immediately wished she hadn't opened her eyes, for the only thing that met her was dark, impenetrable dark. This darkness somehow had a tangible quality, as though you could touch it and hold it, as though it could hold you for an eternity. The darkness back home, the darkness Ebony could now barely remember, had been somehow flat; you could see shadows and silhouettes in it, and you could get rid of the darkness anytime you wished with a simple flick of a switch.
And where was Adelaide, Adrianna, and Bianca? Where had they gone to; where was she?
And tinkling laughter,
Soothe the beast's ears,
And delicate roses,
With velvety petals,
And love's same sweet smile,
With a tinkling giggle…
That song was very pretty, wasn't it? thought Ebony, somewhere in the very back of her mind. About Dreaming… what had I wondered about Dreaming? Where're—what are their names? Anna—no; that's not right… Ade—Adelaide? Yes, that's one of them—oh! It's Adrianna, Adelaide, and—and—and Bianca! Yes! But why can't I remember them…?
Her mind trailed off, succumbing to the drowsiness that had been plaguing her for ever since she had opened her eyes.