It burned with a bone deep, throbbing ache, different from fire only by name. The water pressed against every inch of skin, no matter how much I struggled. I tried with every ounce of energy left in my body to find air, to seek out a reprieve from the burning in my lungs - or to just let this end the other way. The seconds felt like they were years, and my hopes grew fainter. I had no way out of this one. Unless someone saved me, unless they cut my ankle free of this rope, I was as good as dead.
And who was there to save me?
Light broke on the surface of the water, so tantalizingly close, only inches away from my outstretched fingertips. It was too far to do me any good. Just beyond the rippling edge of my prison (tomb?) I could see the dark shadows of a man looking down at me. Watching. The last bubbles escaped my lungs, in what amounted to a scream of anger, fear, and resignation. The man turned and left, disappearing over the sharp dark line that was the edge of a dock. It was over.
That was the day I died.
Your brain does funny things when it dies. In those last few seconds, when it's already over, it's like your brain decides to give you just a moment's peace. The pain stops, and the world slows down to a perfect crystal moment. I lay there, in the water, staring up at where the light was, just on the other side of the surface. My clothes floated just against my skin, and my shoes mixed with the heavy weight of the rope bound to the cinderblock to pin me in space. I was suspended, free of gravity, free of mere mortal things like breathing. My body shuddered visibly with each beat of my heart.
I slowly sank, the rope no longer taught. Without the air in my lungs to buoy me to the surface, the weight of my clothes was enough to drag me gradually lower. The pebbled bottom of the river stirred as the cinderblock shifted its weight. I saw the rope that held me there; such a delicate little knot. One I could untie, I was sure of it. But I didn't. I was so, so tired… It was better to just go to sleep right there.
So I did.
It was not a dreamless sleep.
I found myself standing upright somewhere so dark that at first I could see nothing. As my eyes adjusted, the darkness gave way to a warm candlelight; except there were no candles to be seen. The ground under my feet was so smooth and polished that at first I mistook it for marble or tile, but at second glance I realized it was the floor of a natural cavern. I could only see two walls, one in front of me and one behind me; to either side, the cavern stretched far beyond the light to places I couldn't see. The walls were smooth and came to right angles with the floor, and were completely lined with huge wooden bookshelves stained a deep red. The books that lay there were all the same height, but the widths varied from slimmer than my pinkie to wider than my shoulders. They were bound with dyed leather that could be any color of the rainbow, and had gold-leaf letters in a language I couldn't read down their spines. Some were so new that they shined, and some were so old that the leather had worn down to its natural color at the edges and cracked along the spine.
I took a step forwards, reaching out a hand towards the books. They were just so pretty. The ground quivered in response, and a gentle voice said from behind me,
A little pulse of adrenaline raced through my blood and made me flinch away, turning to glance over my shoulder at the source of the voice. There was no one. I turned slowly, guarded.
"Who's there?" I asked, my voice small but echoing for minutes in the cavern.
A small chuckle came from the darkness on either side, and then the shadows retreated a few more feet to reveal a daias. Upon the daias sat a throne, and upon the throne sat a man. The man and throne had been made for each other. The throne was sparkling black stone - onyx or obsidian, I could never keep them straight - and it cast light around like small mirrors on every facet. It was shaped like a dragon, with the dragon's chest making the back of the throne, its great head bowed down towards the man sitting there. The man himself had black hair that blended with the stone and a black tunic that drifted like smoke and shadows. His skin was the color of copper, and his face was so strong and sharp it could have been chiseled from stone, just as the throne had been. His eyes were the sharp, pale gold of a hungry wolf.
He got to his feet with a strange grace and I suddenly realized exactly how big this man was. He stood over two feet taller than me, and his shoulders were three times as wide as mine. If there was more than an ounce of fat under his skin, I would have been shocked.
I opened my mouth to repeat my question, but my tongue was too dry to speak.
"You're early," he said. His voice was surprisingly warm and kind, and even though his mouth was serious, his cheeks made his eyes crinkle in a half-smile.
"E-" My voice broke, and I cleared my throat. "-Early?"
"I wasn't expecting you for quite some time," he said, nodding gravely, but his eyes sparkled. "Another couple centuries, in fact."
"I… Sorry?" I knew all the words he said, but the combination didn't make any sense. My brain was running through quicksand. I thought back to the river, and suddenly felt water dripping down my arms. "I'm dead, aren't I?"
He shook his head. "Only visiting."
"I'm not sure I understand." My brows came together in a frown.
"If I were to explain everything to you, that would require your visit to become permanent," he said. "The living cannot understand death."
I couldn't help but shiver. "I… I don't know if I want to go back."
His dark eyebrow quirked up, and the smile abruptly left his eyes. "You don't?"
"I don't know," I said, shivering again. "Dying hurt. I don't think I've ever felt that much pain and fear. If I go back, that means I have to do it again some day."
"This is true," he acknowledged, his expression somber. "But there is so much happiness in the years you could have between now and then. So much love. So many memories."
I crossed my arms over my chest to conserve warmth. When had it gotten so cold in here? "I haven't had much of those recently."
"No, I suppose not," he said, tilting his head. His eyes flashed as he watched me. "I'm afraid you have much more left to do in the land of the living. I suppose you might even say that your life will begin with your death."
I frowned at that. "I don't exactly have exciting, world-changing plans for my life. I'm not sure how much it will matter if I die now, or if I die at the ripe old age of eighty."
His eyes widened and he looked at me for just a moment in disbelief. Then he threw back his head and let out a belly-deep laugh full of genuine mirth and amusement. I stood there, taken aback, trying to figure out why what I said was funny.
"You have no idea, do you?" he asked, when his laughter had finally subsided enough for him to speak. "You have no idea what you will become?" He then knelt and stared into my eyes, as though I was a curious puzzle he was trying to understand. "Do you even know why you were murdered?"
I opened my mouth, but no words came to me in response. We stared at each other in silence for a moment. Then a sudden sharp, ripping pain tore itself through my chest and I cried out, falling to my knees. It felt like I had taken a fastball to my sternum.
"We don't have much time," the man said, staring down at me. Another blossom of pain fanned out from my chest, squeezing the air from my lungs and making me choke. "When you awaken, I need you to seek out a man named Martin Lestrade. Or else I fear you will never become who you were meant to."
I tried to gasp for breath, but another stab ran through my body.
"Good luck. You know where to find me," he said.
The cavern blurred, and the light suddenly went out. The darkness was complete. Something brushed against my lips, and it felt like someone had shoved a vacuum cleaner in reverse down my throat. I coughed and spluttered, and my eyelids flew open to see clouds overhead. My chest and stomach lurched violently and I rolled over, promptly coughing and retching up more water than I would have thought possible.
"Oh, thank God," a voice said. "Thank God."
I groaned once the water was out of my stomach and lungs, and flopped down in the bile and water. I didn't have the energy to go anywhere else.
"I didn't think it would work," the voice said. "I mean, I'd seen it in movies, but I didn't think it would work. You were so cold, I thought it was over…"
The speaker's voice made my head pound. It felt like someone was kicking an empty bucket around inside my skull. The pain and discomfort was so intense it actually rivaled literally dying.
"Oh, I'm blathering. I'm blathering again, aren't I? I'm so sorry. Here, let me help. Let me just…" the voice said, and then I felt a small but strong hand on my shoulder push me over onto my back. My muscles burned like I had just completed a workout four times harder than anything I had ever done before. I let out a small moan of protest. "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't hurt you, did I? Oh, I did. I'm so sorry. Are you okay? What should I do? Should I call 9-1-1? Or are you going to be fine? Can you sit up?"
"Ungh," I managed.
"Frank, if you don't calm down, this girl is going to lose her mind," a dry, feminine voice said. I squinted up against the bright sky above me and saw a young man leaning down over me, his hand still resting on my shoulder. A woman stood a few feet back from him, her arms crossed over her chest and her left eyebrow arched.
"Oh. Right, right," the man said, sitting back on his heels. "Sorry again."
"Frank," the woman said again, with a sigh. "Stand on up. Come on. Give her a little room." He did, and I sat up as slowly and as gingerly as I could.
"Thank you," I said. My voice was rough and barely seemed to work. I glanced around me and saw that I was sitting on the same dock that I had been thrown off of. I felt ill, and if anything had been left in my body, I certainly would have thrown up again.
"How do you feel?" the woman asked.
"Like I tried to wrestle a cruise liner," I said, and coughed again.
"We need to take you to a hospital," she said. "We can either drive you there, or call an ambulance to get you."
Panic fluttered in my chest, even though I wasn't certain why. "I don't need a hospital," I said. My lungs burned as I spoke. "I'm alive. I'm out of the water. I'm good."
"That's true," she said patiently, "But you need to seek medical attention after drowning. Otherwise you could have complications and you could still die. I read a news article once about a little boy who ended up dying even after he was saved."
I squinted up at her suspiciously. "I've never heard of that."
"Oh, it's true," the skinny young man said. "And you were under for a very long time, so you definitely need to go get checked out."
I swallowed and I asked, "A very long time?"
"Yeah," he said, and nodded. "We would have gotten you sooner, but…" He trailed off, looking at his companion.
"Well, we didn't want to get murdered too," the woman said.
My mouth felt dry (which I thought was a great injustice, considering I had just literally drowned). "Murdered."
"Well… Yeah," Frank said, kind of awkwardly. My eyes had adjusted to the sunlight and I looked up at my rescuers. Frank was short and thin, with pale, pasty skin and wire glasses that kept sliding down his nose. The woman next to him was taller, athletic, and had light brown hair that fell in a curtain to her shoulders.
"Murdered," I repeated, staring down at my soaking wet clothes. My ankle was still tied to the rope, its end cut raggedly about a foot long. I supposed that the cinderblock was still at the bottom of the river.
"Yeah," Frank said again, fidgeting with his glasses nervously. "We saw the whole thing from that window up there. We saw those thugs in suits, we saw the cinderblock, we saw them push you off… We saw them wait and then leave…" He was pointing towards an old warehouse that stood at the end of the dock, hiding it from the street.
"They just left?" I asked.
"Yeah." Frank nodded. "I mean, they waited until bubbles came up, and then some. But they probably didn't want to stay at the scene, ya know?"
"Sure," I said. "Makes sense."
"Once they left, we came down here to see if we could help you," the woman said. "If it was too late, we were gonna call it in to the cops."
"I wasn't optimistic," Frank said, bouncing on his heels. "Brain damage happens around five minutes without oxygen, you know. And you were under for almost twenty. I thought I was doing CPR on a hopeless corpse! But we had to try anyway, didn't we?"
"Gee," I mumbled, "Thanks for your valiance."
My sarcasm went clear over his head.
"It's honestly a miracle you lived at all, much less cognizant enough to have a conversation," the woman mused. "But we really must take you to the ER - as I'm sure you understand. So, shall we drive, or call you an ambulance?"
"My name's not An Ambulance," I muttered under my breath. Neither of them laughed. I shivered and closed my eyes. I was expecting more fear, more panic, more relief; all I felt was numb. "No hospitals."
"No hosp-" she started, then broke off, shaking her head in disbelief. "You realize you could die, right? This isn't a debate."
"I do not agree to going to a hospital," I said firmly. "Besides, I already died once today. Might as well go for a record."
I gingerly reached out my hands and felt for a secure angle to push myself to my feet. I staggered slightly, but found my balance in a moment.
"But… Why?" Frank asked, aghast.
"The last thing I need is word reaching back to my killers that I am still alive."
They stared at me for a moment, processing my words. Frank apparently came to the realization that a bunch of thugs might have just murdered me because I was dangerous, and took half a step backwards, until he and the woman stood shoulder to shoulder.
"Uh, hey… So, why did they kill you, again?" Frank asked, his voice a little higher pitched and squeakier than before.
I opened my mouth before realizing that I didn't actually know the answer. I frowned, trying to flip through my memories from just before being in the river, and found myself coming up short. My memory in the hours leading up to my murder was blank. I tried to reach earlier and found absolutely nothing. There were vague gestures of remembered emotion, but it was almost like trying to remember a dream. Everything slipped through my fingers.
"I wish I knew," I said eventually. The only memory I actually had was of that creepy cave library I had dreamt up in the oxygen-deprived moments of my drowning.
"Uh, cool," Frank said, putting his hands out in the kind of gesture you'd use to placate a mental patient. "So no hospitals. Got there anything we could do to… uh… help? Maybe give you a ride somewhere?"
I closed my eyes and became aware I was shaking. I thought through everything I knew, which was woefully little, to try and figure out what I should do. The numbness of my emotions made it hard to think. I was so tired. Who would have thought dying was exhausting?
Well, there was only one thing I could do. Only one thing I knew. Only one place to go. "Do either of you know a Martin Lestrade?"