“Come here, child.”
The dark hooded figure beckons me closer. I dig my bare feet into the ground, willing myself not to move. I clench my fists tightly, resisting the invisible force pushing me towards the creature, leaving half-moon marks on the palms of my hands. Finally, the struggle becomes useless as I am thrust forward, and I stumble. My heart pounds through me, bringing new waves of desperation with each passing second. He begins to cackle hysterically, slipping his fingers underneath his hood, and reveals mane of wild russet hair and penetrating crimson eyes. The realization quickly sweeps through me that the creature is not human, but a Ratarf, a messenger of our enemy country, Centuria. He grabs me by the collar of my gown and tosses me into the fire before him. I cry out into the darkness surrounding us as I am swallowed up by the hungry flames.
“Scarlett? Scarlett!” Icy fingers trace along my burning cheeks and arms, waking me with a start. I am drenched in sweat, my blankets in a heap on the ground beside my bed. Snapping into consciousness, my mind registers the parade of Officials clothed in white lab jackets headed for me. In my exhausted state, still drunken with sleep, I notice the urgent beeping coming from within my dream watcher, which is still plastered to my forehead. I reach up to peel it off of me. My heart numbs and the world stops as I read the small white device. Very clearly, in precise green ink is the word nightmare.
Nightmare. The blood drains from my face. Growing to an earsplitting roar, the alarms continue to sound. In an instant, my mother and father and sister push through the growing swarm of Officials to reach me. My mother is still in her sleep clothes, her face pasty, her eyes sick with fear. She swiftly smoothes the mess of dark bangs from my eyes and wraps her arms protectively around me. I cling to her with all my might, but we all know that a mother’s love is powerless against them. The monsters dressed in white approach me, and seize me from the bed by my shoulders. My father solemnly presses my mother’s face into his own shoulder to muffle her terrorized screams. No one muffles my shrill chorus of shrieks as they promptly carry me outside. I will not go down without a fight. I swing my body and thrash about violently until they have to pin me down on the sidewalk in front of my dwelling place.
“Shut up! You’ll wake the entire city.”
A broad shouldered Official with graying ginger hair and fury in his eyes covers my mouth with a foul smelling hand. I bite it. His blood reeks of sour milk. He yelps and jumps backwards, clutching his hand to his chest. Several other Officials begin to murmur above me. I strain to listen. I hear things like, “She’s a feisty one,” and “We’ll never get her there if we don’t give her the toxin.”
Get me where? I wonder. And then I realize. They’re sending me to the Asylum.
A fierce looking woman with a thin lipped pout and angular eyebrows steps toward me. She rummages around in a large white cargo bag, muttering to herself, until she finally produces a thin glass vile, containing a whispery red substance. Carefully measuring my reaction, she bends down by my side. She releases two identical droplets onto the inside of my left wrist, and I watch helplessly as they seep into my skin. The moment they come into contact with me, my insides feel as if they are being tied into knots, like old laundry being wrung out to dry. The sensation is excruciating, but I refuse to give them pleasure from my suffering. I force my expression into a vacant stare, blank as a peeled potato. The pain intensifies. I chew on my lip until I have no choice but to swallow a mouthful of my own blood. Eventually my eyelids grow too heavy, and then I see nothing.
I lie face down. My cheek is pressed against the icy metal of the floor as I struggle to open my eyes. Somewhere in the back of my mind registers that I am no longer on the walkway, but in a dark windowless room. I sit up too quickly and bash my head against the low ceiling. It throbs painfully, and I clutch my knees to my chest, trying to steady myself. I notice that the ropes binging my arms have been removed. Flexing my fingers, I sense that I am not alone. Once the dizziness has subsided, I lift my head slowly and drink in my surroundings. It seems to be an alcove, surrounded by shiny aluminum on all sides. A door is located directly in front of me. Slowly standing up, I place a shaky hand on the handle and breathe in, pausing for a moment. Anything, I realize with horror, could be on the other side of the wall. A herd of starved wolves ready to tear me apart, a family of ogres who have all ready divided my parts amongst themselves. I shudder, thinking of one feasting on my leg, the other my neck.
Stop it. That kind of thinking will not help. Before another wave of nauseating thoughts arrived, I grab the doorknob and jam it open.
The iron door is surprising light, and I stumble forward from the lack of weight to support me. On my knees, I see that the floor is a spotless white. Glancing upwards, everything is white. I have stepped into a large room, appearing to be an office of some sort. One wall has been replaced with a large window stretching from ceiling to floor. No sign of the outside world, though, as an unnatural gray cloud stretched across, blocking the view. From me? Or was it always like that? Curious, I step closer and press my nose against the glass. It is cold, and my breath makes a little circle of warmth on the icy windowpane.
“No, no, mustn’t touch the glass!” Alarmed, I jump back as a plump little woman clad in an overwhelming amount of pink hurries toward me, ushering me away with a few swishes of her overly adorned hands.
Murmuring nonsense to herself, she seats herself in a cushioned rocking chair in front of a large iron desk. As she becomes engrossed in adjusting a lilac flower pin on her blazer, which was also pink, I think about how out of place the woman looks in a dark place like this. I am about to point this out to her when she suddenly seems to remember me and gestures to a black wooden stool directly in front of the desk. “ Sit down, go on.” Silently, I perch on the very edge of the stool, ready to leap at a moment’s notice. I do not trust her. Something’s wrong. Apparently satisfied with my action, she begins to speak again. “Good. You are Scarlett Murray, are you not?” Ignoring the strong feeling that she is already quite sure of this, I nod curtly. “Excellent. You may call me Floran.” She giggled, a shrill, delighted sound you would expect from a three year old girl presented with a kitten. “And this morning, I understand that your dream watcher signified a nightmare?”
I am unsure of how to respond. As I sit there trying to form words, her eyes take on a kind of unnatural glow, like the embers burning in the oven of my father’s metal shop. Her voice becomes dangerously soft, and in an instant, her face is inches from my own. “Did you, or did you not have a nightmare last night?” My nostrils fill with the stink of rotten rose petals. I nod sharply. “Use words, girl!” She promptly slaps my cheek. Stunned, I place a hand protectively over the smarting skin. I speak quickly to avoid further punishment. “Yes.”
Smirking, the demon sits back, obviously toying with me. She clicks her tongue several times. After each sound, my desire to slap her own powdered little cheek grows stronger. I place my hands underneath me to resist temptation. “ And you knew full well that nightmares are not permitted here in Bellanovia.”
Anger wells up inside of me. “I have no control over what I dream!”
She simply shakes her head in a mocking way. “Scarlett, Scarlett, Scarlett. Your dreams, along with every other citizen’s dreams, have been monitored every single night of your existence. You are expected to be capable of pleasant thoughts by now.” She giggles again. I flex my fingers. “Dreams,” she says, “reflect who we are. By watching your dreams, we can tell who you are inside. When you have nasty dreams, you are a nasty person. And the last thing the Society needs is a nasty person to destroy their spotless reputation.” She rises from her chair and bounces over to a large black door across the room. “And let me just say, your dreams were rather…” She pretends to glance around the room as if looking for the word, then settling her gaze back on me. “Nasty.” She opens the door, revealing the entrance to what appears to be an endless black tunnel. Her violet eyes flicker with hatred. She grins, bearing about twice the amount of tiny white teeth that a human should have. “Enjoy your time in the Asylum!”
No! I scream and turn to run, but the noise catches in my throat as two burly men dressed in black business suits seize me from behind. I struggle against them with all my might, but to no avail. They remain unaffected, eyes concealed behind dark shades as they march me toward the door. Heart pounding excruciatingly fast, I loose it. The tears stream from my eyes, reopening the wounds across my cheeks. Blood and salt run into my mouth. My hair plasters to my cheeks, and my shoulders quake as I sob hysterically. I’ve heard the stories. I know what happens in the Asylum. I am done. Gone. No one ever comes out alive. As we get closer, I strain to see the ray of sunlight peeking out from under the cloud by the window. I cherish the beam of light, knowing it will be my last. Without another word, they toss me down the tunnel, and I am sent shooting down a narrow copper passageway. As I soar down into the darkness, fear claims me. My voice has been reduced to nothing more than a raspy whisper, and my limbs tremble. Large nails have been embedded in the metal, and they scrape at my flesh as I fall deeper and deeper. Eventually, I reach the end of the burrow, and gratefully crumble into a trembling heap. I remain there for a long time, gasping and sputtering, trying desperately to steady my throbbing heartbeat, and waiting for my limbs to stop quivering. My breath catches when I hear the footsteps. Cautious at first, now gaining speed, probably sensing that I am weak. I close my eyes and prepare for the worst. Flinching, I feel the shadow fall over me. Nothing happens. I dare to open my eyes. A girl crouches before me. She is younger than I am. Judging by her flower patterned play dress, which is now blood smeared and tattered, I sense that she cannot be more than thirteen, maybe fourteen at most. Her fiery hair hangs in shreds about her hollow cheeks, but her eyes have been spared by her time spent here. They are still lovely. Haunting, but lovely.
“Hello?” The sound of her voice snaps my senses back into perspective. I sit up and shake my head, trying to clear it.
“Yes.” I do not know this girl, but I feel as if something is oddly familiar about her. Somehow, my instincts want to trust her. I allow her to take my hand and pull me deeper still into the darkness.
“Come on,” she says, easily navigating around the piles of rubble and bones littering the floor. Her voice seems to quiver with excitement. “I’ll introduce you to the others. I follow behind, clumsily banging into things, my eyes not yet accustomed to the dark. And then I see it. A tiny ray of sunlight has found it’s way in through an unrepaired crack in the wall. In spite of myself, I smile. I will find a way out.