He leads me by still waters in the moonlight, pulling me along with him to things unseen and unknown. Holographic images will flicker but what is real will stay the same. Screens go dark as we pass, his ancient lighter clicking them off and keeping us in secrecy. Though the terms have changed, wizardry is wizardry, after all- and then we plunge into the real darkness, the point of this excursion.
Catacombs dripping with the wet and cobwebs growing in the few dry corners. The ring on my finger glitters, organic hair falls in our faces sweat drips down our backs. Grinning, a flash of white teeth in the light of the torch, and green eyes glint when the light hits the bone. These things are the last remnants of a dying world, and the only things left to touch.
We tuck into a corner beneath projected elms (for the pothole cover has gone missing) and he pulls me closer to him. And this moment is real.
Sound of twigs snapping in the forest, rustling leaves, waves crashing to hit the shore: footsteps.
Jolting to our feet, eyes wide with fear, we look about ourselves anxiously, for who else would be here? Taboo, taboo, the officials warned. Danger lurks in these dark places, especially waiting for those who would ignore the signs. But what signs? We’d scoffed; nothing in this world is permanent or real and yet everything is. Looking at our breath in heavy white clouds, the moonlight flickers, and with a resounding clang the space of light is empty no more.
Ajlal, he whispers, pulling at my braid in fear. Ajlal, what do we do?
Hadlai, I say back, sucking in my breath and turning to face him. Hadlai, what do you mean what do we do? We run!
And we did. Shuffling footsteps walked around behind us, gaining, gaining, moving towards us with uncertain speed. Moaning, gasping, gaping, groaning fills the air in an ever-growing, ever increasing chorus of voices. Zombies like those in the movies, but no, those are impossible, shouting, screaming, moving faster and faster and faster- pumping arms at my sides, breaths of white air, feet slamming into the ancient pavement- and then falling
Hitting something solid
Heartbeat pounding, slowing down with the time, I am not real, I am not real, I am not real, the chant spirals on in my head as I close my eyes for what I am certain is the last time and then a sick spiraling feeling as the water seeps into my clothing and my hair is free of the scarf I was covering it with and I am going to die I am going to die I am going to die and then the panic truly sets in and my thoughts are this run-on sentence and I scrabble for something to hold to tell me that I am real and nausea heaves my sides and a pounding headache sets in and there are tears running down my face and I am hyperventilating because of all the things that could go wrong that have already gone wrong because I am a failure to my family and to Hadlai and it’s no wonder nobody wants to be my friend I’m just useless and now I’m going to die right in front of them and they’re just shaking their heads in disappointment I can seem them and I am not real I am not real I am not real I am not real
I am dying now, beyond the reach of anyone I am not real I am not real I am not real I am not real I am not real I am not real I am not real I a m n o t r e a l I a m n o t r e a l
And then he touches my shoulder, saying Ajlal Ajlal it’s okay you are real you can calm down.
And he is my point of clarity in this swirling storm of darkness and anxiety and then I realize that the moaning is gone but my anxiety attack is continuing and now I’m screaming and crying and falling deeper into the pit and I can’t even describe what is happening except I am dying I am dying I am dying even though I know I am not and-. His hand finds mine and I take it and I hold onto it because with all that is going on even though my vision is perfectly fine I feel like I do not belong to this world anymore and like I am not real not real not real not real not solid and my heart is going so fast I can’t even feel it anymore and how has it not burst already and the headache is insane and the buzzing starts spreading from my fingertips towards my head and I just know that if it reaches my head I will pass out and then it does and
Waking up, eyes open, was I asleep? Blinding light meets my eyes and dirt showers over my face, but I don’t feel it like I should. It just sounds funny.
Distant memory, very distant, hard to reach in the back of my mind, memory of pain and sadness, but faint now. It’s gone. I move for Hadlai’s hand and find it already curled around my own. It’s an excavation up there. Finally they managed to get that motion passed; I thought it never would.
Holy crapola! one of the men says. Look you guys, I found something for the history books.
Oh my goodness! a woman exclaims, clapping her hands over her mouth. We’ve found them. I thought they were a story, just something the wives told at night to scare the children.
So sad, an older man with glasses and a weathered face clucks. Right beneath the entrance. I wonder why they never got out?
Never got out? I wonder slowly, blearily, still waking up. Why are these strange and sun-colored people talking about us as though we aren’t right in front of their face I can hear you and the last echoes of that panic attack begin to affect my mind but then I realize my heart isn’t beating.
Hadlai, I say (or try to, it turns out I can’t). I turn my head or try to and I can’t and then I strain my eyes downwards and I realize there is no flesh on my bones literally because