Annabel screamed as she fell, landing hard on her stomach. She pushed herself to her knees, looking around, but darkness pressed on her eyes from all directions, like a blindfold she couldn’t take off.
Just moments ago, she had been lying on the floor of the cave with William’s pale, terrified face hovering above her. She could still feel her eyes stinging from the tears, her cheeks itching from the wet traces they left. Her chest was still tight with horror and heartbreak.
Running her hands over her body, she searched for the wounds, for the blood and the pain she had felt in the cave, but she found nothing. Was this what Ariana felt when she died? Was she now dead, too? How did that happen?
Anna looked around again, trying to find anything to orient herself in this strange place. There was no light coming from anywhere; there was no draft or shift in the air around her even as she breathed; she couldn’t smell anything or feel anything.
She touched the ground she was standing on, running her palms over it. The surface was unnaturally smooth—neither hot nor cold, neither too hard nor too soft. She crawled forward, searching for anything different, anything that could tell her what this place was.
Getting to her feet, Annabel twirled around again. Was she really dead? Was this heaven or hell? Why was nothing happening? Even if she was destined for hell after everything she had done, she was fine with it. Anything but this empty darkness.
Her foot landed in something wet and sticky, and for the first time in what felt like forever, she heard the sound of muck splashing on the ground. On instinct, she looked down, only to realize with a shock that she could finally see her body.
Her left leg had sunk up to her ankle in a puddle of dark water. She pulled it up, kicking in the air as it splashed everywhere. Whatever it was that she had stepped in, it didn’t smell like anything.
Annabel looked up again, glancing around with her heart beating anxiously. The darkness had disappeared and she could now distinguish forms and shapes under the strange light that seemed to be coming out of nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
The starless sky was a dark shade of blue that stretched as far as eyes could see. The ground she was walking on was no longer solid and even—it felt damp and mushy under her feet and as she moved forward, she almost lost her balance in another puddle. There were trees everywhere—wickedly twisted, thick, and without a single leaf or blossom—like dead things cursed with eternal life in this dark, forgotten place. The light that let her see all of this seemed to come from the trees themselves—everything around her carried its own ghostly glow.
So this was hell. Or was it? She somehow expected fires everywhere, people wailing or screaming or begging. Something like all those fables the religions of the world fighting with each other proclaimed.
Anna took a few more steps forward, making her way through a forest of thin, willy trees with naked branches and something sticky oozing out of their barks.
“What the heck?” she murmured to herself, touching the sap with a finger and bringing it to her nose. It still had no smell, and she wasn’t brave or stupid enough to try tasting it, so she wiped her hand on her jeans, continuing forward.
She hadn’t taken more than five steps when she tripped and fell onto her hands and knees, sharp stones digging into her palms. Cursing, she got to her feet.
A movement from the corner of her eye caught her attention and she turned but found nothing there, even after gazing at the spot for two minutes. Cold shivers ran down her spine as she kept looking around, the feeling of being watched intensifying. She caught movements a few more times, but whenever she looked, she saw only dead trees and more darkness.
Her neck and back hurt from the tension and her heart was beating so fast, she wanted to cry.
Anna tripped again on another protruding root and flew forward, but managed to break her fall by grabbing on a low branch. Once she regained her balance, she raised her hand. She didn’t want to broadcast her location to everyone who was close by, but breaking a leg or a neck would have been much worse. And maybe once they saw the fire, whoever or whatever was watching her would get scared and run away.
She summoned a ball of fire in the palm of her hand, just big enough to shed some light on the ground in front of her. She felt the strange eyes on her again and glanced around in search of their owner, but all she could see were the creepy silhouettes of the trees and their shadows now extending their crooked fingers toward her.
She was just about to move again when the eerie silence was shattered by a roar that sounded like a giant who had been awakened from its blissful slumber. The ground shook. Annabel’s breath caught in her throat, panic gripping her body.
A voice in her head screamed for her to run, and run she did, with all her strength and determination. But no matter how fast she went, the ground continued to tremble harder and harder, the sounds of trees breaking became louder.
She tripped again, and the ball of fire hissed as it disappeared into the strange mud. She flipped herself back on her butt, raising her hand and summoning her magic to protect herself.
The dark trees in front of her disappeared, hidden behind a form that towered above her like a mountain. A pair of crimson eyes blinked in the darkness, looking down at where she lay paralyzed with fear.
She wanted to look away, but her body refused to obey. All she could do was stare at those eyes, which held one singular thought.