Steph jolted awake exactly three seconds before her phone's alarm started blaring. She rubbed her chronically dry eyes, sat up, and grumbled, taking another three seconds to swing her legs out of bed and dash towards her phone on the floor across the room. Steph stabbed a finger at the screen and sighed as soon as the sound of airhorns ceased before tossing the device and falling back onto her bed. Already, her dream about wandering through a museum with Keanu Reeves was fading, and Steph squinched her eyes closed trying to remember their parting words.
Sunlight dripped into Steph's messy room, frantically trying to wake her up by reflecting off of Steph's atrociously pink comforter. She ignored it, turning to her side and facing a floor-length mirror leaning against the wall. The sun slowly redirected its rays at that instead, justifying possibly searing Steph's closed eyes with the importance of its task.
Steph finally gave up trying to remember the dream and opened her eyes, immediately screaming as she underestimated the glare of the sun's reflection.
[[Next->DoubleScream]]At the same time, Steph's bedroom door slammed open as a heavy footed giant of a human rumbled in, also screaming bloody murder. This made Steph yell even louder because she was seeing spots and was not awake enough to realize that it was just her brother on one of his morning shenanigans.
This is high decibel stuff. Piercing, really.
[[Next->LeaveRoom]] The siblings suddenly stopped screaming.
"What was that?" Steph asked her brother.
"What was what?" he retorted automatically. "Why were you screaming?"
Steph glared at her brother, whose name we're not sure of yet. "You were doing it, too."
"Just following my big sister's lead," he shrugged.
Steph rolled her eyes and got up from bed for real this time, her brother's hand outstretched already with a hoodie similar to his own. Steph grunted and grabbed it before following him downstairs.
[[Next->Porch]] "So...any big plans today?" querieed Steph's brother.
They were sitting on the steps of their paint-peeling, dusty blue porch, Steph with a bowl of cereal, and her brother with nothing but his hands in his pockets, trying not to look cold in the early morning Spring weather.
She looked over at her golden retriever of a sibling, already wiggling in excitement at what he wanted to tell her. She lifted her spoon full of cereal and crunched down on it slowly, stalling the inevitable.
Then slowly: "I do, actually."
She could almost hear the audience's disappointed sighs of "aw..." if this was a sitcom. But it wasn't. She tried to hide her grin with another spoonful of corn flakes as her brother's enthusiasm died down a little.
"Ah, well," he said.
[[Throw him a metaphorical bone.->Continue]]Steph said nothing more and continued to crunch slowly but loudly through her corn flakes. It filled up the silence as neither spoke. Steph's brother looked away awkwardly before getting up and heading back inside.
"See ya," he murmured neutrally.
Steph doesn't respond. She ate the rest of her cereal, squinting in the bright sunlight just making its way over the porch. Just another Spring day. But the breeze was a little too chilly, so she finished up quickly and headed back inside. Her brother was already gone, probably in his room.
Steph shuffled a few feet to the kitchen, where a stack of unwashed dishes sat in the sink. She sighed.
"Clean up after yourself why don't you?" she yelled out to no response, feeling bitter as she ran her bowl under some water and scrubbed at it with a dirty old sponge.
Why did she lie to her brother about having plans? She rarely, if ever did. She was being stupid again.
Steph picked up a plate and scrubbed hard at a particularly stubborn sauce stain that had crusted over, distracting herself from her task by trying to remember last night's dream again. It was there, barely perceptible, begging to be remembered.
[[Next->Dream]] "Why?" Steph asked, hastily trying to augment her brother's disappointed face.
He brightened up again. "Someone posted on Instagram about a secret cave a few miles outside of town."
Steph almost choked, regained composure, retorted in a fake New York accent, "Get outta heah."
"I'm not kidding!"
"We live in the middle of Colorado, if you haven't realized."
"I'm aware!" he blurted irritatedly. Steph's brother tugged at the collar of his shirt, fumbling for a better response. "Jenny posted it."
Steph was more incredulous than before. They had both agreed that their classmate Jenny was a delusional conspiracy theorist, but Steph's brother still followed her on social media. SHe raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"It just, I don't know, looks legit?" reasoned Steph's brother.
"Let me see."
"Give me your phone!"
Steph's brother hastily whipped out his phone from his hoodie pocket and slapped it into her hand. Steph was too pissed to ask her brother to give her the password. She knew he hasn't changed it. What was it again?
[[012402->RightPass]]Steph immediately typed in 000000. The phone buzzed. Wrong passcode. She forced herself not to look at her brother, who she knew was staring at her with one of those inscrutable looks. Steph wiggled her thumbs and tries=d again.
The password is [[123456->WrongPassAgain]]. No, it's [[012402->RightPass]].Steph's fingers hovered nervously over the screen. Then: 012402. The phone unlocked with a chirp. Kinda embarrassing that Steph didn't remember the passcode was her birthday, but she smiled a little to herself, glad that she didn't have to forfeit on her upset to ask for help.
Steph tapped the Instagram logo on the phone's home screen and headed to its Explore page. She clicked on the search bar, which already had Jenny's username in the search history. Did Steph's brother //look// for Jenny's profile? She didn't want to ask. Steph tapped on the pretentious sounding username and stared.
[[Next->MysteryPost]]This time: 123456. The phone buzzed again. Oof. Steph swallowed her pride and handed the phone back to her brother, who silently unlocked it with a few blithe taps. He clicked on the screen a few times and showed the photo in question to Steph.
Her eyes widened.
[[Next->MysteryPost]] "What the hell?" she gasped.
It wasn't just a photo. It was many, spread out in a grid of nine, that clearly showed a cave emerging from a hillside, albeit a blurry one. The photo seemed taken from an old camcorder video, its recording info still on the bottom right post.
Scrolling through each post, there are no captions, only the video's timestamp which says 17/09/20. 4:01AM.
"Wait, what? This video was taken three years ago." Steph looked up at her brother questioningly. "Why now?"
He shrugged. "It was just posted yesterday."
Steph zoomed in on the photo with the timestamp again. The noise from the camcorder footage only gave her goose bumps as she struggled to make sense of Jenny's mysterious post.
She tossed the phone back to her brother.
[[Next->LeavePorch]] He snatcheed it out of the air without a word and watcheed as Steph slowly stood up from the porch stairs and turned to head back inside. He twisted around to address her: "Don't you want to check it out?"
Steph paused for a moment, but felt too stunned to respond. The screen door slammed closed behind her as she walked the few feet to the kitchen. She shuffled over to the kitchen sink, which was full of unwashed dishes, but Steph didn't mind right now. Cleaning up could be a good distraction from what she just saw.
[[Next->Cave?]]The thing is, it wasn't just a cave. Steph didn't know why seeing it had such an effect on her. She liked to think she was a pretty stoic person, but something, something about that blurry photo, the timing of it all, the mystery around it, gnawed at her.
Steph scrubbed harder at a particularly stubborn piece of sauce that had crusted over on a dinner plate, ignoring how stinging cold the running water was on her hands.
It suddenly hit her, the eerie familiarity of the situation. It was in her [[dream->the dream]].Or rather, a series of dreams. Steph couldn't remember what happened while she was romping around a museum with Keanu Reeves, but she knew it wasn't the first time. They had done it before, but each adventure was fainter than the last, though until now, Steph had been glad of that; She always woke up with such immense dread that it was really surprising she didn't experience sleep paralysis or anything.
Her forehead creased in concentration, trying to bring to mind what had happened that felt so relevant all of a sudden.
[[Next->Dream]]At some point, Steph was sure, Keanu and her had come upon a large room in the museum. At the center of it was a towering tree with leaves whose shapes were not quite natural. Its thick trunk was a spiraling, writhing structure of thick knots of wood, or a material akin to it. Steph circled around the tree, searching. When she found a small nook between the tree's monstrous roots that grew beneath the museum's concrete floor, she called out to Keanu.
He had been hesistant to enter the room, but that hadn't bothered her. Though now that he was nowhere to be seen, Steph felt a little off. They had never been separated before.
Warily, Steph bent down, pushed up her hoodie sleeves and squeezed an arm into the tree nook, rooting around until she felt something smooth and cold to the touch. She slowly pulled her arm out, clutching the object tightly in her fist. In it, was
[[a capsule->capsule]]It was a smooth, perfectly round piece of obsidian that was faintly reflective. Steph pulled it closer until her nose was almost touching the stone and was shocked when she didn't see her face, but her brother's. As she blinked and opened and closed her mouth, so did her brother, or was it really her reflection? Steph touched her face, which felt the same, but when she grasped at her hair, it was cut short like her brother's.
She squinted at the stone, uncomprehending of what was going on. As far as Steph knew, she was still herself. Shoving the stone into her pocket--oh wait she didn't have pockets because in this dream she was wearing her jeans and nobody made jeans for women with pockets--so, gripping the stone tightly in her fist, Steph quickly dashed for the exit. She hadn't noticed until then that the room was totally empty of patrons, but did the museum have any to begin with? Steph wasn't sure.
She started to feel her world shake. No, //she// was [[shaking->wakeup]].Steph was mildly surprised that she was holding a capsule. She had expected something more than this little sharp-edged brown box. It was already warming up in her palm, and Steph smelled a waft of mustiness, wood, and wet. Petrichor.
On the side of the box was a latch, which she flipped open. The small top swung out, unveiling a velvet purple bag inside. Steph retrieved it, feeling it with her fingers, and opened the bag. Contained within was something shiny and white. Steph turned the bag upside down and the contents fell into the box with a //plink//.
Before she could even scream, Keanu was suddenly next to her. He grabbed her arm. "We have to move," he said, his voice deeper, his blazer now a deep black suit with shirt to match, his hair less shaggy.
This wasn't regular Keanu, this was John Wick. Steph was too alarmed to speak as he pulled her after him towards the room's [[exit->run]]."Steph!"
She opened her eyes to see her brother, face flushed, looking down at her with the most emotion she'd ever him display. His hand was on her shoulder, he had been the one causing the shaking. Steph propped herself up on her elbow.
"What's going on?" she asked, more calmly than she expected to sound.
Her brother gestured at a shattered plate and bubbles of detergent on the floor next to them. "You blacked out, I think."
Steph nodded tiredly. "I'll clean it up," she mumbled.
"No, no, I'll do it. You need to rest," he responded awkwardly. "Here." He got up, disappeared from view for a moment, and returned. Steph just stared at his bright yellow socks, listening to the sound of him filling up a glass with tap water, finally squeaking the faucet shut, and saw him bend down again, offering the glass to her.
She took the [[glass->DrinkWater]].Drinking from it, Steph felt nothing at first. She forced herself to swallow, take another sip, swallow, imagine the cold water sliding down her throat into the depths of her system. Vaguely, Steph remembered the tree in the room whose trunk twisted into itself, swaying silently. Steph fancied herself to be like that tree, all her individual elements beating quietly with life, containing unseen things, hiding things underneath its roots.
A wave of dizziness smacked into Steph and she shakily put the glass of water down. Her brother grabbed her arm to steady her. "You can sleep in my room," he said.
Steph nodded. She allowed herself to be pulled up by her brother and nudged gently towards his room, which had always been on the first floor for some reason. He pushed open the door when they finally reached it.
[[Next->BrothersRoom]]Once inside, Steph was momentarily glad that her brother was more hygienic than most high school boys. Though for a senior, and especially for a self-proclaimed jock, he was still kinda weird, she tiredly thought, as he used his foot to nudge aside an old football on the floor that had been carved out to hold a collection of rocks, and cleared away one of the many watches he was always tinkering with.
His bed was already made and she felt bad for ruining it, but the intense fatigue washing over her was too much. Steph flopped onto her brother's bed immediately and fell asleep.
[[Next->NextDay]]They dashed into a darkened corridor where hidden red lights from above seemed to be mocking them as the two made their way towards an open staircase at the end of the hallway.
Steph gasped for breath, all of this feeling oddly real for a dream. Keanu/John glanced back at her but said nothing. His firm grip pulled her in front of him as he pushed her up the stairs. "Get to the roof!" he barked, turning around to scan their surroundings. In the distance, Steph could hear ominous thumping, like heavy footsteps echoing towards them. She didn't need to be told twice, skipping two steps at a time.
As she advanced up, it got darker as walls started to surround the staircase. Soon, she was in total darkness so she only took one step at a time , but Steph was running, holding her cramped side, hoping she didn't trip and smash into the grated floor.
At one point, she paused. The railing of the metal staircase rang as below, something bumped into it. She heard grunts and shouts, then rapid gunfire. Steph turned and hurriedly resumed her climb. Up ahead, she thought she could see [[light->EndClimb]]. Steph climbed and climbed and climbed. Her legs and even her back were killing her as she let out ragged exhales of relief when the stairs finally gave way to a large, open platform bathed in light.
She staggered forward and covered her eyes with her hand as the light seemed to follow her stumble out of the depths. Bracing herself against another railing lining the wall, Steph realized, looking at her faint reflection in the transparent glass surrounding her: she was in a fucking [[lighthouse]]."What the fuck?" breathed Steph.
A few feet away from her, in the center of the room, was a large 1980s era setup with elaborate glass panes and a large ovoid light, turning on its axis slowly. It was caged in by a rusting bronze frame, to which a thin rope was tied. On the other end of the rope, a small red oil lantern, with smoke from a just extinguished flame, sat alone.
Steph moved warily around the circular room. Nobody here. Then who had lit the lantern? Surely she would have passed them on her hasty way up.
Steph was getting more confused by the minute, and more scared, when she noticed the absolute silence save for the creak of the turning light.
She dared a peak into the darkness of the stairs.
[[Next->AnybodyThere?]]She tapped the railing cautiously. Nothing but a metallic echo and the rumble of some distant ocean that Steph hadn't seen when she briefly looked outside.
"Keanu!" she hissed. "John!"
Steph really didn't know what to do. She backed away from the staircase until she was against the wall, only the bright glare of the light for company. She slumped onto the floor.
Something pinched her in the abdomen. Steph looked down and suddenly remembered the box. She must've put it in her hoodie pocket while she was running. Now she dreaded opening it, much less holding it. She set it down hastily, cringing at what was inside.
But no matter, the box popped open on its own accord this time and Steph was struck by how the object was no longer shiny and white. It was a single tooth, a rotting yellow, blackening at the edges, //pulsing// with a growing black stain.
She stifled a cry. And that's when things really went batshit crazy.
[[Next->batshit]]Steph looked up just as a large gray object crashed through the lighthouse walls a few feet away from her. It was a life-sized statue of a robed woman half crumbling to dust with stubs for wings, whose outstretched arms seemed like they were moving everytime Steph blinked.
She shuddered wondering who could possibly have the strength to throw that thing in here. And just as distracting was the fact that the tooth was shaking on its own accord, rattling within the confines of its box.
Steph blinked several times, uncomprehending. And at the same time, the statue got closer. It was twisting around, getting up, looking at her, //staring// at her, crawling forward, leaping up, baring teeth that were not human, screaming.
No, Steph was the one screaming. How was this possible? She frantically scrambled backwards as the creature advanced with every blink, but she couldn't help it, tears streaming down her face as the actual possibility of dying sank in.
Steph bumped into something that squeaked with rusted metal. Desperately willing herself not to blink, Steph fumbled with the object, pushing it into her peripheral. It was the small red lantern from earlier, which now carried a lively green and blue flame, as if reignited in lust for a battle.
Steph suddenly knew what she had to do. This lantern was her only chance it seemed, and she had to time this right.
[[Blink->Blink1]]Steph woke up in her brother's bed feeling something analogous to getting hit by a car and having a migraine and headache at the same time. It was bad. She could hear her body creak as she slowly pushed herself into a sitting position. Outside, it was dark. The bedroom door was ajar with light filtering in from the kitchen, where Steph could hear her brother moving about.
"Luke?" she called out softly. So that was his name.
He was by her side in seconds.
"How're you feeling?"
"Tired as hell."
"Serves you right for blacking out like that."
Steph forced a laugh. "Right."
"I think we should go to the cave."
Another pause and then Luke's delayed "What?" He narrowed his eyes jokingly and then not. "Who are you and what did you do to my sister?"
"No, I had a dream about it. I think it's calling us."
Are you serious right now?" Now Luke was being the defensive one. "Since when did you believe in destiny and that stuff?"
"I didn't say it's destiny. I just said we should go."
"You should rest."
"No, I'm fine."
Luke gave her another of his inscrutable looks.
"We should head out now then. The cave's on private property."
Steph was surprised by how easily her brother acquiesced. She looked at the time. 9:47. They'd have six, five hours tops, to go check it out. She nodded. "Okay."
[[Next->GearUp]]Steph blinked once. The statue appeared closer. Seven feet away.
[[Blink->Blink2]]She blinked again. Six feet away.
[[Blink->Blink3]]She blinked. Five feet away. Steph got the distinct sense that the statue was playing with its food now. It was smiling manically, all pointed teeth on full display, standing directly in front of the staircase.
Steph paused. SHould she take her chances with the lantern in her hand that was crackling like a bomb about to go off? Or should she try to push the statue down the stairs? Steph considered its weakened state, which looked to be speeding along dramatically.
[[Use the lantern.->Lantern]]
[[Push down the stairs.->Stairs]]"WHAT?!?" Steph blurted out right after. What did that mean? Ten what? Steph felt like her whole body was a ticking time bomb, ready to implode. She was shaking, spasming, really, as she backed away. She no longer felt powerful.
It was only then that Steph heard a low rumble getting louder and louder from downstairs that clashed with the weeping angel's laughing scream.
[[Nine]]Steph braced herself against the wall railing for whatever new monster came upstairs. She just hoped that it took its time with the angel so maybe she could escape.
She cautiously blinked, for the first time in a while. The angel's attention was on the staircase this time, its dusty figure hunched over in preparation for this annoying interruption.
[[Eight]]The rumbling ceased. Precious seconds passed in which nothing happened.
A magnificent, blood-curdling roar suddenly pierced the air as a sleek black lion launched out of the staircase, leaving the edge of the railing bent out of shape, and crashed directly into the weeping angel.
It was twice larger than a regular lion, with a jet black mane that looked like armor covering part of its face, surrounding its neck and upper torso. Its fur reminded Steph of a panther's: dark as night and rippling with every movement, plus a thin, whip-like tail to match.
Steph was in awe as the lion clawed at the statue with its powerful paws, slowly but surely chipping away at the angel's surprisingly tough stone features.
"[[Five]]," Steph blurted out as she watched uncertainly.Steph decided to take her chances with the lantern. With a shout, she jumped up and ran at the angel, smashing the lantern on it before backing away quickly, the flames instantly causing the angel to shriek furiously.
The angel didn't come alive as Steph had expected, instead maintaining its stone form but slowly contorting its face into one of pain rather than malice as the thick green fire twisted uncannily around it. Bursts of blue spat out, which seemed to injure the statue by deteriorating it even more.
Steph stared on in horror as the weeping angel somehow started //melting// before her under the flames. Before the last of its monstrous face disappeared, Steph heard the angel scream maliciously with an unmoving mouth, "You did this to yourself!"
It repeated this over and over again until it was gone.
[[Next->TurningEND]]Maybe there was another alternative after all. Steph slowly got up from the floor and inched slowly towards the statue, keeping her eyes on it the whole time. She hesitantly touched its cold, crumbling stone and pushed against it a little. It shifted only slightly.
Steph thought she heard something like a garbled laughing scream coming from the statue. She peered at its face, which had grown placid at some point. Had she blinked? This was even freakier than when it looked monstrous, but its stony eyes remained as blank as before.
She couldn't help but stare at those eyes, which betrayed nothing about the statue's killer tendencies. And then Steph saw an image in her mind, of her becoming a statue--a weeping angel she suddenly knew it was called--and glimpsed the joyousness of it all, of becoming one of //them//.
The sheer power that came with time and taking it away from others, and living off it for the rest of existence's existence. It wasn't manipulative; This is survival, this is what life means, Steph thought gleefully.
She felt her lips contorting into a shape, her diaphragm pushing air out her lungs into her windpipe, striving past her vocal cords, until a word was elicited from her mouth: "Ten."
[[Next->Ten]]"Close your eyes!" growled the lion in John Wick's voice. "Or you'll turn into one of them!" A sharp-nailed hand seized John's muzzle, breaking his gaze on Steph and causing him to roar in pain before thrashing for control again.
Steph shut her eyes obediently, curling herself into a ball on the floor and trying to ignore how bad the battle sounded. The weeping angel was screaming louder now, probably in an attempt to shatter John's more sensitive hearing. John, meanwhile, was silent, focusing all his energy on breaking the angel into pieces, battering it as much as possible.
"[[Four]]. Shit it's not working!" Steph opened her eyes instinctively.For a brief second, Steph thought she saw the weeping angel, its stone limbs now pale flesh covered by a tattered robe in which gnarly bones and feathers stuck out of its back. Then it was rock again.
John took advantage of this and launched himself at the angel, using so much power that they crashed into the railing of the staircase and down into its depth.
Steph's eyes widened. "Oh shit, no no no!" Steph half crawled, half scrambled towards where they had just been, the glow of the lighthouse lantern briefly illuminating blood sprawled along the stone walls. She couldn't hear anything except the dull echo of music, funnily enough.
Steph took a few tentative steps down into the staircase, incredulous at what she was hearing.
[[Next->Music]]Steph sat silently at the kitchen table with a thermos while her brother busily prepared their gear around her. He hadn't asked her to help, and she didn't offer it. The only thing keeping her going was the thought of seeing what was in that cave.
She took a sip of her coffee and watched while Luke carefully checked a bundle of rope before stuffing it into a backpack and attaching a ring of carabiners. Then he examined a pair of shoe crampons.
Steph vaguely recalled going on family outings where she and Luke and their parents would drive to Gunnison and hike down the valley to the nearby mountains. But Steph didn't remember the physical act of doing these things, nor did she recognize the faces of the two adults who were with her and her brother. They didn't //feel// like her parents. And they'd been absent this whole time.
"How long was I out?"
Luke didn't pause from his gear check. "About a day and a half."
"Yikes." Steph thought it had only been a few hours.
"Yeah, and you kept mumbling about a stone." He finally looked up. "You should get something to eat before we go."
Steph nodded, walked mechanically to the fridge and retrieved some yogurt. The stone was just in her dream, but she knew it was connected to the cave somehow. She ripped the cover off the yogurt cup defiantly.
[[Next->AtCave]]The journey to the cave was a blur. Steph remembered flashes of it: hoisting on her gear, trudging steadily after her brother, who was oddly familiar with the landscape this deep in the forest, and stepping into a clearing lined with shrubbery that hid the cave entrance, just like in Jenny's picture.
They had paused for a moment, a pounding headache conflicting with Steph's pull to the cave's mysteries while Luke held a flashlight in his mouth, rummaging through his backpack.
"How did you find this place again?" Steph inquired with a casual tone. "She didn't post a location."
"Not outright. But-" Luke paused, pulling an army knife out of his pack and pocketing it in his cargo pants. "The coordinates were printed really faintly on the last part of the photo. Super hard to see unless your phone is on full brightness."
"Aha," Steph nodded. She couldn't help but be surprised by her brother's observation. "Speaking of phones, we don't have Internet out here."
"Indeed we don't," he said, standing up.
He took a few steps towards her and reached out his hands. Steph backed away a little. He smiled. "Chill." He adjusted her crooked helmet and tapped the flashlight attached to it. "C'mon." He grabbed his gear and headed towards the cave entrance. Not wanting to be left alone in the increasing nighttime darkness, Steph followed.
[[Next->InCave]]There was nothing special about it really. It was like an other cave, with sturdy rock, at first humid and then dryer and cooler with every step. There were no plants, no stalactites, pools of water, signs of alife, anything.
Steph was starting to wonder why this place had seemed enigmatic in the first place. There was merely her, her brother, and a dull echo from what she could only assume was air circulating through a series of cavernous tunnels. They descended a mild slope, getting deeper and deeper, the sheer blackness of the cave making their flashlights almost powerless--the light only penetrated about four feet in front of them.
Steph bumped into her brother's arm.
"It gets narrow here. We have to crawl," said Luke.
Steph wondered how far they'd walked. She couldn't tell if mere minutes or a significant number of hours had passed as she watched Luke take off his pack and crouch to fit into a small opening in the wall. Had they already passed many branching tunnels? She pushed her brother's gear through the hole to him and followed suit with hers. She felt a sudden sense of nausea and claustrophobia as she bent and reached for Luke's hand on the other side of the hole, shimmying slowly towards him.
[[Next->LightCave]]Steph stood up slowly from her position on the floor and squinted. They were in a well-lit cavern with massive towers of stalagmites lining the walls and dripping moisture. In the distance, she could hear the faint sound of running water. She could smell it, too.
"What is this?" she whispered, trying not to think about the fact that they were in a cave glowing with light as if they weren't underground in the middle of the fucking night. "Luke!"
He was gripping her trembling shoulders firmly. "Look, we have to keep going," he merely replied, turning away to continue on.
Steph's mouth opened and closed dryly. He was a few feet away when she mouthed, "Luke?" Her brother turned around with a comforting smile. Steph grinned back, hiding her surprise.
This was getting weird. Steph averted her gaze from the flickering of flames against the cave walls despite their being no obvious source of light. She stared at Luke's backpack instead and quickened her step.
[[Next->DeeperCave]]When they emerged from the first room, the siblings were greeted with a spray of water. Before them was a raging waterfall that was too loud to have sounded so far away before. It was dimmer here, a mix of greens and blues as the water cast an aquatic glow on the cavern and shimmered enticingly.
Luke headed for the small lake immediately and bent down to examine it. "It's clean," he noted, tasting the water.
When he did, Steph suddenly felt her blood curdle. Her headache returned in an overpoweringly painful way. Her hands shook. "Luke," she said, taking care to pronounce the k.
He turned to look at her and Steph didn't recognize who he was.
"Who are you?" she hissed.
"What?" He squinted at her. "Whaat?" he repeated dumbly.
Steph started backing away. "You're not my brother!" she screamed. "Get away from me!"
Her eyes widened, terrified at the thought that she'd been following around someone pretending to be Luke this whole time. She nearly tripped as she scrambled back into the light-filled room, her chest tight.
Ahead of her was a tunnel leading into darkness that she hadn't noticed before. Behind her, Steph could hear the stranger shouting and making his way over.
[[Take the tunnel->Tunnel]]
[[Go back through the hole->Hole]]Willing herself not to look behind her, Steph sprinted down the passageway, which continuously branched into a multitude of directions. Steph found herself unconsciously picking paths without thinking and when her brain finally caught up with her, Steph tripped badly. Her legs tangled up and she crashed onto the hard floor with a grunt.
She quickly scrambled up and checked behind her. It was just Steph's ragged breathing and...was that music? She looked around confusedly. Had it always been there?
She took a few tentative steps down the tunnel and the music got louder. It was faint, but eerily recognizable and terribly situation-inappropriate pop music.
//J'Adore Venise//. The song that Steph promised herself she would never listen to again.
[[Next->FollowMusic]]Steph dashed for the gap in the wall that they'd crawled through. She slung her backpack off and shoved it in front of her into the hole, frantically pushing herself behind it.
Cold hands clamped onto Steph's legs. Through the rock, she could hear the stranger's muffled yelling: "Steph! Steph! It's me!" But she knew it wasn't Luke. It was his voice, but not him.
Steph tried to kick the stranger away and clawed at her bag for leverage. It was so close to the other side but seemed stuck. Shit. Steph desperately opened her pack and pushed away gear until she found her crampons. She pulled off the covers with a snap, accidentally cutting her finger in the process, and yelped as she was roughly pulled out into the open again.
With her eyes scrunched closed, Steph lashed out randomly, hoping the spikes on the shoe crampons hit something. She was met with a cry as the stranger let go of her and grasped at his heavily bleeding thigh.
"What did you do?!" he yelled. "What did you do?!?"
Steph pushed him away and raced for the tunnel.
[[Next->Tunnel]]No, //Steph// was repeating it over and over again. "You brought this upon yourself. You brought this upon herself."
Steph felt disembodied as a searing heat crawled up and around her. It was the green fire that had saved her, coming in for the real kill. For a moment, she panicked as she watched the flames leave the spot where the angel had just been to envelope her.
Steph was burning alive, until she wasn't. Now the fire was enveloping her gently, caressing her with its fiery greenness. She didn't feel panicked, not at all. She felt ''alive''.
With a grin, Steph saw in her mind's eye her transformation into who she truly was: a weeping angel, no less, but a better one, a more beautiful one, with a smile to rival that of the most charming sculpture, and a human form more splendid than anyone else's.
Steph laughed joyously into the air as the flames grew hotter and yet not painful. She heard her voice changing, cracking, deepening until Steph knew the Change was complete. The flames vanished with a whisper.
She bent down to pick up a piece of glass from the shattered lantern and stared at her reflection. Steph recognized the boy who stared back at her, who looked like her Dead Self but didn't. She grinned and he grinned back.
With a cry of euphoria, Steph flapped her newly-formed wings once and disappeared.
//Fin.//She descended a few extra steps. It was clear what Steph was hearing. Though faint, it was eerily recognizable and a terribly situation-inappropriate pop song.
//J'Adore Venise//. The song that Steph promised herself she would never listen to again.
[[Next->FollowMusicDream]]Ignoring her growing sense of despair, Steph followed the music down a series of wimding tunnels. Each time, the source of the music sounded closer and closer until it was basically surrounding her, beating through her body as if she was at a rock concert.
[[Next->FacetoFace]]She had no choice but to follow it. With each step, the source of the music was closer and the song looped enthusiastically over and over again.
Sooner than she'd expected, Steph reached the end of the staircase. She did a double take. It was no longer a museum, but a large well-lit cavern that had no obvious source of light. Sharp stalagmites lined the wall and cast long shadows, drawing Steph's attention to two people on the far end of the cavern. One of them was shouting and clutching at their bloody leg while the other was on the floor scrambling to get away from them.
As the one on the floor made a dash into a gaping tunnel near them, Steph approached the injured person. Steph's eyes widened when she realized what looked like climbing crampons were embedded in their thigh.
"What the fuck!" the person screamed when they saw Steph coming towards them. "Get the fuck away from me!"
Steph squinted at them. Wait, was this her brother? She really could //not// remember his name right now, but she felt obligated to help. "No, hey, it's me, it's me. Steph!" She reached out her hands to help remove the crampon but her brother just winced and pushed himself away, repeating his verbal abuse.
"Fuck off!" he yelled, the ferocity in his voice turning into cries of pain. His face was beet red to the match deep red blood still coming out of his leg.
Steph huffed angrily. He wasn't worth her time right now. She followed the mysterious person who had ran off into the tunnel.
[[Next->FollowSteph]]Steph ran down the tunnel, which split into several more. Not quite knowing where she was going, Steph just kept going, taking whichever passageway felt right.
J'adore Venise was still echoing through the tunnels, closer than ever. With each step, it got louder and louder until it was practically surrounding her, beating through her body like she was a rock concert.
[[Next->FacetoFace]]Steph suddenly stopped and stared at herself. Standing right in front of her was...Steph, but not really. This was Steph, this was herself, but she looked different. Tired, horrified, but carrying a different set of experiences altogether, she could tell.
She blinked and so did the other Steph. She raised her hand, waved it slowly, got the same response. Was this an illusion? Was this her? Or another version of her? She blinked again, slowly this time.
Steph tentatively reached out a hand as if to shake the other's. She gasped when their hands met, grasped, but neither of them let go. They looked at each other understanding.
"Zero," one of them said.