His blood pounded in his ears. Fire wreathed his heart and licked down to his extremities. Ashton clung to his sanity in the midst of the chaos.
“Josephine, you told me he was having nightmares, but you didn’t tell me he had been marked.”
“I’m sorry, Milord. He had said something… I didn’t realize …”
“Get his shirt open. I can’t, unless I slit it with my horn. I doubt he wishes to go without coverings.”
The voices sounded like an echo in a tin can. Ashton felt tugging all along his front, then the cool night air bathed the burning over his heart. He pried his eyes open. Positioned over him, horn aglow, stood a unicorn. The beast reared, pawing the air. If he could have drawn breath into his lungs, he would have screamed. His hands clutched the dirt.
Tendrils of light seemed to coalesce, and start to flow, towards the tip of the brilliant horn.
“He’s conscious, Milord.”
The unicorn’s hind legs stood steady as a statue; supporting his entire mass rampant, with ease. Yet, he tilted his head, so one brilliant blue eye met his. Ashton dug his heels into the ground and managed to slide a couple of inches.
“Josephine. I don’t think he’s going to like this part. Don’t let him move.”
The hell with that. He pushed again and twisted, and almost succeeded in pulling his body out from under the beast. Gnarled ropes erupted from the earth, spraying dirt everywhere. The roots twined around his limbs to drag him back to the ground. Pinned, Ashton fought, so more roots slithered across him ensuring his motionlessness. The last thing he could see before a leafy vine trailed across his eyes was the unicorn dipping his head, and that sharp point descending at speed.
He felt the prick pierce his skin and he finally found the breath to scream. Fire exploded everywhere in his body. Energy arced in the darkness behind his blindfolded eyes. A wall of water slammed into the inferno inside of him. The two forces met, and merged. Tears poured from his eyes as relief spread. Whispers in his mind spoke of rest. After all of the events that had lead up to this moment, he gave in. Taking the voiceless advice, he sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Cocooned in warmth, Ashton drifted to consciousness. Sunlight bathed the exposed part of his face. His cheek rested on velvet. Lassitude filled every fiber of his being. Soft exhalations sounded in his ear, and gently rocked him, as the large warm body he leaned against took in and released air. Soft velvet nuzzled his cheek; humid breath wafted across his skin. Opening his eyes, he met the brilliant blue one of the unicorn.
Ashton waited for the fear and disbelief to surface. Instead he just felt relaxed and warm, curled up in the moss against the unicorn’s side. He had no desire to move. Convenient, since his muscles had turned to jelly.
“Welcome back, sleepy head.”
Ashton blinked, then opened his mouth to speak, but his voice wouldn’t work. His throat felt dry as dust. He heaved a raspy cough.
“Don’t try to talk or move yet, Ash. You’ve been unconscious for four days.”
His lips formed the words, four days!
“Your body needed to rest and recover. It had been run ragged before the power explosion took you. Then to top it off, you phase shifted on us. We all had to move quick to follow you.”
Phase shifted? He coughed again and managed to form some whispered words, “What is…”
The soft nose brushed his cheek again. “Phase shifting?”
Ashton nodded his head where it lay on the unicorn’s front leg.
“Phase shifting is how to pass between the veils that separate the pages of the world. Think of an onion; that will help. Of the millions of species the earth has, only a handful have the ability to pass the veils. Most creatures live their lives completely unaware of the existence of other animals and beings from the other veils, but enough humans over time have been sufficiently sensitive to catch glimpses. Hence your Mythologies.
“We all inhabit the same world, overlapping, just slightly out of phase from each other. We could walk down the same street and never see one another. Back to the onion; depending on how deep you go, or far away from your home veil, the more changes. Familiar places could stay exactly as you know them, just inhabited by strange beings, or they may never have existed at all.
“That’s why we needed to follow right on your heels when you shifted. It would have been difficult, and time consuming, to track which level you went to.” The Unicorn wuffled his hair, “I’ve never heard of a human mortal able to phase shift before. You have a staggering amount of power growing in you. It’s not uncommon for your species to have a bit of talent; extending to the ability to see through one or two veils. But you acted like the veils didn’t exist.”
“Enough.” Ashton rasped. He struggled to sit up and leaned heavily against the beast’s side. His body felt like water. A bunch of the faeries fluttered down with leaf baskets held in their hands. Blinking, he stared at them for a minute before he realized they wanted him to take their burdens. He held out his trembling hand, and the first deposited her basket. Liquid sloshed out and he steadied it with his other hand, then gulped down the mouthful and eagerly took the next. He drank until the faeries refused to bring him anymore. But they replaced the water with berries, which were almost as good on his parched throat as the water. Then a few baskets full of cooked grain. The scant, light fare still sat like a rock on his empty stomach.
“Careful Ash, you haven’t eaten in more than four days. And we only managed to dribble water down your throat.”
A bit of strength crept back into his muscles. He cleared his throat, and managed in a stronger voice, “Who are you? And what do you want?”
The unicorn heaved a great sigh, blowing air like an ordinary horse. Something so normal made Ashton want to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Instead he just waited.
“That is complicated.” He stretched his long neck out and shook his mane. “My name is Silren. And I’ve come here to fetch you. I’ve been searching the world for someone with great potential to help us. The Unicorns are the conduits of life. We draw the pure energy of the world to us. Then through us, it gets redistributed as life renews. Every new life that’s born takes some of the energy, but something’s wrong. The energy isn’t flowing properly anymore. It’s become too dark. And we don’t have the ability to manipulate it. We are just a riverbed.”
Silren bent his neck and pointed his horn at him. “Only someone with your abilities can use the power, Ash. As your energy strengthened, it allowed me to track you down in your native veil. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to you soon enough to prevent the Nightmare from marking you.”
“I was afraid that had been real.”
“Everything is real, Ash. It just might not be a part of your particular veil. How does the Nightmare’s mark feel now?”
His hands trembled with weakness as he unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall to the side. The scalded butterfly still marked his heart, but now it included a cobalt blue point in the center with cracks radiating out. His fingers brushed the mark. The skin felt smooth and normal.
Silren tensed. “There’s more to tell you, but now isn’t the time.”
Ashton raised his eyes. A man-like creature slipped out of the undergrowth. Or only half-man, he realized. The bottom half belonged to a goat. A very male goat. Ashton looked away. Wow.
“Milord, Silren. The Nightmare you warned us about? She’s only a few veils away.”
“Thank you, Sage. It’s time to leave, Ash. Can you slip your leg over my back? The Faun can help you.”
He struggled to turn, and managed to get his leg up, but he just didn’t have the strength to lift his weight any further. Sage pushed and he gained Silren’s back. Thank god, he thought when he managed to not slide off the other side.
“I want to go home.”
“Your home isn’t safe.”
Ashton clung to Silren’s mane as the Unicorn surged to his feet. The faun scampered into the bushes. Silren set out at a walk down a path, but quickly moved into a smooth, rolling canter.
“Where are you taking me?”
The Unicorn’s hoof beats thudded around them, and his horn began to glow. “I told you where I was taking you, Ash.”
His mark started to throb, and a mist filtered around the trunks of the trees. The fog rolled in, obscuring everything, then they rode out into a sunny open meadow. Silren cantered through the waving grass. Flocks of faeries rose up out of the flowers to swoop all around them.
“So horse, why did you send all those little flutterbys after me? If you wanted me, why didn’t you just come yourself? Too many non-virgins around?”
The unicorn shook his mane vigorously. “My name is Silren, not horse, thank you very much. And that’s just a myth. Obviously, virgins don’t bother us.” Silren twisted his head around to glare at him, “Or the lack there of. But the hunters now, are another matter. I don’t wish for my horn to be taken from me. I’m rather fond of it, you see. And historically, any time we enter your veil, that’s an issue.”
With that thought to chew on, Ashton clung to Silren’s back, and they continued their trek back into the woods.
Growling, Ashton rubbed his eyes. They were blurring and making it difficult to write down his notes. This last week had made the previous several weeks look like a walk through the park. A perfectly normal, not-populated-by-nightmares sort of park. He reached over and grabbed his cold coffee, drinking it anyway. The sudden shift in his reality, when the Faeries had become real, still hadn’t settled. It didn’t help that his sleep disturbances returned with a vengeance right on their little heels.
Work contained normalcy and he had embraced it.
A whirring zipped past his ear and he coughed, spewing all over his notes. Slamming his empty cup down, he glared at Josephine.
The little faery blinked, looking up at him.
“What are you doing here? You’ve been bugging me for days, but you haven’t ever pestered me in here before.”
She kicked her foot over his papers, examining them, before walking over to his cup. Hoisting herself up to the rim, she stuck her head in. She came out sniffing, and sneezed like a kitten, shuddering. “You drink what was in that? Disgusting.”
Her wings fluttered, then she fell still, staring at him. Ashton slumped back in his chair. Her silence more of a warning than any haranguing could have been.
“You have to stop hiding in here, Ash. There’s things you need to do.”
He snorted and suppressed an unhealthy laugh. “Do? Really? The only thing I need to do is get my work done so I can get transferred out of here.”
“Your potential is opening up, Ashton. You can’t be stuck in here when it happens.” She kicked his pencil and it rolled off the table.
He grabbed after it, missed, and struck his forehead on the edge of the table. The pencil hit point first. He felt absurdly like he wanted to cry, so he lashed out instead. Lunging, he tried to grasp the faery. She easily shot out of his reach and he dodged after her. After a quick, fruitless chase, his steam ran out and he collapsed back into his chair, breathing heavily. Josephine settled onto the shelf above him and swung her feet. He refused to meet the compassion in her eyes.
“You’ve entrenched yourself somewhere comfortable, somewhere safe, Ashton. You’re a badger, dug into a den and not willing to move, but a flash flood is coming. You have been ignoring us.”
“Damn straight.” He doubled over, gripping his hair, resting his elbows on his knees. “I can’t sleep. The dreams are taking over. As soon as I close my eyes, they’re there. They went away briefly after that one nightmare, but now-”
“You’re having nightmares?” She interrupted.
“Some of them are, but not all. It doesn’t really matter how pleasant they are, they take over.” His grip relaxed. The floor spun beneath his feet. He shook his head and sat up, reaching under the bench he fished a pill bottle out of his laptop case. Josephine flew down to hover at his face as he swallowed two of the pills.
“Ashton, what are you doing?”
“I need to stay awake. Now, go away.”
“This won’t stop what is happening from being real.”
“What is real?” He snapped, then took a breath and spoke softer. “I am not going to listen to the little voices in my head telling me to do things. Even if they have pretty wings.”
He dismissed her and returned to work. She flew and scattered his papers. Suppressing a very unmale-like shriek, he glared at Josephine’s angry face.
“Real?” She sputtered. “You’ve touched me. I’m warm and breathing…”
He cut her off with a slash of his hand. “And I have a mark on my chest from a dream. If I can get that in a nightmare, who’s to say a hallucination can’t seem real in my waking world. I’m so sleep deprived I can’t tell up from down.”
He focused on the mess his work bench contained. “And now this experiment is ruined.”
One of his coworkers popped his head around the door jamb. “Who are you talking to Ashton? Is Frank still here? Whoa. What was that?”
His coworker flinched to the side. A spark of relief kindled that Josephine made it out the door, only to have it drown in the despair consuming him.
“Sorry.” Ashton sighed. “A giant bee got in. I’m allergic.”
The full moon cast down enough light for Ashton to lock the office doors. The night was quiet and still, no fluttery offenders descended on him. That circumstance engendered both surprise and relief. The constant pressure of their presence had allowed him no peace to work through what was happening to him.
Josephine had been correct about one thing. The lab had become a safe haven. But in reality, it was just another place to hide. The Faeries and other creatures had taken over his world. Even at home he couldn’t escape. At work, his focus had to stay on task which let him avoid confronting the strangeness.
Pocketing his keys, he started his trek to the bus stop. The warm night pulled at him, slowing his steps. All that waited for him at home were dreams. At war with himself, he walked past the shelter and headed across the street into the park. His body engaged in a losing battle as the stimulants wore off and his need for sleep escalated.
The woods called to him. Alone finally, his thoughts wandered freely for the first time in days. The constant tension of denial that he stubbornly held on to lifted from his shoulders. Slipping into the trees, the moon’s light shot broken shadows across the trail.
Wandering absently, Ashton stopped to rest on a tree root. He shook his head to clear his vision. Tears pricked his eyes from the relief as the sudden peace chased away pain he hadn’t realized he had. Even the sparkly glow, zigzagging through the tree branches, didn’t dim the release.
Resigned, Ashton waited for the little delicately laced wing creature to land. The faery fluttered his wings and dropped onto the branch. The little male stared at him and Ashton groaned.
“Are you trying to hide from us, mortal?”
“I, uh…” Ashton clenched his teeth as more gossamer wings zipped nearer. “Well…”
“You haven’t left your box this early in days. So we were not prepared. It would not matter where you went mortal. We would find you. This location just makes it easier.” The faery looked over his shoulder then jumped off the branch. Josephine took his place. She cocked her head before plopping down on the branch, her feet kicking.
A little of his disgruntlement with her resurfaced, “Couldn’t this wait? Do you have to hound me now?” I suppose I should be grateful for small miracles, at least I’m not at work anymore.
“Stop being a grumpy goblin. Time is running out. You have to do it soon.”
“Do what!” He jumped up throwing his hands in the air, his serenity evaporating. “You keep telling me that. You haven’t given me a moment’s peace. Completely disregarding that I have suddenly started to see or talk to things that nobody in their right mind would consider real. I’m scared to death to fall asleep, because some scary bitch of a horse is out to get me, and you expect me to just act like its business as usual. Yougo do whatever it is that you think is so important.”
“If you weren’t fighting this so much, Ash, it would be easier.”
Ashton folded his arms and glared right back at her. “You come to me, completely disrupting my life, and have the gall to tell me it would be easier not to fight it. Do you know how hard it is to explain you? The mess you made in my office? I’ll give you some reality. You are so lucky Robert didn’t get a really good look at you today, or you and your little Tinker Belle friends would be stuck through with a pin in a butterfly box. That’s what scientists do, you know.”
The fairy’s eyes got wide as saucers and her companions all dove for cover in a flurry of colorful wings. Remorse flooded him. “Wait, I didn’t mean…”
A sharp prick stuck him in the back and he froze.
“They are right, Ashton. I’ve been calling you long enough. I’m tired of you ignoring me.”
Josephine rose to her feet on the branch, “Do you want me to stay, Milord?”
“No, Josephine. I’ll take it from here. I’ll call when I need you.”
Barely daring to breathe, Ashton met the faery’s eyes, full of compassion and a touch of fear, before she flew reluctantly away. Ashton swallowed slowly, a shiver running down his spine. The sharp point at his back hadn’t lessened. The night took on a new depth as he stood frozen, waiting to die.
The light breeze that rustled the leaves above him echoed loudly in his ears. His thoughts skittered and he took a deep breath of the warm, wet night air in an attempt to contain his panic.
The point dug deeper and Ashton stumbled forward a step with a gasp. The prodding continued, sending him through the soft loam of the forest.
“Tell me human, why have you been ignoring my summons? It took you long enough to get here.”
“This isn’t real. None of this is real. I’m a scientist. My life is based on truth.” Ashton whispered. This experience could just go on the list with all of the others. Otherwise he would finally have to acknowledge that the dreams were genuine too.
“I assure you, everything in life is quite real. Even dreams.”
The mark on his chest blazed. His lungs seized from the pain and he fell to his knees. An answering light incandesced from behind him. He managed to turn his head and see through his blurring eyes that it hadn’t been a knife in his back after all, but a wickedly sharp spiral horn.
The agony finally succeeded in breaking Ashton’s will, and he passed out.
Shuffling along the sidewalk, Ashton blindly passed in and out of the splashes of light cast by the street lamps. His thoughts circled incessantly over the reality of the burn on his chest. He had almost missed his stop because of his preoccupation. Thankfully, the bus driver knew him well enough and stopped anyway. I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I need to sleep. He rubbed the aching spot again, like poking at a sore tooth. It was just a dream…
Music spilled out into the balmy night from one of the local hole in the wall bars he passed. The foot traffic thickened, and he had to dodge the short-skirted, nightclubbing set who passed on the arms of well dressed men.
Something buzzed his ear and he ducked, nearly colliding with one couple. Another whoosh and this time he waved his arm over his head, garnering a few slurs from his clumsiness. A few more dive-bombs, and Ashton stopped to look into the dark sky where silhouettes swooped and cavorted. A sigh of relief escaped him at the bats’ antics, until one paused to hover in the moonlight. The silver glow shined through the creature’s wings and caused them to iridesce, showing the distinctly non bat shape. Giggling filled the air and Ashton’s back hit the brick wall behind him. He slammed his eyes shut. I’m exhausted. Now I’m turning normal bats into fairy tales. Six more blocks.
He pulled his focus away from the not-bats and started to move home with more speed. They continued to swoop above him, following, but he kept his eyes fixed on the sidewalk. An odd clatter jerked his attention to an alley as he passed. His steps faltered and he peered down it, a flash of white whisked around a corner. A shiver ran down his spine and he exhaled a shaky breath.
Little hands tugging on his hair got his steps moving. Then, in the last block before his apartment, the flock above him dispersed with a squeak and he stumbled to a stop. Staring up into the empty air, the moonlight dimmed and he glanced over his shoulder at the full orb. What looked exactly like a dragon, instead of a cloud, scudded across the surface of the moon. His jaw fell open momentarily before Ashton snapped his eyes away to stare at the other people populating the sidewalk. They don’t see it. Panic bubbled up. A few pedestrians gave him a wide birth as he started to hyperventilate.
Sweat dripped down his back and he broke into a run. He slammed into the door of his apartment complex. Ripping the keys out of his front pocket of his pants, his shaking hands dropped them. When he bent down to get them, the clatter he had heard in the alley sounded from the darkness next to his building. He glanced over the balustrade as he fumbled to get the proper key into the lock. Another flash of white disappeared around the back.
I’m sleep deprived. That’s all it is. He slammed the lobby door shut behind him. The seconds it took to reach his apartment moved in slow motion. It took both hands, but he managed to get his key in and turned. His breath rasping he fell back against the door and blindly twisted the lock, then slid down it in a heap. Rubbing the burn on his chest, his head thumped into the wood. Vodka. I don’t care that I’m out of oj. If I get drunk enough I can’t dream.
A week later, Ashton stepped outside of the lab building, into the brilliant sunshine. He had quickly learned that getting drunk didn’t help keep his strange companions at bay. So he just ignored them. On the positive side of things he no longer had nightmares while he slept. But his waking time had become filled with these strange hallucinations. Frightening in their own right because they caused him to start to question his sanity.
His crown of flutterbys descended. They took up their usual position, swooping and diving over his head. He sighed ignoring them, jiggled his lunch sack, and started his walk to the park. His coworkers all thought he was nuts for wanting to eat his lunch outside. They were perfectly happy to consume the fuel they needed in the break room, then get back to work.
His hair got tugged and he absentmindedly brushed the offender aside. He had a gauntlet of a couple of blocks to reach the park. Hopefully his mind wouldn’t play too many tricks on him. His hand absently brushed the mark on his chest. The pain was long gone but the mark had yet to fade.
He managed a whole block before the first creature made an appearance. A fat leathery-skinned thing, wearing crude dirt colored trousers, hopped over and over at the blue post box on the corner. It seemed like he was trying to reach the door. Ashton took a deep breath and turned away. Determined not to wonder why the thing would want in the mailbox. His attention strayed across the street where he examined the architecture on top of the buildings. That was a mistake. What he had once thought of as just a stone gargoyle decorating the roof cocked its head at him and waved. He snapped his eyes back to his feet. Safer, definitely safer.
I’m going insane. That’s the only explanation for this. Nightmares are one thing. Anyone can have nightmares. But seeing them while I’m awake? And I’m definitely the only one seeing them. Too many other people have walked right by the creatures.
Drugs? Maybe I’m getting dosed? Ashton shook his head, now he was reaching for straws. Don’t be daft, other than seeing things that aren’t really there I feel fine.
He kept his feet moving. The weight of his lunch bag pulled at his wrist and tethered him to the here and now. At the corner he had to wait for the crossing light. Across the busy street the park awaited, and so did more hallucinations. Even from here he could see the not quite human shapes. He looked back at the ground. Every strange creature he could think of seemed to be crawling out of the woodwork today.
The light changed and he started across the street. His eyes rested like a lifeline on the perfectly normal human mother and young daughter crossing towards him.
The woman smiled. “Oh look Rebecca. Look at all the butterflies.”
Ashton’s heart started to pound. They passed each other and the little girl’s peal of laughter rang in his ears. But it was her lisped words that made him trip on the curb and whip to face them.
“Those aren’t butterflies Mommy. They’re faeries.”
Her little hand gripped in her mother’s she walked backwards staring at him, or more accurately the flock buzzing around him.
“Faeries?” He repeated.
Suddenly his private hallucinations were no longer only in his head. The mark on his chest burned and he gasped. The rationalizations that had allowed him to keep the fear at bay fell. Reality spun, and his knees turned to water.
His eyes refocused. The crossing signal had almost counted down to zero, but one of the little winged creatures had landed in the crosswalk and seemed to be studying the ground. Cars revved, and it still didn’t take off and get out of the way of the imminently moving vehicles.
It bent down to pick something up.
“Get out of the road.”
The signal’s hand started to blink.
No. Ashton dashed back out into the road. He scooped it up and ran back to the park side of the street, to the accompaniment of horns honking and irate drivers.
“It’s just a butterfly you moron.”
His hair was tugged by little fists again, and he stopped at the edge of the grass to open his hands. This time he looked, really looked at the creature. The minute perfection of her form engrossed him. Fully human in shape, she wore a gossamer purple gown. The whisper softness of her transparent wings brushed his palms. She stood and he saw her wings had silver and purple veining shot through them.
After brushing her skirts down she looked up into his face and smiled. “Finally. You see me. You actually see me.”
Ashton yelped and jerked his hands apart.
A feminine shriek reached his ears, then swift movement spiraled in front of him. The little Faery hovered at his eye level and glared at him. “You dropped me!”
Ashton ran his hand shakily through his hair. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You just surprised me.”
She snorted and folded her arms, tapping her foot on thin air. He took the hint and tentatively held out his hand. She beamed at him and dropped down to his palm.
“Hello Ashton. I’m Josephine.” She curtsied.
“Hi.” He whispered.
His head ached and he looked up staring out across the park. He had a sinking feeling that all of the other strange creatures that he saw going about their business were just as real. The quiet giggling that had been teasing his senses for the last week sounded louder as the soft weight of the flock of faeries settled on his head and shoulders. Pressing their surprisingly heavy, warm weight against his skin in reassurance.
The harsh lights burned into his tired eyes. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, then refocused the microscope before he forced his head to bow again. Nothing different.
He sighed and straightened his spine. Popping vertebra as he stretched, groaning.
“You’re still here, Ashton? You should go home.”
Ashton dropped his hands into his lap and cocked his head to look over his shoulder. The fiftyish, graying lab tech stared at him from the aisle that led out of the lab.
“Can’t. Have to get this finished.”
“Didn’t get the transfer, huh?”
The sympathy on his coworker’s face hurt, so Ashton ducked his head back to his station. “No.”
“You know, killing yourself for them isn’t going to get you what you’re after.” He rustled as he shifted his load of clipboards. “Well, I’m done as soon as I put these away. You’re last for lock
“Yeah. Night.” He waved without looking. His pulse pounded in his temple. He fought the urge to just swipe everything, all equipment, slides, papers, everything to the floor. He would just have to start all over again if he gave in to his childish impulse. Why did they pass me up for that transfer? Again? I’m more than qualified.
With exaggerated care, Ashton slipped the slide from the microscope and prepped a new one. He hated working in pathology. He took this position three years ago because it allowed him to make ends meet, and still have the opportunity to advance to the field specialty he had trained for and loved. But this place had become a hole he couldn’t climb out of. He was too good at what he did.
I hate being stuck in this lab. I was supposed to be spending my days out in the open. Just the sky and the elements caging me. The challenge of deciphering the intricate puzzles of how the environment, creatures, plants, all interacted with one another to stay healthy and strong, drove him. His dream of working with biological systems/habitats slipped through his fingers every time the company held him here. Bringing failing biosystems back to health was his ultimate goal. Not this boring crap.
He picked up his pencil and started to record his observations. One eye returning repeatedly to the eyepiece.
“Arggh.” Ashton threw the now broken pencil at the wall. His chest heaved from the unexpected fury that resulted from the simple mishap. He pushed away from the bench and dropped his head into his hands, his elbows on his knees. Slowing his breath he performed a
simple relaxation exercise to regain control. “God I’m tired.”
Strange dreams had broken his sleep for the last few weeks. And they were getting worse. Getting darker. He scrubbed his face with his hands and leaned back in his chair to look up at the ceiling. The patterns in the tiles absorbed his attention and he stretched his legs out, settling deeper into the chair.
A hot breeze caressed his face, followed by a cold arctic nip that made Ashton snap his eyes open.
"What the hell?”
He stood on a ragged rocky crevice. Gray, ash coated rock stretched as far as his eye could see. Towering behind and dropping off to undulate in cracks and plateaus. What he could see of the roiling sky was a giant bruise. The only color, and the source of the heat that teased him, came from the lava flowing like veins through the cracks.
Ashton’s heart stopped and he fell to his knees. “Where the hell am I?” Shaking, he rubbed his sweating palms down his thighs, and tried to regain his feet. It took a couple of tries before he succeeded. The dark landscape appeared lifeless. The only movement came from the clouds and the flowing lava. His eyes darted everywhere below him. No paths obligingly showed themselves. A cold whirlwind whisked around his body, freezing the sweat. His teeth chattered.
A sound penetrated the silence. Something scraped against a rock behind him. A soft whimper escaped before his jaw clenched shut. His eyelids lowered and he swallowed slowly. His breath came in soft pants. His mind yelled to spin around but his body wouldn’t obey. It stood frozen, like the wind that had passed around him.
Force of will got him moving. His muscles quivered with the effort it took to make his body slowly turn to face what was behind him.
She matched the landscape, the dark horse that stood looking at him. Black as the shadows that surrounded them, with blood red nostrils and flickering eyes. Heavy with foal, she placed one delicate hoof closer. Flames skittered as her hoof struck stone. She was so close Ashton could reach out to touch her, if he dared. Her pelt looked like velvet and her silky mane, whipped up in a sudden gust, lashed around the wrist he didn’t remember lifting towards her.
Held by the encircling strands he stood frozen. She wuffled his hair, the velvet softness of her nose brushed down his cheek to nuzzle the skin of his neck. He trembled.
She pressed against his chest over his heart and exhaled. Hot air lanced through his clothes and he gasped, no longer cold. His eyes shot up to hers and were trapped. Emotions spun in their depths. He felt dislocated, stripped of who he was…
“I see you.” She whispered.
Ashton fell out of his chair with a painful thud. His heart raced and he gasped in great gulps of air. Disoriented, he sat up swaying. “What the?”
His chair still spun lazily and he stopped it, using the seat to lever himself up off the floor. His thigh was stiff from the landing and he rubbed it, wincing. “That’s going to leave a bruise. Man, this was the worst one yet.”
He sank gingerly into the chair, his thoughts circling around his nightmare. The latest in his string of sleep disturbances. The dreams had started as vague feelings of uneasiness, enough to leave him restless and quick to anger. But in the last week they had escalated. Become increasingly vivid, he could remember more details when he woke. But until now, just dreams.
This one had felt so real, he almost believed he had been somewhere else.
“This was still just a dream.” He shook his head and rubbed his hand over his still pounding heart, wincing at the unexpected pain. There was nothing to hit his chest on when he fell, a quick glance around proved that.
With trembling fingers, Ash undid the buttons of his lab coat and pulled aside the collar of his polo shirt. Over his heart was a butterfly of scalded skin. In just the shape of a horse’s exhale.
He could run from the lab. But how did he run from himself?