The forest air was moist and pungent, smelling strongly of the good, damp earth which underlay it. Above me droplets fell from dripping trees, glinting brightly in the sunlight of midmorning. A cool breeze swept between the conifers, rustling branches and sending shimmering waterfalls of light cascading to the ground. I felt it kiss my skin with tenderness no human being could ever match, and deep within me something stirred, awakening an ancient longing for the source.
Ahead of me the trail dissolved into a clearing. As I came up to it I caught a flash of color in the corner of my eye, a scrap of cloth snagged on a branch where it had torn free from its owner’s garment. I recognized it as the same pink that Sophia had been wearing, and wondered how she had managed to lose her hoodie. I cast an eye around, thinking she must have dropped it, then realized that her shirt had been visible with its longer hem. I tucked the scrap of fabric into the pocket of my cargoes.
The door swung open with an echoing boom that rattled down the hallway beyond and back throughout the entry chamber. Torches which had sprung alive at the door’s opening now flickered in the draft, barely staying lit. I put my crowbar back and stepped inside. A chill ran up my spine.
Beyond the firelight’s dim glow, only the beam of my headlamp illuminated the dusty darkness. Skeletons and discarded implements of battle adorned the passageway like the macabre decorations of a Halloween long past and fain forgotten. Upon the walls there lay an arch of torches like the heralds of arrival in this ancient place. We walked beneath them with a rapid step.
I tumbled the clip out of the gun and shucked the cold brass into my hand, counting until I reached eight. My hands shook, and sweat trickled down my brow. Two shots. She had fired two shots, and I had slept right through it. The bullets clinked together as I dumped them in my belt-pouch. The sound of falling, dripping water was deafening in the silence.
After a time, the stillness penetrated me. I sank to my knees and ran my hands along the ground. The stone was smooth and wet, slick with moss and algae, poor footing but excellent breeding ground for all manner of germ-ridden beasts. Glinting eyes in the darkness answered my suspicions. I reached for my gun to ward them off, but some instinct warned me not to fire. I realized whatever had taken Sophia was not afraid of bullets. I let my gun rasp back into its holster with my hands now firm and steady, if covered with filth of unknown origin. The shell casings reflected the light of my headlamp, distorting it into an oval. I sealed them into an evidence bag and pocketed it for safekeeping.
I woke in a pool of my own blood, the gun still clutched within my hand. Above me, the sky was a cold and lifeless gray, and around me I heard the keening and rattling of the wind. It howled down the narrow alleyway, scouring the ground for trash and grit and hurling them into the air, a stinging, scourging force of nature in the city. Pop cans clattered across the chipped, uneven brick, coated with a grime that had lasted for an untold count of years, and rats scurried from one bag to the next, clambering over and amongst the refuse. I turned my head to look around, and it was then I recognized the place that I had come to rest.
As I stood the wind whipped back my coat, its icy tendrils battering my shirt and writhing around my chest. They clawed against my skin and penetrated, reaching deep into my bones with mindless, numbing cold. My heart convulsed, stricken by the chill, and I shuddered, feeling as though someone must be walking on my grave.
I shuddered awake, penetrating cold sending ripples through my body. It was freezing here, and I didn’t know where here was, only that the surface I was laying on had leeched away what little heat I had. The soulless chill of the granite permeated me like the endless cold of death, reminding me of the dream from which I had so recently emerged. I flicked my eyes open and let my vision settle, re-calibrating until the ceiling sharpened into focus. Slowly, I pushed myself up, expecting with every moment to experience a lance of pain, but nothing came.
My hand brushed against the 1911A that I had tried to take my life with. Sticky blood coated the weapon, and dirt and dust had gathered on its once-gleaming finish. I touched the side of my head and felt the matching stickiness. My hair was stiff and matted to the touch, shifting and splitting into smaller strands beneath my fingertips. Trembling, I took the clip out and counted the rounds. One was missing.