Everything was hazed at its edges. Colors were vibrant but bled the moment anything moved. Like cloth traveling through water, everyone moved at languid pacing. The scene would be beautiful if not for the knot of dread in Idella’s stomach. For every one of their steps, she could take five. A muttered syllable was to her a fully recited a book passage. Trapped in a hall where time went slower for every occupant save her, she felt oddly exposed.
Ducking into an alcove, she lined her back against the stone wall and caught her breath. She didn’t recall running, yet her chest was pulled tight. Planting a hand on her sternum, she steadied her breath. Or at least, attempted to. In the corner of her eye, the blurred crawl of the hallway passersby didn’t aid matters. She squeezed her eyes shut.
A dream, she told herself. This is some kind of dream. The thought somewhat comforted her, till a dutiful part of her mind reminded her that such oddities usually preceded a nightmare. An unfamiliar, cramped space, no one to help, feeling exposed…
Her eyes snapped open. She knew this dream.
Pushing off from the wall, Idella broke into a run. Her sandaled feet slowed her, the leather bindings bit into her skin. She didn’t care. The fabric of her robes caught and tore at the edges of each corner she turned. Weaving away from the market square of slow-moving people, she committed herself to a deep labyrinth of tunnels.
“Left, right. Two more lefts, go straight,” she breathed as she ran. Her words were raspy. In spite the web of halls, she navigated it cleanly. Only her breath and bleeding feet hampered her. “Faster,” she begged of herself, turning left one final time before collapsing against a wall, gasping for air.
It’s a dream, just a dream. Why do I need to even breathe?! She desperately tried to reason out the situation. It only made her chest thud harder. She couldn’t simply will her breath unnecessary. Her heart pounded in her ears, making her head feel as if it threatened to burst.
She wiped away the forming tears. Damn it. I’m so —
— Something tapped against her shoulder. She looked to her right.
A claw was hooked into her robe just above her right clavicle. Her eyes slowly trailed upward to the knuckle it hooked from. It encompassed the whole of the wall. Hot breath breathed down her neck. She didn’t crane her head back any further. She screamed, tried to leap to her feet, to run — but the claw staked the shoulder of her robe against the wall. Pinned her.
“No!” she screamed. “No!” She strained against it, grasping at the knotted fabric that wouldn’t tear. Twisting, pulling, it couldn’t come free. Tears streamed down her face. Her eyes trailed upward, catching full sight of her attacker. Its eyes met hers. Its head bent forward, and —
— Idella jolted forward. Her surroundings changed from labyrinthian to a cavern. The beast was gone, her robes intact. Her startled momentum carried her far till something sharply tugged her back. She gasped and stumbled to her knees. Clutching her chest, she struggled to catch her breath. Another dream, perhaps? Why was breathing so difficult?
She looked down at her chest. Where her sternum would be, a chain ran through her innards and trailed behind her. Pulled taut, it stemmed from an immense square stone, a structure akin to what one would find as the centerpiece of a mausoleum. The chain slowly started reeling her back in. As it pulled tighter, so did the pressure across her chest.
“Not a dream,” she whispered.
She so desperately wanted to fight it. Pull away, crawl, claw till her nails bled. But with every tug of the chain, she felt her heart skip a vital beat, her breath hitch. Her vision swam. The blur of her earlier dream was a mild precursor to the blur she experienced now. She lay limp on the floor, giving in to its relentless bid back to her stoney bed.
As her gaze grew dark, she glimpsed a swipe of red across her vision. A honeyed voice soothed her:
“Sleep, dearie. Back to sleep with you…”