Cassie felt as if she were slowly waking up, her surroundings piecing themselves together, bit by bit as she noticed the details around her; but then it seemed that perhaps even as she watched, this place was being built. Wherever this place was.
She realised then that she was lying down. The surface initially felt insubstantial beneath her, but soon grew into the cold hardness of a stone floor. Once the floor had solidified, she used it to push herself upright until she was standing.
She was in an immense courtyard. High stone walls rose up around her and as she watched, the ground became carpeted with sickly pale grass that dragged itself up through the cracks. Everything was still. A yawning, jet black sky floated endlessly above the walls, as if there was nothing at all beyond them. And maybe there wasn’t.
Now, at the opposite end of the courtyard, Cassie heard footsteps. She knew who was coming even without looking. She felt his eyes on her and the knowledge he was watching made her shiver, more than seeing the hollow sky above them. Cassie turned. She couldn’t bear him being near and out of sight. He stopped and sat down in a twisted wooden throne that had slipped into existence without anyone noticing, as flawlessly as in any dream.
Leaning on one elbow, he smiled at Cassie, though it didn’t reach his eyes. He seemed at ease in these surroundings, as if he belonged here and was completely in charge of what was happening. Probably he was. Cassie was the first to break the brittle silence.
“Yes.” Despite the distance, his voice sounded as clearly as if he whispered into her ear. She whirled wildly towards the sound but of course no one stood beside her.
“What are you doing here?” She asked shortly.
“I came to see you. Or rather I brought you here to see me.” The smile reached his eyes this time, only serving to intensify Cassie’s fear. She shifted her weight, preparing to either fight or run. She wished desperately she had Zephyr with her, but she was well aware this dream was not under her control and such wishes were unlikely to come true.
“Cassie,” he shook his head sadly. A pitying look upon his face. “I just wanted to talk. You made me sad when you ran away.” The smile twisted now, becoming a snarl. “That wasn’t very nice.”
The words attacked Cassie from all sides, and the temperature dropped until she could see her breath forming little clouds each time she exhaled.
“We have nothing to talk about James.”
“Cassie, don’t be like that. We used to be such friends.” His voice was lilting, almost sing-song, and against her will she felt herself relaxing, dropping her guard. And then she met his eyes. Behind them she saw something, broken and barely controlled, that made him even more dangerous than she had realised before. A small voice at the back of her head warned her to be careful but there were other, much louder parts of her that were screaming at this man, this boy, who had done so much damage and threatened so much.
“We were never friends.” She spat the words at him as if they could hurt him but he only giggled like a child playing a harmless joke.
“But you thought we were. Too bad for you, you didn’t realise sooner. It was such fun, turning you against him.” Pain lanced through Cassie’s chest.
“What have you done to Kieran?”
“Does it matter? He bored me. Fun, for a while. I liked toying with him. He was always so easy to see through. But then he bored me.”
“What did you do to him?” Cassie screamed at James, trying to run towards him but just as in dreams she gained no ground.
“I won’t tell you. I don’t want to.”
“No.” The air grew even colder, if that were possible. Cassie could see her breath clouding in front of her. “You see Cassie, you were always meddling with my plans. Always getting in the way. So I thought, why not just get rid of her? And I tried. And you and your stupid friends spoiled that too.”
“Kieran didn’t have anything to do with me getting away from the inn that day. You could have left him alone. He never did anything to you.”
“I’m not talking about Kieran.” He hissed, eyes wild. “I’m talking about that stupid girl. That…Gemma.” He frowned as if her name tasted unpleasant in his mouth.
Cassie’s eyes widened as she realised the implication of what he’d said. She should have realised it before, but she’d just never connected it.
“You killed Gemma.” The words almost stuck in her throat, choking her.
He shrugged, content that he had hurt Cassie.
“She misled me, let me believe that she was you. Her death is not important.”
Cassie shivered, not with the cold this time, but from trying to contain the fury she felt towards James.
“You killed Gemma-”
James looked bored. “Yes, we’ve established that.”
“You killed Gemma because you thought it was me.”
“Yes.” He sighed, rolling his eyes. He was clearly annoyed by her apparent inability to take this in.
“And then you sent that man after me, you tried to kill me again.”
“Yes.” He was walking away from her across the stones, a dull ringing filling the cavernous courtyard every time his shoes hit a place the grass didn’t cover.
“But you failed.” It was a victory, no matter how bittersweet. He whirled on the spot, hissing in an animalistic sound of anger.
“You slipped away, you were within my reach, and you escaped.” He spat the words at her. For a moment his pupils appeared to grow, blackness swallowing the blue. His breathing was ragged and he stood, furious as a caged beast. For a moment Cassie didn’t know what he would do but then he straightened, carefully slowing his breathing. He closed his eyes and when they opened they were his own again, as Cassie remembered them.
“But that doesn’t matter now. It is your time to fail, and you will fail.” He looked dreamily off into the distance. “My friends are here, Cassie. You will not stop them. You will fail and everything will fall.”
“You’re wrong. I’m going to stop them and I’m going to stop you.”
“How do you think you’re going to do that? They can’t be killed. They’re the Immortals. Do you think that you can just walk up to them and say ‘Excuse me but could you please leave’?” He laughed wildly at his joke. “You have no chance. My friends will kill you. But first they’ll destroy everything that you know and love, and you will have no choice but to stand by and watch. Only when you’ve seen what has become of your world will they destroy you.”
He gazed at her and as he did, everything around them grew darker. The air became thicker and more menacing. Cassie’s eyes flicked from James to the advancing shadows and back again.
Then the world he had created started to disintegrate. The walls crumbled, the grass beneath their feet wilted and withdrew, and the ground became dry and cracked. Only James remained constant as he returned to sit upon the throne born of tortuously twisted wood.
Flashing, disjointed images assaulted Cassie’s mind. Screams and cries, inhuman sounds of agony and fear, echoed in the air. Then the pictures stopped being just pictures and they came alive. Terrified people raced towards Cassie from behind James. They parted as they ran past him, and despite the howling wind that tore at Cassie and that screamed as loudly as the fleeing figures he remained untouched. They ran straight into her, straight through her.
A hill appeared in the distance and over it advanced a massive writhing shape. As it drew closer Cassie realised it was an army, the army she had dreamt of night after night. She took a step back. The closer it came the more terrifying it was. James continued to watch her, eyes fixating ever more intensely, rejoicing in her fear.
As the army approached, tangible waves of fear and evil rolled off from them, crashing into Cassie until she was driven to her knees on the dry ground. Screams echoed in her ears as she fought to rise again. Still, his eyes watched her.
Suddenly the screams stopped. Everything was silent. She raised her head. She was standing on a barren plain. In the distance was a mountain range silhouetted in a glow that she wished was the sun, but which she knew was fire. Everything was dead and burnt. She stood and a cloud of ash rose from the ground where she put her feet. The Immortals stood before her, every bit as terrifying now as they had always been. In the midst of them he still sat on his chair.
She stepped back and realised she was now standing on the edge of a great chasm. This was what they had done to her world, what they would do. They had destroyed it completely. Just like he said they would. His voice whispered in her mind and in her eyes, his laughing eyes tormenting her. “They will force you to watch, Cassie, and then? Then they will destroy you.”
An arrow sped through the air. Cassie didn’t see where it flew from but she saw clearly as it buried its head in her heart. Her eyes widened in disbelief as very real pain blossomed in her chest, the force of the impact knocking her backwards into the void. His words whispered around her and her screams were swallowed by the abyss.
“They will destroy you.”