Jhi and Anna had been by Cassie’s side for almost an entire day, and the shadows were starting to rise in the city again. The Rat had come and gone several times, fruitlessly trying to wake Cassie from her sleep. She continued to lie, deathly still, on the wooden floor. They had not wanted to move her, not knowing what was happening and fearful of harming her in some way.
Apart from muffled noises that occasionally sounded from other parts of the Mouse Hole, it had been silent, but when Cassie fell from the edge of the void in the dream world constructed by James, she screamed and that same scream burst out of her living body too. It horrified Jhi and Anna and brought Quinn, who’d been standing vigil outside the door, racing in.
Jhi shouted for him to fetch the Rat as quickly as possible. He and Anna stared down helplessly at Cassie. The scream emanating from her mouth ceased as her lungs emptied themselves of air. But the terrible sound continued, leaping from her terrified mind to resound inside the heads of those nearby. Suddenly, Cassie’s eyes flew open and she clawed at her chest. The Rat entered at a run; thankfully she’d been close by. She knelt by Cassie’s side and examined her eyes, which skittered wildly from side to side without seeing. Gripping her firmly by both shoulders the Rat yelled Cassie’s name with her voice and mind, again and again. Even though it wasn’t directed at them Anna and Jhi felt the force of it batter their minds painfully.
Cassie must have heard and responded to the sound on some level, because her hands fell to her side and she lay still, but her terrible screaming continued. The deathly stillness paired with that unrelenting sound of pain frightened Anna and Jhi, almost as much as the unnerving visage of fear on the Rat’s face.
“I need to know what’s happening.”
“We don’t know what happened, she just started screaming. Something’s wrong.”
“I know that. Something’s very wrong,” the Rat retorted. “And that’s why I need to find out what’s happening. I need your help and I need you to understand what I’m going to do. You have to trust that I wouldn’t normally do this.”
Both of them looked at the Rat with complete incomprehension but also complete trust.
“I need to look into her mind, to see whatever happened to her, or what she saw. Then, maybe I’ll be able to work out what’s happening to her now.”
“And then you can help her?” Anna unknowingly gripped Jhi’s hand. Two sets of eyes waited anxiously for the Rat’s answer.
“I hope so.” She positioned herself so she was kneeling behind Cassie’s head where she lay on the floor. “Each of you, come sit next to me and put a hand on one of my shoulders.”
Anna moved to sit on the Rat’s left and Jhi on her right, doing as she bid.
“I’m going to try and find her memories. It’s dangerous. The unconscious mind is less organized, more chaotic; in that sense it’s closer to the void. I have to be careful. If I become trapped in her memories it could alter how she sees her past. It could even change who she is now.”
“And you would be trapped in her mind too.” Jhi wasn’t asking, but the Rat answered.
“Yes. I’ll be trapped. That’s why I need you two here. You need to picture something, a rope, a tether, a cord, a vine, anything, just something you can use as a line to tie me to this world. Picture it in your minds and imagine it being fed towards me. Close your eyes if you need to.”
As they complied, the Rat felt thin tendrils of their selves drifting towards her. She gripped them with her mind, wrapping them tightly around her.
“Now, concentrate. Don’t let them waver or break. Block everything else out. Breathe deeply and focus on that line.” She glanced towards Quinn, hovering at the door. “Make sure no one comes into this room. We must not be disturbed.” He nodded and positioned himself firmly in the doorway.
Behind her, Anna and Jhi breathed evenly, clearly concentrating intensely. Normally achieving that level of concentration required considerable training, but perhaps the urgency of the situation strengthened their ability. Pushing all such distracting thoughts out of her mind the Rat breathed in deeply, once, and as she breathed out she let herself fall through the layers of her mind. She reached a point where she paused and opened her eyes, but what she saw was a vastly changed room.
Shadows abounded but where there were people there was light. Cassie’s light worried her, though. It flickered and dimmed, and flecks of it broke and drifted away, fading like embers that floated too far from the fire. The Rat frowned and let her mind flow towards Cassie. For a moment she was sinking through darkness and then she stopped. Still surrounded by near complete darkness, she glanced around. A few feet away from her a crumpled figure lay on the ground. It was Cassie. She was wearing simple, pale clothing. Similar to the garments she’d been wearing when she had first appeared in the Mouse Hole. Walking closer, the Rat’s eyes widened. A broken arrow shaft was embedded in Cassie’s chest, which rose and fell erratically with each ragged breath. Then the Rat realised. This wasn’t a memory. This was now. She had come deeper than she had meant to, to the very essence of Cassie’s mind and being. And in her mind, Cassie was dying. The Rat had seen this once before and she knew what it could mean.
She gripped her tethers to the world above tightly and rose. As she did, flickers of Cassie’s meeting with a beautiful young man, who the Rat could only assume was James, brushed past. She saw Cassie standing before him and she saw the arrow strike Cassie with fatal intent.
Gasping, she opened her eyes. She was back in the room in the Mouse Hole again. The Rat sprang into action, calling for Anna and Jhi to help. They rose quickly, exclaiming as their knees protested against the sudden movement. Jhi realised they must have been sitting for some time, though how long, exactly, he couldn’t be sure.
The Rat started dragging Cassie’s limp body towards the fireplace.
“Quinn!” She shouted and he appeared through the doorway. Clearly he’d been waiting anxiously. “Take Jhi and get firewood. Lots of it. And candles and lanterns and blankets.” He departed swiftly. “Anna, get your herbs. The ones for healing.”
Within minutes they were gathered around Cassie again. She was cold to the touch, despite the blazing fire and the blankets piled on and around her. The Rat took Cassie’s necklace from around the unconscious girl’s neck and placed it by the fire, surrounded by numerous candles. Kneeling by it, she began to explain to the others.
“Cassie has been wounded. James pulled her into a dream of his making. Obviously, based on that alone, it was not a normal dream. It’s not like a True Dream either. He has built this dream around the two of them, and for all purposes what happens in that dream is essentially real. In that dream, Cassie was shot. The arrow hit her in the chest, and the head has pierced her heart.”
“But it’s just a dream, dreams can’t hurt people.” Jhi retorted.
“The problem is that in this sort of dream what happens is real, or at least the body believes it is. So her body believes it has been wounded, fatally, and is responding accordingly. The only reason she’s still alive is because at some level, some part of her mind comprehends that it is only a dream. Her body and mind are at war, right now. Her heart is slowing down. It would have stopped but her mind is forcing it to continue beating. But it can’t continue forever. One side will win out. And right now, Cassie’s mind is exhausted. As it is, I fear the body will win, which will mean her death.”
“We can’t just let that happen.” Jhi protested as Anna nodded fervently.
“No. I know. Trust me. Apart from the fact that she is our friend, I believe there’s too much resting on her survival for us to let her go so easily.”
“So all of this…” Anna gestured towards the fire and the candles surrounding the necklace. “You think it will help?”
“I hope so. Apart from anything else, the fire and the blankets will keep her warm. But I suspect more than that. Remember the way her eyes and blood burned that day, as if living flames danced within her? I think, I hope, fire will help her somehow. That it will strengthen the flame inside her.”
“And the necklace. That helped her to see what James had been doing. It protected her mind. You think that will work again?” Jhi was catching onto the Rat’s plan.
“I’m not sure. But, I have a feeling it may. No sense in not trying.”
Quinn, who’d been silently watching this exchange, interrupted.
“Now what? I mean surely we can’t just sit here and hope it’s going to help.”
“We’re not.” Moving swiftly the Rat drew a knife from somewhere. Without hesitation she drew a deep cut across Cassie’s hand, the same one the necklace had burned once before. Ignoring Jhi’s and Anna’s cries of protest, the Rat grabbed the necklace from among the candles, and wrapped it around Cassie’s hand, closing the cold fingers over the pendant. Blood ran freely, mingling with the heat from the stone. As it did, a gentle glow, much like the light from the candles which had surrounded the necklace, began to seep out of the stone and into the open wound. It didn’t shine with the same fierce intensity seen when driving James’ lies from Cassie’s mind, but it was warm and strong.
At the Rat’s command, Anna mixed a tincture of herbs meant for healing wounds before spreading it on Cassie’s hand and also the place on her chest where the Rat had seen the arrow. As the light played around Cassie’s hand, the wound began to grow smaller and her breathing more even. Colour started to return to her face and, as it did so, all four people around her began to relax. Whatever was happening, she was getting stronger. Over the coming hours, Cassie still didn’t wake, but her friends sensed she was out of danger. The Rat sank through the levels of Cassie’s mind once more and what she found confirmed it. In those depths, Cassie still lay unconscious on the ground, but the arrow was gone and the injury shrinking. Reassured, the Rat and Quinn left. They had much to prepare for what was coming.