The world screamed fiery chaos inside her head. She'd climbed worse than the wall a dozen times... so why was she shaking when she dropped over? Supposed to be haunted...? she snorted. Still, nobody ever came here.
She fought her way through slashing weeds. They ended abruptly at the edge of the rubble. She stared through the gap-toothed wall. Nothing burnt. Smashed up, but not burnt. If it had smelled of smoke she never could've stepped through. She picked her way carefully, but the rubble had settled stably. She moved away from the blown-out side and finally dared look up. A grand staircase loomed. She blinked at it. It looked surprisingly solid. She approached carefully and tested the first wide step. It was solid. She tested the next step.
Turmoil drained away as she went up, testing each step with care. On the landing she whirled, staring back down at the banister foot-post. Jumpy, she chided herself. Something glimmered at the edge of her vision and she turned again, backing instinctively. She came up against the wall between a branching second flight. She shook her head fiercely. How could she sleep if she didn't even have to close her eyes to still see the flames? Clenching her jaw and her fists, she turned to the branching stairways. The one on the right led back toward the rubble where she'd come in. She'd probably climbed over most of the first floor down there. Useless. The left side led up into solid shadow.
She tested the steps as she went. Nobody ever came here. All she needed was to go through a rotten board. The world became dark wood and worn carpet. Quiet and still. Her Docs turned to lead weights, but still the steps held, and she went up. The steps ended and she felt lighter somehow. The hallway loomed out dashed with lighter greys that sparkled back again from the walls. Curious, she approached the nearest and stumbled against a pedestal. She tried to steady it. Something silken and feathery tumbled over her hand. There was a flutter, a thump, and a soft scratching. She edged away, breathing hard. The case built securely against the wall still had its glass front. Moonlight glinted on the insects within. She sucked in a breath. She'd seen beetles on cards in school. These looked like they'd been pinned alive. She backed away. Well sick. She crept on, still testing her steps until the door. She reeled back clapping a hand to her mouth, and doubled over. Her stomach heaved, but there wasn't anything to come up. "I'll never forget, never! " she gasped. But she had. It hadn't been a day and she had. Just for a second... no... longer... She shivered and tried to swallow against a sticky throat.
There was someone here. Someone in that room. Someone staring at her with the same desperate, haunted question. No, that was stupid. She was being stupid. A stupid girly girl. Trembling, she straightened and edged her way to the door fishing in her rucksack for her torch. The eyes were still there. Accented by moonlight through the shattered-out window and half-gaping roof. Stone. They were stone. She almost giggled in giddy relief. A statue! Half-buried in rubble, splintered wood, and cloth. But it hadn't fallen in. Her mind tried to put the room back together. Why here? Why put a statue here? She took another few steps in and turned about sweeping the torch-beam around the room. It was a bedroom. What was a statue doing here? Then she noticed the second one. Looking up at the first. Like Madame Tussauds in stone. Of course! That's where all the stories came from. Corpses and ghosts... they were all statues!
The rasping shriek from the hallway sent her rigid.
"You're statues," she forced the words past near-numb lips, even as she shrank toward the door. The round, glassy eye of a shattered rocking horse amid the rubble began to glow.
"Changing," whispered through her mind, "even still..."
Nearly tripping over her own feet, torch-beam bobbing crazily over stuffed birds and insect cases, she pelted for the stairs. She hadn't come that far. Couldn't've.
Something cold sighed through her. She pitched forward. The torch flew out of her hand and something smashed. She hit the runner full-length and lay there, dazed, trying to fill her lungs.
"...lost..." echoed plaintively round her head. "...We both are..." and then, desperate, alone, and quavering, "What have we done?"
Dorothy dragged air into her lungs, and forced her protesting body to move. To the stairs, down...
"...never change..." the words swirled cold around her, catching at her, turning the stairs into a nightmare struggle against the air.
She didn't even know there were tears streaming down her face. "NO!" she bellowed at the empty house, "No! It will! It has to!"
"...never change..." the darkness hissed its venomous promise.
She fought her way off the stairs into a coldness so solid it was like the air had frozen around her.
The words roared through her and everything went black.
She was cold. So cold she couldn't feel her hands or feet. She couldn't see, or maybe there was nothing to see. She had to breathe... It took her frantic seconds to remember how.
Something rustled against her. Dorothy shot up with a gasp. Her eyelids stuck for a moment, then she blinked. It was still dark, but she could see. She was sitting at the base of the grand staircase, staring up at the shattered remnants of a stained-glass window. She was so cold she could hardly think.
"...never change..." the icy voice crept inside.
She tore open her rucksack and fumbled inside, catching hold of the first solid thing her fingers met. She pulled it out. One of the flares they hadn't used to divert traffic... someone had handed it to her... She stared at it. She wanted to smash the whole sick ruined world.
She snapped the flare and it blazed. "IT WILL," she raged at the icy voice, "it will, it will, IT WILL!" and she hurled the blazing ends up the stairs. They thumped softly on the landing and rolled, then the runners went up with a *whumph*. She stared, horror-stricken at the flames.
"No... nononoIdidn'tmeanit!" she babbled through a fresh wave of tears, "I didn't mean it! I'm not like them! I DIDN'T MEAN IT!" she lurched forward to throw herself at the greedy flames with a wild thought of smothering them, but collided with something soft and solid. In that instant she came fully aware and her eyes went wide. The flames boiled up both arms of the staircase and crept down towards her. She stood, transfixed as a moth.
"Wicked," murmured in her ear.
She caught her breath and stumbled backward tripping on her own feet and falling hard. She wasn't numb any longer. The waves of heat had solved that. That made sense.
Nobody ever comes here. Nobody. Not even on a lark. Not even on a dare. Nobody ever comes to Gabriel Chase.
Smoke rolled toward her like an avalanche, and she fled before it. If it touched her, it would swallow her up and choke her. She made it back through the rubble, the gaping hole, the weeds, and over the wall. She sank against the solid stone gasping, scratched, dirty and shaking. She heard the fire snapping and fluttering behind the wall. She covered her ears and sobbed.
"I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it," she repeated over and over as though, somehow, it might stop the flames. There was a grating rumble from behind her as the house crumbled in on itself. Red-gold light roared into the sky.
"Mamma we are free..." sighed the night breeze.
Dorothy blinked. She shook her head. She couldn't hear anything but the fire and her own sobs.
"...change..." wailed away into the open sky.
She lifted her head, rose, and stared, mesmerized by the dancing colours. Even at that distance, she could feel the heat. The blaze roared on, but there was no reek of petrol, or plastic, or worse. This fire was clean.
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