// Seven //

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My eyelids fluttered as I woke up.

Darkness.

"Hello?" I called. The chill and delusion of my fever had subsided while I slept, but the air still bit with a harsh cold. Hunger gnawed at me from the inside, and my mouth was dry with dehydration. Blindly, I pushed myself to my feet. I reached my hands out around me until I found the cool surface of the wall.

"Jen? Clara?"

I blinked again, wondering for a second if I had gone blind. The cell was pitch black. What had happened to the lights?

"Hello?" I called one more time. I couldn't see anything. Maybe Clara and Jen were still in the cell too, asleep in the far corner.

Carefully, I paced along the wall, keeping my hand firmly against the rock surface. The floor shifted beneath me dizzyingly as my mind attempted to process absolute darkness. It was like being submerged underwater. My equilibrium and concept of direction were thrown off.

My feet shuffled over the dirty floor until I reached the far corner of the cell. The smell of cold earth permeated the air like a dense fog. I turned and went along the back wall, running my hand along the tiny patterns of rock and stone. Irrational fears crawled into my mind. If I let go of the wall and made my way to the center of the room, the wall would cease to exist. The space would grow around me endlessly. Inescapably. It would extend out to infinity.

"Jen? Clara?" I called as I reached the second corner of the cell. My heart pounded faster and faster with each step as the realization sunk in. They weren't asleep. They weren't sitting against the wall. I reached the front of the cell, and my hand ran over the icy bars. I kept waiting for my eyes to adjust. Surely I would be able to see something soon. Surely my eyes would dilate enough to pick up a trace of light.

But they never did.

Three stories under the earth, it is impossible to adjust to absolute darkness.

My fingers clicked over the bars as I walked like I was playing a giant harp, and finally, I reached the wall where I had started.

I leaned against it. The cell wasn't that big. Jen and Clara wouldn't be in the center. But still, just to satisfy my need to comb every surface of the room, I pulled in a breath and let my hand leave the wall.

It vanished immediately. I knew it. In a panic, I reached back behind myself until my palm contacted the surface once again. I let out an uneasy breath.

Still there. Still there.

Slowly, like I was walking a tight-rope, I let go of the wall once again and began to cross the room. I kept my hands stretched out in front of my face. My feet felt the cold surface of the ground carefully as I walked, waiting to trip over something. A bump in the floor. A gentle rise in the stone. Suddenly, my fingers brushed against something in front of me.

I'd reached the far wall. I'd covered the entire room. My pulse quickened. The cell was empty. Completely empty.

I was alone.

I sat down on the floor and pulled my arms tight around myself. I ran my tongue over my teeth. My mouth was dry, and my throat burned with dehydration. My body was weak with hunger. How long had I been down here?

A day, maybe?

More? Could it possibly be more?

When had Clara and Jen left? At some point while I slept, Richard must have come and taken them from the cell. Why hadn't I woken up? I had been sick, but had I really been that sick? Wouldn't Clara have woken me up when they left at least?

Unless he didn't let her.

Unless he did something to them. Unless he hurt them. My mind ran away from me. I tried to shut it down, but it sprinted through an array of possibilities. Richard had said he was going to figure out their punishment. What had he determined? Were they all right?

How long had they been gone?

How long had I been alone?

I stared at what I thought was the other side of the cell, trying to force images to come into view. There had to be some light. It couldn't be completely dark.

I blinked my eyes, and then, something swam into my vision. A dark, amorphous creature materialized along the wall in the sea of darkness. I could feel its movement as it slithered. It pulled to me.

You can cry now, Aaron. No one's around to see you. No one's around to hear you.

The shape split into two, shifting form in darkness as it approached me like a hole in the atmosphere.

Maybe no one will ever hear you again.

I put my hands up to my temples and pinched my eyes shut, trying to make my mind stop running away. Tears burned behind my nose and eyes and slipped soundlessly onto my cheeks.

The shape shifted its form once again. Even with my eyes closed, it was still there. It reached out arms like tentacles towards me. It grabbed at my ankles. I felt it curl around my feet. I opened my mouth to scream, but the room was a vacuum, and it sucked up my voice. I pulled my feet back and drew my knees into my body so I was curled in a tight ball.

The darkness shifted form in front of me again, and my head spun. Then, soundlessly, it passed through the bars of the cell like blood through a sieve. It reformed its shape in the hall, and then it slunk down the vault until it disappeared around a corner, or what I assumed was a corner. I had no way of telling what shape the labyrinth had become.

I released a heavy breath, and then I became aware of the sound. Dripping water passed through the chambers of the vault, carving out their patterns in waves. My own breathing echoed through the cave. It bounced off the wall on the far side of the bars, and then it played back to me. Heavy. Like something watching me.

I pulled in a breath and held it.

An exhale. I heard it from the other side of the room, beyond the bars.

I kept my breath in as my lungs burned.

An inhale.

I let my breath out as my heart slammed against my ribs. Something was breathing on the other side of the bars. It wasn't just an echo. There was somebody there. My head pulsed dizzyingly. I stared at where I thought the bars were, willing the creature breathing on the other side to appear to me, but I saw nothing.

I held my breath again.

The hoarse, deep breathing of the creature continued.

I'm being watched. Someone was there.

"H-hello?" I called into the void in front of me. I stood up and paced around the perimeter until I reached the bars again.

Breathing.

"Hello? Please, is there someone there?" I paused and listened to another deep breath. "I'm..." scared. "Please, if you are there, can you just answer me?" Tears burned behind my eyes again. I don't want to be alone.

Breathing.

I shuddered and sat down on the floor. I pinched my eyes shut, as though that might somehow make the sound go away.

Seconds passed.

Minutes passed.

The only reference I had for time was the sound of my own breathing... and the sound of the creature.

Click. Click. Click.

My eyes shot open. Footsteps echoed down the vault, traveling away from my cell. They were so quiet, I never would have heard them if my senses hadn't been on overdrive. The sound bounced back to me as the steps rounded a corner. I heard them travel up the vault until they became lost in the maze.

Someone had been here.

It hadn't just been my imagination.

Someone had been watching me.

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