The story begins.
It grabbed her firmly around the throat and pressed down hard on a throbbing vein. She could feel its hungry, malodorous breath, sense its longing to tear out her throat. Resentfully, muttering promises of revenge in a strange tongue, it viciously threw her back on the blood-red sand. She winced as she hit the relentless expanse of crimson death. Her arm broke with a sickening cracking sound and blood poured out of the puncture wound to her skin. The Thing's horrible face twisted into a savage grin and it rasped [in English now]:
"Run, little girl. Maybe you'll live."
She screamed and scurried clumsily through the sand, the terror of the chase pulsing brutally through her veins. It was like wading through water; the red grains of sand caught in her black jeans and splashed up into her eyes. She screwed her eyes shut against the building wind that lashed up thousands of tiny red knives into her already raw skin.
There was no one for miles! There was clearly no hope for her...but what about the others? She couldn't stop now; she could still save them-
Then, a familiar-shaped shadow blocked out the silvery light of the moon. She spun around and, just as she thought to cry out, cold, sharp teeth found the soft skin of her throat and pressed into the liquid life pumping within.
Death was immediate for her...slow for the others.
Al woke with a start, sweat soaking into her grey and red nightclothes. Her galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars loomed above the bed and glared at her menacingly. Gasping, she desperately reached for her lamp and pressed shakily on the switch. It cast a red glow around her room and made ghostly shadows on the walls. Her pile of assignments, still unfinished, mocked her with their predictions of another terrible grade. Everything was normal...normal... delightfully, perfectly normal!
Just a dream. Just a dream. Just a dream. Just a dream. Just a dream. Just a dream.
No matter how many times she repeated it, it still wasn't convincing. Every night for the past two months, these monsters of the night invaded her mind. Every time, it was so similar...but still so different. Like a book, wherever she left, she picked up again...into the endless, dizzying torture of her nightmarish visions. Heavily shadowed eyes closed against the night and threatened to let her tumble back into the sleep and the dread that waited. Al sat up and sighed. Another long night ahead. She glanced at the assignments and shuddered. There was nothing else to do.
Al brushed her mass of black hair and sat on the second-hand office chair. Her stereo read 00:54. Damn it! She cast her eyes over her walls, with her endless photos of her not-so-endless friends. Her eyes found a photo of Ruby, stunning in a pink shirt and shoving greasy pizza into her mouth. Al would never let her forget that one! Still studying the wall, she caught sight of a photo of herself from the same excursion: blonde hair and a green shirt covered in butterflies...asleep and drooling on Ruth's shoulder! She winced; maybe she shouldn't pay out Ruby so much anymore.
Drunk with sleep-deprivation, she scratched her painted-black nails over the book's surface, unwilling to open it. Her thoughts oozed virtual chloroform as the world steadily became a fuzzy outline. Who really cared about Olive Cotton's darkroom practices? What kind of a name was that anyway? Al chuckled groggily as she imagined her first child: a grey-jean-clad ten-year-old with a smart mouth and a black side-ponytail. What would she do if Al named her Olive Cotton?
Her thoughts drifted and it was not long until she rested her head on her pencil case, just for a few seconds of well-deserved rest. The chloroform began to leak into her bloodstream...her lungs...her heart...her body...Her green eyes slid shut and she murmured a weak promise to wake up soon. The stiffness of her joints melted away, as her consciousness let go of its fragile grip of reality. Bliss...Just a few seconds more...
Pain and bleed and pain and hurt.
She was there again, in that red-sanded desert. The moon glared down at her, and the fain rim of blue on the horizon forced her onward. One foot, roughly in front of the other. Left, right, left, right. Forward, Al. Forward. Dry, split lips, that forced shallow, oxygen-depleted air into her lungs, divided to let loose a scream of agony and sorrow. She didn't have much time.
"I'm coming!" she thought desperately.
Her feet felt like someone had cemented them deep into the red sand. How long until her body finally gave in to the angel of death that beckoned? She stumbled, but picked herself up. Left, right, left, right. Keep going forward. You can't die yet. Not until you save them.
Al couldn't take it anymore. She screamed a rasping apology to the empty desert and let her legs buckle from underneath of her body.
And let death take her.
"No!" Al screamed, and sat bolt upright.
Pure adrenaline pushed through her veins, she clutched desperately at her chest. Her computer chair half-twisted beneath her and she nearly fell over. Al balanced herself and, still gasping, looked up. What the fuck? The computer lab? With a small stab of humiliation, she realised what was going on. Al's face flushed a sudden, mortified crimson. She had fallen asleep in HPI! How the hell was she meant to explain this?!
Her eyes swivelled around the room. She was met with the concerned faces of her friends, and the sniggers of the nearly-identical members of the IT group. Ugh. It was like looking into a hall of mirrors of a terrifying hell dimension! A girl next to her with wide bespectacled eyes and short, straight hair grabbed her shoulder and steadied her. Okay? She mouthed silently. Al, still clawing desperately on the sheer cliff of realism, didn't respond.
Miss Koch turned around from writing on the whiteboard. She was short and muscular, with a pointed face and sharp eyes that pierced student's confidence. She was quite attractive; if only she didn't look like one of the seven dwarfs turned serial killer! Koch glared at Al down her nose, which was no small feat, given her height. The IT group continued their laughter, slightly quieter now that Koch was involved.
"Well, despite Alison's objections, you still have until September to finish Step Three." Koch announced to the class. Al sank further into her chair, glad that her hair could hide her face. Koch turned to her. "As for Miss Alison, she can hand hers in at the end of this term! Take that iPod out of your ears!" she said warningly, pointing at the bespectacled girl next to her.
"That's hardly fair!" Al objected, but was silenced by another stabbing look. "Okay." She said in a slightly smaller voice. Damn Koch! What happened to the good ol' days, when HPI was an enjoyable bludge, with the email and the games and the let's spend the whole class pranking!?
The students continued to type on their computers; the general roar of twenty keyboards being hit at the same time gave Al opportunity to recover. She clutched her head and moaned inaudibly. Her brain pounded against her head like a lunatic pounded the walls of his padded cell. Even having the nightmare at home was better than this. Al's face remained a shade of beetroot before she forced her red-and-black glasses back onto her nose.
"You okay?" the girl asked. There was genuine concern in her voice, but it was entwined with the breaking sound of restrained laughter. She paused, wondering how her comment would be taken. Then, with her general attitude of Screw That!, she whispered, "Chris threatened to leave, did he?"
"You're a comical genius, Ruby." Al said, in a tone coated in dark sarcasm with a deliciously soft, affectionate centre. Al's tendency to sleep talk was what most of their party's counted on for amusement...somewhat sad, really. "Nightmare."
Ruby opened her mouth to reply, but they both spun around as Koch caught them with a killer double-shot glare. Al continued her research on the effects of swearing on a plant's growth...shockingly enough, nothing came up. Her fists pounded the keyboard. She could feel the stress piling up deep inside her throat. She couldn't handle all of this, even at the normal due date! Then there was the matter of those dreams...they seemed so real...
"That's it, I'm switching you off!" the larger part of Al's brain grunted. There was a swift battle in which the smaller part gave quite a fight, and then her usual thoughts of killing Miss Bishop took over. Her new mind-ruler switched into planning mode while the smaller part desperately prayed that the horrendous dreams would end.
Al shivered as if a ghost had just run its icy fingers down her spine. Distressed thoughts plagued her, before images of Bishop dying in various, slow ways barged their way back through. Head half-cut off? Tied to a tree? Cooked in a giant omelette? Demolish her house?
"Hmm." Al thought. "I'm gonna need a bulldozer."