Prologue

Hell had found her.

She watched the flames leap across the room, greedily devouring the remains of her former life. This was her life—to watch everything crumble around her while she watched helplessly.

This eerie fire was certainly a dream.

Despite that knowledge, the fire looked so real, the way it licked at the fabric of the curtains before consuming the wardrobe and her few remaining possessions. But it was not the first time she confused the line between dream and reality.

The cries of terror from the lower floors only ascertained her first conclusion; this was her personal Hell, another nightmare sent to torture her. She had endured the screams for months, and sometimes her own screams were mingled with those poor souls who populated her dreams.

The flames were so beautiful and tantalizing. The bright, red-orange fingers teased her, leaning toward her before pulling away—almost alive as they danced within her reach. She held out her own hand to meet them, surprised by the heat that blossomed in her fingertips as they reached for the beautiful glow. It felt so real.

Her hand touched the swirling color, but she pulled away immediately as her skin burned sharply. For a dream, the pain was very real.

There was no horror in this dream like the blood-curling terror that normally found her when she closed her eyes—only the beautiful, dancing flames that began to circle her. She heard the crackling of the fire as it whispered to her in some unknown language. She watched the smoke swirl about her like a mist, and her eyes began to water, blurring the gently swaying flames. The heat was there, yes, but somehow, it was almost comforting, lulling her into a false comfort with their rhythm.

Another flame licked at her arm, singing the hair and sending another sharp shock of pain through her system. A flame nipped at the corner of her dress, and she quickly stamped out the rebellious blaze. The heat was slowly becoming unbearable as the inferno around her grew stronger, the once playful dancing flames becoming a menacing wall of fire. She inhaled the smoke, and it burned when it reached her lungs. She coughed and gasped but only gulped in more smoke.

This was no dream.

The flames' alluring movements no longer enticed her. She gazed at the fire calmly, though. It would be too simple to allow the flames to consume her and leave her to whatever fate awaited her in the afterlife. Perhaps the slumber of death would not be riddled by the nightmares that had plagued her living and waking hours. The fire drew closer, its impatient fingers searching for something to devour—to destroy.

But she didn't want to die.

Somewhere inside her, some instinct compelled her to run and flee the beguiling flames that still tried to lure her. So tempting—she pondered as she watched the fire climb greedily along the canopy of her bed. The light cast eerie shadows around the room, the flashing light catching in the mirror across the room, wreathed in flames as they climbed along its wooden frame.

Her ghost-like face stared back at her—her mother's face. Death would allow them to be together once more.

But she did not want to die.

She moved away from the flames. As if sensing that the trance had been broken, the flames lost their enchanting cadence and bore down upon her, biting along her skin, leaving a painful trail of burns in its wake. The pain spurred her forward, persuading her that she had chosen correctly in fleeing the tempting death the fire had offered. She raced through the burning home where her fondest memories and her most terrifying nightmares had been born. Fiery debris fell around her as she dashed toward the door, the fire roaring in her ears.

All around her were bodies burnt beyond recognition. She did not linger to discover if they were real.

But if they were, then there was truly no waking that would rescue her from this horror. She pressed forward. The door stood ajar ahead of her, wreathed with flames as it sagged beneath the fire's fury. Any moment it would collapse, condemning her to a painful death. Mustering her final ounce of determination, she ran through the flaming entryway, her hands thrown above her head as she sheltered her face from the ravenous flames.

She was thrust from one fire to the next.

The sun blazed above her, and its light seemed so much crueler than the faint and flickering light of the fire. She could barely open her eyes, though her hands continued to shield her from the full brunt of the sun's oppressive light. She stumbled away from the ravaged remains of her home. The sun bore down upon her as she looked around at the painted hills surrounding her home's fiery inferno. A cool sea breeze, filled with the gentle, wafting scent of salt and grass, blew gently through her hair.

She froze as the whispering breeze feathered across her scorched skin, soothing the biting pain that still remained.

She was alive.

And perhaps she could face this world if such beauty could exist beyond her former prison's walls. Perhaps she could survive, perhaps she could live. She saw a rider approaching from the south, the first witness to her home's destruction and her own resurrection. She stepped away from the smoldering remains behind her, like a phoenix emerging from the fiery hell of its own ashes.

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Surely this was Hell.

He stumbled blindly through the woods, limbs and vines scraping along his exposed skin as he staggered through the underbrush. The cuts did not faze him; the blood loss, too, was nothing compared to the massive amount pouring from a wound on his side. His hands pressed against the bloodied gash, fighting to staunch the flow and retain consciousness.

He could not describe the pain coursing through his system, the fire burning its way through his veins. The relentless inferno raging through his ragged body almost forced him to his knees but he did not, could not allow the weakness to overcome him.

The enduring darkness around him veiled the innumerable threats he knew still lurked in those sinister shadows. He was drowning in the darkness, his lungs aching painfully as the short, burning gasps of inky air did not satisfy his body's relentless thirst for oxygen. He could hear the menacing snickers of his enemies hidden around him. His traitorous body slowed and faltered though his mind urged his tired limbs forward. The darkness called to him.

Come to me and die, the forest whispered.

His foot caught on something and he lurched forward, barely maintaining his balance as a dose of adrenaline flooded his system. Renewed by his body's last attempt at self-preservation, he thrashed through the woods like a blind man.

He had no sense of direction. In the never-ending abyss, he could not distinguish any details of his surroundings. Even if he did, he no longer had any purpose with which to guide his tired feet. The thought gave him pause, and amidst the threatening shadows, he stopped.

The silence settled about him, thundering in his ears.

You cannot escape me, it whispered.

Once still, he seemed frozen. He could not persuade his legs to carry him forward nor could he force his body to relax from its stony pose. The darkness had somehow frozen him, bound him with its shadowy fingers. The tendrils found their way around his mind, too, clouding his wits as he fought to free himself from the overpowering force holding him. His eyes roved the shadows frantically, seeking some solace or sign to bring him to action.

The blaze still ravaged his innards—in fact, the flames seemed to numb his tingling extremities with the pain.

Lifting his face to the sky, a flash of light caught his eye. A single star glinted weakly through the forest canopy, the only light in the dark, somber sky. His eyes latched upon the sight. The twinkling star seemed to melt away the bonds of the darkness and his limbs returned to his control. He pressed forward, his eyes never leaving the beacon of hope above him. If he could reach the forest edge, he could survive.

The forest hissed all around him as he darted through its depths, tracking a messy path to its border where a few thick trees guarded his path to freedom. He brushed past them without a glance into a field of some long grass. He fell to his knees, his hands wrapped firmly around his oozing wound. His muscles burned with exertion, and his entire body seemed ablaze with fiery pain.

The fire consumed him from within.

He briefly reveled in the renewed pain; it reminded him that he was alive. He could feel the blood bounding through his body as the heat filled him. The dull stars still soared high above, so distant. The darkness stilled and the stars seemed to whisper to him, to his weary soul.

He was aflame, but he would not burn.

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Updated 6/6/12