Julisia awoke from the nightmare, choking and gasping for breath. The burning wetness of water-filled lungs still drowned her memory. Utter panic swept through her as she rolled over in bed onto her hands and knees and coughed her guts out onto her pillow. Her wheezing breaths were intermittent as she simultaneously tried to take in air and hack up her dinner from the night before.
On the other side of the dark room Casima stirred, awakened by her friend’s distress. At the snap of her fingers, a pair of pinpoint lights sparked to life. They seemed to come from within the wooden beams in the rafters, illuminating the entire room with a warm light.
Julisia had collapsed onto her side. She lay away from the mess that now occupied where she had slept. The choking coughs had given way to sobbing. Her legs were pulled up to her chest as she curled into a ball, trying to occupy as small a space as possible.
It had been that dream again. The one where she drowned to death; where her own mother killed her. Not only was it her single lone memory from before she had died, it also tortured her in her sleep, disturbing her peace, never letting her forget. It was horrible and it sucked.
“Oh, Julisia,” Casima cooed in sympathy as she slid from her own bed. Her feet were silent on the wood floor as she padded softly across the room to comfort her friend.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, the slight shifting from the extra weight causing it to squeak. Julisia continued to sob as the older woman pulled her gently into her lap. Casima brushed her hand through Julisia’s hair, carefully untangling the black strands from the crying woman’s small horns. She made soothing noises, tenderly quieting her friend.
They stayed that way as Julisia’s tears slowly dissipated. When they were silent, neither attempted to talk to the other. Neither needed to talk. This had happened before, many times before, and each time was just as bad as the last. Nothing Casima could say would dull the harsh edge of Julisia’s nightmare and they both knew it. So, Casima did the only thing she could to provide what small amount of comfort possible to her friend and stayed silent.
A nightbird’s cry pierced the air from the other side of the closed window. Its shriek was harsh in the silence as it cawed on.
When Julisia finally spoke, her voice was coarse and faint, her throat raw, “After eighteen years, you’d think I’d stop having that nightmare.”
“It’s a bad nightmare,” Casima responded, staring out the window where the nightbird continued its sharp call.
Julisia sat up, slipping out from under Casima’s hands to sit on the edge of the bed, “But eighteen years?”
Casima folded her hands daintily in her lap. “I’m not sure this is the kind of thing you ever get over, Sarah,” she put care into the name, her words quiet.
“Please don’t call me that,” a slight twinge of annoyance had entered Julisia’s words. The last thing she needed was for Casi to start calling her Sarah. “Not right now.”
They went silent once more. Outside the nightbird still screeched.
Casi’s brow furrowed, “Do those things ever quiet down?”
“No,” Julisia smirked, she couldn’t help it, “the damn things never shut up, and I don’t think you’ll ever stop complaining about them either.”
“Someone has to complain. How else would they know to be quiet?”
The younger woman rolled her eyes, “Oh, yeah, your complaining has worked wonders on them.”
Casi aimed a sly smile in Julisia’s direction, “Just you wait. One of these days I’ll get the message through their thick skulls. Now,” the older woman’s attention shifted to the bed and the mess Julisia had left there, “what do you say we clean up?”
Surveying the damage, Julisia winced, “Did I get any in my hair?”
Casi chuckled, “That’s the Juli I know and love, always worrying about her hair.” She gave her black haired friend a once over, “It looks fine. I think you got lucky this time.”
“Thank god,” Juli said, relieved, “I’m starting to lose count of the number of times I’ve had to clean last night’s dinner out of my hair.”
Together they gingerly removed the ruined cotton sheets from Juli’s bed, wadding the fabric into a smelly ball. The hinges squeaked slightly as Casi pulled open the entrance to their room. She held the heavy wooden door open for Juli, who had received the honor of carrying the messy bundle to the laundry room.
With everyone asleep, the long dorm hallway was quiet. Their quarters lay at one end of the hall, with one entrance adjacent to it. All the way down at the other end of the hallway sat the other entrance. Nine doors adorned one wall, a window flanking each on the wall opposite, completing a pair. From each window moonlight spilled in, providing a dim illumination.
They walked side by side, silently, down the hall, stopping when they got to the center door. Behind it was the trash room, which also doubled as the laundry drop off. Again, Casi held the door for Juli, who walked in. Juli threw the bundle she carried into the already full laundry bin.
Casi had already gone over to the shelf to get new sheets for Juli’s bed. She grumbled quietly, “Well, we’re out of clean linens.”
“That’s okay,” Juli could care less about clean linens at the moment. All she had wanted was to get the mess out of their room. Mission accomplished. “I don’t think I could sleep anyway.”
The exhausted women headed back down the hall to their room, this time Juli holding the squeaky door for Casi when they got there. Back in the privacy of their dorm, Juli took off the nightgown she wore, threw it on her now naked bed, and began dressing in the softened leather pants and cloth tunic she had set out the night before. A pair of leather boots, adorned with elaborate etching, was piled next to them, ready to be put on. She had no intention of staying here.
“What are you doing?” Casi demanded.
Juli rolled her eyes and continued to dress, “Here we go, every time. Nothing you say is going to stop me from going out.”
Of course, that wouldn’t stop Casi from trying, “It’s against the rules to go out after curfew. If you get caught they’ll…”
“I only got caught once and that was during my sixth year. I haven’t been caught since.” Juli tightened a leather belt around her waist. On it dangled a steel dagger used for casting. The blade was coated in silver to make it as conductive as possible. Only the sharp edge showed the steel core. Having finished dressing, Juli turned to face Casi head on, “Now are we going to have this argument in its entirety, or are you going to admit that nothing you say will stop me from leaving?”
A sigh of frustration escaped from the older woman’s lips.
“So?” Juli had crossed her arms and was leaning against the wall next to the window, waiting for her friend’s answer.
Casi just shook her head, conceding defeat, “Why won’t the young do what they’re told? I don’t understand why I don’t turn you in myself?”
A grin spread across Juli’s lips at her friend’s comment, happy that she wasn’t going to push the issue. Removing the silver coated dagger from its sheath, Juli wedged it into the small gap where the window frame met the sill. With a small amount of effort and a spoken nonsense word, the edges of the window glowed and the security seal that was supposed to keep them locked in dropped. It had taken Juli her first five years in this institution to learn how to do that, and at first it had sapped all the energy out of her. Now it was like second nature and she barely noticed any energy usage.
After sheathing the dagger once more, she pulled the window open. Moist, warm air rolled in from outside. Carefully, she stuck her head out to see if there were any patrols nearby. After a minute, satisfied it was clear, she stuck one leg out the window before turning back to look at Casi, who had been watching her. “I’ll see you tomorrow for my weekly interrogation,” Juli said putting as much emphasis into the last word as she could.
“It’s not an interrogation.”
Juli rolled her eyes again, “It might as well be.” She stuck her other leg through the opening, bracing herself on the sill, pausing only long enough to ask Casi to close the window before dropping the few feet to the soft earth.
The cabin’s floor was raised above the swampy ground and, from outside, the bottom of the window sill was almost level with the top of her head. Inside the room Casi hissed down at her, “This is the last time I close this window for you.” With a soft thud, the window shut and the lights in the room went out. Juli was left alone in the hot, sticky darkness.
The stars were bright overhead and the big, round full moon shone from high in the sky. The cabins in the dormitory quadrant glittered in the moonlight. They had been constructed from moonglow trees, named for their soft blue sparkle when exposed to the moonlight. Tonight was the perfect night to showcase their beauty.
In the bright moonlight, it only took a minute for her eyes to adjust enough for her to start moving. She didn’t so much sneak as walk quietly, only pausing to conceal herself when she heard the muffled metallic clanking of a patrol’s armor. The soft mossy ground of the swamp was both a welcome aid, dampening each of her steps, and an annoyance, dirtying her clothes and skin wherever they made contact. Juli hoped to avoid any ground contact tonight, but some nights she had to go completely prone in order to avoid detection.
Off in the distance, in the direction Juli was heading, stood a hill just inside the campus’s outer wall. At the top of the hill was drier ground and a concealed natural overlook surrounded by trees just thick enough to help hide her silhouette in the sky. As far as she was aware, no one else but her and Casi knew it existed. It wasn’t the highest point around campus, that space currently being occupied by a tall watchtower, but it provided the next best view. Since it stood within campus grounds, the guards didn’t bother to patrol over it, just skirt around it.
It was the perfect place for her to relax and think.
The patrols were kind to her that night, and she barely had to slow down. There weren’t even any close calls. The hardest leg of her journey was the steep hill. She had to stay concealed in the thick underbrush the whole time, from fear of being seen from below, forcing her to crouch walk uphill at times. When she got to the top her thighs were killing her despite the myriad of times she had climbed up the same hill in the past.
She quickly oriented herself before sitting down, her back against the dry mossy rocks. Her legs were stretched before her, hands in her lap. A soft sigh escaped her as she relaxed, feeling comfortable. This was her spot, and when she was here, there were no cares in the world.
The school citadel lay behind her. It sat at the intersection of the four campus quadrants, its hexagon of walls taking up almost half the campus itself, leaving only an outer ring for everything else. Torches lit the parapet and towers, lighting the way for patrols. From the center of the citadel, the highest point within miles, rose Dominae Tower, looming over the surrounding land. Dominae Tower was where the bane of Juli’s existence resided, Head Dominae Lyann or, as the snide bitch liked to be called, Mistress. Tomorrow the two of them would have another of their little chats, and Juli was sure to be punished as always, but that was tomorrow. For now, she would relax and try to not think about it.
Before her was the circular wall that surrounded the campus. Shorter than the hill which she sat atop and fortified with towers every fifty yard, it too was lit with torches and manned with patrols. Far to her left, built into the outer wall, was the gatehouse, the only entrance in and out of campus.
The main attraction, the reason she had come here, reached up from the horizon. People said it was a space elevator built by the Moderners. It stretched up into the stars, and on a clear night like tonight you could see every single light that was affixed to it. If you looked close enough, you could even see the lights from the transports that ferried people up into the sky.
Ever since Juli could remember, she had been obsessed with that space elevator, and ever since she could remember, people cursed the men who had built it. They called it an eyesore, a monstrosity. Some going so far as to say it was just an attempt by some to try to hold onto the world from their past. The world from before they had died and been born into this one. To some, it was a reminder of a past life they obviously wanted to forget.
For Juli, it filled her with wonder. If that magnificent marvel was from the world before this one, she wondered what else she had missed from that world. To her, that past world existed only in that one memory that haunted her nightmares. As far as she was concerned, this world was the only one she truly knew. If she hadn’t been completely sure that her nightmare was a memory, she probably wouldn’t believe there had been a world before this one. She didn’t even know her original name, only the one given to her in this world, Julisia. Though, currently, Casi seemed adamant that her earth name had to be Sarah.
Juli lay there letting her mind wander, letting it wonder, her eyes on the horizon, on the stars, and as her eyelids got heavy and her breathing shallow, she dreamed of another world.