I open them.
I close my eyes. Darkness greets me.
I open them again. Blinding white light finds me. Dammnit.
Just this once, I whisper to myself. Please, just this once. I grip the white sheets of the duvet with trembling hands, forgetting where I am, why I'm here. Deep inside me, I know it's almost time. The End. But, before that, I have to go back. I breathe, ignoring my shaking fingers and half-crazed mind.
Please, just this once.
Let me go home.
One more time, I add. Just try it again, one more time.
I breathe in softly, and I blink. The sun fades through the wide window beside me, morphing itself through crinkled eyes: it disappears completely the second it goes behind a cloud.
One more time.
I want to go home.
I close my eyes. Slowly, so as not to be afraid of the darkness. Quietly, for fear the Gates really are closed this time. My mind may be lost, but the Gates always were open. They, like me, were always ready for anything.
I wait in the dark, before I can feel the breeze. Relief fills my chest, pours out through my fingertips, and weakens my knees. Home-
When my eyes open, I am breathless. I am standing on an empty street, framed with the graveyards of hallowed buildings and dusty, never forgotten streets that stretch as far as any eye is willing to see.
I am standing on an Apocalyptic Dance Floor.
And there is no-one here to dance.
This is the Cloudy City.
Another breeze blows, and my hair follows it's direction. I turn my head, take in the broken towers and crumbled stone that lies, defeated, on the cracked street in misshapen clumps of grey and black.
This was the first creation, the beginning of a story long lost on the pages of this writer's fatal demise. My heart beats in my chest, and I can feel the cold, tension-wrought air. Above me, the skies are grey, and I remember-
I was twelve. I had no friends, outside, no-one to call mine. And then, the Cloudy City awakened, and when I left, it waited like a loyal dog, eager, trusting. It rotted in it's own skin. There are only the foundations left: it is an Apocalyptic Graveyard now.
I look downward, ashamed of what I'd left behind.
Then I move forward.
This City once never slept. Now, its streets will sleep. Forever.
The boulevards are coated in charcoal dust, and the loneliness sinks in, fast and quick. There are empty windows high above the faded shop fronts. It is dark, and cold. Bronze and blue paint peels from what used to be the Armory, and I notice the shelves inside are empty.
No guns, no knives, no bullet shells.
I took a knife from there, then a gun, and then a sword, and finally a chakram and fan. They all served me well.
Brick once red now drips black in the dark corners of alleyways and dead ends. Dustbins have fallen onto the ground. Their rubbish blows with the breeze. I pass what used to be a high rise appartment, and yellowed sheets of paper blackened by blotted ink swirl pass my face from out of nowhere. I watch them as they fly by, and glance over my shoulder to see them wink out of this once upon a time.
High above me, I glimpse the hanging lines of washing, and feel a flicker of surprise as the clean, white bedsheets flutter in the gentle breeze. It is a reminder, I suppose. A reminder that I can never get away from what is real, and what, to me, is not.
I walk away from the bedsheets, and pretend I am walking away from what inhibits me in the reality I inhabit.
I pretend they are a figment of my imagination. Everything here is. None of this is real.
There are traffic lights hanging from black lines at every crossing, every Stop sign, every fork in the road. They still work. Scattered leaves and twigs flutter past them whenever the light shines a bloody red. For one second, it looks like a warning. I wonder if I should heed it. I click my fingers idly. Should I go back?
No-one is on the Other Side, waiting for me. No-one would care if I lost myself here for a little while longer.
I continue on.
There was a time, long ago, when I met people here, on these very streets. They were friends, and fond enemies. They smiled, they cracked jokes. We fought. Always, we fought together.
Outside the City, this reality gave way to the many others that existed for the sole purpose of my entertainment. There were many other worlds, all of them different and unique, battlegrounds for the victorious and the vanquished.
There was blood, lots of it. It splattered on the stone slabs of ancient warrior grounds, places where others like me had lived, and died.
I Claimed a dragon, and slayed many others, in those worlds.
Smoke rose above the many cabins I slept in with those I trusted with my life. Camp fires roasted the dinners we captured and killed, swiftly and fearlessly. Nothing got hurt here.
We climbed mountains, once, and I learned to embrace the wind as it flew past my face in whipped tendrils of ice. Once upon a time, I learned how to fly. And upon learning how to fly, I fought with the Mountain God, the pile of rock and debris that defied nature and sat hundreds upon thousands of icy feet in the air.
It fell, eventually.
A Chessboard floor harboured the ringing clash of sword against sword, chess pieces flying amongst the flames upon the eyes of both Kings and Queens. That was a fight I'd claimed victory from. Whilst the Horsemen fell, and the Bishops prayed, there had been a whisper, a thrill.
Someone had said they loved me.
There was a train station, too, steam-powered, grey and Victorian. A boy's face, golden and blue-eyed, frames my mind. He grins, winks at me, and points to the robots standing in front of us, barring us entry to the other worlds- all my dormant worlds, just waiting to be discovered.
We had fought them, and won. A part of me shattered that day.
We just wanted to ignore the truth: I was dying on the outside, but on the inside, I was as free as I ever could be.
I just wanted to be free, to have a real home, a real place I could love and be loved in return.
We wanted to have fun.
There were trenches too, in the final battle. There was a real War. A War Fire.
Images of planes filter my eyes, sounds of brittle, hacking coughs fill my ears as I come to a standstill in the Cloudy City. I cannot see the street I am standing in the middle of. Instead, I am watching the events of war as it unravels before me.
There were the dead. They walked, like the living. They killed, like the dead already gone to their graves. I couldn't tell if I'd created vampires, or zombies: they all looked so alike back then. They craved the muddy, stone-cobbled trenches, where they were almost invisible. Their hands were mauled beyond belief. Their hearts were carved out of their chests, leaving gaping holes behind, dark chasms for the souless and the Damned.
It was true: I had lost my mind. There was too much there- here.
Too much to die for, all those years ago.
Another remnant of my mind collapsed, then. I'd forgotten someone in the Real World.
We had been fighting. I pulled a knife.
Sometimes, the lines between reality and fantasy were as blurred as the possibilities between waking and dreaming. All I really recalled was a stranger's face staring back at me, her eyes glassy, blood staining her stomach.
She was dead. I killed her.
I think she was my sister. My real sister. I cant remember her name. I only recall the teasing, the bullying.
And then, there was the Church, the small place of solace in all it's whitened glory. Elias said something there, holding my hand, before walking away. He was the boy with blond hair, those sparkling blue eyes. I don't think he wanted me to go. It was the War Fire, the battleground of the dead, the Ending to the fatal story.
The Church collapsed around me, and I woke up in a white room. It reminded me of white snow. There were straps: they held me down.
And a doctor told me to relax: I could remember his green mask. It reminded me of the trenches, how the dead walked with masks on their faces, eyes black and mouths full of demented screams and vicious blood.
I never went back. Elysium fell to ruin.
I pass the park that once held the barking laughter of children and the mad hoot of parents driven mad. Now, the trees have curled around gnarled bark, and the flowers are dead. It reminds me of a haunted forest. It is a Memorial to my mind, and now to this world.
The doctors never knew. They said I was "out of my mind" to my mother and father. I never saw them again.
My heels click around a sharp corner, and I look up to see the most beautiful white-stone Cathedral, sitting not a hundred feet away.
The bell towers stand thousands of feet above my head, grand and majestic. The steeples act as watchtowers for the greedy and the deaf, hand carved Angels watching over their ruin with dismal defeat in their outstretched wings, hands held out toward the sun they'd never be given the grace to touch.
The street was clean, almost glowing, and no paint peeled from the road signs that sat ten feet away from it's celestial grace. Flowers, eternal roses and tulips and carnations, were sleeping in well-fed beds just outside it's tall, grand wooden doors.
The Rose window is encased in red and black swirls of colour above the doors, glittering like gold.
This is not a remnant of the first creation: I'd never imagined this building. But I know it's oh-so-close, this final goodbye, so I take it in, and realize with a jolt what it's really trying to tell me.
I clasp my hands at my sides, and my heart begins to pound, just as the memories come rushing back, the final moments of this City, as I turned away from it and walked into another one of my worlds, another waiting story to tell. Another dream-
"You can always come back, you know," Elias stated. "Whenever you feel lost, you can always come home. We'll be there, too. We'll always wait for you."
He tapped my shoulder, and he smiled, blue-eyed and mischievous, before turning away, and walking into another world, one that was just beyond the white-rimmed portal. The Gate was always open, always ready to fight. Just like me.
It was after the first time we met. I had just beat up the thieves.
That was why I came back. I'd completely forgotten.
I suddenly grin. I can bring it all back, if I want to. I can bring this place back, bring my friends back, bring back to life what I thought had died.
The Cathedral was my portal, my Gate: I was going out to save my world, one small fragment at a time.
Dimly, I understand I may never be able to go back, to open my eyes to the dreary walls of the hospital and the monotonous life support that drilled my ears deaf. My hands were crinkled, then, old: I used them to pull on the wrinkled duvet sheets. I look down to the hands given to me by the memories of my imagination. I am young again. I am free.
I step forward, and the bells in the tower of the Cathedral ring out. A warning.
Once upon a time, there was a girl, and she had stopped believing.
I take another step, and the bells become more insistent. They are louder in my ears.
My hair whispers along my shoulders, my skirt skins my legs.
I understand, I whisper to myself. I know what this means. Let me go. Let me be free.
I want to go home, back to where I really belonged, before I lost my mind. Before I lost this.
Once upon a time, there was a girl, and she had stopped believing in the one place that was her refuge, her place to fight, her place to be who she really was.
The bells ring out again. One final warning. The End of this life, the Beginning of the next. I am not afraid.
As I reach my hands up to the wooden doors, I hear it.
A flat-line, and nothing else. It lasts ten seconds, then fades to the dust it always was.
I smile, pause for a second, and close my eyes against the wooden panel of the door.
That was Time of Death.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who had stopped believing in the one place she could call home. It fell to faded sepia, graceless tatters, and then became nothing more but an idle fantasy. Now, she was going to claim it back. One small step at a time.
I open the doors, and the light overcomes me. I walk forward, and don't look back.
They are waiting for me.
And I will fight again.