April 6, 2014 The beach was always most beautiful at sunset. The waves were dyed gold as they crashed into the sandy shore, sparkling brilliantly with the sun's last rays. The sky was bathed in crimson and lavender, framing the blazing sun in a deep rainbow. The wind and water hummed in her ears, soothing her mind and heart. It helped, too, that very few people were about this late on a Sunday. She had the coastline mostly to herself, save the occasional party-goers who weren't ready to pack it in for the weekend. Rebecca ran right past those parties without a second glance. She was hardly dressed for a beach party; with her dark capris, light jacket, and brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, it was apparent that all she wanted was an evening run. The light sheen of sweat on her forehead was a testament of how long she'd been going already. Beside her, a loyal collie ignored the parties with just as much intensity as her owner. Rebecca spared a glance down, smiling at the wonderful hound. "Good girl, Samantha." Samantha barked once in agreement, then faced ahead again and stepped up the pace a little. Rebecca matched the collie, pushing herself to keep even despite having half the number of legs. She lifted her head to look at the setting sun once more, savoring this beautiful scene while she could. While anyone could. It wouldn't be long before humanity's greed had destroyed views like this one. Perhaps an oil spill worse than the 2010 British Petroleum catastrophe was just over the horizon, and soon this beach would be painted black and covered in dead fish. Samantha yipped in annoyance. Rebecca, pulled from her dark musings, realized she'd let her pace slow drastically. Samantha was many long meters ahead and looking back to see why her running partner was taking so long. Rebecca smiled and hustled to catch up. "Thanks, girl. I shouldn't be worrying about that right now." Samantha barked once in agreement. ~~~~~ "I'm home!" Rebecca called as she slammed the door shut behind her. Samantha rubbed her paws on the doormat, then padded up the stairs. Rebecca walked past the staircase and turned left into the large kitchen. Deuce was at the stove, wearing his tall, white hat and apron and shaking a heavy frying pan over the burner. The outfit was probably the only part of him that looked like a chef: his brown hair was spiked back, his sideburns ran almost to his square chin, and his arms were thicker than the average bouncer. Still, the man worked miracles in a kitchen and had never disappointed Rebecca. "Welcome home, Princess. Was the beach nice?" Deuce grinned at her while his spare hand shook a few spices over what looked like a vegetable stirfry. "It was, Fool. Have you prepared his majesty's supper?" Rebecca kept a straight face as she walked around Deuce to reach the refrigerator. Cracking it open, she perused the shelves in search of something she wanted to drink. There was a juice in the door, a can of soda on a shelf, a small pitcher of lemonade, or a case of chocolate milk bottles at eye level. "His royal stuffiness is working late tonight. He said to eat without him." Rebecca just nodded. She settled on chocolate milk, just like every other day. Deuce had once asked her why she even cared that the other drinks were in there; she had replied that it was so she could choose whichever she wanted--she just always wanted chocolate milk. "I'll take my meal up in my room, then," Rebecca instructed as she walked back the way she'd come. "As you wish, Princess. I'll send your Lady-in-waiting up with it shortly." "Thanks, Deuce. Goodnight." "Night, Bec." Rebecca climbed the stairs to her room on the second floor. She pushed the door closed behind her with her heel, as her hands were busy opening the bottle she held. Samantha was already resting on the large bed in the center of the room. Joshua, Samantha's brother, was on the wide window-sill and staring out the window. Bobby, a red-eared slider turtle, was drifiting aimlessly in his aquarium. On the shelf below him was a tank of freshwater fish swimming with an equal lack of destination. "You all are living it up, aren't you?" Sarcasm aside, this room was exactly what her life was: peaceful, quiet, and uneventful. Rebecca sighed and settled herself down at her desk. She was still there reading when Ginny knocked and brought in her dinner. Rebecca thanked her and dismissed her and Deuce for the night. She soon turned in as well, putting up her books and preparing for bed. Under the warm weight of her blankets, with sleep slowly overtaking her, Rebecca's mind wandered briefly. In two months she would graduate and could scratch that off her checklist. In the fall she would begin college. Three or four years from now she would be done with that. Then came a career, probably a family, and eventually retirement. Is that all there is to life? I have school in the morning. I need to sleep. Is that all there is to life? Yes. That's all there is, so just go to sleep. Rebecca turned over, trying to find a more comfortable position. It didn't help ease the vague anxiety at the back of her mind. Around ten o'clock, Rebecca finally drifted into dreamland. ~~~~~ "Is that enough for you?" "What?" Rebecca spun around, trying to find the voice that spoke from the blackness surrounding her. "Is that enough to keep you happy? Simply existing in the world." Rebecca kept turning, searching for the source of that voice. It came from everywhere at once, filling the endless void Rebecca floated through. The words made her angry; she felt as though she was being mocked, as though this voice dismissed her very existence like waving away a fly. "I will show you life. Come to my world, child, and know what it means to live. Help me, and I'll help you." The last sentence came clearly from right behind Rebecca. Her blood froze and her eyes snapped wide. Slowly, fearfully, Rebecca turned to face Aria. The woman sat on a cold throne. She wore a dress as plain as fresh snow that left her pale arms uncovered. Red hair spun down over her left shoulder and red bangs stretched almost to her eyes. Her eyes... It wasn't until Rebecca saw Aria's eyes that she understood why this woman's appearance unnerved her so greatly. Aria's eyes were a shining blue and had no pupils. No emotion could be found in those eyes, and Rebecca had the horrifying sense that those eyes were staring straight through her. "Help?" Rebecca managed to ask. "Help. Will you come?" It's all a dream. Rebecca told herself that over and over. It's only a dream, so no harm can come of it. "Show me. Show me life." A small smile lifted the corners of Aria's mouth. It made her appearance even more unsettling. ~~~~~ Rebecca slowly stirred. She felt herself sitting upright on something hard. Blinking her eyes open, Rebecca found a long, wooden table in front of her and a wooden chair beneath her. To her right was another person in a chair, though they didn't seem to be moving just yet. Across the table were more people. And to her left, Rebecca found Aria sitting on her cold, stone throne. That same small smile filled her lips. Those same shining eyes watched Rebecca and the others beginning to wake. But now Aria didn't look so frightening; rather, she looked quite beautiful. Even the thrush in her lap held an air of refinement. Rebecca glanced around the table once more, but her eyes quickly returned to Aria. She seemed to be waiting until she had everyone's attention.