White light blinded Juliette as she struggled to gasp for air. Her chest was being squeezed, like she were deep underwater. The same force that was pushing her chest was also holding her fixed in place standing upright. Her arms and legs were rigid, as if they’d been nailed to boards. The immense pressure worsened her labored breathing, not letting up or becoming any easier over time.
She was becoming more and more panic-stricken, eyes flicking in every direction, seeing nothing but the great white expanse. Finding a rhythm against the tremendous pressure was proving to be impossible. She clenched her eyes shut and focused on her chest and lungs. Everything else fell away. Minutes passed before she actually started to get used to the constant weight on her.
Ever so slowly, she began to control her breathing enough so that she didn’t feel like she would pass out. Her eyes fluttered open, careful not to forget about regulating her breathing, and looked around slowly within the blinding white room. It was much more painful to look at than she remembered, almost searingly so. Her eyes needed to remain almost fully closed just to be able to function without pain.
The place looked the same but felt different for some reason. Just slightly off, light a fraction too bright, the pressure from before more severe. It was like someone took the description of this place and tried to recreate it without all the subtle nuances that went along with it. She’d seen the same thing with Artists in Exden recreating a portrait or landscape. She could look at the painting and every detail would look perfect, completely real. But then if she looked at the person being painted directly, small differences stood out. A realness was missing from the painting.
The white floor was still endless, spanning until the floor blended into the blinding white atmosphere which made up the rest of the space. Her head spun at the disorienting world around her, no clear definition of the ground or the sky. She blinked her eyes to reset her vision and looked down at her frozen legs, then back out at the world.
Nothing was happening. There was no smudge of golden glow, or a powerful entity in this place. She knew last time she had felt an urge to move, to seek something hiding in the place, and last time she needed to walk to find it. Now though, she felt nothing. Nothing other than the crushing pressure straining her every muscle and locking her into place. She couldn’t move even if she wanted to.
Standing there was pointless. The thought of standing still, straining her body for hours in this blinding place made her jaw clench. She needed to move, standing here was too much, too disorienting. Lifting her foot proved impossible, she couldn’t even flex a single leg muscle. Her legs, turned iron, wouldn’t budge at all. Instead, she attempted to reach out with her arms, but again, they were locked in place like she was trapped in a block of stone. She could turn her head though, and once more scanned the endless horizon.
Juliette closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and focused on her body. After several heartbeats, she could begin to sense every muscle straining under the pressure. Juliette realized she now had intimacy with her body that she’d never known before. She could feel some type of inherent understanding of each muscle, each bone, each tendon. If she focused, she could completely tune into each part of her body, every connection. The tendons down her arms and legs were taut and seemed ready to snap against the weight that was pushing on her.
She took as deep a breath as she was able, and allowed herself to focus and calm her body. She set her attention on her hand, and slowly, finger by finger, starting at the very tip, she was able to work each loose and release them from being restrained. She continued the process until all of the fingers on her hand were freed and she was able to close her entire hand into a fist.
She moved her attention to her legs and tried to take a step, urging her leg muscles to contract, to move, but even this new knowledge she had didn’t seem to be enough. She relented back to her hand and slowly clamped and opened it while she took another deep breath. She thought to her hands and wrists, visualizing the physiology, and started the process of working each portion loose. Eventually, she had made enough progress to rotate her hands in circles and stretch them out. Her upper and lower arms were still locked in place, not to mention the rest of her body.
And while she did this, her breathing remained labored and forceful. She opened her eyes again, momentarily blinded by the environment that she forgot was so bright, before she snapped them back shut. Her eyes fluttered open slowly until her eyes adjusted. The pressure on her chest was not letting up, and she could feel a faintness in her mind due to the the lack of air getting to her body, only half a breath each time at most, and slower than normal. She flexed her hands and tried to move her arms, but nothing moved. She thought to her forearms. The tendons, muscles, bones that connected to her wrist, and started forcing the muscles to move, one by one, slowly until she was almost finished and able to move her arm up to her elbow.
Her head whipped to the side as she heard a sound unlike anything she had heard before. Some… gurgling sound. Like water beginning to boil, or bubbles escaping a tube, but much hoarser. The gurgling was whispering and hissing all at once, and so quietly Juliette wondered if she was making it all up, her senses being deprived in this place. It felt like it was coming from all around, or behind, but she couldn’t turn her head far enough to check properly. Whatever the sound was, it wasn’t letting up and filled Juliette with a sense of dread as she noticed it slowly began to increase in volume.
Juliette clamped her eyes shut and clenched her jaw as she tried to remain focused on relaxing her frozen body. Her heart was beating harder now, and her breath all the more difficult to control. She focused on her arm and worked the muscles loose. Only one link left and the bottom half of her arm would be free to move.
Done. She could bend her arm at the elbow. Reaching up, she felt at her shoulder. It was hard as a rock, cramped solid and unmoving. She awkwardly massaged the muscles in her shoulder, trying to loosen them into working again while she listened to the noise.
The sound was gaining. A throbbing mixed with a throaty gurgling, unsettling Juliette further. She thought she heard someone whisper, but when her eyes flashed open, the sound stopped and returned to the boiling noise from before. Her breathing was fast now and she struggled to stay calm, feeling her heart rate quicken. The only thing keeping her remotely calm was the task of working each muscle one by one up to her shoulder.
After what felt like an hour, her entire right arm was loose and could move up to the shoulder. The noise was deafening now. She clenched her jaw and covered one of her ears with her arm, but it made no difference. Her only clear path was to continue her attempt at freeing her paralyzed body, bit by bit.
The moment she shut her eyes to work again, a deep guttural growling overcame the noise, so loud her ears felt like they would bleed, and here eyes shot wide open. Juliette would have dropped to her knees in pain if her body hadn’t been frozen. Instead, everything tensed, even her loose arm, and she stood there as the growling coursed through her body. She let out a strained groan against the noise, and slowly the groan turned into a wailing yell. Juliette screamed at the whiteness all around her.
Through her half-closed eyes, she caught sight of a prick of black in the light to her side, so small she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just her vision starting to fade into blackness, putting an end her suffering in this place. The black mark was still there though, and ever so slowly, so slow Juliette thought it was only her mind playing tricks, it started to grow. Small barely visible tendrils shot out in every direction, like roots from a tree reaching out for water. Tearing at the fabric of this place.
The pure white atmosphere was being ripped into by blackness. Like a seam splitting down perfectly white tunic. The gurgling noise was hammering into her ears, and her eyes were tearing up at the pain. She stared at the black cut as it continued to grow, reaching out in every direction and heading toward her. She realized why it seemed to be moving so slowly at first. It was exceedingly far away, and must have been spanning great distances even as it started, but now that it was reaching closer to her she could see the speed at which the tearing was expanding.
The black scar ripped overhead and expanded into countless branches, each growing rapidly in turn. Juliette grit her teeth and tried to focus on freeing her body, but the world around her was falling apart and she couldn’t maintain focus. A flash of white within the black caught her eye, and she whipped her head to the side to see what it was. But by the time she turned her head, all she could see was a widening black gash nearby.
The whispering started again, pouring into her from every direction. Another flash of movement showed within the tear, then disappeared just as quickly. She screamed against the noise, against the pressure, begging for the ability to move. When something stepped into view within the large black gash in front of her.
Her eyes widened and her breath caught in her throat.
Monster. The creature was tall, twice that of any man, with skin like black oil, casting a reflecting sheen that flowed across it’s monstrous shell. The white glow from beyond the tear reflected off of its shell like ripples in a pool of water. Its two upper limbs were gripping the edge of the torn scar with sharp serrated claws, piercing through the fabric of the glow, as it stared at Juliette with three long black oily eyes. The eyes were the same liquid black as the rest of its body, but where light hit them, it seemed to reflect in opposite directions causing their slotted shape to stand out.
As unsettling as the eyes were, they weren’t what disturbed her most. Nor was it the pointed geometric head or its studded husk, portions of the black shell forming together into jagged points. Not even how it tilted its head at her, like it was studying her. Curious even. No. It was how the thing moved that made a chill crawl down her spine.
The jolting of half a dozen limbs with too many joints, each stabbed into the white ground below, constantly flashing reflections off the white light and skittering closer. Its upper half moved jarringly, seeming to move only between the time Juliette blinked, but always coming closer. It’s arms clung to the torn wall and it began climbing upward, higher along the seam with piercing steps, slitted eyes never leaving Juliette.
Her heart was pounding in her chest and her vision was spinning. She started to use her freed fist to beat on her other arm, doing anything to try to loosen it and help her move and get away from this thing. The entire world around her was scattered with black scars now, dark lightning bolts, each branching and growing into one another. There was now more black than there was white, and it was beginning to darken her surroundings to the point that it obscured the creature climbing ever closer above her.
She could feel a vibration thrumming through her body coming from its direction. The gurgling noise from before was mixed with its hissing whispers, though she could see no mouth. The whispers were loud, shooting pain from her ears all the way down her back. She clamped a fist to her head and watched as it crawled higher and higher until it was practically above her, many times again her height from the ground, where it paused. The whispering calmed, and the creatures ever-moving legs were frozen still. It gripped the sky, staring at her, frozen.
A loud crack shot through the space as it dropped from the sky landing in front of Juliette. Immediately, the noise returned twice again as loud and shook Juliette with pain. The massive creature’s legs punctured into the floor, only an arms-length away from Juliette. It stood up with twitching movements from its crouched position, like pieces of it’s body were locking into place. Towering over her, it reached its two arms out to either side of Juliette and slammed into the ground near her feet. She saw black oil flowing off the creature, forming a pool of blackness around where her legs were locked in place. It looked at her with its too-black slotted eyes, oil streaming across its form, and tilted its head.
Juliette threw her head back and screamed from the pain of its voice, a sound like grinding stone rubbing against her skin. The noise hammered into her skull and repeated over and over, echoing off of her bones. Its head was frozen still, staring at Juliette, motionless.
Her body shook and somehow her other arm had come free. She clamped both hands over her ears and had her teeth clenched so hard they might crack. The points of its head shifted and it moved closer to Juliette. Unblinking eyes stared her down as the parts of her body that had been freed now writhed in pain.
The creature reared back and screamed from nowhere. Everywhere. It’s limbs flexed as it prepared to end Juliette’s life right then and there.
Would I wake up if this killed me down here? Juliette thought.
She didn’t need to think long because the monster lurched down at Juliette with it’s head, ready to pummel her into the ground. She was helpless as half her body was still locked in place. Quickly, she brought her arms in front of her face to block the creature and hopefully soften the blow.
Suddenly, the creature jolted to a halt and the noise ended abruptly. Neither she nor the monster moved for several heartbeats. Juliette finally peeked past her arms and saw the creature was frozen, its shell reflecting a golden light. She risked a flick of her eyes down toward her feet and saw a familiar glow rising from the ground beneath her and between her and the creature.
In the moment she glanced down, the oily monster leapt away from Juliette and vaulted toward the nearest black tear. Crawling into the darkness and disappearing from sight. A tremendous heat wrapped her body and her eyes flashed with blinding golden light. Enveloped fully, Juliette lost sight of the creature, and her vision went dark.
Juliette blinked her eyes. Again a blinding white light surrounded her. This time though, free from black scars. She assumed a fighting stance and spun in place as her eyes darted around, ready for that terrible creature to jump out at any moment and end her with those abominable claws.
After several moments of seeing nothing but whiteness in every direction, she relaxed her frame slightly and rubbed at her sore muscles in her arms.
She straightened her posture shakily, savoring the painless deep breath she was able to take, and regained her composure. She’d never seen anything like that creature before. She shuddered at the thought of its oily eyes towering over her. Some monsters around Exden came close in appearance; slicks too had oily skin, but a much smaller and severely hunched frame. Harvesters were nearly as tall, but they were far more humanoid than monstrous. She was certain of one thing, whatever that thing was, nothing she had ever known could last a moment against that terrible creature.
A familiar pressure washed over her body. It was not painful or paralyzing, but pleasurable. Calming. She stretched her neck and opened her clenched fists. She breathed in deep, eyes closed, feeling the warm hum of this place. Her eyes opened and she recognized a golden light had appeared a good distance away from her.
She stepped closer, but unlike her first vision, she felt nothing holding her back. Her body was free to her, and her movements were as simple as walking down the street. She stepped toward the brilliant light and paused when she was close enough to make out its form within.
A man’s body was at the core. Skin a rich dark brown color, wrapped in flowing golden light. His physique was perfect, muscles clearly defined and showing through the plain burlap tunic he wore. Her eyes widened as she got close enough to comprehend his height. He was tall. Half-again as tall as any man she’d ever seen in Exden, and had close cropped hair paired with a neatly trimmed black beard.
The man smiled at Juliette. A wave of heat washed over her body and she was forced to shield her face and take a step back in recoil. He cocked his head, staring at her, then the heat vanished just as fast as it came, leveling off into a calm, warm sensation throughout her body.
“Juliette.” The man spoke
Another wave of pressure hit Juliette’s body and rocked her back. Though not nearly as severe as the first time. She steadied her footing and clenched her fists. She stared up at the man, glowing tendrils of golden smoke were flowing around his form as he looked back at Juliette.
“Who are you?” She asked.
She winced and averted her eyes, feeling suddenly ashamed for being so blunt with this being. No doubt he could end her with a snap of his fingers, suffocate her with heat and crush her into nothing.
“Child. Look at me.”
The command didn’t feel harsh, but gentle and welcoming like a mother soothing a child. She turned her head to face him once again and felt the deep pressure let up. Her hands relaxed marginally. The man’s smile was still there, and as she looked down, she noticed his bare feet weren’t standing on the ground. His whole body was floating a short distance above the surface below. He caught her studying him and they locked eyes with one another.
“Why do you think you are here?” He asked.
How do I answer that? She thought. She could tell him how she yelled at her mother, touched a rock, fainted, got groped by an Administrator, made a delivery, received some expensive gloves, and faced down a demon. It’s not like showing up in front of an all-powerful entity was that out of the ordinary for today. She chided herself; sarcasm wouldn’t be well received by this giant of a man. Instead, she swallowed then responded.
“I don’t know.” She looked down to his feet again. “There was this stone that, when I felt it, it brought me to this place before.”
His head tilted to the side, and eyebrows furrowed slightly. She gulped again, waiting for him to cut in, but he remained silent.
“Well, I thought it would bring me again. Instead it brought me to that… corrupted version. Something saved me and brought me to this place.”
She looked up at his eyes and saw him give her a faint nod of confirmation.
“This stone.” He said, smile dropping from his face. “How did you discover it?”
She paused and furrowed her eyebrows. No sense in lying to him.
“The Leader of Senov purchased it from a traveler. It was kept hidden, but shown to me by my friend, the Leader’s daughter.” She said.
They both paused, staring at one another. His golden eyes studied her and they both waited in silence. Juliette shifted on her feet before the man spoke again.
“Earlier. You asked who I am.”
He paused for a moment while his expression softened.
“You don’t know me, personally. I am a man. A very old man, and one that needs your help, Juliette. I am afraid that things have… changed. I need to ask for a favor of which I have no right to ask of you.”
He paused, staring at Juliette. She bit at her lip and stretched her hands before nodding her head for him to continue.
“That creature from before. It is no accident that it found you there. And it is not alone. This is my domain, but I am hidden. I cannot uncover myself while monsters, even worse than what you have seen, are being sent to hunt me. I need you to find me before they do so that I may return safely.”
The world seemed to melt around Juliette as her head spun. Monsters worse than that? She thought. Her hands began to tremble and she forced them into fists.
“Why me? And why are they after you?” She asked through gritted teeth.
The man smiled, “Circumstances have been planned for, long before this day. You, Juliette, are one of the few who might be able to do what needs to be done. And now, I need to call on you to bear that burden.”
Juliette began to shake her head, frustrated at the non-answer this man was giving her. She opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by the man raising his palm at her.
“I understand you have questions, but now is not the time for answers. You will soon understand why. For now, I need to know. Juliette, are you willing?”
The smile was gone from his now serious face. He stared confidently at Juliette, golden eyes piercing her own. She again felt the pressure building in her body, not painful, but adding weight to the moment. This person could be another monster for all she knew, impersonating the vision she’d seen the first time. After all, the torn world she was pulled from before looked just the same as this one at first. The man seemed genuine, for all that his answers were vague and lacked any real substance, but she couldn’t be certain.
If he was an impostor, then he wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. He would have just killed her when she told him about the stone if that’s what he was after. The man likely wasn’t a monster, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. She would be getting involved into something of which she had no idea the scale. For all the monsters he said were tracking him down, that scale would be great. She would need to agree to something that she had no clear understanding of, and put herself, and more likely, others into danger.
She looked to his calm and imposing face. His golden eyes were focused on hers, and they blazed gold awaiting her response. His wide shoulders were squared to Juliette though his arms hung gently by his side. He was asking something of her with nothing to return, not even answers. A floating stranger from a glowing realm, in trouble, seeking help from a 17 year old girl. Juliette wanted to punch herself to wake up from this dream of a day. None of this made any sense to her.
Her mind thought of that creature from before.
Would a man, even as powerful as this man seemed to be, last against it? She thought.
Its black shell and piercing claws, hunting him down, ripping his body apart. It was enough to make her body shudder. She would help anyone in that situation, even if it was dangerous. If that thing was coming after mother or Jane? Oliver?
She relaxed her shoulders and stared back at the nameless man. She felt confidence for the first time in what must have been… months. She took a deep breath and replied.
The man’s face softened into a smile and the glow around him seemed to increase in brightness.
“Thank you Juliette. Truly.”
He nodded his head toward her and she nodded in return, not entirely sure what she’d just gotten herself into.
“For your trust, I offer you this.” He said.
He extended a hand, palm facing the glowing sky. He glided closer to Juliette, and in his hand sat a brightly glowing ball of golden light. The orb lifted from his hand and slowly floated toward Juliette. It looked just like the stone that Jane showed her. Twirling wisps of gold spinning on itself, the same, but without the actual stone in the center. He waited patiently while she inspected the orb now floating in front of her within arms-reach. She eyed it cautiously.
“This will offer you a portion of the power that will be required to find me.”
He floated, eyes locked on the ball of light in front of Juliette. He flicked them back to her.
“But not all. For you will need to earn the rest on your own.”
“Is this some Proficiency?” She asked confused.
The only way anyone could up and get powers was through a Passion and a visit to the Heart.
“Proficiency… Is that what people are calling it these days? I simply call it Skill. One which allows you to extend past human limitations. Attuned to your Passion, it will let you surpass anything you’ve done before.” He said in his deep voice.
Juliette clenched her jaw and released it.
“Then I am not able to accept, as I’m Passionless.”
The dark skinned man tilted his head to the side at Juliette and a sideways smile crept onto his face. She furrowed her eyebrows back at him.
“But you are not, child. You have more Passion than you might think. Do you not feel it? The pull, guiding you, focusing you mind?” He asked.
Her eyebrows knit tighter and she leaned back slightly from the orb. She thought back to the pull she felt from back on the streets of Exden, that gnawing need to find this person above all else. It could have been the simple desire to save a person in need. To do whatever it takes for find him and help. But she didn’t feel it until she felt the stone…
“But…” she started, “one needs to feel the Heart to receive a Passion. I… There’s no way. I’ve never even seen it before.” She said disbelieving while she shook her head.
“One does not need to touch the Heart to receive, only feel it. Inside.”
He tapped his chest with his massive fist as he said that.
“When you discovered me in the vision, did you not, with every fiber of your being, with passion, want to do whatever it took to help me?”
She shook her head harder as her heartbeat began to pick up.
“You desired a way, any way, to find me most effectively, and for that, you received one. You have felt my Heart intimately, Juliette. ”
“Your heart? What are you—”
Her eyes shot wide at the realization. The man nodded slowly at Juliette. She staggered back on her feet. Her head was swimming and she shut her eyes at the overwhelming light around her. Her face went flush as she felt faint and ready to pass out at any moment.
Impossible. She thought as her eyes shot open. He was drifting closer to her, eyes locked on hers.
“I am he.”
The pressure slammed back into Juliette’s body, thrumming across her frame. She wanted to close here eyes, but she forced them to stay open. She didn’t want a Passion. She knew what it did to people. Knew what she did to Oliver. Juliette wanted freedom from that bondage. She had earned the privilege of choice, same as everyone else in Ducania, to choose when and where she sought out the Heart, not to be forced into it like some sort of powerless dog.
Her body began to lift from the ground, slowly, until she was a hands-width off the ground. Then two, three, and kept rising until their faces were on the same level. Then her body started advancing slowly toward him.
“The One Who Creates.”
The perfect whiteness all around her exploded into swirling colors. Every color imaginable, even some she couldn’t fathom, mixing and churning into a turbulence of vividness. He was so close now that she could feel the heat from his body radiating onto hers. Her body was rigid and her knuckles were white from squeezing so hard. Her jaw clenched tightly as she felt her heart pounding inside of her chest. She wanted to scream back at him, to yell in defiance of everything he was telling her. This was all a dream, she was still Juliette Annabelle Hastings, Passionless daughter of Alton and Katherine. She’d wake up and realize she’d dozed off back at the fountain in Jun. This wasn’t happening.
The man stared at her, deep into her eyes, beyond, and opened his mouth to speak.
“I am Paragon.”
The kaleidescope of colors vanished in the blink of an eye, and with it, complete and utter silence.
“And now,” Paragon whispered,“I need you, Juliette.”
The golden orb slammed into Juliette’s chest and her body arched back from the impact. She screamed, a hoarse desperate cry, as a thick cloud of golden smoke rose from the ground to envelope Juliette once more.
Then, the dream ended.
Jane Doyen stared at her friend on the floor, breathing rhythmically and looking more peaceful than she’d ever seen Juliette. Juliette’s amber eyes were locked behind closed lids, and long black hair was tied loosely near her shoulder as she slept. A shoulder which was stained with water and dirt from the events of earlier today. Jane smirked and attempted to softly brush off some of the looser dirt from the hem of the tunic, but it was packed deep. Her smile fell from her face when she thought of today’s other events. She didn’t know exactly what had happened while Juliette was out on a delivery, but she expected she wouldn’t be pleased if she found out.
“Oh Juliette,” she whispered, “what a day.”
Jane stood up and walked to the door to ensure that it was still locked. Ever so slightly she cracked open the door to peek outside, and was met with a gust of wind that stirred up dust throughout the small room. Jane coughed quietly and quickly shut the door, waving an arm to blow the dirt away. She’d had this room cleared out earlier in the day, so the only items that still remained were a table and chairs, and a small woven satchel which would hold a mysterious stone. Oh, and her friend who happened to be lying on the ground dreaming of fantastic golden beings.
Jane let out a breath and angled her head, stretching her neck from side to side. She’d wanted to understand what Juliette had seen. See this indescribable white room and receive some amazing vision like her friend. What an incredible thought. Some conspiracy happening right under her nose. It’s something Leaders dreamed about. The opportunity to solve an ancient mystery and receive copious amounts of Para as a result. And she was a part of it. A shiver went down her spine. Surely she’d rank significantly once this was settled…
She was already rank nine, no small feat in and of itself, being only a single rank away from a major-rank before one turned eighteen. Her fifth rank had awarded her the Utmost Respect proficiency, which was blissfully wonderful in that it commanded those around her to give her the respect a Leader deserved, and those that crossed her would feel a compulsion to make things right. Though somehow, when she used it on Juliette, the girl had see right through it… That was what made Juliette special though, she could stand up to the most intimidating of people and barely bat an eye. She and authority didn’t seem to mesh well together. A major-rank Proficiency though, would offer a significant advantage, and might be able to overpower Juliette’s unusually strong willpower. Usually, it was something powerful like Visionary, or Unanimous Vote. Something that could let a lower rank Leader break into the competitive higher tier Leadership.
Even without an actual Proficiency, Jane was able to read people now that she was a Leader like her father. And what she read on Juliette, was that something had changed within her friend after she felt the stone in her father’s chamber earlier today. And whatever it was, Jane wanted it too. It’s why she had tried to hold the stone while Juliette was off on her delivery. She wanted something that could distinguish her from everyone else. Something to give her purpose in addition to hitting a major rank, and turn Jane Doyen her own person, not simply the shadow of District Leader, Roland Doyen.
She took a deep breath and stretched her hands, letting herself relax from the stiff posture that the daughter of a Leader should have at all times. She glanced down to Juliette lying on the floor and stepped closer to her. She lowered herself to the floor and laid down next to her friend, closing her eyes. She timed her breath so that it matched that of Juliette’s. After some time, she opened her eyes and turned to face Juliette’s sleeping form. Her friend’s lips were slightly parted, and her breathing still steady and quiet. Juliette’s olive skin was so tanned it was bordering on brown from the amount of time she spent outdoors and in the sun.
She brushed Juliette’s hair away and scooted her body close enough to feel the warmth coming from Juliette’s. She need not worry about the dirt floor forming stains on her tunic thanks to Air of Dignity. She couldn’t be seen in public with an embarrassing mark, so her Proficiency made certain it would never happen. Juliette’s hair smelled earthy from all of the time she spent outdoors today, and lying on the dirt floor didn’t help the matter. Jane closed her eyes and quieted her breathing. She reached a hand out to toy with the seam of Juliette’s tunic, gently as not to wake her up. Moving her head closer, ever so slightly, so that her face lay close enough to Juliette’s cheek to feel her breath bounce back.
Juliette shot from the floor screaming, her body tense as she spun to take in the room, fists clenched so tightly that her knuckles were pure white. She raised her fists and slammed them down on wooden table in the center of the room. It splintered under the strike and sent the small pouch onto the ground near Jane. Jane was still on the ground, halfway into a sitting position, and stared up at Juliette. She had finally stopped screaming and stood breathing deeply with fists clenched staring down at the stone on the ground. Juliette looked over to Jane.
“We need to go.” Juliette said.