The author gives full permission to distribute this work freely, as long as no alterations are made and the exchange of monetary units is not involved. Any questions, comments, suggestions, or complaints should be sent to esn1g(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery
Daria Morgendorffer was sitting in a chair.
The chair, she would have assumed, should have been in a room. Or somewhere outside. Or at least somewhere. As it was, the chair - and, subsequently, Daria herself - was located precisely nowhere.
A sourceless globe of light seemed to hang around her and the chair, but beyond that was pure darkness. There didn't even seem to be a floor, though she was certain that there was something holding her up. She could feel it under her boots, and the chair didn't appear to be floating.
Something seemed to move in the darkness. She couldn't see it . . . it was more as if she had felt it shift around. A soft clicking noise came from behind her, but when she twisted around in her seat, there was nothing there.
Another sound, indistinct and strange, pulsed quietly and continuously right next to her left shoulder, causing her heartbeat to quicken. There was nothing sitting in the air next to her, but when she placed her hand in the area the sound was coming from, she could feel a slight disturbance there, a light throbbing movement of the air. The feeling gradually ebbed, as did the accompanying sound.
Then the whispers started.
Daria's heart had started to slow as she'd gotten used to the low-level thrum, but being surrounded by what sounded like human voices in the darkness caused it to jackknife wildly in her chest once again. She could still hear them over the blood thundering through her ears, but she couldn't make out what they were saying. Some primal part of her brain insisted, however, that they were talking about her, and that what they were saying wasn't at all pleasant.
Her knuckles went pure white as she gripped the surface in front of her. Despite her rampaging terror, she recognized that the chair she was sitting in was actually her desk at school. This information was quickly drowned in fear as the whispers seemed to press in on her, filling the air around her with a feeling of intelligent malevolence. They grew louder and even closer, but she still couldn't see anything or anyone around her, nor could she discern any coherent language amongst the static.
Something brushed against the side of her face.
She screamed, and the world rushed in around her, leaving her sitting in the middle of a classroom full of other students.
Through the tears that had been forming in her eyes, Daria expected to see everyone staring at the girl who had suddenly freaked out in the middle of class, but such was not the case. The gaggle of teenagers did indeed look bewildered, some even outright frightened, but only a few were looking in anything even resembling her direction.
Chaos suddenly reigned as other people began to cry out, slap at the air around them, or otherwise panic in some fashion. One girl fell out of her desk completely and writhed on the ground, holding her arms across her head and body as if to ward off a blow. Another student, a boy, seemed to wake as if from a dream, then launched himself from his seat and didn't stop running until he hit a wall. He bounced back and hit the ground, stunned.
This behavior continued for several moments until a furious bellow of "QUUUUIIIIEEEET!!!" echoed through the room.
The howls and screams of panicked teens gradually subsided until the only sound that could be heard was that of choked sobbing somewhere in the back row.
Mr. Anthony DeMartino, the owner of the voice that had yelled for silence, stared around at his history class, his right eye seeming to bulge even more than usual. "Can ANYONE," he asked with barely constrained anger, "tell me WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?!"
The students that had jumped out of their seats sat back down. The ones that had ended up on the floor picked themselves back up and brushed themselves off. Their movements were slow, self-conscious. Nobody seemed inclined to answer the teacher's question.
Daria felt something place itself on her left shoulder. She barely choked back a scream, then turned to see Jane sitting next to her and that the something had been the other girl's hand. The raven-haired artist gave Daria a look that somehow conveyed both a desire to comfort and a need to be comforted in equal parts. Daria was normally not given to public displays of any kind of affection, but she realized that whatever had happened didn't count as "normal" in anyone's book, so she placed her hand on top of Jane's and squeezed.
"So," DeMartino snapped, "NOBODY can explain to me just WHY everything went COMPLETELY INSANE right in the middle of my lecture? YOU!" he yelled, pointing at a random student. "What did YOU see?"
The girl's name, if Daria recalled correctly, was Angel. Angel always looked a little freaked out - her eyes were typically bugging slightly out of their sockets, and her frizzed out hair made it look like she'd stuck her finger in a light socket - but upon being called on, it looked like she might simply keel over and die from shock.
"Um," she said, "I saw . . . " She peered around the room as if looking for a decent exit, but her seat was too far from the door. She gulped and pressed her hands together on the desk in front of her. "I saw . . . suh-spiders," she said fearfully, then lowered her head. "But they're not here anymore."
"YOU!" DeMartino said, pointing at a boy with spiky blonde hair. "What about YOU?"
The boy had a pair of sunglasses in his hand. He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger before answering. "I dunno, man," he said. "There was a lotta sand, though. Heck of a lotta sand."
"Did anybody ELSE see spiders or sand?" DeMartino asked the class. There was a general chorus of negative responses and shaking of heads. "Well then, suffice it to SAY that everyone most likely experienced something DIFFERENT, but we all experienced SOMETHING! Please stay HERE and try to stay CALM while I bring the school nurse AROUND! Does everyone think they can handle that?"
Brittany, the normally bouncy cheerleader, raised her hand and waved it. "Mr. DeMartino?" she called after him. "Is it okay if we stay here but we don't stay calm? Because I don't think I can stay calm right now!"
DeMartino growled, but nodded. "Just don't BREAK any school property as you FLAIL ABOUT," he said, pulling the door closed behind him, "or I'll break YOU!"
As soon as the teacher was out the door, everyone started talking. The few snatches of conversation Daria could make out seemed to involve whatever each individual had experienced, spoken in terrified whispers. The similarity of the noise to Daria's own experience caused her skin to crawl. Jane scooted her desk closer to her friend's, however, and her proximity was comforting.
"So, think we should start a betting pool?" Jane asked. "Hallucination? Psychic intrusion? Alien attack? I'm thinking of putting a fiver on Ms. Li pumping experimental drugs through the ventilation system."
"Or putting uranium in the drinking water," Daria said huskily.
"So what'd you see?"
"Nothing," Daria answered truthfully. "Just a whole lot of nothing. I heard something . . . but I don't know what it was. What about you?"
Jane frowned and shook her head. "I'm not sure," she said. "I couldn't make much sense of it. Some kind of statue, I think." Her frown deepened. "But it was bleeding. Hope it wasn't the Virgin Mary or something else cliche. I have a reputation for creativity to uphold."
Both girls lapsed into silence, as did most of the rest of the class. There were a few whispered conversations still going on, but almost everyone seemed to end up lost in their own thoughts. Daria stared at her desktop while Jane pulled out a sketchbook and started drawing.
Just as people were starting to wonder aloud where DeMartino had wandered off to, the teacher stepped back in, his face drawn and pale.
"STUDENTS," he said as he walked to stand in front of his desk, "I'm afraid I must INFORM you that our SITUATION may be a little worse than I originally believed. It seems that while we were all LOST in our own PRIVATE LITTLE WORLDS, the rest of the school has deemed it necessary to EVACUATE! The nurse is nowhere to be found, and every room that I have looked INTO was EMPTY!"
DeMartino eyed the student who had spoken. "Yes, KEVIN," he said. "Though it IRKS me to AGREE with you, this is quite heavy indeed. I believe it is in our best INTERESTS to leave as WELL, so if you would all be so KIND, please gather your BELONGINGS and follow me to the nearest EXIT!"
DeMartino's request was followed by a hurried scraping of chairs and rustling of books and bags as everyone gathered themselves. There were no arguments, and everyone moved as quickly as they could. Daria could understand their haste. She had no desire to stay after what had happened, either.
She and Jane were two of the last to enter the hall. They glanced at each other when they noticed that the group had stopped, then looked around in confusion when they noticed why. The fluorescent lights that typically kept the hallways brightly lit no matter the time of day were still running, but everything around them was curiously dim. Even with the low lighting, all the colors seemed unusually subdued, as if an extra helping of grey had been smeared on all of the school's surfaces.
"Uh, did it look like this a minute ago?" someone asked.
"No," DeMartino answered. "No, it did NOT." He blinked heavily, as if to clear his eyes, then turned to the class. "It seems even more INCUMBENT upon us to DEPART. Mr. Thompson, Miss Taylor! Check the doors on the LEFT as we PASS, and see if you can find anyone ELSE left behind! Daria and JANE, if you would check the doors on the RIGHT, I would very much appreciate it!"
"Who says volunteerism is dead?" Jane quipped.
She and Daria moved to the right side of the crowd, then pointed Kevin and Brittany in the opposite direction as they tried to do the same. Shaking her head in consternation, Daria opened the first door and poked her head in. She immediately recognized the classroom of Timothy O'Neill, the school's wishy-washy English teacher, even though it was redecorated with dreariness just like the hall.
No one seemed to be inside, but she called out just to be sure. When she didn't receive an answer from any hidden student or monster, she closed the door and stepped swiftly to catch back up with the slowly moving group. Jane had just finished checking another room as she passed by to the next door. Before she could open it, Kevin's dopey voice cut across the hall.
"Hi, there, little guy! What're you doin' in th-"
The quarterback's words changed into a shout of surprise as he slammed the door shut and put his back against it. "Uh, no offense, teach," he said, "but I don't wanna check rooms anymore!"
DeMartino demanded to know what Kevin had seen, but the boy would only shake his head adamantly. The teacher looked up and around and noted as Daria did that the light in the building had gone down even more than before.
"Time for survival of the FITTEST," he told the class. "Let's make sure WE are the fittest and get the hell out of here!"
Brittany twirled one of her dual ponytails around her finger and asked in her squeaky voice, "But shouldn't we keep looking for other people?"
"NO!" everyone else shouted at her in unison.
"It was just a question!" she said with a pout as she rejoined the group and they moved down the hall at a slow jog.
"Ah, the LIGHT at the end of the TUNNEL!" DeMartino cackled happily as they approached one of the doors that led outside. Being the first to reach it, he put out a hand, pushed the release lever, and was unceremoniously smashed flat against the plate glass as the students ran into him.
"BACK UP!" he yelled, slightly muffled as his face was pressed further and further into the door. "BACK! UP!"
After a great deal of cursing and complaining, the class managed to do as he asked. Daria and Jane, the only two who hadn't plowed ahead like stampeding cattle, stood off to the side and wore bemused smirks as DeMartino peeled himself off the glass and metal.
"What now?!" a girl asked, her voice pitched high.
DeMartino dusted himself off, then pushed the lever in again. With a frustrated growl, he kicked the door, but to no effect. "What NOW," he said angrily, "is that the door will not OPEN. I suggest we find ANOTHER and try AGAIN."
"Like, I dunno if that'll help, gang," a boy said. "Look outside!"
Everyone stared out at where the hippie-looking boy was pointing. Through the heavy plate windows set in the door, they could see nothing. v Absolutely nothing.
Daria fought hard to keep control of her breathing. Staring out into the abyss that had once been the outside world, she could swear that she heard a soft rustling sound, like that of a distant voice . . .
"Is that what it looked like?"
Forcing herself to look away, Daria turned to face Jane and nodded silently.
"Are you gonna be alright?" Jane asked, suddenly concerned.
"Yah," Daria replied, "I think so. It just took me by surprise."
Jane snorted laughter. "Girly, I think it's taken us all by surprise," she said.
After staring into the void for a few moments, Mr. DeMartino turned to the group and whistled for their attention. "STUDENTS, I am not going to lie to you," he said. "Our situation is GRIM. A point in our FAVOR, however, is that this is not the only exit in the school! There is a chance, albeit a SMALL one, that one of the other exits has some form of REALITY on the other side. There are fifteen of YOU and one of ME, so what I propose is that we SPLIT UP into four groups of four and find other ways out of this HELLISH NIGHTMARE.
"Jodie, Mack, and Jenna," he said, pointing at each student in turn, "you are with ME and we are team ONE. Kevin, Brittany, Dawn, and Bob . . . you are team TWO!"
"Aw, teach, can't we be team one?" Kevin asked unhappily. "I'm the QB, y'know!"
"Yes, Kevin," DeMartino said as evenly as he could, "I know. And the QB," he added in a shout, "is on TEAM! TWO!"
Kevin and the other people near him leaned back from the sudden assault. "Uh, sure," he said in quiet shock. "That sounds cool. Whatever you say, man!"
DeMartino spun around and started pointing students out again. "Angel, Jack, Scarlett, and Josh, you are team THREE! And that leaves team FOUR, which will be Daria, Jane, Jennifer, and-" he shuddered briefly at having to say the name, "-SHAGGY. If any team manages to find a viable EXIT, two of you will stay at the door while the OTHER TWO will find everyone else. Now let's GO before my blood pressure gets any HIGHER and I start shooting teeth out of my skull like a VERY PISSED OFF MACHINE GUN!"
Sorting around into their assigned groups, the class made their way back the way they had come. When they reached the nearest intersection of corridors, DeMartino pointed ahead and ordered team four that way while he took the rest of the group to the right.
"Well, here we are, alone at last!" Jane said to Daria once the others had left. "Just you and me against the forces of evil, ready to take on any-"
"Hey, like, what about us, man?" The hippie-looking guy from earlier ended his question with a nervous, scratchy laugh as he pointed at himself and the lean blonde girl next to him.
"Oh, right," Jane said with a sigh. "Okay, then . . . 'Shaggy', was it? And that'd make you 'Jennifer', yes?"
"Burnout," the girl said simply, her voice higher pitched than Jane's but even raspier.
"Burnout," she repeated. "My name."
"What a delightful team we are," said Daria. "A brain, an artist, a hipster doofus, and a burnout. And on top of it all, I think I'm getting smoker's lung just listening to the three of you talk."
"Which one am I again?" Jane asked mock-thoughtfully.
"The last three," Daria deadpanned. "Let's get this over with."
She and Jane took point as the four of them started walking down the hall. With a sense of unease, Daria noticed that everything had gotten even darker, the barely lit overhead lights casting deep shadows in every nook and cranny they passed. If things continued that way, she knew that they'd be completely unable to see before long. Making things worse, the gradually dulling color of the lockers were covered with a new texture that looked like some kind of mold.
Shaggy tittered nervously and looked around with jerking motions of his head, looking for all the world like an angular, over-sized bird. "I don't really like this, man," he said. "Splittin' up never works out for me. Security in numbers, that's more my gig."
"You could always start checking rooms for other people," Daria said over her shoulder.
They just happened to be near the door that Kevin had checked earlier. Shaggy wide eyes tracked it as they passed by, and he shook his head violently.
Daria turned her attention forward again. They passed by another intersection, but all four decided silently to keep going straight. By Daria's estimation, they were getting close to another exit anyway, as well as a maintenance closet. Even if they couldn't get out, they'd hopefully be able to pick up something of use there. She wasn't sure what exactly besides some flashlights, but she felt confident they'd be able to work out something.
Movement up ahead caught Daria's attention. Peering through the gloom, she saw that it was an optical illusion caused by a section of the hallway that was cast in complete darkness, periodically brightened by a fluorescent that flickered lazily. The group stopped as one at the very edge of the intermittent blackness.
"Wow, creepy," Jane said, sounding genuinely impressed. "Our journey into the world of horror movies is almost complete."
"I'm not going in there, man, no way no how!" Shaggy wailed. "Horror movies is right! We go in there and, like, one of us ain't comin' back out the other side!"
Burnout arced an eyebrow at him, her expression unchanging otherwise. "Wuss," she said, then pushed past to step into the inky darkness. As the overhead flared like a slow-motion strobe light, they could see her slowly traverse her way across until she stopped on the other side and looked back at them.
Daria and Jane shrugged at each other and stepped forward. Realizing that he was about to be left behind, Shaggy let out a small whine and quickly moved to follow.
The flicker of the light was more disorienting than Daria would have figured, but she could see the other side of the area clearly enough to keep from stumbling around. She looked over at Jane to see how her friend was handling it and saw that the other girl was frowning deeply. Darkness descended upon them again, but Daria kept looking to her right to make sure she had seen correctly.
The light came back on, and Jane had been replaced by something that was most definitely not Jane. It looked like it used to be her, or like it was trying to be her, but its skin was grey and pasty, and the left side of its face had been sheared away. The ragged edges of the gritty skin and darkened skull were covered in a green ichor reminiscent of lichen, and it seemed to be crawling with small insects with too many legs and too-long feelers bobbing up and down.
Somehow Daria managed to take all of this in during the half-second the light was on. She bit down hard on her lip and kept putting one foot in front of the other, sure that if she took a single step to the side, she wouldn't stop. She would end up running down the corridor, screaming wildly, until she had left the other three far, far behind, and then she would be completely alone.
Being completely alone didn't worry her most of the time, but trying it out at this point seemed foolhardy in the extreme.
Another flicker, and Jane was back, apparently unaware that anything unusual had happened. They and Shaggy finally rejoined Burnout, and together they continued down the hall.
"Hey, you okay, amiga?" Jane asked when she noticed that all of the blood had drained from Daria's face.
"Not even a little bit," the other girl replied.
"Hey, janitor's closet!" Jane exclaimed in delight. "Now we're talkin'!"
Squinting to see in the gloom surrounding them, she grasped the doorknob and twisted, but it was locked. After rattling it a few times and cursing, she turned to the others.
"Well," she said, "so much for that. Guess we'll have to get the drain cleaner for our suicide pact somewhere else!"
Just as they were about to move on, Burnout reached into her ratty jacket and pulled out a small, flat leather pouch and opened it. From its contents, she pulled out a small sliver of metal and put it between her teeth. She crouched down in front of the doorknob, pulled her long hair back out of her face, and extracted another thin metal strip before putting the pouch back into the jacket's inside pocket.
With practiced ease, she inserted the second strip into the bottom side of lock, then took the first from between her teeth and pushed it in from the top. A few twists and grunts of irritation later, the lock popped open with a sharp snap. Burnout put the strips back in her pouch and pulled the door open.
The room beyond was completely encapsulated in darkness. Unlike the section of hallway they had traversed before, there was no light at the end, and the hallway had grown too dark to provide decent illumination past the door frame. A few flips of the light switch garnered no result whatsoever.
A small scratching sound made everyone jump. Burnout held up an engraved Zippo lighter, the flickering flame illuminating the mildly disparaging look she gave the others. She moved into the closet, holding the lighter high as she looked around.
Daria, Jane, and Shaggy followed her in and started sifting through boxes and other containers strewn about the shelves lining the walls. Musty rags, empty bottles that had once contained cleaning fluids, and other such items were discarded over their shoulders as they searched for anything useful.
"Ah ha!" Daria called out, getting the others' attention. She turned to them, holding a box in one hand and a lit flashlight in the other. "Thanks to our team locksmith, we now have portable illumination." She held the box out, smiled slightly, and said, "Have at it, guys."
A few of the torches either didn't work or their batteries were drained, but after some trial and error all four teens had their own light source. Daria and Shaggy both ended up with fairly standard flashlights. Jane had managed to find a mini-light holstered in a headband strap, and Burnout was lugging a heavy-duty flash with a plastic shell that looked thick enough to crack skulls.
"Oh, if only the Fashion Club could see me now," Jane said as she slipped the band over her head, situating the light itself over her right ear. Once it was in place, she reached up and pressed the button on the base of the torch, causing the light to shine directly into Daria's face.
"Hey, we got these so we wouldn't be walking around blind," Daria griped, putting her hand up to cover her eyes.
"Sorry," Jane said sheepishly. She turned her head to scan the shelves. "So, anything else we desperately can't do without? Glass cleaner? Extra mop heads? A filthy radio that probably only picks up a single station?"
"Like, I could use some of that glass cleaner, man!" Shaggy said, grabbing it and a roll of paper towels. "I dunno what it is, but some kinda junk has been growin' on my sunglasses!"
"You're still wearing tho-?! Yah, you're still wearing those," Jane murmured with a shake of her head. "Yeesh, some people's children."
He looked up from scrubbing the lenses and protested, "Hey, they're prescription!"
"Speaking of which," Daria said, "I could use some of that myself. Mine are getting a little gummy, too. And I don't know if you guys noticed, but whatever it is is also growing on the walls and lockers. I'm kind of wondering if it's safe to be breathing near this stuff."
"It can't be any worse than breathing the air in this closet," Jane countered. "And I thought the school restrooms smelled bad."
Taking the towels and cleaner from Shaggy, Daria removed her own thick-rimmed glasses and started scraping away the gunk that had started collecting around the outside edges. She was surprised at first that she hadn't noticed this encroaching growth, but she eventually realized her lenses were much larger than Shaggy's. Once she was finished, the foursome stepped back out into the darkening hallway.
A sharp crack sounded out behind them, and they whirled around to see Burnout holding a mop handle in one hand. The head end of the mop sat under her foot, snapped away at the haft. Burnout turned the handle up to briefly examine the sharp end that she had made, then kicked the mop head back into the maintenance room without looking.
"Are you trying to give us all heart attacks, man?!" Shaggy nearly screeched.
"Yah, Jennifer or Burnout or whatever, we're going to need you to stop making scary noise-"
Daria trailed off as Burnout started expertly twirling the mop handle around, moving through a quick set of practiced maneuvers before stopping it against the tiled floor with a loud thock!
They stared at her speechlessly for a moment until Jane broke the silence. "Okay, all in favor of our new best friend Burnout walking at the head of the group?"
Three hands shot straight up into the air as one. Burnout looked at each of them, still expressionless, then shrugged and started nonchalantly walking down the hall, staff in one hand and heavy flashlight in the other.
The exit was only two classrooms down from the closet, but Daria could tell that something was wrong before they'd even passed the first. Their footsteps had taken on a peculiar crunching quality, and each step felt a little slipperier than the last. Daria pointed her light down to see it reflected back at her in hundreds of tiny spots of brilliance, like a night sky turned upside down and compressed to fit on the hallway floor.
Jane crouched down and ran her fingers across the tiles. "Sand," she said, standing up and staring at the granules stuck to her fingertips. "Very clean, very big, very shiny sand. Almost like little bits of glass . . . "
The source of the sand became apparent as they continued approaching the exit. It became thicker on the floor as they went along, eventually making it seem more like they were walking on a beach than in a school hallway. They stopped right in front of the double doors of the exit, unable to go any further.
The glass set in the doors had broken inward, the fragments buried somewhere in the mountain of sand that had pushed its way through from the other side.
"Well, that's just great," Daria said angrily. "Too much nothing on one side of the school and too much something on the other."
"How did this happen, anyway?" Jane asked. "I mean, did we get caught in a hurricane without noticing it and the school got flipped sideways?"
Daria shook her head. "Strange kind of gravity we've got if that's the case."
"Strange kind of everything we've got!" Shaggy pointed out.
Jane turned to him. "Hey, Shagster," she said, "aren't you the one who saw sand before?"
"Nope, not me," he said, shaking his head. "That was Jack, the other guy with sunglasses. I saw, like, this other me walkin' around, right? And he kept splittin' up into other other me's!" He shuddered at the memory.
"Okay, so, door number two was a failure," Daria said. "Is everyone ready to see what's behind door number three?"
Jane cleared her throat. "I hate to suggest this after Kevin's little surprise earlier," she said, "but maybe we should check some of the rooms with windows as we go? Even if we can't get out a door, maybe we can bust one of 'em open and get out that way."
Shaggy started to whine again, but Daria held a hand up to cut him off. "Burnout?" she said. "What do you think? Can you keep the bad-nasties from eating us?"
The other girl seemed to think about it for a few moments before giving a half-shrug. "Sure," she said. "Maybe."
"Alright then. Back we go."
The second trip under the broken light went much more smoothly than the first, thanks to the flashlights and the fact that it wasn't much darker than the rest of the hall at that point. No one was replaced by a festering version of themselves, for which Daria was thankful. They reached the nearby intersection without incident and turned left.
Pustulent grime covered everything, and like the sand in the previous hall, it got worse as they went along. It made the entire corridor look organic, like they were traveling down the green, slimy throat of some giant beast. The floor was slippery, forcing the four teens to slow down and watch their step. Every footfall was accompanied by a sickening squelching noise.
"Okay, the room on the left here," Jane said, turning her head to shine her light on the door. "That one should have windows."
"And it might have a giant snake with insta-kill venom in its fangs," Shaggy whimpered. "Or, like, a mummy."
The door was as slimy as everything else in the hall. Burnout handed her flashlight back to Jane, then pulled her hand up into her jacket sleeve and used it to turn the knob. She carefully pushed the door open a crack and peeked through. Not seeing anything immediately dangerous, she leaned back, kicked it all the way open, and leaped in with her staff held in front of her.
There was nothing there.
Taking her flash back from Jane, Burnout swept the beam of light back and forth. Daria tried the light switch, more out of habit than of expecting it to work, which it didn't. Besides being powerless, dark, and empty of students, there didn't seem to be anything immediately unusual about the classroom. Even the grime had stayed out, the only instances of it being what the foursome tracked in on the bottom of their shoes.
Burnout threaded her way between the desks until she stood before the windows at the back. Daria and Jane followed, while Shaggy stayed behind at the door, looking around nervously.
The light from their torches seemed to stop right at the windows, only penetrating a few inches before hitting something else. Jane stepped forward and touched one of the panes, then cried out and snatched her hand back. She stuffed it into the armpit of her other arm and squeezed down.
"Are you okay?" Daria asked, worried.
Jane nodded, taking her hand out and shaking it. "Yah, it's just cold," she said.
Daria looked back at the window and tried to make out what was stopping the light. She could just barely make out a slightly shifting pattern in the black beyond the glass. There was definitely something out there, but she couldn't tell what. Smoke, perhaps, or some extremely dense fog? She got as close as she could without freezing her nose, but it was no help. Her eyes simply weren't able to make out the big picture, and she could feel the heat being slowly leeched from her face by her proximity.
Without warning, Burnout ran up between Daria and Jane, swinging a desk around like an unwieldy club and hitting one of the windows. The other two girls scrambled back as the desk smashed through the glass and struck something hard on the other side. Burnout took a few steps back as the desk reverberated in her hands. She dropped it and quickly snatched up her staff and flash from where she'd left them.
The blackness beyond the broken window was scored, a whitish gash marring its surface. The mark swiftly moved to the right, however, passing by the other windows until it finally disappeared.
"Ice," Burnout said with something akin to wonder. She relaxed her stance. "Black ice."
"But . . . that's impossible," Daria breathed. "That much ice, moving along the side of the school . . . "
"'Impossible' is the order of the day, sweetie pie," said Jane.
"Hey, gang," Shaggy hissed, getting their attention. "Hey! I, like, heard something down the hall!" He had closed the door most of the way and was trying to surreptitiously look out through the crack.
The three girls glanced at each other. "Heard something like what?" Daria asked him.
"I dunno, man, like voices or something," he said. "They didn't sound friendly, whatever they are!"
Daria crossed her arms. "Then it's probably Mr. DeMartino and whatever unlucky kid got stuck with him," she said. "Maybe they found a way out."
Despite Shaggy's protestations, the group moved back out into the moldy slick hall and started walking the direction he indicated. After a few moments, they all heard the sounds of someone cursing followed by a squeak and a heavy thud. Certain now that the sounds were definitely human in origin and that whoever it was was in some sort of distress, they quickened their pace as much as they dared.
Sitting up against a row of lockers was indeed DeMartino, who was grumbling to himself and trying to wipe green and grey slime off of his pants legs and sleeves. A large patch of the algae-like substance had been scraped away nearby, further evidence that the teacher had slipped and fallen.
He looked up at the foursome and covered his eyes against their lights. "Ah, Daria, Jane, assorted OTHERS," he spat. "How very good to SEE you at this JUNCTURE. If you wouldn't MIND, I could use a HAND here."
"Sure thing, boss," Jane said as she and Shaggy took an arm each and hauled DeMartino back to his feet. When they were done, they both wiped their hands on their clothes in disgust.
"So, where is your adventure buddy?" Daria asked, looking around. "I thought you said we should have at least one person with us, even if we found an exit. Safer that way, right? You didn't just ditch them at the first sign of trouble, did you?"
"Your CONCERN for your fellow man is as TOUCHING as I am sure it is SINCERE, Miss Morgendorffer," DeMartino snarled. "We did INDEED find an EXIT, in the music room right over there. I sent Mack and JODIE to go find the others while I and Miss SCHWARTZ stayed behind. I thought I HEARD something, and decided to check it out. I assume that I must have been hearing YOU!"
"Okay, I heard 'we found an exit', and then all the rest was ocean noises," Jane said, excited and smiling widely. "Show us the way to go home, teach!"
DeMartino waved for them to follow him. Shaggy had to grab him a few times as he hit more slick patches, but soon enough they were standing outside the room he had indicated. He opened the door, and his jaw dropped.
The beams from the flashlights were refracted through a series of small wires that were criss-crossing the other side of the room, each line looking as delicate as spun glass. They ran along the wall, ceiling, and floor, and the space outside the broken windows was so stuffed with the substance that it looked like a massive bin of crystal-grey cotton candy.
Sitting at a desk in the middle of the classroom was Jenna Schwartz. Her entire body was encased in a light covering of the webbing, and a swarm of small black shapes crawled across and occasionally into or out of her pale corpse. No one needed a closer look to know what they were.
"You know what? Your exit sucks," Jane told Mr. DeMartino, her voice cracking with panic.
DeMartino ignored her and stepped forward. Burnout caught his shirt and pulled him back.
"Don't," she said.
"That's one of my STUDENTS!" the teacher bellowed as he jerked free of the girl's grasp. "I LEFT her here! This is MY FAULT! I have to HELP HER!"
Jane and Daria tried to push by to grab him, yelling out that Jenna was already dead, but Burnout held out her arms to stop them. He reached the body and started swatting at the spiders ineffectually, apparently oblivious to the fact that there was nothing he could do. The tiny creatures scattered from his blows, hitting the ground and crawling back up faster than he could get rid of them.
Jenna's face suddenly bulged outward, letting out a sharp crack as her skull split apart. The flesh covering it tore like old parchment, and eight quivering, hairy legs slithered their way out of the opening.
The giant spider leaped from its hiding place and landed on DeMartino's chest, then skittered up and over his face and head. From the way DeMartino was crying out and twitching, it seemed that the monstrous creature was continuously biting him as it went along. He tried to reach up to grab the beast, but all he could do was shake and scream in agony as it winded its way down his back.
The chest of Jenna's corpse bulged in the same manner as her head, and the ribcage snapped open like double doors to release a flood of smaller spiders, thousands of them. They flowed onto the floor like a living waterfall and started to pour up DeMartino's legs, obscuring his lower half entirely in a matter of seconds.
Burnout no longer had to hold Jane and Daria back. They jumped back from the doorway as the arachnids started spewing from every web-covered surface in the room. An explosion forced them to cover their ears as the skin on one of the band room's kettle drums burst apart, letting loose another skittering horde.
Moving with almost unnatural quickness, Burnout shoved her staff into Daria's hands and her flashlight into Jane's, then pulled out her lighter and a small aerosol can. "Run!" she yelled as she lit the Zippo and held in out into the classroom.
Shaggy and the two girls took no time following Burnout's order. They slipped and slid a few times on the nasty floor before finding traction and running back the way they had come. Behind them they could hear the sound of the aerosol's contents being released followed by a continuous fwoosh as the Zippo turned it into a miniature flamethrower.
They reached the hallway intersection a few moments later. Shaggy tried to skid to a stop, but the slime still sticking to the bottom of his shoes caused him to glide across the tiles and into the wall. He stood there, stunned, until Daria and Jane caught up, when he surprised them by turning left and continuing on down the hall.
"Hey, we have to wait for Burnout!" Daria called out after him.
"I'm not waitin' for shit!" he shouted over his shoulder. Within seconds, he had disappeared into the darkness, beyond the reach of their flashlights.
Daria hefted the staff uncertainly. "Stay here," she told Jane, who was leaning heavily on her own knees, trying to catch her panicked breath.
"Sure, no problem," the other girl wheezed as Daria took off after Shaggy. "I'll be . . . right here . . . if you need me!"
Without the slime to slow her down, Daria pelted down the corridor full tilt. Her flashlight swung wildly as she ran, but it was still enough to keep her bearings. She thought she could just barely hear Shaggy's footfalls when he suddenly gave out a wild cry.
Light poured down from the ceiling in the distance, forming a bright rectangle on the floor. It was positioned oddly, sitting crosswise in the hall and off to one side, so it wasn't one of the overhead lights, which had long ceased to function, but Daria didn't care. Her heart rose up when she spotted that source of illumination even as it sank when she realized that it was undoubtedly connected to Shaggy's yelp.
Sure enough, as she approached the area, she could hear him yelling for help, and the cries seemed to be coming from up above. She slowed down, stopping a few feet short of the light's edge, and took a closer look at her surroundings.
The light was streaming out of a doorway set on the right side of the ceiling. The area of floor it was shining on was a row of lockers, melding perfectly with the normal looking floor on either side. Moving the beam of her flash around the still-darkened areas surrounding the patch of light proved what she had started to suspect.
That whole section of the hallway, approximately ten to fifteen feet across, had been somehow twisted at a 90 degree angle from the rest of the school and then remolded to look as if it had been built that way in the first place. A section, no less, that they had already passed through twice before and it had been oriented quite normally both of those times.
Carefully, slowly, Daria stuck her head out into the light and looked up through the door on the ceiling. Disorientation hit her immediately as her hair flew upward and she felt her head try to pull that was as well. She managed to stand her ground, but the sensation of reversed gravity was very uncomfortable and was made all the worse by the fact that it didn't correspond with the new orientation of that section of hallway.
Once she could focus her eyes again, she could see Shaggy, hanging onto the knob of the swinging door by his fingertips. He looked down (Up? Daria wondered), his eyes growing wide behind his shades when he also spotted her.
"Hey!" he yelled. "Like, help me, man! I'm slippin' here!"
Daria was about to yell back that she didn't know what to do when beams of light swung around her. She turned around to see Jane and Burnout running up to her.
"Shaggy is stuck!" she shouted to them. "The gravity is backwards here! Be careful!"
When Burnout reached Daria, she took her staff back, ran her hand through the twisted area, then used the staff to push herself off the ground. She swung her legs up as she launched herself into the reversed gravity, allowing her to land precariously on the wall-space right next to the door frame. She teetered for a moment, but quickly regained her balance and crouched down to extend one end of her staff to the other teen.
Daria couldn't see what happened after that, but she heard Shaggy grunting as he was undoubtedly trying to get a good hold of the mop handle. Burnout was giving him short, quiet encouragements when she gasped and leaned out, nearly pitching forward into the pit. Shaggy gave out one final cry of fear that was cut short a second later.
Jane clamped her hand over her mouth as she and Daria stared up in horror. Burnout sat still for what seemed like an eternity before standing up straight and flipping back down to regular gravity.
"He just disappeared," she said, her face clouded with fear and uncertainty for the first time. "He was falling toward the other side of the classroom, and then he just . . . disappeared."
The girls stood facing each other silently, catching their breath as they tried to take everything in that had happened since they'd reunited with DeMartino. Burnout's face slowly went impassive again, her expression unreadable in the shadowy light of the torches. Jane occasionally looked away to check and see if any spiders had decided to follow them.
Daria, in the meantime, racked her brain to try and come up with a solution to the madhouse they had found themselves in. The nothingness outside the first exit had been weird, but it could have been a trick of the eyes, a cloudy night sky on the edge of a cliff that had suddenly appeared just outside the school. The lights going out was a simple brownout that had turned into a full blackout, a problem with Lawndale's power grid or manipulation of the school's fuses directly. The sand, slime, and spiders had been brought in by whoever was running the show and then dumped around.
Her already weak line of reasoning snapped easily at the twisted hallway with reversed gravity. There was just no adequate explanation for that outside of science-fiction or fantasy.
So why not science-fiction? Jane's suggestion of experimental hallucinogens being pumped into the air. Or space aliens, testing humans in some bizarre lab that was built to look like Lawndale high. Or parallel universes converging, inconveniently bleeding into each other.
Heck, why not fantasy? Daria thought uneasily. A wizard did it.
She felt a maniac giggle start to rise in her throat. Smashing it down hard, she fought once again for control. Nothing was going to be helped by going to pieces. Shaggy had done enough of that for all of them, Burnout was a role model for inner strength despite her earlier slip, and Jane looked like she would start freaking if Daria freaked.
"I don't know about you guys," Jane said, "but I could use a bathroom break. I know it sounds like a stupid thing to say, but my bladder doesn't really care that two people just died and another disappeared."
Burnout looked to Daria, who nodded since she was starting to feel the pinch herself. "Okay," the blonde girl said. "Let's go."
After pulling back a few steps, Burnout used her mop handle to pole vault across the twisted space. She lifted higher into the air as she passed through the reversed gravity but landed adroitly on the other side. Sticking her staff across to them, she quickly pulled Daria and Jane over safely. The nearest restrooms were thankfully just a short way down the hall on the left.
"One at a time," Burnout said as they entered. "Everyone keeps an eye on everyone else."
The restroom walls were coated in the same grey mildew-like substance as everything else in the school, as were the stalls, sinks, and mirrors, but not the toilets themselves.
"Well, that's foreboding," Jane said as she looked into one of the stalls. "But what the hell, I've lived a good life."
She turned to close the stall door, but Burnout intercepted it and shook her head.
Jane was angry for just a second before understanding dawned. "Oh, right," she said. "Keeping an eye out. Sure. Just keep the eye above the waistline as well, 'kay?"
Once she had finished without the commode trying to eat her, Burnout went second. Then, as Daria sat uncomfortably a few minutes later, she saw Jane running her fingers across the surface of the wall and frowning. The artist's fingertips were leaving trails in the stuff growing on the paint, building up a small collection in her hand. After pulling away and staring at it for a moment, she put it up to her nose and sniffed.
"Um, Jane," Daria said. "I can't believe the girl who's currently going to the bathroom in front of two other people has to be the one to tell you this . . . but that's gross."
"It's not gross," Jane said in wonderment. "It's clay!"
"Clay!" Jane repeated, holding her hand out so the other two could get a better look. "Like you use for sculptures! The whole wall, maybe the entire school, is covered in a thin film of modeling clay!"
Daria and Burnout shone their lights on it, then up at the wall. "So it is," Daria said. "That's very weird. Can we finish discussing it outside, please?"
Jane held her hands up in surrender and stepped back. After Daria finished, they all walked to the sinks and found that only one of the three worked, and it only spit the water out fitfully every few seconds. After getting almost as much of the too-fast water on the front of their clothes as they did on their hands and scrubbing as best they could, the three girls stepped back out into the hallway.
"Hey, this way," Jane said, leading the other two off to the left. "I've got an idea."
They turned left at the next intersection and continued down the corridor. Daria started checking the door signs as they passed, but Jane looked forward the whole way, apparently knowing exactly where she was going. Everything remained relatively normal as they walked along until they came to the next hall 4-way. Jane turned right and then everything else turned, too.
The three girls stopped at the beginning of a section that twisted clockwise like a corkscrew. Jane clapped her hands excitedly and gave out a short laugh, then ran into the twist. Gravity twisted with her, keeping her on the floor regardless of its new orientation.
"Do you find it disturbing that she's starting to enjoy this?" Daria asked, to which Burnout nodded curtly. "Yah, me, too."
"Maybe she knows something," Burnout conceded, then moved to follow Jane.
Daria shook her head grimly as she fell into step beside the other girl, but she eventually had to admit that walking through the corkscrew was a bit like going through a funhouse. She knew that DeMartino and Jenna had died earlier, and that Shaggy could be anywhere, but for some reason, Daria couldn't feel any fear from that anymore. Her despair had slowly but surely evaporated, leaving her feeling better about her situation.
Jane apparently had a plan. Whether or not the plan was good or not didn't really matter, as long as there was one. And while Burnout had been unable to save Shaggy or DeMartino, it hadn't been the blonde girl's fault. She was still quite capable and had handled the previous situations as well as anyone would have been able. And while the building had started warping around them, those warps seemed to still have rules that could be learned and manipulated. As far as Daria could determine, optimism was the correct reaction under the circumstances.
But deep in the back of her brain, a distant voice of uncertainty called to her, forcing her to wonder how long it would last.
Ms. DeFoe's art classroom was exactly as Daria remembered it, save for the darkness and the swirling mass of filthy, debris-choked water passing over the room's skylights. Daria shone her light into it but quickly turned away a second later, stomach churning at the sight of what was floating by the windows.
"Okay, Lane," she said after swallowing back a throatful of bile. "What have you got for us?"
Pacing back and forth in front of the easels in the middle of the room, Jane gestured energetically as she talked. "Right," she said, "so everything started when everyone when nuts, right? And then we found that the school was empty, and then everything started getting dark and - we thought - moldy. Then we started seeing all sorts of weird crap sitting around the place, like the sand, the black ice, the spiders, and the wate- whoa!"
Jane jumped in surprise, having just gotten her first good look through the skylights. "Um, and the water here," she finished lamely.
"Yes, we remember," Daria said flatly. "We were there." She swallowed and did her best not to follow her friend's gaze.
"Right, okay," Jane said, nervously wiping her hands on her shorts. She tore her eyes away from the horror outside to look at Burnout and Daria again. "Anyway, after all of that, the school itself changed on us, and then again just before we got in here. Now, I know you might say 'duh' to this, but we're not really in the school anymore!"
Daria raised an eyebrow and Burnout didn't react at all.
"Okay," Daria said, "and this is important?"
"Hell yes, it's important!" Jane replied, smiling widely. "Because I may not know exactly where we really are, but I do know something about where we are! Burnout, could you do me a favor and stab one of the walls? Any wall, doesn't really matter. Except . . . maybe stay away from the windows."
Burnout blew air through her nose, then shrugged. Walking over to the nearest wall, she spun her staff around, planted the sharp end into the drywall, and pulled it back out.
She and Daria both took a step back as red liquid began to flow out of the hole, slowly staining the area below it in shining crimson. It had just reached the floor as Jane walked over and stuck her palm right into it. She looked at it, sniffed it quickly, then held it up to Burnout's flashlight.
"It's not blood," she said, "though that really wouldn't have surprised me, either. This is paint!"
Daria could tell immediately that Jane was right. She had spent more than enough time at Casa Lane while the other girl had been working on some painting or another to recognize the particular shine of acrylic paint. Surprised at the revelation, she walked over to the hole in the wall to shine her light in. The paint had apparently been diluted somewhat with water, but parts of it were already drying here and there.
"Weird," she said. "Is this stuff running through the entire school?"
Jane wiped her hand on her overshirt, leaving behind a smear of slightly-different red. "I'm not sure," she said. "To tell the truth, I thought we'd be seeing chunks of modeling clay in the hole. Maybe most of the rooms are made of paint and only the hallways are made of clay? The other thing that tipped me off was that the toilets were a little misshapen and too shiny, like they were home spun and glazed . . .
"Never mind, it doesn't matter," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "The point is, this isn't really Lawndale High. It's more like a life-sized diorama of Lawndale High that's been covered in all kinds of other creepy crap."
"So where does this put us?" Daria asked. "I mean, it's great to know a little bit more about what's going on, but is there anything we can actually do with it?"
"Paint something," said Burnout.
Jane pointed at her. "Clever girl!" she said. Running over to her usual easel, she snatched up a palette, squeezed out a few paints onto it, and grabbed a brush. Then, with an intense grin that made her look almost feral, she started mixing the paints and applying them to the wall right next to the hole Burnout had made. Within moments, she had painted a light bulb socket, complete with lit bulb and a power switch.
She stepped back and stared at her creation impatiently. Moments passed as the paint dried and nothing happened.
"I don't think-"
"Wait!" Jane shushed Daria and pointed.
The wall bulged slightly where the paint had been applied. A faint sound like that of cotton being pulled apart came from the spot, followed by the soft tink of glass. The bulb extruded itself from the flat surface - fully fleshed out and shaped correctly - followed quickly by the socket and switch.
And it was lit. It was small and weak and certainly not enough to illuminate the entire room, but it was still something.
"And there was light," Jane said with satisfaction. "And it was good."
Daria circled the bulb, studying it from all angles. Like Jane had noticed with the toilets before, Daria could see that the bulb was obviously manufactured in something other than the usual fashion. She could make out small areas here and there that were slightly ridged, like brushstrokes on a painting. The bulb and socket were just a little lopsided . . . but they worked, and that, she knew, was the point.
"That is just amazing," she breathed. "Jane, you are an absolute genius."
The raven-haired artist took a short bow in appreciation. "Just wait until you see my next trick, sweetcheeks! Ha ha!"
As Jane appropriated more and more paint while madly working on her new project, Daria and Burnout walked around the room, always making sure to keep the third member of their trio in sight. Breaking into DeFoe's desk drawers, they found a brown bag lunch amongst the jumble of text books, papers, and art supplies. At first Daria was skeptical of it, but Burnout opened everything and checked it thoroughly before declaring it safe to eat.
They split the contents three ways. Jane wolfed hers down in seconds and immediately went back to work while the other two girls watched and ate at a more leisurely pace. Slowly but surely, a door took shape on the bare wall. Several tubes of paint and brushstrokes later, Jane finished it up by painting "EXIT" across the top in huge red box letters.
Like before, the object painted started popping out as soon as all the paint was dry. The tearing noise was followed by the sound of a metal and glass door swinging shut. The girls couldn't see anything through the windows, but Jane just shrugged it off.
"It probably took the color of the wall as the color of the glass is all," she said. "You two ready to get the heck outta here?"
Daria and Burnout nodded. Jane set her paints to the side, took a deep breath, and pushed the door open.
There was another classroom on the other side.
"No no no!" Jane was yelling as she kicked the door. "Exit from the school, not the room!" She covered her face in her hands and screamed for several seconds, then took in a deep breath, put her arms back down by her sides, and spun around.
"So," she said calmly, "anyone else have any ideas?"
"What classroom is that?" Daria asked.
Jane started hard at the question. "Um, I don't know?" she said. "The one next door?"
"There isn't a classroom next door," Daria pointed out. "Not on that side. It's the art supply storage space, remember?"
"Oh. Ooooooh!" Jane slapped her forehead. "Right! So, hey, what classroom is that?"
Burnout led the way as they reopened the door and stepped through. Daria propped the door open with a wastebasket and looked around. Several posters lined one wall, among them a picture of Shakespeare and one proclaiming in huge letters, "YES I CAN".
"O'Neill," Burnout said.
"This is all the way over on the other side of the building," Daria said. "Well, it may not have gotten us out, Jane, but your door seems to be a handy time-saver on getting around."
"We might still be able to use this," Jane said. "I can make more than doors and light bulbs, hopefully. Let's go grab some more stuff and see what we can do."
Back in the art room, the three girls started gathering up various supplies into a paint-stained cloth bag. Along with various tubes and bottles of paint, they collected a few extra brushes and palettes, a small case filled with colored pencils and pens, several sticks of charcoal, and a couple of thick sketch pads. Jane kept a third pad and a black pencil to sketch in as they reentered Mr. O'Neill's room.
Daria hefted the bag's long strap over her head and adjusted it to sit as comfortably on her shoulder as she could get it. She had elected the carry the supplies since Jane and Burnout were busy drawing and protecting the group respectively, but she hadn't realized quite how heavy it was going to be.
The painted door slammed shut behind them as they stepped fully into the Language Arts classroom. Jane stopped in the center, scraped out a few last lines on her sketch pad, and set it on one of the desks. The subsequent tearing sounded like paper instead of cotton and was followed by a metallic click. Jane reached down and held up a shiny black revolver.
"Do you . . . know how to use one of those?" Daria asked.
"Nope, but I bet Burnout does," she said, holding the weapon out to the blonde girl.
Burnout leaned her staff against a chair and took the gun. She flipped open the cylinder, spun it with her thumb, and said, "Bullets."
"Comin' right up!"
Jane leaned over the pad and made six quick scribbles, each making a tearing, clinking noise. She scooped the resulting bullets up and dropped them in the other girl's outstretched hand. After loading the weapon, Burnout set her flashlight on a desk next to her and pointed the beam at the whiteboard. Dropping into the Weaver stance, she aimed carefully at the circle of light and pulled the trigger three times.
Daria had heard a gun going off in a classroom before. Only once, back at her old school, and it had been a nine millimeter, but she would have assumed that a revolver wouldn't have sounded much different. At the very least, she'd assumed that it would be loud, if nothing else.
But it wasn't. The three shots sounded like a triple burst of compressed air. The whiteboard didn't crack from the impact of the bullets, and there were no holes left behind. Instead, each smack of a bullet hitting made a burst of color on the board, one blue, another green, and the last yellow.
Burnout pointed the smoking pistol at the ceiling and frowned. "Paintballs," she said unhappily.
Jane's mouth hung open as she stared at the board. "But the light bulb worked," she protested dully. "The door worked!"
"Door didn't work," Burnout reminded her as she popped the cylinder and emptied out the chamber.
"So I don't have to carry all this crap anymore, right?" Daria asked, listing to one side under the bag's weight.
"But the light bulb worked!" Jane repeated forcefully. "And the door and the gun work, just not in the way we wanted. Sooooo . . . basically, I can make helpful things, but not too helpful?"
Daria leaned heavily to the other side to keep from falling over. "I guess that means a little trolly is out of the question, then," she said.
Jane sighed in defeat. "I'll see what I can do," she said distantly. She and Burnout gathered up their stuff and the trio continued on their way out the classroom's regular door and into the hallway beyond, where the door slammed shut and disappeared before they could jump back in, absorbed into the organic mass that stretched across the walls, ceiling, and floor.
The girls covered their mouths and noses as best they could against the overwhelming stench, a mixture of feces, blood, and something else not quite identifiable. Every visible surface was twitching spasmodically, as if vast muscles hidden underneath were constantly flexing and relaxing, or strange vein-like structures in the surface were passing oddly shaped objects through from one area to another.
The entire mass was wet and glistening, slick with some kind of mucus. The trio had to work to keep their footing, much like they had in the slime hall, but now with the added hazard of an actively moving floor. And as disgusting as the slime had been, Daria felt even less inclined to end up face down in her most current surroundings. The strange idea that the school would be able to taste her wouldn't get out of her head.
"Oh God," Jane gasped, raising her free hand. "All in favor of going back to the spider room?"
"Okay," Daria choked, "this is absolutely disgusting. It's like we're inside somebody's intestines!"
Burnout growled behind the back of her hand. "No doors," she said. "No doors."
"Paint one!" Daria yelled in desperation.
"On what?!" Jane yelled back. "There's no way it'll stick to any of this crap!"
"Come on!" Burnout ordered as she picked a direction and started slogging her way across the meaty floor.
The other two girls followed after her, trying their best to keep up. Daria looked down to see that her boots were trailing through a thin layer of heavy saliva-like slime. Clear strings of it were pulled along like snot, popping and snapping slightly as she stepped on the thick bubbles trapped within.
An oppressive heat hung in the air, and Daria began to consider taking off her jacket and leaving it behind. She came close to reaching up to do just that, but it had served her faithfully for many years. She would only get rid of it if it were a life or death situation. Things hadn't quite progressed that far, though she knew they could very well do so in the near future.
Two intersections later, Burnout brought the party to a stop. Daria and Jane both almost fell to their knees in exhaustion, and even the toughest member of the trio seemed a bit winded. The moist air had nearly soaked their clothing through and was rapidly sapping their energy.
"Aliens," Jane said as she motioned to take the art bag from Daria. "That's what this reminds me of."
Daria gratefully gave up the heavy sack of supplies. "You've met some?" she asked.
Jane laughed breathlessly and shook her head. "No, I mean the movie," she replied. "James Cameron? Second one in the series?"
"Oh, right," Daria said, also laughing in spite of herself. "That was my favorite one. This is way grosser than the tunnels in the film, though."
Jane fought back a dry heave. "No doubt. But hey, at least it doesn't have a bunch of nasty monsters trying to kill us."
"Always a bright side."
Once they were as rested as they could manage, Burnout called a return to the march. Daria wasn't sure where they were going and was fairly certain Burnout didn't know either, but she figured that anywhere else had to be better. The stuff that was moving around under the blue-grey flesh of the walls seemed to be making a grinding noise as it passed by, and it was starting to get on her nerves even more than the smell and dampness assaulting her senses.
The next turn brought them to a dead end.
"What the fuck?!" Jane screamed. "Is this where one of the exit doors were supposed to be? What is it? What?!"
Burnout shook her head and started back the way they had come. After only a few steps, she stopped and looked around. "Changed," she said.
"What?" Daria asked, but upon taking a good look herself, she knew what the other girl meant. The hallway behind them had an intersecting hall going off to the right, and a short way after the whole thing turned to the left. Neither of those features matched up with what they had passed by mere moments before. In fact, Daria felt pretty sure that none of the corridors in the school had that configuration at all.
"Knife," Burnout snarled, holding out her hand to Jane.
"Sorry, what?" Jane said, confused.
"Knife," the blonde repeated, her fingers curling into claws.
Suddenly realizing what was being asked for, Jane pulled out a sketch pad and pencil. After handing the supply bag back to Daria, she flipped through the pad until she found a relatively dry sheet of paper and quickly drew up a heavy combat knife. When it rolled off the page, she slapped it into Burnout's hand.
Burnout went back up to the dead end, staff and light in one hand and the knife in the other. Reaching up, she buried the blade to the hilt in the organic mass and pulled downward in a single slick motion.
Putrid black ichor spilled out of the wound, covering most of Burnout and splattering thick, noxious drops onto Daria and Jane. They backed away, gagging violently at the sudden increase in the horrid, rotting smell, but Burnout continued her grisly work. A distant screaming could be heard as she dug into the flesh again and again, and the walls convulsed around them. Ignoring it and the gore that now covered her from head to foot, the girl cut a hole in the mass and pushed the severed flesh aside until bare wall stood before them.
"Oh, shit," Jane said, looking behind them. "Remember what I said about there not being nasty monsters trying to kill us?"
Daria looked back. The hallway had changed again, this time forming one long stretch without any turns or intersections whatsoever. In the darkness, in the distance, a hundred eyes could be seen, glowing like bio-luminescent worms. They bounded along as if they were attached to giant cats, but the screaming and yowling that was approaching with them was more humanistic than feline.
A loud crack caused them to turn around again. Burnout lifted her leg and smashed her foot into the wall a second time, and this time the crack had a splintering quality to it. A third kick forced the section of wall to swing outward suddenly, revealing it to be a door. Dim grey light streamed through as Burnout stepped across the threshold.
"Go go go go gogogogogo!!!" Jane yelled as she pushed Daria through. The raging almost-voices of the creatures in the hall reached a fever pitch as they closed in, their viciously sharp forms vaguely defined in the light, then were cut off as the heavy door slammed shut before them.
The three girls braced themselves against the door's surface, waiting for an impact that never came.
Finally deciding that they were relatively safe from the horde that had been on right on their heels, the trio stepped away from the door. Jane started to nervously reach for the doorknob, but Burnout grabbed her wrist and said "NO" authoritatively.
Daria turned to take in their new surroundings and cut off a scream half-formed. The other two were by her side in a heartbeat, ready to deal with whatever new threat had presented itself. They stood down when they saw that there was nothing immediately life-threatening, but what they did see made them tense up even more.
Whatever the room had once been, it had become a twisted gallery. Fifteen spaces had been set up along three of the walls, small open areas partially boarded off with locker doors. Hanging suspended by various means in those spaces were human bodies, all of them in different stages of decay. Four of the spaces were empty, and since the bodies on display were mostly recognizable as the classmates the trio had started out that strange day with, they could easily guess that three of those four were meant for them.
Each corpse seemed to be displayed as a work of art, the suspensions having been done in a way to best show off how the victim had expired. Each mortal wound was unique, but all of them showed that every single student had died a horribly violent death, many of them obviously over a long period of time.
Daria immediately recognized the body of Jenna Schwartz. She hung in her enclosure from the center of a cylindrical web, like that of a funnel spider. Her face and chest were both still torn wide open, but no creatures seemed to be lurking on or around her anymore.
Kevin Thompson had been partially eaten and then strung up with barbed wire. A huge chunk was missing from his upper thigh, and the right side of his face had a look of horror eternally frozen upon it.
Bob Weeks had been pierced through the heart with a wicked looking metal spear, but Daria surmised that it had been the final blow after all of the rest of his body had been lanced through by various other barbed implements. He was held up by a series of large hooks that had been pushed through his shoulders, back, and neck.
Jodie Landon had been frozen solid in an enormous cube of ice. Daria couldn't tell if the blue tint she saw was actually discoloration of the other girl's skin or simply an optical illusion caused by the light shining through the ice. Jodie's expression was one of despair, the look of someone who had known she was going to die, had known exactly how it was going to happen, and had completely and utterly been unable to stop it.
All of the rest had been equally mutilated, altered, or otherwise abused. Even more than the disgusting smell of the organic hallway that still clung to her, this made Daria want to puke. She had known these people. Perhaps not always liked, but she had known them.
They deserved better than this, she thought in silent horror as tears began to run down her cheeks.
A slight cough drew her attention to a sixteenth enclosure sitting square in the middle of the room. At first she had ignored it, thinking it was unoccupied like the other four, but now she could see a shape bundled up in the middle. The three girls shined their lights on the insane centerpiece, illuminating the grim features of Mr. Anthony DeMartino.
"Well HELLO there, Miss Morgendorffer, Miss Lane, Miss Burns," he rasped weakly. "What a SURPRISE to see YOU here."
Chains hanging from the ceiling and the sides of the enclosure were attached to heavy brass and leather eyelets set in the full-body straitjacket into which Demartino was strapped and locked with large padlocks. His head was the only part of him visible above the stained white cloth, and bite marks from the giant spider that had attacked him crisscrossed his face. All of the marks were bright red, and a few of them leaked thin strands of yellow pus.
"Holy crap, boyo," Jane said with a low whistle. "We thought you were dead!"
DeMartino gave a particularly mirthless grin. It was malicious, toothy, and directed as much at himself as at them.
"Perhaps I AM," he said. "Perhaps, my dear and wonderful JANE . . . perhaps we ALL are." He looked around at the students to his left and right, each hanging in their own personal hells. "If not, then the four of US are the last to go. I'm SORRY, girls. I tried to get all of you OUT, and all I did was bring you in FURTHER. It's ALL. MY. FAULT."
The grin disappeared as his head sagged down, casting his face in shadow. His body started shaking softly. Daria had seen DeMartino cry before, but only ever out of frustration. For the first time ever, she was seeing him cry out of pure despair.
While Jane and Daria tried to figure out what to do with a situation that seemed more surreal to them than any of the nightmarescapes they had been through, Burnout stepped up on the dais DeMartino was hanging over, slipped her knife under one of straps wrapped around him, and started sawing at it.
"No USE," DeMarinto whined. "No POINT."
Burnout stepped down and stared at the blade. With a huff of contempt, she tossed it over her shoulder. "Dull," she said as it clattered on the ground behind her. She left to walk around the room, surveying the dead teenagers and trying to wipe as much black gunk as she could off of her face, hands, and clothes.
"Look, uh, Mr. D," Jane said, "I think you're taking this a little hard. I mean, how could you have saved everyone, anyway, right? This place-"
"I should have FOUND a way!" he yelled, his head snapping up and his eye bulging in anger. "You kids are MY responsibility! MINE! I shouldn't have split everyone up! I should have kept the group TOGETHER! Maybe we would have had a CHANCE if I could have protected ALL of you at ONCE!"
He crumpled again, swinging listlessly from side to side and refusing to listen to any attempts to bring him around. "Look, Daria," he said, "could you reach in my shirt pocket and grab my SMOKES for me?"
"Um, sure," Daria sniffled in confusion. She shone her light down at his chest and was surprised to note that the front of the straitjacket had not only a pocket like his shirt, but a row of buttons down the front as well. Further down, a white version of his belt was wrapped around his waist, right where one of the regular jacket straps would have been.
She reached into the incongruous pocket and pulled out a pack of generic cigarettes. She opened the top of the box, fished one of the tubes out, and carefully put it in DeMartino's waiting lips. As she moved to put the pack back into his pocket, he waved her off with his head.
"Keep them," he said around the one in his mouth. "I don't think I'll be NEEDING them much LONGER. Would ANY of you happen to have a LIGHT?"
Burnout stepped back in from her short tour, holding up her Zippo. DeMartino puffed eagerly at the flame, then took a deep drag and exhaled the smoke out through his nose with a sigh of contentment. Request fulfilled, Burnout started a wider circuit, examining the walls behind the enclosures. She stopped at each of the windows lining the wall and briefly rattled the thick chain link covering them, searching for weak spots.
"You know, something about all of this seems very familiar," Jane suddenly said.
"FAMILIAR?!" DeMartino responded incredulously, his voice muffled by his cigarette. "What about this seems REMOTELY FAMILIAR?!"
"You thought the flesh hall looked like Aliens," Daria reminded her. "This is kind of like . . . Hellraiser, I guess."
"Well, yah," Jane said, rubbing the back of her head. "Except all of those people were still moving around after. Not that I want them to start moving around!" she quickly added. "No, it's something different. I dunno. Maybe nothing."
DeMartino's entire head seemed to be wreathed in smoke as he puffed away furiously. "Nothing?!" he growled, twisting back and forth in his prison and making the chains and padlocks rattle. "NOTHING?! NOTHING is what you are DOING! NOTHING is what is HAPPENING while you stand around talking about the finer points of HORROR CINEMA!"
"Hey, now, Mr. Rudetino!" Jane said, affronted. "There's no call to get all snippy on us just because you're trussed up like a- whoa!"
DeMartino's lit cigarette flew past Jane's shoulder as she dodged to the side. Smoke still poured from his mouth as he started bellowing wordlessly at the two of them, his eye bulging further and further out to impossible dimensions. The trails of pus running down his face grew larger as new streams of infection began to leak out of his wounds.
Daria grabbed Jane's overshirt and pulled her closer. "Maybe we shouldn't provoke the poor angry teacher?" she said.
Jane wasn't paying any attention to the other girl, staring at DeMartino's face instead. Her jaw dropped and her eyes went wild.
"Oh, shit," she breathed, then spun around to hug Daria to her chest.
The short brunette stood frozen in shock for a second. She managed to get out, "What the hell are-" before the teacher's shouting turned into a single, drawn-out, full-throated scream. There was a sound like a balloon popping, then the spatter of liquid falling down all around the two girls. Jane shrieked in pain, and Daria caught the smell of burning cloth, flesh, and hair.
Jane pulled back from Daria but retained a crushing, painful grip on her upper arms. Once again free to look around, Daria could see the extent of the damage.
DeMartino's head hung to one side, the right eye gone and the socket drooling green and yellow fluid. He was completely still and silent, his face stuck in an expression of perpetual surprise. Puddles of noxious liquid covered the floor, sizzling and bubbling as they slowly ate through the concrete.
Jane had saved her from the same fate, but had suffered for it. The left side of her face was covered in a thin film of the acidic venom, as were her shoulders, a promise of more sitting across the length of her back. Her eyes rolled madly in their sockets and she screamed through her teeth.
Daria tried to reach up and wipe the acid away, but stopped herself inches away from the other girl's face, realizing that she'd only end up burning her own hand and smearing the stuff further on Jane, causing even more damage. As she despaired, at a complete loss as to what to do, Burnout suddenly appeared at their side, grabbed hold of them, and dragged them back through the door they had come in through.
The organic corridor was gone, replaced by the school's gymnasium. The same dim grey light that had been in the previous room filtered into the dark gym, giving them just enough illumination to tell that the place was completely empty. Burnout pulled them into the middle of the basketball court, where Daria slowly lowered Jane to the floor.
Jane jerked up and screamed in pain as the burns across her back touched down. The contact seemed to bring her back to her senses somewhat, and she quickly turned onto her right side. Tears poured from her good eye, the one on the left having turned milky white from exposure to DeMartino's venom.
Daria felt wetness return to her own eyes as she stared down at her injured friend. "Jane?" she said. "Can you hear me?"
After heaving in several shallow breaths, Jane nodded and said, "Yah . . . yah, I can hear you."
"We're going to get you some help, okay?" Daria babbled, putting her hand under the right side of Jane's head. "We'll paint you a first aid kit or something. A bottle of water to wash this stuff off. You're going to be okay. You're going to be okay."
A short shake of the head accompanied by a fierce grimace. "No . . . you're not, and I'm not," Jane said. A manic cackle escaped her lips. "Sorry . . . I wasn't more help. Shoulda seen . . . shoulda seen it coming. The . . . bleeding statue I saw . . . it was DeMartino. Remembered just before . . . "
She trailed off into a shout of pain, sucked air through her teeth, and reached up to her slowly dissolving ear. Gingerly picking at her silver earrings, she gathered all three up and then savagely tore them from the remains of flesh and cartilage.
Daria and Jane both cried out. Jane slammed her fist into the polished hardwood several times before collecting herself. She sat up slowly, jerkily, then reached out and grasped Daria's left ear. Daria kept her head still and bit her lip against the coming pain.
It was sharp, sudden, and close to unbearable. The pin of the earring slid through the lobe of her ear, and she could feel a tiny blot of blood well up before the small bit of acid clinging to the metal cauterized the wound immediately. By the time the third piercing went through, her nerves were so overloaded that she didn't even feel it anymore.
Her job finished, Jane leaned back, smiled beatifically, then began to convulse as her mouth foamed.
"No!" Daria shouted. "No no no no no!" She pulled Jane close to her, heedless of the acid still staining the back of the artist's shirt. Slowly, the convulsions lessened and the small mewling noises forced from Jane's throat ceased.
Daria continued to hold her long after her corpse had gone cold.
There was nothing but silence for a very long time.
"Daria," Burnout finally said, softly. "We need to-"
"Shut up!" Daria screamed at her. "Shut the fuck up!"
The blonde girl stepped back, her face stony and unreadable. Daria bundled Jane closer to her chest and started rocking back and forth. She pulled the dead girl's flashlight headband off and stuffed it in a jacket pocket so she could stroke the remains of her black hair unimpeded. Salty tears ran freely down her face as she keened lightly to herself for several minutes.
"You were supposed to be protecting us," Daria said quietly. "You were supposed to be watching out for us. That's what you're here for. That's your purpose. We all agreed. You were supposed to protect us. You were supposed to be protecting me. You were. Not Jane. Not Jane. You were. It should be you laying on the floor, burnt and melted until you're dead and gone.
"You hear that, you cunt?" Daria's lip curled. She hurled the invective like a weapon, aiming for Burnout's heart. "You should be the one lying here! You should be dead, not her! Where were you?! Why didn't you stay by us?! You should have pushed us out of the way! You should have found a way to cut DeMartino down, dull knife or no dull fucking knife! You should have jumped in the way and taken all the acid to your stupid, ugly, shit-stained face, and you should have died in horrible, agonizing spasms while you foamed at the mouth and your best friend held you and couldn't do a damn thing to stop it!"
She broke into a series of choking coughs, her fingers gripping at Jane as if she were holding onto her own life. She couldn't see anything but the wetness in her own eyes. She couldn't hear anything but her own futile screams of rage. She railed against a malignant cosmos that undoubtedly fed upon her every pathetic, wracking sob.
Once she could stop coughing, she sat back and stared at the ceiling. Her throat was raw and her sinuses ached, but she found the strength to continue talking.
"Jane was my only friend," she said. "My only friend. Do you get what that means? Can you understand that? Everyone else, acquaintances at best. Only one friend. Ever. And some psychotic alternate universe wipes her out just like that. She was a part of me. Maybe the best part. And now she's gone, all because you couldn't protect her."
Daria fell silent, completely spent. She felt like an old dishrag thrown in a corner to grow mildew for a few weeks. She could just barely sense Burnout still standing a few steps away, as quiet and unmoving as a statue, but she just couldn't muster up enough emotion to care anymore.
"Hey, check it out, babe! We, like, totally found 'em!"
"Wheeeeeee, Kevvie! Wheeeeee!"
Daria's heart nearly leaped out through the top of her head. She and Burnout both snapped their heads around at the voices to see Kevin and Brittany standing just a few yards away. All hope that they had been miraculously resurrected and that the same could be done for Jane flew right out the window when she saw that Kevin was still missing several chunks of flesh, and that Brittany was missing most of the top of her head. Her skull had been forcibly removed somehow, and several slices of her brain were missing. She hung onto one of Kevin's shoulderpads, apparently unable to stand up on her own anymore.
"What is this?" Daria asked huskily. "What's going on?"
Kevin brayed with laughter. "What's going on, Miss Smarty Brain, is that we're here to get you," he told her. "And not, like, get you a cold drink. I mean, like, get you and take you to your doom and stuff!"
"Booga booga!" Brittany said, flopping her free hand in the air and drooling on herself.
Daria stared at them, aghast. "You can't be serious."
"Oh, I'm deadly serious!" Kevin said with a smirk and a wink. "Get it? 'Deadly' serious? Because I'm gonna kill ya!"
At first, Daria didn't realize that Burnout had been the one who had spoken. Though the high, raspy voice had indeed been hers, it had lacked any hint of the absolute confidence she had previously exuded from every pore. But whatever uncertainty she might have felt didn't translate into her actions. She rushed forward and buried the butt of her heavy duty flashlight in Brittany's exposed brain, sending the bubbly cheerleader instantly to the ground. Without missing a beat, she swung her left leg up into the air, clipping Kevin across the bottom of the chin with her heel and sending him reeling.
Quickly following up her advantage, she swung her flashlight again, shattering it across the side of Kevin's skull. She let go of the remains, letting them fly off into space, then pulled a backswing that slammed the back of her fist against the other side of his head.
He took a few steps back and looked like he was about to say something cheerfully stupid when Burnout grasped her staff in both hands and shoved the sharp end directly into his one good eye.
Kevin screamed like a girl as the mop handle squelched in his eye socket. He grabbed the staff and pushed it away as he pulled his head back. It came out with an audible pop. Lifting his hands to his face, he rubbed furiously at the one socket he still had and the space where the other had been chewed away.
"Aw, man!" he whined. "And I thought my depth perception was shot before!"
"Kevvie boo-boo!" Brittany screeched as she launched herself at Burnout on wobbly legs.
Daria had heard stories of Brittany's prowess on the battlefield before, but if there had been any truth to the rumors, it had all been wiped away by her impromptu head surgery. Burnout casually pointed her staff behind her, and Brittany ran brain-first into it. Twisting the staff away, Burnout ripped the pink-grey organ out of its setting and catapulted it across the gym. Brittany flopped to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut.
The eyeless football player was still stumbling around, trying to locate her by sound, but Burnout paid him no attention. Two more figures had entered the gym by means that Daria could not immediately identify. It had been as if Jack and Scarlett had appeared out of thin air. Which, Daria mused, wasn't too unusual under the circumstances.
Burnout swept her leg out low, sideswiping Jack at the ankles as he approached and sending him tumbling. Sand poured out of him when he hit the ground, out of his clothes, out of his ears, out of his mouth. Even from his eyes, it appeared, as twin rivulets of the grainy material fell from behind his dark sunglasses.
Scarlett fell to a double tap of the staff's blunt end to her claw-marked forehead. Burnout moved in, pressing her foot down on the other girl's neck before flipping the staff around and plunging it into Scarlett's heart. The goth girl hissed and spat, then fell limp.
Jack was just getting to his feet as two more mutilated students joined the fray. Twirling her stick around herself like a martial arts master, Burnout was able to keep them at bay and even get a few good tags in, but it was clear that she was close to being outnumbered. Daria could see raw, naked fear on Burnout's face, twisting her features as she worked to stay one step ahead of her opponents.
Sudden realization came to Daria in a flash of insight. The visions everyone had seen at the beginning of the whole ordeal had started coming true. At first, she had thought it had just been an external factor. She had seen nothingness and then there had actually been nothingness outside one of the doors. Jack had seen sand, and a ton of sand had blocked the second exit.
But the truth was that the hallucinations had been visions of what was going to happen to each student. Some had seen the deaths of others, like Angel seeing the spiders that killed Jenna. But most had apparently foreseen their own deaths. Jack's sand was now pouring out of him like he was a busted hourglass. Jane had seen a bleeding DeMartino statue, and that very teacher had spewed toxic acid out of his eye and all over her.
And Burnout had been the girl writhing on the floor, holding her arms in front of her as if warding away blows.
She's about to die, Daria thought with chilling clarity. And she knows it. She already figured it out, but she's fighting anyway to save me.
She set Jane down gently, giving her one last touch on the cheek, then stood up and turned to the ongoing battle. "Burnout!" she yelled, waving her hand and motioning toward the closest set of doors. "Come on!"
The blonde girl glanced in her direction, then shook her head violently. "You go!" she yelled back. "I'll hold them off!"
"Dammit, I'm sorry I blamed you!" Daria screamed, desperation filling her voice. "It wasn't your fault! I never should have said it was! Now get out of there!"
Two of the torn up teens grabbed opposite ends of Burnout's staff, but she twisted around, throwing them back into the others and giving her a few seconds of breathing space. She reached into her jacket pocket, pulled something out, and tossed it at Daria, who caught it instinctively.
"Now go!" Burnout yelled, then turned back to her foes.
But instead of pressing in on her, they had stayed fanned out. Another figure stepped in from the darkness, every move like that of a jungle cat in its own territory, smooth and confident. Jodie Landon had somehow made her way out of her ice prison, but she was still covered with a rime of blue-white frost. Her lips were curled in a knowing smirk as she paced unhesitatingly toward the other girl.
With an animal cry of defiance, Burnout swung her staff in a high arc, but Jodie simply reached up and snatched it out of the air as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Burnout struggled briefly, trying to win her weapon back, but all she got for her efforts was a glare of contempt.
Jodie gripped the mop handle in both hands, causing the frost on her body to reach out across the surface of the wood. It crawled up the shaft, encasing it completely. Then, with a cry of triumph, Jodie twisted her hands in opposite directions and the staff burst into pieces.
Burnout fell to the floor and the assembled students descended upon her like a pack of ravenous dogs. They beat on her mercilessly, kicking and punching and biting, before ending her misery by tearing her limb from limb.
Too late to do anything and unable even if she had wanted to, Daria turned from the grisly execution and ran.
She pelted through the school without seeing her surroundings, only caring about turning the next corner, bursting through the next door, flying across the next room to get to the next exit. Everything she had was poured directly into getting as far away from where she had been as fast as she could get there.
The bag of art supplies hanging at her side slowed her down a bit and threw her off-balance, but she didn't dare dispose of it. Painting something with which to protect herself was number two on her list of things to do right after running like a madwoman for the next several hours. She knew she didn't have Jane's artistic abilities, but something as crude as a baseball bat was surely within her limited scope. If nothing else, a solid wall of color between her and the horrors that were after her couldn't hurt.
Taking a turn too sharply, she ran into a row of lockers and sank into them. It took several precious seconds for her to extricate herself from the mass of modeling clay she had plowed into, seconds she couldn't be sure she could afford. She had tried so hard to keep herself together through her ordeal, but the delay almost brought her to the absolute edge. Wails of frustration pealed out of her until she had managed to regain her footing and began running again.
No monsters jumped out at her as she ran. No scarred corpses, no unearthly beasts, no poisonous arachnids. She didn't understand why, but she also didn't care. As long as they weren't leaping out at her, they could stay right where they were as far as she was concerned.
Even in her flustered state, she began to notice that everything around her was starting to become featureless. At first she thought it was a trick of the flashlight, but even the areas she moved through that had halfway decent lighting seemed to be getting drab, as if details were slowly being wiped out by a cosmic eraser. It was almost as if the labyrinthine halls of the nightmare school had begun to tire of showing her new and different hallways and was just putting everything on repeat until it faded away under heavy use.
She kept on running, however, and eventually there was nothing around her. She had long fell into running in a straight line, never coming up against another wall, door, or turn. The maze was gone, as was everything else.
Daria was running through nothingness.
A small dot of light appeared in the distance ahead of her, and a choked cry of despair died in her throat. She knew what she was about to see. She knew what it meant. But still she ran until she entered that perfect globe of illumination and threw herself into the desk that sat right in the middle.
She tossed her bag down on the invisible floor, buried her face in her arms, and wept. It was over. She had run as far and as hard as she could, and it hadn't made any difference. All she had done was deliver herself to the fate that she had foreseen. There was no point in trying to paint anything. All that was left was to wait and see exactly how it would all go down.
Daria wearily lifted her head and turned her red eyes to the source of the noise, just beyond her left shoulder. She didn't have the energy to be surprised at seeing Shaggy standing there, staring back at her over his sunglasses.
Looking him up and down, she couldn't see any obvious wounds on him. She'd figured that he might not have any, since his had been the fourth unoccupied enclosure back in the display room. He had, however, gotten a strange looking contraption wrapped around his neck since she'd last seen him.
The collar of the machine sat an inch away from his neck all around, held in place by a series of cylinders that extended from it to - and, Daria guessed, into - his flesh. Just barely visible over his shoulder was a small box and what appeared to be a gas canister. Tubes ran from both into several spots on the outside edge of the collar.
"Like, hello, Shaggy," Daria said shakily. She had thought that she was resigned to her doom, but her attempt at humor fell flat as her nearly depleted emotional batteries surged with new life, fueled by fear. She didn't want to die, especially not at the hands of the hippie ripoff.
"Like, hello, Daria," Shaggy returned, sounding equally terrified. He straightened up and walked around to the front of the desk, her eyes tracking him the whole way. "Um, I just, like, wanna say I'm sorry, okay?"
She snorted. "Sorry for what?" she asked. "Being dead weight and then ditching us?"
"Yah, that stuff," he said, rubbing the back of his head self-consciously. "I wig out like that sometimes, but I like to try and be helpful when I can. Y'know, in, like, small ways and stuff. I kinda botched it up. I'm always doing that. I try to keep folks from bad situations, but I end up making 'em stay away from the good ones, too. And sometimes, when I'm really needed, I'm, like, not even there, man! And I wasn't there to help you guys out.
"But what I'm really sorry for," he said, his face contorting in horror, "is for what's gonna happen next."
The canister on his back let out a light chuff as the box next to it began chugging like a tiny power generator. The cylinders attached to inside of the collar started spinning, whirring rapidly as a black liquid visibly spread through the veins and arteries in Shaggy's neck.
He gripped the metal circle and pulled, his knuckles turning white from the strain, but to no avail. His eyes rolled back into his skull and his breath came in ragged gasps until finally his head split in two.
No, that's not right, Daria thought as she took a second look. It hadn't actually split, it had undergone a kind of binary fission, like a bacterium. Where Shaggy had had one head, he now had two, identical right down to the matching shades. His entire body vibrated rapidly, thrumming in the air in time with the chugs of the machine's power source. With a violent jerk, the split cracked down further, leaving two Shaggys sharing the same waist and legs.
With one last furious heave, the Shaggys fell apart from each other, both fully formed and identical in every way. They were wearing all the same clothes, and both had their own machines, each continuing to furiously pump them full of brackish chemicals. The process cycled through again and again, growing new Shaggys at a geometric rate. Every time a new set would pop out, Daria felt her fear growing right along with them until it started crowding out everything else.
She tried to get out of her chair and run from the army of clones, but her legs were paralyzed with the panic that was spreading through her like a voracious tumor. She hit the ground hard and cried out as her glasses slipped off of her face. The lenses smashed against the clear nothingness of the floor. She felt a flash of indignation that the supposedly shatter-proof material had proven wholly inadequate, but the feeling was quickly subsumed by overwhelming fright.
More Shaggys, more fear. Soon, they surrounded her entirely, cutting her off from an escape she hadn't been able to manage crawling toward anyway. Bereft of her glasses, all she could see was their hazy outlines, blobs of green shirt, brown slacks, and pasty skin stretching off into the distance.
But being unable to make them out clearly didn't lessen her distress. Her heart thumped madly, adrenaline pouring through her circulatory system at an impossible rate. She curled into a ball, covering her head with her arms and pressing her face into her knees, but she knew they were there. She could hear their vibration over her own hyperventilation, the sound coming at her from every direction like whispers in the dark.
Even more, she could feel them. She could sense every single shake of their bodies deep in her bones, feel every snap as they broke apart from each other.
She started to grey out. Her mind bent under the weight of the fear, and she started to laugh and cry at the same time. Bizarre thoughts began to cross through her head at random, not even making sense on a dreaming level. She heard screaming, just barely recognized it as her own, but couldn't stop.
I wish he'd just kill me and be done with it, came her last coherent thought before she let go to plunge deeply into the dark well of madness.
Wait . . .
. . . what?
Daria sat up. Terror still coursed through her like a freight train, but something had caught her attention. Something had brought her back from the brink. Something important. She couldn't remember at first, and it almost sent her back over the edge, but suddenly her last thought came screaming back, and she wondered . . .
She felt herself calming down slowly as she tried to reason the puzzle out. Gradually she found the strength to unclench her muscles and pull herself to a standing position. She looked out at the sea of Shaggys surrounding her and tried to work up some saliva so she could talk.
"Why . . . haven't . . . you . . . killed . . . me?" she asked, each word feeling like razors across the sandpaper that was her throat.
All of the Shaggys stopped vibrating as one. They stood, silently staring at her with expressionless faces.
"Why haven't you killed me?!" she asked again, stronger this time. "Why haven't you hit me or stabbed me or shot me or something?! DeMartino burnt Jane with acid! The other students were frozen, burned, bitten, impaled, drowned, poisoned . . . and they didn't hesitate to tear Burnout to pieces afterward! Now here we are, millions of you and only one of me! What's stopping you?!"
She snarled at them, but there was no response. "Is it because you can't?" she demanded. "And why is that? Jane was able to hurt me when she put her piercings in my ear! But then, she wasn't being controlled, was she? Jodie and the rest, they were acting like they were taking orders from someone else . . . DeMartino had been injected with toxins until he became a bomb . . . and you've got that thing around your neck! And not one of you has done so much as tug on my hair!
"So is that it? Whoever's pulling your strings can hurt the others, but they can't touch me, right? Look!" She held up her arms. "Parts of my jacket sleeves melted away when I wrapped my arms around Jane, but the acid never got through to my arms, and my hands are completely fine even though they were uncovered!
"This whole time, the others had been protecting me when I should have been the one protecting them!" she cried out with a nasty laugh. "You can't touch me! So screw you! I am not afraid of you!"
Daria's scream broke through the ranks of the duplicates, shattering them like glass as it traveled away from her like a circular shockwave. The Shaggys in the back remained motionless, not a single one trying to avoid their destruction. Daria watched them all fly away into the nothingness until just one Shaggy remained.
He tried to smile at her, but his mouth turned downward in sudden pain. His hands slowly moved up, muscles trembling as he strained to keep control, until he could grab hold of his sunglasses. With a herculean effort, he removed the shades, stepped forward, and set them on the desk.
He stepped back, seemingly at peace. He nodded at her and said, "Like, good job, man," just before the ring around his neck snapped apart, tearing his throat open and slinging out a spray of blood. His body fell to the ground and disappeared with the sound of shattering glass.
After what seemed like an eternity, Daria heaved a deep, sorrowful sigh and picked up the glasses. She remembered that Shaggy had said they were prescription, and she hoped that they were close enough to her own to allow her to function. The nightmare world still had her in its grip, and she knew she was going to need to be able to see if she was ever going to have a chance in escaping it. She slid the lenses over her eyes and gasped.
Desk, bag, and her own hands jumped into perfect clarity, and then beyond. She looked around in wonder, gaping at everything that had suddenly become so painfully clear. Not just the physical objects themselves, but the concepts governing them, their connections with each other, and their very nature in that world.
It was as if her eyes had been removed and knowledge had been allowed to pour directly into her brain. It was like waking up for the very first time and finally seeing true reality. She had to prop herself up against the desk as her knees threatened to buckle under the weight of the revelation.
Once she'd recovered from the shock, the stepped back mentally and tried to get a look at the big picture. Huge pieces of the puzzle were still frustratingly blank, but more than enough of the framework had come together for her to begin devising a plan of action.
Daria slung the art bag over her shoulder, then pulled the headband flashlight from her jacket pocket and slipped it on. She dug out a cigarette from Mr. DeMartino's pack, lit it with Burnout's Zippo, and took a deep drag. It felt less like smoke filling her lungs and more like a fire lighting its way through her entire body. A wild grin broke out across her face as she adjusted Shaggy's sunglasses and tugged lightly at one of Jane's earrings.
When she felt like she was almost ready to explode with the electricity thundering across every nerve in her body, she pulled a brush from her bag and got to work.
"Nicely done. I especially like-"
Daria sternly held up an index finger, motioning him to silence. With slow strokes applied with deliberate care, she finished up the last corner before standing back to appraise her work. Under her hard gaze, the paint quickly dried and took on the full texture of a Formica-covered lunch table, complete with uncomfortable bench seats.
Dumping her paintbrush into a small tub of water, Daria turned to face the man behind her. Her brow was creased by an irritated scowl at being interrupted. "Now, what were you saying?" she asked grumpily.
"I was just complimenting your handiwork," Mack said with an ingratiating smile. "I can see a few mistakes here and there, but otherwise this is exactly your memory of what the Lawndale High cafeteria looks like. Bit dark, though."
Daria shrugged. "I was running out of white, so I had to mix it with black to make the lights grey," she explained. "It matches the rest of the school, anyway. Quinn would be proud to know I decided not to let it clash. So," she said, abruptly changing the subject, "you're not Mack."
The tall football player raised an eyebrow. "Aren't I?"
"No, you aren't," she returned, crossing her arms. "And you're not my Mack, either, so don't even try to pretend. Turn around."
Mack sighed and shook his head ruefully. "Trust is so hard to come by in this day and age," he said, then dutifully turned a full circle. His back was entirely hollowed out between his shoulders from his waist up to the top of his head. Only his eyes and just enough of his mouth had been left intact to keep up the illusion of completeness when viewed from the front.
"What are you?" Daria demanded to know when he'd finished. "I've got just about everything else figured out, but I'm still not sure exactly what you are."
"What do you think I am?" Mack asked gamely.
"You might be a psychic alien. Or a creature trying to make contact from some other universe. Or a mythological monster of some kind, able to invade people's nightmares. Or you could just be a split personality, vying for dominance. Or maybe you're not any of those things," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "Whatever you are, you're an invader and unwanted here."
He laughed and clapped his hands together. "You really sound like you know it all," he said. "But what if I told you that I was here first and that you are the invader?"
"Then I'd call you a filthy liar," Daria sneered. "I told you not to try and pretend with me. This is my mind we're in. No one else's. Now, what are you?"
"I have many names," he said after a pause. "I am the Beast. I am the Wraith. I am he who travels through the Darkness to devour entire universes. I am Dea-"
"No," Daria said, cutting him off. "Stop that. I'm not going to listen to B-movie bullshit."
Mack shrugged apologetically. "I'm afraid that's all I can give you," he said. "Surely you've read enough fairy tales to know that knowing the true nature of a thing gives you power over it. It wouldn't be to my advantage to completely reveal myself."
Daria's frown deepened, but she simply said, "Fine. Fair enough. So forget what you are. Let's concentrate on what you're doing here, which seems to be tearing my mind apart bit by bit."
"So, just how did you figure out we were inside your mind, anyway?" Mack asked suddenly.
"Don't change the subject."
"Aw, come on," Mack pouted. "I'm curious. You're only the third one to ever figure it out. Well, before I'd already won, anyway."
Smoke flared out of Daria's nostrils, though she hadn't lit another cigarette past the first one hours before. "It was a lot of little things," she said. "But the biggest tipoff was Jane. She calls me odd stuff every once in a while, but calling me 'girly' and 'sweetie pie' without irony . . . that's just off. She also didn't seem to know Shaggy and Burnout's names. I don't care how much of an outcast you are, you're going to have at least passing familiarity with people you've been going to school with for almost twelve years. She was only hesitant about their names because I'm hesitant about their names.
"But all of it I could have ignored as being stress from our situation if it weren't for the fact that I outran her. After the spider attack, I went running after Shaggy while she was completely out of breath. The two of us walk all over Lawndale, but Jane runs. For fun. I couldn't outrun her in my wildest drea-
"Well, you know what I mean," she said with a slight shake of her head. "It wasn't until just recently that I fully realized she wasn't actually Jane, but the seed of doubt was there all along. Everybody else I wouldn't have known any different, but her behavior was just wrong enough to notice."
"Well, if she wasn't Jane," Mack asked, "who was she?"
"You know as well as I do that she was a piece of me, just like everybody else in the classroom," said Daria, her voice harsh with impatience. "Specifically, she was my creativity. And probably my sense of humor as well, since she kept cracking jokes, even when things were getting lethal."
"Oh, I was much more than that," Mack said, morphing into Jane halfway through the sentence.
Even with the confidence that she had built up since beating the Shaggy clones, Daria had to bite down on her tongue to keep from gasping in shock. Jane stood before her, an impossibly wide grin splitting the right side of her face. Her skin was a pasty grey, and the left side of her skull had been completely melted away by the acid, leaving it covered with a green rot. Otherworldly insects crawled all over her, some of them ducking into the recesses of her head and coming out elsewhere, too-long feelers twitching in the air.
"I was the best part of you, remember?" Jane said nastily. "So sad when I died. Soooooo sad."
Daria's resolve snapped back into place at the tone of the other girl's voice. "Nice try," she said. "But you weren't Mack before, and you're not Jane now. You're not even the part of me that was taking Jane's form. None of you are what you were," she added, looking around at the dead students that had stepped out of the shadows to encircle her. "You're all just puppets of the thing that's trying to get me. You can't hurt me. All you can do is try to scare me.
"And I figured that out, too, by the way," she said with a vicious grin. "You could hurt all the rest because they were part of my subconscious. They were invested in thinking all of this was real. If you pricked them, they had to believe that they would bleed. But I'm different from the rest. I don't think I'm actually Daria . . . I'm just a part, her intelligence. But I think I'm also her conscious mind. I'm her free will."
Jane bared her remaining teeth at Daria. "You think pretty highly of yourself, amiga," she growled.
"I'm right, aren't I?" Daria said. "You can't trick me like you did the others. You can't hurt me because I have to choose to believe you can. So instead, you turned me against myself. You shaped my mind into a giant haunted house, and when that didn't break me, you sent in the part of me that represented my fear and multiplied him over and over again. That's why you left Shaggy alive, because if you'd killed him, he wouldn't have been able to inspire fear in me anymore."
"Alright, curiosity satisfied," Jane said angrily. She shifted down into an animal-like fighting stance, her fingers curled like claws. "I think it's time we-"
"I. AM. TALKING!" bellowed Daria, causing the encroaching circle of teens to jump back. She exhaled thick, heavy smoke and fixed Jane with a steely eye. "Bit by bit, you've carved by subconscious to pieces. You tried to remove every aspect of who and what I am that you could so I would be an easier target. But some of those pieces were able to give me something of themselves so I could keep the connection going.
"A healthy dose of paranoia," she said, pointing at the sunglasses perched on her nose. "Just enough to keep me alert and let me see all the little connections that I would have missed otherwise. Half a pack of anger and guilt, giving me the drive I need to fight back. Three rings full of creativity to construct a cafeteria including a stove with a gas leak. And last, but not least . . . "
Daria held up a Zippo lighter engraved with flames surrounding the words "SAVE YOURSELF".
"The resourcefulness to set all of this up and the will to do what needs to be done."
She flipped the top off the Zippo and put her thumb on the wheel.
"Wait!" Jane cried out, suddenly nervous. She licked her torn lips with obvious fear. "Think about what you're doing! You don't have to do this! We can . . . we can cut a deal! I can give you everything you've ever wanted!"
Daria's thumb twitched. She didn't press down, but she didn't put it away, either. "And what would that be?" she asked stonily.
"To belong," Jane wheedled. "That's all you ever wanted, right? To have a place where you felt you fit in. I can give that to you. All you have to do is let me have your body, and I'll let you stay in here. You've seen that I can reshape things . . . I can build you a world where everyone is more like you! I can build you a world where you can be happy!"
"Happy," Daria said speculatively, then laughed bitterly. "First off, I know you're just stalling so you can find the leak and plug it. I can feel you searching for it. My mind, remember? And second, if you really knew even the first thing about the girl who's form you've stolen, you'd know that it's because of her that I do belong in the real world." Her face twisted with hate and contempt. "But you don't."
The scrape of metal against flint was the last thing heard before Daria's mind was inundated with pain and flames.
The explosion raged around Daria, tearing at every fiber of her being. Super-intense light pierced her eyelids, but when she opened them, she was not completely blinded. Outlines stood out starkly amidst the fire, though they wavered in the heat and were gradually obliterated as the objects they defined were torn asunder and consumed by the greedy flames.
She stood her ground, though she felt the force of the blast trying to tear her in every direction at once. Her clothes smoldered, her skin peeled and cracked, but she had to stay. For just a little longer, she had to stay. She squinted against the glare of the explosion, seeking out her target.
The majority of the creature's puppets had been easily dispatched. She could see their bones dancing about in a futile attempt to escape just before they disintegrated into ash.
Jane was still mostly in one piece, but her body was slowly twisting as she screamed. Expending an insane amount of effort, she was able to focus her one eye on Daria and take a step in her direction. Then another, and another, each rise and fall of her feet a testament of the inhuman will pushing her on. Her hair and clothing had completely disappeared, her skin boiled, and marrow was starting to seep from her cracked, exposed bones to sublimate in the air.
Daria stood her ground, refusing to be rattled. She was just barely able to keep herself together, but she stared defiantly, almost daring the creature to reach her.
It couldn't. It fell just short, toppling forward and dissipating completely before it hit the floor.
Stretching out with her senses, Daria searched every inch of the space around her for any sign of the invader. She felt nothing. She was clean of any sign of infection.
But she knew it wasn't enough. There was the possibility that it could come back, the possibility that she might have missed some tiny bit of it hidden away in some dark corner. Whatever that thing had been, she knew it had been evil. She couldn't allow it a second chance at taking her over. She had to burn it all.
She let down her defenses. Flames tore at her molecules, rendering them into dust, burning away the very last part of the mind that had been Daria Morgendorffer. The explosion picked her up and tossed her into the air, spinning like a top.
A sudden impact jarred her. She rolled along the top of a hard surface, then flew out into space and dropped a few more feet before crashing down again. Her ears stung painfully from the volume of her own screams as she writhed around, beating at herself with her hands to put out the flames. When she realized that there were no flames to douse, she jumped to her feet and goggled madly at her surroundings while trying to catch her breath.
She was still in the cafeteria. There was no fire, no explosion, no dead students, nothing. It was just a cafeteria, bathed in mid-afternoon light streaming in through the windows.
Looking down at herself, she saw that she was wearing her normal clothes, all of which were completely intact. The only tears and holes in her jacket were the ones she had long become accustomed to through years of wear. There were no rings in her ear, and as she continued peering around, she came to the realization that she was once again wearing her own glasses.
A door slammed open behind her, and she spun about to see a startled janitor rush inside. He skidded to a halt when he noticed her and yelled, "Are you okay?! Was that you screaming?! What's going on?!"
For several long seconds, Daria couldn't do anything but stare at him, bewildered. "Uh," she said intelligently, "sorry?" She cleared her throat and shook her head to clear it. "Sorry," she started again. "I thought I saw a rat. Is . . . school over?"
The janitor looked at her oddly, but relaxed when he saw there was no immediate emergency. "Um, yah," he said. "About an hour ago. Did you miss your ride?"
"I walk," she told him. "I was waiting for my friend so we could walk together, but I guess I should go ahead and get out of here, huh?"
"Okay," he said, eyeing her suspiciously. "Just make sure the door shuts right when you go out. Don't need any more kids getting in and wandering around unsupervised . . . "
He walked back into the hallway, muttering under his breath as Daria dashed for the nearest exit. She hit the double doors at a run and nearly tumbled over as she jumped down the steps leading to the sidewalk. Once there, she turned her face up into the sunlight, heaved in a double lungful of fresh air, and expelled it as a laugh of pure freedom.
"Daria?!" Jane exclaimed after she opened the door. "Where the hell have you be-"
The embrace took her completely by surprise. That it was coming from Daria and seemed to be completely genuine prolonged the surprise and coupled it with total confusion. Not knowing what else to do, Jane reached up to pat her friend stiffly on the back.
"Uh, there there?" she said uncertainly.
"Sorry," Daria laughed lightly as she let the other girl go.
Jane shrugged it off. "S'cool," she said, "but let's try not to make it a habit, okay? So come on, get in here and tell me what's going on! Your mom said you left the house for school this morning, but then you never showed up, and now here you are getting all touchy-feely! Did I miss something?"
As she stepped inside, Daria said, "Well, it's kind of a long story . . . "
The early morning crowd of students was exactly as Daria remembered it as she and Jane made their way down the hall. She glanced around surreptitiously, trying not to look like she was taking any more interest than usual. Everything looked normal. The walls, the people, the lights. Nothing seemed amiss, and she reveled in the normality of it all.
"So, no spiders, murderous clowns, or creepy clones, right?" Jane asked.
"You don't think it was real," Daria said, but without malice.
"Hey, I didn't say that!" Jane held her hands up in mock surrender. "I'm just saying, if you are going nuts, you'll tell me first, right?"
Daria gave her best Mona Lisa smile and said, "Sure. I'll tell you with an icepick."
"You think you're sooooo funny, but you're not."
The two girls chuckled, then walked in silence for a few moments. Just as they were about to separate to go to their homerooms, Daria reached out and snagged Jane's overshirt. The taller girl looked around in surprise, then turned her head to where Daria was pointing.
Shaggy, Jennifer, and Dawn were all standing in a circle near a row of lockers. Jane was about to comment when Daria drifted toward the trio. After giving a long-suffering sigh, she decided to follow. Upon reaching her destination, Daria cleared her throat and called out, "Hey, Burnout."
The lean blonde girl turned around in surprise. "Yah?" she said in a high, raspy voice.
"I found a lighter outside," Daria said. "Did you happen to drop yours?"
Surprise turned to concern as Jennifer started sorting through her jacket pockets. With a look of relief, she held up a black Zippo lighter that had been engraved with flames and the words "POISON GODDESS".
"Sorry to bother you," Daria said with a smile. "Must belong to somebody else."
As she and Jane turned to leave, she could hear Shaggy quietly say, "Like, what was that all about, man?" She laughed silently to herself at the familiar tone.
"What was that all about?" Jane asked once they'd gotten a fair distance away. "And how did you know her nickname? I don't think anybody's called her that since eighth grade!"
In response, Daria reached into her own jacket pocket. She pulled out a small item and pressed it into Jane's hand. The artist flipped the black Zippo over to see that it had the exact same flames on it as Jennifer's, but the words were replaced with "SAVE YOURSELF".
Jane was saying something else, something high-pitched and incredulous, but Daria just stood in the middle of the hallway and stared out at nothing as a feeling of peace fell over her. Half-heard conversations fluttered back and forth in the air, the words running together like paint being mixed on a palette.
She closed her eyes and listened to the whispers.
Roland 'Jim' Lowery
February 3, 2010