Disclaimer: see chapter 1

A/N: Well, I finally found the time to write this weekend (thank goodness for President's Day!). So, here we have it! Part 4. I hope that this chapter finds you all well and good. I hope to have the next chapter up next Sunday or Monday, and you all have my permission to pester me if I go over that time limit, if you so desire. Thankfully, I have a good chunk of backstory/plot written down and saved, so I have at least some substantial backbone for the story (which also hopefully means I'll suffer from less writer's block). I hope you all read, review, but most of all, please enjoy.

Here's the key to understanding my italics usage. (Please note that a new section has been added)

italics (just regular italics) - memories/flashbacks
"italics" (italics with quotation marks around them) - thoughts
/italics/ (italics with backwards slashes at the beginning and end of the passage) - seeing through someone else's eyes

italics (italics underlined) - telepathic communication/talking telepathically

Dedication: Dedicated to Yuu-chi. This is like the Christmas that keeps on giving! Merry Christmas (in February!)

Part 4: Burning Bright

7:13pm; April 14th

Aidden? The voice in his head was unexpected, and it took all of his willpower to keep himself from jumping as his name echoed through the mental communication. Even so, his fingers stilled for half a second, pausing in their incessant tapping on the arm of the armchair. He could only hope that none of his other companions noticed this irregularity.

Trevvor? The latecomer – Aidden – replied, just as cautiously and tenuously as the other had spoken his name. What is wrong? You know how dangerous it is to communicate…if the Others…

Trevvor cut him off. I know, I know. I'll make it quick… The lad trailed off, as if unsure of how to proceed, afraid of the effect his next words would have. You said that she was The One, the DragonTamer Trevvor finally stated, his mental tone sounding strained and hollow, as if he was attempting to cover up his emotions as he would if was he using his audible voice. Beneath the shadow of his hood, Aidden's mouth twitched into something that resembled a grin of sorts – that was one thing about telepathic communication: no matter how hard you tried, you could never truly lie – your mind knew the truth, and as such, it would come across the mental link.

She is, Aidden assured the younger lad. I promise you.

But she's already fallen! Trevvor exclaimed, the fear evident in his mental 'voice', the boy not even trying to hide his emotion any longer. How can you believe she will be our savior if she isn't even strong enough to get through the first level?

Peace, Trevvor, Aidden soothed, worried that the boy's mental distress would leak into his physical demeanor. And that could easily prove to be disastrous. Trevvor didn't seem to be listening, however, and Aidden sensed a growing unease. Get a rein on your emotions, or you will have us found out! Aidden snapped as he felt the ire and tension mount, bordering on panic. Slowly at first, he felt the boy begin to calm himself.

She is already so weak, Trevvor continued, much more in control of himself. And she already has to be healed. How can you believe she'll be able to make it out alive, let alone be strong enough to help us when the time comes?

About him, Aidden could sense a consciousness beginning to stir, as if feeling something slightly amiss in the air. A cautiously probing tendril of thought was thrown throughout the room, as if seeking and searching for something. Realizing that he only had a few seconds remaining, Aidden sent one last, parting thought to the lad.

Because she is not alone.

With that, Aidden severed the connection, withdrawing behind the walls of his own mind. It felt as if he were stepping inside a steel room and was coming inside out of a windy, blustery day. He locked the barriers around his mind just as a crushing force of searching thought slammed against his mind. It slipped off of his mind's guards like water breaking over a stone, rolling off of the barriers and unable to penetrate his thoughts. After a second, the entity withdrew, moving on.

Aidden breathed an inaudible sigh of relief, leaning back in the overstuffed armchair. He clenched his fingers into a tight fist, and withdrew them from the armrest, depositing it in his lap. He looked at his interlocked fingers for a moment, suppressing any thought that impeded with his concentration. He was waiting and listening, praying that Trevvor had also sensed the oncoming, probing tendril of thought, and had had the time to erect the proper walls.

When a good five minutes had passed, and there was no sound or disruption of the low buzz of conversation, Aidden allowed himself a short moment of relaxation. He closed his eyes, allowing his mind to rest. He could only pray that it would all be over soon.

Someone in the room rose, the woman shifting her weight around as she stretched. Aidden cracked open his eyes and took a glance to his left. It was the woman dressed in cargo pants and cargo boots, with the fedora perched jauntily on top of her short cropped, black hair. A strange feeling seemed to emanate from the woman – an odd feeling that made him watch her carefully as she made her way toward the food still lavishly spread across the table. His eyes narrowed as he watched her walk, her movements smooth and graceful, looking as if she were a lioness on the hunt. For a split second, she seemed to catch his eye, her own, chilling blue gaze locking with his own olive green. The next second, the connection had broken, and she was leaning over to pick up a handful of pistachios.

Aidden fully expected the woman to retreat back to her own seat once she had snatched whatever snack she was searching for. And so, it was to his great surprise, when she instead stepped around the table and began to walk toward him, her head down as she pushed her way through the small throng of people's legs.

Without so much as a please, she sat down atop the left arm of Aidden's chair, popping a few pistachios into her mouth. She chewed silently for a few seconds, and swallowed. And then she spoke.

"Interesting Game, isn't it?" she asked amiably. Aidden didn't respond. "I mean, what with that new creature and all. I haven't seen it yet." She paused, as if waiting for some sort of reaction from the man sitting beneath her. When he said nothing – merely cocked his head as if peering at her from beneath the overshadowing hood he had worn since entering – she continued on nonplussed. "In fact," she said with gusto, as if this were the whole reason she'd come over to him in the first place, "if I didn't know better, I'd say that that last, Dragonish thing wasn't even supposed to be there at all. Not yet."

Aidden's gaze sharpened as the woman spoke the last two words. They were clipped and cold, as if she were driving a nail through a glass window.

"Nice meeting you," she said, the friendly, yet slightly condescending tone returning to her voice as she stood, tipping her hat toward him. She turned and stalked her way back toward her own seat, lifting her hand to deposit a few more nuts into her mouth.

Perhaps she wasn't as old as he had previously thought, Aidden mused, watching her sit back down. After seeing her up close, she looked to be a good ten years younger than he had previously thought. The way she held herself, though, spoke of a great deal of experience in the ways of life.

Aidden tapped his forefinger and his thumb together a few times, his thoughts turning to what the woman had just told him. Did they have some hidden meaning? "Or perhaps it wasn't such a hidden meaning after all," he realized. Aidden ground his teeth. This was all getting to be too complicated. If things kept progressing as they had been, soon he wouldn't know what to do next – he'd be lost in trying to figure out just how to keep his own head above the rising waters, let alone helping someone else do the same.

A sudden hiss and movement by Aidden's foot brought his attention to the floor. The brown serpentine creature by his foot had suddenly uncoiled, writhing slightly amongst the fibers of the carpet. Without warning, it shot upward, as if seeking to wrap itself around Aidden's leg, but then at the last second it contracted, coiling itself into a tight ball once more. It hissed agitatedly again, then fell silent, even as it continued to quiver.

Confused, and a little concerned, Aidden glanced around the room, seeking out the other serpent creatures. The one curled against the footstool by the old woman was raising and lowering its head animatedly, as if at a loss as to what it should do. The one beside the old man in the wooden chair was stretched taught, as if it were yearning toward something unattainable.

For a split second, Aidden's eyes flickered to the man sitting regally on the throne. What he saw there momentarily distracted him from all else happening in the room. The man was clenching the ornately carved arms of the throne, his knuckles white. He was tense, a vein throbbing in his forehead. His face was slightly flushed, and his eyes were bright with an almost manic glint. There was definitely something going on that he was not happy with.

Aidden carefully lowered a few of the barriers, opening his mind to the room around him. Only the strongest thoughts would pierce the guards that he still had erected around his own mind, but if the man was as angry as Aidden presumed, his thoughts would be plenty clear to hear to anyone listening.

"This can't be! She can't be awake yet!" the man thought frantically. "No one has ever awoken within four hours from the time that they were hit by the sonic blast. And she's done it in two! This is impossible…" As the thought trailed off, Aidden caught the vague impression of sudden uncertainty emanating from the man. "Perhaps we were wrong to do this. Perhaps the Dragons were right…" The thoughts cut off abruptly, as if the man suddenly realized what he was thinking. All was silent for a moment as the man slowly gained control over his emotions once again. Aidden brought up his barriers again, taking refuge behind their strength.

"I hope Trevvor could sense his thoughts as well," Aidden mused. "Perhaps it would allay some of his fears concerning her. And I am glad to know that she is setting the Others on edge."

As if the man could sense Aidden's gaze, he looked up abruptly, his gaze sweeping around the room. He released a deep breath, and sat back into the cushions and relaxed visibly, although Aidden could still sense the man's anxiety from the way his hands did not loosen their grip. A smile was forced onto the man's face, although it looked painful, as if he were swallowing scorpions.

"Please, take your seats. It seems as if our player has awakened from her healing sleep. She will be slightly disoriented at first, especially with her premature awakening, but it will pass momentarily. Shall we?"

It was time for the next stage of the plan to begin.

-sSs-

It felt as if she were floating. On what, she wasn't sure…if it was anything at all. All she could see around her was white, pure, solid, unending white. It hurt.

She tried to close her eyes, to block out the never ending field of blinding snow, but she couldn't. She couldn't move, no matter how hard she tried. It was as if her brain would send all the correct signals, ordering her limbs to contract, her eyes to blink, her mouth to open, and yet they were locked in some sort of frozen animation.

She tried to scream. She tried to cry. But she couldn't. Just as she was unable to move, she couldn't make a sound. Everything was silent.

Everything was silent. It took her a few agonizingly eternal seconds to realize just why she felt so empty, so cold, so lifeless. Terror washed through her, and yet it brought nothing but cold.

She couldn't hear her heart beat.

She fought, writhing and twisting to escape, to jumpstart her heart into pumping once again. She screamed, hoping to somehow force her lungs to start to inhale and exhale. And yet, even as she fought, she could feel herself lying perfectly still on a bed of emptiness.

The whiteness, it never ended. It held her, mocked her, taunted her. Slowly, with ever growing fear, she began to understand. White was the color of insanity. It held her inert because she was dead. And she could see nothing but bleached, unwavering white, because that was who she was – nothing, and no one. She could not remember who she was. Not her name, not even a simple fragment of a memory.

"Helen." The voice was soft and gentle, and yet coaxing, pleading. Somehow, it seemed almost familiar. "Helen, my love." A shadow moved in her peripheral vision, seemingly walking out of the white void and simply…appearing. She latched onto the dark form, her desperate mind seeking something other than the unbreaking, unfailing white.

Slowly, the shadow took form. It was a man, tall, and yet somehow shadowed so that she couldn't quite make out his features. As he neared, though, she felt as if a peace long denied her washed through her, filling her with a warmth that had been wrenched from her being.

"Helen." That was her name, she realized. Helen. Helen Magnus. Something brushed against her bare shoulder, and she shivered, even as she remained still.

The figure knelt beside her, and she felt something caress her cheek. She tried to turn her head into the warmth of the fingers, but once again, she found herself unable to. For a split second, she felt hot tears of pain and frustration drip down her cheeks, but then they evaporated, leaving only chilled skin behind. Warm, loving fingertips traced the imaginary tear tracks down her cheeks, smoothing them away.

"Helen, my love, do you trust me?"

"Yes," she wanted to sob, to scream. "Please, just help me!"

"Then you have to wake up. I'm with you Helen. I will be, until the very end."

The man leaned down, and kissed her.

"Wake up, Helen…" the words echoed through her mind as a dying whisper as the shadowy form of the man blurred, then disappeared.

"Wait!" she tried to call out, her heart begging her to stop him before he disappeared. For a second, it was as if he turned to glance back. A small smile seemed to light up his face. And then he was gone.

Fire burned through her, warming her. With a pain intense enough to rip her soul from her body, she felt life pouring back into her body. Like the crashing of waves pounding against a cliff, sound suddenly rushed in on her, battering her – the pounding of her heart, the soft 'hush' of air as her lungs inhaled and exhaled, the sound of her own voice, screaming.

The white surrounding her splintered as she jerked, kicking and clawing at the prison holding her. It felt like glass shattering, cascading around her in painful shards. She felt as if something were tearing through her skin and down into her core.

The fire receded from her body, until it was centered in three places: her hands, her chest, and her left leg just above the knee. She curled in on herself, trying to somehow alleviate the fire burning within her.

Slowly, as if one by one each burning ember was being extinguished, the pain died away, leaving only a cold, gray landscape behind. Even as she lay there, the gray began to fade to be replaced with a pearlescent yellow light that gleamed through pale twilight. The sounds of water dripping, and air whispering over stone caressed her ears, and she could almost taste the sharp, pungent smell of mold and mildew.

She uncurled herself from the fetal position, and with agonizing slowness, she took a deep breath.

With that, she woke up.

Helen Magnus sat bolt upright, her entire body quivering like a coiled spring. For a full minute, all she could do was sit stock still in the sand, shaking as her body fought to cope with the shock of what it had just experienced.

Flashes of images and pictures sped through her mind, as if the frames of an animated film were on fast-forward: a white prison and a numbing hold; a vicious roar and a jagged bolt of lightning lancing toward her; a crushing pain pinning her against the stones. The feel of her bones shattering.

She cried out as adrenaline burst through her, launching herself to her feet and immediately tumbling to her knees, sand spurting up on either side of her as her numb legs buckled. A faint, yet increasingly painful prickling started in her toes and began to work its way through her ankles and into her thighs as the blood began to circulate through her legs again.

Helen half fell, half leaned forward, bracing her hands against the soft, sifting sand of the floor beneath her. Her body heaved as the memories assaulted her, her body trying in vain to expel something from her stomach. All that came was thin, acidic liquid that burned her tongue and throat, and she spit it out with disgust. The vile spittle sunk into the sand, disappearing without a trace.

Shaking again, Magnus rolled over onto her side, breathing heavily. Once again, she thought she felt her body snapping and splintering, the pain so intense that she could hardly feel it any longer. She turned her head to press against the tiny, sharp granules of sand. The worn pieces of stone dug into her cheek, helping to ground her and pull her out of the memory.

"What's going on?" Helen asked herself, lying perfectly still as she tried to gain control of her racing heart and rampant emotions. "I should be dead." That single thought pierced the fog in her brain, and it was suddenly as if a light had been switched on inside the woman's brain. "I should be dead, but somehow…somehow I'm not. I'm still alive. At least, I think I am…"

Slowly, Magnus sat up, and although she was still shivering, she at least had control over her body once more. She lifted a hand, hovering it in front of her face for a moment, clenching and unclenching her fingers. Satisfied with what she saw, she tentatively attempted to gain her feet.

Her cramping leg muscles screamed in agony, and once again, Helen was nearly sent tumbling to the sand beneath her. At the last second, her resolve hardened, and through sheer strength of will, she forced her legs to bear her weight. Tears sprang into her eyes as her legs burned and stung all at once, feeling as if they would tear free from the bone at the slightest movement. Gritting her teeth, Magnus took first one step, then another, knowing that the fastest way to work out a muscle cramp was to walk it out.

"How could you hurt so much if you were dead?" Helen's ever logical brain asked. Somehow, she found a certain measure of reassurance from that simple, yet morbid thought.

It took her nearly running into the wall to halt her single minded trudge. Her instincts took over, and she threw out her hands to stop her face from smashing into the looming rocks. For a split second, her mind expected to feel the sharp, biting pain that resulted from ragged hands being jarred. Thus it was a shock to Helen when no pain met her palms as they snagged against the rough stone.

Realizing the significance of such a thing, Magnus pulled her hands away from the wall and inspected them more carefully. They were whole and uninjured, not even so much as a blemish to mark her skin where she had repeatedly ripped the skin from the bone. Another thought drifted through her mind, and Helen leaned over, carefully pressing probing fingers into her knee. Again, there was no pain.

Her broken ribs, her decimated hands, her mauled leg, they were all healed she realized with a thrill. How it had happened, she had no idea. And at the moment, she wasn't willing to question the miracle.

Slowly, painfully, Helen sank to the ground, her back pressed against the wall. There seemed to be something she was missing…something important. Whatever had happened to her had definitely disoriented her, throwing her completely off balance.

She closed her eyes and pressed her palms against her temple, feeling as if she were trying to find the burning lamp that was hanging right in front of her.

"Where am I?" The question was so obvious, it was almost painful. She could remember the moments prior to her…near death, and could remember the white cage, and yet it was as if there was something clamping down on all of her memories from before seeing the yellow Dragon.

Darkness surrounded her, clutching at her. Her heart raced, fighting to burst out of her chest. Her breathing was sharp and ragged, frenzied. She closed her eyes, fighting to regain her calm. Slowly, ever so slowly, the fear began to recede. But only a little. When she opened her eyes, it was still just as dark as before. The task was just as impossible, the hope just as faint.

She began to move forward, her arms outstretched slightly so as not to run into anything in the darkened cavern. Her feet shuffled along the floor as she took tiny steps, small stones and pebbles clattering away from her boots as they dragged along the ground.

Without warning, her right hand smashed into something hard. Something hard and extremely sharp. Light flared around her, assailing her retinas as it lanced through the darkness. Her hand burned and stung all at once, and she could feel warmth trickling down the fingertips from a deep gash on the back of her hand.

Helen stifled her gasp as the memory filtered away. She pressed a little harder, and a shadowy, blurry image of a metal room wavered into her mind's eye. There was an examination table at the center of the room, with trays standing around it, light glinting innocently off of not so innocently sharp utensils placed carefully on towels atop the trays. The ghost of fear and adrenaline whispered through her veins, accompanying the memory. A faint scream of anger and fear seemed to accompany the image.

She shook her head, pressing farther back, searching for more.

Her hands were pulled uncomfortably behind her, the metal of the handcuffs biting into her wrists. She twisted her hands agitatedly for what was surely the hundredth time, restlessly jerking her right foot against the metal band that held it to the chair leg as well. It was no use, of course. Her foot jerked to a stop only a few centimeters away from where it had started, and her wrists only stung and smarted a little more.

She allowed her head to loll forward slightly, fatigue finally beginning to claim her. She hadn't slept in…well, she didn't particularly care to think too long or hard about that number. However long it had been since she had slipped into sweet oblivion of slumber, it had been far longer than her body wanted.

She shivered slightly, the metal of the chair she was sitting on seeping through the thin material of the clothes she had been given after being stripped and shoved into a frigid deluge that they called a shower. Whatever it truly was, it had served its purpose, as she had stepped out of the linoleum box shivering and dripping wet, but clean of the blood and gore that was testament to the fight she had been in a few hours previously. That had been at least two days ago. Vaguely, her mind registered that something else had happened in that forty-eight hour period, and yet for some reason, she couldn't seem to remember what it was exactly. She got the vague impression of being forced to kneel, her knees smashing against a hard surface, and then warmth rolling over her, and the musty smell of some great beast filling the air. She huffed with frustration as the fragment of memory slipped and faded, and once again tugged at her bindings.

Her eyes began to drift shut, sleep finally overcoming her. She would never be sure if she actually drifted off to sleep or not, but the next thing she knew, the door to her monotonous metal room was being thrown open, and three men were stepping into the room.

The first two were guards that were dressed identically in standard issue, black BDU's – nothing special or really worth note, seeing as you could get them from any surplus military dealer. Both were also carrying M16's.

"Lovely," Magnus said drolly, "I have visitors." She lifted her head so she could get a better look at her third visitor.

He was a short, stringy man, with thinning brown hair and a pair of large glasses that did nothing but accentuate his potato shaped nose and too thin mouth. He was dressed in slacks and a lab coat, and in one hand he carried a clipboard. He smiled rather crookedly at Helen, his eyes gleaming with a predatory gleam. Helen glared at him.

"Now, now Helen – can I call you Helen? – that's no way to treat…what did you call us…visitors?" The man had a thin, nasal voice that sounded as if it should be coming from a child rather than a full grown man.

"What do you want with me?" Magnus snapped rather waspishly. She didn't like the newcomers, and found herself wishing that she were alone again, rather than having to be subject to this man's company. It only made her feel a little better that there were two others in the room with her, even if they were guards set to make sure she didn't escape.

"Well now, that," the doctor said rather pompously, "is a very interesting question."

"If you want me for information, well I'm sorry, but you won't be getting any," Magnus told the man. To her surprise, the man laughed.

"Oh no Dr. Magnus, we don't want you for…information," he said cheerily, and flipped a few papers up from his clipboard. "In fact," he continued, a smug grin oozing across his face, "I'm here to impart you with some information. Helen, I'm pleased to inform you that you've been chosen to participate in the next round of Games."

Helen tensed. For some reason, she found that she wasn't terribly thrilled at the idea. Her eyes narrowed as she glared a little harder at the doctor. To her annoyance, he either didn't notice, or didn't care. More than likely, it was the latter option. It probably had something to do with her being tied to a chair, she decided.

"I've been sent to give you all of the information you'll need before we take you into Preparation." Helen's throat closed for a heartbeat, not liking the way the man had said the word 'preparation'. "Immediately after that, you'll be taken to the Labyrinth."

"First of all, I'd like you to know that you have absolutely no choice in this matter. Second of all is that the only way for you to survive the Games is to make it through all ten Levels of the Labyrinth and find the exit point."

"How do I do that?" Magnus asked.

The doctor smiled, and Helen was a little vindictively pleased to see that his teeth were off-center and slightly yellowed. "You'll figure it out," the man assured her and turned to leave.

"Wait, what happens if I make it through all ten Levels?" Helen called out at the man's back.

For a second, the doctor didn't move. Then, with purposeful slowness, he turned back toward her. "Oh don't worry about that," he said, although his voice was anything reassuring. "No one's made it as far as Level 7. I don't think you're going to have to worry about that."

With that, the doctor swept out of the room, closely followed by the two guards, and the door swung shut behind them, clanging as it locked. Helen was strongly reminded of a prison door closing after the attorney came in to deliver the death sentence.

It was as if that one memory unlocked all the rest; the dark cavern that she had awoken to find herself in; her stumbling trek through the darkness, only to run into the walls that, when hit with something, would light up; her encounter with the bat-wolf creature, and then with the Dragon.

And memories from before that, too. A man, smiling and laughing, cajoling, trying to convince her to eat something. That same man running by her side, shouting a warning in her ear. A blonde haired girl barely out of her teens, a gun in one hand, a cocky smirk dancing in her eyes. For some reason, Helen felt a thrill of pain and loss at the memory, and it felt as if a hole opened in her heart. There was also another man, his shaggy hair hanging over his forehead, a phone in one hand, a tablet in the other, and a utility belt hanging loose so that the tools hung even with the bottom of his shorts. And more, so much more…it all came rushing in on her, flooding her with thoughts and emotions.

Something at the base of her skull prickled, and it felt as if her brain was itching. Magnus shook her head, trying to clear her mind of the buzz that abruptly filled her thoughts. Just as quickly as it had come, the discomfort faded, leaving her sitting at the base of the cavern wall feeling just as alone as ever.

No…not as alone. Somehow, she felt as if there were others with her. For some reason, though, that didn't make her feel any better.