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Our February 2024 Flash Contest was based on Prompt #291 (provided by Stone Soup intern Sage Millen), which asked that participants write a story about a person discovering a secret passageway. Characters stumbled upon doors to incredible lands of zombies, witches, and mermaids. They found staircases in trees, tunnels in garbage cans, and a golden elixir that prevents aging. In one submission, a man in a green suit took the main character to a land of misfit creatures. As always, thank you to all who participated, and please keep submitting next month!

In particular, we congratulate our Honorable Mentions, listed below, and our Winners, whose work you can appreciate below.

“Hole in the Ground” by Angelina Chen, 12
"The Stars" by Xi Huang, 11
"Sewer Rats" by Alborz Yousefi Nooraie, 12
"Wake Up" by Vanaja Raju, 12
"Passage" by Chris Yihan Ye, 12

Honorable Mentions
"The Hidden Truth" by Rayansh Bhargava
"The Search for the Past Life" by Hope Dekkers, 13
"The Gateway" by Yuna Jung, 10
"The Enchanted Pathway" by Miya Ma, 8
"Shattered Land" by Adam Xu, 11

Hole in the Ground


“Fine, I hate you too,” Len hissed with feral eyes. His mother and father stood before the television, his father’s hand on his console’s plug. Len clutched the edges of the couch, trying to burn a hole through his parents while sinking into the sofa cushions.

“Len, buddy, we never said we hated you; we just told you to turn off the PS5—”

“I was only on it for like, what, twenty minutes? I don’t want to grow up as one of those nerdy kids with no life,” Len shrilled, looking from his console to his parents.

“Two hours. You’re glued to this thing, Len.”

“Shut. Up. I’m perfectly fine,” with a leap, he bounced off the couch and rushed into the dining room, shutting the door behind him. Muffled pleas echoed through the closed door, which Len promptly ignored, moving toward the door. His hands shook from adrenaline, his brain struggling to escape his game. Maybe you were on for too long, he guessed. No. He shook his head. Of course not; your parents are never correct.

His feet hit the edge of the “welcome” carpet, curled up in the corners that never stayed down no matter what. Len reached down, pushing away boots, high heels, and slippers until he dug out a pair of running shoes.

“They...” Off came the first lace. “Don't...” Off came the second lace. “Love...” On came the left shoe. “Me.” On came the right shoe. Len kicked the door open, laces still loose, the frigid air slicing into his exposed arms. The faint hoot of a bird welcomed his entrance outside, the light inside spilling out into the blue night. Len stared, wondering if he was too confident with his thinking. The contrast in temperatures started to get to him as he stood there, freezing his body, and he knew he had to think fast. On one side of his head, every survival instinct in his body screamed at him to go back inside, but on the other, it offered something better: freedom, feeling worthy. Then, in the middle of his imaginary debate, the dining room knob squeaked, along with the faint sound of “Len?” The sound of his name burned him, and he ran.

Silence glimmered in the night like a melting candle, owls’ hoots filling up the sky.

“I don’t need them anyway,” Len grumbled, though he wasn’t sure. His feet burned, and every step hurt more than the last. I should take a break. His tired legs felt relief at the remark, only now figuring out he had been running for over an hour. No, I have to get as far as possible.
I can’t let them find me. Though he could mentally hear the groans in his ankles, he pushed forward, setting pain aside as weakness. “I don’t need them, I don’t need them, I don't need–”

A sudden absence of ground cut off his rant, throwing him off balance. He screamed out, yelling for help, the sensation of falling rushing toward his head. He was falling, hands scrambling to find the walls of the ditch, but all he could feel was the wind blowing past his face. He felt his throat grow hoarse, and he stopped, knowing he needed to save his breath if he wanted to survive. His eyes closed in silence, letting the darkness decide his fate.


“What is that?”

“I think it’s one of those ‘humans’ mum talks about.”

“It’s so ugly.”

“Says you.”

“Huh?” Len felt his eyes inch open, barely awake, the rest of his body asleep.

“Eek! It talked!” Len could hear the voices now, one high, one just plain ear-bleeding. His limbs felt detached from his body while his head throbbed, the only indication he was alive.

“Whoa, that’s so cool! I wonder if it can learn tricks,” the ear-bleeding voice squealed noisily, with Len too tired to punch the squeaky creature.

“Lija, it’s not a pet. It’s just another “intelligent lifeform,” whatever that means,” Len felt something soft shift under his arms, probably a blanket, and he was off the ground. “Poor thing, it just needs to regain its strength.”

Even half-sleeping, Len could feel the other creature roll its eyes. He burned with questions, but he decided to save those for later. He was alive, but he didn’t know if he would stay alive.

“Floilu, you have to loosen up. When it learns how to roll over, you’ll forgive me immediately,” the shrill voice responded with a hint of dreaminess. Len would’ve thrown up if he was fully awake. Lija and Floilu, huh? Just thinking about the names gave Len chills, distracting him from the pain. It was unbearable, and he wished he was still unconscious just to feel normal. He eventually let the gentle sway of whatever the two creatures were doing lull him back to the darkness, and he blacked out again.


Len’s eyelids felt like a million pounds, but he forced them open. The faint swish of a fan blew his hair onto the side of his face, his legs wrapped and restrained in some sort of plant, and his chest surrounded by weird stones.

“Great surfaces, he’s awake!” Len turned to face a small group of somewhat humanoid creatures, having two legs, two arms, a head, and a body, but some sort of veil replaced their hair, along with weirdly colored and patterned skin, with assortments of rainbow splatters.

“He?” A familiar, sharp voice snorted. Len shifted to see two creatures; one bright pink with white spots, the other light blue with sea green highlights.

“Lija, remember, short hair means male, long hair means female,” the blue maiden scolded the other, and Len could see they both had pale, blank eyes, like a fish.

“But doesn’t that only apply to the young o—” Lija's mouth was covered by Floilu’s hand, holding tight.

“Sorry. My sister—I believe that is the term you humans use—is quite nosy,” Lija’s muffled shouts echoed behind her sister’s hand, Len watching in bemusement.

“W-What are you? What is this place?” Hundreds of questions burned in his mind, but he tried to go slow, not wanting to scare these strange beings away. Lija growled, yanking her sister’s gag off, blank eyes lighting up.

“We’re what you humans call mermaids! We live here, under all that water. You really have to clean it up sometime,” Lija added, waving a hand.

“Mermaids?” Len shout-whispered. “But you have legs, no mouth, and look kinda weird...” he trailed off, knowing he probably overstepped his boundaries. Lija’s face turned faintly darker, which Len assumed was their version of blushing.

“Now listen, you surface dweller—”


“Ugh, sorry. There are just different versions of us. The ones you see above water are the bravest. But I’d say they’re the stupid ones.”

Len had nothing to say to that. He stirred to the right, seeing two more mermaids, all nearly white with pale specks of color, signifying age. They all smiled and whispered excitedly among each other, and they gave a softer aura than the two girls, which Len settled in comfortably. The platform he sat upon felt softer than any material he felt, and the creatures down here were welcoming. I could stay here for a while. I won’t have to worry about school or my parents, and I’d probably be honored like a king.


“A measly credit screen? That’s all?”

A crowd of mermaid children groaned disappointedly at the game screen, the creator’s names floating down a black background. When the kids said it that way, then it sounded pretty pitiful, but Len loved the game.

“Did you not see the character development? The quests? Nothing?” He tried, credit music playing in the background. The kids exchanged dazed glances, no one speaking.

“Let’s go and find a seahorse to chase,” one child piped, with murmurs of agreement. The group glanced at Len, then slithered away like a troop of soldiers. Len was left there, staring at the game screen, feeling empty and complete. He completed the game as he wanted. His parents couldn’t stop him. They worshiped him down here. So what was wrong?

“Floilu?” He turned to the blue-green maiden, who was tackling Lija down.

“Yeah?” She said between punches, Lija throwing a wad of seagrass at Floilu’s face.

“I-I want to go home. Back to the surface,” Len grew quieter as he finished, eyes on the ground. Floilu stopped short, pinning Lija with her knees, her sister squeaking angrily.

“You sure? If you’re bored, we have other activities.”

“No, I think I’m sure. You’ve treated me fine. I just want to go back to the surface,” Len said reluctantly, feeling weird that he had to address his home that way.

“All right, I’ll go tell the others. Also, how old are you?”


“Eleven? That’s young. I’m surprised you even survived that fall. Well, goodnight. You humans go to sleep at this time, I recall.”


“Well, what are you waiting for? Go, human,” the mermaids’ voices echoed faintly in the hole. Len gulped, hearing the owls and the cold welcome him again, and stepped forward. His feet still ached, but they healed enough in his session underground, and he began his journey
back. Len almost turned around and dived back in, but a little voice told him to return.

“He’s here! Oh, Len, where have you been?” A familiar voice rang out a moment later, and his parents appeared, arms outstretched, lifting him. Police sirens arrived, hurting his eyes, but he didn’t dare complain. “You’ve been gone for nearly half a day; where have you been?” his mother stuttered between sobs, practically choking him.

“I-I got lost,” he stammered, unable to say anything else. His father, thankfully, did not break Len’s bones in his embrace but gave him a long look that said everything.

“Don’t you dare leave again. You’re coming home,” Len’s father said, a no-nonsense look on his face.

“O-okay,” Len managed. His arms were frozen, unable to return the hug. A pang of guilt filled him, imagining what his parents thought about what happened to him, and he flinched.

“Well? Let’s go.”

Len nodded slowly, watching his parents run back to the police cars. He took a moment, then glanced behind him.

The hole was gone.

The Stars


I woke up thinking it was going to be a completely normal, boring day.

If only I knew how wrong I was.

I got out of bed, feeling very groggy and underslept, and brushed my teeth. I slid down the banister—and crashed into my cat, who had been grooming herself on one end of it. We both landed in a painful mess at the bottom of the stairs. What a nice way to start off my day.

“Oh, great,” I groaned as I got up. Feeling very irritated, I looked for someone to blame. I found my cat.

“Just what were you doing on that banister, anyway? Why couldn’t you sit on the floor like a decent cat? And don’t you go looking at me that way, Moss!” My cat was named Moss because of her vivid, glowing green eyes. Funny how I named my cat after something that didn’t exist. Not anymore.

“Why couldn’t you walk down the stairs like a decent human?” She snapped back, licking her paws as she did so.

I stared. I gaped. Something was wrong. Very wrong. Extremely wrong. If the world had turned upside down, I could not have been more stupefied.

“Uh... you’re... a cat,” I stammered, waving my hands wildly around. “You’re... you...you can’t... t-talk—”

“First, I’m not a cat,” she replied. “Second, you’ve lived with me for seven years, and you think I can’t talk? Plus, why would you talk to me if I couldn’t talk back?”

Shock punched me in the face. My legs buckled under me and I slid down to the ground. No. No no no no no—This could not be happening to me. I must be hallucinating. Dreaming. My cat was talking to me. My cat wasn’t even a cat! Maybe I should go see a doctor—

“You’re not hallucinating or dreaming. This is all real—in a sense. You humans have no notion of reality, because nothing is real. Reality is an illusion created by humans to satisfy their insecurities.”

“What’s—what’s going on—” I said weakly.

“Listen to me. I said, I’m not a cat. I’m a fallen star in the form of a cat. Appearance is only an illusion. When a star breathes its last, it’s given two options. It can go to the Beyond. In a sense, die. No one knows what the Beyond is, though. Or it can stay “alive” for some time—time is an illusion—and try to bring a little more light to the universe. But then it loses its soul, and after that time it’s gone. Forever. It cannot go to the Beyond. It’s lost.

I chose the second option. I want to try to save your world, before it’s too late. Why should I do this? You humans are nasty, vicious, brutal creatures. But I pity you. Come on, there’s no time to lose.”

My head whirled.

“What’s happening—what—” I took a deep breath. “No—I’m sorry, but this is—well, crazy,” I sputtered. “My cat is talking to me? Wait, no, you’re not a cat. And did you say a fallen star?! What do you mean about my world—is the apocalypse coming? Is there something I missed out on?”

“No,” Moss said gently. “You’ve just been too absorbed in your life to notice. The signs are everywhere. Thousands of species have gone extinct. In most parts, temperatures have plunged, but we had to relocate because it was too hot in Brooklyn, remember? The Earth is slowly crumbling. You heard about it on the news, didn’t you? Smog. Smoke. Fire. Ice. Terrible hurricanes. The balance of Nature is gone, Nora! But no one misses it! Someone has to do something. And I chose you.”

Then I remembered. I remembered the announcement that rippled across half the nation, the announcement that ordered us to abandon our home. I remembered the fear, the panic, the anguish. The feeling that it wasn’t all right, that things shouldn’t be this way. But I had ignored it. I had tried to pretend everything was okay...

I stood up slowly, feeling understanding trickle into my mind, enough for me to say, “Alright.”

“Come on, then. We have to hurry.”

Moss led me back up the stairs to my bedroom. She scampered to a corner, pushed aside the bookshelf that stood by it, and began to scratch at the plaster.

“What are you doing?” I shouted.

But I didn’t stop her, and soon she had scratched most of it away. And in the wall, there stood a small, wooden door with no knob or lock.

I gawked. At Moss. At the door.

“How did you know—?”

“I’m a fallen star, remember? I’m infinitely wiser than humans. I also have something called intuition, which you guys don’t have, not even in your sense.”

“I know we’re not the best, uh, species, but you can stop insulting us. And, how are we going to open the door?”

“With ancient runes.”

“Okay, I’m done with being surprised. What are they?”

She lifted an eyebrow. “You should know.”

I was about to scream at her that I didn’t, but then suddenly a song drifted to my mind, even though I had never heard of it. Instinctively I chanted,

Here I call—behold them all

The elements of old

From forgotten legend and ancient stone

Starry silver and gilded gold

From the light of the sky,

And the depth of the night,

And the blue of the sea

Of wind and air and water

I ask: Open for me!

The door swung open, revealing a small, damp passageway.

“Well done!” Moss beamed. “I guess you have some sense after all. Come on, then.” She padded into the tunnel. I followed her (on my hands and knees).

There was no lighting in the tunnel, and very soon it became pitch-black.

“Uh, Moss? What if there’s a pit in the tunnel? Will I fall into it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course you’ll fall into it! If there is one. You humans are so silly.”

This wasn’t very reassuring, but we kept going. After a while, my hands and knees had been rubbed raw, and my whole palms oozed blood. Pain shot through my arms and legs in searing waves. I gritted my teeth, forcing myself to bear it, and wishing I could turn into a cat. But I was determined not to give Moss another reason to look down on humans.

After I don’t know how many hours, she stopped. I bumped into her.

“Ow! Nora, you’re so clumsy—even for a human!”

“But it’s so dark in here!”

“Oh right, I forgot you can’t see in the dark. But anyway, we’re here.”

“Where?” I strained my eyes and swung my head around. As expected, I still couldn’t see anything.

“Here.” She tapped her paw against the ground. It made a hollow, metallic sound.

“A trapdoor,” I said.

“Yep. And judging from the sound, there’s no ladder, so we’ll have to fall into it. Intentionally.”

“This doesn’t sound like such a good idea,” I muttered to myself as she slowly opened the trapdoor and jumped into it.

I followed her.

I screamed for a split second—then landed on the hard dirt floor.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Moss remarked.

“That’s because you’re a cat,” I said under my breath.

“Nora, look, some light for you. And another passageway.”

Then I realized two things: one, we were in another tunnel, and two, there was an eerie, bluish glow coming from the end of the tunnel. So I did the most (or perhaps least) sensible thing, and I followed Moss towards the light.

Soon we came to a large cavern, so large that when we spoke our voices echoed across the cave. But what was so remarkable about it was that in the center of the cavern, on a little marble pedestal, there was a small, glowing, blue crystal, and it was this that had lit our way through the tunnel.

I sucked in a breath and looked at it in wonder. I felt an irresistible force drawing me to the crystal.

“Nora, do you know what this is?”

I thought for a moment. Maybe all those hours of secretly reading in class paid off after all! What was that book called? Ancient lore...

“The crystal of Hope,” I said slowly. “It was made by ancient goblins, made to thwart Fate, to prevent the destruction of the world, to be used only in the most dire circumstances...” I shook my head. “But that’s all rubbish. Goblins don’t exist.”

“But magic does. No one knows how the crystal of Hope was created, but it is real...reality is an illusion”—I groaned—“...and we must use the crystal.”


“Ask it a question. Listen. Nora, in your world, no one listens anymore. That’s part of the reason it’s crumbling.”

And then suddenly, words formed inside my mind, and burst out of my mouth:

Here I call—behold them all

The elements of old

From forgotten legend and ancient stone

Starry silver and gilded gold

From the light of the sky

And the depth of the night

And the blue of the sea

Of wind and air and water

I summon thee!

And wilt thou not answer to our destiny?

I waited.

The response knocked me off my feet.

It was not so much a voice, as a feeling, waves of meaning rolling towards me, flowing into strings of words that my brain could comprehend. A message of sorrow and hope and wisdom. Layers of understanding piling on top of each other until I could put it all together, like a jigsaw puzzle.

I told Moss what I understood.

“The delicate balance of Nature is breaking down. I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with a substance called estrelë.”

“The light of the stars,” she murmured.

“The stars feed on happiness and good and kindness, and in turn they release estrelë to the world. It’s what holds the world together. Light. It’s a light that transcends light, a greater beauty beyond understanding.”

“That much I know,” Moss nodded slowly.

“But then... like you said, people don’t listen anymore. They don’t listen to the world. They’re too wrapped up in their own worlds. Humans are greedy and selfish and... stupid creatures. Why do we kill each other? Why...” I thought back to the Atomic War, the war that ravaged half of the world, turning it into a desolate, barren place.

“And when people stop caring, the stars don’t have anything to live on anymore. The darkness of the world consumes them. They die in the struggle between good and evil.”

“As I did.” A tear slid down Moss’s cheek, leaving a glistening path on her fur.

“I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“And then there are less stars. They can’t produce estrelë anymore, and those who survive are blocked by the darkness. It’s more than just deep selfishness. The environment is getting worse and worse every day, until Earth is almost inhabitable. Nature struggles to support us. And the War...

There used to be a time when the grass was green, the sky was blue, the sea was clear and cold. But now everything’s gray. There used to be a time when you could see the stars, the moon, the sun. But now the stars are covered by a cloak of smog—a cloak of greed and envy.

And now... what’s going to happen? Soon everything will fall down among us. What have we done? Oh, Moss, what can we do?”

“Listen to the crystal.”

“It says... Oh, Moss, we have to go to the birthplace of all stars.”

Her eyes opened wide, and she gasped. “It’s really that urgent?”


“Then I can take you there.”

She placed her paws in my hands, and then began to sing—a soft, tinkling melody, beautiful, unearthly, eerie.

Then I closed my eyes as the world spun around us and the wind whipped my hair. A roar filled my ears.

Silence. We were there.

Sewer Rats


Heilwig was a girl of the sewer. After a civil war had broken out in her home city above, the noblemen of the city had pushed all the opposing side down into the expanse of abandoned, dysfunctional piping and tunnels underneath the city. Heilwig had only been an infant when this war had happened, so she remembered nothing of the city above, but her parents and the other inhabitants of the sewer had told her enough gruesome stories for her to know that up there was nothing good.

The “town” in the sewers was the only place she had ever known. There was a main square, where the water used to build up to be distributed to the city. Here held most of the shops and public buildings—Aksa’s rat trap shop, Pfod and his son’s clothing store, and Kaseid’s eatery were some of Heilwig’s favorites. Her house, though, was in one of the upper tunnels, nicknamed the Pinkie Finger for its location, farthest to the south from the main square and size. Though it was smaller than all the surrounding tunnels, the stone pipe still towered high over every building made there.

That morning wasn’t much different from any other morning of Heilwig’s. She got out of bed, tidied up her ragged sheets, and wore a normal tunic and a pair of brown trousers. She was about to call out to her mother to wake up, but then remembered that she had been bitten by a sewer rat a few days before and was deathly ill in bed. Heilwig sighed and went to check the rat traps she had bought from Aksa, a kindly old shopkeeper, the day after her mother had been bitten.

The first one, under the kitchen counter, held nothing. Neither did the second under Heilwig’s bed. She could only afford three, so she had put the third under her mother’s mattress. My father smells so horrid no rat would dare come near him! She had thought when walking home with the traps. She trotted over to her mother’s bedroom, chuckling at the thought. Heilwig reached a hand under the bed, expecting to find nothing like the other traps.

She felt fur. Wet, clumpy fur.

Heilwig held back a scream. The little vermin scurried out from under her grip, ran beneath her feet, and hurried out into the Pinkie. The thing had dirty, damp fur and its left ear was ripped in half. The strange thing, though, was that it had glowing blue eyes, like the gemstones they cut out from rocks in the sewer’s mines. Heilwig followed, desperately trying to catch the rat and kill it before it could make a nest and reproduce. She watched angrily as the rat dashed into the collapsed section of the pipe and scurried into the debris.

Heilwig spent the rest of her day as she usually did but was thinking about the rat the whole while. Those blue eyes and the strange, ripped ear had irked her. After she had finished her chores and taken her daily walk around the belowground city, she walked back into the Pinkie and to her home to realize that her father had just woken up.

“Mornin’!” he said groggily. Heilwig could see that he had already poured his own and Heilwig’s mother’s morning moss tea. “Guntri stopped by this mornin’. Told me he’d stopped by the moss gardens. He let me have some, and by golly it smells good!”

Heilwig had never understood the adults’ love for the smell of sewer-grown moss, but she accepted it. Maybe she would grow to like the damp smell of the moss that her parents’ friends grew out in the collapsed section of the first pipe, where sunlight still hit the mud.

“Y’know, Heil, I was awake enough this mornin’ to hear you bangin’ up a storm in your mother’s room. What in the world happened over there? Y’know you shouldn’t be wakin’ her up.”

Heilwig sighed. “I found a rat under her bed, in the trap. I was gonna catch it ‘n kill it, but it got away ’fore I could. It ran off, somewhere in the collapse. I was gonna go get it, but mother forbids me ev’ry time I ask.”

Her father chuckled. “I been there ‘fore, to collect dry firewood. There’s not much bad that can happen to you. I say go. F’nish what you started. Kill the little guy!”

“I d’nno. Mother must have a reason for forbiddin’ me, o’course she must!” She watched as her father waved her words away.

“She’s bein’ overprotective, as usual. Go! Now! Get outta here!” Heilwig laughed with her father, then ran outside, grabbing a small pouch with some filtered water and a small flashlight in it, along with a small beef sandwich for lunch—at least that’s what Kaseid, the city’s best chef, had told her was in it when he’d given it to her for killing a rat that had taken up residence in their house.

She ran out into the Pinkie, waving hello to all her neighbors. She came here, to the edge of the collapse, often, trying to scout out rats to kill—it was one of her favorite hobbies, and it was helpful. She had singlehandedly halved the population of the vermin in the Pinkie since she was four years old. Because of this hobby, she knew already how to get past the collapse. She was still scared, though, even with her father’s reassuring words.

She braved on through a gap between two stone slabs. Past where the light from the Pinkie’s pipelights hit, it was completely dark. Heilwig leaned her right arm to the wall, planning to follow it with her left hand on the way back. She slowly tiptoed through the darkness, still frightened, even though she knew that this tunnel was identical to the Pinkie, except for the houses and lights. Something dripped wetly behind her.

Suddenly, she tripped. The floor had gotten deeper, and her foot had splashed into water. In the sewer city, there was always a little bit of water, but only in the very middle of the pipes. It was enough to splash away. Here, though, she felt as if her whole lower body was submerged.

She felt she had gotten far enough that there was no need to preserve her flashlight’s energy, so she took it out of her pouch and flipped it on.

There were nests everywhere. She recognized rats’ nests, raccoon dens, and spiderwebs, but there were other, stranger shelters in this pipe. Heilwig swept the large expanse of nests, hoping to see any rat, but especially the strange blue-eyed one. All of a sudden, out of the corner of her eye, Heilwig saw movement. Her head and flashlight swiveled toward that direction. She readied her trusty knife, hoping to pierce any rat she saw through its body.

Heilwig saw a boy.

He seemed old enough, about the same age as Heilwig, but when the light landed on his eyes, he screeched just like a rat and scurried out towards the end of the pipe. Right before the sewer split into smaller tunnels, he turned to his right and punched the wall. She heard a creak, but before she could even think about what she had seen, the boy vanished into the wall. Another creak.

Heilwig clambered out of the water and into a sidewalk-esque walkway. There’d used to be a fence where she had climbed up, but the only things remaining were a little bit of wet wood and some scraggly, ragged rope. She ran up to where the pipe branched off and inspected where he had punched the wall. She saw nothing except a dank hole where something was dripping slowly into a crack in the side. Taking a deep breath, Heilwig pushed her hand in and felt something knobby at the end. She shoved it, expecting it to stay put, but it slid into the wall like magic.


The wall beside her flung open. She gasped quietly but ran through the opening before it could close on her again.

Inside was like a rat’s nest—but massive. Instead of sticks and dirt, the roots of a large tree hung down from an opening in the ceiling of a small chamber in the sewers. Hiding in the midst of the roots was the boy—holding a rat.

The boy had shaggy, wet hair, which hung in a loose ponytail that trailed down to his lower body. He had grubby, dark skin, and his left ear had a jagged cut down the middle. He wore a tunic, just like Heilwig, but it was big enough to cover his whole body. It had cuts here and there, and it was hanging so loosely Heilwig was scared it might fall off at any second. But most strangely, and also most notably to Heilwig, were his bright, gemstone-blue eyes.

He hissed. “Go away. Go away! You kill my family every day. We don’t want you here. Go! Go before I bite you too!”

Heilwig grimaced at the thought of this boy biting her. Each of his teeth were sharper than her knife, and they were dirtier than the worst houses in the Pinkie. “’Ey. I only kill those rats ‘cause they spread disease like a sewer flood—and that’s killin’ every tenth person out in the city. Now what’re you doin’ past the collapse? C’mon, tell me.”

The boy screeched. “GO! GET OUT! NOW!” He lunged. His jaw almost unhooked, and he opened his mouth wider than Heilwig had ever seen in a human.

Heilwig backed up against the wall. She desperately grasped for another button or trigger to open the door but found none. Thinking quickly, Heilwig remembered what the blue-eyed rat had done earlier that day and, knowing the strategy worked, ran straight into the boy.

He grunted, but grabbed onto Heilwig’s pouch before she could get any farther away from him.

“Please!” she screamed, “Take my sandwich, take anythin’! Please don’ kill me!” She struggled to take out her sandwich and show it to him.

The boy’s already bright eyes lit up even more. He gasped. “It’s been so long since I’ve eaten. Please!” He let go of her pouch and took the sandwich. It seemed like he started eating before the food even left Heilwig’s hand. She sat down on a low-hanging root and watched the ravenous boy. He gulped the sandwich down like he hadn’t eaten in months—which could be true, based on what he had said.

“So,” she started curiously, “Where you from? What’re you doin’ down here? You speak well for someone who talks with rats!”

He looked up from his sandwich. “Don’t mock me. I was thrown down here as an infant. I had no choice in the matter—my family had hid in an abandoned house instead of moving down here when the war was over. The nobles found us. They...took my parents from me and exiled me down here. Now, I live with these rodents. They do no wrong, so I try my best to protect them from the humans in the city. These rats are my brethren.”

Heilwig sighed. “I’m sorry about what they did t’ you. Your family just wanted to survive, but they killed ‘em and left you for dead. They truly had done nothin’ bad.”

“It’s the same with the rats, you know. They just want to eat, drink, survive. But you kill them every day. This was their home before it was yours.” He finished up his sandwich. “I still haven’t forgiven you, you know. Go back to where you came.” He hissed.

He opened the door, and Heilwig left. As she was walking back to the Pinkie, she saw the blue-eyed rat scurrying in the puddles beside her. She unsheathed her knife, but then put it back after a second thought. Maybe those rats aren’t that bad after all.

Wake Up


“Ready or not, here I come,” Amelia called from the living room. Her footsteps got louder as she clomped up the stairs in her pink light-up shoes. She was only five, but she was a very good seeker.

And Miles hadn’t even hidden yet.

Trying to be as quiet as he could, he tiptoed down the upstairs hall and hauled himself up onto his mother’s china cabinet, using the green armchair next to it as a stepping-stone. Maybe he could hide on top of the china cabinet – assuming it didn’t crash to the ground under his weight.

His little cousin was hunting around the master bedroom. It was just a matter of time before she romped down the hallway and found Miles curled up in a ball on top of the china cabinet. “I’m gonna find you, Miles!”

As he tried to make himself as small as possible, the china cabinet creaked under the burden of a child too old for hide-and-seek. With the panic that the cabinet would fall, Miles lost his balance and fell off the cabinet.

Amelia sounded like she was leaving the master bedroom. In desperation, Miles wrenched open the cabinet and climbed in.

Wait, what?

He had climbed into a cabinet that was supposed to be full of shelves with precious things on them. Where were the shelves? Where were the expensive ceramic vases from South America? Where were the souvenir teacups from London?

Miles looked back at the cabinet doors, and he saw Amelia through the glass panes. She looked through the cabinet and seemed to make eye contact. He was sure she would call out, “Found you!”

To his surprise, she looked right through him and walked away. Miles tried to push the cabinet doors open so he could get out of the cabinet, but they wouldn’t budge.

“Amelia!” he yelled. “I’m in the china cabinet! Get me out of here!”

There was no response.

“AMELIA!” Miles saw Amelia pass the cabinet once, twice, three times, never even once batting an eye in his direction, no matter how loud he shouted.

No use, he thought. He was stuck in a magic china cabinet. This was totally normal. He considered crying, but if he was going to last here until the firemen showed up, he had to stay strong. Who knows how long that could take. Maybe Amelia would give up and not bother looking for him.

His back was starting to ache. Miles leaned against the back of the cabinet to support his spine – and his head hit the bottom of the cabinet.

There was no back of the cabinet.

He scooted around 360 degrees till he faced the other side of the cabinet. If there was another side, anyway. Testing, he extended his arm to make sure he didn’t feel fur coats. China cabinet to Narnia – it was an amusing thought. Something to keep him preoccupied while he explored the rest of the cabinet.

Scooting along, cross-legged, with sensitive legs that were likely to get splinters, was not a good idea. Miles got on all fours and started crawling through the cabinet.

The minutes crept into hours as Miles crawled through, and soon, as he moved farther from the light coming through the glass panes of the cabinet doors, he was plunged into darkness.

Humming a song from the radio to keep him busy, Miles felt his knees go sore. He tried to stand up, expecting his head to bump the top of the cabinet – and it didn’t. Miles stood upright, squinting as the darkness shifted into the brightest white he’d ever seen.

He was standing on cold grey linoleum, the rest of the world blinding him. As his eyes got used to the environment, so did his ears – a strange cacophony of beeping and shrill chimes was all around him.

The brightness became tolerable enough, and surrounding Miles were hospital beds. Rows and rows of them, all connected to beeping, chiming machines with screens displaying heart rates and brain waves.

And there were people on them.

He couldn’t recognize any of the people, but they were all real. All breathing, some even smiling in the coma-like state they were in. The room (was it even a room?) seemed to stretch on forever, and there was no visible ceiling, just bright white. The uniformity of it all hurt his head.

He tried to look for an unoccupied bed he could lay down in to make sense of it all, and he turned to face an empty bed. The beeping machine next to it was connected to wires that were connected to — him.

Miles was wearing the same drab hospital gown everyone else was. He was barefoot, and his legs were not as tanned as they were supposed to be. If he didn’t know that he had been crawling through a magic cabinet, he might have thought that he had just been in that bed.

And he felt alive for the first time, like he had just woken up from a dream.

“Breach detected! Breach detected!” An automated female voice was waking up the empty room.

Miles heard footsteps squeaking across the floor, which reminded him of Amelia and her pink light-up shoes.

He turned around to find three men and two women in bright orange hazmat suits – the only color in the place – walking across the floor.

One of the women stepped forward, pointing some sort of weapon aimed directly at Miles’s face. “Please raise your arms. You will be taken for questioning. Do not attempt to run. We are armed.”

If he allowed himself to be taken, he might or might not be killed. But if he ran, it was the end, for sure.

Miles stayed put.

Two of the men seized Miles, disconnected the wires on him, and bustled him across the floor for what seemed to be forever, until they reached a small elevator. The six of them entered the elevator and one of the women said, “Control Center.”

The elevator whirred and started, and before he knew it, Miles was in an office-looking area with large monitor setups on each worker’s desk, running some sort of code.

“I’ll interrogate,” said the woman who had pointed the weapon at Miles. She dragged him over to a small office, which seemed like it was hers.

“Sit down, get comfy,” said the woman. “I’m Calipse, Cal for short.”

Miles sat down reluctantly on a small stool in front of Cal’s desk. “What is all this?” He gestured around at the office, at the beds on the higher floor.

“It’s Project Omega,” Cal explained. “Long story. Earth got too populated, government couldn’t afford the resources, now technology has advanced far enough that we can build a perfect life for everyone – at zero cost, of course.”

Miles frowned. “What do you mean?”

“We unlocked dream theory. Antone? McCallaghan? You familiar?”

He shook his head.

“No, of course not,” Cal sighed. “Basically, we learned how to decode dreams and run our own dreams inside peoples’ heads. The people are dreaming their whole life, with fictional people, places, and memories. The dreams are run at the rate of a person’s whole life, and the person dies before they ever have a family or children. Therefore, fixing the population issue.”

“So...” And when Miles thought about it, he was horrified. Amelia wasn’t real. 1428 Northeast 45th Avenue wasn’t real. Mom and Dad weren’t real.

Cal’s mouth stretched into a thin line. “I know what you’re thinking – ‘That’s so messed up! My life is a lie!’ Sure, it is. But this is the most humane way. You know, you should be glad you weren’t around during the bombs. You never knew when one would hit and your whole neighborhood would be wiped out.”

“This is worse,” Miles said bitterly. “Housing a whole population of people, giving them a fake life, just for them to die in the end. Like raising a lamb for slaughter.”

Cal grimaced. “I didn’t ask for them to be born. Facilities like these house 45% of the world’s rapidly growing population. When the project runs its cycle, that 45% will be gone. We will be relieved of a large burden.”

Miles stared at her. “These innocent people are a burden? You could have easily been one of them.”

“And I would have gladly sacrified my bloodline for the better of humanity.”

Miles fumed. He didn’t know what to think.

“Have I answered all your questions?” Cal booted up a large computer.

“I guess. Is there...a way to go back?” Before his bloodline ended, Miles could at least see Amelia and his parents again. Say goodbye to his house and his school and his friends.

Cal nodded. “Let me just get you hooked up to the computer. We can extract the sensitive information, and you’ll be set.”

“You mean – you’re going to erase my memories of any of this?”

Cal connected some wires coming from her computer to a headset of a kind. “Yeah. You clearly found a glitch to be able to get here, so we’ll erase your recollection of this encounter and send you back by fixing the glitch and initiating the dream code again. It’s happened before.”

“You can’t do that!” Miles stood up. “Who am I going to tell, anyway – my friends who don’t exist? My fake parents?”

“Calm down. This is just in case you find a glitch again and try to sabotage the program. Can’t take risks, can we?” Cal handed the headset to Miles. “Put this on. You’ll be home in no time.”

Miles ached to put on the headset, have his memories stripped, and return to his life.

But no. Everything he knew was fake. He was the lamb. And Project Omega was the slaughterhouse.

He threw the headset onto the floor. It smashed, breaking into a million tiny metal fragments. And then, he ran.

He ran out of the office and into the elevator. “Take me to the beds! Now!”

The elevator shot up and Miles stumbled out of it when it reached the big blinding room. As he ran, he kicked down as many beeping machines as he could. Slowly, the clamor of people awakening filled the room.

He heard Cal’s voice on the speaker system. “Find Subject 1082-C and inject him with the termination formula immediately!”

The automated voice said, “System breach! System breach!”

Miles ran and ran and ran and ran, kicking down machines as he went. He needed to get out. He needed to do something. His legs were about to break and then – a window.

There was an open window in the wall.

Miles kicked down a final machine and prepared to jump through the gaping window, into whatever came next.

He leaped.

But he didn’t fall. Someone was hoisting him up, and something was piercing into his neck, brimming his senses with pain, making him throw up fire.

Then it all went quiet.

This May 10th, 2104: “Chaos in a DreamScape facility in New York City has led to the death of a patient. Many patients were awoken and upset because of the mishap, and will have to go through memory extraction and reintegration into society, which is a major loss for the company. A 12-year-old boy, Miles LeGrande, was injected with a poison because of what the company called, ‘extreme circumstances’. The case has been looked into, and from video footage, it appears that the boy was able to wake up from the dream landscape in some way. DreamScape has been rumored to have such issues in the past. Now that there is conclusive evidence of this phenomenon, DreamScape is facing serious charges to do with faulty code and not enough clinical trials of the DreamScape simulative technology. Project Omega is set to be put on hold by the government. Further action is unclear.”



The sounds of laughing filled Crystal’s ears.

She held her book tight to her chest, trying not to draw any attention to herself. Not that anyone was paying attention to her, anyway. So she put down her sketchbook and fumbled for a pencil, opening it to the next blank page to start drawing.

She put the tip of her pencil on the sheet of paper, but stopped momentarily then: now what? A circle, she drew. And a line in the center, horizontally. Then connecting down to a jawline, to a chin, and a human head was done.

Now the eyes, the nose, the mouth: gracefully she let the pencil scratch the rough texture of the paper, until the face of an emotionless girl was finished. She drew a few strands of hair on the side of the girl’s face as her bangs, circling her pencil all the way back around her head to finish it up.

Then a long ponytail, and a quick sketch of a neck and a Japanese schoolgirl’s sailor uniform. The more she focused on her sketching the more she seemed to block out all that blabbering around her and the calmer she felt. Not that anyone cared about her, after all.

She clumsily filled in the background with her pencil, but she still felt like she was missing something. Tracing her pencil tip over the girl’s shoulder, she drew a small curve, something like a small door. Dotting a doorknob on the door she drew, she rested her hand on her hand as she continued fiddling with her pencil.

She looked at the time and closed her book, internally groaning at the thought that the next class was physical education. It was the loudest class, people playing with each other and laughing, especially how everyone was forced to touch one another during the game of Tag. It was practically a subject made to torture friendless people like her.

The bell rang as soon as she closed her book, and she sighed as she got up to hurry to the outdoor field. Squeezing through the hallways where everyone else was hustling, she stumbled to the stairs, subconsciously fixing her hair as she stepped down.

Her sketchbook: it flew out of her hand as someone bumped her elbow, tumbling down the stairs, onto the wet floor. Frantic, she sprinted towards it, scared that the water would soak her drawings, the drawings she worked so hard on.

But the ground was wet and as she reached out for her sketchbook she unfortunately slipped, causing her to crash onto the floor face first. People around her laughed and her face flushed red. It felt horrible when people were laughing, and it was because of you. They’re laughing at you.

She excused herself although there was no one around anymore paying attention to her, and ran into the bathroom, embarrassed and her heart pounding quickly. Oh no what an absolutely great way to start the day.

Opening a door to one of the stalls and locking it, she sat down on the toilet seat and groaned. She quickly covered her mouth, however, when she thought of the possibility that other girls around could hear her.

When she calmed down, she turned around, closing the toilet lid and pressing the flush button just in case people got suspicious of whatever she was doing. Not that anyone would care about such a normal, nerdy, weird person like she was.

As soon as her fingers touched the flushing icon, she felt weird. The cracks on the wall were in different places than they usually should be. Running her curious finger over them, she pressed harder.

A small door.

Gasping, she tucked her sketchbook into her uniform and pressed harder. The small door expanded, as if welcoming her into it.

The next class was physical education. She hated physical education. Surely disappearing in the bathroom would be a valid reason to miss it?

She climbed up onto the toilet seat and put a finger through the passageway. A faint cold fear made its way through her heart and she stopped momentarily in hesitation. She had no idea where the passage led. No... She should just go to class.

That’s right.

You don’t know where the passage leads.

That’s why you need to find out.

Go. Stick your leg in and let curiosity lead you forwards.

Even if it leads to death? It’s not worth it.

It’s a school bathroom. Surely it will not lead to death.

Hah! How bad could it be, anyway?

She hesitated, however, and quickly retreated her arm, pressing her ear to the wall just to make sure there wasn’t anything weird beneath the wall. After confirming that there were no unusual sounds, she once again put her hand through the passageway.

Oh! Her sketchbook.

She turned back to retrieve it from the top of the toilet seat, holding it with only two fingers. It opened, turning to the girl she had just drawn in the classroom a few minutes ago. The page was shining somehow, sparking Crystal’s curiosity.

Taking her hand out of the little door, she ran her hand over the little door on her sketchbook, and the glow disappeared. Lifting her finger once again, she saw something glowing beneath, from the door that she’d drawn behind the schoolgirl.

Surprised, she covered her hand over it and turned around to look at the passageway in the toilet stall. It had completely disappeared now, as well, but when she took her hand away, it reappeared. How fascinating.

Pinching her fingers on the faint glow coming from the little door she drew on the sketchbook, she watched the passageway in the toilet stall as it expanded with her finger movements. Fascinated, the worries in her head seemed to fade away as she once again put her hand through.

The tunnel was now big enough for her entire body, and she slid into the passageway. As soon as the last bit of hair was in, however, a large slam was to be heard behind her, and when she turned around, she was face-to-face with complete darkness.

Frantic, she pulled out her sketchbook. The glow was no longer there, so she had no source of light to guide her. Turning back around, she flailed her arms around to look for a wall that could lead her way. However, she couldn’t feel anything solid.

Giving up on struggling to find something that could guide her, she decided to just walk forwards: it felt like forever, especially because she didn’t have a watch on her not like she’d be able to see it anyway.

After some time, she caught a glimpse of light excited, she started speeding up, running towards the glow as if she was sprinting for her life. Technically she was, but it wasn’t the main thing that mattered right now.

The light grew brighter as she ran towards it, which made her relieved. When she was finally tired, she stumbled to a stop and panted, regaining her composure as she took a closer look at the light.

She saw a girl standing in front of the light: the ponytail girl in the sailor uniform she’d drawn. Surprised, Crystal approached the girl cautiously, raising her hand a little subconsciously as a greeting. She’d gotten used to holding her hand up to greet acquaintances whenever she passed them and smiling awkwardly, and that was what she did to the ponytail girl.

The ponytail girl tilted her head curiously but did not return the movement. Instead, she stepped aside, as if opening a pathway for Crystal to go through. Surprised, Crystal stepped into the light, and it shone to a maximum where she couldn’t see anything.

When it finally dimmed down, Crystal found herself in a room: a room that looked like a museum. She saw a little bird flying around in the room, and she thought of a small bird she’d drawn on the first page of her sketchbook.

Then there was a silly imitation of Mona Lisa hung on the wall. Crystal opened her sketchbook and found the exact same thing on the second page.

A little boy holding a kite, running around and laughing as if the kite was his friend.

A girl standing in a meadow, her hair blowing in the breeze, a tree her only company.

A flower, growing on the ceiling.

A smiling face.

A detailed and beautiful eye.

A microphone, positioned in the corner of the room.

A black sun.

A dragon, twirling its long and beautiful body through the sky.

A lonely cloud, shining and the odd one out among all the dark clouds in the sky.

A blood-stained knife.

A shot bird.

A swimming pool.

A student with a martial arts black belt.

A... a mirror.

Curious, Crystal stepped up to the mirror, running her finger over the clear glass. A reflection appeared: however, it was not merely a reflection. It was she herself, yes, but in a completely different position.

Frightened, Crystal yelped as she stumbled back. Her reflection yelped and stumbled back as well, covering her face with her hands. Surprised, Crystal stepped forwards, but her reflection only cowered in fear.

The girl in the mirror mouthed something. No? Don’t? Crystal frowned. What was she saying?

She mouthed it over and over and started trembling. Surprised, Crystal put her hand down, reaching out to comfort the girl. She only stepped back, stumbling until she slipped and fell onto the floor on her bottom.

The girl shook her head and covered her face once again. She curled her legs up and covered her face in her knees, shaking hard. Crystal stopped, confused and scared by what the girl in the mirror was doing.

Something broke. The mirror shattered, and a shard fell onto Crystal’s palm, slicing it. She winced and stumbled back in pain and saw that her reflection had been broken into shards, as well.

A beating heart appeared in front of her eyes, and it was bleeding, a knife impaled in it. Crystal’s eyes widened as she reached out to grasp it with her other uninjured hand, only to find out it was an illusion.

Staring at her broken reflection, her legs seemed to tremble, and she fell onto the ground, kneeling. Something seemed to ring in her ears:

The bird’s chirpings, the Mona Lisa’s sweet giggles, the boy’s laughter, the girl’s weeps, the flower’s song, the face’s cracking smile, the blinking of the eye, the blasting of the microphone, the eerie howl of the black sun, the dragon’s wails, the cloud’s sniffs, the knife’s stabbing and the people screaming, the bird's last chirp of agony, the silence of the swimming pool, the shouts of the student...

And the crying, the screams of the girl in the mirror.

Crystal felt dizzy now, and she closed her eyes, trying to block out the sounds. No...

She fell forwards and passed out.

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