The transition was disturbing, as Middlemarch melted away and the smell of buttered popcorn overtook Andi's senses. "Venez! Nous allons être en retard!" Lilianne's tiny voice rose over an indistinct murmur and a gentle tug at her sleeve urged Andi from the school's dining hall into a boisterous hall adorned with flashing lights and rotating banners for films she'd not heard of. "Venez!" Came Lili's voice again, this time more insistent. She was older, maybe ten now, and showing the earliest signs of the woman she'd one day become. Marcella's ring, which had actually been handed down for a least a couple generations prior, still hung on the sterling chain about her neck. That it occurred to Andi as "still" was jarring, for while Lili had aged, it was only that morning when they'd said their farewells at the train platform.
"Très bien! Très bien!" Andi allowed herself to be led by the hand toward the concessions counter and its gaudy array sucrose-laden treats - JuJubes, licorice whips, and row upon row of brightly-wrapped candy bars with their nougaty centers. Sadly, their milkier cocoa blends held little appeal for her, having acquired a taste for darker chocolates while in Switzerland, but Lili was drawn to them and begged Andi to purchase nearly everything she saw. There were perks to having an older sister for whom money was literally no object - a handful of play money and a little mojo had the sisters toting away a cardboard carton of confections, popcorn, and soda. Andi tucked the feelings of dissonance away, relishing these precious moments with her beloved Lilianne, despite the surreal nature of the vision or its spontaneous occurrence. She simply allowed herself to be absorbed by the dream.
Time seemed distorted, drawing out some moments and compressing others. By its conclusion the film was wholly forgotten, as though it had never happened, though distinct impressions of the experience lingered. Her boots had stuck to the floor, someone a couple rows back argued with his girlfriend for the duration, and Lili had eaten virtually the entire cup of popcorn. Afterwards, they loitered about the lobby, with Andi manipulating the signs identifying the gender of the restrooms, swapping them every so often and, in short order, causing absolute mayhem. They laughed to the verge of tears as shouts erupted from the restrooms, and even the occasional scream when someone got a view they hadn't expected. But something was amiss - a subtle shift in time, in mood, in the surroundings. It went unnoticed.
Still laughing, the pair stepped out onto Kensington High Street to find it awash in flames, some having erupted from cracks in the pavement, while others seemed to have rained down from the skies, which were themselves a horrifying display of writhing bodies. Lili grasped Andi with both arms and clung to her as the heavens wailed down at them in agony and was matched, in lesser form, by the screams of those around them, some bathed in flames and others literally torn from the ground toward the sickened skies. With a gesture, the images vanished behind a sea of white snowdrifts, and Andi pulled Lili closer, "Restez près. Je ne veux pas que tu sois froid."
"Andi?" Lili's dark eyes, overtaken with fear, searched for reassurance but found little from Andi, who seemed thoroughly focused on maintaining their surroundings. She gave but the briefest glance at the younger girl as she nudged them ahead toward Holland Park and hopefully away from the devastation surrounding them. A light flurry of fluffy snowflakes began to fall, dusting them in a light coating that smelled faintly of ash. Ahead of them, the trees lining Holland Park held their limbs low, heavy with icicles, and rows of flowerless rose bushes hid underneath a layer of frost. Snow crunched underfoot as the girls walked along a recently cleared stone path past a pair of wrought iron gates into the park proper. Everything about the imagery suggested a chilly January evening, down to the vaporous fog formed by their exhalations; however, a mild temperature and faint odors of sulphur and ash permeated the illusion.
The ring around Andi's toe burned as the cataclysm surrounding the pair remained behind the wintry veil. She wiped the back of her hand against her nose to quell a growing tickle, but felt wetness as the source was a tiny stream of blood. "Lili?" The mere effort of an utterance pierced the snowy curtain causing a small shrub to erupt in flames. Andi strained to maintain her concentration for just a moment longer.
"Oui?" Lili's small voice trembled.
"Vous avez à courir. Aussi vite que vous le pouvez. Courir à la maison." Andi felt her legs give way, but caught herself from falling, partially supported by Lili's arms about her waist. The lapse, however, shattered the veil of tranquility and exposed the true horror surrounding them. The trees of Holland Park were ablaze, at least those that hadn't already been reduced to upright embers, and the paths were lined, not with frosted roses, but with remnants of others who'd already been plucked skyward, violently ruptured by the force. Tears streamed down Lili's face as her young mind grasped the true gravity of their situation and began to succumb to uncontrollable terror, but Andi refused to allow it. Freeing herself of the child's grasp, she pushed away a bit and grabbed the girl, a hand on each cheek, and turned her head to force eye contact. So wild was the terror within Lili's dark eyes, that Andi feared there was little hope of reaching her. Still, she tried, raising her voice to shout a final, simple imperative.
Miraculously, something caught hold and, without thought, Lili clutched the sterling ring at her chest and muttered a short incantation, then evaporated into a blur of motion. Andi collapsed, the acrid smell of scorched earth burning her nostrils, and the trickle of blood flowed more heavily down her cheek to the ground beneath it. She watched as the blur streamed past columns of flame, eluding them with ease, and gave a faint smile as hope welled within her that Lili might escape this fate. That hope was dashed as a shadowy leviathan intercepted her and, in a single motion, cast the blur skyward into the sea of agony overhead. Andi closed her eyes and the snowdrifts reappeared, though less majestic in their detail than before. The catalyst, having already fused itself to her toe, tugged at her with violent vibrations until, at last, all went silent.
Andi blinked, and blinked again, as the great hall of Middlemarch returned to view. She stared at the table as the headmistress spoke, absently wiping the occasional tear from her cheek. Though she'd already committed herself to making her best attempt at remaining a student, the vision steeled her resolve. Where others found home in a place, hers was found only in Lilianne, the closest thing to family she could claim and she clung to that dearly. If Headmistress Ford had given them a true glimpse of the future, then she had absolutely nothing to lose, for it was already gone. Admittedly, a part of her wanted to leave and forget - to go home and spend what time remained with her sister. But she couldn't so long as there was hope.
"I guess it's even more important to survive this whole initiation business now."
"Surviving isn't good enough." Andi spoke with cold determination as she cleared a final tear from her cheek.