I know this place.
Four white walls, a white ceiling, and a matching floor, all smooth and spotless. A bare cot in the corner of the room illuminated by one lonely lightbulb.
How long has it been since I left this shithole?
“Wake up, Celestria.” A monotone voice addresses the room with its grating drone. The tiny hairs on my forearms jump upright, wavering like a tightrope walker crossing a perilous line. My brow furrows. Looking back towards the cot, I spot the hazy outline of a little girl sitting by herself. She hugs her knees to her chest as if they were a shield. So helpless – a feeling long forgotten. What I haven’t forgotten is how I suffered on that little cot, though.
It’s always strange to see yourself in a dream. How many days has her stomach gnawed at itself? Since her cracked lips knew the touch of clean water? It was difficult to keep count of those things. And there it is – that telltale knock, knock, knock of bony knuckles on sheet metal. It was time for another examination. Her tiny frame shudders with dread as the door swings aside…
My eyes snap open and I freeze. Something is hovering inches away from my face. Nostrils flare, hungrily devouring my scent. Two eyes, shadowed and vacant, sit affixed beside gaunt cheekbones. I don’t move. I don’t even breath. Am I still dreaming? No, the stench of gore is too vivid for this to be another dream.
My hands curl into fists. Soft cotton sheets meet my fingers instead of the smooth rosewood of my sword’s hilt. Where is my sword…? My heart beats like a war drum on a steady approach. It still hasn’t moved. Time ticks on in silence as it studies me, each grain of sand slipping through the hourglass one… by… one…
It straightens up. A lantern flickers in the corner of my eye. The silhouette stands tall and motionless like a monolith. It radiates an intense aura – deep purple, the color of loathing. Scan the room without moving my head, looking for my sword – no good, the lantern barely casts any light. Just shadows and the stranger beside my bed. Wait. Just shadows? What about the children? The mother? I can’t sense them at all. Goosebumps up and down my arms now.
That’s when I notice the sound. Drip, drip. Drip, drip. Right beside the bed. My surroundings begin to sharpen. The visitor is holding something at its side, but it’s too dark to see clearly. Could it be a thief making off with my host’s belongings? The thought energizes me to action and I sit up in bed. Sword or no sword, I can handle a thief.
“Come with me.” The voice of a man, scratchy and hoarse. The visitor turns away and steps towards the door, into the light of the lantern.
My lips part and my heart dives into my stomach. I lock eyes with the little girl who had begged me to save her mother just this morning. Her severed head, along with her mother and brother’s, hang suspended by a fistful of hair. Vacant eyes, scared and pleading, mouths agape. The door swings open and they disappear with the specter, but not before the sight burns itself into my memory.
Rage. You won’t get away with this, you son of a bitch! I spring out of the bed and grab the lantern. My sword. Where is my sword? Stomp around the cottage looking for one thing and one thing only – my sword. Where is it? There it is, propped up by the window. Grab it, rip the scabbard off. A bloodcurdling scream from outside. Someone saw it? Lantern in one hand, naked blade in the other, I burst out of the cottage with murder in my eyes.
Two hazy outlines in the street before me. I recognize one – the specter, radiating a hatred that might match my own. A slumped figure lying on the ground behind it – another victim? Another life cut short? Quick footsteps carry me forward and I rip my katana through its back, biting into the bone. Not deep enough. It staggers forward, snarls, and turns towards me. Face to face again in the middle of the street. Dead, white eyes. Eyes like mine. It bares its teeth and I respond in kind. Neither of us move.
Angry shouting in the distance. It’s getting louder. I see lights approaching from a distance.
“What are you?” It snarls at me. Don’t speak, just die, you bastard! My blade slices through empty air as it ducks down. It’s fast. I follow up with another cut, but it doesn’t connect and I stumble forward. The specter takes the opportunity to dart past me. Square up again, but it’s already gone. Disappeared into the darkness.
Where did it go!? A sharp hiss as I inhale through clenched teeth. It’s not human. It can’t be. It’s too quick. I can’t see well enough to tell where it might have gone.
“Don’t move!” I turn out of reflex. Something hard cracks me in the jaw and the world spins sideways. I stagger and fall to the ground. Flagstone on bare skin. A circle of lantern lights dance a drunken waltz before everything goes black.
Floating now. Head hurts. Heavy footsteps. Loud voices. Make it stop. I want to go back to sleep…
My eyes are open again. It’s dark and I’m alone. My head still hurts. I still feel stone pressing against my back. My sword is missing again. So are my my sandals and my satchel. Did I leave them in the cottage? Groan. What is this place?
“Hello…?” My jaw throbs as I call out to the darkness.
“She’s awake now.” Someone thinks. A man nearby. No aura. Is he in another room?
“Where am I?” I ask. A warm light filters through the window in front of me, parted by three iron bars.
“You’re in prison, witch.” A man’s voice calls out from behind the light. I can’t see his face. Looking around, I confirm that I am sitting in a dingy prison cell. Shit…
“Why am I here?” My question is met with a gruff growl.
“Why do you think, witch?” The guard spits back.
“I wouldn’t be asking you if I knew, asshole!” Now it’s my turn to snarl. I stand up and nearly fall over – it’s still hard to balance. My outstretched hand finds the wall and I use it to steady myself.
“Has the magic rotted your brain, witch? Or are human lives so insignificant to you that you cannot remember the four you just ended?” His voice burns with righteous anger. Oh no. They think that I killed them? Didn’t they see the culprit flee!?
“You idiots! It wasn’t me. I fought the murderer! You let him escape!?” I snap back at him.
“We caught you red-handed. I’ve got your bloody sword right here, too. You’ll be hung tomorrow morning without a trial, so enjoy the last few hours of life you have left. Don’t get any big ideas, either!” The fire in his voice lingers. I groan again. How am I going to get out of this mess? A deep sigh escapes my lips.
Alright, Seles. Calm down. Think. You’ve escaped from a prison once before, haven’t you? Yes, I have. First thing’s first.
“Athos… can you hear me?” My thoughts echo into the void. Silence. A cold sweat creeps down the back of my neck. Did they break the mirror!?
“Yes, my Queen. I can hear you.” A familiar voice that only I can hear.
“Where are you, Athos?” I hear the guard shuffling around outside.
“I am in the cottage, my Queen. The cat is here with me.” The cottage? Damn, I must have left my mirror and my sandals there. How stupid of me…
“Come forth then. I summon you to this world. Bring Porthos with you. I need your help.” My familiars might not be as powerful in the real world, but they can at least fetch my things for me. I hear a feline meow loudly in protest.
“Already bossing me around? Sheesh. I was just taking a nap.” A new voice now – that must be Porthos, The Goblin Cat. My new familiar.
“You belong to me now, cat. You are bound to my bidding. Now, listen carefully. Porthos, you are to fetch my belongings from the cottage. Take my mirror, sandals, and satchel, then wait for us on the edge of town in a secluded place. That is your task.” I rapidly rattle off my orders.
“You’re making me carry your things? Why me? Can’t the bird do it instead? And why is my name Porthos? Don’t I get any say in that!?” Porthos hisses back.
“Because I said so. Stop arguing with me and do as I say, or your new name will be Mr. Stinky Bottom!” Didn’t I tell Athos to show him the ropes? Another sigh escapes me.
“Fine…!” He yowls.
“What are your orders, my Queen?” Athos chimes in, as loyal and obedient as ever. I hope he rubs off on Porthos soon.
“Come to me. I need to borrow your sight so I can get out of here.” I respond. No need for directions or a location – Athos can sense my presence.
“At once, my Queen.” Athos responds. With that, silence returns. Only one thing left to do now and that is bust out of this filthy prison cell. How am I going to do that…?
A sly grin creeps across my lips as I step towards the door. Peering out the barred window, I spot the guard sitting next to the door, back against the wall as he smokes a cigarette. Seems like it’s just us here. This must be solitary confinement. Perfect. I couldn’t ask for a better set-up.
“Hey, you. If you’re just going to hang me without a trial, I think I am entitled to a final request.” My voice is sultry, radiating with hidden power. The guard doesn’t bother to look at me, though.
“Let me guess… you want to get laid one last time before you die? Nice try, witch, but I’m no fool.” The guard’s response is as gruff as ever. Looks like I’m dealing with a seasoned veteran here. No matter.
“Don’t flatter yourself. You wouldn’t be able to handle me anyways.” My voice continues to ooze with the hidden power of suggestion. He won’t be able to hold out for long, not when he’s sitting a few feet away from me.
“… What is it then?” He asks. That’s right, fall under my spell…
“I want a smoke. Isn’t it proper to give someone a smoke before they’re wrongfully accused of murder and executed?” My voice softens, pleading with him, but my eyes are glittering with anticipation. He’ll fall for it.
“Get your own, witch.” His voice has lost some of its edge, but he’s still holding out. We have a tough customer here, but he’ll crack.
“But I want one of yours. Besides, I didn’t kill anyone… I mean, just look at me. I’m not a witch! I’m a medicine woman!” I pretend to pout. C’mon, you bastard. Take the bait!
“If I give you one, will you shut up for the rest of the night?” Finally, he turns his head to look up at the window framing my face. I nod my head emphatically. Just a little more…
“Fine then. One cigarette. Just one.” Now he stands up and reaches into his pocket before withdrawing a small, flat tin. He opens it, revealing several cigarettes. He fingers one and flicks it through the window bars. It hits me square in the forehead before it falls to the floor. I crouch down and pick it up, then place it between my lips.
“I need a light.” I ask with my sweetest, most innocent voice. I grab two of the window bars and press my face between then, cigarette dangling from my lips. Just a little more…
“Fine. Hold still.” The guard fishes a square metal lighter out of his pocket, then flicks it open and strikes the wick with a practiced motion. Not bad. The flame draws near to the end of the cigarette and I can’t help but smile. Too easy.
My hands dart out from behind the bars to grab his wrist. My fingers find the bare skin on his forearm. Just like that, I’ve won.
“You belong to me now.” My voice reverberates throughout the inside of his skull, impossibly loud. His eyes go wide and he freezes in place. Not so tough now, are you, big guy? You’re mine for the next five minutes or more. I release his wrist.
“Light my cigarette. Now.” The guard proceeds to light my cigarette. My lips pucker as I take a long draw before blowing a cloud of smoke in his face. His eyes water and I note the tinge of sapphire emanating from his pupils – the telltale sign of a successful possession.
“Unlock the cell and let me out.” The guard doesn’t hesitate to pull the keyring from his belt and after a few moments, I hear the cylinders in the lock beginning to turn. A second later, the door swings open and I calmly step outside of the prison cell.
“Fetch my sword and give me the keys.” The guard complies with this command as well. He’s nothing more than a puppet on a string now. As I grasp my sword, I feel a sense of relief wash over me. Nearly done here, soon I’ll be on my way… but what to do with this dolt?
“Give me the keys. Strip naked, leave your clothes on the floor, then get in the cell and go to sleep.” My final command. The guard does as he’s told and I lock him inside the cell before I help myself to his cloak, boots, and some of his other effects, donning them all to make a somewhat convincing disguise. My sword finds its home again, inside my waist sash, then I draw the hood of his cloak tight around my face. Lantern in one hand, cigarette in the other, I make my way down the hallway, keeping my head down to avoid making eye contact with anyone. Piece of cake.
There is hardly a soul awake to interfere as I use the lights along the ceiling as waypoints to mark my way. The guards that I do pass by pay no attention to me. This place seems pretty understaffed. I wonder why? Probably getting drunk somewhere. No matter — soon enough I find myself walking out the front door of the prison without anyone raising a finger to stop me.
“I am here, my Queen.” I hear a familiar voice once again and I look up. A bright orange aura catches my eyes. It’s small, like a bird. It must be Athos posing as a crow again. I nod to him.
“Fly overhead and guide me out of this town. You are my eyes now.” With that, Athos unfurls his wings and takes flight, circling high above the town. His bird’s eye view of the settlement and its roads flashes before my eyes.
“I need directions. This city is like a maze to me.”
“Yes, my Queen. Take a right into the alleyway after another twenty paces.” He chirps in reply. Such a faithful little friend. What would I do without him?
I keep my eyes on the ground in front of me, careful not to bump into anyone or anything as I follow his directions. After all, I can’t see more than a few feet in front of my face, not even in broad daylight. Magical eyes are not without their pitfalls, I guess.
After walking for some time, the flagstone gives way to loose gravel. The din of the taverns and gambling halls are long gone now. A small, light red aura appears in the distance. The silhouette gradually becomes clear – it’s a small cat. This must be Porthos. He hisses as we approach, but thankfully he’s much less intimidating in this form.
I kneel down close so I can see him better. A little black cat, nondescript except for his ruby red eyes and streaks of white radiating outward from his wet little nose. Reaching out, I offer him a little pat on the head, but he turns away and saunters off. Fine, be that way. I pick up my satchel and sling it around my neck and shoulder.
“Well done, you two.”I offer my familiars a heartfelt job well done.
“Thank you, my Queen! It is a privilege to serve you.” Athos offers his regal reply, formal as ever. Porthos just meows and keeps on strutting down the road in front of me, tail raised high. The world begins to brighten now – that must be the dawn sun creeping over the horizon. The sun… something I’ve only seen clearly in drawings, pictures, and paintings.
“Where shall we go now, my Queen?” Athos’ query reigns in my wandering mind. I ponder as I put one foot in front of the other, keeping the cat in front of me as the little crow bounces down the road beside me.
Good question. I’m not sure where I want to go next, but I know I want to put everything that just happened as far behind me as I possibly can. Would I like to avenge that little girl and her family? Of course, but even if I could find that specter, I’m not confident I can kill it. Even if I could, it won’t bring them back. What’s done is done. They were strangers, kind ones, but strangers nonetheless, and tragedies like this happen every day. I’m no hero. Heroes wind up dead.
“To the next township, Athos.” And so it goes.
Written by Jungle, (C) 2021, all rights reserved.