Where am I? A bright, full moon hangs overhead, shedding its light on a clearing in the middle of a forest. The surrounding trees loom tall, like dark and ominous strangers. Standing alone, I feel exposed. It seems as if the entire world is asleep. Something rises up from the center of the clearing. It seems… geometric, somehow. What is it?
My boots plod against damp grass as the structure grows larger and sharper. It’s a door. Just a door, no building behind it. Who put this here? My unease melts away into curiosity as I circle the doorway. My knuckles rap against it thrice – knock, knock, knock. It’s solid, sturdy. My fingertips brush against the wood’s grain and I can feel something engraved there. Is this a crescent moon? The craftsmanship is beautiful. Why would someone go through the trouble of making this only to leave it in the middle of nowhere?
“Help…” A meek voice whispers a single word. My blood freezes. Is someone here? My eyes dart left and right as I scan the clearing again. Nobody’s here. Could someone be hiding in the trees? Or maybe I’m hearing things? I hold my breath and listen.
“In here…” There it is again. I didn’t imagine it. It sounds like a woman is trying to speak to me from behind the door. My heart starts to beat faster. Quick footsteps carry me around the other side of the door and back again. Nobody’s there. How could that be possible? My gaze drifts down, towards a translucent glass handle blown into the shape of a seven-pointed star. I wonder if it’s locked?
My outstretched hand hovers over it, hesitating, then my fingers close around the doorknob and twist it open. As soon as the latch clicks, a sudden gust of wind blows the door wide open and it knocks me on my rear. My hair whips around my face, covering my mouth and muffling a surprised gasp. It’s so bright! Light pours through the doorframe, bathing me in silver. My eyes nearly shut as I squint to figure out what I’m looking at. For a second it seems like I’m staring at a beautiful painting of the night sky, complete with a luminescent moon, accompanied by a guard of rolling clouds, and set against a backdrop of a night sky studded with stars. It’s not a painting, though. Those soft, majestic clouds are moving.
Time ticks on as I sit in quiet awe. A magical doorway in the middle of nowhere? I stand up and dust myself off. The wind continues to wail. Shivers race up and down my spine. I poke my head through the opening and peer down. My stomach flutters – the ground gives way at the door’s threshold.
Then the realization hits me: it’s a doorway to the sky. This can’t be real. If it is, it has to be some kind of magic. Hundreds of questions zip through my head – who made this? Why did they make it? What is its purpose? Can the door go to other places too? I think about closing it and opening it again to test that thought, but I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll lose this breathtaking view. I poke my head through the doorframe and look down once more.
A glimmer of light flickers near my feet. It’s very faint, barely perceptible, but I can see it – the reflection of the moonlight against the open sky… but how is that possible? I drop to a crouch and look closer. It seems like there is some sort of translucent pathway leading out from the door. I reach out and try to touch it. The air is firm and smooth, like a bridge made out of glass.
“Please help me…” The voice calls out again and I look up. I still can’t see anybody out there. I wonder how far this bridge goes?
Another weighty realization hits me: if I am going to answer her call, I’ll need to go out there. Will that bridge even support my weight? The bottom of my boot taps against the translucent platform. It feels solid. With one hand on the door frame, I lean my weight against the glass, testing the bridge a little more. So far so good. A tremor shoots up my leg as I stomp the heel of my boot down upon it. No cracks, not even a scuff.
“Hurry…!” She calls to me again and I can sense the urgency in her voice. Deep breath, Seles.
I step through the doorway and onto the bridge. It feels just as sturdy as the earth on the other side, if not more so. A few cautious steps carry me further from safety and out into the night sky. Amazing. The whole world sits beneath me as the moon hangs overhead, larger than I’ve ever seen. For a moment, I forget what I’m doing.
“This way…!” The voice calls out to me again. I cautiously advance, carefully tracking the traces of moonlight reflected along the glass. A misstep here would spell my doom. Another gust of wind crashes against me, threatening to knock me off balance. I gulp. Lights flicker far below me – probably a city. It seems so small, like a castle made of sand. Time feels infinite up here. I continue to walk along the bridge as the doorway gets smaller and smaller behind me.
“Where are you?” I cup my hands to cheeks and call out loudly.
“I’m right here, Celestria…” A raspy voice fills my ears, followed by a bang as the door slams shut. I spin around, startled. The door is gone, replaced by a dark silhouette radiating crimson wrath. That voice… is it the visitor from the other night? The aura is so intense that it looks like a flaming effigy. My hand instinctively reaches for my katana, but it only finds empty air. Not again!
“Mother wants to see you, Celestria.” His raspy voice calls out in a mock sing-song tone, punctuated by a twisted chuckle. The sense of déjà vu gives way to recognition, and with it, dread. It’s not the visitor from the other night. It’s something much worse — it’s him. The Stranger. He’s found me again! The burning silhouette begins to grow…
Shit! I can’t fight up here, I can barely tell where the bridge is! Before I can come up with a plan, he breaks into a sprint, heading right at me. I spin on my heel and start to run away, pushing off the glass with as much power as my legs can muster. The dizzying wind threatens to blow me off the narrow path again. His cackling is getting louder…!
A passing cloud blocks the moon and the reflection that guided my way suddenly disappears. The bridge becomes invisible. I keep running anyways – getting caught would be worse than dying. Please let it keep going straight ahead! Please let the light shine again! Please let me survive this! He’s so close, I can’t outrun him. What do I do!? Someone help me! My foot plunges through empty air and the sensation of weightlessness washes over me as I tumble down. I’m falling! The Stranger’s cackles are drowned by the wind tossing me around like a ragdoll. My eyes squeeze shut, but I can still imagine the earth rushing up towards me, closer and closer. This is it. I’ll die here. At least I got to see that wonderful view before I went…
“Your Highness, please wake up!”
My eyes snap open and I sit up, chest heaving, sweat trickling down my temples. My hand reaches to my hip and finds the smooth wooden finish of my katana’s hilt. My eyes snap back and forth like a whip, searching for the Stranger. He’s not there though. Just the open field I made camp in. The moon is gone and I can tell by the warm light washing over me that the sun is up. It was only a dream. A deep sigh of relief escapes me.
“Good morning, your Highness.” A familiar voice that only I can hear. It’s Athos. The little crow skips along the grass and stands beside me.
“… Good morning, Athos.” It takes me a second to catch my breath and respond. I offer him a pat on the head and he wiggles his tail feathers in appreciation.
“Please forgive me for startling you, my Queen, but something has come up.” His beak dips down towards the ground as he spreads his wings — did he just bow to me? Yes, I think he did. For a second, I wonder if I am still dreaming and pinch myself. It hurts. I am definitely awake, but my eyelids feel like iron weights.
“Is something wrong?”
“We are being pursued, your Highness. It seems the guards have learned of your escape.” The little crow points one wing in the direction of the settlement we fled from last night. It seems like I’m always on the run these days, whether I’m awake or asleep. Better get moving then. I slowly climb to my feet and brush the dirt off my dress.
“On the move again? But I hardly slept…” Now it’s Porthos’ turn to chime in. The black cat is curled up on a patch of grass with his eyes shut.
“We don’t have time for this, cat.” Athos chides him. Porthos opens one eye to glare at Athos and hisses at him.
“Porthos, you can nap later. We have to get out of here.” My command is stern. The feline leisurely stands up, arches his back, then saunters over. Now that I think about it, this is the first time I’ve seen him in the daylight. What striking eyes he has, like two vibrant rubies — a stark contrast to his pitch-black fur. Looks like I’ve acquired another handsome pet… now if only I could do something about that attitude of his.
“May I make a suggestion, my Queen?” Athos speaks up again and I give him a nod. “I found a cabin off in the woods to the north. I don’t think the guards will look for us there.” He flaps one of his wings as he explains, as if to better articulate himself.
“Alright then. Athos, take to the skies and lead us there.” My little crow companion responds immediately; with a skip, a hop, and a few flaps of his wings, he takes off, climbing into the sky with ease.
“Porthos, follow Athos and guide me.” The cat flicks his tail back and forth, annoyed, then looks away. I sigh and shake my head. “You can take a long nap once we get to safety.” I continue.
“Promise?” His tail stops, standing at attention.
“Yes, I promise.” With that, we set out, fleeing civilization, and wandering off into the wilderness to avoid capture. After some time, we enter the forest, and then after walking some more, we reach our destination; a rustic log cabin tucked into the forest.
I can’t help but admire the design – a flat face in front, home to two windows on either side of the front door along with a roof reaching up from the ground on either side to meet at the top. Very symmetrical aside from the haphazard patches of moss dotting its walls and the leafy vines stretching down from the roof. Maybe a witch lives here? An old hermit? Or perhaps it’s been deserted? Ooh, how wonderful that would be – a little witch cottage in the woods with nobody around to bother me. That would be a welcome change of pace. First thing’s first though.
“Porthos, it’s almost nap time. Would you do me a favor and scout that cabin? There is a window next to the front door, maybe you can see inside it?”
“… You’re going to make me climb now?” Porthos looks back over his shoulder and swishes his tail back and forth. “Why can’t you do it? You’re taller than I am, after all.” Well, he does have a point there.
“If someone’s home and they see me peering into their window, they might get spooked and tell us to keep walking. You wouldn’t want that, would you?” I smile as I wag my finger at him. Appealing to his interest seems to be the best way to persuade him.
“… Fine, I’ll check it out.” With that, Porthos approaches the building. Instead of going straight to the window, he disappears behind the cabin. A few moments later, he reappears out front again, but from the other side. Then he stops once to sniff the door a few times. Why does it seem like he’s done this before? Next, he leaps up onto the windowsill and peers inside.
“What do you see in there?” I ask.
“… I think there’s a dead guy inside. Well, maybe not dead. He could be asleep. Hard to tell. He’s not moving at all though.” Porthos responds. I nod my head and quietly approach the front door.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Hello? Is anybody home?” I call out. No response.
“He hasn’t moved. I think he’s dead.” Porthos comments. A sudden rush of air followed by a few stray feathers announces the return of Athos. He perches himself on a nearby tree limb, surveying the cabin.
“What was it that Trent used to say? Something like, ‘dead men don’t own anything,’ right?” I think to myself. Well, he was right. I wonder what Trent’s up to? Now, now, Seles, don’t get distracted. We don’t think about him anymore, remember?
Knock, knock, KNOCK.
Still no response. Well, breaking in could be forgiven if I save his life, right? On the other hand, I could get blamed for another crime I didn’t commit. Oh well. Time to roll the dice. I try the door handle. Why is it unlocked? That seems strange, although I don’t think he got many visitors out here. With a light push, the door swings open and I step inside the dwelling, Porthos following at my heel.
“I shall watch the door and warn you if anyone approaches, my Queen.” Athos says. Good thinking. I turn my attention to the cabin’s interior. It’s dark – not too many windows in here. Wait, didn’t I help myself to that guard’s lighter? My hand fishes around inside my satchel and my fingers close around cold metal – there it is. The cap flicks open and I thumb the wheel, igniting the wick. A soft orange flame sparks to life.
Now I can see things a bit better. Nearby, two candles and some scattered pieces of paper on a small table and a couple on the floor beside it. I step forward and light the candles, then pocket my lighter and continue to explore. I spot a shelf with some cookware next to a wood stove. On the other side of the room, there are bookshelves. His collection is pretty impressive — I haven’t seen this many books since Trent and I lived together. I wonder what he’s doing now? Damnit. Seles, we’ve been through this – you don’t think about him anymore. That’s twice today…
Back to the situation at hand. So far, this seems pretty typical some loner living out in the woods. Porthos stands nearby, tail standing at attention. I quietly walk over and take a closer look at the cabin’s lone inhabitant – an old man lying in bed. At least, I think he’s old – wrinkles line his pale face and his hair is mostly gray with a few streaks of black still holding out. Lucky guy though – seems like he’s managed to keep most of his hair. I’d guess he’s in his fifties? Yeah, that seems about right.
I don’t see any sort of aura around him. Maybe he died of natural causes? Well, better double check just to make sure, and so I place my hand in front of his face. It’s hard to tell, but I can feel the warmth of his breath against the back of my palm. He’s alive and breathing. Why didn’t he wake up when I knocked? This hermit must sleep like a rock if that didn’t startle him. Something’s not right here. I turn away from the bed and come face to face with a man standing directly beside me.
My heart leaps into my throat. Frantic, I grab the hilt of my katana and rip it from its scabbard, swinging it through the man’s midsection and cleaving him in two. Porthos jumps back and hisses at me. Athos squawks from outside and bursts through the open door, flying circles around the room.
“My Queen! Are you alright!?” He chirps away.
Wait a minute. Huh? The man’s still standing there. No bloody wound. He didn’t even flinch. My sword felt like it passed through thin air. Hold on a second. Am I seeing things again? I blink twice. It’s not a man after all – it’s just the aura of a man. A disembodied aura. Well, this is a first.
“So sorry, miss, I didn’t mean to spook you!” My heart continues to pound as the faint blue outline of a man quietly addresses me. Is it a ghost? Wait a second. I squint at the ghost for a second, then I look back over my shoulder at the old man, asleep in his bed.
“Perhaps I could ask a favor of you?” The shade points at the sleeping man. The puzzle pieces itself together. It’s the old man. Well, his aura, anyways, or maybe his essence would be a better way of putting it. I manage to nod my head a couple times.
“Can you try to wake me up? I seem to have gotten… stuck.” He addresses me politely.
“Uh… huh…” I manage to respond, then I turn towards the bed and poke the old man in the shoulder with the wooden scabbard of my sword. The sleeping hermit doesn’t wake up. I poke him again, harder this time. Nothing. The ghost standing beside me sighs, defeated.
“I was afraid something like this would happen one day. Seems like I am locked out of my own body.” He says, turning away from me with a sigh. He begins muttering to himself. Locked out of his body? That sounds familiar.
“What are you exactly?” I ask the shade. He turns around again.
“Good question. I guess you could call me a traveler, young lady. I have a special power – I can leave my body behind and freely travel the world. You are the second person I have met who can actually see me like this. It is a fantastic gift, but it seems to have… eh… backfired on me.” The shade offers his explanation.
“My Queen… who is it you are speaking to?” Athos’ voice in my head again.
“You can’t see him?” I think back.
“See who?” Athos responds. I look down at Porthos.
“There’s nobody here except the sleeping guy, lady. You crazy?” Porthos’ voice now. I shake my head. Okay. There is a transparent, blue man here that only I can see. Oh well. Stranger things have happened.
“There’s a spirit here.” I explain, then turn back towards the shade. Both of my familiars cock their heads to the side and stare at me in disbelief. Really? Why is that so hard for two magical familiars to believe? Sheesh.
“What do you mean you are locked out? It’s your body, isn’t it?” I ask him.
“It would appear that I’ve been possessed.” The shade says flatly, staring at the bed with a solemn expression. “While I was out, something moved in.” Now the puzzle pieces really start to fit together. This sounds like another case of Morosia. The memory of the white eyed assailant holding the severed heads of the mother and her children flashes through my mind and I shake my head to get it out of there. The shade offers me a quizzical expression.
“Today’s your lucky day then. I just happen to be an exorcist.” The shade’s eyebrows raise up – now it’s his turn to be surprised. I smirk at him.
“Young lady, if you can rid me of that parasite, I will be forever in your debt. Please, help me! I must see my beloved Larissa again…” The man’s voice trembles with urgency. He tries to grab my shoulders and plead with me, but his hands pass right on through. I wave him away, still smirking.
“Relax, old man. I’ll take care of it… but in return, you’ve got to promise to feed me and let me sleep here as long as I want.” The ghost shakes his head up and down with vigor. Porthos meows loudly.
“My pets too.” I add.
“Deal!” He says. I offer my hand for him to shake. He goes to take it, but once again, his hand passes right through me. Close enough. Time to get started. I take a seat next to the bed. After fishing around my satchel for a moment, I find it – the golden mirror. I place it on my lap and look down at it.
“Athos, Porthos – prepare yourselves. We’re going back to the dream world.”
A SAGE, A DEMON, AND A GAME: PART 1
Written by Jungle, (C) 2021, all rights reserved.