Only Power: 2

The history of Ostium was ancient, fascinating, and full of bloodshed.

Hadrian had been told the tale time and time again as a child born into the elite. The great Ostinite empire, its reach greater than any kingdom to ever hold power…

It all began with a chasm.

This is a snippet from the second chapter of a story which I am posting here:

Only Power

Only Power

 

Don’t tell me I’m lost at sea, good man! Don’t tell me I’m lost at sea! For the water’s my wife, my home and my life…”

A dramatic pause in which all the singers closed their eyes, their stringed instruments still in their hands. The small crowd of people, tightly packed into the bar, cat-called and cheered. Hadrian whistled loudly amongst them.

The performers looked up and raised their hands. The audience sang the last line with them, loud and mirthful.

I’m right where I’m meant to be!”

They strummed out a final tune and everyone applauded. The performers bowed graciously.

“Thank you!” the lead singer called, holding his lyre above his head. “Thank you, lovely citizens of Latria! There’s a reason you’re our favorite city!”

Everyone cheered more emphatically at that. “But don’t tell those arrogant Ostinites we’ve said as much!” another different musician called, and the crowd laughed.

Hadrian laughed louder than them all, as he technically was an Ostinite—but he’d left Ostium behind for many reasons, and he didn’t exactly tell people where he was from.

He hated the capital. He despised the suffocating stone structures which absorbed the heat of the sun, the ridiculous amounts of people, and, most of all, the politics. If Hadrian could go the rest of his life without hearing about another scandal of some lewd patrician slandering his opponent, then he might just die happy.

Latria was the antithesis of Ostium. The city on the water was cool and open, a place where music, culture, and art thrived…

Hadrian had only lived in Latvia for two years, but he knew at once that he belonged in the city dedicated to the water Goddess. Unlike in Ostium, where Hadrian had been ridiculed as a child by his elitist peers for his… peculiarities, here, such uniqueness was celebrated. Latvia was progressive where the rest of the country was conservative, tolerant rather than oppressive.

Hadrian had joined an artist’s guild upon arrival. He had learned how to paint with pigments made of oil on wood, and he had even dabbled in poetry and music. His painting was progressing decently enough, but he had nowhere near the skills of the musicians who had been playing their entire lives.

“Hadrian!” One of those skilled musicians called to him now, pushing past a few people in the crowd and offering him a ceramic mug. He was a member of the band which had just performed—a cithara player, and one of Hadrian’s good friends. “Another ale, since you bought the last round.”

Hadrian smiled as he accepted it. He probably didn’t need another beer—he felt unsteady as it was—but then again, such knowledge had never stopped him before. “To your fine future.”

“To your fine future,” Simon parroted back, clinking his cup to Hadrian’s before they both drank. Hadrian was amazed at how much he’d grown to like the taste of ale—in Ostium, the elites considered it a barbaric beverage, only for the common people. Wine was the drink of choice, there.

Hadrian would admit that he didn’t care for it at first. Now, however, the ale tasted almost sweet on his tongue. Refreshing, even.

The two were nearly shoved into each other, the crowd suddenly rowdy and clamoring for the bar now that the music had stopped. Hadrian adored it all. The ale, his eccentric and artistic friends, the atmosphere of this public place where the middle class gathered—a place which any of the elite in the capital would cringe at the mere notion of.

Especially if they knew he, Hadrian Horatius, was partaking. He could sense his parents’ displeased eyes and resigned sighs even now. Hadrian’s father had given him his blessing to travel once he’d turned sixteen, on the assumption that Hadrian would come back home quite quickly on his own.

Some traveling shall do you well. You shall realize how great the splendor of the capital really is, once you no longer have it.’

This had not been the case.

Hadrian laughed as Simon began belting out another well-known song, corralling the rest of the merry drunks into singing back to him as though the performance had not yet ended. “She is the fairest maiden of the land!” he called, and the crowd, as well as Hadrian, responded at once:

But she’s not of the land, you brute!”

Aye, too true, she’s of the sea!” Simon answered, and they all finished together:

My Goddess, the glorious Mystute!”

Everyone clapped again. Hadrian took another drink of his ale, feeling cheerful and wondering if he should buy another round soon. He probably shouldn’t. He probably would.

“Hadrian!”

Someone from the far side of the bar was called out to him. Hadrian frowned, wondering if, perhaps he had misheard the shrill cry of his name from the entryway.

He hadn’t. “Hadrian! Hadrian Horatius!”

Hadrian dropped his cup. Simon looked at him questionably, but Hadrian ignored both him and the broken porcelain, quickly moving towards the source of stranger shouting his name—his full name!—in this place. He swore under his breath as he forced his way through the crowd, eager to prevent whoever it was from shouting it to the world again.

He found him easily enough. A man in a grey tunic, the garments of a messenger. He blinked at Hadrian for a second before saying, “Are you—?”

“Yes,” Hadrian hissed, grabbing the man by the shoulder and dragging him outside, away from the people. “What is it?”

The man paused, taking a long moment to examine Hadrian’s face and look into his eyes as though for confirmation—first one, then the other. Hadrian had to resist the urge to close one eye out of spite. He hated when people did that.

Though he supposed it was a simple way to identify him. “I have a letter for you,” the messenger finally answered, looking appeased. He withdrew a small, sealed scroll. The Horatius family’s insignia of a serpent was engraved into the wax, long and undulating.

“It’s from your mother.”

Hadrian’s first reaction was annoyance. His mother wrote him all the time, long messages informing him of every little thing that was happening in the capital, and, with increasing tones of concern, beseeching him to come home. Hadrian took the letter and shoved it in his pocket. “Thanks,” he muttered. “I’ll read it later. Now, if you don’t mind—”

“Sir, she instructed me to make sure you read this letter right away, and that I leave with a response.”

The glower slid from Hadrian’s face. It only just now occurred to him how odd of an incidence this was: a letter delivered to him by an individual who must have hunted him down to this precise location, rather than by regular delivery.

And to require a direct response? Right away?

Hadrian’s mouth went suddenly dry. The sounds of laughter and raucous shouting from within the bar seemed to fade away. Hadrian pulled the scroll back out and broke the wax seal, anxiety pooling in his stomach.

The letter was short.

.

Hadrian,

Your father has died.

Please come home at once.

Please.

.

Hadrian stared at the second line in complete shock. He felt like his mind was floating somewhere outside of his body, suspended in a state of disbelief.

“…Sir?”

The messenger’s voice startled him so badly that Hadrian dropped the scroll. He fumbled when he bent to pick it up, lightheaded, dizzy, nauseous.

“Your response?” he prompted, looking expectant. “A verbal answer will suffice, I’m to return straight to her…”

Hadrian answered with a sense of surreal detachment. There was only one answer.

“Tell her I’m coming,” he said with a voice that sounded like someone else’s. Hadrian placed the creased letter back in his pocket.

“Tell her I’m coming home.”

 


So this is a new (long) story I’m starting, with this as the summary:

They were adored by the masses, they were famous, they were glorified… but gladiators were still slaves. He knew nothing good could come from falling in love with a killer, least of all one with a silver smile constrained by golden shackles. Shame that Hadrian never was very rational. 

It’s a fictional, ancient society based on Rome. So if you feel like reading more, I may keep posting it on here, but I’m definitely writing it on fictionpress, if you’d like to follow it.

https://www.fictionpress.com/s/3303580/1/Only-Power

🙂

Lovely Treasure: Part III

This is the third part of a story that I am going to continure, from here on out, on my Fiction Press account. You can follow it here, if you’re interested:

https://www.fictionpress.com/s/3292638/1/Treasure

🙂


The captive of the crying castle put on a brave face.

His interactions with the dragon had been few and far between, thus far. And always very…tense. The creature would peer in through the window whenever it felt like it, murmuring disquieting things that were a bit like a psychopath’s sweet nothings… And then when he, the prisoner, attempted to ask it questions, the beast would ignore him entirely. Or laugh. Or tell him what a pretty treasure he was.

…Infuriating.

Also, terrifying.

Because the creature was terrifying. The dragon was large enough that it could bite him in half if it wanted, with its gigantic jaw and long, sharp teeth. And…could it breathe fire? Probably, the captive recalled that as being true, about dragons…though he’d never actually witnessed one doing it. For good reason, too. Very few people lived to tell the tale of having seen a dragon breathe fire in person.

Though the captive supposed that he was in no immediate danger of being eaten or incinerated by this dragon in particular. That would defeat the purpose of having kidnapped him, if it were to just kill him in his tower.

…Somehow, this fact was of little comfort to the prisoner.

The soft sounds of the dragon’s talons against the stones was getting louder. The captive took a deep breath, forcing himself into a calm that he did not actually feel.

“Treasure…”

He should have expected that greeting, but no matter how many times he heard it, the dragon’s rumbling voice never failed to make him shudder. Its eye appeared in the window a moment later—a scarlet iris with a slit, black pupil.

The prisoner focused his attention just above the window. He didn’t want to get lost in that stare and be lulled into some unnatural, hazy trance.

“H…Hi.”

He cleared his throat, blushing. That probably was not the most impressive way to begin a conversation with a dragon. Then again, he thought, there really was no formal etiquette for this kind of situation. Most human-dragon interactions probably involved a lot more screaming and running than anything else.

The creature said nothing to his single, muttered word, only stared. The captive continued to look somewhere directly above the window. “Has anyone come looking for me? …While I’ve been asleep, I mean. To try and save me.” The dragon’s eye narrowed. It pulled its head away to fully gaze at him, seemingly wary. “Unless you made that up,” the captive went on, shrugging. “And I’m not anyone special, after all. A pretty lame treasure, if that’s the case.”

There was a long pause in which the creature merely analyzed him. The prisoner resolutely did not make eye contact.

“…Yes,” the dragon finally answered.

“Really!?” the prisoner yelped, but then quickly shook his head and composed himself. “I mean…just one person, huh? That’s not so impressive.”

“Three people,” the monster elaborated. It grinned crookedly before adding, quite smugly, “…knights.”

“Y-yeah?” The captive tried not to sound affected by that. So there seriously were knights in shining armor trying to save him… Or there had been at some point, at least.

“How long ago was that?” he inquired lightly.

“Over a year ago.”

The captive’s face drained of color. He swallowed thickly before forcing himself to ask the question he really didn’t want to put into words. “And…and what did you do to them?”

“I burned them.”

Well, that shouldn’t have been a surprising answer, but the captive still felt nauseous. The beast laughed, a deep and gravelly sound.

“I…guess that makes you a very powerful dragon, then,” the prisoner said, cautious with his flattery.

It worked better than he thought it would. The creature’s reptilian grin widened, and its low voice was a satisfied purr when it spoke next. “Yes,” it agreed, preening. “I am the most powerful being in the world. The largest and strongest of my siblings… I have never lost a treasure.”

“Siblings?” the captive asked, genuinely distracted and curious. “I didn’t think dragons had siblings. You’re not born from other dragons, are you?”

He was fairly certain he already knew the answer, some odd recollection that was not tied to a specific person or place, but the creature explained, anyway. “No. Dragons are immortal. We do not mate and reproduce like lesser creatures… We are born from the land. The center of the world breathes its fire and life into us, and when the Mother Earth decides the world should be graced with another dragon, it pushes us to the surface. We are born in a cascade of fire from a mountain top, painting the landscape with our lava and brimstone…”

The prisoner gaped. He couldn’t help but be a bit caught up in its words; this was easily the most the dragon had ever said to him.

He also couldn’t help but let his attention flicker to the monster’s red, glowing gaze. It really was quite lovely, wasn’t it? With its shiny scales and those bright, mesmerizing eyes…

The captive gasped, snapping his eyes shut. “Stop that!” he yelled. “Quit doing that, that creepy, entrancing thing with your eyes. You’ve already got me here, in your tower, haven’t you? There’s no need to…to subdue me any more than you already have.”

The dragon laughed, promising nothing.

“Unless…there is a reason to subdue me,” the prisoner continued. His tone was hedged, as he knew he could, potentially, be treading into dangerous territory with these words. “Unless I really am some kind of God…and you’re afraid of me.”

I am afraid of nothing!”

The reaction was instant and vicious. The captive recoiled at the furious snarl, retreating towards the back of his small room in the tower until his back was flush against the sticky, weeping walls. The dragon’s eyes, which had been alight with a gentle, soothing glow moments before, were suddenly a fierce, bloody red. “You were taken by me! You are mine, now!”

“O-o-okay,” the captive stammered. His heart raced in his chest under the monster’s glare, which was definitely not trying to make him feel safe or calm, now. He put his hands up defensively, where they visibly trembled. “I-I’m sorry, I j-just… I don’t know, how great a-and powerful you are, what you did when you t-took me, because I d-don’t remember.” He took a few quick, shaky breaths. The dragon’s glower softened slightly at his prisoner’s obvious terror and small compliment, so he quickly went on. “I have no idea how cunning and destructive you were, or even why it would b-be impressive, to have caught me… You made me forget all of that.”

There was a long stretch of silence as the dragon contemplated this. Its eyes darted over its captive’s trembling body, and it was clearly pleased at how frightened he was. Its smug expression returned, though its eyes remained the same threatening, bloody hue. “I melted gold and reduced walls of stone to ashes for you,” it said proudly. “They tried to hide you, under the jade floors… But I found you…”

The prisoner shuddered. “Why me?” he gasped. It was a question he had tried asking the dragon before, of course, but never in such a terrified whisper. People had tried to hide him, people who must have cared for him…

People who were surely dead, now…

The dragon’s intense stare lightened, becoming deceptive and alluring once more. The prisoner was too shaken to think to look away in time. He felt suddenly lost in it, entranced, and his muscles relaxed… He stopped shaking, and why was it, exactly, that he had been afraid? This creature was so beautiful, so kind… It would never hurt him…

“Because they cherished you…” the dragon crooned. “Because they called you Lord, because they worshipped you…”

“I… They did?” the captive breathed. His body had begun to feel very heavy, and he knew it, in the far recesses of his mind, that he was being forced into slumber again. He desperately tried to resist. “But…why?”

“Because you were their master, their God…” it said. “And now you are mine, beautiful treasure.”

“Stop, please,” he said, his limbs growing heavier by the second. “I don’t want…”

The dragon chuckled in amusement at the captive’s feeble attempts to remain standing. He sunk to the floor, racking his brains as he tried to think of what he could say that would stop the dragon from putting him back to sleep again. Begging had never worked before…

So he tried a new, potentially very stupid tactic.

“Coward.”

The dragon’s eyes widened, and the prisoner swiftly continued before he lost his nerve. “I bet you’re not very powerful, that it’s all you can do to keep me in here. And that’s why you keep making me sleep.”

The dragon’s glare returned with a swift vengeance. The drowsiness dissipated entirely, and the rush of adrenaline that exploded in the captive’s veins made him instantly lucid. “I am more powerful than you could ever comprehend, human!” it snarled, dragging its talons along the outside of the bricks and making a horrible scraping sound reverberate in the cell. The hostage jumped to his feet and stood in the middle of the room, feeling surrounded. “I am an indestructible force, I am fire incarnate! I could incinerate an entire kingdom in a single breath!”

Then, to the captive’s utter terror yet undeniable fascination, the dragon reared its head back, roaring as it turned to look away from the tower, and—

The fire that it exhaled was horrible, magnificent. Ferociously glorious.

Even though it was pointed in the opposite direction, the heat wave made the air feel suddenly warmer than the hottest summer day. A steady stream of flames in violet and indigo shot across the colorless sky, an impossible conflagration that surely would have put the stars and moon to shame, had it been night.

It lasted only a moment, but witnessing a dragon breathing fire and crying out towards the heavens had him dumbstruck. When the creature fixed its murderous gaze on him again, he felt too numb with awe to be properly afraid.

“That was incredible.” The words rushed out of the prisoner’s mouth, reverent and whispered. And though they’d been spoken without any thoughtful intent, they had a very welcome effect.

The dragon blinked once, surprised at the unexpected compliment, but then its vicious demeanor vanished. It was preening again, looking very self-satisfied at how impressed its prisoner was at such a display of power. “That was nothing,” it said. “I could fill the entire sky with my flames, if I wanted.”

The captive swallowed audibly at that, equal parts amazed and, now, frightened. Which must have been the epitome of everything the dragon liked to see in its hostage, for it smiled crookedly. The prisoner decided to go with it—anything to avoid falling asleep for another long stretch of time. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said, his voice shaking slightly. “I’ve never seen a dragon breathe fire or… Or fly,” he added suddenly, as an idea came to him. He craned his neck in an obvious attempt to see the beast’s body better, though the window was so small that this was difficult.

To his pleasant surprise, the dragon actually shifted when it saw that it was being examined. It moved so that more of its long, shimming body was exposed through the opening in the castle wall. The prisoner hardly stopped himself from smirking. This really was a very proud, vain creature. “You are so beautiful,” he gushed, and though it felt strange to call a murderous monster this, the dragon obviously enjoyed the attention. “Your scales are stunning, like obsidian gems. I imagine that it must be such a magical sight, to see your wings stretched wide, soaring through the air…”

But although the dragon clearly relished his flattery, it was not stupid. “Cunning human,” it said. “I will not leave this tower, just to grace you with the vision of my magnificent flight. I am staying right here, curled around my fortress and protecting you…my beautiful prize.”

The captive masked his feeling of disappointment. Well, he thought, it had been worth a shot. “I w-wasn’t thinking about that,” he lied, regardless. “But…you just called me human.”

The dragon’s gaze narrowed, and the prisoner jumped, suddenly remembering not to look directly into its eyes. “You called me a human,” the hostage repeated. Which was, of course, what he knew he was, he had to be, but…

“I thought you said I was a God.”

“…Yes,” the dragon answered vaguely.

“So, which is it then? Am I a man, or a God?”

“You were…many things.”

“Ah. Well. That clears that up, then,” the captive muttered sarcastically.

The dragon hissed wordlessly in response; a chilling, warning sound. The prisoner’s eyes snapped up to the beast’s at the noise despite himself. “…Dragons do not often covet humans, you know. I now see why. Treasures should not be able to talk.”

And then those scarlet eyes darkened, glowing gently. The captive nearly swayed as the drowsiness washed over him, much stronger than before.

“Wait, wait,” he gasped, though his knees had already buckled. “I…want to know… Please, tell me my name.”

The weight of sleep lessened slightly. The dragon looked confused at the request. “My name,” the prisoner quickly went on. “A God, a man, whatever… What’s my name? Who am I?”

The dragon tilted its head to one side, appearing genuinely thoughtful…but then it laughed again. “You no longer need a name,” it said. “You are my treasure now. And that is all you ever will be, forever. Mine.”

“Aw, come on,” the prisoner groaned. “What harm is there in my knowing my name? It’s not like there’s anyone I can tell…” He gestured around to the bleeding walls, frowning.

“Precisely,” the dragon agreed. “You have no one to talk to, and therefore no need of something as useless as a name.”

“I take it that you don’t have a name either, then.”

“I have a name,” the dragon responded casually. “I was born with three others…and so we have names for each other.”

The prisoner’s brows shot up at that, incredulous. “Well what is it, then? I mean, if you’re planning on keeping me here for all of time, we should at least be on a first name basis, don’t you think?”

“No,” the monster answered. “For there will be no more discussions between you and I, my precious prize.”

The exhaustion began to crash over him again. The hostage shook his head, trying to fight it off. “But…but don’t you get lonely?” he said. “Making me sleep seems like…like a wasted opportunity to…” he paused, unable to stifle a long yawn, but he persisted afterwards. “To have someone witness your power, and your beauty… Such a tragedy, to be alone, down there…”

The dragon’s gaze, which was pulsating with such a mesmerizing warmth, flickered. For a split second, the prisoner thought that maybe it would work, that maybe the monster would allow him to remain awake…but then his eyelids became far too heavy to keep open, and his muscles relaxed against his will, making him slump forward and fall to the floor completely.

“Don’t… Wait…” he gasped, reaching forward with the last of his swiftly vanishing strength. But he could sense the presence of the dragon there, peering in through the window with its enthralling gaze still fixed on him as he drifted off to sleep…

“…Gold,” the beast murmured, its voice deep and quiet. The captive clung to the sound, even as the darkness rose up to consume him.

“Your name is Gold.”

red eye

Purple Water and Fireflies

He was drowning, gasping, desperate for air.

Waves of water that were not arresting and cold, but surprisingly temperate. Strange. He thought that death would be cold and horrific.

But he was warm, despite his inability to breath.

Maybe it was just that he was drugged. That could explain everything, he mused, as he was pulled under the sea of purple water. And really, now that he really thought about it, this outlandish sea of violet could not possibly be a natural hue.

Damn. So it was the drugs, again.

He exhaled as forcibly as he could, pushing air out of his body through water that he was fairly certain was not actually there. Instead of bubbles, fireflies came fluttering from his lips, lighting up in synchronized patterns.

Yep. Definitely drugs.

He internally groaned. He hated this, these experiments. These crazy, messed-up hallucinations that he would have to endure until he would, inevitably, be brought back to the the brutal clarity of reality. To be forced to realize, once again, that real life was nothing but white walls, sharp needles, and harsh lights, for him.

He knew that was what was going to happen.

He knew it, and he hated it. He hated this existence, his existence, with every fiber of his being. And when he woke up, he swore to do it swinging and kicking, fighting for freedom…defiant, resilient, persistent, just like he always was…

But until then, he would drink in the purple water and exhale fireflies.

Lovely Treasure: Part II

This is the second part to a new project/obsession of mine…so don’t read this until you’ve read ‘Lovely Treasure’, the post right before this one. 🙂

For an impressive amount of time, the prisoner of the crying castle tried with all his might, one more, to remember.

A God? A God? How could he possibly be a God? He furrowed his brows, desperate in his attempts to recall some meaningful insight from his previous life…

He was just considering doing something he had never done before, had never wanted to do before—calling for the dragon to come back—when the drowsiness washed over him.

Definitely magic, he thought sourly, as the unnatural wave of fatigue made it difficult to remain standing, let alone think properly…though he did try. He trudged towards the window, sluggish in his movements as he looked up towards it, one arm raised…

“Come…back…” His voice was feeble and shaky. The exhaustion pulled at him, like slumber was an actual, cognizant being, and it was physically dragging him down beneath its currents whether he liked it or not.

“…Come…”

It was no use. The captive’s knees buckled, and he fell to the cold, stone floor. Despite his best efforts, his eyelids, which now felt as though they were made of iron, fell shut. Unconsciousness rose up to claim him, and he was swept away into dreams…the sound of rumbling laughter echoing in the back of his mind.

His dreams were the antithesis of his reality.

In the waking world, the prisoner knew nothing but disturbing, bleeding walls and a desirous monster.

But in his dreams… His dream world was vibrant and full of life, landscapes of impossible colors and brilliant skies.

Currently, he was by the sea.

The captive wandered along on a beach of pristine, white sand next to an endless expanse of glistening waves. It felt familiar to him, but only vaguely. Maybe he had visited this place before.

That would hardly be surprising, he mused. It was absolutely stunning, a literal paradise. He smiled as he relished the feel of the sand beneath his bare feet, the soft, grainy texture between his toes. The sun was still high in the sky, warming his skin in a way that he deeply missed in reality.

He continued at a leisurely pace for a long time. Hours maybe, perhaps longer. Dreams were strange. Sometimes they felt as though they lasted only minutes before shifting to a different vision, and he would have multiple dreams before he woke up again. Other times, he would dream of being in a single place for a much longer stretch of time. Occasionally, it would feel like he had been asleep for mere seconds—only for him to blink his eyes open and see that it was autumn when he awoke…though it had been summer when he’d fallen asleep.

And so he never knew quite what to expect when he drifted off into his enchanted slumbers. Only that his dreams would be stunning, and that he wanted them to be real so desperately that it made his heart ache with yearning.

Especially in a place like this, on the beach. The prisoner focused on keeping it there, on remaining in this paradise. Maybe he could learn to control his dreams, he thought. Maybe he could decide on where and how he would spend his time while asleep…

He sighed, exhaling a long, low breath as he did. The sun was beginning to set. It was an exquisite sight, the way the light scattered across the gently rolling waves. The colors of the sky were impossibly brilliant, and he couldn’t help but wonder if the real world had actually been this lovely, or if it was simply his own mind which invented such deeply saturated hues. He watched the transition from day into night with rapt fascination… The way in which the blue became gold until it was touched by a blush of bright pink, the subtle shift of crimson into violet and then indigo, when pinpricks of light eventually proclaimed the presence of the first stars…

Feeling bold, he decided to walk out into the water. The captive had been tempted to do it earlier. But he was wary that it may be cold, and he was feeling an aversion to all things chilly, at the moment. It had been winter when he’d fallen asleep, after all.

But his anxiety was for naught. The water was surprisingly warm, like a freshly drawn bath. Grinning, he looked down at his own feet through the crystal-clear water. He pulled off his shirt and tossed it behind him onto the beach, willing this dream to last long enough for him to swim in this temperate sea.

Just as he was about to lunge forward, a sharp gasp sounded from behind him. He turned, confused, to find himself looking at…someone else.

Never before had he dreamt of another person. It was always just beautiful places and exotic creatures…never people. He was therefore quite surprised to see a young man standing before him, with brown, windswept hair and tan skin…and he was holding his shirt. Evidently, the dreaming captive had thrown his discarded shirt right at this stranger, and he’d caught it.

When they made eye contact, the brown-haired man’s eyes went wide with shock, looking quite like he was staring at a ghost rather than another person.

“Hello,” the prisoner said cautiously. The unknown man didn’t answer, though his mouth formed into a tiny, perfect ‘o’ in surprise, and he dropped the shirt. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to toss that at you. I didn’t see you.”

The brunette continued to look thunderstruck, either unable or unwilling to speak. The captive smiled in what he hoped was an encouraging manner. “The water is lovely, if you feel like swimming,” he offered up. He turned to glance back towards the sunset. “And you can’t beat the view. So—”

But when he turned back around, the man was gone.

Strange, the prisoner thought forlornly. The tide swept up towards the sand, catching the sleeve of his shirt and pulling it back with it into the water. He didn’t bother trying to catch it or fish it out. For as excited as he had been just moments before, to dive into the sea, he now felt a bit melancholy about it all.

It would have been nice, to have company.

When he awoke, it was to find that it was still winter.

The air was chilly against the exposed skin of his face, but the rest of his body was covered in thick, soft blankets. When his eyes fluttered open, he saw that he was somehow, inexplicably, under the covers on his giant bed. Hadn’t he passed out on the floor, before?

Groggily, he sat up. Winter. The odorless, viscous substance on the walls confirmed it…which meant that he had not been asleep very long this time. Or, he thought with a thrill of terror, he had been asleep much longer than usual, and an entire year had passed.

He shuddered at the thought. What if he had family or friends out there that he could not currently recall? How long had he been away from them? Were there people searching for him, worrying about him?

He didn’t know. He tried not to linger on those fears, lest he unintentionally magic himself right back to sleep again.

Forcing himself to be brave, the captive stood. He gathered one of the blankets around his shoulders like a cape for warmth. He then approached the window, wishing not for the first time that it was both lower and larger.

Down below, he could see his monstrous captor, its long tail curled around the base of the tower protectively. It was difficult to tell, from so high up, whether it was asleep or not. Did dragons sleep? He pondered that, biting his lower lip as he did. No, he didn’t think so. Dragons were immortal, after all, all magical creatures were. They only died if they were slain, and that was no easy feat, to slay a dragon. They did not age, nor did they eat…so it was also unlikely that they slept.

Then again, he’d also thought that dragons were incredibly intelligent. If that was the case, this one had yet to prove it. It had hardly said anything to him at all thus far, other than croon at him like he was some pretty little trinket. Which he supposed he was, to the dragon.

But there was no denying that it was a very powerful being, the weeping walls surrounding him made that clear. This was complex magic being cast on him, deeply complicated enchantments which kept his mind numb and forced him into slumber.

What else did he know about dragons? He willed his hazy mind to focus. Powerful beings, yes, and very smart… Proud, too. They took great pride in their treasures. That was, perhaps, why this dragon had finally given him the one, meagre scrap of information that it had.

A God

Well, that seemed far-fetched, but maybe he could get the creature to elaborate. If it really believed that it had kidnapped a God, than it was probably itching to show off, to talk about how devious and cunning it was, to have coveted such a rare person…

Maybe it would let slip something pertinent that would help him escape. Or, at the very least, learn who he was.

The captive cleared his throat, apprehension crawling across his skin. And then, before he could over think it and change his mind, he leaned towards the window and shouted down to his imprisoner.

“Dragon,” he called, his voice surprisingly steady. The obsidian entity lifted its head, fixing him with those scarlet eyes that glowed like embers. He tried to focus on its body instead, not wanting to get trapped in that mesmeric gaze.

“…Come talk with me.”

For a long moment, the monster did nothing, only peered up at him with its terrifying yet lovely face tilted to one side as though considering him. He waited on baited breath, fully expecting it to ignore him and go back to its obsessive monitoring of the landscape.

But then it shifted its weight, pushing itself to its feet and curling its body around the tower. The captive’s heart leapt in his throat at his unexpected success. He backed away from the window and pulled the blanket more tightly around his shoulders, like a thick, fabric shield.

It had listened, it was actually going to come talk to him… He swallowed thickly, hoping that he hadn’t just made a very regrettable mistake. But there was no taking back his invitation, now. He could hear it scaling the weeping walls, its talons clicking against the stones…

And so he steeled himself to have a conversation with a monster.

red eye

Lovely Treasure

The castle walls were weeping.

From the gaps and spaces between the stones, a thick, red substance oozed out of the mortar. It dripped like maple syrup trickling down a tree. Slowly, now, as it was winter, and even the air on the inside of the tower was chilly.

He was fairly certain that the walls bled on the outside, too, but he couldn’t be sure. He had not been outside in…

How long?

How long had he been here, in this imprisonment? He could not remember a time before.

His whole life consisted of this room, with its walls of dark bricks and red goo.

It was sticky and viscous, rather like molasses. In the summer time, it had a strong smell, a bit like sweat. In the winter months, though, it was relatively odorless.

He sighed, slumping down onto his large, comfortable bed. It was all he did, really. Sleep. Often for months at a time, though the only reason he knew that was because the season would be different when he’d awaken, and the red goo’s consistency would reflect the shift in temperature.

He might just stay asleep, if he could. His life outside of his dreams was monotonous and dull.

Well…except for the few times when the dragon would scale the tower and watch him through the one, tiny window that was too small for him to fit through.

The creature usually remained on the ground, curling its long, scaly body around the perimeter of the tower, greedily guarding its castle and the treasure within.

He must have been someone important, before he was brought here, in order to have caught the attention of a covetous dragon. But he wasn’t certain of who, exactly, he had been. No matter how hard he tried  to remember, no matter how desperately he would focus his attention on conjuring up some kind of memory, he could not do it. Every time he thought he may be on the precipice of unearthing some telling recollection, he would suddenly grow very tired and be lost to slumber before it came to him.

Which was also what happened whenever he tried to think of ways to escape, of course.

It must be this fortress, he’d concluded one day. These leaking walls must be enchanted, making me sleep all the time and never need to eat, constantly fogging my mind and blurring my memories.

He did recall things such as larger concepts and ideas, though. He remembered stories of magical entities and their supernatural abilities, and that dragons, in particular, were especially dangerous. Massive creatures that sought out rare and beautiful things, stealing the world’s most prized possessions and hiding them away in their lairs. Usually it was literal treasure, gold and gems and glittering jewelry. Sometimes they would take antiques, priceless artifacts or irreplaceable texts.

Occasionally, a person.

But that was, supposedly, a rare occurrence, and so he must have been someone very significant indeed to find himself here.

But his name, his home, everything about himself from before his within these weeping walls… He wasn’t sure. He couldn’t remember any of that.

Vaguely, he wondered if someone would come to save him. A knight on a white stead, perhaps, to slay the beast and set him free. He scoffed. It seemed unlikely. If his hazy recollections on such stories were accurate, it was usually the damsels in distress who the valiant knights went to rescue, not princes. If he was a prince, even. He had no idea.

Perhaps he wasn’t anything special at all, and this dragon just happened to be insane. Maybe that was the only reason he had been taken in the first place, because his captor was a scaly, psychotic loon.

“Lovely Treasure…”

The hairs on his entire body stood on end.

The dragon had slithered its way up to him, as it sometimes did when he was awake, interrupting his internal dialogue as though it had been privy to it. Too giant by far to fit inside of the tower it had made for its prisoner, the creature peered in through the window, its glowing eye as vibrant and red as a harvest moon.

The captive shuddered, jumping off the bed and backing away as far as he could until he was up against the wall, his clothes becoming stained with that strange, gooey substance. The dragon pulled its head far enough away so that he could see its entire face.

The monster was terrifying in every sense of the word, but it was also…strikingly beautiful. It was giant, its long, sinewy body covered in glistening scales that shone like polished onyx. It had wings, but he had never seen them stretched wide in flight. The dragon typically climbed the bleeding walls when it felt like watching him by coiling its body around the tower and using its talons, instead.

Its eyes were easily its most mesmerizing feature, though. Dragons could enthrall their prey with a glance, could make them feel irrationally calm and at ease when trapped in their gaze.

It was doing it to him, now. The fear that had shot up the prisoner’s spine like lightning a moment before slipped away, and he felt oddly affectionate of this fascinating entity…

No, monster, beast, captor. He shook his head, breaking eye contact with it and swearing. The dragon made a rumbling sound deep in its throat that sounded suspiciously like laughter.

“Who was I?” he asked, annoyed. “What was I, to make you want to lock me up, here? To not even want me to be able to remember?”

The dragon’s jaw opened slightly, revealing just enough of its pointed teeth to make him recoil in fear again. But it wasn’t snarling or threatening him, no—it was smirking.

…A scaly, psychotic loon, for sure.

“Lovely treasure…beautiful prize…”

He sighed. It was useless, trying to get this thing to answer his questions. ‘Treasure’, or some variation of the term, was all it ever said. Maybe dragons were just stupider than he’d thought, and they couldn’t say much. Or maybe it was just this one, in particular, and he was just that lucky, to have been kidnapped by the world’s most infuriating beast with abysmal conversational skills.

The dragon laughed again. He glowered at it—but only briefly, before it could attempt to mess with his mind any more than it already had.

“Precious soul…”

It lowered its head, about to make its descent down towards the ground so that it could resume its ever vigilant guarding of its fortress. But then it paused, and though he could no longer see it, the dragon’s low, rumbling voice carried in through the window.

“You were a God,” it purred, sounding unnervingly pleased at having acquired such a trophy.

It then clamored down the wall, making very little noise as it went. The unfortunate captive was once more left alone with his bewildered thoughts and burning curiosity.

…A God?

red eye

A Girl

Dusk was just beginning to fall on the final day of May. The woman took one look at the gray, cloudy weather before coming to the inevitable conclusion that she would take a cab.

She didn’t tell her husband. He didn’t know anything.

Wouldn’t know anything.

Her fingers felt oddly numb as she got dressed. Black pants, a black blouse, and her favorite black boots with a kitten heel. A silk scarf which she wrapped around her head to cover her long, honey blonde hair- also black. No makeup. She looked odd, she thought morosely, as she examined herself in the hallway mirror. Without her usual crimson lips, her entire face looked pale and bloodless. Plain. Forcing herself not to linger on the lackluster image, she turned away from her reflection and reached for her purse. The deadbolt lock clicked behind her as she briskly made her way to the elevator.

She and her husband lived on the 17th floor of a beautiful, renovated building in the middle of Manhattan. Across the street from the museum, right next to the park and the botanicals. It was a big apartment, too, even by New York City standards.

Too big for just the two of them.

The doorman wished her a pleasant evening as he held open the door. She nodded in response, giving him a forced smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

She was able to hail a cab almost at once.

“125th Street and Park, please.”

She adjusted the scarf on her hair as she sat down, crossing her legs. The stocky man in the driver’s seat turned to glance at her, raising an eyebrow questionably.

“East Harlem?” he asked in a gravelly voice.

“Yes.” Her own tone was icy, her words clipped.

He didn’t question her again. Just shrugged and started driving.

It was almost comical, the dramatic differences that just a few blocks could make in this urban jungle. On this street, you feel safe. On that street, you don’t. Safe, not safe. Safe, not safe.

Of course, she knew it was all just a state of mind; a sort of false gut feeling one gets while walking down certain broken sidewalks alongside empty lots or dilapidated old buildings, the streetlights overhead flickering or gone out completely. But those things were no real indication of danger…just as the absence of such ominous details was by no means a guarantee of security, either.

The truth is that no one is ever completely safe, not anywhere.

“You can drop me here,” she said as they approached the train station. “At the Metro North is fine.”

The man nodded at this, as though it suddenly made much more sense as to why this woman would be coming here. He pulled over. “Got a train to catch?” he inquired.

“Yes.” A smile to accompany the effortless lie.

She paid in cash.

The moment the car pulled away, she turned and made her way down the street at a brisk pace. She tried not to look too conspicuous, but she couldn’t help but instinctively pull the scarf tighter over her hair or look back over her shoulder to make sure no one was following her.

A cool droplet landed on her nose. Of course, of course it would begin to rain the moment she was no longer in a car. Why hadn’t she brought an umbrella? She quickened her stride, making a left at the next corner.

Luckily, it was a short walk.

The building looked exactly as it did the last time she saw it. Several boarded-up windows, the concrete on the front steps beginning to crumble at the corners. The porch light was off. Despite the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, she approached with confidence. Once, twice, three times she knocked on the door.

There was shuffling. An irritating screeching sound, like furniture being dragged across the wooden floor. An ominous thud, as if someone had just dropped something heavy.

Then the door opened. Just a few inches, as it was quite clearly and visibly restrained by a thick, chain lock. An almond shaped eye peered down at her, framed with black eyeliner and thick lashes. It narrowed suspiciously at her appearance.

One eye alone was enough to intimidate the hell out of the anxious new arrival, but she wasn’t about to let it show. She cleared her throat before speaking.

“Hello, I have an appoint—”

“You’re early.”

The blonde woman balked, momentarily losing her composure. Few people ever spoke to her that way—so…so rudely.

“I… yes, but—my name is—”

“Mrs. Flores…?”

She blinked. “Yes. Yes, I am—”

“You’re early.” The voice cut her off. Again.

“I know. I apologize, but—”

And then the door slammed in her face.

For a moment she simply stood there, completely aghast. How—how dare she do that! She was a paying customer—a very well paying customer, and it was raining—

She raised her clenched fist to knock again, much more aggressively this time, when there was a clinking sound and the door swung open.

Before her stood an incredibly imposing, rather irate looking woman.

She was tall, very tall—good Lord, she must have been over six feet!—with dark skin and even darker eyes. Lithe and poised, she was clothed in a clingy dress in a deep, ruby red. Her onyx eyes were narrowed as she continued to glare downwards arrestingly, and maybe it was just the thick, winged eyeliner, but there seemed to be something rather…feline about her.

The striking woman tilted her head to one side as she took in the full sight of this uncomfortable looking entity at her doorstep—who was now dripping wet and rather frazzled. The blonde felt highly uncomfortable under that scrutinizing gaze. It was bordering on inappropriate, the way her eyes shamelessly roamed up and down her entire body. She swallowed thickly, waiting to be invited inside.

“Come in… Mrs. Flores,” she finally said as she stepped aside.

“I… thank you.” The door shut behind her, and the other woman locked it at once. “I apologize if my coming here early has—”

“Wait in here.” She gestured lazily towards a couch on the other side of the room. Again! This woman had no manners at all, continuing to interrupt her like that. She opened her mouth to say something else, but already, her newfound nemesis had turned away from her. “We still have a lot of prep work to do.” She spoke over her shoulder as she walked away, opening a door at the end of the hall.

“I—wait!” Mrs. Flores called out, frustrated. “Will you—can you tell Sylvia I’m here?”

There was a pause. She was spared a quick, condescending glance. “Of course,” she said shortly, and then she left to go into another room. The door shut behind her.

Feeling incredibly apprehensive, Mrs. Flores lowered herself into a seated position on the aforementioned couch. It was the kind that looked cushy, yet was surprisingly stiff and uncomfortable. She checked her watch.

It was only twenty to nine. She was early.

She took in the seemingly ordinary room as she pulled the scarf from her head, folding it neatly into a square and placing it in her handbag. There was an old TV in the corner, a couple of cushy, but probably equally deceptive and uncomfortable arm chairs, a book shelf with a rather interesting array of books… She was just reading all of the various titles when the door at the end of the hall opened again.

A sigh of relief escaped her lips as she stood, smiling.

“Sylvia.”

The person who’d just appeared had an aura about her that was nearly the exact opposite of the previous woman. Joyous and sunny. She was short, stout, and exceptionally curvy, wearing a bright yellow dress the color of sunshine. She smiled in return, exposing a set of brilliantly white teeth.

“Anne,” she said, opening her arms in a clear invitation for an embrace. “How are you, honey?”

Sylvia radiated a warmth that was positively contagious.  Her height barely leveled with the other woman’s shoulders as they hugged, even with her thick hair piled high in a bun on the top of head.

“I’m fine, thanks—I’m sorry I’m early, I didn’t think that it—”

“Oh, you’re fine!” Sylvia exclaimed, batting her hand in the air as if to physically brush the concern aside. “You’re completely fine, dear. Some of my younger apprentices are a bit moody, is all.” She laughed, then looked pointedly at the other woman’s stomach for a moment. “Are you feeling… ready?”

Anne nodded excitedly. “Oh yes,” she breathed. “I’ve done everything you said. I am… I’m completely ready.”

The stout woman beamed, clapping her hands together jubilantly. “That’s what I like to hear!”

Anne smiled back. She must not have masked her nervousness nearly as well as she thought, though, for Sylvia placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. “Oh, don’t you worry, honey. You’re in capable hands. We have a one hundred percent success rate.”

She gave another wide, vibrant grin. “Now… about the rest of your payment…?”

“Oh. Yes, of course… I have it here…” She reached into her purse, pulling out a folded yellow envelope. Sylvia took it with a rather snappish gesture, suddenly all business. She opened it at once and pulled the contents out, flipping through the thick stack of bills with an impressive deftness that indicated quite clearly that she had done this many times before. Just a few seconds later and she seemed satisfied, her illuminating smile back in place.

“Great.”

Anne exhaled a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.

The money didn’t matter to her. She’d already figured out a way to hide the expense from her husband. It hadn’t been easy, but, then again, she’d had months to figure it all out. Months of preparation and planning had gone into this, and finally, the night had come… Months, because it had to be on a new moon, it had to be on the last day of a month, it had to be when she was at a certain point in her cycle…

The specificity of it all is probably what sold her. Anne was desperate, yes, but she was also educated. Smart.

She knew this was the right decision. Her intuition was telling her this was legitimate, and her intuition had never been wrong before.

“Now, there is still a lot of prep work we have to do… Normally I would offer you tea, but you can’t have ingested anything for a full day before we start—which you haven’t, right?” She raised one perfectly contoured eyebrow, and Anne nodded vehemently. “Good, good. I’m sure you’re thirsty, but don’t you worry, you’ll get something to drink soon enough…just wait up here for bit longer, and I’ll have someone come get you when we’re ready. Feel free to read or something while you wait.” She motioned towards the book case.

“O-okay, thank you.” Sylvia gave her one last, vibrant grin before shuffling away. Anne watched as she went, listening to her loud footsteps and she descended the staircase behind the closed door.

She returned her attention to the shelves and picked something at random, resuming her seated position on the couch. Anne opened the book, and, even though she scanned the text in the appropriate orientation, she barely took in a single word of it. Her gaze ghosted over the letters sequentially like someone barely brushing their fingertips along the tops of piano keys. There were worlds to get lost in, there, in those pages, but she remained firmly within the confines of her own, anxious mind.

She took a deep breath. With a great amount of effort, she attempted to put her chaotic thoughts into some semblance of order. Sylvia had told her what to expect, what would happen… There was very little that Anne needed to do, actually. Other than not eating or drinking anything all day, her only other responsibilities included simply being present on the right day, and, well…lying there.

“It’s not so easy for the rest of us, that’s for sure!” Sylvia had laughed in one of their previous meetings. “But for you? It’ll be easy. You just need to lie still. We’ll do all the work. It’s like a dance, you’ll see.”

She didn’t call it a ritual. When Anne had asked if that’s what it was, Sylvia’s face had gone uncharacteristically frigid. Cold.

“I don’t categorize these things. It…simplifies them in a way I don’t like.”

Anne didn’t try and label it again.

“So… I just lie there.”

Sylvia had nodded, and her momentary iciness had melted away at once. “How long will it take? The—the process, once it starts?”

She’d shrugged rather nonchalantly. “Depends. You want the best of the best? All of the gifts that we can offer?”

“Of course.”

“It’ll be awhile. Hours, I’m sure. Ha! I’m going to sleep for days afterwards!” But the plump woman seemed to find this notion delightful rather than terrifying. She’d slapped the table so hard and so unexpectedly that Anne had jumped in her seat. “But hey—you get what you pay for! Don’t worry, honey,” she’d said as she took in Anne’s scared face.

“For you, oh, it’ll feel like a dream. You’ll see.”

Anne had handed over the first payment that day.

She wasn’t sure how long she waited there, sitting in that living room with an open, unread book in her lap. Had they forgotten her up here? Surely not…but it had been nearly an hour, and maybe, maybe something had gone wrong down there, perhaps this wasn’t going to happen tonight after all, and she was just starting to really work herself up into a panic when the door flew open. She was so caught off guard she actually yelped.

It was the woman in red from earlier who had come to retrieve her. She beckoned towards Anne with a single finger, an elegant, ‘come hither’ motion. Her gaze was still daunting, but she looked marginally less agitated, now.

“We’re ready for you,” she said.

Anne stood. She trailed behind timidly as they descended the dimly lit passageway, down the creaky, wooden steps…down, down, down…

They stopped before another closed door at the foot of the stairs. “You’ll need to get undressed, first.”

“I…I what?” Anne gaped. She had certainly not been informed of that particular detail.

“Get undressed.” Her previous annoyance was swiftly returning.

Anne wanted to argue, but found that her words crumpled and died in her throat under that intense glare. Instead, she nodded curtly and began to get undressed. The other woman pointed at a table, indicating that she should leave her clothes and purse there.

Disregarding her own bashfulness, Anne stripped until she was completely nude. To hell with feeling embarrassed. She could do this.

Would do this.

She fought the urge to cover up her exposed breasts with her forearms. Her companion chose not to examine her body so speculatively this time, at least. Instead, she looked right into Anne’s unwavering eyes. With no emotion on her face whatsoever, she nodded, almost as if in approval, and turned the doorknob. She pushed it open and stepped to the side, just as she had when she let Anne in from the rain, and motioned for her to pass through.

The space beyond was ominously dark. A solitary, flickering light came somewhere from the back of the room. With only the briefest moment of hesitation, Anne entered.

The door shut behind her. She was enveloped in darkness.

Before she could say or do anything—was that a fire back there? Inside?—Anne felt a set of hands on either side lightly grip her by the shoulders. Two masked individuals, but she could hardly see them as her eyes were not yet accustomed to the sudden bleakness. Gently, wordlessly, they guided her to a low table—she couldn’t help but think altar—that was in the center of the room. It looked to be made of some kind of stone. They slowly lowered her into a seated position at one end of it. It was cold against her skin; she felt her entire body instantly break out into goosebumps.

Once more, she opened her mouth to ask something, but then she saw a familiar silhouette emerge from the shadows to approach her. It was Sylvia; even in the darkness that was obvious, but at the same time… It wasn’t Sylvia at all. This woman radiated no warmth, no joyous, friendly light. Her face, too, was covered completely in some kind of decorative mask. As she drew near, Anne was just able to make out the details of it, her eyes finally adjusting to the dark-

Was it supposed to be a skull? But no—not a human skull, at least—there was definitely something animalistic about it-

“Drink.”

Anne glanced down to see that a cup was being offered to her. A wooden goblet, filled with a dark, thick liquid. Tentatively, she took it. She was rather surprised to see that her hands were shaking. The liquid within the cup hardly moved at all as she shakily brought it closer to her chest, viscous as it was.

…Was this a mistake?

She stared down at her own reflection in the contents of the goblet. Wetting her lips, she swallowed back the bile that threatened to crawl its way up her throat.

No. She could do this.

Would do this.

Still trembling, Anne brought the cup to her lips and drank. It tasted like copper. Suddenly, her deprived body seemed to spring to life, and she instinctually drained the goblet in seconds. Ravenous, insatiable, she licked the residual droplets from her lips, thirsty for more—

But then the cup was being pried from her fingers. The soft, capable hands from before were once again on her shoulders, and she was being tilted backwards, lain down on the altar—she could hear laughter, familiar and airy—

“Good… Now remember, just lie still…” Sylvia’s voice, but there was something different about it, almost sardonic, and it sounded as though it were being spoken from somewhere high above her… The soft hands released her, and her body felt so warm, now, so heavy

Sylvia had turned away. Someone else—also masked—darted quickly out of the dark corner of the room, handing her what looked like a walking stick, some kind of long, wooden staff. She took it, and the masked person backed away, retreating back to the shadows. Sylvia held it in her hands for a long moment, high above her head, reverently, almost… And then, quite suddenly, she slammed the end of the staff on the floor, and it made a sharp, rapping noise—

She did it again, and again, and again… a rap, rap, rap, repeating the motion until a rhythm was established.

Rap, rap, rap… rap, rap, rap…

And then the music began.

First—a single drum.

It was a deep, resonating bass. Anne could feel its low tenor in her very bones. A boom to disperse the light, tense tapping of that staff, and with it, the pounding of her blood pumping in her veins—

Boom—rap, rap, rap—boom—rap, rap, rap

Her own heartbeat was loud in her ears. It was a part of it, another metronome-like instrument to the music in the room—

Figures, three—no, four—, emerged like corporal shadows from the corners of the room. They all wore masks of what also looked suspiciously like bones. Their skeletal faces shone in the dim, flickering firelight from behind, and they almost seemed to be floating on their own accord, as their bodies were so difficult to make out… as if they were a part of the darkness, too… But they were moving, slowly and methodically to the hypnotic beat of the simple yet powerful music… A kind of rudimentary dance… Occasionally, Anne would see an arm here, a leg there…

She didn’t notice exactly when it happened, but soon more dancers had joined the foray… How had she not noticed that there were this many people in the room? It was dark, yes, but—there were six now, at least—no, seven…? They all moved in synchronization, but they were encircling her as the moved in step with the beat, their arms all repeating the same motion, their bone white masks facing her… Anne’s mind felt sluggish and slow as she watched them… What had Sylvia given her to drink? Had she been drugged?

…Was this a mistake?

The music stopped.

The dancers became still at once, their arms now down at their sides. Waiting. For a few moments there was no other sound in the room but the soft cackling of the fire…and Anne’s heartbeat, which was now so thunderous that surely, she thought, everyone else must hear it, too, that powerful, forceful, thrumming sound—

Then the silence was shattered.

The melody erupted all around her—the heavy drum, the rap, rap, rap—but much faster now, and with it something that sounded vaguely like a flute, perhaps—and maybe a tambourine, metallic cymbals being rapidly shaken—the dancers had begun moving again, and, just like the music, their actions were much more chaotic, quick and frenzied, and no longer in synchronicity—they whirled and spun, agile as they danced around Anne’s body, who lay motionless on her back on the altar, unmoving and trying very hard to be unafraid—their movements were somehow simultaneously graceful yet wild, beautiful and yet oddly…disjointed…

Their masked faces darted in and out of focus, the firelight illuminating one for a moment before they were swallowed by darkness again, only to resurface somewhere else in the room—

Anne’s head was swimming. Her heart was racing impossibly fast, too fast, and the music, was it getting faster, too? She tried once to lift an arm, but it was so heavy, she didn’t think she could will herself to move at all—

And then one of the masked figured was upon her. So sudden was their proximity that Anne would have screamed if her throat did not feel so tight and constricted. The skeletal face was hovering just a few inches from her, and she could vaguely make out a pair of glistening eyes beneath it—the flames reflected in their dark depths, their very gaze made of fire—

Hands were gently laid on her stomach, then, surprisingly soft and warm. She was sure her entire body would have jumped in shock at the unexpected touch if her body were not so heavy. Then she heard it, a low, sultry whisper, emanating from behind the mask…

“…Beauty…”

A strange sensation, then, in the pit of her stomach… Like something pulsating and warm, furling inside of her… Her spine arched involuntarily at the bizarre feeling, which was not exactly unpleasant… The hands then retracted, and the figure looming over her swiftly returned to the darkness, rejoining the dance—

Only a few beats later, and another one was upon her. Its mask was also bony white and skeletal, but this one reminded Anne of some kind of canine, a fox, maybe… It also placed soft palms on her stomach, and there was another wave of undulation from within—

“…Wit…”

And then they were gone… A third one, then, just as quickly—its face concealed behind a mask that was something like a cat—

“…Grace…”

It retreated back into the darkness… The dancing was getting more and more heated, and Anne thought she heard laughing—the familiar sound of Sylvia’s contagious laughter, but it sounded more manic than Anne had ever heard it… Where was she, where was Sylvia? She could not see her in this darkened room, and the way her voice bounced off of the walls, it was impossible to know which direction the sound had come from—

Another dancer came forth, repeating the same action as the previous three. This one looked something like an insect, Anne thought wildly.

“…Dance…”

Gone, the warmth in her belly now so hot that it was bordering on uncomfortable—her heart was pounding, pounding, and were there several people laughing, now-?

The next masked figure had a structure that reminded Anne vaguely of a mouse. It leaned in close to her face as its fingers slid over her bare stomach…

“…Song…”

And now she was certain, as that dancer stepped away, that there was more laughter. The dancing was becoming wilder and more frantic by the second, and they were laughing and jeering—Anne could barely remain focused on them, her vision blurring—but she could see their silhouettes in the flickering light, the way they chaotically turned and whirled around each other, spinning and stomping, cackling as they moved—it was completely wild—

Another dancer came to her, this one birdlike—

“…Music…”

Her entire body was scorching hot, now, she was burning up, could feel the beads of sweat forming on her forehead—another figure was about to approach her, was just about to place its hands on her stomach when jarringly, unexpectedly, a different dancer intercepted—they were flung aside, the first time such a violent collision had occurred– which was shocking, really, considering how chaotically and unpredictably they seemed to be moving—the diverter descended upon her instead, but her hands were not gentle nor were they soft—they were cold and hard, pointed nails digging into the soft flesh of her stomach—Anne felt the convulsing form within twist uncomfortably—

This mask was serpentine, and from their throat emanated an icy, high-pitched note… They said nothing, no words, only a long, drawn out hissing sound… A chill was emanating from their talon-like fingertips, and a sharp pain exploded in her stomach, cold and piercing, like being stabbed with a jagged shard of ice—

No, no, this was wrong—

Anne had just managed to feebly raise one arm when the figure was shoved forcefully away from her. The frigid fingers released their hold on her body, and the dancer went sprawling onto the floor—yet the terrible cold in Anne’s body lingered, she could feel it coiling around her womb like a snake—

Some of the laughter had faltered, and she thought she heard shouting—screaming, but muffled, oddly muted—this was wrong, it had gone wrong—Anne tried to raise her hand again, to move—

But then another dancer was inches from her, placing on her stomach warm hands that began melting the iciness away at once… The mask, Anne couldn’t make out the details of this skeletal creature, her vision was far too hazy, now…but the pain was receding, the chill from her bones dissipating…

There was still some broken laughter from the shadows, shrill and high… But it was becoming ever fainter, with a strange, echoing ring to it, as if she were hearing it from within a cavernous tunnel… the darkness in the room was becoming denser, the already dull, wavering light waning… The masked figure which was looming over her leaned in to her even closer, so much so that it was touching her face, and the materiality of the mask did, indeed, feel like bones against her skin…

She drew in a deep breath, and her body once again felt completely warm and heavy. The darkness was closing in, encircling her, consuming her… No longer able to fight it, Anne slowly closed her eyes…

It was in that fleeting moment where she teetered on the edge of unconsciousness that she heard it. One last, velvety whisper in her ear…

“…A girl…”

NYC