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I sit up in the night air and shake my head.
…but it’s not night time. I’m not outside either.
The light from the scattered torches are barely enough to tell me what I can already smell—it’s damp and dusty down here, and it’s making the stone floor slippery.
That’s not right. I fell. Over a waterfall…didn’t I?
Reflexively my hands go to my head, my face…chest, arms. I look down at my hands—no blood. I’m not even wet.
I’ve been here before.
We’re taking a beating in the battle outside. The impacts of boulders smashing into the castle proves it. The enemy’s trebuchet are relentless, the bombardment echoing through the corridors. Dust, dirt and pebbles fall from the mortar onto my head and shoulders, get in my eyes and I have to blink through the coughs. The foundation shudders under the soles of my feet.
I pull at my shirt. The smiley is still there. It looks up and…winks at me.
Never done that before!
I hear scuffling up the hall…coming towards me.
The sound carries quite well in the sporadic silence of the cellar, which makes it all the more unnerving. The hair stands up on the back of my neck. Oh I hope it’s a lost fuzzy bunny…PLEASE let it be a lost fuzzy bunny! Gerbil’s would be ok too,…maybe a moderately annoyed groundhog…?
I can hear footfalls—short sprints, stumbling, then there’s silence. Less than a minute later, the sounds of shuffling feet start up again, drawing closer. But this time, I hear panting. Strong and labored panting…as it approaches where I’m crouched in the dark.
Crap. Crap-crap-crap….bunnies don’t pant!
A soft glow appears, bobbing up and down, getting brighter as the sounds get louder with end step. But the movement slows.
I clench my eyes tight and hold my breath.
“Please,” says a soft voice, “give me strength.”
Moments later I hear stumbling, then a distinct thud. There’s a clinking of glass or crystal against a hard surface. A soft glow suddenly pulses into view.
Cautiously, I stand up and creep forward. I look around the corner.
It’s a girl. She’s collapsed onto the floor, just feet away…face down on the stones.
She’s not moving.
The light’s coming from an elongated crystal, laying on the ground, just inches from her open hand.
Her hair is long, dark and curly, pulled back into a pony tail—long bangs drape over her forehead and face. She’s wearing an animal skin jerkin and a rough woven tunic underneath. Her dark trousers are worn, the left leg torn open at the calf.
Kneeling down, I pick up the glowing crystal and crawl over to her. I hold it over her leg. There’s a deep gash across the shin. The blood is caked with dust and dirt, the outer flesh red. I’m not sure—but it looks infected. It has to hurt. Walking the light over her, I look for any other wounds. Luckily, I don’t find a thing.
Where did you come from?
I hold the light close to her face and gently pull back the hair from her brow.
She has the most beautiful face I could ever imagine.
The girl from the Black Market!
Life just got better…and I can’t help smiling to myself. Now I can assist her and she’ll remember how rude she was to me and…
A hand reaches out and grabs at the crystal.
“Don’t take that…” she mumbles, “It’s…mine.” She weakly tugs at my hand.
I place the crystal in her hand, closing her fingers around it.
“I wasn’t taking it,” I tell her, “You’re hurt. I was only using it to look at that wound on your leg.”
I can’t stop staring. Looking at her sends chills down my spine and butterflies to flight in my stomach. I sigh contentedly. Someone in charge likes me after all.
“What’s your name?” I quickly ask. There’s no way I’m leaving without a name this time. I look back at her wounded leg.
“My name is Li-….”, but she stops in mid-breath.
Movement—just beyond the edge of the light. I can see it in her face…it’s behind me. There’s a faint wheezing sound, followed by a rapid succession of clicks.
A raspy breathing which makes my skin crawl.
Without hesitating, the girl sits upright and throws her arms around me, clinging. “Please don’t let them get me! PLEASE!!” Her body shakes so violently, I wrap my arms around her for fear of her falling backwards and hitting her head. Her skin is cold and clammy. She look up at me pleadingly, “Please don’t let them take me.”
Before I can answer, she grabs the crystal and shoves me back onto the floor. I can hear her grunts and gasps of pain, but she quickly hobbles away, leaning heavily against the wall.
“Wait!” I yell, but she’s not listening. “Don’t go!”
I turn to confront the darkness—what’s in it, but I’m alone. The bouncing light fades. I need to hurry. The cellar is a veritable maze. She’ll loose me if I’m not careful…so I sprint after her.
Stupid dust has made the floor treacherous. I glance off a corner and slam into the opposite wall. She’s already made it to the end of the hallway. She’s grasping the purple crystal in her fingers. The cool glow throws her shadow against the stone.
She pauses just long enough to drop the crystal into a pouch flung across her shoulder.
Her curls bounce across her tunic.
Rounding the corner, I call out again, “Please! Let me help you!”
When I catch up, she’s cowering at a juncture in the tunnels. Her eyes widen like a cornered rabbit and she screams. The echo is almost deafening. It’s then that I notice the robed figure emerging from the blackness—hunched over, the tattered cloth hanging from the boney figure beneath. The air has a pungent smell of rotten meat so strong, I gag.
“Keep running!” I call out, but she doesn’t respond.
A flash of movement catches my attention and I’m taken back.
Hundreds of insects—cockroaches, flies, earwigs and things I can’t identify, scatter across the tiles—left behind with each step the figure takes. Footsteps of decay.
It hisses, arms outstretched towards the girl.
She recoils and screams again.
My reaction is instantaneous. I reach out to grip the air in front of me, looking to the torches on either side of the hallway. White light flares from my chest, glowing beneath my t-shirt and the fire leaps from the wall sconces. The flame expands and swirls, splitting, forming giant fingers. Clapping my hands together, the burning extensions of my will snatch the robe, holding it fast. Shrieks scrape at my ears and spine. The creature shakes violently, trying to escape, but I hold it fast, squeezing my palms together. Smoke rolls along the ceiling in all directions until there’s nothing left but falling ash.
The Wendellizer has saved…Oh yeah, I’ve been here before. I jump over the ash and slide to her side.
“Are you ok?” I look over my shoulder, but the hall is black. “We have to get out of here.”
“We need to move, now!”
“My knee,” she sobs, “I…I can’t get up.”
“Show me with the light,” I say, “quickly.”
With a short cry of pain, she twists and opens her bag. The area lights up under the glow of the crystal.
A rumpled mane of long curls frame the gentle curves of her face. She so…perfect.
Her hand reaches out to softly caress my own.
“You saved me!” she coos, batting her doe-eyes. She flinches as she draws close to me. Her full lips part in an intoxicating smile and I, um, can’t remember…. What am I doing?
Oh. Right. Being cool.
I smile back, “Yeah,…I mean, yes, I did.”
That’s good. I sound…waaaiiiit a minute.
Her touch is so soft, her skin warm—even in this dank cellar.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
“Right,” I say, numbly.
She looks up into my eyes, reaches her hand around my neck and firmly pulls me closer. Leaning in, she closes her eyes and gently presses her soft lips to my…palm.
“Not this time,” I grunt.
She pulls her head back, looking at me, shocked. “Wh—what’s the matter?”
It only takes me a fraction of a millisecond to decide how to respond.
“I want this moment last forever,” I whisper, “with all my heart…but it won’t.”
And it doesn’t.
A hiss from behind tears us apart.
She falls back onto her elbows, her face contorted with terror. I miss the taste of salt on my lips.
“No!” she cries, “Don’t let them get me! PLEASE!!”
Hair rises on the back of my neck. I know it’s not her expression…but the scraping sound, echoing behind me, like animal claws against stone, still causes me to shudder. Turning, I see the two ghastly robes and I gulp.
Hollow, vacant holes where faces should be, shredded sleeves in place of hands of flesh, reaching out. Like specters, they move slowly towards us, crawling on all four limbs, prowling along the walls.
“Jussst a boy. Jussst a CHILD.”
They pause…as if considering, swaying in the shadows. Watching me. The tops of the hoods roll forward, bend—skinless brows frowning at me. Arching their backs, they change their positions, like beasts, ready to pounce upon their prey.
“Go home or ssshe will…”
“Suffer,” I finish, scooping her into my arms. “I heard you the first time, bucket-face.”
The shouts echo in my mind and I can’t shut them out. Screaming, screeching, howling.
“Get out of my mind!!”
The hallway is blocked by the vile specters. We’re cornered.
Focus. Useless shelf to my right, two wood crates and three full gunny sacks—probably grain, a pile of someones forgotten laundry. No help there. To my left, a stained glass window.
Window? What’s a window doing in a cellar??
I pick her up and hold her body against me, but I can’t protect her face and neck. I need both hands.
“Turn your face into my chest!” I yell.
The creatures launch themselves, claws outstretched.
I plunge backwards, through the glass.
The cold wind stings my flesh, the glass shards tear my cheek and forearm. The fragments roll around me, over my bare skin, covering the girl. Then it happens again…
I’m all alone…and plummeting to my death.
The waves of the sea beckon as the rocky shore rushes up to meet me.
….and I didn’t even get her name.