I rubbed my eyes. No nightmares, that was a good sign.
I stared at the ceiling. It was damp, earthen, and looked like it could collapse at any moment. I was glad we didn’t have to stay here too long. I got up because I needed to use the toilet.
Sally sat on a chair by the door. “Hey.”
“Hey,” I said. “You haven’t been waking me for my watch.”
“Elenor told us not to. Said you weren’t a finder so there was no point.”
“But you’re not a finder either?”
“I’ve got experience. And well, I only agreed because I didn’t know how strong your magic was. If you want, you can take the next watch.” Sally leaned on her pickaxe. “I could use a nap.”
“Got it. Just give me a minute.” I opened the dark wooden door, which creaked as its ancient joints protested the sudden motion.
The hallway was dim, dimmer than it had been when I went to sleep. Only the candle by the toilet was lit, the others having blown out or run all the way to the metal plates they rested upon. Gravel crunched under my shoes as I walked towards the candle, carefully checking for uneven ground.
The hair on my arms stood up as goosebumps popped all over my skin. The air was cool and the faint rumblings of thunder echoed in the distance. I couldn’t see out of the muddy windows that lined the hallway, but I could sense the humidity in the air, feel the chilly breeze that blew in through the cracks in the wall, and hear the muffled pitter-patter of raindrops pelting the walls of the building.
The candle by the toilet flickered. There was a crack in the wall right next to it so it was only a matter of time before the tiny dancing flame vanished in the trail of a particularly powerful gust. I didn’t know what time it was, but the situation reminded me of a phrase I’d read in a book by my favorite author of children’s stories.
Among his tales of humongous peaches and incredible factories, was a story about a large but good natured giant. But of course, no matter how large and good natured he may be, he was still a giant, so he could only appear at a special time in the night. The story had made me frightened of staying up late as a kid, despite the giant’s friendliness. That was because the name itself was terrifying to a child.
Being reminded of the witching hour while walking down a dimly lit corridor inside a creepy inn in the middle of nowhere with a thunderstorm brewing overhead, made me walk a little faster. A little too fast.
A whistle rang in my ear and the orange glow that had so warmly lit up the corridor, vanished.
Just the wind, I told myself. Screw the boy who went solo, there’s no such thing as a witching hour, Jean.
I stood up and rubbed the dirt off my chin. I couldn’t see anything but I could probably crawl over to the toilet.
But then what? I’d have to call for Sally, most likely. I could ask her to bring the candle, and hope it didn’t get blown out by the wind too.
The wind still whistled through the cracks, and I imagined the thunderstorm was in full swing. Not just because the rumblings overhead had become more frequent, but because if the storm wasn’t blotting out the moon and the stars, there would have been light filtering through the cracks in the walls.
I felt the damp earth in front of me and slowly crawled to the toilet. When my hand hit the rotting wood that was the door, I stood up with my hands feeling for the metal plate that held the candle. I found it, but had no idea how to light it.
I pushed open the door but there was no light inside either. Surprisingly, this door didn’t creak. I rummaged through what seemed like the drawers beside the sink and hit a metal box. I grabbed it. It was rough on one side. I opened the box, took out the only match inside and struck it against the rough side of the box.
It didn’t catch. The door closed as I tried to light the match but I couldn’t hear it close over the whistling winds that were just as loud inside the toilet as they were in the hallway. Finally, a flame jumped to life on the end of the match with which I lit the candle I had taken from the metal plate outside.
I put the candle on the table by the sink, and relieved myself. After washing my hands, I was about to grab the candle when I stopped.
What was that outside? Didn’t sound like the wind. It was rougher, more gravely. It was also familiar.
“You sure…” said the hushed voice from outside.
I carefully pressed my ear against the door.
“I told you, the one with the short black hair. That’s the one the boss was talking about,” said another voice.
“The boss is amazing. He said she’d be here and she really was. I had my doubts cuz nobody comes to this place, but that’s probably why she came here.”
“He did say she was a slippery one. He was also right about her being dumb. She stayed here even though we were right here waiting for her.”
“Or maybe she knows but she doesn’t care.”
“Come on, she ain’t smart enough for that.”
“The boss told us not to kill her. He only wants us watching. That means he doesn’t think we can take her.”
“If she’s half as strong as the boss, then that’s probably true.”
“Still, not being as strong as a little girl rubs my teeth the wrong way.”
“Screw your teeth. Just go back to watching the door. Don’t get too close, she’s got a scary character working for her.”
“Who, that icepick chick?”
“Sally Josef. The best cadet the army had seen in years. Shot through the ranks like my aunt’s toenails do on toenail day.”
“Screw your aunt and her toenail’s. I ain’t afraid of some army chick.”
“Dumbass, she was almost recruited by Inline. Do you understand that? Inline. Forget the girl, Sally Josef could wipe the floor with us on her own. Now get back to snooping and stay out of her sight.”
“Fine, whatever. Let me take a leak first.”
I heard footsteps.
“Damn, this place is dark. You got a candle?”
“Yeah, there should be one here… what was that?”
A piece of wood had fallen off the door and clipped the candle’s metal plate on the way down, sending a clank ringing through the air.
“Sounds like it came from the toilet.”
“Was someone in there?”
“I dunno, didn’t see anyone leave.”
“You were watching their door, right?”
“Yeah, except for when you called me, that is.”
“Shit, what if it’s her.”
“It can’t be. But if it is…”
“You still have that amnesia magic, right?”
I backed up. Was there another door? No, there wasn’t. Could I use my magic on them? What was I going to do, heal them to death?
I put the candle on the sink and grabbed the metal plate. I stood against the wall next to the door so that it would hide me when they opened it, but then I remembered the door opened outwards.
The handle shook. I readied my plate and brought my shelf to the back of my mind. The Cannon wouldn’t be much use, but maybe I could do something with The Tempest.
“Oh yeah, hey. How’s it going.”
“Fine, just heard some noises here so I thought I’d come look. Do you want to use the toilet?”
“Yeah, I mean, I do,” said one voice. “He came along because I was… scared.”
“I see. Well, if you’re scared, how about you come with me now,” said Skinner.
“It’s fine, I need to use the toilet,” came the bearded man’s voice.
“I need to use it too,” said the bald man.
“Don’t worry, nobody cares if you piss yourself where you’re going.”
A loud thud, a muffled groan, and another thud. A gust of wind blew out the candle, plunging me into darkness. I held my breath as the door handle clinked.
The door whooshed open and an orange glow filled the room. The glow moved around, then the door closed and I released my breath.
The door opened both ways, I noted with relief.
There was a grunt outside the door, as if someone was hauling a sack of potatoes on their shoulders. Footsteps receded into the distance and my racing heart calmed.
I gingerly opened the door but I couldn’t see anything outside either. I peeked over the edge of the door and saw an orange glow fade into the distance.
I jumped as thunder rumbled. Hugging the wall, I made my way back to my room.
Something was happening in this inn. Those men were after me, and I had no idea who hired them. And whatever Skinner was trying to do, it didn’t seem like he was up to anything good either. To be fair, he had one of the most obvious evil villain names of all time.
As I reached the room, I hesitated outside. Something was missing, something you never noticed when it was there, but whose absence was deafening in the empty corridor outside the door to our room.
Breathing – I couldn’t hear any breathing. Elenor should have been asleep, and Sally should have been sitting right by the door.
I peeked through the door. The candle still burned quietly on the table but all the beds were empty. Sally’s chair was overturned, and Elenor’s sheets were strewn across the room. Sally’s pickaxe and Elenor’s walking stick lay abandoned on the floor.
I tiptoed backwards, breathing as quietly as possible. I backed up into the door to Jerome and Ben’s room and it swung open.
Shrapnel littered the ground; lots of metal, wood, and stone. One of the beds had been completely destroyed, with splinters and feathers covering the floor around it. The other bed was smeared in a trail of blood that fell to the floor and led to the doorway I was standing in.
Thunder rumbled as I took another step back.
Elenor, Ben, Sally, Jerome, they were all gone. Was this a nightmare? Was I having one after all?
Cold air brushed my skin and I shivered. No, this wasn’t a dream. I couldn’t afford to pretend like it was. Skinner, he was behind this. I had to find him.
I grabbed the candle and cupped a hand around it. Back in the corridor, shadows danced a frenzied waltz around the earthen walls. My heart thumped in my chest, louder than the incessant rumblings of thunder overhead.
Rain had cleaned a window of mud and grime, and I looked out of it. The world outside was grey, mirthless, and muddy. I hurried forward, sticking to the corners, letting the warmth of the candle flame fight the chilly air that burrowed into my bones, and hoped for a miracle.
My shelf was ready, with The Tempest just a thought away. Fitting, considering the relentless rain and roaring thunder outside. I still wasn’t quite sure what The Tempest did, but it had helped me through one inescapable situation, hopefully, it would help me through another.
I stopped. Footsteps echoed through the air. They were coming from upstairs. I covered the candle as best I could, and crouched near the stairway. The footsteps went away from me, towards the center of the building. I stared at the top of the stairway while I climbed the stairs. I peeked over the edge of the final stair, covering the candle’s glow with most of my body.
I saw Elenor, Ben, Jerome, and Sally, strapped to chairs in the middle of a candlelit room.
Two marble slabs stood in the center of the large, otherwise empty room that stretched over the entirety of the floor. On top of the slabs lay the two men who had been whispering outside the toilet, both of whom were struggling against the restraints that bound them face-up against the slabs. Their mouths had been stuffed with dirty rags so I couldn’t even hear their muffled protests from where I stood.
Skinner stood in the middle with a dark, robed figure I didn’t recognize.
“Will you be able to fill your orders with these?” said the robed figure in a coarse, raspy voice that scratched the inside of my ears.
“Yes,” said Skinner.
“Then get to work. I need three grade-twos by the hour, or we will no longer seek your services.”
“Don’t worry,” said Skinner as he turned around and walked between the marble slabs. “This shouldn’t take long.”
He gripped the men’s heads and stared blankly with the look of someone reaching into their shelf. The men’s struggles intensified but Skinner only tightened his grip. The blank look on his face vanished, replaced by furrowed brows and a wrinkled forehead.
Grey smoke began floating out of the men’s heads. It swirled like a whirlpool in front of Skinner’s chest, a whirlpool that raged and boiled as it consumed more grey smoke. The men’s struggles weakened, and their bindings loosened as their bodies shrank. Soon, their skin stuck to their bones, which in turn stuck to the slabs.
The whirlpool of grey smoke solidified into a sphere and as the last wisp of smoke flew into it, Skinner grabbed the sphere and smiled at the robed figure.
“One Soul Orb, fresh out the oven.” Skinner threw the orb.
“Spare me the theatricalities, and finish your job.” The robed figure caught the orb.
Skinner released the bindings on the men’s corpses, and brushed their remains to the ground.
“You know, this would be a lot easier if you funneled more people to me,” said Skinner as he removed Elenor’s bindings and slugged her over his shoulder.
“We are your customers, Mr. Tamp, not your suppliers.”
“You brought these guys to me, didn’t you?” He put Elenor on a slab, tied her to it, then went over to Ben, who had a bloody wound on his head.
“No,” said the robed figure slowly. “This was merely chance.”
“Really?” said Skinner. “Guess Bit must be rewarding me for my patience, at last. Funny though, I could have sworn there was another one in this party.”
“My senses do not detect another,” said the robed figure.
“You Inliners use Bit’s magic, don’t you?” Skinner put Ben on the other slab and tied him up too.
“We make use of the magic granted by burning the Goddess’ book, yes.”
“Funny, all those Collars out there with the same book as you, yet none of them can use it to become superhuman monsters.” Skinner walked up between the slabs. “It’s kinda funny, when you think about it.”
“Just get on with it.”
Skinner grabbed Elenor’s head after brushing the hair out of her face. She wasn’t wearing her glasses and her eyes were wide open. Skinner grabbed Ben’s head, keeping his hand away from the still bleeding wound.
“I need you two awake for this,” said Skinner. He shook their heads until Ben blinked his eyes open.
Elenor didn’t show any signs of waking up, which made my heart skip a beat. Ben struggled when he saw what was happening, but his mouth was gagged too.
“Hey sweetheart, you awake?” said Skinner as he shook Elenor’s head while ignoring Ben’s struggling. “Move your mouth if you are.”
Elenor didn’t respond.
Skinner cursed and put a hand on her throat. “She’s alive and she’s breathing too quickly to be asleep. I’m going to assume she’s awake.”
“You sure?” asked the figure. “We will only accept grade-two Soul Orbs.”
“Damn it,” said Skinner. He shook Elenor’s head more violently. “You better say something before I start punching out your teeth.”
Elenor didn’t respond but I saw her finger twitch. She tapped it lightly and then, I felt like she knew I was there. She tapped again.
I took in a deep breath and snuffed out the candle in my hand.
“Fine then.” Skinner raised a fist into the air.
“Stop!” I yelled as I burst into the room.
Skinner’s gaze turned to me as the sound of rain outside subsided. The robed figure looked at me too, although I couldn’t see beneath the shadow of their hood.
The pages of The Tempest flipped in the back of my head, and a warm energy flooded my body. I felt confident despite the bleak circumstances, as if the melodramatic thunder and rain, the theatrical lighting, and the overly dramatic situation were completely ordinary.
However, I felt like I was missing something. I had the will, the drive, the push, to do something amazing, but I needed direction, I needed a voice. I needed a character. One that could beat the odds no matter how bleak and hopeless the situation may be.
Ruthless, cunning, and resourceful. For a situation like this, only one person came to mind.
“Goddess damn it,” said Skinner. “I knew I’d missed one of them.”
I smiled. “I see your brain is as empty as the abyss. Haven’t you figured it out yet? The Goddess is dead.”
A shockwave blew the room apart, sending Skinner and the robed figure flying against the wall, and making the roof collapse on top of us.
Rain pelted my skin as I dove into the mud.