Lage’s Game: Chapter Thirteen, Part One

Lage handed the bag of souls to me. I pulled it open and investigated. There were three tiny spheres. One white and silver, one grey, and one black. Well.

I drew the black one out. It was feeble, tainted, ad worthless to me. Mere filler so they could say that they were giving Lage three. I dropped it, crushign it under my heel.

With a squeal and sigh, the soul was free. Their thanks and relief poured into me, and I nodded graciously. You’re welcome.

Then, I looked to the other two in my palm. The gray one was next. I tossed it up and caught it in my mouth. It tasted sweet, fruity, and had a tang of spice to it.

I spat it out, satisfied. A good soul, but not worth my time. Be gone.

The soul scurried away, whispering thanks and all that.

Finally, I held up the silver-white one. Who are you?

I tossed the ball to the ground, ordering it silently to show itself.

As it struck the ground, a silhouette appeared above it. A hologram almost, one could say, or a ghost of a shape. It was the shape of a man, dark like onyx and bearing a striking resemblance to Rebella. Yet where she seemed merciless he seemed softer, wiser. He had long locks that were drawn back and let to fall down around his cloaked shoulders. He was dressed royally but not frivolously.

He bowed slightly to me, proper as could be. “Greetings,” he said clearly, a difficult thing for a spirit to do.

“Serve me,” I ordered. I could sense his power. Noble lineage, good fighting skills, yes, I wanted his service. He would build me a proper army, be a good general.

He hesitated. “What goal are you reaching for? What purpose?”

“I will destroy those who upset the bonds between the worlds. I have come to end the game,” I said.

He inclined his head. Lowering his gaze, he seemed to think.

“Join me,” I ordered again.

His eyes rose to mine, somber. “What you seek is no easy path. I will join you – if you pledge to keep my line safe. Especially Rebella.”

My lip curled in disdain. “Fine,” I snapped a little too swiftly.

We bowed, and the pact was sealed. As I straightened from the bow, he vanished in a flicker. I picked up the sphere from the ground and placed it back in the pouch. I tied it to my belt, and decided my time was done.

Like a cold deluge, all my heat and power drained away. I felt the biting snap of cold on my toes. I felt the sharp winter on my face, my hands. I was suddenly a thirteen year old girl, cold and in a strange land.

Shaking, I looked around as if seeing the grounds for the first time. Lage stepped forward. “It’s you again,” he said gently, crouching down before me. He took my shoulders. I gaped, looking at the bodies around. They hadn’t even had the chance to fire their guns. Or had some supernatural force held them back?

“I did that?” I asked, my voice trembling.

“No,” he said, blue eyes clear and honest. “It wasn’t you.”

“Who?” I looked down at myself. I felt so small compared to that power, that confidence, that I had been filled with just a moment before.

He sighed. “I’m not sure. But you must go somewhere safe.”

“Get her out of me!” I ordered. I knew for sure it was a woman, intuitively. How, I was not sure. But she was a ‘she’.

Lage straightened, hands still on my shoulders. “You can stay with me -”

“You work with them!” I yelled, wrenching free.

“I do not,” he said sternly. Looking around, he sighed, as if looking for some escape. “I merely do my job,” he muttered.

A shaky breath came through me. I felt like a scarecrow, just rattling with the wind. “I want to know,” I said. “I want to know- everything.” Who could I trust? What was going on? “I want to know!” I raised my voice, almost yelling.

Lage looked down at me. “You’re so young.”

Fury boiled in me – but this wasn’t the same that brought power. This was plain anger, unfuelled by that ‘other’ sense.

Then, as if the thought summoned it, I felt it wave up through me. I felt taller, haughty, and ready to take on Lage in all his own power. I didn’t care if he was the main player-

“Main player?” I asked, suddenly brought out of the trance by the jarring knowledge. “What – what does that mean?”

Lage’s eyes narrowed. I felt a sense of humor in the back of my mind, like part of me was laughing at him. I wanted to tip myhead back and cackle. Yes! Be afraid, Lage!

Lage took a step back. “Leave me,” he said sharply. “Take her with you. I can’t save you from her.”

“Fine,” I heard myself say coldly. Struggling, I tried to push aside that coldness, that haughtiness. “Lage-” I said, forcing myself to become myself again.

He shook his head and stepped back. “I can’t help you.”

“But!” I felt myself failing. I needed him – I needed someone!

Lage turned around and walked away. I stood there alone, listening to the sound of his boots crunching in the snow.

“Come back to me,” said a voice from within. Rebella. “I can tell you, everything.”

Fury boiled up within me. I yanked the dagger up from the snow where I had dropped it. I shoved it clumsily into my belt – giving myself a tiny cut on the thumb for my carelessness. Then, turning, I stomped back the way I had came.

I walked for five minutes, following the snowmobile trails, before I realized I could take one of those and save myself the hours of walking. Turning around, I trekked back to the snowmobiles and took their keys from the dead bodies. Gulping down bile and ignoring the fresh smell that was staining the air, I clambered onto the smallest snowmobile.

I drove considerably slower on the way back than we had come. I didn’t want to end up crashed against a tree, and I doubted my parasitic spirit’s bravado would save me if I did have a smashing accident.

By the time I arrived at the city’s outer gates, the sky was turning a deep shade of greyish black. At the gates, proud and pleased, was Rebella on a horse at the head of a handful of guards.

“There you are,” she said as soon as I let the engine choke to an end a bit away from the horses. I stepped off the thing, scowling at her. She smiled like she was so pleased. Like I was her special gift. “Come,” she nodded to the left. “I have a horse for you.”

Still scowling, I marched to where a guard was waiting with a soft brown horse. They helped me up and I found myself sitting directly beside Rebella. She was still smiling at me. With a satisfied nod, she wheeled her horse around and entered the city.

Clumsily, the horse doing more the following than I the guiding, we made our way after her. The guards cocooned around me, following Rebella. These guards were not jesting or joking about me any longer. There was a wary look to their eyes and silence to their lips. I wondered what had changed – and realized that I would probably find out soon. Very soon.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Twelve, Part Two

Rebella took me through the castle and to a hall. It had an arched ceiling that lent it all an air of grandeur, except that was wasted, for the hall seemed to have lost anything worth mentioning. It was empty, really. There was a throne, guards, but the walls were bare. The throne was a stone seat, but it had pockets and chunks missing from it, as if gems had been pried off it. Rebella’s sister was pacing before the throne, and before here were ‘them’.

Oh, I could recognize them alright. There were three of them. They weren’t the same ones as had been sent after me before, but they had an air of familiarity to them, what with their polarized fleece winter coats and thick snow boots. They wore reflective sunglasses, hats, and lots, lots, of guns.

“I found her,” announced Rebella, dragging me into the hall after her. With a haughty tip of the head, she presented me to ‘them’. “Here you go.”

“How do we know it’s really her?” asked the man who was standing in the front of the other two.

“That’s not our problem,” said Rebella sharply. “You should have known what you were looking for.”

The man tilted his head to the side, and I wondered if Rebella was about to earn herself a hole in the head. Did I want that to happen?

The closest ‘them’ took a grip on my shoulder and wrenched me to their side. He held up a device to my shoulder, and it beeped. He nodded to the others.

“We’re going,” said the head one to the Queen. She nodded, obviously relieved.

“Have a nice trip,” said Rebella with a smirk.

The goons looked at her. I was beginning to sweat. My stomach was doing flips in my chest. I was cold, hot, and wanted to be done with murder – if I could bring myself to do it.

Where was my anger? Where was that blood-infused strength? I didn’t have it now.

They dragged me after them, marching out of the hall. My heart was pounding in my throat. The world flickered on and off, and I was just registering glimpses of what was around me. It was all happening too fast. I wanted to stop, to pause, but it was all too much.

They loaded me onto a snowmobile where they should have been riding horses. Servants watched earnestly. I felt a cold knot in my stomach, and I was trembling.

The engines revved. Servants startled away, and we zoomed off.

The city flashed by, the cold wind slapping and biting me in the face. It brought me back to life.

I was going to die, I realized. Or worse. These people meant business – and I realized I had two options ahead of me.

Screw Rebella, I could go with these ‘them’ and settle things once and for all. I could go to their nest, their boss, and slay him.

Slay him? I was rattled from that thought by the foreign-ness of it. Who was that, thinking that in my head?

But now I was cool, calm, and unafraid. I felt composed, ready. Beneath it all was a boiling anger, a power that was just waiting to surface. I was there.

As I realized the presence of this… presence? Within myself, it slipped back over my mind.

Coldly, I thought again of my options. I could kill them in their nest. Slay their chieftain. Or I could slay these ones and flee. Flee again! I was tired and sick of running. But did I have a choice? Was I strong enough, at one, to defeat them in their nest? Would they let me close enough to utterly destroy them?

They first gates, those of the castle, whizzed past. Horses and people were now jostling out of the way. We had to slow, and that gave me precious time.

Two paths, so clear, lay before me. All involved death and bloodshed, but I was settled for that. It was nothing to me now, just another consequence of life. But was there a third path?

Lage, I thought. I swallowed his card.

Nagging, in the back of my mind, I knew that meant something enormous. Gigantic. Could I call upon him like these other spirits? Would I be able to summon him to my aid? I was not sure, and certainly did not know how.

Then there was Ekundayo’s necklace. But what good was that? I dismissed it almost as swiftly as it had come up.

No, two paths it was. Which one?

Guards rushed, people screamed, and we were at the final gates. The guards watched nervously, and we whizzed past them. The warm stench of the city was now gone, and we were out in the biting cold. Snow churned up around us.

Now, a voice called out within me. It called, if such a thing was possible, through my chest. From the stone, I realized coldly.

Rebella, you bitch, I thought. You’re watching me.

Distantly, I heard her laugh. Come back to me, she ordered.

I held my stillness. I was still not sure which path I was to take. In fact, I was beginning to drift towards the first. Not only because it was delayed action, but because I wanted things to end. Let me have closure. Let me close this chapter.

The forest, black trees on a white background, it all went by within the deafening roar of the machines. A familiar dolmen appeared, then grew in the distance. Beside it stood Lage, wrapped in his cloak with a spattering of snow atop his shoulders.

The snowmobiles drew to a jarring halt before the dolmens. “Here,” said the goon in charge. “We pay the toll.” He drew a pouch from his pocket and handed it to Lage. Lage, looking tired and drawn, accepted the pouch. He pried it open and looked within.

I heard a strange whispering, the cries of souls on the wind, and felt a sense of whimsical homesickness. How I missed having my own souls, being paid my own tributes.

Shoved off the snowmobile, I returned to my senses. I was just a kid, a teen. Fear seized me. Cold bit through me. In a flash I wondered at what was happening in my mind – what was this presence taking over me?

But then I was cool again. Controlled. I rose to my feet as the goons, the soldier I realized they must be, dismounted their snow machines.

My eyes met Lage’s. In a flash I knew he didn’t want this. He would help me – if he could.

Then help, you bastard, I thought. And he heard me. He lifted his head, holding up the bag. Cleared his throat.

The goons looked at him. It was a fleeting distraction, but it was enough.

In one fluid motion, I drew the gun from the holster of the guards’ hip. Bang, bang, bang. I heard the shots, but didn’t so much register what was happening. In a blink, I heard yells. Heard the almost silent thud of the gun hitting the ground. Felt the touch of the dagger in my hand.

I came to, wiping my dagger clean on their clothes. Lage stood there still, the bag now closed in his hands. Three heads lay at my feet, still bearing their sunglasses. Should I keep them? Did I want these souls as mine?

“Thank you,” I heard myself say to Lage. I turned to him.

“Who are you?” he asked softly.

I felt humor come over me. I laughed, and the voice was jarring. Again, I shifted. Panic swelled over me. Was I-? Who was this in me? What was this feeling of – otherness?

But then it slipped back over me. I was calm, controlled. I held out a hand. “Give me those souls,” I demanded. Not that I needed the food. But a girl likes an army, doesn’t she?

Lage’s Game: Chapter Twelve, Part One

I caught Rebella by surprise. There was a smear of blood on the Grandmother’s lips, but it was tiny. Rebella spun with a yell, but I had the dagger.

I stabbed blindly – but she caught my arm.

And we were stuck. Me bearing down on her with all my strength, her sitting, half falling backwards, bracing up against me and the dagger. The dagger which was so, so, close to her eye that it was maddening.

Fury pumped through me. I willed this with all my might. To murder her.

“Guards!” Rebella yelled as her hands slipped ever so slightly. The tip of the dagger grazed her cheek, cutting a slim line.

It was not enough! I wanted her dead!

The door behind us burst open. Hands seized me and I was flung back, the dagger wrenched from my hand.

“What on earth are you doing?” yelled a voice. As my mind spun, I came to on the floor at the foot of a guard. Before me was the tall figure of the other princess, who was holding Rebella by a blood-spattered wrist. “What are you doing?” she screamed.

Rebella wrenched free. “What needs to be done!” and she turned to her grandmother.

The moment seemed to stand still. Rebella gasped. Her dagger clattered to the floor, splattering my blood across the planks.

“No!” gasped Rebella, shaking the elderly woman, who now bore a slight smile on her face. But the woman was limp. “No!” Rebella screamed, shaking her some more. Desperately, she smeared blood on the grandmother’s lips – only to be wrenched back by the sister.

“Don’t do that! You can’t!”

“I can and I will!” screamed Rebella, wrestling free from her sister. “I don’t care! She can’t die! We need her!”

“Stop being so selfish!” screamed the sister, grabbing at Rebella again. “It’s not about you! Let her rest!”

“No!” Rebella screamed, stamping a foot. “We need her! I don’t care if it curses us all! We need her!”

I staggered to my feet, determined to try again. The sister turned, our eyes meeting. Her eyes swept me up and down – and she nodded to herself. “Guards! Take this one to the healing ward! And this one-” she gestured to Rebella. “To her room! And keep her in there!”

“No!” Rebella yelled, but the sister yanked her forward and away from the Grandmother. A squabble began, but the guards quickly seized Rebella. With a slam Rebella bodily shoved one aside, punched the other in the visor, and stamped past me out of the room.

“See to it that she stays in her room!” called out the sister at the guards who rushed after Rebella.

I was left in the custody of one guard. They picked me up in their arms, limp and head spinning. The last thing I remembered was watching the ceiling twirl above me – and then nothing.

Time passed in lurches. I saw darkness, then I was beside Lage, watching him fish in the ice.

“You’re here?” he asked. “So soon?”

Then, the world lurched. Ekundayo was beside me, humming as he drummed happily with a stick on a rock. “Child, child,” he said, shaking his head with that strange grin.

Then, I spun downwards.

With a gasp, I sat up. My chest was seizing with pain. Two pairs of arms belonging to robed people were stretched above me. They were chanting incoherently. A sense of panic was crashing over me. I had to get out of here. They were going to pullt he card out of me!

I lurched to the side, falling clean off the bed and before a pair of feet. I grabbed onto a hand and helped myself up – and was faced with a sneering Rebella.

“Well,” she said.

Hatred swelled in me- but I was pushed backwards onto the bed.

“You should sit,” said Rebella nastily.

I breathed, heart hammering in my chest. Rebella. How I hated her. The monks, healers, whatever they were, lowered their arms. A sense of static electricity left the air, and my panic left me. Cool calm came over me. I focused on Rebella, wonderign how I could kill her.

But Rebella wasn’t herself. She was fidgeting, looking from me to the door beyond the curtains that framed the bed. “They won’t think of coming here,” she murmured. Then, to the healers, she snapped “Get out!”

The healers bowed, scraped their feet back, and shuffled away without another word. Rebella followed them. Once the door was shut, she latched it shut. Then she pressed her back to the door nad glared at me.

It dawned on me then that this wasn’t an infirmary. The room was small from what I could see, but – it was a personal room.

Rebella marched towards me. “Who are you? Why do they want you? Hmh?”

She was now at my side, drawing out a dagger from her belt with a hiss of metal. She held it between us, eyes flashing.

“They?” I asked. “They’re here?” Could there be more than one ‘they’?

“They want you,” said Rebella angrily. “They are saying they will kill the new Queen if we do not hand you over.”

Her hand was trembling. Her eyes flicked over me like a spider darting all over.

“Who are they?” I asked, feeling a sense of control. A sense I could finally get some answers.

“They?” she hissed. “You know them! They are the Associates. They rule your world, or so they say.”

I made a face. “They do not,” or so I hoped.

“Why do they want you?” she hissed, prodding the dagger at me. But I knew she wouldn’t hurt me this time. She was too uneasy. Or maybe that was the danger.

“Where am I?” I asked, drawing back the curtains from the other side of the bed. My fingers barely grazed the fabric before my shoulder was seized by Rebella. She shook me, making sharp daggers of pain burst in my chest.

“What do they want?” she hissed rabidly. “You- who are you?”

She had dropped the dagger in my lap. In a flash I knew I could take it and slash her throat- but somehow I chose not to. I grabbed her wrists and pried them off me.

“I am no one!” I answered coolly, shoving her back so I could stand. “I-”

“They wouldn’t threaten my sister for just anyone!” and the dagger was back between us. Then, with a flick, she slid it back into her belt. “Tell me – or I will bring you to them!”

That stilled my heart. That meant … “If I tell you?” I asked cautiously.

“I will keep you safe from them,” she said too swiftly. Nodding to herself,she held out her palm. “Word of honor.”

There was a catch. Obviously. But I didn’t want to be turned over to ‘them’, did I?

I looked around the room, hoping for some escape. I gripped at my robe, a strange flimsy white thing. I was barefoot, too. I wouldn’t get far.

“Five,” declared Rebella. “Four,”

I scowled at her. What a stinker she was.

“Three,” she said, challenging me.

“I ate Lage’s card,” I snapped.

Her jaw fell. A choking sound came out of her throat – then she turned to disbelief and started laughing. “You did what now?” But then she tipped her head back and laughed.

Humiliation burned over me, but she seemed relieved when she was done with her laughter.

“You idiot,” she said happily. Then she clapped a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You are stupid, you know that?”

I fueled all my anger at her through my eyes, choking up on words. How I wanted to tell her that I hated her right then. Maybe I should try and kill her again.

“Don’t worry,” she clapped my shoulder. “I will keep you safe. Now,” she pressed a finger to her lips and looked me up and down. A smirk drew itself on her lips. She looked smug. “We need to find you some clothes. Come.” She snapped her fingers at me and motioned me to follow her.

We drew to a large chest, from which she drew out some old clothes. They were worn through in their colors, but still solid looking. Several shirts were held up to me until she found one that she found suitable. From there she gave me a tunic to put over, a sort of bra to wear under, and pants. Boots – she gave me some soft slipper-like things in leather.

“They will have to do,” she muttered, cluckign her teeth. Then, she gave me a belt. It was set with a snake biting its tail worked into the metal ring. She set a dagger on it and set it about my waist. “Here,” she said. Then, stepping back, she looked me over. “Good,” she declared.

I had a sinking feeling that something was wrong. Something about the satisfied gleam in her eyes. I felt like a pig being dressed for slaughter.

She took a gray cloak trimmed in white fur from the chest. It was old as well, but fitted me a little largely. It occurred to me that I must look like a younger version of her – was I to be some decoy?

“Now,” she took a white globe from down her shirt, fishing it out with some difficulty. “Hide this in your shirt. Don’t eat it,” she added with a chuckle.

It was cold like ice, so much so that I almost dropped it. It was marble perhaps, smooth white with shoots of glimmering gray woven through it.

“When you are ready to escape, call out the name-”

“Escape?”

“Of course, I’m going to hand you over to them. Then you will escape.”

There it was. The betrayal. “But you had promised-”

She held up a finger between us. “I can’t hide you. If I do, they will sack the city. No, I will hand you over. You have my dagger, and my spirit-weapon.” she closed my fingers over the white ball. “Call their name when you are ready to kill them, and they will appear and fight with you.”

“Kill them?” I gawked. I’d never killed before!

“You must strike the killing blow,” she said softly, “and don’t leave it to the spirit to do.” Then, sensing my dismay, she added “You must kill them. If you don’t, they will follow you back to the city. Killing them will buy us time. Take it,” she pushed my hand to my chest. “Kill them. Then come back to me.”

On remote, I put the ball down my shirt. Then, numb, I felt myself turning to ice. This couldn’t be. It was too awful to be true.

But it was. Rebella whispered a name to me, then nodded. “Come back to me, and I will take care of you,” she announced.

Like hell I would.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Eleven, Part Two

The trees were coated in soft fluffy white snow. The flakes sifted slowly down through the air. A slow breeze slid through the trees, biting through me. I huddled under the cloak, stumbling ever forward through the forest.

It had been what felt like hours that I was walking. The only change in time was the shift of the weather. Sometimes warmer, sometimes colder, and now the snow.

I knew I had to find Lage. Lage, or someone who could bring me back to my world. Somewhere, somehow. I’d be safe there, I told myself. I knew I wouldn’t, but I told myself I would. I told myself that at least there wouldn’t be a stupid princess throwing me in a dungeon with … an assassin? Who rescued me?

I plodded on, gritting my teeth at the complexity of this newfound world. The princess, the dying Queen, the gun, it was all piling together in my head. I knew I wouldn’t be safe in my own world – and stumbled over a branch. My arms flung out to break my fall – and I landed in something white.

Not the snow. A pair of arms.

Slowly, I looked up. Red eyes looked down from a white-as-snow face with icicles for hair.

I gaped. The creature grinned, revealing a fanged set of teeth.

I screamed, jumping back and flailing. The creature was a disembodied thing, a torso with just a whispy tail-like bottoming out. It had hands like claws that were tipped in blue talons.

Spinning, I darted straight back the way I came, floundering through the snow.

A high-pitched chuckle echoed in my ears as I ran, and the ‘thing’ rushed along behind me, in the corner of my eyes, clacking its teeth and snagging at me with its claws.

Breathless, I crested a small hill- and tripped over a root. I tumbled straight down the hill in a blundering blurr of white that bit at me and roots and stones that jabbed into my sides.

When I floundered to a stop, there was a horses’ nose before me. A soft brown horse nose that snorted at me. I scrambled to my feet, thinking that I was lucky – when I saw that there was a guard atop this horse. And on the horse beside it. And on that horse, beside it? Another guard.

A clacking sound from behind made me spin. The strange ‘thing’ was rushing towards me, eyes glowing, jaws open, and blue finger-talons out.

“Enough!” barked a voice. The thing reeled to a halt just before me, its talons a mere foot from my face. It looked to my right, where another horse was stepping forward. On this horse, dappled gray, sat Rebella with her white cloak. “Come,” she ordered, holding out her arm.

With a squeal, the creature turned into a snowy white owl and flapped its way to her arm. There, she gave it a small bit of meat. It looked suspiciously like a dead mouse. Rebella turned her cold glare to me. “It looks like we found it,” she sneered.

My blood boiled. “Me,” I declared. “You found me. Not an ‘it’. I’m a person.”

“Oh, well, person,” sneered Rebella. “There I was thinking you had rocks for brains.”

My fury bubbled over, but I was speechless once more, silent in my white-hot fury. Rebella nodded to a guard. “Take it,” she ordered before wheeling her horse around.

The guard reached down, seizing me by the shoulder. I wrenched free.

I wished for a knife. Some dagger, magic maybe, to help me overcome all of them. Maybe even a gun – which I normally hated.

Between two guards I was lifted up, kicking and biting, up onto one of their horses, before the rider. Then, with an armored arm around my waist, we wheeled around to follow Rebella.

I gave up on fighting as we trudged back through the forest. I turned limp, glaring viciously at Rebella’s back.

I hated her. I wanted to utterly destroy her. She was quickly enlarging in my mind, becoming synonymous with ‘them’. Those hated unknowns now had a face and persona in Rebella.

When we trudged back within the cities’ walls, I had decided that I was going to kill her. No matter what. It was my chance to hit back at ‘them’.

We plodded through the grubby city, the horses’ rhythms suspiciously lulling, annoyingly slow-paced compared to a car. Houses that were mere shacks passed on and on. People covered in filth stared, mouths agape, pointing at me but never at Rebella. She must be a villain they were used to.

What struck me was the silence, though. The people whispered but voices never rose into spoken words with clarity or force. They merely whispered, mumbling from mouth to ear behind hands. Definitely no one shouted.

My chance came when we entered the castle’s walls. There, the guards visibly relaxed. They began laughing among themselves, cracking jokes I didn’t listen to and laughing rowdily. Rebella, however, had her back to us and rode on ahead. That is, until we dismounted.

I was dropped to the ground, aching all over and numb from the cold. But I sensed a window of opportunity. A tingling came over me. Rebella had her back to us still, throwing her reins to a servant. The guards were dismounting around me, trading jokes.

I spun, seizing the sword from the hip of the guard behind me. With a hiss of metal the sword drew clear. I stumbled, but swung it with the momentum, lurching forward at Rebella.

In slow motion, I saw Rebella turn. I saw her eyes widen, her lips part slightly in surprise.

With a shriek, the owl burst at me, wings flapping at my face. I stumbled back.

Time jolted back to full speed. Rebella was before me, the bird tossed aside. She grabbed my arms, wrenching the sword from my grasp. I kicked at her, but she deflected it with a swipe of the leg that sent me falling face-first into the muddy snow.

“You are all so useful,” Rebella sneered at her guards as she turned her back on me once more, dropping the sword to the snow mere feet away from me.

The guards murmured apologies. I staggered up, but was dwarfed by hands. No more freedom for me. As Rebella marched on ahead I was bodily dragged after her, arms held out like a scarecrow. My feet dragged, catching in the stones and earth as we marched into the castle.

This time, we did not enter the huge gardens within that dome. Instead we marched up a flight of stairs, turned left, and found ourselves in a dark corridor. At the end of it, servants lined a room. These guards were adorned in purple with large feathers atop their helmets. The servants exchanged nervous looks, but bowed their heads as Rebella approached them.

“What are you all doing out here?” Rebella demanded, half-yelling. “Why have you left her alone?”

“She ordered-” murmured one servant who was standing before a door. She didn’t finish her sentence, as Rebella took her by the shoulders and threw her out of the way, crushing into the other servants.

“Bring the thing!” shouted Rebella, yanking the door open and barging in.

The guards yanked me forward. I was shoved into the room seconds after Rebella entered it. It was almost a touching scene. Almost.

The grandmother Queen was laying on a giant red four-poster bed with the curtains drawn shut. Rebella had opened one side and was now clasping the grandmother’s hand in both of hers. The grandmother’s good eye was open, but it too was now turning milky white. The decay had almost taken over her entire face.

“Child,” said the grandmother, breath heaving.

“It’s not your time. We need you,” whispered Rebella, clutching the withered hand to her chest.

The grandmother smiled mysteriously. “That’s not how the world works.”

Determination came over Rebella. She lowered the grandmother’s hand. “Get out,” she ordered, backing away from the bed. “All of you. Leave the thing here. I have something to do.”

The guards backed away, shuffling nervously out the door. It shut behind them with a creak and a clap, and I was alone with Rebella and her dying Grandmother.

Rebella wasted no time. With a yank she drew a dagger from her belt. With a toss her cloak fell to the ground and she marched towards me, head held high.

I just wasn’t expecting it.

With a flash of the arm, she stabbed me in the chest. I gasped, the sharp pain slicing through me. I found myself gripping at her arm as she yanked the dagger out of me.

I staggered as Rebella yanked away. The world swam as her back walked away, back to the bedside. My knees struck the floor. I was clutching at my chest, watching the blood seep out from between my fingers. I knew enough to know that this was severe. I was going to die.

And Rebella was still alive.

“Blood of the heart, lift this curse,” I heard Rebella whisper as she was lifting a bloody finger – full of my blood – to her Grandmother’s lips.

“Child, no,” whispered the fading Grandmother. The good eye fluttered closed.

I was taking that bitch down with me, I thought. I saw the dagger set beside her on the bed. I launched myself.

Lage’s Game, Chapter Eleven, Part One

“What are you going to do?” Crow was whispering as I peeked out through my eyelashes. There was moonlight drifting through cracks of the shack, but no other light. Ekundayo’s eyes glowed lightly.

“Why, what makes you think I’m going to do anything?” the shaman asked happily.

“She is your daughter, am I wrong?”

“Of course she is,” Ekundayo lied like it was true, passionately so. “But I had to rescue her.”

I was drowsy, half awake, but determined not to wake fully. Besides, it seemed like this was a good vantage point to spy from.

“How does she not know Madame minstrel though?”

“Things have changed inside the castle, I suppose. Maybe Minstrel fell out of grace.”

“Tss, there would have been a hanging if so,” Crow muttered savagely. But then he sunk into gloomy silence. It did not last long. Within a moment he perked up, saying “So she is your daughter?”

“Of course,” sighed Ekundayo, closing his eyes as he rested against the wall. Crow shifted, rubbing his hands together.

“Does she, you know? Have your powers? Is she free?”

One of Ekundayo’s eyes opened. Then it closed. “Who knows?”

“Well, she must know!”

“I doubt it,” hummed Ekundayo. “Freedom comes at a price too, my friend. Don’t forget that.”

“But imagine if she was!” Crow sighed. “It must be so lovely. What’s it like?”

Ekundayo hummed as an answer.

Crow blew on his hands and rubbed them together again. “Lage must be so jealous!” he cackled gleefully. “How is that bugger, anyways?”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Ekundayo sourly. “Why don’t you go ask him?”

“Oh, hush you,” said Crow. “How is he?”

Ekundayo hummed, eyes closed. Crow huffed and wrapped his arms around himself. I hoped they would say something more. Anything, really, that would be useful. Or something to explain what was happening in this strange world. But they didn’t say a thing.

I drifted back into sleep as the silence stretched on.

It felt like only a few moments, but when I was roused, the sun was seeping through the cracks and the day was cold in a bone-chilling way. Ekundayo’s breath misted between us as he shook my shoulder.

Shushing me, he held a finger to his lips. With a nod to the sleeping Crow beside us, he helped me up to my feet. I shook him off, stumbling on my numbed legs. It was so cold.

Ekundayo ushered me to the door, which he pried open so silently for me. Then, with a nod, he pointed me out into the street.

The sun was blinding, beating down without a cloud to spare us. The shacks were garish in their frozen misery, icicles hanging here and there, frost clinging to the walls. The sun had just risen, sparkling over this mess like it was pretending to be pretty.

“Here,” Ekundayo took my cloak from my shoulders and plopped a grimy gray one onto me. “Only guards wear red,” he announced before throwing my cloak into a nearby alleyway.

“Now what?” I asked grimly as we walked what felt aimlessly through the streets. But he was alert, smiling, but tense.

“Now what?” he repeated cheerfully. “Somethign is happening. The spirits woke me. We must get out of here. You, if you can, must evade the city. Escape, if you will, all the way. I know you will be fine if you can just get out of here.”

I gave him the stink eye of disbelief. He smiled cheesily.

“You remember that I am a shaman, do you?”

“Yes,” I said sourly, but also knew that I did not believe in magic. Or did I? I was living in another world now, wasn’t I? I frowned, looking around for some sense of normalcy.

“You also remember that I am an assassin?” he asked gently.

“Yes!” I snapped. What was his point?

He seemed kind as he stopped, drawing me before him to look me in the eyes. His fringe sparkled, swaying between us. “It means that I will be fine here, but you shall not. You are not an assassin, child. You are a child.”

I shook his hands off angrily. “I’m not a child anymore!”

“You haven’t murdered, yet,” he said solemnly. “You are still a child to me.”

I huffed angrily. Whatever!

He looked around. Then, he reached up under his hood. He drew out a necklace. It was a golden chain that looked surprisingly modern, with a gold medallion the size of my thumb, with a red rose painted on it. “Here,” he hooked it around my neck. “You keep this.” It slid under my tunic, warm. He patted it there. “You will find me again, and I will find you. Alright? Don’t despair. People will find you.”

“I’m tired of being found,” I snapped. I felt like a token of purity of some sort, being passed around like a treasure.

He winked at me. “You do that. Just remember to escape this city, even if it means becoming an adult. Now,” he straightened. “Where are we going? Ah! That way!” and he pointed us forward.

I rolled my eyes and followed him, scowling at his side while we slipped through narrow alleyways and foul-smelling paths.

It was just as we passed into what seemed a cleaner area of town that the screams were heard. I looked to Ekundayo. His eyes were narrowed but he was still smiling. We crept forward now, clinging to the walls and scuttling forward.

The scene unfolded before us at the end of an alleyway. We crouched behind barrels and I stared in awe.

There, on a giant black horse, was Rebella in her white fur cloak. Before her, all around the city’s market space were screaming villagers in muddy browns, being hauled to and fro by red-cloaked guards. They were separating parents from their children, beating the parents away as they flung the children into a frightened mass before Rebella.

“They’re looking for you,” muttered Ekundayo to me.

“Why?” I moaned, knowing full well why. They wanted the card. They wanted me, but not for who I was but what I now possessed.

Ekundayo tutted. He pointed left, finger just poking out from the top of the barrel. “That ways’ the gates. Can you see them? They are down for the morning. Get across.”

“And you?” I asked, without thinking why.

He smiled. “I am an assassin.” He patted me on the shoulder. “We shall meet again, daughter.”

“I’m not-” but he jumped up and out from behind the barrel. With a yell he ran out into the market square, a knife flashing in his hand. He ran straight towards Rebella’s horse.

Guards rushed at him. Parents and children ran, freed, in all directions.

This was my chance. I swallowed once, then darted out as well. I kept to the walls, skirting around and dashing for the gates. People rushed and screamed, escaping the guards and running like mice in all directions. Elbows jammed into me, shoulders slammed me aside, and I found myself crushed up against the wall more than once. But the gates were coming closer.

A horses’ shriek came up just as I reached them, and the guards left their posts, running forward with spears knocking and slicing people out of their way.

I turned. Rebella’s horse was staggering, the princess holding on for dear life. A purple head with a glittering fringe was darting away through the mass, chased by red-cloaked guards.

I felt a pang of pity for the horse, then rushed out the gate. I found myself gleeful and happy that Ekundayo was fleeing safely. I trusted that he would survive. I believed that we would meet again.

As I pounded onto the earthen path and out into the fresh snow beyond the city and into the forest, I felt free. Finally.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Ten, Part Two

The door to the shack creaked and rattled so loudly as it was drawn open that it almost fell off its hinges. Inside was a cluster of people huddled about a tiny fire. They looked up like owls. Terrified, huddling – and then they were angry and ready to attack.

They cried out, clutching at each other yet lurching forward as one. Ekundayo held up a hand, and said something. I wish I knew what he was saying, and they in turn. But I couldn’t understand, and would remain as if deaf to this whole conversation. The conversation rattled on, sharp retorts from person or other among the huddle, and Ekundayo answered so calmly. He placed a hand on my shoulder, and I decided not to shrug him off. We might need his story to be actually believed.

Finally, the huddled people returned, not to owls, but to disgruntled sparrows or something like that. They huddled again, and took to whispering. But the conversation was over. Ekundayo smiled at me. “They welcome us,” he said sweetly to me.

“Who the fuck are they?” I muttered angrily, hugging the cloak around me. We were still standing in the doorway!

“Oh, dear, they are poor people,” he said as he drew me away from the door and back out into the cold. “They’ve, how shall we say it? They’re a society of people.”

“Okay,” I snapped as I was directed to turn and walk to another building.

“And they’ve decided we can live in their lands. It’s a sort of, commune? People that share, that hoard and spend together. All coins are to be deposited in, here,” he said as he gestured to the next building. “Come,” and he went up and rapped upon that door. It didn’t look ready to fall over. It practically did.

This door was shoved open by a person with a rat-like face, protruding hairs, and a sniffing nose. Their eyes were sunken in caverns, and they had a walkign stick in hand and a shawl about their shoulders.

They sniffed the air, then cocked their head to the side. A grin split their features.

“Ekundayo,” Ekundayo said. He drew a pouch from his belt and rattled it loudly before handing it to the blind rat.

“Ekundayo!” the person cried out. Then they sniffed again, reaching towards me. Ekundayo took their hand and guided it to my shoulder, where he patted it into me. I grimaced, but didn’t move.

“My daughter,” Ekundayo said with a twinkling smile at me. “She’s my apprentice too.”

“Oh! Oh!” the person cried out.

“This is Crow,” said Ekundayo to me. “He used to be a great dame.”

“I was elegant,” Crow sniffed. “But I am happy now!” He squeezed my shoulder and patted me. “Come in, daughter and father!”

Crow backed away into the building, shuffling and muttering. We followed, Ekundayo gesturing me in before himself. Once we were in, he shut the door behind us. The cold remained, only a little stifled by the shack’s walls.

Here, there was no fire. There was only a large table laden with coins, pouches, and all sorts of items, a straw mat in a corner, and a pile of more junk in another corner. Ekundayo dropped his pouch into the pile and began rummaging. “We need clothes for my daughter,” he commented calmly. “Her mother is going to want her back, as will the princess. She was a handmaiden, you know?”

“Oh! Do you know dame Minstrel?” Crow asked chirpily as he shuffled to his straw mat and plopped down with … no grace whatsoever.

I didn’t answer, feeling the vices of our lie tightening around us. Ekundayo sighed into the pile of junk. Loudly, he drew out a piece of clothing. “This will do!”

“What will do?” asked crow loudly. “Is she a girl? Or a boy?”

Ekundayo looked at me with a glimmer in his eye and a foolish grin on his face. He held out the tunic to me. “Hm?” he asked, to prompt me to answer.

“I’m a girl,” I said sourly. I reached a hand out for the tunic. It was a bit large, but it would do. It was sufficiently mud-colored with a hue of green about it. I would blend into the streets.

After digging me up some pants and a pair of oversized boots, Ekundayo went to sit on the cot beside Crow with his back to me so I could change.

Crow, however, had gotten a taste of conversation and seemed ready to indoctrinate. “Are you sure? You seem,” he snapped his fingers in the air before himself. “Unhappy.”

“Oh, she is unhappy,” said Ekundayo with a chuckle. I began changing angrily.

“It is not about that,” I said sourly as I pulled the boots on. Then, thinking things over, I moved to sit on Crow’s other side. Resting would be nice, I decided. A bath would be better, but that would be probably impossible in this world.

“So what is it about?” Crow asked. Then, completely ignorign me, he began prattling about how, when he was young, he never knew what was wrong, but he knew something was wrong and –

I tuned it out, glaring at Ekundayo. He grinned at me like this was great fun. I scowled and leaned against the icy wall, hugging my cloak about myself.

Then, to the sound of Crow’s exaggerated story of elegance and misery, I fell asleep.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Ten, Part One

The rush of prisoners before us scattered at the top of the stairs, parting left and right into corridors. The creature, whatever he was, led me to the right. There we rushed down a narrow corridor. The prisoners ahead of us tangled with guards in brawls they lost. We wove around the messes and he drew to a halt at a window. The glass pane opened outwards, and he climbed up, sidling sideways so his body could slip out.

A guard yelled at us. The creature held out a hand to me. I hesitated.

I was seized from behind by the shoulders. I burst, a wave of anger suddenly crowding my mind.

I screamed, I lashed out. I felt the surge of power and adrenaline taking over. I wrenched myself free, jabbing elbows against armor and thrashing with all my might. The world had dissolved in a haze of red. The guard grappled at me – but was slammed back by a kick from the creature who was half back in through the window. Again, the hand was thrust at me.

This time I took it. I was yanked up, onto the window’s ledge. My hands gripped the edges of the window, and a rush of cold air greeted me. A drop opened up beneath us, one large story down.

“Climb on my back,” the creature said, taking one of my hands and putting it on his shoulder. I climbed, swinging my legs around his waist and gingerly grappling at his neck beneath the hood.

Too soon, the creature, man, began to scale the wall. I yelped as we moved away from the window, tightening my grip on his neck and locking my legs around his waist. But we did not fall. Instead we scurried down, to the side, and climbed atop the wall that separated the castle from the rest of the city.

He didn’t stop to set me down. Guards rushed us, but they were too slow. He had already jumped off the wall, scurrying down like a spider to the ground below.

The guards shouted from atop the walls, but they could do nothing it seemed. He ran, darting through the crowds of people to slide in narrow alleyways between houses. After several dizzying turns, he slowed to a stop.

“You can get down now,” he said gently, bending over slightly. “We should be safe here. At least for a little while until the guards recover their senses.”

Trembling, I set myself on the ground. I gripped my hands into fists, trying to calm myself.

In these shadows, I could see the one who had set me free much better. He was certainly tall, but maybe he was still a human. Yet something about him forebade it.

“Show me your face,” I ordered. What was he? Some monster? He had already admitted to being an assassin. How much worse could it get?

He smiled, flashing those white teeth. “Bossy. That’s good. But here, just for you,” he bent over before me, lifting the beaded fringe from his eyes and with it, the hood up off his head.

His eyes were brilliant golden set with sparks in them that gleamed. They reminded me of cats’ eyes in their roundness and their tilt. He had a tall forehead, from which grew a myriad of thin silver dreadlocks. Beside those dreadlocks, pointed ears poked out.

An elf?

He ran a hand through his hair, flashing me a grin again as he stooped before me. “You see? Our hair is the same. I’m just much older than you.”

I was pretty sure I’d never have actually silver hair. Just gray, if I lived long enough to get old. He was trying to make me like him. I was determined not to, putting on my most sour expression.

His smile didn’t falter. He straightened, brushing his hood back up. “The sun hurts my eyes,” he explained as he set the fringe back into place. “And the fringe helps me hear the spirits. I’m a shaman, you know.”

I didn’t answer, looking around. We were in a tiny crackle of a space between four buildings. A crossroad of sorts. The snow was trampled into the mud, proving that this was a well-used path.

“We’ll need to find you clothes,” he hummed. “Something practical.”

I didn’t answer, but I knew he was right. My yellow and pink pajamas, now covered in filth, were sorely out of place even if I hugged the guards’ red cloak around myself. And something besides socks would be good. Now that I relaxed, my feet were frozen. They stung with cold.

The elf looked around. “Should I kill someone? It would have to be a young woman, or do you wear mens’ clothes?”

“Don’t kill anyone,” I griped, deciding that there had been enough death already. “We can just – steal.”

He laughed. “How ideal. How shall we do that?”

I looked around again. “We should get moving,” I muttered, not wanting to admit that, unlike in movies, there didn’t seem to be laundry hanging haphazardly around for easy plucking. Did people not do laundry in winter?

“This way then,” said the elf, nodding to the right with his head. His fringe’s beads caught the light and glimmered. “I know what we shall find for you.”

As we walked, he began to talk. “My name is Ekundayo. What about yours?”

I didn’t answer, glaring ahead.

“Very well,” he said cheerfully. “I will call you simply ‘apprentice’. How is that?”

I frowned at him. “I am not your apprentice,” I hissed between my teeth.

“Oh but you see, it shall be useful,” he said, lifting a finger at me. Then, he winked. I scowled.

We walked for several more minutes in silence until several people appeared beside the buildings. They stepped out of the alleyways and barred our path.

I hesitated, slowing. These people were all hues of dirt and scuffed even worse than the ones I’d seen when entering the city. They meant trouble.

But Ekundayo put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be afraid. They’ll smell it,” he murmured happily.

And so we walked on to greet these bandits.

They seemed baffled by this behavior, or more so by something about Ekundayo. They looked from him to me and back again, frowning. There were four of them, and they looked at each other with arms crossed and large knives at their belts.

Ekundayo inclined his head and said something in gibberish, starting with “Shee, shee.”

The bandits shuffled their feet. They looked at me. The woman that stepped forward with a lifted chin answered in that language to Ekundayo, nodding at me.

Ekundayo placed a hand on my shoulder, and he laughed softly before saying more gibberish.

After another curt exchange, the bandits stepped aside. Ekundayo patted my shoulder and we walked on past them.

“What was that?” I hissed after we were out of earshot. “What did you say?”

He chuckled, pulling the hood up onto my head. “You’re going to have to learn the language of the poor to live here, apprentice. Only the rich speak your language.”

I paused. It had never occurred to me before that English was not universal. But now… “Teach it to me,” I ordered. I’d need it, certainly.

More smiles. Another chuckle. “About what was said. I told them you were my daughter, spawned with a noblewoman, and that I’d finally rescued you from their clutches.”

I gaped. He winked again. “It explains you not speaking a word of the poor speech. And why you look so out of sorts.”

Anger rose within me, a steady burn in my chest. “I’m not your daughter, and I’m not your apprentice. Stop imagining things!”

He shook his head, tutting. The fringe on his hood rattled. “Children these days,” he scoffed before chuckling again. Then, he pointed to a shack that looked no different from the others. “There,” he said. “We will find our friends there, daughter.”

“I’m not your child!”

He laughed.

Escape! ~ Lage’s Game: Chapter Nine, Part Two

I stared at the nearly invisible creature. Of course I wanted to get out. This was a trap question. Of course I wanted out – but what would it cost me? I peered so hard at the creature, trying to think and guess at what it wanted – and then it laughed.

It was a clear, high laugh. Menacing? Cold? It sent chills down my spine.

“I said! Enough!” the guard marched over, banging a thick sword against the bars. “You there!” and he rounded on the last cell, the one with the monster in it.

“Are you talking to me?” the hoarse voice asked. The shape twisted upwards, stretching up, up, up until it was like a tall human, facing the guard. “Do you want to fight?” It was curious, questioning like a child. The hands wrapped around the bars before the guard. But the guard had brought a lamp with him, and I finally saw the creature as he held it aloft.

It was a humanoid shape, wreathed in a large purple cloak with silver-white embellishments shrouding the eyes in a fringe that hung down to the cheekbones. The skin was black like the darkest hue of nighttime, the lips were thin, the nose hooked, and there was a grace to its smile.

“Stand back!” barked the guard, banging at the bars where the creature’s hands had been.

“Oooh,” murmured the creature. “Frightening.”

The guard paled. “Enough!” But he had already lost this battle.

“Shut up,” hissed the creature, turning away from the guard to face me. Beneath the cloak I saw a fluttering of a grey robe, a sash from which hung dozens of braids, and boots. But then the cloak was drawn fast around the creature once more.

It is probably a human, I thought to myself, but I wasn’t sure. Was it?

It crouched again before the bars separating us, its dark hands coiling around the bars. “Who brought you in here, child? Far from your world, aren’t you?”

I didn’t answer, huddling on myself. The guard bellowed again. “Quiet!”

The creature turned to him, then back to me. It was a strangely silent movement. Their fabrics barely rustled. They sat down and crossed their legs before themselves. They must be human.

Breathing a sigh, the guard turned and walked away. With him went the light, and some semblance of safety.

Once the guard was back at the other end, the creature whispered. “I was brought in for murder. But you can trust me. I’m an assassin.”

I wanted to clap my hands over my ears and curl up into myself. I wanted to block out this entire strange world.

“I kill in cold blood. I don’t make them suffer. I’m not like them,” he whispered.

My senses prickled. Them? Did he know- he couldn’t, could he?

I found myself turning to look at the creature. His tilted eyes were glowing faintly, just enough to be discernible. He had a hand reached out for me, palm up.

“Come with me,” he whispered. “I can see who you are. I can tell-” and his voice dropped to barely a whisper. “What you’ve eaten.”

My breath caught. The creature chuckled. “Yes,” he murmured, coaxing me on. “Come with me, child. You won’t be safe here once they bring you to the priestesses. What they will do to you – even I wouldn’t.”

I shuddered. Now that I was looking, I couldn’t take my eyes away from theirs.

The hand drew back, and I felt that they were satisfied. “Tomorrow, no- tonight. Soon. Brace yourself, child. Rest. We will be free soon.”

I looked away then, feeling caught and guilty. Would I run with them? Was this some trap? It couldn’t be – I hadn’t given them anything! And I could still change my mind, couldn’t? Besides, how could they get me out of here?

I found myself curling up on myself, my head between my knees. As if following orders, I fell asleep fitfully.

I dreamed of Lage. I dreamed of Mother, of Father, of Kayla and her final bottle smash. It was terrible.

I woke screaming, to find the air silent and cold. There was a crispness to the air that smelt of the outside.

I looked around, wondering where I was. For a moment I was completely lost, baffled, and it wasn’t helped by what I saw.

To my right, where the creature’s cell was, a silver light was glowing. It expanded, radiating out with a breath of coolness and frost out into the cells. Then it swept back in, shrinking somewhat. It was someone’s breath, I realized. The creature’s breath, their form hidden as a shadow behind this glowing frost.

I slunk backwards, looking around for some sense of normalcy. No one was coming. No one seemed to even notice that something strange was happening.

For what felt like an eternity, I sat there with my arms around my knees. I reached out within myself, pleading with the world for help, for something.

With my head burrowed between my knees, I was jolted from my thoughts by the creature shouting. “Guard! Guard! Come quick! The girl is dead!”

I jolted up, lifting my head and looking around. The creature was standing by the bars, their glowing breath now gone. There was the sound of cursing and feet running. The guard rushed into view, lamp in hand and keys in the other.

I just sat there, frozen. Wondering what was happening, even as it unfolded before me.

It was a trap. The guard rushed up against the bars of my cell, and the creature reached out through his and yanked the guard close. In one yelp and a snap, the guard was over. The keys were now jangling in dark hands, the lamp smashing to the floor.

The silence that followed was punctuated only by the hammering of my heart in my ears. Then, the door grating open. The flames licked at the oil on the floor, lighting up the creature as he stepped out. He was a ghastly shape, tall and strange as he stepped over the fire to unlock my door.

“Come,” he said sweetly. Then he turned and walked away.

I had a choice. I could sit in this cell, or move. I moved. I didn’t know what the princesses had in store for me, but neither did I know what this creature wanted. At least with the creature, I could hopefully still run away. Find my way back to Lage, then go home. But what home was there to go back to?

I shoved that question aside as I stepped over the smoldering flames and beside the dead guard. I was going home. That was that.

As I made my way down the corridor, the creature was unlocking some doors, ignoring others. Then, as if to spite everyone, he tossed the keys into the far corner of an already locked cell that held only a skeleton.

Prisoners were rushing out, pouring and stumbling towards the stairs that led away and up. The creature turned to me. He flashed a smile of immaculate white teeth.

“Here,” he drew a cloak from the guards’ chair. “Put this on.”

Remembering the biting cold of outdoors, I did, wrapping it clumsily around my shoulders. He nodded, and we turned and ran after the vanishing prisoners.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Nine, Part One

Rebella nearly threw me at her grandmother, she shoved me at her so harshly. I stumbled forward, and the elderly Queen touched my face briefly. I straightened, scowling, and her touch was gone. But she was smiling now.

“An ancient,” she whispered. “Too bad I am leaving as she arrives.”

But she did not sound sorry at all. Rather, she sounded mischeivous. Playful, even. The eye looked at Rebella, then her sister. “You two have your work cut out for you,” she said gleefully.

The two sisters did not seem amused.

“Perhaps if we do a spell of reversal, her death will save your life,” said Rebella swiftly, the way you blurt something out so no one can interrupt you with a ‘no’.

The grandmother hummed as she looked me over once more.

“No,” she said finally.

I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding. Al-alright? I guessed I was safe then? Somehow I didn’t feel any safer. At least not with Rebella around.

“We must save you!” Rebella cried out, shoving me aside to step up to her grandmother. “Your life is worth more than hers!”

“Then it would not be a fair spell, would it?” chuckled the grandmother.

“Rebella,” warned the sister, stepping to my other side. I was trapped between them.

Rebella seized my shoulder. “It is her people who did this! She must pay-”

“Why?” I barked, glaring up at Rebella.

She seemed utterly shocked at that. At me speaking up? At me daring to question her? Either way, she was astonished. She almost let me go. I wrenched free with a twist, and almost punched her in the stomach. On a whim, I didn’t. I resisted that rage that was beginning to boil within me.

“’My people’, as you call us, could not have done this,” I snapped, gesturing to the elderly woman. “The gun you showed me couldn’t have done this-”

“It did!” barked Rebella, seizing me again to shake me. Now, I gave in to the anger.

I shrieked, kicking and clawing at her. I aimed for the eyes. With a yell she lunged back, shielding her face with her arms.

I didn’t chase her. Instead I stood my ground, seething and glaring at the astonished princess. “Brat,” she hissed between her teeth.

“It was them who must have done this,” I hissed back at her. “They have killed my parents! They attacked me! They murdered my aunt-,” and those words silenced me. Was Kayla truly gone? Had she – finished her fight? Was she happy?

“Well,” said the grandmother, but then she took a cough, and then another, and then a whole fit of them. She doubled over, the other princess and several attendants rushing to her side to pat her shoulders and fuss. Rebella stood where she was, looking guilty. Our eyes met. She looked away, then fiercely glared back at me as if she’d changed her mind. She would not look away now.

After a hacking spasm, the grandmother breathed again. Leanign back in her throne, she looked Rebella over. “Child,” she said softly. “Take care of this one,” and she nodded at me.

Rebella startled. “Of, course?” she said, pausing as if she was not entirely sure what had been said. Neither was I.

The Grandmother smiled, eyes closing. “Don’t let Lage get his claws into her.”

My stomach vanished. Was Lage somehow to blame for all this? After all, he had appeared with ‘them’.

But Rebella was quickly bowing and murmuring that yes, she would be sure to keep me away from Lage.

“That man is trouble,” sighed the Queen, eyes still closed. Then, she seemed to drift off into sleep, peace and relaxation coming over her good features.

The sister spun to Rebella, hissing under her breath. “Get her out of here! You’ve done enough!”

Rebella lifted her head angrily, but the sister gestured at her to leave. “Take her with you!” Then, shoving me towards Rebella, she added “How dare you bring her here! I will talk with you later!”

“No, you won’t!” snapped Rebella as she yanked me to her by the shoulder. Then, dragging me after her, she whirled and marched away.

We crossed the courtyard of greenery, then entered into the castle through another door than the one we entered into. Once that door was shut behind us, Rebella shoved me towards a guard. “Put her in the dungeon,” she said ruefully as she kept walking on, leaving me behind in the guards’ grasp.

I squirmed, wanting to throw myself after Rebella and give her a beating. But the guard held me fast. Muttering something under his breath to the other guard at the station, he began hauling me down the corridors.

We descended a meager flight of stairs, the walls growing darker and darker as there were fewer and fewer lamps to light the way. The air grew dank and humid and foul with the smell of decaying flesh. Then, at the end of these stairs, the dungeon appeared.

It was a small landing where a guard sat with his feet propped up on a desk. “Another one?” he asked, rising sloppily to his feet.

“This one’s special,” said the guard, shoving me forward. “She’s not from here, if ye ken what I mean.”

“Oh,” said the dungeon guard, sounding astonished behidn his helmet. I made a point of glaring at him.

“The princess brought them in,” said the first guard. “So put her alone, away from the others. The usual for their type of scoundrel.”

The dungeon guard nodded, taking me by the shoulder and hauling me off into the darkness beyond the light of the last lamp. There he seemed to know his way, walking straight on. As we walked my eyes grew adjusted tot he dark and I saw large cells on either side, full of ragged figures who clustered together. There were squeaks of what I supposed was rats.

We walked on and on, and I wondered why there were so many prisoners. There were dozens of them, of not a hundred in total.

Past those large cells were smaller ones. These seemed emtpy, put the darkness was growing so thick that it was difficult to tell.

I was shoved into one that was not the last, but before the last. “There!” the guard barked, locking the door behind me. “You stay there!”

I stumbled, caught myself, and turned around.

The cell was tiny, just long enough for an adult to lay down in either direction. There was spongey grime in one corner and scrapes of straw that were scattered across the rest. Tired and altogether frustrated and mad, I sat down in the corner against the stone wall and the bars to the other cell, as far away from the spongey stuff as possible. There, I wrapped my arms around my knees and hugged them to my chest.

Finally, I caught my breath. Finally, I had time to think. The world, having moved so fast, was now slamming to a stand-still. I let out a loud breath, just to hear myself.

The dungeon, for the amount of people it housed, was eerily silent. The footsteps of the guard faded away, and then there was utter silence.

My mind whirled. I was in some world. In a dungeon. I was being blamed for a Queen’s death- which was certainly not the result of a gunshot wound. These people were completely lost and out of their league against ‘them’, it would seem. They were –

I shrieked as something slipped through the bars and touched my shoulder. It was soft yet smooth and solid – rather like a hand.

I scrambled back, crawling backwards across the floor. Beyond, on the other side of the bars, I could just make out a set of tilted golden eyes that seemed to glow ever so slightly.

“Shee, sheee,” a voice whispered as the hand waved through the bars at me.

“Silence!” the guard roared, banging something against the bars far away. I knew it was a threat, and I’d better shut up.

I gulped down my fear, staring at the strange shape that was too close to me. I could only make out the eyes, and the ghastly shape of the hand.

“Shee, shee,” it shushed, or was that some word? It was a male voice, low and hoarse. It murmured some gibberish then, the hand reaching still for me.

A madman, I thought. Or a pedophile. Or – some creature?

“Little one,” the voice whispered.

I startled. A human then? Then again, could monsters speak english?

“Here, tsk tsk tsk,” the hand snapped its fingers.

“I said quiet!” bellowed the guard, banging again on the bars.

The hand grew limp and drew away through the bars. But the voice continued. “Little one, here, come.”

I crawled back some more, squishing my hands into the filth. The stench was terrible so I recoiled – but that drew me closer to the creature.

Huddling between the filth and the monster, I clutched my knees to my chest again.

Silence settled. I felt myself calm somewhat. The creature could not reach me –

“Little one,” it whispered. “Would you like to get out?”

Lage’s Game: Chapter Eight, Part Two

The walk felt endless. I wished more than once that I’d taken Lage up on his offer of his cloak. But regrets were pointless and I trudged on, refusing to be dragged by the guards. I would stand on my own two feet.

After what felt like an hour of walking, we emerged from the forest into a clearing. There, towering up out of seemingly nowhere, a gated city with a tall castle stood.

It was like something straight out of a fairytale. The walls were of white stone, two stories tall, with ramparts. There was a thick trench dug before them, filled with spears and what looked like a small frozen bed of water. There was the drawbridge that was lifted up. But before this drawbridge, on our side of the moat, was a solitary guard and several waiting horses.

“Take her on your horse,” Rebella ordered one of the guards before mounting her lovely dappled gray horse. I wanted to touch the horses, to take in all their colors – for I had never seen one up in real life before. But now was not the moment to be in awe. I was hoisted up to sit before a guard, and Rebella whirled her horse towards the drawbridge.

“Lower the drawbridge!” she called out. “The princess orders it!”

Clankings answered, and the drawbridge lowered swiftly. Rebella ordered her horse forward with a click of the tongue, and we followed her as a cluster of guards.

We passed beneath the thick of the wall, and we entered the city.

I was struck by the sight first. There was myriads of houses toppled together, stacked upon each other, and clustered in shapings that seemed to suit people of all sizes. There was some that bore tiny gnome-like doorways that were round. There were some that seemed just a little too tall, and lopsided at that too. There were others that seemed svelte and elven.

Yet the people before us couldn’t have looked more bland. They were dirty, browned with sun and exhaustion. They were monochrome in their blandness, their clothing all turned to the same shade of brown and dirt as they were. Their clothes were tattered and thin. They hastily rushed out of the way of the princess’s horse. It was that or be crushed, I guessed, for Rebella stared straight through them and seemed to pay no heed to anyone. Her horse marched on, and the people scattered like ants. The guards had their hands on the pommels of their swords, and glared angrily all around.

Whispers rose, fingers pointed, but they were far away. No one dared come near to point at me.

As we proceeded through the city, the stench let itself be known. The air was in turn crisp and cool of winter, then it was the moist warm stench of fecal remains. Then it was mold, then crisp again with another gust.

This place stinks, I realized grudgingly.

And yet, the castle that towered before us did not look like it ought to belong in a place of stink. It was tall and spired, it was magnificent. It had handfuls of turrets, towers, and pointy-topped roofs straight out of a novel. It was made of the same white stone as the walls were, and it looked surreal. I wondered if the stink would get better as we approached.

After a good hour of riding through the thick of filthy people, we were met with another wall, another gate which Rebella ordered opened – and which swung open inwards for her. Again, she rode onwards as if the world owed her something.

It was in here that the stink finally let up. Here there were snowy gardens, fluffy bushes that were topped with red winter berries. Fruit trees that were bare save for ice and snow. Here, the poor were obviously not welcome.

We rode onwards, our breath misting icily before our faces. Colorfully dressed people were seen walking about here and there. They curtsied as Rebella passed, and turned their faces away from the guards – and turned quickly back to gawk at me. They rode on horses as well, trimmed in fur cloaks and richly decorated clothes.

Finally, we had crossed the gardens. The castle stood before us like a multi layered cake, the immensity of it mind boggling. It was tall as a skyscraper, taller than I believed any medieval palace had ever been. Here, at its outer edges, it was already three flights high, and it only grew taller and more multilayered towards the middle.

Rebella dismounted, landing gracefully like a cat. People rushed forward from an open doorway, and they were not dressed in furs. They were simply clothed, and seemed to be servants. Rebella tossed her horses’ reins at them in disdain, and turned to face me.

“Bring the girl,” she ordered the guard behind me. “Hurry up!”

The guards clustered around this horse, several of them holding me while the guard behind me dismounted. Then, by several hands, I was passed down and placed on the ground like a very precious lump. Or a lump they believed might run away. But that was stupid. Where was I to run to?

With one scowl from Rebella, she turned and marched into a large doorway before us. The guards hastily followed, three of them clustering around me to hold my shoulders and half-carry me forward.

Inside, the corridor was dark, lit by the occasional lamp. The lamps were gorgeous! They had an oriental flair to them I supposed, looking all blown glass with leaves and elaborate people painted onto them and the wood pieces holding them carved as well with swirls and motifs.

Rebella paid this no heed. She marched straight on, her cloak billowing about her. I stared from one lapm to another until I saw spots. Then, as I was blinking spots out of my eyes, we reached a doorway.

Rebella shoved it open with a bang, and we were flooded with light.

We were let out into a courtyard, and I had to blink and blink to be sure it was real. Of course it couldn’t be – nothing int his world seemed to be – but it was.

It was green. There was grass, fruits trees, and so many bushes of fruits and vegetables in clusters here and there in spiralling pathways. It stretched on in all directions for a good hundreds of feet, like a small field. Up, above, a domed ceiling lined with metal spires held up twinkling glass that made this all possible.

Rebella was drawing off her cloak. She tossed it to a servant who rushed to her side to catch it before the white fur touched the ground. Turning, Rebella seized me by the shoulder and began to march forward, straight into the heart of the inner gardens.

There, a cluster of people were attending to a large chair. On this chair, lumped up in silks and fabrics, was a wizened elderly woman.

She bore some traits of resemblance with Rebella, but there was a softness to her that Rebella did not have. Also, she was half dead. Literally.

Decay clung to one side of the woman’s face, revealing bone and teeth beneath. The eye on that side was white and half lidded.

There was a strange, putrid, decaying scent as we marched through the garden towards her. SERvants stepped aside from the cluster, and Rebella thrust me forward to the elderly woman as we reached her.

“I’ve brought a card collector!” Rebella announced loudly, but not triumphantly. It was merely a fact.

A woman, middle aged and robed in vibrant red, stepped forward from the side of the throne. “Why would you disturb mother with that?” She had gold earrings, gold paint around her eyes, and hair that was intricately shaped in coils atop her head.

“Maybe she can tell us how to cure mother,” said Rebella coldly, not looking at her sister. Instead she was looking somewhere aroudn their grandmothers’ knees. I could not see what there was to look at there.

“You’re disturbing her,” snapped the sister, but she silenced as the Queen, I supposed she was Queen, lifted a hand. This hand was good, not rotten. It had long nails that were immaculately cared for, and several gold bangles around the wrist.

“Come here,” said the old woman, her one good eye trained one me.