“Not everyone’s cut out to be strange.” The witch peered at me with dark, watchful eyes.
“Yes, yes, I’m sure that’s true. Can we carry on with this?”
She looked me up and down like one of her specimens, then nodded. “Once you drink the opening potion you’ll be lost for nearly four hours.”
“Lost, huh?” I crossed my arms.
“Lost, like a fish in the wrong river.”
The firelight gave her face an eerie glow as her lips curled into a smirk. True, she was pretty for a witch; she had a sort of tall, dark elegance about her, though I doubted she was very smart. Her skills were in alchemy, not magic.
“You have strong blood, it’s true, but we all enter the other realm alone.”
I suppressed the need to groan.
As far as I was concerned, witches like Gretchen were a pox. Unlike true mages, they were unreliable, superstitious, and manipulative. Their kind should be driven out of Pinewood and exiled by the mages’ guild, but tradition demanded that the medicine woman who brought me into this world should be same one to send me out of it. What luck.
“You think I’m foolish?” She lifted a dark eyebrow and laid a hand on my shoulder. “A superstitious old medicine woman.”
My uncle had warned me to be polite and, above all, to stay positive, so I kept my mouth shut.
She leaned in close, so close that I could smell the tea on her breath. “It’s not me you should be afraid of.”
I pulled away “Oh? Then what should I be afraid of?”
“What’s in here.” She lifted a hand and pointed toward my eye. I could see each and every line of her maze-like fingerprint. “Your thoughts are your greatest enemy. If you come here imagining monsters, that’s what you’ll find.”
“This… ritual. It’s just a formality. Do we really have to pretend it’s not?”
She raised an eyebrow at me, then quietly stood up.
“You’ve studied your books and said your prayers. Endured weeks of incense and meditation. But you don’t really understand what it is to be strange.” As she spoke, the flames of her candles guttered.
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes the difficult part isn’t what you don’t know, but what everyone thinks they know.”
“Noble you may be, but better than you have run mad out that door.”
“Then what should I do?”
“Drink. Listen. Be calm.” She turned and lit a bowl of incense by the fireplace. The room quickly filled with swirling smoke. “If you don’t want to end up like Elsa, that is.”
Everyone in Pinewood knew Elsa. She had attempted the training and failed. Now, she begged for coppers and babbled nonsense about crows in the market square. She was like a child who started playing ‘imagination’ and forgot to quit.
“I can listen. I’ve been listening.”
The witch still faced away from me, toward her candles and incense.
She titled her head. “Perhaps. You know the three rules of the dream realm, then?”
“Three rules? My books never mentioned them.”
“Mere peasants’ guidebooks.”
“Fine. Tell me more.”
“You think you’re ready, then?”
I raised an eyebrow at her and smiled, then the witch sighed and handed me an old scroll. Slowly, I unfurled the brittle page:
1. Trouble you may find, but smoke or drink may calm your mind.
2. Doors can be unlocked, ways be revealed, but at the end of the journey, the scars are real.
3. Keep your calm, do not offend, and after all the dream will end.
“Fine, fine.” I rolled it back up. “As far as fairytale rhymes go.“
“Fine indeed.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re ready as you’ll ever be.” She gave a low, husky laugh, then brought a goblet to me. “Drink. Drink and be enlightened or destroyed.”
“Any other advice?” I held the goblet up and gazed at the purple liquid. It was surprisingly thick.
“Advice? Remember this – what you dream is what you become. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
Of course I did.
“What you carry back from the dream realm, well, that’s up to you. Now drink.”
I smiled. Now would be my time. My tale.
I nodded, tilted the cup back and gulped the fluid down. I braced myself to retch, but it tasted bland, a little bit like oatmeal, a little bit like cloves.
I sat, thinking about the taste and waiting for the potion to kick in, but nothing happened. I felt absolutely normal. She had ruined the ritual.
“Gretchen. It hasn’t worked.” I sat the cup down and gazed around the room. The fire crackled, but otherwise I was alone. “Gretchen? If this is some sort of trick, believe me, you’ll regret it.”
I stood up, turned around, and froze.
There was a giant crow sitting in an alcove by the wall. Well, not a crow, exactly. A crow woman. Seated beneath a spire of glowing crystal.
She had chestnut skin, thick eyelashes, and long black hair, interlaced with feathers. Behind her, dark wings fluttered. I had never seen anyone like her.
“Who are you supposed to be?” I asked before I realized what was happening.
She crossed her arms. “You come to the Crow Princesses’ castle, in her forest, and demand to know who she is?”
“Your forest?” I blurted out. “Your castle?”
The crow woman’s dark eyes narrowed. “You sound confused.”
“This cabin, these lands, they belong to my family.” I stood a little straighter.
“Your family?” She smiled like someone keeping a secret.
I was sure she was either Gretchen in disguise or some figment of my imagination. “That’s right. Now, if you would kindly-”
“Qwah!” she scoffed, then folded her wings and rose from the throne set in the wall. Behind her, the jagged crystal pulsed a deep green. “You’re new to this realm, I can see. I don’t care. Insolence will not be tolerated.” She lifted a dark talon and pointed over my shoulder, toward the door. “Leave me for now.”
“Insolence? Leave? Are you joking?” I turned, expecting the see the door of the cabin, but I was inside an enormous hall, adorned with banners, stained glass, and torches. “Where…?” I could barely get the word out before a pair of guards rushed to my side and took me by the arms. “Now just a minute! I’m not some common beggar!”
“This way, m’lord,” one of them said, though his demeanor said he thought lord far from the best choice of words.
The crow woman called from behind me. “Remember, explorer – make your exit before it’s too late or risk staying forever.”
“Wait just a minute!” I called uselessly. “What is that supposed to mean?”
I was hauled through the throne room, dragged out a pair of wooden doors, then tossed on the steps of some inner hall. Nearby, the gawking faces of several animals stared at me.
“Oof!” I landed flat on my stomach, the blow knocking the wind out of me. My head spun and the potion burbled in my belly. Vomit climbed my throat, but I held it back. This mage-in-training wasn’t going to vomit in the middle of his spirit ritual. No chance.
I climbed to my feet and came face to face with a huge, frog-faced creature.
“You ok, brother?” he asked, laying a green hand on my shoulder. I glanced from the knobby hands to his blobby, putrid face, then vomited on his boots.
“Uck!” He staggered away from me. “You should learn some manners, monkey creature.”
I wiped the vomit from my chin. “Monkey creature?” I croaked.
“Guards,” he called, sounding more annoyed than anything else. “Someone help this wretch find his way out.”
“No, no. That’s quite alright.” I held up a hand and backed away.
He narrowed his eyes at me and I glanced from his face to his sword, wondering if I could get ahold of it.
Admittedly, that had been a mistake.
I lurched away and ran down the hall, turned a corner, and dove into a shadowy passage. Pressing myself to a wall, I listened for signs of pursuit. There were squawks, caws, and ribbits, but no sound of rushing footsteps. I glanced around me; the walls here were paneled with dark wood that swirled with patterns. I suppressed the need to vomit again and tried to wipe my face a little cleaner.
This was quickly turning into the worst night of drinking I’d ever had, and that was saying something.
Alright, I knew I needed to gather my thoughts, make a plan, and wait the ritual out. That’s what my reading taught me. Whatever happened, stay calm and have a plan. I straightened my tunic and cloak, combed my hands through my hair, took a deep breath, and turned a corner into another hallway. Hopefully if I looked the part, I’d be treated more like the lordling I was.
Ahead of me, torches lit the way to a small door in the wall. The warm light called me forward. Perhaps there was a chamber inside where I could rest. Or perhaps the room housed powerful artifacts. My thoughts flitted about like gnats. Maybe there were creatures in there.
My heart thumped as I approached the door, grasped the metal handle, and slowly cracked it open. The portal’s hinges creaked like a falling tree. I let go, but then some force on the other side pulled it open. My face turned white, but sounds of music and laughter rushed out, along with the smell of garlic and vegetables.
“Right this way, sir.” A dog in a porter’s suit bowed to me.
I sighed with relief.
“Of course.” I nodded to him.
I felt even better as he led me around the edge of a vast dining hall and indicated one of the lower tables. Not my normal place, but it would do, and was rather inconspicuous to boot.
Around me, a feast was going on. I took a seat between two cats and gazed at my plate as my head swirled. The sounds and smells were overwhelming. Could this all possibly be a dream? How could it not? I gave a small grin. I was getting a grip on things.
The porter returned with a plate of grilled vegetables and a cup of wine for me: true liquid luck.
The wine was good, cool on my throat. I took a few long gulps and gazed into the glass. It was only then that I realized it looked exactly like the potion I drank earlier.
“It can’t be,” I mumbled. “It tastes completely different.” I waited a moment, but only felt the warm hug of alcohol hitting my brain. Another sigh escaped my lips. It was as the scroll had said.
“Not bad, eh?” the tabby to my left said as he leaned toward me. “The Crow Princess is most generous at her feasts.”
I smiled and gathered my wits. Here was a situation I was prepared for.
“So I gather.” I scanned the room. The place was a zoo – a literal zoo – though all the animals were dressed in rich finery. There were a few humans at the high tables, too, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they might give me a hand. “Her highness isn’t in attendance tonight?”
The cat shook his whiskers. “She’s always late. Luckily, the drinks flow freely in the meantime.” He purred and took a sip from his goblet.
I inclined my glass toward a bearded man a table over from us. “If I may ask, sir, who is that gentleman?”
“Ah, the wizard Darkhill. He’s a stern man, and powerful.”
A pang of anxiety swirled inside me. I had never heard of him. Still, if he was from our kingdom, he might have heard of me.
Of course, he also might take offense at being approached by a stranger, but I could use an ally and, frankly, some help. It was my best shot. I stood, and the room rippled around me, thick like a warm glass of whiskey. Carefully, I excused myself and made my way to the wizard.
My heart was pounding, but I had to proceed. “Excuse me sir, are you the wizard Darkhill?”
He was laughing at someone’s comment, but the laughter died as I spoke.
“Excuse me?” He turned and looked me up and down. “That’s Master Darkhill to you, welp..” The words hit me like stones.
“I… I’m the heir to Pinewood castle.”
“A human lordling?” He snorted. “Just what do you think you’re doing here? Rubbing elbows?”
“It’s my ritual.” The words were coming out thick, like I had mud in my mouth. “I thought you might be of some help.”
“A wizard helping an aspirant?” He narrowed a dark eye at me. “An aspirant who presumes to sneak into the great hall?” He rapped his fist on the table. “Perhaps you think this whole feast is for you?”
I laughed. He couldn’t be serious. “Of course not, but-”
“Hmph. Shouldn’t you be off in the woods seeking toadstools or magic sticks? If the guards catch you– ” He shook his head. “In fact, I can see they’re already trying.” He tilted his head, indicating several crow-faced men with spears at the door. Then, for the first time, he smiled. “Perhaps they’ll teach you a much-needed lesson.”
My eyes went wide. “What?”
He made a shooing motion. When I didn’t move, he raised his hand high in the air, then pointed down at me. Caws and squawks erupted from across the room.
“Don’t worry,” he added, “they won’t rough you up that badly.” He shoved me and I stumbled off, running toward the nearest door, but I was too late. Within seconds the guards caught me by the shoulders and dragged me from the room.
“Didn’t the Crow Princess tell you to stay out of trouble?” one of them said.
“You’ve made quite a mess.” The other guard squawked. “Some time in the cellars should help.”
“Cellars? Wait a moment. This is all just a gentleman’s misunderstanding.”
They glanced at the vomit on my boots, then caw’ed with laughter. My spirit sank.
“I can’t go to the cellars. The Crow Princess said I have to leave.”
“Well, did you?” CawCawCaw! he laughed again, then his partner punched me in the gut.
The wind left my lungs, the wine rose in my throat, and I collapsed into their grasp, as embarrassed as I was hurt. All the animals were watching.
The pair dragged me from the feast as my boots scraped along the floor, past progressively more dilapidated rooms, moldering bookshelves, and cobwebbed halls. The further we went, the darker the passages grew, and soon our footsteps were echoing down a set of stairs into the cellars. As my head spun, they tossed me into a mildewy cell and slammed the door behind me. My hands and knees collided with the rough floor and I felt skin scrape loose.
Somehow, though, I lurched to me feet. “Wait! Wait!”
But it was too late. Their footsteps and laughing caws were already fading. I collapsed again, my head in my hands as the darkness closed in around me. The ritual was not going well. Worse, the words of the Crow Princess were echoing in my mind: make your exit before it’s too late, or risk staying forever.
“This is a nightmare,” I whispered. Orblike eyes and swirling faces peered at me from the shadows. I hoped they were illusions, but I wasn’t so sure anymore. The ritual had proved more real than I expected. I hugged my knees and pressed my eyes closed, waiting for my vision to adjust, listening. Water dripped from the ceiling, something scurried outside the door, and a woman’s voice screamed somewhere far away in the castle. I slid away, kicking at the floor until my back pressed against the wet and mossy wall. The castle – the whole dream, really – was like a giant organism slowly digesting me in its cold, dark stomach.
And I was alone.
My hands raked through my hair. I couldn’t let it end like this. I was supposed to leave and become a mage. “Risk staying forever…” I repeated, stumbling to my feet to shake the door one more time. The rotten wood rattled under my grip but held shut. “Let me out!” I shouted. “Gretchen!”
“She can’t help you here,” a woman’s voice said from nearby. “It is a nightmare, and one that never ends.”
I tumbled away from the door.
“Who– ?”I crawled forward, then used my bloody hands to grope at my surroundings. I found mossy walls to my sides and the splintery door in front of me. Was someone coming to torture me? It couldn’t be. “Do you — are you–?”
“I’m lost like you. Lost, lost like a frog in the wrong pond,” the voice rasped from across the hall.
My pulse drummed inside my head.
Finally, she spoke. “I’ve been here weeks, it seems. Time is strange here, stuck among the dreams.”
Strange. There’s was that word again. I gulped. The eyes at the corners of the room crept closer. “There has to be a way out. There has to be. This is just a ritual.”
“It was mine too.”
Fear rose in my gut. “But I’m the only one right now. Who are you?”
“Elsa. Elsa Carpenter.”
“Elsa from Pinewood? Elsa, it’s been years.” This couldn’t be right. I strained to hear what she said next.
She laughed. “Make you exit before it’s too late.”
There was that warning again, but I refused to believe it. Elsa was back in town, out in the real world. Besides, the potion was supposed to wear off after… how long had Gretchen said? I had been through a lot, but I could make it a little longer.
As water dripped and faces swirled in the dark, I sat and waited.
I woke with a start to something crawling across my legs. I screeched and kicked it away, backing against the wall. How long had I slept? Too long. My stomach felt emptier than the cells around me. “This can’t be right.”
“Keep your calm, do not offend, and after all the dream will end,” Elsa rhymed from across the hall.
I raked a hand through my hair. Obviously the rules were more important than I had guessed.
“Alright, alright. So we need to calm down.” I took some deep breaths. What else could I do? “Elsa, we’ve got to keep our heads together. Maybe we can get out of this.”
“It’s too late for that. Don’t you understand? They lock us up and drug our drinks. There’s no escape.”
“Just hold on. The other aspirants find ways out of this. Usually.” I sat in the dark, breathing rapidly and trying to remember the witch’s words. Why hadn’t I paid attention? “What else did Gretchen tell you, Elsa?”
Across the hall, Elsa laughed. “What you dream is what you become. And now we’re prisoners.” I couldn’t see her, but I could picture her there in her cell, swirling in the gloom.
The eyes in the dark exchanged glances with each other, then gazed back at me.
I ignored them and took a set of deep breaths. Colors swirled before before my eyes, then shapes and patterns. Beams of light, bursts of flame, then crows. This was natural, I knew – the whole ritual was like some waking dream. And perhaps like a real dream we had some control.
I dragged myself to my feet.
My hands were scraped, my mouth tasted of vomit, and my body was hunched over in the cold, but maybe that was all part of the problem. If I could only just pretend otherwise.
“I can be a mage,” I whispered. Somehow, the words made me feel a little bit better. I straightened my back, shook out my arms, closed my eyes, and took another breath. “I am a mage.”
Blind in the dark, I reached out a hand to find the door again. There it was, splintery wood, mold, and all. But where was the handle, and the lock? There! Rusted metal lay underneath my fingertips.
“Fire.” I whispered the word into the dark, my index and middle fingers pointed at the lock. Color swirled before my vision, but that was all. “Fire.” I said again. This time, there was a flash of light. “Fire!” A spark appeared beside the metal and rotted wood, but it wasn’t enough. The lock was cold to the touch. My spirit sank.
“We’re trapped,” Elsa moaned.
I shook my head. My magic was too weak. There must be something else I was forgetting. I should have listened. I clenched my fist again. “Elsa, what were the rules?”
“Trouble you may find, but smoke or drink–”
“Not that one. The other one.” I rubbed a hand against my temple. “I can’t remember Elsa. You’ve got to help me.”
For a moment there was silence, then she spoke again. “Doors can be unlocked … and ways revealed.”
“Yes. That’s it.” I paced in a circle in the dark.
“…but at the end of the journey, the scars are real,” she finished.
“You had to remember that part,” I mumbled, my hands aching.
Make your exit, the crow princess had said. I bit my lip. Could it be as simple as that?
I grasped the handle. If I could make sparks in the dark, I could open a door.
My fingers gripped the metal, pulled. I grunted.
It wouldn’t budge.
Around me, the dungeon seemed to sink a bit deeper into the dark earth.
“Make you exit before it’s too late,” Elsa intoned. So I tried again.
I rammed my shoulder into the door and Elsa cried out. I slammed it again, harder this time. Pain shot through my arm. “Open!” I shouted, concentrating on the lock. And as easy as that, I tumbled out onto the mossy dungeon floor.
For a moment I lay on there, stunned. “Elsa, I’m free!”
“I don’t believe it.”
I laughed this time and rubbed my aching shoulder. “That’s the problem.”
“No! This is a trick.” Her voice carried through the cellar like a gust of wind. It was enough to piece out her location in the dark. I found the door and put my hand on it.
“None of the doors are locked,” I whispered, and so it was.
She was in there, hunched in a corner in the dark. When I reached out, she recoiled from me. Carefully, I dragged her to her feet and pulled her from the room, her body weighing less than a sack of grain.
“We’re getting out of here.”
She clutched me by the arms. “I wasn’t good enough.”
“I wasn’t either.” In the dark of the cellar, I could still hear the water dripping. “What do we do now?”
Her voice was shaky. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
We stumbled toward the right in the dark to where the stairway should have been, but nothing was there. Just a crumbling stone wall.
“This can’t be right,” I said, my handing pushing the cold stone.
“It doesn’t have to make sense,” she whispered, and pulled me by the arm. “The castle changes on its own.”
I stumbled after her, her hand cold on my wrist, down the hall the other way.
We came to a winding stairway which spiraled into the dark above us.
My heart was thumping. “This isn’t the way I came.”
“But it could be the way out, couldn’t it?” She pulled me further.
“Anything is better than staying down here.”
We slowly climbed the staircase and our footsteps slow and timid. It seemed to spiral upward forever.
But finally light began to seep into the stairwell. Lines and shapes appeared, skulls in alcoves along the wall, then banners, and melted candles. We were rising from the underworld.
“You’re right. We’re getting somewhere. Once we reach the first floor, though…” I shook my head. Was Elsa real or just another part of the ritual?
Finally, we came to a door at the top of the stairs. She looked at me and I knew what to do. Grunting, I shoved into it with my shoulder and tumbled
straight onto the floor of the witches’ cabin. “Where?” I started, but quickly recognized the candles set in the dirty wall.
“Ah, so you made it after all,” Gretchen said with a smirk. “After all this time, I wasn’t so sure.”
I shot her a look, but the relief was too much. I climbed to my feet and rubbed my hands against my aching eyes.
“How was your journey?”
I look at my bloody hands and sodden boots while I searched for the right word. “Harrowing.”
She laughed. “Good. Perhaps you learned something, then.”
“Was it you talking to me the whole time?”
Slowly, she shook her head. That was when the feeble knock came at the door.
My head jerked to the side. So did Gretchen’s.
I approached it, grasped the cold handle, and swung the door inward. There on the doorstep, pale and shivering in a heap of rags, was Elsa. “We made it,” she whispered with a smile.
Gretchen’s eyebrows rose. “You made it back, too, I see. Well, not everyone’s cut out to be strange.” She shot a dark look at me, then at Elsa. “But some are.”
© Ryan Walraven 2017