Not for the first time that day, the young man raised a hand to his temple. Ten years gone or not, the invisible movements in the air still pierced him as fresh as the first time. Sleeves that had been rolled up with frightened care - he was always reminded of the costly stitched patterns - saw their chance and flopped down past thin wrists. With a shake of his head the boy, who at times felt in both heated head and heart that he was a man, walked down the carved stairs. After each step the vibrations lessened, and air calmed around him. The stairs glimmered, polished stone that seemed to sway and bend in colour: lilac some days, deep purple on others.
Today the intensity scorched Vel’s pupils.
He reached the bottom of the staircase, trailing a hand off its bannister. Oak-brown hair fell in front of his eyes, a crude attempt to mimic the look of poisoned portraits that hung in almost every room. In the main hall it was apparent. An inner voice told Vel that he was a walking - sometimes talking - ghost of the past.
Their unliving eyes judged him, brought to life on the canvasses with skillful streaks of paint. Despite the pain the light caused his eyes, Vel preferred it to the night. Candlelight cast them in a whole different life of their own.
The hall was the main one that guests saw when they arrived. There were many more of course, but this was a natural favourite for most, and Vel supposed it was designed with that in mind: it gave a sense of comfort to those strong enough to stomach the journey from wherever they’d been beforehand; this faraway place was near nowhere. Never native, are they? Vel thought. He was still settling to the fact that he’d been alone in the castle for so long. No one from the country or water between the land came here. Kulldeen especially, though Vel still held a piece of hope deep down for that.
His shoes were admirable, blessed that no soup had blemished them: running from the kitchen to the indoor gardens rooting around for ingredients always endangered their cleanliness.
“A true cook chops a problem and serves solutions,” Vel remembered aloud. The thought was as regular as the air hums. Vel reached the two crystalline doors and forgot himself, his focus drawn by the craftwork as he took a thin spiked key from its silk pouch.
The doors were larger than the height of the staircase, and when opened had the thickness of a young mammoth’s leg. Vel had seen enough dead mammoths that on better days he could laugh that off.
On better days . . .
Vel twisted the key hard in the lock to the sound of familiar scrapes, like rusted piano wire.
Another memory turned its own key in his mind.
“Never open them with force lad,” a voice grumbled.
“Slow as ya like, but slow. The would-be dead dance in that room boy . . .”
Vel ignored the voice and opened the door, then let it shut behind him. Figures trapped in paint couldn’t watch him anymore.
Vel hated going past that point. One foot over the threshold and everything seemed to bleed him like a pig under the sharpest knife. Unknowable entities seemed stowed away in the corners, as if they saw past his fancy clothes and swagger. Right at the apex of the slanted ceiling, four strong bolts of iron held in place a cracked mirror. It grinned down at him.
Vel’s loneliness was up and down with each day, which in themselves were the same: cook, eat, sleep, and repeat. There were no more women or men of authority here, no guidance except what was left behind in his mind . . . which was why Vel was sure they wanted it so badly. Evil spirits.
The piano with rusted innards sat at the far end of the room, brimming with impatience. Vel felt an urge spring to life. He strode past the long ornate table laden with immortal fruit and surrounded by quartz chairs. To its sides, glowing sections of forgotten armour were shackled to walls, puppets for display to the world’s elite warriors.
“I’ll be the last person to see them. Who’s left alive anyway..."
Vel pulled out a worn stool and started playing the piano. Notes rang from low and hollow to bright and sharp under his fingers.
Vel mused that when he used to play, everyone across the grass outside could hear.
A low progression began, the music more miserable than anything else. Joining it was the mean truth that never stopped irking Vel. No doors opened to the world outside, and all windows stayed bolted, never able to give in or be broken. Before he lost control, Vel stilled the water in his mind and the ripples of fear ceased. If he were to stay in this castle forever, then he had nothing to hold back. Leaning on the stool, Vel narrowed both eyes, his concentration focused on the keys.
It didn’t occur to Vel at first, as his dulled and blunted brain was only just being thawed by the black and white tiles, so a lot got past him. Rushes of air came and went, shadows blinked in and out of being. The young man’s brow hurt as it furrowed.
Vel pressed the index finger of his left hand on one of the chipped keys. Nothing. Onto the furthest one along, nothing again. Where there was sound before, they plunked down uselessly.
Tinges of caution danced up his back. Then like a boy possessed, Vel’s long arms pushed him away from the instrument. Just short of a stumble, Vel’s legs caught the floor as he stood, letting the stool go shooting across the table. Turning angrily, Vel clenched his fists.
At first there was nothing. Relief and quiet disappointment seeped into his brain. Vel stopped it prematurely.
The other door was open: just a slight gap between the door and its frame, but open nonetheless.
With shuffled steps, the music faded, and he slinked up to the wall and stuck himself to it, tensing his body to be in a state of total awareness. The open door was to his right, the table in front of him, and the freaky piano to the far left, with his abandoned stool somewhere in the middle of the situation. The mammoth doors were still shut.
So, if there was a traditional old-fashioned nutcase in the space with him, then twelve armies could put all their weight against the crystal doors, and it would have as much impact as a fly.
For better or worse, it was just the two of them.
Vel crept over to the door, and with his right hand, opened it all the way. There was no creak, and he thanked the skies and waters for that. Two quick and wide leg movements carried him to the centre of the doorway. He blinked.
High stacked shelves were dotted with sealed bronze bottles and fractured collections of monkey bones. Old curiosities for new age study, as Vel understood them. That understanding was small, based on dismissive comments from the knowledge guardians. Firmly focused and tall they’d been, the same as everyone in the damned place. Females - that while not interesting on certain levels - were cuttingly wise in ways of brutal insults that delivered truth. “Cut your hair you daft duck” was a favourite of Vel’s. He’d deserved it then, and he did now. Grim memories danced in the pit of his heart.
The room had one window. Just as the threshold of the mammoth doors bled him and his inner lies like a pig, the storage room was similar, but less sharp and more freezing. Cold water splashed in the face of his dishonesty.
When the footsteps sounded again, Vel was ready, but too slow. A punch connected with the back of his neck, and he was on the ground. Vel felt two - no, four hands restraining his wrists and legs.
He tried to move his head and look but was kicked preemptively. Blood vessels in his nose burst and wept freely down his mouth and chin, forming a deep scarlet pool around his head and bruised jaw. Vel’s hair stuck to it, and through the strands lukewarm heat massaged his scalp.
Another memory surfaced. Vel saw himself a few years in the past: he was in the kitchen upstairs, a rooster struggling in his thin uncalloused hands.
Simpler times. When the mammoth doors were a mystery for curious fantasies, when the crystal walls and floor were charming and cute, instead of ever-present and sickening. Vel felt what he imagined that rooster had felt, sheer undiluted contact with the brink of death. In the end he’d placed a wooden stick upon the neck of the animal, and after planting his feet either side, had pulled up with precise efficiency.
A broken neck for the bird. But what was it to be for him? If death were to take him to a dimension of eternity, then how different would it really be to his current situation. He figured not by a lot.
Vel closed his eyes tightly and waited. He waited still, and when nothing came, he let himself relax. An easy mistake to make. Everything shook and screamed, akin to boulders being juggled in the inside of his skull.
“Chakreen.” He said it without realizing.
Distortions and pain didn’t stop after he spoke but instead noticeably shifted onto him. It was such an immense sensation that if he were to stand up, he’d be knocked down again. When Vel’s spine began to split, his eyes were squashed by clumsy fingers, forced open with help from grainy fingernails.
His vision adjusted. Instruments of science lay cracked on the floor, their smaller mechanisms split into fragments and blown away. Chipped pieces of the floor spun and jittered in the air. His hands were still bound with the same tightness. Vel’s awareness was whirling; his eyelids became heavy, then light, before half-shutting again. The lad checked his legs subtly.
“Always stronger than the arms.” He repeated to himself, an old proverb that was unique in that it was true. Being sneaky was comically difficult, so he squirmed, and found that he was floating. Gravity was malleable: one small movement to the left propelled him with the force of two stampeding cows. Vel hit the opposite wall but bounced off. He used that to his advantage, manoeuvring himself so he could see.
He’d been half right in his estimations: more than a single pair of hands, but all from one person.
Vel was unsure of the name, but it stood around his own height, a maroon cloak attached to the flesh of its shoulders with dotted spots of dead white skin around it - the type of dead skin birthed by either scorching heat or heinous poison. Its head was a cross between a rotting lizard and an overstuffed black bear.
As it turned to look at Vel, he saw maggots straining under loose patches of neck skin. Whatever was left of its humanoid torso was covered by dense armour moulded to the shape of jungle vines.
It walked toward him, and Vel got a better look at the arms and hands. These were of a man twice his size, but still a man; each body part was not in tune with the other, like a jangled mess of warped notes played by a invisible instrument.
During his observations, the sense of urgency had slowed but not gone away. The floor was still breaking apart piece by piece, and the air hums dictated the rhythm. As it moved up the walls and shelves, more things were falling. Everything was crumbling.
The flesh-thing was still lumbering towards him, but its gait had a delay to it, as if it were being held back by invisible strings. Vel tried some more kicks, and he shifted himself to the left as the abomination took a swipe at him. The sensation of moving resembled being underwater more than floating in the air. Vel dodged that swipe but had forgotten about the other arms, which sped to meet him. He took the first two punches to the face with no noise of complaint, reasoning that the mixed feeling of numbness and adrenaline was enough to cover the pain of bruised and punctured skin.
The next three strikes proved him very wrong.
Bloodied around the face now, the creature grabbed Vel by the hair and trudged back the way it came, leaving Vel to flounder like a fish. All the boy’s intense struggling earned him half-hearted thumps against the walls and shelves around them.
These paid off.
After the creature lazily swung its arm, which had Vel connected to it, against yet another of the old bookcases, he gained some luck. Despite the dire circumstances, not all the bronze instruments had been broken or even swept from the shelves. As Vel’s back was cracked hard in all the wrong places, one of the last bronze telescopes fell. Glass from its lens fell past his shoulder, cutting into the shirt fabric, leaving shards stuck in and around his upper back. An idea struck him then, harder than any of his injuries, and Vel put aside the fact his hair was in the hands of an unnatural horror. Vel swung his foot at the telescope itself, aware that strands, perhaps even clumps of hair were being ripped from his scalp as he did so. The foot and telescope made contact. Thunk.
He caught it, and narrowly avoided dropping it right as the beast turned its head and saw. Vel was ahead of the game though, and the kick had paid off in more ways than one. It had dislodged the thing into his hands and broken it in just the right place. The body of metal was spiked off at an odd angle. Right as the intruder went to rip it out of his hands, Vel wriggled enough that the metal snagged the rope around his wrists and ripped the fibres apart.
He was half free.
Vel turned so his back was facing the floor and timed his next move as carefully as someone could within less than two seconds. Caution had been discarded as an option. First thing was a kick, quickly swatted away, the combined momentum of that sent Vel a fair way backwards. I’m still in control he reminded himself. A ceiling tile almost crushed his head, which spurred on the next thought. Not of everything.
The creature’s irritation was so clear it had seeped into the room like mould. Vel counted on that. It came to him, and Vel readied the shattered remains of telescope in his hand. “You wanted this.” The boy smirked. His plan was deceptively simple. When it made the motion to attack, he’d jam the scrunched-up mess of glass and metal into his its face. When blood blinded the monster, he’d . . . kill it? Vel didn’t have to worry anymore about how exactly he’d get around to that, because the hideous thing stopped dead anyway.
Vel prepared a witty insult but was caught off guard when the air hums rebounded with no more mercy whatsoever. He dropped to the floor like rotting carrots. Gravity had returned.
All outer surroundings cut themselves off to the boy. He was sure in his own faith, that he’d been bid to die here and now. As he let himself drift away Vel heard the piano music. It carried him off. A fitting way to go. His inner voice was wracked with dry humour.
The music was wrong, from the notes all the way up to the progression. His thrown-together noise had been low to bright, but whatever the music Vel was hearing now was near enough the opposite. Each note waned on for too long, so the tune was overstuffed and clumsy. He’d heard it before (Where?...when?), that’s why it had been so familiar, to the point that Vel was comfortable dying to it. Not anymore.
That realization had triggered something in Vel, he put the pain of the air to one side, stood warily, and opened his eyes. Wait… Yes he was standing, the constraints placed upon his ankles had been cut.
“But not by me.” Vel muttered.
Vel Swathe, with all conviction a person could ever possess, looked at the thing that was neither animal or man. It was sat between the two tallest bookcases, directly in front of the lone window. Vel walked up to it, any trace of fear had been drained of life in his soul, but all curiosity was well and truly living. He got close enough that he smelled the rotting insides below the unwashed fur. It remained still, in its prayer position, hands clasped neatly across its scarred chest, the hands resting perfectly on the shoulders. It was tranquil. Vel leaned in.
There was a deafening noise, and an aura of coloured light swallowed the room.