I stood on the lopsided porch in front of the cabin. The planks were rough-hewn and light shown through the cracks in the door. The word for this place was rough. The railings would give you splinters if you looked at it. The windows were painted a dark blue. I stood at the front of a group of college kids. I wasn’t here by choice; the group had pushed me closer and closer to the door as they all tried to fit on the slip-shod porch. There were about fifteen of us. A quarter of the group received a flier about a super outrageous party at this location. The planner of said party had offered to buy all the refreshments; we just had to show up. My friend had been quite excited when she found the flier in her mailbox. Lizzie gushed about it until I gave in and agreed to go as her +2.
“You just got this in the mail, randomly? Look, no return address! Don’t go. You could disappear.” I told her.
“Nothing will happen if you go with me! Please, please, please? You have to be there to make sure my date and I get home safely.” Lizzie said.
Lizzie had been determined to go. Once I saw that she would not be persuaded, I tagged along, but only to protect her. Now we were separated by the strangers we had met on the bus. The bus had dropped us off at the end of a long tree-shadowed drive. There was no sound beneath the canopy. No owls called, no coyotes yipped and howled, no mountain cats screamed their frustration at a bunch of noisemakers in the middle of their hunting grounds. It was eerie.
We stood on the porch, awkward as first dates. We waited. And waited. No one stepped forward to knock. Maybe they were regretting their decision. I was. I looked for Lizzie and caught her eye. She was pale and her lip was between her teeth. I turned toward her, pushing my way through.
“Let’s just go home, Lizzie, Johnny.” I said. I pushed through the crowd. There was a long, loud creak behind me before I could move far. A swathe of yellow light struck me. I looked at the now open door. A man in black robes stood in the doorframe. He was thin but not quite spectral. He was alabaster pale and bald, his eyes were black as night. His eyes were worse than a dark cave opening during a storm. They were a black hole that swallowed you.
Everyone stared at him. I hoped he was just playing a part. He did not feel right. He was not right. If you asked what wasn’t right about him I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint it. He was straight and narrow and fickle all at once. He was the cottonseed puff you never could catch. He didn’t flinch as we stared. He surveyed us in turn then stood aside. More yellow light spilled from the door. Everyone hesitated. One by one, everyone brushed past the man and went inside. I pushed through the crowd to Lizzie and her date but Lizzie pushed past me and went inside.
“Lizzie.” I said. She didn’t hear me. I hung my head, sighed, shrugged, squared my shoulders, and went inside. There was a couch which separated the spacious living room from the open kitchen and counter. In the living room, a stone fireplace blazed merrily. Everything had a glow to it, like it was just magnified past what was normal. Behind the bald man was a door with a padlock on it. Once I was inside he shut the door. Everyone was silent huddling together.
“I am Crabain. Welcome to my house.” The man’s voice was emotionless. He scanned everyone’s faces. “You can go wherever you like in this house but not through this door.” He gestured to the door next to him. Several people nodded, and the rest murmured acquiescence. “There are drinks on the bar, help yourself.”
Everything became brighter then dimmed. The floor was a lot smoother than the porch outside. The interior was spartanly decorated. Everyone breathed, relaxing in the comfort of familiar architecture and light, except for me. I watched everyone as they started talking and laughing. Lizzie started dancing to music I couldn’t hear. Her date was more than happy to join her. Soon several people were dancing. Others found the bar and were miming drinking. Their hands were empty. I went to the bar to see what our host offered. It was empty. I made my way to the couch ignoring the glaring black eyes of the host
“What’s going on here?” I said to no one in particular. I ignored and evaded the host’s stare as they night went on; winding through the revelers who were oblivious to this strange game of cat and mouse. Finally, he disappeared. Sighing, I stood near a gaggle of girls. I could not feel him staring at me. After thirty minutes passed, a hush settled over the house. Time seemed to slow. Crabain commanded,
“Do not touch the paper.”
I watched the hexagonal paper with thick black lines drawn over it float from Crabain’s cupped hands. No one moved. The paper was heading straight for Lizzie who was near the bar. Lizzie was staring, not moving. The paper glowed faintly around scorched edges. It might have been stuck in the fire. I ran, pushed people aside, leaping over the couch. Stretching my fingers, I touched the paper before it touched Lizzie. The paper disappeared with a sprinkle of sparks.
I glared at Crabain, ignoring the yearning in his eyes. I walked past him as he licked his lips. I felt spider webs of chill and pain, frost bite and fire gush over me. Collapsing, I hit the floor and convulsed. My left cheek melted into the floor and I shook. After the wave was through and I had found my breath, I stood weakly. I walked to the living room but fell before the second step due to another wave of pain. This pain was worse. It was like my blood had turned to fire and was burning through my veins. I probably screamed.
“Told you not to touch it.” Crabain mocked, brushing past.
Fire burned through me eternally. There were shorter and shorter intervals between stronger and stronger waves until the pain was gone. I didn’t get up for awhile. No one noticed me anymore. They were miming drinking, dancing to unheard music, and eating snacks I could not see. They chatted and never stepped on me. I was there but I wasn’t. I wiped tears off my face and wished for a drink of water. I sat up gingerly. Shaking, I stumbled past the revelers and found a quiet corner. I wanted to hide from Crabain. My skin felt hot still, except my neck. I touched the blue and white quartz necklace on its leather cord. The stones were cold and peaceful. Just as a peaceful brook on a mountain top the stones calmed me until I felt quite normal again. Strength seeped back to me.
I wanted to leave. It was time to go. Crabain strode around the room, his eyes were distant but from time to time he stared at me. I shivered each time he looked at me. I wanted to run away but I was just a little mouse. The necklace warmed me up just as it had cooled me. I made my way through the house looking for Lizzie. I found her sitting on Johnny’s lap.
“Let’s get out of here.” I said.
“But we only just got here.” Lizzie pouted. “It’s only been thirty minutes.” She pointed at the clock.
“The time’s not right. Look, my watch says it’s 3 am. It’s way past eleven unlike what that clock says.”
Lizzie frowned. “If you didn’t want to come, go home! Geez, ruining my fun just because you don’t want to be at a party.”
“Everyone leave.” Crabain’s voice cut through the chatter. Everyone filed out the door. The command was not met with grumbles and groans but sighs of relief and grateful smiles. I hurried to join the line halfway up. I pushed through the people but could not go out the door. Lizzie was in front of me. As she stepped over the threshold, her face turned red then paled. She spun, grabbing my hand.
“Not you.” Crabain called. I pushed against the force holding me back but now my feet were rooted to the floor. Lizzie pulled. She enlisted the help of the others. They were unable to pull me through the door. The rest let go but not Lizzie.
Soft footsteps crept up behind me. He leaned around me, slid his hand down my arm and cruelly clamped onto Lizzie’s wrist. Once she dropped one hand, he pushed her other hand off. She gasped and fell to the porch. He pulled my hand back to me and set me out of the way like a good doorstop whose job was done. He shut and locked the door. I blinked.
“Never you.” His voice was near my ear. He was close to me. When? I jumped but his hand touched my shoulder. “You will sleep now.”
Like a puppet on a string, I was a slave to his commands. I blinked then all fell to darkness.
The next morning I awoke squinting in the dim light.
“Man, I didn’t even drink last night and my head hurts.” I slurred. A door shut in the distance. I pushed the woolen blanket back and stretched. Opening my eyes, I surveyed the timbered ceiling and the holey black curtains over the window. I noticed my sleeve was dinghy white and that I was in an old-fashioned night dress. What had happened last night? “Where am I?”
The doorknob turned. I spun toward the door. What a mistake! I clutched my head and moaned. Crabain stood near the bed. He was still in the same black robe and he was just as bald and pale as he had been last night. Last night….
I remembered everything all at once. My head throbbed. I wanted the release of a good scream but I knew screaming would make my head hurt. Crabain set a burned cast iron pot on the table next to the bed. He wrung out a cloth, then dabbed at my neck. I smelled peppermint. Peppermint oil was good for headaches. I sat hunched up. Maybe this was all a bad joke; hopefully this was just a bad dream.
“Sit up straight.”
My arms unfolded from my toes as I straightened. He rearranged the pillows as I sat straight as a board. It hurt to sit straight. Why was I listening to him?
“Lean back, now.”
I hesitated. I stayed where I was. I did not look at him. I felt a weight on my mind. A pressing weight. No, a yearning to obey. I wanted to obey him. I had to obey. I would die from the need to obey him. I grit my teeth and stayed sitting up. I tried to move back to my comfy position, back to hands under my feet. The harder I tried to lean forward the worse my head hurt. I felt sharp pokes on my temple until one broke my concentration. I leaned back against the pillows. Crabain did not smile. He put the cloth on my forehead.
“Hold that there.”
I held it.
“Now do you see what disobeying gets you?”
“I-I want to go home.” I said.
“You are home. It took awhile for me to find you. I had to hunt down many dream walkers until I found you.” He sat beside me. “Scoot over.” I moved a tiny bit. He moved but pushed me until he was comfortable. “I threw party after party and no one could see through it until you. I sent the invitation to your friend and she dragged you along. She had no choice, I commanded her. And once you got here you were even more amazing than in your dreams. You never once believed in something I had glamoured. You never fell for the drinks or the food. You were quite interesting. You even resisted and ignored my commands.” He took the cloth off my forehead and swirled it around in the water. Once it was wrung out and back on my forehead, he continued,
“I never intended to let you go once you stepped inside my cabin. I am going to keep you until you bore me. I am going to break and bend your mind until it is mine.” His eyes lit up. “Now, story time is over. Stay here until lunch.” Crabain left the room along with his dutch oven.
I had to leave. He told me stay, so that must mean I had to leave. Today was opposite day. Stay meant leave. Stay meant leave. I could move my arms. I could move my feet. I slipped off the edge of the bed but my feet stopped moving. I stretched my hands out over the edge of the bed. Today was opposite day, I had to leave, he had said stay, that meant leave. I pulled myself out of bed and onto the floor. The planks were clean but old and dinghy. I crawled farther out, only my feet were left on the bed.
It was time to leave. Must leave. I inched forward. Finally my feet crashed into the ground. Now that my feet were off the bed I could not control them. I had lost all use of my legs. I drug myself forward. At the bedroom door, I pressed my ear against it. This door was made of a single piece of oak. It was hard to hear through. I grabbed for the handle but it was out of reach. I stretched and stretched until I had it. I turned the knob and pulled. The door moved then jerked to a stop. I pulled harder. The door did not open something had it shut on the other side.
I drug my useless legs to the window. It was twilight. I couldn’t see anything in the trees, it was all shadow. I saw a single star up in the sky. It looked familiar. It looked like Ælfheim, my special star I picked out and named when I was a little girl. Could the star see me now? Would my favorite star be able to save me? My grief was cut short. The door opened. I ducked down and crawled under the bed. Somehow my legs were working. I watched Crabain’s black robe swish around the bed. I crawled out, breaking for the door. I stepped past the door frame, lunging for the cabin door.
“Stop.” Crabain whispered. That syllable froze me in place. I felt a weight growing on my mind. It pressed into me. It bore me down. I sunk to the floor, weeping. Why wasn’t I strong enough? I moved away from the door but I didn’t want to. I felt like a puppet who wanted to dance a certain way but the puppet master had the strings. It was as if my body was not my own.
I stood. I walked around the living room; my hand absently trailed the dusty mantelpiece. I sat on the couch. I went to the center of the room and did some yoga. After that I back flipped over the couch. I had never back flipped before. Bouncing to the bar, I sat on it, then ran back to the fireplace. I spun in place. Just spun and spun and spun until I was beyond dizzy but I could not fall. Finally, I stopped. I staggered back to the room with the bed and Crabain. Diving across the bed I neatly performed an ukemi and stood in front of him. I tried to turn, tried to move but I couldn’t even twitch. I knelt, bowing to Crabain. My hands were flat on the floor and my nose was an inch from it.
“Now, that is how you should treat me.” He said. Crabain released my mind. “Apologize for running away.” He ordered. I heard the command in his voice. It was different, more echo-ey than his normal voice.
“I- so-rr…” I clenched my teeth. He frowned. “I’m not sorry.” I squeaked out “not.” “I’m… I apologize for running away, not. Not, not, not, not.”
He chuckled. “You are not an easy toy to break.” He swept past, leaving me alone. The door shut behind him. I punched the floor. The door opened again. “You are not allowed to speak for the rest of the day.”
I glared and shouted, “I hate you!” but no sound came out. I moved my lips again. No sound came out. He had stolen my voice. Taking a deep breath, I prepared to sing the most annoying song in the world:
“We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine….” Though my lips moved, no sound came out. I beat the floor until my knuckles were bloody. I wept.
As I was weeping, a wind stirred my hair. A bright light shone for a millisecond then went away. I could smell the trees beneath the sunshine. I looked up, meeting the eyes of a silver-haired elf. He was tall and dressed in a silver tunic with dark green trousers. It was Azrul. He had come to save me. I hugged him. He pushed me away.
“Not now. We don’t have time. I came to tell you this. I can break you out of here but Crabain is one who will not let you go even after you leave. You have to break his hold by yourself. I can only advise you. I am not even supposed to be here but I could not leave you in harm’s way without stepping in.” Azrul whispered. “Now, you must fight. Every morning, every time you awake, take a deep breath and find your center. Find the core of who you are. Hold onto that, never forget it. Once you find your core, you will be able to see his magic. He is like a spider on a giant web here. This is his home, where he is strongest. Look for the weak places, pull the weak threads and you will be able to leave.” The door rattled. “I must go, my dear. I believe in you.” He disappeared in a flash of light.
“Who was just here?” Crabain growled. He grabbed my hair and pulled me up. I couldn’t stop the foolish grin from spreading across my face; I consider it to be a side-effect of Azrul. I matched his gaze and regretted it. He pushed inside my thoughts, scanning through my memories. He dropped me. I felt his mind bearing down on me. I grinned. I laughed. He could not stop me.
“I said you could not talk. Why are you laughing? I do not want to hear a sound.”
I laughed. His mind pressed me to clam up but I refused to yield. I stopped after a few more minutes. Crabain glared. Flames shot up around his feet. The boards bore char marks but did not burn up. The flames snaked toward me until I was trapped in a ring of fire. It was as if I was standing in a kiln. My face was melting. Suddenly, the flames left. Choked and burning up, I fell against the bed. I heard a sharp crack and felt pain. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t stand. Incapable of moving on my own, I watched as flames and dark flowed out of Crabain as he lifted me onto the bed. He touched my leg with dark and flame. I screamed. Pain shot along my nerves and I broke the command placed on me. Sound poured from me and I writhed in agony. Only when Crabain’s hand filled with darkness and flame touched my head, did I hear him command, “Sleep.” I left the noisy world, allowing the dark tendrils to pull me down to the depths.
“Wake.” Crabain’s voice yanked me out of my dream.
He stood by the bedside, looking pleased. I tried to look disinterested. He tapped my leg. The leg that had broken last night. There was no pain. I stared at him.
“I managed to heal it, but now I am tired. You will go draw me water for my bath.” Pulling me out of bed, he led me the kitchen. An old fashioned pump sat on the counter by the sink. He shoved me. I hesitated. He brushed against me, placing my hand on the pump. When I did not move, he brandished a switch.
“Get me water.” He swarped my legs. I flinched and pumped the water into the bucket. “Take it to the tub.” The bucket was heavy. I sloshed to the tub in front of the fireplace and dumped it in. For the first few trips he followed me back and forth. Finally, he was satisfied I would continue by myself. It took fifty trips to fill the tub. I poured the last bucket in and sat by the tub.
Crabain struck me with the switch until I stood. “Go to your room and wait.” He hit me again. I stumbled around the tub, back to the room. The door shut as I fell into the bed’s embrace. I was half asleep before I remembered Azrul’s advice: “Find your center.” I took a deep breath and let it out. In and out. Who was I? In…. out…. In… out…. I spiraled down toward my core. Diving, pushing, pulling thoughts and fears aside; I had to find my center.
In the middle of my search, Crabain came into the room. He put his hand on my head. I was instantly back. I had not found my center. His black eyes were dim.
“I am hungry.” He said. “Give me your energy.” Coal black eyes attacked mine. I found my center in an instant: a field of daises surrounded by trees. I watched as one by one the daisies withered away until only half remained.
“Psychic vampire.” I muttered. With such a large portion of energy gone, I had no stamina. Sleep overtook me.
Whether it was morning or night, I did not know. I was awake again and Crabain had brought me a frozen tv dinner. He held it until it steamed and smelled delicious. I was sitting on a rough bar stool in the same nightdress. My mouth watered. Drool dribbled down my chin and I wiped it off. He set the tv dinner in front of me. I devoured it. His eyes were black holes today. I felt his mind resting on me. I ignored it.
I stopped swinging my legs. Studying the command that engulfed me, I saw the weakness. I imagined my will to be an ice pick and jabbed. The command was gone. Crabain glared. Pressure attacked me from all sides. Crabain moved me, stool and all, to the living room. Dumping me out of the stool, he threw it aside. It clattered. He grabbed my wrist, twisting my arm. Taking a live coal from the fire, he traced an image on my wrist. I struggled but he did not let me go until he was done drawing. It was a dragon crest. It looked like I had been tattooed. My skin was pink and puffy around it. I whimpered, cradling my hand.
“That is my mark, the black dragon. You are my slave.”
“Ta- I’m- gah.” I retorted. My tongue was not working.
“Go find my pen.”
“Go find it you- Yes, my master.” I said and curtsied. I looked all over the house but could not find the pen. I was still searching several hours later, when he said to stop.
“You cannot escape me.” Crabain said.
“You will stay in your room until I come for you.”
“Yes, master.” I went to my room and waited. At some point, I paced around and around the room. He had left the door open. I could escape. I paced and paced, looking out the open door to meet his dark gaze.
I growled and plopped down on the bed. I studied my wrist.
“Come here.” Crabain said.
I leapt off the bed, and then froze. My wrist burned. Flames spread over my skin as a black line surrounded the dragon until it looked like a shield. The line travelled up my arm to my elbow. I gasped and stumbled forward.
“No, master.” I said. My wrist exploded with pain. I half saw the flames spreading up my arm as black raced to my shoulder. This is not how my story goes. With that single thought, the black line stopped. It still hurt and I could feel the need to let it expand but I was done with Crabain’s game. The necklace I wore glowed. I could smell the mast and hear the wind dancing on that distant mountaintop. I could see the medicine man who gave me this gift. He smiled.
“I belong to myself.” I said. I clenched my fists and pushed against Crabain. My will pushed the black line back down my arm until it reached the shield. Crabain glared and commanded me. He tried to push into my mind and take control of my body. I was not his puppet. The darkness in the cabin faded. I somehow saw myself: surrounded by light, hair blowing in the wind, holding a white hilted sword, wearing a white dress and cloak. Crabain was darkness. He could not bear the light of my soul. He disappeared with a loud crack.
The cabin faded. I was in a ramshackle cabin in the sunshine, not twilight. Jumping up I ran out the rotting door. Azrul clapped as I approached. We danced in the sunshine until I was out of breath.
“How long was I there?” I asked.
“Two months.” Azrul replied.
“No! For real?”
“Yes. I was getting quite worried. I was forbidden from saving you so I could not help you. What did he do to your wrist?” He traced the dragon. The last tendrils of fire disappeared at his touch. The black lines were less vibrant but did not fade. “I fear you are now scarred. This scar will remind you of what you have overcome. It will never go away and still pain you, but things will get easier with time.” He kissed it.
“If I have to have a scar to have survived then I am grateful. I thought….”
“Shh shh.” He put a finger on my lips. “Don’t waste your time on the could have beens. You are alive. That is what matters.” He paused. “Alas, our time is up.”
Azrul held my hand as we walked through the trees. Light enveloped us. When the light faded, I was in front of the apartment I shared with Lizzie, Azrul was gone. I turned the knob. The door was flung open. Lizzie hugged me, crying hysterically. I convinced her to go inside.
Once there, she said she remembered the party and I had disappeared. Babbling about a kidnapper and how she couldn’t hang on to me, she blamed herself for my disappearance. I hugged her again then told her my story. She didn’t quite believe me but the nightdress I was wearing and the mark on my wrist persuaded her.
“Promise me, Lizzie, to stop going to random parties you get fliers for.” I pleaded. Lizzie never quite said she would stop.