***TRIGGER WARNING. This chapter contains images of nudity (though not presented sexually), and includes the torture of a young girl revolving around the use of knives. If you have sensitivities to these images, feel free to skip past the paragraphs marked with three asterisks (***).
The farther that they got inside the Orphanage, the more Candra's heart pounded. She wasn't just scared, every instinct her being possessed was screaming at her to run away. But the Master's arms held her tight, and Candra knew that in her weakened state there was no way that she could get away.
They made their way through the aged wooden hallways, past a variety of rooms occupied with all the youngest children. Candra counted as many as three different nurseries, filled with only infants and the occasional helper. How long since Candra had walked these halls? How could she not have known the scores of babies that were starting their lives in the Orphanage.
Candra was only eighteen months when she came here, and she was considered a rarity. In the last twelve years, she had never seen another that young on the property. And now there were dozens.
"What are they doing here?" Candra whispered.
"The Orphanage has been turning out a steady percentage the last ten years or so. So, to increase numbers, we are increasing the sample size." The answer from the Master's lips surprised Candra. She had never heard such an even tone pass from his lips. Why in the world was he speaking to her?
He must have caught the bewilderment in her expression because he answered her unspoken question. "There's no need to withhold information from you any longer. You're going to be working for us soon." Candra gave an involuntary cough. Like hell she would. The Master ignored her and continued, "Besides, it's fun to talk about. Want to hear more?" The sadistic smile on his face told Candra that she did not, in fact, want to hear any more from him.
They continued on in silence, the sound of creaking floorboards their only companion.
The footsteps stopped at the threshold of two large red doors. The initial fear Candra felt stepping into the Orphanage came back full force. She squirmed and tossed her body best she could, but all her efforts were futile. With one bad decision, she was going into the one place she swore she would never end up. Candra was entering the Red Room.
She knew that she never should have gone back for that food.
Kayden sat in a chair next to Marci's sickbed. His sister often got headaches when she used her powers, but the fainting was new. He had no idea what kind of effort it took her to send Candra back to her world, but from what the Elven advisor told him, it put Marci in some kind of deep trance-like state. Not even the secrets of his race could wake her.
"You know, staring at her isn't going to make her wake up any sooner," Reaghan said. He was leaning up against the door frame behind Kayden, a small smirk on his lips. But the playful expression didn't reach his eyes.
Kayden preferred to ignore the way that Reaghan looked at his sister, and the way that Marci stared back at him. It wasn't that he wouldn't be happy for his best friend and his sister, it was more their difference in status. The princess and the peasant—those kinds of stories only worked out in fairytales. Kayden was sure that Marci would be whisked off to the husband of his father's choice as soon as she turned sixteen. The thought made Kayden cringe. Just four more years to be a kid.
Reaghan crossed the room and took up a chair next to Kayden. He stretched out his legs in front of him and crossed his arms behind his head.
"Your Dad is looking for you," Reaghan said. Kayden lifted a hand to his neck, trying to rub out the stress that popped up whenever his father was mentioned.
"I heard," Kayden replied, "I've been hiding out here for the last few hours." Reaghan sighed.
"Ignoring him never turns out well."
"You're right, but neither does going to see him." Reaghan shrugged. There was no argument there. As Kayden's personal servant, Reaghan was often in the back of the room whenever Kayden had to confront his father. He appreciated having at least one person in the room that was happy he was alive.
"You might as well get it over with." Reaghan said.
"You're right," Kayden responded, "As soon as Marci wakes up." Reaghan let out a dry laugh.
"Have it your way," he slapped his hands on his knees before standing, "I will go and attempt to distract him."
"Oh," Reaghan said, "I've got a few things up my sleeve." He gave Kayden a sly smile and left the room.
Kayden dropped his head in his hands. Sometimes he hated being left alone with his own thoughts. There was too much to think about, too many things he didn't want to think about. He started to rub his templates, trying to get images of his father's never-ending scowl out of his mind.
Then the image in his head changed. His father was replaced with a wide-eyed wondrous expression. Her hair was long and swirled around her waist. Her eyes, when they weren't a bright violet, were a golden brown. Kayden wondered where she came from, and how she ended up in the situation she was in now. What happened in her life that gave her those ragged clothes and covered her skin in an inch of dirt? Why was it, that behind all the wonder and excitement, those brown eyes were sad and distant?
Out of nowhere, a sharp, stabbing fear gripped Kayden's heart. His chest began to pound, and his breaths came in rough gasps. He was overcome with the feeling of wanting to run—to get away as fast as possible. Kayden look around the room, but nothing had changed. But still, the instinct to flee was still permeating through him. He was in danger, yet everything around him was an indication to the contrary.
"It's not your fear." Marci sat straight up, pushing the blankets back and putting her feet on the ground to face him. Kayden's breath caught. Marci's eyes were overcome with a brilliant gold light.
"Not again," Kayden breathed. Marci tilted her head to the side and smiled.
"It's all right. I'm not the one you should be worried about." Her smile faltered, and she pursed her lips in a pensive expression.
"You said it's not my fear, what did you mean?" As Kayden spoke the words, he knew that it was true. Now that the initial shock was over, the fear felt far away—like it didn't belong to him.
"There's a reason she appeared to you, Kayden. There's a connection between you two, though I can't explain what it is or why it's there." Kayden clutched his fists tight. On some level, he had known before Marci had said anything. It was Candra. She was suffering a fear like none that Kayden had ever experienced. Something bad was happening, and he was helpless to do anything about it.
"I can send you there," Marci continued, "but I'm not quite sure if I can bring you back. I had to touch Candra to take her back, but I can't follow where you're going."
"Do it," Kayden said. He didn't even have to think about it. Maybe it was the connection Marci mentioned, or maybe he developed some attachment to the small girl in the few hours he spent with her, but in this moment, he would do anything to take away her terror.
"Okay," Marci said, "Now that I know the path to get to her, I should be able to get you there in an instant. It may be disorienting; I have no idea what it will feel like on your end." Marci held out her hand to Kayden.
He gave himself a second of doubt. One second where he thought he was acting insane. Where he questioned whether this girl was worth getting himself into this kind of danger. But then the second was over, and he took Marci's hand.
He blinked his eyes closed, and when he opened them, he was in some kind of forest. He looked toward the sky, studying the stars to try and determine his position. The cold frigid air told him that he was somewhere north, and the map of twinkling lights told him he was at least several hours away from home. Behind him, he saw the tips of the Northern Mountains towering over the line of trees surrounding him. She lived in an environment like this wearing nothing but tattered rags? Even Kayden, who was not known to get cold easily, was rubbing his arms up and down to generate some warmth.
The area Kayden landed was like nothing he'd ever seen. The leaves of the trees were painted in red and gold, and there were strange blue and green vines growing on everything. The ground beneath him was dirt but it was packed as if walked on often. What was this place?
There was a rustle, and Kayden saw a form of jet-black hair running down the path in front of him, toward the mountains. On instinct, he knew that he should follow her.
They ran for several minutes, until the trees became sparse and took on an eternal green, and the vines disappeared as if they had never existed. Despite the urgency with which the figure was moving in front of him, Kayden instantly relaxed. It was then that he knew that the place where he had started was unnatural. On some level, his body recognized that he was somewhere that shouldn't exist – somewhere made of magic.
The trees opened up to a large meadow, and the figure stopped facing away from Kayden toward a small stream. He saw now that she wore a long white dress with traces of mud and grass at the hem. Above her, the moon glowed with an eerie violet. That unnatural feeling returned to Kayden, making the hairs on the end of his skin stand straight; there was magic here too.
But there was another feeling circulating through Kayden's chest, and it took a moment to put a name to it. Longing. He couldn't tell where it came from, but it pulled at him – dragging his feet toward the girl standing before him.
"I'm surprised you could follow me here," she said quietly, "this is just the quiet safe space in my mind. It's merely an illusion I made for myself."
Candra? Kayden recognized her voice but couldn't reconcile the image in his mind with the girl in front of him. Now that she was clean, he could see that her hair wasn't a muddy brown but a brilliant ebony black. The Candra he saw must have never bothered to wash her hair for it to be caked so completely in dirt. And her skin was actually a porcelain white as it glowed with an ethereal halo in the moonlight.
"Turn around," he said, but the voice didn't quite belong to him. Something in him was reaching out, and a rush of unfamiliar feelings cascaded over him.
When she moved to face him, Kayden felt like a strike of lightening had hit his chest and spread shock through his body. She appeared much older than he remembered. Emotions, both belonging to him and not, threatened to overwhelm him. She was the most beautiful being that he had ever seen. It was an exotic visage that wasn't quite human. Her slanted, almond shaped eyes glowed with a familiar violet. It highlighted her pale skin and small pink lips. Sharp cheekbones stood out under the shadow of the moon, and her figure – which Kayden used to think of as small and vulnerable – stood tall and strong. Is this what she really looks like?
The sudden voice in his head made Kayden shiver. But Candra spoke, effectively distracting his attention.
"Could you not stare at me like that?" Candra asked. Her eyes were downcast, and she held both her arms close to her chest. Was she being shy? Kayden couldn't help but smile.
"I just didn't recognize you in a dress." These words did not have the lighthearted effect that Kayden thought. Her eyes snapped to his, glowing a little brighter under the night sky.
"I don't want to be covered in dirt and basically naked all the time," she said, a slight blush rising on her cheeks, "My life isn't as pretty as yours." The statement annoyed Kayden, and he couldn't stop himself from biting back.
"Just because my world is shiny doesn't mean it's pretty." Kayden responded.
Candra laughed, but the sound was without humor. "You don't understand at all." She was staring at Kayden, but the look in her eyes were distant, like she was really looking behind him – back the way they came.
"I know that you don't have a lot," Kayden started, "but having a lot of things doesn't equal happiness." Candra shook her head before he even finished his sentence. He was surprised to see that there were tears glistening in her eyes.
"Why did you come here?" she asked.
"There was this feeling," Kayden answered, "You were afraid of something. It was so strong that I could barely breath." The memory of her desperation came back to Kayden in full force. The serene light of the violet moon had made those feelings seem much less real.
"I see," she said, "and can you tell what I'm feeling now?"
"Well, you look all right to me."
"No," she responded, "I already told you. This isn't real. It's the place in my head that I go to escape. My real self, my body, is somewhere else."
Her words pulled Kayden into himself. He closed his eyes, grasping for the connection between them. It took a few minutes of searching before he found her, buried somewhere in the back of his consciousness. She gasped as he reached out to her, trying to access what she was experiencing.
"Please stop," she breathed, "you're going to take me back."
But it was too late. Kayden had already travelled too far down the rabbit hole. He could sense her fear again, but more then anything, there was sharp, excruciating pain. Kayden was being sucked toward it, moving away from the constructed space in her mind.
"No!" Candra screamed. "What have you done?!"
Kayden struggled against the unseen force, focusing on Candra pleading voice. The words soon morphed into whimpers, and Kayden felt the chill of the mountain air disappear from his skin. A single desperate whisper echoed in Kayden's mind.
"I never wanted you to see this."
Kayden opened his eyes and saw a room painted in red. Three of the walls were lined with tables that glinted with the blades of thousands of knives. A tall, thin woman was pursuing them, running her fingers over the leather handles. Her hair mimicked the color of the room, and she had electric blue eyes that were hard as ice. She picked up one of the weapons. It had a simple black hilt, but its blade was long and curved. It was etched with flecks of bright purple and orange. She held it up to one of the candles in the room, and the knife cast colorful reflections of light onto the walls and across the woman's skin.
"This one is my favorite," she said, a purr in her tone, "Made with real mermaid scales. Even the strongest of man-made weapons couldn't break it." The woman lifted the knife to her lips and ran her tongue along the length of its blade. "I've never used it on any of the runts here. But you are special." She turned around and walked deliberately away from the table. For the first time, Kayden noticed what was on the fourth wall.
A small, muddy girl had her ankles and wrists had been chained to the red wall, stretching her body into an 'X' shape. Her clothes were gone, and she was looking at him with an expression so pained that he had to take a step back.
He met Candra's scared, wide eyes, and his stomach dropped.
Candra wanted to be angry at the boy looking at her, his face a blanket of surprise. But it was her fault for bringing his attention to this place. She never imagined that he could pull them both here. Instead, as his eyes took in her prone form, all she felt was shame.
"But first," the words drew Candra's attention back to Mistress playing with her knives, "I want to experiment a little." She pulled a small, plain looking knife from the table. "The mermaid scales have certain powers against magic—it's how the humans managed to slaughter all the mermaids in the first place. So, I'll start with this," she said, raising the small blade, "to test your recovery magic. I want to see how long you'll bleed."
The Mistress didn't notice Kayden's presence in the room, going as far as to step through him on her way to Candra.
Candra avoided meeting his eyes. She didn't want him to see how scared she was. He no doubt noticed the scars that lined her body. Beatings that happened long before the self-recovery magic-whatever it was-stopped her injuries from leaving their marks. Every painful memory was on display for him to see, and she felt more vulnerable then she ever had before.
She had been so caught up in her own thoughts, that Candra hadn't noticed the Mistress approach until the knife was being dragged across the skin of her arm. It was shallow; she pressed just hard enough for small individual droplets of blood to fall to the floor. It hurt, but Candra had felt much worse.
The Mistress lowered her knife and watched the three shallow cuts with intense fascination. Seconds passed, and the smile on the Mistress' face faltered.
"Hm. Not a very useful power," she said, "It's only helps if the fight is over." The Mistress turned away from Candra and moved back to her tables. "Maybe," she continued, "it depends more on how severe the injury is. It may only kick in when a certain amount of damage has been done." She picked up a new blade, this one forked at the end with one side serrated and the other smooth. "I just have to find the sweet spot."
Kayden crossed the room in a flash a movement. Whatever had kept him rooted to the spot since his arrival had apparently faded, and he spurred into action. He reached to knock the blade out of the Mistress' hand, but his arm passed right through her and the knife. His face crashed in disappointment, but he didn't look all together surprised. Candra met his eyes, and she gave him a small, reassuring smile.
"If you have the strength to smile, then I'm sure this next bit will be easy for you." The Mistress looked furious. Candra was confused for a moment, but then she realized. She was smiling at Kayden, but the Mistress had no idea that the boy was there. Instead, it probably looked like Candra was taunting the Mistress, egging her on.
***The Mistress pulled no punches. In her frenzied state, she decided to start with the serrated side of the knife. Not only did it cut into Candra's arm, but it pulled and tore at the skin around it. The pain was agonizing, and Candra grit her teeth together to keep from screaming out.
Then, to her surprise, Kayden walked toward her. Now unconcerned with the Mistress, he focused his intentions on Candra. He kept his eyes fixed on hers, and she noticed small tears falling down his cheeks.
He approached until he was mere breaths away from her. The look in his eyes was both kind and tortured. She knew, though she wasn't quite sure how, that not being able to help was tearing him apart.
"Can I touch you?" He whispered. His hand was half outstretched toward her already, but he didn't want to make her more uncomfortable or scare her. As imperceptibly as she could, Candra nodded.
Slowly, he put both hands on either side of her head and lowered himself so that the warmth of his body was touching hers, and his forearms were flesh with the wall. He laid his head above hers, his chin resting atop her black hair.
It was the closest that Candra had ever come to a real hug. Even though she was naked, the gesture didn't feel violating or obtrusive. He was doing the only thing he could think to do, letting her know that she was not alone.
"You're right," he whispered, his voice choked, "I didn't understand."
***The Mistress continued to slice and tear at her skin, moving her way along Candra's entire body. The agony was like nothing that Candra had ever experienced. Though Kayden was poised like a shield, her knives still passed straight through him. Each time that Candra couldn't help but cry out, his arms got closer and closer until they were cradling her head against his neck.
Despite all the evils of the wretched red room, Candra felt warm.