What is an alleyway?
I ask myself this as my own footsteps echo back into my ears. It’s quiet. It’s dark.
It’s going on forever.
In the simplest of words, my personal definition would be a short walk-space often found between two, neighboring buildings. They’re often times occupied by dumpsters, bags of garbage, and—perhaps—the occasional shady individual.
The single word I focus on is “short.”
This alleyway is not “short.”
And the more time passes, the more steps I take, the more I begin to wonder if it ends at all.
My legs grow tired, and I stop to catch my breath, leaning against the brick wall. “Come on,” I hiss in frustration. I note the stars decorating the now, darkened sky. How long have I been in here? How much longer will I be?
Old fashioned lanterns are posted high on the walls, providing little bits of light. I don’t recall seeing them when I originally started, but refrain from questioning it. It’d do very little for me anyway.
I slide to the pavement. Exhaustion, irritation, and the barest hint of fear have robbed me of my strength. I just need a few minutes, I tell myself. Only a few minutes to gather my thoughts.
Knees bent, elbows curved, I bow my head and release a sigh. Even after everything I’ve seen, I still can’t believe this is my new reality. I don’t want to be here. I want to go home, sit on my couch, and call my parents.
When was the last we spoke?
What did we even talk about? Were they even real?
I press my palms to my eyes, confused. My mind swims with memories I’m beginning to question. What did my childhood home look like again? Where exactly is it at?
The questions crash together, creating a mess so large it makes me want to scream. But I can’t. So, I slump back against the wall, more tired than before.
I study the direction I’m heading, then the direction I left. I could go back the way I came, yet somehow, I know it won’t work. I’ve walked a straight shot this entire time, but I get the sneaking suspicion I’m lost. Like I’m stuck inside a giant maze with no direction or way out.
Despite how tired I feel, I know sitting and wallowing won’t get me out of here.
Using the wall for support, I push myself up to my feet.
The bricks have grown black, the ground smooth, free of cracks or even spots. It’s neat. Too neat, in fact.
A strange sense of unease keeps me from traversing down the center of the walkway, so when my fingers—pressed lightly against the wall—brush something smooth and glassy, rather than brick, I pause with a start.
In the dim glow of an overhead lantern, I see a round pane of glass, similar to the porthole of a submarine. Instead of giants bolts and rusty metal, it’s ringed with intricately carved iron vines of ivy. Originally pitch black behind the glass, the moment I lean in for a closer look, a theatrical light, bluish in hue, slowly fades in, showing a scene frozen in time like the one I saw earlier in the city.
A woman, appearing either late teens or early twenties in age, sits beside a campfire. Her hair is short, complimenting angular facial features. She’s clad in amor from head to toe, and a sheathed sword rests beside her against the log she’s sitting on. Surrounding her are trees stretching too high for me to see.
In the background, I see a horse grazing beside a tree. The most surprising thing about it all, is what I see hovering around the knight’s right shoulder. There’s no mistaking it.
From what I can tell, it’s a male fairy, possibly around the same age as her. He’s about eight inches tall, with clear wings reflecting blue light. They may be amidst an important conversation, but what I notice most about them are their expressions.
They stare up and down at each other, a tenderness in their eyes that—upon seeing—makes me feel compelled to look away.
I step back, giving them space.
Another story, I think. Just like the first.
The moment this thought enters my mind, another window I’d yet to see gently glows to life. This time in red.
Brows furrowed with confusion, yet compelled by curiosity, I make my way to the next. Where the previous was decorated with curling, iron ivy, a giant, iron ring surrounds this one. Along the curving metal are runes etched into the rusted the surface.
I peer inside, finding a scene completely different from the other. A single person stands in the very center of an empty room with concrete walls.
It’s another woman. I can’t begin to guess her age since she’s turned to the side. I’d guess young, maybe closer to mid or late twenties, going based on the age of others I’ve seen so far. Where the other two stories appeared fantastical, almost ethereal in their own ways, this one gives me chills.
It’s eerie how still she’s standing. I know she’s frozen like the others, but something tells me that even if she weren’t, she’d be just as motionless. Her gaze is trained forward, and the one eye I can see if completely devoid of color. She’s garbed in something akin to a military uniform.
The thought startles me, since I have absolutely no idea where it came from. The next one startles me even more.
Another light flares to life a few feet down the wall.
A soft, “What,” leaves my lips as I move down the line. A simple, iron ring encircles this one, but near the bottom I see what appears to be buildings of a city carved into the metal. Tiny, light blue lights glow in certain areas around the miniscule skyscrapers.
Inside what appears to be a medical room littered with lab machines, my eyes register an egg-shaped pod. The bottom is capsulated with knobs, wires, and screens, one of which beeps along with—what I assume to be—the heartbeat of the person inside. It stands up straight, and through the clear bubble at the top, I see the top half of a young man, floating inside maroon colored fluid. Soft lights bathe the entire scene in lavender.
My eyes pierce the darkness of the alleyway, finding the subtle shapes of other windows further down. Each will contain different scenes. I don’t know how I know that, but I do.
“Back burners,” I whisper to myself. These are back burner stories, born from swift moments of inspiration, then stored somewhere for future speculation. The ones out in the city, like the young man in the chapel, or the young couple through the window, are stories closer to the forefront. Ones likely to be flushed out in the near future.
These on the other hand, would take time.
Which tells me the main story I’m looking for isn’t amongst them. So where could it possibly be? It had to be somewhere inside of this never-ending place, right? I heard the bell.
My gaze goes skyward, ready to speak the question out loud, ready to ask this unseen Author where exactly she wants me to go, when a strange sound touches my ears. It’s not a clear, tinging bell, like before. But it’s a soft sort of jangle.
Like metal clinking against metal. Light, but solid.
Chains. And they’re getting closer.
A sense of foreboding has me pressing my back as hard as possible to the brick wall behind me. My gaze attempts to pierce the darkness, trying to decipher where the sound is coming from.
I hold my breath, hoping whoever, or whatever draws near won’t see me.
My whole body goes still when a young woman melts from the shadows.
She’s dainty. I’d venture to say around five feet tall if that. Her skin, her hair, her clothes, everything is the same color. A white so pure, it’d make snow look tainted with color. Her features are sharp, pixie like, but it’s her eyes which strike me to the core. They’re a vibrant red, nearly aglow.
She’s wearing something akin to a body suit, made of white stretchy material. It goes from her shoulders down to her ankles, decorated with flowing strips of white toile dangling from her hips.
She wears no shoes, but her feet are silent on the concrete. In fact, the only sound coming from her is the rattling of chains. Chains I don’t see.
My brows furrow as I try to spot the source of the noise, but I can’t. The temptation to lean out further for a better look nearly pulls me out of place. I force myself to remain completely still though, especially when those eyes dart from one side of the alley to the other. By some miracle, she doesn’t spot me.
She’s looking for something. Something that isn’t me. Her face snaps towards the left and she walks—
Through the wall?
An audible gasp escapes me and before I know it, I’m rushing from my spot to see if I actually saw what I think I saw.
There’s an opening in the wall. A walkway that hadn’t been there before.
I can see her ghostly figure travelling further and further away. She’s rushing, as though in a terrible hurry, and I briefly wonder what’s causing her to move with such haste.
Where are you going? Instinctively, I take a step, prepared to follow, when the silvery sound of a bell echoes from the innards of the alley she’d come from.
I freeze, eyes following the sound. So, I need to keep going forward?
I glance between the two, towards the invisible bell calling me, and the character slowly getting further away.
I’ll just be a minute, I promise.
The bell calls again as I walk, trying to draw me back. But I ignore it, bent on figuring out where this mysterious creature is headed, and why.
She glows in the distance, like a small, white ball of light.
She turns down walkways, rounds corners and changes directions. She knows exactly where she’s going, while I—a stranger here—silently stalk. The environment changes as we go. The bricks smooth into flat, solid walls of stone and the lanterns eventually vanish, replaced by torches of burning flame.
The girl darts around another corner, and I turn, ready for another long trek. I skid to a halt when that’s not what I find.
I stand at the entrance of a large room. It’s empty except for a short dais, decorated with a large, ornate chair of black stone. In that chair is a man with shoulder length, dark brown hair. His eyes are closed, and his skin is pale. He doesn’t move at all.
The young woman I’ve been following is curled on his lap. She runs a hand down his scruffy cheek, her voice low as she speaks to him.
I take a step, and though my feet make no sound, her red gaze snaps in my direction. She immediately curls around him protectively. Her voice shakes as she calls. “Why have you returned?” Her evident fear isn’t for herself, but for him.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I say, my mouth moving of its own accord. Damn it! Not again. “Or him,” I quickly add.
“You already have,” she accuses. “He’s like this because of you.”
My hands come up, palms out, showing I mean no harm. It’s exactly like in the chapel, every move I make and word I speak is not my own. “I didn’t want to, but I had to.” I try to make my legs stop as I move closer, but they aren’t listening to me.
A single tear oozes from her eye and—to my utter surprise, yet not surprise—it freezes like snow halfway down her cheek. “You’re too cruel,” she whispers.
Guilt stabs harshly inside my gut.
Guilt? Did I do this?
No, it’s not me. It can’t be. So why do I feel responsible?
“I know,” is my response. “But it’s not forever,” I assure. “I promise it’s not.”
She shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. A single day, a single hour, a single moment of seeing him like this is too much.” Her arms encircle his shoulders and her head rests against his chest. “I cannot bear it.”
Her agony pierces my heart, but I know there’s nothing I can, or will do. It’s necessary, and though I don’t know why, I simply know it is. “I hate to put the two of you through this,” I say, even though I’m not the one doing it. “But he will be saved. I promise.”
She whirls towards me, frozen tears coating her cheeks. “To the damned with your promises!” She sobs. “To the damned with everything!”
Somehow, I know it’s coming. I have no idea who this young woman is, yet her abilities become an unspoken secret to me.
A blast of freezing wind cuts into my skin as tendrils of icy frost creep along the floor and walls, heading straight for me. I can’t let it touch me. I won’t make it out alive if it does.
Spinning on my heel I dash towards the entrance. I hear the crackling of freezing air as I run as fast as my legs can carry me. With no idea where to go I pinwheel around every corner, desperately trying to find somewhere safe.
In the distance, a giant pair of ornate doors slowly come into view. Roses and snakes carved of black metal decorate the front, but I give them so little thought, I don’t know how my mind even registered them.
I grab hold of an iron ring, pulling with all my might. I can already feel the soft brush of ice at the back of my neck as one door slowly, painfully slowly, creaks open. The moment I’ve made a space large enough, I squeeze my way through.
A force of wind so strong it knocks me off my feet collides with the door, slamming it shut. I fall to the ground, tiny crystals of ice and snow clinging to my shirt. I lay there for several seconds, shivering, refusing to think how close I’d come to dying just now.
You’ll be safe, I recall C.C. saying, scoffing at the promise. Then what the hell was that?
I release a heavy sigh, closing my eyes and trying to slow my erratic heart. Something soft tickles the back of my hand, nearly sending me right out of my skin.
My first instinct is to swat at whatever it might be, fearing it’s a spider or other crawling creature. But when my other hands smacks down, I don’t feel the rigid body of an insect, but something flat. Something smooth.
I lift my hand, finding a deep, scarlet petal trapped beneath. I pinch it between thumb and forefinger, bringing up for closer inspection. Just as I begin to question where it came from, another drifts down, then another.
Arms tired, I push to a sitting position, finally seeing where I wound up.
Large rose bushes on either side reach towards the sky, their branches entwining overhead. There’s dozens of them, lining the walls and creating something akin to a hallway. Scarlet petals slowly whisper their way to the earth, carpeting the ground in red. I move to my feet, legs tired from the Olympic run I’d just endured.
Where is this?
I aimlessly wander down the path, eyes transfixed on the lovely blooms above and around me. I’m so consumed by the sight of them all, I don’t realize another presence, until an amused voice utters a single phrase, freezing me in my tracks.
“Poor little thing, what a terrible mistake you’ve made.”