The hall was deathly silent as our feet tapped the stone floor. A gust of wind would sometimes blow from the crevasses in the cracked stone walls, and a howling sound would slip out and then die off into the ringing silence once again, almost immediately.
The torches went down the hall, into an infinite line, until my eyes could not make out an end. The place looked like a mesh between a mausoleum and some kind of desolate labyrinth. I imagined a minotaur chasing us down, horns stabbing the air, and I shook the thought away.
The halls were dark beside the torches, some of the which were snuffed out. I started to feel something watching us as we crept along. I kept my hand inside my pocket, the gun under my moist fingers offering reassurance. Sometimes we would see an ominous individual painted on a tilted portrait, their eyes would move in our direction, or a shadow would flicker in my peripheral.
“Did you see the portraits?” I whispered to Phil. “That shadow! It moved!”
“Spying devil things,” protested Phil and he seemed as perturbed by them as I was.
“It’s just a few more meters,” Tomas said as we passed a suit of armor that was missing a metal arm and had a cracked helmet. I could have sworn the helmet turned to watch us go, but when I looked back, the armor held still.
I wished I had some of that herbal medicine Phil had given me earlier—even a brownie would do at this point. I was cursing the high heavens for not bringing at least one cigarette, but then I thought maybe it was better to have left them—three packs a day was my last stop and I wasn’t gonna go back there, I’d sworn it.
“Jesus, if we walk any further, we might end up in India,” I said, panting after a few minutes. Man, I was out of shape.
“Come on, it’s just up ahead!” Tomas pushed me.
“What the hell is this place? There’s no way we walked through just a house!”
We came into view of a door near a cracked oval mirror and we slowed down.
“Oh, Simon, are you still surprised by magic?” Tomas reached the door first and examined it with his fingers. While he pried, I surveyed the ominous place: thick tables with flower pots turned over, ripped teddy bears, and swinging chandeliers overhead.
“Geez, what is this place?” I said.
Tomas’s fingers wiggled up and down the door panel. “This used to be shelter for us—back in the days when this human world was not so safe for us. We hid here. This place is an in-between—mostly just a memory.”
“Okay. Witches hid here?”
“No. Not just witches,” said Tomas. “We helped many other creatures.” He groaned, “I know it’s somewhere around…here.”
The door opened to a smaller, elegant hall with a few people sitting in padded chairs or standing against marble-tiled walls. Almost all of them were witches, but I could tell others were fairy by their pale skin and deep green eyes. Still others were shifters–some of them were handcuffed with weird metal handcuffs. As we passed, they hissed with snake tongues or growled like dogs. I guessed these were the prisoners.
“Put a sock in it!” snarled a heavy-set witch with gray hair tied in a bun and dark green eyes. He smiled when he saw us approaching.
“Hello, Senor Tomas,” said the gray-haired witch.
“Oh, shut up, you imbecile,” Tomas said, waving a dismissive hand.
“Always so uptight, Tomas,” the witch said, mocking the accent.
“This is Quentin,” Tomas introduced through clenched teeth.
“Whoa,” said Quentin, holding a finger under his nose, “And you must be that Simon dude.”
My jaw must have dropped because Quentin quickly followed up with, “No offense. But you’re kinda smelly.”
“None taken,” I said reproachfully.
“Phil!” the gray-haired witch turned, smiling.
“Quentin!” Phil said, face glowing.
Both men hugged, patting each other on their back so heavily I thought one of their arms was gonna pop right off.
“How long has it been, Philly?”
“Forever, devil hunter” said Phil. “Last time I saw you was in…”
“That bar back in Mississippi!”
“Yeah, what was the name of that hell hole?”
“The Hell Hole,” said Quentin.
“Right,” they laughed.
“I missed you, bro,” said Quentin, this time through the Channel.
“Me too,” Phil said. “Lots has happened since. We have to catch up, old boy.”
“We have to go back to Texas sometime or another,” Quentin laughed heartily. “Remember what happened last time?”
“How can I forget?”
“You hanging out with this prissy little prick?” he shot a thumb at Tomas, but kept his voice within the Channel.
“Tomas? He’s just helping us out,” said Phil.
“I thought the prick only helped himself,” said Quentin.
“He has no choice in this one,” said Phil and they both noticed me smiling at them.
Quentin looked over at me and said “You’re friends with this stinky little dude.”
“Yeah, you could almost say we’re like bros,” said Phil and I felt all warm inside.
Tomas mumbled and complained, stabbing two fingers on his wrist, mouthing off about how late we were gonna be.
“But, uh, we need to get going,” Phil said aloud. The men shook hands and gave each other one last hug.
“Hey, Simon,” said Quentin, as I was turning to leave.
“Any friend of Phil’s is a friend o’ mine,” Quentin jabbed his finger toward this shifter who was writhing in his chair, hissing and cackling. “If you ever need me to capture a scum bag like this one, just let old Quentin handle your business,” he parted the flap of his coat and a shiny gold badge was pinned to his chest’s pocket. “I’m an official bounty hunter for the Council,” he said, pronouncing hunter like hunner. He reached into his pocket and grabbed a small white rectangle. “Here, just grab my business card—anything you need, just lemme know.”
I grabbed the business card and was pulled into his huge arms.
“You get a hug, too,” said Quentin, and he crushed me against his chest. I had the odd feeling he was holding his breath.
“Phank yoo,” I said before he released me and the shifter, who’d been watching us, began hissing and cackling once again.
“What a bunch of lovers we have here!” the shifter chuckled. Quentin smacked him with the side of his hand and the shifter whined like a hurt dog.
Quentin waved goodbye as we walked down the hall. Many other prisoners were sitting, heads down on their knees, arms and legs chained up, their dark eyes surveying us as we went.
I noticed that each prisoner had his or her own guard looking after them–there was even a young girl prisoner wailing and crying, her tiny hands reaching for help as a tall woman with dark eyes dragged her out of the chair and behind some steel doors.
I couldn’t help the look of horror that crept onto my face, but Phil spoke to me through the Channel.
“That little thing is guilty of somethin’ horrible, Simon.”
“Of what, of wanting an effing lollipop?”
“Don’t let her appearance fool you, Simon. Some things are older than they look—and evil too.”
Before the little girl was hauled completely in, her sweet blue eyes turned into slits of red, her mouth contorted into a maniacal grin with more teeth than mouth. The thing shrieked as the darkness closed in on it with the doors. I felt like my breath leave me. You never really get used to the idea of monsters—this line of work doesn’t give you that commodity.
“Jesus christ,” I muttered. I was sweating under my jacket, and suddenly my body felt too light.
“Calm yourself,” Phil said again through the Channel. “Remember, you have to keep your guard up—If the Council even suspects you have access to the Channel, your life will be in jeopardy.”
“What can they do to me?”
“Do you really wanna know?”
“No thanks,” I said. We kept trailing Tomas.
A few guards nodded, others stood aloof as they waited. They looked like regular people–no uniform or anything–but I could feel their power rising like a tide around me, their thoughts pouring over me and I had to hold myself from falling apart.
“Good job, Clarence.”
“Guilty as charged, you son of a bitch.”
“Clearly they make us wait ‘cause we aint part of the council…I hope they can’t hear my thoughts right now…”
“I wanna have steak for dinner.”
“Simon,” said another voice, Phil’s voice. “Just concentrate on one thought.”
“Easier said than done,” my voice seemed like it would drown in the tide of thoughts.
“You’ve done it before. It’s different to read thoughts directly than just getting visions, but you can block out the extra stuff if you really just breathe and relax.”
“Okay,” I said, my throat felt dry, the back of my tongue like it had been coated with cotton.
One of them was an old woman with a cane and bifocals, she smiled warmly as we passed her, the badge glinted off her ample chest she was a witch, a powerful one.
Some guards were shifters, others fairy, too—you can always tell the difference between the fairy and the normal human just by looking at them—too pale, features too pronounced, though they almost looked practical in their human guise.
It was a certain attraction to them too, more like a feeling and if you were lucky enough to stop slobbering all over yourself long enough, then you would realize there was something in their eyes, a tinge of yellow around the irises, their too perfect bodies, and their pretty little heads a good camouflage, but I had seen a fairy once in his true form, and let me tell you, they’re not what Disney says they are (no Tinks, that’s for sure).
There was a rattling coming from an adjacent hall as we passed, a man was wrapped in thick chains inside a cage, his black eyes staring at us as we passed, he had a metal piece covering his mouth. He linked his fingers at us as we passed, his long white hair the only thing (other than his dark eyes) that wasn’t waddled in the metal chains. There were two women watching him, one was tall and blonde and the other a red head.
I waved hello at him and said “What the heck is he supposed to be?” when my temple began to pound, so I popped an aspirin and closed my eyes, trying to squeeze the pain away.
“No one knows,” said Tomas. “He is here because he murdered an entire town. The Council sent their best hunters after him and they finally caught up to him three days ago. I’m sure the sentence will be harsh—as it should be.”
“Death,” I said and suddenly felt the man’s rage—the hate.
“You’re like me!” He yelled through the mouth piece. “You’re like me! I smell you!” And he began to laugh, the two women turned just enough to watch me and I hurried on.
“Maniac,” said Phil. “He deserves what’s coming to him!”
There were many more halls, and there were many doors. Doors opened and slammed, the guards pushing their prisoners inside, screams shooting from some of the rooms when they opened. I took a peek inside when one opened and I could see a long string of cages stacked up high and long in what seemed like a warehouse of a room and I just knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
“What the hell kind of place is this?” I was looking up at what I thought was a chandelier, but it turned out to be a cage, some pale giant creature with wings was swinging it back and forth.
“A prison. A court,” said Tomas. “Hell for others.”
“No shit,” said Phil.
Tomas pointed down the long corridors “That’s for the real criminals, the ones with no pardon, no hope. And those doors lead to the other places.”
“Well, some cages are more than just cages,” said Tomas. “They,” he went up to the wall, slid a square partition to the side, revealing a small window.
“Look inside,” he said.
I looked and beyond I saw a blue forest through the window, mist covering tall grass where a swamp stretched out and there were people in there, some were just wandering around, their eyes dull and their hands hanging on their sides, others sitting, rocking back and forth and screaming. Those that were screaming would stop and then walk, hands reaching for their faces, wiping their tears, and then a few seconds later they would start wailing and again.
“This is a prison?” I said, I was watching this woman that had her fists clenched to her ears, the desperation in her eyes was enough to make me snatch my eyes away.
“Sure,” said Tomas grimly. “It’s the best of its kind. It makes them believe they’re still living in the normal world—forgetting where they are as soon as they walk a few steps and in that same circle they go forever.”
“So they never know it,” I said, and I couldn’t help but to look at an old man whose eyes scanned the forest, then stopped and bewilderment overtook him and he cried, then abruptly stopped and began walking silently, slowly out and I could have sworn he looked over at me and smiled.
Tomas shook his head, “No, sir,” he closed the small window. “They can’t even remember who they are.”
“That’s inhuman,” my voice was low, but he heard me.
“They are inhuman,” he hissed. “And you must not speak that way about the Council. Especially when you are so close to their associates and hunters.”
“Oh, why? Because they will shrivel up my balls?”
Tomas scowled and pulled me to the side, one of the bounty hunters was eyeing us suspiciously.
“They can do far worse—can’t you see that?” Tomas was speaking low but his tone was sharp, his brow perspiring just a bit. “Can’t you just shut up for once?”
I pinched my lips with two fingers made a zipping motion.
“Gosh, what a sensitive,” I said through the Channel as we began walking again.
“He’s right,” said Phil.
“Really? You’re gonna take his side?”
“I’m not takin’ anyone’s side,” answered Phil, after he hadn’t spoken for a while.
I felt like we walked for a few miles before we reached the door, high ceiling windows the size of small boxes, exuding an orange light and I couldn’t tell if the light was fabricated by magic, or if we had just ended up walking the whole night through.
One thing I did learn from all this little walk (other than the fact that I hate walking long distances) was that there was truly no escape from this place. Whoever came here stood here, and that was that.
There were guards, mostly women witches on each of the halls, guarding the doors that had cells—or to cells that looked like worlds of their own.
The halls stuck out in every direction, at one point we stood in the middle of a forked hall and Tomas stopped and examined the three identical halls carefully, until finally he nodded and we followed him through the one on the far left.
God, as advanced as they were in magic, witches needed to come up with something like a magical elevator, or some type of escalator, to get people who weren’t prisoners where they wanted to get to—and no directory either!
Luckily, Tomas knew his way around and finally we came up to a wall with just a fireplace in the center of the room, breathing a thick blue and red fire. There were no more cells or doors or guards in this place, only a small table with a signup sheet, many names written down the long parchment, and a feather pen chained up to the neck of the table. The room itself was oval shaped, the fireplace inside a sort of marble vein that connected up toward the high ceiling.
Tomas signed his name and we did the same, I felt the pen prick my finger, the ink swirling my name in red: Simon Berkley
“Ouch, what the hell!” I sucked on my finger and let go of the pen.
Tomas said, “It is signed with your blood. It’s easier to track you down if you ever tried to assassinate a Council member and escaped.”
“Who the hell would try to kill one of the Council members?”
Tomas laughed and said, “You have much to learn, my friend.”
The blue and red fire began to twirl like a small tornado within the hearth, and soon the hall where the fireplace was closed off into a room, the walls coming together, blocking us from leaving—I almost had the impression that the ceiling was gonna start coming down to crush us—like an Indiana Jones flick, but nothing like that happened.
I couldn’t stop looking at the fire, as if it were alive, like it was a thing more than just fire.
I was afraid it would leap out and snatch one of us, but then suddenly it spread, crawling rapidly around the walls, until everything around us was red and blue heat.
The fire was inches away from my skin, just hovering, lukewarm to my skin. I poked it with my finger and a red lick wriggled out and slithered up my arm and into the red again. Red was everywhere and it was everything and I thought maybe we could stay there, all three of us in this fire, in this warmth forever. There were eyes in the fire, a song like a whisper, a beautiful set of golden eyes, a woman with fire for skin and a long red mane that twirled blue. I waved at her and she smiled, she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I was listening to her voice, she beckoned to me, asked me to stay in the fire forever and I thought maybe that would be a great idea—me and her and the warmth forever. She came closer and kissed my lips and I felt her heat seep inside me like I had drank something deliciously warm.
“Let him go!” said a voice in the fire, Tomas was suddenly behind her and her face was filled with red pain before she released me and disappeared.
The fire roared, sucking itself back into a hole in space, disappearing back into nothingness, the room no longer a room and no hearth, only us three in the middle of a long, dark expanse.
There were high seats surrounding us, whispers broke out within the shadows.
“No!” said a woman’s voice in the void, not a void but a courtroom now, fire floating on air like on invisible candles, stars overhead in the sky and even under us, millions of them, our feet standing on nothing and I had the sudden feeling I was gonna fall, but where was up? I was rubbing my eyes, and there were more whispers this time and a voice that said “What is the meaning of this!?”
There were people sitting behind a row of elongated desks. Where we stood (speck in the middle) was more of a small bull fighter arena than anything else, but was void of anything else, no desk, no chairs, only the enclosed circle surrounded by the high chairs all around, so all faces looked down on us, into the hole-like arena.
“I said, what is the meaning of this!” the male witch was on his feet behind the tall desk, his was the tallest and in the middle and he wore robes that were a blood red.
I couldn’t recognize him, he wasn’t someone I had seen before. His eyes were very pale, as his wrinkly skin, and his hair was very dark. Just by looking at this dude I already knew I didn’t like him.
“Um…hi. My name’s Simon Berkley and I…” I had my hands in my pocket. “…am here in the defense of Bianca Summers.”
The woman, who looked panic-stricken, stared at me as though I was a talking turd. She was a mousy little thing, with round glasses, her makeup leaked down her pale face like streaks of oil and her hair was spiky and short and so pale, it was almost white.
“No!” she pleaded and looked back at the witches on the high desks. “I don’t know who this is!”
“Hello, Tomas,” said the man, his face still very much grave. “Tomas, tell me, what is this imbecile talking about?” the man lowered onto his seat, his neck still craned over to watch us and Tomas began to stutter.
“Well…well…I…see, what happened was he…he wanted–”
“Speak up!” insisted the witch. “Tell me the meaning of this!”
Phil crossed his arms, but was still feeling very much apprehensive; I told him that everything would be okay.
“Simon, these witches—they’re not normal witches,” Phil said inside my head. “I haven’t felt this much power concentrated in a while.”
So much for the pep talk.
Tomas had finished explaining the situation (kind of) and so I had stepped in again, my chin held high in front of the judges.
I said “The truth is, err, Sir…?”
“Judge,” said the main witch. “Judge Edmund Mayfair.”
“Yes. Well I’m weird, as you can smell,” I laughed nervously.” I can see things—things that others can’t see and this woman, she didn’t call the wraith.”
His fingers intertwined, elbows on his desk, and he said “And we’re supposed to trust you? I barely know you—and Tomas, I have to say, you have broken rules in the past, but this—this is an outrage—bringing an outsider here!”
“Okay, when you’re done ignoring me here,” I waved my hands in the air. “I have some other stuff to say!”
All the witches, who were silently switching their gaze from Mayfair, to me, to Tomas, were back on me. There must have been about thirty or so, all sitting in a high circle. Some were very dark skinned, others very pale, others an olive tone, but all had the same facial expression. Aghast would be the right word.
There was a surge suddenly, all thoughts like echoes inside the Channel.
“What is he doing?” said a voice.
“Is he crazy?”
“Mayfair will have his balls for this!”
“He’s kinda cute,” said a man’s voice and I tried to maintain a neutral face. If these witches found that I had access to their brains, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill me. I tried to push their thoughts out and to calm myself like Phil had said.
“This woman,” I continued, “could have never conjured a creature such as a Wraith.” I was using my lawyer voice, something I had seen in one of my crime shows and looking around at them with my eyebrows lifted, hands behind my back.
“I mean, look at her,” I pointed at the woman. “Look at her for crying out loud! Flaccid! She barely has enough power to lift a flower,” I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left leg, Bianca scowled at me.
“You’re not helping your case,” I hissed at her.
The woman threw her hands up and said, “I don’t want you as my law–”
“See, this woman is in such shock, she thinks she needs no one to help her!” I threw my arms around her and hugged the bewildered Bianca against my chest, the woman pushed me back.
“Phil,” I said and all the witches turned their faces to him, who was more than a few steps back from me, I could feel he wanted to run out of this place. Tomas was now very silent and serious.
“Well, come over here,” I said through the Channel, my hand still beckoning.
Phil dragged his feet forward, his hands out.
“What are you doing?” said Phil through the Channel.
“See, my friend Phil here is a wizard,” I addressed the witches.
“We know fully well who he is,” hissed a woman, she was sitting to Mayfair’s right, hidden in the shadows so only her silhouette showed. She craned forth, so the candle light could reveal her face and
I recognized her right away.
“Hello, Merlin,” said Soraya Darious, and Phil clenched his fists. “Oh, I’m sorry—did I struck a cord?” Soraya’s eyes gleamed like a cat’s.
“Soraya,” said Mayfair, giving her a stern look and Soraya rolled her eyes and fell silent.
“What exactly is the point of letting this one speak?” said another, a soft voice and I felt chills running down my arms and I clenched my fists on my side.
Theo Percival was always calm like this, but I could hear him in the Channel: “I would kill him. If it was still legal to hunt down at will, I would relish tearing him from limb to limb…”
“Theo. Soraya—it’s like a family reunion!” I said, still feeling my heart sinking deeper in my chest, but I pushed on. “I love you guys,” ok, so maybe that was pushing it a little too far.
“Do yourself a favor and stop babbling,” said Phil’s voice in my head.
“Mr. Berkley—how is it that you, whom I have never had the displeasure of meeting–”
“But I’m sure they’ve told you plenty about me, right?” I placed my hands in my pockets and grinned.
“Oh, they have,” said Mayfair. “I have heard all about you,” he said the last part like he had swallowed something sour.
My fear was turning into heated rage and I was trying to maintain my cool, but I always found most witches could irritate me just by breathing around me.
“Then, you have to know what I can do,” I had the urge to grab a business card and shove it in his face.
“Oh, yes. Mister Psychic,” said Mayfair with mild humor. Theo and Soraya were cackling softly at his sides.
My face burnt with the fury of a thousand red-headed men and my hands were beginning to tremble on my side, Phil’s warnings resounded in my head.
The Council could do whatever they pleased, of that I was sure. They could probably lock me up forever and I wouldn’t have a say—I did just walk into their territory (witches were very territorial) like a pup inside a bear maze, but I had to stop them from killing an innocent woman.
I was thinking of my next punch-line, when through the Channel something seeped in. It was a mere whisper against the waves of thoughts that were echoing all around, but it was there, my spider sense was tingling.
I turned and looked around, all the Council was either whispering to each other, or waiting for me to say something, but I was trying to concentrate on what I was listening to.
“Mr. Berkley,” said Mayfair, but I was walking within the circle, trying to approach the voice. It was calm and fast, almost like a fading echo and I had a hard time following it. It seemed to be bouncing off the walls, one minute it was behind Mayfair, the next I could hear it within the walls.
Unintelligible at first, a muffled humming, barely noticeable, but it was there and I don’t think anyone else heard it.
“You hear that?” I said and I closed my eyes, my hands were touching the walls (all this illusion of an expanse, was just that and I was beginning to see this was just a room), at one point I was on the floor, my ear pressed against it, the voice trailed here to there and I could barely keep up.
“Did we hear what?” said Mayfair, he pricked his ears, trying to listen in.
I tried to push my gift like a stream joining the Channel and though I thought my efforts were gonna be in vain, apparently something did happen because the voice became so clear, I had to make sure it wasn’t coming from right beside me.
“Bad witches,” said the voice. “Evil witches. Make them all pay.”
“He’s here,” I said.
Mayfair said “Who is here?”
“The one who called the Wraith,” I still had my eyes closed, but I opened them up at that very moment.
I reached a hand out, following the sound.
“Kill them all. They will pay for everything. I will make them…pay, they will.”
I was closing in on the voice, my eyes scanning the place, I found a side door and I began to climb, I could feel the voice stronger, could almost feel its chilly breath on my skin.
The whole place erupted in appalled whispers as I found a small door leading up some steps. I went up the small twisted steps and opened a door and joined the Council behind the tall desks. Mayfair and the rest of the Council were paralyzed as I walked toward them, mouths hanging limp from their astonished gazes.
On the second floor (where the Council was sitting) it was nothing more than a circle shaped room.
There were torches up here too (other than the bewitched fire that floated around)
I was guessing the whole scene was supposed to look ominous, dreadful, the last goodbye before being thrown into the pit when judgment came.
I looked at the faces of the puzzled witches and wondered how many people had been condemned to death here? Maybe thousands, those same criminals (and not so criminal) were judged and sent to spend eternity in the cells prepared here. I could almost hear the screeching screams, memories that the walls held, seeped permanently into them—memories of the innocent, the damned.
Concentrate, I thought.
Behind each witch there was a door (maybe an exit) and the sound was coming from the one behind Mayfair. I edged closer. All I had to do was open the door and I would see who caused all this—killed and destroyed so many.
I had a sense of familiarity that overwhelmed me as I approached the door.
“Don’t let him go behind there!” said a voice, the voice of Mayfair, as I reached, my hand inches from the knob and my body suddenly stiffened and I was turned, my arms and legs moving on their own accord.
“No!” I pleaded, my body moving away from the door and turning toward Mayfair, his piercing eyes like that of a hawk.
“Enough!” yelled Mayfair.
The voice began dissolving, until it disappeared all together behind the door.
“No! You heard him! He was behind the…” My lips felt like they had clamped shut and suddenly Phil was next to me.
“Let him go, you son of a bitch!” Phil was held in place, he was trying to walk, but couldn’t.
“Don’t try anything, Phil,” I said through the Channel.
“Stay back, old one,” said Mayfair. “My judgment here is ultimate.”
“By the decree of power given to me by this Council,” said Mayfair. “I sentence Bianca Summers to the pit. A merciful act, if you ask me.” The woman screamed and begged, but suddeny she was gone.
“And as for you, Mr. Berkley,” My body pushed closer to him. “I sentence you to a term of sixty-nine months in The Bosque!”
“But he has done nothing wrong!” said Phil. “That judgment ain’t fair!”
“He has interrupted a trial and made fun the Council!” Mayfair snarled. “As for you, be gone!” there was a popping sound, Phil’s voice slipped out and I felt the air suck into the room.
I fought my muscles, my bones stiff as dried-up cement as I waited my punishment.
“Goodbye, Mr. Berkley,” said Mayfair, from behind him, Soraya and Theo both smiling. Soraya was even nice enough to wave goodbye when the whole world went dark once again.