A sickening crunch made Nell wince from her hiding position behind the living room couch. The clock was just a minute shy of striking midnight and, for the third time that day; her boyfriend punched another hole in the wall. The coffee table was upturned and a few vases, some of which were antiques, were smashed.
“What did I tell you, Nell?! I say this because I care!!”
Nell gulped but didn’t move. She was already sporting a nasty bruise on her inner left thigh due to Lucan’s violent behaviour; she had no intention of nursing another one. Lucan’s anger was stemming from the fact that Nell’s co-worker, Wyclef, dropped her off home that particular foggy evening. Pedestrians were recommended to stay off the roads, as visibility was almost down to nothing and the community was afraid inattentive drivers would cause accidents. Because of the commotion, Nell accepted Wyclef’s offer and, somehow, Lucan found out.
I wasn’t not going to take Wyclef up on his offer. Nell thought while trembling. Lucan wasn’t available to pick her up and she didn’t want to risk walking home alone in the weird fog—there had already been news reports of pedestrians being hit as cars couldn’t see them until the last possible second. The Island of Opacus, a tightknit isle, rarely encountered weather that was anything other than sunny or rainy. The fact that a thick fog blanketed their small island for close to a fortnight was daunting.
“Wyclef is romantically interested in you, Nell, and the more time you spend with him the more he falls in love with you! I love you the most, do you hear?!” His fist went through the wall, right beside the previous hole. Nell curled her body up tightly. Lucan had no idea where she was hiding, and she intended on keeping it that way. It was a common occurrence: he would holler and scream, drink himself stupid, and then pass out on the couch. All Nell had to do was wait for him to pass out before creeping out from her hiding spot and seeking refuge in their bedroom.
"Come out here, Arianell!!” Lucan roared, pulling their wall-mounted television off and shattering it. Nell was all but holding her breath; Lucan’s anger was palpable and she did not want to be on the receiving end of his fist. The space behind the couch was discreetly hidden thanks to Lucan’s partial hoarding trait; a few half-filled boxes were stacked neatly behind the couch with a small enough nook for Nell to hide in.
True to Nell’s prediction, Lucan drank himself to a stupor and passed out on the couch. When he was a good fifteen minutes in to snoring, Nell crawled out from her hiding place and shot to their bedroom, locking it behind her as well as slid a chair under the doorknob for good measure. When Nell felt that there was some semblance of safety, she threw herself onto their bed and began weeping, letting out all of her fears and insecurities.
It had been that way for as long as she could remember... which, frankly, isn’t that long to begin with. Nell lost track of time and fell asleep, dried tears staining her otherwise ivory skin.
Stormy grey eyes peered at me through a dark veil of wispy smoke. I know I must be dreaming; it’s the same night after night for as long as my limited memory can remember. A thick fog, iridescent in colour, blanketed everything surrounding me. A hand – belonging to the owner of the grey eyes – reaches out in an attempt to grab me but his hand goes right through my body.
Glancing down, I see that I am translucent in colour...
He calls my full name with determination. But I cannot move, and neither can I speak. All that I am capable of doing is to watch helplessly as the fog engulfs the man searching for me. A loud shriek, high pitched and ear piercing, echoes through the air as the fog consumes me completely...
An incessant scratching on the window broke Nell out of her slumber. The daunting dream remained fresh in her mind; it was one she saw night after night. She tried to tell Lucan about it when she first began seeing them, but he brushed it off claiming that it was due to her vivid imagination. Nell’s gut told her otherwise, but she knew better than to bring it up with Lucan again.
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, a quick glance to her digital clock told her that it was half past four in the morning. Lucan was still passed out in their living room. Nell’s hazel eyes flickered to the window to see a familiar stray cat seeking her attention. Rubbing her face a few times, Nell climbed out of bed and quietly pushed her window open.
“Hello there,” she whispered, rubbing the cat’s chin. Purring, he stretched his body and lay on the windowsill, as close to Nell as possible. Glancing overhead, Nell noticed an owl circling slowly... it was the same owl that accompanied the stray cat when it visited.
“I can’t get you any milk.” Nell mumbled. “I can’t exactly go downstairs.”
The cat tilted his head slightly, showing his curiosity. Nell had to stifle her laughter; curiosity killed the cat.
“Don’t worry about it, Mr. Whiskers.” She consoled, using the name she dubbed him. He seemed to respond to it when Nell first called him that, so she decided the name would stick.
“Just one of those nights...”
Nell didn’t know why she confided in a stray cat, but for some reason she did. Mr. Whisker’s eyes – one green and one a rich brown – always had a warmth to it that Nell couldn’t place her fingers on. It was almost... human.
Nell’s eyes widened in fear, the terror almost palpable. Her left hand, which was stroking Mr. Whisker’s body, froze in place. The cat stiffened and his eyes darted to the door before back at Nell. It was just a matter of time before Lucan tore down their bedroom door and punished her for locking him out and hiding from him during his earlier tirade.
Maybe I deserve it? She thought, once again trying to justify her boyfriend’s behaviour. His thunderous footsteps shook their apartment complex and it would only take him a matter of seconds before he—
“Come through the window!”
Nell’s eyes widened, snapping to Mr. Whiskers.
“Did you just—”
“No time for explanation, just come through the window!”
“Arianell, you must—”
Nell whirled around to see a seething Lucan. He was almost foaming at the mouth, his eyes flashing with murderous rage. Lethally, he began stalking towards her reminiscent a hunter stalking his prey. Heart pounding in her chest, Nell did the first thing that came to her mind: she scrambled through the window and took off following Mr. Whiskers down the emergency exist staircase.
Lucan lunged at her but was too late. He watched, his eyes almost crazy, as she tore down the stairs and jumped off the final step before breaking in to a sprint and following the black cat a few steps ahead of her. Lucan’s hands were clutched onto the windowsill, cracking the wood slightly.
I will find you, Nell. He thought as he climbed out the window and began to give chase.
It was hard to manoeuvre through the fog, but Nell was able to keep an eye on Mr. Whisker’s. He tore through the schoolyard park that wasn’t too far away from Nell’s apartment and began racing towards the docs of Opacus. Nell was too afraid to look behind her, but the hairs standing on end at the back of her neck told her that Lucan was probably very close.
A loud hooooot reverberated through the air. Is the owl following? Nell had no time to check as she dodged a stray garbage bin that probably rolled off its owner’s porch. Nell watched Mr. Whisker’s cut a sharp left and she did too—I’m insane! I’m following a talking cat with no idea of where he’s taking me!
Nell knew that if Lucan caught her, she would be more than in a world of pain.
Mr. Whisker’s scampered into a narrow alleyway that was sandwiched between an abandoned warehouse and the port bar. To Nell’s knowledge, the alleyway was a dead end. Doubt began to cloud her mind and the pace in which she was sprinting was beginning to falter.
“Arianell!” The voice was unmistakably the cat’s.
What the hell do I do?!
“Please follow him, Lady Arianell!”
Nell’s eyes snapped to the skies only to see the owl dangerously close to her. “How the hell can you—”
“I’ve got you now!”
Lucan’s voice was a hairsbreadth away. In a bout of panic, Nell broke off into a sprint and hurdled over a pile of garbage before taking off into the alleyway. Lucan’s voice echoed against the walls as, somehow, the fog thickened the more Nell ran into the alleyway. Mr. Whiskers always remained a few steps ahead of her while the owl flew in tandem with Nell.
The dead end that Nell was anticipating never came. The fog became thicker and Lucan’s voice sounded farther... and the next thing Nell knew, she wasn’t in Opacus any longer.
Nell’s sprint slowed to a walk as did Mr. Whisker’s. He was, slowly, walking alongside her as the owl remained flying in parallel to Nell. The fog began to slowly disperse, leaving a ghostly white aura that glowed ominously, shedding some form of light on a winding path that was nestled within leafless trees. Nell glanced behind her and frowned, seeing a similar view.
Where’s the alley?
Nell turned her attention back to the cat. “What is going on?! Where am I?”
The cat didn’t look at her, but responded nonetheless. “This is Kingdom Stygia.”
The cat said nothing more and Nell’s eyebrows furrowed. “And Stygia is inside of the alley between the warehouse and O’Toole’s Bar?”
“No. Kingdom Stygia is found in the shadows of the Opacus.”
He’s speaking in riddles. As Nell followed the dusty path, she was trying her very best not to have a panic attack and pass out. Somehow, somehow, she ran through an alleyway into a whole new world altogether... that too with a talking cat and owl.
I have to be sleeping! Yeah—that’s it. Lucan just blew up and I’m having a shitty dream!!
“My name is Cassius.” The cat finally offered, his voice a strangely tight. “And the owl is Lise... we are residents of Kingdom Stygia.”
Nell glanced at the owl, who paid her no heed. “Okay. Fine. Sure. When do I wake up?”
Cassius chuckled, so unlike how a cat should actually sound. “Unfortunately, Arianell, this isn’t a dream. You are in Kingdom Stygia—where you belong.”
“Enough, Cassius.” The coppery tone of Lise filled Nell’s ears. “We mustn’t say more than we should. His Highness will fill in the rest...”
“Who?!” Nell’s panic and confusion blew up. The combination of both was pushing her dangerously close to passing out. “What highness?! What is actually going on??” Nell stopped walking and gawked at Cassius and Lise, both of whom turned around to look at her. “Send me back! I want to go back to Opacus!!”
Lise tilted her owl head, just slightly, as her wings beat rhythmically. “Lady Arianell, please pardon my tone but you really want to return to that beast who treated you so poorly?”
Nell took a step back, very obviously flabbergasted. “Well, sure he had his moments, but Lucan cared...”
“Arianell!” Cassius barked. “Open your eyes! He did not care!”
Nell took an involuntary step back and shook her head, unsure of whether it was from confusion or disbelief. “No...” she whispered, a word that caused Lise and Cassius to frown uncertainly. Suddenly, without word or warning, Nell spun on her heel and began sprinting back in the direction in which they came. Cursing loudly, Cassius gave chase. His muscles began rippling as he ran on all fours, his body morphing and twitching. The feline form, that he was unfortunately accustomed to, morphed into something more humanoid. His limbs grew and his fur shed, leaving a regal warrior sprinting in its place. Lise underwent a similar transformation; her wings morphed into hands and her body transformed into her naturally human form.
“Find her, Cassius!” Lise called out as they began sprinting in the direction Nell ran off to. “Myrkur Forest isn’t exactly a place for her to be alone!”
“I know that.” Cassius snarled as he tried to catch up to Arianell. The fog became thicker the further they ventured off of the dusty pathway. If it’s a portal back to Opacus you’re searching for, Arianell, Cassius thought as he weaved through thick tree branches, then I fear that your search is in vain.
“Curses...” Lise hissed, drawing one of the two swords that were fitted to her hip. “I can’t see anything, Cassius.”
“Neither can I—”
Cassius and Lise’s blood ran cold.
“That’s her...” Cassius murmured as they began running with all the force that they had, hoping to get to Arianell before something else did...