Sophia gives me the grand tour of the castle of nightmares. We start in a small passageway outside the meeting hall and we have somehow wound up eight stairwells higher glaring out of an oval window next to the statue of a terrifying gargoyle that is covered in spider webs. I’ve been in a few castles before, mainly tourist attractions, and they aren’t much different. Dust, stone, grey, small windows, little light and mazes of steps and passageways. It’s a maze inside a maze.
I’ve been looking out of the oval window for a minute or so, it’s the largest I’ve seen yet and is able to give me a clearer view than the others. All I see is acres and acres of green fields, forests and dirt roads. There is no sign of civilisation for miles. The sun is also rising which means that I’ve been here for hours. It was morning in Arizona when the ritual happened, which would have been afternoon here, and it’s now early morning. The strange thing is, it feels longer than hours. Much longer.
I rest my head against the wall, frowning at the outside world that I now must watch through windows.
“Have you ever been to England before?” Sophia asks.
“No,” I say. “I’ve only ever been to Europe once but it was Italy many years ago.”
“Another lifetime ago,” Megan says.
“I guess,” I say. I look out at the trees and I sigh. “No desert here.”
“Afraid not, but we have something so much better,” Sophia says giddily. “I’ll show you later. This way. Come on.”
I reluctantly drag myself away from the window and I follow Sophia down a quiet, dark hallway while Megan keeps close behind me. Everywhere I go or turn there’s a giant, creepy arachnid waiting for me. They run across the walls or hang from lampshades and I feel foolish for being afraid of something I could defeat in one movement.
“This is the fourth level,” Sophia says. “This is the limit of where you’re allowed to go. If you decide to be brave one day and travel further up you will get lost and you might never find your way back.”
“Heed that as a very serious warning,” Megan snarls.
“How many levels are there?” I say.
“Eight until you get to the rooftop,” Sophia says. “We usually transport to the roof because even we get lost sometimes. It’s a very big castle.”
“This is just the upper levels, the bottom levels are so much more fun,” Sophia says.
“Only because that’s where the bar is,” Megan laughs.
“You know me so well, cousin.”
“Cousin?” I say. I don’t know why I’m surprised; I would have guessed sisters.
“Yes,” Sophia says. “Myself, Megan, Clara and Jo are cousins.”
“Clara and Jo are sisters though,” Megan says. “They’re inseparable. If ones around, the other isn’t far behind.”
“Well if we’re talking about inseparability, Anna and Darius are the strangest,” Sophia says, laughing at a distant thought. “They’re a couple, but they fight a lot. If you hear aggressive yelling through the night, it’s usually from them two. I swear I’ve never seen them apart.”
“Probably why they argue so much,” Megan mutters, trailing her finger along a dusty panel of the wall. “Seriously, does no one clean this place?”
“My thoughts exactly,” I whisper.
After moving down many stairwells, Sophia stops abruptly outside the entrance to a well-lit chamber merely around the corner from the meeting hall, if my memory serves me right. She peeks her head inside to check something and then waves a hand for me to follow her into it.
“This is the training chamber,” she says. “I mean, we have dozens scattered all around the castle, but this is everyone’s favourite. It has target boards all over the walls, and the table over there is full of literally every weapon imaginable.” She points over to the long table against the far wall which is littered with exactly what she just described. “It’s a first come, first serve. It’s rare you’ll ever find two of us training together in here.”
Megan leans into my ear. “We save that for the fighting chambers.”
“Fascinating,” I say.
“Your enthusiasm is literally killing me,” Sophia hisses as she charges past me in a huff. I follow her out of the chamber. “There’s too many rooms to show you in one day, but I guess you’ll learn as you go along. This is just the jist.” She turns a sharp bend and we take to another flight of steps. “This level is the bedroom chambers. We have dozens of spare bedrooms because of the refugee situation so you can literally pick one and call it your own.”
Sophia stops at the beginning of the longest stretch of hallway I’ve ever seen. The hallway is full of doors on either side of the wall, around four feet between each door. She stares at me and I stare back.
“Should I. . . pick one?” I say.
“Later,” she says. “We’ll come back to this.”
“Alright then,” I say.
She takes me along the hallway and I try not to look at the doors too much. Whichever one I pick, it won’t be home, it won’t be like my bedroom back in Arizona. And judging by the state of everywhere I’ve seen, I’m afraid to see what the conditions are like. I like things clean and nicely scented, or just at this point, I’d like something to be at least a basic standard of hygiene. I haven’t mentioned it to Sophia but I’m desperate to use the toilet, and if I wait any longer, I might cry in agony. I have no idea where the nearest bathroom is, or if there even is one, maybe they do their business in buckets and throw it from the roof. I have no idea how Slayers live.
After a few more minutes of Sophia introducing rooms as we pass them, my level of discomfort becomes clear for them.
“What is it?” Sophia says. “Is it too much? We can stop.”
“No,” I say. “I just really need to. . . use the toilet?”
“Oh,” Sophia laughs, taking my wrist and twisting me around a corner. “You’ve been here like twelve hours, of course you’d need to use the toilet. I never even thought.”
“Why would you?” Megan says.
“So, our bathrooms are scattered everywhere,” Sophia explains as she lunges me towards a distant door. “I think I’ll tie something around the handles so you know where they are. Would that make it easier?”
“Probably not,” I say. “But, it wouldn’t hurt. Thanks.”
“We have a great waste disposal system, Sam did the piping himself,” she continues. “Back when this castle was first created, the Slayers just did their business in holes above bowls or buckets. Gross right? We thought so too. The human invention of the toilet was the best invention in history, in my opinion.”
I really don’t care. I want to say that but I’m in too much pain to argue. She can sprout crap into my earhole for an entire hour if she wanted, I still wouldn’t care. I don’t give a damn about toilet inventions; I just need to use one. Finally, we reach the door and she opens it, peering inside.
“Coast is clear,” she says. “We’ll be right outside. If you-”
I push past her and I shut the door. It’s nice to just have a moment to myself, in peace and quiet, without her voice filling the silence of the creepy hallways with stories. Inside this tiny room is just one thing, a toilet. There is nothing else but a toilet. No sink, no soap, no towels, no carpet. Just stone and a toilet.
I use it, holding my head in my hands as I do, just wishing that I could somehow wake up from this nightmare. My few moments of peace don’t last long, but they last long enough to give myself a very serious reality check. I can’t get comfortable here, I can’t trust them, I must be on guard at all times. How did I end up in this situation? How did I end up questioning an entirely different species while sat on a toilet in an ancient castle in England? It’s madness. If my mother was here, she’d tell me to go with it, that whatever happens is just a small fraction of our destiny.
As I look at the damp mould and dead insects on the floor, I begin to question what exactly certifies as destiny.
I leave the room and I enter the hallway. Sophia and Megan don’t speak, they just start walking. For once, I am glad for that. Sophia takes me back to the stairwell and I quietly hiss under my breath.
Finally, we reach the ground floor, I presume. Sophia clicks her tongue at me in an enthusiastic way before pulling on some loop handles and opening a set of wooden, double doors.
“The front entrance is back there,” she says, pointing backwards towards the enormous, steel door I just passed. “Don’t get any ideas.”
Megan watches me more carefully than before, her body practically shadowing mine as I follow Sophia into a lit-up room of furniture and antiques. There are couches scattered everywhere, mostly black, but some have bright coloured, fluffy pillows that bring life to the room. In the corner there is a long counter filled with bottles and glasses, with beer taps and fridges behind it.
“This is what we call our recovery chamber,” Sophia says. “After battles or fights, we gather here to lick our wounds and drink the bar dry.”
“Alcohol is off limits to you,” Megan says.
“Why?” I ask.
“For the same reason that humans don’t drink and drive,” she says.
“In there is the kitchen,” Sophia continues, pointing towards a white, wooden door. “You’ve already seen that so I won’t bother showing you. Through here is where the true fun is.”
Megan laughs under her breath as Sophia wanders through a mysterious archway underneath a wall in the corner. I follow her hesitantly, so far it’s been alright but I am anxious about what the Slayers would class as fun. I don’t know why I expect I would see something referring to the murder of my kind, but I am glad when it’s not. Instead, I see a library.
The room is draped with red paint and offers book shelves filled with magnificent, thick books that seem to be kept in good condition. There are couches in here, along with beanbags, benches and writing desks. It is such a private and comfortable room that I feel as though I am invading it.
“You were being sarcastic,” I say.
“No,” Sophia says lightly. “If you get into the VIP group then this room will become your best friend. Only a select few are allowed to sit in here.”
“According to Sophia’s mind,” Megan mutters. “But really anyone can sit in here.”
“Surprised?” Sophia says, her eyes widening at my reaction that hasn’t come yet.
“Actually yes,” I admit. “I didn’t expect your kind could even read, let alone keep so many books.”
“It’s Curtis’ thing. He harassed Sam for a library for months,” Sophia says.
Megan bares her teeth at me. “How stupid do you think we are? Of course we can read.”
“Right, sure,” I say. “I just meant that-”
“Maybe you should concentrate on the stupidity of your own kind before you start to assume things about ours. You’re not exactly the poster girl for perfect.” Megan storms into my shoulder, almost pushing me into a table as she heads for the door.
Sophia looks me up and down as I rub a hand against my shoulder. “Well, you’re bound to piss Megan off eventually, at least it’s out of the way now rather than later.”
“I don’t quite care about either,” I hiss. “What is her body made of? Metal?”
Sophia laughs. “Muscle, mainly. Possibly metal. Come on, there’s one last thing I want to show you.”
I trail behind like a miserable horse being pulled along a field. Sophia goes through a door just outside the archway which she said led to the kitchen, and she is absolutely right when I find myself standing in it. Bored and tired, I slowly humour her and follow towards a door against the far wall. The moment she opens it, I take what feels like my first breath since waking up in here.
Air. Fresh air. I feel it, I breathe it, I succumb to it. It is so cool and light against my skin, it touches me so simply but I feel as though I’ve waited a lifetime for it. Sophia doesn’t have to say a word; I’m almost running out of the door.
I stand on a stone platform raised up several feet. Below me is a stretch of soil that covers the whole ground, split by a cracked, pebbled path that runs down the middle and ends at the hundred-feet dark grey wall that forms a perimeter around the whole thing. The yard is longer than it is wide, and there is nothing appealing about it in the slightest. The weeds are overgrown across the rim of the wall, the small trees inside the walls are either dead or deteriorating. There’s not one speck of grass that I can find; no plants, no animals, no flowers, no beauty. It’s morbid, neglected, miserable; it’s screaming for a makeover. But it’s outside. And I’ll take that.
I close my eyes for a moment, properly taking in the air. I have never breathed in this kind of air before, it’s the freshest air I’ve ever known, it must be the freshest in the world. In Arizona, the air is always humid and dry, I never felt like I could breathe.
“It’s amazing, right?” Sophia hums from beside me. “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never found fresh air like in England.”
I turn and stare at her.
“What?” she says.
“Are you sure you can’t read minds?”
She smiles. “Nope, just people. I’m quite good at it. What do you think to our garden?”
I squint my eyes at the horrific, dull marble water fountain that’s so broken it’s surrounded by a pile of rubble. “I wouldn’t call it a garden, Sophia.”
“It is. There’s a pathway and benches and right at the back there’s an outhouse full of weapons and an outside toilet. Over there, there’s weeds and bushes, and over in that very far corner there’s a graveyard.”
I swallow. “A graveyard?”
“Yeah, you can’t see it because it’s hidden behind all those. . . I want to say trees but I’m not sure what they are. The Slayers that are buried here are Sam’s ancestors, including his parents, former Malachi’s. Sam will be buried here too.”
My face scrunches up into something distasteful, as though I’ve just swallowed the slimiest worm. I can’t imagine burying someone I loved here, even if they did wish for it. The dirt, the cramping, the miserable soil that nothing has grown in for probably years. It’s not the right way to remember someone, it shouldn’t be.
“I know it’s not very big, given the size of the castle you probably thought it’d be six-hundred acres, but it’s all we have and we love it,” Sophia says.
“I’d say it’s pretty big, Sophia,” I say. “Big enough to spend some time alone.”
“Yeah, you might feel like you need a lot of that living here, so don’t be afraid to come and relax whenever you like.”
I fall quiet and I give her an awkward glance.
“Oh, now? Sure. I’m not supposed to leave you alone though so I’d have to-”
“Do you always do what Sam tells you to do?” I demand. “You’re your own person, with your own mind and rights. I’ll be right out here, it’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to go. I’m not going to cast a spell, I’m not going to make a run for it, I just want some time alone to think. Please?”
“Well, I guess it is quite therapeutic out here. Okay, I’ll give you some space. But only while Sam is gone, when he returns, you’ll have to come back inside.”
“If you need me just-”
I turn away from her and I approach one of the wooden benches in the near distance. I take a seat, looking back at her as she reluctantly backs herself up to the castle. Even when she’s inside, I can feel her eyes on me through the window in the kitchen, so I act boring and I lay down on the mucky bench.
I wait until I can no longer feel her eyes on me, and then I get up and run.