iii. fuck, i'm lonely
HAVE YOU EVER taken a nap in the middle of the day? Maybe you fell asleep at around 3:00 PM when the sun was still shining bright in the sky, only to wake up five hours later with no fucking clue where the sun went and why it was dark and you were just waking up.
It’s confusing, annoying, and all you want to do is go back to sleep because hey, it’s still dark out and you liked it a lot better when you were oblivious to the world around you.
That’s kind of how I felt right now. Like I really wanted to go back to sleep. Except I wasn’t sleeping, I was dead.
Or maybe I’m still dead. I don’t know.
All I do know is that I somehow managed to find myself breaking the surface of the water in the middle of an apocalyptic looking nowhere.
Once I caught the breath I had no idea I was even holding, I spun around in the murky green water, looking for any sign of shoreline, a boat, anything that could get me out of here.
Wherever here really was.
I groan out loud when I don’t see anything around me. It was all the same everywhere I turned—the same lifeless, gray sky and the same polluted water carried on for miles in every direction.
What the hell am I supposed to do? I thought being dead meant just that: being dead. No consciousness, no need for critical thinking, and certainly no creepy landscape that looks like it suffered from millions of years of littering and carbon emissions.
Maybe I have magically swished away to the future. This is definitely the direction Earth was headed anyway.
I wondered if this was some unknown part of Hell or the Second Plane I had somehow found myself. Multi-Dimension Geography was a class I wasn’t due to take until my senior year, but it wouldn’t have killed the Academy to teach the course a semester or two earlier.
Signing, I looked down at the water, searching for any sign of life below. There was nothing, but I did notice something else.
The water isn’t still.
It was slight, but noticeable nonetheless. The water was moving upstream, which meant it must be emptying out somewhere in that direction.
This could lead me to land.
Holding my breath, I dove underneath the water and began swimming as fast as I could.
Just as I thought I was going to pass out from the exhaustive use of my arms, I finally saw the water a few meters ahead of me crash against a shoreline surrounded by expansive forest.
Thank fuck, I couldn’t help but think to myself as I swam a little faster. I had no idea how long I’d been in the water, but it felt like hours.
When I finally pulled myself up the banks of the water, I found myself wanting to turn back around. If the ambiance of the green waters I just swam several miles through gave me bad vibes, the blackened forest I was looking at did not bode well with me at all.
The trees, with large low canopy leaves, were overcrowding each other and they all had thick blackening brown trunks with thick, competing roots. Leaves grew on top of another, varying in shades of dark green, dark gray, and black hues. While the flora and fauna were clearly blossoming in abundance, there was something about the entire place that felt dead.
Above it, the sky had warped into a dark, cloudy gray and, below, a low fog.
No way in hell am I going through there.
I spun around on my heels only to see that the water had disappeared.
Instead, it was replaced by a desolate field.
Stepping closer, I leaned down to see the bones of a fish, several fish, where the water had been. A few feet away was the skeleton of a shark, then I spotted the imprint of a jellyfish. Shriveled up branches and leaves, dead coral and sponges.
“Where the hell am I?” I breathed out shakily. I just swam through a massive body of water. I know I did, so why does it look like it dried up in the seconds I was turned away from it?
A sharp squawking sound pulled me out of my panicked thoughts and I directed my attention to a black three-eyed bird perched on a particularly tall, graying piece of coral. It was directly in front of me and I didn’t even see it fly from the forest.
Its eyes glowed a bright gray color and then it titled its head at me curiously. The raven ruffled its feathers and flew over to me, landing on my shoulder.
“Shoo,” I swat at it, but it doesn’t move. “Go away!”
It doesn’t let go of its hold on me and I sigh, craning my head so I can look at the mysterious creature.
“Where did you even come from?” I ask the thing in exasperation. “There’s no sign of life anywhere.”
"I am dead, just like you.”
Okay, it’s official: I’m losing my mind. The raven had only squawked aloud, I was almost certain of that, but while it made the normal bird noise sound, a British voice resonated in my head. It was so loud, it was as if it was a person speaking to me.
I shook my head in disbelief, “No. No. No. No,” I mutter repeatedly to myself. “No, Zara. The bird is not talking to you. Because birds can’t talk.”
"Well, of course, birds don’t talk," The squawk came again with the bird shaking its head in one quick motion. ”But you can understand what I’m saying.”
I blink twice. “Why couldn’t I just stay dead?”
"That would’ve put all my efforts in vain,” The voice said with a hint of annoyance. ”I can’t imagine many other familiars have to deal with this. Dying before they can present themselves to their masters.”
My eyes widened at his words. Once I got over the fact that I could, in fact, understand what the raven was saying, his mentioning of other familiars made me realize exactly what he was.
A long time ago, before the witch trials caused an uproar in the mortal realm in the seventeenth century, witches and warlocks would have an ancient spirit tied to their souls that took the form of an animal. These familiar spirits used to appear before their witch sometime after their 18th birthday, but when the trials started targeting cats, dogs, birds, and other common familiar animals, the spirits went into hiding—seldom presenting themselves to a master.
“You’re my familiar?” I question the bird on my shoulder.
It flew off my shoulder and flapped its wings so it could stay in direct eye contact with me. Its eyes flashed from black to gray for a brief moment. ”Under ordinary circumstances, we never would’ve met. But, considering we’ve somewhat died prematurely, I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time searching for you."
I furrow my eyebrows in confusion, “I-I don’t understand. Am I not entirely dead?”
"Someone went to great lengths to keep a fragment of your soul intact,” the raven explained patiently. ”High concentrations of dark energy prevent souls from ‘seeing the light’ as some may say. Instead, they come here where they’re held ransom."
“Held ransom by who?”
The raven looked over my shoulder at the forest behind us. ”That’s what we need to find out.”
Leaves and branches crunch under my feet as I walk along the barely followable path in the eerie forest. I wasn’t a huge fan of the raven wanting to venture into the dark unknown in search of answers, but his words had piqued my interest.
“Do you know what here is?” I push a low-hanging canopy leaf out of my way and it accidentally pushes back against the raven, causing it to flap its wings and squawk in irritation.
"Could you watch where you’re going?” Its voice rang in my head. ”This is a spirit wasteland—one of many. This particular one is interested in dark souls."
“Why?” I’m unable to stop the question from leaving my lips. I look up at the bird spirit that was now flying above and beside me. “Who runs this place? What do they do with dark souls?”
As soon as the words were spoken, the ground began to shake. Bracing myself, I threw myself flat against the ground while the raven began flying higher above me in circles. The dark trees, grass, and shrubs surrounding us started to shrink into the ground and I watched in amazed horror as they returned to the ground by roots, one by one.
“What the fuck?” I mouthed to myself for what felt like the umpteenth time since this whole ordeal began.
Suddenly, the earthquake stopped and I was eye level with a pair of black stiletto heels. Following the boots upward, I almost started hyperventilating when I realized the person staring down at me was...
“Here I was thinking that you’d never make it here.”
I blinked slowly to focus my groggy vision. My head was ringing and I groaned as pressed a hand against it. When I finally could see clearly again, I was once again in front of my doppelgänger.
Only this time we were submerged in complete darkness with the exception of a low light shining down on the wooden table in between of us.
I struggled to get out of the wooden chair I was sitting on but I couldn’t move. My doppelgänger laughed humorlessly at my actions and sat down in the chair across from me.
“Your efforts are useless,” She said evenly, her gray orbs narrowing on my identical ones. “You can’t leave until we sort this out.”
I let out a huff of frustration, “Sort what out? What am I doing here?” Then I glanced around before looking back at her. “And where’s my bird?”
She rolled her eyes. I took a closer look at her and realized that she didn’t get all of the details about me right. Her hair was more white than it was silver and she was missing the amplification rune that was on my inner right arm.
“My name is Poena,” The knock off version of me says carefully. “I’m an ancient witch—one of the original conjurers—and I was banished here thousands of years ago.”
She gives me a patient smile and I can see the old age reflected in her eyes. “I suffered from an illness, something that made me...unfit to
live with others. They feared I would still be ill in the afterlife and that’s why they sent me here.”
Her words were angry now and I tried not to flinch at her vehemence. “I’ve become something of a soul harvester. Turns out souls with the reek with the sweet aroma that is dark magic are of great use to me.”
Without moving, a single card floats over the table. It’s decorated in intricate blues and purples like a tarot card. “What do you know about souls, Zara Storm?”
I don’t answer, opting to watch her carefully instead.
“Did you know they can be divided into up to a hundred pieces?”
I watch as the card turns into a whole deck, shuffling each of its cards around the room and a hundred cards are evenly spread out, floating between us.
“I take souls, split them up into pieces, and sell them back to their owners,” She smiles at the cards. “If you haven’t guessed already, this is where I sell your soul back to you.”
I knit my eyebrows together, “All of the pieces?”
My doppelgänger laughs humorlessly, “Oh God, no. I’ll sell you the one piece that allows you to return to the living.”
“What about the other 99 parts of my soul?” I demand. “I’d prefer to have them all back in one transaction.”
She shakes her head, “You mean 98. You weren’t like any of the others—you didn’t want to wake up. I revived your familiar so it could bring you to me. Worked flawlessly might I add.”
I swear to God if I get my hands on that stupid bird...
“Anyway,” Poena continued in a bored tone. “You’ll have to earn the other parts of your soul back. That’s what makes this a transaction.”
She smiles brightly, “Well, you need to bring me more souls.”
I tried not to let a horrified expression take over my face as her words sunk in.
She wants me to kill 98 people.
“Don’t look so terrified,” Poena says assuringly. “If you say yes, you won’t even remember this conversation when you wake up. Besides, don’t you have a score to settle anyway?”
I felt hot indignation take over at her words as I thought about Marcus and Leviathan. They were still walking free and they had a whole army trying to kill Berith.
If they haven’t killed him already.
I felt sick at the very thought.
“See?” Poena says cheerfully. “I’m offering you a chance to get revenge on the people that wronged you. You see only the unlucky know me, but now the same can be true for you.”
The rage flared up in my body again. I tried not to feel hot all over but I couldn’t help it—Poena was right. They needed to pay. They’ll pay with their lives.
And I’m the only one that can do it.
Poena was still sitting in front of me with my body and face but her dismembered voice was curling around me in a hypnotic fashion.
“Take the deal,” She teased at my ears. “And we’ll make sure they pay us what they owe.”
I wasn’t even control of my lips when the damning word left my mouth.