previous: Isekai ch9
King Vlad knew better than to try to stay the night. I would like to think it was out of a sense of empathy in regards to my personal space. (More likely the reasoning was because my house was very radioactive. “Enjoy your hike back to your crystal castle, your majesty.”
We shook hands in complete silence. The man’s indifference matched my own, but not by much. He ran his fingers through his hair, looking out at the setting sun. Something about his gesture, his facial expression seemed so familiar. He wanted to speak, but he did not. Instead, he maintained a look of dignity and pride.
Part of me wanted him to offer to send a ride. I wanted him to make me feel appreciated; like something other than an emotional burden. Barely outside of my doorway, he paused in his steps.
The King lowered his head in prayer. Perhaps he was asking God for the right words to say. “Just know, the family manor will always be your home.”
“Yeah, sure.” That was just another mandatory polite sentiment.
“I said the same to Noelle and Leah.”
“I’m sure you did.”
He turned back, with a clear need to expand upon his point. “Noelle started on her tree when she was just a child. She devoted her life to her magic and at the age of sixteen she moved out, choosing to reside at the Inn.” The place where he chose to stop his story did not seem to offer any proof to his claims of being a good father.
“And Leah?” I asked. I was genuinely curious about my abnormally aggressive tomboy sister. Perhaps she was a soldier? Or a mercenary? Or maybe she was just a hunter living off the grid.
“My little Leah, she lives all over the land.” The man smiled at his impromptu poetry. “I’d be lucky to hear from her once every new moon, but a spirit like her cannot be tamed.” His joy was evident; Leah was his little baby and always would be. “Much like her, you will be welcome at the ‘Crystal Castle’ as you call it, when you are ready.”
“I get it. Thanks.”
He bowed his head and began his walk, increasing his pace to avoid looking back. (Or so I assumed.)
I shut my door, taking a moment of contemplation. “Mirapo?” There was no real way to know where my Yo-kai friend was. The creature’s role was to aid me but not act as a universal cheat sheet. “I just need a mirror.”
I could hear the distinct sound of giggling. ‘Screw you too.’
I went to my water source, filling a bucket. I didn’t have a bathtub, but heating a metal bucket over my burning scrap pile seemed to work. Using my handmade powdered soap (which I was not entirely certain was safe for use on humans) I washed my face, hair and even my clothes. I could see my reflection in the water surface, but just barely. I truly did not know what I looked like.
All I knew for certain; if I was ever going to return to the castle, and my family, I wanted to look presentable. I knew how to make soap, candles, even fabric, but what I didn’t know was how to sew. Wearing my one decent shirt and unstained pants I took a walk into the nearest town. I was hauling a tote bag with samples of my chemical compounds. I’m not sure why I thought that was a good idea.
Since everyone seemed to speak English, I had taken for granted that I’d be able to read the local language. ‘No, of course not.’ I was walking around, staring into windows in hopes that I could figure out where to sell my supplies.
The streets seemed unnaturally empty. I could see people inside of houses made from wood and glass that seemed slightly warped. At first, I thought they might be mannequins, but the majority of them were moving, desperate to avoid my gaze. ‘Was I truly that hideous?’ No, the answer was much more obvious.
At the end of the road was a horse-drawn carriage. The horses were armored, adorned with silver and crystals. I knew the king was not narcissistic enough to try to pull a move like this; to corner me out in public, just one day after leaving my home. That meant this was Emily (or someone representing my sister on behalf of the royal family.)
Much to my surprise it was Emily herself who stepped out of the carriage. She was followed by Leah and Noelle who were both armed with crossbows. “Hello, Marcus,” Emily said with a somber, serious tone.
Was I meant to bow? “And what are those for?” I motioned to the weapons carried by my sisters. “Do you still see me as an enemy? or do you have intentions of capturing me by force?”
Emily looked at her sisters with a harsh glare. With a slight movement of her hand, she was motioning for them to remove their weapons. “Our brother is right. He is not our enemy. He is a man worthy of our respect.”
Noelle quickly obliged, carefully placing the weapon back into the carriage. “It’s not like I even know how to use one of these.” She had looked out of place, as if forced into partaking in the act of bullying.
Leah, however, groaned. Her hair was in braids adorned with silver, giving her a royal, feminine look in an attempt to hide her blood rage. She removed the weapon from its holster, holding it like an emotional support animal. ‘Was she trying to look intimidating?’ She glanced at me for a moment before making the decision to manually unload the weapon but still keep the launcher in her hand.
Emily shook her head and approached me. “When your hands touched, he learned the full truth. That was my true intention in bringing you to the castle.”
“And the fact that I was banished to the shadow realm?”
“That was beyond my control.”
Of course, she’d say that. “Bullshit.” Was she expecting me to believe that her royal title meant nothing: she had no power whatso ever over our father’s actions?
Emily rubbed her eyes, and massaged her temples. She wasn’t crying, she was in pain. “You have to believe me I was looking for you.”
“You and Dr. Tomas were trapped in a pocket dimension.”
“I know,” I said through gritted teeth. “For five years. And the good doctor was there for even longer.” My sister went silent. No manner of apology would have been enough. “What would have happened if I didn’t find a way to free myself?”
“But you did.” Her eyes shown a hint of truth. The warrior queen believed in me. I guess that was something.
“You never asked our father where I was?”
“Father was not well, she explained.
“Understatement of the century.”
“What he did was like throwing a rotten apple into a trash heap the size of a mountain. Yes, there is a way to find it again, but the intention was for it to never be found.”
Her answer made a certain degree of sense. When people went missing on earth they could be gone for decades. sometimes a skull was recovered and in rare occurrences, a missing child could be rescued after years in captivity. I had to give her the benefit of the doubt. “Did you just call me a rotten apple?”
Emily allowed a smile to grace her lips. The way her mouth quivered it was clear she had not experienced a reason for such an expression in a long time. “Still, the question remains, will you come with us, as our brother?”
“What do you offer?” This was a trick question with only one correct answer.
“The potential defeat of Emma Rose Amanar.”
“Potential defeat?” The answer was in the ballpark of what I wanted to hear, but I had no way of knowing if she was just parroting second-hand information.
Leah stepped forward. Wearing dark brown fingerless gloves, she cracked her knuckles one by one. “We did some recon on the bitch.”
“Really now?” I put down my bags, shifted my weight in an intimidating manner. I made it a point to stand tall, drawing attention to the fact that I was at least a head taller than my warrior sister. I cross my arms awaiting her response. I had a feeling Leah would not disappoint.
“Emma Amanar is from a realm where our people were wiped out to make potions and other bullshit magic. She is not human and can’t be defeated by normal means. She is a cunning creature of darkness; a scavenger, if you will. For the legacy of our race, we must rid the world of her terror.” Her expression changed from anger to sweetness. “And I assume you’ll want to be there when I take her head.”
“I thought you said she couldn’t be killed by traditional means?”
“It’s just an expression,” Leah explained (with a noticeable eyeroll.)
“Killing her might not even be an option. She could just reappear in any other realm.” My words were in reference to my own experience; I appeared in a realm where my other ‘self’ died, and I just happened to meet my dead father’s doppelganger. How could I be sure that killing Emma Rose would not just result in her being reborn to continue her reign of terror.
“Yes, but she would be without her kingdom, titles. And while there is a possibility, she would still have access to her powers, it would be years before she rose back to the level of harvesting human parts.”
I had to admit she had a point, but it was her confidence that truly swayed me. “Can I interest you ladies in a bag of soaps and candles?”
Leah held out her hand. “Yeah, why not.”
I climbed in to the carriage. Leah and Noelle sat on one side while Emily sat on the other, controlling the horses via a wireless guidance system.
Emily offered me a seat, leaning on her shoulder. I soon fell asleep to the rhythmic sounds of the horses, coupled with the electronic buzzing of the automated components. When I closed my eyes, I was in a state of awe and wonder. Was this magic, science, electrical engineering? And then my head hit the floor.
I awoke in a darkroom. The floor seemed to be made of polished wood. I briefly looked for a light source; there appeared to be a single row along the back wall. It was all very modern, and very specific. ‘Is this a dance studio?’ The room was surrounded by mirrors, with a ballet bar along the wall.
“Hey baby boy,” Emma Rose was speaking from somewhere outside of my line of vision.
I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of frantically looking around like a frightened child. If she was present, there was nothing I could do. “Hi, Emma. It’s been a while.”
Emma Rose giggled like a possessed doll. “Did you miss me?”
I could feel her breath on my skin. She was right next to me. “I could have used your help five years ago.” I don’t know why I said that. Even if she had found me there was no way I would have accepted her help.
“Oh, that’s right. You ran from my castle, escaping to the land of the dragons, only to run again once you lost your daddy.”
I knew she was trying to provoke me. I pulled my knees to my chest, looking down at the floor.
A long elegant finger caressed my cheek, brushing away a lock of hair. “You grew up to be so big and strong.”
“Just ripe for harvest,” I muttered, predicting her next line.
“You said it not me.” Her voice was sarcastic and cool.
I forced myself to turn my head. Part of me hoped she would look as ugly as I imagined in my fantasies. In my dreams she was an old decrepit witch, with skin covered in boils and a body cursed with pain. Emma Rose deserved to look the way she made me feel. Of course, that was not the case.
Unlike the vision I’d seen of her at the castle, the girl that stood before me wore no makeup. Her face was round, with youthful south Asian features (like a beauty queen from the Philippines or perhaps Thailand or Indonesia). Her round chubby cheeks gave her an appearance of innocence. Her dark eyes seemed to shift from wicked to sweet. Her skin the color of caramel, felt soft, comforting. And she had a pair of lips just begging to be touched.
‘What the Hell?’ I was screaming internally. This was the woman who hurt me; she took advantage of me, she destroyed me.
“What’s the matter, little one? Do you miss your Daddy?”
“It’s nothing.” My chest was in spasm, struggling for air. There was something about her. Was this even Emma Rose? The woman wore an orange gown that looked like a cross between a dress and a jumpsuit from a retro era. In short, she looked amazing. If I had never met her, she was the kind of girl I would want to get to know. I must have been staring a bit too long.
She smiled, her cheeks flush like a baby doll. “You know, Marcus, I think you actually look older than me.” Her voice was youthful, gentle, and not at all flirtatious. “The years have been good to me. I’ve become the person I always wanted to be.”
What the hell did that even mean? “Well, good for you.”
“I’m a beautiful princess, ruling over the most prosperous cities in the realm. All that’s missing is a king by my side.” She casually walked to the ballet bar, stretching her leg, revealing her bare feet. She looked humble, charming even.
“That shouldn’t be too difficult for you.” I refused to move from my spot. This was a dream and I wanted to get out.
“I saw your portal creature watching me.” She stroked the mirror causing a vine to appear. Emma’s elegant fingers pulled the vine through the reflection, bringing it into our reality. Every bright green leaf suddenly transformed into an oversized flower. The first was purple, the next was white. “I celebrate my vitality with others of my kind; men, women, young and old.” She turned to me, as she ran her fingers through her hair. “We dine upon the weak, and they are honored to be in our presence.”
That sounded about right. “I’ll meet you again soon, you know that.”
“You and your new family, right?” She leaned back, placing her weight on one arm. With the strength of a gymnast, she lifted herself on to the bar, sitting comfortably like a child on a swing. With her toes pointed she looked like a doll; sweet, innocent. “I bet they’ll be delicious.”
And there it was; she welcomed an attack, because it would be an opportunity to feat upon a new breed of Nordic blood. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
“You believe in their determination? I devoured them as children, and they were so tasty.” Emma hopped off the bar, walking towards me with a child-like twirl. She stood over me for a moment, tilting her head. “See you then.”
The last thing I remembered was being kicked in the face. I awoke on the ground. Judging by the awkward angle of my body, I assumed I fell out of the carriage. ‘Can I please just get a break?’
Leah grabbed my arm, pulling me to my feet. “Wake up. you rolled off the seat. Since you were sound asleep, I thought I should leave you be until our arrival.”
“Really?” I stretched my back, attempting to get up.
“Yup,” Leah said as she casually hurled my bag at my chest. “Noelle will take you to a guest room.”
Noelle walked over, picking up my pack. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
I followed her to the side staircase, passing through the servant quarters, to an attic room. “Is this just in case I try to run again?”
Noelle looked confused for a moment, before it suddenly dawned on her. “You’re talking about the room I put you in at my humble lodging, when you first arrived to this land.” She pursed her lips, forcing a smile. “Rest assured, this door can only be locked from the inside.” She turned to a cabinet, looking through a collection of clothing.
“You know, I forgive you.” It was the truth. Out of all of my family she was the one I was the least enraged at.
“You don’t have to.” She handed me a small silver key, holding it between two fingers. “I have done nothing to deserve it.”
I remained silent. Her logic was sound.
“This is the key in case you need to lock the door behind you. Dinner is at nine, but if you wish I can send you food directly to your room.”
“I’ll be there.”
Noelle nodded. “Do you have any other questions?
In hindsight, I should have asked for a map. “Is there a bathroom?”
The way her smile fell sent a shiver down my spine. “Um, yes, of course,” she said with an uncertain pause. “You can use the toilet in the kitchen and there’s a shower just down the hall.”
I could feel my eye twitch. “You’re kidding me.”
“What?” She shrugged nervously. My sister knew perfectly well what was wrong.
“Do you also piss in the kitchen?” If there was no mention of future accommodations, I was willing to walk.
“Or you can just piss into a pocket dimension.” Her choice of words came with a shiny coat of sarcasm.
“Funny.” I crossed my arms, staring her down.
“In truth we were not entirely certain of your arrival.”
“Really?” That line of reasoning was absolute crap. “Am I to believe that there is no guest housing? Does our father throw all visitors into the dungeon?”
“Father has not entertained visitors in a long time, so I guess the answer to your question is ‘yes’,” she said confidently.
“Rest assured, there are other guest housing on the premises, but many of them are unfurnished and disconnected from the main power system.”
“This place has a main power system?” I looked around to notice if the room was lit by candles or lamps. There was evidence of actual electrical lighting.
“Yes, there are separate boiler rooms for each of the main buildings.”
“This place has boiler rooms?” I asked. I was admittedly picturing the typical crude basement rooms filled with boiling water. That idea seemed wrong.
“Yes,” Noelle said on her way out.
I was waiting for an explanation or even the offer of a tour. “And?”
“Help yourself to any of the clothing, hopefully you can find something in your size.” She quickly shut the door. Her footsteps echoing down the hall.
I was left alone to get dressed. There was actually a mirror in the room, allowing me a view of my face. My face was thin, but with just a hint of fat on my cheeks. My eyes were sunken in. I looked like a stretched-out child. My jawline was home to a minimal amount of hair, just enough to look like a homeless teenager who couldn’t grow a beard. I laughed. This was all so fucking twisted. I changed clothes and walked downstairs to see what I could find.
In the center was a garden, but for the life of me I could not figure out how to get there. There was a tunnel system that went below the castle, emerging in the sky. This was all created via magic and bullshit. I somehow managed to make it to the ground level. In an adjacent room I spied King Vladimir. He was speaking with Dr. Tomas. I scooted to the side, pressing my back against the wall. I could hear through the crystal wall but just barely.
“You can’t do this.” Dr. Tomas stood bathed in the light of the window. He wore a red bathrobe, while sipping from a wineglass. “You cannot start a war over nightmares and fairytales.”
Vlad stood up from his chair, taking a few steps towards his good friend. He patted Tomas on the shoulder, moving down his arm until he held the man in a loving embrace. He whispered something that I couldn’t hear, but it seemed to allow Tomas a level of comfort. The good doctor leaned his head back, allowing Vlad to hold him in a tender embrace.
Wanting to learn more (such as how to find my way to the dining room.) I left that area, venturing back into the darkness of the tunnel system. I found a series of lit signs, all written in the local language. I followed what seemed like a directional arrow to the main kitchen. There was an icon of a pot at the end of the sentence.
After some walking, I emerged into a laundry room. The scent of sea salt and lavender filled the air. It smelled way better than my workshop, but I was certain that the cleaning power was not on the same level.
“Your soap smells like floor cleaner.” Leah appeared behind me. “But the cleaning staff seem to be impressed.”
“Can you give me a tour?”
“I assume you mean ‘Dearest sister, can you help me find the dining room before I get completely lost in the underground corridors?'”
“Yes,” I said, lowering my head in an act of submission. For the next hour I received an in-depth tour of the castle system. As I suspected there was a labyrinth of portals and doorways, some made sense others that did not. There were fountains and gardens next to boilers, generators and septic tanks. Soon we found the place.
The dining hall was oddly opaque. All four walls were adorned by red velvet lined with gold and silver decor. I felt my body shiver.
“Are you cold?” Emily appeared at my side. She reached for my hand giving my bare palm a squeeze. She could read my emotions; she knew perfectly well why I felt like vomiting.
“It reminds me a little too much of another castle, one that was never my home.”
Noelle took a seat at the large, rectangular table. There were only six seats, but plenty of room for food and drinks. She poured herself a glass of ice water. With two fingers she picked up a single ice cube, flicking it towards the ceiling. Instead of falling like a rock, it floated up to the light fixture. When it touched the chandelier, the ice exploded into a soft powder. A skylight opened, bathing the room in moonlight. “Is that better?”
“Yes, thank you.” I took a seat and looked at the offering of food. I was actually pretty hungry. The main course was a fish of some kind, presented on a bed of mixed greens. On the side there were root vegetables covered in colorful curry sauce.
Vlad took a seat, drawing no attention to himself, until Tomas entered from the opposite side. The two men exchange glances but not smiles. This was a little odd.
Leah cleared her throat. “You can sit next to each other, no one cares.” This would have required the shifting of table settings. I had assumed that was why the two men sat where they did.
“Leah!” Vlad said in a growl. “That line of speaking is highly inappropriate.”
“What? I’m just trying to show respect to your lover.” Leah picked up her glass, raising it for a toast. “Welcome to the family, Tomas. Perhaps you will soon wed and replace my sister on the throne.”
There was an awkward silence with everyone looking at their own plates.
next: Isekai ch11