previous: Isekai ch10
Leah leaned her chair back like a bored schoolgirl, reaching nearly a reclined angle before falling. In one quick motion, she caught herself using her foot causing the entire table to shake. With her white-girl braids and leather clothes, she looked like the type of kid who would be sent to the principal’s office for dropping a pencil. Still, no one gave her a reaction.
Visibly disgusted, Leah pulled herself to her feet. She took a moment to stare daggers at her father, shaking her head in pity before laughing uncontrollably. “Oh, holy Hell, Dad.” She looked back and forth, making sure we all knew what she figured out. “You are actually going to put your male lover on the throne. The same man you banished for the death of our mother?” She looked at our eldest sister, Emily, hopeful that her sister would match her anger.
Emily did not respond. She lowered her head, focusing on her fingertips. I imagined she was attempting to eat, but her hands refused to move.
Leah tilted her head, her eyes illuminated with raw unfiltered rage. She looked at our father. “You, Sir, are a piece of shit.” Then she turned to Emily. “And you are a coward, unworthy of her place in the royal court.”
I assumed she was drunk, having spiked her own glass with whatever she had under her coat. “Leah, are you okay?”
Emily reached across the table to grip my wrist. She was shaking her head, frantically telling me to drop the subject. “She’s not drunk,” my sister muttered in a calm whisper. It was clear she was used to the role of peacekeeper/mother.
However, the reply was so faint I was not completely sure I heard her correctly. “She’s not drunk?” I repeated at a normal volume.
Leah, who had been sitting next to me, picked up the remains of my water glass and dumped it on my lap. She left the room through a kitchen door, stomping her way down (what sounded like) a long hallway. I assumed she was putting on a performance for dramatic effect.
“Is she leaving?” I asked. I was unwilling to make a move towards cleaning myself off until I knew for certain.
Emily placed her hand over mine. She was seated across from me, close enough to hold my attention. “Our sister is not well, but rest assured she will be joining us for the mission planning process.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“At her core, she wants to make our family proud,” she nodded, motioning back to her plate. “At any cost.”
‘Any cost? What did that even mean?’ I poked at my meal in silence. All around me people were consoling father, speaking in vague quotes. ‘She will return when she is ready.’ ‘Love will guide her back to us.’ ‘Your heart was always in the right place.’ Etc. It was like being trapped inside an abnormally Christian greeting card. There appeared to be no need for me to join in the chorus of angels.
‘What the hell is even on my plate?’ My piece of fish was an oddly metallic color, something that would not be found in nature. Pulling the scales apart, the portion seemed to be made from congealed plant fibers. The texture was similar to tofu; soft but with a mouthfeel that made it seem like there was more protein and other ingredients added to raise the nutritional value. The flavor was citrus-like. I crushed up a bit of the ‘scales’, resulting in a flavor palate reminiscent of boba tea. “So, what’s the plan?” I said out loud to no one in particular. (I just wanted a way back into the conversation.)
My father took a calming breath. “We will leave, heading south to gather reconnaissance,” he explained, holding the hands of both Noelle and Tomas (who had gotten up from his seat to be at my father’s side.) “In my absence, Tomas will assume my power and authority.”
Leah was actually right; the King wanted to place Tomas on the throne. I needed to know why. “Or I could just go in with Leah and report back to you.” I imagined I could use my portal to fast travel. “You’ve seen what I can do,” I said motioning to Dr. Tomas. “If things go to shit, I can get us out.”
Tomas nodded. “He does raise a good point. Marcus has proven that he can get himself, plus at least one other person to safety.”
“No, this task cannot fall exclusively to my children. I need to be there.” My father took a sip of his drink, resisting the urge to look in Emily’s direction. “I am well aware I most likely will not survive. Rest assured; I am only thinking of the future, for this family and this land.”
What the hell did that mean? Was it possible he had plans to force Emily to marry Dr. Tomas?’ No, that was too extreme even for this oddly medieval culture. “Right,” I spoke for the rest of my siblings (or at least Leah.) “I’ll take your word for it.”
Noelle had been at our father’s side, stroking his hair like a mother. “We will just have to account for the worst while striving for the ideal victory.”
I assumed Noelle would be staying behind to run her business, but I had hoped that both Emily and Leah would be at my side. “So, what’s the actual plan?”
Noelle once again spoke. “We will need to find a way to trap her. That’s where you and your science will play a role. The compounds you create are backward engineered variations on commonly found materials; the potential is awe-inspiring.”
“Right.” I nodded, continuing to eat my meal. I was expected to develop a material that could hold a demon-witch; easy-peasy, or whatever.
We cut our conversation short, allowing everyone to return to their sleeping quarters. Noelle escorted father and Dr. Tomas, leaving Emily and myself to awkwardly stare at each other until it was safe to speak. I caught her line of vision, waiting for her to offer up any further clues about the steamy pile of shit I just stepped into. “So, you’re really not going to tell me anything?”
“It’s not my story to tell.” There was a sense of sadness. I needed to know this story.
“Can I get a hint? Something to keep me from getting a knife shoved up my ass?” I phrased my question as a joke, hoping to coax a smile.
There was more silence. Emily squinted her eyes, appearing angered, then blinking back tears. “How can you tell if your life is cursed?”
“Cursed? That’s a pretty strong word.”
Emily leaned back in her chair, catching her foot under the table in a manner that allowed her to remain comfortably reclined. “I can’t help anyone. Every sin in this family falls to me. It just feels like I have to hold all these plates and people keep dumping more on top of me, because I’m the eldest and it’s my place to keep the peace.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
Emily sat up. She knew what I meant. I didn’t have to spell it out. We shared a connection, a power based in empathy. “I assume you’re going to go find Leah?” She looked around, handing me an unlabeled glass bottle. “Take this, it’s her favorite.”
I assumed it was alcohol, but the packaging seemed to reveal something more complex. “How do you open this?” It was a bottle, sealed with both metal and neon pink wax. Did it require tools or just brute force creativity?
I nodded. “Thanks. I think I’m going to head out now.”
“See you around, then.” Emily pulled a metal cigarette case from her pocket, lighting up while looking at the ceiling. There would be no further clues.
I made my way to the front, going straight for the exit. If my father was to be believed, Leah was residing somewhere on the castle grounds. It was just a matter of where to start looking. Obviously, she did not want to be found. ‘If I was a mentally unstable princess, where would I want to live?’
I doubted she would stay in any kind of traditional guest housing, so I focused my efforts on exploring gardens and forested areas. Just beyond the castle grounds, was a wheat field that did not seem to belong. There were a few trees, but each seemed to be a different species. There was one that seemed to be fluffy, even cloud-like. It had to be hiding something. The closer I came the more I could make out what appeared to be a cube. This was not magic; no, this was structural engineering at its finest.
At the base of the tree was a metal door locked onto a faux-wood metal framework. There was no doorknob of any kind. At eye level there were two options, a simple keyhole, and a slide puzzle. Since I clearly did not have a key in my possession, I had to go with the sixteen-by-sixteen wooden toy. I stroked my fingers across the surface. There was a clear pattern. As the pieces recoiled a shape was formed. This could best be described as a pixilated hand flipping the bird. ‘Nice.’
Behind which, was a speaker. “Hello?” said an annoyed female voice. There was considerable distortion but it was clearly Leah.
“It’s Marcus, can I come in?”
There was a pause. I could hear her talking to herself, debating the correct answer. “Sure, why not.” The door clicked, unlocking itself remotely.
“Thanks.” I was presented with a long, twisted staircase the further it went the smaller the space. After the first flight, there were no more stairs, instead offering a single rope. I would have to climb hand over hand towards an exit that was not completely visible in the darkness.
I could hear faint music; soft, breathy new age stuff, ideal for meditation. At a certain point, there was a wave; a curtain hiding a well-lit room. I swung, giving it a kick, which allowed me to slip through the entrance to this doll-house world.
“Ouch!” I swung back out hitting my shoulder as I struggled to keep hold of the rope. Apparently the ‘feet first’ method was not ideal. From where I was able to see into the space, the forest-themed area was a single room, lit by modern-looking string lights.
Leah sat in a corner, leaning on a pile of pillows. She was flipping through a book, appearing to be much calmer than earlier. “Hey.”
“Hey,” I said as I pulled myself into the room. The entrance was not designed for someone of my height.
Leah had taken out her braids, leaving her with long curls. She looked up, briefly meeting my glance. “Why are you here?”
I looked in my pockets for the strange bottle. “Emily said to give you this.”
Her eyes lit up, there was even a hint of a smile. “Gimmie!”
“Yeah, sure.” I tossed the bottle at her, assuming she’d catch it before it broke. The expression she made when succeeding at a one-handed catch was the cutest thing I had ever seen.
She shook the bottle, waving it like a fan, before stabbing a hole in the bottom, using just a wooden skewer. Foam erupted from the hole, overflowing into a nearby cup. “So good.”
To my surprise, she handed me the leftovers. The foam tasted of typical soda; a sweet cotton-candy-like flavor filled with carbonation. It was thin enough to be inhaled like whipped cream. “Can we talk about what just happened?”
“Enduring the God-awful fake-seafood of this land?” she said with a smirk. “We run trading ports on three different shores and yet our chefs are trained to use recycled plant garbage. Emily says it’s better for the environment and for our people.”
“To maintain a sustainable food source? Or encourage large-scale hunger strikes?”
Leah giggled. “It doesn’t taste that bad, I guess.
“Is that what pissed you off?” that would make sense; she was a hunter who traveled the world, she clearly knew a little about food.
Leah turned, reading her head on my arm. “You’re so sweet.”
“Thanks.” Looking around the room, I could see a comfortable bed made of pillows, a sink built into the tree, and a hole that I assumed was a toilet. “Does this place have indoor plumbing?”
“Sort of,” she said with a shrug. She picked up her book and continued to read. “I’m trying to learn botany magic, but I’m not as good as Noelle.”
“Sometimes magic comes to you when you least expect it.”
Leah seemed pleased; she wanted company, someone to vent to. “Can I tell you something?”
“Of course. We’re family.”
She nodded. Although she still seemed unsure. “Family has never been my ‘happy place’ if you know what I mean.”
“Dad seems to care about you.”
“Is that what he told you?” Her voice was quivering with rage. “Did he weave an elaborate story of how he built this treehouse just for me? Did he call me his sweet little baby?”
“Not exactly.” It was then I knew something truly twisted was about to unfold.
Leah picked up my hand, examining my fingers. Her hands were rough and worn; we were two soldiers fighting an unseen war. “Once upon a time, a while ago, in another life,” she scoffed laughing the tears away. “I Leah, the third daughter of Vladimir, was bestowed to a King; handed over as a child bride, scared and alone.”
‘Um, what?’ What does someone even say to that? Was she joking? “What kind of king?”
“The kind of king who had multiple wives; links in a chain of political power.” Leah rolled to her side, reaching for a different bottle. She took a long swig, before pouring me a drink. The clear alcohol sizzled when poured over the remains of the sugar foam.
It smelled like a high-end cocktail (or something mixed together by kids looking to get high.) I was halfway through my sip when my sister spoke a single, terrifying name.
I coughed, struggling for breath. I played it off like I was not used to such strong alcohol. “That’s a mouthful.”
“He often went by Jayden or Jay.” Leah’s voice cracked as she took another sip.
“Jay?” There was no way.
“Yes, Jay, like the small innocent bird.” Her breathing was becoming erratic. “He was an evil man. No, not even a man.”
“A demon?” I asked as innocently as I could. If she said the other d-word, I would have likely fallen back down the tree.
“Most likely. I didn’t stick around to find out the full extent of his powers.” She started to pick at her nails, lifting the nail from the bed until she drew blood.
“What did you see?” I asked, hoping to draw her attention.
“He was a shapeshifter, a master of the elements, but at his core, he was a sexually deprived man-slut.”
“Oh.” There had to be another Jay. The man I knew never took a wife, although he did father (at least) four children.
“With hair like a dragon.”
“What did you say?” Fuck no.
“Dragon? You know, the creatures that roam the skies. I hear they can sometimes have a human form.”
“And this guy, his hair was like a spike or a fin.”
“Oh.” This revelation was terrifying in a way I never could have imagined. “Um, so how did you escape?” That was the biggest question. Clearly, she was not rescued by her father or sisters. Did she fight her way out? Or was there an unknown hero? Either way, the answer was bound to be positive, and uplifting. ‘Right?’
“The demon left the door open for me, and I ran.” My sister swallowed hard; her whole body seemed to shiver with fear and pain. “I ran for days. I drank river water and ate bugs.” She laughed at the absurdity of the image. “The bugs with exoskeletons tasted better, kind of like spicy crisps.”
“I can imagine.” No, I couldn’t. ‘When did this happen? How old was she?’
“But I have a feeling I messed up my brain.” Leah scratched her hands, down to her fingernails. “My mind is filled with rage. Every breath hurts.” She started to pull at her nails, once again tearing until blood was visible. When she got one nail completely off, she discarded it and went after another. This was not therapeutic; she was punishing herself, for the crime of existing. She was a survivor, and for that she would be stricken with self-loathing for the rest of her days.
I reached for her hands, placing my fingers over her damaged nails. Locking eyes with her, I started to breathe slow and loud. ‘In and out, in and out.’ Without words, our breaths began to synchronize.
That was when she started to cry.
There was no way I could get her to further explain the story, so I simply held her hand. “I believe you.”
She looked at me, locking eyes for a brief moment. My sister nodded, her eyelids flickering anxiously as she swallowed a lump in her throat.
I could tell she was biding her time; trying to determine if she wanted to admit that she knew about my past. “It’s alright. My suffering is no secret, and no shame.”
Leah pursed her lips and nodded. There was a sense of relief in her eyes. “I know what that woman did to you.” She nervously stretched her neck, scratching an area just below her jawline. “When father started to have the nightmares; the visions of your past, he needed someone to talk to.”
“How very kind of you.”
Leah rolled her eyes at the accusation. “Father spoke to anyone who would listen.”
“He’d never experienced that level of abuse, torment, and terror. He felt so horrible; he actually cried for you.”
I held Leah close, letting her weep on my chest. This was the ideal outcome; she knew how much I had suffered, if there was anyone, she could open up to it would be me. “I’m sure father cried for you.” There was no way the king sold his daughter. She was kidnapped. That had to be the truth.
“He never cried for me. Not even when I made it back home.” She was sobbing even harder, balling her hand into a fist.
“I don’t believe that.” It made no sense. What did Jay have to gain? And where were Emily and Noelle during all of this? There was no way they would allow their baby sister to be sold off like cattle.
“Mom was already gone, Dad already lived in a tomb. He had no more tears to cry.” She was struggling to breathe. I placed my hand on her back, patting just enough to imply a hug. (If I tried too hard, I was likely to scare her away.)
“He loves you.” I wanted to believe King Vladimir loved his children equally, especially his youngest daughter. Was he forced to give her to Jay? The idea made sense; our father was already insane, perhaps he was attempting to prevent war by offering a sacrifice.
Was Jay meant to sell her to a third party? That had to be it. Jay saved her life the same way he had saved mine. I could remember when, as a child, he snuck me back into the Amanar castle. He risked his life to return me to the safety of-?
‘Of what?’ Jay had brought me indoors, so I could sleep under a table outside of my father’s room. He could have stayed with me; he could have saved me. No, Jay had my best interests at heart. He was a good man, a good father; a warrior-king who struggled to do right by his people. ‘Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that.’
On the other hand, I knew for a fact, Jay had slept with Emma Rose. They shared a connection similar to mine; we were all Isekai, realm travelers. My mind went to a horrific place. Was he going to gift my sister to the queen? Did Emma Rose already know about the existence of other Nordic tribes? The idea made me want to vomit (or maybe it was the candy-flavored alcohol.) Now I was the one frozen in terror. “I love you.”
Leah was a frightened little girl, forced to survive as a soldier with a broken mind. That made her my perfect match; the perfect partner. “I love you, too.”
Comfortable, and warm, I shut my eyes in an attempt to find sleep. There had to be a way to find the truth. Jay was no monster, there was a second half to this story that would explain everything. I just needed to locate him. Could I convince Leah to come with me?
I stroked her hair. Leah seemed so innocent and small. The last thing I wanted was to force her to face the man who ruled her nightmares. But if I was correct, Jay could explain everything. We could be allies.
Unless he really did hurt her. My heart desperately wanted to cast Jay as a hero. ‘What if I was wrong?’ My hand moved all on its own. I stroked my sister’s cheek, moving aside a lock of her long hair. On her neck was a scar. Not just one but dozens. I hugged her, repositioning her body to allow me to see her shoulder. There were deep cuts in her back. It was clear she had been tortured. My heart was in my throat. “Leah?”
My sister blinked her eyes open. “Yeah?”
“Are you awake?”
She giggled. “No, I’m not.”
At that moment, I wagered on her just being sarcastic. “I think we need to leave.”
“Right now?” she asked in a sleepy whisper. “Not that I’m against leaving Dad and Emily behind.”
“No thanks,” I said with a smirk. “I think dad has that covered.”
Leah laughed and laughed, forcing herself to sit up, if only to catch her breath.
“Both of us know more than dad and Emily. If we wait for their plan we’ll just be sitting on our asses, taking orders from people who think our nightmares are the dreams and fairytales of past lives.” That came out much crueler than I had intended.
Leah nodded. “Give me a minute to pack.” She sat up and crawled towards a plain, unassuming section of the floor. The wooden panel slid away to reveal a metal door. I watched as she climbed down, disappearing into the darkness.
“Is that a basement?”
“It’s my armory.”
Much like the entrance to the tree, the hole was better suited to someone Leah’s size. I waited until she remembered with a collection of weaponry. some pieces were worn on her belt while others were on her back and across her chest.
“So, how do you do your teleportation thing? I assume that’s how you escaped the prison.” She looked at me to perform like a trained monkey.
And at that moment there was nothing I wanted more. I needed to be her hero. “First we need to be touching.” I sat cross-legged, holding my hands out.
She followed suit, sitting across from me. Soon we looked like two goth kids attempting to perform a séance. “Ok, now what?”
“No matter what happens, I need you to hold on to me. I don’t know what happens if we get separated.”
Leah nodded. Her lips formed just a hint of a smile. This was going to be fun.
I closed my eyes, focusing on my memories of Jay.
The world went black. I held Leah close as we tumbled through a pit, landing hard on a cold tile floor.
next: Isekai ch12