The Strength of a Sister

Submitted into Contest #124 in response to: Set your story in a labyrinth that holds a secret.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Fantasy Urban Fantasy

Once, long ago, the barriers between worlds were thin - like the glass of a mirror. One could simply walk from our world into another, even by mistake.

Now, though, the barriers are nigh impassible.

And yet, one young woman made the journey, all to save her sister.

--- ☾ ---

Jules took a deep breath. “I’m coming, Lissa,” she breathed and began walking.

The forest was silent.

Under the night's sky, all the inhabitants hid, holding their breaths in anticipation.

The ancient trees loomed over her: great pines whose feathery canopies scraped the sky, interspersed with oaks whose skeletal branches skewered the overfull harvest moon. As she stared up at the twilight sky, scattered with shimmering stars and constellations, a few leaves drifted to the ground, brilliant orange leaves, like flickering flames through the gloom.

She sighed and turned.

A path of stones were set into the ground, leading to the gargantuan tree growing in the center of the clearing she stood in. A large stone protruded from the trunk of the tree, ensnared by roots as thick as her arm. A symbol was carved into its bleached bone surface.

Once she stepped closer, she was able to make it out.

It was a crescent moon illuminated against the shadow of a full moon. It evoked a provocative, instinctive sense of unease but also wonder in her. It called to mind stories of the solstice, when the barriers between worlds were at their thinnest and allowed others to walk from their world into ours. And the other way around.

She sighed. She dropped her backpack and fished for her butterfly knife. She stood and popped it open. She readied the blade over her palm.

"I call upon you," she said, to the crisp, empty air and to the spirits that lingered there, "Spirits of the Between, neither Human, nor Faerie. I call upon you, speaking freely of my own accord. May you answer my call."

There was an answering gust of wind. She shuddered.

Was this how the heroes in the stories she studied felt? A deep sense of reluctance only overpowered by obligation?

Taking a deep breath, she sliced open her palm and grimaced. She screwed her eyes shut, then began again: "With this blood I shed, I pay your tithe. With this pain I feel, I pay your tithe."

She pressed her palm against the stone, gritting her teeth against the renewed sting. Blood oozed between her fingers.

She continued. Her voice wobbled, but she spoke all the same. “Drink of my blood. Drink of my pain and be satiated that you may open this Gateway between worlds, and I might pass. So I speak, so mote it be.”

For a moment, the air was still. Yet, it had a certain charge, an anticipation lingering as the spirits seemed to taste that which she offered to them.

The moment seemed to last forever. So long that she feared the spirits might reject her offering, that her blood might have been poisoned. That she was not good enough.

Lissa would be able to. Lissa can do anything. I’m just . . . nothing.

Just as she was about to pull her hand away, the marking above her head glowed. The stone began to crack, and a crimson light glowed from between the split rock. The cracks grew, spiraling out from the epicenter, until it separated into two even halves - like doors. 

They opened as she stumbled back, swinging inward. Between the slabs, there was a tunnel, round and formed of curved trees interlocked together.

There was one last breeze, this one gentler than the last. It toyed with her hair, brushing along like a friend's caress. It pushed her along, and, though she hesitated for a moment, she walked forward. 

A whisper seemed to echo, an assurance of some sort: Go in peace, challenger, and know this: we of the Nowhere stand with you.

--- ☾ ---

This young woman, guided by the stories she had studied in her youth and the stories her grandmother had told her growing up, crossed into the Otherworld. There, she made her way to the kingdom of the Raven King, a figure notorious for being implicated in the disappearances of thousands of women over the centuries. 

It was he who had taken her sister, and she was determined to get her back.

--- ☾ ---

“Now, what have we here?” a disembodied voice called out.

Jules glanced around, but she didn’t see the speaker, that is until she turned back to face forward again.

There, standing in front of her was a man - or a humanoid being. Though masculine, he could not be called human. His features were too symmetrical, too sharp. And his hair, dark and falling to his shoulders, was made of feathers, thousands and thousands of feathers.

She knew, upon seeing his face, that this was the Raven King.

For a moment, both were silent, each studying the other, cataloging weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

“What brings you to my kingdom?” he asks, with narrowed eyes.

She takes a deep breath, her heart hammering in her chest, but she forces her voice steady. “I come seeking to bargain.”

“Oh?” He arches an eyebrow. “What have you to bargain with?”

“I offer you the amusement of a new challenger,” she said. “In return, you release my sister.”

He chuckled. “As you wish,” he said and grinned, revealing fangs. “Should you pass through my kingdom and reach the castle within three days, I will set your sister free. Should you fail, she will never again see the human realm.”

She swallowed hard around a sudden lump in her throat. Suddenly, the odds seemed insurmountable, her defeat guaranteed. Doubt rang in her ears like clumsy church bells. Can I really do this?

She clenched her hands into fists by her sides. It didn’t matter. There was no other alternative. This was the only way.

“Do we have an accord?”

“Yes.”

--- ☾ ---

Upon agreeing to the terms, she was released into the maze which guarded the Raven King’s castle, and she began her journey.

--- ☾ ---

“Your time begins . . . now.”

Between one blink and another, the Raven King disappeared. In his place was a raven, which flapped its wings and flew away, quickly disappearing over the horizon. Jules watched him go and sighed.

She looked the way he had gone. It was a clear shot through the forest, and, through a break in the trees, she could see a hill ahead. She jogged forward and scaled the hill. Upon finding herself at its crest, she gazed out at his kingdom.

She was overlooking a valley, across which an enormous maze sprawled. It was formed of high stone walls which merged seamlessly into immense natural rock faces on the edges and, elsewhere, crumbled into the vast evergreen forests. Splashed between the trees were hedges, decorated with strange flowers in every color imaginable. And rising above it all was a castle of dark, gleaming metal and thin spires and immense towers.

Its surface caught the light of the moon overhead, but, rather than reflecting it, it seemed to absorb it.

She shuddered.

This land’s beauty was that of a black widow. Dangerous. Predatory. Lethal.

Three days to cross all this. She gritted her teeth. Better get started.

--- ☾ ---

In those three days, she journeyed far. She faced great dangers and met the Raven King again and again and again. And, still, he could not dissuade her from her way forward.

--- ☾ ---

The Raven King stood between Jules and the opening in the rock, leaning against the stone wall. He was blocking her way forward, and she was not in the mood for him right now. She was still sweaty, muddy, and tired from the sink bog.

When he saw her, he grinned, and the tips of his fangs glistened in the faint light. “Lovely to see you again, challenger.”

Her nails bit into her palms, as though hungry for blood. “Wish I could say the same,” she snapped.

Rather than being offended by her sharp tongue, his grin only widened. “Must you be so cruel?”

I’m the cruel one?”

He stood and stepped closer. He towered over her, but she refused to be cowed.

“What do you want, Raven King?”

He grabbed one of her curls, fallen loose from her ponytail, and wound it around his finger. “You know what I want.”

Her eyes flashed. Her jaw clenched so tight her teeth ached. “Not happening,” she ground out.

But he ignored her. “You must be so tired - poor dear. Are you sure you want to continue?” His grin turned cruel. “You know the terms of surrender.”

“Did you hear me? I said, not happening!” she snarled and shoved him away from her.

He stumbled a little from the force of her push, but he regained his composure soon after. He clicked his tongue. “Such a shame.” He spread his hands and gave a gallant shrug. “I was going to offer you a rest, but I suppose I will no longer.”

She glared.

His smile was mocking. He stepped to the side and gestured to the opening in the rock. “If you mean to continue onward, the path lies ahead.”

Though wary and distrusting, Jules walked forward, brushing past him and squeezing through the opening. It was a tight fit, and she was all too aware that he was right behind her. All the same, she pushed on.

When she reached the other side, she stood on a sheet of rock that stretched out to the overcast horizon. She couldn’t see the Raven King, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there, that he wasn’t watching her.

She jogged forward, slowly at first. When nothing leaped out of the fog at her, she pushed herself faster and faster, eventually breaking into a sprint.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

The rock ended, breaking off into a sudden cliff. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she dug her heels into the ground. She barely stopped in time. Tiny fragments of rock bounced over the edge.

She stood on the edge of a great chasm, panting. Her breath poured from her lips and hung in the air like a wraith.

The wind whistled through the gorge, creating a low, mournful cry that sent chills up and down her spine. She leaned over the edge, but she couldn’t see the bottom. There was only a thick fog hanging between the two jutting cliffs.

Her head spun, and she stumbled back. Her feet scraped against the stone. “Don’t . . . Don’t push me,” she panted.

Please don’t push me.

He stood behind her. Her back met his chest, and his hands came up to wrap around her arms, steadying her. When he spoke, the vibration of his words traveled through her: “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Her brows knitted.

She didn’t understand him or his mercurial moods. One moment, he was her enemy, all sharp words and harsh threats. The next, he pulled something like this, all gentle embraces and sweet promises.

She tore herself from his grip and turned to face him. Rather than question him on his shifting moods, she changed the subject. “You said the way forward was this way.”

His lips gave a wry yet amused twist. “It is. I did not lie.”

Her eyes narrowed. “There’s a cliff.”

He looked past her, over the edge of the rock. “So there is.” His eyes flicked back to meet hers. “I hadn’t noticed.”

She rolled her eyes. You’re so fucking funny.

His grin widened.

She turned. The way forward, huh?

“Do you know what’s at the bottom?”

“Haven’t a clue. The Labyrinth twists itself to be the greatest challenge to its runner - you’d have a better idea than I.”

She sighed, closing her eyes. So that’s how it is.

She turned and walked away from the edge, brushing past the Raven King.

He turned to watch her go, an expression of surprise on his face. “What’s this, challenger? Where are you going?” A smile stretched across his face. “Have you given up already?”

She didn’t respond. His needling wasn’t worth it. She had more important things to do.

She walked until she deemed she had gone far enough, then turned back. She closed her eyes once more, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

Her sister’s common encouragement rang in her head: “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything.”

Well, she thought, let’s test that theory, shall we?

She opened her eyes. She broke into a run, into a headlong dash forward.

The Raven King begged her to stop. He shouted pleas, but she heard none of them.

She ran past. He tried to grab her, to stop her, but his hand slipped right off. She caught the distress in his eyes as she brushed past. She wondered at it for a moment, but, then, she threw herself off the edge, into the void.

--- ☾ ---

It was the young woman’s leap of faith that proved her worth. It proved her worthy of her victory, and she soon found herself in the castle, where she and the Raven King would clash once more.

--- ☾ ---

Jules swallowed hard. I did it. I made it. I won.

The Raven King stood before her, in his nicest waistcoat with a blood-red cravat at his throat. His expression was blank, his dark eyes cold.

Beside him stood a blank-eyed Lissa, wearing a white dress that seemed to dwarf her now-skeletal frame. 

The image she presented horrified Jules to the core, and she stepped closer. “I made it. I reached the center. I won. Now, let her go.”

“By the terms of our wager,” he spoke, his voice frigid, “your sister’s freedom has been guaranteed.” He snapped his fingers, and Lissa disappeared before Jules’ eyes - again.

“Where did you send her?” she demanded.

At last, an expression, other than infuriating blankness, graced his face. He smiled, but the smile was hard. It was cold. It was the jagged edge of a broken piece of glass. “I merely returned her from whence I had taken her.” His smile widened. “She is safe at home.”

Relief flooded her veins like taking a sip of a warm drink on a cold day. The words “Thank you” bubbled up, ready to spill from her lips, but she did not let them fall. She knew better. Instead, she inclined her head.

“However, you never bargained for your own freedom.”

Gratitude withered in her heart. In its place grew flames of fury, fanned into an inferno. She took a deep breath. She could have breathed fire.

“What?”

His eyes glittered. “Your freedom was not the promised boon. You must stay here in your sister’s place. Forever.”

That . . . That could not stand.

She was only 20. She had a life she still had to live. She had dreams. She had goals. She had family. She had friends.

She couldn’t - she wouldn’t stay.

She wracked her brain for solutions. In all the stories about faeries she’d read, maybe there was a way out. A way to defeat him once and for all.

Her time was running out. The last grains of sand were beginning to fall.

She needed to figure this out now.

At last, the answer dawned on her.

By bloodshed she came, through bloodshed she would return.

She drew the knife she had kept with her, all this time.

The Raven King took a step back. “What are you doing?” He eyed the knife.

A smile stretched across her face, even as she cut her hand. Blood welled up and spilled over, dripping onto the ground. “I call upon you, Spirits of the Between, neither Human, nor Faerie. I call upon you, speaking freely of my own accord. May you answer my call.”

No!” he cried, but she could not be stopped.

“Come to me. Set me free.”

December 13, 2021 20:10

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