The setting sun turns the sky into a canvas of murky blood red by the time the first guests for the Halloween ball arrive at the mansion, dressed in costumes so garish and obnoxious Soul is unsure what they are. From the second floor landing, he ghosts their movement to the rear patio and steps out onto the balcony overlooking the patio and garden.
The garden has been transformed into a maze for the ball; the hedges, usually cut low and neat, stretch to the sky and are festooned with streamers and lanterns that chase away the deepening dusk. Propping his elbow on the railing, Soul rests his chin on his hand and watches as more and more people gather on the patio lining the garden. He spies the silver of his mother's costume in the growing crowd; her head twists from side to side as she flits from guest to guest and he knows she's looking for him.
Guilt pricks at the back of his neck-he should be down there greeting guests along with her. His tongue runs over the sharp points of his teeth, which have always grown back no matter how many times they're filed down; they are the thread that give people an opening at pulling apart the rest of his flaws. More than that, they are his constant reminder that there has never been a time he belonged, that there has never been a time when something wasn't very wrong with him.
The idea of playing the host and forcing conversation with people all evening long while he pretends this fact doesn't exist is the same as jabbing white-hot needles through his skin.
Gritting his teeth, Soul wrenches himself away from his thoughts and turns his attention back to the patio. The costumes have become more and more ridiculous, and he spots one guest entirely covered in purple feathers. He pulls at the sleeve of his suit, fingers fidgety with regret over his insistence on not wearing a costume. He'd figured simply smiling would be enough of a costume, but he hadn't counted on people taking his parents' suggestion to dress up seriously.
Some of the guests examine the garden hedges; the ones lining the patio have been cut in the shape of predators from around the world, fangs bared in an exaggerated grin rendering tame their dangerousness and provoking no real alarm. They and the rest of the world are bathed in a muted twilight as the iron gray clouds that have ebbed and flowed all day long return in full force. Those same clouds had sent Soul's mother into a frenzied fit of panic and emergency preparations earlier, and now he is fairly certain that with the makeshift structure she'd forced the servants to construct that their party would be able to withstand the end of the world.
The change in weather is swift as the clouds roll in, artificial night smothering the world in one fell swoop. Soul waits for the soft pitter-patter of raindrops on the ground, but no rain falls from the sky, despite the distant rumble of thunder and the wind heavy with moisture blowing in his face. He is still gazing up at the sky when he notices something else tugging on the edges of his senses from behind him.
Soul turns, seeing nothing, but a voice in his head whispers that there is something waiting for him in the silence and empty air. Unease trickles down his back like drops of ice water. The logical side of his mind scoffs at his fear, telling him there's nothing there, and even if there was there are scores of people both inside and outside of the house. However, he doesn't move to head inside or call to his mother looking for him below, palms going clammy like if he even breathes, it will pounce. Briefly, he wonders if this is the result of not being able to sleep for the past three days before the same sensation pulls at him again from where he had been facing. Again, he turns and sees nothing, but he can catch hold of it now.
Whatever it is, it's alive. It's as opaque and weightless as smoke, but its presence bears down on him like an iron weight, stretching the air around him thin with tension like a rope pulled taut. It circles him with a slow patience, and with every loop it makes, it leeches away the substance of reality and wraps Soul in a disconcerting lightness; the trees beyond the garden become warped and wobble in his vision as the border of the balcony loses its distinctness.
The rest of the world abruptly goes dark and quiet, as if it has winked out of existence.
Soul's heartbeat pounds loudly in his ears, and he fights to muffle his breathing without moving, ragged and staccato in the silence. There is nothing for a long time, only the endless circling. But when it comes close enough to touch his skin, he feels it graze against his thoughts instead, and something rotting and raging drags itself across his mind.
And then something soft and small brushes against the back of his legs before climbing up his body. Soul snaps out of his trance and stumbles backwards with a strangled yell, pain lighting from his back to his head as he falls hard on the ground.
Soul blinks back stars, groaning, and rolls on his side. As he tries to catch his breath, his hand is nudged by something warm, and he sits up in a rush, vision spinning as he focuses on a pair of golden eyes gazing calmly at him. Letting out a cry, he scrambles away before registering the paws and ears. The cat's nose twitches at the noise he makes, but it continues to sit completely unperturbed in front of him. Save for its bright eyes, it nearly vanishes into its background with its purple-black fur. Licking its paw once, the cat rises, and in the same movement, it leaps on top of the balcony railing.
For a long moment, Soul and the cat stare at each other.
The cat's ears raise in alarm as he begins to laugh, shaky and loud with relief. Soul rubs his face with his hands vigorously, replaying the last five minutes in his head and shaking his head at his panic; it had been only a cat. The heaviness in the air still fills him with a sense of unease, but whatever else he had thought he'd felt he can blame on the deluge of nightmares that has been keeping him up for the last few days.
Soul gets to his feet, dusting himself off. The rain that had threatened to fall all day now pours in furious sheets from the sky, and it's only thanks to the balcony awning that he isn't soaked. It is his cue to head inside, but after the scare the cat gave him, forced socialization is even less appealing than it had been before.
"Trying to give yourself a cold, I see."
Biting back a yelp, he whirls around and finds Wes leaning against the frame of the door, amused grin on his face. Scowling, Soul levels a dirty look at him. "What do you want, Wes?"
"That desperate to avoid Auntie Gertle's cheek pinching?" Wes ignores Soul's glare and the scorn in his tone with a practiced expertise, waggling an eyebrow at him.
"Among other things," he mutters pointedly.
"I'm allergic to people." He resists the urge to slouch and instead turns back to watch the rain, discovering the cat has disappeared. Lightning flashes in the distance, illuminating the dark- beyond the cultivated wildness of the garden, the sprawling forest bordering the mansion appears otherworldly. He feigns a yawn. "Aren't you supposed to be downstairs telling everyone about Europe?"
"And rob Mother of that honor?" Along with a silver spoon, Wes had been born with a silver tongue, and he uses it well. The bells on his jester hat chime together merrily as he steps forward to stand next to Soul-his costume of green and gold would be outlandish on anyone else, but no one else wears confidence like a second skin quite the way Wes does. "I think she'd take my arm off if I tried, and I'm too fond of my limbs to part with them."
Soul presses his lips together to keep from smiling. Despite the distance he's wedged between himself and Wes in recent months, his older brother is still the only person in the world who can pull Soul out of even his worst moods.
But envy makes him cruel and spite spurs him into speaking without thinking.
"More like Mother would take the arm off anyone who dared to touch her favorite," he snorts, rolling his eyes and propping his elbow on the railing. He makes the mistake of glancing over at Wes; the perpetual brightness living in his eyes dies away and for just a moment, Soul sees something of himself in his brother's face.
As quickly as it appeared, it's gone and Wes' smile returns. "You overestimate me and underestimate Mother."
"Maybe." An apology and a dozen things he's wanted to confide in Wes swell on the tip of Soul's tongue, but instead he swallows and asks, "Is Mother the one who sent you to find me?"
"I am not to return downstairs without you even if you are delirious with fever and carrying on a conversation with our great-grandmother, God rest her soul," Wes replies. The seriousness in his tone is betrayed by the highly entertained expression on his face. "You should be grateful she sent me and didn't go look for you herself. You'll get out alive with me."
"If I'm dead, I don't have to go downstairs."
"Bit of a dramatic solution just to avoid going to a party, don't you think?"
He makes a sound somewhere in between a grunt and a groan. "You go, I'll make it up to you later."
"Come on, don't leave me to fend for myself." Wes begins to cajole at Soul, nudging him on the arm. "When you go to Juilliard next fall, I'll have no one I actually want to be around for one of these things."
The knot of doubt and resentment he feels in his chest when he looks at his brother constricts suddenly. "If I get in," he corrects. "Either way, you'll still be in Europe."
Although he dips his head in agreement, Wes adds, "Only if I do well enough, my acceptance into the orchestra is conditional." Soul's eyes widen as he hears fear leak into his brother's voice for the first time in his life.
"You'll do admirably," he says after a pause. The words fall awkwardly from his mouth; he is unused to being the one to offer comfort. He stays the fingers starting to worry at a loose thread of his sleeve and forces himself to look at Wes. "I know you will."
When Wes meets his eyes, Soul doesn't see a rival like he has for the past nine years, and something in him begins to ache. "Thank you," his brother says. "That is high praise, coming from you."
His shoulders lift in a half-shrug and he shifts his gaze back to the sky. "I'm only saying what's true."
"Regardless." Wes gives his head a small shake. "Now, for what I came up here originally."
Soul sighs. "Do I have a choice?"
"Fine," he says, finally relenting. "But if I disappear midway through the party-"
His brother claps him on the shoulder and leads him away from the balcony. "I won't say a word."
As they descend the stairs to the ballroom, a dig in his ribs from Wes pulls Soul's attention from the dread gnawing a hole in the pit of his stomach. "Mother also wanted me to tell you something."
It takes a few moments for his words to register, Soul trying and failing to convince himself that not every person looking their way is gawking at him. "What?"
Wes grins at him. "Be friendly or she'll have your head."
The rain has petered out into a nearly nonexistent drizzle and the moon has begun peeking out through the clouds by the time the music for dancing begins to play. Soul escapes from the endless monologue of Mrs. Shayton with a weak excuses and detaches himself from the neighborhood gossip, disappearing into the crowd before she can protest.
With an experienced finesse, he sidesteps guests, dodges invitations for conversation and loops a wide circle around his parents. Exhaustion has dried up the patience he pretended to have for the past two hours, and he wedges himself in the corner furthest away from the dance floor. Leaning against the wall, Soul crosses his arms, irritation crawling from underneath his skin like a swarm of ants. Even within the shadows, he feels the bright lights of the ballroom picking at him, transforming the soft swell of voices around him into a harsh buzzing that cloys at his ears. Closing his eyes does nothing to dull the desire to leave, but at least he can pretend he is alone.
The choice words that spring to his lips die away as Soul's eyes fly open and he takes in the girl dressed as a ballerina standing in front of him and fiddling nervously with her fingers. He bites back a sigh, recognizing the expression on the girl's face. "I don't know where my brother is, sorry," he informs her.
"No!" A blush rises in her cheeks and the bows in her pigtails bob up and down as she shakes her head vigorously. "I mean, I was wondering if you would like to dance."
"Me?" Soul stares at the girl incredulously, thoughts short-circuiting. He says the first thing that leaps to mind: "I don't dance, bu-"
"It's all right, I understand!" She backs away and walks off quickly towards the crowd surrounding the dance floor before he can finish the rest of the sentence.
Soul wrestles with himself for a moment before deciding to follow the girl. He is not sure what sparks him to move; he's rebuffed the advances and invitations of other girls before, but those girls had always been pushed forward by Wes or his mother, who was attempting to use this ball to set him up before he went off to college, according to Wes. He figures he should give a better explanation to this one at the very least. The girl has melded into the masses of people, and by the time Soul reaches where she disappeared, he sees no sign of her anywhere. He circles the edge of the edge, craning his head back and forth. He's nearly ready to give up when he catches wind of her voice and turns to see her talking to a group of girls, her back to him.
"You should have seen the look on his face when I asked him to dance," she is saying to the group. A hint of revulsion enters her voice. "His mouth dropped open and I could hardly keep myself from staring. He really does have fangs for teeth."
A few of the girls titter and one of them says, "I would have ran away, if I were in your shoes."
"I almost did." The girl lowers her voice. "I don't understand how a circus freak like him can be part of a family like the Evanses."
Another girl pipes up. "And if he had said yes when you asked him to dance?"
"Do I ever refuse a dare, Lillian?" The girl waves her hand carelessly in the air. "But I told you he'd say no."
Soul turns and walks away, still unseen. The girl's words provoke only a distant sort of pain; they are the same words he's been telling himself for years, after all, and he has had plenty of time to get used to their truth. Even the disappointment turning the taste in his mouth bitter is all too familiar.
It's everything else that follows that he can't stand.
He makes for the doors leading out to the garden, offering a too-broad smile to anyone who looks like they want to talk to him, the sharp itch of discomfort crawling underneath his skin. Smiling has always felt unnatural and strange, something he can trace back to the shame over his appearance bred early on in his childhood. While the mask of apathy and indifference he's crafted for himself sits well on top of his face, smiling does not.
But he smiles now and does not stop until he slips outdoors.
Cold air nips at Soul's face and hands as he steps out onto the patio. He tilts his head up to the sky-a fine mist still wafts down from above but the cool haze is soothing, shimmering and catching in the moonlight. He continues to stand there on the patio for a moment, then he begins to walk, past the garden and into the rained out maze set up towards the edge of the grounds. The grass crunches underneath his feet as Soul passes the animal-shaped hedges which cast monstrous shadows on the ground.
The maze is a muddled patchwork of darkness and flickering candlelight of the few lanterns that managed to stay lit, most of the moonlight blocked out by the slowly receding clouds; Soul lets those guide his path, roaming aimlessly and turning in the direction of the light when the path gets too dark for him to make out. Somehow he stumbles upon the center of the maze in a matter of minutes, something that would have taken much longer if he had actually been trying. Sitting on the stone bench resting in the very center, Soul gazes up at the full moon overhead, finally free from the rain clouds, and listens to the silence.
Once, when he was a child, he and Wes had been allowed to go guising with the town children and then to the Halloween festival afterwards. There he had met a lady from a traveling troupe who had claimed that everyone's soul had a color to it, and she could see them. She had offered to tell him the color of his, but Wes had called him away before he could answer.
The thought had stayed with him over the years, and some nights he would stay up and wonder what color his soul was, though he had never been able to decide on a color.
Now he knows: in a world full of color, he had been born a dull and lifeless gray.
Something pounces onto the bench next to him and he leaps up, nearly tripping over his feet.
A soft meow halts his hasty retreat and he turns, recognizing the pair of golden eyes immediately. He scowls at the cat. "You again."
The cat meows in reply, and he is sure it is lined with smugness.
His heart still thuds in his chest as Soul steps closer to the cat. There is something strangely human and deeply unsettling in its gaze, which is focused steadily on him. In the clear light of the moon, he sees that its fur is actually the deepest purple.
"I've never seen a cat with purple fur before," he muses, almost lifting a hand to touch the cat before thinking better of it.
"And I've never seen a human with fangs for teeth before," the cat answers matter-of-factly.
Soul stares at the cat, stunned into silence. His hand drifts to his ear, tugging it sharply. He's hearing things, he has to be.
"What's wrong?" The cat rises and pads her way to his end of the bench. "Cat got your tongue?"
He gapes open-mouthed at the cat for several moments before he can find the words to form a cohesive sentence. "Cats don't talk," he says finally.
"Really?" the cat asks interestedly. Her tail brushes against his arm as she paces past him back and forth. "I wonder how I'm talking then."
"I-" Soul shakes his head and attempts to blink away the shock. If his mind has finally cracked, it makes odd choices about hallucinations. "I didn't know cats could talk."
"There are lots of things I imagine you don't know," the cat answers. She jumps lightly onto his lap and eyes him with an excited curiosity. "Although you're the first human I've found in a long time that can understand me. That's nice, I admit."
He frowns down at the cat. "Have you met many humans that could?"
"There were many who could a long time ago, but then they left," the cat says, making herself comfortable in his lap. "Rather, they were swallowed up by the abyss."
Soul understands nothing, but considering he's carrying on a conversation with a cat, he simply nods. "Have you met anyone else since then?"
"Only one," the cat answers, pausing. She sniffs, kneading his legs with her paws. "But he's mean to me, and not fun to play with at all, like you are."
Her words remind him of the events from earlier and he scowls, picking the cat up. "If you call what you did to me playing, then I don't think I'd want much to do with you either."
"Put me down!" The cat thrashes her legs furiously, paws batting at his arms, but he holds onto her firmly.
"Do you have a name?" he asks.
"Ye-yes." Her movements slow to a stop and her head tilts to the side. "Or I think I did." She begins to squirm again. "I don't know!"
"All right, calm down." Soul sets her back down on the bench and she instantly turns her back to him and begins to groom herself. More cautiously now, he asks, "How did you do it earlier?"
She looks up, twisting her head to look back at him. "Do what?"
"You know what." The feeling of something breathing against his mind still echoes as Soul stoops down so he can look at her face to face. "Get in my head."
"That wasn't me," the cat claims. "That was-"
She breaks off, ears perking up.
"Was who?" Soul attempts to grab her attention but her eyes are focused on something he can't see. "Who was it?"
"Quiet," the cat hisses, stiffening.
Soul opens his mouth to argue when he registers a familiar heaviness needling at him; his body goes cold and his heart begins to pick up speed. After several tense moments, he decides to chance speaking, unwilling to repeat what happened on the balcony. "What is it?" he asks in a whisper.
The cat doesn't answer, back and tail arching, and he's about to ask again when she jumps off the bench and sprints away.
In the same moment, Soul runs after her, more on instinct than reason-all he knows is that he refuses to be left alone with whatever it is that cut into his mind like a blade slices through water. He keeps his gaze fixed on her as he tears after her, running into hedges and nearly falling on his face to keep pace with the cat. When they exit the maze, he loses sight of her temporarily before catching sight of her fur winking in the moonlight.
As suddenly as she ran, the cat turns back, flicking her tail. "I told you that you were a lot more fun to play with."
"This was a game?" Sucking in deep breaths, Soul stares at the cat, dumbfounded for a moment, and then clenches his fists, anger seeping into his voice. "It really was you messing with my head the whole time."
"No, it wasn't," the cat insists. Her tail twitches guiltily. "Perhaps, I used it to get you to play along," she admits, drawing closer to Soul. She adds quickly, "But Blair would never do anything that would hurt anyone." She blinks, tilting her head. "Is that my name?"
Soul scoffs, but he doesn't reply.
"How about I make it up to you by telling you what's been playing with your head?" the cat suggests. Blair pauses and a sly tone enters her voice. "That is, if you can catch me."
"What?" He frowns. "Hey, wait!"
The cat pays no heed to his words and hurtles off into the forest, vanishing in the bushes.
There is an instant that Soul hesitates and almost listens to the distant voice in his head telling him to stop, turn back and re-enter the party. But Blair is only thing he has come across that is as strange and out-of-place as him, and the curiosity burning in his veins flares. The moment passes and he runs into the forest after the cat.
As the bright lights of the mansion fade behind him and the space between trees constricts, Soul's footsteps slow and he squints in the semi-darkness, twigs snapping under his feet. He finds the cat's tracks easily, as if she had marked them specially for him. There is an expectant silence in the air as he treads between the trees, like the forest is holding its breath, but it's not as ominous as the silence on the balcony.
Soul measures his steps carefully the farther the cat's tracks lead him into the forest-the moonlight seems to shine brighter in some parts of the forest than others, and it flips from a state of suspended twilight to murky dusk in only a matter of a few feet. Bushes and tangled undergrowth hamper his progress, snagging on the hem of his pants and staining his clothes a musty brown. He winces when he hears the telltale sound of cloth ripping, the future sting of his mother's scolding already sharp in his ears, but stubbornness was the one thing he was born with in spades, so he soldiers on.
While he keeps most of his attention on staying on the cat's path, Soul lifts his head and scans the treeline around him from time to time. Occasionally he thinks he sees a flash of purple or the glow of golden eyes, but every time he looks again, it's gone. However, he doesn't mind the game until the clouds from earlier roll in again without warning, plunging him into complete darkness.
Rocking back on his heels, he casts a wary look around him and blinks rapidly. But even when his eyes adjust and Soul can discern shadowy outlines of the trees and bushes surrounding him, he can no longer make out the cat's paw prints.
He waits for several minutes and then he clears his throat awkwardly, ignoring the knots of dread clawing their way from his stomach to his chest. "Hey-" he calls out for the cat in a tentative whisper- "Hey, I can't see anymore."
Again Soul waits before trying again, raising his voice a notch. "Can you hear me? I'm done."
He receives no answer.
Fear slides an icy noose around Soul's throat and he takes calming breaths to slow his thoughts and even out his heart's frantic thumping. His fingers take on a life of their own as Soul thinks, twisting and running through his hair. He is too far in the forest for anyone to hear him nor can he hope that someone at the party will remember him-not only had he made it sufficiently clear to his parents and everyone else who had laid eyes on him that he hadn't wanted to be there, but his warning to Wes before the party that he'd eventually disappear would keep the one person he could rely on from worrying.
Soul licks his lips, coming to the conclusion he already knew. Still, he does not move from his spot for minutes, weighed down by terror. It's only when he thinks about what might happen if whatever found him on the balcony and in the maze finds him here that he begins walking.
The cat's path curved too much for him to tell which direction the mansion is in so he fixes his steps in what he hopes is a straight line and prays that the forest isn't as big as it feels. Its silence isn't nearly as soothing now. There is a chilling emptiness in the air, as if every living creature had picked up and left; not even an owl calls in warning when Soul gets his sleeve hooked on a tree branch and lets out a piercing yelp.
Yanking himself free, he continues to walk, shuffling forward slowly. Left alone with his thoughts, he realizes that in the handful of times he ventured into the forest with Wes, it had always been active and noisy, brimming with life. And where it had felt the forest had been holding its breath before, it now feels like it's waiting to swallow him whole.
Soul walks faster and tries to think less.
The clouds that turned his world into pitch black and the crushing silence of the forest make it impossible for him to mark the time, and it feels like eternity has wound and unwound itself before the forest finally begins to thin. His steps quicken into a jog and when he spots the open ground in front of him, he breaks out into a sprint; as soon as he is clear of the trees, he comes to a grinding halt, doubling over and gasping for breath.
Open air is a calming balm to his mind and body as Soul straightens. It is almost as dark outside of the forest as it was inside and the air is humid and dense rather than earthy and dry, crackling with the invisible energy of the coming storm. The silence pervading the forest diffuses around Soul and feeds into the apprehension pricking at the back of his neck as he recognizes where he is, eyes widening.
Soul spins around slowly - the boglands yawn widely in front of him in an endless patchwork of marshy land and water, made lusterless by the rolling clouds above his head. A wordless whisper seeps from the ground and into the air, as if inviting him to listen to its secrets, and mud clings on his shoes and squelches noisily as Soul continues to turn in circles at the edge of the bog, breath marking the air with just visible puffs.
Wind, bitter and angry, lashes and bites at exposed skin as he comes to a stop and gazes out at the surface of the water stretching out in front of him, smooth as glass. He has only seen the boglands from the road to town; both he and Wes had heeded their parents' words when they warned them not to go wandering into the bog-there had been too many tales of children getting lost and drowning for either of them to dare to disobey them.
Even without the warnings, Soul was particularly wary of the marshlands, and it had been more than the fear of getting lost forever in its swamps. There was something watching and waiting for him in the bog, presence breathing down his back every time he passed the marsh from the road. Only Wes had taken him seriously when he mentioned it, and even then, there'd been little he could do, except tell him to ignore the feeling.
When Soul found the real demons in his head, he forgot his fear, but it returns now, a lead weight in his gut. There is something wrong about how the bogwater refuses to ripple even with the increasing uptick in the wind's tempo, something he doesn't care to think more about or investigate.
Instead, he pours his attention into scouring the landscape for the Witching Tree, a lone tree that grows in the middle of the swamp, according to some of the braver children that wandered into the boglands. The tree was rumored by the more superstitious to be held up by magic, but more importantly, its branches point in the direction of the road. His father had told Soul once when he was small that if he ever found himself lost in the bog, all he had to do was find the tree to find his way home.
It takes many minutes of pacing the marsh's waterline before Soul spies a lone crooked shadow sticking up in the bog. The ground scrunches as he scrambles to where he can see the tree more clearly. However, the closer he gets, the more the tree's outline shifts and grows in size until he comes to a stop directly in front of the tree and sees that it is not a tree at all.
Standing at the edge of the bog, Soul stares at the house sitting in the middle of the water.
Light shines from the second story windows of the small, dilapidated wooden house; there is something hard and caustic and not quite natural about the way the glare of the light burns on the water.
Danger, Soul hears dimly from a voice in the back of his head, while another voice needles at him to run, but he's transfixed in place by the house, something about it anchoring him to where he stands. Then, the lights wink out and he's blinking in the darkness, spell broken. He swivels around, unsure whether to run back into the forest or continue searching for the tree, when he catches hold of something moving behind him.
Soul's vision swims in stars and blinding light as something hard and heavy cracks against his head. They stretch out invitingly in front of him for a moment before the world turns to night.
Soul returns to reality in bits and pieces, a sharp pounding inside his head peeling back the darkness over his eyes.
A tiny groan escapes from his mouth as he rolls from his back to his side, temples throbbing. He's still on the ground, but the floor underneath him is hard and unyielding, and the wind has been replaced by the popping sounds of a fire crackling to his left. Along with a familiar heaviness beating down on his senses, he knows somehow that he's inside the house in the middle of the bog.
His eyes fly open and a different kind of darkness greets him. The cloth of a blindfold brushes against Soul's face as he strains to see. His heart crawls in his throat when he moves to pull the blindfold off, and coarse rope binding his wrists and ankles together cuts into his skin. Distantly, the part of him that's clinging to his sanity tells him that everything that's happened has to be some kind of joke, but he knows it's not, feels that it's not, and cold panic sweeps through his veins, drowning out every other feeling. Squeezing his eyes closed to keep himself grounded, Soul struggles to push himself up into a kneeling position, inhaling deeply and immediately choking on the acrid taste of charred flesh.
There is an instant that Soul can nearly feel the singed muscle and bone in his mouth and then the hold on his composure shatters; he doubles over and heaves his dinner onto the floor, continuing to retch until his stomach is aching and his throat is burning. Panting, he kneels, slumped over, and gags as he gulps down air to get rid of the stinging sensation in his throat, but stays hunched long after the feeling fades away.
A voice from the working area of his mind prods at him, demanding that he get up, and with effort he straightens. The stench of burnt skin is still heavy on his tongue, but there's nothing left in his stomach to throw up, so he cuts his breaths short and shallow and turns his attention to the rope tying his hands together. It's tightly knotted, and the fabric of the rope doesn't stretch much, but there's enough room for him to wiggle his hands. He maneuvers carefully and works through the knots for several minutes until the rope comes loose in his hands, and a sigh of relief breaks the silence.
Soul rips off the blindfold and blinks in the light coming from the fire dancing in the fireplace across the room. It is startlingly normal with its walls lined with bookcases, but there is a dread seeping from the walls that laces around his body and constricts the more he looks around.
Freeing himself of the ties around his feet, he paces the perfect circularity of the room, which borders on unnatural. The titles of the books filling the shelves are completely unrecognizable, written in a language that vaguely resemble runes, while the books themselves seem to murmur to Soul in their own tongue of ink and paper. The eerie translucency of the room's edges, like it has been unhooked from reality, only increases the unsettling feeling spreading throughout his body.
He's so busy trying to decipher the titles of the books and avoiding looking at what's burning in the fireplace that it's not until he makes a complete circle of the room that Soul notices all of the shadows have disappeared from the walls and are gathered in front of him.
The shadows roil when he notices them, and go shapeless for many moments before they reform.
His piano instructor's shadow shakes his head in disdain. "Not good enough."
Soul whirls around for the door, for a window, for any escape; the shadows rematerialize in front of him.
The voice of the girl with the bows is cutting. "Freak."
There is no door, not even a window.
"A burden," his parents sigh.
His hands slam against the wall, but the wood doesn't even budge against his weight.
"A pity," Wes agrees on the other side of their parents.
Other shadows begin to chime in, mirrors to his thoughts, and the tangled mass of voices swells and grows until it's all he can hear, even when he screws his eyes shut and presses his hands over his ears. Blindly, Soul backs away into the middle of the room, and like a switch, his reflex to detach and withdraw flicks on, and he is suddenly very calm. His heart still skitters, but his hands are steady as he drops them to his sides. The voices are music, discordant and harsh, and he is a musician, even if he is second-rate and strange, and a sense of being far away consumes him as he connects and weaves a song from the shadows in his head.
The song rises and swells many times until it reaches a splitting crescendo, and then, one by one, the shadows go silent. They return to their spots on the wall, save for one. Soul turns his gaze to the shadow that remains - there is one last note that needs to be played.
His shadow finally speaks. "A mistake."
"A mistake," Soul echoes quietly.
It's silent in the moments that follow, and then a voice drips from the shadows on the ceiling. "That is an interesting set of teeth you have there, boy." A human-shaped shadow detaches itself from the wall and lands on its feet on the floor with a solid thud. It rises, cold eyes with a vicious kind of humor as the shadow stares at him. "I think she'll be quite pleased with you."
Cold fear grips Soul in a paralyzing embrace. This is the thing that was with him on the balcony.
"It's almost over, I promise," the shadow figure says, waving a hand. The shadows dissipate from its body. "I wouldn't put you through all of that just for fun."
Jagged teeth flash at Soul. "Not today, anyways."
He wills his legs to move, but he's frozen in place.
The yellow-haired man approaching him looks almost ordinary. Then the man smiles and jagged teeth, too similar to Soul's, bear down on him in a feral grin.
"Now, kid, I pride myself on being an honest fellow," the man says casually as he comes to a stop in front of Soul, "So that's why I'm telling you this might hurt a lit-"
He pauses, tilting his head as he considers. "No, that's a lie."
Steel winks at Soul as the man pulls a knife from his pocket. "This is going to hurt a lot."
He's lying on the ground again.
Hasn't it always been this way?
A scorching heat blossoms in his chest and picks at his skin and soul, but it's not the same pain that was consuming him a few seconds ago. He wrenches an eye open-he's not in the circular room anymore, and the man with the knife is gone. A grunt escapes from his lips as he tries to move his arm and only manages to twitch his fingers.
It's pathetic how easily you fall.
He tilts his head upward towards the voice to see his own shadow sneering down at him. "Aren't you more than this?"
Licking his lips, he finds he has nothing to answer, and instead he attempts to move again and only succeeds in dragging himself half an inch across the floor.
He has to get up.
The fire in his chest travels to his lungs as he dredges up all his strength to lift himself a few inches off of the floor, and crumbles as soon as he tries to rise, collapsing back on the ground. "I can't," he wheezes.
"You won't ," his shadow hisses. "You're a coward, keeping your face pressed against the floor as you reject everything and everyone so no one will see just how hard you're trying. STAND UP."
When he doesn't answer, his shadow disappears.
He lies unmoving on the ground, but the words of his shadow lingers in his ears. He's sunken, fallen, low as he can go, and part of him whispers that it's perfect for someone like him, but another part of him rails at him to stand.
"Get up." The words rattle off his lips.
Anger takes too much energy, but hatred costs him nothing, and he shoves the words like knives under his skin. "Get up."
He stays prone on the floor.
He can't remember the last time he asked for help, and his words are more air than sound, but he's never wanted anything more than he does right now, and he mouths them over and over. "Helpmehelpmehelpmehelpmehel-"
Strings loop around him and draw him up, bringing him back to life.
He looks up at his savior, but their face is shrouded in darkness. A shiver shudders through the strings, draping over him like silk, and a new voice, soft and gentle, murmurs, "I think I'll keep you."
So long as he's standing, he doesn't care what happens to him.
The strings tug on him once, and his thoughts disappear.