Marketplace of Memories: Part Three
Breathless and deeply exhausted, I made the final journey back down the stairs carrying three round glass jars.
“Took you long enough,” he wheezed, not looking up from where he sat studying. “Place them on the table.”
I did so, and ran through the words I had heard in the alleyway cellar that morning. Someone is hiding something. They are not who you think they are. Well, that was easy—Elva had turned out to be very different from the pet I had known her to be. If that had been true, maybe the stranger had been telling the truth. Maybe I ought to have listened more closely to his words.
Sunset is the last chance. What time is it?
I started looking for a clock, or a window, or anything that might tell me how close it was to sunset. The room was completely enclosed and contained no clocks. I thought about asking Marcus and decided it was a bad idea.
My best chance was to find a room with a window.
Trying to muffle the sound of my footsteps, I stepped away from the Acara and slipped out through the open door, back into the hallway. There was a boarded-up window on the far side of the room. I flew up onto the sill and tried to peer through the gap in the planks.
The sun was low in the sky. Not quite setting, but close enough that time was running out. I had to act quickly. If that old Acara—
“What do you think you’re doing!” he screeched, slamming the living room door behind him in a fit of rage. Reflexively I leapt upwards, flying as quickly as I could—but he had managed to grab my foot, and was hanging onto it with all of his strength.
“Let go!” I screamed. “Let go of me!”
“Never,” he snapped. “I have been charged with your care and I intend to—”
I kicked as hard as I could, and the elderly Acara went flying into the wall. The impact sent clouds of dust into the air.
“You’re not getting away from me, you ill tempered brat!” He stood up, attempted to brush the dust from his ruined suit and continued the chase. Luckily I was already halfway up the stairs, and beating my wings like I’d never flown before.
I knew I had to get out. I could almost feel my time trickling away, second by second... and sunset was the last chance.
I reached the top floor—and saw my opportunity. The roof had fallen into disrepair, and several of the tiles had fallen away—creating a hole just big enough to fly through. I didn’t hesitate. I built up as much speed as I could, folding my wings at the last second and landing neatly on the roof of the manor house.
From where I stood, it was easily the biggest building in the village. The forest beyond the boundaries was shrouded in an impenetrable mist. I wondered if anything was there at all, or if it was just white space, a blank page... non-existence.
It was the same voice I had heard earlier—but this time, it spoke from inside. The sound of it wracked me with shivers of fear.
The sun was setting.
Taking wing, I moved quickly from rooftop to rooftop. My wings hurt but I didn’t care, I couldn’t afford to. The streets below were still empty but I had to stay out of sight—I knew too little of the place, and suspected too much, to leave anything to chance.
As I drew close to the edge of the marketplace, I saw what I was looking for: the place where I had arrived—at the edge of the forest, atop a small incline, just a little way from the village.
I knew I had only moments to act. When the sun was gone, that was it—I would never be able to leave. That must have been what happened to the stranger, I realised. That was why he wanted to warn me... he didn’t want me to be stuck in the same way, with no way home and no way out.
I made my way to the edge of the forest, and to the tree that was the first thing I had touched upon my arrival. I peered into the blackness of twisted, ancient branches, but could make nothing out. Nothing lived in these woodlands.
“Tell me,” I begged, watching the sun sink below the western horizon. “Please tell me what to do!”
A silky voice sounded from just behind me—a voice I knew all too well. Moments later it was followed by the form of the Kyrii witch.
“You’re a little too late, child,” she hissed. She reached forward and grasped my paw. “You belong to me now.”
“I’m afraid so! Ever since I saved your pathetic little life you have been in my debt... and now the time has come for that debt to be repaid!”
I knew it was futile. Hope had disappeared with the sunset.
Closing my eyes, I pictured a world where the events of that night had not taken place. I was safe at home, sleeping soundly after feasting on mountains of candy. Home was a wonderful place to be; a place where nothing ever went wrong, a place where no one was ever scared of anything... a place where the shadows were only shadows.
A flash of light enveloped me. The trees... the cottages... the marketplace... the manor house... Elva’s livid face... all melded into a mass of indeterminate colours and shapes.
Then, everything went black.
I crashed to the ground in a pile of leaf-litter. My mind was racing, desperately trying to piece the puzzle together, to make sense of this latest mystery. Where was this place... somewhere new? And how had I escaped Elva’s grasp?
Taking a deep breath, I forced my eyes open.
High above, the sky was brilliant blue, scattered with tiny white clouds. Voices flew over my head, too muffled to hear from where I was laid. Earth and leaves rustled in my hands, and the air was full of rich, familiar scents. My eyes stung, my ears rang, my head was pounding... but I was still alive!
With considerable effort, I pushed myself back onto my feet and looked around.
“Cattail! Is that you?” Surely enough, the young Kougra came darting out from behind one of the houses.
“It can’t be,” he whispered. “Leara?”
“What?” A second face appeared—the face of young Bibrolex.
“I... I’m so glad you’re okay..” I whispered, barely mustering the strength to speak. “Take me home. Please.” Bib helped me struggle to my feet.
“We barely made it out alive...”
“Yeah,” I responded quietly. “Me too.”
“Did you see our brother?” Cattail’s face was a mask of concern. I felt my stomach clench. Oh, no...
“Never mind, then,” he said, ears drooping. “He might still come back... tomorrow or...”
In silence, we walked back down the path towards our homes.
“Here we are, then,” Bibrolex said at last, pointing at the house three doors from where we stood. “We’ll see you home, but we have to head back ourselves.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Still feeling weak, but nonetheless much stronger than I had been, I walked up to the familiar door and looked back, waving. Nobody was there.
I placed one hand against the door and pushed. It swung open with a soft creak. No other sound came from within the house, so I ventured inside and closed the door behind me.
“Katia!” I called out, running into the empty kitchen. “Katia, I’m back!”
I wandered into the lounge. A cushion had been knocked onto the floor, but otherwise there were no signs of life anywhere in the room.
Abandoning the ground floor, I flew up the stairs, half choking with worry. I peered into Katia’s bedroom. At first, I thought it was empty—then I noticed a tuft of blue fur sticking out from beneath the sheets.
“Katia?” I whispered, approaching the bed. “Is that you?”
“Lea...” she replied weakly. “I have been very unwell since the night you went missing. I had nightmares. Terrible... darkness chased me through corridors and endless forests. I tried to wake, but I could not...”
“Oh, Katia,” I cried, hot tears spilling down my face and pooling on the floor. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said with a weak smile. “I feel much better now that I know you’re safe.”
That afternoon, I cooked and cleaned while my sister was recovering. It was then that I began to develop an appreciation for the work involved. Exhausted, I had just begun stacking dishes in the cupboard when a sharp knock resounded throughout the house.
“Who’s there?” I called. When no reply came I pulled the door open and met with the sight of a figure in a red velvet cloak.
“Elva,” I gasped.
“Who is Elva?” the stranger questioned, although her voice and movements were identical to that of the Kyrii witch. “I found this child wandering in the forest.”
A red Kougra appeared from behind the cloak.
“Marfas! You’re all right!” I grinned. I reached forward to embrace him, but my hands went straight through him, as though he wasn’t there. His eyes were wide with shock and fear, his face wet with recent tears, his fur muddy and caked with dead leaves. He was standing right there, yet somehow I could not reach him.
“Marfas...” I quavered. “This is not funny.”
I reached forward again, breathless. Again my hand passed through his. When he spoke, his voice was indistinct, as though spoken through a barrier.
“Leara...” he said softly, though his face remained expressionless. “Can you hear me?”
“Tell my brothers... tell them I’m okay, won’t you?”
“Yes. Of course I will,” I whispered. His face broke into a huge smile, and for a moment, the shadow of fear still carved into his face dissipated.
The illusion was broken. Marfas vanished, and with him, the stranger that reminded me so much of Elva. A chill frost hung in the air. Halloween was over, and winter on its way.
I have often questioned what I saw that fateful Halloween. Sometimes, I thought it might have been a dream or a hallucination. Other times I could feel the darkness dancing in the air around me, waiting in the shadows for me to let down my guard. Some nights I dreamt, and I could feel them pushing at the surface of my mind; searching for chinks in the armour, cracks in the wall.
This Halloween past, I saw Marfas again.
I saw him run through the streets, laughing and smiling just as he used to, though not a day older. There were others with him, none of whom I knew. When I smiled back at him and waved, it felt like a part of me that had been missing for a very long time had suddenly returned. All at once, I felt like a child again; full of the same innocent joy I had felt when I was young and free of these burdens.
I will never doubt again that everything I saw was real.