"Now let's see..."
Snake leaned himself over the unconscious female before him, carefully selecting a good length of rope. "This oughta be enough." This decided, he got right to work, binding each of those delicate wrists to her chest. This female would undoubtedly turn out a moneymaker, especially if she'd be trained to- "Ouch!"
Snake drew his hands back, hissing in pain as he turned to match glares with the apparently angry human male just behind him. The thing had just suddenly reared back and kicked him, rudely interrupting the very tedious procedure of correctly binding the other human he'd worked so hard to catch. The female itself was still unconscious, and so slept peacefully, but her male companion didn't seem quite so complacent.
Wishing he'd been smart enough to put this male back to sleep the very moment it woke, Snake turned with reluctance to face it. He'd never caught a male this good-looking before, and so was remiss to put any more bruises onto its fine, snow white skin. It looked so innocent before.
In his mind the king's warning whispered "Curiosity killed the cat," but Snake couldn't help himself. He climbed right up, pinning those powerful legs down and made to speak to the pissed looking male. His sharp black claws made quick work of that gag and the human immediately growled out a warning. "Don't touch her like that."
Eyes wide with surprise, Snake stole a quick glance at the female behind him. Her arms were still only half bound. "Like what?" he couldn't help but wonder.
"At all," spat the still-glaring human. "She hates it."
"It's my job," replied the dubious Snake, holding up the remains of the still unused bindings. He'd trained for many mooncycles to perfect all the proper techniques. To bind a human without actually touching it skin to skin took a careful, trained hand, but apparently that was not good enough for this boy. "Just leave her alone," he had growled, threatening, "Heather doesn't like to be touched. Not by anyone, ever."
"That is no concern of mine."
"It will be when I kick it into your big, empty head!"
"Hmm…" Snake glared back into those angry blue eyes, considering for a moment, and then he crawled off, away from his male captive, and reached over to rifle through his many unlabeled potion bottles instead. The human male had its arms tied back, wrists bound together neatly, but its legs remained a significant threat. Snake knew he'd only be kicked if he tried binding them now.
Considering this, he selected his most trusty potion, uncorked it, and then returned to show those blue eyes the matching liquid within. "Know what this is?"
The human shook its pretty head, black hair still damp, and Snake vaguely considered just how nice its creamy complexion really looked. It's gotta be worth at least twenty onyx… "This is Lunar blood," Snake informed. "Merenteren, god of mothsss, controls human statesss and can alter the mind…"
"Not mine," was the other male's brazen retort.
"It will if you drink it," Snake assured. "In this bottle is pure sleep itself: rest without worriesss." He crawled back over to his captive, offering up the little clear bottle. "I will make you a deal," he offered. "Rather than tying her up, I will simply keep her asleep using this, but in return, you must drink some as well."
Something beautiful happened then. The male's glaring blue eyes left his own for a moment, stealing a glance at the female, and then the anger in them seemed to just melt. Those disdainful lips pressed into a tight, peach-colored frown, but accepted the potion, finally, and snake happily tipped it right in. The lovely human male nearly passed out and hit the ground right away, but Snake graciously caught it. Carefully he lowered its now limp body to the ground. Its head rested gently down and those eyes seemed to yearn for the closed ones of the female just a hand's width away. Droopy half-lids fell fully closed and those ebony lashes fluttered only once more. I love you, said they, but Heather did not even see.
Massive, venomous fangs drew wider as he stepped from the darkness, a massive black dragon with scales dark as night. Cruel, mismatched eyes glared into Heather's own, one a blood red, the other a bizarre almost yellow...
But she was not afraid.
She made to cleanly erase him from existence, but another dragon suddenly intervened: attacking from behind.
Hot, wet blood spurted from her neck as its fangs sank down deep in her neck, but the puncture wounds were numb, only pain in her heart could burst forth.
"H- How… could you?" The words came out shaky and weak, her strength draining out with the blood.
Everything grew blurry, distorted and she could not even remember her name, but her very last breath was his own.
That last word came out, weak and choked with her blood, but failed to register with the dragon itself. Those scarlet reptile eyes narrowed, glowing eerie and bright, then it released and she hit the ground, hard.
Heather startled awake,
Her body was still tightly bound and at some point her blindfold must've been replaced, but she could tell she was in a new room. The hardwood floors here were actually warm, and the gentle scent of soap tickled her nose.
"You're awake, eh?"
It sounded like Master. Heather nodded, unable to speak.
"Sit still a bit…"
She nodded again, even though she wanted to refuse when his hands moved toward her. Luckily however, he seemed interested in removing her bindings, as the leather biting into her wrists and ankles fell away. Heather automatically sat up, finishing the job with her own hands. The blindfold went first and then the gag, and she tossed both aside, glaring up at him while her fingers instinctively massaged her purple-bruised wrists.
"Such venom in those eyes," the master said, "I'd think you were some sorta dragon if'n I didn't know better!"
Heather didn't comment. "Why am I here?"
"Don't ask me that," Master scoffed. "It's you what's wandered into the wrong world, eh? It's just me 'n snake puttin' you in your right place. You humans ain't allowed to just run free."
"Then why'd you untie me?"
"'Cause you won't be runnin' nowhere, that's why. This place is locked up tight." He gestured, and for the first time Heather got a good look at the room. A bathroom?
There were buckets and sponges scattered about the floor, and a large wooden tub of hot water was situated right in the center, presumably for rinsing off, but she barely noticed these, searching instead for an exit.
"Now you're gonna get yourself pretty, understand?" Master continued, "For the customers. And throw them ugly human clothes of yours away. I'd wash ya myself but aint no one gonna buy a female what smells like she been touched by a male."
It was clear from his voice that he was remiss to leave her untied, even to allow her to bathe, so Heather pretended to behave. "They can tell by smell?" It was the first question she'd thought to ask, but judging by his face it wasn't a very good one.
"'Course they can!" He scoffed, "first thing they'll do is sniff ya! Ain't you never met a shiren before?"
Shiren? There was that word again. The master had cocked his head as if he were shocked she'd never heard of them, but Heather still shook her head, trying to be polite.
"No. What's a Shiren, anyway?"
"Dumb as dirt, you." He scoffed, standing to leave, "Shiren's like what your dumb kind call gods: controllin' time and whatnot. Look like big animals sometimes, eh? Then disguise like humans sometimes, see? And they'll pay big bucks for real humans like you. But clean ones only, understand?"
"Yeah, I get it."
"Good. Now wash up. Snake'll be in to fetch ya so get it done quick." With that said he left, shutting and locking the door with a loud 'clack,' and Heather turned to the task before her. The water looked hot and inviting, but she wasn't sure what she should do. If she did bathe, he'd sell her to one of those Shiren things, but if she didn't… I'll have to stay here? Well, that decision made itself as the steam wafted up, inviting, and as it turned out, the water was the perfect pick me up.
"What do you mean, no?"
The snake tried to swallow his nerves, eyes fixed on the oversized, black wolf before him. Its voice was slightly high-pitched and its body slighter than a male's, so he assumed it was a female, but he knew a Shiren when he saw one: he knew what power looked like. Something was strange about it however. This wolf boasted unnaturally pure black fur and almost reptilian amber eyes, as well as misplaced, leathery black wings. It's probably got dragon's blood mixed in. Even so, this wolf-bred creature radiated both beauty and authority. It was not she, however, who demanded the most attention, but the woman who'd apparently chosen her for a mount.
An ornately decorated saddle had been fixed onto her back, right between her big black wings, and the woman occupying said saddle looked to be an actual goddess. Her beauty was not something humans should possess: flawless, snow-white skin and impeccable grace. Her sleek blonde hair hung well past her waist, acting as her only form of clothing, yet she carried not the slightest hint of shame. Instead, her regal emerald green eyes met directly with his, proud and poised as the majestic moon above, but thus far she hadn't chimed in. She simply pursed those thin red lips of hers while her companion voiced their shared displeasure.
"My lady has come all the way from Elkenfeld for this? A river serpent sheriek with the gall to just turn her away?"
"I apologize," the snake sighed, offering a bow to the wolf-mounted beauty, "but that particular product is in the process of being sold to its new owner. Only customers are allowed in past this point, and seeing as how wolves have vowed never to buy humans…"
The half wolf snapped. "That human was not yours to sell to begin with! You kidnapped her from the care of our ally!"
"Products can't be kidnapped, only polished and sold," was the snake's smug retort, and the wolf-dragon snarled, but the woman atop her finally spoke. "Calm yourself Mirah."
Snake found himself arrested by the mere sound of her voice. She spoke not as a human, but the goddess she was, so her words were nearly felt rather than heard. Stunning green eyes met with his own, and she addressed him alone. "You are an estranged Firebreather, aren't you?"
"My father once was," admitted the snake, "but he is dead now."
That perfect face betrayed not a hint of surprise. "Killed by his father, no doubt. Yet you deal in that same killer's system. Only the Firebreather king allows for the sale of intelligent beings."
"I deal in whatever puts meat on the table," was all he had to say for himself, and for some reason this caused her to smirk. The goddess spoke only once more, humor in her ethereal voice.
"Such is the ill fate of all males."
She gave her mount an affectionate pat, and the dragon wolf made to carry her elsewhere. It took the time to shoot one more snarl at the snake, but then turned around, and the two disappeared into the dark forest.
Heather was pruning, but finally satisfied she might just be clean. And she'd at first thought it nice Master had left a crisp white bathrobe for her to change into, but was then only annoyed that it seemed like this would be the only hint of clothing he intended she wear. There was not even a tie at the front, so Heather had to improvise, using the one from her hair, but still this robe showed off a good deal of her skin, leaving much of her arms, legs and neck clearly exposed. "So they wanna sell me…"
Well this is the right way to do it, she bitterly thought, leave it to men to force a girl to wear something so frikkin' degrading! At that moment Heather suddenly realized there might have been a way to escape. The master had untied her after all. The idiot must have thought she'd resigned herself to this fate. "As if."
She'd die before she let this world full of monsters get the better of her! Heather cursed herself inside for letting her guard down. How stupid she'd been, to trust a voice on the wind and actually think things would get better: that she might find her father. How shameful to think she'd risked her life with that snake, chasing after yet another man she knew did not want her.
"Stupid Chris," She absently muttered, while her mind worked things out at top speed. She first headed for the door she came in from, but just as she'd expected, found it to be locked up tight. The polished brass handle wouldn't budge, so she didn't waste much time on that. Instead Heather made her way around to the far wall, inspecting what looked like a well-covered window. The frame was made of wood, which felt soft and warm at her fingers. The steam from the bath had left it with a slick coating of rose-scented wetness, but this only made things easier. After only a moment of carefully testing the feel at her fingers, Heather reared back and punched it. Sure enough, her fist sank right through, not even meeting with the glass she felt sure must be on the inside. It seemed to be a thick covering of paper, in fact, and she was able to easily tear it right open. A pile of thick, ruined scraps gathered at her bare feet while the teenager worked, tearing the covering off almost completely, and Heather hoisted herself up, into this window, discovering now that it felt more like a crawl space.
"This is perfect!" She wasn't sure where it would lead, but already Heather could see light at the end of this tunnel. Maybe it was daylight? A soft, golden glow only grew brighter the more she approached, and she felt her spirits lifting as well. The moment she was out she would run. To where, she didn't know, but Heather would run, and she'd find her own way. I will not be sold! No sooner had she said this than the ground beneath her knees suddenly gave way, and for that terrifying moment, Heather found herself in freefall, heart frozen, but then it was over. She landed right on her butt, less than graceful, and golden light filled her ears, along with the sound of applause.
The cushioned ground here was a welcome surprise, but only then did Heather realize she'd been tricked. All around her stood tall, hooded figures, with her Master right in the center, speaking over the sound of vibrant applause. "So as you can see, gentlemen," he was saying, "our newest addition got some brains and some guts. I'll take the first bids now if you don't mind."
"Isn't that sweet?" One of the hooded figures crooned, leaning down to get a good look at Heather. "It looks kinda scared."
Heather only glowered, smoothing her robe down as far as she could to cover more of her legs. "I am not an it."
"Ooh, but it's got a temper," was all this thing said, but the others leaned in to whisper things to each other.
"Just needs training."
"After that it'll be worth a fortune."
"Look at that hair. Very healthy. I've never seen anything like it."
"And it's a female."
"It smells lovely."
"What do you think?"
"Yeah, definitely worth a bid."
Grudgingly she stood up, recognizing that she'd fallen right into some sort of display. Master leaned forward and slapped a pair of thin silver cuffs on her wrists, but luckily none of the others approached. The hooded people around her stayed put, and he stood back to watch too, so Heather gathered they must have been interested just to see what she'd do.
Her first move then was to take in her surroundings. The soft ground beneath her turned out to be a collection of flowers and grasses, purposely stacked high so that she would land safely, and the source of that leading gold light presented itself in the form of small lamps. These lamps seemed to be hanging from vines, lit with bizarre baked golden flames, and the four walls surrounding looked to be made of tall, vibrant shrubs. I'm in a garden?
Above her the night sky twinkled with stars that were not supposed to exist. They glowed yellow and white, set eerily apart from the dark, murky blue. Even the moon here seemed foreign, but Heather had more important views to explore than the skies. She set her eyes downward but dodged those of the hooded figures around her. Some were calling out numbers, still impressed with her arrival, but others just watched, biding their time. She could not see most of the faces of the creatures beneath their dark hoods, but already knew these were creatures, rather than men. Some spoke with hoarse, rasping voices while others didn't seem able to speak much at all. She'd meant to get a better look at the crowd, but was immediately distracted when someone approached. At first Heather jumped back, not letting it near, but then she realized this thing looked familiar. "Snake?"
"Who elssssse would I be?" snapped the other, but Heather only gaped, realizing she'd never seen his real body, possibly because he'd been wearing a long cloak before. He was much taller now, around seven feet, and his skin was still that same ink black, but below his waist, where Heather might expect legs, he really did look much more like a snake. His thick, scaly body was somehow able to balance upright, but beneath his hips, the large, dark scales split into smaller ones, accommodating five tails which seemed even longer than his main body. They were currently close together, and so acted as one, but Heather already knew they were dexterous, like extra arms. His tongue flicked out every now and then too, even when he wasn't trying to speak.
"You're a- a… something," she finally finished, moving to the side to get a good view of his tails.
"I'm a Sheriek," he corrected, " and bite your tongue stupid, 'cause your buyer will be one of us too."
"What?!" She turned with wide eyes to the crowd that had only just applauded her arrival. Now she examined them closely, they looked much more like the creatures they were. "You mean, no one here is a person?"
"They are not your species if that's what you're getting at," the snake absently answered.
"But what is a sheriek then?"
"Sheriek are higher beings, and our bretheren Shiren, are more powerful still. Haven't you figured it out, yet? We are what humans wish they could be."
Now Heather scoffed, glaring disdainfully. "If I wished I were anything else, it would be something with legs."
He only grinned, hissing darkly. "Someone's going to claw that smart mouth off your face if you're not careful."
"Yeah the ones that actually have arms maybe."
"Whatever. Just come and walk with me, human. The customers like to see humans in their natural habitat."
"And what if I don't?"
"Makes no difference to me," he shrugged. "stay with the other sheriek if you want."
He turned and left her alone, but Heather could not even miss him. Seeing Snake like this made it painfully clear that she just wasn't in Kansas anymore.
"Natural habitat my foot…" This didn't feel natural at all, but looking back, she realized that many of those hooded creatures had indeed dispersed from the place she had fallen, observing at a distance as if she were the animal here. "It's like I'm in a zoo."
Heather nodded, absently sounding the new word she'd just learned out as she went. "Sure-Eek, huh? These sheriek things… are they all freaky looking?" She could not really tell with the dark cloaks in the way...
But I can't be the only real person here.
Heather began walking, pretending she wasn't trying to decipher the species of the creatures around her. Along the way she caught sight of at least three other girls dressed exactly as she was. Each one looked terrified, but most were obediently mulling around, pretending to look at the flowers. The sheriek followed closely, keeping their hoods up, but as Heather watched, their movements revealed hints of their true species. When one of them gestured, talking to another about the humans they saw, Heather caught sight of its abnormally colored hand. The thing seemed covered in murky black scales, with overlong, crystal clear claws. And she wasn't entirely sure, but Heather swore she could see something slightly lifting the robe at its back. Wings? The creature beside it seemed to have some as well, and a third took a step forward, giving a glimpse of something trailing behind it. And tails, too.
Sheriek… These were definitely not the magnificent beings Heather had seen while she was reading that book. But then, where had they come from? Why hadn't the book mentioned them? She wished she had read more of it, or at least understood it more fully. The Sheriek looked like half humans, at least. Were they mere animals, pretending they could look like humans, or were they humans who had become mutated? Were they an unholy combination of both? "I don't like this." That much was clear.
This place felt like some sort of twisted, negative image. The surrounding garden seemed beautiful and bright: the complete opposite of the creatures perusing it. Thick, newly bloomed roses lined the west end while thin, purple blossoms overlay the walls to the east. These Heather first chose to approach. She'd never seen flowers like them, on television or otherwise, and wasn't sure what they might be either. Petals seemed to float around the main base of the plants, and when she walked closer, they curled up, as if fearful, until each almost looked like a natural pinwheel.
"Aren't the Wilspin beautiful here?" Heather startled, realizing too late that one of the Sheriek had made its way over in silence and now stood right beside her. She could have sworn she'd been alone only seconds ago, but now backed away.
The sheriek, if it was one, did not seem to take offense when she did this, but turned to observe her with an almost mirthful curiosity. "Are you afraid of me?"
"No," she immediately lied, even while keeping her distance, "I'm not afraid of you things!"
He chuckled, or at least, Heather thought that he might be a he. This thing had a voice like no human should. It almost reverberated, but she felt it sounded just slightly too deep to belong to a female.
"You will make enemies quickly, acting defensive like that…"
"Don't tell me what to do."
He actually smiled, cocking his head back slightly, and she nearly screamed with the first glimpse at his face. His skin was the color of milk-laced green tea, creamy yet clear, and those thin, smirking lips were set far apart on his face: the exact color of raspberries. "What a shame." She made to snap back, but suddenly he had disappeared. The moment Heather relaxed however, that same voice spoke from behind her. "You know nothing about us-" She whipped around but his image only faded back into nothing, reappearing behind her again, "and yet seek to judge…"
Heather wheeled back around, lashing out to shove him away, but to her surprise, her cuffed hands only sank into his stomach. Her body froze up with the cold sinking in straight from his. She refused to admit this was fear, even as he took a step closer. This thing towered above her, easily taller than anyone she had ever met, but when she tried to step back, she found her arms trapped inside of him. "Let me go!"
"You attacked me," murmured the thing. He didn't seem able to feel her at all, but at this proximity, Heather was able to finally see his eyecolor-except that it didn't exist. Her own image blinked back at her, as if reflected in matching round mirrors.
"What… is this?"
"My power," whispered the now grinning stranger, leaning closer until she could see more of his almost silver-grey eyes, "I can see everything." Those words made it clear, these eyes were not mirrors after all, but more reminiscent of glossy disco balls: each facet changing to show an entirely separate image.
"You're a bug!" She tried still more desperately to remove her hands, but could not… "Stop this." She hated the way her body refused to stop shivering. There was no way to escape this thing's hold. "Please let me go."
"But look," he whispered, hands raised, "I am not even stopping you, Heather."
She wrenched herself back, and finally her arms slid back out of his body. Heather caught a glimpse of his hands, the same milky green as his face, but only then realized what he'd done. The cuffs on her hands had turned from strong silver metal to a darkened, red rust, and as she pulled away, fell to pieces, as if destroyed by the touch of his body.
"There, you see?" He kindly offered, "Perhaps even those who are different still have something good to share?" He let his arms fall to his sides then, still smiling, and then, like her handcuffs, seemed to just disappear in a soft swirl of dust.
Heather only gaped for a minute, stunned by his sudden departure, and it was only then, with her heart beat doubled in shock, that she realized the mistake she had made. Wait just a minute-that guy knew my name!
She recognized his voice just a moment too late. By the time she had realized, he was gone. "Hey, wait!" She wasn't even sure what he was, but immediately made to give chase.
Without even understanding what it meant, Heather chose her own master then and there, the mysterious god who was everywhere and yet nowhere.