CHAPTER 7 – QUESTION MARKS HANGING

~SOUNDTRACK: Matthew and the Atlas – Out of the darkness~

When she woke up, Clarissa noticed her head was lighter.

The pain was gone. The numbness, too. She tried moving her wrists and found they were no longer shackled. Her lungs no longer burned when she tried drawing in breaths. Her muscles no longer sore, her throat no longer dry, her vision clearer. It felt oddly like freedom, but she was smarter than allowing herself the privilege to hope for such thing.

She tried standing up and managed so, much to her surprise. She looked around. She was no longer in the basement. She should've guessed so. The air wasn't muddy here, and she couldn't hear the pipes squeaking. Instead, it looked like she was in a tent, on an actual bed, with sheets and a blanket that covered her. There was a glass of water on a nightstand by the bed and some toast. To her right, a mirror and another nightstand with some toiletries. A brush. Soap. A few items that looked like makeup products, which she found rather odd. Why would her captors want her to put on makeup? Was this some sort of last supper kind of thing? Or her last wishes? Because in the eventuality that she could actually be killed, she'd never waste her last wish on something so trivial.

She was about to stand up from the bed and try on some magic to see if everything had indeed been returned to normal, when she noticed a figure standing in a faraway corner, watching her closely. Her muscles tensed when she recognized him, almost instantly. The metallic taste was back in her mouth instinctively even without the blood coming from biting her tongue in pain.

Her torturer.

"Rise and shine, puppet," he sing-sang, chewing on a straw. "We've got a show to put on."

Clarissa gritted her teeth. She knew it was a long shot, but she had to try. After all, they'd put her in more humane conditions. They'd given her makeup and a bed. She felt better than she had in weeks, like her strength was back a dozen times more powerful. Surely that was an illusion from having felt weak for too long, but still, she raised her hands and called on the flames. Even at her weakest point, with magic by her side, she could burn her way out of every crawl space.

But the flames did not answer. So Clarissa just stood there for a second, then two, then three, with her hands extended like a silly girl trapped in a silly imaginary game. Panic crept inside her. They'd taken her magic away. They must have. That's why they'd been so quick to give her a nicer room instead of torture and shackles. Because now she was just as useless physically as she felt spiritually.

Yet she tried. With a grunt, she pointed again at the man before her and called the flames. Any flame. A spark would've done. At least a sign that her palms were warmer. Nothing came. Again and again she tried until she fell to her knees, looking at her hands like they were others than her own, as if they'd betrayed her. She was shaking, but she couldn't be bothered by that. There'd been a time, and one rather recent, when she would've dreaded the thought of being on her knees, weak and helpless in front of a worthless human. But without her magic, what was she if not a worthless human?

"What did you do to me?" she raised her onyx black eyes to her torturer. He just laughed at her, making Clarissa crave the taste of his blood and the sound of his screams as she tore him apart. But she couldn't anymore. She did not have the means because they'd taken them for her. In 800 years of life, never had she felt more powerless.

"Relax, puppet," he grinned at her. "You still have your powers. Had we been so skilled as to rid the world of magical garbage, we would've done it long ago."

Clarissa glared at him, swallowing her questions. If they hadn't taken her magic, why was she unable to use it? And what did they want with the most powerful witch in the world if not her magic? And if she truly still had her magic, was he so much of a moron as to stand before her when she could turn him to ashes with a snap of her fingers? That was of course, should she figure out how to.

The man walked to her and grabbed her elbow, forcing her to stand up. Clarissa wanted to fight him, but found out she couldn't. Not for weakness of the body. No, her strength was back, alright. But it was as if, even though her hands were free, the shackles were still there, restraining her to his will.

"Oh, you've got magic, alright," he sneered. "But you're about to use it on our terms."

Clarissa gritted her teeth. "Like hell I am," she shot him an attempt at being rebellious, at which he just laughed.

"Did I say you had a choice? You see, it's not up to you." He let go of her elbow, making her fall backwards. "Now stand up."

And she tried, she tried so hard to prove to him he could not control her. She tried to sit there, on the floor, with as much pride as she could muster, glaring at him until he would beat her to a pulp or stab her senseless. There wasn't much more pain he could put her through and it wasn't like death was an option. If they'd taken everything from her, they would not take her pride. If she couldn't show them her power, she'd show them just how stubborn she could be.

Except she didn't. She did none of that. Instead, the invisible shackles around her wrists and ankles forced her body to move, forced her upwards until she was standing in front of him breathing heavily. All against her will. And through it all, she felt her forearm burning as if pierced with a fiery iron. She brought her arm to eye level and looked at it. There, in the flesh of her forearm rested a complex mark, reddened around the edges and flaring bright red. She felt the magic seeping out of it. She felt it flow from the Mark into her body and tie itself to her nerves, to her veins, to the smallest of her molecules. And she looked past it and deep within herself for her magic. She found it in the back of her very core, locked in a cage under a lock for which the Mark on her arm was the fitting key.

"What did you do to me?" she asked again, though she could very well sense it. He'd broken the only connection in this entire universe she cared about. The one with her magic.

Her tortured smiled widely, showing his blackened teeth. "I made you my bitch."

She stood on a stage. It terrified her. And Clarissa wasn't one to be easily scared.

It wasn't the stage that terrified her. It wasn't the audience. It wasn't the bright spotlight shining down upon her. It wasn't even all the threats that had rained down upon her, should she cause trouble while performing her role.

It was the helplessness. Knowing she was at their mercy. Knowing there was nothing, nothing she could do to free herself of this Mark, of this compulsion, of this invisible cage.

She heard the whistle in the backstage that was supposed to be her cue. She closed her eyes and pictured it in her head. She pictured a perfectly still image, with a witch in a ring and dozens of people watching her. She pictured humans backstage who believed they were all too powerful, who believed they could tame her as one would a wild lion. She pictured them coming for her all enraged, eager to punish her for disobedience. And she'd just laugh in their faces, for there were no chains that could hold Clarissa, leader of the most powerful coven to have ever existed. Then she would raise her hands and hell would rain down. She would make the sky burst open and explode in flames, then each of them would burn alive these worthless humans waiting to watch her do tricks like a cheap carnival monkey. She would burn them all. Starting with that worm who'd kept her locked down for weeks. Reed, she'd heard them call him. The Head Keeper. The one who was forcing her to do this. She would show each of them a violent, bloody ending, worthy of the Wickedest of them all.

But when she opened her eyes and willed her arms to go up, they didn't. She only heard Reed's instructions in her head, as much as she tried to shut them out.

Stand straight.

Breathe in.

Look them in the eyes.

Smile.

She did. She straightened her back. She took a deep, shaky breath, because she was trying to tell her lungs to stop breathing altogether, if only to break the cycle. Then she raised her head and made eye contact with a few faces from the audience. Human filth. Hungry eyes devouring her helplessness. Then she smiled, a smile that made her entire face hurt. She was quite sure the smile had come as more of a grimace, but she was also sure the effect had been even better.

You bring up your hands. Gracefully, you hear me? Like you're floating.

Let out sparks. Not flames. We've got other beasts for that.

Make them red.

She did. From the tips of her fingers, she shot red sparks. She tried welcoming the familiar buzz of magic, but it was not familiar at all. It was tainted, as rotten as magic that's already dark can be. It tasted like sour spoiled wine on the back of her tongue.

Keep that up for a while.

Then send it in circles.

Send it in the crowd.

Each murmur of awe from the crowd scratched her ears like nails on a chalkboard. Her hands would not stop, no matter how much she screamed at them.

Then take that back. To you.

Make them take you up.

Float like a bloody angel.

She did. She felt the drops of sweat running down her forehead from how hard she tried resisting it, with no success whatsoever. Whatever spell was in the Mark, it was uncrackable.

Then a big ending.

Explode.

Clarissa called on the sparks to come back to her. She let them surround her body. She wished she could burn. She wished she could be consumed by magic until she ceased to exist. But the sparks clung to her like pure electricity, and she pulled them all together tighter and tighter and closer and closer and then she let them all go in an explosion of color. And the lights died in a cascade of applause.

Clarissa came down. She looked down at her hands again like they were the ones strangling her constantly, dooming her to an abysmal breathlessness.

And when she no longer had to fight the control of the Mark, when the lights were out and the crowd was berserk, she did the only thing she was good at, the only thing she was still able to.

She ran.

~SOUNDTRACK: Tom Walker – Leave a light on~

The Marks were meant to subdue you. To make you bendable to their will. To put a seal on the magic of the Wicked and to deem them unable to use their powers unless told to. It was a cruel thing to do. It was like putting birds into cages and only allowing them to fly around with a chain around their legs.

Charles remembered getting his. In hundreds of years, he hadn't felt greater pain. Not because of the Mark. Because, in order to Mark you against your will, they need you at your weakest. So first they break you. They take from you everything you most cherish. They'd forced him to watch his sisters be tortured until breaking point. He'd promised himself that he wouldn't fail. He was the man of the family. The youngest sibling, but the one whose duty was to protect his girls. And he'd failed so hard. That was what he'd been telling himself as they watched Cathy and the twins break. In his darkest nightmares, he still heard their screams. He'd begged them to let them go. He'd prayed he could spill thrice as many drops of blood of their as they'd shed of Blackthorn blood. He would've given anything just to stop their pain. He would've given his life.

And they'd taken it. Just not his life. His spirit. His power of will.

And he remembered having his hands tied. He remembered not being able to fight back. He remembered the realization creeping in that, should need be again, he wouldn't be able to protect his sisters. One hundred and sixty years he'd spent in this circus. Not one day went by when he didn't curse at this goddamn Mark that kept him from finding Ember, from taking Cathy, Lizzie and Mary and running far, far away. Perhaps back to the Onyx Valley. He often dreamed of their home there. He often dreamed of how happy they'd been there, and it seemed so long ago it no longer felt like a memory, but like an illusion. And every time he tried to promise himself they'd live to see their home again, the Mark was there, burning on his arm, reminding him he was no longer in control and that he was in no position to make false promises, not even to himself.

Tonight, he watched the girl. Clarissa. He watched her just as tormented as he'd been back when they'd forced him shift for his first performance. Perhaps even more tormented. For her, the breaking point had been losing power. The thing she most cherished had been power and control. He would've expected her to last a little longer than him. They didn't have leverage on her, not like they'd had on him. He didn't think there was anyone she would've sacrificed herself to protect, save for her own skin. But it seemed to him she'd come already half-broken. So perhaps there hadn't taken much effort to weaken her enough before putting that Mark on her.

Charles couldn't help but feel sorry for her. It felt like every spell they tore out of her came out with a piece of her very core. Like every breath was dragged out by sheer force. The audience didn't know any better, but Charles saw the dullness of the sparks. He remembered. He remembered the full extents of her powers. He doubted he'd ever be able to forget it, even after seven hundred years more. He remembered how tragically, violently stunning her magic was, in the deadliest way.

This was nothing like it. The sparks were dim. Their redness was faded. There was no electricity in the air to signal the magic. It was just a pretty light show. Charles stood idly by, watching it with his lips pursed. He willed himself to feel nothing. The twins often scolded him for the pity he showed her. He made a real effort to remind himself she was an evil witch. But then again, she was also a fellow Wicked soul, as broken as everyone in this circus was. Shadows in need of light. He hated every instinct in his body that wanted to shed some light over Clarissa's soul, should she even have one.

When the show ended, the lights went down and she ran away. He knew it was pointless. There was no running away from the Circus. The Markings made them all slaves here. But he let her have the small illusion of a choice. Even if all the running she could do would be to her tent, if was still something. It was still a shadow of free will.

But she wasn't running to her tent. Charles watched her walk out of the big tent where the shows were held. Typical rookie mistake. Some folks were just more stubborn, more rebellious than the others. They were the one who ended up hurting the most. The sooner you accepted your chains, the sooner you stopped feeling their weight.

Against his best instincts, Charles followed her. He knew he shouldn't have. He knew he should've kept his distance and that Clarissa being in the same place with the Blackthorns would eventually blow up in their faces. But he couldn't help himself. He couldn't bear seeing a soul hurting and not seek to soothe their pain.

It was pouring like crazy. With thunders and lightning, with crazy winds and raindrops heavy. He found Clarissa in the mud, barely a few feet away. He was surprised she'd even made it this far. The Markings rarely allowed you to leave the tent if you had the intention to escape. Perhaps she's had no such intention; perhaps she knew better. Or perhaps she truly didn't and she was truly more powerful than Charles gave her credit. It was easy to forget who she was and what she could do seeing her like that.

He stopped behind her, not daring to go any closer, and shoved his hands in his pockets, letting the rain wash him away. Clarissa just sat there in the mud, still as a statue, barely even blinking and breathing superficially.

"You can't run," he told her, which he immediately scolded himself for. Clearly she could tell that herself.

"I noticed," she replied simply, sharply. Charles wondered what words of encouragement he could even offer. He doubted she would've appreciated any.

Eventually, he sighed. "I'm sorry. Truly, I am."

"Save it," she cut him off. "So am I. I should not be here. This will not be my fate."

Charles pursed his lips. This wasn't supposed to be anyone's fate. No one was supposed to be here, no one deserved it. But he figured it must've been a great blow to her pride, for a witch of her talents to be reduced to this. A tame animal in chains.

"Do not attempt to fight it," he dared to offer. "I don't mean to offend you or to tell you what to do. This is merely a piece of advice. There is no point fighting it. With practice, you'll learn to work your way around the Marks. Use some magic even outside of the ring. Enough to get by, to make you feel some self-control. But we're all trapped here. The spells in these Markings… I don't know what they are, but I've never heard of anyone breaking them, or fighting them. This magic is very old. And very evil."

Silence fell for a few seconds, filled only by the rage of the storm. Charles was about to turn on his heels and leave. He'd said his piece. It was hers to decide what to make of it. But then she spoke.

"So am I."

~SOUNDTRACK: Tom Walker – Rapture~

Mary and Lizzie finished their performance with a blast. Cathy was usually the mesmerizing one, but the two of them were the explosive ones. Too bad this circus was so… evil. They might have actually enjoyed some of it.

They were walking to their tents, their eyes scanning the passing people for that bloody witch. They wouldn't have minded messing with her a little bit, now that she was out of containment and could show some claws of her own, too. Lizzie was particularly looking forward for a cat-fight.

"Poor little witchy," Mary giggled. "The way she ran out at the end? So sad. So dramatic."

"Come now," Lizzie scolded playfully. "We weren't taking it any better at first, remember?"

"Oh, yeah," her sister huffed. "We almost tore down the entire tent. We sure gave that crowd a rush of adrenaline."

"But still," Lizzie wrinkled her nose. "I would've enjoyed some crying on her behalf. Maybe some groveling. Groveling would've been nice. Perhaps some good nice threats or something. I bet Reed would've let us have some fun with her after that."

Mary laughed and was about to reply to her sister's remark, when they noticed Reed coming their way with a few of his top Keepers. They dragged along a girl in bloody clothes, screaming and struggling and throwing threats all around.

"Do you know who I am?" she wailed. "I am a bloody princess, you motherfuckers. You're messing with the queen. Emmett will come for me. And he'll play golf with your bloody heads. Take your filthy hands off me, dammit!"

Not many came here putting up a fight. The twins instantly liked her.

It was clear that they had quite a system for subduing vampires. Somewhere through the haze, Caitlin thought of that. Dealing with her had worked like a well-oiled machine. Within minutes, they'd had her pinned down with silver chains and knives. They'd stabbed her with silver on every inch of her body. And that wasn't even the worst of it.

Caitlin wasn't used to this. She'd never felt physical pain like this before. She kept hearing Emmett's voice telling her to hold on, telling her to suck it up and stop whining about it, to take it like a badass, not like a bitchy princess. But she couldn't. She couldn't take this. Her body felt like it was slowly shutting down. They kept hurting ways in ways she couldn't have even fathomed, just to let her heal again as fast as vampires did, just to start all over again. For all her bravado, she'd been quick to crack.

And the pain had been just the beginning. Perhaps she could've managed to bear the pain through sheer stubbornness. But it all got worse when they brought a witch. Caitlin remembered watching her face and asking herself why she was going to torture her, because the poor girl looked like she would've done anything but it. She remembered wanting to laugh at the girl. It seemed like a silly misunderstanding. But then the witch put her fingers to Caitlin's temples and she felt her in the deepest corners of her mind, swimming through her more private memories.

She saw Emmett's face.

She relieved the feeling of free-falling along with him from that roof.

She remembered hunting with him.

Kissing him.

The feeling of his skin.

His words.

Their fight.

His back as he walked away.

He's coming for me.

Emmett will come for me.

I'm getting pretty tired of this game of your of walking away when you decide you don't wanna play anymore.

But she hadn't walked away.

She'd been taken.

And Emmett was coming for her.

Then what the hell are you still doing here then?

He was coming for her.

I don't know.

She'd walked away.

But he was coming for her.

That's been it for a while.

Wasn't he?

If it's dead, let it die.

Maybe he wasn't.

But he was coming.

No, he wasn't.

He's not coming.

Emmett's not coming.

No one's coming for you.

No one's coming for you.

When the witch removed her hands from Caitlin's temples, those were the only words she could mutter.

"He's not coming. No one's coming. He's not coming. No one's coming."

And maybe it had been all the silver in her system. Maybe it had been the witch planting the idea in her subconscious. But she made no move to fight when they burned the Mark into her forearm.

"Well," one of the Keepers cocked his head to one side. "This was an easy one."

Reed smirked. "It's always easy when they come already broken."

Happy New Year, y'all!

I hope you guys have a magical, Wicked 2018!

Lots and lots of love and hugs,

D.