The Stone Curse
At some point after collapsing, Oliver was by my side, slowly getting me back on my feet. I couldn’t take it. I was already afraid of Callista, not even having met her in person. The animal henchmen I could rationalize…somewhat. The terrifyingly close calls and escapes from them – sure that was doable with Oliver helping me through it all. Jumping to what seemed like my death through what I thought was an imagined door that led into another world, Oliver’s world – okay, that one was hard to accept as well. But seeing this, seeing living, breathing people cursed into stone figures! I lost it then, seeing how powerful Callista truly could be. And how evil. Was she stronger than this? Could she really make people disappear…for good? Looking at those figures, desperately darting their eyes around in fear, that hit home for me. Who was I? I couldn’t take someone on who had powers like this! What was I thinking?
“What…?” was all I could manage to get out.
With a large and solemn sigh, Oliver sat me up on the floor, took a seat directly across from me and began his story:
“We were really arrogant not too long ago. Our town was prosperous, trading well with other worlds. There was not much we were in want of – both my family as the ruling body of this land in addition to our people. We weren’t always the small community you saw today. We flourished across this land in several towns for miles and miles. We were prosperous, happy. We had little to no epidemic or crime. Very unlike the world you live in today.
Of the seven kingdoms, ours was one of three ruling bodies: Earth, of course, though your people there are unaware of this (we call it Unda), my world, Grerde, and Callista’s, Zon. A perfect combination – water, earth and sun. We convened each year to exchange information, modify policies and law, created new ones. Anything that was pressing, anything that involved all seven worlds, we dealt with as a democratic body. Much like your three branches of government, only we did not separate into different ruling classes amongst the three. We counselled as one unit in all things.
Callista wasn’t worrying at first. Her changes were subtle, on the fringe, not clear enough for us to know what path she would follow. Had we any idea of the new worlds she was convening with, outside of our knowledge, had we known that they even existed, we would have been better prepared. She started small. Pressing for minor changes in various diplomatic policies, all of which seemed to relate to the moral fiber of the contracts we upheld in each world and between all worlds. Things to do with trade, with jobs, with money. Of course, they were all refuted by vote. But even with our democratic counsels and even with the personal attendance and care we gave to Callista, it was clear that she was diverging from us, from our agreements, from our harmony. She started to get angry, rage-like, vengeful. If something didn’t go her way during a counsel, we started to notice a pattern of bad things happening across all of our kingdoms. People started going missing. Crime increased. Food was harder to come by. People were getting incurably sick, spreading unknown diseases everywhere. We didn’t understand how it was happening – we were upholding our laws and policies, we were in constant communication and care with our communities, and yet, we were failing for the first time in several thousand years.
By the time we gathered the courage to fight her directly, it was too late. Much of our land here and in the worlds of our kingdom became like the forest you were in just yesterday. Quiet, devoid of life. We were helpless, desperate, and Callista was beyond reason. So we fought, and lost more life through battling her and her newfound army – people from our worlds that she enslaved to her bidding by turning them into animals. Warriors from the worlds that morphed her into the hateful, terrifying beast she is now.
What happened here, that was the last outright battle my people fought. I knew she was coming for us, for my family. We had very few defenses from the remaining people of our villages, and they didn’t last long against Callista and her forces. She took many of them by night, morphing them into animals to do her bidding in battle with us and in other worlds. Some, I believe, she sent to find you. (I shuddered at the memory of those terrible wolves, partly sympathetic, knowing that they came after me against their wills.) The next morning, after her first night time attack, she tore through our village and its defenders, on the way to my home here, like a hot knife through butter. We knew we had the slimmest chance of stopping her. But we had to try.
I thought that was it for me, for my family. We would no doubt be turned into some strange animal that had to bend to her will, to her beck and call. How little I thought of her spite for me and my family. We had the most influence among the three ruling worlds, we held the power from her in her mind. It wasn’t enough to turn us into mindless dogs. She wanted us to suffer. She wanted a living death for us, frozen in time, unable to escape from her power and the knowledge of her control. Hence…my family you see before you here. Clarence and I were lucky enough to escape just in time, but not before I saw my family turned to living stone. Not before I saw my father in a last ditch effort distract Callista’s wrath upon himself to save me.
I looked at the entrance, seeing more clearly the figures there. I could see his father, eyes roving about like mad on his stone face, anger etched in his features. He was facing away from the door, with his arms frozen in a way to suggest he was holding something, some kind of weapon to thwart a now invisible terror.
Images of my father came racing back to me. The last day we were together. The look of utter defeat and resolve on his face as he said his goodbyes. I could see a lot of those features in the stone face of Oliver’s father, and it made me weep all over again. There was nothing left to say after that. We sat there in silence for what seemed like hours, while I wept, while Oliver wept, both of us silently mourning the loss of our fathers.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“There’s more you need to know before we can move on,” he answered, “But, first, we need to rest.”
We gathered together what we could from the house for a food. It looked as if some things were fresh, and I thought of the townspeople across the lake who must have made voluntary journeys across the river to leave food for Oliver, not knowing when or if he was ever coming back. I appreciated with new gravity the distance they kept when we walked through the village earlier today. It was out of respect to Oliver. And out of respect to his family that they had to see every time they brought food to this home. Soon after our silent meal, Oliver showed me to the nearest bed. Exploring around, I discovered that this world had showers much like mine, though the water was cold. Nonetheless, I enjoyed washing myself clean, ridding my body of the horrible things I’d seen and learned since I met Oliver in my world. As soon as my head hit the pillow of the warm, soft bedding, I fell into a much needed and deep slumber.
I awoke to silence. The kind of quiet that is unsettling, brooding. I wished with all that was in me that I was waking up in my own bed, in my crappy apartment. I wanted my boring, unsatisfying life back. But only for one moment. Despite the terror and the disbelief, I constantly struggled with since meeting Oliver, there was a tiny spark in me that made me feel like I was finally on the right path. I was finally doing something that was meaningful. I was finally free. I was finally being myself. I didn’t know how to explain this feeling, I just knew it was there, like embers slowly burning, waiting for something to create the fire. I wanted that heat.
Suddenly, I realized I was not alone in the room. I could sense something stirring on the floor next to my bed. I didn’t know how long that presence had been there, but I could feel it as clearly as the air around me. It was shifting, moving and breathing ever so slightly. I didn’t dare call out for Oliver. Looking desperately around the bed, I noticed a small silver object of some kind. Slowly, I reached my arm towards the object while keeping my body as still as possible in the bed. I grabbed the object and lifted it slightly, testing its weight. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief as the object proved to be quite dense. It was short and spherical in nature, with an opening at the top. Like a small decorative silver bowl used for who knows what. That didn’t matter in this moment. It would serve just fine as a weapon, the kind of weapon that could incapacitate someone long enough for me to run away at least.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I slid my body across to the other side of the bed. Body tensed, I readied myself to jump on my intruder and hold him down long enough to strike. The moment came, and I leapt out of bed with a gut-wrenching screech, something I did not expect, as I landed on my victim. He was large, and seemed a little confused at my action, something that confused me as he was obviously creeping around my bed to attack me while I slept. Before I could raise my right arm to strike a blow, I was suddenly on my back, right arm pinned down. It happened to quickly for me to feel anything. Then I remembered my left arm, sprawled next to me and left unpinned. With all the strength I had, I swung this arm, fist clenched, towards my victim, who for some reason was covered in a sheet, and landed a decent enough punch to knock him off of me. I was frantically looking for my weapon while he was on the ground and stopped dead in my tracks.
“Grey, what the hell are you doing?”
“Oliver? Oh, crap, I’m so sorry!”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I thought you were an intruder!”
“Well, it’s good to know you’re prone to fight more than to flee,” he laughed.
He wasn’t moving. I pulled the sheet from his body to check that he was okay. There was a slight bruise coming up to the surface of his skin, just under his right eye. Before I could check my reaction, I was instinctively leaning over him and gently touching the bruise; this was the first time I’d ever punched someone, and I immediately regretted acting on that impulse, especially on someone who meant me no harm whatsoever. A few moments had passed before I realized how quiet we both were and what I was doing. I looked into Oliver’s eyes to notice him studying me silently while I stroked his face and leaned over him. I quickly pulled my hand away from him, and slid back from his body.
“Sorry, I –“
“Don’t worry, Grey,” he said sitting up, “I just didn’t want you to be alone. I…”
There was nothing left to say. We both stood up, awkwardly removing ourselves from the situation we had created. Well, the situation I had. With a few gruff noises and perhaps a laugh or two, we made our way out of the room, ready to start a new day.