Emulating a breathing statue, I kept my eyes at half-mast, my body still. I’d learned over the time in this dank, bat-infested cave that stillness was best. She didn’t question stillness. She sometimes forgot her victims were even there.
Well, victim, now. That other poor man had died this morning, leaving me as the lone survivor. She’d captured six of us in the beginning, all from different worlds, as we’d barely been able to communicate with each other even with the potions and language spells she heaped upon us. We’d lost the first man within a week, his body too different, his spirit too easily crushed.
The witch even now pored over her notes—flitting about the huge and scarred work table, picking up different vials, sketches of magical designs—only to put them down again with foul oaths. Her thin lips twisted as she snarled the words, making her narrow face even more pinched. The death of the last man enraged her, as she didn’t understand why—why the others had died. Why I lived.
I was the only woman she’d brought through. Was it because of my gender that I survived where the others hadn’t? Was it because my body chemistry was similar enough with this planet’s that her spells didn’t damage me when she tried her sick and twisted alterations?
At this point, I really didn’t care about the reason. I’d been trapped in this filthy place for too long. Weeks, months, maybe a year? I didn’t know anymore. The witch didn’t seem to require more than a few hours of sleep, she never let us outside, so without either the sun or any kind of routine from her, I had no way of marking time. All I knew was the sensory deprivation, the pathetic food I’d subsisted on, and being chained to a cave wall had driven me to a point of desperation.
I’d kill her. Just as soon as I could get my hands on her.
“WRONG!” she screeched, wringing her hands through her knotted hair. She threw the book in her hands against the far wall, hitting a bookshelf, where it clipped a bottle of some disgusting thing in green liquid, sending it all crashing to the ground in a shower of glass shards and icky stuff. “Why, why, why, why, why?!”
Seriously, how many times was she going to do that routine before she got tired of it? She’d literally repeated those words and that action four times in the past hour. At least, it felt like an hour. It could’ve be ten minutes. My patience was pretty thin.
The witch turned on me, face half-hidden in the dim lighting, body flexing up and down as she rocked back-and-forth on her feet. I suspected she might have some mental issues going on, aside from the general insanity. She kept doing repetitive motions of different sorts. She darted forward, quick as a cat, then stopped dead again, only two feet away from me, staring hard like a vulture at dying prey.
She had me chained against the back wall, and I leaned against it even though the wall wasn’t smooth and had a distinct chill to it. It was hard, so hard, to keep my breathing calm and even as I faced her down. If I hadn’t been a trained federal agent with a few years of service under my belt, I might have cracked. Well, I would have likely cracked well before now. The witch’s experiments on us had been nothing but torture.
The latest round she’d subjected us to had enhanced my physical structure. Or at least, I believe it had. I felt stronger than I had in a long time, as if she had inserted some Hulk serum into my blood. I dearly wanted to test it, as I felt like if I wanted, I could break these chains on my wrists and finally put an end to this. But there was a chance I was wrong. There was a chance that she just shot me up with some kind of adrenaline, and if that was the case, I couldn’t botch my chance.
Breath trying to catch and hope rising like a flood, I waited as she slowly became careless with me—coming in closer and closer, not keeping any kind of safe distance. A little closer, that was all I needed.
“Why do you live?” she hissed at me, as she had the past five zillion times. “WHY?!”
She’d come closer this time. My heartbeat ramped up several notches and it became that much harder to keep my breathing even. She’d never come this close before. She was literally within arm’s reach of me now. Had her insanity made her careless or was it anger?
Coming in a few more inches, she spat into my face again, “WHY?!”
I knew the answer that would enrage her. “I don’t know.”
She screeched like a stepped-on cat, whirling, her back to me even as she searched for something to throw.
This time, she wasn’t going to.
Training kicked in and I threw myself forward, one single lunge, hands going up to her head. The chains screeched like the banshees as I pulled to their limits and the past them, locking onto her head before she could escape. One of them might have given way but I didn’t focus on that, I just focused on the greasy head in my hands. One hand under her chin, the other at the top of her head, and I wrenched harder than I ever have. In one smooth move, the bones of her neck snapped. Gut churning as I felt her life flow out of her, I stepped back, releasing my hands, allowing her to drop to the cave floor.
For a moment, I stared down at her lifeless corpse and just breathed, ragged pulls of breath that felt like sobs. Was she dead? Truly dead? I kept thinking that she would have these revival powers, like those villains in a manga, or some crazy regenerative powers like you’d find in a superhero comic. But she didn’t move, didn’t breathe, just stared upwards with blind, glassy eyes.
I looked down at my wrists and felt another tidal wave of emotion hit me, although I couldn’t sort it all out. The chains had snapped off the cuffs. I had literally pulled right out of them. So, not adrenaline then. I am She-Hulk, hear me roar?
A slightly hysterical laugh tumbled free of my mouth. Funny—weeks, possibly months of torture, and I managed, but freedom breaks me. I took in a deep breath, forced myself to calm down. I could freak out and cry later.
Almost fumbling, I knelt down and grabbed one of her hands, putting them on the cuffs shackling my wrists. I’d discovered with the previous men that the cuffs were attuned to her somehow. All she had to do was touch to release them. They fell immediately off, revealing bruised skin underneath. Tears seeped out of my eyes—out of relief, or joy, or misery I didn’t know.
Some questions you just don’t ask yourself.
I gave myself a soft slap on the cheek as I couldn’t fall apart yet. During the interminable amount of time in this cave, I’d spent a lot of it analyzing the contents of this room, making a mental list of what to grab, in what order. I went for the empty pack sitting nearby first, my movements rock steady. After months of being incarcerated here, I should be anything but healthy. The Hulk serum had hurt like the dickens but I couldn’t argue it seemed worth the payoff. Assuming it didn’t kill me in 48 hours or something else equally dreadful. Snapping the pack open, I stuffed it full of the bread, seasoned ham, and water jug she kept stocked nearby. Food accounted for, I grabbed my gun next, as she’d kept all of the possessions we’d come through with on individual shelves. I’d been eyeballing that gun for a long time, longing for it, and it felt like a homecoming to have it again in my hand.
I checked it over, quick and professional, but I knew that it was fine even as I went through the motions. She hadn’t paid a lot of attention to it, barely gave it more than a glance before throwing it onto the shelf. It had literally been sitting here gathering dust the entire time I was chained to the wall. Seeing it lying there, just out of reach, had been maddening beyond belief. I felt like shooting her, just because, but restrained myself. I only had one extra clip for it and half a clip loaded, I shouldn’t waste ammunition. Hopefully, this would be enough to get me to help.
For that matter, I hoped a Glock was enough in this world period. I still had no idea where I was. I just knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore without any ruby red slippers to teleport me home.
Okay, my threshold of a mental breakdown quickly approached if I was making Wizard of Oz references, even in my head.
Armed, mostly stocked, I headed out the only door in the room, treading carefully. The witch is—was—insane enough to booby trap the place. The word paranoid was invented for her sake. So I kept my gun up, slipping sideways down the tunnel-like hallway, trying not to graze the walls, as they were frankly slimy and disgusting. After not having a bath for who knew how many months, aside from the general hose down she’d sprayed on us from time to time, I stunk enough.
I would give my left eye for a change of clothes and a bath.
Other store rooms, or perhaps utility rooms, opened up on either side of the tunnel but nothing leapt out at me. It felt like a small eternity, but I counted three hundred and eighty-two steps before I reached a door. Still very cautious, I nudged it open, ready to spring back at any time.
Then I saw the sunlight streaming out over a plain of grass and ancient trees and couldn’t remember my caution anymore. Tears brimmed over my eyes, making them sting, and I had to blink them rapidly away as I stepped outside for the first time in eons. I went out fifteen shaky steps and then my knees gave way, and I landed in the crunchy, spiky grass.
For a moment, I just hunched over, crying, and trying not to. Free. Finally free. No more noxious potions poured down my throat, or spells that make me feel like my body was trying to turn itself inside out, or being chained to the wall like a mad animal.
“Ding dong, the witch is dead,” I half sang, half garbled, then laughed hysterically. “More Wizard of Oz. Oh man, I’m really losing it, here.”
Flopping onto my back, I basked in the sunlight, letting the heat dry the tears on my cheeks. It felt so nice and warm, but not sweltering. Were we in late spring? Early fall? The question fell away unanswered, as I couldn’t force my eyes open just yet to make any observations.
Breathe, Jamie, just breathe. You survived. Those other poor saps didn’t make it, but you survived. Because you’re an Edwards, and a federal agent, and you don’t know how to quit.
Huh, there was a moon hovering behind the sun. Pretty big one, at that. “I feel like I should be looking for the yellow brick road, or the man behind the curtain. Ugh, I’ve got to quit that. I swear, if this planet really is called Oz, I will shoot myself.”
Why did I keep referencing the movie that traumatized me as a kid?
Okay, got to move. I levered myself back up, putting the pack on a shoulder, and looked around. I didn’t see any signs of civilization, but that didn’t alarm or surprise me. The witch wouldn’t want anyone near her secret lair, after all. All I saw was this clearing, lots of trees, and I could hear a river or brook or something nearby. When in doubt, follow the river?
Besides, I’d love to wash some of the grime off.
Following my ears and the scent of moving water, I went around the cave entrance and down a little crooked path. Seems she used this way too, which reassured me that I could reach the water from this angle. Going down was easy enough, only a slight grade that even in my work heels I could have managed. I almost missed those heels. They’d given up the ghost several weeks ago. I’d been going barefoot ever since. Barefoot and in a black suit that was little better than rags. Let me tell you, being trapped in a suit for several eternities was the definition of torture.
Ah-ha, there’s my water. It looked clean and sparkling but I knew better than to trust appearances and drink it. Bathing, however, no problem. Stripping everything off, I dove in and washed as best I could without soap. It felt glorious, the water just on this side of cool, making a fine shiver dance over my skin. As I washed, I took a better look at my surroundings. I saw a few leaves turning red or gold, so it looked like early fall. Oh man, good thing I broke out when I did. Trudging for help in winter, barefoot, would not have been fun.
It felt beyond repugnant to put my filthy clothes back on, but I didn’t have a lot of other options. Streaking on an alien planet was a definite no-go. Putting the clothes in the river would not have gotten them clean, just wet. In fact, the strongest soap in the world wouldn’t save these clothes. I’d burn them at the first opportunity.
Feeling more alive, I sat down long enough to eat some ham and bread. It was the first decent food I could remember since coming here. Ready to tackle what happened next, I resumed following the river. Towns always cropped up near rivers. It was a universal guarantee no matter where you went, as everyone needs a constant source of water.
I kept my eyes and ears open as I moved, as I honestly have no idea what kind of predators are in this world. Hopefully whatever they are, my Glock can stop them. I stopped for a moment, ripped off the bottom part of my slacks, and wrapped my feet. There were enough sticks and pebbles on the forest floor to give me issues, even through my callused skin. I’d slice my foot open without some sort of protection.
As I walked, I tried desperately not to think. Family, friends, the world I knew, all of that was lost to me. I knew it with a heartbreaking certainty. The witch had likely broken several rules to portal us through to this world. Everything she’d done, her whole setup, had screamed ‘evil mastermind at work’ to me. And I didn’t need to know this world’s written language to understand that her notes, what notes she took, were a complete mess. Even she couldn’t follow them. Anyone trying to unravel what she had done and send me home would be facing a herculean task.
I was going to be on this planet for a very long time. Likely until the grave.
I looked around, trying to resign myself to the fact. At least I’d landed I a beautiful world. It was lush and thick, including hues of blues and purples and reds I didn’t think that plants could manage. If you have to be stranded in an alien world, it has to be a pretty one. Thems the rules.
I’d expected to die in the attempt of escaping the witch, honestly, so I hadn’t planned much beyond that. What could I possibly do here? I had very little information to go off of. There was magic in this world—which was cool when not in the hands of an insane woman with the bathing habits of a sloth—and there was breathable air. There were things I recognized, like trees, plants, birdsong, water, which was all good. I could survive here.
Could I make a living here?
Could I really live here?
My breath started quickening, a jittery feeling of panic creeping over me, and I forced myself to stop. “No panic attacks,” I ordered myself firmly. “For one thing, you don’t have the time for them. You have to find help and shelter before night falls, which is like, eight hours away. Assuming this world operates on a 24-hour day. Which, hey, alien planet, it might not. Man, I suck at pep talks.”
I trudged and trudged, my gait evening out to a steady walk. I kept waiting to feel tired, but it didn’t really happen, which made me question again: Just what kind of potion had she shot me up this time? As I contemplated the question, gradually the scenery changed. Less trees, more open areas. Okay, that was promising. Ooh, is that a barn I see? Distance over open areas like this were so deceiving. I wasn’t sure if that was close or not.
Leaving the river bank for a moment, I climbed to a slightly higher vantage point to get a better look and discovered that at some point, a road had started. I liked roads, they tended to lead somewhere. With a smile and a sense of anticipation, I got on the road and walked down it. It also told me something about the technology level of this world, as it was paved with something that looked suspiciously like pavement. So, not medieval age, but perhaps Victorian era? Or thereabouts? Could I even use my world’s timeline as a base to make any judgement calls for this world?
The witch had used spells for everything. Either way, this was my first hint of the technological level of the civilization I’d been pulled into.
Following the road for about an hour—according to the changing position of the sun, which might or might not be accurate—led me straight into a small town. I did mean small, there might’ve been a hundred buildings in it altogether. Was village the more appropriate word? Shrugging it off, I struck into the town proper, looking for anyone that might be in a uniform.
As I got closer, several things came into focus, so that I could finally get an up close and personal look at them. Were those…? What the heck, those were gaslights! Like, ye old 1900’s gas lights. I stared at the lamppost on the sidewalk for a flat minute, flabbergasted. I guess some part of me had assumed that because the witch was, well, a witch, that I’d be stuck in medieval circumstances. Last I checked, gas lights did not fit that bill.
Tearing my eyes away, I panned the street both directions. Carriages, horses, pull carts, things I expected to see. Then there was that car over there that looked like the early version of a Model T. In speeding ticket red.
Not being one for history, I struggled to remember when Earth had a mix like this, of old and new. Was it 1900? When they were still transitioning from gas to electric, from buggy to cars? Before or during the Roaring Twenties?
Could I safely assume that these people would have the same sort of inventions as that time? Because I really, really didn’t want to live in a world with no central A/C.
Or hot showers.
Okay, me, worry about this later. I still needed to find help. I went back to walking up the street, forcing myself to not get sidetracked by every little thing I saw.
The people I passed gave me alarmed looks which amused me. I wanted to tell them: “You try being a captive of an insane woman that doesn’t believe in bathing regularly and see how you look at the end of it.” But likely that wouldn’t go over well.
Someone, at least, grew alarmed enough by how I looked to report me. You could always trust the busybodies in these situations. From a very official looking building, a very short man with a prominent beard and a solid black uniform appeared. He took a look around, spotted me, and did a visible double take. Knowing what I must look like, I slowed my pace even further as he jogged toward me. I frowned down at him. Wait, a dwarf? Not a short person, but an actual dwarf? I saw pointy ears. Like, really pointy ears.
Holy crap on a stick, this world had dwarves?! I’d always thought that was a Tolkien thing.
“Woman,” he said in a gruff voice that had a gentle undertone to it, “you look like you need some help.”
“I need a lot of it,” I admitted, putting the gun carefully into my holster and splaying a hand out, proving that I had intention to start shooting. He relaxed visibly when I did so although he kept a weather eye on the gun. Smart cop, this one. At least, I assumed a cop. “My name’s Jamie Edwards. Can you tell me where I am?”
His frown deepened a smidge. “You’re in Hewitt, Miss.”
That didn’t help me whatsoever. “On, ah, what world?”
Whatever he’d expected me to ask, it wasn’t that. He rocked back on his heels for a moment, studying me with a terribly blank expression before stating slowly: “Draiocht.”
Right. Okay. Not Earth. I was on a totally different planet that somehow had similarities to Earth. Lucky me? My brain wanted to hiccup there, maybe shut down completely. I took in a slow, deep breath, and promised myself a nice meltdown later. “Draiocht. Right. Never heard of it, but what I do know is that I’ve been the captive of an insane witch not far from here. I killed her and escaped about, oh, six hours ago.”
Everyone in the vicinity just froze. You’d think I announced I just killed the Pope. Or maybe Voldemort.
“Describe the witch,” he requested hoarsely, eyes bulging.
“About this tall,” I put a hand around where my chin was, “dark, scraggly hair, thin face, crazy as a bed bug.”
“Belladonna,” someone whispered nearby. “She’s killed Belladonna.”
Was that her name? She’d never introduced herself. I found this reaction interesting. The locals apparently knew who she was. Knew her and feared her.
The dwarf cop had to clear his throat, twice, to find his voice again. “Miss Edwards, I’m Officer Forrest. Come with me, please.”
I followed, gaze continuing to flicker over the town as I moved. It looked vaguely European, like one of those German tourist towns. Well-kept place, actually; it had a nice vibe to it. Which was funny considering who had set up shop in their backyard. I hadn’t expected her to be this close to civilization, honestly.
He went right through a brightly painted door, calling out as he went, “MAYOR!”
The poor mayor. I was about to drop quite the bombshell.
I barely had a chance to get my bearing inside the building. The front foyer was large enough to be a receiving room, with an unoccupied counter to the left and a sitting area off to the right meant for guests, as it had a couch, two chairs, and a showy fireplace. Those chairs looked terribly inviting. I took in the change of lighting with a blink of surprise. He had electrical lights, a recent addition, as the lines were tacked on the outside of the wall. I stared at them hard but they didn’t look anything like a modern light bulb. More squared off, and the light wasn’t as strong.
Quick footsteps on the stairwell brought my head back around. A thin man that looked more like a doctor than a mayor bustled down the stairs, moving quick despite his advanced years, thinning eyebrows shooting up into a nonexistent hairline when he spied me. “Forrest, who’s this?”
“This is Miss Edwards,” Forrest reported, bushy black beard still quivering in shock. “She tells me that she was a captive of Belladonna’s. She killed the witch and escaped this morning.”
The way he said that, you’d think he announced the sky had fallen, and no one noticed.
Mayor stared at me hard, eyes penetrating even as he swept from head to toe and then back again. I withstood the scrutiny calmly, letting him get on with it, as he wouldn’t do anything that I needed him to do until he believed me.
Proving to be a man of action, he ordered Forrest, “Lock down the town until I get this sorted. Tell Magus Kjell to ready a message to Kingston.”
“Sir!” Forrest snapped out what might have been a salute before spinning on a heel and sprinting back outside.
“Miss Edwards, why don’t you sit?” he invited, ushering me into one of those inviting chairs. “I’ll need to report all of this to the appropriate authorities. How did you kill the witch?”
“I’m a regular Shinigami,” I joked, because humor was the only way I’d get through all of the interrogations to follow. Ahhh, blissful chair. Long live chairs.
“I’m sorry?” Mayor looked at me blankly, worried.
So that word didn’t translate, eh? I’d noticed the translation spell didn’t always work properly. I wasn’t sure if it had something to do with me using a word that I didn’t have an inherent understanding of, or if it was because Belladonna didn’t always do her spellwork properly. “I killed her by breaking her neck.”
He flinched, jaw dropping hard enough to leave a dent in the floor. “Just like that?”
“Oh, believe me,” I assured him grimly, “there was nothing simple about it. Mayor, I’ll happily answer all of your questions, but first—can you get me a change of clothes? Anything will do, I’m just heartily sick of being in these.”
Nose wrinkling, he offered me a timid smile. “I can see why. I’ll have someone fetch them.”
“And you’re going to need some significant help if you want to clear out Belladonna’s cave,” I tacked on, thinking that he might as well get that in motion. “It’s full of icky and dangerous stuff. I wouldn’t let anyone but a full trained magician with a Hazmat suit in there, honestly.”
“I’ll send messages to the appropriate people,” he promised, reaching for a bell that I assumed would summon some minion. “While we wait, tell me the story.”