Since the conversation at breakfast, the air in the house had become stifling. Astari called upstairs to tell her grandmother that she was going out for a bit and asked if she needed her to pick up anything from the shop. Her grandmother said no and nothing more. Astari would have liked to know what she had done that had offended her so much, but she decided to just shrug it off. Perhaps it was just a mood.
She stepped outside to a glorious day. The sun was out again and the contrast of it against the blue sky made it seem like a gold coin floating on the surface of calm waters.
But the calm did not last long because there was Mr Henderson, glaring from his front garden. Astari gave him a small smile and a wave but he didn’t offer anything in return. She shoved her hands back into the pockets of her shorts, walking away swiftly, trying not to look like she was in a hurry. She planned to go to the mountain where she saw the castle in her dreams. Last night’s episode was still fuzzy in her head, but though she couldn’t recall the details, she couldn’t shake the idea of the castle and that it actually existed, and that she desperately needed to go there. She knew it sounded crazy, but that was the truth.
When she got to Manod Mawr mountain, there was nothing out of the ordinary. It looked the same as it always did except for a couple of dog walkers and a family with two children. No castle or visible signs of magic. She felt silly even contemplating the idea.
Regardless, it was a nice day, and this was one of her favourite places to be. Maybe her urge to come here had been less about magical destiny and more about her subconscious mind gently telling her to do more of the things she loved.
Astari sat down on a cool hard rock and closed her eyes, allowing her body to soak up the warmth of the sun. This lasted all of thirty seconds before the sun was covered by a dark cloud, spoiling Astari’s moment. She frowned and pulled the blue sweater she’d got for Christmas over her head to combat the sudden chill. Then, with her arms over her head and her cheeks just peeking out of the sweater, she saw it.
It wasn’t exactly a face per se, but more like the indication of two eyes looking right at her, picking her apart, peering into her soul. They did not look like they liked what they saw. When Astari looked down she noticed that she was enveloped in a swirling storm of smoke. It wasn’t painful, but it did feel like something. Something murky and not quite tangible. Something attached to the ominous all-seeing eyes.
The smoke creature swirled around Astari until she was surrounded by its stench and she could feel herself becoming light headed from the fumes. She dropped to the ground.
“Get up,” she heard someone growl.
Astari blinked and then her eyes met his, the man from the café.
He looked different, somehow taller if that was possible and he had in his hand a bow and arrow.
“Get up and run!” he shouted again.
She didn’t need to be told twice. She got up and started running down the mountain as quick as her legs could carry her but not before looking back and seeing the castle standing there in full view for all to see. She looked around to see if anyone else noticed the huge magnificent castle appearing out of nowhere but there was no one around except for the man and the creature, and when she blinked, both them and the castle were gone.
She spun around in a complete circle, but there was nothing out of the ordinary in sight. Her head was pounding, and her heart was beating too quickly in her chest. First Mr. Henderson, then her grandmother, and now she was downright seeing things that weren’t there? No. This was not alright. She needed answers, and if her grandmother wasn’t going to give them to her, she’d just have to seek them out elsewhere.
She decided it was probably best to start with the first place she’d encountered the strange man, so she headed to the cafe.
Work was fairly quiet that day except for a couple of the usual customers. Astari gave them a small wave and sat down at the table the strange man had been sitting at yesterday. When Bronwyn showed up, to take her order, she requested a plate of chips and asked Bronwyn about the man.
“Which one, we’ve had quite a rush of them this week.” She laughed.
“The last customer, he was sitting at this table.”
“The last customers were that family of little monsters and their uppity parents.”
“No, there was a guy at my table.”
“I must have been in the bathroom or something.”
“No, you were here you looked right at him, you talked about him.”
Bronwyn shrugged and walked away to deal with a family who was flagging her down for a drink refill. Astari felt exasperated. Bronwyn had definitely seen the man, hadn’t she? How did she suddenly not remember him? She thought of how he’d seemed to disappear into thin air when she was on the mountain and wondered if she wasn’t completely losing her mind. Maybe she’d drank at some point? But she’d remember that. Maybe she’d hit her head and her grandmother just didn’t tell her or maybe someone had slipped something into her Caesar salad yesterday. Whatever it was, it was making her lose her appetite. She said goodbye to Bronwyn and left her a tip.
“Get some sleep you weirdo. Seriously keep that kooky stuff at home and come into work tomorrow less zombified.”
“No promises,” Astari said, waving goodbye.
When she got back to the house, Astari was shocked to find her grandmother talking to Mr Henderson in the front garden. Except the closer she got the more she realised that they weren’t talking so much it was more like shouting, with hands flying around in wild gestures.
“What’s going on?” She asked as she cautiously walked up to the pair.
“Get inside” her grandmother warned her, not taking her eyes off Mr Henderson who was now watching Astari with the same spine-tingling eyes from before.
“What’s going on?” She asked again, this time more insistently.
She’d never hear that tone of voice from her grandmother before. She even stepped in front of her to block her from Mr. Henderson’s view. At a loss and not knowing what else to do, Astari relented and went inside. It was rare for her grandmother to raise her voice at all, much less against her. The uneasiness of the situation was making goose bumps rise all over her body.
She stayed perched at the front window, watching and trying to eavesdrop on the shouting match. She had never known Mr. Henderson to say very much, but now his voice was louder than she would have thought possible. Every couple of seconds Henderson would seemingly lose his train of thought and turn his gaze to the window where she was standing. What the hell was going on?
After a few minutes, her grandmother came inside, slamming the front door behind her. She marched into the kitchen and immediately began opening drawers and pulling out old papers that looked like they hadn’t seen the light of day in decades.
“Mam-gu, what’s going on?” Astari asked hesitantly, hovering in the doorway. She was way past unsettled now. She was starting to get downright scared.
“We’ll discuss it later.” Her grandmother didn’t even look up from the old pieces of parchment she was staring at. “For now, you are not to leave the house under any circumstances, understand?”
Astari frowned. “Is everything alright?”
“We’ll talk later.”
“That’s not very reassuring.”
Her grandmother turned to her with such hardness in her eyes that it made Astari flinch.
“I can be reassuring, or I can keep you safe. I’ve managed it for eighteen years and I don’t plan on stopping now. I promise we will talk later but for now you must remain in the house and be quiet.”
Silence. Astari was certain she could hear her own beating heart, possibly even her grandmother’s too. Soon enough her concern morphed into frustration and she walked away in a huff, making sure to stomp her feet the entire way up the stairs and to her room. She slammed her door shut and flopped onto her bed.
She sat there for quite some time, maybe even hours. She hated how obedient she was; how good she was at lying to herself and resisting her urges and stamping down on her curiosity. She craned her neck to look out the window at the birds flying through a crystal-clear sky. It certainly didn’t feel like the world was ending anytime soon; and yet her grandmother was acting as though it was 1945 and Germans were invading. Eventually she grew tired of staring at the walls and window and closed her eyes, settling into a nap.
She found herself dreaming again. This time she was at the threshold of the castle and that blackness behind her was mounting. She turned and could see it, like smoke pouring over the landscape all around her, seeping into every possible crack. She had seen this smoke before, the blackness felt familiar, but it was getting stronger and bolder. Like it was biding its time now because it knew it had her cornered.
It was true. She had nowhere to run to. Nothing to defend herself with, except the looming structure of the castle protecting her back, but she was going to stand her ground anyway. It was what she had been trained to do. This castle was her home. Her legacy. Her father was in there, sitting on his throne and commanding troops.
And she was not going to let all that go, not without a fight.
The castle itself seem to sparkle and strengthen with her growing resolve. She pressed her palms into its chalky surface and allowed its powerful energy to flow through her veins. Then she brought up her fists and took up a fighting stance, ready to lay down her life if necessary.
She woke with a start, as she always did these days. This time she had not forgotten the dream. She remembered it clearly. So clearly, in fact, that part of her mind still thought she was there. She was confused by the sights and sounds of her bedroom. It felt hazy and surreal, like a part of a world she had once belonged to. She was in the wrong place. She had lingered a little too long here and needed to get back to the castle. The blackness was coming. The blackness she knew had visited her in this world only earlier today.
She rolled out of bed and looked over at the window. She must have slept for quite some time, because the sun was now casting an eerie orange glow that was fading into deep red and pink. The protection of the day was waning, but she didn’t feel nervous about it. The stars were a gateway into another place where her father watched her. She had always believed that as a sort of fairy tale but now it was something she was so sure was real that she couldn’t deny it if she tried.