The ragged sound of his own breathing and the thrumming of his heart were the only things Noah could hear in the cool, stale, dimly lit room. No, “room” wasn’t the right word for the place they had locked him in. It wasn’t quite a dungeon but had the damp feeling of being underground—like a finished basement lit only by candlelight. It was beautiful but smelled of wet earth and fire smoke.
Light from the fire in the hearth and the candles on a low-hanging wooden chandelier danced along the smooth finish of the stone and granite floor. Two fur-skinned rugs stretched out across the floor, one beneath the bed, and another in front of the hearth where a small table and an odd, tree-like chair sat.
The furnishings were grand, but whimsical—as if they had dragged him into some nightmarish version of a Disney movie. The bed was large, with posts made of twisted roots and saplings. Withered leaves still clung in patches to the gnarled wood as if someone had made it with still-living trees.
The chairs and door frames, made similarly, had the same fairytale look to them, though the jamb of the solid wooden door that led to freedom comprised stone and bits of glittering granite, making it far more imposing.
He had been there for hours.
A fire burned in the hearth, and a table had been set up under the chandelier, covered in endless platters of fruit, cakes, steaming meats, and bowls of nuts.
They had taken him while he slept, strange man-shaped beasts with eyes that glowed in a way that seemed to emanate light rather than reflect it. Some of them had gray skin, others snowy white, or the deep black of sharp piano keys. Nothing about them was natural. He’d felt their presence in his sleep, but when he opened his eyes, it had already been too late. Hands—no, talons—had wrapped around his ankles and wrists.
They had pulled him, swallowed his screams with their palms. They had wrangled him out of his bed and bound him with ropes that felt smooth against his skin. Lips had pressed to his ear, and a hissing voice that sent chills coursing down Noah’s spine whispered, “fàilte air ais, a Naoise.”
Except he wasn’t “Neesha,” or whatever it was they had called him. He was Noah, simple Noah Reid from Walnut Creek. He was a nursing student, two years away from graduation. He was an orphan, a nobody, recently single and looking for a new apartment since he couldn’t afford his current one without his ex paying half the rent and utilities.
He wasn’t supposed to be there.
At some point—though with no windows or clocks, he couldn’t tell when—he must have fallen asleep. Noah woke to the sound of the latch on the heavy wooden door. His head snapped up, but there was no one there. A fire burned in the hearth, and a table had been set up under the chandelier, covered in endless platters of fruit, cakes, steaming meats, and bowls of nuts.
The smell made Noah’s stomach complain loudly as he drew himself up and away from the safety of his dark corner. He inhaled deeply and had to swallow the saliva forming in his mouth to keep himself from drooling.
How had he slept through the racket of people—no, not people, beasts—setting up all this food and stoking a fire? He cursed himself even as he approached the fire to warm up. They hadn’t given him time to dress when they took him, and he wore nothing but a stained white tee-shirt and a pair of cotton blue boxers.
The polished floor was like ice under his feet, and the soft warmth of the fur-skin rug in front of the fire was a pleasant relief. He glanced to the food with longing, but a familiar voice in the back of his mind warned him not to touch it—not to trust it.
It wasn’t just the usual stranger-danger every child learned growing up. No, nothing about his childhood had been usual or normal. His mother had been superstitious to a fault. She had believed in faeries, and goblins, and monsters hidden under the bed. They had shared a bedroom into his teens because of her irrational fear that demons or faeries would sneak into his window at night and steal him from his bed.
Maybe not so irrational.
Or, maybe he’d finally snapped. His mother had died only six months ago. He mourned her, but there lingered a hollow feeling in his chest ever since he’d gotten the call about the car accident and drove down to gather her effects and empty her car.
He had been sure he would lose his cool when they handed over her wallet and the thistle pendant she’d hung from her rearview window. Somehow, he hadn’t. He’d nodded his head with tears prickling at his eyes, and left without another word, gripping the large, yellowy envelope tightly in his hands.
Garret had called him inhuman after the funeral. Garret, who had been his rock and his first anchor into normalcy. Garret, who had offered him a chance to escape the paranoia of his mother’s twisted fantasy world. He had told Noah that it was normal to cry, but Noah hadn’t cried. He had felt numb after it happened. When she died, he became an orphan, and he had shut down. He had never known his father, and his mother had refused to say anything about him. “You don’t have a father,” she had told him.
He supposed he had gone into shock, or perhaps he resented his mother for never telling him who his father was. He definitely resented her for his bizarre upbringing. Still, he had loved her, and her death had shattered him. It didn’t matter; to Garret, it wasn’t enough. He wasn’t mourning his mother the right way, so they fought, and fought, and fought.
It wasn’t the only thing they fought about, but it became a catalyst for every argument they had in the months after, until Noah had come home from classes one day to a note on the counter and all of Garret’s things gone—including the bed they had shared, that selfish son of a bitch. The fragile mirage of security, of normalcy he had spent so much time cultivating splintered apart.
Now, it was all coming to a head. He had finally come out of shock and snapped. None of this was real. He had to be hallucinating, or something.
Had he gotten drunk last night? He struck himself on the forehead with the butt of his hand and shook his head.
What was happening? This couldn’t be real. He felt his knees wobble and give way. Once again, that hissing voice was in his ear.
He slapped his own cheek, hard. “Fuck,” he spat into the air. “Fuck… Wake the fuck up, Noah.”
He heard the click of the lock on the door and spun to face it. Thoughts of escape came and went almost as quickly. He would never make it out of this place, not so easily. As the door opened, he found himself backing away.
A tall, broad-shouldered beast stood silhouetted in the doorway. It had antler-like spikes protruding from its shoulders, and curled horns on its head. A long dark cape hid the rest of its outline, though the flicker from the fire was enough to shine light off the pale skin of arms, throat, and jaw.
As Noah’s eyes rose to the figure’s face, the hair on his arms and at the back of his neck stood on end as his skin rippled with goosebumps.
The face of a demon stared back at him; ram horns curling to the sides and back, devil-like ears sticking out beneath them, a disfigured forehead spiked like a crown, and a snarling nose—all black in the shadows of the doorway, with the flickering firelight highlighting every curve and twist into something nightmarish.
Noah took another step back as the figure moved into the room. It was shrouded entirely in darkness as the heavy door swung shut behind it and locked with a sickening click. Noah’s stomach clenched. His lungs tightened, making him gasp for air as he backed away from the approaching beast.
What was happening? This couldn’t be real. He couldn’t seem to take a deep enough breath to fill his lungs, and the result was an overwhelming wave of light-headedness. He felt his knees wobble and give way. Once again, that hissing voice was in his ear.
“Fàilte air ais, a Naoise.”
He wanted to scream but his throat tightened, and his lips tingled. His insides seemed to drop and flutter, and then his back was cold. His last thought, only half-formed somewhere on the edge of his consciousness, was that the floor was cold and hard.
The Unseelie Prince is available on Amazon in print and for Kindle. The author, Kaitlyn Abdou, is featured in this issue.
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