The leaf made its descent gradually, and Cadence watched through window as its intricate veins, splattered with gold and scarlet, spiraled down to touch the crystal water of the lake. It fell onto the light blue water, and drifted away from the tree that it came from. It was beautiful outside. It was beautiful, and nature had spread her treasures far and wide, to run anew. “Please—mother, just let me out today. Just this one...” Cadence beckoned pleadingly. “I don’t know.” His mother hesitated. “It’s going to be dark soon.” “I’m not even going to go far! And—I’ll be back before dinner. I promise.” She sighed. She loved her son, yet she knew of the world out there… “-If you see them—” “C’mon, they haven’t been around for-” “-And if you see them—” she repeated, her face grave with concern- “If I see them, I will run away.” Another sigh, yet half smile. “Go,” she whispered softly. “Be safe.” She didn’t have to say another word as Cadence went from the house, out into the woods- out into the bountiful sunshine and the embrace of nature.
It was before dinner, as Cadence had promised. The rays of light were not yet over, still illuminating the beautiful day, and as he ran from the woods back to his mother- The house looked different, somehow. The peonies were overturned, the shingles jagged and twisted into some strange sculpture, and as the last rays of sunlight flashed overboard- He recoiled in shock. Them.
They were there. His mother was there, and they were there, holding onto her by the neck, grabbing her, choking her, breaking her. The master smiled at him. It was a sinister smile underneath their masks that curled upwards like daggers, and he saw a flash of a crimson tooth, grinning, grinning, grinning… “GO!” his mother gasped. “Run.” But it was too late. The master seized Cadence, and the next thing he knew was oblivion.
They were all around him, those steel, metallic bars, and together they engulfed him in a vortex of darkness—choking the breath out of him—the life out of him.
...I...choose...YOU… A voice came from the distance of nowhere, and Cadence felt the bars on the cage melting, melting back to where he could stand again…
There were lights glaring at him everywhere, shining in every direction that he looked. Hordes of people stood around him in what seemed like thousands, cheering and screaming nonsensical sounds, their pitches ringing in his ears.
A circular arena enclosed him, fenced in by what seemed like rope slathered in some red substance. There was a woman with steely, thick-set eyes standing in front of him, who sighed and said,
“Let’s just get this fight over with, eh?”
“No—please—I don’t want to—why do I have to fight you?”
“You don’t gotta choice, kid.”
Bam. He only saw the flash of a fist and the roars and screams of the crowd, and then he knew nothing more.
The darkness broke with a pang. Bright lights danced up to his eyes, splattering fiery spots of incandescence throughout his vision.
“And—there we go. All better!” A swarm of pink flashed through his sight. Cadence could faintly see the outlines of a large, outstretched smile, mouthing words that slowly dissipated to the distance of the room.
“This is your first time?”
A deep voice came from the left of the corridor. It sounded broken, yet so broken to the point that hot turns to cold and pain turns to numbness—to nothingness.
“What the hell’s going on?” Cadence sputtered. “I was just all beat up and everything went dark and now—”
“That nurse that just left,” the deep voice spat bitterly. “She healed us.”
The man was still turned around on his bed, facing the blank walls of the hospital, and Cadence could glimpse scar after scar, scattered throughout everywhere like one of those abstract paintings—but this time, it was through the canvas of flesh and bone.
“Why would they try to help us?”
“Help us?” the man scoffed. “You got a lot to learn, kid.
“They make us spurt out our magic every time, make us fight each other, make us suffer until the brink of death. Just before one of us dies, they heal us—again, again, again…”
“And there we go. All better!” the simpering voice came back to his memory.
. “They make us do it all over again. Life, death, life, death...”
“But why don’t you guys just don’t fight? You don’t have to obey them!” Cadence’s voice came out defiantly, with the ingénue hope of a small child.
The man finally turned back around. He shook his head, slowly, as Cadence drew back in shock and revulsion- what horrors the man had knew, Cadence could never imagine.
He scoffed again. The skin draped over his skull contorted into a painful mass, and he saw lashes, punches, beatings- scar, after scar after scar to create a masterpiece of blood upon bloodshed, painted onto his face.
“You don’t think we’ve tried that?” he whispered softly.
“They break you.” his eyebrows arched up to the chiseled scars of his face.
“You don’t know what pain is. You haven’t felt nothing yet, kid…
“You don’t know how it feels - they lock you up in that cage for weeks, months, years… Nothing to do, nothing to see, no one to talk to… you start to forget yourself. Who you are, where you’re from, until you’re broken. They take your soul out and shred it, until you don’t know what is real and what is not.
“You’d rather be dead than live another day.”
Again, again, again… The fights, the magic, the pain, the cage…
“LET ME OUT I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME!” Screams, yells, fists, magic—nothing will stop it.
Another fight, another cage, another ward… Until you start to lose yourself… Another crowd, another bet, another arena...Until you don’t know what is real and what is not… ...I...choose...YOU… The crowd was there again, with its familiar roar and flashing, shining lights. The ropes were there again- after all the battles and fights, the surface gleamed in crimson, with remnants of dry, cracked spots, falling, spiraling down to the spiked ground of the arena…
Cadence remembered that same autumn day, the golden leaves that enthroned the eaves of nature, the highest echelon of beauty—and of them… And when he looked up to the autumn tree, as if a memory, from where leaf had came from, from what seemed like an eternity ago… “Mom?”
She was standing there, standing in the spot where he had mauled, fought, killed, many—too many to count—and then screams of the crowd stopped, for one, miraculous moment of outstretched silence and peace, for one, miraculous moment of reunion…
And then she pounced forward, pounced forward with her opal eyes now horrendously raw, ripped from the sockets, stealing all she was, all she knew of him— She landed with a deafening thud as the crowd roared back again—hands enclad onto his neck, choking him, throttling him…
The lights glared at him again, from the sudden departure from darkness. He could have sworn that it was real, that what he head dreamt he had felt and experienced and knew through every ounce of his being…
He descended slowly down the crickety staircase down to the living room. It was dark, just like it had been only moments before…
A dark mass was sprawled out onto the couch- perhaps it was his mom again, working late like she always did.
Those opal eyes… torn out from their sockets, raw, horrendously raw, bloody masses…
The eyes wavered in the distance for a second, then disappeared from his vision. The living room and the dark mass melted from his sight, and he closed his eyes tightly. Perhaps this was all another world, a figment from his overactive imagination—perhaps it was time to go back to reality.
He cracked open his eyes, ever so slowly, hoping, willing, for some kind of sanity—
But all was left were those same steel bars, waiting—waiting for him again…