Achara opened her eyes but saw nothing. She blinked a few times to ensure that she did not merely imagine the darkness. She then waved her hands in front of her face and could not see them. She tried to recall what had happened, and the last thing she recalled was being slapped across the room by the mage. She tried to sit up, and her lower back ached as did her shoulder, but she managed to do so. She placed her feet on the floor of where she was. It was cold stone. She stood up and felt her way along the bed to a wall made of stone, and then to a door. She looked for a handle and found it and tried to open the door, but it would not budge. She felt around its edges and towards its bottom. It was thick wood and banded with iron. She gave up on trying to open it and worked her way around the edge of the room, finding a chair and a table and an assortment of other items she could not immediately identify based on touching them. Eventually, she came back to the bed, where she sat down again.
She closed her eyes and reached out with her magic trying to deduce anything about where she was. The magic came back to her in confusing patterns she did not recognize, but she did have enough to deduce that she was not alone wherever she was. She focused on making sense of the patterns she observed, freezing them in her mind, and trying to piece them together like a puzzle. Eventually, they started to fit, and she was able to deduce that she was in some sort of large keep with multiple floors, and she was somewhere near the bottom. She was a prisoner. She laid back down, not knowing what else to do.
She heard footsteps outside the door, and a faint light came in under the door. She heard a click, and then the door opened. The light was coming from a single candle that in the stark blackness almost seemed blinding. The figure holding the candle was hooded in a way that masked its face. The figure used the candle to light another in Achara’s room, then wordlessly turned around and left, slamming the door, which echoed through the building.
Achara could now see in the room. She noticed some chairs and a table with knickknacks on it that looked like different kinds of tools for sewing or other sorts of handicrafts. The walls were otherwise bare, and the ceiling above her like the floor was made from stone. She went over to the table and looked at the instruments and then at the door, thinking about picking a lock, but she saw no way of opening the door from the inside other than the handle, which was just a simple handle for pulling or pushing and nothing more. She then thought of using the candle to burn the door but decided against it, as a massive fire would consume the breathable air in the closed space.
She went back to the bed and sat down again, not knowing what else to do. Just as she was about to lay down, she heard more footsteps outside, and then she heard the door click again. It opened, and two figures entered the room, then another figure followed them. They were all hooded, hiding their faces from view.
“Greetings,” the third figure said in a gravelly voice.
“Am I supposed to thank you for your hospitality or something? Because I’m not,” Achara answered.
The figure laughed, “Achara, Achara, Achara. You have no idea.”
“No idea about what?”
“Obviously, the Paladin didn’t tell you everything, did he?”
“That’s because he doesn’t know everything,” she retorted.
“He told you he was a Paladin, didn’t he?” The figure moved in closer to her.
“Yes, but that’s hardly news. Any fool can figure that out if they are around him long enough.”
“You still have no idea,” the figure said.
“Do tell. Enlighten me.”
“What did the Paladin tell you?” The figure asked.
“A lot about how you and your ilk want to bring an end to the world by unleashing some kind of demon army on the world.”
“Demon army? End of the world? Myths. You know this.”
“Myths are not always what they seem,” she said.
“Wisdom from the mouth of a babe,” the figure complemented.
“The Paladin taught me that,” she quipped.
“You seem to know a lot about me. Why not tell me about you?”
“Who I am is not important, rather it’s you who is important.”
“Let me guess. You’re going to tell me something about my past that I don’t know that’s supposed to make me rethink everything I have ever known and side with you?”
“No. Every part of that was wrong.”
“Then tell me about you, then.”
“As I said, I’m of no importance.”
“Stop making this about me. I won’t cooperate,” she objected.
“Achara, don’t be so stubborn,” the figure said. “I don’t mean to hurt you. If I wanted to hurt you, believe me, we could. I do apologize about the battering you received though from the mage. That was not supposed to happen. But you do have to understand, and the Paladin was quite a nuisance.”
“He got your mage, didn’t he?” she goaded.
“An unfortunate loss for sure, but well worth the sacrifice. I have you now, thanks to him.”
“Look, I don’t know what you want with me, but I’m not your pawn,” she said.
“You’re only a pawn to the Paladin. Here, you’re a queen.”
“Queens aren’t held captive in their own kingdoms.”
“I’m not the one holding you captive.”
“Then who is? The goon standing next to you?”
“I want to help set you free!” the figure exclaimed.
“Then open the door and let me walk out of here alive.”
“Don’t be naïve. You will see.”
“Save me your metaphorical nonsense about being captive to my own will. You don’t intend to free me. You want to use me for your own ends. I see through your crap.”
“You assume too much, young one. You have no idea like I said.”
“Since I’m so uneducated and have no idea, do me a favor and enlighten me. Like for starters, where am I? And how long have I been here?”
“Neither of those questions is important or relevant.”
“Then fine. Tell me who you are and what you are planning to do.”
“This is going nowhere,” she said.
“Because you fail to ask the right questions. You seek knowledge without understanding.”
“Oh, give me a break,” she scoffed, throwing her hands up. “You sound like a priest.”
The figure laughed again, “Achara, Achara, Achara. You have no idea.”
“You keep saying that. That’s a tactic people use to get people to question their sanity and begin to believe their captors.”
“You have a strong mind, young one. But you have not the right question.”
“Enlighten me then. What should I be asking?”
“Now, we’re getting somewhere. What should you be asking? Very good.”
“That didn’t answer the question.”
“But it did!” the figured shrilled. “Sometimes, to merely ask the question is to answer it.”
“You’re impossible,” she muttered.
“No, I’m merely here to free you. You can unlock the possibilities.”
“Then why didn’t you nab me before this?”
“You are hard to catch. And I must admit that we underestimated the Paladin. His cunning allowed you to allude us for months. But it was his mistake that brought you straight to us.”
“His mistake? That was not his idea; it was mine.”
“But you would not have gone along with it if he would have objected, would you?”
“I don’t blindly follow him if that’s what you’re getting at. We have our differences. But he’s an honorable man that compels one to want to follow him. He doesn’t need a prison to keep company.”
“He was an honorable man,” the figured said. “Now, I’m afraid he’s dead.”
“You lie!” she screamed.
“The mage killed him because of his insolence.”
“You’ve wanted him dead for the longest time.”
“Your admiration of him is commendable, but it won’t help you. And I expect grief. But hope will keep you alive because you will simply choose to believe something other than the truth. It doesn’t matter, though. Believe what you want, because, in the end, you will see.”
“See what? That you’re a monster and Camon was right to oppose you, even in his ignorance?”
“Ignorance. Truth. Falsehood. The Paladin may not have known what he was up against, but he had understanding. That is what he failed to impart to you. And that’s why you have no idea.”
“There you go again,” Achara hissed.
“Don’t worry, young Achara. We intend to give you plenty of time to figure it out. You will have all the time in the world. Darkness helps one think, don’t you agree?”
“Darkness is what helps me see,” she answered.
“See. Think. Do you think there is a difference?”
“Let me guess. I have no idea.”
“Which is why you need the darkness. Remember. To ask the question is to answer it.”
“There you go with your metaphors again.”
“Hold out your hand,” the figure commanded.
“Fine.” The figure raised his own hand, and Achara involuntarily raised her hand, then rotated her palm to the ground.
“You see, Achara, this is what I mean. You have no idea. Why can’t you move your hand?”
Achara resisted. She tried pulling her arm back, but it would not move. “Because you’re using magic to control me,” she said frustratedly.
“And would it have been any different if you would have raised your hand at my command?”
“That would have been volitional,” she said. “I would have made the choice. And I chose not to do as you asked.”
“Do you believe in fate?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Because you’re not in control right now. So it’s fate or something else controlling you that determines your every move.” Achara then rose to her feet, involuntarily.
“What are you doing?”
“You have no idea.”
“Stop saying that!” she screamed. She walked over to the table where the candle was. She then placed her hand over the candle and lowered it towards the flame.
“Do you feel that?”
“Of course, I can feel it!” Achara screamed.
“Then why can’t you remove your hand?”
“Because I am not in control of myself! Stop!”
“Do it. Control yourself. You know you can.”
By now, Achara could feel the skin on her hand start to blister, and the pain of the fire licking at her palm was unbearable. She tried to resist, but she could not do it. She then calmed herself the best she could, going into the void in her mind. She envisioned herself in the void and saw herself calm, but then she could see the pain and the fire as it burned her hand. In an instant, she reached out to her own image in her mind as if she was attempting to reach herself like she would reach another. The pain returned, but she was consciously aware of it as if embodying another person without acting instinctually to pull her arm away. She then willed for herself to move the hand, and slowly her hand pulled away from the flame, and she felt the relief at once. She then relinquished the void and stumbled backward, falling onto the floor. She was sweating all over as she cradled her hand. Tears of pain flowed from her eyes.
“Why couldn’t you control yourself?” the figure asked.
“Because I wasn’t in control. You were,” she moaned.
“Because you have no idea.”
“Damn you…” she cursed.
“Do you even begin to understand?”
Achara gritted her teeth, “I understand that you are a butcher. And you intend to break me down, don’t you?”
“Break you down? No. I intend to free you.”
“Do you have any idea what freedom even is? Keeping me here against my will is not freeing me.”
“Do you understand what freedom is?” the figure asked again.
“Let me guess; I have no idea…”
“I guessed you’d have figured it out by now. Perhaps another lesson in freedom?”
“So is that what that was supposed to be?” she whimpered.
“You tell me. Did you learn anything? Or do you need a refresher?”
“Spare me your sense of teaching. Camon would never use methods like your butchery.”
“And because of that, you lack basic understanding. You have no idea.”
“I’ll give you an idea…” she mumbled.
“Now we’re getting somewhere!” the figure said. Achara stood to her feet and rushed toward the figure. The other two stepped in her way, grabbing her. One punched her in the stomach, and the other spun her around and pushed her forward. She stumbled and tripped, landing on the floor again. She caught herself with both hands, but with her burnt hand, she screamed when it hit the cold floor. Her arm collapsed, and she went into a fetal position on the floor, crying.
“Brute force. How quaint. I expected more of you. Maybe I am mistaken about you.”
“Get used to disappointment,” she hissed.
“Do you want to be free?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that because it certainly isn’t what I perceive to be freedom,” she said.
The figure applauded, “Yet again, wisdom from the mouth of a babe! Ask the question.”
“What is freedom?” she murmured.
“Now, do you see?”
“No, I’m confused. Just like you are.”
“It’s insanity, isn’t it? The paradox is right before you. The absurdity of it all is within your grasp. Why not embrace it?”
“You’re insane,” she muttered.
The figure laughed again, “Who gets to determine what is sanity and what is not?”
“No, you are insane.”
“Wasn’t it you who believes that it’s me that is attempting to drive you to question your sanity? I think it’s working! Welcome to the nuthouse!” the figure exclaimed again.
“Leave me alone,” she whimpered.
“Soon enough, you will get your wish. But you won’t be able to sleep. The pain won’t let you. But then you will. And when you do, you will dream of places far beyond these four walls. You will imagine what your friends are doing and if you will ever get out of here alive. And it will happen. One day, it will happen. Until then, though, find the darkness. Let it help you see. Embrace the paradox of that, and perhaps you can begin to understand. And maybe, just maybe, you will get an idea.”
“Save your speech,” she said.
“Fair enough. Until next time. Sweet dreams,” the figure said. He turned and walked out of the room. One of his companions went and snuffed out the candle and went out the door behind his companions. They locked the door with a click, and their footsteps trailed off down the hall, leaving Achara alone.
She climbed up on the bed and curled into a fetal position, cradling her hand. She started crying with loud sobs that echoed in the room and through the keep. She kept this up for the better part of an hour before her sobs turned into whimpers. Finally, after hours, she fell asleep on the bed, quiet in the stone cube where she was now imprisoned.