Day 238 of 365 Days of Writing Prompts: Write a message in a bottle.
To the person who finds this,
I’m sending out this letter from an island in Hawaii, hoping it finds its way to stranger who cares enough to read it, and doesn’t immediately throw my note away. I need your help with a little experiment of mine. I’m trying to see where this bottle ends up, and if you call the number on the back I’ll let you know where it has been and who it has been with. If you don’t wish to participate I understand, but please send the bottle out again. Don’t let this line of communication end, and always know you’re not alone, sometimes even strangers think of you.
Erin: All it said was, “Come quick. We are running out of resources.” It was followed by a what appeared to be a poorly drawn map. That was all I needed, I would find them. I had to. The bottle floated to me the letter was destine for my eyes.
Write a floating message.
The banquet was finished just after midnight, the stragglers had at long last ceased their incessant last-minute chats that went on for what felt like hours in the entranceway, and all the castle staff were scurrying about clearing the ballroom of food and decorations. Above our heads the electric lights flickered out to reveal a backup plan of candles waving animatedly in the still air, and the scent of leftover food wafted amid the ravenous contestants. With groans of pain and much murderous muttering, the lot of us filed back into the ballroom, our feet aching horribly and faces contorted into permanent, fake smiles. Some of the others stumbled gracelessly out of the fancy shoes they’d borrowed, while others appeared quite numb to any sensation of pain or embarrassment at all; I counted myself lucky to be in the second group in a pair of stunning midnight heels of my mother’s.
A few girls in stunning ball gowns that billowed out around them like giant mushrooms kicked off their shoes in a corner and collapsed against the far wall with relief flooding their faces. Gentlemen in simple, velvety suits were carefully removing jackets and wandering around with their feet bare, enjoying the freedom after a long time standing still. To look at us, you’d think we were toddlers having just been through our first formal engagement with adults; now was the free time we’d been promised for hours.
Unfortunately, our relaxation was short-lived as a squat woman wearing a horribly-stained apron appeared in the hall, shooing the staff who were apparently dawdling in their duties. As she crossed the enormous room in soft-sole shoes that made no sound at all as she moved, I could have sworn I glimpsed some pre-magick sparks about her fingers. “Alright, all of ye’, I got orders ta’ move ye’ inta’ some ‘a’ the guest chambers. Get a move on,” she called in a gruff, echoing voice as she headed back toward the entrance with the same irate movements toward the staff.
With a last fleeting glance at the picked-over tables, still heavily-laden with food, I followed the curt woman with the majority of the other contestants. When we reached the first hallway and hooked a sharp right turn, I leaned against the wall to slide out of my uncomfortable shoes; I would risk a few cuts and bruises on my heels as I anticipated the requirement of climbing stairs to the guest chambers. If I had to wear those stupid, dressy shoes up a single flight of stairs I could surely stab someone with my heels. I sluffed off the cold, damp stone wall and rejoined the group of exhausted young people who were heading down increasingly darkened halls behind a scrappy woman who seemed to be muttering to herself.
After a good ten minutes of walking, two short sets of stairs, and the sudden appearance of a baby dragon slinking along the floor, the group collectively stopped in front of a long set of identical doors. Swinging a screaming door open, the woman shouted, “Alright, there are ten rooms, meaning four to a room. Boys are at the end, girls in the rest. Lights are to be out now.” In a moment she was gone and the group began shuffling into the cramped rooms at random; the first few were filled with friends, while the remainder were lumped together in the leftover rooms. I wandered into the one furthest from the chattering and giggling girls, hoping whoever joined me would be quiet.
Once I was there, perching on the edge of the single bed, I began to worry about the accommodations, which were clearly available to fit those who made it a couple of trials in. Outside there seemed to be some fighting going on as to who would be sent into the room where the scary girl with blood-red lips, gloves and shoes was currently waiting to murder them all; that was me, by the way. I’d overheard some harsh chatter as we were being fit for clothing you were only allowed to wear once, before they were set aside until your funeral. Having grown up in a house of “haves” I had a better understanding of some of this formal crap than the others, though I didn’t appreciate it as much as my kin would have.
A short, scrappy girl in a brilliant teal dress that showed off a pair of formal trousers entered first, her ringlets having fallen flat with the effort to arrive here. When she noticed the one bed she, too, took a moment to think on it before asking me, “So, I guess you call dibs?” There was a dull edge to her voice, as though she’d expected something so obvious to happen, though she realized it wasn’t my fault.
“Absolutely,” I replied, feeling that horrible guilt twisting in my gut, and added, “though, I did see some mats down the hall; this must have been the wing they stored them in. Why don’t you try grabbing a few of those?” Leaning back on the relatively comfortable mattress, I sighed deeply as I carefully removed my gloves and dropped them at the end of the bed with my shoes. If they hadn’t been so busy choosing roommates, they would have been on the bed; it wasn’t my fault I don’t care who I have to outlast for the room.
When the group of girls came back, the girl in the teal gown having shown the others to the storage room, they had dark looks for me. Rolling my eyes at them, I made a mental note that the tall, pale-haired woman, who sported a deep blue form-fitting number, was walking with a small limp on her left leg. The other, a round-faced girl with pigtails and a pastel pink dress, seemed shy, which could be used to my advantage. They may as well have dropped out right then; I was going to beat them in this little contest of magickal skills even if I had my hands tied behind my back.
The little light coming from the courtyard down below began to dim as the electricity was cut, and only the fires were left to illuminate the dark night. As the others got ready for bed, I took off the top layer of my dress, leaving the underclothing on to sleep in; it was a chilly night as the wind blew through the castle. Whipping up into the guest rooms, the breeze ruffled the thin blankets that were available as the girls tried to keep warm.
It felt like hours passed as I waited for them to finally fall asleep, though we were all exhausted. Down the hall, I could hear the excited murmuring of other contestants high on adrenaline with the expectation of the first real trial in the morning.
As snoring finally drifted up from the floor, and no one was speaking down the hall, I cautiously tossed my covers off and glided out of the room with my dress folded over my arm. When I tried the door handle, it wouldn’t turn and I swore lightly under my breath, being careful not to wake anyone from their deep sleep. Thinking a simple unlocking spell in my head and tracing the sigil on the rough wood, the metal bolt shifted and the door popped open with a small metallic squeal. I turned to make sure no one had heard that before slipping through the doorway on graceful feet.
Out in the freezing hallway, I shut the door and peered around nervously; I wasn’t sure there weren’t going to be guards, but I supposed with the locks on the doors no one should be wandering the castle. Besides that, no one should know their way around the sprawling building, so it wasn’t as though anyone could cheat. Smiling to myself, I grabbed the black lacy gown I’d been wearing and turned it to cotton with a spell I learned from a seamstress when I was little. In an instant, the once-spectacular garment was a limp, comfortable uninteresting cloth that just about anyone could be wearing. Throwing it on, I undid the hairdo from the evening and pinned my hair up as though for the night, attempting to look as normal as possible, even in bare feet. If anything was going to go wrong in this mission, it wasn’t going to be my appearance in the castle.
I headed down the hall we’d come, down a set of stairs and down several winding hallways without meeting a single soul. When I passed windows on occasion, I saw staff hurriedly taking down lights and other decorations soundlessly, but no one was roaming the halls. Just as I reached the bottom of another set of stairs, I arrived at my destination, where I heard loud voices carrying through the damp halls.
“-they’re ‘ere doesn’t mean we got’ta put e’rything else on ‘old, ya know?” bellowed a woman’s deep voice, echoing menacingly. There was a snippet of reply from a slight voice that I couldn’t quite make out, but they appeared to be on the other side of the conversation because of the immediate reply. “Oh yeah? Well, don’t they known what we’ve got’ta deal with on a daily basis? With normal kitchen duties, we’re understaffed, then ‘ey add on a bang-kwet like this,” she shouted. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t an answer to that, so I took a few deep breaths before heading in; there wasn’t any point waiting because the cook seemed in a foul mood anyway.
I scurried across the room to where they kept the empty wine bottles, and began sifting through for an empty one as quickly as I possible could. When the cook roared, I was prepared, “Who the ‘ell are you, you little scoundrel!” Having found the perfect bottle, I turned bright red with effort and faced her with trembling knees; even if she hadn’t been waving a heavy rolling pin in her meaty hand, I wouldn’t have been able to look brave.
“I’m uh, I’m one of the, uhm, the, the contestants, ma’am. I’m with the trials, contest thingy, you know? Any, anyway, I uh, I just wanted a glass, I just wanted, needed some water,” I stuttered, eyes shifting about the kitchen and an uncontrollable quiver in my throat. When I was about to cry, I tried again, “I needed, I’m nervous, so I snuck out for water and I know I shouldn’t have and that I needed, but to stay. Water please?” My voice cracked at the end, and I finally forced myself to glance into the ruddy face of the cook, who looked irritated, but sorry for my obvious panic.
With a subtle nod, she replied, “Yeah, ye can ‘ave some water, bu’ be quick ‘bout it, eh? I don’ wan’na ge’ in trouble fer’ this.” I could have sworn there was a smile on her lips as I hurried to the pump, rinsed the wine bottle out and filled it up with the crystalline liquid. “Now, get out’ta my kitchen, ye ‘ear me?” she yelled as I sprinted from the room and up the flight of stairs without a glance back.
Once on the next floor, I leaned out a window with my lips hurting from smiling so much; I’d tricked one of the angriest people in the castle into thinking I was a sniveling nobody who wasn’t going to make it through to the first trial. If I could do that, I could do anything. Looking around at the façade, I spotted the location of several fireplaces, one of which was just down the hall from the contestants rooms. Taking a swig from the water, I headed back along winding corridors and up the last flight of stairs to our floor. As I passed the doors, I listened to the light snoring and rhythmic breathing of my competition.
At the last door, I tried the knob, which remained stationary no matter how much force I put into it. Sighing, I again used the unlocking sigil silently and quickly shut the door behind me. This room was empty other than an ancient fireplace and a single wooden stool. It sat under the window, which was covered in a thick layer of dust, as were the floor panels.
I crossed and placed the bottle on the stood gently, careful not to make too much noise, before turning my attention to the hollow fireplace. With a simple flick of my wrist, I spread the sachet of powder from my pocket on the remains of a century’s worth of fires and set the whole thing ablaze. Crackling away cheerfully, the fire ate away at the mixture of dirt and herbs as though they were tinder-dry firewood. I spent a few minutes sitting on the stool, staring deep into the blaze as though it held the secrets to the world before speaking the enchantment; as I finished the last syllable, the room filled with an ear-piercing echo and the castle itself shook.
But, as suddenly as it happened, the raucous ceased and blew out the fire with an icy breath. As the cinder smouldered, I carefully moved some of the ash into a pile and added it to the bottle of clear liquid. The second the dust touched the water, a racket could be heard from within the container as though I’d captured an entire room within it. I waited a moment for the commotion to finish up, but it intensified with some shouting and swearing the only clear sounds I could make out.
“Hello?” I asked of the bottle, listening intently as it became silent as the grave. “I’m here. I made it to the first trial. Congratulate me. What now?” I spoke softly in an insolent tone; I didn’t really want to be there at all.
Laughter rose up, followed by a shrill voice, “Oh, Artemis, that is just wonderful. What did you have to do? I heard there was a ball in your honor?” I resisted the urge to cut my mother off.
“Well, we had to find a way in, which was dull. I used that breathing tree spell I learned a while back. No one else used anything near that. Then we had to make it through the dungeons, and then we had to stand for hours during the banquet and never got a bite to eat,” I bemoaned, rolling my eyes and wandering in circles around the room. “I don’t know what the first trial is, though,” I added, having realized they would likely want to help me, though I couldn’t ask for what I didn’t know.
An uncle’s voice came through the bottle suddenly, “You are still looking to make your place permanent, right Artemis?” Though his question didn’t come as a complete surprise, it caught me off guard.
“Of course, uncle. I hope to set us up as the rulers of the land eventually. You’ll see, I just have to get through all these silly little children,” I answered, looking out at the courtyard in near-pitch darkness. With a chuckle, I added, “We will have to figure out a way past the fairies, though. Perhaps some of you could work on that while I’m gone?” It was a lot to ask of a bunch of do-nothings, but I had to try. Somewhere down the hallway I heard the unmistakable echo of footsteps, so I cut them off before anyone could answer, “Someone’s here. I’ll message as soon as I can,” and dumped the water into the fireplace.
The door opened on squealing hinges and a slight woman entered in a flowing dressing gown. As she shut the door lightly behind her and crossed to where the moonlight reached her face, I gasped, “Natalie?”
With a slight smile on her thin lips, she replied, “And you are Artemis Vox. I’ve heard, well, not great things about you.” As she stood, her bare feet very pale against the dusty floor, she took a deep breath. “So, you’re the one who’s been up all night, steeling away to the kitchens for some water, and refusing to sleep, huh?” she asked quietly.
“Yeah, that’d be me,” I answered with an unnecessary nod toward the dirty bottle by the fireplace.
Eyeing me up, she spoke softly again, “Are you nervous about the trial in the morning, or do you just not like sleep?” There was a false sense of tone about her that made me want to peel back the layers, even if it wasn’t my place.
“Well,” I began, “I am no nervous at all. I just don’t sleep a lot at home, especially when I’m doing magick. I was going to try a spell to talk with my sister.” Swallowing hard, I chuckled a bit to myself and gazed longingly out the window as the silence drew on. “Do you miss your sister, Natalie?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the stars far above us.
I didn’t expect her to reply, so I assumed she had left until her voice echoed in the room again, this time stripped of the softness she’d been layering it with, “Well, I was six when she was born, and exiled, so I don’t really remember much about her. All I can see when I think about her is the moment he entered the room from the window, and Aurora cried out in her crib. Then mother was at the door. I don’t even remember what happened to him, to be honest,” she trailed off into a vision of the past. After a moment, she countered, “Do you get along with your sister?”
“I don’t see her much, actually, but we used to do this spell when we were little. Maybe I can teach it to you sometime; you could talk to your little sister,” I smiled, turning to face the princess with tears in her eyes. With a yawn, I excused myself and made her goodnight, “I really must get a bit of sleep, but it was nice connecting with you, princess. Have sweet dreams.”
When I opened the door to my room, a smile lighting up my face, I could see that the three figures from the floor were now huddled on the tiny bed with almost all the blankets wrapped around them. Heavy snoring arose from the mass, so I piled the mats up in the corner, tucked the remaining sheet around myself and shut my eyes.
August feels someone shake his shoulder. “I’m awake.” He opens his eyes, looking around the cell. Coulson is to his left, and the three kids are huddled in a corner, all still passed out. There’s a big door on the left wall, and a small window on the top of the opposite wall.
“How long have you been awake?” Coulson asks.
“I don’t know… about a few minutes,” August answers, sitting up so his back isn’t against the wall. “You?”
August tries standing, regardless of how his head pounding between his ears. He takes a look around again, pounding his fist on the walls to check for how solid they are. And… to get out a little pent up frustration. “We need a plan. Those kids are still at risk.”
“Looks like we agree.”
“Well you got a plan?” August looks at him.
Coulson looks back, shrugging, “You?”
August sighs, looking back at the kids, “…Get them out of here, shut this operation down, and not die while doing it.”
“Sounds… semi-solid,” Coulson states.
“What’d you expect from a teen vigilante without proper tech,” August states, bringing back what Coulson said before. A scoff-laugh comes from Coulson’s mouth. August tilts his head a moment, then moves over to the kids.
He kneels down, shaking the oldest gently. The fire powered boy wakes up, looking around frantically.
“Hey, hey…” August says softly. The boy looks at him. “You three okay?”
The boy nods slowly, wrapping his arms around the other two. August notes he has thick metal mittens over his hands.
“I’m guessing you can’t use your powers?”
“No,” the boy croaks, his throat sounding dry.
“Okay, that’s alright. We’re all getting out of here.”
August is about to sigh, but he hears something shatter behind him. He turns, putting his body in front of the kids. The smaller ones are startled awake by what looks like a glass bottle with a paper rolled up. The glass is in pieces on the floor.
Coulson looks at August, then moves slowly to the glass. “It came through the window.”
“I guessed as much,” August states. He watches the glass. Once Coulson touches the glass, it turns to pale paper. August grins when the paper dissolves into nothing.
“What was that?”
“Finn’s ability,” August says. He picks up the still intact paper in the center. He unrolls it and reads the first bits, “This is Josh’s handwriting.” August looks up at the window, “Jacey probably delivered it to the window inconspicuously.”
“How do you think she found us?”
“The tracker you put on all of us,” August says, still reading. He looks up when Coulson doesn’t respond. “We may be teenagers, and far from you and your professionals, but we aren’t idiots, Coulson.”
Coulson nods, “I’ll remember that. What does it say?”
August looks it over again, “It says all the other kids are safe.”
“Anything else?” The boy asks.
August smiles, “An escape plan. A good one, too.”