Chapter 16: After the lightning strikes . . .
Copyright © 2018 by Brian Bixby
It’s gone. It’s been gone for a while.
Those are the first words I’ve been able to think for hours now.
I lie on the floor of the cell, shaken. Profoundly shaken.
I know what happened, in a general sense. My memory doesn’t seem impaired. I just don’t know how or why.
The smell of the herb is gone. It’s been gone for a while. Now all I can smell is my body, my clothing. I stink to high heaven of my own sweat, and this time it’s not fear-scented. This time it’s the scent of blood lust and sexual lust and other lusts and emotions so animal humans don’t even have words for them. I look at my hands. The fingers, the nails, they aren’t bleeding anymore, they look so normal now. The manacles pull a bit at my arms and legs. I can feel the bruised spot on my right arm from when I yanked on the chain so hard that the chain snapped.
See, my memory is fine. And physically, apart from that bruise, I feel great. It’s in every other way mentally that I’m a wreck. It’s like I’ve been hit by lightning.
That herb warped my mind. Instincts, subconscious parts of my brain that I didn’t even know I had, they all just took over. I mean they completely took over. I was conscious of everything I was doing. I wanted to do everything I was doing. I just could not reason about it or reflexively think about it or stop myself from doing any of it. I just acted without thinking about it.
I’ve been mind controlled before. This was worse. Because this was me, some part of me. What I did I wanted to do, and didn’t even think about whether I wanted to or not.
I changed physically, too, though I’m not so sure about how much. I could see only parts of myself, like the bleeding fingernails transforming into claws. But my body felt different, seemed to move differently. I’m having trouble processing exactly what changed. It all feels normal now. My fingernails aren’t several inches long anymore.
I sit up, then stand. My jeans have taken considerable damage; they are split and torn in several places. I look at the three chains still holding me. I feel strong enough that I think I could actually break them, too. But I don’t try, not yet. My intellectual processes might have been on vacation for the last however long that was, but they are working now. I need to find out what’s going on before I make another move. In particular, I have to find out if they’re going to treat me with that herb again, because I seem to be helpless against it.
I turn around and face the door. Theobald is still there, watching. Allia is long gone. I think she was too frightened to stay in the cell with me.
I hear the door unlock. Theobald enters the cell. The door locks behind him. No one takes up his position at the door’s window.
All Theobald says is, “I had to find out. I’m sorry.”
I let his words hang there for a while, to make him feel uncomfortable. And then I say to him, “What did you find out?” I am only mildly surprised how hard my voice sounds. After an ordeal like that, one is either hard or ruined for good.
He looks unhappy. “I loved your mother, at least a little, when she ventured here. Cynthia could be so wonderful. But she was never a one-man woman. And she was always a bit of a wishful thinker, a bit evasive with the truth.”
Nothing he’s telling me is news, but there’s a reason he’s saying it that I can easily discern. “You’re telling me you’re not my father.” Somehow, this doesn’t even surprise me as I say it.
“No, I’m not. Don’t blame your mother. I could have been. And she probably thinks I am. That is what she told me, too.”
“What you just did to me with the herb, what’s the connection? How was that a test?”
“As I say, it could have been me.” Theobald sighs. “Or it could have been my brother. The test proves you’re my brother’s daughter. You’re a hell cat.”
“I’m particularly mean when I’m being held in a dungeon.” I let the menace in my voice come through.
It doesn’t impress him. “You don’t understand. You are literally a hell cat. Well, partly a hell cat. That herb? That’s something we have here in Exile. It doesn’t affect humans at all, whether they be dwarves, demigods, or anything else. It only affects hell cats. It stimulates all their instincts.”
Which explains why I just spent hours in a combination of homicidal rage, rutting like a tigress in heat, and a few other feelings I can’t even describe. I am a creature out of legend, a killing beast. I sit down on the floor, my back up against a wall. I look balefully at Theobald, and this time he feels it. He backs up a step. I tell him, “You turned me into an animal.”
“You already are one, Daphne.”
There’s nothing to say to that.
He paces a bit before looking at me again. “So long as you stay here, we have to keep you chained up. You’re too dangerous otherwise. The best thing for you to do is to return back to the old world. I can arrange that.”
Great. Half of what I wanted when I came here. “What about my father?”
“Tarim? Dead for years now. Half his blood was hell cat. We had to kill him when it got out of control.”
A thought occurs to me. “But you’re Lord Theobald, an earl, presumably an honored man. Why haven’t they had to kill you?”
He shakes his head. “Ah, you don’t know. My brother and I had different fathers. Mine was our mother’s husband. His was a creature that took her in the night once.”
I fill in the blanks. “A hell cat.”
“A hell cat.” Theobald’s voice sounds like a leaden bell tolling my doom.
Because that’s what it is, my doom. I’m not even human, a lesser thing that becomes a raging animal the moment she smells some herb. Here, kitty, have some catnip. Here, Daphne, have some hell-catnip. We get our kicks from seeing you squirm, you out-of-control animal, you. If you don’t kill anyone, maybe we’ll keep you as a pet, chained up in the garage.
To hell with my doom. I stand up, advance on Uncle Theobald until I’m only a few feet from him. At first he doesn’t react, but as I get close, he gets scared. He realizes he’s stepped well inside range of me while I was sitting down. He takes one step back. I smile wickedly at him. It doesn’t make him any happier. I hold up my right arm, broken chain trailing from it. “You say you’re sorry, and yet you did this to me. What are you going to do to make it up to me?”
He tries to take another step back. I threaten him. “Don’t move. You wouldn’t want me to try to break the rest of these chains because I’m mad at you, would you?”
He stops. In a voice that sounds a lot less confident than the words implies, he says, “You wouldn’t do that. You’re my niece.”
“After what you just did to me?” I pull on one of my leg chains, the more vulnerable looking one. To my surprise, it does break. I am stronger than I usually am. Must be an after-effect of the herb.
And if I am surprised, Theobald is terrified. He eyes the door, wondering if he can escape before I pull free altogether. So he thinks hurriedly, and decides to play it safe. “What can I offer you? Gold?”
I laugh. “Easier than that, Uncle Theobald. Or maybe harder, I don’t know. I want to you to tell me everything that is known about hell cats.”
He is relieved. “Allia’s people are the experts. If you’ll let me go out into the hallway —”
“Summon her, Uncle Theobald. You’ve got guards out there, I’m sure. Call to them, give them orders. Once she’s here with me, then you can go and start arranging my departure.”
Theobald decides he’ll go along with me. He is most definitely not going to risk being in this cell with me if I pull the other two chains loose. Hell cats must be something fierce, just as their legendary reputation claims. He calls out to the guards, and orders them to bring Allia. She can’t have been far away, because she enters my cell less than a minute later.
She pays no attention to Theobald once she enters the cell. She has eyes only for me. She comes before me, kneels, goes down flat on the floor, and clutches my left foot with her hand. When she looks up at me, there are tears in her eyes.