Persie Merlin and the Door to Nowhere – Bella Forrest

No air. Can’t breathe. Can’t see. Heavy limbs pushed through impenetrable darkness, thick as tar and clogging my mouth, my nose, my eyes. The black deadened my every sense. It wanted to choke me. It wanted to drown me, my churning body not knowing up from down, down from up. And every second that passed brought me closer to unknown oblivion. Panic splintered my struggling chest, forcing me to take breaths that only let the dense substance deeper within. Help! Someone, HELP! But I was alone, floating in this abyss of pure, blackest black. The kind that didn’t exist in nature, or in any ordinary palette, the kind of nerve-shattering absence that a deep space explorer might see when staring a black hole dead in the eye. And it incited the same terror in me—of getting sucked into that hollow nothing, my atoms shattered to smithereens. And then, it spat me out. I hit cold, hard… something. Hunched over on all fours, I drew in breath after breath until the slimy slugs of shadow that had snuck into my lungs dissolved with sweet, sweet oxygen.

Coughing, I sat up and froze. Hazy figures stood beyond a pane of blue-tinted glass, its rippled texture warping their faces and shapes until they looked like eerie wraiths, staring through the glass as if I were an animal in a zoo. “Hello?” I called, and my voice echoed back like there were ten of me. My head whipped around in fright, forcing me to take in my surroundings for the first time. That same blue-tinted glass, embellished with faintly glowing hexwork, incarcerated me on all sides. What’s going on? My heart raced, my eyes flitting back to the figures beyond the glass. I staggered to my feet, holding my roiling stomach. Stumbling into this new place left me feeling shaky and strange, and a numbing cold made my limbs stiff and uncooperative. “Hello? Can you hear me?” I went to the front pane and placed a palm on the frozen surface. I yanked my hand away on impact, the icy touch of the glass biting into my skin like a burn.

The sting made me wonder if it was glass at all, or a thick slab of ice. A few faint wisps of black wafted up from the site of the pain—the kind of gossamer mist I’d seen before, in box after box of Purge beasts. This isn’t right… I don’t puff out smoke like this… The panic from the black nothingness returned with a vengeance, piercing me like poisoned barbs. I had to believe my eyes were just playing tricks on me, or that this was some sort of sick joke. Anything to ignore the simplest explanation. I’m not a monster. I’m not a beast. Don’t lock me away! There might have been air in this glass prison, but I couldn’t get so much as a lungful. Gasping, I hammered on the pane with every ounce of strength in my shaky muscles. A dusting of frost fell away from the glass, revealing the faces of the figures who stood beyond.

“Mom, Dad, help me!” I screamed, my voice thundering in my ears. “Genie! Anyone!” They were all there, huddled together in identical black robes as though they were standing vigil at a funeral: my mom, my dad, Genie, Victoria, Kes, Diana, Finch—literally everyone I knew and cared for. O’Halloran stood off to one side with Tobe, holding a ring of keys that jangled in a mysterious breeze. I heard the sound like a death knell, chiming out my fate. It exploded my panic into the stratosphere, and I slammed my hand into the glass until my bones shuddered. “I’m not a monster! Help me! Get me out of here!” Hot trails of tears trickled down my cheeks as I pounded harder against the pane. “Please, let me out! I haven’t done anything wrong!” Either they couldn’t hear me, or they wouldn’t. I wasn’t sure which was worse. My mom kept her head down, and my dad held her close as though they’d already lost me. The sight wrenched through me, tearing up my insides until the emotions had no choice but to rise up my throat as a howl of suffering.

As my cries spilled over with all the anguish and terror that urged my fist to keep pummeling, my mom tipped her chin up to look at my dad. Grief and anger morphed her face into a mask of pain, but she wouldn’t look at me. She refused. My desperate eyes scoured the rest of the miserable congregation, and I saw that same expression on all of their faces—a disappointed, agonized grief. “Genie! Genie, you know this is ridiculous! Please, you’ve got to help me!” I stopped hammering and pushed my hands against the pane. Some foolish part of me hoped that, with enough willpower and terror, I could get it to crack. Instead, Genie turned into the arms of her father, who glowered at me over the top of her head with his alarming gray eyes. A look that said: I always knew you were trouble. I noticed Genie’s shoulders shaking violently, and I knew she was crying. But if she was so upset, then why wouldn’t she help me? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything? My friends, people I’d known all my life, just… turned away, or looked at me as though I’d done something unforgivable.

“Let me out, please! I can’t… I can’t breathe in here! I can’t be in here!” The air had gotten so thin, or my throat too narrow, and being trapped on all sides by this glass sent me into a downward spiral. The floor might’ve been solid, but I’d never felt less steady. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I beat the glass until my knuckles turned raw red, the first hint of mauve and vermilion bruises blooming beneath. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I was being treated as if I were a criminal who deserved to have the key thrown away. I looked at Tobe, my last hope, through blurred eyes. “Tobe, you’ve got to set me free! I’m not a beast. I don’t belong here. Tobe!” Please… He bowed his head and ruffled his wings, and I swore I saw a golden tear drop from his eye and splash onto the dark, silver-veined marble below. It spattered oddly, the tiny particles glittering like specks of diamond dust. My mom finally turned her steely gaze on me, and I saw tears swimming in her eyes, too.

“Quiet now, Persie.” “You’ve put me in a cage!” I sobbed, my lungs swelling with heartache. “Please, Mom. I don’t understand…” She stared unflinchingly, unmoved by my pleas. “This is for the best—for your sake, and for everyone else’s.” “Mom!” I yelled, thundering on the glass with everything I had left. She hadn’t even given me a chance to get things under control. “It’s already decided.” My mom turned her back on me, and the others followed suit. They headed toward the exit, their cloaks dragging along the ground.

Glinting streaks of something dark and sticky followed them, and in the dim glow of the hall’s faint lights, it shone with a hint of scarlet. It was only then that I realized which hall we were in. In a final, futile attempt to get them to turn around, I screamed until my throat felt raw, streaks of blood now smearing the glass. Once they left, I knew what would come. I could already feel his presence. Leviathan… No sooner had I thought his name than black smoke began to swirl in the corners of the box. A chill ran the length of my spine, as though someone had dropped a snowball down my collar. The hall grew darker as I blinked away tears, not wanting the salty sting to steal my vision. But it wasn’t the tears obscuring my view… The darkness was coming from inside the box itself, the shadowy mist becoming denser. And with it came more of the bitter iciness that heralded Leviathan’s arrival, prickling my skin until I was covered in goosebumps.

I have to get out! I have to get out! I tried to rake in a deep breath, but it was as if I’d forgotten the simple mechanics of inhaling and exhaling. All the while, the glass walls closed in on me and the black smoke shrank the box until claustrophobia claimed me. Frantic beyond sense and reason, I kept banging on the glass long after everyone had gone. Everyone, that is, except for a small ball of white fluff that sat watching at a distance with curious black eyes. I blinked, wondering if it was here to help, but then… it left me, too, vanishing into thin air. “Please… don’t leave me alone. Please.” My knees buckled and I sank to the cold floor, my head hanging low. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” “Neither did we,” said that deep, musical voice, seeping through the encroaching shadows.

“Would you call a satyr a criminal? Would you clap a griffin in irons for daring to live?” “No, but—” I tried to argue, but he cut me off. “But… you are human? Is that what you were going to say?” I felt the caress of a misty tendril against my neck and jolted away. He didn’t get to touch me like that. He didn’t get to touch me at all. I bent over until my head was practically on my knees, trying to make everything else disappear so I could breathe again. “I don’t want to talk about this now.” My head raised ever so slightly, and my hand touched the pane. “They… left me.” “You do not need them. You do not need any of them.

They are a hindrance to you, nothing more.” His wispy tendrils brushed my arms, but I had nowhere to run. “You will be their queen someday. There will be no glass boxes strong enough to hold you. You will smash them all.” I covered my ears with my hands. “No! Shut up!” Leviathan’s smoke grew thicker around me, the vise closing on my lungs. I needed air. I needed freedom. “I just want to get out.

I have to!” A loud bang pierced the air, as though someone were rapping on the glass. My head snapped up as the hall, the box, and Leviathan evaporated, leaving me sitting bolt upright in my single, spartan bed at the Basani Institute. Sweat drenched my pajamas. The coarse sheets had twisted around me like a python, and, when I looked down, I noticed that my knuckles were mottled with fresh purples and crimsons. The bang echoed through the room again, more insistent this time. With a wave of relief, I realized it was coming from my door. I untangled myself from the sheets and lumbered out of bed. As rooms went, this one was the epitome of uniform, devoid of any personality. The curved stone roof made it look like a tunnel that had been cut in half. It made me feel like I was in a cellar, but the circular window brought in the outside world and some much-needed sunlight—whenever the gray Irish weather permitted, that is.

It looked onto a pretty orchard, with rich emerald grass dappled by the light that streamed through the leaves above. Plump, russet-colored apples hung from the ochre branches. All of the rooms in the student quarters were more or less identical, from what I’d managed to glimpse. At least I didn’t have to share, and the rules seemed pretty lax. No strict curfew, just a note to be considerate of others—that was the difference between life at coven school and something tantamount to college. Plus, I had my own bathroom, which was a godsend, tucked away behind a narrow door that I could barely squeeze through. These rooms resided in an annex off the East Wing, with the male quarters in a different annex nearby. Crossing to the door, I winced at the icy nip of the stark stone floor beneath my bare feet. I had to remember to put slippers on my list of necessary items for my mom to send through. She left me in that box… I shook away the illogical thought.

It was only a nightmare— an actual one, not a Leviathan-infused hypnosis. I could feel the difference; my head didn’t feel invaded, like it had when Leviathan had wriggled in. I took a steadying breath and opened the door to find Genie standing in the hallway. “Finally! I was about ready to break down the door.” Genie grinned at me, only for her smile to fade quickly. “What’s up? You look all… sweaty and feverish. Are you sick? I heard there’s this thing called Fresher’s Flu that hits the new recruits in their first week. Do you need me to round up some meds for you?” I put my hands up in mock defense. “Easy, there, I only woke up two seconds ago. I can manage a maximum of one pre-coffee question.

” “Sorry. I’ve just been on a run around the grounds, so I’m pretty jazzed.” She took a deep, meditative breath. “Are you feeling okay? It wasn’t a… you-know-what, was it?” I shook my head. “That was technically two questions. But no, it wasn’t a Purge. It’s been”—I counted out the days on my fingers—“five days since the exam, and I haven’t had any symptoms. I think this place is already doing me some good.” “Either that, or this Mama of Monsters thing is like food poisoning.” “Huh?” My mind was still way too preoccupied with the dream to decipher her metaphors.

Just seeing her standing there was both relieving and triggering, since she’d abandoned me in that dream like everyone else. But I needed to push the thought away before it ruined my day entirely. After five days of settling in, we were finally having our orientation, and I wasn’t going to let any stupid, separation-anxiety nightmare get in the way of my first proper day as a student. Plus, I had some catching up to do, socially speaking. While the other students had been exploring and getting to know one another at planned events, I’d spent most of my time recovering from the banshee, going back and forth between my room and the infirmary for checkups. Genie had stuck with me, not wanting me to feel alone, but I worried she might’ve missed out by playing nurse. Still, we’d have plenty of time to mingle now that we were getting into proper Institute business. Genie smiled, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “The flu. It’s supposed to be rough as heck for the first few days, but then it all plateaus and you don’t have to keep running to the bathroom every ten minutes.

” “I hope so,” I admitted. This was the longest I’d gone without Purging since getting the worst birthday present in history, so either Genie was right… or I was due a doozy of a beast birth. I prayed it was the former. “So, why all sweaty? I know you haven’t been running.” She squinted curiously, as if she could read the problem on my face. “That’s because, as you know, running is for psychopaths. You’ll never convince me otherwise.” I bit the bullet and told her: “I had a dream. A bad one.” She gasped and lunged forward, pressing her palm to my forehead to check for a fever.

“Like, a Leviathan dream?” “He was in it, but it wasn’t one of his, if that makes sense. At least, I don’t think so. It didn’t have the same vibe as before, and he wasn’t doing any romancing, unless you count a few unsavory brushes.” I removed her hands and held them for a minute as I explained the dream. When I finished, she looked at me with genuine horror. “You know I’d never do that, right? They’d have to go through me if they ever even thought about putting you in a box.” “I know. It was just a dream.” If I kept saying it, I was certain I’d eventually convince myself. “Everything’s new here.

I’m in a strange bed in a strange room that doesn’t feel like home yet, and we’ve got orientation today, so I think it was probably an anxiety dream.” Genie nodded in understanding. “I’m with you on that. I had a horde of seahorsemounted Atlanteans chasing after me with tridents last night. Stereotypical, totally implausible, but very unnerving.” I laughed, the residual jitters dissipating. “Did they catch up to you?” “I don’t know. I woke up when I got pronged in the butt cheek.” She ushered me gently back into my room. “Now, get your peachy butt into some clothes so we can get coffees before orientation starts.

And trust me when I say I wouldn’t let anyone put you in a box. You could Purge elephant-sized chickens for two weeks straight, and I’d still bite anyone who came near you.” “I thought Victoria warned you about the biting?” I asked, smiling. “She said I couldn’t bite any of her people,” Genie reminded me. After the banshee debacle, she’d apparently bared her teeth—figuratively and literally. It certainly explained why a few of the other students had been wary around her when we’d done some exploring of the Institute. Genie waited as I took a clean T-shirt and my mom’s fancy leggings from the oldtimey wardrobe crammed in beside my bed. As I changed, the scent of the clothes briefly whisked me away to the SDC, the home I couldn’t go back to. Crap, I’m going to have to learn how to do my own laundry… It was just the dose of independent reality that I needed to stop dwelling on the bad. O’Halloran had made his position clear—I still wasn’t welcome back home, as long as I was a perceived risk—but so had my parents and Victoria Jules.

And so had I. I was here to learn and get this curse under my control, and once I’d succeeded in doing that, I could go back to O’Halloran with a diploma in my hand that said to the world, I’m in control. I belong, no matter what I am. Frankly, I couldn’t wait to get started, and figuring out a washing machine couldn’t be any harder than Purging a beast… right? After throwing on my clothes, I walked a few steps toward the mirror that hung on the opposite wall. I scooped my dark hair into a messy bun, which looked more sleepless-chic than casual-chic. But I wasn’t there to be part of a fashion parade, as my mom would’ve said. I was there to become the best damn hunter I could be. “What if all these nerves make me Purge?” I checked my reflection. The gray complexion and the dark circles under my eyes definitely told of uneasy dreams. Purging was never far from my mind, and the anticipation grew with every Purgeless day that passed.

“You’re in an Institute full of hunters whose primary purpose is to capture Purge beasts. That’s why we chose it,” she said matter-of-factly. “There’s no safer place for you. Even your mom agreed on that, in the end.” I faltered, having a momentary crisis of confidence. “What if they never truly accept me, though? If I end up being a liability, they’ll have a hard time viewing me as anything but a… problem.” The word monster had almost come out, but I’d stopped myself. Even if I Purged them, I wasn’t one myself, and a curse couldn’t change that. “Victoria is gaga over you!” Genie swooped in with a bit of bolstering. “You think she hands out invites like a broken candy machine? She chose you because of your Purge ability.

She’s not scared of it, and neither am I. I doubt anyone will be. They might be curious about you, but then the novelty will wear off and you’ll fit right in with everyone else. I feel it in my Atlantean waters, and they’re rarely wrong.” I chuckled. “You and your waters.” “Besides, Victoria will have put hunters on standby in case of emergency, and you’ve got your beeper thing.” Genie leaned out the door and pointed down the stone hallway. “There’s a dude at the end of the corridor who’s been loitering there since last night, and there’s only one reason he’d be hanging out in the ladies’ dorms. Actually, there’s two, but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Victoria has all bases covered, so all you need to worry about is—” “Learning how to hunt and capture properly, so I can turn this curse into a gift.” I finished the sentence for her as I gave myself a stern look in the mirror. “Exactly.” Genie smiled at me like a proud mother hen. It was going to be a long, hard process, but I hadn’t come all this way for nothing. This was what I’d wanted—a new start to my independence, where I could make a change. Sure, I hadn’t expected to have to give up the SDC for this, but it had played out that way, so I had to make it worth it. And Genie was right—until I had more knowledge and practical training under my belt, I had the Institute watching my back. And I had my best friend at my side, going through all of this with me. It’s definitely a start.

I looked back at my reflection and smiled. I had to remember; I’d asked for this. I’d wanted to do more for myself so I wouldn’t have to rely on friends and family—or other hunters, for that matter—to save my ass when I puked up a Purge beast. And I was only going to learn this stuff here. Victoria knew what she’d gotten herself into when she’d seen me unleash a banshee, and she’d still accepted me. I had to trust her judgment. And if it’s not enough and I fail, they can always put me in a box… I hadn’t meant to think it, but the dream clung to the back of my mind. It had scared the bejeezus out of me because it had felt so painfully, desperately real, devoid of the usual fluff and trickery. Maybe, all things considered, my mind actually was my own worst enemy; I didn’t need Leviathan to show me my gravest fears because I already had them lined up and ready to go. Despite my determination to ignore it, I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to shake the dream entirely.

Not with my knuckles still sore and bruised, each dull ache a reminder of what I’d experienced. “We need to get a move on,” Genie said. “Charlotte Basani is leading our tour, and I don’t want to be late!” I grabbed a notebook and shoved it into a backpack. “Is she one of the instructors?” “Charlotte?” Genie giggled like a schoolgirl. “No, she’s Shailene Basani’s daughter.” “Right, got it.” I remembered now—Fay and Shailene were the twin founders of this place, and it stood to reason that one of them would’ve had kids. I slung the backpack over my shoulder and headed for the door. “Kes had us cram so much into our skulls that I think a lot got pushed out right after.” Genie made an airy, whistling noise.

“It was literally in one ear and out the other with me, but I know all about Charlotte from the ever-helpful grapevine.” She turned and we walked down the corridor together, past the hunter who had apparently been keeping watch all night. He gave a discreet nod and immediately walked off in the opposite direction. “Everyone talks about her. She’s apparently one of the best monster hunters to have ever come out of this Institute. Top-ranking, future head-huntswoman material, with a Bestia ability that I’d kill for! And she’s got the name to go with it.” “Bestia? I don’t know that one.” We fell in step, and the chatter helped ease my increasing nerves. “It means she can turn into all sorts of creatures and get into their mindset, which gives her a massive edge when hunting.” “Isn’t that just Shapeshifting?” “Kind of, but it’s exclusive to animals.

I hear she can even change into a few Purge beasts, but you know what the rumor mill is like.” She sighed, as if she were already besotted with this Basani woman. “Still, it’d be amazing if she could, and it would definitely explain the glowing resume.” Turning the corner of the cavernous hallway that led into the main body of the Institute, where the old collided with the modern, I spotted two more hunters who were doing a terrible job of acting nonchalant. They’d obviously been stationed there to keep an eye on me. I didn’t mind, given my history, but their presence made me feel like a pariah before I’d even gotten started. A watched enemy in the ranks, one who could go rogue at any moment. I was really trying to be optimistic, but every time I glanced at my knuckles and thought of the curse that had brought me there, my lungs seemed to shrivel like prunes and my throat got tight. You will smash them all. Leviathan’s words hadn’t sounded at all comforting while I was deep in the tangle of the dream.

But now… I remembered the panic I’d felt pummeling that glass, willing it to break beneath my futile fists. Faced with the prospect of life in a box if I couldn’t make this work, those words now acted as a weird salve to my fears. And that worried me most of all

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