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The Old Maid's House

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Throughout her life, Ciri had been in a great number of houses. Reciting an exact number would be foolish and impossible, but it was safe to say she knew her way around abodes humble, noble, and squalor alike.

However, she had never been in a place like this. Its location and even its make wasn’t odd to her, at least not at first. She had come across many a home in the forest before, and this seemed as average as any other. However, the sky over the forest was perpetually dark, and there was a dense presence of silence all around. Every step Ciri took crunched down on dry leaves and trees; every crunch echoed. She looked around and kept her ears sharp. Nothing and no one. Just her, silence, the trees, and a dark wood home just ahead. A home like any other. Taller than most, perhaps, but average.

“This had better be worth it,” she muttered to herself as she increased her gait. The increased crunching was deafening in the silence. In spite of the oddness, she couldn’t sense anything outwardly wrong. She glanced around. Even if there was, there would be nothing to immediately blame. She focused forward again and increased her strut. When her foot came down on the grass, a jolt of pain ran through her body. She could feel it in her veins, under her ribs, rattling through every organ. She tried to scream in pain, but it was choked and shaken. The pain became a tug, pulling her backwards and off her feet. The air was knocked out of Ciri’s body. The more she tried to fight against the spell, the worse the pain got. Relenting was not in her nature.

Relenting, however, was all she could do.

 

She awoke on a hard bed. It was the worst she had ever been on, and that said a lot. She would have preferred to sleep on the wooden floors, which creaked when she placed her feet down on. Her entire body felt tender, and a pinprick sensation ran through every nerve. It was horrible, persistent discomfort. She would endure it; she just wouldn’t be happy about it. She stood with a groan and staggered forward. There was a sconce in her room, but its light was pitiful. Damn near useless. There wasn’t anything of worth save a wardrobe in the corner and a few crude paintings hanging up. She walked distractedly. As she did, she hip checked a round side table. Why it was just sitting in the middle of the room, she wasn’t sure, but there it was.

It tilted and took the red vase on top down with it. It broke into a dozen pieces on the floor. The breaking of the vase meant nothing to Ciri. It wasn’t hers, and neither was this room. Just as the sound of destruction left, oncoming footfalls found Ciri’s ears. She perked up immediately. All of her instincts yelled at her to fight back. She reached for her sword and found nothing. Whoever it was had powerful magic, some of the most painful kind she had ever suffered from. She couldn’t afford to be caught off guard again.

“Dammit,” she hissed before thinking quickly. She was between the bed and the wardrobe, but since she was already standing, her best bet would be to dive into the wardrobe. She hopped in and turned just as the sound of keys rattling sounded. Within the span of a breath, the door opened slowly. The creaking was unreasonably loud and slow. Ciri squinted, trying to see the face of the person who had captured her. The light was too dim to draw any detail from this shadowy figure, and she had a feeling that it was purposefully obfuscated. Ciri narrowed her eyes and leaned closer to the doorway, but the figure exited and headed to the left.

She waited a beat before finally leaving the wardrobe. She crept silently towards the doorway and peeked around the corner. She could hear footsteps, slow and aimless in the room not too far from her. Who was this? She looked around and quickly spotted the front door. It was covered in chains and had a wooden block covering it. Ciri stepped back into the room and tried the window. Sealed.

“Of course. They’d knew I’d do a sensible thing.” She stared at the door and placed her hands on her hips. Well, she couldn’t escape through the window, but she had one viable exit still. She wasn’t the type of girl to just stick around. And by the sound of the ambling footsteps, she didn’t have much time to think about it either.

Getting down to the front door was easy. Ciri quickly analysed the front door. The locks could all be opened with keys (or picked if she had the tools), and only one of them was magical. She brought her hand to touch it; the stinging pain in her fingertips tripled. She let it go with a yelp and backed away. In doing so, her foot tripped over a thin wire suspended a couple of inches from the ground. A bell chimed in the dead air, and immediately, Ciri felt a shift.

She heard the crackle of magic and felt it burn the very air itself. She spun around towards the great source of this discomfort and found the source immediately. Yennefer stood tall in the hallway with her hands glowing with purple and black energy. Her eyes were vacant but purposeful. Ciri had never seen such a look turned her way before. Considering the magnitude of Yennefer’s power, she had never thought that it was possible either.

The next thing Ciri knew, she was ducking out of the way and heading down the stairs. She could practically tastes the magic on her tongue as she headed down the narrow set of stairs. Ciri shoved aside a wood pallet and dipped into the small passageway that was there. She soon found that it was one of many. As she wandered through this dimly lit, dusty home, Ciri found items scattered all throughout. At first, they seemed useless, but Ciri quickly found that every piece played its part. Nothing was immediately obvious, and truth be told, she circled around the house more times than she would have liked.

However, each piece helped her unlock the front door one way or another. Lock after lock fell; nail after nail was wrenched free from the metal board. She had two items left: a metal clasp blocking the top of the door and the magical lock. Just a little bit more, and she would be free. She hated feeling like a trapped mouse.

Actually, there wasn’t a single thing about this situation that Ciri liked. The worst part about it all was the fact that Yennefer was here. How? Why? What was all of this about? Were they to be trapped here, and if so, who was behind all of this? Ciri growled in frustration and snuck into the hall. She wasn’t as careful as she should have been. She snuck into the hall with some haste. Just as she reached the stairs leading upward, she heard a voice behind her.

     “I see you,” Yennefer whispered haughtily.

Ciri didn’t waste time. She bolted upstairs. Yennefer was quick on her heels. Try as she might, Ciri couldn’t use her preternatural speed to get any further, but she was fairly fast on her own. She hopped into a treasure box on the second floor and hid herself away. As she waited, she planned her next move. Ciri twirled the pegged square between her hands and stared at it oddly. It was such a weird looking piece, but thankfully, she knew where it went.

Yennefer was slow to leave, but leave she did in the end. This left Ciri to climb out of the chest and use the key in a slot beside the oddly dark wood door. She ran upstairs, grabbed a dart from the nearby table, and tamed the squirming beast that slithered out to attack her. Upon opening the double door closet, she found two things within: a brass, oddly shaped key and a red book. Ciri knew what to do with the key. Once on the ground floor, she managed to free that metal plate on the door. But the book…

That took some doing.

Running around left Ciri breathless and tired. Her nose was filled with dust having ducked and slid into various hiding spots. Each one was dustier than the last. When hiding under a bed, she buried her face in the crook of her arm to keep herself from sneezing. It barely helped. She climbed up to her feet and dusted herself off. This was the last room she hadn’t checked fully, and the bookcase with a row of similar books revealed nothing. There had to be something here.

     “If there’s not…” Ciri muttered as she scoured the room. “I’ll bring this whole place down and then flog whoever’s responsible.” It was a reasonable course of action. She slid a painting out of the way to check behind it, and that’s why she heard something sliding with a miserable groan. She turned and watched as the only bookcase slid out of the way to reveal a hidden doorway. “So many secrets.” She grabbed the book and headed towards the doorway.

There was nothing but painting and a podium inside. The podium had a book-sized recess, but before Ciri used it, she looked at the paintings on the wall. She recognised some of these places. They were from a nearby village. “Nearby” being used very loosely, but she knew that it was from a somewhat familiar location. There was another location that she hadn’t recognised. One had the little odd creature from upstairs, and then there was a cage in some room she hadn’t yet discovered. Perhaps it was meant to signify something. Or to be intimidating. However, she doubted anyone would have found this place without painstaking care. Even then, there was a chance that the discovery would have been by happenstance.

Sighing, she placed the book on the podium. The reveal came immediately after. The wall shifted and shimmered. It slid backwards to reveal a woman in black and white clothes who was seemingly unconscious. Ciri balked before rushing up to free the dark haired woman.

Two Yennefers? How could such a thing happen? Ciri had new questions, and she was sure that Yennefer would have more when she awoke. Ciri carefully helped the sorceress down. She sat down on the ground with Yennefer resting on her body. The other Yennefer wandered through the house, softly cooing and teasing out loud to no audience. Ciri quietly tried to wake the woman resting against her. It took a few moments, but in the end, Yennefer’s eyes opened with a fluttered of dark lashes.

     Ciri smiled down at her. “Welcome back.”

     “Ciri?” Yennefer sat up and rubbed her head. “Ah…  Where are we?”

     “I was hoping to figure that out by now.” Ciri looked to the pictures with a small frown. “But alas, I’ve found nothing.”

     “You found me,” Yennefer corrected as she stood.

     Ciri stood as well and embraced her adoptive mother. “And that counts for more than you know.”

     Yennefer chuckled and hugged Ciri. When they parted, she cupped Ciri’s chin before looking around. “Now, what shall we do about all of this?”

     “I’m almost out of this place. Now that I found you, we can leave. There’s a lock downstairs that needs magic.”

     “Nothing I can’t handle, I’m certain.”

She allowed Ciri to take the lead but kept a look out for any dangers. Ciri stopped once they were in the hallway. The second Yennefer walked across the ground level into the kitchen. Ciri heard a scoff behind her, but before she could say anything, she noticed the lock on the front door tremble and shatter. Its bits fell to the floor, and the second Yennefer reappeared.

For a brief moment, Ciri wish she had her sword or her usual abilities to handle this, but she was forgetting that Yennefer was in perfect form behind her. “Begone,” Yennefer commanded. Her double was engulfed in a black smoke before being casted out of the house through the front door. Immediately, the house began to groan and cave. Ciri and Yennefer ran out of the dim abode into the silence of the forest. The dead air was filled with the sound of groaning wood. Yennefer approached her double with confidence, and Ciri followed. At the last minute, she whipped around to watch as the house collapsed on itself. It was still standing, but it looked far worse than it had before. It looked its age, and for some reason, it felt right to Ciri. She ducked her head down and saw that there was sitting on the now dilapidated stairs.

Wandering closer, she found the same red book from before, but it was aged and well-read. She dusted off the cover before flipping through. She could hear talking behind her as she skimmed through the illustrated pages. Oh, now this was just mean. Should she say anything? Ciri turned around and walked blindly towards Yennefer’s stern voice.

     “Calm down, Dudu. I won’t harm you, but do me a favour, will you? Take on a form that is not my own. I find it disturbing to speak to you.”

     “Yes… Yes, of course.”

Ciri didn’t look up at first. She wasn’t paying attention to the doppelganger’s transformation. The book in her hands had her attention. To the point where she was even smirking. This caught Yennefer’s attention.

     “What have you there, Ciri?”

     “Oh… Nothing.”

     “How doubtful. You’re smiling.”

     Ciri sighed and closed the book with a smile. “You don’t want to know.”

     “Now I must. Are you learning the weak art of secrecy from Geralt?”

     “I like to think I’m better than him in that regard.”

Ciri handed over the book, and she looked to see that Dudu, the once second Yennefer, was now a very comely young man with pink lips and wide, green eyes and wispy blond hair. He had on a tilted hat quite like a bard’s and fine but dirited clothing. He looked to Ciri and gave a shy bow of his head. Ciri bowed hers in return. Doppelgangers, strange creatures they were. One could never be sure if they’ve seen one or not until its true form was revealed. In truth, Ciri liked the mystery, odd as it was. But hell: the world could stand to stay a little odd.

     “Oh,” Yennefer said in a hateful shudder. Her face was pleasantly neutral as it always was, but once she snapped the book shut, there was a very noticeable sneer on her face. “I believe I know whose error this was.”

     “You believe? Then share with the class.”

     “In time, Ciri. I will need you.” She looked to Dudu and narrowed her eyes. “And you as well. Oh, I will need you most of all.”

     “I don’t suppose I’ve much of a say in the matter?”

     “None at all.” Yennefer walked forward and caught Dudu’s arm as she walked. “But should you feel the need to excuse yourself, I’ll give you a pain you won’t readily forget.”

     “I believe you.”

Ciri watched before shaking her head. She walked forward to keep pace with them and to come to Dudu’s rescue. Whoever they were about to exact some revenge for would be in far over their heads. Yennefer’s plan, Ciri was sure, would require more than a simple, old house and a dozen or so keys.