Narius tugged the scratchy wool blanket tighter around his shoulders. The dim room distorted colors, making the blanket look black instead of forest green. A dip in the ground held the dying embers of a fire. Narius did not know why the guards built one. Even full flame, it gave little warmth.
"Can't you all just leave me alone?" He pulled his knees to his chest, causing the cot springs to squeal, and rested his back against frigid stone blocks. "I already apologized," he mumbled, "and I can't do much more than that from in here.
Zaraine and Ryo drifted from side to side. They smiled devilishly and giggled to each other. Narius combed his hand over his oily gray hair, brushing strands carefully past his horns and away from his eyes. He sighed and closed his eyes, savoring the smell of smoke that lingered from the fire. Ryo huffed, attracting Narius' attention once more. He glared back at Ryo who had crossed his legs and arms and puffed out one cheek. The silvery boy's dusky hairs moved individually as if each was whisked about by its own breeze. Sometimes they would reveal the tips of his horns and his company was made all the more hellish.
Ryo drifted closer to the trundle where Narius huddled. His translucent body emanated dense fog that fell to the floor in plumes, curling and dissipating. He glared, his gaze mesmerizing. It was very much different from the gaze of the child Narius had butchered years previous. Once children died, Narius noted, every one gained a look of wisdom in their eyes as spirits. It was obvious the dead were privy to secrets beyond the comprehension of the living. He asked on multiple occasions what they might be, but every time the spirits got a smug look on their faces and responded with sass beyond their mortal years.
Ryo continued to inch ever closer, invading any personal space he could find.
"What?" Narius snapped. Haze retreated from his breath.
Ryo opened his mouth to reply but was interrupted by Miaele, picking bitterly at a chipped block in the wall. "You've a visitor," she spat.
Ryo and Zaraine sneered and glided away, leaving their killer to wallow in dread. Narius groaned and moved to the edge of the cot. He crossed his legs and settled the wool blanket over his lap. Before long he heard footsteps echo in the corridor. Two thin shadows blocked sections of the sparse light that leaked under the heavy metal door. Through the wall of bars to his left, Narius watched the entrance and heard the latch snap as it released. Minar, captain of the guard at the high-security prison where Narius was held, knocked twice before barging in. Narius wished he wouldn't knock. He knew Minar only did it to irritate him. The metallic ring resounded off the barren walls of the near-empty room and lingered in his sound sensitive ears.
Though Minar was his only visitor, Narius hated when he stopped in. He, like his knocks, was loud and irritating. Often, he would psychoanalyze Narius. When he was especially bored, Minar would bring a notebook with him and scribble everything his prisoner said in its pages.
"Good morning!" Minar sang, "How's my favorite prisoner today?"
Narius raised one eyebrow. He wasn't sure if it was morning. The windowless room gave Narius no indication of time or season.
Minar's high heeled boots clacked on the uneven stone floor. As Minar grabbed a stool from near the door, Narius took the opportunity to frantically wave his hand through Shayon. The child was circling around Narius like a wasp hovering over a slice of watermelon.
Narius straightened to face Minar before he caught the display. Shayon reformed, bringing together the cloud of mist Narius had reduced him to and fashioning it into his usual appearance. The fire twitched when Minar passed, moved by the swish of air created by his cloak. He strode to the bars that reached from ceiling to floor, separating Narius from two-thirds of the spacious room.
"You've nothing to say today? Excellent," Minar confirmed gleefully. When he sat, he did so gently to avoid impaling his own backside with his outrageously long, polished horns. On that stool, with his long, arched horns and his delicate robes, Minar looked like a preening prize goat. Narius wanted to saw those horns off and shove them down Minar's throat. Then he'd shear that shiny blue hair and parade his jailer through the butcher's market on a leash.
Minar's smile died as his gaze fell upon a rickety desk. A wooden serving tray holding cold steamed vegetables, a stale roll, and some sort of meat lay nearly untouched. "You didn't eat," he observed.
"Sure I did." Cot springs squeaked in protest as Narius rose. He ambled to the far corner and plucked the roll off the tray, brushing it straight through Miaele, and holding it for Minar to see a small piece missing. "See?"
Minar's tone dropped, "You can't survive on a bite of bread per day, especially not at your age."
Narius shrugged, "I grew up eating the food of nobles. I refuse to stomach any more of that trash."
Minar's expression grew flinty. He crossed one leg over the other. "You can eat on your own or we can employ methods to persuade you."
"Is that a promise?" Narius dropped the roll on the floor behind him. He sat once again on the cot and mirrored Minar's crossed legged pose. A chill from Zaraine, who was hovering behind him, crept down his neck. She flicked him in the head and Narius resisted turning around to swipe way her ghostly form. Minar would think him insane and Narius had promised himself he would not give the guards any excuse to further restrain him. He jeered, "I turn fourteen in less than two weeks. We both know I haven't got long after."
"I didn't come here just to talk, you little monster."
Narius struggled to keep a calm manner as Minar alluded to his appalling crimes. He pressed his palms together, as if in prayer, and tucked his thumbs under his chin. His hands smelled of rust from touching the iron bars of the cell. He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, "Oh? Then why are you here?"
"I have news." Minar smoothed his bright orange robes. "Our generous Prince Ridian has enacted a new policy."
Narius blinked. Ridian was trusted by his father to have responsibility over the prison, making him warden and, as a result, Minar's boss. The kid did an okay job, considering he and Narius were the same age, but he hated the idea of kowtowing to stupid rules made up by some royal whelp.
"You are a killer. The first mass killer in our kingdom's history, and one who preys on children, no less," Minar paused to swipe a lock of hair behind his shoulder with a flourish, "But we are in the midst of troubled times. Times when our blades are meant for our enemies, not the King's subjects. In addition, you are a citizen of Loquiris. So you can see, Narius, why this is a complicated matter."
"Your secondary trial and, by extension, near-certain execution have been permanently suspended." Minar stood.
"No!" Narius leaped from his cot and clutched the iron bars.
"As of today," Minar continued, "your first sentence stands. You will spend the rest of your life in here. You are hereby stripped of family and title. No longer are you Narius Fandral. I will personally make sure you never set foot outside these walls again. Enjoy your stay, Neverfree."
"No," Narius shouted again, "those are not the rules! I killed children. I butchered over a dozen. The law calls for my blood."
Minar reached through the bars and stroked Narius under the chin with one finger, pausing just before it slipped off. He lifted his hand slightly, forcing Narius to tilt his head back. They locked eyes and Minar moved his face close enough to kiss. He was no dandy with polished horns and well-tended looks. He was a prison master with the full authority of the crown behind his cold, citrine eyes. He smelled of pine sap and Narius clenched his teeth, responding to the uncomfortable advance and the fading memory of the outdoors. Minar's finger curled and his thumb rested on the point of Narius' chin. He opened his mouth slightly and broke his stare, instead casting his eyes sideways, smiling. Narius could hear Minar breathe in as if he was about to say something, but he stopped. Once more he caught Narius' eye before striding toward the door. Narius watched him go, noticing a slight spring in Minar's step. It made him sick.
Narius' nose stung and his wide eyes overflowed with tears. He crumpled to his knees, his head drooping as he clutched the bars. Narius' gaze fixed where a rod flawlessly met the floor. He felt his exposed fingers and toes become numb. Every so often, he saw wisps of ghostly mist swirl from the corner of his eye, catching dying firelight.
He was always aware of which souls were still attached to him and, even more, which were in close proximity to him. More children that just the five who haunted him inhabited his cell. Others had arrived and left, their resentment burning into his mind, chasing out all other thoughts as they passed. Some moved on after a short while, some lingered. All stayed within Narius' memory. The ones who lingered would traipse in and out of Narius' cell, their presence scraping away his arrogance and exposing the raw wounds of his psyche. In dignity or in name, he was no noble. The prince had decreed it. He would never escape the shadows of his actions. He would never ascend past his impulses and into the heights of his rank. He was a child killer, nothing more.
All the phantoms had vanished, except for Shayon. The boy lingered, vapor cascading off his wraithlike body as he floated through the bars. Shayon's form wrapped around the iron, making it protrude out of his upper back and shoulders as he stopped. Narius felt his eye twitch once as he was reminded of Shayon's death, beaten and stabbed with the broken wooden shaft of a spear.
Shayon crouched in the unsettling way sprits did and cupped a hand to Narius' ear. "At first," the boy whispered eerily, "I was angry. But now I realize this is the kind of punishment you deserve."
Shayon stood upright. Tendrils of smoke overtook him and he soon lost all semblance of a human form. All at once, the fog fell to the ground, heavy and silent, and fled in all directions before disappearing. Narius knew he would see Shayon again. Though they sometimes vanished, the kids always returned to him as a constant and vicious reminder of his deeds.
Narius wilted. The thought of seeing his victims for the rest of his life exhausted him. He could hear the guards coming back to his cell, preceded by the sound of chains. From outside the bars, one guard shackled Narius' wrists. His instinct told him to resist, but he simply numbed his mind and knelt upright. Narius took note of every imperfect detail on the bars as he slid his hands down and settled on his feet. The frigid cuffs weighed on his bones. The rusted chains were weaved from one hand, outside the bars, and back into the cell before attaching to his other hand. Once Narius was secured, all three guards entered through a cell door to his right. A young looking guard, maybe nineteen or twenty, approached Narius. He lifted his weight off his feet and she put a second set of shackles around his ankles, immobilizing him completely.
"What are you doing?" he asked, surprised at how flat and apathetic his voice was. He shifted, trying to move the brisk metal onto the legs of his trousers.
The guard startled, obviously not expecting Narius to speak. "Shut up," she growled.
His curiosity unabated, Narius watched the guards from over his shoulder. They rifled through the meager cot mattress and looked behind the bolted legs of the desk. They even peered inside the cracks of the walls. What had Minar ordered them to do? Narius struggled to understand what they had hoped to achieve. Then one of the guards picked up the butter knife from the serving tray and put it in his pocket. The answer hit Narius. They were taking anything he could hurt himself with. He was both offended and impressed with Minar. Obviously, he wasn't as much of an idiot as Narius had assumed to think about such a detail.
Narius was removed from his shackles once the three guards finished seizing anything sharp. His wrists were freed last, as they were released from outside the locked cell. After a time, Narius' legs went numb underneath him. When he dragged himself off the ground, his knees were stiff as an old man's. His mind swirled and the hours ran together. All he could do was crawl into the bed, draw the scratchy blanket around himself, and fall into restless sleep.