Welcome to the panic room,
Where all your darkest fears are gonna come for you.
Panic Room – Au/Ra
Warnings for chapter: Graphic Depictions of Violence, Explicit Language, Slavery, Death, Scars, Collars
1819 days since the Shattering
The Man-Who-Guards-You is not alone when he enters your cell.
He is joined by two others, and at first you think that perhaps you have done something wrong, since the Man-Who-Guards-You usually takes you to the washrooms alone – so you are surprised when he clamps a pair of heavy steel shackles around your wrists, while another guard clips a rusted chain to the tight, metal collar around your blistered throat.
"A Boss," he gasps. "A fucking Boss, can you believe it? We haven't had a Boss in months."
"Do you think it's him?" one of the other guards hisses. "It's gotta be! I mean, he's a –“
"Just hurry the fuck up so we can leave," the other guard snaps. "I don't want to even see the freak, let alone be in the same room as him!"
"Get up, bitch," the Man-Who-Guards-You orders harshly and yanks the chain hooked to your collar.
That’s how you know you’re going to die today.
You slowly uncurl from your protective ball and stand. All knowledge you have of Bosses you've collected by stealing snippets of conversations through the gaps in the door of your cell. The guards use the term as though addressing someone to be feared; not as some authority figure with influence and status, but as something far more powerful, and far more dangerous.
The Man-Who-Guards-You hauls you from your dark, damp, cold room, and he is not gentle. But his heavy-handedness is not the usual careless roughness that you're so used to; he is tense, trying to hurry you, but attempting indifference. He and several other men who patrol the corridors of your ward usher you down the dim hall with quick, urgent footsteps.
Your cell-mate was cuffed only recently – it may have been yesterday, it may have been the day before, it may have been last week, all the days meld together – and she was taken to the grounds, to the fence out back, and she never returned. You know that there is too little space to keep you all, and far too many to feed. Every now and then the humans who run the camp pick off the ones they don't want to bother keeping. The ones who are difficult.
You were one of the difficult ones, once, but you adapted swiftly. It may be seen as a weakness to surrender, sure, but you are not so foolish to remain stubborn and proud in a place like this. The quicker you submit, the longer you stay alive.
There are those in the camp who would gladly take death over this miserable existence – your cell-mate included. Every scar, every bruise, every ache in your body tempts you to just give in, too; to crave an end to your suffering as your fellow captives do.
But as always, some small, desperate part of your battered spirit that has somehow managed to stay aflame tells you to keep going, to hold on, to persevere.
It will all get better, it whispers. You know it will.
But today, the end has finally come. Today, a monster is going to kill you.
You keep your eyes on the floor as you're hurried through long halls, echoing with the clamour of steel doors slamming, chains rattling, and humans stifling screams. The whole building smells like wet concrete and dirt, bathed in an eerie, ambler light from the swinging over-head lamps. You notice that you are not the first human to be chosen when you spot the bare ankles of another prisoner walking in front of you. You know it is a prisoner like you because they are barefoot – only the guards wear shoes. Thick, tough ones that can break open skin with a single, swift kick.
Eyes on the floor, eyes on the floor – you're only allowed to look up when you are instructed to. However, your gaze flickers just that little bit upwards when another human is pulled from their cell and added to your little train. They stumble behind you, silent and compliant. The guards are picking out all the good ones, the ones that aren’t disobedient. The ones who have broken.
You’re part of an ensemble. Whoever is buying today has not made any specific requests, and they want a good selection to choose from.
"Jesus Christ," a man says as you pass by him. He has a strong, deep voice that you recognise – he is one of those in charge of the camp, your ward specifically. "They look like shit. Smell like it, too. Get them washed before taking them to him. He's not gonna want any of them if he sees them like this..."
His voice fades as you're ushered onwards. Why would a monster care how you looked when they only wanted one thing? Your heart thumps wildly in your chest, and that barely alive part of your soul that fights to keep you sane seems to quiver.
Though you keep your gaze down, you recognise the path towards the washrooms from the turns you take. You've walked this path many times – the Man-Who-Guards-You likes to wash you, so much that it's not until you are shivering from the freezing temperature of the water before he decides that you're clean.
Once you reach the grimy-tiled washrooms, the Man-Who-Guards-You frees your wrists from the cuffs, and you and the other prisoners quickly, obediently strip without instruction. There is a heavy stench of sewage in the room, the drains forever blocked with the filth and waste washed down from the dozens of humans in the ward.
The guards don't warn you when they unleash the violent, cold spray, marching up and down the line several times. The spray is so harsh it's like an icy battering ram. The guards take great care to rinse the mud and dirt away – they angle the spray at your face, then hose you down and ruffle your hair only once before moving on to the next human along, and a thin rag is thrust into your arms for you to pat yourself dry.
Whoever this monster is, they must have some pretty high standards.
Before you are properly dry, you are ordered to re-dress yourself in a new, cleaner set of rags – cleaner meaning you can vaguely guess what colour the clothes used to be before they were greyed by continuous use. Your new uniform must have belonged to a tall man before you – the shorts are too baggy and stop halfway down your shins, and the shirt is large and loose. You manage to shrug it over your shoulders seconds before you are once again shackled and promptly rushed out of the room. But instead of turning back in the direction of the cells, you are lead down a hall you are unfamiliar with.
You can't help but look this time, to assess the new, unknown location. You are careful to be discreet about it, however the guards escorting you seem too troubled to bother keeping you in check. The human in front of you is doing the same as you, carefully tilting his head to look this way and that.
When you are lead through a large set of double doors, everything changes. The walls are not as badly chipped or cracked, and even bear the remains of wallpaper. The floor is cool, smooth concrete; it feels nice against your gravel-worn feet. Even the air is better here. There is still that lingering smell of damp, but it is masked by the scent of old plastic and bleach, with a hint of nicotine that reminds you too much of the Man-Who-Guards-You.
You don't have much time to take in your new surroundings before you are quite suddenly turned into a dark room, lit by two hanging lamps with a ruthless white glow. When the Man-Who-Guards-You roughly pulls you to a stop by the elbow, you look up in shock.
You catch the eye of a young woman in a large window.
The first thing you register is this: it's the first time you've seen a window in months.
When you recognise the woman looking back at you as your reflection, you realise that it's the first time you've seen yourself in months.
You're too thin to be healthy. You're so sickly looking, and your hair is uneven and sticking out in all directions. It just about covers the scars on your neck, on your collar bone when you scratched too hard.
They're not as bad as the one across your left eye – you knew that the wound would scar badly the moment the belt buckle slashed across your face, but you couldn’t anticipate just how bad.
You look terrible. No monster would want you looking like that. You happen to catch glimpses of the humans on either side of you in the window. They don't look so wonderful themselves, but at least they don't have scars on their faces. Hopefully the monster will take one of them instead.
You soulless creature.
You can't bear to look at yourself anymore, and turn your dead gaze to the floor.
"Fuck," one of the guards hisses. You don't recognise his voice. "You stupid, or something? You know why they buy our shit, right?"
"Of course I fuckin' know, man!" another unrecognisable voice says. "I just don't get why he's here. He doesn't need any more power, does he?"
"How do you think he got it all in the first place?"
"Shut up, both of you!" the Man-Who-Guards-You snaps. "Don't talk about shit like that when one of the freaks is here!”
The guards quickly disperse, and the Man-Who-Guards-You scarpers away when dim voices down the hall approach.
"...a good selection, sir," says the man who had ordered you to the washrooms. "All very well behaved, some lookers, too."
"Wonderful." The voice that answers him sounds bored.
The door to the room closes with a heavy bang. Almost immediately, a thick, heavy tension stifles the room – it hums, like it's vibrating, and you realise that it's magic. Magic belonging to the only living being in the camp who can wield it.
This is perhaps the closest your ever been to a monster. You never could imagine just how overpowering their presence could be – it’s threatening, smothering, like an unbearable heat that saps your energy. You swallow when the fear sinks in, the realisation that you're in the same room as one of the most dangerous, most powerful creatures in the whole building.
"Take your time, sir," the Man-In-Charge of your ward says. He sounds confident, but there's a slight waver in his voice, lingering on the end of each word. "You...we gathered the ones we thought would fit your requirements."
There is a long, slow breath – as though exercising patience – before the second voice says, "Let's get this over with."
The stranger's voice is low, with a slight rasp that could almost be a growl – husky, like a smoker's voice. You keep your eyes down as the monster slowly stalks along the line. His footsteps are heavy, but don't sound as though they have a lot of weight to them. It's rather like a lazy sort of heaviness, as though each step is an effort.
"I hope you find one to your liking," the Man-In-Charge tells the monster. "We're bringing new strays in every day. B-but if you don't find one here we can send for others. We have plenty of quiet ones."
The monster only hums.
He wants a quiet one? Does he not like screamers? Unfortunately, you're remarkably good at keeping quiet. Is there even anything left of your voice?
"And we have..." The Man-In-Charge takes a moment to swallow. "We have plenty of taller ones, if you wished it."
Tall? Are you considered tall anymore? Did this monster specify that you had to be tall? You always seemed small compared to the guards, but perhaps they only appeared tall to you because you always kept your head down.
The monster's footsteps get closer. "I don't know," he murmurs after a throaty chuckle. "I've got nothing against small talk."
The Man-In-Charge utters a nervous laugh. "Ah, yes," he wheezes. "Yes, very funny, sir."
You only register the large, black boots halting in front of you at the last second. Your head is forced up with a rough tug at the chain clipped to your collar, and you are staring into the face of Death.
His face is half in shadow, covered by a large hood lined with thick, straggly fur, and a single golden fang of his menacing mandible catches the light as he tilts his head to assess you. There is a strange glow in his black, narrow sockets, and it moves as easily as a human eyeball, scanning over your face.
There is a part of you that remembers That Girl before you came to this camp. She would have made some kind of joke that the Grim Reaper has had a dramatic change in style since the Dark Ages – a failed mix-mash of punk and edge. But the thought is fleeting, and your mind goes blank, your limbs frozen, caught in the eyes of the towering monster.
And he certainly towers over you, looming into your space. You can smell faint traces of some kind of tobacco, but not quite the kind you are familiar with – maybe some monster brand. You can't quite recall the name...
The monster's face changes, morphing into a grave expression. It is both frightening and fascinating to watch; the surface of his skull looks almost malleable, like the flexible cartilage of the human ear.
So distracted by his face, you jump when hard fingers grasp you by the jaw and turn your face to the right, exposing your left cheek.
You resist his grip only slightly out of fear, but he doesn't relent. Your hair falls away from your face, revealing your scar. He holds you like that for a long time, until your neck starts to protest against the odd angle.
A sound more like a croak than a cry escapes your lips when the monster turns your head back to face him and hooks his thumb in your mouth, pulling your bottom jaw down. The monster taps his thumb against your bottom teeth. The heavy knocking rattles your skull, dull, but loud – his thumb is nothing but tough bone.
"Teeth..." the monster muses to himself. "Nine, ten... Twelve..." He pushes further into your mouth and you stifle a whimper as he pokes around your sore gums.
He then grumbles, displeased. You know you don't have all of your teeth; a few of your back teeth had fallen out over the course of your imprisonment. One fell out when the Man-Who-Guards-You struck you across the face, and the other two fell out on their own. You pushed at them with your tongue, ignoring the pain, and spat them out into your hands, black and badly chipped.
At least none of your front teeth have fallen out. The Man-In-Charge always seemed determined for his merchandise to keep those. No one finds an empty mouth attractive.
When the monster pushes against a back tooth, you wince. It's loose, a little soft, and very painful. You may end up spitting that one out tonight as well.
"I have a question," he rumbles and you flinch.
But he's not talking to you. The Man-In-Charge clears his throat.
The monster removes his thumb from your mouth, but doesn't release your jaw. "What exactly are you trying to do to me, here?"
The Man-In-Charge coughs. "I don't understand, sir."
"Let's say," the monster says as he lifts your chin only slightly to inspect some spot on your neck, quite possibly examining the scratches and the blisters there, "let's say you were selling me..." He hums thoughtfully. "...a lamp. Heh, yeah, I'm lookin' for a real, fuckin' nice lamp. And you're gonna sell me one. And..."
The monster straightens and angles your face towards the Man-In-Charge. You've only seen him once, when he was tearing the thick belt from the hands of the Man-Who-Guards-You. He always looked quite skinny compared to some of the guards, but there are many rings on his fingers, and there's an aura about him that demands respect.
That aura is now gone, diminished in the presence of the giant of a monster that oozes power and magic.
"...you bring me one," the monster continues, "that's all scratched up, and with a smashed bulb." There is a mischievous lilt to his voice when he says, "How many monsters does it take to change a light bulb?"
The guards in the room shuffle uneasily. The Man-In-Charge looks close to fainting, sweat glistening on his filthy brow.
"N-none, sir," the he whispers, focusing on some spot near the monster's feet.
The monster hums softly. "Yeah, exactly. And now I'm gonna have to do all the fuckin' work." The teasing has vanished, replaced by something cold. His voice does not rise once, but the danger in his tone is no less menacing.
"Well, we..." the Man-In-Charge grinds out, "...don't usually need to worry about how they look. I mean, you...people only buy them for one thing."
A warning growl comes from the monster's chest.
The Man-In-Charge flounders. "We...can fetch others," he assures. "We can get rid of her –"
The monster rasps out a laugh. "Every one of these humans is damaged. If these are the best you can offer, then you ain't gonna be able to flog me any of your other humans, so don't bother trying."
The Man-In-Charge glares at you, and you know he's going to kill you.
He's going to kill you for looking so badly damaged that you turned away a potential buyer; he will kill you for what the Man-Who-Guards-You has done to you; he'll quite possibly kill every single human in this room as well, but he'll most definitely start with you.
You don’t want your last memories to be of this awful place. Hot tears prickle in the corners of your eyes, when a soft tap against your left cheek distracts you before they can fall.
You don't turn your head in case you imagined it, but your traitorous eyes flick up to the monster's face. You can't see his expression from this angle, concealed by the hood of his jacket, but you can just see the edge of his jaw, the gleaming fang.
The monsters taps a finger against your cheek again, only once, without looking your way, his attention on the Man-In-Charge. How can he be this upset with how you look? Does it matter to him that much?
The monster abruptly releases you and drops your chain, moving to inspect the human beside you.
You cast your eyes to the floor again, not before stealing a glance at the reflection of the monster's back in the window as he stalks down the line. He is immensely tall, and impossibly thin. A pair of dark jeans hang off his waist and his jacket cuts off halfway down his torso, like he's too long in the body for it, a fraying, poorly cared for sweater clinging to his thin middle beneath it.
The Man-In-Charge follows him, each step hesitant. "We have to enforce some rules, sir," he says. "These...people we bring in are difficult. We have to get them to behave somehow –"
"Can't give 'em a fuckin' toothbrush?" The monster's voice grows distant as he marches farther down the line.
"Some amenities are hard to come by," the Man-In-Charge splutters.
"Ah, now I know you're not being very tooth-ful with me," the monster says with a dry chuckle. "Wash 'em down with a hose, do you?"
The Man-In-Charge swallows loudly. "We can't provide every ward with toiletries, sir."
"Her gracious Majesty's prisons are better run that this hole. And we all know what a delight she is."
"Sir, please..." The Man-In-Charge is wheezing now. "We bring in so many humans every day. We do her Majesty a good service, rounding up Ebott’s unwanted, and…providing her people with easy access to souls, as it were. You know, it's quite a lucrative business. If we had, say, a way to better accommodate the humans we keep than this place –"
The monster laughs again. It begins as a low rumble, before erupting into a frightening chorus of deep, rasping belly-laughter. You dare a glance towards him and see that he is only laughing to belittle the Man-In-Charge, rather than out of genuine pleasure.
"You really think I'm that close to her Majesty?" he asks the Man-In-Charge. "Fuck no, that's my brother."
The Man-In-Charge stiffens, and the monster's already present grin seems to widen. Surely a skeleton can't smile without skin? You must have imagined it.
"And," the monster drawls, gleeful, "he doesn't know I'm here. Although, I could just happen to mention to him that I met a human this afternoon who thought so much of himself that he tried to proposition her Majesty through little ol' me."
"I meant no disrespect," the Man-In-Charge babbles. "I-it was an honest mistake. Please, sir, it's just that we have to get rid of so many. So many souls just wasted..." The Man-In-Charge's voice strengthens, and when he continues speaking, he is louder, more assured. "And we've had plenty of clients who've never complained about the merchandise before."
The monster laughs again, a cruel sound this time. He steps close to the Man-In-Charge and curls threateningly over him, baring his crooked fangs.
"My brother has very high standards." The monster's jaw opens slightly, and you expect to see the vertebrae of his cervical spine through the hollow gap...only to find that it's not hollow. It's like a void, deep and dark, and from it you can see the tiniest faint glow. It snakes through his long fangs, and you abandon all regard for the guards' rules to openly stare; it's a long, almost gelatinous mass that glows a rich amber. It's...a tongue.
The monster runs the slick length over his teeth, giving his single golden fang the most attention…drawing the eyes of the Man-In-Charge to it.
"And,” the monster croons, “you know who he is, don't you?"
The Man-In-Charge backs away a small step. "Sir, please," he says. "There's...there's no need for his magnificence to find out. I can send someone out right now…bring in one of the newer humans –"
The monster cuts off the Man-In-Charge with a long thoughtful hum, unabashedly running his glowing tongue over his golden fang. "Nah," he says after a pause. Quicker than you can hope to catch, the monster sucks his tongue back behind his deadly teeth, and looks up from the Man-In-Charge –
Directly at you.
You avert your eyes immediately, studying a long crack along the floor. You were not staring without permission, you were not –!
There’s the soft clinking of a steel chain, accompanied by a pathetic grunt. "No one's gonna want to buy this one," the monster says. "So neglected, he's practically soulless."
The human he’s studying whimpers, and the monster drops the chain to the floor with a loud clatter.
His footsteps get closer. "Not gonna want this one, either." He pulls at the next human's chain. "Gave up a looong time ago. Hey, even missing a few toes, there."
He's back in front of you seconds later, the pungent smell of his tobacco overwhelming your senses, and he's tugging at your chain again. You fight back a whimper when he forces your head up to meet his eyes.
"And no one's gonna want this one with that fuckin' gash on her face," he rumbles.
The word escapes you before you can stop it. It scrapes against your disused throat, like fingernails on sandpaper, and it hurts. You really have no voice…not anymore, not since the guards forced you to abandon it.
But it seems that there’s a part of it that remains, and it refuses to be held back, pushed forth by that lingering ember of your soul that’s determined not to give up. Why now? What are you asking this monster for? Mercy?
Your long-forgotten voice is so, so quiet, the Man-In-Charge doesn't hear you. But the monster does.
Something flickers in those strange eyes of his, and his mouldable face changes, his brow somehow knitting in some unidentifiable expression – his sockets actually close for a brief moment. He’s thinking, and thinking hard.
Mercy would be leaving you in this hole, to endure day after day of humiliation and agony until your soul finally gives up. Until it’s finally free.
After what feels like a century has passed, he opens his eyes, but before you can gauge what emotion they hold, he turns to address the Man-In-Charge.
What kind of monster shows mercy?
"This one," he growls.
All the breath leaves your lungs at once.
"Tha-that one?" the Man-In-Charge splutters.
"Hmm, yeah." The monster makes a noise that sounds like a snort, one that you didn't think would be possible with only a hole for a nose. He pulls you forwards slightly so the Man-In-Charge can look at you. “I'll take her. But for half of what you offered."
The Man-In-Charge almost chokes on his own tongue. "Half? Sir, that...wasn't the agreement."
You can't see the monster's face, but the Man-In-Charge can, and he clearly sees something in it that frightens him. He pales, his eyes bulging, and his shoulders hunch protectively towards his neck. "H-half, then," he mumbles.
Some pressure builds in your chest, to the point where it becomes painful. You want to cry it out, to scream it out – you want to scream your throat raw so you can never speak again…you never want to speak again…
But you...can't. The defiance in you has been spent, withered away, leaving you helpless.
Without glancing back at you, the monster releases your chain and walks away.
You keep your eyes on his retreating back as he stalks towards the door, his words ringing like the grim toll of a church bell at a funeral.
The guards positioned on either side of the door stumble back when it swings open, seemingly on its own. You catch a faint scent floating on the breeze as the monster ducks through the frame – a warm, almost rusty smell – following the surreal humming of the magic once choking the room, trailing after its master.
Beside you, the Man-In-Charge sighs, but you can't look at him; you're unable to break your stare from the open door.
You can't believe it. The feeling is so numbing that you can’t feel anything; no fear, no sadness, not even grief. You think, for a brief moment, that perhaps that monster was the Grim Reaper after all. This may all be some fever dream. Perhaps you are already dead...
The Man-In-Charge groans loudly. "Get her out of here," he barks at the guard closest to him.
Maybe it was hunger that got you – the hunger pains have been getting pretty bad lately – or the cold. You might still be in your cell, curled up on the floor in your dark corner, falling deeper and deeper into the clutches of deadly slumber.
"Didn't you hear me?" the Man-In-Charge bellows to the room. "Get them all out of here!"
He leaves you to the mercy of the guards and storms after the monster, griping about losing out on good GOLD, GOLD that was rightfully his. Before he leaves, he snags the sleeve of one of guards at the door.
You jump when you suddenly go blind. Your panic is brief, however, when you recognise the rough handling of the Man-Who-Guards-You, as he fastens a heavy cloth over your eyes. Someone else pulls on your chain, forcing you forwards.
Though you can no longer see him, your ears are not covered, and you can hear the Man-In-Charge as you blindly stumble after your escort.
"...'em to the grounds," he growls. "To the fence out back. Christ, fucking freak saw right through us. No one's gonna want 'em now –"
"Keep movin'," the Man-Who-Guards-You grunts, and he shoves you onwards by the shoulder.
The humans you leave behind in room are going to die now, because of what this monster said; the Man-In-Charge isn't going to waste time with unwanted goods that will only ever get him as much as half a payment. If the monster hadn't picked you, you would have joined them.
The cloth at your eyes becomes warm and damp – the hot tears that you cry aren’t for these humans. At least when they die, their souls will transcend. Yours is going to be eaten by a monster.
That pulsing part of your soul splutters and dims, so close to extinguishing. But...it holds on, as it always does. Even as you cry, pushed along unknown halls towards a fate worse than death, your stubborn soul just keeps holding on.
You hate it, you want to ignore it…but beneath all the loathing you feel, it continues to call to you, promising you that you will find a way, somehow. What that means, you don’t really know. All it tells you is this:
You cannot give up just yet.
You have to keep fighting.
You have to persevere.