War Hero

The Cage

by Cailean Darkwater

Sensation of falling, feeling of impact.

Pain, awareness.


* * * * * * * * * * * *

“A new one. Always new ones. But why? More prisoners, more … toys? I see long and deep, but I see no reason.”


An insistent jabbing into his ribs.

“Fresh meat or rotting flesh, it matters not, berk. Can’t just lay there in the middle of the street for eternity. Get up!”

More prodding. He slowly brought himself up to a sitting position and the prodding stopped. Opened his eyes to a dimly-lit landscape of dark structures, menacing in their silence.

He looked up, searching for the source of this pale light, tinged with scarlet. Was it a blood moon that shone down on these shadow-loving demesnes?
Far too bright for any lunar luminance. Within that cloud-haunted expanse lay no sun or moon, but a great spiraling maelstrom – shedding carmine illumination on this quiet land like tears of blood.


A snide snort from his left. “Oh, don’t tell me; let me guess. Your next question is ‘Where am I?’ Am I right, meat bag?”

The querulous voice had been emanating from an ancient, time-grayed man; wispy white hair twisting and undulating in a non-existent breeze. Yellowed teeth like neglected tombstones, resting within a mouth set in a dirty, sardonic grin.

But what caught his vision was the blank stretch of skin from crooked nose to balding pate – it was not as if the venerable curmudgeon had had his eye put out, but that they had never been. Even without such necessary organs, the old man’s dirty grin grew wider to witness this newcomer’s confusion.
Tapping the places where his eyes should have been, the old man let out a hacking, phlegmy laugh. “Boy, if my eyes are the strangest sight you’ll see in your existence here, consider yourself lucky. There’s a lot worse here in the Cage.”

“This … place … is the Cage?”

A quick nod. The dirty grin shifting to a smile of grim delight. “I’ll answer your other question; everyone asks it, there’s no sense breaking tradition now. You won’t be the first to ask it, and you definitely won’t be the last. Say it with me.”

The malevolent ancient spoke truly, matching his slowly uttered question word for word.

“Why do they call it the Cage?”

Another nod, a slow, satisfied one this time. Then the practiced, nigh-rote response.

“Because there’s absolutely no escape.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The decrepit jester allowed him a moment for the news to sink in, then gestured him forward. “Come now, to a place of safety. Come now, and meet some of your fellow prisoners.”

“Safety? Is this place unsafe? Are there thieves, bandits, monsters that would harm us?”

The aged fellow’s words drifted back as his charge attempted to catch up – old he may have been, but he set a wicked pace. “Physically? No. It is not permitted. Therefore, it cannot happen.” He said this with complete certainty. “But sometimes, time in the Cage unhinges a soul’s sanity; they bash themselves bodily at the bars, attempting to escape their prison. Some seek to spread their madness to others, infect them with their ‘logic’ – which may as well be the Maiden’s logic; no logic at all.”

The Maiden. As the crotchety geezer continued to mutter imprecations, the most recent addition to the Cage contemplated. When had he heard the mention of this ‘Maiden’, it was as if he had recalled a memory, deep-seated but up to now, forgotten. All he could retrieve was an impression of wonder and awe and of unspeakable, alien beauty. No more than that – it was almost as if he had a memory of the future, nostalgia of a meeting that hadn’t happened yet.

“Who is the Maiden?”

His mentor within this realm looked about furtively with his blank, eyeless visage and whispered. “The Maiden rules the Cage. Some say She created it, some say She IS the Cage. Others say She is just a custodian of those trapped here. Yet still others say that She is trapped and draws us here for Her own amusement. She is known as the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone.”

“Like the Fates? Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos?”

“A very well-read piece of worm-bait, you are. But still WRONG, very WRONG.” Cackle. “The Fates were thought to control every aspect of Life and beyond. Predestination. But She? She would tear the tapestry of such a thing asunder. Everything has a dark reflection, dirt-napper, and She’s as far removed from those Greek ladies as you can get.”

“So, She’s a sort of ‘anti-Fate’?”

The withered one spoke to him now with a tone of mild approval – as if he was a rather dumb dog that had learned a simple trick. “Yes, that’s a good way of putting it, boy. Yes, I’ll have to remember that.”

“Anyway – we have spoken of that one enough.” His companion hissed sharply, mood changing once again. “Let us get you somewhere you can call ‘home’ for your stay here.”

“Why are you doing this? You’ve done this before for other newcomers, right? But why?”

The elder harrumphed. “It’s always what I’ve done. Now everyone knows me as the Guide, I’ve been doing it for so long. You know what they say; the strongest force is force of habit!” The cackling again, ending in a cough – a solid sound like a shotgun’s discharge.

They came to a campfire in a narrow alley, nestled between the decaying buildings. It was hard to make out the flames in the oppressive reddish light, but the “night” was cold, and the nigh invisible flames were warm. As the newcomer huddled closer he witnessed another prisoner by the fire – a hunched, yet still huge, dusky, bat-winged form. He turned to flee, but the Guide’s iron-like manacle of a grip shackled him in place.

The demon had noticed his discomfiture, turned its face slowly towards him. Its great eyes, glowing with infernal radiance shone dim –hell-fires banked.

“Fear not, mortal.” The creature’s voice was low and maudlin. “If we were truly upon the ‘real’ world, I would attempt to corrupt you, send your eternal soul to be tormented by the legions of Hell.” A note of pride entered its defeated tone. “I could have, you know. I was very skilled – thousands of mortals were damned forever by my influence.” The hell-spawn’s tone grew somber once again. “But home is so far away, its essence; my essence fades from me. Evil does not reside within me anymore, only …”

“… despair.” Another voice finished the creature’s sentiment.

The angel’s tone was hardly lighter than the demon’s. His visage had none of the supposed Heavenly light attributed to his kind; his feathered wings were ragged with missing pinions. As the demon had lost its unholy flame, so had the angel lost his aura of purity. He seemed off-white, somehow a grubby grey – an over-washed and worn angel.

“I was made, created by the Most Holy, the Creator – to inspire hope within the mortal realm. To battle evil,” he flicked a finger in the demon’s direction, “wherever I found it. But how can I inspire hope in others, when I have none of my own? Why must I battle evil when we cannot even die?
There is no point; there is only the Cage.”

The other beings clustered around the fire murmured their assent. “No point … only the Cage …”

Perhaps it was his fresh perspective, or perhaps his naivety, but he kept on making connections between different pieces of information.

“Maybe the Cage is the point?”

Confused muttering from the onlookers, as the jaded angel spread his weathered hands in bewilderment.

“Perhaps the Maiden—”

He got no further, as the collected assemblage scattered like cockroaches in sunlight. Then the Guide scolded him roundly.

“Fool boy, just when I thought you had sense! Didn’t I TELL YOU that we do NOT speak of Her often?”

Grim tone, low and dangerous.

“Do you know what happens to those who think of Her, speak of Her overmuch? Or those who – Heaven and Hell forefend – seek Her out?”

“Lacerated. Diced. Torn apart. Scattered and shattered. Those who draw the Maiden’s attention always end up DEAD!”

Was it perhaps that the forbidden line of inquiry called him, as if the truth was thorny and hard-won, that he felt driven to disobey the Guide?

Or was it a gasp of childish rebellion, which would likely result in his death?

The heavens balanced on a razor-edge of choice. Did he dare to turn his back upon his only companion within the Cage?

So be it. His life was in his own hands. As it had always been.

He walked onward, into the tenebrous maw of the dark city. The Guide’s harsh-barked words hounded him with every step.

“You’re a dead man, berk. A walking corpse and you don’t even know it.”

He ignored the words and walked on.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

He walked for days in those blood-lit streets, upon his quest, hunting for rumor-crumbs of knowledge.

Of the Maiden.

Many flatly refused to answer his incessant, hungry questions, scampered away from his dangerous curiosity – as if they feared they would share his inexorable fate.

“But there is no Fate here – there is only the Maiden.” He spoke to himself while waiting for a hag-like harridan’s response. After hearing a baffling nonsequiter, she announced “Yer barmy. Ye need te git yerself over te other barmies. Git awae frum me naw.” She shooed him angrily away, as if he was some lazy cat sunning himself on her door-stoop.

As random as this piece of wisdom was, triggered by yet another random incident, it struck him as a remarkably inspired idea. Like him, the ‘barmies’, as they were called, attempted to plumb the well of possibility within the Cage, sought life-threatening and hazardous truths, at the very risk of existence and sanity.

Nothing else was working in his journeys through the rotting metropolis. What else did he have to lose?

Yet still with some trepidation, he entered the district known as ‘Bedlam’.

The unstoppable susurration enveloped him first – he was watched by a thousand eyes, and still more perceived him with senses beyond mortal ken.
Through their network of quasi-communication, they responded to his presence. Opening up their ranks selectively, they herded him deeper within
Bedlam’s embrace, beckoning, cooing to him in nigh-human sounds. He was expected, it seemed – and he was being made welcome. He walked on.

The gathering of loons drew him further within, to a large, shoddily built, but still secure, cage. There was no door or lock, it was if the cage had been created around its prisoner, and the only possible escape would be its destruction.

The man within smiled at him as he approached, amused at his bewilderment. “I had it built around me; it is a focus for my mind to grasp, to understand the TRUTH!” The last word was exultant, drenching him with the caged one’s joy.

Still grinning, the barmy questioned him. “I have waited for you, seeker – delayed the process that I might help you. What do you seek?”

“What do you know about the Maiden?”

The barmy’s tone grew pained and concerned. “She is a prisoner in the Cage. She cannot escape while the bars,” tapping the rusted iron of his own prison, “hold Her. But one day,” and his eyes flashed as he spoke, with a maddened hope, “She shall be free, and tyranny for all shall cease.”

“How can we free Her? How can we free ourselves from the Cage?” The seeker asked of the imprisoned savant.

The nameless barmy shook his head in violent negation. “No, no, no. You don’t understand ANYTHING. You don’t truly know what the Cage is, or where the Maiden resides. You are inside the Cage, so you cannot even SEE it.”

Extending one pale yet dirty hand from the bars, the savant attempted an expansive gesture encompassing all environs. “You think this is the Cage? No, that’s why I reside here; it reminds me of reality, in this illusion.”

The reaching hand sharpened to a point; an accusing finger right at him.

“You. You are the Cage. You are Her jailer. She is inside you and you WON’T LET HER OUT!”

A tattered, desperate laugh after this pronouncement. “Me too, She is within me, and I chain Her.” A slight sob. “We are the Cage, holding Her and ourselves in bondage.”

The sobbing retreated as determination steeled his tone. “But chain Her, chain myself, no longer. I have found Her, and She has found me.”
Conspiratorial grin. “She comes soon, seeker. Bear witness to my apotheosis and learn.”

He was confused. “But to draw Her attention is to die?”

Another negation from the caged one. “No – but how would you know? You are dead – why would you fear it, or expect it of Her?”

Numbing shock. “I’m dead? My time in the Cage has been my dying? Am I a ghost in the Underworld?”

“Seeker, you have never lived – you remember your past ‘life’ and try to return to it – but it was NEVER THERE. Your ‘life’ is an illusion – you were never born.”

He could feel a presence all about, a sensation as if being immersed in a pool of shadows. The ruby light was blocked out by an invisible silhouette. All the assorted crazies grew quiet in their murmurs, looked to the maelstrom, eyes filled with holy fear.

“She comes. SHE COMES!” The mad one’s cry was triumphant, jubilant. But this prophet spoke once more to the seeker. “It is your choice, to accept the truths that you have been given. You can embrace the change, as I have, and join me in Life. Or you can remain the deluded corpse that you’ve always been. It is your choice: it has always been.” Gesturing him close, he spoke softly.

“Infinity whispers, but you must listen.”

The lunatic fringe of huddled masses started to babble and gibber in almost unison, their cries forming a chaotic harmony. Pushing him quickly away, the barmy shouted “SHE’S HERE!”

His body shook and trembled, while his deranged eyes gleamed with glee. He opened his mouth and light boiled forth, pure and incandescent. Spreading to unleash from his eyes now, radiating into the shadows, shining on the rapt features of his witnesses. Soon, his very skin was glowing bright, as he continued to shake and quiver. Strange shifts of luminescence moved under his skin as if they sought to escape his flesh.

And then with a sharp surprise of brilliance, the madman exploded. As the light echoes died away from their eyes, all could see the ground-zero of the conflagration, smoking and twisted metal festooned with charred, blackened bones.

The crowd dispersed, leaving the seeker to contemplate what he had witnessed.

None of the ‘normal’ denizens of the Cage tolerated him now, but he found sympathy with the barmies, who took him in. He did not create a cage for himself. It was not his way. He sat for days in the lotus position, meditating upon the entangled mystery of the Maiden and Her Cage.

“Ashes to ashes, I witnessed that with my own eyes. But dust to dust – from dust we were created, to dust we shall return – to be reborn.” In his mind he whispered, “I am ready.”

He focused on his dead body; his dead life that he’d foolishly believed had been ‘real.’ It was meaningless; he had accepted the truth that his body of animate dust, mixed with water, was gone.

He could feel Her – not approaching but beating against the bars of Her Cage. To free Her would free himself.

“Change.” She spoke this to him through his flesh, but he didn’t know if it was an admonition, a request or just a simple statement. But change he did, as Her essence blasted forth from his form, along with his soul, leaving only dust fluttering down within his clothes.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Guide poked the empty clothes, shifting the grey dust. To all the curious prisoners, he announced, “See what happens when you seek knowledge of the Maiden? Let this be a warning to all of you.” Wagging his finger sternly as they nodded, puppet-like. But under his breath, he whispered “Good boy.
Smart boy,” and grinned.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Sensation of falling, feeling of impact.

Pain, awareness.