After making the decision to not take the exit, I drove my bike at a pace matching that of my new guide.
I followed Leo’s truck to the Grand Canyon. It was one of many parts that were open to the public despite no safety ropes or walls. The area was just a vast exposed cliff, perfect for base jumping, extreme sports, or newsworthy suicides.
I watched he parked his truck approx ten feet from the edge. He got out and from his truck bed, Leo produced four parking boots (the kind given by cops for unpaid tickets).
“Why do you have those?”
“I stole ’em,” he said with a smirk as he set up one on each tire. “I’m kidding. They’re like fifty bucks on online stores.”
“So, are you doing that to make the truck look abandoned?”
He laughed. “Um, what?” Leo cheerfully produced two high-quality climbing ropes and tossed them over the cliff.
the length of the rope seemed to go on forever, rippling down the rock wall.
“The parking boots are there to keep the truck from rolling forward. But don’t worry, the structure itself can hold the weight.”
We’re going down the wall of the canyon, on purpose?
“There’s someone we need to talk to.”
I looked down, to see the ropes. While strong and of good quality, they clearly did not reach the floor.
Leo seemed unconcerned. “Yup, let’s go.”
“It looks like these only go about halfway down?”
“Because that’s where we need to go. If we were going to the floor of the canyon, we could have just driven to the floor of the canyon.”
I knew he was correct. Tourists looking to go whitewater rafting did it all the time. “So this isn’t a trick?”
Leo chuckled. He undid his ponytail and ran his fingers through his long wavy hair. “One way to find out.” Without any protective gear, he proceeded to casually hop over the edge, with his hair flowing in the wind.
I ran to see he was gripping the rope with one hand while fixing his hair with the other. “Ok.” I looped my legs around the rope, making a harness of sorts. My hands were already sweaty. I was going to lose my grip, it was just a matter of when and where. It had been dark when we started our drive, but the sun was coming out.
“Did you bring any water?” Leo asked as he made his way down the rock face. He was walking, hopping, all while easily maintaining his grip.
“Um, Yeah.” I had my soul-sand collecting purse over my shoulder. It was empty except for my water bottle and a small knife. “I’m good.” I was not good.
I struggled to keep pace with Leo, and at about the two-hour mark, I was more hungry than thirsty. “Hey, Leo?” I shouted down to him. He was a good thirty feet away. “I think I need a break.”
Leo looked up. “Oh, sure.” He pointed his legs forward and started to climb up to my location using only his arms. It was a technique I’d only seen in a high school gym class.
Just watching him made my arms go limp in exhaustion. My bag slipped from my shoulder and in a horrible split-second decision, I released my hand to grab it.
I found myself upside down, hanging on by my legs. I started to scream uncontrollably. When suddenly I was wrapped in what felt like a cold blanket. I didn’t even realize my eyes had closed.
Leo was holding me in his arms. He readjusted my position on the rope. It was when I noticed, he had wings. “You’re ok.”
“I guess so,” I replied although he had not presented his statement as a question.
“Well, even if you’re not, I need you to stop screaming or else the whole point of this exercise will be for nothing.”
I nodded, forcing myself to take a deep breath.
Leo flew back to his rope. His wings were silver, and for a lack of a better word: digital. Under the bright sun, they looked to be made of a series of rhinestones, lit up by led lights. Yet, as he leaned against the shade of the cliff they started to resemble television static before disappearing into the darkness. “I’ll give you a minute.”
Now that I was sitting in an upright position. I scraped my nails along the bottom of my bag, collecting a few grains of sand. My goal had been to check for my water bottle and knife. They were there, but my focus was on my fingertips. The grains felt calming, peaceful, like a stress ball made of stardust. What did they taste like?
Rubbing a few between my fingers caused them to become gummy, then hard like Nerds candy. The rock-like formation had no smell and my stomach was truly aching so I decided to take the chance, tossing it in my mouth before I could change my mind. It tasted sweet, sour, salty, then finally like a mouthful of energy drink.
I glanced at Leo who was chuckling as he used the rope as a swing. “I cannot believe you did that.”
“No reason. I mean you’re probably not the first person to eat crap from the bottom of a purse. I just think it’s hilarious.” Leo started to swing upside-down, looking like something out of Cirque du Soleil. “You ready to start moving again?”
I actually was. I was no longer hungry or thirsty and I even felt energized. “I think I am.” I was about to ask how much lower we had to go but after a few blinks, I could see a distinct hole. It was an odd-shaped cave that was only visible when the sun hit it at just the right angle. I was almost tempted to hop down the way Leo was, but then I remembered I didn’t have my own set of magical safety wings. I moved down one step at a time. Step, then breathe, step then breath; each time giving my lungs a chance to fully absorb the calm.
I almost didn’t notice when Leo came to a stop at a small seat-like protrusion. “What the hell, man?” I was forced to robe-climb a few feet, back to his location.
Leo sat cross-legged, scooting over just enough for me to stand. “Wow, someone has a lot of energy.”
“I thought the entrance was a little further down.” Looking down I could still see what appeared to be a glowing silver marking.
“It is.” Leo produced a previously unseen backpack and opened it to remove a water bottle.
“Are you a video game character?” I asked with a giggle.
“Are you talking about the infinite storage?” Leo spoke like it was a normal way of life.
“Yes, the infinite storage. Can I use it too?” I asked in a way that seemed sarcastic, in case the answer was, ‘No, you stupid human!’
Leo bit his lower lip, his eyes fully contemplating the question. “If I deem it necessary. I mean, you’re going to have to locate some very important items, some of which might not fit in your purse. But you will never be allowed to draw from it.”
“Because I’m a human with no actual powers?”
“Yeah, let’s go with that.” He pulled out a packet of chips and started to eat. “Want one?”
“Sure.” The chips looked like a strange, foreign, version of Doritos. And tasted like ranch dressing and sour cotton candy. “So, why are we stopping?”
“You need to go in on your own.”
That made a lot of sense. “And you’re just going to stay out here?”
“Yup, but don’t worry, we got your back.”
Lenny the scorpion crawled out of the backpack. “I can follow you in a place where the royal guards cannot see.”
“The royal guards?” Before I got any type of reply Lenny jumped into a crack on the wall and disappeared. “I guess I’d better get going.”
I lowered my self to the sparkling entryway. I was about fifty feet from where Leo sat. He could easily leave me to die and there was not a single thing I could do about it.
The entrance way was only about two feet tall. And to make matters worse, it seemed to get smaller, as well as darker the further in.
I’d never gone cave diving but I was well aware of the story of the guy who got stuck upside down in Utah. Rescue workers couldn’t figure out a way to pull him back to the surface so he was left to die a slow, painful death.
I didn’t want to die. or maybe I did. I took down my hair long hair. Using my knife I cut off a few inches, just enough to let me pull it into a bun. I crossed myself in prayer before scooting in on my back.
I had no intention of crab walking the entire way, but I felt the need to get a view of the ceiling. My only light source was my knife (and that was, of course, contingent upon there being natural light to reflect).
With my bag attached to my foot, I scooted down the path, pulling with my arms. I immediately regretted not securing my knife blade to my person. My hands trembled, shaky with nerves and sweat as the path became narrower. At one point, my arms were pinned at my sides. I cut into the red clay walls hoping to give myself enough room to keep moving forward.
If I was going to die I wanted to at least suffocate to death before starvation set in.
I could feel the weight of the canyon crushing my chest. But I needed to go further. I took a deep breath, as my world plunged into darkness.
“Yeah, this is how the guy in Utah must have felt.” I was too deep for natural light, but I still had my other senses.
My head felt lighter as if I had just found an air pocket or a cavern. I flexed my shoulders, to see if I could get further into this new area.
then I felt the rock breaking, my shoulder fell, followed by my entire upper body.
The relief of not suffocating to death was quickly replaced with terror. In the pitch-black darkness, I couldn’t tell if the drop off was ten feet or ten thousand.
I wiggled my back free, causing a large chunk of rock to fall. I held my breath, awaiting the sound of impact.
five seconds, ten seconds, twenty-five seconds, I stopped counting after sixty.
I pursed my lips as tears filled my eyes. my only choices were forward or backward. And backward was quickly becoming an unviable option.
“Don’t scream,” said a familiar small voice. I could feel Lenny’s little scorpion legs on my shoulder. “Whatever you do, don’t scream.”
“Wasn’t planning on screaming,” I said through hyperventilating tears. “Who’d even hear me down here?”
I was honestly not expecting an answer.
Scuttle. Swish. Scuttle. Swish.
This cavern was someone’s home.
Swish. Scuttle. Tap-tap-tap.
The darkness was their kingdom, their feeding ground.
“What do I do?
“Show no fear.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“Matty showed no fear.”
“What did you say?”
“Your little boy; when the time came, Matty showed no fear.”
I couldn’t breathe. my son was dead, my husband was trapped in a decaying scarecrow. What the hell could I even do?
I wanted to close my eyes. Maybe if I wished hard enough this could all be a bad dream. But eyes open, eyes closed- it was all the same.
Suddenly, I felt a col breeze caress my neck.
There was nothing left to do. I scooted forward until I was hanging upside down, off the edge by my knees. “Damn it,” I muttered under my breath. “I can’t even off myself without f*****g up!”
I kicked my legs like a swimmer. I wanted to be on the floor, I wanted this to be over. But I forgot about my purse.
With a sicking snap, I was now hanging by the strap of my purse. My ankle felt like it was on fire, with the scrap threatening to carve through my flesh. Now I wanted to scream.
I gripped my hands into fists, that was when I felt my knife. I still had my blade. So all I had to do was execute the world’s most difficult sit up, cut myself free and fall. Or I could just cut my throat.
“Lenny please help me.”
“I can’t, you have to do it yourself.”
“You can’t, at least, kill me? you’re a f*****g scorpion, it’s what you do.”
I heard the sound of tiny feet scuttling away. “F**k. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I started to rock forward and backward, swinging like a pendulum. Where was the ceiling, where was the floor? With my blade in hand, I wanted to feel something, anything. I can’t reach my ankle and the strap is not breaking.
I’m stabbing at the air. Again and Again. I’m going to impale myself if it’s the last thing I do. Something cut, something snapped.
I fell, landing in a massive net.
I leg was in unbearable pain, but everything these was in place; my head, my arms, my purse. “My purse.” I tried to sit up but I was stuck, it felt like I was laying on a bed of duct tape. I kicked the purse, knocking the remainder of the water and sand onto the surface of whatever I landed on.
There was a pitiful amount of sand, but mixing with the water it created a constellation of stars across the… spider web?
I stood up, making my way towards a glowing patch. I dripped a small amount on to my blade, attempting to light my surroundings. I saw legs; lots and lots of legs.
I took a knee. “I come seeking help.”
Taps, clicks, hisses and purrs echoed through the cavern. The sound wasn’t hostile, it was laughter. But I knew laughter when I heard it. Whatever was down here was making fun of me.
“For what do you ask? What do you seek?” the female voice sounded digital, coming from every direction, like an unseen PA system.
“I seek my husband.”
“Isaiah, the rightful crown prince of the Pacific ocean.”
“If you know who he is, you already know who I am.” I immediately regretted my cocky choice of words.
“No,” the voice chuckled, sounding like a typical high school mean-girl. “I really don’t.”
The room erupted in laughter, hissing, and taps.
I had that coming. “I-I apologize.”
“I’m sure you do, human. What can a simple fleshing like yourself offer me, that would equate to the gift of an oceanic Demi-God?”
“I know who gave you my husband’s remains. What did my sister-in-law ask in return?”
“Of course she did.”
“That is why, we, the kingdom of the canyon are neutral in your war. I do not wish to dirty my hands with you or your husband’s remains.”
But alas I cannot let you leave without proving yourself worthy. You are human after all. To let you live would be the equivalent of your kind, setting a cow, chicken or any other meat animal, roam free.
“I understand.” The room went silent. in the pitch black, It was as if I had died. But that was the point; I was a cow that needed to escape a slaughterhouse.
Standing up on my likely broken ankle, I limped forward, one step at a time, until the floor no longer felt sticky. I was, at least, in a different part of the cave. When I paused to take a much-needed breath, I could suddenly hear the faint sound of a child sobbing. “Matty?” of course not. Why would be son be down here? “Lenny?”
“My name is Lucas.”
“Hello, Lucas. My name is Elena.” I tried to sound as friendly as possible. No matter what Lucas was, he at least wanted to talk.
“I’m scared. I think I’m stuck.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll try to come to you. Just keep talking.”
“Ok, Miss, I’ll try.”
“Tell me about yourself. Where did you come from? Why are you down here? And where did you get your name, Lucas?” The last question was the one I was most curious about. I knew it would likely supply the clues necessary to determine his true alignment.
“I’m originality from Phoenix, in Mar-i-Copa County.”
“That’s not how Toby said it.”
“Toby was my master. He called me Lucas, he cared for me, he loved me. But his Mama did not.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“When Toby went away she set me… free. I did not like ‘free’.”
“Being free is more of a sentence than a reward.”
“Were you set free?”
“My parents set me free. They said it was for my own good.”
“Me too! Freedom was for my own good. But it was not good.”
I know. They think you’re giving you freedom but they’re really just taking away everything you ever knew and loved.” As I limped further the ground felt muddy, then sticky. I felt a pinprick. And another and another. Was I walking on a giant beehive? ‘Don’t scream, don’t scream.’ “Lucas, talk to me, please.”
“You’re close! Keep moving forward until you can’t.”
“Until I can’t?” The request sounded abnormally sinister.
“Yes, that’s where you’ll find me.”
“Ok,” I said in a whisper, as I forced out a cough. The stings were relentless, I needed to remind my lungs to breathe. I kept walking, taking my journey one step at a time until my legs went numb. I fell to my knees, collapsing into what felt like a sea of bees.
“You’re close! You need to get up!”
Could he see me? Of course, he could. Whatever Lucas was, he wasn’t human. Perhaps he spotted me via sonar.
“Oh, I see you! pick up the rock in front of you.”
“Rock?” I felt a rock at my feet. It was the size of a baseball. As I picked it up, the bees seemed to part like the red sea. “Wow.”
“Now run until you see the exit.”
“You see an exit?”
“I think I do, but it’s too far for me to reach.”
I was in too much pain to actually run, but I attempted to power-limp with all my strength.
“Miss Elena, down here!”
My foot hit a soft, furry mass. in the terrifying darkness, I fell to my knees. I couldn’t even feel my landing.
“Owie!” said the mass, which was apparently Lucas.
“Oh crap, I’m so sorry.” I’d landed on the squishy blob. For whatever reason, I was more afraid of losing my only means of companionship than the actual danger of the lumpy, basketball-size creature.
“Elena thank goodness! I was so scared!”
The creature leaped into my arms like a puppy. Lucas was a sweet furry puppy: with eight legs and massive jelly-like eyes.
My human instinct was to drop the quivering creature, backing away slowly while trying not to shriek. In my imagination, screaming would transform Lucas from a child-like being to a fully formed monster.
Wait, my mind started to pose itself; if scream equals transformation, no scream means Lucas stays docile. All I had to do was not scream.
“Are you going to ‘set me free’?” Lucas asked sadly.
“No sweetie,” I said as I took a moment to breathe. I adjusted my grip, to comfortably carry Lucas.
That was when I noticed something long and flat tied to his back. It had an odd curve. Should I take it? No, the tread was too tight, he’d notice right away.
Could I ask about it? What this item the reason he was trapped? “You said you know of an exit?”
“Up high,” Lucas said in a voice so adorable, I almost didn’t notice the creature’s massive spiky mouth opening and closing as he breathed.
I looked up to see what appeared to be a long crack of light. I stood on my toes, reaching as high as I could. the tips of my fingers felt an edge. “Lucas, I’m going to lift you to the ledge, okay?”
I lifted Lucas over my head. “Can you escape?”
“Yes, I can see the way out!”
“Then go,” I whispered. With the last of my strength, I pushed the creature through the hole, not even knowing what was on the other side. He could have fallen to his death for all I knew. Still better than dying in here. “You deserve better, Lucas.”
“So do you.”
Something shot at me; tentacles? No, it was webs. I was about to be forcibly pulled through the hole. I blacked out, from the shock and the pain. When I awoke I was covered in blood, resting on metal. I was in Leo’s truck.
“You did good, kid.” Leo patted my shoulder.
I tried to sit up but my body hurt too much to move. Instead, I rolled on my side, spitting up blood. That was when I saw it, the object that had been attached to Lucas with string, it was an adult human jawbone. Was it part of Isaiah?
“I’ll take that.” Leo took the bone and was about to put it into his backpack of infinite storage.
“Wait! What was that?”
“It’s what we came for,” Leo replied. “Isaiah can tell you more. Well, kinda.” He loaded my bike, resting it next to me. “Get some sleep now, next stop is Snow lake, New Mexico.”
He threw a tarp over my body and my bike, locking us into pleasant darkness. The sun was still visible through the stitching, making it look like I was under a sky full of stars. I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
Wait, did he say New Mexico- the water trial? After what I’d just survived in the canyon- and this was the EASIEST of the trials.
I forced myself to breathe. I needed to sleep, to dream.
I awoke in a grassy field, under a starry sky. It was warm, peaceful, quiet: except for the rush of water. I turned to see Isaiah sitting in front of a river.
“Isaiah, can you hear me?” The only reason I recognized the man as my husband was the cross carved into his back. Isaiah’s wet skin shimmered as he ran his fingers through his long hair. In the moonlight, I could see the four sections, and Arizona was now colored in. It looked like a well-executed single needle tattoo, complete with rivers.
He turned to me, his eyes glowing with unholy power. “You did good, kid.” His face and mouth were healed. But he was speaking with Leo’s voice.
As I approached the light became brighter, revealing more of his grotesque condition. I could see he was missing a large chunk of his chest. The cut started just below his chin, opening his torso like a zipper. There was a hole where his heart and lungs should have been, where I could see through to the dark water on the other side.
Isaiah tilted his head down as if trying to look through the hole. Suddenly a series of tentacles shot from the water. The shiny opaque arms stabbed into his back, filling out his arms and neck like a finger puppet.
“You think you’ve won?” the voice was deep, female. It was Kaylinani. The tentacles dislocated his shoulders, elbows, and then neck. I could hear bones breaking as she posed him like a dismembered doll, doing it’s best Jesus impression. “Our game has just begun.”
A shape started to form in Isaish’s chest. Before I could react, a fist came straight at me.
I woke up screaming. My sister-in-law had punched me back to reality.