The bee stings on my legs were throbbing, while the ones on my arms and chest felt like an allergic reaction. It was possible those were from an army of wasps, but in the darkness of the cave I had no way of knowing.
Try as I might I could not get back to sleep or even lose consciousness. F**k my life. The light shimmering through the tarp faded into night. I truly felt like I was going to die in the bed of Leo’s truck.
“We’re here,” said Leo’s voice from the front seat.
I assumed he would come and get me. but what I heard next was not human. it sounded like a hundred bouncy balls; soft, yet forceful. The tarp was removed to reveal an army of rabbits; jackrabbits, desert cottontails, in every possible color. they all seemed to be looking at me with hopeful curiosity, not that it’s easy to determine the emotions of a group of rabbits.
Leo offered me a sip of water.
Even in my pain-stricken state, I sat up and took the vial. “That’s so good.” It tasted sweet, with a salty, iron-laced aftertaste.
“It’s high-proof tequila, mixed with an herbal remedy. you should be relaxed enough to make the journey without screaming your head off.”
Leo helped me out of the truck bed, carrying me like a bride. We went down an embankment, into a cavern.
The animals lead us further and further into darkness when suddenly I saw the most beautiful light. We were surrounded by glowing crystals. I watched in awe as Leo placed my clothed body into the pool. The water felt soothing on my irritated skin. My body felt invigorated, from the tingles of my healed skin, down to my muscles. My energy renewed, I stripped down to my tank top and underwear, preparing to swim.
Below me was a bottomless pit with no light, it was clear this was an entrance of some kind. I started to tread water, dumping my meager belongings on the sparkly shore. “Let me guess you’re going to wait out here, to see if I come back alive?”
Leo pulled my belongings close and in exchange tossed me a glowstick. “You ever play Mega man? All stages are open from the beginning of the game, but they must be completed in a particular order to achieve success.”
“So that would make you my personal strategy guide?” I gave him a smile, so show that I was not being a sarcastic b***h. The water healed the stings, and the lack of gravity was helping with the pain in my ankle. “Have any words of wisdom before I go down?” Like how the hell I’m going to breathe?
“As you know, the River Kingdom is not on your side in this matter, but it is not of their own will.”
“Thanks.” I took a deep breath and dove under.
The first priority was finding a place to surface. I could hold my breath for a minute, maybe two on a good day. That didn’t give me much time to look around with a glow-stick. I focused on the ceiling; was there any source of light or darkness? If there was light, obviously I could try to find a way back to the sunlight. But darkness meant depth or rather a height: a possible air pocket.
I swam until I hit a wall. I was wrong darkness apparently equaled dark-colored stones. “F**k!” I screamed with the last of my air. The glow stick fell from my shaking fist, falling down to reveal an even deeper path. My chest started to panic, I did not have enough air to survive a journey that long.
I did the only thing possible, I swam as far up as I could, desperate for a breath of air. There was about an inch of airflow, forcing me to kiss the wet stone ceiling. I stayed in that position for longer then I would have liked. I was determined to take one long good breath. When I felt calm I dove back down, searching for where the glow-stick had landed.
“How did Isaiah lose his flock?” as the darkness. Was I hearing that voice in my head, or was something actually speaking to me through the water?
I knew the answer. Years ago, there was a child; a little boy whose name had been lost to time. He came to the commune sick, in hopes of a miracle. Isaiah, being the kind soul that he was, held a healing session. It was something he had never done before.
I’d seen him pull off other miracles; he could make a nearly dead tree blossom fruit, make grass and wheat grow from dry desert sand, he could even call upon sources of fresh drinking water. Isaiah’s powers allowed his followers to live off the land at no cost.
“But he used too much of his power,” said the voice. It was deep, somewhat robotic. “The child died and days later. And Lord Isaiah lost the ability to create plant life.”
A hard form, the size of a bowling ball shoved me in the back. I was too tired to put up much a fight, but luckily this was not an attack. The inertia allowed me to make it all the way to where my glow stick rested. I nodded a thank you to the mysterious voice.
“People left. If they didn’t, mass starvation would have ensued.” The voice added.
Again, that was true, but not the full story. I swam to the ceiling, hoping for the same inch of air. the air pocket was minuscule, so I used the opportunity to say something in response to my new friend. “That’s not the full story!” My words came out in a cough as I choked down a mouthful of water.
I felt something brush against my arm. I quickly turned to see a massive fish, that I recognized as a bass of some kind. The thing was the size of a dolphin, the kind of fish that made it the local news. What I did recognize was its costume. The creature’s helmet was made of the top part from a human skull. He swam in a circle, showing off the full extent of his accessories. Attached to his back was a series of gold, silver, and jewels decorating a human spine. The item trailed behind its massive form like the tail of a kite.
Isaiah had truly given the healing attempt his best try. When his energy pulling didn’t work, he tried giving the child and iv transfer of his own blood. But that backfired spectacularly.
Isaiah became sicker than I had ever seen. After the boy died Isaiah had to be hospitalized for fever and chronic pain as if he had absorbed the extent of the illness.
He and nearly died before the birth of our son. It was over a month before he could return to giving tours. At that time we were nearly broke.
“Where did the child come from?” the fish asked.
Since he was communicating telepathically I decided to reply by mentally shouting my reply. “The child wandered in from the desert, seeking food and water.”
“Wandered in? I know a little something about that.”
“Why are you following me?”
“Because I want to show you the proper thing to do with a lost little boy.”
Who’s skull was he wearing? The very idea made me swim faster. I went deeper, pulling myself along the rocks.
Was he going to kill me? He probably wanted to get me as deep underwater as possible, to watch me squirm.
“That sounds about right,” the fish replied. “The hundreds of river fish, or sport fish as your kind calls it.” His anger sent a blast of energy through the waterway. A piece of his jeweled human spine hit me in the arm, burrowing it’s way under my skin, into my hand.
“I actually never went fishing. I can’t even remember the last time I ate fish.” I pleaded, knowing it would do no good. The villain who wanted me dead was an actual sea-goddess.
“Even if you have never partaken in the slaughter, you are mind-f****d into believing that we are the inferior prey!”
“Prey?” Was this thing upset about not being hunted? “Do you mean species?”
“Your kind worships the animals of the land! You keep them as pets! You treat them as equals, even in death!”
“Um, what?” This creature was upset at being killed and eaten? “Do you really think humans only eat fish?”
“I am not a fool! I know your kind also kills creatures of fur and fowl. But your kind will show those creatures mercy and respect! You don’t force them to choke to death on the blood and bile of their own throat! And now you shall die with their prince.”
The fish rammed me hard, shoving me into a distinct current. Having already run out of air. I blacked out but somehow I was not dead.
I awoke to a strange sensation. something light, cold and refreshing was hitting my arm, then my shoulder.
I can hear sobbing. “Matty? Is that you?”
“Mat-tea?” The voice was small, sweet, like a baby animal from a movie.
I tried to turn my head, but my mind was already fading.
“No… oh no…”
Click, clack, click, clack.
“Oh, dear. Oh,” the little voice started to sob. “Goodbye Mama, Papa.”
My eyes shot open. I wanted to take a deep breath, but I could only cough. There was air, but it was mostly carbon dioxide. Something had been trapped down here with its own air bubble. That means it needed air.
“Hey, whoever you are, can you get us out?”
“No,” it cried. “Cannot swim. Cannot… air.”
F**k. I wanted to cry. The fact that I was about to fail another innocent made me sick to my stomach.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the calming glow of my hand. The place where the jewel embedded was shimmering like a glow-stick. The color was moving. This wasn’t a jewel, this was a colony of plankton. What did that information mean to me? A light source? A food source? Air-
The creature needed air, and I knew where I could get it. Kind of. Hopefully.
I was no scientist, but there had to be a way to create air underwater using a glowing plant. I just needed a way to experiment with the plankton, to remove the plankton- I needed my knife.
With one fast motion, with no regard for safety or infection, I slashed open the glowing spot on my arm. In the faint glow, I caught a view of the small creature. “Hello?” It appeared to be a baby rabbit no bigger than a hamster, locked in a cage made of human ribs.
While I couldn’t see the exact color of its fur the creature’s dark black eyes sparkled with sadness. And it was clear why. The cage had a waterproof bubble of air, which it had been voluntarily sharing with me.
I had been its last chance at escape, and I was going to fail. I locked eyes with the rabbit. “Take my blood. Take my strength.” The words passed through my mind since I had no way of saying them out loud.” I was going to die. Darkness, nothingness; no soul, no sadness. Pain?
A felt an electric jolt, a searing pain like nothing I’d ever felt before. It was like my arm was breaking, one inch at a time. I knew my entire body was in spasm, the agony spreading like a wave until I mercifully blacked out.
Suddenly my eyes shot open. I could see in the dark. I shot up, sitting upright on the floor of the water-filled room. All around me were rib bones. I picked them up one after another, stabbing them on to my legs until I could t******y own blood. My legs started to move like a mermaid tail. I crossed my hands over my chest, ducking my head as I started to flop (for lack of a better word) out of the small room, past the current, and back into the main area of the maze.
I saw the giant, armored fish but this time he had been joined by a dozen normal sized henchmen. The smaller fish seemed to be trying to maneuver me back to the current but the power possessing my body could easily bypass a school of unarmed bass.
It came as a bit of a shock when I slammed my face into the ceiling.
“Breathe!” said the bunny’s voice from inside my head. “I need to access your memories to find the exit.”
“What about the fish?” We needed to fight or else they would just keep coming.
“You’re no good to me dead!” Those were words I never thought I heard from the creature. “Now breathe!”
I forced my mouth to open, hoping that the bunny would do the rest since the creature was riding inside me like a fleshy exoskeleton. I must have blacked out again because I somehow awoke on dry land.
“Mama! Papa!” the little bunny voice screeched as we surfaced. The sound was no longer inside my head.
I wanted to speak, but my body felt like hamburger meat as if I’d been skinned alive. This was what it felt like to die like a fish, getting dragged along by a hook, slammed against every possible surface until my body came to rest.
Every muscle and nerve cried out in agony. I blinked once then twice. “Leo?” the very act of breathing hurt. I needed to cough, but instead, I vomited.
Leo pressed a cold towel to my face. “You did well out there.”
I turned to see my mangled hand. “What the f**k happened? It burrowed into me?”
“It has a name,” Leo said as he placed a few grains of familiar-looking sand to my lips.
“Where did those come from?” I asked. Looking down, I got my answer. The baby bunny was pulling the ribs from my legs.
He had only managed to remove three small spikes, but it was enough to harvest. “I can keep going,” the little rabbit offered.
“I never got your name,” I replied with a forced smile. If it could ride my body, I did not want to risk p*****g it off.
The bunny stood proudly on two legs. “I am Prince Arinecent Somomlet,” he took a bow, before tilting his head like a doll. “But you can call me Ari.” That was when I noticed, Ari was chewing on a piece of bone. His little mouth was drooling with fresh blood: my blood.
But back to the life-giving sand on my lips: Leo had broken open one of the rib bones like a Pixi-stick. Unfortunately, this confirmed it was, in fact, Isaiah’s body that had been smashed to pieces and given away as party favors.
As if hearing my thoughts, Leo held my hand and gave an actual, logical answer. “You only started harvesting the sand after Isaiah lost his powers. You now know why.”
I nodded. “Isaiah only started killing after he lost his powers.”
A larger brown jackrabbit approached, bowing his head. “And he taught you how to do it. He made a deal with the creatures of the land, to regain what he had lost.”
“Oh.” I was still in too much pain to fully register what that meant. Was Isaiah evil? was the sand evil? Was the sand even meant for my consumption? or by taking it did I ruin someone’s master plan? I turned to Leo and asked the more pressing question, “I saved a bunny. Did I complete the trial?”
Leo sighed, as he finished wrapping my arm in a metallic bandage. “Sadly no. There are three items of power; the ribs, the skull, and the spine.”
“Got it.” I had to go after the giant fish with an inferiority complex. That’s f*****g great. I was angry, I wanted to speak to Isaiah, I wanted answers. As soon as I could move my arm, I dove back into the water (not even bothering to take a decent breath.)
The warrior bone-fish was waiting and so were all of his friends. The smaller fish started to ram me, forcing my body downward, back towards the current.
I really regretted not taking a decent breath of air. Just as all seemed hopeless, an army of rabbits seemed to come from all directions. One by one they attacked like homing missiles before swimming back to the surface for air, repositioning themselves, like canons before re-deploying.
I quickly took my chance to force myself to the surface. I assumed I would encounter the same inch of air space, but that was not the case. The top of the cave was covered in spider webs as thick as cloth. But the clothing was moving, breathing? It was channeling air!
I watched as one of the rabbits jumped up, took a bite of the fabric-like surface. This resulted in a rush of air, like a freshly popped balloon.
The process seemed easy enough. I took a bite of the fabric. It tasted sweet, like rice paper. The blast of air was refreshing and the tear was closed just as quickly.
It was enough to calm my nerves enough to take a look under the water. I needed to find the bass. Was he hiding? Laying in wait? I knew I had to make my next move count.
I took one last good breath, to make one good dive. The lighting was poor and the figures were moving all around me, but I knew my target would be the one with the glowing neon jewelry.
I aimed my self the way the rabbits were and swam straight at the fish. Since I was targeting the jewelry I rammed into the fish’s back, grazing its slippery tail. “No, no, no!” This was my only chance. I gripped the solid armor, forgetting for a moment that it was literally made from my husband’s corpse. The spine was sharp, allowing for a strong grip as it cut into my hands.
“Get off me!” The fish roared, its voice vibrating through the water. It thrashed like a bull, but I was determined to hold on. If I broke the armor, I broke it. At least Isaiah’s bones would not belong to this hateful creature.
Another figure rammed the fish in the face. The human-skull helmet flew off, heading straight for the current. “Oh, that’s not good.”
It would be destroyed. Isaiah would be trapped, forever. And I couldn’t let that happen. I released the fish, swimming with all my strength, all my air.
I feel whips, strings: a net? I was yanked back to the surface, landing with a thud. The now armor-less giant bass landed a few feet away.
He was flopping around in desperation, a look of horror on its face.
Slowly I crawled to the pitiful creature. I took a moment to debate whether I should attempt to end the depressed animal’s miserable life.
That was when an arrow shot through the air. Actually, it was a spear, a dense, heavy weapon wielded by the larger rabbit, Ari’s Papa.
“I thought the tribe leaders wanted me to go at this alone?”
Leo took a seat at my side, removing a water bottle and package of food from his pack. “As I recall those were the words of the leaders who disliked you.”
“Yes,” I muttered. But then a wonderful thought crossed my mind. “Does the animal kingdom hierarchy function like a US presidential election?” My mind drifted to the 2016 election. In every state, there was a certain percentage of democrats, republicans, and dozens of other smaller parties. But the leader was chosen by majority rule.
Ari bowed his head. “It is, as your kind likes to say, ‘Not my president.'” He motioned to the giant fish who lay dying. The fish were larger in number, but the fish did not speak for the other tribal divisions of the area.
Lucas approached, carrying a package wrapped in gold. “The spiders are the rulers of our domain. Our unification with the other venomous species has brought peace to our lands.”
That had to be the definition of ironic.
bowing his head while presenting me with Isaiah’s completed skull. “You should be able to speak to him outside of your dreams.”
“The skull? I don’t think I want to do that.” My dreams were traumatically frighting but I still preferred them to the morbid reality.
“You can keep it anyway.” Lucas nudged the skull towards Leo who slipped it into his portal of a backpack.
Leo left the bag open as he spoke his next words. “We should probably get going.”
Lenny the scorpion poked his body out from under the flap of the metal clasp. “Hello Ari, it’s nice to meet you. I was baking cookies.” He turned to Lucas. “I saved your drink from earlier.”
“Thanks!” Lucas joined him in the bag. That explained how he was able to come to my aid.
Ari squealed with delight as he followed. “I want to eat cookies!”
“We have a long drive ahead of us, to the temple of snow,” Leo explained as he finished wrapping my arm. “I need you to sit up.” I did as he asked, taking a deep breath as he wrapped my ribs. “You’re going to be in pain for a while but the sand should give your muscles the jump-start they need.” With Leo’s help, I was healed enough to stand.
My bike was left in the back while I rode in the front, at Leo’s side. As the world slipped into the calming embrace of the evening, I found myself falling asleep against the cold passenger-side window.
I opened my eyes to a land of snow. This was not Colorado, but rather a cross between the movies ‘Frozen’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. I wore a long white dress, like something from a summer wedding. Yet I was strangely not the least bit cold.
In the distance, I saw another vision of Isaiah. He was sitting cross-legged in the snow, still dressed like a surfer; shirtless with boardshorts and beaded jewelry braided in his long wavy hair.
I was about to approach when he stood up. His body looked muscular and strong. “Hello, Elena.”
“I owe you an explanation.”
“That would be nice.”
“You remember a day I just up and disappeared?”
I nodded. “You told me you went on a spiritual journey.”
“I went to rehab for a while. I was lost without my powers. I had to put my faith in her.”
Her? Oh please no. “Your sister! You made a deal with her?”
I was going blind. she said I could siphon her powers, and in exchange, she would tell me a way to restore myself.
“In exchange for what? her freedom?”
“She said she was happy not to be equal. I had no idea she was playing a long con.”
“Are you really that stupid?”
My husband seemed more ashamed than offended. But before he could answer there was laughter from all around us. The world started to shake as snowflakes fell like balls of hail.
“Kaylinani!” I shouted.
The pile of snow pulled itself into the form of a human female. Her pose resembled the nurse zombies from a certain horror video game. “Colorado will be your undoing.”
“Why do you say that?”
There was a loud clap of thunder, as I awoke with a cold sweat. I was still sitting in the front seat with Leo but we had been driving for a while and were now in the middle of a storm.
“You ok?” he asked, over the roar of the rain. “We can stop for a bit?”
“I-I think my son is in Colorado.”