“Any meny miny moe, catch a tiger by,” I began the familiar riddle when the conduit at four o’clock flashed a bright red once and then lit up with various colors and a man walked out.
“We’ve been waiting for you.” The man with the black hair said.
He looked like he was going to audition to be Pony Boy or Johnny Zucko. His hair was slicked back with grease, his faded jeans cuffed at the bottom, and his white tee shirt was smeared in places with oil. Folding his arms, I heard the leather jacket rub against itself and wondered if the black hole I fell through was actually a time warp.
“If this collective ‘we’ has been waiting for me, then why didn’t you send someone sooner?” I asked him with an air of superiority. It seemed obvious to me that they should be waiting on me, but I couldn’t really determine why I felt that way. “Did you honestly expect me to be able to find my way when you people plop me down in the middle of a freaking maze?”
“It’s not a maze ma’am.” He stuttered, revealing that I had some power over him. “It’s a protection gate. We installed it recently to honor your arrival. Should your ladyship wish, we can have it removed by Wednesday.”
“Is that soon?” I asked sharply. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t even know what today is.”
He began to say that it was soon, but that it could be removed even sooner if I wished when I silenced him.
“It’s fine. Leave it. It could become useful at some point.” I said and softened my tone. “It’s actually quite ingenious. I thought I had correctly deducted that this corridor would lead away from the center, not toward it.”
“I’m glad you approve ma’am. Would you care to be taken home now?” He asked, bowing before me.
A wave of exhaustion came sweeping over me and I closed my eyes momentarily. With them closed, I saw a million images flashing through my mind and I tried to determine which ones were real and which were a result of this new curse, but I couldn’t distinguish real from fake anymore. My mind was in a constant battle over the two realities. The man who stood before me was named Joshua, but I knew that I had never been introduced to him, that I had never actually been told his name. The disparities left me feeling confused and tired. Hoping that ‘home’ was a safe place for me to be, I nodded toward Joshua and let myself be led down one of the conduits on my left. My calculations of the gateway had been completely misguided.
“Joshua?” I asked as we walked along the pebbled walkway. The corridor had three walkways; one was pebble, one was brick, and one was stone. The walkways were separated by the natural rock and it covered the ground along the two walls.
“Oh!” He said suddenly and a smile spread across his face. “Her ladyship knows what I am called already. That is very flattering to hear.”
“You didn’t think…I…” I started, stuttering and confused. I knew some things – some details – that someone felt I should know, but who was determining when I got the different pieces of this puzzle? Was it Sikal’s decision?
“I have offended you?” His voice raised into a question. “I apologize. It is not my place to say such things to upset you.”
“No.” I stopped his rambling. “I was just surprised that you didn’t think yourself worthy enough for me to know your name. Obviously you underestimate your importance if your name was one of the things that I was told.”
“Thank you misses. That is very kind of you to say.” He stammered quietly and I thought it was probably best to drop the subject. Compliments seemed to make Joshua uncomfortable and I guessed that they probably weren’t handed out so commonly in these parts of the world.
“How would you describe my home?” I asked Joshua, still curious about the quarters that I would be spending the rest of my life in.
“Your home?” He echoed, staring ahead. “Oh, her ladyship’s home is most impressive. The caves are so tall that you almost feel like you could reach the ground. And the bottom makes you think you are in the clouds. I believe it was made, special order, just for you.”
I didn’t understand how caves could be made or special ordered, but I nodded and smiled in Joshua’s direction appreciatively. It was another moment when I felt like my thoughts and actions were disconnected. The only conclusion I could form was that it was all Sikal’s fault. His flaming sword had infected my body and the part of my brain that connect thoughts and actions. His sword had severed the connections that made me function on a day to day basis.
Joshua and I walked for a good length of time before he stopped suddenly. I turned toward him and then surveyed my surroundings. We were at another, smaller crossroads. The road we were on could continue, or we could turn left or right. I looked to Joshua for answers, but he just stood there like a statue without offering explanations. On a normal roadway, we might have been at a four way stop where I could glance down each road and see which looked more inviting, but, here, all I could see were three darks tunnels and the one which I had just been walking down.
“Is this another gateway?” I asked him suddenly. I thought it had been another epiphany, but, just like the last one, he shot it down.
“No. Just a place of transit.” He said and took a seat on a wooden chair that slid out of the rock behind him.
“What does that mean? Does that mean that we rest here and then continue on later?” I wanted to know as I glanced around, searching for my own chair to rest on. We had been walking a long time. My body had not moved so much in months from what I could recollect; my feet were tired and I was parched for thirst.
“This is where our,” Joshua pointed between him and myself, “journey ends my lady. Someone will be along to accompany you further in a short span of time.”
“And until then?” I needed to know what I was supposed to be doing as I waited.
“Until then, you may want to rest.” Joshua snapped his fingers and a daybed with golden linens appeared just right of where I was standing. “We shall wake you when it is time to continue on your way.”
“Thank you.” I said graciously and climbed onto the provided bed. Within minutes after stretching out and lying down, I felt my eyelids become heavy and I tried to resist the urge to drift off in slumber. As with most of my recent battles, this fight did not end with a victory on my part.
Rubbing my head, I sat up and looked around. It was dark and I was straining to make out the shapes surrounding me. In the corner, I thought I saw something that looked like the surface of a rock, but I couldn’t be sure. I paused, trying to relax and let my eyes adjust to the diminished amount of light.
After a few minutes passed, I was able to start making out my surroundings. It appeared that I was in some sort of cave. There were both stalagmites and stalactites, rock columns reaching vertically from the hardened ceiling to the solid floor. The temperature was warmer than usual, but my body seemed to be adjusting to it without much difficulty or perspiration. It was clearly much darker than anywhere I’d ever been before. Surrounded by different pathways on any side of me, I seemed to have landed in the midst of a crossroads of some sort. I couldn’t even begin to select which way to go so I just remained seated. Trying to find a logical explanation for which direction I was supposed to go in, I wondered if Sikal could still communicate with me in this new location.
“Sikal!” I yelled out loud and learned that the cavern echoed loudly. Hearing my own voice bounce off the surrounding walls and ricochet down the different areas, I grew a little afraid.
From my left, I caught sight of a flickering light growing in the distance. Looking over, I saw a fire torch moving in my direction. I stood up and waited as the robed figure approached. Silently, the figure extended their torch, barely avoiding my hair as they reached behind me, and lit another torch. Pointing at the torch, I assumed they meant for me to pick it up. Lifting the torch from its holster, I realized that it was heavier than it appeared and held it with both hands. The figure flashed once as a television does when the cable signal is lost and then disappeared.
My emotions were a mixture of pleasure toward my newfound light source and despair at the disappearance of my first contact with a living being. I would not and did not assume that the figure I had seen was human. The possibility existed that it was human, a demonlord like Sikal, a demon, or something else entirely. I hoisted my torch on my hip bone and began walking down the pathway where I had originally seen the figure. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was on the wrong pathway. About nine yards into the tunnel, my body began to feel disjointed and I involuntarily squeezed my eyes shut tightly. Opening my eyes again, I found myself back in the spot where I had initially landed.
“That’s odd.” I said to the empty area and then I had a miniature epiphany. I mused aloud to myself. “They’re one way conduits from one place to another.”
Based on my reasoning and minute experience, I deducted that the paths on my left all lead to my location and the trails on my right must lead away from this area. There wasn’t any evidence to support my conclusion except my single attempt, but I was sticking with my ideas. The passageways in front of and behind me could lead either to or away from my standing position, but I assumed they went in opposite directions. From my not-so-scientific theories, I eliminated going down the channels to my left. I could either go to my right, which I believed to lead away from this position, or I could experiment further and see whether in front of me would take me somewhere else or bring me back to the same place. Ultimately, I opted for going right because I was more assured that those routes would take me somewhere new.
Slowly, I approached the corridors on the right. There were about four along my right side and I wasn’t sure how to decide which one to go with. I stood there debating about it for a few minutes and resorted to a tried-and-true method.
I looked around the room and my eyes settled on the bedroom door. I walked over to it with ease and placed my hand on it. With the palm flat against the door, I sighed quietly and then curled my hand into a fist. Punching the door in resentment, I quickly spun back around to face Sikal.
“No. I’m ready to go.” I told him, accepting his word and a new fate for myself.
“That’s what I like to hear.” The demonlord said, bearing his teeth.
A vortex came screaming into the room and I clapped my hands over my ears. I hadn’t seen it coming; Sikal hadn’t even lifted his finger or said a single word, but the vortex had appeared all the same. Eventually, it became hard to breathe and I had to move my hands from my ears to my throat. I was gasping for air and not finding any sources of oxygen. I tried to look around and find the demonlord, but there was too much chaos. My bedcovers had been ripped and the shredded materials were swirling around, knocking things off the walls and constantly slapping my body as they passed. The tornado in my room was collecting everything in its path but me. I began to worry about what I had just signed up for when I heard Sikal’s demonic laugh behind me.
“Scared yet?” He asked, somehow startling me in the craziness.
“I’m past scared.” I said screaming and I wondered how he could even hear me. I spun around to face him, but was met with only the same chaos that I had already seen. Sikal was not in the room and, yet, I could hear him as though he was right beside me.
“Not in your room. In your head.” I heard him say and understood. In someway, Sikal was talking to me mentally. He had left, but I could still hear him.
“What is this?” I demanded, yelling over the screaming cyclone.
“This?” He echoed in my head. “I’m not really sure. I think it’s more of a special effect than anything. The only purpose it serves is to wreck havoc and leave a mess behind for your friends to see.”
“Then why are you wasting my time?” I wanted to know.
“Because that,” He started and I unconsciously and instantaneously knew to look down at the ground. “That is going to take you to your next destination. To your new path in life.”
Below me, a black hole was growing wider. A thin silvery film covered the surface of the black hole preventing me from being swallowed. Each time the hole grew, lightning streaks flew across the film’s surface. I stood there feeling the sparks from the lightning and in awe of the disaster that had formed in my room. The dark abyss was probably five feet in diameter before the lightning streaks started leaving behind cracks in the film. As the circumference grew, so did the cracks. When the cracks started meeting up with one another, I could tell that it wouldn’t be long until I would be falling into the black hole, but I still didn’t move from my place. In my mind, I was processing what was happening around me and I was scared, but my body wasn’t reacting in the appropriate and typical ways. Logically, I assumed that this was a result of Sikal’s poisonous curse; he had said that the only part of me not infected was my brain.
“Ten…nine…eight…seven,” Sikal voice rang in my ears. I presumed he was counting down my minutes left on this course in my life. I gave a quick and silent goodbye to the ones I was leaving behind and joined him in the countdown.
I was falling. The gravitational pull was growing stronger causing me to fall with increasing speed and I vaguely knew that I was moving closer toward the mercury center of the Earth, but I was not afraid. I did not know what awaited me at the bottom. My body began to jitter and twitch and I felt a burning sensation in an area of my skull. Another part of my brain was becoming infected and I gave thanks that there was nothing around for my body to slam into. I don’t know how long I fell for, but I landed with a quick, sharp thud on solid ground.
Three days later, I experienced the most severe pain I’d had yet. My muscles contracted until my body began to shake and I could feel blood vessels bursting in my arms. My body thrashed on the bed and my head slammed into the headboard, blurring my vision. I thought back to Katie’s description of the bones smashing organs until the skin was stretched so tightly that it ripped. To me, this pain was much worse than I imagined that would be. After more thrashing about on the bed and hitting my head three more times on the headboard, I fell off the bed and hit the ground hard. After that, everything got hazy and then black.
When I woke, my body felt completely fine. The slash across my stomach was still as visible as ever, but the pain was completely gone. I stretched my arms out to the side and lifted my legs one at a time, testing my tolerance limit. I didn’t know how I had gotten back in the bed, but I sat up and swung my legs over the edge, arching my back and stretching out my spine. I felt like a miracle must have occurred to make me feel so incredible so quickly. I stood up and twisted at the waist. Even direct pulling on my wound wasn’t inflicting any pain on my body anymore. As I was twisting, I noticed a dark object in the corner of the room and stopped. Turning slowly around, I saw Sikal the demonlord standing in my room.
“Hello.” He said catching my eye and grinning.
“Sikal.” I said through clenched teeth.
“Don’t act so surprised. Did you actually think I was dead?” He opened his cloak to reveal a black cast on his arm. “Not dead miss, only a little broken.”
“I never said that I thought you were dead.” I told him bitterly. To myself, I added that I had hoped he was dead.
“So this is where they locked you away, is it?” He asked, hitting a sore nerve.
“Yes. In my own room. Was it that difficult for you to find? You’ve been here before.” I reminded him.
“I have been here before.” He agreed. “But never under these circumstances.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked defensively.
“You have no idea what’s going on, do you?” Sikal asked genuinely surprised.
“No.” I admitted quietly and sliding onto my bed. Even the demonlord who wounded me knew what was going on. My friends had been okay with Sikal knowing something that they wouldn’t even tell me.
“My sword; the one that cut you there.” He began, pointing toward my stomach. “Had been dipped in a magical poison. A curse of sorts, if you will. For the past three months it has been coursing through your body, joining with your cells and changing your status in life. Although the curse hasn’t completely worked its magic – excuse my pun – it’s completed enough for me to come and pick you up.”
Nothing that Sikal had said made sense except for the initial magical poison part. The poison explained the sudden burning and shooting pains that I had felt. Seeing that I didn’t completely comprehend what he was saying, Sikal continued.
“Do you remember any of the thrashing and twitching?” He asked and I nodded. “That occurred every time the curse made a connection with a significant part of your body. This last one was so severe because no one was here to strap you down and because all of your organs except for one have been infected.”
I stared at the demonlord in disbelief. How could he stand there and so calmly tell me that my entire body – my entire life – was changing?
“You’ve been watching me?” I asked, clinging to his knowledge that the last thrashing had been the worst.
“Yes. As administer of the test, it was one of my privileges despite losing the battle.” Sikal informed me. “Would you like to know more or should I just proceed with my course of action?”
“I’d like to know more.” I said, holding my ground and trying to buy time.
“Fine. Your brain has not been completely infected. The poison has entered your brain on occasion which is why you have selective amnesia. When your brain is wholly bound with the curse, your memory of this life will be repressed into your subconscious and no amount of psychoanalysis should be able to retrieve those memories. That’s pretty much the details of how the curse works, any questions?” Sikal asked as though he was a teacher and I was his student.
“What is the curse,” I hesitated, afraid of what the answer might be. “What is the curse making me into?”
“An assistant.” The demonlord told me simply and I wondered what assistant was a codename for.
“A what?” I asked him, waiting for more explanation.
“You’ll see when we get there. He’ll explain it all to you much better than I can. Rest assured, you won’t be working with me. I know that you feared that.” Sikal guessed my apprehensions.
“When do we leave?” I asked him.
“You’re awfully accommodating.” Sikal observed and I realized that I was taking all of the news rather well.
“Is it the curse?” I ask him and he nodded.
“For a little while, you’ll be pretty accommodating to certain people. It won’t last too long though. It will hold until you’ve gotten situated in your new position.” He explained for me.
“So when do we leave?” I asked, echoing my previous question.
“Do you have anything holding you here now?” Sikal asked with a wide gesture of his arms sweeping across the room.