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J. C. Hart
I did not want to go.
The black maw of the hole did not beckon to me. If anything, it urged me to run, to throw down my caving gear and get back in the car, to speed towards town and the safety of buildings and streets and lights and noise. It was too quiet here, too still, even with the occasional bird lifting its voice in song.
"Izzy," Grace urged. "Come on. We don't want to leave it too long. We've got to be home in time for the family dinner." She hovered at the edge of the cave, helmet on and her harness in place. She looked better in the rig than I ever would, but then, she was the pro and I was just the tag-along. That summed up our whole life.
"Whose idea was this, anyway?" I asked, rolling my eyes.
"Mum wanted you to get out more. You said you'd give it a go." Grace put her hands on her hips and gave me the same glare our mother had perfected.
I think that talent skipped me entirely.
"Okay," I said, stepping towards the entrance. "You're sure it's safe?" I had to close my eyes and breathe out, long and slow. It was okay, it would all be okay. My sister was here and she would look after me. It was what sisters did.
It was what Grace did. Not so much what I did, though I wanted, so badly, not to be the screw-up everyone thought I was. I could start by following through on this. If I just tried ...
"Come on, I've been here before. It's a good one to start on." She grabbed my arm and squeezed it reassuringly when I reached her side. "So, in you go!" Grace grinned, her teeth white against pink lips. Why was she wearing lipstick? Why was I thinking about that?
I took one step into the mouth of that cave. It was as if the world had been left behind until Grace stepped in and nudged me with her elbow.
"Come on, slow-poke, you know Mum hates it when we're late for dinner."
Grace moved ahead with the easy confidence of someone who'd done this time and time again, so it was a relief to be behind her, to not have her gaze on me as I found my feet and stumbled against some rocks, the spare shoes she'd given me clunky on my feet despite us being the same size.
Grace stopped and waited for me to catch up. "You ready to go?"
I let out a breath and looked where she pointed. The path wasn't too steep, winding down in a switchback fashion, littered with rocks of every size. Grace reached over and turned on my headlamp, grinning as the light splashed against her face.
"Come on. You're going to love it when we get to the bottom. There are some amazing formations."
She rambled on as we walked. Grace could speak for hours on her passions, and more than anything I think she was just pleased to be able to share this one with me, even if under duress. It wasn't that I didn't want to be there, specifically. I didn't want to be anywhere, and I didn't think any amount of beauty, or awe, would pull me from that feeling. Life was hard, my brain was my enemy, and I was too tired to fight anymore.
I almost walked straight into her back; she gave a small gasp and turned to glare at me.
I could see it there, sickly green and poisonous purple curling out of her mouth with her breath, with the word, "Watch —" She stopped. Exhaled. "Sorry, you gave me a fright, and didn't I tell you to watch out?" She gripped my arm again, harder than before. "You have to be careful, I know I said it was safe, but it's only safe if you pay attention all the time."
"Okay," I said, flinching back from the colours in the air between us. I didn't need any of that in my body; it was toxic enough as it was. "Do we have to go down?"
She nodded, then unhooked her drink bottle and took a swig. She offered it to me, but I shook my head. "We have to abseil, do you remember how I showed you?"
I nodded again, wishing I'd had that water but too frozen now to get my bottle out. We'd practiced this before, but I wasn't ready. Might not ever be ready.
"Izzy, it's going to be okay. You were great at the climbing wall, you just need to do the same here. Pretend we're back at the YMCA. You're safe. We're together. There's a permanent anchor here, and we're going to use that."
Permanent. I looked down the cliff face. It wasn't smooth, dotted with rocks of all shapes and sizes, thankfully not a straight drop.
"How do we get back up? I can't climb this." I stepped back from the edge, panic coming over me again, red and tight and twisting.
"Izzy," Grace said sharply. She gripped my chin and made me look at her. So serene. She was always so much calmer than me, as if she'd got all those genes and I'd got ... something else.
"The cave has another exit so you don't have to climb up. It's going to be okay, and I promise, everything you're feeling now? It's worth it."
I nodded and licked my lips, so dry they felt like they would split.
"Come on." She got me hooked up and helped me to the edge. This time it was me who grabbed her hand.
"Thank you," I said, hoping that by the meagre light of our torches she could see that I meant for more than this trip. "I owe you."
She grinned as I assumed the right pose and dropped over the edge of the ledge.
"Nice form, Izzy. You've got this!" she called down to me.
The rope was strong in my hand, the fibres digging gently into my gloves, assuring me I had a good grip. I held my breath as I lowered myself, feet braced against the rocks, back leaning into the abyss. Darkness embraced me as I swung my head down so that the torch beam swept below.
"I can't see the bottom." My voice quavered.
"It's there. Trust me." Her voice was strong, steady as always. Was she ever afraid? "I've done this before, hundreds of times."
"Okay." I sent the word up like a prayer to Grace, my new goddess as I dropped into the cave. I lowered myself another few metres and looked again, but still no sign of the ground. An ache was gnawing at my chest. I was about to call up again when the rope moved in my hand. No, not the rope, the world.
Rocks clattered beside me, stumble-tripping their way to the floor.
"I'm here. Just hang tight. It's a little quake." But there was a thread of fear in her voice now, it slithered down the rope and took up residence in my brain.
There was a sharp jolt and I cracked against the cliff face. My helmet protected my head, but my elbow and knees jarred against the rocks. I cried out and I knew there would be blood.
"Izzy!" Grace yelled. I looked up. Saw the light from her torch as I spun and crashed against the wall of the cliff, bright in the darkness.
"Don't fall. Help me." I didn't know if the two things could be done in tandem. Her light disappeared, but I felt a tug on the rope and I held my breath, closed my eyes. I could try to climb, but then
I'd be pulling on the rope too, and that wouldn't help, would it? I didn't know. I didn't know anything. I gripped the rock face, finding crevices to dig my feet into.
The thudding of my heart was there, loud but alone. No more clatter of rocks, just my breath hitting the wall.
"I'm going to get you up," Grace's voice was comforting.
"Okay," I said.
She tugged on the rope and I shifted my foot, trying to gain some height, to help.
"Wait," she said, her voice frantic. "Don't move."
"Grace? You're freaking me out."
"I just —"
There was a rumble. The wall rippled and rolled. The sound of the rope breaking seemed loud over the roar of the earthquake and I fell and fell and fell.
* * *
I knew I wasn't dead because everything hurt. I tried to move my hand but couldn't. I realised I was stuck in mud so thick it felt like drying cement.
"Grace!" I yelled, but the only response was my voice ricocheting off the walls.
I couldn't see a thing. Were my eyes even open? Did it matter? I was stuck at the bottom of a hole with no way out. I hadn't realised until then that I actually did want to live, that despite my strange quirks and inability to hold down a job or succeed in the way normal people did, I wanted life.
A low hum filled the space. I held my breath, waiting for rocks to crash down and crush me. Tears leaked out the corners of my closed eyes, a high pitched squeal stole out of my lungs. Something tickled along my spine and I shuddered. This was fear, I told myself, fear making me feel things that couldn't be there, but then a tendril of something seemed to curl around my ankle, to tug my foot deeper into the mud. My squeal turned into a scream, which sparked like tiny glow worms expelled into the darkness.
I struggled, fighting to free myself from the mud, but my violent attempts to move only seemed to make it clamp down on me harder.
"No! No! I don't want to die in here. I don't want to die." I sobbed, sank, my chest heavy.
If I free you, will you free me?
The voice trickled into my brain with the sensation of warm honey, of melted butter, the scent of toast in my nostrils, of comfort, of home. I relaxed. I couldn't help it, it was so soothing.
Sure, I thought to the figment of my imagination. No idea how to do that, but if it gets me out of here ... Wait. What are you?
It was an invitation. Something thin and sharp pierced my neck and I screamed again, light blooming behind my eyes, and then I could see ... something large as it soared through the sky, its wings — no not wings, fins? — large and wide and trailing, trailing. I couldn't fathom it. It was too big, too much. Stars burst from the night sky, swimming past me so quickly, and then I could see other great beasts, wondrous, ponderous creatures moving through space, through time and infinity. They were deep blue, sparkling, shining. I didn't know. I couldn't comprehend. It was ...
When Maui caught this fish I was not in the sea but in the sky and he pinned me down beneath these rocks, grew an island on me.
It unfolded in the style of the books of legends from my youth, Maui, strong and brave, half god, half mortal, his feet planted firmly on the ground, but instead of capturing the sun he was capturing this beast, tearing it from the sky with brute force. Everything collapsed back to darkness, the weight of it crushing me the same way the weight of all these rocks weighed down the beast.
"Have you been here all this time?" I asked.
So long. But I still remember.
Another flash of the stars and some ineffable, indescribable sensation that pressed my brain so hard I almost passed out. And grief. It crushed me, made me want to curl into a little ball, and then my arms were loose, my legs too, and I was folded in on myself. The images in my head of the things that were lost overwhelmed me, threatening to tip me into oblivion.
The creature pulled back, but I held my ball tight, eyes pressed shut, still seeing stars.
"Make it stop!"
Make me free.
I'd have gone crazy — Hell, I was halfway there and I'd not suffered anything like this creature had; suffering inflicted by one of my kind. That thought sped through my brain, bouncing off the pieces of me that I kept locked in boxes, stirring up anxiety.
"Anything, just make it stop. Make it stop and promise that my sister will be safe."
Everything went still, the silence so quiet that it buzzed in my ears. I dropped my hands from my head, uncurled my limbs and sat.
"I don't know how to save you," I whispered. "I don't —"
As I have been your vessel for all these years, so too shall you be mine.
Pain fired through my synapses, burning me out until everything went black.
I paced outside the perimeter the rescue team had set up. They'd been here for hours and Izzy was somewhere down there, underneath it all. I couldn't breathe. It was my job to keep her safe and she might be dead, right now, trapped under layers of rock, her body twisted and broken the same way her mind seemed to be sometimes.
Mum was going to kill me. She'd already called, her voice so frantic I couldn't understand what she was saying. A doctor had to tranquilize her and she was at home with Dad while I paced, wearing a trench in the ground, cursing it for the terrible quake that had probably murdered my sister.
I turned. It was Izzy. I inhaled, relief filling me. She was alive, she was okay, and she was crawling from the rubble in a completely different spot to where the rescue team were searching. I ducked under the perimeter tape and scrambled to her.
"You're alive," I whispered, holding her at arms-length. I didn't want to draw attention, to call for help. I needed to make sure she was okay first. She let me wipe the blood from her neck with my fingers, let me check for breaks, before I crushed her into a hug. "I can't believe it. I thought ... I thought I'd lost you. I —"
"It's okay," she said. She smiled, a beatific glint in her eyes. "I'm okay. Actually, I'm better than ever."
I frowned. It wasn't the response I expected, given her predilection for anxiety. No, that was too harsh of me. It wasn't her fault that her nerves seemed to eat her alive. She was sensitive to the world around her, open and aware in a way that others didn't seem to be, and I loved that about her, even if it meant she needed my help. Even if it meant I couldn't go and live the life I'd always wanted to. She was more important.
Izzy's inability to function as a normal person had often driven Mum and Dad to distraction. I felt that if she'd had an official diagnosis of some kind it would have made it easier on all of us. I liked to think of her as a modern shaman, but then maybe that was just a coping mechanism. She was a dreamy woman, and with a little application could make some good money from her art; it just never seemed to happen.
"Over here!" I heard a shout, and then I was pulled away from Izzy as a medical team looked her over.
She had mild concussion and was free of major injury, just cuts on her limbs, her cheek, and her neck. She'd been very lucky, but the way she looked at me now ... I couldn't help but wonder. Just what had happened down there to cause this shift in her manner?
* * *
I t started off as just notes for the Doctor. He wanted me to keep tabs on Izzy, make sure there were no lingering effects from the concussion, to keep track of her behaviour in case she needed counselling from the trauma she'd been through.
There was some dizziness, she vomited once, and her expression was vague when I asked her about specific things. Other than that she seemed fine — more than fine, she seemed better than ever. She had gained focus, was doing some kind of research online, tinkering with some ... device. I didn't know what it was and she wasn't saying a peep. She would just grin at me, with a strange gleam in her eyes, and tell me that I'd find out soon enough.
Some nights I would find her sitting on the balcony, her legs swinging over the edge and her gaze fixated on the night sky, a deep sense of yearning etching her face.
"Haven't you ever wanted to escape, to fly away?"
I bit my tongue, held back the words that would hurt her. But then she looked at me and I had to be honest. "You know I have."
"I do. That was a test." She smiled, but then she worried her bottom lip between her teeth. "I'm sorry. I know it's my fault."
"No, don't ever say that. I chose this. I chose you. You're my sister and I love you so much." I slipped my hand into hers and she squeezed it, her skin feeling drier than it normally did. "I might have wanted other things — I might still get other things — but this is what I want right now."
"I'm going to give you the universe," she whispered, eyes filled with adoration.
There was something about the way she said it that sent a shiver down my spine. As if she really meant it, in a way I couldn't comprehend.
"Come on, come inside and I'll make us some hot chocolate before bed."
"No," she said softly, letting our hands drift apart. "I want to stay out here for a bit. I'll see you in the morning." She smiled again, but I knew I was dismissed.
* * *
A week later she was out of the apartment on some furtive mission. This whole secrecy thing she had going on was driving me mad and her door was slightly ajar, so I pushed it open a little wider and peered inside.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cthulhu Land of the Long White Cloud"
Copyright © 2018 Steve Proposch Christopher Sequeira Bryce Stevens.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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