The descent through the tunnel had been gradual, but long and winding. During the whole trek the only thing Skye could smell resembled fresh cat pee and mouse turds. It seemed strange, because where there are cats, mice shouldn’t exist. The odour wasn’t the worst of the pathway into the earth though; the worst of it was traipsing through the spider webs. The feeling of taunt sticky threads collapsing against her face, the invisible lines sticking to her eyelashes, and being pulled into her nostrils by her terrified breaths. And although she wanted to do nothing more than to turn and escape, the idea of wealth drew her downward deeper into the darkness.
She pressed forward pushing past her dread, past the knowledge that webs are careful traps set out by hairy eight-legged creatures wanting to suck their prey dry. She wiggled her shoulders and shifted the weight of her backpack as though that simple move would lighten her load if she had to turn and run. God save me from giant spiders she thought as she surged forward through the passageway. The further she went, the more coated she became with webs, both old and dusty, and new and sticky. An involuntary shudder passed through her body as she envisioned a giant arachnid studying her with its multiple eyes. She knows she would make a juicy feast. She lets out a nervous giggle; her sisters always said she had an active imagination. She hugged herself tightly warding off any trepidation. She could always return to the surface.
As she set one foot in front of the other with fear in her bones she heard her fathers words as though he had said them aloud. God hates a coward Skye. It was a phrase he uttered often, as though if he had said it enough to her it would make it so. The memory of his hard tone sends her forward at a quickened pace, and then she sees it. It is a beckoning light further up the tunnel. She slowed her pace. She feels the clingy grip of panic increasing the beating of her heart.
She continued on like a moth to the light. She entered a large cavernous space. A blazing fire burns with a vengeance at the center of the cave. She glanced around with searching eyes. She is alone. So why does she feel like crowds are pressing in on her? The dancing flames breed massive shadows on the walls. A chill crawls up her spine. Maybe she should leave?
Skye, Skye, say good-bye, run away and cry. The nasty rhyme the oh so beautiful kids used to sing to her on the playground played in her head, a bad memory coming to light. She wished she had a delete button, not only for the words, but also for the wicked kids themselves. She took a deep breath and gathered her courage.
Skye approached the fire feeling the heat on her face. She studied the ever-changing crimson licks of light. Her eyes widen as she realized there is no fuel for the fire. No visible fuel for the fire. There is no one present to feed the flames. She could see no footprints in the dust, yet the blaze flickers with nourished strength scarcely contained within a thick ring of stones. Maybe, it is fed by a vein of natural gas?
She gave the cave one more sweeping glance and then set her backpack down. She sank beside it settling into a cross-legged position. Her dry mouth begged for water. She snatched a bottle of water from her pack and quickly drained it. The plastic crinkles loudly, a foreign sound in the archaic cave. She shoved the empty back into her pack, she wouldn’t be the first to litter a pristine place. It is only one bottle of the many she carried. A person can live for days without food, many less without water.
She wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her fleece-lined coat. The residue of the moisture darkened the periwinkle color to sky blue. She slowly unzipped the side compartment on the bag. She pulled out a small tube and reached inside with her fingertips retrieving a leathery looking roll. It is thicker than the thickest paper of modern times and smells like rotting hide. She opened the small roll with reverence. The proof she is a thief. But it’s not all she is; the life of one person has too many dimensions to name just one. She is not simply ugly; she is damaged, yet beautiful too. If people could only see past the thickened skin marring the one side of her face and look into her eyes the color of sparkling amethyst, and notice the healthy glow in her auburn hair they might find the glimpses of beauty. It is no matter, not many will miss the lowly assistant to the librarian, and it will be a long while before anyone will notice she had taken the scroll, if they even notice it at all. The librarian in charge is a hoarder, reluctant to share. She is a contradiction to the very purpose of a library. The scroll had been donated, mixed in with boxes of leather bound books and ancient maps concealed in tubes. Skye had been designated to catalogue the contents of the donation. The fact is the scroll simply wouldn’t be missed at all.
As Skye studied the scraggly drawing she could clearly see the fire had not been noted on the map. The only marking on the wrinkly old guide was a definite X written in crimson ink inside the cave. If it even was ink? Skye’s eyes searched the cavern, so where is the booty? Everyone knows an X on a map means a treasure.
She studies the walls of the cave. They are smooth, blackened, and reflective like onyx. This space contained nothing but the flames. Her gaze lands on the entrance to the tunnel. It blended so easily with the walls and she almost could have missed its presence in the shadowy firelight. Maybe she is missing more?
She squeezed the flashlight in her hand. She feels the cool weight of the cylindrical metal. She flicked the switch on, and the bright beam diminished the fires glow. She shone it back on the mouth of the tunnel. She could go back? She could go topside to the light of day. Return to the other civilians like her bumbling through their existence. Does she want to return to that? To that dull routine, uninspired and pointless, to see the mirror reflect the flatness in her eyes, to know her spark of life has been smothered by lack of inspiration? The map is a cosmic gift.
Skye leaned in closer to the firelight. What is this mystery? Why did the map not mention this? She watches the orange and red flames prancing in colourful twists. It revealed nothing. She rose to her feet, her muscles are tight with unease, they are bound securely to her bones ready to flee if need be.
An unexplainable wind sweeps into the fire, and the flames grow taller lengthening upwards towards the ceiling of the cave. She retreats to the wall feeling her elbows tighten into her sides. She wished to be invisible to whatever this thing may be. The fire expanded cutting the cave in half. It effectively blocked her way out. And still it grows.
Her face is scorched; the sweat oozed from her pores, only to evaporate on her skin. Skye pointed her flashlight to the backside of the cave. She spied a silver toned lever gleaming at the topside of the back wall.
The fire intensified further. The rocks began to glow like coals. Her skin turned scarlet. The map smoldered in her fingers.
The cave is a crematorium; the fire has left only one option.
Propelled by mounting discomfort Skye raced to the lever. The map blazed into flame between her fingertips and she dropped it with a gasp. The handle juts out a foot from the wall. It is shining and bright, almost glowing with light. In that split second she noted the etchings along its length, swirling and symmetrical, Celtic in nature. She leaped as the fire licked her back. Skye smelled the stink of her seared ponytail. She latched onto the metal lever. The rigidness of the bar collapsed into the shape of an arm.
A hand grasped her elbow.
A female voice sounded in her head, “Hold on tight this will be nasty.”
Skye feels herself being dragged through a whirling space. Her muscles scream as she is stretched beyond anything she has known. She lost all awareness of her limbs, causing her to question the very existence of them. Nausea grabbed hold of Skye’s center causing clenching cramps in her guts. At least her belly button is present. Her mom always said Skye had the loveliest belly-button of all her kids. The edges of darkness moved in on her like the blinds on a window sliding down against the light. The last thing she felt is the wretched pain in her abdomen, and the cold steel grasp on her arm.