We’re going to die in here, Jill Craig thought. Never before had she felt so claustrophobic, so disoriented.
Struggling to keep from hyperventilating so as not to prematurely deplete her air supply, she scissored her way through the watery darkness of the passageway. Her flashlight beam shone feebly beyond her exhaust bubbles, reflecting from the jagged rock walls as she forced herself onward, propelling her slender body along the bowel of the labyrinth.
For a moment she directed the beam straight ahead, away from the walls. The light vanished, swallowed by the blackness of the lifeless water. Absent were the plankton, the coral, the butterflyfish, the silver myriads of anchovy that would have caught the light, given it substance.
Even her sidekick, a clownish orange-spotted grouper, had deserted her as she’d followed Matt Bly’s effervescent trail into the crevasse eleven minutes ago. Where was Matt? she wondered. She was now verging on panic. Had he, like the light, been gulped by the darkness of this Mediterranean maze?
At last, peering upward, she spied a glowing disc. She rose and surfaced beside it, grasping the hand that held the light and hoisting herself onto the rock shelf, beside Matt.
Here the water was shin deep. Jill removed her scuba mouthpiece. "Where are we?" she murmured breathlessly, pulling down her mask. She raised her flashlight and hurled its beam into the darkness. "It’s--it’s a cavern!"
"Duh, brilliant deduction," Matt said. His voice echoed over the plurp-plurping of ripples. He pointed his flashlight upward, then waded forward, stalking the amber ray as it swept across the vaulted ceiling. "Even with our lights this clammy hole’s as grey as death. And whew! That stench!"
"It’s just the smell of the sea," Jill muttered, irked by what she considered a childish insult, and trite besides. "You know, parfum de l’ocean?" She glared at him from the corner of her eye. "By the way, love, it’s good to see you too."
Matt hawked and spat. "It’s so strong I can taste it."
Jill sighed, resigning herself to his blunt indifference. "At least there’s air," she said. "We can get by without using our tanks." She rubbed her arms. "Wish I’d worn my wet suit. Every hair on my body is suddenly standing on end. You cold?"
Matt didn’t answer.
She shrugged and mixed her light with his. "Man, this is eerie--the shadows, the mist, the water slapping the walls. And that hollow whooshing. It’s as if the cave is breathing."
"Yeah, uh huh," Matt said dryly. Lowering his light, he squatted down on his haunches. "We found the crevasse at a depth of twenty feet, right?"
"I’d say the end of the maze--here where we surfaced--is at sea level. We’ve zigzagged back to Porquerolles. We’re under the island. You know, inside it."
Jill rubbed her arms again and shivered. A soggy tomb of a cave wasn’t her idea of a spiffy vacation hideaway. But it was probably Matt’s. After all, The Casino of Monte Carlo filled the bill quite nicely as far as he was concerned, and what was this adventure if not a tingling game of chance? "Matt?"
"Yeah, babe?" As he rose, Matt’s flashlight flickered and dimmed. "C’mon, don’t die on me now," he growled, whacking the stem on his knife sheath. "There. That’s more like it."
"Matt, how long would you have waited before searching for me?"
His chiseled features appeared grotesque as light and shadows played across his face. "What are you implying?"
I know what makes you tick, Jill thought. Risk. The thrill of it is everything to you. Today I was your pawn. You’d have let me-- No! It’s the darkness talking, the mist, the spooky echoes.
"I said, what are you implying?"
Jill chewed her lip. "Nothing," she murmured. Reaching out, she touched his arm, caressed it. To her horror, his skin, its virile tautness, the once exquisite feel of it, repulsed her. She jerked her hand away. "This place gives me the creeps. Let’s get out of here. Now."
"Wait." Matt sloshed through the shallow water. "This’ll change your tune. I happened on it while waiting for you to show up. Here. Over here." Near the wall he stopped and cast the wavering ray of light onto the rock.
Waddling awkwardly in her fins, Jill splashed to his side and latched her beam to his. For a moment she was speechless, staring at the images before her. She caught in her breath. Snared in the writhing light mingled with shadows, the two brown, terrier-sized stallions appeared to leap from the wall. "Yikes!"
"Cool graffiti, huh?" Matt swung his beam across the face of the rock. Paintings of mammoths, of bison, of stags, engravings of ibex with great, arching horns sprang to view, now starkly illuminated, now trailing off into gloom. In the midst of the animals glimmered blotchy, reddish outlines of two human hands.
Jill waded closer to the wall. Letting her flashlight fall to the water, she reached out with both arms to touch the pair of disembodied hands. Who are you? she mouthed silently.
"What are you doing?" Matt said, shoving her away. "The stuff’s fragile!"
Jill teetered but caught herself.
"The rock’s loose! It’s crumbling!" Scowling, he pointed his light at the frieze. "See? That bison’s head is ready to drop."
Jill grabbed for her flashlight; it bobbed off in the ripples. "I couldn’t help--"
"Can’t you guess what these doodles are worth? People love this Ice Age crap." Grinning, he patted his knife. "A few cuts and a tap or two, and most of the critters will pop right off." He tossed back his head and laughed. "Alley Oop-oop-de-oop! Pay dirt, babe!"
Forgetting her wayfaring light, Jill gaped at him in disbelief. "This could be important--a crucial archaeological find. You can’t--"
"Don’t give me that la-de-da spiel! You’ve read a few lousy books on dried-up bones and broken pottery, and now you’re not only an expert in everything old, but a watchdog too? Oh, please."
"Okay," Jill said, fighting to keep her voice calm, "so I’m not an archaeologist. But I am a student. I’m getting there, mister--mister boat builder."
Matt rolled his eyes. "Yachts. I build yachts. Custom."
"Whatever. Look, you don’t need the money--or the grief. Use your head. Think of what could happen if you were caught with any of this. You can’t just help yourself to what’s here."
"If I don’t, the sea will."
"It would be stealing! Get real, Matt. The cave belongs to France."
His eyes seethed.
"What about customs?" she said. "This ‘stuff,’ this ‘crap,’ as you call it, isn’t a bunch of cheap souvenirs. You can’t just carry it with you back to Miami."
"Who said anything about taking it home? The casino--hell, the whole Riviera, for that matter--is crawling with collectors who’d pay a fortune for these cave man scribbles. It’s crummy art, but it’s very ‘in.’"
"You can’t do this! I won’t let you!"
He lunged at her. Grabbing her hair, he wrenched her neck sideways. Her tank harness dug into her flesh. Her knees buckled.
"You won’t what?" he said. "You won’t let me?" Flinging his light, he struck her face once with his palm, then twice with the back of his hand. "Don’t ever tell me what not to do!" He grasped her shoulders and slammed her down into the water.
Jill tasted blood but didn’t care; she felt no pain. She was aware only of the whooshing. Louder. It was growing louder. Merging with her breath.
Slowly she lifted her head. In the wobbly light, her eyes found Matt’s and held them. He thought he’d won. She could tell he thought he’d won. "Outside the cave the art would be worthless to you. You’d condemn yourself proving it’s real," she said quietly. "You’re such an ass."
His jaw dropped; his chin crumpled.
"We’re going," she said, rising.
She’d never stood up to Matt before, never defied him. It was exhilarating, a rush. Her heart thudded wildly; she could feel it in her ears.
All at once, without knowing why--of what--she was terrified. Her scalp crawled; she imagined millipedes squirming among the hairs. Her body stiffening, she squeezed her eyes shut...
...and felt as if she were falling, tumbling faster and faster, spinning like a bug being sucked down a drain. Floating. Now she was floating...
Abruptly the sensation vanished. Her head jerked back. Her eyes flew open. Trembling, she leveled her gaze.
As if in a trance, Matt returned her stare. His eyes then narrowed. With a quick swoop he snatched one of the flashlights from the water and started toward her. "Are we quite through with our little charade?"
Jill stepped back, slowly at first, then more quickly as the distance closed between them.
Gripping the light with both hands, Matt swung at her. And missed. He swung again. Jill dodged the blow, but as she did, her feet slipped out from under her. Arms flailing, she toppled over. As her torso hit the water, her air tank jammed into her spine. She yelped in pain.
Now Matt was looming over her. Laughing. "Your landings suck," he finally said. Reaching down, he patted her cheek. "You need to work on that." He slogged away, chuckling, leaving swarms of little whirlpools in his wake.
Growing numb with cold, Jill staggered to her feet. Bastard. How she’d wanted to grab his hand and bite it! She felt weak, sick to her stomach. She wondered vaguely if her back was bleeding.
Matt. It disgusted her to think that his hellish moodiness, his unpredictability, his "sensitivity," as she’d been naive enough to call it, had once excited her. She hadn’t realized until today that he was sick. Dangerous.
She heard scraping. It stopped. She held her breath and listened. There it was again: scritch scritch… She rubbed her eyes and squinted, trying to focus in the darkness.
Through the veil of haze she glimpsed a halo of yellow light shining on the wall. A glint of silver. Bristling, she waded toward the glow. She knew what Matt was doing.
"Hot dog!" He glanced over his shoulder and grinned at her. "The rock is even softer than I thought." He scratched the tip of his knife against the wall. "Watch." He soon held out a small plump stag for her to see. "One down," he said, and turned away.
Jill scarcely heard him. She hardly knew he was there. Her mind, her gaze, were now fixed beside him, on the wall. On the hands. Reverently, she inched closer.
"There’s more. Bolder, better stuff. Want to see?" Matt flung the severed stag onto a ledge and sloshed away, heading toward the far end of the cave.
"You know what, babe?" he called out seconds later. "I’ll bet that when this zoo was painted, the sea was lower and Porquerolles part of the mainland. This sump was as dry as a pretzel." scritch scritch… "We need something to haul these critters in."
Tendrils of mist coiled from the water, acrid, rising blue, like fingers of smoke. Clutching her. Choking her. Jill’s trachea clenched; she could hardly breathe.
Suddenly she didn’t have to. Something was breathing for her. Through her. She could hear it living, feel the heat of its breaths brush her throat. Heaving breaths. Dry and sharp, they thrust and sank, growing stronger.
Her hands groped through the mist and at last joined those of the rock. And pressed. A jolt, a surge of heat crackled through her. She quivered, then felt herself snatched from her body and hurled into a churning pit of blackness.
"Hey!" Matt yelled. "Knock it off! You’ll smudge the paint!"
Tearing her hands from the wall, Iba whirled toward the voice. Ah, she had conjured the demon at last!
She could see the fiend gather form in the smoke from The Sacred Blaze, hear the gibber of the thing’s evil tongue above the slurp-lapping of the dwindling flames. Rakshati. The demon Rakshati.
She of The Chosen Who Speak With The Spirits had sensed its presence, and while the others danced, chanting, had slit her thumbs with the spell stone, then dribbled her blood into ocher and hex-streaked her eyelids.
Eyes stinging, streaming, she’d now knelt by the embers and breathed her essence into She Who Is Fire, beseeching the goddess. Bring forth the demon! she’d implored without speaking. Give me Rakshati!
Filling her mouth with a hallowed, saliva-bound mixture of red clay and feldspar, she’d risen and placed her hands on the sacred rock wall. With all the force of her lungs and her mind and her spirit, she’d now spat the magic dye through the cracks of her fingers. And merged with The Power.
Iba lurched toward the demon, her spirit form straining. No! Her legs should be weightless, her arms light as moth wings! She should be flying! Bewildered, she stumbled backwards and went down on her buttocks, limbs sprawling.
"Well, Jesus H. Christ, folks, she wiped out again! Jill, what’s wrong with you! Cut the wacky schtik. You’re really camping it up."
Dazed, Iba leaned back on her arms. One at a time, she brought her hands forward and stared at them.
She sat up straight and pinched her cheeks, her arms, her thighs. Numb. Or nearly so. Like her spirit. But this was not her spirit form, this was flesh! Whose skin was this, whose eyes that saw so dimly? Not her own...
Again and again she curled and straightened her fingers. Palms turned upward, she bent her hands over the firelight and watched the blood quicken in her wrists.
"You could help, you know. You could at least hold the stupid flashlight. By the way, babe, that’s yours bobbing around over there, the worthless piece of junk. The thing’s flickering like crazy. I think the battery’s shot."
Iba felt as if a log had been strapped to her back. But slowly, she rose. Rakshati...
"Cool effect, though. The swirly mist and the light on the ripples give the impression the water’s on fire."
She stared at its face. Its dreadful eyes were piercing hers. The demon was not afraid. It was not afraid! Now it was turning its back to her. It was walking away!
Jaw clenched, she plodded after it. She could smell, taste the sea. No. Smoke. She could see it rising from the flamelets. Golden flamelets, rippling light.
The sight of the thing sickened her. She would destroy it. Now. She lunged at it, shrieking.
It spun to face her. "What the--" The fiend jumped back, a just-snared-rabbit look mimicked in its eyes. Fleshly eyes.
Iba grabbed its wrists and wrenched until it dropped its knife and puny torch. Teeth bared, she thrust herself against the demon, cursing it, pounding it, clawing at its neck.
Thrashing wildly, it knocked her down and turned to flee.
Iba scrambled to her feet and leaped onto the fiend’s misshapen back and clutched its throat. Wheezing, it slumped to its knees. She shoved it to its belly, then quickly seized its hair and forced its head into the embers, into the rippling glow of The Sacred Blaze.
Iba slid down from the thing’s great bulging spine. Kneeling, she threw back her head and shut her eyes.
Ah, she could now hear the chanting of the others above the crackling of She Who Is Fire. Others of The Chosen. It was done. Smiling, Iba licked the lingering drops of dye from her lips, and pulling her hands from the rock, turned from the wall to join them.
As Jill knelt, her eyes fluttered open. Bowing her head, she stared down at the water. At the body floating there. Matt...
She felt groggy. Detached. She saw her hands reach out and grasp Matt’s hair. Slowly, mechanically, she lifted his head.
In a corner of her mind, something snapped. "No!" she cried, and pulled him to her. She heard him draw in a breath. He was alive, alive! He was alive!
Gagging and sputtering, Matt tore himself from her arms and clambered to his feet. "You tried to--" He hunched his back and retched. "--kill me!"
"What?" Jill started to rise.
"Stay away from me!" he shouted, his voice shrill with rage. "Just stay away!"
Jill dropped back to her knees and took a deep breath. "Stop ranting, and listen to me."
Matt retched again. He spat and wiped his mouth. "So, talk. And it had better be good."
"We must have blacked out," she said. "Both of us. Maybe there’s something in the air--or the water. Maybe--"
All at once an image flashed through her mind. Matt, his eyes full of terror, was cringing--cringing from her! Now she saw fingers clutching his neck. Her fingers! Skin prickling, she stared down at her hands, then up at Matt. What bizarre illusions were these stamped in her brain?
Vaguely, as if she’d but dreamed it, she recalled reaching out and touching the wall and the hand shapes upon it. She’d had the sensation of falling...
And then, had she heard voices? Yes. Chanting. And she had smelled smoke. She had tried to open her watering eyes. She couldn’t. She had fought to pull her palms away from the wall, but the rock hands held them fast. In a flash of insight, yes, for only an instant, she had known what had happened.
And she knew now.
Jill strained to get up, but her body felt spent. "She wants you dead! She’s going to try again!"
Matt looked befuddled. He glanced around furtively. "Huh?"
"She plans to kill you! She’s pressing the hands!"
"What are you babbling about?"
Wait, Jill thought. For the switch to happen, I’d have to press my palms on them too…
"I said, what are you--"
"No! The connection’s already been made. This time she doesn’t need mine. She-- Oh, no, we’re melding again. I can feel it!"
"Are you nuts? Get a grip!"
Clamping her hands to her ears, Jill crouched in the water. "The whooshing. Do you hear it? It’s her breathing. She--"
Matt yanked her to her feet, by the hair. "She? You screwy--"
"Let go of me!" Jill twisted free and pushed him from her. She gestured frantically toward the entrance. "Don’t just stand there, get out!"
Muttering under his breath, Matt scooped the jouncing flashlight from the water, then retrieved his knife and sloshed away. Soon he reached the shelf above the maze leading to the sea.
"Matt!" The whooshing. It’s getting louder.
He stopped but didn’t turn around.
"The art will never be yours. You’ll never go near it again. Know that." Can’t he hear it?
He smirked over his shoulder, his eyes hollow in the mottled light. "Oh, is ‘she’ going to stop me?"
"Not if I can help it. But I’ll stop you. I’ll turn you in if I have to." Jill took a step toward him. "And one more thing. We’re finished. Kaput. Savez-vous?"
The smirk vanished. Without taking his eyes from her, Matt turned around, facing her squarely. "Hey, babe, you don’t mean that."
"Don’t ‘hey babe’ me."
"Stuff it, Matt. Get out of my sight--my life. Go before yours is--"
In her ears, a roar like wind...
Eyes on the demon, Iba thrust the legs forward. gobeforeyoursis As she slopped through the cinders, around her lapped flamelets in dim throes of...
"Well! Changed your mind!"
"Smart move, since your flashlight’s screwed up. See, there in the water? It’s still having spasms."
Ah, she could almost feel the thing’s flesh, smell its...
"C’mon, babe, get the lead out."
...blood. Like the demon’s form, hers too had blood. The blood of another. The flesh of another. finished kaput The blood and flesh of mortalkind.
"Finally! Okay, let’s go."
"Rakshati!" Iba grabbed its wrist. She snatched the knife and raised it high.
Knife poised, she cocked her head, then blinked and stared. Its eyes... Its face...
"You loony tune!" Its hand seized hers, spread her fingers.
Grasped the knife.
"Aieeeee!" Iba plunged it down and pierced its heart.
"Oh, wow," Jill whispered, eyes bleary but at last blinking open. "Deja vu."
She ached, felt haggard. Exhausted. How long had she stood here like this?
Did it matter? She was alive! And this time she wasn’t afraid. Except for faint stirrings and a few muffled coughs, all was still. She relished the calm and savored the cave’s smoky darkness.
With a grunt she jerked the large, callused hands from the wall. Rubbing them, Jill turned and squatted down by the embers. As it warmed, Iba’s skin smelled of earth, soot and sweat. Jill savored this too. She smiled, and Iba’s lips curled up at the corners.
"Hek vin tal. Hek bho tal," she murmured in the strange-sounding voice and once alien tongue. "Yes, now I live. Now I am."
Peering behind her, she stared at the wall, at the hand shapes she sensed now urging her touch--and squeezed into fists the hands that had made them. "Hek chuf tal. Ha. Now I stay."
She rose. The embers had died. Performing The Sacred Act of Dispersion, Iba’s feet strewed the cinders, and puffs of ash flew up into the pungent haze of smoke that drifted toward the cleft high above.
With a yawn Jill stretched the thick arms, let them fall, and bowed Iba’s head. Closing the weary blood-and-ocher-streaked eyelids, she knelt and lay down. Soon she slept, lulled by the rhythmic breathing of the others of The Chosen, who now slumbered beside her in the primal stillness.
Eleanor DeHaai began writing short fiction ten years ago but writes only when the Muse taps her on the shoulder and says, "Hey, I have a great idea for a story! It goes like this..." She wishes the Muse would tap her on the shoulder more often.
Eleanor's story, "On a Summer's Day," recently appeared at the e-zine, The Harrow, and her entire story collection, which is posted at her web site, was selected as October Editor's Choice at BookWave. She is a member of the review board at the online writing workshop, The Phoenix (formerly The Short Story Workshop), and enjoys reading stories others have written as much as she enjoys writing stories herself.
For many years Eleanor worked as a fossil preparator at a large paleontological site. Her interest in prehistoric animals continues, and she and her son Darby, who is also keen on ancient critters, are currently working together on a story about one of them.
Eleanor lives in Wyoming with her husband, Lloyd, her small dogs Fritty Sue and Flower Lou, and her cello, Big Ol' Squawky Thang.
Published by permission of the author.