“Do you know where it is?” I ask Gerant as we walk deeper into the cave after getting some rest.
“I know it is in here, under the Dark Thicket, but I do not know the exact location.”
“How are we going to find it then?”
Gerant stops and looks at me. “We cannot find it. But it will find you.”
“Science has taught you the reason long ago.”
“Science? What do you mean?”
Gerant continues walking. “Opposites attract.”
“The Pratikan is my opposite?”
“That is correct.”
“Okay, so are we just going to walk around randomly and wait for it to find me? Is it a rock or an animal or . . .”
“It can only exist in a special space. Ttrowtos must have found a way to harness it. That is why he wants to take over the Dark Thicket now.”
“Gerant, the more you tell me, the more confused I get.”
The mighty creature beside me chuckles. “It will be clear to you when the time comes.”
“That’s what you say when you don’t really have the answers, right?”
Gerant’s chuckles deepen. “It is impossible to uncover all of the universe’s secrets. My wisdom and knowledge are limited.”
“Otherwise we wouldn’t be walking around in this endless dark cave searching for a needle in a haystack, right?”
Gerant chuckles. “Patience, Erika. All things shall come to pass.”
Rumbling sounds come from strange places and Gerant stops to listen.
“Should we be worried?” I ask.
“We got a head start but they can catch up quickly with their speed.”
“They?” My heart jumps. “Ms Pink?”
“Princess Pan Ni and Ttrowtos’s mutated beasts.”
“Oh, the army of mangy uglies are mutated?”
“Ttrowtos has experimented with dark energies and dark powers. His pack is a result of that.”
“So they would have been borens or yenews before they mutated?”
“A mix, yes.”
“And now they’re coming for us?”
“We are very deep in the ground now. And there are many paths. They won’t find us, but there will be trouble if they find the Pratikan first.”
“So we should hurry.”
“Yes, we should. Quietly.”
The air in the dark cave grows colder and colder to the point where I am almost shivering. But I try my best to tolerate the cold, knowing that time is of the essence. Gerant is silent beside me, his great hooves making little sound, much to my surprise. We move as quickly as I can, through the cave, sloping down most of the time. I have no idea just how deep we are in this thing but it certainly feels like we are going to the centre of the Earth.
The rumbling had faded into nothing a while ago but my footsteps resound in the cave and I wonder if Ms Pink can hear me. Half of me wishes she can while the other half of me wishes she can’t.
“Where did all the other creatures go?” I ask Gerant. “Will they be safe?”
“They have homes deep in the Dark Thicket. They will stay hidden. They only came out because I summoned them.”
“Do you think Ttrowtos’s minions can find them?”
“But Ttrowtos and his minions will kill them if they find them.” My heart chills. “How are we going to stop Ttrowtos?”
“You will stop Ttrowtos when it’s time to.”
“What if I can’t? What if I fail?”
Gerant rumbles with a laugh. “”If you fail to stop Ttrowtos, then it is meant to be.”
We plod on in silence the rest of the way, each of us thinking out own thoughts. The ground beneath our feet seems to be growing warmer and warmer as we go on. The heat seeps through the soles of my boots, reaching my skin and I can only hope it doesn’t become unbearable at some point.
Not long later, the heat begins to swarm all around us and not just our feet.
“Why is it getting warmer and warmer?”
“The heat is caused by volatile energies colliding.”
“Does it mean we’re getting closer to the Pratikan?”
“That is a sign, yes.”
My feet move faster at the thought of getting to the Pratikan before Ttrowtos or Ms Pink does. Even if I’m secretly afraid of what the Pratikan might be. And how I might fail on a massive scale unparalleled by any other stupid humans.
The thought of stupid humans depresses me again. Ms Pink. I can’t figure her out. Is she pretending to be loyal to Ttrowtos or is she actually after world domination or is she . . . is she bonded to him in some way? The image of their flames combining and dancing come to mind. Is that some kind of sign? I mean, they obviously are fire-types, that’s one similarity right there. Thinking about this makes me head hurt. And my heart too. It all hurts and I don’t want to think about it anymore. I’ll deal with it when it comes. Whatever it may be.
“Gerant, I’m feeling a little strange inside.”
Instead of stopping to check if I’m okay, Gerant hastens his steps. “Good. Keep going.”
“Are we getting closer?”
The strange feeling throbs, pulsing inside the hollow of my chest. It expands and contracts constantly, reminding me of what a heart does. Wait. It is a heart. My heart. Why is my heart palpitating?
The cave opens up into a mammoth of a cavern, big enough to house Ms Pink’s castle, and this is where the palpitation extends to my blood. It’s as though my blood has morphed into a million little worms inside of me. It’s everywhere.
“Gerant . . .” I gasp, bending over. My body wants to fold itself into a tiny ball and squeeze out these horrible feelings.
“Erika, you must stand tall.”
“I c-can’t.” And it’s the truth. Every inch of me is drowning in a sea of ants. Everything is wrong, inside. I want to take it all out. I need to get everything out. Empty myself. Empty. “What’s happening?” I’m about to sink into panic. “What’s inside me?”
“Look at the stars.”
“Stars? What stars?” I look up and see only darkness, a thick shadow over above me. “There are no stars.”
I look. And see nothing. Nothing. No—oh. A glimmer of hope beams at me from the darkness. The little light from Gerant’s little torch goes out and suddenly, I am staring at a billion little blinking stars. Awed, I forget about the ants in my blood and stare. They aren’t stars. I’m sure they aren’t. Hanging over head, all the way to the corners of the cavern.
“Gerant, I—” I stop and stare as my jaw drops. Gerant is digging with his great hooves, like a dog gone crazy over a bone. His speed is incredible and he sinks deeper into the hole he is digging in the middle of the cavern every passing second. Earth is flying behind him in the air, landing against the wall and falling to the ground. The pile grows like a time lapse video on fast-forward mode and suddenly, Gerant disappears completely, horns and all.
“Erika, come down here,” says Gerant, his voice sounding shaky.
I step to the edge of the gaping hole cautiously. A steep slope leads to Gerant, at the bottom of the pit. But before him, something shiny catches my attention. Like a luminous tube the size of a nine inch sandwich, it radiates a curious blue that shifts between purple and green, shimmering like an eel. “What is it?”
With a staggering heave, Gerant lifts his head to me and says, “Come and take it . . . I . . . can’t . . . do . . . it . . .”
“Gerant!” I scream as his great horns crash into the side of the crater he dug. “Gerant!” He can’t hear me. His eyes have closed and his great body slumps against the side and slides down to the ground. At once, I forget about the intimidating sandy slope and leap into it to down. I land on my legs but they buckle and I end up sliding down the slope, earth and sand getting in under my clothes as I go. Digging my heels into the earth, I manage to stop my descent just as I come within an inch of Gerant’s motionless hoof. “Gerant!” I run past his hoof to his face and give him a push. “Get up! Gerant!”
Gerant does not respond. With my vision blurred, I give him another push. Nothing budges. What am I going to do now? Why did Gerant collapse? Is Gerant dead? A cold grip takes hold of my heart and throttles it. No. Please, no. Anything but that. “Please don’t be dead. Please,” I sob. “Please, please, please.”
Come and take it.
Gerant’s last words hit me as I sit on my heels and cry. Take it. This luminous tube of rock? Is it the Pratikan? Running my palm over the luminous rock, it cools and sooths my blood. The ants that were inside me have gone away. My blood is oddly calm now, almost as though frozen in time. My instinct is to take it and run but what is going to happen to Gerant? How can I save him? There’s no way I can drag Gerant out of this place. I will need help.
The silence is broken suddenly. Footsteps are approaching rapidly and sounds of movement trickle into the cavern. Anxiety rising, I look between Gerant and the rock. I have a choice to make and I have to make it now.
But the rock is wedged in the earth.
Digging my fingers into the dirt, I pull at the rock but it doesn’t budge. It’s too slippery for me to grip it properly. “How am I supposed to take it?” I ask Gerant in hopelessness. “How?”
Look at the stars.
I look up. It’s darker than ever but I can just make out the little blots of twinkles. “Help me,” I say to them, pleading almost. Much to my surprise, the twinkles move, swarming down over my head. In a way, they remind me of captes—visible captes. “How can I take it out?” I ask them.
Stunned, I watch as they sink like a cloud of twinkles into the crater I’m in and hover inches around me. And just like before, my blood calms. Then, it warms. I look at my hands. They feel special now. Like a special pair of gloves. Instinctively, I reach for the rock again and this time, it comes out cleanly in my hands. The inside of the rock is glowing, flowing like a molten lava lamp. It’s beautiful, but I don’t have time to admire it now. The footsteps sound louder than ever. I need to get out of this crater.
Tucking the rock under my arm, I begin my ascent. The earth crumbles under my weight, slowing my progress, but I claw with my right hand and push hard with my legs. Up I climb to the top. I hoist myself over onto the ground above and lay on my back, tired out from the strain. But the twinkling ‘captes’ hum around me and I know I need to get going.
“I’ll bring help for you, Gerant. Please stay safe,” I say to the mighty creature as I stand.
“Put it down or you’ll be the one who needs help.”
My lips tremble. That’s a voice I know too well. Painfully well. “Ms Pink—”
“Leave the stone here, human.”
I lift my eyes, despite my great reluctance to meet hers. The sight of her angry pink eyes is just too painful for me to take and tears swarm in afresh. “I can’t, Ms Pink.”
Flames explode around Ms Pink and her pink trench coat. I cannot reconcile the familiar yet foreign sight.
“You have one last chance.” The flames climb another metre, intimidating the space between us. “Put it down and walk away if you don’t want to die.”
I take a second to ascertain what lies behind me as I bend over. Between my legs, I see the exit to a tunnel and I know what I must do. I touch the stone to the ground but instead of letting go, I flex my legs, grip it harder and dash off.
“Get the stone!”
Ms Pink’s frightening order chases me as I bolt through the tunnel. I can barely see a metre in front of me but the ground is even and I can just make out enough as I sprint for my life. The mangy uglies growl behind me, closing the gap much too fast for my liking. One of them snaps at my feet, tripping me over. My elbows and knees go diving onto the earth and the stone ends up under my body. Clutching it to my chest, I push up and attempt to run but the mangy uglies surround me and snarl as Ms Pink appears before me.
“You can’t run away from me.”
“I don’t want to run away from you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Promise you won’t kill the creatures of the Dark Thicket. Promise you won’t give this stone to Ttrowtos.”
Ms Pink pulls a bag from her pocket and opens it. “Put the stone in here while you’re still can.”
My lips are trembling as I say, “Kill me if you must. I won’t betray Gerant. I won’t give you the stone.”
Flames wrap around us in the tunnel and singe my skin. I shrink and crouch to dodge the heat, but it is everywhere, unavoidable. Ms Pink advances, flames threatening to consume me and I am reminded of the time she burnt me to train me up. Is this what it is? She didn’t want to hurt me that time. Does she want to hurt me now?
I have the craziest notion drop the stone and throw my arms around Ms Pink. All I want is for us to go back to the days of playful banter when Ms Pink would let me tease her and ‘punish’ me later. All I want is for us to be what we were before. In love. In so much love. But Ms Pink’s flames make it hard to breathe and I can see it in her eyes this time. She is going to take the stone and bring it to Ttrowtos. I know it for a fact, even if I don’t know how I know it.
“I won’t give you the stone.”
“I will take it anyway.”
“No!” I push back with my feet, putting a few more inches between us even as my heart splinters into multiple pieces.
Unfortunately, Ms Pink pounces, pinning me to the ground, flames almost blinding me at this point. “You can’t stop me.”
Wrapping my left arm around the stone as though it were my baby, I grit my teeth and say, “I can stop you.”
From deep within my heart, something breaks free. It is a fair exchange. Heartbreak for freedom. As the pieces of my heart fall apart and shatter, I feel the freedom surging within me. The freedom to shape my destiny. It flows through my blood, to my head, my eyes, my hands, my feet, everywhere. I’m pulsing with it. And just like the calm that settled in me just one night ago, another wave of calm descends.
Ms Pink puts her hand on the stone but I grab it with both hands and repel her from me with sheer will. Like an invisible army of hands, I feel the energy surging through my pores, bursting into the open. It knocks Ms Pink onto her back, out of reach. Getting back on my feet causes the mangy uglies to leap forward, snarling ferociously but with the same energy force, I expel and they slide across the ground away from me.
There is no better time than now to run. So I turn. And run for my life. And the stone’s life too.
Heart pounding, feet hurting, lungs bursting, I’m determined to run till I drop. I’ve never been the athletic type so it is really difficult for me now but I keep running. I’ll drop dead before I stop running. There is so much pain right now. So much pain, and it’s all because my body is working several times its limit.
When I do drop to the ground, totally devoid of strength to go further, thoughts cease to exist. All I can do is breathe as I lie on my back, hugging the stone tight. But after I finally regain my breath, a sobering realization lands on me as I look around my surroundings and the multiple paths forking out from the cavern.
I am lost.
Dead silence. After deciding on the path on my left, I stick to it and brisk walk through. But after a long brisk walk, I end up in the same cavern as before, recognizable by the four paths that extend it.
Oh no. I’m really lost.
Three more fruitless tries later, I am ready to cry all over again. All four paths I tried lead back to the same entrance to the cavern and by now, I am thirsty, hungry and ready to drop death at a moment’s notice. My only source of comfort, is the assumption that I had gotten so lost in this labyrinth, that Ms Pink and the mangy uglies are unable to find me too.
“Help me . . . someone please help me . . .” I mumble as I slip in between consciousness and oblivion. While leaning back against the stone-cold wall, my head grew heavy and my sight grew dim so I roll onto my side and try to get up keep myself awake. But despite my best effort, I am still losing consciousness every now and then.
“Oh my God. You can do better than this, Taeyeon,” I tell myself.
You’re right. You can do better than this.
I gasp in shock. “Who is it!”
I am Hyo. Madam Hyo. And I’m not gonna help you if you’ve forgotten who I am so quickly.