“We’re being watched. I’ll be back when its time,” the calico whispered as it passed her by. The cat darted off after something, perhaps nothing. Either way, Tokus Cassius continued to wait, thankful she wouldn’t have to walk just yet because her feet were still asleep.
She watched the neighborhood. After a half hour the lights across the street went out. A few minutes later, the cat came back, dropping a live mouse in the dirt by her bush. The mouse darted into the bush, saw Cassie, screamed, “ahh!” then darted back out. The cat playfully batted at the fleeing mouse, but didn’t chase after it. Rather, the calico yowled and ran to the porch. It took Cassie a moment to free herself from the bushes. She followed the cat’s example and ran. Shockwaves shot up her legs, the tingling in both feet got worse. In the evening silence Cassie’s footfalls echoed loudly, she cringed as each porch step creaked. Before she made the actual porch the door opened and a wrinkled hand beckoned her in. The calico tripped her as they both tried to slip through the door. Cassie muttered, “damn cats,” at the same time the calico hissed, “damn humans.”
The room was dark. A hand grabbed her elbow, she pulled back, “what th-” before she could finish the thought “shh” came from multiple voices. She heard movement all around her, but saw nothing. The door closed behind her. She clicked her tongue a few times trying to gain her bearings. The calico wove itself between her legs. She stood perfectly still, waiting for some new sign.
Lights came on, lamp by lamp, around the room. Three people and two cats stared at her while she blinked repeatedly, the dim lamplight hurt after the solid darkness. Cassie realized the cat weaving between her legs was not the calico, but a giant orange tabby cat. It looked up at her with crossed eyes. She couldn’t help but smile, reach down a hand, and coo to the cross-eyed kitty.
The owner of the wrinkled old hand shook his grey head and whispered, “that cat loves women,” he stared at Cassie a moment before adding, “so do I.” The other two people giggled which caused Cassie to turn towards them. Both were female, one could have been the twin sister to her teacher, the old Darin woman. The other might have been a daughter or a niece. They were in a quaint little sitting room with a lamp in each corner, a small fireplace against the far wall, the couch and loveseat were in the shape of an L. The walls were adorned with pictures of cats, none of whom were present, though the one over the fireplace might have been the sire of the cross-eyed kitty that continued to rub itself across her shins.
The old fellow walked to a set of swinging doors, entering a kitchen from what Cassie saw through the swinging doors. He popped his head back into the sitting room and said, “well, ladies, we haven’t got all night. Are you coming?”
The three of them followed him into the kitchen, where he opened the pantry door, heaved a bag of potatoes, lifted a makeshift hatch, and then descended down an unseen ladder. Cassie’s stomach lurched once the old man disappeared, something felt off. The hair on her neck stood upright. She couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong, so, she crept into the pantry, and peeked down the hole. The old man’s head was visible. Though she doubted the wisdom of doing so, she began the descent. When she reached the last rung, she saw the old man haloed in a lamp lit dirt tunnel, his hands in the air. Behind him were five masked men in the dark grey uniforms of Poterit Dan. As she realized she’d fallen into a trap, her left wrist flashed red, she was immediately enveloped in the warm green light of teleportation.
She stood on a ledge, on the side of a cliff, with the roar of the Sovereign Sea filling her ears. The light of the full moon shone on the fissure she’d opened and closed earlier. Thick salty air covered her arms and face. She could feel the high pressure front moving in. Lightning flashed over the Iphigenia Mountains. Cassie worried about the family she’d left behind. Had they known the passage was compromised? Would they be killed? And, perhaps least importantly, what would happen to the cats?
The young woman knew of no better place to harbor her from the ravages of sea, salt, and wind than the cave she’d entered earlier that day. She reopened the fissure, repeated her protection ritual with one distinct change: this time she put the sage stick on the ground inside the cave. With her teleportation abilities in full swing, she felt brazen, imagined herself in Mercury’s chamber and a flash of green later she arrived. The triangular walnut and glass table sat where she left it. She stepped up to the table, dropping her knap-sack down as she went. Cassie hoped to find out what happened to the family she’d involuntarily abandoned.
Cassie placed her right hand on the eye with wings on the table’s cool glass, disappointment creased her brow. She scratched her head with her left hand. The bracelet shifted. Dumbstruck, she put her left hand to the glass. Nothing. She looked at the winged eye on the wall, thought about her prior experience. After placing her right hand on the wall’s winged eye and her left hand on the table top, the wings flapped and the eyes blinked. This time she did not jump. The glass clouded until it mirrored her face on its surface. The mirror flickered, a tall boy appeared wearing the same grey uniform as the masked men she’d just escaped. He muttered, “storm,” and veered off a dirt road. The girl noted how he slowly moved through the thick trees keeping to as straight a straight path as possible, obviously headed towards an unseen destination. His feet dragged, leaving marks in the underbrush.
The image swirled away, replaced by a short man in a toga with a dark green belt slung around his waist. He spoke to an older gent in purple and gold robes. The purple-clad man used his arms as if they were extensions of his mouth. His voice echoed in the penta-walled chamber, Cassie recognized it immediately.
“You approached the Phoenix Rose? At sunset? You dolt,” purple-clad man started in, “I told you to never go near there as the sun sets. What were you thinking? The Kaiser and my damned servant are there every day. Sometimes, you’re an obstinate twit.”
“I had good reason,” Meranti defended himself, “I read tales of the creative muse being released when one beholds the Phoenix as it rises. I only sought this influence to assist in our search. If we’re to find Mercury’s lost artif-”
“Meranti, you risked everything for an upper.”
“I-” Meranti fell to his knees before the other, “father, please. I can find anything in those walls. Just give me more time.”
“Time is the one resource I don’t have. Leave me. And, for Mercury’s sake stay away from the Phoenix Rose. In fact, keep your ass out of the fucking Gardens.” Chief Justice Fraunx Adonis turned his back on his son. As Meranti rose, the triangular glass table top swirled until an old one-eyed fellow with blue hair came into focus. He sang to the uniformed young man she’d seen walking in the forest. While the young man slept, the old man’s song floated through the tri-legged table, magnified by the complete silence of the room:
“Rex the Gryphus transforms before their eyes.
Rebel knees bend, heads bow, no one apologizes.
Doubters find no solace, not a bit of relief.
Get what they want, then cry with disbelief.
“Returned to form, a mad king unsheathed his mate,
athame held high, sun glinting on Faith's bloody fate.
Rex Gryphus, last of his line, raised the little knife,
in sad vindication he sliced, ‘I die without my wife!’”
She watched as the old man reversed a spell, the small shack deteriorated before her eyes. From an old chest, he pulled out bones which he set up next to the sleeping uniformed man. He placed a silver box under the rib cage, sprinkled ashes from the fireplace around. Once he finished, he leaned over the still sleeping man, and whispered, “perhaps, one day you’ll understand, son.” Rain drops drummed a steady rhythm on the old shack, thunder trumpeted through her head, a bird’s caw echoed through the chamber. The girl fell onto her rump, letting out an exhausted sigh.
Tokus Cassius yanked at the knap-sack to make an uncomfortable pillow. With her eyes closed, her mind turned like sprockets on Eternity’s clock. She unconsciously fingered the bracelet. Before long she grew tired of waiting for sleep. Digging through her make-shift pillow, she found a small piece of candle and matches. She lit the candle, then walked to the table. Rather than inspecting the table she looked at the wall where small etchings about four feet off the ground drew her attention; all the walls were covered in them. The girl followed the carvings around the room. When she reached the third wall she noticed the carvings created an arch. Instinct told her that she could pass through the arch, but for the life of her she did not know how. She caressed the wall trying to ease its secrets from the etchings. No muse spoke to her.
After digging through her carry-all, she withdrew the phoenix and dragon emblazoned athame. The only thought she had, while picking at the wall, was of scratching her way through. On an impulse, she scratched the symbol from the rune she’d first pulled from the Sage Gryphon’s pouch. No luck. Without knowing why, she added an infinity sign. The ground shook. The wall moaned. Cassie prayed the earthquake would spare the room. She didn’t care to be buried alive. No, that was definitely not on her top five. When she opened her eyes the arch had opened. She threw her pack over her shoulder, sheathed the blade, held the candle over her head, and took a deep breath. With the courage borne of curiosity, the girl walked through the archway.
Even with the feeble candlelight close to the roof, the darkness ate up her world. The tiny bright spot in the void gave her strength, or balls, either way she marched on. She fell down a set of steep stairs some fool had hidden in the black. After shaking off the fall, she quickly realized the stars she saw weren’t from the candle. In fact, the candle was gone. A warm sensation pulled her attention from her stunned brain to her arm. The bracelet glowed; green and red bursts of light bounced across the walls; laser beams on facing mirrors. The tunnel lit up like neon pulsing on the Gambling Strip. Each step took her farther down the hall, yet the end never appeared. She trudged on for the better part of an hour. Her entire body ached from the fall. Her eyes burned in the foreign beams.
“I’d give anything to reach the end of this blessed tunnel,” she whispered. The pain of her words ripped across her eardrums. She covered her head with her hands, fell to her knees, and waited. Tears fell. She could feel something seep down her jaw bones, meet at her chin, and drip onto the dirt floor. The ground absorbed the drops of blood as quickly as they landed. The ground shook gently. Sand and dirt clumps fell from the ceiling. The walls vibrated, dust and grime became a whirl of filth which threw Cassie into an uncontrollable coughing fit. Tears forced out of her tightly shut eyelids streamed down her bloody dust-covered face.
When her hacking subsided, Cassie opened her emerald eyes. The view alone would have taken her breath away, unfortunately, dust beat sight in taking precious breath. She preferred the breath-taking scene to that damnable dust. As the matter stood, she kept hunched over steadily trying to return to normal breathing while gawking at an enormous waterfall. The entrance lay along the bank of an underground river. The mouth of the river swept quickly past; its waters forced into movement by the strength of the falls. All she could hear was the deafening roar as the falls spilled hundreds of feet below her. From where she stood, she could see mind-blowing rainbows. Everywhere she looked light hit the splashing, churning water creating a mist color wheel enthusiasts would envy. She breathed deeply the sweet aroma of nature, of water, of her freedom. To her left, a barely recognizable mostly grown over path wound its way down the cave cliff to the river below. Cassie walked the path until it stopped at the tip of a huge slimy black and green rock protruding over the river, as if the cave stretched out a hand.
Recalling the stories from old woman Darin, Cassie knew that just behind the waterfall was a tunnel that would lead her back to safety. Standing on the edge of the slippery rock, Cassie levitated, quickly rising two feet. She hovered over the river, slowly making her way to the violent falls. With pure nerve, she focused her thoughts on passing through the surging water. The steady downpour pushed and simultaneously shoved her. She lost focus and fell into the wrenching torrent gurgling beneath her. Controlling every aspect of her existence, she forced herself up through the churning waters. Free of the vicious waters, she found herself ecstatic to be oozing water and snot from various orifices. She also didn’t feel like she’d ever need a bath again.
The crone watched in silence, grey eyes bore through Cassie. The old woman nodded, smiling through tight lips. She motioned for Cassie to follow her down the tunnel that was well lit by torches spaced every 20 feet. Torch light danced comfortingly off the grey marble walls. Cassie followed as they passed intricately carved cherry doors. The girl nearly broke her neck staring at the underbelly of a sparkling silver arch which opened into an antechamber.
A Catahoula cur, brindle with white socks, slept on a hand-woven rug lying in the middle of the small room. When the girl entered, the cur rose, stretched lazily, sniffed the air, and cocked its head curiously. Though a dog, the beast stood with a calculated confidence; the stance of a king. Curiosity got the best of the animal, it grinned in a look that could be mistaken for a snarl, then bounced playfully towards her. The cur bowed down to the girl, but never peeled those penetrating grey eyes from her. Cassie responded delightfully, as a daring child will, she was instantly 10 again. She bowed. The Catahoula cur danced and leapt at her. The dog shoved its nose straight into her ass which caused her to jump, spin and drop in a heap where she remained curled up laughing trying to protect her face from lavish sloppy wet dog kisses. She gracelessly pounced on the dog and rolled onto her back.
“I guess you approve,” the shrillness of old lady Darin’s voice abruptly ended all joy.
A snort, a sniff, and an about-face brought the dog back to the rug. After three turns the beast flopped down, crossed forepaws in an exaggerated movement and sulkily put its head down. It stared in the direction of the crone.
“You’ve done well, girl,” the voice pierced Cassie’s mind.
“Aye. I’ve gotten lucky today,” Cassie replied.
“And?” Razor blades sliced the girl’s conscious thought.
“And, I never got to find out. There were men there.”
“And, how did you get here when you were there?”
“I don’t know. I just appeared at the cave.”
The old woman smiled a broken smile, “do you know who you are, girl?”
“That’s one of your names. Do you know who you are?”
“I guess not.”
“You’re the Messenger.”
“Messenger of what exactly?”
“Do you know nothing? Messenger of Mercury. Girl, remember the lessons I taught you? What did I tell you about Mercury’s Messenger?”
“The Messenger finds and uses the artifacts. Speaks for the Gryphons. Um, and, um. Oh, and seeks the truth through Mercury’s eyes.”
“So you do remember your lessons.”
“Yes, Ms. Darin. I remember everything you’ve taught me.”
The old woman chuckled, “so you say.” she grabbed Cassie’s shoulder, “your lessons are not over, but there’s not much left for me to teach you. Now, it’s time for you to teach me.”
Ms. Darin sat down on the rug next to the dog, “start with telling me what happened at my sister’s house.”