Six Feet Under One Mile
by Ariana Dobrostal
She was there because she could burn the world between her fingers. I was there because I was a hero.
I’d never call myself a hero. No real hero would, right? But it’s not that I wouldn’t do it because I was so virtuous that even the slightest diversion from the right path would physically pain me nor so humble I couldn’t utter one word of praise on my behalf. No, I was none of these things.
What separated me from a hero was the lack of the core hero ingredient: good intentions.
I didn’t feel bad for not being a hero. Not many people truly were. I’m fairly sure admitting you’re no hero brings you closer to being one than trying to mask yourself with obnoxious displays of fake goodness. I knew many people like that in my village. They carried groceries for old people and donated bread to the orphanage, but once the real problem presented itself, they presented only cowardice and passivity.
Then from the shadows emerged an unlikely hero: Nacai Nonem, a no-name farmer with nothing to lose and no one to lose him. I was the perfect candidate for this mission: alone and worthless and belonging to the shadows. So, to the shadows, I went.
I went on a search for the wish-granting monster at the end of the cave. Tale as old as time, yet there wasn’t one person in my village that didn’t believe in it wholeheartedly. The challenge was simple: you enter the cave, find the monster at its end, and make a wish. Then you had to climb uphill back to the civilization.
Once you stepped your foot outside the cave, your wish was fulfilled. Just like that. Anything in the world could be yours. You had only one wish, but it could be anything at all. Yet, as long as people lived comfortably, they didn’t reach into darkness for gold. No one dared to risk their lives to reach their dreams. It’s only in times of need we reach for miracles.
“How deep do you think it is?” Izzy asked.
Her name was read as “easy”, but nothing was easy with her. She was the only fire witch left, orphaned since birth and in great debt to the village. She was the opposite of me in both looks and demeanor: fair, cheerful, and bright. The real hero, the fire to my shadow, and the pain in my ass.
“How could I know?” I said.
“I didn’t ask how deep it really is, just how deep you think it is.”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” I said. “I’m not a huge fan of wild guessing.”
“Come on, you have nothing to lose. By the end of this, we’ll either die or become best friends.”
“Or remain perfect strangers.”
She went silent, but I felt her unhappy stare at the back of my neck. I sighed, “I’d say around half a mile deep.”
“Only half?” She sounded even more disappointed than when I ignored her.
“The deepest cave in the world is only around one mile deep.”
I heard her steps grow faster and in a second, she was in front of me, light melting on her face. With the light coming directly from below at such intensity, she looked sinister, her eyes impossibly big and her teeth impossibly bright. She smiled widely like she knew exactly how to make a grown man weep.
“Why do you assume we’re not in the deepest cave right now?”
With that, she turned on her heel and skipped ahead, forcing me to follow her shadow.
She was like a little pixie of the cavern, jumping from stalagmite to stalactite and making shadows dancing on the walls, hunting you till you fall and haunting you when you sleep. I sped up just enough not to lose her, although it was hard to lose the fire in the dark, no matter how fast it flew. I enjoyed some time alone, even if she was just around the corner.
With a moment to think, I realized I wasn’t the biggest fan of caves. The terrain was pointy and damp, making me slip and stumble. It was the most uncomfortable slide in the world, slowly angled and high in friction. Even higher in humidity, dripping drop by drop and missing the value of water that carves its paths.
At least I had to admit that minerals created interesting shadows. If I was still a child, I’d be able to see shapes in it: a huge octopus stretching its tentacles or a tree losing leaves, or maybe a queen living in a different universe even if we breathe the same air. Or even a hero, helping me save the world.
Only, I was a kid a long time ago and couldn’t keep him, so I saw only rock icicles that could fall on me and spikes I could fall onto. I heard Izzy gawking at a statue of a ‘sleeping kitten’ and felt relieved at least one of us was able to keep their spirit, if not their sanity.
We walked down the same trail for what felt like an eternity. There were no splitting paths, no sudden changes in sound or scenery, just the same drops and sharp rocks surrounding one dull straight line. Izzy didn’t try to talk to me again, and enough time passed that I began to question whether I liked it or not.
But nothing could last forever, so at one point the light stopped escaping me. It waited, like the light at the end of the tunnel, only it wasn’t nearly the end. It was a slightly wider area, not bigger than my old cottage, but in comparison to a narrow track, it seemed enormous.
The number of minerals dwindled, leaving the room bare except for a flowstone centerpiece. Izzy sat right under it, letting each droplet fall on her forehead before it evaporates from her warmth. Her palms were hidden under two vibrant flames that did wonders to the glossy surface.
“Took you long enough,” she laughed. “I think this is a fine place for a camp, don’t you?”
I shook my head. “We have to keep moving.”
“You say that, and yet you can’t keep up with me,” she said. She giggled when I frowned. “Oh, come on, don’t be like that. Sit with me. We can eat something, chat a bit. Do you hate fun?”
“Maybe,” I sighed. “Alright, we’ll take a break.”
I sat next to her and opened our tiny supply of dried meat and bread. It might be the last one we’ll have, but the people left in the village had their last meals yesterday.
“Do you think it’s real? The wish-granting monster?” she asked between bites. She stared at me with anticipation, checking if I didn’t speak because of a full mouth. When she realized I didn’t, she continued, “Dumb question, of course. I know you don’t. You probably just did this because of boredom. Or spite. Or both.”
“I do,” I said. “I do believe in it’s real.”
She smiled. “So, you do? Why?”
“Because there had to be some hope left in the world.”
Izzy chuckled. “That doesn’t count. You can’t believe in something because of some pessimistic quote, it’s contradictory.”
“Why do you believe then?” I asked.
“Who said I did?”
“I know you do. The village knows you do. The whole world knows you do.”
She shook her head. “I’m not sure I do. That’s why I’m here – to find out.”
My jaw dropped. Izzy wasn’t as naïve as she seemed. Maybe no orphan was allowed to be.
“What would you do if it’s not?” I had to know. I didn’t know what’d I do if it was not real.
She took a long pause then grinned. “Then I’ll become one.”
I got my hopes up too high. I nodded to her with the notion that our conversation came to a close. I turned my back to her, and we crumpled on the floor next to each other, drifting to very different but equally dangerous dreams.
The reality was even more dangerous. One scream and I was wide awake, on my feet before my mind caught my body in a nerve net. Izzy was on the floor, struggling as a monster held her down. There were flicks of fire between periods of darkness when she attacked, but I couldn’t distinguish what an intruder was. Its shape wasn’t familiar.
Nonetheless, I jumped it, pushing it off her. Its skin was smooth as glass, cold as it too. I shivered as I regained my balance, but the monster had already hidden from me. Izzy jumped on her feet, propelling flames left and right. Fireballs were more intense but shorter than her usual flames. I saw sudden fragments of motion, flashes of the cave rotating around me.
“Please stop, we can talk, please,” I mustered in all the languages I knew. I squeezed my mind till it was dry. Nothing. It occurred to me too late that it might not have a language at all. I noticed it approaching me too late too.
The monster climbed up the walls as easily as we walked down the dusty streets. It flowed over flowstone, gliding like on ice, slowly but gracefully. Its skin merely existed.
I saw it more clearly as it lunged toward me, its antennas and shells moving in sync. It was an oblong bug, with translucent skin and millions of legs, some starting on its belly, not only on the sides. It was a bug the size of a sheep. All its organs wobbled inside it, held together only by the jelly of its flesh. They pulsated from the jump and they’d stop when they crush me.
Izzy summoned the whole underworld. Hellfire. I had to close my eyes to keep them. Blinding light could burn the whole underground and she didn’t care if she’d seal us here forever as long as the creature evaporated into thin air. Each of her fingertips burst a flame that turned into a fireball, flying steadily to its target. Only, it was a moving target.
I found myself on the floor with my vision blurry. My arm stung, my eye twitched and I felt the strong smell of burnt corpses. I wasn’t one of them, and that was enough to calm the buzzing in my mind. I heard all languages screaming in me, cursing me in a union, then priceless silence.
“Are you alive?” I heard Izzy ask. She didn’t seem concerned, maybe because she believed in me, maybe because she didn’t care.
“What happened?” I asked, trying to sit up. My eyes wandered, looking for the monster, but found something much more disturbing. My right arm was in shambles, the whole forearm burnt to the point of resembling cave walls. Seeing my own flesh that rugged and coarse made it hurt more and I fell back, breathing heavily.
“Nacai!” Now she did sound worried. She kneeled beside me and brought water to my mouth. “Drink. Breathe. I’m so sorry.”
I let the fresh water clean my throat, feeling I could drown it in with no regrets. Then I remembered we didn’t have fresh water. Or any, for that matter.
I spitted it out immediately, my sweet heaven becoming hell by the second. “What is that?”
“Monster water,” she said casually.
“Monster water?” I wiped my lips in disgust. “You made me drink from the monster’s corpse? First, you curse me with fire, then with water.”
“I drank it myself,” she said defensively. “It’s good. Better than the water we have left anyway.”
I remembered the water we had when we left – a bottle half empty. For some, it might have been half full, but I was positive no one would call it that by the time of the attack. Izzy saved my life and our water supply in one fell swoop.
“Sorry,” I said. “Thank you for saving me.”
She smiled. “Now we’re talking. I’m glad I saved you for that sentence alone.”
We put our camp back into the backpack and moved on. Even with my wound, we couldn’t rest one bit, I was painfully aware of it now. Every second crushed our odds, and they looked grim in the beginning. I wrapped my arm into a spare shirt, not the best solution, but not the worst either. I tried to block the pain by counting my steps.
The cave became more twisty, making it hard to navigate. Each tunnel split into many more. With every choice to commit to a certain tunnel, we took another risk, pilling up into infinity. Izzy brushed it off, saying that all roads lead to the same destination, but her voice didn’t sound right. She marked each entrance we walked through with a burned handprint, holding her hand patiently on freezing walls till she melted them.
The deeper we went, the less Izzy spoke. Even though we didn’t encounter any more direct dangers, her spirit was broken. She was a wingless pixie, moping beside me. She didn’t deserve to be like that. There was a price for saving my life and I was going to pay it.
“Were you afraid?” I asked gently. She jumped in surprise at my voice. “Of the monster?”
“So, you don’t want our every bonding moment to be by the campfire after all,” she laughed.
“Just answer the question,” I said.
“Not really,” she said. “When you control something that can leave thousands without a home, you are rarely afraid.”
I nodded. “Thought so.”
“Oh, actually, this is interesting,” she said, her spirits climbing the ladder. She opened her arms and her flames stretched, looking like a ribbon between her palms. “Want to hear a story?”
“Make it a good one.”
“Wait!” She grabbed me by my left arm. “You need to pay close attention to this.”
She opened her palms towards me like she was giving something to me. At first, all I could see were flames – magical and majestic and mesmerizing – but nothing new. Then it happened: the first ripple and then the other and another. The fire was alive. It infused with life before my very eyes.
“When I was little, I was always afraid,” Izzy started. The fire recast into a little girl in a simple style, but wild in motion. She ran along her palm, making backflips and cartwheels. “I was left alone. I never knew of security. Families in the village gave me a changing home. I was passed around like a doll everyone liked, but no one liked enough.”
The fire girl stumbled and fell, the cheerfulness from before exorcised. Her body started skipping again, but she didn’t control it anymore. Her small frame moved from side to side against her will, violently. Then subtly, her shape lost its roundness, becoming rougher. It was barely noticeable, but I noticed, and couldn’t notice anything else. Only her pointy features that once were smooth.
“I constantly felt the unease,” she said. “What if they abandon me? I knew only our village. Only they could protect me, but who’d protect me from them? Kids picked fights with me daily. I was an easy target, always polite and sweet, always doing everything so they like me, so they keep me for another day.”
The fire girl stood perfectly still.
“One day, I was playing with a group of girls my age at the park. I was six. One of them brought a new doll and we took turns carrying it. When it was my turn, she wouldn’t let me take it. She said that if my mom didn’t hold me, then I shouldn’t hold a baby either.”
I frowned. I knew where this story was going. It started for me when I was six too.
“I got so mad,” she said shakily, “that I felt my face burning. The flame lit up inside me – and it stayed. I reached out for the doll and the doll went up in flames.”
The fire girl did as well, her hair becoming the flame that consumed her. Fire killed by fire.
“After that, they behaved perfectly around me. After that, I didn’t hear as much as one bad word directed at me. After that,” she smiled, “I wasn’t afraid.”
She brought her palms together, signaling the end of the show, and created a normal flame in its place. I felt a sudden sting as it ended but was grateful I witnessed it. “It was beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Izzy smiled. “You’re getting better by the minute. What happened? I hit your head as well?”
My head hurt. After she shared such a thing with me, I wanted to share something as well. My chest felt hollow. I never thought I’d share my secrets with anyone, but I also never thought I’d end up in a cave with a chatterbox I didn’t hate. After all, after it’s over, we’d never see each other again.
“Want to hear a story too?” I asked and her eyes lit up.
“Mine won’t be as long,” I started. “Actually, it might be very short. But here it goes: when I was little, I was playing in a barn a lot. My father had a cow and having a cow was even rarer back then than it is now. I spend so much time with her, that I started talking to her. And, after some time, she started talking to me.”
“At first I thought I was crazy, then I tested it on multiple animals and travelers from far-off places and… I’m not crazy,” I said. “I’m a witch.”
Her eyes displayed no surprise, no shock, no wonder. They stayed positively happy, but not impressed. I never thought my biggest secret would cause such a weak reaction.
“I know,” she shrugged.
“You do?” I was surprised enough for both of us.
“Yeah, every witch can feel other witches,” she said. “Can’t you?”
I blinked in surprise, trying to feel Izzy’s magical energy, but only feeling the thermal energy she always radiated, the warmth intertwined with the very core of her being.
“No, I’m totally messing with you,” she grinned. “I just heard you screaming nonsense at the top of your lungs, and you don’t seem like the type of guy to scream nonsense, so I assumed they were magic spells.”
I sighed. “They were no spells, they were desperate pleas to the monster.”
“I know that now,” she said. “I know everything now. Except…”
I knew it. She was going to ask me to talk in animal languages and make a fool of myself. I braced myself for the weirdest animals I could think of, deciding on a whim that I’d give her one if she chose it wisely.
“What would you wish for if you had a choice?”
She didn’t choose it wisely.
“What do you mean?” I feigned surprise.
“If you didn’t have to save the village, what would you ask the wish-granting monster for?”
She was still smiling, but her posture got serious, more wooden. Like she turned into a doll. “Be careful with it. It can be anything in the world, so if you choose wrong, you’ll regret it forever.”
“To start my life anew in a big town, to be rich and happy,” I said readily. “It’s what I’d wish for.”
It’s not what I’d wish for. It’s what I will wish for.
“That was fast,” she laughed. “Did you think about it a lot?”
“As much as any other person who heard the story,” I said. “But it doesn’t matter now. Now it’s different.”
We arrived at another crossroad, this one consisting of only two tunnels. As she was marking the right entrance, I asked, “What would you wish for?”
She took a moment to think, then said more confidently than me, “Even if the village wasn’t in danger, I’d still wish for it to prosper.”
She finished the mark and turned to me. “Even if it isn’t perfect, it’s the only place I know. The place I love.”
I nodded. “It’s admirable, to be that selfless.”
She shook her head. “It’s not. It’s as selfish as your wish is, even more so. But it seems innocent.”
We walked in silence some more, with a new skill of mutual understanding. It was as if the rock fell off my chest. Maybe there was some merit in sharing your secrets and desires with other people. Maybe I only needed one language.
With silence, the pain returned. I managed to dig it under countless layers of distractions and words, but now it emerged on the surface, pushing me to the ground. The cloth I wrapped around it got damped from the liquid air, making it less painful, but felt more like a walking infection.
“Izzy, I need to rest,” I said. “My arm is getting worse. I need to inspect it.”
Izzy grabbed my other arm, ignoring my request. “Quiet.”
The silence was the opposite of what I needed. I needed something to save me from the pain, not push me into it.
“Can you hear it?” she smiled. “Tell me you hear it.”
“Hear what?” I heard other words again, words in languages I didn’t like.
“Water!” she exclaimed. “There is water near.”
“So?” My mind was a blank slate, my flesh a stained one.
“It means we’re near the end,” she beamed. “The water digging the cave, it has to end up somewhere. It will end up in the end, right? We’re near the end!”
I smiled. Through the agony, a silver lining found me and dragged me along. Even if my only wish at the time was to go home – to any home – I found the strength to keep moving.
We picked up the pace. I got dizzy as Izzy ran forward, always one step ahead. The ground became wetter. Our hopes became stronger. We were so close we could feel it, on our skin, in our ears, in our nose. Soon we’d see it too, see the great monster everyone knew about, but no one knew.
Izzy tripped on a puddle and fell, but the only thing she did was laugh. She splashed it around like a crazy person. For a fire witch, she really enjoyed the water.
“How long have we been down here? Hours, days?”
I smiled. “How could I know?”
After a few minutes, we were knees deep in water, rippling the floor with every step. My arm got huge, swollen like a soaked sponge. I felt the pain grow along with its source. But if I gave up now, I’d forever be that person who died a step before the finishing line.
“I can see it!” Izzy screamed. She sent more flames to the front, helping me see it too.
The wish-granting monster at the end of the cave turned out to be the wish-granting cave at the end of itself. The fully formed face stood in the wall, smiling blissfully. It was the last wall, the wall at the end. It closed the cave.
The face was pointy like the rest of it, Izzy’s shadows making it even sharper. Big eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones, eyes closed, but lips slightly parted. It would speak any moment. The cave’s lips opened slowly, painfully so, like they wanted to chew on me. Izzy was speechless and I couldn’t allow myself to be.
“Are you the wish-granting cave?” I tried the language I grew to like, but to no avail.
The face froze for a long moment before it proceeded to move. The water beneath it shifted like it was meant to run through its veins, lending it life. Waves splashed our legs, pushing us away and pulling us in. The face struggled to move, the rocks twitching unnaturally. Not that there were many natural things about the living cave that granted wishes.
Finally, something clicked and it was ready to start anew after long years of being forgotten. It picked up the pace and roared into our faces, blowing our hair like a wind. The sound it produced was menacing, mocking even, and I couldn’t understand it.
I brushed away all my fears and focused on sounds alone. Howling blocked my ears, sending shivers down my spine, but I listened. I caught every whisper, every gasp of air, hoping for real words to leave its mouth.
When they did, I wasn’t ready for them. “What do you wish for?”
My throat was impossibly sore. I translated my selfish wish into the ancient language I never heard before as easily as breathing but found talking hard. I breathed in and out, concentrating on the spot on the floor and hoping that the cave would be as patient with me as I was with it.
The flames weren’t as patient. Izzy put the fire out as suddenly as kids blew candles off their birthday cake. One second you saw it and the next you drowned in the darkness. My light left me in shadows.
“Make the right choice,” she said in a cold voice, “and I’ll light it up again.”
The air was freezing. Izzy was boiling. My arm devoured me. The floor was wet and my mouth was dry.
I licked my lips and turned silence into sound.