Derek gasped for air that wouldn’t go down his throat. Honestly, if his God hated him so much, He should’ve let Shào have his way. Let him strangle him to death or toss him into the sky high enough to kill him. Whatever he’d wanted, let him have it. At least then Derek wouldn’t have to die in this hole.
Heart beating, Derek scaled the cave wall again. He reached for loose stone while pretending that everything behind him, above him, and in front of him didn’t exist. He didn’t have enough space to take flight, and he wasn’t strong enough to climb up by himself. He was gonna die. The walls, closing in on him.
His grip faltered, and he fell backwards onto his ass. The ground was like concrete or cement or something unnatural. Well, unnatural to the Drail Kingdom. He’d never seen a place like it before.
He pulled back his hair. “Holly, what’re we gonna do? Do we, like, call for help? Do you think Shào will hear us? Where is this place, even? Some underground basement?”
Holly didn’t answer. She was trembling, her face going pale with every second they stayed down here. She had a hand to her heart as she stared up at the giant, circular door. It had etchings describing this place as a “fallout shelter.”
That phrase sparked something in Derek’s brain. It felt like home, a safe place he wanted to be in.
He was fucking losing it.
Holly backed up on her butt. Her ears were down now and her tail was flaring out.
“What’s wrong?” Derek asked.
She shook her head and didn’t stop. She kept blinking, scanning the walls, the dirt, the handlebar carved into the metal door.
Derek took a second to grasp how dire their situation was becoming. He didn’t know the extent of Holly’s condition or how much she understood about the world, but despite him panicking, he should’ve been focusing on helping her. She had the mind of a child—he, the brain capacity of one, with the toddler-like tendency to break down when things became too serious.
He moved closer to her. “You good?”
She got up, knees wobbly, moaning like she’d hurt something in the fall. He went to steady her when he remembered she didn’t like being touched and just spotted her. “Hey, Holly?”
She looked back at him with tears in her eyes.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt? ‘Ow,’ you know? Are you hurting anywhere?”
Hand still on her heart, she nodded.
“Okay, where? Can you show me?”
She palmed the gritty texture of the door.
The underside of her wrist glowed white, something in the door beeped, and with a thick pop, the door opened. Wet, metallic air poofed in their faces. Through the crack was nothing but pitch darkness; not even Derek could see through it.
Holly must’ve, because as soon as the door opened, she wedged her arm through the gap. The underbelly of the door dug through ancient sand and grime as she forced it open with her bare hands.
“H-hold on.” Derek tried to help her, but she was taller and more determined than he was. With just enough space for her agile body, she slipped through.
“Hey!” Derek cast a needy look back at the ceiling hole. Leaving out that way would’ve been so much easier. He sighed. “How did you do that?”
His eyes adjusted. On the other side of the door was a spiral stairway burying deep into the earth. The metal railings were bent out of place and discolored after not being used for years, maybe even decades. A few steps had become loose and made for dangerous pitfalls into the Underground.
Derek gaped at the descent, but he couldn’t linger for long. Holly was gone, the faint sound of her boot tapping down the stairwell.
“God damn it, Holly,” he cursed, and brought his wings in close for the trip down. Sure, he didn’t know if he was going to be trapping himself underground forever, slowly suffocating on his own breath, but he couldn’t let Holly die like that, either. She didn’t know better.
It felt like summertime down here, hot and congested with the smell of metal hurting his lungs. Halfway down the never-ending steps, Derek took off his jacket and wrapped it around his waist. Every minute got hotter and hotter.
Down, down. The only inkling he had of there being more stairs was Holly’s footsteps. When they stopped, Derek, scared shitless at being alone, jumped the remaining flights.
He landed on more concrete. He’d come to another basement level with another circular door. This one was already cracked open, but he couldn’t figure out how Holly was doing it. Her wrist had glowed, like something in her body was the key to unlocking the secrets of this place.
His stomach heaved. The door opened to a packed, cluttered hallway that looked like it’d survived an earthquake. Beams and wires were hanging from the low ceiling. Half of the walls were either blown out or crumbling from the weight of the mountain above them. Stubborn beams of sunlight found their ways through the ceiling, lighting up bags of garbage, broken pipes, and dilapidated stairwells. Everything either smelled of mildew or dead insects.
He followed the wires as a sort of map. This place had electrical energy, or once had it. Boxed lighting, coated in an inch of dust, but they were there, and that resonated with him. No wonder the Drail Kingdom had felt backwards when he’d first woken up. This place, weirdly enough, made more sense than horse-drawn carriages and royal castles.
A shiver ran up his spine. Did the humans know about this place? If they did, why were they living so far back in the past? The tech was right under their noses. Feet.
If they didn’t, then how the fuck did the world get so backwards without them?
Holly screeched and pulled Derek away from thinking. It’d come down a hall you needed three staircases to get to. They were cramped just like everything else here and cut in-between rooms, privacy abandoned. He passed through lounge areas with couches slumped against the walls, into bathrooms without stalls, the porcelain stained yellow.
Derek closed in his wings to take the tighter corners. It was like this place was made with either extreme budgetary issues, or small people. At points, his head hit support beams.
This new hall had rows of thin doors built within the walls. Some were left ajar to show off the clutter left behind. He saw bunk beds taking up all four corners of the rooms and rugs chewed up by rats. Some had desks or chairs, but there wasn’t much room for activities. It was like a group of people had hurriedly packed their lives into burrows and bounced.
One of the doors had been thrown open, letting go a single stream of light into the hall.
Holly had fallen to her knees in the center of one of the rooms. This bedroom had a cot, a small bedside table, and a baby crib. That was it. It all took up as much space as his old bed did back in the castle. Dead roses were strung up and tacked onto the walls, frail enough to come apart with a single breath. Someone had drawn on the dirty walls with bright crayons that’d faded with time.
Holly silently cried into the starchy bed sheets.
Derek waddled off to the side. While this was all vaguely familiar, it didn’t feel like his world. It felt like he’d entered a dreamscape he hadn’t invented. It was violating. “Hey, Holly?”
She shook her head, nuzzling her head into the blankets. One was a handknit quilt that was puffing out years’ worth of dust. The ends were torn from being untouched.
Derek took in this room with a more critical eye. The bedside table drawers were stuffed with pieces of paper. Strings and bags hung from the drawer knobs. A rattle was hidden underneath the blankets. Beside it was a stuffed monkey with pink blush marks. When Holly noticed it, she pulled down her sweater and stuffed it between her boobs to protect it.
He knelt down. “Holly, can you tell me what’s going on? Are there people down here? Did you…use to live here? You seem to know your way around.”
A tiny moan escaped from her lips, and she slowly turned on her hands and knees towards the drawer filled with trinkets and papers. She reached for them with a weak hand.
He helped open the drawer, but it was stuck on something from the lower drawer. He gave it a stronger tug.
Papers flew out about the room. Pieces of torn sheets, pamphlets, papers stapled together that now tore apart from being uncovered. One paper caught Holly’s eye and she snatched it out of the air like a cat with a fly.
It was a folded piece of paper with a child’s doodles on it. Two people stood side by side, one of which was clearly Holly: her striped and orange hair, her cat ears and tail, her handmade clothing. There was even an arrow pointing to her head that read “me,” indicating that she’d been the one to draw this. She was holding a baby in the drawing named Baby, fittingly. Around her were other stick figures of smiling, colorful people. Derek didn’t know their names or how to pronounce them, aside from one.
A tall, black-haired boy with horns and a tail, drawn with a long nose and cute, awkward smile.
Holly’s hands shook as she cried into the picture. Droplets of tears smudged the antique art.
“When did you draw these?” Derek then asked.
She shook her head, repressing her past.
Letting her feel, Derek flipped over papers to find the answers to his questions. Some were more of her drawings: castles in bright skies, girls in dresses, rainbowed and pretty.
Some were pages of writing. A lot of it was heavily-worded and typed out, each strange letter exactly the same. He couldn’t follow much of it—stuff about being careful about air quality and going outside for long periods of time, stuff about scheduling. There were some letters in the alphabet he couldn’t sound out. One page just had a long list of chores to do like sweeping and laundry with multiple checkmarks beside each task. Above it all was a date: 16/03/04.
He flipped the paper over and nearly dropped it.
It was a photograph of Holly. Colored, perfectly preserved like it’d been a snapshot of real life. She was smiling and had the life in her eyes she was currently missing. She was down here, in this “Second Beings’ Congregation,” but the place looked cleaner. Well-lived in, the walls intact for suitable living. Baby was reaching for her cheek just as the photo was taken, making her laugh unexpectedly.
And next to her, one arm wrapped around her, was Oliver.
Derek’s skin went prickly. It was like seeing a doppelgänger of the man he‘d gotten to know. He had the same face and eyes and nose, but his hair was parted differently. He was wearing clothes that didn’t match the current kingdom style. His jacket was sleek and modern, the fabric cut tight to his body, and his hair had this kind of gel in it that accentuated his curls.
Derek gulped. “Holly, what’s going on?”
She started moaning louder, holding down her ears and rocking. Her fingers dug into her scalp as she thought back to a history she didn’t want to remember.
“Is this where you grew up?” He began picking up more of the scattered pieces of history. “Is this how the world looked like before? It’s totally different. This’s…tech, right?” he asked, guessing at a word he’d known all this time. Pieces were fitting into place, he was beginning to remember: sights, sounds, the smell of metal and oil. “Tech, like technology? Lights and wires and stuff. You know about all that?”
She gulped. “This…”
Derek stood back, aghast. Her voice, it was so light. “Yeah?”
“This.” She held her head again. Remembering seemed to hurt too much. “I’m sorry, I think my brain is filled with worms at the moment. They make it hard to think.”
Derek held back what first came to mind. “Oh,” he then said. “Uh, that’s okay. You’re alright.”
“But I’m not. I don’t think I ever was.” She pulled up her sleeves to scratch her arms. “I don’t think I was born right.”
Derek squatted down to her level. He didn’t think he’d ever get on her “level”—the way she thought, how she spoke—but he was going to try. If he was honest with himself, they were a lot alike: People expected a lot of them, but they couldn’t meet their expectations. “Sure you were,” he said. “No one’s born wrong.”
“I believe I was. I’ve been told this several times.”
Derek helped her settle. “Do you know where we are right now?”
She doubletook the room they’d been in for the past ten minutes. “This was my bedroom.”
Derek fully sat down with her and opened up his wings for her.
She closed her eyes. “Oliver and I were born down here. This was our home.”
“A long time ago. Hundreds and hundreds, before everything changed. We lived here with Leader—” She suddenly covered her mouth as if she’d be sick. Something gurgled in her throat. It took her a minute before she swallowed it back down and continued. “He…we all lived with him down here. He said the world was too cruel to live in. He said that down here, we’d be protected.”
She closed her eyes again. “I was one of the only people in the world who wasn’t affected by it, because I talked to Deities. They said I was special, but I never understood it. They started testing me.” She was breathing harder now. “It wasn’t in my blood. They tried my head. It wasn’t there, either. They did so much to me, but they didn’t know why I wasn’t affected by their radiation.”
“The poison in the air, from what Shào and Maïmoú did.”
Derek’s heart leapt at the second name.
Holly turned to him. Her eyes were desperate, pleading for something he couldn’t give her. “I only wanted to leave. I’m only twenty years old, I didn’t know. Leah, she didn’t know. We couldn’t stop them from doing what they did.”
“Wait, what?” he asked. “I’m so lost. So people knew you talked to Deities? This was, like, a known thing?”
“Yes,” she said, hurried now, as if she were on borrowed time. “Yes, they knew. Everyone did. It was so awful. So many cameras and news people. Oliver and I, we weren’t used to it. We grew up here, sheltered. We didn’t know.”
“So what did Shào and Maïmoú do? Did they make the world like this?”
“They ruined the world with their fights. They hated each other, yet they could never stay apart.” She reached into her sweater for her monkey. She gnawed on its head. “I-I don’t want to see them fighting anymore, Oliver. I don’t want any more people to die. I wanna come back home. I’m scared.”
Derek pressed a hand into his forehead, trying to soothe his now pounding head. So much information was piling on top of itself, he’d need a solid day to wrap his brain around it. He still didn’t know why seeing Deities was so important, other than it making your life suck. “Holly, Oliver isn’t here. It’s me. Can you tell me again what—”
Dust and parchment pushed out behind him. A door opened, announcing new arrivals.
Two people had followed them into the fallout shelter. The man was small and looked in need of a shower. He had oily, greasy hair pulled back into a long ponytail with some type of fungus growing on his face. He floated a foot off the ground just like a demon, but it might’ve been due to the fact he was missing a whole leg, how could he walk?
The woman was tall, with braids pulled up in a messy bun and stress marks around her eyes. Her eyes almost glowed blue in the dark.
Gods, he figured.
“What the fuck,” the woman said, “are you doing here?”