Once again, Kendra found herself right in the middle of trouble, and once again, the blame fell on her ridiculous sense of altruism. Why she always had to go and do the right thing, no matter the cost, was beyond her own understanding. Her parents said it was a virtue; most of her friends called it a pattern of mild self-destruction.
Zak, naïve and kind-hearted Zak, had always maintained that it was a calling.
His optimistic views on the matter weren’t hard to explain, since he was more often than enough Kendra’s self-proclaimed damsel in distress. This time, however, he had truly bit more than he could chew. Today he hadn’t gotten into a fight with the thugs down the street who harassed every kid in the neighborhood; he hadn’t summoned a trickster out of an enchanted jar and wasn’t able to force it back in.
No, today Zak had managed to get them both into trouble so deep that for once, Kendra wasn’t sure she could pull them both out of it.
Which wasn’t something that had ever happened before; for as long as she could remember, Kendra had always felt stronger and faster than most. She had dreams sometimes of another world where she had been chosen amongst all the children of her generation, one unique champion imbued with the strength to fend off the dark forces. And even though Kendra would have never considered herself a dreamer, over time it had sank in, this idea that she had the power to do things no one else could. The strength to change the world, or at least to protect the ones who needed her to.
Therefore she believed she was always going to win – except she wasn’t so sure now, she realized as she ducked another blow.
This ten-feet-tall demon with a hammer for a hand, she wouldn’t get rid of it so easily. And the fact that a few more just like him were observing the fight as if waiting to be tagged in – well that was more than just bad luck.
Kendra threw another hard punch against the creature’s stomach, but as her knuckles flared up with pain she noticed it had barely moved the demon. Rather than give up, she reached for a small crate behind her and managed to throw it at her assailant. As it broke open, an orange powder fell on the creature, creating a cloud of dry and spicy smoke around him.
With her eyes watering, Kendra tried to suppress the violent urge to cough, suddenly worried of what she had just done. She had never liked the idea of Zak toying around with magical artifacts, and had kept herself away from anything even remotely supernatural. In her small apartment on Bay St., her black cat and her expresso machine were all the magic she had ever needed.
Zak’s place, however, had been filled with strange gourds and boxes of powders of all colors. Each had a purpose that seemed to make sense to him, and he reveled in mixing them, in finding new properties his books had never been quite able to explain. The few times she had agreed to watch him work, she had been surprised by the careful attention between every gesture, as if any one of his ingredients could explode with one sudden move.
The orange powder hadn’t blown up, however – it fell to the ground slowly, still choking Kendra as it burned inside her throat and nose. Yet she didn’t have time to focus on that particular pain; the demon was lashing at her once again, barely bothered by the powdered cloud that still hung around him.
She quickly moved out of the way, seemingly dancing around the crates and the demons, avoiding every punch. It came to her almost naturally as she focused on her anger instead of the ache that slowly started to course through her muscles.
Never again, she repeated to herself a thousand times.
When Zak had turned his skin purple, she had helped him reverse the spell without a second thought. And when one of his experiments had backfired and bunnies had started to pop all over the place, she had offered her assistance too – hell, she had even adopted one of the furry little buggers. But this, this was way too much.
Only an idiot like Zak would try to open a portal to another dimension for fun, and then manage to fall in it.
And, Kendra thought reluctantly, only another idiot would follow through in the hopes of saving him.
One kick between the demon’s legs brought no more reaction than the hard punch in his gut, and Kendra returned to dodging hits, frustrated that she hadn’t found his weak spot yet.
The eyes, she kept thinking, but below the creature’s bald forehead she only saw two short slits, no nose, and a triangle-shaped hole where sharp white teeth confirmed the presence of a mouth. They were horrifically ugly, and Kendra pushed aside the panic that grew inside as she started counting how many of them she’d have to fight.
Still it was hard not to be overwhelmed when she not only had no idea of where she was – some cavern filled with crates and large sacks – but, more importantly, of where Zak had been taken. Although he had fallen in the portal only mere seconds before Kendra had jumped in, there was no sign of him anywhere around.
A short sword hang from the demon’s waist band and Kendra waited for the right moment to pounce, stealing it from him in one quick move. Something hit her lower back as she brushed aside, a little braver now that she was finally armed. She promised herself to always have a weapon on her from now on, no matter how many times Zak told her she didn’t need one.
“How about this, big guy,” she offered as her sword hit the demon’s hammer, cutting the flesh to reveal dark, nearly black blood. He hissed and groaned as the other creatures growled, but didn’t move. They were laughing, Kendra understood – fear squeezed her heart tight. “I grab my friend, we jump back through the hole we came from, and we all forget about this.”
The laughter only grew, but the creature Kendra had been fighting stopped moving. He shook his head, his strange mouth twisting into what she figured was a smile. “People come here many ways,” he replied with a raspy voice.
In all her life, Kendra had never been into a fight she couldn’t win. Even in her dreams, when she fought vampires and demons with this girl she didn’t know, whose name she could never remember in the morning, they never, ever lost a battle.
And yet now, she wasn’t so sure how she would get out of this.
“I can see why,” she joked, looking around at the bleak room.
There was a door behind that demon, but her eyes lingered on it a little too long, as she failed to notice the hammer that punched her once again. It fell on her shoulder and the pain rushed down her spine, blinding her momentarily while she struggled to keep breathing.
Ducking the second blow on instinct, Kendra plunged her sword into the demon’s gut. She would have triumphantly pulled it back if she hadn’t heard a light buzzing right above her head. Looking up, Kendra saw the bright blue light of the portal quickly fading, and something as cold and hard as a rock fell in the bottom of her stomach.
Her way out. Gone.
Just like Zak.
The demons’ growling laughter roared once again, but Kendra had no time to hear it. She jumped towards the door and pulled it open, revealing a long darkened corridor that reeked of burnt flesh.
She couldn’t hesitate – she stepped forward, ready to run. Yet all she could do was fall on the ground as something crashed against her head. Pain flooded her senses as sticky blood ran down her neck, and just as fast as the portal had vanished, Kendra lost consciousness.
“You talk about slaying like it’s a job. It’s not. It’s who you are.”
Her own words echoed as Kendra ran down the darkened corridor, her heart so heavy it seemed to slow her down. An invisible threat followed; cold hands with long nails. Just as she thought she had distanced herself from it, a figure appeared in front of her.
This long dress and that frightening smile – Kendra recognized the woman, yet she couldn’t remember her name.
“Look at me dearie,” the woman ordered. And then, almost gently, asked; “be in my eyes.”
But Kendra had to resist. Had to look away.
“Be in me,” the woman pleaded once again.
An unbearable pain flashed across Kendra’s neck and she finally woke up with a gasp. Choking on the dry air, she struggled to sit upright, her panicked eyes struggling to recognize her surroundings. The putrid smell made her nauseous and she winced, noticing her left arm had been secured into a sling.
Dislocated shoulder, she guessed, but the sudden movement hadn’t hurt at all. She frowned – numbness had seized her limb, as if it wasn’t truly hers anymore. Kendra shivered as she continued to push herself up on the mattress.
This room was considerably larger than the one she had appeared in, and apart from one demon guarding a door, there seemed to be only humans here. None of them looked in good shape; bruises, cuts and burns had marked their skin, some even missing a limb or two. Where bodies disappeared under blankets entirely, Kendra refused to let her imagination run.
Dimly lit, the makeshift infirmary felt more like a house of horrors, and for a split second Kendra almost hoped she hadn’t woken up. She had spent years praying for that recurring nightmare to leave her, but in this hellish dimension, the dream was familiar. In a twisted way, it reminded her of the home she wanted to return to.
“Where is Zak?” she questioned the old woman sitting on the next bed. Her throat ached at the effort and she pushed down the coughs that threatened to worsen her nausea.
The old woman shrugged. “You should drink,” she suggested instead, pointing at a glass of dirty water on Kendra’s settee.
Shaking her head, Kendra refused. “A man came here, just before I did. Where is he?”
For a second or two, the old woman’s eyes filled with pity, but it was soon replaced with annoyance. “You arrived here alone,” she insisted, rising from her bed to grab the glass of water. Her trembling hands brought it up to Kendra’s mouth, the gesture strangely bold despite her frail body. “Just you.”
Kendra used her good arm to grab the glass, a little guilty that she had troubled the old woman with her stubbornness. Under the old woman’s stare – and, she thought, the curious glances of the other humans around – Kendra sipped the greyish water in hopes it would quench her thirst a little.
Warmth spread throughout her chest as if she had swallowed a shot of tequila, but the liquid bore no taste or scent.
“There’s something in this,” she grimaced at her own naivety.
Nodding, the old woman pointed at Kendra’s dislocated shoulder. “Drugs,” she replied, pain etched across her face as she slowly spun around and returned to her own bed, mumbling something Kendra couldn’t quite hear.
Pain medication, she immediately guessed. It would explain why she couldn’t feel her left arm, but she was still weary of drinking any more of it. Placing the glass back onto the settee, Kendra looked around the room once more.
Furtive glances filled with fear and exhaustion, beds cramming up all the space except near the door where the demon stood guard; they were all prisoners here, Kendra confirmed. She wondered if she should ask them about where she was exactly, or why they were kept here, but she doubted she’d get any answers. Besides, from how they avoided her inquiring eyes and whispered nervously to one another, Kendra deduced her arrival wasn’t welcomed.
Still, she couldn’t stop herself from trying. “Do you know where my friend could be?” she asked the old woman, her heart tugging at the thought of Zak.
But the old woman only lied down and closed her eyes, turning around as if she hadn’t heard Kendra’s question.
Perhaps it was the exhaustion or the fact that she preferred cautiousness over recklessness, but Kendra decided to leave it alone for now. As her burning lungs slowly accustomed themselves to the rotten stench of the place, she sipped her water again. Silently observing the other occupants of the infirmary, she realized the old woman was the only one above the mid-thirties. Everyone else was younger, and in one corner there were even a few kids and teenagers chatting and pointing at her.
Kendra avoided their looks and focused on herself instead. She was still wearing the clothes she had picked that very morning, in another world. Her red tank top was stained with blood, and her black cargo pants had been torn near the knee. She emptied her pockets subtly, placing her belongings in one small line between the wall and herself, ready to be hidden under the blanket if curious eyes came her way.
Her apartment keys, a cellphone, her wallet and a pack of gum – that wasn’t much to put up a fight. Still, it was better than nothing.
One of the teenagers suddenly appeared by her side, startling her. Her reflexes weren’t as sharp, she realized as she rushed to hide her small treasure. The teenager’s smirk confirmed that he had noticed the move as he sat beside her, one of his feet on Kendra’s mattress, obviously comfortable.
“I know where he is,” he said with a shit-eating grin.
Zak, Kendra guessed right away. Her heart raced; “where?”
The teenager yawned as if he was already bored with the conversation. “Look, new girl – everything here as a price,” he suggested, his eyes avoiding hers.
He looked older than his age, but Kendra could tell his bravado was mostly an act. Behind him, in the far corner of the room, the kids had stopped talking and only stared in admiration. He had been dared to talk to her, she imagined. The chances of him telling the truth about Zak’s whereabouts were thin.
So thin that, if she had been back where she belonged, she wouldn’t have paid this teenager any attention. But she was in a new world, where she knew nothing, had no clue or where to start searching, and no weapons. A world where Zak’s life and hers depended solely on how well she would handle things.
“I will trade for the information, of course,” she matched his serious tone, the way he looked away instead of directly at her, as if it made the conversation less suspicious.
The demon guard, however, had barely glanced their way once, which told Kendra there was no need for secrecy. They didn’t expect anyone to break out of here, and it wasn’t hard to imagine why. Kendra recalled the long darkened corridor outside the room she had appeared in, and guessed a similar one awaited her outside of the infirmary.
Shrugging, the teenager crossed his arms. “You don’t have anything I want,” he lied poorly, one hand falling on the blanket besides Kendra’s hidden possessions.
From the poor state of the room and its occupants, Kendra guessed even the smallest thing would be considered enough to trade for the information. She barely hesitated before she grabbed the pack of gum, offering him one. The teenager frowned as he picked it up, staring at the stick as if he had no idea what to do with it.
Toying with the chewing gum in one hand, he cleared his throat. “Everyone who’s strong enough is sent to the mines,” he explained, rising to his feet. “If your friend isn’t dead, then that’s where he is.”
Without any other explanation the teenager returned to his friends, and Kendra winced.
There was no way to know for sure, she realized, whether or not Zak was still alive. She hadn’t seen him in that first room and he wasn’t here now; that could have meant anything, including that he hadn’t survived his first encounter with the demons. She swallowed hard, trying not to think of all those near-misses they had been through together. This world was harsh and cruel, and it didn’t matter that Zak was brave and cunning; he didn’t have much going for him here.
She imagined his glasses smashed on the ground and a puddle of blood, and shivered.
He was alive – he had to be. She had come here to save him after all, and she had jumped right behind him in the portal. She couldn’t be too late.
She simply couldn’t.
Over the next few days, Kendra observed the few comings and goings around the infirmary. Food rations were delivered once every morning – or what she guessed was morning, since she hadn’t seen the sunlight in just as long – and always by children. She guessed every human in here had some sort of labor to accomplish every day, but from what she had gathered most of them worked in the mines.
What they were mining for exactly, no one seemed to know.
Some part of Kendra longed for her shoulder to be fixed already, so that she could start plotting an escape more efficiently. Locked inside the infirmary, there was only so much that she could do. If the other prisoners had noticed her fussing around, they hadn’t spoken a word to her. They all shared that empty look in their eyes, as if they already knew what Kendra was furiously denying; that there was no way out of here.
It was Hell – of that, she was more than certain.
The way others described the work in the mines – tedious, painful, endless, – she truly shouldn’t have been looking forward to it. Yet it meant leaving this room, and potentially finding Zak, if that teenager she had spoken with a few days ago was right. In the back of her head, the more time passed, the more doubts nagged at her. Zak had never been very good with physical labor; back when they had been a couple, she had been the one taking care of everything around the apartment. Clumsy as he was, it seemed less and less likely that he had not been sent to the infirmary. Yet she refused to think of the truth his absence was screaming.
Kendra’s dislocated shoulder buzzed with warmth, the drugs in her water obviously still working their charms. It made her sleepy, and so she tried to avoid taking them as much as possible; already she had trouble keeping count of the time she had spent here. More than a few days, a little over a week perhaps, she guessed. But apart from the meals that tasted like cardboard, there wasn’t much to tell apart yesterday from today.
Except on this particular day, when the door had opened yet again to let the children through, it had revealed instead three more demons. Instantly Kendra rose to her feet, her fighting instincts kicking in. The tallest of the three, she noticed, had a dark brown scar where she had stabbed him with his own sword. She smirked at the sight, although there wasn’t much to feel cocky about; she hadn’t won that battle.
She had ended up here, with her arm in a sling, waiting for something to happen. And that was it, she realized as one demon pointed at her; it was time to leave.
Walking towards them with no rush, Kendra could feel the eyes of the small crowd staring at her. Although not unaccustomed to the resigned silence, it unnerved her this time. She glanced to the side, trying to find the teenager she had spoken with when she had first arrived, or the old woman, but couldn’t pick them apart from the others.
Soon, she had reached the demons, and she knew she wouldn’t come back here. Either she would die out there, or she would escape. There were no other options.
The tallest of the demons pulled out a knife. The blade cut the sling off Kendra’s shoulder but she didn’t wince, not giving them the satisfaction of knowing how scared she felt. She breathed down deeply, moving her left arm without feeling much more pain than a light twinge.
“You work,” the demon stated as if a condemnation.
Her heart beat faster as she nodded. Behind the threshold of the open door, a long darkened corridor seemed to spiral into nothingness. The slight breeze that rushed in was even warmer than the staled air of the infirmary, and yet she walked through it as if the heat wasn’t unbearable.
As if she wasn’t advancing, defenseless, down into the bowels of Hell.
While their footsteps echoed against the cavern walls Kendra forced herself to think of another place. The old sofa in her living room, the radio playing in the background as she’d read the newspaper. Orange juice – she would kill for some orange juice. Or any fruit, really; anything that would remind her of the sunshine outside.
Anything other than this foul smell that seemed to stick to her skin, and that left her sweating grossly. Her clothes glued to her skin and she wished she could stop walking for a minute and tear off the lower part of her cargo pants to turn them into shorts. She promised herself she would, and then felt a pang of guilt that she hadn’t thought of finding Zak first.
But none of it mattered when she took sight of the large hall she had been brought to. Down below and all around her, as far as she could see, rocks were thoroughly being pickaxed by the miners. Some workers seemed so far away that at first glance, Kendra thought they looked more like ants. Thousands of humans silently focused on their tasks, a few demons here and there keeping an eye on them – making sure none of them stopped working.
The noise of their labor echoed throughout this horrific cathedral, and Kendra suddenly felt very, very cold.
Trying to save people had always been such a dumb idea.