Juniper plummeted into the pit. Wind tangled it’s fingers in her hair and wrapped it's gangly grip around her limbs. It yanked her head back to prostrate her above a distant ground, whereever that may be. So small was she, in such vast a space, that there was no echo when she screamed. The sound was simply lost in the sullen darkness and the eager winds.
A burst of golden light bubbled up worryingly close to the Dryad and she tensed, anticipating a scalding torrent of steam. Instead, she collapsed into a soft cushion of fluffy golden smoke. The air tasted of salt and mustard. The raking claws of wind released her from it's grip and the warm bubble around her began to rise. Though Juniper felt like she was ascending as fast as she fell, the cushion of gas shielded the worst of it. Slowly, Juniper opened her eyes once more and relaxed from the tense star pose she had been holding. So engrossed was she in the impressive vista that she forgot to be scared for the briefest moment.
Multiple strata of buildings and structures implanted into the cavernous walls flew past, each in various states of ruin. Crumbling pillars mixed freely with astonishingly whole shacks and the sagging remains of saloons. Some structures were entirely alien to her, such as a broad array of orb-like capsules on stalks that sprouted from the wall like flowers. Her eyes traced the impossible stack to the roof. There, she could see a concrete behemoth of a skyscraper acting as a keystone to the cave. She could just make out a broken window in this horizontal structure, a dark patch in the dark ceiling, and realized with a sinking in her stomach that she was heading right for it. The tiny fae rolled herself smaller in anticipation as the ceiling loomed closer.
The Dryad shot through the window and into a narrow, twisting tunnel, her pointed ears popping with the pressure difference. Her trip went from leisurely float to something closer to a cork released from a bottle. She curled tighter as she tipped and tumbled through the narrow, polished channel of trash. She plinked about for a few dizzying moments, then let out her held breath upon impacting a metal collinder, marking the end of her trip. Juniper blinked through the rushing gas bursting past her to spot a small landing where Gummy sat expectantly. A moment more and the pressure released and she leapt onto the platform with a tumble.
“Never!” she screamed, “Again!”
The Dryad slowly unrolled herself flat on the ground and took a deep, shuddering breath… then threw two fists into the air.
“Hoo,” She breathed, kipping back to her feet, “Okay, maybe again, just not… anytime soon, yeah? Way too realistic!”
Gummy gave her a broad, uncomprehending smile, his flat tail slapping against the rickety structure and causing the whole thing to shiver.
“Woah! Chill, chill!” she cooed, then gestured Gummy over towards a large, round hole tunneled into the burnt debris. The tunnel curled upwards and out of sight and had dozens of branches all directions, including a few that dropped straight down. Each side tunnel was equally sized and shaped to the path she was on so that, whenever she glanced down a side tunnel, it looked like it could be the main path. It was thoroughly disorienting and would be downright impossible to traverse if not for a golden light at the end of the main path.
“Hope this isn’t a metaphor…” Juniper grumbled as she walked towards the light.
Wonder and curiosity washed over the Dryad as the pair stepped out of the tunnel, both from herself and Gummy’s persistent psychic broadcasts of his emotions. They blinked, their eyes adjusting to the sudden light here. Not only was the spacious cave bathed in warm golden flames, but it was also awash in cold fluorescent lighting. Juniper gawked at the buckling roof barely supported by a big concrete overhang, which in turn was supported by steel pillars and gas pumps. A boxy blue truck sat pinned under the roof, its body pressed to its wheels by the weight. Behind that, a small minimart sat, mostly undamaged, with an oddly proud “open” sign flickering in the door.
“They’re open.” Juniper remarked flatly. Gummy had already lost interest and was busy manifesting ooze from his face in an attempt at putting out some of the fire lacing the walls. “Just… just stay in here, okay? I’ll be right back!”
Juniper took a wide berth around the strange gas station, all the while sweeping the ground with her eyes for fire. These flames weren’t right and she was determined not to find out exactly how. A shimmer of rusty red against the blue and gold in her peripherals caught her attention and she took a brief moment to glance at what it was. She did a double take, freezing with mouth agape as she took in the grizzly tableau in the grill of the truck.
There were no pieces, no flesh, but an incredible amount of blood washed liberally across the face of the truck. The grill had a massive dent in the center, a vertical line where a body had once stood. The edges of the metal had folded in around the dent, curled and split like the wings of some industrial butterfly. The dent was the right height. The truck was the right colour, the right shape. There was no doubt.
This was the truck that had killed her.
Juniper shook her head slowly. It hadn’t killed her, she argued, or else she wouldn’t be here. Reasonably, death was the end, so this was something else. A dream, maybe, possibly even the moments created in panic by her brain before death itself. Then again, there was very little reasonable presented so far… Juniper shook away the thoughts, tearing her gaze free at the same moment.
As she turned away she noticed the side of the truck had split from the weight above, letting loose a small avalanche of mundane goods. The Dryad avoided even so much as looking at the front end, instead hustling past to hungrily eye the spoils. Though much of it had caught the golden flames, there were still treasures to be taken, comfort items she could bring up to horde by her tree. Hair brushes, mirrors, blankets, even a cracked TV screen perched in the back.
A panicked emotion broke through her musing over how to use the TV and she shook her head. She realized it was Gummy, and that his panic was mounting by the moment.
“Hold on, squishy, I’m coming!” She shouted, then dove under the truck and charged through to the other side. The emotional barrage was ever more urgent as she rounded a wheel and came face to face with a monstrously sized ant.
“SHIT.” Juniper spat through gritted teeth, leaping back as it lunged with mandible wide open. Further into the cave, Gummy nervously floated inches above the waiting jaws of two more. Each were the size of small cats, but with how tiny Gummy and Juniper were, they were like bears.
The monster closest to the Dryad lunged once more and she quickly scooted under the low-slung truck, wedging herself in the wheel well so she could see the battlefield and come up with some kind of plan. Any kind of plan would do.
Gummy pinballed desperately between a few higher points in the terrain, his telepathic floating slowly lowering him in a glide towards curious pincers with each bounce. The two chased him, but avoided the fires by a wide margin. It gave Juniper a idea, though she was already prepared to admit it was not a very good one.
The Dryad climbed down carefully towards the ground, experimentally trying to focus her attention into the soil to once more attempting plant magic. To her surprise, a weak tendril bravely pushed its way up before collapsing with a shiver. It was enough. She firmly grasped the struggling plant and with a great heave, plucked it by the roots. She quickly, but carefully, dipped the plant into one of the fires, then once more stepped out from behind the wheel.
“HOO-AH!” Juniper shouted suddenly, leaping forward and stomping with both feet, her arms raised high as she could to appear bigger. She clutched the burning vine in one hand, weakly brandishing it with the most ginger of swings. The ant-creature seemed nonplussed until she whipped the vine down across its leg with another, “HOO-AH!”
Instantly, the monster leapt back twice its own length. Without hesitation, it plucked off the burning leg and tossed it aside, then turned it’s menacing gaze back on Juniper. She remembered these little workers, at how vicious they could be, yet she was still impressed with this move.
She gave it an acknowledging nod and brandished the vine once more. The creature reared back, rubbing its middle legs together in a big X. A terrible screeching filled the cave like hundreds of apes being passed through a paper shredder. Despite trying as hard as she could to resist the sonic barrage, Juniper slowly dropped to her knees, the vine falling to the wayside as she gripped her ears. The other two paused in their pursuit to join in on the audio onslaught and the first crept closer, its jaws opening wide.
A blast rattled the cave, cutting off the shrill chirping and causing one of the monsters to explode across the wall. Juniper tucked in and rolled forward, grabbing the vine and swinging it over her head. She quietly made an energy-sword noise under her breath as the monster dove for where she had just been. A second blast pierced the third ant-monster through the head, driving it to the floor with the force.
“Darn scorpions.” a voice said, just out of sight. Juniper could barely hear a set of footsteps retreating to the mini-mart over her ragged breathing. Behind her, the first ant monster curled in on itself, shivering in apparent pain while assuming an insectoid death pose.
“I… I did it!” Juniper crowed, jumping up and once again throwing two fists into the air in her elation. She boxed her fists excitedly at the twitching insect, dramatically shouting, “I live!”
The otherworlder turned to smile at her companion, arms wide in a gloating stance, but found the wind once again knocked out of her. Gummy flew in hot, barreling into her chest and knocking her to the ground. He shivered, though his emotions remained oddly silent for the moment.
“Yeah, okay.” She chuckled softly, relaxing against the pavement and stroking a hand over the broad axolotl head. They lay like that for a few moments until the small amphibian had stopped shaking. “Alright, you good? Let's go see who rescued us, huh? She called them - ”
Realization dawned on Juniper and she sat up suddenly, dragging her companion into an awkward pose in her excitement. “She said damn - no, ‘darn scorpions’, I recognized it! That’s English!”
Gummy wrestled free from her suddenly tight embrace, his face once again beaming with vacant excitement at her own. He bobbled along behind her as she dashed over the fallen monster, under the truck, and across the parking lot.
“They’re open!” She cheered, running up to knock on the sliding door.
“Theyre… Open!” She announced, running up to kick the sliding door.
Gummy landed and took a seat to watch her
“They’re… OPEN!” She insisted, running up to slam herself into the sliding door.
“They’re…” She roared, running up and falling through the open doorway.
“Hello?” Came a voice far above.
When flying, it was hard to really notice the difference in size between her and humans. However, stuck to the ground, it was all she could do not to get bodied by a careless step. The door slid closed once more as a set of sensible flats nearly flattened Juniper. A sobering thought struck her as she realized there was a chance this person could accidentally kill her… for a second time. Gummy barely made it and had to turn sharply to pull his tail in from being caught in the sliding plexiglass. The giant, the person, turned away with a worried shrug.
“HEY!” Juniper shouted, scrambling to get up against a nearby counter where she was safer. “Watch it!”
“The… dickens?” The person said, turning to look behind herself. She was wearing brown capris and a comfortable sweater, though both were ratty, worn, and hung off of her wirely frame like a tent. She appeared to be middle-aged, with mousy brown hair and coke-bottle glasses. However, the pistol in her hands ruined that image of a mousy, post-apocalyptic librarian.
“Down here!” Juniper shouted at the top of her lungs, waving her hand while Gummy paddled his tail against the counter. The other-worlder turned and lowered herself to one knee to see them better. As she got closer, Juniper could see a golden flame had enveloped her right eye.
“That’s new!” The human chirped inquisitively and offered an open palm for Juniper and Gummy to climb up on. They obliged and were brought up to the countertop while the human stood. She proffered her finger, “Nice to meet you, I’m Kelly.”
“Nice… to meet you too! I’m… Well, I’m Juniper now.” She responded hesitantly, taking the finger and shaking it, then continued in a rush, “Well, I say now because I was someone different but now that I’m here - cause I’m from Earth too! And - and sorry, I haven’t talked to anyone in, like, a few days, but it’s actually been months, but it feels like d-”
Kelly held up a hand with a soft laugh, shaking her head.
“So this isn't Earth after all! Well, it sounds like a lot, but I’m sorry, I can’t stay and chat.” She crossed the ratty minimart and backed herself up against the nacho bar in order to slip under the straps of a well-filled backpack. “I’ve got to get to the surface.”
“You know the way?” Juniper asked, her heart already beating faster at the prospect of open sky once more. Kelly’s face tensed, then fell.
“Well, no, but I’m close.” then she lit up once more as she toddled towards the door, “Almost there! Shall I leave the light on?”
“No!” Juniper stammered out, rushing along the counter to keep up as the lights suddenly dimmed, “take us with you!”
The backlit silhouette paused, her wild explosion of frizzy hair catching the gold flames in the windows as she considered.
“I guess that makes sense.” She offered a hand once more to deposit the Dryad on her shoulder. Gummy settled on the top of the backpack, falling asleep in moments. “All aboard!”
“You’re not surprised about, y’know… me?” Juniper asked carefully, her tone casual as she could make it.
“Frankly, when you’ve been down here a spell, you get used to the occasional oddity.” Kelly chuckled. Bells above the door jingled as she respectfully turned the “open” sign off and shut the door behind her. “You are odder than most, though. Usually it’s those pesky scorpion.”
“Pesky? Yeah right! Nearly stops my heart everytime I meet one!” Juniper grumbled, thinking back to the ant-like monsters that invested the lands. They started down a tunnel that looked hand-carved, but Kelly suddenly turned back. Juniper was about to ask, but fell silent as they approached the truck once more. Kelly reached out a hand, placing it between the curled wings of the grill. The dried blood had been worn away in the spot where she touched, the metal polished to a shimmer.
“Sorry.” Kelly muttered.
Juniper opened her mouth to respond, but something in the back of her throat caught the words and swallowed them down again. They continued on in silence, into the tunnel and into the oppressive dark. Odd feelings bubbled up in the Dryad, a certain vertigo like the pause at the top of a rollercoaster. Things were more than they appeared here. The bison were rabbits, the people were monsters -or the monsters people -, the virgin lands were built over desecrated civilizations, and the only hint of home and comfort was her own slayer. She hadn’t even begun to be mad at her killer before being quickly caught up in travel with her… and more than that, Kelly was a welcome change in the oddity of the previous confusing jumble of days.
In the end... could she even be mad at someone who’d sent her to such an entertaining dreamland?
Juniper sighed, hanging her head as the darkness opened up and swallowed them whole.
“... And next thing I know, little Jaq’s also taking her first steps!” Kelly continued on for the third or so hour running. She clambered through a tight knot of vines, a clump of gas station napkins in one hand and the heavy pistol in the other. The napkins were heavily stained with whatever material Kelly had had access to in the past few months - mostly ketchup. The pistol was similarly stained, but with a sickly spinach green that also graced most of the rest of her clothes. “We were so proud, of course! But a third child, at my age, on a teacher’s salary? Oop, there’s another little gentleman.”
Juniper made a noncommittal sound of acknowledgement and ducked behind Kelly’s head. An incredibly loud report from the firearm filled the narrow chamber, causing the tiny Dryad’s ears to rattle and ring. A moment later, an explosive wave of sickly green goop as a scorpion-ant-monster spattered itself against the walls and the human’s already grimy garb. With a sigh, Juniper picked the guts from the fabric and sat herself back on Kelly’s shoulder. She tossed the bits into a nearby pocket, which quickly produced a reproachful Gummy to clean the viscera out of his napping spot.
“Are we close?” Juniper asked, struggling back a yawn mid-question.
“Nearly, nearly. Well, almost out of map, anyway.”
“The way you say that implies there’s more tunnel than map...”
“Well, with the bugs moving the tunnels, the cave-ins, limited food…” Kelly said sheepishly, then flipped through the napkins to gesture at the same destination she’d bee mentioning for hours. “There’s a big room that should lead us out. I’ve seen birds in there, seen the sky, so it must be close.”
“Knowing this place, they’re tunneling owls!” Juniper quipped wryly, but Kelly only nodded.
“When I first fell into this… charming place… I had hoped it was Earth. I had hoped there was a team above working to help me out. Maybe the scorpions were just deep mutant species so far undiscovered!” She sighed, stepping out of a tunnel and onto a rickety wire bridge hanging over yet another yawning pit of darkness. “Or that I’d died. I used to teach, did I tell you that?”
“Yes.” Juniper answered flatly, having lost count of how often she'd heard that tidbit.
“I’d always loved our mythology unit in class.” Kelly’s voice echoed about them like many hundred bats, then was eaten up in the void below. She fell quiet, focused on her footing until they stumbled back into another complex warren of tunnels.
“But this place, all I can think of is Tartarus or the Maze of Minos,” she continued as though interrupted by a waiter, rather than a long potential fall, “And of course the minotaur himself! Then, the day I decide to conquer the maze once and for all, well, I get graced by a little fairy!”
Juniper sat patiently as the woman pet a single finger atop her head, a habit she’d picked up in the last hour. A habit that was quickly getting on the ‘little fairy’s’ nerves.
“A wish from your Titania, a little favor from Oberon, and I can go home to see my girls again!” the older human said wistfully. Juniper took a deep breath, preparing herself once again to voice her doubts, to dash the hopes of her slayer…
A brilliant, warm light enveloped the party, causing Juniper to throw up her arms and blink wildly against her sudden blindness. In spots at a time, her vision cleared and her dark little eyebrows rose as she took in the scene.
The room they had stepped into had once been a church. Most of the back rows of pews had been crushed by a dome made of some glassy material Juniper had never seen before. The front, though, was bathed in a mix of the golden light of magic fire and the refracted rays of the setting suns. A tunnel in the ceiling had been implanted with all kinds of reflective, shiny material that carried the light through a daunting vertical shaft. At the top, Juniper could just make out the wafting leaves of trees, the first real signs of the surface. The church itself was blackened and burned, devoid of any symbology, and littered with more shiny objects. At the very center, where a vestibule would stand, whirled a strange orb of feathers and impassioned caws.
The ball rolled and clawed, listing this way and that, and croaking loudly in two different tones. Kelly, Juniper, and Gummy quietly watched it in confusion for several seconds. Eventually, Juniper cupped her hands over her mouth.
“Uh… Poe?” She shouted.
A head popped out of the tussle.
- Seattle, Washington, USA
Busy with life and a broken brain, so chapter releases are a tad slow. I'm aiming for releasing a chapter every other Friday between my two active fictions (Ironically, my only isekai fiction is on hiatus until I figure out where the hell I'm going with it). Critique welcome, as I'm aware my style is a bit stilted and overly-wordy and my ideas half-baked.
Additionally, I am looking for any editing work. I focus primarily on flow and subtext analysis and only ask for exposure at this point in my career.
Please join my subreddit for release announcements and the occasional meme or billion.
- La Fusilada: 20 chapter film-script-cum-novella following an alternative history where El Fusilada was a woman and kicked ass. Revenge western ala Kill Bill meets Hateful Eight.
- I Will Be Everyone: Fully pants-ed episodic superhero story following a hive mind of infinite-clones who are too polite for world domination.
- T.R.E.E.S.E.K.A.I.: Reborn as a dryad in a weird new world (will continue... eventually)