To read the previous chapters, please visit: http://curiosityquills.com/published-authors/johanna-pitcairn/death-by-chocolate/
Chapter 6 – Critical Exposure
The Stranger held my hand like a parent crossing a busy intersection with a wailing rugrat, and… don’t ask me why…I played along. Taking cues from the clicking of his golden sandals, I matched my pace to his until we marched in unison down a long series of steps. As my eyes followed the movement of the flames swaying over torches affixed to the walls, the last bit of resistance crumpled inside.
Hoarding the remaining tears until next round, I entertained myself contemplating what ‘final judgment’ or ‘opening my heart’ meant. Fun stuff like that. Would I have to confess my sins to a priest or expose my darkest secrets on the sofa of a shrink? And what would we find in the pyramid, that was another hot topic. An army of famished hounds ready to tear me to shreds in an arena just like the Coliseum? Gladiators, and lions, and spears piercing my heart, blood spilling everywhere on the hot sand?
Okay. My kidnapping couldn’t end this way. It was already weird, wearing all this unnecessary jewelry… of which I still didn’t understand the purpose. It seemed a bit illogical to take me to the execution room with all that metal dangling around. Indubitably, I was to serve a higher function than a mere sacrifice. Unless these weirdoes enjoyed watching expensive Christmas ornaments die.
And if so, might they also enjoy watching stuffed expensive Christmas ornaments die? My hunger had become a pressing reality, and had effectively reset my list of priorities. Would my new guide lead me to a king size kitchen overflowing with fried chicken and mashed potatoes? Purely for a ‘last meal’s’ sake? I’d be down with that. I’d even postpone bailing out until after being fed. Not that I would have had a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding otherwise. It started getting hard to think clearly – or any way at all – on such an empty stomach.
Gosh, had I not knocked out the kid who brought me food earlier, I wouldn’t have felt that impatient to sit down at the ‘last supper’ table… So many things I could have done differently. Well, no point crying over spilt coffee.
And speaking of which, where were my chocolates?
I didn’t realize I had thought out loud when the sound of my voice brought the Stranger to a sudden stop.
He turned around and placing his index finger on my lips, stared at me through pupils ignited…. Gold! After the green of Evan’s, the range of effulgences individuals possessed here seemed quite broad, and made me wonder what other colors I’d be witnessing next. Purple, red, blue? Or maybe rainbow? The sky’s the limit!
“You don’t need them anymore,” the Stranger whispered to me.
“W-What?” Trying to speak with a finger against my lips wasn’t as easy as one might think.
“You’re tricking me,” my mumbled protestation fell short as his intense stare made me lose track of what it was I was protesting exactly.
“In due time you shall see what the world has to offer you. For now, stay quiet and have faith,” he commanded, and I believed every word. Had he told me bacon was the grossest thing on Earth, I probably would have believed it too!
But the more I lost myself in his gaze, the more an extreme pressure set inside my chest, preventing me from drawing a proper breath, as if two hands were squeezing the life out of my lungs. Literally! Now, I never had my lungs squeezed before… but it was the best analogy I could come up with. My vision instantly blurred, and my eyelids fluttered shut as the world narrowed to molten pain and darkness.
Half a second later, I managed to reopen my eyes – and gasped for air. What the heck just happened? The ache in my chest had maybe subsided, and the Stranger wasn’t staring at me anymore, but the immense feeling of dread that had taken me over still lingered.
“Now do you understand you will die if you don’t keep faith?” the Stranger inquired conversationally.
Woah. That’s after he played some stupid Jedi mind trick and choked the crap out of me because I asked about the chocolates? The guy was a psycho! Oh dear Lord, at this rate, this adventure would have me converting back to my Catholic roots and praying for a miracle every waking second!
But… let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Had I eaten a chocolate, either I would have been so blissed out, I wouldn’t have cared if he turned me into a bottom roast – or things would have gone down in a totally different fashion, and his golden glow would swim at the bottom of another riverbed while I ran free! No wonder the bastard had taken my precious away from me. I was boiling inside. Anger replaced fear. No, call it carnal rage. I’d tear him apart and eat his heart out! Yeah, maybe not, but close.
“Now if you trust me, everything will be fine,” he added with a smile as we promptly resumed our walk.
Of course! Just like a child molester handing candy out on the playground. This was getting better and better! What else would I experience? Free-falling down a bottomless pit? Having my limbs crushed under boulders? Or maybe being devoured alive by zombie aliens who used to be vegetarian before an airborne virus mysteriously infected their brains and turned them into soulless killing machines?
“You know you can do this,” Evan’s voice murmured in my ear, and his face suddenly appeared bearing a grin that expressed utmost confidence. That, or it was simply shit-eating. “Be patient…”
“Where have you been? And how can you be with me while this psychopath is torturing me with his mind?”
Too afraid to speak out loud again, I hoped he could read my thoughts.
But how did he find me? And how did he keep himself unnoticed by the Stranger?
The level of… sheer nuttiness was now at an uncomfortable high that would feed my sleepless nights for years onward… Gosh, I could write a bestselling autobiography once I’d bounce from this place. No need to fill out college applications anymore. The title would be: “The Mind As Your Weapon – Tale Of A Journey Into The Dark Side Of The Force”, and Oprah herself would promote it in her book reading club. So much to look forward to…
“I never went away,” Evan replied telepathically, “but you refused to acknowledge my presence because you were too angry.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
The Stranger didn’t turn around once, and obviously had no idea Evan was even talking to me. Speaking of which… I was right about him being able to read my thoughts! The bastard had been privy to some pretty naughty business – and I didn’t dare to ask what exactly he had been spying on while I was unconscious, twice! Oooh, time for payback would come alright. After he got me out of this mess.
“Why can’t he see you?” I asked.
“Only you can.” Evan smirked. “Aren’t you all kinds of special?”
“What do you mean?”
Evan extended his hand toward me and pointed squarely at my forehead.
“I’m a figment of your scrambled wits.”
Clueless as to how I didn’t stop walking, I searched his eyes for an answer he wouldn’t give away so easily… Knowing him, he liked to make the suspense last. “What?”
He chuckled softly. “A simple projection of your subconscious.”
Nonsense. I was speechless. Rather thoughtless. Wait. So Evan wasn’t real?
“You were running through that field when I woke up,” I said.
“Uh huh.” He nodded.
“And I imagined you then?”
“Listen to me very carefully. You can’t waste any more time being cranky and difficult. There’s some serious stuff happening here and this world needs your help. Get a grip, understood?”
Fine. I’d get a grip. Why the name Evan? Why the shirtless torso and the six pack abs? Why…?
“You don’t remember Evan, do you?” he asked.
I had never met an Evan in my entire life! What was his problem? If he expected me to say Evan was my kindergarten crush, well, tough luck, buddy.
“You will when the time’s right.” The self-identified figment pledged, leaving me increasingly convinced I had gone insane – or was in the process of being played the worst joke on.
But the luxury to question my sanity abruptly evaporated as the Stranger jerked my hand forward, and we finally stepped outside. Blinded by the bright sunlight, I felt luscious grass under my bare feet, and heard a deafening roar all around me. Strange how none of this noise had polluted the inside of the building we had just walked away from. It seemed like the entire world had woken up suddenly, emerging from perfect silence into paramount ruckus, just like an alarm clock bravely earning its keep. But where was the snooze button? I didn’t want to wake up yet…
What would happen to me now? The more my eyes adjusted to daylight, the more I realized a thick crowd had lined up along each side of a narrow path leading to the golden pyramid. Young, old, female and male heads were all turned in my direction, watching and cheering my entrance like a prize fighter’s in the ring. Children especially were chanting in a language I couldn’t understand. Browsing hundreds of ecstatic expressions, looking into eyes entirely too engaged in something I so didn’t want to be a part of, I shuddered. I had too good of an idea of what they were here for.
It became harder to breathe again, yet no perversely comforting golden eyes prevented me from keeping air in my lungs. Pressure – from crowds surrounding us, the anticipation stoking itself in the warm, pungent air – wormed into me to the bone marrow, and remade my feet into twin blocks of lead.
The golden pyramid blazed in the distance, throwing sparks of silver light that illuminated the sky like fireworks. A halo of orange and red flames burned at the top – ominous and strangely similar to a picture I once saw in a book about the gates of hell.
But were the natives transfixed by it it? Oh heck no! The eyes of the world were on me. The star of the show!
But this was no stand up comedy act. A four-legged gargoylish creature – not of goo this time – suddenly appeared at the top of the pyramid and stared right at me with a luminescent pair of red eyes, then vanished swiftly from my line of sight. The pit in my stomach grew wider.
What was that? I would stand no chance against such mystical beast without my chocolates.
“A demon,” Evan said.
“And what does it want?”
I am a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But putting me in charge of a Scooby mission without so much as a stake – or a handy box of superhero chocolates had to be the worst idea ever! I couldn’t fight no demons! It’s been hard enough to crawl up a pile of goo while experiencing some serious hallucinations. Hand me a reclamation form and I’ll really let loose on what I think of this whole movie plot…
“I don’t find this funny…” I scowled. “This weirdo almost choked me to death, then you tell me you’re not real, and now this?”
“Sorry pal, I wish I had better news for you…” Evan gave me a sad look. As if his pity would really help. Especially, if this was more or less self-pity.
“Send me to the crazy ward. What are you waiting for?”
“Well… But that’s the point. You’re not losing your mind. Remember… You’re special.” He grinned.
Demons and psychos didn’t make me as angry as Evan and I wanted to break his neck so bad… Oh but excuse me, according to his Majesty I Made You Up Because My Imagination Is So Active and I’m Special, it would have been impossible to snap his neck, because to get rid of him, I needed to get rid of me! Tada!! And Sigfried and Roy were also true magicians who really could make a white tiger disappear!
“I hate my sick sense of humor,” I said.
Evan laughed. “You know, you should be proud of how far you’ve come,” he paused, “given where you started from.”
“Hammer the last nail to the coffin, will you?” I scoffed.
“Nah nah. Come on. Pessimism is so overrated.”
Oh yeah? And what was there to feel all Pollyanish about, anyhow?
“You’ll make a wonderful warrior,” Evan added. “I have faith in you.”
Right. And what would he do? Watch me fight, again? The whole made up directly from my subconscious business didn’t make much sense… But I’d get back to it later. If there was a later.
Because we were at the entrance to the pyramid. Facing the golden gates that looked twenty feet high, the Stranger pulled and twisted a handle encased in a stone in the wall, and the doors slowly opened.
I glanced one last time at the ocean of heads behind me, and took a deep breath.
“Welcome to the place of your rebirth,” the Stranger said.
Inside, all the cheering died. Had the Stranger not held my hand, I would have fainted for sure, but his touch seemed to keep me alert. Sweet time he picked to turn all supportive on my shaky behind!
I got quickly distracted from evaluating the state of my cowardly neither regions by a group of women dressed in white linen robes and silver masks over the upper halves of their faces. Silently, they welcomed us to a room dimly lit with torches and candles and throwing off a distinctly Phantom of the Opera air. I stared at them, noting their eerily homogenous appearance with their long dark hair braided on the side of their heads and falling down their right shoulders. They wore the same golden sandals as the Stranger, and also lots of golden jewelry all over their fingers, arms and ankles. Who were they??
“Priestesses…” the Stranger replied to my internal monologue. “They’ve dedicated their lives to this holy temple. Breaking their pledge means immediate death. Here, they have promised to stay, and here at all times, they remain..”
Never to see the light of day, that it? Brrr! And more importantly, could the Stranger read my thoughts, too? Um. What was my brain, Grand freaking Central? Well, better not think of anything nasty, then, or he’d back using his mind tricks against me.
“And who is the God they worship?” I asked.
“No God here. Only polar opposites, which create the fragile balance of this world. Light. And infinite darkness.”
His words had me shuddering again. My whole speculation about the dark side of the force and Jedi skills, not so far-fetched now, was it?
“They cooked you supper. You must be famished,” he added out of the left field.
Well… How nice of him to finally think of feeding me! Wait… but what if he wanted to poison me… I’d have to remain very careful. No matter what I’d drink, or eat, my overpowering hunger couldn’t take the best of me.
With my mind set on exercising the utmost caution, we walked toward the women, and they opened the way to another chamber where a banquet table had been set. And just like that, all my resolutions were devalued to precisely squat as my mouth proceeded to honest-to-goodness salivate and my heart jumped for joy inside my chest at the thought of chewing real food. As mentioned before, small joys make quite a difference during challenging times, and this was no exception. Any specials on the menu?
The Stranger pulled out one of the chairs and invited me to sit, then dropped onto a seat across from min. Would he… I don’t know, ask to pass the salt and I’d have to slide it over to him since the table was so long and it was just the two of us?
Maybe, I’ll find out later. The army of masked women immediately started swarming around me and presenting platters of fresh cantaloupe, watermelon, grapes and strawberries, and juicy meat that resembled fried chicken. Except it wasn’t fried chicken. The little animals staring back at me looked like… Guinea pigs!
“I heard they taste like chicken…” Evan piped up.
“Where have you been?”
“Oh, just assessing the surroundings, looking for an escape route…” He winked. “Nothing for you to worry your pretty head about.”
“How?” I scowled. Nice to know even my subconscious could run away anytime it pleased. But I had to stay stuck here.
“If you had a little faith, you’d answer that question yourself.”
“What’s all this?” Ignoring his comment, I put all my focus back on the guinea pigs. The escape would happen once my belly was full.
“I’d say it’s your last meal before everything goes to hell!”
“Are you for real?” I wanted to slap him. Well technically, I wanted to slap myself.
“You enjoy some crispy guinea pig leg…” He chuckled, and I mentally punched him in the shoulder.
“Ouch!” He rubbed the area on his arm. Haha! So I could beat the crap out of my own mind! Very cool.
“You were saying?”
He shrugged. “Nothing.”
The Stranger was staring at me. Had he noticed anything weird while I was talking with Evan?
It certainly didn’t look like it.
“I hope you’ll enjoy the meal the priestesses have prepared in your honor,” he said, “This will be very special,” and smiled.
I remained silent. The word “special” kept being used, and I still didn’t get what could be so special about me. One priestess poured what smelled and looked like wine in the gemmed gold chalice standing before me, and I burned to taste it. But my cautiousness chose this moment to kick back in, and as my hand went to grab the stem, stopped me midway. What if one drop made me go batshit? My abductors had already used a dart on me. And wouldn’t most poisons be unnoticeable in a glass of red wine?
“Drink,” the Stranger ordered.
Would he force me to drink by glowing at me? I should maybe shut my eyes. But then again, the meat and fruit could have been tampered with too. And I was so hungry!
The Stranger raised his chalice. “To a new beginning. All thanks to you,” he added.
My hands lay on the table, and I kept staring at the goblet like it held all the answers in the universe. For all I knew, it may as well have.
But when one of the priestesses, who had snuck up behind me like a cat, suddenly poked me in the neck with what very much felt like a tip of a spike, my decision was made. Guess I’d have to drink the poison and maybe croak, or get my throat sliced open – notwithstanding the ultimate glowing eyes weapon. Um… I cringed. The priestess pressed the blade harder against my skin, and my fingers automatically searched for the stem of the chalice.
“Bottoms up.” The Stranger smiled.
Like I said, I’d escape once full.
He took a sip. And I did the same.