Lizzie threw her arm up over her face and coughed. The dust was a fine black grit, and it lingered in the air longer than was natural. But what was natural about this place? She stuck the needle carefully through her shift, checked the map in her hand, and, with the light of the mirror to guide her, stepped cautiously forward.
The opening was not much taller than she was, but inside it rose up out of sight. The air smelled of sulphur, and there was a faint gurgling. She pointed the mirror down and its moonlight-glow showed slick wet rock. She touched it: There must be a stream somewhere. She hitched her bag up higher on her shoulder and put one hand inside, fingers finding the comforting tuft of fur, bristly feather and slippery scale. This would be the time to ask for help, should she need it. She hoped she wouldn’t.
As if her thought had tripped a snare, something deeper in the darkness growled. It wasn’t exactly an animal growl, but neither was it a human grunt. It was heavy, like mud; it sucked at her, pulled at her though there was no wind behind her. Lizzie began to panic; fear spurted through her body in a flush of heat. She shone the mirror this way and that, desperate to see what was making the groaning sound, equally afraid of what she might find.
She didn’t recognize it as a thing at first. It was only a lump of earth, a large and looming piece of rock in front of her on the narrow path. But it moved. It shuffled forward, and she could see them: legs and arms and a head. Lizzie shrieked and nearly dropped the mirror. She scrambled backwards. There was no word for what she was seeing: a hulking, heaving lump of clay, faceless but for a symbol scratched on its forehead, but very much aware of her.
It lurched forward, steps so large it could have been wearing magic boots. Lizzie tumbled backward, scooted herself frantically away from the thing, not thinking of anything except that it was wrong, wrong, this thing that was alive but not alive. She had to get away, had to get out.
Her head connected hard with the solid wall and her ribs rattled. She flipped around, looked and scratched at the rock. Where was the opening? It was gone. It was gone, and she was alone, trapped here inside this black mountain, about to be obliterated by a monster. Impossible as it was, she wanted to live. She pressed and pushed, threw herself against the rock— and felt a sharp prick in her shoulder. How any part of herself could be calm enough to understand it was the needle, she didn’t know, but she understood. She pressed her shoulder to the wall and it crumbled and sent her sprawling.
Lizzie stopped. Whose voice spoke to her? Her own? A sister’s? Baba Yaga? Or the rock itself?
Blood in, and blood out.
“What do you mean?” she cried. But she knew— she had a hunch, and life seemed more and more to be made of hunches. If she left now, a prick of her finger would not let her back into the mountain. In a cold sweat, and against every fiber of her living, breathing body, she turned and looked up and the creature.
It towered over her. It was enormous, and unhurried, sensing, perhaps, that she had given up. Lizzie shook her head. Her voice was small. “No. Help.”
Something fluttered in her bag. The mud creature reached down with a massive paw. Lizzie thrust her hand into the bag, grabbed the first thing her fingers touched: the feather. “Black Wings the Raven— Help!”
The mitt reached for her. The face gaped open: a crude and stinking mouth. Lizzie closed her eyes, tensed every part of herself, ready to be devoured, to be smothered in an instant grave of clay and stench.
The air whistled and something dove past her carrying a breath of fresh air. Lizzie jerked back, banged her head against the side of the cave opening and opened her eyes.
Black Wings the Raven was perched on the creature’s shoulder, beak to the mud thing’s unformed ear. Its beak clacked and it cawed a series of notes, rough and trickling. And the brute went still.
The raven hopped down and landed by Lizzie. “I would take my token back.”
Lizzie gaped at it. “What was that? You just spoke to it and it died?”
The raven cocked its head at her. “A golem is not truly alive. It is clay and words. I am a keeper of secrets. I read the symbol. I said the spell to return it to dust.” It looked at her. “I took away its will. Surely you know about this?”
Lizzie shivered. Her stomach felt queasy. “Yes. I know it. But I didn’t know it was magic.”
“Everything is magic,” said the Raven, “Now you know.”
Lizzie nodded. She looked back at the golem, still as a statue. “Will it—?”
The raven fluttered its feathers. “No. Not without being woken, and you do not know the words to wake it. It cannot be done by accident.”
“Thank you.” Lizzie held out the feather and the raven took it in its beak. “Will I— see you again? I know you owe me nothing but…”
“I am a keeper of secrets,” was all the black bird said.
“So, perhaps,” said Lizzie.
“Perhaps. It ruffled its feathers and made to take flight.
“Wait— please. Can you tell me anything else? Anything about where I am or what to expect?”
The raven cocked its head and spoke around the feather in its beak. “You are at one of the Gates of Hell, as mortals call it.”
“What do you call it?”
“The Underworld. The golem was a guard. Basic, rudimentary.”
“I should expect something fiercer further in.”
The raven bobbed its head, and she felt its desire to leave.
“Thank you, again,” she said, and, before she could stop herself or listen to the worry that it was a ridiculous thing to do and a magical, talking raven was not a pet, she stroked its back once, head to tail.
It preened and opened its wings, regarded her for a second with its bright, jet eye, and was gone through the opening of the cave.
Lizzie leaned back against the rock with a sigh. She glanced at the frozen golem that had been stopped only inches away from her.
“I don’t want to find whatever is waiting in there alone.” She reached into her bag and found the tuft of gray fur. She brought it to her lips and whispered, “Gray Legs, I need you. Come walk with me.”
There was a clattering outside the cave, and then warm animal breath on her ear. Despite the raven having arrived so quickly, Lizzie jumped and nearly knocked her head on the golem’s outstretched arm.
“You have already defeated it,” said the wolf. It looked at her. “Then we go on, hunting as a pack.”
Gray Legs stepped through and Lizzie stood up. She eased past the golem and pointed the mirror at the ground once more. She took two steps, then turned and reached a hand behind her. The wall had reformed. She felt the wolf stop, waiting.
“What if I can’t get out?”
“What if you aren’t meant to?”
She shone the mirror at it. The wolf’s eyes reflected back like opals; she had worn earrings just that color once… “What? But I have to!”
“Why are we here?” asked Gray Legs.
“To find his heart. To defeat him.”
“And what does that have to do with you going back the way you came?”
Lizzie swallowed hard. “But I want to. I don’t want to be trapped here.”
“Ah. Well. We shall do our best,” said the wolf, and padded forward. Lizzie hurried to catch up. Talking animals were more elusive than they were comforting, but still she was glad of the wolf’s presence.
The darkness grew more pressing, the trickle of water was more notable, and the stink of sulphur stronger. They had walked for no more than five minutes when they came to a crossroads: two tunnels, both just as dark as the other.
“I have a map,” said Lizzie, reaching into her bag.
“There is no need,” answered the wolf, “I can smell it.” Gray Legs started down the left hand path.
The wolf’s voice carried faintly over its shoulder. “The heart of the one you seek.”
READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux