A strong earthquake shook Eloni awake from sleep. She scrambled up from the bed. The ground was rippling like a plucked string. Eloni shielded her head and crawled under the bed. Her books were tumbling down from the shelves, crashing on the floor. And somewhere in the house, Eloni's mother was shouting: "Eloni, duck under the bed!"
"I'm okay, mom!" Eloni replied.
The earthquake lasted a few minutes. It was the longest earthquake in Eloni's memory. When it finally stopped, Eloni and her mother ran out of the house.
There were a lot of people in the street. Everybody was nervous. "There hasn't been a big one like this for ten years!" A neighbor exclaimed.
"It must be from all those secret experiments at the Cave!" Another neighbor chimed in.
Eloni tried to send a text to her best friend Kaula, but the network was busy. Eloni's mother explained that the cell tower probably malfunctioned. Besides, everybody was trying to call and text at the same time.
Though some people decided to camp outside, Eloni and her mother eventually went back inside the house. However, her mother insisted that they both sleep in Eloni's room. So while Eloni returned to her bed, her mother made a bedroll on the floor.
What bad luck just before my birthday, Eloni thought before falling asleep.
The next morning, Eloni woke up to find her mother already gone. Her mother left a note:
Happy Sixteenth Birthday Eloni! I have to inspect the equipment at the lab, so I will be home late. I'm very sorry, but we may have to postpone your birthday dinner to another time. I already called the school, and there is school today.
Eloni was dismayed. Her mother's job as a physicist at the state laboratory was demanding, but they had planned this birthday dinner for weeks. Eloni knew if her mother postponed something, it would never happen.
As Eloni walked toward school, she tried to send another text to Kaula. Still no cell phone service. It really wasn't her day!
"Happy Birthday, Eloni!" A man's voice came from behind. Eloni turned around to find "Nuttyham" the self-proclaimed wizard. He stood on the sidewalk leaning on his walking stick, his back slightly hunched, and he was smiling.
Creep, weirdo, scam artist. Whenever the residents of Adrianne City talked about Nuttyham, these were the first words that came to mind.
"How do you know my birthday, Nuttyham?" Eloni said with suspicion.
"It's Wizard Perryham, young lady. I don't appreciate that nickname." Perryham said. "I came to give you a present."
Perryham held out a small box wrapped in shiny, starry paper. When Eloni refused to take it, Perryham opened it for her. Inside the box was a small marble stamped with the image of a sword.
"No thanks." Eloni said. There could be a hidden camera inside, she thought.
Then an unbelievable thing happened: in front of Eloni's eyes, the marble vanished. Eloni looked up, stunned, but Perryham only grinned at her. He turned around and walked way, while Eloni remained on the sidewalk, staring after him.
When Eloni arrived at school later, the first thing she did was to find Kaula.
"I'm so glad you are okay!" Eloni said when she finally saw Kaula. "There was no cell service and I was worried."
"Me too." Kaula said. "I tried texting you at least ten times. What a shocker that earthquake was!"
Eloni nodded. "I never heard of Adrianne City being on an earthquake belt."
Kaula lowered her voice: "Do you want to know my theory? It must be caused by the Cave."
"I don't buy it. Not everything can be blamed on that cave." Eloni said.
"But think about it. Remember that leaked video? There is something wrong about the Cave: you go inside, and you never come out. It's like a portal to the other world." Kaula's face was flushed with enthusiasm. As an avid conspiracy theorist, this was her favorite subject.
A boy walked toward them. "Talking about conspiracy theory first thing in the morning?" He said, a sunny smile on his face.
That was Leo, a friend of Kaula and Eloni. He gave Eloni a wink: "Hi, Birthday Girl!"
"I didn't forget your birthday, just in case you are wondering." Kaula cut in. "Our kittens are old enough to leave the nest, and you can have that white-tailed one you wanted."
Eloni almost jumped for joy. "Really? Can I take her home today?"
"Yes! Come to my house after school and pick her up."
Eloni was so happy. Forget dinner at Tasty Fish. The kitten was so much better.
It was time for biology class, and they headed to the classroom. As Eloni watched Leo and Kaula walking together, her happiness dimmed a little. She couldn't kid herself: there was something she wanted even more than the kitten.
Eloni had always liked Leo. At first it was pure friendship, but for the past half a year, she had felt something stronger, more urgent. But there was an insurmountable obstacle in her way: Leo liked Kaula.
The students sat down in the classroom. As usual, Leo and Kaula sat at the same table. Eloni took a seat far away and tried her hardest not to look in their direction.
"Let's let roll call," said the biology teacher. But before she could call out the first name, the earthquake hit.
The ground rocked violently, as if a huge worm was burrowing underneath. The windows banged and clattered, and the fan on the ceiling swayed back and forth.
"Quick! Duck under the table!" The teacher yelled. The students were already doing moving. They crawled under the tables and shielded their heads. Several students swore amid the teacher's constant reminder for calm.
Briefly, Eloni glanced at her friends. Kaula and Leo were crouching together, and Leo was shielding her head with his arm.
The earthquake lasted four minutes. During this time, a window shattered, spraying the ground with glass, and almost all the chairs tumbled over. When the shaking finally stopped, the students climbed out from under the desk, some looking sick.
The teacher directed everyone to walk out of the building. As they moved in a line, Eloni watched Leo and Kaula walking in front of her, with Leo's arm still wrapped around Kaula's shoulder. Eloni's heart pinched, even though she knew that she shouldn't envy. They were both her friends, and she should feel happy for them. She should never, ever give in to jealousy...
Suddenly, Eloni felt something scorching her hand. Instinctively she snatched her hand up, and a marble dropped to the floor. She looked closer: it was the marble Nuttyham had tried to give her. Frowning, Eloni bent down to pick up the marble, but a student bumped her from behind. She lurched forward and recovered her footing. When she looked again, the marble had disappeared.
"Keep moving everyone," the teacher was saying.
Eloni walked on, but she was full of suspicions. She even glanced around to see if Nuttyham was there. Should she tell the teacher?
The students gathered on the field. While the teachers discussed what to do, Leo came to talk to Eloni.
"Is something bothering you?" Leo asked.
"I'm not sure," Eloni said. She looked behind Leo, but Kaula was not with him.
"Hey, listen," Leo whispered. "I want to tell you something."
"I've always liked you, Eloni. But lately my feelings were somehow...different. I think I finally figured it out." Leo took a deep breath before blurting it out, "I love you!"
Eloni was dumbfounded. She stared at Leo for a moment, and found her voice. "You are kidding!"
"I'm telling the truth. I've been in love with you all this time! Please, please say you love me back!" Leo pleaded.
He sounded so genuine, but Eloni knew it couldn't be true. "Leo, you like Kaula! Just a minute ago..." She lowered her voice and quickly checked if anyone was staring. "You two were just holding hands!"
"I was still confused then. But just now, it's like my mind suddenly cleared. I could see nothing else but you. I love you, and I'm one hundred percept certain of that!"
Eloni still couldn't believe it. What Leo was saying didn't make sense. He couldn't just stop loving Kaula all of a sudden. No, something was wrong here.
Eloni remembered the marble, and it gave her an idea. "I'm sorry Leo, but could we talk about this tomorrow? I need some time to think it through."
Leo pouted, something Eloni had never seen him do. "But I want your answer today!"
"I'm sorry, I just can't. And could you not mention a word of this to Kaula until tomorrow? Promise me?"
Very reluctantly, Leo agreed.
School was let out early that day. The students weren't allowed to go back inside the building. Instead, they were just sent home. So Eloni never got the chance to go back and look for the marble. She made an excuse to Kaula and apologized for not being able to pick up the kitten today, and she went straight to Wizard Perryham's house.
Eloni knocked on the door. When Perryham opened, she asked him directly: "Are you really a wizard?"
Perryham smiled. "Let's talk inside."
Eloni hesitated for a moment. Creep-weirdo-scam artist, the most apt description for Wizard Perryham, once again flashed through her mind. But she decided to take the risk.
Eloni inspected Perryham's living room. No wonder people called him a weirdo. His house was decorated like a scene from an old-time movie: carved walnut furniture, velvet upholstery, and ancient, crumbling books. And the weirdest of all: no television.
Perryham stood by the fireplace, where a fire burned brightly. When he tapped his finger, the fire shrank a little, giving off a more gentle heat.
If that was a trick, he really went to a great length to set it up. Eloni thought. She decided to get to the heart of the matter: "What did you do to Leo?"
"It was your wish that did it, Eloni. I merely granted your birthday wish."
"So it was that marble wasn't it? I was thinking of Leo, and it burned me." Eloni said. "I don't know what your motivation is, but you got it wrong. I didn't want Leo to like me because of your love spell. You have to change him back!"
"It isn't just a spell, Eloni. I alternated his entire mindset. He is truly, genuinely in love with you now. Even true love couldn't be more real than that."
Eloni stared at Perryham. "I don't care how true it is; what you did was wrong! You have no right to manipulate Leo like that."
Perryham did not back down. "I have the right to do anything I can get away with. Besides, you wished for it. You wanted him to return your affections, and it made you happy when he did."
Eloni's face burned with anger. She almost shouted: "You are evil, Nuttyham!"
"Perryham! Young lady!" Perryham stressed every syllable. "And I'm not evil. If you really insist on reversing the wish, then I can do it." He raised a hand to hush Eloni. "But there will be an unfortunate side effect. Once Leo realizes that he doesn't love you, he will be confused. He will almost certainly hate you. Is that really what you want?"
Eloni hesitated, but only for a second. "What I want most is for Leo to return to his normal self. I don't want to hurt him, and I don't want to hurt my friend Kaula."
"Excellent! I was right about you." Perryham said. His eyes gleamed with excitement, and his slightly hunched back snapped straight. "Many times I have granted wishes for kids on their birthdays, and they all accepted, no matter the consequence. Only you wanted to do the right thing."
He held out an open hand to Eloni, and inside his hand was the marble stamped with the image of a sword. "Take it. No trick this time."
As soon as Eloni touched the marble, it burst into flames. Eloni snatched her hand away, hissing with pain. Her hand was really scorched this time. When she looked closer, she saw a sickle-shaped scar on her palm.
Curious, she touched the scar. Something didn't feel right. The scar was lumpy and hard, and the lump was rising. It felt like leather wrapped around metal, like--yes, like the hilt of a sword.
"Go ahead. Draw it out." Perryham said.
Eloni gripped the hilt and pulled. The thin, slightly curved blade emerged from her hand, and strangely, it did not hurt at all. The sword was more than half her height, but it hardly weighed anything. Catching the light of the fire, the blade flashed crimson.
"What's the big deal?" Eloni protested. "I didn't want anything else from you!"
"You want to reverse the spell on Leo, don't you? Then you must complete a mission for me first. This sword will be your companion in the fight. Its name is Dark Matter, and it is the only thing capable of hurting the evil Manifestations."
For a moment Eloni couldn't decide whether Perryham was truly crazy. Fight? Evil manifestations? They sounded like things from a trite movie. However, the sword did come out of her hand. Unless she was being hypnotized, she just experienced real magic.
"Meet me outside the Cave after dark. Until then, hide Dark Matter. Don't swing a sword around in public." Perryham said.
Eloni felt wind rushing all around her, and before she knew it, she was already standing outside Perryham's house. She looked down at her hand. Yes, she was still holding Dark Matter, so that was not a dream.
Hiding the sword was easy enough. Eloni pointed the blade at the scar on her hand, and the sword slipped inside, vanishing without a trace.
What bothered Eloni more was Perryham's mention of the Cave. The Cave was a legend in Adrianne City. Residents traded rumors about it all the time, but nobody knew what was inside.
That's because the Cave was located inside the military base. The military fenced up the entire mountain and posted guards along the perimeter, and no civilian was allowed to go near it.
Naturally, conspiracy theories ballooned. Was the Cave a facility for secret experiments? Were there bodies of aliens hidden there? Eloni remembered that even Kaula was an avid conspiracy theorist, who was telling her that morning about the Cave's connection to the earthquakes.
Only one civilian had supposedly seen the Cave. It was a citizen journalist who somehow sneaked into the mountain and recorded his trip in a leaked video. The video showed the entrance to the cave, which was about ten meters tall and twenty meters wide. The surrounding rocks were as dark as charcoal, but inside the cave it was even darker. The journalist was nervous as he entered the cave, and his voice became less and less coherent as the video became grainy. Then, the video abruptly stopped.
It was rumored that the military eventually recovered his camera, and someone leaked the video. But the journalist was never seen again.
As the evening came, Eloni paced on the side of a road in front of the military checkpoint. She had been there a while and the guards were beginning to notice. She felt liked a fool: how could Perryham expect her to get through the checkpoints?
Finally, she saw Perryham walking up the road.
"Good evening." Perryham said pleasantly, and without waiting for her to reply, he marched to the checkpoint.
He walked up straight to the guards, who immediately surrounded him, demanding him to turn back. Perryham was all smiles. He leaned forward and whispered a word.
As if hypnotized, the guards stood aside. Perryham waved at Eloni to follow.
Eloni frowned, but went after Perryham. They passed several more checkpoints along the way, and each time, Perryham made the guards ignore them.
"You really do like manipulating people." Eloni said.
"Actually, I have a special authorization from the base commander." Perryham said. "But it would be a bother to carry it, let alone have every guard examine the papers from beginning to end."
Eloni was speechless. More than ever, she understood why the nickname "Nuttyham" stuck.
She was beginning to notice something. As they approached the foot of the mountain, there were fewer and fewer guards in sight. In fact, in front of the Cave, there were no guards at all. This was something she also remembered from the video: there was so many security at the perimeter of the mountain, but the Cave itself was entirely unguarded.
It was as if even the military was afraid of the Cave. That thought gave Eloni shivers.
"Here we are!" Perryham declared. They were standing before the cave entrance, a deep, dark opening that towered over them.
A wind from the cave chilled Eloni's face. In the darkness, the obsidian rocks surrounding the cave stood out like jagged shadows. But inside the cave, one could see nothing at all. No light penetrated inside, so the darkness had no shape or feature, and it seemed to go on forever.
Without realizing it, Eloni began walking toward the cave. It was as if something was calling her, pushing and pulling her whole body forward.
She snapped to attention. Looking back, she saw that Perryham had not moved, and he wore a grim expression on his face.
"Draw out Dark Matter before you go in." Perryham said.
Good idea, Eloni thought. Once again, she touched the scar on her palm and felt the lump rising. She drew out the sword, the blade gleaming like teeth in the darkness. .
"I want you to be careful in there, Eloni. I can see you with my Far Sight and give you advice, and I can relay my voice to you." Perryham said.
"Wait a second, we are not going together?" Eloni couldn't believe it. Would Nuttyham really do this to her?
"You are the only one who can go in and come back alive." Perryham said. "My powers cannot touch the Manifestations, only Dark Matter can."
"And you are not going to tell me what the Manifestations are?"
Perryham opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted when the ground suddenly spasmed. Another earthquake! Eloni stumbled and crouched down. From the cave, she heard a sound like an animal howling.
"The enemy will kill many people if you don't kill it first. That's all you need to know." Perryham said. "Hurry and go! Dark Matter will lend you strength."
Eloni weighed Perryham's words. She was beginning to understand. The earthquakes last night and this morning felt just like this one. If the enemy was capable of doing this much damage, then it must be stopped. And if she was the only one who could do it, then she had to go.
Gripping the sword, Eloni walked into the cave. The darkness immediately enveloped her, and for a moment she was completely disoriented. Then her sword began to glow, a faint, crimson shimmering. It was not enough to illuminate the path, but seeing at least some light gave her a little courage. And she walked on.
The ground was still shaking. By then, it was less like a continuous rolling, but more like a sporadic seizure. The jagged rocks loomed above her. And when the shaking came, pieces of rock broke off, crashing at her feet. Thumps, howls, and crashes came from deep inside the cave, and the sound was getting closer.
At times, she could feel the walls closing in and then opening, as she passed through a chamber. Sometimes she was forced to squeeze through a passage or choose a turn. How many turns had she made? She had lost count. She followed the howling sounds, hoping she was on the right path.
Then suddenly, the howls stopped. Instinctively she froze, her grip on the sword tightening until her knuckles hurt. With a thumping heart, she listened.
A voice in her ear made her jump. It was Perryham: "Watch out! It's right above you!"
Eloni looked up, just in time to see an enormous pair of red, glowing eyes.
She sensed the claws descending on her rather than saw them. Purely out of reflex, she raised Dark Matter to block them. The sword hit something hard, and the force of the impact threw her back. Eloni landed on her hips, and before she could scramble up from the ground, the claws swiped at her and tore her legs open.
Eloni screamed. Perryham's voice screamed too: "Get up! It's coming for you!"
The thudding steps rushing at her made her move. She rolled aside, her leg wounds scraping on the ground, and the pain stabbed all the way to the tip of her hair.
"Perryham..." She wanted to curse, but didn't even have time to finish the sentence. Once again the claws attacked her. She blocked with the sword, attempting to push them back. Her back was against the wall, and she held the sword with all her strength, her entire body shaking.
Something drooled on her face. Surprised, Eloni loosened her grip, and the claws almost wrenched the sword out of her hand.
"Don't let go!" Perryham's voice blasted her ear.
"I know!" Eloni shouted back. She held on. The claws snatched her up, sword and all, and tossed her at the roof of the cave.
Eloni's shoulder blades smashed against sharp rocks. The shock almost knocked out her out. Now she was falling, and she could sense the claws making one last swipe.
Eloni's ears roared. She couldn't hear what Perryham was shouting, but she knew if she didn't strike now it would be all over. She concentrated all her being into seeing, sensing. She saw the claws gleaming in the darkness, and she aimed her sword and swung.
She slashed through the claws, cutting them off clean. She could feel the monster flinch, the glowing red eyes narrowing in pain.
She landed on her hands and feet, and immediately sprang up, the blade in front of her like a spear. She went straight for the eyes.
Something slammed into her in midair, a hard, springy thing. It snapped around her waist, rolling her up. Eloni realized with disgust that it was the monster's tongue, long and agile like a frog's. It swung her up and down like a fly, until finally, it attempted to smash her against the rocks.
Eloni raised her sword and cut through the tongue. Still, the momentum carried her backward. She bent her knees, bracing herself, and managed a soft landing. Then once again, blade forward, she charged.
The monster did not have anything left to attack her with. She pushed the sword through its head, cutting through a hard, rock-like mass. It collapsed under her blade.
Eloni dropped to the ground, and before she hand a chance to catch her breath, Perryham yelled: "Watch out! It's not..."
A claw burst through the ground, grabbing her leg. Eloni slashed it away, leaped up, and brought the sword down. She hacked at the claw until it dropped dead, and this time, for good.
Eloni flinched when her feet hit the ground. She couldn't imagine what all the slashes on her legs looked like. Now that the fight was over, the pain was coming back to her.
Suddenly she heard another voice. Not Perryham's nagging, but a man sobbing. She followed the sobs deeper into the cave. In the next chamber, she saw a man standing in a ring of red light.
"Help me!" The man pleaded.
Eloni recognized that man. It was the journalist who recorded the leaked video. She recognized his messy hair and stubbles.
But the man no longer looked human. His body was a slim, wavering shadow, and it was fading. He looked so frightened that, without thinking, she reached out a hand toward him.
"No Eloni! Don't touch him!" Perryham's voice stopped her.
"But he needs help!" Eloni said. "I know him. He was from the town!"
"And now he is a Manifestation. The monster you fought was just his soldier. This is the real source!"
Eloni could see it now. The man had red, glowing eyes. And beneath his plaintive expression, there was malice. Eloni stared at him, raising her sword slowly. But her hand was trembling.
"Eloni, as long as he stands on the portal, he will call the evil forces from the other dimension. You have to eliminate him now!"
Another earthquake struck. Rocks rained down from the ceiling, forcing Eloni to dodge left and right. Huge cracks radiated from the ring where the man stood. The cracks plowed through the ground, glowing red.
When Eloni peered down the cracks, she saw an endless ravine of fire. Inside the ravine, hundreds, perhaps thousands of dark shadows were moving, climbing up.
One of the shadows had already emerged. Behind the man, she saw the monster she just killed once again rising. First came the claws, then the eyes. The eyes were closed for now, but give it another moment, she knew they would snap open.
Eloni dashed forward, running her sword through the shadowy man. With a piercing howl, both the man and the monster disappeared. She stood alone in the center of the charred ring, while all around her, the cracks in the earth faded to darkness.
Eloni managed to drag herself out of the cave. Then her legs gave out, and she slumped to the ground.
Perryham crouched down next to her and gently touched her shoulder. "You must understand that the man was long gone before you saw him. It was only his shadow left, a vehicle for the evil forces. If you hadn't taken him down, the monsters would have killed you..."
"Yes, I get it." Eloni said.
"And if they came out of the cave, they would kill me, as well as all the soldiers at this base. Then they would rampage through the city and attack any civilians in their path."
"I get it!" Eloni said, her voice rising. But she was too tired to argue.
Perryham tugged on her arm, trying to pull her up. "Come on. I will take you home. Don't worry, Dark Matter will help you heal. And I promise to explain everything tomorrow."
Eloni had no idea how she arrived home. She only remembered stumbling into her bed and sinking her head into the pillow. All night, she slept deeply, her hand occasionally clenching into fist when she dreamed.