by Serena W. Sorrell
The sensation of falling registered with Illyria. At first the wind tearing past was shocking, but fear had yet to fill her. Who hadn’t had dreams of falling? But to Illyria, who had spent her life in a cage, the feeling of falling was exhilarating. She felt free. She reveled in it. The wind pressing on her face; her hair lashing across her cheek; the way her heart squeezed her chest so tight she felt she’d die at any moment. But fear? No. Illyria felt no fear as she fell into Aporia.
But when she finally noticed the black sky she had enough sense to feel uneasy. She had originally thought she was dreaming of falling through a night sky. But as she looked around, she noticed no stars, no clouds, no moon. Just emptiness. It was this absolute nothing that first frightened her. Above, below, all around her was just black. A deep and endless black, indeed she realized she could barely even see her own body. Everything below her waist was long, swallowed up by the nothingness.
And then, she felt it. She felt them. Hands, barely even half the size of her own; but unmistakable. They were holding her arms and legs, clinging onto her desperately; they gripped onto her body. Illyria could see no source of whatever it was, which served to finally knock her out of the sheer thrill of everything and finally, yes, now she was afraid.
The darkness parted suddenly, like vapor. The pitch black clouds swirled around her body, around her legs, around her arms, around her neck. The light was barely helpful. She strained her eyes to focus, to search out for the hands. Meanwhile, the hands squeezed tighter, as though the coming of even the smallest hint of light offended them. Illyria felt the sharp knife-like claws of the vaporous hands twisting into her flesh. She began to panic. Wake up! Wake up! She urged herself again and again. In her mind she doubted for a brief flicker that maybe this was not a nightmare. That maybe these bodiless arms meant her harm.
This was the single best thought Illyria had during her dream-like plummet. But, it had been a brief flicker. Her mind was allowed no further thought on the matter simply because at the very next instant all she felt was icy, turbulent waters. It choked her with every wave, the freezing salty spray assaulted her; and worse yet, the arms were now attached to bodies. If you could call them that. Brackish skeletal creatures, their bones were the same empty black as the sky she had been falling through. Then it made sense, these things had brought her here. With their impossibly long sinewy arms somehow they had grabbed her from her sleep; and now grasping at her Illyria knew they wanted her life. Between their hollow fangs she could hear her name being shrieked. These things, they knew her.
Their needle-like fingernails scraped and pierced through her skin with ease, all the while she struggled madly to get free, to get air. Too late had she realized the reality of it all. And now every sense she had was screaming out for her to fight. Wildly, she thrashed in the icy waters, the water stung her eyes and choked her throat; but already she knew if she paused for even a moment she would lose to the monsters. Her strength waned, and she took her air in gasps that she had to fight for.
But the skeletons were strong, and there were so many. She would die here, Illyria could feel it. She felt her energy being sapped, and finally began to give into the knowledge that this was the end. That somehow, in some strange place, by the hands of strange creatures: she was going to die. The monsters knew, they could sense her forfeit. Their hideous fanged mouths twisted into grins with malicious intent.
“Illyria!” They shrieked again and again, “Illyria!” It was a chorus of shrill voices like insane seagulls.
And just as quickly as it had all begun, it was silent. The creatures released her, their heads swiveled away, all facing the surface where something large had just broken the barrier between air and water and intruded in their watery world. As one, every one of them tensed and hissed with mouths open, flying at the source of the turbulent water near the surface. The surface! Illyria could make it out now thanks to whatever it was that interrupted her death. She kicked wildly, thrashing her legs. Just a little farther. Just one more kick!
Air! It filled her lungs, she spat out the water that had seeped into her mouth. She gasped over and over, the air that burned her lungs now felt like hell, but she loved it. She struggled to stay afloat, before remembering just what it was she had been swimming from. She looked back and saw a monstrous black snake thrashing in the waves, the child-sized skeletons biting and clawing at its scales. Meanwhile, the head of the serpent would tear through their numbers, fangs so terrible Illyria felt paralyzed just looking at it. Its head was like that of a massive alligator but with sleek black antlers jetting out from its brow, the antlers sloped over the beast’s raven mane, like that of a lion, but somehow it seemed silky, almost liquid as it thrashed about in the ocean spray, killing several of the skeletal creatures with every movement. And for a moment, just a brief gasp, the serpent’s eye caught Illyria’s.
The command filled her mind. And she wheeled in the water, stroking the waves with a summoned energy she didn’t think she had anymore. She wasn’t sure if her mind had told her to go, or if it had somehow been the black snake. Quickly she glanced over her shoulder, somehow expecting the answer to manifest. Instead she saw the magnificent beast still fighting off wave after wave of those small creatures. But for every dozen it destroyed another larger group would appear. Endlessly it fought against them. Illyria floated, bobbing on the waves of their skirmish. She had to escape, that was what the voice had told her to do. Yet despite its massive size and fearsome fangs the black serpent was losing, there were too many of the other creatures. It was being weighed down. It would die.
And then what? What would she do then? Illyria’s mind raced with the possibilities, she looked at the black water all around her. There was no island or rock in sight. So she swam, she swam with all her power towards the raven black beast. Now with larger prey the small skeletal creatures barely paid her any attention. They all did their best to bring the serpent to the depths of the dark ocean. The beast’s blood filled the dark water surrounding it, making it even more difficult for Illyria to see where she was swimming. Yet on she swam. Until her hand collided with it. A wall of massive scales, it twitched under her hand. The fierce head deftly cut through the waters and stared at her, ignoring the creatures ripping through its scales and mane.