The longer they walked along the same road the beasts had herded the strange plant-creatures, the more real everything felt to Nisa. A cool breeze blew her hair behind her, whipping her loose work shirt around her waist. Unfortunately, she had dressed in khaki shorts, which meant sometimes, as the cool breeze blew, it made Nisa shiver. It was strange, though—well, everything about this entire situation was strange—but the cool breeze hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. When they had been exploring the ruins, the air had been still—almost like early summer. Yet, now it felt almost like the end of fall, bordering on winter.
The road itself was paved with odd stones that seemed more like thousands of pebbles in all shades of gray, brown, silver, white, and black. Above them, the sky had shifted from a light blue, to a bluish green and the longer Nisa stared at it, the more she hoped this was all a hallucination. If it was real; if this truly was another world, her mind couldn’t find a way to rationalize it. How could science and everything they believed in support another world? Worse, it wasn’t even another world in space—they had arrived here through some mysterious means in the pyramid.
Bea knelt, slipping on a glove from her pocket as she held a glop of dark green material in her hand. “Interesting.”
Susie stared at Bea in disbelief, and then gagged. “Please tell me that isn’t what I think it is…”
Bea stood up, glancing from Susie to Nisa. “I think this is the creature’s… droppings. They’re plants, but they seem more alive than plants on earth—more like a peaceful mammal than a plant. They can actually digest things. But what do they eat?”
Nisa shook her head, running her hands through her hair with a heavy sigh. She was having enough trouble trying to understand this situation and this world without adding to it.
Oliver shot her a concerned glance and then met Bea’s gaze. “Right now, we need to find out who owns those creatures. You can study more about them later.” His words brought her relief; it was as if he knew exactly what she was thinking and what she needed right now.
Oliver grabbed her hand as Bea tossed the plant droppings back to the ground. Chris and Susie pointedly ignored each other; Chris walked on Oliver’s left side, whereas Susie walked on Bea and Nisa’s right—completely opposite of each other. This entire situation and the endless possibilities about what could really be happening to them distracted Nisa so much that she didn’t even bother to try to talk to Susie or Chris to see if they had worked things out. It was obvious they hadn’t, but normally, Nisa would have talked with Susie to try to help them both, if it was possible.
The road continued on ahead, toward the edge of a hill that lowered down around them. Nisa’s eyes widened at the sight. Beyond the hill, a gigantic valley spread out before them. Miles and miles away, mountains towered up into the colorful sky, surrounding the valley.
“How big do you think it is?” Nisa gasped.
Chris shrugged. “Hundreds of miles. Biggest valley I’ve ever seen.”
Susie shook her head. “If it’s hundreds of miles or bigger than anything on earth, then how are we able to see the mountains on the other side?”
“They’re huge, that’s why,” Nisa responded. Granted, mountains on earth were mind-blowingly large and majestic, but these—these mountains were on a whole different size level.
“Look.” Bea tugged on Nisa’s wrist, drawing her attention away from the stunning scenery in front of them. In the field to their right, the four beasts had herded the plant creatures into what looked to be, a field behind a house. At least, Nisa thought it might have been a house. In reality, it was cream-colored and orange, looking more like the shape of an upside-down ice-cream cone. Even the sides of the building’s “walls” were twisted and spiraled up to the pointy tip where smoke billowed out of the top.
“The architecture is unique,” Chris murmured.
Oliver shook his head. “I’m not sure how that thing’s even standing.”
A man stood in front of the strange structure, holding up his hands. Blue energy that shimmered like water poured from his hands, forming a small shield in front of himself and a woman next to him. He shouted at them, but Nisa couldn’t understand him.
“That a language you know, Ni?” Oliver cast her a sideways glance.
Nisa shook her head. “Not any I’ve heard.”
“… not any from earth, you mean.” Susie pursed her lips.
Taking a deep breath, Nisa held up her hands in surrender, hoping to show the man that they didn’t mean him any harm. Her thoughts focused more on her specific words, rather than all the things about this that she didn’t understand—how was he creating that energy shield? “We don’t mean you any harm!” she said.
The man exchanged a look with the woman, who darted inside the structure. His glare intensified and the blue energy glistened and shimmered as he spoke again.
Nisa shook her head. “I’m sorry, but we don’t understand you. We came from—“ She cut herself off and then pointed back in the direction of the ruins. “—from a place back there. We’re not sure where we are or how we got here.”
The woman darted back out the door, holding an octagonal device in her hands. She closed her eyes and white energy poured from her hands into the device.
Shock rippled through Nisa and she wanted to close her eyes, open them, and be back on earth, to find herself waking up after having a weird and strangely vivid dream.
The man spoke again and a few seconds later, the device beeped and repeated him—in English. “Stay away from us! You entered the Cursed Ground!”
Nisa’s eyes widened and she gaped at the man in shock.
Chris gasped. “That device can translate languages.”
“Maybe it’s some sort of cell phone.” Susie shrugged.
Chris shot her a hard stare. “A cell phone doesn’t explain the odd energy in their hands.”
“What Cursed Ground are you talking about?” Nisa asked him. “Are you talking about the ruins back there?” As soon as she finished speaking, the device beeped and repeated her words in his strange language.
The man’s eyes narrowed on them. “Yes. That ground is Cursed! If you come any closer, I’ll be forced to turn you to stone and teleport you away.”
The urge to laugh bubbled up inside Nisa’s chest. Everything about this place, where they were, what was happening, all seemed like just a really crazy dream. Magic didn’t exist, other worlds didn’t exist. It was… impossible.
Then, an idea struck her. Even if it wasn’t real, maybe she could find out more. Nisa was never one to miss an opportunity for discovery. “Okay,” she started, “we won’t come any closer. We’ll leave. But first, can you tell me what these words mean?”
She grabbed her phone and turned to the picture she had taken of the symbols on the ruined wall. Licking her lips, she held her phone up and then realized the man would likely be unable to see it from this distance—twenty to thirty feet at least.
The man scrunched his eyes and slowly nodded. “As long as you promise you and your companions will leave.”
Nisa nodded. “Promise.”
The man stared at her phone and Nisa shook off the questions as to how he was able to do such a thing. After several minutes that lasted way too long, the man finally spoke. “It’s about the Curse.”
“What Curse?” Nisa asked.
The man frowned at her. “The Curse! The Curse of Eight!”
Nisa shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. Can you read it for me exactly as it’s written, please?”
Slowly, the man nodded. “It says, ‘The first Curse was cast upon Thygwyn. Only once the Eighth Curse has been cast can she break the Eight Curses and free Glacea from the Cursed Ones.’”
Nisa swallowed deeply, feeling a chill deep within her bones. Oliver wrapped his arms around her and she leaned deeper into him. “Th—thank you,” she said, once she finally found her voice. “We’ll leave now. Could you tell us where the nearest town is?”
The man glared at her in fury, shaking his head. “No! I will not guide you a town just so you can be a plague upon them! You have been on the Cursed Ground! Leave this place and never come back! Retreat to the wilderness where you belong!”
Nisa squeezed her cell phone, dropping it in her pocket. “We don’t understand what you’re talking about. How could being around those ruins have ‘cursed’ us?”
The man shook his head. “No! I will not speak of it! Now begone!”
Nisa glanced at Oliver, who nodded his head. “We’d better go, Ni. We’ll find a town on our own and someone who can explain what’s going on here.”
Chris gestured to the road. “I agree. This man seems a bit… insane.”
Chris stepped onto the other side of the road and Oliver, Nisa, Bea, and Susie followed suit, trying to walk as far away from the other man as possible. Whatever energy he had with him still stayed in his hands and his unwavering, nervous gaze never strayed from them. In the back of her mind, Nisa wondered if she had some sort of gloves or weapons that emitted the energy. Could the government have that kind of weaponry?
That still wouldn’t explain how they arrived from the pyramid to this place or why it didn’t look like anything on earth. Was it more likely they had stumbled onto some underground paradise that the Egyptians had discovered?
Her hand clenched Oliver’s as the man’s words repeated in her mind like a mantra. “The first Curse was cast upon Thygwyn. Only once the Eighth Curse has been cast can she break the Eight Curses and free Glacea from the Cursed Ones.”
Her original translation based on her notes had been slightly off: “The cursed foreigner was but one of eight terrible curses… Only she can break the curses of eight and free his home from them.”
Nisa’s mind reeled, desperately searching for answers that they didn’t have. Her heart hammered in her chest so hard it made it ache and only Oliver’s hand in hers brought her some sense of comfort. Wherever they were, whatever they were going through, at least they were going through it together. That was what mattered most; Oliver, the man she loved was by her side, along with her friends.
“Guess we just keep walking,” Chris muttered.
They came to the edge of the hill and gazed down. It wasn’t a cliff side, but the hill still left a sharp incline down into the valley. Nisa wondered what was on the other side of the mountains. A valley like this one had likely been created from a meteor or something crashing into the earth, which then caused a crater. Over time, plants and animals grew in the crater, especially as rainwater filled it and formed rivers of their own. At least, that occasionally happened on earth, but this world—if it was, in fact, another world, obviously worked far differently than anything on earth did.
Oliver glanced at one of the trees to their right. Most of the forest here was filled with those strange, giant mushrooms and as Nisa’s stomach growled, she wondered if they were safe to eat. How long had it been since she’d eaten? Certainly, not since Callahan had taken over the dig. She’d been too busy and focused on getting it back, then they’d snuck into camp, gotten themselves trapped in the pyramid, and ended up here…wherever here was, anyway.
“Here.” Oliver grabbed a vine—or at least, Nisa thought it was a vine. It was made from blue material that felt more like plastic as she reached out and touched it. Oliver tugged on it and Nisa copied him at the same time, to test the “vine’s” strength. “It seems stable enough. I’ll wait here and lower the rest of you down one by one.”
Susie paled. “I’m not fond of heights and I’m not good at this.”
Chris sighed and reached his hands out to her. “Come on. Hold onto my back. Keep your head in my shoulder so you can’t see. I don’t want you throwing up all over me.”
Nisa wanted to giggle; at least they were able to talk to each other now and Chris seemed alright with helping her, on top of that. Susie jumped onto Chris’ back as he tied the end of the vine around his waist. Oliver wrapped the top of it—the section that was closer to the tree—around his and he braced himself as Chris walked to the edge of the hill and slowly started lowering himself down, backward. Susie squealed and clenched him tightly.
Nisa darted over and grabbed a boulder on the side of the road and placed it in front of Oliver. He used his foot to brace up against it and Nisa knelt down on the rock, holding it in place.
Chris slowly disappeared over the edge of the hill.
Bea nervously chewed on her fingernails. “You guys alright?” she called down.
“Great,” Chris said with a grunt.
Something tickled Nisa’s arm and she looked down. A blue line of fuzz slithered along the rock’s surface. She frowned at it and used her free hand to motion to Bea.
Bea knelt, gazing at it in awe. “It looks to be some sort of odd species of snake, maybe…”
Nisa froze, heart pounding viciously in her chest. “Bea, get it off me,” she hissed.
Bea slowly reached out toward the back of the creature’s tail.
It whipped around, opening its mouth wider than Nisa expected to reveal hundreds of sharp teeth.
Oliver stamped on it once, and then twice with a grunt. The vine slipped in his hands, but he caught it.
Chris grunted and Susie screamed. “You got us?”
“Yeah.” Oliver gritted his teeth.
Nisa stared at the squished snake-creature, feeling bile in the back of her throat.
Right before her eyes, its body filled itself back out, puffing out to its original size. With a furious growl, it leapt up toward Oliver’s leg, mouth open wide.
On pure instinct, Nisa reached out and grabbed the creature by the throat as Bea snatched its tail. The two women slipped away from Oliver and Nisa hoped he wouldn’t get distracted.
The creature thrashed and wiggled, slipping out of Nisa’s grip. It leapt toward her and latched its jaws onto her arm. Sharp tingling, like dozens of needles, pierced her skin and her entire body lost control of itself. She collapsed onto the ground, unable to breathe or scream.
Oliver shouted her name and panic and horror filled Nisa. Was this how she would die? What if she had been bitten in the pyramid, and its venom caused her to hallucinate all of this?
Was this really how she would die?
A gunshot went off and the pain receded at last. Nisa took a huge gulp of air and sat up, body trembling as she panted heavily.
Bea knelt in front of her, glancing at her arm. “Nisa, are you okay? I thought—oh, Nisa!”
“You alright, Nisa?” Oliver called.
“Yeah.” Shakily, Nisa nodded.
Bea’s hands trembled where she held Oliver’s gun.
Nisa glanced at the ground where the creature’s body lay, its head nowhere to be found. “Y—you shot it?”
Bea nodded, licking her lips. “It was kind of a lucky shot. I ran over and grabbed Oliver’s gun. I didn’t know what else to do and he was this close to dropping Chris and Susie.”
Nisa stumbled to her feet, glancing at her arm. The wound was nothing more than a few small holes—bite marks. But she didn’t feel any other symptoms. “Do you think the venom is still in me, Bea?”
Bea grabbed her arm and gazed at the wound more closely. “It doesn’t look like it. You’re not feeling any symptoms anymore, are you?”
Nisa shook her head. “No, I feel fine.”
“The creature kept hold of you. I think as long as its teeth touched your skin, it seemed to paralyze you. My guess is, your system would have shut down and then it either would have started eating you or released you. But when I shot it, obviously the teeth left you,” Bea explained.
“Alright, we’re down!” came Chris’ distant reply.
Oliver glanced at Nisa. “Get over here. I’m lowering you down next before something else bad happens to you.”
He would get no arguments from her.