A strong pungent odor burned Zax’s respiratory system through his nostrils and rose to his brain, the body organ which contained the soul.
Zax woke up from the smell, but when his eyes opened what he saw was foreign. All he could see as he stared above was the ground as the ceiling and a dim light illuminating from somewhere. The last imagery that Zax could remember was the earth he was lying on splitting and a black shadow, like a long and thick whip, moving quickly out of the cracks, tossing large pieces of the shattered earth.
“Urgh…” Zax moaned when he tried to get up. His stomach and back were in pain he was not aware of until he slightly moved himself up. Before he could achieve a measly one hundred and sixty degrees position, Zax’s body fell back and acute pain circling his abdomen and lower back specify the area of his injuries.
“Gural… Gural… Gural…”
The sound was getting closer, from the direction that his feet were turned to. At the same time Zax also heard “THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP…” which was the sound of his heart throbbing.
The same thing that made the “Gural” sound stomped the ground.
“It’s getting closer”. Zax said aloud only because his mind was busy sulking in misery.
“The unsafe zone… it wasn’t unsafe because its proximity to the REALLY unsafe beasts cave, but because there were still beasts roaming in the searching cave… I was such a fool! How I didn’t think about it?! If it was the entrance to the next cave that they didn’t want us to get close to, they could have just placed Guardians at the tunnel…” It was the voice of a child that learned his lesson which rang in his mind.
However, apart from his own natural sprouting temperament, there was one other voice that Zax listened to and in the past few days it can be said, if one looked deeply, that it bewitched his soul, so much that it entwined and became an integral part of Zax’s foundations.
The other voice was soundless, so Zax could only interact with it by accepting how it made him feel. The one dominating sensation was arrogance. The same arrogance that made Zax to so easily believe that his hardships will be to sneak into the batch of new participants and avoid the staff members and different Guardians as he crosses the searching cave, than facing the populated beasts’ cave he was heading to.
In this moment, it was the sense of arrogance that made Zax to act, rather than keep sulking. Unsure if he should use his Soul Sense and if he do how it will affect him, Zax preferred to first bet on his Qi to survive the, might be, approaching confrontation, since it felt like his Qi was back in order, though surrounding the Earth’s Core in his dantian due to its inexplicable powers of attraction.
Zax folded his knees and in both of his legs started to stream and to accumulate his Qi. In his mind he prepared himself to kick with his feet, to force himself up and find a way to escape, to threaten the beast – because, yes, he was sure that he was brought to this underground place by a beast – even to kick the ground and create lots of noise in hope that someone, a representative Guardians, an event’s Guardian will hear him and come to his rescue.
Regardless of his chances to preserve his life, Zax was determined to retaliate.
As the beast, a few meters from Zax, noticed his action it instantly halted its movement and only its voice continued to reverberate. “Gural… Gural… Gural…”
The growling sounds repeated but the urgency changed. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Those were the only fluctuations that Zax’s human ear perceived. What was the meaning, the desire behind those sounds? Even if his mind was unruffled by the current situation, there was little chance that he will know the answer.
“Is it not coming?” The question dared to slightly calm the uncertainty in his heart.
As if to give him an answer, or maybe Zax did, unconsciously, understand the beast, the creature, which was no more than three meters away from his feet, stomped the ground with its heavy steps.
Until now Zax raised his head to see the appropriate, probably futile, moment to kick when the beast came close enough. It hurt more in his stomach muscles than in his lower back when he bent his neck and body a bit up, but it still did not provide him a clear site of the beast. Zax only had a full impression of one part of the beast’s body when it turned around and stepped away. What he saw was the perfect shape of the beast’s tail that like a thick and long branch, crossed the distance between them and fluttered over his body. The whip like tail was covered by brown scales and the moment Zax saw it, no more than a meter above him, he knew that he could not obstruct such a massive thing.
“It’s going!” It was like a scene from a dream or a late night movie. The monster was leaving and one person, although injured and shaken, got to stay alive.
Zax concentrated his strength and endurance on getting up again. Being aware of the pain made it easier the second time, and although it was not less painful and felt as if a giant stone was weighing on his stomach, Zax managed to gradually move his torso up.
“Gural… Gural… Gural…” The beast persistently returned and this time Zax got to see all of it, or at least from its front appearance, recognize it.
In Kingdom Earth there were only two sole lessons which bothered mentioning to children the existence of the beasts. One was History lesson where beasts were talked about briefly and to the point. The other one was Geography lesson where the students learned in an abbreviated manner about the sort of beasts that ruled some of the major mapped caves in the beasts’ territory.
To recognize the beast in front of him, it was not thanks to the history lessons or geography lessons that Zax knew it, but by watching beasts’ related shows on the Screen and being exposed to reading materials about the beasts’ territory that experts have published online.
The beast that dragged him to this cavern was, in its full name, an Earth Shattering Brown Digger.
The Brown Digger was a mammal type beast from the giant rodents’ family, even though it had brown reptilian scales covering its tail and hind legs. Its body shape was similar to that of a rat with brown fur. Its limbs, however, were short and vicious, adorned by long and tough claws that could tear through the earth as if it was a giant piece of tofu. The head of the Brown Digger was its least impacting feature. The head was large and not completely round, though it had reptilian eyes, the rest, even the snout, was covered by puffy layers of fur. Only the knowledge of its hidden sharp teeth could truly alert others from this not far from being adorable face.
The Brown Digger that appeared before Zax was clearly an adult one. From the tip of its tail to its hidden snout the length was more than four meters. Its height when on its four limbs was around a meter and fifty centimeters.
Zax stared fixated at Brown Digger preying eyes. When he moved up most of the accumulated Qi in his feet dispersed. If the Brown Digger could sense his Qi accumulating once more, Zax was afraid that he will strike first and kill him. At this point, not even the arrogance sensation could supply him with an idea of what to do, for the most part not by using his Qi.
“Gural… Gural… Gural…”
The Brown Digger expression was impossible to decipher. It growled and motionlessly looked at Zax’s direction. The one thing which differentiated it from a statue was the long scaly tail that was swaying and rubbing the ground.
The standstill between the two had mentally and physically exhausted Zax. He tried to stay watchful of any sudden movement of the Brown Digger, but how long has it been since he last ate or drank something? He was not craving food or water due to his emotional state, but his body, the Qi, the soul… The three aspects of a living being were hardly bothered by emotional disposition when it intersected with the basic need for nourishment, for survival.
Gazing at his wristwatch could also arouse the Brown Digger’s hostility, so Zax could not even tell how long he stood there while unknowingly grabbing his stomach right where it hurt.
It was not long before Zax started panting. A few minutes of short and painful breaths brought him back to the coarse earth, this time on his bottom.
“A soul attack…” Zax was panting even slowed the thought in his head. If it were not for his inner mind, his head would have being been utterly blank. “A soul attack with all my might… and then try to escape…” The cavern was embedded with a few Sun Stones in the size of a rise grain. Looking past the Brown Digger, because of the dim lighting, Zax was not sure if the cavern was sealed by the Brown Digger or connected to a tunnel that might be the means for his escape.
Ten minutes, without a doubt, have passed since his bottom touched the earth. Another fifteen minutes as surely also followed as Zax and the Brown Digger continued their oppressive standstill.
“An hour…? An hour has definitely passed since I woke up… Two maybe…?” Zax head was boiling. Not just because he fought to restrain his bodily needs, but also because of the odor of the cavern. The more and longer that the foul odor had entered Zax’s nostrils, the harder it was to bear it.
In the end, a ten years old is a ten years old and in terms of his physique, Zax could only be said to be slightly better than an average ten years old boy. Thus, he collapsed.
“Gural… Gural… Gural…”
The growls hovered so close to his face.
“Crunch… Crunch… Crunch…”
Was he been eaten by the Brown Digger?
“Flup… Flup… Flup…”
Something wet and smelly, though less smelly than the cavern, constantly rub him.
Zax opened his eyes, wondering if he broke some kind of a record in passing out. The thought was not the first thing to cross his mind, but for some reason Zax felt that before anything, he should cling to this one pearl of amusement, It was his coping mechanism in case the Brown Digger was really eating him and his body had been torn to the a state where he could feel anything.
“But then, how am I awake?” The question took the form of a lifeboat, the one Zax always saw in Serah’s favorite online game, Mocca Kart, with dirt wheels and turbines – real lifeboat were unneeded in Kingdom Earth and today the only leftovers from the past were rare pictures and drawings of how it was when people lived above the ground.
As he sailed across the sea of his consciousness, incapable of coming up with an answer, finding the most remote island, a metallic, salty liquid poured into Zax’s mouth and filled it to the brim in an instant.
Zax could not help but rise with his back that was lying on the ground and hit his head in the Brown Digger’s opened jaw.
As if it was not worse enough before, Zax found himself between the sharp teeth of the Brown Digger as a gush of red green liquid burst from his throat and spilled all over his body. The bloody scene was surreal; all of Zax five senses suffered an absolute shock.
Was he awake? Yes. Was it real? Certainly. Was he aware that his body was in one piece, up and without pain? Absolutely not.
Zax’s hand pushed the current of red green liquid in vain. The current only stopped when the Brown Digger closed its mouth and Zax was unintentionally mimicking it, standing all four on the ground.
Zax spat the red green liquid that washed his mouth and smeared all of his body. Tiny meaty pieces where here and there, on the ground, stuck to him or coming out from his mouth. Even without the help of his Soul Sense Zax knew the source of this ground meat. “The Brown Digger last meal!” If he could, Zax would throw up, but his body was past this poor habit and his gag reflex toughened in the past couple of days…
Ground meat was not the only thing that came out with the stream of red green liquid. Thin slices of vegetation, mainly roots, were scattered everywhere.
The red green liquid, Zax assumed, was partly blood, partly fluids of the green roots.
As Zax stood up on his feet with a straight back his gaze first fell on the Brown Digger. The beast seemed to be in a laid back mood after releasing the tension in its stomach. It did not gaze back at Zax or cared for another standstill. It simply dug its face into the earth, licked and munched only the meaty pieces of its already digested meal.
Seeing that the Brown Digger was not concerned with him a familiar feeling resurface in Zax. The former arrogance sensation changed back into the vague attractive desire, which was responsible for his current situation.
“What’s got into me?” Zax asked, he wanted to hear his voice and did not fret about the Brown Digger hearing him. “First I’m using my Soul Sense and lose control while partaking in the search. When I return to myself it’s only after I faint and wake up, forgetting the stuff others say I did. Then, I’m slowly feeling like there is something in the beasts’ cave that’s pulling me toward it, making me want… whatever it is… Now I’m stuck in this cavern with an adult Brown Digger that first I feel confident enough to take on and after it puke on me, it’s all well…”
As crazy as all of it sounds, Zax knew the origin to the madness that befell him. But dealing with it… The origin was the alien sensation, desire, need or whichever other name that Zax could find fit to describe it. And the problem was that during a short period of time, maybe after the second time that Zax lost control, the alien sensation was no longer alien and actually became part of him. That part, although messed up, was not something Zax could refute, and asking him to ignore or overcome it will be the same as asking a kleptomaniac not to steal. Zax’s actions, at first, were not done on purpose, but now it was unstoppable, at least until the sensation, desire, need or whichever… will be satisfied.
What Zax cared about after he got up on his feet, apart from the sensation, was to clean himself as much as possible from the disgust that stuck to his body. Zax went as far as stripping out of his clothes – it was not like the only other being around paid attention to him, and even if it did, whether its meal was wrap by fabric, scales, feathers, fur or bald, a Brown Digger could eat anything.
“Useless! I need to wash myself”. Zax gave up. When the Brown Digger snatched him, his backpack was either left behind or fell somewhere along the way to this cavern. If he had it in hand he could have used the water from the water bottles to clean himself since he emptied only a third of one bottle out of the two that he took from the Medical tent.
“The pulling and squeezing from the Brown Digger’s tail…” As Zax saw his stomach, waist and back a spark of comprehension appeared in his eyes and he grimaced. Where the Brown Digger tail wrapped him, a belt of red and blue, ground skin and bruises, encircled his waist.
“The juice of the green roots!” Taking a closer look made Zax call in wonderment.
The red part of the liquid was the blood of the creature the Brown Digger ate. The green part of the liquid was the fluids of the roots that the Brown Digger ate. When Zax examined his wounds and saw that despite the severity of them he did not feel pain while turning, bending and even touching, an absurd hypothesis crossed his mind. He discovered that while the blood dried and hardened on his skin, the fluids remained gooey, tucked under an armor made of blood, as if it was an ointment under a bandage.
“What the…!” Zax’s gaze shot at the Brown Digger who flinched from the quick and sudden movement and stared back at him suspiciously. “Your puke has medicinal effect?”
Obviously the Brown Digger did not answer verbally or even treat the sounds coming out from Zax’s mouth as if they held any meaning which was directed toward it. Its intelligence was only a little better than that of the cattle that was raised in some of cave twenty five’s farms. In response to Zax’s subsiding gaze the Brown Digger’s mere action was lowering its head to its meal.
As both kept a mutual distance, Zax drew his attention to his slowly healing injuries. To avoid rousing submerged pain, he inspected to which extent he could move. As he stretched his arms above his head it abruptly occurred to him. “My wristwatch!”
Not knowing how long it had been since he ended up in the Brown Digger’s cavern, Zax lowered his hands to check the time and date in his wristwatch. He scraped the blood that smeared the tiny display and frowned right after. The date froze on the same day of the search he snuck into and the time also froze on an hour which, unless it was a new day, should have passed long ago. “It broke…” An immature sigh escaped Zax’s mouth.
“Well then”, Zax’s hands loosened and fell to the sides of his waist. “If it doesn’t gonna eat me and instead chose to treat the wounds that its tail caused… Then maybe it won’t stop me from leaving”. Step by step, Zax exercised caution as he executed his decision to leave.
“Not going to stop?” The thought softly wondered as he encircled the long body of the Brown Digger.
The Brown Digger lifted its furry apathetic head from the earth, still chewing the ground meat its tongue picked up and stared at Zax. A black radiant appeared in between its eyes.