"Where do you stand?" The voices echoed in my head, pounding like a jackhammer.
I took a breath and shouted at the top of my lungs, "I stand with my family!" No sound came out. I gasped for air as pain shot through my body. My head, my chest, down to my legs. Every dose of chemo, every spinal tap, every blood draw, and injection; the pain rippled like electricity. I figured this must be what it felt like to be put to death by lethal injection.
I grabbed at my guts as I felt my knees collapse from under me. But as my hands touched my stomach I felt blood, lots of blood. And organs. Oh God. My body was tearing open. My heart was racing, my vision was becoming blurry, but around me, I could hear the sounds of combat. Swords clashed, flames roared, screams and cries could be heard in all directions. "I stand with my family," the words choked in my throat. I didn't care if I lived or died but I needed to know my family would survive.
"Azzy... Olivia... Lucas..." I closed my eyes and felt a rush of energy. When my eyes opened, I saw that I, my wife, my sister, and my son were in a different part of the cave. There were small bursts of light coming from cracks in the ceiling, but I was only certain of our situation when a bolt of lightning cut across the sky, raining down a river of glowing crystals.
"Now it's a fair fight." My sister landed on two feet, like a superhero, holding her golden arm in front of her face like a Spartan shield. With her dark hair and soft features she looked, for a moment, like Wonder Woman. Then, with a wave of her golden arm, green wings burst from her back: wings made of sugarcane. "Yes, Azzy, these are Remy's wings. Your bodyguard is gone and soon you will share his fate- demon queen!"
My visions cleared enough to allow me to see Olivia tackle my wife. Azzy brushed her long black hair from her face, revealing her rage. My wife was bleeding from her forehead and lip. "Remy's gone? You did me a favor." Both women appeared to be glowing, wings made of branches and raptor-like claws. "He meant nothing to me!"
Their new forms were the physical embodiment of pure rage. It was painfully clear, things were about to get so much worse. I needed to find Lucas. My vision was fading in an out, accompanied by a horrific migraine, but with the light of the crystals, I could see my son cowering in a corner. I quickly limped to his side. "It's OK, everything is going to be OK." For once I could hear the sound of my own voice. Not that I believed the words coming out of my mouth. The ceiling was shaking, and the falling chunks of rock and were becoming larger- we were going to be buried alive.
"Papa, I'm scared."
I held Lucas close, shielding his body from falling debris. I could feel his tears on my skin.
"I'm sorry, Papa."
"You have nothing to be sorry for."
"I'm sorry I said Uncle Remy was my real Papa. I don't love Uncle Remy, I love you."
"I love you too." I held Lucas in my arms, as the battle raged on. I knew I was forcing his face into my blood covered chest but I didn't care. I couldn't let him see his mother and aunt as monsters. There was light coming from somewhere above. If I could figure out where we were I could make another portal. There had to be someplace safe to escape to.
My hopes were dashed when Olivia slammed Azzy into the ceiling causing a fracture to form. The source of light had been a massive fire from the level above us. Bodies rained down from the opening. Some were charred beyond recognition, others were in pieces.
"Watch out!" Olivia shouted. She had the courtesy to send a bolt of electricity my way so I wouldn't be crushed by falling body parts.
I ducked as a severed foot narrowly missed my head. The situation was hopeless. The world was going to end, all I could do was try to give Lucas some level of comfort before our eventual deaths.
"Papa," he said. His sweet little voice muffled under my chest.
"I can feel your heart. It's so warm." He moved his head to look up.
Looking into his eyes, I could tell, in that moment he was no longer afraid.
I knew what I had to do. Maybe it was stupid and would make no difference or maybe this was what was meant to happen. "Lucas, I need you to close your eyes and give me big hug." I placed my hand over my son's cheek. I could feel the softness of his face next to the bones of my ribs.
Could I even do this? Even with how broken my body was, there was no way I could break my own ribs. Slowly I stood up, making sure to move Lucas's head a reasonable distance away from my chest.
"Keep your eyes closed." I could feel him bury his face into my hip. I stroked his hair as I waited for the right moment. When I saw a piece of rock falling I pushed him out of the way and dove under it, allowing the mass to hit me square in the chest.
Lucas screamed, then so did Azzy and Olivia. But I paid them no mind.
With my ribs broken, I reached my hand in my chest. I bypassed my lungs, which were filling with blood, to my heart and I gave it one hard tug. Time stood still, then just as quickly my world went dark. I felt no pain, no joy, no hope- I felt nothing. "Azzy? Are you there?" The words echoed in my head. I had no voice, no throat, no mouth.
"I'm here," her voice echoed through the void, sounding as beautiful as any angel. "And I always will be."
"We were never meant to have it all," I said, either to myself or out loud. I was dead and from where I stood, it seemed that I would be stuck in purgatory for the rest of eternity. "All the way back from Adam and Eve- humans were never meant to surpass God." And much like Adam and Eve, we appear to have royally pissed off the creator of the universe.
"I know, but I had to try," her voice was breaking. "I love you so much."
"I love you too. Until the end of time." I didn't know what would happen next. I was expecting to see a bright light, maybe even my parents. Seeing Remy or Jamie would have been preferable to the sudden sensation I felt ripple through my core.
I heard a roar, like an earthquake or a tidal wave. In the darkness I couldn't feel anything; I had no body, no limbs- nothing to move out of the way, no way to run. The caterpillar, the mass of undead souls- was heading straight at me.
The impact hit like a freight train. I felt hands, nails, cold breath, but no pain. This was what was meant to happen. I needed to control it, to become one- to sacrifice my soul.
"Johnny, Johnny. Yes Papa?" The demonic voice was Azzy's father, reciting the mocking nursery rhyme. "Eating sugar?"
"No Papa!" He was accompanied by a chorus of other voices; old, young, male, female.
"No Papa!" The voices were laughing.
"Open..." Azzy's father's demonic voice felt abnormally close. "Your..." I could feel his pulse, his heartbeat. "Mouth."
I could feel his breath, searing hot. The heat was growing, like a portal, I felt like I was being pulled into hell. Is this what all of the victims of the caterpillar experienced? This was what I deserved. This would make things right.
"I don't think so," Remy's calm, surfer, voice echoed behind me. "We have places to be and people to see."
"Remy?" I felt multiple pairs of hands pulling me upward, away from the darkness into a bright heavenly light.
When we were high enough, Remy, who was also being carried by angels, kicked the darkness. "Johnny, tell your sister to give me back my wings."
"Are you dead?" I asked. I could still see Remy's body. He looked the same as he always did, with his long hair and paint covered sweatpants.
"I'm a demon. I can't exactly cross over."
"Why do you think Azzy was so pissed about losing you?"
"Oh." Would I truly never see my family again? I looked down at my body. Slowly I was materializing back into my familiar skin. "What am I?"
"Whatever they need you to be." Remy landed on a cloud surface and knelt before a glowing light. "Whatever we were meant to be."