'Twas the Backspin After New Year's: Citizen Anna and the Birth of Hope
[ The Conclusion of the Trilogy ]
It all began with the Christmas Eve disappearance of Carla, and the belief that it was the handiwork of an evil force. As Citizen Anna and a small band of followers trekked across the icy landscape in search of their friend, it was revealed that the heart of The Radwanska's Plan did not solely threaten the present and the future, but also the past.
Toward the Darkness
From a distance, the entrance seemed so small. But, up close, it's enormous. Or maybe it's just our expectation about what lies beyond it, in its cavernous depths, that's so big. We all hesitate as we peer into the thick blackness which begins just a few feet in front our frozen-by-the-wind faces.
But not Anna.
She looks around at the rest of us. "We didn't come all this way to just wait around for someone to invite us in," she says. "I say we commit a little home invasion." She turns and takes a sweeping look over the whole group, being sure to make eye contact with everyone. "Stay behind me, and if I say so... run like hell." She turns back toward the cave. "Well, into the breach, my babies," she says with a smile.
In one seamless motion, she pulls her sword from its sheath and readies it in an on-guard position in front of her, then takes a confident step toward the darkness. In an instant, she's out of sight.
From everyone's right, Zidane says, "Normally, that would be really hot." Diane looks over at him with a smirk. "Today, not as much." He pauses. "Well, actually, it's still pretty hot, now that I think about it." Sneaky Patty elbows him in the gut.
With that, Diane takes up Tarzan in her arms, and we all step forward into the unknown.
As we follow closely behind Anna, making our way deeper and deeper into the cave, walking down long passageways and turning around blind corners, we don't know what we'll find on the other side. As we go, we're often greeted by small shafts of light beaming down from the ceiling, revealing to and tantalizing us with the brightness of the landscape above and beyond the cave. We're all concerned about Carla, of course, but it'd be a lie to say that we're only thinking about finding her inside this place. Naturally, we nervously consider the possibility of coming face-to-"face" with The Radwanska. Since it's more than a passing thought that this might be The Rad's personal lair -- and/or the "cheese" on this human (and feline)-sized mouse trap -- we're not above wondering if we'll see the barren, snowy landscape outside, or anything else, ever again.
The farther we go, the warmer our surroundings get. It's as if we're slowing descending down into the pits of hell. Every few steps, Anna looks back at Tarzan in Diane's arms. The cat's glowing eyes are even spookier in the semi-dark, and their brightness alternately grows and wanes as we go along, causing Anna to choose specific walkways to traverse as she attempts to gauge the intensity of Tarzan's orbs, helping her navigate our course toward what we've been brought here to find.
Suddenly, after slowly taking a step around one blind corner, Anna stops. She throws back her arm to signal us to stop, keeping her sword up in front of her in a defensive stance. "Shhhh," she says. We were being anything but chatty, but when we stop in our tracks even are footsteps no longer make sound. It is eerily silent... except for the sound of a far-off voice. Once she knows that we're hearing the same she is, and that our continued silence is paramount, Anna inches along the path.
As we get closer and closer to the voices -- there are more than one -- the rest of us instinctively allow Anna to take a bigger lead. Finally, she reaches a corner around which the voices emanate. She waits for us to come up behind her, then she, alone and sword ready, takes the final steps around the corner. Once she's cleared the shadows and walks into the open area beyond the rock wall, we see a brighter light reflecting back onto her face. We watch as she takes a few additional steps, squinting to see what is before her. Then, suddenly, she lowers her sword, almost dejectedly. With that, we hear a chilling, guttural, deep-voiced -- yet somehow joyous -- scream that reverberates throughout the cave, shaking the walls and making us all huddle together for fear that the ceiling will cave in on us.
Then, just as suddenly, it stops.
Anna looks toward us, then motions to join her. She gestures toward the large open area a short distance away -- a pit surrounded by rocky walls, with a lone stone platform jutting up from the ground in the middle. Perched atop it are two figures, one dressed in black, the other in bright red. They are still, and then they -- we make out through our collective confusion -- embrace. After a moment, we realize they're kissing. They both take a step to the side, revealing a third individual that had previously been obscured by the comparatively enormous size of the other two.
Then Tarzan meows.
His voice is amplified by the cave walls, causing all our hearts to jump. Diane grabs hold of him of him to keep him quiet, but the sound has already garnered the attention of the three individuals. The two largest turn their attention in our direction, and one takes a step closer.
"Tarzan?," she asks, "Is that you? Diane, are you here?"
As soon as she speaks, we all recognize that it's Carla. Next to her, of course, is Carl. While Carla is happy, Carl is visibly, even from a distance, NOT pleased. Immediately, noting the flowing elk-skinned robe being worn by the third person, we all come to the same conclusion -- he's something of a chaplain, and we've just crashed the conclusion of Carl and Carla's wedding.
"How did you find us?," Carla calls out. "Jerkface here came back from elking in the middle of the night and dragged me off to get married -- I'm so sorry I didn't have time to tell you. I actually had tables and chairs set up down here for this weekend's reception, but he just couldn't wait a few more days." She shoots Carl a dirty look.
"Carl want marry now. Alone," he says, more than a wee bit perturbed. "Well, you're not TOTALLY alone, dear," Carla corrects him.
We all walk as close to the edge of the rock nearest them as we can. All of us except Anna, who lingers behind us, suspiciously staring into every dark corner she can find as she slowly makes her way to our side. "We thought The Radwanska got you," Diane tells Carla.
"What?," Carla asks, clearly confused. "Carl hate Rad," Carl growls.
"Your place was a mess. Invitations were everywhere. And claw marks and-"
"Everything was fine when we left. He can drag me off like the Neanderthal he is, but knows better than to leave a mess behind," Carla insists. Immediately afterward, Carla notices Tarzan in Diane's arms, as welll as his eyes. "What's wrong with him? Why are his eyes so red?"
"Red?," Diane says, confused. "You mean gr-" Before she can finish, from behind her, Anna speaks in distressed tone. "Red?," she asks, pushing her way through our group.
She hurries to Tarzan's side and looks into his face. Indeed, his formerly glowing green eyes are now glowing bright red. She looks to see where the cat is directing his gaze. She realizes that it's staring, somewhat uneasily, in the direction of Carl and Carla. Anna looks in the same direction, then once again unsheathes her sword and holds it up in front of her, pointing it at the platform on which our two cave-dwelling friends are standing, although she's far too far to reach where they stand. Both are somewhat taken aback by Anna's actions.
"Carl, Carla...," she says in a calm voice, "Step aside. Slowly." It's now apparent that while her sword is pointed toward the two of them, neither are the individual she's worried about. Anna moves her blade to the left, then right, directing them to move either direction. They do, revealing the chaplain behind them, his back turned toward everyone. "Turn around!," Anna yells. "I know it's you!"
The chaplain turns to face Anna. His eyes are glowing red. The rest of us gasp, but before the sound can fully escape our mouths, the chaplain is suddenly seized by something and begins to violently shake. Almost immediately, a black, shadowy entity rises up from deep within him, climbing upward until It leaves the chaplain's body behind. He slumps lifelessly to the rock, while the black being elevates and expands Its flowing, oily form to fill the entire area above Carl and Carla, blotting out the light emanating from the crevices above. For an instant, even Anna's confidence seems to waver, but then she holds her ground in front of us.
The Radwanska's bloodcurdling howl rumbles through the innards of the cave, and seems as if it's literally making our bones ache. In a flash, The Rad coalesces Its form into a tighter, more maneuverable size. In one instantaneous movement, It swipes at Carl and Carla with superior force, sending them both flying through the air until their bodies slam against the rock wall beside us, as we duck for cover. The cave shakes as a result of the force of their landings, and The Radwanska darts down a side passageway at a super rate of speed. Almost as if It was never there, It has totally disappeared into the darkness, leaving nothing behind except for us, shaken, as the light suddenly fills the area again.
Without a second thought, Anna pulls down her sword and takes off down the passageway in pursuit. Diane sets Tarzan down and runs to Carl and Carla's side along with the rest of us. As she does, I see Tarzan dash off in the same direction as Anna and The Rad. In a few seconds, the cat is gone, as well.
The chaplain remains in a heap on the rock platform. Zidane stands still and looks up at the area which The Rad just filled. It seems huge, but The Radwanska filled it with ease, and could have filled an even bigger chamber. "Well, now we know It can do that.," he says, shaking his head. "Anna's going to die. We're all doomed."
Sneaky Patty shoots him a cross look as she holds Carl's humongous head in her arms. "Has anyone ever told you that sometimes you're not very comforting?"
"Oh, sure," he tells her, "All the time. I don't let it bother me, though. Thanks for asking."
Carl and Carla slowly regain consciousness. As they do, Diane looks around for Tarzan. I tell her what's happened. She can't hide the fear on her face. Neither can the rest of us.
The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning
Anna races through the dark passage of the cave down which The Rad escaped. She ducks around rocks jutting out from walls both above her head and at ground level. Tarzan is immediately behind her. Her pursuit seems to last forever, and she can no longer be sure that she's still following along on The Radwanska's trail. But she can't stop. She just keeps going. Finally, the passageway ends and she reaches a large, more open area of the cave. She takes a few steps inside the arena-sized chamber, through a large archway.
She is met by silence, except for the sound of her own footsteps. "Come out. I know you're here," she says to the cold, vacant space. Still nothing.
Anna sees Tarzan, and smiles. She places her sword back into its sheath, then takes Tarzan up in her arms and scratches his head as she walks around the rocky terrain. "So, this is where it ends," she says softly to him, then looks him in the eyes, which are now glowing green, "or maybe begins. Not the best place... but not the worst, either."
Anna hears a sound along the passageway leading to the chamber. She carries Tarzan to a position behind a large rock, setting the cat down on the ground beside her. As she kneels down, she has a clear view of the entrance. Anna looks down at Tarzan, then sees that his eyes are slowing turning from green to red. She places her hand on her sword, and slowly wraps her fingers around the handle.
On the other side of the cave, after it took all of us working together to get Carla to her very large feet, she carried the still woozy Carl to the reception area -- complete with plates, glasses, silverware and flowers -- that was set up inside the cave. It's rather nice, we all think... though whether we'd chosen to undertake such a trek to get here under regular circumstances is another matter.
Zidane, Sneaky Patty and I venture down the rocky path and up the slope to the platform to reach the chaplain. He seems to have died instantly the moment The Radwanska exited his body... or maybe when It entered it. We place his body in a dark crevice, in a quiet section of the cave. We don't quite know what to say as we lay him to rest, as we wonder what his full story truly was, if he ever really had one. We do know that now he will be remembered as, quite simply, the latest victim to be sacrificed to the The Rad's ultimate Plan. We just hope that we aren't next. After a moment of personal reflection, we all walk away in total silence.
Back in the chamber, Anna hears the sounds as they get closer and closer, and Tarzan's eyes get more and more red. The sounds don't resemble footsteps. They're more like heartbeats. Thudding, heavy and foreboding. Getting louder and louder and louder. Slowly, she rises to her feet. She pulls out her sword and walks out from behind the rock. One step at a time. Finally, fully out in the open, she grasps her weapon in both hands and holds it out in front of her.
She takes a deep breath. And then she waits. The sounds continue to get louder.
A distance away, in a quiet section of the cave, Diane looks after Carla. As they both look at Carl, flat on his back on what was intended to be a dining table, she can tell that her friend is worried. "He'll be okay," Diane says.
"Oh, I know," Carla assures her. "His head is way too hard to be damaged by one crack against a rock wall. It's just that he was so proud of dragging me up here for the ceremony. It was actually sort of touching." She leans in a little closer and smiles, running her fingers over the hollowed-out bone ring on her left ring finger. "I think he wanted to do it quickly because he was afraid he'd get cold feet. Well," she adds, "figuratively, I mean. He already HAS actual cold feet." Carla sighs. "I do wish he'd start wearing shoes." Suddenly, she remembers. "Oh, do you know what he said to me? He said," in her best Carl voice, "'Carla sunshine of Carl life.' Oh, it made me melt inside when he said it."
She notices that Diane is catching glimpses of the doorway as she talks, as if watching and hoping for someone to enter.
"Tarzan will be fine. He made it this far," Carla says. "Thank you for that. I know you had to be behind this." She smiles. "Wow. You called Citizen Anna for me -- I'm honored!" She gives Diane a hug, being careful not to accidentally break any bones in the process. In the background, a still only-partially-conscious Carl mumbles, his voice trailing off, "Carl... squish... Radwanska..."
Zidane walks into the room. "Well, the chaplain's really most sincerely dead." He sees Carl splayed out across the table, then turns to Carla. "So, considering the circumstances, is your marriage 'official' or not?"
Meanwhile, Anna continues to wait, sword at the ready. Then the monotonous noise of the approaching sounds ends. But nothing happens. She sneaks a look out of the corner of her eye at Tarzan, who is looking behind her. His eyes are more red than ever before. Anna realizes that The Radwanska is quite literally breathing down her neck.
With the quickness of a world class athlete by now familiar with having to fight, to the death if necessary, in order to survive, Anna jumps vertically as high as she can, twisting her body around in mid-air and swinging her sword at waist level. The Radwanska wails out in pain. Anna looks down at her weapon and sees green blood dripping down the sharp blade.
As Anna takes a step back to steady her balance, she sees The Radwanska. Its flowing darkness nearly envelops Anna, but it keeps a safe distance from the sword. She continues to swing at the air, hoping to make another strike at the manifested-into-semi-physical-form alter ego as it drifts from wispy blankness to substantially tangible form. She tries to attack It from a different angle, but Its glowing red eyes follow her and she is unable to catch It unaware and vulnerable once again.
Anna climbs to higher ground, but The Rad seems to be able to rise to her level with no effort. As she stares into Its eyes, she hears a voice. It might only be in her head. She can't be certain. But she "hears" it nonetheless.
"You will never win," the voice says.
"I'll find a way," she responds defiantly.
"You will die."
"If that's the price of freedom, so be it. We WILL defeat you," Anna declares. She scrambles to the highest position she can, then leaps from one rock to another. For a moment, she can see The Radwanska, but It can't see her. She realizes this might be her only opportunity. She holds her sword tightly, points it directly at the wispy black form beneath her and leaps into the darkness, with her eyes wide open.
In the reception room, some time later, everyone waits nervously for Anna to return, but we've heard nothing for hours. Carl is better now, though he continues to pace back and forth, muttering all the things he plans to do to The Radwanska when he sees It.
Suddenly, as casual as any feline might be, Tarzan trots into the room. He makes a beeline for Diane and jumps into her lap. She's happy to see him, and he her, as the sound of his purring fills the small room. But when no one else walks through the entrance, hope slowly is introduced to the seeming dark reality of the situation.
"His eyes," I say, having noticed a difference. Everyone moves in closer and sees that Tarzan's eyes are no longer glowing green, or red. They've returned to normal. We immediately take this to mean that The Rad is gone.
And, after we wait a bit longer for her, only to be met with still more silence throughout the cave, we're forced to admit that maybe Anna is, as well. We find her fedora in the snow, outside the cave entrance. No footprints are nearby. It's as if it was blown there by a cold, unknown -- and possibly the last -- gust of wind on the planet, deposited as a commemoration of her bravery and honor.
Sneaky Patty picks up the hat and places it on her head. It fits her imperfectly, but it still looks better than it did on the surface of the cold ground, slowly being covered by blowing snow. What the separation of Anna and her trademark hat means, we don't know... or don't want to think about. Not now, anway. We have to get home.
As we start off on our return journey, we are watched from a great distance. Below a glowing set of red eyes, a single drop of green blood drips into the snow.
The Silent Return, and a new hope?
None of us spoke much during the long, sorrowful return trip. Trudge, really. We were all glad to have found Carla safe and sound... and Carl, too. But contemplating what we may have lost in the cave, and what it could mean for everyone, was too much to consider without one night of rest in our own beds, no matter how sleepless it may turn out to be. As Carl leads us back to the outskirts of Backspinville, we are greeted by a beautiful landscape, blue skies and the first new-fallen snow of a brand new year.
But it's lost on us.
As we re-enter the town, everything seems fine. Festive, even. Just as we were seen off -- sort of -- by Queen Chaos, we're greeted by her as we arrive. "Isn't it a wonderful day," QC asks as she skips in a circle around us. We notice that that entire town is decorated in banners welcoming us home. QC seems very proud. "It was Ziggy's idea," she says, pointing to her feline friend walking along beside her. "He missed his brother."
With that, Tarzan jumps from Diane's arms and runs to Ziggy's side. They rub against each other and purr, and dart off down the sidewalk. Queen Chaos follows after them, whirling like a dervish as she goes, repeating over and over to herself in a sing-song tone, "It's the end, of the beginning. It's the end, of the beginning." She seems to have no idea what she's talking about, but she seems very certain of her words.
As we reach the heart of town, Diane and I walk along, out of earshot of the others. "So this was all a trick, to lure Anna back here?," she wonders.
"Maybe. Obviously, The Rad didn't want anything to do with us. Yet, at least."
"I think Anna's alive," Diane says. "She has to be. If not, The Radwanska will win. That can't happen. Anna won't let." She realizes, "We can't tell the others. Not yet. Not until we know for sure."
Recalling the information that Anna entrusted me with on our trip, I realize that a few people will have to be trusted with the knowledge, including Diane. "Later, there are some things we have to talk about. About what Anna told me."
"Oh," Diane says, "You mean 'Future Sloane' and The Rad's plan to attack the past?"
I'm more than a litle stunned. "How did you-?"
"You didn't think you were the only person Anna told about all that, did you?" She smiles, the jokingly adds, "Good luck with that."
Just then, Jo comes running up to us. She's sporting a smile as wide as the street. "Did you hear?" She can see that we haven't. She calls over the rest of our group. "LPT had her baby! It happened right after all of you left. And I delivered it! In the barn!"
Jo catches herself. "Well, I had a little help. Literally. Right as Justine was about to give birth, a tiny old man came around the corner -- out of nowhere -- and told me exactly what to do. He said his name was Julenisse, and he talked me through the whole procedure. He had such a kind and merry face, and I swear his ears were pointed! He was so nice. He even said he was going to reward the baby with good luck! Isn't that great?!" She turns to head back toward LPT's house. "Come visit her with me," she says, "The baby is so cute!"
Jo takes off, with Sneaky Patty and Zidane behind her. As they go, Zidane asks, "Was the floor of the inn made of clay?" "Underneath all the straw! How did you know?," Jo shoots back, amazed. "Where else would Justine have a baby? I pride myself in knowing these things," he answers back, as Patty rolls her eyes as they run along.
I continue to walk alone back to Backspin HQ, suddenly feeling better. I mentally flash back to my strange moment with Anna behind the outcropping the night before we reached the cave:
"'I think there's another,' Anna says. For the first time since she showed up, she seems genuinely, and refreshingly, surprised."
Could it be, I wonder? At least the thought makes me feel a LITTLE better, for a moment. I reach the front door of Backspin HQ, then go inside.
Meanwhile, Carla moves along with Diane, as Carl walks beside them, still muttering Radwanska insults under his breath. Carla looks around to make sure that no one is listening. "Can I tell you a secret?," she asks. Diane shakes her head. "LPT's not the only one. I think I'm going to have a little cavegirl!"
"Cave boy," Carl corrects her.
"Yeah... well, we'll see."
"Carla have cave boy. Carl demand it!," he says, then storms off in the opposite direction.
"He'll believe what he wants to believe, I guess," Carla says with a shrug.
"Oh, I'm sure he will," Diane agrees.
Inside Backspin HQ, I make my way to the wall safe. I unlock it, then carefully remove from my pocket the blueprints to Radwanska Abbey that Anna gave me. I place them in the safe, then lock it shut. As I do, I see a flash of light in the next room.
I quietly make my way across the floor, then move along, staying close to the wall, until I reach the entrance of the room from which the flash came. In my mind, I feel like it was a move worthy of Citizen Anna herself. Slowly, I peer around the corner. The first thing I see is what looks like the foot of an elf. I take a full step into the room and see...
She's wearing a bloodied elf costume. Crumpled on the floor, she's either exhausted or injured. But she's alive. I run to help her onto the sofa. As I do so, her elf cap falls to the ground, revealing that the chestnut color of her hair is gone. She's blond once again. I put her feet up and run to get her some water.
When I return, Anna's eyes are open. Barely. She has an odd expression on her face. She looks around the room, seemingly trying to determine where she is. Finally, she finds my face and gazes up into it. She looks me in the eye and begins to say something. At first, no sounds escape her mouth. Then, finally, one does, slowly...
"Vika," she whispers, then passes out.
The End...for now
Sometime. Somewhere. The Radwanska looks over Its shoulder.
"What is it?," a female voice from the shadows says, piercing through the darkness.
"I sense a greater enemy," The Radwanska says, Its words rattling around inside Its unseen companion's thoughts. "A familiar one. But different." Pause, as if trying to fully understand the sensation.
But The Plan will go forward?," the companion asks.
A quiet chuckle comes from the darkness, and the gleam on the companion's teeth is caught by a flicker of the firelight in the middle of the lair. The companion rises from her seat, stepping partly into the light. A small baby kangaroo is in her arms. "They'll never see us coming."
"The story of this night will spread," The Radwanska greedily says, Its words registering as thoughts. "Soon, all their hope will be dashed. The never-ending source will be mine." The Rad takes a step toward the light. "The day of reckoning is upon us. It is time to prepare."
It walks down a short, dark hallway toward a large, thick door. When it swings open, the sounds of intense screams of abject pain from distant underground chambers suddenly fill the room. The companion follows behind The Radwanska, passing by the fire. For a brief instant, it illuminates her blond hair before she steps again through the shadows.
She closes the door behind her, once again bringing an eerie silence to the lair.
All for now.