Toa awoke breathing airy pitch, throat parched. Glowing weirdly, her grandparents came to her, fed her metallic water. They apologized when she questioned the flavor and as she drank and drank and drank, her vision came back to her.
"This is a long one, I'm going to need you go get me more samosas." Todd told The Octopus.
How many more?
"Probably two dozen."
Todd wove a dangerous narrative, a subtle thing. He never knew if Toa was dead or if the ashen forest were able to reconstitute the physicality of the dead, or if it were the cave.
This land of the physical dead was very comforting to Toa. She was sequestered away at first, the dead being skittish about the living within their caves and halls. She was nourished on the water and what felt like fungus cakes, tasteless but nourishing, and after a few days her mouth was properly hydrated and the water tasted normal.
After a week of bedrest, during which her grandparents told her stories about her mother, and her other grandparents, who were usually off exploring somewhere dead came and told Toa stories about her father, who was quite the adventurer himself.
They told her how he'd wooed Toa's mother with his cooking skills, had hunted down the rarest of mushrooms and cooked them in an invention of his own making.
Toa laughed and smiled and after the week of mostly isolation, she was allowed into the main caves and the halls of the dead.
The dead all glowed, Toa knew that, but at first, it was dark regardless, though by the second week she could see by the glow of the departed.
Sometimes, Toa had strange dreams --gigantic spiders and a bat that was also her dead fifth uncle, and other strange family cum creature combinations.
"This is how it starts, at least," Todd said, around a clump of particularly spicy potato and dough. A fennel seed stuck in his teeth. and he continued, "Eventually she realizes that these aren't actual dead, that they're parasites pretending to be the dead, because Toa's blood is so delicious.
It's a slow process, but she starts to piece things together. And her real grandparents come back to her dreams, but the parasites are dream walkers, too, and there's a battle of the Grand Parents in Toa's mind and when the dust settles she asks the survivors a question but wakes up just before they answer her.
Then, Toa knows. She knows where she is and where she isn't, and that she can't yet just walk on out. But no one talks about Toa's dreams --hush shush.
It becomes a slow rolling prison break story. There are flashbacks and stories about Toa's parents and the plodding passage of time and her quiet accumulation of parasitic powers while she's deluded.
Eventually Toa starts exploring the caves just like she did the forest, before the torch fell out of the sky. She starts quietly, a tunnel here, a right instead of left there.
She gets lost and something glowing white, a quick larvae almost eats her, has her cocooned in it its hallucinogenic webbing, but the parasites save her. This happens three times, and each time the larvae are whiter and whiter.
Eventually Toa stumbles onto the larvae spawning grounds and
and eventually she finds a tunnel so smooth and so deep within the earth and that ends in a precipice drop so deep neither her vision nor a torch and her vision can reach the bottom. Toa threw one torch but it stuck to the side, trapped in the web of something, burning through the stickiness and twisting and swinging in a breeze too far down for Toa to feel.
The third torch, as Toa is walking away, she hears a whoosh, and a thunk, as if it has finally hit the bottom. The eldest parasite shakes his head, quietly, in the dark. Toa pretended not to see the important gesture, but the village eldest knew, could see.
Toa grows comfortable here among the shale and the devilish stalactites, but she does not grow old. Eventually, with slow sadness and soft madness (and over told violence), despite not having aged a day, Toa is the village eldest. It is here, when she is the most integrated, that she leaves.
Her grandfather, perpetually tear stricken leads her back to the surface, which is verdant again.
Toa travels back to her village and meets herself. So as to believe her, she dresses as a friendly crone, passing back into the village before leaving, a three sack caul hiding her true nature.
Another meteor strikes, this time Toa's village, obliterating even their dead. Toa lives; again finds the cave, hidden under her great grand parent's home. This time it is a pile of her family that is paper thin, that Toa pushes through.
Toa kills the ravening hyenas easily, drinks their blood, sheds her very skin and strides into the depths, all the way to the precipice drop so deep neither her vision nor a torch and her vision can reach the bottom. Not the dead nor the parasites could stop her and Toa collapsed to the edge of the drop and wept for three straight days. When Toa was empty, she jumped into the precipice drop
When she finally scaled the wall up to the precipice, her seventy fingers were all scabbed and scared, but Toa sat, plump, and knitted herself a new caul from spider silk stolen from the dark side of a moon hung in the depths of the precipice. New skin donned, so long, such care taken, she was again lithe. Toa skittered down all the tunnels she hadn't yet taken.
Toa found and filled four buffalo innards flasks with her tortured parasite-grandfather's tears and journeyed back to the cave entrance.
On her way to the entrance, she ravaged the larvae spawning ground, leaving only the queen and her three weakest subjects alive. The king of the larvae Toa snatched up, her seven legs stretching, and with her seventy scabbed fingers she squeezed and squeezed and pushed and ground the king of the larvae until he became a spear.
Returned to the mouth of the cave, Toa sat and waited, patiently.