Holy cow! After months and months, I’ve managed to get my act together to do another Terrible Minds challenge! I’ve been working like mad on other stuff, which is why the prompts have fallen by the wayside, but this week there’s an admission to the Crossroads Writer’s Conference on the line, so I tabled everything else for a couple days to cobble this little guy together (so, Wendigo, if you’re reading this, I very much DO want to be considered for any and all fabulous prizes).

The challenge was to mix up a subgenre, a setting, and a story element that didn’t necessarily seem to go together. My Subgenre was a coin toss between ghost story (which it was, more overtly, but a couple paragraphs got chopped for length), and Lovecraftian, which I used more as a spice than a main flavor component. The setting was the Hollow Earth, and the story element to incorporate was “fashion show,” which also ended up being less prominent than my original vision

As usual, I’m right up against my 1,000 word limit. But do please enjoy.

THE UNDER QUEEN

by Aurora Nibley

The Under Queen was a local story from around where Jenny’s family lived in Red Rock country—I never heard anyone tell it where I grew up, further north, and the one or two times I tried to recount the story to friends in my own hometown, I just muddled the details and nobody knew what I was talking about. I could never get the story right when it was just a story, but the gist of it was that if you went down into the right cave (and there were plenty of caves in the hills), you could keep going and going and it wouldn’t ever stop.

 Instead, as you traveled further and further in, deeper than Mammoth Caves, deeper than Carlsbad even, and we had all been to Carlsbad—you would eventually get turned upside-down. This would happen quite slowly, and you would be traveling through twisty and sometimes very narrow tunnels, so you wouldn’t notice it happening. But if you kept going, and going, and going, eventually your head would be pointed toward the center of the earth, and without your ever feeling it, the world would be inverted. If you kept on going—and of course you would, since you had come so far already—you would finally come to the end of the tunnel. This would feel just the same as if you had tunneled in on one side of a mountain and come out on the other, burrowing instead of climbing. Except you wouldn’t be on the other side of any mountain, you would be on the inside of the earth’s crust.

Everyone in Jenny’s town claimed to know someone whose friend or brother or grandfather had made this journey and come back to tell the tale, and there were a handful of folks who claimed to be searching for the right cavern themselves, but despite a couple of very determined summers of asking everyone I could, I never met anybody who had gone down and seen this place with their own eyes. But there were one or two things they all agreed on. The first thing was that the journey was very long. Days and days, maybe more than a month. It wasn’t a thing to do just for fun. Especially because the second thing they agreed on was that this mysterious upside-down world was an extremely unpleasant place to find oneself.

 The Under Queen was supposedly the leader of a faction of people who lived in this Under Place who hated it there and desperately wanted to find their way back up and live out under the sky. Some of the stories said that they had come up once or twice, in different parts of the world, but due to poor planning or just plain bad luck, there had been confrontations with the Upper World residents, and the Underworlders had come off the worse. Which is why (we were told, as children), the Under Queen had adopted a new strategy for the long-term success of her people: Rather than simply emerging en masse, or even sending scouts up above, her tribe would kidnap unwary Upworlders who strayed too close to the caverns that they patrolled. These captives served the purpose of educating the Under Queen and her tribe about the ways and customs of the Upper World, so that when the Underworlders emerged the next time, they would know exactly how to behave and dress so as to blend in with the population of their new home, and avoid being mistaken for demons or witches. This gave an idea of how long it had been since they had last attempted to assimilate. According to the stories, there were many tunnels, and their Under World openings were quite close together but their Upper World exits were scattered all over the world, which meant that the captured Upworlders tended to be bewilderingly diverse in their dress, appearance, and language—an even greater puzzle for the Under Queen. I liked to imagine her lining up all of these different people, from very different lands but all from up above, and viewing them as if in a fashion show, a display of all the diversity she would be able to find if she could only make it out, where the sun would be shining.

 My summers were filled with stories of the Under Queen, when my family went down to Red Rock Country to visit my cousins, and the fact that nobody in our town knew anything about her made her somehow more real, as if she was a prominent resident of that small desert community but naturally no one outside it would know her. I think it was the Under Queen that inspired me to minor in folklore in college: a frivolous topic, and one I knew wouldn’t do anything for me. But it was an excuse to see if I could find her again, further afield, and once in a while I think I almost did. A South American legend of a hole that dropped straight to the underworld, a Celtic story of strangers coming out of the hills to take unwanted babies, that sort of thing. Never anything definite, but maybe an occasional story where the directions to the land of the dead would seem detailed enough to be actually worth following. I thought it might be interesting to write a paper on it some time. Maybe even a book.

 But since Jenny went missing this past summer, I’ve been taking a more critical look at my notes. I think it’s safe to assume that she must have been dragged into a cave no more than five miles from her campsite, which gives us a nice small radius to work with, and if we bring lightweight clothing we should be able to carry enough food for nearly two months. See if you can get three off from your job, though.

 Oh, one more thing. Don’t tell the police.

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