Beneath the Haunted Woods: Part Four
Nothing but the sounds of crumbling stones and rock could be heard as Arthur traversed the dark, hollow tunnel, his hand against the wall to keep himself from slipping over the rough, jagged ground beneath him.
The red Zafara’s legs ached, his head throbbed and his eyes weary. Small, loose stones that littered the cave floor pinched, stabbed and strained his feet with every step. He stopped in his tracks, holding the lantern high, staring into the impenetrable darkness. The tunnel seemed to stretch on and on with no end in sight.
Arthur groaned. He lay back against the cave wall; his head hung low, shivering, cold air freezing him to the bone. As he adjusted, he suddenly gasped as he felt something tickle his feet right beneath him.
Startled, he looked down; it was a lone patch of grass. For a moment, he was confused. He did not have time to contemplate it, as almost immediately he felt pain coursing through his sore, bare feet.
“Of all days not to wear shoes…” he groaned as he inspected his bruised limb.
He raised his head; the rugged, weary walls stood still, surrounding him, closing him in. The only sounds were the faint whistling of the wind gusting from the darkness beyond, and the dripping of water from stalactites hanging off the ceiling, echoing across the cavern.
He quivered violently as a gust of cold air blasted him. The heat radiating from the flame of his lantern did little to fight against the cold.
“Bleh! Can’t believe it’s so cold down here.” He looked to his side, “If only I could have brought a stronger lantern, a light stone, Coltzan’s fire gem, or a torch, or--”
Suddenly, it hit him. His eyes widened, his jaw slightly ajar.
Arthur pushed himself away from the wall, standing still against the void. He lifted his lantern, the candle was half-melted, a tiny flame as the only source of light and heat. He looked down at the patch of grass right below him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes.
As he arched his body slightly, he exhaled; a jet of flame burst from his mouth, engulfing the patch of grass in a fiery blaze. When the last ounce of air left his lungs, the flame sputtered briefly before being extinguished.
Arthur let out a coarse, raspy cough, hacking puffs of smoke. He smiled as the burning grass warmed him up, lighting up the tunnel ahead and bathing the cave in a flickering orange glow. It wasn’t long before the grass burned to ashes and the last flame flickered out of existence and cold air flooded the tunnels once more.
Arthur’s ears twitched. His neck twisted as he looked back at the blinding void behind him. He closed his eyes as he tried to track the source of a sudden noise. He could sense it, a kind of skittering, slithering. It was very frequent, definitely not the sound that just one creature could make.
The sound intensified, Arthur stood at the ready, his arms outstretched. His gaze fixated on the piercing pitch-black tunnel. Suddenly, a swarm of crawlers numbering in the thousands emerged from the darkness, moving towards the Zafara.
Arthur flinched as the cave insects crawled near him. To his surprise, as they came close they spread apart, leaving an open space as they made their way past him. Arthur looked on, tracking the insects as they moved away. Then he felt the ground quake beneath him. An all too familiar rumbling…
He turned back to the shadows; the swarm of crawlers reached its end as the last few insects made their way past him in the opposite direction. The rumbling strengthened, and the cave began to violently shake.
Just then, the source of the rumbling came into view. Arthur’s eyes widened; a huge cave worm, the size of the tunnel itself, with rows of jagged teeth protruding from the mouth, came slithering towards him at a fast speed.
He took no chances, he outstretched his arms again, bolts of lightning materialized from his fingertips, traveling straight towards their target, but the bolts bounced right off, quickly dissipating not more than a couple feet from where he stood. Arthur was stunned; he cast another bolt, same result. The worm was coming closer.
There was only one other option now.
He turned tail and started to run, he bent his hind legs and leaped into the air; as his feet made contact with the ground, his pace quickened with every hop, rushing through the tunnel as fast as his legs could carry him.
Arthur gasped as he felt a needle-sharp stab in the sole of his foot. He stumbled, tripping over the rock. The moment he hit the ground, his hind legs kicked, lifting him up as he recovered quickly, maintaining his fast pace.
He could feel his own heart beating at a fast rate, his breathing frantic and his nerves frayed. He didn’t dare to look back, but he could hear the slithering behind him getting louder and louder.
The lantern swayed from side to side, the light swinging back and forth, barely illuminating the tunnel ahead. All he could think about was to keep running; he turned one corner, then another.
Then, his eyes widened, the fur on the back of his neck pricked, a slight gasp escaped his lips as the ground beneath him had vanished.
Arthur screamed as the sensation of falling engulfed him. He found himself free falling down a sinkhole into a seemingly endless abyss. In a panic, he spread his arms, trying to outstretch them on both sides. His hands made contact with the sides of the walls; his tiny nails scratched the surface. Arthur clenched his teeth as he could feel his nails being pulled back by the friction. He immediately did the same with his legs; he spread them apart as far as he could, his feet sliding against the wall as they made contact, slowing his fall. He lifted his head, his teeth gnashing more violently as the muscles in his legs strained.
And then suddenly, he stopped. He opened his eyes and looked down; the seemingly endless pit had come to an end, he was hanging above a massive empty void, his legs just barely holding on, the ground rumbled as the worm crawled past in the tunnel far above.
Arthur shook his head and looked up as dust and dirt showered above him. A sudden cracking and crumbling sound, faint at first, then a pause, became louder.
He realized what was happening; as more dust rained down, a large rock just about the size of the pit itself came crashing down straight towards him.
Arthur panicked; he looked down at the abyss below, then back up to the falling boulder. He had only one choice.
He closed his eyes and let go, bracing himself as he fell, shielding his face and crossing his legs together, the wind rushing past him as he plummeted into darkness…
His eyes bolted open. He let out a weak, high-pitched groan as sharp pain surged through his lower body as he hit the flat ground.
Arthur flinched, letting out a startled scream, as the rock crashed not a few inches from where he was sitting. The impact caused fissures on the cave floor and the rock itself, forming large fractures running across the entirety of the small boulder.
As Arthur shook off the surprise, he looked up. Not even 10 feet above him was the hole he just fell through. He was dumbfounded.
After a brief pause, he got back up on his feet; grasping the back of his fore legs as the pain began to subside.
He found himself in a room deep within the cave. He took a moment to look around; in front of him the room led to yet another passage. He looked over his shoulder; there was nothing behind him but a dead end. He took a deep breath.
As he made his way through the passage, the pale dirt walls of the cavern gave way to rough limestone, giving off a teal glow stark against the orange light of the lantern. He turned a corner; the passage began to widen.
Arthur stopped in his tracks, his eyes dilated, his mouth gaping slightly in awe.
The passage had turned into a chamber; the limestone stalagmites littering the cavern gave way to pillars adorned with carvings stretching far as the eye could see. He squinted his eyes as he tried to see what was in front of him; he could barely make out what he thought was a massive brass door, incredibly thick and decorated with fantastic bass reliefs, with four irregular pillars shaped like curved claws surrounding the center of the chamber.
He made his way through, gawking at the vastness of the chamber. He could only assume that it was probably a hall or concourse of some sort. The lantern light revealed bold, distinct and potentially startling irregular structures arranged around the pillars separated by limestone walls. An archway about six feet wide and ten feet high marked the end of the chamber, two massive brass slabs sealing away the only exit.
As he approached the gate, he laid his hands on the stone and with all his might, pushed against it. The heavy slab wouldn’t budge.
At that moment Arthur’s ears twitched, his train of thought broke, breaching the utter silence of the tomb-like depths. A deep, low whistling, coming from behind him, followed by an increasing draft of cold air, flowed from the numerous tunnels that rose to the outside world. The cold breeze froze him to the bone, causing him to quiver. He looked back; from within the darkness the wind picked up, the whistling turning to howling, the air blasted the Zafara. He braced himself, placing one arm over his forehead, his head down, his body arched and his legs bent in an attempt to prevent the wind from knocking him off balance. The gusts intensified, pushing Arthur back little by little.
A sudden loud screech tore through his ears like nails on a chalkboard, forcing him to clench his teeth. He looked behind him, the brass doors were moving completely on their own, scratching the cave floor as they spread apart. Behind the doors was a dark, pitch-black void. Arthur’s eyes widened and dilated as he fought back against the wind, trying to force his way forward.
It was to no avail, the gusts continued to strengthen. As the winds pushed him nearer to the void, he tried to run, but his feet could do nothing but slide against the flat floor, helpless against the merciless gale.
In that instant he was struck with a gust so powerful, it rivaled that of hurricane; the howling wind turning to shrieks. Arthur screamed as he was swept off his feet, flailing wildly as he tried in vain to brace himself on to whatever he could, but there was nothing he could hold onto as the wind dragged him back towards the dark abyss.
At the last second he managed to latch onto the very edges of the doors, the one thing preventing him from being swallowed by the shadows behind him.
He clenched his teeth; his hands started slipping as the gale force winds refused to cease. Then his fingers gave.
Arthur could not hear his own scream above the shrieking of the wind as he was cast into the void, the darkness consuming him in an instant.
The gusts died down, the doors slammed shut with a deafening clang of metallic screeching.
Then there was silence.
To be continued…