Beneath the Haunted Woods: Part Two
"ARTHUR! PARLEBB!” Clara yelled at the top of her lungs as she bashed her fist against the pile of rubble. It was to no avail, as there was no response from the other side of the cave-in. She clenched her fist, her tiny claws scraping the surface of the rocks. She punched the pile of rubble and kicked a small rock, launching it a couple feet into the air before it bounced off the cavern wall. She cursed as pain seared through her bare toes.
She lay back against the wall, frustration coursing through her. She took a deep, agitated breath,
“Okay Clara, keep it together.” She said as she got to her feet and lifted her lantern, its weak light barely illuminating the stone walls of the seemingly endless corridor before her. She slipped her knapsack off her shoulders; lay it down on the ground, zipping open the front pockets as she crouched.
She reached her hand into the top pouch; blindly rummaging through her things, she yanked her hand back in pain as something sharp pricked her finger. She spread the pocket wide open, carefully reaching down with her other hand; she touched something metallic and brought it out of the knapsack. Clara’s eyes widened as the object that pricked her finger came into view; a small, thick blade, its hilt decorated with the head of a snake colored in gold and red. It was her Cobrall dagger.
“Wow. No wonder I couldn’t find it anywhere...” she said as she sheathed the dagger underneath her belt.
Having all her equipment accounted for, she set on her way down the dusty, barely lit tunnel. The only sounds were her footsteps on the stone floors, her own breathing, and the tinkering of metal as the lantern gently swung side to side as she walked. Clara took shallow, quick breaths as the pressure around her began to build up.
“Please, please don’t be a dead end.”
Some time had passed; Clara followed the seemingly endless corridor for what seemed like an hour. She felt the anxiety curdling inside as she tightened her grip on the lantern’s handle, with every step she dreaded the thought of traversing the darkness; she couldn’t bear to think that she and perhaps her whole family could be trapped deep in the uncharted underground ruins, alone, isolated from the rest of the world. No hope of rescue or escape. She felt her heart sink.
With supplies short, she knew it wouldn’t be very long before she and her brothers ran out of food. The lanterns couldn’t last forever either, once the candle completely melted; they would be forced to navigate through nothing but pure, pitch-black darkness. She tried the best she could to shrug off the thoughts, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t shake her fears from her mind, her heart beating faster with every step.
She could sense the surrounding pressure around her; it became much harder to breathe. She felt a sudden, strong jolt in the right side of her head. She bit her lip, grasping the side of her head as her nerves burned in an almost unbearable, head-splitting pain. The sensation died away as quickly as the moment it came. Clara shook her head as the pain subsided and continued down the dark corridor, taking controlled, deep breaths. As she took her next few steps, she felt something soft tickle her feet. Clara jumped back in surprise as if receiving an electric shock. She looked down at the floor and saw what tickled her. It was a patch of grass.
“What the--? Grass? But, this far below ground? How can that be?” she said to herself. She held down her lantern and crouched beside the patch, staring intensely. It was impossible for grass to grow so deep underground, let alone without sunlight and water. Now she was really confused. It was astonishing enough that a city so large could exist underneath a place like the Haunted Woods and remain hidden for so long. Yet, she couldn’t help but feel, the moment she laid eyes on the deserted cavern that there was something off about the place. She shook away the thought as she continued down the corridor. She could only hope that the rest of her family was still out there, desperately looking for her and a way out of the cave.
Clara’s ears twitched, she stopped in her tracks as she caught a brief glimpse of a figure slipping into the shadows. She stepped up the pace, running blindly into the darkness, the lantern swinging wildly and clanking loudly as she ran.
Suddenly something smacked against her foot, knocking her off balance. She tripped, landing hard on her face on the cavern floor; the lantern flew out of her hand, clattering noisily as it crashed on the floor, denting the glass. She cursed as pain momentarily seared through her.
When the pain subsided, she opened her eyes, only to find herself surrounded in pitch-black darkness. She gasped, quickly clambering to her feet. She looked frantically from side to side; her eyes fell on dim, weakened embers flickering and fading away on the floor just a couple of feet from where she stood. In a hysterical motion, she rushed towards the damaged lantern and snatched it from the floor. She looked into the compartment, the light was all but diminished, but the wick was still intact.
The light began to fade, the darkness closed in around her. Trembling, she grabbed a claw file from her pocket, holding it close to the candlewick. Her hands were shaking, her sight failing, her breath frenzied and weak.
“Come on, come on!” Clara said to herself as she struck the file against the metal rims of the lantern.
Sparks flew as the file scratched metal, each missing their mark, bouncing off the glass. The air felt cold and distant, the pressure rising, her motions more feverish by the second. The light continued to fade; dimmer and dimmer, the ground below her became enshrouded in shadow, then the lantern’s wick, and then pure pitch-black darkness. The freezing air chilled her to the bone; she could feel it in her heart. The fur on her neck rose; she clenched her teeth, scratching the file against the metal more violently than ever. As the darkness shrouded her she could feel a presence, a familiar sound of the scraping of claws against rock starting out faint, growing louder and louder with every second.
Right behind her.
A dim light flashed, briefly lighting up the nail file and the metal rim of the lantern before dying out again. Seconds later, a tiny flame flared up from the lantern’s wick, the shadows retreating as light flooded back into the cave.
She let out a slight gasp as warmth radiated through her body once more, the tiny candle illuminating her still trembling hands. For a moment, she felt a strong sense of euphoria rush through her.
“Yes!” Clara exclaimed, curling her fist as she raised it into the air momentarily.
Then her eyes adjusted. She gasped as the lantern’s light revealed what lay before her; she screamed, quickly backing away. She stumbled back against the cavern wall; breathing heavily, her eyes wide open in terror, hands clasped to her mouth to stop herself from shrieking, the silence broken by the faint breathing of a frightened young Acara. Just inches in front of her lay a molding, massive shell of a behemoth of a crawler, slumped on the ground with its legs all curled up; half its mouth missing, a large fissure running across the spine and a hollow void where she could only assume was where its eyes should have been.
For a short while she stood there, trembling in fear, clutching her heart with both hands in a frail attempt to calm her frayed nerves. It took a few controlled, deep breaths before she could gather the courage to move again. She picked up the lantern from the floor, its weak light just barely illuminating the decaying shell. Hesitantly, she reached out with her free hand and touched the side. To her surprise it was not as rough to the touch as she expected; it felt soft and slimy. She jerked her hand away. She positioned the lantern over the long, irregular fissure on the crawler’s back, stretched her legs to the point where she was standing on her toes so she could peer into the cracks.
She took a second to breathe, only to have the fur on the back of her neck rise, her nerves stretched and her eyes briefly bulge at the putrid stench emitting from the shell. She clasped her hand over her mouth. Turning her head away, she inhaled and held her breath. She lowered the lantern; the light could only reach far enough to dimly illuminate the sides. The shell’s interior was hollow; an empty void with no signs of bones, internal organs, nothing, just the mold. To her there was no mistaking it; something, maybe even larger, crawled out of the shell. Judging by the freshness of the mold, whatever it was that emerged could not have gone far. Before she could examine it more, it suddenly began to deteriorate and rot; crumbling into pieces, leaving behind a cloud of dust in its wake. Clara winced, taking a step back as the dust scattered into the air.
She whisked the dust away as the smoke settled. When she opened her eyes; the shell was gone, nothing remained but a few particles of dust.
She didn’t waste any time, she continued on her way through the depths, keeping her eyes and ears peeled, her sight fixated on the path in front of her. Clara’s ears perked yet again, in the distance there was a sudden clattering, what sounded to her like nails scratching against the earth. She abruptly stopped dead in her tracks, her body twisted as she turned to look back, her eyes now absorbed on the pitch-black darkness.
There was nothing behind her. She closed her eyes, listened closely for a short time. The cave was quiet.
“It’s…it’s just my imagination…these stupid caves.” She said to herself.
She turned her attention back to the dark corridor. The passage began to twist and turn, heading down, back up again, left and right. There seemed to be no end. She clenched her teeth, becoming more and more agitated with every passing second.
Just as her aggravation was building up, the twisting passage came to a sudden stop as she found herself standing in front of a large stone door. She breathed a sigh of relief. As she approached she immediately noticed there were no handles, levers or any type of mechanism to be seen. This did not faze her; she grabbed one side of the door with both her hands and pushed in the opposite direction. The door budged, scraping the earth as it slid.
She let out an exasperated groan as she pushed open the door all the way. A muscle tensed, she grasped her left arm as it began to ache from the effort. As she shook off the pain, she looked up. She found herself in a large, expansive room, lit to the brim with torches built into the walls. What were before her were rows of shelves, stretching as far as the eye could see, beyond the blinding darkness. Clara glanced around the spacious chamber in awe; the sills were filled with numerous faded, crumpled and torn scrolls, parchments and books. In between the bookshelves were stone tables; some vacant and covered in dust, while others were piled up with loose papers both torn and intact, and pieces of broken inkwells and quilts snapped in two lay scattered on the cave floor. This was no doubt some kind of library. Her eyes widened as she came to a sudden realization.
She unhooked the lantern from her belt and set it down on one of the nearby empty, dusty desks. She rummaged through the bookshelves, throwing away the torn and ruined scrolls and books that populated the mantelpiece. She could only manage to find a few scrolls and a book that were mostly intact, stacking them on the once vacant desk. She stashed the scrolls into an empty pouch in her knapsack and laid the crumpled book open on the table. Some of the writings were faded beyond recognition with multiple pages torn off and ripped to shreds. Even entire chapters were missing. Clara skimmed through the mundane and unreadable portions of the book, quickly flipping through pages, looking for that one word that could answer the burning question in her mind.
Then she stopped, when a certain heading in bold letters caught her eye. She started reading the first passage; it was a documentation of various creatures that had inhabited the cavern. She flipped a page, her eyes fixated as she looked upon an illustration of a curiously familiar creature; it was large, pale grey, worm-like in appearance, with sharp pincers protruding from the mouth and a thousand legs running across the entire body. She was surprised; it looked very similar to the decaying shell she encountered in that passageway. She considered herself lucky that it was just a mold and not the crawler itself. She turned the page, only to have her eyes widen in shock at the next image that lay before her.
Clara grabbed the edge of the binding and closed the book in a swift motion, the pages stacking on top of one another. As the last few pages before the binding came into view, she braced her hand in between the cascading pages.
That last passage filled her with dread. She lowered the book, lazily placing it down on the table. She stood there in the dim light, wondering, thoughts racing through her head; was this truly what had happened to the people of this lost city to have caused it to be deserted? Or were these merely the ramblings of a madman? If the inhabitants have all vanished without a trace, then how are all the torches still lit?
She did not have much time to ponder as the doors behind her slid open with a loud, unnerving screech of stone scratching the floor. The sudden unexpected noise caught her off guard; her eyes widened, and the fur on the back of her neck rose. Raspy snarls came from behind the door. She slowly turned her head; from the corner of her eyes, in the darkness beyond she could see bared fangs sharp as razors joined by two pale, bulbous eyes staring straight back at her.
The eyes were coming closer…
To be continued…