Beneath the Haunted Woods: Part One
An eerie and unnerving silence filled the air as the siblings made their way through the withering, creaking forest of pale trees. A thick mist shrouded the woodland in an impenetrable cloud. The lanterns did little to fend off the low visibility; the threesome walked cautiously, taking every vigilant step, minding the path ahead and the ground beneath. Clara, a young blue Acara, held her lantern close. The warm, radiating heat and the strong light of the lantern gave her no comfort in the cold, dim, unsettling atmosphere of the Haunted Woods.
She glanced around, observing her surroundings; the bare, weakening, leafless trees that populated the woods seemed somehow alive, staring back silently as if they had invisible eyes, watching her every move. The only sounds besides her footsteps were the rustlings of the bare branches and the dead leaves that rolled in the wind.
As the family continued down the dirt path, the chorus of branches and leaves swaying in the wind were soon joined by the soft sound of raindrops splashing on the soil.
Clara tugged on the edges of her cowl, shrouding the hood of the cloak over her head in a vain attempt to keep herself dry amidst the oncoming storm. Her eyes squinting as the heavy rain dowsed her, she looked towards her companions; in front of her, a blue Yurble, Parlebb, her older brother, seemed rather indifferent; his eyes sharp like an Eyrie, he held his lantern high, walking casually through the woods unaffected by the cold air, the freezing rain and the chilling atmosphere, showing no sign of fear or unease. Beside him was a red Zafara, Arthur, the elder brother who, on the other hand, was frantically glancing from side to side, his eyes peeled, scanning the woods as if trying to peer through the dense mist.
“Hey…Arthur?” Clara said, moving closer to the red Zafara.
“Yeah?” Arthur replied, still looking from side to side.
“What are you looking for? Village lights?”
“Actually, I was kind of hoping to spot any Werelupes or creatures of the night that might be lying in wait.”
Clara’s eyes widened. The words ‘Werelupes’ and ‘creatures of the night’ brought a new fear into her mind. The very mention of the possibility of monsters attacking them gave her yet another reason for her anxiety to peak.
“Wh-why would you--”
“Because, if I spot them, they won’t have the element of surprise and it’ll scare them away.”
“But what if--?” Clara said, making no effort to conceal the concern building in her voice.
Arthur turned to face her. He gave her a soft smile, patting her on the shoulder, “Hey, don’t worry. If any creature’s dumb enough to think they can get the jump on us, they will have to go through me first.” He extended his arm, sparks flashed from his palm for a brief moment before disintegrating. Clara smiled back and breathed a sigh of relief, her nerves calmed for the first time since setting foot in the Haunted Woods.
They continued on their way, as time passed the rain, at first merely a drizzle, soon became a shower, and from a shower to a rainstorm, drenching the travelers in a heavy downpour.
Clara braced herself; her eyes squinting in irritation in the heavy rain. Parlebb kept his composure, unmoved by the torrential rain. Arthur strained his eyes as the lantern’s light cast away the mist surrounding a nearby object. As it came into view, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes widened briefly before turning back to face his companions. He turned his gaze towards the blue Acara, pointing at a hollow, decaying tree that stood before him.
“I keep telling you, we passed by that same tree three times already! Clara, are you absolutely sure this is the way back?” He said, with a hint of disbelief and anxiety in his voice.
Clara froze; she narrowed her eyes as they squinted against the rain, peering past the red Zafara, she eyed the hollow tree in disbelief. A moment later, she found the courage to speak.
“Y-yes Arthur we are! I mean…we should be going the right way…” Reaching into her coat pockets she procured a crudely hand-drawn map. As she unfolded it, she pointed towards what she could only wildly guess was their current location and with her finger, she traced back their steps, “We entered the Haunted Woods from the northeast and traveled southwest to Neovia remember? So we should be following the path heading straight north to get back home.” She took one look towards the tree, then back at her hand drawn map, “There’s no way we’re going in circles…we just can’t be.”
Parlebb rolled his eyes, muttering something under his breath in agitation.
The downpour of rain continued to intensify; the winds, at first merely a breeze, became gradually stronger with each passing second. Clara pulled on the sides of her cowl more tightly than ever to no avail; the ensuing gusts blasted her eyes with rainwater, forcing her eyes shut. She struggled to keep up with her brothers as the storm strengthened.
“This is going incredibly well…” Parlebb muttered as the heavy rain quenched the threesome.
The storm battered the travelers mercilessly; the rain mixed with the fog obscured everything in plain view, while they struggled to keep their balance as the gusts intensified by the minute. Clara, squinting her eyes in an attempt to peer through the fog, noticed an assortment of rocks a few feet away. Barely keeping her eyes open in the heavy weather, she saw that the rocks led to a large gaping cave in the distance.
“Guys! There’s shelter over here!” she shouted, her voice overpowering the chorus of raindrops and howling gusts. Clara raised her arm above her forehead in an attempt to shield her eyes from the pouring rain, sprinting towards the hollow cave. Arthur fixed his gaze towards his sister just in the nick of time to see her split from the pack.
“Clara, wait!” the Zafara shouted as he chased after her.
Parlebb followed suit, rushing straight through the harsh storm. They stumbled into the damp, dimly lit cave, soaking wet. The group was relieved to find shelter from the unforgiving rainstorm. Arthur removed his cloak and shirt, twisting them into a tight knot, casting the rainwater out. Parlebb got down on all fours and, like a Lupe after a bath, shook the water off his fur and clothes, spraying water in all directions. He then removed his frock coat, setting it down over his lit lantern on the cave floor. Clara lay back against the cave wall, her fur soaking wet. She unstrapped her lit lantern from her belt; lay it down on her lap, taking comfort in the warmth of the lantern’s heat as she slowly dried up.
Time passed, the downpour battered the barren woods, trees swayed in the blistering gusts, the rain refused to cease.
“Looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a while. Lucky this cave happened to be nearby.” Arthur said, squeezing the last droplets of water out of his cloak, “I don’t think I could have lasted another minute out there.” Parlebb lay beside him with his back against the wall, his eyes shut, dozing off. “You’ve got a good eye Clara, you know that?”
There was no response. Arthur raised his head, his eyes fixed on the spot where Clara sat on the opposite side of the cave.
He was aghast as he saw she was no longer there. He gaped.
A sudden uneasiness rose within his voice. In a panic, he got to his feet, glancing left and right, all around the cave…
“Um…guys?” a soft voice echoed. Arthur stirred; Parlebb’s ears perked as he glanced towards the direction of his sister’s voice, it came from deeper within the cave. Within seconds a blue Acara materialized from the shadows, lantern strapped to her belt, with a blank expression on her face.
Arthur opened his mouth to speak, he was about to scold her when she cut him off.
“The cave keeps on going.” She said.
The brothers looked at each other, then back to the Acara. “Well, the storm won’t be dying down anytime soon, so why not?” Parlebb said.
Arthur nodded, “You never know, it might actually lead us out of the Woods. Let’s go!”
Clara took the lead again; her brothers stuck close behind as they descended down the damp, moss-covered, dim cave. As they made their descent, the sounds of the battering rainstorm grew softer, until it went silent with only the clanking of metal and the sound of their footsteps echoing off the walls. The air slowly grew more thick; Arthur took deeper, more controlled breaths as the heavy air around him made him dizzy, his head going blank from the lack of oxygen. Clara too, began breathing deeply. Parlebb, noticeably a little tense, took shallow breaths, developing a minor throbbing headache as they went further down into the cave.
The slanted slope finally came to an end when the narrow walls spread farther apart from each other, leading into an enormous, spacious room. Parlebb stopped moving as the lantern’s light revealed the floor beneath him gave way, forming a high cliff overlooking a seemingly endless void. The darkness beyond was so vast; like a massive super cell thunderstorm cloud looming over the sea, that only the combined light of their lanterns prevented the shadows from swallowing them up.
“I have an idea. Let me try.” Arthur said as he walked past his younger brother.
Arthur clasped his hands together. As he slowly pulled them apart from each other, a small speck of light formed in between his hands that grew larger the farther his hands spread. When his hands were at about shoulder-length distance apart, he cast the orb of light out into the open space. Instead of exploding into a shower of embers and sparks upon impact, the sphere froze in place as it struck its target a few yards away. The light intensified, growing stronger until it gave off a harsh, bright light that flooded the massive cave. The blinding glow proved too much for them, as they shielded their sensitive eyes. They regained their composure when the light grew dim enough for their eyes to adjust. Arthur approached the edge of the cliff; he took one look, his eyes widened in superstitious awe.
He switched his gaze towards his siblings, “You’re going to want to see this.”
The siblings joined at the edge of the overlook. Nothing in the world could have prepared them for what they were about to see. They gasped in admiration at the breathtaking sight that lay beyond; the strong light brought by Arthur’s spell cast away the thick darkness surrounding them, revealing a massive cavern. It was like no other place in Neopia they had ever seen before; it's general shape was ovoid, the walls below the ridges curving smoothly to the floor, the walls above arching another hundred feet up to giant stalagmites and stalactites of various lengths and sizes that littered the grotto. Beyond the spires was a massive city; the structures built into the walls of the cavern, carved from within the very rock itself. At the end of the grotto, as far as the eye could see, partially illuminated by the artificial light, a cyclopean structure towered above all. It was like something out of a fantasy, the kind of place that could only exist in the minds of writers and artists.
“Impossible…” Clara said, her eyes wide with awe.
“Whoa!” Arthur’s ears perked and his eyes widened as he leaned forward, almost hanging over the edge, trying to get a closer look.
Parlebb did not utter a word, but he too could not believe his eyes. They were all taken aback that such a place could exist beneath the Haunted Woods.
He looked to his left, a pathway led further into the cavern.
“There’s a way down over there.”
Right as he finished speaking, Arthur rushed ahead of his family, keeping close to the cavern walls as his siblings followed him. Clara sighed as she and Parlebb caught up, “Always so eager aren’t you Arthur?” she murmured.
Arthur was the first to set foot in the hollow city. He glanced around, observing his surroundings with irrational curiosity; gawking at the surrounding stalagmites rising from the ground, the stalactites hanging from the roof of the cave and the very walls of the cavern. Various holes of both regular and irregular shapes marked the windows and doors that adorned the rocky structures. The buildings were far from equal in size; the general shape tended to be pyramidal and other rectangular forms. Many of the buildings were roofless with uneven rounded upper edges, preserved with intact outlines despite the erosion.
Arthur turned his gaze away from the edifices, peering down the dark tunnels far beyond where the light couldn’t reach. He cupped both hands in front of his mouth, took a deep breath and bellowed:
“Hello?” his voice echoed throughout the cavern, bouncing off every surface.
Moments passed, there was no response from anywhere in the cave, nothing but the faint echo of Arthur’s shout.
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s home today.” Parlebb said.
Near dead silence filled the air, the city of spires as hollow as the cavern, devoid of inhabitants or any signs of life, save for the curious travelers. The family moved on, keeping close together, as they ventured deeper into the grotto. The whole area was strewn with fallen rocks and innumerable amounts of debris scattered around the city.
They made their way into a narrow tunnel, its reach extending as far as the eye could see in the blinding darkness. As they traversed, Clara glanced around; the walls had cracks of various lengths and sizes; some were small, some were large, others were massive fissures tearing apart the eroded surface. The narrow and cluttered tunnel led to a large, dome-shaped, spacious atrium. Four irregularly shaped doorways adorned the empty room.
Arthur held his lantern high, counting all the exits in the room.
“I’d say split up but this cavern is a labyrinth.” he said, “I’d hate to risk getting lost in a place like this.”
Clara turned towards her brother, “Well Arthur, you’re the boss. Which way should we go—AAAH!“
She was cut off as the ground started to violently shake. Arthur’s heart skipped a beat; he moved his legs apart, slightly bending his hind legs in an attempt to keep his balance. Parlebb reacted with alarm, glancing around in confusion, as if expecting a massive behemoth to burst out of the ground below at any moment, barely standing still as the earth rumbled beneath him. Clara gasped and huddled her feet close together as she tried to keep from falling over, her heart began beating at a faster pace as the violent quake thrashed her around. Dust and rubble fell as cracks began to form and widen on the ceiling above them.
“MOVE! NOW!” Arthur shouted as the ceiling began to crumble. The family scattered; Arthur rushed ahead of his siblings, running through the corridor to the left, Parlebb quickly got down on all fours and dashed towards the middle path, Clara ran as fast as her feet could carry her, sprinting towards the corridor to the east wing of the atrium, dodging debris and dust as the ceiling gave way above her. She barely made it through the doorway when it finally came down; parts of the ceiling crashed on the floor beneath, stacking up in a pile of rubble, creating a massive cave-in.
The earthquake suddenly subsided, the ground stood still once more.
To be continued…