Beneath the Haunted Woods: Part Seven
The siblings stuck close to the cavern wall as they made their way through the slanted Cliffside. Clara had her back towards the wall, firmly gripping Parlebb’s arm, keeping her from falling over the edge should she lose balance.
Parlebb took the lead, holding his lantern high, stressing the limits of the light’s visibility. Clara quivered as a freezing draft of air coming from the many air pockets on the roof of the cavern breezed past her; the wind flowed through the cracked and dented glass of her broken lantern, causing the flames to flicker, nearly extinguishing them to mere puffs of smoke. She held the lantern to her side in an attempt to prevent the flames from dying out.
She looked around; the walls of the cavern seemed to be closing in, as if the cave itself was somehow alive, watching their every move, waiting to entrap them, encase them in stone, seal them away within the depths of the earth.
Clara blinked, her eyes squinting as she tried to take a closer look at the darkness beyond the end of the path. A soft high-pitched gasp escaped her lips; a weak speck of light flickered at the other end. Her emotions had completely overwhelmed her.
“That’s it! Parlebb, there’s the exit!”
She released her grip from Parlebb’s grasp, rushing ahead of her brother.
“Clara!” Parlebb exclaimed, reaching out his arm as he tried to stop her. But she was too quick.
As she ran, the speck of light grew in size, growing brighter and larger the closer she got. She braced her arm over her forehead, her eyes squinting as the light began to blind her.
“Clara, stop!” A booming voice reverberated throughout the tunnel, powerful enough to make her jump in fright as the sound pierced her ears. She came to a sudden stop in her tracks. She looked over her shoulder, towards Parlebb, who was rushing across the path, one hand grasping the hilt of the sword wrapped around his back.
At that moment, a raspy, unearthly growl resonated from within the darkness. The furs on the back of her neck rose and her nerves stretched. She turned towards the tunnel in front of her; she withdrew, her eyes bolted wide as directly underneath the ball of light was a pair of black, bulbous eyes, a set of sharp, pointy fangs and a pair of jagged, tempered claws came racing towards her at a fast speed.
Through mere instinct, Clara reached into her belt, a steely hiss sounded as she drew out a short, thick blade, it’s hilt decorated with the head of a golden snake. She locked eyes with her approaching predator, standing firm, one foot in the front of the other.
The creature lurched; it’s jagged claws tearing the cavern floor with ease. Its eyes fixated on its prey as it crawled near. Clara raised her cobrall dagger, keeping her grip and posture firm as she could over her anxious trembling, fighting against her fraying nerves to stop her from showing any signs of fear in her expression.
Then it lunged, it’s maw widening, body twisted, the thick razor sharp teeth aiming directly for her neck. Clara stood at the ready; she pulled back her arms, her dagger to her waist, the tip of the blade pointing at the oncoming creature as it came towards it’s target, it’s maw open wide enough to reveal a large gap between the top and lower jaw, the mandibles strong enough to snap off her head in an instant.
She took a step back and then with all her might, she jerked her arms forward, the dagger aiming straight for dead center.
There was a sudden flash followed by a loud crackling as bolts of lightning emitted from out of the dark tunnels. The siblings braced their sensitive eyes as the bright light momentarily blinded them. When the flash of light subsided, their eyes re-adjusted. They found the creature lying on the ground, tiny sparks and bolts of lighting flickering briefly before disintegrating. Parlebb, walking past Clara, cautiously approached the downed creature, the ball of light growing dimmer and dimmer until waning out of existence, casting away the shadows surrounding it. He drew his sword from its sheath and reached out, positioning the blade over its neck. He gave it a small tap and then backed away slightly. It did not even react; it lay there, motionless.
“Hey! A little help?” A sudden, high-pitched voice broke the silence.
Clara turned to her side. To her utmost surprise, Arthur was down to the tips of his fingers, his tiny nails scratching against the rocky surface, the muscles in his arms tense as he fought to pull himself up. She ran up to her brother and grasped him by his wrists, pulling back with all her might. Parlebb joined in, grabbing him by the forearms, lifting the Zafara off the ledge. Arthur clambered to his feet; as he tried to catch his breath, he wrapped his arms around his younger siblings. Parlebb let out a slight exasperated growl, rolling his eyes. Clara smiled sweetly and returned the embrace.
“Am I glad to see you guys again!” Arthur said, tightening his grip around his siblings.
“We thought you were lost! We were worried sick!” Clara exclaimed.
“I wasn’t.” Parlebb uttered. Clara’s eyes widened briefly before she glared at her brother. “I knew you could take care of yourself.” He added.
“Thanks?” Arthur replied, slightly raising an eyebrow.
“What happened to you?” Clara said, observing her elder brother’s physique, his clothing covered in dust and dirt.
“Long story, but I’ll fill you in later. Let’s just focus on tracing back our steps and getting out of here.”
“Well said.” Parlebb replied.
Arthur raised his lantern, the path they were on seemed to lead higher up into the caves.
“I have a hunch. Let’s just hope luck’s on our side.” He said.
The siblings stuck close together. The combined light from their lanterns, although dim, burned brightly against the shadows, casting them away. But the shadows did not so easily yield. They remained still, watching the travelers closely, as they made their way through the winding tunnels. ***
The siblings made haste as they emerged from the deep tunnels back out into the hollow city of spires.
“Ha! This is it! We’re almost out of here!” Arthur exclaimed, excitement building in his voice, a tone long absent since first setting foot in the dark, vast cavern.
Clara breathed a sigh of relief, “Finally…” she muttered under her breath.
Arthur was ahead of his younger siblings, trudging through the deserted, ancient city lost to time, running straight for the pathway leading back up to the surface. He looked over his shoulder, facing his siblings who were dragging behind.
“Come on slowpokes! Hurry u--”
Arthur abruptly cut himself off, stopping dead in his tracks, his ears twitched. Slowly, he twisted his neck around, looking back towards the void behind them.
“What, why did you stop?” Clara whispered.
Arthur raised his hand in front of her face. For a moment she stood still. Then, she too turned back. Parlebb did the same. The air chilled them to the bone as the temperature dropped in a sudden instant. Breathing was much more difficult as the heavy pressure of the depths began to get to them. There was a faint wailing, cold, distant, coming from deep within the darkness beyond.
The wailing grew louder. Clara, visibly shaking, looked down at the light emanating from her lantern. A slight gasp escaped her lips as she came to a sudden realization. The shadows behind them started to slowly crawl out from the mouth of the archway leading into the cyclopean tower, spilling out into the hollow city. The shadows began to spread all over the cave, consuming the walls, the ceiling and the floors beneath in complete darkness. Now it was heading towards the siblings, as the flame in their lanterns grew weaker and weaker, down to their last embers.
They stood there, frozen in place as the shadows came closer and closer. Then, a tiny, booming voice filled their ears, echoing across the cavern, giving them the incentive to move:
Without hesitation, the siblings started running. They stayed close together, holding their lanterns high, the combined light, despite being a dim flicker, was enough to light up a few feet of visibility in front of them, dodging piles of debris and rock as they navigated past the labyrinthine city of spires. They turned one corner, then another, and another, until finally making their way up the pathway leading upwards away from the spires towards a familiar chasm, then through the slanted slope, climbing higher and higher above ground.
Clara looked back; for a brief moment, she gasped in admiration upon witnessing once more the vast city that adorned the hollow cavern, only for vague horror to creep into her very soul as the darkness began crawling through, consuming everything in its reach; first the cyclopean tower was completely engulfed, then the pyramidal structures, then the spires, all vanished in an impenetrable shade of darkness.
The shadow was gaining on them; it made its way through the chasm, past the archway, up the slanted slope. Soon, the floor beneath their feet began to vanish.
“There’s the exit! Hurry!”
They ran towards the light, its blinding rays burned their sensitive eyes as they neared the exit. The shadows were within seconds from shrouding its escaping prey, closer and closer it came, the lantern’s light made it’s last flicker, before the flame was finally extinguished.
Then the smell of fresh, moist air filled their lungs as they emerged out of the mouth of the cave, into the woods.
Clara got down on all fours, gasping for air, trying to catch her breath. Arthur fell to his knees, feeling the breeze rush past his face, taking a deep breath as his tired legs burned from the effort. Parlebb stood on his feet, dusted off his coat, pulled out a small canteen from one of the pouches and proceeded to take a long sip.
“We made it…I…I can’t believe it…” Clara said in between breaths.
Arthur didn’t say a word, as he was far too caught up taking in the fresh air.
“And look at that, the rain finally stopped.” Parlebb uttered as his siblings got back up on their feet.
“Yeah, lucky us…but I don’t think that really matters. I’d rather face the storm head on than spend another second down there.” Arthur said, briefly glancing back at the grotto. The shadows retreated, lying stationary at the mouth of the cave.
The brothers turned to their sister. Clara brought out the crudely drawn map from her shirt pocket, this time it was all crumpled up and worn, the contents barely readable. After taking one careful look at the piece of paper, she looked up at her brothers.
Arthur caught on, walking back a couple steps, clearing the path for her.
“Lead the way.”
Clara took the lead, her brothers trailing close behind her.
“Sis’, are you sure this is the way back home?”
“Just making sure. We don’t want to end up back where we started do we?”
“Trust me, I know where to go from here.”
“Okay. So…think we should come back to Neovia next year?”
“Once was enough already.” Parlebb said.
“Alright, how about the Deserted Fairgrou--”
“NO!” Parlebb and Clara barked in unison.
“Okay, okay, that was a joke. Why don’t we just stick close to home for next year? You know, for old time’s sake?”
“I’m fine with that.”
“No complaints here.”
“You better bet on no more caving from here on out.” The siblings all nodded in agreement.
They vanished into the mist, the light gleaming ever so strongly. The darkness, stark against the light that flooded the woods, lay dormant in wait, lingering, waiting for the right moment, when the light fades away once more, to cast its shadow over the lands and blanket the world in darkness.