Where was the ******* cave?
Stringer paused. Everything was so confusing. One moment it was there and then it was gone again.
Yet Stringer knew it wasn’t. Anything was possible out here. Lost in the Gloom where the evil dwells. He could feel it filling up his mind like his thoughts were strained through cotton. The place played tricks on you, ******* with your mind and tempting your soul.
How long he stood there, he didn’t know.
Suddenly the spell lifted and he found himself once more. The trail continued its slow twisting climb and the stillness returned.
The cave had to be close now, he thought.
A heavy blanket of quiet covered everything. The silence was profound and deafening. No bird cries or dead leaves cracking under his footfalls. The absence of noise terrified him. He was a castaway wading through an ocean of gossamer mist searching for a lost island of hope. It was a conspiracy of silence and he was wrapped inside its unnatural shroud.
Were the others in trouble? His forlorn reticence told him that the unlucky ******** were doomed to die. But was that true?
Although still young, he’d already survived previous treks into the unknown. He marked B1 on the map and lived to tell the tale. He was one of the best ‘stringers’ as they were called. But that was more than two years ago, now long gone-success no more than a memory. At least he’d been able to eat well for a week or two in reward.
Stringer realized he was climbing again, and been so for a while. Without even thinking, he leaned forward and tied a strip of blood-red fabric to a dead branch. A ghostly claw of thorn reached out to torment him and he quickly recoiled.
He stumbled along the rocky path as it leveled off and looked for his next target.
He peered ahead. The sun was high, but it didn’t matter in the half-life world of the Gloom. The path was mottled and the trees only shadowy apparitions. After a short stretch of trail, his feet started to slip in the loose dirt as he walked downhill into a depression. There were similar cuts in the route he’d passed through before, places where the earth was soft, soaked from the persistent mist. These spots encouraged complacency and if not careful leaving a snapped ankle in a hidden crack. This defile was narrow and very steep. He descended slowly, taking as much care as possible not to slip.
His head nodded. Feeling apprehensive he pawed at the damp walls. Reaching bottom, the trail turned south. Fog was thick and blinding. Soaked to the bone, rank water pooled around his ankles. The cold gnawed at him, and yet he was sweating: the salt stinging in his eyes. He had no layers of fat to keep him warm; if he breathed in, his ribs protruded, disturbing anyone who had the misfortune to see them.
Stringer’s hair was a mess, a *********** mop that looked like it had been hacked with a blade, brown eyes and pale skin made him look as common as the others, as if they had all been cut from the same piece of cheap cloth.
He ran a hand over his face to clear his eyes, lingering on the pock scars on his cheeks. His fingers ran through the grooves. Any glow of the youthful skin he was born with was long gone. What remained now was just the ugly roadmap of bumps and pits. Yet, it was these imperfections that made him distinct from the other surveyors in Folly. For better or worse.
Scared, he willed himself forward. This was the worst stretch he’d encountered, the weeping walls were not steep anymore, but they were slippery. The stone intrusions smelled of **** and were only just far enough apart to permit passage. He stumbled at times, frantic to exit, taking short, mincing steps. At one narrow bend he went to his knees, sharp rock punched into skin and scraped on bone. He was just able to regain his balance and struggle up again. At last the walls spread a little farther apart and he knew the way forward was clear.
The fog lifted a bit and he spied a little distance ahead. The trail was a ribbon of rock no more than three feet wide, winding along the middle contours of a rugged canyon for a hundred yards or more. Thick, stunted shrub concealed the rim and terrifying blackness entombed the ravine below. There came a morbid, mind’s-eye image of a grotesque dead body flattened far below on the rock-strewn floor, broken limbs twisted in unnatural angles. His body. The vision loosened his bowels and bile churned in his throat.
Then, the dimly lit path began to grow even more bleak. Stinger looked upwards toward the sky and noticed that the light of the sun was already beginning to fade as it set over the horizon. His path became even harder to see than it already had been before. Time was running out. How much daylight was left? Must get back before nightfall-and certain death-catches me, he thought.
As he shifted his gaze downward, the smell of burned, rotting flesh swirled up to engulf him. Suddenly all light was extinguished and he could see nothing in front of him. Nothing above nor below. Nothing behind. All was black.
What was happening was unreal, the frantic thoughts plaguing him. He was close to the cave and the Gloom didn’t want him there. All was gone; the sky, the canyon trail, and the valley below. Lost. In the reeking darkness, he quelled the vomit, but could not stop coughing as he struggled to breathe.
Then the screams came.
Peal upon peal of wailing filled the emptiness. The sound assaulted his head and he was overwhelmed with the desire to scream but knew he couldn’t. It wasn’t easy to frighten him and he’d proven that many times in the past. He stood motionless waiting, hoping the illusion would falter and he could move forward once more.
I will die if I don’t move! His mind reeled. Fuck I can’t do it! There is no way out!
It was so black, so cold. Why not lie down and go to sleep? Just close your eyes and let everything slip away.
No! No! That’s what the Gloom wants. Don’t give in, you fool. Take a step and grind into the wall or plunge over the edge but don’t die without a fight.
He shook his head and forced his way forward through the stinking fog. A timid first step into the unreal night and, fighting back the fear, another step, then another.
How much longer would this last? Was the blackness only in his mind?
Slowly, ever so slowly, the darkness retreated. The sun’s pale light once again found him. And yet where he stood now was not the same. The contoured path was no more-appearing in its stead was the mouth to the cave he was so desperately searching for. It was guarded by a dead tree. White skeletal branches extended out as if reaching for him or warning him away. He needed to mark it and get the hell out of there.
Just do it. Now. Before it is too late.
The cave loomed more menacing in front of him with each step he took. A pitch-black maw open and waiting to devour anyone foolish enough to trespass here. He wondered why it was, against every rational thought, standing where it should not. Perhaps it was the isolated, unexplored location which unnerved him and caused the phantom delusions.
“Stand strong,” he whispered to himself, shifting from foot to foot. Any remaining bravado was deserting him. “Yes. You can finish this,” whispering again, half expecting an answer from someone or something unseen. He reached for the cloth ribbon from a side pouch, never taking his eyes off the cave.
He tied the strip off and then took a single, weak step backward. His left foot felt something firm, yet sticky and he stumbled in panicking terror. “What the-“
There was an unlit torch on the ground. But that could not be, he thought staring at it. Stringers weren’t allowed to carry torches, or anything else which would aid or allow them to enter caves. It was strictly forbidden. Still, somehow it was there and no way could he have not seen it before now.
“Pick it up,” a chill voice cried out in his head.
“Take it with you.”
“You will die in the dark.”
“Light the way.”
“Pick it up.”
“We are waiting.”
Instinctively, he bent over and took the torch. It felt warm to the touch and courage welled in his heart. A chance at treasure for myself? Why not? Gold in my pocket for all the dangers I’ve endured. Without hesitation, he walked into the black mouth and was swallowed.
Inside, the cave was far larger than it appeared. Its bowels snaked deeper for a hundred or more feet and then sloped down like the back of a devil’s throat. The meager sunlight retreated, plunging him into the darkness. Will I ever see again?
As if on command, fire cracked from the torch igniting in his hand. He didn’t pause, nor question the inexplicable flame. The burning fire was not strong and only provided enough light for the immediate area surrounding him.
“Down,” the voice returned, calling to him.
“It is yours.”
“Do not stop.”
“You will die in the dark.”
He followed the voice, never wavering. The torch burned and was more than just light, it was his soul exposed bright
against the horrors of the night. He crept forward to a precipice and looked into the abyss.
Then he saw it.
Descending into the darkness, barely a foot from the cliff edge was what appeared to be a long set of stairs. An ice-cold breeze crept up from the pit. The stairs were rough and uneven, appearing to be hewn out of the rock.
Darkness ebbed around him as he went downward, taking a palpable, almost lifelike form. His torch dimmed against the midnight tide and wavered from the buffeting draft. For a fleeting moment he thought he saw a landing. Just a few more steps and he would reach the bottom.
“Here,” the voice whispered.
“We are close.”
“Do not flee.”
“You will die in the dark.”
Something vile clawed at the back of his neck and he was spinning to escape. He felt himself falling. A stone step came rushing upward and he extended his arms instinctively to protect himself from the impact. There was an audible crack and instant pain seared through his shoulder. He began tumbling uncontrollably down the remaining stairs, the torch torn from his hand and thrown away.
He crashed hard on the floor, another crack, louder than the first, sounded in the dark and he screamed in agony. Curling into a fetal position, he tried in vain to ball away the pain. A warmth coursed through his body. Popping lights of orange, red, and yellow shot inside his eyes like solstice fireworks. Time slowed and the world began to spin. All sound was muted, save each breath echoing in his ears.
He pawed at his lower leg, reaching out, probing for the source of the pain. Tears streamed down his face and his body was trembling. His fingers recoiled after brushing across his injured ankle. It was twisted completely backward, bloated with blood. His face lost all color and warm bile boiled up his throat. Retching overtook the moans and vomit spewed from his mouth, a hot rain streaming down his chest. The lit torch was lying on the ground, flickering just inches from where he fell.
God it hurt. Please just pass out or die. A torture chamber had to be better than this.
He didn’t pass out. He didn’t die. Stringer laid there, for how long he didn’t know or care. Could have been minutes, even hours. Something inside provoked him and summoning all remaining effort, he tucked his left arm under his side to act as a brace. He then pushed his arm down and extended, propping himself upward. Half-unconscious, he attempted to stand, trying to not to prolong his agony. He screamed again, the cry piercing the silence as a thumping heartbeat pounded in his head. But he did not fall. Each hopping movement sent darts of pain streaking up his leg. He tried not to look down at the ankle dangling grotesquely beneath him.
The darkness grew, surrounding him like a malevolent entity-rousing him from his stupor. If he didn’t go now, he was dead for certain. Willing himself forward, he labored to the wall hoping for the respite it might give, if only for a moment.
The light from the torch dimmed, the encroaching darkness increasing with each painful lurch.
Fumbling for a hold, he could make out something in the shadows, just below his outstretched hand. A crude carving of some sort. He looked closer, inspecting it as best he could. It was a hellish scene of writhing demihuman forms entwined in red tentacles. Lying at their feet were open chests of treasure. Pillars of the crypt surrounded the forms rising skyward toward the roof of the cavern. But that was far from the worst aspect of it.
What is this madness? He thought, trying to stem the panic.
Looming over the tormented figure was a huge beast with only a partial outline remaining, the rest scratched out. Stringer’s eyes widened in fear as he now saw the message scrawled inside the thing’s belly.
“Welcome home, CREGAN DOLE,” it called to him by his birth name.
“That … that’s not possible,” he whimpered.
From somewhere behind he heard metal grating on stone. He turned searching out the sound, looking, but saw nothing but a sloping floor fading away from him.
The red flickers of the torch began to die.
It was impossible for him to catch his breath. The air was thin, dry, and frigid.
So deathly cold.
His vision began to swim and he struggled against encroaching sleep. The darkness leapt forward drowning out all light, save two reddish pinpricks. Madness was taunting him and calling for his sanity. His soul.
“Take,” the voice returned. This time sounding much closer and incongruous. A putrid odor filled his nostrils.
“It is yours.”
“I am waiting.”
“Do not pause.”
“You will die in the dark.”
“You are home.”
A pool of glittering gold and gems spread out before him. Writhing maggots, each with a man’s face-his face, crawled through the treasure.
He began to scream. The wailing was impossible to stop. Tears burned in his eyes and the sobs rocked him to the core. A presence grew as tremors began to shake the cave and reverberate around him-pounding in rapid and horrifying rhythm. Spectral arms emerged from the floor, each with many tentacle-like fingers, reaching, feeling, and clutching at him–barbed suckers ripping and tearing away at his flesh.
The thing’s distorted voice was booming around him. The alien and expressionless tone of it most terrible of all. What light was left was extinguished and he was lost alone to the darkness. Yet, somehow, unfathomable as it may seem, he could see it now-taking shape before him.
It was a thing birthed of gore, gibbous flesh, and embryonic fluid. The stench of excrement and rancid meat penetrated his nostrils. He could count thirteen visible eyes-each black and pupil-less orbs floating in dead-white sockets. Gaping cuts which formed the thing’s mouth oozed yellow, pink and red, revealing worm-like innards. Blood flowed from dozens of slashes across its belly as the abomination writhed before him.
Stringer started to laugh.
It was futile to resist such hideous strength and unspeakable, eldritch power. This being, was neither human, nor revenant, nor ghost lingering from a forbidden, heinous act. It was something cast away from the world in another age, long forgotten and chained until now. But with every sacrifice, it strengthens-finding a greater foothold in this dimension. He knew now why was he lured down the long stairs and into its damnable lair. Cregan’s heart thundered in his chest. I will never leave, he thought with finality.
“No, you will not,” it said.