CHAPTER SIXTEEN: ESCAPE!
Thirst tormented Zelda. Her throat felt filled with broken glass which ground together with each swallow. Her tongue was like a fat sausage, stuffed in her mouth and growing hourly. It had been a long time since she had drunk anything. What she would give for a cold beer right now! Her tongue came out to gingerly trace her cracked and swollen lips. The last thing she could remember having was the wine in the clearing, beneath the trees.
Nate had held her in his strong arms and whispered words of love. As she relived these tender moments, her mind lingered upon her dead husband. Their life was coming together in ways she hadn’t previously been able to hope for. They’d had money and love and freedom to enjoy both. Now, Nate was dead — possibly devoured — and she was a captive of hideous creatures, bent upon killing her as well.
How could God let this happen? Everything was finally coming right for them and suddenly their world was torn apart and stomped on. Defiled by these ugly, stinking monstrosities, from beyond the realm of reality.
She asked herself what she had done to deserve this. How much suffering was one person supposed to endure? Had God, in his heaven decided to rescind the rules of nature simply to destroy their happiness? For what reason?
They’d been poor for a long, long time, and each of them had had their dreams go sour, like fruit left to rot in the summer sun. In the crotch of a tree, perhaps? Rotting in the sun with the flies buzzing and the ants crawling… to survive — to succeed in spite of everything life had thrown at them. Their marriage had suffered, and they had put off having children, hoping for a better day, while they both struggled with their own private burdens.
Finally, there had come the lottery. Oh, blessed day! For three brief months, they had lived the life everyone dreams of — nearly unlimited wealth and time to devote to themselves and romance. Like children with new toys, they had reveled in the sheer luxury of life without limits. It had all culminated in that one glorious afternoon in the summer sun, beneath the trees of the clearing. For that one brief, fragile moment they were truly as one, giving and receiving love equally between themselves. At last their lives had turned around and it looked as though there was going to be a beautiful future after all.
Then, as though God had deserted them, casting them from the garden of Eden into the depths of hell, everything had come crashing down upon them. Indeed, she felt like Eve, being punished for her sin of tempting her Adam with the fruit of life. But the fruit in the tree was not the fruit of life, it was the fruit of death — death and horrifying, unholy nightmare.
Everything had turned topsy-turvy, starting from the moment she had pointed out the “hornets’ nest”. She wished she’d kept her mouth shut, and not said anything to Nate about it. She had the unshakable suspicion that somehow, if she hadn’t pointed out that gruesome mass of rotting flesh in the tree, things would be entirely different now. How long ago was that? Here beneath the ground, it could be day or night. There was no way to tell. She’d slept once since her capture. How long had she been out?
The only gauge she had of passing time was her increasing thirst, and the desire for rest. Apparently some amount of time had passed. Her inner biological clock was telling her it was time to sleep again. How ironic that was! On the one hand, she was in greater danger than she had ever been in her life — there were monsters, both real and imagined, lurking in the darkness all around her. Her senses should be tuned to the danger lying around every bend of this hell-hole.
There was every chance that, at any given moment, they would be found out and ripped to shreds by a horrible creature, deep beneath the ground and far from the light of day. Failing that, they may plunge into another bottomless abyss like the one that had just missed claiming their lives earlier. Or they may fall prey to any number of sightless, slimy denizens of the dark which may share this labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. For that matter, they might just wind up lost and wandering until they died of exposure or exhaustion.
And yet the cold and dampness of the cave made her want to curl up somewhere in a ball and drift off to peaceful, luxurious slumber. What a relief it would be to close her eyes and just shut down, escaping all of this tribulation, and releasing her mind to be cradled in the warm, soothing embrace of Morpheus — to float in sweet nihilistic repose. Her lids grew heavy with the thought, and her pace began to slacken noticeably.
Susie noticed. She tapped Zelda on the back, sharply, and whispered, “Stay awake, Zelda. We have to get out of here!”
Zelda turned and sat down, in the middle of the tunnel. “Sorry, honey,” she said, her voice husky and thick. “I’m kinda tired. Could we stop awhile?”
Susie brought her mouth close to Zelda’s ear so as to make as little noise as possible. “NO!” she hissed. “We’ve got to keep moving.” She grabbed Zelda’s face in her hands and shook her. When this failed to elicit a response, she clutched a handful of her hair and pulled hard.
Zelda winced with pain, and it brought her around somewhat, but her thoughts still drifted slowly, like a pearl in molasses. Dimly she was aware that she was approaching the first stages of hypothermia, the cold and dampness having taken their toll.
Susie didn’t know the name for it, but she could tell that Zelda was cold. Grimly, she pulled the sweat-shirt back over her head and tried to slip it over Zelda’s. “This’ll help,” she told her. When Zelda realized what she was trying to do, she snapped out of it and stopped her. “No sweetheart, I’m not that bad yet. But if I do drift off, you’ve got to promise you’ll leave me here and go on by yourself. She snuggled the sweater back over Susie’s shoulders and they huddled together for awhile, transferring body heat. Zelda’s tortured body cried out for a drink, but she didn’t dare try any of the water that puddled on the floor of the cave for fear of contamination.
“How’re you holding up?” she asked Susie.
“Okay, I guess. I’m pretty tired.”
“Me too, honey. But we’re gonna make it. It can’t be much farther now, I wouldn’t think. I noticed the floor’s gradually started sloping up. Maybe it’ll take us to the surface pretty soon.” With that, she dragged herself up onto her hands and knees, resumed crawling down the length of the tunnel, with Susie, ever vigilant, right behind. Her legs felt like dead logs trailing along behind her and her arms were numb with cold. She willed them to continue and placed one in front of the other over and over again doggedly, inching slowly along. After a time, Zelda stopped short, and Susie collided with her rear end.
“There’s a hole here,” Zelda warned. “Probably another of those wells.” With care, she skirted the opening, drawing her child shadow behind.
Susie could feel a cool draft of air rising from the well to wash her face, and she could imagine the inky depths that must lie below them. How eerie it was to consider the miles of dark empty spaces lying here beneath the surface of the world, hidden for countless eons from the light of day, and the prying eyes of man. What strange, uncanny creatures could be spawning in this lightless void, undiscovered and undisturbed — until now.
Thinking this, she drew even more closely against Zelda, and she wished for the thousandth time to be able to see again. She had been in the dark for so long, she’d begun to wonder if she had lost the sense of sight altogether. At any rate, she knew now what it must be like for a sightless person to live in darkness from day to day, unable to view colors or light or even the simple pleasures a typical day might present for inspection. How odd it would be to know that you would never see again — never witness the beauty of a sunrise or the color of a fine spring morning! Susie decided that, of all the senses, she would miss sight the most.
They had traveled only a few more yards when Zelda stopped again. “I think I see light up ahead”, she said mildly. Her voice sounded dull and stilted — as though she were unsure of herself and afraid to be overly optimistic.
Suddenly she gave a stifled little squeal of delight and this time, when she spoke, her voice sounded much more excited. “I do! I see light up ahead! It’s got to be an entrance, Susie. Honey, look! Do you see it?”
Susie strained her eyes ahead, trying to pierce the dimness, and still she saw nothing. Perhaps it was true, she’d been held from the light for too long, and she’d lost her sight. “Where? I…” She stammered, partially from uncertainty and partially from the effect of the low temperatures. “I don’t see anything.”
“There ahead, you must see it!”
Slowly, Susie became aware of a dim shadow floating ethereally in the murky darkness. It seemed to be suspended in air — a filmy blue shape that pulsed and swayed in the tunnel ahead of them like a ghostly splotch on the wall of a tomb. Susie rubbed her eyes. She blinked rapidly several times, and at last she began to see the shadow take shape.
It was slowly falling into focus as dim light, shining through an opening which itself must lie around another bend; or perhaps, up a hill and out of sight from their present position. There was definitely light, however, and Susie was drawn to it like nothing before in her life. A man, dying of thirst in the middle of an arid desert, coming suddenly upon an oasis, complete with a deep blue pool of cool water would not be attracted the way Susie was to this light. If Zelda hadn’t been between her and the light, Susie would have scrambled as fast as her legs would carry her toward it, recklessly ignoring any danger of discovery or pitfall that may lie in her path.
Zelda felt the same way. She was just as anxious as Susie to return to the world of light, but she possessed the coolness of mind to realize they weren’t out of the woods yet, so to speak. She grabbed Susie and held her back, whispering for her to be cautious and go slow. “We’ve got to approach the entrance carefully, honey. Who knows what may be waiting for us there?”
Susie relaxed with only the slightest of whimpers, and fell back into position behind her. Once she was sure the child was in control again, Zelda continued crawling slowly down the corridor, and toward the light.
The urge to rush ahead, casting caution to the wind and fleeing these ghostly haunts was almost overpowering; but Zelda forced herself to stop every few steps and listen. Both of them strained their ears to hear the slightest whisper of movement either before or behind them, before moving on. As they approached the light, they could see it was definitely an opening as suddenly the bottom part of the hole cleared the ceiling of the tunnel and came into their line of sight.
A bright, sparkling ray of light struck them both simultaneously and their hearts leaped with the prospect of returning to the world of the living. The size of the opening seemed to grow as they neared it and Zelda could see they would soon be within sprinting distance of freedom. How she longed to feel the sun upon her face again! And the prospect of clean fresh air wafting gently amongst the forest green was as alluring as anything she had ever dreamed of in her life. To feel the soft carpeting of forest plants beneath her feet, rather than hard, cold limestone, would be haven to her senses. The irregular patch of sunlight revealed a bright blue sky with scrappy pieces of white, fluffy clouds, and, although it hurt her eyes to look at it, Zelda thought it was about the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She could feel Susie urging her on from behind, but she insisted on approaching slowly, and with care. Her heart pounded loudly in her chest, partially from the fear of detection, partially from the anticipation of success.
A smile stretched broadly across Zelda’s face and she turned to look at the child. To her amazement, she could make out Susie’s features. It was the first time she had ever seen the little girl and her eyes drank in the sight lovingly. Susie’s hair stood out in a tattered mass, and her face was streaked with grime and dried blood. Still, Zelda thought she was a lovely child, and tears brimmed her eyes with the sight of her. The sweat-shirt bagged loosely around her slim neck and shoulders, and draped down far enough to form a skirt about her hips. Her bright blue eyes sparkled with life and hope as she gazed back at Zelda, and the bright, shining light of the opening glistened back at her from their depths. She too was smiling happily and Zelda clasped her behind the neck and squeezed gently.
“We’re gonna make it, kiddo,” she whispered with joy. “I told ya, didn’t I?”
Susie nodded and rubbed her eyes with both fists, trying to adjust to the light. Then, as Zelda watched her, beaming ecstatically, she suddenly vanished, like a candle, snuffed out by the wind. One moment she was there, smiling innocently in the light of the opening, and the next moment she was gone. When Zelda swiveled her head around, she was horrified to see the opening had disappeared. Before them lay only darkness — eternal, impenetrable, damnable darkness. Again they were plunged into the inky blackness of the void.
Unthinking, Zelda cried out and raced ahead, arms outstretched to reclaim the sparkling prize. Her bare knees scraped on the limestone floor of the tunnel, abrading skin and flesh, but she didn’t even notice the pain, in her headlong rush for the door. She hadn’t taken three steps, however, before an ear-splitting roar erupted, point blank in front of her, and she felt hot breath and mucous spray in her face.
With a scream, she fell backwards and lay, cowering on the floor. She could hear the creature shuffling toward her in the darkness, and it terrified her to know that, while it could see her, she had no way of even knowing what the instrument of her impending death looked like. There was no defense against something which you could not see, could not even remotely hope to overpower, and had no chance of out-running. All she could hope to accomplish was to slow it down while Susie made good her escape.
With this in mind, she raised her head and shouted, “Run, Susie, Run! Go back down the tunnel, honey, I’m right behind you!” She was gratified to hear Susie’s footsteps, scurrying down the tunnel and fading in the darkness just before the creature was upon her. A smashing blow to the back of her head sent her face-first into the hard tunnel wall and the heavy body of the beast came crashing down on top of her.
As the creature rolled her over on her back, she felt its sharp talons raking her skin and smelled the foul odor of its gaping mouth drooling above her. But all this was driven from her consciousness by a terrified shriek from Susie, knifing through the gloom and echoing off the walls. In spite of her desperate situation, the moment she became aware that Susie was in trouble, she began to fight back. She drew back and drove her fist hard into the face of the attacker, feeling its moist muzzle make contact with her knuckles. It was like punching a leather bag full of bricks. The tender flesh there gave way and, for just a moment, the beast pulled back in surprise. Making the most of this moment, Zelda scrambled up and began crawling as fast as she could down the tunnel. “Susie! Susie!” she screamed.
She wasn’t able to get far, though, before the guard was on her again, and this time it spoke, Going somewhere, Meat? The voice literally shrieked in her mind. It was coarse and mean, dripping with contempt. I don’t think so. I think you’re dead.
Its huge paws found Zelda again and pinned her down. She could smell its hot, rank breath filling the air, and she could imagine its dripping yellow fangs jutting from sneering black lips, poised above her. Drool splashed in huge warm droplets upon her neck and chest and she cringed, awaiting the killing blow.
Again she was struck by the cruel irony of the situation: to think she had come through all this, only to die now, with freedom just a few feet away. There was nothing she could do to save herself or Susie. But life is seldom fair. If it were, there would have been no Jewish Holocaust, no Hiroshima bomb to blast the flesh from innocent children, and John Lennon, fierce advocate of peace and love would not have been gunned down like a punk in the streets. Life plays with no rules, no ties or obligations to justice. Its memory is short, and each moment holds no compunction for those gone by. Events happen as they will, and we are left to pay the cost.
As the realization of the hopelessness of her situation became clear to her, Zelda became still and calm. If death was in sight, then let it come for her. It would be a welcome relief after the nightmare of these last couple of days. Her only major regrets were her failure to protect the little girl, and that she hadn’t been awake to help Nate when he needed her most. She closed her eyes and braced herself.
Abruptly a new voice, flat and authoritative, cut through the darkness, halting the creature in mid-lunge. STOP! commanded the intruder. Do not kill the female.
With a grunt of surprise, the beast looked up, seeing what Zelda could not. But when the voice came again, Zelda recognized it as that of the female creature they had encountered in her den. Slowly she approached, and Zelda was nearly over-powered by the stench of two of these beasts in such close proximity.
This one is to be the vessel of Chirkah’s seed. I spoke with it earlier, in my birthing chamber. They told me they were on an errand for one of the slave-mothers, but I didn’t believe them.
The female addressed Zelda where she lay on the tunnel floor, the guard straddling her uncertainly. You really thought I was asleep, didn’t you, bitch? An ugly, mirthless chuckle, repulsively self-satisfied in its tone, insinuated itself in Zelda’s mind. Did you think I, Tonrah, mate to the mighty Chirkah would be stupid enough to fall for your pitiful lies? I know who you are, I know Chirkah’s plans for you.
The beast stopped and Zelda felt the hot stink of her breath on her cheeks as it leaned down over her. What I didn’t know was what you hoped to accomplish with this clumsy escape attempt. So… I followed you. My curiosity was aroused, I thought perhaps you would lead me to some secret you were hiding from the Kophet-kur. But now I see you were only attempting to find a way out. I harbor no affection for humans, of that you can be sure. However, Zelda, I will offer you one word of advice, and you would do well to remember it in the future. The word is don’t. Don’t try to escape the Kophet-kur… Don’t make the mistake of trying to match wits with one of us… And don’t EVER make me angry. You are lucky I followed you, foolish one. This guard was about to have his way with you and then devour your flesh while you still lived. It would have been an agony too incredibly intense to describe.
She turned her attention back to the guard. And YOU, my friend, are lucky as well. My mate would have been distressed had you harmed his intended, as was your plan. Leave us now and return to your watch. I will escort this one back to the slave chambers.
Reluctant to be dismissed so summarily, the guard offered one feeble protest, And what of the other?
The small one is dead. She rushed straight into a well, farther back down the tunnel, and fell to her death.
Zelda’s heart went numb, plunged into ice-water. She remembered the well they had skirted so carefully just a short ways back. No doubt Susie had run, terrified, right into it, and that had been the scream she’d heard. Her own voice echoed in her memory: Run, Susie, Run! she had shouted. Go back down the tunnel… I’m right behind you!
But she wasn’t right behind her, and the final words she’d spoken to the child had been a lie. She had the feeling, a type of motherly instinct, that Susie had been lied to all of her short life. Now, in her final moments, as she died, all alone in the cold darkness of this cruel underground dungeon, the one friend she had left — the only person remaining for her to count on had added one more lie to that endless chain.
Wracked with remorse and sorrow, and totally exhausted, Zelda let her head hang limply in the dirt, and all the life drained out of her. When the guard pulled back and Tonrah nudged her on her way, she followed meekly, offering not even token resistance.