Short Story Part 5
The wind howled at the mouth of the chasm and we both paused, considering our options.
“It seems the wizard has magicked every approach to the east, between the fog and this haunted chasm,” Nimbus offered.
“Do you really think it’s haunted?”
“It feels like it. At least we can see our way through.” He set one foot in front of the other and I followed, wondering if every decision I made up until this point could be wrong. He glanced back at me. “You’re doing the right thing. Don’t worry.”
“How did you know what I was thinking?”
“I just felt it.” He grinned and turned back to watch the trail at our feet. The roiling river far below churned enough spray to make the rocks cumbersome and slippery. I returned my gaze to them too watching for the best footholds while clutching the rough rock wall with my right hand.
The crashing of the water below echoed on the walls amplifying the sound ten times greater than it would should this river be out in the open. The sound became deafening and we couldn’t talk to each other if we tried. The spray blinded our eyes and we stumbled on by touch. Our boots skimming the surface until it felt sturdy and flat and our hands grazing the rock wall slowly scraping away the layers of skin.
I hated this chasm already.
The ledge began to narrow and we turned our bodies to the side. I briefly wondered what my dance teacher would think of my plie now and if she would approve that it lent itself to my survival in the wilderness.
“I see the exit!” Nimbus’s voice shattered my thoughts and I looked in the direction we headed trying to peer past my misted eyes. I saw an opening, but it looked more cavernous than an exit.
“Isn’t that a cave?”
“It’s the only way through.”
I clenched my jaw. The maps of the chasm had never indicated a tunnel. It seemed a straightforward trek about the infamous river Avonrey far below. Nimbus sped up nearing the cavern before I could get in touch with my gut instinct. Something told me to not enter, but closing the distance proved him correct. We could go no other way unless we went back to the beginning.
We stopped inside the lip of the cave to catch our breath and wipe our eyes. I shrugged the saddlebag off my shoulder for a moment and stretched all limbs. Arms pointing straight up as I came up on my toes. Nimbus imitated me and smiled.
“This does feel good.” His voice echoed off the rock walls and he peered behind us toward the inky blackness. His features screening whatever he thought or felt. “You mentioned the Phoenix. It will give us light in the dark?”
“It will. Though I don’t remember a tunnel being a part of the chasm from the maps.”
He eyed me a moment. “Well, we either go through or we go back.”
I sighed. “Through. I think.”
“Then we’ll go through.” He shouldered his saddle bag and I stooped to pick up mine. On the way back up I pulled out the crystal that hid behind my tunic on its chain.
“Breathe fire, Phoenix.” It started as a little ember in its center and pulsed outward until it filled the entire chamber. The cavern around us held a warm glow as if by torchlight, but it didn’t seem any less creepy. Massive cobwebs clung to the stalactites from above and the damp earth beneath our feet smelled of the earth’s decay, of bacteria and insects that fed on the moist detritus in the dirt. I wrinkled my nose and Nimbus chuckled.
“You and Phoenix lead the way then.”
I bobbed my head and turned to head deeper into the passage. “If something lives here, we should tread lightly,” I whispered.
“Agreed. Something does live here. I can feel its presence,” Nimbus whispered back. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I wished he hadn’t confirmed what I already suspected, but it didn’t surprise me. Phoenix swayed gently on its chain with my movement. The muscles in the back of my legs starting to taut from the careful stepping on the ledges of the chasm to now creeping through the cave lest we disturb its inhabitant. I wanted to sigh but feared that would echo too much within the close confines of the rock.
The dripping of water from overhead created puddles on the floor, and the paths between these puddles began to narrow as the cavern began to take on more and more water. I peered out ahead wondering if we would lose ground to the overtaking water. I didn’t want to walk in wet boots and I didn’t want to slosh through puddles in this chilling stillness.
Time seemed to stand still as we moved with the same motions through the unrelenting cavern. Just when the muscles in my legs considered seizing from the same limited movement, the path in front of us gave way to a still murky lake. Nothing rippled the water, it seemed as lifeless as a bog. Water where beings go to die.
“Do you think we’ll have to swim?” I asked.
“No, there’s a ledge along that wall there that will allow us to skirt it. I’m not sure of the handholds or the scratches in the rock though.”
My eyes followed where Nimbus pointed, my gaze first finding the ledge he spoke of before finding the gouges in the walls. They cut deep as though made by a massive animal. I swallowed hard.
“It would be better than swimming through unknown waters,” he added.
Whatever made those marks in the wall might live in the water, I thought to myself but didn’t want to say it aloud in case the words spoke true. I followed the narrow path to the right and Nimbus stayed right with me. The ledge proved as long as my feet and the wall as smooth as any rock until the monstrous gouges appeared. I switched Phoenix from my front to my back and pressed my stomach against the wall with my face turned in the direction we headed. There seemed to be light beyond this cavern and I wanted to see it as quickly as I could. The side shuffle only provided temporary relief to my legs as our movement but the ache and stiffness soon returned. I didn’t know what lay after the chasm but I would need a place to rest and stretch.
Behind us in the stillness bubbles popped on the surface of the water. “What the—”
“Keep going,” Nimbus urged. I tried to hurry my side shuffle; my legs slow to respond. The burbling came again, louder, and many more bubbles as though something beneath the still lake came up to find breath.
“Keep going,” Nimbus urged again. I could almost trace the panic in his voice but his concerted effort to stay calm for both of us proved admirable. We moved more, about eight more side steps and we would be back to firm ground.
The bubbling behind us erupted with something breaking the surface. I couldn’t turn my head to face this possible threat, but Nimbus stood far enough behind me to see out of the corner of his eye.
“Stay still,” he whispered. My legs trembled at the thought of having to hold this position for much longer. I closed my eyes and thought of the strength of the earth coming up through my feet to keep me grounded in the here and now, to remind me of how far we had come.
“Move forward slowly.” I sidestepped so slow I thought my foot might never reach the ledge again. My right foot followed at just the same pace. I felt Nimbus begin to move beside me, between the two of us a rock splashed into the watery depths below and the creature spun around. I could almost feel its eyes on my back. “I think it’s blind. But get ready to run,” Nimbus whispered. My legs nearly locked with fear. I’d been through a lot of situations, but stuck on a ledge with my back towards a potential predator seemed the worse I’d ever seen. I reached my left foot out again and heard the deep growl echo round the cavern. A massive splash sent water onto the ledge where we stood.
“Go!” Nimbus hissed. I took huge side steps hoping only for my adrenaline and stiff muscles to keep me safe, to keep me from tipping backward into the monster’s pond. In five seconds, I my feet touched the broad floor. I swung back around to Nimbus and hauled him after me only then seeing the milky eyed beast that has rose from the depths. He had several whisker-like barbels protruding from his face and back like a catfish from hell. His head pivoted in a slow arc, waiting to find us. He couldn’t see, but he could definitely hear us and feel us if those barbels came close enough to touch. Nimbus didn’t look behind us anymore, he only peered ahead.
“Go. Now!” He grabbed a hold of my hand and hauled me after him. Slipping and sliding on the loose rock and slick mud we ran. The creature roared and hauled himself out of the lake, its talons slicing deep into the rock as it bumbled on the ground after us.
“Nimbus?” I asked. If the creature could only hear us or feel us, why did we make all this noise to flee?
“We’re almost there!” I tried to catch a glimpse of what he saw as our salvation but taking my eyes from my feet only made our getaway more treacherous. On my next inhalation the air felt lighter, as if it had seen the light of day and been purified.