Scene 09: The Cave
It'd taken a while and a few false starts, but eventually, Gerry had been able to find a cave — or more accurately, a cave that could actually fit people and more than a handful of bats. This one had started out as little more than an accidental tunnel in the side of a cave wall; they'd all had to press and scrape to go through the angles and twists and turns. But something had urged Gerry to go forward, to lead the way into the interior with his torch raised high.
And as he took his first echoing step into a much wider chamber, it was clear his intuition had paid off. The place was huge; it must have gone up two dozen ocks, and who knew how much deeper and lower. Gerry could hear water flowing somewhere distant, but with the dim light of the fadefire torch, he didn't know for sure. He could tell, though, that he was standing near the edge of a ledge.
"Th-there a p-pebble around here?" he muttered back to the others. It was so dark it was hard to see the ground in enough detail to find one. He kept his voice low so as not to overpoweringly echo through the chamber. A bat screeched off in the distance, returned from the night's hunt early.
Mara arched a brow and started to ask why, but before she could, Bobbin scooped up a small rock, brushed past her and put it in Gerry's palm. He nodded down at the fifer, then flicked it into the dark and began to count, silently. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. T- splash.
"D-damn. Watch your step." Gerry put one foot forward carefully. "Nnarrow ledge. Nnot sure how strong."
Bobbin stepped forward curiously, following after Gerry; after a moment's hesitation, Mara raised up a torch of her own and struck it against the rock nearby. After a brief greenish-yellow flare of light, it too gave a dim illumination. "Think we'll want a bit more light for this, loves. Bobbin, come hold this."
"Yes, ma'am," he chirped, turning back around to take the torch from her. He didn't need the light, but it didn't hurt.
Both of her hands free, she dusted off her gloves to get rid of the residue from igniting the fadefire against a wall, then followed the other two inside. Even with two torches, it was painfully dim — but there was enough light to see there were several bridges crisscrossing the interior.
"Gerry, is that natural?"
"Nnn." He shook his head firmly and without hesitation. You might get a cave bridge from time to time, but that many, so regularly spaced out? And as he was descending this slime-covered ledge, it started to become clear that it was actually a shallow staircase hewn from the rock wall. Too old and too advanced for such a remote place to be modern. Yet it couldn't be from the World Before, not if the legends about the Meteora Mountains were true: that they'd only formed at the end of the old world. But perhaps between the demise of the old and the start of the new, some survivors had settled here.
"Then we'd better be extra careful." Ruins of the past had a reputation for lurking secrets. As Mara followed after, she placed her boot down on the slimy rock just a bit wrong; her world began to invert, the stone ran out from under her, and she sailed through the air. Just as she realized she was about to be the next coin, a strong arm caught her by her own.
"Gotcha!" Gerry shouted, voice resounding through the cavern; he was just barely holding on, gripping Mara with one hand while his other held on to a rocky indentation in the wall. His feet were pushing against the stone but slipping continually, the fadefire torch fallen to the ground beside them.
"Hold on!" Bobbin squeaked, scrambling to lend a hand, but both Gerry and Mara interrupted with a yelled, "No!"
"You're t-too light!"
"You'll just fall too!"
Bobbin watched helplessly as the two grunted and strained, Mara fighting to get a purchase on the ledge with her other hand, but there was so much slime. Both of them were getting weak and tired from the strain of the weight on their arms. With nothing else he could do, Bobbin whistled.
He wasn't doing it from a fife; it didn't sound quite as good this time. But the notes were still jaunty and airy, and as they floated on the wind, the burning in Mara's joints and in Gerry's slowly eased. With enough seconds passed, they finally scratched away enough of the algae that Mara could pull herself back onto the ledge, where she breathed a sigh of relief.
"Bloody fast thinking, both of you. Thanks." Her face drenched in sweat and chest heaving for air, Mara cracked a quiet laugh. "Okay, maybe I really should start following regulation on weight."
"It's n-n-nothing. J-just. Why I'm h-here." Gerry relaxed and shook out his arm, trying to draw attention away from the hot blush forming under his stubble.
Bobbin stopped whistling, and both of the others felt it. He nodded his head up and down. "Are you okay, Miss Mara?"
"Been worse." Her voice echoed loudly and she winced. Then she carefully pulled herself back up to her feet and added under her breath, "Damn tired of flying ass-first today, can tell you that."
"Huh?" Bobbin squinted as though that would magically improve his hearing.
Mara waved it off dismissively. "Nothing, sweetie. Let's keep on down. Bat poop awaits."
"We'll nneed t-to be fast now," Gerry said. "If th-there's anything b-big in here, it's heard us nnow."
They continued on in what was mostly silence from that point; a few grunts here and there, but everyone was focused on walking safely, and Gerry was on edge even for Gerry. Caves really didn't sit right with him; he flinched at every distant noise he heard. Fortunately before too much longer, they found what Mara glowingly described as "jackpot." One of the bridges — and they were quite wide — was comfortably situated under what must have been a huge bat nest. It was covered in little dark pellets of poo. Bobbin made a face.
"So we're gonna carry that?"
"Not exactly," Mara explained. "Guano is so sharp it decomposes fast. Past the first few inches, that's going to be solid rock crystal. We can sweep off the droppings, break a chunk, and take the chunk with us."
"Doesn't sound so bad..." Bobbin mused, puffing out his cheeks thoughtfully.
"I'll still be taking care of it," Mara continued, as she undid her cravat and pulled it taut over her mouth to serve as a face mask. "For safety. You and Gerry stay here."
Bobbin saluted as Mara carefully moved across the bridge to her festering prize. Gerry, for his part, merely looked around nervously. This whole trip was taking longer than he'd have liked. He put one hand on his hip, the other holding up his torch, and exhaled.
A bit bored, Bobbin wandered in the opposite direction, into a little nook deeper into the cave. There was nothing there but a ruined, moss-overgrown box; it looked a bit like a cabinet, and a bit like it was made of metal, but somehow, Bobbin knew that neither of those things were actually true.
Who had lived here once, and why? Like anyone else who wasn't a scholar, Bobbin knew little of the World Before. Though it wasn't as though even scholars knew much about it; it was a period of time millennia ago. Nothing from that time was left in the surface world or well-traveled places, but you heard about these ruins now and then.
As Bobbin pondered those questions, he was suddenly interrupted by a panicked yelp a few feet away. A pale, white form, misshapen but lithe, wrestled with Gerry; it was atop him, and clearly larger and stronger. The brawny man was struggling to shove his torch into the creature's face, and howling in terror all the while. "Help! Help!"
"Hold on, Gerry!" Mara shouted, dropping her bag and reaching for her pistol.
Bobbin looked around; they were wrestling right outside his niche. There was no way he could get out. His eyes turned back upon the ruined box.
"Help mme!" Gerry whimpered. His biceps strained with the effort as they were forced back, zig by zig, inch by inch. It felt like his blood vessels were about to burst from exertion when he suddenly found the strength and leverage to roll hard to the right, reversing position with his assailant. It was a white-furred monster of a thing, somewhat like an ape, but eight-eyed and mouthless, its fingerless forelimbs dripping and covered in a strange fluid.
"Can't get a good shot like that!" Mara shouted.
"P-please, do sommething!" The terrified desperation Gerry's cry held — it was more than made sense for a mountain man in the middle of a fight. But as Mara watched, something suddenly clicked; well, damn. She sprinted forward and cocked her gun up close at any angle before firing as point-blank as she dared; a cone of brilliant white flame illuminated the entire cavern and caught the cave beast on fire, but not without singeing Gerry too.
Equal parts enraged and in pain, the strange thing leapt off of Gerry and rolled on the wet moss to put itself out. It didn't take long until it was merely smouldering.
Mara's eyes went wide. "Oh fiddle me with a—" She had to keep that thing on fire, that much was obvious. She sprinted after it as fast as her portly body allowed, loading a new chamber muzzle-first and firing again. Gerry beat his arm against a rock wall to put out his shoulder, then stumbled up to his feet as Mara flamed the beast again.
It let out an unearthly screech from some unseen organ, but did not fall. It whirled on her in rage, as if it had decided: woman first, fire later. She saw her whole life — her little sibs, the farm, the press — flash before her eyes in a long, long second. Before it could take that decision however, thunder rolled through the cavern as Gerry nailed it straight in an eye with his rifle. Regathering her wits, Mara backed up and loaded another shot into her pistol and fired again, the incandescent flame casting dramatic shadows throughout the cavern. Then another boom of thunder, another eye.
Flame and rifle, rifle and flame, the two worked in tandem stroke after stroke, as an awful burning smell unlike that of any animal floated through the cavern. But the beast did not die; its inexplicable screeches of rage rent the air and as it recovered from each shot, it stared with pure hatred at Mara. It was biding its time, awaiting the moment one ran out of ammunition and it could take its revenge upon both its tormentors.
It seemed a sisyphean trap, one that could only end with a worse fate. It wasn't the way that things should be.
Gerry reloaded with a tug and turn of the weapon's bolt-action lever, then hesitated even as he fired again; was he wrong? Was there somewhere else to shoot? He didn't have an unlimited number of bullets. It was a question he asked himself in vain.
A split-second later, the beast suddenly stopped moving and it went plunging into the lake below. Nine seconds of silence followed, then the splash and fizzle of the creature hitting water echoed throughout the cavern.
"Did... we get it?" Mara wondered aloud.
Gerry shook off his sense of wonder a bit quicker. "Q-q-quick! Before the troll comes back — it mmight just be stunned!" Gerry started to run up the ledge, but Mara shook her head and pointed back down.
"Get my bag or this was for nothing!"
"I got it!" Bobbin shouted, seemingly coming from nowhere, or at least the entirely wrong direction — he was on the other side of the bridge somehow. Nevertheless, he scooped up Mara's container and sprinted towards Gerry.
The trooper frowned, but now wasn't the time to ask. He dashed up himself. "B-be careful!"