13 June 2018

Home Before Dark

Prompt:  Forbidden Places | Word Count: 1800 | Genre: Fantasy

The creature remained, curled into itself, wound tight as a spring, waiting. Sometimes it lost hope, having waited for a millennium already, here in the darkness.  But it waited.

“Now, Ari, don’t you go too far.  I expect you both home before dark.”

Stuffing her backpack with snacks Ari nodded.  “You bet, Pop.  By dark. Gotcha.”

“Ready?”  Phae asked, her own backpack bulging.

“Phae, did you hear me?  By dark,” their father repeated, wheeling his chair into the kitchen.  

“Yeah, bye!” and they were off, the door slamming behind them.  

Yesterday they’d happened to pass the entrance to the tunnel, the bars that usually blocked it had been pulled aside as if by a great force.   They’d explored briefly, knowing they’d need some supplies and food before proceding farther.  Maybe this was the tunnel of legend, the one where the Treasure of Blue Plaines was supposedly hidden.  All their lives they’d heard of it, the treasure buried some centuries before by early settlers:  gold, definitely; jewels, perhaps.  As they approached the entrance now, each girl donned her headlamp.

“You first,” Phae said, making a step for her younger sister with her entwined fingers.  Ari easily climbed inside.

Phae then grabbed the culvert edge and pulled herself up.  An earthen tunnel veered to the right and they took it. Switching on their headlamps after a dozen or so yards, Phae noted the hairy roots snaking along the walls of the tunnel.  Phae followed Ari, stepping carefully along the uneven floor.  Looking back, the entrance was no longer visible, but the light captured the voyage of the motes of dust in the air.  Phae resumed her path, Ari’s silhouetted figure some distance ahead. This was as far as they’d gotten yesterday.

“Another fork,” Ari called back.

“Wait, let’s get the string now.”  Phae rummaged in her backpack, finding what she needed:  a ball of string the size of a cantaloupe.  She tied the end to a long nail, which she easily pushed into the dirt where the wall of the tunnel gradually became the floor. She let out some slack and then dropped the ball into her pack, letting the line feed itself as they walked on, taking the right fork.

The walls grew damper.  In places, muddy puddles sucked at their shoes.  After a while, the tunnel sloped down steeply.  Makeshift steps were slick, worn by the rivulets that streamed down. Except for their footsteps, the girls were silent, grabbing roots when their footing slipped.  The air grew colder as the tunnel floor became more level. After some time, the tunnel forked again.  The girls went right, the drier path more appealing than the other.  They continued.  Soon the tunnel widened.  The girls could no longer touch both sides.  Continuing down the center, they soon found themselves within a small room, but ahead in the glow of their headlamps, an opening loomed darker compared to the glistening walls on either side of where they stood.

Ari grabbed Phae’s hand and they continued, side by side.  Through this opening they went, until the path came to a T, the tunnel continuing at a right angle on both sides.

“Left.”  Phae was adamant.

“Ok.  Turn, though. Let me check the string.”  Ari unzipped the pack, pulling out a small handful of string.  Then she opened her own and found a skein of considerable size.  Knotting the ends of the string and the full skein, she tied them together.  The girls set off on the left of the T.

The wall curved to the right and Phae and Ari stepped into an immense cavern. The feeble light from their headlamps couldn’t illuminate the far reaches, but the walls near the girls were no longer earthen.  Instead, slick grey granite shone.  The walls glistened with moisture and from all around came the trickle and gurgle of streams of flowing water.

Holding hands, Phae and Ari ventured into the chamber.  Ahead a shadowy shape loomed.

Squeezing her grip on Phae’s hand, Ari whispered, “That’s a rock, right?”

Phae didn’t answer, but raised their joined hands to point, nodding slightly.

Still unsure, though, the girls approached cautiously, curious but wary. They circled around the stone.  The air here was cold, puffs of vapor emerged with each exhale.  On the far side of the large stone Phae relaxed her grip.  Maybe this underground landmark would indicate a likely spot for the treasure.  

“Yep.  A boulder.” Ari’s voice echoed in the cavern.

Phae exhaled, the plume of her breath rising.  For a moment, all was silent.  All was still.

Then, a shudder radiated across the floor.  Phae and Ari clammered to hold one another as the large stone before them shook and rippled.

“Definitely not a stone!” Ari shrieked, pulled Phae with her away from the not-a-stone.

The stone continued to shimmer, growing smaller, then larger, then spinning into a whirr of light and motion.  Then, the motion changed, becoming a twisting back and forth, not unlike a wet dog shaking itself dry.  The creature flung sparkled in all directions as it shook.  Each of these sparkles behaved like an insect, a bee perhaps, bumbling in unpredictable flights that vanished after a few moments. The back and forth twirling slowed and fewer and fewer sparkles were emitted until a low groan sounded, coming from the slowed motion.  The groan increased in volume, and the girls covered their ears as a creature grew and unwound, reaching the ceiling with what appeared to be its head and outstretched arms.

Cowering, the girls had made themselves smaller as the creature grew and groaned.

“Your light,” Ari whispered, quickly pressing the off button on her own lamp with shaking hands.  Phae switched her light off, yet the creature glowed in the darkness, allowing the girls to see.

Abruptly, the creature shrank until it was only slightly larger than the girls. It spun itself and as it slowly stopped, it took on a more human appearance in its form, although it still seemed made of the same smooth granite as the walls of the cavern.  

“Welcome,” it called, facing the girls and extending its arms, which stretched and reached to with inches of Phae and Ari.

Terrified, the girls clung to one another.  

“Do not be afraid.”  The hand-like appendages waved and gestured, appearing to invite the girls nearer.

Hesitant, they looked at one another and then stepped forward together.

“Please.”  The creature gestured again.  “Yes. Further now.”

Phae and Ari inched closer.

The arms encircled them and then all three were spinning, twisting into a blur. The girls’ voices no longer worked as the force of the spin forced them closer and closer to the creature until with a pop! they merged.  The three became one being.

Phae felt their motion slowing, could feel her heart racing.  She thought, “Ari, where are you?  Are you ok?  I think I am ok.”

“I am here,” came Ari’s soundless answer.  “I am not hurt.”

And then the voice of the creature again, “Welcome.”

The motion had slowed considerably.  Each girl now emerged, separate from the creature and each other. The motion stopped.

Blinking, reaching toward one another for balance, Phae and Ari shook off their dizziness.  They were no longer in the cavern.  Instead, a stark desert, treeless and expansive stretched in all directions. The creature’s hands rested on their shoulders.  As the girls looked up at it, its granite-like skin changed, matching the scenery, including the cloudless sky.

Phae caught Ari’s eye.  “What is this place?” she sputtered, her voice returned.  “What… Who are you?”

“All in time.  All in time.” The creature steered them and they began to walk through the desert.  It was not hot, but dusty and dry.  There was light, but no sun.  In the distance a building shimmered, appearing and disappearing like a mirage.

“What’s that?” Ari pointed, stopping.  

“Our destination, where you will learn the reason you are here and what you must accomplish before you return to your world.”

“But we didn’t come here to do a job for you.”  Ari said.  “We came here to fi----”

“We came here for our own reasons,” Phae interrupted.

The creature said nothing and they continued toward the building, but Phae looked back, wondering how to return.

Some time later, the doors of the building opened widely as the group of three approached.  Inside, the tiles emitted a refreshing darkness that was cool after the brightness of the desert.  The creature led them to an area that was raised and lit from above by a circular skylight.  It stepped into the shaft of light, and again changed its skin to match the surrounding environment.  The girls watched, mouths agape in wonder.

Phae whispered to Ari, “We’ve got to get out of here.  This isn’t why we came.”

Ari nodded.  “But how?”

“I’m just going to tell it to take us back.”  Phae cleared her throat.  “Uh, excuse me, but we need to go.  We have to get home, you see.”

The creature grew taller and turned its gaze toward them.

“So, um, yeah.  We’re leaving.  Sorry we can’t help.  Uh, bye.”

Together the girls turned and walked toward the entrance, looking back repeatedly at the impassive creature, which became more difficult to see the farther they moved.  They broke into a run, hoping the doors would open automatically as they had when they’d entered.  

“Open…. sesame!” Ari commanded as they approached.

“Please, open,” Phae yelled.

But nothing happened.  The doors remained closed, and the girls forced themselves to stop, nearly crashing into the doors.  Phae pounded on the door while Ari tried prying the other apart.  Ari glanced back.

“It’s still there,” she whispered, grunting.  “It hasn’t moved.”

Phae stopped pounding and looked.  “It looks frozen.  I wonder if we…” She grabbed Ari’s hands and began to spin, as if they were dancing together.  “I wonder if we can spin ourselves back.”

“Let’s try,” Ari said, leaning back so they could spin faster.  

Around and around they went, turning faster until dizzy and tired from the effort, one of them tripped and fell, bringing the other down too.  Phae was laughing and trying to catch her breath. 

“It’s gone.  The creature’s gone.”  Ari was breathless.

“Maybe it’s just blending in.”  Phae got to her knees, swaying a bit.

The girls looked around, searching for the creature that had brought them here.

“I don’t know if I want to find it,” Phae said.  “Maybe it’s better this way.  I think it wants to keep us here.”

“Let’s make a run for it, Phae.”

Phae tried to stand and found that most of her dizziness had left.  Ari pulled herself up with Phae’s help.  

“Look!”  Phae pointed. 

The end of a string was visible, leading down a hall.