— Fading Friendships
There was, within me, the quietest of desires that this would finally end. Whatever lied beyond this veil of darkness would give me respite, one-way-or-another. I saw nothing, but distant specks of Euphoric sap, littered amongst the decaying vines. The rabid feasting and scratching had silenced. Now, the sound of trickling cave water was to my sole companion.
I clenched my eyes shut; then, opened them to adjust to the darkness. I distinguished the slightest movement of my outstretched hand, which held the dim lantern, but my feet navigated the declining, mine system. I had scoured the maps for hours; however, the most I had memorized was keep walking down and to the right.
A soft, choking noise emanated from the chamber ahead. A layer of rotten vines and dripping black, sap covered the rocky earth. My boots squished through the mingled mess of rot and death.
A soft glow of Euphoria shone within the cavern. I crouched by the door to see what awaited me. The chamber reached high into the mountain as vines and flowers draped forgotten, iron spikes and decrepit mining equipment. A small stream trickled through the side of the cavern. I heard nothing over the noise of the creatures, slumbering in piles of pale, naked flesh. Only the flora at the highest reaches of the mine were safe from the creature’s hunger. The rest were devoured, and lied in rotting clumps, just as the ones I stepped through now.
I saw them, now in a more ferocious light. Stella had once known them, yet they barely resembled a human. Skin grew overtop their mouths, leaving only their noses free to breathe and snort. No hair grew atop their heads, or if they did have hair; then, their flesh had consumed it, rippling in loose ways over their skinny frames. Bones poked, like baby wings, from their backs; however, they just appeared as a ghastly side-effect from their lives in the caves.
Pity overcame my senses. How could Kiera do this? I thought, this was beyond cruelty.
They lied nestled in the corners of the dark abyss in small groups of twos and threes. They had their filling for tonight, it had seemed. The celestial movement had spurred the Euphoria to pump through the vines, some of which were halted here, by their hunger.
As I crept across the room, I approached another door barred with wooden beams. I began to move the debris away as quietly as I could manage; however, the sounds of heavy boots stampeding through the mine hastened my operation.
It could be no one other than Sam. My lantern cast a sinister shadow across the disposed beams of wood, but with one last obstacle removed, I pushed the ancient, oak door inward. The croaks of the wood were incomparable to thunderous sound of the boots echoing behind me.
I grabbed my lantern and dipped to the other side. My lantern shone a series of wall sconces that lines the cave walls. A thin plank of wood rested beside the door, which I took and wedged beneath the frame. It was not much, but I just had to get to Alice. I would figure everything else out afterwards.
I continued forward through the catacombs sliding the palm of my hand across the moist, cavern walls. The maps were in my backpack, but I could not risk stopping. The air smelled of chemicals and rot. I kept my face covered as best as I could, though I was not certain on the effectiveness of the fabric, which I regretfully thought to the dozens of masks I left in my car.
A sharp crack blasted through the tunnels, immediately followed by a torrent of wheezes and screeches, held within by the flesh that covered their mouths. I pushed myself forward as fast as I dared; however, the earth was unstable and perilous. The inclines were sharp with shattered rock as sharp as shards of glass.
“Where are you bitch?” Sam’s voice yelled through the mountain, followed by a sharp vibratory sound of metal clashing against bone. Sam was undeterred by the monsters, which only worsened my anxieties.
I moved forward, until my hand felt the sharp halt of a wall. I frantically turned around, but knew there was no hope of retracing my steps. That was until my leg felt nothing, not an obstruction, nor the wall. I knelt, facing the wall, to see a small opening cut into the stone. With little choice, I held the lantern in front of me as I crawled through the musty hole. The black goop compiled in puddles randomly placed amidst the cavern. I felt the goop stick to my palms and knees, despite my best efforts to ignore the oily texture.
Metal continued to wring in furious strokes of violence as Sam fought against Keira’s victims. I pushed my body through the last stretch of the cramped tunnel.
I emerged into a mining communications center. Old computers were lined in dusty lines. One of the doorways was blocked by a pile of rocks and metal beams. Another wooden door laid undamaged to my left.
With no other choice, I crossed the room and pushed the door open, entering another tall-ceilinged chamber. Remnants of an iron rail line stretched across the room, beside a pond of gurgling, cave water. A rusty, door lock rested upright, which with strained effort, I managed to lock into place.
The trumpets of hell piped behind me as Sam screamed something unintelligible. I closed the door, but I could not discern a path forward. The rails led to a caved-in section, while the only other exit was the way I came, which by the sounds of rabid scuffling indicated that was no longer an option.
Muffled screams echoed with the sharp scratch of nails on stone. Sam cursed as his struggles were distorted in the tunnel. A violent thought crossed my mind, but I was not that person. I did not have to be better than anyone, but at the minimum, I would like to die having done no serious harm to anyone other than myself.
Sam had made his way into the computer room, which was followed with the chaotic crash of technology toppling across the floor. A flurry of the dead swarmed the hallway behind him.
“I know you can hear me, Alex.” He said out of breath. He beat against the door, pushing the lock to its limits. “let me in.”
The creatures returned wave after wave. Sam’s violent efforts were met with an equalized persistence, perhaps for a quicker death, or some fervent loyalty to a master that did this to them.
“I will die, if you don’t let me in. Please Alex. I’m sorry, okay?” He gasped through panted breathes.
His voice sounded like Sam’s once more. The resounding sounds of the monster’s claws scraping across the stonework gnawed irritatingly at the back of my mind.
The exit laid ahead, but I could not leave Sam behind. I heard the rod slam into flesh as the monsters cried out in anguish.
I unbarred the door and creaked it open, “Come on.” I said. A rusty, iron beam lied broken in two pieces beside his feet.
Sam entered, slamming the door shut to the oncoming wave of unperturbed monsters. The creatures began to scratch upon the door, furiously digging into the old wooden beams. Sam laughed as he approached me, “Always the optimist.”
Blue moonlight cascaded through crevices speckled on the side of the mountain. My lantern was the only other light. The room was carved stone supported by thick oak beams slightly decayed through age.
“I’m not going to be a murderer tonight, Sam.” I said, as my friend approached menacingly. His eyes were hidden behind pools of black tidal pools. His body moved rigidly and without purpose. He whimpered with every push from a series of gashes on his leg, yet that did not seem to compel him to slow. He was determined or willed by some greater malevolency.
“Sam.” I said, “It’s the drugs, man. It’s not you.”
“I knew you were a liar.” He yelled, “You were never my friend.”
The walls felt like they were closing in. A dust, or fog, or drug-induced obscurity appeared over my sight as a filter.
A crack of wood stole my attention long enough for Sam to tackle me to the cave’s floor. Flashes of my sight were interrupted with successive jarring sensations, running through the back of my head. It took a moment to realize it was my skull bouncing off the granite from Sam’s attacks.
The drugs or adrenaline or some combination of the two held the pain away long enough to throw my knees underneath Sam’s groin. I shoved him hard to the side before he could line up another assault.
I scrambled away into the dark edge of the room. The door was continuing to hold against the uncoordinated and ruthless onslaught of Kiera’s experiments. The ones in the forefront scratched manically into the wood and stone. I heard the squeals as the ones behind attacked them. Beasts smelling blood in the water. All around chaos reigned in a hellish inferno. Sam roared as he searched his surroundings for my hiding spot.
If I were to survive, I had to abandon any thought of reason. In an animalistic rage Sam threw one of the wooden beams into the edges of the mine. It thudded against the stone in my opposite direction. His breathes were ragged and deep.
I crawled toward the rail tracks. The entrance was through the opening in the pile of debris. I neared the edge of the darkness- the edge of safety. Sam was creeping along the side poking the edges with another plank he found lying deserted on the floor.
I looked at the rail cart. I knew it was just one wooden beam, but what if the resistance was too much? I would be defenseless.
I felt around the sides of the shaft. All I gathered was a small stone. A shattered piece of the mountain’s wounds. Sam was within poking length of my legs. He moved across from me as a splatter of blood dripped onto my legs.
My head ached and shook. The moonlight shimmered incomprehensibly. It was the Euphoria ultimately that saved any chance of this continuing. My body was warm and otherwise the damage had gone unnoticed by all but the mind, which was focused on a more pressing matter.
I tossed the rock to the other side of the shaft and held my breath. Sam took the bait. With a furious exhalation he jumped to the source of the stone’s impact.
I took advantage of his distracted state and jumped to the rail cart. To my horror I looked up to see I was in front of the wrong door. The screeches from the creatures were brought to my face. Cracks were formed in the barrier. Purple eyes saw me. I turned around to see Sam’s figure limping over. A resolute grim etched across his face.
I wrenched the loose rail spike from the ground.
“Why are we doing this, Sam?” I asked calmly. I could not abandon reasoning. Not when this was madness. We were friends. Summer friends, bar friends, old friends, it does not matter. I can’t abandon any chance for redemption.
He offered no answer.
“Your leg looks bad, man.” I said, “We could get it checked out? Claire and Jason can help you down. I’ll just walk away. That’s what you want? I’ll be gone. We don’t have to hangout. It is cool.”
Sam replied in a gargled tone.
“What?” I asked.
He spit a mix of bile and blood onto the ground, “Too late. If I don’t stop you then there will be others.”
Color poured from my face. My face had started to feel the throbbing warmth of pain drip through. “Fuck you, Sam.” Was all I could manage. My hands shook with anger.
He staggered forward using the beam as support for his leg.
The spike felt heavy. The sides were coated in rust. I felt the grime rub off on my hands as I clenched the piece of iron.
I rushed Sam, but he had taken enough time to situate himself. A crack of the beam caught my legs beneath me as he side-stepped onto the rails.
I crashed onto the floor, but quickly regained balance and with no hesitation rushed him again. This was my time to roar, scream, and rage. Victimhood had grown exhausting. If this were to be my last then they will not say I died a coward. This mountain would my resting place and the scene of my final act of resistance.
The beam crunched across the side of my face. The world flashed white and spun, but I kept my directions keen, and with every ounce of conscious effort I could give crossed the rail track and brought the spike across Sam’s temple.
Iron met flesh and bone. The crunch resonated through the cavern. I saw triplets of Sam each with the same demented grin. Blood ran through the side of head where I hit him. I lined up another shot, but hesitated. He was my friend once.
Anger shot through my veins. The high road was fucking bullshit. Morality wins no battles. He tried to kill me. He was evil… And, I wasn’t. I wasn’t the monster he saw me as. As much as I wished I were.
The iron fell idly aside with a metallic clank on stone. I pushed myself to my knees and as a drunkard walking through their town in the middle of the night I stumbled to the far side of the room. I threw my body on the stone floor, pushing my body through the cracked opening. Dust poofed from the sides as I slid into the next room.
My hands met the legs of the table as I continued my forward momentum. As I looked up at the uncanny setup I saw statues carved to the side of the walls. All were of women. Some in erotic poses or in the middle of a sexual act. Others were nuns offering blessings. Last were ones offering sacrifice. This was not a mining place. It was a religious sight.
I couldn’t think much. My thoughts whirred through my brain as cans swinging around attached to a thread. Images multiplied and danced in my vision. This was the concussion, I giggled.
Heavy breathes poured from my throat as I fought back tears. My hand still shook from the weight of the spike. Sam’s bloodied face twisted itself menacingly within my mind. His snarls and screams whispered threats in the depths of my chest. A twisting sensation that accompanied the twitching migraine that had crept behind my eye socket.
Upon the table was a pitcher, similar in design to the one in Kiera’s tent. If respite came at the cost of poison; then, so be it. I could not continue on sober. I held the pitcher to my lips with both hands, gulping the sap down as a religious sacrament. After taking my fill, I dropped the pitcher in a desperate bid for air. I needed all the strength I could muster, yet doubt soaked through my confidant façade. The reasons for fighting lost their shine in the murky depths of struggle. My fate lied in dirt and shit; why continue? It doesn’t matter…
My eyes turned in horror to a drop of black sap dripping from the lip of the pitcher. I brushed a black drop with my pinky and brought it to my nose. The adulterated liquid mimicked the smell of Euphoria. Kiera had tricked me once more.
I considered sticking my finger in my throat to pull-trig, but it was too late. The warmth touched my wounds as a wicked step-mother’s kiss. My reality returned to one of slight distortion with numbing twangs of pressure in my skull. It was acceptable, yet lethargy replaced adrenaline. I desired nothing more than to sleep and wake away from this nightmare, yet Sam was the only other one I knew who drank this poison. It was heavy in my stomach. I felt the drug reach out as tentacles through my body’s internal systems.
I took stock of my environment to distract my twisting innards. To my surprise hidden in the edge of the darkness was a thin path. Faded moonlight spilled on the wall inward. It was a way out. I could escape this mountain. I could return home. I could set all of those clothes in the trash, and give the boy another chance. If the struggle were too great; then, why could I not settle? Sam would love me again. My parents would never have to know. I could lock it away: the temptations and the darkness.
I tossed the empty pitcher through the passage. It clanked sharply against the wall, but bounced back into the chamber. I knew that wasn’t an option. My body had even contested this thought process. Guilt would wrack my soul just as a blade would find home within my wrist. Death was inevitable, and so was pain and struggle and every worst fear an anxious mind could conjure. So, if I must endure this; if I must sign my name across our social contract, and bind my compliance to lord and law; then, it will be my name signed; otherwise, the promise was just as meaningless as the moniker given to me at birth.
Life didn’t need meaning other than embracing all that I was. I pushed my shaky body to its feet and approached the altars set aside with offerings on each one. Candles were placed on each table.
As I neared the end of the corridor I saw a fox carved into the stone. Its fangs pointed outward sharpened silver. Below it was a bowl. Carved into the rock were the words, Growth demands sacrifice.
“I’ve given enough.” I said bitterly holding my face into the cup. I blew my nose into the receptacle, which at this point was entirely blood. The door opened as a dark mist descended around me. The sounds of the creatures disappeared as the drugs only intensified.
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