Beneath the Haunted Woods: Part Three
There was no time to think; the pale, bulbous eyes and teeth sharper than razors were coming ever closer, slowly slipping out of the cover of darkness. For a moment, Clara was paralyzed. Then her mind spoke to her, muttering one word that gave her the will to move:
Swiftly, she snatched her knapsack off the table and dashed into the halls. Her eyes fixated on the corridors in front of her, barely illuminated by the weak light of her lantern, swinging side to side as she ran. Vicious snarls and the clatter of claws against the cavern floors echoed behind her as the creature gave chase. She twisted her head as she turned to look back.
It was only a split second, but it was more than enough time to see her pursuer with its horrifying features revealed in the torchlight; there, no less than a few feet behind her, a creature roughly twice her size, its fur the darkest shade of sky and indigo-blue, running on all fours, chased after her. It’s jaw slightly open, revealing a vicious set of sharp fangs protruding from its mouth, ridges of tufted fur puckered above two large, bulbous yellow eyes that glinted with a soul-piercing gaze fixated on its prey, and battered but rough, long claws on its large paws that could tear through stone as easily as digging through dirt. The snarls grew louder and louder as it came dangerously close to its prey.
Clara looked away; she took sharp turns around the dark corridors, trying to outrun her pursuer, running as fast as her feet could carry her. She could feel her stamina draining, her pace dawdling, her lungs running short of breath, she had to move faster. She took her hands off her knapsack and got down on all fours. Her pace quickened, but the snarls grew ever more gradual. Her eyes bolted, she could sense the creature no less than a couple of feet behind her, ready to lunge. The beast would catch her for sure.
At the last moment, from the corner of her eyes she caught a glimpse of a small opening on the wall, just barely large enough for an Acara to fit through. She only had seconds to act. In one quick motion, she angled herself towards the opening, bent her hind legs back, lunged for the cracked wall, closed her eyes and braced for the impact.
A cold draft whisked past her as she slipped through the cracks, landing on the ground with a soft thud. She bit her lip. Pain seared through her body as she lifted herself up. She heard a loud thud followed by the screeching of sharp claws scratching the ground. A weak howl echoed from the other side of the cracked wall, followed by the sounds of clattering claws that soon faded away, growing gradually more distant.
Then all was still. Clara took a faint breath. The coast was clear.
She made a motion to leave her cover, when all of a sudden she was snatched as a bulky arm wrapped around her face. Clara yelped in shock, completely taken by surprise. She began struggling, but her captor refused to let her go. She was able to thrash about from his grasp just enough for her upper mouth to break free. In that instant she seized her opportunity; she bent her head upward, her lips peeled back, baring her sharp fangs, with all her might she sank her teeth into her captor’s hand. Her captor let out a rough grunt as the bite drew blood.
“Argh! It’s me you dolt!”
Clara’s eyes widened at the familiar voice, her ears perked. She turned around to face her captor; a silhouetted figure in a red frock coat, grasping his paw, inspecting two tiny puncture marks in between his thumb and index finger.
“Parlebb!” Clara exclaimed.
The blue Yurble finished wrapping a piece of cloth around the wound just as his younger sibling tackled him. He winced, giving his sister a stern leer as she tightened her grip around her brother’s waist.
“I thought I lost you! How did you find me?”
“I didn’t. I was just hiding there when I heard something coming up behind me just now. Turns out it was you.” Parlebb sighed, “Oh and by the way, it takes much more than a rock slide to stop me.” He gently but firmly pushed Clara back, breaking her embrace.
Her excitement quickly changed to concern. Clara grabbed Parlebb’s coat; he glanced at her hands, then back to her eyes.
“Have you seen Arthur? Is he--?”
“No.” Parlebb said abruptly.
Clara froze for a moment; she released her grip. Parlebb took a second to straighten and dust off his coat. He glimpsed back at his sister, who was standing off to the side, her eyes fixated on the ground. “It doesn’t mean he’s--"
“I…I know.” Clara said, raising her head. She looked back at her brother, “It’s just…I really hope he’s okay.”
Parlebb straightened his collar, “I’d be surprised if he wasn’t.”
The siblings continued on their way down the dark cavern, the light fading away as the darkness enshrouded them.
The path stretched on. The siblings kept close to each other, their eyes peeled for the slightest hint of movement within the darkness. The path began to twist and turn; left, right, up and down, until finally coming to a stop as the light radiating from the lanterns revealed the narrow walls spreading apart as they came close to the end of the tunnel.
Clara’s eyes widened, she raised her lantern higher in an attempt to extend her vision in the darkness beyond. The path ahead revealed a collection of rocks spread all over the ground, which quickly formed into a pile and with every step she took, grew higher, higher, and higher until it reached the roof of the cavern. Her smile was gone; the hope in her eyes had faded. She lowered her arm.
It was a dead end, no way around and no way back. Their path had been cut clean off. She turned her gaze down at the ground below her, shutting her eyes. At that moment her fears raced back from the farthest corners of her mind; this is it, they were trapped, no one knows they’re down here, not even their closest friends, never to be seen or heard from again, no hope of rescue, doomed to wander the cavern until…
There was a sudden pat on her shoulder. She snapped out of her thoughts, her eyes bolted open at the sudden sensation. She turned half to her right, Parlebb stood beside her, staring back. For a moment, their eyes locked. Clara blinked as she noticed that his eyes weren’t stuck in the usual frown. Instead, his frown was replaced with a look in his eyes that reflected empathy. She was surprised to see her tough older brother lower his guard in such a manner. Yet, she could feel the hope that faded from her eyes rise up again. She couldn’t just give up. Not just yet.
Keeping his hand on her shoulder, he made a motion to lead her back the way they came.
The Yurble abruptly stopped in his tracks, the hairs on the back of his mane perked, he quickly turned to face the caved in path. “Did you sense that?”
“Sense what?” Clara turned towards her brother.
Parlebb walked towards the mass of rocks, crouching down near a thick empty space in between the mound. He held out his paw, pointing in the direction of the hole so his sister could notice, “There’s a draft coming from under these rocks.”
“You mean there’s a way out through here?”
Parlebb stood up, “Only one way to find out.” He outstretched his right hand, gesturing towards the open space. Clara looked back at him, only to have the Yurble nod his head.
She got down on all fours and began crawling. She could just barely fit; her malleable horns pressed against the roof of the fissure, a tight squeeze against her head as she struggled to move in the cramped, narrow tunnel. Luckily for her, it wasn’t long before it began to spread out, the tight pressure on her head relinquished, much to her relief.
“You’re a skinny little thing.” Parlebb’s muffled voice echoed from behind the cracks.
Clara frowned, rolling her eyes momentarily at her brother’s teasing. She got back up on her feet to dust herself off, only to smack her head against the low ceiling above her. She slumped back to the ground with a moan. As she shook off the throbbing pain in her head, her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She found herself in an almost pitch-black tunnel, this time only barely large enough for a small Acara like her to inch through. She breathed a sigh of relief; as she felt a cold, nearly bone chilling draft coming from a small opening just a few feet in front of her. Keeping her head down, she continued to crawl. When she pulled herself out of the opening, her body gave way, sliding off the edge before she could even grab a handhold on the floor below. Clara panicked, flailing her arms around in a vain attempt to catch her fall, she landed face first onto the ground, the knapsack slid off her back; its heavy contents smacking the back of her head as she slumped to the floor.
For a moment there was silence, followed by a frail, rough groan.
She clambered to her feet, dusted herself off and straightened her horns as she stood upright, lantern in her hand. She turned around, looking back at the tiny exit she crawled out of; a collection of shattered pieces of rock and stone were scattered across the ground. She noticed that several more broken pieces were also lying a few feet from where she stood. The pile of rock and stone seemed to be stacked together; there weren’t any signs of a recent earthquake, with no cracks or fissures tearing up the roof of the cave. She stared down at the ground, there were drag marks strewn everywhere. She began to piece things together; this cave-in was more of a barricade, but what for? It didn’t make much sense to put up a barrier in the middle of nowhere, unless whoever it was who set up the barricade was trying to prevent someone, or something, from getting out. Or rather, getting through? She examined the breach on the barricade, her eyes moved to the burrow within the rocks, she reached out and touched the sides of the tunnel with her fingers; the sides of the burrowed rocks were near flawlessly smooth with no jagged or rough edges, almost as if it was drilled through with some kind of contraption. What could possibly be strong enough to break through so many layers of rock and stone so effortlessly?
“Hey, you see anything?”
Clara jumped. That voice broke through her mind, as if yelled directly into her ear. She kneeled down facing the breach, “Yes, I’m on the other side!” She bellowed, her voice booming through the tunnel, “Come on, get over here!”
Parlebb froze. He looked down at the burrow. Clara, being smaller and slimmer, was just barely able to fit. He on the other hand, was bigger, taller and bulkier.
He crouched, facing the opening, “You know that can’t happen.” He called back.
“What?! Oh come on, Parlebb! You’ve crawled through smaller spaces than these! Remember each and every night when you were past curfew you had to inch through the vent in our old home--?”
“Yes.” Parlebb said hastily.
“Right! So? Are you coming or--”
“Yeah, yeah. Give me a second.”
Parlebb lay on all fours, keeping his head as low to the ground as he possibly could. He had some trouble crawling through, as his ears squeezed against the walls of the narrow tunnel. He pressed his paws against his curled up ears, relieving some of the pressure and giving just about enough space for him to inch his way through. When he finally reached the exit, Clara helped him up to his feet. He then brushed his paws against his ears, straightening and adjusting them as necessary.
Clara gave her brother a devious smirk; raising an eyebrow, “See?”
Parlebb scoffed, straightening his coat.
They continued on their way down the dark corridor. Parlebb took the lead, with Clara tailing close behind. He kept his eyes sharp, paying close attention to his surroundings. His ear twitched as he picked up the sound of metallic clatter. He turned towards his sister; she held her lantern to her waist, her arms close to her body.
“You okay?” Parlebb said.
Clara noticed her brother staring back. She took one hand off the lantern, “I’m okay, I…” her voice was shaky, “It’s just a little cold that’s all.”
Parlebb frowned, turning his head away, “It’s not that cold down here.”
Clara leered, “You’re the one wearing three layers.”
"I’m not scared, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I didn’t say you were. But now that you mention it, you kinda look scared.”
Parlebb stopped dead in his tracks; he turned his head half to his right, peering from the corner of his eyes.
Clara looked back in the direction of the sound, coming to a stop behind her brother.
He froze as he heard the faint sound of a familiar thumping. As soon as it sounded, it faded away, growing gradually softer.
For a moment, there was dead silence. He stood at ease, glancing to his sides, his head moving only slightly. Clara stayed put, her lantern kept close, her eyes peeled and ears perked.
Parlebb abandoned his posture; he moved towards the middle of the tunnel, listened for a few moments more, straining his ears in an attempt to block all other sounds.
He turned to face his sister. He shrugged, Clara just stared back, her concerned look didn’t fade.
He noticed her shivering, her hands shaking. As he moved closer, her trembling intensified. The lantern clattered noisily as she fought against her frayed nerves. Now, he was only a foot away from her. As the light from his lantern overlapped with hers, the light cast away the shadows shrouding her face. Clara’s eyes were wide, her pupils dilated, her mouth slightly ajar.
Then she gasped, raising her arm, curling her hand into a fist, pointing in Parlebb’s direction, her face stricken with terror.
There was no need for her to shout. At that moment, Parlebb was alarmed. He twisted his body around, out of the darkness a vicious creature emerged with two bulbous eyes, a gaping maw revealing a set of sharp, thick fangs and two long, cone-shaped arms with jagged claws came charging at him with incredible speed. Within seconds it lunged at the Yurble.
Parlebb dodged out of the way just in time, right as the creature landed on the spot right where he was standing moments ago. Its claws scraped the ground, leaving deep scratches into the earth. At that instant Clara quickly backed away. The creature’s ears twitched, it turned its attention towards the blue Acara. As their eyes locked, Clara froze. The light from her lantern reflected in the creature’s eyes, giving off a pale glow stark against the surrounding darkness. She looked on in horror as she saw that its white, bulbous eyes lacked pupils. All she could see was a pale void, two colorless eyes staring straight back, a set of bared fangs racing towards her.
Clara panicked. She flinched, shutting her eyes, her arms flailing wildly, waving the lantern around as the beast lunged at her, its claws extended.
Parlebb seized his opportunity; he drew one of his swords from its scabbard, rushing at the vicious beast. He jumped; bending his leg forward, kicked the creature right on its side, knocking it off balance, sending it sprawling to the ground. As Parlebb landed, he swung his sword in a quick circle, angling the blade towards the creature as it clambered back on all fours.
The beast snarled as it glared at his attacker. It lowered its head to the ground; moving slowly to the left. Parlebb watched the beast closely as it began circling around him, like a Werelupe taunting his prey.
It dashed towards him, taking a swipe with its large claws. Parlebb effortlessly dodged the strike, jumping back a couple feet, retaining his stance, the blade pointing at its target. The beast lunged again, the lantern’s light revealing a thin torso and bulky legs. Parlebb swung his sword, aiming for the chest. The blade made contact, but the creature didn’t react, nor did it wince. Instead, a shower of sparks flew from the tip of the blade, joined by the ear piercing sound of steel scratching metal.
The beast missed, landing a few feet from where Parlebb stood. He angled himself in the direction of the creature, his sword held firmly in front of his body, his eyes still locked on the predator. It stood upright once more. Now he was able to see his attacker clearly in the light; covering its torso was an iron cuirass, similar to those worn by the knights of Meridell. On its legs were battered reinforced leggings with bulky pouches, pockets and holsters, commonly associated with scouts or common thieves.
The creature pulled back its forearm, extending its claws. Parlebb stood at the ready, angling his sword to his left side, the blade parallel to the creature’s arm. It took another swipe, the claws clashed against the blade, letting out the harsh sound of sharp claws scratching against steel. Parlebb found himself knocked nearly off balance; he stumbled, lost his grip on his sword, his shoulder crashed against the wall of the cavern, breaking his fall. The force of the impact of the creature’s claws was much stronger than it should have been.
Parlebb shook off the initial impact. Turning to his side, he saw the blade glinting in the lantern light a couple feet from him. He reached out to grab it, his arm stretched out, his sword just within his grasp.
Suddenly, a large set of claws knocked the sword aside, sending it crashing against the opposite wall with a clang. In place of the blade were a set of big, white bulging eyes, a nasty set of teeth and a snarling creature staring straight back at him.
Before Parlebb could have time to react, the beast pulled back its neck, widened its jaw, the lips peeled back, revealing a pair of sharp fangs protruding from the mouth, ready to strike.
The beast dived, his teeth mere meters away from the his face, only to crash face-first against the ground as a heavy object smacked the creature right on the top of its head, where it lay motionless just a few inches from the Yurble. He looked up, Clara stood beside him, holding his sword in her hands, panting heavily, her eyes fixed in a stern glare, staring down at her overpowered adversary. Parlebb clambered back to his feet, keeping his eyes on the fallen beast.
Clara turned to face her brother, “I got him!”
“You sure did.” Parlebb responded with a slight smirk, “I’m actually quite impressed; I’ve never seen you cower like that before.”
She gave him a fierce glare, baring her teeth, “Wow? Really?” she said through clenched teeth, a noticeable aggravation building in her voice.
“Easy. That was a joke.” He said, slightly raising his hands, “I’m just saying, I didn’t expect you to freeze up back there.”
She walked up to him, “I. Wasn’t. Scared.” Clara said in a slow voice, letting out a slight growl, staring eye to eye with her brother.
Parlebb shrugged, “Hey, don’t fret. I believe you.” his voice calm, lacking any hint of fear.
Clara’s glare faded. She glanced at the beast lying still on the ground beside them, then back at Parlebb. She gestured towards the path ahead. They walked away, the beast slowly being shrouded in shadow the farther away they moved, until being completely cloaked in darkness.
They went on their way again, the lantern’s light growing weaker, the shadows growing ever stronger.
To be continued…