Like an ant feeling its way through the nest, I waded through the murky mire, swatting roots from my way. The passage narrowed, forcing me to my knees, no sign of the creature that had wandered through.
Thoughts of you ran together in my head, a shadowy mosaic of time and gold. I will not let your mark fade from me, Endolyn. I will remember you as you were, before your heart darkened. Failed you I have, though unsure how.
But I will not fail her.
Am I any closer to finding her? In my confusion, could I have passed her by, trekking through the ashes of Avarié? Though my heart says no, would I be able to recognize Elena’s charred corpse: her skin peeled off, hair burnt to the scalp? Or would self-preservation blind me, just as it would any grieving heart? I can only hope that I am not mistaken, that somewhere out there she is waiting for me.
Sweet Elena, live on.
I plodded along, my spirit waning as the burden grew greater. By all accounts, I had overdone it; pushed myself too hard despite the loss of blood. My eyelids sagged as I tried to decipher the light glowing in the distance.
Is that you, my love? The miracle that I am meant to see? I nudged forward. The tunnel spun, splinters of light peeling off pulsing orbs. I grabbed my glasses from my coat pocket, certain my eyes were deceiving me. The vortex quickened, spinning out of control. I reached for you, but as always, you were just beyond my reach.
“Is this my grave I have wandered into?” I mumbled. As before, I had come without the expectation of seeing the light again. With one last breath I inched forward, but alas, she had slipped through my fingers.
A shadow loomed over me, all too familiar. “How deep is the chasm? Know one knows for sure. Depends how black your heart is,” came a voice.
I froze, recognizing its childish taunts.
“Does the darkness run so deep that it could consume an entire village? Vampires and mortals alike? One must ask themselves.”
“I do not know what you mean,” I replied.
“A grave deed you have done. Or did you? I am not sure that you know yourself,” the voice hissed.
“Leave me alone. I will not warn you again.”
“Or what will you do, vampire hunter? Sling mud in my face? Perhaps you have other tricks that I have not seen? You will need every last one of them,” it goaded me.
“I will indulge your query if you pay me the same respect. The hole goes as deep as it must, but do not confuse darkness with emptiness, they are not one in the same. I hunt alone, it has always been thus, and fear that I may never know what has befallen Avarié,” I replied. “Though you claim to know so much about me, little do I know of you.”
“In essence, I am thee,” the voice faded into the distance.
A horn blared, deep and guttural, twisting through knotted bones. I struggled to open my eyes as the light intensified, ripping me from my slumber. Had I been out minutes, hours? So easy to lose track in the void.
The scatter of tiny feet filled my ears. Hundreds raced towards me, their luminescent bodies coming into view as they charged the tunnel, each no more than the size of my palm. Late in executing my retreat, I ducked the wave, tiny legs pricking me as they swarmed over. I crawled ahead, brushing them off as they continued deeper into the passage.
I rolled to one side, admiring the cool breeze spiraling down. Only grave deeds cause a vampire to swallow their words. This thing we are up against, it will destroy us all if we are not careful. I must take leave of Avarié at once. Darrien and Delilah’s union will falter if given time. I must not stop until I cross the river, and put as many towns between us as I can. Though I still cling to her memory, there is nothing for me here. She is not here.
I reached up, grasping air, the void ever deeper. From my knees, and then my feet, I could not find a ceiling to this cramped space. As I stood, a fresh draft washed over me, imparting its wisdom once more. A fork in the road lay before me, one path leading upwards while the other continued parallel to the surface. Without a second thought I abandoned the course, scaling rocks and clay walls until the wormhole wavered, and I was able to get my base under me.
Darkness embraced me once more as I rummaged through the nest, the foul stench now inseparable from my soiled clothes. A faint gust licked my spine, a hopeful sign that sent me scurrying up the slope. The horn boomed again, louder still, its hymn punctuated by the chatter of broken teeth.
“Is it all you had hoped for?” the voice mocked me. “Curious that you find comfort in the deepest shadows. Is it because you sense the end is near?”
“Steady thy tongue before I carve it out,” I uttered.
The horn resounded before I realized that something was upon me. I turned, scraped my chest against sharp outcroppings, and hurried back whence I came.
“‘Tis too late. The choice has already been made,” the shadow snickered.
The creature closed in, braying in short bursts. I glanced behind me, my retreat turning into a tumble. I pinged off jagged walls, falling like a stone, and slamming into the soppy bottom, my shoulder absorbing the brunt of the fall. I screamed, thrusting my shoulder back into place, and flipping onto my stomach.
A second isopod stormed the burrow, chasing down a glowing mite that eluded him. The insect scattered by, providing a fleeting glimpse of the horned creature above. Thick, segmented plates adorned its massive frame, a trio of wicked tusks protruding from its spiky crown.
I leapt forward as the creature knifed into the moist earth, and scurried away as fast as I could, narrowly keeping pace with the luminescent. The cave fetid and familiar, an ominous feeling swept over me. Had I been turned around, heading back in the same direction whence I started? Or was I burrowing deeper into the labyrinth, a path that could prove just as fatal?
My heart sank as the passage dipped, and then skipped a beat when it inclined several paces later. Again the tunnel narrowed, my shoulders wide as an ox. I forced myself through at an angle, speed and motion halved, quickly losing ground to the wayward mite.
Into the heavens we ascended, the angle steepening, the passage barely wide enough to breathe. The creature snapped at my heels, and drove its tusk through my sole, the keen point sneaking between my toes. I kicked back, slashing at him with my knife boots; but the angle was poor, their design clearly meant for frontal attacks. It nibbled on my spurs, hoping to take my feet with them.
As we wriggled along, the tunnel abruptly ended. The glowing mite raced through a hole in the wall and disappeared, a fitting reward for those that put their faith in such worthless creatures. I rammed the dirt wall, hoping it shallower than it appeared. Nowhere to run, I ducked as the behemoth collided with me, thrusting me through the dirt barrier and stone tiles of an illuminated walkway above.
The creature screeched, its prized horn snapped in half. I rolled to my feet, grabbed a torch from the wall, and grinded it into the severed tusk. The beast recoiled and burrowed back into the muddy depths. Two more henchmen emerged and tasted my fiery wrath. I stomped the floor until it collapsed, burying the pill bugs in a shallow grave.
Soldiers of the hive, I knew their abrupt burial was merely an inconvenience. Without cloth or wood to build a fire, I grabbed a fresh torch, and hurried along the barren hallway.