“Are you able to move faster?” it asked.
“Sure,” I growled, “I’ll grow a few more legs.”
The sudden silence of clicks ahead of me indicated that the Tik’ha’she’tik had stopped moving.
“You can do that?”
I used the delay to close some distance, and considered answering yes. “I was joking,” I explained. “Humor.” Of which I had precious little left after walking all day. “You should try it,” I muttered under my breath.
My feet hurt. I was hungry. And yet, this Tik’ha’she’tik insisted that we sprint through the darkness. It said we were going ‘home,’ though whose home was unclear. Tuktatuk was the only Tik’ha’she’tik I’d ever met before this, and he’d been far friendlier. I’d only heard this one’s voice a handful of times, and it sounded exactly like Tuktatuk, but for all I knew all Tik’ha’she’tiks sounded alike. Besides, Tuktatuk would have told me it was him, I was pretty sure… unless he was still mad at me.
The Tik’ha’she’tik, being able to move swiftly on its many legs, bought me time by weaving webs across every opening it found, but even so I struggled to keep pace. This tunnel was old, that much I could tell, and curiosity slowed my feet as much as exhaustion. There were no torches lighting the way, as we had back at the catacombs, but the occasional opening to the forest above gave glimpses of walls so ancient that the carvings upon them were nearly obscured by the wear of moss and damp. Underground streams and roots had forced their way into the space, in some places making travel nearly impossible. It was beautiful in its own way, and I yearned to be able to study the stories being swallowed by the forest. The catacombs where I lived seemed to be carved from solid rock but here you could make out the joints where stones had been fitted together in some other age.
What had the people been like back then? Had there been people? Had there been great towering palaces and colorful cities, or creatures extinct and unfathomable roaming these hills? The past, reaching back as far as these stones did, was as mysterious to me as the future. Tuktatuk had taught me how to read meaning from the spiraling images and piece together their stories. With a proper torch, I could spend a happy life down here, scavenging food from above and filling my mind with the tales of other times. It sounded peaceful.
“What are those for?” I asked when I caught up to the Tik’ha’she’tik working on a complicated weave across a large opening.
“They help me hear,” it answered.
“How do they help you here?” I frowned, but it had moved out of sight into the tunnels shadows again. “I don’t even know your name,” I grumbled, coaxing my aching feet forward.
Within a minute I could no longer hear the Tik’ha’she’tik. I plowed ahead with the best of my faculties, but in this stretch between light openings roots tripped my feet and snagged my hair, slowing me even more. After a while I was feeling my way along the wall beside me. When I came to gaps indicating other tunnels branching away I had to make a choice. I’d stop to listen, but the Tik’ha’she’tik’s movements were too far away to be heard. Ultimately I’d take a few blind steps until I found the wall again. This way, I figured, if I had to turn back to find my way out I only had to follow a straight path. It was at one of these crossings that the tunnel ended abruptly, which I learned with my face.
I crumpled to the ground in a burst of self-pity and gave in to a good cry. The tears were coming already with the smack to the nose, so why not? I leaned back, considering how long it would take to backtrack to the last light hole I’d seen. I could take my chances in the forest. I was irrevocably lost one way or another, but at least above I might be able to find some berries or roots to fill my growling tummy.
“Why are you resting?” asked the Tik’ha’she’tik from the shadows to my right. I hadn’t heard it approach.
“Because I’m tired!” I barked. “I’ve walked all day and all last night and I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday, and I’m hungry, and I hurt myself!” I folded my arms like an obstinate child.
“Are you unable to walk?” it asked.
“I can walk,” I grumbled.
“Good,” it said. “There is fresh water ahead. It may invigorate you.”
I rose wearily and trudged after the Tik’ha’she’tik. This tunnel eased downward, and there was no light. The descent meant that disruptions from tree roots decreased, so I was able to shuffle blindly without mishaps. I did extend my arms before me now, though, in case of another sharp turn.
To my relief, the fresh water was found in an underground grotto with several openings above admitting light. If I hadn’t been in such a foul mood I’d have thought it a magical place, with miniature waterfalls trickling from a tower of rock that stretched to the forest floor a considerable distance above. The forest had extended some of its green warmth into the cave, mostly in the form of ferns. Filtered sunlight stretched down in visible rays and felt warm on my skin.
The Tik’ha’she’tik crawled the ceiling, placing webs across each opening. Once in place the webs hummed quietly, and together made a strange music if you listened for it. I drank where the water trickled down and dipped my feet into the pool below, lying back with a grateful huff. Perhaps there was magic in this place after all. I wondered if I had ever felt so peaceful in all my life.
It was dark when I opened my eyes. Some kind of straw or moss shifted beneath me when I turned and shoes warmed my throbbing feet. The sound of running water had changed somehow, but the humming music of the webs was still there, if more prominent. I scrubbed my eyes and yawned, then yawned afresh when I discovered how good it felt.
“Are you awake?” asked the Tik’ha’she’tik. Its voice was close, as if just beside me, and I flinched at the startle.
“How long did I sleep?” I asked.
“The rest of the way home and through the night,” it said.
“Home?” I asked, gazing around. It wasn’t dark, I realized, just dim. We were in a small stone hut with webbed holes spotting its ceiling. “How did I get here?”
“I carried you,” answered the Tik’ha’she’tik, and with alarm I discovered a net of webs still woven around me loosely like a cocoon.
I shook out of them and stood. The pain in my feet was howling but I ignored it, striding out of the hut to gather my bearings. If I’d thought the grotto was magical, I understood nothing of magic. ‘Home’ was the inside of an enormous honeycomb. Some of the holes spouted water, some light; others kept their secrets in shadow. A dark lake shimmed across it, spotted only by a couple of tiny islands with bridges connecting.
“You were wrong,” said the Tik’ha’she’tik, emerging from the hut.
For the first time I could see the creature in its entirety, though the light afforded little more than silhouette, and for a second time I felt the urge to flee. That hadn’t been the right decision the first time and I was determined to learn from my mistake. Still, that had been Tuktatuk, my friend. I had no such connection with this creature, which had pinchers at the ends of a good number of its arms, I noticed. Large ones.
“How was I wrong?” I asked, willing myself not to take the cowardly step backward that my feet begged to take.
“You know my name,” said the Tik’ha’she’tik, moving around to the far side of the hut.
I followed. “You mean Tik’ha’she’tik?” I asked. I hadn’t thought that was a name; more of a label.
There was a small fire behind the hut, and in the center, a stone with a fish sizzling upon it. Tik’ha’she’tik slid the fish deftly onto a flat stone and handed it to me. The fish still possessed its head and fins but my gurgling stomach assured it was fine and I dug in, shoving steaming helpings into my mouth and sorting out the bones as an afterthought. It felt amazing to eat again. I was halfway through the fish before I remembered my manners and wondered if it had been meant to share.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, extending the stone, “here.”
“No thank you,” said Tik’ha’she’tik, waving the stone away with one of those intimidating pinchers.
“So,” I said, resuming my meal at a more polite pace, “what do you eat?”
“Stray children,” answered the creature.
I froze. “Really?” I asked through a tight throat.
It didn’t respond right away.
“No,” it said at last. “That was humor. I was trying it.”
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!