A stone glanced off Mirna’s shoulder.
“Can you see them?” she asked in exasperation.
“No,” said Hatuk, “but I think I can hear… ow!” A larger stone ricocheted off his pincers.
I shuffled forward a few more paces, trying not to trip on the minefield of sharp stones littering the floor. I thought I could see a figure in the dim light but it became insubstantial the moment I tried to bring it into focus. We’d been stuck in this labyrinth of dark tunnels for days, being harassed by someone or something that attacked whenever we found a tunnel boasting fresh air and the chance to escape. None of us had managed to catch a glimpse of our assailant. Mirna, whose blindness usually made her other senses keener, couldn’t seem to detect anything until a fresh attack was upon us.
“I feel like they’re standing right in front of me,” she said, waving her arms in the empty air before her. Or was it empty? For a second there I thought I saw… no, with all the shadows of this strange subterranean hall my eyes were playing tricks. The space directly in front of Mirna was empty. A shiver ran the length of my spine as I fought with the sense that someone or something passed close by.
“What do you want?” I asked belligerently, directing my question into the open air. It had been days of this and I was frankly too tired now to be afraid anymore. Our food was gone, and our water supplies were low. And we were so close to our destination.
This tunnel system traveled through the last mountain before we’d be on the plains above the southern ocean cities we needed to reach. Our friend Hatuk, a Tik’ha’she’tik spider the height of a grown man, had offered to guide us through the tunnel system while the rest of our Tik’ha’she’tik friends traveled to Azminan, where they’d heard other like-minded Tik’ha’she’tik were gathering. Our journey was supposed to have lasted two days. We were closing in on a week now and I missed daylight. Today we’d determined to barge through this hall where the tunnels joined, come what may. We didn’t know who or what was after us, but we couldn’t stay hiding anymore if we didn’t wish to starve.
“That’s a good question,” said Mirna, reaching toward me. I grabbed her hand and held her tightly as we stumbled across the stones. “What does it want? Every time we get close to leaving, that’s when the attacks are the worst. It’s like it wants us to stay.”
“Funny way of showing it,” I grumbled, pulling Mirna back to her feet.
“If that were the case,” added Hatuk, choosing to climb the ceiling above us, “then a nice meal might be a better way of achieving that goal.”
“That’s how you and I were raised, Hatuk,” said Mirna. “We don’t know a thing about the culture that raised our host.”
I had to smile. Only Mirna would put this situation into such a civil, friendly light. In the worst of times, she always seemed to find a way to make the world feel delightful. We made it to the other side of the hall and paused before the three tunnel choices there awaiting Hatuk’s opinion on which one we should take. Hatuk stood before each tunnel entrance in turn, then concentrated on two, wandering back and forth.
“It’s odd,” Hatuk said at last. “The tunnel on the right smells of salt air, but the one on the left… well, it smells like rabbit roasting over a fire.”
“Maybe our host took your advice,” I snickered.
Mirna frowned. “How long has it been since the last attack?” she asked.
“A little while,” said Hatuk. “And we’ve never been able to cross this room before.”
“I think we should take the tunnel on the left,” said Mirna.
“Are you crazy?” I scoffed. “We’ve made it this far. The tunnel on the right is the way out. Roasting meat doesn’t bode well if you ask me. What if it isn’t rabbit? What if it’s the last victim?”
“Have you ever heard the story of the forgotten girl?” asked Mirna.
“That is an old legend,” said Hatuk. “A myth.”
“What if it isn’t?” asked Mirna.
“The odds of her living down here… living at all…” said Hatuk, but I could hear uncertainty in his voice.
“I don’t know the story,” I said.
“It’s told as something of a cautionary tale,” said Mirna, “about the world-shapers, and the reason why the giants refused to teach their art to anyone else.”
“Your father is a world-shaper,” I said, beginning our progress down the tunnel on the left. There was no light, so we went slowly. Shuffling along after the click of Hatuk’s steps.
“As far as the giants knew, he was the last,” she said. “The story goes, one of the world-shapers was a beautiful woman from one of the southern cities. She did good deeds for the people of the south, but in her heart she was vain and selfish. A young woman came to her one day asking for her help. This woman had the kind of beauty that inspires songs, and three men were fighting for her attention. She respected them all, equally, but loved none of them. She wanted the world-shaper to help them to stop. The world shaper agreed to speak to the men, and when she did, she grew angry. One was a champion fighter. He was valiant and strong and fearless. She fell in love with him instantly. The next was a poet. He felt deeply and captured the world with such eloquent words that her heart wept at its beauty. She fell in love with him as well. The third was a farmer. He nurtured the soil with such instinct that anything would thrive in his care. She fell in love with him the most. The world-shaper, though, could not gain the interest of any of them. All they spoke of were the qualities of this young woman. The sight of her. The sound of her heavenly voice. The tremor at her touch. How sweet she smelled. The world-shaper grew jealous. She decided that the young woman didn’t deserve to be seen, so she made it so the world could no longer see her. She made sure no one could hear her voice, or feel her touch, or breath her sweet scent. Anything the girl did to be sensed by others would fail. And in one last act of spite, she trapped her in life so she’d wander the world like a ghost forever.”
“That’s terrible!” I said. The smell of roasting rabbit was getting stronger.
“What if it’s true?” Mirna asked quietly. “What would you do, if you were her?”
“I’d go crazy,” I said, and it occurred to me with a fresh chill how likely that was. And we were heading down a dark tunnel to invite ourselves to dinner.
“I’d run away,” said Hatuk, “to where no one would come to remind me.”
“And if someone did happen by?” prompted Mirna, “don’t you suppose you’d crave their company, even if they couldn’t detect you? Even if they were frightened by the signs of your existence? Hatuk, I really think we may have found her.”
“Yes, but do you think our company is really the best thing?” I asked, lowering my voice. We could hear the crackling of a fire. We were getting close.
“I think that the thing she needs more than anything else is for someone to acknowledge her,” insisted Mirna, who had a habit of assuming the best of absolutely everyone, with little regard for caution.
“Yes but…” a fire was visible ahead suddenly. I thought I caught a shadow moving across the light, but the moment I looked in earnest, nothing was there. “This could be a trap,” I hissed.
“Or this could be a desperate woman’s hope of companionship,” said Mirna, pressing forward. “If it were me, I’d want to hear someone say hello. Hello!” she called.
I flinched. Cringing, I helped Mirna through the threshold. The room was small and contained a low bed. Beyond the fire, and the rabbit roasting above it, it seemed like we were alone in it. Except for that feeling; the one that tells you someone is watching.
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. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!