CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE TUNNEL
The tunnel walls were cold and slick with moisture and it was like crawling down a drain pipe. Water filtered in through the porous limestone, pooling on the floor, dripping from the ceiling and making ghostly plunking sounds which echoed through the eerie darkness. Trickling down through the soil above, the water carried acid which it had leeched from decaying organic materials. This acid combined with limestone to form calcium carbonate which created a coating of minerals and odd formations along the rock walls.
Susie shivered with cold and fear in the murky depths of the tunnel. She kept one hand on Zelda’s back as they inched their way in silence through the dark. Every now and then, Zelda would come to an abrupt stop. Susie would hold her breath and listen to her sliding her hands across the tunnel walls and floor before continuing. She was obviously checking for more wells or pits like the one Susie had dropped into before.
Susie was glad to have found this new friend. She had spent weeks alone here with the hideous beasts, and the closeness of an adult human was very soothing to her sensibilities. In truth, she would have liked Zelda instantly, under any circumstances. There seemed to be a bond that formed between them the minute they first embraced — Susie was in need of a mother figure to care for and nurture her, and Zelda was just as desperately in need of a child. Each filled the void so obviously present in the other.
In her heart, Susie wished her own mother could be more like Zelda. This woman actually listened and if she had been her mother, she would never have allowed Doug to abuse and humiliate her. Susie would never have been forced to do those things, and she never would’ve had to run away. Thus, she wouldn’t have been captured, wouldn’t be here now, crawling like some kind of earth-worm through a dark hole in the ground. In the short time they’d been together, she had become Susie’s hero; and she was sure in her heart that somehow, the woman would make things all right again.
Zelda stopped once again and Susie huddled up close behind her, trying to draw strength and warmth. No matter what, she was never going to let herself be separated from this woman — of that she was certain.
“There’s another tunnel leading off from here,” Zelda whispered. Her voice, soft as a sigh, went scampering on down the branch tunnel ahead of them and was lost somewhere in the distance.
She felt the little girl clinging tightly to her and silently wished for guidance. This area was honey-combed with tunnels, each leading in different directions and each one mysterious as the next.
Here in the pitchy darkness of the cave, Zelda shut her eyes tight, trying not to recall those claustrophobic feelings, and once more, she wished she had some sort of beam to pierce this lightless world, if only for an instant.
Susie’s legs and arms were growing cold; her knees were bleeding from her previous fall. She had never tried to find a way out before, knowing, as she did, that the creatures could watch her — even in the dark. You could never be certain that one of the disgusting things wasn’t standing inches away in the inky blackness, its ghastly fangs dripping, as it glared hungrily your way. But now that she had placed her trust in Zelda. She was willing to trail along behind, clutching feverishly at her clothing and occasionally casting a blind glance to the rear and listening for sounds of pursuit.
Zelda seemed to be following the main tunnel, ignoring those that connected and ran off at angles from it. They continued on, not even whispering unless they had to, for what seemed like hours.
Susie wasn’t suffering the claustrophobic effects that Zelda was, due to her smaller size. However, she wasn’t dressed as warmly, and the cool temperatures of these subterranean passages were chilling her badly. Shaking violently, she reached up and felt her matted, tangle of hair. She remembered how her mother had kept it brushed and tied with ribbons, the golden curls cascading down in shiny layers about her shoulders.
“Rapunzel.” her mother had called her, as she sat before the big dresser in her parent’s bedroom. The beautiful brush her mother saved for just this task made soft snicking sounds as she brought it slowly through Susie’s hair and chanted “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair… that I may climb the golden stair…”
A sob forced its way into her throat, like a bubble rising in a pond, but she stifled it, not wishing to let her new friend know she was scared and homesick.
They had stopped to briefly examine the entrance to another tunnel and were moving past it when a deep, guttural sound, like the grunt of a huge boar hog, echoed down the corridor from behind them. The source was probably distant, but the magnifying effect of the stone conduit encasing them made it sound terrifyingly near. It filled the air and lay close about them, raising the hackles on their necks. Susie clung tightly to Zelda, and the woman reached around to squeeze her protectively with one arm.
Susie felt Zelda pushing her back into the mouth of the connecting tunnel and she crawled backward, still holding on to the fabric of Zelda’s shirt. When she was safely inside, the woman eased herself in beside her, clamping a hand lightly over Susie’s mouth, warning her to be still.
The warmth of Zelda’s body, wrapped defensively about her was marvelous; and Susie hoped they could stay like this for awhile. She stretched, languidly, in the dark straightening her legs out behind her. It was then that her foot struck something warm and rough… and bristly with hair! There was movement behind them. Something huge and smelly was stirring just inches away, in the cramped space of the tunnel. Judging from the sound, it must have been nearly wedged against each side, filling the tunnel complete with its grotesque body.
A scream of rage split the air, and Susie felt her bladder let go.
Zelda clamped her hands over her ears and prayed for a mercifully quick death. The creature was right up against them in the tunnel, and there would be no hope for escape.
Then, to her amazement, she heard a voice, deep and evil-sounding, splitting the darkness.
What do you want here? the voice said, and dimly she became aware that there was no accompanying echo. The voice seemed to be inside her head, rather than penetrating her hands to ring in her ears. She grimaced at the feeling it left behind, as though she had been violated by something filthy.
SPEAK OR DIE! came the horrid sound.
Then Zelda heard another voice, softer and so much more innocent — the voice of a fairy, or perhaps an angel. It wafted sweetly in her mind, sweeping away the grime left by that other.
We mean no harm, mother, the soft voice soothed. We are just passing through on our way to do a chore.
Zelda recognized the second voice as Susie’s, but the odd, flat sound of it, when it should be reverberating in this hollow cavern, made it sound as though it were coming from inside her head rather than from outside. She guessed it was an acoustical quirk of some kind, perhaps brought on by the close proximity of the beast’s huge body, stuffed into the cramped space of this tube.
The first voice countered, LIAR! You wish to kill my babies! Do not try or I will kill YOU!
The voice had a definite female lilt to it, despite its deep baritone gruffness. Zelda could smell the heavy, unmistakable odor of animal placenta, and it became apparent what they had stumbled across. These must be the lairs, where the females crawled off to birth their young. Even as the thought filled her mind, Zelda heard soft mewling sounds coming from somewhere in the murkiness before her.
She also knew, from her experience with farm animals, just how dangerous a mother can be when protecting her young. A female hog will bite the leg off a man if he approaches her piglets at the wrong time, presenting what she perceives to be a threat to them. And hogs are domesticated animals, nothing like these horrid brutes. Who could tell what this creature might do? Desperate, she decided to try her hand at calming it.
“NO, NO! WE WILL NOT HARM YOUR YOUNG!” Her voice echoed down the corridors in both directions, and she reflexively lowered it some more. “We only wish to pass by, unharmed.”
There was a long pause in the blackness as she felt the creature sizing her up. Finally, she smelled its hot breath on her face, thick with the aroma of grooming her new-born pups, and the voice slowly and menacingly asked, Who are you… MEAT?
Zelda wasn’t thrilled with the idea of being referred to as meat, and she searched for the correct answer.
The angel-soft voice of her child companion filled the void. She is Zelda — and she is reserved as the vessel of Chirkah. I would be careful if I were you. Chirkah would not like his plans altered by a female. There was an audible gasp in the tunnel, sounding like the sucking sound a drain makes when it clears, and the creature grunted.
Zelda could feel it backing away somewhat, and she could breathe again. Susie continued, All we wish is to continue our assigned task. We are small and weak females and mean no harm to you or your young, mother. Go back to sleep and forget this nonsense.
What is this… task you speak of? Are you certain you are not seeking to leave us? Tell me what chore you are performing, down here in the birthing chambers.
We were sent, by Dirdrah, to gather rags for the slaves. They are cold and the vessels must be kept warm. But, being stupid blind humans, we have lost our way in the dark —
A snarl interrupted Susie’s tale and Zelda felt warm spittle fly in her face. Again the beast loomed over them and pressed close.
Dirdrah is dead! Even I know that. She was killed by the meat who hangs in the trees. What kind of lies are these?
Susie pressed closer to Zelda’s side. I’m sorry, I must have gotten mixed up, she lied. I thought it was Dirdrah who sent us, but it must’ve been another. I cannot SEE you! It is hard for me to tell which is which.
You cannot see with your eyes, perhaps… The harsh voice trailed off, leaving Zelda to guess at its meaning. GO! Continue on your way, but do not enter the birthing chambers again. They are for Kophet-kur — not for Meat like you. Be gone and let me sleep.
With a sigh of relief, Zelda grabbed Susie and made for the entrance to the chamber. But Susie pulled back, playing her advantage as only a child would have the courage to do.
Please, mother, her voice was soft, supplicating. Could you tell us the way out of here and back to the main entrance to the caves?
The creature had obviously dismissed them as any kind of threat and now when she spoke, she sounded bored and sleepy. Return the way you came, until you reach the end of this tunnel. Be careful not to plunge into the well which lies at its mouth, though. Climb up the shaft and you will be in a small chamber which we use to house slaves. This chamber opens on the main sleeping room. Cross the floor, being careful not to awaken any of those sleeping there, and you will find an opening which then leads up to the main doorway. A yawn escaped the beast and Zelda could hear her moving around, settling back down to her slumber.
But Mother, is there no way to get there by continuing on this way? Susie pressed.
The female snorted loudly. Of course not! This way leads deep into the forest to smaller openings. Do not continue, on for if a guard were to catch you back there, he would assume you were trying to escape and kill you immediately. Even you are intelligent enough to realize there is no escape from the Kophet-kur — and especially not that way. Now leave me. I must rest after my labors.
Susie and Zelda crawled back out into the main tunnel and held their breath, waiting. Soon they could hear her measured breathing, punctuated with light snoring sounds and they knew the beast had dropped off to sleep again. They moved on down the tunnel a few feet and then Zelda stopped.
“I don’t believe you talked us out of that mess!” she whispered. “And then you had the gall to ask the way out!”
Susie giggled, conspiratorially. “Which way should we go now?”
“Are you kidding? If you think I’m going back the way we came…” Zelda didn’t bother to finish. “We’ve got to be careful not to wake any more of these things, and we’ve got to listen very closely to avoid running into any guards. Why didn’t you tell me the damn things could talk?”
“I did.” Susie protested.
“Yeah, but I didn’t think you meant they could actually talk! That was creepy as hell! I didn’t like it one bit. Do you know what she meant by that ‘kofat… whatever’ she was talking about?”
“They call themselves the Kophet-kur. I don’t like talking to them either, but I have learned how to deal with it. Most of them are pretty stupid. Others aren’t, but all of them are sly — very sly — and dangerous. If we do meet a guard, better let me do the talking.”
“Hey that’s fine with me, honey. After the way you handled that tub of lard back there, I trust you completely. Shall we?”
“Y-you first,” Susie said, her teeth chattering in the cold.
“Aw, sweetie! You’re freezing, aren’t you?” Zelda drew her close and brushed her hair back.
“I wet my pants back there when that monster growled at us,” Susie admitted, her face burning with shame. “I was cold before, but now its even worse.”
Zelda removed her sweat-shirt, pulling it over her head and bumping her elbow on the ceiling in the process. The cold air of the cavern slapped against her, raising goosebumps on her bare skin and she felt her nipples harden beneath her flimsy bra.
“Here, baby,” she cooed. “Put this on.”
“But Zelda –”
“Don’t argue now, I’ll be all right. Put it on.”
Reluctantly, Susie slipped into the warm sweat-shirt. Instantly, her body began to feel better, and the shivering subsided. “Thanks,” she said, and she meant it. She wrapped her arms around the woman and fell in love. It seemed to her that no one had ever treated her so kindly, sacrificing their own comfort and well-being for hers. Paradoxically, here in this pitch-dark cave full of monsters, she felt safer than she had ever been in her life. Through tears, she reached up and kissed Zelda’s cheek.
“Let’s go, honey,” Zelda smiled, returning the girl’s hug. “We’re headin’ out the back door.”