A/N: Special thanks again to everyone who attended the live writing session for this entry!
“Come on,” begged Ellie. “Have you ever been in the woods before?”
“No, because unlike you, I know what is and is not a good idea,” replied Zinnia.
“You’re one to talk,” retorted Ellie.
“This again? You’re really judging me for not being born into the lap of luxury like you were?” Zinnia spun around and jabbed a finger at Ellie. Thankfully, the field outside the school was empty of any bystanders who might have gotten the rumor mill of Stockbrunn spinning. Ellie grimaced. This isn’t how she wanted this conversation to go at all. All she’d asked was if Zinnia wanted to visit the woods before, and she tried to rip off her head for her efforts.
“Look. I guess what I’m trying to say is…” she trailed off, gathering her thoughts. “I’m sorry. I was overreacting. I was judging you when I shouldn’t have. I wasn’t there when you needed me to. I want to make it up to you.”
That seemed to deflate some of Zinnia’s rage. She lowered her accusatory finger and asked, “And what makes you think the woods are a good idea?”
“I met someone out there, a friend. I’m going to meet them, and I think you two would really like each other. And besides, you’ve never been to the woods before. You could really like it. I know I do.”
“Do you know how much I have to do? Between the pigs and-”
“Exactly!” broke in Ellie. “Take a break. An hour or two won’t kill you.”
Zinnia sighed and massaged her forehead with her free hand. “I get what you’re trying. But please, just leave it be.”
“You’ve never been before,” said Ellie, voice subdued. “It’s peaceful. There’s no one else out there. Nothing. No drugs, no responsibilities, no worries. It’s just you and whatever you want to take with you. You don’t have to worry; we don’t have to talk about anything. We could just go out, be ourselves, like old times.”
Zinnia stopped, eyes locked with Ellie. “We can’t be gone for too long.”
“Of course. That works, that absolutely works!” replied Ellie. “I’ll grab my pack, and some food. Meet me on the outskirts in twenty minutes.”
Zinnia gave her a hesitant nod before walking off towards her own home. Ellie rushed off. Her mother was gone, making packing her bag rather easy. She grabbed an extra gourd, along with a few small loaves of sweet bread. Sunflower was still healing at the clinic, but between Ellie and Zinnia they shouldn’t have any worries.
Zinnia showed up exactly twenty minutes later. Ellie forced herself to take a deep breath, fully aware that pushing too hard would alienate the only other person in Stockbrunn who really knew her as Ellie and not the Heiress. They began their walk, Ellie leading the way.
The tension eased from Zinnia’s shoulders as they moved deeper into the woods and no monsters devoured them. She shared a smile with Ellie as they walked through the tall, rustling trees. A few bright blue songbirds passed overhead.
“Hang on, I got a rock in my shoe,” said Ellie, stopping to sit on the old stump of a long fallen tree. Something caught her eye as she shook the rock out of her shoe. “Whoa, look over here,” said Ellie. Down at the base of the hill sat the dark entrance to a cave, more than wide enough for them to fit in.
- Wait for Shreya.
- Go into the cave.
Results: 14 votes for go into the cave, 5 votes for waiting for Shreya. Ellie and Zinnia are heading into the cave.
“We should go check that out,” said Ellie, a broad and excited smile splitting her face.
“That’s a terrible idea,” said Zinnia.
“Have you ever heard of a cave out here?” Zinnia shook her head. “Exactly. We could be the first people to ever step foot inside! We could name it after ourselves.”
“We wouldn’t be able to see in there.”
Ellie smiled as she unslung her pack. “I have a lantern. A small one, just in case I’m not back by nightfall. I don’t come out here completely unprepared, you know.”
With a few flicks of a flint and steel she lit the wick of the lantern. “How about this? You get the lantern. You get to decide how far we go. I won’t complain. I promise.”
Zinnia eyed the lantern, then the cave entrance. Her eyes betrayed her curiosity. As a little added incentive, Ellie held out the lantern for her.
“Fine,” she said, taking it. “Let’s go.”
She climbed down the hill and into the cave mouth. With the light of the sun at their backs, they headed in.
Ellie and Zinnia ducked their heads as high pitch screeches overhead broke out not thirty second later. With alarmed squeaks, a pair of bats fluttered overhead and sped towards the cave mouth. Zinnia and Ellie both took a deep breath once they’d left.
“You won’t find that in town,” said Ellie. Zinnia managed a shaky smile and pushed on.
Once the brief excitement from the bats faded, Ellie was left disappointed by the cave. They found nothing but dust and piles of rocks. Zinnia led the way, probing her potential footing before committing. They ducked below a rocky overhang and found themselves in a large room.
“Well, maybe there’s nothing here,” said Ellie, fast losing patience. Zinnia held out her arm, stopping Ellie’s progress, shock in her eyes. “What? What is it?” asked Ellie, concerned gaze fixed on her friend. Zinnia mutely pointed over her shoulder.
The cave had widened out, letting the two of them stand at arm’s length. The flat wall of the cave Zinnia pointed at rose up twice Ellie’s height, but that wasn’t what had stopped them. What stopped them were vast and intricate drawings covering the entirety of the wall.
Animals of all kinds dominated their view, painted by what looked like dust blown onto the rough brown stone. Ellie recognized deer and something that might have been a large cow with massive horns. Beyond them, the names of the creatures twisting and running eluded her. Elongated stick figures swirled in the background, spears and bows in hand. Ellie and Zinnia stood in silence for several minutes, taking in the primitive art.
“This looks ancient. Are those wolves?” asked Zinnia, pointing to a section of paintings further on.
A few more stick figures with unmistakable wolf ears chased down more deer alongside the spear wielders. A deep red swirling pattern surrounded the scene.
“Oh, these must be the first dogs,” said Zinnia, setting down the lantern and leaning in to get a closer look.
Ellie felt a small smile form on her lips. Shreya would love to see these.
She reached the end of the paintings and looked around at the tall room they found themselves in. It had a rough rectangle shape, with dust coating the floor as it had since they’d entered the cave. The passage forked beyond the paintings. Two dark corridors stretched on before her. She tapped Zinnia, still distracted by the twisting and alien shapes, and said, “Hey, look, it goes deeper.”
- Go left.
- Go right.
- Turn back.
Results: 8 votes for go left, 4 for go right, and 7 for turn back. Looks like they’re going left!
“This way looks good. Come on,” said Ellie, pointing to the corridor on their left.
“We’re going to get lost in here,” pointed out Zinnia. “All we have is that lantern, and we can’t see the exit from here.”
Ellie pursed her lips and considered the rest of the cave. The lantern light cast flickering shadows all over the walls. On the dusty floor lay several rough and craggy rocks, ranging from tiny pebbles to ones the size of her head. She got an idea.
“There’s plenty of lantern oil if that’s what you’re worried about. And how about this? Any time we come to a split, we make an arrow pointing to the way to go out of rocks. It’s not like anything is going to move them.” Ellie knelt down and grabbed some fist sized rocks and began arranging them in a line. She finished off the point of the arrow and said, “See? So long as we’re careful we won’t get lost.”
“I don’t know,” said Zinnia, worry written across her face.
“Come on,” teased Ellie, nudging her with her elbow. “We wouldn’t have found this with that kind of talk,” she said, spreading her arm over the cave paintings.
Zinnia cracked a smile. “Alright, let’s go.”
They left the vast cave paintings behind them and headed deeper into the cave, Ellie grabbing the lantern to take her turn leading. The flickering light of the lantern shone on stalactites and stalagmites as tall as Ellie, the stone appearing as frozen melting wax. And Zinnia wanted to turn back. She led the way over another rock. The rock formations seemed more twisted now. One arched overhead, the
Zinnia stopped her and whispered, “Do you hear that?”
Ellie paused, listening to the dead silent cave. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Exactly,” whispered Zinnia. “Nothing. There’s no dripping water, there’s no bats or mice. Nothing. No place should be this quiet. Look at this,” she said, pointing to a series of rocky spikes jutting directly out of a nearby wall. “That’s not natural. Let’s head back before we get lost.”
Beyond the sound of their lungs drawing breath, there was nothing in the cave. Out of the corner of her eye, Ellie could have sworn she saw a water droplet fall up towards the ceiling out of the corner of her eye. She brushed it aside as a trick of the lantern light and said, “Let’s… let’s just see what’s around this bend. Then we go back.”
Zinnia didn’t retort, which Ellie took as a sign of agreement. She led the way, lantern held out ahead of her as if to ward off the creepiness of the cave. They wedged their way through two narrow rocky shelves and found themselves in a large cavern, stalactites dripping from the ceiling.
“Great, there’s nothing, let’s go.”
Ellie squinted, sure her eyes were playing tricks on her. She pointed and said, “Wait, what’s that over there?” Ahead of them, light flickered between two thick, lumpy stalagmites.
“Come on! We have to go check that out,” said Ellie, her earlier apprehension vanished without a trace.
Zinnia grabbed Ellie’s wrist, stopping her. “We don’t know who or what is making that light,” she hissed.
“Exactly!” replied Ellie, not bothering to lower her voice. “Where’s your sense of adventure? We could be the first people to ever see them!”
“What if they’re hostile?”
Ellie stared at Zinnia for a moment. “Why would they be hostile? We’re not scary or threatening. As long as we’re not stupid I’m sure we’ll be fine. Now come on.”
Without waiting, Ellie rushed off with the lantern, forcing Zinnia to follow. They reached the stalagmites and immediately stopped dead at what they saw. Din, source-less light filled the vast room with a roof as high as Ellie’s house. Spikes twisted and spiraled off at impossible angles from the walls on the far side, surrounding a solid stone altar which dominated the center. She couldn’t tear her gaze from it no matter how hard she struggled.
- Give blood to the altar.
- Worship at the altar.
- Dance before the altar.
Results: They Who Watch Beyond the Walls demand worship at the altar.
Ellie and Zinnia found themselves drawn to the altar. Their feet, through no volition of their own, trudged forward towards the terrible mass of slick grey stone. A jolt went through her as her knees hit the dusty floor about five paces from the altar. With arms raised, the words of an alien prayer came to her lips. Shadows flickered and stretched on the bare stone walls. Whispers faded in and out of her hearing range, whether they were from unseen beings or merely echoes she couldn’t say. The cave and Zinnia faded from view.
- you are screaming
- i am screaming
Results: the walls are screaming
Colors and lights danced before her, their patterns and hues defying human description. Beyond them stretched a pitch black void, threatening to swallow her very essence. Just as she peered into the Stygian black, so too did the void peer into her, her own limbs frozen and useless. Eyes, a thousand hidden eyes, watched her struggle as she gazed into infinity.
- Pretend this never happened.
- Never speak of this again.
Results: The Dread Lord of the Abyss decrees that you pretend this never happened.
Ellie jolted out of bed, covered in cold sweat. She rubbed her eyes, trying to get rid them of the remaining lights from her already forgotten nightmare. “What was that?” she murmured to herself. “Whatever.” She collapsed back on her pillow, peaceful dreamless sleep taking her not long after.
Here’s a plug for the latest poll again:
Poll will end on Sunday at 11:59 PM EST.
Please remember to vote on Topwebfiction. It helps new people discover this serial.