For this post, I’ll be answering a prompt presented on A Writer’s Discrepant Memoirs and Other Tales. This one’s on the longer side.
Roark drew his sword, bringing the hilt up to the hanging vines to get them out of his way. He peered into the dim cave but could see little beyond the overgrowth. The ground immediately ahead was slick, uneven rock. The air smelled dank and in the distance he could hear the gentle rush of waterfall. Nothing about this cave appealed to Roark. He preferred to do battle in open spaces with firm, flat ground that would easily grant him footing and no boulders, or trees, or lush, abundant vines behind which his enemies could wait to ambush him. If he wasn’t getting paid twice the going rate for this quest, he never would have accepted it.
“Is something the matter?” Roark cringed as Tobin the Wise approached. The lanky sorcerer, with his neatly combed hair and pockets full of educational implements, represented everything the hulking, armored knight did not. Tobin looked at the scroll of his carefully scribbled notes that had dictated their journey thus far. Roark wanted to shred it into a million pieces and be done with this mess. Never mind that he was an expert tracker, had camped in the furthest reaches of the darkest forests far long than any before him, had wrestled all manner of beasts and won without a scratch on him. Tobin’s research told him the way to travel was to light campfires a stone’s throw from a troll stronghold and climb trees to collect acorns in giant spider territory and ignore all the sound advice from the knight he’d hired to protect him. So that is what they did.
“Yes, I think this is the place,” Tobin announced before rolling up his notes and slipping them into his traveling robe.
“Fantastic. Let’s find your artifact and get out of here.”
“Wait a minute! Hell’s Mouth Cavern has been lost for thousands of years! We cannot simply go barging in! This is a momentous find!”
“What did you call this place?”
“Hell’s Mouth Cavern,” Tobin said as if he were reciting his own moniker. He gathered the vines blocking the entry, drew them to the side of the cave and deposited them along the rocks rather than pull them down entirely.
“I’m not going in there.”
“You must. This is what I’m paying you for.”
“You paid me to get you here. I’m not stepping foot in a place called Hell’s Mouth. Some of us are still God-fearing.”
“I paid you to protect me inside the cavern. I could have gotten here on my own.” Roark glared at him. The twenty thousand times he’d rescued the sorcerer from hungry dragons, thieving goblins, territorial dryads and a host of other forest beasts did not agree with his assessment of his adventuring skill.
“We’ll just make a quick trip inside and come back,” Tobin insisted. “Let’s go. Marwyn, you stay out here.”
Marwyn, the company cook, scowled at the men as they left her for adventures below the earth. Months of travel with two smelly, self-absorbed boys who claimed to be men had left her in need of quiet time. She didn’t even mind that she was now alone with her cast-iron frying pan and pot the only things to defend herself against the dark forest around her. Roark was as much a knight as she was the king’s personal chef. She knew well half his tales were tall and his title had yet to be conferred to him on account of his crippling allergies. And Tobin the Wise? More like Tobin the Liberal Embellisher. Being a sorcerer’s grandson doesn’t a sorcerer make. She suspected he still had many years of training before he could even call himself a wizard. This quest was just a way for him to convince granddady to let him tackle more intermediate magic.
The vines Tobin had spread along the rocks once bunched up made a suitable pillow. Marwyn placed her pot and pan where they could serve as a footrest. She reclined with a peaceful, solitary sigh. The boys probably expected her to get started on dinner, but she needed to decompress.
Roark marched ahead of Tobin solely because the cowardly sorcerer insisted on using his knight as a shield. The whispers of the waterfall had grown into steady shouts. They rounded the corner and found themselves at another curtain, this made out of a shimmering river that crashed into the cave below.
“I can take care of this,” Tobin boasted. He waved his hands and said a few words that to Roark were utter nonsense. He was only mildly impressed when the water parted. Both took a step forward and gasped.
The cavern glowed in a soft emerald light, its roof a network of ancient tree roots. Leafy vines dripped like tapestries around the small pool formed below the waterfall. A calm river wound deeper into the cavern, snaking between polished rocks and ending at the feet of a staircase. Both men’s eyes bounced up the short but wide stairs covered in their own mossy carpet. Without thinking, they lurched through the shallow pool and toward the stairs.
The two stared in awe of the doorway built at its top. Tall enough to allow a giant to pass through unharmed. Surrounded by roots that knew well enough to leave the intricate rock carvings alone. From the distance he stood, Tobin could not read the carvings around the doorway but he knew they were important. No one takes the time to carve inch deep messages in rock around a doorway in a cavern at the center of the most dangerous forest in all the land unless those messages are important.
“Don’t you want me to go first?” Roark asked with his attention squarely on the doorway.
“No, no,” Tobin whispered, taking his first step up. Roark was only a second behind, his mouth dangling open. “I can handle this. Clearly, this cavern is not as dangerous as the legends claim.”
After a few mindless steps upward, Roark muttered, “I insist I go ahead of you. It’s what you’ve paid me for.” He reached out his hand to hold the sorcerer back.
“And I said,” Tobin growled, shoving the knight’s metal-clad hand away, “That I need no assistance here.”
Roark and Tobin glared at each other only long enough to realize they had let their eyes drift away from the doorway. They looked back just in time to see the glitter they were meant to behold.
“It’s mine!” Roark snarled, launching up the stairs to the golden crown floating in the doorway.
“Nonsense!” Tobin snapped. He grabbed Roark’s armor, his hands sliding off ineffectually. “Look at how it floats! It’s obviously an enchanted crown meant to be worn by a sorcerer. It’s mine!”
Tobin leapt onto Roark’s back. The knight held his ground, having taken far worse a blow hundreds of times in the past. He thrashed about to knock Tobin off but the sorcerer held tight. They bit and clawed at one another for the crown. It entirely passed their notice that the crown had begun to float upward. Or that the crown was attached to a long, scaly appendage. Or that this appendage was attached to the forehead of a toothy, barbed cave beast.
“I am the master of this quest!” Tobin shrieked. “The crown belongs to me!”
The cave beast reached out seven diseased arms and grabbed the roots around its hole.
“If it weren’t for me, you’d have died after your first night camping!”
Marwyn could hear the boy’s shrieks from outside. She couldn’t nap with them engaging in the ludicrous bragging war they’d stumbled upon. She grabbed her cookware and scanned the area. There was no way she was going into the forest. The rocks around the cave didn’t look entirely unsafe. If she secured her pot and pan on her back, she ought to be able to climb up it in a reasonable secure fashion.
The higher she climbed, the deeper Marwyn panted. The rocks had become slicker. She could feel a spray against her face. With her cookware heavy on her back, she began to worry that this was a poor decision. Would the boys even miss her if she tumbled to her death? They’d certainly miss her cooking. She’d come down with a brief fever during their second week questing and without her constant guidance of their meals, the boys had tried to eat poisonous mushrooms. Luckily, she’d been aware enough to slap them out of their mouths before any damage had been done.
Marwyn grabbed onto a rock and immediately lost hold. Her heart skipped until she latched onto a strong root. She took a few seconds to stop hyperventilating and then used the root to pull herself up. She climbed along the tangle of roots until she reached the top of the cavern.
Here an army of mountainous trees grew around the great opening into the cavern below. Marwyn watch in awe as their roots seemed to conjure their own water source. Crystal clear water bubbled in and out of the roots until it swirled down into cavern. She took a few sips, just enough to satisfy her thirst but not so much that she was greedy. She carefully wiped her mouth and followed the waterfall downward. Although she was happy to see what awaited her atop the cave, she hadn’t escaped the shouts of her boys. They were as noisy as ever.
Maryn expected to see Roark and Tobin knocking heads just below her. They were down there and certainly fighting, tumbling around the rock, trying to rip each other’s arms off. They just weren’t what she noticed. The mammoth creature slowly drowning them in its shadow kept her frozen.
The exact form of the beast was unclear, but Marwyn’s body trembled at the horrific aura its projected. A thousand gnarled arms. Trashing teeth dripping with salivation. A misshapen, corpulent tube of a body that seemed to churn out of some dark recess of the cavern. As it moved, the cavern became darker despite the sunlight pouring in from above. Marwyn watched helplessly as her boy’s disappeared into the beast’s shadow.
On her back, her pan shifted. She reached for it but wasn’t fast enough. It slipped out of her pack and plummeted into the creature below. She didn’t hear a clang of its iron against the rock. The beast had absorbed it into its darkness. Half out of curiosity, Marwyn did nothing as the pot followed. No clang. But the beast was shaking now.
The creature leered up. Its mandibles chattered when it became aware of Marwyn. It reached its long arms upward and pulled itself through the open roof. Marwyn stumbled backward, trying to bury herself in the tree roots.
“What do we have here?” the beast asked, waving its eyeless head back and forth over its new prey. Marwyn watched as something gold bulged out of its forehead over where any other creature would have had the decency to wear eyes. She shivered at a glittering crown dangling before her. Then she swallowed hard. After seeing how its shadow had swallowed up the boys, she wouldn’t let it do the same to her.
“Wouldn’t you like this lovely trinket?”
“No, thank you.”
“Oh, I see. You’re frightened because of what I did to your companions. Do not be afraid. They weren’t worthy of my power, but you certainly are. The righteousness of the fairer sex. You do not desire my treasure out of greed, so I shall share it with you willingly.”
As the beast spoke, its teeth ground in and out of one another, setting off Marwyn’s nerves. She cringed and looked away. Were her eyes burning with tears of discomfort or fear? Her knees were knocking from fear, that much she was sure of.
The beast continued to dangle the crown. Its body wriggled in delight. Marwyn noticed several of its legs remained still. They were burning, creating thin streams of white smoke like long flimsy hairs. She opened her eyes wider. As the sun beat down on this shadow creature, its body burned. Marwyn knew what she had to do. It would be like leaving an egg to cook too long in her pan. She raised herself out of the water to engage the beast in conversation.
“I did notice you devour my companions. I hope they weren’t too much trouble.”
“Oh, no trouble at all,” the beast breath as several of its legs burned away. “I was happy to have them arrive when they did. Just in time for dinner. Perhaps you’d like to join me for dessert.”
“I couldn’t. I have to watch my figure and all.” Marwyn forced a giggle. “Girl’s gotta kept her figure.”
“You look lovely, my lady. Such plump curves. My crown on your head would suit you nicely.”
Marwyn had gone so long without hearing the slightest complement that the beasts flattery almost worked. Almost.
“I couldn’t. I’m certainly not worthy of wearing a symbol of royalty.” A few more legs vanished in a flash of smoke.
“I would be honored–”
“I simply couldn’t . It would devalue your beautiful treasure.”
“A lady such as yourself could only add to its value.”
“I must insist. I injured my neck climbing up here and I think the weight of the crown would be too much.”
The beasts body was writhing now. It looked as if long, white worms were burrowing out of its body.
“Take the crown!” the beast snarled.
“No, thank you.”
“Take it!” The beast tried to shove the golden headpiece into Marwyn’s hands but she turned away. The beast was shrieking. Its shadow body bulged in some places and caved in others. There was a hissing as its teeth separated from its mouth and clattered to the rocks below. The shadow beast let out one last scream before its body faded away. The crown floated directly in front of Marwyn as if daring her to grab it. She didn’t. It, too, faded to nothingness.
“Wha–What?! Marwyn! Marwyn, what’s going on?!”
She cautiously approached the mouth of the roof. Dangling from one of the roots was Roark. He looked disheveled, disoriented, and was carrying Marwyn’s pan instead of his shield, but was otherwise unharmed. Dangling from his muscular leg was an equally disheveled, disoriented and robe-less Tobin. He wore the pot on his head.
“Shall I pull you boys up?”
“No! Why are you even up here? You should be cooking us dinner!”
“Oh, well, if you’d rather just hang there,” she answered with a wave of her hand. Marwyn turned as if to climb back down.
“No, wait!” Tobin shrieked. His fingers had begun to loose their grip. As Roark’s strength was beginning to flag, he joined the screams, “Marywn, come back! Pull us up!”
“On one condition.” Marwyn crouched down above them. “Since I seem to be the only one with the common sense not to steal some shadow beast’s obviously cursed treasure, or to fight and argue when being pursued by that shadow beast, from here on out, I’m in charge of this quest.”
“What?! No!” Roark and Tobin finally agreed on something.
“Okay, Marwyn! You’re in charge.”
“Good,” she said before getting her best grip on the root Roark was slipping from. “First order of business is to leave this cave. I think we can all agree that some things are best left forgotten.”