Part D, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
Zoey quickly decided that walking through the cave wasn’t going to cut it and decided to crawl. That way, she could keep one hand on the wall and use the other to feel ahead of her for random chasms. Or whatever else might be in there with her.
Maybe if she stayed low enough to the ground, the bats would leave her alone. It had the added benefit of making her shaky knees less apparent. She tried to convince herself the shaking was from the immediate 20-degree temperature drop once she’d stepped inside.
She dredged through her memory for what she knew about navigating mazes — keep your hand on the wall and take every right turn — and hoped it applied to caves as well. Or was it every left turn? Too late, she was already past the first turn and even the dim light from the opening had disappeared.
It wasn’t merely dark, it was Stygian. The urge to turn back was almost overwhelming.
Zoey thought about the equipment, including a powerful flashlight, she’d been forced to leave behind. It’s a simple mission, in and out, they’d said. You’ll only need your wits, they’d said. It was a challenge, a fucking test, is what they hadn’t said. One she was not going to fail.
Fine, so she couldn’t see. She had her other senses, plus strength and agility and intelligence and . . . all her irrational childhood fears.
Concentrating, she could hear the sound of dripping. The wall was cold and damp to the touch with what she hoped was water. She wasn’t going to taste it if she didn’t have to, but at least she wouldn’t die of dehydration. All she could smell was dirt and rock, but occasionally she felt that gentle puff of cool air on her face. She seemed to be moving toward it, at least. She stretched up as far as she could reach and didn’t touch rock, so the ceiling wasn’t closing in on her.
She was not going to get stuck in a slowly narrowing fissure like that guy in the book she’d read in fourth grade. She’d find her way out of here and she’d be fine.
She continued crawling forward, her jeans wet now from the knees down and clammy against her skin. Making good progress, moving quickly but carefully. Not rushing. She paused when she heard a distant muffled thud. And then froze in place, every muscle tensed, when she felt faint vibrations through the floor and wall of the cave.
What was that?
Several seconds later there was another thud, still muffled as if coming from a distance, followed by slightly stronger vibrations. What was going on? Thunder? Explosives? Was some part of the cave collapsing?
Every instinct she possessed screamed at her to get up and run as fast as she could, flee back to the entrance. But she knew what a potentially deadly mistake it might be to react heedlessly. To run wildly, blindly, through the dark unknown.
She forced herself to stay where she was. Wait it out. Breathe.
The vibrations faded and then stopped. She slowed her breathing and kept very still, listening intently, her eyes straining for some clue in the disorienting blackness.
There it was again. More distinct this time, like something incredibly heavy pounding the earth, followed by even stronger vibrations. Not an earthquake. She had experience with those and it felt nothing like this.
Before she could make a decision about whether to retreat, there was another thud, then another. Steady now. Louder, stronger, the vibrations increasing in intensity. It was moving, getting closer.
She tried to imagine something large enough, heavy enough to make that sound — deep, powerful, resonating through the earth — and came up blank. She suddenly remembered them telling her about monsters in the night. Warning her not to be out there alone in the night.
And that’s when she realized her mistake. They hadn’t said night. They’d said dark. There are monsters in the dark. The cave entrance had been blocked for a reason and she’d ignored it.
What kind of monster had she provoked? How could she fight something she couldn’t see? Fight, hell. She had no weapons. She was completely defenseless.
She heard a hissing sound and smelled smoke in the air. Fire. The pounding and vibration were continuous now, overwhelming, closing in. Stomping. The putrid smoke got thicker, blowing hot on her face. Breath. Smoke and sulphur and something vile she couldn’t identify. Death.
Oh God, she was going to die here in the place of her worst fears, her worst memories. Small and helpless and terrified, alone in a cold dark place where no one would hear her last gasping cries. Her heart was racing, breath coming in bursts of panic until she couldn’t breathe at all. She was paralyzed with fear.
The noise stopped abruptly.
She felt a presence in front of her, something solidly invisible in the black void. A cold shiver of hot sweat ran down her spine. Her entire body trembled uncontrollably. Something was there. Right there. She could smell it, feel its body heat. Sense its power.
Even the echoes faded into ominous silence. Everything stilled, time suspended on a knife-edge of dread. Poised for the mortal blow.
Something rough and strong grabbed her, lifted her off her feet. She heard what might have been herself shrieking with her last breath.
A stream of flame burst through the dark, blinding her, heat searing her face. An enraged roar deafened her. And just before she succumbed to the helpless terror of unconsciousness, her vision cleared and was filled at close range with the fearsome glittering eyes of a dragon.
D is for Dragon.