Staggered, Into the Dark

(This story is probably not suitable for a young audience.)

He had given up struggling. The sackcloth covering his face was damp from his own spit and the air around his head was so warm and thick with his own breath that he could no longer talk without growing dizzy of his own voice.

The hands that held onto him were too numerous to count. They gripped him everywhere–his arms, his legs, his shoulders, at one point his neck, his feet, his hands. Tighter than vices they held onto him, swinging him and dragging him. He had given up struggling.

Occasionally, he heard their voices. Most of them were male, but he had heard a woman’s voice once or twice. He had counted about half a dozen all together. They hadn’t had him long enough for him to match their voices with the way they held him, but sometimes he felt the faceless groping was preferable. Attach a voice to the bodies holding him and no longer was he something different, were they something separate than he was.

All of sudden he realized no one was holding him. He was prone upon an uneven surface. He wiggled his fingers. He hadn’t moved his hands in so long. He stretched out his right foot. His ankle was stiff, sore. He didn’t think he’d be able to walk or to run, but he wasn’t getting up either. They had to be around him still. Waiting, poised.

“Take it off.”

He honed in on the voice. It sounded like the leader’s, if his assigning roles to each of them had been in good taste, at any rate.

“Come on, take it off already!”

He rolled over and struggled to sit up. His fingers pushed through damp soil and little pebbles picked at his flesh. The stinging as he leaned into them wasn’t nearly great enough to draw his attention away from the invisible presences floating around him.

His hands found the sackcloth hood and lifted it over his face. His first breath of fresh air filled his lungs with cool bliss, an inhalation of ice that swept aside the fetid stale air from inside his lungs and made his head spin with the welcome renewal. Around him, he saw but blurs moving through foggy darkness. Ahead of him, in a half circle, were his captors–but there were seven of them, not six. Four men, two women, and a child on the far right that he couldn’t place either way.

The center one took a step toward him.

“Go inside.”

Yes, the leader. He had been right. Except for not determining there had been a seventh, but what did that matter now?

He turned around slowly, twisting his torso until he could see behind him. There, in the darkness, a deeper darkness: A gaping mouth opening before him. The dark depth of a cave jutting up from the dirt, the earth’s willingness to eat him.

He didn’t give them any time to speak before he crawled forward a few steps. As he moved, the cave seemed to expand and open wider, or else he just felt smaller as he approached. He could hear a faint, distant whistle greeting him from inside. A few feet further, he could discern the gasping, bated breaths of something inside, or many somethings, each of them contributing to a chorus of carnivorous cries.

He pushed himself to his feet. Just as he had thought, his right ankle was sore and painful to walk upon, but he didn’t want to give them any pleasure in watching his slow descent. They had captured the wrong man for this task. He would not suffer for them. He would not damn himself to their sacrifice.

He staggered into the dark. The rasping became louder and he could feel a trickle of wind from before him, its whistle drowned out beneath the monsters hiding just out of sight.

After a long while, after his ankle had ached for so long he no longer felt it, after he had been in the abyss for so long he could no longer deny it, he could hear them on every side of him. He felt something cold and leathery brush against his arm and he swallowed. Time was near him. In his mind he could measure every passing second. Yet he knew, if they had come to feast, he was close.

Then he felt it: On his left shoulder, from behind him, four teeth as sharp as carpenter’s nails pressed into his flesh. The beast did not bite him, no; it was merely tasting him, testing him, and he felt its course tongue sliding over his skin, delivering its acidic saliva onto him. Then the monster released him, still as he walked forward, and the subtle stinging began.

Another sucked on him at his waist, on the side of his leg. Lips suckling him like some sort of demon young, yet its tongue, its tongue left that same venomous mark on his flesh that slowly, hidden by darkness, began to burn away.

After the third taste, after the fourth, he felt them all over his body. The stinging became so level that it became normal and he continued on further and further until they all left him, until he was truly alone inside the cave.

He saw, at last, some distance before him, the yellow-green glow of lanterns. The flames burned dimly, barely candles, and when he came closer he saw a hunched-over figure in a dilapidated dark robe and behind this, a stone altar aligned with goblets and mortars and pestles.

The figure’s head turned up toward him and he saw the elder’s eyes glow from beneath the hood. An old man. He could overpower him and escape. He could perhaps live or survive. He swallowed, deciding he would rather fight than succumb to death, and he flung himself toward the old man.

The figure burst upward and threw out a bony arm: This wrinkled hand grabbed his own and twisted, turned, and pulled his arm around and behind him until it popped from his shoulder completely. He howled, landing on his knees, eyes flashing with blurs and burning tears as he felt his arm hanging limply at his side, unable to feel it anymore.

The elder pulled him with a strength beyond his years onto the alter, knocking aside the items atop it as he went. He saw a knife glint in the green-yellow light and cringed as the elder brought it closer. The blade slipped into his stomach and he lurched with sudden pain, and then cried with the continued assault as the elder incised through his skin and then–he cringed–discarded the patch of flesh onto the cavern’s floor. It sounded like rotten food hurled onto the floor. He choked again.

The elder lifted something else–what was it?–and brought it down into him. His body shook once, jumping up at the sudden assault, and then he sputtered as the pestle worked its way around inside him. He felt something warm rise in the back of his throat and he spluttered and coughed until the blood dribbled down his cheek.

The elder poured something into the cavern carved into his body and then lifted another bowl in one hand and grabbed one of the yellow-green torches in the other. He placed the flame into the bowl and it burned the brightest purple he had ever seen. Like starry amethysts. Then the elder plunged the flame inside him.

* * *

The seven watched the flash of purple light at the cave’s end and saw the pillar of purple smoke rising from the mountaintop. They turned to each other, shaken, pale-faced, and then turned away to return home.

Their village, nestled atop a barren mountain that rose between two others, was quiet at their onset. Doors swung open and windows hung sadly in the darkness. They reached the town hall and entered. Inside was a group of twenty perhaps, some young, but mostly old.

In the corner, a woman was crying over her child.

An elderly woman before them nodded and the seven walked toward the mother and her child. After a few steps, only their leader approached.

“It’ll be easier if you don’t cry,” he said. “If he accepts our last offering, they won’t even return.” He placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “It’s better this way.” Then he pulled her away.

The child, alone, looked dead already.

He shook his head. If only it should die so soon.

The End

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