CONTENT WARNING: This story contains depictions of extreme violence and disturbing content. Reader discretion advised.
I remember a fall down a deep, cavernous hole that seemingly stretched on forever. The events proceeding the fall are blurry to me, and looking back, I can’t recall what led to my descent. Only that I intended to hike in the hills of Dartmoor on holiday. I recall a fog surrounding me and my sister, and her frantic cries as I lost my footing and tumbled down a dark hole obscured by moss. Before I knew it, the blackness consumed me, and my head collided with the rocky, jagged bottom.
When I came to, my hands were torn and bleeding, and my head wracked with pain. By some miracle, I was still alive and in one piece, not a single concussion or fracture to be found. As I looked upwards, I saw a small ray of light about the size of a pin-head, hopelessly illuminating a small portion of the dark expanse in which I found myself. My knapsack was nowhere to be found, as was the electric torch Father gave me for Christmas. Supplies, light, food…all were gone, leaving me alone in a dark, miserable place far from any help. For all intents and purposes, I was stranded and alone in the darkest depths of some God-forsaken abyss, shivering and bleeding in the cold.
After lying on the floor for hours, staring up at that morbidly tiny pin-prick of sunlight, I finally decided to get up and try to find some sort of an exit. One that preferably wouldn’t lead to an even deeper hole filled with even more darkness. Given this was a cavern somewhere deep in the earth, there was no telling what sorts of nasty things I might find in this ghastly place. And though I considered myself a rational man, my mind couldn’t help but conjure an assortment of hideous things that could dwell in these uncharted depths beneath the earth. Despite it all, I decided to brave the black tunnels that lay before me and see if I could locate a source of light or water. At the very least, I thought, I could hydrate myself and perhaps find something edible before seeking an exit. At the time I was starting to feel drowsy and sick, and finding water was of the utmost importance, lest I die of thirst in this wretched hole. Though my situation seemed bleak, I was confident I’d find a way out, and marched onward into the endless darkness.
After slogging through an ever-deepening trail of sludge, grime and muck, I noticed that as I moved on through the swampy mess, the mud slowly came looser and looser with every step I took. This seemed to indicate there was a stream or some other source of water within this cave, hopefully one leading to an exit of some sort. The first portion of my hunch was confirmed, when I noticed a slow, trickling sensation near my ankles, that was in fact, running water. In a hurry, I slogged through the increasingly runny muck, blindly splashing through the murky, increasingly wet filth until I heard what sounded like a small stream briskly flowing to a larger pool.
Making my way towards the source of the noise, I slipped on a bed of slick stones, falling headlong into a body of fresh water near what appeared to be a grotto of some sort. A partially submerged area, dimly-lit and and full of mushrooms. The light was faint and barely visible, but the darkness was nevertheless pierced by a soft, bio-luminescent glow emitting from the bulbous fungal growths that crept up the walls. On the one hand, any light source was a welcome sign, but the presence of organic light in a closed-off, dark cavern several feet below the sun was also a bit troubling. These sorts of naturally-occurring light sources only seemed to develop in places that were chronically deprived of sunlight. Which could very well mean I was stranded beneath the earth’s surface, possibly even miles away from the surface. Despite this, I wasn’t ready to give up just yet, and decided to explore this curious grotto and hopefully find some sort of exit or hidden pathway that could lead me to safety and sunlight.
As I made my way towards the sandy shore of the grotto, I felt a slimy, wriggling feeling brush against my feet. And for a split-second, the reptile portion of my brain hoped it wasn’t some sort of god-forsaken cave-beast trying to eat me alive. Upon looking down at the glowing waters however, I found something far less terrifying, though like the fungi, unsettling in their own right.
As I’d learned from my lectures, animals that end up living in caves or other light-deprived habitats often develop other ways to live in dark and sunless places. Thus, normal fish slowly adapt, becoming, blind, slimy creatures that reside in the darkest pits of the earth’s caves. Alone and unseen, the eyeless creatures dwell far beneath the earth, living their lives wholly unaware of the world above. Scaleless, blind, and covered in slimy whiskers, the eyeless fish squirmed desperately in my hand, attempting to flee certain doom.
Amused somewhat at the prospect of being the apex predator of this place, I released my prisoner, watching as he disappeared beneath the black waves of the pool. While somewhat relieved, I nevertheless worried about the grim implications my blind little neighbors’ presence suggested. Would I starve to death, or be forced to eat raw, squirming fish for the rest of my days? The fact that I was beyond any hope of rescue had dawned on me quite a while ago, yet I only truly felt the crushing weight of that realization as I sat here, surrounded by hideous aberrations and utterly alone. My mother and father, my University colleagues, and my sister would go about their lives, grieving my loss whilst never truly learning the fate that befell me. As for me, I could look forward to a horrid existence as some half-savage fiend, feeding off slimy fish and muddied water for the rest of my days. Assuming I didn’t first die of some horrid disease or infection first.
As I mulled over these unpleasant thoughts, I caught something out of the corner of my eye, crawling slowly and making a faint sloshing sound. Every hair stood up on my head, as I realized that as of now, I wasn’t the only predator in the grotto. In the dim, fungal light it was hard to see precisely what the creature was. But from where I stood, it appeared to be some sort of pitch-black crocodile, or a caiman of enormous size. His slimy exterior glistened like black diamonds in the glowing light of the cave, gliding across the water’s surface with murderous precision. With humongous, yellowed teeth and nostrils the size of golf-balls, the creature rose from the waters and moved towards me slowly, paddling in the waters with his frightful, webbed claws. Unlike the nasty fish below me, the beast had terribly bright eyes that gleamed with a frightening, reptilian intellect, glared at me with what could only be described as a deliberately threatening stare.
I was utterly speechless at the sight of this creature. And how could I not be? I was a reasonable man, someone who shunned the silly ghost-stories and cryptic legends feverishly spun by the superstitious and truly stupid. Yet before me stood a creature that could very easily have slithered from the hazed mind of the village idiot or town drunkard – a creature that, were I to describe to my colleagues, would have me thrown in the madhouse in mere seconds. This horrid beast, a creature so fantastical it wouldn’t be out of place in Revelations or the Arabian Nights, defied all logic and reason. He looked at me with a hideous yet intelligent glint that suggested it was no mere animal. And there was something else about it – a presence of sheer terror, as if bony hands held be to the floor as he slithered closer…ever closer…
Even though I was prepared to accept that perhaps, such an odd and seemingly supernatural creature might possibly exist, I was certainly not ready for what happened next, or rather—what it said next…
“Before I eat you…tell what you have achieved, for it will make you more appetizing.”
Words cannot describe the sheer horror which seeing those monstrous, crocodilan jaws form human speech instilled in me. Its voice and indescribable, rasping din, was akin to sandpaper scraped across a sheet of unpolished steel. One could hardly call those guttural, inorganic noises English…yet talk to me it did, smiling and licking his teeth all the while. I stood there, struck with fear and confusion, trying desperately to make sense of it all as the creature slithered closer to me, clacking his horrid jaws as it swam right in front of me. To my amazement, the shape of the beast seemed to shift as it did so.
It shrunk, re-forming into a vaguely humanoid shape that was roughly the size of a nine-year-old child, but old and withered like a wicked ape. Its frontal lobe was almost twice the size of a normal human’s, and its facial features were rancorous and highly intelligent, like no earthly creature I’d ever seen before or since. Where a mouth should have been, the strange beast had a bird-like beak protruding from its face, and pointed, elfin ears which reminded me of a donkey’s or rabbit’s. Its limbs were long and spindly, with barely any flesh covering his nasty, bony claws. As was the case with its crocodile form, the cave creature’s skin was slippery and wet like rubber, reflecting what little light shone in the cave, giving it an eerie, phantasmal look. Glaring at me with a terrifying leer, the monster smirked at me as he licked his beak hungrily. I felt naked and helpless under his gaze, despite his diminutive stature and frail appearance. Logically speaking, I should have been able to snap him like a twig. Yet something stayed my hand, freezing me in place under the piercing gaze of his jaundiced, keen little eyes.
“I’ve reassembled myself so we could chat more comfortably,” he stated, describing its drastic transformation as matter-of-factly as one would describe the weather. “I’d imagine you’d feel odd talking to a reptilian creature such as I once was, so I’ve made improvements. You may thank me by answering the question.”
You say it like that’s any better, I thought, thought I dared not speak it aloud. Though it seemed impossible, the creature was even more menacing and strange in its newer form than the great caiman. Merely looking at the creature’s grotesque new body gave me the shivers. He was nasty, rank, and worst of all – intellectual in an utterly inhuman and conniving way. It’s impossible to describe the feeling his presence gave me..like looking at a fun-house mirror from the darkest of nightmares. Seeing a form that was human in shape, but twisted, small and hideous…well, it’s the thing all nightmares are made of. For what can be more frightening than us, but twisted and fallen?
“Well, hurry up already…I’m waiting,” it croaked impatiently, giving me an ugly leer that made my heart freeze with terror for a split second. Though I’d drank my fill of water earlier, my mouth felt drier than sand at that time, as I stood dumbstruck in front of this horrible monster. All the while he regarded me as if I were some sort of lamb-shank or welsh rarebit, and as I nervously avoided his hungry gaze, I couldn’t help but ponder the implications of his strange request.
Tell me your achievements it said, though what the creature meant exactly by this was a mystery to me. Would it be unreasonable to assume that to a a monster such as this, an achievement could mean anything from petty theft to to murder? Or would the creature be impressed by more innocent acts, such as my brief charity work, or the essays I’d written? Did it prefer physical feats to intellectual ones, or did it consider brutush acts such as killing or breeding the height of human achievement? It was hopeless to even think about it. One could go mad dissecting the implication of such a demand.
“Well? Are you deaf? Tell me your achievements before I grow impatient,” it hissed, licking its claws like some sort of horrid hairless cat. The parrot-like beak on it opened and shut at intervals, as it breathed heavily. The way he watched me called to mind an old man impatiently waiting for his bread-pudding. It would’ve been almost comical, if not for the fact that by all appearances, I was the pudding.
No! It can’t possibly end like this! I thought frantically as I tried to come up with a plan for survival. My family’s probably worried sick! Surely, I thought, the creature can’t be perceptive enough to distinguish truth and lies. If I told him I was Napoleon or Jesus Christ, who’s to say the bloody thing wouldn’t buy such a story? And considering he’s lived his whole life in some miserable cave,who’s to say he’d even know who those people are? I could say anything and the beast would probably believe me, and –
A snickering sound seemed to come from the creature, and as I looked up, it looked away, as if stifling a bout of laughter. Briefly, I wondered if the beast could read minds, before quickly dismissing the notion as sheer lunacy. Mind-reading? Psychics? Ghosts and goblins? Such things were mere fantasies at best, and dangerous delusions at wost. Even the presence of such a creature proved nothing more than other sapient life forms existed…or so I hoped. Racking my brain to come up with some sort of answer, I came up with a false narrative that would hopefully convince the beast I was some sort of dangerous killer, one not worth attempting to eat.
Alright, creature, I thought to myself, grinning with glee as a thousand grandiose tales raced about in my mind. I’ll give you the greatest achievements you’ve ever heard of!
“You want my achievements?” I said with an almost theatrical fourish. “Then hear this — I’ve sailed the seven seas, searching for the bones of a great dragon. During my travels, I’ve slain thousands of men, nailing their heads to the sides of my ship as a sign of my unholy thirst for blood. They’ve called me a monster, a murderer, and a worthless dog! So evil am I, that the foolish masses believe I pay audience to Satan himself as he plays the violin!” I boasted, setting my hands on my hips and grinning with all my might.
It was forced and utterly ridiculous, but I hoped beyond all hope that the strange creature in front of me might reconsider his notion of eating a dangerous man such I. To my dismay however, the creature not only seemed bored, but annoyed at my boasting. His glare was almost pitying, much in the same way a judge or constable might regard an especially pathetic burglar. Any hope I once had of stalling this creature with my lies was dashed to pieces as soon as I saw that look on his face, a mixture of stunned disgust and worst of all – boredom.
“Satan doesn’t play the violin, you stooge” it replied, wearily sighing as it scratched an itch at the nape of its neck. “His instruments are of a different sort.”
And just like that, my mind went numb. This dismissive tone, paired with the casual name-dropping of the Devil as if they were old poker friends, made my mouth dry and my soul shiver with the blackest of terror. Any scientific curiosity that remained had been dashed to pieces with that last remark, as I realized there were only two possible scenarios I could possibly be facing. This creature was either a high-ranking officer of Hell, or I was stark raving mad and beyond any and all semblance of help. In any case, I frantically tried coming up with a way to salvage my narrative in this scenario, perhaps claiming it was all a joke or maybe –
“If you think you can turn it around and attempt to save face, think again.” the creature hissed menacingly. “My patience for lies has reached its limit. Best not try my patience again, else I’ll rip out your spine and watch you bleed upon the rocks.”
With those last few words, the creature’s voice seemed to morph from a sickly, rasping voice to a more menacing, bestial growl like that of a bear or tiger. He sneered hatefully at me for a brief moment, scratching at the rock he was perched on and growling hideously, as if he were doing everything in his power to keep himself from lunging at my throat. But after a while, he seemed to calm down a bit, wringing his hands and looking at me hungrily as he dipped his toes in the murky waters.
“I’d pity you a bit more if you weren’t such a pompous, self-absorbed ass, but I suppose that can’t be helped, Mister Oxford Graduate,” he cooed softly, as if speaking to a small child. “But it’s of no concern to me in the end. The important thing is that you die, and more importantly – die correctly.”
Then why don’t you just get on with it and kill me already, you bastard? I thought, before realizing I had most likely answered my own question. The creature was obviously enjoying this little exchange of ours, and I started to wonder whether or not he was even hungry to begin with. I for one, wouldn’t ask a roast beef for its intimate histories before devouring it, especially if I was stranded in a cave for God knows how many years…
“Alright, you sniveling little wretch, listen up!,” It barked, breaking my train of thought with a jolt. “I’m going to sit here and relax here while you figure out something worthwhile you’ve done. I’ll be waiting no more than twenty minutes on the dot, so do your best and think of all your life’s achievements – or at the very least, something more interesting than your failed attempt at nursery-stories. Failure to comply will be…painful? I’m not sure that’s quite the word I’d use…not sure it’s strong enough…”
Turning his back on me, the daemon hummed a strange tune to itself, lazing about on the shiny black rocks of the grotto. Dipping his smooth tail beneath the surface of the water, he seemed to ignore me for a time, taking what seemed to be a short nap. Left to my own devices, I sat there, shivering with cold and fear as I stared in horror at my monstrous captor, wondering what horrid schemes he plotted for me next. I was utterly wracked with fear and shock, unable to so much as think coherently. In my current state, I could only watch as the creature lounged about like a Blackpool sunbather, resting his feet in the shimmering waters. As I watched him laze about, something near me glinted in the pale light, and though I was frozen with fear, my curiosity got the better of me as I wondered what the shining object could possibly be.
I crept towards the glittering bit of metal in front of me, and upon closer inspection, I was stunned to find that it was in fact, a crudely-fashioned hilt, the blade of which was submerged in the watery depths below. Quietly tiptoeing towards the strange weapon, I made my way towards the strange sword, grabbing the hilt and praying it wasn’t some horrid trick. I could hardly contain my surprise as I pulled the gleaming weapon from the waters, its jet-black blade glowing with an eerie red aura. It was stunningly beautiful, shimmering with an ethereal force that excited and terrified me as its unearthly power coursed through my veins. I felt every bit as fearful and terrifying as the stories I told that monster, brandishing what seemed to be an ancient and magical weapon large enough to kill that miserable creature with a single blow.
I’ll end him, I though with glee, looking back at the sleeping creature and grinning madly as I watched him snore like an old drunk. I’ll run him through, and he shan’t bother me again! Even if I die alone, I’ll never have to deal with that horrid creature as long as I live! You want me to show you my achievements? Very well then. I’ll start by hacking you to pieces, you ugly wretch!
Creeping up to him slowly, I prepared to stab the creature in the head with a single, downward thrust. As I gritted my teeth something in my hand writhed and squirmed like a snake. Glancing at my weapon, I nearly gasped aloud as it seemed to melt in my hands, slipping away into the dark, murky waters below. The pieces if the sword seemed to re-form and shift beneath the waters, and the blood in my veins turned to ice as I realized what the thing I held in my hands truly was.
“Gods! You’re an even bigger ass than I imagined,” croaked the monster as it slowly rose from its nap “Did you honestly think I’d leave a weapon like that out in the open? Of course it was my tail, you miserable fool! I can change my shape at will…I can be a sword, a beast, a demon…a god.”
And with that last word, the rumbling growl in his voice returned, and a set of sharp fangs grew where his tiny, knife-like teeth once were.
“Come here, man,” he snarled. “Let me show you…”
I was stunned, cursing the creature in my mind as I backed away from him. His eyes gleamed with that terrible light once more, as his body twisted and expanded into his most fearsome and hideous form yet. His hands, once withered and weak, slowly turned into large, muscular paws with sharp, metallic claws that glistened cruelly in the pale light. His body became like that of a great and terrible lion with three eyes and a thick, long tail from which a silver cat-o’-nine-tails dangled. He was as regal and terrifying as a great Babylonian idol, standing over me and glaring hatefully in my direction with a low growl that seemed to shake the entire grotto like a small earthquake. Overcome by terror, I sank to my knees in despair, quivering like a leaf and desperately praying to any god who’d listen for help.
“It’s time we dispensed with the formalities,” growled the creature slowly in a deep, leonine voice as he bared his hideous silver fangs at me. “And thus, I leave you with two options. Either tell me your achievements, or be devoured as is. If I were you, I’d die with whatever scraps of dignity you have left and select the first option.”
But what does it even matter? I frantically wondered as the creature licked his lips. If you’re going to eat me anyway, why would I even bother telling you my achievements?
“The same reason you put salts and spices on a roast duck” said the great lion, as if replying to my thoughts. “To season the meat.”
I stared dumbly at the creature as I unsuccessfully tried to process the meaning of this curious explanation, one that –to me, at least – posed more questions than it did answer. I was terrified beyond all reason at this point, and despite my apprehension at the prospect of him eating me, I figured the alternative was far worse. By that point, my will to struggle against the creature had long since passed at this point, and in a fit of despair, I at long last relinquished the details of my life’s achievements.
“When I was a boy, I helped my father build and repair watches in his workshop,” I said grimly, looking straight into the monster’s eyes. “It was a lot of work and I was up until the crack of dawn at times, but it enabled me to master the art of watchmaking, which enabled me to start a small shop of my own. Soon I was building watches of my own, pieces so fine that many oil tycoons and businessmen from Austria and the Americas commissioned me for my work, which became well known for its excellent quality and craftsmanship. This allowed me to pursue my dreams and learn at Oxford, where I studied biology and law…until I fell in this miserable hole, that is.”
“Intriguing…but is there more?”
“I…helped my mother and sister pick apples in autumn, though I doubt you’d call that an “achievement” I said, struggling to come up with anything else of note. “I suppose I could have done a lot worse with my life. An uncle of mine wasted away in an opium den and my grandmother threw away her savings in gambling-pits and taverns playing cards and dice until she hung herself. I suppose not following in their footsteps could be considered an achievement of sorts…”
Shivering with fear and anticipation of my demise, I sat down and watched as the monster seemed to process the information given. Looking as if he were examining a well-preserved ham on a butcher’s rack, the creature stared at me and muttered to himself incoherently. This went on for at least twenty excruciatingly long minutes before I finally addressed the creature out of impatience.
“ I-I suppose you’ll want to eat me now that that’s out of the way,” I said, looking cautiously at him . “Would you rather I remove my clothes, or do you er… prefer the taste of fabrics?”
“I find cotton quite delicious,” he replied, with what seemed to be an amused purr. “Polyester on the other hand, gives me indigestion. But you needn’t bother yourself about that. I’ve changed my mind about you.”
Shocked by his words, I looked straight at the cave beast but detected no ill intent or trickery from his gaze. It was entirely possible that he was lying, but curiosity got the better of me, and against my better judgment, I decided to see where this went.
“But—what on Earth could you mean by that?”
“There’s an entrance behind me,” he said, lifting his left paw gingerly and gesturing in the general direction of the alleged exit. “You may leave this place if you wish. I’ve no more need of you at the moment.”
Walking cautiously in the direction he pointed, I strained my eyes to see if he was indeed telling the truth. Sure enough, a man-sized crack in the wall was right where the creature had said it was, obscured by the shadows cast in the dim light. Though I had my reservations about the creature’s intentions, I decided to take my chances and pray it wasn’t some more of that horrid beast’s devilry at work. As I walked over towards the doorway, I looked back at the cave beast, who gestured for me to leave once more. Seizing the opportunity, I walked briskly into the darkness and thanked my lucky stars that the beast had left me alone.
I wandered on for what seemed an eternity, stumbling about in the dark and grasping the jagged, rocky walls for support. My hands were raw and bleeding by the time I reached the rocky alcove at the end of the tunnel. Above me, the sun shone brightly through a hole in the ceiling, and for a brief moment I was nearly blinded by her radiance. Parched and hungry, I surveyed the area and found that unlike the tunnel, this area had no food or water, and was merely a dead end in what appeared to be a sandy and deep pit, utterly impossible to scale. Escaping this miserable place would be a herculean feat, one I had neither the tools nor the strength for. Upon attempting to find an exit that led back to the creature and his grotto, I was shocked to find that any and all exits from the alcove were covered in a thick layer of sand and dirt, and no amount of digging revealed them.
Looking downwards, I was surprised to find that In front of me was a pit that sank to the farthest depths of the world, the farthest point of which glowed bright red like the fires of Hell. Given everything that had happened to me in the last couple of days, it wasn’t impossible to think that that Old Scratch himself was waiting for me at the bottom. Dazed and delirious from hunger and thirst, I sat myself down in front of the great pit and wept. I had gotten out of the frying-pan and into a proverbial lake of fire, with nothing but hunger, pain and thirst to accompany me on my slow and terrible road to the afterlife.
I’ve been here for three or four days now, perhaps even more. The wounds have started to fester and though I’m chronically dehydrated, cannot die. I’ve tried everything from slashing my wrists on the sharper corners of the walls to strangling myself, but to my dismay, nothing but disease and rot affects me. The maggots consume my green and poisoned flesh, yet it only grows back, more rancid and stinking than ever. I cannot say what horrible spell has come over me, but the mercy of a quick and painless death is no longer an option any more. Though I cannot prove such an assertion, it’s my honest belief that this alcove, much like the smoking-room of a butcher’s shop, was designed to “cure” me. And as I lie in rot and despair, physically and spiritually broken, I fear that in time, the beast will arrive to collect his meat. It could be days, weeks, or even years before that dreadful time comes. But until then, my options are either a living death, or a quick and horrible decent into Hell itself. It took three weeks, but after weighing my options, I at long last chose the latter. Closing my eyes, I lept. My senses gave way, and I felt the heat of hell at my heels… before realizing I was perfectly stationary. As I slowly opened my eyes yet again, I recoiled in horror as the truth of my situation revealed itself.
The pit of fire was an illusion. Not even Satan and all his fallen angels could offer me a refuge from the Lord of the Cavern. I can see his shadow now…the shadow of his last and most horrible form. It cannot be described by mere words, but if pressed – I’d describe it as a tower of flesh, ever-screaming, ever-hungering, never dying. The shadows of a thousand arms creep closer to me with every second. Reaching for my flesh. Reaching for my soul.
My soul. Oh, may God have mercy on my soul…
Enjoyed the story? Please consider leaving a review and starred rating on the short’s Royal Road page. Also, consider leaving a comment letting me know what you thought! Your feedback is very important, and helps me get better at what I do.