Aphelion Issue 234, Volume 22
November 2018
 
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A Thumping in the Dark

by Tyler R. Lee




It was supposed to be just another dungeon dive. It was supposed to be easy treasure. No problem for a seasoned group of adventurers like ourselves. At least, that’s what Scarf had said when he brought us the job.

“I don’t buy it,” Laurent had objected. Like most elves, he was always skeptical of anything that came from a human, exactly the type Scarf had accepted the contract from.

“Whaddaya not buy?” Scarf asked, cold and deliberately, his huge orc brow furrowing with annoyance.

“Just that...it sounds too simple,” Laurent explained. He had lost some of his confidence at the sight of Scarf’s scowl. A nearly seven-foot-tall orc will do that to you, occasionally.

A low growl escaped Scarf’s mouth as his two long tusks shook from his intensity. “It’s ain’t no different than any other time we’ve been asked to delve into a hole in the ground for treasure.”

“They really said we can keep whatever we find?” Trebilo, a small but stout halfling, my twin brother, asked.

“You got it,” Scarf smiled. “All they want is something they called ‘the Heart of the Dungeon.’”

“Sounds valuable,” I had said, echoing what everyone else seemed to be thinking. “What is it?”

“Some blood-red stone, deep in the complex,” Scarf answered. “Said that was all he wanted.” He then gave a small chuckle. “We’ll see how valuable the ‘Heart of the Dungeon’ is before we hand it over.” We all laughed at that together. What fools we were.

“I still don’t know,” Laurent said, provoking another growl from Scarf. “Some oddity of a man, hooded and cloaked, offers us a job; just head into this nearby dungeon, keep what you want, no strings, plus 500 gold upfront?”

“We could always split it three ways instead of four,” Scarf smiled, hinting that Laurent was dangerously close to being cut out from more than just the current deal. The elf’s paranoia had always earned him groans, annoyed looks, and chastising from us all. We should have listened to him this time.

“Whaddaya think, sis?” Trebilo asked, turning to face me.

“Sounds like an easy score,” I had said.

“Good answer, Trabina,” Scarf added.

Trebilo smiled at my acceptance and nodded his to Scarf.

“Well, Laurent?” Scarf asked as he threw a cold grin at the elf, almost daring him to argue. Laurent did not. He merely hung his head, then nodded. “Perfect. We head out at first light on the morrow. Anybody sleeps in, don’t expect us to wait on ya.”

And with that, Scarf got up from the table and made his way to the bar to drink himself into a stupor as he often did when we snagged an easy, well-paying job. Trebilo and I just grabbed the attention of a passing bar maid and ordered drinks for ourselves. Laurent joined us but didn’t say much the rest of the night.

The next morning, we were all up before first light and ready to be off. Everyone except for Laurent, that is. Even Scarf, despite his excessive indulgence of ale the night before, was up and ready to head out, though he had to squint when light began to peak over the Thunderclap Mountains.

“That damned elf is dangerously close to getting left behind,” Scarf growled as he shielded his eyes and rubbed one of his temples. His normally forest green skin was looking a bit gray as he dealt with his hangover.

“You know we cannot,” I answered, matter-of-factly. Scarf shot me a cold look, tusks bared, but I cared not. The brutish orc only ever scared Laurent.

“She’s right, Scarf,” Trebilo added, backing me up, as always. “It would not be smart to head into a dungeon without our spell slinger.” Scarf scoffed at this, so Trebilo continued. “Come on, Scarf. He gets on my nerves as well, but we need him. You’re the muscle and the leader, Trabina and I are the thieves, and Laurent is the mage and the healer when needed. It’s balanced and needs to stay that way.”

“Damned cleric,” Scarf said, not looking at Trebilo. “And damn you halflings for making sense.” Which meant he agreed, begrudgingly.

A moment later, Laurent was seen exiting the tavern, giving us an apologetic wave. “Apologies,” he called out in his soft, melancholy voice laced with paranoia. It was never clear if that was how he normally sounded, or if he was perpetually worried about something. We all had agreed long ago that it was probably both.

“Save your damned apologies and let’s go,” Scarf barked, to which Laurent quickened his pace, not making eye contact with the towering orc.

The entrance to the underground complex we were contracted with exploring was only a few hours hike from the roadside tavern we had stayed at. Along the way, Laurent asked Scarf to explain the details of the contract again. Annoyed, Scarf repeated what he had explained the night before. Laurent didn’t respond with anything more than a low, contemplative murmur, which seemed to push Scarf’s buttons.

“I swear,” Scarf barked, “one day, we’re gonna take a job and you ain’t gonna bitch about every little thing. One day.”

“Not likely,” I said with a chuckle, which got laughter from Scarf and my brother. I slapped Laurent on the back and flashed him a smile, which prompted a small grin. He may have been a pain, but I didn’t dislike him. Plus, I preferred everyone to be on the same page, no matter how easy the job seemed.

We must have walked for another couple of hours, which included Scarf complaining about having to shorten his stride so my brother’s and my short legs could keep up. We reached an area of the Moonway Woods that became unusually thick with trees and brush. As we entered, the air become tighter, and the light had more trouble breaking through the canopy.

“This place feels old,” Laurent said in a low voice.

“Can’t argue with that,” Trebilo agreed. “Bit stuffy in here. Everything is too close together. Can’t imagine how you tall folk feel.”

“It ain’t fun,” Scarf growled. “We should be almost...there,” he pointed as he said the last word. We all looked and saw a small cave entrance among entangling brush and trees that seemed to be bowing to the cave itself. If I had not known better, I would have thought the trees looked...subservient to the cave entrance. Broken and brought low, like slaves to a cruel master. Looking back, maybe I was right.

“Can you fit through that entrance, Scarf?” I asked, genuinely concerned as to whether or not the massive orc could fit through a cave entrance that would prove comfortable to someone my size, but only just.

Scarf gave an annoyed growl as he looked over the entrance. “Durned employer said the main opening was small, but he assured me I could fit. I should be able to crawl. Trebilo, you go in first, then I’ll go, followed by Trabina, that way you two can push and pull me out if it gets too tight. Laurent shouldn’t have a problem. Skinny elf,” he added as he looked to Laurent.

“Comes in handy, occasionally,” Laurent responded, still sounding worried.

Lining up as Scarf had said, we made our way through the cramped space that led into the dungeon. It sloped a bit at certain points, leading us further underground, though not by much. It was here we first heard the sound. The damn sound that would perpetually follow us throughout our nightmare in this underground prison. It wasn’t a voice, it wasn’t a moan, nor a whisper, or some call from some evil from the Underurth. No, it was a rhythmic, steady, thump...thump...thump...thump, with about four seconds in between each beat.

“You hear that?” Laurent asked as he stood up in the larger room the crawl space opened up into, unsurprisingly being the first one to take notice.

“Hear what?” Scarf said, stretching his limbs and cracking his bones after being so confined.

“That...thumping.”

“I hear it,” I answered, holding up a hand to silence everyone.

“As do I,” my brother responded, looking around the room we had entered into.

After ignorantly writing off the noise as the earth moving sporadically somewhere below or some similar scenario, we examined the room. It had many of the common characteristics you would expect for an underground cavern. There were no lights, aside from the Illumination spell Laurent was using to allow us to see, pushing the small globe of light higher and a bit away from the group so as to illuminate the cavern.

The walls themselves looked like an odd mixture of earth and stone. They had what looked like stacked stone shapes but with a brownish-red tint to them, unlike any bricks or stones I had seen before. From the ceiling hung the roots of what we assumed were the dense collection of trees from the surface. The small entrance had only sloped down slightly so we couldn’t have been very far from the surface. The roots that came from the ceiling seemed to entangle themselves within the stone and ran along the walls in branching paths, sometimes delving into the stone itself, sometimes coming out to run along the walls, ceilings, and floors and connect with other roots. These roots were of a similar color to the walls, but darker. Again, I wrote it off as being stained with the soil or stone that colorized the walls and floors.

As we examined the room, we saw two exits in the form of gaping holes in the wall. Without a second glance, it was clear that these were more natural tunnels than those created by man or dwarf. “Alright, Laurent,” Scarf started. “You know what to do.”

On cue, Laurent nodded and began making small hand gestures and muttering under his breath. After a moment, and a few thumps from the surrounding walls, the elven cleric held out his hand and a purplish light lifted off of it, leaving a trail behind as it fell to the ground. As we headed into the right tunnel-- “Always right, first,” Scarf always said--the light followed Laurent, though the trail it left would lead us back to this exact spot. His Homeward spell was one of his more useful magics and one of the main reasons we never did a cave crawl without him.

The first few hours exploring the cave system was very uneventful. So uneventful, in fact, that we got complacent. We continued delving deeper and deeper, taking fork after fork, stairway after stairway, finding nothing, not treasure or threat, not trinket or trap, thump after thump after thump. With nothing to give us pause, we simply kept going. By the time something did happen, we were deep within the dungeon.

After a good five hours, we had all started to become annoyed by the constant, mysterious thump...thump...thump. Try as we might, we had not been able to discern where it was coming from. It simply emanated from all around us, as if it was coming from the very walls itself, the very vines that ran through them. On top of that, as we had traversed deeper, we had begun to hear the sound of shifting earth and rock every so often. Sometimes it was soft and echoed through the tunnels and chambers, as if it were far off in the blackness of the dungeon. Sometimes it was loud and sudden, seemingly coming from the other side of one of the walls we were surrounded by at the time. However, never did we see the source.

“Something is not right in here,” Laurent had said, voicing what myself and my brother had been thinking for the past hour or so. “This is...unlike any cave or dungeon I have ever been in.”

“How’s that?” Scarf questioned, shooting Laurent a typical look of irritation at yet another complaint. “Dirt, stone, roots, dark, seems the same to me.”

“How often have we explored a cave with such rhythmic thumping?” Laurent asked, doing his best to keep his unease under control.

“I don’t remember the last cave I explored where I didn’t hear the damned earth make noise,” Scarf scoffed, thinking this conversation was ridiculous.

“Maybe,” Laurent muttered. “But what about what we have found so far?”

“What about it? We ain’t found nothing!”

“Exactly! Does that not strike you as odd? We were told by your employer that we could keep whatever we found. But, after several hours of exploring, we have yet to find a single copper, nor weapons or armor, not a trinket of any kind. Just more caves, more roots, more darkness.”

“Then I guess we need to keep going.” Scarf growled the last part as he moved closer to Laurent, who lost a bit of his color and stifled his forthcoming retort.

“It is a bit odd,” my brother said, to which Scarf spun around and glowered at him. “Not finding anything at all.”

“Not you, too,” Scarf grunted. “Trabina, ya wanting to turn back, as well?”

“I never said I wanted to turn back,” Trebilo shot back before I could respond.

“Then everyone needs to just shut up and keep moving.” With that, Scarf headed for another tunnel out of the chamber we were in. However, he stopped at the mouth when we heard something coming from one of the other two tunnels.

“Voices,” Trebilo said, holding up a hand to hush everyone so we could all listen. What we heard were moans; anguished cries from what sounded like someone dying from some grievous wound or hunger. It echoed through the tunnel, bouncing off the odd colored stone and the roots that wrapped around them. It was a terrible wailing. Whatever was making this sound was either in the middle of something traumatic or had recently seen something horrible.

Scarf got by the tunnel entrance and hid around the corner, then motioned for all of us to get out of sight until we saw what it was. We did so and waited to see if anything came from the tunnel. The moans cut through me, like someone was pushing a thousand tiny needles into my skin and slowly sliding them up my arms and spine.

As the moaning grew louder, we heard a gurgled sputtering that Scarf recognized. “Goblin,” he whispered. “It said ‘light.’ It’s noticed the light.” He motioned to the bulb of light Laurent had kept conjured but gave no indication for him to put it out. No sense in hiding at that point, I assumed.

After another few heartbeats and the ever-present thump...thump...thump, a small, gangly figure came around the corner. If Scarf had not taken its head off swiftly, it most certainly would have noticed me from the gasp I gave at its appearance. In the seconds before it lost its head, I got a good look at it. Gaunt body, no armor, sunken eyes, and pale bluish skin. Goblins were small, usually with green or greenish gray skin, but this one looked sickly, like it had been starved. However, the look on its face, it’s mouth open impossibly wide issuing a painful moan, was was one of torment. The look in its eyes was one of terror, of one who had already lost its soul and was now just wandering in the wake of something horrific. When the head hit the ground, the eyes looked around for a moment longer than they should have, and it issued its signature moan an instant after it should have been able to.

“Guess we aren’t alone,” Scarf said, wiping the blood from his axe.

“Yeah...yeah...I guess not,” Trebilo stammered, as shaken by the goblin’s form as I was.

“What is...what was wrong with him?” Laurent asked, who had fallen back at the sight of the goblin and the beheading.

“Whaddaya mean?” Scarf asked, looking at all of us in annoyed confusion. “It’s a damn goblin. Scraggly little cowards.”

“He looks like he was starved. And he isn’t wearing armor,” I finally said as I found my voice.

“Goblins often look that way,” Scarf said as he rolled his eyes. “They’re scavengers. I know one thing, though,” he said, putting his axe away and grabbing his great hammer, his favorite weapon. “There’s never just one goblin.”

It was then that we heard another noise coming from that same tunnel. Not pitiful moans of pain or anguish. No. These were cries of horror. The cavern filled with wails of the dying and of the fearful, and it was growing louder by the second. Suddenly, we saw more goblins rushing down the tunnel. All with the same look of absolute terror on their faces, issuing cries of retreat and fear of an imminent death from whatever was behind them. Mouths impossibly wide, eyes sunken and full of death and the fear of whatever evil they had borne witness to. Even Scarf took a step back out of the tunnel, taken aback by the state of the group coming our way. However, he quickly regained his senses and went on the offensive.

“Scarf, wait!” I cried, but it was too late. Our brutish orc leader was swinging his hammer wide and hard. One goblin lost his head, though not nearly as clean as the one who had lost it to the axe. Another was splattered into the wall, painting it a darker red with goblin blood. Another one had his knee cap imploded by the hammer as he tried to run past Scarf. His head was then crushed by a downward strike.

Two more got passed Scarf and headed our way, blades held high. Looking back, they were definitely more scared than aggressive and would have probably just ran past had we let them. My brother and I were frightened and on edge from this whole thing, however, so we fought.

The first one came in and gave a crazy swing with his knife at me, probably just trying to get me to move out of his way so he could escape. I sidestepped it, grabbed his arm, rolled forward and used my momentum to take the goblin down with me. When we landed, I jammed my dagger into his throat. My brother, being almost as quick as me, sidestepped his “attacker” and buried a dagger in his stomach and another in his throat, then let him drop. I can still hear their screams. The high-pitched wails of one who has seen the darkness and been driven to insanity by it. They never stopped, not while running, not while attacking, not while we turned the offensive on them, and not while they died. Only when the blood choked them out did their wailing turn to gurgles, then to silence.

The wailing didn’t stop completely, however. There was more coming from deeper in the tunnel. “More,” Scarf said, a bit of a grin evident in his voice. Clearly, he was bored, and reveled in a battle or two. Before we could stop him, he was running down the dark passage. Trebilo helped a shaking Laurent to his feet and we all chased after. The scene we came upon I am only recently privy to what it truly was.

By the time we arrived, the only cries were the echoes of the ones that had recently been silenced. There were...pieces of other goblins scattered all over the chamber. A few arms, a couple of legs, three heads, all frozen in that terrified wailing expression the others had died with. Blood painted part of the walls, floor, and ceiling. It looked as if something had torn them to shreds, ate parts of them, and decided to leave the rest. However, what might have been most unsettling at the time was the fact that there was no way out of this chamber aside from the path we had just came from. It was a complete dead end. Whatever had done this...was just gone.

“What the hell happened here?” Trebilo asked, the shock evident in his voice.

“Looks like all the goblins weren’t getting along,” Scarf smirked.

“That can’t be right,” I said, earning me a look from Scarf.

“Why not?”

I motioned around in confusion at the idiotic statement and looked at Scarf as if it was obvious, which he did not appreciate.

“This is not right,” Laurent said, not even trying to hide the terror in his tone.

“Oh, gods,” Scarf muttered as he rolled his eyes.

“There is...there is something evil in this place. I told you all before we entered.” The elf’s voice was quivering now.

With nowhere to go from here, we headed back the way we came. “Trabina,” I heard my brother’s voice call from the chamber we had killed the goblins in. He sounded confused. I picked up my pace and found him looking around, his face matching his tone. Laurent seemed to be doing the same but was becoming far more unnerved by whatever they had discovered.

“What did you…” and then I saw it. “Where are the other two tunnels?” I asked, looking around for the other two of four tunnel entrances that had occupied the chamber. Even Scarf, ever the skeptic and always pushing forward, was starting to look unnerved by the situation.

“We need to get out of here!” Laurent cried as he jumped to his feet and headed for the only other opening in the chamber. He walked briskly, following his purple trail that would lead him back to the dungeon’s entrance.

“Laurent!” I cried, but he didn’t stop. Not having much choice, we all took off after him. Before long, his brisk walk turned into a full run.

After a minute or so of dead running, we heard Laurent cry out from around a corner. “NOOO!” We all burst into a sprint. It only took us a moment to see what had upset him. I’m sure, if we had bothered to look at each other, we would have all noticed all the blood drain from our faces. Laurent was standing in front of a wall. It looked like any of the other walls. It was a deep red, it was covered in vines. However, this wall, had the purple trail of the Homeward spell going through it.

“What...where is the rest of your magical path?” Scarf asked, anger and panic rising in his voice.

“It is here,” Laurent said, a bit of a sob in his voice. “It is right here. No no no no no,” Laurent was muttering as he started pacing back and forth. We then all heard the familiar sound of shifting earth, but loud, close. “No no no no. Please no!” He cried and shoved us all aside as he ran back the other way. We followed, not knowing what to say.

“Oh, gods, no. Merciful gods, no!” the cleric cried as we ran to catch up. When we did, we found his spell now blocked by another wall, and a chamber where I was certain a tunnel was, moments ago.

“What is going on?” I asked, panic now coursing through my words.

“The dungeon is...changing,” Laurent said.

“That’s impossible,” Scarf barked, the panic turning to anger.

“Then what do you think it is?” Laurent barked back, completely out of character for him. “The shifting earth we have been hearing! It was the dungeon changing its layout!”

Scarf was taken aback by Laurent’s tone. “Look,” he started, his anger coming back.

“No! This was your doing! You dragged us down here! I said this sounded wrong, but you just had to ignore my warnings!”

“Shut your damned mouth,” Scarf said, grabbing Laurent by the collar on his robe. Laurent shrieked in rage and fear and let his ball of light explode, flooding the chamber with a burning light that I thought for sure had burned my eyes out.

A moment later, when we all regained our sight, Laurent was gone, but he was still leaving a purple trail behind him. “We’ve got to catch him,” I said. “We can’t get separated if the dungeon is truly shifting at will.”

“I’ll kill that little runt,” Scarf said, taking off after the purple light.

“Whatever gets the party moving, I guess,” my brother jested, trying to raise my spirit a bit.

My brother and I ran after Scarf, following the sound of his heavy and deliberate foot falls. We occasionally heard the earth shifting, but, knowing what it was now, it didn’t matter how close it sounded. It unnerved us all the same. And all the while, thump...thump...thump.

Eventually, we came to another wall, the purple light going through it. “Dammit!” I cried out. “Laurent!” I ran my hands over the wall, hoping it wasn’t real. It felt...unnatural, like ground, but more muddy and grainy than completely solid.

“There’s gotta be a way around,” Scarf growled, and headed down an opening.

“Wait, Scarf,” my brother called out as he ran after.

My brother and I pumped our smaller legs, following after our enraged leader, until we heard an angry cry from him just a few turns away. We picked up our pace and heard him cry out in pain, curse, and cry out again. As we moved closer, we pulled our weapons, and noticed his cries become muffled. Finally, we turned a corner and saw a familiar sight that stole our breath. Most of the corridor was painted with blood. Walls, ceiling, floor, everywhere. And there, on the left side of the tunnel, were bits of Scarf. A leg was caught in the wall, still leaking blood. An arm fell from the wall, severed at the elbow, right where he had been sticking. A hand lay by the leg.

“Gods, save us,” my brother uttered, having never been a religious halfling. However, I saw the fear in his eyes, just like I knew he saw it in mine. It was the same fear I had seen in the eyes of the goblins. “We have to get out of here,” he said as he grabbed me by the arm and started running.

As we ran, we looked for the remnant of Laurent’s Homeward spell. After what seemed like hours of searching, we found nothing. “We’re lost, brother,” I said, hopelessness drowning my words. My brother tripped and fell to the ground, breathing heavy as he lay there.

“We can’t talk like that,” he said, turning to look at me as he sat on the ground. “We can’t give--gah!” Trebilo’s sentence was cut short as roots that ran along the ground wrapped around him and began to pull him into the ground.

“NO!” I cried and dove for my brother as he began crying out for me. Suddenly, he was jerked to the side and pulled further in. He cried out in pain and spit up some blood, but I never let go.

“Help! Help me, Trabina!” he cried as I did all I could to hold on. It dragged him further up the wall as he gasped in pain, and I saw blood trickled from where his body met the earth as more roots wrapped around him. As it dragged him to the ceiling, both of us crying out in fear, I lost my grip on him. When that happened, his face became that of the goblins, one of sheer terror at what was happening.

“Trebilo!” I cried as I tried desperately to reach him, but he was being pulled deeper into the ceiling. As it pulled, as he cried in pain and horror, his body began to rip. It pulled his shoulder in and his arm sloughed off to the ground next to me. The roots wrapped around his midsection and I saw it open up before the ceiling swallowed. I heard the bones in his legs crack and pop as they were pulled in as well. I saw the pain and fear mix on his face as a vine wrapped around his head and pulled him fully into the earth, blood and wailing pouring from his mouth until the end.

While I have no way to know for sure, I feel certain that was at least a day or two ago. I have been wandering the ever-changing corridors and tunnels of this damned hellscape since then, not sure what I am looking for.

However, as if the gods saw fit to give me a bit of closure before I died, my wandering brought me to this room. And I wish the gods had let the dungeon swallow me. I stand here, now, in this large chamber, with the so called “Heart of the Dungeon” that damned human sold us on retrieving. It is, indeed, large, and blood-red. But it is no gem. Thump...thump...thump. The thumping is clear now. Thump...thump...thump. It reverberates off the walls in this room. Thump...thump...thump. Because it is coming from this room. “Heart of the Dungeon?” How poetic. This large, red, part stone part...something else...is a heart. It is, truly the heart of this forsaken hole. And the ever-present thumping is from this thing, pulsing through the roots, through its veins, lining the walls, lining its stomach. Damn that cloaked and hooded stranger that gave us the job, that tricked us into coming here. He stands behind the beating heart now, grinning under his hood, stroking the wall as if the creature is his pet. And, as I feel roots, veins, curling around my feet, I understand that this ancient creature has discovered there is still a little food left to devour.



THE END


2018 Tyler R. Lee

Bio: Tyler R. Lee is 29 years old and has been in love with writing fiction since high school. He graduated with a degree in English and Literature from East Central University in Oklahoma in 2011, and has previously published a fantasy novel, An Unlikely Company.

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