The screams pierced through the caves, and they rang loudly around the walls. They thundered on the ceilings and my eardrums were blasted from the shrill.
“Arggghh,” the young woman garbled in hysteria.
I swivelled to her, looking for any monsters. She was hyperventilating; her chest heaved up and down as her eyes casted downwards.
I slowly brought my torch to the ground, to see what was it that was so horrific that it warranted that piercing scream. The flames lighted the ground and I knew why she screamed. I wasn’t stepping on gravel stones. My boots didn’t crunch on broken stalagmites or crystals. All this time, I was stepping on piles of broken bones.
I noticed for the first time, we were surrounded by skeletons. There were piles and piles of skulls and bones. The older merchant rushed to comfort the woman whose eyes were swivelling to white. Xeron knelt and picked up a skull. He held the skull on his palm and I looked closer to examine it.
“Humans,” he said.
“All this?” I asked and waved the torch around me. The whole ground was littered with skeletons.
“Aye. Seems like it.”
“Gods,” Maximell breathed. He looked downright terrified. “What caused them to die here?”
“Fear,” I replied and swung the torch towards the mouth of the cave.
Now I knew why the shape of the pathway looked so familiar. I recognised it now. The pathway was a screaming mouth, the thick stalactites its teeth. Combined with the three holes above, the cave looked like one, giant skull.
The gateway of death.
“Now we know why it’s called the Cave of Bones. This cave is a graveyard,” Xeron muttered.
The wailing noise came from the skull shaped cave. Nobody dared to step closer to the open mouth. I couldn’t see what was inside for it was too dark, even with my 20/20 vision. It sounded like there was something big dwelling in there, the sound of a monster breathing.
I moved forward with caution, my boots sidestepped slightly. I lifted my sword from its scabbard and held it with my hand, my other hand holding the torch. Xeron followed one step behind me, but made no movement to overtake me. I scoffed inwardly. Bodyguard my ass.
I came to the mouth of the cave and stood there, waiting for something to burst out from the darkness. I didn’t feel any ominous presence, yet the sounds still continued to grate my ears. I narrowed my eyes. There was something strange about this. I handed my torch to Xeron and he took it.
Gingerly, I held my hand out, my palm laid flat in the air. I closed my eyes and felt. The sound whistled through and I felt something caressed my hand. I opened my eyes and looked at Xeron.
“I get it. I know what that sound is,” I told him.
“Feel it. Put your hand out.”
Xeron complied. He held his palm out for a while then looked at me in curiousity.
“I feel the wind.”
“Yes, that’s what’s been making that noise. The wind’s making it right now.”
“That wind’s making all these horrible noises?” The young merchant approached us. The others followed closely behind. I nodded.
“But how? I never heard such a terrible noise coming from the wind,” he asked, confused.
“Because of this cave. The wind gets amplified by the echoes of the cave but the noise gets distorted because of the cave’s structure.” I pointed at the three holes above. It was like blowing into a flute. When the wind hit different holes, it came out as a different note.
“Because of the shape of this cave, the wind churned into that wailing noise as it travelled through the different holes. It makes people think that there was something alive breathing inside. Most of these deaths are probably resulted from fear.”
Fear… is a powerful tool. And one of the greatest enemies a human can possibly face, for fear is also a demon inside us. Fear plays a dirty game in a fight. It strikes when you’re blind. It dominates when your guard is down. It messes with your head.
I took the torch from Xeron and walked inside the darkness. The tunnel was a long, straight, enclosed space. My fingers touched the wall of the cave and it felt chalky to my touch. I looked at my fingers and rubbed them together. Limestone.
I didn’t know how long we had been inside the cave. It felt like eons. The tunnel stretched to a never ending darkness. I started to worry that there may not be any other way out. I could still feel the faint wind, so there had to be. We spent nights slouching against the cave walls, trying to make ourselves as comfortable as we could. The young woman carried a sack of cloth on her back containing dried bread. We rationed the pieces of bread carefully between the six of us since there was no way knowing how long it would be to get out of the cave. My throat parched with thirst and fatigue rolled in. I was tired and cranky and I knew the others felt the same with their laboured breaths but nobody complained apart from the low unintelligible grumbles from the old merchant. The woman talked to fill in the empty noise. They were travelling to one of the cities in Rentera for trade. She and her husband traded in fabric materials, ranging from leather, wool, linen, to silk. The other male merchant whose name was Karin, traded in matchbooks. It was a newer invention to make fire. Awesome, they discovered matches.
After what seemed to be ages, we finally reached the end of the tunnel and I stopped to hold my breath. My eyes went wide like rings of saucers, trying to take in as much view as possible.
“Heaven’s door,” someone said behind me in awe.
I echoed the sentiment. It was… stunning. We had emerged into a vast cave. There were rows of columns, spiralling to the ceilings. Thick stalagmites in various shapes rose into the air like big crystals. There were hundreds of dripping stalactites on the ceilings. The ceilings were high, towering towards the sky. The light from our torches danced on the walls, making everything sparkle. The walls shone against the flames, revealing its marvellous beauty, creating a picturesque scene. The amethyst crystals and clusters of other mineral rocks glittered in the dim light, reflecting their brilliant colours on the walls. Rainbows in the dark. It was beautiful. It was breath taking.
“I wish I could bring my mamere to come and see this,” Karin said. “She would think this is a work of heaven.”
I resisted a sudden urge to scrape my name on the walls and wrote ‘Alice was here’, with a big smiley face.
We walked further into the cave and we immediately saw a problem. There was a vast pit, separating us from the other side of the cave. The empty space was stretched wide and there was no chance that we could jump across. I looked down and felt a sudden vertigo. I could not see the bottom of the pit, for it was filled with darkness. It was a void to oblivion. Maximell picked a rock and hurled it over the cliff. We waited to hear it hit the bottom. After a while, we finally heard a faint thud.
“That’ll be a long fall.” Xeron shook his head. “Nobody can survive that.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious.
“Blitherin’s hell, now what do we do? We’re stuck here,” the old merchant said. He crossed his arms over his chest. The woman started to sob again.
I held my hand out to feel the wind again. Sure enough, I still could feel the streams of wind seeping through my fingers.
“The wind seems to be coming from the opposite end. If we can get to the source of the wind, we can get out of this cave. Problem is how to get across. Do we have anything to get across?”
We fiddled around for a while. I had left all of my belongings back on the road, not that it would be much help since I only packed a few clothes. It wasn’t like I could tie them together and make a long rope.
“I got a rope.”
Now you’re telling me?
Karin pulled out a long cord of thick rope from his belt.
“I forgot I had these,” he said sheepishly as he handed it to me.
I unwound and tested the rope. It felt strong and it seemed long enough to reach to the other side of the cliff.
“We need to get this rope to the other side of the cliff and tie it around a rock or something so it stays there while we climb across,” I said.
They all looked at me.
“What? This is not my area of expertise.” I lead them and now they expect me to do everything? Who do they think I am, Wonder Woman?
“I’ll do it,” Xeron said. He took the rope from me and tied the end of the rope around a cylinder shaped rock. He made a lariat loop, shaped it into a noose or some kind of a lasso.
“Stand back,” he said as he approached the cliff’s edge. He swung the noose up above his head into a circular motion, his arms bulged with muscles as he casted it over a stalagmite on the opposite side. It took several tries before he finally managed to hold on to the stalagmite with the noose. With a yell of triumph he tugged the rope hard, making sure that the stalagmite or the rope didn’t break. Then he took the other end of the rope and tied it tightly around a rock. We had a tightrope connecting between the two cliffs.
“Nice job, Xeron. You’re good,” Maximell clapped his back.
“It’s nothing. I used to climb castle walls.” Xeron grinned.
Probably to escape from his master, I thought to myself.
“Is that safe?” The old merchant looked at the tightrope, his face was unsure.
“I’ll go first then,” Xeron said reassuringly.
With his hands holding onto the rope, we watched as he dropped into the vast emptiness. Then, he lifted his legs and wound them around the rope. He rope-climbed across towards the opposite end with such ease, his reflexes were quick. He made it look so easy. When he reached the other end, he jumped on the cliff and bowed.
“It’s easy. And it’ll hold,” he said from the other side.
More determined now, Karin went next. He hugged the rope like a monkey, with his back hanging in the air. He crawled across more slowly than Xeron but he made it. Xeron helped him on the cliff and I could hear him breathe a sigh of relief, his cheeks were pink in the dim light.
The woman went next after being coaxed by the old man. She was petrified and she peered down the cliff and swallowed hard.
“Come on, sweetheart. You can do it. Look, those two made it. So you can do it too. Follow their lead. I’ll be right behind you,” the man cajoled her.
She shook her head back and forth, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Come on, otherwise you’ll be left behind,” I said to her.
“Alice,” Maximell chided me.
With a deep breath, she climbed onto the rope and wound her legs tightly around the rope. She swivelled backwards across the empty air and she started to sob heavily.
“Come on, hold on tight and push yourself. Don’t let go of the rope,” the man coaxed her. He murmured smooth words for her and slowly, she started to climb across. Her arms shook as she pulled herself across, but her legs were wound tight around the rope. It was a snail pace but at least she was moving. About halfway through, she stopped and she did the most stupid thing.
She looked down.
Her eyes went wide at the darkness below and she started to cry again. She hugged the rope as her body shook with fear.
“Maila, please. You’re nearly there. You’re not going to fall, sweetheart. Come on, Maila!” The man was yelling at her now.
But the woman seemed to cocoon herself from the outside world as she hung there on the rope. The man made a start follow her but I clasped his shoulders and shook my head at him.
“If both of you are on the rope, it might not hold. She needs to get across by herself.”
I looked at the quivering woman hanging desperately for her life. “Maila, think of your favourite place. Think of a place that you would love to spend the rest of your life. It could be an open meadow, a field full of flowers and blooming violets. Imagine that world in your head. Imagine that you’re there. Imagine the skies are blue and painted with weirdly shaped clouds. You can feel the wind blowing across your hair and the smell of fresh grass and sweet flowers flooding into your senses. Can you imagine that in your head?”
“Y-yes,” Maila said waveringly.
“Think of that place as you move your hands across the rope. You’re not here. There is no danger. Pull the rope with your hands; you’re nearly at your favourite place. The skies are so blue and you can see the aeroplanes-”
“Aeroplanes?” Confusion laced in her tone.
“-I mean birds; huge, blue birds flapping their majestic wings across the skies. Look at them, they are free.” I kept talking to her and her body moved along the rope. Her eyes were still shut but she was moving.
“Maila, open your eyes. You’re there.”
She opened her eyes. She was by the cliff’s edge. Xeron and Karin helped her up. Her husband gave me a grateful nod before he dropped off the edge and climbed across the rope. He made it to the other end with ease. Then I nodded to Maximell to go ahead and I watched him climb across. He climbed with such agility that he reminded me of a monkey climbing a tree. Seems to me that my companions do know how to take care of themselves.
After Maximell reached to the end, I sat down on the edge, my feet dangling into the empty darkness before I jumped and caught the rope with my hands. I did plenty of push-ups when I was in college. Keeping fit was a necessity as a captain of the fencing club. I may not be as bulky as the men in my gym, but my muscles were strong and lean. I thanked my lucky stars that all those years working out were paying off. I wrapped my legs around the rope and started to climb.
About halfway through, the older merchant sneezed. It wasn’t just a sneeze. It was a loud sound of an elephant trumpet and it ashroooom around the cave, bouncing against the walls. The echoes made it worse and the sound blasted into the air. There was a tremor and I felt small clusters of rock pattered on me. Confused, I looked up. And I saw the dripping stalactites on the ceilings unhinge themselves and drop down like falling teeth. It was like seeing a chain reaction: A domino effect.
“Alice!” Maximell yelled.
Crap, I pulled on the rope tighter and my feet pushed me across, narrowly missing a falling stalactite. I would clobber that man if I manage to get through this alive. Death by sneeze: What an utter humiliation. It wasn’t even an honourable death.
“Come on, Alice,” Xeron yelled, urging me to go faster.
I tried. Dear god, I truly tried. I never scurried as fast as a rat like I did now. Then, the unthinkable happened. A stalactite fell, its pointy edge cutting through the rope behind me. I clung to the rope as hard as I could as I started to fall and swing forward. There was a swoosh of air as my hair flew back. I swung into the vast emptiness. For a minute, I fantasized that I was playing Tarzan before I slammed hard against the wall, my whole body rattled. Pain erupted all over my body as I was flattened like a pancake.
I distinctly heard the screams echoing above. I groaned and I wanted to tell them to shut up. The more noise, the more these dagger-like teeth would fall. Mercifully, I was still clinging on to the rope. I felt myself going upwards as they pulled the rope. Dizziness erupted inside my head and I wanted to chug a mouthful of Panadol and go to sleep. But I clung to the rope, my only lifeline. I felt something wet trickling all over my face and I swiped it with my hand. From the dim lights above, I saw my hands were covered in blood.
“Alice!” I heard Maximell’s voice calling out for me. His voice was frantic and full of despair.
I looked up and saw a huge stalactite falling above me. My eyes flew wide. Its needle teeth would impale me!
Without thinking, I let go of the rope and I fell into the darkest oblivion.