Crimson

Crimson

New Venus

Fair use image from Creative Commons. Photo credit Михаило Јовановић.

Fair use image from Creative Commons. Photo credit Михаило Јовановић.

Dylan Stuflick

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The darkness enveloped the small pocket of light that surrounded him as he ran down the narrow tunnel. The shadows encroached on his bubble of life, pursuing closely behind, always staying just barely out of reach, but never leaving.

The shadows never left you here. Even in the capital, New Venus, shadows swallowed the upper reaches of the massive cavern. They had become a part of the survivor’s life, crushing a struggling people under their presence.

They struggled to even feed their families, and Traiben had tried to end the true source of terror that filled their lives, but he had failed. And now, he was running for his life from a group of palace guards that had slaughtered his friends. He had run, instead of staying to help, and now their cries echoed inside his head, beating the inside of his skull to the rhythm his feet pounded on the rocky, uneven ground. The shadows were filled with his friends’ accusing eyes — the same shadows that now began to encroach on his sanity. Who could live with that kind of guilt in their life?

But he would have to live with that guilt now. He had made his decision to run, and run he would.

He stopped abruptly in front of an intersection and hesitated for a brief second before choosing to go left. The path was slightly narrower than the other and appeared less traveled. Compared to the main thoroughfares between New Venus and the outer mining colonies, nothing in the Outer Caverns had ever been touched by a human soul, though smugglers thrived out here where few city watchmen ever ventured, and if it weren’t for Traiben, palace guards would never touch.

Coming out here was his only hope though. He just had to count on the fact that the palace guards knew even less about the Outer Caverns than he did. His knowledge from living at a mining outpost didn’t go very far. It wasn’t a very comforting thought.

Traiben kept running further into the darkness. Listening, he thought he could hear the pounding of feet growing closer behind him; they were catching up. Traiben picked up his pace, almost sprinting across the uneven ground now. He glanced over his shoulder to see if he could spot any sign of them.

All of a sudden, his toe caught the edge of a rock and he was sent flying through the air, his lantern soaring out of his hands as he flailed through the darkness. He hit the ground, skidding for several feet, the rocks digging into his flesh, scraping long gashes down his chest and face before he finally came to a stop, his whole body stinging and screaming at him for being an idiot.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. He couldn’t see anything now; his lantern had crashed into the floor, and the flame had gone out.

No more light, no more protection from the shadows. They pressed against him now, threatening to shatter his fragile sanity. He almost broke right then, almost curled up on the ground and just let the guards take him, almost let the darkness finally claim him. He was so close to finally giving up.

“I heard something down here! He must’ve gone down this tunnel!” one of the guards shouted.

Traiben was shocked out of his misery by the echoes of their feet as they grew closer to where he lay. The same fear-induced response that prompted him to run earlier kicked in again now, and he scrambled to his feet, wincing against the pain that now permeated his entire body.

He began running down the tunnel again, this time with no light to guide him. Now he rested a hand against the side of the rock wall to guide him. He tried to pick up his speed, but stumbled again over more rocks. Luckily, he caught himself before he could fall; that would have been the end of him.

Traiben let himself slow down enough to avoid tripping again. Unless he could lose them somehow, they would eventually catch up. Then, the guards would force him to join the rest of his friends in the shadows that filled the lives of everyone in New Venus.

 


 

Tarl woke up to a sudden crash, echoing down the narrow confines of the tunnel. He quickly made a spark and lit his lantern, squinting through the dim light, trying to make out if anything in his camp was out of place. It seemed like everything was still where it had been, and if he looked further down the tunnel, it didn’t look like any of the traps he’d set up had been triggered yet. The tunnels must have carried the noise from farther than it seemed.

He couldn’t risk discovery, though. His solidarity had been hard-fought to achieve and he wouldn’t let some idiot stupid enough to make that much noise so close to a Prowler’s den ruin that.

Tarl began to pack up his few belongings, throwing them into his small leather pack. That pack was the only thing that still connected him to his old life of smuggling through the Outer Caverns. He had left that life a long time ago. He would have trashed the pack — along with everything else from that life — but life in the Outer Caverns was too hard to justify throwing away a good pack. Leather was hard to come by. There was no returning to New Venus to get a new one, either.

He slung the pack onto his back, the last physical reminder of his old life, and headed off into the darkness, a small lantern held out in front of him. The light it gave off was weak but sufficient. His eyes had long since adjusted to the darkness, and he had learned to live off senses other than sight.

Listening for Prowlers was the first thing you learned to master. It was either that or die quickly. Starvation or dehydration would come much later. If you weren’t careful and quiet, a Prowler would find you and tear you apart within an hour of entering the Outer Caverns.

That crash would draw Prowlers like moths to a flame. The fool who wandered in here wouldn’t be able to fool around for much longer.

 


 

The footsteps of the soldiers beat down the narrow confines of the twisting maze of tunnels, growing closer to the small crack Traiben had wedged himself into. There was nowhere to go now if they found him, but he couldn’t keep running in the dark. If he ran too fast, he would trip again, but if he didn’t run fast enough, they would catch up to him eventually. Hiding in the darkness was the only option.

As the light grew brighter, he began to notice shapes emerging out of the darkness. Any second now, the guards would either run past the crack where he hid, or discover him. The chase would end now, one way or another.

“Hurry up! I think we’ve almost caught up to him!” one of the guards shouted. Traiben tried to squeeze himself even further into the crack, scraping his arms and legs on the unforgiving rock walls. The cuts only added to the ones already decorating his chest and face. He was now firmly lodged in place and unable to turn away from his view of the tunnel. He couldn’t hide from his fate any longer.

The light in the tunnel was now much brighter than before. A few moments later he began to see shadows stretching across the opposite side of the tunnel. They were quickly followed by soldiers jogging past, their thick leather boots beating the dusty ground into submission. Their arc-lances hummed with the electricity that gave the tips their characteristic sting. Getting even brushed by the tips of the charged spears left large black burns, marring the victim’s body. He had seen their handiwork almost completely blanketing the bodies of his friends, leaving them almost unrecognizable.

Seeing the familiar shades of brown that made up guard’s uniforms and those terrible weapons brought back flashes of his friend’s broken bodies. A twisted, blackened hand. A once-familiar face, twisted in an eternal grimace as his life bled out into the shadows. And finally, their pleading faces, turned towards him in their last moments, pleading for hope, for a chance to make it out alive. But instead he’d turned his back on them, running for his own life instead of staying to help his friends save theirs.

From the back of the passing line, the captain shouted for a halt to the front of the line, “His tracks stop here, you idiots!”

A shock ran through Traiben’s body. He was stuck now, but there was nowhere for left for him to run. The chase was over. All he had gained from running was a pressing guilt and a suffocating fear.

“I think we found him! The moron got himself stuck in a crack!” The same captain that originally called a halt was now looking through the slit of rock at him. “Couldn’t keep ahead of us, huh? Don’t worry. We’ll give you the same treatment we gave the rest of your friends. Maybe you can tell them why you ran away once you meet them,” he jeered.

The rest of the guards erupted into laughter. They didn’t know how close their jabs struck home. How sharp the knife was that twisted deeper into his guilt.

Their mocking continued; they were going to take their time in finishing their job.

He had shamed them all by almost reaching the Emperor’s chambers. They had been so close, but in the end all of Traiben’s planning had resulted in a massacre. The laughter cut him, but there wasn’t much left to hurt. Losing his friends had left a gaping hole in his pride rent his anger in two.

Their derision continued with no end in sight. Why would they have to stop? There was no place for him to run anymore.

Traiben was the first to hear the clicking. Soon, the guards’ laughter faded away until the only sounds were the quiet droplets of a distant spring and the shuffle of nervous feet. And the clicking, echoing down the tunnel. The rocky walls gave the sound an eerie surreality, as if one couldn’t truly determine when the sound stopped and the echoes began. It transfixed everyone standing there into a frozen stupor.

Finally, a voice broke the silence to ask the question that was on everybody’s mind in that moment: “What is that?”

Nobody could find an answer to his question. These guards were born and raised in New Venus. They had never ventured farther than the gates. Now they were lost deep in the Outer Caverns. This was not their domain. Nobody owned this land except for the earth and a few of its prized.

Even Traiben had only heard whispers of things. Things of shadow and death. Whispers from crazed mumblings of miners left out after curfew; men that had wandered away drunk and stumbled back, crazed and delirious with vicious gashes that left them dead minutes later.

Nobody could answer the guard’s question and the clicking continued, growing louder now. Like the last rasping breath of life, it claimed your full attention until it passed. The anticipation for the next kept those that heard in rapture, and like a dead man’s last breath, the space between them was filled with both hope and fear. The time lapsed on, though, and no click sounded from the darkness.

In that silence, the first blood-curdling scream cut through any thoughts of respite they might have had during that brief pause. The slaughter began soon after. Maybe there was a fate worse than an arc-lance’s black kiss.

 


 

Tarl heard the first scream, and knew he couldn’t keep walking away. Fools that they were, the fate they had unwittingly fallen upon was one he couldn’t wish upon any. He knew firsthand the damage a Prowler did to a man’s mind and body. He absentmindedly scratched at his chest as he began to turn around.

The fools wouldn’t survive; if they were stupid enough to make that much noise out here, they would be too dumb to live through the nightmare that was coming. The screams intensified, increasing in volume and desperation, but over all of that noise, a mad clicking could be heard, almost eager in the frequency and pitch of its notes.

Tarl headed back towards the sudden quiet that permeated the tunnels. Now only sparse clicks accompanied his quiet steps. He couldn’t help his son that day, but maybe he could help someone else in return.

 


 

Traiben didn’t know how long he sat wedged into that crack, silently waiting for his turn to come, for his suffering to finally end. Maybe this would finally take away his guilt. But the respite never came. Instead rough hands reached in and dragged him from his hiding place. He didn’t want to open his eyes yet.

He dropped to the floor and then froze, shocked, completely forgetting that there was another person still alive. He slowly opened his eyes, dreading what he would find. His eyes met the now muddy ground, crimson blood soaking the floor. He slowly looked up to find a sight even more disturbing than the hellish ground.

Sitting in front of him, back leaning against the tunnel wall, was the guard captain. He rested back almost as if he had finished telling a story and was about to take a nap. But his eyes were glassy, reflecting Traiben’s shocked expression. Large gashes crisscrossed his chest, as if some mad child were trying to play a broken game of tic-tac-toe on his torso.

A voice spoke up from behind Traiben. “C’mon, boy; it’ll be back soon to finish its meal. It will find you when it gets back. It might even bring a few friends, too.”  The man’s voice rolled through his ears like gravel tumbling down a hill. Those rough hands grabbed him again, this time slightly more gentle and helped him to his shaky feet. “You’ll be out of this soon enough.”

Traiben finally looked up at the man with the rough hands, tearing his eyes away from the grisly sight that painted the floor. He looked ancient; wrinkles made up the majority of his face, but the strength of the hand that now rested on Traiben’s shoulder — guiding him away from what was left of the palace guards — betrayed his strength. This man was not frail. The very stones seemed to model themselves off of him.

But when Traiben looked into his dark eyes, he found something else. In those eyes, he saw unfathomable sorrow: loss, death, pain, the very embodiment of what the Outer Caverns were. And he was supposed to lead Traiben to safety.

 

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