The Desert Crystals – Part Eight: Running Blind

Part 8 – Running Blind

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The scream, when it came, echoed limply from the damp walls and squeaked back into Jacob’s ears. He had awoken, as if from a terrible dream – bound tightly in sweat-soaked sheets, the stench of his own fear and clammy limbs as oppressive as the nightmare from which he’d escaped – into a darkness that even the cellars of his grandfather had never conjured as punishment for misbehaviour. It was when he recalled that he was a man, a man lost in the air, kidnapped by a frightful beast and stolen away into this lightless place in the heart of an impossible mountain that the scream began to work its way up his throat. As the memories flashed forwards he retched, remembering the sensations that immediately preceded his flight into unconsciousness.

Discovering that he could not open his mouth, nor tell if his eyes were open save by scratching at them with sweaty fingers, only urged on the screams so desperate to escape from his tortured throat. Jacob convulsed with fear, snapping away the bonds that held him kneeling in place. Brittle edges scraped his shoulders and knees as he staggered upright and promptly fell backwards, landing on what felt like broken branches. He reeled back from that and fell. He did not fall far, but those few moments stretched into an eternity before he smacked down on a hard, dusty surface.

Jacob gasped for the breath that was knocked out of him and clawed at his face. A thickly congealed layer of awful viscous slime lay across his mouth. Jacob tore it shudderingly from his lips and teeth, gagging as he ripped gelatinous stalactites that had formed inside his mouth. His breathing ragged he peeled the stuff more carefully from his eyes, easing the jellied tears from under his eyelids and casting it as far from where he crouched as possible.  He just squatted there for a minute, catching his breath.

Whatever had bound him before forcing it’s ghastly droolings upon his face had released him, or he had broken past it somehow. Were it not for the gooey skin he’d found on his face he might have been able to convince himself that he’d imagined the leathery wings and clawtips holding him down, that he had just snared himself in a bush (assuming there were bushes in these caves) and panicked. He certainly had had good reason to panic.

Looking around himself now, into the total darkness and feeling the dank heat of the place release moisture from his pores Jacob figured he still had good reason to panic now. He was lost, untold tunnels separated him from the outside and the outside itself and thousands of feet of air kept his own world at bay.

Still, Jacob was a practical lad – the Bublesnatch clan were of good stock in his home town of Ortheria and his grandfather’s strict discipline had encouraged him to learn many things (avoiding being caught was not one of them, and this most recent experience would scarcely have surprised the old man). Although he would probably not enjoy such sport in future, he had taken some pleasure in exploring the warrens of Host Lizards in the foothills of the Corrigible Mountains in whose shadows Ortheria prospered. They were a curious species who dedicated much time to digging holes and burrows with small cairns at surface level to indicate that the space was available for use. Many travellers took advantage of the beasts’ benevolence and used them as waystations or hostels. Some of the Guest Burrows were linked with a tunnel complex and Jacob had lost and found himself many times.

He tried to ignore the fact that he could not see and that unknown horrors lurked in the shadows. He closed his useless eyes and focussed on what he could hear. That deep breathing sound which his speeding heart had blurred was back, like the whole place was one huge rocky lung. It came and went, was louder and quieter as he turned on the spot, crouching and standing to get some conception of the space around him. Eyes still closed Jacob took a cautious step forwards, and another. A faint draught licked at his damp skin and encouraged fractionally swifter perambulation.

As he held closed his eyes he became aware of their continued irritation. He must have failed to extract some portion of that vile substance that still gummed up his eye lashes and brows. Damn but it itched. Absently he rubbed at his eye with a closed fist, but the itch only grew. Jacob tutted to himself and slapped the aggravating hand with his other, his grandfather’s chiding in mind. Instead he blinked heavily, attempting to force out whatever strand or sliver of ooze was caught round the ball of his eyes. His stepping faltered with the effort until he found himself pressing both palms to his eye sockets to squeeze out the prickling and prevent his further scratching. It felt like his eyes were alive and writhing within their skulled cups. He swore he could feel them like a bag of worms under his palms, rippling inside his squashed eyelids.

The distraction never quite prevented him from staggering in what he thought was almost a straight line. Each step was slow and wavered before touching the ground, as if through increased height he could relieve the pressure on his lidded orbs. Had he not been so abstracted he might have noticed when his right foot failed to find the floor in its usual place. If anything, beginning to fall forwards mashed his eye with greater satisfaction against his hand, and it was when the rest of him followed his foot over the hidden edge that he realised the error.

Next Week: Part 9 – The Abyss She Cries So Sweet