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Off The Trail ~ Part Three
A speculative tale told in three parts
If you missed the first or second part of this story, or if you need a quick refresher, please click below. Thanks so much for reading “Off the Trail.” I hope you enjoy its conclusion. Be sure to check out our next Fifties by the Fire prompt after the story.
We pass the flask back and forth through the bars until the whiskey’s gone.
In some far-off tunnel, we hear a faint ting ting ting as if someone is striking metal against metal. A hammer and anvil, perhaps?
Cormac breaks the silence. “But for real, Robbie…where the hell are we?”
I gaze out at the dark tunnel, watching shadows flicker on the wall from the hanging lanterns.
“Some underground city,” I reply. “Some other world.”
We finally face each other. Terror is painted on Cormac’s face, and I’m sure the same goes for mine.
“I don’t want to die here in this fucking cell, man,” Cormac says. His lower lip trembles.
“Hey,” I say, maybe more forcefully than I should have, as I reach through the bars and grab him by the jacket. I give him a shake. “We’re not dying in here. Got it?”
He doesn’t say anything, but his eyes do.
“So get your shit together.” I give him a slight shove. “We’re gonna find a way out of this.”
Another minute of silence follows. I start glancing around the cell, then run my fingers along the wall at my back. It’s solid rock.
“How’re your feet?” Cormac asks.
“They’re killing me,” I say.
I remove my boots and even take off my socks for a moment. I have a nasty blister on my right heel and two smaller ones on my left.
“You doing okay?” I ask.
“Me?” He points at his chest and lets out an exaggerated laugh. “Oh, I’m just grand. Really enjoying the tour, you know?”
I can’t help but crack a smile. “So other than your flask, what else do you have on you?”
“That’s it, hombre. I left my phone and everything at the lodge.”
I reach inside my jacket and pull out my phone. Forty-three percent battery. No service – shocker!
“Maybe you should turn that off,” Cormac says. “Save the battery.”
“Good call.” I power it down and tuck it inside my jacket. Then I rest against the wall, suddenly feeling the fatigue – the physical and mental strain – set in. I’m drained. I lean my head back.
The next thing I know, Cormac is shaking me and whispering in a panicked voice. “Robbie, Robbie, wake up! Someone’s coming.”
I have no idea how much time has passed. It could have been fifteen minutes or five hours. But now I know for a fact this isn’t some strange dream, some twisted nightmare.
Rubbing my eyes, I squint into the darkness, into the tunnel. Sure enough, there’s an echo of approaching footsteps.
As the figures come closer, I recognize Longbeard leading the group. He holds a torch in one hand and has a silver keyring in the other.
His face is cold and rigid like a stone – a perpetual grimace.
He unlocks our cells – Cormac’s first and mine second – and then says “Come. They are waiting.”
I quickly put my ski boots back on and feel the blister on my right heel pop. I grit my teeth and bite my tongue as I scoop up my helmet and gloves, then fall into step behind Cormac.
Two dwarves flank either side of us, but I immediately notice they aren’t restraining us in any way. Their behavior is…different.
A good sign, I hope.
Longbeard guides us through the labyrinth of tunnels, and again I’m met with wafts of different aromas. This time around I smell fish cooking. My mouth waters and my stomach rumbles. The smell gets stronger and stronger the longer we walk, but then it vanishes after we pass a wide-mouthed tunnel.
Eventually, we spill out into what appears to be one of the main halls. Bright torches line the pillars here, and a strange, black obelisk stands at the far end of the hall. It appears slick to the touch. Obsidian, maybe. I have no idea what the hell it could be, but it must have been handcrafted.
A lone long table is set up in the middle of the hall. It’s made of heavy, crude wood. A thick white tablecloth drapes down over its sides, and all but three chairs are occupied. There are around ten members at the table.
Scarface is here. He sits at the head of the table. Adjacent to him – to my shock – sits an elderly man. A human. He is old and appears frail. He’s dressed in deerskin garments, too. A cane rests on the table beside him.
Longbeard guides us to the three empty seats. Cormac and I take the two closest to Scarface and the old man, and Longbeard takes the third.
“Well met,” the old man says. His voice is gravelly. “My name is Gareth. Welcome to the home of the Kholkari.”
Scarface and the other dwarves at the table bow their heads ever so slightly. Longbeard grunts in disapproval.
“Umm…thank you,” Cormac replies for both of us. We both bow our heads momentarily.
“You may be wondering who I am, or what I’m doing here,” the man says. “Let’s just say I was once young and reckless like you. I stumbled upon the Kholkari province and landed myself in a similar predicament.” He holds up his hands. “Fear not, friends. We mean you no harm. My lords would like to make you an offer.”
“Uhh…okay,” I respond.
“They offer you a place of residence. A home, if you will, here among them – among the Kholkari.”
“They’re asking us if we want to stay?” Cormac asks.
“Yes,” Gareth replies. “Precisely.”
Cormac meets my eyes. I can read his: hell no. I try to send off the same signal, and I think he catches it.
“And…so…what is the other option?”
“To leave at once. To never set foot near our home again,” Longbeard pipes up beside me, spittle flying from his mouth. When he stops talking, his chest heaves rapidly in quick bursts.
Gareth translates Longbeard’s words for the others at the table. Longbeard then says something in the Kholkarian tongue. The others chime in, voices getting louder.
“This is a mistake!” Longbeard yells.
I look straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with them as they begin to shout. I don’t know why this comes into my head, but I can’t help but wonder if Gareth taught Longbeard how to speak English.
“Gon grush grubusk!” Scarface yells, slamming his fists onto the table. He’s powerful. Even the stone floor seems to reverberate from the force. The room falls silent. Then, in a quieter voice, he speaks in the Kholkari tongue to Gareth. The two go back and forth. Longbeard lets out a groan beside us.
“If you choose to stay, to live among us,” Gareth begins, “you will be revered. Honored. As I am. You will join our council and live peaceful lives in our society. You may even live like kings.”
I take a good, hard look at Gareth. Doesn’t he get lonely here? I wonder if everything he’s telling us is truthful, or if a part of it is a fabrication. “I don’t think we’ll be staying,” I finally say. “All we want is to go home.”
“Yes,” Gareth says. “Home.” For a second, I almost see a sense of longing in his eyes.
Gareth says something to the others in their native tongue, then Scarface slams the table again. He stands up, glares at Longbeard, and leaves. The others do the same.
“So, you don’t want a fresh start at a new life?” Gareth asks when it’s just the three of us and Longbeard, who has remained behind.
“We’ve made up our minds,” Cormac says. “As my friend said, we just want to go. We’re sorry for the disturbance.”
Gareth nods, picks up his cane, and begins to hobble toward the exit. “You’re brighter than I was. This way,” he says.
Longbeard accompanies us as we wind our way to the main gathering hall. The Kholkari are busy continuing about their days. We pass through the crowd. As they notice Cormac and me, silence washes over them. But they let us go unharmed.
Gareth and Longbeard walk us all the way to the main entrance of this realm. As we stand before the heavy wooden door, Gareth asks, “What day is it?”
“Monday,” I reply.
“But what’s the date?” he asks again.
“January sixteenth, twenty-twenty-three.”
Gareth coughs. His eyes get watery, and a lone tear falls. “My goodness. It’s been almost sixty years.”
I don’t know why I ask the question, but I do: “Do you want to come with us?”
“Oh…I would if I could, my dear boy. I would if I could. But I made my choice a long time ago.”
Longbeard opens the door with the help of two dwarves standing watch, then pushes both Cormac and me toward the exit – the chilly, icy cavern.
“Be gone,” Longbeard says. “Do not speak a word of what you saw here. And if I ever see the two of you roaming that forest again, I’ll slit your throats.” He pushes us into the cavern and closes the door behind him.
The lanterns lining the walls have all gone out. It’s pitch-black.
“Shit,” Cormac says. “I can’t even see you.” I feel his hand grasp my arm.
We take a step or two together in the dark, then I pause. I pull out my phone, turn it on, and select the flashlight. It’s far from ideal, but it sends out a light bright enough to guide our way back up the tunnel. We slip on our gloves and helmets for extra warmth, then begin our ascent.
It takes us a few minutes to reach the opening of the cave. Like before, we must turn sideways to squeeze our way through.
When we finally breathe the Adirondack air again, we both start coughing due to its frigidity. I turn the flashlight off momentarily. The moon is bright enough to show us our surroundings. We step away from the outcropping and manage to spot our tracks from earlier. The wind has swept over them in places, leaving small snow drifts, but for the most part, we can see our path.
I check my watch. It’s 1:17 AM. The wind picks up.
Even though we had just experienced something not of this world, we still have a very real set of problems in front of us.
“It’s one in the morning,” I say to Cormac. “What do you want to do? Should we wait in the cave until dawn? At least then the sun will be up.”
“It’s cold as hell out here,” he says, taking in a lungful of air and letting out a loud cough. “I can barely breathe. It’s gotta be below zero. Think you have any cell service out here?”
“I doubt it.” I check anyway. “Nope, nothing.”
“Let’s get out of the elements, man,” Cormac says. “It’s a hell of a hike back to the mountain.”
When we turn to head back inside, we’re met with a solid rock wall.
We walk back and forth, examining the outcropping, but there is no fissure – no cave entrance. It’s as if it sealed itself, hiding from view.
“Well, what the fuck is this?” Cormac says, half-shouting. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
I turn the phone flashlight on again and scan the rock wall in front of us, but it’s fruitless. There’s nothing.
“And the cold gets us in the end,” Cormac whispers. I don’t think he means for me to hear it.
Left with no choice, we put our heads down, keep our eyes on the trail, and begin the hike. The moon is bright enough that it reflects off the white snow. I can’t get a good grip on my phone with my gloves on, so the moon’s glow will have to do.
Not five minutes later, we can see eyes all around us through the trees. They are faint, yellowish, maybe, and make sure we stick to our path.
“Get out of here!” Cormac yells at the beasts – the protectors of the Kholkari realm – but they don’t move. They don’t care. Every so often they hiss at us in warning.
My heels must be bleeding as we pass through the small clearing again. We trudge on through this hell. I try to keep my breathing steady. It’s far from it.
At long last, we see strange shapes in the trail ahead. When we get closer, we realize it’s Cormac’s snowboard and my skis.
We bend down, hands on knees. Cormac sits for a second, but I pull him back up.
“Don’t. You won’t want to stand again.”
In between breaths, he asks, “What should we do? Carry them?”
The realization hits me like a punch to the gut: once we make it back to the trail, to Chatiemac, we’ve still got to make it down the rest of the mountain.
“I think we have to,” I respond. I taste blood. My lips are dry and cracked.
He nods, picks up his board, and holds it at his side. I sling my skis over one shoulder and hand Cormac one of my poles. I grip the other with my right hand and sink it into the snow.
“I’ll be right on your heels, my friend,” I say. Something tells me they’re the last words I’ll ever say.
“I know you will.” Tears trickle down his face. He takes a deep breath and starts the climb.
I really don’t know if we’re going to make it.
The wind gets worse, and clouds begin to block out the moon, causing us to wind our way off our trail a time or two.
I lose track of time and space. My mind and body become one, a single machine. My legs churn despite my bleeding feet, my numb toes. I can’t feel my hands. But Cormac still walks ahead of me, and this means I must do the same: keep going.
We emerge from the forest at 4:37 AM and find ourselves right where we started: Chatiemac. Cormac’s face looks different. Frostbitten. Or maybe it’s the face of someone who has traveled to hell and back.
He tries to say something to me, but all I can do is point downhill with my ski pole. He nods emphatically. Something about the way he does this doesn’t feel like Cormac. Maybe it’s some other madman.
We help each other clip into our bindings. We’re wobbly, disoriented. Frozen.
But we face downhill anyway – still have a long way to go. Our legs are too tired to turn.
Moonlight comes and goes, distorting my already blurred vision.
We start gliding and pick up speed. Wind whips through me. All I hear is “Grubusk! Grubusk! Grubusk!” A death chant, an ominous hymn.
I see Scarface in my mind, slamming the table in that pillared hall. Mountain lions bare their teeth. Crossbows click. There’s Gareth – the black obelisk. A cell. A flask. A cave.
One bad decision.
And now it’s all or nothing, baby.
This is going to be the ride of my life.
Again, thank you so much for going on this dark, speculative adventure with me. I’m genuinely curious about what you thought of the story. Also, does the ending work for you? If you liked it, please let me know in the comments below, or feel free to press that little heart icon.
Fifties by the Fire
Hey there, micro-fiction writing pals! Who’s up for our next fifty-word story challenge?
Our next “fire” will be held this Friday, January 20 at 3:00 PM EST. I’m changing the start time a bit. Let me know if this works for you.
Prompt: Write a fifty-word story (or poem, or work of CNF — whatever you want!) that uses the word vortex, portal, or whirlpool. Or use all three, if you’d like! For an extra challenge, add a speculative, sci-fi, or fantasy slant to your story. (But you by no means have to! Just a thought.)
Same guidelines as always!
Have a great week, everyone! Thanks for being here.
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