Enfolded by an impenetrable blanket of shadows deep within the subterranean realm, Richard blindly pulls a fresh bolt from the side of the crossbow. The soft sounds of thousands of leathery feet tiptoe all about him as he draws the bowstring back. In the darkness, the ghouls whistle and chirp to each other.
A long high whine breaks the chattering. The noise fades away, but not before another two begin. The shrieking calls build upon each other, growing and swelling into a deluge of screams. Their shuffling steps cease, and only the terrible chorus of ghostly voices fill the cavern.
Something wraps around the hunter’s ankles, lassoing his feet together tightly. A wiry body jumps unto his back, wrapping its thin arms and legs all around his torso and chest. The force drives the hunter forward, and he falls onto the cold stone floor. He feels the weapon’s click, and hears the swoosh of his arrow flying into the unseen as he crashes to the ground.
The shrieking turns into a cackling laughter, morphing between the two seamlessly. Clawing fingers tear at him. His blackened scarf unravels from his head as it is stolen into the night. His clothes rip apart as the hands pull patches of his cloak from his skin. Something tugs at the crossbow.
In a moment Richard hugs his weapon into his bosom, clinging to it like a child would a teddy bear. But, with arms of slithering snakes, those robbers reach into every crevice they can lay ahold of. Slowly they peel him of his treasure, leaving him naked.
And for the first time in twenty years, the hunter breaks his oath, shouting into the uncaring hell. A foot kicks the back of his head, then another stomps down on his side. Richard curls himself into a ball while the raining blows beat upon him as though he were a drum. Throughout, the chirping laughter continues.
In the darkness of the cave, in the torment of the ghouls, the hunter remembers the childhood tales of the old priest. “The rise of the monsters begins after the war,” he would often say. “The first monsters were once men, like you or me, but they forsook the light of the sun and hid in darkness. They thought to run from the moon’s poison, but the pollen infested the very air they breathed. Slowly they mutated.”
“What’s mutated?” Richard had asked.
“It means turned into a monster.”
“So, they turned into monsters because they turned into monsters?”
“No, the moon ash turned them into monsters.”
“But, we breath the moon ash,” he rejoined.
“We breathe the moon ash, but we also sleep in the sun. The sun blesses us and burns away the poison. Now, the men who hid in darkness, they didn’t have the sun to cleanse them, and they mutated into monsters.”
The kicking stops, and the hunter breaks from his reminiscing. Arms hook under his shoulders, picking him off the floor. The unknown creature drags his limp form along the cold stone. As the hunter is carried, he realizes those mournful moans are his own.
The man’s stomach turns as every beat of his heart brings home to him the next wave of agony. He can’t see his body, but feels every inch of its screaming torment. The arms supporting him disappear, dropping him to the floor. A hand clasps his foot. He is turned around and then pulled forward once more. The hunter’s bloody back scrapes against the gravelly path.
Then his leg falls, and he is left alone in the black pit. Softly, the cruel leathery feet that had pummeled the hunter carry his tormentors away. He lies there in the gravel, wheezing and spitting bile. His whole body throbbing, as if it would explode.
Outside the cave, Tachi rises from the stump she sits on. Faintly, an echo of belabored breathing can just be heard over the songs of the early morning birds dancing in the light of a new sunrise. Shaking herself from sleep, Tachi begins chanting. Forming a new orb of light between her hands, the priestess enters the cave.