Thursday, March 11, 2010

The High Tombs of Yuddoth, Episode Three

Skran ran madly through the forest, batting at branches and dodging trees that hadn't moved in ages.  He could feel the hot breath of the sphinx on the back of his neck.  It was foolishness surely, but he had no intention of slowing down enough so that he could turn about and see for sure.  It was enough to know that the sphinx was behind him, chasing after him like a bored cat that had just found a fresh and so-far unkilled mouse to play with.  Skran used to like cats before this.

The soft, conifer-needle-strewn floor of the forest dropped precipitously into a gaping rut where some previous rain-fall had washed away some of the soil and left a tangle of exposed roots bridging a gap, as though the trees were trying to do an impression of a spider's web and failing miserably. 

The roots had the faintest of luminescence that almost glittered in the gathering gloom as the sun was preparing to set.  It would be dark soon, and the sphinx would have no trouble seeing him in the dark.

Without thinking or slowing down one bit Skran leaped into the air and sailed as far out and over the rut as he could fling himself.  But he just didn't have the energy or strength to do much more than flop down onto the roots, which ripped and gave-way beneath him until he was half sliding and half tearing his way down the impromptu drapery of roots until he came tumbling to a halt at the base of a sharply leering blade-like formation of rock thrust up from the dirt like some solitary fang that loomed ominous and which Skran promptly ignored as he set off running in the direction of more trees.  He needed to find a place to hide, some bolt-hole or niche where he could rest out of reach of the sphinx's wicked claws.  He was running on sheer adrenaline and that was nearly tapped-out.  He couldn't even think clearly any more.  He was going to die.

After all he had been through it was just too damn much.  Something in him snapped.  His guts went totally calm, smooth and ice-cold.  He stopped dead in his tracks, balled up his cracked, torn and bloody hands into fists, squared his shoulders and turned to face his death with the pent-up pissed-off-ness that he hoped would mark it dearly before he---

The ground shifted.  It slid to the right and downwards.  It lurched and heaved and Skran was sliding down, down, down a cascading torrent of gravel, dust and dirt.

He slammed into a hard and unyielding surface.  Rocks, soils and clumps of roots were hammering at his back mercilessly.  He fought his way upwards as though swimming through a flood-swollen river that threatened to drown him under a rapidly deepening layer of displaced earth.  Finally he was out in the open, choking dust filling the air, the echoes of the subsidence fading away in the thin air.  Skran spit mud pink with his blood from his mouth.  He stood up, wobbled precariously, then righted himself and looked around.  The mass of dirt and debris had carried him into yet another defile set off from the rest.  The entire place was one chasm, miniature canyon, or crevasse after another.  But at least there were trees.

Then the sun set.  Darkness came crashing down over everything suddenly as the sharp-edged mountains cut the light off from the tiny depression that Skran had found.  The sphinx yowled and spat like a cat when someone steps on its tail.  Skran jerked around involuntarily in a fit of panic.  But the sphinx wasn't right there behind him like he feared and imagined.  It wasn't rearing up and about to rip his throat out.  Not yet, in any case.  He had a moment before the inevitable transpired and he became the creature's evening meal.  He had no illusions as to his ability to fend off a sphinx bare-handed on his best day.  This had not been his best day.

He was near the sharp incline of the Rimward wall of the little niche-valley.  The trees were heavy-trunked and gnarled old oaks with full canopies of leaves that only made it that much darker beneath them.  The caterwauling of the sphinx spurred Skran into motion.  Growing up in a circus family Skran had heard all sorts of tall tales and supposedly true traveler's stories including accounts of men who had encountered sphinxes that had happened to be in heat.  Without a second thought he lurched through the increasingly dim light towards the oaks in the vain and futile hope that there might be some sort of shelter among the kindly old trees.

Skran stumbled and limped, grabbing onto one tree and bracing himself by another as he tried to put as much distance between him and the sphinx as he could manage.  But he knew it was a doomed and stupid waste of his energy and strength.  The sphinx was only playing with him.  It could come charging down the slope he had slid upon and be upon him in an instant if it so chose.  He was its mouse.

Slumping to his knees, Skran began to compose himself for the final indignity of his life.  The sphinx howled and began to laugh in a disturbing mockery of a not-quite-human voice.  Skran made fists again and rose up in order to do his worst, such as it was, and then he noticed something just beyond the trees, some sort of ramp of carved stone.  Instinct and a deep need to keep on living despite the pain, the shame, the fear and all the other things that swarmed about each and every life like biting flies trying to suck away the good stuff kicked in and Skran ran into the woods with a smile on his cracked and bleeding lips.

It was indeed a ramp.  A stone ramp carved into a lighter-colored type of stone than the grim and forboding grays and blacks of the wall it led into.  Skran ran up the ramp, stumbled and lurched back to his feet and pushed himself as fast as his legs could carry him to the top of the ramp where he dived into the barely knee-high opening.  He didn't care how small the niche was, he crawled in as far as he could get.

A blood-curdling scream exploded into the forest behind him.  Within moments sharp cat-like claws the size of a tiger's paws slashed and scratched at the opening, but the sphinx could not fit into the niche.  In rage the creature thrashed and clawed at the stone surrounding the niche, screaming and yelling obscenities in a dozen ancient languages of which Skran only recognized two before he finally passed out into oblivion's indiscriminate embrace.

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