“This way,” called Nivia. “Just a little farther.”
Luke waded through piles of dead leaves, following the beacon of Nivia’s bright blue jacket. She practically glowed amidst the drab forest. A windstorm in the night had stripped the remaining foliage from the trees, and now their twisted black limbs were naked against the autumn chill.
After a few minutes, Luke spotted it: the old house Nivia had told him about. Not that it looked anything like a house now. Everything had crumbled and rotted away, leaving just the stone foundation and a crooked chimney.
“Here we are,” Nivia announced, crunching to a halt at a low wall of weathered masonry.
“Are we still on your dad’s land?” Luke asked as he admired the ruins.
Nivia nodded. “He bought this plot ten years ago from the farm on the other side of the hill.”
“Any idea who lived here?”
“No. I asked the farmer we bought it from, but he didn’t know either. Said it’s always been here.”
They sat down on one of the foundation walls. Nivia’s hand rested on the cold stone next to Luke. “It’s so quiet,” Luke observed.
“We’re all alone here,” Nivia agreed. Her hand inched closer.
“Hey, what’s that?” Luke pointed to a small jumble of stones a few yards from the rest of the house. It was embedded in the side of a steep slope and almost lost beneath the leaves.
Nivia hid a scowl before answering. “Not sure. I used to think it was an old well when I was younger, but…let’s get closer and I’ll show you.” She rose from her seat and led Luke to the smaller ruin. “See? The hole doesn’t go straight down.”
Luke peered inside. It definitely wasn’t a well. The opening was irregular, a few feet wide, and it wormed its way into the hillside like…“Like a cave.”
“Yeah. But I wonder why they’d have walled it off like that.”
Luke stepped over the stones for a better look. He kicked leaves out of the way and knelt down. The cave was deep enough he couldn’t see the back, but he could hear water dripping somewhere. “You ever been inside?”
She stared at him for a second, traced his face with her eyes, found his eyes and studied them, got lost in them. “Sure. Just…let’s be careful. It might not be safe.”
“We won’t go too far,” Luke assured her, leading the way down. “Did the farmer you bought the land from say anything about this?”
“Never mentioned it.”
The ceiling was low at first—Luke had to stoop as he walked—but about ten steps in it began to rise. Or maybe it was the floor sloping down. Soon Luke could stand upright, but by then the light had all but died away. He stopped and listened, staring into the darkness. Water was still dripping somewhere close by. Behind him, Nivia was breathing. He could feel her exhales on the back of his neck.
“See anything?” she asked.
Luke craned forward. The light wasn’t gone completely. Blurry forms were materializing as his eyes adjusted. They rose from the ground, straight and still. “Not really,” he replied. He turned back to look at her. Even in this lightless cave, her blue jacket nearly glowed. The rest of her was just a silhouette: short, slender. Luke had often thought she had a fairy-like shape, an impression only reinforced by her love of solitary hikes through the woods around her house.
“What’re you staring at?” she asked, but there was mirth in her voice.
“Nothing,” Luke answered quickly, grateful for the way the dark obscured the color of his face. He turned back toward the depths of the cave. Nivia shuffled closer behind him.
“Are those stalactites?” she asked.
The blurry forms Luke had noticed before were becoming clearer, pale pillars rising from the void. “Stalagmites,” he corrected. “Stalactites hang from the ceiling, but these grow out of the floor.”
Nivia stepped from behind him, brushing his shoulder as she passed.
“Careful,” Luke urged. “Can’t see your footing in here.”
“I just want to get a closer look,” she replied. “Just a little closer.”
Luke watched her advance, ready to reach forward the moment her step faltered. She got within arm’s length of the nearest stalagmite and stretched out a hand to touch its pale surface. It seemed to take forever. The cave air was still, the only sound the constant drip, drip, drip. Nivia suddenly flinched and touched the top of her head. “What the…” Her gaze slowly tilted up, and then she screamed.
The stalagmite convulsed and rippled. The motion traveled up its length, and for the first time Luke registered just how tall it was, just how skinny. His eyes followed the rippling motion to a knob he hadn’t noticed before, a bulge in the otherwise perfectly straight column, like a joint on a bony finger. When the convulsions reached that point, the stalagmite bent. Then Luke saw what had made Nivia scream.
The tip of the stalagmite descended into view, and it wasn’t a stalagmite at all. It was a hand.
It all happened in the span of half a second. The hand struck like a snake, wrapping skeletal fingers around Nivia’s head. Luke rushed forward to pull it off her, but as soon as he touched it, he recoiled with a gasp.
He’d expected it to be cold. He hadn’t expected it to be soft. Squishy.
“Get it off me!” Nivia shrieked. She was trying to pry one of its fingers loose, but having little luck. Luke reached forward a second time, but a sound to his left made him pause.
He saw it a second before it struck. Another of those ghastly hands shot out of the darkness. Luke tried to dodge it, but he’d seen it too late. The thing latched onto his face, and he nearly passed out as his nose was buried in its spongy palm. Luke had never actually smelled rotten meat before, but he guessed this was what it was like. His screams were muffled by the thing’s putrid skin.
“Luke! Luke!” Nivia was carrying on. Then she stopped. Luke also stopped struggling, because he heard it too. The scrape of dirt, the rattle of stones. Something else was moving in the cave.
Luke renewed his efforts to free himself. He pulled on the fingers over his face, but their joints were locked. He didn’t feel any tension beneath the skin, no tightness of muscle. It was more like the bones beneath were encased in ice.
“Luke, keep it away from me!”
Luke staggered and twisted and managed to turn enough so he could see where Nivia was trapped. He couldn’t see her—a fetid, pale finger blocked out most of his vision—but he could see her legs kicking against the ground and her arms flailing, warding off…
A shape slid by. Luke couldn’t make out its form between the fingers of his captor, but it seemed to made of the same stuff as the hands. Nivia’s panic multiplied as it got closer to her. “No, no, stay away! Get away! Luke! Help me! Help me! Help meeee—
There was a crunch, a splash.
“Nivia!” Luke screamed. He clawed at the fingers on his face. The flesh gave beneath his fingernails. Underneath it was like jelly, frigid slime oozing over what he assumed was bone. Bits of it splattered at his feet, and the stench, which he’d thought was unbearable before, reached new heights of noxiousness. Nivia didn’t make any more noise. Instead there was a wet smacking, an occasional crack.
Finally, Luke established a strong grip on a finger bone and pulled. The entire hand quivered, then the bone snapped. The other fingers tried to compensate by tightening, but Luke was already slipping free. He ducked out of the thing’s reach, then swallowed vomit.
The best description of the scene before him was a pile. Nivia was a pile of red and blue. Stooped over her was another pile of white flesh. It tapered into a long, slender neck and terminated in a deformed head.
As Luke watched, the neck twisted around and he saw its face. Black pits for eyes. Ragged hole for a nose. The jaw hung loose and was boarded up with teeth like planks of splintered wood. Red was smeared over everything.
As soon as it saw Luke, the creature began scooting toward him. Its pile of a body throbbed and rippled with each lunge. The head wobbled uncertainly atop its pulsing neck.
Luke was so shocked by the sight that he almost didn’t see the hand reaching for him. He scrambled away and the fingers grasped empty air. One of them dangled broken, its skin shredded.
The slithering pile with the head struck next. Luke fell on his back just in time to avoid its gnashing teeth. The stink of Nivia’s blood wafted off them and stung Luke’s eyes. He rolled over to face the cave exit and began crawling. Behind him, he heard the scrape of his pursuer. He crawled faster. Once he got going fast enough, he found his feet and ran—
And bashed his skull on the ceiling. He’d forgotten how low it was near the entrance. His head bounced back, and his body followed. He lay on the ground for a moment, stunned. His vision blurred, and a white shape slid over him.
Luke regained his senses and rolled out of the way. A second later the thing’s face slammed into the ground. Luke kicked it before standing up once more and fleeing. This time he remembered to stay low, and soon he was out in open air. He reached the crumbled foundation of the old house and paused to glance back.
The cave entrance was barely visible from where he stood. Luke waited, gasping for breath, but there was no sign of his pursuer. No movement in the dark, no sound except the rustle of leaves and the groan of tree branches. Luke’s knees turned to jelly, and he collapsed on the forest floor. Nivia. He’d left her in there. Not that there’d been much to leave behind. The image of her remains flashed through his mind, and he threw up. Then he lay there and sobbed. Sobbed until he had no more tears and the forest grew dark. Then he got up and began the lonely hike back to Nivia’s house.