Cheryl doesn’t feel the tears fall from her face; in fact, she doesn’t feel anything. Her mind goes blank and she’s suspended in time for a moment, trying to grasp this news. She takes a step back and stumbles, the boulder Joe was sitting on catches her and she lands on her bottom. Joe sits with his forearm rested on his knee and his other hand massaging his groin. Ricky breaths laboriously with clenched fists and tense muscles.
“Both of our tunnels intersected, and we met halfway,” Ricky starts, “we were surrounded by six tunnels, nine if you counted the one in front and the two, we came out of. When we realized there was only one tunnel, and that one of us was not gonna make it, that’s when a low, growling sound filled the room and a pack of wolf emerged from the other tunnels,” Ricky took a deep, harsh breath, “they surrounded us and we put our backs together to avoid surprises, I asked Mike if he had any weapons and he said he always brought his switchblade with him and an extra knife for good measure. He reached slowly into his pocket and pulled it out then gave it to me. We got into a lunging stance and the wolves circled us,”
Ricky’s muscles tense to the point Joe and Cheryl can see them flex through his jacket.
“The standoff lasted about a minute,” Ricky continues, “the wolves circling like they had all the time in the world. Just when the wolves were about to attack, I saw a shadow, more like a ghost, really. It was a guy about five-ten, maybe a hundred-forty pounds with a long, grey beard and a hair down to his shoulders with nothing on top. He had steel gray eyes and calm expression, wrinkles littered all over his face making him look tired and worn out. He disappeared in smoke and the wolves attacked, we fought them off as best we could; I managed to kill two and Mike got one but two more were on him in a matter of seconds. I went to save him, but one wolf pounced on me–causing me to drop the knife–and started chomping at me, the only thing between his teeth and my throat was my hand around its neck. I reached for the knife and managed to get it and sliced its throat open then threw it off me. By the time I got up and tried to get to Mike the wolves were already walking away and he was dead, mangled and scratched up, body ripped open and devoured from the inside, throat was torn open and blood. . . so much blood. . .”
Cheryl put her hands over her mouth in terror as tears fell from her face, her legs went weak and the world seemed to shatter around her. Cheryl enters a catatonic state and becomes completely still, her mind trying to process but at the same time deny the story Ricky just told. Joe sits in silence and contemplates their next move and, considering Mike’s untimely death, which one of them is next. The silence is deafening, even the temperature seems warm compared to the atmosphere and mood filling the room. Joe looks into the gray sky and sees the wolf again, this time with blood on its snout and fur. His mouth gapes and his eyes widen, Ricky looks over at Joe then turns his head to where Joe is gazing and sees the wolf. Cheryl remains in her catatonic state. The wolf looks at Ricky with a cold, indifferent expression, its snow-white eyes gazing into Ricky’s soul and devouring the essence of his being. The wolf’s ears shoot up again and it leaves to investigate a sound in the distance.
Joe and Ricky look at each other and realize that one of them is next.
After three minutes Joe finally gets up and stretches, focusing on his groin. Ricky turns and faces the two revealing three slashes on his cheek and a cut on his left hand–still holding the knife in a death grip, the blood on it dried and sticky. Cheryl remains in her frozen state when Ricky puts away the knife and walks up to her then sits beside her on the boulder; he puts an arm around her head slumps onto his shoulders and she closes her eyes, two final tears falling from her cheeks as the dam seals itself up.
Joe walks over and he and Ricky lock eyes then look at the tunnels. The darkness within them indifferent to their sorrow and demanding another sacrifice. The raspy whoosh of the wind fills the cave and snowflakes start to fall again, trickling to the ground at first but picking up gradually as the sky becomes paper white.
“If we don’t wanna be buried in snow,” Joe says, “we better get a move on.”
“Yeah,” Ricky says and helps Cheryl up when he stands.
“Want me to do it?” Joe asks.
“Na,” Ricky chuckles harshly, “your nuts have taken enough of a beating,”
Ricky stands in front of Cheryl, both hands on her shoulders, and cups her face–lifting her chin up. She doesn’t look at Ricky but looks beyond him, at the tunnel he came out of, at all three of them. Ricky sighs and then slaps Cheryl; her right foot comes up reflexively and kicks him in the groin and he goes down as Joe did. Cheryl puts a hand on her face and snaps out of the trance like she’s just emerged from underwater.
“Welcome to earth,” Joe says, watching Ricky writhe in pain, “where bad shit happens and people you care about die.”
So, it wasn’t some sick dream, Cheryl thinks when she realizes it’s just the three of them, Mike’s dead. Ricky rolls over on his back and sprawls out on the ground, breathing hard. After three deep breaths he gets up and looks at Cheryl, his eyes asking are you alright? Her eyes answer do I look like I’m okay? Joe walks toward one of the tunnels and stands in front of it, his expression calm and serene despite the circumstances.
“Mike’s dead,” Joe says, “and we can’t go back.” He folds his arms across his chest, “all three of us may make it, maybe none of us will make it. But,” Joe continues, “whoever makes it, don’t bother trying to go back. Save yourself.”
“Then you better hope I don’t make it,” Cheryl says, “because if I do, and I feel like one of you is alive. . .”
“You’re coming back,” Joe finishes, “I don’t know if that makes you a better person or just stupid,” he continues, “even so, wouldn’t trade you guys for the world.” A faint smile touches the corner of his lips, “even Mike.”
Ricky looks at Cheryl and she meets his eyes which say she’s ready and they walk up to the tunnels and stand in front of them, expressions unreadable.
They all gaze into the darkness then walk in.
Cheryl is the first to emerge, she looks to her left and sees only one tunnel then looks ahead and sees two more along with six boulders that surround an underwater cavern which emanates an emerald green light. Cheryl walks to the nearest boulder and sits, as soon as her bottom touches the boulder a bubbling comes from the cavern and she jumps up. The water begins to boil and turns to steam which thickens into smoke and ascends, taking the shape of a human. Cheryl’s mouth is agape with terror and fascination, her heart pounds like a savage prisoner in her chest and her legs become weak and wobbly. She looks for support but there is none and her legs give out underneath her and she lands on her bottom–hard. She can’t avert her eyes as the smoke then solidifies into a person and stands before her.
Her fear freezes her stiff.
The person before her is a man about five-foot-ten with a full, grey beard and hair down to his shoulders, receded on top, wearing a standard black sixteenth-century suit with a black leather belt holding up his trousers. He looks at Cheryl with steel blue eyes–littered with wrinkles and crow’s feet–that see in her, through her. She meets his gaze and can’t turn away, she recalls Ricky’s description and realizes this is the man he was talking about, the man who sicked the wolves on him and Mike. . .
The water continues boiling and turns to steam then to smoke and then solidifies into the shape of wolves that stand alongside him. The wolves gaze into Cheryl–who’s become no more than a fear-carved statue–with gray eyes that have the slightest shade of blue and begin walking toward her. She wants to run, the force of self-preservation and the need to survive surge through her veins, adrenaline begins pumping, urging her to move, to do something but to no avail. The deadly and terrifying grip fear has over her heart renders her immobile as they sniff her boots, legs, coat, face and neck, and lastly her hair. The wolves’ fur against her skin is smooth and silky, almost soothing and their noses against her neck have a leathery feel to them, almost like a jacket.
They stop sniffing and make their way back to Wolfgang and he pets them, stroking their heads ever so tenderly. The wolves sit and close their eyes and it is now Wolfgang that walks over to Cheryl, he extends his hands and gazes at her with penetrating steel blue eyes. No malice, no hatred, no murderous intent.
The fear loosens its grip and leaves her body in the face of Wolfgang’s disarming gaze and she takes his hand, letting him help her up.
The sound of footsteps fills the room and Wolfgang, Cheryl, and the wolves’ attention snap in its direction. The rhythm of the footsteps indicates someone running and the fear that’d just left Cheryl comes back with a vengeance until Wolfgang places a hand on her shoulder and it leaves her again, he points to the tunnel as if telling her to look closer and she does. The silhouette in the distance reveals itself gradually first showing a blue jacket, then black jeans and black snow boots and Cheryl realizes who it is even before the face appears. . .
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