Skip to content

Second Saturday Stories Presents Gifted Chapter 6: The Labyrinth

The squealing and screaming of the bats was overpowering. My ears rang and vision began to blur. The way ahead split, went out of focus, back in. My legs buckled as I was crushed under the mass growing from my back and shoulders like some damnable tumour. The stench and sound was maddening. Desperate for relief I began colliding with the walls on either side of me trying in vain to shed the growth of bats.
Second Saturday Stories Stock Image
Second Saturday Stories Title Image

Following the blood trail led directly under the skylight in the cave. A mass of stars winked down at me and I was forced to confront the fact that I did not recognize the night’s sky. Confusion laced my brows together as I searched in vain for any familiar constellation.  

I forced myself to stare at the bloodied mass of pulp that had once been Garmin. I don’t know when exactly my lust for the hunt began to fade, but I suspect it was at that  moment, looking at what my ambition and drive resulted in. I shut his eyes against any further horror that may befall him. Hitching my pack, I rolled my shoulders, unable to find a comfortable way to carry it. my arms burned as I shifted the Kar98k from one hand to the other, but I dared not sling it on my back out of fear that I would be too late to draw it if some other hellish creature were to assault me in the dark. 

The lantern was equally as hard to carry, but as the trail led into a building and the darkness enveloped me, I was glad for the light it threw, scarce as it was. 

In the lantern’s glow the pink blood was a stark contrast from first the white of the snow, and then the darkness within the dwelling. Small collections of bubbles pooled in it and relief flooded through me at the sign of a lung shot. This would normally be a reason to celebrate, but I suspected what should have been a short  track would likely lead me to the very gates of hell itself, and I wasn’t far off. 

The snow stopped shortly after the threshold. It was as if the elements themselves knew to avoid the darkness. inside I saw much of the same culture that was present in the dwelling Garmin and I camped in. Broken pottery, dried herbs, the dust sat undisturbed save for the string of paw prints threading through it. Scattered gobs of lung blood were mingled within the prints. Try as I might I couldn’t get the iron reek of blood to leave my nostrils. I moved to a smear where the wolf brushed against a wall. It was my first real scope of the size of the creature, the smear measured about as high as my rib cage. I scanned the darkness ahead for any sign of those crimson eyes. 

The tracks led up a flight of rough cut stairs and into a room that seemed to be a dead end. It wasn’t until I explored the shadows that I found a swatch of tattered fabric covering a hole. With my pack on I would never fit through. I sorted through it, taking the flare gun and wrapping it in wax paper that had carried dried meat. I tucked it into my parka and reluctantly abandoned the rest. Entering the hole was as if entering an ice bath. My breath hitched, the tips of my ears stung with the bite of the cold and I feared I may lose them entirely. I was now navigating a cavern of rock cut directly into the cave system. 

As I hunched to my feet I caught a glimpse of a femur ahead. The girth of the wolf had crushed a section of it to dust that materialized into another paw print. Some flesh remained on the shin and my lantern began to shake as I realized it ended in a military issue boot. Once more I checked the chamber noting a bullet at the ready. The bolt slid back home with effort as I wiped my gloved hands on the legs of my trousers. In the darkness I could hear my breath rasping in and out of my nose. I gasped air into my mouth, feeling claustrophobic in the tight space, trying desperately to gain more oxygen. 

The cavern stretched around me. Above me stalactites clung to the cave ceiling as if rows of teeth followed me down a great yawning mouth. I came to an opening. Ahead of me the dust was littered with the blood and tracks of the animal I hunted. Cracks criss crossed the earth and crumbled piles of stone scattered among them. A skeleton stretched out from beneath a pile of stone. It’s arms reaching out to me as if in warning. I looked up but the ceiling gave no clues as to how the poor fool ended up meeting fate. Cautiously I stepped where the wolf stepped. I felt as if our fates were entwined, separated only by a thin barrier of time. The prints led under a small pile of rocks too tight to squeeze through. I changed course, and felt a depression sink beneath my heel. The cave began to shudder. I leapt clear of  the first stalactite when it fell. As it collided with the ground I pressed my hands to my ears. The pulse of blood within me hammered through my temples and I felt as if the cave itself would descend further into the bowels of the earth. But I also felt my lungs take in more air that they had since I started my journey. My shoulders relaxed. I lowered my hands. The weight of the lantern and rifle seemed to lessen. I strolled through the chaos of tumbling rocks content in the knowledge that I would be unharmed. I knew Lucian, that’s the queer thing. I knew where the rocks would fall and I avoided them as easily as if they were no more than a minor inconvenience. It is a feeling I have come to know well, but at that moment the sudden serenity was jarring in its arrival, and gone just as fast. 

As I emerged from the rubble behind me, the tracks led further into the cave system. Above me the ceiling suddenly began to shift. Miniscule squeaks turned to shrieks and I watched with mouth agape as legions of bats began flooding into the chamber. Their eyes reflected the flickering fire light and I saw nothing but indifference in their black depths. when the first one launched itself at me I thought it would pull up at the last moment, no more than a gesture of threat. But as it collided with me I felt needle sharp teeth bore into my scalp. Revulsion rippled through me as I thought of the unknown parasites now swimming through my blood. Distantly I remembered the crescent blade of the Shaman and how the wound had healed, I wondered if I would be so lucky this time. Any further thoughts were blotted out as the next infernal creature collided with me. 

The squealing and screaming of the bats was overpowering. My ears rang and vision began to blur. The way ahead split, went out of focus, back in. My legs buckled as I was crushed under the mass growing from my back and shoulders like some damnable tumour. The stench and sound was maddening. Desperate for relief I began colliding with the walls on either side of me trying in vain to shed the growth of bats. Without any clear direction I took off in a run, crushing bodies under my boots and sliding through the blood and entrails. 

I rolled off a wall and slipped on a small brown body, my foot slid out from under me and I suddenly felt suspended as the cave floor dropped out from under me. I felt this only for a moment before gravity took me once more and I slammed into the earth. I heard a sickening crunch beneath me and took a grim satisfaction in knowing it was part of the mass shaking from me. My shoulder dug into the earth, then my hip. I realized dimly I was tumbling down a slope when I was hit by a sudden and shocking icy blast that took my breath away. 

I had tumbled into a subterranean stream. The current pushed me ever onward while the weight of my gear and rifle threatened to drag me beneath the surface. I flailed against the remaining bats on me and managed to knock them loose. The ice water coursing over me filled the tiny cuts and ignited my skin in a heat of agony. 

I broke the surface and fought hard, kicking my legs until they burned from excretion. I made it to the other side of the stream and hauled myself up once more to solid earth. I lay on my back wheezing, my lantern a casualty of the stream, my rifle strap twisted into my right arm cutting the circulation off. The Kar98k was intact but waterlogged useless. 

I’ve never been more aware of my mortality than I was in that moment Lucian. Lying beneath the earth with no clear idea of where I was; Knowing that, if I were to pass, my bones would become additions to the casualties I had seen. My memory would fade, it would become a plaque on the wall of some hunting club. Men would mourn me, but only for my hunting trophies. They would smoke cigars and sip liqueur using me as a cautionary tale to the new blood, a ghost story to be told around the fireplace. I made a pact to whatever God could hear me that if I was spared I would renounce the hunt. I would devote my remaining years to the growth and prosperity of my family, giving up on chasing an ever evasive glory. 

At the time I felt it was God who headed my pleas, as the years have stretched on, and my Lucian how they have dragged, I am certain it was Lucifer himself who took me under his black wing. 

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I began to make out a faint green glow. Rolling to my stomach and climbing to my feet shakily I realized I was at the bottom of an embankment, and the glow was resonating from above. With nowhere else to go I wearily began the slow accent. As I climbed my limbs began to cramp, first my arms, then my legs, at one point my foot curved uncomfortably in on itself and I had to stifle a cry of pain. If I stopped for too long I felt the push of the slope threatening to send me back down. The rushing gurgle of the water behind me was an ever pressing threat that helped me shake out the cramps and push on. 

I finally crested the top of the embankment and stumbled toward the light source, the butt of my rifle dragging behind me snaking a line in the sand. I looked behind me at one point to see it slice through one of the massive paw prints. I stopped dead. I couldn’t tell how old the track was but I didn’t have to examine it for long before  a low howl erupted from in front of me. I pushed beyond a cave in, climbing gingerly to avoid a twisted ankle, and came to a nexus in the cave system. 

Tunnels twisted in every direction from the central hub. Littered around me were countless human bones. Some ancient and yellow, others shone a brilliant and glossy white in the darkness, bits of german and russian army uniforms still clinging to them. Amongst the gore whole torsos and pelvises were strewn, still with most of the garb they would have brought into battle. 

The reek of death was insufferable, but the sting of urine and feces was enough to make me gag. In the darkness ringing the eerie green glow I saw tiny pinpricks of light reflecting off multiple sets of eyes. I was in the wolf’s den, and the whole pack was in stunned stillness as the Shaman sat in the middle, bent over the white wolf murmuring a prayer of some kind while the firelight blazed with strong green flames. 

As if sensing my presence, the Shaman spun around at my arrival. It held a sword with a twisted blade. With impossible speed the Shaman rushed me, a savage shriek spewing from beneath the yellowed stag skull it wore. I watched as its bare feet threw sand from the cave floor, the animal pelt billowing behind it reminded me of a giant  bat. It was that imagery that shook me from the paralysis and through instinct I acted. Scooping a handful of sand I pitched it as best I could at the eye holes of the skull. The Shaman broke its approach with another shriek and disappeared into the darkness. A quick glance at the wolf told me it would be no threat, but in that moment I saw it for what it was, a tool of the Shaman. It was one more deception to exhaust me and lower my guard. Had the Shaman planned this all along, or was this its last desperate act to end the interlopers to its land? 

I was suddenly gripped in a choke hold. The reek of the Shaman polluted my senses and as its skin touched mine I felt a fevered heat radiating off of it. As its fingers closed around my neck I fell to the dirt, overcome by visions. 

I saw a German officer fleeing the wolves. He ran into the black chapel. From there the vision blurred and when it refocused he became the hollowed out corpse I saw, the bloody footprints leading into the bowels of the chapel directly to the shaman. 

The vision blurred again and I watched a woman carrying a child to the village Garmin, Henderson, and I had landed at. She was crying. She described the shame of a bastard child, of what had been forced upon her. The Shaman took the child. There was no other place for it. 

The vision blurred again and I saw the Shaman huddled over the fire in the dwelling Garmin and I found it in. The fire spit and flames licked the wood greedily. The Shaman sat in a meditative state first at the fire, then to the ceiling above. At once the sound of a helicopter filled the hut. From there the edges of my vision began to turn white, and the vision started to dissipate. 

I returned to my senses to find the Shaman shrieking over me, its thumbs jammed into my windpipe. I once more felt the calm that enveloped me as the cave crashed around me. I reached into the soft sand with my right hand and felt the heft of a rifle barrel. A few inches from it my hand closed around a bayonet and I hoisted it from the cave floor. A wrenching tear screamed through my fatigued muscles as I threw all of my strength into my arm. In an explosion of exertion that cut through the fugue of the Shaman’s bizarre ability I slashed the blade across its bare chest. The Shaman writhed in pain and once again retreated to the darkness across the cave. I looked to my right at the corpse of the German officer I had snatched the bayonet from and saw a stick grenade tucked into its belt. I scooped the explosive up and yanked the base cap, sending the stick hurtling into the darkness after the Shaman. 

The seconds crawled by. I scanned the shadows around me, never staying focused on one for longer than a few seconds. I spun around. The chants of the Shaman seemed to echo around me. I spun again sure I would see it standing there, its stag skull grinning with malice while it ran me through with its blade. Finally a brilliant flash lit up the cave,  and an explosion rattled my teeth off of one another. Ahead of me, the night sky flooded in along with a wailing winter wind. In the light of the full moon I caught sight of the Shaman rushing me, one arm a gore streaked stump beyond the elbow, its body bathed in blood.

I ran to meet it. My arm straight ahead of me as I charged. I felt the blade nic a rib as the Shaman crashed into me, both of us tumbling backward. 

I waited to feel the grip of those bony fingers once more around my neck, but they never came. The Shaman lay a few feet from me, lifeless. The bayonet glinted in the moonlight as it lodged awkwardly in its chest. I examined the body and gave the bayonet a final twist before removing it. Beneath me the ground shook and I heard what sounded like distant thunder. As if still influenced by the visions the Shaman bestowed on me I knew it was the black chapel cavern falling in on itself. . 

In the moonlight the white wolf lay motionless, it too had succumbed to its wounds, though I felt infinitely more saddened by that fact. The rest of the pack had either scattered or died where they stood, emaciated and thin. The Shaman had robbed them of their vitality as it had the villagers. I resolved to leave the wolf there, to allow it to rest, but in my heart I couldn’t bear it to meet the same fate as Garmin. I had made the choice to take the shot, and I had to accept the consequences that came with it.  

The great wolf was too big to drag, try as I did to pull it from that cave. In the end I picked up the Shaman’s discarded blade and dispatched the head. I clutched it like a talisman as I stalked into the night air. The grenade blew a hole into the cave wall, and by the light of the moon I traversed a small ledge. The constellations were right and familiar again and I used the North Star as my compass. The trek was grueling. I shifted the head from hand to hand but fatigue threatened my grip. More than once when I stopped to rest I felt my head nod, my feet start to slip. I crunched an amphetamine from my pocket and it gave me more of a will to carry on. From the shadows a structure loomed once the path widened. My mouth was suddenly so dry I could barely swallow. 

The Shaman’s hut loomed in the moonlight. I had nowhere else to go,  I couldn't bear the thought of facing the crazed villagers, so I camped in the hut beneath the great tank cannon. I lit no fires, and I don’t think I slept. Instead I watched the eyes of that massive head, convinced they would blink at any moment. 

I waited out the long hours in that cold silence for what seemed like a lifetime. 

As the sun crested the peaks of the mountains it threw light into the hut. I took the chance to pilfer any supplies I could. The bone crib lay empty. A small shrine lay at the base of the cold fire, the crescent blade used to cut me, fabric from my trousers, and a collection of hair bundled into a crude doll were smeared with ash. I heard Garmin’s eerie warning then as if he spoke from beside me: 

“It said because you chose the wolf over the child, greed over compassion, you must now live as the mountain lives: Existing beneath a frozen world, never to be touched by the warmth. Everything around you will wither just as it does under these harsh conditions. ‘You will live unhurt’ that’s what it said, and from what I gather that’s what will remain your fate until ‘you succumb to the same cursed blood of the child you damned.’” 

My thoughts were broken by the heavy thump of a rotor motor. 

I grasped the wolf head and ran out into the dawn's light.White clouds streaked through the pink and blue sky, and despite my ordeal I couldn't help but smile at the expanse of sky above me. The thumping grew louder as I fished the flare gun from my jacket, praying that the wax paper I wrapped it in kept moisture out. 

The bristol was like a saviour as I caught sight of it. I took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. I heard a dry click as nothing happened. I ejected the useless flare as my stomach knotted in panic. I screamed at Henderson but the helicopter made no move to descend. I loaded a second flare and yanked the trigger. The explosion echoed off the rocks surrounding me as an arcing ball of light raced towards the helicopter. I threw the gun down and began waving and screaming myself hoarse for Henderson to see me. 

I fell to my knees, exhausted, finally winning out. I started coughing and hacking as my raw throat could scream nothing more. My legs shook as I staggered to my feet. I waved feebly but feared Henderson was gone. The pulse pounding in my ears began to overwhelm my senses. It wasn’t until the sun hit the metal belly and reflected into my eyes that I realized it was the Bristol descending.