Descent into Darkness
by John H. Dromey
Although exigent circumstances sometimes required her to travel, Agatha Blake was not overly fond of flying. Then again, she wasn’t exactly a homebody who thrived on doing household chores, either. That’s why, more often than not when she set out on a journey, she was quite content to leave her broom unattended in a dark corner of her closet.
Persuaded by the entreaties of two distraught families, Agatha had agreed—albeit with a great deal of reluctance on her part—to follow in the footsteps of a honeymooning couple who had disappeared from the face of the earth. She had to go to great lengths, quite literally, before she could begin the investigation in earnest.
Because Agatha’s intended destination was a continent away, her travel choices were limited. A commercial flight was the logical way to go. The first leg of her journey required her to board an airplane for a transoceanic flight, so Agatha left her animal familiar at home.
Removing her high-button shoes in a busy airport was a chore. Putting them back on again proved to be a practical impossibility after her button hook was confiscated and unceremoniously tossed into a tray full of penknives, nail clippers, and other potential weapons.
The discovery of a mysterious cloudy liquid in an unlabeled bottle inside her carry-on luggage could have delayed or prevented her departure, but instead, the baggage inspector was curious enough to remove the cap and smell the contents. Wrinkling his nose, he said to a colleague, “Hey, Lucille, get a whiff of this.” To her immediate delight and later regret, Lucille complied.
From that moment on, the two inspectors had eyes only for each other. They were far too distracted to notice what any of the potential passengers were doing. Their supervisor likewise had a very singular focus when he showed up a short time later to reprimand his two underlings for their inappropriate public display of affection.
Agatha slipped by them in her stocking feet and boarded the plane.
Deprived of the powerful homebrewed love potion which she had intended to barter for goods and services upon reaching her destination, Agatha realized she’d have to make yet another concession to the ways of the modern world. Soon after the plane touched down, she used the credit card supplied by her clients to obtain a generous amount of local currency. She bought some food, a wristwatch, and a train ticket.
The rail line ended at the foot of the mountain, where the bus line began. After a jolting ride in a dilapidated tour bus, Agatha reached the city and posed as a naive and vulnerable tourist.
She wandered along cobblestone streets and through broad alleys lined with market stalls, stopping now and then to examine the colorful merchandise on display. Each time she lifted her left arm, the long sleeve of her cloak slid down just far enough to expose her glittery new watch. On those occasions, she was approached by a number of men offering to show her the sights for fees that far exceeded the amounts listed in the travel brochure. Before engaging their services, Agatha asked their help in setting her wristwatch to the correct local time. For most of the would-be guides, that was a deal-breaker.
Raoul, a soft-spoken, well-dressed young man, proved to be the exception. He engaged Agatha in small talk and quoted a reasonable sum in exchange for taking her on an unforgettable tour of the seldom-seen sections of the city. Her well-rehearsed ploy with her wristwatch did not deter him in the least. Whether he thought she was a poseur or simply a gullible shopper was not clear, but when he saw the faux-designer timepiece up close, Raoul lowered his asking price for the tour.
Agatha accepted his terms and paid the modest fee in advance. Raoul outlined some basic ground rules, then guided her through a maze of shacks and tumbledown houses to a nondescript but well-maintained building the size of a gardener’s storage shed. Inside, he unlocked an ancient door and led Agatha deep down a long stone passageway.
The roughhewn tunnel, sloping ever downward through the bedrock, gradually began to shrank to single-file breadth. Raoul suggested to Agatha that they trade places, successfully employing the same power of persuasion that made him stand out from the ragtag crowd of beggars in the marketplace.
“I do not wish to stand in your way, milady,” he said, in only slightly-accented English. “The entrance to the mystical chamber is near and you should fully experience the joy of discovery.”
She acquiesced without protesting, so the guide handed her his lantern and she took the lead.
A short while later, Agatha would gladly have forgone the fleeting pleasure of discovery in exchange for a flamethrower or even an elephant gun, although discharging the latter in that confined space could have caused serious sonic repercussions.
The guardian of the portal was wide awake, and contrary to the laws of nature, appeared to be getting wider by the nanosecond. The cobra’s cowl threatened to fill the upper portion of the constricted passageway. Agatha found herself face-to-face with the flaring menace. Standing in a narrow passageway blocked by the belligerent guardian, she could not move forward.
Time stood still.
Agatha took pride in being fearless, or else she would have been quaking in her high-button boots. Although the tunnel was cramped and poorly lit, Agatha was not disoriented. She did not suffer from claustrophobia, nor was she afraid of the dark.
With both feet planted firmly on the stony floor of the tunnel, her journey of discovery had come to a halt. Had her descent into darkness brought her any closer to finding a plausible explanation for the inexplicable disappearance of so many tourists and residents of the isolated mountaintop city far above her? Would she soon join the ranks of the disappeared? Had she perhaps engaged a treacherous guide who was even now preparing to plunge a dagger into her back?
Her immediate future was fraught with peril, and her fear was an uncharacteristic and troubling response on her part. Accustomed to dealing with the mundane, could it be she harbored a deep-seated fear of the unknown? She had to admit that it was a possibility.
What good is a sorceress without a sword? She was about to find out. She was not entirely defenseless, of course, as long as she kept her wits about her.
Agatha lifted her flickering lantern as high as she could to divert the preternaturally large snake’s attention. At the same time, she waggled the fingers of her other hand and murmured, “Thamnophis sirtalis.”
Was it possible she was dealing with an illusion? The answer came in the form of a gritty sound of scales scraping the stone ceiling. The serpent was all too real, and so was the danger. Agatha’s attempt to change the deadly reptile into a harmless garter snake had failed miserably. Was it because the target reptile was not indigenous to this hemisphere? No, the explanation was much simpler: the creature she faced was immune to her magic.
The witch held her free hand behind her back and waggled her fingers again while subvocalizing a different incantation.
Almost immediately, she heard a metallic clink, presumably the sound of a flashlight hitting the floor. Apparently, Raoul’s earlier admonition that no modern lighting devices were allowed in the cavern did not apply to him.
In his transformed state, the guide no longer had opposable thumbs, only four feet with toes and claws. In his new form, Raoul made no attempt to flee. On the contrary, he willingly advanced toward the writhing, hissing cobra.
Agatha was in the animal’s way, so she hiked up her skirt and set her feet wide apart, allowing the oversized mongoose to pass between her legs. The carnivorous quadruped rushed forward and took a bite out of the cobra’s exposed underbelly. The confined space prevented the snake from striking back.
After the mongoose’s second strike, the cobra retreated. The mongoose pursued it. Agatha followed close behind, first picking up the guide’s flashlight and slipping it into her pocket.
The snake retracted its hood for a split second as it slithered back through the narrow portal into its lair. The light had dimmed, but the enthusiasm of the newly-formed mongoose persisted. It followed the cobra into the murky interior of the cavernous chamber.
Agatha hesitated at the threshold. A serpentine rune was carved into the lintel. Was it a warning posted in ages past to keep out trespassers? If so, its placement was curiously deep in the tunnel, since the slithery guardian had no compunctions about crossing the demarcation line. Neither did Agatha.
She held the lantern at arm’s length to light her way and followed the sounds of battle—a curious crunching that persisted even when there was no direct contact between the combatants. Agatha took two paces into the chamber and the sound intensified. The crunching noise surrounded her. What was its source?
Agatha looked down to see that the cave floor was littered with ancient skeletons in various stages of decay. Some of the bones crumbled to an ivory powder with any touch more substantial than an exhaled breath; others retained enough physical integrity to account for the crunching that continued to disturb the otherwise tomblike stillness of the cavern. Apparently the serpent, whose stomach acid could dissolve bones, hadn’t needed to consume every intruder.
Although the light projected from the kerosene lantern was inadequate to reveal sinuous movements of the cobra and the darting advances and strategic retreats of the mongoose, there was an additional greenish glow emanating from isolated sections of the cave walls. The eerie illumination was strong enough to outline the shadowy antagonists.
The witch watched and waited.
The cobra was noticeably slower in responding to the unrelenting attacks by the mongoose. Was it an exercise in caution or a sign of weakness? Potentially deadly strikes with venom-dripping fangs missed their intended target by ever-increasing margins.
Agatha took the opportunity to do some exploring along the cave walls farthest from the fighting creatures. At a couple of locations, she lingered for a closer look. To relieve the semidarkness, she conjured brilliant flashes of light. The streaks of artificial lightning were at most a minor distraction for the other occupants of the chamber; their struggle continued unabated.
Her curiosity satisfied, Agatha returned to the portal to await the winner should the guide prove victorious, or flee if the serpent somehow managed to triumph, against all odds.
Eventually the cobra lowered its wobbling head and rolled over on its back, dead. The fight was over. The mongoose backed away. Agatha waited until the winning animal was close to the entrance before she waggled her outstretched hand.
After restoring the guide to human form, Agatha held up the lantern to look for any noticeable wounds. She motioned with her index finger for the man to turn around slowly.
Agatha saw no sign of injury, but noticed a detail about the guide she’d missed earlier: he had a serpentine tattoo on the back of his neck that closely resembled the rune above the portal to the cave.
“You knew what danger lay in wait for anyone who entered here,” she said, “but you gave me no warning.”
The guide turned to face her. “You’re a witch. You had no need of a warning,” he said.
Agatha shrugged. “There was no honeymooning couple who disappeared, was there? You’re the one who hired me.”
“My family did,” Raoul said. “Of course, many people have fallen victim to the guardian through the years. Some of them might have been married recently.”
“What were they seeking down here?”
“The precious stones embedded in the wall of the cave.”
“How do you know they’re any more valuable than colored glass?”
“They must be.”
Agatha chose to pursue the matter. “Let’s take one with us and have it appraised,” she said. “Surely I’m entitled to a souvenir.”
“I brought no tools with me.”
“There are some loose rocks on the floor of the cave. We can use one of them to chip a sample off a glowing outcrop.”
After they chipped off a small stone, Agatha insisted that Raoul carry it. On the way out, he led the way, using the stone to light the tunnel. Agatha followed with the lantern.
When Raoul reached the place of his initial metamorphosis, he paused long enough to put his clothes back on. Agatha noticed the man was trembling, and she suspected his shivering had nothing to do with his nakedness in the cool underground air. He was coming down from an adrenaline high, overwhelmed by the full realization of what he’d just done. It was his turn to experience fear.
As soon as Raoul finished dressing, the two of them resumed their upward journey, but they had only walked a few paces when the guide stopped abruptly. Agatha nearly bumped into him.
“The stone’s stopped glowing,” Raoul said. “What have you done to it?”
“I assure you, I did nothing. I’m unable to manipulate inorganic matter.”
They examined the stone by the light of the lantern. It was an ordinary rock.
“It never left my hand,” the guide said. “What strange magic is at work here? Why did my family serve as custodians of the contents of the cave for untold generations if there was nothing of value here?”
“I’m also curious,” Agatha said. “Doesn’t your tattoo offer you immunity from snake venom?”
“It does,” Raoul said, “but only while I’m outside of the chamber. My ancestors learned that lesson at great cost. We wanted to find someone who could enter the secret storage area without harm. You and I are the first ones to do that within living memory, and it was all for naught, unless you learned something of interest or value.”
Before Agatha could comment, the fuel in the lantern ran out. Without saying a word, she drew the flashlight out of her pocket, switched it on, and handed it to Raoul. He was content to keep his thoughts to himself as they trudged upward and outward through the narrow tunnel.
Agatha was equally taciturn. Although she was something of an expert on the subject of enchantments, the witch saw no profit in resuming their last conversation. What was inside the cave that was worth guarding? Although she was confident she knew the answer to that question, she saw no reason to enlighten the benighted fellow who’d knowingly led her into danger. After being offered as a human sacrifice, Agatha no longer felt any sense of loyalty or obligation to the guide or his treacherous family who’d haggled over her fee but never once mentioned the risk she’d be taking to earn it.
She may have been old-fashioned in many ways, but Agatha did not hesitate to employ electronic wizardry when it suited her purpose. The digital camera in her cloak pocket preserved a high-resolution record of two important discoveries she’d made while underground.
She was not surprised and only mildly disappointed to have found an empty stone vault. The treasure had likely been spent or relocated long ago by the ancient architects of the enchanted chamber. Other than providing illumination, the glowing stones had no intrinsic value.
Of far greater interest was the detailed map etched into the sheer stone wall. The map’s legend was in an archaic handwriting that Agatha could not identify, much less translate. Even so, her intuition, perhaps reinforced by her limited psychic powers, convinced her that the map had potential value. Perhaps it could pinpoint the primal source of the treasure from long ago. Why else had the otherwise barren chamber been so closely guarded through the centuries?
Finding someone other than the hereditary guardians of the cavern who could decipher a message written in a long-dead language might take weeks or months.
In the meantime, if word got out that the threat posed by the giant serpent had been eliminated, the underground chamber would be open to further exploration by anyone. It would better suit her purposes if she could find some way to delay the dissemination of that news. With that possibility in mind, Agatha had some parting words for Raoul.
“How many offspring do you suppose that snake left behind?”
Copyright © 2014 John H. Dromey