Becoming a Monster
A Story by Nace Phlaux
Strange shadows danced on the yellow walls of the cavern as Hoalun’s torch graced the stalagmites and stalactites with their first light in centuries. The cold fluttered and lanced through the treasure-hunter’s garments like an unwanted lover’s shocking caress when he entered, but the chill steadied as he tiptoed over the cracked paths of the earthen chamber. Pools of crystal-clear water reflected the flames, and somewhere in the distance, the drip of water droplets echoed in a constant beat.
After a certain length of narrow path drove deeper into the ground, the opening in the stone widened into an enormous chamber where Hoalun found a preserved campsite. A circle of rocks surrounded the charred remains of wood, and some remaining cracked sticks indicated there had once been a stove built over the center of the fire pit. A natural recess a few steps away, higher than a man’s head, held weathered pelts that could have been used as bedding for some resident long since forgotten. No tools remained, having been stolen by scavengers or demolished by the hands of time.
Before taking the path beyond the chamber, Hoalun stopped to look through his satchel, digging into the bag of tools and charms until his fingers found what looked like a simple glass globe. With a flick of his wrist, the globe spun faster and faster on the yellow stone floor, and a faint light glowed from its center. That glow increased, and the globe multiplied, each sphere of light rolling out to the edges of the cave and duplicating again. Soon, the entire cavern was awash in a soft luminescence, and the adventurer put out his torch, humming as he continued through the cave in a slight crouch.
At the end of a deep descent, an unnatural wall separated the end of the path from a chasm that had no visible bottom. The treasure-hunter began to throw a globe into the unknown depths, but stopped himself, choosing a rock instead. After a short wait, the echo of its landing told him the drop was too far for him or for glass spheres to survive. Sighing, he felt along the wall for any scratches, extrusions, or inscriptions, to no avail.
Hoalun took a step back, scratching his chin as he continued his tuneless hum—until something gave under his foot and a click reverberated throughout the chilly expanse. Stones within the wall shifted, revealing a small space along the top. Rifling through his satchel again, the adventurer pulled out the map that had brought him to the caverns and unwrapped the brittle parchment to reveal a seemingly matching cube inscribed with runes. With no clue as to which side should face what direction, he chose his favorite of the unknown symbols and inserted that side down into the hole, pounding the cube into the snug space until its edge was flush with the rest.
A great rumbling shook the cavern, knocking the man to the ground, and when he looked up, a stone room had begun to lower from the ceiling beyond the wall, filling the empty chasm. After some time, an opening appeared in the column of stone that continued to lower, displaying more of the room built within, until its floor was even with the top of the wall. The rumbling ended shortly after the slab stopped shifting. Hoalun stood up, brushing off the dust and pebbles that had landed on him as he cowered on the ground.
Cautiously, he approached the entrance to the enclosure, brushing the rocks on the floor and sides before hopping onto the wall. Scoffing at his own stupidity, he jumped down again for some spheres and cast them across the floor, checking it for solidity and lack of traps. Inside the small room before him, all he could see was a rock formation shaped roughly like a human body. No treasures hung from the figure, as scribbled notations on the map had hinted, and try as he might, no amount of stomping on the ground yielded any more triggers.
Dejected, sore from kicking and pushing every stone in the hope of setting off another transformation, the weary adventurer made his way back towards the entrance of the cavern. Nearing the large chamber again, his foot caught on a chunk of stone, knocking him to the ground and slamming his lower jaw into the upper part of his skull. He shook the pain off as best he could, looking around to allow his eyes to recover focus. Something off to the side, embedded in the rocks beside the path, flashed in his peripheral vision, inspiring the treasure-hunter to crawl toward the glint.
Hoalun advanced on his hands and knees towards the glimmer, finding a band of green iron that could have been a small crown for a child, an armlet, a bracelet for an ogre, or perhaps a ring for something he preferred not to imagine. Once inside the chamber, the additional light yielded little information. No inscriptions, no vibrations suggested any power or worth, and the fact it was found discarded implied it might not be worth taking anyhow.
The young adventurer slid the band up his arm until it fit snugly on his bicep and continued toward the exit. Intense pain stopped him after a single step, with what felt like sharp fangs gnawing into his skin from the iron circle. His flesh distorted and swelled, bubbling over the band, then turning a dark grey before hardening into stone. Falling to his knees, Hoalun screamed into the expanse, his pain echoing throughout the cavern.
As the agony doubled, overtaking his vision, the treasure-hunter writhed on the cold slab of rock and reached for the exit, hoping blindly that someone would hear his cries of desperation. Those cries turned hoarse as he felt his deformed arm, engorged, hardening into something like the surrounding formations. With his other hand, he scratched at the place where the band should have been, but his nails did nothing to the impervious flesh. Exhausted by anguish, he collapsed, powerless to stop the transformation from overtaking the rest of his body.
* * * * *
Strange shadows danced on the yellow walls of the cavern as Syrell’s torch graced the stalagmites and stalactites with its light. The cold fluttered and lanced through the treasure-hunter’s garments like an unwanted lover’s shocking caress when he entered, but the chill grew steady as he tiptoed over the cracked paths of the earthen chamber. Pools of crystal-clear water reflected the flames, and somewhere in the distance, the drip of water droplets echoed in a constant beat.
After a certain length of narrow path drove deeper into the ground, the opening in the stone widened into an enormous chamber where Syrell found a recent campsite. A circle of rocks surrounded the glowing embers of a campfire, a stove with a kettle resting over the center of the fire pit. A natural recess a few steps away, higher than a man’s head, held fresh pelts fashioned into a bed and shelter. Opened lockets and small portraits hung on the shelter’s walls, surrounding whoever slept there with smiling faces.
Before taking the path beyond the chamber, Syrell stopped to look through his satchel, digging into the bag of tools and charms until his fingers found a small bundle of white plant roots. Once the edges were ignited with his torch, three flaming wisps escaped and circled the adventurer, illuminating the room at least twice as well as the meager torch, and the adventurer put out his flambeau, whistling as he continued through the cave.
At the end of a deep descent, an unnatural wall separated the end of the path from a chasm that had no visible bottom. Scattered piles of coins and jewels inspired the treasure-hunter to pull out a small coin purse from his satchel, enchanted to carry more than its original design could hold, gathering what he could before the bag became too difficult to carry. As he scooped up the treasure, something gave under his foot, and a click reverberated throughout the chilly expanse. Stones within the wall shifted, revealing a small opening along the top, and the adventurer slid the cube he’d purchased—along with the map to the cavern—into position.
Syrell crouched low and steadied himself against a wall as a great rumbling shook the cavern. A stone room lowered from the ceiling beyond the wall, filling the chasm, more treasures vibrating out and over the edge as it descended. The young adventurer had to stop himself from running to the edge, to gather the falling wealth as it dropped from above, yet as the rest of the room came into view, he realized the coins and jewels were nothing compared to the true riches the cavern held.
Coins from various nations and glass globes emitting light covered the floor of the room while broken, battered blades and spears lined the walls. Torches engulfed in purple flames hung in the corners, helping to show a rock formation on the opposite side of the entrance, adorned with several vests and sashes, encircled carelessly by piles of trinkets and bags. A noise rhythmically crescendoed from a pile of treasure until a red flare burst out, exploding against the ceiling. Deep scorch marks indicated the explosions had occurred countless times before.
The treasure-hunter analyzed the contents of the room, unsure where to begin. A growl in the distance distracted him until another flare flashed, bringing him back to the here and now. Some digging found chained boxes buried beneath the jewels, and in the purple light of the chamber, the locks appeared to be sealed shut by acid. Another growl snarled closer, but a gauntlet, with a dial with what might have been numbers engraved into its back, had captured his attention.
Absentmindedly, he rummaged through his satchel, pulling out a small gemstone and rubbing it clockwise until a shield formed a globe of energy around him and his wisps. The air’s scent turned from a biting dryness of the cold expanse to that of the burning plants of the enchanted flames as his fingers wrapped around the exposed fingers of the glove. Once pulled from its home, the gauntlet’s removal triggered the collapse of its pile, revealing a trio of glass containers, each holding a differently-colored vial. Syrell reached for the green one when a hoarse voice behind him said, “Don’t touch that if you value your internal organs.”
The adventurer turned back to find a tall shadow at the entrance ripping something off its leather sash and throwing it into the enclosure; thick red smoke poured from the object once it had landed on the floor. Despite taking in a deep gasp of breath once he had seen the plume, eventually it had to be replaced, and the smoke overcame the treasure-hunter, sending him into a deep slumber.
“Goodnight, dirty thief,” was the last he heard, before slipping into darkness.