19 Jun The Knoll
“The Knoll”Written by Heath Pfaff Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 15 minutes
“This doesn’t look safe.” I looked into the cave that cut into the side of the massive round hill. Above it, a tree had grown roots downward trying to fill up the void, but it had instead simply created a fanciful framing, like something out of a story that started with the words, “Once upon a time…”
“I never guaranteed it would be safe. I said it would be an ‘adventure’ and when was the last time you heard about a safe adventure?” Adam wasn’t exactly wrong, and I had been the one to say that I was bored.
“You also said you were going to show me a fairy knoll, and instead we are looking at a cave,” I pointed out. I grabbed the flashlight from my belt and checked to make sure it was in working order. Shining it into the cave, the beam of light traveled until it reached a dead end. The crazy number of lumens the thing was capable of was almost dazzling while looking into the darkness of the cave. I flipped it to a lower light level and snapped it to my shoulder.
“The cave goes into the knoll! Look, hills like this, these ones that seem perfectly round – like a bubble sitting on an otherwise flat area – are fairy knolls. Back when fairy creatures still wandered the forest…”
“I don’t think that ever happened, actually,” I interjected, which caused Adam to glare at me.
“Not all of us are as closed-minded as you are,” he informed me. “Anyway, the fairy royalty would build their kingdoms into these places, and they would come out to dance and party under the moonlight, then retreat back into the caves at dawn. The knolls were all interconnected, woven through passages that connected to similar hills all over the world.”
“So you’re hoping to find little fluttering fairies in these caves and not…um, bears? Because this is black bear territory.” Before he could answer I added, “Also, I’m certain we passed a few “Posted” signs on the way here. Adam, are we trespassing?
“That’s a weird way to say ‘adventuring’, my friend.” Adam looked sincerely disappointed in me. “Besides, it’s only really trespassing if you’re caught.”
“I don’t think that is a legally defensible argument.” I sighed and shrugged. I was in this thing, even if I was giving Adam a hard time. We’d been friends since we were in the second grade, and I’d always let Adam drag me into trouble. The thing was, the trouble always ended in great memories. “How did you even find this place?”
“I saw the hill from the road on bike and had to find a way to get in here. It took me ages to find a good route to hike in, but it was worth it. This cave is even better than the last one I found.” His excitement was barely contained.
“The last one was more of a hole in a rock with a bunch of spiders inside, so…” I threw my backpack on and turned to the cave.
“Every cave is just a hole in a rock with a bunch of spiders. I think that is literally the definition of a cave. Now come on, stop bitching and adventure!” Adam started off ahead of me, walking headlong into the unknown with his normal reckless abandon. I looked back to where I’d left my car hidden in some nearby brush. I missed it already.
Eventually though, as I always did, I came following after. Passing beneath the curtain of roots from the tree over the entrance did give the impression of passing from one world into another. Adam had a spool of string with him. He tied the end to one of the roots and then hung the spool from a peg on his belt. This was a clever trick he’d started doing when he began wandering through unfamiliar woods. He carried several spools and just kept connecting them as he went. On the way back he’d wind them up, but he never got lost. Not anymore. When we were younger we’d gotten lost a few times.
I half expected this cave to come to a dead-end after ten or twenty feet inside. What were the odds of stumbling into a major cave system by accident? When we got further inside and discovered that the cave narrowed and turned to the left I wasn’t sure if I was happy or worried. Adam was clearly excited by the prospect of a longer adventure.
“See, fairy knoll! It will spread all through this hill. Let’s go find some fairies.” Adam flashed his uneven grin at me, uneven because of an accident with a moped his senior year of high school.
I gave a look back over my shoulder at the dwindling light of the world beyond the caves, realizing that following this curve would block out the last of the natural light, and then proceeded after Adam. We had his string. We could find our way out, though it occurred to me that a cave of this size could very easily be a home to all kinds of dangerous animals. Caves like this were perfect homes for large predators.
We passed a branch in the path and Adam took us down the left side. It was strange how much like a hall it felt. The ground was easy enough to walk on, and the paths, though narrow in places, were comfortably sloped.
It felt like we’d been walking for quite a while. I wished I’d checked my cellphone to see what time it was when we entered. I pulled it out and gave a look at the time. It was two in the afternoon. The best I could guess was that we’d been in the cave for fifteen minutes. It really was deep, though it didn’t seem to move downwards.
We reached another branch, and again Adam chose the left-hand side. There was a faint unpleasantness in the air, and it almost felt like Adam was following that for some reason. I looked back down the string trail. I was glad for it, though so far it would be easy enough to find our way back. Two rights and then straight on out.
“Oh, shit!” Adam shouted, and I jumped, splashing the cave in shadows as my flashlight arm went astray.
“What?!” I shouted, more angry than scared now that I’d had a moment to gather myself.
Adam laughed a little. “Sorry, rat. It was a big one though. Ran right over my foot.”
I sighed. “Maybe we should just go back. I don’t know what you’re hoping to find in this hole in the ground. A little fairy girlfriend?” I asked, shifting my flashlight so that I could see more of the cave we were in. The narrow passageway we’d just been in had opened out into a larger area. The stink had been getting stronger, and now it was quite bad.
“Come on, a little further. I want to know what that smell is,” Adam urged me on, ever chasing the next terrible smell.
“Smells like roadkill, and that worries me. I know I joked about bears earlier, but what if there is a bear in here?” I was becoming increasingly worried about that. The carcass smell, the rat, could easily mean we were walking into a bear den. I’d brought bear mace, but I didn’t want to find out if it had ever actually been tested on actual bears. I didn’t figure this was the best time to find out either way.
“Bears? No. What? No way! It’s too deep. Bears don’t live this deep in caves.” Adam explained in such a way that I knew he had no idea what he was talking about. He was moving on again, and I was following him. It was difficult to determine which of us was the biggest idiot; Adam for leading us into danger, or me for following Adam into danger despite the fact that I knew better.
The area around us was opening up even wider so that I could no longer see the walls in my beam. Adam stopped. “Oh, man, you were right!”
“About what? Tell me it’s not the bears,” I said, trying to decide if I should start running in the other direction. I reached into my pack and dug for the bear spray just to be safe. I felt better with it in my hand.
“No, the roadkill thing. Well, I mean, it’s probably not roadkill, but there are animal carcasses. Look!” He flashed his light ahead, and I could see the mangled body of a deer. It had been disemboweled and spread across the ground. Hunks were missing from its flesh, differing sizes of damage. Some were small marks, like maybe the rat we’d seen before, and some were much larger. There were other dead animals too. I saw a coyote, several rabbits, and a raccoon. All of them were partially eaten, in various states of decay.
“I think I was right about the bear, too,” I said quietly. “Adam, I really think we should get out of here now. Anything that dragged a deer in here is something we don’t want to run into.”
Adam turned towards me, sweeping his light into my face.
“Shit!” I cursed, putting a hand up to block the blinding flash.
“Sorry!” Adam apologized, and the light fell off back to the side, and for half a second I saw something on the ground. “You’re right, we should be getting out of here. I guess this is just a bear cave.”
I barely heard him. I turned in the direction that his light had flashed, bringing my own beam down in that direction. At first it was hard to tell what I was seeing, but I got a bit closer and soon it was apparent.
“Is that… a bone pile?” Adam asked, coming up behind me.
It was. The pile was above my waist, and it stretched off to one side of the chamber. I flashed my light across it and it filled the room all the way into a tunnel far at the opposite end from where we’d come into the cave. I’d never seen so many bones in one place. I couldn’t identify half of them. Bone identification wasn’t exactly a class they’d offered me back in college, but some things stuck out.
“Damn bear must be hungry!” Adam was saying, but I was already shaking my head.
“No, Adam, that’s a bear skull.” I pointed to one of the larger skulls atop the pile. The canines were a dead giveaway. They were far too big to be a dog. It had been a really big black bear. “Whatever did this ate the bear.”
Adam laughed, and then he seemed to catch onto my lack of laughter and he just said, “Oh, oh shit, no, is that a human skull!?” He pointed at the pile, and it took me a moment to figure out exactly what he was looking at, but then I spotted the eye sockets and the rest of it came into focus. There was no mistaking that one.
We turned together and started back for the tunnel we’d entered through. Adam was rolling up his string quickly as we went. “Good adventure, right?” he said as he worked, punctuating the words with nervous laughter
“As long as we don’t get eaten, I will call it a good adventure.” I tried to keep my answer light, but it was easy to spook yourself in the dark, especially in a cave with human bones. The bones had pushed me well into the neighborhood of “spooked.”
Something quick and dark darted past the edge of my flashlight beam. It gave me a start, but I cursed quietly to myself and kept moving. Rats. They’d come for the meat. I wished them the best in their endeavor, but I, for one, didn’t want to become a member of the bone pile crew.
We reached the first intersection and followed the string left. I kept looking over my shoulder, certain that something would be back there, but I couldn’t see anything. Behind us, where our flashlights didn’t reach, was a blackness so profound that trying to find anything in it caused the mind to stutter. There was nothing to grasp onto.
We kept traveling as fast as we could, and then we reached an area that looked like a carved-out set of stairs leading upward. We stopped together. Had we come down an area that looked like stairs? The string was still leading up this way. The string. We’d followed the string.
I frowned as I tried to understand what was happening. Adam started up the steps in front of me.
“Adam, I don’t think we should go up there. We didn’t come downstairs to get where we were.” Why had the rope led us left at the first intersection? It should have taken us down the right branch. We’d turned left to get there to begin with.
“That doesn’t make sense. How would the string get moved? I never felt anything. It has to be right. Maybe we just forgot?” He was at the top of the stairs now, looking around with his flashlight. “Hey, I think I see a light down this way,” he said, moving further away.
“Hey, let’s just try and backtrack and…” I didn’t get any further than that because Adam screamed.
“Son of a bitch, holy shit!” He sounded like he was in pain, so I dashed up the stairs to see what was wrong.
Adam was clutching the side of his face near his right eye, screaming as he walked in circles.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, it hurts!” he yelled at me.
“What hurts? What’s wrong?” I ran over to him, trying to see where he was injured, but he had it covered with his hand and I couldn’t tell what was bothering him. “You have to let me see! I can’t help you if you don’t show me!” I tossed my pack down and was opening it, grabbing out the first aid kit. I set the bear mace down for a moment. I figured he must have hit his head on something.
Adam pulled his hands back and let loose a groan of agony the likes of which I’d never heard from him, and I’d been there when he broke his leg skateboarding. I squinted to figure out what I was seeing. The flesh around Adam’s eye was bright red, as though he’d been in the sun for far too long. It was also puffing up badly. His eye was almost entirely shut already. I looked closer, moving the flashlight in, but I couldn’t tell what the heck was causing the swelling.
I moved the light and saw a momentary shimmer. I squinted and moved it again, and then I saw it. There was a little strand stuck in Adam’s skin just a little behind his eyebrow. It was almost transparent, only slightly thicker than a piece of hair, but stiff. It looked like a sliver of glass, but it was long. I reached forward to try and grab it, but the moment I touched it I jumped back in pain. My fingers had thin cuts in them where I’d touched the sliver. They were even bleeding lightly.
“What the hell…” I muttered under my breath, but in the next moment I saw the sliver begin to crawl into Adam’s flesh, as though it was dragging itself deeper.
Adam began to scream again! “What is it?! What is it!?” he yelled. “It burns! Oh, god, it burns!”
“I don’t know what it is!” I told him in a panic. “It’s some kind of sliver, a little narrow thing like a piece of thin glass. We have got to get out of here. Come on, let’s go back down these stairs…”
Adam collapsed to his knees and began to scream even louder. My heart was hammering in my chest. I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea how to help my friend. The red blotch on his face was growing, turning purple and almost black in some places. What could do this to a person?
“Adam, you have to walk. We have to get out of here!” I told him, reaching down to grab his arm and urge him up, but he slapped me away. Something inside of the swelling exploded, and I thought it was probably his eyeball. Black ichor poured down the side of his face, and then the skin on that side of his face began to tear. The odor that came from the wound turned my stomach. It ruptured forcefully, hunks of rotten flesh falling away as it began to drain out onto the ground. I could see Adam’s skull, and that too was turning black and soft. He collapsed, finally going quiet, and I sat there staring in horror as his skull crumpled and black, moldering brain poured out.
Something dark darted from along the path and moved towards the body. My first inclination was to think it was a rat, but it wasn’t. It moved on four legs, but they were insect-like, blacker than night, just like its torso, which rose from the center of those four legs. Its head was a black shard with horns atop it, but no eyes, and a mouth that was all teeth. It skittered towards Adam and opened its mouth, grabbing onto his hand. It tore a piece of his flesh and blended it into pulp in that grinder of a mouth. Then others came. They came from the walls, pouring down the tunnels and clawing their way to the body as I slowly backed away. They were about the size of one of my open hands. One of them moved in my direction. It had a single arm that ended in what looked like a little pointed spiral. It pointed that spiral at me.
On some random impulse, I put my arm up. A strange popping sound came from the little creature and when the thread-like projectile hit it burrowed into the band of my watch and fortunately not my flesh. I grabbed the clasp and tore the watch off just in time to see the tip of the little dart come ripping through the watchband. It had tiny legs that crawled forward. I dropped the watch, grabbed my mace and pack, and ran.
I went back down the stairs, and then down the hall, taking the next left. That, I thought, would put me back on the proper course. I ran through the dark, a strange chittering at my back. Fairies. These things were fairies. How the tales had ever shifted to turn them into little child-friendly characters I had no idea. These things were nightmares. Oh no, Adam. Adam was gone.
Music started down the halls, though perhaps “music” wasn’t the best term. It was like something had heard music once and only once, and then had tried to emulate that memory with none of the proper tools or knowledge. I had been moved by music before to the point where it almost made me cry, and this sound was like that, but instead of crying, the noise made me want to stop and dance. It made me feel light of heart. It made me want to go and see where this otherworldly sound was coming from.
In fact, I caught myself just standing in the tunnel. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been there, unmoving and in a trance, but I was certain that it had been far too long. I began to move again, the music still pulling at me, trying to persuade me to come back.
I thought I was resisting it. I really believed that I was headed for the way out, but then I found myself in the room of bones again, and this time I wasn’t alone. When I first saw them I thought perhaps the stories of elves and fairies were somewhat accurate. They stood with light behind them, and they were only a silhouette to my eyes. However, when I shifted my flashlight up to them, I soon realized they were nothing of what they seemed.
Their outline hid a truth so alien that I struggled to understand what they were. Each one was as tall as I was, and they stood atop a set of chitinous legs that tucked together in such a way to make them seem like two normal legs, but there were six of them that adjoined to a long narrow body lined in clawed appendages about the length of a man’s forearms. Their larger forearms were long and narrow, ending in three fingers that at first seemed as long as a human’s, but again those folded out into three saber-like claws.
Their heads were made up of a set of wind chambers, something like a group of bell-shaped flutes that rose through the area that should have been a face. This was how they made their music, I realized, and why it sounded like nothing of our world. How could it, when these things were clearly nothing like mankind had known before. They had black eyes dashed across their head and torso, small dots peering in a hundred different directions, and their mouths were just gaping holes in their necks that were lined with mismatched teeth. Some were human-like, some pointed like a dog’s, and some looked like they belonged to animals I’d never seen or heard of.
There were eight of them in the room, and I could tell that they were all focused on me. They all began to sing at once, and the sound hit me like a wave.
“Human…” a voice hummed, more insect buzz than actual human tone. “You are among the fae. We have collected your gift, drank of its sweet nectar. Now we will return your favor.”
The voice was like a hooked line passing through my head, ripping at my thoughts as it tore its way through the back of my skull. What gift were they talking about? I tried to understand what they meant, what was happening, but the only thing I could think of was Adam. Did they think I’d brought Adam for them?
One of the things moved forward, extending a clawed hand in my direction. “Take our hand, child. We will lead you to Elfheim. You will know such delights.” The voices fell apart again, returning to the madness of the fae song. It tugged at me, trying to pull me towards the offered hand.
Some lucid part of my mind acted out of a sense of self-preservation. The music of the creatures faltered, and the air was filled with unpleasant screeching. It was only as the music faded that I saw that my arm was raised and that I was spraying the bear mace at the creatures in the cave.
“Run!” I actually said the word aloud, and then I was doing exactly that. I turned and fled back the way I’d come, almost tripping over the bone mound in my haste.
A group of black shapes came climbing out of the dark, raising tiny spiked arms in my direction. I dove away from them before they could fire their little darts at me. I heard them go off, tiny pops like someone cracking their knuckles, and then I charged forward and kicked them, scattering them out of my way. One hopped up onto my leg and took a bite out of the side of it, chewing through the pants with no problem at all. I screamed and smacked it away, which resulted in more flesh tearing, but managed to dislodge the creature.
I ran, taking the first right and crashing over my own feet to sprawl on my knees. The can of bear mace rolled away from me, and I went chasing after it as I heard an awful skittering sound from the tunnel behind me. Fear propelled me. I got up and ran again, leaving the bear mace behind me. I wasn’t sure it would work a second time anyway.
I hit the next junction and took a right again, but I could hear them getting closer. The song was starting up again; the strangely powerful and enchanting music grabbed hold of me and tried to turn me in place. I thought of Adam, the way he’d died, and I kept moving. It was like trying to swim up a waterfall. The struggle was so hard that I barely noticed the point at which I stumbled from the cave and landed in the sun of the woods beyond the creeping curtain-roots of the tree.
I gasped for breath, feeling as though something had been sitting on my chest this entire time. In a panic, I clambered back to my feet and turned around. The cave was dark. I flashed my light down the tunnel, and there, at the back of the cave, stood a human-looking figure. In the shadows, as far away as it was, it could have been anything.
“You can’t leave,” a singsong voice rippled up out of the cave. “You will forget us, but we won’t forget you.”
I turned away and started back for the car. I had no idea what I would tell people about Adam. I knew I couldn’t tell them the truth. No one would believe me. Maybe some of our friends would listen. I’d have to tell them something.
By the time I got the car started, I felt exhausted. I was almost happy that Adam hadn’t shown up today after all. I wasn’t in the mood for one of his adventures. They were always more trouble than the story that came out of them was worth.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A