I move deeper down the dank tunnel, trying to ignore the saccharine scent of the dead that seems to pervade through the porous stone tunnel we’d begun descending about half an hour ago. The Professor has been unusually quiet as I move ahead of him, my tarnished shield and gleaming sword glinting softly in the light of the flare the good professor has dangled from an extended wooden rod from his satchel, held in place by the straps of his backpack and creating a peaceful glow that chased away the overwhelming gloom of the strange tunnels design.
“It’s like the stone wasn’t carved,” I muse as I slowly make my way down the smooth slope, the tunnel walls, and floor slick with the same green slime the Quan-gao had been comprised of.
“It wasn’t,” Professor Nickels said with authority, pulling a scroll from his side satchel as he spoke. “The Quan-gao are formed primarily of a weak mineral acid, something akin to Boric acid I believe, which allows the slumbering Darkness to guide his guardians in creating new tunnels for it to travel should it ever awaken.”
“Lovely,” I deadpan; slowly learning that the more I heard of this forgotten Elder God, the more I wished it remained forgotten.
“Look! Just up ahead, it looks like an opening!” The Professor says, a gnarled hand grasping my shoulder, shaking me excitedly. “Let’s go, we have much to do!”
“Shouldn’t we just set the charges here and blow the cavern closed?” I ask somewhat hesitantly as the good professor shuffles ahead of me. He shakes his head, sputtering on excitedly.
“No no no, that just won’t do! What if there are other tunnels?” He asked without looking back. “We need to ensure that we’re sealing the Darkness away for good, not just closing one of its many doors.”
I sigh at his usual impeccable logic, moving onward past his shuffling form to look to the edge of the darkened chamber, a sense of vertigo overcoming me as I stare into the vacuous void before me. A few moments later the dangling flare hanging above my diminutive professor allow me a greater chance to peer into the cavernous hollow, great pillars of stone lining the walls to hold the ceiling too high to see aloft. The floor of the cavern, a mere thirty feet from the tunnel they stood in, bubbled with darkened slime, the ooze shifting and swirling, moving like the slimy fried eggs, pushing and pulling against one another in an endless struggle for dominance.
“Well… this sure slows things down.” I say with a sigh, looking at my crazy Professor for an answer, one that he seems to have already ready as he is rooting through his satchel. The toothless man gives a cry of glee as he pulls a tightly wound orange rectangle from his bag, shoving it into my hands as he fishes out a pair of collapsible oars.
“You can’t be serious… we came to a dig in the desert, and you have an inflatable raft?” I nearly shout before he shushes me, looking across the cavern with concern. “What?”
“Nothing… I… I just don’t want to alert anything to our position.” Professor Nickels says, scratching at his neck idly as he set to extending the oars. “Roll out some rope and some pitons so we can have a safe drop down onto those waters, I want to make sure we don’t have anything else to worry about.”
“Are you serious?” I cry, pointing my sword out into the darkness, a low groan echoing through the cavern, waves of slime splashing against the rocks beneath us as if something titanic had just breached the surface of the small sea. “This right here is a big thing to worry about!”
“Now my young warrior, you have no reason to worry. Between your blade and shield and my gun, we’ll be fine.” Professor Nickels says with a smile as he slides the last piece of the oar into position. “I know you’re worried, but you must ask yourself: are you prepared to defend humanity from the otherworldly evil that lurks here, even if it may cost you your life?”
Taken aback by the strange question, I stare at my Professor with a measure of caution. “Well… of course, I mean… who wouldn’t be willing to save humanity?”
Professor Nickels serious demeanor melts away to his normally cheerful expression. “Well then, get to it! We need to be down there seeing what we need to do, not standing about like a couple of bumps on a log!”
After we’d scaled the slick wall to the crashing waves of darkened slime beneath us, the good Professor had pulled the ripcord on the raft, unfurling the great orange life raft in an awkward moment of sheer panic as the great boat almost overtook us and comedy as we fell from our tenuous grip on sanity and into the raft, the waves rocking us back and forth as Professor Nickels fastened the collapsible oars to the raft, moving to the helm of our teetering vessel and adjusting his glasses, peering off into the darkness.
“Full steam ahead my boy!” He says with a hearty chuckle, nodding to the oars as he moved past me towards the rudder. “It’ll take more than these withered old bones are capable of to battle these raging waters.”
“That is not water…” I grumble as a jellied glob splashes over the side, seemingly trying to stretch out in search of open skin. Taking the oars, I begin rowing as best I can against the swirling currents of the underground sea as Professor Nickels steers us along. Several times my oars slide between greasy ovoid’s, pushing them apart.
We drift for what feels like hours as my arms go numb from the strain of battling the turbulent currents, sweat pouring from my lean frame in buckets as I desperately tried to keep us on the Professors desired course. The entire time he praises me, telling me we were almost there, that we were only a few dozen yards from it.
Gasping for breath, I never thought to ask what it was.
Just as I felt my arms giving out from exhaustion, I was lucky enough to see the wicked grin the cracked across my scholarly advisers face as he lunges across the raft with his rifle held firmly between his white-knuckled hands, the butt of the gun making a shuddering snap as he beat me across my brow with the butt of the gun, dropping me back from the force of the blow, my vision swimming as I struggle to understand what had just happened.
I struggle even further when he brings the butt of the rifle down onto my face, breaking my nose and shattering my front teeth in a sickening crunch, tears streaming from my eyes as I watched him slowly pull the weapon from my face, a fractured piece of one of my front incisors sticking to the butt by a thin coating of my blood. He steps over me, shucking off his heavy satchel onto my chest, I suppose to pin me in case I had any fight left within me, as he moves to stand at the bow of our miniature raft, hands held high overhead.
“Qas!” He intones, a low moan akin to the call of a whale rising up from beneath us as he lowers his arms once more, jumping from the raft and landing on something hard just out of my sight… something made of stone? “I’ve brought you the blood of a tested warrior, one who will allow you to slumber still. Come to your servant and grant me my boon and I will render unto you the supple flesh of the young and the brave!”
This can’t be good. I struggle to move the massive pack off of me, but with between my swimming vision and my numb arms I can only flail uselessly as he hops back onto the raft with the dexterity of a man a tenth his age, rolling the bag off of me and hoisting me up onto his shoulder.
Coughing up blood and a few teeth, I look at him through the one eye that can see. “No expert, eh?” I laugh, hacking up a lungful of blood onto the back of his khaki jacket. He merely pats my aching back with a gnarled hand as he jumps from the raft, landing on a large stained stone, rounded along the edges, before dumping me onto the ground with the care of a man dropping a bag of gravel.
“What can I say boy,” He says with a smile and a genial shrug, “I’m a man who figured out a way to stay young forever while keeping mankind safe from the things that go bump in the night. I’m a bloody hero!”
As he’s saying these rivulets of blackened slime are trailing up along ridges carved into the stone, seeping and searching for my spilled blood. I wince as I feel, and hear, the caustic hiss of the ooze lashing to my leg, and then my arm, pulling me taut along the rock. I let out a wail of agony as the slime begins to suffuse over my body, eating away at my clothes and skin with a sound akin to the sizzling of a slab of meat on a grill. Just as my head begins to submerge beneath the malevolent muck, I see Professor Nickels leap back to the raft, my sword in his hand, calling out to me over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry m’ boy!” He shouts cheerfully as he begins to row away, leaving me to my horrid demise. “You’ll see me again in another fifty years!”