“Ugh… I can’t take it anymore!”
Frank exclaimed tiredly as he almost stumbled down on an upturned lump of soil. He was at the utmost rear of the group, barely managing to keep up with them, and he felt his legs about to give in. He considered discarding his briefcase, but the documents inside were way too important for such a decision, and it wouldn’t have made any gaping difference either way. He knew that the problem laid in his untrained and unhealthy body.
Panting from the strain his body was forcefully going through and the tangled mess of emotions his mind was undertaking, he kept running for his life, periodically whipping his head around to see if whatever creature had made that sound was pursuing them. Thankfully it didn’t seem so, but the moonlight didn’t offer much clarity to his eyes, so he wasn’t that sure.
“Is everyone okay?” Natasha queried after taking a deep soothing breath. They had arrived in front of a moss-covered cave, branches and leaves were draped disorderly all over its top. Everyone was exhausted, their energy completely spent, so it was silently concurred to stop there.
“Yeah… for now,” Stephen replied with a grunt as he slumped down, his arms using his knees as leverage to support his upper body up, “I knew I should have gotten a gym membership card.”
“I second that.” Frank chuckled ill-humoredly, “S***, I think I’ve lost a few pounds of fat from that run alone.”
Natasha rolled her eyes, not bothering to remark on his rather uncouth language as she approached Sarah to check out on her, the young girl seemed about to faint anytime. Behind her a silent Daphne looked hesitant, it was only after an earnest tug from the former that she followed her, albeit in a slightly slower pace.
“Is it chasing us?” John wondered.
“I don’t think so, actually I believe it never noticed us, to begin with,” Stephen said after he recovered some of his stamina, “What was that though? I don’t remember ever reading or seeing anything about an animal that could produce such an abnormal roar…”
“Neither did I…”
Frank felt a shiver creeping up his spine as he butted in, “That was scary, it must’ve been very huge…”
“I’m sure it was, my friend, I’m sure it was…” Stephen sighed grimly.
Everyone tried to get their minds off of that event, as unrealistically absurd as it was, paying it any more heed than it was worth would have only spawned more restlessness among the group, which was not what they required. However, no matter how much they struggled into switching topics, the burning mark it left behind was already firmly printed in their minds.
Looking down at his trembling left hand, Stephen frowned, clutching it to a stop using his right one before regrouping with the others.
“Good, the cave looks spacey enough for all of us,” Natasha used her trademark clap to get everybody’s attention, “Now, who’s brave enough among you strong men to enter and check if it’s safe? Us ladies will faithfully wait for your triumphant return.” she finished with a giggle, but her blanched face betrayed her fear. Despite the somewhat merry atmosphere lingering in the air, no one forgot what had happened minutes before, it was just their way of getting it out of the system.
The men in question looked at each other nonplussed.
“Might as well go in together,” Stephen proposed as he looked at John and Frank, beckoning them with his head, “The cave mouth isn’t huge enough to let big animals through, but considering the weather, I wouldn’t discard the chance of something taking refuge inside.”
They both nodded in agreement, deciding to go with his idea. However, Natasha didn’t look as happy as they thought she would. The red-haired woman crossed her arms and arched one eyebrow, “What do you think you’re doing?” she queried expressionlessly, “If all of you go in who’s gonna protect us in case some vile creature appears?”
“I’m glad you asked, hehe,” Frank puffed out his chest trying to look manlier, “I’ll take it upon me to shield you fair ladies with my body.”
“…” Sarah and Daphne looked at each other, the former holding back from bursting out in giggles.
“I doubt anything outside of small creatures will show up, most bigger animals usually take shelter during rainstorms. So unless you are afraid of squirrels, rabbits, mice, and whatnot, you’re gonna be perfectly fine.” Stephen interjected succinctly, ignoring Sarah’s squeak in fright at the mention of mice as he stepped inside the cave with John.
The crackling noise of loose stones and pebbles being crushed by their shoes rang out. They delved in the inner parts of the cave throat, but the darkness hampered any attempts to scan the place, and the outside light was of no help to their endeavors. Stephen took out his phone and turned the flashlight on, gesticulating to his older comrade to do the same. Soon, the entire place became partially visible.
At first sight, there was nothing of concern there, but they decided to carefully check around anyway. Finally arriving at the deepest place, they noticed with no little surprise some kind of primitive furniture littering the ground. Stephen wrinkled his nose in disgust as he mouthed out a “Such unpleasant smell,” getting a nod from John who was sporting a frown. From what they gathered thus far the place didn’t seem to house anything dangerous, but the place they had just arrived in gave them a weird feeling.
Redirecting the light towards the wall they spotted a snuffed out wooden torch, a piece of burnt clothing wrapped around its tip. Moving the light further down they saw something that left them apprehensive. A crude handmade hammock bed hanged mid-air, two worn out ropes holding the netting up by interlacing around two mid-sized boulders opposite to each other. There was no doubt that someone was living – or used to live – there. That was the conclusion both of them came to.
“The hammock is a bit too small for someone to comfortably sleep in.” Stephen pointed out, his eyes browsing the whole place, sniffing for more clues, “It makes no sense…”
“Maybe whoever built it is short sized, but I have my suspicions as well… I feel weird looking at this place.”
“Same here, bud.”
They kept inspecting everything they could find, however, aside from labored pieces of wood, engraved and pointy rocks, and several aged ropes, they didn’t find anything else of relevance. But it didn’t matter, because those things alone were enough to deduce that whoever owned them aimed to make a weapon.
“A spear?” John pondered aloud, “To summarize, a short-sized man is trying to make himself a weapon…”
“That seems like it…” Stephen muttered, his voice laced with amusement and disbelief. Nonetheless, that was what they perceived how the situation was like, and it was bizarre. Taking another brief look at what could be considered as a room, he continued, “I think that there is more than one ‘short-sized’ man here…” he hinted with his eyes towards a small pile of intertwined leaves and branches that were roughly molded into what looked like a bed.
“That could be troublesome, I wonder if they permanently left here or are about to come back,” John said after a short pause.
“I don’t know, but I don’t think we’re gonna meet Snow White here, let’s hope the dwarfs are as friendly as they ought to be though.” Stephen chuckled.
“That’s not funny, things may get really ugly,” the dark-skinned man chided in an even voice, “Plus I have this gut feeling that we’re about to get our answer very soon.”
They turned around and ambled back, retracing the same path they walked on priorly. Different thoughts circled through their heads, mostly revolving around what they had just experienced. Their mysterious appearance in the forest, that ghastly roar, and now the odd cave’s inhabitants. Everything felt so out of place, yet they couldn’t quite pinpoint what was the missing piece of the puzzle.
Outside was still deluging, accompanied by strong thunderclaps, the wind was as blustery as before. When they finally stepped out they were immediately bombed with questions. Natasha, self-proclaimed spokeswoman of the group asked what everybody – who were shielding themselves under an imposing tree – was ardently curious about.
“So? Is it safe? Can we go inside? It isn’t dangerous, is it?”
John took a second to study everyone’s features before answering in a serious tone, “Yes, it’s safe. But we found out that someone may be currently living there.”
“Really? Someone’s living there? In a cave?” her face crumpled up in both disappointment and disbelief.
“Yeah, but they either relocated themselves or will eventually come back,” Stephen explained, “The cave now is empty.”
“So… technically… we could stay there for the night, right?” Sarah asked expectantly.
Stephen glimpsed at John, hoping for an opinion. He didn’t want to make a decision that could probably lead them to a perilous situation, but they were in desperate need of a place to camp themselves in. Seeing no reaction on the older man’s face, he replied with a nod, “That’s right, but we should be careful. Apparently, the original dwellers are in possession of sharp weapons.” he considered for a moment before adding, “On a side note, we have reason to believe that these people are… very short…”
“Short?” Frank was confused.
“Yup. Short.” he reiterated.
John nodded when he felt his stare before he started reporting the items they came across, adding his views on it. The topic quickly switched to the forest they were in, and it promptly garnered the group’s interest as they discussed and tried to guess where exactly they were. However, they were not experts in geography, nor were they acquainted with such places, so they soon gave up trying to figure out their whereabouts.
Feeling no need to stay outside anymore, they finally stepped inside the cave, curiously exploring it using their phones’ flashlights. It was not anything special, but to them who had never been in one, it was a novelty. It didn’t take much, however, for their enthusiasm to fade away. Everyone was tired, their minds even more so.
Choosing a small place to settle down, the group avoided the stinky room, despite it having something that resembled a bed, a very small one at that. The rocky and jagged ground was uncomfortable, but they knew they wouldn’t have stayed in that forest for too long, just the time to reach the nearest civilization and then they’d be on their way back home, bringing back only memories.
Stephen closed his eyes, his breathing stable and even. The events that arose from before till now surfaced in his mind in a videotape-like sequence. It was truly a shitty day if he could say so himself, ridiculous things happening one after the other, he could only hope that somehow tomorrow would have been a better day.
With those hopeful thoughts in mind, he went out like a lightbulb, as did everyone else.