George slammed his fist into a tree. “Dammit! Where the hell did it go‽”
It was nearly sunset already. He was sure that he had turned off the main path at the right spot, and he’d been moving more slowly than that day to make sure he wouldn’t miss the cave. But he should have reached it over an hour ago.
He sat down on a small boulder and pulled a water bottle out of his bag. He could see the sun resting on top of the mountain. He guessed there were a couple of hours at most before it disappeared. He had plenty of food and water for the day, but he hadn’t counted on needing to camp.
There was no way he could find his way back in the dark, but he couldn’t go back either. He didn’t know why, but knew he had to find the cave today.
In the other direction, he could see a line of dark grey clouds crawling their way towards him, but he couldn’t see any rain falling from them.
While he rested, he held his hand out in front of him. A small ball of fire grew above his hand. Patterns of darker blue crawled across its surface, each threatening to escape the pull of the orb. He focused o the ball, causing it to spin over his palm. It spun faster and faster until the varying shades of blue vanished into a single hue. The ball began to stretch, flattening into a disk.
He gritted his teeth and the lighter hotter flames began to move to the edge of the disk. The center grew darker and darker; then it vanished completely. The hole kept growing, and the edge of the disk grew brighter and brighter until it was almost blinding.
It was strange. Before he had entered the woods, he had never even considered trying something like this. Even now, he felt new information about the ring seeping into his head. He knew it had no mass, so it could fly as fast as he willed it too. He knew that it was hot enough to vaporize water before it could come close to touching it.
Most of all, he knew that this was a weapon. It he used it, it would ‘slice’ through anything it touched with no issue. It couldn’t be used to intimidate, or incapacitate. This ring would, at the very least, maim anyone it hit. If he hit them anywhere but an arm or a leg, it would probably kill them.
A cool wind rustled through the trees. Thunder boomed in the distance.
George banished the flames. He thought he’d heard something, just before the thunder. For a moment he swore…the wind came again and he focused. A quiet, high pitched whistle came rang through the forest as the wind blew.
He rushed north, toward the sound, as fast as he could. He made sure to stop whenever he heard the wind coming. The whistling grew louder the further he walked.
The cliff face was up ahead. It was the same cliff, he was sure of it. He recognized the way the stone darkened as the cliff rose higher. He could see the fallen stones and boulders littering the ground beneath the cliff. The same stones that he had watched come tumbling towards him almost a year ago.
His eyes trailed over the cliff carefully. The sound was definitely coming from here, but there was no cave in sight.
George walked along the cliff, searching for anything that even hinted at a cave hidden behind the rocks.
There was nothing. Not even a hint of a cave. He searched up and down the cliff face, looking for a crack, an odd stack of stones, anything that could suggest a covered entrance or a collapsed tunnel. Every fiber of his being told him that this was the cliff, the same cliff that had almost killed him, the same place where he had become Burnout. But there was nothing. No matter how many times he walked back and forth along the cliff, there was nothing to be seen.
George sighed deeply and sat on the ground. The bag on his back felt heavier and he began to slump forward. His face was cradled in his hands, and his forearms were resting on his knees. Above him, the thunder rolled again, louder and closer than before.
“It’s not here.” The words tasted like cold coffee and felt like cooking oil spilling out of his mouth.
And then it began to rain.
The cold water began to soak into his clothes. His hair wasn’t long enough to stick to his forehead, but he could still feel it matting to the top his head. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back toward the sky.
He started to laugh. He couldn’t help it. There was no mirth; it was an empty laugh, and it left him unfulfilled. He didn’t know what else to do. The cave was gone, vanished, and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. There wasn’t any way for him to find the answers he ahd been searching for. There was no way for him to find out what he was supposed to be.
George opened his eyes and the laugh changed. His lips curled into a smile and he let out a loud whoop.
It hadn’t been there before, he knew it hadn’t. But there it was not even 20 feet back the way he had come.
He jumped up and ran toward the cave.
Then his heart began to race, pounding loudly in his ears.
His blood seeped away from his face.
His tongue felt like chalk.
His legs grew weak.
His breath grew ragged.
His bag grew heavier.
A voice in the back of his head screamed at him to turn back.
He shoved it away. He wasn’t going to let this stop him. He wasn’t going to turn back now. A low growl rumbled from his throat and he stepped into the cave.
The cave grew dark quickly, far more quickly than it should have.
He summoned a small flame ahead of and above him. Its light pushed back the darkness, but not nearly as far as it should have.
The wind entering the cave grew louder. The sound of it echoing off the walls was deeper than it had any right to be.
George willed the flame to grow brighter and continued into the cave.
Something was wrong. It was the right cave, he was sure of it. Its mysterious appearance was more than enough to prove that to him.
But the walls were wrong. The first time, they hadn’t just been reflective or sparkling, they’d glowed. Now, he could barely even see them through the oppressive darkness.
He saw the darkness fighting against the light of his flame once again. This wasn’t some passive defense; it was attacking his light, growing stronger and forcing its way into his defense.
He’d been in the cave at least 20 minutes the first time, and possible a lot longer. He’d only been in here 15 now, and the courage he’d built to walk into this deathtrap was beginning to fade.
He felt a pressure building on his forehead, like somebody was pressing their finger against it. It didn’t hurt, but there was no rest. His heart beats felt smaller, weaker.
Still he walked on.
The echoes of his steps became the only measure of time he could rely on.
Had he been in here hours, or minutes.
They might have noticed he’d left by now, but they couldn’t know for sure yet.
Even if they did, they couldn’t find him here.
He hadn’t told them enough to find him.
None of them would even know where to start.
George paused. He pulled the half empty bottle off of his bag and tapped it against the wall.
He hadn’t been hearing things. The echo had changed.
He had to stop himself from moving too quickly. He couldn’t see far enough ahead to watch his footing.
The darkness wasn’t fighting as hard anymore. He could see a few feet further than he could before.
The echo was growing shorter. He was almost there.
He could see the cave’s walls now, but they still lacked the entrancing glow they had held the first time.
The cave opened up before him. The darkness vanished almost completely and the light from his flame leapt dozens of feet further than it had ever reached before.
And there it was.
The bones were just as massive as he remembered. But even here, something was wrong.
The scales that had once covered its eyes were faded. They had lost the otherworldly glow that had fooled him into believing the beast was still alive. Even from here, he could see the scales peelig away from their sockets.
The teeth that had seemed brighter and more precious than any jewel were yellowed and cracking. Even in this light, they no longer gleamed.
The bones that had held their shape for who knows how long were falling apart. The tail was now in pieces, and the wings were unrecognizable.
George felt his eyes begin to water. “What…what happened to you?”
“You did.” A familiar voice came from behind him.