Have you ever had the nightmare where you’re being chased through an endless subterranean maze? You can never put enough distance between yourself and your pursuer. They’re breathing down your neck. They’re hot on your heels. One false move and they’ll bite down on your jugular. How would you like to be on the other side of that chase scene?
Here’s your chance to sneak into someone else’s nightmare, to be the monster on the prowl, to see through its red luminescent eyes. This is your chance to be the urban legend that terrorizes urban explorers, to be the name they’re too afraid to whisper.
This was going to be the introduction for an article on mixing genres called Contrast is Cool. My favorite stories defy expectations by merging two elements and making them clash. This was going to be the example that illustrated my point; R rated horror versus a young adult fairy tale. Turns out, it was clever enough to carry itself.
This story owes a debt to @Raishimi who edited it and offered many useful suggestions along the way. Her contributions make this one of my best pieces. For solid writing advice and the stories to back it up, check out her site here.
Playing with Fire
The caves echoed with laughter, the free spirited cackles of youth. They were too far away for their words to retain any meaning, but their tone bobbed up and down with flirty inflections. One voice was giving, the others were receiving.
This was the wake up call Mr. Soot needed. It was time to go to work. He yawned from his perch among the bats; cracked his neck, and let go of the stalactites. Belly-flopping onto the stones below, the impact was enough to loosen the tinder in his lungs, but not enough to get the fires started. Interlocking his fingers, he stretched his arms out, cracked his knuckles, and brought them down on his solar plexus.
His shoulders quaked as the fires revved up, only to sputter to a stop. The spark had flared, but there was no ignition.
Hitting his chest again, he felt a surge of adrenaline, followed by a surge of gasoline. His fingers blurred as his engine came roaring to life.
Mr. Soot’s nostrils flared. His nose stung. There was a crackle as he inhaled, exhaust fumes as he exhaled.
Propane rose from his respiratory system. It passed through the pilot light in his windpipe. Cinders tickled the back of his throat. They sizzled on a tongue of sandpaper. Kerosine dripped from his lips, as he licked the flint edge of his teeth. When he scratched his cheek, ashes spilled from the whiskers.
His house guests had tracked mud into his cave. They left boot prints on the sandy floor. One of them had dug their claws into the limestone, leaving a streak along the wall.
Mr. Soot felt the indentation. His guest’s fingers were much smaller than his own. He appraised his charred flesh; a tapestry of scabs on top of blisters on top of scars. Each disfigurement was a medal; a testament to his rank among the ghouls of Pilgrim Valley.
A package jut out of the sand. It read “32 GIG FLASH STORAGE.” There was another a few paces further. “AA 4 PACK.”
Bottle-caps crunched beneath his feet. Mr. Soot was getting close. They’d brought more trinkets for the collection. He did love how glass looked in the firelight… perhaps he’d paint it red.
There were ashes on the ground. He wondered if he’d come this way already, until he noticed the cigarette butts. His guests had left him bread crumbs.
A nasal voice echoed down the tunnel. “So now we’re beached whale drunk, eye to eye on the bathroom tiles. His mouth yawns open and a tidal wave of puke comes pouring out. The only thing I could do to stop it was to puke right back.”
Mr. Soot’s guests laughed. There were more of them than anticipated. He followed their sweet expletives to the cavern they’d taken for their parlor.
He almost didn’t notice the red ribbon at his ankles. It ran from one side of the path to the other, a Christmas tripwire. Mr. Soot inspected the walls for signs of a tinsel pulley system or a mistletoe trap; shrugged, and stepped over the ribbon.
Something giggled from the shadows. Mr. Soot saw movement from the corner of his eye. A dream image, surely. The changing of the guard between his subconscious and conscious mind.
There were two silhouettes hunched over, schemers rubbing their hands together. They watched him from the shadows.
One was male, but not masculine. He was a fop, tall as a beanpole and just as skinny. His pale face was gaunt, with streaks of red to accent his cheek bones. A monocle dangled from his ear. His top hat had a red band, suspiciously like the tripwire ribbon. Long black curls ran down his rich velvet coat. A ruffled shirt spilled out the front. Tails hung out the back. His pants were checkered.
The shorter of the two, a little girl, wore a pink dress with long white gloves, and the tiara of a princess. Glitter sparkled from her ebony cheeks. She held a finger over her mouth with one hand and waved her compatriot back with the other.
Mr. Soot took a step toward them.
The fop turned to the tiny princess. They exchanged a look, an open mouthed mockery of fear. The fop clapped a mime’s clap, with the sound muted by his gloves.
The princess whispered, “Come on, Chester.”
Then the pair skipped off into the dark.
Mr. Soot rubbed his eyes, singeing his fingers. His pupils were caldrons, red with heat.
He’d seen the full range of human terror, but the look on the girl’s face was something else. Something vulgar. It was glee.
Mr. Soot wiped his hands together, to ignite them. Flames danced at the end of his fingertips like birthday candles. He held one index up to light the ceiling; held another out so that it lit the way the intruders had gone.
The path stretched as far as he could see, bare and blank. No glitter trail, not even so much as a footprint.
The cave quaked, until Mr. Soot realized the rumbling was all in his gut. This was why going to bed on an empty stomach was a bad idea. Hunger hallucinations would continue to mock him. Good thing the remedy lay just around the corner.
Mr. Soot knelt. He extinguished his hands in the sand, he crawled to the cavern where his other guests talked it up, completely oblivious. Hugging the walls, he peered around the corner.
Dust shimmered through bright beams that cut the air. His guests wore helmets topped with lights to pierce the shadows. He ducked. An obscene glow radiated from their vests. There were four altogether: three boys, and a girl.
With his palm to the floor, Mr. Soot felt the clump of the girl’s hefty boots. The boys’ steps were whispers. They wore thin strips of cloth bound in string. He suspect, they’d be light on their feet, but she’d be tough to knock over.
She stood a head shorter than the rest of the pack, but their beams tracked only her. She was the alpha. She paced the cavern, and they lagged behind her.
One of the boys lift a strange glass box to the ceiling. He wandered away from the pack. Sweat ran down his arms, like the juices from a roast pig. Mr. Soot licked his leathery lips. Reaching into his tattered coat he didn’t need to see which of the shiny implements was in his grip, to know he’d found the right one for the job.
Pulling out the box cutter, he flicked it open; ran the blade down his index finger. Sparks popped as the pleasure signal went straight to his brain. Magma spilled from the wound. He held the blade in place until the metal glowed, first orange, then white.
The boy was close enough to taste.
“Yo, Jim.” The alpha female twisted her head around to track the missing party. “You’re not going to get a signal down here.”
The pack fixed their helmets on Jim. Mr. Soot shrank back behind the wall. Signal? Who was Jim trying to signal? Mr. Soot bit his lip. Was this group to be the first of many courses?
The alpha continued, “We’ve got to go analogue with this.” The lights returned to her. The remaining pack members craned over her shoulder. She unfolded a map.
Jim trotted back to his master’s side and screwed a cigarette into his lips. “Where’s the best place to light a campfire down here?”
“No place.” The alpha shook her head. “This is a closed cave system. Unless you packed a respirator, there’s not going to be any more fires. That means, no more matches–” Leaning over, she plucked the cigarette from Jim’s mouth, “And no more cigarettes.”
Asserting her dominance, she flicked the cigarette toward the cavern entrance. Mr. Soot snatched it up and slid it behind his ear.
Jim shone his light in the direction where his smoke had been cast. Scrambling over, he got down on his knees, and pawed at the sand, a dog who’d lost its bone. “God dammit Steph, that was my last one.”
The alpha barked over her shoulder, “There’s a reason why they call these the Nightmare Caves. It’s because every year some jackass lights a fire and dies from smoke inhalation. The air is so thin, we’d all drop dead before we could make it to the entrance.”
Jim crawled on all fours, scooping the floor up. His light glinted off of an object floating before him, a glowing metal strip.
Mr. Soot ran his blade along Jim’s throat, quick and clean. There was a wet hiss as blood seeped out the boy’s neck. Jim clutched for the gash where his Adam’s apple had been. He drove Jim’s head into the sand. He couldn’t let the boy’s cries alert the others. Grabbing the gaudy vest by the collar, Mr. Soot dragged his prey out of sight.
The others barked, unaware that one of their cubs had been plucked from the pack. “Get your story straight. They’re called the Nightmare Caves because a bunch of acid heads got lost down here. Only one of them had the sense to find his way out. When they asked what had happened to his friends, he said a fire monster done ate the lot of them.”
The pack howled with laughter.
This was Mr. Soot’s cue. He brushed his shoulders, not to wipe them off, but to set them ablaze. Running his fingers through the steel wool of his hair, his bangs went up like a torch. He rolled his head from side to side, letting the fire rise up his cheeks, feeling it spread across his muzzle. Taking the cigarette from his ear, he drove it into his lips just as the boy had. The cigarette went to embers in a single puff.
Steph sniffed the air. “Jim you selfish prick. What did I just say? This is the one place where second hand smoke can actually kill you.” The alpha frothed at the mouth. “Where is he?”
A fireball rolled through the sand. Aiming her light, Steph spotted the frayed stitching of the vest, before it shrunk in on itself.
Mr. Soot licked the blood from his finger. He reached into his coat; dug out a pair of rusty meat cleavers, and stepped into the cavern. Their helmets turned.
He was a billowing wall of fire, between them and the exit.
“Breathe,” he said.
The pack scattered. He watched their lights separate, shooting down the many tunnels. The cubs were spry on their feet. Those clunky boots did their leader no favors. This time the alpha lagged behind.
Mr. Soot charged for her. How he longed to taste her before fear spoiled the meat. Her light shift from the tunnel to the path before her. She hurdled over something. Lunging forward, Mr. Soot closed the gap between them.
Something slammed hard against his chin. It was the ground. His cleavers went flying. The impact rattled his bones, smothering his fire in the sand. He glanced back. Sure as hell, there was another red ribbon at his ankle.
“By gum Isobel, we got him.” A well-read voice echoed from the dark. “Now, give him a taste of the extinguishinator.”
“You mean the water pistol?” The child’s voice was underwhelmed.
Mr. Soot was helpless to watch as the child’s shadow crept along the cavern wall. Her bulbous hoop skirt loomed over him. This was Isobel, the princess who smirked in the face of terror.
The fop joined her, a wispy stick man; the bastard son of a scarecrow and a mad hatter.
“No, that name devalues its purpose. An object’s title is intrinsic to its use. A water pistol is something used to spoil a Sunday dress. An extinguisinator puts out a forest fire.”
“Ah, I see.” Isobel’s shadow curtsied, spoofing her partner’s affectations, “Then allow me to extinguishinate this vermin, posthaste.”
The fop waved his hand. “By all means, and kudos for such fine phrasiotmy.”
The princess raised her extinguishinator and pulled the trigger. Water shot out the spout.
Mr. Soot felt his flesh melt away on impact. His ear sizzled as it sunk into his skull. The searing rose, until he could only hear it from the other side of his head.
The next shot squirt through his coat and into his butt cheek. Fortunately, most of it landed on the serrated blade that hung from his belt.
Mr. Soot scrambled to his feet. His equilibrium was put off by the loss of his ear. Smoke trailed from where it had been. With his skull exposed, the night’s air chilled the bone. He had to do something he’d never done before. He ran away.
The fop shouted, “Quick Isobel, your quarry flutters off!”
Mr. Soot sprint into the dark with no mind for stalagmites.
The shrill voice of his attacker echoed down the tunnel. “Hey, no fair. I got you!”
How was this possible? How could a nightmare step into the real world, rob him of his breakfast, and claim his ear?
Mr. Soot snapped his fingers in time to illuminate a cavity. The ground fell from under him, as he rolled into a sinkhole.
The pain took much longer to pass this time. Ripples ran through his coat. Many of its finer points had been driven into his ribcage. His blades had turned his lungs into pincushions. Magma ran down his stomach, hardening in streaks that locked his posture as they cooled.
Mr. Soot snapped his fingers. The flame stood straight. The way out was up. Good thing the sinkhole was narrow enough for him to climb.
With his good ear, Mr. Soot heard their footfalls closing in. It occurred to him that his hands would spark against the rocks upon his ascension. He’d crawl out, to find himself face to face with the wretched brat and her extinguishinator.
Best to wait. They couldn’t smoke him out, after all. He rest his eyes, so their glare wouldn’t betray his hiding spot.
It was their prattle that woke him.
“Please, don’t be afraid. I got separated from my friends. Have you seen them?” The voice was hysterical. It took Mr. Soot a moment to recognize that it belonged to the one called Steph. Turned out the alpha was all bark and no bite.
“I’m sorry,” Isobel said, detached, “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers, unless they’re truly strange. No offense, but you’re kind of vanilla.”
Steph coughed, breathing fast and low. “My name is Stephanie. I like your dress. It’s very pretty.”
Isobel laughed. “I think it’s stupid. I wanted to be a cowgirl but no-o-o-o–”
Steph cut the girl off, “What are you doing all the way down here?”
The little princess paced back and forth. Sand spilled into the sinkhole. “We’re on a scavenger hunt.”
Steph wheezed through her composure. “What are you looking for?”
Mr. Soot eased himself upright, careful not to touch the rocks with his bare hands.
“Are you alone?” Steph spoke slowly, failing to conceal the urgency in her voice.
Isobel giggled, “Nope. I’m with the bested bud you could hope to find, through looking glass, wardrobe, or rail-line. From the furthest regions of the red and black sector, he is Chester Checkers.”
This rhyme had to be rehearsed.
“Where is Chester? Does he know the way out?” Steph’s desperation was out in the open, digging a hole of its own.
Chester chimed in, “Best not to inform her of my presence. There’s a warrant out for my arrest.”
Isobel said, “There is?”
“Yes, you notarized it with the official crayon. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah. You stole my cupcake and tried to pin it on Raggedy Anne.”
“How was I to know you had a UV light for spotting frosting?”
Mr. Soot paced the length of the sinkhole. He counted his steps as he went. Eight paces.
The rocks would turn to glowing coals as he made the climb. The brat would spot him, unless he could distract her long enough to crawl out, creep up behind her, and snap her dainty little neck. Then he’d be back at the top of the food chain.
At present, Mr. Soot was circling the drain, struggling through each breath, ready to collapse. He tried to squirm out of his coat, but the blades had bonded with his chest. He squeezed their edges until his molten blood melted them away. Still, he hadn’t the space to tug his way out of his sleeves. He ran his chest along the rock until the coat snagged.
He wiggled free, leaving the coat snarled to the wall. Squeezing past, its remaining treasures pressed against his chest. The coat sank to the bottom of the sinkhole. His carefully placed blades clattered out like so much silverware.
“What was that?” Isobel whispered, shushing her compatriots.
Mr. Soot hunkered down, to clutch the coat by the collar. Sand fell in his eyes. His pursuers were at the edge of the sinkhole. Mr. Soot patted down the coat until it burst into flames. He flung it to the opposite end.
“There he is.” Chester said, “Send this burning man back to Burning Man.”
Mr. Soot dipped his scorched fingers into the limestone and climbed. The more they sparked, the deeper he drove them into the rock..
Mr. Soot surfaced to find himself staring down the dripping barrel of the extinguishinator, just as he feared.
The others had taken the bait. Even now, Chester and Steph were kicking sand at the fire in the sinkhole, but somehow that little brat knew he’d emerge here.
Isobel smirked from behind the plastic sightline. “Please, I’ve been playing Made You Look since before you left the burn-ward, buster.”
Squeezing the trigger, Isobel put Mr. Soot out.