Final Labyrinth – Chapter One

There is a certain kind of fear that freezes the blood in your veins and arteries, stops it from flowing altogether. And against the frozen vascular blockage, the heart furiously machine-guns its last-ditch attempts to keep life going, to keep fighting, to keep running, to keep from being shifted from the “assets” column to the “liabilities.”

Continuous muscle spasms seize and bind the joints of the arms and legs as tightly as if fast-setting glue had been injected into them, immobilizing you as surely and with as much sense of futility as the Tin Man on the way to Oz, immobilizing whatever will remains within you to try to escape.

When the terror reaches a certain intensity, only the endorphin secretions of the brain save you from continuing the futility of struggling. Like the endorphins from strenuous exercise, which impart their euphoric high, there are endorphins that the brain saves for the last moments. Only these endorphins can give you that last insight into the realities of life and death, that final revelation which comes to each of us just before the body ceases to function. These endorphins help protect you from caring about the pain, but even they can’t shield you from the helplessness and the terror that precede that final realization that death is upon you. Nothing can save you from that.

The man in the loose beige pants, ripped at both knees and covered with blood from the many miles of crawling and clawing his way through dark, dangerous, rough, rocky subterranean passageways, was nearing the point of that final endorphin surge. His flashlight was dimming, at last. He had run and run through the cave-like maze, just ahead of the savage thumping, the drum-like ritual pounding which announced the imminent arrival of the creature behind him. The man had twice caught sight of the beast, and the effect was nearly as devastating as the approaching sound of its hooves clonking behind him on the rockstrewn footing of the caverns. It was like a human in its agility, but was much bigger than a human, and roared like no beast the man had ever heard, or ever wanted to hear again. If he got away from the monster alive. It was all so insane. It was a bad dream. It made no sense. None of this did.

As best the man could make out across the width of the great caverns when the monster emerged from a passageway on the far side in its relentless pursuit, the creature’s head and neck were awesomely bull-like. And it stood about seven feet tall. The man had hoped in the beginning that the snorting and growling sounds were evidence of the monster’s poor breathing stamina, that it would be possible to outdistance the beast soon. That was nearly three hours ago, and if anything the creature was getting stronger as it sensed the hunt nearing a successful conclusion.

The man held as much hope of reasoning with the animal as he would have if it had been a junkyard guard dog who was pursuing him—this creature showed no signs of understanding any human language, and showed no evidence of wanting to deal in anything but flesh and blood. Its legs were shaped somewhat like a human’s, only covered with a coarse coat of short black hair. The feet were protected by a horn-like substance that gave its movements a somewhat hooflike sound, except that it was quieter than a horse or bull. It seemed quite sure-footed in the underground darkness. Terrifyingly so. In its massive dark hands (and they were more like hands than hooves or paws) the creature carried a thick stick or rod that had some sort of tip on it, as if it might have been for throwing. There was an eerie mythological reality to a monster tracking a man in this baffling underground labyrinth. Mythology come alive. And that only compounded the terror. It plucked at all the worst strings. The clumping sound of its hooflike feet had syncopated horribly with the staccato pounding of the man’s overstrained heart. He would pause in the near darkness every few minutes and try to determine which sound was heart and which was the creature behind him, hoping that he had evaded it, that he had at last found a momentary sanctuary for a few minutes rest, some time to gather thoughts and energies. If there were any energies left.

But there was not to be any respite from the chase.

Not a moment. The strain on his body had increased so much now that the deafening thump-bump of his heartbeat was being fuzzed by an echoing flush of overburdened arteries in his head and his neck, arteries near the bursting point as they were trying desperately to flush more oxygen to fatigued muscle groups throughout his body. Muscles that were ready to shut down, to quit. To take that final dose of endorphins and wait for the end. But the man in the beige pants hadn’t quite given himself over to the terror yet. He still had hope.

He threw himself through a low, open archway and looked left down the long underground passageway beyond. There was light there! Coming through the doorway at the other end of the passage. This was it!

The promise of escape widened his eyes, and he mustered all of his remaining energies to stumble down the passageway toward the light. The obsession with the promise of escape carried him forward, wide-eyed, staggering, no longer looking back toward the crazed beast, no longer pausing to listen to the relentless, heartless hoofsteps drawing ever nearer behind him.

The light. It was the light which drew him. The safety of the light. And as he fi nally flung himself, gasping, headlong through the open door at the very end of the passageway, hurled himself toward the light of hope, his lifeline to salvation from the horrible terror which even now had begun its charge down the passage behind him, his mouth sprang wide with disbelief at what he saw. The small, empty room. No windows, no other doorways, only a ritual basin at the center, above which was a large light shaft, presumably from the earth’s surface far above.

The man stumbled to the middle of the room, leaned over the low basin and looked up the shaft at its high, straight, smooth unscalable walls. He shook his head from side to side, in disbelief, and desperately looked around him at his final trap. The place of no return.

Then he felt the final endorphin surge and the panic in him gave way to other feelings, strange feelings he’d never before experienced. The man looked up once again at the light above him. Far above him. The last light he would ever see.

The monstrous beast emerged through the doorway, huffing and puffing, a ghastly sight. Ropy saliva hung from the corner of its mouth, glistening in the light from the light well. The man drew back instinctively but retained his strange, stunned sense of calm. When the beast gave forth with an awful, deafening roar of victory, the man stumbled backward against the opposite wall of the small room, as if more by recoil from the sonic shock waves than by voluntary action.

With the endorphins taking full effect now, the man gazed almost fondly at the approaching tip of the rod which the beast carried. It was a trident shape, the ancient design symbolically merging the horns of the bull with a central spiral pike like the horn of the unicorn. The man watched it coming closer, watched the twinkling glint of the facets of its surface as it rolled from side to side in the huge hands. The man saw his fate approach as the sharp tines thrust forward toward his throat, and wondered at the artful accuracy with which the outside tines glided perfectly to either side of his head, the middle tine swiftly finding its deadly way to the center of his larynx.

The final endorphin surge gave the man an appreciation of the music of his own shrill scream, even as it was cut short. Somehow it echoed, as if it were someone else’s scream.

And that was all.

© copyright 2001 by Lance M. Rucker. All rights reserved.

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