“We can’t get across here,” said Marv. “We have to go back.”
I didn’t see that as an option. There was an army of rats waiting for us and unless I found myself in charge of an army of giant cat people, I had no intention of facing them.
“Good idea,” I said. “You go and see if there’s another way out. I’m staying here.”
She gave me a puzzled look. “Do you have some kind of magic that will get us across?”
Us? She was an optimist, I’ll give her that.
“In the haunted zone, the ancestors decide your fate,” said Nyx. “Only the true of heart survive.”
Well, that was me fucked, then.
The slimes continued their merry procession across the lava. It was hard to see where they were going once they reached the other side with the heat haze hovering over the spitting hot magma.
From what I could tell (and I am not a slime expert) they seemed unaffected by the heat and acid. Not even slightly singed.
I bent down and touched a passing slime with the tip of my finger.
“No! Don’t!” screamed out Nyx.
I felt the skin on my fingertips prickle sharply, but it wasn’t anywhere near as corrosive as the dragon acid. It wasn’t pleasant, and prolonged exposure probably wouldn’t do me any good, but I could stand it for a few minutes, I was sure. Especially if I could heal myself back to normal.
My fingertips were red and blistered. I touched them with my other hand and a soothing warmth cleared away the damaged skin.
“You are a healer,” said Nyx, his voice full of awe.
“That is a filthy habit,” said Marv, her voice full of disgust.
“But we will be invincible,” said Nyx, getting excited. “Nothing can harm us.”
“Nothing can harm me,” I corrected him. “An adventurer has to learn to only rely on himself.”
“Or herself,” Marv added pointedly.
“Yes,” I agreed, glad she saw it my way.
The slimes were crossing the lava in a thick carpet. I almost felt like I could run across them like stepping stones. I quickly discovered this would not be so easy. When I tried to stand on one, my foot sank into it.
But it didn’t go through all the way to the ground, it hung there like a marshmallow suspended in jelly. It tickled a bit but my shoe and trouser bottom protected my skin and it was only a very mild irritation that I felt.
The slime kept moving like nothing had happened, dragging me hopping along. It did make feel a little uncomfortable to have inserted myself into the body of another creature. I had no idea how these things reproduced but I could have quite easily been guilty of violating it. I hopped further towards the lava—it was a moving violation.
While I don’t think the slime’s indifference meant it consented to my insertion, it’s lack of reaction did make me ease my concern about its welfare, and the possibility of me ending up on a register somewhere. If it could withstand searing hot lava bathed in acid, a little toe poke wouldn’t cause it any long lasting trauma, I told myself.
I stuck my other foot into another slime and wobbled about like a toddler in his mum’s high heels. I was maybe five or so centimetres above the ground, a bouncy cushion supporting me, and also probably dissolving my footwear. We were headed for the open seas, by which I mean, the sea of lava stretched out ahead of me.
The fumes smelled bad and were probably acidic but were swept along by the current. The lava entered the chamber through the wall at one end and out through the wall at the other. The rock had been eaten away to make a low tunnel but most of the River Styx was underground and flowing freely. The slimes hit the lava, dragged to the right a bit, then settled into a forward movement that all but ignored the rush of hot magma beneath them.
I should point out I’ve never had great balance. I’ve been ice skating, once, and I’m the guy desperately hanging onto the boards around the sides while his legs do an impression of a newborn foal. I wanted to be able to ride a skateboard when I was a kid, never managed to stay upright for more than five seconds. Obviously, I never bothered with roller skates since I’m not gay.
The slimes moved quite slowly and my two seemed to be a bonded pair as they kept next to one another. If they broke up in the middle of our crossing, it wouldn’t be pretty. Even with the smooth, steady ride, my arms windmilled and my legs trembled with the effort of staying upright. I could feel the heat swelling around me, although not through my feet, thankfully. My eyes watered as we glided through the yellow mist.
“You guys stay here,” I called out in a wobbly voice. “I’ll send help when I can.” I didn’t add ‘So long, suckers’ but I thought it.
“I’m coming, too,” yelled out Nyx. He jumped two-footed into a slime, his small boots easily fitting inside the translucent body. His arms flailed about and his torso careened from side to side and back and forth. He was moving with the slime, but also against the slime. As he was about to reach the lava, he tipped forward and plunged headlong to what seemed like instant death.
He stuck out his hands and grabbed onto the slime in front. His gloved hands immediately buried themselves into the jelly and he was fixed in a bent over positions. Which gave him enough stability to remain out of the lava which he was now over.
That left only Marv, who anxiously moved from one side of the bank to the other. I could only catch glimpses of her as I concentrated on not falling over, but she didn’t look like she planned to do any slime jumping. At least I would get rid of one of them.
Then, just as I thought everyone had made their move, Marv ran towards the lava and hurled herself bodily to her death, or so it seemed. She landed on top of Nyx.
He buckled slightly, but the forward momentum actually propelled the slimes attached to him like they’d been given turbo power, sending them skidding across the lake, overtaking me, and reaching the opposite shore within seconds. Both Marv and Nyx crashed onto firm land and lay there while slimes went around them on either side.
My slower trip at least got me across on my feet. I pulled myself out of my Jimmy Chews and took off my half disintegrated shoes. My feet were red but not otherwise injured.
“Heal me,” begged Nyx, holding out his hands, his gloves no more than tatters. “It stings, it stings.” He was hopping up and down in what was left of his cloth boots. “Heal me, heal me.”
I grabbed his hands and healed him, mostly just to shut him up.
The slimes kept going, into the tunnel, disappearing into the darkness.
“Where are they going?” asked Marv.
I shrugged. “Probably just getting away from the earthquakes, like rats leaving…” I realised what I was about to say might not have been very tactful considering present company.
“Like rats leaving what?” asked Nyx.
I was saved from having to explain myself by a long, shuddering moan from the mouth of the tunnel. It didn’t sound like the wind, or the earth settling after a quake. It sounded like someone really not having a good time.
“The ancestors!” exclaimed Nyx.
Marv had her dagger out. Probably not much good against ghosts, but then it might not have been a ghost. It could be something much, much worse.
The moan rang out again, louder. Stabbing through it came the sound of an ear-piercing scream, followed by the drumming of frantic feet. The tunnel seemed to amplify everything to deafening volumes. Marv had leaped into action and was now standing behind me. I had no intention of inviting her to join my party, but she certainly fit the criteria to a tee.
Nyx had squeezed in beside her. “The ancestors are displeased. Forgive us! Forgive us!” He pleaded. “Take this one!” I felt a push in my back. Another prime candidate for the group.
I was tempted to pick up the little pipsqueak and throw him in the lava but that would have been petty and vindictive. I preferred to keep him close by in case throwing him at the horror approaching might give me a better chance of escaping.
The footfalls rebounded on themselves creating a strange and eerie echo and then stopped. Shrieks and screams tumbled towards us.
“We will fight,” said Marv.
Sounded good to me. I stepped aside to give her a clear path to whatever was descending on us.
“Together, we will charge through their lines,” said Marv from over my shoulder. She’d stayed glued to me as I’d side-stepped.
The shrieks broke into hideous shrill squealing. Footfalls began again, stumbling and uneven. I didn’t have a weapon but the slimes were still crawling into the tunnel, unperturbed by the ghostly racket. Their caustic bodies might deter our would-be attackers.
I bent down and grabbed one of the slimes, ignoring the sting. I pulled it up but it remained attached to the ground and just stretched so I had a handful of goo elongated like old gum. It kept moving away from me, getting longer and longer. I wondered if I looked as stupid as I felt as my weapon of choice slowly departed.
A thing came reeling out of the darkness, a thing that had maybe once been human, but was now covered in red gore, mostly its own. Gashes and wounds covered it from head to foot. It fell down and writhed and grovelled and gibbered and yammered, and tried to reach up but fell again to gurgle pitifully in a pool of its own fluids. The mutilated body shuddered and then was still.
Desperate hands gripped me from either side. Whimpering assaulted both ears.
I stared into the dark shadows from where the corpse had staggered, trying to see if anything was coming. As I watched, the shadows melted and took shape, vague and indistinct. Two circles flamed and formed eyes. A wild, hateful light grew and grew in those horrible eyes.
Then like a hand of ice on my spine, I was aware that I was being watched. I looked down at the fallen body in the mouth of the tunnel. Its eyes were open and it was staring at me.
Marv screamed. It was probably her. Maybe Nyx. I might have joined in, but I definitely didn’t start it.
The corpse stood up, its eyes bulged, its mouth opened wide and contorted weirdly. Laughter flowed out of it. Loudly. Guffawing. It pointed at me.
“Your face… You should have seen your face…” It could barely stand it was laughing so hard. Its body changed and solidified into hard granite.
More figures came stumbling out of the tunnel, bent over with mirth, slapping each other on the back and choking back the tears.
“He nearly wet himself,” rumbled one, clutching his sides.
“And when he grabbed the slime…” screamed another, falling to the floor and rolling about.
God, I hate trolls.
“We can’t get across here,” said Marv. “We have to go back.”