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The Thing in the Cave


MoonDuck

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I had some free time over Thanksgiving break and wanted to get into practice for Secret Santa. I wrote this one-shot with the awesome Pilgrim, who lets me pressure him into doing lots of things, such as writing this story. Thanks to him for editing and coming up with the parts that actually progress the plot. Let me know what you think!

 

Hehh-hEH’ICHXx!” The blue-haired girl, Meli, once again failed to hold back one of her sneezes as she sat in what was supposed to be silent meditation alongside her partner, Cakaza. The two shaman apprentices had come to this labyrinthine underground cave to search for a monster that their master blamed for the earthquakes plaguing their village. They were supposed to return immediately after finding it, but after disturbing the underground lake where it had made its home, it had caused another quake and trapped them in the maze-like caverns.

 

Eehh’TSHIEW! HIH’SHhheh!” It had also sent a tidal wave of water crashing down on Meli, who was closest to the edge of the lake at the time, thoroughly soaking her. Although the two had brought blankets and food in case they had to survive in the cave for a few days, they had not brought additional clothes, and in the chilly underground it was impossible for her to completely dry herself. Consequently, a night sleeping on the cold hard stone, she’d woken up this morning with a vicious cold.

 

Cakaza restrained himself from chastising her after the next interruptive sneeze. He knew that she was certainly trying her best to keep quiet and not disrupt their commune with the earth spirits, whose help they would need to defeat the monster and escape the cave. And he was aware that the time they had spent fasting and sitting in the cold and dark had weakened her and made her more vulnerable to illness. So even though it was irksome, he simply took a deep breath, straightened his posture, and began focusing his concentration on…

 

H’XSHhh!” Another sneeze sent spray bursting out of long, pointed-up nose, some of it settling onto Cakaza, as her meditative posture required she keep her hands at her sides. She sniffled loudly, embarrassed, and renewed her own focus. Though she was concentrating more on simply not distracting her partner rather than contacting spirits.

 

The itch refused to leave her nose, no matter how much she sneezed, it seemed. Even after sneezing all day it only felt more congested. Her head throbbed, and the light from the flickering fire and the shimmering refraction from the large crystals embedded in the cavern walls weren’t helping. She kept her eyes squinted, but doing this only helped relieve a small amount of her discomfort. Focusing was practically impossible in her current state.

 

The tickle started to return, beginning in the back of her sinuses. She scrunched up her nose, unable to do much else to stop any more sneezes from intruding on their meditation. She bent her head down, trying to rub her nose against her shoulder, but the rough fabric only further irritated it. Snot dripped from her nostrils and her eyes watered as the sensation grew more intense, making her whole face burn. Meli’s breath hitched as she gasped for air, silently at first and progressively more vocally as the sneeze built up.

 

It seemed as if her fit would never end. “HIEHH’CSHhh’EW!” Any attempt to stifle the explosion only made it messier, splattering more spray as it forced its way out of her nose. She sneezed so forcefully that she felt the room spinning around her even though her eyes were closed. Her head snapped down, directing the mucous towards the ground instead of her partner this time. The sound echoed through the cave, worrying her that the monster might be disturbed and angrily attack them once more. “Eh…hehh’IHTCh! KCSHH!

 

Still, Cakaza could feel the spirits gathering, despite the disruptions. If only Meli could remain silent and focused for a short period, then they would be closer to contacting one. He shot her a look that tried to communicated the urgency of this situation, fearful that they might miss their opportunity, but her eyes were still tightly shut.

 

Snuffling and panting, she did all she could to avoid sneezing again. Snot dripped from her nose, and she sniffled thickly to avoid it running down her face, though unsuccessfully. Her pounding head tipped back, and she let out another violent “HEH’EKSHhh!

 

Just as she finally lost control, Cakaza received the vision of a spirit. One had made contact! He could feel its purplish, laughing aura engulfing them as it appeared, and he reached out to it with his mind to communicate. But it wasn’t him that the spirit was interested in. Instead, it flitted towards Meli, and began agitating her nostrils. It was a plague spirit, attracted by the intensity of Meli’s cold.

 

While it tormented Meli, Cakaza tried to think of what to do. He wasn't sure exactly how to make sure of this spirit, but he was quite sure they didn't have the time to conjure another one. They only had enough food to last a few days, and Meli was only going to get sicker. Even now, though she had recovered from her fit, she sat bleary-eyed and shivering, breathing nasally as she wiped her nose onto her crusty and stained sleeves, looking absolutely miserable and pitiful.

 

But luckily, the spirit gave Meli herself an idea. She widened her eyes excitedly. “The spirit could pass my sickness onto the monster.” Her voice was so congested Cakaza could barely tell what she was saying. She turned her head to the side and coughed to clear her throat and bring back her fading voice. “But sicker. It would fall into a deep sleep, and then we would be able to hypnotize it.”

 

Cakaza remained thoughtful, running through the plan in his head. “We’d make it cause another earthquake and shift the rocks blocking our way out.” Of course, they would be have to be careful not to wake the creature up before the hypnotic suggestion was planted.

 

Meli smiled. “E-hehh-exactly. HEeh’IHTCHh!

 

“Bless you.” Cakaza was impressed that Meli could think clearly and devise such a plan in her current condition, given she could barely last a minute without sneezing.

 

The plan was risky, but it was their only shot. After Cakaza nodded his assent to the plan, Meli requested the spirit infect the lake monster. It glittered with glee and manifested a spindly hand towards her nose, palm open. She obliged it with another powerful sneeze, “Hihh’EHXSH!” and it flew away with the offering to infect the creature.

 

Cakaza suddenly remembered that he had a handkerchief in his pocket and offered it to her. “Sorry I couldn’t give it to you earlier, I had uh...forgotten, earlier. And then we started the ritual...” He blushed, embarrassed at his carelessness.

 

Meli took it gratefully, blowing her already-reddening nose hard and wiping it with the soft, clean fabric. This was the first time all day that she felt like she could breathe. “Thank you,” she said, taking a deep breath through her nose as if she’d never get the chance again.

 

“You should rest before we take on the monster. I need your help, and it will drain your energy.” Though they were able to conjure the spirit to weaken the monster, the two still needed to perform an involved ritual to hypnotize it, and it was one that required multiple participants.

 

She opened her mouth to argue, but then realized there was nothing they could do but wait. Instead, she nodded, and she lay on the ground on top of the blanket she had been sitting on earlier when they were meditating, which did little to protect her from the cold, hard cave floor.

 

Cakaza sat beside her, unsure of what to do. “Do you want me to hold you? It’ll be warmer for the both of us.” He blushed, happy she was facing away from him and couldn’t see his cheeks redden.


Meli simply nodded, too tired and feeling too awkward to say anything in reply. Cakaza lifted her head onto his lap, rubbing her arm to soothe her. Her head was a lot hotter than he would have expected it to be, indicating that she was running a high fever. Soon they would be back at the village, and she could get proper treatment.

 

Meli couldn’t sleep, no matter how hard she tried. She was exhausted, but the sneezing and coughing that rattled her aching head and disrupted her breathing kept her from being able to lie still. She hoped that taking a break would be enough to get her through the ritual. Having Cakaza there was comforting, and eventually she was able to doze off.

 

When Cakaza felt enough time had passed for the spirit’s powers to take effect, he rubbed Meli’s shoulder gently to wake her up. She hadn’t really slept, she only fell in and out of a blurry daze. But now she had to pull herself together and work through her illness. It was their only chance to escape.

 

They made their way to the shore of the underground lakebed. With the dim light of their torches they couldn’t make out the shape of the creature beneath the black waters, but they could see bubbles bursting up to the surface and ripples that were synced in time with a low, intermittent growling noise. The creature was snoring just below the surface of the water. Now was their chance.

 

“Hold this,” Cakaza whispered to Meli. He held out a candle with a small, yet very red, flame that appeared to have spontaneously lit itself. “Don’t let it go out.” He knew it would be difficult for her to hold it still in her current state, but he needed to clearly concentrate on reciting the chant that would control the beast’s mind. The fire burned more intensely.

 

Meli held the candle with one hand and used her other to shield the flame from her own breathing. Fortunately there was no wind in the cavern, so there was less of a chance for it to be extinguished by accident. She held it closer to herself, allowing it to warm her hands and her face. Cakaza began to chant the spell, only barely loud enough for her to hear it, even though she was standing right beside him.

 

Less than a minute passed before she had to sneeze again. Meli couldn’t risk reaching for her handkerchief to blow her nose, she didn’t want to let the fire go out. It was risky enough staying so close to the monster, but ruining the ritual and forcing them to start over was dangerous; they only had so much time.

 

However, sneezing was more hazardous. The noise could disturb the monster and cause the flame to go out. She pulled the hand that helped shield against the wind away from the candle and towards her pocket for her handkerchief, but the fire shrunk significantly and flickered from her hitching breaths. She had hoped keeping her mouth angled away from the flame would be enough, but it clearly wasn’t. Meli quickly raised her hand again. It seemed like she would just have to focus on not sneezing, which was proving to be a difficult task.

 

She bent her head down, pushing the tip of her nose into her raised arm, hoping it would quell the itch for the time being. It was only effective for a few seconds. She tried to hold her breath, but the urge to sneeze grew too strong, and soon her breath was hitching again, as silently as she could make it. She pushed her nose harder against her arm. “Hh’hMCHh!” The flame jumped. At least she could muffle the sneezes this time.

 

Cakaza shot a quick sideways glance to Meli, but trusted that she would be able to control herself and let him finish the ritual. He had been successful conjuring a spirit despite her sneezes, though he hoped this would go better than before.

 

HIH’ehshh! ‘TCHh’eh!” Meli gasped for air, barely able to breathe quietly. Her sneezes echoed faintly off the cave walls. Sneezing was the most tiring thing she had done all day. The candle light stayed alive, but she could barely hold it steady. He had better be finishing up soon. She straightened herself upright, pulling her nose away from her sleeve and leaving behind a thin trail of snot.

 

EEH’CHHhiew!” The sneeze caught her by surprise and she lurched forward. The monster snorted but remained still. She stifled her coughs that followed, hardly able to believe that the candlelight had survived.

 

Cakaza tried his best to stay focused on casting the spell, not thinking about the monster or Meli. He was so close, he needed only a few uninterrupted moments. Meli snuffled and became determined not to sneeze again until the ritual was done, even though wetness was already dribbling slowly out of her nose. And her breathing was becoming uneven as a tickle fanned out through her nostrils. She scrunched up her face, trying to soothe the itch, ignoring the snot slowly sliding towards her lip, suppressing the urge to cough stemming from the collection of mucus in her throat. “Heh’ehhh-hih…HEHHHh…hih…” The shallow breaths threatened to overtake her, but she would struggle as long as she could. All they needed was a few more seconds, a minute at most.

 

Her breath hitched erratically, completely out of her control now. “Hiehh… eh-HAHHH’EESHH’IEW!

 

(Short, optional alternate ending: )

 

The candle went out.

 

Cakaza jumped, startled by her sneeze despite the long build up, and his voice broke off. Damn it. He would have to start the incantation over, and they had been so close to gaining control over the monster.

 

They had other things to worry about. The monster roared, stomping one of its massive feet against the ground. A tremor was sent through the cave. It wasn’t enough to disturb the rocks at the entrance, but it was strong enough to send waves from the lake over the two. Meli was caught completely off-guard, swept away by the water before Cakaza could react or do anything to save her. She went under, forced down by the lake and completely lacking the strength to fight the currents and swim to the surface.

 

Cakaza had also been dragged into the water. He pushed his way upwards, trying to stay above for air and keep an eye out for Meli. The monster slammed its tail into the young man’s head, knocking him out cold and sending him flying into the cave wall.

 

No one ever heard from the two apprentices again.

 

And then, at last, it was done. The monster rolled in its sleep, slamming fitfully into the walls of the cave and creating another series of shockwaves. Waves from the lakes crashed on the two young shamans, and as the water receded back into the lake it almost dragged them with it. They struggled against the current, splashing and scrambling in the freezing torrent, and successfully kept themselves from being swept away. However,

 

GrrrRRRUuugggghuh!”

 

The creature was waking up. Cakaza fumbled in the wet sand to grab Meli’s hand and help her to her feet, seeing that she was shaking like a leaf in the wind from having her already-freezing body plunged into the cold water. She sneezed a few more times, her wet, loose strands of hair flying into her face, having escaped its tie in the commotion. But as soon as she regained her balance she broke into a run alongside her partner, having realized the same thing he did. The passage that led out of the cavern was not long, but it was twisted and filled with off-shoot pathways, and the water had doused their light. They would have to dash madly in the dark, with only their memory to guide them.

 

Fortunately, in the past few days, they had wandered and retraced their steps through the cave so frequently that the paths were almost a second nature to them. Still, with Meli’s violent sneezing attack and coughing keeping her body doubling over, Cakaza kept a tight grip on her hand to guide her out. They reached the cave entrance and fell forward into the light of day, tumbling forwards down the little grassy hill that the cave sat on top of.

 

The two sat catching their breath, Cakaza looking at the sky as he offered a short prayer of thanks to the spirits who’d watched over them. His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden, terrifying, gurgling noise, and he spun around with a look of fear, expecting to see that the monster had followed them outside.

 

Instead, he saw Meli blowing her nose messily into her handkerchief with a look of relish on her face. Which quickly turned to surprise and embarrassment when she saw Cakaza’s face. Her cheeks turned bright red and she tried to gracefully refold the sodden cloth as he laughed out loud. Soon she joined his laughter, equally happy that they had survived their encounter, and proud to have overcome it together as shamans and as friends.

 
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This is a great story! I really like the beginning where she keeps sneezing, while Cakaza has to concentrate on meditation.

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