Plagued

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Hulz Deep

Noddie peeked over the edge of the Shadowrock cliffs at the small ledge far below. The sea was as gray as the sky and the sheer face of the limestone cliffs offered few handholds for the climb down. Wind ripped at her hair and clothes as the sea roiled up a mess of waves and foam.

“I will be right behind you Noddie May,” Mesha assured her, noticing her nervous fidgeting.

Shortly after they made plans to enter Hulz Deep, Noddie became more familiar with Mordekah’s notebook, flipping through its tattered pages while alone in her room. She discovered a map of the Shadowrock Cliffs with a red dot marking an area near the sea. When she showed the others they agreed this had to be where the entrance to the cave was located. Things looked even more promising after Lorance analyzed the numbers in the upper left-hand corner of the same page and found they were dates and times for the fluctuating tides.

Isca had intended for Noddie and Mesha to recover the talisman, but Lorance and Sarah refused to be left behind and Vince was not about to let them enter the cavern alone. After a long argument everyone had to admit that Jethrow was the best choice for an escort as he was familiar with how the robbers operated and knew Mordekah’s methods.

Accompanying Noddie and her friends into a cursed cave went against everything Jethrow stood for. If not for the Life’s Sake Vow, he would never have assisted them. Noddie appreciated his sacrifice. Jethrow might not be kind or comforting, but he was brave, and protected his own.

As Jethrow prepared to descend the cliffs on the secured rope, Vince caught his arm, “Be careful and watch over the young princes. There’s no telling what you might find in there.”

Jethrow shrugged the man off with, “You don’t need to tell me.”

Vince watched with a solemn face as Jethrow, Noddie, Mesha, Sarah, and Lorance all descended the cliff. There was naked worry in his eyes, but he seemed resigned to keeping guard with Preston and five of his archers.

The rocky ledge at the base of the cliff was five feet wide and sloped toward the raging sea.

“This should be the place. Search for a way in.”

Picking their way around sharp rocks, the group scanned the damp stone for any sign of entrance. In no time Mesha’s voice rang out against the wind, “It’s here!”

They gathered around where Mesha pointed to a circular indent in the cliff face with deeper holes to form the exact size and shape of the key they acquired from the King’s grave.

Mesha placed the key into the indention. It fit perfectly.

“Ready?” He called back.

Sarah tugged her hair out of her face. “No.”

Mesha placed his fingers into the five holes and turned the band.

A rumbling, grinding noise caused them to retreat several paces. The rock beneath their feet vibrated and the water churned and crashed against the ledge harder than ever. A seam appeared in the cliff, growing wider as the two rock faces on either side slid apart like doors. They came to a stop with a definite boom, leaving a tall gaping hole.

They stood shivering on the narrow outcrop of rock. Hulz deep was about as welcoming as Mordekah had been. Mesha cleared his throat and removed the key. “There’s no use turning back now. We must go forward.”

As Noddie passed through the dark entryway a shiver ran up the back of her legs and into her spine. The air was damp and sticky and it was surprisingly warm. No one spoke as they walked into the dark.

Mesha stopped abruptly. His body pale and rigid as he whispered, “This place is full of death.”

Fummp. There was a flare as a torch ignited on its own. One by one, other torches built into the walls around them burst into flame showing a large oval room with a smooth, stone floor and a high vaulted ceiling supported by massive pillars.

There was a groan and they turned in time to see the doors to the outside slide tightly shut. There was no way out. No way back.

Noddie hugged her arms, feeling as though she had been caught in a trap. I am brave. I am brave, she chanted in her mind.

“What shut the door? And what lit the torches?” Sarah asked tugging at her hair.

Mesha’s eyes wandered the room. “Remember this place has been cursed and protected by magic. I expect we will be encountering stranger things as we journey here.”

He led them to the other side of the room to a wide doorway. Noddie was right behind them when something moved out of the corner of her eye. Turning, she scanned the now empty room. There was nothing there. Reprimanding herself, she quickened her steps to catch up with the others, unable to shake the feeling that something was moving behind her whenever she was not looking.

As they passed into the next room Sarah screamed. Jethrow swore. Across the dusty, floor lay old and decaying skeletons. Human skeletons. Most of them lay face down with their arms out as though they had died while trying to crawl away.

Noddie rubbed her chest in a circular motion with one hand as she gripped Mesha’s arm with the other. He looked neither surprised nor disturbed at this gruesome sight. “Robbers, trying to escape Isca’s curse.” He looked ahead and pointed to the left. “That must be the way.”

He was pointing to a river flowing through one side of the room where a wooden boat was tied. The stream led into a dark tunnel in the opposite wall.

“We need to get there from here?” Noddie asked. Her eyes kept being drawn to the remains on the floor.

“Of course. Try not to touch anything. There is nothing to fear from the dead.”

“Speak for yourself,” Jethrow mumbled, rubbing his charm between his fingers.

“Come along.” Mesha began to pick his way around the bones toward the boat. Careful with their footing, the others mimicked him with much less confidence.

Noddie was half way across the room when she heard what sounded like a long exhale. A cold sensation swept through the room and she paused as something materialized before her.

“Mesha!” Sarah gave a shout of horror.

All around the room figures appeared out of thin air. They looked like people. Each transparent, yet glowing with an unearthly green light. They each stood above a skeleton watching the company with unfathomable expressions and unseeing eyes.

“Do not panic! Do not panic. It is all right. Just keep walking.”

But Noddie didn’t want to move, and neither did the others. Their eyes darted from one spectral form to the other.

“What is it?” Sarah asked, almost in tears.

Mesha went to her side and took her hand.

“Do not worry, they are dead, Remember?”

“Yeah, that’s what worries me,” called Jethrow from his spot in the center of three ghostly forms.

“They cannot hurt you. Just walk past them. They should not stop you.”

“Shouldn’t?”

“They will not. I do not think they can. What you are seeing is more or less what I see all the time, an imprint of the dead. These are not the actual spirits of the deceased, more of a mark, a fingerprint left behind. Their souls have departed, what you see is a trace stating a soul had once been there. They are only a memory trapped here by sorcery and time.”

Only slightly reassured, the others continued toward the boat. The figures around them did not move, but their heads turned as they passed as though they were following them with their sightless eyes.

“So this is what your curse looks like, Bro?” Lorance called as he slipped between two of the dead.

“No, but it’s the same principle.” Mesha answered. He steered Sarah to stand beside the boat before he made his way back to Noddie and took her hand to pull her the rest of the way. She felt better with him by her side.

Mesha put a knuckle to his lips in thought. “This place is filled with the same magic that makes up my curse, and many men died here. It makes sense that you would see them while you are here.”

Once they were all next to the boat they looked back at the specters.

“My sore,” breathed Lorance.

“Don’t use that slang,” Mesha automatically corrected his brother.

“Are you sure they can’t follow us?” Noddie asked.

“I do not think so,” Mesha mused. “All the same I would prefer not to linger here.”

“Is that the only way?” Lorance asked looking uncertainly at the tunnel ahead.

“I do not see any other way.”

Jethrow stepped into the front of the boat as Mesha climbed in and turned to help Noddie.

Sarah wrapped her arms around herself, “I am not getting into a boat that’s going to drift into a small dark tunnel. We could get trapped in there.”

Noddie forgot Sarah was unnerved by tight, enclosed places.

“Alright stay here. You can make friends with the dead people,” Lorance said lightly as he jumped down beside Mesha.

Sarah glanced over her shoulder at the sightless beings, then clambered in without any more complaint.

“There’s no rudder or paddle,” Jethrow observed as Sarah slouched beside Lorance and gripped his arm.

“The river flows forward,” Mesha pointed out. “Untie the boat and we will be carried by the current.

“I don’t like this,” Jethrow grunted, but he untied the rope all the same.

The water carried the boat forward. Noddie took one last look at the room. The beings were still there, unmoving and watchful. She turned toward the tunnel, which grew more and more threatening the closer they came to it.

As they passed into the tunnel’s mouth Noddie gasped and glanced back at the now obscured room. She could have sworn something moved behind them as they passed beyond the wall.

Unnerved, Noddie faced forward again and examined their new surroundings. There were no lights, but the water appeared to glow on its own, reflecting around them in faint swaying patterns. The boat glided at a constant speed and her company was silent. Mesha and Lorance were looking around as though they were on a peaceful scenic boat ride. Sarah sat clutching Lorance’s arm, her eyes on her shoes. Jethrow knelt at the front watching the water suspiciously.

Noddie clutched her hands together in her lap. She jumped when Lorance’s voice broke the silence, “What?”

Noddie turned to see him looking at her.

“Huh?”

“Didn’t you say something?”

Noddie shook her head. “No.”

Lorance averted his eyes, “Sorry, I thought you did.”

They carried on.

Out of the corner of her eye Noddie noticed Mesha give his head a jerky shake. In front of them Jethrow started to rub his ear.

Noddie was beginning to feel that something was not quite right when she thought she heard a sound. It was so soft she couldn’t quite make out what it was. The noise seemed to rise out of the water. But no, it was seeping through the walls. No, the ceiling.

Disoriented, Noddie tried to make out what it was. It was a voice, but she could not hear what it was saying. Her ears started to tingle and itch. Gradually the voice grew louder, and was joined by several other echoing voices.

She felt as though the voices were trying to warn her. To tell her something important, but she couldn’t understand them when they all said different things at the same time: Don’t go- Can’t see- Nothing there- Help- Turn back- Lost, so Lost- Cries in the dark- The way is gone- Find me-Don’t know- Never again- Secrets in the- No way out- Help me-Lost, all lost- Last chance- Where are you?- Forgot- Fire and ash and- Hiding- Look behind you- Gone forever-Please!—

Her ears pounded and she rubbed them vigorously. A headache formed behind her eyes and fear overwhelmed her common sense. She couldn’t take it anymore! She was going to go mad! They were going to die here!

Then, a much louder voice echoed around her.

“Where the wind goes I follow.

Over water or earth

And the skies call me onward

As they have been from birth.

Seek me out yonder

Where earth touches sky

One must move onward

Or never will fly.”

Sarah had her hands clamped over her ears and was singing at the top of her voice.

“Now must I leave you

To go far away

But find me tomorrow

At the end of the day

For night soon will follow

And all fade away.”

As Noddie concentrated on Sarah’s singing she momentarily forgot about the voices. They started to ebb away and the throbbing in her ears and head reduced.

As Sarah finished the last verse of the song they were left in silence once again. The voices were gone leaving nothing but the gentle slosh of the water beneath the boat.

Lorance was twisting a finger into one of his ears. “Oow, what was that?”

“I’m not sure.” Jethrow rubbed his temple.

“The singing was good thinking on your part, Miss Sarah,” said Lorance.

But Sarah was looking uneasy, “Was it my singing or something else that made the voices go away?”

Mesha rubbed his head. “Could be the singing, or the area we were in. Perhaps once we were not paying attention to them anymore the voices stopped trying to speak to us.”

“But whose voices were they?” Noddie whispered.

She was half relieved and half frightened when no one replied to her question.

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