THIRTY-SIX - Xanthus VIII

THIRTY-SIX - Xanthus VIII

A Chapter by Justin Xavier Smith
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Xanthus & Valleaux make their way into the den of the Bareland Beasts.

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Valleaux had been a good traveling companion�"he carried the torch, he listened when he needed to, and he didn’t argue.  They walked for over an hour in silence, the light showing them no signs of the Bareland Beast they were trying to track.  Instead it was just more of the same�"rocks and dirt.  At last, the light shone on something different.

“We’ve reached the cliffs,” Valleaux said.

“Have we really come that far?”  He looked up at the jagged rocks and steep cliff side.  “Is it possible the Beast came this way?”

“We would have seen it if it had gone anywhere else.  There’s nowhere else for the creature to hide.”

“It makes sense.  They live in the caves underneath the cliffs.”

“Should we go back and get the others?”

“We haven’t found anything yet.  We press forward.  You have your weapon, right?”  Valleaux patted his sword in response.  “Good.  Let’s go find a Beast.”

There was a very narrow, very steep path leading up the side of the cliff face.  Xanthus led the way, stepping up onto the stone, heading upwards.  This is worse than climbing the castle stairs.  I wish I had my Guard here to climb the path for me.  Things would be so much easier.  Then he laughed.

“You know, when I woke up yesterday, if someone had told me this is what I’d be doing today, I would have had him exiled.  I wouldn’t have cared that it was the third in such a short time�"this is ridiculous.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” Valleaux said.  “Not that I’m glad you’re struggling, or that�"I just mean… it’s nice to have your company.”

“It’s okay,” he said.  “I know what you mean.”  In truth, it was good to have Valleaux here as well�"but he couldn’t bring himself to say it to him.

The path they were on came to an end.  Xanthus looked for a cave entrance, or some way to continue the climb, and noticed that just above him, the path continued upwards towards the mouth of a cave.  He reached out for a jagged stone, got a decent grip, and hoisted himself up to the next ledge.  As he swung his legs up, he felt the stone dig sharply into his skin.  He recoiled, looking to see that blood was now pouring from his hand.  There’s not much I can do about it now.  He rubbed it off on his furs and reached down to take the torch from Valleaux and help him over the ledge.

“How could the Bareland Beast even get up these cliffs?” Valleaux panted.  “This is absurd.”

“Bareland Beasts are excellent climbers,” Xanthus said.  “Their paws are padded and allow them to cross rough terrain without hurting themselves.  Their claws give them better grip.”

“How do you know that?”

How do I know that?  He had a quick flash of a memory�"Willoughby reading to him in his chambers as a child.  “The castle Healer, Willoughby.  He pretty much raised me while my father was sick.  I used to love listening to his stories.  Once he died, there wasn’t much time for stories anymore.”

Part of him still missed the comfort of lying in bed at night, listening to another tale of courage and bravery told by Willoughby before he fell asleep.  The man had a lot of stories, many of which were about Xanthus’s own ancestors fighting to keep Xantom safe from the creatures of the Barelands.

The two of them started walking again.  Up ahead, Xanthus could see that the path twisted upwards even more steeply than it had previously.  This isn’t going to be easy.  The things I do for my people…

“What other types of stories did he tell you?” Valleaux asked.

“The typical stories.  How the first King Xanthus would hold a massive feast inside the castle after every Hunt.  Food was plentiful, there were less people, and everyone was happy.  There was enough space inside the city for every person… it almost sounds unbelievable at this point.”

“I never heard those stories,” Valleaux said.

“Never?”

“We don’t have much time for stories in the Outskirts.”

“But there are so many good ones!”

“Tell me another.”

“What do you know about the Outsiders?”

“You mean people from the Outskirts?”

“No… people from outside the Dome.”

“There are people outside the Dome?”

“I don’t know.  But there are stories.  They’re called the Outsiders.  Apparently they used to come to the city from outside, bringing gifts for the King and for the Xantomians.”

“How did they get in?  The Dome is sealed�"you can’t get in or out.”

“I don’t know.  Willoughby never told me that part.”

“It sounds like Willoughby was telling you myths,” Valleaux said.

“I don’t know.  It seemed real at the time.  I guess I never thought about it before.  I haven’t thought of those stories in years.”

“That’s because they’re made up.  That’s like me telling you that I saw food growing out of the ground in the Outskirts.”

Xanthus and Valleaux both laughed.  “I guess you’re right.  I was a child�"Willoughby was just trying to entertain me.  Probably to help keep my mind off the fact that my father was dying.  I should thank him for that when we get back.”

Thank you for not commenting on the fact that we may never get back to the city.  I guess we both need to think it’s possible.

“I wish I’d heard some of these stories growing up,” Valleaux said.  “It might have given me a little more hope.  I think my sister would have loved them.”

“I’m very sorry about what happened to her,” Xanthus said.  “If I had known what was happening, I would have stopped it.”

“I know.  I saw you when you found out.  I don’t blame you.”

Throughout the conversation, they had climbed.  Using hands and knees, Xanthus and Valleaux clambered up the rock face.  Xanthus had more cuts, scraped, and bruises than he had ever had in his life.

When they got to the next shelf, Xanthus stopped to push a pebble over the edge.  Six… seven… eight seconds until he heard the clattering echo of the rock hitting stone below.  If one of us fell, we would die instantly.  It might not be such a bad death�"better than starving or being torn up by a Bareland Beast.

“So what exactly is our plan if we find the Beasts?” Valleaux asked.  “Let’s say we find them, and we follow them to their food source, and there’s more than enough to go around.  What then?  Do we go back and force the entire Hunt to climb these cliffs and try to sneak past the creatures so that we can eat?”

“Yes.”  Apparently that was enough.

Xanthus stepped around a massive stone and stopped in his tracks.  In the distance he could see what they were looking for�"an opening in the side of the cliffs.  The entrance to the Beasts’ den.

“This is it,” Xanthus said.  “This is what we’ve been looking for.”

“We have to go inside,” Valleaux said.

But the two men remained rooted to the spot, neither willing to venture into what might very well be the home of the Bareland Beasts.

“Lead the way,” Xanthus said, gently pushing Valleaux forward.  The man looked back, unsure of himself, but Xanthus urged him onward with a smile and a nod.  Valleaux nervously turned back towards the entrance to the cave and started walking.  With any luck, the food crisis will be solved and I’ll be the biggest hero that Xantom has ever seen.  They’ll love me until the end of time.

They reached the mouth of the cave.  Valleaux held the torch in the opening, trying to illuminate as much as was possible and figure out which way to go.  Fortunately, it appeared there was only one pathway into the cave so they weren’t likely to get lost.  Xanthus once again prodded Valleaux forward.  The man trembled as he stepped across the threshold and into what was likely the Beast’s lair.

“I’m scared,” Valleaux said.

“So am I,” Xanthus admitted.  “As long as we’re quiet, we shouldn’t have anything to worry about.  If you see one, just turn around.  Hopefully they won’t know we’re here and will lead us straight to their food source.  After that, we can leave the same way we came in.”

“That makes me feel a little better, I guess,” Valleaux said.

The light from the torch flickered across the stone walls, trying to penetrate the darkness of the cavern, but it just created a dull yellow circle just a few steps in front of them.  Shadows of rocks and protrusions danced across the walls like energetic children, beckoning for the two men to start the next part of their journey.  With each new shimmer of light, a rush of terror pulsed through Xanthus’s body.  This is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.  Another quick flicker of light caused Xanthus’s heart to jump up in his chest.

Calm down, Xanthus.  You’re going to be fine.  Think about your daughter.  Think about Cassiopeia.  She’s the reason you’re doing this.  He reassured himself with every step and repeated the thought in his mind.  If you don’t do this, everyone’s dead.  Even her.

Then there were the sounds�"the dripping of water in the distance, echoing loudly through the tunnel, the breathing of Valleaux, which in this confined space might as well be the growling of a Bareland Beast for the amount of noise it caused.  Their own tiny footsteps seemed as loud as if they were shouting specifically to get the creatures’ attention.  We might as well just announce our presence now.  We’re not going to make it to the food source.

He shook that thought.  Cassiopeia.  Cassiopeia.

As they pressed further into the cave, the sounds changed.  Some of the sounds of dripping water seemed to be swallowed up in the darkness, choked out by the confinement of the space.  Each drop seemed to be coming form farther and farther away, the sound swallowed in the emptiness of the cave.

Then came something far more horrifying�"the growing sound of footsteps plodding along through the cave, of stones being overturned.  Is that us?  Xanthus reached out and grabbed Valleaux’s shoulder to keep him still.  Valleaux was shaking.  He heard the noise too.  When they both stopped moving, the sound kept coming.  Something big is coming.

The footsteps grew louder.  Xanthus pulled Valleaux to the side of the cave, into a tiny indentation in the wall.  He guided Valleaux’s hand downwards, dipping the torch into a small puddle of water on the ground, extinguishing the flame.  They were immediately plunged into complete darkness.  Smoke filled the dark space but they wouldn’t have noticed if the smell weren’t filling their nostrils.  The sound of their breathing suddenly felt far too loud.  There was no way the creatures couldn’t hear them.

They’re going to find us.  Then they’re going to eat us and this whole plan will have been for nothing.  He was acutely aware of his heart pounding; the sound filled his ears like nothing had before.  How could they not hear that?  It’s so loud it might do permanent damage to my hearing.

Then the creature came around the corner.  He could hear it breathing; smell its hot breath in the small space.  The creature uttered a deep, quiet growl, which ended up being even louder than the sound of Xanthus’s own pounding heart.

It’s only a few steps away.  It was almost time for panic to set in.  And then Valleaux let out a soft whimper.  Xanthus clasped his hand over the man’s mouth.  He felt wetness on the man’s face.  He’s been crying.  I can’t say I blame him for being terrified.

The Beast wasn’t moving now.  But it was sniffing.  Xanthus could just barely make out the movement of the creature’s massive head swinging slowly back and forth inside the cavern.

Just leave.  There’s no one here… Be on your way!  He tried to send his thoughts to the creature but knew that was useless.  The Beast remained beside them on all fours, waiting, thinking.  Then it turned toward them.

Xanthus heard a trickling sound and then felt even more water building up at his feet.  He looked down to see what was happening.  Valleaux’s pissed himself.  The smell of the urine filled his nostrils.  It was rancid, especially mixed with the smell of their own sweat and fear.  There’s no way the beast doesn’t smell that.

The Beast took a step forward, bringing it mere inches away.  Xanthus could feel its hot breath on his face.  The smell made him gag.  He couldn’t help it, but he retched and the sound that emitted from his mouth was loud and unmistakable.  For a brief moment, time froze.  The sound echoed out throughout the tunnel for what seemed like hours.

The Beast roared�"a loud, powerful, primal bellow.  Saliva from the creature’s mouth collided with Xanthus’s cheeks.  It was a terrifying sound�"the sound of their deaths.  It was the loudest and most frightening thing Xanthus had ever heard, but he knew exactly what it meant.  It means I’m about to end up like Alaric.  The sound reverberated through the cave, bouncing off the walls and coming back even louder.  The sounds built up on each other, growing, filling Xanthus’s head, his whole body was shaking in horror.

Beside him, he felt Valleaux reaching for his weapon.  Don’t do it, Xanthus thought, but it was too late.  Valleaux lashed out at the creature full force.  The sound of blade cutting flesh filled the empty space.  The beast reared back, howling in pain from the cut the blade had given him.  The sound was worse than the roar it had made before.  This was surely a signal for more of the beasts to come.

“Run,” Xanthus said, and bolted.  Valleaux was already running.  At least let me catch up, Xanthus thought.  How is he so fast?  If I can’t catch up to him, I’m dead!

He ran as fast as he could, heading back towards the opening to the cave.  If he could just get outside, surely he could find some place to hide where the beast wouldn’t find him, or where it would give up and decide to go back into its den.

He could hear the beast giving chase behind him.  It was gaining on him; it took one step to Xanthus’s three, and would surely be on him in an instant.  I can’t outrun it.  The thought came to him like a punch to the stomach, and he slowed to a stop.  His side was cramping and he couldn’t run anymore, even to save his own life.  Instead he turned to face the creature.  He pulled out his sword.

“Come on!” he yelled.  The beast didn’t slow down, instead it seemed to speed up.  Seconds before the collision, time froze and he could see the creature’s face mere inches from his own.  He could make out his own reflection in its eyes, and he knew that he was going to die.

The creature let out a terrible screech and one of its claws took Xanthus across the chest.  Hot blood poured out of the wound and Xanthus fell backwards to the ground, his sword clattering beside him.  He had only one thought before he passed out.  A lot of use you were to me.



© 2015 Justin Xavier Smith


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Added on February 10, 2015
Last Updated on February 10, 2015
Tags: Den, Bareland Beast, Barelands, Xanthus, Xantom, Starvation, Food, Survival, Fight, Battle, Valleaux, Attack, Death, City, Dome

Xantom: Forgotten City


Author

Justin Xavier Smith
Justin Xavier Smith

Los Angeles, CA



About
My name is Justin Smith. I am a writer, actor, and filmmaker. I am fascinated by human behavior and the weird things that we find "shameful" or that we are unwilling to talk about. So I talk about the.. more..

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