In Plain Sight
It knew! It bloody-abyss knew! He didn’t know how the nekhesa knew. But somehow, it knew he was there. Maybe the whole time. And wasn’t that a fantastic thought.
No longer concerned with keeping silent or unseen, Rin bolted for the corridor.
Behind him, claws scraped across stone, and powerful legs bounded. The rumbling purr deepened into something more sinister, echoed by higher hisses of reptilian laughter.
Rin raced down the corridor.
It was crowded. Piles of rubble, fungus and vines competed for height against crumbling walls. Stone sconces peeked out randomly from near the ceiling, covered in glowing luminescent fungus. Holes torn through the walls gave a streaked view of the cavern as Rin ran.
The powerful bounds of a predator came up behind him, gaining fast.
Then it passed him.
Rin swiveled his head, trying to glimpse it. Where is it?! All he had was sound, and all that told him was the creature was somewhere ahead of him. And still running.
In the next instance, the nekhesa sprang at him from a side hole.
Rin screamed, the sound tearing from his throat in a violent rasp. He dropped to the ground and rolled, slamming up against a column.
His head jerked up to find the nekhesa not even a pace away. With a whimper, he pressed tight against the wall.
This is it.
The monster leisurely approached, savoring the terror of its prey. Red reptilian eyes gleamed in the strange light, bobbing this way and that. Muscles rippled under the spotted yellow coat.
Rin found his gaze locked with the molten gold of the feline eyes. They were gleeful, reveling in how its prey pressed against the wall and shook. I’ve won, those eyes seemed to say. And I’m going to enjoy this.
Rin couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. He certainly couldn’t look away from those eyes.
An erratic rumble bubbled from the creature’s chest like laughter.
It came closer, easily towering over Rin. It didn’t even bother circling him, letting him have the illusion of escape.
Rin took it. In an instant of terror and hysteria, he darted past exposed fangs and down the hall.
The monster didn’t even attempt to bite him.
The rumbling laughter pursued Rin. As did the nekhesa eventually. It gave him the head start.
Blood and bloody bone! It was playing with him. Catching him and chasing again.
This was the nekhesa’s domain. And Rin was its latest toy.
Behind him, hissing rose in pitch, and a roar echoed off the walls, lodging in the primal base of Rin’s brain.
Out! Door! Safety! Anything!
He scanned the walls, searching wildly, but plant life or gunk covered everything. No doors. Only the missing chunks of wall that led back into the main cavern.
The rumbles grew louder and pounding paws echoed up towards him.
Rin redoubled his sprint and ignored the stitch in his side.
The corridor was long and wide, stretching on without corner or intersection in sight. No doors either.
Oh, please Kinzi, give me something!
When nothing presented itself, Rin leaped through the next wall hole, into another bricked corridor.
He kept running, taking a half-collapsed corner by skidding across the stones and rebounding off the opposing wall. He dove across a fallen column and kept going. Breath came in ragged gasps.
Behind him, the nekhesa leaped after him, sending a cascade of pebbles and loosened bricks down with it. It was no longer laughing.
Hide! I have to hide! Rin careened around another turn. And stopped still.
Dead end. Emphasis on dead.
He could hear the creature’s claws clatter over stone not far back. No time!
With the beast just around the bend, a stubborn determination seized Rin. He ran at the corner between two walls, kicking off one, then the other. He got high enough to grab the stone sconce jutting out. Kicking his legs for momentum, he hauled himself onto the top of the sconce, scrunching his legs underneath him. One hand clung to the stone beneath him, while the other pressed against the ceiling for balance.
The nekhesa tore around the corner, slamming into the opposite wall with an earth shuddering thud. It shook its great head, snakes hissing. It sniffed the air, then stalked forward, claws clicking horribly against the ground.
Balanced precariously on his narrow perch, Rin bit his bottom lip and tried not to breathe too heavily. I’m not here, he thought desperately. He pressed himself into the ceiling corner as far as he could. Go away!
Something blossomed within Rin’s chest. Right in that hole in his soul. It was cold, fueled by fear. Or maybe it was all fear.
The monster came closer. Rin could hear it breathing, inhaling deeply in an echoing way from the seven heads breathing in unison.
Could it smell him?
His arms and legs shook with the effort of balancing after his sprint. If the stone crumbles…
Cold seeped into his veins, freezing muscles in place. His heart stuttered and surged, and Rin was certain it would give out at any moment.
The nekhesa was right beneath him, snakes bobbling all of three hands away from where Rin’s fingers clutched the sconce. A low growl emanated from its throat. All it had to do was look up, and Rin was dead.
There’s nothing here! Nothing! Go away! Please, please, go away!
It did just that.
With a snarl, it turned around and stalked back down the hall.
Rin stared after it incredulously. It just… left?
Warmth burst through him as he finally took a breath. His fingers felt numb.
Disbelief and suspicion settled into Rin’s gut. But at least he had some options now. He could stay up here and wait for it to leave the area. If it ever does… And probably wander into it again, sooner or later.
Cold nipped at his fingertips until he shook out his hands.
Or — and this was probably crazy — he could follow it. That at least guaranteed that he knew where it was, rather than agonize over running into it again.
He swung down from the stone beam and fell the rest of the way to the ground in a controlled tumble.
Another burst of cold fear flowed through his heart as he thought about what he was about to try.
He rubbed at his chest, wincing slightly. The skin didn’t even feel clammy, just sweaty. Though the gash that the Pyramid had torn open in him felt… full. Not whole or even healed. Nothing close to what it had been before that fateful offering. But… patched.
The echoes of clicking claws grew fainter, and Rin made a gut decision. He set off after the nekhesa, one hand running along the left wall.
Rin kept the nekhesa in sight at all times.
Which meant tailing it closer than he was comfortable with.
But the monster didn’t seem to notice.
It didn’t see him.
It didn’t hear him.
It didn’t smell him.
It was as if Rin had suddenly become invisible in every sense of the word.
But, as he could see his hands, Rin could say for certain that he was not transparent.
So, that left two options. Either the nekhesa truly wasn’t aware of Rin. Or it was playing with him again.
I should run, Rin thought, Nika’s voice coloring it with caution and disapproval. Now, before it figures out I’m here.
But he’d wandered the dark halls of the Pyramid for hours, and he still hadn’t found the third ring. Maybe a creature who lives here knows the layout? It was all he had to go on.
And he was terrified that if he lost sight of the nekhesa for even a moment, it would reappear behind him, mouth open.
The nekhesa never slowed. It kept an even stroll as it roamed the halls. It, at least, seemed to know where it was going.
The glowing fungus grew less and less. It still clung to the scones and tucked into corners in small patches. But Rin’s light stone, even hidden away in his pocket, stood out.
The floor grew sporadically unstable. Holes littered the walls. Chunks spanning paces were simply missing from the brick floor, opening to vast voids of darkness below. The nekhesa avoided these gaps with easy feline grace, strolling around them or leaping across. Rin could only scramble after it and hope to find a door to sneak through soon.
More and more vines, thicker and older, stretched over the floors and walls. Some dangled down into the chasm below. Rin didn’t take his time crossing them silently. Instead, he stumbled over the plant life and kept his gaze on his monstrous guide.
Mulch and gunk piled along the floor, particularly in the corners where the walls met the floor. A strange kind of crust had hardened over most of the gunk, giving it a peeling, dried mud texture. It seemed to have dripped down from the holes in the ceiling and had hardened in the dry, Pyramid air. The first brush of his toes across the crust crumbled it, revealing a sticky, goopy, green-brown center.
The nekhesa heard that. It stopped.
Rin ducked down against the wall, pressing into the shadow. Oh no no no no no!
Three snake heads twisted over the nekhesa’s shoulders, red eyes darting this way and that. The large feline head inhaled deeply, sniffing the air.
Rin stopped breathing.
A snarling growl abruptly cut the air. And the nekhesa moved on.
Rin sucked in his first breath and clutched at his racing heart. Abyss, that was close!
With a mental note to avoid the crusty goop, Rin crept back up and after the nekhesa.
It strolled through the halls, no longer searching for its missing prey. It strode across intersections and took turns with purpose. As if it had a specific destination in mind.
Rin contemplated taking the next corner the nekhesa didn’t. But the fear of that thing sneaking up behind him, catching him unawares… Rin shuddered. Nope! Don’t think about it.
The corridors widened, soon doubling their previous width and height. The floor once more bore the shattered footsteps of some massive creature, embedded into them in spiraling cracks and fractures.
Maybe that’s why it’s falling apart in this section?
The nekhesa moved briskly now. Almost impatiently.
Rin struggled to keep up as he navigated the crumbling, vine-strewn floor.
Around the next bend was a dead end. The corridor ended.
Rin’s heart stopped.
An enormous obsidian statue of a nekhesa, its golden face glowing in the gloom, sat in the center of the end wall.
At its spirit kin’s massive paws, Rin’s guide sat and inclined its head slightly, before settling down for another grooming session.
Rin crept closer, edging breathlessly along the left wall.
At the base of Kinzi’s statue was a wide, shallow wooden bowl, similar to the fortune bowl that had been in the dark offering room. Skulls of varying shapes filled the bowl. Bats. Maybe rats. Rin recognized a giant spider’s mandibles. And, of course, what could only be human skulls.
His flesh prickled at the sight, and a shudder shook his whole frame at the grisly collection.
Then something — a metallic glint — caught his eye.
A door. Embedded into the back wall behind Kinzi’s left flank.
Rin’s gaze darted between the door and the nekhesa. He’d have to move within striking range of the creature’s venomous snake heads. While the cat part might be busy grooming — and Rin still had his doubts — the snake heads were clearly alert.
I can be fast, or I can be careful. Both had equal chances of ending in painful death.
Rin slowly crouched, fingertips pressed to the floor. His breath came in short gasps. Indecision and fear filled his mind.
After a moment, he fought down the reaction to charge for the door. Instead, he dropped into a low crouch. Low and slow, Rin inched towards the door. He pressed his back to the wall behind him, keeping aware of it as he scooted along. His eyes darted back and forth between salvation and death.
Bad idea. This is such a bad idea! The back of his brain continued shrieking at him in Azti’s voice as Rin inched closer.
The nekhesa arched its back, then stretched out a paw across Rin’s path. It flexed all six claws languidly before his startled eyes. It then sprawled across the hall, filling the space with its bulk.
Barely a finger’s width separated Rin from the predator. Blood and bone. He froze and stared at the door behind the spirit statue, still eight hands away. He glared down at the obstructing limb.
Even limp and relaxed, muscles still bunched and flexed under fur. Jaws large enough to crush his skull rested on the folded matching limb a hand away. Half-lidded golden eyes faced Rin’s little pocket of shadow.
But it didn’t move.
Neither did he.
Rin crouched there, staring into the face of many heroic deaths throughout myth and legend.
I… don’t think it can see me. He pried his left hand from where it had clawed at the stone to wiggle his fingers in a little wave.
The nekhesa’s eyes drifted closed. Its breathing settled.
Okay. Alright. Keep going.
Gingerly, every sense alert to the creature before him, Rin slid upright. He lifted one leg over the nekhesa’s outstretched paw, hands bracing him for balance against the wall. When the creature didn’t move, he carefully lowered his foot to brush his toes against the floor on the other side.
The feline head might have been resting, but the snakes of the nekhesa twisted and turned every which way. When those red eyes passed over Rin, he stiffened.
Straddling the clawed leg of a creature that could definitely rend him limb from limb, Rin gulped down another shudder and an impulsive bit of hysteria. His heart beat so fast, he was certain it was skipping every other beat just to keep pace with itself.
But the reptilian gaze slid across Rin without a glint of recognition.
Other leg, Azti’s voice reminded him. Latching onto sense like a lifeline, he took a shuddering breath in and lifted his other leg.
Those toes also lowered back to the ground without a twitch from the nekhesa.
Door. Door door door! Get to the door!
Rin tiptoed away from the sprawling monster, but refused to take his eyes off it. The snake heads still kept a look out. But not one eye in the nekhesa’s seven sets even glanced at Rin.
He shuffled back first into the door and fumbled blindly for the catch, wide eyes locked on the nekhesa. The gears engaged, and the door ratcheted open.
The nekhesa’s ears twitched.
Rin stumbled backwards through the door.
The nekhesa’s eyes slid open.
What do you think happens next?