“What.” replied a flat voice, annoyed as if awakened from a deep slumber– the low grumble sounded rather surely and dismissive. The voice came from a somewhat crystalline boulder, enormous at about nine foot high, which was certainly tall enough to cast a shadow over Petka and make him feel rather small and vulnerable. The surface of the boulder, though chipped and pock-marked, was actually quite beautiful, resembling grey granite lined with deposits of sky blue crystal which formed spikes as they wended around its surface– further, it boasted clusters of beautiful lichens that were colored in brilliant crimsons, golds, and ocher, as if to mimic autumn’s beauty and to compete with the hanging Spanish moss that clung to the stony sides of this singular rock. The grumpy stone’s surface indicated that it had remained immobile for a remarkably long time– most strange, however, was that the stone itself seemed to expand and contract, as if breathing.
“I need to get by,” replied Petka respectfully.
Another weighted sigh, and the stone started to move, causing the earth to quake slightly, nearly knocking Petka onto his rear end. The boulder slowly, and with many whispered curses turned finally and fully around to reveal itself to be an enormous stone elephant with a strangely flexible stone trunk (which was presently wiping the sleep from its slightly luminescent blue eyes )– true to its mammalian relatives, it bore two massive, tusks- one broken about midway, and other appearing not only intact, but formidably sharp. The rocky creature now sat still blocking the passage to the cave, his thick, tree trunk legs jutting out in front of him, and his flat-bottomed front legs pressed together, resting on a prodigious belly– not so much in the style of a wise man, but rather in the style of a stone elephant who lacked the ability to cross its arms in annoyance. Its brow was furrowed slightly as he scrutinized the bearded man in front of him and his face creased into a mixture of annoyance, befuddlement, and a hint of sardonic mirth.
“Oh,” said the stone-ephant in a deep bass with a somewhat petulant tone, “One of you lot. I haven’t seen one of you since… well, hmm. If I recall correctly, they were were much shorter, had little, curly tails, pushed up, flat little noses… They were like little, armored, squealing oval things- beady eyes, garish helmets, and tiiiiiny little swords. I wonder what happened to them…” the stone-ephant moved one enormous foot under his chin, and his eyes drifted upward, as if in search of some long-forgotten memory.
“I believe you are confusing me with a pig,” said Petka, eyeing the stone-ephant wearily.
“Are you quite certain?” asked the bizarre pachyderm, “I think you are as tall as three of them in a stack- you have the same voice, too.”
“Now,” replied Petka a bit exhausted, “I believe you are confusing me with three pigs, stacked upon one another, possibly in a human costume.”
“Several, you say? Ah, well, my eyes were never the best. So, you are a man then, I assume?” mused the rocky beast with a smug air of superiority.
“Yes, sir,” replied Petka patiently.
“What happened to the pigs then?”
“Well, as to the armored pigs you describe, I don’t know, but where I come from, they are unarmored and we typically eat them.”
“Ahhh,” said the elephant, as if in a reverie, “Efficient, anyway.”
Then, his tone changed to one of barely restrained hostility
“So just what in Tartarus are you doing in my town?”
“Yes, yes, the town beyond the cave! Gods! I am the eternal vanguard! I’ve been here since time immemorial to keep interlopers out, and outerlopers in. Just past my handsome, ample frame lies a small grotto, and just after that is a town. It was started by a man named Creighton. Nice bloke, I suppose. Always brought me little books of jokes, riddles, and dirty limericks. Haven’t seen him recently, however…” here the stone-ephant slipped off into another daydream.
“Does anyone still live there?” asked Petka, stroking his beard.
“Maybe,” said the rocky beast, scratching his belly with his trunk.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well,” started the stone-ephant, wiggling his ears, as if to shoo away the nuisance of an unseen fly, “I fell asleep about 200 hundred years ago- at least in as much as this place has any concept of time; I seem to remember a bit of a kerfuffle, but I imagined it was simply a pleasant dream, filled with the agonized wailing and clawing damned.”
Petka didn’t know what to make of this.
Quickly changing the subject, feeling the strange beast would slip back into somnolence (the things eyes were already struggling to remain open), he offered,
“Say, I hear you are fond of Jests?”
“Oh! My, yes. Oh, nothing beats a good jest! Hmmm… I may allow you passage- I did notice you noticing the cave…”
The air was silent, but seemed thicker as if the massive beast’s thoughts hung thick around Petka.
“How’s this!” said the stone-ephant clapping his massive feet, shaking Petka’s bones, “You find a bear and bring him here under the ruse of cakes and such, and then kick him in the testicles. That would be a splendid jest.” A look look of barely concealed joy spread across the mouth of the strange thing.
Petka did his best to maintain his composure and replied,“While, Sir Pachyderm, that in theory it would make a splendid jest, I believe that it would cause me to die.”
“And?” asked the stony figure in a sharp tone.
“I’m trying to do the opposite.”
“Oh, you fickle, fleshy thing,” the elephant clicked his tongue in disappointment, then seemed to stair into the middle distance, as if forgetting the presence of Petka to begin with.
“Ummm,” started Petka, “I-I hear you are fond of jests.”
“Oh my, yes!” said the stone-ephant, “Oh, nothing beats a good jest (he said this as if the exact same conversation had not occurred moments earlier) You know what would be a splendid jest? There’s an old, feral cougar just riddled with mange and rabies out in the briars. I would like you to bring him here, and punch him in his testicles. Fair?”
“Well, again- and I say this with all respect- I do fear the mauling followed of course by what I imagine to be an unbelievably painful death, which I must stress, I am trying to avoid.”
“Yes, yes, -I forgot you were squeamish about such things.”
“And, Sir Pachyderm, I would like to add- in the interest of full disclosure, of course- that I would prefer not to punch anything in the testicles.” Petka sighed, and sat on a mossy stump, bearded chin in hand.
“Hmmm,” replied the stone-ephant, again stroking his chin with his trunk, “How about a good riddle, hmmm? A good one would be like punching my brain in its testicles…very well, hit me with your best shot!” Again he clapped his massive feet together, sending little tremors through Petka’s body, rattling his tired bones.
“Okay, here it goes,” Petka cleared his throat, and placed his fingertips together in an attempt to appear cunning, “I only eat food I have already eaten. What am I?”
Petka just shook his head.
“Drat,” said the Stone-ephant, stroking his broad skull with his trunk, “A man with a refined palate- a gourmand, perhaps.”
“Sorry, no.” said Petka, now crossing his arms, “Unless one feasts with his eyes alone.”
“A hint! A most tantalizing hit!” the stone-ephant’s smile broadened across his face, “Well now I know the answer for sure! The answer is seven. Clearly, you have, as an individual consumed over the course of his life, seven foods. Whether they were seven different foods, or one foods seven times, I know not, but nevertheless, have I not triumphed over your riddle?”
“No. That’s three guesses. Ready for the answer?”
“Oh, yes, please!” said the strange, stony guardian with ill-hidden glee, “Just what are you?”
“I am dead.” said Petka, trying to conceal the inevitable grin that relief and victory seem to inspire in us humans.
“Explain at once, or I shall boot you savagely in your testicles, which you may have gathered, is somewhat a hobby of mine!”
Petka took a step back.
“I would be dead because I couldn’t eat anything. If I can only eat food that I’ve already eaten, then I would starve, as I could never have started eating to begin with- I had not…could not have started eating, having never eaten before.”
“Oh, quite clever! The cleverest talking flesh-ape monster I do believe I’ve met since that Creighton fellow. You know, you would be surprised how many ‘adventurers’ have opted to punching a dangerous thing in its testicles. Inevitably, it is bigger than they are, and has far more teeth.
“Well, I suppose you bested me, and -ugh- I suppose I am obligated to grant you passage. Why, if I remember, the little settlement Creighton built was quite a lovely little village- he came long after the pigs, if I remember correctly. Friendly folk- farmers, hunters, a little open air market. Days of Wine and Roses, yes, that must have been it. In fact, or so I’ve been told, it has a fantastic view, especially from the top of the cliff.”
“Oh, you squishy little thing. The settlement is perched on the edge of the cliff. Creighton would venture out for supplies, and often bring folks back- nice man. He would bring me magazines such as ‘Busty Tusk’ and ‘Rump Parade’, and ‘Tails and Ti-‘”
“Okay!” said Petka, fearing the direction the conversation had veered into was surely something that would have taxed his sanity, “But wait… how do you know if anyone is still there if you’ve been asleep for the past 200 years? And the ‘wailing of the damned’ you mentioned? Not a red flag?”
“Oh, what of it? So puerile with your questions. Bah! Enter and be done with it!”
The rocky behemoth moved his enormous girth with much protestation of its enormous girth and stubby legs, opening the long-sealed cave from which- despite its dark and cathedral like appearance- did have at least a distinct light at its end– and in that orange light, Petka was sure he could see the outline of a village, silhouetted by the setting sun. Clearly, he would need to rest in the remnants of that village before attempting the next cry in the morning. Speaking with the stone-ephant had been rather exhausting, and his eyes needed rest.
And as the elephant moved, and Petka took his first step in the foreboding darkness, he realized he was, in fact, waist deep in skeletons and random bones that were most certainly human. They had been picked clean of flesh, and bore little gouges as if those who had consumed them had pointy little teeth– but that must have been years ago, as the bones were brittle, dry and dusty, rattling eerily as he waded through them. Noticing Petka’s frightened expression at the mounds of bones, the stone-ephant nervously cleared his throat.
“Um, you should probably just ignore that.. Well, good luck to you, squishy man!” and with that, the elephant returned to his spot, blocking the passage behind Petka, deepening the darkness in the grotto that separated him from the light a hundred or so yards beyond. From beyond the back of the guardian, a sleepy voice mumbled, “If you want to get out… just clap twice or pull my…”
“Wait!” shouted Petka as the last crescent of illumination disappeared, and the stone-ephant shuffled to get comfortable, “Did the villagers clap twice!? What did they pull?!”
“I dunno…” mumbled the great beast, “I can’t hear things from behind me…”
Whatever the villagers had or had not pulled was lost into the oddly soft snores of the now sleeping guardian. There was no turning back.
And as Petka stared into the small glow of light at the other end of the damp, dark grotto, bones jostling all around his person, he wondered – had anybody had survived? Perhaps, because candles seemed to be burning in the windows, though distinctly unhealthy looking silhouettes were black against the literal light at the end of the tunnel, which was not half as inspiring as its figurative counterpart.
* * * * *
Thankfully, Petka’s eyes adjusted to the dark fairly quickly once the great tusked ass’s ass had thoroughly blocked the route back. The walls reverberated with an unsettling rumble– almost inaudible, though Petka convinced himself (and only half-successfully) that it was simply the sound of the beast’s oddly gentle snoring. Aside from the sounds of sleep, the cave (as broad as it was) had a remarkable sense of eerie quiet to it. Chaim had notably left this little part of the journey out- no grotto was mentioned- and since everything before him would have killed him directly or indirectly, he felt that simply crossing the slippery stone beneath his feet to be a bit too easy.
Thinking in the oppressive dark, he decided against his wolf whistle, as whatever hideous thing that undoubtedly existed in the dark, cloaked in black, would only become more aware of his location. He wanted to avoid a direct fight, but drew his longbow anyway and cautiously stepped as quietly as he could on the slick, gravelly floor. One thing did inspire him with some confidence- it seemed as though a sentry was posted at the opening of the cave on its other side- if he were to run into trouble, perhaps he could rely on the guard’s back-up- but again, he didn’t wish to outright betray his position, so he crouched low and decided against calling out to the sentinel, unless absolutely necessary.
Screwing up his courage (and using the idea of having a sleep by the warm fire of a comfortable inn, and perhaps some conversation as incentive), he began to creep along low and as quietly as possible. It was said that Petka Fawcett had the footsteps of a saint, which is to say they were silent, but here in the enormous cave, even his softest movement seemed to echo brashly, and his breath and heartbeat reverberated in his own ears.
“It’s dusk,” Petka thought to himself, “I have to make this fast, or else the light at the end of the tunnel will fade completely.”
And he wasn’t wrong- the vision at the end of the cave, with the jerky movements of the sentinel patrolling endlessly in his sight, was one of a melting, harvest-pumpkin orange sky dripping beneath the horizon at the advancement of a star-speckled, purple-black firmament. Quickening his steps as fast as he could, and as quietly as possible, Petka resolved to exit the cave as expeditiously as possible.
At some point in his journey amongst the stalactites and stalagmites which surrounded him, he felt the cold touch of some unknown foreboding presence– he stood up, and broke into a light jog, nocking a sturdy arrow as he did so. As he looked around the cave, he began to notice that the walls were neither completely dark,not pitch black in color- it seemed that there were little clusters of slightly luminescent lichens, and small, inching glow-worms- they provided no real illumination as would a torch, though they did reveal the presence of a shadowy, bipedal figure, quite disturbing in its shape.
Though it clearly walked (albeit stiffly) on two legs, and had two thick arms which swung haphazardly, its head was nothing resembling that of a human– in fact it seemed to come to a point, and a tall one at that. Then, to Petka’s chagrin, he noticed hundreds of little shadowy cones, as if the cave itself had grown teeth… teeth that murmured curses and oaths in some unknown tongue. Was he simply in the mouth of some hungry, unknown, rocky creature masquerading as a cave? The floor quivered with movement, and he realized that his previous fear of entering the gullet of some hungry mountain had been foolish- and right around the same time, his old, unjustified fear was replaced with a new, very much justified one.
Using his flint and stone, he lit the tip of his arrow, which doubled as both a fiery weapon and a torch when needed. Lifting it high, he saw that the undulating floor was covered with gnomes, or whatever cruel facsimile of the the “wee folk” that were so often told of in stories, but had left a mark of terror in Petka’s soul when introduced to him by Chaim, so long ago (and just how long had it been?).
Much like the ones Chaim had stomped into viscous goo, these little men- gin-nosed, with rosy cheeks, red conical hats, and wee-little boots (not to mention the circular, toothed mouths of a flesh-hungry parasites) were marching menacingly in his direction- and if this weren’t terrifying enough, he began to notice that little groups of the marauding bloodsuckers were being stepped on by the bigger thing he had previously seen– tiny, angry yells and pools of greenish goo in which floated little hats and boots were left in its wake. The thing, having moved closer, was now as large as a grizzly bear, and with great trepidation Petka aimed his torch towards the ambling thing. Once the light of his torch illuminated the lumbering figure, all the little beastly gnomes on the ground stopped dead in their tracks, raised their pudgy little hands in the air, and shouted in high-pitched unison,
“Of course,” muttered Petka, nocking the burning arrow, aiming it at the head of the so called queen; he had expected something even vaguely feminine appearance, to warrant the regal title. Upon noticing the features of the beast, however, he could only roll his eyes and shake his head in disgust.
The so called “Queen” was nothing more than a much larger version of the diminutive blood-sucking vermin that worshiped at her feet. It had the same coal-black, gerbil-beady eyes which (though sparkling in the torchlight), lacked any light behind them and its broad face sported the very same red-purple gin-nose and flowing beard,. A stupid, toothy, unchanging grin was plastered across its face, almost as if it were incapable of any other expression between its ruddy cheeks. In fact, it’s eyes- dead as a doll’s- didn’t seem to be looking at Petka, or indeed, any one thing in particular, but rather started into the middle distance unnervingly. Too add to the horror, it moved in a very stiff-limbed fashion, as if it had no neck, knees or elbows, like some enormous, disturbing clockwork toy.
Despite the similarities to its diminutive underlings, however, Petka noticed something- its long beard was actually pinkish in color and quivering in a most unnatural way, as if made of gelatin and not simply hair. Then, when the “Queen” had stepped more fully into the yellow light of Petka’s burning arrow, he could see the reason for the strangely jiggling beard-
Indeed, the pale, rosy cheeks of nearly a hundred naked gnomes, clung tenaciously to their queen’s beard, for some unknown purpose…were they larvae perhaps? Seeing one old man’s naked rear end would have been enough to bring at least a measure of disgust to the viewer, but the shiny cheeks, which bounced sickeningly with each step of their leviathan “mother”, was nearly obliterating to the sanity. Even Petka, who had seen many strange things, felt queasy. This would not be a story he would share with his nephew and niece- maybe he would slay a gorgon instead.
Once the little gnomish larvae noticed Petka’s presence, they swiveled their heads backwards to an unnatural degree and, eyes glinting green in the torchlight, hissed in unison, whilst their fat, white bottoms wiggled nauseatingly as they fought for purchase on their mother’s beard. It seemed to Petka that they were…”born” with hats and boots, though tragically without trousers– tragically. And while this only raised further questions, Petka let loose the burning arrow towards the center of the tall, paunchy, lumbering target; the arrow found it’s mark with a wet thwak!, and indeed, a number of the beard-clinging gnomes burst into something akin to rainbow confetti and ticker-tape– it was festive, if nothing else. Meanwhile, the full grown gnomes, who had been hissing in their menacing march towards Petka’s person, began to climb up his legs and chew through his trousers, clearly attempting to drain his very lifeblood and leave him as dead and hollow as the bones of the poor folk who had preceded him.
The Queen Gnome, rather than being daunted by the burning arrow to the face, simply bellowed the laugh of a doofus, and promptly “vomited” a litter of the little malcontents on the ground, beer-bellied and bare bottomed onto the ground, slathered in a viscous clear goo, who immediately joined the charge against Petka, the unwanted Gulliver, and enemy of the Gnomish State- if such a loose amalgamation of horror-beasts could be called such.
Now the Brothers-Grim-Gone-Wrong bloodsuckers had reached his shoulders and arms and, having chewed through his clothing, were nipping at his bare skin, attempting to get a hold with their circular, toothed mouths. At this point, Petka tried calling to the lone sentinel on patrol, but he either ignored Petka, or simply couldn’t hear him above the din. Petka, even in his panic wondered why the patrolman wouldn’t investigate such a ruckus, or at least stop to watch the action.
Nearly out of options, and now the threat of being swallowed by a tide of the red-capped menaces quickly becoming a disturbing reality, he drew a special arrow, one rigged to detonate upon striking thick, unrelenting tangles of briars, thistles, dead trees and prickers. Petka, wrestling for control of his own arms, managed to light the short fuse, and let the hissing arrow fly towards the stupid, wooden grin of the “royal gnome”. The arrow hit its target with a thud!, and a moment later exploded, causing a glorious moment of regicide where the brood-mother’s head shattered like an overripe melon, sending unpleasant chunks of gooey viscera in all directions. Any relief Petka could lay claim to had quickly evaporated, as to Petka’s horror, each chunk formed into a fully alive, ambulatory, and autonomous gnome. Each little missile muttered a nasally “Ugh!” as if more annoyed at their airborne jaunt than actually injured, though for a moment, it seemed that the bear-sized queen had been stopped.
Now, turning his attention to the hoard, he lit another arrow as a torch and began burning off the gnomes, which had, through sheer determination, chewed holes through his rawhide over-cloak and into his flesh causing little rivulets of blood to drip from each wound, the little streams growing thicker as the wee nightmare folk fed. When he finally burnt enough of the gnomes off of his person, he began to run, stumbling over the hissing beasts as they squished under foot. To his horror, he saw that existing gnomes began to assimilate into to headless queen, melding into her and slowly rebuilding the hideous head which Petka had removed not moments ago.
Pumping his arms and legs as fast as possible, he leaped over the now-regenerating “matriarch”, an army of furious, bearded, toothy things at his heals, nipping, cursing, and shouting things in some nasally, whining tones which could not be called a language by folk with even the slightest teaspoon of sanity to their name– and while the majority stopped, fuming at the edge of the darkness of the cave, a brave legion followed him outside into the sundown’s dying light where Petka stumbled into the so-called “watchman”, who was nothing more than a bleached skeleton, crudely bound together with bailing wire, sporting a sundered iron helmet and rusted chain shirt. Somebody had wired the bones up much like a puppet, which itself was attached to a complex system of pullies and gears which allowed the bony sentinel to maintain his endless, though seemingly useless vigil.
The braver gnomes, who seemed to be smoking even in the dim sunlight, their bodies emitting a light, foul-smelling vapor, were chittering excitedly and about to pounce, when the strong hand of a stranger Petka’s lifted him up by the collar and thrust into his hand what looked very much like what could only be called a “repeating blunderbuss”- it was clearly a homemade contraption that belched steam as rounds were fired from its trumpet-like barrel. The man who had pulled him out of danger was wearing the tattered remains of some manner of military officer’s coat , though it did not resemble anyone that Petka had seen. Once the first onslaught of the little beasts had been stopped by raw firepower, Petka looked up at his savior with a mixture of relief and gratefulness.
The man had a small paunch, was entirely bald, and had a sandpaper five-o’clock shadow on his round, pale, broad face, which boasted a number of pink scars; the most severe of which went from just above his right eyebrow where it thinned, disappearing over the dome of his head. He stood no taller than five foot five inches (short compared to Petka’s over six foot stance), though despite his lack of height, Petka sensed that his very presence was indeed larger than life. His eyes were a stark emerald green, and looked endlessly exhausted,–two cigarettes, which reeked of strong, bitter tobacco, were clenched in his yellowing teeth, the juice of the smokes running down his lips and onto his cleft chin.
“Get up, stupid giant!” barked the man in a thick, Irish brogue, “Get ya ta blastin’!”
And so Petka and the strange man with the tired eyes began to blast away at the seemingly endless tide of snarling gnomes, until finally the limping remnants ran back to the safety of the cave, to the inky depths of the grotto with their disturbing kin. One stubborn gnome had latched itself onto the cuff of the gruff-man’s pants, and in a white-hot rage, the man smashed the butt of the gun into the little parasite until it was little more than a green smear on the bare and dusty ground; complete, of course, by now flattened black boots, tan trousers, a blue shirt, and a red, conical cap.
The rough man spat his partially-chewed cigarettes on the ground, and shouted to the now thoroughly dead gnome, “That’ll teach ya ta mess with Finnen McKinnon ya bastards! Bloody codger, to stupid to go back ta his hole! Well guess what? I’m keepin’ the hat and boots ta do little plays with- salacious plays!”
There was a brief moment of silence where Petka attempted to stand, but ended up sinking against the wooden contraption, and then to the ground, in shock with his brush with absurd death.
“Thank you… Finnen was it? You saved my skin. I’m Petka Fawcett.”
“Well, well, Mister Fawcett, you were smart enough to get this far, but why by everything holy would ya run into a gnome- infested cave without the proper gear?”
“Well, I wasn’t informed of such a hazard. It would have been nice to know, and that elephant was no help at all.”
“Well, yer friend is ‘ere- got here bout an hour maybe before your arse stumbled into this little slice o’ battered paradise.”
And instantly, Petka saw the familiar outline of Chaim, Lonely Spirit of the Hollows, smiling sheepishly back at him.
“Uh…hey Petka…How’s things?”