It took Eddie three minutes to get lost. One second, he shuffled next to the trail of glowing ants. He could have lit his way with his phone, but he knew it couldn't last. A phone flashlight was for temporary use, draining the battery in minutes. He took careful steps in the blackness, keeping to the right of the ant trail.
This worked until he stepped over the brink of a steep incline. Losing his footing, Eddie toppled forward. The next seconds were a confused blur. His senses spun in a vortex of random injuries as he toppled head over feet. Eventually, he came to a rest on the bottom of the incline. His head continued to spin for more than a minute. Eddie lay stunned, peering up into the endless black.
He took stock of himself. Legs and arms still worked, although he'd jammed a finger, leaving it painful and likely to swell. He had scratches everywhere. His shirt tore at the collar. Blood ran down over his left eyebrow.
This isn't the end of the world, he told himself. I'll climb back up this hill and find the ant trail again. This thought was only a comfort until he realized that he was in the bottom of a ravine. The cave floor inclined on both sides, and he couldn't tell which side he'd come down.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket, praying it would still work. The dim screen popped on as he pressed the button. This was a comfort only until he peered beyond the phone into the darkness beyond. Two pale glowing eyes stared back at him. He fumbled with the phone, switching it back into flashlight mode. When he aimed the light at those eyes, they were no longer there.
"Don't panic," he whispered, fighting hyperventilation. "Don't panic. Don't panic. Don't panic."
He had no choice but to keep his phone on. The ravine continued down until it disappeared in and endless black void. That was definitely not the way he wanted to go. He looked up both sides of the ravine. There was no sign that indicated where he'd fallen from. Climbing either side could get him more lost. He decided that, since this cavern was lower than the one he'd come from, he would follow the ravine upward for now. If it turned out to be fruitless, he'd come back to this spot. Eddie found three stones and piled them one on another. If he came back, he'd know where to start climbing.
The ravine ran for more than a mile without turning. He considered going back when he heard music in the distance. First came the rhythm, a syncopated thump thump that couldn't be natural cave noises. Eddie discerned the horns next—jubilant jazz riffs. As he continued up the ravine, he found he was listening to Dixieland Jazz.
Next, he saw the light, a faint blue glow defining a rocky ridge up to his left. He turned and climbed that way. Five steps up, he lost his footing and slipped back. His phone clattered away, the bright LED on its back lay face down on the stones.
Eddie lay frustrated on the rocks. He was about to curse when a wet clicking sound behind him stopped his breath. The rhythm of a million tiny footfalls came next, something with many legs, getting closer. Panicked, Eddie searched the stones before him. He felt something tickle the back of his leg when his hand found the smooth square of the phone. He clutched it and spun around, aiming the light.
A giant insect with a mantis face and a millipede body reared back and screeched. It did not retreat but shielded its huge eyes with two pincer-like protrusions on its face. Eddie backed away from the creature, climbing without looking, one hand holding off the creature with the phone. He felt like Samwise the hobbit in Shelob's cave, retreating towards the safety of Dixieland Jazz.
Over the rocks, the blue light increased. He dared a glance back. A column of light filtered through two blue curtains hanging over a square, pillared opening. Two statues stood like sentinels on either side of the door. Each had the form of a squat warrior with two broad blades held in each hand. Each had a pale ghostly glow about them. Eddie didn't know if he was stumbling into more danger. He only knew that beyond those curtains, there was enough light to keep the giant insect at bay.
Eddie paused at the curtain. The creature had followed him, keeping a few feet away. Now it screeched again. It did not advance. Eddie pushed the curtain aside and entered.
He took five backwards steps before turning to inspect his new surroundings. He was in a stone hallway, perfectly square with carved stone columns that ran along the walls. Beyond, firelight flickered. The music came from somewhere within.
Eddie tiptoed. After a few steps, he was confident the insect wouldn't follow him. He turned off his phone and crept down the corridor. At the end, Eddie pressed himself against the wall and peeked inside.
He first spotted the tail of the serpent, as big as an anaconda, writhing about in curls and whipping motions. The huge snake was staggeringly out of place in this room of old paintings, Tiffany lamps, a hanging chandelier and rich pale wallpaper. An old Victrola phonograph against the wall provided the music.
Eddie didn't see the head of the snake, somewhere around the corner out of his sight. He should have run, but there was nowhere to go. Eddie kept his back to the wall, sliding into the room. The snake made a gurgling, retching, groaning noise. It sounded like a woman trying to swallow a pig whole.
He slid further into the room until he saw it all. The snake's body ended where a woman's body began. The scales of the snake merged into the green flesh up her stomach, and a beaded half top covered her breasts and shoulders. Her hair was a wild purple mane. She held the body of a pig in her mouth, its back legs flailing in the air. Her jaw was unhinged, and she forced the squirming animal in with her arms, her eyes shut tight with effort.
Eddie drew a sharp breath.
The woman's eyes popped open. A look of shock and horror fell on her distorted face. She tugged the pig back out of her mouth. With a wet squeal, the pig wriggled away, hit the ground and escaped down a distant corridor. The snake woman wiped her chin, her jaw snapped back into place.
Eddie pressed his back against the wall. "I'm sorry," he cried. "I'm... I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt your..."
The creature composed herself, smoothing her hair and brushing off her hands. She took a breath, then darted at him like a striking serpent. She halted inches from his face. "How did you get in here?" she asked, her voice silky and calm.
"I, um... through the door." Eddie pointed.
"You didn't think to knock?"
"There was something after me. Something scary."
"Scary," she repeated, a smile twitching her lips. "Well, then by all means, welcome to my prison."
The smile disappeared. She thrust out a hand and pinned him hard against the wall. Ignoring his struggles, she turned and shouted down the corridor from which Eddie had come. "Tristan!" she shouted. "Laertes!"
Two figures raced into the room. They were the two pale warriors Eddie had passed when he entered, not statues at all. They stood before the snake woman, their swords held ready at their sides.
The snake woman pointed at Eddie with one hand as she pinned his face to the wall with the other. "How did this runt get past you? You should have cut him to ribbons at my doorstep."
One of the warriors moved as if speaking, but Eddie heard nothing.
"What do you mean?" she shouted. She gripped Eddie's head and thrust him towards the warriors. "Do you sense him now? Here, he's right in front of you."
The warrior said something else. Again, Eddie didn't hear.
The snake woman thrust up her hands, yanking Eddie above her. "Gah! Useless! Go back to your post and pay more attention."
The warriors retreated. The snake woman dropped Eddie. He came down sideways and hit his elbow hard.
"If you want something done," the woman said, slithering back a pace, "Yadda, yadda, yadda."
She pointed both her hands at Eddie, spoke a few unfamiliar words, and red beams shot out of her finger tips. The brilliant red light engulfed Eddie's body.
"You can die now," she said.