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The rock door had paintings on it, just as it was described in the stories. The history of the beast; large, hungry, and fanged. It fed on us but we found ways to keep it at bay—barely—with rituals and prayers. The tunnel behind this door was cursed and blessed. Cursed through the challenges it would throw at you as you tried to reach the end, but whoever was worthy enough to finish would be blessed with the strength to finally destroy the beast. I’d heard stories since I was a child. Fierce men and women would train for whatever challenges they thought they may face, and bravely enter the tunnel. No one ever came back out. Now it was my turn. I hadn’t trained; I wasn’t a Competitor. This week they hadn’t had a champion though, so I volunteered. Crazy, I know, but I am tired of seeing my friends disappear; tired of living in fear. Maybe I’ll get lucky. Or if nothing else, I won’t be afraid anymore.
* * * *
I had to wait for my ears to stop ringing before my eyes could adjust. The door was heavier than it looked—and it looked heavy. When they shut it behind me, the gravelly crunch seemed to create a black hole in all of my senses. I was left completely blind for a few seconds. Eventually the ringing faded the rest of my senses came back to life though.
Everything seemed muted. It was pitch black, and my eyes strained uselessly. The small light at the end of the tunnel was the only difference in my view. There was no noise, but it almost seemed like I was underwater. Like the air was moving slowly past my ears and weighing in on them. Maybe that was just my own body adjusting though.
I could still smell, but all I could gather about this tunnel was that it had a dirt floor. I splayed my fingers on the door behind me and traced it down to the floor. Gritty sand and small, crumbling pebbles ran through my fingers. I was right.
I turned around as I stood up and faced the light on the other side. It didn’t aid me in seeing my surroundings, but I knew that if I just walked towards it, I would have to get there eventually. They wanted a champion proven worthy, and they got me, but I’ll do what I can.
I’ve been in this tunnel for six hours. The end hasn’t gotten any closer, but I can see it. From the very beginning I could see it, but I’ve been moving, one foot in front of the other, for six hours and the circular light seems more like a pin prick than a doorway now.
I panicked around hour three. Just sat down on the floor for a bit and glared at the light. I held back tears intermittently as I tried not to think about my situation. I checked my watch multiple times. I don’t think I was supposed to bring it in here, but nobody had noticed. It was keeping time the way it always had—second by second, minute to minute.
“The tunnel feasts on your fears, Nova.” My grandfather, old, worn by terror, but always smiling for me; he had told me stories—guesses really—about what happened in the tunnel when I was a child. I had been trying desperately to keep those stories locked up and away from my imagination’s grasp. Flashes kept leaking through though. “What are you afraid of, Nova, what would you see?” Nine year old me knew that his coaxing would be rewarded with a comforting hug and a “no need to fear,” But 27 year old me had no crinkly-faced grandfather to put her fears to rest. I shook my head and looked at my watch again. Three hours and 46 minutes.
By hour five I was trying to distract myself from the maddening distance of the light. I zigzagged from wall to wall, careful to only move forward though, and never look back. Around four hours and 37 minutes I started to hear voices. I’m smart enough to know that I’m likely just filling in the sensory blanks in my environment, but they were behind me, and I definitely didn’t want to go that way anyways.
“Nova...” It was still behind me, seemingly whispering but echoing off the walls too. I pivoted to the right and pushed off the wall to cross the path diagonally.
“Nova, run.” A little closer now, still whispering; still echoing. I pivoted again off the wall to cross the path. “What are you afraid of Nova?” My grandfather was back at the forefront of my mind. I took a breath and kept my eyes on the light ahead.
And now I’m at hour six and 14 minutes. The whispering voices are still at my back. I honestly thought one of them had touched me once, but I was actually just closer to the wall than I thought and my shirt had caught on the rough surface. I jumped to the side and crashed right into it, bruising my shoulder and forehead. I stood there for a second, hands on my knees, catching my breath and regathering my sanity. I needed water, and an actual source of light.
I took a breath and started walking again.
“Nova.” I took another breath and another step.
“Run, Nova.” Another step. My shoe grazed a rock, and I kicked it forward.
“We’re here, Nova.” It sounded like multiple voices, echoing around me, and I stopped again and closed my eyes. Though there really wasn’t much difference. “Nova, what would you see?” I clenched my whole body, standing rigid for a few moments and hoping that my stiff body would form a strong enough cage to hide my memories.
I’m not one for thinking out loud, but I needed to hear something besides myself going crazy. “The voices aren’t real.” I was almost scared by my own voice, and took just a second before continuing. “They’re not real, but the light is. I just have to keep walking.”
“Run. Nova, run.” I shook my head and kept walking.
I’m at hour eight and 13 minutes. There are more voices, but they are still behind me, telling me to run and that they’re here, which I honestly can’t tell if that’s supposed to be ominous or comforting. Every few steps or so they pitch in, and if it weren’t for the fact that I know they’re not real, I would have lost my patience long ago.
“I’m not going to yell at the air. There’s nothing there, and I will not stand here and yell at my own insanity.” I grit my teeth and focus on the light. It’s still just as far away as it was before, just as small, and I feel my patience slip down another notch. “Some go crazy before they even face their fears.”
I try to reign in my shiver and accompanying anger. My fists clench and I shut my eyes again. One breath in, one breath out. And then I distinctly felt something brush against my calf. “What. The. Hell!” I hissed every word out through clenched teeth and took a giant, awkward step forward. My foot found the rock I had kicked earlier and I immediately picked it up, aiming for whatever random patch of darkness I found the most threatening. “Whoever is in here needs to show themselves!” As soon as the words piled into the black air around me I had a terrifying mental image of a decaying champion standing right in front of me but completely hidden in the darkness. His dying face would show up suddenly in front of my eyes and I would probably die right there. I shook my head and anger bubbled up again. “I am not afraid of this stupid tunnel!” I shook my rock at the darkness. “None of this is real!” I turned to face the ever-far-away light and found more anger, “I am not going to go insane because of this stupid light!” I heaved my rock at the distance light, and froze. The light had moved. Almost like it had dodged my rock. It flickered slightly and I leapt at it. My brain shouted at me that it was too far away and that I was going to land face in the dirt. Which I did, but there was a small, pinprick light trapped in my hands. It was not the light at the end of the tunnel.
“What the hell!?” I closed my hands around the light and scrambled back to my feet using only elbows and knees. “What is this?!” I shook the little deceiving ball around in my hands as I yelled. With my hands around it, there was no light in the tunnel, no end and no way out.
This is the tunnel. I stopped shaking the light. This voice was different from the ones my brain conjured. It didn’t seem to originate anywhere, but it filled the entire tunnel. I squinted my eyes but of course, saw nothing.
“Who are you?” I shifted my feet as I looked around the darkness.
I’m the light in the tunnel. I looked at my hands. The voice was not coming from this little thing. There was no way.
“There’s supposed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Where’s the exit?” I tried addressing the darkness but settled on the light in my hands.
I am only the light in the tunnel. There is no exit, only entry.
“Well then what’s the whole purpose of this tunnel?!” I took a step to the wall and sat down. “It’s not even a tunnel is it? It’s just another cave!” I had to be careful not to crush the light in my hands as I thought of all the stories—the lies—my village had been told.
The light was silent for a moment. To prove worthiness.
“And how exactly do you do that?” I jumped back to my feet, “By wandering around in here till you die? Because that’s definitely what happened to everyone else who entered, and everyone else who’s coming” I kicked the dirt and could taste the dust cloud it created.
There are more to come. There was no emotion in the voice. No lilt, no emphasis. Just words, but I assumed it had asked a question.
“There’s always more! There’s a whole village of more! More people who will come to starve. More people to drive insane. Just more wasted people who have sad people they always leave behind.” I took a breath and shook my head free of the memories creeping up. “How do you not know? Haven’t you been in here from the beginning?” It was always a tunnel, which means there was always a light at the end of it. This thing had to know what it was doing.
I held my hands closer to my face and squinted at it. I did not know. I only watched.
“Well then what were the people supposed to do here to prove their worthiness, if dying isn’t the only option here.” My anger was wearing thin as I realized that I was now one of those people.
The light was silent for almost 20 seconds before answering, "Bring me back to the entry."
“Why? How does that prove worthiness?” I took a step backwards in spite of myself.
You discovered the deception.
“Okay, I know there’s an entry, and it definitely is real,” I shot a look at the light, “but the rock door is impossible to move myself. The village leaders only open it once a week for champions.” I looked at my watch again. It hadn’t even been a day yet.
The light was silent for a few moments again. Not impossible. Prove yourself.
“Fine.” Honestly, going back to a real, actual door was probably my best bet anyways.
I walked in silence for the first 10 minutes, but soon became too curious. “What happened to the other champions?” I cracked my hands a little to look at it. I didn’t trust the light to hang around if I let it go. Though really, where would it go?
“...Yes, okay I gathered that, but how? Did they go crazy?” I wanted to know if anything in our stories were true. Maybe we had it right at the beginning but it slowly evolved into this death trap.
They were not worthy. Did not see.
“So, our leaders know about you? They know this isn’t a tunnel?” I huffed the words out slowly, not sure if I wanted the answer to be yes or no.
It felt like—for a moment—there was no air in this cave. My anger had dissolved it. No one was prepared for this “tunnel.” They were wandering in blind, to die. I was silent for a while, seething, and the light was obviously comfortable with that. I understood why the leaders did it this way—which also made me frustrated—and I had to trust that they knew why this was required to defeat the beast. There are so many betrayed champions in this cave though. Scattered along the path... how many had I walked past, unaware?
It had been 10 hours. I was hungry, dehydrated, and knew I had about 6 hours to go. “Do you know about the beast?” I had walked the first 8 hours in slow, silent, insane torture, I wasn’t about to do the same thing back.
Okay maybe I was. “What do you know about it?” Unsure if the conversation was worth the effort, I egged it on anyways.
It feeds on your people.
“Have you seen it before? We were always told that it was huge, with horns, spikes, and fangs, and maybe tentacles. With black eyes and an insatiable appetite.” I thought about the painting on the metal door. It didn’t resemble anything I had ever seen.
I stared at the light for a second, annoyed. Silence it is.
Four more hours to go. The last two were silent, which was both annoying and relieving. My echoing whispers had left me alone—or given up on me. I was moving slower, running out of energy. But I knew there was a way out if I just kept walking. At one point though, I stopped and sat down. I closed my eyes and took a breath.
Why did you stop. Again, no intonation, but probably a question.
“I’m just thinking. And I’m too tired to walk and think at the same time anymore.” The light was silent, so I assumed there would be no follow-up questions. “I’m going to have to fight the beast if I get out of here.” The realization had only hit about 12 minutes ago. I had had other priorities for the majority of the ordeal. “I don’t know how to do that.” Once I said it out loud it seemed much more obvious that even if I survived this, I definitely wasn’t going to survive a battle against a spiky, horned, fanged, people eating monster. The light offered no comfort or advice, so I stood up. “I guess I’ll figure that out once we get out of here.” I knew I would continue to stew on my impending death, but I had absolutely no chance of survival if I didn’t at least get out of the cave.
“Wait,” I looked around uselessly at the darkness. “Which way did we come from?”
I don’t know.
I glanced at the light. “Okay, so which way is the entry?”
I don’t know.
“How do you not know? You’ve been in here since... well since I can remember! You’ve seen the door open!”
I am only a light.
I looked at my useless, directionless light for a moment, resisting the urge to just sit back down and wait for death. I thought for a moment before gauging the brightness of the light. If I held it close enough to the ground, I could probably make out footprints. I took a breath to calm to panic that was rising, and layed down on the floor.
What are you doing.
“Making you useful.” I opened my hands at the bottom so the light would shine down—and hopefully not escape. It only took a few seconds of crawling around to find my footprints. I stood up and spun around. “That way.” I pointed at absolute darkness and walked forward.
One hour and 28 minutes left. Roughly. I knew I was moving slower, but I just couldn’t round up. I wanted to get out. I was already probably blind from my time in here. I had to stop frequently and catch my breath, and each time the light asked what I was doing. It didn’t understand that I was wearing down. It almost seemed impatient.
“Look, I’m probably blind, and I’m tired, but believe me I’m trying to get there.” It must have been content with this fourth time telling it to be patient because it didn’t respond.
The way out came closer with every step, but so did the beast and my battle with it. Every time my foot hit dirt, I felt my fears rise closer to the surface of my mind. I was not trained to fight anything. The leaders has skipped over me at the reckoning age. I was too small for a fighter. I was a craftswoman, I created things. I don’t fight things. I don’t think I could even lift one of their swords.
What are you doing? I had stopped again, wrapped up in my panic. I shook my head and kept walking.
We had to be almost there. My watch was saying four minutes. I kept the light cupped in my hands, but pushed them both out in front of me, hoping that they’d hit the door. “Okay, so, once we find this door... then what?” I watched three men move this rock door when I entered the cave. There was no way I could do it alone.
It will move.
“Okay but how?” I was swinging my arms side to side, waiting for my knuckles to scrape rock.
You are worthy.
I hit rock. Crashed into it, and then quickly ran into it again to see if it would move. Nothing.
“Are you sure?” I looked at my hands, skeptical of how much this light actually knew. But I placed my shoulders against it again to try to roll it away.
You are worthy. It repeated, and I felt the rock move. I pushed harder, thinking of the leaders’ faces when I brought them this light, and of what my grandfather’s face would have looked like if he knew I had figured it out.
The stone, solid and heavy as it was, seemed to roll faster with each thought that flashed through my head. There was sunlight—a sunrise—and I could hear nature and smell something other than dirt. But something was wrong. The stone was almost moving on it’s own now, and there was hot breath on my back.
I leapt through the hole, letting go of the light, and blinked rapidly at what was behind me. Slowly, my vision adjusted. It was huge, and horned. It looked just like the stories had said, with spikes protruding all over its body, decaying tentacles reaching for anything it could grab, and cracked fangs filling its enormous mouth. But it’s eyes, they weren’t black, they were white. Milky white.
It was blind.
I realized things in very quick succession as I lay on the ground in front of the blind beast. The first was that the little light I had been holding for the past eight hours and talking to was attached by a very thin, very long tentacle to the beast. The second was that my village leaders weren’t holding the beast at bay with some ancient rituals, they were feeding it. Satiating its hunger temporarily by letting us blindly walk into its jaws to keep it from trying to escape from its prison. There were no champions—only bait.
Freedom. It’s voice stemmed from no part of its body but it echoed and filled the air. I heard screams starting below me and watched as it pushed its massive body toward them.
It tore through my village in minutes. Using its long tentacles to drag people out from any hiding spot and force them into its ever-growing, jagged mouth. I watched the terror crash through the familiar pathways and houses, and knew that it’s appetite would never be satisfied. I would soon be next.
“What are you afraid of, Nova?” I heard my grandfather’s voice break through my mind as another friend, mother, child, was thrown into the beast’s mouth. And I realized that the stories about the tunnel were true. “What would you see?” his memory prodded, and I looked out on the destruction and death, but my eyes settled on the blind, raging beast, and the tentacles winding towards me.