The return journey will not be so easy.
Dark: Godry, wake up.
Godry: Huh? What?
Dark: You’ve waited long enough.
Godry: I don’t want to fall again. I can’t do all of that again.
Dark: You won’t fall.
Godry: What if my soul isn’t light enough?
Godry: Oh… I understand. So I could come back if I wanted to?
Dark: Will you?
Dark: Then it doesn’t matter. Go.
Godry: If you’re misleading me…
Dark: I’m not.
Godry: Is that monster on the other side?
Godry: Where is he? Maybe I’d like to share some thoughts with him.
Dark: You would do well to exit the underworld as quickly as possible.
Godry: I see Gideon.
Dark: He waited for you.
Godry: My lantern is still on the bridge.
Dark: You will need it for the return journey.
Godry: Here I go. One step. Two. Four. Eight. Fifteen.
(he picks up the lantern)
Godry: Twenty. Thirty. I’m across.
(A monster scream)
Oh Gods. It’s… it’s there. It’s hideous. A huge, bony antler coming from its head. And… in its hands… the idol I dropped. Or one like it. I don’t know.
Dark: Godry, I want you to listen to me very closely.
Godry: I’m listening.
Dark: Turn off your lantern. Do not turn it back on, no matter how tempted you become to do so.
Godry: I’m… I’m turning it off.
Dark: Now lead your horse across the bridge.
Godry: But it’s there.
Dark: You need to press on.
Godry: It could kill me.
Godry: I’m moving.
(hoofsteps. Monster gurgles)
Godry: I can hear it. I’m getting closer.
Dark: Silence. Release the reins and move as quietly as possible.
Godry: Where am I going?
(light footsteps. Monster sounds getting louder. Godry breathes heavily)
Dark: Turn to your left. Extend your arms and push as hard as you can.
(The monster screams)
Dark: It’s over the edge. You can return to your horse safely now.
Godry: Did I… Did I scatter him?
Dark: She was scattered long ago. You did what you had to.
Godry: I feel horrible.
Dark: Your path should be safe now.
I’ll skip the suspense. I’m out of the Underworld. I journeyed in. I made it out. Most of me.
I packed up as much as I could from the caravans on the other side of the bridge and I untied Gideon for the return journey. There was no sign of Timothy. I was on Gideon’s back for no more than an hour before I fell asleep. When I awoke, we were at our first camp site. By my estimation, Gideon walked two full days uphill before taking a break. And I slept just as long.
There is a unique terror to waking up in those tunnels. I had no idea where I was, or how far we had gone. I recognized the debris that I used to cover us, which gave me some relief. The slope is so steep that it’s pretty obvious which way is out. Then again, I had no idea what tricks the Underworld had left in store for me.
We took cover and I allowed Gideon to rest. I dozed off yet again. It’s strange how scared I was of those tunnels the first time I was there, but after everything, darkness and cold stone didn’t scare me much. Either that, or I was still so overwhelmed that I couldn’t actually feel the fear coursing through me.
When we were both ready to move on, we started our journey again. I don’t know if Gideon’s pace was faster, but the return journey seemed to fly by. I had not really considered what I had expected of Gideon when I left him tied up where I did. How much time had passed? How alone was he for all of that time? Weeks? Months? What toll had it taken? Perhaps he was as ready to leave as I was.
When we returned to the first bridge, the one with all of the bat sounds, where I once found that wooden statue, I made sure to shine the lantern as far ahead as I could. After everything, I didn’t want any surprises.
And then there it was. I’m not sure if it was the thing that screamed on the way in, but it was holding the statue that I dropped. Or another one like it. Its skin was pale and green and sickly. It was human-like, but with large fish-like eyes. Tall. Sturdy. I… made it past.
On the other side of the bridge, I hopped on Gideon’s back and we took off. Neither one of us had any interest in staying in those haunted corridors any longer. I guided him using the focused lamplight to only look ahead.
Then we came to that final turn, and then the surface.
The cool, fresh air hit my face. A feeling of elation jumped from my stomach to my head. I started crying. Gideon started stomping. I was hoping to see the sun, but it was night. It’s a full moon.
We rode until we could be sure we were far enough away from the Underworld. Then we set up camp, where I am now. There are some trappers up the river from where we’re camped. I asked them for the date. I had been in the Underworld for six months of surface time. They shared some drink with me, and I listened to their stories for a few hours. It was a relief to hear human voices again. It didn’t matter what they said. It didn’t matter how mundane the ins and outs of trapping are. It didn’t matter how this was a bad year. It didn’t matter how one of them was struggling with a lover back in town. They could have read me the dictionary. Not wishing to overstay my welcome, I thanked them for their hospitality and made my way back to my camp where Gideon was fast asleep. I shared nothing with them.
Tomorrow, I go back to the university. They may still have a place for me despite my long absence. My memory of the things I learned is somewhat hazy, but I remember important details. Lists. I was always good at remembering things. I’ll have to begin work right away. I’ve written down some key concepts. I’ll make sure to destroy my notes when I’m done with them.
I wanted to keep riding, but Gideon is weak. We can’t keep running like we did. We don’t have to. We have time.
We’re on the surface now.
And somehow, the open sky above me is just as frightening as it ever was. Maybe I grew comfortable with closed spaces and the foul, humid air. What on the surface can honestly threaten me like the Underworld did?
And still, the fear hasn’t gone.
Perhaps I find myself more alone than ever. A journey that no one will understand. A soul more tainted than any other. It will dawn on me at some point just what I’ve done to myself.
For now, I think I should try to close my eyes for a little while before we ride tomorrow.
The air is so fresh.
(a long pause)
Dark: Goodnight, Godry.
Credits: The Hollow Below by Conrad Miszuk. The role of the dark is played by Conrad Miszuk. The Role of Godry is played by Conrad Miszuk. The credits are read by Kitt Keller. The Hollow Below is written, produced, directed and edited by Conrad Miszuk. The Hollow Below Theme is composed by Conrad Miszuk. For more, visit hollowbelow.com.