Once upon a time, a girl was pushed off a ledge. She fell into the catacombs beneath the city and a man’s guffaw fell with her.
“Sleep tight, princess.”
She was no princess. She was scared with skinned palms and bruised knees. She had no idea how far she’d fallen. No idea how to escape. And she only had the faintest of rumors of what roamed beneath the city.
She strained to see the man’s face, but all she could see was the glare from his glasses and the shine from his teeth.
“Please,” she said, “please just get me out of here? I want to go home. I won’t tell anyone!”
He stared silently back.
“PLEASE?” her yell echoed down the passageways.
“You’ll live longer if you’re quiet. But what fun would that be?” the man’s laugh clattered off the walls and he walked away.
The girl found her way to the wall and wrapped her arms around her knees.
“Is he gone?” the girl stifled a squeak, startled by the new voice.
“Um… I think so? Did he throw you down here, too?” the girl asked.
“I can’t remember. I think someone threw me down here. Or did I fly? Maybe you just blinked and I appeared? It’s all very fuzzy,” the new voice said.
The girl couldn’t see the voice’s face, just its outline. She couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. It had long, dry hair and its neck was severely hunched. The girl shivered, she didn’t know if she was cold or scared.
“Here, dearie. Let’s get you away from this drafty spot,” the voice wrapped the girl in a smelly blanket. At least it was warm! The girl snuggled into it like a bat tucking in.
They wound their way down a series of corridors. The girl tried to keep track of how many lefts and rights but she quickly gave up. There would be no escaping from the way she came.
“Where are we going?” the girl asked.
“Where are we going? The opposite of where we have been! To the place we were not before.”
The girl followed the voice in silence for several more steps. She felt uncomfortable in the silence. “What is your name?”
The voice stopped, “What, child?”
“What is your name?”
“My name?” the voice asked, “It has been so long. Have I ever had a name? What is yours? Maybe we can share?”
“Hmm. That doesn’t sound right for me,” the voice said, “and I suppose it would be confusing. I would like a different name. I think ‘Gretta’ feels right. Do you think it matches my shoes?”
Lydia squinted at the voice’s dark shape and shrugged, “I think they work perfectly together.”
Lydia followed Gretta deeper into the tunnels until they reached a large room with no exits.
“Follow me,” Gretta said. She began walking in a large circle. Lydia just watched from the entrance, “Come on! Don’t want to get lost now, do you?” Lydia shrugged and followed Gretta in the large circle. On the third pass, a trail of light followed her footsteps until it joined itself.
Lydia blinked at the bright circle. The once-solid floor was now a hole.
“In ye’ go!” Gretta said and pushed Lydia.
Lydia yelped as she fell. She landed on something squishy and soft. It smelled funny. She wished she could see everything more clearly, but it was just too dark.
Gretta dropped down beside her and traced the ring they had made in the opposite direction. The hole above them disappeared.
“That’s better, for now,” Gretta said, “Hungry?”
Lydia’s stomach snarled her answer.
“Goodness, child! When did you eat last?”
Gretta danced effortlessly around the obstacles in the dark.
*THUD* “OW!” Lydia did not.
“Oh, dear! I suppose you rely on sight? Let me see what I can do,” Gretta said.
Lydia saw Gretta’s shape shuffle around the room making wild gestures until some stones in the ceiling began to glow. She could finally get a good look at Gretta. Her skin was shockingly pale compared to Lydia’s hazelnut complexion. Her hair looked like bleached straw falling over itself while Lydia’s jet-black hair was firmly knotted into place and out of the way. Gretta looked ancient while Lydia was only fourteen.
What was most disturbing was Gretta’s eyes; or where they should have been. Skin had painfully stretched itself over her sockets, threatening to tear apart at any moment.
“Is that better?” Gretta asked.
“Erm, yes! Thank you,” Lydia said, still overcoming her shock. Gretta nodded in Lydia’s direction and shuffled into another room. Lydia poked around while Gretta clanked and grunted in what must have been the kitchen. The walls were pretty bare. The only things in the room were some unusual chairs and blankets. She couldn’t quite place the material, but the furniture was a strange leather and the blankets were made from something very coarse.
Gretta returned to the room and held a bowl out to Lydia, “I’m afraid it’ll be leftovers tonight, dear.”
Lydia thanked her and took her bowl to one of the chairs.
“I do hope it’s warm enough for you,” Gretta said. Lydia looked at her stew and found something staring back.
“It’s… it’s fine. What do you call this?” Lydia spooned the contents around the bowl finding bits of fingers and what looked like the tip of a nose.
“Another name?” Gretta asked, “Funny how everything needs a name. I just call it dinner.”
Gretta slurped in silence while Lydia clanked her spoon around the bowl and looked for a way out.
“Now that I think about it,” Gretta said, “I believe this stew did have a name. Funny!”
Lydia put her bowl down gently, “What’s funny?”
“The stew’s name was ‘Stew!’ Ha ha ha ha!” Gretta’s bowl sloshed as she bent over cackling and stomping.
Lydia laughed nervously and glanced over the room again. She noticed something odd in the arm of Gretta’s chair. It looked like a stretched face. The strange blankets, she realized, were knit from hair.
“So,” Lydia said, trying to keep the quiver from her voice, “this is an impressive home you have!”
“Oh? Do you like it? I find it to be quite comfortable,” Gretta said between slurps.
“I do! It must keep you safe from the monsters down here. Have you seen any?” Lydia said.
“Seen?” Gretta said. Lydia’s blood froze at her poor choice of words, “I have seen before. I have seen many great and terrible things.”
Lydia tried to silently rise from her seat; she wanted a better view of the kitchen. Her chair let out the faintest of squeaks. She froze and stared at Gretta.
Gretta put her bowl down, “you might as well stop looking for that exit, child. I am far too fast for you. Was the soup too cold?”
“Are you the monster they say roams the catacombs?” Lydia asked, craning her neck to get a better view of the kitchen.
Gretta picked at her teeth, “I suppose I have been a monster a time or two down here, but I don’t believe I have stories,” she paused, turned her head towards Lydia, and flashed a crooked grin, “Do I frighten you?”
Lydia put on a brave face, “That all depends. Do you plan on eating me?”
Gretta threw her head back and laughed. She laughed so hard she coughed and hacked and slapped her knees in delight. Lydia frowned and wondered if she missed a joke.
Gretta gasped for breath. She fluctuated between laughing and coughing violently.
Lydia took the opportunity to creep into the kitchen. There were no windows or doors that she could see, so she searched the cabinets. She found a mess of spices and pots. There were some seasonings she had never heard of before, but nothing seemed too strange.
Gretta went quiet in the next room and began sniffing loudly, “Child?”
Lydia shrank further back into the pantry and bumped into something that rattled. She froze and held her breath hoping Gretta hadn’t heard.
Gretta stopped and gave the air a long sniff.
She walked back towards the kitchen door and Lydia allowed herself a few shallow breaths. She turned to see what had rattled, but it was too dark. She opened the pantry door a crack to let more light in and turned back to find herself face to face with a skull resting on top a pile of bones in a jar.
Lydia gaped at the skull and the skull gaped back.
“Lydia, child. Where are you hiding? You can’t be far.”
A draft crept around the bone jar, bumping Lydia in the face. She gritted her teeth and moved the jar aside as quietly as she could. There was a loose panel behind it. She couldn’t find a latch, so she pushed the panel forward. It opened quietly.
She peeked one more time over her shoulder. Gretta had not found her yet. She crawled past the bone jar, through the hole in the wall, and replaced the panel. She could breathe easier here. The hole in the pantry led to a passageway tall enough for her to walk in. It would have been pitch black were it not for the glowing caterpillars crawling about.
Lydia had no idea how long she would be wandering the catacombs or if she would ever leave. But she needed supplies. She held her ear up to the panel she escaped through. She heard nothing. She pulled the panel back from the wall and peeked out. She only saw the bone jar in front of the opening. Breathing a sigh of relief, she looked through the contents of the pantry for anything useful.
Lydia grabbed a couple of empty jars and one that was filled with what looked like dried fruit. There were other oddities but she didn’t dare take anything that she couldn’t identify. The jerky was tempting, but she didn’t want to chance it being made from Stew or Sandra or some other poor person who had fallen into Gretta’s clutches.
As she grabbed the last bits of not-meaty foods, she heard Gretta’s rattling sniff come back.
“I’m tired of this game, little Lydia,” Gretta paused, “‘Little Lydia, all alone,” she broke into a cackle until she was coughing for breath.
Lydia looked for a bag, but could only find an apron. She put the items into the passageway and climbed as quietly as she could back through the panel. She moved the bone jar back into place, gave it a friendly pat, and replaced the panel.
Just as Lydia replaced the panel, she heard the pantry door creak open.
“Child? I grow tired of this game,” Gretta gave a rattling sniff, “Ah! I do believe I have found you!”
Lydia put on the apron and quietly moved the jars and food into its pockets. She heard Gretta clattering through the contents of the pantry searching for her. Lydia pressed herself against the wall and held her breath. She strained to hear what was going on over the sound of her racing heart.
Gretta rustled around the pantry a few moments more before smashing a couple of jars against the wall in frustration, “Come out at once, Child!”
Lydia leaped from her spot, quite startled, and made her way down the passage. She wanted as much distance from Gretta as possible.
“There are things you do not yet know!” Gretta’s yell echoed after Lydia as she smashed another jar.
Lydia picked up her speed as quietly as she could. She clutched the apron pockets to keep the jars from rattling. She jogged until she could no longer hear Gretta’s cursing and jogged some minutes more until she found an empty alcove. She sat and slowed her breathing. She listened. She heard nothing.
She sat for a moment and took in her surroundings. The glowing caterpillars gave her enough light to follow the passageway, but not enough to garner any details about the passage around her. She got a close look at a caterpillar crawling next to her on the wall. It had a lightning patter that glowed blue splayed across its back and was munching on a patch of moss. She held her hand down for it to crawl on and received a shock. She gasped and rubbed her hand to get the feeling back.
“Well, aren’t you vicious!” Lydia said.
She wiped her palms on the apron, causing the jars to rattle. She picked up one of the smaller, empty jars and approached the caterpillar again. She used the lid to scrape it and some of the moss into the jar. She screwed the lid on, found a sharp rock on the ground, and punched some holes in the top.
“That’s better. Let’s find you a friend.”
After several minutes and a few shocks to her fingertips, Lydia gathered ten caterpillars and several clumps of moss in the jar. They emitted a brighter blue glow. It was bright enough, she could see a few paces in front of her and study the walls. She didn’t feel she was far enough away from Gretta to make herself comfortable just yet. Then again, she wasn’t sure she would ever be comfortable in the catacombs. Not after the stories she grew up with.
Lydia held the jar in front of her as she walked. The passageway was dark behind her and she hadn’t heard the sniffing and cackling of Gretta for a while. She twisted and turned her way through the tunnels and came across another alcove off the path. She held her breath and listened. She heard nothing. She peeked her head around the corner with her caterlamp in hand.
As the light hit the corners of the alcove, an albino rat the size of a house cat hissed at her intrusion. Lydia scowled and hissed back at the creature. She stepped forward. The rat retreated to the edge of the lamp’s glow and glared at her with its beady red eyes. Lydia settled down with her back against the corners of the nook. She sifted through the various jars in her apron pockets and settled on some walnuts.
The rat sniffed from its spot, hesitating to move forward. Lydia grinned at the creature and tossed it a few nuts.
Lydia and the rat ate in silence for several minutes. After she picked the meat out, she tossed the shells to the rat. It delighted in gnawing on them, sharpening its teeth, and cleaning out any missed bits.
“You’re kinda cute, for a rat,” Lydia said, “I really hope that’s all you are.”
Lydia heard many stories about what lived beneath the city. Children would dare each other to crawl into the drains; one child mysteriously lost her foot, but most children backed out at the last moment.
She heard about the rats the size of wolves and the bats that would bleed you dry in a matter of minutes. There were tales of creatures that were half-snake and half-monkey that would poison you, rip your head off, and throw it around like a toy. The people who were said to have survived in the catacombs became monsters themselves, such as Gretta. But there was one beast who was rumored to rule this entire underground world.
Lydia had only previously believed that these stories were used to get children home before dark. After all, the stories only grew more ridiculous and scary every time her grandmother told them. The, “Beast of the Catacombs,” was a mimic. It would imitate the cries of the helpless; a screaming baby, a drowning dog, or a sobbing child. If that didn’t work, it would offer comfort to the cold, an ear to the forlorn, or food for the hungry. According to Lydia’s grandmother, the mimic would descend upon you and relieve you of all your blood. That or you would be amputated piece by piece until all that was left of you was your head. Her grandmother assured her that the only repellent against this creature was to eat her vegetables.
Lydia stashed the rest of the walnuts back in her apron, wrapped her arms around her knees, and stared at the glowing jar of caterpillars. She had been listening for any movement in the passageways, but everything was quiet. The rat crawled forward, wrapped itself around the jar, and fell asleep. Lydia kept twitching, trying to stay awake, but the jar grew blurry and she closed her eyes.
A blind, feathered creature that filled the passageway slowly stalked by Lydia’s cozy corner. It hesitated and snuffled a rattling sniff in her direction. Her new albino friend raised its head and gave a fierce hiss. The creature gave a frustrated snort and moved on. The rat glared in the creature’s direction as it passed. The rat sat itself in front of the sleeping Lydia and kept watch until she awoke.
Lydia awoke to the cat-sized rat sitting on her chest and staring at her. It tickled her face with its whiskers and nipped her nose before hopping down and gnawing on the jar of the caterpillars.
“Didn’t I just feed you?” she tried to scowl at the rat, but not for long. Shes stifled a fit of giggles when it gave up chewing on the lid and began pouncing and chasing the jar as it rolled away.
She snacked on more walnuts, tossed a few to the rat, and picked up the jar to get a better look at the passageway. She couldn’t hide here forever.
She looked into the passageway and saw clawed footprints heading towards Gretta’s. She shivered and turned back to see the rat on its haunches sniffing at her apron. She handed it one more walnut and scooped it into one of the pockets.
It nestled in among the jars.
“Right,” Lydia took a deep breath and headed the opposite direction of the footprints.
As she walked, the walls around her grew narrow, the patches of moss faded, and her jar of caterpillars dimmed. The rat in her pocket squirmed in agitation. She gasped, but couldn’t get enough air. Her heart raced and she knew she would suffocate.
She ran. One hand gripped the dimming jar and the other raced along beside her touching the wall. She swerved and turned with the passage, desperate for an exit. Shadows launched themselves at her. Footfalls echoed behind her.
The jar clattered out of reach and she could only hear pounding in her ears. She curled up, leaned into the wall, and hid her head.
The blind, feathered creature was not far behind. A glowing jar raced towards it, only stopping when it found the creature’s claws. It sniffed and nudged the jar in the direction from which it came. It followed. The creature stopped when the jar met its owner and was greeted with a hiss. The creature nodded and retreated to the shadows.
Lydia focused to slow her breathing. The rat managed to wriggle its way into her arms and was sniffing at her face. She unclenched her fingers and pet the creature. Her hands shook, but she could breathe easier. She stared at the caterpillar jar at her feet and forced the pounding in her ears to subside.
The darkness around her seemed to grow, but it didn’t feel empty. It was suffocating. She stared harder at the ever-dimming jar and terrible memories crashed into her.
She stood in the doorway, trying to find her little brother through the smoke.
“James!” she yelled. She saw him peek out the closet door. His eyes went wide and he shut it again.
Just as Lydia started for her brother, a guard snatched her by the waist and carried her away from the building.
Lydia flailed and screamed for her brother. Why was no one going back in for him?
The guard passed her to someone else who squeezed her tight and wouldn’t let go.
“Struggling is useless now, child.”
“Ow!” she hissed. The rat had bitten her finger, “not getting enough attention, I suppose.”
Whatever was following her seemed to be gone.
She brushed her tears away, scratched the rat’s head, and picked up the fading jar. It was full of faintly glowing chrysalises. While she would have liked more light, there was no going back for a caterpillar refill.
To her right, Lydia heard a slow scraping sound echoing off the walls. The air seemed more fresh than the left, but the sound unnerved her.
To her left, the tunnel smelled musty and damp, but she heard nothing.
“Left it is!” she gathered her courage and briskly left the other passage behind her.
A mud-spattered girl finally discovered a passage smelling of clean air. She no longer cared if the sound of her dragging bum leg attracted the foul creatures of the catacombs. This had to be the way out. She thought she heard footsteps at the junction behind her, but she didn’t care anymore. She needed out and the air was making her giddy.
“A grate!” she thought with joy. She scrabbled as fast as her leg would allow and curled her fingers through the grate. She pushed with all her might, but it would not budge. She could hear birds taunting her from the other side. She tried pulling and hitting the grate. But it still would not open.
“Oh, child. THERE you are,” a familiar voice whispered in her ear. “Are you sure you wish to leave this place?”
The girl stood frozen, but managed a nod. That voice was the reason for the bite in her leg.
“Well, then. Answer Auntie Gretta one teeny riddle, and she’ll open the way.”
The further Lydia walked, the more she questioned her choice. The walls became more slimy and her jar hardly gave any light. The air grew thick and musty to the point she wheezed whenever she breathed. More than once, she looked back towards the junction. Whenever she did, the rat nipped at her, encouraging her to keep going.
Lydia continued walking until the hallway opened up into a cavern. It smelled of mold and the sound of dripping water echoed off the walls. She stepped on something squishy and recoiled. She bent down to get a better look and saw it was a mushroom that started to glow green. The rat leapt from her pocket and bounded from mushroom to mushroom. Several minutes later, it returned and the cavern was bright enough for her to see.
The mushrooms slowly righted themselves from the rat’s sudden weight. It made their shadows dance on the cavern’s walls. As her eyes adjusted, she saw a pool of water that rippled every time a drip fell from the ceiling. As hard as she could squint, she could not see more than five feet above her. The glow just wouldn’t reach. She emptied the rest of the walnuts into her pocket and filled the jar with water. She moved to take a drink and received a nip on the hand from her ratty friend. She scolded him and moved to drink again.
“OUCH. Alright, you pest!” She screwed the lid back on and returned the jar to her pocket.
She looked into the water and saw only ripples from the drip. She stood mesmerized for a moment when a large bubble burst several feet in. It filled the room with such a foul smell that Lydia retched and stumbled away. She covered her nose with her shirt and looked around for an exit that did not make her backtrack.
Lydia ducked to her left into an alcove and tried to make herself as small as possible. She stared back at the pool and saw a giant, frog-like head emerge from the water. It belched out a loud, “BRAAADDUP,” and sloshed its way out of the water. It was twice the size of Lydia. Its front-end looked like a frog and it’s back-end tapered into a rattlesnake’s tail. It stretched its front legs, shook off the water, and sniffed the air.