It started with a bet.
Doesn’t it always, with these kinda things? A nudge and a jeer, a snide remark and an implication of your courage? Tiny needles of outrage prickling over your skin, compelling you to do things you would never have even considered in any other frame of mind.
Peer pressure can be a damning force of motivation.
And so, covered in sweat caused by nervousness and exertion in equal parts, you entered the strange, fluorescently lit hallway you had found during your hiking trip. It was a spartan corridor; all you could tell was that it slanted downwards and turned right, buried into the side of the mountain, in the middle of a forgotten forest, far out in the wilderness of the North Country.
And though it was cold, the humidity was unexpectedly high; it promised that the sweat on your skin would never clear, covering you like a thin layer of fear. Even the walls were not exempt from this clinging moisture, condensation dripping down like a steady staccato on your nerves.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
You suppress a shudder, but take your first steps anyway. You’d already made up your mind to complete this stupid challenge and your buddies had already promised to meet you on the other side; they said that they’d passed the exit only fifty metres down the path.
You check your wrist, but realise that you left your watch back in the camping lodge. No matter, it’ll be over soon anyway and there’s no need to keep the time. Just focus on every step. One by one.
You do your best to put aside the fears of getting lost in a labyrinth-like system, buried down, down, down, beneath tons and tons of solid rock. Left alone, left to starve, left to die with nobody to save you. Well, at least you tried.
Drip. Drip. Drip. Step. Step. Step.
You wipe the sweat off your forehead; was it getting warmer or was it just your imagination? And the lights, were they dimming as you walked? Getting slightly orange further and further away from the entrance? Besides, how long have you been walking. True, the decline was only slight, but you’re sure you’ve covered at least a kilometre of walking by now.
You wished you had brought your watch yet again. Even the familiar ticking on your wrist would have been a more comforting rhythm than that dripping water. You slide your hands into your pockets, wiping your palms on the inner lining.
Drip. Step. Drip. Step. Drip. Step.
By now you’re sure that your friends were lying, no way was the exit fifty metres down. You must have walked for an hour, at least, but no sign of any door; only wet, white washed walls and the stark lighting. Wait, no it was definitely not white, not anymore. The lights shone orange now, no doubt about it. You slipped off your hiking jacket now and try to put aside the thought that you’re either getting more tired, or that the tunnel is getting warmer. You’re not too sure which unsettles you more.
Just as you reach another bend in the path, you decide that you’ve had enough. It’s hot, you’re tired and you just want to go back to bed. Who gives a shit about what they think of you; your anger gives you a momentary shield against the grating fear of staying in the tunnel for so long. You turn around, ready to climb back up the slope.
And you are greeted by darkness. Somehow, the lights had been turning off in your wake and you had never noticed. The darkness is so absolute that even the orange lights of the tunnel can illuminate no more than ten metres up the hallway. And were you mistaken? Further up the path you came from, you could hear a faint scraping sound, perfectly punctuating the sounds of the dripping water.
And it sounded like it was getting closer.
You turn around yet again and continue at a much faster pace, trying your best to put aside all thoughts of something back there chasing you. On its belly, crawling bit by bit… You could feel the panic setting in as you tried to keep calm; it made the walls close in towards you and the lighting a shade closer to scarlet than orange.
Drip. Step, Step. Shrik. Drip. Step, Step. Shrik. Drip. Step, Step. Shrik.
No, you’re sure by now; the lights are really dimming. It was a shade of crimson so dark you could almost not differentiate it from black. You could only tell they were illuminated from the way it made the dripping walls look like dark, dark blood. Dripping from the ceilings, down the walls, forming dark puddles near your feet.
Your breathing becomes hurried, you can no longer control yourself. The heat is almost palpable and you feel like you’re walking through a rainforest, every step is an act of labour. No more, you can’t take anymore. Run, run, you gotta get out of here. Hurry, hurry, HURRY, GET OUT! IT FEELS WRONG, SO WRONG. GO, JUST LEAVE.
You almost collapse in relief when you see the doors: two metal doors meant to open outwards, with two little square openings covered with a grating. You can see illumination from the other side. You force yourself to slow down; it would not do for your friends to see you in such a panic. Breathe in, hold it, one, two, three, exhale. Repeat.
Okay, you’re in control again.
Calm again, you notice certain details as you walk. It seems the like lights have completely died. But the hallway was still illuminated by the small windows in the doors, an amber glow. Strange, perhaps it was already sundown. But the Sun would not cast a light like that, flickering like a flame…
The feeling of wrongness returned again as you walked; like staring at a painting but failing to notice what was out of place. An unease settles in your navel. What was so weird?
As you reached the doors, you finally noticed it; the air was different here, as dry as a desert. You could feel it leeching off the moisture from your skin, replacing it with a scorched feeling. Even the air smelled different, brimstone and sulfur, like the fumes of a volcano. But the worst part you could see through the windows.
It was a room of fire.
Not that there was fire, not that it was filled with magma, it was a room full of fire. Columns and rows, flames burned neatly, like hedges in a garden. You’d never seen such beauty before, restraint in such an unpredictable force. It felt familiar somehow. But the wonder soon faded to fear, as you heard that hated scraping again. Right behind you.
Shrik. Shrik. Shrik.
You did what anybody would. Perhaps by reflex or perhaps not, you pushed open the doors and stepped into Hell.