He crouched in the dark, one knee down, toe of his boot pressing rocky floor, his other boot poised to propel him forward when the moment arrived. And it would arrive. He just didn’t know when. But knowing when wasn’t his job. Getting in and out safely, prize in hand – that was his job.
His eyes adjusted slowly to the dark, allowing him to pick out the rough rock walls of the tunnel, the scattering of broken stones and bones across the ground. Bones left as a warning. How nice.
If he could have snorted silently, he would have. The bones were a challenge, at least for him. He’d already left two dead behind and he’d leave more if needed. Life meant little to him less’in it was his own. And even then, only marginally. So what if they planned to kill him if he failed? He would not fail. He never failed.
The rock around him started to shake and heave. He sprang forward, running through the darkened tunnel, leaping stones, avoiding jagged protrusions on the walls, ducking low-hanging stone. Arms out for balance, he stumbled, rightened himself and ran on, counting silently.
Ten, nine eight. Around the first bend. Drop to his knees and shoot through the narrow opening under a rock fall then back to his feet and running. Gathered himself and leapt across the snake pit, rolling to his feet on the far side.
Seven, six, five. Dropped into the rock chimney and slid, boots and gloves against the walls to direct his fall.
Four, three, two. Almost. Hitting the ground, he ducked out of the chimney and ran, reaching the next turn of the tunnel as the chimney collapsed behind him.
He slid into the cavern, freezing for a moment to listen, sense. The silence was empty, vibrating around him the way a tuning fork vibrated to a touch.
He was alone.
He rose and walked to the pedestal, staring at the two-fisted size gem resting upon a velvet cloth. Warily, he circled the pedestal, searching visually for the small catch able to release the stone. Reaching the front of the pedestal, he moved closer, removing his right glove to ensure a better feel. Fumbled for a moment and then pulled the catch forward and up, freeing the stone. As he worked, he felt something brush his hand but ignored it.
Rolling the gem into his left hand, he let go of the catch, hearing the crack of stone. Pulling his hand back, he frowned at the black glove encasing his flesh. The moving back glove……
He shrieked, shaking his hand violently to dislodge the black mass…
Dropping the gem, he brushed frantically at the creatures with his gloved hand, whole body shaking with the feel of tiny hairy crawling feet.
Falling back against the wall, he drew in long panicked breaths, fighting the shivers consuming him. S-pi-d-er-s. Threw away both gloves and ran his hands frantically through his hair, brushing away imaginary spiders.
Garden spiders. Freaking garden spiders, but he didn’t give a damn. Just the thought of them touching his skin sent him into violent spasms, fighting for breath. Stomped the ground around him with both feet to squash any that dared come near. Scratched his hands through his hair again, hard. Wiped at his clothes over and over but the feel of them wouldn’t go away.
Just on your hand, just on your hand, he repeated over and over, trying to wish away the feel. Hand, hand, hand! It as no use. He still felt the anguish of their legs on him. Coming to his feet, gem forgotten, he started to run. Where, he didn’t care. How, he didn’t care. All he needed was to get away.