Dante Competition: 1st Place

Her frantic footsteps echoed off of the twisting hallways. With every turn, with every sprint into the spiraling darkness, she felt herself becoming more and more hopelessly lost. Once or twice, lost in the absence of light and life alike, she had tripped. Each time, terror had chased her closer, nipping at her soul and threatening to dispel her sanity. The third time, when her legs had simply given out below her and she had come crashing to the ground to the sound of her heart pounding in her ears, she didn’t get back up. Stressed induced exhaustion tugged at her consciousness, but with the remaining dregs of adrenaline pumping laboriously through her body, she listened. The silence was not comfortable. The longer it stretched, the more her fingers twitched at her own echoes. She was gripped by the unknown nightmares that tormented her, hidden in the eternal blackness and seen by only her imagination. Skeletal hands clawed at her exposed skin, phantoms screeched down the distant halls, and spiders crawled up her spine and into her brain-

A deafening roar. Its fury was akin to the wrath of the forgotten sun itself, merciless in the beating of its monstrous hooves pounding on the stone paths behind her. Yet even as its distorted voice screamed in rage at the heavens, she felt relief wash over her body. The hooves weren’t getting closer. The screech was defeat, and the monster was a sore loser. Relatively, she was safe from its tyranny. Achingly, she put one foot in front of another, until she was walking into the void once again.

They say that the nights are darkest just before the crack of dawn. Just when everything seems to be lost, when the hero is at their lowest point and there seems to be nothing in the world that they can do to save themselves, the crack of dawn would timidly peek over the horizon and they would be reminded of the things they had to protect. As she limped down the long corridors, she tried to think of everything she had to look forward to. She ignored the cold seeping into her chest and the screaming pain in her feet. She remembered her family, their smiling and laughing faces, the things she had to believe in, the friends who would be waiting for her, and she walked forward. It would be all over soon, and life would be normal again. The monster wouldn’t come for her again. There was nothing to be afraid of.

After another hour of fruitless adventuring into caverns unmarked, desperate hope turned into heaping despair. Just when she thought she recognized a landmark, a scrape on the wall that was particularly unique, an out of place stone, a crack in the ceiling that dripped with wetness she couldn’t even quench her thirst with, she would lose it as soon as she found it. After yet another hour, she found herself once again unable to breath, but she kept going. If there was one thing that the human race could be recognized for, it was the inability to go quietly into the beyond. In the face of certain death, soldiers marched onward so that their family at home may live another day. When humans first looked to the moon as nature itself threatened to slowly strangle life as it is, they conquered the stars so that their race may live another day. She would not go quietly. She would walk until she couldn’t anymore. She had to, it was the only thing she could do: struggle.

After several hours she fell.

The monster turned the corner to find her. It had been following her scent for hours, but she had been so much quicker than it. Slowly, it lumbered forward, its breaths heavy and eager. Its bipedal hooves stabbed at the stone ground, sending ripples through the open chambers. Giant horns weighed down its skull, causing it to slump forward with a predatory pose. Soon, it stopped at the human’s sprawled body. The great beast leaned down from its massive height, its bull head sniffing and prodding at her broken form. After evaluating the damage done to its prey, it growled uneasily. Gingerly, as if cradling a baby, its hulking arms scooped up the injured animal and rose back up. With the human safely in its hands, it started towards the exit.

If there was one thing that separated humanity from any other, it was the inability to go quietly into the unknown and the desire to never be forgotten. This pursuit of immortality through memory and substance has always been a force greater than nature, a driving factor that conquers sea and sky alike, but what of the consequences? At some point in time, if they haven’t already, they will have struggled so vigorously that the rope that binds them will chafe at their wrists and break off from their roots. They will scream that they are unbound, only to turn and realize there is no longer any warden or prisoner alike to hear them. They are free. They will defiantly call as they charge into the great beyond, but when they reach their final destination, wherever it may be, they will discover that they had never escaped from the tyranny of their own mind. To escape the dark labyrinth that binds one is not something to be ashamed of, but to struggle against those who only seek to help one another is. As the girl opened her eyes and witnessed all at once the monster fading back into the black halls and the daylight peeking through the green trees, she realized that she had misunderstood the terror that chased her.

Truly, it was the terror of being forgotten, all alone, in a place where no one would remember her that had tormented her. When all had been lost, it had been the monster who saved her from herself.

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