After some time, Nicodemus was able to stand up, his back was stiff and he thought he might have a bruised ankle when he fell, but he could walk, and nothing appeared to be broken, amazingly. The loss of his friend and the heartache of knowing he was the one who ultimately brought about that death, weighed heavily on him. He took stock of where he was. There was no way he was going to climb back up the way he had come into this place, the sides of the cave were way too smooth and the hole he believed he had slid out of was much too far above him. There was a passage that seemed to lead off to his left, but it was extremely dark, too dark to see. However, he could hear a trickle of water coming from that direction.
Moving close to the wall, he trailed his hand along it as he walked, being careful to feel for each step before he took it. He didn’t want to fall further into unknown tunnels. Following the sound of water seemed like the best idea and slowly he worked his way further and further into the darkness. After a while, he found the source of the water sound. A small trickling stream seemed to be moving at a very slight angle down the passage he traveled. Several times, he stumbled in the darkness, banging his shin on a jutting rock and after a little while, the ceiling of the cavern started to lower. In the beginning, the ceiling was maybe thirty feet above him, but after what seemed like an hour of following the stream, he banged his head on the ceiling.
“Ash and fire!” he swore.
Bringing his hand away from his head where he felt a warm wetness. It wasn’t bad, but it still flaming hurt! He would have a lump if he ever made it out of here. Stooping down, he continued down the passage, after only a short time, the ceiling lowered again and he was now crawling on all fours. And again, it lowered and he found himself crawling on his belly, the ceiling so low that he felt like he needed to turn on his back and slide along that way, but the passage was too low for that, his shoulders were too wide and he was unable to turn over. Thankfully the passage was still wide enough to afford him some room on the sides. But when the ceiling came low enough that the rock above and below scraped at his head and compressed his back, he found himself scooting to the side to try to find a higher place where he could fit through. Moving to the right along the edge of the passage found him in about an inch of water, which wouldn’t have been so bad, but pulling his mouth out of the water was difficult, given he could barely turn his head.
“If I ever get out of this place, I’m commissioning the queen to have these tunnels fully explored by cartographers. None of this scrunching into passages too small for a brown-dog to squeeze through!”
He knew the tunnel was getting smaller with every foot he moved forward. It was unsettling. He stretched his arms out in front of him, dragging himself further and further in. Should he start backing out maybe, he wondered? But how would he get out of this lower cavern? There was no climbing the walls, they were too smooth and too high. He inched forward. No one would ever hear him yelling for help, his team was the first people to be in these tunnels for thousands of years, so no one was coming to help.
Nicodemus could feel the water pooling up around his body, pushing at him as he blocked the flow. The water began to gather around his face and he realized in a sudden panic that it was impossible for him to now go back, the force of the water wouldn’t allow that. He was a cork in a shaken bottle of champagne. He was able to move forward, but it was at a snail’s pace. In the back of his mind, Nicodemus had a rather morbid, and yet at the time, comforting thought; at least he would drown, and that that would be quicker than dying of starvation below hundreds of feet of rock. He began coughing out the water that attempted to force its way into his mouth, air was harder and harder to find. He was going to die. This solid blanket of rock and water was going to be his tomb. Pure panic set into his mind and bucked his back, which wasn’t much of a movement since the ceiling was maybe two inches above it.
He recoiled this way for a moment, but the futility of the movements became an immovable object in his brain and he slowed. He only had a moment left. There was no more air, no more life to pull into himself. Only a waiting death, a realization that the end was okay, welcomed and understood. His body relaxed and he reached up his hand above his head, more to stretch somewhat in that comfort that to move forward anymore, but as he did, his hand seemed to lose the rock. His hand reached further up, but there was no rock to touch that far in front of him, just water. He realized at that moment, that if he could only feel water, then that meant the passage just several feet in front of him must widen. His mind came awake and the lack of air didn’t seem so complete or dire. A flood of energy seemed to infuse his body.
Pulling back his hand he found the lip of the passage and grasped at it, his lungs burned for air and despite there being no light, he could see spots of red flashing into the peripherals of his vision; he was going to pass out soon. With his last rage of strength, he pulled at that edge and his body suddenly birthed itself into an open pool of water. He pulled at the water and kicked at the stone beneath his feet. Then he into the open air, barely able to tread water, but gasping for breath in the sweetness of the air. After floating for a bit on his back, he worked his way to the side, hoping this underground lake was not very large.