This is the first short story I have written, and the first piece of fiction I have shared publicly. A few weeks ago I shared that I had sent a piece of flash fiction off to a competition, though it closed at the end of May they are not announcing anything until September so that story will stay hidden away for a bit longer.
I started writing this months ago, then got stuck and left it for quite some time, finally finishing the first full draft in October, with an edit over the Christmas break and a second in February. I haven’t touched it since, though last week decided that I would do a quick once over edit and then post on June 21, the summer solstice, when the story is set. I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with it, so am going to be brave and just share it. There are about 6,500 words (some swearing), so maybe get a drink first. Enjoy…
Awake. Woken by what? I’ve no idea; whatever disturbed me is no longer making its presence felt. There’s no hint of a missed sound, no lingering smell. It’s dark, the darkest I’ve experienced; not a glimmer or suggestion of light, it’s completely and utterly absent. A short sharp shiver passes through me, though the air isn’t particularly cold and it’s dry, as is the stone floor I’m curled up on. I’m wearing all my clothes and can feel my trainers under my head, a not uncomfortable pillow. Holding my breath, not daring to move, I freeze for a few seconds, waiting for whatever woke me to make a sound, but nothing stirs. Is the whatever that woke me doing the same? Waiting silently.
I raise my head, breathe out, then in and hold again. Nothing. I sit up and stretch, bones aching from sleeping on the stone. I have no idea of the time, I no longer wear a watch and, checking my phone, I find the battery is dead. Long dead or short dead? I don’t know, time has become blurred; elongated or shortened? Here, underground, where the journeys of the sun and the moon are unseen, where movement is measured in millennia, human time means nothing.
I reach for my head torch, fumbling briefly in the dark, finding it where it should be, next to my shoes, where my head recently lay. I turn it on, filtering yellowy light through my fingers, not wanting to disturb the others if they’re still sleeping. I gradually move my hand, releasing more and more light into the space until the full beam penetrates the blackness. I cast the light around, across the floor, round the base of the walls, everywhere; this cave isn’t big. I discover I’m alone.
I can’t, and don’t know how to, react; the beer, vodka and weed has left me befuddled and slow. With a smoke-and-drink-dry voice I half call out, a croak. No response, I call again, clearer, louder, then again more urgently, the pitch rising with a touch of alarm. Still no response. Too tired to worry or to think, my barely functioning brain tells me my friends have slipped off to another chamber to shag. I turn off the torch, place it back next to my shoes, lie down and drift back to sleep. To dreams.
I dream of gods, of those once human who became gods when they left the earth in that time before time. I dream of glory. Glory in battle with honourable beasts that fed my family, my tribe, my people. Glory in defeating those who arrived uninvited in our lands. Glory in death pure and clean, glory in life after death, glory in the everlasting party of heroes.
I dream of death, and pain, and blood and sacrifice. A life cut short, cut down from behind, betrayal.
I dream of vengeance.
Posh Dave, Rebekah and I met at college. Three students who didn’t arrive with prepared friends, we were the immediate misfits. We didn’t hit it off at the start, but just like in the movies, we ended up hanging together and, just like in the movies, it was simpler and safer that way. An unexpected but comfortable solidarity between our year’s misfits and weirdoes.
Posh Dave was sort of a local, though not as much of a townie as Bex. He lives in a big house just out of town. The lords of the manor type thing, apparently his family have been living there forever. He’d been to an expensive junior school somewhere else before his parents ran out of cash. Or, if you believe the rumour, his dad got busted for some dodgy financing and got sent away. Either way, he was now at the local comprehensive just like us. He’s not at all like Bex and I, but he makes us laugh and is as much one of us as he isn’t one of the others.
Bex is an odd one; she grew up here, totally hates the place and the people in it. She once told us she could never leave, was bound to the town; doomed to live, grow old and die here. Her mum passed away a couple of winters ago. Too many years of smoking, depression and poverty led to a short and painful, for Bex at least, illness and she just lost the will live. Bex says the town killed her. Being angry is what kept her going, and being here is what keeps her angry. She looks like Joey Ramone; tall and hungry lean, leather jacket, Ts, jeans and sneakers. Not the youth uniform of semi-rural Somerset in 2019.
Me, I’m Pete and my story is simple, and all too common these days. My folks no longer liked anything about where we lived in East London. It was always a bit shabby for their middle class pretensions. Then more foreigners started moving in, the Polish builders, Romanian cleaners and Lithuanian kitchen hands, the people that keep the country running but we don’t want to see. We moved down to this rural shit-dump of a town for the start of college. A fresh start. A new life with better housing, different jobs, away from bad influences, and of course, ‘proper’ English people.
I hated them for moving us; away from my friends, my crew, my scene, the punks and goths. I even miss the long-haired metal kids. I miss the dodgy convenience stores that sell cheap booze and fags to the local kids, that DIY that never asks for ID to buy spray paint, the illicit gigs and the house parties, skulking around after hours in the city, looking for places to explore; tunnels to enter or unsecured cranes to climb. Punk rock, urbex and graff, it’s what we lived for, what I loved, taken away from me when we moved.
Over the past two years we’ve become pretty tight; thrown together by not fitting in, the school forcing us to be friends as we had no others. We were never the Three Amigos, or the Three Musketeers or the Three Anything At All. To the rest of school we were just seen as losers, they called us ‘twats’, or if they were feeling verbose ‘The Twats’. We cared less, their opinion counted for nothing, rednecks, morons and straights; boring, run-of-the mill small town normals. All of them.
Rob was another local, like Bex he was born and bred in the town, but unlike Bex he was the complete townie, puffer jackets, tight jeans, Nike trainers, gold chains and high street hip-hop. Nothing like us, he was the anti-misfit, good looking and sporty; the girls loved him and the football lads admired him; some of them probably loved him too, though it isn’t that sort of town. He was a year older than us, dropped out of school as soon as he could, taking an apprenticeship with a local garage, a bit of a car guy, but not a total motor-head. He didn’t hang out with us and was never part of our wider group, but he was OK, he never gave us any grief, and we could share a drink or a smoke and a laugh with him. He was better than the others. It was a surprise when he came to the solstice rave with us last summer and even more of a surprise when he never appeared back in town again.
School has finished (thank fuck). It’s summer and the longest day of the year, the solstice. It’s boring and hot and there are no jobs for students and there is nothing to do until university starts and I can get away from here. I did OK in my exams, enough I think, so hopefully I’m off to university in Newcastle. As far away from small town and even smaller minded rural Somerset as I can get.
Our music; 90s punk rock, Joy Division, Cave and Cohen, Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim. Music from the past, discovered in experiments with parental record collections as we searched for something more fulfilling than what’s offered to us; the ever repeated blandness of youthful bearded singer song writers and imported pap from America, that meaningless shit that pervades and perverts the taste of our generation. We want something that speaks to our disconnected, placeless souls, something with meaning, words that reflect our experiences, our isolation, the way we feel. Music formed into playlists to get stoned to in the car, on beaches and in forests, in fields under the sky, away from the norms and rules of daily life. Maybe they are just false memories from a time we never knew, a past that belonged to others, but at least our music was chosen by us, not curated and delivered, packaged by an algorithm at some faceless corporation. As false as everything and anything.
We may as well party and enjoy ourselves while we have the chance, the three of us, together, maybe for the last time. We set off early into the summer evening, clear skied, with the sun a long way from setting. Posh Dave driving, Bex next to him in the front providing direction, I’m drinking cheap lager alone in the back. They’re together, and have been for a year, ever since Rob went to London and disappeared. They may seem like an odd couple from the outside; he so shiny and mannered, she the crusty punk, but they make sense to me. I know where they’re from. I’m jealous of Posh though, being a bit street I saw myself as having the better chance. Fair play to him though, I love them both.
None of us are hanging around after summer, Posh and Bex (yeah I know) are off to Europe, working where they can for food and lodging and staying as far away from this shitty island for as long as possible. Brexit Britain, who the fuck wants to be here?
This was to be the first of our last outings together. Today is the anniversary of Rob going away; we want to celebrate his escape to the city and life away from here. We’re visiting hidden places; standing stones and ancient burial grounds, the holy places of prior generations, those of the unknown but not yet forgotten sects; on hill tops, in woodland and deep underground. The secret places, known only to locals, passed down through generations, the weird places that few outside the South West know. Fuck those big tourist sites. Disneylands all of them.
It’s our last chance to roam and be free together before we split and do our own thing. Who knows if we will ever get to do this again.
I wake again, screaming into the pitch-black nothingness, the lone sound of my voice reverberates off the walls and roof of the chamber, a feedback loop of my own, pitched too high, too loud. I stop screaming and the echo stops with me, leaving an empty silence. No questions, no responses, no care. Just that empty silence. No one is there. Flicking on my head torch I cast the beam around the chamber, as before the light reports back what I already fear. I’m alone. Underground, with no idea how deep below the surface or far into the system I am, how I got here, nor how to get back out again. I want to know where my friends are, what’s happened to them. Did they abandon me as a joke? Are they lost? Have they fallen down a hole or been trapped by rock fall? Have they been taken? Where the hell are they!
The fuzziness in my head from before has been replaced by the dull deep ache of a mixed drink hangover. I don’t need that shit right now.
There is this place Bex knows, a rare place, a secret place, known only to a few who have lived here for generations. She promises us that it will be the bomb; the best thing that will happen to us this summer, if not ever. She promises a big reveal, but leaves no hint. Nada, nowt. Nothing.
“Wait,” is all she will say.
It took two hours to get here, though I suspect we’re not that far from where we started, I’m sure we passed some places more than once. I didn’t care, left alone in the back of the car with beer and a soundtrack of hopelessness and betrayal, romantic despair and unrequited love, I was in my happy place. Wasted and drifting, disconnected from the hopelessness of life in small town England and a future that would, probably, never be realised. A brief moment of release, the last outings with friends before escape to the faint hope of something new, something better.
We park in a rubbish strewn lay-by, there are no other cars. As soon as we stop I am out of the car, most of a six pack of cheap lager gone, and dying for a piss. I jump the fence, crash through the hedge and with great relief release myself on the far side, into a field, half watched by three disinterested cows. I hear Bex and Posh laughing and calling me on the other side of the hedge. I tell them where to go.
Loading back-packs with beer and vodka, kindling to start a fire and food to cook on it, we grab the boom box, cross the road, clamber up a low bank and enter into the narrow roadside woods.
There’s a path of sorts through the trees. Bex tells us she knows the way and we follow a faint bramble and weed strewn trail, brushing through the waist-high cow parsley and denim hooking holly. Humans have been this way in the not too distant past, empty beer cans and plastic bottles, toilet paper and torn blue bags litter the side of the path. Nodding at the rubbish Bex says “Fucking townies, ravers. Country people don’t do this,” disgust in her voice at the mess left behind. The stand of trees isn’t deep and we’re soon walking in the lowering sun up a scrubby, rock laden field. Pointing to a low peak a few hundred yards in the distance, Bex tells us that’s where we’re heading. Not too distant but far enough from the road that no-one will see or hear us, and we won’t see or hear anyone else. Bex doubts anyone is there. Though it isn’t that far from the road, it isn’t a well known place. It isn’t on any maps and Google has never found it from above.
Dumping our bags near an old fire pit sheltered from the wind in a clump of rocks near the peak, we load the boom box with a c90 cassette recording of a couple of old Leatherface LPs, grab beers and let Bex lead us to the surprise she promised us when she proposed this trip. We follow her down a narrow and dust-dry sheep track into a small wooded glade growing in, around and over a narrow gully in the boulder and rock littered hillside. Deep in, and totally cut off from the sun, she pushes through seemingly dense bushes and with a delighted “ta-da” reveals a rusted door, imbedded into ancient and graffitied concrete, constructed against the face of the equally graffitied gully. The door is solid; thick steel, with ancient rust showing through faded, curled and peeling military grey paint. Barred top to bottom by an inch thick circular rod, hasped and locked with the meanest looking padlock I have ever seen.
“What the fuck!” is the first thing that comes out of my mouth. “What is this place? Is it the army’s?”
I search for cameras, hidden security, gun barrels poking out of bushes; nothing catches my, admittedly pretty addled, eyes.
“Nah, it’s cool,” says Bex. “This place is way too old and way too weird for the army.”
Sweeping her hands round the signs, tags and random shit adorning the walls around the door to emphasise her point.
No longer distracted by the randomness and weirdness of a metal door concreted into a gully face deep in a hillside in remote Somerset. I see signs and sigils, words, letters and drawings; old and older; painted, written and carved, all around the door. Remarkably, the door itself is adorned with one sign; official, in colours of the local council. ‘NO ENTRY, Unsafe Passage’.
“So what is it?” I ask again.
Bex tells us that it’s an old cave system, no one really knows when it was discovered, but it was like hundreds of years back, a burial ground from the Stone Age or something. They found loads of old skeletons and shit here, but it was grave robbed way back and it’s long empty. Hippies used to come here after the Stonehenge Festival, but some got lost in the caves so the council sealed it in the 70s and pretty much no one has been inside since. “Pretty much,” she repeats, almost to herself.
My eyes flick around the mass of writing and carving surrounding the door. Messages are layered on top of old messages, on top of even older messages. Warnings and welcomes, charms and threats, yings and yangs. Visual noise, confused and confusing, I have no idea where to start reading. From below the recent, older things start to appear; carved letters blurred and dulled, old inks seeping into the sandstone, and below those again, edge worn and faded I see pictograms; Celtic runes, crosses and pentagrams, interlinked circles, crude fish symbols and so many things unrecognisable.
“How do you know about this place?” Posh asks.
“It’s a perfect campfire story,” Bex replies. “Let’s head back, get the fire going, chill and I’ll explain.”
I take my phone out and start to take photos, a sweeping video of the scene, close-ups of text not in a script I recognise, things to refer to when I’m home with internet access and a clear head.
While I’m checking out the writings, Dave is fiddling with the padlock on the door.
“Holy shit!” he exclaims, turning around with the padlock in his hand. “It wasn’t even locked, just looked like it.”
He pulls back the clasp with a rust dry creek and slides the metal rod out of the loops in the door frame. “Shall I?” he asks. Hell yes.
He pulls on the door, nothing happens. He pulls again, this time much harder, with exactly the same result. It’s stuck fast. “Fuck.”
Dave heads back up the path, returning with a branch. Shoving it under the metal rod, he throws his weight against the other end in an attempt to lever the door open. Nothing happens to start with; then, with a loud crack the door pops an inch. Tossing away the branch, Dave and I grab the edge of the door, heaving on it together. It slowly, noisily draws open. A fug of stale dampness and old air bursts out its mouth. Like a living thing brought back from a long hibernation, expelling old breath and ready to draw in new air.
We cross the threshold, into that liminal space between light and dark, sound and silence. Separating ourselves from the outside as we pass through the doorway; moving from the uncertain world of the present and an unknown future and into the certainty of the past.
With torches back in our bags, we don’t venture far. The entrance is small, concrete-lined, with empty hooks and shelves on the walls. It looks like the porch of an old house. I can almost see scarves and miners helmets, worn old coats hanging from the hooks, maybe a smoke stained lamp or a hand drawn cave map, with muddy boots lined up on the floor against the wall. However, the space is empty, with just a laddered angled shaft in the floor; going down into the cold darkness of the hill.
We decide to go back to where we dumped the bags, get a fire going and let Posh and Bex have a drink while I take my turn to do some work and cook. Relax into the early evening; eat, chill and then go back to the cave with torches as the sun goes down.
With the fire settled to ember, bellies full, the vodka bottle and a spliff passing from hand to hand, Bex starts on the story of this place.
She tells us that this is an ancient burial ground, discovered by people from before recorded time, people free from the constraints of society, free of a religion with a single god and free from structure and conformity. A people who roamed where food and the seasons led them, returning to their hidden and sacred places when death required it. This is a burial site for their elders and mystics; created from underground systems older than them, from when the ice melted and left the surface, carving channels, tunnels and chambers, entire systems deep underground. Those buried here became one with their gods.
Bex says the location was passed to her by her mother just before she died, that the same happened to her mother, and hers before that; handed down to the eldest daughter, generation after generation, from back before time was being recorded. Bex’s mother explained to her that their family had always been connected to the local king, the eldest daughter serving the monarch’s eldest son, not as a servant but as a priestess. The head priestess.
Bex tells us she’s never been down into the burial chambers. That the council sealed it up years ago after some people disappeared in the system, way before her time.
“Shall we go back, go in?” she asks. Posh and I instantly agree. Adventure is what we came here for.
Shining the torch around I discover only one way out. I pull on my shoes and stagger gingerly to my feet. I stumble walk towards the hole leading out of the chamber, the fringes of the torch light catching ochre lines over the exit. I point the beam directly at them and see more of the symbols we found on the surface, but these are cruder; the lines fading, drawn by fingers, not carved, sprayed or brushed. No letters here, just arrows and circles, hand prints, more. I gasp when the outline of a beast comes into view as the torch circles the wall. The raw outline of a mammoth-like figure, tusks and trunk and ears, clearly formed though crude and faded by time. My eyes pop and I’m suddenly awake, a burst of much needed adrenaline pumping into my weary brain.
I scan the rest of the wall but find nothing else. Staring at the mammoth, I wonder how long it’s been here; months, years, decades? Maybe centuries. Recalling history lesson mentions of cave paintings discovered in France that are over 35,000 years old. Can it be that old? Am I the first person to see this since it was made?
I call again for Bex and Dave. I’m desperate to show them this wonderful, amazing thing. As before, I’m greeted with nothing but silence. I need to find them.
I take one last glance before exiting the chamber, wishing I had some water, anything to drink. My mouth is parched from the excess of the night before, burning from the calling out and the waking screams. I find myself in a narrow passage, tall enough for me to stand and wide enough I can almost fully stretch my arms. The walls are smooth, verging on soft, dry and dusty. No man or machine has made this, the water flow of millennia has carved these passages and chambers. I call their names again. No response. My enthusiasm to show them the painting is rapidly being replaced with a fear-tinged anger. I can’t believe they would leave me here alone in that state, not that they were in much better shape than me. I hope they’re OK.
This isn’t my first time underground; we’ve been in caves before, exploring the area with Rob last summer. Caving and climbing is what he did to escape the dullness of his existence. Occasionally we went with him and he would show us basic moves, drilling us on safety and preparedness, letting us watch as he showed off climbing up impossible looking bluffs, other times taking us down into some of the less treacherous open cave systems. Teaching us about being underground; about airflow and water, how to spot signs of danger, ensuring we didn’t over extend ourselves.
I have to choose which way to go, though no clues are given. The air is completely still and the dust on the ground has been churned by feet in both directions. For no reason than my head says so, I turn to the right. Using a Sharpie left in my jacket pocket from a last day of school wall-writing mission, I write my name and draw an arrow on the wall as I leave. I haven’t gone far before my head torch hits the roof and soon I’m on hands and knees crawling in the dust. Shining the yellowy beam ahead, I can’t see anything that helps, just the further lowering of the roof and drag marks in the dust indicating that others have passed this way in the past, but how long ago? Minutes, hours, decades? Impossible to tell.
Now on my stomach, I point the light forward and can see through the choke point into another chamber. I turn my torch off to see if there’s any hint of light ahead, I call into the space and all that returns is my own echo. I lie there in the dirt, in complete and utter darkness, not sure if I should go forward or turn back, whether I should scream or cry. I try to recall how I got to be in the chamber in the first place, but nothing comes to me. Did I come into the system on my own or was I with the others? Why did I/we come this far? I have no idea what to do next. I choose to cry. In the dark, alone, lost. There doesn’t seem to be another immediate option.
Then, through my blubbing, I hear laughter. Dave and Bex, and someone else? Can it be Rob? Is that his laughter I can hear in the background? Is this the big reveal Bex promised? Is Rob back from London?
I hear Bex calling me on, telling me it’s a short belly wriggle and I’m through. Wiping my eyes I raise my head from its slump. I look forward and can now see a pale yellow flickering light. Yes! My spirits immediately lift, and with a feeling of relief, stronger than anything I’ve felt before I turn my head torch back on and using elbows and knees, I slither crawl through the choke point and into the new chamber. To my friends; to relief. Jesus, I had never been so scared.
Clambering out of the dust, running my fingers through my hair and brushing myself down, I see the shadowed shapes of my friends standing in a vast chamber. Swinging my head-torch around, the cavern is so huge I can’t see the ceiling nor its furthest walls. I stumble rush forward into the welcoming arms of Bex and Dave for a group hug. I step away and look at them one by one, laughing with the joy of seeing them again. I tell them I heard Rob’s voice calling me on with theirs, is he here? There’s the slightest of pauses before Bex says he is, sort of. And that’s when things start turning to shit.
Dave speaks. “Have a look around mate.”
Since entering this enormous space my eyes have just been on my friends. Then I realise that my torch isn’t the only source of light. Bex and Posh are surrounded by multiple, flickering, lanterns. “Where did they get them?” is the first thing that pops into my mind.
I’m about to ask when I spot more of the animal paintings on the wall beside us. Unlike the ones I saw when I woke up, these show human figures; loads of them, all men, linking hands around the walls.
As my eyes grow accustomed to the light I see that every figure looks like it’s been painted by hand, shaded from red to brown as if time had faded them all individually. As I walk towards them, I realise the paintings get more proficient and the colours less faded as they snake around the wall. I look back toward the opening I came through; above this is possibly the oldest figure, it’s certainly the most faded and largest of them. He is magnificent, ancient and regal. Instinctively I know this must be one of the god-kings Bex told us about earlier. I take my phone from my pocket to take some photos and then remember the battery’s flat. This place is so utterly amazing it needs to be captured.
My torch bobs as I swing my head around, marvelling at the paintings covering the walls almost from the floor to out of human reach. I continue walking around the chamber, kicking up ancient dust and sand as I go, leaving footprints where none existed. The floor is strewn with boulders and there are exit points heading in numerous directions, small and large. Some show signs of being man-made, jagged and ridged from picks and bars, but most are just the smooth grey stone water has made over the years.
I shine the light up the wall; the ochre red of the paintings intermingling with darkness where a bit of the craggy roof is low. As I crane my head back, the light picks out calcites hanging from the roof, glowing white against the dull grey rock. This place is beautiful and stark, wonderful.
Turning back to speak to my friends, my light catches a flashing glimpse of blue on the floor. My head automatically flicks back to the incongruous colour, the light and my eyes settling on a dusty puffer jacket on top of a pile of clothing against the wall. My light illuminates the jacket as I walk towards it. I recognise immediately it as Rob’s. I stop, and turn round.
“Pete,” Bex says. “There is no good news in this story. I’m sorry.”
“Where the fuck is Rob?” I demand.
Bex swings her torch around the row of painted men, alighting on the figure at the end. My head torch follows and immediately I can tell who this crudely painted figure on the wall is. Rob. His eyes, barely lines and dots, seem to be imploring me to acknowledge him, to come to him, to touch him. He is holding the hand of a figure I don’t recognise, though it looks a lot older.
“I had no choice Pete,” Bex tells me. “I had to then, and I have to now.”
“My ancestors,” Dave says, now standing next to me, “were the first to be buried here, generations and generations ago.” He casts his arms around in the dark, “A lot of these are my family, the oldest ones, anyway.
“Some are sacrifices, prices to be paid when times are tough and blood lines are thin.
“Times have been tough.” he adds, leaving the words hanging in the air.
“My family is cursed,” he continues, pointing at Bex. “both our families are cursed.“
He walks back towards the centre of the cave, into the circle of lanterns.
“My people took this land when it was a new land, soon after it was released from the sea, thousands of years ago. We took it from the first people to come here, and we didn’t take it easily. Many died.
“Their holy man placed a curse on our king, commanding that until hands are joined in a circle on the wall of the largest chamber, none of the souls laid here will rest. Our first people honoured the curse, as did the next few dozen generations.” He points his torch on the largest figure.
”Eventually, as fortunes grew, it became a bit of a family joke; the boogie-man to scare the kids, and the curse faded to legend almost as fast as family power and influence was grabbed. By the time that power and influence collapsed, it had been forgotten. Granddad read about the curse after the war when all we had left was the house. He brought the sacrifices back and started making millions again.
“Dad then totally fucked it all up with his stupid games. Though he isn’t gone, he’s too chicken-shit to go through with anything.
“It may be OK for him, but I cannot live like this Pete.”
Bex joins in. “My family have always served the king, the eldest daughter serving the eldest son. Once mum died I’m now the elder in my family. I serve Dave’s father, but he is weak.
“Dave is the real king, and he commands the sacrifice, one that can only be made on the night of the summer solstice. Tonight.”
I’m smiling, thinking they’re taking the piss. I turn to face them, my mouth working to make a smart comment, but I see no hint of humour on their faces. It takes a moment for it to click that this is reality, that they actually mean me some harm.
“Fuck YOU! This is fucking insane.”
“Sorry Pete, it is what it is,” says Dave as he steps towards me from inside the circle of lanterns, picking a metal bar from the ground. I burst forward, kicking one of the lanterns at him. It hits his leg, flaming oil flies out from broken glass, his jeans catch alight. His leg aflame, screaming, he dives to the ground; rolling and writhing, he thrashes around in the dust trying to put out the flames.
Bex howls, angry, animalistic, she moves towards Dave to help, then anger takes over and she turns and comes at me. Her face, yellowed and flattened by the lantern light is filled with hate. I run.
I enter a tunnel and find I can stand up, my head torch bouncing as I move, throwing shadows all over the place, making it hard to see, to focus on where I’m going. I’m forced to slow, I don’t want to fall. The tunnel is sloping down, not the way I want to go, I want to be heading up to the surface away from this insanity and my fucking fucked up friends. I want air and light and sanity.
I realise that the tunnel has no man-made marks; this tunnel was made by water. Though I can’t hear pursuit, it’s too late to return to the chamber and find another exit, I have to go on and hope. The passage narrows and steepens downwards; thankfully the surface is free of rubble and I can move freely. For the first dozen yards I’m almost upright, but I’m soon crouching, slowing, bending forward further and further as I head down the tunnel. I can feel the air starting to cool, the walls are getting damp and the air is musty with age and something else. Water.
This doesn’t feel like a way out. Panic is starting to build and I can hear my heart beating, it sounds so loud, can they hear me? Can they hear my fear?
As I slow I can hear someone behind me. Bex. She isn’t rushing. If she really is the priestess, she probably knows this system well. She will know where I’m going. Her lack of urgency worries me even more.
“Give it up Pete, this is just making it worse.” She sounds so close, her voice echoing back to me from further down the cave.
“Fuck you,” I repeat.
The fear is growing as the tunnel gets lower and narrower, eventually forcing me to my knees. I drop into a shallow stream of what feels like liquid ice. I try to raise my knees out, but too late, my jeans are soaked, my hands are cold, the grit on the floor is tearing into the skin of my knees, though I have no choice but to carry on. I don’t get far, forced to stop as the passage shrinks to a crawlspace so tight I don’t think I can go on. Bitterly cold water drips slowly, unevenly from the roof onto the back of my neck, it runs down my shirt.
My head torch tells me it’s narrow, shallow and sloping more steeply now. The water flows down, so there has to be somewhere for it to go; there has to be a way out, though I can’t see it.
I call out, begging for help, my voice muffled by the narrowness, my body filling too much of the space to allow sound to travel normally. I have to go on. Dropping to my belly in the freezing water, with my arms in front of me I scrabble into the tiny space. Elbowing my way forward, pushing with my toes and knees. The light showing me nothing but wet rock and my own hazy damp breath, now coming faster and hotter as the fear cranks up another notch.
Finally I am stuck. I can’t go forward or back. I call, I hear muffled laughter. Bex. Her hands on my feet and legs, she’s going to pull me back out, give me a chance to get out of this hole and a chance to fight back. Maybe it was all just a prank that has gone horribly wrong?
I try to use my hands to help her, feeling for what small leverage I can on the wet rock, but rather than pulling, I realise she’s pushing me further forward.
“STOP!” I call out, “you’re making it worse!”
She keeps pushing me down and further in. Jesus, fuck, I can’t push back, my hands can’t grip anything in the ever tightening hole, my face is now in the shallow water, I turn my head to the side to breathe, but there’s so little air. My body blocking one end and I now know there’s no real exit, a gap for water to flow out but not air in. I am trapped.
As I breathe out and my lungs depress I slide further in as I’m shoved from behind. I can barely draw breath, let alone scream. I try to pull more air into my lungs, force them to expand and slow the relentless pressure from behind. I can’t.
I hold on as long as possible. Finally I must exhale, my lungs compressing and allowing a small gap between my chest and the wall. I’m forced forward another few millimetres. It’s so tight now I can’t re-expand my lungs, I can’t draw breathe, my heart is pounding harder and harder, I can hear the blood flowing in my head, it feels like it’s expanding into rock itself. Tightening, tightening, tightening.
I look out from my place at the end of the line on the wall. I can feel my right hand is held, but there is no comfort from the old friend beside me. I want to scream but no air comes from my stone lungs, nor sound from my stone lips. The lanterns in the cavern burn down and then out. It’s dark, but I know I am not alone.
I dream of death, and pain, and blood and sacrifice.
I dream of revenge.
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