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Adventure Horror Suspense

The mornings are different now. The waking, it’s no longer clear and full of light; it’s vague shapes and weak, diffused rays. I do not smell the crisp morning air or the flowers in the spring. I smell wet rock and fear. I taste starvation. 


I see blindness.

—-----------------------------------------------------


It was finally Friday. Finally spring. Finally the first caving trip of the season. I had spent the last week collecting my equipment, which had been strewn about my basement laundry room after last season ended. I’m lazy. And it’s all covered in gypsum silts, anyway.


I recharged the headlamps. Gathered the battery packs. Sealed up the tears in my cave suit and dry bags. Checked the drums. Replaced my field boots - which really bummed me out. They’d lasted 5 seasons, which never happens. RIP.


I called Aja to see when he wanted to meet at the field house. What to pick up before? He always made fun of me because I barely eat when I’m underground. I don’t know what it is. It’s chilly, damp - I just don’t get hungry. Jerky will do it for me. He asked for a bunch of shit to make sandwiches, and I called him high maintenance.


When we arrived, I dumped the bags of groceries on the kitchen island, and we caught up as we unpacked the car. We grabbed our favorite bunks, and after a few beers and a bit of chatting, went down for the night. After all, the next day would be at least a 10-hr trip; the cave we were going to is huge.


Bigger than anybody knows. 


And in the morning when we left, we forgot to text anyone with a designated panic time. And when we left our phones in the car and headed up the hill to the cave entrance, we turned them off.


Did we make mistakes? Yes.

—-----------------------------------------------------


At the entrance, we came upon another caver, which was weird for a few reasons. He looked experienced, and an experienced caver would never go caving by themselves. And we didn’t know him; his name didn’t even sound familiar, and he couldn’t name anyone else in the club. 


More, he wasn’t wearing a cave suit, and his boots looked like nothing I’d seen before. And his headlamp was… vintage? But he didn’t look old. And, to be honest, it wasn’t so much the lack of cave suit - I do that, too, in the simpler, dry caves. Not this one, though - no way.

At the same time, this was a pretty ideal, if unexpected, situation - we really should have had a third person in the first place. So I overlooked the strangeness of the new guy - because cavers are pretty weird in general - and into the darkness we went.


My and Aja’s favorite place in this cave was the Crystal Room. It was almost 2 miles into the cave, and it was anything but a straight shot. Tonnes of crawling in the stream, climbing through small spaces and rambling along rooms full of breakdown, all while keeping track of the markers so we wouldn’t get lost. 


Luckily, our new-season energy and low water levels in the stream sped the journey to four hours or so. And when we entered the room, it was just as beautiful as I remembered. A cathedral cloaked in total darkness. Until a headlamp. 


The floor and all the walls were sparkling with minerals - various oxides had stained them greys and blacks, so the room almost looked as its own smokey geode. On the opposite wall from the entrance was a flowstone also covered in sparkling gypsum formations, so it looked as if a quartz waterfall fell straight from the wall. 


And the ceiling, translucent calcite stalactites and soda straws gave the illusion of icicles dripping. There was not any other room in any other cave I’d been in that was like this. The new guy, who had not said one solitary word on the hike in, exclaimed:


Holy shit.


Aja chuckled. 

—-----------------------------------------------------


After we’d gotten our fill of the Crystal Room, we decided to explore a couple well-tread passages that surrounded it. The formations in these parts of the caves were gorgeous - columns, drapery, flow stones, frost work - so much diverse geology. A forest, each plant a different iteration of stone and circumstances.


A short time later, the new guy pointed to a small space to the right and said:


Let’s go check that out - I bet it opens into another room.


Aja and I looked at each other. Shrugged. Agreed. New guy promptly scrambled and scooted into that cramp little tunnel, and we followed. 


The way this space was, you were contorting and twisting so much that even though Aja was barely ahead of me - like mere feet - I couldn’t see his headlamp. I would assume he couldn’t see the new guy’s, either.


All of a sudden, the space opened, and you had room to breathe - literally. An absolutely expansive room, there were three almost door-like entries to other rooms and passages at our front, left and right.


But where was the new guy?


Calling out to him, we expected he’d just gotten a bit ahead, maybe gone through one of the doors. But there was no answer. And we started to panic.


The next I don’t know how long, Aja and I took turns leaving the room, only within yelling distance, to see if maybe he’d fallen or gotten lost. There was only so far either of us could go - there were no markers this far in. When we were sure we’d done all we could, Aja said we should go back and get help - something was wrong. 


But when we turned around to go back the way we came, there was nothing but a solid wall of bedrock. No opening, no breakdown, no tunnel. We looked at eachother, and then around the room. And we realized there was no sound - nothing. No far-away rock falls, no dripping, no stream sounds or echoes. And like a cartoon, we looked at eachother again and gulped. 


That is when I remember becoming scared.


Looking at my watch, I realized we had been underground for 10 hours. This was not good. Headlamps would be dying soon, backup batteries would need to be used, and all our extra layers were already on. And we were cold and wet all day now - hypothermia would become a risk in a few hours if we weren’t moving. 


It became clear we needed to split up, each choose a doorway, and see if any led back to the stream or back into the passage we had been in previously. If we could find the stream, all we had to do was follow it downstream to the lower entrance. So we grabbed our string spools and tied them to the same heavy rock. And we each went our own way.


I never saw him again after that.

—-----------------------------------------------------


For another hour I explored the left passage, still occasionally calling out for our missing comrade. I checked my watch constantly, knowing we were now on borrowed time. One of us was missing - possibly injured or worse - and it was another 3 to 4 hours to get to the lower entrance. So I headed back to the mysterious room with the three doors and the changing walls. And it felt surreal.


Halfway back, my headlamp went out. Backup batteries, backup headlamp, two protein bars, a hot hands, and an 8-hr emergency light in my dry box. Taking stock, things started to seem… heading towards disaster.


Back at the room, I called for Aja. Nothing. I went to grab his string and follow him down the front passage. But there was no string. And there was no front passage. I decided to wait for another hour, in case he’d come back - as if that made any sense. And then I spotted something reflective at the door to the right passage. 


Keeping my headlamp on the object, I went to see what it was. A helmet, half hidden under what looked like a typical pile of fallen rocks. I lifted several of the rocks away and there was more. And there was something reminiscent about the helmet and all the tattered, faded fabric around it. 


And then I found a nailed boot.


And under the clothing, there were bones. 


And I just didn’t understand. I screamed for Aja again, and I thought I heard his voice very far off. 


And then all of a sudden, my headlamp went out. Way too soon. And there was just darkness. There was nothing.

—-----------------------------------------------------


Completely blind, I took off my pack, set it on the floor and went into the drum to find that emergency light and any extra backups. The emergency light didn’t work. And when I finally found more backup-backup batteries, they didn’t work, either. And neither did the glow sticks. Or the rescue whistle. Or my watch.


Panic-stricken and trying to process, I sat there for awhile, and then decided to call out for Aja again. His voice sounded closer this time. So we kept calling each other again and again, and he sounded so close, but I never saw his headlamp. And the passage was gone, so how would he get back? Maybe it looped back into another one. Hopefully.


But I knew it didn’t. 


And in the total darkness, Aja yelled to ask if I had found the new guy. No. Could I follow Aja’s string and guide him back here? No. Why? There was no string. And even though I couldn’t see him, I felt him become frightened, and I felt the taste of cold metal in my mouth. And then I heard another person’s voice. It sounded almost right next to me:


Geez - where have you guys been?


It was the new guy. And I fainted. Or something. But when I woke up, Aja was screaming from somewhere, and the other voice was gone. But there were people having a conversation off in the distance, and I naively thought that maybe rescue had come.


But no one knew we were down here. And this one time - the one time I forgot - the cave was going to teach me a lesson.

—-----------------------------------------------------


Nobody understands what happens when you’re in the dark. This isn’t a clear night with no moon or a basement room without windows. This is an inhuman dark - the kind you can only experience deep inside a mountain. This is a darkness so endless that you create your own ending.


I don’t know how long it was, or where I truly was. While I could hear Aja, we never found ways closer to each other. And all his equipment had failed as well, seemingly at the same time as mine. I kept hearing the conversations, occasionally hearing my name and replying back. But there was nothing.


I saw a shape and a flicker of light from the right passage. I called out again:


Help! We’re over here!


I heard nothing, but I saw the faraway light move. And then someone called back. And then suddenly, there was a man holding a lamp, looming directly over me, and his eyes were cloudy and marbled. With his free hand, he grabbed my shoulder and said:


You shouldn’t have come here. 


When I looked down at the shoulder he was clenching, because it was cold and starting to hurt, his hand was half bone scattered with rags of desiccated flesh. And there was nothing attached to the hand.


And then the light was gone, and so was the feeling on my shoulder.

—-----------------------------------------------------


Some time later, my stomach began growling and my mouth became dry. Blindly reaching for my emergency box, I unwrapped a protein bar but only ate half. I didn’t know how long we would be here. Fumbling around my dry bag, I found my nalgene. Half full. And as far as I knew, I was nowhere near the stream. 


I called again for Aja and we verbally exchanged our list of resources. He was in the same situation as I was, which gave me some comfort - I was afraid he wouldn’t have any water left because he was notorious for drinking it all on the hike into a cave and going the rest of a trip without any. But still, without light, without string, without the literal entrance to that room, there was nothing for us to do. Any move we made might take us deeper into unknown parts of the cave, which had more potential to make things worse than better.


And then I heard more voices. This time I clearly heard mine and Aja’s name. And so we called back. The voices got closer and my stomach flipped - maybe we’d been found. And then the voices sounded all around me - so close - in the room. But there was no light. Just a cold breeze that smelled of wet shale and mud.


I kept reaching out and stumbling around, hoping to bump into something or someone. In my efforts, I tripped over the pile of rocks with the helmet and the bones. Except this time the helmet, the clothes, the shoes, the bones - they were a whole body - still warm. 


Thinking it was our lost teammate, I started to shake him by his arms to rouse him, asking him what had happened and where he had been and if he was okay. But there was no response. I felt up his torso to his neck and then his head, but when I got there, it wasn’t. I felt wet, torn flesh and a collapsed skull. Where his face was, there was nothing. 


I screamed. Immediately, I felt that cold hand clamp on my shoulder, and the cloudy-eyed man spun me around. He carried no light but I saw his face clearly. This time it was skull and lost teeth and peeling flesh and isolated chunks of hair. He seethed:


You shouldn’t have come here.

—-----------------------------------------------------


I can’t tell you how much time passed after that, but things became worse, scarier. There were always voices, always my name being called, always Aja’s disembodied voice somewhere close but unreachable. Sometimes I fell asleep. I was always tired, always cold. 


At some point in my helplessness, I thought to try the backup headlamp again. Maybe it hadn’t worked because it overheated. Maybe the battery was lodged incorrectly. There was nothing to lose. Crawling around until I found my pack, I felt inside until I found the light. I flipped it, and to my surprise, it turned on. Before I even looked up I called excitedly to Aja. But then I did look up.


All of a sudden, there were a dozen people around me, clawing at me. I dropped the light and it landed face up, lighting the room, if dimly. Something yanked me back by the hair, and then there was a hand around my throat. I tried to grab it, but pieces of skin and muscle slipped off each time. Looking around, barely able to breath, I realized these were not people.


Grey skin and hunched backs and a spindliness that made my spine crawl. Their noses were receded and they had no eyes. Where you would expect them, there was just nothing - two indents where they might have been before. And their flesh was constantly peeling and sloughing off, but there was always more underneath.


They spoke amongst themselves in something that occasionally sounded like English. As they held me there, they looked me over closely, poking my upper arms, my stomache, my thighs. I heard the words hunger and new. And then I felt the knife in my thigh. 


Screaming, I watched as one of these… things cut into my cave suit, through my clothes and into my quad muscle. I didn’t look away as they started to carve, almost like a filet, and I when one of them tried to stuff my balaclava in my mouth to stop the screaming, I bit them. The scream I got in response was like nothing I had ever heard. I felt a hand across my face and warmth on my lip. And then I don’t remember.


Everything after is episodes of sleep and blood as they took things from me over time and I slowly bled into the cave floor, creating my own dark stains. The headlamp was out shortly after they took the first piece of me, but I could always hear them coming, and I could smell them: cave. But concentrated. As if they were moving, living extensions of the darkness and the sacredness of this place people were never meant to occupy.

—-----------------------------------------------------


And when they finally found us, it had been too long. I didn’t recognize the light of a headlamp, and I didn’t know the voices were people. I didn’t know the voice calling back was mine. I had to turn away from the light and all the smells of things that were not cave. When the light became close enough, I was slumped against the wall where the lost tunnel had been. I looked down at my body and did not understand what it was. There were pieces missing.


When they finally found us, I was a day from death. Later, in the hospital, they told me Aja was dead. They found him at the bottom of the canyon, crouched in a fetal position. His eyes looked as if they’d been cleared of color and substance. They said he had died days before, but it was impossible to know, because the chill of the cave slowed the putrification.


But we had just spoken - I was sure. And the creatures - where were they?


They said I had a breakdown, but they couldn’t explain the missing pieces.


When they finally found us, my eyes were cleared of color and substance.


And I think I was, too.


October 05, 2023 18:03

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