“I hear Their whispers.”
Rae sat cross-legged on the couch, avoiding the eyes of her best friend H.J. “What?” H.J. asked again.
Rae sighed. She had to break the news sometime. “I hear whispers,” she admitted. “From Them.”
“Rae, what are you--”
“I’m serious, H.J.”
H.J. frowned. “Uh, Rae—”
“I do. I hear Them, and I hear Their whispers. They’re not just in the cavern.”
H.J.’s phone lit up. He looked down at it, his glasses reflecting the screen.
Rae grabbed his phone and sat on it. She looked him in the eyes. “I’m serious, H.J. I hear Their whispers, and They’re beyond the cavern. I’m sure of this.”
H.J.’s lips twitched. Maybe that was some sort of gesture, or maybe it was his Tourette’s. It was hard to tell with him sometimes. “Have you told your parents about this?”
“I’m a grown adult, H.J. I haven’t talked to my parents in months.”
“Can you just help me out with this?”
H.J. shrugged. “What do They say? And how do you know They’re not just in the cavern?” He eyed the part of the couch where his phone stuck out from under Rae’s butt.
“I can’t make anything out of it, but it all sounds creepy, like it’s from a horror movie, and it’s almost as if They’re whispering from a certain direction.”
“If They weren’t in the cavern, they’d be southeast.”
“If you give me my phone back, I can show you.”
Reluctantly, Rae handed it over. He typed something in, scrolled a bit, then stopped. “There,” H.J. said, holding his phone out for her to see. “Look.”
He’d pulled up the bottom of a Wikipedia page for “southeast.” The section Rae saw was titled, “Beyond the cavern: The direction of the Dead.”
“It only says that the cavern is to the northwest, which everyone already knows, and cites a few unreliable-looking sources.” H.J. shrugged. “Last August, when we visited—did you hear the whispers then?”
Rae shook her head. “No, they only started last Wednesday. August was months ago.” She glanced outside the sliding glass doors to their apartment’s tiny third-floor balcony. Raindrops pounded against the railing. Of course. It always rained. Always but in August.
“Can you hear them now?”
H.J. made a celebratory noise. “Did you go to work yesterday?”
“You saw me leave!”
H.J. waved his hand dismissively. “So you worked?”
“H.J., I just told you—”
“Fine, fine.” H.J. continued, “Did it get louder when you were there?”
“I don’t know; the whole idea that They could and were whispering to me still kinda psyched me out. It’s wack, ya know?”
“Seriously, Rae. Did the whispers get louder?”
“Fine, fine, I think they did. Just a little bit.”
H.J. nodded. “I have another idea. Let’s go.” He ran to the door and snatched his keys off their hook. He glanced back at Rae. “Coming?”
“Nothing to lose, I guess.” She exited, locking the apartment door behind them. “Where are we going?”
Rae froze on the stairs. “It’s June! It’s raining! It’s hours away! It’s not August! We can’t go; it’s June!”
“It’s practically August; the whole “you must but can only go when it’s not raining and it only doesn’t rain in August” thing isn’t even a big deal; and I drive fast; and we can go.” H.J. pushed open the building’s front door and glanced back at Rae. “Let’s go, then.”
Grudgingly, she trudged out and to his car. “What are we going to do once we’re there? It’s closed, anyway. How are we gonna get in?”
H.J. cocked his head mischievously as he started the car, his clear green eyes sparkling sneakily. “Hey Siri,” he directed to his phone in the cup holder. “Hardware stores near me.”
They were crouched in the mud on a ledge near the cavern. The cavern was located several hundred meters up the side of the cliff, so it was really quite scary if you thought about it. Rae preferred not to.
When H.J. didn’t respond, she hissed in his ear, “Can we just go home?”
H.J. shook his head and whispered, “No. This’ll work. We just need to be quiet with the axe, and they won’t even notice we’re in.”
When they’d arrived at the mountain, H.J. had driven his car into the woods to disguise it, then they’d searched for a path to the cavern that wasn’t the wide, popular “tourist route” in public view. They’d found a narrow Employees Only trail up and begun to climb. Now they were at the top, next to a wooden wall that looked almost like an oversized packing crate. The wall was built around the entrance to the cavern, and there were always two people guarding the front door. Not the sides, though. That was how they were going to break in.
H.J. stared at the heavy axe in his hand for a moment, then tentatively smacked it into the wet wood. The boards bent a little. “Get the crowbar out of my backpack,” he whispered.
Rae sighed and pulled it out. It was a bright, chemical blue color. H.J. hacked away at the wood while she clutched the long tool, trying not to let it slip from her wet hands and fall down the mountain.
Once he’d made a decent-sized raggedy hole, he held out his hand for the crowbar. Rae passed it to him reluctantly. As quietly as possible, he pried at the wood until the slot was just big enough for a person to slip through.
Carefully, H.J. slid off his backpack and eased it inside. Then, headfirst, he crawled through the hole. When he was done, he popped his head out. “Come on,” he said.
Rae sighed, looking down at her black cargo pants. They were her favorite pair. She kneeled in the mud and wriggled through the hole.
“Did you get the crowbar?”
Of course that would be the first thing he thought to ask. Rae stuck her arm back out, felt around for the sleek metal bar, and pulled it inside. She handed it to H.J.’s outline.
“Do you have, like, a flashlight or something?” They’d left their phones in the car.
H.J. was probably winking, though Rae couldn’t see. “Glad you asked.” He picked up his backpack, put the crowbar inside, and pulled out two headlamps. He switched them on and handed one to Rae.
H.J. nodded encouragingly, his pale, freckled face sporting a slight grin. His swoopy light brown hair had been plastered to his head by the warm rain. Rae slipped the band around her own frizzy hair—June was the most humid month of the year—and looked around. Everything was pretty much the same since she’d last been. Just wooden walls, grey rock, and a three-meter-high gaping hole in the stone. And mud. A lot of mud.
Thunder boomed outside like a SMACK. Rae jumped, and even H.J. looked a little alarmed. “Let’s go,” he whispered, and disappeared inside the dark hole.
Rae followed him.
The cavern was the same since last August, too. It had smooth, wet, grey curved walls and a high ceiling encrusted with splatterings of stalactites. Of course it’s the same. Why would it change when it never has?
Side by side, they walked quietly down the tunnel. The floor had a small layer of water on it. Their boots made tiny splish sounds as they went.
After a few minutes, H.J. asked, “Do you still hear Them?”
Rae considered. “Faintly. Very, very faintly. Huh, maybe the whispers are coming from the southeast.” They continued walking.
Soon, H.J. stopped. Rae’s hands clammy and cold, she glanced over at him, her headlamp’s beam flickering weakly. “What?”
He pointed to an engraving in the wall—the simple outline of a bone. “We’re almost there.”
“Will They talk to us?”
H.J. shifted uneasily. “You, I’m hoping.” He scrunched his face. “It’ll be fine. You want to find out why you’re hearing Their whispers, don’t you?”
“Then let’s go.” They set off walking. They rounded a bend, and there—
There were the Dead.
Rae gasped. There were so many more than she remembered. Of course, people died every day, but…
The Gatekeeper noticed them. It drifted forward, almost a ghost but very clearly a skeleton, but a skeleton with flesh, although dead flesh. Its clothes were faded, black and red, as they all seemed to wear. Its translucent yellow eyes stared somewhat blankly at Rae and H.J., and It pressed up against the shield—the shield looked, Rae noticed for the first time, exactly like Its eyes, cloudy and yellow and Dead.
The shield bulged slightly as Its nose and hands and chest pressed against it. It opened Its mouth, and smoke drifted out. Ahhhhhhhhhh, heard Rae, a whisper received somewhere between her ears and her brain.
She turned to H.J. He was transfixed on the Dead. “H.J.!”
He jumped, startled, and looked at her. “What?”
“Did you hear that?”
“I think It”—Rae pointed to their observer—“was talking to me.”
“What did It say?”
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, the voice whispered again, sounding raspy and dry, like a desert if the desert could talk.
“I think It’s trying to get my attention. Here, let me see.” Rae went up to the shield and stood eye-to-eye with the Dead. “Let’s give this a shot.”
Ah, the voice said. More thick grey smoke curled out from around the lifeless lips. Ah.
“What do you want?” Rae asked, telling herself she was only shivering from the cold.
You’re a child.
I’m seven hundred.
Rae bit her lip. It continued.
You hear the whispers.
Of the Free.
The Free. You hear Their calls. Do not fall for it, child. They are different from us. They are hardly even Dead. Indeed, some part of Them is still living.
It paused for breath, as much as one can pause when one doesn’t breathe, and continued.
They will tear you limb from limb, child. They will suck your lifeblood until you look worse than I. It cackled. They feed off of children like you. Can you believe, some people are foolish enough to actually follow the whispers? Most don’t, but a few do, and those few keep Them more alive than us, for longer than you’d know.
The whispers from our southeastern friends, It hissed, are incredibly draining. When the Free beckon and call and slither Their way into your tiny little minds, it takes up all their living energy, and if it doesn’t work, and their victim doesn’t come to them—They die. Fully. Their whispers are wasted, child, along with the last fiber of life in Them, and They come to join us here.
It smiled wickedly, grime between the cracks in Its teeth. But you know what? That never happens. Because when some dumb, stupidly curious child goes southeast, oh, my friend, you’d best believe They know how to share. So They share, and wait, and stave, and whisper, when their living time is running out. You know what that means? Somewhere, a Dead is dying. It laughed again, a horrible sound.
Rae felt as if someone were pricking her spine with thousands of tiny pins.
“So I just won’t go then,” Rae ventured.
Oh, child. As if it were as simple as that. The whispers never go away, and they will, trust me, drive you insane. Look out upon that crowd. It turned to the milling, lifeless mass of millions of Dead. Many of Them were driven mad by the whispers, but none of them—It turned back to Rae, something dangerous in Its eyes—struck a deal with me.
“Rae?” H.J. asked, his voice sounding distant even though Rae knew he was right next to her. “What’s It telling you?”
“Shh,” Rae muttered. “We’re almost done.”
Yes, child. Those who make a deal with me never regret it.
“What’s the deal?”
Its eyes bored greedily into Rae’s head. Do you really want to know?
Very well, then, child. Listen carefully.
These whispers of the Free will never go away, never. Unless we make this deal. Smoke, almost like steam from boiling pasta water, wafted around Its head.
It’s very simple, and, quite frankly, a win-win for both of us. I have the one and only and easiest job here. Gatekeeper. I welcome the newly Dead. If I’m let go, the presence of a Dead in the same world as our Free southeastern friends will counteract Them and be like a screeching alarm, a pounding headache, a ceaseless screaming in their psyche. Then, and only then, will the whispers stop. And then, I’ll return to my post, and you’ll return to the outside air, and we’ll both be on our merry ways until this August, eh?
“How can I trust you?”
You can’t. But, oh, if you like these constant siren’s tendrils of voice in your head, you can leave and live with them; forever. Your choice. It leaned back from the wall, a bit smugly. What do you say?
Rae was sweating. “I don’t know. Will I be safe in there?”
It shrugged. As safe as I am, or as safe as you’d be feeling pressured to say hello to a group of Free Dead that are living.
Rae glanced at H.J. He was staring concernedly at her. “Rae? What’s going on?”
“Just… gimme a sec. It knows how to make the whispers stop. This won’t take long.”
She turned back to It. “What do I need to do?”
It smiled and leaned forward. Put your hands on the shield. She did, and It put Its hands directly on hers. Rae knew the shield was indestructible, but it was very thin, and she shivered, wondering what It was going to do.
Put the edges of your shoes to the shield on the ground. She obeyed. Now, lean in and put your forehead against mine. Resisting the urge to be revolted, Rae paused to slip her headlamp around her neck, then did as It told her.
It made a scratchy sound—perhaps a word in some other language. It paused in its recitation to shout, On three, you blink, okay? One—two—It pronounced a few more of the foreign syllables. Three!
Rae blinked, and suddenly she was in the cavern.
She was pressed against the slimy shield, facing It, but behind her, she heard faint wailing. Hazy smoke and fog drifted past her boots and swirled around her head. Rae coughed, finding it more difficult to breathe with every passing second.
It turned away from Rae and to H.J. He was staring at It in shock. “Rae, what did you do?” he said shrilly, his voice muffled, as It advanced with remarkable speed upon him.
“Wait, what are you doing? Stop! This isn’t what you said!” Rae screamed as she watched It place Its hands around H.J.’s neck. “Stop it! Dead—Gatekeeper—It—Them—stop!”
By any means, It was much more small and shriveled than H.J., but breathing the fresh air, perhaps, after being trapped in a cavern for centuries, did something to It. It clutched H.J.’s neck with a fierceness Rae couldn’t stand to watch. “H.J.!” she cried. “Stop it! This isn’t what we planned! Let him go!”
With every moment that It strangled H.J., It seemed to grow stronger, as if by diminishing his life, It was adding to Its own. “Stop it!” Rae screamed, hysterical, sobbing, helpless.
You’re an idiot, her mind told her. Stupid, foolish, dumb. It was right. You really are a child. Twenty-two? You know nothing. You just killed your best friend.
“H.J.!” Rae shrieked, pounding on the shield with her fists. Then she screamed, “Holland!”
Somehow, even though he had a pair of hands around his neck, for this call of his name, H.J. managed to look at Rae. His face was red, turning purple. His eyes were filled with shock and panic, but mostly sorrow.
“Rae,” he whispered, his voice like worn sandpaper. She could barely hear him.
“Holland,” she cried, her voice cracking with anguish. “HOLLAND.”
“I love you,” H.J. breathed, just before his head snapped back lifelessly. His face went slack. Cackling, It dropped H.J.’s body. He hit the floor like a stone.
Burning fiercely with fury, rallying every ounce of her strength and all the rage and grief she felt into one last cry, she screamed, “HOLLAND!”
The two syllables cut through the air like a knife. They surged down the cavern, echoing, “Holland, land, land, land, land.”
It turned to look at her. For one brief second, Its face reflected something like remorse. Then the regretful face passed, replaced by greed and glee. It took off through the tunnel, laughing.
Rae crumpled to the dusty grey ground, sobbing. She was a fool. She was an utter, utter fool.
She heard dry, shuffling footsteps. Filled with hatred, she looked up.
Every Dead for as far as she could see was looking down on her, something lustful beyond their black and red rags and inside their torn and lifeless bodies. Something wicked. Something evil.
Six weeks later, in August, her bones were found.
They said it was an accident.
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I got a bit confused by your text, things happen fast without a proper explanation, but I think I got the idea. A great idea, by the way, caves and spirits always gotcha me. I will keep following your work.