The cave –if you could call it that- was chiselled out of limestone using old steam-powered tunnelling machinery. Originally a natural formation, the cave dipped and rose, with winding corridors which squeezed to the breadth of a human hipbone, before opening out into great domed halls; the likely result of some great cave-in from above.
Despite the crudeness of the tools used, it could be seen that the cave had been meticulously designed in a labyrinthine manner designed to entrap those who ventured inside; to what end remained unknown.
Scratch marks lined the walls of the cave; old marks which had been hacked out using pickaxes, suggesting that this had indeed been a limestone mine at one point. Many years since then, steam-powered mining machinery had been used to link the passages of the mines and create a maze-like system of corridors.
The naturally-formed parts of the cave could be identified by their decorative punctuation of dripstones, seepstones and flowstones, which glittered in crystal as the lights of our lamps passed them. Other parts contained no such formations; such delicate and ancient natural structures had not had time to form in the newer parts of the cave. Instead, bore marks against the square walls identified the newer sections.
She’d elected to leave a trail of thick twine affixed to a stalagmite close to the entrance, providing me with the comfort and security of knowing she could return at any point.
She did not fear the winding caves, nor the thick, damp redolence of humid air which had been undisturbed for years; she feared the invisible enemy which could creep up on you like a thief in the night, threatening to overwhelm your senses and leave you helpless and alone; gas.
She had heard of people venturing too far into old caves such as this one, forgetting that –without an opening and an exit, oxygen simply cannot collect within the caverns. Before they knew it, they found themselves becoming faint, and falling to the ground, suffocating; the damp, dark cave becoming their tomb for eternity.
She thought of stalagmites rising up over the course of the centuries, pushing through the ribcage of a long dead adventurer. Bones carried up from the ground, crystallising and petrifying, becoming one with the cave and all of its subterranean horrors.
She carried a Davy lamp in her left hand and the roll of twine in her right, which she unfurled gradually to ensure it would not snag itself on a jagged rock. The light within the Davy lamp danced like a vertiginous imp, rising and falling with the faint wisps of wind which flowed through the entrance of the cave. As she held the lamp up to her face, she watched the flames rise in their luminescence, before dimming once more, the tip of the flame licking the air hungrily, then dipping down, as if it moved in silence to the tune of an unheard demonic fiddler.
As she took trepid steps further into the cave, the flames steadied, dimming as the wind stagnated and the oxygen levels dropped. She feared that the flame would disappear, at which point she resolved to follow the twine back to the entrance of the cave.
The Davy lamp was protected by a thin layer of mesh through which fire could not permeate. This would keep me safe from any fissures which might eek flammable gasses and endanger her life. Should the flame rise or die, she would know to flee.
Stepping carefully through the cave, she could feel the air pressure rising in her inner ear, telling me that it was at a gradual incline, and she was descending slowly deeper underground. As the flames slowly dipped, she began to control her breathing so as to conserve what little oxygen there may be.
She passed through a rectangular section of the cave, lifeless and featureless, which had clearly been bored out with machinery. The rectangular portion of the cave continued in a straight line for about fifteen feet, before connecting at a sharp angle with another corridor, which bore the hallmarks of a naturally-occurring cavern.
As she looked around, pondering whether to head to the left or to the right, she noticed the dripstones above, which seemed to be feeding a small patch of vegetation below. Even under the light, the vegetation seemed dark; she wondered how such subterranean vegetation had managed to survive in such a lightless and barren environment, fed only by the meagre drops of the dripstones.
The Davy lamp seemed to flare up as she entered this organic section of the cave, and it occurred to me that it must be this damp, placid vegetation which was providing the oxygen to feed the lamp.
She stooped down, holding the light to the dark moss which lined the floor of the cave, and watched as almost imperceptibly small fibrous hairs seemed to flare up at the light of the lamp; almost as if they feared –and yet simultaneously- revered the unfamiliar luminosity.
She rose up once more, holding the lamp high and pointing it down the right. The cave seemed to wind on, twisting upward.
Facing left, she could see nothing but a sharp turn into blackness, possibly concealing a hole or some other obscured peril.
She stooped down once more, plucking up a loose pebble and casting it down into the tunnel on her right. A clattering echo rang out throughout the tunnel, as the pebble disappeared around the gentle upward curvature ahead. The echo suggested that, beyond that gentle incline, a great cavern could be found.
She gingerly unfurled the ball of twine between her fingers as she continued onwards, holding the lamp before me and taking great care to monitor obstructions at her feet, and those which hung from above. The Davy lamp cast long shadows across the ceilings behind the stalactites; as she came closer to them, the shadows became longer and darker; the light –as it burned brighter- seemed to cast darker shadows in its wake, projecting long fangs across the top of the cave.
She looked down at the puddles which had formed below them, fed from the dripstones, and a viscous stream which seemed to slither down from the incline. As she stepped onto the incline, her foot slipped from under me. For a moment, she was jolted forwards, nearly losing her balance. She lowered the Davy lamp reflexively, fearing for a moment that it might strike the floor and be extinguished.
She regained her feet, the flame flickering wildly, barely managing to stay alight. She steadied her feet, inhaling deeply as her heart raced. In the panic, she had not realised that she had dropped the twine. She pursed her lips, controlling her breathing once more, before bending her knees and grasping around at the base of the incline for the twine.
Her hungry hands gripped around in the darkness, until it came across the twine. Her hand recoiled for a moment, as she felt the slimy wetness of the twine, which had landed in a damp spot on the ground. It felt like a large bug had been crushed in her hand, its exoskeleton oozing with fluid.
She shone the light down upon the twine, reminding her self that it was nothing more than cave water. She snatched the twine quickly, squeezing it tightly to wring out some of the moisture, before wiping it on her trouser leg. She slowly rose to a high stoop, before continuing up the incline with careful steps.
She held the Davy lamp out before me, inching around the corner into the hitherto obscured cavernous room. The light seemed to be swallowed up around the corner, as if a vacuous black hole -starved of light for so long- had ravenously consumed it.
She stepped around the corner, ducking under a low hanging rock, and stepping into the cavern. The ceiling was a high dome, like a cathedral; under the centre of the dome stood a large pile of crumbled limestone. Dust coated the pile of jagged rocks, glittering in crystalline specks. She could see that the dome had been formed as a result of a cave-in, and wondered if –many years previously- miners with pickaxes had come to this place and met their demise under an avalanche of jagged rock.
She looked around the cavern, but saw no evidence of the scratches of steel, nor the more recent bore marks of the steam-powered machinery. Still, something about the cavern seemed unnerving; perhaps it was the glistening dust which had remained undisturbed since the cave-in which perturbed me.
It seemed as though it had fallen perfectly in the centre of the cavern, almost considerately, leaving a small obstacle-free ring around it; allowing me to move around the pile in relative comfort. As she stepped out onto the dust which layered the floor, her hands froze, gripping the yarn and the Davy lamp tightly.
The layer of dust around the central pile had been disturbed; but not by man, nor machine. In the dust, pairs of rounded prints punctuated the dust in places, one slightly ahead of the other, spaced about a foot apart. They almost resembled hoof prints, but the size and distance of them did not seem to belong to a quadruped. The depth of their print suggested that they were from a heavy animal, possibly as heavy as a horse.
She stooped down to examine the prints in finer detail, holding the Davy lamp before me, hovering it over the ground. She squatted down, looking at the print, which had made a clearly indented mark in the dust.
A scratching noise echoed through the chamber as something scurried across her foot. In her reactive panic, she swung the Davy lamp outward, as she clumsily leapt to her feet, striking her head against the wall.
Darkness consumed her vision as the Davy lamp was extinguished. She felt the lamp swinging in her hand as she desperately tried to stabilise herself, despite the darkness and the ache in the back of her head.
She dropped the yarn, gripping the back of her head with her left hand and nursing it, pressing her forearm up against the slimy wall of the cave. Despite her racing heart, she dared scarcely breathe. In the all-consuming blackness, she felt as though one thousand predatory eyes were upon me. The rat –or whatever it had been- had startled me, filling me with a feeling of helplessness that made me wish she’d never entered this place.
After the throbbing in her head began to subside, she carefully reached into her pocket for a match. She knew that a naked flame –unprotected by the mesh of the Davy lamp- could have disastrous consequences should there be even a small amount of gas; but as waves of panic began to overwhelm me, she could not think of any alternative.
The match hissed as she struck it, glowing with a dull ember, but no flame, before sizzling out. The sound itself ignited within me a sense of mortal dread, causing me to drop the packet. She lowered herself to the ground, fumbling around in the darkness for the packet, wetting her fingers against the slime as she hopelessly patted the ground.
After patting around in the darkness for what felt like an eternity, her hand felt the reassuring touch of damp cardboard, and she hoped against hope that the striking side had not become damp. She lifted the packet up with pincered fingers, wiping her fingers and the packet against her trousers, blowing against it in an attempt to dissipate any residual moisture, before pinching a match out.
She clutched the box in her right hand, against the Davy lamp, and struck the match. This time, fire erupted from the tip, casting light out against the cavern. Carefully, she tipped the match upside down to ensure the flame would burn well, before placing it to the wick within the Davy lamp. Relief washed over me as the wick ignited. She dropped the match, listening to it sizzle in the slime below, and closed the lamp.
Still stooped down, she saw the twine, plucking it up in her hand. It had become thoroughly sodden, absorbing all moisture from the ground. As she rose to her feet, she composed herself once more, trying futilely to moderate her panicked breaths.
She turned, leaving the cavern, electing to retrace her steps back to the entrance. She would do so with great trepidation. Something gnawed at her stomach; blood being redirected to other parts of her body, urging me to run, as though her fumbling had awoken some subterranean beast which had lain undisturbed for centuries.
With what was left of her pragmatic mental faculties, she resisted the urge to run, and instead elected to make a slow but steady pace back towards the entrance.
She followed the twine -which seemed to have become tight- reeling it roughly as she retraced her steps.
The passage seemed different on the journey back, and for a moment she feared that she had become lost. Once again, she called upon what sensibilities she had that were not blinded by panic to remind her self that the structure of the cave would be polarised on the return journey.
As she stepped around the corner onto the shaft which had been tunnelled out, she noticed that the twine had been disturbed; pressed into the dust and rocks below as though it had been stepped on. A shot of paralyzing fear raced through me, as she noticed that the section of twine appeared to have been meshed into a print the same as she’d seen in the cavern. The panic struck me like an icy blade in her heart; her vision clouded over and shook and a feeling of faintness came over me.
A deep, guttural grunt came from behind me, twisting the blade of ice, and spurring me to run. The shadows from the Davy lamp seemed to dance around me like dark spectres, jeering at me, cackling in their malevolence, as she ran through the narrow tunnels, the Davy lamp swinging back and forth.
The sound of exhaling nostrils, like a bull ready to charge seemed to follow me, as she heard the unmistakeable sound of pattering hooves. She opened her mouth to scream, but her airway seemed to close-up, and all that she could muster was a rodentine squeak.
She rushed forwards, keeping her head down and using nothing but the quickly dimming light to focus on the next steps she must take. She dropped the twine, charging full pelt to where the next turn opened up.
As she reached the end of the tunnelled passage, an almost lupine roar seemed to follow me, echoing down the tunnel, invading her unwitting ears, and overwhelming her senses. She turned the corner, running with no regard for striking her head or body against the jagged stalactites which hung from above.
The light of the Davy lamp faded and died, and she dropped it to the ground behind me, hearing the smash of glass, followed by the charging of cloven feet.
She was close to the entrance, she knew she had not far to go. As she continued to run though the darkness, the guttural sounds became louder, angrier, possessed by a territorial fury which she could not comprehend.
She stumbled forwards, throwing her hands outwards as she struck the floor. She scrambled to her knees, dragging her self across the floor, desperate to rise to her feet, but finding that her arms and legs were no longer working in tandem.
The sound of approaching hooves drumming mortal dread into me with every step; finally, she pushed herself to her feet, still stooping forwards as she ran. She charged headlong into a section of the cave, reeling backwards from the impact. The sound of hooves, the grunting and puffing of inflamed nostrils, and the angered sounds of the beast were so close.
In a last ditch attempt to save herself, she rolled across the wet ground against the wall, curling up into a ball and cradling her aching head. She could not tell if her eyes were open or closed, as the sound of heavy hooves stomped just inches away from her head.
She held her breath, listening in petrified fear as the beast stopped; trotting his hooves, grunting deeply, before starting up and charging away.
For a few minutes, she remained in the foetal position; her body –paralyzed with horror- refusing to allow me to move even an inch. The pain in her head seemed like a distant, arbitrary, isolated ache which had been dulled by the responses of her nervous system. Contrarily, her hearing seemed to be sharper than ever, and as she opened an eye, tiny outlines of rocks and glistening seepstones could be seen in what meagre light existed in this forsaken place.
The sound of hooves had faded into the distance, lost in the labyrinthine cave; the purpose of which she had still yet to fathom. Gradually, she unfurled herself, rising to her feet and tiptoeing in a crouch.
She reached down, finding the damp twine, and gently tugging it through her fingers. Soon she would arrive at the entrance. After a few silent turns, the light grew, and she knew she was close to the entrance. She picked up the pace slightly; every fibre of her being longed for sunlight, fresh air, and safety.
As she made it to the entrance, she stood up, finally able to stretch her neck. The light burned her retinas, but she cherished its protective radiance, basking in it for no more than a few seconds.
A deep, guttural taurine roar came from the entrance to the cave behind me. She spun around, looking into the cave once more.
Before her eyes, a bipedal beast stood, with great heavy hooves, and the strong, barrel-chest and clenched fists of a man. His head resembled that of a bull, with great blackened horns and a thick snout, which twitched and huffed. The beast’s eyes squinted in grimace, as he dragged his hoof across the ground, tipping his horns in her direction, preparing to charge.
What ungodly abomination of man and beast had she awoken in this subterranean labyrinth?
(c) JC Axe 2016.