As they first reached the mud they trod lightly expecting it to give way beneath them. It was firm, however, dry and crusted over.
“Tread where I do and go slowly; don wantcha to fall into the deep stuff…” Eddie said.
They reached the old bridge first. The stone it was made out of was expertly carved and bore the scrawled markings of the various workmen that had constructed it. Eddie reached out and gently caressed the rock, pulling back instinctively from its slimy wet surface.
“Ergh, it’s covered in gross shit!” he exclaimed.
” You shouldn say tha’ Eddie”, Peters voice could hardly be heard even in the dreadful silence that surrounded them, as if the air was conspiring against them and snatching the words out of it. Eddie waved off Peters comment continuing on down the old road across the bridge.
“Eddie wait! Look!”, The sudden enthusiasm from his usually quiet brother shocked Eddie into spinning around.
“Su the matter?”
“Look at the writings”
Looking back to the stone he had just touched, his fingers had revealed something hidden for a very long time. Words lay beneath the mass of algae-like slime. He frantically wiped off the rest of the algae with his sleeve, revealing the full inscription.
Arthur James West
“It’s grandfathers name!” Peter said.
” Yeah, guess he musta been working on the bridge… or just graffiti-ed on it!”
The pair shared a glancing smile before continuing on deeper into the ruins. They walked past the outlines of various houses as they headed down the marking of the old road. None of them stood higher than six or seven bricks from the ground with the occasional exception of a fireplace more intact than the rest. One building caught the pair’s attention. Far down at the end of the street, it stood taller and more intact than any other. From its steep sloping triangular roof, a metal post jutted out. While deformed and damaged Eddie thought it seemed like a cross.
” That must be the church grandpa used to go to, guess even the waters o’ the reservoir couldna destroy Gods house.”
As they approached Eddie could swear he saw a shadow silhouetted in the doorway. They crept inside like robbers, eyes darting around at every darkened corner as if expecting someone to leap out of them and yell “surprise!”. The interior walls were decorated with a series of odd carvings in what seemed to be a pictorial language. Geese, fishes, reeds, and trees; all drawn in a simplistic yet recognisable style (even after the years of decay). Great stone pews lay strewn across the room as if a tornado had swept its way through and thrown them aside. As the far end, the pulpit stood ominously. It was a simple marble stone piece. There was no decoration or carving but it seemed as if the whole piece had been cut from the same stone. For a fleeting moment, Eddie thought he could smell the musty tones of incense emanating from it.
“Eddie look! There’s something down here!”, Peters curiosity had temporarily shrouded his fear in a comforting embrace. He was looking down at one of the old stone pews, tilted sideways and laying askew. Beneath its left corner, a large shining flagstone protruded from the rest of the floor that was mostly covered in mud with the occasional stone peeking through.
“Help me move it,” Peter said.
The pair grabbed the pew at either end and attempted to lift it, but no matter how hard they heaved it would not budge. Eddie walked around to the side his brother was holding- determined to reveal what lay beneath – and they both lifted it together. It rose only a few inches off the ground, but it was enough to tilt it sideways and rock it onto its side. It crashed down with a terrifying echo. The stone piece they were looking at before was completely uncovered now. It was obvious it was not just a part of the flooring, but a door. Thin cracks ran across its surface, air whistled through them coming out of some mysterious subterranean enclave.
“Wonder what’s down there? Maybe it’s where the church hid all their treasures! Or the hideout of some secret cult! Cmon lets go down!”
Peter did not seem convinced.
“We seen the village Eddie, lets jus go back before someone notices were gone… whats down there ain’t gonna be safe, could collapse on us or something. I’m tired Eddie please…”
Eddie sighed and turned back to Peter.
He took a deep breath.
“It’ll take us ten minutes to look around down there, and there probably won’t be anything at all. But if you don’t you’ll spend the rest of your life staring at these waters wondering what you could have discovered.”
Eddie didn’t bother to see if Peter had begun agreeing with him, grabbing a large rock from the ground he began smashing the flagstone. He knew his brother would follow him if he went down, rather than be left alone. It didn’t take too long to open up a hole large enough for them both to jump down. Eddie leaned in so his head-torch illuminated the space below, they had broken into a small earthy chamber, the floor was only a meter or so below them. He jumped down and began walking forward into the chamber that began to open out quickly into a much larger room. A soft thud echoed from behind him followed by his brother’s panicked shouts moments later.
“Shhh, you’ll wake the bloody dead”
The pair crept forwards through winding tunnels. In the dark, claustrophobic winding paths time was lost to them. Eventually, stonework started appearing once more, intermingled with the mud walls and floors. It was different from what they had seen in the village and church above. The rock shined as if it had just been recently polished. It was a deep burnt black but with flecks of starlight-white spotting its surface. As they progressed the stone replaced more and more of the tunnel surface, and the pair became acutely aware of the far-off sound of dripping water.
As they approached a tight bend, the dripping became louder and louder. All of a sudden, the tunnel opened out into a large chamber, stalagmites of mud reached out of the shining black sheen above them. A large still pond blocked their path with a thin rocky edge around it to the other side.
” Looks deep… how we gonna get around?”
Eddie shuffled up to the edge of the pool, hands pressed firmly into the slick cave wall behind him.
“Just follow me, and copy what I do, ok?”
He began moving along the ledge one foot at a time, sidestepping while always looking directly down at the dark waters beneath him. Peter had begun to follow, mimicking his brother’s movements. A sharp crack echoed suddenly through the chamber. Peters’ hand slipped off the wall, rubble and dust crumbling off. He waved his arms around, in rotational movements hoping to grasp at something, but there were no edges to hold onto. He stumbled. One foot, then the other, plunging face first into the inky pool. Eddie watched as his brother disappeared under the waters, the ripples and wavelets on its surface the only tell that he had ever entered it.
His heart began to race, the dull thud hummed in the back of his head seeming to bounce off the cave walls resounding back at him from all angles. It felt as if the stone was alive, vibrating with his heartbeat. His hands plunged down into the waters, hoping to grab a hold of something. The fear he had had before of falling in, gone. All he cared about now was getting his brother back from the clutches of the water. Desperation was starting to seep into his mind. His grasping became more frantic. The water offered nothing but ripples and splashes…
His breath caught in his throat, a single tear rolling down his cheek as he closed his eyes dropping to his knees in defeat. A hand burst forth from the depths. Eddie rushed forwards, grabbing it, and tugging his brother forth. He came spluttering and gasping for air, collapsed onto the ground. The pair rested in silence while their breaths returned to them.
“Don’t scare me like that…” Eddie sighed.
“Let’s get out of here”
Peter nodded in agreement. A far-off rumbling drew their attention. The ground began to shake, dust sifting down from the ceiling.
“What was that?” Peter asked, worried.
They made their way back down the tunnel only to find themselves face to face with a wall of rock, mud and sand.
Peter began sobbing.
“I knew I shouldn’t have let you talk me into` this, now were never getting out!”.
“Calm down, ok, we don’t know where the tunnel leads, maybe there’s a second entrance. It’s our only option now, we’ve got to follow it” Eddie kept the tone of his voice calm for his brother’s sake despite feeling just as terrified. Would this be how they die? Lost underground as the waters slowly recede covering all sign of them forever? No, I can’t start giving up now, he thought; we will find a way out, we have to…
Onwards they travelled down the winding paths. Occasionally they saw old metal brackets nailed to the cave walls, rusted but still sturdy.
A cool breeze brushed against Eddie’s face, it seemed to whisper something into his ear as it did.
“Did you feel that Pete?”
“The wind, if there’s a breeze down here it must mean there’s another entrance somewhere further in!” Eddie said.
As cold air began streaming through more fiercely the tunnel began to curve upwards meeting with rough-hewn stairs carved into the dark black stone. Before Eddie placed his feet upon the first step, a distant tapping sound stopped him. It came in threes repeating every few seconds.
Knock knock knock…knock knock knock…
“Maybe it’s a mine?” Peter asked.
“Don’t be stupid, they wouldn’t have a working mine this close to the surface, or under the reservoirs… and anyway, if there was one we’d have heard of it”
Knock knock knock…
“It’s probably water dripping down or something, let’s just get out of here”
The staircase continued up to a small chamber, stalagmites and stalactites reached out to each other around the corners, even meeting in some places. A small raised shelf of rock stood between two branching paths. The shelf was indented and had been filled with a shallow pool of water, that was an unnatural florescent green. Bubbles perforated the surface every so often, emerging from within the rock out of various pores. Thin spindly vines hung down from cracks within the ceiling, they seemed to reach out to the brothers as they passed as if trying to grab them.
Knock knock knock…
“Which one do we go down?” Peter asked.
Eddie pulled a handful of loose change from his pocket and dug through it to select a two pence piece.
“Heads for left, tails right,” he said flipping the coin and catching it with his other hand. He looked down at his hand;
“Tails. Right it is then”
As they walked past the green pool Peter looked down for a moment into the bubbling waters. He could see a warped reflection of his face staring down, but behind him, cast across the wall was three large shadows. He swung around looking back at the wall, there was nothing there. It was then he realized that Eddie had continued on without him. Panicked he ran to keep up, almost knocking his brother down. Eddie grunted in response, silencing Peter before pointing forwards at a shape further ahead. It sat huddled in a small indentation in the rock face, illuminated by a flickering light behind it. As they cautiously approached it became clear it was a man dressed in blue overalls that had been coated in mud and grime losing most of their colour. In his hands was a small pick and lying next to him a larger pick-axe, chisels, and various other mining tools. They could see now that the light was coming from a candle placed in front of the rock face he was working on. Peter was about to step forward to ask the man for help but a firm hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“Somethin don’ feel right about this” Eddie whispered keeping his brother held back. The man’s head suddenly jerked upwards. He leaned further back before sniffing at the air, turning his neck slowly towards the boys. As he did so, a torturous cracking sound came from him, it reminded Eddie of the old millstone when in use. When the man’s face became visible, half in darkness, half lit by candle-light, Peter stifled a scream. The man… the thing… was missing his nose, half of one ear, and both eyes. Deep gashes raked down the left side of his face that seemed to have happened long ago and yet only half healed. black sooty stains smeared around his neck, eye sockets and cheeks. The man’s jaw dropped open suddenly as if the muscles attaching them were nothing more than thin strands of string. The boy’s eyes were drawn into the gaping maw of nightmarish black, a hissing sound resonating from the back of its throat…