VICTIMS OF THE CAVE
It was an evening of rain and boredom. For a long while the two brothers played together in their room. The younger, Mason, valiantly brandished his toy lightsaber but he was no match for his bigger, stronger older brother Jason, who slashed and prodded him with feigned vigor.
"Oh! That hurt!" Mason said, rubbing his elbow.
Jason sighed and tossed his lightsaber to the floor. "The game is no fun if you don't fight back! You're supposed to be a Jedi, use The Force!"
"I'm trying…" Mason pouted. Jason crossed the room and perched on the window sill where he stared out into the dark and washed out world beyond. This was the story of their young lives. At seven years old Mason lived in the shadow of his ten year old brother. He was bigger, stronger, faster, cooler, everything that their dad could have asked for. Mason on the other hand seemed to have inherited everything from their mom, right down to the lock of sandy brown bangs that covered his forehead. He was a reserved, almost shy child who often found himself lost in books, which did nothing to prepare him for the realities of cops and robbers and lightsaber duals against Jason. They were polar opposites, but they were brothers, and deep down Mason wanted to be everything Jason was.
"I know what we can do for fun!" Jason said suddenly, turning away from the window.
"What?" Judging from the tell tale glitter of mischief in his eyes and the sly smirk spreading across his mouth Mason knew that whatever his brother was planning, he was definitely up to no good.
"Let's explore the cave!"
The same cave that their parents had forbidden them from stepping anywhere near unattended. The same cave that for as long as Mason could remember had been the last known location of dozens of people in the surrounding area. That cave, where all the stuff of nightmares lurked.
"I…I don't know." Mason stammered. "Dad told us never to go near that place."
"Don't be such a scaredy cat, mom and dad are sleeping, they'll never know." Jason was already rummaging through the closet for their boots and rain slickers. Once he had his mind made up there was no stopping him.
The brothers dressed, Jason endlessly extolling the adventures that were to be had inside of the cave while Mason could barely tie his boots with his shaking hands. Jason grabbed the flashlights from their desk and cast a high powered beam across the room to see if the batteries were fresh.
"Man this is gonna be so much fun!" he said. "I'll be Indiana Jones and you can be my trusty sidekick!"
"I thought Indiana Jones didn't have a sidekick?"
"Yeah you're right…well you can be Tomb Raider since you wanna act like a girl! Come on let's go!"
The brothers snuck out of their room as silent as thieves. Although it was a ritual that had been done dozens of times before, those experiences had been marked with the promise of laughter and fun, not the dread of darkness and the unknown. Still Mason kept up with his brother, past the threshold of their home and into the washed out night.
Once they were safely past the clearing of their backyard Jason flicked on the flashlight, casting a brilliant beam of light through the gloom. A persistent drizzle assailed the world around them and everything – the trees, their branches and leaves – seemed to bear the weight of the lingering rain. Mason followed his brother down the winding deer trail their father had taken them down many times before and onto a long forgotten dirt road that led to the entrance of the cave. They eventually came to a broad, treeless area at the bottom of a ravine. The land here was badly scarred from years of mining and the entrance of the cave yawned like the maw of some terrible beast against the chewed out landscape.
The brothers maneuvered around strangely bent and gnarled tree roots, up a bend of fallen rocks and into the entrance of the cave.
To young Mason's eyes it was like stepping into another world. Massive support timbers were evenly spread along the uneven rock walls and across the ceiling as if they were inside the ribcage of some long dead sea creature and although they looked sturdy enough Mason had the sinking feeling that if they even touched the supports the whole cave would come down, trapping them forever. Jason tried to shine his light deeper into the cave but the beam was swallowed up by darkness.
"Cool…" Jason breathed. "I wonder how far it goes?"
"I don't think we should go all the way, it doesn't look…safe."
"Stop being such a baby, we'll just do a little exploring, if anything happens we'll come right back here, k?"
The two went deeper into the earth with Mason trailing much too closely behind his brother. They followed the rocky corridor deeper into the cave, their boots crunching wind swept leaves that had blown inside underfoot. In fact it was the only sound that permeated through the tomb like silence of the cave and Mason found himself further unnerved by the quiet, as if it were a physical weight slowly descending upon them with every step they took.
Ahead of them the cave meandered into three separate paths. The boys stopped before the crossroads, thoughtfully weighing their options.
"Should we turn back?" Mason asked.
"Wait a sec – I got an idea!" Jason fished through the pockets of his rain coat and pulled out a bag of half eaten skittles. He chose the left hand path and sprinkled some of the candies at the entrance. "We'll leave markers where there's more than one path, that way we won't get lost." He said triumphantly.
Despite all his earlier apprehension Mason could not turn back now. For all of their acts of make believe and fantasy the only thing that was real now was the cave, a labyrinth of stone and darkness and whatever secrets these dank and twisting corridors held.
The two would be explorers descended further into the cave. Their boots kicked up coal dust that was as fine as baby powder, millions of tiny motes lazily drifting before the haze of their flashlights. They passed spores of mold and fungus clinging to the stone wall, dirty shades of green and black that looked either bone dry or glistened disgustingly, as if it were alien life forms from a distant planet. Jason nudged one of the fungi with his flashlight, only to have it burst into a cloud of dust.
"Wow, it's like something from a sci fi movie!" he said gleefully.
Further and further they went. Another intersection. More skittles dropped. Another path chosen. The ground became increasingly moist as an incessant drip drip filled the cave. Jason swept the flashlight across the low hanging ceiling and discovered row after row of uneven stalactites jutting downward, fat droplets of water dripping from their mortally sharp points. They made another left turn as the cave levelled into a larger chamber, the flashlights barely able to penetrate the shadows above. The walls were encrusted with tiny crystal formations embedded into the rock. Jason shined his light across the polished surface, their own reflections scattering distortedly back at them.
"Whoa…" the two brothers breathed.
They stared into the otherworldly reflection, so enrapt by their contorted images that Mason barely noticed the flutter of movement behind them. He seized up and to his dismay found himself clutching at his brothers arm.
"Did you see that? Something moved!"
"What? There's nothing in here, it was just the light playing tricks on you." Jason illuminated the darkness behind them, revealing only thick pillars of stalagmites and long abandoned mining shafts.
"I think we should turn back now, please." Mason pleaded.
"We'll only just go a little bit further, don't chicken out now!"
As they continued further into the heart of the cave Mason could detect a hint of unease in his brother, his pace more deliberate, his flashlight exploring every nook and cranny for a potential threat. Even if what Mason had saw in the reflections was just a trick of the light, there were still other dangers to be weary of.
Jason led them around a corner into a larger system of tunnels and the two boys stopped. Heaps of broken and discarded mining equipment lay scattered about the passages, some of them so unrecognizable they were as mysterious as the devices used inside a medieval dungeon. In the center of the mass of debris a sculpture like pile jutted towards the ceiling. At first glance it appeared to be nothing but random pieces welded together, but as Jason shined his flashlight across the towering monstrosity it began to take on a familiar shape. In some ways it resembled a human but in other, more drastic ways it resembled something totally different, a demon adorned with vicious rows of barbs and spikes. The two brothers stood rooted in place, as if any sudden movement would spur the massive construction to life in a rattle of metal bones, its ancient, makeshift eyes snapping open to reveal the rekindled flames of oil lamps used by miners in times long past, the iron mouth opening to reveal a crooked smile of bent screws hungry for the flesh of two little boys.
"Who do you think built this?" Jason asked, fear creeping into his voice.
Mason could not even begin to guess who would create such an evil looking statue deep inside of the cave but he had the sinking feeling that he and his brother had stumbled upon something truly sinister.
"I…I think we better get out of her now." Jason finally relented. The brothers turned on their heels, ready to leave the cold embrace of the darkness behind, to emerge from the abyss of fantasy into the blissfully mundane realty of the surface, but when the tomb like silence of the cave was shattered by a high pitched shriek Mason's blood turned cold. The wailing undulated through the serpentine corridors, vaguely human with an animalistic quality. Another voice joined the first one, followed by a chorus of demonic bloodlust. Ahead of them the tunnels seemed to fester and seethe, a roiling mass of bodies spilling out of the darkness, dozens of lambent pin point eyes hungry with rage and focused on their prey.
Through the cold darkness of the cave system the brothers ran for dear life. Behind them the high pitched cries echoed into a cacophony of laughter, as if there was enjoyment to be had in the chase. Their flashlight beams bounced wildly off stone surfaces, casting their escape in a wild, fragmented nightmare: stalactites above, a patchwork of mold and funguses to the side flew past in a blur of adrenaline and fear.
They reached an intersection, an impenetrable maw of blackness greeted them to the right, and to the left –
They shambled out of the tunnel with an arachnid grace, three, four, five of them, their skin a ghostly bone white stretched over frail and wiry muscles, tattered strands of cobweb like hair clinging to their gaunt skulls, the manic, predatorial screams spilling from their mouths and swarming the corridor.
Mason barely felt the tug of his arm leading him towards the right hand path. Through there haze of terror they had lost all sense of direction. There was only the thought of survival, of escaping and seeing the sky again, of seeing their parents faces again and laying in their own beds.
Mason lost his footing and fell face first into a puddle of scum coated water. He sat up, the bitter taste of grime and blood heavy in his mouth. Ahead of him Jason stared back at his fallen brother, his ashen face a mask of anguish against the light
"Jason, help!" He reached towards his brother, towards the light, and whether Jason ran back to his brother to help him or just so he would not be alone Mason never knew. They were descended upon by a horde of vice like claws and gnashing teeth but in their moment of unimaginable shock and pain the two brothers held each other as they had done before when Jason would protect Mason from the monsters under the bed.