A new Spooky story for the Halloween season!
Hey folks, I’ve been on hiatus trying to get some writing done, with varying success. As promised in my last post, I have a spooky story to ring in the chill of the October air. This story takes place in an alternate universe of a setting not my own, but one I love. It is also dedicated to one of my favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft, and titled to reference and honor one of my favorite stories of his. Please enjoy – The Shadow in The Cave.
Mike used the bolt driver to carefully tether another gel-corded line into the cave wall. He’d reached the limit on his current line and wanted to be sure he had enough slack to reach the rocky floor below without having to make a long drop at the end. His caving partner and best friend, Riley, was just above him doing the same thing. Their new lines carried them all the way down and they landed spryly on their feet at almost the same time.
“This place is amazing, Mike,” Riley said exuberantly, trying not to look directly at him to avoid shining his headlamp into Mike’s eyes. His voice echoed through the cave system. “It’s just like… RIGHT HERE, and no one’s ever explored it! It’s so damned close to the city. I really can’t believe it.”
Mike smiled at his friend’s mirth. This is exactly what he was hoping for: to take Riley’s mind off of things and make him smile.
“”I know,” Mike agreed, just as excited, nodding. “I’ve been doing this around here for years and I must have passed over that entrance like dozens of times and never noticed. Then, last week, there it was. I’m really glad you decided to join me again.” He reached out to grip his friend’s shoulder and squeeze it firmly in a sign of affection. Riley’s face darkened and his features screwed up in what Mike realized, with sudden regret, was a deep and overwhelming sadness and pain.
“I am, too,” Riley said hoarsely, smiling sadly. “I needed to get out of the house. Everything was reminding me of her. What-uh,” sniff “which way should we go?” His sudden change of subject and blinking told Mike all he needed to know.
“Well, my friend, that’s up to you,” Mike offered, smiling and gesturing widely with both hands in all directions to encompass the many paths they might take. There were outlets and drops and larger cave mouths and smaller cave mouths. Their options seemed limitless. Just when Mike was going to begin weighing the pros and cons of them all, his friend cut in.
“That way,” Riley said, very serious and sort of unexpectedly. Riley was pointing behind Mike and when he turned around to follow Riley’s finger, it led his eyes to a long tunnel that led off into downward darkness.
“O…kay…” Mike said, pulling out his compass and reading it to see that the tunnel was heading in a roughly northwestern direction. Exploring was fun — and fun was fun — but Mike did NOT want to get lost. That had happened to him before and had scared him half to death.
“Sorry,” Riley said, seeming embarrassed. “It just sort of…I dunno, felt right. You know?”
“I do, I really do,” Mike replied earnestly. He disconnected the gel-cord from his body harness and holstered his bolt driver, watching as his friend did the same. “Let’s go?”
“Let’s,” Riley said, smiling again. They both set off down the tunnel at a measured and careful pace. Mike made sure to keep an eye out for any foot falls or loose stones that might signify a hollow space beneath they could fall into. They also had to watch out for bats and other rodents that might have diseases.
After awhile, the tunnel opened out into another sort of junction like the one they’d just been in. This one only had three outlets, though, and only two of them were really options. One was a shear drop off that went so far down, they could see only blackness below. The other two were a shaft in the ceiling that went straight up and another tunnel on the far side of the opening they’d just come through, which seemed to be a continuation along their path.
“Well?” Mike inquired. “Do we double back, keep going or try and go up this shaft?” Mike looked up the shaft, his headlamp illuminating it for a ways. There didn’t seem to be any ledges or hand holds, so it was going to be a long, hard climb up it.
“Let’s keep going down this way,” Riley suggested, unknowingly obliging Mike’s unspoken wish and pointing down the next tunnel segment. “I’ve got a good feeling about this route.” Riley started for the tunnel before Mike could respond and soon they were on their way again.
“Think we’ll find any buried treasure?” Mike wondered aloud, joking, “Or maybe some dwarven gold?” He’d been reading some pulp fantasy recently and the caves reminded him of one of the magical kingdoms therein — a dwarven realm of splendor filled with precious gems and metals.
“Heh, maybe,” Riley acknowledged, shrugging. “You never know what’s in these old caves. I told you about that time my dad found a skeleton, right?” Mike remembered. It had been Riley’s dad who’d gotten both of them into spelunking.
“Yeah,” Mike affirmed, nodding. “I remember it sort of freaked him out.” He was trying to avoid details. Mike recalled the whole of the story. There had been a gunshot wound in the skull and when the police arrived to deal with it, they had told Riley’s father that it looked like an execution. Like a gangland hit, or something like that. Mike didn’t want to be talking to Riley about that sort of thing just now.
“Not as much as when I fell into that fissure,” Riley responded soberly, but amused. “Man, do you remember that? I thought he was gonna have a heart attack after you two pulled me out of there.”
“Oh, yeah.” Mike reminisced, laughing a little. “I remember pulling you out of there, too. I had nightmares for like two weeks after that — of falling.”
“Really?” Riley inquired, “I never knew that.” Mike just nodded back. He didn’t like thinking about it, because he knew it would make him nervous through the whole outing if he did. He just pushed it out of his mind and soldiered forward, glancing a little ahead of Riley.
“C’mon,” Mike said, shouldering past Riley a bit and leading them further down the tunnel. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he caught movement. Just a blur of shadow on the wall ahead of him, just out of his headlamp’s reach. He sped up a bit to see if he could see what it was, but when he got farther along, it was gone. He surmised that it was just a shadow.
“Hey, wait up.” Riley chided, “I don’t want to get separated.”
“Oh, sorry,” Mike apologized, “I just thought I saw something, but it was nothing.”
“You sure?” Riley asked, worried.
“It was just my own shadow, I think,” Mike assured him. “So how far do you want to tak-” He was cut off by the sudden and unfortunate lack of ground beneath his feet. He can’t imagine how he could have missed it, but somehow he had. For a split second he’d stopped watching his footing and, in that second, the tunnel opened out into a huge drop off. Mike was falling.
“Mike!” Riley yelled out desperately, but he had already begun to plunge. Mike heard the familiar sound, then, of the bolt driver being fired, but it was louder than usual… like someone had fired it into the air. Then, over the whizzing of air around his ears from his own falling, he heard another whizzing noise. Then he stopped falling.
“Gotcha!” Riley exclaimed triumphantly and Mike looked up to see his friend gripping onto the handle of the bolt gun with one hand, and onto Mike’s climbing harness with the other. “You ok?”
“I’m…fine,” Mike stammered, dumbfounded. “What…what do we do now?”
“You see that lip up there?” Riley asked, as he gestured ahead of them and up with his chin. Mike nodded in response. “If I swing us out, you think you can reach it?” Mike looked up again and saw the lip of a ledge that looked as though it might hold both their weights.
“Yeah. I think so,” Mike replied confidently.
“Ok, get ready,” Riley warned. Mike felt his weight shift then, as Riley gained some leverage on the opposite wall. He heard the sound of boot on stone as his friend kicked off that wall and closer to the lip. It took a few kicks, but Riley managed to get them enough swing to get Mike close enough to reach it. Mike grabbed hold with practiced hands and held fast. He pulled himself up and over the lip, pulling Riley with him. Once they were both up onto the ledge safely, Mike gripped the wall for dear life. Riley, on the other hand, whistled as he looked down into the deep chasm that might have been Mike’s grave.
“How did you do that?” Mike asked, incredulous. He saw the bolt driver still in Riley’s hand, the gel-corded line still attached to it. Mike followed the line, which looked to be imbedded into the stone ceiling high above them. “I mean, I guess I know how…but damn.” Mike suddenly realized he was short of breath and took three deep inhales, holding the third a long moment before releasing slowly.
“I don’t know,” Riley admitted, distracted. “I just…I guess I just saw you falling and acted. I think it was instinct. Hey, I guess we’re even now!” Riley was smiling again, which made Mike smile back and laugh a bit when he caught his breath.
“I guess it does,” Mike agreed gratefully, nodding to his friend. “Hey, so what do you think…” he trailed off as he caught site of something just behind Riley, floating on air, over the drop off.
It was a little bigger than a man and completely black. He could feel it staring at him. In his mind, Mike could feel the words said to him menacingly.
You don’t belong here.
Just as Mike was about to call out to warn Riley, the thing vanished into nothingness, like a wisp of smoke. He looked all about for a moment, trying to see where it had gone. Riley noticed this and looked behind him into the chasm. Obviously seeing nothing, he turned back to Mike and shrugged expectantly.
“What is it?” Riley asked, sounding very concerned.
“I…I don’t know,” Mike replied, confused. “I thought I saw…nothing. I guess it was just my own shadow again.”
“You want to get out of here?” Riley offered kindly, but Mike didn’t want to ruin their outing. Who knew when he’d get Riley out again? Not to mention that this unfortunate accident would overshadow the whole excursion for him if they left now. No, Mike had to be stoic for Riley’s sake. Besides, it was just his imagination. The sudden shock of the fall had made him a little light-headed and delirious. He’d be fine if he just caught his breath. Right?
“Nah, I don’t want to go home yet, man,” Mike balked, waving. “Let’s just try and get back up to where we were. I assume you want to keep going?”
“Yeah, the tunnel continued on this side of the chasm,” Riley informed him enthusiastically. “I think that’s why you slipped. Before you fell, it looked like it was just a darker part of the tunnel to me. We can just climb straight up from here to get to where it kept going. You’re sure you’re alright?” He reached out a steadying hand which Mike accepted and appreciated.
“I’m fine,” Mike insisted. “It just scared the hell out of me, is all.” Despite his cavalier manner, the whole climb back up to the tunnel, Mike stole glances back at the empty space behind them, expecting to find the shadow thing staring him in the face, but it never came.
They’d made it back up to their original spot in no time at all. Riley aimed and fired a line back across the chasm, securing it to the ceiling of the tunnel they’d come from. He then bolted the other end to their side, so that they’d have a line to use when they wanted to leave and wouldn’t run the risk of running out of gel-corded bolt lines. Mike was comforted in the wisdom of this, even though they’d brought plenty.
They continued down the tunnel again. This time, Mike made sure to pay careful attention to his footing and stance. After a little while, the tunnel seemed to level out and bit and walking was less worrisome. They’d been going for about fifteen or twenty minutes when Riley stopped suddenly, looking at a crack in the left-hand wall. Mike had seen it too, but didn’t take much note of it.
“What is it?” Mike asked. Riley was holding a hand up to the crack.
“There’s a breeze here, look,” Riley said, grabbing Mike’s hand and holding it up to the crack. Sure enough, there was a decidedly cool stream of air coming out of the crack. There was moisture too.
“You think it’s a rain lake or something?” Mike asked thoughtfully, “Maybe a side passage that leads back up to the surface?” Mike became suddenly nervous. There had been no call for rain, but water and spelunking didn’t mix. If they were near water, they needed to be careful. A flood could drown them both and kill them faster than any fall.
“No,” Riley said, almost grimly. “I think there is something very interesting on the other side of this wall.” He put his eye up to it and positioned his head so that his headlamp would shine through as well.
“Maybe we should just keep moving,” Mike suggested as calmly as he could, not wanting to sound frightened.
“There’s like…a room in there!” Riley responded, in an almost manic tone. “I bet I can break through here with the laser drill.” He pulled the device, which was, in earnest, meant for quickly breaking through large pieces of stone and rock with as little vibration as possible. It was used in case someone was buried under a cave in to get them out quickly.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Mike said anxiously, but before he could say another word, let alone stop him, Riley had the drill in position and was cutting out a hole around the crack.
“Relax,” Riley said dismissively. “This isn’t likely a support for anything above us, it’s far too thin. I’ll be through it in no time.” Mike grew incredibly apprehensive as he watched his friend work. While Riley was probably right about the nature of the piece of rock wall, neither of them had any idea what might be behind it. They could find anything — methane gas, loose earth, even a dangerous animal nest.
There was also the nagging fear that had plagued Mike since the fall, or rather, since the dark being who’d menaced him after the fall… what had he seen? What had he heard? Was it even real, or was the shock of almost dying causing him to hallucinate — making him conjure ghosts and monsters from his own shadows?
“There!” Riley said, satisfied, as he cut the last piece of stone away. “See, I told ya. Didn’t take too long either.” Mike was genuinely relieved when nothing bad seemed to happen, and even more so when he saw that the other side of the wall did, in fact, lead to another long tunnel that smelled like rain. Maybe Riley was right. He was, after all, a more experienced caver that Mike.
“Heh, ok, buddy,” Mike said, patting Riley on the shoulder. “You lead, I’ll follow.” He was still pretty worked up, but he also realized that Riley was really coming out of the shell he’d been building over the last year. Mike wanted to let his friend ride this positive kick out and enjoy it. So what if HE was scared. What had HE gone through ever in his entire LIFE that could compare to Riley’s pain?
“Ok… Hey, I just thought of something,” Riley started, “Isn’t there some kind of estate nearby? Like in this part of the wilderness?”
“Yeah, there is, I think,” Mike replied, pausing thoughtfully. “It’s some mansion or big house. I don’t know exactly who it belongs to, but I think they used to be important in the city in the long, long ago. I ‘m not sure where exactly it is, but it is in this area.”
“Heh, crap,” Riley said, clearly amused. “Maybe we actually will find that treasure!” He ducked low and took a big step through the opening he’d just cut. Mike followed right behind, not having to duck quite as low. The tunnel on the other side seemed darker, far less worn away and just a bit more cramped. He felt a pang of panic but subdued it when he realized that the tunnel widened out farther ahead.
When they’d traveled through the widening tunnel for just a few minutes, they came to a sort of junction that, if Mike didn’t know any better, he’d swear was man-made. There were about seven different side passages that led into multiple directions. He pulled out his own laser drill and lightly burned an arrow pointing back the way they’d come, as well as the word “Out” above it on the tunnel wall.
“Ok, so where to now?” Mike asked enthusiastically.
“Umm…” Riley hesitated as he scanned the chamber, “I’m not so sure.” He turned and smiled at Mike, shrugging slightly.
“Maybe we should stop for a bit,” Mike suggested cheerily. “I brought some sandwiches and drinks and some other snacks. Want to have a bite?” He reached into his pack and pulled out one of the sandwiches in question, holding it up enticingly.
“Oh my god, yes!” Riley exclaimed blithely. “I didn’t realize how hungry I was until you mentioned food!” Mike chucked the sandwich to him and Riley caught it easily with one hand. He tore open the wax paper wrapper and took a big bite. Mike did the same and took a seat next to a wall, pulling out a water bottle and popping the lid. Riley took a seat next to him. They ate in silence for a few moments, Mike passing out the other water bottle and assorted sustenance. For the first time since the fall, he actually felt (rather than feigned) calm.
“It’s really beautiful down here,” Mike observed serenely, taking another sip of water. “It’s amazing what people don’t appreciate about nature.” He let the comment hang in the air for a moment, waiting for his friend to respond. After a few heartbeats, he turned to look at Riley, who was staring straight ahead and unmoving, not even chewing. His hands sat in his lap, cradling the last of his sandwich. Mike followed his friend’s gaze, expecting to see the shadow thing again, and terrified at the prospect. When he saw nothing, he turned back and noticed a single tear streaking down the side of Riley’s cheek.
“Sara used to love going caving with us,” Riley said mournfully, still staring straight ahead. “She would have loved this place. She’d have never let you run off down a tunnel, half-cocked. She was always careful, always safe…” He furrowed his brow and lowered his gaze, sighing heavily and repeatedly, as though he were trying to let out the sorrow, without the tears.
“”I’m so sorry, Ri,” Mike said, sliding over and putting his arm around his friend. “I miss her, too, and I cannot even imagine what you are going through right now. But if you need to cry – if you need to let it out, I’m here for you. I’m so sorry, man.” He found himself tearing up and tried to stifle it. This was Riley’s pain, he had no right to intrude on it.
“I don’t want to cry,” Riley said suddenly, abruptly rising to his feel and pacing to the center of the chamber. “I don’t want to let it out.” Mike worried suddenly that he’d said something wrong, or that he was being too emotional himself, but then realized that Riley wasn’t angry with him.
“I keep going over it in my head, you know,” Riley said sorrowfully, remembering. “I keep thinking that if I’d just done something differently, she’d still be here. She’d still be alive.” His fists were clenched at his sides and he looked as though he was going to hit something. Hard.
“You can’t blame yourself, man,” Mike insisted, softly. “What happened to Sara was…horrible, but it was not your fault. It was that bastard’s. Sometimes the world is just so damned unfair and we lose people, it doesn’t mean we stop living. Sara loved you more than I’ve ever known anyone to love anyone else, accept maybe how much you love her, too. She would have wanted you to be happy, and move on…” As the words left his mouth, Mike realized that they were just the worst, and quite possibly stupidest, thing to say.
“I don’t WANT to move on!” Riley raged, whirling about. “I don’t want to ever move past it, because I am NEVER going to forget. I didn’t LOSE Sara, she was TAKEN from me!” He was becoming more and more agitated and Mike seriously worried that he was going to do something rash.
“Ri, I’m sorry,” Mike apologized, getting to his feet. “Like I said, I don’t know what you’re going through and, hell, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. I’m just…I just want to help you.” He tried to think of what else he could say, but there was nothing. Riley was right. Sara had been taken and there was nothing that either of them could do about it. Every time Mike thought about it, he hated everything. He could only imagine how Riley was feeling right now.
They stood there silently in the darkness for some time, the lights of their headlamps illuminating their feet and the rocky cave floor around them. Finally, Riley sighed heavily and looked around the room again. His headlamp’s light lingered on the tunnel they’d come through. The exit.
“Maybe we should just get out of here,” Riley suggested, crestfallen. As Mike was about to sound his defeated consent, something caught his eye from the corner of the room. He turned to look at it directly, and his headlamp’s light shone brightly against the stone wall, but it was somehow still… dark. Mike realized with a start that he was seeing the shadow thing again, a foggy black mass floating there in the corner. He gasped loudly when he saw it, trying to make sense of what was before him. It’s shape was generally human, but it looked like it was made of smoke, and it had…were those horns?
“What in hell is that?” Riley shouted, startled and confused. Mike was simultaneously relieved and terrified that Riley had actually seen it this time, as it meant that he was not hallucinating, but it also meant that whatever this was, was very real. He backed away slowly, moving towards the exit tunnel opening.
“Get outta here, whatever you are!” Riley shouted defiantly, taking a step closer to the creature. “I’m not afraid of you!” Mike had no idea why Riley wasn’t trying to leave as well, nor why he’d decided to confront whatever that thing was. He also decided in that moment that it didn’t matter. He was going to stay with his friend. Mike swallowed and took a few brave steps forward to stand next to Riley.
Suddenly, the thing moved forward menacingly, and for all their bluster both of the spelunkers backed off. As suddenly as it had started moving, it stopped and Riley and Mike did as well. The thing was just sitting there, staring at them, and Mike got the distinct impression that they both were being ‘sized up’. What they expected to do to this thing, should it choose to attack, Mike had no idea.
Just then, Mike realized that it had backed them up to the tunnel entrance to the way they’d come. It was herding them towards the exit.
Before Mike could make use of this information, Riley, in a burst of unfathomable madness, lashed out at the shadow with a fist. Was he trying to punch it? It slid to the left dodging Riley’s fist, and Mike imagined the thing cocking its eyebrow at his friend dubiously. It then seemed to extend part of itself like an arm and knocked Riley to the ground.
Unlike Riley, who practiced martial arts, Mike wasn’t much of a fighter. So he pulled out his bolt driver and aimed the weapon at the creature. This seemed to immediately make the thing turn its attention to him. Mike felt a distinct wave — a furious seething rage — when the shadow seemed to notice his impromptu weapon. The shadow wrapped another extension of itself around Mike’s arm and he distinctly felt that arm being ‘grabbed’. He was then hoisted into the air and thrown across the chamber to land roughly on his back, his bolt driver flying from his grip.
Within seconds, the shadow thing was hovering over him menacingly. He felt his collar tighten and his head and neck lift from the stone floor. Mike could almost make out a sort of ‘face’ within the shadow. The moment he thought this, it formed more clearly, and he could see eyes — white eyes that stared at him in judgment. He heard the voice in his head again, commanding and intrusive.
You don’t belong here. Leave.
Mike lay there, helpless and terrified. He’d never experienced anything like this before. What was this thing? A ghost? A demon? Something else? How could any of this be even real? All he’d wanted to do was try and make his friend feel better for a little while and now they’d gotten beaten up by a freaking phantasm! This, all of it, was Mike’s fault.
“I…I’m sorry,” Mike whimpered at the shadowy form before him. “We didn’t know…I didn’t know we weren’t welcome. Please don’t hurt my friend, he didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sorry.” The great white eyes that had been so judging only a moment before, went wide in surprise and then narrowed in what Mike thought looked like consternation. The shadow then promptly vanished.
Mike looked around the space, his headlamp shining wildly around the room, searching for the shadow thing, but it was gone. He then started to get to his feet to check on Riley, but instead found Riley helping him to his feet.
“You ok, man?” Riley asked sincerely, genuinely concerned.
“I..I think so,” Mike said, rising to his feet and checking his body for the pain of injuries. “Yeah, I think I’m okay.” He felt no pain in his legs, but his back and the back of his head hurt from the fall.
“What was that?” Riley asked incredulously. “I mean jeez, I’ve never even seen anything like that before!” Riley kept an arm under Mike’s to help support him, only releasing him when he saw that his friend was okay.
“I don’t know,” Mike said shakily. “I’d seen it a couple of times since we came down here, but I thought it was just me seeing things. I think a better question is: Why on earth did you try and hit it?” Riley looked almost embarrassed at the question and shook his head slightly.
“I really don’t know,” Riley admitted, abashed. “I guess I was just so angry from what we had been talking about and I guess I just wanted something to lash out at. That thing seemed a better target than you. Looked like it could take it, you know?” He offered a wry smile with that last thought, as though asking for that to be enough explanation.
“Well, whatever it was, it’s gone now,” Mike said, feeling tremendously relieved. “We should probably do like you said and get out of here.” Riley nodded seriously at him then and turned toward the exit, or started to. Something seemed to catch his eye this time, from the opening next to them both, which, Mike suddenly realized, he’d almost been thrown through.
“What is…is that a…?” Riley started to ask, but was cut short by a sound Mike could only describe as chirping. “Oh, crap!” Suddenly the entire chamber was filled with the sound as dozens of winged terrors flew out of the opening, screeching their frustration at having their home invaded and being woken from a sound slumber.
The bats blustered around them, some nipping, scratching or even biting at them. Mike worried vaguely about rabies, but tried to focus on more pressing matters. He couldn’t see anything. The swarm of flying rodents was rendering both his and Riley’s headlamps useless. The tunnels made area an echo chamber, deafening him as well. Just as he was about to give up and lie down on the floor to get away from the cacophony, Mike felt a strong hand grip his arm and usher him over to another side of the chamber. He moved along, not seeing or hearing anything for some time.
Finally, just as he was about to cry out at the madness of it all, the hand that gripped his shoulder, urged him through what he guessed was one of the other openings in the chamber. The pandemonium abated somewhat. He was able to look up and see that he was in an alcove next to the main chamber and that Riley, his hand still gripping Mike’s arm, stood just opposite him.
“WE’RE JUST GONNA HAVE TO WAIT THEM OUT!” Riley yelled over the screeching. “THEY’LL EVENTUALLY STOP AND THEN WE CAN GET OUT OF HERE.” Mike nodded, but didn’t speak, as he knew that Riley would likely only hear him if he yelled.
Riley leaned against the wall and folded his arms across his chest, watching the bats. Mike turned and watched them too, but was less fascinated than Riley seemed to be. They sat there for some time, waiting for the storm to calm, but it didn’t seem to be calming at all. If anything, the bats seemed to be getting more and more agitated.
Riley tilted forward as if he were going to say something to Mike, but then lurched sideways, further into the alcove. Just as Mike realized that his friend had slipped on some wet stone, Riley was gone, having fallen into some kind of sloping tunnel that neither of them had previously noticed. He could hear Riley crying out and that yelp growing more and more distant. Without another thought, Mike scrambled into the the tunnel feet first.
The tunnel was slick and slimy, and Mike got some kind of algae or fungus on his pants as he slid down it. He could still hear Riley calling out, but with the echo, he couldn’t figure out from where. Just as he came to the twin realizations that this was a very stupid idea and that he no longer had his bolt driver, Mike felt the sudden and shocking sensation of being immersed up to his chest in freezing cold water.
Now he was being carried by a strong current through an underground water slide made of solid stone. Danger did not cover the state in which he found himself. Just when he thought the ride would never end, or worse – would end, and abruptly — he was spewed out of the tunnel and into open air. The sound of water splashing heavily into more water was the last sound Mike heard before being submerged completely by the cantankerous element.
Falling into water over your head was a disorienting experience no matter what the situation. He could get completely turned around and swim in the wrong direction for very long before realizing it. Especially in an environment like a darkened cave system. Fortunately for Mike, not only had he chosen the right direction, he was a very strong swimmer. He exploded out of the water and sucked in a massive breath of air, exalting in the rush of being alive.
The first thing Mike noticed was that the chute he’d just shot out from cascaded its water several meters down into the larger body of water. The second thing he noticed was that the chamber he found himself in now was absolutely massive, compared to any of the locations he and Riley had passed through so far. The thought of his friend jarred him suddenly back into the present reality.
“RILEY!” Mike cried out desperately in to the massive cavern. “RILEY!”
“MIKE!” Mike heard his friend cry back from somewhere behind him. When he looked, he saw Riley standing on a sort of little beach over near a column of natural stone. He waved and swam over to his friend, who promptly pulled him out of the water and onto the sand.
“Jesus, Mike, are you alright?” Riley asked. “What did you just jump in after me?”
“Yeah…” Mike said between coughs. “Seemed like a good idea at the time. Are you alright?”
“I’m wet, obviously, and sort of freaked, but I think I’m alright,” Riley replied plainly. “What possessed you to come after me like that?”
Mike shot him an angry look. “What possessed you to try and punch out a ghost?” Mike stammered, frustrated, rising to his feet and trying to shake out some of the water. “Where are we anyway? This place is huge.” He looked about and realized that the chamber was even bigger than he’d thought from the water, and that there seemed to be a large ledge above them and more cavern behind it.
“Yeah, I was looking around, before I realized you were coming down behind me,” Riley said, somewhat excitedly. “Look what I found.” Mike turnedand followed Riley’s pointed finger to something carved into the stone wall.
“Are those… stairs?” Mike asked in disbelief. They led up onto the ledge, or rather, the platform, as Mike now realized what it actually was.
“Yeah, but that’s nothing,” Riley continued eagerly. “Look over there.” He reached out and spun Mike around so that he was looking out into the water again. Mike saw more clearly now that a narrow outcropping of natural stone arched from the platform to connect with the rock wall on their side of the underground pool. Attached to that outcropping were what looked like another set of stairs made of metal that led from the platform to a dock with…
“Is that a flipping boat?” Mike exclaimed, utterly dumbfounded. He squinted in the darkness, but then suddenly realized that his helmet and head lamp had fallen off and he didn’t have any light. But there was light. All over, there was some sort of ambient lighting that made everything just visible enough to make out the shape of, though not any details. While he could tell by its shape that the object was a vessel of some kind, it could have been a clipper ship for all he could tell.
Another question suddenly assaulted Mike: where was the boat meant to go? There didn’t seem to be any outlets around that it could use for egress. So what was a boat doing in the middle of an underground cavern, with no means of escape?
“Let’s go up there,” Riley suggested eagerly. “We’re gonna have to try and find some way out of here and I bet the water leads out.” He turned and started towards the stairs. Mike followed, knowing that he could be right, but also wondering if the water just led to more water, or worse, further underground.
They mounted the stairs single file and climbed them about fifteen or twenty feet to their apex. There, the same ambient soft light which illuminated the lower platform showed them the vague shapes of objects on this one. The area of the platform was far larger than Mike had expected, spanning some twenty meters or so in diameter. He could make out what he thought were guard rails all around the outside as well as numerous larger objects within and several catwalk pathways leading away from it.
One very large object dominated the side of the platform opposite where Mike and Riley had come up the stairs. It seemed, even in the gloom, to be a man-made object in an obvious circular shape. Riley walked over to one of the closer objects and Mike followed. As they got closer and the object became clearer, he could make out a flat metal table with straps on it where one’s hands and feet might be if one were strapped on top of it. It was also covered in blood, long dried to powder.
“Riley, where the hell are we?” Mike demanded, suddenly terrified. He turned to find his friend moving off toward another object when he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. Mike joined him and found his friend with a look of abject terror on his face, still staring at the object.
When Mike’s eyes adjusted, he saw it: a roughly thirty foot tall creature with a massive maw of razor sharp teeth. He screamed then, if for no other reason than it was all he could think to do in the face of such terror. When nothing happened, his fright was replaced with confusion. When he realized that the thing wasn’t moving at all, his confusion was replaced with frustration at having been frightened in the first place.
“I think it’s a statue,” Mike blurted out clumsily into the silence left by his scream. All of his previous emotional surges were replaced by a sudden and overwhelming embarrassment. Then he got nervous as a foreboding realization hit him. “I think we might be right underneath that mansion I mentioned.”
“You think so?” Riley asked, seeming taken aback. “What could that mean?”
Mike knew what he thought, or rather what he imagined. The bloody table behind them and this gruesome monstrosity coupled with the clandestine nature of having a secret cavernous hideaway beneath your home made it obvious to him. Whoever the family was that owned the mansion above them, they were some kind of devil worshiping cult and this was their secret and depraved temple!
“It means we might be able to find a way out of these caves and into that mansion, and from there back to civilization,” Mike suggested calmly, not wanting his inner observations to make Riley nervous. “C’mon. Let’s try and find a way up. Maybe at the back of this platform.” He walked off, passing the hideous statue and heading toward a much larger object in what he was referring to as the back of the cavern. When he reached the object, he saw that it was a large table of some kind with smaller odd-looking objects all over it.
“What’s this?” Riley asked curiously from behind him. Mike didn’t know what to say. Could he tell him that it looked like an alter to him and that the small round objects that he could just make out, looked to him like the skulls of small animals, amulets of unknown provenance, or other paraphernalia of witchcraft?
“Oh hey, I think it’s a computer.” Riley said.
“I…what?” Mike managed, stunned.
“Yeah, see?” Riley said casually. stepping closer and fiddling with it. “It’s really old, but it’s a computer. An expensive one too.” Mike looked back at the ‘alter’ and saw that Riley was, of course, correct. The objects all over were nobs, switches and keys and he could see clearly now in the dead center was a kind of antique keyboard interface. The kind that you actually had to touch to interact with.
“Whatsit doing down here?” Mike wondered aloud. “I mean, why would anyone go through the hassle of getting this thing down here?” As he turned to move off in the direction of the what he thought might be stairs, a familiar black shape emerged before him and backed him into the terminal behind him. He had just enough time to cry out wordlessly before the dark creature’s words echoed emphatically in his head.
You’re not supposed to be here! You don’t belong here! You need to LEAVE!
Riley turned from the computer at Mike’s yelp to see their tormentor, backing up into the computer himself. The thing reared back and sort of exploded itself outward to form two great black wings. It moved forward and loomed over them, its wings enveloping the area around them and blocking out what little light there was. This, coupled with what looked again like horns coming from the top of its head, made Mike’s secret devil cult theory seem far less irrational than it had felt only moments before.
Then suddenly the eyes appeared once more. Those terrible white eyes of menacing judgment pierced right into Mike’s very soul.
“Leave us alone!” Riley warned angrily. “We’re just tying to find a way out of here! Just back off, whatever you are!” He reached into his pack and pulled out the laser drill. Turning it on produced a bright beam of red-colored energy roughly five inches in length. Riley waved it back and fourth at the shadow attempting intimidation. It reacted, dashing backward and making itself very small. In a yell of frustration and desperation, Riley launched the laser drill at the shadow with a flick of his wrist and struck it soundly, dead center of mass. It dissipated into nothingness as it had before, leaving only Riley’s crimson projectile laying on the floor, burning into the stone.
“Is it gone?” Mike asked apprehensively, looking about, as Riley got up and retrieved his makeshift weapon.
“For now, I think,” Riley said confidently, turning off the laser drill and returning it to his pack. “It’s weird, there is something strangely familiar about this place.” As if in sudden realization of something, he began squinting and searching in the darkness. He found what he was looking for near the stairs and from the sound it made when Riley touched it, Mike surmised that it was a switch. Suddenly the room flared into clarity, coming alive with light.
At first, Mike was blinded, but his eyes quickly adjusted and the cavern came into sudden clarity. He could see the computer more clearly now, its many monitor screens reflecting his own image back at him. He turned to see the great hideous demon statue was actually a statue of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Off on the far side of the cavern was a raised dais that Mike had not seen earlier, with a big black car in the center of it. He was only slightly more confused than he had been before the lights came on.
“Oh my god…” Riley exclaimed in awe, obviously not confused anymore, himself. He turned back to Mike after taking everything in. “I don’t believe it.”
“I…I don’t understand,” Mike said confused. “What is this place?”
“You really don’t know?” Riley asked incredulously, cocking an eyebrow and shaking his head at his friend. Mike just shrugged and shook his head. “It’s His secret hideout!”
“His who?” Mike asked, still at a loss.
Riley stood, silently taking in the entire space. “The silent guardian of a city that knew no love, but his own,” Riley recited solemnly.
“What?” Mike said more confused than ever, and a little frustrated with Riley’s cryptic answer.
“This,” Riley began intensely, gesturing at the cavern’s immensity, “is the resting place of a force that has been gone far too long from this world.”
Mike was captivated as Riley continued. “It is the home of a power that is desperately needed now. Crime and violence rule our lives, Mike. Something needs to change. Balance must be restored and justice served.” The words came out as some kind of incantation or prayer, like a solemn vow that would not — and could not — be broken. Mike knew what his friend was talking about. In the city they called home, violent crime had become part of everyday life. What had happened to Sara was a direct result of this and they both knew it.
After a few moments, Riley looked about as if searching for something specific, his eyes finally coming to rest on his prize. Mike followed his gaze to a large man-sized vault built into the cave wall, just behind the large computer. Riley walked over to the vault, spun the large pressure-locking wheel to the left and opened the vault door.
Mike couldn’t see what was inside the vault through the computer display and by the time he’d moved to get a better look, Riley had already closed the door and was resealing it, obviously satisfied with what he found behind the door. Riley lifted his hand to his chin, deep in thought. It was a few moments before Mike gathered up the courage to interrupt him.
“Riley?” Mike interjected softly. When Riley looked up at him, almost startled, he continued. “Can we get the hell out of here now?”
“Sorry, Mike,” Riley said, distracted. “Yeah, I think I saw an elevator up at the stairs.” He moved over to the stairs and was up them in a bound. Mike followed behind more slowly, not really knowing where he was going, though Riley seemed to. Or maybe Mike was just plain tired. They found the elevator at the very top of the steps and stepped inside. It was a cage elevator with a manual lever control. Mike breathed a sigh of relief when it actually worked.
They spent the ride up in silence, Riley apparently too distracted by his inner musings for conversation, Mike too unnerved by Riley to dare interrupt him again. When they reached the top, there was nothing but an alcove and a narrow wooden door shaped, Mike thought, like a giant bullet. Riley fiddled with the handle for a moment and then finally got it to open and they both stepped through into a sort of grand library, with bookshelves built into every wall and old, slightly damaged books lining most of them. Mike realized suddenly that they were in the mansion they’d been talking about. He was right, they had been below it the whole time, though buried treasure was far from what they’d found.
Mike left the library abruptly, trying to find an exit. When he found a large door in the grand foyer that looked as though it led outside, he breathed a sigh of relief. He shouldered the door open and the brightness of the late afternoon sun along with the cool autumn air was so elating that Mike dropped to his knees in exaltation. He spent what he imagined could have been the next half hour contemplating everything that had happened to him in the last day. He was still unsure if any of it had been real. Though he’d seen Riley interacting with the shadow, the whole scenario was overwhelming for him and he just wanted to go home.
Mike felt a hand rest gently on his shoulder and opened his eyes, expecting to see Riley standing over him. What he saw made him shiver in terror. There, standing in broad daylight, was the shadow thing. At first it looked back at the manor, then off into the distance. Then it looked right down at Mike, its white eyes staring into him.
For a moment that seemed like an eternity, Mike simply stared back at the thing that had hunted and haunted him this entire time. All he could feel was fear. He tried to feel something else, to go somewhere else in his mind, but the fear permeated. It was as though this shadow was conjuring his fear from some dark recess of his psyche, some black bit of primordial terror and using it against him like a weapon. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the shadowy figure was gone, leaving another form standing over him, shadowing him from the sun above.
“It’s time to go,” Riley said sagely, helping Mike to his feet. “It’ll be dark soon and we have a long walk ahead of us.” He punctuated the thought by walking down the path that led away from the mansion’s front door, toward the gate that sat at the end of it. Mike rose to his feet and turned to look back at the mansion, trying to make sense of what he had just witnessed. Was that real? Was any of what he’d just experienced? Had something horrible happened to his friend down in that cave, or was it all a delusion brought on by an arduous and impossible situation? He turned and followed Riley out the front gate and down the long driveway that led to the country road that their car was parked on. The trip back to the car was a silent one, and it wasn’t till they were actually in the car again that anyone spoke.
“Promise me, Riley,” Mike pleaded with his best friend sincerely, “promise me you won’t ever go back to that house or those caves ever again.”
Riley looked at him for a long moment, absorbing his words. He then turned to look out the window, as if considering how to respond.
“No,” Riley said simply, turning to stare into Mike’s eyes intensely. “You promise me that you will never, ever, tell anyone what you saw today.”
Mike sat at the window of his apartment and looked out over the city that was his home. It had been almost three years since the incident in the cave and not a day went by that he didn’t think about it. Crime in the city was still a problem, though not as big a problem as it had been three years earlier. He sipped from his drink and thought of Riley then. He had visited with him only a handful of times since the cave, but he’d seen him often and knew that his friend was doing…good.
Just as Mike was about to go to sleep for the night, a flash of light in the northern skyline caught his eye. He looked out and saw the symbol bright and shining in the darkness of the night sky, calling out for help. Mike took comfort in seeing the signal in the sky, for it reminded him that he had kept his promise and always would. The people of Gotham took comfort in the signal as well, for it reminded them that their champion, their guardian had finally returned.