From the author: A group of lads go cave diving for a birthday treat. They discover there's more under the water than silt and stones.
"So we're going to the Cambrian Mountains?" Archie asked for the third time. He was an impatient little thing at the best of times but the surprise birthday trip was itching under his skin.
"Why do you think that?" Kevin asked with a smirk.
"Well we're driving to Wales, you made me bring a helmet, you've filled poor Steve's Rover up to the gills with equipment and there's enough booze to pickle an elephant. Got to be the mountains."
"Not even close," chuckled Kevin.
"You'll not guess it in a month of Sundays, Archie, best just enjoy the ride," Steve called from the front, glancing over his shoulder to share a look with Kevin.
"Eyes on the road," Nigel growled.
"Yes, Sir." Steve huffed, rolling his eyes.
"You know he can't help it, Steve, he's always on duty like you are," Kevin said, nudging Nigel’s shoulder through the seat gap.
"I am thoroughly off duty. With the exception of any sheep being in need of intervention I am not a police officer for this weekend," Steve said, settling into his seat.
"Yeah right, and Nigel's not a Fusilier," snorted Archie, sipping from his hip flask and changing the music again.
"Will you just settle or something or hand that over?" Nigel said, holding his hand out for the iPod he'd rigged up to speakers.
"I'm trying to find a track but I can't remember the name of it," Archie said, batting the hand away.
"You mean you can recall statutes from when the Queen was a sparkle in the King's eye but you can't remember a song title?" Kevin laughed, nabbing the flask for a draw. "Christ is that pure gin?"
"There's some ginger ale in there somewhere," Archie said, yanking it back. On the cusp of thirty, he was the baby of the group but enjoyed shaming with them with the cast iron liver he’d maintained since law school.
"No music privileges for you if you're already on the gin, you'll be on sad arsed tracks in no time," Nigel said, plucking the iPod up and settling on some ACDC.
"So no clues at all?" Archie asked.
"None. But you can tell us about that hot little thing you have back in the office if you want to do something to pass the time," Kevin replied.
"Or about any rich idiots you've had recently, always good for a laugh," Nigel said, phone out and checking the directions. He knew Steve's GPS was good and would probably be right, but no harm in checking. The training was hard to shake off.
"Oh yes, we had a right tosser the other day, called himself Lord Whathisname but it was obviously a bought title, and he went on and on about his rights in relation to copyrighting his name," Archie began, settling into storytelling mode.
They started out early the next morning, keen to get to the entrance before the locals were around. It wasn't trespass if they didn't catch you.
"How do you even know about this place?" Steve asked as they lugged the tanks from the back of the Land Rover.
"Training exercises – we found the opening after a newbie fell part way into it," Nigel said, stacking the equipment at the square entrance.
"Nice. Why the chain?"
"The water is hellish aggressive – me and Kevin came down here a while back and there was none of the lead ropes left from my first trip, absolutely gone. It just eats anything organic so I'm running chain instead."
"Good call," Steve said, checking over the masks and helmets again.
"Are you two done yapping yet?" Kevin called from inside the entrance.
"It'd be quicker if you helped," Steve shot back.
"I've got to get Archie acclimatized," he said, turning back into the cave and disappearing into the gloom.
"He does know that this place is too low for that right?" Steve asked, staring after him.
"Entirely, he just doesn't want to carry shit," Nigel confirmed.
"Good oh, a personal trainer who doesn't like lifting." Steve sighed, chucking the checked items over to Nigel and turning to the next set. "I can finish these off if you want to go in a suit up?"
"Ta." Nigel grinned, trotting into the cave to join the others.
Kevin already had Archie into his suit and was helping get the lights attached. They needed about five here, the run-in water was so choked with peat and silt it was like moving through a storm. Archie had three mounted lights on his head for sights, and two detachables on his body in case anything got complicated.
"Is it really needing all this? Those mines in Yorkshire were old but they weren't five lights bad."
"Trust us, Archie, it's a whole new world once you can get to the cavern but til then it's awful. You'll get used to weight at your head, just prep for partnership isn't it?"
"Yes Sir," he muttered and Nigel rolled his eye at the younger man.
"We all good?" Steve called as brought the last of the gear in.
"Nearly got this one sorted, I'll be kitted up quick after," Kevin said as Nigel helped line up the tanks.
"I'll be in front followed by Archie, Steve and Kevin bring up the back. Kevin's been here before and he knows the way out, so if there's any trouble or issues at the front he can guide. I'll be pinning chain as we go for a lead in the future. I'm recording, camera’s on my side, so we should get some good footage."
"Sounds good to me. Hurry up," Archie said, glancing around the cave. It was unassuming, the rock obviously worked into smoothness. The water in the shaft looked a deep blue further out but sediment would soon churn it thick and dark as sand.
Once they were all ensconced in their wetsuits with their helmets secured they began filing in, Nigel leading. He'd been there enough to know the best areas for historical seams and machinery.
The water was cold, always was, and the peat and silt gave his vision a brown halo as he moved through. He pinned the quarter inch chain at even intervals, plenty of space away from the other men but easily traced in the murky light. He'd mapped the main shaft over his first two trips but hadn't been able to get any footage so this would be another first. He was lucky, as soon as any other divers knew about the place would be swarming with mappers.
Nigel led the other men gradually through the water, past disused carts and the jagged lines of the worked walls. It was beautiful, once you got used to the temperature, the water an ever present pressure that muffled the noise around them. They passed old tools in the half light, their bubble of sight moving as they twisted or turned to see more. The brown tint of the water faded to an almost green as they got deeper, past the fresh intake and into the deep recesses of the sump.
He guided them into an air cavern he had found on his second dive, part of one of the offshoots about half a mile in. It might have been an exploitative outcrop or just the end of good seams, he wasn't sure. A worn set of steps led up to an open corridor neither he or Kevin tracked yet, the stone running with rivulets of water and slick yellow growths.
"This is the main cavern, though there are a couple of smaller ones earlier back," Nigel said as settled onto the steps and removed their masks.
"There's so much more in here than the Yorkshire ones," Archie said, glancing round the cavern.
"It’s well preserved," Steve agreed, checking over his equipment as they sat.
"And you said there are clear corridors too?" Archie continued, glancing up the steps.
"Yeah there's one back there, and I think if you got through some of the smaller caverns you’d find the same again. We could stay here a bit, let the sediment settle, then get some photos," Nigel said, checking his own masks and feeling for his rebreather. He'd never needed it in here, but it was useful to have just in case.
"How about exploring the dry area?" Kevin asked, nodding up the steps. "We don't know what's up there. Could scope that out while the silt stills down."
"That sounds brilliant." Archie nodded, standing and shedding his air tank. "We can leave these here and come back for them if there's any flooding further up?"
"I'm up for that," Steve said, putting his equipment on a higher step and checking his suit over.
"That's a plan then," Nigel agreed, setting his own tank down and unclasping one of his lights to act as a torch. He strode up the steps, pointing his light low to the ground and keeping his head lamps on to illuminate the passage.
He was grateful for the helmet once he turned into the corridor, as it sloped and crept closer to his head while he walked. He got a good way along, the lights from the other lads helping flesh out his view as he went forward in slow steps. It was pitch aside from their lights and the rough stone was uneven under his feet.
"There's a room up ahead looks like," he called, looking over a rough rectangular shape hewn in the slick rock. The shadows in there were deep, his lights barely piercing into it. He was in front of it before he realized, curiosity chasing his heels.
The entrance was small; Nigel had to duck his head as he passed through. He vaguely heard the chaps calling to him but he needed to get into the room, he wanted to see what was making this place tug at his gut.
He walked into a well of colour; greens and purples and deep, pomegranate red encircling him as he turned round the room. The light sparkled back at him, springing overhead and dazzling him as he turned. The deep room was coated wall to wall in cubes and squared off balls of crystals, the shapes creeping in from the swamped edges and forming a swarming mass in the centre. He was dizzy with it for a moment, barely registering the others spilling in except to see how they brought more light and with it more reflections, dancing around the room. It was like being underwater again, the air shimmering and swollen with arcs he couldn’t keep a track of.
"What the hell is this?" Steve asked, looking around himself.
"If I had to guess I would say it's fluorite," Kevin offered. "I had an ex who was into these things, I got dragged to a lot of crystal shows," he said at the owlish blinking he got in response.
"There's a shit tonne of whatever it is," Archie said, pushing past Nigel to get to the middle of the room. The mass of crystal was almost as large as he was, twinkling and sparking off colours as he looked it over.
Nigel glanced over to see Steve pushed back against the edge of the door, his face pale as yoghurt.
"You ok?" Nigel asked and Steve shook his head, glancing about the choked walls.
"No, very not ok. Something about this isn't right. That door isn't right either," he said, fingers twitching at his sides.
"The shadows were a bit thick, but that’s just the angles of the place," Nigel said, moving to stand by his friend.
"There's something not right here," Steve hissed, gripping Nigel's arm, "Crystals that big should have been flashing when we first came down that tunnel. And who carved this hole? The cart tracks ended well before this cavern, we know they didn't mine for whatever that is here. That door made my skin feel like it was on fire, last place that did that was a ten person body count."
"Alright, mate, we'll take a walk back off towards the water then," Nigel said, eyeing over the now shaking figure of his friend. "Oi, you two, Stevie doesn't rate the interior decorating. We’re going to head back along the way a bit."
"Can't blame him, it's a bit funny," Kevin agreed, looking up from his examination of the central mass.
"Yeah but it's got to be worth a bit isn't it? Or would it have to be preserved?" Archie called from behind the mound Kevin was looking at.
"Preserved, it's a natural phenomenon, so play nice," Nigel said, gently moving Steve out of the rough door.
The difference was like snow on his skin, the corridor cool and expanding welcomingly as they moved away. Nigel kept his head up so they could see their way across the wet stone. Steve was pulling himself together as they moved forward, murmuring something that Nigel couldn't hear.
"What are you chunnering there?" he asked, nudging Steve's elbow.
"I'm naming the saints," Steve said, rolling his neck a little.
"You haven't been to church in years," Nigel scoffed.
"I have, I just don't tell you lot about it. If I'm going to keep shoving myself in front of death I may as well be on good terms with whatever's waiting on me at the other side."
"Not a bad idea," Nigel said, grateful when they turned the corner and slapped down the steps.
"I'm serious about that room, something about that isn't decent."
"I know you're serious, mate, it's alright." Nigel nodded, moving to the tanks and checking them again.
"You should get those two out, when Archie's done oogling it. I don't want to spoil his adventure but I’m gonna head back towards the entrance."
"That's fine, use the chain and we'll see you at the opening. You can be packing some shit into the Rover."
"Sounds good. Help me with the air and I'll start. I shouldn't kick up too much, using the line."
Nigel helped him lug on the equipment on and wade in, watching Steve's lights halo out in the water as he slipped below the surface. He felt the darkness then, the quiet insistence of it all around except from the light pouring from him. Nigel shivered and shook himself off, making his way back up the steps.
Steve had been right about one bit, the end of the corridor really did seem to suck the light up. Probably just the angle of the room and the lowering corridor. Steve's poor mood had settled on him, coating his torso with spiking anxiety. It was just a weird cave, an unexpected formation someone had found and not been able to do anything with.It was lucky it hadn't been flooded with the rest of it.
"How are we doing then, gents?" he asked as he came back into the room, ducking his head as he stepped in.
For a minute he was dazzled again, the flood of colour and reflection darting around him. He shook his head and regretted it, the wavering light swimming in front of his eyes and he went to one knee, overwhelmed by the swirling, hazy kaleidoscope. He felt like his chest would burst, his brain thrumming with the ghost of the colours he'd seen, mind thick as syrup. Nigel closed his eyes and breathed hard, panting against it.
He forced them open again and found he was staring at the ground, grateful for the flat, grey stone beneath him. He pushed himself up, one hand on his knee and the other braced beside his thigh on the floor. Standing gradually, his blood thudding in his temples, he turned his head into the room again.
He noticed Archie's body first; limbs splayed, rag doll, over a fat mass of crystals, the pulped mess of flesh that was his face almost touching the floor. Blood ran down his throat, dripping from his ears and the blunt stump of a nose. His chest was crushed, dark staining seeping through his suit and across the jagged stones. Nigel couldn't tell if they were pushed through his chest or if they’d just been impaled, but he was fascinated with the blooming red, how the blood coated the sparkling shapes and changed their shade. He shook his head, tugging away from the siren lights glinting off them.
"What the shit?" he stuttered out, taking a shaky step forward. He hovered a hand tentatively over Archie, wincing at how cold he was, not a drop of heat. No movement in the chest, the blood gone tacky, the awful smear that used to be his face. He swallowed hard, looking away and groaning low in his chest when he saw Kevin.
He was arched over a series of twinkling pillars, his spine impossibly contorted. His body was studded through with the green and purple crystals, head yanked back. His face was less damaged, though the crown of gems that branched out of his smashed skull was warping the skin, making it bulge with the shards shoved underneath. They blossomed out of his head like a crown, the sharp, jagged line of points dripping blood. A pool of red flooded the bottom of the large stones, each stripped with it. Too much was out of him, you couldn't work with that gone.
Nigel opened his mouth but couldn't make any sound come out, couldn't find space in his chest for anything but the panic that was bubbling somewhere under his heart. He stamped it down, training kicking in as he tried to reign in his racing mind. Something had done this, and he was still at risk if it was still in here. He made himself look round the room in sections, starting from where he could see both bodies. He didn't see anything moving as he went, just the blinding jumps of light and shade that made his brain swim.
He was gasping for breath and made himself step back gradually, away from the bodies and into a wall. He jarred his heel against a lifted stone and stumbled back, arms flaring out to steady himself. His hand smacked against one of the cubic formations and his eyes flooded with light, the colour from the room diving into him and pouring through his mind in a vicious torrent. It was too big, too much for him, snarling and tearing at the inside of his skull. Sleep, sleep, it wanted rest and it was bothered by him, it wanted him gone, would take him away to let it rest. He screamed, white hot pain spilling over his nerves. There was a swelling sensation in his brain as something loomed up, cresting against the bubble of his mind and threatening, promising, to drag him back down with it once it breached.
Nigel slammed his head back against the wall, hard enough to make him double over, thrown clear of the crystals. He stumbled, fell, the cold slam of the floor a welcome harshness compared to what he could still feel itching at the back of his skull. Nigel crawled towards the door, dragging himself along by his elbows as if in enemy territory.
He was back in the corridor, the blessed clean lines of stone and slick growths guiding him back towards the cool water, the safety of the chain.
He forced himself into standing once he reached the stairs, faltering down them and grabbing for his tank. He shook it on, fumbling with his mask until it was fixed in place. He stood in his equipment for a breath, tapping over his kit and counting out the things he needed to get back safely. He heard the scratching in his mind again and bolted into the water, gulping breathes as he went.
The route back was frantic, pulling himself along by the chain more than swimming. His legs felt like he'd been beaten, he could feel the twanging threats of cramp in them but ignored it. He moved through the swirling particles Kevin had left behind, the looming patterns sending sparks of light shooting behind his eyes. He flailed, tried to push them away, flinched from them following his hands back in the current.
It felt like years by the time he saw natural light ahead, the open mouth of the shaft above him. He splashed out of it in a rush, searching for Steve, sobbing when he was nowhere in sight.
He stumbled out of the cave and saw Steve sat in the Land Rover, head bowed and jaw moving. Nigel went towards him, shedding his tank and mask before hammering on the window. Steve flinched, scrabbling out of the vehicle and grabbing Nigel's shoulders, making his friend look at his face.
"Nigel, what's wrong?" he barked, face paling.
"They're dead," Nigel said, shaking now and feeling his mind scrabbling. "The crystals, blood all over, Archie had one in his chest, Kevin's head was smashed open, like a crown." The words tumbled out and he couldn't stop them, the glimpses bubbling over. Steve blanched, moving Nigel so he rested against the Land Rover and gripping his head to steady him.
"You're not making sense. Was there an accident?"
"Look at the camera," Nigel said, hands numbly moving over his sides to grope for it. Steve unhooked it, moving off from him to playback the footage.
Nigel sunk down, arms round his knees and head resting against them. He couldn't stop the pushing in the back of his skull, seeing the peak of crystal pushing into Kevin's. He shook the image from his mind and closed his eyes only to be greeted by the whirling colours he’d run from. His stomach pitched with vertigo and he turned, vomiting onto the grass in shaking heaves.
He heard Steve do something similar, retching at least, and glanced over to see him pacing back and forth a little way away, staring at the screen. Nigel closed his eyes again and was flooded, the scratching louder as the swirling mass loomed and dragged behind his eyelids. His stomach yanked, bile rose and burned in his throat.
He couldn't do this.
He felt around his thighs for his kit, hand settling on the emergency knife. He gripped it tight, steadying his hand as he made his breathing slow and even. He pushed it into the left eye first, quick and clean back to the nerve before moving to his right one, hand shaking as he made the second cut. He dropped the knife onto his shoes, laughing in his sweet release.
"Nigel?" he heard Steve's voice spike, the pitch pulling up in panic. He heard the thump of his friends footsteps and felt him slam into the ground, grabbing his face. "Nigel, what the fuck?"
"It's ok, Steve," Nigel said, leaning his head back against the cool metal of the vehicle. "I'm in the dark now. It only dreams in colour.