by Jim Despaw
“This looks to be the place,” said Dr. Richard Slavin, setting his pack down on the dusty planks. At his feet was a wooden sign, split down the middle and almost broken in half. The faded painting of a grinning desert lizard sat under carved words “The Smiling Lizard Lode: Private Property.” He wiped his brow with a neatly folded white cloth and took in the view. “Isn’t it marvelous, Miss Batten?”
“Oh, yes,” his young assistant intoned, taking a drink from her canteen and pushing her glasses to the peak of her sharp nose. “If you like rocks. Or dirt. Or rocks and dirt.” She swung her pack down with a grunt.
“Now, now, Valeria,” he admonished, “it may not look like much, but it’s what’s inside that counts … if your sources are correct, of course.”
“Aren’t they always?” she replied, leaning her Winchester on the rock wall.
“They are indeed.”
Slavin had to admit the construction must have been impressive when the mine was operational years ago. Built into a sheer rock face about 30 feet above the rolling waves of the Great Maze, the scaffolding system gave access to two entrances, one near the top of the cliff and one near the middle. Much of the top section was now in a state of disrepair; rot permeated the wooden beams and rust snaked its way through what remained of the metal frame. Entire sections of the intricate construction had long since collapsed into the sea below, leaving only jagged metal, broken wood, and frayed rope behind.
Apart from an occasional missing floorboard or loose handrail, the lower levels were remarkably sturdy, having been built with a much wider framework to accommodate the construction of a larger entryway. After spending the last twenty minutes on a decaying rope bridge that his assistant had aptly called “a deathtrap”, Slavin was thankful for the scaffold’s superior workmanship. The entrance to the shaft had been boarded up for some time. Rusty nails framed a message across the wooden barrier, hastily scrawled in red paint and faded from years of exposure: “Warning: Mine Closed – Keep the Outside Out and the Inside In!”
“Are you sure about this, Richard?” Valeria asked. “Sure that you can trust this Mr. Hawley?”
“Trust him?” Slavin asked as he struck a match. “God, no! That man’s smile could set fire to a convent.” He knelt down and lit his lantern. “But the instructions from our employer were quite clear: we are to deliver this package to Hawley and his band of degenerates, the same as the others.” He took two iron crowbars from his bag and handed one to his assistant. “And so we shall.”
“Of course,” she said, prying the first nail loose, “but doesn’t it bother you, working for someone you don’t know? Someone who won’t even give you a name, let alone a face to put it to? Especially someone who would use a creature like Ivor Hawley as a go-between?”
“Our employer has opened my eyes to wonders and relics that I could never have dreamed of, my dear,” Slavin replied. “The secrets I could unlock … the mysteries of the Earth laid bare at my feet. The power …” He trailed off, as if suddenly remembering the task at hand. His voice took on a manufactured air of calm as he drove the iron bar into the wood. “Such knowledge is a priceless commodity.”
“It’s not just Hawley, Richard. The locals have told me some very colorful accounts of what happened here just before the mine was closed down. Brutal working conditions. Cave-ins. Dozens of worker deaths. Some even say that once the living help expired … other means of labor were sought.”
“You can hardly call a few tall tales from the local inebriates ‘gospel’, Miss Batten. I would encourage you not to believe everything you hear about ghosts and superstitions.”
“Just like Canada?” she grunted, as the last board came free and crashed to the floor.
“How was I supposed to know wendigos were more than a myth?” Slavin replied, pulling out the cartridge of his revolver and checking the ammo. “Besides,” he said, flipping it shut with a snap, “we had the last laugh there, didn’t we?”
“We survived,” he said with a grin.
“As you say.” She pulled a book from her pack and brushed off a seat on the wooden planks.“If you won’t be needing anything else?”
“Oh, where is your sense of adventure?”
“I believe I left it in Saskatchewan,” she said flatly.
Slavin shook his head slightly at her before lifting his lantern and crossing the threshold.
* * *
The light of the entryway had faded completely, and the meager slashes from his lantern were now barely enough to illuminate the tunnel around him. As the shaft eased downward in a gentle slope, Slavin traced his free hand along the dusty walls for bearing. Under the noise of his boots grinding on the rocks he began to hear another sound, barely audible but growing as he ventured deeper. It was a light, rhythmic hum that swelled in his head, resonating more with each forward step.
She was right. It’s here.
A faint, green light seeped through the corner of the floor ahead. He took several hurried steps and knelt to examine the source. The misty rays shot through several small seams, running like emerald veins along the ground and part way up the wall. He pressed his ear to dirt, listening for some other sound to accompany the song swelling in his head. Faint trickles of water tip-tapped in the distance. Perhaps a cavern below?
More noises echoed beyond the next corner. He made out light shuffling sounds, like animal paws hitting the rocky ground, as well as a series of muffled metallic clangs. He pulled his revolver from his belt and cocked the hammer. It wouldn’t be out of the question for some manner of beast to have found their way into the abandoned shafts.
After carefully rounding the corner, he shined his lamp forward and stopped dead in his tracks, his breath catching in his throat. Several human figures stood in the tunnel ahead of him, the closest only a few meters away. They were dressed in tattered rags, some of the clothing barely holding together amidst the holes and tears. Their skin was gray and peeling in places, stretched over their skeletal frames like wax paper. In other spots their skin was gone completely, replaced with bits of bone or rotting muscle.
Some of them still had their pickaxes in their hands.
They shambled from one side of the shaft to the other, swinging their tools at the rock walls in slow, ragged motions. As the closest figure turned in his direction, Slavin caught a glimpse of the logo set into its hard hat: a crossed shovel and pickaxe encircled by the words “Sweetrock Mining Co.” They are still mining, he marveled. No one ever told them to stop. The veins of green were visible here, too. The miner’s weak, uneven strokes must have uncovered them over years of systematic digging.
Slavin stood frozen as the creature slouched past him, dragging one skeletal foot across the ground. He put a cloth to his nose to dampen the smell of decaying flesh. His lamplight did not seem to deter them from their eternal work, and with any luck he could sneak through unnoticed. He walked gingerly, his breath shallow, weaving his way between the abominations as they continued about their tasks.
Just a few more steps and —
He turned towards the wall to avoid one of the miners as it shifted course, but his foot caught the rusty head of a pickaxe stacked with a pile of tools on the ground. He bent to grab for it in the gloom, but it was too late. The pile fell sideways, crashing to the rock floor with a series of echoing clangs. The creatures around him stopped moving and Slavin froze in his crouch, hoping that they wouldn’t notice the source. For a brief moment nothing moved. Then, with a low moan, the closest miner turned and lunged, dead hands outstretched towards him. As he dove sideways to avoid the attack, he noticed the other figures turning towards him.
He quickly took aim, firing at the mob as he stumbled backwards. Several shots lodged themselves in their torsos, having little effect on their advance. His fifth shot passed through the skull of the closest, taking the top half of its head off with a resonating crunch. The figure took one more trembling step and fell to the floor. His last shot passed through the neck of the next. The dollar sized hole through the creature’s throat did not appear to have any effect as it grabbed his shoulder. He knocked the cold hand away and dove backward to avoid the reach of the others. He grabbed one of the pickaxes that littered the floor as the figures closed in.
He swung wildly, knocking a few of them back, but it was no use. The creatures closed in, surrounding him. As they circled, the hum in his head grew sharper, beating at his skull like a drum. The green light streaming from the seams in the wall pulsed in time with his racing heart, and in a moment of pure clarity, Slavin swung the axe into the wall with all he could muster, burying it deep into the one of the fissures. Green cracks burst open, snaking their way to the ceiling with a low rumble. He rolled sideways and covered his head as the ceiling split, spilling jagged rocks onto the creatures around him. As the stones crashed down, the floor opened up beneath him, and he fell into a sea of emerald.
* * *
Slavin opened his eyes, allowing for his vision to adjust to the pounding of his head. He was staring at the ceiling of a cave, directly under the opening through which he had fallen, perhaps twenty feet above. The walls danced in a soft green glow, and the sound of rushing water surrounded him. As he sat up, one quick look revealed several streams rushing along the cavern floor, forming a waterfall mere feet from where he had fallen.
Lucky, he thought as he braced himself on his hands to stand. A few feet further and — A sharp pain shot through his right arm, drawing his attention to a gash that ran the width of his forearm, spilling small droplets of blood into the cool water. He tore a piece of cloth from his shirt and hastily dressed the wound, grimacing as he knotted the makeshift bandage. He spared a quick glance for any glimpse of movement. The only sign of his attackers was a gnarled gray arm jutting from the center of a rock pile to his left, its hand hanging lifeless in the air. With any luck, the rest were trapped above.
Slavin struggled to his feet and looked back to the other end of the cavern. The water originated from under the far wall, spilling through a series of cracks and archways near the floor. The stone wall itself pulsed in a brilliant green glow, the shining light strongest near the center. As he approached, designs began to appear upon the wall’s face. Some seemed to be symbols of a language he could not identify, some simple pictograms. The primitive artwork seemed to come alive in the light. Great serpents crashed through waves, savage horned faces snarled at him, temples crumbled to the ground, and kneeling human figures bowed in prayer under strange constellations in the sky. As he was drawn towards the center of the tapestry, the light and the hum converged in a moment of pure harmony.
He stood before an ornate pedestal, carved in the shape of two cupped hands. A stone idol, perhaps a foot tall, stood alone on the small dais. Slavin crouched to get a better look. Rudimentary faces circled the bottom of the small statue, and a series of crude eyes and mouths were dotted across the top. The shapes seemed to twist in the green light, the mouths silently screaming and the eyes blinking at him in the glow. He opened his satchel and carefully gripped the bottom of the idol. The hum in his mind formed itself into a single whispered word.
Startled, he shoved the idol into the satchel, the hum fading when he closed and latched the flap. As he took a deep breath to steady himself, the wall groaned and sighed beside him. Several small cracks began to appear on its face, allowing tiny rivulets of water to escape. There had to be another way out. Perhaps he could —
A low moan echoed behind him, and Slavin whirled just in time to avoid the gray hand that lashed out for him. He rolled to the side and scrambled to his feet, as three undead miners advanced upon him. Behind him, small sections of the wall crumbled to the floor, allowing more water to gush through. Soon it would break and be washed away, carrying him with it. He looked frantically for something to use as a weapon, settling on a rectangular chunk of stone as the abominations boxed him in.
As he was preparing a last, desperate swing, a gunshot echoed through the cavern. The top half of the first miner’s head exploded to the left in a fine black mist, its body collapsing to the ground. He swung the stone at the next figure, connecting with its head and knocking it aside. The fingers of the third creature brushed his neck as he dashed past. A rope dropped down from the hole in the ceiling, and at the top his assistant crouched, rifle in hand, her figure glowing in the orange light of her lantern.
Another shot rang out as he sprinted for the rope and another body fell behind him, splashing to the watery floor. He turned his head back to see the rest of the stone wall crumbling to the ground, each flow of water growing as they rushed into the cavern. When he was within a few feet of the dangling rope he dove forward, his fingers forming a vise-like grip on its hide.
As he began to haul himself up, he felt a cold, wet tug at his foot. He looked down to find slick gray fingers curled around his ankle. The creature, still half trapped in the rubble, stared up with black eyes as it tried to pull him back to the cavern floor.
“Shoot it!” he yelled, as he scrambled to free himself from the icy grip.
“I can’t get a clean shot!” Valeria called back.
He heard a thunderous cracking sound behind him and whirled his head to see the rest of wall collapse outward, unleashing a torrent of water that threatened to sweep him into the abyss below.
A gunshot rang from above. A small jab of pain flared in his shoulder as the creature’s head rocked back from the force of the blow, its grip relaxing. Slavin scurried up the rope as a torrent of water roared past him. Shivering, he watched as the wave swept away the loose stones that held the creature, carrying them and it over the edge of the fall and into the black. He looked at the satchel, still securely fastened across his chest and grinned as he resumed his ascent.
* * *
“Magnificent!” Ivor Hawley exclaimed, a green shimmer highlighting his hooked nose and trickster grin. He ran his fingers slowly along the wooden lid before closing it, snapping the clasp together with a white-gloved hand. He nodded to Slavin’s bandages. “I trust its acquisition wasn’t too much trouble.”
Slavin disliked the twinkle in Hawley’s eyes but remained calm. “No … it was almost like –”
“– like it wanted to be found?” Hawley grabbed his cane from its resting place on the table and propped it on his shoulder, its grinning skeleton handle resting on his lapel. “Yes, I’m told this is a piece of special significance. Luckily for us,” he said, sliding the cane behind his shoulders into his other hand with a showman’s flourish and pointing the tip toward Slavin, “no challenge is too great for the Amazing Richard Slavin!”
“Spare me the theatrics, Hawley. If our mutual friend wants to play the cloak and dagger routine, fine. I’ll deal with you if I must, but don’t mistake me for part of your little freak show.”
Hawley shrugged. “I thought it had a nice ring to it. No matter. Kevin, I believe you have something for our friend?”
The small man to Hawley’s left reached into his coat pocket and produced an envelope almost too big for him to carry one-handed. He hobbled around the table, his cane – a smaller replica of Ivor’s – clacking on the ground. After handing the package off, Kevin scuttled back to his master’s side.
Slavin thumbed through the contents and slid the envelope neatly into his jacket pocket with a nod. Business concluded, he opened the tent flap, stopping for a moment to spare one last glance for the wooden box. “All of these exquisite relics we’ve collected. What does he want them for?”
“Patience, Doctor,” Ivor warned, thrumming his fingers gently upon the lid. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
The ringmaster’s laugh followed Slavin from the tent as he stepped out into the darkness.