In the darkness of the cave, I could hear him muttering to himself. He turned and looked at us and there was something odd in his eyes. I squeezed Beth’s hand.
“Go.” I whispered under my breath and pointed back the way we came.
She glared and started to argue, but stopped when I put my finger to my lips. She nodded and then slipped quietly away. I hope she is not angry.
He turned like a madman and his hands wrapped round my throat choking me to death. At least Beth will be safe; if she runs fast enough.
First Published in Short Tale 100 (Now defunct)
This is another collaborative piece, this time with my niece Beth. It’s also originally a longer piece which if Beth agrees I will post here later.
Full version by Beth Conteh
By Beth Conteh
There was something chilling about Roscoe’s Hall, the largest cavern in the Pakay Cave system. Throughout the day light had poured into the cave like a waterfall giving it a ghostly glow that didn’t quite reach the walls. But when night came this natural torch was extinguished leaving only blackness. A blackness so thick that even our headlights couldn’t protect us from its pressing weight. Even when we stopped for the night and lit a fire, we were still only a bubble of light in the oppressing blackness.
The Pakay Caves are the largest cave system in the Andes and were discovered in 2004 when the ceiling of Inverted Hall in the upper cave system collapsed. I was among the first to explore. I had been mere 18 years old then with a fine down on my upper lip and my afro hair pulled into tight, and in my opinion, trendy cornrows. I had been on my gap year and was in the right place at the right time when one of the original team of cavers came down with a bad bought of food poisoning. I’d made myself invaluable. I was smart, eager and so very determined. No wonder they invited me to join the team. After that, I travelled around the world with them. My gap year kept extending and extending till my parents stopped asking. Now I had returned to Pakay. This time I was a grown man 6’2 with more muscle then I’d planned, the bulk made some cave systems a tight fit, and my hair cropped close to my caramel skin. With my indepth knowledge of Pakay and a decade of experience on my broad shoulders, I’d been selected to lead a team from the Universities of Lima, Peru, and Cambridge, England to find Avalon’s Gate.
We set up camp next to The Katari Corridor. A small rip in the craggy rock which was insignificant in the weak morning sun. It must have been the way the shadows from our fire danced against its lip, but that night the darkness of the opening had solidified and seemed to be reaching out to penetrate our bubble of safety. Callaghan lay rigid on his matt rustling his sleeping bag fitfully with each flicker of the flame. We would enter The Katari Corridor tomorrow. A thin seam in the rock wall that would lead, to Avalon’s Gate
‘Hey, Callaghan.’ I whispered.
He rolled towards me. He was crow like in appearance. His eyes were inquisitive, beady and black. His nose strong and elegantly hooked above an inconspicuous mouth. His hair was a jaw length and shaggy. Its inky blackness striking against his icy skin. As the firelight lapped at his feature’s he smiled at me.
By a trick of the firelight Callaghan looked like some kind of animal . I consider myself a brave man. I’ve explored the deepest darkest and most dangerous pits in the earth. Even faced with Katari’s claustrophobic corridors and suffocating blackness, I was merely intrigued at what we might find. I was brave, but the way the firelight hit Callaghan’s face was truly terrifying. His eyes were black welts glistening menacingly. His mouth a red gash contorted into a grimacing grin against his skin. Then he shifted, the shadows changed, and he was Callaghan once more.
‘Jacob,’ he said. His voice rough with sleep.
‘What’s with the rustling? You need to get some rest; it’s going to be a tough day tomorrow.’ Callaghan was our biologist. This expedition was his baby after all; he had discovered traces of life forms deep within the heart of Pakay. A place he had named Avalon’s Gate.
‘I’m trying.’ He was quiet for a moment. ‘It’s just, the shadows. They’re so black. I’ve never liked the dark.’
‘Man, if you think this is bad wait till Katari tomorrow. It’ll be intense.’ I stared into his pallid face trying to figure him out. He was a strange character. Most of the time intelligent and warm but the deeper we ventured into Pakay the stranger he’d become. Today he’d stood pressed against the rock wall muttering to himself for an hour.
‘I know,’ he shuddered visibly. ‘It’s going to be a challenge.’
‘Just focus on what’s hiding in Avalon’s Gate’. I replied with a smile. ‘You promised us something amazing down there.’
Callaghan gave a brisk laugh ‘Indeed I did.’ He paused then added ‘Thanks Jacob.’
The morning came too quickly and before we knew it we were preparing to enter Katari. Today an advanced team of me, Callaghan, and Carmen, a geomorphologist and experienced caver, would see if Katari really did lead to Avalon’s Gate. The rest of the team of porters, scientist and adrenalin junkies would wait for my all clear before they followed.
‘He looks scared.’ Carmen stated in a lilted Peruvian accent; her shiny black eyes darting to Callaghan. Carmen [d4] was a feisty Latina who’d spent the past 2 years studying caves all over the Andes with me as her guide and later as her lover. She had wild black hair and a smile that melted even my cold heart. Pakay was our last venture together, but where ever Carmen went, I planned to follow.
‘I’ll check on him.’ I said making my way to Callaghan who was stood at the opening staring into Katari’s depths. ‘You ready man.’ I asked clapping him on the shoulder. His skin was sallow, whether that was the ghostly light or his fear I couldn’t tell, but his weak smile showed that he was not looking forward to today. ‘It’ll be Okay. You go behind me and if it gets too much just let me know and we can take a breather.’
He smiled appreciatively his beady eyes shone excited under his bushy brows. ‘Thanks.’
‘Just give me a nudge if you need me.’ I whispered to Callaghan before entering Katari. He looked at me. The shadows must have been hitting him strangely again. His face had suddenly warped into that terrifying mask; blood red lips and empty black eyes. Then it was gone. I shrugged away the itchy feeling at the back of my neck and looked toward Carmen. ‘See you on the other side baby.’ I said with a wink. We waved as the rest of the group whooped and cheered while we entered Katari. Their voices muffling to silence with my first step.
Nothing could have prepared us for Katari’s presence. We were walking into a wound within the mountain and she was rejecting us. It was much cooler in there and so deathly quiet your own footsteps struggled to make themselves heard. I knew it would be dark in there but this was too dark. The light from my headlamp should illuminate a small confined space like this but I could barely see my hand in front of my face. At times the passage became so narrow we had to walk sideways dragging our packs behind us or stoop down beneath her low ceilings. None of us wanted to remain in Katari a moment longer than necessary. I had expected Callaghan to have flaked by now. At last I felt a hand on my shoulder for assurance or in fear. When I turned to check on him his face was alight with a manic euphoria. I shuddered, feeling spooked but I shook it off; it was just Katari playing tricks on me.
I saw the light after what felt like an eternity but could not have been any more than an hour. It began as a tiny spec of white straight ahead then grew into a visible opening to Avalon’s Gate. As I reached the opening a gurgled cheer went up behind me, muffled by Katari. We picked up the pace almost skipping, we were finally free of the dark.
It was warm and light in Avalon’s Gate. I instinctively looked up expecting to see a great opening. Instead, I saw long thin gouges in the rock ceiling like someone had tried to claw through the sheer face of the mountains. Though they provided far more light than the opening in Roscoe’s Hall , they gave me a feeling of being confined, like looking at the sky through prison bars. Other than that, Avalon’s Gate was wonderful. A huge cavern filled with natural light. We were on the banks of a great lake which spanned off into the distance feeding a forest of lush vegetation. I could hear birds singing and from the ripples on the glassy surface of the lake I suspected we would find fish too. I turned to Callaghan expecting to see the exquisite joy I felt doubled in his face. This is what he had been hoping for; what had surely kept him sane in Katari’s depths. Instead his face was slack his eyes staring manically at me.
‘Cool huh.’ I said trying to ignore his creepy expression.
‘Cool.’ He said, his tone inquisitive as though it was his first time saying the word. He paused for a moment, his lips stretching into a painfully wide grin. ‘Yes Jacob, I suppose this is very cool.’ The darkness must have broken him. Fear did strange things to people.
‘Come sit down in the light man.’ I said, gently leading him toward a patch of grass near the water’s edge. Carmen was already resting on its lush borders.
‘He lied!’ Callaghan screeched suddenly, his eyes wide and terrified ‘He lied to me. He said he would help me. He won’t. He won’t’ He collapsed on the ground; his body twisting fitfully and his hands balled into his black shaggy hair. Carmen ran over, concern etched into her dark eyes, but Callaghan was back on his feet before she’d arrived, his face paler and his eyes darker than ever.
‘Meirda!’ Carmen swore in Peruvian her hair almost crackling with anger. ‘What you think you’re doing Callaghan, screaming like a baby? I thought something bad was happening.’
Callaghan didn’t reply. He just gazed at her, his eyes oppressive on her sun-kissed face. Then he jerked forward, his pale hands gripping her neck and squeezing. The harder he squeezed, the wider the smile on his blood red lips. I lunged, knocking him easily on his back and sending Carmen flying. Fighting Callaghan should have been easy. I should have been much stronger than him, but before I knew it, he had flipped me on my back, his hands pressing into my shoulders pinning me to the ground.
‘Run baby.’ I screamed. Carmen looked at me. Stubbornness flickering across her features before, for the first time ever, listening. She turned on her heel and fled back into the deep depths of Katari. Callaghan might kill me here, but at least she would be safe[d9] .
‘It doesn’t matter where she runs I will find her.’ Callaghan’s voice was eerily soft, like a whistle I heard simultaneously out loud and in my head.
‘Leave her. Callaghan you bastard’ I struggled uselessly beneath his iron grip. He laughed a terrible animalistic sound.
‘Callaghan is no more.’ he snarled his face inches from mine. ‘Callaghan freed me from my immortal chains, but his body is too frail for my majestic form’ He moved even closer. ‘You are strong and willingly or not I will take your body and transform it into my own.’
‘Who are you?’ I managed to mumble, fear making my tongue slow.
‘I am darkness, I am pain, I am hate and I am death.’ The monster that was now Callaghan spat his acrid breath stinging my eyes. I stared at Callaghan’s face. He was gone. The life behind his eyes extinguished and replaced with something evil.
‘If I, if I let you will you leave Carmen and go?’ This beast would kill me and then it would kill Carmen. This would be the only way I could keep her safe; her only chance. Callaghan’s body trembled with a snarling laugh, his head thrown painfully back.
‘A foolish request. But I do not wish to harm the body that will become my own. A deal has been made Jacob.’
Callaghan’s pale fingers gripped me on either side of my head. A searing white pain shot through my body. My bones ached as though they were tearing through my skin which in turn felt like it was bubbling and blistering. My head tipped back as I emitted a blood-curdling scream. I saw white, then red, then black. Katari’s black.
Then I was laughing, wild animalistic laughter.
Ah, the joy. The exquisite joy. Katari had crumbled away to nothing. The barrier between me and the outside now obsolete. Jacob’s body was gone. Now there was only me. I caught a glimpse of myself in the shallow pond below the skylight. I was indeed glorious, 7ft tall and beautifully black. Even in the dim waters I could see my eyes glowing like two hot red coals. I had been trapped for so long, so alone, until the imbecile Callaghan had sought me out.
I saw Carmen with the rest of Jacob’s team. The cowards who’d been too afraid to enter my lair. The pitiful creatures had fled at my brilliance and their screams were beautiful. I flexed long, sharp, skeletal fingers as I reached towards Carmen her terror dazzling. Jacob had died believing she would be safe. The fool, it made her blood taste even sweeter.