After the Dark – Part 14 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

Part Fourteen

Previous episodes here

The mineshaft I followed was taking me deeper underground. I felt that it might be roughly parallel to the entranceway, but I had no way to determine if that was fact, or just rooted in some vague hope. The ground was rougher here, mashed up and scattered with stones, scraps of wood, and metal detritus. I was hugely intrigued by the violet light emanating from the walls. In my time studying the alltrees – in many lifetimes, I now realised – I’d seen them absorb a wide range of frequencies of light, during the night and day, but never seen them produce light. It was a warm, and oddly inviting colour. A welcome relief from the pitch darkness which had so disturbed me. It put me more in mind of the lanterns we had strung out around the lake for Aer and Rumala’s bonding party. It lit the space, but hardly flooded it with colour. Looking closer, it seemed as if the hue emerged directly from the walls. Unlikely to be a mineral itself, then, more likely to be some bacteria or fungus that happened to excrete light as a by-product of whatever they found to consume down here, in the dark.

As soon as I began to walk, the violet light came and went in waves, a pulse that began around me, and washed downed the tunnel. When I turned round, the way I’d come was only dimly lit. Whatever network of organisms produced the illumination, they were lighting my way. That didn’t necessarily indicate any intelligence – even the grass rolls its blades between sun and moons, but we don’t accord them any kind of sentience. In which case, they were reacting to my presence as the trigger to release their light, and a warning, or notice of it was extending to those parts of it in front of me. Having passed, they ceased to react. It felt like a reasonable account of what I was seeing, but still… how often would they meet a presence like myself that incited this behaviour? Perhaps when the mine was active, all of these tunnels would be awash with light. Maybe they had been seeded here for that very reason. It seemed vastly too convenient for nature to create a light that recognised and reacted to movement. I tested it, by stopping, and standing as still as I was able. My curiosity kept the fear of the dark at bay while I waited for the glow to fade. The violet ahead of me slowly retreated towards me, until the only visible lights were those around me. They stubbornly failed to go out. I suppose they could be detecting any number of things – the warmth of my body, the carbon dioxide I exhaled – they would remain active as long as I lived.

Satisfied with my little experiment, I moved on with a little more purpose, pleased as the purple washed ahead of me again, as if it was eager to assist. I trailed one hand over the wall, but whatever it was that lit up stubbornly refused to transfer to my fingertips. If only I had my kit with me, I could pop the case open, and take slivers of the wall and store them neatly away in sample containers. Ah well, in fairness, my aim here ought to be escape rather than research. I had no food, and no water. I was most certainly lost. Just having a direction to walk in didn’t especially help when I didn’t know where I’d started from. All I could really tell is that we were going deeper. The downward slope and increasing cold told me that. I soon needed to wrap my arms around my body to hold in the warmth I had, and I blew out long plumes of breath, which enveloped my face and hung for a while like purple smoke. Watching the air leave my lungs and whirl in fractal patterns, eddied by further breaths and the mysterious breezes that gusted erratically, served to mesmerise me, their spiralling shapes drawing me inward.

As my teeth chattered I imagined finding Relyan down here, and apologising for my behaviour. Perhaps she would forgive me, welcome me back. Maybe she wouldn’t. I remembered the set of her face, the disappointment and resignation in her voice. Again, I wondered what was in the letter. If I’d read it, would I have remained with her? Then why take it away? She was potentially the only friend I had left. I dimly recalled faces from earlier circles, before I fell in with Aer and Miqual, and the others. But their faces alone would do me no good. A pasted blur of faces, feelings and action, mashed up in a messy scrapbook – that’s how my memory of former lives felt. A single striking image on each page – a tree, boldly highlighted against a night filled with the moons and lightning, lying forehead to forehead, wrapped in warmth; a knife raised in anger, its blade streaked with blood; presenting a tattered bundle of grey and blue flowers to a smiling face; a photograph frame, slammed face down on a table, a single splinter of glass escaping, darting forwards as a spear of light; Talens, brilliant in the sky; a sapling, furiously lashing out with thorns that sprang from nowhere, scratching against the glass screen that threatened it; seven of us, holding hands, running along the wooden pier to leap, shrieking into the water; a sleeping face, eyes rolling under closed eyelids, deep in a dream. None of it would help to identify them. But my archive file would. Not that I was likely to see that again. For all I knew, it was still in the backseat of the auto we’d abandoned in the mouth of the mine. More likely, I suppose, that Feryon and Hevalan had transferred their precious paperwork from the auto into a deeper region of the mine, while Grellan and I were covering our tracks. I wondered what else was in those files. I knew they tracked shettles, the circles, our names and those we had been close to. Would Relyan have an entry there too? I wondered if I had known her in more than one of my lives. Whether I’d nearly broken with my circle before. It was hard to tell. I recall feelings of frustration, the luminous qualities of anger and happiness. If I had stayed with her it was possible that my entire circle would have decided not to shettle that day, and we could all still be together – if apart – at least still alive, with both a promise of future, and a chance to do it again and better.

Such terrible luck that the strangers would choose that shettling to unleash their attack on the allforest. Tragic for us, but why strike now, not sooner or later? I still found it hard to grasp that we were now sixty-four years after that fact. To me, it still felt a few days ago, if separated by a timeless gap of darkness, dreams, and pain. It dimly occurred to me that I had only the archivists’ word for any of this. Information given to me at a time of extreme vulnerability, corroborated only by a glance at my archive file and our fractured moon in the sky. What degree of doubt was pragmatic, and when would scepticism trip itself into unreason? I had no way to judge, and no further data was forthcoming. Not while I was stuck in this freezing hole in the earth.

Gloomy and cyclical thoughts such as these pursued me down into the deeps. With no plan other than to keep walking through my violet-lit halls, I just kept trudging on, as the cold threatened to make me shatter my bones to ice. It took me some time before I noticed that I was no longer either descending, or going in anything like a straight line. Even on those occasions that I had looked behind – who can resist the crawling urge to turn around when the dark is at your back – the luminescence only covered a few feet, so I got no sense of whether I could see back the way I’d come. The forward casting of the walls’ light flowed from wherever I was, like a rushing wave that faded away before the next struck. It all served, along the numbing cold and my insular thoughts, to aptly deceive me. I plodded on, increasingly stiff and leaden in every movement, the sense of my feet scraping along the mud so removed from my sense that were the sound of a demon rasping out its breath. I was lost in the dark once more, and while the violet glow was a friend in the deeps, it gave nothing but a further confirmation that I was in the dark. So when the purple lights suddenly dropped away, to be replaced by a warm orange glow, it took me a few moments to catch up. The orange light even looked warmer, and I’d have sworn I felt my nose and ears begin to defrost.

The mineshaft came to an abrupt end, opening out into a much broader space, two or three times as high as the hallway I’d followed and seven or eight times that height across. The orange glow came from lanterns fixed into the ceiling, which brightly lit the centre, but was swallowed up by blackness around the edges. In the middle of the room was a tall stack of cases and boxes, a pile that spread out across the floor with no imaginable pattern of intent. Boxes had been placed and left wherever they landed. It was not my imagination that it was warmer here: my breath scarcely ghosted in front of my face any more, and while it wasn’t cosy, it felt like bliss. Heat flared through my chilled face and fingers, reminding my frozen limbs what it was to be warm. I felt positively rosy cheeked. The jumble of boxes extended to within a few feet of the tunnel I’d exited. I looked back and saw an arch of the violet lights, they faded out as I stepped away from them. They had been fine companions, and had left an intriguing puzzle in my mind about their origins.

There was no sound, other than the distant drip of water which I only now realised I’d been hearing all along. The light helped in taking it from a faint, sinister heart beat to a commonplace sound. No wonder I’d been wrapped in vague paranoia, stumbling along alone. Light and heat meant people. The boxes implied the presence of my archivists. Although I still had misgivings, the prospect of coming across other people again outweighed them. I was a creature of community, and its absence had wounded me, even if it was for so short a time. The boxes that were haphazardly stacked in front of me were mostly cubes, of cardboard and plastic. Several had falled open, revealing innards of more paper and card. Certainly the archives, in that case, transferred here for safety and security, as they had said. That much at least was true, and being able to trust my companions released a little more warmth into my heart. Alongside the endless archive files were the heavy crates we would fill with our belongings when we went to shettle. Who knows how many more than this were lost in the rocky warrens beneath the archive itself. These must have been the most readily obtained – the most recent. And therefore, ours. Somewhere in this mess would be the boxes I’d packed with trinkets, tools, letters and toys from my circle.

I resisted the temptation to start opening boxes at random, and wallow in the past. But assuring the archivists that I was safe and sound, since they’d no doubt be concerned about my panicking and falling down a mineshaft. It was also possible that they would have some clue where my things might be. In particular I was thinking of the  much warmer clothes I had packed away, which would be a boon down here. I was feeling quite upbeat – the prospect of having rescued myself was a bright alternative to the sense I’d had of being dragged around like a child. Maybe it would help to give the impression that I was more capable than a freshly shettled youngster, and they might actually start treating me like an adult.

I never found that out. As I edged around the stack of boxes, the rest of the space came into view: some serious heating units were indeed whacking out heat, much of which was unfortunately being soaked up by the hillock of containers. They were surrounded by a ragged spread of furniture, a number of chairs that had been dragged down here, as well as half a dozen folding cot beds, likewise covered with grubby-looking sheets and blankets. Further cases gave evidence of food and drink, or at least the detritus left behind. My eyes lingered on the details: a pair of plates, loosely stacked, forks protruding from between them like the eye-stalks of some sea creature; a heap of books and magazines on a wooden table, heavily thumbed, pages dog-eared by their readers; a bowing wardrobe pole, heavy with the coats and trousers hanging from it; a mug, broken on the ground, its contents spattered around it; two chairs fallen on their sides, the back  leg of one snapped in half, the seat of the other come away, leaving a square hole where none should be.

After the details, the unnecessary debris of humanity that my mind chose to process first, skipping over the unfortunate facts, came the overlaid reality. Between the two broken chairs lay the figure of a man, prone in the mud. Where his head should have been was a crushed egg of blood and hair, the blood extending in a puddle beneath him. Laid over the bed backwards, one booted foot in the air was another man, this one immediately familiar to me, despite the bloody holes in his chest: Feryon. Mouth caught in a snarl, but with eyes that stared in blind disbelief. Seeing Feryon allowed me to connect the dots that identified the half-headed form as Hevalan. The coat and gloves were those I’d rattled along next to in the auto for a day and night. It never occurred to me that they might still be alive. I’d sort of imagined that if I ever found a body I’d be struck with the urge to check for a pulse, to attempt resuscitation in some cackhanded but earnest desire to bring them back. I had no doubts – the gaping holes, the blood, the expression of mortality on Feryon’s face were quite sufficient to establish them as dead. Now that I saw them, between the everyday objects in this unearthly camp and the unruly heaps of their archives, they fit, the belonged in the same picture.

It struck me as odd that I wasn’t afraid, that my heart didn’t race into a panic like that I’d suffered up above. I felt extraordinarily calm. Perhaps it was my over-chilled body, unable to yet scavenge the heat required for such a swell of feeling, perhaps it was that I did not know them well, and had discovered, along with their bodies, a curious sociopathy that I’d never been made aware of. Perhaps it was simply shock, on top of night with no sleep, lost and wandering. I blundered towards the centre of the room, my still numb feet kicking aside the scattered contents of boxes. My body was thinking for me, it seemed: we (my body and I – had the cold and exhaustion separated us somehow?) aimed for one of the other camp beds. Not the one that Feryon still half-occupied, but another next to the heating units. I sat heavily, drawing the thick blankets around me and hunching at the radiator, pressing my hands towards its ridges. I had the sense to snatch them back just before I touched them, instead wrapping them in a fold of the blanket and pressing that swaddled bundle to its fins instead. The heat bled up through my arms like water, raising from the dead those goosebumps that had previously risen but then shaken their heads and abandoned their duty while I walked down the mine. Then the shivering started in full; my body wracked by convulsions as the heat punched into my frozen core. I fell to my knees, embracing the heater, despite its scorching. The webwork of scarred skin across my body lit up in response to the warmth, as if they could conduct the heat better into my muscle and bones. The searing pain forced me to wad yet more layers of blanket between myself and the heater, but I was unwilling to let it go entirely. Cold rose out of my skin like a haze, pushed out by the glorious warmth filling me. The banishment of true cold left me exhausted, and I fell back against the bed, dazed, caught between it and the heater, held upright by the density of the blankets. Even the mud floor beneath me no longer felt cold. I’d entered a new, temperate world and my mind was reeling.

My blasé approach to the dead men I shared this space with couldn’t last, but I’d been sensible, or insensible of being sensible, in warming myself first of all. Gradually, like the ice that had trickled from my brain, a better grasp of my situation began to pool somewhere inside me. Still wrapped in the blankets, and throwing odd final twitches of shivers, I found my way back to my feet, and tentatively investigated the scene. They were definitely still dead, and the man with half a head was certainly Hevalan. That left one of our number out – Grellan. The man I’d last seen leading me into the dark, with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Conflicting questions arose simultaneously: was Grellan all right? Had he also been injured – where was he? Inevitably, was it Grellan who shot the other two? I didn’t know any of them well enough to think them capable of murder, though Grellan had demonstrated his skill with the weapon yesterday when he shot the stranger vehicle out of the sky. He’d seemed unruffled, but what did I know about how a man should react to shooting them down. They had just killed the passengers of the two autos who had accompanied us. I didn’t know the difference between revenge, justice and murder, or what it took to make someone pursue any of them. I was just a casual alltree researcher caught out of shettle. But it was the life I now led. What I could establish immediately was that two men were dead, deep in a cave system they’d assured me was secure and secret, and the only man who had a weapon was missing. One plus one, and all that. Worse, I was in the middle of the murder scene, and I knew that at least one of the exits would take me nowhere. The only other exit was a similar tunnel which left the cavern about a third of the way round from my entrance.

I was hesitant to leave – the murderer had to have departed through the tunnel I now eyed, since I’d already have met them otherwise. What I could do was take advantage of this hideout, and keep as quiet as I could. Perhaps there were other weapons. At least there was water, and food. With an eye out for the exit, I raided the archivists’ supplies. With an armful of bread, cheese and ham, and a flask of water, I retreated behind the stack of boxes, reluctantly giving up the heaters for the sake of what I imagined was safety. The cold soon drove me back, however. I noticed that the heaters were independent units, burning off their own energy rather than depending on batteries and cable, so I hauled one of them with me instead. I had to shift aside a few boxes to make a snug enclave, but it was worth the effort – the boxes caught and reflected the heat, turning my little cave within a cave into a tiny paradise. I restrained from scoffing down the food, attempting instead to draw it out for nourishment. While I chewed diligently, I flipped the lid off the closest box. It was full of yet more paper folders, thick with varying grades and colours of paper. The first one I pulled out had a name and identification number which I didn’t recognise, so I idly leafed through its record of names, addresses, circles and long list of possessions entrusted to the archive before each shettling. I wondered where they might be now, whether they knew that their treasures and secrets were buried deep in the Tillyan hills, and if they would even care. They might now be deep into their final life – with shettling no longer an option, they would just be getting older, like Hevalan and the others. Like me, I realised with a shock.

I could spend forever in this room, reading through these endless files, waiting for Grellan to come back, and either kill me… or something else. That sounded a lot less appealing now that I thought about it. Clearly being re-filled with food and warmth was doing something for me. I needed rest, and I’d had some, but this might well be the worst place to take a nap. I also needed warmer, and better clothes than those I’d been provided with back at the cabin. Somewhere in here might be my old stuff, which would definitely fit, and I could imagine the feel of my favourite boots, snug on my feet. But where to begin, in this mass? If there’s no starting point, pick anywhere and go from there. I was grateful that they were clearly labelled, so it was going to be a case of checking each one in turn. Since I knew my file at least had been in the auto we’d arrived with, there was a good chance they would be nearest the entrance.

I’d hoped to be right, but none of the crates or boxes on the other side of the heap were mine. So I started opening cartons at random, until I found some warmer feeling clothes. I undressed as near to the heaters as I could, and hurried into the new cold but clean trousers, shirt, jacket and coat. A pair of heavy boots were almost the equal of mine, wherever they were, and a pair of gloves from another box were more perfect than any I’d ever owned. I guessed that my belongings might have been in one of the destroyed autos, or the other one that got away. But if they weren’t in our auto, along with my file, then why had Hevalan had my archive folder yesterday? The archives had been destroyed sixty-four years ago. Who would carry around a file for that long, on the unlikely chance of my returning from the allforest? It didn’t make any sense to me. Following that hunch, or lack of hunch, I went back to Hevalan’s body. Sure enough, fallen to the floor, lying half underneath him was my archive record. It had been splattered with blood from Hevalan’s head injury, which made me hesitate to pick it up. As I pulled the folder out from under Hevalan, I heard a noise behind me.

“So you didn’t fall to your death, then.”

Grellan’s voice. I spun, startled, clutching the bloodied folder to my chest like a shield.

“Thought we’d lost you–“ he began, then looked around the space, “–what did you do?”

“I – this wasn’t me, I couldn’t – I just got here,” I protested.

He raised his rifle, and took another step into the cavern. He raised an eyebrow at the boxes I’d opened. “Already robbing the dead, Jenn?”

“I was cold…”

“We’ve all been cold,” came a new voice, out of the shadowy corridor behind Grellan. As he spun, a look of surprise on his face there was a gunshot, and a red hole appeared in his back, right between his shoulder blades. I watched him fall, saw a flash in the darkness. I dived into the stack of crates. It hurt, but not as much as being shot would have done. Footsteps, and further shots entered the room, bullets smacking into my cover. I stumbled backwards, knocking the heater into the box walls. My cover seemed a lot less substantial than I’d hoped. The next bullet nicked the heater and with a tiny pop and a hiss, it exploded, spreading burning fuel all over the mound of paper and plastic. It went up instantly, transforming the cavern into an inferno.

I staggered away, now concealed by fire and smoke, the file still hugged to my chest. Fire in front of me, a dead end behind me, and an unknown gunman in my only exit. Great.

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