[Collaborative Project with C. Willison of ImagesByCW]
Between the headache and the nightmare, it was amazing that Preston managed to get back to sleep that night. He awoke shortly after first light, and immediately began scribbling everything he could remember from the nightmare into his notebook. Alas, he remembered precious little; too many feelings, but too few words; too many strange images, but little that he could sketch.
* * *
It was unseasonably cool for late summer, but that morning’s temperature was a welcome relief for Sammie. Her body ached all over, but she dragged herself out of bed to the open window and ducked her head out to relish the cooling breeze. The fresh air was so much more relieving to her fever then the compresses were. The trees in their yard were bathed in the early morning’s dappled golden light, and rustled gently in the pleasant breeze.
Sammie felt a little better in the cool air, and her mind began to wander, but it always returned to the mine, and to Preston. She hoped he wouldn’t do anything foolish, like going to the mine all by himself; who knows what he would run into. She wouldn’t say it aloud, but she shared Preston’s thirst for adventure. Were the two of them really on to something? The bugs did seem unusual, but she couldn’t get as excited about them as Preston. More importantly she was disappointed in herself for reacting like this to a few simple bug bites. She would have to toughen up if they were ever to slay real monsters together.
* * *
Preston didn’t like the idea of going to the mine alone. No matter how much he prepared, and how many useful items he carried in his knapsack, there was always the unexpected. And for the unexpected, there had always been one surefire solution; Sammie. This time he had no choice, and so he overloaded his knapsack with everything imaginable.
As he reached the edge of the town, he glanced back forlornly. The only person he wanted to run into out on the trail was back in town. He looked back at the trail-head. It was a pleasant, sunny morning, yet he knew what awaited him, and proceeded onward with a sense of dread. The Milton’s creek crossing, the embankment, and the long trek along the old rail bed seemed to drift by in a haze. He would stop and glance suspiciously at the trees from time to time, but saw no sign of strange parasites. A good omen?
The thin leather straps of his overloaded knapsack had already began to cut into his shoulders by the time he reached the old mine. There were several entrances, the largest of which was an arched portal through which the mine cars had passed. This entrance had been secured well beyond his ability to break through. Yet a couple of the smaller entrances were merely boarded-up. Five minutes hard work with a sturdy iron crowbar, and he’d freed up a passage large enough for him to squeeze through. He lit the first of the several dozen candles he had brought with him and proceeded cautiously down the narrow corridor. The voices were clearer, as well as being significantly less painful, yet they were not clear enough for him to understand a meaning.
The passage he was in was more or less straight, yet after not more than a hundred yards, the light at the entrance was no more to be seen. He stopped for a moment and drew an arrow on the wall with a piece of chalk. After another hundred yards he came to an intersection, which he also marked with chalk, and tried to map in his notebook. The narrow passage intersected with a much wider tunnel that held the vestiges of a double set of tracks for the old mine cars. He knew that whatever he sought must lie deeper in the mine, yet he first proceeded to the left, where as he suspected, after a couple hundred yard march, he ran into the well-barricaded main entrance. Mapping the tunnels so methodically eased his nervousness. The air in the old mine was cool, and tasted surprisingly fresh. A few hundred yards deeper into the mine, he ran into the first vertical shaft. There was a heavy timber frame at the top with a sturdy block and tackle, but unfortunately no rope. It was just as well; any rope would have surely been rotted and useless by now. He had brought a small length of rope with him, but the frame extended down into the shaft, so he decided it would be simplest just to climb down. After diligently marking the passage with chalk, and setting a second candle on one of the beams, just in case he should drop his makeshift lantern, he scrambled down to the next level. The air felt a bit damper here and the voices were clearer than before, so he had to be going in the right direction.
He proceeded deeper into the interior along a tunnel that seemed to parallel the one above it. He tried to verify the direction with his little brass compass, but to no avail. The needle swung wildly in circles. That had to be the iron ore… or so he hoped. The rough-hewn walls of the passage were softened and worn here and there, perhaps by occasional flowing water. The voices in his head were now clearer than ever. Voices; that wasn’t quite it, more like a single voice. He could sense some kind of powerful intelligence; an organization of thought, ideas, yet it was just at the verge of his understanding. It was like the Latin he heard spoken from time to time; he knew there was meaning, yet couldn’t understand what it was.
The next intersection he came to appeared different; one of the intersecting tunnels was rounder, with a more organic feel than the crude walls of the passages he had seen so far; tunnels which had been blasted out of solid rock with hammer and chisel and gunpowder. No, this new passage had a very different feel; smooth and curving downward; not following the organized grid pattern of the tunnels in the old mine at all. It was almost as if a monstrous earthworm had eaten a tunnel through the solid rock. He hesitated a little, but after all he was looking for something unusual down here, and this tunnel certainly seemed to qualify.
He followed the downward sloping, twisting organic shape of the tunnel deeper and deeper into the mountain, the voice in his head growing ever clearer. He was thankful that the passage did not branch out, for he had now lost all sense of direction. The passage did once again intersect a larger tunnel, which appeared to be one of the lower sections of the mine. Dampness had by now given way to dripping, pooling water, trickling ever downward. A promising passage to his right led sharply deeper, with a long winding staircase descending to the darkness. The dripping, echoing sounds of the water distracted him from the now singular voice in his head. The staircase emerged into a large cavern, replete with stalactites, and a rather sinister looking machine in the center. Preston’s breath quickened. Could this be the source? The cavern was too large to be illuminated by his single candle, so he lit another and placed it on a dry-ish outcropping. He couldn’t immediately recognize the machine, but as it didn’t seem to be moving, he cautiously approached. There were broken lengths of the rusted iron pipe leading to various parts of the machine, which on closer inspection appeared half submerged in a deep pool of water. He cautiously traversed the edge of the dark pool of water. Except for the dripping water there was no motion in this cavern; this machine seemed long dead, yet the voice in his head was stronger than ever.
He stumbled on the uneven rock at the edge of the deep pool and his right leg plunged into the water up to his knee. An electric shock surged through his body; a shock as if suddenly plunging into ice water. He steadied himself with his left hand, and pulled his leg out of the water. The water wasn’t actually that cold. No, this wasn’t the temperature he had felt, this was something else. He knelt at the edge of the pool and gingerly dipped a finger in the water. The voice in his head became clearer. Like turning the focus ring on a telescope; you twist and twist until a fuzzy, indistinguishable image suddenly becomes clear. But how much more would it take before he could understand?
That was now clear. Was it a word? A thought?
This was clearly directed at him. Somehow Preston knew he was close; very very close, yet this was not the right cavern. He collected his candles and ascended the stairs to the main passage, instinctively turning left. He didn’t know why he knew this was the right way. Was this an image from his dream? Was he being led into a trap? He didn’t care. What was happening to Sammie was real and finding the answer was the only way he could help. Fifty yards down the main tunnel there was another passage down and to the left. It was smooth and organic; not man-made. It sloped steeply downward; too slippery to walk on, and clearly not made for human feet. He sat and slid cautiously down the twisting passage. There was something a little too familiar about this; too much like the images from his dream. He emerged onto an outcropping that overlooked a giant pool of water, and an image that had been pushed to the farthest corners of his memory came flooding back to his conscious mind, sending his heart racing in a panic. It was no longer an abstract image from a dream; but reality. Before him lay a giant… thing in the middle of the pool. A rounded, bubbly shape, like an enormous stone brain, that glowed with an unearthly radiance. And it knew he was here.
…to be continued
The Miltonville Mine Mystery is a creative collaborative project between David and Claudia Willison. I think you can tell who does what. Although actually we share a little of everything in this story. Stick around and see where the story goes!