Short - Wash it all away - Part 2: The Catacombs
The shot echoed through the darkness. Her head jerked at the sound, tearing her from her intent focus on a few lines of Sanskrit she was attempting to decipher by lamplight. Her pen slid across the notebook. Her heart thundered from the sheer surprise, but anger at ruining a perfectly good page of her beloved book quickly took its place.
“Damn it, Darren!” she cursed. Him and that stupid gun. She could understand the blond man for wanting to carry it when they were out in the city. That man who had attacked him at the entrance of the excavation was a convincing enough reason to carry a weapon. Down here, though, it seemed unnecessary. Why he would use it in the enclosed depths of the catacombs was beyond her. There was no one down here. Just the little crew of academics. The citizens of the city wouldn’t dare. They thought this place was cursed.
Shouts and sounds of a scuffle followed, and she got to her feet, hesitantly making her way towards the ruckus. She had no weapons, only a flickering lantern and her ever-present notebook. She supposed she could hit someone over the head with the thick, leather bound book. With a slight smile, she continued down the tunnel.
As she neared the source, there was a choked, horrifying yell, then a strange tumbling of shadows and light. Seconds later, flames erupted. Down here, the smoke was the real danger. Before her better judgement could stop her, she’d set down her own lantern, dropped her pack, and slid her notebook into it. Stifling the flames was the only thought on her mind as she ran towards the light, stripping off her jacket.
She coughed as the putrid stench of burning flesh hit her. There was a figure in the flames, and her heart leapt in her chest as she tossed her jacket over his form, patting out the fire as best she could before pulling the cloth away. What she saw as she pulled her smoldering jacket away stunned her. A man, shirtless, and remarkably well built lay before her. He was clearly neither of her colleagues.
Her colleagues, she realized, with a start. What had happened to them? She turned, finding Darren sprawled across the dusty floor, Adam, face down, just a few feet from him. She went to Darren’s side first, shaking his shoulder gently.
“What the hell happened down here, Darren?” No reply. She shook harder, and after no response was forthcoming, she noticed there was no rise or fall to his chest. “Darren, this isn’t funny.” Her heart skipped a beat, and she took a deep breath, placing a trembling hand on his neck, searching for a pulse with her finger tips. She prodded his skin more deeply, frantic now. Nothing. Nothing at all. She choked down a sob. “Darren...”
She took a deep breath. There was still a chance. She opened his mouth, and liquid trickled out. She paused a moment to wonder at that before pressing her mouth to his, and got a mouthful of fluid herself, rather than forcing the air into his as she’d hoped. She didn’t let it stop her, though. Placing one hand over the other, she pressed hard on his chest. Fluid gushed out of his mouth, and she stifled the urge to scream out in frustration and horror. There was no water down here, no way this could have happened. Was she hallucinating?
She continued the compressions for the his chest thirty more times before attempting to force air into his lungs once more. Over and over she continued, until exhausted. Darren still didn’t stir. Hopeless and spent, she fell back in the dust. Her gaze fell on Adam. He was as starkly still, and she feared the worst, not daring to lay a hand on him for fear of what she’d find. She couldn’t go through the same fruitless attempt with him as well.
Wiping at her face, slowly recovering herself, she got to her feet. The man, the man she’d rescued from the flames of the lantern, still lay unconscious on the floor, half buried in rubble. He’d done something. She knew this without a doubt. Teeth clenched in anger, tears threatening to break her composure, she silently cursed him.
His face and hands were red and burnt, but even so, he was handsome, almost unnaturally so. He was obviously a native: his dark skin and strong features made that clear enough. Was he one of the protesters? she wondered. She glanced away from him to find Darren’s pack, a rope clipped to the side.
Perfect. She’d tie the hands of this... whatever he was. He wasn’t escaping if she could help it. He would have her and the rest of the crew to answer to. Buried up to his waist in stones and rubble, without his hands, he wasn’t getting loose.
As she touched his wrist to pull it behind him, she started. His skin was cold and strangely rough in texture. She grit her teeth and set about her work, ignoring the oddity. He was breathing still. Adam and Darren were not. With that thought steeling her resolve, she finished binding his hands with a tight, solid knot. She hadn’t spent the last few months training for fieldwork for nothing. Satisfied, she stood, surveying the scene. She caught sight of Darren’s lifeless form once again, and her breath caught in her throat.
There was a sound down one of the dark tunnels, and it suddenly occurred to her that this protester might not be alone. She scrambled for Darren’s gun, discarded in the dust beside his lifeless form. With that thought lingering in the back of her mind, she snatched up her lantern and ran back down the catacombs to the nearest entrance.
The long, dark cavern slipped past in a blur. Her feet pounded along, stirring ancient dust as she went. Her heart thundered furiously in her ears, and she caught the faint light in the distance. She nearly dropped from the relief she felt when a familiar figure loomed near the entrance.
“Professor Mackey!” she exclaimed, her voice breathless and strained. She inhaled sharply, dust catching in her throat and she was soon wracked with coughs.
“There’s someone,” a breath, “someone,” a gasp and a cough. “They, Darren, Adam,” a few more, slightly more steady breaths, “they’re dead.”
“Now, now, Casey,” Professor Mackey soothed. “Maybe they were just playing a prank. It can get spooky down there.” He took her by the arm, and she slipped the gun he hadn’t noticed into her pocket. “Lets go take a look.”
She shook her head. The old man was kind, intelligent, but not much help in a situation like this. He was friends with her grandfather, and treated her like his own grandchild. She wasn’t a little girl, though, and this was not a case of her jumping at shadows. “I think one of the other men should come,” she insisted firmly. “The man, their attacker, I tied him up, but there could be more.”
The balding, patient professor nodded absently and called up the stairs where dim pinkish light filtered in. It must be dusk, Casey realized. Time, the world, seemed to spin on at a different pace outside these underground ruins. It felt like they’d been fresh off an early morning meal just a hour or two ago. Two young men who were built for, and hired for the heavier work made their way down into the tunnel.
Casey felt a rush of relief as Heathcliff approached. She felt the weight of the gun in her pocket and fished it out. She smiled up at the large ginger man, pulling out the heavy metal weapon slowly. “I think you should take this. It’s Darren’s but... he...” her voice caught.
He took it, turning the gun over in his hand before handing it back to her. He reached behind him and pulled a much larger, more intimidating weapon from his waist band. “You keep yours, miss. Got my own,” he replied with a grin. “You know how to use it?”
Silenced, she nodded, slipping it into the waistband of her pants as he’d done. Her grandfather had shown her the basics. She could use it in a pinch. She hoped the need would not come.
The four of them, Casey, the professor and the two workmen, proceeded down the dark, echo filled chamber. Occasionally there was a path that veered off one way or another, so Casey was forced to take the lead. She hadn’t been scared when she’d rushed towards the scene earlier in the evening. Now, though the sense of dread was building with in her. Her friends, her colleagues were dead. They were about to haul their lifeless forms from this pit, this underground tomb.
Worse was their unnamed assailant. Who was he? How had he killed them? During the long walk, she had more time than she liked to ponder this over. It was as if they’d drowned — drowned in the dry, dusty tunnel. It was impossible. How could Darren’s lungs filled with fluid like that? She’d heard him cry out mere moments before she’d arrived on the scene. She shivered, hoping, somehow she was wrong, that it was some strange prank. That Darren had filled his mouth from his canteen to freak her out.
No, she shivered, thinking of the loose, slack way that Darren had moved when she’d shaken him. The clammy feel of his skin, the utter limpness of it. The the CPR... you couldn’t do CPR on someone living... not without a reaction of some kind. She wasn’t gentle in her panic. He was dead. She was sure of it. This was no dream.
She slowed her pace, catching sight of the place on the wall she’d been studying when she’d heard the gunshot echo through the dark. They went a short ways further before she paused.
She turned to the professor, handing him her lantern. “They should be right up ahead. The man, the attacker, he’s bound, caught in a jumble of stones. He was aflame when I found them. One of the men must of thrown their lantern at him. He likely needs medical attention.” The three men nodded, and moved past her. Following just behind, she couldn’t bring herself to take the lead anymore. The memory of them was vivid enough. She didn’t need a second look.
Their foot falls echoed through the chamber, and she stayed at the edge of the lantern light as they surveyed the scene. The large form of Heathcliff approached Adam where he was sprawled, face first in the dust. Both he and Darren were where she’d left them, confirming yet again for her that this was no prank. Heathcliff turned the young man over, jumping as the body flopped limply onto its back.
“Shit!” Heathcliff exclaimed. “Water just gushed from his mouth.”
The professor scurried to where the large man knelt at Adam’s side. Jerry interrupted their inspection of the dead boy. “The guy, he ain’t here,” he called as he stood by the pile of rubble. “Just the boys.” Heathcliff climbed to his feet, looking around warily.
“Miss,” he said softly, “best be coming over here, don’t want you getting caught by our escaped trouble maker.”
She nodded, moving hesitantly towards the circle of lantern light. As she did so, she heard a soft, hissing whisper, just above her right ear. It took a moment for the words to register; the language was foreign to her. It was Hindi, the native language in this area, and not in a dialect she was familiar with.
“Do not move.” The hissing sound of his voice tickled her ear, and she froze in place. She felt an arm slip around her, just under her breasts, strong, deft fingers slid to her neck and pressed firmly. “The other,” then a word she couldn’t understand. Vermin, was the closest she could aproximate, “will die. If you obey, you may be spared.”
She nodded, the barest minimum of a movement. “I’d rather not, I can’t stand to look again,” she called back to Heathcliff, her voice trembling slightly.
The large, fair man shook his head, muttering under his breath as he advanced towards her. Almost instantly he doubled over in a coughing fit. A wet, painful, gurgling ft of coughs. Casey tensed, the wet sound of it. She knew he’d likely end up like Darren and Adam. Her heart pounded fiercely, terror rising in her. She couldn’t bear the thought of watching him die before her.
“What is happening to him?” she whispered, urgently, in her best, halting Hindi. She felt herself begin to tremble in fear for Heathcliff. Until now he’d been seemingly indestructible. She knew, somehow, that the stranger that now held her captive was responsible, or at least knew what illness had suddenly struck her companion.
The professor stood from his examination of the body and clapped Heathcliff hard on the back. “I think we should go back, there is quite obviously something,” he coughed now too, recovered himself and continued, “in the air right now.”
“Their air fills with fluids.”
What it meant, Casey was unsure. She felt herself pulled backwards as Jerry joined the other two men in the fits of horrible, wet sounding coughs and gasps. She stumbled along, with him, deeper into the darkness.
“Please spare them,” she begged, unsure if he could. “Please, the Professor, he wouldn’t hurt anyone. Please, if you cannot...”
Her pleading was cut short as his grip on her throat tightened. “As you saved me from the flames, I will spare them from instant death.” He hissed. “If they make it out, they might live.”
YOU ARE READING
bit·ter·sweet: being at once bitter and sweet; especially: pleasant but including or marked by elements of suffering or regret. A collection of short stories I've written since joining Wattpad for various contests, challenges and publications. The...