The chasm in front of them breathed out torrents of fetid air.
It washed over the four people who stood at its gaping maw, equipment in hand and on their bodies. The hole itself was barely bigger than a manhole cover, and had taken them weeks of acoustic analysis to locate.
“Leave everything but the essentials,” Cassie said, checking the gear on her harness. For every time they checked their harness, she had checked it three times. She blamed the scars that lined her legs. They had made her a bit OCD. She never wanted to feel the moment when a harness snapped or rope gave way ever again.
“Aye, aye, cap’n,” Terry said. He put his sound equipment in the case and checked his cameras.
“Alright everyone. We’re here to disprove the Colorado Howler. I know it’s just a Bigfoot clone, but that doesn’t mean these caves aren’t dangerous.”
“I forgot my inhaler in the car,” Terry said.
“Really Terry?” Garret said.
“No. I’ve got a checklist. This isn’t amateur hour. I don’t even have asthma. Just because I have glasses and the coordination of a toddler doesn’t mean I’m needing to be carried down this hole. Don’t baby us,” Terry said.
With that he latched his gear onto the rope, slid on his butt into the hole like a toddler, and started sliding down.
Nadia was smiling. It was the first time The Crypto Skeptics crew had taken her out of the office. She was blonde and tall, and the tiny shorts she wore suggested she knew nothing of spelunking. Cassie didn’t mind.
After helping Garret and Nadia into the hole, she slid down herself.
Looking up the cave opening was like a distant star on a remote planet. The light brought no warmth, no comfort, and it only served as a reminder for how thick the darkness around them would become.
“Leaving orbit,” Cassie muttered.
One by one they clicked their headlamps on. The LEDs pierced the dark, illuminating the light brown stone of the first chamber. They were still a good 50 feet below her when the line was jounced for the first time.
Cassie’s eyes shot up. The small circle of light was polluted, crossed by indistinguishable markings.
A thick vibration played down the rope, which had been pulled taught by her weight.
Cassie repelled faster. The rope slackened and she felt a quick drop, then was slammed into her harness hard as it caught. She felt her limbs flap outward with the force, and quickly curl back in. Her helmet tumbled off and went down the tunnel.
She shrugged off the shadows she had seen, thinking it must have been branches swaying in the wind. “Which one of you tied this shit to a boulder that could roll?”
“Pretty sure that was you!” Garret said.
“It’s okay Cassie. You’re doing fine!” Terry shouted. “Nice and slow now.
The others were looking up at her. Garret grabbed her foot to steady the spin. Their lights were near blinding and coated the domed room.
“Cassie, it’s okay. We’ve got you,” Terry said. His hands were up, waiting for her to drop.
Garret exchanged a glance with Cassie. He didn’t say it but she knew his meaning. It was entirely too soon for her to be getting vertigo in the caves. She hadn’t been quite the same since the accident.
They’d both seen it before. You crawl through enough spaces where you have to use your muscles like a snake, a quarter mile underground, and your mind does things. It tells you can’t fit. That today is as good a day as any for a flash flood, or an earthquake. That hundreds of feet of Colorado granite and sandstone could shift, leaving you as a perfect jelly; a fossil for future scientists.
Cassie’s hands shook so badly that she couldn’t operate the repelling device.
Nadia asked for a boost and Garret knelt, letting her climb on his shoulders. Together they worked it until Cassie felt the reassuring feeling of dirt and stone under her shoes.
“What was that?” Terry asked.
Cassie walked toward her helmet. She bent to pick it up. Her heart told her she saw something. Her eyes told her she saw something. Hands. Or tendrils. Or something. Her brain told her it was nothing. That she was scared and that was all. They were skeptics. Their entire job was to prove to people that their fears were misplaced. That cryptozoology was as real as a Tellietubby. “It was a malfunction,” she said. “I’m cool.”
“Malfunction with you or the gear?” Terry asked. She ignored him
When she went for her helmet, Cassie noticed the markings in the soft soil. Three holes, each only a few centimeters apart. She felt her body shiver, and another gasp escaped. “Oh what now?” Terry said.
“Get the camera.” She whispered.
The camera mounted light clicked on and Garret stepped over. At first the shadows didn’t make sense, but when he followed them with the camera, they led deeper into the cave, and were lost onto the hard stone floor ahead.
“What in Odin’s name left that?” said Garret. The others crowded around staring at the marks.
Between each of the odd imprints, which were spaced a few feet apart, was a flat line where something was dragged.
Cassie shined her light around. Against the walls, white bones were strewn like sticks. Skulls and jawbones from deer and other creatures were littered everywhere.
“That explains the smell at least,” Cassie said. Off in a corner was a doe, leathery strips of skin clung to old bones where it hadn’t been shorn off.
“We need to get out of this room before I throw up,” Nadine said, her flashlight still trained on the tracks.
Garret closed the camera, huge smile on his face. “We got something. Holy shit this is cool!” he said, slapping the lense cover back on. “Cassie, we’re going to need that pretty face giving a play by play here in a few.”
“Let’s find a place where I can talk without tasting rot. Get some shots of the bones around here too.” She said.
Terry cracked a few glow sticks, making a triangle out of them in place of a camp fire. Stalagtites and stalagmites of various sizes lingered in the background. Some were fine tubes, others like bacon strips hanging from a ceiling. The sound of water drips littered the air.
Garret settled on a level of zoom he wanted and turned on the night vision. The others killed off their lights and watched. He bumped his head on one of the crystalline rock formations, shattering a few.
Terry came over and smacked him upside the head. “That stuff takes thousands of years. Have a little respect.”
Cassie cleared her throat, burped, which echoed at least four times, and composed herself. “I’m Cassie Longfellow, coming to you from a previously undiscovered cave deep in the Colorado Rockies. We’ve been pestered about this for a while now. The supposed ‘Howler’ of the hills. Well, we had our resident nerd Terry take a deeper look.”
Terry stood and waved awkwardly at the camera. His acne showed up in dark marks in the night vision of the camera. “Can’t we get some real light?” Terry asked.
“Nah, man, your good. We’re chasing Bigfoot. Those shows love night vision. Now squach hard for me,” Garret said.
“Well, if you look closely at the footage we took earlier, we found some tracks. We found them down a hole that would be unassailable without some sort of ape or monkeylike grip. We had a hard enough time getting down 200 feet with equipment. Whatever this is seems to be able to do it with relative ease considering the volume of hunting.”
“And what does it eat?” Cassie said.
“All we have found down here are bones. It would suggest a mostly carnivorous diet.”
“Thanks Terry,” Cassie said and motioned the camera back to her. “As you all know, this is a skeptic channel. Like Mulder, we want to believe, but none of us have ever seen a ghost or alien or ancient long lost bipedal creature. I don’t know what we’ve found here, but it’s enough to get the gears turning. We’re going to scour this cave and do whatever it takes to see what this thing looks like.”
“I saw it,” Nadine said. “On the way down.”
Garret panned the cam over to her, tear streaks gleaming as they played off of the night vision and glow sticks.
“Uh… can you say that again?” Garret asked.
“I saw it!” Nadine shouted. “It was messing with the rope when Cassie was on it. Playing with it. I saw its hands in the light.”
“What did they look like Nadine?” Cassie asked. She put a hand on her friend’s shoulder.
For a brief moment Garret was distracted by the low cut of her top. He readjusted the focus.
“It didn’t really have a form. We must have missed a cave on the way down. It just reached out. It played with the rope.”
“Do you think it was trying to hurt you?” Cassie asked.
“I don’t… I don’t know. It looked like it knew what it was doing, like it was trying to pull the rope from the boulder. “I’m just so glad you got down fast enough.”
Off to the side, Terry stroked at his chin. He was lost in thoughts of editing and framing. On promo what the social media response would be. It all looked like dollars to him.
He felt something wrap around his ankle, he looked, and it tore him from his feet.
The camera jerked. Terry reached out, grabbing the glow sticks and trying to hold onto a rock.
On the screen, Terry’s bright face was in complete contrast to the darkness behind him. It was total. It was darker than the depths of the cave itself. Wild spikes and shapes flittered in the frame, and Garret was transfixed with fear.
With a jerk, Terry was pulled out of sight. The glow sticks clacked over rocks, going deeper into the darkness, long and futile screams followed behind. Screaming echoes reverberated in the darkness.
Cassie put a hand to her mouth, stifling the urge to cry out, and ran into the darkness. She chased after the lights, headlamp streaking the ground in front of her. The others followed.
A loud thunk came from down the cave, immediately followed by wailing.
She rounded a corner, and her light settled on Terry. Only his upper body was visible, the rest was stuck deep into a hole in the rock. His knuckles held hard on the stone, and blood covered face a mix of pale white and brilliant red. His body flailed as the dark thing yanked at his legs, trying to pull him through the small hole.
“Terry!” Cassie grabbed under the harness on his back. “I’ve got you. Just hold on.”
His eyes bulged with the effort. Garret came up behind her and grabbed Terry. The bones in his back popped, echoing in the dark.
“HREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH!” holwed the creature. The noise was violent, concussive. The small chamber shook as dust and water dropped.
The creature let go, and the they all collapsed into the dirt. Cassie and Garret let go of Terry and grabbed their ears. A black hand reached from the hole. It stretched out, at least six feet long, and gripped Terry.
“No,” he whispered, and was ripped back into the tunnel. There were pops and cracks. Harder still the monster pulled. A little groan escaped from Terry, and he was yanked out of view.
The sound reminded Garret of a dentist’s vacuum, like curdled liquid sucked off to who knows where.
Steps came from out of the darkness behind them, and Garret stood up quickly. He had a giant rock in hand, intending to bash the beast if it came back.
Instead it was only Nadine, holding a camera with tears running down her face. The night vision mode only showed a small tunnel, a starburst of dark liquid around it.
Without thinking. Cassie walked back to their in-cave camp site. She started strapping on the gear, cracked a few more glowsticks and started toward the exit. Her heart thudded deep in her chest but her body felt like sludge. The adrenaline rush always came with a crash. One foot in front of the other. One buckle after the next. Get up, go home. It was the final total of her thoughts.
Garret came up behind her, and grabbed her elbow. “Hey, wait up. We gotta stick together here.”
“Only if together means getting out of here right now,” Cassie said.
He grabbed his pack and pulled a small black revolver out of it. “I’m not a coward,” he said, “But I’m also not stupid. Let’s fucking go.”
Slow steps shuffled across the dirt in the darkness. “I think I got it on tape.” Nadine said. “I think this one might go viral.” She sat down next to her supplies and took the memory card out and put a new one in the camera. She grabbed a protein bar from her backpack and tried to tear it open. Her hands shook too much. She just set the bar in her lap. “Oh,” she uttered.
Cassie felt a chill run down her spine and she went to her friend.
“You’re probably right Nadine. I’m sure they’ll be talking about it. You’ll have a lot of tweets to read. What do you say we get home so you can upload it?”
“I’m sure we can get a better angle. We didn’t get to see the howler’s face,” she said.
A howl echoed through the cave. It seemed to come from all around them. Dozens of tunnels of all sizes echoed the sound in full stereo.
Under her hands, she felt Nadine’s skin bristle with goosebumps. “I think we could all go a lifetime without seeing that one’s face,” Cassie said.
“Yeah,” she said, getting to her feet. Garret grabbed her other arm and handed her another flashlight. It was a monstrous Maglite, something that was as much a club as it was a torch in the darkness.
“Follow me,” Garret said, gun in hand.
Garret led the way, feet pounding on rock, climbing over, under and through as they made their way back to the main ascent. The smell of rot started to return.
Nadine found her legs. Though her breaths came in rasps, she kept the pace.
In the heart of the mountain, the monster howled. Instead of coming from all around, this was directly behind them.
They burst into the main room, looking up at the singular dot of blue sky. It seemed miles always, but Cassie had never been so thankful in all her life.
She sprinted to the rope and handed it to Gerret. He quickly rigged himself to it and turned to help Nadine.
“Follow him closely, I’ll be right behind you,” Cassie said. She put both of her hands on the sweet girl’s face, and then hugged her close. “Garret, give me the gun.”
“Why?” Garret said, looking up the hole and pacing.
“Because I’m the last one up. I’ll be the only one with a shot,” she said.
Garret scoffed and handed her the gun. His patience was finished, and he started to climb the long tunnel. Nadine followed, and when her rope grew tight, Cassie followed too.
They climbed. Sweaty, sore and in pain.
Cassie wiped the sweat from her brow, flinging it down the hole. Her arms ached for real rest. She looked to her left, seeing the shortening length of sunlight. Before it had been long enough to go down the length of the tunnel. Now the afternoon made it grow short. Even still, the air was changing. It was spring air, not the dank of the cave. The thought made her heart race.
The light was swallowed up. Flat against the wall, a lanky shadow swam through the light. Its long arms and body were a silhouette against the dark. Three clawed hands and feet swept past them without trouble. The head, though human shaped, was shifting, meandering between forms Cassie couldn’t parse.
She tried to cry out, but there was no voice. The serpent drifted past them, and reached the top of the hole. It spread itself thin and eclipsed the entrance.
Garret looked up expecting to see cloud cover. Instead he only saw darkness. He reached for where the pistol should have been, not taking his eyes off of the closed hole above.
Nadine let out a sigh.
Cassie got angry. “What the fuck do you want?!” she shouted.
The shadow shifted to a Roman numeral one. Briefly, Garret thought it was an “I.”
“Figures,” Cassie said. She pulled the knife from her pocket and put it to the rope.
“Both of you, run. Get to the car.”
Garret looked down at her. “Absolutely not. Shoot it!”
She sawed the rope. The numeral one shifted from the wall. It changed into the clawed creature, watching down the hole. Its head turned.
When the last thread frayed, Cassie looked at Nadine. She wanted to tell her so much. Instead she blew a kiss and dropped down the hole, vanishing into the inky dark.
The howler screeched, diving after her.
Cassie had to save her. She shouldn’t have been there. She was a city girl, not some mountaineer. She had to keep her safe. Her only other thought being that 200 feet is a lot faster when you are falling.
The screeching whale of the howler hit her like a wall, and then its thick body latched onto her. The cold grip felt like steel cable as it dug into her skin. The creature reached out its limbs and clawed into the walls, leaving a spray of tumbling rocks until they were still.
Then the howler whipped its way through the caves, moving like wind through the deep.
After some time the air changed. Her flashlight no longer filled a small cave, but sent beams into a massive room. On the ceiling, a turgid and green glowing orb pulsed and ebbed. It dripped dirty looking liquid into a circle of stalagmites. They were all different sizes, but each had a spike sticking out of the top.
The howler landed and shoved her against the spike, which stood a few feet taller than Cassie. The howler then flew off into the far reaches of the cavern and rummaged through trash piles as if looking for something.
She stared at the celling, the pulsing light still emanating, but it looked sick. Shadowy trails of fluid crawled over the thing, trying to find their way in. “The howler must be killing it,” she said. She thought of the forests up above, the huge swaths of dead trees. The news had said it was pine beetle kill.
She looked to her left. The stalagmite was light brown, but underneath it was a figure. The skin was pale, and the eyes were bright. They stared forward, preserved in the stone for untold years.
Then the eyes moved to hers.
Cassie shrieked. Whatever this was, it was keeping them alive. She grabbed the gun from inside her cargo pocket. The numbness to certain death, to all that she had seen, clicked into place. She had to move or die.
When she pulled the hammer back, the Howler looked back at her. It flew, trailing old rope behind it.
She raised the gun at the howler. She lined up the sights. It was almost on her, the shadow’s menace inches away. She fired.
Her ears quaked and the howler knocked her back against the pole. Her head swam with dizziness. The Howler’s cry turned into a strange fit of hissing laughter.
Behind it, one of the stalagmites crumbled. Red oozed from the forehead of a human figure.
The Howler saw this and shrieked. It set the person back against the pole, and cupped the brain matter in its hands, trying to scoop it back in.
Cassie watched for a moment, her head foggy from the strike. She then took aim at the blue eyed one next to her. Its eyes were wild, almost nodding in approval. She obliged.
The howler shrank, its howl screeching in more fear than anger.
“Like Terry said,” Cassie said, “Do you have any idea how fragile these are?
She fired a round
“How long it takes to make them?” Cassie said, shouting it at the monster.
Cassie quickly shot the next three rounds into the stalagmites of men.
The Howler shrunk, diminished. Its cries hardly even echoed in the giant chamber. It lashed out, slicing into Cassie’s face, but only leaving small claw marks. Its body faded from depth into shadow, and she watched as it bolted deep into the caves.
Black ink started falling from the ceiling, and whatever the green orb was, it seemed to be free. A light green tendril grew out from it slowly, glowing in the dark. It wound its way into a tunnel. Cassie didn’t have the energy to ask questions.
When Cassie next saw the light, it was the pale rising of dawn. The tunnel had been long and winding, but it led her out. In the distance, she saw a stream that she would follow. Eventually it would take her to people, to take her home. She thought of Nadine and started walking.
A ranger walked from his truck to a rather deep hole. He stood at the edge of it, looking at the faded rope still tied to the giant boulders around it. He pulled out his GPS to take a look, and sure enough there wasn’t a cave. He decided he would make a note of it for the nerds at the GIS desk. They and the geologists were likely to buy him a beer for the new find. Especially after all the YouTube attention the park had been getting. Kids and their damned CGI made a mockery of the place.
He looked in the hole and shouted. “Hello?” and laughed. He unzipped, and like all men when faced with something high, he peed into it.
Instead of the sound of water hitting, he heard a strange whisper in the wind.
Before he could react, a black hand, thin but with leverage pulled at the Ranger’s belt and he was pulled into darkness.
Tony Southcotte hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.