Be afraid: be very afraid.
The Greys, Part VII
All building work had ceased some days previously when the diggers had unearthed the first bones. Undoubtedly human, the pile grew steadily into the heat of the summer afternoon as the council, police and later forensics officers commandeered the site.
Neighbours were interviewed as the door to door investigation sought to uncover any unusual activity. off.
Summer continued. The boffins did their work on the bones.
Once the remains were dated (probably late seventeenth century give or take a decade) and removed for reburial – forensics happy that there was no apparent foul play – the bones merely washed under the main road on a sea of mud disturbed from the graveyards of the ancient cathedral which towered over the building project which now resumed with gusto.
Council engineers drilled down, finding the original roadway foundations intact but one of the many catacomb tunnels had collapsed, letting in rain water and turning the lower burial grounds to thick but mobile mud. Hundreds of skeletal remains reinterred on hallowed ground, spirits blessed and given a more stable resting place.
Still, it took another three days to check the other tunnel entrances remained bricked up and secure. Natural tunnels had been there for eons, man-made labyrinths added more recently. Most dated from the slave trade, some from the Napoleonic wars, others as recent as the nineteen forties, when black marketeers used the maze of tunnels to smuggle goods from the docks to the city's hungry residents.
The three officers briefly shook hands with the engineer, a very jovial, very rotund middle aged man and made our way underground, the air becoming colder with each step. Hurried glances at the rough- hewn ceilings as the weight of centuries bore down on their heads.
Fifty feet down, and the dragon lights hummed into life: one million candle powered beams failed to penetrate the absolute darkness for more than a few yards as the tunnels gradient increased, ever downwards. Hurried breaths glistened in the ice-cold air as our feet crunched gravel.
Actually made up of millions of ancient sea shells, fascinating really, their guide cheerfully informed them, the whole area once part of some Prehistoric sea bed.
Another bitterly cold hundred yards and they were at the problematic entrance to one of the deep tunnels. Ancient mortar and sandstone blocks littered the floor, a hole the size of a large man loomed blackly.
"You lads armed?" Mr Cheerful asked.
"Nah, apart from batons mate – why – do you think there's a wild dog or something got in?" Phil was never a dog lover, hated the things after being bitten by a stray some years ago.
"Nowt got in son," a cheery nod towards the rubble, "but something big and powerful certainly got out!"
The chill seemed to deepen as the now obvious outward pattern of the rubble became clear to us. Eddie's hand unconsciously closed on the handle of his Casco, the dragon light still useless in breaking the pitch black that waited for them within.
"Probably got in down by the river and had to force its way out, no way of knowing where it leads without actually going there!" The smile was becoming annoying.
They collectively held their breaths as they ducked through the hole, lights playing madly on the dripping walls, hearts beating wildly as they took those first steps into the darkness.
The tunnel narrowed forcing them to move in single file, heads bowed even though the ceiling was still several feet clear of their helmets.
Mr Cheerful waved them on, his bulk limiting any further access. He'd wait at the entrance, just shout if they got into trouble and he'd fetch help he beamed, or radio him once they got to the river, happily settling down and cheerily unwrapping a pasty he'd miraculously produced from his tight overalls.
The passageway was indeed ancient, whether man made or nature hewn, the circular tunnel unwelcoming. The cold and dark jangling our nerves as each crunch underfoot brought fresh shivers. Ahead only blackness, no obvious signs of an animal, no droppings, food or bedding.
Two hundred yards in. Eddie's breath crystallising as it hit the icy dank air. The dragon gave a faint 'plink' and the brilliant beam dimmed to amber, then went out. The utter blackness rushed at his eyes, he heard Phil curse behind him as another plink welcomed the darkness.
More curses as Mike's dragon died.
Eyes strained in the complete absence of light. All sense of perception vanished, vertigo fought with claustrophobia as they stood deathly still, their breaths now deafening.
Phil touched Eddie's shoulder making him jump. "Go back or move on mate? What do you think?" His whispered words feeling like ice shards on his colleague's neck.
His reply was stillborn as the sound of heavy footsteps came from ahead out of the dark. Multiple feet crunching hurriedly towards them, closer and closer, totally unseen but becoming ever louder. Unseen steps accelerating, racing now.
The temperature plummeted as the advancing wall of noise hit them with a physical jolt. Icy draughts moved over them in time with the unseen footfalls. The tunnel too narrow to allow anyone or anything to pass but eerily, chillingly the footsteps we now behind them, fading away towards the entrance.
"Now what the.." Mike started but thought better, embarrassed that he may have let his imagination and the darkness get to him.
Twelve minutes but an eternity later they had retraced their steps, each yard fought for in the absence of light. Finally glimpsing the dancing torchlight and the rubble strewn entrance. That hole now a beacon as they hurried out of the black.
Mr Cheery gave them a smile as they climbed out, shivering and pale. Three dragon lights burst into life unbidden, flooding the chamber with gorgeous brightness.
Phil held out his hand, brown knuckles white with cold and stress.
"I almost grabbed one of them!" Fingers opened to reveal a scrap of ancient cloth, so old the edges were crumbling in his palm. Grey dust fell from his fingers as we watched. Then it was simply gone, motes in the torch beams.
Quizzical frowns appeared on the cheerful face.
"There's nothing down there. Brick it up. Do it properly. Now let's get the hell out of here: I'm freezing!"
Mr C shook his pudgy jowls, smiling again, "I'll get the lads down here first thing Monday, lads."
Eddie shuddered again at the thought of the entrance being open for another three days, " Get them down here now eh? We'll authorise the overtime, see you later, lads."
"Where are you off to bud?" Phil obviously wanted a debrief, some clarity on what they'd witnessed.
"Sorry mate, but I've got to go and make a fool of myself to the CID!"
"So this is my price?" He stood trembling with rage in the dank hovel, "My brother a monster, living in shadows while I live the high life?"
Old Mary tutted at his anger. "Balances the scales, I told you as much boy!"
"So he's stuck like that until I turn forty, then it's all over?" He made a brief calculation, twenty years and some, but a glimmer of hope, why he'd gladly give back every penny right now to have George back.
"Oh, my boy, you've misunderstood the terms. George is not the price, just a down payment. On the day of your birth, forty years from birth it will not, as you hope be over, my my it will just begin. For on that day your debt is due in full. Live your life now in the brightness, eat your fill; for you and the pious one have an eternity of shadows and hunger ahead of you" a screeched laugh, "but you always will have each other!"
To be continued. . .