Shadowplay by Kris Cerneka

How I wish this were to be a cautionary tale, but by now there may be no one to give caution to. The television speaks static and the radio dials panic and all around bloodcurdling screams echo out from the streets below. Yet, if it were the devil himself singing our end I could rest easy that our end was our retribution. For now, in the last hours, I can only recount a nightmare of when light kissed the dark of the depths, and birthed a fathomless, fetid thing.

We were a meagre trio braving the bayou for science: I, the botanist, Henderson the photographer, Mellick the guide. Sent to the mercy of the mosquitoes for the sake of salinity levels and oxidizing markers. I was already knee-deep in Louisiana swamp when the first gate was found, a dome cave somewhere deep in Icelandic wasteland tucked in between needle rock chasms. We heard the triumph over our short-wave: ‘Walls littered with the scrawlings of the first men,’ they noted, ‘the greatest of discoveries’. Had we heard the aftermath we may not have ventured into our own dark, explorers to the unknown like moths to the flame.

It was a seething June afternoon when I saw them slinking between the sweating branches, two cougars wandering curiously together deep into the swampland. Mellick couldn’t fathom why there were big cats this far south, and inquisitively, like the best of reckless children, we followed them through the hours to discover their thankless home, an acre of rock resembling a meteorite, swallowed by the stagnant water’s propensity to consume. It rose out of the swamp’s jaws defiant and ragged, as if it were a misshapen fortress long forgotten by nature’s guardians. And what laid us bare to the magnetism of our childish whims, what flowed adrenaline into our quiet veins, was that this rock had, in its own twisted way, a door.

Mellick of all of us was hesitant; wisely noting in a time of reckless abandon that animals cornered may pose a bloody end. Yet still we waded into that sunken door where the water gushed into its darkened maw. I could tell you the tale of the descent, how we fell into its grip through the watery corridor, how Henderson fractured his arm and how a mere twine flung by Mellick secured our only escape, but our personal triumphs and falls only seek to highlight the arrogance of man: lies of humility, for there is no true modesty to be had when recounting our own lives.

The descent led to a dome shaped cavern, dripping and damp with the weight of the swamp above. In our awe the news from Iceland was far from our minds, for our suffering led us to feel that we had by divinity found something entirely unknown. In this cavern laid the two cougars, side by side with bellies planted to the floor, and their bright eyes signalled to me in the darkness caution. Henderson ignored such signals anda flare was lit, and the cavern exploded with the colours of primitive paintings. Slender dark men littered the walls, and upon the very top of the ceiling were etched two large cats laid in a circle, trapped by shadowy figures as if the sun shone within the night sky.

We ignored the cougars, whose docility posed us no harm, and walked past to find an opening at the end of the cavern in which a curious tapping echoed out. How I wish our chests were not inflated with triumph, how I wish Mellick had not strung strong syllables into the night, for our cowardice would surely not have led us past those beasts, led us into that door to confront that beat upon stone.

Inside the next chamber a new flare was lit, a bloody reach that couldn’t illuminate the room’s unending chasm. We circled around with torches in hand but the light simply hung in the far darkness, the tapping a disappearing act, a possible trick of nature. And yet it was then that I spied something that bent my spine with fear, a fourth shadow upon the walls, so slender its limbs threatened to be swallowed by light.

And it wasn’t the only one.

Mellick fruitlessly swung his gun from its holster but we were surrounded by these shadow beings, and upon having an audience they seemed to dance around us with a skittish, violent movement and a staccato beat of hollow, twisted percussion that echoed off the walls. I could only stand in awe, but it was then I realised my companions were beyond captivated with their performance, now in a sickly spell by these twisted beings awakened angrily by light.

Was I spared? I could only wish to have eaten my heart, simply to stop its Richter scale terror. What companions I had were now contorting, their limbs elongating, sinew and skin sticking like bubblegum to cracked bone. Only their faces remained themselves, tears streaming and mouths open to give the flames of pain an exhaust. I rushed from the room of that deadly dance and past the growling cougars that I now realise were not guards to keep us out but to keep whatever horror that was there within.

What dread I found upon my return to civilisation, for though us three had spared these guardians the hubris of the rest of humanity had not. The other prison gates laid open without these custodians of time unknown and their wretched prisoners, the ones the Egyptians labelled the Nith, flew into the night to assail those who threatened them with the burning bright.

It is now that I write these last words in darkness, for the electricity that powered this UV lit tomb has been cut. Outside my door I hear the screams edge closer, as my neighbours are surely being moulded violently into the shadows’ slender image. Now beneath those cries comes the tapping, a morbid mocking.

They are coming.

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