~~~

Logan and Stephen led them back to the airlock door. Meredith accompanied Megan who was surprisingly compliant and calm.

Once the large airlock was in sight, Logan immediately expected the hellish apparition of his dead nephew to appear and hand him an imaginary piece of steel to help him hammer away at the airlock hand wheel. Logan laughed at himself as he inspected the hand wheel for chipped paint. The wheel was undamaged. What did you expect? he thought.

Stephen did not look around for anyone, imagined or not. Nicole did not make an appearance, but he knew she was there all the same. He stepped up next to Logan near the airlock. “Here we go again. Another door, another chance to find out what’s behind it. Excited?”

“Hardly, little brother,” Logan laughed. He put his big hands on the wheel and felt the vibrations from the electrified field. He released the hand wheel. “Never could get used to it—that sound, the vibrations—I think that’s why I fell asleep over by the prayer wall so often. It was easier passing out while praying than attempting sleep listening to that humming behind the walls. It always sounded a little ominous to me.”

“Like it was alive?”

This sent a chill up Logan’s spine. He rubbed his arms. “Damn, little brother. I didn’t need that visual… but now that you mention it… yeah… maybe it did sound alive.”

“We’re going to have move very quietly but quickly over there,” Meredith announced from behind them. “Remember, whatever else is in that cavern, we already know there’s an unknown presence over there.”

“Well, unknown to some,” Logan shot.

Meredith ignored this.

“So, if this entity wants us in there, what do you suppose its endgame is?” Stephen said.

Meredith gave him a grave look. She was about to speak, then shook her head. “I hate to be the bearer of any more unpleasant news,” she started. “But, if what I suspect about this electrified field is correct, then I won’t be protected any longer.”

“Protected? Protected from what?” Stephen asked.

“From myself,” she said. “I haven’t been able to sense the dead, or anything else for a long time—ever since my house arrest within the compound. Now that I’m down here, I believe this field is the reason I’ve been… blocked.”

Logan let out a heavy sigh but said nothing.

“Do you think the entity knows this, Meredith?” Stephen pushed.

Meredith smiled at him. “As sharp as ever, Stephen. Yes, I do believe that.”

“Should we be worried?” he leaned in and whispered. “You know, like before?”

She patted him on the arm. “Honestly, Stephen, I don’t know what to expect. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe I’ve been used to living without that darn curse for so long, that I’ll simply not sense anything.”

“You don’t really believe that.”

She frowned. “No… I don’t. But it would be nice. I’ve rather enjoyed being a normal human being.”

Stephen nodded toward Megan. “What if you get sick again… like in Harpersfield?”

Meredith nodded. “Yes, I’ve thought about that. Back then, I’d never encountered these silver-eyed afflicted ones before. It caught me off guard. But I’ll be ready for it now. I was getting very efficient at closing off my abilities when I needed to.”

“Yeah, but… no offense… you’re probably out of practice,” Stephen reminded her with a wink.

She smiled. “I’ll be careful… but thank you for sharing your concerns.”

Stephen nodded. “For what’s it’s worth… curse or no curse… I’ve always thought you were a better-than-average human being… when you weren’t scary as hell.”

“Thank you… I think,” she teased with a smile. She turned toward the airlock and read the blood-written warning:

EVERYTHING’S DEAD IN PARADISE!

“We should probably do this before we lose the nerve,” she said.

Logan laughed at Meredith’s response to the warning. He walked over and put his hands on the vibrating wheel. “Well… I thought it was a cute saying. You know, like some catchy little phrase they could put on a welcome mat—all inviting, and shit.” He started to turn the wheel to the right, it wouldn’t budge. “Perhaps they could put it on one of those daily calendars with all the encouraging how-to-start-your-day quotes.” He turned the wheel to the left. It still wouldn’t move. He stood back, out of breath from exerting himself, and stared dumfounded at the old wheel. “Maybe it’s a sign,” he said with a smile. “Can’t get in if we can’t open the damn door, right?”

Megan shook her head impatiently, then pushed her way in next to Logan.

The big preacher raised his hands and moved out of her way.

Megan put her hands on the wheel and turned it to the right with a groan. It didn’t move.

Logan smiled. “Well, as much as I appreciate your determination, Megan, if I couldn’t get it to open then-”

Megan let loose a growl this time and tried again. The wheel started to turn. When it moved freely, the half-dead woman stepped back next to Meredith.

“Well… would you look at that,” Logan said. He shot a glance back toward Megan, trying to catch her gloating, but her face was hidden in hair.

“She is strong,” Stephen said with a smile, nudging the preacher’s arm. “Maybe after this all blows over, she could give you some workout pointers.”

Megan made a sound that Meredith swore was a snicker.

“Okay, fun time’s over,” Logan said, glaring at Stephen. “Let’s get this over with and hope the grace of our Heavenly Father has made our path clear.” He finished turning the wheel until the locking mechanism released. He then cautiously pulled the large door open, which made the lights within the small airlock flicker to life.

They gave each other a final look, then entered the airlock as if stepping into a furnace. Logan closed the door behind them, turning the hand wheel back until the large locking mechanism clicked.

The interior of the airlock was white and sparse. Directly on the opposite wall where they’d entered, was another door with a small viewing port and another hand-wheel. On the wall to the left was a small unmarked steel panel. Directly overhead were several small lamp-looking objects with reddish lenses, aimed toward the floor. None of these strange little lamps were on.

Stephen stared out the new viewing port. Though lit up by the bright spotlights this time, all he could make out was the closest cavern wall and more stalactites protruding from the cave ceiling. He was about to turn when he noticed a faint blue shimmer cross the viewing port, causing the door to briefly vibrate more intensely before the shimmer dissipated. He took a step back from the door. “I saw the field,” he said. “I think this outer door is directly connected to it.”

“So, does that mean we open the door and get electrocuted or something?” Logan asked.

“I don’t think it works that way,” Stephen said. “There’s probably an automated cut-off tied in with this door. The fail-safe is probably the door itself.” He scratched his head.

“What is it?” Meredith asked.

Stephen shook his head. “Assuming we can open this door, we’re still at the top of the cavern. There must be a staircase on the other side—maybe something built into the walls?”

Logan attempted to turn the hand-wheel on the outer door. As soon as he did, a loud audible alarm sounded, accompanied by a red flashing light which replaced the steady white lights.

Megan growled upward at the sound, then covered her ears and crouched down in the closest corner.

After five seconds, the alarms stopped, and the white lights flickered back on.

“I think that was a bad idea,” Logan said with an apologetic smile.

“Now what?” Stephen said.

Meredith was staring at the panel. She felt around the sides of it, stopping on the left side when her hand struck a small switch. She pushed in on the switch, then pulled the panel door open, revealing what she expected. There was a keycard scanner below the words: AUTHORIZED ACCESS ONLY. She retrieved Miss Evans’ badge and held it up with a smile.

“Of course,” Stephen said. He nodded for her to continue.

Meredith shook her head, then turned toward the keycard scanner. She waved the badge across it three times until a steady green light replaced the white lights in the airlock.

“Okay,” Logan said, leaning back against the closest wall. “Green’s gotta be good, right?”

Before anyone could respond, the lights turned white again. They heard mechanical sounds coming from above and below the airlock. There was a large heavy sound just outside both doors.

“I think the door is unlocking,” Stephen said. He took a step toward the outer door, realizing that he could no longer see anything out the view port, and then nearly stumbled forward into it as the airlock shook and then started to… descend.

“Shit,” Logan hissed. “It’s not an airlock… it’s a damn elevator!”

They listened with terrified expressions on their faces as ancient wheels and pulleys clicked and grinded above the airlock, all of them wondering when the last time this elevator/airlock had undergone preventative maintenance.

Megan continued to cower in the corner, confused by all the sounds and the movement.

Stephen glanced out the exterior view port and was alarmed when all he could see was a close-up of the cavern rock wall. He turned to the entrance door port and saw the same. We’re going down… directly through rock! This immediately made him claustrophobic as he considered being buried alive under all that stone.

The downward trip to where they assumed was the cavern floor took five long minutes, heightening the terror as the slow descent made it feel like they were a mile off the ground. And if the old cables failed—the fall would guarantee an instantaneous death.

They heard squealing brakes above them as the airlock came to a stop.

Logan wiped sweat from his forehead. He was breathing heavily. He laughed and then raised his arms up and said, “Thank you, Lord, for delivering us from a crushing death!”

“Amen,” Meredith said with a giggle.

Their nerves were on edge, and the relief from being back on the ground was immediate.

Suddenly, the white lights went out and the little airlock lamps above their heads clicked on, resembling heat lamps and buzzing loudly.

Meredith raised her arms. Every hair was standing straight up. “What is this?”

They all felt the same sensation. Not only was their body hair starting to stand, but the hair on their heads, as well.

Stephen looked over at Megan and cupped a smile. Her long hair was dancing around her face, resulting from some sort of static charge filling the airlock.

After fifteen seconds, the little lamps went out.

They heard a large door coming up outside the exterior viewing port. The interior of the airlock turned green again as the outer airlock door clicked loudly.

Stephen looked out the viewing port, relieved to see artificial lights illuminating the rocky floor outside. He could just make out what looked like the entrance to the cavern facility, one-hundred yards away. “I think we’re clear to leave,” he said.

Logan didn’t need to hear it again. He reached for the airlock wheel and turned it to the right. It opened easily. “Let’s get out of here before this scary ride heads back up.”

The preacher opened the airlock door slowly, letting in the damp cavern air.

Stephen reached his arm out beyond the threshold, expecting to disrupt the shimmering blue field. Nothing happened. “It’s off, I think.” He was the first to step out into the cavern. Logan followed. Megan came next. Meredith stopped at the threshold and took a deep breath.

They all looked back.

“Just… just give me a moment,” she pleaded.

Stephen nodded. “Of course. Take a minute to… you know… prepare yourself.”

She smiled at her friend and then closed her eyes. Okay, you old fool, once you step out there, it’s all going to come back. You’ll be the freak again… just like Toby wanted all along. She shook her head and frowned. “Well, here we go again,” she whispered sadly. “Coop, I’m glad you never knew me like this. I guess it’s time to live up to my title as the Wasteland Witch.” Meredith took a deep breath and then stepped out of the airlock.

“Would you look at that,” Logan whispered, staring up into the cavern. Stephen, Logan, and even Megan were left awestruck by the immense cave.

What they previously viewed from the observation windows did nothing to prepare them for walking into this bewildering environment. From the ground looking up, the enormous cavern looked and felt like standing on another world. Instead of wondrous stars and moonlight, the canopy in this foreign underground place contained fantastic granite formations dancing in the spaces between light and shadow. Every sound was amplified by the ghosts of long forgotten echoes—a drop of water to a whisper—everything had a voice, and all utterances seemed like ancient mysteries translated through this world’s mysterious new tongue.

Up ahead, the oldest wing of this elaborate facility lay silent and dark, blending into the surrounding stone structures as if they’d merged over time. The light towers surrounding the ancient structure were the only man-made objects still left that defiled the surface of this subterranean world.

Stephen could just make out a narrow door, left open, leading into the cavern laboratory. Staring at the long-abandoned Labyrinth Level 1 made his skin crawl. What unnatural horrors went on in there? he wondered, then decided he really didn’t want to know. Some secrets are better left undiscovered.

The airlock/elevator door slammed shut behind them, causing Meredith to jump. It reverted to automatic mode, sending the airlock back up the way it came.

“Well, I guess it’s official then,” Logan said. “We’re here to stay.” He turned and pointed across the cavern. “From what I made out on the diagram, the exit ladder I saw is somewhere on the other side of the cavern, opposite that dead facility. By the looks of it, we may have quite the hike in front of us to get there. I suggest we get moving.”

They were all in agreement. As majestic as the landscape was, there was still something they could feel lingering in the air, something unsettling.

Stephen turned to Meredith. “Anything?”

She frowned. “Haven’t had to answer that question in a while. But… no… I don’t sense anything. And quite frankly, I’m a little unnerved by it.”

“How so?”

The old medium shook her head. “It’s like… there is something there… something I can’t wrap my mind around… but it’s hidden.”

Stephen nodded. “Maybe we caught a break and this entity is asleep and unaware that we’re here yet.”

She shook her head. “No, Stephen. I’m not explaining myself right. When I said, ‘hidden’, I meant that something is there… but it’s hiding. Whatever this is, doesn’t want me to sense it.”

“Well I’ve heard enough,” Logan said, turning toward a point that would take them clear around the right side of facility, and through a forest of tall rock formations. “Let’s just get out of here. We can use those rocks to stay hidden ourselves.”

They started to move.

Megan had remained surprisingly quiet and calm. Her head constantly spun on a swivel, staring into every shadow. On further inspection, it was clear that she was preoccupied, her senses on high alert.

“What do you suppose she’s doing?” Stephen asked, stepping up beside Meredith.

She shook her head.

“She’s hunting,” Logan said. “She may still be part human, but she’s also part predator, too. Best not to forget that.”

Meredith stared intently at the young woman. She wanted to pry into her mind and find out what was happening, but it took considerable effort to keep her abilities reigned in and away from Megan, to avoid getting sick. The infection burned like a slow but constant fire within the half-deads, tearing away at the fabric of their humanity over a long period of time. Meredith remembered how this felt, and how ill she became from staying open to their kind for too long. She knew she could help the girl in ways she couldn’t before, but they needed to be safely away from this dark place first. If she left herself vulnerable now, for any reason, Meredith suspected they might not make it out of this cavern alive. She, too, needed to stay on high alert. Megan was not the only predator in this cave.

Stephen stopped abruptly and pointed toward the rock forest. “Did you see that?”

Logan’s hand dropped to the holster, ready to draw like a tattooed gunslinger. “I don’t see anything?”

“There was a… a girl… I think,” Stephen looked rattled. “I saw her sitting in between two of those rocks… but now she’s gone.”

“Eyes playing tricks on you, I imagine,” Logan said. “This place will mess with our perceptions. There’s enough shadows to feed the imagination for hours down here.”

Stephen shook his head. “No. I thought that, too. But she stared right at me… except she had no eyes, or I… I couldn’t see them in the dark. And her face… her face looked strange… distorted. I can’t explain it. Made me want to shit myself, though.”

From behind them, Megan let loose a low growl.

They turned and found her crouched down, scratching at the ground as if on the verge of charging. But it wasn’t them she was staring at. She was staring into the rock forest.

“She saw her, too!” Stephen said.

“Shit,” Logan hissed. He drew the handgun and started scanning the surrounding rock formations. “Lots of places to hide in here. Good for an ambush.”

“But… it was just a girl, a young girl,” Stephen said. “Maybe she’s lost down here. What threat could she possibly be-”

“What was she wearing, Stephen?” Meredith interrupted.

“What?”

“Her clothes… describe them.”

“I don’t… it happened too fast. I didn’t get a good look.”

“There she is!” Logan said, pointing the gun low but toward another rock monolith to their right. “Shit, she was just there!”

“Logan… describe her.” Meredith was staring all around them. She looked frantic.

“Some flowery dress… I think.” He turned to Meredith and raised his eyebrows at her own attire. “Looked a lot like what you’re wearing, actually. Her face was dirty. Her form looked… wrong. Distorted, like Stephen said. Definitely creepy.”

“We need to move,” Meredith said. “This is all wrong.”

“What is it?” Stephen said, staring toward every shadow. He saw more movement in the surrounding rocks. “There’s more than one!”

“I saw two more girls in the rocks ahead of us,” Logan said. “And they didn’t move like any damn girls I’ve ever seen.”

Megan was hissing and howling toward a rock formation to the left.

From all around them, the echoes of giggling girls suddenly filled the air. It sounded like they were everywhere.

“What the hell’s happening?” Stephen’s head was spinning from rock formation to rock formation as he continuously caught movement in the corners of his eyes. The girlish laughter continued as he wondered when they’d wandered into this hellish playground.

Meredith gasped and started waving her hands at them. “They’re dead!” she cried out.

“What?” Logan was trying to lock his sights on the fast-moving girls, but they evaded him.

“THEY’RE ALL DEAD!” Meredith screamed, staring to lose control.

Stephen ran to her as her body started to convulse. “Meredith!” he shouted, gripping her hard by the shoulders. “Keep it together! Control it!”

Meredith’s eyes started to change. For a moment, Stephen swore they flickered to a menacing yellow before turning back. She shook her head. “I’ve… I’ve got it. Thank you, Stephen.”

“What’s happening, Meredith?”

Her face went pale. “I don’t know what these things are… but I know who they were… and they’re dead—all of them—or they should be!”

Stephen turned to Logan. “You get that?”

“Got it,” he said. “Head shots only… if the little monsters ever stop moving. They’re so damn fast!”

Stephen started looking for anything he could use as a weapon.

“Wait!” Meredith said, grabbing the former teacher’s wrist. “It’s more than that! We can’t kill them!”

“What?” Logan shifted uncomfortably as he watched more dead girls sprint between the rocks. “What does that mean?”

Meredith shook her head so violently that Stephen thought she would snap her own neck. “They’re… they’re here, but they’re not here! They’re dead… but… Oh my, God, Stephen!”

Stephen had never seen Meredith look so terrified. “What… what is it?”

“We’re not supposed to be here!” she yelled. “WE’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE!”

Meredith shook violently, but somehow managed to keep control over what was afflicting her mind.

Megan ran around the group, forming a defensive perimeter, howling threateningly and scratching at the air every time she saw a distortion step to the front of the rocks.

Stephen’s mind raced as he tried to keep Meredith conscious. He stared around the cavern, locking his gaze off to the left, at the Labyrinth facility. He pointed and shouted, “Logan, we need to take shelter! Now! This isn’t a fight we can win.”

Logan nodded and retreated toward Stephen and Meredith. He watched the half-dead woman take position at their flank as she continued to scream into the shadows. He smiled at Megan, not knowing if he admired her bravery or her ferocity, but it no longer mattered. “Megan!” he shouted over to her.

The savage girl turned, recognition finally kicking in as she stared into the preacher’s eyes.

“Stay with us, girl. We need you.” He then added, “You’re not like these things… you’re one of us.”

He didn’t know if the young woman understood, but she did start to retreat, joining the others as they ran for the open door to Labyrinth Level 1.

~~~

Next Episode 48-8

Previous Episode 48-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 48-7: Hell” Copyright © 2018 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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