Kater believed in ghosts. He loved the idea of haunting. When he died, he wanted to linger on in the Chicken’s Coop tavern and make wailing sounds every time someone ordered the stew, which was pretty often.
“I never said you were stupid.” Heri leaned her elbows on her knees in the shade of a big oak tree. Sweat dripped down her forehead and drenched her dark button-down shirt and tight trousers. The other workers were scattered across the field in similar positions, trying to hide from the mid-morning sun.
“You implied it.” Kater squeezed the last remaining drops from his water skin into his mouth.
“I’m only saying that believing in ghosts is dumb. I’m not saying you’re dumb, but that’s a dumb thing to do.”
“Splitting hairs. You’re calling me stupid.”
Heri sighed and threw her hands up. “Fine, okay, maybe I’m calling you stupid. But seriously Kater, this whole project is insane.”
Kater couldn’t argue with that. He stretched his legs then looked out over toward the slopes and trees that grew up along the ridgeline. It was dotted with natural caves, and some of them went fairly deep into the earth, deep enough that most folks wouldn’t explore them.
There were rumors about those caves. Screaming sounds, human voices, apparitions in the night. The locals all believed they were infested by the supernatural and stayed far away.
Kater figured if he were a ghost, he wouldn’t want to haunt a bunch of boring caves.
“Flooding them seems a little overboard, I’ll give you that,” he said.
Heri gave him a look. “No kidding. How many men are working on this, do you figure?”
Kater shrugged, did a quick scan of the workers. “Dozens, but that’s good, right? Even if the job’s dumb, at least it’s a job. Lord Baron Devon Drogni pays.”
“Fine, alright, you can be mercenary, but I like to work jobs that have actual purpose, you know? Not flooding some stupid cave system all because the local Baron’s superstitious.”
Kater smiled and got to his feet as the foreman barked the end to their break. “How about this. If I can find some proof that those caves are filled with ghosts, will you feel better?”
Heri grinned back and that made Kater’s stomach twist. It always did. Her face brightened, and her dark eyes sparkled as Kater helped pull her to her feet, and she leaned toward him with raised eyebrows. “If you do that Kater, I’ll believe in a lot more than this stupid project.” She stalked off to join the others as the group moved toward the nearby river with shovels and picks and boards to help divert the water.
Kater watched her hips move, watched her midnight black hair sway slightly as stray pieces fell from her tight bun. One day he’d ask her to marry him, and she’d probably say no, but at least he’d ask.
For now, he’d prove ghosts exist. Maybe he’d get another smile.
The caves were kind of creepy. Probably not haunted, but still, creepy.
Kater picked his way down a tight tunnel. Stalactites and stalagmites jutted from the ground and the ceiling all around him. Kater’s hand brushed something damp and he shivered as he raised his lantern high to keep the light from blinding him.
There were bats, a family of sleeping opossums, evidence of bears, but no ghosts. Kater tried to summon them: he shouted out sad things, like a child’s lost shoe, or like the feeling you get at the end of a particularly good song, but no apparitions appeared.
Kater climbed deeper. He had experience playing in caves—as a kid he used to explore a system near his home village. Those were good days, getting lost in the dark, fearless and heedless of the dangers all around him, focused only on getting as deep as he could, as lost as he waned. It was a shame, flooding this place.
Kater shimmied through a tight passage barely wide enough for him to squeeze through. It was always a risk, pushing between like that—if he happened to get stuck, there’d be no rescue. Heri knew he was down there, but not where he was in particular. But Kater had always been very bendy, and stepped into another twisting tunnel.
But this time, he heard something.
It was strange. He didn’t know what to make of it—there was like an odd wailing echoing off the rocks. His heartrate picked up and Kater started forward, going slowly, picking his way over the rocks. The sound came again, louder this time.
Ghosts and goblins. Monsters in the deep.
The cave was brighter than it should’ve been and shadows flickered around the rocks up ahead in patterns that didn’t make sense.
He closed the hood on his lantern, dimming the light as much as he could without letting the flame burn out.
He could still see. Which meant there was a fire around the bend.
The noise resolved into voices. He couldn’t pick out the words, but it was a low chatter between several speakers. At the junction ahead, Kater paused and looked around the corner, and stared into a large open chamber with high ceilings lit by burning lanterns and torches and several bonfires scattered throughout.
People camped in the middle. He stared, shocked at how many there were—ten, twenty, fifty even. Tents sprouted everywhere. Children ran in a tight pack after a bouncing wicker ball while men fixed a broken wooden slat on a leaning shack. Women stood in tight clusters sewing, cleaning, chatting to each other. Two old ladies strolled dangerously close to Kater, talking in a language he didn’t understand.
It was a town. No, it was a city.
The caves weren’t haunted.
They were occupied.
He turned away. He didn’t know these people, didn’t know why they were living down there or what they wanted, but it didn’t matter.
If Heri and the others diverted the river, all these people would die.
He scrambled back the way he came, squeezed through the narrow passage, and ran stumbling back to the surface.
“It’s not haunted,” Kater said breathlessly.
Heri’s eyebrows rose up. “Is that what you’ve been doing?
“There aren’t any ghosts. I checked.”
“Okay. No kidding.”
Kater grabbed her hands tightly, trying to make her understand. “But Heri. There are people down there.”
Her eyebrows knitted. “What do you mean, people down there?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a little settlement of them. There are children in those caves. Families, old men and women. It’s a little city.”
Heri’s mouth worked. Kater held her hands tightly in his own, his palms sweating, feeling the knots of her calluses along her fingers. Her throat bobbed and she glanced to the side where the foreman was shouting at some workers to hurry up.
The job was nearly done. Kater had waited until the last day to explore the caves, which wasn’t a great idea in retrospect. Boards were set up along the channel they dug, and all the workers had to do was pull them up and the great river would begin to flow into those caves.
And eventually, it’d wash away the people living in them.
“We have to do something,” Kater said. “We can tell the foreman, maybe even the Baron himself—"
But Heri grabbed him and held on tight. “They know.”
Kater stared at her. “What do you mean, they know?”
“Those people are the reason the Baron wants to flood those caves. He’s just using the haunted thing as an excuse.” Her eyes were wide as she scanned the trench. Kater felt her hands tremble. “We helped him kill them.”
“Not yet, we didn’t. We can do something. I can go back in and warn them—“
“The foreman’s going to pull those boards soon. You don’t have time.”
Kater could see the children playing, the men working on that shack, he could smell the life in that cavern—the animals and straw and bodies.
He couldn’t let them die.
“I have to try.” He pulled from her and began to run.
“Damn it, Kater.” Heri caught up with him, matched his stride.
Kater reached the cave entrance. One of the diggers gave him a weird look, but Kater got weird looks a lot. He stepped inside and nobody stopped him.
What did it matter, one less worker to pay?
But Heri followed him into the dim.
“What are you doing?” Kater asked.
“If you’re going to be a stupid hero, then I’m coming with you.”
“It’s dangerous, Heri. Go back.”
She gave him an uncertain smile but pushed past and into the darkness.
Kater clenched his jaw, but lit the lantern and followed after her.
It didn’t take long to find the narrow passage again. Heri went first and made it through without issue. Kater wriggled after and stepped out into the tunnel. “They’re close,” he said and dimmed the hood. “Last time, I could hear them around now.”
They stood in silence, straining to listen. But there was no sound and no light playing on the rocks ahead.
Kater was positive they were in the right spot. He took a few steps forward, but the cavern was as quiet as a tomb.
“Are you sure about this?” Heri touched his arm. “We can go back, you know. We still have time.”
“They’re right up ahead.” Kater opened the lantern again to keep himself from tripping in the dark.
There should be light. Before, there was so much light and sound and life spilling into the tunnels. But now, the place was empty.
He felt Heri close against his back, her fingertips brushing his shoulder.
The tunnel turned and opened into the massive chamber.
And it was empty.
Kater walked forward, his mouth hanging open.
“This doesn’t make sense,” he said softly.
“Are they close to here?” Heri asked. “Maybe we took a wrong turn.”
But no, they were in the right spot. The ceiling, the shape of the space, it was the same as before. He looked around, searching for something, any sign that he wasn’t going insane—
And there, twenty feet away. He walked over and kicked at ancient wooden boards, mostly rotted through. “Look at this.”
Heri joined him and frowned. “I think it might’ve been a hut or something. Look at how the boards were joined.”
Kater felt his stomach lurch. There’d been people, dozens of them, and so much light. He found more signs of life: old fires, scraps of clothing, more wood, a nearly-complete tent, a set of tools, a small wicker ball.
“I swear they were here.” His voice sounded distant, swallowed by the stone and the darkness.
“Looks like they’re gone now.” Heri kicked through another pile of wood and rubble. Several pairs of rotted boots tumbled away. “Are you sure you saw people?”
“And light and buildings. Heri, they were down here, living in this place.” He gestured all around.
But it was only a graveyard now.
None of this made sense. He saw it, he felt it. He smelled them.
As he stepped toward the center of the room, a strange trickling sound bounced off the walls.
Neither of them moved for several seconds. Then the trickle turned into a gush and water lapped against Kater’s feet.
Heri groaned as she ran back the way they’d come. By the time she reached the far entrance, she was splashing through water. “They released the dams.”
“How much water’s coming?” Kater looked across the cavern toward the far side.
“I don’t know. It’s flooding fast, though. Is there another way out?”
Kater ran to the opposite side—but there was no other exit. Nothing large enough for them, at least.
“It’ll take a while to fill the caves,” he said. “We can try to climb back out through the water. Maybe we can make it.” But he didn’t think so. The closer to the entrance they got, the more water they’d have to fight through. They had no food, no way to make a fire, no way to survive.
Heri’s face was stricken in the lantern light and Kater wanted to scream.
He saw them, the people. He saw them gathered and alive.
Heri moved closer to him and slipped her hand through his.
“I should be really mad at you right now,” she whispered. “But I’m too scared to call you stupid.”
“I swear they were here.”
“I believe you.” She leaned her head on his shoulder.
They stood as the water rose up around their boots, washing away the evidence of lives long past, of the bones and the broken shelters and the scattered tools and the way back out.
ps, This story started with a prompt about birds. There are no birds here! I don’t know where this came from. Anyway, click that heart/like if you got this far and hit the share button. I really appreciate everyone reading and commenting, seriously makes my day! Have a great week. - DC
That was heartbreaking!