Far to the North (Chapter 1)

(It’s just me, so kindly forgive any typos you come across. I’ve done my best to hunt them down and kill them all… Hope you enjoy the story. Lots more to come.)

“Careful then. Hold the light up, love.”

She does so, raising the lantern higher. The cave’s insatiable darkness presses against yellow light while Clarence clears loose stone with hurried strikes of his mining pick. Soil and rock tumble away from a dark mound. Marissa watches her husband dig, lantern light flickering over his gray coat, dark pants, and wool cap—all dirt-stained and frayed edges—and sees the years that have snuck into his body. His aging back is bent, his shoulder slumped forward with a curve creeping toward permanence with each day. Through all our running, time has still found us, she thinks. True what they say, the death of man comes for us all.

But for the moment, age is suspended.

“Oh, Mar,” he says, excitement filling his lungs as more stones fall away, “You were right. You were right!”

Marissa Pickens smiles. She happened upon the collapsed section while following the faintest vein of silver, a vein since gone into hiding. Her scouring eyes and tracing fingers worked through the dark tunnels of the abandoned mine, leading her down a narrow and seemingly forgotten shaft. In a small chamber below, a cave-in was found. “Aye,” she says. “See it there!?” The glee in her voice is enough to pierce the dirty scarf wrapped around her face and neck. “I just knew the stone here looked queer. I just knew, Clarence!” Holding the lantern like a perched owl, she stretches her lean arm to provide better light.

“You clever rascal,” he says. His wife can’t see the smile on his face, but she can hear it in his voice. Theirs is a marriage and friendship long enough to bestow such abilities. Clarence brings the pickaxe down harder and digs with its broad end. Tumbling stones clack against each other and send echoes into unseen caverns. “See the glint in the stone? I wager the vein has ducked through here then. Oh, I can just smell the gold!” he says with a giggle. “The light, love! Keep it high for me!” Clouds of breath jump from his mouth while he works. Their cheerful laughs drift away and vanish into the shadows around them. Behind, through a twisting world of darkness, a fierce blizzard blasts against the cave’s natural opening. Sharp stone cuts the wind and perverts it into howling whistles, but neither Marissa nor Clarence hear the chilling tune. Their determination has carried them to one more chance.

Hope carries on.

“It’s large enough then,” Marissa says. “The opening. Don’t tally. Let us climb through.”

Clarence works the pickaxe with feverish movements. Chunks of granite break free, and loose dirt spills around his boots. He eyes the small gap presenting itself. Climbing up the pile of soil, pebbles falling from beneath his pushing feet, Clarence slides into the opening to test its size. He reaches an arm and shoulder through. “Hand us the lantern. Let me get a good look-see of the other side.”

Marissa hands the lantern to her husband. As Clarence reaches through the opening, precious light disappears. The absolute black of the cave towers over Marissa like a ravenous beast. Her ailments, forgotten in their moment of possible fortune, return. The hunger in her belly, the fierce cold gripping her skin, the ache contaminating her bones. It’s enough to make her smile fade, to suspend her joy in exchange for nagging fear. For if Clarence were to fall or lose his grip on the lantern, if it were to drop and smash upon the rocks, the terrible darkness around them would crash in like an ocean, drowning them in—

“Come, Mar,” Clarence says, reappearing. “Hold this while I climb through.”

As the handle of the lantern finds her fingers, so does relief find Marissa’s heart.

She watches Clarence scale the small mound of freshly dug soil, and in a moment his thin body is through the opening. From the other side, he works to push more earth away and widen the hole. Marissa climbs to him, careful to keep her balance and protect the lantern in her hand, and is soon face to face with her love. Looking back at her, he smiles wide. Dust clings to his gray, scraggly beard. Grime stains his forehead and gaunt cheeks. The dirt amplifies the wrinkles around his eyes, giving crows feet hard, dark lines. But look at the love in those blue eyes, she thinks. They pause for a moment, smiling at one another.

“Hand the light here then,” he says, reaching an arm through to take the lantern. “Careful on this side. These stones are more than anxious to turn your ankle.”

The lantern passes through, and Marissa is swallowed by darkness again. Of all her years spent mining, it’s the one feeling of terror she still can’t shake. The darkness lurking within the depths of caves and mines is one that is simply absolute, and she can’t help but glance over her shoulder at it. A behemoth of black lords above her, inhaling and exhaling the wheezing sounds of the winds cutting against the stone.

“Come, come!” Clarence beckons after setting the lantern on the ground nearby.

Laying on her belly, Marissa climbs into the opening head first. With her head and arms through, she feels a dreadful exposure to the shadows lurking behind her. Childish fears bring an image of reaching claws of darkness extending toward her dangling legs. The fear spurs her, and she shimmies through, kicking and twisting her narrow body while reaching for Clarence. He takes her in his arms, supporting her weight until her legs are through and feet are down. Together in the new section, neither take the time to brush the dirt from their clothing. Having spent so many years scouring mines for fortune, and finding little, the earth has become part of them.

“Not so cold this side, is it?” she asks.

Clarence nods in agreement. “A bit musty too.” Retrieving the lantern from the ground, he raises his hand and lets yellow light spill into the jagged shaft before them. The path ahead is tall and narrow, like a knife wound stabbing deeper into the mountain. Frozen stone juts out. The flooring, slanting wedges of granite, leans with a heavy camber. Clarence steps forward, squinting into the darkness ahead, while Marissa investigates the cave walls for the vein of precious metal gone missing.

“What do you think?” Clarence asks.

“I think we’re close. This is quartz, no doubt,” she says, tapping the stone with gloved fingers. “Perhaps a hint of silver too.” She looks at him. “How’s the way forward?”

“Tis narrow,” Clarence says, “but room enough to continue. What’s your council then? Further?”

“I think so, yes. Unless you have an idea that’s better?”

As if on cue, Clarence’s stomach rumbles with hunger. Man and wife look at each other. In only a moment, they acknowledge their situation in silence. Surrounded by cold stone and oppressive darkness, wearing clothing too old and too thin and far too dirty, they see the dire state of their lives. They see their haggard eyes and narrow cheeks. They see weariness and pain. Both know neither are to blame for the struggles they endure. Misfortune happens. The war in the south has torn the world of man apart. There’s no doubt they’ve done their best. All efforts have been spent. Reaching for one another, their cold fingers intertwine. In unison, they share a brief smile, one carrying both an apology for the other’s struggle and a thankfulness for the love that keeps each by their side.

“Shall we then?” Clarence asks.

Marissa nods.

The narrowness of the cave forces them to pass single file. Encroaching stone pushes against their backs and shoulders, and the two miners contort their bodies within their unyielding host. Pointed rocks test the soles of their worn boots. Hand in hand, the two proceed in a slow shuffle, huddled within the light of their lantern. As they do, both scour the stone in search of precious metal.

Minutes pass. Silence mounts.

“Not a thing yet?” Clarence asks.

Marissa is reluctant to answer the question. Excitement is fading from his voice. Hope is already slipping away. “A bit further, Clarence. Let’s see. This mine was started for a reason.”

“We were given warning for this cave for a reason, I suspect,” Clarence says. “Those townsfolk had little to say on the success of the mine. Only ill words were spoken of this place.”

“Aye, but they found gold, didn’t they? That much was certain by the glares in their eyes. It’s chance enough it hasn’t all been found. Never mind the bust or the fire or their insistence of a curse. You saw them, Clarence. Bored people they are, and in hiding to boot. They share absurd tales in hopes of driving us away. They speak of curses because they don’t want our business mixing into theirs. Besides, there’s no chance they came through here. You saw that collapse yourself. Tis part of the cave, not the mining section proper. This part is old still, untouched. Just look at the walls for yourself then. No marks. No Scrapes. Tis all clean still, Clarence. There’s good chance there’s something to be found further in. Push on, I say. Optimism.”

Clarence pauses his shuffling feet. “You think it true?”

“I do.”

He looks down. The rock and soil near his feet appear undisturbed. There are no signs of stomping boots, no claw marks of previous miners dragging heavy equipment over the stone. Quartz sparkles like a shimmering frost, but there are no pick marks, no signs of rock broken free by someone searching for something more. “I see it now, aye. Right again. Oh, forgive me, Mar,” he says with remorse. “Forgive me. I can be so foul, but it’s not a foulness for you. It’s this bitter cold. It gets into my bones!”

She gives his hand a squeeze. “I know, Clarence. I know. It fouls us both. But if we find that pesky silver vein, or even chance upon a pocket of gold, I promise to take the chill out of those bones forevermore.”

They press on. The cave narrows still. Encroaching stone bumps against their spread arms and shuffling legs, turning their movement into an awkward shuffle. Chilling stone prods at their backs and shoulders. Their pace becomes woefully slow. Suddenly, Clarence stops.

“Mar,” he says, pointing a finger. “See that there? On the ground near my boot.”

Standing shoulder to shoulder in the narrow gap, Marissa fails to see around him. “I can’t, no. Move forward.” Clarence does so, and pebbles of granite crunch beneath his feet. The spot now between them, he stops and points again.

With a considerable pause, she stares at a dull spatter of dark red. “Blood?” she asks.

“I think it be.”

Her eyes search the immediate area. “Is there more?”

Clarence turns his head. “Yes, Mar. A heap of it just ahead of me, smeared over the stone.”

Her mind races, imagining both horrific scenarios and reasonable explanations to refute them. “Think it from an animal?”

“I suppose,” Clarence says with hesitation, “though I’d not place a hefty wager on it.” He forgoes mentioning how the blood stain resembles that of a human hand.

“It’s old though,” Marissa says. “Yes? And animal or miner, certainly no one has been through here in recent time. We saw the collapse ourselves. You dug it out with your very hands. Either way, that blood is old. From ages ago.”

“Most likely, given the looks of it,” Clarence says with apprehension. “I doubt it to be an animal’s though. Could be someone was inside when the ceiling gave.” He shrugs. “Maybe he took injury during the cave-in and sought to exit another way.”

Marissa thinks on the situation. “I’d rather not find any bodies this time,” she finally says.

Clarence nods. “Agreed. I’m wonderin’ though…”

“Leave us not hanging in such a foul place, husband,” Marissa chides. “Just be out with it.”

“Well,” Clarence says with a pause, not wanting to propose the scenario, “What was it they said of the fire in the mine? Nine people died? But not all the bodies were recovered?”

“They spoke only of the deaths. They made no mention of recovery, attempt or success.”

“Hm,” Clarence grunts. “Good chance we’ll find more than silver down this path then.”

A long silence hangs over them. Beyond it, the faintest whaling of the blizzard’s wind can be heard howling through the cave behind them.

“Well then?” Clarence asks. “What say you? Press on?”

All around them, the stone walls glitter with quartz like stars in a night sky. Marissa picks at the surface with a finger, leaning so close the wall kisses her cheek with frozen lips. “I think so, Clarence. Truly. Whatever ill happened here is no concern of ours. These stones are filled with promise. We do ourselves disservice to abandon such hopes now.”

“Aye,” he says, sounding almost disappointed. “Aye, very well. Take the lantern then.”

“For what reason?”

“This next section, Mar. The stone closes in. I’ll need you to hold the light while I see if I can wiggle through.”

“Is it that bad?”

Clarence looks at the tightening section of rock. Narrowing points of granite clamp down like teeth in a closing jaw. “Not that bad, I suppose, but we won’t know ‘til we push on. It’ll be a bugger though, through or otherwise.”

“Don’t force it, Clarence. Not down here. Death of man, I can’t even imagine what—”

“Don’t get your mind started on it,” he interrupts. “I know my thickness, and you know I was born half-ferret. Just take the lantern.”

“Be careful,” she says as the handle transfers to her fingers.

Clarence moves forward, his narrow body shuffling sideways, his breath escaping in quick puffs of white. Marissa watches as he slides further into the dark wedge of stone, descending down. All is quiet save for the sound of his boots bumping against rock, his labored breathing, his clothes sliding over coarse granite. For a moment, she thinks to call him back, to tell him to stop. The ominous dark of the cave seems to swallow him inch by inch, and her mind fills with the fear of something within the cave slipping, giving way. But she holds her tongue. Cling to the hope, not the fear, she thinks. What’s there to find if you turn back now? Only the same fate you’ve tried so hard to leave behind. After minutes of scuffling, Clarence finally calls back with a shout.

“How is it then?” Marissa asks.

“Not so bad,” Clarence says between strained breaths. “The rock pinches your back a bit, but keep working. Stay low, that’s the key. There’s a narrow bit that will press your chest some, but it opens proper on the other side. There’s another chamber. Come with the lantern, love. There’s something here to see, but I can’t quite make it out. I need the light.”

Marissa starts in. The narrow gap forces her to lower the lantern to her knees. Shadows dance in front of her as closing walls block the light. Her cheek presses against cold stone, and the scent of minerals leaps into her nose. As she shimmies, rock bites down against her advance. An ankle jams and forces her knee into an awkward bend. Scarce space exists for movement, and her breathing soon feels restricted. Panic crawls from the cave walls and latches onto her body, pinning her in place. Marissa reacts, looking back from where she came to consider her retreat, but there it is; that absolute darkness is standing there, waiting for her. She feels the breath in her lungs shorten.

“Clarence. I’m a bit worried here.”

He hears it. She’s more than worried. She’s flirting with the edge of sanity. “Come now,” he says. “You’ve handled worse than this, love. Slide yourself down a bit. It’s wider as you go lower. Put weight on your back and shimmy through with your shoulders.”

She tries it. As she squirms down, the lantern sticks to a sharp edge and threatens to leap from her hand. Scraping metal shrieks against stone. Her knuckles go white in a panicked grasp. The treads of her worn boots slide under her. Stone gnaws against her hip and presses against her face. Without enough room to turn her head, she yells out. “Clarence!”

A calming voice calls to her. “I’m here, Mar. I’m here. Shimmy back a bit. I had a tough spot there as well. You’re likely on it. Shimmy back and come in lower. Shove your feet deep into the crevice and bend your knees. Sink into the gap proper.”

“We should turn back!” Marissa yells. She can hear her own panic now.

“We can’t. Not now. There’s something to be found here. I need the light to see for sure. Just relax and scoot yourself lower. Lower and shimmy on your back. And collect yourself, Mar! If I’m through, you’ll make it true enough.”

Marissa Pickens closes her eyes to hide from the dancing shadows of the lantern, to hide from compressing darkness and burying stone. Her heart hammers as if trying to smash the rock through her chest. She listens to her husband’s voice as he talks her down. Knees bend lower. Thighs burn with strain. Placing more weight on her back, the coldness from the stone soaks through her wool clothes and seeps into her body. Again, the lantern bites into the rock with a horrific screech and tries to snag.

“That’s it,” Clarence says. “Keep it coming.”

Her leading hand reaches out as if attempting to flee from her trapped body, clawing for space, searching for emptiness in place of stone. Wiggling fingers stretch and claw until finding something tender and soft, her husband’s gloved hand.

“There, love. You’ve found me yet again. Almost through now.”

She keeps her eyes closed. Her thighs tremble from awkward squatting. The air in her nose is thick with the scent of minerals, as if she’s drowning in stone. Her cheeks sting against the cold walls. She works forward, and fingers touching fingers clasp into a hand holding a hand. She shimmies again. He has her wrist now and starts a gentle pull. She screams in her mind, wanting to cry out. The cave feels to be eating her whole. “Pull me,” she says with strain, and she feels her arm slip into his hands. Bulging veins streak her neck as she holds her breath. Stone bites into her leg, grabs her hip, traps her foot. Collapsing, the cave is collapsing! It crushes against her chest and—

Just as she can take no more, she’s pulled through, free from the jaws of stone.

Scampering to her feet, she gasps for breath and clutches the lantern to her chest.

“Alright then?” Clarence asks while gently taking hold of her shoulders. “Easy there, love. Breathe for me. Come, come. Calm. Deep breaths, now.”

Marissa curls into his arms, trembling. “I don’t know,” she mutters, shaking her head. “I don’t know what came over me. I thought the cave was closing. I thought—”

“Easy does it,” he says, pulling her close. She buries her face into his chest while he rests his cheek atop her head. “Twas a tight fit, no doubt. Don’t be kickin’ yourself for it. You did well. No shame in having a scare. You did well.”

Holding her husband close, Marissa feels the fearful trembling slowly pass from her body. She breathes deep and closes her eyes, calms her nerves. Silence fills the chamber around them. Through the narrow passage, the whaling winds of the cave are stifled. It best be worth it, she thinks. I’ll not like to have done that without reward.

“Look, Mar,” Clarence whispers. Slowly, he turns their huddled bodies and points.

As the light of the lantern spills into the chamber, Marissa gasps. “Death of man.”

Yellow, flickering light falls on black, human bones.

“Nay with that,” Clarence chides. “Nay. Optimism, as you said.”

“Optimism how, exactly?” The fear within her, nearly squelched, is renewed. She backpedals toward the narrow passage as light reveals the small chamber. At its center, bones lay splayed out in an X. The meat looks to have been burnt away, leaving only blackened char clinging to skeletal remains. A plain dagger protrudes from the chest.

“And look there,” Clarence says, pointing. “Another. Some were caught in the collapse after all.”

Marissa looks to her right and sees a second body slumped against the cave walls. The skin is dark and shriveled, yet still preserved by the cold. A thick, gray beard clings to the face while empty sockets stare back like black eyes. Its jaw hangs open as if locked in an eternal, silent scream. A large, wolf-skin coat hangs over the corpse’s shoulders. Thick pants cover withered legs lying flat over the stone. Rugged mountaineering boots cover feet resting together in a V.

“Was it the cave-in that did it?” Marissa asks, her waking nightmare of being swallowed by stone still racing through her mind. “Were they trapped?” She leans back against the wall of the cave, her palms pressing against the mountain above her, her body wanting out, her mind begging for instant freedom.

Clarence prowls the perimeter of the round chamber, stepping like a stalking cat, his eyes fixed on the centerpiece of bones. “What else?” He points to the body leaning against the wall. “He’s sitting calm enough, isn’t he? It could be the cave collapsed on them and he took it in stride, death and all. Some people have that way about them, a way of accepting it. Bless their soul. That calmness toward death has yet to find my blood.”

Marissa shudders at the thought of dying in such a place. What a horrible end, she thinks, to lay in such awful darkness and wait for death. In this darkness, do they even know they’ve passed?

“But this one here,” he continues, “something off about this one, love. Look at it. Mr. Wolf is clothed and decayed. But this one in the center is burnt clean away. No clothes. No meat. And look at the chest, that dagger standing tall like a pennant.” Clarence runs dirty fingers over his beard and taps his chin. “I think there was a bit of murder happening here, Mar. That one killed this one. No doubt in my mind. This poor bastard was stabbed in the heart. Can’t you see? Shine the light.”

“I see it plenty,” Marissa says with a glare. Though she tries to look away, the curvature of the small chamber redirects her eyes to the bones in the center. She sees the dagger standing within the chest of the skeleton and the blackened stone beneath it. Her brow crinkles. “What of it being burnt?”

“That I can’t figure.” Ducking beneath hanging stone, he approaches the corpse covered in gray wolf-skin. “There’s a small pack here,” Clarence says as he turns open a canvas flap and begins rummaging. Inside, he finds a leather-bound journal, candles and matchbox, folded maps, and a small horn of gunpowder. He holds the horn up for further inspection. A name is inscribed along the side. “Aughardt. Hm. Never heard of the lad.”

“Clarence,” Marissa chides. “I’ll not be desperate enough to allow the likes of grave robbing.”

“Calm yourself, woman. You’re still rattled from fighting through the gap. This is no grave. You’ve enough sense to know that. Neither of these souls has been set to rest. In fact,” he says while setting the journal down, “the boots on this one just may fit me. If not, they’re well enough for trade.”

“Clarence!” Marissa protests.

“Don’t complicate this with sentiment. My feet are worn to the bone. You know that. I don’t mean to disrespect the dead, love, but ‘tis dire circumstances all around. Now please,” he says, while carefully removing Aughardt’s boots, “let me be. The work is already dirty enough without the guilt.”

Marissa looks away in frustration. Wrongness fills her mind and troubles her soul. Around her, the small chamber seems to pulse, as if the shadows flex with strength and dim the light from the lantern. Have we come so far to only become like this? she wonders as another shiver flows through her body. Has it come to robbing the dead? And what of this poor soul, murdered here in such a way? Was his own ending one inspired by theft? What could possess this Aughardt to chase him toward the center of the earth? What—

Her thought stops. Her throat tightens and her eyes go wide. “Clarence,” she says, the strength stolen from her voice.

“I’ll not argue the point. I’m sorry for it, truly, but we must make use of what we can.”

Marissa approaches the burnt bones and squats down near an outstretched arm. Scanning its length, she extends her own. Her reach far exceeds that of the skeleton. “Clarence,” she says again, her voice a sad whisper of sorrow.

He grunts as the first boot slips on. The fit is tight around his toes, but the soles are in far better condition. Overall, it’s an upgrade. “What is it?”

“Was this one a child?”

With the second boot midway over his foot, Clarence stops. “What?”

“Look at it,” she says, standing to hold the lantern overhead. “It’s small. Smaller than me by any margin. Death of man, did this monster murder some poor child? In a place like this?” Marissa’s voice falls like a stone into a bitter sea, her broken heart following piece by piece.

Clarence slips on the second boot and crawls toward the ruined body. Seeing the crushing sadness spreading over his wife’s face, he raises a hand to calm her. Kneeling near the skull, his brow furrows with hard lines of thought. “Let’s not jump to conclusions,” he says while rubbing his pant legs with worry. “Let’s sort this out a bit.” He scans the skeleton, but it’s size is undeniable. The skull, the torso, the lengths of leg and arm all indicate a child. “Could it be?” Clarence says in disbelief. He looks back at Aughardt’s corpse. “Ya evil bastard, could it really be?”

“How old, Clarence?” Marissa asks. “Death of man, please. How old was this poor thing do you think?”

Sighing, Clarence wipes his brow with grief and forces himself to take another inspection of the burnt bones. “It’s tough to say… seven, maybe eight years old?”

Marissa searches him with horrified eyes. “But how? How? And in such a brutal way? With the dagger so deeply plunged and this… this… burning!? For what reason, Clarence? What purpose?”

“Could be the curse,” Clarence mutters. “Maybe the man was deranged. Obsessed. There are strange people, you know. Not all of the old ways have died. Maybe—” Clarence cuts himself off.

“Out with it!” Marissa snaps.

Upset that he ever let the idea slip, Clarence shrugs with regret. “Maybe this Aughardt was part of a cult. A fiend. These northern mountains hide many things, Mar.”

Marissa’s eyes fall back to the small skeleton in the center of the chamber. Though her soul wishes to cry, her tears refuse to well. “Take it all then,” she says. “Strip the evil man of everything he has if it suits you. May his bones never find peace. May he be tormented by an eternity of walking barefoot through frozen darkness than ever find sleep.”

Clarence sighs, and his breath suspends over the small corpse like a bank of fog. “Don’t dwell on it, Love. Alright? This was something that happened months ago by the looks of it. Maybe years. We’ve come upon it now, fair enough, and a show of sorrow is appropriate. But you’ll not carry this with you, ya hear? We carry enough sorrow from our own lives. No need to go collecting sorrows from others, strangers at that.”

“Do you think they knew?” Marissa asks. “The people in town. In Nil?”

Clarence looks at Marissa directly and he shakes his head. “No. Not for a moment. I could never believe such a thing.” The two stare, and Clarence can see his answer is not fully believed. The nod coming from Marissa is one of courtesy, not agreement. His face sours, and pain trickles into his heart while her brown eyes shift back to the child’s remains. He sees the slightest quiver touch her lower lip and a curling frown wink on her dirty cheek. With a start, he hops to his feet. “Up then,” he says. “We’ve still a search on our hands.” He steps over the small body, his boot bumping one of the bones, and touches Marissa’s shoulder. “Don’t think me to be coarse, but our own problems still exist.”

Throughout the small chamber, a faint hissing is heard.

Marissa and Clarence look at each other. Goosebumps sprout along their back, neck and arms.

“The wind?” Clarence asks.

“I suppose it must be,” Marissa says with another insincere nod.

“Help me search for the vein,” he says. “You’ve the eye for ore. I’m only good for setting it free from the mountain after you’ve found it.”

“Yes, yes,” Marissa sighs. “Just one more moment, for the sake of my heart.”

Clarence tucks graying hair behind her ear. “Some mourning, but no dwelling.”

Marissa nods, this one sincere, and they share a quick kiss on the lips. Clarence turns to the resting body of Aughardt to conduct another pilfering of his belongings. “I’ll defile this one then while you pay your respects to the one he so callously ruined.”

Marissa sets the lantern down and gazes at the child’s remains. She tries to imagine what the face may have looked like, if it were a boy or a girl. I hope a boy, she thinks. Death of man, what kind of horrendous things could a man like that have done to a little girl? Her eyes trace over the stretched arms and legs, and they seem so little looking at them again, looking at them with eyes that now understand. This poor child. Poor, poor child. A sensation comes to her, one of embracing the life now lost, one of providing what little comfort she can. My womb never allowed such love to be shared. But how I could have loved this unfortunate thing, she thinks while touching a shin bone with the tip of her finger. This poor creature, this—

Another hiss passes through the chamber, longer and louder than before. They startle, and Clarence whirls to face the center. As they look at each other, the shadows within the chamber flex again. Darkness swells. The lantern flutters, as if starving for air.

“The hell was that!?” Clarence says with a shudder.

“I don’t know,” Marissa says, her skin crawling. “The wind again?”

“Twasn’t no wind. It came from behind me. From the center!”

The lantern sputters and threatens to fail.

Clarence lunges. “Don’t let it die!” he shouts as he hurries toward Marissa to adjust the lantern’s wick.

Marissa surrenders the lantern and scoots away with kicking feet, as if her presence is the sudden source of the flame’s struggles. Darkness presses down. Fear drapes over her like a sopping-wet cloth, cold and heavy. Invasive. Her heart accelerates with climbing panic. Without intention, her eyes are drawn to the skeleton again. Shadows swing over the remains as Clarence manhandles the lantern. In the shifting light, leaning back on her elbows, Marissa sees something new within the skeleton. Though the shadows dance, two points within the jaw remain fixed.

Teeth.

Big teeth. Long, sharp, feline teeth.

Marissa squints, not believing her eyes. She’s certain she’s wrong, certain that what rests in front of her simply cannot be. She props herself up and leans toward the body. “Clarence,” she says. “Do you see this?”

Light continues to dwindle. He glares at the shrinking flame behind the glass while adjusting the wick as well as he can. “I am, I am!” he says in a panic.

“No,” Marissa says, suddenly drawn toward the burnt skull. “This. The skull.”

Shadows surge with power.

Darkness presses.

“I saw the child’s skull, Mar! I’ve other matters to contend with.”

Marissa doesn’t hear the panic in his voice. She no longer cares. A sudden longing has come to her, one that pushes her away from panic and into consuming peace. It’s a dire want. A need. She must see the skull up close. There is no other option. She must hold it in her hands, inspect it, cradle it, understand it. The feeling pulls her like a leash as she crawls toward the remains. With great care, she moves over the desecrated bones to rest cross-legged at the skull, sitting as if it were an altar.

“Mar, I think we’d best leave that be,” Clarence says, not looking away from the lantern. He holds the glass prison to his face. Inside, the flame shrinks to near nothingness.

But the concern inside Marissa is gone, for this is how it is and how it always must be. It makes sense to her now, their mining, their existence. Their suffering. It was all meant to lead to this moment and to this place. Her purpose has been found, and her lack of motherhood is suddenly of no consequence. Her chance to give life has come in the end. Life has finally found her.

Clarence spares a quick glance to see Marissa stripping her hands bare. She tosses her gloves aside casually.

“What are you doing!?” cries Clarence. He reaches, one hand holding the lantern while the other clutches his wife’s shoulder.

She doesn’t answer. There’s simply no need. The message is true. Her suffering was not in vain. She can feel it now. It flows into her body like pales of hot water poured into a tepid bath. Her aches lift and her soreness fades. The bites in her hands from early arthritis lose their teeth. Cold nights haunted by pangs of hunger disappear into a golden sea of ease. “It’s okay, Clarence,” she says. “Don’t you see?” as she lifts the skull and cradles it within her palms. She looks up and faces him. “Don’t you see?”

Clarence’s eyes go wide with horror.

Marissa’s are black with dilation. What little white remains is pink with strain. Tears race down her cheeks.

Mar, put it down!” he screams, batting at her hand. But the attack is useless. Marissa’s grip on the skull is too strong. One hand flails while the other clings to the lantern in desperation. Clarence reaches for her wrist and leaps back when an evil hiss flies from Marissa’s mouth. He stumbles over a loose femur and falls to the ground. The lantern flies from his hand, smashing onto a hard edge.

Glass shatters.

The flame of the lantern dies and the chamber goes full-black.

Outside, the winds of the blizzard howl and scream.

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