“Robin, we need to take a break.”
“Oh, fine. Always whining.”
“I do no such thing.”
“You’re doing it right now Ian. Hell, you’re whining about whining.”
The descent into the monstrous cavern had been long and exhausting. The rest of the expedition team had given up hope of ever reaching the glimmering chamber of legend. While the two men stopped for a sip of tea from their thermos in the deep, cold tunnel, the rest of the team were back at camp in the village situated some four hundred metres directly above the cave system.
“How much longer do you think this goes on for?” Ian asked, panting between sips of temporarily soothing tea.
“As long as it wills itself to do so, boy. If you could just - oh, God damn this stupid lantern.”
Robin was beginning to grow more and more irritated with the reliability of the little lantern, their only source of light in the pitch black of the unexplored depths.
“The bulb again?”
“Yes. Do you see it flickering? That could mean it’s the bulb.”
“Sorry, I –”
“Stop dicking around and pass me another.”
“There aren’t any left, Robin – the last two spares went out ages ago. You sure it isn’t the wiring gone bad, and not the bulbs themselves?”
“For the last goddamned time, no. I triple-checked the wiring and it is factory new. We just better hope that there’s a way out through here.”
“By going deeper? In a cave system that appears to spiral straight down?”
“Yes, you imbecile. If those who carved out this tunnel leading to the chamber went to all of this trouble, don’t you think they would have another exit of some kind?”
“Well no, frankly. And if you ask me –”
“Oh, please. You couldn’t be ‘frank’ if you ate shards of glass.”
“Is that part of your morning regiment? I wondered what made you such a – ”
A sudden shaking of the spiralling cavern interrupted their bickering. Small bits of rock fell from the ceiling like a light, temporary rain shower.
“Tea time is over. Better push onwards.”
“Onwards? Robin, you might be leading this expedition but frankly, the cavern could be growing unstable.”
“Again with the ‘frankly’, Ian? Stop trying to make ‘frankly’ happen, because frankly, it isn’t going to happen. Now stuff it and come along, we won’t get to the chamber if you don’t bring along your half of the gear.”
The cavern still lightly rumbled as the two men continued their descent.
“You ought to be more mindful of my feelings if you’re in need of my help, you know,” Ian called out ahead to Robin, who stopped to adjust the straps on his heavy pack full of digging tools and dynamite. He said nothing, merely shaking his head. Eventually the men reached what appeared to be the bottom of the cavern. Ian figured the shape of the carved out, massive tunnel they had just traversed must resemble a tightly coiled spring, and that now they had reached one of the ends that were sharp and dangerous.
“There it is...what a sight. Ian, get over here with the matches,” Robin harped behind him to his assistant. Out of breath, Ian haphazardly rounded the last turn of the sloped tunnel and arrived before a great wall of carved stone. It was pockmarked with etchings in a strange language that neither of the two men could fully interpret. Even though it looked as if a wild animal clawed it out, there was something beautiful and innocent about the ancient lettering. Ian could make out one single word, and it didn’t seem to support the demolition of the wall. As he read it, a voice echoed it in his head.
“Robin… maybe we shouldn’t –”
“Oh, no. We’re going in. I didn’t descend a million goddamned miles underground with you whining behind me to come back with nothing,” He shot back while wiring the dynamite along the base of the wall. “Now pass me those matches already and stop your bitching – I can feel a draft.”
Feeling guilty and ashamed of himself, Ian handed the matches over.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this.”
“Because I’ll beat you into the ground if you don’t, boy.”
Ian smirked at this threat.
“Maybe I’m helping you so that you’ll be punished for going where you shouldn’t, then.”
“What, by some long-dead civilization that kept a horde of silver to themselves and refused to share it with anyone? Get a grip, Ian.”
Robin then proceeded to light the fuse. As it crackled and sparked towards the wall, the two men backed around the corner and up the sloped, spiral tunnel.
There was suddenly a tremendous explosion. Both men were thrown from their feet and catapulted off the walls. The entire cavern roared and rumbled – almost angrily, Ian thought. Feeling the warmth of blood dripping down from his forehead, he struggled to right himself. The world whirred around him. Dizzy and exhausted, he managed to find his way back down the tunnel. He found Robin there, standing before a great smouldering hole where the intricately inscribed wall of warning once stood.
“You did good for once, boy. Let us see what others haven’t.”
He entered the opening like an overwhelmed child in a sweet shop. Ian felt guilty and foolish, but there was no going back in time to undo the damage he caused by handing Robin the match.
Passing through the opening, Ian joined Robin before a bewildering sight; a gigantic chamber, made entirely of bars of silver, it appeared. It glimmered beautifully with the flickering light of Robin’s lantern.
“It’s real. Christ, I can’t believe it. Look at this,” He exclaimed, stepping out into the chamber. “The floors, the walls… everything. It’s all pure silver! Oh, sure it’s crudely smelted, but the sheer quantity of it alone makes up for that.”
Ian stepped out onto the expansive floor of silver bars. Suddenly, with that first step, a voice echoed in his head.
He felt the same way as before handing Robin the matches that allowed passage to the glimmering chamber. He wasn’t sure if the expedition leader had heard the voice also, but it appeared that if so, he hadn’t heeded its warning; Robin was already at the far end of the hall.
Ian caught up with him. The men stood before a great pillar of silver bars, constructed in a manner that reminded Ian of a game he played as a child which involved building a structurally sound tower of wooden blocks. Wedged in the base of the silver pillar was one outstanding feature – a single, intricately engraved bar of pure gold. Ian already knew better than to take it. The voice echoed again.
“Robin, don’t. I know what you’re thinking.”
“What, that this gold could be worth more than all of this silver?”
“Don’t take it.”
“You’ll not tell me what to do, boy. Why else would this be here? It must be of significant importance – just look at the engraving on it!”
Ian paused for a moment and looked closer. Part of the engraving on the gold bar looked like a key with one tooth.
“It could be an actual key, fitting in another slot somewhere. Hell, it could lead to more gold. Here, help me pull it out and then we’ll – ”
“No. I’ll do no such thing! I’m taking one bar of silver and you should do the same.”
“A single silver bar? Are you insane? This expedition is getting to your head – not like there was much in there to begin with, though.”
Ian had reached his limit with Robin’s selfishness. He picked up the flickering lantern and turned back towards the entrance to the chamber, picking up a single silver bar from the floor along the way.
“I hope you don’t mind if I take just one. I will leave now, and not return for more – you have my word,” He whispered out to the massive shimmering chamber.
“Talking to yourself now, boy? You’re a worthless assistant. Once we reach the surface, pack your goddamned bags.”
Ian continued towards the blasted opening, ignoring Robin’s remarks. He could hear him grunting and cursing at the end of the chamber – clearly he was trying to remove the gold bar. With that much weight on top of it, he was more likely to suffer a heart attack than retrieve it.
Suddenly, there was a great scream and clattering of metal. Ian whirled around to catch sight of the silver pillar collapsing on top of Robin, crushing his skull like a rotten melon and burying the remains. Mouth agape, Ian realized fully that it was all a clever test – the gold bar was key to nothing more than the fate of those who touched it, and those who didn’t. Sure enough, the walls of the silver chamber buckled and gave way, scattering their bricks of silver about. The cavern shook tremendously from the vibrations and force of the collapsing chamber.
Ian ran as fast as his legs could carry him. The single bar of silver felt hindering and cumbersome at first but, as he continued to ascend the spiral cavern leading to the surface, he became more and more accustomed to the weight. The cavern walls and roof began to crumble and collapse behind him as he ran – clearly the vibrations of the fallen chamber were too much for the structure of the cavern to handle. He felt as if his legs were going to snap from exhaustion, and left his pack behind to reduce drag. A ferocious avalanche of cascading rock followed Ian as he continued to hurdle towards the surface.
With his life on the line, Ian managed to reach the entrance in a fraction of the time it took to descend. With the cavern collapsing behind him in a chain reaction, he had little choice but to continue running if he wanted to live. He truly wanted to do so; sweat streamed from his every orifice and his mouth was as dry as a desert.
Suddenly, there was a burst of sunlight, temporarily blinding him. It couldn’t be real. All of this felt like a nightmare riddled with lessons on selflessness. The pursuing collapse was growing faster and more powerful, judging by the increased vibrations and noise. Ian was so close, yet it felt so incredibly far given how exhausted. He felt as if he should have passed out ages ago and been crushed to death, but there was something that continued to drive him forward, towards the light.
Ian could now feel the weight of the silver bar growing too heavy to carry any longer. He’d been so preoccupied with escaping that he didn’t even notice the cumbersome brick of metal cradled in his weakening arms. His breathing was tight and wheezy and was losing his sense of balance and consciousness with each passing step. He relinquished the silver ingot to the vicious thundering of the failing cavern. It was just the alleviation Ian needed to reach the surface. With all that remained of his strength, he burst through the cavern opening and bolted across the rocky wastelands. He was determined to get as far from the cavern as possible.
Suddenly, he stopped. All was still. All was silent. It was over at last. Turning around, Ian meandered back towards the cavern entrance, near the village where the expedition was camping. Surely they would have water and transportation back to civilization, he thought.
Arriving at the shifted mound of rubble where the cavern once began, Ian struggled to find his bearings. The village wasn’t there. Nothing was. Suddenly, he came across several shreds of tent fabric and canisters of water, half-buried. Immediately savouring the liquid bliss they provided, he gained a clearer head and looked around. The entire village, along with its inhabitants and the visiting expedition team, had been swallowed alive by the collapse. All that remained, where the far edge of the village used to be, was a dirty, battered motorcar that had somehow escaped the carnage. To Ian it was inconceivable that anything had escaped the clutches of the earth and, hoping it wasn’t a mirage from the blistering heat, ran over to it with the remnants of his strength.
They key was in the ignition, and upon checking the fuel tanks and tires, Ian determined that it was capable enough to get him to the nearest town. From there, he could find passage to a port along the coast and never return. Still, he regretted giving Robin the matches, which sealed the fate of so many in the end. Ian supposed now that the only reason he survived was to learn from his mistake and gain wisdom in a world controlled by greed and selfishness. If he hadn’t heeded the warnings the voices gave him, he would be buried under metal and earth. Despite the deaths of so many, he knew that it all served a purpose – he was to pass on what he learned in some capacity. Where Ian would go or what he would do was a mystery to him. What mattered was that he’d remember how selflessness and not gambling his wants on material needs kept him alive.
The otherworldly voice echoed in his head once more as he turned the motorcar’s ignition and revved the engine.