Smoke & Mirrors, Prologue: The Crisis

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1 of Smoke & Mirrors STOP!

HAMMER TI- I MEAN, WARNING TIME! Though not all things are present in all chapters, this story will contain adult themes, including (but not limited to) homosexual interactions, both graphic and implied, some implied heterosexual interactions, sex of varying kinds with varying degrees of consent amongst the participants, transformation, and to round it all off, mind control/mental alteration. On the less potentially enjoyable adult themes that aren't included in sex, we have violence, blood, varying levels of drama, and potentially death as well (I shan't spoil any twists on that front!). If you dislike any or all of the above, you should take care while venturing within - or at least, don't complain to me afterwards! If you're underage and either like or dislike any of the above... er, you shouldn't have an opinion on that yet, you're far too young. Now shoo! Now that the young 'uns are gone, on with the show... No copying without permission lest the wrath of the great god Copyrictus strike you down, all characters are fictional, and no resemblances are intended.


Smoke and Mirrors, Part I

By Sovandar

"Who are you?"

John Huntingdon nearly dropped his old oil lantern. Nobody else should be here, ahead, in the dark corridor... his two companions were behind him. This was neither.

And yet, inexplicably, someone spoke.

As he turned the dim light towards the source of the voice, what he saw was even less explicable: it was not some*one* so much as some*thing*. A strange creature stood before him, a cross between a man and some kind of lizard; and for the umpteenth time that day John realised he was well out of his depth. But unlike before, he had the feeling that nobody else would be able to do much better.

The creature was perhaps a foot taller than a man, and had a hunched, almost animalistic posture; dull, pine-green scales covered its powerfully-muscled body, a tail as long as the creature was tall hung behind it; its face was elongated to a blunt tip and filled with teeth that, he realised thankfully, were blunt like a horse's or cow's; its long, two-pronged tongue flicked disturbingly in and out of its mouth, waving through the air as if it were an independent creature; its eyes were slitted like a cat's, a blazing golden-yellow that almost seemed luminous in the dull lantern-light. It wore a tabard of dark-coloured cloth, with some sort of insignia on it, but nothing else, not even shoes, to judge by its bare, three-clawed feet.

His mind raced, but only in circles; panic; rationalisation. Might it be hostile? He remembered, all too well, that his companion Riley Jones had opted to bring along his father's old service revolver; John had laughed at the absurdity of needing a lethal weapon while walking through the Jones' own family mineshaft, on a quiet Sunday in the quiet lowlands of Wales. Almost everyone was in Blaenavon, for Church; the mine was closed, it was a rare day off. Who could possibly be down here?

"I said, who are you?", it repeated, its eyes regarding him with a curiously predatory glint. Its hissing voice held an odd accent that he couldn't quite place.

John shook with a paroxysm of fear, the light from his lantern jerking wildly around the corridor, giving the scene an even more eerie feel.

His voice returned to him suddenly, and he whimpered, "Oh m...my God, please, please don't hurt me..." He sounded pathetic, even to his own ears.

It took John a moment to realise something blindingly obvious, but his jaw dropped further as he realised it. "M...my God, you speak English?!"

The creature gave a low hiss that sounded like a sigh, and nodded, slowly. "My name is Geraint; Sir Geraint, though the honorific matters little anymore. I have no intention of harming you; I wish to offer my assistance..."

"Geraint?" John asked, taking a slow pace backward. The strange normality of having a conversation was allaying his fears somewhat, giving him something to focus on.

Why would an inhuman monster have a Welsh name, he wondered?

"Come, what is your name?" Geraint, asked.

"My... I'm..." John had to pause a moment, to compose himself. Every instinct commanded him to run, and scream, and escape from this inexplicable monster. But, rationality fought back; the creature was obviously intelligent; it was not hostile - not overtly­, he corrected himself - and seemed just to want to talk. He had come here to explore, though this wasn't the manner he'd expected - but by definition, what did one 'expect' from the unknown and unknowable? Perhaps he should swallow his fears and see where civility led; was there such harm in it? "My name is John, John Huntingdon... What *are* you?" he asked, rather more bluntly than he'd intended.

The creature cocked its head, curiously, in a way that reminded him of a bird. "Well met, then, John of Huntingdon... as for *what* I am, that is a long story, but once, I was..."

Footsteps approached at a run, and Riley appeared around the corner at high speed, his revolver in hand. "What the hell?! John, look out!" he exclaimed, raising the weapon, his eyes wide.

Geraint showed no fear, only mild surprise; John, who was in the line of fire as well, suddenly found a new reason to move away quickly. "Whoa, whoa! Stop! Riley, stop!" He cried, ducking back fearfully as he held his arms up, to implore Riley not to shoot. "Please, put the gun down, it just wants to talk!"

"Gun? What is a..." Geraint said, starting to sound worried; John's fearful reaction had not been lost on the reptile.

"What is this?! It's a damn demon! A demon!" Riley said, eyes practically bulging out of his head. John suppressed a shiver; Riley was normally no fool - he did, however, suffer from a bit of a yellow streak, and handled shock and stress badly. He was armed with a lethal weapon, and panicking; John did not have a good feeling about this.

"Demon?!" Geraint said, offended, pulling himself up to his full height, his head almost touching the ceiling in the low corridor. "Who are you calling a demon, mongrel?!"

Riley's jaw dropped for a moment, then clenched shut, grimly; John saw that Geraint's remark had hurt the half-caste man, and roused his anger. This was getting out of hand.

Despite the British name, Riley had been born Saral Rajinder Jones; son of Lloyd Owen Jones, an émigré Welshman serving in the East India Company's army, and an Indian woman Lloyd had met and married in the late 1850s. Riley never knew his mother, she had vanished soon after his birth; he was brought up by his father's second wife, an Englishwoman, along with his elder stepsister Ellen. When the East India Company was finally dissolved by Act of Parliament in 1874, the luck of the Joneses had turned for the worse; ten years later, they returned to the long-abandoned family farmstead in rural Wales.

With a pervasive dark tone to his skin and notably Asian cast to his eyes and chin, Riley could not have passed for a native Briton. With his unusually light mouse-brown hair, broad Celtic shoulders, and short stature, he did not fit into an Indian mould either; people in both countries simply thought of him as 'foreign'. Britain's armies bestrode all the corners of the globe; any other bloodline would only dilute that pioneering British spirit, so said popular opinion in this winter of 1898.

It must be true; even inhuman lizardmen thought it!

"Who... who are you calling a mongrel?!" Riley shouted back, gesturing carelessly with the gun. John ducked out of the path any shot would take, with a startled yelp that surely had no business coming from an experienced Englishman.

"Riley, for God's sake, put it down before you shoot someone!" John said, in a firm, commanding tone, and took advantage of the momentary confusion to step forward and push the barrel aside, before taking the gun himself. Riley was too startled to pay much attention while John carefully disarmed him.

"That object is... a weapon?" Geraint asked, curiously, more hesitant and uncertain than he had been. "My apologies if my words insulted... but no more so, I think, than you have insulted me..."

"Water under the bridge, right, Riley?", John said, flushing. He desperately wanted someone else, anyone else, to take charge; he was no diplomat, but he wasn't eager to see violence break out, either.

Riley chewed his lips, still seeming rather shocked. "John, there's one creature here, there could be more... what about Cedric?"

John paused; the thought hadn't occurred to him. By sheer chance, Riley and John had ended up quite close together while they explored this place; Cedric, having gone in the opposite direction, must surely be alone.

Geraint cocked his head again. "There are others of you?"

"Yes, one other... he's alone, and unarmed, are there any..?"

Riley cut him off. "John, for Heaven's sake, don't tell him that! We have no idea... no idea what..." He paused, searching for the words. "No idea what's going on! Quick, you'd better run; bring Cedric back. Forget covering more ground, we need to stick together!"

"There is no need, I am the only..." Geraint began.

"Shut up!" Riley said, coldly. "You are *not* giving the orders around here! Now..." He turned to John. "Get going! Now!"

Riley did not often take charge, but he had grown a lot more assertive since he had become a wealthy mine-owner - more by luck than his judgement. After returning home from boarding-school for the last time, no job nor prospects except as an impoverished farmer, he'd disobeyed his dying father and stepsister, and allowed a few land agents and prospectors to examine the farm. He'd intended only to expand his options, maybe sell the land on, or let it out to tenant farmers.

Their prospectors hit a metaphorical gold mine.

Under the land was a shallow, rich seam of anthracite - steam-coal, the highest grade, nearly smokeless and in huge demand to fuel Britain's fast-growing industrial might, and especially the new Royal Navy, filling rapidly with all-steel battleships and demanding huge furnaces to drive them. The farmland was soon cleared, the land leased to a mining company, and Riley joined the select group of landowners profiting from the resource boom that had helped turn this small island nation into the world's first industrial superpower.

Britons were loath to let a 'foreign' businessman get settled into their boardrooms, and Riley had had to fight - although, John thought uncharitably, much of the business sense in the family belonged to Riley's stepsister Ellen, without whose advice Riley would be lost.

"John! God's sake, hand me the gun, and get moving!" Riley said irritably, breaking John from his momentary reverie. John wasn't used to being ordered about, but then, this was an unusual situation.

"Ah... okay, okay, I'm going..." John said, handing Riley the Gun back; the man seemed far saner now that the shock was wearing off, and John couldn't deny that someone needed to find Cedric, and someone armed needed to stay near Geraint. It was only sensible, and much though he wanted to argue, that meant leaving Cedric in possible danger.

"Don't do anything foolish while I'm gone!" John warned.

Riley gave him a withering look, but said nothing; John set off at a run; he hoped Cedric hadn't encountered any trouble.

Cedric Smith was an engineer; John had known him and worked with him for a great many years. Cedric's family was from the Midlands, and low-class miners all; he had worked coal seams from age 6, right up until 14 when his family had earned enough to send him to school. From there, his surprisingly keen intellect had carried him all the way to the prestigious Oxford University on scholarship. But, years of growing up in the mines had made him seem older than his years, and even at Oxford, coal dust still seemed ingrained indelibly in his pores, like a scar of an unhappy youth. His appearance had been described, charitably, as 'rugged', but this seemed to be no handicap; John recalled being highly envious of how many young ladies Cedric caught the attention of.

Cedric was powerfully and intimidatingly built; his Oxford days had softened him, but the engineering degree he earned there did not pan out as he'd hoped. His dream had been to build bridges or buildings, like his hero Isombard Kingdom Brunel, but well-educated and wealthy noblemen always hired well-educated but less wealthy noblemen for such grand projects. Outsiders had virtually no chance.

Cedric had accepted it only grudgingly, and dreamed of finding a way to make his name, to be acknowledged... finding this strange place had brought him to life, more than anything else in John's recollection.

It was a mysterious sequence of events, though, that had led here. What, at first, seemed like a minor earth tremor - not uncommon in heavily-mined South Wales - had been anything but commonplace. A large sinkhole had appeared in one of Riley's outlying fields in the hillside valley floor, just beyond the mine-workings; fifty feet deep and hazardously rubble-strewn.

Then miners checking the tunnels for damage, said that a new coal face had opened up - in an area where prospectors had found nothing, after several surveys. Initial suspicion that it was some sort of hoax - or maybe even deliberate time-wasting by the freshly-unionised bolshevik miners - had proven unfounded. In fact, the coal face they had found was the biggest and best in the mine, and yet, inexplicably, despite many excavations in the area - even one test shaft dug straight into it - it had remained undiscovered.

Even more mysterious was how, as soon as the face had been carefully explored by hand - the usual blasting charges foregone, due to the freshly-proven geological instability in the area - the mining team had found the core of the sinkhole, underneath the rubble that blocked surface access, and inside it was a small building; a hut of steel, with a reinforced door that would not have looked out of place on a battleship. The team had been withdrawn immediately; and Riley had opted to come in person to explore, bringing John and Cedric with him. He'd come on a Sunday rather than risk any of the subcontractors seeing what was here; he did not trust his business partners.

That door led to a set of stairs, leading down further into the bowels of the Earth; led into a minor labyrinth of damaged and decaying tunnels and side-rooms; an inexplicable, impossible construction, buried dozens of feet beneath the ground, in soil that had been farmed for generations.

As John ran through the subterranean, metal-lined corridors, he couldn't help but feel a sense of elation, that he was a part of... whatever this was turning out to be. He would be famous; newspapers would demand his photograph, Prime Ministers and Kings would beg to be seen with him, his name would be in the history books - what else could this be but history in the making?

But at the same time, he felt a dreadful knot of fear, the pervasive sense that he was in far over his head. Geraint's appearance proved that in a way that the relatively mundane metal building had not. From this point on, he promised, he would expect the unexpected.

"Cedric? Cedric?!" He called. He passed the stairwell they'd entered by. "Cedric, come, quick! There's a... there's something here!"

"John?", came the confused-sounding reply, echoing around. John gave a sigh as his jogging slowed, and he realised that he'd been nearly holding his breath while he ran; he felt far more fatigued than usual.

He approached an open nearby doorway - from the faint flicker of lamplight, he guessed that Cedric must be on the other side.

"John, be careful!" Cedric exclaimed, as John stepped into the entrance. "There's... there's a ghost in here!"

John took a step over the threshold before the words registered. Cedric was as white as a sheet, and shivering.

"Ghost?! What... what are you talking about?" John asked, raising his lantern and swinging around, less and less able to keep his fears in check. He didn't believe in apparitions and the spirit-world... but enough strangeness had already happened today, that he was ready to believe anything.

"I'm serious, John! There!" Cedric said, terrified, pointing toward a highly polished surface on the wall nearby. John swung his light in that direction; no, not part of the wall. It stood freely, about a foot in front of the wall; a mirror, huge, nearly six feet square. John could hardly see anything with his own light reflecting back in his eyes, and Cedric's light likewise...

...a movement; a flash of a white dress moving behind him, an indistinct face, a red stain of blood, a faint shape.

Just for an instant, he saw it.

He swung around, giving a loud yell of startled terror; but there was nothing there. The mirror showed only the scene in the room, as any mirror should, and nothing more. He felt a sudden, heavy weight; a presence. Something *was* in here with them.

Cedric jumped a foot in the air, startled by the shout. "Jesus Christ almighty, what did you see?! Tell me, John!" he exclaimed.

"A... a... I don't know... Cedric, we've got to get out of here, come on, we need to get back to Riley..." John gestured for Cedric to come with him.

Cedric didn't move, spinning on the spot instead, to look back at the mirror. "Oh! Oh, my, it's there! Look, it's..!" he said, his voice on a rising note of terror.

"Run!" John shouted, feeling the sudden oppressive danger settling all around him. The ground seemed to be rumbling, vibrating softly and unevenly. Something awful was going to happen... "Quickly... damn it, hurry!" he said, yelling over Cedric's voice.

This time, Cedric snapped into action, giving in incoherent wail and barging past John, rushing out of the room; John followed, at a pace that was surely undignified for a gentleman of his social standing, slamming the door shut behind him with such force that the whole structure seemed to reverberate. Echoes of the crash bounced around the narrow corridor.

He huffed heavily, the adrenaline fading and rationality - and denial - flooding in to save his sanity now that the skeletal presence of death was removed. Imagination, he told himself; too much unfamiliarity, too many shocks. An afterimage in his eye, a suggestion planted by Cedric, and what he'd almost expected to see had conspired to fool his senses. Silly... worse, downright stupid, jumping at shadows.

Deep breath.

Calm.

This was no way for the Baron of Newport to behave in front of a low-born engineer - even if Cedric was an old friend.

John absent-mindedly brushed his suit down; the old garment was so worn he had been tempted to throw it away, but for a trip down a coal mine he thought it best to dress in something that he wouldn't mind losing.

If he'd known how filthy the mine would be, he'd have accepted the dirty, stained boiler suit he was offered that morning, and not assumed the grins and sniggers were provoked by the thought of a Baron wearing such sordid rags - apparently, they'd in fact found it funny to see an ignorant nobleman make a fool of himself by ruining a perfectly good suit. The mine was so thick with a mixture of rock and coal dust, mud, and all manner of thick and disgusting grime, that the old suit had been a write-off within minutes, beyond any servant's skill to restore.

It had been a hard habit to break, though; he habitually wore morning dress to his factory in Swansea without problems, despite the smoke and the grime - cynically, engine oil and soot didn't show easily on a dark suit, no matter how grimy it got. It was a pleasing reminder of his status, putting him a cut above his employees. Image was essential; the Baron chose to manage the factory in person for most days of the week, catching the regular train from his Newport estate, along the coast, to the port of Swansea and back again. Most men of his station considered even that modicum of 'real' work beneath them, but after a few near-misses with bad investments, John felt safer seeing things for himself. Besides, it saved the expense of a manager, and helped instil awe in the relatively quiet workforce - which was no small bonus in these days of Marxism and increasing bolshiness amongst the lower classes.

That was not to say there were no problems; for all his wealth, the factory was not looking like a bright future prospect - coal prices had skyrocketed with the recent expansion of the Royal Navy, and the steam-powered factory was having trouble covering the rising costs.

A large part of the problem was that the local wool his automated spinning machines worked into threads, was a shrinking market now that ever-cheaper 'luxury' cotton from the Orient was competing with 'unsophisticated' local produce; the rich were buying global now, and local goods were looked down on as crude, commonplace, tacky, unfashionable.

Which is why it grated on him that he was here, *technically*, as Riley's employee; Riley had offered a year's supply of free coal from his mine in exchange for the loan of John's ingenious, mine-experienced engineer, Cedric. John had, perhaps a tad recklessly, insisted on coming along too, a little worried that Cedric might find a new job with the well-to-do Joneses if not kept on a tight leash; even though Cedric disliked mining intensely, thanks to his youth, no man was beyond a price, and it wouldn't be the first time Riley had tried to poach him away.

Even though he was himself pretty wealthy, John Huntingdon's fairly minor fortune was shrinking. Meanwhile, Riley Jones had gone from a rapidly failing would-be farmer to an equal to John's wealth in under a decade, and his wealth was growing exponentially with each passing year.

John had, secretly, always liked to be around Riley so he could feel a little superior. To now be eclipsed by Riley very much irritated him, though he was too sensible to say so.

"A ghost... no, no, surely not..." Cedric whispered, hands on his knees, wheezing slightly.

"No... Definitely not", John agreed, uncertainly. He felt comfortable saying so, but he *had* seen something. He pushed the thought to the back of his mind. "Cedric, we need to go find Riley, fast. We can't split up in here..." he glanced involuntarily over his shoulder, suddenly half-certain he might see the apparition emerging from the door behind him. "...er, there's, this unpleasantness just here, and Riley and I found... some sort of creature. We need to get back to him, there could be trouble."

Cedric's eyes widened. "Another one? Let's hope it's not a ghost too..." he grinned, but it was clearly forced, a brave face to conceal his deeper shock.

John shook his head. "No, this one's very much alive; no ghost."

But, he wondered... was he so sure Geraint was a flesh-and-blood creature? He'd not touched the odd being, not seen him touch anything else, not even shot at him... just seen and heard.

It was with a renewed uncertainty that he raised his safety-lantern. "We need to get back there... now!"

With that, he strode away resolutely, breaking back into a light jog, and he heard Cedric following close behind with barely a moment's delay.

The return journey seemed a lot quicker; but he knew the route back and the distance, whereas he'd had to search for Cedric on the way out.

"Here, we're back!" John said, as he halted behind Riley.

Cedric's jaw dropped as he set eyes on Geraint; Riley didn't seem to notice his colleague's shock. "Damn, John, what happened back there? I thought I heard shouting! More of these... things?"

"There are no others of my kind, I..." began Geraint.

"Shut up!" Riley interrupted, shaking the revolver in Geraint's direction menacingly; the reptile's voice went rapidly silent, and after a moment his jaw closed with an audible snap.

John shook his head, suppressing a shudder. He felt somewhat bad about Riley's treatment of Geraint; the lizardman, for all his strangeness, didn't seem to wish them any harm. Still, Geraint *had* seemed fairly antagonistic with Riley, before he'd realised a revolver was a lethal weapon. Seeming cooperative might be simple self-preservation.

"No, nothing like him... but there's... something appeared in the air, some presence, in a room with a mirror..." John replied; this time he did shudder, the fresh memory still chilling him to his core.

Geraint looked up, his inhuman eyes widening. "You felt...? In a room with a mirror? Impossible..." He looked away, as if collecting his thoughts. "You shouldn't go there. It's... a bad place."

"You don't tell us what to do!" Riley said, threateningly. "Keep quiet!" Then he turned back to John and Cedric. "Find anything useful? Maybe we should interrogate this guy about the place, find out a bit more?"

John frowned. "Riley, don't you think you're going a bit far? He's not done anything to us, maybe we shouldn't be so..."

Riley rounded on him, and for a moment John could see the fear in Riley's eyes, too, scarcely concealed by his anger. "Shouldn't be what, John? Sensible? We should let some monster wander around in the dark here with us? Damn it, talk sense! I'm not taking my eyes off this thing!"

But n looking away at John, Riley had done exactly that. Cedric broke his silence with a gasp, and a, "Whoa, whoa, it's..!"

John saw, too, as Geraint's long face broke into a faint grin, and with a surprisingly rapid movement for so large a creature, he took a single pace backward and slammed the thick metal door before Riley could react.

A lock had loudly clicked into place before the nervous man responded, far too late; his expression as he reflexively pulled the trigger was one of shocked realisation, though whether at his inability to control his trigger finger or his foolishness in taking his eye off the lizard, John did not have time to think.

The gunshot was appallingly loud in the narrow, metal-lined corridor; there was a bright spark as the bullet hit the metal door, the sound of impact adding to the deafening cacophony. All three men were instantly stunned by the blast of sound.

Cecil jumped back, swearing loudly and incoherently; his voice faded as the shock drained from all three, the echoes of the gunshot fading slowly into the silence that pervaded the deserted tunnels.

Riley broke the silence, pale and shaking. "Cedric, there's no need for such language..." he said, feebly.

John exploded. "For God's sake, Riley, I told you to put that damn thing down, now..."

They both jumped as, with a loud crash, Cedric's lantern dropped to the ground, the glass breaking on impact with a smash. Thankfully, no flames leapt from the broken lantern; the Davy Safety Lamp lived up to its name, the light extinguishing immediately.

Cedric was pale, and shaking, his mouth open in shock, and his face turning grey with pain as he stumbled, catching himself on the wall.

"Cedric?" John said, an icy chill sweeping through his belly. "Cedric?!"

"You... you stupid bastard, you... you shot m-me..." Cedric stammered, his voice quivering; and then he dropped to the ground like a sack of coal, his face contorted with pain, and a dark stain starting to soak across the right leg of his grimy coveralls, halfway up his thigh.

Frozen shock and horror gave way suddenly to a flurry of action. The leg was given a tourniquet, and crudely bandaged with a torn strip from Cedric's left sleeve. It was hardly sterile, but they only needed to keep him alive long enough to reach the emergency first-aid station by the main lift shaft. The nurses wouldn't be on duty on a Sunday; they'd all be at home in Blaenavon; but the supplies were all there.

In acrimonious silence they carried the unconscious Cedric quickly along the short length of corridor, up the creaking flight of stairs, and to the top, where the passageway led out to the mine itself...

...the door was blocked. It opened outward six inches, and then hit a solid obstruction on the far side; dark soil and dust from shattered rock slid inside as they pushed to dislodge the obstruction.

The void under the sinkhole had shifted; rubble had fallen.

They were trapped.

* * *

Riley was tying a tourniquet tight around Cedric's thigh, minutes after their horrified discovery of their entrapment. They'd rushed to the nearest empty room in the corridor at the bottom of the stairs, and laid Cedric down; they would simply have to make do treating the wound here.

Nobody worked on a Sunday; it would be Monday morning before anyone noticed they were missing; they should have had a team of people down here nearby, just in case, but that had occurred to none of them; too focused on the mystery and safeguarding potential gains from prying eyes. Avarice had defeated common sense.

Now, shock was giving way to anger, and recrimination; John was in no mood. Cedric was badly hurt; he might *die*, and all because Riley was too damned stupid to think better of shooting a loaded gun at a solid metal door.

This is your fault", Riley said, suddenly, in stark contradiction of John's thoughts.

"*My* fault? How on Earth do you think this is my fault?!" John retorted, flabbergasted.

"You slammed that damn door down here earlier, it probably caused the rockfall! If it weren't for you we'd be at the mine head by now, and we'd have everything we needed..."

John bit his tongue; how could Riley really believe such a gross distortion of events?

"I seem to recall it was your idea to go waving the gun around in the first place?" John said, coldly, deciding not to raise his voice as temptation and anger demanded.

"We'd still be trapped in here. Don't suppose you've got any food?"

"No", John said. "Just a water-canteen and a hip flask. Half-empty." They'd given half the local whisky in John's small flask to Cedric; it was far from a panacea, but better than nothing. "Guess we'd better hope Geraint is friendly."

"Hah!" Riley snorted. "We're better off barricading the door and staying in here until tomorrow morning. Then we can try and sneak out; I'd rather not encounter that... *thing* again."

"Hey,", John contradicted, still feeling argumentative. "Geraint could be friendly. You waving that gun around and hurling insults wasn't exactly helpful in..."

"Me?! Hurling insults? You heard what that overgrown snake said about me!" Riley spat back. "If you're so sure, why don't you go find him and talk it all over? I'll just sit here with Cedric, don't you mind us interrupting your social schedule!"

John shook his head incredulously. "What is the matter with you?!"

"Again, me?! What's the matter with *you*?! Since when are you this..."

"Sensible?"

"Pig-headed! It's about Ellen again, isn't it?"

John's jaw dropped, genuinely wondering for a minute if Riley had entirely taken leave of his senses. "You're not serious? You prance around like a maniac, wave a gun around, *shoot* Cedric, and you think this is about me and your sister?!"

John had been smitten with Ellen the moment he first laid eyes on her; they'd courted, shared, and even gotten engaged. But then, six months ago, she'd one day started seeming pretty upset about the way the relationship was heading; John had tried to cheer her up by broaching the subject of her moving in to his Newport estate after the wedding, as the custom demanded, and ceasing her work with her family mine enterprise. She'd been incredulous, having thought it unmentionably obvious that John would sell off his decaying factory and add his wealth to the much-more successful mine that she all but ran on Riley's behalf.

They'd argued, with increasing bitterness, until John - in a slightly inebriated moment of weakness - had suggested that Riley wasn't worth her time, and that he'd just have to manage by himself. He knew that Ellen did not exactly get along with her brother - she thought him too accustomed to her support, too eager to claim the credit for her efforts rather than admit a woman was helping him, and too jealous of her to give her the support she'd offered him. He'd thought she might be eager for an excuse to scare Riley a bit, make him realise how much he relied on her, get away from it all for a while - maybe forever. It was a foolish thought, and he had instantly regretted asking her to turn her back on her brother, his own friend.

Ellen had never been a traditional establishment girl - only two years ago she'd been arrested during a protest to give women the vote, but released without charge. John had always known that, and indeed it was part of her attraction; but it wasn't until that heated argument that he realised that his idyllic fantasy of settling down quietly in a nice, traditional marriage, was never going to happen.

He'd handled it badly, he knew. He knew, in all honesty, even as it was happening, like he was a horrified observer examining a photograph of an imminent disaster, powerless to change the events that were portended.

He wasn't sure who'd thrown the first blow, all he knew was that a red mist had descended, and not cleared until he was on the doorstep, travelling-bag in hand, being thrown out of her sizeable cottage in Blaenavon, blood trickling down his neck from where the diamond engagement ring had caught and torn his flesh. It had scarred; but he'd written it off as a shaving accident. The train journey to Newport had been a long one.

He desperately wanted to apologise, but she'd always managed to find some excuse to avoid him at the last minute. Riley didn't know what had happened, exactly - at least, John presumed not, hoped not.

Ellen would come back one day, he knew. He hoped. But until then, Riley was just prodding a hornet's nest.

He could feel his temper rising again, and he knew that if he stayed, carried on, he'd not be able to resist landing a punch square on Riley's nose, a thought that gave him a worrying amount of satisfaction. But Cedric was injured; there was a gun to hand; this was a crisis.

He had to get out of here.

"In fact, you know what?" John said, searching for an excuse. "Looking for Geraint's not so bad an idea. He might be able to help, he lives here, he might have some medical supplies... something!" John rose to his feet. "Better than staying here and hoping Cedric doesn't bleed to death!"

Riley looked nonplussed, and John realised with some satisfaction that Riley genuinely hadn't expected John to actually leave to find the reptile-man. "W...what?! But... we have to stay here!"

John shrugged. "Not to sound rude, but why? There's nothing more we can do here. I'll go, see if I can find help, and you can stay here, and make sure he's comfortable."

"N...no! I... I don't know a thing about first aid!"

"That makes two of us. The only one who does..." John pointed at Cedric. "...is the one who needs it. We can't just leave it until tomorrow, it could be two, three days before we get out - he could have gangrene or something by then!"

Riley's mouth flopped open, and shut silently, several times. John didn't give Riley a chance to contradict him; instead stepping out of the room, and shutting the door behind him. He swung the lantern ahead of him, and turned left, back in the direction he'd first found Geraint.

It wasn't until he'd taken several paces that he realised he'd left the gun behind. Well. He'd not embarrass himself by going back for it now.

* * *

It was barely ten minutes before he was regretting his impulsive journey. The corridors twisted and turned in many directions, and they all looked very similar in the dim, flickering light. His eyes played tricks on him, seeing movement in every shadow, hearing sounds behind him at every turn. Time had taken its toll on the place; the ceiling sagged badly, the walls were often bent and warped; more than half the doors were bent as well, and effectively locked in place. It felt like a *dead* place... a tomb.

He desperately tried to suppress the memory of the mysterious spectre... he lambasted himself for jumping at shadows, literally, and persuaded himself it was all his imagination.

Cedric had seen it too...

Bah, this was getting him nowhere. Most of the side rooms seemed impassable, the doors jammed shut; Or maybe Geraint was the other way, maybe John should have gone to the right on leaving the room he'd started thinking of as 'base camp'. He had no idea how big this place was, or even if he'd been in this part before.

If Geraint didn't want to be found, he had only to lock himself in a side room; sit on the far side of these thick metal doors and nobody would ever know...

"Geraint! Anybody!" he yelled, loud as he dared, flinching as he broke the oppressive silence. Thoughts of spectres and phantoms ran through his head; what might lurk in the darkness, just out of sight..?

To his surprise, he heard a faint cry in response. Which way... that way? He ran down the corridor, zig-zagging to and fro, shouting. The voice began to get more distinct...

...was that Cedric?

He rounded a corner, and saw a splash of lantern-light shining from a side-door up ahead. "In here, John! What's the matter?" came Cedric's voice from inside.

Damn; he must have turned completely around at some point, come right back to where he started.

"Cedric... I went exploring and got a bit lost..." John said, feeling foolish. "How are you feeling, how's Ril..."

He reached the doorway and stopped with a start of surprise. This wasn't base camp! A larger room... a mirror a foot from the wall... his heart sank. "Cedric, what are you doing in here?!" he asked, nonplussed, staring at the lame man leaning on the wall for support. "Where the hell is Riley?"

"Don't know, John... phew... this wasn't such a great idea of mine, actually..." Cedric said, panting slightly. "Leg hurts a lot more... than..."

"Why are you on your feet? God above, man, you got shot!" John said, stepping forward nervously. "And why did you come back here, of all places?"

"Ah, I woke up about... half an hour ago? Neither you nor Riley were there, and the more I thought, the more certain I was that it was all my imagination in here... and I had to come back to get a look at the inscription..."

"Riley, damn it! He swore he'd stay and look after you..." John cursed, thinking darkly ahead to a stern chat with Riley about taking responsibility for things. Then the second part of Cedric's explanation struck him.

"Wait, inscription? What inscription? I was in here before, there wasn't an inscription..."

"Sure there was!" Cedric said, "Though we didn't exactly take it calmly and swap notes in the circumstances, did we?"

John shuddered at the memory of the momentary terror. "What was the inscription?"

"Look, it's right here..." Cedric said, swinging his lantern toward the wall he was leaning on, and John saw, sure enough, something carved into the wall. Or rather, scratched, and none too neatly.

'In anno 1230AVC AMBROSIVS ARTORIVS AVRELLIANVS Rex Caer Mallwt intrat et petitvr hac sva IN NOMINE DEI et accepit gladivm ex Caer Libarvs vt occideret Saxo occvpatores AD DEI GLORIAM'

He recognised the language as Latin, and wished he'd paid more attention in Classics lessons in school. But, what on Earth was a Latin inscription doing here?

"Don't understand a word of it, I'm afraid... But this place surely isn't Roman?" he said, hesitantly, fearing he would make a fool of himself.

Cedric guffawed, then grimaced as the motion jarred his injured leg. "Ha-urgh! ... No, no, of course it's not Roman. No rust, you see, even though it's old; this place can't be made of iron or steel... maybe aluminium, like the superstructures on the latest warships? Romans didn't have that stuff, never got past cast iron", he said, dismissively. "But someone might have come down here before; it wasn't completely buried, remember, there was a cavern around the place. Maybe it was excavated at one time? The coal seam is quite shallow, might have been mined once, open-cast, and revealed the entrance... used to be a lot of Roman encampments around the Welsh lowlands, they needed resources..." Cedric's voice trailed off, sounding increasingly strained. He huffed, evidently pained by his injury.

John hesitated, but knew Cedric would refuse help if he offered it; the engineer was too pig-headed for his own good. "So, who did build it?" he asked, instead.

Cedric gave him a withering glare. "We've been through this, John, there's no way to know! But, this inscription... don't you see what this means?"

John stared at it, but nothing new occurred to him. "No?" he said, honestly. "Not even literally. All I see are random words that are a tad short of vowels."

Cedric rolled his eyes. "Hmph. Latin script uses 'V' instead of 'U', you know, and Celtic - well, the Welsh version - uses 'w' instead of 'ou'... more or less. Still, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, with your upbringing..."

John blinked, wondering if he'd heard correctly. "I beg your...?"

Cedric was already translating, though, and didn't hear. "It says, 'In the year 1230, King Ambrosius Artorius Aurellianus of Mallwt Castle entered and claimed this place in the name of God, and too from here the sword of Castle Libarus in order to slay the Saxon invaders, for the glory of God'... it uses the celtic word for Castle, 'Caer', I see; it must have been incorporated into the place name by then, it's not a Latin word - or maybe the scribe was a bit rushed and didn't translate properly... all sorts of possibilities, none of them unprecedented."

John pondered that a moment. "So... some medieval king found this place back in the 13th century? That name sounds kind of Roman, though."

"Because it is!" Cedric said, genuinely excited. "I had to be sure I wasn't imagining this, but my God, it all fits..."

"What fits?" John asked, mystified.

"1230 AUC - that's the old Roman calendar, Anno... Urbis... Conditum... something like that, years since Rome was founded. Fifth or sixth century AD, to us?"

"Right...?" John said, no wiser.

"Ambrosius Artorius Aurellianus! Don't you see? Artorius, it's the Latinised version of a Celtic name... Arthur! There was a renegade Roman general shortly after the fall of Rome, who campaigned against the Saxons in Britain... his name was Ambrosius Aurellianus, and he's believed to have become one of the most famous Kings of the Dark Ages, if not in all history..."

The penny dropped as John remembered Cedric's major literary obsession. "Wait... not King Arthur? You're surely not serious?" John chuckled. "Someone must have come here more recently, and put it there as a joke... all that's just a story!"

"You don't think this is important?!" Cedric asked, genuinely baffled. "This could be *huge*! I mean, it says right there - Castle Mallwt... though the Celtic word was 'Caer'... Caer Mallwt? Camelot, you see? My God, even the name Geraint... one of the knights in the Lancelot-Grail sequence, I think... the medieval stories were based on legends, there must be a grain of truth at least!"

"What, Geraint, too?" John said, momentarily impressed before sanity rushed back. "Huh. I'm no expert on Arthurian legends, Cedric, but I don't recall any giant lizards..."

"What about the dragon?" Cedric asked, impassively. "Faced with something like... that... who knows how the legends would twist with time? I'd not have believed it, but we both saw it! Er, him! The dragon, slain by the sword Excalibur... wait, there, see? 'Ex caer libarus'? The sword from... from... Castle...aaagh..." Cedric stopped, suddenly, and clutched at his thigh, his expression and enthusiasm suddenly crumpling. "Oh... oh my... I think... I think something's wrong..."

He slid down the wall, his balance failing.

"Cedric!" John exclaimed, looking down and suddenly realising that there was a small but growing pool of blood around Cedric's boot; his overalls' right leg was soaking wet below his wound. "Oh, my... damn it all to hell, man, I said you shouldn't be on your feet! Now look..." he said, dropping on one knee and quickly tightening the tourniquet. "Seriously, in God's name you should be lying down, resting, and not getting so excited - you'll be no good to anyone at this rate!"

"Just... just need to... get to the Doctor..." Cedric groaned.

John froze; of course. Cedric didn't know about the little problem they had. "Ah... Cedric, about that..." he began. "The entrance is... blocked off for a while. We'll not be able to get rescue until... until the morning at the least..."

Cedric's eyes widened. "Oh, my... my God, John! John, if we wait, I'll lose the leg! I'll lose my leg, John!" he said, sounding increasingly hysterical. "I could die in here, I could die from this!"

John slapped him hard across the cheek, silencing him. "Enough!" he said, loudly. "Now calm down, damn it all - shouting and panicking won't help." He paused. "For God's sake, we're British! We're made of sterner stuff than this... now, pull yourself together, and we'll get back to base camp... this place gives me the creeps," he said, glancing at the mirror. Its surface reflected only the dimly-lit scene of the room, no trace of spectral apparitions.

"Y...yeah..." agreed Cedric, seeming faint and pale. The wound's bleeding had stopped, though; for now. That tourniquet might be the only thing keeping him alive, though, John fretted; he'd lost a lot of blood already. John had no idea how much a human body could stand to lose, but the wound was bad, straight through the flesh. It couldn't have hit an artery; John knew from the elder Mr Jones' war stories that hitting a major artery, including the ones in the leg, was fatal in minutes.

Should he build a fire and try to cauterise the wound? It might be the only way... but what would he burn, and where? Lighting a fire in an enclosed underground space was a bad idea, he knew, and there wasn't any fuel around that he could see, no wood, no...

He froze halfway to the door as he suddenly realised something that chilled him.

"...what?" Cedric asked, weakly.

"...did you notice anything unusual about this room when you came in?"

"...like what?" Cedric gasped. "Nothing that wasn't there before, why?"

"And you didn't... touch anything, I take it?"

"No! What's the matter, what is it?"

John pondered a moment, but sharing his worries with Cedric would just mean Cedric had even more to worry about. No; he'd keep this to himself.

"Oh... nothing. Just my imagination. Come on, let's get you laid down at base camp..."

John turned one last time in the doorway, and cast a glance at the gleaming, polished metal floor. The floor that, barely an hour ago, had been as dusty and dirty as any other room he'd seen, and covered in their footprints.

Someone had cleaned the room with the ghost and the message from King Arthur.

But who would do that? Why?