*Disclaimer*-The contents, characters and concepts of this story, unless otherwise states or blatantly obvious, are the sole property of yours truly.
By Laurence Williams
When a person sees a city, they see a number of things. A home. A sanctuary. A place of safety. A threat. A prison. This was certainly the case for a lot of people. For James however, London had become a wasteland. A city cast in almost total darkness, helped little by the torches carried by him and his men. And yet, on the outside, everything about the soot-covered streets seemed perfectly intact. No signs of destruction , or violence. Indeed, no sign of a struggle. Nor indeed was there any sign of life, aside from the green-jacketed riflemen who advanced in skirmish order down the deserted streets, fearfully checking over their shoulders at each step. They were on edge, and who could blame them. They had come to the capital of their nation, to find the streets deserted, the people missing, and who knew why? They were men of the 19th Surrey Volunteers, the Rifles. No amount of training could have prepared them for the eerie atmosphere of this dark London, any more than it could have prepared them for the horrors that haunted the streets, always present, yet never seen. James had orders to find out what was going on, but they were no closer to finding out where everyone had gone, and why. And more importantly, why there was no sign of a fight.
They’d had one lead however. On the second night of their mission, they’d woken up to hear the sound of running feet, and frightened yelling. Two men had been sent to find out what had happened. James recalled hearing the sound of gunfire, before the two men returned, dragging between them a young man of around 18. Bone thin, unshaven, in tattered clothes and eyes that bulged with fear, he was talking in gibberish for much of the evening, and the riflemen were about to get little out of him. All he would talk about were monsters, underground, with mentions of torture and fire. But that night had taken a further turn into darkness. As James and his men were restraining the man they’d found, there were the sounds of more screaming from outside. Making sure the man was restrained, James and a section of riflemen went outside to find the corpses of the sentries he’d posted lying on the ground, minus their heads. What was more shocking was there were only two bodies out of three left at the scene. Whatever had killed these men had taken another prisoner. Rifleman Henry Cooper, formerly the platoon’s best shot, had been taken. But whilst these events had unfolded, the man they’d found had been oddly silent. It was only when James returned to question him further that he realised the man was dead. James reasoned it was probably the shock that killed him. But they had a lead. A clue as to what was happening. And now, one of his men had gone missing. Taken into some underground torture chamber, according to what the man had said before. And James was never a man to leave one of his men behind.
And this was the reason why James’ men were making their way to King’s Cross Station, towards the entrance to the newly built Metropolitan Railway, and underground railway network many Londoners claimed was the engineering feat of the century. Unfortunately, there were no Londoners around to confirm this.
Their descent into darkness was unnerving, even with the aid of the light of two lamps Sergeant Walker had taken from a stationary locomotive. Their glow in the dank, soot-ridden tunnels was barely enough to allow the riflemen to see ahead as they walked cautiously through the tunnels, avoiding rails and tools that appeared to have been simply abandoned where they were. The darkness was unnerving, but not so much because of the lack of light. Indeed, it was more because this, James was sure, was where Cooper, and the population of London, had been taken.
“What do you reckon sir?”. Sergeant Walker walked alongside James, his rifle barrel glinting from the light of his railway lamp, his hard face cast partly in shadow.
“If Cooper’s down here”, replied James, “We’ll find him. And hopefully put an end to this. Until then, we must be cautious. Keep an eye out lads”, he said to his men, “If anything moves, take aim but hold your fire”. Walker grimaced. A veteran of the Crimean War, he’d been in every kind of battle, but nothing like this. And as sergeant, it was his role to keep the platoon together, and to support his officer. Which was increasingly difficult to do when he himself was fearful of what they might find down here in these filthy tunnels. He gripped his rifle stock tighter, glad that he’d had the foresight to load powder and shot before they ascended.
Rifleman Stevens walked behind Lance-Corporal Temple. The platoon’s youngest soldier, he was slightly more on edge than some of the older men, and looked nervously around him at the slightest provocation. And something in particular was unnerving him.
“Corp?”, he whispered nervously. Temple ignored him.
“Corp?”, persisted Stevens.
“What is it?”.
“There’s no rats, Corp”. Temple glanced back.
“What’re you banging on about?”.
“No rats Corp. There should be thousands of them down here. But there’s none”.
“Well, there were no people up there”, replied Stevens, “And there’s no rats down here. Everything’s…dead, Corp”.
“Shut up in the ranks!”, hissed Sergeant Walker from the front. Stevens said no more, there was little he feared more than a lashing from a man who’d reputedly beaten a Russian officer to death with a rifle barrel at Balaclava. But all the same, the lack of any life in this forsaken city was just as frightening.
All of a sudden, a distant noise split the fearful silence. A sort of whispered moan, which stopped as soon as it had been heard, but it was close, and haunting. As one, James’ platoon raised their guns, staring wildly around them as they looked for the source of the noise. James’ grip on his revolver tightened as he shone his lamp around the tunnel.
“Sir”. Walker’s lamp shone down a side-tunnel. They could hear the sound of trickling water as they turned to look into the black abyss of the tunnel before them.
“Plan sir?”. James mulled it over.
“Right…Sergeant Walker, you stay here with half the platoon. The rest of you will come with me down there to see what’s happening down there. And stay alert”.
The second tunnel seemed darker than the last one, and James could definitely feel the level drop as they descended. Lance-Corporal Temple held the lamp, as James, with sword and revolver drawn, took the lead. James despised it down here. It wasn’t just the darkness. The tunnel here was narrower than the last one. The air was more stale, and whilst James didn’t suffer claustrophobia, he wanted nothing more than to get out. The stench of soot and decay was overpowering, and the sound of someone retching behind James made him jump.
“Shut it Allan!”, hissed Temple threateningly, fear giving his voice a sharper edge.
As the men continued their descent, James felt the ground levelling underneath them. Suddenly the air felt cooler, and by the echo of the riflemen’s boots on the ground, could tell they were somewhere more open than before.
“Where are we sir?”.
“No idea”, replied James, glancing around at the expanse of the apparent cavern before them. From the light of Temple’s lamp, he could make out a tall ceiling formed of black girders, with tens of thousands of bricks lining the walls. The place was unfinished however, the glow of the lamp revealing roof supports and large sections of timber at the other end of the tunnel. Apparently, it was a dead end.
James took the lamp from Temple and scanned the industrial architecture. If this section of tunnels was empty (perhaps ‘deserted’ was a better term), then Cooper wasn’t to be found. Meaning they still had a near impossible amount of other places to search.
“Sir!”. James nearly jumped at the Lance-Corporal’s sudden outburst, but he soon realised why. Something was glinting in the light offered by the railway lamp.
“Rifles”, whispered James, “Advance with caution”. They soon found out what it was. It was the badge of the 19th’s crest, on a shako, being worn at an angle by the corpse of the late Rifleman Henry Cooper. His uniform was in tatters, and he appeared to be missing an arm. What was left of his body was covered in bloody scars that appeared to spell words, but James was too appalled to make sense of them.
“Fuck”, a soldier whispered behind James, in a voice that managed to echo around the tunnel. It was not the only noise either. The sound of scurrying, slithering and scraping could be heard all around them, the sound intensifying tenfold by the echoes of the unfinished tunnel. It was with this that James realised something that made his insides freeze. It was a trap.
“We’re dead”, Stevens was saying hysterically, “We’re dead, we’re dead, we’re dea…”.
“YOU’RE NOT BLOODY DEAD UNTIL I SAY YOU ARE STEVENS!”, snarled Temple, “ORDERS SIR?”.
“RUN! EVERYONE GET OUT OF HERE! NOW”. Thrusting the lamp back at Temple, James grabbed a hold of two of his men and shoved them backwards, whipping out his revolver and firing two shots randomly. The sound echoed around the tunnel, but no sooner had the smoke cleared than one of the soldiers started screaming in pain, followed by another, and another. Some fired their rifles, but in the darkness it was impossible to tell if anything hit. In the black abyss of the darkness surrounding them, the flash of gunpowder blinded James, and he flung his arm to shield his eyes. Blinking, dazed through the noise and sheer panic, he looked around to see where he was, in time to see Lance-Corporal Temple’s head fall beside him. As he jumped to his feet, his heart racing, he took a last desperate lance around him. The lamp had shattered, and the flame extinguished. He was in total darkness, and the sounds of screaming and gunfire seemed oddly faint. As he looked, all James was only able to make out one, terrifying feature of this underground tomb. A pair of red eyes, staring, unblinking, blazing like fire, from the other side of the tunnel. Eyes alight with malice, hate and what could only be described as pure evil.
James forgot his training. He forgot his oath to never leave a soldier behind, to never run from an enemy. He forgot everything as he fled, finding the exit by pure chance as he ran. At least three riflemen were left behind, and their screams followed James and tore into his very soul as he hurried out of the tunnel, desperate for light, for air, for safety. Fear gave speed to his legs and to the sound of his voice as he called out in panic.
“WALKER! SERGEANT WALKER, WHERE ARE YOU? SERGEANT!”. A faint glow appeared at the end of the sloping tunnel. It must have been the sergeant’s lamp. This gave James heart as he sped along, and finally burst into the main tunnel, panting, and looking wildly around for the remainder of his platoon.
He soon found them, bodies mangled and scarlet from blood. Weapons lying at their side, most of them missing limbs or heads. But that wasn’t what scared James. It wasn’t the sight of his own men lying in a lake of blood that made his mouth open in a terrified scream. It wasn’t the impact of the realisation that he was a dead man standing that made him reach for his revolver. And it wasn’t the sight of Sergeant Walker’s head being crushed like a rotten vegetable that made him press the trigger until the chambers were empty and the barrel smoking as though on fire. No, it was the thing standing over the corpses, turning its ugly, fanged head in James direction, and leaping forwards to pin him against the wall and slash through his body with claws like sabres. James' scream echoed around the walls of the tunnel, even after his head was ripped from his shoulders and devoured, his body being left to rot forever in the stinking, cursed tunnels of dead London.