This cave does not appear any different to the others that wriggle like worms through the steep rocky side of the low mountain. Well, it is low compared to the others around it.

Lower, and different. They rise above it like giants with reddish brown skin, clad in yellow robes of lichen and draped in shawls of vine and thorns. Moss crawls like green blood out of the many cracks lacing their bodies. Colours are splattered across their vaguely domed shapes, bright even on this misty morning, a mass of olive and russet and lime and canary yellow and ochre and even the occasional purple of a flower all bleeding into each other.

Luminous. A vibrant torch in the restless silver fog that clings to this remote corner of the country.

Not so this mountain. It is grey and black, with the odd hint of white, and the scene reminds me of a fiery collage with a black and white photograph pasted in the middle. There has been a fire here recently. That much is made obvious by the charcoal trees clutching at my trousers like angry cats, and by the layers of ash threatening to devour my shoes. Burned wood. Rock. Dust that stings my eyes. Ash. That is all I am finding here.

Am I disappointed? Yes! I told my parents I was going to a friend’s house earlier, and then cycled up to this wasteland, in the hope of finding something interesting. There is supposed to be treasure in these hills.

Am I stupid? A while ago I would have said no, but I am not so sure, for these hills are lonely and by no means safe. My twisted ankle is a reminder of that. But sometimes I like to be alone. Also, caves hold a fascination for me, and they seem to call me as I approach them, their dark entrances like black eyes. Watching me.

And for some reason, this one calls louder than the rest, almost deafening, though the only sound I hear is the hiss of the wind in the drear eddies of sand. Why? It is not particularly big-just a little over my head-and set at the foot of a low craggy ridge.

The field of dust rising towards it is treacherous, and my shoes slip many times on the seemingly flat ivory surface. Once, I sink to my knees. The slope is also steeper than I imagined, or maybe it is the softness of the ground, because I am soon stiff from ankle to thigh. My lungs itch as they inhale the ever shifting sand.

It is cold and slimy, I discover, and I wonder how the surprisingly smooth walls can be so damp when there has not been any rain recently. I pull my hand back. My fingers are coated with a deep red, which I assume is clay, but I cannot get the thought of blood out of my mind. It is so red.

Why am I doing this? The tunnel is by no means welcoming, so dark and with all the warmth of an iceberg, but I am drawn forward now. If I am a pin, the cave is the magnet. I duck my head slightly and walk through the threshold, feeling only rock beneath my feet, and ahead of me is an intense nothingness. But I see with my fingertips.

In this darkness, my eyes are useless, and too late I wonder why there is no light behind me. It is not a bright day, but I should see something. Even a faint white glimmer would be assuring, a glimmer of light on the mist, but as I turn my head all I see is the darkness. It is as though a door has shut behind me.

“Damn!” The curse slips from my lips, but oddly, I hear no sound. “What am I going to do now?”

Not being a complete fool, I turn back. But the tunnel is too long now, and winding, where it had been straight before. The door has disappeared.

I am not claustrophobic, but I begin to panic. There is no rational explanation for this, no way I might have taken a wrong turn or lost my way. I was within sight of the exit all the time.

And then there is something else. It is not just the darkness around me now, and not only the cold, but something alive and without a doubt malevolent. I suppose I can guess what you are thinking. This is just another silly stupid-girl-in-the-haunted-cave story. Well, usually it is a house. Or a hotel. Or a room. Or a hotel room where the numbers on the door add up to thirteen. Been there, done that.

I wish I can say this all I am experiencing, just a cliché horror story, hopefully one where the lead character escapes. Really, I wish it with all my heart. Not that my heart has much time or wishing, being too busy trying to keep the blood from freezing in my veins. Tears freeze upon my skin. I stop where I am.

“Hunger.” The voice is soft, like my breath. “Drink.”

“Please, let me go!” Has that ever worked? “Please!”

“Tears.”

“What are you?”

“Beyond.” The voice is a sigh now. “Beneath. Behind. Below.”

And I feel the twisted pleasure.

“Suffer now. Weep. Despair.”

Even in panic I begin to understand. There is something here, feeding on my terror and my desperation, buzzing around me. The darkness is a swam of wasps now. I feel them. And though my flesh is numb, I still know the fire of their stings, in my limbs and my mouth and my eyelids. Countless wriggling bodies, wrapping around me.

And the cave laughs.

I try to run, but there is nowhere to go. No escape. Everywhere damp walls, and by the stench it was not clay I was touching, but the blood was real. Running blind. The wasps and the serpents and the spiders follow. My skin is crumbling upon my bones, though I cannot see it. That is a small mercy.

“Eat. Suffer.” It laughs, high now and wild, like a storm wind. “EAT!”

Why me? I suppose everyone who has been in difficulty thinks that. Why me? I am not a bad person. Not perfect. I am a bit adventurous, and I can be disobedient. That is what brought me here. All right. So I know why. But I have been to those mountains before, even been within sight of this cave, and I have been none the worse. Why now?

Little time for thinking. The darkness is drowning me now, creeping through me like water, pressing upon my chest as the laughter crushes my head. And I cry out for help.

Does that ever work? This time it did, maybe, because I see a light ahead of me. Very faint. The glitter of a star. But even that miniscule sparkle is a direction to run, and I follow it. Maybe the cave knows this. Brighter lights flare around me now, a gaudy display o green and red, giving me glimpses of sunsets and green fields. Illusions. I jog on in unquenchable pain and in fear, slipping and sliding though muck and what might be vomit, judging by the awful smell. My leg breaks after a nasty slide, and my head slams against the wall and then I am falling towards the star…my body is shaken violently…bones are cracking and wasps are singing.

I wake up in a white hospital. No memory of how I got there of course. They tell me it is all a dream, and that I fell and hit my head. No monsters. And the blood? Just scratches. Probably took a tumble through a wasp nest.

So they say.

But I can see the mountain from this hospital window. And when the moonlight shines upon it I can see the cave, which becomes an eye in a twisted face. An eye that watches and waits. It will always be there, that hole that looks so much like the others in that desolate slope. Always hungry. Always thirsty for the tears of unfortunate wanderers. Always. What it is I will never know and nor do I wish to. Let it be. And let it rot, if it can.

I live. And mostly, my mind remains my own. But nights are full of pain and terror and of memories of a voice telling me of hideous desires and I will never sleep unaided by pills again. My days are my own, to rebuild my life. But my nights belong to the watcher in the mountain

The end

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