The Third Vault

   I’m a man who enjoys unique experiences. I’m not interested in a day at the park, but a chance to watch an illegal fight? I’m in. I’m the sort of person at a social gathering who cannot stop talking about themselves. I can’t help it if I’m the most interesting person in the room – everyone should know it.

 

   I know, I know. It’s a narcissistic flaw of mine. I acknowledge that. I’m working on it, or so I tell my therapist every week. However, I never talk just to hear my own voice. It’s more than that. I’ve done a lot of things that the average person hasn’t even considered doing. I’ve watched surgeries and smelled the burning of flesh as the surgeon cut someone open. I’ve visited the Arch of Triumph and stood below it – the one in North Korea that is. I’ve explored many of the ‘haunted’ buildings in my home city of Bristol and found no tangible evidence of the supernatural. I only say this so that you know what kind of man I am. I don’t believe in wasting an opportunity – it is our duty in life to experience everything we can. More than anything, I enjoy telling the tales of my adventures.

   You can always make light of a story, even if it goes wrong. It becomes a funny anecdote. The time I got arrested in Marrakech for being inappropriately dressed at a religious sight. Forgetting I had a can of Pepsi in my bag when going through US customs. Having the doctor unexpectedly check my prostate while hospitalised. All less than happy experiences, made hilarious when you spin it just right. Have always been able to bring joy out of something less than positive.

   Except for this time. This time I don’t want to talk about it, I won’t even tell my therapist what I saw, but I have to tell someone. Anyone. Strangers on the internet if I have to – for my own sanity. Even now, I lay awake at night questioning what I saw. Questioning whether what I saw was real. The eerie whispers of doubt crawl through my mind as it teases my conscious mind with almost-explanations, only for me to realise how deluded I sound and try to understand it using the rules of the world I know. Or knew as the case seems to be. Even now, as I type this, weary from the day and wary of the nightmares my sleeping mind will bring, I cannot make sense of it. But I need to start at the beginning.

****

   A week before the event transpired, an old friend contacted me. He was an educated man, recently finishing a degree and using that overpriced piece of paper to work alongside a local geology group. He told me that they’d discovered something that I’d love, but his non-disclosure agreement meant that he couldn’t tell me directly.

   “Watch the news,” he would say, his words a tease. And watch the news I did. Low and behold, there was the reveal.

“Vaults discovered under Clifton Suspension Bridge Towers”

   I was almost a little disappointed - that wasn’t anything new. That discovery had been made fifteen years prior. The original discovery was twelve huge vaulted caverns inside the supports of the bridge. Two were open to the public to tour. It had been quite popular, seeing what lay beneath one of the most well-known UK landmarks and below the ground of the most affluent area in the city. What wasn’t in the news was the fact that they were working on opening up a third and fourth once it had been confirmed to be safe. My friend was one of the people making that decision.

   The moment the news was live, he called – his non-disclosure no longer applicable. What offered me was to be among the first to enter the third vault.

   “Because I know you’d love the bragging rights,” he exclaimed, knowing me all too well. He hadn’t even finished the sentence before I told him that was exactly what I wanted to do. The call ended and we’d agreed to meet that evening. I grinned, but there was one other I needed to share the news with: my grandfather.

****

   My grandfather was a frail man – even for a man who had weathered as many winters as he had. Yet he hadn’t always been that way. Normally people said how youthful he was for his age – in body and mind. He was someone who went for long sprawling walks in the countryside on the outer limits of the city. He was the man who gave me my sense of adventure and want to see the world. Always was a peculiar man, speaking of how ancient the ground we walked on was – even when we walked on the tarmac he spoke about how we could cover up the world below us but it would always be there. That was back when his mind was whole – since the incident in the woods, he hadn’t been the same in body or mind. A slip while hiking had left him alone in the cold and deep of the woods for days. When someone found him, he has delusional and dehydrated. He’d never recovered and his health had declined ever since. I think it was the fear and isolation that rifled through his mind and stole part of him that day, despite his insistence that he may have been on his own but was never alone in those woods. Nevertheless, he never left the house again and kept his curtains shut for fear of seeing the woods that existed beyond his garden.

   “Hey grampfer,” I said as I sat beside him, putting his hand in mine. He didn’t respond.

   “He’s not having a good day,” the live-in nurse said, explaining his lack of response. I simply smiled and nodded at her – he didn’t have many good days any more.

   “You’ll never guess what I’m doing later,” I said softly, still no response. “I’m exploring the caves below the bridge.”

   His eyes narrowed and his hand tightened on mine.

   “Thought you would like that,” I said with a smile, happy to see some resemblance of the man I’d known.

“Nnnnnnnn,” he started to sound. It caught me and the nurse by surprise – he’d been non-vocal for over a year.

   “What was that?” I said with a smile.

   “Nnnnnnnnn,” he tried again, gripping my hand so tightly that the veins bulged under his paper-thin skin. His eyes were wide and twisted towards me, tears flowing down his cheeks. He looked pained, as if trying to talk caused him intense agony.

   “Grampfer?” I asked, my hand hurting in his iron tight grip.

   “Nnnnnnnnoooooooooooo!” he roared, still holding onto me.

   “Mr Lawson, you should try to calm down,” the nurse said calmly, worry on her face. He hadn’t acted like that as long as she’d been caring for him. He didn’t acknowledge her, didn’t even look at her. His eyes were locked on mine.

   “No no no no no no no no,” he continued to utter, never looking away from me.

   “I’m really sorry, but I think it might be best if you step out until he has calmed down,” the nurse said apologetically as she slipped a syringe into his arm and plunged a sedative into his body. I nodded and walked out, glancing back at my grandfather. I shouldn’t have. He was staring at me wide-eyed, mouthing “no” at me as I left. I took a deep breath, wiped away tears and headed to meet my friend.

   If I’d known then what I knew now, I couldn’t have stopped myself. Ignorance of what I was ignorant about was a blessing in itself. Knowing what’s out there … I could never pretend that I didn’t. And, by telling this tale, I am cursing those who read it with the same knowledge. But the veil has to be lifted – the world we live in is a lie.

****

   So, the evening came and worry for my grandfather had been momentarily covered with excitement. I pulled up at the site of the vault, watching a team of surveyors leave at the end of their shift. Once they had disembarked, I walked towards the portacabin my friend resided in, the bridge towered over me like an ancient titan from a forgotten time, casting me in a shadow as the sun descended. The area was quiet, even with the cars crossing the bridge many miles overhead. For now, we were alone at the feet of the giant.

It was easy to forget how old Bristol was. Sure the bridge was a few hundred years old, being built in the eighteen-hundreds. But the city was so much more primordial than that. The first settlement being laid in the eleventh century and growing out from the Iron Age hill forts and Roman villas, the first true form of Bristol being known as Brycgstow – or, “The Place at the Bridge”. It seemed fitting that the city in the modern day is still known for its bridge. A city of bridges, the water, the caves, the woods, and the hills.

   My friend left the portacabin and we began walking towards the entrance. He said how there wasn’t much to see, and there probably wouldn’t be until it was tidied up and made public-friendly. He then lectured me about how I better not get hurt as it was his ass on the line. He even forbade me from going more than a few feet beyond the entrance for my own safety. Despite the warnings and assurances that there wasn’t much to see, I felt it. The feeling of adventure and the lust for the mystery that laid ahead.

   We stopped at the fourth vault that they’d been working on and he explained the work they’d been doing.

   “One of the first things we do is make sure it is structurally stable. Making sure there isn’t going to be any stonework falling from overhead. Y’know, general safety stuff. It isn’t going to look good on the city council if little Timmy is crushed by a loose bit of stone,” he explained with excitement. He was speaking quickly, almost gushing. This was his passion after all, just as exploring was mine. So I let him have his moment where I nodded and ahah’ed in all the right places. “We need to clear any debris as well. When they were building these structures they never expected anyone to open them back up. So there’s loose rocks and uncut stone everywhere. Massive tripping hazard. So now we get little Timmy being crushed or smashing his own face in. Not a good look for us.”

   “I can imagine,” I said absentmindedly, looking around us. It was weird, I’d lived in Bristol my whole life and never even thought to venture to the foot of the bridge. Up close, seeing the monument bridge the valley, it was impressive.

   “With construction lights expertly placed, we can create something really atmospheric for the people who visit. It’s great, as long as they don’t slip on the rocks – it gets quite humid in there,” he finished up. “Anyway, let’s get moving.”

   It was getting late and he wanted to go home soon – he was at the end of a long day after all. So we moved onto the third vault.

   The entrance to the third vault wasn’t nearly as impressive as the other had been. It hadn’t been expanded enough to fit anyone through while standing. That was something they’d do later when they were ready to work on it properly. For the moment, we had a small and grubby hole near the ground. It wasn’t enough to put me off – far from it. So, I got onto my hands and knees and crawled through the opening, my friend not far behind. There was a momentary drop as we entered the vault, only about a foot, but being in the dark and going head first made my heart jump into my throat when I fell forward.

   “Asshole,” I cussed when I heard my friend laugh from behind.

   Nevertheless, we both entered the vault and my friend turned on a flashlight and passed it to me.

   “You have literally a minute to look around then we’re off,” he warned. I didn’t need to be told twice. I shone the light around the cavernous area, admiring the stalactites on the rocky ceiling above. Then around the floor – he had been right, there was a lot of debris. Old brickwork and even a rusted tool or two. The floor was slippery and humidity was obvious. Plus a faint smell of … something. A sickly sweet smell. I ignored it. Breathing air from a forgotten time – you couldn’t expect it to be fresh.

   I moved the flashlights along the walls, a combination of stonework and natural formation. Manmade meeting the natural world. Then, along the wall, I noticed something unusual – a carving of some kind. Something tugged at me mentally and spiritually. I needed to go deeper and see more. Could you blame me? Who in this world could say that had seen something that no other living human had? I began moving closer, slipping slightly as I moved.

   “Oi, just a few feet remember!” my friend warned, his voice echoing off the walls.

   “When will you be done in here?” I asked, running my hand along the marking. A deep gouge across what appeared to be an image of a Christian cross. There were other symbols as well. A lopsided star with something in the middle – it was hard to tell with the gouge through that as well. Another symbol, a branch of some kind. Same as the others, a gouge through it.

   “When we will we be done?” he said with a bark of laughter. “Mate, we haven’t started in here. You were literally the first to step foot in here. As promised.”

   “Not even any surveying?” I questioned, my finger sinking deeply into the gouge.

   “Nothing, man. You are the first,” he replied. I could hear the roll of his eyes in his voice. “I wouldn’t lie to you.”

   “Any idea what these are?” I asked, indicating the symbols. I shone the flashlight at his feet, guiding him over while he took careful steps. Then I flicked the flashlight off, only for a moment.

   “Asshole,” my friend laughed and I turned the flashlight back on.

   “Fair is fair,” I said with a wink as he finished his careful walk and stood next to me and stared at the markings.

   “Any idea?” I said after a few moments. He continued to squint at the markings and the gouges. “Well?”

   “Not the foggiest, mate,” he shrugged. “Maybe some old superstition amongst the people who built it originally? Carve religious icons into the base while they build it and hope the gods protect them?”

   “And the gouges?” I asked – it made sense.

   “Maybe gouge the marks when they’re done to indicate they no longer need protection?” he continued.

   “That makes sense. Was it the same in the other vaults?” I asked, satisfied with the answer.

   “Oh definitely not,” he replied shaking his head. “Didn’t see anything like that.”

   “Then how do you know about the superstitions of those builders,” I asked, frustrated at the lack of an answer.

   “Look, I said maybe that was the thing. I have no idea. I am guessing. A lot of these structures were built in a superstitious time. I am guessing,” he replied, a little annoyance in his voice.

   “So basically, you have no explanation?” I asked incredulously. He shook his head. “Do you have any superstitions.”

   “Yeah, I do actually,” he nodded. “They go by the name ‘Healthy and Safety’ and one of the rules is don’t be on-site after dark. Now let’s go.”

   He began heading back, moving expertly across the moist rocks.

 

   I sighed and did exactly as was asked on me. I began moving back towards the entrance. It was time to go home. I felt disappointed – I wanted to see more. I wanted to bask in the ancient atmosphere a little longer. But I had to listen to him. It was his site after all. We exited into the cool night air, the sweat running off me a lot more apparent in the cold.

   Once we were outside, I helped my friend move a grating over the entrance to keep animals and any potential youths out overnight. He took the flashlight and we hugged, saying our goodbyes. He climbed into his car and me into my own. He disappeared down the darkening path with a wheelspin and a kick up of mud, beeping his horn as a farewell as he disappeared out of sight. I waited a few moments before I turned off my engine and climbed out, leaving the headlights on to illuminate the area. I wasn’t done with the vault. After the day I’d had, I deserved some excitement. An overreaction? Yes. But I needed it.

   I walked towards the third vault, ignoring the chill picking up in the air and taking a deep breath. I moved using only the flashlight on my mobile and the headlights of my car – it was somehow a lot less effective than the flashlight we’d been using, but it was better than nothing. The area became a lot eerier, long shadows being cast around me which played tricks on my mind. It didn’t matter. I was still in the city and my car was near if I needed to leave. The police had no reason to come to the vault entrances anyway. I moved the grate, got on my hands and knees, entered the vault with only the light of my phone to guide me.

****

 

   Entering the vault by myself felt entirely different than the first time. Perhaps it was the lesser light that guided me or the fact that I didn’t have a second person to rely on. It also became apparent that one person made a lot less noise as I caught a sound I did not the first time – running water.

   Once I’d readjusted to my surroundings in the new light, I began moving again. Back to the symbols on the walls. I wanted to get a better look at them, specifically the star and branch. I recognised the Christian cross and Jewish star, but the other two meant nothing to me. Yet, they felt oddly familiar, like a voice from a long ago. I placed my hand on the stone with the branch – it smooth. Not like the rock with the cross on it that was made of local stone. In fact, the star stone was much darker than the others as well. Almost like it had been specifically chosen whereas the others were simply used because of their availability. How odd.

   Momentarily, I turned the flashlight off only so that I could take a photo of the symbol and strange rock. It was strange but, the moment the light disappeared, I had an overwhelming feeling that something wasn’t right. I ignored it and took a photo, the flash briefly illuminating the area. And that’s when I thought I heard something. The scattering of stones. I froze, fear coldly climbing up my spine and hair standing on end.

“Hello?” I called out as an ultimate horror movie faux pas. I was met by nothing but echoes and then a crushing silence. I smiled to myself; annoyed at that primal part of my brain that found demons in the dark. I took another photo, turning on the flashlight again when I was done.

   When I was sure I was done with the strange marking, I moved to inspect the rest of the vault. I tried to move around carefree, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the scattering of rocks had spooked me. However, cold hard logic told me it was nothing more than rats. You were never more than six foot from a rat in a city apparently, and rats loved the water. I was in the city, and the running water that grew louder the deeper I moved into the vault certainly contributed to that.

   I climbed over rocks and down rocks, feeling myself move in a downward direction. It was almost impossible to hold my mobile phone and move at the same time, but I was managing. That was until my hand landed in something cold and slimy and I lost my grip. I began sliding down over the rocks, hitting my head, elbow, knee, hip and every other body part as I slid further down the rocks, getting lower and lower as gravity dragged me down into a recess I didn’t even know existed.

   I ended my descent with a thump as I hit the base of whatever I’d fallen into, the air knocked out of my lungs as I desperately tried to pull the oxygen back in. My nose was met with foetid stench, a fouler and more pungent version of what I smelled when I first entered the vault – a fierce and sickly bitterness burned with each inhalation.

   When I’d caught my breath, my lungs sucking in the warm and moist air, I recovered my phone from where it had fallen and used the light to check myself for cuts and scrapes. All appeared fine except some minor marks, but that wasn’t what drew my eye. Still coating my hands was whatever had caused me to lose my grip. A dark, mucilaginous substance that I had no doubt was the cause of the miasma in the vault. I tried to wipe it off, first on the wall and then onto my clothing, but it would not be removed – clinging to me. I shook my head. I would have to wash it off later.

   It was when I had given up on the substance that I spotted something just out of sight – something which could not logically be there. A small opening, hidden behind a jutting rock was carved into the rock. And I truly mean carved – the stone was smooth, unnaturally so. Had the bridge support been intentionally built over it? Where did it lead? Surely that wasn’t stable? It didn’t matter. I felt the call of the blackened, yawning maw in front of me, and continued onwards with little care for the odd reluctance I felt. Every inch of my primal brain screamed for me to retreat. Not to enter that impossible dark void that seemed to eat the light of my phone. But I continued onwards into that seemingly alien place, ignoring my instinctual cry.

****

 

   I moved further and further into that impossibly ancient place, stepping over iron bars that had blocked the way so long ago. Moving beyond yet more symbols carved into the walls – not neatly this time, but carved erratically and overlapping. I just kept going, one hand on the wall to support me and the other held my phone out in front of me. But I couldn’t stop.

   I reached a section where the tunnel split into two, still impossibly smooth beside the carvings. I shone the light down each tunnel, both seeming to have no end in sight.

   “Left,” something whispered deep inside my brain, and I was not entirely sure if it was my own internal monologue or an invading idea from a foreign source. I went left. Then two things happened at once: my phone light flickered and went out, and then I fell.

   I didn't fall far, a few feet at the very most, but I had tumbled over a ledge in the darkness and into icy water that washed over. My breath was ripped from me as the cold crushed my lungs. Even in my moment of shock, I had realised a vital mistake. I’d allowed my phone to disappear under the surface of ancient water and I was able to, for only a few seconds, watch as the illuminated screen disappeared below and die as the circuitry was soaked through. Darkness closed in as my source of light was extinguished. I knew I had to go back at that point. I would become lost in the dark if I continued onwards.

   I climbed to my feet, ignoring the creeping anxiety that built inside me, and waded through the waist-high water back to where I’d fallen. I needed to find my way back in the dark. I splashed through the pool as I stomped onwards. My splashes echoed back to me off the cave walls. My heart hammered in my chest as the darkness began to get to me. I stopped, took a deep breath, and paused. The water was still splashing. Not like the trickle of a stream, but in the way it did when something lumbered through it. My breath caught in my throat and I slowly turned to look behind me. I could never have expected to see anything in the black, but I couldn’t help it. Goosebumps roll up and down the flesh of my arms and back as I could feel something else there with me. I didn’t call out this time. I barely breathed. Yet the splashes got closer.

   Something else washed over me in that moment that I’d never felt before. Fear. Cold, hard, heart-stopping in your chest fear. There was something in the pool with me. There was something else in the pool with me! The splashes continued and that primal part of my brain that I’d so easily ignored before took over. I ran. Moving through the water as quickly as I could manage. I ignored the cold that tried to restrain my legs, and I ignored whatever was closing in on me. I ran back the way I came, only to hit the ledge I’d fallen down. The slow, methodical splashes continued behind me. I didn’t give it any more time to get closer than I needed. I pulled myself up and onto the ledge, only to slip on the slimy cavern floor – the odour told me it was more of that strange gelatinous material. I fell back into the pool.

  Yet, the splashing grew louder. Closer. More excited. I heaved myself up again, breathing heavily as I strained with all that was humanly possible of me. Then two, no three, very hard appendages gripped my legs. Pain flared through my body as it wrapped tighter around me. I screamed and kicked out behind me. I didn’t make contact. Yet, I wasn’t moving towards it. I was being pushed up and onto the ledge. The extra lift had enabled me to climb up! I didn’t waste any time on getting to my feet and sprinting.

   I knew I wasn’t safe though. Whatever was in the pool was a lot more agile than I and knew its way around the tunnels. I could hear the wet slap of meat as it hit a hard surface behind me. For a moment, it sounded like a dog running on all fours. I still ran. I felt with my hands as I went. Bouncing off the walls as I ricocheted down the tunnel. I came to the intersection again. Except, I didn’t have the light to guide me that time. This time, I was disorientated and scared, and not as alone I wanted to be. The decision on how to get out wasn’t a simple one. I didn’t know which way to go. Where had I come from? The wet slaps grew louder. Left. I began to turn down the tunnel on my left when something heavy collided with me.

   I grappled with the creature, it grappled with me. It felt slick and cool, my hands sliding off the body in the same way I had off the rocks. Was the creature covered in that same dark substance? I swung my fist and connected with something. A head? It was soft and rubbery. The creature climbed up from my assault and shoved me again. This time, towards the other tunnel. I wasn’t going to argue and kept going.

   All the way, I could feel the creature behind me. Little jabs here and there as it ushered me onwards. Whipping me. Slapping at me. In the darkness, I felt the room open up. The air was more humid and I could hear the echo of my movements. Was I back in the vaulted room? The light from my car headlights shone through the entrance ahead. I climbed through the semi-darkness and towards the way out, my hands slipping and sliding as they struggled to find purchase on the rocks. The creature continued to push at me. Not chasing me as much as it fell further and further behind. Yet it still followed.

   Somehow, against all odds, I made it up and over the rocks in the darkness and out of the entrance with that thing behind me. I collapsed onto the gravel and grass outside, only for a moment, before I kept crawling – desperate to get away from it. as I climbed to my feet, I turned around to look at the entrance and the creature. Just beyond the perimeter, inside the darkened vault, I could see … something. It was pale and crouched. It didn’t have arms or legs, or a mixture of various long appendages that moved like a rising snake. I do not know how to describes its face, if what I looked at could even be called that. Its visage offered a semblance of what a human would recognise as a face – a flattish section of flesh, but it looked … wrong. Like something had tried to create a face based on descriptions it had heard. It had too many sockets for eyes, but not enough eyes to fill them. Thick, black mucus continually dropped from the creature. Despite its impossible appearance, it did not break eye contact with me. I continued moving towards my car and it retreated into the darkness.

 

   I panted heavily and I shivered violently – not all because of the cold. I trudged along and back to my car, never taking my eyes off the entrance. I was scared. Terrified in fact. There was an intelligence to the creature, and that scared me. Yet the creature, and it did not occur to me until later that night while I showered and desperately tried to scrub the ichor off me as I wept, didn’t seem to want to harm me. Yes, it assaulted me, but its actions did not seem monovalent. It could have killed me, drowned me back in that pool or kept me in the darkness forever, but didn’t. It almost seemed like it was guiding me. Pushing me out of its home perhaps? I didn’t know. If I said I didn’t want to know, I’d be lying. Whatever that creature was, it certainly didn’t follow the laws of nature – not our laws anyway. It followed laws of some outside world that allowed such abominations to exist.

****

   Despite everything, I went back with my friend two days later. I hadn’t slept and I returned to the sight in the hopes that it would make the nightmares stop. We went to the third vault again. I took a blade that time. We ventured deep into the vault, a group of us with lights. We ventured down over the rock surface and explored the natural rock. My hands shook the whole time. I returned to where the tunnel entrance had been, ready to confront the creature again. There was no tunnel entrance that time. There were rocks and masonry piled up where it had been – like there had never been one to begin with. I didn’t tell him about the creature. I didn’t tell him about the tunnel either. Yet, I needed to warn him. Needed to tell someone about the creature that lived below that vault.

   Weeks passed and I was shaken, unable to sleep. Unable to eat. I couldn’t return to my normal schedule. Couldn’t return to work – told them I was off with stress. How could I go back to my normal life? That didn’t exist anymore.

   I visited my grandfather, something intended to be a distraction. It didn’t help. When I sat in front of him, I saw the same tired and frightened eyes in his head that I’d seen in my own reflection since leaving that vault. He didn’t say anything. I didn’t either. In one of his few moments of clarity, he knew I’d seen something in those caves and I realised he’d seen something in those woods all that time ago. He wrapped his hand around mine and squeezed it.