Persona Non Grata

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Flash fiction — Two friends delve into the mysteries of the earth in a bid to scavenge a little extra cash for their families.

The cavern’s shaking refused to cease, billowing clouds of dust and centuries-old powdered brick puffing into the air. Lom huddled as low as he could, clinging onto the flimsy metal handle of his pick, praying it wouldn’t snap at the strain. The barbed steel bit into the column but he could feel it trying to wiggle free. The cavern lurched again and he almost lost his footing on the narrow ledge. Panicked fingers fumbled against the ancient brickwork, desperately trying to find purchase.
          “Lom!”
          He dared not turn his head but his heart sung at the familiar voice.
          “Lom!” his name was called again, more urgently this time, followed by a coughing fit.
          “Here!” Lom shouted, his voice muffled against an arm protecting him from debris. “Nicolas, I’m here!”
          Abruptly, the earthy rumbling stopped, the memory of it echoing peculiarly in his ears.
          “Quick, to me!” he heard Nicolas yell and his stomach lurched.
          Tugging on the pick, he cursed as it refused to budge. “Blasted thing was determined to let go just a moment ago!” he yelled to his friend.
          “Leave it!” Nicolas was always the level-headed one, but Lom could hear his fear quite plainly.
          He released the pick, swivelling, battered boots crunching on the loose surface of the ledge. The dust was beginning to settle again and he could make out the crouched form of his scavenging buddy across the ragged crevice that had ripped itself into what had been the cavern’s floor.
          Shoving his back against the column, it suddenly feeling like the safest place in the world, he stared across the rift.
          Nicolas edged closer from his side, the white safety helmet, sitting skewed on his head, like a beacon in the gloom. A healthy layer of dust had settled on his clothes and face and as he peered from the rift to Lom, waving a hand urgently, he looked very much like an otherworldly usher.
          “You’d better have practiced your catch!” Lom shouted, tensing against the brickwork.
          The whites of Nicolas’ eyes became larger as he pushed off the column, flexing already tired legs. He sucked in a lungful of air as his foot left the ledge, his heart dropping into his gut. He spluttered, eyes widening. The crevice yawned below him, blackness reaching up to swallow him. He wasn’t going to make it.
          He felt the rush of air as he began to fall and a scream passed his lips. Over the rim of the rift, a gloved hand appeared, thrust at him, and he lunged for it, both hands clinging onto his salvation.
          “Nic—!”
          Something wasn’t right. He was still falling.
          Nicolas’ face loomed above him, blue irises tiny against round white orbs.
          He wanted to ask what was wrong, why his mouth was working so hard, why his friend looked so terrified.
          His thoughts scattered as fire flashed through his skull, his back, his legs. Vision flooding white, he lost all sense of perception.
          It was the sensation of breath filling his lungs that he first noticed. The blinding haze receded and he blinked, the coarse texture of rock and stalactites far above him filling his vision. Realisation crept upon him and he resisted the urge to bolt upright. Sliding his gaze down he saw Nicolas rolling to his knees and edge towards him. Concern dug deeper lines into the corners of his mouth and his brow furrowed as he leant over him.
          “Hey,” Lom said. The sheer nonchalance almost had him laughing despite himself.
          Nicolas’ eyes creased as his lips turned upwards. “They start throwing balls the size of you, I’m quitting the game.”
          He chuckled, uneasily at first, but as Lom joined him, the pair of them encouraging each other, full-fledged laughter bounced off the steep crevice walls.
          “Shit.”
          Silence blanketed the two of them. Nicolas stared down at his friend, mouth firmly closed. Lom eyed a smudge of dirt on the man’s cheek, strangely distracted by it.
          “I can’t move, Nic.”
          Thick eyebrows drew together and he bit down on his lower lip. “Yeah,” he breathed.
          Lom’s eyelids fluttered shut, head lolling to one side against the hard rock. He felt moisture at the corner of his eyes. Too much laughing, he told himself.
          “Clem’ll be mad if you’re late back.”
          Lom hummed his agreement. He should tell Nicolas to leave.
          “Not to mention those Green bastards. We can’t be caught down here. So, you’ve got to move, all right?”
          Lom opened his eyes, peering up at the steadily fraying visage above him.
          “Go.” He thought there might be objection at the order but his friend said nothing, did nothing. “No point us both dying here. Take care of Clem for me, eh?”
          His gaze drifted back up to the top of the cavern. “Shame we didn’t find anything worthwhile on this dig, but lady luck ain’t always with us.” His voice drifted off, the words dying slowly on his lips.
          Above him, the faintest hint of shadow drifted across his vision.
          How insulting.
          The shadow flicked and Lom’s eyes darted to follow it. It was like ink, dissolving in the air as if it was water. It ebbed and flowed and as he traced the trail to the jutting rock not far from his head, he felt Nicolas’ hand grab the fabric of his jacket.
          “Tell me that was you.”
          The shadow surged away from the crumbling stone, swelling into a mass before receding back into something distinctly human-shaped.
           Enlighten me, defilers.
           Lom could pick out two legs, two arms, and as the form appeared to loom closer, a head. His breath caught in his throat as two black pits peered at him, close enough to touch. If he could just move.
           The inky shadows peeled back, revealing sallow skin, which in turn parted and he felt breath brush his cheek.
           “What would you do to the people that reviled you enough to scrub you from existence? What would you do if they were foolish enough to lay themselves at your feet?”

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