The young man stepped into the cave and kicked the snow off the toes of his boots. He was breathing heavily, from the climb and the altitude. He stood still, calming down, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
He took a flashlight from his backpack. Its beam fell feebly on a fringe of stalagmites forming a barrier to the cave’s inner chambers. Above them, corresponding stalactites loomed, giving the impression of a gaping maw, lined with sharp teeth.
A hell mouth…
He dismissed the thought and the shiver that came with it.
Beyond the frozen fangs, utter darkness. And silence. The young man began to think coming here was a mistake. It was the wrong mountain. Or it was the right mountain but it was uninhabited, its occupant long gone.
Hunger rumbled in his belly. I ought to think about a fire, food… A mountain top feast of dried rations before heading back down to civilisation, empty-handed, a failure…
He was in no rush to go back. Not that there was much to go back to.
Perhaps I should stay up here, become a hermit, live off the land…
Better get used to a diet of snow and ice, then…
He heated water for soup. The beverage made, he cupped it between his mittens, letting the steam warm his face. Better savour it, it was the last of the packets. After this, there would be no more.
It was almost cosy, in the cave mouth, sheltered from the snowstorm that was raging just feet away.
Perhaps I should just give up, lie down and die…
Oh, God, what has happened to us?
“Hello?” a voice croaked from the darkness.
The young man jolted from his reverie, instantly alert. His eyes darted.
A pale shape emerged from the gloom. A withered old man emerged, shrunken and etiolated.
“A visitor!” he exclaimed. “Long time since I had a visitor.”
The young man scrambled to his feet. He gaped at the old man. “You’re here! You’re real!”
A smile crinkled the corners of the old man’s rheumy eyes. “I should hope so,” he chuckled. “Now, to what do I owe the honour?”
The young man frowned. “You mean you don’t know?”
“Don’t you know everything?”
“I was pretty handy in the odd pub quiz…”
The young man scoffed. “You’re not what I expected.”
“No?” the old man smirked. “And what did you expect?” With his next words, he seemed to grow, expanding to fill the cavern and at the same time remaining the pale, slight figure. “Thunder and lightning? Hellfire and damnation?”
The young man shrank back. The old man returned to normal.
“You – you turned your back on us,” the young man’s lips curled in bitter accusation. “You must know what it’s like down there. We’re struggling! We’re dying! We’re turning against each other while the world is collapsing around us!”
The old man’s bony shoulder twitched a shrug.
“You could save us! One click of your fingers, or however it is you do it, you could make things right.”
The old man shook his head. “Sorry.”
“We’ll build more churches, we’ll honour you, if that’s what it takes.”
The old man waved his pale hand. He turned to retreat into the shadows.
“Wait!” the young man cried. “Is that it? I’ve come all this way for nothing?”
The old man looked back, his eyes glinting like wet opals in the dark.
“You have everything you need,” he smiled. “You always have. You can put things right. It’s not too late. Go back. Go down and make a start. Others will see what you’re doing, the difference you make, and they will join you. It will take time, but all will be well.” He winked. “Just leave me out of it this time, OK?”