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Episode Fifty-Six: UNDERNEATH

Hello and welcome to the Mistholme Museum of Mystery, Morbidity and Mortality. This audio tour guide will be your constant companion in your journey through the unknown and surreal.

As you approach our exhibits, the audio tour guide will provide you with information and insights into their nature and history.

Do not attempt to interact or communicate with the exhibits.

Do not attempt to interact or communicate with the audio tour guide. If you believe that the audio tour guide may be deviating from the intended tour program, please consider adjusting your preconceived notions of what the intended tour program may be!

While the staff here at Mistholme Museum of Mystery Morbidity and Mortality do their absolute best to ensure the safety of all visitors, accidents can happen. The museum is not liable for any injury, death, or quality products at low low prices that may occur during your visit.

Enjoy your tour.

And good luck.

Guide: 

Standing on the rocky shore of the beach that the Museum staff had wondered about for so many months, struggled so hard to reach, the Head of Retrieval found himself face to face with a ghost. Astrid, formerly a member of the Museum’s Security Staff and now… something else… stood in the foaming surf of the sea that met the beach, or perhaps she was the surf. The borders between the surf and the woman blurred together like that between the surf and the beach, between the person she had been and the Something she was now.

Retrieval:
Guide. Not now.

Guide:
Ok. Sorry.

Astrid:
It has been a long time, hasn’t it? It’s been… years? A lot. Yes?

Retrieval:
Years? No. Few months, I dunno off the top of my head. Maybe half a year tops.

Astrid:
Oh. I’m sorry. It’s just… I guess we were thinking about the… Long way.

Retrieval:
Right. You know, we assumed this might have been where you wound up. When you wished to go “home”.

Astrid:
We… Yes. The wish, yes. I remember, we… It’s been so long. It’s nice to see you.

Retrieval:
The last time you saw me you kicked me in the head while I was blind.

Astrid:
We had to get home.

Retrieval:
“We”, you keep saying that. Are the rest of them here?

Astrid:
Them?

Retrieval:
The rest of the Security Department. They vanished when you did, we figured they were the “we” you mentioned in the wish.

Astrid:
Can’t you… But you see us, yes?

Retrieval:
I… I can see you, I see Astrid. I don’t-

Astrid:
Yes. Sorry, I… it’s been so long since I’ve thought in these… terms.

Retrieval:
What terms would those be?

Astrid:
The individual. The now.

Retrieval:

Right. Okay. Well, we- I’d best be heading back through-

Astrid:
Is the Audio Tour Guide with you?

Retrieval:
What makes you ask that?

Astrid:

I just remembered it. Things coming back to… me. The Guide just… I remember it being there, some of the last times I saw you.

Retrieval:
Huh. Yeah, it’s here. A copy of it. Say hi, Guide.

Guide:
Hello Astrid. You look… well.

Astrid:

Do I?

Guide:
Well considering you just coalesced out of seafoam- I mean, I think that’s just something people say, sorry. I don’t really know.

Retrieval:
You look the same as you did when you… left.

Astrid:
Do I. I suppose you… reminded me of her.

Retrieval:
Her?
Astrid:
The “Astrid” that left.

Retrieval:
Are you not her?

Astrid:
I remember… The Guide asked me something like that. Who I was. I remember that it upset me, but not why. Things were so complicated, back then.

Retrieval:
Right. Well, I was really only coming here as a… preliminary thing. I’m sure we’ll be in touch but-

Astrid:
I’m coming with you.

Guide/Retrieval:
What?

Astrid:
Sorry. Yes, I’m… It seems very important that I come with you. It’s… I think it’s a memory? I’m trying to remember how to remember things, but I think I’m supposed to come back to the Museum with you.

Retrieval:
You tried pretty bloody hard to get out last time we saw you.

Astrid:
Yes, but I was always going to come back.

Guide:
Why?

Astrid:
I don’t know yet.

Retrieval:
God damn- fine, it’s not like we can close the Glassway, short of barricading it. You can come through to the Shelter, but we’re not letting you come any further until we know more about what’s going on.

Astrid:
Good. It’ll be nice to be back, I think.

Guide:
Sure… So we’re just going back now?

Retrieval:

Yeah, well, we’ve established this place isn’t instant death or anything so we can send a Research team through with some guards.

Guide:
Ha. You were so keen to come here and now you can’t wait to leave.

Retrieval:
Yeah, well Guide, I think we’re all used to getting more than we bargained for at this point.

Guide:
Yeah. Yeah, that’s fair.

 

A Crystallised Sculpture of an Umbrella

Ah! Here we have an exhibit that many mistake for a… convenience, at first glance. I am led to understand that, while rain is a perfectly natural phenomenon, most humans don’t particularly like to get it on themselves. It’s uncomfortable, I suppose? Leads to something called chafe- I can’t relate, obviously. So when it is raining, humans often like to use things called umbrellas- which I probably don’t need to describe to you, not least because there is one in front of you right now, sitting in a small metal umbrella stand. This is not, however, intended for use by patrons such as yourself, and frankly it’s a bit of a confusing way to present an exhibit. The umbrella stand is not the exhibit, of course- it is merely a container for the true subject of our tour today: a crystallised sculpture of an umbrella. The umbrella itself is, I am led to understand, a perfectly normal example of the form- crystallisation notwithstanding- and looks as though it has seen a great deal of use. It is open, which is not the normal way in which one would store an umbrella, and its canopy is covered in a thick layer of shining white crystals through which one can just barely see its original black fabric. The handle is much the same, and one could argue that it likely wouldn’t be of much use in the rain anymore. Of course, it was never intended to keep off rain…

The last person to use this umbrella was named Nathaniel Jones. Or, as he varyingly told his friends to refer to him, “Natty-Boy” or “Nate”. Jones was a self-proclaimed entrepreneur and businessman, pulling himself up by his bootstraps and forging his own path- with some help from his wealthy parents whenever things went belly-up. Until, one day, they stopped helping. After one too many ill-fated startups, Mr and Mrs Jones decided that what their son needed was the chance to make his own successes- or failures, as the case may be- without the safety net of the family fortune to catch him. Naturally, things were not going very well for Nathaniel without the family purse to support his ill-thought out business ventures, and he was more or less broke within a year. Despite his many failures he was a proud young man, and the thought of crawling back to his parents and accepting the job that his father always reminded was available to him- like a combination of carrot and stick- filled him with disgust. So he barely even hesitated when an opportunity- which many would have thought too good to be true- came knocking. A friend- well, a colleague, really- got in touch with an offer: they were looking to offload an asset, in which they were no longer interested. Their business partner dropped out, and they thought that Nathaniel might be interested in purchasing it at a more than reasonable price. Nathaniel wasn’t much of a businessman, but he knew that he should probably ask what this asset was before agreeing to it. He’d had his fill of impossibly niche web apps and innovative projects whose primary innovation seemed to be their ability to lose money. He was more than excited when his colleague- well, acquaintance, really- told him what the asset was: a mine. And a profitable one at that.

Unfortunately, Nathaniel was at this point so broke that he could not afford to pay a trustworthy agent to reconnoitre the claim for him. This sort of business required a great deal of knowledge and expertise to determine whether or not the mine was worth purchasing- after all, his acquaintance was surely looking to offload the mine for a reason. However, a lack of knowledge and expertise had never stopped Nathaniel in the past, so the day after he received the offer he caught a flight to the far-distant country in which the mine could be found, so that he could reconnoitre the claim himself. He arrived at a small airstrip into a sweltering heat that almost made him faint the moment he left the plane. The long ride in an un-air conditioned taxi with a very talkative driver almost had him returning home before he’d even reached his hotel. The only thing that kept him going forward was the thought of his parents' faces, should he come crawling back as a failure. In his imagination their expressions were a mixture of disappointment and a smug lack of surprise, and this spurred him on toward his destination. His hotel- not even four stars, to his disdain- was in a small desert town just a short drive from the mine, from which he could journey out and assess its potential. The locals were polite, to a fault, but with a hint of reservation in their eyes: this was far from the first foreigner they had seen come to exploit their home. Nathaniel ignored them and locked the door to his hotel room, sheltering from the oppressive sun; he had planned to get started on inspecting the mine straight away, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen. He would have to work at night, avoiding the sun’s rays like some kind of vampire.

As the sun set over the distant flat horizon and the stars began to twinkle in the clear wide sky, Nathaniel emerged into the cooling air and gathered his tools. He had purchased a variety of assaying equipment online and watched as many tutorials on the subject as he could stomach, so he was sure that he’d be able to figure it out. The mine was only a short walk from town, and he was keenly aware of the time limit his limited funds presented, so he elected to walk. A number of locals watched him as he strode confidently down the town’s handful of streets, laden down with expensive gadgets, but none said anything and he said nothing in return. Then, just as Nathaniel reached the edge of town, a voice did call out; Nathaniel turned and, to his surprise, saw a small girl standing under a fabric awning, next to a large barrel filled with umbrellas. She smiled widely and gestured toward them, saying something in the local tongue that Nathaniel understood by context to mean “would you like to buy an umbrella?”. Nathaniel looked up at the sky, empty but for the stars, and tried to imagine the last time this place had seen so much as a drop of rain. He smiled at the girl, and shook his head, and left, striding away into the darkness following the light of his torch. He could hear her calling after him in an urgent tone, but thought nothing of it. Just a local trying to grift him of his remaining funds.

The mine, as it turned out, was not hard to find. Even at a distance and in the dark it was clearly visible by the faint starlight that reflected from within. Its entrance was dug into the side of a hill, like a seam in a geode that hinted at the riches within. A crack in the hard earth that led down, down, into what should have been darkness but was instead filled with light: because the tunnel, just barely wide enough for Nathaniel to fit into, was lined on its walls, its floor, its ceiling, with crystals. Purest white, they glittered in the light of the stars above, somehow even more fiercely than the torchlight. Nathaniel could feel his heart beginning to beat faster as he unpacked his equipment and took out a small pick, with which he chipped away a piece of one of the surface crystals. It was brittle, fragile even, but the way it glittered in the light was almost mesmerising as he held it up to the torch. Now came the hard part: manual labour. Staring down into the seam, Nathaniel was nearly blinded by the reflected and refracted light that glittered up from within. The crystals further in were larger than the ones that had accumulated near the surface, and just from the size of them Nathaniel could tell that they must have been of higher quality too. Bigger is better, or something like that. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered if his acquaintance- or any of their agents- had even ventured into the mine. Surely not, as the accumulation of crystals near the entrance would certainly have prevented them from entering, as they prevented Nathaniel now. He didn’t know much about geology, but he imagined they took a great deal of time to… grow? Develop. Whatever it is that crystals do. Those larger crystals though… surely they were the true value in the mine? He couldn’t really know the potential of this claim until he knew what lay further in- he didn’t even know how deep it went! His next course of action clear, Nathaniel Jones began chipping away at the crystals around the entrance, the beginnings of a path deeper into the mine.

This went on for the next handful of days: Nathaniel would sleep during the day, and at night he would work harder than he had in all his life. Work was slower than he had expected, as the hardness of the crystals increased rapidly the further into the vein he got; but this was not discouraging. On the contrary, it only made him wonder more at what he might find even further down. Eventually he learned how to turn on his spectroscope and some of his other tools and even learned how to use some of them, but the results were confusing to say the least- and not just because he didn’t really know how to read them. The composition of these crystals was unlike anything else he could find on the internet, leading him to believe that whatever was in that cave was unlike anything else in the world. This only made him more excited, however: he scarcely knew more about business than he did about mineral surveying, but he did know that scarcity makes things valuable. Slowly, over the course of a week, Nathaniel’s exploration of the seam took him deeper and deeper into the earth, as every evening he strode out of town- ignoring the cries of the little umbrella girl, who he had to credit for her persistence- and out to the claim he had all but decided would be his. And then, at the end of that first week, Nathaniel finally decided to be a little adventurous in his dining choices and tried a local curry. He did not go to the mine that night, but instead lay in bed sweating and trying to sleep through the awful consequences of this error. He was so preoccupied with groaning and feeling sorry for himself that he did not notice the light that crept in under his hotel room’s curtains: flashes of white, intermittent, powerful, and- had he seen them- perhaps somewhat familiar.

The next morning he recovered, and after spending the day cataloguing his collection of crystals he called his acquaintance to talk about the fee he might pay for the claim; if he noticed that his acquaintance was a little too keen to be lowballed for the mine, Nathaniel just thought it was a sign of his negotiation skills. Then, as the last rays of the sun crept over the horizon, and the stars came out of hiding he set back out towards his mine. He was surprised to see the umbrella girl was not at her usual spot, but thought little of it. Probably for the best that she wasn’t alone out at night, after all. He was more surprised, and a little outraged, when he found her standing just outside the mine, peering down into the crystalline passage he had carved, an umbrella open and resting on her shoulder despite the clear desert sky. She turned and smiled, seemingly a little surprised, and said something Nathaniel once again didn’t understand. She gestured down into the mine, and Nathaniel looked where she pointed. A cry of frustration and confusion erupted from his throat as he saw that his work had been undone- only by a little, but still! The tunnel walls had closed in slightly, with new crystals sprouting from the flat planes he had painstakingly carved. He rounded on the girl and asked what had happened, not entirely sure it wasn’t somehow her fault. She cocked her head to the side and said something Nathaniel once again didn’t understand, then held out the umbrella. His patience at an end, Nathaniel batted it away and made a shooing gesture at the girl. She pouted and planted her feet; Nathaniel just rolled his eyes and turned his back on the child, gently lowering himself back into the crevice and- carefully avoiding the sharp edges of the inexplicable new crystals- got back to work. He was relieved to see that his work had only been reduced, not undone: most of the new crystals were near the surface, and as he got deeper they petered out quickly. This was fortunate, as he was beginning to think he might be nearing the motherlode- or something to that effect. The crystals he was finding in the mine’s depths were far more impressive in both structure and frequency, and his tools were beginning to struggle with the task he was giving them. But there was something below him, just visible through the more translucent crystals, that Nathaniel thought might just be the biggest and most potent of them all. A darker smudge, refracted by the crystals between them, that was unlike anything else he had seen in the seam up til now. Then, as Nathaniel hammered away at one of the larger crystals with an expensive tool only barely suited to this purpose, a crack appeared. It spread quickly across the surface of the crystal and then, to Nathaniel’s alarm, grew past it, spreading across the crystalline wall and then down toward the floor beneath Nathaniel’s feet and then-

There was a cracking, shattering noise unlike anything Nathaniel had ever heard, and he fell through the floor into the chamber below. He landed hard on the crystalline floor, scratching himself in a number of places on the sharp-tipped deposits but otherwise avoiding injury. Dazed, and a little embarrassed despite the fact he was alone, Nathaniel stood and dusted off the tiny crystal shards that had coated his clothes, then looked around at the space in which he now found himself. A smile slowly spread across his face as his torchlight revealed crystals larger and even more ornate than any he had seen up until now, sprouting from every surface in the chamber. He’d been right: this was where the true value of this place could be found, where his fortune would be made. The brilliant white crystals here wouldn’t have been out of place on some ancient king’s crown or sceptre, and the size of them! This was big, this was a once-in-a-lifetime find, this-

He froze. Out of the corner of his eye, a darker shape. At first he thought it moved, but then realised that it was merely the dancing light of the many crystals. The thing he could see was not moving. On the contrary, it was utterly, terribly, still. Slowly, Nathaniel Jones turned around and shone his torch directly on the darker shape that he had seen from above, which he had assumed to be some unusual or especially potent crystal. And he saw now that he had been only superficially correct. The thing he saw now did, indeed, have a thick layer of crystals coating its exterior, and as the light danced across and through them he could just make out the points at which new layers had grown across the old. But it was not crystals all the way down. For at the centre of that mass, he was just barely able to make out the features of a man. Laying on his back in the centre of the chamber, his limbs contorted in agony, his face a mask of pure terror. Nathaniel fell down once again, his posture almost mimicking that of his crystallised companion, his cry of terror and disgust echoing hauntingly across all the abstract surfaces of the mine. Amidst the confusion and terror, some part of his mind recalled the offhand reference his acquaintance had made to a business partner who had dropped out of the venture. It didn’t take much of a leap to put the pieces together there. But what had happened here, what could possibly have caused this man to suffer such a fate?

Then Nathaniel looked down, at the faint layer of crystalline dust that still gathered on his clothes. Frantically he began brushing at the fabric, which only served to instead attach the dust to his skin. He flailed, writhed, desperately trying to remove it- then a wave of relief washed over him as he succeeded. Then, a sound. Not quite like thunder, but not unlike it either. Nathaniel was quite certain he had never heard it before, but perhaps in a dream? Something told him to climb, to escape, to get out of this awful place before some unknown thing happened to him, and so he did. He grasped at the crystals that sprouted from the walls, uncaring as they dug into his skin and became slick with his blood. He climbed, first up and out of the chamber into which he had fallen, then back into the shaft he had dug. The sound came again, louder, echoing down into the mine from somewhere above, and Nathaniel climbed and climbed, exerting himself more than he had in his life. Several times his hand slipped, and for a moment he thought he was going to fall all the way back down into that chamber with the awful crystalline man, but eventually he made it out into the cool night air, the stars above the most welcome sight he had ever seen. He lay on his back, panting and sweating and bloodied, but alive. Then he froze, in a stance not unlike the man who still lay down below. He stared up at the stars, their twinkling not unlike that of the crystals. Something was different about them. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something about the familiar stars and constellations above him was wrong. The stars were wrong. His eyes widened as he realised: they were too large. And growing larger. No- closer.

The first star impacted the ground not far from him, not a star at all but a crystal that shattered and sent shards scattering across the hard desert earth. Another impacted further away, but this one was larger and one of its pieces whipped past Nathaniel so close he could feel the breeze it left behind. Panicking yet again, Nathaniel looked up at the sky, at the thousand more “stars” that were growing closer, closer, and he looked around him for anywhere he could shelter from the onslaught. There was nowhere: just the wide desert plain stretching on in all directions, the town too far to reach in time, and the mine which Nathaniel knew he would never enter again. But then, just as a star crashed to earth so close that its shards left streaks of blood across his skin, Nathaniel saw it. An umbrella, a well-used old black thing which he had last seen resting against the little girl’s shoulder, and which now lay open and waiting near the entrance to the mine. He didn’t hesitate. He threw himself toward it and clutched at its handle, holding the canopy over his head as the stars fell all around him, exploding against the ground and sending shards ricocheting all about. Curling himself into the smallest size he could, he wedged himself into the side of the hill and cowered beneath the umbrella as the sky fell around him. Impacts hammered at the umbrella’s canopy, shards skittered in through the gap between the umbrella and the ground, and Nathaniel screwed his eyes shut waiting for the end. Then the downpour stopped. Not in the way that rain slowly peters out, but suddenly and completely. The desert was suddenly silent, and calm, but Nathaniel still waited a full minute before he emerged from his improvised shelter.

The desert soil shone a brilliant white all around him, the only sign that anything had happened at all. The stars, or crystals, were completely gone from the ground, having apparently turned into purest light, sinking into the dirt and sand itself. Looking up at the sky, Nathaniel saw only blackness- but perhaps the faintest hint of light already returning, here and there. The only remaining crystals were those in the mine, and those that had embedded themselves into the umbrella- or, perhaps, had transformed the umbrella? Looking at the thing in his hand now, Nathaniel could just see the smudged dark outline of the old battered umbrella beneath a thick layer of white; even the handle had changed beneath his hand, though he hadn’t noticed, like the crystals had flowed down from the canopy. He wanted to drop it, to never touch a crystal ever again, but the thought that the starfall might return made him clutch it more tightly instead. Out of the corner of the eye he thought he saw movement and he spun around, for a moment thinking that the body from deep in the mine had climbed up after him… but there was nothing there. Just empty desert sand- and then he realised that the glow which had infused the sand was beginning to fade, unevenly, from the outside in toward him. Or rather, toward the mine. The glow from within the mine grew stronger as it faded from the sand all around it, as if the light was concentrating within. Light flowed through the sand toward the seam, like water down a hill, until eventually the ground around Nathaniel was dark and cool, and the mine shone like a miniature sun. From deeper down, Nathaniel could hear a faint crackling sound as new crystals formed, adding new layers to the walls, the floors, to the body that lay at the bottom. He stood there for a moment, still holding the umbrella. Then he turned his back on the mine, and walked back to town.

Nathaniel caught a plane home the next day, leaving his expensive equipment in his hotel room for someone else to deal with. The only thing he took with him was the umbrella, for which he had to pay a great deal in packaging as it would no longer fold up. Everything else could stay, as far as he was concerned. He was done with the mine, with this place, most likely with being an entrepreneur. Compared to whatever he had experienced last night, a job at his father’s business seemed just fine. As he was about to board the plane, though, he once again saw something out of the corner of his eye: not a dead body, this time, nor an impossible light, but the umbrella girl. She stood at the edge of the airstrip, hands on her hips, staring at him. Waiting. Nathaniel sighed, then gave his apologies to the plane’s crew and dashed over to her. Neither said anything, in any language, this time. Nathaniel simply pulled his credit card out of his wallet and handed it over, before walking back over to the plane and climbing aboard without another glance. The girl just smiled, and tucked the card in her pocket. As the plane took off, against his instincts, Nathaniel looked out the window, taking one final look down at the retreating ground, toward the town and the nearby mine. He could swear that he saw figures departing, beginning the trek toward the seam, newly filled with the white crystals that had bled from the sky.

Incidentally, this exhibit has a connection to another: the fan-favourite Crystal Skull, which- ah, but that’s a story for another time…

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