Māoriland Blue

by Lee Murray

As for the letter, it appeared equally weathered. I considered the crumpled envelope in my palm, Dr James Hardcastle, 36 Upper Coventry Flats, South Kensington scrawled on the card in a strong upright script, and gave the man a small nod of acknowledgement. “A man’s last wishes should be honoured, I agree.”

The soft leather of my armchair sighed as I took my seat behind the desk.

I had no choice but to open it. Give the man some closure. After all, he’d had a merry dance getting the letter to me, including a trip to the farm of the Misses Allerton in North Derbyshire and then another leg here to me at Cambridge.

Not that any of that mattered now.

“Some tea, perhaps?”

“Thank you, Professor Saunderson,” Arnold replied. “Nothing for me.”

He meant to hover, then. Stifling a sigh, I slid my letter opener under the flap and broke the glue, taking out several pages of paper covered in the same upright hand as appeared on the envelope. “Did Seaton say how he and Hardcastle knew one another?”

“School chums, I believe.” Arnold trailed off a moment and I thought perhaps he might be trying to recall some detail or other, but he turned instead to gaze at the fire, his eyes faraway, as if the flames might reveal the answers to a mystery.

I smoothed out the pages and read:

My dear James,

Firstly, allow me to apologise for the flippant nature of my remarks when last we met. I offer you my sincerest regrets. No matter my views of the strange occurrences that took place during your visit to Castleton, and more specifically in the Roman mine at Blue John Gap, it was ill-mannered of me to have laughed and unforgivable for a friend to have dismissed your account out of hand. Given your reputation as a man of rigour and standing, the story seemed so bizarre, so filled with imagination and fancy, that I confess I credited it to the white plague that has tormented your lungs these past years. Poor form indeed. Given the length of our acquaintance, I should have known that any wasting of your pleura could not have dulled the sharpness of your mind. Moreover, since our conversation, events have transpired which have encouraged me to reconsider my position, events which I describe in this letter.

You’ll recall, of course, the last time we spoke—in late September of 1907, when I was so pleased to see you much improved after your visit to Derbyshire—that I was not long for England, the company having booked passage for me on a steamship bound for New Zealand in the Antipodes. Māoriland! I was excited to depart, imbued as I am with somewhat of a pioneer spirit, but not so eager that I would not drop in on my friend and bid you goodbye.

As I write, I’m in New Zealand; I’m to be here for a year, tasked with overseeing the company’s financial interests in the Crown Mine at a place called Karangahape on the northern island of the newly declared dominion. Since the seasons in this southern hemisphere are reversed, I arrived during the early summer, together with my assistant, George Arnold. He’s a decent sort, as true as they come, and a worthy adversary in a round of cards. We share a room at the local hotel and while we both would have preferred our own rooms after bunking together two months at sea, we count ourselves lucky to have a room at all seeing as the town is experiencing something of a gold mining boom. The reason, of course, is that the Crown Mine at Karangahape was the site of the first field test of the MacArthur-Forrest cyanidation process for gold extraction, the success of which has surely changed the face of mining and kept this lacklustre little town and those around it in a riot of enterprise ever since.

Needless to say, company demands have kept me on my toes these past months: analysing procedures and recommending efficiencies, examining plans for expansion of the mines, and searching out new opportunities for my employer. I enjoy the work well enough as you know, it pays my keep, and a posting such as this offers myriad prospects for advancement for a man of ambition. However, the endless noise and the stench of chemicals can be wearying, so on my rare days off, I have taken the opportunity to escape the commotion of the mine and the town for ambles in the bush, as they call it here, to take the summer air and discover a little of the area.

New Zealand is a strange country, James. I wish you were here to see it. In places, where the land has been tamed into crops and pasture, the countryside resembles England so much that one might feel completely at home, while other times it casts a lonely and terrifying countenance with its dark valleys, and mountains that crowd out the sky. One minute the air will be sweet, heavy with the scent of native flora, and my next breath will assail me with a wave of natural sulphur from a boiling spring. An uncanny place, if ever I encountered one.

It was while I was on one of my rambles, making my way through a fern-clad gully on a narrow sheep track, a steep rock cliff towering on one side, that I spied what looked to be the opening of a small cave. On closer inspection, pick and chisel marks in the stone suggested that it was an old mine, long since abandoned, if the long grass and vegetation about the entrance were an indication. With the sudden rush of an explorer and perhaps a dash of boldness, I struck a match and entered, taking a half dozen steps into the tunnel. The darkness and the smell of damp and dirt were unnerving. My footsteps echoed eerily. I almost stumbled when the tunnel descended steeply, opening onto a cavern so large that the weak light of the match barely penetrated to the edges. It was as if I were reliving your story with only the setting and the date changed. I wonder now if it were your reference to the Arabian Nights in your telling of events at Castleton that made me think of blue john because as I held the flame aloft and marvelled at the cavern, I imagined I saw the glistening yellow and blue striations of that mineral in a distant cleft. My heart leapt at the promise of future prosperity. Only, there was no time to venture deeper into the cavern and take a closer look since my match was almost spent. I hurried outside, and just in time, as no sooner had I emerged, the match sputtered out.

I considered striking another and going straight back in; I had several matchsticks on me, after all. Yet your own experience gave me pause. Not the fanciful folk tale told by your Castleton farmer—I was not so superstitious at that point—but the part about the pool. The Ohinemuri River runs through the Karangahape Gorge, and any number of its tributaries flow through these hills, so I reasoned there might be streams and pools in the cave. I did not want to fall into one and find myself lost in the darkness, waiting for my matches to dry as you did.

But nor was I ready to return to my lodgings in the town. Instead, I cast around for a branch to burn which might allow me a longer look. Ten yards further into the gully, just off the track, I found a likely tree, and with no axe available, I used my body weight to break off a low branch. I was about to regain the track when I encountered a dead sheep in the bracken—in fact, I nearly stepped on it. Separated from its flock, the miserable animal had no doubt strayed into the gully and died here. The flesh was mostly gone, and the skeleton collapsed in upon itself, but part of the hide still remained, including some odd tufts of wool. I tore off a strip of the leather and wound it around some wool on one end of my branch to create a rudimentary torch.

I had no idea how long my torch would burn, so I waited until I was at the mouth of the mine before lighting it, striding into the tunnel the moment the flame took so as not to waste a second of the precious light. Ignoring the musty smell of the burning leather, I plunged down the incline into the cavern and crossed the uneven ground to the place where I had spied the blue john.

My torch was effective enough, and, James, I hadn’t been mistaken. There was indeed a goodly seam of blue john in that cavern; its navy and gold bands dazzled under the flame. My heart fluttered. One of the rarest minerals known to man, coveted by the ladies and in great demand for industry, and it was right there for the taking, close to the Earth’s surface.

Barely able to contain my excitement, I stepped forward to examine the ore more closely and accidently kicked over a strange cairn of rocks. The stones rolled away, rattling and clunking in the gloom. A long silence followed and then another rain of clatter sounded as the stones hit the ground somewhere far, far below me. I swung the torch about and saw the ragged hole they’d passed through barely two steps from where I stood. It was only by God’s grace that I had not plunged into that chasm to my death. Or worse, I might have laid there for days in a living nightmare, broken and bleeding and waiting for help that would surely never come. I almost laughed I was so overcome with relief. My hands trembled, making the torchlight flicker on the rock walls. The near miss had shattered my calm. I took a deep breath.

With my composure mostly restored, I bent to examine the cairn, at least what remained of it. I wondered at its purpose. Was it merely a folly, constructed by the last miner to venture here, or had it been meant to warn intruders of the dangers of this dark realm?

All at once, I felt horribly alone.

Prudence won out; I would cease my exploration of the mine and come back instead with George Arnold on my next day off, bringing with us some decent lamps and a strong rope.

I glanced again at the sparkling blue john, lingering one last moment to estimate the richness of the seam, then turned to go.

Stones clattered at the other end of the cavern.

I whirled and pointed my torch in that direction and saw, for the first time, a second, larger tunnel leading away from the cavern and winding downwards into the earth. It was logical that there would be other tunnels leading off this vault. This was a mine, after all. I’d been so bedazzled by my discovery I hadn’t even thought to look. Was someone working down there? Had I startled them when I knocked over the cairn?

“Hello?” I called, and I strained my ears for a response. The mine was as still as a tomb. No one was there. Had there been, I would have seen the glow of their lamp. I was jumping at shadows.

By now, the leather of my torch had all but burned away. I needed to leave or find myself engulfed in darkness. I set out at once towards the egress, the light flirting before me...

James, there was a sudden cry. A piercing whine that echoed about me. It was inhuman, a sound so monstrous that my teeth ached from it. I lifted my torch again. Where the light shone at the entrance of that distant tunnel, a dark silhouette loomed. Either a trick of the light or my imagination fanned by the gloom and the chill, whatever approached from beyond that tunnel was huge, larger even than an elephant. A fetid and mephitic stench wafted over me. Were it not for that shadow, I might have concluded there was a sulphurous pool nearby.

But pools do not whine. And they don’t move.

What creature cast that fearful shadow?

I did not wait to find out. I ran for the entrance as fast as I could without causing my torch to blow out. Footfalls padded behind me—and ragged breaths that were not my own. Though I did not look back, through a shift in the air or a distortion of the light, I knew the creature was almost upon me. My throat burned with the stink of it.

I turned again and brandished my flame.

I cannot tell you what I saw in the darkness. At least, not exactly. An amorphous shape, yet unmistakably alive, it was a beast of the underworld. Shaggy and voluminous, it rose like a bear on its hind legs and let loose the piercing screech that I had heard before, so loud that my bones rattled in fear. I screamed too, though none would hear it. I thrust my torch upwards, stabbing the flame at the place where its face might be. I tried not to think of its teeth, of the maw from whence emanated those ungodly sounds. It shrieked and staggered back. Put off by the light like a mole?

Frantic, I ran, stumbling over the uneven rocks.

Behind me, the ground shuddered as the monster thundered back to earth.

I was so close to the exit now. So near to freedom. Still the creature pursued me. In desperation, I hurled my torch at it, hoping the fire would deter it a second time, and perhaps I singed it with the flame, because it roared again.

I plunged headlong in the darkness, making for the smudge of light which was the tunnel entrance. My lungs were burning when at last I burst out of the mine into the quiet cheer of the gully. I did not stop. I feared the creature might yet follow me. I dashed down the narrow track toward the town. When I looked back, the track was clear. I was alone.

By the time I met Geroge Arnold for supper at the hotel some hours later, I had convinced myself that your tale of Blue John Gap, coupled with the mine’s gaseous emissions, had caused me to hallucinate the fairytale beast, and I resolved not to speak of the creature with Arnold, lest he think me as inclined to whimsy as a schoolgirl.

We ordered a meal of lamb and potatoes and settled back to wait for our supper to arrive. After my adventures, I was famished.

“How was your walk?” asked Arnold. He had filled his day with mundane tasks—a visit to the barber and collecting his laundry—so was keen for some distraction.

“I stumbled across an old mine.”

Arnold nodded and took a sip of his beer. “Plenty of them in these parts.”

“I had a quick gander inside.”

“Without a lantern? That was bold, sir.”

“It was just a few steps. I had a match.” I lowered my voice. “I discovered a seam of blue john, George.”

Arnold’s head whipped up and his eyes widened. He leaned his head closer to mine. “Now that would be a find, sir. If the site were readily accessible. Where was the mine?”

“In a gorge about a mile east of here.”

Our hostess bustled around us, bearing plates of steaming food. “A mine, you say? You’ll want to be careful,” the woman interjected. After a decade of suffrage, the ladies of the dominion are so emboldened they think they can comment on matters of no concern to them, but her next statement sent a shiver down my spine: “There are monsters out there in the tunnels.”

“Monsters,” Arnold scoffed. He took up his fork and popped a potato into his mouth.

“It’s true,” the woman insisted. “You’ll want to talk to Geoffrey Dillon. He’s over there in the corner. Mister Dillon!” she called, waving a napkin above her head. “These gentlemen here, Mister Seaton and his colleague Mister Arnold from the Crown Mine, have found an old holding up in the gorge. They want to know about the maero.”

“Oh no, ma’am, I never said that I—” The landlady heard not a word of my stuttering as she was already whisking herself off to the kitchen.

At the bar, the gent in question, a scruffy miner, swallowed the last of his beer then ambled over and took a seat at our table. Arnold raised an eyebrow. We were both too shocked by the man’s audacity to protest.

“So you want to hear about our maero, do you?”

He was already seated, and he didn’t look to be going anywhere, so I nodded my assent. Besides, given the events of the day, I was intrigued to hear his story, if for no other reason than to be entertained. “Please go on,” I said.

“And you and all.” He gestured to us to continue our meal.

Arnold shook out his napkin and laid it on his lap. “What’s a maero?” he asked.

“It’s the Māori word for a wild man,” Dillon replied. “Although, they are far from human. Gigantic beasts they are, aggressive supernatural creatures able to stand upright like a man.”

Dillon’s description matched the monster I’d encountered in the cavern so well that saliva welled in my mouth, and I almost choked on a morsel of lamb.

“People from round here, the Māori included, reckon they live in the caves and abandoned mines in the region,” Dillon said. “They come out and steal sheep and other livestock to feed on, and when there is none to be had, they’re partial to a bit of human flesh.”

I took a gulp of my drink to hide my discomfort. Dillon’s tale was putting me off my meal.

I was relieved when Arnold responded, “Sounds like superstition to me, Mister Dillon.”

“Not just superstition. There’s evidence. Over in Waihi, near the Martha mine, police found the body of an old prospector; the man’s head had been torn fair off, tendons and veins all hanging out. What human could do that, aye?”

“When was this?” Arnold asked.

“Back in 1882.”

“Come on, man, that was twenty-five years ago,” I said.

“You don’t believe me.” Dillon raised his voice. “It was in all the papers. And there was another victim, too. A woman. Poor thing was drug from her hut above the township and her neck snapped.”

Arnold laid down his fork. “Calm yourself, Dillon. Mister Seaton means no offense. He was merely stating that the events you mention took place a long time ago. If indeed such a creature existed in these parts, it has surely moved on, or perhaps died out.”

Dillon narrowed his eyes. “Is that so? Well then, what if I told you that just five years ago, a miner named James Brooks found the wild man’s footprints, massive ones, right here in Karangahape. Got ’im so spooked he abandoned his claim. Folks around here think he did the right thing. The Māori won’t go near it either; they say the maero don’t like it when you trespass on their sacred territory.”

Our hostess spared me from responding, returning to the table to take away our plates and offer us a portion of her apple pudding. My appetite had long since fled, but Arnold ordered some pudding and we agreed to share a pot of tea between us.

Less interested in tea, Dillon pushed back his chair to return to the bar, turning at the last minute to ask me, “Where did you say this mine was?” He posed the question with studied casualness. I saw his intent immediately. He meant to locate the mine and secure the claim for himself.

“Oh, I stumbled across it on a walk,” I obfuscated. “I doubt I’d be able to find it again.”

Dillon gave me a sour smile, then he nodded and moved off.

“What do you make of that?” I asked Arnold when the man had left.

“Fanciful stuff, for sure,” Arnold replied in a loud tone. “Then again, I’ve seen plenty of oddities in Māoriland: the thigh bone of a bird as big as a dinosaur, for one, and the carcass of a giant sea monster fished up on the coast not far from here is another. They say there are trees that bleed gold in the north. If this maero does exist, I just hope it isn’t prowling the Crown Mine tunnels when we descend tomorrow.”

I chuckled. “True enough.”

The landlady returned to deliver Arnold’s sweet and our tea.

Leaning in to spoon up his pudding, Arnold whispered to me, “So do think you could find this mine again, sir?”

From then on, we were careful not to speak of the mine, nor the blue john, except at night when we were alone in our room, agreeing to gather the necessary equipment to investigate the mine more thoroughly in a fortnight’s time. I did relate to him the superstitions of the Allertons’s neighbours, Arnold finding it curious that tales of monsters surrounded two sites where blue john occurred.

“A ruse obviously,” Arnold said. “To keep opportunists off the land.”

It seemed the most likely answer.

The days ticked by slowly. Two. Three. Four. I burned with impatience. Since the expedition must wait until our next day off, I resolved to find out more about the mine and I’m ashamed to say I abused my office to do it, asking after James Brooks of the company secretary. I concocted a story about seeing the man’s name on some paperwork, telling the officer that I needed to verify Brooks’s signature. Crown Mines are the biggest employer in the region and had been for the past two decades, so the chances were good that Brooks had worked for the company at some point. It took a few hours, but the secretary came through: Brooks was no longer in their employment—let go couple of years back after repeatedly turning up to work drunk—but the secretary supplied an address.

I stopped in on Brooks during my dinner break.

It was just gone noon and the man was already well pickled. He steadied himself in the doorway of the run-down cottage. “Brooks. Yeah, that’s me.”

“I understand you own a claim in a gorge east of here?” I described the location, and he sobered up quickly.

“What of it?”

“I was wondering whether you’d be interested in selling it.”

His eyes grew wide, and he grinned. “You with Crown Mines?”

“Not exactly. I’m enquiring on my own account.”

He deflated at that, likely reasoning that Crown Mines, being a large company and well-funded by London investors, would offer a better price. “How much are you offering?”

My mind raced. Brooks was unemployed and a drunk. If he were short of a bob, why hadn’t he sold the holding before now? Was it because no one would buy the mine from him? Dillon had hinted as much. I opened my purse and took out a ten-pound note. For an experienced miner, it was barely a month’s wages.

“Ten pounds. It’s worth way more than that,” Brooks whined.

“Not to me,” I said, praying he was too drunk to call my bluff.

“Come on, man. Make it twenty.”

I shook my head. “For a mine inhabited by a maero? I think not.”

Brooks blanched at that. “Ten pounds then,” he said quickly. He reached out to snatch at the bill, but I drew my hand back.

“I’ll be wanting the land deed,” I said.

“Right.” He disappeared into the cottage, and came back moments later, his fist curled around a grubby document. “All yours,” he said, and he thrust it at me. I made him sign it over to me before I handed him the note.

Our business done, he closed the cottage door and toddled off to the hotel.

I owned the mine and everything in it! The knowledge only made the time dawdle even more. I held out another three days, but I could not keep away. That afternoon, I left the office early—after assigning some paperwork to Arnold—and retraced my steps to the mine, checking over my shoulder more than once in case I had been followed down that narrow track by Dillon and his ilk. I couldn’t be sure that no one had overheard me mention the blue john that night at the hotel.

When I arrived outside the mine, nothing appeared to have changed, the grasses and ferns as undisturbed as they had been on my previous visit. I struck a match and crept into the tunnel, emerging in the cavern where I stepped over the burnt-out torch. The blue john twinkled and beckoned in the cleft.

Satisfied that everything was just as it should be, I hurried out again. I dropped the match and stamped out the flame with my boot, chuckling loudly. All that talk of monsters! I’d let my imagination get away from me.

Suddenly, the hair prickled on my neck. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the mine, came that woeful whining. My blood froze in my veins.

Then I was off and running, back to town as fast as I could.

That was a week ago. Every day since, I have debated telling Arnold about what I saw and heard in the cavern, but I’m afraid that if I tell him my fears about the mine being occupied by a maero, he might not be willing to accompany me, and without his help how will I extract the blue john? I’m afraid my ambition will not allow me to let the matter go.

Perhaps it is all superstition after all. Tall tales told by locals to frighten tourists. Or the imaginings of an overactive mind fuelled by tales of a friend’s misadventures. At times, I can convince myself that that is all it is. Other times, I am certain a monster dwells in a gorge just minutes from this hotel.

We leave in an hour. I have secured a long rope and some miners’ lanterns for our expedition. But I shall also bring a rifle.

I’ll finish this letter on my return.

I turned the page over. Checked inside the envelope for a missing page.

Arnold, cap in hand, still waited by the fire.

“Where is the suite of Seaton’s letter?” I demanded, and I flapped the pages in his direction. “What happened in that mine?”

“If it’s all the same to you, Professor Saunderson, perhaps I’ll take that tea now.”

Now, it was my turn to hover. I paced the room while Miss Thomas brought up the tea. Perhaps a century passed before the man finally replaced the teacup on the saucer and cleared his throat. The story Arnold told made my blood curdle.


Seaton and I set out for the mine. It was late summer, and the day was warm, and we had not gone far along the track before I was sweating. I stopped to wipe my forehead and was assailed by flies which rose from a dead sheep that lay in a ditch beside the track. The animal looked to have been mauled by dogs. Drying blood stained the wool, and its legs were twisted in grotesque angles as if it had been tossed about. The sight of it caused Seaton to pale, although he made no comment at all. He swatted the flies from his face and hurried on to the mine entrance, which was tucked away out of sight at the base of a rocky cliff.

Oddly enough, while Seaton had been full of enthusiasm in the days leading up to our expedition, now that we were arrived, he seemed full of trepidation, finding any number of small excuses to delay our entry: checking his carbide headlamp and re-rolling the rope, even ducking behind a tree that stood just beyond the entrance to take a piss.

When at last we penetrated the mine, we passed through a tunnel that opened into a large, vaulted theatre with what appeared to be a single egress at three o’clock.

“It’s this way.” Seaton picked a path over the stony terrain. With the illumination of our miners’ lamps to guide us, I saw immediately that Seaton had been right about the blue john fluorspar. There was indeed a glorious seam of the colourful gemstone in a curve in one rock wall. Grasping my pick, I moved forward for a closer look.

Seaton grabbed me by the arm. “Mind yourself,” he said, indicating a manhole at my feet. I was pleased he did, or I might have fallen. If we were to work the holding, we would have to cordon off this area to avoid an unfortunate accident.

Crouching, I shone my headlamp into the void. “There’s another cavern beneath us,” I said, straining to see the bottom. My lamp could barely penetrate the depths; it was vast, even larger than the one we were in. “I wonder if there are other tunnels down there. Other seams. We could—”

“No!” Seaton snapped. Then he softened somewhat. “Let’s just take a sample for now, George. We can explore the rest of the mine later.”

We selected a spot, and I set about extracting a sample from the rock.

The tap-tap-tap of my pick resounded in the chamber. Seaton unslung the rifle and held it before him, his eyes on the tunnel at the far end of the cavern. Did he expect to be ambushed in the mine? His demeanour was very strange. I swear he jumped each time the pick struck.

Soon, I’d chipped away enough of the stone to wedge out a good-sized brick. I laid down my pick.

Behind me, Seaton yelped. I turned. Something had startled him. He’d tumbled among the stones, his rifle flung to one side in the fall.

Seaton scrambled backward, his face stricken. I followed his gaze… a demon! A gruesome head, as big as a haystack, protruded through the hole. That black morass fixed Seaton with glowing white eyes.

And the weirdest thing was: in that instant all I could think was that there must be a ledge somewhere below the hole; the cavern beneath us was simply too deep for the monster to be standing on the cave floor…

The creature shrieked like a banshee. Wails trilled and echoed against the rocks. It rose up, lifted a shaggy paw, and smashed it down heavily on Seaton’s leg. Sickle-like talons sliced deep into his flesh. Bone cracked. Seaton screamed.

The air filled with the coppery scent of blood.

Its talons embedded in the muscle of Seaton’s leg, the monster dragged him towards the chasm. A trapdoor spider hauling in its prey. “Help me!” Seaton shouted. “Please!”

The rifle was no good, too far away, so I snatched up the pick. Brought it down on that colossal limb, on tissue as hard as stone.

The beast shrieked again. My heart quivered. I’d barely pierced its skin.

Angry now, the monster released Seaton and swatted wildly at me. I jumped backwards beyond its reach. But the blow allowed Seaton to roll away.

Now the maero—for what else could it be?—lunged forward, its entire torso extending through the hole. I marvelled at the size of it. Talons slashed outwards across the rubble, attempting to seize us and drag us into the creature’s lair.

I didn’t intend to be a monster’s supper. Keeping clear of its reach, I swung the pick again, aiming for those glowing eyes. The pick sank deep. The beast howled. It jerked away, disappearing into the underground cavern; my pick going with it, snagged in its matted fur.

Maybe I blinded it. I couldn’t tell.

The monster’s screeches faded into the distance.

Filled with relief, I ran to Seaton. The poor fellow was sorely wounded. His trousers were shredded, and blood sluiced from deep gashes to his thighs. His lower leg was shattered. He might never walk on it again. I reached up and tore the sleeve off my tunic. “To stop the bleeding,” I told him.

“No,” Seaton gibbered. “No. We have to get out.”

I put my hand on his shoulder to reassure him. “Seaton, it’s gone.”

He shoved my hand away and tried to get up, but weak from shock and blood loss, he only succeeded in collapsing back onto the rocks, sobbing.

I gathered up the rifle. Gave it to him. “Give me your arm,” I said gently. “Use the rifle on the other side like a crutch.”

He nodded.

With me taking most of his weight, we managed to get him upright. In my ear, Seaton’s breathing was ragged, and I could feel his body shaking as I held him. I worried he would faint from loss of blood before we made it out. We had only just moved off, shuffling for the exit, when we heard the monster’s dreadful screech. Shrill and loud. I checked over my shoulder as it emerged from the shadows at the rear of the cave.

It was only steps away!

Clever. It had let us think we had run it off, and all the while it was creeping back.

I had no weapon to defend us. I’d left my pick against the wall. “Give me the gun,” I said, the stench of sulphur stinging my eyes.

“No,” Seaton croaked. He refused to hand it over.

I pulled away from him. Let him have it then. I grabbed up a rock.

The maero charged, a blur of fur and fangs. Seaton tried to lift the gun, but either he was too slow, or he could not stand without it, the monster sweeping him up even as I dived aside.

I didn’t see what happened next. I only know the rear of the cave collapsed, the weight of the charging maero too much for the crumbling stone around the hole. Rocks thundered into the cavern below, and Seaton and the monster plunged into the darkness.

I scrambled as close to the edge as I dared and looked over. A speck of light winked in the distance.

“Run!” Seaton screamed and then the maero howled.

After that, the cave went silent.

I ran into the township, to the hotel, where I found Dillon propping up the bar. “I need help,” I told him. I explained between gasps.

He didn’t seem surprised. “I warned you,” he said.

I hadn’t asked for a blasted lecture. My friend was dead. At least, I hoped so, for his sake. “Will you come or not?”

Dillon nodded. “I’ll get the men and some gear,” he said. “We’ll meet you at the head of the track.”

He was as good as his word, arriving minutes later with three burly miners, and an assortment of chisels, mallets, and picks. One of them carried explosives.

Dillon pursed his lips when our posse passed alongside the dead sheep.

“That’s the third one this week,” one of the men muttered.

We were about to enter the gully when Dillon pulled up. “Not that way,” he said. He indicated a steep track to the right, heading to the top of the hill. I don’t know how long it took to climb it as by now the shock had set in, causing me to tremble and shake, and I needed all my concentration to make it to the summit.

“Where’s the mine entrance?” Dillon asked.

I shuffled to the ledge and looked over into the gully, searching for a landmark, my head reeling with the height of it, and saw the tree where Seaton had relieved himself. I estimated the paces back to the mine as best I could. “Here, directly below us,” I said.

Unhurried, the men stood and murmured amongst themselves. They tested the rock with their mallets, pointing to creases and crevices. It was all I could do not to scream. The monster could escape at any moment. It could attack again. Why didn’t they hurry?

Too late the horror dawned: the monster had no need to hunt tonight.

I stood back then and let the miners get to work, setting charges, and preparing the explosives. When they were ready, Dillon pulled me back well away from the ledge.

He nodded to his companion, who lit the fuse.

I’d heard explosives before, but this was different. The boom was unspeakable. It jarred my bones and made my head pound. But when it was done, I felt a strange calm.

Until something occurred to me. I turned to one of the miners. “How will we explain the explosion in town?” I asked.

He chuckled. “This whole area is full of mines,” he said. “No one will think anything of it.”

I wondered about those other mines, other openings in the earth’s crust where a monster might emerge. I shook off a frisson of fear and tried not to think about it as we descended the hill and made our way to the entrance of the mine.

Dillon’s miners knew their business. The explosion had carved a boulder the size of a small steamship off the cliff face, the rock all but obliterating the mine’s entrance. Only a sliver of a gap remained, just large enough for a man to squeeze through if he were determined.

Dillon barked at the miners, and one of them clambered up the boulder, intending to set another charge and plug the gap.

I thought of Seaton. What if he had managed to escape?

“Leave it,” I said. “It won’t get through there.”

Dillon nodded. He signalled to the miner, who came away.

Later, I told the authorities that Seaton had died in a caving accident, buried in a rockfall and his body unretrievable. It was close to the truth, and Dillon backed me up.

The company gave me leave to return to England and administer to Seaton’s affairs. I went to Hardcastle’s residence to deliver Seaton’s letter and learned that he had died in February. The new tenants knew of no forwarding address, so I travelled north to Derbyshire. To Castleton. It was the elder Miss Allerton, who suggested I contact you here in Cambridge, Professor…


When Arnold trailed off, I rose and rifled among the stacks of books and papers on my desk for the folder containing James Hardcastle’s correspondence. “Miss Allerton was correct. I have the doctor’s papers. He’d never married and with no other heirs, Hardcastle appointed me as executor of his estate, with the university as his beneficiary,” I explained. “Not that there was much to disperse after such a long convalescence.”

I found the folder and flicked through the pages, searching for Hardcastle’s hand-written account of the happenings at Allerton.

“To be fair, while I know something of the superstitions of the farmers in the environs of Allerton Farm, having spent my summers there as a child, like Seaton I didn’t give Hardcastle’s story much credence. Rather, I discounted his récit as an effect of his illness.”

There. Found it. I handed the document to Arnold, pointing out in particular Hardcastle’s theories about the origins of the monstrous being he’d encountered.

Arnold took a moment to read it, then looked up at me, his forehead creasing in a frown. “So Hardcastle theorised that the monsters are some kind of prehistoric holdover, a primitive species cut off from the surface and adapted to underground living.” He looked away to the fire, resuming that faraway look of earlier, then said, “It’s as good a theory as any. Karangahape is not so far from the coast, and there are plenty of subterranean rivers and streams in the vicinity.”

I tingled with excitement. It was an intriguing notion and worthy of deeper study. “An example of Darwin’s analogous evolution,” I surmised. “Or parallel evolution. The occurrence of blue john in both mines is especially fascinating. I wonder if the presence of the ore has a bearing on the evolution of—”

Arnold interrupted me. “I think it’s better if we don’t try to find out, Professor.”

I paused, and nodded my agreement. “Quite right,” I said, suitably chastised. “Poor Hardcastle. Seems I did him a grave disservice by not believing him.”

Arnold laid the paper down on the side table alongside the empty teacup. “Seaton clearly thought the same. Although perhaps we might console ourselves that the mystery offered Hardcastle some distraction in his final days. My colleague, Seaton, was not so fortunate. But there is a small service you might yet do for them both, Professor Saunderson.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a stained document.

It was the deed to the mine at Karangahape.

“I’d be grateful if you could take guardianship of the mine. I fear if my employer, or anyone associated with Crown Mine, get wind of it, they may seek to exploit the blue john.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that, Mister Arnold. Even if they were able to move the boulder, which you claim is substantial, they’d never get the locals to mine it,” I said.

“That may be so. But Crown Mine has significant resources. For a mineral that rare, they might decide to bring in miners from elsewhere. I’d prefer they never have access to it.”

He made a good point. “Yes, indeed,” I said soberly. “Best if the matter is buried once and for all.” I took the paper from him and slipped it into the folder.

He left soon after. I never had the occasion to see him again.


Lee Murray is a writer, editor, poet, essayist, and screenwriter from Aotearoa-New Zealand. A USA Today Bestselling author, her titles include the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), fiction collection Grotesque: Monster Stories, numerous novellas, and several books for children. Her many anthologies include Hellhole, Black Cranes (with Geneve Flynn), and Unquiet Spirits (with Angela Yuriko Smith), and her short fiction appears in Weird Tales, Space & Time, and Grimdark Magazine. A multiple Bram Stoker Award™, Australian Shadows-, and Sir Julius Vogel Award-winner, Lee is New Zealand’s only Shirley Jackson Award winner, a NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow, and the 2023 NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize winner. Read more at