Encompassing darkness. Strange, how infinite blackness devoid of detail seemed not to expand endlessly outward, but rather closed claustrophobically indward.
Making the darkness worse were the creatures barely in the midst of the black, hunched shapes only visible not because of any faint trace of light, but of their aura of darkness, a black that seemed to suck shadow around them like a protective cloak. Each curled in upon itself, almost in a fetal repose within a compassing nest of indiscipherable parts, organic curves and pulsations flowing amid hard lines and straight facets striking together in harsh angles. Within those cocoons, they appeared inert, a dark void within the larger darkness of their supporting form. In two ranks they hung, four to each side of the cylindrical constraints of their dark universe, sentinels against light and motion.
Their neckless forms seemed a frozen parody of an human form, melted like wax amid the fire and agony of darkest hell. Their broad chitinous shoulders flared out like stunted wings, and their armored limbs hung limp, seeming to end in clawed, webbed talons like crenellated axeblades. Between those downswept plates were what could have been heads, but not of any creature born of the primal fires on ages past Terra Nova, nor even of long-forgotten Earth. Some bore thick curving carapaces that seemed to meld with the plates across their shoulders, while others bore heads, if they were such, smaller and capped with ragged tufts of coarse hair, broken in stripes by similar chitin or black connective tissues.
Suddenly, the tomblike silence altered, and the blackness flared and shrank. A dim red light blossomed in the night, fresh-spilled blood mixing with the vacuous oil of the predecessing darkness, revealing more of the distorted occupants.
In that half-light the creatures took on further malice, their forms revealed further in the hell-glow. Webbed limbs hung free of the suspended bodies, powerful legs curving back to a second bent knee, slick skinned and pumping rythmically in the twilight, like cadaver frogs stimulated to a macabre dance by a frankenstinian doctor's cruel electrode.
Yet, amid the sudden roar of the silent motions, the pulsing faces seemed far worse than what had yet been revealed.
Where the backs of their heads had seemed only deformed, mere scabrous blisters betwixt the night-dark mantle of their chitinous shells, the foreparts were by far a testament to hideousness. Beheld unclearly in the blood-dark womb, they were terrible beyond description, elongated muzzles jutted forth, trailing probosces or tusklike cords that stretched their pulsing snouts to the mothering shape that surrounded each, as if to nurse or even pump red-black blood between the two.
As if awakened by the blood-light, the creatures stirred now, their movements familiar and assured in the darkness. Webbed limbs pistoned more strongly against the air, and unseeing black orbs swept their surroundings hungrily from within their sunken sockets.
As if sensing something new, the creatures unfurled further, clawed limbs reaching to the curved deck with predatory grace and strength, as a pulse of blue lit the intenstinal confines of their chamber.
Then, as if to vomit them forth from their sanctuary, the floor beneath splayed apart, leaving the creatures suspended above a pool of infinite dark. Whistling air boiled past, clawing tendrils of mist reaching up from the inky darkness to twine and claw at the limbs that hung tantalizingly above the hungy mists.
With the slightest motion, the creatures succumbed. In unison, they dropped away, falling free of their womb like spent shell casings, black demons loosed to ravage the sleeping earth now below.
And like demons they took to the air in which they had been cast, skeletal members unfurling into night-dark cloaks that cut the night like razors as they soared to earth, arrowed streaks of blackness hungrily descending to earth.
As to vultures, they slowed, then hung on the air above their prey, a watery pool of silvered light cupped amid the rocks. But without hesitation the creatures plunged in, desecrating the light as they heedlessly took to the water as they had to the air, their black wings shattering the purity of the light with their arrowlike shadows.
And within the water the creatures began to change. The darkling wings tattered and dissolved beneath the water, their wearers seemingly absolved of their evil by the light of the water. So too did the encompassing devices that had held them before their flight, the curving shapes cut off and cast away as the creatures struggled free, moving with grace and surety now, their webbed limbs at home in the darkness beneath the water's silvery surface.
Deeper and deeper they swam, twisting ribbons of slick muscle and hard armor, questing the shadowed bottom of the pool for even greater deeps.
Gaping wide, an opening yawned beneath them, a tunnel leading down and away, snaking away into turgid darkness beneath the living stone.
Unflinchingly, the creatures swam onward, following the subtle current and unseen guides amid the lightless dark. Faintly now, the first sounds issued from them, quiet clicks that softly felt out the bounds of their invisible path.
Stirred by their passing, creatures of the caverns came alive, pale bodies gliding amid the darkness, some glowing with eerie light, while others slipped through the shadows invisibly, transparent bodies no more than ghosly volumes of displaced water.
Even the fearsome form of a glass shark, a crystalline dagger of hunger and death, gave them wide berth, its sightless, senseless features questioning them for only a fraction of a second before recognizing their nature. Almost frightened, the lord of the depths yielded to the interlopers and hastily turned away.
But then came something not nearly so wary, a bulky form bereft of any intelligence. A minisub, oblivious to all but the jagged rocks around and the path of the twisting cavern. Strangely, it operated without lights, navigating the dark water with apparent confidence, heedless to whatever might obstruct it. As if affronted by the lack of obeisance, one of the creatures did not dart aside as the vessel blundered blindly onward, instead coming close enough to touch the iron skin with a fleeting caress as it passed.
It continued onward for a time, moving almost straight in the dimness water and calmly navigating clear of the few stalactites and stalagmites adorning the subterranean tunnels, it seemed unperturbed by the interlopers, if it even acknowledged their presence.
Halting to manouver around another dolmen, the forgotten caress of the creature suddenly glowed bright, a white-hot spark geysering flame and bubbles, churning the water with smoke and steam for a second.
With a morbid spasm, the sub seemed to buck and then belch, like the airy spirit within the metal frame had broken free, roaring toward the surface to escape, chased by fire as it separated from the rent shell of the minisub and pooled against the rock cieling.
The creatures paused to observe the death, limbs occasionally kicking to maintain their positions as they watched dispassionately, then curled protectively inward as the rippling shockwave of the explosion rocked them and stirred silt from the cavern walls.
Then, the lumbering construct seemingly forgotten, they turned and resumed their course along the tunnels. Singlemindedly, their limbs threshed the water, their lean bodies moving with singular purpose along an almost instinctive path, despite the myriad branches presented.
The creatures seemed to have approached their destination, slowly ascending towards the cave ceiling. Without apparent reason, they would pause, maintaining their position in the gently flowing current for minutes at a time, before rising another random distance and repeating the process.
Finally, the first broke the surface, the others following shortly, rising like silent demons from the inky depths.
As the first paused at the threshold of water and stone, the others gathered behind, silent ranks watching and waiting. Then the leader lithely slithered onto the rock shelf, peering about in the twilight offered by the sparse luminescent fungi bedecking the cavern. Seeing nothing, it made a strange hissing tsk, gesturing slowly away from the water and deeper into the cave.
In unison the others rose up from the water, then all began a strange feverish series of gestures, tugging at wrist and calf and small of hunched back, accompanied by faint clicks and fainter hisses.
"Tsuka." The leader growled, a muffled noise that said nothing but carried clearly.
Echoed replies quickly from all around, distorted hissings barely reminiscent of even animal noises.
Then, as a body, they moved forth into the cave, their ungainly forms slightly less deformed, their webbings now somehow retracted and knees only jointed once, their motions as sure and quick on land as they had been benath the blood-dark water.
Before them, the darkness of the cavern pressed inward, faintly illuminated from ahead in such a manner that the stalactites and stalagmites seemed the teeth of some great stone beast, ready to chew that which it had already devoured and swallow them down to the depths of the planet.
Heedlessly, the creatures moved onward, darting from shadow to shadow toward the menacing light...
* * *
"C'mon in. 'S not like anybody'd actually get down here, let alone accidentally stop in front of the scanner, and then somehow decide to start saying the passwords." Someone said, and a section of the cave wall opened up.
Momentarily blinded by the lights of the depot, Preceptor Darek paused on the threshold.
"Whassa matter boss?" The voice asked, a strong hand helping the resistance leader inside.
His eyes finally started to adjust to the actinic glare of the sodium lamps, seemingly almost as bright as Helios after the long trek through the comforting darkness of the undertunnel.
"Just a little bright, Jager. It's as bright as the damned snake embassy in here. Of all places."
"Sorry sir, but we need the light when we're repairing the Water Viper. Damned Bajans bringing their plaguey selves sniffing around our tunnels... We don't want them or their germs, poking around here, do we?"
"Another incursion?" The preceptor asked nervously, eyeing the pressure lock built into the wall of the tunnel.
"Dealt with. I collapsed a stalactite onto them, so even if they're found, it'll look like they bumped an unstable rock and got caved on.
"Excellent work Jager. Risking yourself to contamination like that for the sake of all Gardenia is truly a noble thing."
"Thank you, elder. I've gotta go now, I'm expected back from mapping detail soon, and Jinni is expecting to meet me by the canal at four for midmeal."
"Go ahead and enjoy yourself. I'll finish making preparations for the next strike. Has the supply sub checked in yet?"
* * *
"Hoor. Jhreen, hrakage jhreen."
"Sesc'tion alt, shek your mate." A hushed voice muttered from ahead, its origin only visible as two dim red points in the opressive darkness, to be occluded seconds later by a strangely shaped limb.
"Keh hoss." A similarly hushed and distorted voice burbled from the black shadows, and the six creatures crouched, each preening another in the dim light.
"Mnache npons hredy nd hadance."
The creatures grated and snuffled, then straightened and shifted their postures, removing objects from their backs and snapping them together with ominous clicks and scrapings. Strange, menacing weapons formed from the assembled parts, to be held unshiftingly at the ready.
Then, in unison, the dark creatures began to advance to the depths of the tunnels, in search of prey.
To be continued...
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