The hole yawns wide and deep, its top reaching almost halfway up the mound. Sergeant Brown and the four men comprising second squad cautiously move forward in formation. Still sulking, Tahir joins me a little ways behind them while Sergeant Troy and first squad bring up the rear. The rain has continued to fall and, uncharacteristically, shows no signs of stopping. If it keeps up like this, we might have issues getting the trucks out of the sand and back to the road.
Well, on the bright side, I’ll only have to worry about washouts if I get out of this cave alive.
About ten feet from the entrance is when a familiar, unmistakeable odor hits me; the cave smells of death. Walking through the entryway, the stagnant air intensifies the stench, wielding it like a weapon. Ahead I hear someone in second squad retch.
The hole itself is actually more like a semicircular tunnel, about fifteen feet high and ten feet wide. Pushing forward the first thing I notice, other than the sickening smell, is that the walls are smooth and unnatural. For about twenty five feet the entire expanse from floor to ceiling is covered with strange cave art, fantastic symbols that bear a passing resemblance to ancient Syrian writings I came across during my studies in college. One small section of the tunnel roof appears to have collapsed, disrupting the otherwise unbroken pattern of art. Whatever ink was used to transcribe the symbols glows with a faint luminescence giving the passage a disconcertingly eerie feeling. The tunnel seems to be sloping gradually downward. Rather than simply leading into the hill the hole burrows into the ground itself, how deep I can only guess. I see movement ahead as Specialist Barnes from second squad jogs up to me. The kid looks scared.
“Sir, Sergeant Brown says you need to come take a look at what he’s got up there.”
“Ok, what is it?”
“He said not to tell you, said it’s something you’ve gotta see for yourself.”
“Why didn’t he call me on the radio?”
“Tried, sir, radio’s out.”
I key my hand mic, futilely trying to reach the trucks just fifty yards behind me.
“Dammit. Must be something in these walls screwing with the signal. Barnes, keep going back to Sergeant Troy and tell him to send a couple guys to let the trucks know they won’t be able to talk to us while we’re down here. Then meet me up with Sergeant Brown. Come on, Tahir, let’s go see what the fuss is all about.”
The Sahwa leader sighs resignedly,“I think you have a very good idea what it is, Mulasim Michael, as I have already told you.”
We continue forward another fifty yards before I reach second squad and discover the source of the smell. Dozens of bodies cover the floor of the cave, torsos ripped open and limbs strewn about in a mess of gore. The blood has dried but based on the smell the remains haven’t been here long. All of the corpses exhibit wounds that appear to have been caused by something incredibly sharp. Holding my breath against the stench I lean down to take a closer look at one of the corpses. The body is headless and missing its right arm at the shoulder where it was messily torn off. The shredded remains of the clothing left on the body suggest it’s a local. Its stomach has been ripped open and huge chunks of the guts seem to be missing almost as if…something has been eating it. A sharp thrill of fear shoots down my spine as I step back from the thing that used to be a human body.
“Tahir, you son of a b***h, I’m starting to think you just may have been telling the truth.”
I look around until I find Sergeant Brown who beckons to me from where he stands a little ways farther down the tunnel. As I approach him there is a look of silent rage etched across his face, one arm outstretched and pointing to a pile of human bones completely picked clean of flesh and tissue. They are so very, very small. I feel my heart break.
Led by Specialist Barnes, Sergeant Troy comes hustling up from the rear. He takes in the scene before turning to me and holding out a remote clacker.
“Barnes filled me in. I took the liberty of prepping the tunnel entrance with C4 before coming down here. I highly recommend we withdraw back to the trucks and seal whatever the f**k is in here to rot.”
Numbly I take the trigger from him.
“There might be more kids down there, Sergeant.”
“Sir,” Troy’s voice cracks, “you know there’s not.”
I think for a long moment. The gibbering caveman part of my brain tells me there’s nothing more it wants to do than leave this hole far behind and escape back to the relative sanity of the patrol base. But the rational part, the one I’ve spent years training to perform under incredibly stressful situations, disagrees. What Sergeant Troy says is probably true; the odds of there being any live kids down here is almost zero. But on the other hand, there’s no telling where this tunnel goes, or if there are other exits the creature could use to escape if we destroy the entrance we came through. If that’s the case there would be nothing to stop it from killing again. Nothing to stop it from feeding. There’s only one way to make sure that these bones will be the last.
“Sorry, Troy. We’ll seal the entrance as a last resort, but we have to make sure we stop this sonuvabitch for good. And by my estimation, the best way to do that is to shoot the f****r until it’s in too many different pieces to be a threat. We keep going.”
I pause and turn to the Sahwa leader. “Tahir, I’m sorry for doubting you earlier but it looks like you were being honest with me. It doesn’t seem right to drag a civilian any further into this mess. You’re free to leave. I can’t spare an e****t, but you’re welcome to keep the goggles on your way out if you promise to pass them to my driver once you reach the trucks.”
The big man grips my shoulder a grave look upon his face. “You are a good man, Mulasim Michael. And I think, in different circumstances, perhaps a good friend. I shall wait for you at the entrance. I will pray that if ever God watches over the infidel that He do it this night.” Moving rapidly, he disappears toward the entryway.
Looking after Tahir, Sergeant Brown hocks up phlegm and spits to the side, “What a p***y.”
The casual bravado makes me smile. “Agreed. But I’ll do my best not to judge him too harshly until we find the thing that did this. Your squad ok staying on point?”
“Sir,” Brown’s voice is cold as ice, “It will be my absolute pleasure.”
“I’ve got a feeling this tunnel is going to start to honeycomb. Use your gut to pick a route, or follow the stench. Radios are worthless down here so don’t get ahead farther than shouting distance. Tell the boys to stay sharp. Weapons free. If it moves, shoot it until it stops.”
“No worries there,sir. Let’s go, second!” He turns and the squad begins making its way deeper down the tunnel. Troy is left standing beside me.
“I’ll keep the rear. But remember what we agreed to, sir.”
“I remember, Sergeant. Keep them alert and mark the way back to the entrance with IR chem lights. If this hole starts to branch off, I don’t want to get lost down here and I really don’t want this thing sneaking up behind us.”
I follow close behind second squad. Just as I suspected, the tunnel soon begins to break off into multiple forks, sometimes as many as three or four different paths at an intersection. The darkness is now absolute, the strange glowing markings near the entrance of the cave a distant memory. I reach up and key the IR flood on the side of my goggles, washing the expanse of the tunnel in a beam of invisible light to help my goggles be more effective. As we move ever deeper into the abyss, I become sharply aware of the crushing weight of the earth around me. I’m not claustrophobic, but down here I may as well be.
We travel for what seems like hours but, checking my watch, is only about fifteen minutes. Brown seems to pick the route at random. Right, left, second from the left; I try to keep track but after seven or eight turns I know it will be impossible to remember them all. Doing some quick mental calculations, I realize if this goes on much longer we’ll have to stop and cross load chem lights back with first to mark the route or they’ll be running out. I curse inwardly; it would have made way more sense to have the lead element mark the path, but I hadn’t been thinking about it at the time. Now I’ll have to hope that Troy keeps close or we’ll risk losing him and the rest of first squad at one of these intersections.
I pick up the pace to try and halt Sergeant Brown in order to consolidate and reorganize when the latest tunnel abruptly opens into a large subterranean cavern. I have no idea how the geometry of this tunnel system works because while it hasn’t seemed like we’ve been going that far down, the height of the stalactite peppered ceiling almost lost in the darkness above my head suggests we must have descended at least a hundred feet. Brown and second squad have stopped up ahead at the foot of a wide pool that dominates the cavern, reaching as far as I can see in either direction. Despite the size of the cavern, the air is closed and thick, smelling of rot. I look behind me and confirm my fear; Troy and first are nowhere to be seen.
“Think this is as far as we go down this way, sir, less you brought a canoe with you.”
“Knew I forgot something, Sergeant Brown. We have to go back anyhow; it looks like we lost first somewhere along the way.”
“You kidding me? How the ever lovin’ did they…”
“Sergeant!” Barnes is shouting. “There’s something in the water!”
Brown and I turn simultaneously in time to see a small wave ripple across the pool as something huge moves below the surface. There’s a brief pause where all time and motion seem to stop before the water explodes, an inhuman roar echoing throughout the cavern.