My lungs and my legs are burning in concert. The breath heaves in my chest and I feel like I’m going to throw up. The incline that was so unnoticeable during our descent now fights me with every step. At each intersection I take a path utterly at random. Terror has placed my mind on complete autopilot, my only thought to try and put as much distance between myself and the thing as possible. Soon, I am hopelessly lost. I’m not sure how long I have been going when the rational part of my brain regains control, but it can’t have been very long. Even though the entire expanse of the network looks similar, I am completely certain I haven’t been down this pathway previously. As I continue forward I slow my flight to little more than a fast walk. The pounding sound of the monster’s passage has faded to a distant throbbing and the combat gear I’m wearing isn’t designed for long distance running; best to conserve my energy for when I need it. Even though I know this isn’t the way towards the entrance, something seems to draw me forward. It’s not anything particular that I can identify, but some kind of sixth sense, or perhaps a slightly less noxious quality to the air. The tunnel begins to gradually narrow until it is little more than five feet wide. There is still plenty of space for me to make my way unimpeded, but the relatively small size of the tunnel may prevent the creature from following me. Abruptly the pathway dead ends in a wall of unyielding rock covered by a blanket of lichen. There’s no exit this way, but I could stay here. I could be safe.
Yeah, starving to death might actually be worse than letting that thing eat me.
I run my hands along the wall searching for any sign of a way through or around, not really expecting anything, when I notice a small alcove obscured by the vegetation. I reach inside and my questing hand grasps something about the size of a half dollar. Removing the object I see it is a perfectly round stone, polished smooth to the touch except for a second smaller circle slightly raised in its exact center. I remove my glove and find the stone to be oddly warm, almost as if it were somehow generating its own heat. The geometry is too perfect to have been formed by nature and must have been man made. Whatever it is, someone went to a great deal of trouble to hide it where it would be almost impossible to find. My thoughts return to the unnaturally smooth walls of the entrance to the cave and the strange luminescent symbols that covered them.
As if in response to my thoughts, the edge of the stone begins to softly glow. Upon closer inspection I see that the same type of symbols have been etched along its outer circumference. The detail is astounding; by my best reckoning the piece is ancient, but the markings are so finely wrought that it must have been a truly master craftsman to inscribe them.
I try to put together the messy pile of jigsaw pieces presented to me. There’s obviously a connection between the entrance of the cavern and this stone. Also, at some point someone hid it deep within a twisting subterranean labyrinth and protected it with a giant centipede monster. That means it’s somehow important.
Unless that monster’s not a guard, but a prisoner… maybe those markings at the entrance were what was keeping it in the cave? There was a break in the pattern where the roof fell in. Maybe that’s what started this whole mess. No real point in thinking about it too hard since it won’t do me any good if I can’t get out of here.
I hear the word in my head as clearly as if someone had spoken it aloud. It startles me so badly that I almost fall over backwards, inadvertently dropping the stone which falls to rest upon the tunnel floor. Immediately upon leaving my hand the markings fade away, the stone laying on the ground like any normal piece of rock. Hesitantly I reach down and pick it up again, the markings glowing to life at the touch of my bare hand.
“Was that you?” I speak aloud, “Did you say something to me?”
With all the weird things that have already happened to me today, a magical talking stone barely cracks the top three.
Or you’re just losing your damn mind, Landry. The mental shock of giant monsters and having your men eaten in front of you might be sending you over the edge. You should probably accept the fact that you’re going to die down here, you coward, one way or the other. Like Barnes and Cortines, ripped apart in the jaws of that thing. Be a man and accept it like Sergeant Brown did. No stone is going to help you find the way out.
The word repeats itself in my head and this time I manage to keep enough control of myself to avoid dropping the stone. As I stand there, a feeling comes over me that urges me to walk back down the tunnel away from the dead end. It’s similar to the urge that drew me this way in the first place, but is undoubtedly stronger. With no better options I start walking, and soon realize I know how to get back to the entrance. It’s not that I can lay out a specific path but more resembles how a person walks a familiar route while thinking of other things; the subconscious mind takes over. As I reach each intersection I know without a doubt which way to take. I move cautiously while listening for any sign of the monster, keeping one hand on the stone and the other on the grip of my weapon. Soon I reach an intersection where five different tunnels converge. An IR chem light glows softly by one of the forks.
“Holy s**t, sir! Sergeant, he’s over here!” Specialist Johnson, one of the members of first squad, is pulling guard from the marked tunnel. Suddenly my platoon sergeant is there, followed closely by the squad leader, Sergeant Parks. In his relief, Troy’s usual professionalism cracks just a bit.
“Jesus, you had me worried, sir. When we got to this fork I had no idea which way you went and didn’t want to risk just randomly wandering off down one way or the other in case I guessed wrong. Figured you’d realize we’d lost you eventually and hopefully just make your way back to us. Then we heard some gunfire a little while ago but couldn’t tell where it was coming from, what with how much these things twist and turn, but I was about to say f**k it and head out looking for you and…” Troy pauses, his gaze focused down the tunnel behind me as if he’s just realized something. “Sir, where’s Brown and the other squad?”
Dead. Dismembered. Parts of them roaming around in the belly of a beast. They didn’t have a magic stone hee hee hee.
Inside my head, I fight to hold down the part of my brain that threatens to send me over the edge into blessed madness. I grip the stone in my hand tighter.
“They’re gone, Sergeant Troy. And we need to get the hell out of here.”
“You’re not saying…”
“Tahir was telling the truth, about all of it. And this thing…we can’t stop it with anything we have on us. Sergeant Brown and the others did everything they could to make sure I made it back. We need to leave. Now.” I turn to my squad leader. “Sergeant Parks, get us out of here.”
The levity of the moment is instantly gone. Parks snaps into motion. “Roger, sir. Cruz and Johnson, lead out. Sir, you and Sergeant Troy right behind so you can figure out the plan on the go. I’ve got rear security with Pike and Dominguez. Quick and quiet.”
We begin moving smartly up the tunnel back towards the entrance, the gentle mental nudges from the stone confirming the route laid out by the chem lights. Troy shadows me.
“Sir, what are you thinking?”
“Get out. Then blow the entrance. We can’t leave it open to allow this thing free reign to come and go as it pleases. There might be other ways out but they might not be big enough to accommodate it, or at the very least might take it farther away from populated areas. Get back to base and figure out how I’m gonna tell higher what happened here.”
“There’s no chance that Brown or any of his boys made it?”
“No. Cook was the only one I’m not a hundred percent sure of, and the risks of leaving the hole open are way too big compared to the odds I’d give him. Besides, we can use that as additional leverage on the old man to make sure we get some reinforcements down here. He might not believe in monsters, but he’s sure going to send us some help to find a soldier lost and trapped in a cave.”
Troy nods his head in agreement. “Sounds about right to me, sir. Tell you the truth, I’m hoping we can get it to work as smooth as that.”
“What? Why wouldn’t it?”
“Well, while I had the boys hunkered down waiting for you, we heard some weird noises. Made me think that maybe parts of the tunnel were caving in all on their own. Robinson’s a bright kid though and I’m sure he’ll call for help if we don’t show up soon.”
I grab his arm and hold him up short. “Sergeant, what kind of noises?”
“Ah hell, sir, some kind of deep thrumming. Sounded like it started out near us and then was moving back away towards the entrance. Cave in was the only thing I could think of that it could be.”
“Oh s**t. Sergeant, we need to stop. Johnson, Cruz, hold up! Everyone bring it in.” I look around wildly as the squad converges on me. We’re standing in the middle of a rather large intersection, about fifty feet across, with four passageways leading into it including the one we just came from.
The thought flashes through my head as powerful as a bolt of lightning. Apparently the stone is sensitive to certain environmental conditions, and the creature appears to be one of them. Parks jogs up to me.
“It’s smart. It didn’t know which path we were on but knew we’d go for the entrance. It’s lived down here, probably knows all the different ways through these tunnels. It circled around us to set a trap.”
Troy glances at Sergeant Parks before looking back at me.
“Are you sure, sir? That seems a little more intelligent than I’d expect from some kind of animal.”
“It’s different, sergeant, it’s not just an animal. You didn’t see it, didn’t see how it picked us apart. It’s waiting for us and we are going to walk right into it if we don’t…”
The thought slaps me like a physical force, strong enough that I reflexively grab my head with my hands.
Why can’t they see? Why can’t they believe me?
“Gah! We need to set up a defensive position. It’s our only chance. Maybe we can get lucky and find a weak spot or…
DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER
I scream. The thought is a nail being driven through my head, a claxon blaring next to my ear. The stone still in my hand, I collapse to my knees. The fall saves my life.
From one of the tunnels, the creature’s tentacles flash out like spears. If I hadn’t been moving the first would have caught me directly in the back of my head and killed me instantly at the same moment the second removed Sergeant Parks’ head from his body. As it is, the hideous limb only strikes heavily on my right shoulder. In some insidious design of nature, the tentacle is tipped with razor sharp spikes that furrow deep gouges into my back, through body armor and all. The force of the blow throws me bodily forward and I hit the wall face first before rebounding and crumpling to the tunnel floor. I lie on my back, dazed, and feel a cold numbness start to spread from the wound. Whether from the blow or some poison injected by the claws, I can’t move. Helpless I can only lie motionless and listen to the pandemonium unfold around me.
Oh God-blam-the f**k is that-blamblam- It hurts-blamblamblam-please don’t-blamblamblamblam-Noooooooo- blamblamblamblamblamblam……