“Sir,” one of the men reported, from the head of the search party, “we have a situation.”
“What is it now?” Freedan demanded. “I grow tired of these delays. Rawne, I thought you said we were almost on top of them.”
“It would seem those echoes came from farther away than they sounded,” Rawne admitted, “and all these branching paths have only slowed us down.” Turning back to the scout, he asked, “So what’s the problem?”
“There’s a fork in the path up ahead,” the scout explained, “and both ways go on for some distance.”
A short distance down the corridor, the reached the point he was talking about. Two hallways branched out from this one, both uncommonly free of rubble compared to any other sections they passed at this depth. Hinting at the possibility of more stable, intact, sections of the ruins beyond, with even more areas to explore.
“Just as I thought…” Rawne muttered, noting that the scouts’ own footprints were the only clear trail he could make out, “Whoever came down here, they had at least a couple hours’ head start on us. Though I doubt they would risk splitting up down here, there’s no way to tell for sure who went which way. It’s possible old man Vandenberg passed through here, and others might just as easily have gone the other way.”
“So what now?” Freedan tapped his foot. “I will not let Percy, or his brat, live to see the surface, and if there is any treasure left to be had down here, it’s going to be ours, not theirs.”
“I say we split up,” Rawne proposed. “We’ve got the numbers. I’ll take a detachment down the left way, and you take the main group down the right. If either of us hits a dead end, they come back here and follow the other group. These allies the boy found have proven resourceful enough that we should kill them on sight, rather than risk another mess like back at the mansion.”
“Agreed,” Freedan nodded sourly, “but no matter what, I want to see them dead. There will be no loose ends down here.”
“Of course,” Rawne replied.
One of the men whipped out a spray can and marked each fork, as they had all of the previous ones, while the hunting party split into two teams. Half a dozen men going with Rawne, the rest accompanying Freedan. As if as an afterthought, one lone sentry remained at the fork as a go-between.
Down the hall and around the corner, Rawne’s team advanced down a series of passageways, past rooms of ruin filled with rotting heaps and stacks that might have once been anything from furniture to burial caskets before the rats made their nests out of it.
Rawne quickly noted that he was not the only one bothered by how many bones were strewn around those piles, both human and animal. It was obvious enough to his men, as well, that this pattern did not look like looting. Judging from the foul reek that prevailed in this region, he doubted he was the only one who pegged this primal arrangement for some kind of den.
What bothered him most, though, was the glaring lack of any living specimen to gather intelligence from, as he was increasingly certain this was not the work of rats.
All they could really do was proceed with caution, even as they began to notice more and more strange faded red symbols marked on the walls, like some kind of warning.
If not for the intuition that some recent disturbance may have cleared out this area, the only immediate clue about other activity down here, combined with their last couple attempts to check in with the others resulting in mostly static, had him wondering how much longer he could hold his men back from trying to regroup before they even found anything.
Though most of them were battle-hardened soldiers of fortune, he was pretty sure this was the longest any of them had spent underground, and combined with the scenery, it was already starting to take a toll on their demeanor, and surely their morale. Likely their own desire to not appear weak in front of their peers the only thing staying their tongues thus far.
“Sir,” one of them finally piped up, “perhaps we should double back and check with the boss.”
“I don’t like this…” another one voiced from the back of the group.
“I don’t either,” Rawne told them, “but until we find something, even if it’s a dead end, I’m not going back to him empty—”
They were immediately interrupted by a cry of horror from their point man.
It only took a moment for the rest to spot the cause of his alarm. A pair of yellow glowing eyes glaring back at their lights. As Rawne signaled them to drop into a defensive crouch, weapons drawn, they watched in growing alarm as that one pair of eyes was joined by yet another pair.
In the time it took any of them to blink, there were a couple dozen more.
As the eyes began to move forward, and all their lights focused on them, the rest of the creatures’ bodies became visible. One to two feet tall, bipedal, reptilian, of a dark grey that made them one with the shadows. Even at fifty paces, they could still make out long, hooked claws on both front and hind legs, and gleaming fangs that protruded out from under their lips.
The lights shining on them only seemed to halt their advance for a moment before they charged.
Rawne’s crew opened fired without any need of orders, mowing down the first wave. They soon learned that whatever was attacking them was like fighting the tide, as more and more flooded in from around a corner somewhere back there, washing over their fallen fellows’ corpses in even greater numbers. Much to their dismay, grim numbers that were fast becoming proportionate with all the nests they walked among.
Those screeching, hissing, scrabbling sounds threatening to drown out their screams of terror as more joined the small army rushing to overwhelm them now that their prey was located.
Rawne quickly realized that they did not have nearly enough firepower to hold this passage against them, the blazing barrage of energy beams lighting up the tunnel taking down only a fraction of their attackers, and made a hasty retreat behind his team’s covering fire to draw Max’s laser sword. The others, not having energy blades, had to fend for themselves as the feeding frenzy closed the gap. Though most wore varying degrees of body armor, it availed them little at close range.
Once they started crawling up one man’s leg, his shots went wild, hitting one of his teammates before he lost his weapon. The other man screamed in agony as he went down, a large mass of reptiles burying him from head to foot. One of the others was overwhelmed by an impossibly large wave of them, still screaming into his staticky radio for reinforcements that would never arrive in time, even if they heard him, to suffer they same tormenting fate as his companions as they were swarmed.
Aden Rawne continued his retreat as their defense collapsed completely, the neon green blade becoming a blur of streaking lights as he cut down anything that got near him.
The one who accidentally shot his partner was now down on the floor, rolling frantically in a vain attempt to shake off the creatures that had gotten through his armor. Once the blood loss from all those fangs and claws began to take their toll, all he could do at the end was shriek as his flesh was stripped from his bones. It was fast becoming the same gruesome story for the rest of his crew as they fell one by one.
All Rawne could do was continue to hack and slash as he worked his way backward, desperation lending him extra vigor. The whole experience blurring into an endless, painful horror show. He had to slow— but never stop— his slicing and dicing to shake one off his boot.
As he backed around the corner, he caught a glimpse of the last living member of his party. Having shaken off enough of his tormentors to move, he tried to crawl over to where he had fumbled his power rifle, its mounted light still illuminating the carnage unfolding around him. In mid-motion he slumped to the ground, only vaguely aware that he no longer had the strength left to save himself, glassy eyes staring blankly ahead.
Rawne was fast beginning to realize that the only reason he was even still alive was because most of these subterranean predators had shifted gears, instead fighting over his fallen henchmen’s remains, as well as their own corpses. Once there were no scraps left to squabble over, their full attention would turn back to him. And that would be the end of it.
If I make it out of here, Rawne thought grimly, Freedan’s gonna owe me a fuckin’ fortune…