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“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” -- Plato

“Hand me the radio, Bryant!”

“It’s busted, Sir. I fell on it when they started shooting at us.”

Sergeant Hughes rubbed his face with bloodied hands. The entrance to the cave where they were now hiding was a small opening in jagged rock. None of them got through without a few scrapes, but at least they were safe from the maelstrom of enemy bullets, for now.

“At this juncture,” Hughes eventually said, sighing, “I’m feeling open to suggestions.” He looked at each of his six remaining men in turn.

“I say we stay here, pick off some gooks, and wait for the Lieutenant to find us,” piped Sergeant Peterson, caressing the barrel of his gun.

“You’re not thinking, Peterson! We just may have escaped into this cave unseen. If you start shooting that thing they’ll know we’re here for sure! As for waiting for the Lieutenant, you may have a point.”

“I doubt we were unseen, Sir. They were right on our heels. I imagine they’re plotting to overrun us at this very moment,” added Corporal Bryant. “We may be able to hold them off, though, if they don’t have grenades.”

Before Hughes could reply, Private Fritz, “Couldn’t we just find another way out? We’re bound to find another way if we just follow the cave long enough, right? They’ll find us if we stay here! They’ll catch us and make us watch while they cut the meat from our bones and feed it to their dogs! Please Sergeant, I don’t wanna stay here!” He stared wide-eyed at Hughes, petrified with fear.

“Calm dow...”

Hughes was cut off by an explosion directly outside the cave entrance. As the explosion settled, the sound of Vietnamese voices became audible. Bodies streamed through the small opening like so many ants. The Americans retreated down into the cave. That darkness was far preferable to the darkness their adversaries wished to bestow upon them. They were so desperate to escape their enemy that they forgot to use their flashlights, letting the darkness engulf them.

Though light had long abandoned them, they did not waver. They ran for hours that seemed like minutes, dashing themselves against stone after stone. Deep into the bowels of the Earth they ran, into the oppressive deep they scrambled. Many miles of wet and jagged rock lay between them and the entrance when they finally collapsed, the sounds of their pursuers long ceased.

About 60 years previous.

Monsieur Georges Astier didn’t usually give local folklore much mind, but he found himself a bit shaken by some of the stories he’d been told about the hilled forest north of the village. The villagers were vocally concerned for Astier who so casually explored the dreaded forest where caves sang in the voices of the dead and ghostly lights bobbed in the night. They told him that the forest was haunted by “ma doi”, souls of those not properly put to rest, who came into the village at night and stole from the villagers.

The year was 1902 and Astier had come to what was then French Indochina to study local fauna. For the first five months of his research in northern Annam he saw and heard nothing of these tales. One day, however, while skirting a deep cleft, his ears picked up the ever so vague sound of singing. As much excited and curious as scared, he climbed down into the crevasse. At the bottom he followed the singing into a small tunnel, feeling his way in the darkness. As he rounded one of the many dark turns, the last few inches of something pale and luminous disappeared behind the next corner. Around that next corner, he saw it. Something utterly new.

Approximately 13,000 years ago.

Yilk ran alongside his mother. He liked to run but something told him they weren’t doing it for fun. His mother kept looking behind them, her large brown eyes watery.

“Mama, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, we’re just going for a run.”

“Why are you looking back?”

“To see how far we’ve come.” she said with a forced smile.

He knew this wasn’t the real reason but he kept silent. Umber, the watcher, was screaming. Something was definitely wrong.

More Floreans appeared from the surrounding trees and joined them, making a tight group, running north.

For two days they ran. Once in a while Yilk would hear a deep bellowing from far behind them. One word kept being whispered among the group, “Java”. Yilk didn’t like running anymore.

At the end of the second day they reached the sea. Their northern kin took them aboard their large rafts and they, the 200 remaining Floreans, left Flores, forever.

Hughes awoke. He tried to move, his whole body retaliated. He was completely soaked, whether in water or his own blood he did not know. Groping for his flashlight he found something warm.

“Hey, stop poking me.” Peterson snapped.

“Sorry, I was looking for my flashlight. Do you have yours?”

“Yeah.” Peterson switched on his light, illuminating smooth, wet, heartless rock. He pointed it at Hughes and let out a small gasp. “You look like hell, there’s blood all over your face. Are you feeling all right?” Say what you will about Peterson, but he always took care of his own.

“No, my head is killing me but I can manage. Let’s look for the others.”

Peterson stood up and, with a little help, Hughes persuaded his own body to do the same. They looked up and down the tunnel for their companions. They found Fritz first, sitting against the wall rubbing his head, on the edge of tears. “You alright?” Hughes asked. He already knew the answer and Fritz didn’t reply. He’d never been a good soldier, he always complained and worried about everything. Word was that his family forced him into the military, got tired of him or something. Poor kid, you’re annoying as hell, but I do pity you.

Private Krane was still passed out. A gash on his right deltoid was bleeding quite badly and the angle of his foot looked a little funny. Peterson was able to revive him with a couple light slaps to his face. Krane was silent, he just stared up at Peterson with an unreadable expression. Peterson took a look at Kranes ankle, quickly surmised that it was broken and bandaged it accordingly.

“Hey, you all OK?” rang Bryant’s voice from the direction they’d come. “Parker is dead...he fell. I think the Congs got Davidson.”

“Nothing we can’t manage. Parker would have been helpful, though. He could make a better bandage than me any day.” Peterson replied.

It wasn’t long before they were all in traveling condition. There was no debate over which direction they should head, they all wordlessly began walking in the direction they’d come. Soon they would realize that they had become entangled in a web worse than any woven by spiders. Until then, however, they would remain mercifully ignorant.

An all too familiar bellow rang across the plain. Yilk stood with his kin, facing the black horde charging across the green vista. He was grown now, full of strength and violence, taller than any other Florean but still not as tall as a Java. A Java stood almost twice as tall as the average Florean.

The Java had never stopped chasing them. Everywhere they went there were Java to drive them out. Oontep, the Alpha, had had enough: this time they would fight. Oontep roared at the oncoming foes, sounding the charge. 70 Floreans, the last of their kind, ran into battle. Never before had a gathering of this size been held between two sentient species nor has there been since. It was for violence that they gathered, a contest for the domination of the Earth.

The two groups collided with devastating force, the Floreans rushing over the Java like a wave upon the rocks, receding just as quickly. A Florean’s agility was his best weapon against their stronger adversaries, yet not even this afforded them the upper hand. The Java’s fiery clubs beat and burned the Floreans, forcing their retreat. During the second onrush, Yilk, young and powerful, tore the femur from the mangled leg of a fallen kinsman and with a single mighty swing decimated three of his giant opponents. Running had made him strong.

This, the battle of half-men, yielded horrors hitherto unknown, for their sentience had given them hate, a fury which exceeds that of any instinct.

“This is the way we came. I distinctly remember passing this rock.” Bryant stated, pointing to a pillar of rock standing beside the entrance to one of the many tunnels extending from the limestone chamber where the group stood.

“Yeah, I think I ran into it.” added Fritz, rubbing his head again. A small chuckle arose from the group.

“Are you sure it wasn’t that one?” questioned Hughes, pointing his light at a similar rock near another tunnel.

“Um, I don’t think so.” Bryant replied, examining the other rock. For some time he gazed blankly at it then suddenly exclaimed, “GOD DAMN IT!”, and kicked the rock.

Hughes, Peterson, and Fritz all began shouting at once, “I thought you...”, “What the hell are we...”, “We never should have...”, which turned into nothing more than incoherent noise.

Something caught Bryant’s attention and he bent over to examine it, ignoring the outcry of his companions. “WAIT!”, he shouted above them, still looking down at what he’d found, “Look at this!” The others quieted and walked over to where Bryant was hunched. Bryant held up a slender piece of smooth wood about 12 inches long. There was a notch on one end. “The handle of some sort of tool. What’s it doing down here?”

Peterson huffed, “Just because you found a stick with a notch in it doesn’t mean it’s a tool.”

“You’re right but the real mystery is how a piece of wood got down here. Have you ever heard of a cave tree?”

“Maybe the water carried it down,” suggested Hughes, “but it really doesn’t matter. We need to get out of here!”

“Fine,” replied Bryant, stuffing the stick in his pack. “Let’s try the tunnel I suggested and if that doesn’t work we can come back and take the other one.”

They walked down the tunnel for several hundred feet before it narrowed to the point where it was obvious that this wasn’t the way they’d come. They walked back to the large chamber and followed the other tunnel until they were met with a heartless wall, a dead end. They tried another tunnel and another. For 5 days they frantically searched for an exit but only managed to tighten the subterranean labyrinth’s grip upon them.

Hughes had begun to lag behind, burdened by his head wound. Krane seemed unencumbered by his ankle and remained silent and inexpressive. Fritz complained constantly and provided very little help. Bryant, however, had taken it upon himself to get them out of the cave. Each time they were met with a dead end he took it as a personal failing. You can imagine his state of mind after days of such self torture. Peterson seemed to be in the best condition of the lot. At first he spent most of his time helping Hughes, but as rations grew smaller and despair began to rot at the group, he took up a permanent place at the rear of the column, pushing them ahead, forcing them to go on.

Flashlights had begun to dim and they were forced to their knees, crawling and feeling and groping in the dark. As the darkness became complete, waking dreams of light and definition haunted them. Their light-starved eyes ached from strain, their hands were shredded by abrasive rock. There was no more food and water was obtained only by licking the moisture from rocks. At first they would sing to keep spirits up but as the air became stale and oxygen starved it was all they could do to breathe let alone sing or even speak. By the end of the fifth day, even Peterson was in a bad way.

They slouched against mirthless, hopeless, lifeless rock and drew ragged, unsatisfying breaths. Bryant ventured a few words.

“I’m...sorry...I...only...I only made it...worse.”

Peterson let out a dismissive grunt as if to say ‘it doesn’t matter now--cut the self pity.’

They lay there for a long time, drifting in and out of consciousness. They were dying.

Something began to fill the silence between heaving breaths, a strange sound coming from further down the tunnel. It was getting louder. As it developed more definition it became sharply dissimilar from the sounds of dripping water or falling rocks or any other cave sound. It was shrill yet not unpleasant and sounded vaguely melodious. The group was rallied by the sound and quieted their breathing. They were stunned by the extraneous beauty of it.

Hughes gasped deliriously, “The Lord...has sent his...his save us from...this evil place!”

The group pushed forward in pursuit of the sound. They were in no state of mind to understand why they followed the sound but something about it drew upon the hearts of these battered soldiers. As they crawled nearer, the vague melody became a clear and ringing song which filled the cavern. A mere intimation of hazy light appeared ahead of them. Hopeful minds drew unwilling bodies, striving for life and warm, familiar light.

They came to a wide precipice which blocked their path. Across the expanse could be seen the source of the blue-green light; a figure, lank and upright, its whole body aglow. Horror gripped the men. This was no angel, it was a demon of deepest hell. Limbs like a spider, ears large and pointed, lipless teeth like a row of needles, eyes small and squinting. Its uncannily human face stared at them. It sang.

Astier ran through thick undergrowth back to the village. He needed equipment.

What was that thing? he thought, It looked ape-like, sort of. It was deathly pale. Perhaps it is a ghost!

For the next month the entirety of his time was spent exploring the caves, ever listening for that eerie singing. He used a rope tied to a tree near the entrance to find his way back. He tied its other end around his waist.

At the start of his fifth week looking for the mysterious creature, he disappeared. The villagers went to the cave where he’d last been seen. The rope was still attached to the tree and they followed it into the cave. Several minutes later the light of their torches fell upon Astier, dead and mangled. The villagers didn’t stop to retrieve Astier’s body; they ran.

Another singing voice arose behind them. The soldiers turned. The other end of the tunnel was illuminated with the same dreadful light. They were surrounded. In desperation they ran towards the other light, but it receded as they approached. In like fashion the other light followed behind them, both sources just out of sight. The two voices swirled around them. If they tried to stop or turn around the rear light would get closer and the fear of its source would drive them forward.

They continued down the tunnel in this way for many miles. The light of the two beings was sufficient for the soldiers to walk by and to see the many offshoots from the tunnel. Some were blocked by singing light beasts while others where dark and voiceless. They always turned onto the dark paths, hoping to escape their escorts. Another ghostly light would always appear ahead of them, taking the vanguard. The men were far too delirious to realize they were being led.

As they walked breathing became easier and their minds began to clear. We must be heading for the surface! Bryant thought. With clearer awareness came deep instinctual fear. Each of them wished to slip back into the forgetful darkness, away from the luminous beasts but there was no place to go but where they were directed unless they wished to come face to face with one of the hellish monsters. Fritz twitched and whined and carried on about demons, Satan, and the like.

“You know where we’re going?” Fritz rattled, “Hell, that’s where! I can feel it getting warmer!”

“Shut up!” snapped Bryant though he’d been considering the same possibility.

A mighty chorus arose ahead of them, like a massive children’s choir in an old Gothic cathedral. Their guides joined at the refrain.

Fritz lost it. He ran ahead, gun to shoulder and at first glimpse of the forward guide, fired. The blast reverberated throughout the cavern. One guide fell from the bullet the other from the ear-tearing blast. The song turned to horrifying screams. The soldiers ran into a side tunnel, its guard incapacitated.

Another light broke the darkness in front of them but this beast didn’t stop on the edge of sight like the others. It continued towards them, its dreadful figure gaining definition. The creature possessed preternatural grace and agility. Its spindly legs traversed the uneven rock as if it were flat. For the first time the group realized just how small these creatures were, reaching no higher than the bottom of a man’s sternum. This fact did nothing to ease their fear however. The group stood horror-struck. The throbbing screams swelled behind them.

The monster stopped about 10 feet from the men, was silent for a long moment then started making a clicking noise. They stared at each other, each shocked by the other. The creature opened its toothy mouth and said, “Yilk”. It was more of a sound than a word, a sound barely remembered, much of its meaning lost to time.

Another blast rang through the cave, another monster fell. Screams.

Astier’s Journal

June 7

Translated from the original French

I’ve come upon a discovery which shakes me to my core. I fear the events I’m about to disclose will seem fanciful to all but the insane. Nevertheless, I hope you will suspend your disbelief, for this discovery is critical to our understanding of nature and humanity.

My previous entry details my introduction to certain local superstitions and my brief encounter with the strange subterranean beast. Following these events I fully devoted myself to finding the beast once more and employed a local man full time in stockpiling torches and rope for my subterranean expeditions. The villagers informed me of several caves in the area which are known to exude the mysterious singing and which I marked on my map. I soon discovered that most of these caves were in fact part of a large cave system with countless passages and chambers. Often I found myself befuddled by the sheer complexity of the system. If not for my ropes I would most assuredly have become hopelessly lost, my remains to lie undisturbed until the end of time.

My efforts, though at first futile and the cause of several injuries to my person, have on this, my 29th day of searching, laid bare a discovery which surpasses any but perhaps that of the New World.

I was exploring one of the more extensive caves when I caught the first wisps of melody and descried a green-blue light approaching ahead of me. I quickly extinguished my torch, not wishing to drown out the vague luminescence. You can imagine my pleasure when the figure of my long searched for subterranean came into view. I gasped at its terrible beauty. I have never seen anything so dreadful and yet so exquisite. It’s ethereal grace and angelic song made me feel like no more than a crawling animal. I gazed, entranced as the being turned and walked away as if I was to follow. Soon another voice came from behind me, a glow with it. These creatures must have some intelligence to lead me this way. But am I a prisoner? I thought, Or am I a guest and these my escorts?

I followed my guides willingly through many dark turns, hoping they would lead me to answers. My rope became taut and I was forced to abandon it. I wasn’t entirely sure that if I’d be permitted to stop and I had no desire to. For a long while every branch of the tunnel was blocked by another glowing form. When we finally came upon a dark tunnel the figure in front stopped. It seemed that they wished me to turn here. These were intelligent beings indeed!

I was led on through miles of rugged tunnels, dodging spike and split, overhang and abyss. It’s hard to say how far I was led, but I noticed a change in heat and humidity as we progressed which, barring other causes, seemed to me an indication of extreme depth.

My mind was still reeling with the discovery of these subterranean beings when an even more shocking experience befell me. We were nearing the sound of flowing water when the being who led me suddenly disappeared and could no longer be heard. Another glowing being appeared from a side tunnel. He walked up to me and, to my surprise, took my hand. Its hand was small, soft and cold. The little glowing man led me forward to the edge of a black abyss. Water could be heard at the bottom. All of a sudden the little man jumped, pulling me with him. My chest felt empty as I fell. I hit the water--hard. The surprise of the fall forced the air from my lungs. I could feel myself sinking. Little hands grabbed me and I felt cool air on my face and in my lungs. The water cleared from my ears. I opened my eyes.

Heaven becalm my quaking heart. I was overwhelmed by the scene, my senses inundated with strange new data. It took several minutes to compose myself. Before me opened a large chamber many hundreds of feet across. Throughout the chamber glowed a greenish light which issued from vast groves of fungi. Water flowed into the bowl-shaped chamber through many small waterways, collecting in a large beaming pool. Around the pool and among the groves walked many glowing men. Little pod-like houses dotted the walls of the chamber. Limestone pillars rose high over the scene, a glowing figure at the pinnacle of each. The figures sung boldly from their pedestals, a low-pitched accompaniment rising from those below. As the sounds of singing and flowing water, which complemented each other so perfectly, reached my ears I was overcome with emotion and tears swelled in my eyes.

The little men who had pulled me from the water glided down to join their kin, following the river which had been our entrance and leaving me along on the rim of the great bowl. And so we return to the present as I sit here gazing across the ghostly vista, recording all that has happened.

I’ve decided to call the little folk the Asteri, after Asterion the Minotaur who dwelt in Daedalus’s labyrinth and after myself, their discoverer.

As I sit here on the edge of the Asterian land I am puzzled by many things, foremost the constant singing. It is lovely no doubt but what purpose does it serve? Perhaps they, like bats, use Spallanzani's navigation by sound. Yes, that seems likely considering their undersized eyes and oversized ears. Yet another reason for their name! They, like their namesake, are hybrids. The Minotaur is a weaving of man and bull, the Aster of man and bat.

Another mystery is the abundance of fungi. The almost sweet stench of the chamber indicates a large amount of decomposing material, but the source of such material remains a mystery to me. However, I am developing a theory involving the waterways and sediment.

The chamber seems to be solutional, judging by various limestone formations. The size of the chamber alone is of particular scientific note to say nothing of its contents.

I can see a group of Asteri coming my way. I will write more later.

Astier stood up as the group approached. A particularly thin and old looking Aster walked in front. Astier noted an atmosphere of excitement around the group. They stopped and the old creature stepped forward making a clicking noise. He did this for a long moment, then all of a sudden the creature leaned his head back and bellowed a long, high note. The song suddenly stopped and all but the water was silent. Astier shivered at the abruptness. Then, as if in one voice, came the word barely remembered: “Yilk”

Silence remained for many moments. The song gradually returned and soon reached its original vigor.

The group split, some following the old Aster back into the valley, others approaching Astier. One of them took Astier’s hand and led him to an opening in the wall, the rest following. They led him as before through the maze of tunnels, returning him to his rope.

As he tied the rope around himself his guides turned and began to glide away. He was sad to see the Asteri go. He promised himself he would return as soon as he’d gathered enough provisions for a longer stay. He lit his secondary torch. Vague memories of ancient tales stirred in the minds of the Asteri. Fire! They doubled back. Their song changed, becoming discordant and angry. They scuttled towards him, changing their orientation so that they clung to the walls and ceiling of the tunnel like spiders. They overtook him and tore into his flesh. Unspeakable horrors ensued.

Peterson carried Hughes. They were not unguided, they followed the silence. They kept running until the singing and terrifying glow were imperceivable. They found an empty chamber and collapsed.

“What the hell were those things?” gasped Peterson.

“Demons! That’s what! And we gotta kill them before they do us!” yelled Fritz.

“What kind of reasoning is that? Besides, did you see them? They’re killing machines.” argued Bryant, “Did you see how fast they were? And those teeth!”

“They weren’t too fast for this!” retorted Fritz, slapping his gun.

Bryant and Fritz continued arguing while Peterson checked on Hughes and Krane. He touched Hughes’s head, feeling the wound. He was in bad shape. The wound wasn’t healing properly, and the limited oxygen, though more plentiful than before the encounter, didn’t help his delirium. Peterson re-dressed the wound; he could do no more. He felt around in the darkness and found Krane. It sure would help if I could follow his voice. The damn mute! he thought.

He unwrapped Krane’s ankle. He touched the ankle, felt for bones and muscles but found none. The entire ankle was worn to mush; the bottom of the tibia protruding from its side.

“Holy shit!” exclaimed Peterson, recoiling.

Fritz and Bryant stopped arguing. “What?” they said together.

“Krane has a broken ankle and he’s been walking on it like normal this entire time. He’s got bones sticking out.”

“What’s wrong with him? He hasn’t made a sound this whole time and that’s gotta be hell.” said Fritz.

“I think I know.” confessed Bryant, “He was with me when they got Davidson. I didn’t see it, I just heard him screaming but Krane was far enough behind that he must have. I asked him a bit later if they’d gotten him and he didn’t say anything. That’s why I was unsure. They were best buds, must’ve really messed him up.”

They were all silent for a while.

“Damn, I’m hungry.” Fritz complained.

“Maybe them pale boys have got some food.” Peterson suggested, “Unless they eat rocks. Their teeth seem sharp enough.” The group chuckled. “But seriously though, what are you going to do about Krane?”

“Let me check his ankle out.” said Bryant, moving to where he’d heard Peterson’s voice, “Where is he?”

Peterson felt around for Krane again but he couldn’t find him. “He must have moved. Help us find him, Fritz.”

They searched the chamber thoroughly, he was not there. Then they heard rocks falling down the way they’d come.

“Where the hell’s he going?” said Fritz.

“We’d better follow him.” Peterson suggested.

They hadn’t noticed how much Krane stumbled until then. He made plenty of noise for them to follow. He led them all the way back to within range of the singing and kept going. As they drew closer to the singing the glow of the beast became visible. There was a blast and the song turned to screams again. Krane, like Theseus, had come to destroy the monster in the maze. The blasts became more frequent, and the rest of the soldiers caught up with Krane. Fritz and Peterson joined in the killing and Bryant, though at first hesitant, did too. Hughes was in no shape for battle, so they left him behind with Bryant who promised to protect him and pick off any stragglers.

Fritz, Peterson, and Krane followed the light and screams to their next target. They found that they were pretty evenly spaced, though they were unsure what to make of it. As they went on, the creatures began to retaliate, jumping at them with their ever bared teeth flashing. They never reached the soldiers though; their light and singing made it impossible to surprise the men. A great light and song rose before them. As they neared, they saw a large group of the beasts guarding a passageway which glowed green. They easily surmounted this obstacle and passed into the green tunnel, much blood on their hands.

The tunnel abruptly opened into a huge chamber which glowed green from fields of fungi. This seemed to be epicenter of the screaming. Many more beasts walked at the bottom of the bowl-shaped chamber. The men charged down the side of the bowl through the fungi, firing at the creatures nearest to them, the blood of their previous victims still warm on their hands. Fritz shoved fungus in his mouth greedily as he ran. They reached the bottom and their bullets flew indiscriminately into the bodies of the young and the old, the male and female. No one was spared the desperate, adrenaline-fueled rage of the men. The final blast settled. A single voice still cried out in a wretched, wailing scream. Krane and Peterson looked up and saw the last monstrous figure standing atop a tall calcite tower. Fritz heaved acrid fungus. Peterson shouldered his gun, aiming at the dreadful creature, but before he could pull the trigger it jumped. Its luminous body fell through the air like the moon through the night sky. Silence. No more screaming. The last Florean, the final victim of the hominid war, died.

Desolation reeked across the plain. The dead and dying were scattered haphazardly among burning grass and fallen trees. Java and Floreans laid peacefully beside each other, dying on the blasted plain. Among the dying there is no enemy but death, and we are all dying.

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