The storm had blown itself out and now only a trickle of rain fell as Folwor and Penny followed Daniel under the sopping leaves. The deluge had made the forest more swamp than woods, thick mud having replaced the soft soil which slowed them down. That didn’t stop Daniel from pressing forward at a strong pace, forcing his way through the muck. The idea of the Blairs, the image of their faces being dragged into that pit drove him on.
The dark clouds had concealed the passage of the sun and the first break in the inclement sky revealed an orange touched horizon as the day began to draw to a close.
“It’ll be night soon,” Penny said, her voice uneasy.
“Are you worried about the Cull?” Daniel asked.”
Penny looked up. A streak of sunset light broke through above, painting half of her face in amber. “Once we’re down there, there is no going back. The sun will be down and we’ll have no place to retreat.”
Everyone fell silent at her remark. She was right, of course, but putting out in the open made Daniel realize just how much of a one way trip this could be. But it had to be done. He had to get them out, whatever the cost.
He saw the trees begin to thin out slightly up ahead. They emerged in to an open section of the woods. The Old Shack looked foreboding in the dim light. The sun lay dying behind it, casting the whole thing in black shadow.
As they moved forward, Daniel could smell a change in the air. A note of decay mixed with the scent of wet stone. They moved up to the crumbling boards of the shack and looked to the back wall, one of the only ones still partially intact.
There gaped The Pit. A black maw stretching down and down and down.
Penny peered into it. “I can’t see anything,” she said, her voice lightly echoing into the hole.
A cold wind like breath from a dead man rose gently from its opening. Daniel shivered, but his resolve would not be broken. “Let’s go,” he said, steeling himself.
He took a step, but Folwor stopped him with a paw. “Wait,” she said, frowning. She put her ear to the mouth of the tunnel and listened. Her expression suddenly grew fierce. “They’re coming.”
“What?” Daniel cried. “How do they know we’re here?”
“I don’t know,” Folwor said, settling into a crouch, “but a horde of them are on their way.”
Penny looked at Daniel. “No running,” Daniel said. He hefted a good, sized rock in his fist and got into position next to Folwor. Penny flew up to the roof of the shack, perched above the opening where she could drop down from above.
Soon enough, Daniel could hear the rumbling himself. A sound like a thousand feet sprinting on stone. His eyes never left the entrance as he stood, crouched and ready. Then a pair of lights deep in the hole. Then another and another, racing upwards. Daniel took a deep breath, and raised his rock, Folwor growling beside him.
From their eyes he could tell there were dozens of them, running pell-mell towards the surface. They exploded from the pit. Daniel swung at them, this way and that. Folwor leapt into the fray, but it was over before it even began. Daniel watched as the Cull completely ignored them, bolting past and into the dense forest. Folwor had caught one, but it was so frantic, it squirmed out of her grip in a frenzy, disappearing into the woods.
“What was that?’ Daniel asked.
Penny settled back on the ground, a dark shadow falling over her face. “They were running from something.”
Folwor frowned. “From what? What could a Cull come to fear?”
“I don’t know,” Daniel said, feeling his blood run cold, “but something tells me we’re going to find out.”
He fished a flashlight from his hiking pack. Stepping into the hole, they began the descent into The Pit.
The ground was slick as they walked on, rounding rough hewn bends in the earth. Daniel couldn’t help but study the walls and ceiling of the tunnel as they move through it. Everywhere were long scratches that ran the length of the passage. Gouges the width of a finger ran all along the sides. “Look at—,” Daniel said, but stopped, his voice reverberating with disquieting volume in the close space. “Look,” Daniel whispered, “the walls.”
“What are those?” Penny asked in a quiet voice.
“I think they dug this out out by hand.” He swept the flash light along the unearthly markings. “Like they scraped it out with their fingers.” The cuts in the stone weren’t orderly at all. They criss-crossed, overlapped, cutting over each other in a manic, frenzied fashion. Daniel could imagine a horde of desperate, grotesque hands clawing at the rock, deeper and deeper into the earth. He shivered at the thought.
His flashlight illuminated specs of dust in the air, creating a haunting rod of light between him and the darkness, like a cane guiding the blind. Daniel walked with one hand on the wall. It was damp and cold, but it gave a grounded sense to the place. There was an unnerving presence in the air, like opening the door to a dark room and knowing there is someone in there who wasn’t supposed to be.
Then the wall disappeared. Daniel stumbled, whirling around to find out what happened to it. It hadn’t gone anywhere. There was simply an opening. A branch in the path, this entrance stood nearly twice as wide as he was and three times as tall. Daniel’s light drifted to the floor. It was scuffed by dozens of claws and paw prints. He even thought he saw a horse’s hoof print.
The chamber beyond stretched too far into the gloom for Daniel to see the end. Nothing seemed to be moving around inside and so they moved on, but it made Daniel’s skin crawl to think of that black den behind them left unexplored, hiding potentially who knew what.
They all grew more uneasy the further they went as there were dozens more. At each threshold, not a breath stirred within, but there were always signs that Cull had been there.
“What are these, do you think?” Penny asked in undertone.
“Breeding chambers,” Folwor said.
Penny gave her a look. “That’s gross.”
“It would explain their numbers,” Folwor replied.
“I don’t think so,” Daniel said, eyeing another dim portal as they walked by. “If that’s what they were, then where is everyone?”
“We defeated a great number of them above,” Folwor said.
“But enough for all of these?” Daniel said, sweeping his flashlight into another side alcove. “We must have past almost twenty of these things, but we haven’t met a single Cull since coming down here.”
Penny frowned. “Now that you mention it…”
“Perhaps they fled,” Folwor suggested. “We saw that group come sprinting out of the mouth of the cave.”
“Maybe,” Daniel said, rubbing the back of his neck. “But there wasn’t that many that came up, was there?” He shined his light into another bleak portal in the rock. “Not enough to fill all of these. So then it’s the same question…” He looked over his shoulder. “Where are all of them?”
Folwor frowned. “It could be a trap. All of them waiting at the bottom for us.” She eyed one of the black doorways, almost expecting a swarm of Cull to emerge at her words.
“Could be,” Daniel said. “But we have to keep going even if it is.”
“We need a plan,” Penny said, “We can’t just barge in with—” They all heard it. A clear, haunting scream from far below.
“That was a person,” Daniel whispered. “It must have been my mom.” And with that, he crept forward, faster than before.
“Daniel,” Penny hissed. “We need a plan.”
“Find my parents,” he said. “That’s the plan.” Then he vanished around a bend in the tunnel.
Daniel almost slipped as he practically sprinted down the tunnel. He heard the cry again, this time much closer. He didn’t care how much noise he made as he bustled over the uneven floor of the tunnel. His shadow raced along the wall, dipping in and out of the side passages until—a shout for help, only this time, it came from one of the other corridors.
The black doorway yawned before him. He was certain it had come from there. Drawing in a deep breath, he plunged into the den, its air as thick as ink.
“Daniel!” Penny said as he disappeared into the dark. “Wait!” She cried, ignoring the painful echoes of her voice. They ran after him, only able to follow the shadows his flashlight projected up ahead. But both Folwor and Penny were too big to navigate the tunnel with any swiftness and Daniel’s light quickly out stripped them.
“Great,” Penny said with a huff. “Now he’s as good as dead.”
“I would remind you,” Folwor said as they kept walking, “that it was not too long ago that you did something drastic to get back to your family.”
Penny grimaced at the memory. “Yeah,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean this is any less stupid.”
“And yours was no less desperate.”
“Alright, alright,” Penny said, throwing a wing up. “I get it.” She let out sigh. “It’ only…we just saved him and it might be for nothing.”
“Not for nothing,” Folwor said. “He told us of this place.”
“Yeah,” Penny said. “And now we’re lost down here.”
“If we keep to this main passage,” Folwor said, “then we will come out at something.”
“Okay,” Penny said as she stopped, turning to face Folwor. “How can you be so calm right now? Daniel’s just gone barreling off into a Cull labyrinth, we’re stuck down here with no idea where we are. We have no light and we have no idea where he or the Cull are?!”
In response, Folwor actually had the never to smile. “What?!” Penny shouted.
“Keep your voice down,” Folwor said, growing stern again.
“Fine,” Penny said in an angry hush. “What?”
Folwor shook her head. “You remind me of how I used to think about Lamar.”
“Was he also a reckless idiot?” Penny said.
Folwor laughed as they began walking again. “At times, but I learned to think of it as something else. It takes courage to put aside your fear. I look back on all Lamar did and while a lot of it was foolish, many times he was also brave.”
“And sometimes both, I’ll bet,” Penny said.
“Yes,” Folwor conceded. “Perhaps the past has cast him in a more noble light, but he did good by the forest.” A sad smile touched her face. “He did a lot of good.”
“Well, Daniel running off doesn’t do anyone any good, “ Penny said, glaring into the dark. “He didn’t even leave us a light to…” she trailed off, realizing they could actually see somewhat in the dim confines. “Where’s the light coming from?” She asked, confused.
A pattern of faint green and white light blurred along the walls. It wasn’t much, but it permitted them to see at least a few feet in front of them.
“I believe,” Folwor said, “it’s coming from you.”
“But how…” but she looked down. The growth stone on her chest shone with a soft luminance. The strength stone on her back was probably glowing, too. “Fantastic,” Penny said, “Now I feel like a glow stick.”
Folwor frowned. “A what?”
“It’s a…never mind,” Penny said. “Let’s just keep moving.”
The tunnel didn’t end up going much further. It began to widen until it expanded out into a huge cavern. There was a noticeable chill in the air down here, and not just the physical kind. Penny’s feather rustled, uneasy at the large body of gloom before them.
Folwor began to growl instinctually and Penny tensed. They couldn’t see anything, but they were definitely not alone here. They needed more light. Penny turned inward, directing part of her power to the stones themselves. It was like trying to tie a tree branch in a knot. It resisted her efforts, but by force of will she finally managed to reverse the flow of power. The space began to grow brighter, a bubble of emerald and diamond light extending into the darkness.
At first it was a paw, an ear, then the forms of Cull emerged. But they didn’t react to their presence. Light revealed dozens of Cull, but there was something strange about them. Besides their partially decayed bodies, they stood stock still. Even as the stones blazed brighter, they didn’t stir.
What are they doing? Penny thought, studying the stone-like Cull. She noticed their eyes were closed. Were they asleep? No, they stood up on all fours. What was more, they all stood in orderly rows several Cull deep and fanning out in a ring form where she and Folwor stood. Penny strained the light as far as it would go until it reached the edges of the massive chamber. The ceiling was too far above to see, a roof of shadow hanging over the disturbing congregation. But beyond them, in the very back wall, was something even more ominous.
A clouded gateway stood watchful on the far side. Standing with fateful portents, it towered over the ranks of Cull, its narrow sides angled inward as it rose towards the unseen ceiling. At first, Penny was tempted to think it was just another passage to other parts of the cave, but her light refused to penetrate the doorway. Something like black smoke wafted from beyond its threshold, drifting among the frozen Cull.
Despite her better instincts, Penny walked up to one of the statuesque figures. The intensity of her light flattened out the shadows across its face.
“Penny,” Folwor said. “We need to leave.”
“How did they get like this, though?” She replied.
“Forget about that,” Folwor said, uncharacteristic fear in her voice. “We need to move.”
But Penny didn’t budge. The Cull’s face was furrowed, as if in intense pain even as it stood there. A large cut ran from its eye to its ear. Seized by a strange impulse, Penny breathed out on the figure in an attempt to heal it. It worked, the gash closed over.
A shiver ran through the horde of Cull, their fur collectively rustling. Penny drew back, watching in a mix of fascination and horror as the bodies of all the Cull shift in unison, like they were in a strong wind.
“Penny…” Folwor said, her tone uneasy. They stood, back to back as the collection of Cull seemed to awaken. Penny kept her eyes on those directly in front of her as they stirred with restlessness. Then they all grew still.
Penny didn’t dare breath. Her body was strained, ready for anything and everything, but not what happened next.
The Cull opened their eyes. But they weren’t gold. They were white. Shining disks of unearthly pearl in the pitch black. They all had them. Every last Cull bore spotless, colorless pupils which they as one leveled in silent concert at Folwor and Penny
“Hello,” a sweet voice said.
The passage was not smooth at all as Daniel crept along it, flashlight raised to his head. It weaved in and out in ways that made no sense. Walls jutted from the sides at sharp angles while in other places the stone was polished and flat.
He paused at almost every other step, listening. Ever since he had entered this corridor, there hadn’t been a sound. The silence demanded likewise from him and stepped with the utmost care.
The passage split on several occasions, leading off into different side rooms. Most were empty, but he checked all of them regardless, he couldn’t afford to miss anything. He had several boxes of matches in his pack and as he walked, he left one or two every couple steps. If he had to leave, he didn’t want to get turned around on the way out.
He didn’t know how long he had been walking when he finally heard something. Voices up ahead. Daniel snuck closer and as he drew near he was able to discern what they were saying. It wasn’t the Blairs.
“One of us should go and check,” a voice said. It was low and rough, like the crunch of gravel under a tire.
“Wlite said to guard them,” the second voice replied. It had a tension in it, like a tree branch being bent the wrong way. “And so I say stay here.”
“Then what do you suppose all that noise was?” The first said. Daniel had switched off his flashlight. There was a dim glow from just around the corner. He poked an eye around the bend. Two Cull who might have been a fox and a wolf at one point, stood in front of a low doorway. The only light was from their golden eyes and Daniel couldn’t see into the room they were guarding, but he had a good guess what was inside.
“Maybe they captured her,” the fox offered, one of his ears had been torn off.
“Then we should be going home,” the wolf replied, his face disgruntled. “No, something else is going on down there. Something bad.”
“What makes you think it’s something bad?” The fox said, skeptical.
“All those voices,” the wolf said. “It sounded like they were running away from something. And now this silence.” He shook his head and Daniel noticed part of his shoulder was missing, white bone protruding from where it should be.
“Would you rather have to deal with—” A hair-raising shriek suddenly echoed from the tunnels that made Daniel’s blood curdle.
The two Cull looked at each other. “Not again,” the fox said.
“Come on,” the wolf motioned with his head. “We can leave these two here. They aren’t going anywhere, but he might.”
The fox visibly shuddered at the thought. “Don’t even say that.” They moved off towards Daniel and he only had just enough time to pull himself tight against the wall as the two Cull ran by. Where ever they were going was evidently more important as they didn’t notice him as they plunged back into the dark tunnels.
Daniel didn’t waste a second. After he was sure they were gone, he flicked his light back on and ducked into the room they had been guarding. Only, he was met with a rock being hurled from within.
“Stay back!” A voice yelled. “I’m warning you.”
“Charley?” Daniel said, pointing his flashlight up. It caught a thoroughly dirt stained, bald man, hefting an impressive rock over his head. Behind him stood Pam with one of her one. But at the sight of Daniel, they dropped them to the floor, headless of the loud crack it caused.
“Daniel!” Pam cried as they all wrapped each other in a deep hug.
“I’m so glad I found you guys,” Daniel said. “I was worried I never would.”
Charley rested a proud hand on his shoulder and Pam cupped Daniel’s face with a soft palm. “Oh Daniel,” she said, her eyes getting watery. Her tender expression was soon replaced by one of confusion. “But how did you find us? What is going on here?”
Daniel almost laughed. “It’s a long, long story. I can tell you as soon as we get out of here.”
“Right,” Charley said. He took his hiking pack from the floor as did Pam and they followed Daniel out into the darkness. They pressed forward, Daniel in the lead searching for his dropped matchsticks. They held hands as they moved through the black passages, beginning the harrowing journey back.
Penny and Folwor stood on guard as they faced down the horde of motionless, white eyed Cull.
“So this is who you are now,” the sweet voice said. It rang through the room like a chime, beautiful and dissonant at once. “I have been wondering what your new form looked like after that night.”
“You killed Lamar,” Folwor growled.
“Who are you?” Penny ask.
“These,” the voice said as the strange Cull took a step forward, “call me Wlite.”
“She must be controlling them,” Folwor said as the swarm of mindless Cull closed in around them.
“But where is she?” Penny said. Both their eyes drifted to the strange, haunting black veil across the room.
“Go,” Folwor said. “She’s behind all of this. I am sure of it. Right now, you have to stop this. She probably has the wind stone. Get it and you can stop her. Stop this.”
Penny nodded and raised her wings, but paused. “What about you?”
Folwor swept the chamber with her eyes, weighing her score of opponents. “I’ll manage. I can keep their attention long enough for you to finish this.”
“Alright,” Penny said, but she didn’t immediately go. “Folwor,” she said. “In case I don’t…”
Folwor rolled her eyes and shoved Penny into the air. Unbalanced, Penny teetered, but quickly righted herself as she soared over the swells of Cull. There were even more of them than they’d thought. It didn’t take long for them to start trying to knock her out of the air, but she had practice at this by now and wove between the flashing strikes of tentacles with grace, beelining for the veil.
The black smoke cascaded from the ominous doorway in thick swirls. Penny took in a deep breath and then plunged through the veil.
Folwor watched her disappear beyond the curtain of gloom. “Good luck,” she said. Then she turned her attention back to the oncoming wave of monsters. Their shining eyes easily gave enough light to see. It was a haunting light, not like sunshine or even man-made sources, but an other-worldly illumination, bleak and stripped of life.
Folwor’s snarl turned into a malicious grin. Most of them were small animals, but Lamar’s wings, there was a lot of them. “Well,” Folwor bellowed at the crowd. “Come on, then.” They attacked.
Thole’s head snapped up from the water. The moon shone overhead, cutting white swaths in the nightly air. He tried to move, but his limbs didn’t seem to function. The only thing he could still move were his shoulders, neck and head. Craning to the side, he was able to make out a large tree lying across his back. It must have broken this body’s spine when it fell. He was partially glad, actually, as he couldn’t feel any of the what he was sure were serious wounds.
The fight came back to him as did his defeat. How long had he been lying here?
He snorted, dismissive. Did it matter? He had failed and now more of them than ever would die. Wlite had said their time was short. The blue one was their only shot at getting back home and he had botched it.
The moon was at its zenith and silhouetted his head as he saw his reflection in the mirky water. His face was a screwed mess of cuts and slashes. He couldn’t close one eye and it just rolled around in his head. It made his sight skewed, everything devolving into blurred lines of dim colors and feeble light.
But even with his diminished vision, he could still make out the vague shapes floating not far from him. Dead bodies. He let his head sink back into the water, it’s coolness the only thing he could feel. They had all become monsters. By lack of choice, to be sure, but they had embraced it. What other alternative was there? To get back home, they’d needed to possess cruel bodies and perform disconcerting acts. And for what? Wlite had placed the end to justify the means, but when such thinking left them as this? Feeble and horrible creatures that prowled the night, inhabiting the dead and frightening the living, afraid of the sun and burned by its touch, distorted, menacing, malicious, and most of all futile, was it worth it?
We didn’t choose this, he reminded himself. Fate made us as we are. But had it? Stuck beneath that massive tree, all the forest a lone silence to him, he couldn’t help but question what had led to this night. The blue one, the most powerful creature in this land, the only one they knew that could get them home, and they had tried to kill him from the start. Granted, it was in the name of greater good, but they hadn’t even bothered to ask for help before trying to seize it.
Would fewer of them have died it they had gone with due humility to ask for help? The corpses drifting around him seemed to say as much for they had made their one potential ally into their worst enemy.
But it had been in the name of going home. Surely that was worth it.
Thole opened his working eye as something disturbed the water near him. He jerked back when he saw it was a face. Frozen in a look of fear and shock, it drifted quietly by. Thole recognized him. A good friend, a farmer from back in the old land who had helped Thole bring in crops more than once and that moment he knew the answer.
Even if they were to return now, without these, the friends and family lost upon their heedless quest for a way back, to return wouldn’t be to go home. This land might be hell, but better a hell of friends, than a heaven with loss. Now it seemed they would have neither and the thought sank him back into the dark water.
He jerked his head up, however, at the sound of something approaching. He saw the moon-touched outline of a large animal on a hill. At first, he assumed it was just another of this world’s strange creatures, but it seemed to looked about it with intent. He eventually spotted him and its voice dispelled all doubt.
“Keltos?” Thole said, surprised.
Keltos looked over his shoulder. “Over here.” A crowd of Cull rose over the crest, thirty or forty of them. They remained above while Keltos and a handful of others rushed down to him. Keltos took a look at the tree across Thole’s back. “What happened?”
“We went to capture the blue one,” Thole said. “But it was a fool’s venture. We were defeated easily and now Wlite has no way to get us home.”
“Wlite,” Keltos said with vehemence that shocked Thole. “Forget her.”
Thole frowned. “What? What happened?”
“First,” Keltos said, “let’s get you out from under there.”
“Don’t bother,” Thole said. “This body is broken. I couldn’t move even if I lay in a meadow.”
Keltos motioned to the others, large creatures. “All the same.” They put their shoulders to the fallen tree and with a heave, they rolled it off of him. “Come along,” Keltos said, putting his head under one of Thole’s lifeless arms. “We have to find shelter before day time.”
“Why?” Thole frowned as others took up is limp body and began ascending the hill. “Did something happen at The Pit?”
Penny emerged into complete darkness. She flared her power and her light spilled across wet stone. Shallow trails like withering snakes wove their way across the cold ground. They looked to have been cut by the something. Penny moved further into the chamber, her wings half spread, ready for anything.
Despite her movements, the click of her talons on the hard rock, there was no echo, and yet, the room was obviously large. The air was thick with something Penny couldn’t place and whatever it was prevented her light from reaching very far. She progressed with the utmost caution, following the strange markings on the floor.
It became apparent that they weren’t random as the deeper she went, the more orderly they became. They were only broken occasionally by fleeting irregularities. That and places were it looked like something had been burned with an intense flame. Scorch marks pocketed the floor in several spots further in. How something could burn in such a damp environment was beyond her, but it only made her more weary.
Soon the gloom was so oppressive it rebuffed most of her attempts to penetrate it. The slithering floor patterns had grown thicker, wider than before and seemed to be winding towards a specific source. Penny moved with stealth, following them along their alien curvatures until all at once her light went out.
She froze. What had happened? She looked down and could see a faint glow from the grow stone, but it didn’t reach further than a couple of inches. It wasn’t that they weren’t bright enough, but something in here was stifling the light.
She was just about to try going backwards to see if it would lessen the effect when a new light broke the darkness. It was white, the purest white Penny had ever seen. It began as a pinprick but began to grow, acquiring form and weight as it drew near.
Penny stood on edge, ready to strike, but was caught off guard by what she saw. The most beautiful woman she had ever seen stepped from the shadows. She was draped in a water-like gown, white, with silken sashes glimmering from her arms that trailed off behind her. Her skin was pearl, her eyes a magnificent green with hair that was a brilliant flaxen.
“What are you?” Penny said, unable to keep the awe out of her voice.
The heavenly woman gave her a smile, like a mother trying to make something simple for her child. “That is perhaps a bit hard to explain.” She cocked her head at Penny, her lips alive with amusement. “I was curious if your power carried any memory with it. It would appear I was wrong.”
The woman was dazzling, etherial, free from the world. Focus, Penny snapped at herself. Remember what she is. “In more ways than one.” Penny said, an edge in her voice. “You’ve been destroying the forest, terrorizing it for long enough.’
“And what would you know of that?” Wlite said. “With how long you have held your power, what would you know of our history here?”
“I know enough,” Penny said, raising her wings.
Wlite sighed. “Perhaps I can persuade you that fighting isn’t the only option.”
“Then why is it the only one you’ve used?” Penny shot back. Wlite didn’t answer, a twitch of frustration danced across her face.
“Tell me,” Wlite said. “Are you at all curious about how your powers came to be? Or for that matter, why we have been hunting you?”
“Monster is as monster does,” Penny quipped.
Wlite raised an eyebrow. “Do I look like a monster? Can you well and truly say I am terrible?”
“I don’t judge by appearances,” Penny said.
Wlite shook her head, her hair cascading over her shoulders. “We all once looked like this,” she said. “You call us monsters, but only in your world. In ours we were fair, noble creatures much like you see me now.” She turned away, “but then something happened. A tear between worlds. Me and mine were pulled down and we found ourselves here.”
She waved her perfect hand upward. “Your land is an alien and horrible one. Your sun beats down on us, a fiery inferno to our skin and eyes.” She turned back to Penny. “But the worst was the air. It has no magic it. It is sterile and bleak. We discovered our own bodies crumbling, melting into horrifying things, black things with no limbs or faces. Formless we became. We dug this place in the night, discovering we could in habit the dead around us. We did not recognize ourselves, but it had to be done to survive.”
“You seemed to have fared pretty good,” Penny said. “What happened? You save all the magic for yourself?”
“I,” Wlite said. “Was entrusted to protect.” She spread her arms wide. “The young and elderly were the most at risk and so it was decided that I should safe guard them. They were too weak to survive being transferred into another body.” She smiled, lifting her head up. “So I took them into me.”
The light began to spread outward. Wlite’s gown trailed off into the gloom, but as the light grew, Penny could see where it lead. It grew darker and darker, shifting all the way to black. The fabric became coated with tar as it went. No, it was tar. A viscus, black liquid that pooled out behind Wlite. Even as Penny watched, the pool began to congeal into lumps, tumors, and clumps of watery substance until it towered over them, a pillar of black ooze that glistened in the unearthly light.
“They are in me,” Wlite said, a disturbing grin upon her beautiful face. “And I in them.”Penny took a step back. “It was what must be done,” Wlite said, drifting into multiple tones. Scores of voices overlapping each other as she spoke. “It is how we keep them safe. That and the light.”
Keltos just shook his head. “I’ve seen it happen before, but I never imagined it could happen to her.”
Thole frowned. “You’re not making any sense.”
“None of this makes sense.” Keltos said. They set Thole on the ground, leaning against a stump. Keltos was pacing furiously. “Perhaps per some twisted logic, she thinks she is saving us. But not with what’s happening. Not after what started.”
“When what started?” Thole demanded.
“The little ones,” Keltos said, “the elders and the sick. They all became part of her when we came here.”
Thole resisted a shiver. “I remember. It was what we had to do.”
“But they can’t survive like that,” Keltos said. “At least that was what Wlite always told us.”
“Where is this going?” Thole demanded.
“Our world,” Keltos said, “she said they needed to see our world. Its light would help sustain them. I like everyone else didn’t question her decision.”
“So I and the others went to hunt down the blue one,” Thole said. “That was the plan.”
“At first, yes,” Keltos said. He was actually shaking. “But she began to act strange after you left. Not speaking, or at least not to us.”
“What do you mean?”
“We hadn’t heard from her in days, we only knew you and some of the others had gone to retrieve the blue one. But then, out of nowhere, she started asking for volunteers for a new assignment. I thought it meant going home so I stepped forward.” He grew still, staring off into space. “We saw home but it wasn’t what we thought.” He turned to Thole. “She burned them, Thole. Burned them to ashes.”
Wlite began to melt. Black tar dripped from her pores, her body dissolving into an undulating black liquid.
Penny backed away, watching as a giant limb of pitch swung overhead. It was holding something alive. A Cull?
“In order to survive,” Wlite said, her voice having turned chorus. “We need the light of our world.” Her massive black arm held the Cull before Penny. It looked terrified.
“Help me—” it tried to say before the liquid gaged its mouth. It then began to glow a molten white. Penn watched in horror as it began to dissolve. A blinding light emerged next to it, a scorching radiance puncturing the world around them. Through it bled a strange illumination, bright and yet cold. Frost coated the edges of Penny’s wings as a tear opened before her. In it she could see trees like stone with veins of gold running through their bark. A forest from another world.
The last of the Cull burned away and the portal snapped shut with a rumble like thunder.
“The only way to get back,” Wlite said, “is to pull on a connection from our land. A mystical bond that bridges us back to our home.”
“And so you burned your own?” Penny replied, sickened.
Something like a face emerged from the shimmering pool of black oil suspended above the ground. “We could not wait for you,” Wlite said. “I had to act, I had to protect them.”
For her? Why would the Cull need to wait for her, Penny wondered, but her mind was pulled away as she spotted something. Floating in the folds of Wlite’s nightmarish body was a break of rich, sky blue. The wind stone.
“You’re no protector,” Penny said, following the trace of blue in the black eddies. “A protector sacrifices themselves, not what they’re supposed to keep safe.”
“I haven’t failed yet,” Wlite said. “All can still be made right.” Tendrils descended down from above, a crown of black spikes.
“You’re right about one thing,” Penny said, spreading her wings wide. “This are going to be made right.” And with that, she launched herself at the Cull Mother.
Daniel kept an ear out for any sign that the Cull were heading back and it was a good thing, too, as not too much later he heard the two voices not far ahead.
“In here,” Daniel whispered, pointing to one of the side alcoves. They ducked inside, Pam going first, then Charley, and Daniel the last, but as he stepped into through the doorway, he stumbled and his flashlight slipped from his fingers. It hit with a sharp, metallic sound that made Daniel wince, but it rolled into the middle of the stone hallway and he had no choice but to leave it and hide in the dark confines with the Blairs. They listened hard as the voices got closer.
“I don’t know either,” the fox said.
“We had better start worrying, then,” the wolf said, “because if we don’t find him, then we’re in for it.”
“I just can’t think how he might have escaped,” the fox said. Charley looked to Daniel expectantly, but he just shrugged. He didn’t know what they were talking about either.
“He’s just too strong,” the fox said. Daniel could hear their padded feet walking not twelve feet away. “We don’t have a–what was that?”
They stopped. “I didn’t hear anything,” the wolf said.
The fox prowled forward, the sound of his paws coming closer to where the Blairs hid. “I could have sworn I, what’s this doing here?”
The light from outside shifted and Daniel went cold. The flashlight.
“They escaped,” the wolf said, walking past him. Daniel could hear him sniffing around outside. “They can’t have gone far, they must be—” But he never got to finish. The stone tunnel was suddenly filled by a terrifying, agonized howl that reverberated all around them.
“We gotta go back!” the wolf yelled. “He’s down here! He’s—” A sickening crunch ended his words.
Clattering like hooves filled the passage as something ran at the fox who screamed in fright only to meet the same end. Then all fell still. Daniel clutched to Pam and Charley as they strained to hear what was going on outside. The sound of heavy breathing passed through the tunnel. Daniel leaned out just a hair into the passage to try to see what it was. The only light came from his fallen flashlight. He was just trying to peak out further when a large, hoof slammed into the stone not two feet away. Daniel covered his mouth, trying not to make sound. Three other legs followed along with a wild snorting.
It was a horse, but even by Cull standards something was very wrong with it. In the pale light, Daniel could see its sides had been flayed open, revealing bone and tissue. Its head seemed much the same, more skull than face. And those eyes. The typical gold had been soured with blood, swirls of crimson in a glowing, yellow sea.
It lurched as it walked, its limbs twitching with each step. It sniffed the air and turned directly toward him. Daniel ducked back around the corner, but it was already heading toward them. Did they have anything to defend themselves with? He slung off his backpack, the hooves on stone getting closer all the while. He rummaged through all their hiking supplied. Bottle of water, snacks, utility-cord, spare jacket, extra flashlights, matches, fire starter, compass, there was nothing. He only had a small pocket knife which almost made him laugh at the absurdity. Pam and Charley caught on and rifled through their packs as well.
The demon horse pushed its head into the room and Daniel froze. It sniffed around, apparently not able to see well. It didn’t matter as it found them easily enough. Its breathing grew faster as it moved into the small space. Daniel scrabbled back against the wall, his heart pounding faster with each step the demented Cull took forwards.
“Hey!” Charley shouted. The horse jerked its head around to find him standing in the entrance to the alcove. “Over here you brute!” He held something in his hand and snapped the end off. The cave filled with an angry red light as Charley waved a road flare above his head. “Come on!”
Maddened by the sight, the horse charged at him, shrieking. Charley dove out of the way, but the horse whirled around and clipped him on the leg, sending him sprawling and knocking the flare form his hand. It crept on him, neighing with a ghoulish sound. The flare was whipped off the floor as Pam ran with at the Cull and to Daniel’s utter amazement, she threw herself in between it and her husband.
She rammed the flaming end of the flare into the monster’s eye. The hellish animal erupted into flames. They all jumped back as it brayed and flailed about, knocking itself against the wall before it went bolting off into the gloom, its disturbing cries echoing back to them long after it had disappeared.
“Let’s not sit around,” Charley said, getting up. “No telling when it might come back.”
“Follow me,” Daniel said, retrieving his flashlight from the floor. They didn’t bother with stealth as they ran through the tunnels, being careful to follow Daniel’s trail of matchsticks until they at last emerged from the side passage.
“This way,” Pam said as she and Charley started up the passage back to the surface. They stopped when they noticed Daniel was standing still.
“What is it?” Charley asked, but then he heard it, too. The sounds of fighting, snarls, and howls from further down below.
“She needs our help,” Daniel said.
“Who?” Charley asked. He and Pam shared a look.
“The girl you were telling us about?” Pam asked. “Penny? Does all of this have to do with her?”
“In a way,” Daniel said. “There’s no time to explain, but we can’t just leave her down here.”
Charley sighed, digging into his back. “If we’re doing this,” he pulled out three more road flares, tossing one to each of them and keeping one for himself. “Those things don’t seem to like fire. Right now, that’s the only weapon we’ve got.” Daniel nodded and they began the descent. He just hoped it would be enough.
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