"Dungeon Dweller" by Jon Eke

 

Duel With A Devil
by Sean K. Twyford

 

A spot of light appeared on the scruffy rug, which covered the bare rock of the cave floor. Jacsson swivelled the torch around the chamber: There was no one there, but he’d found what he was after. He spoke quietly into the wrist com.

"There’s been something in here, all right. I’m going on. Get back to you, Yan."

"OK, boss, but watch your back. You know what those sneaky little bastards are capable of." Jacsson smiled to himself. Yan hated Cupits, whilst he just disliked them. It wasn’t surprising; they were difficult for regular people to understand. Their looks, barely human. Their culture, language and that goddamned stupid religion set them apart. They were an alien minority, belligerent, non-conformist and untrustworthy.

"Right. Got you. You know where I am. My tracers working, yes?"

"Yessir. Just take care, that’s all."

"OK, Yan. Out."

Jacsson took a right fork, ducked slightly to clear the ceiling of the chamber and followed his nose. You didn’t need to be a Sniffer Beast to track a Cupit. Their pheromone-rich body odour was both putrid and unique. Sergeant Jacsson knew the fugitive was near. Slowly, he clipped the torch on to a shoulder bracket and removed the safety on his firearm. He edged forward, simultaneously scanning the illuminated dial of the infra-red wrist recorder whilst peering along the torch’s beam. Crystals on the cave walls reflected light like a galaxy of stars, false images that confused his vision.

There was a movement. He didn’t see anything, just sensed a presence. The hackles on the back of his neck rose like a dog’s. He strained his eyes against the gloom. More movement. A scream, like none he’d heard before. He fired. Once. Twice. Then there was silence.

He waited. Still there was silence. He advanced. Shone the torch at where the movement had been.

The Cupit was dead all right, very dead, only not by his hand. Couldn’t be. Too much of a mess.

"Jesus H. Christ." Jacsson averted his eyes. He took several deep breaths to regain his composure, then reaffixed his eyes to the loose assemblage of body parts that had been a Cupit.

He spoke into the wrist com, his voice shaking unusually.

"Yan, we have a problem."

"Fire away, boss. What is it?"

"I found the Cupit alright, or what’s left of him. He’s been killed. Slaughtered. Dismembered. Christ knows. By somebody or something unknown. I’ve got a hunch that Immigration Officer’s death wasn’t down to the Cupit. No sir. I figure this guy’s just an illegal. Probably waiting falsified ID PIN. You know the form."

"Defa, defa…"

A high-pitched scream from close by reverberated around the chamber. Jacsson fumbled with his weapon, but before he could release the safety a tiny figure shot out of the dark and attached itself to his left thigh.

"Jees …"

"Defa! Defa!" More screams from the diminutive thing cut short his expletive.

Then he relaxed, for he could now make out what the thing was. A Cupit, very small. Merely a youngster. A fugitive. Terrified.

"Steady kid. Steady. It’s OK."

The child calmed a little, deflecting its huge, green eyes in Jacsson’s direction. Jacsson spoke to Yan.

"I have a kid. A young Cupit. I’ll need a medic down here to collect him. Incidentally, you got access to your translator? I ain’t got mine with me."

"Yeah. What do you want to know?"

"Defa. A Cupit word. What does it mean?"

There was a few seconds pause. Then Yan, sounding bemused, spoke.
"Got it. According to my info, it means the Devil or Demon, something like that."

"Thanks, I can see why. Where are the rest of the team?"

"In the marshes mostly. Oh, except Thompsson and Letchkov. According to their sensors, they’re in tunnels each side of you. There’s a chamber that intersects all three. You could rendezvous there. Do you want me to set it up?"

"Yeah, we’ll form a tri-pack and hunt this whatever-it-is …"

"Devil?"

"Yeah, whatever. We’ll hunt it down."

"OK, boss. The tunnel’s about one hundred metres directly in front of you. Meet at the intersection, yes?"

"Yeah. Fifteen minutes. That’ll allow time to get the kid out."

"Got that, boss. Out."

The young Cupit clung desperately to Jacsson, rambling incoherently. The Sergeant wasn’t an expert in variant humanoid physiology, but didn’t need to be to see that the kid was traumatised. He put an arm around the shivering little creature, tried to give comfort, though there was little else he could do. For the first time, he felt sorry for a Cupit. Maybe they were getting a raw deal.

Jacsson heard footsteps from behind. He swivelled around, nervously brandishing his gun. The kid mumbled pathetically, clung tighter still, making it impossible for Jacsson to move a step. Fortunately he didn’t have to. He expelled a sigh of relief. The murder, this place, this thing -- whatever it was -- was getting to him. A flicker of light advanced towards him. It got bigger, and within seconds the haggard features of Doc Mason hovered into view.

"Jacko. What you got me?"

"Just the kid. An orphan now, I expect. An adult Cupit’s been slain here. I reckon this little fellow’s his son. Poor little sod’s petrified. He’s seen what’s happened to his Pa, and it sure ain’t pretty."

The Doc grimaced, shook his head.

"Poor kid. I’ll try out my Cupit. It ain’t great but…"

He smiled at the demure figure still hugging like a limpet to Jacsson’s thigh. The youngster’s eyes followed him jumpily as he squatted down to the kid’s eye level. He evidently spoke the language pretty well. Jacsson could feel the effects on the child. The child’s spidery arms lessened their hold, and the kid’s big, trusting eyes held Mason’s. The Doc tentatively outstretched a hand and the youngster slowly crept forward, then extended his long three-fingered hand…

"Aieeee… Zap… Zap…"

A blood-curdling scream and gunshots echoed from in front. The kid turned hysterical.

"Defa! Defa!" He cried. Doc held him securely, whispered reassurance.

Jacsson spun around to face the noise. Gun raised, he sprinted towards the commotion. He screamed back at Mason.

"Doc, take the kid! We’ll deal with it!"

Doc needed no encouragement. He’d already started back with the youngster’s hand firmly in his.

"Aieee…"

Another scream. This time nearer. Jacsson’s spine prickled and sweat trickled into his dark eyes. The temperature was high. Thermal updrafts from Laran’s subterranean volcanic flows. Jacsson recalled the physical makeup of the planet. It had been his home for some years but it still held surprises.

"Aieee…"

That sound again. Human? Animal? He couldn’t decide. Despite the uncertainty, he grinned to himself. A handsome, white, even-toothed smile. The strange sound reminded him vaguely of a Bloodhound owned by his ex. If only…

Making light of a dire situation was something he was particularly good at. It was a necessary quality cultivated by Laran’s elite Police Armed Assault Group members.

He glimpsed at his wrist recorder. Something registered on it. Maybe fifty metres ahead. He followed the torch beam, but the sulphurous fumes fogged his view. The register was faint. A small creature. No, that couldn’t be. The Cupit had been dismembered by something somewhat larger than a rat? He smiled again to himself, hoping he was wrong; maybe it was a rat. Laran had rats, lots of them, yet another present courtesy of Earth. There was a slithering noise ahead. Something large. Not a rat. The signal moved correspondingly on his W.R. Must have a low I.R. signature. Cold-blooded. The peculiar rasping noise, like someone dragging something heavy, moved away from him and rapidly disappeared, as did the W.R. reading. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Then his heart stopped for a second. He could make out the shape of a prostrate figure. A human outline...

Officers of Jackson’s standing had seen it all. Death, massacres, even of friends and colleagues. Thompson’s body quivered and convulsed in a deepening pool of crimson.

Jacsson’s torch slowly traced the long torso of his erstwhile friend, his size-thirteen regulation boots. Long legs. Thompson was a big man. The muscled thorax, powerful shoulders then… Then nothing!

"My God." Muttered Jackson. He shouted into the wrist com.

"Yan! What’s Letchkov’s WC Number. Quick!"

"What’s the problem…" Yan began.

"The number. Now!" Yan didn’t object. It was against protocol, maybe, but you just didn’t argue with the Sarge.

"OK, OK. It’s 48709."

Jacsson input the number into his wrist com.

"Letchkov!"

"Yes, sir. What’s going on?"

"Get the hell out of there. Your wrist com, man. Read it!"

"Yeah, I got a reading. It’s something small, though. Nothing to worry about… Shit… Fuck… Aah…"

Jacsson sprinted towards Letchkov’s position, but he knew it was too late. He was angry. Fuming. Two of his men slain. His friends. His responsibility. This thing, this creature, whatever-it-was, he was going to kill it. He had to. For Thompson, Letchkov and that kid, with the fear in his eyes.

 

* * *

The grotesque shape he saw, only fleetingly, defied description. Of no definitive shape, it half-slithered, half-ran. A long body, vaguely maggot-like, was interrupted at intervals by human, Cupit and a variety of other animal limbs. A foul parody of Thompson’s head, seemingly attached the wrong way round peered back at him like some obscene gargoyle.

Jacsson fired. The Thompson protuberance exploded into a filthy ulcerated sore. The thing emitted a squeal like that of a thousand rats and squirmed away from him. Jacsson nodded to himself.

"Yeah. You can be hurt. You ugly son of a bitch."

Then shock took him. He quavered uncontrollably. His eyes smarted with sweat and the fumes. All his instincts told him to run. But he couldn’t, wouldn’t. He fought the convulsions, the primordial fear, but it wasn’t easy. He needed help. He fumbled with the zip on the thigh of his tunic and extracted a tablet. He popped the green anti-shock sedative under his tongue and counted as the tablet dissolved and dissipated throughout his system. It took ten seconds, then a surge of relief coursed through his veins. He could cope now.

His wrist com flashed.

"Sarge. You OK?"

It was Yan.

"Yeah. I’m OK. Thompson and Letchkov aren’t though."

"Christ. What’s happening in there?"

"There’s this thing. God knows what it is. But it’s goddamn lethal. I need help urgently."

"Sarge, I’m pulling out all the stops here, but there ain’t gonna be any help for at least an hour."

"Sweet Jesus. That’s too long. This thing will have had me for breakfast by then."

"Describe it, Sarge. I’ve a staff ecologist on tap. You know Jen Arnold. I’m patching her through…"

A cultured female voice took over.

"Hello, Sergeant Jacsson. Can you please describe this animal to me?"

"It’s awful. I only saw it for a second or two, but here goes. It’s basically shaped like an oversized grub. Dull grey in colour, though it has the ability to change somehow. It must be ten metres long, and it’s copying the shapes of body parts from victims. I hit it full on with my assault laser. Hurt it, but not much. I reckon Thompson hit it too. It must be injured, but I reckon it’s going to take some juice before it goes down."

"Sergeant, what you are describing sounds like a Defa…"

"Defa, the Devil. That’s what that young Cupit called it."

"Yes, Sergeant, they were of major significance to the Cupit peoples. They used to pray to them, apparently. They are partial metamorphants. That means they can mimic shape to a limited extent. They’re practically extinct now, but I never heard of one exceeding three metres…"

The calm scientific way in which she spoke irritated Jacsson.

"Look, you calling me a liar? This thing’s at least ten metres, and it changes shape before your eyes..."

"Apologies, Sergeant, but I’m only recounting what I know. Wait a second. I think I might have the answer. I have heard stories that Laran, in its war with Trelaar 4, before the Earth settlement, experimented on the Defa. They were trying by genetic means to provide the perfect spy. A simulant. A programmed creature that could genetically replicate its enemies perfectly, and infiltrate. Positively evil. The project was abandoned during the cease-fire. Apparently the biodegenerate Defa became uncontrollable. Or so the stories say."

"Christ, I’m up against some goddamn mutant. Can it be stopped?"

"Most likely, but you’ll need a lot of fire power. Maybe a tactical battlefield laser would suffice."

"Thank you, Ms. Arnold. Please pass me to Yan."

Yan’s anxious voice interrupted. "Sarge, I don’t know how to say this, but it gets worse. The shaft you’re in. It’s not just a cave. It’s part of the city’s catacombs. One of the ancient wonders."

"Yeah. I get the picture. Massive tourist site, visited by thousands every day. That thing’s been flushed straight at ‘em. By me, as well. Great!"

"Only you can stop it, Sarge. You can head it off at the pass, as the saying goes."

"How?"

"Take the next turn left for about a hundred metres, then a sharp right. That shaft takes you back to the catacombs, just in front of the gates near the Atribium. Hurry. There’s enough time, but maybe only enough. You must get in front of the thing. I’m getting help, but it isn’t going to be in time."

Jacsson threw down an adrenaline tab and ran, at a rapid but sustainable pace.

He broke back into the main passage a little more than a stone’s throw from the Atribium gates. He advanced slowly, glimpsing at his wrist recorder. There was no reading. None whatsoever. He peered into the dark. There was a little light, but not much. His torch beam showed nothing. He heard nothing. He flashed Yan.

"I’m in front of the beast. Unless of course it’s turned back…"

"Right, Sarge. Something I have to warn you about."

Jacsson interrupted.

"I hear something! Got to go!"

He edged forward, towards the noise. The ground disappeared beneath him.

"Jesus…" he screamed. Instinctively, he spread his arms and legs, starfish fashion. He was in luck. His right hand connected and latched on to an overhang of solidified magma. He held on in desperation, his legs dangling in the furnace blast of super-heated air. He dangled precariously for a few seconds. Seconds that seemed a lifetime to him. Then his left hand found purchase, and he wriggled away from the abyss.

"Shit! Shit! Shit!"

He skipped about, performing an impromptu jig. His boots, despite being all-terrain insulated, were red hot and his garments were singed.

The climatic temperature regulator in his uniform kicked in with vengeance. He suddenly felt cooler; he took deep breaths, tried to steady himself. Then he heard the movement from down the shaft. He grabbed for the assurance of his weapon, but it wasn’t there.

"Jesus H. Christ! I lost it…"

His torch beam stabbed deeply into the sable darkness. At the extreme range of its luminance there was a slight movement. An almost innocuous movement. His wrist recorder blipped ominously. Then the noise. A cry, a scream, he couldn’t say which. A noise so alien, yet nearly human, nearly Cupit. The movement drew a little closer. The thing was there in the dark waiting for him, stalking him. He was the prey.

"Oh my God," he gasped.

He reached for the extendable knife. Not a weapon he’d ever used or indeed wanted to use. An anachronism. A residual left over from millennia of military history. He forced the catch back and the blade extended itself to form a short stabbing or hacking weapon. Better than nothing, but not by much. The noise again. He shook. Lost control. Pissed himself. The acrid smell of the urine evaporating from his still-hot trousers nearly made him retch. He reached into the medical pouch, threw down another anti-shock. His nerves steadied, and he prepared to meet his fate. Did he have any chance?

The pit. A volcanic shaft, some form of heated blowhole off the tourist path. If he could draw the thing in to the pit. Yes, that was it. Send the devil back to where it belonged!

There was a clang behind. Surely not! It couldn’t be! He turned slowly, half expecting the Defa to reappear like magic behind him.

A light crept towards him and an amplified voice, a human voice, hailed him.

"Hey buddy, where did you come from?

Jacsson ran to the man. Glad of his presence.

"Who are you?"

"Jelore’s the name. Security…"

"Listen, there isn’t much time. I’m Sergeant Jacsson of PAAG. There’s a psychopathic beast in here. I have to stop it."

"You puttin’ me on, mister."

Then he saw the desperation on the cop’s face.

"No, you aren’t. Can I help?"

"Yeah. Get help. Oh, and a searchlight. Shine it in here. Let’s see what we’re up against. Mustn’t let the creature into the open catacombs and keep them folks" -- he pointed at the gawking tourists-- "away. Can you evacuate?"

"No mister. Can’t do. No authority. Anyway, it would take hours."

"All right, I understand. You’re armed?"

"Yeah, only a stun pistol though."

"Give it me. It’s better than what I have."

Jelore hesitated, then reluctantly passed the ridiculous little weapon over.

"OK, Sergeant. I’ll get the other guys. We’ll do what we can."

"Thanks, Jelore."

Jacsson ran back. He could see the creature’s outline in the light of his torch. Fortunately, the creature took its time. It could move fast, Jacsson knew, but now it scraped its way forward cautiously. Maybe it sensed danger, knew of the blowhole. Was it injured? Jacsson hoped so, but he sensed the creature was studying him, assessing his offensive capability. Perhaps some of the sentience or knowledge of its victims had been absorbed too. Jacsson stopped thinking morbid thoughts. To convince himself that the creature could be invulnerable wasn’t helping.

He moved forward, skirted the pit on the narrowest of ledges and faced the Defa, which was now more visible and even more repulsive. Jacsson felt ill. The simulant crawled like a snake assisted by limbs, which were both human and Cupit. A carbuncle on its head metamorphosed into features, which were a sick caricature of both Thompson and Letchkov.

He took aim and fired the stun pistol three times. The creature issued a surreal near-human cry, like laughter, mocking.

Chunk…

Behind him the noise of machinery. Then the mutant was illuminated like a vile sculpture. It reeled backwards. Jacsson took heart. He kept firing and backed up towards the pit. Tendrils, like living plant roots, crept towards him. A vine found his ankle and yanked at him with fantastic strength. He went down, and the mutant wound him in like a fish on a line. Jacsson stared into the beast’s reptilian maw, now graphically illuminated by the halogen from the gate.

Zap… Zap…

The security men fired over his prostate body. Their stun weapons had little effect, though the creature was distracted. Jacsson drew the knife. In desperation, he lashed at the tendril. His foot was only a stride away from those terrible jaws. Then the sinew was cut; the living cord still writhed around his leg like an eel. He wrenched it free and ran like a maniac. He nearly fell into the pit but somehow managed to vault around the perimeter, the up-blast scorching a reminder in his uniform.

On the other side of the blowhole he turned to face the beast. Make his last stand. The creature flowed after him, its greed overcoming logic. Tendrils reached out. Then the creature tipped forward. Its heavy forepart starting to carry it downwards. It shrieked its rodent-like warning but held on, refusing to fall further into the pit. Vines scrambled, gaining hold. It slipped no more. Tendrils then gripped the overhang, and slowly but surely the creature raised itself towards the lip. It squealed, a high-pitched bat noise. Was it in pain? Did it know pain? Perhaps it was feeling triumphal.

Quickly, Jacsson began wielding the knife time after time, severing the tendrils. The creature screeched its defiance and tried to keep its grip, but it slipped inevitably down into the heat. Back to hell. Jacsson last saw that protrusion which was a head, with Thompson’s face. The face smiled at him.



Story copyright 2001 by Sean K. Twyford sseankt@aol.com

Illustration copyright 2001 by Jon Eke jon@galaxy5.fsnet.co.uk



Back to Table of Contents