Albert wanted to wake up.
This whole situation had to be another bad dream. Something else his psyche had thrown at him, another unresolved trauma to fear and ignore. Soon he'd open his eyes and see the tattered fabric of his tent up above him. He could prepare for the day as normal, get dressed, eat breakfast, and forget that this had ever happened.
Because otherwise, he would have to acknowledge that the sight in front of him was real. He would have to recognize that God would allow such creatures to exist, and lead so many of his flock right to their doorstep. Such thoughts were unconscionable. Blasphemous.
And yet, no matter how long he waited, no matter how hard he gripped onto his pistol, the scene remained unchanged. The corpse, the blood, the choking miasma of dust and smoke, the ringing in his ears, all of it remained.
It was real, no matter how badly Albert prayed it wasn't so.
Charles didn't seem to feel much better, if his dismayed expression was anything to go by. The man still had his pistol half-raised, inching closer to the creature's body. He gave the corpse a few nudges with the tip of his boot. The creature shifted slightly, but did not react otherwise.
Charles trailed off, mouth agape. He blinked, inhaling deeply, before turning back to Albert.
"It's a monster. It's a fucking monster. Oh, Christ…"
He fell silent, covering his eyes with his hand. Albert thought about comforting him but couldn't find anything to say. His own thoughts were a jumbled mess, trying to make sense of a situation that should have been impossible.
The possibilities were terrifying. How many of these creatures were down here? How long had they been infesting this place? Were they the reason that the ruins had been abandoned?
It was all too easy to imagine what had happened to the previous inhabitants. A group of survivors fleeing the cold and uncovering this cavern, setting up homes and mines, only to uncover monsters living beneath their feet, forced to flee yet again-
Bile rose up in his throat. All this time, they'd thought they were safe down here, that they needed to stay underground. But it was all an illusion. More threats to worry over, more beasts hiding in the shadows beyond their fires.
Then there was the statue. And the graveyard. And the insect lanterns, and the runes, and the idol, and all the other madness infesting this place. What role did they have to play in all of this? Were they somehow related to each other?
And what of the village itself? Were there more creatures waiting between them and those people? Had the village already been overrun?
Get a hold of yourself, Albert thought. Panicking now will only cause more harm. Focus on what's in front of you.
Not that the bleeding corpse in front of him was any easier to look at. Still, better to have something concrete to worry about than trying to conjure up new nightmares out of thin air.
Albert took a deep breath, trying to steady his nerves. That only served to make him keel over, choking on the dust and fumes in the air. It was a small mercy that the scent of blood was absent, instead replaced by a sharp, sickly-sweet smell, more reminiscent of citrus than of copper. Still unpleasant to behold, but lacking that horrible familiarity.
After taking a moment to calm down, Albert glanced back at the body. It was impossible to disregard the alien nature of the creature, but he tried to focus on the equipment it held rather than its corpse. His gaze centered on the pick it wielded; unlike the picks he'd seen toted around Winterhome, this one seemed to be composed of a single piece of steel, sharpened into points at each end. It looked more like a weapon than a tool of industry.
The helmet itself wasn't that noteworthy at a first glance, merely two pieces of curved steel riveted together. Not much different from the helmets he'd seen carried around back in Winterhome. The only part about it that caught his eye was how snug it was around the creature's skull, as if it had been designed for it to use.
Then there was the lantern itself. Instead of using a normal lantern, electrical or otherwise, whoever had made it had decided to use more of those glowing insects for illumination. Perhaps that was simply due to a lack of oil or electricity, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to the design than he was seeing.
Something about this situation was wrong. Had the equipment been modified at some point? Or…
No. No, that couldn't be the case. That's patently absurd.
But that still left the question of how these creatures had obtained that kind of equipment, or how they possessed the intelligence to utilize them. Were the cavern's previous inhabitants trying to use these creatures as some sort of labor pool? It was insane, criminally so.
And yet, it was possible that it wasn't. Just before he'd shot it, the creature had unloaded those crystals onto the conveyor belt. And, given the amount of pink dust nearby, it had probably performed that task several times already. Had someone gone to the effort of training these things to mine? What kind of madman would try that?
Again, the graveyard came back to mind, dozens of tombstones stretching across the peak. If they'd already lost that many people, perhaps they'd been desperate enough to try something as mad as training a new workforce. Winterhome had forced its children to work after the casualties of the uprising. It wouldn't be far-fetched for others to resort to similar acts under the same conditions.
Then why didn't it stop when I told it to? Why did it keep moving towards us? It should have understood my instructions.
And that still left the question of where the overseers were. Or if there were overseers at all, or if these creatures were trusted to work on their own.
It seemed that, if they wanted answers, they still needed to reach that village. Which required traveling through what could be miles of tunnels, each of which could be filled with more monstrosities.
Albert's eyes glanced back and forth to the different tunnel entrances, half expecting another monster to materialize from around the corner. That gunshot had damn near blown his eardrums out, and he harbored no doubt that the sound would travel throughout the length of the tunnels. If there were more of these creatures down here, they would eventually come and investigate.
"…What do we do now?" Charles asked, in a voice lacking his usual bravado. He had pulled himself together, but the man was clearly still shaken.
"I…I don't know…" Albert trailed off, feeling uncertainty eat away at him. They could try to push forwards and look for a path to the village. But that left them with the risk of running into more of these creatures, or getting lost underground, or any number of fatal outcomes. Their other option was to return to the ruins and let Winterhome know about what they'd uncovered. They could return later with more men and weapons, but it might also give these creatures more time to prepare.
Albert's eyes flicked back towards his pistol. They had enough ammunition to last them for a few more encounters, but even with the spare rounds Davis had given them, their supplies would only last them so long. Their weapons were meant for fending off wildlife, not prolonged engagements.
"…Fuck this. I say we head back," Charles said, glancing around. "I don't fancy our odds alone down here. Christ knows how many more of these things are waiting for us."
Albert nodded. All things considered, it was their best option. They would need an army to secure all of these tunnels, and the Captain had the closest thing left to one. And, though it would take reinforcements some time to arrive, they could prepare the ruins in the event the creatures decided to follow them.
Wordlessly, the two men headed back into the first tunnel, both unconsciously glancing back at the corpse as they left. Albert wished they could cover it up with a tarp or a cloth, but neither of them had such materials on hand. It would have been more comforting than letting the creature's dead, black eyes stare at their backs as they withdrew.
Soon enough, the sharp lights of the chamber had been replaced with the purple glow of the crystals, the tunnel walls tightening around them. It wasn't a welcoming sight. Albert found himself glancing at every shadow and obstacle, wondering if there were more creatures scurrying around in the darkness. The slight ringing in his ears only served to worsen his paranoia, wondering if it was covering up any sounds of movement nearby.
He found himself glancing at the crates and containers lining the hall, stretching in both directions as far as the eye could see. Some of them were big enough to hide behind. Even the ceiling and walls themselves looked sinister, with dark shadows hiding smaller holes and outcroppings. What if those creatures were smart enough to ambush them? Their pistols would only do so much if they were caught at close range.
Once we get to the rope, we're safe. Just climb up, collect the equipment, and head back home, Albert thought. It wasn't much of a plan, but it helped him keep some semblance of calm.
The sound of a pistol being drawn broke Albert out of his thoughts. Looking over, Albert saw Charles staring ahead, weapon at the ready.
"There's something ahead of us," he whispered, pointing forwards. Albert followed it, nearly cursing as he made out what was in front of them.
There was another light at the opposite end of the tunnel, shining in the pale white of those insect lanterns. Albert felt a jolt of alarm at that. Something had moved into the other end of the tunnel while they were distracted.
As he looked closer, he realized something else; the light was shaking around, getting brighter. Whatever was carrying it was moving directly towards them.
Albert drew his pistol. Whatever it was, it was blocking their only way out of the mines. There was no choice but confrontation.
They kept moving forwards, and the light did the same, filling the air with a neutral glow. After a few moments, they were close enough to see the beings responsible for said light.
It was a sight that put the previous creature to shame.
Filling out the confines of the tunnel, the beast was nothing short of gargantuan. As broad and tall as a carriage, the beast was terrifying to behold; a hulking mass of plates and muscle, as if it were a train made of flesh and bone instead of steel and bronze. Massive cloth bags hung from its sides, with chunks of purple crystal and ore overflowing within.
That has to be at least a ton or two of ore it's carrying. Just how strong is it? Albert wondered, trying not to panic.
Another creature walked in front of it, almost identical to the one they'd just shot, leading the massive beast along with a thick cord in one arm and an insect lantern in the other. The moment the creature spotted them, it halted in its tracks, bringing the beast to a stop behind it.
For a moment, neither group moved. Albert and Charles held still, not wanting to incense the creatures in such a confined space. The smaller creature remained silent, slowly gazing between Albert and Charles, while the beast kept motionless. It was the strangest standoff Albert could conceive of, with both parties a stone's throw away.
But then something happened to the monsters.
All of a sudden, something seemed to shift and change within them. Their postures tensed up, and harsh, pained croaks filled the air. Their eyes, previously pure obsidian, filled with a painful orange glow, like a fire spreading in the night. Immediately, the monsters looked back at Albert and Charles with a new intensity, with terrible focus shining through whatever madness had taken hold of them.
It was a focus that reminded Albert too much of the statue, of the idol, of the lingering fear and confusion he'd felt every morning since arriving in the cavern. His head throbbed, screaming of danger and warmth-
Albert reacted on instinct, firing at the closer threat. The smaller creature went down just as quickly as the first had. His ears still screamed at the sudden noise, but he was better prepared for it now, merely flinching instead of stumbling.
Charles followed suit, firing at the larger creature. The rounds struck the beast's shell, causing it to crack and chip, but they didn't appear to wound it. If anything, the monster seemed to be unbothered by their resistance, not even flinching as it was being shot.
The beast began to move forwards, overtaking the smaller creature's corpse. The beast moved through the obstacle as if it were nothing, continuing forwards at a walking pace. It was trampled underfoot, cracking apart in a burst of shell fragments and white fluid, like an egg breaking against a skillet.
Albert and Charles raised their pistols and fired, aiming for the creature's body. The rounds impacted the beast, breaking off chunks of bone and chitin, but the beast was undeterred by their attacks. It continued to advance towards them, knocking crates and containers away as it charged. Albert could barely make out the sounds of stone breaking and shattering under the cracks of gunfire, deafening him in the violence.
They were forced to move back towards the chamber, trying to avoid tripping on the rail tracks and debris as they moved. It was a terrifying dance, furtively glancing at where their feet were landing before firing at the beast again. More containers lined the edges of the tunnel, constricting them to the center of the passageway; the beast, massive as it was, had no qualms tearing through everything around it.
Albert fired again and again, hoping to find a spot that was vulnerable. He tried to aim at the creature's head, but it was protected by an overhanging lip of chitin, deflecting the one shot he'd managed to aim close. The shell cracked, sending shards flying into the creature's eyes, but it didn't seem to notice. Albert tried once more, lowering his aim slightly-
-only to be met with a soft click as the weapon failed to fire.
Albert pulled the trigger once more, dumbly hoping that the weapon would work, but was met with more silence. A small part of him wondered if he'd gone deaf from the sound of gunfire. The rest of him watched the beast continue to advance, battered and enraged. Though slow, its advance was inexorable, getting within a few feet of them even as they retreated.
Albert opened the cylinder, tossing out spent cartridges as his empty hand searched for fresh ammunition. His hands shook as he tried to insert the rounds, almost unable to push them into the chambers. Finally, he managed to finish reloading, sliding the cylinder back into place-
-and watched as the beast's face burst in a spray of white. Immediately, the beast collapsed onto the ground, sliding forwards as it fell. The tunnel echoed with the sounds of chitin scraping against stone, like nails against a chalkboard, tearing at Albert's hearing in a way the gunfire failed to.
Albert stared for a moment, trying to catch up with what happened. It took him a second to calm down, lowering his gun. After the first time, it was a little easier to get his thoughts in order.
Next to him, he heard Charles give a soft choke of laughter. It felt horribly out of place amidst the smoke and the bodies. "Feel like Saint George after that one," he chuckled, smiling like a man possessed.
Albert joined in, letting the slightest bit of tension leave his body.
Which was when another creature rushed from the side, pickaxe in hand, and stabbed Charles in the arm.
It happened too quickly to react; the creature had lunged out from behind a nearby crate, attacking him while they were both distracted. The pick sunk deeply into Charles' forearm, sticking out through the other side. Charles gave out a choked gasp, stumbling forwards and collapsing on the ground. The creature remained in place, as if stunned that it had succeeded.
Albert didn't give it time to recover, firing at the creature's torso. The rounds struck true, sending the creature tumbling backwards onto the ground. Albert spared a glance, making sure it didn't get up, before rushing over to Charles' side.
It was a terrible wound. The pick had sunken directly through the right arm, about halfway between his shoulder and his elbow. Everything below the wound was bent at an odd angle, the bone likely broken from the impact. Charles was still conscious, but his focus was solely on his arm, wordlessly screaming as he pried at the pick.
What the hell do I do now? Albert thought, panicking. He had only been taught how to splint broken bones and treat cuts, and now Charles had half a foot of steel through his shoulder. Could he even stop the bleeding if he tried to take the pick out?
Albert glanced around, trying to figure out what to do. The tunnel entrance near the chamber seemed to be getting brighter, illuminated in that terrifying white glow. He could make out the sounds of steel scraping against stone, of demonic chittering and screeching, of more creatures approaching them. More creatures would be upon them soon.
He looked back at the beast's corpse. It filled up most of the tunnel, but there was still some space around its sides. Just enough for someone to squeeze through, if they were willing to squeeze past the monstrosity's body.
"Charles? Charles, are you alright?" Albert asked. "We need to move. Can you walk?"
Charles didn't respond. Albert kept repeating the question, glancing back at the approaching lights. They didn't have much time.
Finally, Charles started, glancing back at Albert. "I-I…I don't…maybe…"
It was the best answer he was going to get. Nodding, Albert gripped onto Charles' uninjured arm, pulling the man to his feet. He was unsteady, nearly stumbling back onto the ground. Albert grabbed onto him, keeping him upright.
"Come on, then, come on. Just need to get past this and we're home free," Albert muttered.
Charles nodded. It was an empty motion, with most of his focus on his ruined arm. Even Albert could see that it'd likely need amputating.
Another thing to worry about later, Albert thought. Got to keep moving!
Reaching the beast's corpse, Albert took a look at the gap. It was slightly wider than he'd thought, perhaps a foot at the most narrow. A bit of a tight fit, but more than manageable.
Except there was no way that Charles would be able to make it through there. A quick glance at the pick was enough to show that; it was a good few inches wider than the gap, even without Charles' arm caught at the end. The only way Charles was going to escape would be to remove the pick.
The sounds of chittering and screeching filled the hallway. He could make out the rotund forms of those creatures further down the tunnel. He would only have a few moments to deal with Charles' wound.
Cursing at their luck, Albert laid Charles against the ground and stretched the wounded arm out. The floor would have to be their operating table. "I need to get that out of your arm, Charles. Just – just stay still, alright?" Albert asked.
Charles looked at Albert in a manner that screamed of agony and desperation. He nodded.
Albert pulled. Charles screamed. The pick fell out, sliding across the ground in a splatter of blood and bone fragments. Crimson spread across the stone floor, around Charles' side, too quickly for anyone to survive.
"It'll be fine, don't worry, everything will be fine," Albert said to Charles, knowing that it wouldn't. Charles didn't respond. His eyes had shut, passed out from the pain and shock. Grabbing his scarf, he wrapped it around the wound, layering it across the injury over and over. The grey wool quickly became soaked in blood, turning dark red. It was the best either of them could do.
With one final knot, the injury was bandaged. It was barely holding in Charles' blood, and was probably exposing the wound to dust and other contaminants, but it would keep him alive. At least, Albert prayed it would.
Albert risked another glance up. The creatures were nearly upon them, only a few dozen feet away. They needed to hurry.
Grabbing Charles, Albert inched back towards the beast's corpse. The loose stone and ore on the ground shifted and slid under his feet, making the task all the more arduous. It was all he could do to keep his grip on Charles. All the while, the lights from further down the tunnel only grew brighter, the footsteps getting ever nearer.
Then they made it into the gap, and his goal became even more difficult. Albert managed to fit in easily enough, but Charles needed to be dragged through. Albert found himself shifting Charles around like a puzzle piece, having to twist and turn Charles around to get him to fit.
"Come on, you bastard, work with me," Albert muttered, yanking at Charles' shoulders. His hands were slick with sweat and blood, barely letting him grip onto the wounded man. It was a wonder he could grip onto Charles' shirt at all.
A harsh clanging sound caught Albert's attention. Glancing up, he saw another pick sticking near Charles' legs, sticking out of the stone wall. The black-orange eyes of another creature stared at him, fixing him with that terrible glow.
Panic filled Albert's mind. He renewed his struggles, inching away from the monstrosity, hoping that it wouldn't catch Charles in a wild swing-
-and finally, with one last tug, they were free. Albert collapsed on the floor, dragging Charles out from the gap with him.
And not a moment too soon. Looking back past the beast's corpse, Albert could see the first creature try to follow their path, pushing itself into the gap. Thankfully, it became stuck almost immediately, wildly swinging at the two humans. It seemed they would have a few moments before the creatures made it to them.
Albert took a second to breathe. The air was still dusty and rancid, but he couldn't bring himself to care. His lungs forced it down anyways.
Blessedly, safety was within sight. Just a few feet away, Albert could see the hole in the ceiling, the rope still hanging in the air. It was a struggle to get to his feet once more, and an even greater one to move Charles further, but seeing their escape route was enough to give Albert the energy to endure.
Once they reached the rope, Albert looped it around Charles' chest, taking care to avoid the wound. Doubts filled Albert's mind, wondering if the rope would support Charles' weight, fearing that lifting him up like that would only aggravate Charles' injury. He did his best to ignore them. There was nothing else he could think to do in the heat of the moment.
With the makeshift harness prepared, he looked towards the ceiling. "Davis! Davis!" Albert shouted. "Charles is hurt! Pull up the damned rope!"
Moments passed. There was no response. The rope remained still.
What's taking him so long? Albert worried. He'd been waiting right by the entrance when they'd descended. It should only have taken him a moment to respond.
Albert's blood ran cold. What if those creatures had gotten to Davis as well? They'd only found the one entrance, but if those beasts had more ways of getting to the peak...
And then, suddenly, the rope shifted. Charles was hoisted into the air, slowly, irregularly. Albert tried to help, grabbing Charles' legs and hoisting him into the air. It still took too long for comfort, but Charles was lifted into the hole, disappearing as he ascended.
That's one of us safe, Albert thought, breathing a sigh of relief. Now I need to wait for my turn.
Albert looked back down the tunnel, keeping his pistol raised. More creatures were following them, climbing around the beast's corpse as they advanced. They seemed to struggle more than Albert and Charles had, stumbling over the debris and getting stuck on the body. They would get through, but it would take some time.
He glanced back at the other end of the tunnel. More pale white lights appeared in that direction, but with the haze in the air, it was difficult to tell how many of them there were. It didn't seem like they were growing closer, but after the last ambush, Albert was reluctant to take his eyes off them.
After what felt like hours of waiting and watching, the rope descended once more. Albert holstered his pistol, grabbing onto the rope and pulling himself upwards. His arms screamed at him, already worn out from the day's labors. Albert tried to focus on the ceiling instead, watching salvation approach an arm's length at a time.
His ascent became easier once he made it into the ceiling. The hole had just enough room for him to use his legs to climb, and even without footholds, the stone was rough enough for his boots to grip on.
He was caught off guard when a light shone down on him. For one moment, he feared that those creatures had gotten ahead of him after all, waiting for him to trap himself. Then his eyes adjusted, seeing that the light was the harsh yellow of an arc lantern instead of the soft white of an insect lantern.
Davis looked down at him with a nervous expression. His pistol was pointed down at Albert, but when he saw who was approaching, quickly moved it away. Reaching down, Davis grabbed Albert's arm and helped pull him out of the hole. The dark, open mountaintop felt like a blessing after so much time in the tunnels.
Turning back towards the entrance, Albert pulled up the rope. There was surprisingly little resistance. He had feared that some of the creatures would try to climb up after them, but it appeared that they had been too slow. The only thing clinging onto the end was Charles' blood, splattered across the coarse material.
Albert took the moment to breathe, letting the harsh breeze wash over him. His hands trembled in front of his eyes, and his legs weren't much better off. The desperate energy that had driven him to safety seemed to vanish, replaced by an all-consuming exhaustion.
A few feet away, Davis was kneeling besides Charles, pressing a wad of cloth onto the wounded arm. The man's composure hadn't quite cracked, but it was shaken. Davis' eyes were just too wide, his breath just too quick to be normal.
Charles was worse off. The man's complexion had turned horrifically pale and clammy, more reminiscent of an uncooked turkey than of a human being. Charles' eyes were glossy and unseeing, threatening to shut at any moment.
They couldn't remain in the graveyard. If Charles was going to live, they needed to get him to a doctor immediately.
Albert leaned down, grabbing Charles under his uninjured arm. Davis followed suit with the injured one. Together, the two of them lifted him up, preparing for the long trek down the mountain.
All Albert could do was pray that they hadn't just unleashed a new curse upon Winterhome.