The floundering noise grew louder, more urgent, with a wet sucking groan joining it. Michael chose a direction and began jogging, doing his best not to panic, even as the wet sucking noises began to emanate from all around. The bright beam of light showed little due to the silvery fog of the cavern, save for a dozen or so feet of blank stone, marred only by the occasional puddle of cool water.
He skirted a wider pool, still scanning the edges of his vision for the familiar stone wall that could lead him back to the entry, and his escape.
Instead he finally caught sight of what was making the noises within the darkness.
Rising from one of the hundreds of silvery pools on arms long since rotted, a waterlogged corpse was pulling itself from the waters slowly, the wet sucking noise gurgling past its lipless mouth as it slowly expelled water from its lungs. Hairless, the entire beast was made of translucent flesh, thick black veins visibly moving beneath the bloated skin as the creature clambered from the pool.
Whirling his light around him, Michael realized that almost every pool he could see had similar sights crawling from them, all groaning, wide hands outstretched towards him with boneless fingers, fingers that writhed like worms from a clump of clay.
“Oh my God. . .” Michael muttered before breaking off into a dead sprint, pushing past one of the few monsters that had managed to stand, knocking its upper body back and forcing it onto its forearms, a savage hiss breaking past rotting teeth.
Weaving and ducking, Michael ran deeper and deeper into the cave, doing his best to contain his panic as he passed by more and more of the strange creatures. Harsh cries, warped and bestial, echoed along the cavern walls; just within sight the creatures lurked in the fog, moving about on long wobbly limbs, far faster than they should. Every time one got close, the rancid smell of rotting fish would accompany the garbled howls of the creature as it tried to grab him, fingers elongating as they reached for him in a hideous parody of human hands.
But still Michael evaded, dodging them at every turn, running deeper into the darkness, into the fell chill of the fog. Finally, rising in the distance like a forgotten shrine, Michael caught sight of the wall.
“Yes! Yes!” He cried, clambering over a pair of gelatinous arms as they emerged from a pool he’d strayed to close too.
But his cheers fell only on the ears of the damned. The wall he was now running to wasn’t that of unworked stone, but of carved rock. Moss-covered works of titanic proportions, resembling a twisted visage of the creatures chasing him, save for a mass of sinuous tentacles dangling from the vaguely humanoid face. The statue, easily a story tall, sat motionless in the position of the Buddha, multiple arms curved at inhuman angles, each bearing a bowl dribbling thin streams of pestilent water down to another, all leading to a wide basin that could easily be mistaken for a small pond.
“Oh God. . . God no. . .” Michael sobbed as the rising cries of the monstrous entities echoed from the shadows. The statue itself seemed to give off its own light here, though from where Michael couldn’t say. Only now did he realize, as the creatures slowly circled him on all fours, boneless limbs moving unsteadily below their frail frames, that these fiends hadn’t been chasing him with the intent to catch him; they’d been herding him towards this very spot.
“Tha’ they ‘ave my boy, tha’ they ‘ave” Confirmed a hauntingly familiar voice from the briny basin, before Michael’s vision swam with stars, fading into the familiar darkness of sleep.
Michael awoke cold, colder than he had ever felt before. What he had prayed was only a whiskey-fueled nightmare greeted him with solemn silence, hundreds of the strange beasts standing around him at a respectable distance. The cool stone beneath his bare back and legs peeled painfully as he pushed himself up, only to feel a warm hand steady his shoulder.
“Careful now lad, ye’ve had a hell of time.” The old beggar soothed him, gently pushing him back down. Michael resisted, throwing the man’s hand off him and rolling to his feet. He saw that the cold stone he had been resting on was a raised platform of black rock, probably marble, covered in carved figures doing profane acts, graven images of men standing over altars with blades lowering into panicked victims, and of sickly looking entities resting below the waters near the sacrifices.
“What the hell! Who are you? What the fuck is all of this?” Michael shouted, waving over the crowd of monsters and wishing desperately for his pistol.
“Yer gun would do ya no good ‘ere.” The bum explained, walking around the altar with not the slightest impediment.
His earlier limp had apparently been an act, Michael thought.
“Aye, that it was. ‘Ave to keep up appearances then, don’t we?”
The bum said as he peeled a layer of clothing from his moist frame.
“What appearances?” Michael demanded, fighting a wave of nausea that wracked through his body. “And how are you reading my thoughts?”
“Tha’ I be human o’ course.” He replied with a wide grin, far wider than any normal man could produce. “Hard to feed on yer people if they see me like the lot o’them, right? And yer thoughts are just being thrown round like they were confetti, might as well peek…”
The crowd of onlookers seemed to thrum at the statement, a sucking noise that was profane to the ear but somehow conveyed . . . humor? “Wha… What are you?”
“Jus’ a creature doing his best to make it in this rat race of a life.” He shrugged. Bereft of his coat, the aged shirt easily showed how bizarre the gesture was, as bones seemed to ripple beneath the bum’s skin. “Yeah, I know. I be needin’ a new body, tha much is certain.”
“What’s wrong with yours?” Michael asked.
“Mind ye, I rarely go fer bodies like yers, people tend to notice the changes,” He continued to explain, ignoring Michael’s question. He was walking away from Michael now, unbuttoning his shirt slowly as he went. He was slowly ascending a set of black stairs next to the statue that led to the largest basin. “But yer people ‘ave forced me hand, so to speak.”
“How?” Michael asked without thinking, doing his best to keep his mind clear while trying to figure a means of escape.
“By fixin’ yer subsystem!” The bum laughed, shedding his shirt with a casual roll of his shoulders. One of his arms hung too low, connected near the upper most rib, and his chest swelled and deflated in numerous spots far to disconcerting to not be repulsed by. “Such a thing’ll only lead to more of yer fools and blaggards comin’ down, lookin’ fer answers! It’s why I fled the oceans, settled here.”
“Settled here?” Michael repeated, voice cracking.
The basin was stirring, the foul black waters within beginning to roil as the homeless speaker ascended the stairs. Shedding his pants, the dirty skin rippled and flowed as if the man’s very vital fluids were fighting to burst from within him. His thighs were swollen, flushed in numerous spots while grey as stone in others. His arms, heavy with… fluids of some sort, while his face just sagged from his skull.
“I only seek what you seek from your pitiful life Michael,” The bum said, no longer the drunken drawl, now something far more primal, far more intelligent. “Peace.”
And with his final word, the old man split like an overripe melon, thick strips of flesh falling to the wayside as another translucent beast began peeling itself free from the tortured meat puppet the bum’s body had become. Michael didn’t even realize he was screaming until he felt the worm-like fingers crowd wrapping about his limbs, pushing in all around him, lifting him high into the air. Struggling in vain, Michael’s screams rose in pitch as several tentacles, black and veiny, rose from the fetid waste of the basin. Thick quills slid from the slime-covered appendages, slowly circling around what was once the old man, which seemed to have dropped to whatever it could call knees, arms raised high as if in rapture.
“Peace through isolation Michael,” the entity said within his mind, a slippery feeling like water dribbling through cracks, seeping deeper into his skull. “A peace that can only be maintained if you and your kind stay above ground.”
“W-w-we will!” Michael screamed, thrashing as best he could against the iron-clad constrictions holding him high in the air. “I swear to God, we’ll stay away from here! Just let me go, I have a wife and children!”
The bum-turned-nightmare began to shudder in ecstasy as the sharpened quills sank into its softened back, tearing it apart almost casually, revealing the writhing mass of black tendrils that nested within the twisted frame of the gelatinous monster. The crowd, moving in unison, slowly began passing Michael closer and closer to the opened mass of bile and blood, the stump of writhing black worms.
“I know you will stay away Michael, and I know of your child and mate,” The entity assured him as he drew ever closer to the basin. One thick tentacle slid forward, quills slowly receding into the limb as it gently wrapped about Michael’s naked torso, the freezing mucous seeming to sear his exposed skin away with merely a touch. “You’ll bring them to me, as a tithing to your new god. Don’t worry, I’m far more merciful than your false father who art in heaven; after all, I will deliver unto you the gift of eternal life, in exchange for your eternal servitude.”
Michael’s shrieks ended with but a sudden, and sickening, crack as the tentacle reared back from the expanse of sizzling flesh across Michael’s chest, bringing the sundered torso and worms closer to the wound, allowing the quivering mass to crawl along the ebon sinew and into their new home, in Michael’s chest. Michael stared in silent horror as the ruined mass of the former bum, split to the point where only one of its serpentine arms was still intact, reached forward and grasped him by the shoulder, pulling its own gaping wound closer to him to aid its internal parasites on their journey.
“Welcome to the fold Michael . . .” The entity whispered with a hiss into his mind, an unseen smile hidden in the words. “You have but a few weeks before you will prove to unstable for work on the surface; begin your new life by stopping the restoration of the subway system high above. And bring me your mate and child . . . I’ve not tasted the flesh of the unborn in nigh a century…”
The tentacle dropped Michael roughly atop the wide black altar before silently slithering back into the frothing waters of the wide basin, dragging with it the still twitching remains of the faceless monster that had tricked Michael into his descent to this Hell. He could feel the worms writhing within him, slowly working their way through his muscles and along his bones, slowly gaining control over his limbs as his body quickly went numb.
“It’s not bad . . .” One of the translucent nightmares gurgled to him, passing him his bundle of clothes. “It’s not bad . . .”
Michael may not have been the smartest man in the world, and now that he was watching his own body dress against his will, it kind of bothered him. After all, if he were smarter he may have never taken this god forsaken job.