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Darkness Swallows the Unwary

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Saul Peters was not a clever man, nor had his parents wasted much money on his education. In fairness to them, they had little enough to spend, and most of their funds were exercised in the mundane expenses involved in continuing to live. But what he had gained, in his brief exposure to proper English schooling, was a respect for modern science. He was perfectly unsuperstitious. He did not believe in fairies, or witches, or goblins, or any of the many little myths which his grandparents had told stories of. Science, he felt, had disproven them all, cast them all aside.

So when the natives of this island (who called themselves Dahan, and who Peters called ignorant savages, in an attitude which did nothing to distinguish him from any of the other colonists of New Dover) had warned him about what lurked in the jungles, he hadn't bothered to hide his contempt for their fearful attitude.

When your shadow shifts around you, they'd said, when it shimmers like water or flickers like flame, then you must beware. Retreat, find open ground, find sunlight. And be sure you do not run. If you run, it will chase you and catch you and no-one will ever see you again.

He had dismissed them, and he and his men had pushed into the jungle.

Some vines barred his path, and he slashed through them with his bayonet, and sneered. Truly, the natives here were cowards. It was no wonder that they hadn't had the wisdom to fully exploit the resources of the island - they had barely even mustered the courage to build their tiny villages. They were too overwhelmed by their fears, the imaginary dangers they had conjured up in their minds. They feared the lightning, the ocean, the spreading greenery, and above all they were afraid of the dark.

A sleepy snake looked up at him from a rock, and he crushed it under his boot with a sneer. Ah yes, the terrible jungle! How fearful!

There was a gunshot.

Before his conscious mind had absorbed the sound, he was striding through the undergrowth and shouting names. Each of his men obediently answered his call, until:

"Jeffries?"

There was silence.

"Jeffries, boy! Report!"

"Here, sir. Sorry."

The voice was close, and as he rounded a misshapen tree, he saw the boy - the youngest among them, and by far the least valuable member of the squad - reloading his rifle and looking entirely ashamed of himself, an attitude Peters was inclined to believe was appropriate.

"What did you do?"

"My, my hand slipped. On my gun, I mean. I caught it, so that's alright, but I got the trigger by mistake and it went off. At the tree. Sorry, sir."

"Damn right you're sorry." He'd've cuffed the boy around the head, if not for his helmet. "You could have shot any one of us, you little idiot! Keep the thing unloaded if you can't handle it like a man."

"Ah, don't be so hard on the boy, sir." Smith had wandered over, a lazy smile on his big, broad face. The big man had an attitude of casual disregard for authority, and wasn't what Peters would call a model soldier, but for all that he was glad to have him along. He kept the other men happy, and didn't make trouble. "We've all made mistakes as younguns."

"We didn't all risk killing our comrades." But he sighed. "Fine, keep it loaded, boy. But be more careful." Jeffries nodded, and hefted the gun back up again.

 

With that non-crisis resolved, the small squad resumed their push into the tangled green. They were making for the top of a hill that had been marked from town, a vantage point that might help them move deeper into the heart of the island. That meant that most of their journey this morning had been steadily uphill, with a few sharp descents in the uneven terrain. His legs had started aching after the first half-hour. Sweat was dripping down his back, mixing with the water that dripped off overhanging leaves. This whole island was absurdly damp - and hot, which as an Englishman, he found to be even more unpleasant. Even the valleys were too hot, perhaps because of the thickness of the trees, or perhaps all the water somehow kept it warm. Some parts of the ground even seemed to steam whenever a beam of sunlight flicked across them.

Finally they reached the top of another ridge, and a little more sun came trickling down through the sheltering leaves. Its warmth dried a few of the droplets on his face, and he allowed himself to pause to enjoy it.

Naturally, a cloud drifted across the sun, leaving him cold again. He growled in frustration, a low sound in the depths of his throat, and set his eyes again on the ground in front of him. The sunlight, what little remained of it, was playing with his shadow, making it play back and forth on the ground. With the leaves making their own shadows around his, it did look a little like fire. No wonder the superstitious natives were too afraid to come through this place.

He shook his head and scoffed, and took a few steps onwards, down into the next gully on the path to the peak, and the shadows flowed over him once again.

A sudden sound echoed through the air, and he stopped still.

It hadn't been a gunshot, nor a scream, nothing that would explain the alarm he'd felt on hearing it. It had been nothing but a sudden, heavy rustle of leaves and perhaps a slight trace of someone's voice, there and gone in the same moment.

He called out to his men again, one by one, and one by one they answered. Jeffries was there, so was Brand, then:

"Smith!"

Silence.

"Smith! Call out!"

The only noise was the dripping of old rain through the leaves.

"Answer me, damn your eyes!"

The seconds dragged by, and still Smith made no sound.

Grumbling, frustrated, Peters called his men to him, gathered them together in a dishevelled group. All the others were there - Jeffries looking young and nervous, Brand and Worthing looking bored, and Archer staring out at the trees as though he had personal vendettas against every one of them. And in that crowd, Smith was conspicuously absent.

"Anyone seen Smith?"

The men shook their heads. "Not since my gun went off," said Jeffries, and he acknowledged it with half of a nod.

"Right. Then we need to find him. Spread out and search the area, and yell if you find anything strange. Alright?"

The men nodded or grunted, and did as ordered, pushing out through the vines and calling out for Smith.

Peters moved as one of them, calling out regularly, cutting through any plants that got in his way. He hated the delay, but he couldn't leave anyone behind, and Smith least of all. The others all liked him, they'd never stand for it.

Something caught his eye, a glint of metal, and he took a couple of quick steps forwards and scooped it up. It was exactly what it had looked like - a bayonet, fixed to the barrel of a gun. That was all, though. The rest of the gun was gone, and the barrel now ended in splintered wood and shattered metal.

 

The men had gathered around him, and were arguing. Brand had dared to suggest that Smith must be dead, and Jeffries (in a quite uncharacteristic display of fortitude) had declared that they couldn't know that unless they found a body, and they had a duty to determine his fate for certain. Worthing had joined him in that opinion, and Archer had refused to be drawn one way or the other, so the row was growing louder and louder.

Peters knew he should intervene. But somehow, the sight of that broken weapon had transfixed him, holding his attention fast. He couldn't imagine what could have the strength to destroy one of their weapons like that. Anything with that sort of muscle could probably tear a man apart with ease - or make him disappear into the trees with barely a sound.

Jeffries was getting angrier and angrier. "Archer, if you've nothing to say, then you're a damned contemptible little coward, and Brand, you're worse than he is! Take yourselves back to town if you're afraid, and tell them what-"

"Quiet."

He was quiet, and looked to Peters.

"Brand is right. We've looked for Smith, and this is what we've found. The man is most likely dead."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you! You always hated him-"

"I liked him a damn sight better than I like you, boy! Now shut your fool mouth!"

The boy simmered down again, although the clench of his jaw suggested that he might lose control over it at any moment.

"We have a duty to more than just Smith. We're here to make this island safe for our countrymen, and that means we don't give up on our mission just because one of our men disappears. We claim that peak. Then we can go back, and tell the town what happened to Smith."

He stared around the group, meeting every man's eyes and making sure they acknowledged him. Jeffries was the last, and took the longest stare, but finally he nodded.

"Good. We've lost enough time, now. Let's get moving."

 

By some unspoken agreement, they were going faster than before, slashing their way through whatever stood before them. They were closer together than they had been, too, barely letting each other out of sight for long enough to step around a tree or squeeze between rocks. The jungle seemed more hostile now. Peters found himself looking for enemies lurking in the leaves, searching for something he could shoot.

Nothing obliged him. In fact, the jungle was even quieter than it had been, the animals that had previously braved the human noise now moving out of their way, their rustling receding into the distance. Even the birds seemed to be fleeing their path, flocks screeching at each other as they went. After no more than half an hour, the silence was utter, and the only sounds were of their own passage. Peters could pick out each of his men just by sound. Archer was the quietest, and Brand the loudest, his big body awkward in the dangling vines.

About midday, the clouds overhead finally broke into a thin rain, trickling warmly through the trees and turning the ground, already treacherous and uneven, into mud that slid underfoot and sucked noisily with every step, making the ache in his thighs that much worse. But he refused to be slowed down. That would be too much like surrendering to the will of this dreadful place. He told himself he'd die before he did that.

After an hour or so of trudging through the rain, they reached a sudden clearing, and Peters made a gesture to the other men, calling them to a halt. Slowly they came together, huddling under the insufficient shelter of one of the larger trees around the clearing's edge.

It was Brand who finally broke the silence. "Damn shame about Smith."

The others nodded or grunted, there being nothing that could meaningfully be added to that.

"How far do you think we are now?"

"Not too far," said Peters. "Perhaps a few more miles."

Jeffries nodded, in a fashion which would have been sage if not for his young, beardless face, and once more the only sound was the rain. It drummed on the ground, dripped through the trees, and splashed noisily into puddles. Peters stared blankly out at the clearing, where the water was cleaning dirt from the rocks that were scattered over the ground, making them smooth and slippery. Quietly, inaudibly, he cursed the rain. If not for the rain, he was certain they would already have made it to the peak, and named it to mark the occasion - Mount Peters had a very fine sound to it. If not for the rain, they would have completed their mission and been on their way back to safety. If not for the rain, he would not have to huddle under this tree, water dripping down every limb and leaving a sticky, filthy mess in its wake. If not for the rain...

As if in response to his curses, the rain started to slow, weakening and weakening and then...it stopped. The clouds moved and shredded themselves apart, and the sun stroked light over the clearing, light that sparkled in the pools of water and shone on the rocks and brightened the foliage until it could have been carved from emeralds. Even Peters had to admit it was beautiful, in that moment. Though he did not admit it aloud.

A clearer signal he could not have asked for. "Alright men, time we were moving on. Stick together through the clearing, and 'ware the rocks." Fitting action to his words, he struck out. He heard the others collect themselves and follow close behind. He had to resist the urge to look, but he locked his eyes to the ground and slowly pushed his way forwards. At least there were no plants to cut through. A small mercy, that. One of the men slipped, and was caught by his fellows, splashing for only a moment before they steadied each other. Neither man called out, and so Peters affected not to hear their struggles. It felt kinder.

He kept moving, one foot after another, and his men did the same. The other edge of the clearing was close, now, and the dark of the trees reached out to embrace them once again.

There was a shout. Archer's voice. Peters whirled, to see the man, usually so stoic, readying a shaking rifle at the trees ahead of them.

"What are you doing, man? Put that away!"

"Did you see it!?"

"See what?"

"In the trees!"

He turned again, looked closely, but there was nothing. "There's nothing there, Archer. Put up your damned rifle."

"Didn't you see it?" The man was getting frantic now, and the others were getting unnerved, gathering behind him and staring into the trees. Worthing asked: "What did you see?"

"He didn't see anything, Worthing! There's nothing!"

"It was...something huge. Taller than a man, and fast."

"Was it an animal?"

"I..." he trailed off, and Peters seized his moment.

"I'm telling you, it was nothing. The jungle is dark and your eyes are playing tricks." He thought about saying more, dismissed the thought, and walked away into the trees. The darkness wrapped around him again, and it was almost pleasant after the heat of the sunlight. It was still far too hot, of course, but he would have to take what he could get. He heard a couple of sharp mutters, and then some footsteps, movements scurrying over rock and through mud, catching up almost to his shoulders. He smiled and didn't look back.

"Sir?" It was Worthing's voice, close and quiet enough that the others, walking close though they were, couldn't overhear. "Sorry sir, I was trying to figure out what had happened."

"That's alright, Worthing."

"Never known Archer to be wrong about something like this."

"Well, everyone makes mistakes."

"Suppose you're right, sir."

He took a few steps ahead as the path sloped down, stepped under a low branch, and...

What happened next, Peters didn't quite see. It looked as if a thin shadow of a vine or a branch cast itself over Worthing's shoulder. Then it twisted and wriggled, and Worthing froze.

"Sir?"

"Worthing?"

"Can you see...is there something on-"

The dark shape moved. It snapped tight around Worthing's throat, and his voice cut off into a choke. Peters rushed forwards - too late. Before he'd taken more than two steps, his man's body had been hauled into the air, behind a thick curtain of leaves.

"Worthing!" Brand had surged towards them, crashing through the brush, and Peters had to hold up a hand. "Be quiet!"

In the stillness, they could hear the sounds of struggling above them, of a man desperately trying to breathe. Then there came a hideous cracking, and the noise stopped.

Jeffries said: "Do you think he's...?"

The body dropped from the trees. Even with half a glance, Peters could tell the man was dead. His neck had been broken, twisted almost all the way around, and his limbs were stuck out at hideously twisted angles.

The young man let out a shriek of fright and dropped his gun, taking off into the jungle at a dead run.

Good riddance, thought Peters, and dismissed the boy from his mind. He'd raised his gun, aiming it at the part of the canopy that the noise had come from. His finger wanted to fire, even blind into the trees, but he restrained it. He'd only have one shot. He couldn't waste it.

Brand and Archer were at his shoulders, and he could see the tips of their rifles at the edges of his vision. Those two, at least, were stout-hearted enough to be relied upon. The three of them stared into the canopy, guns steady and still, waiting for any movement. A slow breeze came through the leaves, and branches swayed, but Peters and his men were still, and eventually it passed, and the swaying stopped.

"Spread out," he ordered, voice low. "Try and get another angle on the thing. But stay in sight of each other."

Archer moved left, and Brand to the right, while Peters took a couple of steps forward, almost directly under the canopy where Worthing had been killed. The leaves were still moving ever so slightly in the faintest trace of wind, and he squinted close, trying to spot anything out of place. His breathing was slow and steady, with the patience of an experienced hunter.

Brand screamed, and Peters whirled to see him disappearing downhill, through a few low shrubs and out of sight. Peters raced towards it, bracing himself to hear the screaming stop, hear those ugly strangling sounds. But they didn't come. The screaming receded a little - not far, perhaps a few dozen feet. Close enough to catch up. He barrelled through the bushes, crashed out into a sudden clearing, and then-

A hand caught his shoulder, and he swung an instinctive fist directly into Archer's face, making the man stagger backwards. He blinked in shock.

"Archer! What the devil are you playing at?"

"Sir, look!" He pointed at the ground where Peters had been just about to step - or rather, its absence. There, right in front of him, the ground fell away into a narrow, quick-flowing stream.

"The rain must have raised it. Stream like that's a killer when it's moving this fast."

"Never mind why the damned stream looks like it does! This thing, whatever's taken Brand - it knew we'd come after it. It was baiting us. The bloody thing's baiting us!"

Archer nodded. "What do we do, sir?"

He ground his teeth, but it was clear enough. "We cross the stream. We find Brand, and set him free if we can. And we kill whatever bastard thinks they can do this to good Englishmen."

With that statement, he turned to take another look at the water that stood between him and the captive Brand, whose screams were still echoing raggedly through the trees. It looked dangerous, no doubt about that, but it was narrow enough...he took a couple of steps back, then dashed forwards and leaped into the air. His landing was clumsy, and he stumbled, recovered, and turned back to Archer. "Now you."

The slender man barely even needed a run up, just hurled himself across and landed lightly on his feet. Peters nodded, trying not to be too impressed, and turned again to face the treeline. A couple of steps took him into the leaves, over thick roots and up the slope. Those screams were getting fainter now, weakening, but they still sounded close. The echos made it hard to tell how near exactly. He glanced to Archer, whose jaw was set as he advanced. He returned Peters' gaze, and nodded. "Not far now. Think he'll be just past these next trees."

"Alright. Go carefully."

Another nod, and he led the way, stepping carefully as he could, avoiding the mud by stepping on rocks and roots. Peters followed him as exactly as he could. One wrong step now might end everything. Once more Archer pushed past leaves, with Peters right behind, and after a moment's resistance they were through - and there was Brand.

He was lying face down on the ground, hands underneath his chest as though he'd been trying to push himself up or haul his body forwards, but if it had been either of those, he'd clearly given up. His screams had diminished, too, into a painful wheeze with every breath. And now they could see the cause of those screams. Both of his legs, about halfway up the thigh, had been speared to the ground by rough, thick branches. He made a pitiful sight.

Archer walked out towards him, his mind clearly intent on rescue, and one of his footsteps fell on a noisier patch of leaves. Brand flinched and looked up, and a look of horror flashed over his face. He flung out a hand. "No, stop! It's a trap!"

The warning came too late. With a wet crack, one of the trees sharply fell towards them. Archer barely had time to scream before he was crushed beneath its trunk.

Then the trunk started to slide and roll in the mud, coming fast towards Peters. He took two quick steps backwards, then the third took him into one of the raised roots and he tumbled down into the dirt and rolled down the slope, arms struggling to get a purchase on the loose earth. One arm slapped out and drew tracks into the mud, and for a fraction of a second he dared hope that he could catch himself.

Then the ground ran out, he was dropping into the water, the landing knocked half the air from his chest, the water closed over his head, his vision went black.

 

The quick-flowing water spat him out onto a muddy little bank, where he wheezed and dripped for a moment, eyes still squeezed shut, until finally he regained his breath and his senses, and opened his eyes.

There, lying on the dirt beside him, was Jeffries' body. The boy still looked terrified. Peters supposed that his run had taken him into the same quick river, and he'd been unprepared for it, unable to hold his breath long enough to survive. He bent over, and spat onto the boy's face.

"Coward. I'm sure the devil has a nice place picked out for your soul."

Then he sniffed. There was something in the air, something unexpected...smoke. Wood smoke. Someone nearby had a fire going.

Fire meant people, and - even if they were Dahan - people might mean safety. It was a better bet than just lying on the river bank, anyway. He picked himself up, hefted his rifle, and walked towards the smell. Slowly, now. Carefully.

The walk took him a little way downhill, and under an overhang into a sheltered little grotto. The trees were more widely spaced, the ground not so uneven, and he thought to himself that if the whole walk had been this pleasant, they'd have had a much easier day of it. But no use wishing. The smoke smell was still ahead, and he followed it around a bend in the dirt wall, further down. The walls were higher now, enough to cast the whole place into a deeper darkness. It was a strange place for anyone to make camp. Perhaps when he met them, he would tell them so.

One more bend in the valley, and there it was before him. The fire was burning low in a pit, the smoke billowing thickly up and out into the air. There was no other sign of people anywhere.

He stepped closer - slowly, carefully. Something about this place didn't seem right. And the fire...he looked into the pit, and there it was, just a smouldering heap of old coals. Somehow it was smoking enthusiastically despite having barely any fuel.

The smoke blew into his eyes and his throat, and he stepped back, coughing. A few blinks cleared the tears away, and he looked up again. His eyes narrowed. It seemed as if there was something there, hidden behind the smoke...something enormous, its edges shimmering like a flame...

Burning red eyes opened, five of them, and stared down into his own. Their gaze was alien, and hateful, and hungry.

He backed up a step, then another, and the thing moved towards him, its movements keeping pace with his own. Enormous arms stretched out, reaching towards him, dark fingers twisting and writhing and winding...

He turned and ran, stumbling, moving more quickly than he ever had in his life, as fast as his body could move.

But the thing in the smoke was faster.