Chapter 9

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The thing with torches was that they didn't give you a directed beam of light, but shone in all directions, including your eyes. Even if you didn't burn your own eyebrows, you were still blinding yourself, instead of the little pests hiding in the shadows.

Burke held his torch higher and tried to get the scope of the place, but outside their circle of light lay only a fathomless darkness - no walls, no ceiling. For the sake of this mission - and his sanity - he assumed this place had been something like a parking garage. At least that's what the entrance had looked like. Of course, it could also just be a wrong association his brain made, looking for a familiar pattern to identify this place.

Galen was beside him, torch in one hand, rod in the other, tense and silent. Burke could smell the blood that was coating his fur, which meant that the critters could smell it, too, if the torchlight wasn't enough to alert them to their presence. He hoped that they wouldn't react by dragging Zana deeper into their lair while sending a platoon their way to delay them, or kill them off. Swarm intelligence wasn't sufficient to think up strategies like that, right?

He banished those thoughts and lowered the torch again to follow Zana's trail towards the back of the deck. There were footprints in the blood, vaguely human, but much smaller.

She shouldn't have been losing so much blood at that point anymore.

He didn't mention that to Galen, just quickened his steps.

The first attack came from above, aimed for his face.

He batted the thing away with his torch before he even registered something was coming his way. The torch left a flaming trail in the darkness, and the afterglow blinded his vision with a neon-green smear over his retinas. He was effectively blind, the torch was just a weapon now, like the knife in his right hand, fire and steel.

Burke stabbed into the black air and felt the blade penetrate a too-thin skull. He hadn't even heard that one move, it was just instinct, sensing the thing's presence.

Suddenly he and Galen were moving inside a curtain of hissing and rattling sounds, coming at them from all directions at once, as menacing as it was disorienting. Galen's rod was singing in the darkness, and their torches cut crackling arcs of gold through it, spitting sparks where they collided with the attacking creatures.

And then Galen was screaming and screaming, and in the torchlight, Burke saw that the things were hanging on his back like a clump of huge, white ants, scrabbling for his neck. He whirled around and plunged his knife into the writhing cluster, sliced it through the bodies, warm fluid gushing over his hands, and told himself it's blood, just fucking blood, 'cause everything else would've been just too damn disgusting, and then he burned the last critter off before it could gnaw through Galen's jugular.

Galen gagged, whether from disgust or because the things had held him in a chokehold, Burke couldn't tell. He cut his torch through the black air in a wide half-circle, batting on its path against two or three bodies hidden in the darkness, and followed the motion with his whole body until he felt Galen's drenched robe against his back.

They were taking care now to keep guarding each other this way, standing back to back, stabbing and slashing with their torches, and their weapons, inching their way across the deck. Burke was dimly aware that at their current speed, their chances of finding Zana before these things had dragged her to the deepest level of their lair were dwindling dramatically, but there was nothing he could do. There were simply too many of them, surrounding them, attacking relentlessly, totally unfazed by the fate of their fellow creeps.

Finally, Galen had to light a new torch on the old one, and out of whatever intuition threw the glowing stump towards the back of the hall. It painted a red arc into the black void, and then it fell...

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