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Cooper is one hell of a Hunter, but this job takes a personal toll on even the best of us. Sometimes a Hunter has to step away from the company for various reasons, but everybody still has to make a living somehow. —A.L.

Darkness Under the Mountain

Mike Kupari

The narrow ribbon of highway cut a straight line through otherwise uninhabited terrain. Rocky desert stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction. The rugged, uneven terrain was broken by steep hills and barren cliffs. My nose was clogged with fine, talcum-powderlike dust even though the road was paved. The sights and smells brought back memories. It had been a long time since I’d last been to Afghanistan, but at that moment it was like I’d never left.

I sat in the passenger’s seat of a white Toyota Land Cruiser, part of a five-vehicle convoy speeding down the lonely Afghan highway. At the wheel was Cheng, our driver and interpreter. I guess he was fluent in Pashtun and English as well as his native Mandarin. His English was perfect, as a matter of fact, with no hint of an accent. He’d been provided by the Chinese mining company that was paying for this little expedition. He seemed personable enough, but I was positive he was a spy for the Chinese government.

Behind me was my old buddy Barb. His real name was Anthony Vincent Barbarino, and I knew him way back from Naval School, Explosive Ordnance Disposal. We’d come up through Air Force EOD together.

“This is kind of weird,” he said, scanning the horizon through Oakleys.

I nodded in agreement. “It’s weird being back here after so long.”

“For you, maybe. I deployed to the ’Stan again after you went back to your weekend warrior bullshit. I was just here a couple years ago. I meant it’s weird driving down an Afghan highway in an unarmored truck.”

“Yeah.” Both of us were habitually scanning the edges of the road, looking for the telltale signs of hidden IEDs.

Cheng looked over at me briefly, the horizon reflected in his mirrored aviator sunglasses. “Mr. Cooper, I assure you this road is quite safe. We haven’t had any problems with terrorists in almost a year.”

We were in a remote part of Afghanistan that had been quiet throughout most of the war. The road we were on had been originally paved by the International Security Assistance Force, paid for mostly by American tax dollars, but now was maintained by the Chinese. The region was rich in minerals and several Chinese-owned companies were pulling ore out of the ground, following the veins deeper and deeper into the earth.

“It is not dangerous malcontents that you need to be concerned with, Mr. Cooper,” Cheng continued. “There are worse things skulking about.”

“Yeah,” I said hesitantly. Talking to anyone who wasn’t a Hunter or MCB about this sort of thing made me uncomfortable. It was all authorized, of course. The job I’d been hired for was approved by both the State Department and the Monster Control Bureau, but I didn’t know Cheng.

“I was there, too,” Barb said. “It was crazy. Zombies—actual, no shit zombies. Coop’s team and mine were both in this village with an Army platoon and a company of ANA. It was this big operation to clear out the Taliban. There were insurgents and IEDs all over the place.”

“A lot of guys got killed,” I said grimly. “Mostly Afghans, but a few Americans, too. Then shit started to get weird. The next morning the dead insurgents were gone. Most of the villagers were, too. Then this woman in a burka attacks an ANA officer, bites his throat out.”

“She started eating him, right there in the road!” Barb said. “The ANA freaked out and ran. The Army guys shot her to pieces. She didn’t stay down until they hit her in the head.”

“We had been dropped off by a helicopter, and after the Army platoon leader reported what happened, they wouldn’t send another out to get us. We were told to find a defensible position and maintain radio silence until we were contacted. They left us out there for two fucking days while zombies killed off most of the remaining villagers. By nightfall of the second day, the compound we were holed up in was surrounded; there had to be hundreds of them. There were more of them than there were villagers in that town, so it must’ve been more widespread than that.”

“It would seem that you managed to escape intact,” Cheng said. “You were fortunate. I have read reports of this incident. Your government’s attempts to cover it up weren’t as effective as they might think.”

“Yeah, after they got us out they carpet-bombed a few villages. Just leveled them with B-52 strikes. They wouldn’t do that to the Taliban for risk of civilian casualties, but they’d do it to zombies. It was bullshit.”

“Were you recruited by Monster Hunter International shortly after this incident?”

“No. We all got debriefed by some asshole from the government. Monster Control Bureau, actually, but we didn’t know that at the time. We were told it was classified and that any mention of the incident would land us in prison.”

“How did you come to be recruited by MHI, then?”

“The zombie attack wasn’t my last encounter with weird things. I was on a road trip after getting home and…the darkness found me again.”

“Someday you need to tell me that story,” Barb said.

“Someday.” The winged, batlike thing I’d encountered on a lonely stretch of highway, holed up in a rest stop, used some form of psychic manipulation to lure unsuspecting motorists into its lair. It still gave me nightmares. It didn’t just get a look into my mind; I got a look into its, and the cruel malice of the thing shook me to my core. I didn’t like talking about it. “But yeah, that second incident got me a job offer. The first one was hushed up. I don’t even think I’m supposed to be talking about it now, but fuck ’em. Barb here stayed in the Air Force. I went back to Reserve duty after getting home.”

“Are you still in the military?” Cheng asked.

“No, I left the Reserves a couple years ago. Barb just separated. Got sick of the bullshit, just like me.”

Barb shrugged. “So what are we up against here? When Coop called me for this, I figured it was zombies again. Is it zombies again?”

“It would seem not,” Cheng said. “You’ll get a full briefing when we get in. I trust it won’t be anything you can’t handle. Monster Hunter International has a very good reputation, and you worked for them for several years.”

“I’m freelance now,” I said and left it at that.

Cheng actually smiled. “All the better. More money for you.” He pointed ahead to a lonely, rocky mountain in the distance. “That is our destination.”

The sun was sinking toward the western horizon as we arrived at the mine site at the base of a lonely mountain. The China Metallurgical Group Corporation had a sprawling complex in the shadow of that rocky peak, an entire town built to house hundreds of Chinese workers and engineers. The grunt work was done by Afghans from the nearby villages, but few of them were in evidence at the boomtown.

Barb and I found ourselves sitting alone in a conference room, wondering when Cheng was going to get back with our briefing. We’d seen no sign of him for over fifteen minutes and were getting sick of waiting. One wall of the conference room had a flat screen TV, thankfully muted, that was showing the news from China.

“How are things with Amber?” he asked, after a long silence. “You haven’t said one word about her on this whole trip. You guys okay?”

I took a deep breath. “She moved back in with her mom a couple months back. We’re still, you know, married, but I don’t hear from her much. I expect to have divorce papers waiting for me when I get home.”

“Shit, dude, I’m sorry. I guess…well, you guys got married kind of on a whim. You’d known her for what—a week? It was Vegas. It probably wasn’t going to work out.”

Barb didn’t know what Amber and I had gone through together. We weren’t supposed to talk about the incident at the Last Dragon Hotel in Las Vegas, even though the MCB hardly managed to contain that mess. She was younger than me by a few years, a UNLV student who worked at Hooters part-time.

“It’s my fault,” I said glumly. “The company…Monster Hunter International…had me assigned in Seattle. After the, uh, mess in Vegas, I was supposed to go back. Amber didn’t want to pack up and move. She was in her third year of nursing school. I requested a transfer to the Vegas branch. They said no, so I quit.”

Quitting MHI was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Even more so than the military, I’d considered those Hunters to be my brothers. Being honest, I hated Seattle, and my team leader, Esmeralda Paxton, wasn’t my favorite person (the feeling is mutual, I’m sure), but monster hunting is the best job in the world.

“What happened, then?”

“You have no idea how hard it is to go from monster hunting to working a day job. I found work doing range clearance at Nellis. Decent money, nice and safe, and I was home every night. I guess I wasn’t happy, though, and Amber could tell. We started to fight a lot. She said I wasn’t the same person. She said I shouldn’t have quit my job, and I told her I quit it for her, and she got mad at me for throwing it in her face.”


“Yeah. So I started looking for freelance hunter jobs. I…look, people don’t usually quit MHI. It’s a family-owned company. Tight-knit bunch. I couldn’t go begging for my job back, so I looked at the market. Paranormal Tactical out of L.A. is hiring, but fuck those guys. Also, I kind of got into a fistfight with their lawyer.”

You got into a fight?”

“He was a UFC fighter, I guess. I held my own.” Okay, that was a lie, I got my ass kicked, but Barb didn’t need to know that.

Before I could say anything else, Cheng walked in, followed by two other Chinese. One was a middle-aged man in a plain, tan suit. The other was a very attractive woman, probably mid-thirties, in a tight-fitting business suit. Her skirt was a little short and her heels were a little high for typical office attire. Cheng was still dressed in an olive green shirt and tan cargo pants.

“I apologize for making you wait, gentlemen,” he said. “This is Mr. Wu and Ms. Liu, with the China Metallurgical Group.”

Wu and Liu. Hilarious.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Cooper,” Ms. Liu said in heavily accented English. “You as well, Mr. Barbarino.” She pronounced Barb’s name as BAR-bree-no.

“I hope you can help,” Mr. Wu said. “Production has all but stopped due to the…the…creatures.”

“Tell me everything,” I said, taking out a notepad and pen, and Wu started to tell his story. Like dwarves, it seemed the China Metallurgical Group had delved too greedily, and too deep, because they stirred up some shit that was now terrorizing the locals. I was shown a cell phone picture of a creature that looked feminine and humanoid, but hideous. Its skin was gray and its eyes were shiny and red.

“Our security personnel managed to wound this one,” Wu said. “We thought it dead, but when we came back later to recover the body, it was gone.”

“You didn’t use silver-core ammunition,” I said. “They heal quickly unless you use silver.”

Wu nodded and continued. After the creatures appeared, the Afghan miners refused to work. A local militia had showed up to try to protect the villages in the area from the things that came in the night, with limited success.

“These…things…seem to prey mostly on women and children. Several pregnant women in the surrounding villages were attacked, viciously. They have claws and fangs like steel. They…” Cheng paused, tapping on the screen of his iPad briefly. “Well, see for yourself.”

“Holy shit,” Barb said, looking at the gory mess on display.

My stomach turned. “Jesus Christ, is that…is that what I think it is?”

“I’m afraid so,” Cheng said. “They rip the fetuses out of the wombs of mothers. They have also carried off children. Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Barb looked at me, wide-eyed. “Yeah, have you?”

I frowned. “No, but give me a second.” I retrieved my laptop from my pack and pulled up the monster encyclopedia on there, glad I didn’t erase it like I was technically, legally required to do when I quit MHI. I typed and clicked for a few moments, then turned the laptop around so the others could see. “I think this is what we’re dealing with.”

Ms. Liu turned white. Mr. Wu started to sweat. “What is that…that thing?”

“It’s called an Al. They’ve been reported in Afghanistan, Iran, and as far west as Armenia for centuries. There are several variations on the legend, and as with most monsters, none of the legends quite get the facts right. The Persian legend, for example, says that the Al have hog- or piglike features, including fur and tusks, but that isn’t the case. What is true is that they attack women, especially pregnant women, and prey on children.”

Ms. Liu looked horrified. “But why?”

I shrugged. “Who the hell knows? I don’t pretend to understand the why of any of this. One legend has it that God created the Al as Adam’s first consort, but he couldn’t deal with her inhuman drama or whatever, and they’ve hated human women ever since.”

“That’s preposterous,” Wu said.

“And yet here we are, talking about monsters that attack women and eat babies. So, what now?”

Wu and Liu looked at each other nervously. Cheng said something to them in Mandarin, then looked at me. “Please forgive my compatriots. This is, you must understand, a touchy subject. Officially, the Communist Party of China denies that the supernatural or paranormal exists. Discussion of such things is, you might say, strongly discouraged.”

“I’m guessing that’s why I’m here and not a Chinese hunter team?”

“Something like that,” Mr. Wu said. “Political considerations. We are…if I may be forthcoming, we are trying to handle this in-house. If production is halted much longer, I’ll have no choice but to call back to China for help, and there might be…well, I’d like to avoid that.”

“I imagine so.”

“Our miners seem to have opened a nest deep beneath the earth, where these things may be coming from. The ground here is full of natural cave systems, and it is not known how deep or widespread they are.”

“If they can travel underground in caves and dig their way out, that would explain how they’re sneaking up on these villages,” Barb said.

Now he was thinking. I’d make a monster hunter of him yet. “I think you’re onto something.”

Cheng nodded. “Agreed. One report said the creatures climbed out of a well in a village several kilometers from here. They only come in the dark of night, and can reportedly move quite swiftly over open terrain. We need you two to find their nest and kill them.”

“Well, we’ll do our best, but that will be a challenge with just two guys.”

“You’ll have the assistance of our security personnel.”

“That’s good,” I said, “but the hard part will be finding the nest.”

“We suspect it’s in one of the caves that connects to our south tunnel,” Cheng said. “It was during the expansion of this tunnel that the creatures first appeared.”

“Wait,” Barb said, looking confused. “You think they were just hiding underground for however long until this mining operation found them? How could they survive down there? Where did they come from?”

“You need to understand…” I trailed off, looking at everyone in the room. “You all need to understand. We are dealing with unearthly forces. They spawn and multiply in dark places. They come from other…realities, other dimensions, whatever you want to call it. Someplace else. They’re not beholden to the laws of nature, and they are not a product of natural evolution. They’re not like wild animals; they are malevolent. They are evil. They seek out people to hunt and kill, and for all that we’ve learned about them, we don’t really understand their motivations aside from the fact that they seem to enjoy it. You’ll go crazy trying to wrap your brain around this stuff. Don’t overthink it. All that matters is that they’re mortal, and they can be killed. They feel fear, too, and we’re going to show these things what it’s like to be hunted.” I looked up at Cheng. “I’ll need a little bit of time to get a plan together. I need maps of the mine tunnels, too.”

“We have used seismic refraction and other techniques to map out the cave systems to some extent,” Wu injected.

“Good, I can use those too. Cheng, I’ll come up with a plan with my partner here, and when I’m ready, I’ll brief the security guys that are going with us. Can you be there to translate? Do they speak English?”

“I will be there, Mr. Cooper,” Cheng said. “I’m going with you as well. I have been assigned to protect you. That assignment doesn’t end when you go underground.”

“Okay then, you’ll want to stay for this. Were they able to get the equipment I requested?”

“Most of it, yes,” Cheng assured me. “Including the flamethrower. The silver-cored ammunition was the most difficult item to acquire, I’m told.”

My own gear had been flown to Afghanistan with me. Being on an officially sanctioned international hunting job made getting certain things through customs more feasible than it would have otherwise been, even if it did entail an ungodly amount of paperwork. Getting the necessary approval from the MCB, the State Department, Customs, and the ATF had taken months. “Good. Have a sit-down and let’s get started.”

* * *

If you’ve never been underground, you’ve never experienced true darkness. The mine tunnels, cool and slightly damp, offered no natural light. They were lined with electric lighting for the workers, but in areas that light didn’t reach, the darkness was foreboding. Oppressive. Abysmal in a way you never experience aboveground.

It wasn’t just the natural unease that comes from being in a deep, dark place. After you hunt monsters for a while, you begin to get a feel for the places they like to lurk in. It’s a combination of experience, subconscious cues, and gut instinct that helps keep you alive. An experienced explosive ordnance disposal technician gets a similar sense for improvised explosive devices and areas where they might be placed.

Long story short, this tunnel was giving me the professional heebie-jeebies. The air was musty, but beyond the natural smells of earth and stone I caught a whiff of something fouler. Just a hint, then it was gone.

The other members of my ersatz monster hunting crew seemed to share the sense of danger as well. Cheng, dressed in fatigues, armor, and sporting a Chinese clone of an M4 carbine equipped with a bright weapon light, seemed calm but on alert. The four Chinese security contractors with him were decidedly out of their element. Three of them were equipped with weapons similar to Cheng’s, and the fourth had a flamethrower with a backpack-mounted fuel tank.

Barb and I were kitted out, too. I’d had us both fitted for new purpose-designed monster hunting armor vests. They didn’t provide the level of coverage that MHI’s suits did, but were lighter, offered you better mobility, and most importantly, were a lot cheaper. They were made of a combination of flexible ballistic and stab-resistant materials, protecting you from claws, teeth, blades, and gunfire. In front and back were hard plates that would stop a .30-06 round, spears, knives, or just about anything else some unholy beastie might come at you with. Over the armor we wore load-bearing vests covered in magazine pouches, first aid stuff, you name it.

We had both brought our personal weapons with us. I scrounged up a few boxes of silver-cored .45 for Barb’s 1911, and I had plenty of the MHI-issue .308 stashed away for my SR-762 rifle. Barb had some kind of high-end custom AR carbine. Both of our weapons were equipped with Aimpoints and bright lights. Our packs were both loaded with explosives, a mix of military-grade Semtex and good old-fashioned TNT, provided by our hosts. They had been a little hesitant to provide it, fearing we’d cause the mine to cave in or something, but I wanted every possible tool in my toolbox.

We were in a huge, semicircular main tunnel, reinforced with wood and steel and bathed in amber lighting. It was easily big enough to drive a five-ton truck down. We were probably almost a mile below the surface now, and the tunnel was still angling downward slightly. Down its center ran narrow-gauge railroad tracks, presumably to haul ore out to the lifts that made the long climb to the surface. The tunnel ended abruptly about fifty meters ahead of us. A truck-sized contraption on steel tracks was parked at the very end. As we came to a halt, the contractors fanned out to provide security from both directions of the tunnel.

“That is the borer,” Cheng observed. “This is where they ceased operations on this tunnel. It was after those things were discovered.”

“There’s nothing here,” Barb said.

“There wouldn’t be,” I pointed out. “I can almost guarantee they know we’re here. They can hear us breathing and smell us a mile away. They wouldn’t hang around in a well-lit area like this. They’ll be waiting in some dark corner. Keep your eyes open, and don’t forget to look up. Some tunnel-dwelling critters like to drop down on unsuspecting marks from above.”

Barb nodded his understanding. “Where do we go from here?”

Cheng studied the screen of a tablet computer for a few moments. He looked up and pointed. “That way. There is a side tunnel, and an exploratory shaft, that extend off to our right for about a hundred meters. This tunnel ends where the miners found the cave system. They were attacked and fled.”

“Just how many of these things are there?” Barb asked.

“We don’t know,” Cheng admitted.

“Super,” I muttered. “Let’s go then.” I paused as I came to the mouth of the side tunnel. It was smaller, just big enough for three men to walk down abreast, but was pitch-black. “Cheng, what happened to the lights?”

“I don’t know. The last report said that the lights were still…” He fell silent. “Did you hear that?” I had. It was a scratching sound, like claws on stone, coming from the darkened tunnel. Cheng, Barb and I brought our weapons up simultaneously, flooding the tunnel with bright white light.

There were three of them. They scuttled up the tunnel at us on all fours, but froze when the light hit them. Red eyes shined back at us. Their skin was gray and leathery. Black, matted, ropelike hair hung from their heads, accentuating their vaguely feminine features. Each had an unnaturally wide jaw, hanging open in a ghastly smile, filled with pointed teeth. Their hands and feet were tipped with long yellow claws.

Cheng swore in English, which I thought was odd. One of his security contractors screamed. I brought my rifle to my shoulder and opened fire on the closest one. Heavy, silver-cored .308 slugs tore through her. Black ichor splashed on the tunnel walls as she screeched a death rattle. Barb and Cheng opened fire an instant later, their smaller 5.56mm weapons adding to the head-rattling sound of gunfire in the tunnel. Barb fired upward; one of the Al had been crawling up the ceiling like some kind of enormous bug. It shrieked and dropped to the floor as it died. The last one was hit several times, but stood up on its legs and bolted into the darkness.

Just like that, it was over. Fifteen seconds, maybe, from contact to cease-fire. Echoes of gunfire rumbled throughout the tunnels for a moment longer; then it was quiet. My hearing was amplified by electronic earpro, but all I could hear was the ragged breathing of my teammates.

“Everyone okay?” I asked, removing the half-empty magazine from my rifle and placing it in my pocket. “Cheng, check your men. I think they crapped their pants.” I slammed a fresh magazine home and turned to Barb. “You okay, bro?”

He was wide-eyed and still had his carbine pointed down the tunnel. His light, bobbing slightly with his breathing, was fixated on the two dead Al, and the trail of black blood the third had left as it retreated down the tunnel. “Y-yeah,” he managed, looking at me a moment later. “That was intense.”

I grinned. “Hell, yeah, we’re in the shit now. Congrats, bro, you just got your monster hunting cherry popped.” I turned to Cheng. “Your guys okay?”

He nodded in the affirmative. He had been berating Flamethrower Guy, the one who screamed.

“Okay, tell ’em to move out. I want three pulling rear security, and Flamethrower Guy up here with me. Tell him if he sees anything moving ahead of us in the tunnel, burn the motherfuckers. Don’t hesitate, don’t wait for me to tell him to fire, just burn ’em. Okay, follow me. We got us a trail, hopefully lead us back to their lair.”

We proceeded down the side tunnel cautiously, lights illuminating the way. I had Barb snapping chemlights and leaving them on the floor, leaving a visible trail should we somehow get turned around or lose our lights. Using bright lights and fire easily gave our position away, but they were an advantage. Cave dwellers like the Al can see in the dark. Their eyes are so sensitive that our lights would blind them, hopefully get a deer-in-the-headlights reaction like we did before. Plus, almost all foul, unearthly things feared fire.

We were still descending as well. The exploratory shaft angled downward a few degrees. It was cold enough down there that our breath misted. The electric lights strung along the shaft had all been ripped down, probably by the Al. Up ahead, illuminated by very bright tactical lights, I could see the end of the tunnel, where it opened up into a natural cave system. As we approached, the air changed, becoming damper and fouler. We were definitely close. Somewhere, echoing off in the distance, the sounds of water running could be heard, or maybe felt through the stone. There was an underground river down here, somewhere, probably undiscovered by man until now.

The entrance to the cave was barely big enough for a man to pass through. There was another, smaller boring machine parked at the end, left where it had been abandoned. “All right,” I said, turning to the team. “This is the perfect place for an ambush. Do you guys smell that? I think that’s their lair.”

“How do you wish to proceed?” Cheng asked.

“Do your men have grenades? Good. Tell them I want two frags tossed in, one right after the other. Then, I want Flamethrower Guy to stick the muzzle of his Zippo in that hole and give a good long burn, sweeping side to side. As soon as he pulls back, crack open a couple flares and toss ’em in. Then I’m going in first. Barb, I want you right behind me. Cheng, you next. Take one of your guys. Leave the other two out here for rear security. Leave the dude with the flamethrower, he’s bulky and might get hung up on the rocks in there.” Cheng quickly relayed my instructions to his team as I took off my pack and set it down. “Everybody ready? Let’s do this.”

Cheng’s men moved with precision. Two from the rear came forward, fragmentation grenades in hand. The first shouted what I’m assuming was Mandarin for “frag out” and tossed his grenade in. The second followed suit an instant later. We all turned away from the opening to the cave. BOOM BOOM! The double concussion of the blast rocked the tunnel, kicking up dust and causing dirt to fall from the ceiling. Even with hearing protection in place, it left the ears ringing just a little.

Flamethrower Guy didn’t miss a beat. He stepped forward and, leaning downward a little, let off a long blast from his weapon into the cave. A high-pitched, unearthly shriek came from inside the cave, enough to chill a man to the bone. We’d gotten at least one of the damned things anyway.

“He says he burned one!” Cheng told me, as he tossed a couple of red flares into the cave entrance.

“Outstanding,” I said, readying my weapon. “Let’s do this. Barb, you come in right after me. Move, move, move!” You can’t hesitate in a situation like this. Whatever things were still alive in there, hesitating only gave them time to regroup or retreat. If they crawled away into the cave system, we might never find them. I crouched down, weapon first, and jumped down into the cave. The entrance was a couple of feet above a damp stone floor.

It was quiet, save the snapping, crackling, and popping of the burning Al on the floor a few feet ahead of me. The stench, the smoke, the burning hair and flesh, the unnatural stink of unnatural things, it was enough to make even an experienced hunter gag. One other Al was dead on the floor, closer to the entrance, but as I swept the cave with my weapon light, those two were all that I could see.

Barb slid down into the cave a second later, taking up a position next to me. “Nice entrance, Leeroy Jenkins.” He was followed by Cheng, who gagged at the stench.

The cave itself was big, probably fifty feet across. There were several other exits, leading off to God-knows-where under the earth. “This is definitely their lair,” I said, studying the ground by fire, flare, and flashlight. “Look.” There were mutilated corpses of both people and animals. Bones covered the floor, many of which looked gnawed upon. Some of the bodies were strung up, as if being saved for later.

“Did…did they make ropes out of their hair to hang the bodies with?” Barb said, a look of disbelief on his face.

“Looks like it.”

“Where did they all go?” Cheng asked. “We can’t have gotten them all.” Two of his contractors had followed him in.

“No,” I said, scanning the room, trying to shine my light into every nook, cranny, and tunnel entrance, “I don’t suspect…we…” I panned my light up to the roof of the cave, some twenty feet above us. “Fuck me.” I forgot to look up.

The rock of the ceiling was just as porous as the rest of the cave. There had to be a dozen of the things up there, big ones and small ones, looking down at us with shining red eyes and glinting white teeth. One was right above me, grasping the roof of the cave, her head turned all the way around like an owl. Black, ropey hair hung from her head. I raised my weapon just as she let go, and all hell broke loose.

The Al hit me like a hundred-pound sack of flour. I fell flat on my back from its weight, and the ghastly thing landed right on top of me. My rifle was pinned to my chest, between the Al’s body and mine, and I couldn’t bring it to bear. It took both hands to force her face away from my throat. Her jaw was nearly twice as wide as a human’s and she snapped hungrily at me. The creature was spindly and effeminate, but was a hell of a long stronger than it looked. She tried to bite my face off. It took all of my strength to keep her at bay, and I was quickly tiring.

I couldn’t tell what was going on around me as I struggled for my life, wrestling with the thrashing beast. Gunfire roared in the cave. A blast of fire from the flamethrower. Men screaming. Al shrieking. More gunfire, shouts in English and Chinese. A terrible clacking sound as the Al on top of me snapped its jaws like an alligator, its hot spittle dripping on my face.

At least I was wearing goggles. There was no way I was going to win this fight and I knew it. The thing was stronger than I was, and I was getting tired. The rest of my team was getting slaughtered all around me from the sounds of it, and there was no time to lay on the floor and get my face eaten! Grunting, gritting my teeth, I used all of my strength to push the thing away from me, my gloved hands up under its chin, until I could lock my elbow out. I dropped my left hand down to my side, finding the butt of my sidearm on my left hip. I pulled the revolver, a Ruger GP100, clear of its holster and stuck the end of its five-inch barrel under the Al’s chin. BOOM. A contact shot from a full-power .357 round was enough to blow the Al’s head open. Black ichor and brain matter splattered all over the cave and poured onto my face. It had the texture and smell of wet, sloppy swamp mud.

I sat up, spitting the foul ooze out of my mouth, and pushed the Al off of me. Lining up the revolver’s glowing tritium sights, I put two rounds into an Al that was charging for me, dropping it. I swiveled to my right just in time to see Barb shoot the last one to the ground with his .45.

He ran over to me a moment later. “Holy shit, dude, are you all right?” He helped me to my feet. My load-bearing vest, goggles, and armor were all spattered with the black blood of the Al.

“I think so,” I said, patting myself down. I turned on my headlamp and checked for blood. “No bites. What about you? Are you bit?”

“No,” he said, eyes wide. “Why? Will…will I turn into one of them?”

“What? No. No, no, you just might get a nasty infection. Al don’t multiply that way. We don’t actually know how they multiply.” I shook my head, remembering to focus. “Cheng? You all right, man? Who’s left?”

Cheng stepped forward, out of the darkness, a moment later. He, too, was covered in black ichor. His hand was clutching a bleeding wound at his neck, but he seemed otherwise okay. “I’m here. I’m afraid I’ve lost two of my men.”

Scanning the room, I saw them. Amongst the dead Al were two humans, Flamethrower Guy and one of the other security contractors, facedown in pools of blood. One of them had his arms ripped off, and it was all I could do not to vomit. My knees were shaking. “Well then,” I managed, turning away. “Did we get them all?”

“No,” Cheng said. “Some escaped through there.” He pointed at one of the tunnel entrances at the far end of the cave. It was little more than a crack, barely wide enough for a person to slip through. I noticed then a slight breeze moving through the cave, toward the crack, and realized then that that was where the sound of water was coming from.

“I’m not about to chase these things all the way back to hell,” I said, “but we can take a quick peek through there.”

Once again, I was the first one through the breach. I found myself on a rocky precipice, overlooking an unbelievably huge cave. Shining my light around, it extended as far as I could see. It was so vast that I couldn’t even guesstimate how big it was. It was too dark and there was no frame of reference. On the far floor, hundreds of feet below me and maybe a quarter mile away, there was a strange cluster of rocks, angular and cyclopean. They were the size of buildings…and looked unnatural. An unearthly glow, pale and blue, emitted from…something…in the center in the cluster of—it hit me then—structures. This was a city. And underground city! My God…

“What…what is it?” Barb asked, stepping up next to me. “Where is that light coming from?”

I shook my head slowly, in awe. The source of the light was obscured by the structures, some of which went all the way to the ceiling of the cave, hundreds of feet above me. The main cluster of them sat on the island in the middle of a great underground river. “It’s a city, man. An ancient, subterranean city.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Barb said, the realization hitting him. “This far belowground, there’s no way ancient people could have dug this deep.”

“It wasn’t built by people,” I said. “It wasn’t built by people at all. Hey, Cheng,” I said, turning around. “What—” I fell silent. Cheng’s two surviving security men had their M4 knock-offs pointed at Barb and me.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cooper,” Cheng said. His carbine was slung, but he had a pistol in hand. “I’m afraid you’ve just stumbled upon what will inevitably be declared a state secret. It’s nothing personal, I hope you understand.”

I glanced down at the cliff behind me. It was hard to tell in the dark, but the rocky outcropping seemed to jut out above the underground river. Is this it? I thought to myself. Either get murdered or Butch and Sundance it off a cliff into a city of the Old Ones? Not for the first time, I found myself questioning my career choices.

BLAM BLAM! Two shots rang out, startling me. My head snapped up in time to see Cheng’s two men hit the floor, each having been shot in the head. Cheng stood over their bodies, Glock 19 in his hands and blood on his face. Did he just shoot his own guys? Barb and I leveled our weapons at him instantly. A Mexican standoff between two Americans and a Chinese. Hilarious.

“Just take it easy,” Cheng said, raising his hands over his head. He didn’t drop his gun. “I’m on your side.”

“What the fuck is going on?” I asked, keeping my rifle trained on him.

“I’m with the CIA,” he said calmly. “I’m also a liaison between the CIA and the MCB. Please, lower your weapons.”

I didn’t lower my rifle. “Why did you shoot those guys?”

“Because they were going to kill you, Mr. Cooper,” he said, holstering his pistol. “Don’t you get it? This is what they were looking for.”

“This city?”

“Yes. There are reportedly rumors of it, found on tablets on the Plateau of Leng in Northwestern China. Look, we don’t have much time. We need to get out of here. The Chinese have been looking for this for years.”

“Why? What’s down there? And why would they hire me if they’re looking for a secret underground city?”

“The mining company doesn’t know what they’re looking for, either. They think it’s just about ore. We don’t have time for this! Will you please come on?”

“You’re outgunned now, buddy,” I said coldly. “Start talking.”

“Without me, you’ll never get out of here alive, Mr. Cooper,” he said, turning his back to me. “Now come on. We have to use the explosives you brought to collapse the tunnel. Between that and the workers refusing to come back, it’ll buy us time. Come with me or stay down here. Either way, I’m blowing the tunnel.”

* * *

So that’s the long and short of it. Using all the explosives we had, including some that Cheng had been carrying, we collapsed the cave entrance and, as near as I could tell, most of the exploratory tunnel. On the long lift ride back to the surface, Cheng warned us not to speak a word of this to anyone. He said it fell under the normal jurisdiction of the Monster Control Bureau regarding open discussion of the paranormal, and he warned that bad things would happen if we didn’t keep our mouths shut. He confiscated our phones to prevent us from calling anyone before we got home. He wanted to make sure the CIA and the MCB had a monopoly on this particular bit on information for the time being.

What he didn’t find was the Roshan network phone I’d bought in Kabul shortly after landing in-country. Network access across Afghanistan was spotty and international calling was costly, but the thing worked. I’d paid cash for it, so it wasn’t linked to me in any way. The first thing I did, once I was able to get away from Cheng, was send Amber a text, telling her I’d lost my phone, but was otherwise okay. I hadn’t heard from her since arriving in-country and wasn’t sure why I was bothering, but I sent it anyway.

The next thing I did was dial a number from memory. It took a few seconds to connect. A woman answered the phone.

“MHI,” she said simply.

It was Dorcas. “I need to speak with Earl Harbinger.”

“Who is calling?”

“Cooper. I used to work for MHI.”

“I see,” she said, sounding bored. She always was an ornery old goat. “I’m going to have to take a message.”

“Dorcas, you tell him that we found a city of the Old Ones buried under Afghanistan and the Chinese are about to find it and I need to talk to him right fucking now!”

She was clearly unimpressed. “One moment.”

After a few seconds, a rough male voice came on the line. “Harbinger,” he said simply. “Calling to beg for your job back, Cooper?”

“No. Listen, you need to know this before the CIA and MCB quash it. This could be huge.” So I told him everything as quickly as I could. He asked very few questions, but I could tell he was writing things down.

“Good work, Cooper,” he said after I’d finished. “You get out okay?”

“Yeah, my partner and I are safe. We’ve got a flight out in a couple of days. The CIA asshole was at least nice enough to see to it that I still got paid, so this wasn’t all for nothing.”

“Listen, kid. Get in touch with me when you get back to the States. There might be an opening in the Vegas office.”

I told him I’d think it over and would be in touch, and thanked him. After hanging up, I noticed that I had a text from Amber.

I miss you, baby.

I miss you too, I texted back. How are you?

I’ve been thinking about a lot of stuff, she replied. Please come home. We can work it out.

I love you, I texted back hopefully.

Almost a minute went by before I got a reply. I love you too. Come home.

I’ll be on my way home soon.

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