“What’s a Tseg?”
After leaving the basement, Morgan and Henri followed the hall past the staircase and the portraits of Jonathon Dark to the front door. Sparks went the other way, to the back door, where he stood yelling orders to secure the perimeter around the farmhouse.
While Morgan re-checked the drawing room and dining room, Henri took the opportunity to take pictures of the books.
“Anything there?” he asked, joining her at the bookcase.
“Some interesting old books, but nothing magical or supernatural. Sam,” she ventured, putting her phone away, “there must be another way down. It can’t only be the well. They need some way to carry furniture down. And coffins, and prisoners.”
Morgan nodded. “We’re onto it. There’s a search in progress: the barn and the village.”
“Maybe we should have waited for that before going down the well.”
With a last glance around, Morgan moved off.
“It must be close by,” she went on; “somewhere with stairs. Maybe even an elevator or one of those electric chairs that go down the bannister – for old Wilfred. I can’t see him walking up and down a hundred steps in his condition. What’s your guess? – the barn or the village?”
Morgan stopped with his hand on the door jamb. Henri hadn’t done too bad a job with her scenario assessment – nowhere near as good as Cleo, but then Cleo was one-of-a-kind. “My gut instinct says the village. There’s no sign of recent habitation, but the ground has been disturbed recently.”
“Makes sense. It’s in the direction the stairs went. Can we go and help with the search? The entry won’t be easy to find.”
“That’s the plan,” said Morgan. “Sparks is securing the house and we’re off to see if we can find another entry.”
“And if we can’t locate it, we’ll blast our way through. Or drill. Depends on the situation assessment.”
“How long will the situation assessment take?”
He glanced at his watch. “Another twenty-five minutes. I’m not waiting and giving them time to release any more furry monsters or zombies on us.”
“Sorry to break this to you, Sam, but if they had time enough to release that beast down there, they had time to release anything. The gig is up. No more surprise.”
“Which is why Sparks is upping the containment effort. Don’t fret, Henri, we’ve thrown everything we have at this.”
“So now we’ve lost the element of surprise, what’s the rush for blowing things up and macho shootouts? Slow and steady wins the race.”
“Haven’t we already had this conversation?”
“If you stick with your containment strategy for a few more days, it will give you time to set up communication with the wizards and maybe convince them to surrender.”
Morgan’s mind went to Arika’s description of the underground rooms. Whoever was down there most likely had enough provisions to survive for months and cause untold mayhem. Look at the damage they’d achieved in just a few days. And there might be other avenues of escape – the giant steps on the other side of the chamber, for example. Who knows how far the catacombs went and how many exits there were? Within a couple of hours, Waite and Orwell could slip through their fingers and disappear completely. They had to move now.
“We’re doing whatever it takes. No delays. End of story.”
“But, Sam –”
“Henri, stick to advice about ghosties and leave the tactics to me.”
Suddenly, sounds of shouting and gunshots erupted from the farmyard.
“Stay back,” Morgan warned, pushing Henri behind him.
Pulling the rifle off his shoulder, he opened the door a crack.
Outside was pandemonium. Living nightmares, some barely recognisable as human, were running and crawling and slithering out of the barn. Some were misshapen or missing limbs; many of the larger ones were held together by belts or metal bands; all were wearing grey pants. Some ran at top speed at the soldiers; some limped on their deformed limbs; the stragglers dragged themselves along the ground.
As Morgan watched in horror, a huge paw with curved claws emerged from the well and gripped the edge of the stone wall; another paw emerged; then one of the hideous, hairy, jackal-like ghouls they’d seen in the basement squeezed its bloated body out of the well and dragged itself into the yard. Pausing for a moment, its white fangs curved in a smile, it glanced around and spotted its victim: a soldier running towards the farmhouse gate. With a wolfish howl, it leapt to the ground and loped after him.
Morgan rushed to the edge of the portico, took aim with his rifle and shot. The bullet went through the ghoul’s shoulder, but with barely a flinch, it continued its pursuit. Leaping into the air, landing on the soldier’s back, it pushed him to the ground, at the same time clamping its jaws on his head.
Morgan shot again, this time aiming for the ghoul’s head. The bullet hit it in the ear, but again there was little discernible reaction: its jaws went on tearing at the soldier’s head and neck, throwing flesh, bone and blood left and right until there was nothing left to tear.
Licking its bloody jaws with its long black tongue, it looked around for its next victim. A soldier was backing away from the barn, shooting at the dead men emerging from the open door, yelling instructions to others around him, oblivious to the bear-sized monster sizing him up for its next meal. The ghoul’s jaws opened in a white-toothed smile.
“Watch out!” yelled Morgan. “Behind you!”
But the soldier was deafened by the gunfire and pandemonium and didn’t hear him. The ghoul crept closer, paused as the man backed towards it, then raised an enormous paw and swatted him, almost decapitating him with one fell swoop. After completing the separation of his body and his head with a further mighty swing of its paw, it looked around for its next victim.
Motioning Henri to stay put, Morgan stepped off the portico and, abandoning his attempt to fell the ghoul, started shooting at the dead things emerging from the barn.
“Be careful, Sam!” Henry cried. “You’re too important to die!”
Morgan continued taking out the living nightmares by a succession of shots to the head. The shots stopped them, but still they came, outnumbering the soldiers by about five to one. In the meantime, four more ghouls had emerged from the well.
All of a sudden, Morgan heard the creak of timbers. The sound cut through all the shots and screams and it quickly became evident it was coming from the barn, which was swaying like something huge was moving inside, bumping against the walls, searching for a way out. He stopped shooting and watched as the wooden structure shuddered; settled; shuddered again. What kind of monstrosity could shake a whole building? he wondered with mouth hanging.
It didn’t take long to find out. The barn shook one more time, violently, and then the walls exploded and the roof collapsed, and out crawled two huge, brownish blobs, gelatinous and semi-transparent, each one the size of a small truck. Resembling gigantic, deformed lice, they crawled on protoplasmic legs, shooting out ropes of jelly and pulling themselves along the ground, moving surprisingly quickly for their size. Like heat-seeking missiles, they zeroed in on every living body in sight, shooting out protoplasmic tentacles, dragging the soldiers towards them and pulling them into their gelatinous bodies. The unfortunate soldiers were engulfed in protoplasm, and as the things crawled away, the dim outlines of their bodies could be seen inside, dissolving into a red slush. The slush was piped throughout the gelatinous bodies until it became indistinguishable from the general reddish-brown hue of the things. Clothes and rifles and other indigestible material sank, through something akin to peristalsis, and were eventually excreted in black heaps in their wake.
Realising his firepower was no match for the ghouls or these new monstrosities, Morgan went back to the farmhouse. Henri had stepped out onto the portico and seemed to be in a trance. He pushed her back over the doorstep and together they stared out at the destruction and death.
“What the hell are they?” he demanded.
She couldn’t take her eyes off them. “Tseg,” she breathed, as a third one emerged from the destroyed barn. “I don’t believe it. They’re real.”
“What’s a Tseg?”
“They’re supposed to be white or grey. The redness must be from their diet. What has Waite been feeding them?”
“What’s a Tseg?”
Henri shook her head as if emerging from a dream. “A Tsug. Tseg is plural. They’re livestock of the Great Old Ones.”
“The things that lived here two-hundred-and-fifty million years ago?”
“I’ve never heard of carnivorous livestock.”
“The Great Old Ones are further up the food chain than we are.”
“I hope you mean ‘were’”.
She glanced at him. Her look told him she wasn’t about to correct herself.
“How do we kill them?”
“We … don’t.”
Suddenly, one of the dead men in grey pants spied them and with a high-pitched shriek came racing towards the house. Slamming the door, twisting the lock, Morgan rushed into the dining room and came out carrying two chairs. He propped one under the handle at the same time the man slammed against the door. Going back and grabbing two more, he stacked them on top of the others. Henri followed suite, dragging out a mahogany cabinet that looked like it weighed more than she did.
The dead man, intent at getting at them, began throwing his body against the door. Morgan and Henri stepped back and watched as the door bowed inwards and creaked on its ancient hinges. Suddenly it stopped. As they watched in horror, the handle slowly descended. Something banged against the wood. The handle rattled furiously. There was another bang, then nothing.
Pulling out his phone, Morgan rang Sparks. No answer. The back door was closed and he assumed Sparks had secured the rear of the house and was now engaged in battle with the rest of his forces. He tried Jurgens’ phone. It went straight to voicemail.
Crossing to the parlour, he pulled aside the ratty curtains and looked around for their attacker. There was no one at the door – the man must have given up and gone in search of someone more accessible.
Spying movement below the window, he glanced down and saw a legless, semi-human corpse dragging itself towards a dead soldier. It pulled itself over the woman’s face, tore open her uniform and dug its fingernails into her stomach.
Morgan looked beyond the gruesome scene to the battlefield. The soldiers were winning against Waite’s army. Many of the dead things were slow and stupid, the soldiers were trained to bring them down with a single shot to the head, and their major challenge was the sheer volume of them. But the jackal-like ghouls were another matter. They seemed to revel in killing for the sake of killing, jumping from one kill to the next, not bothering to eat what they slayed. And they were almost invincible. Even after being burnt with a flame-thrower, they continued hunting, having no apparent sense of pain or peril. It was only when their muscles or joints were damaged to the point of failure that they finally fell, jaws snapping, to the blood-soaked ground.
The Tseg had separated and Morgan could only see one from where he was standing. It was headed in the direction of the farm gate, where the combat vehicles and a small squad were stationed, taking a circuitous route as it chased any warm body in sight.
New horrors had also appeared: brown, cylindrical, fungus-looking things, covered in black scabs and grey-green lichen, resembling plants more than animals. They moved jerkily on short, woody legs, and their sole interest was dead bodies. Ignoring anything alive, they moved from corpse to corpse, lifting them with woody, arm-like appendages and chewing on them like a stick of candy.
Henri was behind him, keying into her phone.
“What are you doing?” he asked her, glancing at the screen.
“Finding out more about Tseg.”
“You seem to know plenty about them already. Like how they can’t be killed.”
She ignored him, either intentionally or because she was so fixated on her search she hadn’t heard him.
“Henri, what did you mean by, ‘they can’t be killed’?”
“That’s what I’m looking for.”
He was getting frustrated by her lack of answers. She seemed to know a little about a lot, but not much that was of any use.
“What about them?” he asked, nodded at the fungus-creatures. “What are they?”
She glanced out the window, glanced down at her phone, jerked up her head in surprise. Moving closer to the glass, she smiled like a child. “OMG, they’re incredible, aren’t they?” She pushed her glasses up. “They look vegetative. A subterranean life form, I’d say. Alien? Hmm, probably,” she answered herself.
“So you don’t know what they are.”
She went back to her phone. “Can you take a few pics? I really need to find out more about Tseg.”
As Morgan was taking photos of the fungus-things, he noticed the Tsug to his right had locked on the heat of the soldiers stationed outside the gate. A second Tsug came into view on the other side of the barn, headed towards the house. The third was nowhere to be seen. The Tseg were fifty per cent larger than when they broke out of the barn. The one near the gate had four shapes inside its protoplasmic body and its general colouring had turned a dull shade of red. How many soldiers had died to supply that much colour? Morgan wondered, feeling sick at the thought.
As the Tsug approached the gate, machine guns on the light attack vehicles strafed it. The bullets shot into its body and came to a halt, then descended through the jelly, destined to be excreted like the clothes and other indigestible material being left in the thing’s wake.
“Blow it up,” murmured Morgan, lifting his phone. He rang the section commander.
“Sir!” came Captain Lowry’s voice.
Morgan was about to say, “Blow it up” when he saw a man with a rocket launcher stepping forward. “Good work,” he said instead. “Stop that thing and then go after the other two. One’s on the other side of the barn, headed towards the house, where me and Henri Appleby are. The other went behind the house, I think. I can’t get hold of Sparks or Jurgens. They may be holding it back there.”
He hung up and watched nervously as the Tsug rolled over the gate, flattening it and continuing on towards the vehicles.
The soldier with the rocket launcher dropped to his knee, raised the weapon to his shoulder and released a missile. The rocket shot forward and hit the Tsug dead centre, exploding and sending gobs of reddish protoplasm flying everywhere.
Morgan whooped in triumph, while Henri stood silently at his side, taking pictures with her phone. As the jelly-like pieces splattered to the ground, he shook her shoulder, trying to get her enthused over the win.
The soldiers were also cheering, raising fists in the air, some patting others on the back. The Tseg were the largest of their adversaries, so far displaying immunity to both bullets and flame-throwers, and this victory suggested the battle had turned in their favour.
But as their cheers went on, some noticed something weird happening. Henri had seen it too and was nodding to herself, as if she’d been waiting for this all along.
Morgan frowned at her and moved his face closer to the window. He could see shock on a growing number of faces. Eventually all the soldiers went quiet. At first Morgan couldn’t make out what they were staring at, but then he saw movement on the ground. The reddish blobs were creeping towards each other, joining up, melding into larger masses. More disturbingly, they seemed to be forming two separate, smaller Tseg. Within less than a minute, the two Tseg were complete and moving towards the vehicles.
As Morgan gaped, there came a crash of glass in the other room.
He grabbed Henri’s arm and they rushed into the hallway in time to see a bloodied man pulling himself through the dining room window. His red teeth clicked together as he stared at Henri with eyes feverish with hunger.
Morgan raised his rifle and shot him in the forehead. Another mutated thing dragged him out of the way and took his place. He shot that one too. Two more hungry faces appeared in the window.
There was a crash of glass behind them in the parlour.
Pulling out his phone, Morgan pushed Henri towards the door under the staircase. “Sparks! Are you there? Sparks? Sparks?”
Slamming the door shut, tripping down the steps, they raced to the room with the trapdoor. Once inside, Morgan pulled the secret door shut behind them. With luck, the dead-heads would have no idea this room was here. It wasn’t Morgan’s favoured tactic to corner himself in the face of danger, but with all the monsters upstairs and Henri to protect, there was no easy alternative.
He tried ringing Sparks again. Then Lowry. Then Jurgens. None of them answered. Their silence brought a sick feeling in his stomach. It didn’t look promising – for the operation or for him and Henri.
Replacing the phone in his pocket, he stared at the bronze plate.
For a time Henri had been shocked into silence, but safe in the basement room she began raving. “I told you we needed more time! Didn’t I? I told you! You wouldn’t listen! Racing into this with all your guns and war toys … now see where we are! Trapped! We should have taken more time! I told you!”
“Shut up, Henri. We’re safe here. None of those things will find this room – unless you bring them here with all your shouting and carrying on.”
She folded her arms. “How long do you suggest we stay here, hiding like frightened puppies?”
He frowned at her sudden change of tone. “Would you prefer to be up there fighting?”
“I’d prefer to be doing something useful.”
He held himself back from commenting on her usefulness to date, and instead went to the bronze plate and put his ear against it.
“Well, it is what it is. You’ll have to wait here till I make contact with someone on the surface who says it’s safe to come out.”
Henri joined him at the trapdoor. “You’re not thinking of going down there, are you?”
He tried to screen out her voice. It was important to start trusting his own instincts again, instead of being distracted by constant questioning by this bungling bookworm.
“You’ve got to be mad, Sam. You know what’s down there.”
Henri had the type of voice it was difficult to screen out.
“I have a mission to complete. If Orwell and Waite are down there, orchestrating all this, I need to stop them any way I can. It’s my job.”
He couldn’t hear anything beneath the bronze plate. But that didn’t mean there was nothing there.
“Everything most likely went through the barn,” he said to himself. Thinking of the ghoul that had climbed up the well earlier, knowing now how bloodthirsty the loathsome things were, he added, “Why would one be waiting here all this time when everything else went the other way? They can’t be that smart. Or patient.”
Turning to Henri, he asked, “If you had longer, what would you have advised me to do?”
She was making little shakes of her head, staring into space.
She gave him a quick glance, then went back to shaking her head.
He shook her shoulder. “Snap out of it, Henri! We don’t have time for this!”
“Don’t yell at me! I’m trying to think!”
He almost laughed. “I thought you were going into shock.”
If Henri wasn’t shocked before, she was now. “I’ll give you shock, young man. I’m not as weak as you think I am.”
“Of course not,” he replied unconvincingly.
“I’ve been thinking about something,” she said, belligerently, as if to counter his insinuation about her. “Legend has it the Great Old Ones controlled the Tseg through mind control. Perhaps …”
Morgan nodded at her, urging her to finish the thought.
“Perhaps the magic that resurrected the dead works in a similar way. If the wizards are killed, all this may stop.”
It was only a straw to clutch at, a wildly improbable thought bubble, but Morgan felt a flood of hope. At last there was a chance they could stop this madness. He stroked his rifle. “Good. Then that’s our plan.”
“It may not stop the ghouls or those tree things.”
When she saw Morgan nodding at the trapdoor, she started backtracking. “Look, Sam, it’s only a hunch. If we wait here for a rescue squad, I’ll be able to research something more evidence-based. Back at the library.”
“Your hunch works for me,” Morgan said. “Trust your gut,” he added with a twinge of sadness. Shaking thoughts of Cleo from his mind, he moved to the switch and placed his finger on it. “Those two are down there; I know it. They think all these monsters they’ve set free will protect them, but they’re dead wrong. They won’t see me coming.”
He could see from her vexed look that Henri wasn’t convinced that going deeper underground, where the ghouls, zombies and other monsters came from, was the most sensible course of action.
“What if I’m wrong? It’s been known to happen. What if we go to all this trouble to kill them and nothing changes?”
Morgan pressed the switch and the trapdoor rose. To his great relief, the well was empty.
He looked up. “Then, my dear Henri, at least we’ll have two dead wizards who should have been snuffed out centuries ago. Right now, I’d be pleased as a pig in mud with that.”