Hayden felt decidedly safer, even if only by a mere fraction. “I guess we can look at the bright side. We didn’t wake any of them up.”
Danica shook her head. “That chamber out there is only about one hundred feet high. This island itself is a mile in length, half a kilometer tall and God knows how deep. There have to be at least a dozen, if not more of these chambers.”
Hayden glared at her. “Let’s stay with the bright side shall we?”
Carlos remained completely quiet, both trying to remember what happened the last time he was here, as much as he was trying to forget.
Hayden turned to Carlos. “Carlos?”
“Earth to Carlos.” Hayden repeated. “We could really use you right now.”
Carlos was shaken out of his reverie. “My apologies. I found myself...” He swallowed hard. “Trying to remember back to my previous encounter here and how I found my way out, even if I was carried.” His words were mere whispers, softened by fear. “I find myself short in that regard.”
Danica placed her hand on his forearm. “Right now, I’d prefer you stay with us in the present. If we found our way down, we can find our way up.”
“It’s a one in four pick. Three now as this one led us here.” Hayden noted gesturing to the chamber they were in. “So of the three, we preferably want the one we took when we arrived, the one least occupied by you know what.”
In that, the trio agreed.
Thinking of the cavern they exited, the size of the island and likely how many more such caverns existed based on Danica’s estimations, Hayden stated aloud. “I wish we brought more bullets.”
Carlos turned to him with a frown and spoke with a depressed tone. “Not to rain on your parade Doctor Lattimer, but I don’t think we have enough boats to carry what we needed.”
Hayden knew Carlos was right.
Danica interrupted them both after listening to their ideas. “Before we plan our all-out assault on this little nightmare army, why don’t we keep with the original premise of trying very hard not to wake them and escape. Remember what the Elder said, the Horror…” For several seconds, she paused, finally understanding and most certainly agreeing with their deemed name. “… Sleep sound and heavy. Likely due to the lack of food. Early risers would tend to starve faster. So as long as we keep to ourselves, remain quiet and get out of here, we can leave this place behind... and alive.”
“What about the Sentinels?” Hayden asked. “There are two awake at this very moment according to the Elder and prancing about the place.” He looked at his watch. “Based on the time we’ve been in here, one or both have to be aware of our presence.”
Carlos was hoping that was not true. “How do we deal with them?”
“Avoidance at all costs.” Danica ordered with firmness in her tone.
Hayden gently placed his hand on Danica’s shoulder. “Carlos and I find ourselves a tad bit ill prepared.” He spoke kindly. “Knowledge is power and you’re our resident expert. Anything you can offer us about our enemy might make us feel like we have a greater chance for survival. Even if only in our minds.”
Danica completely understood. Confidence bred strength. She knelt to one knee and drew a picture of one of the Horror in the grainy sand on the floor, not worried as the Elders did of creating its likeness. She pointed to the shape as she etched, depicting what she had observed. “Technically speaking, by their large bulb shaped abdomen and the segmented legs, of what I could see anyway, as one was half in and out of its crevice, they appear to be of the Theraphosidae family of spiders. Or in common language, a typical tarantula.”
Hayden chuffed with sarcasm. “Your and my definition of typical wildly differs sweetheart.”
“Size notwithstanding Dumbass.” Danica sniped back, rolling her eyes. “Fact one. They’re very fast, completely predatory and have a remarkably advanced sense of smell.”
“Good start.” Hayden chided. “Let us know how much better they are than us.”
Carlos gritted his teeth imagining their speed and being chased through the caves.
“If you don’t know what they can do, you can’t hope to avoid it.” Danica pointed out.
Hayden nodded. “Understood. Keep going.”
“Try to avoid physical contact with the Horror, even the sleeping ones.” Danica explained.
“No issue there.” Hayden replied. “Our sleeping…”
Danica cut him off. “Not because you could wake them, but because of those.” She pointed to a thin layer of dried hairs on the ground.
Carlos and Hayden’s eyes shot downward.
Hayden’s beams outlined a small pile of thin hairs around the edges of the cave. “And what are they?”
Danica waved her hand over them, careful not to touch them. “They’re called urticating hairs. It’s a defense mechanism.” Without making contact, she ran her finger along a few of their lengths. “They’re barbed, not unlike a thorn and penetrate quickly. Based on their size and length, they would be very painful if they get under your skin.” Danica made a motion of throwing. “Tarantulas tend to kick them off from behind or when they graze up against you. But if they’re that close, you have bigger issues to contend with.”
Hayden grimaced. “Great. Even their hair is dangerous.”
Carlos had no memory of the hairs, but could recall itching a great deal.
Danica stood and was about to describe another feature when she froze.
Carlos saw this and his ears perked up. After a minute, he whispered. “There’s something in here with us.”
In seconds, all weapons were drawn and the trio were back to back, each facing out in triangular formation, able to shoot in any direction of an attack.
The trio all went quiet and listened.
It was breathing. Labored, slow, but not as heavy as in the chamber they had exited. Their fears rose at the thought one of the two Sentinels were in there with them, making all their blood run cold.
When nothing launched itself at them from the darkness, Danica turned around, her lights moving up and along the rear wall. She could see what appeared like dozens of cubby holes and almost half of them were filled with webbed sacks. Only one was dragged out and in the middle of the floor at the rear corner. It’s white bag moving up and down near the middle, slow and erratic.
Hayden asked, his concern rising. “Is it an egg sack?”
Danica shook her head. “No. They are more rounded, usually sealed up against a wall or in a hole for security. Considering the cannibalistic nature of spiders and the lack of food here, most mothers would never leave their sack alone.”
Carlos gave another peer around, his shotgun aimed and ready to fire, searching just in case Mama was still in residence.
Danica moved in.
It was not a Sentinel, but it was equally disturbing.
As the trio approached the corner, they found the sack was laid out on an elevated flat rock tableau. It was a white cocoon, six foot five in length, with a pair of leather boots, long faded, turned up and ripped at the edges. Some points seemed chewed with cowhide slivers dangling out of the base. The rest of the body was encased in the webbing.
Hayden found himself cringing. “My God. It’s a person isn’t it? Please don’t tell me it’s still alive?”
Danica, without speaking, drew a thin scalpel from her medical research pack, it having been placed within a folded leather wallet for such purposes. She donned a pair of surgical gloves and ran the thin razor sharp blade carefully from head to chest at the middle of the webbing, only millimeters deep to prevent harming the person inside. She made another incision at the top, forming a “T” pattern, so she could pull the white mesh open and outward to both sides at a forty-five degree angle, revealing the face within.
A bearded face stared up her, face pale, eyes wild and laced with bloodshot. His mouth opened to scream, but all that came out was a dry rasp.
Before anyone could speak, Carlos pushed Danica out of the way and dropped to one knee, his eyes welling with tears. “My God.” He did the sign of the cross, both over his body and the one before him. “You poor bastard.”
Hayden was silent, as was Danica.
After several seconds, Hayden posed the question. “Do you know him?”
Carlos sadly replied. “I do.”
“He’s my savior.” Carlos mumbled.
Hayden turned to Danica and mouthed the words, ‘Jesus?’
Danica silently responded back that Hayden should count himself very lucky he was not within punching range.
Carlos continued. “He’s the man who saved my life and later became my friend. A friendship which ended when he went in search of this dreaded island over a hundred years ago.” He paused caressing his brow. “It’s Captain Estefan Rios.”
Hayden and Danica looked on in total amazement and pure empathy, unable to imagine over one hundred years trapped in this manner.
The trio found themselves all gesturing the cross on their chests, unsure if anything else would do.
As Carlos bent over him, he lightly kissed Rios on the forehead, a tear tricking down his cheek to his fallen friend. “You damn fool.”
Before anything else could be said, Hayden put his hand to his nose. He gestured to the wet patch at the midpoint under Rios’ wrapped form, the webbing soaked brown and pink. “What is that?”
Danica and Carlos looked to the origin of the pool, following it via a thin wet trail leading behind the rocks. It ended at a much larger puddle, long dried with remnants of dark matter and moisture. It all lead down from the occupied cubbyholes, flowing away and smelling lightly of ammonia. The trail ended at hundreds of small cracks where it seemed to trickle down into and vanish.
Danica looked on with compassion. “It’s waste. It appears the victims excrete their waste as a liquid.”
“Lovely.” Hayden shook his head. “I swear with each new discovery, it only makes this place more and more disgusting.”
In that, they were all in agreement.
Danica knew, without solid food, the human body would have no other choice but to vacate its bowels in this manner. Again, remorse hardly met the level of feelings she had for this victim and likely many more.
Before anyone could move, Carlos reached behind to take the scalpel from Danica’s open grip. With one swooping move, he ran the already made slit to Rios’ waist.
“We need to save him.” Carlos declared.
Hayden and Danica looked to one another, wondering how they were expected to carry him, let alone boat him across in this condition when Carlos suddenly reached inside the lower part of the cocoon and withdrew a huge Navy Cutlass.
Carlos stood and stared down at his friend. The man, who saved him from the oceans, madness and certain death and by his actions, was here today because of him.
Hayden looked at Carlos. “What are you going to do?” Figuring he was going to cut the rest of the webbing away.
In a quick gesture, Carlos pulled the sword over his head, its leather handle with an iron forged basket hilt slightly rusted from use held tight in his grip and he slammed it down into the upper chest of Captain Rios, twisting savagely when he hit the heart, ending his life.
Danica stared at Carlos horrified. She looked at him in utter shock and sputtered. “I thought you said you were planning to save him?”
Carlos released the sword, leaving it extended out of Rios’ body. He turned to lock eyes with Danica, stoic and direct. “I did.”
Danica remembered what the Elder told them the night before. ‘No blood flow, no healing, no life.’
Danica watched as the remaining light in Rios eyes flickered out. For a solid few seconds, she could almost see in those pools, him thanking them. She admitted to herself, Carlos probably did save Rios.
Hayden had turned away. Unlike Danica, he was not used to such bloodletting.
Danica turned to Carlos and asked him something Hayden did not hear.
Carlos leaned back. “He’s an empty shell now. Learn what you can.”
Danica knelt down. Ignoring the sword, she carved with her scalpel downwards to the stomach, pulling the ripped and torn clothing aside, filled with holes and likely fang tears.
Hayden had looked back and turned away again, this time totally aghast. “Seriously. Is this absolutely necessary?”
Danica shot back. “Yes it is. We’ll never have an opportunity to do this again. Something is bothering me. Yes, I suspect the venom is obviously the key to the rapid healing trigger and prolonged aging, but it does not explain an important factor.”
“What is that?” Hayden asked with incredulity, staring at the wall and seeing the remaining bodies, equally horrified.
Danica continued. “No matter how fast your body heals or how long you live, venom can’t sustain a human body. I need to know how that is happening. Somehow, they’re getting sustenance. I have a theory, but I need to be sure.”
Hayden turned back, his eyes getting some curiosity now, but not looking down at Danica working. “What do you mean by sustenance?”
Danica was carefully carving around the inner chest and into the abdomen. “The symbols on the chamber stated the Horror feeds upon you, while you in turn feed upon it.” She reached the stomach lining and sliced it open delicately. Inside was a dark gel, pasty and moist, filled with bits of hair and remnants of sedimentary solids. She scooped up a finger full, bringing the mass up to her nose. She smelled it.
Carlos watched with some reservation.
Hayden on the hand was pulling further back. “If I’m next, I’ll pass.”
Danica snapped her fingers and let it drop back into the corpse. She double checked and saw the same dark matter trickled from the veins, through the circulatory system into the lower cavity. Her eyes widened. “They’re being fed intravenously.”
Carlos looked down at the dark pools in the body of blood. “How is that possible?”
Danica stood up, reached into her pack and withdrew the silk wrapped claw Carlos had given her on the plane.
The one Rios found on the Leviathan embedded into the railing.
Danica looked down at the corpse again and reexamined the double tubules in the claw. Her eyes expanded even more, starting to comprehend. She looked to Hayden and Carlos. “My God. I think I understand now.” Leaning against the wall, Danica felt a fleck of gravel run down her back, giving her the ’heebie-jeebies’ for a second. She brushed it off quickly. “It’s the only factor that would explain everything.” Her whole body shivered uncontrollably.
“What?” Hayden asked again. He watched Danica with fascination, her scientific mind at work.
“It’s not a claw. It’s chelicerae.” Danica held it up for them to see it as she did...
Hayden and Carlos looked at her with bafflement.
Hayden casually smiled. “Duh… Want to dumb it down a bit for us ‘non-field microbiologists?’”
Danica turned it over, letting her lights beam down the thin holes. “Chelicerae are the pointed appendages spiders use to grasp their food. Like mandibles. Some are hollow like this and contain venom glands to inject venom into their prey.”
Carlos shook deeply imaging how many times one of those fangs was pushed into his body.
Hayden on the other hand raised his eyebrow. “So their life sustaining venom is injected through their fangs. I figured that already because they’re spiders and all when you first mentioned it, but how does that explain them being fed intravenously.”
Danica looked at him, realizing neither of them understood what she was comprehending, but she was thinking how best to explain it. “It’s a form of symbiosis.” She paused changing her train of thought. “Scratch that. Though both the Horror and the prey benefit in some way, this is more an ecto-parasitic relationship as the prey’s longevity is more a punishment than a gift.”
Carlos was listening with both rapt and horrified interest, but having no idea what he was being told.
“With ecto-parasitic bonds, the Horror need to keep their victims alive though exterior invasion...” Danica sounded fascinated. “So it’s more biotrophic than necrotrophic.”
Hayden repeated himself louder this time. “DUH! Come on Danica. Help a few cavemen out.”
It had been a long time since Danica had to lecture someone and being scared did not help the matter. “Necrotrophic relationships involve the parasite eventually killing their host. Biotrophic on the other hand rely on their host surviving. And with the miracle venom healing all wounds and injuries, they can keep victims alive for unknown amounts of time.”
Carlos felt the terror of his ordeal becoming more real. “But how do they keep their victims alive? You just said with the vaunted high speed healing they need to be sustained. How do all these victims…” He pointed to the breathing sacks. “…survive for years in here without dying of starvation or dehydration?”
Danica gestured to the ground. “Notice there is no waste or feces from the spiders? Either on the ground or in the passages?”
Hayden was still lost. “Lack of shit?! We’re looking for shit now? I still don’t see how that is relevant.”
Danica scowled and then explained. “Spiders are still living things. So it has to dispose of its waste somehow.”
Hayden knew he was going to regret asking it. “So where is the shit?”
“The second tubule in the chelicerae.” Danica’s whole body shook from core to skin as she pointed. “When you’re in its grip, after it delivers its venom, while it’s drinking you up, it’s delivering its waste back into your body through the other tubule. It’s evolutionarily perfect. It’s not unlike an IV drip, just working in two ways, one to drain the fluid while the other replaces it by providing the proteins its victims need and the spiders don’t, sustaining their lives.”
Hayden completely understanding now, his face curled up in abject dismay. “Are you kidding me?”
Danica pointed to the fang. “One is intake and one is outtake.”
“Let me get this straight.” Hayden was more scared than he was arrogant, but he was keeping it under wraps. “These things encase you in its webbing until you expire, trapped in the dark, their venom giving you super life and in return, they pump you full of their shit as food.”
“You have an amazing way to turn a miracle into something crude.” Danica replied. “But that pretty much sums it up.”
Hayden declared. “You know, if we combine arachnophobia, fear of spiders, claustrophobia, fear of being trapped in small places and finally, Phagophobia, fear of being eaten into a one word disorder, we could rename this evil little island.”
Carlos was looking down at Rios’ body. “Doctor Swift. I should mention something.”
Danica turned to him. “What?”
Carlos gestured. “Since I saw him last, I have physically aged thirty to forty years.”
“Yes?” Danica asked, wondering where this was leading.
Carlos frowned. “By my estimates and from my recollection of having seen him last, Rios has barely aged a day.”
Danica looked down at Rios and understanding. “It appears as long as you have a fresh dose of the venom, your life expectancy is greater than for example ones like Carlos who escape.”
Hayden asked the question. “Then how long would you live alive in here with a constant dose of this venom?”
Danica did not have an answer.
All three of them fell silent, their blood running ice cold, imagining the life expectancy of the poor souls trapped down here to be kept as food.
Danica finally turned to Hayden. “I take back what I said on the plane.”
“Take back what?” Hayden asked. “That you thought I was immature? That I can be an idiot? That I drink too much?”
Danica shook her head. “No. I still stand behind those.”
Carlos laughed quietly, thoroughly amused they could still have humour at a time like this.
“I said I disagreed with you.” Danica commented with conviction. “But I now stand corrected. This is Hell.”