Summary: Just starting his fourth decade of life, Benny Bear is a toy collector still living in his parents' house. When an old friend comes back into his life, he finds the children's shows he idolizes were directly inspired by the supernatural horrors that ruined his life.
The New Canterbury Crawler
Entombment in Nostalgia
Benny Bear was utterly unbothered by never moving out of his mother's basement. He aged well, retaining the lean and lanky frame and youthful countenance of his teenage years. Though his cheekbones rose gaunt and narrow, the guileless smile never departed his face. Still clad in tee shirts bearing the logos and images of cartoon characters long exiled from the air, he went about his daily routine with the predictability of a spring-loaded action figure.
Benny began each day with a neatly-sliced apple, a bowl of chocolate cereal, and a glass of orange juice. Following this, he exercised and stretched until soaked in sweet. He'd shower and conclude cleaning up exactly two hours and twenty-five minutes after waking up. While he had worked the occasional odd job or attempted to work outside of town, he was able to make a career of those puerile passions that drove him through childhood and adolescence.
Benny went online and checked his email, updating himself with orders to buy and sell various vintage toys. While he made a passible living as a toy broker, he kept an unceasing vigil for specific products. His own nostalgia for a fantasy cartoon series he grew up with, Elves of Englewood, compelled him to collect the action figures and merchandise it had spawned. He even attributed his interest in archery to the series' lead character, a long-haired monster slayer named Toriel.
Benny's benign fixation on the character had been a nearly baleful worship during his teenage years. When his friends and he stood against creatures beyond the mundane laws of physics, Toriel's tactics from the show had triumphed against them. His own readings into the show's script detailed the occult and legendary elements were well-researched by a pseudonymous writer. While he attributed it to coincidence at first, his suspicious often percolated into the spurious realm of conspiracy theory.
Much to his dismay, the show terminated at the end of a midseason cliffhanger. Benny could recount the peculiar details of the show's sudden cancellation like a litany of invective, but he went through his teenage and college years devoid of the satisfaction of knowing the series' resolution. The mental image of the quasi-insectile, noctural Crawler towering over prone Toriel as he desperately reached for his curved knife haunted Benny's dreams since. In his over-analytic zeal towards the cartoon, he interpreted it as a metaphor for life, complete with the tension of not knowing how to resolve his problems.
Benny found an online seller offering preliminary episode scripts for the unaired episodes. While his suspicions were raised, the scans he saw were enough to convince him to buy them. Tracking the package in between his online toy sales, he followed the delivery route like a celebrity stalker. Should the parcel be genuine, it would answer the question that persistently plagued him with curiosity and guilt. When the doorbell rang a moment later, he charged from his basement with a zeal honed over two decades.
The Guest from Yesteryear
Waiting to greet Benny at the door was not the parcel he expected, but he wished he could turn away. An overweight man in a stained wife-beater shirt stood at his front door, with a familiar forlorn look on his sad, weary eyes. Despite being the same age as Benny, age eroded his body like an eon-old statue. His eyes were but featureless orbs set into a round, balding head of matted gray hair. His once-rippling muscles vanished beneath rolling hills of flab and an alcohol-gifted paunch. His clothing was a meager, fraying tapestry of spilled beer and crusty stains. Benny could scarcely believe this was the same Jack Yeager that once was the Jackhammer, the New Canterbury Crusaders' all-star quarterback.
Benny occasionally met Jack in town since the former athlete failed out of college, but never cut off contact completely. Jack twice asked to borrow money, which he had yet to fully repay Benny. He heard rumors of his high school friend's involvement with a local biker gang, the Road Hogs, so Benny was disinclined to visit the dilapidated trailer park he dwelt in. Like a prideful soul in the midst of some living Purgatory, Jack now haunted the threshold of the Bear household. With his wallet safety stored in his basement, Benny went to greet the man he once trusted his life to.
An awkward silence lingered between the two men like an unspoken duel of words. Ben stood in his doorframe, not taking a step outside the threshold he once eagerly awaited Jack's arrival outside. Their gazes met like charging knights, daring the other to break first. The exact reasons for the tension seethed deeply between them, until Ben decided to break the stalemate. At the very least, it would facilitate the departure of his guest.
"Jack," Ben said, addressing Jack in a tone devoid of mirth. "What's up?"
"Hi, Ben," Jack said, his eyes avoiding Benny's gaze. "Dex is back, and he wants to meet us."
"Oh?" Ben asked, dropping his guard. He stepped forward, letting the door slam behind him.
"Yeah," Jack said, in an apologetic tone. "He says it's something important. Something about Miranda."
"I just had lunch with him in Earl's Diner. He called me this morning and said he'd needed to discuss something."
"Awfully quick. But what did he say?"
"He said it's back."
Benny's eyes opened wide with an abject terror he thought he had forgotten years ago. He remembered the writhing, skittering shadows. He remembered Miranda's red hair, matted the dark sanguinity of arterial blood. He remembered strange black vans bearing no signs of government agencies he could recognize. He remembered the remains underneath the bloody sheet that still haunted his nightmares. He remembered the Chase family funeral, the media circus that followed, and the official denials. Once more, he was a crying teenager alone in the strobe lights of a parked ambulance.
"Come in and tell me more," Benny said. "I want to know exactly what he said."
For the first time in over twenty years, Benny let Jack into his house.
The Building in the Woods
Since her otherwise impressionable youth, Alexandra Chase was bothered by inconsistencies in the official story of her older sister's demise. Throughout her youth, she intermittently researched the relevant documents and evidence in feverish bursts of activity. As her interest in the cold case waned and waxed, she sought the clarity of mind to finish her own studies. After four years in New Zealand, she returned with a fresh degree and unique job experience to help her aging parents.
Now stranded in the town she had once eagerly departed, Alex's latent interests in her sister's case returned to her. With her friend Hope, Alex investigated the spurious claims of a toxic waste spill in the area in which her elder sister died. Despite only a rusted chain-link fence remaining between her and answers, she carefully sent in quadrotor drones to return with soil samples for testing. Confirming the absence of the expected toxins, she planned to investigate herself.
Knowing the innate dangers of a solitary approach, Alex prepared with the thorough carefulness warranting a clandestine egress. She dressed in a thick hooded camouflage coat with safety goggles atop her augmented reality glasses. She brought a smartphone, steel-toed boots, gloves, filter mask, tools, and can of pepper spray in her pocket. Her short brown hair and skin were completely subsumed by her outfit, giving her greater likeness to an arctic explorer more than a would-be infiltrator.
Much to Alex's dismay, Hope ignored her sensible wardrobe suggestions in lieu of casual wear. She had her hair dyed the pitch black of a Gothic masquerade, with a trench-coat and leather boots to match. As Hope met her directly at their meeting site, there was no time to change before they departed to the location. Like an illicit lovers' tryst, they could not afford to dally. The necessity of maintaining silence choked a tirade within Alex's throat.
Alex drove a used car in similarly neglectful to the others around the town, purchased specifically to be forgettable. She had planned the route through New Canterbury, Pennsylvania with the due diligence of an experienced getaway driver. She drove past the abandoned strip-malls that littered the down, and she headed towards the northern woods where their destination laid. Hope mercifully remained quiet as they drove into deep into the forest, where the gnarled branches seemed to strangle the light of the setting sun.
Parking on a dirt path just off the road, they slowly approached the rusted fence as though it were a rabid beast. Alex drew a flashlight and wire-cutters from her backpack, examining a map she had recently printed up. Spying the fallen trunk of a massive tree across a section of fence, she climbed up and pulled herself into the wooden carcass. As Hope struggled to climb, she cursed at the way the branches tore into her clothing and skin. Alex ended up pulling her up, but her confidence had ebbed away.
"How much longer are we going to be here?" Hope asked. "You do know where we're going, right?"
"Yeah. Remember that strange concrete hut the drone found? I just want to get inside and investigate."
"Gee, it could be an outhouse for all we know."
"Unlikely. It was built right after Miranda died, with really strange things in the walls. It wasn't connected to the water lines or power grid, and it's not marked on any map."
"How do you know all that?"
"I stumbled onto a copy of a work order and blueprints slated for shredding, dated and everything."
"Okay, if you say so."
"Relax. If something happens to us, I set a program to email our families our location if we don't return by dawn."
"Just hurry it up, and you won't have to worry about it."
Hope grumbled as she climbed down from the trunk on the other side of the fence. Alex pressed onwards, following the path through the woods she surveyed with her drones. The beam of her flashlight cast nightmarish shadows through the sinuous roots and splaying branches. Her imagination conjured the terrifying creatures of her own youthful fears, only to banish them with a pass of the flashlight.
Alex heard Hope's teeth chatter, reminding her of how warm she felt in her own coat. The woods at night were chillier than she'd remembered them, and she wondered if it was due to the utter lack of human or mechanical activity. Through breaks in the canopy, she could behold the sun setting behind the distant Appalachians like an overripe fruit suspended over an abyss. With coldness and darkness as her most reliable companions, she walked slowly beside Hope to ensure she was alright.
Despite her initial fears, Alex grew comfortable in the deserted woods. The lack of humans, aside from them, was a simultaneously a source of solace as much as isolation. The night sky and setting sun gave them an opportunity to behold constellations buried by light pollution while they were in town. The wind that stole their body heat brought them closer together.
The trip brought back found memories of other times and places, but a certain irony arose in Alex's mind. She had planned the elaborate trip to covertly investigate where her sister had died, but she had no memories of her sister. While her sister was on the verge of graduating high school, she was gumming down baby food. While Miranda had left too early, the media circus had been an omnipotent tormentor in her early years. Now, driven past law and reason, she pursued fraying threads without hesitation.
Reflecting on the stranger related to her by consanguity, Alex stepped into the clearing that marked the end of her trip. Hope halted at the edge of the trees, as if standing on some precarious ledge overlooking a precipice. Beneath the naked sky was a dark rectangular block, which Alex's flashlight revealed as the concrete structure she had come to investigate. With the attentiveness due a venomous adder, she approached the structure with light, measured steps.
An immaterial aura of malignancy radiated from it, but Alex could not tell the source. As if lured towards the fatal light of an angler, she found herself catatonically drawn towards it. As she reached the front door, she found herself thoughtlessly rummaging through her backpack once more. With uncanny recollection, she pulled out a pair of bolt-cutters and snipped off the rusting luck with a single, fluid movement. She pried the door opened with a crowbar, causing the door to groan with a low, grinding whine.
Stashing her tools, Alex turned her flashlight down the darkened stairwell as if opening a crypt of terrible antiquity. She heard the dripping of water from somewhere above her, and saw dank pools forming at the bottom of the stairwell. She could practically smell the mold at the bottom of the shaft. From somewhere far below, a warm breeze issued up at regular intervals. She almost considered unzipping her coat as she felt another blast of the fetid air.
"Stay here. It could be dangerous," Alex said.
"No, it's too cold outside. I'm coming downstairs with you," Hope said.
Alex sighed and descended another step.
The Gnawing of Memory
Benny Bear and Jack Yeager sat opposite each other on a sofa covered in toys. After his parents retreated to a retirement home in Florida, he converted much of the house into a shipping and receiving center for vintage toys, comics, VHS tapes, cassettes, DVDs, and other items. While he had his own private collection, the vast majority of it was destined for elsewhere, as his self-employment as a nostalgia broker necessitated constant appraisal, delivery, and resale of such products to clients all around the world.
Benny moved aside a boxed Ebon Ranger action figure from a Japanese sentai series, taking care not to step on a DVD collection of the surreal British children's show Belly Buddies. He moved a plush toy with the face of a clown and body of a caterpillar, namesake character of the children's cartoon Carl the Caterpillar, about an imaginary friend that came to life at night. The fact Carl had several sets of cartoonish arms had always been subtly disconcerting for reasons he never cared to evaluate too deeply. Concealing the doll from view behind a set of blue Snirp figurines, he turned back towards his guest.
"So, what's Benny be up to? Last I heard, he joined the Army or something."
"Navy, actually," Jack said. "He looks like he just stepped out of boot camp. Real tall, covered in muscle."
Like you used to be, Benny thought to himself. "So, is he still there?"
"He said he's finished an MBA after he got out and he's working as a government contractor now," Jack said. "Makes more money than I'll ever see."
"Yeah, I still imagine him as that chunky black nerd with the thick glasses."
"His parents were always super nice to us."
"Yeah, like his mom always let us eat raw cookie dough from the beaters, and his dad was nice enough to let us use the backyard for target practice."
"Yeah, and the propane. Remember that one snow day we blew up their propane grill?"
"Hey, that was for a good cause. No more problems with the snow monster after that."
"Yeah, those were the days," Jack said, leaning back on the couch. "Amazing we got away with all that stuff. Kids these days would go to jail for the kind of shit we pulled."
"I'm glad we grew up when we did, but why's Dex trying to get us back in the monster-slaying biz? His folks moved out to California over a decade ago, and I haven't heard anything from him since."
"He says what we faced, what killed Miranda, was just a larval form," Jack said, sighing deeply. "He thinks it was in some kind of hibernation, until something let it out."
"So, does he think we'll have more luck this time?" Ben asked. "But honestly, I'm curious. If this thing is loose again, how did he know?"
"Beats me. He said he'd call you," Jack said, his face growing pale. "But Ben, listen. I know I've been an asshole, but I got a bad feeling about this."
Benny reflected how bad it had to be for Jack to personally stop by his front door. Just then, the voices of an ethereal choir burst into song. Startled, Benny picked up his cellphone and saw an unfamiliar number.
"Speak of the devil," Jack said. "Figures your ringtone is the theme from that elf show."
"Hello?" Benny asked.
The Sealed Chamber
Alex and Hope followed the steps deeper than the blueprints said they went. Alex noticed that the blasts of reeking air came at regular intervals, but Hope did not comment on her thoughts. The hot, heavy air was like the rank breath of a slumbering jungle cat. Alex had tied her coat around her waist and put her mask and gloves into her backpack as a result of the raising ambient humidity. Condensation formed along the cracked concrete walls and ceiling like pus seeping from a titanic wound.
Alex and Hope only beheld a solitary drawing on the concrete walls. In the darkness, it resembled the uncouth and savage simplicity of a stone age petroglyph. Shining their lights upon it revealed more complex design than either had anticipated. It was a circular cartoon head, with a countenance like a cartoon clown. Aside from two yellow eyes, red spots on the checks and nose made it seem as though it was a cartoon character neither could identify. Beneath the head were a multitude of stick-figure limbs, as though the graffiti artist had given up beneath the neck. The paint wept down the moist concrete, causing it to smear like congealed blood. They quickly moved past it and put it out of their minds as fast.
Alex halted when she reached the bottom, as another obstruction barred their way. A steel door, corroded as if left on the ocean floor for decades, loomed in front of the tunnel's terminus. It half-hung from the top hinges, and a sense of fragility made it seem as though the slightest of gusts would send it crashing to the floor. She wondered if the crowbar was necessary, or merely opening the door would send it flying opened. She pressed her fingertips against it, unprepared for the steel to deform like aluminum foil. She stepped away, wary that the wrong move could open the door.
"C'mon, let's look inside," Hope said.
"I don't know, Hope. There's something off about this place."
"C'mon, Alex. You're the one who dragged me here to take samples. Let's just see what's behind the door. What's the worst that could happen?"
Hope jammed her black-painted nails into the doorframe, as if drawn by the same inexplicable force that first drew Alex to the forsaken depths. Now suspecting the actions were not entirely her own, she found herself tugging at the door while Hope attempted to pry it free with her nails. When the first of her nails broke, Hope unflinchingly devoted herself wholesale into madly clawing at the door like a ravenous cat. Alex found herself struggling to resist the compulsion to redouble her efforts at the door. A force within called to them, an entity yearning for time-honored release.
While she could feel no physical force pushing from the other side of that door, Alex perceived the radiant maleficence of what lingered beyond. Like a rat drawn towards felines by some inexplicable parasite, she resisted the compulsion to pull further. She felt what had been innocent curiosity was now an automatic frenzy. She managed to force herself back, and she cautiously edged towards the stairs. She saw Hope had continued where she had left off, trying to pull forth the decaying door. Alex heard herself shouting her friend's name, but to no avail.
Alex frantically considered options to force Hope backwards. Her calls to leave were ignored. Tugging and shouting was unable to force her to stop, as she clung rigidly the door with the deathly grip. She considered the pepper spray she originally brought for defense against wild dogs, but ruled against it in a tightly enclosed space. While she mused on other options, the door flew open in tandem with a large gust of fusty air. Hope stepped inside, marching with large, empty eyes.
Beyond the door, Alex saw her suspicions were not mere madness born of poorly ventilated, claustrophobic corridors. The stench that emanated from the room beyond was as if mounds of moist, decaying matter had been rendered into a stew of foulness and poured into the room beyond. A mat of dark brown matter stretched across the floor of that small chamber, issuing from a bulbous mass in the center. The knot-like gourd shook as it began chittering. A chitinous member flashed in Alex's flashlight beam, Hope screamed, and Alex ran as fast as she could back up the stairs.
Alex's mind conjured phantasmagoric images of uncouth monstrosities pursuing her. Her lungs screamed in protest. Her limbs of ached of lactic fatigue. She forced herself onwards, upwards, to the surface. She felt the bursts of warm air billow behind her, as if the malign creature beneath were exploring beyond its chthonic redoubt for the first time. She heard the skittering of multiple appendages upon the stairs echoed behind her. When she saw the welcome light of the outside moon, she did not stop running.
Alex did not halt as she trampled through the brush under the light of a gibbous and waning moon. Moving with the alacrity of a star athlete, she hurtled over rocks and under branches. She recalled the febrile odors of that wretched pit as though the creature itself was breathing directly on the back of her neck. Her clothes and skin were cut by a thousand unseen brambles, but small lacerations did not inhibit the traceur-like celerity she moved with. Odors haunting her mind, she moved through the forest like a blindfolded run through an obstacle course, each movement lubricated by sweat and blood.
Alex sprinted through the woods until she came once more to the fence. Forcing herself over, she allowed the rusted chain-links to cut into her flesh. Stumbling through the woods, she forced herself to slow down as she tried to get her bearings. Believing the threat to be behind her, she followed the fence until she reached the fallen tree she had entered with. After finding her car intact, she climbed inside and locked the door. The rest of the night was a mercifully forgotten blur.
Benny Bear was surprised at the quality of the office that Dexter had arranged to meet him at. The building was a two-story structure that had gone up across from the old police station, with a white ascetic aesthetic of a sleek smart-phone. An attractive blonde receptionist, no older than twenty, sat at the front desk with a hawkish glance at him as he entered. When he mentioned his appointment, the woman's soft blue eyes opened wide in surprise. While dressing in a worn tee-shirt of his favorite cartoon series wasn't his preferred outfit for formal meetings, the urgency of the meeting precluded changing into more formal wear. From the fearful way the girl spoke into the intercom, he imagined Dexter was a very influential client. "Director Danforth will see you."
When the attendant waved him on, Benny was unsure of what Dexter Danforth would look like after all this time. He wanted to imagine him as that jolly, rotund kid that enjoyed building stink bombs and correcting his teachers. As the only black kid and the valedictorian of his class, his intellect and skin color unjustly earned him the ire of his peers. Dex had been the one person from high school that Benny wished he had parted on better terms with.
Benny walked down a narrow hallway with wooden trimmed walls and angular, modern furniture. Along the wall were diagrams and schematics of various warships, tanks, planes, and other military hardware. While he was unaware of any defense business in town, he was nevertheless surprised to find the logo for a firm called "Hodgson Strategic Consulting," which he presumed was Dexter's company. At the end of the hallway was an opaque, smoked glass door with Dexter's name and title on it. Nervously, he wrapped on it.
The door opened faster than Benny thought it would. Dexter stood there, his hulking frame blocking the slit-like windows behind him and his hand outstretched with a warm smile. The man before him towered over him, being a pillar of Herculean muscle that might have stepped out of a Greek epic. The collector extended his hand, worried it would be crushed in the bearlike grip of his old classmate. While his facial features had become harsher, Dex's shaved head made him resemble an animate eidolon of palpitating jet. With his black suit and tie, it would be easy to mistake him for a Secret Service agent.
"Hi, Ben," Dex said with a calm tone. "Good to see you. Got something for you."
"Hi, Dex. Good to see you, too," Ben said. "You didn't have to-"
Dexter reached into his drawer, and Ben briefly glimpsed its contents: pens, pencils, paper, a Taurus Raging Judge revolver, and a box wrapped in newspaper. Dexter handed the box to him, and bid him to open it. With an inexplicable hesitation, he tore into to see a face he had half-forgotten for years. Wrapped in the box was a Shiftbots action figure, Drexler the Devourer, an original still in pristine packaging. He had seen such things go for half a million dollars before.
"I know that one's missing from your collection," Dex said with a sly grin. "But I found that one at a flea market in California. Amazing that people underestimate the true worth of their possessions."
"Dex, this figure is worth a fortune. Listen, this is something you should-"
"And it's yours now," he said with a wink. "I was always fond of that villain. He was basically a sentient blob of nanotech that tried to go full-on gray goo, but the heroes always stopped his harebrained schemes."
"It was the only other Eibon Animation series to get anything approaching fame, aside from Carl the Caterpillar and Elves of Englewood. Because of their low budget and rushed production, they often recycled plots and archetypes between franchises, so Drexler also corresponds to-"
"Still a Toriel fan, I see," Dex said with a wry smile. "But I think it's time we talk in private."
Ben locked his door and sat down at his immaculately polished hardwood desk. He folded his hands and withdrew a map of town, undoubtedly a military map of some sort. A mass of red circles were drawn in marker near the north side of town, with times and dates written above each. The earliest date was two nights ago night and the most recent was in the early morning prior to sunrise that day.
"Jack dropped by, and I almost turned him away. But what's really going on?"
"It's back, it's bigger, and that chart marks where it's been," Dex said grimly. "It got one girl, and it's left a trail of animal carcasses around town."
"But how do you know it's the Crawler?"
Dex grinned slyly. "All of the bodies were exsanguinated and mutilated in the same manner, and the damage to the bodies shows an increase in the creature's strength. In addition, we have an eyewitness account."
"From Miranda's little sister."
Dexter pulled out a manila envelope with a photograph clipped to the corner. It revealed a young woman with short brown hair in a bowl cut, with a similar face to the one that haunted Benny's deepest regrets. Beside it was a photograph of how he remembered last seeing Alexandra Lucille Chase, as a round-faced toddler with a knack for constantly escaping her playpen. Beside it was a transcript of a statement, which Benny read over with fearful thoroughness. While he read, Dexter withdrew more papers.
"The last time we saw the monster, it went into the woods after kicking our asses. After the media circus about Miranda, government types show up and say there's been a toxic waste spill in the woods, and they all fenced it all," Dexter explained. "I've done some research, but I found no official government agency or contractor that ordered it. Most were small-time private contractors with public officials paid to look away."
"Yeah, that much I know," Ben said. "You think they contained this creature in the bunker that this girl and her friend stumbled into?"
"Yes. I believe they either found a way to contain the creature, or perhaps it was already in a dormant state. Alex described it as a cocoon when I debriefed her," Dexter answered. "And I'm worried it could be trying to reproduce."
"I know, Ben. But we've faced similar before. Remember the swamp strider nest we burnt down during senior prom?"
"Gee, how could I forget trudging through knee-high bog water with you guys while everyone else was having fun?"
"That's always how it's always been. We go into the dark places so everyone else can sleep soundly."
"Maybe you, Dex, but I've been out of the game since the night Miranda died. Can't you put call in the Navy SEALS or a SWAT team?"
"Afraid not. I need to keep a low profile, a low budget, and a lower body count," Dex said grimly. "Military and law enforcement tactical teams are trained to fight other humans. Remember what happened to Sheriff Bierce's deputies with the scrap metal golem? They were military vets."
Ben felt and involuntary shiver down his spine. "Point made."
"Look, Ben. I'm acting on my own for this. That's why I went private sector. My superiors are Beltway bureaucrats totally in the dark about the supernatural. I know someone organized that cover-up, and I want to know why they didn't just kill it if they had the chance," Dex said with a snarl of anger crossing his face. "Since I've been watching out for anything here, I had to pull some strings to arrange this transfer on short notice."
"And you want to kill it before it gets out of control?"
"Yes, see if they react."
"Look, Dex, I appreciate everything you've told me, but I've been out of the game for twenty years. Two decades. We couldn't take it down in our prime. What makes you think this time will be different?"
Dex grinned. He opened his drawer and set the holstered revolver on his desk. "Because this time, we've got bigger toys."
"Not my kind of toys, Dex."
"Ben, I know you've been posting those archery videos, with you trying to do all Toriel's trick-shots from the series."
"I used a low draw weight bow for that."
"I know you went deer hunting with that compound blow, according to your blog."
"That was a one-off trip. I don't have it in me to shoot deer."
"But I know you, Ben. You don't sell or get rid of things that remind you of that series, or all the hobbies it inspired."
Benny sighed. Dex had him there. "Alright, but I don't have any more of those custom arrows."
Dex smiled as he produced a duffel bag from underneath his desk. He set it down and unzipped it. He handed a weighty quiver to Benny, who counted at least two dozen arrows. "Fortunately, I kept some of your old ones, and had Risona Research to build more to higher quality than your homemade ones."
"Even the shotgun shell arrowheads?"
"Especially those. You know, those going off remind me of that crappy minivan my mom had. You know, the one with the annoying banging under the hood?"
"Heh, I remember Mr. Machen freaking out when he towed it away. Must've thought it would blow up any moment."
Benny removed an arrow from the quiver and closely inspected it. The arrows had black carbon fiber bodies like those preferred by an Olympic archer or expert hunter. The arrowheads were a range of point types that he recalled from his younger years: hunting broad-heads, ram-cats, target points, and cup-heads. The cup-heads terminated in plastic cups seated atop a metal pin, able to seat a cartridge and deliver it into the target. He recalled how messy those could be at close range, resulting in a rancid baptism of bodily fluids.
Dexter withdrew a box of shot-shells from his drawer. While he did not understand the purposes of each, Benny assumed each had a vastly different payload and means of dealing damage. In addition to buckshot, birdshot, and slugs, he beheld shells with electrodes, strange chemical mixtures, silver-tips, armor-piercing sabots, and ones he could not identify. Dexter's investment in such things underscored the sincerity of his plea. Looking at the face of the girl that had died, Hope, he recalled the necessity of his own work.
"Okay, so how can I help?" he asked.
Dexter's smile grew wider. Benny had never seen him smile so long since he won the state science fair with his remote control submarine and model rocket launcher. The judges were shocked a high school student could build such a thing, but Dexter's designs functioned on multiple levels. Comforting himself that Dex's intellect was focused on the problem, he reassured himself this time would be different.
The Enduring Burden
Alex Chase lost track of time since her escape from the bunker. One day merged into the next in a seamless morass of time. Survivor's guilt and anxiety drove her to all manner of desperate actions, such as comprising an email confession for Hope's family she did not send or considering calling 9-1-1 and confessing everything to the first person to pick up. Even as she held the ancient corded phone in her hands, she caught an episode of her favorite anime, Psychoshell, on the TV in the background. The heroine's monologue reminded her of another course of action far more familiar to her.
Eager to distract herself from the toxic stew of gnawing guilt and grief, Alex set to work engineering solutions. Following a research binge, she set about manufacturing gun parts and improvised weapons in her garage workshop. From a brace of spring loaded quick-draw wrist holsters to 3D printed pistols to nail-studded bats to armed drones, her apartment became an unceasingly churning armory of homemade weapons. She began to stash them in various places in her room when the doorbell rang.
When a stranger appeared on her doorstep and introduced himself as Dexter Danforth, Alex first considered slamming the door and running. He flashed a badge before him, but she found herself more transfixed by his intelligent, perceptive eyes than the letters on the badge. He spoke coolly and casually about how hidden cameras had detected her license plate, and that he wanted her account to help stop the creature. As if by strange hypnosis, she found herself compelled to inform him of everything that transpired. It was a confession that was cathartic and cleansing, as though a heavy burden was lifted from her soul. She never advanced beyond the doorframe of her house, nor requested an attorney. Subconsciously, part of her nearly yearned for some method of atonement for Hope's death.
At the end of it all, Alex expected to be thrown into cuffs and arrested on any number of charges. What blindsided the engineer the most was Danforth's reaction to her baring all of secrets. When he politely asked for her assistance in hunting the creature, Alex's jaw dropped. When Dexter explained he had been a friend of her older sister, she immediately chided herself for not recalling the name for her notes. Calmly and concisely, he explained her sister's monster hunting, the creature's involvement in her sister's death, and the twenty-year cover up by unknown parties. He noted her background in engineering and computer science, and requested she help support his task force. It would have been utterly incredulous to her under any other circumstances, but the facts he mentioned were ones she had already independently confirmed. As though struck by divine epiphany, minutiae trivia wove itself together into lucid, logical links. With a fervent desire to ascribe meaning to the deaths of her friend and her sister, she consented.
Alex Chase met the two other people from her sister's past the following day. One was a man she occasionally followed online, the toy collector Benny Bear. He occasionally would release an online video or appear on podcasts explaining the finer points of his collection or to discuss ancient animated series from before her time. While he had a separate sphere of influence from her own, she was content her mental image of him matched his incarnation, at least upon first impression. The man beside him, Jack Yeager, was far more of mystery.
While she had read about Jack in her research into her sister's death, Alex was disconcerted by his run-ins with the police and alleged ties to the local biker gang. In person, he seemed sadder than the tough biker she imagined, a balding man with a beer gut looking a decade older than his peers. With his clumps of graying hair and sagging jowls, she wondered if the Jackhammer of local football legend had been consumed beneath this creature's cellulite folds.
Alex found the meeting location at the local office to be far more tasteful than the places she'd imagining meeting the others under differing circumstances. While she could imagine chatting with Ben during one of his convention appearances, she visualized seeing Jack in an unclean bar dominated by the sleazy stench of stale alcohol. They sat in chairs around a small table in a featureless room, while Dexter connected his laptop to a projector. She avoided making eye contact with either and waited for the conversation to start.
Alex beheld the map of town projected on the wall, with red circles marking the locations of incidents. Dates and times were denoted for each, with a brief summary for each. She read labels bearing macabre, descriptive phrases fore each, such as "Crushed deer skull," "Bone marrow from dog devoured," and the like. The times were all between sunset and sunrise, reassuring her that she was safe during the afternoon. The circle near the bunker's location was enough to stir unwanted memories, but they mercifully remained in dormancy.
"Now, I thank you all for volunteering, but we need to get down to business. The monster that murdered Miranda and Hope, which we dubbed the Crawler, is once again running wild."
He paused for a moment. "Alex, we encountered it two decades ago, but it's more aggressive than I remember it. Since it escaped the bunker, it's been picking off deer and strays. We think it's building strength and testing us."
"What do you mean by "testing you?" Isn't it just a giant animal?" Alex asked, already subconsciously aware of a disconcerting possibility.
"The Crawler we remember was intelligent enough to know it had enemies. We underestimated it, and it drew us into a trap," Dexter answered. "It was cunning, stealthy, and tough. It hid during the day, and emerged at night to feed. But we found the pattern to its feedings."
Dexter moved to the next slide, a map of town with a circle drawn around the red marks. Alex noticed the attacks formed a semi-circle relative to the bunker's location. "The Crawler is still exploring its territory, completing the circle a bit more each night. Based on the timing and locations of the attacks, we can imagine it's sticking to the woods around here."
He pointed to an area of woods east of the bunker and slightly north of town. Alex considered the logic of the predator. If it was nocturnal, it would rest in a familiar location during the day and be aware of any intrusions. By night, it would explore, hunt, and feed. It was avoiding the town center for now, but she did not know if that would last. From the nervous looks on the others' faces, she could tell they had similar thoughts to her own.
"But what if it's waiting for us, like last time?" Benny Bear asked.
"That's where our new toys will come in," Dexter said. "Technology's advanced a lot in twenty years. We'll sweep the place with armed drones, and once we find it, finish it."
"How?" Alex asked.
"Jack, you got that hardware I asked you to?"
The ex-jock nodded. He left the room for a moment and returned with a duffel bag. He slowly unzipped it, while Alex and the others gathered around. Jack pulled out a pump-action Mossberg 500 shotgun and sat it down on the table. He withdrew what had once been a double barreled shotgun, but mutilated into an ungainly pistol. Jack pulled out a small Semmerling LM4 pistol, barely the size of his palm, and slipped it into his pocket. He handed Dexter a black rifle with a customized scope, and the contractor returned an approving grin.
"M14 EBR," Dex said, inspecting the rifle's sleek, lethal form. "Taken from the location Nat Guard armory, no doubt."
"The Road Hogs' dealer said that was the biggest gun he had," Jack said. "I had to use up all the cash you gave me for that bag."
"Money well spent. We got guns out of the hands of known criminals, and put them back in the hands of more responsible citizens. That's before considering the flashbangs and frag grenades."
Alex could not help but notice Benny chortle to himself. "Us? Responsible? We're responsible for screwing up bigtime, letting it kill Miranda, and drafting her sister into our fight."
"I choose to be here," Alex said in protest. "First Miranda, now Hope. Who's next? The old lady with the noisy beagle walking her dog in the morning? That kid who always jogs along the edge of the woods? Some unlucky campers?"
"Look, Alex," Benny said, in a tone both respectful and stern. "I respect your decision to help us. But this isn't your fight. This is a dangerous, thankless, and traumatic ordeal, and-"
"Ben, that's why she'll be safe in a support role. She'll be commanding the drones and updating us from a safe distance, in a secure room in this building."
"Really? A secure room?" Benny asked incredulously. "After all we've seen, you think a locked door will protect her?"
"No, but this room will. There's an old bomb shelter in the basement, which I outfitted with protective wards and the latest milspec electronics. She's also no stranger to weapons, since she was an armorer and prop designer in New Zealand."
"Holy crap. How'd you get a job like that?" Benny asked, his jaw dropping.
"I went to a university that worked directly a Wellington special effects studio."
"Okay, that's cool."
"Thanks, Mr. Bear."
"Ben. Just call me Ben."
"Okay, Ben, but I have some questions. Can you everything you know about this creature? Its habits, its appearance, and so on. I know it's not a pleasant memory, but I want to know what happened to my sister."
Ben, Jack, and Dexter looked at each other grimly, and then back at the young woman. Alex momentarily wondered if she had struck a raw nerve, a traumatic recollection that stung like a septic wound. Then, with uncharacteristic solemnity in his eyes, Ben recalled the events in painstaking detail.
The Terminus of Comradeship
Alex found the lack of levity in Benny's voice uncharacteristically frank as he described the week after they had officially graduated from high school. Classes had ended the previous day, and they had closed in on a trail of mangled pets and deer carcasses. Noting a paucity of diurnal attacks, they engaged in a patrol through the woods at sundown with their senses sharp and weapons ready.
In those days, Benny Bear was an epicene young man with an elfin build. His keen eyes and twitching reflexes served him well in the coin-stealing arcades of that era and in battling the beasts that plagued his school. The low-weight bow, quiver of homemade arrows, and bandoleer of knives covered his tee-shirt and shorts as they hunted through the woods. Those he fought alongside were more reckless back then, less trained but more energetic.
Jack Yeager was a titan among teenagers, towering about them like a mythic giant. He could have easily passed for someone twenty-five or so, given his height and musculature. While he had no problems scoring dates, he rarely kept them as he placed higher priority on his illicit monster-hunting. While this churned the rumor mill, he never missed a football practice or game. So comfortable was he in his gear, that he walked through the woods in football padding, a helmet, and wielding a nail-studded bat in hand.
Dexter Danforth was a lot chunkier back then, his girth and race being constant sources of mockery by his petty-minded peers. Ever the careful pragmatist, he dressed in a camo hunting coat stuffed with padded armor of his own design, covered his face with a breathing mask and protective goggles, and carried a bolt-action rifle borrowed from Old Man Price. He carried a backpack full of supplies, from a first-aid kit to camera to spare ammunition for the rest. He scanned the ground and canopy for any signs of movement, and eager to support his friends whenever needed.
The one that lead them from the front was the young woman keeping them all together. Miranda Chase had the long red hair of her Irish mother, and a Celtic fury that would have halted a Roman invasion. Dressed in a leather jacket and steel-toed boots, she carried an M1860 Civil War cutlass and arbalest that Dexter had built in shop class, following instructions from a medieval manuscript. She was the forceful personality that kept them together with the demeanor of a drill sergeant ordering raw recruits into battle.
Together, they marched into the woods north of town. The beams of their flashlights danced through the rapidly darkening canopy as the last rays of the sun punctured through the leafy branches above. Thus, their illumination became a strange juxtaposition of the orange of a dying day and artificial white of their flashlights. Benny used a topographical map of the area to direct their search pattern, based on how he guessed the creature would hunt. In that shadow-haunted forest, they swept high and low in search of their Fortean quarry.
It was near a patch of mud beneath a pine tree that Benny's keen senses spotted something. Having camped and hiked extensively during his brief period in the Boy Scouts, he had come to familiarize himself with the signs of local wildlife. The muzzle of Dexter's rifle, having been duct-taped to his flashlight, briefly fell upon it, but that was enough for Ben to detect something was amiss. With an excitement born of terror and curiosity, he alerted the others to it.
What Benny saw in the pool of mud was simultaneously inhuman and uncannily human. The imprints were of a five-digit appendage unlike the paws of ursine, feline, or canine origin. The closest thing he could approximate it to was a human hand. He pressed his own hand into the mud to create a similar shape, crawling to put his weight on it. Raising his muddy fingers from the mire, he saw the chief differences with the curious prints were the lack of an opposable thumb and the number of limbs. Given the apparent rapidity of their advance through the morass, he pointed in that fateful, correct direction.
In their premature euphoria, Benny dubbed that creature the Crawler for two primary reasons. The first was its obvious method of locomotion, but the second was in reference to a similar creature from Elves of Englewood. In that series, he recalled the cliffhanger that terminated the show's brief run. The Crawler in that series was a centipede-like being with four glowing eyes, a pair of ant-like mandibles, and a pair of human hand-like forelimbs on each segment. While the monsters in the show sometimes bore an uncanny resemblance to the ones they faced, he always ascribed it towards liberal appropriation of mythology with occasional grains of truth.
Benny halted their advance through the forest when a noxious odor filled their nostrils. Its pungency increased as they approached a dead tree with dense, bulbous roots and gnarled branches like skeletal fingers. As though approaching the infected pulmonary system of a respiring giant, gusts of putrid air became stronger. Gazing into the tree with flashlights and weapons aimed high, they saw a black, fibrous mass woven in the branches. Something moved, and a bloodless rabbit carcass fell to the ground.
Benny never forgot the first time the creature had locked eyes with them. A pair of radiant red eyes like malevolent search lights rotated from opposite sides of a head twice the width of a human. A dozen unseen limbs cracked and popped as they scuttled through those branches. Two smaller eyespots, each less intense but no less malign, opened beneath the primary ones. They fell upon Miranda as the party opened fire.
Benny did not remember the entirety of what followed, due to the abject terror that overwhelmed him. He remembered the creature falling upon Miranda from the tree, swatting aside her sword as it crushed her. It ignored the bullets and arrows raining down, as though they were pebbles thrown into the rush of an oncoming torrent. He remembered Jack lowering his bat in the maddened din of gunfire before running for his life. He remembered the insane strobe of gunfire and maniac hand motions from Dexter as his hands worked the bolt of that antique rifle, before running dry and breaking. He remembered himself fleeing last, as the creature looked up at him with an expression that simultaneously read of contempt and mockery.
After that night, the three had lost the one person keeping them together. Jack tried going to college on an athletic scholarship, but failed out due to his grades and excessive partying. Dexter vanished into the University of California on the other side of the country, and then the Navy. Benny bear attended a local community college and commuted to a local school, before descending into his parent's basement and surrendering his dreams to travel. From that point on, only the most occasional and infrequent communication occurred between them, until the present.
The mood at the table was solemn as Ben finished his story. Dexter had retrieved sets of AR500 body armor vests and ballistic helmets in a green camouflage pattern, setting them out on the table for each of them. Having heard the story, Jack eagerly slipped a set on. Dex wore his like a second set of skin, adjusting the straps on each without a second thought. It was as though the physical armor was protective against the torrent of bad memories gushing forth from Ben's narrative.
"Ben, thanks for that," Alex said. "I knew it wasn't easy, but thanks for telling me."
"You're welcome. It's like getting a weight off my chest," Ben said. "Now, we have a lot of questions about the creature. We don't know where it came from, nor if it has any grander plans."
"Where did all the other creatures you face come from?"
Ben shrugged. "All over. Sometimes the river, sometimes the hills, sometimes the woods, sometimes disguised as humans."
"Was the Crawler like anything else you fought?"
Alex sighed as the three others shook their heads. "Then what's our plan? Even that show of yours never finished its run, assuming the Crawler was based on it."
"Our plan is to scout the woods during the day with drones, see if we can find any signs of the creature, and blast it until it dies."
"No offense, but that didn't work last time," Alex said. "If it can shrug off bullets, what makes you sure it hasn't learned or adapted?"
"Enough brute force can destroy almost anything," Dexter said. "We've got bigger guns and explosives, but you're right. Any suggestions?"
"Dex, we know that someone imprisoned it in that bunker. What if we investigate that?" Jack suggested. "We could find something in there."
"No way! I am not going back there," Alex said in protest.
"I know it could be dangerous, but I think we should investigate," Benny said.
"Would you mind sending a drone down there?" Dex asked. "If you want, I'll show you the control room I set up for this operation."
Alex eagerly consented to that idea.
Preparations for a Hunt
Benny Bear followed Dex, Alex, and Jack into the control room. It was located in the basement of the office building, down a flight of concrete stairs within an earthen brick cellar that undoubtedly predated the structure above it. The stucco finish had been exposed in some places, revealing rebar and piping like the bones of a buried robot. At the very bottom of the cellar entrance, they found the entrance.
The doorway and surrounding walls were ringed with the five-pointed Elder Sign that had protected them countless times in the past, with the Curves of Dho chiseled into the surrounding brickwork, the floor, and the ceiling. The door was a steel vault, similar to those in banks, controlled by a keycard and mechanical lock. The control room itself resembled a self-contained apartment more than retrofitted bomb shelter. In addition to the modern carpet and tiling, it had a self-contained bathroom, shower, bed, television, kitchenette, and a wall of monitors connected to external security cameras. Ben cynically wondered if any taxpayer money had been diverted to build it.
While no expert on modern electronics and computers, Ben overheard Alex and Dex talking about the system arrangement. The gist of the conversation, as best as he could discern it, was how to connect her drones with the existing system and interface video and audio feeds with the monitors. He saw Dex reveal quadrotor drones in a locked cabinet beneath the computer station. He explained the various weapon mounts and configurations, which Ben found himself tuning out. He and Jack headed upstairs, as both were in a world well outside their respective comfort zones.
Dex emerged ten minutes later with a trio of quadrotors flying around him. He waved to one, and directed the others to as well. He retrieved headsets from his office and handed one to each of the others. Putting it on, he spoke into it. Ben heard him loud and clear. "Alex, can you read us?"
"Yup, loud and clear!" came her chipper response. "Primary and backup audio and visual feeds working."
"Okay, now those are cool," Ben said. "Wish we had those twenty years ago."
"Yeah, I remember how bad those cheapo walkie-talkies were," Jack said with a playful jab. "Hopefully the Crawler can't generate white noise."
"I'm going to take these upstairs to give Alex a test run," Ben said. "In the meantime, why don't you guys get ready to roll? We'll head out in an hour."
Dexter and his mechanical companions ascended the stairwell to the second floor, leaving Ben and Jack alone. Curious about how the armor felt, Ben placed the helmet on his head and armor on his chest. It was hefty, but a pittance compared to the emotional burden he was wearing. He began examining the different shotgun shells that Dex prepared for him.
"You really think this time will be different?" Jack asked, concern wavering in his voice.
"We've got better hardware, that's for sure."
"Dex must've spent a small fortune on all this crap. You really think he makes that much?"
"Ben, even if he did make that much, you think he'd been planning this for a while."
"It was always obvious he always liked her. But you really think this is some ill-conceived revenge scheme? His white whale?"
"No, Ben, I'm just finding this shit weird. I mean, for the amount of money he spent on this stuff, he could've hired mercenaries or hell, paid off the cops. Not like they make that much, anyway."
"But they could've been massacred by the creature. Didn't he say he wants to keep the body count low?"
"Look, Ben, I know you've got good eyes, but you're missing something here. The Crawler was buried underground for twenty years. Dex says he wants to find out who buried it, but keeping the incident low key's the opposite of what I'd do if I was trying to flush it out."
"Last time was a media circus. Maybe he doesn't want to spread panic and repeat that?"
"Exactly, Ben! If I wanted to flush out a conspiracy, I wouldn't stoop to this cloak and dagger shit. I'd blow this story wide open, ale"
"So you're saying he's got the wrong approach?"
"I think he wants to kill the creature, no doubt. But I think he's got another angle on this," Jack said. "I know you don't trust me, Ben, and you have damn good reason to. Hell, I don't trust me. But I've seen shady shit, and this has something shady written all over it."
Jack ran his hand over the box of shotgun shells. "For example, he went gangbusters with the munitions. We've got buckshot, birdshot, slugs, dragon's breath rounds, armor-piercing sabots, mini-taser slugs, explosive shells, and some kind of flashbang slug here. Honestly, you think he would be handing this stuff out if he didn't want the Crawler dead? But what happens afterwards?"
Benny did not answer Jack's question, unsure whether he was expecting an answer or being rhetorical. He thought briefly about it and returned to focusing on his archery. Leaving Jack to his musings and cleaning his shotgun, he focused on the weapons he knew best. He had brought the compound bow with him, and he re-familiarized himself with the draw weight and proper technique. Setting up an archery target he had brought with him in the parking lot out back, he focused on his solutions to the archer's paradox, allowing the arrows to sinuously whip through the air like fleeing serpents. During the entire time, he wondered how much the people he had known since his teenage years changed in his prolonged absence from their lives.
The Hunt Resumes
Benny met the others as they headed to an unmarked utility van parked in the back of the office building. Placing their supplies in the rear of the vehicle, he climbed into the second row just before a stack full of quadrotor drones in stacked in some sort of charging station. Dexter drove, following the waypoints on the GPS unit on the dashboard. Jack sat behind him, having left this duffle bag of guns in the front seat in his stead as though it was his surrogate.
The ride had an awkward silence to it, as Benny struggled to think of something to say. Jack's own words bound his questions in his throat, but he also wondered if Jack had a vendetta or axe to grind with Dex. There was no question which of them was more successful, but the unresolved question was which of them was more honest. The unassailable integrity expected of old friends, a concept he had held sacrosanct, was sinking in his mind like a damaged hull. He was unsure whether the baseless accusations or the uncritical acceptance of what he had been told was more troubling.
The van and his ruminations came to a stop after a drive that seemed longer than it should have. Following Dex's orders, Benny opened the back doors of the van. He stepped into his armor and readied his weapon. The quadrotors darted out the back door, zipping into the air like uncaged birds. They sped off in different directions, with one presumably heading for the bunker that had sprung up like a concrete weed in the two-decade interim.
Dexter opened a laptop and set it in the back of the van. He gestured Benny and Jack to come over as they beheld the camera feed from a drone. It zipped between the boughs of towering pines as it wove through the canopy. It breached the roof of the forest, allowing the camera to visualize the clearing ahead of them. The drone slowly approached the structure with a human wariness, as Alex understandably had issues about returning there. Nevertheless, the drone descended towards the concrete structure no larger than a campsite's outhouse.
Benny saw the drone slowly descended into the tightly enclosed stairwell, imagining the two girls compelled downward by an unknown mixture of curiosity, courage, and stupidity. The drone switched to its camera to the infrared spectrum, but the stairwell had cooled since Alex's previous visit. Dex mumbled something about the ambient moisture and temperature in the tunnel probably having changed, as the periodic breathing of the prior occupant was absent. Briefly, Benny turned Dex's attention towards something on the wall, and he asked Alex what it was.
"That's the face I saw earlier. Switching to visible spectrum," Alex said over hear headset.
Benny briefly observed the cartoon image drawn on the walls. He saw that face stare at him in the dancing flashlight before Alex moved on. He wracked his brain for some idea of what the character could be. He recalled seeing a face similar to that somewhere, but the specifics escaped him. He thought he had a possible connection, but he dismissed it. Assuming some vandal had drawn the picture, he ignored the other possibility his mind was screaming at him.
Benny returned to watching camera descend into the bottom of that concrete tomb. As the camera caught the hint of the broken bulkhead, he noted the camera turned back towards the stairs. He wondered if Alex was hesitant about concluding the descent, perhaps due to traumatic memories. He half-expected Dexter to shout orders at her, but he was pleasantly surprised by his actions.
"Alex, you okay? I'll understand if you don't want to look inside," he said. "I can control the drone from my end if you want, and you can go take a break if you'd like."
"T-thanks," came the respond from the other end. "I'm going to check on the other drones."
Dexter moved the drone into the final chamber. Alex saw it pass through the corroded steel door, and beheld it enter the sealed chamber at the bottom. The drone swept its camera in a 360-degree circle, scanning the ceiling and floor as it scanned every millimeter of the closet-sized chamber at the deepest part of the room. Etched into the concrete in the floor were the sinuous Dho Curves and the edges of what had once been an Elder Sign. The marks had been scratched into illegibility, as the concrete they had been drawn into was reduced to putty-like consistency. The occult wards, if they had ever worked, had undoubtedly failed long ago.
Dexter made another pass around the room, searching for any trace of organic substances. The room had no obvious obstacles that could be used to conceal any large objects of creatures, save a few dark spots in the corners. Aside from small cracks in the walls, there was no sign the creature had tried to burrow out or carve its way free. The sole object in the room that Benny did not recognize was a gossamer substance in the corner of the room, which seemed to sink into the floor. The substance left no trace of its passing, as if the it directly waived the laws regarding the conservation of matter.
"Fascinating. It seems the creature has destroyed all traces of its habitation here," Dexter noted with almost dispassionate interest. "Whatever it's made of, and whatever it made its cocoon out of, seem to dissolve rapidly. Perhaps it is a clean eater. I wonder if that behavior is something it's learned since last time, or if it's taken its leftovers to some new lair."
Ben thought he heard Alex shudder over the headset.
"Sorry about that, Alex," Dexter said. "But there's virtually no trace it's been here. There's some traces of corrosive chemicals, perhaps secreted by the creature, which could account for rust on the door and turning the concrete to mush."
"Guys, I found something. There's tracks in the dirt, and they're fresh," Alex said. "They're directly east of your current position."
"Good work. Keep searching, and you are clear to engage if you see anything," Dexter said, clapping his hands together. "The rest of you jokers, get ready. We're going to end this."
Sending the drone out of the tunnel, Benny could not help but feel a modicum of relief. They had a fresh lead, and the Crawler was still out there. While he did not know where it would be, he knew that tonight would be the end for it, or for them.
The Hunt Ends
Benny walked through the woods with an arrow nocked and eyes sharp. Jack walked beside him with his shotgun ready, but Dexter led the way into the deep forest. The sun was waning in the sky, but it would be at least three hours until dusk. Reflecting on the amount of time they had to find the creature, he wondered if they would find the creature and put it out of its misery while it slept. He didn't know if the creature slept during the day, but he hoped that it would not awaken while they closed in on its lair.
Benny descended deep into that arboreal cathedral beneath trees older than European settlement of the New World. The land around here was bad for farming, bad for lumber, bad for mining, bad for building on, and that had paradoxically spared it the worst of industrialization and the lack of economic development.
In the peaceful isolation of the forest, Ben wondered if the creature, and some of the other monsters, were remnants of a primordial era reacting with hostility towards the race that defiled their habitat. He quickly dispelled that thought, as many of the monsters were even more hostile towards nature than even the most avaricious developer. He wondered if they had evolved under some alien sun, or wandered across some dimensional boundary, and were now outsiders on a world that became their tomb.
Benny initially thought that the monstrous, teratoid creatures simply reacted out of fear. What he experienced had shown him the opposite of that. He remembered the monsters that hunted for pleasure, rather than need. He remembered the seemingly petty acts of destructed visited upon bystanders for no apparent reason. He remembered the capricious cruelties inflicted on doomed victims by monsters human and inhuman. He remembered why he started in the first place, and what Toriel would have done: Put down that which threatened his home and friends. He wondered how Toriel would have dealt with a betrayal.
Benny's introspection was ruined by the buzzing of a quadrotor drone just above his head. He turned to the side and raised his bow instinctively, unfamiliar with the sound. The drone hovered just above a patch of wet soil, dampened by water draining from a nearby tree trunk. Alex pointed its camera at the ground. The familiar five-fingered print of the Crawler was pressed into the moist topsoil, along with the trail of something being dragged behind it. He wondered if it was dragging some recent victim with it. The trail lead directly into a darkened corner of the forest, in where the shadows congealed like blood.
Benny saw something dark and glistening coiled around the lower branches of a massive tree. Its glossy carapace glistened with a petroleum sheen. It reeked of caustic chemicals and fresh charnel. Its segments seemed to meld with the ambient darkness. Its limbs were coiled in closely, fixating it in place around the tree. It neither stirred nor moved, as though it was an abstract sculpture granted an unholy semblance of life. It waited their motionless, as if daring them to make the shot.
Benny gestured to the others, and they trained their weapons on the tree. He readied an explosive arrow, aiming higher to compensate for the bulky, non-aerodynamic head. Dexter leveled his rifle at what he presumed was the head. Jack readied an explosive slug in his shotgun. With a gentle exhalation, he released the arrow from his bow. He quickly looked behind him as the explosive blossomed, eager to run for his life. He readied another arrow and unleashed it at the tree. He heard Jack's hands racking the pump and the continuous report of Dexter's rifle. Dex hurled a hand grenade at the tree, sending splinters flying through the air. Alex's drones joined in, opening fire with the pistols mounted on each.
Benny joined in the glorious fusillade, but ceased when the others halted to reload. A hunter's instinct caused him to step back and order the others to take over behind the nearby trees. The smoke from their barrage had not fully dissipated. Flaming splinters from the tree embedded themselves into the ground, and one hot one punched into his shoulder. Cursing to himself, he readied a hunting broad-head intended for the creature's carcass. Looking out from behind the tree, he scanned for his target.
When four familiar red eyes stared back at him, Benny forgot his delusions of heroism and ran screaming. His cowardice was contagious, and he heard Dex and Jack darting behind him. Behind them came the terrible cadence from a multitude of limbs skittering across the ground. The sporadic gunfire from the others did nothing to halt the advance of the creature, which moved with a celerity unmatched by human legs. Fearing the physical prowess of his youth leave him, he took a breath and glanced over his shoulder.
Benny beheld the Crawler emerging from the shadows of the deep forest and passing under a sunbeam filtering through the canopy. It ripped a drone from the air with a disjointed arm, smashing it against a nearby tree. He thought he saw a line of smoke arise from the portion of the body that passed directly under it. He saw the radiant eyes fall upon him as the mandibles opened wide, almost clattering in anticipating of a fresh meal. He tried to sprint, but he stumbled to the ground. Like the cliffhanger of his favorite series, he prepared to meet his fate like Toriel would. A revelation clicked in his head as he had no one to share it with. He reached for his bow and launched a final arrow at it.
"Use flashbangs!" he shouted as the arrow flew towards its target.
Benny beheld the arrow missed the creature by a meter, but it smashed into a nearby tree before detonating. He covered his eyes and ears as the flashbang arrowhead detonated. His ears rang. He saw vibrant colors floating before his vision. He thought he saw Miranda smirking wryly at him, standing beside Toriel. He closed his eyes as Dex threw a flashbang grenade, and Jack loaded a new shell into his shotgun. Two more detonations followed, and he was blind during the entire spectacle.
Benny laid low and covered his ears. He heard the fusillade of gunfire resume, this time more rapid and regular than before. He heard the drones buzzing like angry hornets as they strafed the ground beneath them. He heard the chittering of the Crawler weakened and ultimately cease, but the barrage of gunfire resumed. By the time he opened his eyes, he saw that his theory had been validated.
Benny was pulled to his feet by Dex and Jack, who high-fived him as they lead him back towards what was left of the creature. The New Canterbury Crawler, like countless imaginary monsters, had been vanquished by the daylight. The rapidly dissolving mound of sun-bleached, skeletal chitin that sat on the forest floor was all that remained of the monster that traumatized him twenty years ago. He saw Dex try to fill a test tube with the hide of the creature, only for it to melt in his hand. He remembered how the line of sunlight singed its carapace, and it clicked for him. The archetype he had been missing the entire time, the one drawn in facsimile in the tunnel, was key.
"It's Carl the Caterpillar. He's the Crawler," Benny explained. "Eibon Animation recycled him as a monster for Elves of Englewood from his original cartoon series. They both have hands instead of legs, a preference for nocturnal activity, and with some imagination, those four eyes look like a clown face with rosy cheeks."
"Shit, man, I never would've got that," Jack said. "But wasn't Carl just some imaginary friend that came out at night?"
"Exactly. In the series, daylight would make him vanish," Benny said. "But I doubt he's coming back from this one."
"Hope not," Dexter said. "Don't worry about the cleanup. You guys head back to the van, and I'll stash our gear. Tonight, we're celebrating."
Jack and Benny threw their gear into the van, and instead walked all the way back to town. So eager to celebrate their private victory, they debated where they'd have dinner that night. While his favorite place as a teenager had shut down long ago, Benny decided to try the Chinese takeout place across the street from the public library. Jack said he'd order a table for them, so Benny could go home and clean up.
Benny excitedly found the package he had been waiting for had arrived. He hurriedly opened it with a dagger in the style of Toriel's, and he plopped the scriptwriter's notes down on his kitchen table. While he resolved to go through them later, he skimmed through the script synopsis for the incomplete cliffhanger. Much to his chagrin, the elf would have slain the creature by luring into the sunlight. Setting aside the book, he headed to meet his friends.
While Benny went home, Dexter Danforth began to gather anything in the woods that might directly implicate him or his friends. He stashed the functional drones in the van and powered them down. He chucked the broken one in the back for later repair. After clearing out a few broken arrows and spent cartridges, he pulled a satellite phone out of his pocket.
"Tango down. The specimen's been terminated, and I was unable to secure a sample," he said. "The exoskeleton was highly resistant to ballistic and edged weapons, but it had a critical weakness to photosensitivity. So, just as well it's gone."
He pressed it closer to his ears, as if to keep his absent comrades from clandestine eavesdropping.
"The specimen would have escaped eventually, as it systematically weakened the bindings containing it," he said. "We may need to be more pro-active with the others. I've already informed our assets in the Five Eyes, NATO, and Japan."
He flinched for a moment, as if registering a verbal blow.
"No, they don't know anything about the Attic, but I won't tell them any more than I have to," he said. "But the Juvenalia Task Force is now fully mobilized. I'll await further orders regarding the Eibon Animation specimens."
Dexter Danforth hung up after that, unaware that Alex had overheard the whole conversation on the damaged drone's microphone.