A Tattered Black Shroud
If darkness is the absence of light, then this was a darkness endless depths below all others. Down here there was no sense of time, just a raging struggle to cling to life. It was raw and primal, scary and scurrying, more rabid than anything else.
But in the not too distant past, something new had seeped into the black caverns where that concept had lost all meaning. At the bottom of the craggy tunnels that had been burrowed down from the forgotten surface eons ago, an odor had oozed in, the odor of death.
Down here that stench was everywhere, more a part of this life than life itself. Gnawed chunks of flesh were strewn like rubble in the crushing darkness, quickly decaying into grime and dirt.
But this new odor was different, more rancid and rank, as if the excruciating savagery of life being taken away had released an onslaught of sputtering fumes.
It had seeped out into the steaming caverns, then exploded straight up like a billowing fog, because this was dying on a gargantuan scale, the death-rattle-groan of a once grand giant.
If memory is keeping the past alive, then the glowing eyed creatures had violently killed it long ago. They knew nothing of their past, except for the bottomless hunger that had always been there.
It was hunger that had pushed them deeper and deeper in search of any kind of sustenance. Life always clings to life with a consuming ferocity, and that's what had driven them underground on their brutalizing scavenger hunt.
Along the way, they'd been forced to change, but the memory of that was gone too, just more murky shadows from a past that didn't have meaning anymore.
They weren't even aware of what they were now, because of the suffocating darkness. Their bulging red eyes glimmered in the dark, but that's all that was visible as they scurried around gnawing at the dirt. They clawed and slashed, because that's what they'd become, nothing more than a bestial will to live.
But now they had reached their final dead end. They had burrowed all the way down, consuming and destroying, until there was nothing left except smoldering rock and dirt.
Instinct is always more powerful than reason, so the exodus began, as the death-rattle-groan shuddered around them. They scurried away in the only direction left, back up from where they came crusty eons ago.
The atrocious spew churned out from somewhere even deeper below. It smelled like the end of the world, because that's what it was.
It had no reason left, but instinct said it was being led along by something that belonged to it. There was no concept of family, because that was part of that forgotten past. There was only the ravenous hunger to survive, which was always cloaked in the brutalizing darkness.
But its instinct said the creature nudging it up had come from it, so it followed along, crawling up into one of the vein-like tunnels twisting up overhead.
The other creature was younger, so it was much stronger, with larger, brighter eyes. It stayed with the younger creature, its feeble form struggling up through the gloom.
But now the ferocious hunger that had always been the whole of its existence had finally become too much to bear. All it could do was crawl and shiver, lapping weakly at the ashen rock and dirt, because that's all that was left.
But even this it tried to hide, because weakness would mean its end would come with a hungry flurry of gnawing teeth.
They were one of many, a vast swarm rising up out of the depths below. They'd long ago been scorched to a blistery blackness by the smoldering heat, so they looked like a surging flood of burning red eyes.
They swelled up into the twisting tunnels where the billowing smell was still churning. They had no sense of where they were going, pushed only by the instinctual need to flee. Their ascent was grim and arduous, climbing up through the spewing smoke and jagged black maze of forgotten tunnels.
It still wanted to live with the same desperate rage, but its trembling body was now a traitor, seeming to prefer death over what lay ahead.
But the younger creature still hovered close, nudging it up with the rising mass.
All lives have meaning, and everything is alive, including the colossal creation spinning through space. It had always been grand, with a complexity impossible to understand, like life itself.
It had been there from the very beginning, speaking a language all its own, of air and wind, water and oceans, mountains and earth. It had an instinct to survive too, and this is what it had always whispered to those who could hear.
But the whisper had grown fainter and fainter, as the gorging attacks and assaults had increased in scope. They'd always scurried across its surface with a wanton cruelty, completely unaware of what survival was really all about.
Its destruction had been gradual, but steadfast and determined at the same time. It had been desecrated and devoured almost from the very beginning, until it had finally been depleted so completely it was little more than a skeletal husk.
The whisper was gone, because all its past glory was gone too.
Now there was just a death-rattle-groan.
The torturous trek couldn't be measured in lengths of time, because none existed anymore. Having lived in darkness for so long had taken away any means or need for measuring it.
The black mass moved like a swarm, first up from the simmering depths below, then higher and higher where the heat was not as gaseous and stinging. The fumes still chugged up around them, seeking higher ground too.
The ravenous hunger, if anything, got worse, as if the climbing black swarm was one vast insatiable yearning. They were travelling back up the way they'd descended, so the path was as bleak and ravaged as the way they'd left it, a barren wake of gnawed-at rock.
Then the craggy terrain began to change as they kept going up.
The rising mass climbed over crumbling subterranean structures that had been erected long ago. They had no sense of what they were, only that they were different from the molten rock and crud below.
Still lapping weakly at the ground beneath it, it knew it was dying. It was surrounded by the flood of luminescent eyes, but now rising up with a slower crawl. They'd become acclimated to the thick sulfurous air in the depths below, but now it was different.
While it had always fought to survive, it was because of instinct and nothing else. This instinct had been the driving force in place of all others, something deep and unyielding that was gnawing too.
But now it was dying, the end was near.
The younger creature was still urging it up, shepherding it through the rising chaos. But its body was rebelling even more, sagging weaker, on fire with pain, seeking the end.
It stumbled once, splaying flat, and a charred ripple from the mass broke off, ready to feed. The younger creature was an instant shield, thrashing them away with a fury it could only watch with a flickering gaze.
It was too weak to take notice of the changing terrain, the crumbling structures erected long ago when everything was different. Something had lived here back in that forgotten past. But now they were abandoned, left behind to collapse and decay like everything else.
There was also something hidden in the darkness on the craggy walls. Crude drawings and writing, all telling a story of that shadowy past when there was the last remains of memory left. They were gargantuan and desperate, an anguished plea to try to remember another life that came before this.
But the scorched creatures didn't see it, and they wouldn't have understood it even if they had. They wouldn't have recognized the pictures of creatures on two legs that had moved underground to find food and a new way to survive. They wouldn't have remembered that's what they'd looked like just an eon ago.
If darkness is the absence of light, then a life lived in darkness is startled by light. They had journeyed for what seemed like an eternity, but only because it was measured in pain. They were climbing past the crumbling structures from their forgotten past, when it appeared with a stinging strangeness.
It was only a tiny slash of light hitting the ground from somewhere above, but it had a force that sent a rippling shiver through the black swarm. They felt a gush of air along with it that was different too, not as hot and stifling, but still wafting with smoke.
They clawed up in different paths through the withered tunnels, breaking off in streams.
It felt that death was now closer than life, but it also felt another kind of end was near. The younger creature still urged it along through the wispy smoke and now splattering light.
The black swarm emerged from below, crawling out of colossal black holes and blasted craters like a volcanic spew.
And now the underground darkness was gone, replaced by a smoky light that made everything look like ghostly shadows. The surprise was that it didn't look that different from the depths below, just a more visible wasteland of endless crud and craggy rock.
In the smoky light, the black swarm looked like a gigantic blister blinking wildly in every direction. They were blind underground in the perpetual darkness, and now they were blinded by the stinging light.
It was still alive, but just barely, and it gazed at the younger creature hovering close by. It had never known love or hate, only the ravenous hunger to survive in darkness and decay. But this younger creature seemed different, as if it knew what surviving was really all about. Maybe it had a new kind of instinct for a new kind of future.
But it was too late for that.
It lay down to die, but it wasn't alone, because the vast black swarm collapsed to the ground too with a splattering thud. Their instinct told them nothing could survive anymore in a world like this, a world that had been eaten alive one gnawing bite at a time.
There was a final shudder beneath them, then nothing else.
And now there was truly death everywhere, as the swarm of scorched creatures lay scattered on the ground like a tattered black shroud for a now dead giant.
About the Author
Sheldon Woodbury is a frequent contributor to Popcorn Fiction and would like to thank Derek Haas for creating a place for the kind of genre short stories he's always loved.