David Jones’ regal occupant confirms suspicions these guards are in place purely for my benefit. They lose their thousand yard stares and move in concert, forming a narrow gauntlet that leads to the torn shutters. I am given no choice when faced with the narrow gap, hemmed in by bare breasts and pot bellies. Thankfully the kicking and punching associated with such a privilege is withheld.
I am funnelled between them, doing my best not to brush against the naked hosts. They crowd in after me, blocking the return path. Halting at the sharp-edged opening brings inexorable encouragement to enter by sharp-nailed fingers poking into my back. Gingerly I turn sideways and scrape through, holding the tiny child above my head to prevent injury to it.
A frightened glance over my shoulder is wasted on the few Creeps visible. They fix me with dead interest through the hole but are not invited inside by their master. Something I am agreeable to, if somewhat ambivalent about the unknown reason behind it.
Unwilling to linger and possibly unleash pent-up hostilities, I turn from the jagged metal slats and find a lone Creep offering dumb welcome. I vaguely recognise him as the male Cricket and I spied upon earlier. He looks at the child I’m still holding up. Lowering it self-consciously I shift it under my armpit possessively.
This Creep is an unusual one. The host has undergone comprehensive hair removal. Head, face, and armpits are all bare. He is covered in a thousand welts and scratches. His ears are ragged nubs, and the nose, an open hole surrounded by scar tissue. A slimy, green-tinged film covers his skin and he smells of death.
The damp and dirty cloth around his waist is not underwear as I’d first thought. The covering, from navel to thighs, is a thick wrap of frayed material. I wonder why his Parasite bothers when every other ‘inside’ Creep is immune from modesty’s charms.
Haughtily he turns to lead a way between furniture and shop fittings. It is dim, still and musty in here. The uncertain light of low and hooded candles fails to illuminate much past knee height. My bare soles tell me the carpet is rough and matted, ingrained with the dirt and grease of a thousand feet.
I follow my guide at a cautious distance, lingering at each lesser-travelled avenue. These dim passages snake into deeper blackness that I hesitate to run into. Greater horrors may lie in wait beyond.
We enter a huge, open expanse. The floor has been cleared of human constructions. Filthy skylights overhead reveal great swaths of shadowy, hanging nets attached to a vaulted ceiling. The material clots and sags with no particular pattern, or discernable purpose. Strands are cemented to the floor with a smooth hard substance.
Reaching out to touch a nearby string is irresistible and immediately regretted. I recoil from the stickiness, painfully pulling my fingertip free with a tearing sound. The taunt strand vibrates, setting off a chain reaction of shifting movement from the suspended clumps and clusters above. Strangely they all react at the same time even the bits not joined to this one.
My guide halts and lifts his head to stare up into the tangled, trembling mass. A pattering sound of soft rain echoes from every dark hollow and space. A scuttling of rubbed twigs rises to a crescendo of scratching and clattering. Dark, small shapes leap and skitter above and around us.
Parasites. Crawlys. Thousands of them in various stages of growth scampering to get at the intruder. The child under my arm stirs and opens bleary eyes. I hold it close in doomed defeat. This nightmare ends here, naked and scared, and most regretfully, screamingly sober.
I bet it won’t be quick.
The tsunami of black, long-legged bodies flows over and fills every flat surface around us. They hold their rapidly clicking pincers upright and flood surrounding furniture. The drapery hangs heavily with thousands more.
It is a sight to halt any man’s heart.
Mine beats on in great thuds and hiccups.
The escorting Creep draws close and steps a slow circle around me, holding out his arms, extending his fragile shield to ward them off. I switch my other-sight on to see his glow. The radiant and powerful signal sent is absorbed and filed away.
The transmission is a complex tune carrying a harsh message of repulsion. But his shield is a porous wall not up to the task of turning away every one of the scuttling Parasites. Several fist-sized Parasites break through, determinedly tottering forward. As the Creep circles they clamber up his legs and slide off the gel coating. Unperturbed, they dig their pincers into his skin. He does not shake them off or brush them away. I hear projected thoughts being trumpeted.
‘Be Calmed. Obey. This meat is unsuitable. The Mother demands obedience. You must obey or be punished.’
They ignore him. Furtive movements increase amongst the dripping stalactites of ropes and rootlets above. Parasites drop from above, sliding off my shield yet falling through the Creep’s to land on his head and shoulders. They slide from his greased skin, clipping and clawing. The cloth makes more sense now. Without it his genitals would be shredded and he’d bleed to death. Not even a Parasite can heal flesh quickly enough to prevent the frenzied zeal of its brothers and sisters.
Speaking of protection, I’m feeling terribly exposed. A suit of armour this insubstantial shield is not. I feel the hurt of tearing cells at my demand to expand the shield. The enclosed baby, protected from its opiate of fog, cries loudly.
The Crawlies, goaded by its screams, dare to ignore the edict in greater numbers. They continue running at me, snapping and lashing at my mental screen’s pliable structure. It is a creation they aren’t equipped to penetrate. Angry and hungry they keep trying. My headache increases as I turn in a trapped small, clear circle. The floor is a black carpet of waving stick legs and bulging abdomens. The Creep covered in them. I look into the child’s red scrunched up face and feel the goose bumps cover vulnerable skin.
My hand moves to a tiny neck.
One merciful squeeze should do it.
Suddenly the netting around us billows in a gentle breeze. Only there is no wind. A tone rises, flustering the Crawlies. The low tone resonates and builds. Every Crawly is overly eager to depart the scene. They lower their pincers and retreat, desperate to escape the Mother’s wrath.
I use second-sight to find the source of this suppressing power and quickly realise it emanates from strange bulges and clots hanging above. Human forms hang suspended in the knots and bindings of misshapen, lattice-like structures. As well as spewing the ever-present fog in thick black waves they are emitting rippling cones of sound. I watch them direct the beams as searchlights to sweep Parasites away.
So this is how they manufacture that crap.
I pick up several more areas of unnatural darkness flowing from less distinguishable human packages. Cocooned hosts by the dozen, connected by pulsing cables like a battery of minds joined in series. Instinctively I know they are signal boosters, sending out a blanketing message of calm.
All becomes still and silent again. Not completely silent. The baby’s cries are degenerating into a horrific air-sucking, full-powered-scream staccato. I get the evil eye from the reddened, pinched Creep, and graciously withdraw my shield.
The child quietens in the thick fog. The diaper-wearer’s slow removal of his scrutiny is reinterpreted as a warning not to touch anything else.
I shrug indifferently.
Whatever you say, Nappy-man.