At our approach, the David Jones guardians lose their thousand yard stares and step inwards to form a narrow gauntlet. Hemmed in by bared breasts and pot bellies, cowed by their hostile glares, I shuffle forward; thankful that the kicking and punching usually associated with this formation is withheld.
I slow as I approach the ominous torn shutters. The Hosts crowd me, and I continue onwards, repelled by the press of their clammy bare skin against mine. Sharp-nailed fingers poke into my back when the darkness beyond stops me dead. Gingerly I turn sideways to avoid scraping myself on the ragged metal, thrusting the tiny child before me as a peace offering to any clawed monsters that may lie in wait beyond. One last frightened glance back shows the Creeps outside do not attempt to come through with me. Their exclusion is both agreeable and worrying at the same time.
Unwilling to linger and possibly unleash their pent-up aggression, I turn from the metal slats and involuntarily recoil with a short scream. A lone, hideously mutilated Creep waits for me, staring in dumb welcome. He looks at the child I’m still holding out in front of me and I lower her self-consciously, and then possessively tuck the small body beneath my armpit when his eyes continue to covet the morsel.
This Host must be of yet another cast. It has undergone comprehensive hair removal. Head, face, and armpits are all bare. Welts and scratches cover his body, and scar tissue is particularly noticeable around his ragged ears and nose. A slimy, green-tinged film covers his skin and he smells of death. A damp and dirty cloth is thickly wrapped around his groin and waist. Modesty? Or protective measure from whatever it is that flays him. Either way his clothing makes my nakedness even more disconcerting.
I look around. It is dim, still and musty in here. The uncertain light of low and hooded candles mark some sort of pathway, but fails to illuminate much of anything above knee height. My bare soles tell me the carpet is rough and matted; ingrained with the dirt and grease of a thousand feet.
The Host slopes off into the shadows. Confused, and seemingly uninvited, I follow at a cautious distance. No one stops me lingering at the intersections we pass. I peer down each dim alternate passage indecisively. They snake into deeper blackness and I hear large masses shift and rustle in the distance. Frightened more of the unknown, I hurry after the guiding Creep’s measured tread. Greater horrors than him lie in wait beyond this candlelit track.
We enter a huge, open expanse, revealed to me through filthy skylights that are almost completely covered by great swathes of hanging nets. This part of the building has been gutted; cleared of all human constructions. And the Parasites have been busy redecorating; inspired by their gloomy natures.
Attached to vaulted ceilings by a thousand cables the material clots and sags with no particular pattern, or discernible purpose. One of these tethers is cemented to the floor nearby. I reach out a finger to touch its sticky coating and then recoil, painfully leaving a layer of skin behind. The taunt thread vibrates from that slightest contact, setting off a chain reaction of shifting movement from the suspended clumps and clusters above.
My guide halts and lifts his head to stare up into the tangled, trembling mass. The sound of a heavy, intermittent rain; of something other than water; patters down, echoing from every dark hollow and space around us. A scuttling of rubbed twigs rises to a crescendo of scratching and clattering. Small, dark shapes leap and skitter.
Crawley’s! Thousands of them, in various stages of maturity, scamper to revenge our intrusion. A tsunami of black, long-legged bodies flow down drapery that supports over ten thousand more. They are rapidly clicking their pincers, creating a crackling sound like dry wood burning. My heart beats in great thuds and hiccups.
The child under my arm stirs. I hold her close, ready to share my doom. This nightmare ends here, naked and scared, and most regretfully, sober. I bet it won’t be quick.
My escorting Creep draws close and steps a slow circle around us, holding out his arms. The Parasite inside him extends a warbling signal to warn off its brothers and sisters. My Other-sight flickers on so I don’t miss a moment, allowing me to see the radiance emitted from the Host’s mind.
The transmission is a complex tune carrying a message of calm. But it is weak, and the Crawlies are breaking through by sheer force of numbers; determined to get at me. As the Creep circles, Parasites clamber up his legs, slipping on the gel coating. Unperturbed, they dig their pincers into his skin. Undaunted by the pain this must cause, the Parasite continues projecting the demand the Crawlies are too wild to heed.
‘Be calmed. Obey. This Meat is unsuitable. The Mother demands obedience. You must obey or be punished.’
They disregard this advice. Furtive movements increase amongst the dripping stalactites of ropes and rootlets above. Parasites drop onto my shield, are repelled, and slide off. However, the Creep’s shield is too weak and the Parasites fall through, landing on his head and shoulders. His greased skin provides no purchase though they clip and claw at him madly as they fall. The Host’s loin-cloth makes more sense now. Without it his genitals would be shredded and he’d probably bleed to death.
Unconsciously cupping my own groin, I throw the invisible shield outwards to protect the new-born from a falling monster. It is flung away but I still wish my protection was a more substantial suit of armour. Brain cells tear when I demand a further increase, but the shield blooms obediently, doubling in size. The enclosed baby, removed from its opiate of fog, begins to whimper again.
Like me, the Crawlies are also dismayed by the rising cries that quickly become an ear-splitting screeching. The assaulting front line of Parasites shifts away from my shield’s circumference but more continue to collect behind in ever greater numbers. They want our flesh badly enough to endure the punishing sound.
Angry and hungry they keep lashing at my shield. My headache peaks to a new high, and I can only turn helplessly in a small, trapped circle. The floor all around is blackly carpeted in waving, clicking pincers and fat, bulging abdomens. My guide is covered in them. I sorrowfully look into the child’s red scrunched up face and feel the goose bumps covering her vulnerable skin. My hand moves to a tiny neck. One merciful squeeze should end her suffering.