Authors: Lucy Taylor
But the images accompanying the sensations aren't so innocuous: a debased horde of humanity crammed into a stadium of bleeding, cruelly crushed bodies, on their knees weeping and howling. Heads thrown back, ready for the knife, keening mad invocations to an obscene deity. Their blood soaks the earth, out of which bloom stone flowers brimming with nectar and death. The vision claws at my heart and I hear my own voice telling me to get moving, to find Hargrave and Pree and get out.
It's hard to obey. I go on.
The next chamber confounds me: a sprawling catacomb dripping with soda-straw stalactites and mounded with nodular masses of calcite popcorn. Crystals of moonmilk, a carbonate material the texture of cream cheese, festoon the floor. None of it corresponds to any maps I've seen. Even worse are the braided mazes of lava tubes offering a bewildering array of possible paths deeper into the cave's interior.
But the cave, in its infernal sentience, appears to respond. The energy of the singing amplifies, the frequencies becoming imperative, like the head of a silky mallet pinging a flesh xylophone. Letting it guide me, I scramble up a succession of ledges to access a passageway midway up the wall. Its coiled path empties into an angular chamber that resembles a vandalized ossuary: stone pillars surrounding a scattering of femurs, ribs, clavicles, and fragments of skull. That the bones have lain here since long before cavers first discovered the Brotterling is made clear by the centuries-old webs of calcite deposits that veil them.
I pick my way through the boneyard as quickly as possible. Beyond it, my headlamp illuminates the area from where the sound energy seems to emanateâa lavish display of boxwork about four feet overhead, where calcite blades project at angles from the cave walls, creating a dense and elaborate honeycomb.
Between the mineral blades gleam dark seams, fistulas of ebony pulsing like fat heaps of caviar that vibrate with an avid, luminescent life. Fine, blood-red webbing threads through the black, a network of alien capillaries that carries not blood but warm, coppery soundâit seeps under my scalp and teases behind my ears, seeking to peel back and penetrate the soft, vulnerable creases of brain.
If I get out of here alive, I know what I'll tell Boone: the singing's not random or chaotic; it has distinct meters and color tones, and it pulses with dark languor underlaid with vicious intent.
I will tell him the creators of this song are not human, but not unsentient, either. And if the term
applies to them at all, it's a life in service only to the obliteration of all others.
Long stretches of spellbound time pass as I stand here, watching the tiny caviar mouths pulse and burble out a black saliva of sound that feels ripe and almost sexually decadent.
Avid and succulent and, yesâMathew Hargrave nailed itâdelicate, too.
I want to slather my hands in the mineral meat between those basalt blades, squeeze up fistfuls of its alien iridescence and lather it into my pores, let it replace all the blood in my body with its unholy wails.
I take off my helmet and hurl it away. Then I reach up to remove the headphones.
And stop. Above me, imbedded into the hivework, loom strange columns worked into the stone, skeletal formations lifting toward the obsidian sky. Sections are patterned with ovoids and creases of lighter stone, the pale areas inlaid with vertical striations of crimson. The sight wallops the breath from my chest.
One of the columns is watching me.
Basalt doesn't bleed, but burst eyeballs and lacerated skin weep red down the sides of the dripstone cloaking two human forms in their mineral shrouds. Mathew Hargrave has been almost entirely consumed. Crusts of muscle and gashed bone jut out from his stone sarcophagus. Only his upper chest, the arms tucked into his torso like folded wings, and his slack, swollen face are still recognizably human. His remains are being played like a bone flute as torturesong rasps from his mouth.
But Pree, oh Pree, is another matter. Her time inside the Brotterling has been briefer than Hargrave's; less of her has been entombed. Rigid and ashen-faced, she balances on a narrow outcrop a few feet above, tarry squiggles of hair falling over the rags of her clothing. Her mouth convulses in torment. Skeins of sound tangle in her teeth and snake from her lips. Tendrils of it adhere to her face. The frequency of the vibrations chugs to the lowest registers, rich and mellow, bassoon-like, the notes unspooling in hypnotic spirals, so that each births the next lower note on the scale, and all the while, Pree's terrified eyes tell me the truth: it's a death song and she can't help but sing it.
Black rings frame the edge of my vision as Pree's silent screams flail me. Her body spasms. A rent opens under her breast as the slender spear she's impaled on exits her chest in a gleaming red fist. Behind two snapped ribs, I glimpse a gray, pulpy thing beating feebly.
The ledge is slick and cushiony, weirdly flesh-like, when I climb up, wrap my arms around her, and try to lift her free from the stone. Crimson bubbles erupt from her mouth. She tries to form words. I put my face close to hers as she exhales. Her death-rattle breath goes into me like an intubation tube, rancid and chokingly floral. There are no last words, no blessing, just a sob that's a truncated ode to damnation as she bleeds and convulses in front of me.
And I leave her. God help me, I abandon her there and begin the torturous trek to the surface, a wet, nasty, soul-crushing ordeal, while with every step, I expect the cave to crush or consume me. Most of the way, when I'm not using my hands to climb or to crawl, I clutch at the headphones, terrified they'll fall off and the singing will overpower and annihilate me.
Yet despite hours of exhaustion and terror, somehow I prevail. The passages, in fact, seem to widen as I pass through, the skin-you-alive cold of the sump is less heart-stoppingly frigid, the waypoints more easily spotted. Even the terrifying Bypass, outside of which Mamoudi's body still sprawls, feels smooth as a tube and excretes me effortlessly.
When I finally reach the surface, blinking and bedazzled by the afternoon light, a small army of cavers, media, and National Guard are assembled, as another team of cavers prepares to go down. Boone's there among them. Seeing me alive, his eyes well, as do mine. I tear off the headphones and sweet sound rushes in, the wind whistling, a truck backfiring, the crowd erupting into ecstatic cheers to see someone come out alive.
Then they get a good look at me and my appearanceâsoaked, shivering, smeared with cave dirt and bloodâshocks them silent. As one, they reel back. Finally the braver ones gather their wits and being firing off questions.
What's down there?
Is anyone else still alive?
But these are not words the way I remember them. What I hear is a saw-toothed cacophony, an unwholesome choraleâdiscordant, repellant, impure.
I want to rush back inside the cave to get away from their cawing, but I remember that first, I have something important to do. I must warn them of the terrible danger, so I focus my mind and conjure the sounds I will need. When I know what I must say, I run toward Boone, who is already beckoning me. I scream,
Get back! Get away from the cave! Everyone inside is dead!
But that's not what comes out.
An excruciating hitch unlocks in my chest as an arcane melody, a kind of cryptic trilling, slithers free and soars to the windsâthe feral and wondrous, delicate song birthed from the mouths of monsters, from Pree's mouth into mineâinto theirs.
Madness made tangible.
Contagion by sound.
It spews from my lipsâa song of such deadly beauty and unholy allure that I experience only the briefest frisson of horrorâan emotion something inside me instantly quellsâwhen their mouths fall open, songstruck, enthralled, and they begin to rend their own flesh and tear each other apart.
I understand this is how it must be. I go on, unfazed by the carnage, undeterred by the din.
For I am the throat of the Delicate Singers.
In the cities, the towns, in the streets, and beyond, I know others are waiting to hear me.
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Lucy Taylor
Art copyright Â© 2015 by Ellen Barkin