by Robert L. Sellers, Jr.
Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
* * *
Standing at the base of the narrow path, she turned to look back up the trail she’d followed once the platform had landed. Gently curved, the trail sloped up from the cave floor where a wide pool of water encircled the small island like a protective moat.
A wide stone bridge at the base allowed her to cross the water without getting wet.
The cavern loomed high above her while expanding beyond the furthest edges of her vision, devoid of any life that she could sense. Here and there she picked up the random drip of water, but other than the sound of her boots against the dirt as she walked or the swish of her skirts, silence prevailed.
She noticed the air was pleasantly warm rather than the usual cold touch that the depths of the mine had provided during her past explorations.
Following the path she stopped under a tall archway that led to a tunnel in the cavern wall. Clearly not natural; blocks of carved stone edged it as it rose above her.
Stepping off the trail to examine the stone, she was surprised to spot faint etchings on the surface at eye level; a message intended for newcomers, no doubt.
Fingers gently dusting off the stone, she used her skill of touch reading to see what her fingers might find in the etchings. Cautiously she traced the grooves only to realize they hadn’t been words or letters at all but figures of a much older language.
She knew immediately what she’d found — Cuneiform.
Claimed by the Sumerians as their own, it had often been found on clay tablets, written using long reeds as styluses. Much more abstract than Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Semites had eventually developed it into a syllabic alphabet.
Grace had once mused that she was the only one who knew for certain that the Sumerians had learned it from the remnants of the dark masters she’d once been forced to serve. It was a simple, yet effective method used to communicate with even the simplest amongst those that had been enslaved.
She’d often referred to it as dead-speak, given that the dark masters had considered them alive only because they served them, but dead otherwise.
Starting over with the symbols, she slowly traced the small details her fingers found before removing her hand as if she’d been scalded.
Quickly retracing and then retracing again; she realized what the words had told her each time.
She’d found a Praetor’s Gate at the bottom of the mine.
Suddenly, she was afraid. Not of the darkness around her, but of what awaited her in the darkness ahead.
Much like the Aztec, Mayan and Toltec peoples, the dark masters of Grace’s time had managed to disappear almost overnight with little trace of their whereabouts left for others to find.
Rumors raised from their sudden absence involved their Praetor Guard and the magical portals they’d used for traveling great distances across the world they’d ensnared.
Grace had described the Praetors only as massive mountains of flesh and hard bone, muscled to carry their wrath when orders they’d given had not been followed properly.
Passing through the archway, she knew from what Grace had described what she’d find as she went deeper into the tunnel. She just hoped she was wrong.
Sixty paces in, her hopes faded as she found the mountainous double doors that would lead to the Praetor city. Made of iron and wood, the solid doors were bolted closed from inside as she’d expected them to be. Even if she’d wanted to, they would have been too heavy for her to move.
Counting out another sixty paces, she entered what Grace had called the transport room.
It was undoubtedly more impressive when light revealed its detail. She saw the raised circular platform eighteen inches high and the five towering columns that would control it. From what she could make of it, a fairly large crowd could easily cover the smooth surface with room to spare.
Standing by the edge of the platform, she saw several chains that were connected to small post at the center of the platform.
About to take a closer look, she was startled to hear the massive doors behind her begin to open. Moving quickly to the far end of the chamber she found a recess within the back wall and carefully slid into it.
* * *
Several familiar-looking humanoid creatures appeared, moving around the far end of the chamber as they lit torches revealing gaunt hairless bodies. Small mouths gave hint of sharp fangs as large oval eyes appeared black.
Valeria realized for the first time that she might be seeing demons in their natural form.
Apparently finished with their chore, the creatures had turned to go back when they stopped and sniffed the air; their attention turning toward something they’d found on the ground at their feet.
Her tracks; She’d forgotten she’d left tracks.
Silently cursing her luck, she prepared to face the demons when they suddenly turned and moved out of sight.
“You may come out now, vampire. No harm will come to you... for the moment.” A feminine voice called out evenly, its tone clearly that of a command rather than a request.
Realizing any hope she’d entertained of remaining hidden was lost, Valeria slid out of her hiding space to face... a young woman in black robes.
Shorter than Valeria, she looked to be about fifteen; straight dark hair mixed with light strands hung just past her shoulders while piercing dark eyes held flirtatious hints of light; a narrow nose and young lips that gave a hint of a pout completing a narrow face.
The creatures she’d seen earlier were hidden behind the black cloaked figure facing her.
“Why have you broken the covenant?” the woman demanded evenly, standing ramrod straight with hands behind her back as she gave no sign of fear or curiosity. Perhaps Valeria had not been the first of her kind to meet this woman.
Trying to remain calm as thoughts of what the humanoids had done to the other men floated into her mind, Valeria breathed deeply. “I’m afraid there has been a misunderstanding of some sort.” She started, watching the others watch her — hunters watching a hunter. “I was trapped by an explosion that led me here.”
“An explosion that you caused yourself, did you not?” The woman replied with a raised brow.
Valeria smiled, caught as she’d been in the missing details she’d wanted to avoid. “I felt threatened by creatures like the ones you have with you, and they left me no choice.”
“Graethins do as we tell them. Had you not disturbed Erath, our King, perhaps they would not have been told to attack you as they did.”
“I was searching for a friend who had been hurt when they disturbed me. Perhaps I could apologize to your King for the misunderstanding.”
“Our King is dead. You buried him with your explosion.”
Valeria realized her predicament fully now. “My name is Valeria Dorchester, I’m afraid I have no idea of your people or who you are. Perhaps we should start there?”
The woman’s eyes seemed to narrow as she measured Valeria. “I am Vaynot Lord Queen of the Goblins and she who will decide your fate for attacking my people.”
Valeria almost laughed when she realized the significance of Vaynot’s title. “Erath was your mate?”
“No, I slew his mate Missal when I assumed the throne. They rest together as he’d requested.”
“You mentioned a covenant of some sort, perhaps you could explain that term to me?”
The graethins moved from behind Vaynot as they continued to watch her, snake like tongues snatching out as they tasted the air.
“We came to an agreement with the one known as Leviticus that our domain would remain untouched and we would avoid the surface unless the need required it.”
“Leviticus LaRouchette has been down here?” Valeria asked, stunned that another vampire had been able to explore the mine without her knowledge and had not bothered to give her notice of what it held. Courtesy amongst vampires was a prerequisite for survival.
Then she realized that had he informed the council, the council would have informed her. She began to doubt the vampire community was even aware of what LaRouchette had found.
“Long ago, he and our King made the agreement which we now consider violated and invalid.”
“Leviticus never told us of this covenant, or we would have taken greater steps to avoid breaking it.”
Vaynot seemed to consider her words, before recalling the graethins to her side. Valeria had not seen how she’d done it.
“We must determine if what you say is true. For now you will come join us and discuss what has happened — unless you prefer to stay out here... alone and in the dark.”
The graethins moved with surprising speed to either side of her as Valeria realized she had no other option than to do as she’d been asked. Vaynot had already turned and walked back toward the doors behind her.
Crossing directly over the platform, Valeria noticed dark stains beneath the chains. Apparently not everything that traveled from the platform had done so willingly; sending a shiver up her spine. The opposing triangles resting upon each other within the massive iron circle did little to settle her growing fears.
Valeria stopped at the open doors as Vaynot moved ahead and up an inclined road. Above her light could be seen that lit yet another cavern.
Two monstrous creatures stood waiting for her to pass, obviously Praetors: the taught skin over rolled muscle did little to hide their powerful frame. They looked human enough, just without any visible hair and quite capable of intimidation as might be required.
Neither Praetor looked down as she passed between them, apparently not even considering her a minor threat worthy of an inspection.
Moving to catch up, she stood with Vaynot and got her first look at the largest underground city she’d ever seen. Graethins moved from building to building as other black-robed forms passed amongst them.
Other than the two Praetors she’d passed by at the doors, none were visible elsewhere.
“Vaynot, Lord Queen; I give you my word that I had no idea you were here when I set those explosives. However, I am curious as to how the graethins knew where I was.”
Vaynot turned her piercing gaze to her. “Valeria Dorchester, vampires are easy to hunt. You all smell of dead blood.” With that, she turned and continued to walk toward the center of the city, where a temple building appeared above the others around it.
“And if I cannot convince you that this was all an accident?” She asked Vaynot as the Goblin Queen walked away.
“Fear not, your death will be quick, if that is what concerns you. I will see to it personally.” Vaynot stopped and turned with a wry smile. “However it turns out, you will be here for a long time after sealing yourself in with us as you have.”
Prodded by the graethins who had hovered behind her, Valeria began to follow the Goblin Queen, wondering exactly what she’d come to find herself in the middle of. Only Grace would be able to help her now; if she ever found where she’d gone.
She wouldn’t know for sure until spring.
* * *
Allen “Hosse” Kieran ran for his life, frantically searching for the opening of the mine. He’d been running ever since the monsters had taken down the James brothers without a fight; ripping them apart as they’d screamed and emptied their guns.
Not one to run from any fight, the speed that he’d seen used against them was something he’d never want to see again.
Racing through the transfer station, he was relieved when he broke into the sunlight and found several of the others already waiting for him.
Stopping to catch his breath, he noticed they were short about three of their original number.
Weathered roughnecks all, they bore the image of strength buried in grime. Covered in dust and dirt from the mine and trail, they almost looked ghostlike as the sun beat down on them.
Martin, his ever watchful partner, ambled over as he turned to speak in a low voice so that the others wouldn’t hear them. “They got Nells and I’d suspect the James boys if they’re not with you.”
“Those James boys are staying put, but not by their own choosing.” Kieran replied, realizing Moorhen had set them up.
They’d ridden up from Cheyenne to claim the gold he’d assured them was hidden inside the now empty mine.
“Just ask the old codger they pinned as Sheriff and he’ll show you.” The drunken man had slurred with a tilted smile, tipping his beer to them as they’d left.
He’d taken silver for the tip that had cost them blood.
“There ain’t no gold, is there?” Martin sighed, realizing the death they’d brought to the town had been for nothing other than the short bit of pleasure the two women had given them at the saloon. Even then he’d not gotten his turn with the younger girl before she’d made a break for it and been taken down by the younger James.
Any idiot would have known to shoot her in the leg and not the back. Least ways then she could still give them what they’d wanted from her. The damned fool had managed to hit her in the back and head before she fell dead and worthless to the ground.
None amongst them had been willing to take pleasure from a cooling corpse, even as good looking as hers was.
Kieran stood and looked at the sky. “With any luck we can clear this land and be long gone before spring brings someone looking to find them and they figure out what happened.”
“Saddle up boys!” Martin yelled to the others who grumbled as they moved toward their horses.
“What do we do about Moorhen?” Martin asked, already knowing the answer.
“Once we get back, take a couple of the boys and plug that son of a bitch for the trouble he’s caused us.”
The horsemen led the extra horses behind them as they left the town, sitting silent and barren as winter descended to claim it.
Unfortunately their plan for a clean escape would be for naught as justice in the form of Abigail Dorchester would be carried through the deep snow of Montana toward the silent town by her team of powerful horses.
With temperatures falling as they were, justice in the form of revenge would be a dish served cold to those who’d violated the peace in Goblin’s Toe, Wyoming.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert L. Sellers, Jr.