Sunday, November 11, 2018
(After playing the Call of Cthulhu Down Darker Trails Catastrophe Engine Campaign (Runequest) scenario “The Spiral Crypts” by Clint Staples (online) today from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. with John Leppard, Yorie Latimer, and Ben Abbot. This game session was also in honor of Greg Stafford - Feb. 9, 1948 ─ October 11, 2018. #WeAreAllUs)
The morning of Tuesday, November 9, 1875, was cold but sunny. Lambert Otto had finished burying the two men they had found dead in the Inn of the Smiling Spirit. The others napped that morning after their terrible night of paralysis with their eyes open. They might have dozed a little, but it was hard to sleep with one’s eyes open. Only Professor Brandon Stalloid had a decent night’s sleep, having dozed off while watching over them. Even he was sore from sleeping on the floor with his back up against the fireplace. Jacali was very sore as well.
Professor Stalloid had slipped out when Otto initially mentioned burying the other bodies to make sure there was no blood on the middle grave. It had been washed away by the pouring rain the night before but the dead chicken was there. Professor Stalloid flung it into the bushes. Then he searched the house for other lanterns while Otto buried the bodies. When he didn’t find any, he went out to help Otto.
The three of them, along with Marshal Clayton Pierce and Lydia Fitzsimmons, saddled up their horses and headed out, going west towards South Arkansas, the next village up the Arkansas River.
* * *
They had ridden a couple of hours down the road when they ran into four men walking from the other direction. They were roughly dressed and armed, two of them with rifles on their shoulders, a third with two pistols tucked into his belt, and the last with an old Charleville musket on a strap over his shoulder. They had wide-brimmed hats of straw or felt and carried backpacks or rucksacks, along with picks and shovels. They were unshaven for the most part.
Professor Stalloid felt a little concerned. Otto made sure his badge was visible.
“Howdy!” Professor Stalloid called. “How are you doing today?”
“Howdy,” one of the men said.
“Where are y’all heading?” Professor Stalloid said.
One of the men pointed down the road.
“Are you heading to The Smiling Spirit?” Professor Stalloid said.
“We’re probably going to stop there,” one of the men said. “I don’t think we can make it to Canyon City before nightfall. We’ll probably stop there and make and early day of it.”
“It’s been abandoned,” Otto said. “But it should be safe enough for you to stay there. The inn.”
“Oh,” one man said.
They all looked at each other.
“Something happened,” Otto said.
“Oh,” the man said. “Did you see … uh … a man there with a scraggly beard? Got …”
“Yeah, I saw him. He was dead. I just finished burying him this morning.”
“Oh. He didn’t leave anything, did he? He had some tools. We knew ol’ Gulliver. And … uh … uh …”
Otto looked at Professor Stalloid.
“His tools are still there,” Professor Stalloid said. “His current … haul … had to be destroyed─”
“Oh!” Jacali suddenly said. “Raiders!”
“Raiders took that. Yep, it was thieves.”
“You’re a terrible liar, Jacali,” Otto said.
The four men looked at each other, obviously confused.
“And I would recommend─” Professor Stalloid said.
“What me and my friend, Stalloid here, are trying to say is that there is something dangerous in the geodes and we had to destroy them,” Otto said.
“Okay,” one of the men said.
“That’s why I said it was thieves,” Jacali said.
“And I would recommend, wherever he got those … don’t go back,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Or keep any,” Otto said.
“Unless you want to destroy them too,” Professor Stalloid said.
“What are you talking about?” the man said. “We’re just meeting Gulliver up here. He’s a friend of ours.”
“Ah,” Professor Stalloid said. “He had found some geodes.”
“Geodes ain’t worth ****,” one of the men said.
“He-he thought they were.”
“Well, he was always pretty stupid.”
“There was an unstable compound in it,” Otto said. “Blew up the …”
“It was poisonous!” Professor Stalloid said.
“Oh!” Jacali said. “Yep! It blew up.”
“It dehydrated the human form.”
“Yep! Dehydrated. Blew up all the water. All the water gone.”
“Well, okay,” one of the men said.
The four men eyed them warily.
“It’s a spooky curse!” Jacali said.
“Where are you coming from, before you leave?” Otto said.
“South Arkansas,” one of the men said. “That was our last stop.”
The four men crept around them, watching them carefully.
“Have there been any more … odd generosities going on?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Oh … yeah … there was some money or something,” one of the men said. “I don’t remember.”
“Okay,” Professor Stalloid said.
Marshal Pierce snorted as he woke from his dozing in the saddle.
“Happy trails,” Otto said.
The men continued on up the trail, constantly looking over their shoulders.
* * *
The weather continued clear with blue skies and scattered clouds as they rode for another two hours or so along the muddy trail. Otto and Marshal Pierce talked about Otto’s duties and responsibilities. Otto learned he was pretty much a marshal, though under Marshal Pierce’s authority for the time being. The badge he had said simply “Federal Marshal” though Marshal Pierce noted he would be his deputy for now. Otto asked who he should report to if Marshal Pierce died and Pierce told him there were places in San Francisco he could go to.
They saw a campsite up from the road, a little smoke still coming from a fire pit. Near the pit, a man all in black was standing up against a tree.
“Hey!” the man called. “Hey!”
“It’s Jack West!” Jacali said.
“It’s Pete Sutter!” Professor Stalloid said.
Jacali squinted, looking at the man.
“Oh God, is it?” she said.
“Help me out!” the man called.
His voice did sound like Pete Sutter.
“How many times do we have to run into Pete Sutter before he just goes away,” Jacali said.
“We don’t know if it’s Pete Sutter,” Professor Stalloid said. “It just sounds like Pete Sutter.”
“God damn it, help me out here!” the man yelled. “Get up here!”
“That’s Pete Sutter,” Jacali said.
“Where’s my piece!?!” Professor Stalloid called.
The man struggled violently against the tree.
“He’s tied up!” Jacali said. “Oh, we need to see this!”
“Pete Sutter?” Marshal Pierce said.
He shook his head and sighed and continued on down the road. Miss Fitzsimmons’s horse followed as she was asleep in the saddle.
The other three rode up to the campsite where Pete Sutter was, indeed, tied to a tree, hands and feet. He looked at them carefully as they road up.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s Jacali!”
“Pete Sutter,” she said.
“How long have I been missing this spectacle?”
“Well, it happened a few hours ago. Why don’t you cut me loose?”
“Well, why don’t you tell us why you’re tied up first?” Otto said.
“Yeah, I might want to enjoy this for a little bit,” Jacali said.
“Oh, I see how it is!” Pete said. “I see. You just use up ol’ Pete Sutter. Just take him on some crazy whirlwind tour back to injun country a hundred years ago and then, all the sudden, gonna make fun of him when he gets ambushed by a … by a bunch a low-down desperado claim jumpers!”
“What, were there four of them?” Otto said.
“What? Were you with ‘em?”
“All I know is I walk up, they had some bacon cooking,” Pete said. “And I was heading for South Arkansas. And I said ‘Why gentlemen, would you care to share your lovely meal with me? I would cut some wood or do some chores in exchange.’”
“Is that the voice that you used to talk to them?” Jacali said. “Because I think that’s probably why they tied you up to a tree.”
“It sounds like sarcasm, sir,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete struggled futilely against his bonds.
“It was not sarcasm!” he said. “There was a fourth one! And they jumped me! And they took my piece! My piece! They got my piece! I gotta get my piece!”
* * *
Pete Sutter had smelled the bacon frying when he woke up from his uncomfortable sleep that morning. He had crept up to the nearby campsite and saw the three roughly-clothed, grizzled men sitting around the fire, cooking up bacon and eggs. He had drawn his piece with a wicked grin and stepped out of the foliage.
“Give me some God-damned bacon!” he had said to the three men.
Pete had not seen the fourth man, who had gone for firewood, but who came up behind him and struck him about the head with one of the pieces of wood just before the other three men leapt up and jumped onto him, beat him up, and tied him up.
* * *
Pete struggled against his bonds and they noticed his holster was empty of the usual Colt Peacemaker he carried.
“Just untie me!” he said. “They went … they went thataway!”
He gestured down the trail the way they’d come.
“Pete, I’m not sure if … I’m really required to help an outlaw get his gun back,” Otto said.
“I will untie you but … aren’t you supposed to watch Jacali?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Oh, that was a while ago,” Pete said.
“Yeah, but did they ever tell you to stop?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Stalloid!” Jacali hissed at the man. “So help me! What the hell?”
Pete thought really hard.
“Wait a minute!” Pete said.
He was looking at Otto’s badge.
“You’re a marshal!” he said.
“He’s a deputy,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Well, I’m working for the Secret Service, so I outrank you,” Pete said. “Untie me!”
He struggled against his bonds again.
“You know that’s not right,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I don’t believe that claim, Pete,” Otto said.
“What!?!” Pete said. “Well, I’d show you my badge, but they took it away ‘cause I was trying to get all them free drinks - I mean, they took it away for cleaning.”
“Do you have any paperwork, Pete?”
“No. I don’t need no stinking paperwork!”
“Well, then I have no way to verify your claim.”
“Just untie me!”
“So, Mr. Sutter, what you’re saying is we should untie you and let you lead us to desperados who have more guns than us now so that you can get your badge and gun back, and you just want us to follow you for that?” Jacali said.
“If you want,” Pete said.
“We’re going back the opposite way of the way we were going.”
“Hey, who went back to that injun town and helped you folks out? Huh? Helped you out, Otto. You came to me for advice.”
“You were like ‘Hey, what shall we do, Pete?’ And I gave you some wonderful advice.”
“No, you didn’t,” Otto said.
“I told you to get the hell away from me and that’s always good advice!” Pete said.
“You were there?” Jacali said.
“Okay, let’s leave,” Professor Stalloid said. “He’s telling us to get the hell away from him.”
“No!” Pete said. “Untie me!”
“I don’t know. You’re giving me conflicting messages now.”
“Yes, I was there!”
“I’ve got an idea, Jack,” Jacali said
“Pete,” Otto said.
“Pete,” Jacali said.
“I was there!” Pete said again.
“To be honest, they’re very similar,” Otto said.
“Jack West!” Professor Stalloid said.
“Oh, I hate Jack West,” Pete said.
“What if we go back to the bandits, get your gun and badge ourselves, and definitely come back to untie you afterwards?” Jacali said.
“Because they been gone for hours,” Pete said.
“But we’re on horses,” Professor Stalloid said.
“They’re after - they’re after some Gulliver fella,” Pete said. “They said he had a map. I heard ‘em talkin’ after they - they - they gave it to me.”
Professor Stalloid set to untying Pete.
“They said he had a map,” Pete went on. “Says he always stays in the same room at some … weird smiley place and that he always hides his map and his gold under the mattress. They’re gonna follow his map and get all the rest of his gold. They’re claim jumpers!”
He looked at Otto’s badge again.
“They’re claim jumpers Mr. Policeman,” he said.
“Pete, do you know what this … treasure they’re searching for is?” Otto said.
“They said he had a mine,” Pete said. “This Gulliver fellow had a mine. And it’s fulla … they were pretty vague on that part.”
He was untied by that time and he kept reaching for his holster and fidgeting uncomfortably, obviously anxious and upset about losing his sidearm. Otto looked down at his own Peacemaker and pitied Pete for a moment. Then he remembered it was Pete Sutter.
“I gotta get my piece,” Pete said. “I don’t care if y’all come. If you want to. But I gotta get my piece. Gotta get my piece!”
He started to walk away but Professor Stalloid stopped him and asked if he knew how to use a shotgun.
“Well, enough,” he said.
Professor Stalloid took the shotgun off his horse and handed it to the man. Pete broke it open and checked that it had shells.
“It’ll do,” Pete muttered. “It’s better ‘en nothing. Who the hell are you?”
“Brandon Stalloid!” Professor Stalloid said. “Slime Slayer.”
They shook hands.
“Slime Slayer,” Pete said.
“You always add another title to your name, don’t you?” Otto said.
“I’m gaining them quite frequently,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Oh,” Pete said. “Nice to meet you. Nice suit.”
“Thank you,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete walked down to the road in the direction of the inn. Professor Stalloid followed on horseback. The other two rode after him more slowly.
“I have … problems following Pete Sutter,” Otto said.
“Listen Otto, I think it’s going to be a fun thing to watch whatever happens, you know?” Jacali said. “We’ve earned this, really. Dinner and a show?”
“We’ve also got to make sure that his ‘claim’ doesn’t have any more of those geodes,” Professor Stalloid said.
“And listen, if he does anything illegal on the way, you’re a deputy, and you can put him in handcuffs and tie him back up to that tree and you can leave him right where you found him,” Jacali said.
“My ears are burnin’!” Pete called back to them.
“You gave him a gun!” Otto said. “How am I supposed to arrest him when he has a shotgun?”
“Knock him out,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Well, I expect you to help me knock him out.”
“Of course. I’ll try.”
“Let’s follow him.”
“Anyways, it’s Pete Sutter. He’ll get off that tree no matter what.”
“Uh … yeah …”
“I’ve seen him die on the streets and he’s still here!”
“Maybe we could test that theory.”
“Do any of us want to offer him a horse, because he’s not riding on mine,” Jacali said.
They caught up with Pete Sutter and Professor Stalloid offered him a ride.
“Both of us on one horse?” Pete said.
“There’s plenty of room,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete looked at him and the horse.
“That way your hands are free to shoot those desperados when you see them,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete thought it over.
“I would rather we not shoot these men immediately,” Otto said.
“Oh, they’re gonna be shot!” Pete said.
“Pete, if you don’t want me to … arrest you, I would advise you to cooperate with me and at least try to take these men in peacefully at first,” Otto said.
Pete looked at him.
“Gimme your gun,” Pete said.
He pointed to the Peacemaker on Otto’s hip.
“Gimme your gun,” he said again.
“That’s …” Otto said.
“Loan me your gun,” Pete said.
“He is a better shot with a revolver,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I have a shotgun you can have,” Pete said.
“He could disarm someone with it,” Professor Stalloid said.
After a moment, Otto offered Pete his Peacemaker and took the shotgun. He held it out to Professor Stalloid.
“You … you can hold onto it,” Professor Stalloid said. “I never use it.”
“And if anybody needs any arrows … I’ve got them,” Jacali said.
Pete checked the bullets in the pistol by rolling it along his arm and watching the spinning cylinder. Then he spun the gun around in his hand and gently holstered it.
“That’s not bad,” he said. “It’s not my piece though. I want my piece!”
* * *
It was over three hours before they were back at the Inn of the Smiling Spirit. Otto kept an eye on the tracks on the road and they led right back to inn. As Pete, Professor Stalloid, and Jacali went to the front door, Otto rode around the side of the inn yard to check on the graves out back.
“Maybe we make a circle around the entrance and maybe shoot a gun in the air and say ‘Hey! Desperadoes! We know you’re in there!’” Professor Stalloid said.
“You know, I really think that if I was a desperado …” Jacali said.
“… and somebody shouted ‘Desperadoes, we know you’re in there.’ I would definitely come out with my airs held high.”
“Oh. I know. Same here.”
“You’d make a terrible desperado,” Pete said.
Pete aimed at the front window on the second floor, the only window on the front of the inn that wasn’t boarded up.
* * *
Otto found the graves undisturbed in the back of the building but noted relatively fresh footprints going around the side of the inn and heading to the southwest into the hills. He rode back around to the front of the inn.
* * *
“All right,” Pete said. “So, we bustin’ in and shootin’ everybody we find? That marshal ain’t here.”
“Well, since the deputy is here with us─” Professor Stalloid said.
“He ain’t here right now!”
“─we should give them a chance to surrender.”
“Surrender or we’re gonna come in shooting!”
There was no reply from within.
“They wanna be shot,” Pete said. “Obviously.”
“Or they’re gone,” Jacali said.
“They could be gone,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete started jumping lightly from foot to foot.
“They got my piece,” he muttered. “I gotta get my piece back. This is a piece o’ crap!”
He indicated the Peacemaker Otto had lent him.
“Well, I mean, wherever they’re going, they have a map,” Jacali said. “We can try to follow them. We can find their trail. But, I would imagine that they’re not going to holed up for too long.”
“Let’s go!” Pete said.
“All right,” Jacali said. “You first. Find your piece.”
Pete ran into the inn. Jacali and Professor Stalloid walked in behind them.
They found Pete muttering at the furniture, looking under tables, and kicking them over.
“C’mon you sons o’ bitches!” he yelled.
“C’mon you sons of bitches,” Jacali said calmly. “You gottem, Pete.”
Professor Stalloid headed up the steps as Otto entered the front door and sighed.
“They’re not here!” he said loudly.
“Oh damn, Pete,” Jacali said.
“What!?!” Pete said. “ Whatta ya mean!?!”
“I saw their tracks,” Otto said. “They went out that way.”
“Let’s go,” Pete said.
He walked to the door.
“We’ll catch up with them sooner on horseback!” Jacali called after him.
* * *
Upstairs, Professor Stalloid entered the room where they’d found the body of the prospector the night before. The mattresses had been pulled from all of the bunks. He found nothing in the room except for the pick and the shovel they had left there the night before. He grabbed the tools and headed downstairs.
* * *
They mounted back up and Otto led them into the hills. Pete rode with Professor Stalloid once again. Otto had no trouble following the trail and realized the men were not trying to hide their tracks or cover them or anything.
* * *
It was nearly dusk when they came to a small valley with various small, obviously man-made cuts in the relatively steep walls. There were also a few fire pits with cold ashes within scattered about. It was chilly as they rode into the narrow cleft in the mountains. The small valley were about a mile deep and half a mile wide. The tracks continued on directly through the middle of it.
“Do we want to stop here for the night?” Otto said.
“No!” Pete said.
“We wanna get my piece!”
“It’s nightfall, Pete.”
“It’s not night yet!”
“It will be,” Professor Stalloid said.
“We gotta get my piece,” Pete said. “C’mon, let’s go!”
“I want to check out this mining area first,” Otto said.
“What’re you doing? What’re you checkin’ for? What’re you looking for?”
Otto dismounted and started to lead his horse towards one of the fresh cuts in the hillside.
“What’re you - what are you doin’?” Pete said.
“I’m trying - I’m checking for something,” Otto said.
“Did they go that way?”’
He didn’t think Pete needed to know everything.
Professor Stalloid dismounted and headed off the other direction to look at one of the mining cuts as well. Pete sputtered ineffectually behind the two of them.
Both Otto and Professor Stalloid noticed there seemed to be a lot of snakes in the area. Otto almost stepped on a rattlesnake and backed carefully away, aiming the shotgun at it.
“What’re you pointing at, Otto?” Jacali called.
“Rattlesnakes,” he called back.
“Oh ****!” she said. “I’m not keeping my horse in here if there’s snakes around.”
Pete drew the Peacemaker Otto had lent him and looked around.
Professor Stalloid saw several rattlesnakes in the area but he noticed them before he was very close to any of them. He avoided them and made his way to the cut. It looked like someone started a mine there or did some preliminary diggings without getting very far. He looked for any markings that might indicate the miner found geodes but there were none.
The sun was setting over the mountains to the west. The sky to the east was purple.
They returned to the horses and mounted up once again. They headed west, Otto following the trail he’d found. The snakes seemed to be going to ground as it got colder.
At the far end of the valley, it looked like there had been a recent avalanche which exposed a cave entrance some 25 feet up the side of the cliff face at the end of the valley. They wouldn’t have thought anything of the dark hole except there was a pair of boots sticking out of the cave mouth, toes down. If anyone was wearing them, he was on his belly.
“Huh,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete gasped and aimed his pistol at the cave.
“That’s one of ‘em!” he hissed.
“Oh!” Professor Stalloid said. “Oh, that guy’s dead.”
Otto dismounted and crept quietly to the cliff face under the cave mouth. He found himself by a steep cliff side and saw there were lots of handholds above. He thought it would be a pretty easy climb. He slung the shotgun and started climbing up, going quickly up to the cave mouth.
When he got to the cave mouth, he lifted his head just enough to see into the cave. The man wearing the boots was on his face in the cave, which was fairly regular and sloped down at the back. Next to him was the biggest rattlesnake Otto had ever seen. There was also a lot of blood on the floor. The snake must have been at least six or seven feet long. Otto took one look at it and climbed down just using his hands, his feet just hanging below as he slid down in almost a controlled fall, landing, turning, pulling the shotgun from his shoulder, and walking rapidly back to the others.
“Snakes, right?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Biggest one I ever seen,” Otto said.
“What, like two feet?”
“You’re lying,” Pete said. “Ain’t no eight-foot snake up there.”
“There are no snakes that big,” Jacali said.
“You just want my piece!” Pete said.
“It’s six or eight feet,” Otto said.
“You climb up there, Pete,” Professor Stalloid said.
“All right, I’ll climb up there!” Pete said.
Pete walked to the cliff side and looked up, holstering the Peacemaker and climbing up the side. He got stuck about 14 feet up the side of the cliff, going to the left of where Otto had been. He looked around and tried to find more handholds, feeling around desperately.
“You went the wrong way, idiot!” Otto called.
They heard him grumbling.
Otto went to the cliff and called to him, telling him how to get down. When Pete was back on the ground, Otto pointed out some of the handholds he’d used to get up to the cave mouth. With another grumbled reply, Pete started climbing again, getting stuck only a couple feet.
“Pete, just believe him!” Professor Stalloid said. “I’ve seen weirder things than an eight-foot snake.”
Pete climbed back over.
“I don’t care about the snake!” he said. “I want my piece! Maybe that fella’s got it.”
“You want to climb back up there together and pull the body out?” Professor Stalloid said.
“You want me to mess with a snake!?!” Otto said.
“No no no no,” Professor Stalloid said. “Not the snake. Just grab him by the boots …”
“Yeah!” Jacali said.
“That’ll wake up the snake!” Otto said.
“… pull him very, very slowly,” Professor Stalloid said.
“By the ankle,” Jacali said.
“You’re a cowboy aincha?” Pete said to Otto. “Lassoo him!”
“Ah! You could lassoo him,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I’m a cavalryman, not a cowboy,” Otto said.
“Oh,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Oh,” Pete said.
“Yeah, I don’t think he can lassoo him,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete turned to Jacali.
“You’re an Indian, aincha?” he said. “Lassoo him!”
“Lassoo him!” Professor Stalloid said to her.
Professor Stalloid suggested to Jacali he tie a rope to one of her arrows. She would shoot the body with the arrow and they would pull it down. She agreed and he did so. She went to the cliff, standing off about 20 feet. She fired and the arrow went a little high, flying up and over the body and disappearing into the cave. She pulled the rope and it soon came out of the cave along with the arrow.
She walked back over to where the rest of them stood about a hundred feet away.
They discussed the rope and how to get it attached to the man. Jacali told them the arrow didn’t fly well with the heavy rope attached to it. Pete suggested she needed a grappling hook on the arrow, getting him looks from all of them. Jacali asked Otto if there was a place for a better, closer shot. He didn’t think so. Professor Stalloid asked about the tracks Otto had been following and learned they led directly to the avalanche and beneath the cave mouth.
Jacali said she’d try shooting the arrow again but noted if she missed it would probably be easier and more worth the time to just climb up and grab the man’s ankle, pulling him down. Professor Stalloid said they would cover her with their various guns.
Jacali went to the edge of the cliff and fired at one of the feet, shooting nearly straight up and hoping to pierce one of the man’s feet. The arrow missed but came down on the other side of the pair of boots, the rope draping across the feet and hanging on both sides of them.
“That’s … what I meant to do,” she called to the others.
She climbed up the wall but only got up about 10 feet before she couldn’t find any additional handholds. She leaned against the wall and tied the rope in a knot, trying to tighten it the best she could from there, hoping to get the knot to climb up to the feet. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get it to tighten correctly and it wouldn’t go up but just hung there, too low. She gave the rope a little tug to make sure it was still secure. It felt like it was and, as she pulled, the knot finally tightened around the man’s feet. She gave it a hard jerk and the body slid out of the cave mouth, tumbling down the cliff right towards her, but struck the cliff side and bounced away from Jacali, crashing to the ground with a sickening thumb.
She slid down the side of the cliff and ran to the men.
“I planned every bit of that and it all went according to my initial idea,” she said.
Pete looked at her and the body with his mouth open.
“Okay Pete, watch the hole,” Professor Stalloid said.
“That was a fine bit of chicanery,” Pete said to Jacali.
The three of them left Pete by the horses and went to examine the body. The front of it was covered with blood but Professor Stalloid only found a couple of wide bite marks. The jaw of the snake seemed huge. The body was bloated and the skin blackened as if by poison. They were not sure where the blood came from as the snake bites hadn’t seemed to bleed much. Strapped on his back was a Charleville musket, probably a gun used in the War of 1812 or the Mexican War. There was also black powder and shot on the body. There was no sign of the backpack he had been wearing when they had passed him that morning. He wore buckskin clothing and boots.
Otto took the musket, black powder, and shot.
“Well, if they went in that hole, what are we doing about that snake?” he said.
“Well, we’ve got to get in there somehow,” Jacali said.
“It’s quiet up there,” Pete called to them.
“We have a rope,” Jacali said. “One of us could climb up there, string it somewhere. Easier for us to climb in but, if that snake is right up in the front of it, then …”
“Pete has the handgun,” Otto said.
Pete had come over and kicked the body. Then he searched it again, obviously hoping to find his piece. He even took the man’s boots off and shook them out, looking for it and cursing under his breath.
“If it’s as big as you say, is that going to be enough?” Jacali said.
“If I shot it with this, I’d probably kill it,” Otto said.
He hefted the shotgun.
“I do have the poison from Ophelia,” Jacali said. “I don’t know if that works. I don’t know if snakes are immune to their own toxins or if this is even the same thing. But it could be worth a try.”
They realized rattlesnake venom was terrible stuff that shut down the nervous system. The poison that had killed the man must have been terribly toxic and Professor Stalloid, who had seen rattlesnake bites before, was concerned.
“Is there any antidote for rattlesnake bite?” Otto said. “Is there any treatment for it? In case one of us gets bitten.”
“Suck the wound,” Professor Stalloid said. “Get it out. Tourniquet if it’s on a limb.”
Otto didn’t like snakes. He knew they were insidious and tended to stalk their prey, especially men. Even if they heard someone near, they would lay in wait and attack at the worst possible time. He was convinced the snake up in the cave was waiting in ambush.
There seemed to Jacali to be an awful lot of snakes in the area. She knew there were rattlesnakes in Colorado but there seemed an inordinate amount in the valley and they seemed to be out in weather colder than was normal. It made her uneasy.
“Listen, everyone, our best chance of getting this thing is at night when it’s coldest,” Jacali said. “Which is, unfortunately, when we’re going to have the least visibility on it but I think we should act while it’s still dusk.”
“Why is this man covered in blood?” Professor Stalloid said.
“I don’t know. How did he die?”
“I wonder if it was some sort of camouflage? Is that snake blood?”
“You think when people die they explode blood!?!”
Jacali looked at him.
“Well … I mean, we did throw him off a cliff,” she said.
“They don’t explode blood,” Pete said. “I killed plenty of people. They don’t explode.”
“I threw him off a cliff,” Jacali said.
“He was already bloody when I saw him,” Otto said.
“He was already bloody,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” Jacali said.
“Hey, he broke his legs and stuff but he ain’t got no cuts,” Pete said.
“This blood was put on him,” Professor Stalloid said.
They more carefully examined the man in the waning light. The front of his shirt and pants were soaked in blood that was only starting to congeal. Otto opened up his shirt but found no injuries on his bloated, blackened corpse.
Professor Stalloid looked around the area of the landslide but didn’t see any dead snakes or blood except on the dead man.
“Well, Otto, you’re the only one to climb up the full way,” Jacali said. “Do you think you could climb up and tie a rope up there?”
“Not really,” Otto quickly said.
“Well, it might be anybody’s shot.”
“Let’s keep trying until someone does it!” Professor Stalloid said.
Otto climbed up the cliff wall, Professor Stalloid close behind him. The latter didn’t get more than about four feet up before he got stuck. Otto, meanwhile, climbed all the way up to just below the cave entrance. He tried to get the shotgun off his shoulder without luck, losing his balance and clutching the side of the cliff. He peeked his head up again and could see the snake was still there. It hadn’t moved and he was convinced it was a cunning snake indeed.
“Try to talk to it!” Professor Stalloid called up.
Otto lowered his head again.
Jacali called up for Otto to just hook up a rope but he hadn’t taken it up. Professor Stalloid tried to throw the rope up but it fell far short of the man. He tried again and this time the rope fell right back on him, knocking him off his feet. He found himself tangled in the rope, trying to get free. Jacali put her head in her hands. Pete nudged her.
“You know, that’s more common than you would think,” he said.
Otto climbed back down and took the rope, climbing back up with it but found himself on the wrong track about 12 feet up. Professor Stalloid climbed up successfully, finally, but he didn’t have the rope. Otto flung the rope at Professor Stalloid but missed him and it fell to the ground below.
“Hey, how you doing?” Professor Stalloid, just below the cave mouth, said quietly.
Silence was his only answer.
He had hooked the lantern to his belt and unhooked it, holding it up and peeking cautiously over the ledge. The snake lying on the ground in the cave entrance was huge, at least seven or eight feet long. He saw the glitter of light from his lantern off the scales and the rattle was probably a half foot long. It wasn’t moving. He realized the cave continued on into the darkness well past the snake. It looked like it sloped downward gradually just past the entrance to the cave.
Professor Stalloid climbed back down. He told Otto they’d tie the rope to both of them and climb in tandem.
“That’s a terrible idea, Stalloid,” Otto said.
“No no no,” Professor Stalloid said. “Because if one of us makes it, the other person just unties the rope and the other person has the rope with them.”
“But if one of us falls when we’re tied together …”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. I’ll catch you.”
“But, if you’re the one that falls─”
“This is a genius idea,” Pete said. “Go ahead Otto.”
“Pete Sutter, I thought you would be the show on this adventure, but it looks like I’m wrong,” Jacali said. “It’s my fellow companions.”
“Ayuh,” Pete said.
“Hey, I’m the one that thinks this is a bad idea,” Otto said.
Pete took out a knife and cut some rope off the 50 feet Professor Stalloid had. Then he used the rope to hobble the three horses so they wouldn’t wander very far. Professor Stalloid still wanted to try the tandem rope idea.
“If you need a second person, I’ll do it,” Jacali said. “But it seemed like Otto was so enthralled with the plan.”
The two of them climbed up to the edge of the cave, both of them side by side. Jacali looked back down at Otto.
“Was this really that hard!” she called.
After a few moments, they found a jutting piece of rock they could tie the rope to. Pete climbed up the rope followed by Otto. All of them hung on the side of the cliff face.
Professor Stalloid and Jacali climbed into the cave. She immediately took the bow off her shoulder and readied an arrow. In the gathering darkness they could smell metal and, with the light from Professor Stalloid’s lantern, they could see the blood on the floor all around it. They then noticed there were several bullet holes in the snake and realized the blood had come from the snake when it had been shot several times.
“I do not believe we should shoot this snake,” Professor Stalloid said.
Jacali moved forward as Pete climbed up and drew his pistol. She took the arrow out of the bow and poked the snake gently with it. It didn’t move. She realized it was dead. She noticed a small white crescent shape on the snake’s head. She did not trust anything crescent-shaped anymore.
“Oh look,” she said. “It’s a crescent snake. And it’s dead.”
“The crescent?” Professor Stalloid said.
“What?” Pete said. “Oh, that’s what them Secret Service agents wanted, wasn’t it?”
Otto climbed up as well.
“Do y’all reckon this snake touched the Crescent and it judged it pure of heart and that’s why it got so big?” Jacali said.
“Obviously,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Obviously,” Jacali said.
She picked up the snake. It was very, very heavy and covered in blood. She pushed it out of the way, laying it to one side.
The corridor was a precipitous ramp sloping downward. Pete led the way with Jacali and Professor Stalloid behind him and Otto bringing up the rear.
In the light from the lantern, they saw the cave was not natural. It was a tunnel with the walls and ceiling made of cyclopean blocks and slabs, smoothed and round-edged with the passage of eons. The floor’s surface was covered in spiraling whorls and ridges that were slightly disorienting to look upon. Footprints went through the dust. About 30 feet down the corridor, the friezes and panels began on the walls. They depicted serpent folk that had a strong resemblance to Ophelia and were in positions of triumph or dominance. Sometimes they were simply the heads of such beings wearing headdresses or accoutrements of various kinds. Many of the panels showed humans as chattel or victims, slaves or being sacrificed. The humans were depicted as hairier than those of modern day and there were other … things … depicted that were obviously not human. There were odd, hairy creatures that were definitely not men.
Some 40 feet from the entrance, Pete stopped. He, Otto, and Professor Stalloid noticed a panel on the wall to the right that looked like a hidden door. Professor Stalloid moved past Pete and pushed on the panel, which easily pivoted as if it weighed nothing.
The footprints appeared to simply go down the corridor, having missed the door altogether.
They looked into the tiny room beyond. The dust was thick on the floor of the small room and against the far was were some small pieces of metal. The dust in the middle of the room appeared to be a different color from the rest of the dust. To the right was another small pile of metal.
Stalloid held up the lantern to better illuminate the small room. Jacali crept in, leaving a trail in the inch or two of dust there, and carefully brushed away some of the dust from the little pile against the opposite wall. She found several small tools or bent pieces of metal. She moved to a larger pile to the right and found a set of manacles, long ruined with the passage of time.
“Looks mostly like … prisoner holding or slave holding,” Jacali said.
“Okay,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Why would they hold a slave at the entrance?”
“I don’t know.”
“I would guess that the flesh decayed and the bones decayed and all of it decayed.”
“Or this is where it was killed.”
Professor Stalloid started to search around the room. He found a knife with a saw-back edge. It had no handle but the metal had survived. He also found what appeared to be large nails with circular hooks on the wide end. There were two more sets of manacles and flint and steel. Otto took the latter. They also found five small black round stones. Professor Stalloid picked one up and realized it was too heavy to be coal but lighter than lead. He tucked all five of them into his satchel.
“The body was turned into these five stones is what I hypothesize,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Is my piece in here?” Pete said. “Let’s get out of here.”
They continued down the corridor which went down about 70 feet in total. There were more friezes and carvings on the walls, some of them quite disturbing and all of them with the serpent people predominant.
At the end, the corridor opened into a chamber roughly 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep, the corners dark with shadows. A breeze blew down through the room from the surface, the dust there scattered and thickest in the corners. They saw a wide niche in the wall to their right with an obvious door. There was another door in the same wall the tunnel entered the room. They heard a click or a clunk from behind them.
Jacali turned and looked back up the corridor. She could barely make out the entrance, yards behind them, by the ever-darkening sky outside. It would be night soon. Professor Stalloid likewise turned around to look, holding his lantern high. Then he looked at his and everyone’s feet.
“Stop,” he said. “Is anybody standing on some sort of … thing that’s lowered?”
“I’m standing on the ground,” Jacali said.
“Like a well?” Pete said.
“Like a …” Professor Stalloid said. “… some sort of stone that might be lowered from the floor?”
Pete started to lift up his feet and put them back down.
“Oh, don’t step!” Professor Stalloid said.
Professor Stalloid looked more closely at everyone’s feet but didn’t see any kind of trigger mechanism in the floor for a trap.
“I’m thinking we should press on through,” Jacali said.
“I think we should move away from this doorway, real quick,” Professor Stalloid said.
He stepped to one side of the entrance and gestured the others to do the same. They all moved clear of the corridor. It was very quiet. A cool breeze blew down into the room.
They moved to the door in the same wall as the corridor. There were no hinges on the door and Jacali pushed on it. It didn’t feel like there was any weight to it at all and it pivoted open with only the barest of sounds. It was made of rock and only the slight grinding of rock on rock came from it. It opened 90 degrees, exposing a corridor that went back about 20 feet before turning to the left. Pete, beside her, aimed his pistol into the corridor.
Otto continued to search the room for tracks and found vague signs someone went to both doors. He went to the niche with the other door and nudged it with the shotgun barrel. The door easily pivoted open, revealing a dark corridor with a door at its end and a niche to the left.
Jacali noted the thick dust on the floor and saw several tracks that both entered and exited the corridor. Professor Stalloid suggested leaving someone in the first room to keep an eye out and Jacali wondered about splitting their numbers. Otto walked back over and pointed out there was only one light source.
“They left this place,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I think we should see if they left anything or found anything or if there’s anything else we need to know about,” Jacali said.
“Like a big ol’ snake,” Professor Stalloid said.
Jacali looked at him.
“Well, if they got out then so can we,” she said.
“One of ‘em didn’t,” Pete said. “One of us won’t. I pick him.”
He pointed at Otto.
“I pick you, Pete,” Otto said. “At least─”
“No no no!” Pete said. “I picked first!”
“Here’s my reasoning, Pete, you’ve come back from the dead twice now,” Otto said.
“He doesn’t remember that,” Professor Stalloid said.
“So …” Otto said.
“He always lie like this?” Pete said. “Don’t lie! Even I don’t lie. When I’m going to shoot somebody in the face, I shoot ‘em in the face!”
Jacali and Professor Stalloid moved forward while the two men argued.
The corridor turned to the left and only went another ten feet before it opened into a room some 30 feet wide by 20 feet deep. The footprints went through the dusk into the room to about the center and stopped, turning and heading back. The walls were covered with shelves cut into the rock. The niches were only about a foot deep and high and covered both walls. They were filled with geodes. There must have been hundreds of them there.
“All right …” Jacali said.
“How about we just leave these fools to their fate and turn around?” Otto said.
“Afraid of a bunch of rocks, there, Otto?” Pete said. “It ain’t here. My piece ain’t here. Let’s go.”
“Yeah … uh … what Pete said,” Jacali said.
She backed slowly out of the room.
“Is there anything we can do to destroy these, Stalloid?” Otto said.
“We need fire,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I have a fire-making kit,” Otto said.
“Lots of fire,” Professor Stalloid said. “A little bit of fire just wakes them up. We need lots of fire.”
“You might be able to start a fire, get a spark, but it won’t keep going in here,” Jacali said. “Plus, it will eat up all our oxygen and drown us.”
“Also, I’m not dragging a bunch of firewood from who-knows-where,” Professor Stalloid said. “All the way up that hole again, and then in here, and then down to this room to burn all these.”
“Let’s just go,” Otto said.
“Is my piece in there?” Pete said.
“No,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Let’s go,” Pete said.
Otto backed out of the room, keeping an eye out for any movement at all. He realized all of the geode-shaped stones were covered in dust and a few had fallen, obviously, from the shelves, and lay on the floor. They were not cracked, however. Nor were they moving.
When they got back to the door, it was closed.
“That monster did the exact same thing,” Otto said.
Professor Stalloid pushed on the door and it swung silently open. He told Otto he thought it was just a swing-back door, like a saloon door. He examined it but couldn’t find any easy way to jam it closed. He thought about using the round stones and examined one of them closely. They were small and round, like a marble, somewhat smooth as if they had been created as opposed to occurring naturally. They didn’t make any noise when he shook them by his ear. They appeared to be a solid piece of something. He wasn’t sure what.
He remembered the metal from the first room.
“This room should never be opened again,” Professor Stalloid said. “Let’s go get that metal real quick and we can wedge it shut.”
“And we can check the entrance while we’re up there,” Otto said.
“I guess,” Jacali said. “I mean … I think we could just save it for last, but …”
“We might be leaving here in a hurry,” Otto said.
“Yeah,” Professor Stalloid said.
“That’s true,” Jacali said.
“We do leave a lot of places in a hurry,” Professor Stalloid said.
“We’ll be leaving some corpses behind, but I’ll bet we ain’t gonna be running from ‘em,” Pete said.
“Some things don’t leave corpses,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete looked at him.
“What?” he said.
“Let’s not scare our new friend, Pete Sutter,” Jacali said. “Let’s just get those things and do that thing you were talking about.”
They went back up the long corridor and returned to the first room. They found the door there shut as well. They got the pieces of metal and returned to the door to the room filled with geodes. Professor Stalloid wedged them into the crack under the door on the inside so no one would get it open again, hopefully. He wedged the outside of the door with the pick he’d taken from the Inn of the Smiling Spirit. While they did that, Jacali looked around the room, finding worthless debris in the corners. The walls were covered with frescos showing the serpent people in various positions of power over men and beasts.
They went to the other door out of the room, Pete in the lead again. It opened onto a corridor some 30 feet long that ended in a door. A niche was to the left with another door within it. The footprints on the floor indicated the men went both ways. Otto suggested going to the niche door first and it opened easily. The 20-foot by 20-foot room had small holes in the walls and heavy dust covered the floor to a depth of a couple of inches. Otherwise the room appeared to be empty.
The footprints stopped at the door.
Jacali entered the room and looked at the holes, finding them small and only a couple of inches deep and angled down. They realized the holes might have held wooden pegs to hang things on the wall. Then she went to the center of the room, wiping away the dust, and found the biggest snakeskin she’d ever seen. The skin was strange in that it was a snakeskin but had arms and legs on it as well.
Otto walked back out into the corridor as soon as he saw it.
“Maybe molting is a very stressful process and they need to be restrained,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I imagine if I had to change out my whole look and be totally unclothed for it …” Jacali said.
“Your piece, your piece,” Professor Stalloid said. “I get it.
“What the hell are y’all talking about?” Pete said.
“Well, Pete Sutter, have you ever considered that snakes shed their skin and, if a snake this big─” Jacali said.
“Everybody knows snakes shed their skin!”
“Well, what if you had to shed your skin? Have you ever thought about that?”
“No. Who would think about that?”
“I would think any normal person would think about that.”
“Yeah,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Well, you’re an injun,” Pete said. “Nobody cares what you think.”
“What about me?” Professor Stalloid said.
“You’re not wrong,” Jacali said.
She walked out of the room.
They all proceeded on to the other door at the end of the passage. It opened as easily as the ones before it had. The corridor beyond curved to the right. There appeared to be many narrow passages leading off it with ceilings lower than the corridor’s 10-foot ceiling. The footprints in the dust went straight down the hall.
They discussed following the footprints or looking at the rooms. They finally decided to follow the tracks.
Pete was careful at each connecting corridor, peering in each with gun pointed but quickly moving on.
“You get ‘em Pete,” Jacali said.
“Well, there ain’t nothing to get is there?” Pete said.
“Oh, they better watch out for you,” Jacali said.
The connecting “corridors” proved to be deep niches, alcoves deep enough for coffins to be laid within. Some were intact while others were broken to flinders. Some of the niches were empty but showed signed of having once held a wooden coffin. The ones that were there looked very old and made of some kind of strange wood that wasn’t familiar to them. The coffins had flaking and peeling paint of some kind and interwoven coils and knot work of some kind of metal in many cases. Some of them still contained corpses of serpent folk or at least their bones.
Both Jacali and Otto felt strange when they were close to each coffin. It was almost a noise in their head, a thrumming, like something was vibrating near the coffins or within them. Even the broken coffins near the entrance gave them that strange feeling. It was not pleasant. Pete kept looking around like he was feeling it as well.
A larger niche a short distance down to the right held an intact coffin laying on the floor with the body of a serpent person. The thing’s hands held an ornate and heavy-looking obsidian cleaver. The niche to the left held a coffin containing only the bones of a serpent person, this one holding a slender, verdigris-covered bronze poniard clutched to its chest. Further down to the right, just before the corridor widened, was a sarcophagus wherein appeared to be the skeleton of a serpent person clad in a heavy snakeskin robe that matched its own mottled hide.
They stopped and Professor Stalloid touched the snakeskin robe. Jacali touched it as well and realized it was obviously very heavy.
“Can you keep an eye on this skeleton?” Professor Stalloid said. “I don’t trust it.”
Pete looked at him like he was crazy but aimed his pistol at the skeleton as Professor Stalloid started to remove the robe from the bones.
“Don’t you move now, Mr. Skeleton,” Pete said. “Oh! Oh, he’s okay. Watch out! Oh, it’s fine. He ain’t moving. Don’t move, I told you!”
Professor Stalloid finally got the robe off the bones and looked it over.
“These are weirdest-lookin’ injuns I ever seen,” Pete said, looking at the bones in the sarcophagus.
“I’m worried that we’re desecrating a sacred place, but I would like to bring something back to Ophelia,” Jacali said.
Professor Stalloid tried to roll up the robes but they proved too thick and wouldn’t fit in his satchel. Rolled up, they had more the consistency of a thick bedroll. He shrugged and emptied the pockets of his jacket, tucked it into the satchel, and put on the robes. They were very heavy but he felt it looked pretty good on him. The robes went down to his feet and had wide sleeves.
They also noticed the skeleton wore a bone ring. Professor Stalloid pointed it out.
“You got bone on your bones,” Jacali quipped.
They all looked at her.
“Because it’s a bone ring?” she said. “And it’s on a skeleton?”
They all looked at her.
“That’s funny!” she said.
“Jacali, what’s wrong with you?” Pete said.
They left the ring and continued on.
“Keep up,” Pete said. “I don’t wanna be in the dark.”
They reached a place where the corridor opened up a little as it split. The junction was dominated by a column carved into the form of a spiral-coiled serpent, it’s long ivory fangs glinting beneath emerald eyes that peered from near the ceiling some eight feet off the ground. A large white crescent was on the forehead of the serpent. A passage ran straight ahead while another curved off to the left, both with more niches evident. A door was to the left before the corridor. Additionally, another wide passage went down and to the right.
“That’s a big statue,” Pete said, pointing his pistol at it.
“Don’t mess with this statue, Stalloid,” Otto said.
“I’m going to touch it!” Professor Stalloid said.
“Don’t!” Otto said.
He aimed his shotgun at Professor Stalloid.
“Can I touch it with a stick?” Professor Stalloid said.
“No!” Otto said.
“Oh, we playing that game?” Pete said.
He pointed his pistol at Professor Stalloid.
“Wait a minute,” he said.
He pointed the pistol at Otto. Otto pointed his shotgun at him.
“I just want to touch it,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Don’t touch it!” Otto said to him.
“Don’t aim a shotgun at me, boy!” Pete said.
“Why are you aiming a pistol at me?”
“‘Cause you aimed a shotgun at him. I might need him to get my piece back.”
Otto lowered the shotgun and Pete stopped aiming his pistol at him.
“Don’t do that again!” he said.
“Can I touch it with a stick?” Professor Stalloid said.
“No, don’t touch it at all,” Otto said.
“How about if I wrap my hand in this robe?”
“You let me touch the robe already. C’mon.”
“But this is different. Last time we dealt with a statue that had gems for eyes, shadow beasts came at us and they disintegrated people! They’re acidic. They’re acidic. They’re like that creature you killed.”
“Yeah, I’m a slime slayer! Let me touch it!”
“Don’t touch it!”
“I want to touch it!”
“What is wrong with you?” Pete said to Professor Stalloid.
Jacali has not entered the junction but lingered, worried, in the corridor they had come from.
“You don’t want to touch it,” Otto said.
Professor Stalloid moved towards the statue. Otto, annoyed, went back to the entrance of the room where Jacali stood nervously, ready to run.
Professor Stalloid walked over to the statue and looked up at it, then reached out and touched the surface of the thing with a single finger. The snake looked down at him silently. He bowed and moved away. An impression crashed through his head, alien and cold, noting his trespass. It reminded him somewhat of his contact with the Crescent though this impression seemed to encompass the entire world.
Yeah, but we’re just chasing the trespassers, he thought. We’re trying to find them.
He got a strange feeling and the only way he it made sense was: Are you a servant of Bast?
No no no, he thought. I hate Bast. Bast doesn’t like me.
The pressure in his mind was suddenly gone as quickly as it had come.
The others saw and heard nothing but watched as Professor Stalloid touched and then bowed to the statue, backing away to rejoin them.
“All right, Stalloid,” Jacali said. “How was it?”
“Um …” Professor Stalloid said.
“What the hell was that?” Pete said.
“It called me a trespasser,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I told you!” Otto said.
“Should we …” Jacali said.
“What?” Pete said.
“… try to pay our respect in any way to this …” Jacali said.
“I don’t know how!” Professor Stalloid said.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have taken their robes,” Jacali said.
“I’m keeping it!” Professor Stalloid said.
“Take the robe back,” Otto said.
“It didn’t say anything about the robes!” Professor Stalloid said.
“Do you think I should …” Jacali said.
“I don’t think it even cared about the robes!” Professor Stalloid said. “Let’s keep going.”
“What the hell are you people talking about!” Pete said.
“It doesn’t like trespassers,” Professor Stalloid said. “So we should get these trespassers and stop them.”
“It identified you as a trespasser,” Otto said.
“But I told it I wasn’t,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I feel like I should make some reverence,” Jacali said.
“I … I don’t know how,” Professor Stalloid said.
Jacali walked across the room and put a hand on the statue, bowing in front of it. She didn’t look up but knew the thing was leaning down to look at her. She was shaken when she realized something had noticed her that had never noticed her before, perhaps because she was too unimportant to be noticed. Perhaps she had been safer not being noticed. She was thinking of Ophelia and wondering what the connection might be.
Her mind was flooded with images too quickly to make out. She saw flashes of humans and things that looked like they were not quite human, but humanoids with thicker hair and thicker skulls, working in fields, under the lash of serpent people. She got the impression of some kind of great upheaval though was unsure exactly what kind. She saw the humans and proto-humans rising up and attacking their masters. She thought she saw men in metal armor unlike anything she’d ever seen before of brass or bronze or gold. She got an idea of a great flight in the direction they were going through the crypts of many serpent people. She got the impression the place they were in had some other purpose besides just housing the dead and, for an instant, she heard the strange thrumming again and knew it was some kind of power being taken from the dead to do something though she was no sure what.
What she didn’t see were dinosaurs or great ferns or anything like what she had seen through the gate Ophelia had come through.
She stumbled backwards a step as the images faded and were gone. But she could hear the thrumming more clearly now, moving from the top of the crypts, where they entered, and going down into the ground, following the tunnels and the coffins and the dead, through the spiral of the place, to where and for what purpose, she did not know.
Professor Stalloid moved to Jacali.
“Can I touch it again?” he said.
“No,” she said. “It’s fine. There’s something else here and we need to go down and find it. It’s greater than … it’s greater than the trespassers, greater than the piece.”
“No, it’s not!” Pete said. “We find my piece, you can do anything you want with this crap!”
He gestured at the crypts all around them.
“I don’t really care,” he said. “You can take your snake statue and your emeralds. I don’t care. I just want my piece.”
“I feel that─” Jacali said.
“I gotta job to do,” Pete said. “I need my piece.”
“I feel like I should mention: whatever we do, I feel like we should leave this place as much as it was before,” Jacali said.
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,” Professor Stalloid said.
They continued to follow the tracks of the other men going straight ahead and, as they passed what they thought was another corridor to the right, saw it was only a short corridor going down into a room some 30 feet deep and 20 feet across. There were more large sarcophagi there.
Jacali concentrated on the strange thrumming that seemed to be going through her head. Maybe it was her imagination but she was certain she could still feel it. It seemed to be coming from the entrance and going down the corridors ahead. It worried her.
“I feel like it might be best to check both places,” she said. “I don’t know which one we want to do first.”
“Well, we know they went down the straightaway,” Professor Stalloid said.
“That’s where my piece is!” Pete said.
“So, do we want to check the curved left one?” Professor Stalloid said.
“They could connect to the same place,” Otto said.
“My piece ain’t down there!” Pete said.
“I feel like it would be better to go around the curve,” Otto said. “I think it goes to the same place.”
Pete pointed down the corridor the tracks went.
“Do we just follow the tracks for now or do you want to go to the left?” Professor Stalloid asked Jacali.
“I … I want to get everywhere eventually,” Jacali said. “I just want to know what this place is, but … if Pete’s incessant then─”
“Let’s just go straight,” Professor Stalloid said.
“… we can go straight,” Jacali said.
“It’s about time somebody saw some sense,” Pete said.
The corridor ahead ran straight for about 40 feet and they passed more alcoves, many with broken shards of humble coffins or the occasional sarcophagus, all empty of everything but bones, before it curved to the right once again. A connecting corridor ran to the left, probably to connect up with the other corridor they had passed. The corridor to the right, which started to curve back towards the left, had tracks of the men. The left corridor actually curved even further to the left, though the shadows at the edge of their light showed a large sarcophagus in a niche to the right.
The tracks followed the main curve as it descended in a long spiral and so they continued carefully down, passing more alcoves similar to the ones they had passed before and more carvings on the walls of serpent people and enslaved humans. They had gone perhaps another hundred feet they came upon a place where there were three doors in the wall to the right and a single door in the wall to the left. The left door appeared to have been sealed up with stone and metal wedges nailed in all around it. The scrapes on the floor suggested the door might have been shaken somewhat loose at some point.
They had the same plan as I did, Professor Stalloid thought.
The wedges were covered with dust. Only a single set of footprints went up to the door and didn’t seem to come back.
Jacali went to the door and pressed on it with the palm of her right hand. The door didn’t open but it felt like her hand was moving into the stone of it, pressing in like it was made of some soft material. She looked at the others as it felt like her hand was being pulled into the door.
“This is just like the beds,” she said.
Otto and Professor Stalloid rushed forward, grabbing the woman and pulling her away from the door. When her hand came away pain ran up her arm from her palm and she turned her hand over to see the flesh that had touched the door was covered with blood as if it had been flayed. She cursed.
“Maybe it was good that you pulled me back from that then,” she said.
Professor Stalloid quickly wrapped her hand in his handkerchief to stop the bleeding. Her hand hurt terribly.
“Man, that’s a pretty sharp door,” Pete said.
“Yeah, Pete,” Jacali said. “You want to check it out, see if you can do any better, be my guest. But … uh …”
“Why the hell would I want to do that?” Pete said. “Wait, is my piece in there?”
“Maybe Pete,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Yeah, who knows?” Jacali said. “The one set of footprints goes in.”
“No no no no,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete thought on that and then glared at them.
“Let’s keep going,” Professor Stalloid said. “Follow the tracks.”
Before they went, they opened the doors on the right side of the corridor. The first was filled with destroyed coffins and bones. The second had four coffins within, mostly intact. The last had a single coffin within, likewise in poor condition. Each time Jacali looked into a room, the thrumming grew louder, as if whatever was making the noise was moving through it.
Professor Stalloid took off the serpent skin robes.
“I don’t feeling comfortable taking this, but if you still want to, you can,” he said to Jacali.
“I think I was one of the people who said we shouldn’t take things from these places, so …” Jacali said.
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Okay.”
“When we go back by that place, you can give it back to that nice skeleton.”
“Okay. Okay. Okay.”
He donned the robe once again.
“And remember, tell him sorry for taking his coat,” she said.
“I will,” Professor Stalloid said. “I will. I will.”
“He’s dead!” Pete said.
“I get a very bad feeling about this place,” Jacali said.
“His god’s not,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Dead men walking …” Otto said.
“His god?” Pete said. “What’re you talking about?”
“Oh, don’t worry, Pete,” Professor Stalloid said. “Let’s get your piece.”
“All right, let’s get my piece,” Pete said.
Both Professor Stalloid and Jacali realized Pete’s pistol, his piece, was more important to him than was probably healthy. He was obviously very attached and obsessed with it. He was incomplete without it and it had amazing meaning to him.
Otto looked at his watch and saw they had been in the place for a little over a half hour. He told Professor Stalloid.
“Okay,” Professor Stalloid said.
He pulled out his own pocket watch.
“I’ve got a watch too,” he said.
“You can tell me what time it is,” Jacali said. “I don’t have a watch.”
Otto showed her his watch.
“I know,” she said.
“What the clock says,” Otto said.
“What does the clock say, Jacali,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Oh. My. God,” Pete said. “Who cares what time it is!?!”
“It’s time to get your piece!” Professor Stalloid said.
“Exactly!” Pete said.
They continued down the corridor only a dozen or so yards before they saw strange, flashing lights ahead. They came across a wide niche to the left with a large metal ring 10 feet in diameter. There were strange sigils and odd signs upon it. It was embedded in the walls of the niche. The footprints went by the thing. Professor Stalloid touched the ring and thought “Open.” Nothing happened.
“I’m not powerful enough,” he said to the others. “I’m sorry.”
Jacali stuck her hand through the hole but nothing happened.
“It’s not active,” Professor Stalloid said.
Jacali realized the thrumming was not as potent at that particular spot. It was still there but not as powerful or heavy. It felt like it was more in the background.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Pete said.
“Well, this is kind of like … you remember how those people sent us back in time through their minds,” Professor Stalloid said. “And we were in the Indians?”
“Yes,” Pete said.
“Well, this would just bring us back there as you,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete looked at him.
“Don’t break him,” Jacali said.
“This is some kind of time portal that can break the bonds of time and space, and place us, possibly, on other worlds or even other times?” Pete said.
“Yes,” Professor Stalloid said.
They looked at each other.
“But usually, the last one we saw─” Professor Stalloid said.
“My piece is not in there!” Pete said.
“No no no no no.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
“Don’t hurt his head Stalloid,” Jacali said.
“It didn’t hurt my head,” Pete said. “I took paraphysics.”
“It was at the Secret Service Institute,” Professor Stalloid said.
“No, that was at Yale,” Pete said. “Let’s go!”
They saw a flashing, strange light ahead, almost like an electric light, like lightning. It came from up ahead around the curve. Without telling anyone else, Otto slipped ahead as they stopped to discuss what to do. When they looked for him, he was gone.
“He must’ve gone ahead,” Professor Stalloid said. “Let’s go ahead.”
* * *
Otto crept ahead, little more than a shadow. He came to a spot where there were two shallow niches on the right, each of them with another of the metal rings. A strange light moved within them, completely silent, occasionally flashing and moving about, sometimes little more than a burst of electricity, but sometimes filling the entirety of the ring. Lying next to the nearest of them was a body. His right arm was missing from the elbow down and he lay in a pool of blood. The man looked like one of the men they had passed on the road that morning.
He saw there were niches on the left with doors and he thought he heard voices from a niche on the right between the two shallow niches with the rings. Beyond that, in the strange, flashing light, he could see the spiral crypts continued. He crept forward quietly and thought he heard footsteps approaching from behind, guessing it was the others.
He quickly peeked in and recognize the other two prospectors they had run into on the road that morning. They stood in a room of indeterminate depth with an open door. Another one of the 10-foot diameter rings ran across the room about 10 feet from the door but this one was filled with an opaque white field of light. The two men were discussing quietly what to do. One of them had two pistols stuck in his belt and the other one had a buffalo rifle in his right hand, holding it by the barrel. They discussed whether they should make the claim there and if it was Gulliver’s spot.
Otto crept back towards the others.
* * *
The others had just reached a spot where they could see the body in the corridor when Jacali heard someone whisper her name and turned to see Otto standing there.
“Jesus Christ Otto!” she hissed.
He shushed her.
“They’re ahead!” he whispered.
“That’s the best way to announce it to me - when you’re completely invisible!” she said.
“You know what? If I had appeared in front of Pete, he would’ve shot me. So … I figured it’d be better if─”
“Hey!” Pete said. “There’s a dead guy up here!”
They shushed him.
“Quiet, they’re ahead,” Otto whispered.
“They’re ahead,” Professor Stalloid said. “We’ve got to use the element of surprise.”
“Let’s just shoot ‘em,” Pete said.
“No!” Otto whispered. “If you do, he’d use the buffalo gun.”
“What’re you trying to tell me, Otto?” Jacali said.
“They’re armed,” Otto said. “One has two pistols.”
“Let’s go!” he said.
Otto held the shotgun up as Pete made to head down the corridor.
“I want to try to get a good shot before they know we’re here,” Jacali said.
Pete grabbed the end of the shotgun.
“Get out of my way!” he said.
“Now Pete, when we started this, I said we’d try to arrest these people fire,” Otto said. “Not, you know, blast their brains out like you obviously want to.”
“I’ll arrest ‘em with a bullet!” Pete said.
Jacali had her bow in her hand.
“How about you two come around the corner first and say ‘Federal Marshal!’” Professor Stalloid said. “And stay ‘Stop! You’ll not be taking this land!’ or whatever, ‘You land grabbers!’”
“Yes,” Jacali said. “Exactly like he said.”
“We’ll be waiting in the shadows,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Can you keep Pete behind here until …” Otto said.
“I figure Pete will be in the front.”
“He’s going to shoot them.”
“No no no no no. You’ll keep him under control. You got this.”
“I told them to stay away from this place,” Professor Stalloid said.
“They weren’t going to believe us,” Jacali said.
“No, I know.”
“I mean, Pete Sutter doesn’t even believe us.”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. So, what’d you see when you touched the snake?”
“I saw … back in Ophelia’s time. And ever since, I’ve felt the energy of this place. And I felt it heading in a direction deeper inside.”
“You have more shotgun shells, Stalloid?” Otto said.
Professor Stalloid handed over the six shotgun shells he kept in his pocket.
“I think we should get as close as we can without alerting them and we should all got at once,” Jacali said.
“Nip it in the bud,” Professor Stalloid said.
“We want a signal?”
“Raspberry?” Otto said.
“So, one of us will shout a berry,” Jacali said. “Who is giving the signal?”
“What’s the most terrifying berry?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Am I going to confront them?” Otto said. “I feel like I should as a federal marshal.”
“I want someone at your back, Otto, if you do that,” Jacali said. “Because …”
“It can’t be Pete Sutter,” Otto whispered. “‘Cause he will shoot at them immediately.”
“He’ll be in the back,” Professor Stalloid said.
Pete was looking down the corridor, not really paying attention to them, whispering about his piece.
“I can have your back but I won’t be lethal,” Jacali said. “I won’t be as lethal.”
“I don’t feel like you should stand out in the open,” Otto said. “One of those men has a buffalo rifle and if he hits you with that …”
“Yeah, that’s why we hide in the corners and tell them we have 50 men,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Where else is there, though?” Jacali said. “This is just a hallway.”
“Well, tell them we have eight men,” Professor Stalloid said. “Or six men. Six men will be great.”
“Let’s go!” Pete said.
They explained the plan to Pete and he grudgingly went along with it, a little annoyed. Professor Stalloid explained if they blasted the man with his piece through the portal, they were never getting his piece back. Pete seemed annoyed at that. They discussed the plan as Professor Stalloid blew out his lantern. The light from the activated portal poured out of the room and the intermittent light from the other two flashing and sparking portals was enough to light up the rest of the corridor.
They crept up, Otto and Jacali moving forward ahead while Pete and Professor Stalloid held back, only going as far as the dead body. Both Otto and Professor Stalloid were quiet but Jacali and Pete were quite loud moving down the corridor. Otto ended up on the right side of the hallway near the corner that led around to the room the two men were in. Jacali was on the opposite wall, creeping by the closed door to a position she might peek around Otto’s corner at a distance. Pete and Professor Stalloid were on the right side 10 or 15 feet back.
It was quiet around the corner in the room Otto had seen the two men.
“All right boys!” Otto called. “Put your weapons down!”
At that same moment, Jacali leaned far enough to see into the room and spotted the two men, both of them aiming their weapons in her direction. The man with the pistol fired but the bullet ricocheted off the wall right next to Otto’s head and striking the wall next to Jacali.
“Don’t be foolish boys!” Professor Stalloid called. “We got four people here! We’ve definitely got you outgunned!”
“Damn straight!” Pete yelled. “You sons of bitches! Gimme my piece!”
Spit flew from his mouth and struck the back of Professor Stalloid’s neck.
Otto held the shotgun around the corner and with both hands and fired both barrels blindly. It flew out his hands, struck Jacali in the abdomen, and crashed to the ground.
“Oof!” she yelled.
Someone screamed from around the corner.
“Jacob!” a man screamed.
Otto reached towards Jacali and she kicked the shotgun back to him.
“Seriously, put the gun down!” Professor Stalloid called.
The thrumming in Jacali’s head got a little more intense for some reason.
Pete moved up behind Otto and poked him in the back with his pistol.
“Well, go gettum,” Pete said. “Go gettum!”
“You go gettum,” Otto said.
“No, you go gettum!” Pete said. “Get my piece. Hey! Hey! You sons of bitches got my piece!?!”
Otto broke open the shotgun and put a single shell in, closed it and reached around the corner to fire it blindly once again. A pistol-shot came from back there around the corner and there was another ricochet.
“That’s my piece!” Pete said. “Gettum!”
Jacali leaned out with her bow, intending to shoot at the man. For just a moment, she thought he was gone. Then she saw him, lying on the floor using the body of his friend for cover. There was a pistol blast as the man fired at her and she let fly her arrow. She saw the arrow strike the man, who let out a shriek. At the same time, she was struck in the lower left shoulder by the man’s bullet.
Jacali felt the energy she was sensing in her head spike. She looked back at Professor Stalloid just as the dead man by the broken portal stood up.
“Corpse! Corpse! Corpse!” Jacali yelled.
Otto looked over his shoulder and saw the dead man standing there, directly behind Pete.
“Pete!” he said, pointing behind the outlaw. “Your piece!”
“Yes, we know there’s a corpse,” Pete said. “We walked right over it.”
“He has your piece, Pete,” Otto said.
“No, my piece is in there!” Pete said. “I heard it!”
Professor Stalloid aimed the lightning gun at the walking dead man, backing up a few feet and waiting to see what it would do. He realized the thing was definitely a dead man. Otto dropped the shotgun and drew his saber; he gestured at the corner and held his sword ready if the walking dead man came at him.
Jacali backed up, going along the wall, and shot the walking dead man in the upper right leg. The man didn’t react at all, almost as if he didn’t feel a thing. He turned to his right and lurched towards Professor Stalloid, both arms up in the air. Professor Stalloid thumbed the button on the lightning gun and there as a crash of thunder in the corridor. Unfortunately, the lightning actually went around the walking dead man and forked, hitting Pete in the right foot and striking the saber Otto held like a lightning rod.
Pete picked up his right foot and jumped up and down on his left.
“What the hell was that!?!” he screamed.
The dead man tried to beat Professor Stalloid about the head and shoulders, pummeling him with the left arm but missing with the missing right arm.
“Don’t fire it again!” Otto shouted.
“Don’t worry!” Professor Stalloid said.
He retreated from the dead man and pointed the lightning gun at him. Pete turned around.
“What the hell?” he said.
It finally came clear to both Jacali and Professor Stalloid that the man was definitely dead and lifeless but still walking. Jacali was shaken by the terrible realization but held her ground. Professor Stalloid was filled with terror.
Otto rushed the walking dead man and stabbed him in the back. There was a lot of blood on the sword and Otto was certain he had stabbed the man through the heart, but it didn’t fall. Jacali fired another arrow at the man, hitting him in the left leg. The man turned around and brought his good arm down on Otto, beating him over and over until he was on the floor, covered with blood.
Then the dead man looked at Pete, who wailed, put the gun into the man’s mouth, and pulled the trigger, blowing out the back of his head. Professor Stalloid, standing some 20 feet away, was actually struck by the blood and brain matter. With a scream, he turned and fled up the corridor.
Jacali ran to Otto and tried to aid him but the man didn’t wake up.
“You damned people are worthless!” Pete said. “Worthless!”
He peeked around the corner with his pistol and fired, hitting the man in the right arm. The man’s return fire missed completely. Pete pulled his head back.
Jacali got up and went to the corner again, peeking around and seeing the man who had been shooting now had his head on the floor. His pistol was gone from his shooting hand as well and the palm of the hand was splattered with blood.
“You got him, Pete,” Jacali said.
“Good,” Pete said.
He walked around the corner and shot the man again, this time in the head.
“My piece!” he said to the dead man.
He threw down the pistol Otto had lent him and started searching the two bodies.
“If it’s - if it’s not here I’m gonna kill everybody!” he muttered.
“Okay Pete, watch over Otto and find your piece but I need to find Stalloid to get him help,” Jacali said.
He grunted at her and she turned and ran up the corridor. She met the man coming back, having regained his senses.
“Otto needs medical attention,” Jacali said. “You need to get back there.”
They heard a voice as they approached and realized it was Pete, around the corner.
“Oh, there you are, baby,” he said. “Oh my God. I missed you so much. I missed you so much. You don’t understand. I was looking for you and looking for you and looking for you.”
He was talking to his piece.
Professor Stalloid tried to rouse Otto but could not wake the man up. He administered some laudanum to the man. Pete walked out from around the corner, happy to have his piece.
“Well, thank you boys,” he said. “And lady.”
He holstered his piece and smiled, actually smiled.
“I don’t know who that other fella was but damn, he was scary,” he said.
He looked up the corridor.
“Hey, can I have your lantern?” he said.
“Uh … that would leave us in the dark,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Uh-huh. So? No, this place has plenty of light around.”
“And you still have to watch Jacali.”
“Ain’t made up my mind about that yet.”
“Did they ever tell you to stop?”
“I-I don’t know the answer. You only know the answer.”
“I don’t have to tell you anything.”
“No, you don’t. But we got your piece.”
“Well, Pete, you got on me earlier for people of my skin color not being able to medicine members of our party,” Jacali said. “Do you know anything about … Otto’s condition. Might you be able to help him?”
Pete looked down at the unconscious Otto.
“I’ll try to wake him up,” he said.
He straddled Otto on his knees and started slapping him hard in the face over and over again. Otto awoke with a start to find the man slapping the **** out of him. The last thing he had remembered was being beaten by the dead man only to wake to find Pete Sutter repeatedly slapping him in the face.
“She told me to do this,” Pete said when he realized Otto was awake. “I hope you realize that.”
“I did not,” Jacali said.
“You told me to wake him up!” Pete said. “Look! He’s awake.”
He held up his hands.
“Master healer,” he said.
Jacali looked at the ceiling and thought about Eva Weisswald.
Professor Stalloid and Jacali went to look at the glowing portal. Of the bodies near it, one man’s foot was blown off and he probably bled out from the wound very quickly. The other man had taken a bullet that ran up his arm to his shoulder and burst out the back. He had likewise bled out and died very quickly.
Otto got up and hobbled over, using the shotgun as a crutch. He saw a bloodstained piece of paper on the floor, no doubt left there by Pete after he’d searched the bodies. He picked it up and found a map of the locale upon it. He tucked it into his pocket.
“You want to throw a body through it?” Professor Stalloid said.
Jacali pulled an arrow out of one of the corpses and stuck it into the portal. She pulled it back out but it was fine, apparently. She could feel the thrumming going on in her head. It was loudest near the portal.
“There’s something important here,” she said.
“Yeah, some damned wall of light,” Pete said.
Otto recovered his peacemaker from where Pete dropped it. Another pistol was there as well as the buffalo rifle.
Jacali put her hand near the portal, trying to figure out if it was warmer or colder than the surrounding air. It didn’t feel any different to her. Professor Stalloid took the shotgun from Otto and used it to push one of the dead bodies partially through the portal. Once it was about halfway in, he pulled it back out by the legs. It didn’t look any different to him.
“Pete, you’re the bravest of us and we got your piece back,” Professor Stalloid said. “Would you like to put your arm in the portal?”
“No,” Pete said.
“I’ll put my arm in the portal,” Jacali said.
“Pete,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I saw …” Pete said.
He pointed out towards the corridor where the walking dead man lay.
“What about that fella’s arm,” he said.
“That fella was putting his arm in a blinking portal,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I ain’t puttin’ my arm in no light,” Pete said.
“Listen, I could tell, after I touched that statue there’s something important here,” Jacali said. “We need to know.”
“I’ll go in at the same time,” Professor Stalloid said.
Jacali stuck her left arm into the portal.
As Professor Stalloid watched, he suddenly saw something in his mind. It was some kind of strange spiral or a coiled snake with nodes and modules sticking off it. It took him a moment to realize he was seeing the structure he was standing it. The corridors were all twisted and coiled. Out of the knobs, the niches, seemed to be some kind of light, going to the very spot they stood on and the very portal they were examining. It felt, somehow, the entire complex was set up so that the corpses were somehow powering the portal. He was certain of it, overwhelmingly sure of what he suddenly knew.
It felt like a warning to him.
A warning against or a warning for? he thought.
Jacali was moving her hand around on the other side of the portal but didn’t feel like there as any difference in temperature. She didn’t feel any kind of change whatsoever. She stepped through.
* * *
The only light on the other side of the portal was from the portal she had just stepped through. It was pitch dark in the cavern otherwise. She didn’t see any exits and, though it seemed to be a large room, she could feel the weight of the world above her, as if she were far, far underground. In a panic, she suddenly turn and rushed to get back through the portal.
She slammed into someone on the way through, making it through but being knocked aside as she did so. She found herself on their side of the portal as she fell to the ground with a crash.
* * *
Professor Stalloid saw Jacali step into the portal and it caught him off guard for only a few seconds. Then he hurried to follow her. He struck something a glancing blow as he went through and then crashed to the ground on the other side. He dropped his lantern but the glass didn’t break and the flame didn’t go out. He looked around and saw he was in a black cavern only lit by his lantern and the glow from the portal. It was very dark and he couldn’t make out anything.
There was an oppressive feeling as if he was deep beneath the ground. He had a little trouble breathing and he realized it might have been due to the increased air pressure at whatever depth he suddenly found himself at.
* * *
Jacali lay among the corpses and the blood, breathing heavily. Otto came over to try to comfort her.
“Don’t get too close!” she said, flinging out her arms.
He stopped a few feet away.
“What’s wrong, Jacali?” he asked.
“It was … it was … it was the darkest thing I’ve ever seen and it was all around me and I couldn’t move and I had to … I had to leave,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe. I swear to God I couldn’t breathe.”
“So, it was like inside a whale?” Pete said.
“I don’t … I didn’t really stay long enough to see what it was inside,” Jacali said. “I just know I couldn’t see anything and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t get out and I just - I just - I-I couldn’t control my legs. And I just came back and … I don’t … oh my God.”
“Where’s Stalloid?” Otto said.
“Huh? I don’t know. I hit somebody.”
“He went in after you.”
“I might have knocked into Stalloid. I don’t know. I just. Oh my God. I couldn’t stand to be there more than a second.”
“Well, hell, he’s got the lantern,” Pete said.
“Well, Pete, if you want to go in and help him get back,” Otto said.
Pete glared at him.
“Don’t try that crap with me, Otto,” Pete said.
“I can’t go in after him!” Otto said.
“Look at me. I’m using a shotgun as a crutch. Do you think I’m going to be able to get him out of that portal?”
“I think you can.”
“I think you’re better suited at it.”
“I seen you go over to Jacali.”
“I feel like maybe we should just wait.”
“You all are both the most cowardly people,” Jacali said.
“Well, Jacali, what do you want me to do?” Otto said. “I can barely walk!”
“I don’t care! Just go in or don’t!”
“I don’t want to go in.”
“I don’t walk into walls of light,” Pete said. “I don’t like it. It’s not natural.”
Otto turned to the portal, intending to put his head through.
* * *
“Jacali?” Professor Stalloid called softly.
He figured she was close and feared something else might hear him.
He heard something moving out in the darkness somewhere. It dragged itself along the ground and, from the sound of it, was quite large. He looked around for a moment and then turned and left the place via the portal once again.
* * *
Otto moved to the portal and then Professor Stalloid stepped out.
“Hey,” Otto said. “See? I was right.”
“Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope!” Professor Stalloid said.
“What was it?” Otto said.
“See?” Pete said. “That’s why you don’t walk into light! Look at him!”
“You know how there was that eight-foot snake?” Professor Stalloid said. “This one was probably at least … 10 feet! Probably longer though. I couldn’t tell the distance.”
Pete rolled his eyes.
“Let’s get out of here,” Otto said.
“Was it the statue?” Jacali said. “Was it the thing from the statue?”
“Maybe?” Professor Stalloid said. “I don’t, for the love of … whatever god … want to know!”
They looked at each other. Jacali looked at the portal. She wanted to know what was in there but was terrified of the room itself.
“Do you think it was the statue?” Professor Stalloid said. “I mean, I’m fine talking to the statue, but … talking to the real thing? Oh no! The real thing will eat you.”
“Should we just leave?” Otto said.
“I … I feel like whatever is beyond there is important but I … I know I’m not ever going back in there,” Jacali said.
“Right,” Pete said. “Smartest thing you said all day. You don’t go into circles o’ light. You learn after the first time. Huh.”
“Dark caverns in the deep, damp depths,” Professor Stalloid said.
They examined the doors across the corridor from the working portal. Each one had a room like the room with the working portal. However, the metal ring in each was just a ring. They were not activated.
They continued down the corridor, much to Otto’s horror and Pete’s annoyance. There were more niches, more coffins, and more sarcophagi. At one point, they found a hole in the back of a niche that seemed to lead into a small cave system.
“It’s definitely newer than this place,” Jacali said.
“You want to see it?” Professor Stalloid said.
“I don’t want to lead the way.”
“I’ll lead the way.”
Professor Stalloid led them, single file, through a steeply sloping cave system that descended quickly and then leveled off. It led them to natural caves and other steeply sloped, natural tunnels before finally opening back into another niche with a coffin. The floor beyond the niche was another corridor filled with other niches. There were no footprints on the floor of that corridor.
“Humans weren’t meant to be in the ground,” Jacali muttered. “We weren’t supposed to be here. People weren’t supposed to be like this. God I hate it.”
“She’s right, you know,” Pete said.
“I need to go see a doctor,” Otto said. “I’m not sure why we’re wandering around … a stupid snake cave … when I need to get my …!”
He gestured at his head.
“… treated!” he said.
“And I need to see the sun again,” Jacali said.
They backtracked out through the cave. Otto checked his watch again. Though it had felt like forever, they had been in the crypts for less than an hour, total.
“Otto, do you need help walking?” Jacali said.
“I think I can manage on my own,” Otto said.
“I feel like we need to discover everything we can about this place,” Jacali said. “But if that lantern goes out, I am going to … I will stab each and every one of you to get out, if that’s what it took.”
“Let’s go ahead and track out,” Professor Stalloid said.
They went back through the narrow natural caves until they reached the corridor again. Then they went back to the area with the corpses and the portal, passing the dead men.
When they came to what they thought had been a connecting corridor, now on their right, they thought they saw movement at the very edge of the light.
“Do you want to go see?” Professor Stalloid said.
“No,” Otto said.
“Okay, you keep heading towards the front─”
“No, I cannot.”
“We gotta know if there’s something else down here. We don’t want whatever is down that way to come this way and sneaking up behind us.”
“We don’t necessarily want to engage it.”
“If it’s another one of those walking corpses,” Jacali said. “Then we’re … we’re done.”
“Okay, let’s just keep going then,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I just think we should be incredibly cautious, whatever we do. And we need to have another way out that’s not towards it.”
They continued through the junction with the great snake statue and then by the room with the strange skin and into the room with the breeze. Nothing had changed with the pick Professor Stalloid had wedged in the door. They went up the inclined corridor and to the cave mouth. They climbed down the rope and collected the three hobbled horses.
The moon was three quarters full and the skies were clear. It was chilly out and they could see their breath. They headed back towards the Inn of the Smiling Spirit, Professor Stalloid extinguishing his lantern once they were out of the strange valley of the rattlers.
* * *
Nothing had changed at the Inn of the Smiling Spirit. The front door still stood wide open and it was dark.
Professor Stalloid took up residence in the large room with the fireplace upstairs. It was a cozy room with no windows and he made a huge fire in the fireplace there. Otto climbed into the double bed in the room and was instantly asleep. Professor Stalloid climbed in next to him.
Jacali had picked the other room with a double bed, this one with a window, and climbed in to fall quickly asleep under the quilts there. Pete took one of the bunks in one of the other rooms.
* * *
The morning of Wednesday, November 10, 1875, dawned bright and clear and cold once again. The room Professor Stalloid and Otto shared was chilly but not cold with the still glowing coals in the fireplace. Professor Stalloid saw to Otto’s wounds once again, trying to aid the man without much luck.
He went to find Pete Sutter to try to convince him to help Otto with his wounds. He tried to use the excuse they had gotten his piece back for him but he wasn’t buying it.
“I don’t have time for that!” Pete said. “I’ll wake him up again. Can I wake him up again?”
“No,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Just rub some dirt on it!” Pete said to Otto.
* * *
Jacali’s room was cold but she felt finally well-rested the next morning. She found blood on the sheets of her bed near her head and realized she had done nothing about the bullet wound in her shoulder. It ached. She went down to the common room where Professor Stalloid had made a fire. He had also lit a fire in the fireplace in the kitchen and someone had pushed the broken down closed.
They looked over the map and saw it marked the inn and South Arkansas and a few other towns. It also showed where the Spiral Crypts were located. Professor Stalloid kept it.
“I need a doctor,” Otto said again.
“Where’s Weisswald?” Professor Stalloid said.
“I mean, my guess is as good as yours,” Jacali said. “When we came out of the Yithians vision, we weren’t together, so …”
Professor Stalloid looked at Pete.
“Hey, where’s Weisswald?” he said.
“Who?” Pete said.
“White-haired lady,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Oh,” Pete said. “Iunno.”
“I know she’s doing well wherever she is,” Jacali said.
“Okay,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Who wants that horse in the barn?” Pete said.
“You can take it,” Otto said.
“I don’t think that’s anybody’s,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Well, it’s mine now,” Pete said. “You can decide what to do with … gimp here, and … I got places to be.”
“Don’t break the law, now,” Otto said to him.
“Uh … well everybody here is dead and that horse is gonna die,” Pete said. “So, I’m doing a humane act.”
“Well, you are, but I mean, once you leave, don’t.”
“Oh yes sir.”
Pete rolled his eyes and Otto did as well.
“I’m not a lawbreaker, officer,” Pete said.
“You have a bounty in California!”
“That was a misunderstanding with 40 people, a bank, a train, and those children. It’s not that important.”
* * *
Professor Stalloid took Jacali aside while Otto and Pete talked.
“Would we like to ask Gulliver about anything?” Professor Stalloid asked her.
“Who’s Gulliver?” Jacali said.
“The dead man.”
“How are we going to ask a dead man?”
“Oh, you still don’t know.”
“I said it when you were paralyzed. I can talk to ghosts.”
“You can talk to what!?!”
Pete and Otto looked over to them and then Pete left the inn. Otto went to the window and looked outside.
“I feel like … I don’t know,” Jacali said to Professor Stalloid. “I … I’m curious still about that place but I couldn’t get myself, if I wanted to, back into that portal.”
“No no no,” Professor Stalloid said. “We don’t have to go back in right now.”
“But if we’re asking about it, isn’t that to find out information if we should go back?”
“Well, yes. Eventually. With Ophelia.”
“I do want to go back with Ophelia.”
“Yeah, so we should know more about it. Should I ask about it?”
“I mean, you can. I don’t really know what that entails.”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”
“God, do I want to be there for that?”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.”
“How … how invasive is this procedure going to be?”
“Well, he’s going to come up out of the ground. It’s really spooky. It makes me twinge. And we can ask him questions.”
“You know … does Otto know about this?”
They looked over at Otto, who had moved from the window to the bar and had taken out a bottle of whiskey and a glass. He was obviously trying to ease his terrible pain with liquor.
“No no no no no,” Professor Stalloid said.
“We shouldn’t trouble him,” Jacali said.
“No no no no no.”
“All right. Well, let me know how I can help.”
“I’ll need you to catch me a chicken.”
“I need to kill a chicken.”
Professor Stalloid went over to Otto.
“Which grave holds the prospector?” he asked.
“Why do you want to know which one’s the prospector?” Otto said.
“We were going to see if he had any more notes on him. I don’t remember searching his body very well.”
“That’s desecration, Stalloid.”
“Yes! But, you saw that cave!”
“They made no mention that he had any more notes.”
“And we just desecrated that grave.”
He held out his arms to display the heavy, serpent skin robes he still wore. Jacali came over.
“Would you mind if we got that to Ophelia?” she said.
“Of course,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I feel like she should have it.”
“I’ll keep wearing it for now.”
“Once we get a chance. I understand.”
She left, going back out the front door.
“And desecrating one grave makes desecrating another okay?” Otto said.
“To … find out answers that might save lives,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I mean … I checked─”
“That place was very dangerous. There’s more slimes there.”
“I mean, I didn’t find anything.”
“Well, you know.”
“I didn’t find a notebook or anything.”
“I’m not going to take his bones and bring them back here and dance them around like a puppet. I’m just looking through his pockets.”
“Stalloid, unless this guy stuck it up something, I doubt you’re going to find any notes on him.”
“Doesn’t hurt to try.”
“I want to watch you while you do it.”
“I don’t want you to steal anything, is what I’m saying.”
“That’s why Jacali is there, I thought.”
“You never mentioned Jacali.”
“Oh, I thought I did. She’ll be there. She’ll stop me from doing anything.”
“I’ll at least point out which one it is to you.”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”
Otto pointed out the grave to Professor Stalloid through the back window of the common room. Jacali came back into the inn with the chicken in hand.
“All right, I have the chicken,” she said. Then she saw Otto. “Oh.”
“That’s for dinner,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Go ahead in the kitchen. Prepare that.”
“Oh, also, Stalloid, I forgot to mention this, but I do have a bullet wound.”
“I’ll take a look at that too.”
Otto offered the bottle to the woman.
Professor Stalloid tried to clean up the wound, which was more of a bad graze that had bruised her wounds. Otto opted to take a look at her wounds as well and managed to better wrap up the injury. He also examined her badly bandaged hand and changed the dressing and cleaned it up. Jacali felt much better.
“Wait, you dug a six-foot-deep hole, right?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Yeah,” Otto said.
“Oh darn, I don’t want to really … that’s a lot of work. I don’t have a shovel.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Okay, I guess I’ll get to work.”
“Do you still need this chicken?” Jacali said.
“I told you to go prepare that in the kitchen!” Professor Stalloid said.
He was upset he’d actually have to dig up the body. He just wanted to know which grave was the prospector’s so he’d know which grave to cast the spell upon.
“I thought you needed it alive!” Jacali said.
“Just go prepare it in the kitchen,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I can’t cook.”
“Just go gut it, I mean.”
She leaned in to whisper to the man.
“Is that what I need to do?” she whispered to him.
“Yes,” he said.
“I’m going to go cook this chicken,” she said to Otto.
She left and Otto and Professor Stalloid went to the grave. Otto planned to watch Professor Stalloid dig the hole. Professor Stalloid asked Otto if he’d like to help and the man asked how he could in his terrible condition. He said he’d try though and the two men dug down to the prospector’s body. Professor Stalloid made a show of searching his pockets but only found some coins and paper money. They soon smelled cooking chicken.
Professor Stalloid put coins on the dead man’s eyes and they buried him again.
Jacali had cooked the chicken on the spit in the kitchen. They ate the chicken in the early afternoon and talked about the strange things that had happened in the crypt. Stalloid pointed out his theory that the dead were somehow being used to power the gates in the place. Jacali shared her strange experiences as well.
She got Stalloid alone again.
“All right,” she said. “Why does it need a cooked chicken?”
“It doesn’t!” Professor Stalloid said.
“Then why did I cook this chicken!?!”
“The chicken’s great, by the way,” Otto called from the bar.
“I’m glad you like it,” Jacali said.
It really wasn’t that good but it was adequate.
“To cover up?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Does that mean I need to kill another one!?!” Jacali said.
“Did you save the blood?”
“Did you tell me to save the blood!?!”
“No, I didn’t. But … did you save it?”
“Why would I think to save the blood?”
“Well, we’re going to have to get another one. I can only do this at night anyways.”
“And you didn’t think … Stalloid! I swear!”
“We’ll have to wait until he goes to bed. But he’s injured so he’ll want to go to bed early.”
“The blood is in the grass and dirt.”
“That was good chicken though.”
“I’m glad you liked it.”
“It was good chicken.”
* * *
Towards evening, a horse and rider arrived. The man was a deputy marshal from Granite who had been in South Arkansas when Marshal Clayton Pierce had come to the town. Marshal Pierce had found him the evening before and informed them of the deaths of everyone at the Inn of the Smiling Spirit and he had come to investigate. He recognized the three of them from descriptions Marshal Pierce had given them. Professor Stalloid told him they had waited at the inn until someone could come to take possession of the house and deal with the incident. Otto told the man he was Marshal Pierce’s deputy marshal.
When the man asked Otto if he were going to take charge of the case, Otto confessed he didn’t know who had lived there. The deputy marshal seemed perplexed as to why the three had stayed there and Otto pointed out he had been badly injured so they decided to stay.
The deputy marshal told them the place had been owned by Homer and Mary Smith and they had had a young woman working there by the name of Daisy Mae Harrington. There had also been a stable boy named Fred Jackson.
He asked them how they had died and Professor Stalloid used some chemistry jargon to make up a story that the geodes had been filled with something poisonous that had killed them. Otto noted where the bodies had been buried. He told them about the prospector named Gulliver as well.
Otto asked where there was a nearby hospital or doctor and the man pointed out there was a doctor in the area of South Arkansas.
He joined them for dinner of leftover chicken and he drank some beer with them. He decided he would take the small room with two bunk beds in the front of the building that didn’t have any windows.
* * *
Professor Stalloid asked Jacali if the deputy marshal being there was a sign he shouldn’t cast the spell.
“Wha?” Jacali said.
“Should I do the magic?” Professor Stalloid said.
“It’s magic? Well, I guess it’s talking to the dead. Uh. I don’t … would … did I? Okay. So, the chicken was good and it was a nice meal.”
“I liked the idea of it.”
Professor Stalloid told her about the ritual: how he would begin chanting and then kill the chicken and drip its blood on the grave, of how the ghost would come up from the ground and talk to him. He could ask it four questions but was questioning whether or not to cast the spell while there was a lawman there.
“What is he going to … do?” Jacali said. “Is it illegal to talk to ghosts?”
“I don’t think so,” Professor Stalloid said. “But … people react … I mean … we’ve reacted in the past …”
“Could he react that bad?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve-you’ve done it before, right?”
“Is it that bad?”
“There’s a ghost.”
“I know there’s going to be a ghost, Stalloid!”
“He talks and he shouldn’t be there. That’s about it.”
“Look, he took the room with no windows─”
“Okay, let’s do it.”
“That’s all it took!?! I don’t think he affects anything. If you’re going to do it, do it!”
* * *
Otto slept very soundly that night, snoring like a sawmill. Professor Stalloid couldn’t sleep for the noise. He had given the man some laudanum to help him sleep and it had worked well. It was well after midnight before Professor Stalloid crept out of the bed they were sharing. As he opened the door, it creaked and the snoring stopped for just a moment. Then, somehow, it got louder!
He met Jacali in the common room. She had another chicken in hand. They went behind the inn and Professor Stalloid took the chicken from her, slit the throat and allowed the blood to pour all over the grave as he chanted the words of the spell for many long minutes. His voice seemed to reverberate through the hills, echoing loudly. Clouds blew in from every direction.
“I have done so many terrible things to chickens,” Jacali muttered.
Finally, a translucent figure came up out of the grave. He was a pale-looking and rugged older man wearing the same clothing the prospector had worn when they found him.
“We get four questions,” Professor Stalloid said to Jacali.
“Uh …” Jacali said.
“Who calls my spirit to this realm?” the grizzled old prospector said in a hollow, cracking voice with a deep echo.
“T’was I: Brandon Stalloid,” Professor Stalloid said. “Slime slayer. Avenger of Gulliver.”
“What do you want from me?” the ghost said.
“I destroyed all the slimes that you recovered from the geodes and then we found the snake cave and we went in and I was wondering how far did you explore into it?”
“I didn’t go far. Only to the room with the geodes. But they’re worthless! They’re full of slime. Stupid geodes.”
“And then the slime killed you. How did you find this? Did someone show you?”
“I was working in the valley and there was an avalanche a week ago. It exposed the cave so I went to look. And there it was: some strange place that was made by man or beast, I know not which. With a terrible things on the walls.”
“Did you possibly drop any of the geodes anyplace else?”
“I brought ‘em all here. There was five of ‘em. And then I found there was nothing in ‘em! Stupid things! Stupid, terrible things!”
Jacali touched Professor Stalloid’s sleeve.
“I want to ask a question,” she said. “Have you asked one of these guys if God is real?”
“Yeah, I asked one and he said ‘What do you mean?’” Professor Stalloid said.
“That’s reassuring. Do you want to ask him if he had any more money? If he had any regrets?”
“Actually, I did do that for the first person too. I probably should use the last question for if there’s anything he wants to do. I like doing that. That’s a good idea.”
Professor Stalloid addressed the ghost again.
“Is there anything you would like for us to do to appease your spirit?” he said. “As a final favor.”
“If it was killing a chicken, we did that,” Jacali said.
“Twice,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Take my $200 in gold dust,” the spirit said in his terrible voice. “Give it to my niece, Amelia.”
“We never found that,” Professor Stalloid said to Jacali.
“She lives in Denver,” the spirit said.
They thought about the gold and realized they had not found the money on any of the bodies. Then they remembered Pete Sutter had searched the bodies in the Spiral Crypts. They guessed Pete might have stolen the gold dust. Professor Stalloid made a note of the money in his journal and then put the ghost back down and it disappeared into the grave.