Deep within the cave a faint rumbling noise echoed up through the caverns, making the patrol of six uneasy and nervous. The oily smoke from the torches gathered along the low ceiling of the narrow dust coated passageway, disturbing that which had not been touched in years. The sound of their own shuffling footsteps and the crackle of the torches seemed to lend them a sense of comfort and security, knowing a friend had their back. Each one of them wore heavy chainmail, a short sword strapped to their back, several knifes sheathed behind their thick leather belts, balanced throwing knives tucked into each sturdy leather boot with heavy packs hanging from their shoulders. Bonefey, the patrol captain had led with determination and vigor for the past 6 days in the caves, but it seemed the strain of not being able to see the open sky or smell the fresh air was finally beginning to show its effect on him. As far as he knew, they were the first patrol sent deep into the caves and he believed they were the only ones who had not yet returned. Bonefey looked up, thinking of the circumstances that had caused them to end up down here in this forsaken rat hole.
During the slow march home from the Ninth Crusade, Prince Edward received word of an attack on Castleton. Strange bandits had come from the caves known as The Devil’s Arse and were kidnapping young men and women in the night. Rumors of these bandits called them demons with pale skin and red eyes, others claimed they had fangs and would drink the blood of children. Prince Edward sent thirty men, some of his own guard among them, back home to investigate. Joined by another thirty from Lord William in Derbyshire, they drove the bandits back into the caves and set up barricades to keep them in while small patrols entered to clean them out. Despite efforts to stop the rumors, tales about creatures of evil spread, causing unrest and fear.
Bonefey and his patrol of six suddenly halted as the ceiling seemed to disappear from overhead. The small passageway had exited into a large cavern full of towering stalagmites, great limestone columns reaching up over 30 feet towards the tips of the stalactites hanging from the ceiling which could just be seen within the light of the torches. The rumbling noise that echoed up through the cave was noticeably louder here and the ground trembled as if the earth was groaning. Cautiously, Bonefey pressed forward, warning the men to keep a sharp eye and be prepared for anything. As they rounded one of the giant stalagmites blocking the passageway from view, something flew out of the darkness so fast it could hardly be seen and knocked one of the men down, smacking his head against the stone floor with a sickening crack, his torch clattering to the ground to sputter fitfully. Before the rest of the men could react, another man was slammed to the ground by an unknown assailant. Now on high alert, Bonefey ordered the men into defensive positions around their fallen comrades. Forming a protective circle around the two unconscious men, the remaining four each drew short swords and crouched defensively, prepared for anymore incoming attacks.
From the darkness, Hodgkin observed the exchange as his fellow vampires circled the unfortunate humans; they would eat well this day. As the men surrounded their fallen companions, Hodgkin ordered the attack. Vampires flew in at inhuman speeds, striking with clawed fingers at any openings in the men’s defenses. One vampire slid in low driving his hand like a spear up under the chainmail, into the leader’s gut, tearing into the flesh with intense strength that no human possessed. Mortally wounded, the man fell with a gurgling cry, drawing the attention of his comrades, one of whom turned to assist, leaving the rest off balance and vulnerable. Seizing the opportunity, several vampires rushed in from multiple sides, jabbing their stiffened fingers into the throats of the two standing men, crushing their windpipes. Gasping for air, the two dropped to their knees, then crashed face first to the ground, almost as one. Realizing what was happening, the one who had turned to help his dying leader stood, drawing a knife from his boot. Before the vampires could react, the final man’s arm whipped around, launching the knife with deadly accuracy through the heart of the vampire who had wounded his beloved leader. Without slowing, the man brought his short sword around impaling the next enemy through the gut, ripping it out sideways, leaving the vampire nearly cut in two. Hodgkin couldn’t believe his eyes. This human had just defeated two vampires in the blink of an eye. He could sense the anger burning through the man’s veins, giving him the strength to fight for his fallen friends. Seeing the need to end it, Hodgkin dashed in so fast that even his fellow vampires could hardly see his movements. Slipping behind him, Hodgkin struck the man at the base of the skull with a precise chop of his hand, knocking him out. The two vampires who had been defeated snarled as they sat up, the one jerking the knife from his chest, the other stuffing his intestines back and pulling himself together.
“Gather them up,” Hodgkin commanded.
“As you command Seventh,” replied the ten vampires, almost as one.
“I sense something strange,” commented Hodgkin, glancing up with a far off look in his eye, “A great force approaches, but I can’t seem to determine its location.”
As if Hodgkin’s words summoned it, water broke through the wall ahead of them, smashing through stalagmites, toppling them like trees in an avalanche.
“Move!” Hodgkin shouted, grabbing one of the fallen men and leaping towards the cavern ceiling.
Following his cue, three of the vampires launched themselves and their bounty after Hodgkin. Before the final two men could be taken, the water struck, washing them away through the stalagmites and out of sight. Just escaping the powerful current, the remaining vampires leaped up to join the others among the stalactites.
Hodgkin watched the rushing water below with a sense of loss creeping over him. He knew there was something strange about the human soldier who had shown such strength and that kept nagging at him. Scanning the surrounding cave, he saw a ledge that appeared to be a large stalagmite that had toppled many years before and fused to the cavern wall.
Swinging down, the others following he turned and asked, “Are any dead?”
“Two have perished,” one replied.
“Keep them as your reward, the blood is still fresh.”
“And the two that live?” questioned another.
“Bring them, I have other plans for the two that still live,” Hodgkin said as he began making his way towards an opening in the wall not far away.
Thomas awoke with a jolt, his head ringing. Rolling to his right side he coughed up streams of water. Not far away Bonefey lay still on the cold wet rock, blood pooling around him. Sitting up, Thomas twisted around to get a look at his surroundings, but a bolt of pain shot through his left leg, paralyzing him for a second before he could recover. Reaching down he lightly touched his thigh, then a little more firmly pressed his fingers against it. Pain tingled down his leg, all the way to his toes. Clenching his teeth, he pressed more firmly, feeling his leg; it appeared to just be swollen until he shifted it and felt broken bone grate against broken bone in his mid-thigh. Letting out a cry of pain, he lay back panting. Looking up he noticed growing across the ceiling was some sort of glowing moss that gave an eerie light to cave around them.
“Thomas?” Bonefey rasped.
“Captain? You’re alive!” Thomas exclaimed sitting up again.
“Come closer, I need to talk with you.”
“I… I thought you were dead,” Thomas choked as he dragged himself closer, pain blazing through his leg.
“It’s not like you to stutter Thomas,” Bonefey said, almost in a whisper.
Even through the pain fogging his mind, Thomas smiled. “I’m just so relieved Captain.”
“Thomas,” Bonefey said more urgently, “I don’t have much time, you have to listen.”
A pit settled in his stomach as the fog of pain receded from his mind, forgotten in the seriousness of the moment. “I’m here,” Thomas said earnestly.
A ghost of smile touched Bonefey’s lips as he looked up at Thomas. “You’re like a son to me, did you know that?”
Thomas just stared back at him, unsure what to say.
“You’ve been so close these past years, fighting by my side, protecting me.” Bonefey coughed painfully then continued, “Protect Sibyl as you would me, protect her as you would your mother. And Thomas, you courting Cecilia has warmed my heart and I know she will be in good hands with you. I give you my blessing to marry her. Find your way out of this forsaken cave, for her sake. Find your way out and protect your new family.” His face relaxing, a look of contentment settled over Bonefey.
Tears coming to his eyes, Thomas cradled his commander’s head. “I will find my way out of here!” he vowed, “and I will come back for you!”
Smiling, Bonefey’s eyes drooped and he let go his final breath as his body went limp.
“I will come back for you…” Thomas repeated, tears dripping off his chin to the cave floor, making soft pattering sounds. Pushing himself to his feet he began limping down the passage, his eyes watering from pain as well as grief.
Hodgekin’s blood ran cold and a half smile froze on his face as he entered the dome of black granite only hours from the surface. Domina Sanguinis, the Blood Queen herself sat in a flowing gown of layered black silk on an elegantly chiseled throne of pure obsidian her red skin shimmering in the white light of the dozens of glow crystals space evenly around the chamber. On her right knelt the three high vampire lords, the picture of arrogance, and on her left the three high vampire ladies, sleekly elegant almost statuesque. Behind her, carved into the wall, was a scene depicting the birth of the Blood Queen’s children, the vampires, in a peculiar ritual with only the single hexagram. As Hodgekin approached the throne he could feel the burning eyes of contempt from the High Vampires on either side of the Blood Queen. He despised those High Vampires, even being considered one of them, albeit the weakest of them. His title, Seventh, meant as an insult, was considered unlucky but he saw it as a mark to distinguish himself from the others, and to him that was very lucky. Stopping in the center of the dome, he knelt with the left knee touching the floor where the six lines of the triple hexagram intersected.
“I have failed my task. I am ready for my punishment.” Hodgekin said formally.
“Oh, sweet Heskel, in what way have you failed? I smell the blood of new family members on you. I feel the exquisite taste of the pain you inflicted this night. And best of all, I can sense the pulse of magic on the verge of awakening. Tell me why I would punish such great accomplishments?” she almost seemed to coo as she spoke the last part.
Hodgekin looked her directly in the eyes and said, “I let an Archive escape me and he is headed for the scrolls.”
Her voice taking on an edge, Domina Sanguinis said, “Are you certain he was an Archive?”
“I have no doubts. Had the magic already been released we would have lost.”
“Explain to me exactly what you felt Heskel!” she hissed.
Hodgekin’s blood ran from cold to ice. She couldn’t know, could she? But no, the others must’ve felt it as well, they had to, or this would be the end of Heskel Hodgekin. “Anger… anger so hot the air seemed to warp around him, but… a focus, razor sharp, and something… something else…”
Inhaling sharply, her red eyes beginning to glow faintly, Domina Sanguinis seemed to struggle to stay calm before she finally spoke, “And how did he escape you Heskel?”
“Water.” Said Hodgekin simply.
The glow fading from her eyes, Domina Sanguinis relaxed and said, “Two and five, you will be ready for the pulse, we must take the Archive before he adapts. One, I have a task for you and Heskel, both of you will accompany me back to the underworld. Three, four, and six will create chaos.”
The steady sound of trickling water seemed to pull Thomas out of his thoughts and back to reality with a snap. He had been hearing it for some time now but something about it had just changed. As far as he could tell, hours had passed since Bonefey’s death and the pain of that drowned out the pain of his broken leg. Rounding a bend in the passage, Thomas stopped in awe of the sight before him. Intricate patterns of glowing moss and vine surrounded a pool of water that rested on the wall at the end of the tunnel, as if gravity were pulling it sideways instead of down. Tiny trickles ran across the walls, ceiling and floor, flowing into pool with a musical sound, creating ripples that seemed to dance across the surface. Exhausted, Thomas staggered the last dozen feet to the pool and reached out to feel the refreshing coolness. It was as solid as stone and perfectly smooth to the touch, as if the ripples were just an illusion. A tingling ran through him at the touch, easing his pain. Sighing, he turned around and sat, leaning back against the strange pool as he thought.
Bonefey was dead, but how, why? What had attacked them and why were they even sent down here? He had to find a way out, a way to survive. But his leg, he could hardly move on his own. Something to splint it, that’s what he needed. But where could he find something like that down here? At this rate he as going to die here, all alone, after watching his companions die one after another. What had he done to deserve this? He had fought and killed to help reclaim the Holy Land. Was this a punishment for not performing his duty properly? And Cecilia, what did she think of him? Would she ever know what had happened to them? Tears running down his face, Thomas resolved to find a way out no matter what, he would protect Cecilia and her mother Sibyl as he had promised Bonefey.
An icy tingle ran across him as he toppled backwards through the strange pool which was no longer solid. A groan escaping his lips, he righted himself in a narrow sloping passage of the glowing moss and vines that seemed to pulse like a heartbeat. The pain in his leg was almost gone as he limped down the tunnel, drawn by something he couldn’t explain. After only a few dozen feet, it opened into a domed room of pale blue crystal that glowed with same pulsing light as the moss and vines. Seven mummies lay on a heptagram in the floor, feet at the center, heads resting on each point. In the hands of each mummy, resting between thumbs and forefingers lay scrolls, each seeming to give off a different feeling as he approached. Drawn by some unknown power, Thomas carefully pulled the scroll from the hands of the nearest mummy. It crackled as he unrolled it to reveal strange alien symbols that seemed almost familiar. As his eyes reached the bottom of the scroll the symbols began to fade, the scroll turning to dust and dissipating. A strange hum filled Thomas and a pleasant warmth radiated from his bones as the final specs of dust from the scroll vanished. Moving to each mummy in turn, he opened the scrolls, repeating what happened with the first, the hum growing more intense with each. Knowledge blossomed in his mind along with the chilling realization that magic was once again released upon the world.