Steven stood and rubbed his eyes. His back ached. He’d drifted off in one of those old sofa chairs in the living area, although he wasn’t sure when. A quick glance at the clock told him it was almost noon–he had to have been asleep for at least four hours. He remembered sitting down to read not long after they settled into the hotel, but other than that, he was clueless.
Right as he took a step, he slammed his toe into the leg of the coffee table. Looking down, he saw the book he’d been reading lying on the floor. He picked it up, quickly checking it to see if any pages had bent, and let out a sigh of relief when it seemed they hadn’t been. He heard a voice say, “Are you seriously reading that trash again?”
Steven turned to see Yvonne standing at the door, tying her hair into a ponytail. A smirk was stretched across her face, and he smiled back. He held the book up and said, “You got me. Visitors from Beyond. Trust me–it’s better if you think of it as a work of fiction.”
“You mean it isn’t?” Yvonne jested. “If you weren’t so grounded, I’d be worried you were becoming one of them.”
“You did say that these guys were harmless,” Steven said. He set the book on the bed and slipped past her into the bathroom. “I mean, how many violent offenders did you track in your career that thought ET probed them?”
“Just one,” Yvonne said. “He ran a cult, sort of a Heaven’s Gate mixed with the Branch Davidian. When I cuffed him he spit in my face and called me a reptilian.”
Steven leaned out of the bathroom with a wide eyed expression, only to see Yvonne smiling. “You’re fucking with me, aren’t you?”
“Just a bit. Thankfully most paranoid people are like any other person with mental illness–they tend to not really be all that dangerous unless you go out of your way to provoke them.” As she said that, it dawned on her that Roderigo wasn’t there. “You know,” she said, “I haven’t seen Rod.”
“That’s weird,” said Steven. He had to admit it worried him when his uncle wandered off. Even medicated schizophrenics had a chance of relapse–if Roderigo had a psychotic episode, he might have become disoriented and gotten lost. He stepped into the bathroom door. “Did you try calling him?”
“No, but I will now,” Yvonne said. She reached into her bag and pulled out her phone, dialing his number. “Putting it on speakerphone,” she said.
The two waited in silence for him to pick up, only for their hearts to sink as it went to voice mail. When they heard the tone, Yvonne closed her eyes. “Hey honey, it’s me. Steven and I are a little worried. Please give us a call back when you can.” She hung up.
“That’s not good,” Steven said.
Yvonne didn’t respond. Did he take the car? She didn’t know. It was too soon to file a report if he didn’t. But he always left a note when he did that, and he always answered his phone.
There was a knock at the door. It was light–even close to imperceptible–but it caught both of them off guard nonetheless. Yvonne and Steven exchanged a brief glance, and then she motioned for him to answer.
“Who is it?” There was no response. Is it him? Steven thought. A quick glance told him the door was open, so there was no reason for his uncle to knock. Then who the hell could it be? After a bit of hesitation, he peered through the peephole, only to be caught completely by surprise.
It was him.
His uncle was standing just outside, staring blankly at the door. His clothes were soaked in a greasy film that had started to dry and crust. “Jesus, Rod!” Steven exclaimed as he swung open the door. He quickly grabbed his uncle’s hand and pulled him inside. “What the hell happened to you?”
Roderigo placed his finger on his lip. “Not sure,” he said. His tone was curious, almost enthusiastic. “I don’t have a clue.”
“Steven,” Yvonne said, pointing toward his side. Tied to Roderigo’s belt was some sort of saber. It was held in a plain wooden sheath, with only the end of the grip protruding. The handle seemed to be made of some sort of ivory–it was very old and yellowed, definitely too old to have been made recently.
Roderigo noticed their stares. He slid the blade from its scabbard and held it up to inspect it, a faint look of oblivious wonder in his eye.
They could see the sword had no guard. It had a strange, triangular pommel that curved inward over the base of the grip. The grip appeared to be ivory–very old, yellowed ivory at that–and there was no sign of what, if anything, affixed it to the tang. The blade was even more unusual, being a bright, white steel, but with hints of blue in the fuller when the light hit it at the right angle. In fact, the color of the steel seemed so bright that it appeared to give off a faint glow.
“That’s a shashka!” Steven exclaimed. “Where the hell did you get it?”
“The grip’s a bit simple for a shashka, isn’t it?” Roderigo replied. He seemed more lucid now, but there was still something off about his demeanor. “Well, it’s definitely similar,” he said. “No decorations, and it’s a bit more curved than I’d expect. The false edge is there.” With flick of his wrist, he spun the weapon in his hand, using his fingers to control the movement. “It’s a lot lighter than it should be,” he said. “Surprisingly balanced, though. I think I’ll call it the White Flame.” He slid the sword back into its sheathe and set it down on the bed.
Steven reached to grab the weapon, but as soon as his hand touched the grip he pulled it back with a sharp cry. He stared at the sword for a moment, baffled by what had happened. It felt like he’d grabbed a live coal, but despite the heat, the sword lay harmlessly on the bed, without so much as singeing the sheets.
“Something wrong?” Roderigo asked. His tone was normal again, and any hint of strangeness had left him, yet somehow he seemed oblivious that he had been acting odd at all.
“It’s hot,” Steven said. He kept his gaze fixed on the weapon. “Very, very hot.”
“It was cool a minute ago,” Roderigo said. He took a few steps toward Steven. “Let me see your hand.” Even in the poor lighting of the motel room, Roderigo could see how red Steven’s hand was. He gently rubbed the palm with his thumb–the skin felt warm and dry. “Looks like a mild burn,” he said. “Go rinse it with cold water, and I’ll bandage it for you.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Steven said. He headed for the bathroom, taking one last look back at the sword before he closed the door.
“Look, this is interesting,” Yvonne said, “but I’d really like to know where you’ve been. You don’t make a habit of wandering off like that unless something is seriously wrong.”
Roderigo tilted his head and tried to gather his thoughts. “Well, there’s a cave near here,” he said, breaking eye contact. “I went down, and….”
“You went into a cave? You could have been killed!” Roderigo didn’t respond. After a moment, she managed to calm herself, and took a seat next to him. “So what happened?”
“Well, that’s the thing. I just sort of came to at the door. I don’t know what happened when I went in, and I don’t remember getting this sword.”
“There’s probably more stuff like that down there,” Steven said. “I’d check it out, but….”
Roderigo noted the substance on his shirt. “Probably not a good idea.” Roderigo said. He glanced at the clock. “I was in there for a long time, wasn’t I?”
“Were you?” Steven asked. He stepped out, holding a damp cloth over his hand. “Could’ve been some sort of mine gas.”
“I doubt that. It was probably just a brief relapse,” Roderigo said.
“Rod,” Yvonne said, “you know it doesn’t work that way. Something had to have happened.” She was quiet for a moment, then she grabbed her purse and swung it over her shoulder. “You know what? I’m bored, and we have nothing better to do. We can at least check out the entrance. If all goes well, we might find something interesting enough to save our vacation.”
* * *
“Damn, my legs are tired,” Yvonne said. She fumbled with her watch in the darkness until a faint blue light lit up its face. “It’s been forty minutes. How far down does this thing go?”
“Not much further,” Roderigo said. He was leading the group with his sword drawn, the faint glow of the blade giving a bit of light to the dark. After a few moments, he stopped. “We’re here,” he said, stepping away from the stair. He motioned toward the center of the room. “I think I was over there at some point.”
Yvonne was shocked. There was an old wagon near the center of the chamber, resting just next to what appeared to be the remains of an ancient camp fire. “This is very weird,” she said. She grabbed her arms and began rubbing them with her hands as she stared out at the darkness. She tried to make out the cavern’s walls–what little she could see of them seemed artificial, but it was too dark, even with the light of the sword, to be sure. “It’s also more than a little creepy.”
“No kidding,” Steven said. Something on the ground caught his eye–a flash of silvery metal. Reaching out, he picked up what he realized was Roderigo’s lighter. “You were down here all right,” he said, flipping up the lid. With a quick flick of his thumb, he added another small source of light to the room.
The wagon was peculiar enough to catch his attention. He walked over to it, doing his best to inspect it with what little light he had. “There is something deeply wrong about taking a hay ride this far down,” he said. He gazed up at the cavern’s ceiling, but saw nothing but darkness. “What fun is riding in one of these things if you can’t see the stars?” He noticed Roderigo cringe at his words; it was slight, and to him, odd. “Something bugging you too?”
“Not sure,” Roderigo said. He moved toward the wagon, the light from the blade giving more illumination to its aged wood. “It’s very dry down here. I don’t see any of that…”
As he spoke, the light from the sword seemed to catch something in the wagon. Steven’s eyes fixated on the gleam, and in an instant his anxiety vanished. As he started to climb the cart, Roderigo tried to stop him, but Steven brushed his hand aside. Whatever it was seemed to call for him, and he couldn’t resist.
He grabbed the object and motioned for Roderigo to bring the light closer. It was a metal claw–seemingly retractable–with two forward-curving blades made of crimson steel. As he tugged the handle, it split into two bars that folded away; as he pulled them back, the blades rotated outward and slid into a metal sheath until only a small a portion of each was visible.
Steven quickly strapped the sheath to the back of his wrist. With a quick flick of the hand they sprung out to their former positions. “This is awesome,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Something else in the wagon grabbed Yvonne’s attention. As she reached out to grab it, her fingers felt the rough touch of old parchment. Pulling the yellowed slip more clearly into the light, she saw it was a note written in an almost Gothic text. It was clearly very old yet amazingly well preserved.
“What’s it say?” Steven asked. He leaned in for a look.
“It says, ‘To the Witness who finds this gift: you have suffered a loss in both your name and that of the Goddess of Ahl, but you should take your place in battle beside the Soldier. Use this Nightwalker to slay the Bladed Man and fight so that you may live a second time.'”
Steven shuddered. The description brought up an unpleasant memory from the darker recesses of his mind, one long since buried and forgotten. Though Roderigo noticed this, he said nothing to his nephew, and instead he looked back toward the stair that was now concealed deep withinin the darkness at the edge of the chasm. “We should leave,” he said, turning to face them. “I don’t like it here. It feels… strange.”
As he began to turn back toward the stair, he lurched forward and grunted in pain. He grabbed at his gut, only to be sent down to his hands and knees as whatever had hit him was pulled back. There was a glint of metal as something was plunged down into Roderigo’s back, but a sharp tick echoed through the cave as whatever it was seemed to snap upon hitting his spine. A dark, thin voice spoke. “Interesting.”
As Roderigo attempted to stand, Yvonne began to make out a figure in front of him. What appeared to be the remains of a dagger were protruding from his palm. She quickly reached inside her jacket and drew her weapon, but instead of firing, she froze.
Something wasn’t right. Roderigo should have been down, but instead he was pulling himself to his feet, his vitality already returning. What she could see of the second wound from the hole in his jacket appeared to have already formed a scab, with the outline of the wound already turning pink. The scab began to crack and flake, and the wound began contracting before her eyes, until the last of the blood flaked away and the scar faded into unblemished flesh.
The would-be assassin backed away. Yvonne could now make out the assailant–a monstrous fiend in a black suit and tie, one who stood nearly seven feet tall. His amber skin was devoid of hair, and he bore a deeply furrowed brow that failed to hide his milk-white eyes. Then his eyes met hers, and he flashed what could only generously be called a smile, one which bared a blood red tongue just barely hidden behind several rows of needle-like teeth.
The fiend relaxed his hand, and what was left of the blade fell out of his wrist. As Roderigo stood, he bowed like an old british gent, keeping his eyes fixed and forward. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Soldier,” he said with veiled contempt, and with that, he gave a mock salute and fell back into the dark of the cave.
Yvonne waited, watching the shadows for any sign of the fiend’s return. When it was clear that the assailang was gone, she holstered her gun and rushed to Roderigo’s side. Within the light of the White Flame, she found herself shocked at what she saw: though his shirt and jacket were stained with blood, there were no wounds underneath. Still, he grabbed his gut to nurse some lingering pain, which seemed to pass after only a moment. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Somehow, she found the question absurd.