Thursday, September 8, 2016

"Our troubles have only begun."

Giovanni threw his forearm against the broken stump of a petrified tree. He stared back through the vaulted cavern. Roksana braced her lithe body in the hollow of the column, while the shadows seemed to slip over her rather than her into the darkness. Rhad' planted his svärdstav into a divot in the floor and leaned against its long haft. A fine mist revealed their tortured breaths.

"Having glimpsed it, I know their monster's name," Giovanni grunted.

An oily whisper from the dark hollow replied, "It is no trifle that stalks us. I can smell its brimstone musk all about this catacomb."

"You have come to the Gates," Rhad' informed them. "Such portals are their domain."

"By their and it," mused a wearied, refined voice, "You refer to Kerberos, the hounds of hell."

Giovanni cast a gloomy look at the Arab who sat slumped against a boulder. Kadir had been sulking since the plunge and the loss of his talisman. "As it would seem the invaders have allied with Cerberus, we must escape his den quickly."

He studied the man who had feigned to be a mere watchman. Dark shafts remained buried in various places of Rhad's body, though the man showed only the fatigue from the run. The priest continued, "If you truly be Rhadamanthus, by what avenues can we flee?"

Rhad's grey eyes met his as he answered, "Only deeper across the River."

"No mortal should tread those banks before their time," countered Giovanni.

"Have I not announced it is your fate?" The watcher's words fell as a decree, not a question.

Baleful howls rose and dipped, each slightly different and clashing. Everyone strained to peer through the fog, but the call bounded from everywhere. Flashes of sickly yellow lit and vanished between rocky formations, but one could not tell if the source stood ten or a thousand meters away. The ossified grove that sheltered them also masked the predator. Instinctively, Kadir, Giovanni, and Rhad' placed their backs to each other. The Arab nervously tossed a dagger between his hands.

"Do not fret," Giovanni assured him. "The Shepherd will guard us even in the valley of Death."

"I'd prefer not to test that hypothesis in such a literal scenario," the scholar quipped.

Gentle, rhythmic drips struck water somewhere nearby. The splashes came long and regular. The priest recognized the cadence. He reached into the trunk of the tree and pulled Roksana out of the darkness. "Let us go! Heaven has provided a way of escape!"

The act startled the vampir. The sultry flame in her eyes dissipated to a mute tiredness. Exhaustion tinged her words as she asked mid stride, "What do you mean?"

Giovanni noted he had had the effect needed to help Roksana regain control. He did not answer. Each stride took them blindly through the mist. The others followed warily behind him, while the baying increased as the hounds drew nearer.

He let his boots sink into the dark waters and draw him deeper. The priest thought of one of David's songs, which he prayed would come true. He whispered instinctively, "Be a light unto my path..."

Two pale silver stars broke the fog bank. They hovered above a black silhouette that resembled a pillar set into a rocking platform. The river surged to the runner's waists as the shadow took form into a man on a flat boat. The pilot paused his strokes and knelt. Grey skin stood out in the twilight. The ferryman wore only a goat-beard and torn tunic.

Extending a strong hand, the coxswain announced, "Decided to join me and prove your boast true that you'd follow me into the Gates of Hell?"

Giovanni clasped the offered hand and laughed despite himself, "My word is my oath. You live even here border of the grave! Now, can you take all of us in before the hell hounds seize us?"

Roksana exclaimed, "Tenet! How did you escape--and come upon this boat?"

Tenet and Giovanni helped her aboard while the others scrambled over the other side. Tenet answered, "I slipped from its jaws with great effort and took refuge on this boat. That gatekeeper only bays when on the hunt, which I know well. I sensed it pursued a different quarry and decided to lend aid."

"As to the boat...," Tenet hesitated, honor bound to honesty. "I borrowed it from a former colleague."

Giovanni met his black-and-silver eyes for a long moment before a burning breeze that smelled of rot blew across the boat. The makeshift steersman pushed off with his pole. He had only paddled a little ways out when a dreadful keening pierced the mist. The huddled occupants stared astern. Six yellow torches glared back from the shore. Ghostly flames oozed and dripped down and smoked upon the waters. The smouldering lights halted, accompanied by a bitter howl, and then slowly receded into the gloom.

Giovanni crossed himself and finally allowed himself to relax since yesterday's repast. Fatigue claimed him as he heard Tenet darkly announce, "Our troubles have only begun."

Story and Characters: (c)/by Corey Blankenship, Giovanni, Roksana, Kadir, Tenet (c) Brannon Hollingsworth


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