They camped that night in the middle of the plain. There was nothing to break their view except for the cliff to the west. It had grown closer during their travels but still seemed far off. They had a small fire going – fortunately Graham had suggested getting wood before they left the forest – so Graham cooked a hot meal of beans and franks with some cornbread for variety. He was the hero of the day as far as everyone was concerned.
“Look at the stars Late.” Kevin said. “What do you see?”
“Stars?” Late replied sarcastically. Kevin gave him an exasperated look. “OK, ok. I’ll look.” He studied them for a while and finally said, “They’re slightly different. Not sure what it is, but their ‘off’. “
“I agree. This expedition gets stranger by the minute.”
“You two have KP duty. Go help Graham clean up.” Sergeant Walker commanded after appearing out of nowhere again.
“Crap in a bucket, Sergeant!” Late exclaimed. “You’re going to give me a heart attack if you keep dong that.”
“I’ve going to give you my foot on your backside if you don’t get moving!”
“Yes, Sergeant.” They replied together.
“Oh, and you two and Graham have the late watch again.” Walker said with a gleeful smile.
The men just groaned on their way to see Graham.
“Show us your bullet scars, Corporal.” Late said excitedly. Watch was uneventful and promised to remain that way so the three men were huddled around the low fire while everyone else was asleep.
“Fine.” Kevin grudgingly replied. “First shot was in my left calf.” He said rolling up his pant leg. “It went clean through.
“I weren’t so lucky on the next seven.” He said removing his shirt. “Somehow seven shots went into my chest and stomach area without hitting killing me. Pure luck.” Kevin had scars near both shoulders and through his sides. “Almost bled out though. Doctors said I should be dead.”
Graham and Late stared at Kevin’s scar with amazement. “You are one lucky son-of-a-gun, Kris Kevin.” Late said. “I have a couple too,” he said standing up and unbuckling his belt.
“Whoa. What’cha doing there, son?” Graham protested.
“Check this out on my right thigh.” He said pointing to the back of his leg. On it was a very large, somewhat circular scar.
“Is that from a bite?” asked Graham.
“Yep. Shark. Off the coast of Texas. Tiger shark. He took a nip and figured I didn’t taste good. Guess not everyone likes Chaco Late.” He said laughing. He pulled up his shirt to reveal a long thin scar that ran diagonally across his stomach. “Katana. Fought an Eastern warrior for the Emporer. He sliced, I dodged – mostly – then I got him before he could finish me off. Like you said Kevin, pure luck.”
Graham chuckled and said, “You know an old dude like me has a few battle scars, too.” He unbuttoned the left sleeve to his shirt and rolled it up revealing a left forearm covered in a twisted scar, obviously from a burn. “This is from my own iron skillet used against me. Hurt like the dickens.“ he said shaking his head. “Guess the ex-wife really didn’t like me.”
The men laughed quietly together. “Oh, and these.” He said pulling up his shirt and turning around. Graham’s back was covered with angry criss-crossed scars. “Two things to say. I wasn’t always a land lubber and remember not to tick off a pirate captain whose favorite thing is a cat-o’-nine-tails.”
“Cheers to surviving. And pure luck.” Kevin said softly clicking their tin coffee mugs together.
They sat in silence for a while absorbed in their thoughts, when Late whispered, “Look to the north my friends.”
They did and saw a green glow high in the sky. In increased in intensity and began rippling across the sky in green ribbons. None had seen the famed Northern Lights before, but here it was in the starry night sky along with the bright ribbon of the Milky Way.
“We’re definitely in a strange place.” Kevin said. “The Northern Lights never come this far south.”
“Yep.” Graham replied.
It was mid-day when they reached the cliff. The very tall cliff. It just reinforced the weirdness of the place they were in. It didn’t seem possible for the dry, cracked plain they just crossed to exist. Nor the cliff that towered above them. What really caught their attention was the large cave at the foot of the cliff. It was a 100 foot wide rough semi-circle shape with large boulders on the ground and jagged chunks of rocks jutting out from the roof. It really did look like a mouth with sharp jagged teeth.
Late, Graham and Kevin looked at each other, but didn’t say a word. They were all thinking the same thing, La Boca del Diablo. Kevin’s hand started shaking ever so slightly.
Everyone dismounted and secure the horses as well as possible by hitching them to large boulders. They checked their water supply, weapons and courage. “Sergeant Walker. Please bring along several of the torches. I have feeling we will need them.” Captain Stick ordered.
The men were all anxious, even Sergeant Walker who didn’t seem to have a nervous bone in his body looked like he’d rather be someplace else. Captain Walker retrieved a floating flare from the Satchel of Mystery and tossed it into the air where it floated and started emitting light. He took out a metal tube about a foot long and 2 inches in diameter. It was a dull silver finish and was covered in some sort of runes or hieroglyphics. He twisted the tube and it expanded to around three feet long. He had that in his right hand and his pistol in his left.
The others armed themselves with rifles, pistols and knives. Kevin, Late and Graham pulled out the battle forks and extended them. Funny, Kevin thought, how quickly one can get used to magic items.
“Men.” Captain Stick said. “I’m not going to insult you by saying this is not dangerous. It is. Very. But you are well-trained soldiers of the Empire. I know you will act bravely in the face of whatever we encounter. Let’s go.” He finished motioning for them to move forward.
The light from the entrance lit up the cave for quite a distance. They only heard the sounds of their footsteps and the occasional drip of water somewhere deeper in. Rocks and boulders lay scattered on the cave’s floor requiring the troops to carefully place their feet or risk a twisted ankle. The cave angled downward and narrowed as the continued. “We’re heading down.” Late said. Graham and Kevin just glared at him and ignored his whispered obviousness.
Captain Stick led the way followed by the five other soldiers. Sergeant Walker, Graham, Late and Corporal Kevin followed closely behind. They watched as the group ahead of them turned a corner to toward the left with only the glow of Captain Stick’s floating flare to indicate which way they had gone. Corporal Kevin turned around for one last look toward the entrance. The glow was only the size of a quarter. He swallowed hard and turned the corner, blocking off all natural light. He was the last one.
They continued down, but the cave began to twist and turn more often. Fortunately the ground had fewer obstructions leaving them to focus on what was ahead of them. Kevin stopped briefly and let the others get ahead of him. He waited until the faint glow of the flare faded away, then waved his hand in front of his face. Nothing. If he hadn’t known his hand was there he never would have seen.
“Not thinking about leaving us, are you Corporal?” Sergeant Walker said from just inches away. Kevin jumped back and sat down hard.
“No. No. Sergeant. Just wanted to see if, well, if I could see anything.” Kevin replied with a quavering voice.
“Good.” He answered. “Come along.” He ordered as a faint glow from another flare appeared in front of Kevin barely illuminating Walker’s face.
“You sure know how to scare a person, Sergeant Walker. And how do you move so quietly?
“Trade secret, Corporal.”
“Where you been?” asked Late.
“I just wanted to see what it was like in the dark.” Kevin answered.
“It was black. Couldn’t see a thing.”
“No kidding.” Late said sarcastically. “The Captain has stopped ahead. Seems there’s a larger cave ahead.”
They caught up to Captain Stick’s group. Kevin could swear he could see a faint light farther in. Fortunately not a blue Wispy glow, he thought to himself. “Graham. Toss your glow-stick in the air.” Captain Stick commanded.
Graham pulled out the stick from his pocket and tossed it high. It started glowing slightly and then rose into the air slowly growing brighter. It rose higher and higher and it got brighter and brighter. Finally it stopped and suddenly got very bright, illuminating the new room in the cave.
The cave ceiling was at least two hundred feet high and covered with stalactites of all sizes. Some were immense and hung halfway down. The light didn’t even hit the sides of the cave it was so large. The floor of the cave had hundreds of stalagmites and broken rock that had fallen from the ceiling. Most surprising of all was the path. A clear path led towards the middle of the cavern and a curious rock formation.
They silently walked the path, marveling at the variety of rock shapes. Crystals flickered in the light of the glow-stick. More than one man wondered if the glittering metal in the stones was gold. One man stooped to pick up a stone, but Sergeant Walker rapped him on the shoulders and shook his hand. He reluctantly put down the glittering stone.
As they got closer to the formation at the center of the cave, they could tell it was not natural. A cleared ring of large upright stones about 50 feet in diameter circled a stone pedestal. Besides the path they were on, four other paths could be seen meeting at the ring.
And on that pedestal was the case stolen from Fort SaMoor.
Captain Stick motioned for the men to scout the area. They spread out, shaking their heads when they found nothing. The Captain warily walked toward the case. Kevin could see it now. It was made of metal, and was the same dull silver color as the tube the Captain carried. It was also covered with similar runes.
“It’s an altar, isn’t it?” Graham whispered to Kevin.
“Sure looks that way. I can’t imagine why it is here though.” Kevin quietly answered. Kevin saw a haunted look come over Graham.
“I saw things like this on some of my voyages. Usually they sacrificed people. Slaves. Captives. Pirates.”
The Captain set the tube next to the case on the pedestal and began fiddling with it. There was a quite click, which echoed through the cave. Captain Stick slowly opened it just enough for him to peek at the contents. A very bright golden glow emanated from the opened case. Everyone, including the usually stoic Walker, craned their necks to get a look at the contents. The Captain quickly shut the case and picked it up.
“Help. Help me.” A voice said.
Everyone instantly looked toward the path that continued deeper into the cave system. Towards where the voice came from. Captain Stick pointed to Privates Smith and Andersen and then down the path. He then pointed at Kevin to follow. As Kevin came by the Captain, he pointed at the glow-stick in Kevin’s pocket. Kevin tossed it up, lighting as it went up. It positioned itself several feet above Kevin’s head.
Smith and Andersen looked very displeased about the turn of events. Kevin wasn’t sure if it was because of the voice or that he was going with them.
“Help. Help me, please.” The voice said.
That sounds like…It couldn’t be, Kevin said to himself. Kevin’s hands were slightly shaking, but he didn’t notice. He and the two others were tense. They could feel their adrenaline levels get amped up even more.
Kevin followed Smith and Andersen down the path to a small entrance in the far cave wall. Kevin turned and could see the ring as well as the others who were now looking in his direction. They seemed to have arranged themselves in a defensive formation.
“Please. Please help me.” The voice said again.
They went into the entrance and down a tunnel. It can’t be, Kevin thought to himself. It’s not possible. After a few minutes of careful but hurried walking they came to another room. The glow-stick flew into the room. It was a smaller room, only 20 foot high and about the same wide. In middle was a girl sitting on a boulder with her head bowed, face obscured by long blonde hair.
She looked up and Kevin froze. It was Isabel. General Wilson’s daughter. It couldn’t be.
“Help me. Please.” She said softly.
Smith and Andersen rushed up to her. Smith said reaching for her arm, “Come on Miss, We’ll get you out of here.” As he did, she stood and looked into his eyes, reached out to take him by the head and twisted. There was a sharp crack as Smith’s neck broke and his body dropped to the ground. Andersen spun and started running, but Isabel stretched out her arm impossible far and grabbed him by the back of the neck.
She lifted him off the ground and he kicked and squirmed hard for a few seconds before going limp. Like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Kevin just stood there with his mouth agape, his hands and knees violently shaking.
Isabel looked at Kevin. Kevin notice she hadn’t seem to have aged at all in the three years she had been missing. There was a strange glow in her eyes and she stared at him and took a step his way, still holding the dead Andersen out in front of her. Finally, he stammered, “Isabel. Isabel, it’s me. Kris. Kris Kevin.”
She stopped. Her body spasmed causing Andersen to slump down. “Kris. Kris is that you? How can it be? They shot you. You were dead. They told me they killed you.”
“Almost. But I survived. Took 8 bullets for you Isabel.”
“They lied to me Kris. They said…”
Isabel suddenly straightened up, again holding Andersen’s body up. A deep voice emanated from Andersen, “Ignore him Isabel. He lies. This is not Kris Kevin. This is but a shell of a man not worthy of your attention.”
Kevin looked in shock at Andersen. He managed to speak, “Who are you? What are you doing with Isabel? She doesn’t belong here!”
The deep booming voice laughed and replied, “I am Leviathan. I am the Gatekeeper. And your Isabel is here because she chose to be.” He laughed again.
Kevin looked at Isabel. At his beautiful Isabel turned wrong. “What does he mean, Isabel? They kidnapped you.”
“They did. But they have corrupted me…”
“More like enlightened you to the true nature of the universe,” interrupted Leviathan.
“Corrupted.” Isabel continued. “All they tell are lies. They’ll tell you anything you want to hear. They’ll promise everything.” She paused, “And give you nothing but misery and hate. Tears and despair. They’ll turn you into something evil.”
“Only if there is evil to begin with. We need something to work with my dear Isabel.” Leviathan said.
“It can’t be. Isabel, you are the most pure and beautiful woman ever. You were, you aren’t that way. I remember. I loved you. I love you.” Kevin said pleadingly.
“You didn’t really know me Kris. I wanted power. How it always gauled me to be a second class citizen. Do as you are told. You can’t do that, you are a woman. And on and on, especially from father.
“I began dabbling to things that are better left alone. I came to their attention so they kidnapped me and promised power. Power over men.” She bowed her head, and said quietly, “It was all a lie.”
“Enough of this prattling. Isabel, kill him and your power will be ultimate. You will join the ranks of the powerful. You will have power over men – the power of life and death. You will be worshipped, adored loved. And feared. You will be our newest companion and we will share the fruits of our conquest with you.” Leviathan sweetly coaxed. “Now kill him!”
Kevin noticed the strange glow re-appear in Isabel’s eyes and he knew Leviathan had won. What he didn’t notice was Sergeant Walker. He snuck up on Kevin again. Isabel took a step toward Kevin and Walker leveled Captain Stick’s tubular weapon at her and fired. He was rewarded with a loud bang and Isabel’s body stumbling back and going to a knee.
Andersen/Leviathan screamed loudly, “No. I will not allow it.” It suddenly increased in size and reached large claws at Walker. Walker shot Andersen. And then twice more. All this time Kevin remained frozen in place.
Kevin saw Isabel look up at him. He saw her eyes. Not the demonic ones. There were tears. “She said,” I loved you Kris. I am sorry, but there is nothing you can do for me now.” She stood up and yelled, “Run! Run now!” at the same time as Walker also yelled, “Move it Corporal Kevin! Now!”
Kevin saw his Isabel vanish. He turned and bolted up the tunnel and could hear several shots from Walker’s weapon and then an abrupt end to the shots followed by a blood-curdling scream. He ran for all he was worth back toward the altar.
He cried all the way back.
“Run! It got everyone.” He screamed as he came up to the rest of the group.
Captain Stick yelled, “Go men! Get out of here now!”
Out of the tunnel Kevin had just left burst a dozen Wisps which zoomed in for an attack. The three remaining soldiers, Captain Stick, Corporal Kevin and Privates Late and Graham ran for the entrance. Almost immediately one of the soldiers was hit by fireballs and exploded into a fierce flame. The other two turned and fired, forgetting their experience from the previous battle.
“Bayonets! Use your knives and bayonets!” Captain Stick yelled leading everyone back.
He pulled out a small shiny metal sphere and threw it into the air among several Wisps. It generated a storm of lightning, instantly frying five of them. The other seven concentrated their fireballs on the two men who had shot at them, eventually hit them both and reducing them to ashes.
The fleeing men reached the tunnel entrance leading out and paused for a moment to catch their breath. They watched helplessly as their comrades burned. “Keep going. There are several places for ambushes along the way. We can make it yet.”
The Captain turned the glow-stick down to just enough to see by. He hoped to make it easier to see the pursuing Wisps. He stopped and rummaged through the Satchel of Mystery and pulled out another metallic orb. This one he set as a booby trap.
They continued up the tunnel and heard the loud snap and hiss of electricity. “Got them!” Graham said breathlessly.
“At least some of them.” Late replied between breaths.
They finally reached the turn up to the surface. “Here.” Captain Stick announced. “This is where we kill the rest.” The four of them spread out at the corner and waited. Within moments, three Wisps came shooting up at them. Kevin, Late and Graham each speared one with their battle forks. The Wisps screamed and twisted as Captain Stick lit a torch then set each one on fire.
“Keep going. “ He said. “We need to get out of here and off this hill.”
They moved as fast as they could up the tunnel, the entrance slowly growing bigger. There was barely any light coming through so they knew it was late afternoon. They often looked back for more Wisps and regularly had to help each other up after tripping on rocks and boulders.
They finally made it to the entrance, and quickly mounted their horses. “Come on Strider. Let’s get moving.” Kevin said to his horse. The four of them urged the horses to a run across the dry plain.
A horrible ear-piercing shriek emanated from La Boca del Diablo. “It’s Leviathan. He’s angry!” Kevin said. Captain Stick looked at him questioningly – he knew he was missing part of the story.
The earth started shaking and a low rumble filled the air. “You will not escape!” Leviathan screamed. Horses whinnied and shook their heads while the men covered their ears. The shriek suddenly stopped and a female voice called out, “Run Kris Kevin! You are alive and I will not let them take you from me again. But move quickly and get out of this evil place. Hurry. I love you!”
“Isabel!” Kevin screamed. “I won’t leave you! I love you. Always.”
“Come on Kevin! You can’t help her now.” Late yelled. “We have to get out of here!”
Kevin reluctantly followed the others as they raced across the plain.
Captain Stick, Private Graham, Private Late and Corporal Kevin arrived at Fort SaMoor bedraggled, hungry, tired and hurting. Isabel kept her word and kept all pursuit away from them. They headed for a bath, food and rest.
Several days later, Captain Stick called the three into his office. “Shut the door.” The Captain ordered. When the door was closed, he continued, “You realize you can’t say a word about what happened to anyone here, right?”
They nodded, “Yes, Sir.”
“Our enemies knew the case was here, which means we have spies in our midst.” He looked intently at them. “I know it’s not you three. So you are now my most trusted men. Corporal Kris Kevin, you are promoted to Sergeant. I need someone to take Walker’s place.”
“I can’t sneak like Walker, Sir.” Kevin replied. “But thank you.”
Captain Stick smiled and said, “No one can sneak like Walker could. He was uncanny that way.” He looked at Private Late.
“Private Late, you are promoted to Corporal.”
“Thank you sir” he answered.
“And you too Sunny Graham. You are now Corporal Graham.”
“And thank you, Sir. “ Graham replied.
“Your first task is to find me that spy. Get to it. Dismissed.”
They saluted. Captain Stick returned their salutes and they turned on their heels to leave. “Gentlemen. One last thing.”
They looked at him eagerly.
“This is not over.”